Sunday, March 25, 2007

Market vs Art

Current market standards for fiction include:

• Stripping as many adverbs from your prose as possible
• Reducing or eliminating creative dialogue tags
• Getting to the point quickly—no meandering paragraphs of descriptive prose
• Limiting subplots, eliminating anything that doesn’t advance the main plot
• Doing nothing weird or experimental, unless you’re already published
• Keeping it around 100,000 words

I have no quibble with any of these, but anyone who has studied literature can immediately come up with famous and popular books that violate one or more of these “rules.” Newbie writers will use this as an excuse not to listen to advice about fine-tuning their cluttered prose. This of course, leads to the final rule:

• If you write well enough, there are no rules.

And this leads only to more confusion and bickering in the writing forums.

My thought on the subject is that a writer has to first understand why they write. Is it a hobby, art for art’s sake? If so, you can ignore the rules as you see fit. Thumb your nose at your critics if you like, and have a good time. But if one hopes to be published in today’s market, one has little choice but to take the rules seriously. That’s why I always have two drafts of my work. One is the “artistic” draft, and I leave it alone, adverbs, subplots, and all. The other draft is my “market” one, and I cut it ruthlessly.

In addition to getting a draft into publishable form, there is another reason to strive to fit the market rules. It helps your writing. The modern style is pared-down, and as anyone knows, stripping the frou-frou off something will give you a good view of the foundation, so you can see if it’s sound. There’s a lot to be gained by this, and little to lose.

So while it’s all well and good to have a grandiose artistic vision, letting it play out in multiple sub-plots, asides, and descriptions in War and Peace style, it behooves any writer to become friends with the “Save As” feature and have a market-standards version. Even if publication isn’t a goal, editing to market standards clears away the fluff so one can see the bones of the plot structure. Embellishments can always be added back in later, if one feels they’re needed. And with a stronger supporting framework, all that extra decoration might just look a little better.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Beginning - Comments Needed

I wrote this last night and would appreciate feeback. It's a first pass at the opening to the third book in my trilogy based in a resource-depleted future.

The train pulled into the station with a metal-on-metal screech of brakes. Kitta had been looking out the window, but now she turned to gather up her belongings. Others were doing the same, talking about what remarkably good time the train had made.

“Just last week someone tore up a stretch of track near the river to protest the new water distribution laws.”

“And there was a holdup last month on the Deming line.”

“I don’t know why the government can’t control the raiders.”

“Too busy with water issues. That’s why they leave the outlaws to the mercenaries.”

“And the mercenaries are almost as bad.”

Kitta stood up and tried to shake the creases out of her skirt. Although only sixteen, she knew all about mercenaries. She also knew there would be no trouble on this train. “Joseph sees things,” was how her grandmother had explained it. “And if he says the 3220 is safe, then that’s the train you’re going on.”

Kitta joined the passengers squeezing down the aisle. At the exit she hesitated, scanning the crowd below. Then she saw him—a broad-shouldered man with a weather-creased face that seemed frozen in a permanent scowl. He looked annoyed about something, but Uncle Will always looked that way. This time though, she was pretty sure he really was annoyed. Well, that made two of them.

She stepped off the train and Will came forward to meet her. “How much luggage you got?”

No hello, no questions about her trip. How typical. “Just one trunk.”

“Did Mother put the address on it like I told her to?”

“Yes. And she used the red tag, too.”

“Good. It’ll be delivered, then. Come on.”


“I said come on. Train depot ain’t no place for a girl like you to be hanging around.” He took the heavy satchel from her shoulder. “Besides, Lauren was cooking something when I left, and we’d be rude to make her wait.”

He moved off into the crowd and Kitta followed sullenly. She wanted to at least see her trunk, make sure that it was taken off the train and that the workers knew where to deliver it. But there was never any use arguing with Uncle Will.

Snippet - Best Laid Plans

After going to the trouble of planning a surprise party for a sick friend, Diana is surprised that her aunt won't allow it.

To Diana's surprise, Amalia put a stop to things almost before they had begun. "No," she said. “He's not so well that he can have all you girls down there crowding the sick room and fussing over him."

"Oh, he'll like it," Diana said. They were in their room getting ready for bed, and she stopped brushing her hair. "Macy says all men like it when women pay attention."

"And having you visit was enough of a distraction. He's supposed to be focusing on getting well."

"Maybe this will inspire him to hurry up about it." Diana began braiding her hair tightly so it wouldn't tangle.

