How Not to Write a Novel – Review

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To all aspiring novelists out there—to all writers period—I highly recommend reading How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. Between them, these two authors have lots of experience with writing, editing, teaching, and reviewing. They’ve seen a lot of good and bad writing come and go.

Rather than try to explain what makes good writing good, as most writing how-to books do, this book explains instead what makes bad writing bad. Going through the major points of plot, character, and style, it gives detailed examples demonstrating the various traps most new writers fall into, send their precious manuscripts to the trash can—sorry, recycle bin.

Some of the tips you will have seen before, though probably worded somewhat differently, if you’ve ever read anything on writing. And yet, you probably still make these mistakes from time to time, and another reminder wouldn’t hurt. For example: “Fuck You!” He Said Profanely: Where the author uses adverbs to no purpose.

Others will be new, at least they were to me, like: The Joan Rivers Pre-Novel Special: Where clothing is given too much prominence.

Though written with the novel in mind, the majority of these blunders are not unique to novel writing. The examples are often woefully exaggerated for humour’s sake, but also clearly make their point. As essential as examples of the ‘right thing’ are, examples of the ‘wrong thing’ are valuable too. It’s a lot easier to find mistakes in your writing when you know what the mistakes look like.

Also, the book was simply fun to read. Not a hint of textbookiness to be found. I will warn you, however, unless you are most impeccable writer in existence (in which case, what are you doing on my blog?) it will at times be painful when you see hints of your own writing peeking out from the what‑not‑to-do pile.

Though I’d like to think none of my writing is quite as bad as the comical passages in this book depict, there was lots of ‘yeah, ok, I might do that sometimes.’, and ‘Crap, I’ve definitely done that.’, going through my mind as I came across the traps most applicable to me. I’d list them all, but there are too many (feel free to read any of my writing and I’m sure you’ll find a few on your own).

Here and there, I got to think ‘Phew, I know I’ve never done that.’ Usually when the error described in no way applied to the kind of writing I do, like: Gibberish for Art’s Sake: Wherein indecipherable lyricism baffles the reader. I have been accused of confusing my readers in the past (Dosterra Chapter one), but certainly not with lyricism.

How Not to Write a Novel also includes: The Crepitating Parasol; The Whatchamcallit; and “Yo, Charlemagne, how dost thy big war?”, to name a few more intriguing subtitles that make it impossible not to wonder, ‘What’s that about?’ If you’d like to know, pay a visit to Amazon, or your local Chapters.

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Too much information…or too little?

Perhaps this issue is less relevant in the science fiction realms, where I spend most of my time, than other genres, but it’s still something that requires consideration. The question of accuracy in the details when writing. When to do research, and when to make it up. Or, leave it out all together.

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being irked when reading a book or watching a TV show that gets the facts or details wrong…or just makes you shutter thinking, Come on, seriously? For me there is one in particular that comes up over and over again in just about any show or book that depicts anyone in uniform. Military, cops, fictional freedom-fighting force from another planet, it doesn’t seem to matter.

This major pet peeve of mine is a fictional senior officer of any kind emphasizing their command by saying…you’ve all heard it…”That’s an order!” or worse “That’s an order, soldier!”

Blech!

Every time I hear those words I cringe. It’s like someone scraping the bottom of a dinner plate repeatedly with their steak knife seemingly unaware that they have already successfully sliced the meat. Perhaps it’s because my military experience is Canadian (and Navy/Air Force at that), but never, in four years at military college or in five years of service afterward, do I ever recall hearing anyone say those words (and I was called a lot of things but never soldier)–except maybe in jest. If I did hear such I thing, I would fear the individual who spoke was at high risk of finding shaving cream in their shoes.

That said, it would appear from most of what I’ve read (and watched on television) that most writers are ok with filling the gaps in their knowledge with believable-ish jargon from their imaginations, or copied clichés that they know the majority of us have been brainwashed to accept as whatever they are trying to represent–like a take-no-bullshit officer let’s say. And does it really matter? Obviously I continue to watch these shows and read these books despite the momentary break in the illusion.

