Launching Romance into the stars.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Write, read, learn. Good stories don't just happen.

When I first started writing, what I wrote was science fiction romance. I loved the thought of creating other worlds with nothing but the fabric of my imagination. I believed that was all you needed--and basic English skills. Not so. My first story, which I hide under my bed, was an embarrassment as much as a lesson on what not to do if you want to get published.

So, swallowing my pride a bit here, I'm going to share some of the story that started my writing journey, as it is. And then I'm going to talk about the mistakes I made, and what I've learned from them. Please be gentle.

We'll start with the average chapter size. This story has a total of nine chapters. It has a word count of 112k. The average chapter has over twelve thousand words, making that chapter roughly forty pages.

What I've learned:  The chapter should be only as large as it needs to reveal the details important to the central theme of the chapter. For manageability, I now keep my chapters at around 2k, or roughly ten pages. If I can't show you the scene in ten pages, then I need to cut and tighten or divide and create two chapters if there are two scenes.

Here's the first excerpt:

The labor drug on for hours.  Way before the Sola rose and now it was starting to set.  Okay, we'll start with the obvious. Drug. Drug is a form of medication, dragged is an action. It was starting.The second sentence is a fragment and punctuation is missing completely. "Was" precedes an inactive clause. Words ending in "ing" are not active. A better verb would have been started. Not sure I can make this a good paragraph, but this is what I would do now. Her labor dragged on for hours. It started when the Sola rose, and continued while the star pinked the horizon as it set.
From the moment of conception she knew there was something special about the babies.  It was something she could feel down deep in the depths of her soul. Cliche much? Inactive phrasing again. I'm also telling instead of showing here. Instead of saying she could feel it to the depths of her soul, (blech) I should be showing you. How does she know the babies are special? What things have led her to believe this? Every woman believes her child is special. My job as the author is to show you why, not tell you. Here I've failed miserably. A better solution would have been to show weird events that occured while she carried the babies, or signs from her gods. Okay, enough beating this dead horse. Moving on.

Her hair boasted a wealth of silky platinum and honey strands that seemed to make her face glow.  She was tall and slender, with skin like cream and lush curves, giving her a divine appearance.  Her face was oval shaped with full lips and large aqua colored eyes that shone with flashes of curiosity.  They were expressive with thick full lashes, her best feature.  Her appearance, except for her ratty clothes, was flawless.  Her curse.

Here we have a cookie-cutter description of a perfect heroine, and there is adverb and adjective abuse. Whenever you see a modifier, you can always replace the verb or noun with something stronger. To make matters worse, I describe her as both slender and having lush curves. If I was beta reading this manuscript, I'd be banging my head into a desk. My solution. Cut the entire description and show what she looks like, revealing a little at as time as we go through the story. Do not do this. Do not describe your character in one paragraph, but show what she looks like through the reaction of the hero and other characters. One last thing. To make your characters human, someone the reader can relate to, for the love of God, give them flaws.

Emili changed into a pair of well-worn faded jeans, a black tee shirt and sneakers.  Devin thought she looked hot in whatever she wore, but this outfit suited her.  She looked completely at ease in her casual clothes.  When he walked out of her room he noticed she was digging in the refrigerator to make something for breakfast.  From the look on her face they were out of luck.

 Here we're wordy and telling. Not to mention the word "look" echoes over, and over, and over again. The less words you can use to show the scene, get your point across, the better. What point am I trying to make here? Nothing here moves the story forward, or is important to the plot. This entire paragraph would have to go. Every word, every action you write, must move the story forward. If it doesn't, cut it. Also, note that when you see words like feel or felt and look or looked, you are almost always telling and not showing.

Okay, one last paragraph and this one is for you. Tell me what's wrong with it, and I'll pick a name from the commentors to win a tee-shirt, and yes this is one paragraph (actually half of it).

Helena was pissed.  It all stemmed from the lack of sleep then the cold shower and now a surprise exam on death penalty cases.  This day just got better and better.  Well she was the one that had wanted Emili to let her hair down, look at the monster she had created.  Who knew she could be such a slut?  Come on how many times in a night can you do that before dropping dead?  Apparently, all night.  Helena groaned her mind was in such a fog and it wasn’t helping with the test.  She chewed the end of her pencil trying to clear her head. Looking around the room she noticed she was the only one not intently filling in the little ovals on the exam.  She caught a look from the Professor and quickly glanced back down at her paper.   She didn’t know what had her frustrated more, lack of sleep or lack of sex.  Emili had been all to kind to remind her of the sex last night.  She needed to get her mind wrapped around this test or she was going to fail for sure.  After Emili left the club Helena stayed to dance awhile.  It was the same ho hum boring crowd there every Friday so she had cut it short and went home.  Leave it to Emili to come barging in at three in the morning with her new boy toy.  Why couldn’t she get lucky and find a nice piece of ass like that?  Helena focus, you’ve got to focus.  She chided herself.  Life sucked, Emili never went out and she got laid.  Helena went out all the time and was a twenty-five year old virgin and it wasn’t as if she was trying to be.  This is ridiculous.  She really needed to stop being so picky.

Now that I've shown you the ugly side of learning to write, I hope you have a better understanding that good stories don't just happen. Read. Write. Get your hands on well written stories, and  some really bad ones. Try to figure out what the author did that they might do better. Look at your own writing and understand nobody writes a perfect first draft. Revise, revise, revise. And if you have a first draft like my first story, stick it under the bed, and when you need a dose of humility, or you want to see what you've learned on your writing journey, pull it out.

Have a great weekend!

Don't forget to leave a comment to be entered to win a signed tee-shirt in either, MED/LRG/XLG or XXLG. Have fun!


Ana Lee Kennedy said...

I had to tell an editing client the other day that 6K words for a chapter means cut it in two chapters, but what was better was 3 chapters, lol.

Don't feel bad, tho. Every time I look at my older material I cringe, lol. It's all part of the learning process.

D L Jackson said...

LOL. It blows my mind I was writing forty page chapters.

Yeah, something you learn along the way.

Barbara Elsborg said...

Ah, but look how far you've come, Dawn! Chapter length has never been an issue for me but length of the whole novel has. My longest was once 169,000 words.

Kate Richards said...

I love posts on editing. I have a story called "The Magical Golden Ring." No I wasn't in fifth grade when I wrote it.Although it pretty much reads as if I was. Telling never showing is only the most obvious of my sins in that one.

Jessica E. Subject said...

Your writing then is still better than some of the stories I have on my e-reader. Seriously. And now, you just suck me in with every word.

Plus, you have taught me so much in writing my own stories. :)

D L Jackson said...

Awh, you are all way too sweet. LOL
Jessica, we all got a hand at one time or another, and your wips really weren't that bad, compared to some I've seen. I learned a lot from Barbara and her grammar smackdowns.
I had another friend that covered my MS with one word. "Telling." Over and over until she pounded it home. However, I still fall into the trap sometimes and it's a second set of eyes that always make the difference.

I love my crit buddies.

Jessica E. Subject said...

Thanks! I think we all fall into some of those old writing habits every once in a while, but at least we can recognize them now when we're editing. And if we don't, our CPs and editors will. :)

D L Jackson said...

Jessica, you've won a tee-shirt.
I'll be contacting you shortly.