"He's doing the best he can."

"What's it going to hurt if we take him a few presents?"

"You'll just give him ideas. In fact, I think you've given him enough already. I'm half-tempted to tell you that you can't go visit him any more."

"You've kept me away for more than two weeks. But you can't do it forever. I'm not a child you can order around."

"But Robert is my patient, and I can say who sees him and who doesn't."

"And you would keep me from seeing him again?"

"If you're going to insist on teasing him, you don't give me much of a choice."

"How do I tease him?"

Amalia shook her head. "You know, Diana, I really struggle to figure you out sometimes."

"Well, if there's anything you don't understand, maybe you should ask instead of making these vague accusations."

Amalia raised her eyebrows at Diana's impertinent tone. "Okay. Are you leading Robert on for a reason? Or are you really that ignorant of how he feels about you?"

For a moment Diana could only stare in surprise. "He and I are friends. He's never made so much as a leading remark."

"If that's the only thing that will convince you, you'll be waiting a long time. Just because a man treats you with respect doesn't mean he's not interested."

Diana dismissed the notion. "All I wanted was to have a party for my friend who saved your life and nearly died. And here you go trying to make something of it." She flung herself full length onto her blanket and buried her face in the pillow.

Amalia looked at her for a moment, nonplussed. Unbidden, Miguel's words came back to her about the need young people had to hurt themselves. What he had failed to mention was the way they needed to hurt each other, too. But Diana was nearly eighteen. To keep trying to protect her was insane, impossible, and would ultimately do neither one of them any good.

Amalia sat down. "Okay. I'll quit interfering. Just don’t let him misunderstand you. If you like him, fine. But if you don't. . . Well, it's easy to think you're just being nice to a man and then later you find he's been reading a lot more into it than you intended."

"He wouldn't do that," came the muffled voice from the pillow.

"And for God's sake, quit lying to yourself."

Diana was silent so long that Amalia wondered if she had fallen asleep. But finally she lifted her head. "So can we have the party for him?"


"Why not? You said you wouldn't interfere. We're already working on his presents."

"I was serious when I said it's too much excitement for him right now. You girls will just tire him out." She stood up and wandered over to her pallet. "Besides, Señora Varamendi is old and doesn't need all you young people raising a ruckus in her house."

"We're not going to raise a ruckus. We won't make any messes we won't clean up, and. . ." Seeing the determined look on Amalia's face, Diana stopped. "Okay. No party." She threw herself back onto her pillow.

"I'm sorry. You can still go see him. And you girls can go in pairs for short visits. But why don't you wait until he's well and comes up here to join us? You can have a party for him then."

"Okay," Diana said, refusing to look at her. She grabbed a blanket and pulled it up to her chin. "Please turn off the light. I'm going to sleep now."

Evil Editor Alert

Evil Editor has been doing a dialogue critique this weekend. It's fun to see something different from beginnings and queries, although not all the entrants are including a line or two of setup, which makes some of the dialogues confusing to read.

The deadline has passed for entries, but EE's cuts and comments are instructive. And as always, comments from the minions are encouraged. So if you haven't already, join the party!

Monday, March 12, 2007

When Research Becomes Reality

I went to a women’s camp this past weekend to learn and practice some of the skills my fictional characters have. I thought it would be a great way to make my writing more realistic, or to at least confirm that I hadn’t written anything ridiculous. What I found instead was that my research had imparted a lot of knowledge and confidence in some of these areas. I noticed this particularly in the horsemanship class.

I’ve been around horses before, but always felt a little intimidated by how big they are, and by the fact that they can really do serious damage under certain circumstances. But this time I felt like I knew exactly what I was doing. Four months of daily writing from the viewpoint of an expert horsewoman must’ve rubbed off on me because the day before my class I went down to the barn with someone from my archery class and felt like the horses and burros were old friends.

When it came time to groom and saddle my own horse Sunday morning, it felt like a very normal thing to do, and when we rode, the instructor complimented my form. All the other times I’ve been on a horse, I’ve been a little afraid. It’s pretty high up there, and falling off is serious business. But this time it felt different. I very much respected the horse and terrain, but I was in charge of the situation, which is something I had never felt on other times when I’ve ridden. I trotted my horse, moved her on and off the trail, took her ahead of horses she didn’t like, made her drop back, and did all kinds of things. At one point we got onto a smoother trail and she tried to canter. I was game, but we had been told not to let the horses do that, so I reined her in. Afterwards, I unsaddled her and rubbed her down like I’d been doing it for years.

