Thursday, April 29, 2010

Aspiring Advice: How Long Should It Be?

All right, fellow writers and Laire followers. It took me a few days, but that gray and gloomy post-conference cloud has passed, leaving me with a stronger drive than ever before. That's why today I'm going to write this post on time, based on a question from one of our readers.
But first, I would like to welcome a new follower to the Laire: Valerie Wangnet, coming to us from Sydney! It's so cool to have a follower from outside the USA, and we've never met! I happen to have a cousin living around there. One of these days I would love to visit the land down under. I don't know why. I just do. One day, hopefully.
Welcome aboard, Valerie.

And now, the advice:
Just how long should it be, your story, that is? Mckensie, one of our readers and a budding writer, asked me this: How long should my chapters be? How long should my book be? (this may not be your exact words, Mckensie, so I hope I paraphrased well enough). The answer is both simple and tricky. Your chapters should be as long as they need to be, in order to carry out the message you're giving, and your book should be as long as it needs to be, in order to tell the whole story. Read any book and you will see that the purpose behind a chapter is to break a book up into sections, giving the reader a chance to pause if they want to (but end your chapters in a way that the reader will want to come back soon). That means, every chapter ought to focus on one or a few plot points or devices that move your story along. The trick is knowing where to start and stop. Each chapter should have a beginning and an end hook, and something of interest in between.
Let's take Harry Potter, for example. What is the first chapter of The Sorcerer's Stone about? Introduction of the Dursleys and a few wizards who leave a baby on their doorstep. Chapter 2? Harry is almost 11, he and the Dursleys go to the zoo, and Harry talks to a snake. Why did it have to be snakes? Chapter 3? (one of my favorites parts) The letters start coming, the Dursleys flee, and a large man finds them. See how these are all broken up? Can you imagine reading all of this in one chapter?
Pretty grueling, I'd say.

Now, about the length of your story.
Don't worry about how many pages you have. Pages from your computer screen do not equal pages on a printed/bound book. Focus your attention, instead, on your word count. On any word document, or document on a computer, you can look up your word count. Use this as a general gauge to measure your story length. I have a list here of what word count is appropriate for whichever market you're going for (Note: K stands for thousand).
A short story is under 8K words.
A novelette is between 8K and 18K words.
A novella is between 18K and 40K (chapter books).
A novel is between 40K and 90K (MG and YA).
An epic is over 100K words (Adult).
Another thing to remember is Story Arch.
In every (good) story, there is the following:
Introduction = beginning, setting, the start.
Rising Action = events that lead to the climax. Conflicts or struggles of the protagonist.
Climax = the point of greatest tension/turning point in the action.
Falling action = the sequence of events that follow the climax and ends in the resolution.
Resolution = the problem of the story is resolved or worked out.
In today's market, short chapters are the in for middle-grade and YA (about 3K a chapter) but for me, I try to write no more than 5K a chapter. That gives me enough room to say what I want before coming to a close. However, in an epic I've started, the prologue is about 9K words. All the other chapters after that are between 5K and 9K. It's going to be a big book. Right now it stands at 53K, and that's just part 1 of 5! For my current YA novel, I'm aiming for about 85K, which will be my shortest book to date. I need to write more of them.
If you have questions that you would like answered, feel free to drop me a post. I'll be happy to spotlight you and your questions for the next column of Aspiring Advice. Click back next week for some updates and maybe a movie review, as I'm considering writing reviews for movies whenever I get a chance to see one.
I'm David, and there's frost outside!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Post: Back to Square #1

First, I want to start off by saying that the conference, as a whole, was a wonderful and educational experience. I want to thank the people who put all their might into making this happen, and for all the writers who came to show their stuff. You are an inspiration to me.

Now I'd like to drag your attention to the Laire's two latest followers: Author Elana Johnson and Bill Bennett. Welcome to the Laire! Elana hosted an awesome query letter workshop and used my query as an example (of a not so good one), but she was very super in being extra willing to help beef up my query, as well as provide guidance in how to write a killer query forevermore. Thanks, Elana! I'm eternally grateful! Also, Mr. Bill Bennett, formerly of Franklin/Covey, who's decided to start writing. Very good for you, Sir, and welcome aboard!

