Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

In the past couple of weeks, this quote has been on my mind often:

evertried

Being a writer, (or doing anything worthwhile and challenging), means that failure is inevitable. As I write the ninth version of Chapter One, it’s likely that I’ll add another notch to my failure belt. The thought of getting it wrong for a ninth time is a little unnerving and sometimes it feels like I’m running out space for notches.

And yet, this is exactly what needs to happen. Each time I fail, I improve as a writer. I learn something about the art that I didn’t know a day before, and my story is better for it.

So keep failing. Fail again and again. Getting better is worth it.

Antagonists are Protagonists Too

Since I released Dark Rising to beta-readers back in September, I’ve gotten bits and pieces of feedback from those of you who picked up a copy. The one thing I keep hearing is how surprised everyone is that so much of the book is dedicated to Psi (the villain).

Most of the Young Adult books I’ve read focus on the hero and the challenges that he or she faces, but that didn’t seem like the right approach for me. I knew that it was really important to showcase the villain and give him just as much room in the story as my hero, Alexander, was given. I would go as far as to say that the first book of The Dark Matter Chronicles is more so about Psi than Alexander.

Why did I set up the book this way?

I believe that it is crucial to treat antagonists and all secondary characters as having just as much value as the protagonist. They are no less important and they’re certainly not meant to be plot devices or accessories for the main character.

The world doesn’t revolve around any one person, but each and every one of us is the protagonist in our own story. We don’t think of ourselves as existing only for someone else’s benefit. And that truth should be kept in mind when it comes to stories as well because if those characters were real people, then they would never consider themselves to be secondary characters–or even antagonists–in other peoples’ lives. No villain (real or fictional) thinks of him or herself as a villain.  Good versus evil isn’t that straightforward. I think the upcoming Wreck-it-Ralph does a good job of showing that, but in a much cuter and fluffier way than Dark Rising does.

From Psi’s perspective, he is the protagonist. He’s the hero. The Dark Matter Chronicles wouldn’t be a truthful story if I didn’t acknowledge that. And though you’ll get to know Alexander more in the second book, (I’m working on it, I swear), you’ll also get to see Psi’s evolution, along with that of Ezilie’s, Charon’s, and James’s, too.

So the next time you find yourself thinking of about how much you hate the bad guys in books, remember that just like Wreck-it-Ralph and Psi, bad guys are people too.

The Great Rules of Writing

As a writer, I think it’s important to work on your craft and strive to get better at it. I’ve learned a lot through the act of writing itself but sometimes it’s helpful to come across a list of rules like this:

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.
~William Safire, “Great Rules of Writing”

If you don’t stumble upon these ‘rules’ somewhere, it’s likely you’ll discover them on your own. So far, I’ve found that they apply pretty consistently. The trick, of course, is to master the rules and then learn when to break them.

New Dark Matter Chronicles Summary

For the past couple of weeks, I have been tweaking the summary of The Dark Matter Chronicles, while slowly losing bits and pieces of my sanity. Turns out that I can spend hours obsessing over a single line. The new version is now posted under the ‘About the Book’ tab located above. Please take a look and let me know what you think. If you tell me it needs work, I’ll probably imagine ways of exacting revenge at first but will appreciate the feedback in the end.

In the meantime, Spongebob will express how eager and excited I am to share this new summary on my behalf. Gaze upon its madness and cringe!

Why You Need Beta Readers

In my last post, I mentioned that my beta readers pointed out some weak spots in my manuscript, (I’m looking at you, Chapter 1). So, I had to reprise my role of typing monkey and make some changes.  I’m happy to report that the updates have all been made, and I am recovering my borderline sense of sanity while it all sits and stews.

This rewriting session has really made me think about the value of beta readers. For anyone who doesn’t know, a beta reader is someone who critically reads your manuscript before the public sees it. They are your guinea pigs, your friends — the ones subjected to the terrors of your mind and all of its weirdness before anybody else.

Why unleash your work on them before anyone else?

Beta readers will catch mistakes you didn’t.

Even if you look over your manuscript a hundred times, you will miss some of the errors you made. There comes a point when your eyes skim over your work, filling in the gaps and correcting the mistakes automatically without you actually registering it. And these mistakes can be little grammatical ones, (like missing the word ‘and’ in a sentence), or big ones, (a plot hole that makes your story illogical).  A beta reader will spot those mistakes because he or she is seeing the work for the first time and doesn’t have an imprint of it in his or her mind.