Who would’ve thought that several years of writing about characters that spend their whole lives around animals and four months of daily fiction blogging about a horsewoman would’ve imparted that much knowledge and confidence?

Sure, there’s no substitute for experience, but if you read and write about something enough, you might find you can walk into a situation that feels familiar, even if it’s slightly foreign.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Snippet: A Discovery in the Woods

At supper, Coyote sensed something was wrong on the other side of the lake, but their unit commander doesn't believe in trusting the vague pronouncements of a half-crazy teenager who derails trains for fun. But Will and Diana believe him. And they're going to find out what's going on.

As soon as Amalia was gone, Will got to his feet and shook Diana awake. She opened her eyes and frowned. "Don't tell me we're on watch already."

"I thought we wanted to go check out that part of the lake. You know, the part Coyote said—"

Diana sat up, suddenly alert. "Right. This is a good time for that, isn't it? Before we go on watch and before anyone else thinks of it." She swung her feet over the edge of the bed and began pulling on her boots. "I wonder what it could be?"

"He said it's not dangerous. But that might just mean it's not a danger to our camp. We'll have to be careful. Be sure and take plenty of ammo, in case it's the sort of thing that's dangerous when we find it."

"Maybe we should get some of the others to go with us."

"No, just us two. We can be quieter that way." He looked at her feet. "Wear your ket'age. We want to be quiet."

Diana nodded, pulled the boots off and slipped her feet into her moccasins. "We'll just scout it out and give a report." She reached for her pistol and a knife. "Then we can get a bigger group and go back if it's important."

But no sooner were they in the woods, following the overgrown track toward the bend in the lake, when they came upon Coyote. They almost didn't see him, dressed all in black and moving stealthily among the bushes. Had he not signaled to them, they might have walked right past.

"What the hell are you doing out here?" Will asked.

"What do you think?"

"I guess we'll all go together, then," Diana whispered, coming up behind them.

"It's probably safer this way."

"Well, if there's going to be three of us,” Coyote said, “We'll need a plan.

"What exactly are we looking for?"

"I'm not sure, but we'll know it when we find it."

"That’s not something we can plan for, is it?"

"Before you came along and messed it up," Coyote said, "My plan was to sneak up on it by moonlight. No flashlights. And once I see what it is, I'll take things from there."

"Not much of a plan," Diana pointed out. "But there's no reason it can't work for three."

"Right. Let's go." Will started back on the trail.

"Wait," Coyote said. "I'm not sure we should use the path."

"Why not?"

Coyote considered, listening and closing his eyes. He sniffed the air, whether for show or because he could actually smell something wasn't clear. "It'll be okay, I guess. It's not dangerous. It's just. . . I don't think you're going to want to be on the trail when we get to it."

Will and Diana looked at each other, confused and more than a little spooked. "I wish you'd just say what it is."

"I'm telling you, I don't know. Honest."

"Well, I'm not afraid of the trail." Diana pushed her way past them and started walking slowly and silently like her Apache friends had taught her. With a shrug, Will followed. But Coyote shook his head and took to the cover of the trees again.

The trail grew darker, the moon almost completely obscured by the thick branches overhead. Diana moved more slowly now, scarcely breathing, taking each cautious step toe to heel, alert to twigs that might snap under her weight and announce her presence. She couldn't hear Coyote in the woods. She couldn't hear Will behind her, either, but she knew he was there, guarding her back. The thought gave her confidence, even as the woods grew blacker and it seemed she was alone with the darkness pressing in all around.

Suddenly her foot touched something soft. She stopped and took a step back. She prodded the thing with her toe and didn't like the feel of it at all. Her heart started pounding and she tried to move around it, only to walk full-on into another one. It was as big as she was, and as she felt its heavy weight swing away from her, she jumped back, stifling a shriek. A pair of arms clasped her from behind and she opened her mouth to scream, but then realized it was only Will. She gasped for air. "Don't—"

The beam of Coyote's flashlight pierced the blackness, nearly blinding them. "Well, will you look at that!"

Diana looked long enough to take in the row of bodies swinging in nooses from the trees. Near her feet was a dead man, still attached to a broken branch. She sucked in her breath and closed her eyes.

"Is this it?" Will asked, looking all around.

Coyote nodded, too pleased at this proof of his skill to be repulsed. "Yeah, this is it." He ran the light up and down each body in turn.

"Turn that light off! What if whoever did this is still here?"