As Stephen King says: I want a little bit, but not the whole thing. Don’t confuse me with the facts. I want to know just enough so that I can lie colorfully. Actually, it was one of his characters who said it and I think the character was quoting someone else, but the character was a writer (I’ve noticed a lot of writers like to write protagonists who are also writers. Write what ya know and all that, I suppose). Anyway, this passage brings to the forefront that magic balance between leaving the reader dizzyingly confused and making them grind their teeth with irritation at the writer’s ignorance.

I am still struggling with this one. Though I’m sure I have been, and will be in the future, guilty of the latter, I tend more toward the former–so I’m told–especially when the topic I’m writing about is of particular interest to me. If I’m interested the reader will be too, right? Not necessarily. Take the early chapters of Dosterra for example where I try to combine my understanding of quantum physics with the possibilities my imagination leaps to based on that knowledge, mostly to the confusion of everyone but my husband who loves the geekiest of hard science fiction more than most.

Part of the problem, of course, is that when it comes to these topics ‘I know just enough to be dangerous’, as they say. I do have a fairly strong science background, but when it comes to quantum physics and cosmology (good Sci Fi material) I am mostly self taught. I think I understand what I read as well as the next person, but I don’t always pass the Richard Feynamn litmus test: Could I explain it to a guy standing at the bus stop? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you have a firm grasp on the concept, if the answer is ‘no’…well…maybe keep your thoughts to yourself, or do some more research.

Even when I do pass this test, how much does the reader really care? Usually not as much as they care about the experiences of the characters themselves. The other stuff is mainly there to make the experience feel real. Beyond that the details can get in the way, or simply bore the reader. The danger is, however, if you gloss over the details too much then the reader feels cheated or patronized, and that’s no good either. Confused yet?

My latest food for thought for other aspiring writers out there.

 

More Ezine Reviews – A Lesson in Patience Part Two

As promised, here are some pros and cons for three more ezines where I have submitted work. Hope some of this info is helpful to other aspiring writers out there (first three reviews here):

Every Day Fiction:

This was the first site I submitted a short story to. And yes I just ended a sentence in a preposition. It’s allow these days. EDF publishes a new flash fiction piece every day with a 1000 word limit, which can be good or bad depending on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I personally found keeping my story under 1000 words to be a challenge, which was actually part of my motivation for submitting to this site. Any genre goes as long as it is fiction — non-sci-fi writers take note. See their submission guidelines for more detail.

The biggest draw back I found with these guys was the turnaround time. They were averaging an 80 day response time when I submitted about a month before Christmas. I managed to get around this by responding to their special submission request for holiday-themed stories, but it certainly came down to the wire when they requested some last-minute edits. On the up side, they have an author admin page (that they actually keep updated) so authors can see that their submission is moving through the selection process.

This brings me to the biggest pro of this site. They actually give fairly detailed feedback (perhaps why the turnaround is so slow??) which I think is awesome and very helpful to new writers. I did however find myself drawing a line in the sand when they wanted be to water down my ending from the implication of sex (not even an actual sex scene) to ‘perhaps a simple kiss’.

I wasn’t trying to be stubborn or ‘protect the integrity of my art’, but looking at it as a business transaction, I felt that less remuneration equaled less input. They only pay a token $3; this is a get-your-work-out-there option. So, I agreed to some grammatical and minor stylistic changes — and appreciated/learn from some of the points they made — but refused to change the ending. I figured if they then decided not to publish my story I could live with that. They accepted the story anyway.

Conclusion: a great option for newbies and I’m glad I gave them a go, but I doubt I’ll be back.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine

These guys recently rejected one of my stories, but I recommend giving them a try. The pay is higher than token, 1.25 cents per word up to $20, and their response time is good, a couple of weeks. They have excellent — and humourous — submission guidelines, including an awesome article on common writer’s mistakes, A Comprehensive and Totally Universal Listing of Every Problem a Story Has Ever Had, which I strongly recommend it to any writer of any genre.

These guys are on the to-try-again-list.

365 tomorrows:

My most recent acceptance, A Swirl of Chocolate, will be published on this site. They don’t pay, but since they are only looking for flash of 600 words or less I decided they were worth a try, and could at least offer some visibility. The submission guidelines don’t tell much, but from reading some of the stories published on the site, they are fairly flexible aside from the word limit.

