Jan 13

Getting readers hooked (and stringing them along)

City of Bones by Cassandra ClareTrying to unstick myself while drafting my current work-in-progress, I was drawing a timeline of my story (an adaptation of the idea in this post). My main plot is a question that’s (hopefully) raised in the reader’s mind on almost the first page and that doesn’t get resolved until almost the last page—the main dramatic question. Along the way there are many other questions that get raised and answered at various points in the story.

To help myself understand the technique, I started thinking about a book I’d reread recently (City of Bones) and the example in the article (The Hunger Games).

I realized something about the “hook” of a story that I’d never thought of before—about how you not only hook readers at the beginning of a novel but reel them in. (Links go to my favorite site about story structure.) In the latter post, you’ll read that you have to hook readers just long enough to get them to the next hook. But how?

I thought of two ways to do it. The first is illustrated by City of Bones. Its first chapter is summarized in the back-cover blurb:

When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. And she’s more than a little startled when the body disappears into thin air.

What a hook! However, most of the explanations for the questions raised by the blurb are revealed throughout the first four chapters. So what keeps us reading? By the time all those questions are answered, Clary’s apartment has been ransacked, her mother is missing, a demon attacks her (the Inciting Event), and one of the teenage “murderers” (actually, of course, demon-killers) rescues her. By then, we’ve been plunged into the main plot of not just this book but the whole series, as Clary tries to rescue her mother and comes to grips with a magical world she never knew about. The questions raised in the first chapter overlapped the questions raised by subsequent events just long enough to get us hooked! And of course, like any good plot, the early questions are all tightly linked to the main antagonist.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe second way that keeps readers interested I noticed in The Hunger Games. The story opens on Katniss waking, finding her sister not there, and worrying about her. The questions are raised and answered in quick succession, so quickly that we might not even notice them, but each answer produces another question.

“Where’s Prim? With our mother. Why? She had a bad dream. Why? Today is the Reaping. What’s a Reaping?” That question sustains us for a few more pages, when the answer immediately makes us wonder, “Will Katniss be chosen?” The answer turns out to be no, but only because it’s her sister, Prim, who must face death (the Inciting Event). Given how much we now know Katniss cares for Prim, we can’t learn that it’s Prim without asking, “What will Katniss do?” When she immediately volunteers to be Tribute, we then land on the dramatic question that will occupy most of the rest of the book, which is, “Will Katniss survive?” (Because readers might know that the book has a sequel and guess that Katniss will have to survive, even if learning how she survives would be an interesting question in itself, the clever author quickly makes us care about another question with a far less certain answer: “Will Peeta survive?”)

So there you have it: overlapping questions and answers that are also (or that immediately produce) questions, two different ways to hook your reader and string them along until they care enough about the characters to want to find the answer to the main dramatic question.

Jan 11

Throwing shade since the 1600s

I recently learned an awesome (if you’re a word nerd) bit of trivia. I was looking up “umbrage” for reasons that I’ve now forgotten, and discovered that its original meaning was “shadow” (as from a parasol or umbrella). To quote the Oxford Dictionaries, the etymology of the word is:

Late Middle English (sense 2): from Old French, from Latin umbra ‘shadow’. An early sense was ‘shadowy outline’, giving rise to ‘ground for suspicion’, whence the current notion of ‘offence’.

So umbrage has been…wait for it…throwing shade since the 17th century. English — what a beautiful language. (More here.)

Jan 06

Review: “This Savage Song”

This Savage Song (Monsters of Verity, #1)This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was lucky enough to read this book all in one day (long day of travel), and boy does it hold your attention!

I loved the setting, modern day but with a twist, and the monsters are unique and interesting, both what they’re like and how they come to be. If you’re absolutely sick of dystopian, this book probably has too much of that for you, but I wouldn’t categorize it as strictly post-apocalyptic or dystopian; more like gritty contemporary fantasy.

It’s rare to find a book where the male and female characters are so evenly matched, both within the story and as narrators, but This Savage Song has done it. Kate transcends what could’ve been just “damaged girl becomes tough and strong,” and August transcends what could’ve been a one-note (haha) “thoughtful and sensitive musician.” The circumstances that bring them together (not romantically, at least not in this book) force them to rethink how they see the world and what they think they know about each other. Each has a strong arc with a satisfying ending that still leaves us ready for the next book.