"Oh, they're gone.” Coyote began walking around the bodies, examining them. Some were men, some women, one was only a child. Although it was impossible to tell much about them from their swollen and blackened faces, the color of their hands suggested they were either Indian or Mexican. "I wonder if these are México Lindo people. Or one of the tribal groups."

"We’ll come back in the morning and look for evidence," Will said. "Let's get out of here."

"But maybe they've got money. If it was a racial or political thing, maybe whoever did it was in too big a hurry to—"

Diana opened her eyes, saw Coyote digging in a man's pants pocket and curled back her lip in disgust. "How can you even think about that at a time like this?"

"Hey, they have no use for money, but I do."

"I can't imagine Macy's favors are as good as all that." Diana switched on her flashlight and started up the trail, back the way they had come.

"At least she listens to me! And she ain't no frigid virgin, either!"

Will took a few steps toward him. Coyote had moved on to another body and was tugging at pockets with enthusiasm. "Just what do you mean by that kind of remark?"

"Well, I. . . You know. I try and tell people when I sense things but they never listen."

"We came out here, didn't we? We believe you. I'm talking about what else you said."

"Okay, okay." He shrugged and dug a little deeper in a dead woman's pocket. "Are you saying she ain't a virgin? I'll apologize to her first chance I get. Happy now?" His face lit up. "Look at this! Silver!"

Will turned away. "How nice for you."

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What We Do For Our Writing!

Trying to decide on a route to Marble Falls! Is there a way that won't take me through Austin? And should I go up Thursday night or Friday morning?

I'm leaning toward Friday morning, since it will give me more time to pack and prepare. I'll have to either contend with Thursday evening rush hour in Houston or Friday morning rush hour in Austin, no matter what I do, so unless I want to drive up after dark on Thursday (bad idea with my depth perception issues), I might as well go up when it suits me best. And dashing from the office into rush hour traffic just so I can spend money at an Austin-area hotel doesn't appeal.

Of course, neither does heading out the door at 5AM on Friday, but what can you do?


But it's all for love. I'm going to brush up on the skills my characters have and I'll take lots of pics for the fiction blog. So it's all good, and I'm blessed to be able to do this, no matter how big a hassle it is to get there. The Texas Hill Country is beautiful and I have a feeling I'm going to be really glad I went!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Landscape as a Character

Having recently finished writing about Diana's long journey, it was interesting to come across this post on Bernita’s blog.

The post and comments resonated with me because they reflect my own struggles with Diana’s fictional travels. How much does one tell of the mundane day-to-day matters of travel, or of daily life in general? How do you make a quest real and not just a series of challenges or adventures happening in a vacuum?

For me, the landscape in a journey or quest is a character in its own right and ought to be treated as such. It is by turns friend and foe, and deserves the same attention to detail that one affords the creatures and characters that the protagonist meets along the way.

This isn’t to say that one ought to delve into every dull little detail. Only the most dedicated naturalist really wants a point-by-point description of what dry gramma grass looks like. But a sense of place is what makes the journey feel real. Otherwise, all you have is a cardboard landscape; a cheap Hollywood backdrop for a string of events.

Your land has a personality. It might work for or against your protagonist, but it's a worthy character who will enrich your story if given a chance.

Snippet #3

More from the Bella Diana draft. I seem to be jumping all around, not posting these snippets in any sort of order, relative to the actual WIP. Oh well.

Diana rose early and dressed herself by the dim light of a tallow candle. She brushed out her hair and re-braided it, threading it with a black ribbon. Then she coiled and pinned it at the nape of her neck. She leaned into the mirror and examined her reflection. Even in the candle's warm glow, the stark hairstyle and black dress made her eyes look too big, her skin too pale. She wished Amalia had left her some makeup. But surely Macy would have some. Nothing unnatural—just a touch of color to counter all this black.

She went to the bed and gazed at Will's face. There was something boyish about these unguarded moments that reminded her of those first years together on the reservation, when they were still children. She missed seeing that softness in him. It was still there on the inside, but he almost never let it show any more when he was awake. A wave of affection washed through her and for a moment she forgot the burden of being married and only remembered the intensity of the closeness they had always shared.

She put a hand on his shoulder. "Will. Wake up."

He opened his eyes and squinted at her. "Hey. You sure look grown up and serious."

"Spy mission at the church today. Remember?"

He sat up and ran his fingers through his hair. "Yeah, I remember. I guess I better get dressed."

"I'll be over in Macy and Coyote's room. Meet me there." She kissed him and hurried out the door before he could invent a reason for her to stay.

