Friday, August 1, 2014

WRITE LIKE A READER

I believe I shall scribe a literary work of fantastic invention
Last time I wrote about how an author should read not just to enjoy, but to learn and grow as an author.  This week I want to suggest something related, but in reverse.

When you write, the first person you have to please and write for is yourself.  If you don't write the book you want to not only finish writing but read, then you're going to find it very difficult to finish the book, and it will be done without passion and a love of writing.  In short, its going to suck.

You also have to satisfy your editor(s) by avoiding spelling and grammatical errors as well as striving to keep your book internally consistent and without contradiction or contrivance.

But ultimately your book is meant to be read.  I don't know anyone who goes through all the trouble of writing an entire book and publishing it that does not want their work to be read.  And that means you need to write like a reader.

Writing like a reader means you don't use long, complicated, flowery words or sentence constructions out of the sheer beauty of writing.  There are times when writing becomes such an artistic endeavor that the writer can forget that their task is communication and, in fiction, storytelling.  There's a place for this kind of thing, of course.  When J.R.R. Tolkien set out to write The Lord of the Rings he wasn't trying to tell a story, he was trying to tell an Epic.

And I don't mean "dude that was epic!!!" I mean Epic as in a certain kind of literary structure such as Beowulf or The Odyssey.  An Epic in this sense deals not with really awesome scenes of carnage and impressive activity, but with grand, extensive tales of greatness and heroism.  Its not so much about being impressive as being huge in spirit and scope.  Covering years and vast mileage, dealing with great themes and concepts.

Originally literary Epics were poems, but prose versions started to be crafted, and Tolkien wanted to make his own, for England.  And that's what the Lord of the Rings became, so his style is more literary and florid than people are used to and is best for publication.

Its not that you shouldn't use big words or have intelligent prose.  The point I'm trying to get to is that you need to write in a way that doesn't interfere with reading.  If you can get by with the word "use" then don't type "utilize."  You gain nothing except pretentiousness and take up more space on the page.

Also, write in a way that you want to read in terms of themes and style.  While you can write an incredibly depressing, awful book about ghastly events without anything uplifting do you really want to?  A relentlessly depressing novel about misery and failure where everything bad happens without hope or victory would probably get you rave reviews from some folks.  Sometimes it seems like what defines "literary fiction" is that exact sort of tone.

But do you really want to read something like that?  Its fun as an author to come up with challenges but sometimes the challenges become so outrageously horrific and the things you put a character through so sadistically awful that you can offend or upset readers, pushing them away.  If you've crossed over into the role of literary torturer, its probably time to dial it back a bit.

My outline might be getting out of control
And then there are times when we as writers get so wrapped up in concepts and themes we forget to just tell the story.  Especially after taking a class on writing or studying literature authors can become fascinated with the 3-part structure of the heroic journey, the use of the chiasm, or creating the perfect metaphorical structure that we lose sight of just telling a good tale.

When the mechanics of how many words you've written or how long a chapter is start getting in the way of writing, you lose your readers, too.  The way to best write as a reader is to write what moves you, what you enjoy, and what flows from your inspiration instead of what you can cleverly design and craft using the best techniques and flowcharts.
Because the entire purpose of this exercise is to be read, isn't it?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

READ LIKE A WRITER

It looks like another evening without dinner for Jeanine
One of the most consistent, and in my experience, best, pieces of advice given would-be writers is to read.  The truth is, a good writer is also a good reader.  Reading fills your brain with ideas, and it gives you exposure to a wide variety of writing and influences.

Reading is a pastime which I hope never goes away and not only for selfish reasons (as a writer, clearly I have a vested interest in people reading).  There are distinct cultural benefits to a society full of readers, and to individuals to read and learn and grow by.  Reading stimulates not only the rational side of your mind, but the creative.  Even a bad book can help you envision things you've never thought of or seen before.

Reading books can inform about the past, it can expose you to ideas and cultures you are unfamiliar with, it can help shape your philosophies and thoughts on a topic, and it can broaden your understanding of life and people, and it can help you visit places you have not and perhaps cannot see or visit.

But there's more to reading as a writer.  As a writer, you have all of those benefits of reading, but there's another aspect that you need to keep in mind.  Simply reading is good, but reading as a writer is better.

As a writer, you should read with your author spectacles on.  These spectacles help you see how an author constructs interesting descriptions, they show how characters are developed.  Reading as an author means reading how dialog is written so well, how punctuation is used for dramatic effect, what the writer does to craft such an interesting plot.

Authors read not just for entertainment, but to learn how to hone their craft.  And this doesn't have to be an analytical or academic exercise.  Its a skill you learn as you read and write, to pick up on what is done well in the books you enjoy.

Nothing says you MUST read bad books, though
And what's more, it helps you learn from bad books, too.  Its almost universally recognized that books such as 50 Shades of Gray and the Twilight saga are poorly written.  Its okay to like bad books, I like some, too.  But an author should recognize they are bad, and what's more learn from why they are bad.  Seeing what to avoid, what makes that dialog so terrible, how those characters are so wooden and poorly developed and so on teach you as much or more as bad books.

In time, you can learn as an author to spot these flaws, bright points, and learning opportunities in all the fiction you encounter.  Why was that exchange between Captain America and Iron Man so effective in that scene?  What did they do so wrong in that episode of Burn Notice?  How can I learn to move a character story along as well as they did in that play?

Reading as an author means reading not simply for entertainment or learning but to grow in your craft.  And as you get better at it, so will your writing.  Its true that you'll absorb good writing from good books, but if you read like a writer, you'll absorb that much more.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Q&A: How long should my book be?

The latest fantasy series (actual size)
Typically I don't care about word counts.  The story I write contains as many words as it took to write, and that's all that matters to me.  However, when you are going to publicize, pitch, query an agent, or otherwise talk about a written work, the word count becomes important.

And that word count determines the length of a novel more than any other system.  Because of the differences in sizes of books (trade paperback, hardcover, paperback, etc) and the sizes of fonts, the page count of a book can vary considerably with the same story.  But what doesn't change is the word count.

So when you write a story, you will fall under several categories of size based on the word count.  There are four basic story sizes, although some break down the types even more:
  • Short Story: under 7500 words
    • Flash story: up to 1000 words
    • Short short story: 1001 - 4000 words
    • Long short story: 4001-8000 words
  •  Novelette: 8001-17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and up
A recent study of major fantasy works was done, showing the word count of these multi-book series.
Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien
Total: 473k (plus 95k from the Hobbit)

Wheel of Time - Robert Jordan
Total: 3,304,000 (official count)

A Song of Ice And Fire - George R. R. Martin
Total: 1,314,000

Sword of Truth books - Terry Goodkind
Total: 1,184,00

Harry Potter Books - J.K. Rowling
Total: 1,085,000

Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis
Total: 1,715,501
Seeing this, there is a tendency among many young and beginning writers to assume that a fantasy story has to be big.  Rowling's books average over 150,000 words, and the typical fantasy release is so massive you can use it to press wildflowers.  Series get bigger and bigger; a trilogy seems modest compared to the Wheel of Time books.  Patrick Rothfuss only has three books out so far, and they each have more than 200,000 words.