Their response time is slow, and communication is lacking. Unlike every other acceptance I’ve had, which included a back and forth regarding publishing dates, copyrights etc, these guys sent me my acceptance notice via a no-reply email — weird. I’ve resorted to communicating with them through twitter.

Since this one is still in the works, I can’t say whether I’ll submit to them again. The communication thing is annoying, but on the other hand they are a good option for extra-short flash fiction that may not find a home elsewhere.

That’s all for now. As I test the publishing waters in other places I’ll share my thoughts.

Online Publishing – A Lesson in Patience: Part One

I’m very happy to say that I have now had the privilege of having my work accepted by a few different online-fiction sites. I’ve received a few rejections too, but whatchya gonna do. Overall, if there is one thing I am learning from the process it is patience.

Some e-zines will get back to you in a matter of days. Though I’m finding these sites are few and far between…and a quick response is that much more likely to be a rejection. Often it’s “If you don’t hear from us in a month or two, then you can send us a query.” And even after a query it may take a while to hear back.

For the most part, I’m ok with the waiting. At this juncture, I’m just looking to get my work out there for people to see. I understand that there are only so many slush readers with only so many hours in the day. I even find that knowing I won’t be hearing anything for a while sometimes makes it easier to say to myself ok, forget about that for now and focus on the next project.

A slow turnaround, however, can certainly be the last nail in the coffin if there is something else about the site that I have a problem with. Although I am grateful for all the acceptances I’ve had so far, there are some cases where I know it’s unlikely I’ll be submitting to a site again even if they have accepted my work in the past. In other cases however, the experience has otherwise been so positive that a bit of a wait is worth it, and I may try again even if I’ve been rejected–after my ego recovers, that is 😉

For any short-fiction writers out there who might be interested, I decided it was time to share what some of the pros and cons have been for different sites I have dealt with so far. Note that I only have my own experiences to draw on; maybe your experience has been, or would be, completely different. Also, submission guidelines, pay, etc are always subject to change with time.

I have six sites I want to mention. I’ve decided to break this up into two posts so that I can give you more than a couple of bullet points on each one without writing a novel for a single post:

Mad Scientists Journal:

The recent publishers of Mabel’s Mission, these guys were a pleasure to work with. They are quick to reply to questions — and very enthusiastic — are very clear about what they want for submissions, and are professional but not overly formal. Their response time is good, a couple of weeks. The real wait comes between acceptance and publication, about three months in my case, but that is not unusual. Editors are often planning publications some time in advance.

They pay $20 for short stories and $10 for flash fiction which isn’t huge, but some sites like these, which give away free fiction online, don’t pay at all. Also, MSJ does consider the payment to be an advance on royalties–if there are any. They are fairly new and not yet generating that kind of income, so I wouldn’t factor that in too heavily.

The only potential downside — and it could be a strength depending on the kind of writing you do (I happen to love it) — is that the theme of the magazine is quite specific, essays from the world of mad science. They do, however, accept some exclusive fiction of other genres for their quarterly anthologies. So, if sci fi and mad science don’t sound like your thing they still might be worth a look. Check out their submission guidelines. They use Submittable, a submission manager that allows authors to see/track their submissions’ progress.

I will definitely consider submitting to MSJ again in the future. I also enjoy just reading the stories they publish. The writing quality has been good and consistent in what I’ve read so far and the mad science theme brings out the mildly-twisted side of writers. Personally, I find that entertaining.

Scifia:

When I first found this site I thought it looked great and their subtitle Alien Minds, Alternate Worlds is right up my alley. They pay a flat rate of $25 dollars per story, ok, and claim to have a response time of four weeks, not bad. They also lay out quite clearly what they are looking for — see their submission guidelines.

Well, claim is the operative word. Two months after I sent in my submission, crickets. Maybe not so great after all. At the very least, not very professional. I follow them on twitter and did see a tweet mentioning a backlog, so I plan on sending a query and giving them some patience rather than withdrawing my story. Who knows, if they accept my story and are pleasant throughout the contract/publishing process, maybe they will win me over. However, the fact that they are not keeping their website up to date regarding their backlog/response time irks me. As I said, I don’t mind waiting, but I like to know (ballpark) how long I’m going to wait. They also use Submittable, but don’t seem too worried about keeping that updated either.

