Archive for 'story'

Friday, March 6th, 2009 by LViehl
Quilting a Story

This week I was supposed to spend two days at a county quilt show that I faithfully attend every year (this is what I promised my quilter friends, anyway.) Then my daughter got the flu, my guy got stuck working late every night, my puppy sitter bailed on me, and NY decided to send me a RUSH!!-marked copy job. I was able to make it to the show for about an hour today, and I might get an hour tomorrow. Maybe. If no one throws up or works overtime or needs me to think up new and exciting ways to convince a casual browser that they simply must buy this freaking book.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could just put that on the back of novels? HEY, BUY MY FREAKING BOOK.

But onto talking about writing them instead of selling them. Since I can’t be with my quilter friends today, you guys can fill in. While I write, I’ll show you some of the photos I took at the quilt show while I was running through it this morning.

Most writers don’t quilt, so they don’t realize that writing stories is just like making quilts. (Go ahead, laugh. My quilter friends do, too.)

Consider the similarities:

A quilt is made one piece at a time, just as a story is written one page at a time. Like stories, all quilts have a beginning (preparing and cutting the fabric), middle (piecing, batting and binding) and end (quilting it all together.)

Quilts are usually made according to an established pattern or technique (just as stories are written in some type of category or genre.) Sometimes quilts are combinations of patterns (like cross-genre stories) or are made with a newly-designed original pattern (like ground-breaker stories.) Sometimes quilts are so, um, unusual that we don’t know what the heck to call them — and who hasn’t run into a story like that?

Making a quilt can be an extremely time-intensive project for which the maker gets little or no respect until they sell their quilts, win awards for them, or become known as a famous quilt maker. If you don’t and your finished quilts start piling up around the house, your family starts asking why you keep making them. Sound familiar?

Quilts are sewn together with continuous threads that have the same purpose as running threads of stories and, like a plot, follow a specific design. Some of these quilting patterns can be amazingly intricate, and some are beautifully simple. Some quilts are just loosely tied together with strategically-placed knotted threads. But no matter how it’s quilted, if there’s a break in the thread, or you leave some part of the quilt unsewn, you end up with a visible bulge or sag in the material.

The middle of a story is often the most challenging to write because often it’s not as exciting as the beginning or the end. The batting, which is the middle of a quilt, is definitely not as beautiful as the top or the backing. However, if it’s made of poor quality material, or it’s lumpy, or it shrinks, or it doesn’t support the piece, it can ruin the entire quilt. Just as a lousy middle can collapse a story.

The best quilters stay on top of what the latest trends are in their art. They can also recognize a knock-off quilt a mile away, and are just as hostile as writers when their patterns and styles are lifted by other quilters. You think RWA members get nasty with each other? Try watching two quilters square off over a copycat quilt. These women are armed with tote bags filled with razor-sharp scissors, razor-sharp rotary cutters, or they carry at least a packet of sharp needles in their pocket. We know how to use them, too, so never mess with a quilter.

Like story structure, quilt binding is very straightforward: a continuous strip of bias fabric that is sewn around the entire piece, and holds all the parts of the quilt together as well as gives it a cohesive, completed look. Although some trendy quilters disdain binding, to me no binding = unfinished. A story that has no structure = bunch of words thrown together.

Quilters play with color, texture and composition in the same way writers play with setting, characters and plot — and quilters are just as obsessive about quality, values, originality and every other little nit-picky detail that writers are. If we really don’t like something, we have been known to throw out an entire piece and start over from scratch (okay, we save the fabric. But still.)

If you make an error with your quilt’s seams (like any element of a story), you have to undo them and start over. You can try to cover up your mistakes with some quick repair work, but it usually shows.

Some quilts are made to be hung on the wall and admired from a distance, but to me the best quilts — like great stories — are the kind you can snuggle up with on a cold night.

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009 by Carrie Vaughn
The Long and Short of It

A lot of writers talk about how they only write novels — they’re only able to write novels.  They only write long, and can’t imagine writing something under 5000 words.  I’ve heard the reverse as well, writers who only write short stories and find the idea of writing long an almost impossible feat.  Lots of writers break into publishing only writing novels.  Lots of writers start with short stories and may never write a novel.

