Monday, August 30, 2010

physical gestures

Along the same lines as the last entry—thinking about being specific. Avoid generic physical gestures. We need physical description to make a scene real but having someone drink a glass of wine or light a smoke, say, during dialogue just to get some physical gestures into the manuscript won’t do much to improve it. It might even work against the scene’s momentum and undercut the reader’s confidence in the writer.

Just as the description needs to communicate something more than generic, paint-by-number scenery, physical gestures need to communicate more. Everything has to be loaded with the expression of the moment-by-moment life of a scene.

This is hard to do and, if you’re like me, it will take many revisions to get past the generic to the particular.

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I was working through a revision of my new manuscript and I realized that sometimes my language wasn’t as precise as it could be because I wasn’t showing or telling the reader what was going on in my character’s mind. Also in description, I wasn’t always putting the reader there by being there with my character. What did the way he saw his surroundings mean to how he was experiencing what was happening? This is at a language level; it’s so important to making a connection with the reader.

Here’s an example of what I’m thinking.

"The trees were green. "

(Very generic. Okay, they’re green. It tells the reader just that much).

"The thick green of the trees closed around him."

Okay, not great but that gives a sense of how the character feels. You have the adjective "thick" which gives a certain feeling to the green. You have the “closed around him” to give a sense of claustrophobia. It charges the sentence with something troubling, even vaguely threatening. OR

"The sun slipped through the thick, leafy trees and warmed his face as he made his way up the path."

VERY different feel. Leafy gives an entirely different feeling than the “thick” in green but objectively the thing being described, a dense woods, is similar. The “sun slipped through “makes the reader imagine patches of light which is a good feeling. Then “warmed his face” is pleasant and comforting.

Same place but different choices make the reader experience it differently.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Onward Through the Fog

You can quit.

You can always quit.

Writing is tough and you’ll have some days when you want to give up either because of rejection or some other disappointment or maybe because the words won’t come at all or maybe because only the wrong words or the almost right ones will come. A disappointment as thick as a London fog will set in around you.

You can always quit.

But what if Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn had said to hell with it in the African Queen (I’m a fan of old movies) and given up pulling that wreck of a boat through the swampy jungle? How many times could either or both of them have given up on that difficult journey? Once Bogart comes out of the water where he’s been pulling the boat and leaches cover his body. Perhaps metaphorically you feel like leaches are covering your body some days when you write but…It would have been easy for Humphrey and Kate to give up then. Oh yeah. They would have died ( well, their characters) in the middle of no-where which is certainly no place to die. But Kate forced them on. Humphrey forced them on. You have to do the same. So, push on campers. Plenty before us have faced much worse than a little literary disappointment. Finish your manuscripts. Suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Write on.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Getting Help

When I let others read my work-- my wife, my critique group, my agent, my editor-- I am always as open as I can be. I always listen to their thoughts and criticisms. I reread comments several times. People can help you make a better manuscript and I try not to let my ego get in the way of that. I want the best manuscript I can create and I’ll take help wherever I can get it. Readers help. Good readers can really help.

That said, some people will try to make specific suggestions for changes. They will try to tell you HOW to revise. What I mean is they might say that X in a certain scene bothers them. They might suggest that you do Y instead and give you a detailed explanation of Y, of what you should do to fix a scene. It is very, very helpful to know where people feel something is wrong in a manuscript. What I listen to less (very little, in truth) are the specific suggestions about how I should fix a scene. Usually they just won’t work. Usually, these need to come from me. My advice is to listen carefully to X and be grateful but be suspicious of Y.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


(Double posting: also on my agent, Sara Crowe's, blog)

My answer

I have a book coming out in about two months, ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES. My first two novels were somewhat realistic and I got the usual questions about whether I was my character and if my story was real. I gave the usual answer. Some of the story and characters, in a very changed form, have elements of autobiography but most is made up. In this new novel, aliens invade the world and conquer it in ten seconds and enslave the survivors. This time I have to admit it’s all real. Every word of the story is true. Also, I’m all the characters.

I’m the aliens who come to earth to colonize. Back in our solar system the sun burned out so we had to hit the road, ride the solar winds, find new worlds. Yadda. Yadda. Fortunately for us there are a lot of worlds out there. Unfortunately, for the inhabitants of those worlds we are quite advanced and think that primitive beings really don’t matter so we put most of them “to sleep” in a humane manner and enslave the rest to help our civilization, which is really, really great, move forward.

I’m also, as it turns out, the enslaved who are mostly young (*author’s note—I killed off most of the older people because, hey, most of them don’t read young adult fiction.) and who must find a way to adapt in order to survive. We’re not happy about this. Each one of us is unhappy in his or her own way. It’s never been all that easy to be a human but being enslaved by aliens (basically little green men whose power comes from their mind and telepathic abilities and not brawn and technology which is very confusing and certainly un-civilized by civilized Earthling standards) really sucks. We’ve lost our parents, our brothers and sisters and friends and dogs and cats. We’ve had a very bad time.

My main character is named Jesse and he is me. He’s only seventeen and I am, well, not. He’s a slave and I am, well, not. His father was in the military for twenty years and mine was in for three. Okay, some similarity there. He has a black belt in TaeKwonDo and so do I, but he’s much more advanced in martial arts than I will ever be. His mother was a teacher and mine was not. He grew up in Houston and I did not. But other than these differences we’re alike. Except in the ways we aren’t.

I guess, in the end, my answer to “is your story real and are you your characters?” , whether writing speculative fiction or somewhat realistic fiction, remains the same. I write what I know and what I know is that any story I write will have parts that are taken from real life and put into the Crazy Imagination Blender™ and used in the construction of character and story along with totally made up parts. In the end, they’ll be blended together in such a way that I won’t always be sure where something came from and what % of it happened and what % of it is made up. It’s all real though—to me—in a purely fictitious way. And thanks for giving me the chance to clear that up.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I think one thing to consider when you get to rewriting is that nearly everyone has big holes in their manuscript. No use getting depressed about this unfortunate aspect of writing. No matter how long you’ve been writing, no matter how much you think things out, there will be problems that you didn’t see, couldn’t see, until you’ve finished the whole manuscript and gone over it a couple of times. Usually, along with a lot of small problems, they’ll be at least one big thing that feels wrong. Pay attention to that. It probably feels wrong for a reason.

I love Robert Olen Butler’s great book about the writing process FROM WHERE I DREAM. I love his idea of entering a dream state and trying to experience the manuscript moment by moment. Great stuff. One of the areas I disagree with him is revision. He thinks you can and should enter the dream state to revise. I don’t. I think you have to be more analytical in revision (once you have a real draft down which will probably take several runs at the manuscript).

In revision, you need to keep getting to that place in you, the dream zone place, to revise at the scene level…but you also need to step back and analyze how the various aspects of story are working in your manuscript. For big picture, especially, you need to be analytical. You are creating a story. You have characters doing things for certain reasons. You didn’t know that when you were writing. You had glimpses here and there but you didn’t know in the same way you do once you can see the WHOLE story. Now, you need to revise in a way that manipulates your characters and what happens so that it all enhances your story. Also, stories are bigger than just what happens—they’re about something—and that may become clear in this revision in such a way you can enhance that, too.

Revision is the time to be brutal. You need to cut/add and do whatever is necessary to make everything fit.

Or so I think today.

MY Book News: a signed ARC of ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES is available in a giveaway over at Goodreads. If anyone is interested go to to enter.