And now, the honest truth. I was telling the truth before, but I have to let this out, too. Last year was my first time at this conference, and I finally figured out (or so I thought) what my voice was. Since then, I've spent countless hours, to the point of near chronic fatigue, writing and polishing everything I have in my head and on my shelf. After the second boot camp session and reading through the critiques for my first chapter contest entries, I felt mightily discouraged and conflicted. Probably the most discouraged and conflicted in my entire writing career. I thought for sure I had learned my lesson, but I've still got a lot of work to do. For the most part, the contest judges really enjoyed my stuff. One of them did not (and provided a few "how to write" tips that made me feel as if I'd never written anything before), but no one can please everyone, right? I just have to work at my market and not conform to a single person's way of doing things.
To all the judges and writers/editors who read my stuff and provided helpful/constructive advice and critiques, I thank you, and you know who you are.

Furthermore, I want to thank my wife who sat with me for almost three hours Saturday night, with a tissue box in hand. Yes. I'm a sensitive guy. I felt like quitting, there and then. After twelve years of writing, I still have nothing to show for it, except for the large file of mostly unreadable tripe on my hard drive. It was my wife, however, who grounded me by comparing my latest writings to some of her favorite authors, including Gail Carson Levine and Shannon Hale. Really? I just have my own way of doing it, and I can make it better/publishable. Discouragement. What a beast to wage war with!
Thanks, sweetheart for your love and tenacious insistence that I keep writing!

Update: Chapter 9 is almost done, but I'm going to put that on hold so I can tweak the prologue, based on the suggestions for improvement that I received. After that, Chapter 9 won't be a chore to finish up. A part of me wonders if I should go back to the very beginning again and look into what I have so far in my current story, or proceed with the second half, using what I have learned? It's complicated. I really want to start chapter 11. It's killing me.

That's all for now. Come back Thursday for some advice, and I think it's time to get back to the basics with a very good question by one of our followers. Until then, keep it up, and it's okay to breakdown every once in a while. Nothing a chocolate shake can't cure. ;)

I'm David, and my prologue looks better than ever!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Aspiring Advice: A Word on Cheese . . . Er . . . Romance!

Greetings webhoppers and Laire followers! Today I'm blogging to you from the Provo Marriott, which is hosting the LDStorymakers Conference. I wish I can say that everything has run smoothly so far, but I would be lying. Stinks when you're alarm doesn't go off when it should! So, yeah. My wife woke me up instead, bless her heart, at 7:30. I was supposed to be at the conference at 7:30. By some miracle I arrived at 8, fully dressed (obviously), and somehow found a very close parking space to the conference area. Good Karma, me thinks.

Due to my tardiness, I did not get to share my portion for the bootcamp. Not to worry. I'll have my chance tomorrow. I've got a few other entries to read before then and lots of great panels to attend. There's a lot of raw talent here, and it's so much fun being a part of that awesome rawness. Rawr!

And now, a short column of advice.
Romance. I'm not exactly a romantic person, so this will be a tough topic to address. For me, having some level of romance is important, if not essential, to any story. I don't mean that people have to be fawning over each other all the time, but as people, they have emotions, and have ties to other people. Unless you are a vegetable, you will always find someone attractive. You will always have someone that you care about, even if you never have romantic interactions with them. For me, the best kind of romance are the ones that are built upon, not love at first sight. Who would have thought that Ron and Hermione would end up a couple by the time those books were done, huh? The foreshadow was there, but it was still a surprise, after reading seven of them.
Three things to consider when using romance.
1: Fools rush in; your prose may suffer for it. Slow down, big fella!
2: Conflict; complications arise that are bound to keep love-interests apart. This keeps readers interested, because they want to know who so-and-so is going to end up with.
3: Dependent Characters; good romance involves equally strong characters to share it with.

