Touring the Historical Fiction World

Dear Reader,

I hope your holiday season is going well! Those of you who entered the giveaway from last week, you should have received an email with the discount codes. Have you had a chance to listen to my half hour interview on Page Readers? It was a blast, and I’m so glad Nanci had me on the show.

This week, I want to talk about Charlie Courtland’s great idea to take a tour of the subgenres that are popping into historical fiction. The goal of the “tour” is to read six subgenres of historical fiction. Charlie has suggested…

  • Historical Mystery
  • Historical Horror
  • Historical Romance
  • Historical Young Adult
  • Historical Plantation
  • Historical Thriller
  • Historical GLBT
  • Historical Fantasy
  • Historical Western
  • Historical Paranormal
  • Historical True Crime

Given that I am part of the group of authors who are playing with the historical fiction norms, I love this idea. I’ve written in the historical romance and historical gothic-thriller genres. I have no idea what my next genre is going to be, except that it will be historical. This will be a lot of fun!

So with the above genres in mind, what books do you think I should read? I think I’m going to start with Maids of Misfortune. I want to read books by authors I’ve never read before and in genres I’m not familiar with, which means I can’t read Lauren Willig (romance), Philippa Gregory (romance), Amanda Quick (paranormal), Deanna Raybourn (mystery/plantation), Mary Jo Putney (fantasy).

What’s Next?

I’m not happy with the sales for Catching the Rose, so I’m having an editor look at it to see where I can improve the story. I wrote it over seven years ago, meaning I don’t know what to do with it without outside help. I’m looking forward to the results from the editor, especially because the editor, Wulfshado, needs help with finances. This is a good way for both of us to get what we need.

I’m hoping to get the new content out for Catching the Rose in the next couple of months. I’m also working on the short story anthology Love or Lack Thereof; my awesome editor Cindy Sherwood has agreed to help me with that so I can get it out in time for Valentine’s Day.

I’m looking forward to hearing reviews from the giveaway. They are two very different writing styles, but I hope people enjoy them.

Best,

Belinda

Details, Details, Details

Hi all, sorry for missing last week. It was a rough week all around; this semester, graduate school is kicking my patookie. In fact, I’ll probably have to go on a hiatus for a while.

In class, we’ve been talking about details: relevant vs irrelevant, and how they can alter the power of your story. I tend to rely on details. I over-write during my first draft and then filter out what isn’t needed in later drafts. As long as the details are important both to the character and the plot, they stay in… otherwise, it just has to “feel right.” There’s no other way for me to explain it.

Other students in my class feel it’s a bit arbitrary, how they decide whether ideas are relevant or not. How do you determine that your details are relevant?

A Tap on the Wing

“A book is like a man – clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.”
– John Steinbeck

There comes a time when you realize that there will be weak points in your work, and there isn’t much you can do about it on your own. What do you do when this happens? Some writers turn to trusted friends, family members, former English teachers. Some writers turn to other writers to act as beta readers. Some writers join local writing groups.

As a graduate student, I have the rare opportunity to work with a published author this semester for graduate credit. I’m incredibly lucky, excited, and terrified about this opportunity to take an “advanced creative fiction” course.

And there’s a catch: I’m not allowed to write historical or romantic fiction. I’m also not allowed to work on a novel-length work, which was kind of my plan… to work on the sequel of Trentwood’s Orphan, Trentwood’s Heir. I can have a romantic theme, perhaps, but I’m expected to write literary short fiction.

So for the next couple of months, I’ll be writing about my experiences. Any advice that I learn from my professor, I’ll send it on to you. I will suggest that you all go and buy Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. It’s as good as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, though it does take a little dig at genre writing now and then.

So I modify my suggestion. If you’re open to learning about writing creative fiction, and enduring a dig now and then at genre fiction, pick up this book. You won’t regret it.

Surface Edits

I’m plugging away at the final surface edits for Trentwood’s Orphan during my winter break from graduate school. It’s fast-going, and I’m surprisingly pleased with how the story is coming together. There are, of course, some chapters that got a little jumbled, but I assume that’s because not only was I retyping the entire book after hand-editing it, but I was converting from present-to-past tense at the same time. As such, some of my tenses got a little weird.

But other than that, I’m kind of excited. One of my friends pressured me into letting him read it, despite the fact that I’m not done with the surface edits, so he’s getting it in pieces.

