Friday, July 18, 2014

UNWORTHY EDITING

My editor just sent back his annotated version of my upcoming novel Life Unworthy.  So now the rewrites and editing begin.

When I first thought about writing, the prospect of having to rewrite and edit books over and over sounded so dull and miserable it kept me from even starting up a book at all.  The image of going over the same thing again and again to find mistakes just sounded hellish and I wanted no part of it.

Yet, once I sat down and wrote a book and started editing, I found that I didn't mind it at all.  In fact it was kind of fun to re read and fix bits of the story, add in what was missing, trim some parts out, and overall improve my work.  This surprised me, but it was at least a welcome and pleasant surprise.
So here goes another book, and by now I'm getting pretty good at editing, although I have a long ways to go before I'm truly in command of grammar and language.

As work goes on, I'll update it in this post, with any thoughts and oddities that come up, although I don't want it to be a spoiler post.  I'll be trying not to give much away not out of fear of having my work stolen, but because I want the book to be an interesting unexpected read.

Life Unworthy is a supernatural thriller set in WW2 Krakow under Nazi occupation.  The story centers around a girl, a werewolf, and the Nazis they face.  It started with a simple idea: what if in one of the showers in Birkenau, there was a werewolf inside?  From there it expanded into a hunt for the creature by the Nazis for a variety of reasons and ultimately an examination of the nature of evil hopefully told in an entertaining, at least somewhat frightening and suspenseful manner.

So here we go...

-So far the book is pretty clean, but I did run into a bit of a timing sequence.  Part of the problem is that I wrote this book over about 8 years time, and as a result I didn't always remember things exactly.  Another concern is that I have Rudolph Hess speaking to someone and by March/April of 1942 he'd been captured in Ireland.  So I had to replace him with Martin Bormann, who has a more monstrous personality and fits what I wanted out of that character better anyway.

-My public school education betrays me again.  I'm having a bit of problems with past participle and other more complex grammatical issues.  For the most part I do well but there are times when I use "was" instead of "had been" and so on.  There are fewer this book than previous ones but still more than I wish.

-One of the toughest things when editing is to not just get pulled into the story.  What I meant to say flows in my head rather than what is actually typed, and while I gave it several months sitting fallow to step back from the book, my memory is such that its still quite fresh in my head.  I have to concentrate line by line to examine them specifically rather than read.

 -Twelve chapters in, the flow is not as disjointed as I feared while writing.  I've only had to do scant rewriting, to address a time line issue and some name changes.  At first one of the characters I had unable to speak German, but later he's fluent in it and his background story explains why so I have had to alter a few lines to fit that.  The little things you miss.

-One of the challenges in this kind of book is writing some of the characters well.  In a book filled with Nazis, it is a temptation to turn each of them into a cartoon monster, a black and horrible figure of madness and evil.  But each had his own motivations, and not all Nazis were necessarily monsters: Oskar Schnidler, for example, was a member of the Nazi Party.  My challenge is to make each of them interesting, plausible, and complex bad guys, not just thugs and brutes.  But that means they have to be at least at some level likeable and even admirable, if ultimately awful.

-Life Unworthy doesn't really have a main character, but the closest thing is a Polish woman named Aniela.  She isn't what one would call the typical "strong woman" character, in fact she's wracked by fear that her gypsy ancestry will be found out and her whole family will be dragged off to a camp by the Nazis.  She's my hook to the reader, to give them a feel as to what I understand and believe the times and life in Krakow in 1942 was like.  At the same time, because she's not bold and fearless, because she is so driven by passions and dread, I suspect some readers and reviewers might consider her a hapless heroine.  Yet she's the axle around which the entire story revolves, and all that comes about for good in the book is through and because of her quiet courage in the midst of raw terror.  Its a fine line to walk, but I hope I've done it well.

-I've gotten to one of my favorite parts of the book; the werewolf's story of how he became one.  Its a story within a story, a device I've always liked.  Once edited and ready to go, I intend to release it as a free download for people, to get a feel for the writing and a teaser for the book.  It spans several tumultuous decades over the turn of the century and through WWI, and its an attempt to show what it would be like to find yourself in this situation and seek a way out in the modern era.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Q&A: How long should my chapters be?

The author at work
When I first started writing seriously, trying to write my first book, I wasn't systematic or very technical at all.  I was only interested in putting the thoughts and story on paper (so to speak) and not the ideal method.

I didn't really know anything about formatting or details such as indenting, story length, typical structures like 3 acts, chapter formation and so on.  I just wrote.  After a while I started to wonder about some of this stuff, and in particular chapter length.