Daily Science Fiction:

Ok, I’ve sent one story into DSF and they rejected it. But, putting that aside, they deserve a mention. This site publishes a new story every weekday. Though the content is available for free, they pay professional rates — 8 cents a word. I’m sure the definition is variable, but professional is generally considered 5 cents and up.

Their submission guidelines are not as clear as some other sites, but that seems to be because, genre-wise, they are more flexible. From reading a number of their published stories it’s clear that they are pretty much open to anything under the speculative umbrella: sci-fi, fantasy, slipstream, supernatural, or just a little weird — I read one where there just happened to be a friendly poltergeist in a guy’s apartment. Otherwise, there was nothing really sci fi about the plot. If you’re not sure whether your story fits the genre, I recommend giving it a go anyway. There’s nothing to lose. They don’t have the same mechanism for authors to track their submissions, but they confirm receipt promptly via email and respond within three weeks.

DSF is on my to-try-again list.

That’s enough for now. Part 2 to come.

 

Accepted by 365 tomorrows

Yesterday was a pretty good day for me as a wannabe author. Aside from Dosterra, my learn-to-write-a-novel project, I also continue to write short stories. Having somewhere else to put my focus when I’m not sure what to write next for Dosterra helps to keep my creative juices flowing and prevent me from feeling too daunted by a project that is many months from completion.

Yesterday, about 3 1/2 months after its initial acceptance, I got the pleasure of seeing Mabel’s Mission appear on Mad Scientist Journal. Working with MSJ has been great, probably my most positive experience in publishing so far–even though they rejected one of the three works I sent them. I guess two outta three ain’t bad 😉

I also received another acceptance, this one from the flash-fiction site 365 tomorrows. This site posts a new flash fiction story on their site every day, and they will be publishing my flash piece A Swirl of Chocolate at some point in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, date TBD. Communication with 365 tomorrows hasn’t been quite as smooth as MSJ, but another acceptance always makes me smile.

In my next post I plan on sharing some of the ups and downs of online publishing that I’ve encountered so far, which will hopefully be of value to those of you taking part in the process. For today though, I’m just going to enjoy the validation of having another story chosen for publication.

Feedback in Many Forms

So, those of you who have been following are aware that recently I solicited a few reviews for what has been published, thus far, of my novel, Dosterra. The upside of these reviews is that they have given me a feel for how my writing style comes across to the reader. The downside is that, by their nature, they don’t have much detail and can’t give me much guidance on how to fix the issues that exist. And rightfully so, as this kind of review is usually done after publication when it’s too late anyway.

However, publishing on JukePop Serials has some advantages. One of which is that the publishing rights to my story do not permanently belong to JukePop.  This means, once I finish Dosterra — and the requisite time has passed — I can publish elsewhere. Also, if I so choose, I can go back first and fix/edit as much as I want.

For someone like me, who began this project with less than half a clue, this is awesome. It also means that I should get as much (detailed) feedback as possible, as I go along. Even on the chapters that are already out there for the world to see (and that, for now at least, I can’t change).

On this note, I have previously mentioned my friend from The Write Life, with whom I get together once a week or so for what began as writing days, but became something more like creative days. Today was one of those days, and my friend gave me some detailed notes on the first few chapters of Dosterra, and how they could be improved.

Anyone who has been reading, or saw the reviews, knows that chapters 1-3 need the most work. So, getting this feedback was amazing (as scary as it is for both parties when one friend critiques the work of another). Aspiring writers out there (especially those of you not yet ready/able/willing to pay a professional editor), if you have access to someone who you can trust to be honest about your writing, use them. It can only help.

As for if/when I will begin changing Dosterra, well, I plan on finishing it first, getting more feedback, and hopefully improving with each new chapter.

Dosterra Chapter Seven Published

…[Iden] slowly slid his hand into the front pouch of his backpack for his gun. They’d find him in about six seconds once they decided to look…

Find out what happens next to Iden, Tem, and Lexie in chapter seven of Dosterra, available now on JukePop Serials. Have a read, spread the word, and let me know what you think.

I would also like to draw the attention of serial fiction fans to Serial Scribes Daily, an online paper that brings the latest news in online serial fiction, drawn to my attention when they were kind enough to mention Dosterra on their site.