Saturday, February 26, 2011

Chapter breaks and pacing

Today, another thrilling episode from Erica's Writing Epiphany Files. Call me slow, but hey, I'm still learning. I'm just doing it in full public view :)

This week, I have figured out chapter breaks. Ta-da! Chapter breaks are about pacing. More specifically, they're about the illusion of pace.

In fact, pace itself is an illusion. The events in the story are what they are, whether it takes 10 pages or 200 to tell them. But we can slow down or speed up the action in the reader's head, according to the effect we want.

We use a number of tools for this. Short or long sentences, simple or complex. Choppy or smooth word rhythm. Paragraph breaks -- shorter is generally faster, though a long paragraph can be intense and gather momentum, and short paragraphs can also slow the action down if you use them right.

And the chapter break. I'm talking about the one that comes in the middle of a scene, where there's no change in situation or setting or point of view It's just there. Why?

To create a hook. To make the reader want to read on. See, I just did it then, with the paragraph break.

Sure, but how does starting a new chapter achieve that? The words and events will be the same, right?

Yeah. But that white space does strange things inside the reader's head. They anticipate. They turn the page (or flick it, now we're e-friendly). It creates the illusion that the story is going faster. But to do that, you've gotta get your hook right. Where can you cut your chapter for maximum effect?

I've been studying them. Some authors are great at it. J.R. Ward, for one, in her angels series. They come in two basic flavours.

There's the holy shit, I can't believe that just happened! hook. Your character does/says/learns/decides something wild or unexpected or dangerous, that will have grave consequences. OMG, what did you do? Cut.

And there's the holy shit, what's gonna happen next? hook. Your character is about to do/say/learn/decide something wild or unexpected or dangerous. He's in a serious jam, and something's about to give. Crap, how will he get out of this? Cut. Also appearing as the will-she-or-won't-she? break. She won't really do that, will she?

Sometimes, you have the choice: do I cut before the bombshell, or after? There's no firm answer to that. Depends on how big the bomb is, and who's got the most to lose.

But be careful. Cut like this too often, and your reader will get wise to you. And a long string of short chapters does no one any good. So save it for the big moments.

And just for me, don't get tacky: if you're gonna cut in the middle of a love scene, something spectacular and emotional better be happening :)

So what about you? Do you like reading cut chapters? Adore the little cliffhangers along the way? Or are you wise to those silly writers' tricks, and just want to get on with the story? 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Head down, bum up

Yep, I'm still here. I know you all live for my scintillatingly witty blog posts, so rest assured I haven't been sucked into cyberspace or eaten by zombies.

But I have been up to my eyeballs in editor revisions for BLOOD CURSED, my August release. Nothing like being in the middle of revising one manuscript and having to switch to another, at short notice, that you haven't even thought about for eight months. Also, nothing like giving yourself a short deadline :)

Note to Self: Self, next time when they say, 'when's the soonest you can get it done?', don't say 'next week'.

But it's getting done. Due in by the end of Feb, so you'll see more of me around here after that.

I've also been tinkering with my next outline, another fallen angel romance. MS #1 is called REVELATION; this one's called REDEMPTION. Heroine is a sultry vampire chick. Yeah, I just wrote 'angel' and 'vampire' in the same paragraph. So sue me. You know you want to read it.

I have to do up a short synopsis for it by weeks' end because (yay!) I'm heading to Sydney in mid-March for a workshop with Michael Hauge! Yay! Did I say yay? It's gonna be amazing.

But yeah, I've gotta know what my MS is about first :) Self, see note above.

I've also got a contest to run, the fabulous Valerie Parv Award from Romance Writers of Australia, and that opens tomorrow.

Busy week. No time to talk. Gotta run.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Revising: what to do after 'The End'

So I've typed THE END, done my little happy dance and basked for a while in the sweet sunshine of how awesome I am. Now what?

Well, it's time to pull that baby out and revise. But what does that mean? How do I know what to fix, what to leave alone? Well, like any good neurotic obsessive outliner, I have a plan. Let me share it with you...