View all my reviews

Dec 17

Like a Boss: Writing a Book is (and isn’t) Like Writing Software

The other day, I was feeling bad about not getting enough writing done. Despite having written more than 45,000 words in just over two months, I wanted to have written more.

Contrast that feeling to when I worked at a big tech company. As I grew in my career, I could put in a hard day’s work and feel good about my code, knowing that three layers of management above me (sometimes more) were responsible for making sure the product shipped. Much to the chagrin of the people whose job it was to ship, I would have conversations like this:

Boss: I need your estimates for how long it will take to finish this feature.
Me: I don’t give estimates. Here’s the list of tasks I expect to do.
Boss: But if you don’t give me estimates, how can I know when the feature will be done?
Me: Even if I gave you estimates, you still wouldn’t know when the feature will be done, because human beings are generally terrible at estimating complicated, creative tasks.

Suit-up-Like-a-bossI realized that I am now both the boss and the employee of Abigail Welborn, Inc. (not a real thing). As it turns out, not only do I not like being the boss, I don’t like working for me, either. As the boss, I can see the end goal so clearly — the beautiful, finished book. At the end of a work day, when the writer (also me) tries to feel good about hitting the goal of 2,000 words written, the boss in me sees only how far I have to go and wishes I could’ve worked just a little bit harder.

But at least I figured out why I’m such an awful boss. I hate not knowing when my book will be done. I can’t look forward to it or plan for it. Even tracking my progress doesn’t make me feel like I’m getting closer, because I just don’t know how long it’s going to take to edit this thing into shape.

So, former bosses (and others who were tracking my work), while I can’t say I’m sorry for refusing to give you estimates, I can now say that I feel your pain. I’ll try to be as nice to me as you were.

Dec 01

Forcing yourself to be honest…and realistic

Since I’ve been working on my novel full time, the first draft has grown from 0 to 33,000 words. Not bad! But that took two months, and I feel like I can do better (especially since this is the first draft and I’m working from a pretty good outline).

I’ve been keeping track of how many words I write each day and taking notes about what else came up that might have inhibited my productivity, but I didn’t see anything obvious (other than “work more” or “start earlier in the day,” a tried-and-true principle from The ONE Thing).

Tomato timerThen, my friend and fellow writer Amy told me about the Pomodoro Technique, after the Italian word for tomato, which is apparently also a common shape for kitchen timers. In brief, you set a timer for 25 minutes, during which you focus solely on the task at hand, writing down but ignoring or postponing any interruptions or distractions. After each time segment (called a “pomodoro”), you write a checkmark on a piece of paper and take a short break. After each set of 4 pomodoros, you take a longer break.

Besides helping you focus, the technique allows you to figure out roughly how long a common task takes, because you keep track of how many 25-minute chunks of time it takes you to finish a task (on average).

It also, importantly, had the effect of showing me just how much time I wasn’t spending on intentional tasks. I started recording how long I lasted while writing before I checked the timer (I’m using my phone timer instead of an actual ticking tomato), and I usually lasted nearly 25 minutes. After a few days, even when I set a stopwatch (to see how long I can go) instead of a timer, I hit 25-30 minutes almost every time. Writing for 25 minutes clearly wasn’t the problem.

But breaks… The 5-minute timer would go off and I’d just ignore it. So I started timing my breaks as well, and the average amount of time before I was “done” with reading email, going through Facebook or Twitter, and reading some of the interesting links I found while doing it, was 15-20 minutes! Basically, I was spending a “whole pomodoro” on a break.

Now, social media is important to building a career as a writer. Reading blog posts, following authors or agents on Twitter, and making meaningful posts to my author page all deserve to happen, but then I should be doing them on purpose. They deserve their own, directed pomodoro, so that I can do them intentionally. Now I just have to figure out how to take better breaks. Maybe that means not even starting social media on a short break, or maybe it means switching up pomodoros so that tasks I need to do feel like breaks. But at least now I have the numbers staring me in the face, which will help me be honest about my productivity and realistic about how much I can improve.