Again, romance isn't quite my thing, or, you won't find me in a romance section of a book store . . . ever. Do I have romance in my stories? You bet. But it's a part of the story, not the story. Romance to me is love. If you show love in your stories, romance will follow you. I wish to elaborate more, but the conference is now breaking for lunch, and I am without breakfast.

Thanks for clicking in, as always.
I'll write a breakdown of this conference on Monday.

I'm David, and that turkey sandwich looks really good!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Post: Switching POVs

I had a great weekend, got my car fixed (and the keys that went through the wash . . . again) and had a wonderful critique session. I mean, a really good critique session. They reviewed chapter 5 and the results were what I was hoping for; utter shock and surprise. Thanks guys for your suggestions for improvement. Alpha Readers, get ready for another chapter soon, hopefully by the end of the day.

Update: Chapter 9 is not done like I hoped it would, mostly because of the POV change that's slowed things down. It's complicated when you keep the same scene, but make it seen through the eyes of another. It's tricky business, but it's a fun exercise, and the chapter will be ten times stronger for it in the long run. This week, I will be going to the Storymakers Conference in Provo, so I'll try to get an Aspiring Advice column up before then, but I can't promise anything. Also, I'll have another critique session this week, as half of us will be going to the Conference. So, yeah. This is going to be full week, and I better have Chapter 9 done today!

Check back Thursday for more advice, this time, about romance!

I'm David, and I don't need a jacket today!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Aspiring Advice: Strong Protagonists Do Not Require Beefy Arms.

Can you be bushed when you’re human? I’m not a bush, so I don’t know what it feels like to be bushed, and I’m not a gardening expert either. Looks like another thing I’ll have to research. If only I had paid attention in Botany class, then I’d know for sure.

Anyway, this has been a busy week. Returning to work after a short vacation seems to have that effect, doesn’t it? No worries, though. I had my critique group today, and it was a blast. Greta feedback. Next week, the Storymakers Conference. I’ve been in need of motivation lately, and I’m about to get a heavy dose of it. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone there, and some old friends if they show up.

Enough of this, mister; get on with the advice!

Protagonists: Brains not brawn? Yes, no, maybe a balance of both? That’s really up to you and what your story’s about, but the real question is, how do you make a strong protagonist? The answer varies, but I’m about to tell you one that may seem contradictory for beginners. How do you create a strong protagonist? Make them weak! Or rather, give them weaknesses, at least at first. You’ll notice that most protagonists start off as normal people, even unpopular in the eyes of the characters around them. I loved the fact that Hiccup, the main character of How to Train Your Dragon is a scrawny tinker amidst a village full of strong, tough Vikings. He’s out of place, right? But that’s what makes him interesting, making him easier to be sympathetic towards. Generate traits for your protagonists that will cause readers to feel sympathetic towards them. Without that sympathy, readers won’t care about your protagonists, and for your sake, they will find the interacting characters interesting enough to keep reading.

There are a few protagonist types that I’ve developed as a guide for myself, kind of like my Antagonist list from a few weeks back. They are as follows . . .

Reluctant: This person is involved in a problem, but is reluctant to do anything about it. Stories that follow “the heroes journey” formula generally use reluctant heroes as their protagonists. Frodo, in Lord of the Rings, for example: he doesn’t want to go to Mordor, but he’s been tainted enough by the ring that it would be dangerous if he were to hand it off to someone else. Or, there may be something great about this character that he/she may not know, but is reluctant to harness or develop that greatest, but they must, if they are to overcome their antagonist.

Anti-hero: This person does not follow the rules, choosing the lesser of two evils in order to do something “for the greater good.” They hardly ever go out of their way to cause trouble, but if trouble finds him/her, they won’t sit and take it. They will also do whatever it takes to better a situation, even at the discomfort or death of an antagonist, for revenge or gain. Batman is an excellent anti-hero, as well as characters from the Marvel Universe and “outlaws/bounty hunters/spies.”

One of my favorite Anti-heroes comes from an Anime series, called Outlaw Star.

