Tag Archives: Naomi

Earliest results are promising…

hatrack-logoSo after critiquing four or five “first 13 lines” of other writers (and offering to read more of the work which intrigued me), I chose Woman’s Best Friend to post first. Not sure why.

Here’s how the first-13-lines reads:

Naomi woke to the sound of Jessie barking.

She could barely identify the golden retriever’s silhouette against the window. For a confused moment, Naomi thought that Mark must be coming home, but that couldn’t be right. Mark was in Chicago, and Naomi had the car anyway. Besides, Jessie would have greeted Mark at the front door, on the east side of the house. The bedroom window faced south.

Naomi squinted at the clock:

4:30 AM.

“Jessie, hush,” Naomi whispered, settling back down to sleep. Jessie barked on, ignoring her.

Finally Naomi stood and walked to the window, unable to sleep, but also curious what had spooked the normally passive dog.

I just posted it this evening, and so far only one person has commented. He replied:

Okay, I’m hooked. Email me your story, and I’ll be glad to look it over.

Well, dammit! I mean, Good! I mean…dammit!

As a writer sincerely desiring criticism, one of the most frustrating things one can be told is, “It’s good.”

…okay, I take that back. One of the most frustrating things one can be told is, “It’s bad.”

Both are bad news. Criticism tells me what to fix. Praise swells the ego.

So I guess both are good news. But it’s highly encouraging that my first “total stranger” comment was: “I’m hooked.”

I must be doing something right.

Now somebody tell an editor, quick.

It’s away

I hashed out typos/misprints one more time (there were still some nobody caught yet — unfortunately I’ll probably find more again tomorrow) and then spent about 90 minutes researching preferred hardcopy submission formats, spent 40 minutes formatting and printing, and finally put the whole manuscript together with a SASE and addressed a large manila envelope.

Woman’s Best Friend will soon be on its way to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for review.

It’s weird to have stage fright for something you won’t hear back on for two months, minimum, but I do. Boy do I. I’m more frightened than Naomi was.

What’s most important is that I get another story finished and submitted LONG before I hear back about this one. If this story is 3 or 4 stories behind me, all of my excitement and energy will be focused on current projects, and a rejection for this one will hardly matter (continuing that cycle indefinately until a work is purchased).

The next project actually will be none of the prior ideas I mentioned, but a whole other pair of ideas I mentally married earlier today. I think I’m going to wait until tomorrow to tell you, though, but my non-geek fans will be pleased it’s another modern thriller instead of outright sci-fi or fantasy.

Step aside, Dean Koontz.

How to give amazing feedback

the-first-five-pagesThis is partly in response to this recent comment, but it’s good information for anyone visiting the site (hence deserves a full post). Contrary to what you may believe, it is not necessary to be a literary giant to give good feedback. Quite the contrary.

Orson Scott Card writes, “For this job, it’s better if your Wise Reader is not trained in literature — he’ll be less like to try to give you diagnoses (“The characterization was thin”) or, heaven help us, prescriptions (“You need to cut out all this description”). The Wise Reader doesn’t imagine for a moment that he can tell you how to fix your story. All he can tell you is what it feels like to read it.”

Obviously, I need to know if there are spelling, grammar, or continuity errors. The more I can iron out, the better, but this is less urgent than you might think. I’ve found typos and grammar errors in many NYTimes bestsellers, even 2nd and 3rd editions. (Grammatical error isn’t necessarily a mistake, either. In dialog, for example, people rarely speak with grammatical acuity. So unless you wish to make every character sound like a pompous ass, it’s necessary to relax a bit for dialog. This is why Naomi tells her husband, “Jessie is acting strange,” even though it would be correct to write, “Jessie is acting strangely.”)

What interests me more:

Does the story drive you, without interruption or distraction, to its conclusion?

I don’t mean external distractions, like a dog starts humping your leg, or the school across the street explodes. I mean internal distractions; anything which detracts from the cohesion of a believable story. For example:

1. Were you ever bored? Did your mind wander? Where did this happen? This tells me whether a story (or part of it) ultimately just isn’t that interesting.

2. Did you like/dislike each character? Why? This helps me understand if sympathy is being generated for protagonists, if villains or anti-heroes are properly disturbing, and so forth.

3. Was there anything confusing, or any passage you had to read twice? This is key. While there’s a lot of feedback I mull over awhile before making any changes, this one usually results in immediate revision for the passage in question.

4. Was there anything you didn’t believe? This one is simple. If you ever thought, “Yeah, right!” or “How unrealistic,” it falls into this category. However, for any non-geeks in my audience, this doesn’t mean tell me, “I don’t believe in ghosts” if there’s a ghost in the story, etc. Primarily, this should assess two things:

4A. Did the characters behave believably? Unless you’re writing a comedy, a frightened soccer mom being chased by a psychopath shouldn’t suddenly know ninjutsu when faced with hand-to-hand combat. A genius shouldn’t suddenly become unable to make basic judgments, just to advance a plot. No character should behave contrary to his/her known motives and values unless the story addresses such a change. In The Matrix, there is an explanation for characters who know nothing about martial arts suddenly become experts in all forms. In Good Will Hunting, the story is about Will’s transformation from an arrogant and detached teenager to someone who wants to be involved and make a difference.