At this stage, my manuscript is one big .doc file with scene breaks indicated by #. No chapter breaks yet. But it's in reasonable shape, with no really big holes or {insert fight scene here}. Yes, I am feeling smug about that :)

First pass: does the story work?

I start at the beginning, and go through to the end. Never mind if I already hate the ending, or know the scene on page 157 where he bakes lamingtons in his birthday suit is crap -- I'll worry about it when I get there. Why? Because I'm looking for overall effect. Is the story working? Are the highs and lows where I want them? And are they high or low enough?

I like to read one scene at a time, in order but in isolation -- that helps to break it up into manageable chunks -- and ask the following:

Plot holes. Mark all the dumb bits, and make notes on how to fix them for later.

Scenes that don't do anything. If there's no action, no revelation, and no character arc goes anywhere, it's not doing anything. Mark for deletion -- but also mark any essential info that needs to be relocated somewhere else.

Things that aren't adequately explained. You, the author, know how the spaceship or the terrorist's bomb or the Secret Vampire Society works. Make sure the reader does too -- but only as much as they need to.

Motivations that don't show. Again, you know why your characters make decisions. Make sure the reader understands -- look at the introspection and the dialogue to make sure it's clear on the page.

Character arcs that fall flat. This is a tricky one. How do you test if your character arc is working? Well, I like to go back to basics. Ask what are the conflicts that the character needs to resolve, and in what order? Then, go through your scenes and make sure it's happening on the page, not just in your head.

Sound like a tick-the-box exercise? It is, kind of. I like to make a little list for hero and heroine, noting the scenes they appear and following what their arc is doing in that scene -- what it's actually doing, not what I wanted it to do when I wrote that scene. Plot events are just the catalyst for the romance -- how is the character changing emotionally in response to them?

So my list might look something like this, with initial conflict, reversals and notes to myself:
Scene A: heroine has trust issues. Meets hero and thinks he's lying to her.
Scene B: heroine fights attraction, dithers about whether to trust hero and decides she must proceed alone
Scene C: heroine needs help to {plot event} and hero helps her. (Note: do better with this. She should be tempted to trust him but too afraid)
Scene D: She finds out that he endangered his own life to help her in scene C. He must have another agenda. But she decides to trust him and go along with his plan to {plot event} (Note: make her motivation to trust him clearer: she needs his help because {reason})
Scene E: is captured by bad guys and believes hero has betrayed her. (Note: make it more believable that she would immediately assume this.) Decides she was foolish to trust him.
This is a quick-and-dirty example that I just invented on the spot, but see what I mean? You're tracking the progress of the character's change, and you can match what you've actually done against what needs to happen. This way, it's easy to see where your arc falls down.

So that's it for first pass. Once I've fixed those things, it's down to the more techie stuff, like chapter hooks and line edits.

I'll let you know how it goes...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The whole 'authors behaving badly' thing...

Always seems to be some author willing to stick their neck out -- whether in well-meaning ignorance or malice or genuine cluelessness -- and point the finger at someone who gave them a review they didn't like. Normally, I stay out of this stuff, but on this one, I have to comment. Rant alert. I warned you...

I don't get it. Really, I just don't. Being published means that people are going to read my book. Not all those people will like it. And not all those people will write a review that I think does the book justice.

So suck it up, and move on. This is the real world, and it does not owe me good reviews, or readers, or sales, or a legion of contented fans. It does not even owe me courtesy or a 'fair chance'. In an industry that releases several hundred books per week, I am lucky if my book gets read at all.

A reviewer has taken the time to read my book, when they have literally thousands of other entertainment choices. They have then taken the time to post a review. Whether I like what it says or not, that person has spent hours of his or her life on me and my book.

Sorry, but the only appropriate response to that is "thankyou". Even better, a private message that says: "Thankyou, and I'm sorry the book wasn't for you. Here's a link to your site on my blog, and would you like review copies of my other books?" Even if they say "no, thanks, I'd rather fork my own eyeballs out than read any more of your trash", I've lost nothing.

It's simple arithmetic, folks: readers are more willing to give a second chance to an author who is gracious than they are to one who's an asshole. Maybe they'll like my next book better. And if I can get one more reader by being nice, that's a win. Last I heard, "nice" is still free.