Oct 20

The More I Write…

goofy runner

This is how I would look if I tried to run.

…the more I want to write! That’s not a unique observation, but it’s definitely a new experience in my writing life.

I’ve heard that when people first start a training regimen, running can be painful and a drudgery, but eventually they experience a “runner’s high.” Supposedly, they then start running because they like it! I personally cannot imagine looking forward to running (physical activity is not, let’s say, my favorite), but it must exist because I’ve seen it happen to people I know.

When I first started writing full time, I missed all the social interaction I’d gotten in my day job. I had planned to schedule all my social activities for three mornings a week, leaving the rest of the days for writing. For this extrovert, that was hard to do. The writing-only days felt long, and I tended to get drowsy mid-afternoon. Plus, when I was stuck on my story, the brainstorming, mind-mapping, and figuring out what to write felt like a waste of time that wasn’t going anywhere.

But a funny thing happened this week. After I had something scheduled almost every morning last week, I was glad I hadn’t scheduled this week as full. I couldn’t wait to start writing each day. Instead of feeling bad about “having to” turn down social engagements so that I could keep to my writing schedule, I’m jealously guarding the time I have to write. Apparently I’ve found the “writer’s high.” (Now if only it would help me lose weight and get into shape like running does…)

A big caveat: I’m sure that the high comes and goes. Having a good outline for the story definitely helps me power through right now. But when busy weeks inevitably come up, knowing how the “writer’s high” feels will help me get back here.

Oct 16

Motivation I Didn’t Know I Had

I’m starting my fourth week of writing full-time. Fourth! Wow. As expected, I’ve had some days where it’s hard to get into the “groove” of writing, and some days where I didn’t manage my time well. I’ve also had some amazing days where I don’t want to stop writing.

Scotland lifts your spirits

(c) Moyan Brenn CC-BY-2.0 license

One benefit of writing full-time that I didn’t expect has come at the end of my writing days. Around 4:30 I have to start winding down whatever I’m doing so that the nanny can go home at 5. I have to rejoin the real world, take over wrangling the kids, and start prepping dinner. Before, I knew it would be days before I got to write again — I’ve tried to write in the evenings and sometimes it works, but usually I was just too exhausted. But now! I had no idea how much lighter I would feel when, four out of five afternoons, I can lay the work aside and know that I’ll be back the next morning, or at least in less than 18 hours. Hardly even enough time to lose my train of thought. 😉

Of course, there are downsides, too. I realized the first Monday that all the people I used to talk football with were at my old job. :-\  I knew I would miss the people, but I hadn’t realized how specifically I would miss them. I’ve resorted to tweeting random strangers about football now. 😛

I also figured I would miss having someone who cared about my progress (after more than a year of reporting it at daily standups). However, after such an amazing send-off from my coworkers, many of whom came to my farewell party and even more of whom sent me encouraging emails, I realized I wasn’t quite as bereft of accountability as I feared. Now that so many people knew I was setting out to get published, there were suddenly dozens of people counting on me to finish the book and let them know about it!

So! Partly because I love metrics and watching myself get closer to achieving goals, here’s my status report! I’ve finished the outline for The Alchemist’s Mirror, and while it’s not perfect, so far none of my critique partners has found a glaring problem that would require me to retool the outline before I start drafting. (That did happen with last February’s “finished” outline! 😉 ) Therefore, I’m keeping my current goal of finishing the first draft before the end of this calendar year! I’m more likely to post my progress on Twitter or Facebook directly, but for posterity, here’s my current status.

image

Oct 05

Faze vs. Phase

The noun phase most commonly means “a stage in a process of change or development” (a phase of the moon, a kid going through a phase) or “a state of matter” (e.g., a phase change of water is going from liquid to gas). Its verb form is less common but means “to carry out in gradual stages” (e.g., to phase in or out a tax credit).ijrq_trek_iii_movie_phaser If you’re a nerd like me, you might also think of a phaser, a weapon that delivers a beam that can be set to “stun.” 🙂

The verb faze means “to disturb or disconcert (someone),” as in, “his antics don’t faze me.”

You generally do not want anyone to “phase” you…even at stun.