4B. Did the story follow its own rules? This refers to physics, magic, science and pseudo-science. Carlos Mencia once joked that complaints about ‘realism’ don’t apply to stories like Star Wars. This is incorrect. Speculative fiction doesn’t assert that physics and chemistry and biology suddenly have no rules, they just propose changes or alterations to the rules we already know. Everything that happens within a story needs to FIT those rules, even though they can violate the rules of the known world. Otherwise the story becomes unbelievable. In Star Wars, if Han Solo (a self-proclaimed skeptic of The Force) suddenly started using telekinesis, that would violate the story’s rules. A superhero not using established superpowers to escape a tricky situation falls into this category (like when Peter Petrelli neglects his powers of flight when he is trying to prevent himself from going nuclear at the end of Heroes: Season 1).

In an amateur writer’s vampire story, her female protagonist was beaten and tortured by the order of the Pope, actual bishops and cardinals doing the dirty work. I told her this was unbelievable. She might have sold it if her story took place in some future or past time frame, but the pope at the time was Pope John Paul II, and she never specified it was anyone different. I just couldn’t picture John Paul II being so deliberately cruel on a physical level. However one of my favorite science fiction series ends with a pope thousands of years in the future similarly torturing a messianic young lady. But his actions were established as believable by the rules of the story long before the event occurred.

In an early Batman movie, a thug punches Batman in the chest and knocks him down. The audience has now been shown that Batman is vulnerable to physical force. A few minutes later, the Joker punches Batman in the chest and succeeds only in hurting his hand against a metal plate. Which is it? The audience now doesn’t know what to believe about the suit. Suddenly ALL ‘dangers’ to Batman have lost their potency because it seems like the rules can change at any moment: he’ll be invulnerable sometimes and extremely vulnerable at others. It has less to do with whether reality can support what’s presented, and more to do with whether a story remains true to itself.

5. What do you think will happen next? This is more important for novel segments. But for short stories, you can try to explain whether it fulfilled your expectations or surprised them. (And both can be good in different circumstances. Expecting and then seeing the good guys win can be extremely satisfying, in spite of the fact it was predictable.)

Like most writers, I despise books on “how to write”, and like most writers, I still own a few, a couple of which have ultimately shaped my thoughts on writing in spite of my skepticism.

The most impressive of these is literary agent Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. If I were teaching a course on writing, it would be required reading. It won’t tell you anything about devising a great plot or premise, but it chisels away mercilessly at common mistakes of amateurs, and then even more subtle mistakes made by professionals.

Here are just two of the problems he addresses:

1. Presentation. Just tell me if anything about an attached manuscript is distracting.

2. Adjectives and Adverbs. Overuse of these is the hallmark of an amateur. Example:

The squad car went fast down the bumpy, rocky road, quickly swerving to avoid the large, fat bugs smashing squarely against the silmy windshield. The hot, humid, stifling day poured in waves through the open windows, making the men wipe their sweaty, clammy brows with their dirty, greasy rags and leaving marks on their dirty foreheads. The convict was escaping quickly and it was getting hard to see in the blinding haze.

You can easily see how over over-describing drowns a piece. If it’s a problem, it will be obvious.

There are hundreds of other things I could ask you to look for, because there are (literally) hundreds of things I look for as I write, and rewrite, and rewrite. But the essence of what matters is:

Does the story keep you interested?

All of the examples above are just specific ways of asking that same question.

A note to other writers who may frequent this blog:

The audience is never wrong.

Playwrites have an advantage over novelists: They can attend a play and SEE whether the audience is laughing and crying; interested or bored. That type of audience never lies.

Novelists have to learn these things by asking the questions above. When the criticism comes back (and it WILL), resist the urge to defend your work. All the justification in the world won’t change the fact that someone was bored or annoyed or put off by something in the story. In the face of multiple reviews with different opinions, you can determine which way to go, but if any one reader was annoyed, confused, bored, or disbelieving, you can bet dollars to donuts future readers will feel the same…including editors.

What to write first?

decisionI may (or may not) be a skilled writer. But I’m an expert procrastinator, there’s no doubt about it.

As a result, it’s been a couple of months since I last devoted significant time to the four projects whose progress we shall track here. And I’m not quite sure which one I want to dive into first.

Actually the fourth is exempt from this decision; it’s the priority project at all times. And since you don’t know what it is yet, you can’t vote for it anyhow.

But which of the other three projects tickles your interest?

  • Woman’s Best Friend
    • Alone in the Colorado countryside while her husband is away on business, Naomi becomes perplexed and concerned when her dog Jessie seems increasingly convinced of some imminent threat behind the house, particularly in the coldest hours of the night.
  • Manifest Destiny
    • Two men and two women awaken in a small room with no memories, and no clues to their identities or purposes. Their only possessions are numbered jumpsuits.
  • Echoes of Prophesy
    • This is the sequel to Shadows of Prophesy. It begins after Torell’s death, whereupon Marana finds herself pregnant without explanation, the use of magic has been stripped from all who practice it, and the Empire of Tartania is in chaos after the war.

These synopses are very brief, but if one of them prompts a question, that’s a good sign that something about it is interesting enough to make you want to know a little more. And if you want to know more…that’s going to make me want to tell you. Savvy?