They can evaluate your work objectively.

It’s hard to look at your work without bias when you know how much blood, sweat, and tears went into it. Unlike you, the beta reader isn’t emotionally entrenched in your work. They don’t feel the same way that you do about that character that is so loveable but does nothing for the storyline, or the event that you think is so interesting but doesn’t fit in with the rest of the book. If you’ve picked good beta readers (i.e. honest, constructively critical, and a member of your target audience), then they’ll be able to point out what’s wrong and why. You might find out that you’ve written a great book. You might also find out that what you’ve written isn’t very good at all. Either way, it’s important and listen because whatever gripes your beta readers have, your target readers will have them too.

Your manuscript will improve as a result.

The quality of your work matters. Or at least it should to you. The point of a beta reader is to give your work a test drive so that you can figure out the kinks, and then go back to the drawing board to create something better. And hopefully that leads to more readers down the line.

So cheers to my beta readers and all their hard work! I appreciate their efforts so much, I no longer refer to them as minions in my mind. Not that I did before… *fakes a cough and looks away*

The Joys of Rewriting/The Power of Beta Readers

Someone once said that writing your first draft is easy, but writing the second draft is hard. That ‘someone’ severely understated how difficult the editing/rewriting process can be. Let me clarify and tell you that it is evil. Pure evil. I know this because I have had to rewrite many sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters again and again…only to realize it’s still not quite right. As much as it makes me want to tear my hair out and go all out Hulk on my computer, I can’t deny it’s value. I know the story will be better for it.

I’m sharing this because my awesome evil genius minions team of beta readers have informed me that chapter 1 needs an overhaul. Something about it doesn’t click, and it’s just not as good as the rest of the story. Since, I’ve written about the importance of a first sentence in a previous post, (while managing to screw up the first sentence of my own book), I figured I would share the updated version here. Here’s a quick preview of the new opening paragraph of The Dark Matter Chronicles:

No matter how many times he repeated the words to himself, they refused to sound right. It was only a dream. It couldn’t possibly be anything else. Alexander let out a sigh of exhaustion and pressed his forehead against his bedroom window. When he opened his eyes, his reflection stared back at him, lit up by the moonlight that gleamed off the aging glass. Nothing about his appearance had changed in the half hour he had stood in the same spot with the same confused attitude. His grey eyes still had the warmth of a winter sweater and his unruly black hair still looked like it was in dire need of a trim. His pale skin divulged how worn down he really felt, but that wasn’t unusual either. But he found it difficult to look at himself the same way again knowing he had somehow transported himself to another world and back. Unless, it was only a dream.

What I’ve Learned from ‘A Game of Thrones’/George R.R. Martin

I wasn’t planning on writing another ‘What I’ve Learned’ post so soon after the one I wrote for The Hunger Games, but since ‘A Game of Thrones’ is one of my favorite books, I couldn’t resist.  It’s been a good couple of weeks for literature and book adaptations.

Because I started reading the works of George R.R. Martin after I started writing my own books, (The Dark Matter Chronicles and another fantasy series I’ve got planned), I can’t say I’ve been directly influenced by his work. Having said that, I’ve found that Martin does two things that all writers should do but often don’t.

Kill Your Darlings.

If you’re a writer, this is a key piece of advice that you’ll hear again and again. No one does this better than Martin because no one in his books is beyond the reach of death. A single stroke of a red pen, and they’re cut. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Sure, it’s nice when the good guys prevail and get out a difficult situation unharmed, but it’s not realistic. Good and evil aren’t divided by clear-cut lines, and in a high-stakes situation like war, (I’m going to quote Arya here), ‘anyone can be killed’. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: when you write, you have to tell the truth. And the truth is that anyone can suffer.

But the concept of ‘kill your darlings’ goes beyond that. It doesn’t just apply to the fate of your characters, it applies to your favorite sentences, chapters, that plot twist you thought would be interesting but has no real place in your book. You have to be willing to let go of it all. Why? Because like Martin, you should write in service of your story.

The Story Comes First.