I write both.  I started with short stories because that’s just what I wrote, to begin with — little one-scene vignettes.  As I got better and more involved in my writing, the stories got longer, until one day I realized the story I was working on had passed the 20,000 word mark and still had a ways to go.  Holy cow, I was writing a novel!  I feel incredibly fortunate that my early writing developed so organically and that I never much agonized over writing one or the other.  I know that isn’t true for everyone.

I think there’s great benefit to be had from writing both short stories and novels.  Short stories are a great format in which to experiment — with a new point of view, a new setting, a new character, or an idea that doesn’t seem complex enough for a novel.  Submitting and publishing short stories can help you get your foot in the door.  And if you’re just starting to write, the learning curve is tremendously steep.  You learn about characterization, plot, and so on, but even better you learn about writing beginnings, middles and ends — and you can do it in a few thousand words in a week or two rather than in 100,000 words over the course of a year.

At the same time, if you want to make any kind of splash as a writer — and especially make a living at it — you really need to write novels.  However, once you get a novel out there, you might get invited to write a short story for an anthology.  The original short story anthology is alive and kicking, and these can be a great way to find new readers.  I’ve had plenty of people tell me they picked up an anthology for another writer’s story, but they read mine, liked it, and sought out my books.  So even if you’re one of those writers whose natural length is the novel, and you’ve never written a short story, I think it behooves you to develop that skill.

How do you go from one to another?  For novelists trying to write a short story, the key is to limit yourself.  Short stories only have room for a couple of characters.  So no meandering digressions where you describe everyone in the room.  We don’t need to know about the character’s whole family.  You pretty much get only one plot — no flashbacks about the main character’s sordid past, no dwelling on the failed romance and chance for redemption.  But short stories also give you a chance to experiment.  Is there a secondary character that you’ve always wanted to know more about, but don’t have the time or inclination to write a whole novel about?  A short story can be a great way to pursue that.  Is there an episode in one of your characters’ pasts that you’ve always wanted to explore?  Is there a favorite concept that you had to cut out of a novel because it just didn’t fit?  Limit yourself to one thing, and just a couple of characters.  Avoid digressions.  Be ruthless and stay on target.

Examples abound of writers who’ve turned successful short stories into slam-bang novels, but I don’t think every short story has that potential.  If you want to expand a short story into a novel, it’s important to pick a story that has a lot of potential.  Is it an idea that can be looked at from several perspectives?  Would adding more characters and more plotlines make the idea richer?  Does the story hint at a complex background that can be expanded on in a longer work?  If you’re used to writing short stories, writing a novel is a matter of adding layers, of exploring every thread and possibility, of giving your characters room to have many more relationships, and to grow and change in ways that aren’t always possible in a short story.  Instead of a single episode of a TV show, you’re writing an entire season.

I think there are short story ideas, and there are novel ideas.  I’ve learned to recognize the very cool, but simple idea that I can develop in just a few thousand words.  Only a few characters — no more than three or four — are involved, and they’re centered on one core concept.  That’s going to be a short story.  Novels happen when the story has a whole cast of characters, and the core idea spawns several more ideas in long tangled threads, or when I can combine a couple of core ideas to great effect.  Being able to write both is important because it expands your writer’s toolbox — and your opportunities.

Monday, January 26th, 2009 by Alison Kent
R-E-S-P-E-C-T Redux

One of the things all writers face, whether writing genre fiction or not, is deadlines. I’m facing a February 2nd one now, so am cramming on this post. As promised last Monday, I’m continuing to look at the subject of respect as it relates to a genre author.

Previously, I addressed respecting our creative process, whatever it may be, however we find it, through trial and error, intuition, workshopping, pharmaceuticals *g*, etc. Today I’m going to cover (or skate over anyway!) other areas deserving equal consideration.

Some of this may sound stern. Do this. Don’t do that. Yes, I put down my thoughts in a hurry, and for that terseness, I apologize. For the rest . . . mmm, not so much. Here’s the deal. I wish published pros had said these things to me years ago, stern, terse, or not. I bear scars, and still limp from running into some of these things sans shin guards. *g*

Respect the Story & Characters

You wear a red shirt in Star Trek? You’re going to die. You wear a black hat in a western? You’re the bad guy. Every genre has similar character shortcuts, cliches, stereotypes. Avoid them. Or if you use them, make them your own. Don’t rely on them as lazy attempts to convince your audience that your characters are genre authentic.

