There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

That’s How It’s Done: Siege and Storm March 12, 2014

This past month I finished reading the fabulous Leigh Bardugo‘s second installment in the Grisha Trilogy, Siege and Storm. I actually didn’t enjoy it as much as the first book, Shadow and Bone (for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that the first book is pretty hard to top), but the fact that I wasn’t thoroughly engrossed gave me the chance to read it slowly and really parse the writing style as a whole.

There are certain things we are told are against the rules of writing, and usually they’re fairly good points. But sometimes these rules of thumb are based on what’s in style, so it’s a good idea to know why and to what you are conforming. Don’t just take advice because it’s thrown out there as advice — always determine whether or not it’s right for your novel, and keep aware of the reasons these trends are circulating and to what audience[s] they apply.

As I read Siege and Storm, I noticed a bunch of things that broke *sacred* rules, and yet worked well for this novel, and I felt I just had to point them out.

— Telling v. Showing
We’re always told, “Show, don’t tell,” and generally speaking it’s a wonderful rule. But guys, there’s boatloads of telling in Siege and Storm. BOATLOADS. Whenever there’s a folk tale or history that needs to be explained, it’s usually done right there in the middle of the narrative instead of in the voice of a character or in relation to the stakes. Sometimes the description is so dry that you could swear Alina isn’t observing it herself (as we might assume she must be, since the entire series is in her first person narrative). Sometimes characters’ powers and attributes are described in a drifty, blank, who-the-frig-is-talking voice instead of Alina’s. But somehow, it works. It feels very classic, old school, and large scale.

— Lots of Action, followed by lots of Nothing
Usually pacing is a huge concern for us writers. We want to be sure our action is interspersed with reflection and dialogue in a thoughtful manner so that the crescendo at the end of the book can hit the reader with maximum force. Siege and Storm opened with seven solid chapters of pure action, then slowed to a lilting, description-heavy pace for almost the entire novel until the very, very end, where we again encountered intense action just in time for the story to wrap up. I’m a huge fan of tension throughout an entire story, so this unusual pacing should have left a bitter taste in my mouth. Yet it felt unique and truly endearing. I was pleased that the book hadn’t unfolded as I expected. Surprise is nice. Very nice.

— Passive Voice
This one is the kicker. Passive voice, passive voice, passive voice. Everyone hates passive voice. We all do. It feels lazy when we find it in our own manuscripts, and it looks lazy when we see it in others. If we could make it die finally and forever, we would. But it always creeps back up on us and lurks in the shadows whenever we’re having an off-day. To be completely honest, when I first encountered passive voice in Siege and Storm, I switched into critique mode and was tempted to take out a red pen. “Passive! Kill it with fire!” But I couldn’t. I was reading the novel of an author I admire, the second in a series I was breathless to hear the end of. So I kept reading. After awhile, I started to realize the passive had a gorgeous part to play in the story. Alina is going through some really unusual struggles with her own psyche in this middle novel. She often isn’t sure who she is or what she wants, and she starts to view others with a detached lack of empathy. The Passive Voice is just that — detached, lacking the full experience. It’s very Alina, it’s very true (in this case), and it’s very freaking brave of Ms. Bardugo to put it out there right now.

This book reads like a classic, and I love classics. I have to admire it to pieces for being able to pull a Crazy Ivan on some of our modern writing rules and still be a huge success in today’s market.

Rachel O’Laughlin

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Letting Go Of Inhibitions February 26, 2014

Filed under: Inspiration,Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 10:44 pm
Tags: , , , ,

(…in which I get a little personal, as I tend to do. Also, I had a book release yesterday so I’m feeling extra sentimental.)

I actually hate writing “writing craft” posts for the same reason I hated giving violin lessons. With music, I felt like the root reason for making music is to play, and it’s not fun if you have a teacher telling you what to do. Some people enjoy learning with a teacher, but I never did…and so I quit giving violin lessons because I felt like a fraud.