When she got to her friends’ room, she tapped at the door. Getting no response, she gave it a shove. The lock appeared to be broken, but something was preventing it from swinging inward. She tapped again. "Macy!"

There was a giggle and a squeak of old bed springs, then the sound of something being dragged away. Macy pulled open the door and greeted her with an abashed smile, her hair frazzled and unkempt, her black dress rumpled. "Sorry about that," she said. "We had a chair up against it, since it wouldn't stay closed."

"Couldn't have people wandering in just any old time," Coyote added. He was lying in a tangled mess of blankets on the bed, decently covered from the waist down but Diana suspected he wasn't wearing anything underneath. No wonder Macy looked the way she did.

"I came to see if I could borrow a little makeup. I look like a ghost in all this black."

"I think you look kind of interesting," Coyote said. "Beautiful and mysterious, you know."

"I don't think that's quite the look we're trying for."

Macy shrugged. "With your coloring and bone structure, you can't help it." On seeing Diana frown, she added, "But yeah, you can use my makeup. And maybe you can help me with my hair. It's not doing anything for me this morning."

"That would be my fault," Coyote remarked.

"Maybe you ought to think about getting ready, too," Macy told him.

In the bathroom, Diana combed out Macy's hair, twisted it up and pinned it in place. Then Macy rouged Diana's cheeks and dabbed on a bit of lipstick, powdering it matte so it would look natural. "What a hassle," Diana muttered. "I can't imagine why women used to do this every day."

They were still fussing over each other in front of the bathroom mirror when there was a knock on the door. Grumbling, Coyote wrapped himself in a blanket and went to answer. "Hey, come on in. Welcome to the new Unitas headquarters."

"Did you bring breakfast?" Macy called.

"No, just looking for my wife."

"We're almost ready,” Diana said. “But you might want to see if you can get your friend to hurry up."

Will glanced at Coyote and shrugged. "We guys don't take long. But you two sure look pretty."

"We're supposed to," Macy said. "We hear they take their church seriously in Amargo." She pulled a triangle of lace out of her pocket. "We've even got mantillas, just in case."

"And rosaries," Diana added. "I'm still trying to figure out what to do with mine, but at least I've got all the responses to the mass memorized. My poor Lutheran mother is probably spinning in her grave."

"I don't know why people get so excited over religion," Coyote said, lying back down. "Isn't it all the same God? Is he really that hung up on what words you use to talk to him, and what you're wearing on your head?"

"Apparently so." Macy draped her mantilla over her hair and folded her hands primly. "What do you think? Do I look pious?"

Coyote gave a wicked grin. "Yeah. You sure we got to leave now? All this prim and proper stuff is giving me ideas."

Macy took off the mantilla and swatted him with it, then squealed as he yanked her onto the bed where they tussled like a pair of frisky puppies. And yes, Coyote was indeed naked under the blanket.

Diana looked up at Will, not sure if she should laugh or be embarrassed. "I think maybe we should leave so someone can get dressed."

Macy tossed a blanket across Coyote's hips and scrambled to her feet. "Yeah, we've got to get on the road or we'll be late for mass."

"Can't keep God waiting," Coyote said, launching himself out of bed.

Macy came over to Diana and ducked her head. "Do you mind fixing my hair again?"

"It doesn't look so bad. It's just one piece that fell out." She adjusted a few pins. "There. All better." She took hold of Macy's wrist. "Now let's go, before your crazy boyfriend tries anything else."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

What We Do For Love

Or rather, for love of our writing and our characters.

It seems like this topic comes up on writing forums with some regularity. To what lengths will you go to research your story or characters? At one point I seriously considered spending a couple weeks on a low-tech organic goat farm in a remote area of New Mexico. They offered internships and it would’ve been great hands-on research for my WIP at the time. But I was reluctant to take the necessary vacation days from work, since I still wanted to have a regular vacation with my husband.

No goat farm.

But next weekend I’m doing a three-day workshop sponsored by Texas Parks and Wildlife. I’ll be learning archery, food preservation and horseback riding. (I can already ride a horse, but this course includes tack and basic care.) I’m excited at the opportunity to practice some of the skills that my characters have. I don’t know if it will make my writing any better, because I do a lot of research on the things I don’t know before I ever write about them.

But that's just technical knowledge.

There’s no substitute for experience, for gaining an understanding of how things actually feel.

Maybe some day I’ll do the goat farm thing, after all.