Shocking though it is, not only does he like it so far, he converted the first chapter into a podcast. And it sounds super professional! If I self-publish, it will definitely go on the website as a sample of the book.

Which reveals my next thought: I’m wondering whether I’d like to self-publish this book, as I did my first, or if I’d like to try to go through a small publisher, like Five Star Publishing. I read one of their books in my genre and I know I could have written it, so there’s always that.

Anyway, things are coming along nicely. I hope to have these surface edits done by January 10 so I can send out the manuscript to those of you who offered to read it. As I mentioned before, I wouldn’t expect it back until May, so you have plenty of time to read and make comments.

Tell me, how are your projects going?

How to be a Computer-based Beta Reader

Please excuse another post off the Tuesday/Thursday schedule.

From August 22 to August 31, I’ll be without ready access to the internet and I need guest bloggers! If you would like to be a guest, contact me by Thursday, August 21, with your guest post. Guidelines here. If I don’t use your post that week, don’t worry. I’ll definitely use it later and will notify you the week I use it.

Now that we’re all connected using Crit Partner Match (if you haven’t joined, you should!), it occurred to me that many of us are computer-based beta readers, which can be a monumental task. So today’s tidbit will provide useful tricks in Microsoft Word 2003 to help you become a more efficient and productive beta reader. If you use a different program, comment with your reviewing hints to help your compatriots.

First: What is a beta reader?

I’ll admit to not knowing what this term meant even a year ago. A beta reader is the new term for a critique partner, it seems to me, and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. Wikipedia states that a beta reader is a reader who looks over a written work with a “critical eye with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.”

Some beta readers do more than others. Some refuse to edit your grammar, because that’s basic stuff. Others will get so nitpicky you’ll want to tear your hair out. So make sure to discuss your writing and editing styles with whomever you pair up with (and this can be a one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many relationship).

In comparison, the alpha reader is the writer or author of the written work.

Now onto the editing.

Microsoft Word 2003 is the software I’ll talk about today because it’s the one I have the most expertise in. For the record, Word 2007 has the same features, but the buttons to use them are in different locations (the ribbon).

Track Changes: Deletion

Sometimes when you’re reading through the work, you have to delete a sentence or paragraph. But how do you do this so the alpha reader knows the change you made? There’s this awesome module called Track Changes that will note every change you’ve made to the document by adding a sidenote that you can hide or show at will. See an example screenshot. To use Track Changes, do the following:

  1. Click View » Toolbars » Reviewing in the menu bar. This will give you a new toolbar that gives you the option to make comments, track changes, and highlight.
  2. Click the little icon that looks like a piece of lined paper with a tiny sun in the top left corner and a pencil in the bottom right on top of it. If you hover your mouse a little tooltip should appear saying “Track changes.” This is what you want.
  3. Now, any change you make to the document will be recorded.
  4. If you don’t want to see the tracked changes, you can click the Show button which allows you to select what is visible and what is hidden.
  5. If you hit Track Changes again, it will stop recording all your actions after you hit the icon. It does not get rid of the changes you made previous to hitting the icon, however, so don’t freak out.

Track Changes: Rewording, Reorganizing, Adding text

Follow the same steps as the Track Changes: Deletion section. Tracking the changes will also note any additions you make, and I think will also note if you move something. Maybe. If it doesn’t, then you always have the option to comment.

Commenting on the Work

This is my new favorite toy in Word 2003/2007. Using the same Reviewing toolbar, you can comment whatever text you’ve selected with your mouse. It adds a rounded rectangular bubble to the right of the page with a line to the text that you selected for the comment. See an example screenshot. To comment, do the following:

  1. Click View » Toolbars » Reviewing in the menu bar. This will give you a new toolbar that gives you the option to make comments, track changes, and highlight.
  2. Click the little icon that looks like a yellow/tan-colored Post-it note with a tiny sun in the top left corner. If you hover your mouse over the icon, a little tooltip should appear saying “Insert Comment.” This is what you want.
  3. Now, a bubble should appear to the right of your text, with a blinking cursor.
  4. Type your thought.
  5. When you’re done, click outside of the bubble. Now, if you hover over the text you selected to comment, you should see the bubble highlight itself. You might also see the text from your comment hovering above the text…it depends on how you do it.

The really neat thing about this is that if someone else opens the same document with your comments on their computer, and they start to add comments, Word will tell there is a difference. To account for this difference, the colors of the comment bubbles will change depending on the computer/owner of the Word program.