The Penitent: a tortured soul, this person has done something terrible in the past and is searching for redemption. Often this can be seen as a mentor character as well, and there are few stories out their with “Penitent” protagonists. A good friend of mine has one. Time will tell if he’ll finish it. The best example I can think of is Full Metal Alchemist, where the main protagonist’s goal is to do whatever to takes to figure out Human Transmutation to restore his brother’s body. (a cool story, but a little gruesome. Not for the kiddies)

In general, protagonists want to do what’s right. They either don’t know how or they don’t know how to go about it. That’s for you to decide. The most important thing to remember is what drives this character to act and do and speak? Develop their problems, their fears. Make them every bit as real to actual people instead of an impervious/indestructible Superman. Give protagonist problems, lots of them, sometimes with negative consequences for their good choices. Don’t make life easy for them. They have to grow. Pampering them won’t save the world.

While there’s a ton to say about this subject, I’ll just leave it at that. I’ve got protagonists to work with and they’re getting impatient waiting for me to help them resolve their problems. Have a great weekend, and don’t ever stop writing. Your protagonists are an extension of yourself and the avenue by which you will learn more about yourself and develop your own moral character. For example, look into your own weakness and create a protagonist with the same problems. Try to work out the problem in your prose. You will gain much insight about yourself that you never knew was there.

Thanks for Clicking in. Until next time, keep up the good work.

I’m David, and I could use a back rub.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Post: Sand, Sun, Slackers, and Fun!

I'm a terrible blogger . . .

I promised you guys an awesome post about making cool protagonists and what do I do? I go on vacation. Some blogger I am. I had every intention of using the motel’s Internet to stay on schedule, but traveling with a rambunctious little boy makes it a wee bit more difficult. To make matters worse, I was sick the day before we left. That cold really floored me for a whole day. I thought I was getting better! But no. I ended up staying in bed until two in the afternoon, but I felt good enough the next day to visit St. George. I didn’t have to drive so it made the trip more enjoyable. Thanks, Dad in-law. From there, we got to see the amazing sights of Zion National Park and other lesser-known hot spots like The Petrified Sand Dunes of Coral Canyon and another dune with “pink” sand. Yes. Pink. I can’t remember the name of it though.

We visited a ghost town, too! A little place called Grafton, I think. Kinda spooky. Nah. Not really . . . but it did remind me of that one movie . . . “The Village.” Not enough trees though, or red robed people running around. That would have been trippy, me running through the fields, screaming . . .

Anyway, despite odd water, I started a nice tan, obtained a fresh reminder of how good it feels to have a little swim, and had my first experience getting pulled over, curbside, because I was walking to Walgreen’s at 1:30 AM, hunting for earplugs. I’m not a sound sleeper. Be very, very quite. Better yet, don’t walk the streets in the middle of the night. Not recommended.

And now for the most interesting question: what are the chances of running into your boss on a hiking trail in the middle of a national park? True story. Happened at the Temple of Sinawava.

Update: Due to my cold, fatigue from the flash-edit last week, and the vacation trip, I was unable to do any writing at all, not even for the Laire. I have some serious work to catch up on as my awesome critique group will reconvene this Friday. My goal now is to finally wrap up chapter 9 and be on 10 by week's end. This has gone on long enough. It’s time to return to my 2k words-a-day, otherwise I’ll never get this new manuscript finished. But I will. I’m tenacious like that.

Click back this weekend for the Protagonist column that I was supposed to post on my last post. It'll be there this time. Count on it.

I’m David, and I’m craving toast.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Post: A "Cold" Weekend

Not only did a storm roll in over the weekend, bringing with it a cover of snow for two mornings in a row, but my son and I came down with a case of the sniffles. Sore throats all around. I'm still not completely better yet, and my planned trip this week may not happen. If anything, camping out in the elements does not do well on my respiratory system, especially when trying to get over a bug. So yes. I had a cold weekend. Pun intended.