Plot points, character actions, interactions, reactions. Make them logical, believable, not contrived. If you can’t tell that your story’s flowing true, ask. A critique partner, a beta reader. Your mom. Don’t leave plot threads hanging. Don’t wave a magic deus ex machina wand to rescue your people from the hand from the grave. Make them, and the hand, work for it.

If you’re writing a feisty romance heroine, she does not have to have red hair, or see stars when she flies into orgasm. Your alpha hero does not have to be a bitter orphan named Brick Hawk. Neither does he have to hate all women because he was once done wrong – and the woman who done him wrong does not have to be a bitch with stilettos and red fingernails.

Be respectful of your story and your characters. Make them unique. Make them real and true.

Respect the Genre

In a mystery, the puzzle will be solved. In a thriller, the killer brought to justice. In an inspirational, protagonists will also have a relationship with God. In science fiction, there will be science. In fantasy, intricate worldbuilding. In a romance, the boy will get the girl. Simple, yes, but those are genre expectations. Don’t mess with genre expectations. If you can’t write within the constraints, write elsewhere. A reader who picks up a mass market paperback with “romance” on the spine expects – and rightfully deserves – a happy ending. That’s why s/he is buying the book. Genre expectations. Learn them. Live them. Respect them.

Respect the Publishing Process

From day one of the call, work with your agent, editor and publishing house to set reasonable deadlines. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. If you find yourself unable to turn in a manuscript by the expected date, let your editor know ASAP. There is usually room for forgiveness and flexibility, but do not abuse the process. Do not take advantage. Do not assume each time you ask for an extension that it’s no big deal. In fact, assume the opposite. Better yet, respect your contractual obligations and get your book in on time. (I learned this lesson the hard way, and that’s all I’m gonna say about that (tm Forrest Gump).

Unless you and your editor have already established such a working relationship (as in, s/he wants to see your work in progress and give input ::shudder::), do not turn in drafts. Polish and edit and revise until your fingers fall off, and then use your toes and start over. Proofread. Verify word meanings. Use correct punctuation. The easier you make your editor’s job, the easier your own. That said, your editor is not your friend. Neither is s/he your critique partner.

S/he has dozens of other authors s/he works with. The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but eventually, the editor gets rid of the one that’s high maintenance and buys a replacement model. You don’t want to be replaced in your editor’s garage by an author who turns in perfect prose, so respect your editor and turn in your bestest BESTEST work every time.

Respect the Readers

A reader who picks up a novel with “romance” on the spine wants a happy ending. S/he wants hope and happiness. S/he wants to turn the last page and know that after all the pain and suffering, the characters with whom s/he’s spent hours, did indeed find true love.

Research is your friend. Readers will KNOW if your cop is carrying the wrong gun, if your Earl can indeed be called Sir Dude (that shows what I know about titles). Readers will call you on it if your baker is wearing a ponytail but not a required hairnet, if your peace officer works for a department that doesn’t exist in the state where you’ve set your book (saw that one recently). Yes, it’s fiction. But if your fiction is representative of real life (as opposed to those things which we don’t know are real), readers want to find and recognize the familiar.

Assume your readers are smart. They usually are. Often smarter than you. Don’t dumb down your prose. Don’t cheat. Don’t info dump to make sure they get it. Don’t beat them over the head to make sure they don’t forget. They get it. They don’t forget. Neither do they forgive if you treat them wrongly. A reader fan can give you publicity you can’t pay for, and many do so daily on their blogs. Word of mouth is the only proven-to-be-successful promotional tool.

Respect Yourself

Creativity can be glorious. It can also be grueling. Eat right, move more than your fingers, sleep many many hours. You don’t want to work yourself to death, and not be around to enjoy the fruit of all that labor. When the words dry up, fill the creative well. Take a walk in the park. Visit a museum. Go to the zoo. Plant flowers. Watch waves foam on the sand (my fave).

When the noise of industry news, publishing gossip, author bickering, bragging, and speculating interferes, back away from the blogs, loops, the email and IMs. You can’t exist on a steady diet of crap and expect to produce good work. Garbage in, garbage out, and all that.

Lastly, don’t ever forget your non-writing friends and family. They are your rocks, your anchors; when you spend hours a day in a fictional world, that real life touchstone is vital. They love you. Be there for them. Lean on them. Never let work get in the way of that precious gift.