You can also navigate through the document based on previous/next comment. Pretty cool, huh?

Networking for Writers: Crit Partner Match

Hi all, I know I’m disrupting my posting schedule, but this is too cool to pass up. Zoe Winters, our guest blogger today, clued me in on a new networking opportunity that is both fun and useful, too. It’s called Crit Partner Match, and the premise is that it’s like eHarmony.com or Match.com… but for writers looking for a critique partner. I’ve already set up a profile and wrote my introduction in the Historical forum.

So join us at http://critpartnermatch.ning.com/. I hope to see you there, no matter your genre!

And make sure to read Zoe’s wonderful post on changing your mindset so you can acually accomplish your goals.

What Happens to an Author When She Finishes Editing?

Last week, I finished the paper edits of First Draft B. Cue the fanfare, tears of happiness, and confetti. Now it’s time to pull off the gloves and re-type the entire thing with the new edits to see what we’ve got. And so begins the Second Draft.

Now, there are multiple things an author feels once she or he gets past another stage in the writing process…

  • Fear that what you wrote stinks beyond belief.
  • Elation that you finished it, you really finished it.
  • Depressed that at some point, you’re going to have to let someone else read it and tell you exactly what they think about it.
  • Proud that, upon reading over it, you like more than you hate.

I know some of you are reading this now because of my editing workshop, and I bet you’re wondering if I followed my own advice.

Yes, I did print it out, put it in a binder, and not look at it for a month.

The month I finished First Draft B, I graduated from my engineering program, moved back home for a summer internship between undergrad and graduate school, and visited with family for two weeks. So I didn’t have time to edit.

Lack of time didn’t stop me from lugging the binder everywhere in the desperate hope I’d sneak an edit in, though.

I was brutal with edits.

As soon as I had to read something twice, I either cut it out or re-wrote it. I cut an entire chapter because it dragged the plot and made Mary look whiny, which she isn’t. I re-wrote at least three chapters because they head-hopped, were disjointed, and didn’t make sense.

My biggest writing vice is that I tell too much.

This is a problem because I write historical fiction, and I know more information than will show up in the final product. I had paragraphs that sounded like I was channeling a history professor. Yikes.

To combat this, I read a number of books set in the same time period to see how other authors handled the problem.

I then went through a quick bout of depression because I felt like I couldn’t do it as well as the other authors. Turns out I needed more sleep, because once I got a good nine hours, I was ready to edit again.

I wrote First Draft B, a whopping 99,899 words, in present tense.

Yes, Trentwood’s Orphan is historical fiction. Yes, I know “history” implies “past.” No, I was not dropped on my head as a child.

I wrote in present tense because I couldn’t get into Mary’s head. She’s the opposite of my last heroine, Veronica, who was impetuous, a bit ditzy, funny, and determined to get her way. Mary, on the other hand, is quiet, cautious, analyzes everything, and does her accounting when she’s stressed. I’m more like Mary than Veronica, so Mary should have been easy to write. She was surprisingly harder. By writing in present tense, I felt the immediacy and was able to gauge Mary’s reactions much better.

I also wrote in present tense because it cleaned my writing. There is no “had had” syndrome in present tense. The action either happened, is happening, or will happen. But now that the experimentation phase is complete, I need to re-write the entire thing in past tense.

(Need help discovering passive writing? The Writer’s Technology Companion wrote a tutorial to highlight passive writing in Microsoft Word 2003.)

What are some of your writing rituals? Do you have a trick that you use to improve your writing? Are you finally convinced I’m insane? Let us know in the comments!

Focus on those Nitty Gritty Details

I hope you’re following Dory’s advice and staying persistent… just keep swimming (writing)!

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed yet, but editing really is my favorite part of the creative writing process. I know I might be alone in this, and that’s ok. My goal this week was to help you see that editing is not as hard as it seems… it just takes patience, persistence, and motivation. Today I want to leave you with some ideas to help you edit on a very detailed level. Beware, those faint of heart and annoyed by long posts, as this just might be my longest ever.

Timeline

Set up a timeline for editing your book. Do you want to finish editing a chapter a day? Whatever it is, make a pact with yourself to go through your draft once only. Be determined to catch every mistake the first time through. This will keep you focused and efficient.

Give yourself a break if life gets in the way of your editing timeline, too. There is nothing worse than feeling guilty about not working, and worse yet, the more upset you are with yourself about not working, the more your guilt will build. To the point that you won’t want to edit. Always, always, always avoid feeling like you don’t want to touch your work.