When I was a teenager, I wrote simply to please myself. I didn’t let people read my words and I was happy that way. But a lot of people told me I should write nonfiction. “Why would you waste such a gift with words on fiction?” they would say. It caused me to want to hide my infatuation with stories even more, to be somewhat embarrassed that “all I write is fiction”. It seemed everyone I knew — even people who didn’t know me well — had ideas about what I should write.
“You should be a journalist.”
“You should write letters to the editor about political issues.”
“You should chronicle your switch from pampered suburbia to sustainable rural living.”
“You should write women’s literary fiction and change the world. Be the next young voice for feminism and be an example to your generation.”
And on. And on. Writing fantasy –of all things — would be the height of frivolousness to my high-minded friends. Why, why, why would you ever want to write such a useless thing?!

Most of this was not really that traumatic for me. I laughed at it. I buried it. I forgot about it. I didn’t dredge it up until I was ready to publish my first fantasy novel at age 23 and realized I was having the hardest time ever admitting to people that I’d even written something that was pure fantasy. “It’s uh, an action/adventure story. It has some sword fights. Nothing too bloody.”
“Is it…historical?”
“No…but, but(!) I based it on historical societies, mainly Tsarist Russia.”
“Ah, political fiction! Is it full of ideals that will be an excellent example to my children?”
“Um, no.”
“Is there romance in it?”
“Um, yes…it’s kind of dysfunctional, though.”
Dysfunctional? Is the woman a strong woman?”
“Well, sometimes, but she has her weak moments, just like any man would…”

Yeah. I was really bad at pitching it. Thus my self-reflection started. Why can’t I have faith in my own story? Something must be really wrong with me, because I know I love this story. Am I trying to walk too much of a tight rope? Trying to impress too many people who will never be impressed even if my feminist manifesto is on the bestseller stand at Borders (back when there was Borders)? Somewhat, yes. All these expectations had turned into something ugly: deeply rooted inhibitions that made me fault my characters for things like simple human nature. Even if I had portrayed accurately what my characters felt and did, I was wracked with guilt over it. Time to strip it down to the basics. What did I love about my story? Why did I love it? Was it truly me speaking, or could I do better?

It was me. It was good. But I could do better. I could do better by letting my characters show their emotion on the page in its full depth. By not letting them feel like someone was glaring over their shoulder, questioning their every motive. By asking, is this really what this character would do? instead of is this really what I want this character to do? Forget what I wanted them to do. I was telling their story. David did murder Uriah because he got Bathsheba pregnant. And I’m sure the writer of II Samuel was all, “Don’t ever read about this heroic giant slayer, because he turned into a murdering punk later.” Um, nope. He told David’s story, in all its glory and its ugliness. Stories are freaking important. Stories rock.

This is the state of mind I finally allowed myself to be in when I wrote Knights of Rilch. That story isn’t what you might call pretty. It’s desperate and tragic and only sometimes reflective. But it’s what happened, and it’s as raw and real and as deep into my character’s minds as they would let me go.

I’m sure I’m still holding on to a few inhibitions in here, and they’ll be something new to search and destroy with my third novel. But I just had to share this with you guys, in case there’s something holding you back, making you afraid to write that sucker. Write the stories you have inside you. Don’t let anybody tell you that you don’t have the capacity to write what you need to write, and don’t let anybody tell you that you should be writing something different. Ask advice from people you trust, from writers who can help, from agents and editors who support and polish…not from your critics. Above all, ask yourself to be as honest and real as you can be on the page. Make your art. Yours.

Rachel O’Laughlin

 

Line Edits! And why you need them. November 13, 2013

Filed under: Publishing,Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 7:40 pm
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All right, here is my much anticipated (dreaded?) line edits post!

I first heard about the existence of line edits via Leigh Ann Kopans’ blog, where she chronicled the publication of her first novel, ONE. I had never heard of them before that, but now that I’ve done them for both Coldness of Marek and Knights of Rilch, I can’t imagine having not done them. My novels would be far less stellar pieces of work.