Remember, the reader doesn't know if this is the Book Of My Heart, or just something I tossed off during the cricket lunch break. What's more, they don't care. All they get is the words on the page. And all they care about is the entertainment value I've provided them for their money. I know this, because I'm a reader too.

Hey, I wish as much as any author that inadequately-explained "this book was rotten" reviews would go away. But like it or not, by publishing your work, you are putting yourself out there for criticism. It's not for the faint-hearted. You have to learn to be gracious. Retweet the so-so ones as well as the good. Offer copies of your new release, even if they didn't like the last one. And if the review was genuinely rude, inappropriately personal, or by someone who clearly has it in for your genre and is looking to pick fights -- maybe the best response is simply no response at all. And then ring your crit partner and cry, if it makes you feel better.

If you can't do those things? You'd better take a long walk in the hall of mirrors, snowflake, and ask yourself if you really want to be an author.

P.S. The worst review I ever got was for my very first book, from Kirkus Reviews (yeah, nothing like getting sniggered at as a debut author in the Serious Literary Press, in front of, oh, I don't know, thousands of potential readers?). They absolutely loathed SHADOWFAE. The review mocked my plot, laughed at my sex scenes, derided my writing style -- by quoting verbatim sections it thought were particularly disdain-worthy -- insinuated that I must be one sick mo-fo for even writing something like this in the first place, and concluded by saying something like: 'this book isn't for everyone, and hopefully it's not for anyone'.

I'm still here.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Typing 'The End', and what now?

In case you missed me trumpeting it all over the interwebz, I finally got to the end of my manuscript. Yippee! I love typing THE END. Even after however-many manuscripts, those two little words never get old.

I do actually type THE END, too. Do you? It looks so niiice on the page...

Anyway. It's done. In less than two months, which is record time for me. So I had a day off. And today, it's back into it: planning for book 2 of this series, the one with the ice-hearted bastard and the vampire. Sweet!

I'm under no contract for these stories, so for once I can do what everyone says you should -- let the MS sit for a while before hurtling in to revisions. Normally, it's a day or two, and then on with the slash'n'burn -- I just don't have time to let it stew.

Besides, I love my stories, and I can't wait to get back to them. Yeah. Author impatience. That's probably the real reason. And the advantage of revising while it's still fresh is that the plot arcs are all still clear in my head -- I can see where I've let the story down in terms of making those key moments hit hard.

On the other hand, the line edit stuff can be a dead loss, if I do it while I still remember typing the words. It's difficult to be ruthless so soon. That's the stuff I like to leave till later, if I have the time.

So how do you like to go about revisions, if you're a writer? Jump right in? Leave it a while and move on to something else? Or (shudder) do you let your crit partners read it straight away, warts and all?

And do you type THE END?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Getting to the end of my manuscript...

Nearly to the end of my WIP. Yay! Chocolate all round.

Usually what happens at this point is that I revise my outline, because the scene-by-scene breakdown won't be quite right. I'll have understated the importance of some elements and overstated others. Especially at the end of a novel, the balance between elements -- otherwise known as pacing, and it's not a magic word but a structural and technical trick -- is crucial if you don't want to lose your reader.

Subplots, I'm talkin' to you.

It's the third act, okay? People don't care about you... well, they do, but what they really want to read about at the climax is the main characters. The romance. How they get the bad guys.

How subplots wrap up is secondary. That's why they're called subplots

But without them, the main action won't make sense. Characters discover things and decide things. The scenes need to be there. Unless I want to cut those secondary characters altogether, and restructure, and, y'know. Rewrite the whole frickin' book.

So I'm keeping the subplot scenes short and to the point. Giving them the most gripping hooks at start and finish as I can. And interweaving them with the main action. Short scenes add to the illusion of pace, too, but for pulse-pounding excitement, you can't go past the old trick of actually having something happen. Ahem. I could point the finger at certain UF and romance series, but that'd be childish... 

So as a reader, how do you like your endings? Do you want the bad dude defeated, the romance resolved and boom, that's the end? Or do you like more of a slow let-down after the climax, with more happy-ever-after epilogue scenes? Or (shudder) do you adore the cliffhanger?