Editing the Beginning

This is by far the hardest and most frustrating part of the book to edit, it seems. Therefore, I’m going to apply this week’s editing tips to the introduction of my first book. That way you can see an example of how I’m thinking, and hopefully find similarities in your own work to know how to edit.

I started my first book, Catching the Rose, with narrative description because I read classics when younger and that’s what I was used to. It never occurred to me that reader preferences would change in 100+ years.

Silly me. Today’s readers expect to begin with action, whether by/to the main character or by/to a character who will affect the main character later. So let’s see an example of what my first paragraphs were, and what they would be if I were writing the book now.

Continue reading

Tell Me, Don’t Show Me


Here is a conversation I hope I never see in your work, ever.

“Hi Belinda.”

“Hey Marcie. What’s up?”

“Nothing much.” Marcie sighs into the phone. “Making dinner. Hubby’s coming home soon and he gets grumpy if I don’t have it ready.”

“Oh man,” Belinda murmurs. “What’re you making? Spaghetti? Gotta love spaghetti.”

Snore, snore, snore, right? How many of you have heard a conversation like this while walking around a store? A conversation about nothing that annoys everyone else who has to hear it? Don’t force it on your readers or they’ll throw your book against the wall.

As important as showing is, telling is equally important when used at the right time

Let’s define some terms, first. Exposition is when the author stops to describe something to us, say, a house. We need to know what this house looks like because the main character is about to sneak inside, but it doesn’t forward the plot at all. Narration is when the description forwards the plot along, often by describing emotions or thoughts, or when transitioning from one scene/location to another.

As you can see, there isn’t a big difference here, so I’m going to collapse both terms into simple ‘narrative.’

Now, narrative is imperative for prose fiction: it’s what defines prose from poetry (among other things, of course). But how do we know when to show and when to tell?

Use narration to set the scene.

Do this quickly. You don’t want to disrupt your reader too long, which is what you’re doing whenever you rely on narration. This is the most traditional way to use narration, because it works. A simple paragraph describing the scene does more than a page of dialogue talking about the trees, the sky, the buildings, and the characters’ moods. Let’s see an example:

It was night, not that Belinda could tell the difference with the blindfold on. Her hands pulsed with a dull ache thanks to the rough rope knotted around her wrists. She had lost feeling in her legs hours ago. Her cheeks were sticky with tears, and the old sock in her mouth choked her.

There it is again. Heavy footfalls shuffling up the wooden staircase toward her.

This narration tells us everything we need to know. What time of day it is, that Belinda is panicked, tied up, has no idea where she is, and dreads the sound of heavy footsteps coming toward her.

Use narration when you need to cover a block of time or a boring conversation.

We don’t need to know every detail, just tell us the information we need to know to keep up. This includes generic introductions between characters, or when a couple of days go by in your plot timeline that don’t have any real action or events to maintain interest. Never do extended flashback scenes if you can help it. Going back to my opening example:

A week went by before Belinda called Marcie. The phone rang four times before Marcie picked up, and there was a definite hesitation in her voice. Belinda ground her teeth as they wasted time talking about how Marcie was making dinner for her husband. Forget your husband, Belinda wanted to scream, and get out while you still can.

I could have written this narration two ways: Marcie upset about her husband’s demands, or the way I wrote it with Belinda not understanding how her friend can stand her husband’s demands. Or a third way, with the husband coming home and wanting to know why Marcie’s gabbing on the phone instead of making dinner.

Use narration when you’re switching locations, moods, characters…

This is the smoothest way of letting your reader know that something is shifting. For example, you can end a chapter with your character saying, “I bet Frank’s sneaking his way into the girl’s locker room again.” And then start the next chapter with a teacher dragging Frank by his ear out of the girl’s locker room. You gave a hint about where Frank will be the next time we read about him, and not only is he there, he’s making us laugh that he got caught. Silly Frank.

Use narration when you’re giving your reader information that your characters don’t have.

This is used all the time in romance, as well as political thrillers, mysteries, suspense… We as readers know that when the bad guy promises not to do it again that he’s lying, but the hero believes him for some reason. We know that when the romantic hero says he doesn’t care about the heroine that he does, it’s just that he probably doesn’t realize it yet. Foreshadowing is a great example of this as well.