So here’s your grammar quip.

Captain Kirk observed several phases of the creature’s lifecycle,
but nothing could faze him with his phaser at the ready.

As a side note, I think I fixed the mobile viewing experience on my website, so let me know if you’re still not getting a mobile view when you view my site on your phone.

Sep 30

Being a Full-Time Author: First Week Retrospective

Looking back over the past week is a habit widely recommended for evaluating progress and productivity. In my past life as a software developer, we called them “retrospectives,” and along with listing successes and problems (or “opportunities,” as my husband says), we would come up with one experiment we wanted to try for the upcoming week. Fridays are my best day for looking back, even though Mondays would be my best day for designing an experiment, so Friday wins.

My first 5+ days of being a full-time author were, on the whole, amazing.

Positive:

  • Seattle is experiencing some Indian summer (sunny, if not terribly warm, days).
  • Working in the morning has been more productive than I expected, and I look forward to the days where I can start first thing after breakfast.
  • I hit a good point in my outlining on Day 1, so I was able to make huge progress on Monday and Tuesday, expanding my outline up to the 50% mark. I start drafting from an “expanded outline,” which doesn’t go down to the scene level but is a little more detailed than just bulleted plot points — so that meant I was halfway toward starting the draft in just two days!source: http://ournutritionkitchen.com/happy-people-healthier-hearts/
  • Knowing that when I stopped writing for the day, I could pick it up again the next morning was incredibly uplifting. I hadn’t realized before how much of a psychic burden I was feeling when I had to stop writing and know I wouldn’t get to it again for several days.

Negative:

  • Boooo flu shot today. (I’m a good mom and I get my flu shot every year, but I hate shots and the soreness afterward.)
  • Progress was much slower through the third quarter of the outline. I’d gotten feedback that helped me improve it, but that meant I spent a lot of time brainstorming and solving plot problems instead of just writing the outline.
  • Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that I am much more prone to distraction and procrastination when things aren’t “smooth sailing” — so I definitely noticed a greater temptation to surf the web, eat chocolate, talk with friends, etc., during the second half of the week.
  • I am getting neck and shoulder aches in the afternoon, which is making it hard to concentrate. My tread-desk is still great, but my sitting workstation, a.k.a. my laptop, is not as ergonomic as my programming workstation was.
  • I seem to hit the post-lunch doldrums (i.e., food coma) most every day. Supposedly, giving up sugar would help prevent this, but I am addicted to sugar.

Experiment: need a way to make brainstorming more fun.

I promise not to bore you guys with my whole retrospective every week, but I felt like I should mark the occasion of the first one somehow.

Sep 23

Writing Full Time: Day 1

"Today I will write because I want to be Maggie Stiefvater." Why yes, that is a TARDIS USB hub in the background.I can’t believe I’m actually here.

I’ve been dreaming about writing full-time since I was in high school (which might be longer ago than I care to admit!). I did the responsible thing in college and got a “useful” degree—Computer Science, a field I do actually love—which led me to a programming job at a big tech company in Seattle. I met amazing people there and found a passion for Agile software development that made every day meaningful (though sometimes frustrating). I always said that one day I’d retire and write, but it always seemed like “someday” was still far away (especially since the millions of dollars in stock options I aspired to earn in 2000 never materialized 😉 ). Twelve years flew by before I knew it!

But finally, my circumstances, means and motivation aligned. I let go of my lucrative tech job (and, much harder, my beloved colleagues) and leapt into the exhilarating, uncertain world of being an author.

I know there will be hard days, where my motivation flags and the bank account balance makes me wish I’d kept programming. I know that I will sometimes love what I write and other times believe that I’m a total hack who should never show her work to anyone. I know there will be highs of hope and lows of despair as I query and then go on submission and then, I hope, publish. When life feels bleak, I will look at the mug that my dear friend got me, which reminds me of my goal (if you don’t know who Maggie is, you should definitely follow her on Twitter), and then I will drink the strong black tea that will no doubt be in that mug and buckle down again to work.

Even if I change my mind later, I know I’ll never be sorry I gave this ride a try. Right now, here’s no roller coaster I’d rather be on.

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