As I was writing this first work, for "National Novel Writing Month" in 2008, I was posting on my other blog about the effort and here's what I wrote one day:
Just a short chapter today. I have often wondered what makes for chapters, how do you define one? The Bible has apparently random chapter breaks, some writers have as little as one sentence in a chapter, while writers such as Patrick O'Brian have chapters that go on for 50 pages sometimes. Is it defined by a shift in the scene? A significant break in the plot? I figure to use them as a way to pause, a definite break defining either a lapse in time or a place I want readers to pause a bit in their imagination or be able to set the book down without a jarring interruption in the story.
For me the writing has always been about instinct and flow rather than technical details, even to this day.  I don't count words, I don't set word goals, I don't worry about numbers and measurements.  Each book I've finished so far has been around 90,000 words and around 20 chapters, coincidentally but not by design.

Some do though, they worry about word counts and length of chapters in terms of pages and words, and so on.  And in writer's groups I've been in, I have seen the question come up several times: how long should a chapter be?

As you can see in the above quote, I think more in terms of concept than measurement: what makes a chapter, how is it defined?  But the two questions are very closely related.  It all comes down to when and where you should have chapter breaks.

Looking at existing printed novels can be little help in terms of length.  In Something Wicked This Way Comes, chapter 31 -- the whole chapter -- is only these words:

"Nothing much else happened that night."

Some chapters are even shorter.  On the other hand, authors such as Patrick O'Brian have chapters than can go for a substantial portion of the book, with dozens of pages.  The length of a good chapter cannot really be quantified in terms of word counts or pages; its not about some mathematical formula at all.

Authors such as Kurt Vonnegut wrote short chapters that were much like a stand up comedian's joke structure: set up, development, punchline.  Others tell mini stories, almost short stories each chapter which have an arc and a conclusion within the overall story.

Each chapter should be somewhat self-contained within the larger structure of the book, in other words.  It should have finished a scene, a portion of the story that is a complete package, or otherwise have a sense of totality to it without being the whole book.  Chapters will, in most cases, lend themselves to natural breaks because they've reached a sort of conclusion.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

BUILDING THE PERFECT ELF

Arwen regretted all the chili she'd eaten
Fantasy fiction is recognized to have pretty much started with The Hobbit, published in 1937.  Before that there were fairy stories and imaginative tales, but the formalized "fantasy" really began with Tolkien's seminal work.

Since then, for almost 100 years, mountains of fantasy have been written, of all types.  As writers work on their ideas, some begin to strain against the borders of the genre, pushing it out to further and further frontiers.  Urban fantasy set in the modern time such as the Dresden Files, science fantasy where the world has magic but is set in an essentially technological era such as Star Wars, and more have been written.

Each time this happens, the definition of "fantasy" becomes more fluid and uncertain, and writers strive to be more creative and are inspired by what they are exposed to.  Yet there are still limits, boundaries beyond which you cease to be truly fantasy.  Where those boundaries exist and what they consist of  is a matter of speculation and debate, but everyone agrees at some point a book ceases to be fantasy if it abandons too much.

While its fun for the writer and the reader to reimagine the old fantasy tropes such as wizards and dwarves, some care has to be taken in order to keep the genre consistent and recognizable.  There's only so far you can go with "your version" of something before it stops being that thing entirely.  For the purposes of example, I'll use elves.

What is wrong with fan fic writers??
Elves are a pretty flexible concept.  Before The Lord of the Rings, elves were generally thought of as a type of faerie, little and cute.  But Norse elves were tall and even brutal, more human-like and often quite dangerous.  Sidhe in celtic mythology were very elfin in nature and all faerie types in that setting were tall, powerful, and dangerous.

Today, when you mention an elf, most think of beautiful people with pointed ears.  Yet even in that definition it varies.  How tall are they?  Tolkien's elves were quite tall, but D&D elves are shorter than men.  Tunnels and Trolls elves are green.  In Japanese fantasy, elves are often small as hobbits, with very long pointed ears, almost antennae.

As an author when you take a concept and bend it to your own conception, you have to be careful what you do with it.  If you go too far and are too wild with your redefinition, readers may become annoyed or confused.  Elves are understood to be a certain basic type; if you turn them into drooling three-headed monsters with wolf bodies, readers will not consider them elves at all.

I've written before about making races unique by culture and design, but there are some things to consider beyond that.  Anything you change in your world should be changed because it fits your vision and your story.  Changing things for the sake of being different, to defy convention, or to "deconstruct" the fantasy genre is less welcome in most cases.

Born to play an elf
As a writer your first responsibility is to your book, your story, and your craft.  But you still have a responsibility to your readers, to deliver something they appreciate and read, that will not betray basic presumptions and understandings of the genre or world, and that takes their interest seriously.

If all you want to do is write a mockery of fantasy or deconstruct the concept, or abandon everything that has previously been considered fantasy, you're not really writing in the genre at all any longer.  That's a book you can write, but you aren't writing a fantasy novel.  You're writing a literary attack on the genre instead.

So there's always flexibility, and that will be welcomed by your readers.  But that flexibility has to be within certain broad, negotiable limits, and in the service of the story.  In the end, whatever your elf ends up being, it should still be recognizable as an elf.