The Point

The only time you shouldn’t use narration is when it is better to use action and dialogue. The only time you shouldn’t use action and dialogue is when it is better to use narration. Sounds like a vicious cycle, doesn’t it? Here are things to keep in mind when deciding to show or tell:

  1. Always and only tell your reader what they need to know for the plot and characters to make sense.
  2. Don’t distract the reader with your writing mechanics. Too much narration, description, or dialogue will throw your reader off, so try to maintain a healthy balance.
  3. Don’t summarize important conversations, only the ones that don’t cover anything new.
  4. Always reveal something new. Never rehash what you told your reader earlier, they’ve seen it already.
  5. Don’t let the narrative run away from you. If it goes longer than a paragraph or two, take a step back. Does your reader really need all that information? Or can you see them thinking, “Come on, already!”

Comment with your thoughts on ‘telling’ to enter the free Worderella critique contest. Do you have trouble integrating narration into your action without slowing the plot too much? Does telling come easy to you, but showing is hard? Or vice versa?

Books to Buy: Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (free online version)

Links to reference: Why nouns and verbs are your friends, Active vs passive verbs, Using modifiers objectively

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

“Don’t talk of stars, burning above! If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire, if you’re on fire, show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night.
Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight!”
Show Me from My Fair Lady

Think of your book as a court case. Would you, as the jury, believe the prosecutor if he screamed, “The defendant is guilty!!! …And I rest my case.”

No. You want proof so you believe beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

Apply the same idea to your writing. What proof do you have to convince your reader that your character is bored, that her hero is unhappy, that his antagonist is delighted? Let’s look at an example.

Belinda was bored. She had a lot to do and her friends, while hilarious, had no idea what sort of deadlines she faced. Three C++ programs and an analysis of Moby Dick to write? She had to figure out how to make her excuses and get out of there, quick.

What’s the problem? I’m telling you she’s bored and has a lot to do, but I don’t tell you how she’s reacting to these facts. Let’s try again.

Belinda twisted her ring around her finger. A paper and three programming assignments. She crossed her legs. Maybe she could write the Moby Dick analysis first? She uncrossed her legs. No, Moby Dick would take much longer, better do the programs first. Belinda glanced once at her cell phone, pressing the side button to illuminate the little screen and see the time. Class in twenty minutes. She stood to stretch, and no one said anything, knowing her history with back pain. She pushed her chair back to its desk and straightened the other empty chairs around her, inching for the door.

What is different? I rely on shorter sentences to portray an anxious mood. There are descriptive verbs: twisting, crossing, uncrossing, glancing, stretching, pushing, inching. Can you see someone doing this? Too polite to say they want to leave, but showing you they want to, anyway?

The Point: Use small details to reveal the bigger picture without flat out explaining the bigger picture.

Movies and songs do this because they don’t have the luxury of 80,000 words to explain everything. Love songs describe missed phone calls, the smell of an old shirt, the empty half of a bed. Small details showing us the singer is alone and heartbroken, which is more powerful than the singer repeating, “Oh, I’m heartbroken, can’t you see I’m heartbroken?”

Treat each scene in your book as if it were a scene in a movie. What details would the camera show the audience?

Showing Through Body Language

Watch your co-workers, family, friends and enemies, the strangers on the street. Can you tell what is going on without hearing the conversation? Are they standing upright? Are their shoulders hunched? Are they looking away as they speak? Are they sweating?

Showing Through the Environment

Sure, maybe it was a “dark and stormy night,” but we’ve all heard that before. What about your five senses help you realize that it is storming, and that you wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle of it? Are the gnats gathering into furious swarms? Is the heat pressing against your skin, making you feel like you can’t breathe? Are the trees swaying? Can you smell the heavy dampness?

Showing Through Architecture

What about the buildings that your characters live in? Are they worn down, a sad testiment to what once was? By the way, don’t ever say “the house was worn down, a sad testiment to what once was.” That’s telling.

Show me the house is worn down by describing spider webs in the windows, so thick they prevent the full sunlight from shining into the room. Show me how the roof is badly patched with pieces of rotting bark collected from the nearby forest. Details, details, details.

Comment on the Show Don’t Tell mantra to enter in the Worderella free critique contest. Do you think it works? Are you tired of hearing it? If this is the first time you’ve heard about it, does it confuse you?

Books to Buy: Eight Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, How to Write a Damn Good Novel

Links to reference: Showing Through Dialogue, How to Avoid Too Much Backstory

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!