If you read my post last month on revising for publication, I sum up one final revision you’ll want to do if you’re going to self-publish a novel. The next step after that revision is line edits. But line edits are also a great idea if you’re querying agents/subbing to publishers, because they’re just so nifty.

Most of the revisions and tweaks you’ve been doing up until you’re ready for line edits have been macro — as in, whole paragraphs being moved or deleted, if not chapters — but you’ve probably already done plenty of line editing in the middle of all that. Line edits are all about the phrasing, the word usage, the OVER-usage, the placement of line breaks, etc. These are different from copyedits. (Copyedits involve grammar and punctuation errors, as well as other little magical things that we mortal writers might not know about, and no matter which publication path you choose, you’re not the one responsible for them. Your copyeditor is! If you’re self-pubbing, get thee down and find thyself an excellent one.)

So. How do you go doing a full-on line edit? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Once your manuscript is in what you deem to be ready, publishable form, go through it line by line and question every sentence. Is it passive? Is it repetitive? Is the phrasing just right? Is there a better word for fleece, or did you really mean fleece? Did you start too many sentences with, “She” or “I”? Would mentioning the chair first be more powerful? Would it be more in character for Henry to say “I will kill you” or “I will end you”?

All these decisions are likely to make you half crazy, and I have a lovely, perfect solution for that as well. Employ your CPs. Are there any of them who are extra good at catching little line issues like this? Did they notice little things on their first pass? Great. Ask one of them (and I say one, because you can only use so much input on the line-by-line basis before you go insane, but there’s really no set limit) — bribe them, trade with them, pay them with cookies or favors — to go through slowly and laboriously and pick on every. Little. Tiny. Word. You can hire someone to do this, but the reason I say pick a CP is because you already know that they understand your voice and your writing. They’re not going to steer you wrong. Tell them you want ALL THE NOTES. You want them to be brutal. Remember, you’re releasing this novel into the wild. It needs to be nice. It needs to shine.

After you get those notes back from your trusted CP or beta reader or whomever, the ball is back in your court and it’s time to do your own line edit. Even if you did a picky edit before, it’s good to look at it again with fresh perspective. Take this:

I stepped inside the room. It was quiet — too quiet. “Jenna?” I whispered. There was no reply. Not even the sound of breathing, or the clatter of her stirring in bed.

There’s nothing really wrong with it. It’s all a matter of taste and mood at this point. I could do this:

I stepped inside. “Jenna?”

It was far too quiet. No Jenna. Not even the sound of her breath or the clatter she made when she stirred in bed.

Or this:

I stepped inside the room. The sound of my shoe echoed, then disappeared into eerie blackness.

“Jenna?” My voice almost startled me.

But there was no answer. Nothing besides thick velvet silence.

See what I mean? You can get more wordy, or less, cut down on the line breaks, or multiply them, etc. Is one of them better than the rest? I don’t know. It’s hard to say. But there are all kinds of possibilities that you may never have noticed until you got all the little pieces worked out to the point you can be micro. Teeny tiny. It sounds like it will be hell, but I swear to you, this nit-picky pass is so very freeing you will get addicted to it.

And then? A final read-through. If you can find someone who can stand to listen to your whole novel aloud, I recommend reading it to someone, not just to yourself. Because you’ve read it so many times, there might be something you say aloud that causes the listener to go “huh?”, but you would have glazed right over it. Work this thing. Work it really hard…

When you’re done? SEND IT OFF. Whether it be to your agent, your copy-editor, a final beta reader, or a pile of queries, get that thing sent off before you have a chance to question the brilliant fire it just came through.

Of course, mix and match these steps as they work for you. I found that what I did with the two novels* I’ve released so far varied slightly, and I’ll probably do something a little different for my third book. Everyone has a different process, so don’t take any of this as gospel. Just use what you need, and happy editing!

–Rachel O’Laughlin

*I went through line edits with my longsuffering CP, Darci Cole, on both of my manuscripts, line-edited myself, and then asked my incredible editor, Rebecca A. Weston, to keep an eye out for anything weird that might have slipped through us both (not all freelance editors offer this, but mine does).