Update: Chapter 9 is under way and looking good so far. My head is still a little foggy, so I'm taking this one slow. Having done my dialogue proofing, I don't see the need to do any major changes to it, but it needs a little filler to match the voice that the rest of the novel has taken in this revision. I'm loving it. Hopefully, chapter 10 will be in the works this week, and new material will be drafted long before this month is out. I can't wait.

That's it for me, for now. Click back later this week, as I plan to share a few tips on making your protagonists interesting and powerful.

I'm David, and I feel like I have a melon for a brain.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Aspiring Advice: Dialogue

Finally. A moment to hop on and do my thing!
But, I have some explaining to do first.
Last week, I spent a couple of days Flash-Editing my novel The Dragon's Heart. What a wonderful and laborious task. I say this because I haven't looked at it in almost a year because of my current projects. I knew the dialogue needed work, so I focused solely on that. By the time the edit was done, I had removed some 5,000 words from the manuscript. That's the equivalent of one chapter, for me. It wasn't that I deleted much of what the characters said, but rather the way in which I described them saying it, or, what they were doing while saying it. In other words, too much fluff and detail that was either unnecessary or contextually inappropriate. Hmm. That kinda made me sound smart.

I am happy to report that, while the manuscript will enter a major overall stage once my current work is finished, I touched it up enough for it to pass as a readable rough draft for a few of my father's clients who requested to read it. If you happen to come across this blog, I hope you're enjoying what you see.
Now, before I get to the advice, I have good news and not so good news. Since I like to save the best tasting stuff for last, I'll start with the not so good. Writers of the Future returned my contest entry Forerunner yesterday, simply stating that I did not win. Not even an honorable mention. Hmm. Does this prove that short stories are not my strong suit, or was it just not good enough? What seemed most disappointing was that the manuscript wasn't touched, I think. No pen marks, no written suggestions for improvement, just, "you didn't win. Hope to see your next entry soon." Makes me wonder if it was even looked at. Ah well. There are other avenues for me to take this little Sci-Fi thriller, but once again, it will have to go on the back burner for now. The good news is that I have a new follower in my Cosmic Laire, Mr. David J. West, a fellow writer with much more experience than I, who has a dang cool blog to boot! Thanks, David. Also, with the advent of three individuals reading my material gives me another reason to be positive, as they are in possession of the first four chapters of my latest (unannounced) work as well. Hey. I wanted them to see how much my prose has improved since two years ago.

Onto the advice.
It's not much, but it's important, to me at least.

There's a few small rules to remember when giving voice to your characters . . .
Rule number one: "Less is more."
Nothing's going to put your reader to sleep faster than having your characters speak monologues to each other. Books managed to get away with this a hundred years ago, but the audience has changed since then. Very ADD. Need to know now. Like what you hear in the movies. Keeping your character's voice short and sweet will make a big difference in how they are presented, and it will not make them look like wordy know-it-alls.
Rule number two: "Actions before words."
When you are angry with someone, would you say, "I hate you," and then slam your fist on the table to further get your point across? That looks awkward. It reads awkward too. For example: "I hate you," Bob said, slamming his fist on the table: This implies that Bob hit the table after he spoke. Can this work? Sure. Is this how you want Bob to be seen? What if the sentence read like this: Bob slammed his fist on the table. "I hate you!" he shouted: Which of the two examples read better to you? Now, if someone pauses, they can do an action before they resume speaking.
Rule number three: "Avoid redundancy"
He said. She said. Back and forth. Hopefully, your characters will have a voice of their own that is distinguishable from other characters, so that when you throw in a line of dialogue, you can a character speak, occasionally, without the need to address who is saying it. With one-on-one conversations, even more so. And it doesn't hurt to throw in plenty of descriptive expressions: He scoffed. She sighed. He countered. She retorted: Stuff like that. Makes it more colorful.

As for what your characters should say, you're the voice giver. Go to it.

Thanks as always for warping by.
Check back soon for more advice and updates from this aspiring writer.

I'm David, and I'm listening to Kung Fu Panda.