Not you as a writer. Not your wants or your agenda or your plans. The story always comes first and it’s your responsibility to write in service of it. This is why you kill your darlings, go in directions you’re not entirely comfortable with, and spend hours and hours rewriting a few sentences to get them right. It might be easier to write whatever you want and not be concerned with what the story demands, but it’s certainly not better. Writing is a difficult art. It’s not about who you are and your ego; it’s about creating something of value, something that enriches the lives of others.

It isn’t an easy to thing to do. The outline for the second book of The Dark Matter Chronicles is complete…with one exception. There’s an event that I’ve been debating about including for a while now because it has significant repercussions in the third book and will really hurt some of my main characters. It will likely be one of the most difficult scenes I have to write. Even as I write this post, I’m trying to think of ways around it. But I know it must be done because the story will be better for it. I might be unpopular as a result, but the story will be better. That’s what’s required if I want to write in service of my craft rather than myself.

So, with that in mind, I hope you all enjoy the season premiere of A Game of Thrones tonight. If the brilliant plot lines, constant twists, and fantasy world don’t get you, then remember this: it has dragons. Dragons!

Simple Ideas Lead to Scientific Discoveries (and Great Novels?)

We’ve all heard the expression that the simplest idea/solution is usually the correct one. I think that definitely applies to the field of science but it also applies to writing. I find that the best stories, (even the ones that are very intricate), are simple at their core. *On a side note: I’ve touched upon this topic in my post about The Simpsons and Writing (see below).*

I’ll use one of my favorite series as an example: Harry Potter. *Spoiler Alert*: skip this paragraph if you haven’t read the book but want to! If you’ve read the series then you know that each of the 7 books has its own plot line with many twists, characters, Chekhov guns, and plot details. J.K. Rowling has created a very elaborate world with a million little parts that all add up into something that’s magical yet tangible–a world you’d actually want to be a part of. Who would pass up on a chance to go to Hogwarts, am I right? At the same time, it has an underlying plot line that permeates the entire story; one goal that all 7 books work towards. I think the entire story can be summed up with 2 statements: ‘Boy learns he’s a wizard and goes to wizarding school’ and ‘Hallows vs Horcruxes’. Interesting fact: J.K. Rowling has said that idea came to her as ‘boy who’s a wizard that doesn’t know he’s a wizard’. That one simple idea launched one of the most beloved and successful series of all time.

As with science, it’s important to remember that when it comes to writing, the simplest ideas are often the most powerful. That’s not to say that story can’t have depth and layers. It should. But it should also convey simple truths and revolve around one central idea. That one idea then becomes the foundation that the story and all its details rest upon. And anything that isn’t consistent or relevant to it should be cut out in the editing process.

I highly recommend this short and interesting TED Talk that elaborates on this topic wonderfully. Take a look and enjoy!

Summary Version 2.0

Revisions are necessary, unavoidable part of writing.  As painful as it is to go over the same work again and again, it must be done.  Your work will be better for it.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of revisions lately because I’ve had to rewrite my summary.  It wasn’t doing the job it needed to do, so I’ve made some adjustments, hoping that it puts me one step closer to my goal.  For the updated summary please click on  the ‘About the Book’ tab above.  Feel free to leave feedback in the comments section of the page.

I will likely do a longer post about revision in the future.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an anecdote from Stephen King’sOn Writing‘ about James Joyce.

One day, James’ assistant comes in and finds Mr. Joyce sprawled across his writing desk, completely distraught. He asked James, “What’s the matter?” and James replied, “I’ve only written seven words today.” The assistant says, “But James, for you, that’s a really good day’s work.”

And James responded, “Yes, but I don’t know what order they go in.”

Writing and The Simpsons

In honor of The Simpson’s 500th episode, I wanted to share the lessons I’ve learned as a writer from one of TV’s most iconic shows. I know not everyone watches it and I can already hear many of you pointing out that its well past its expiration date.  To that I say ‘Why you little…I’ll show you expired!’  But seriously, I believe there is much to be learned from animation’s first family.

Lesson #1: Good characters can turn the most mundane activity into something memorable, especially when you don’t intend for them to.

Homer can turn an ordinary trip to the Kwik-E-Mart or Moe’s Tavern into a wild adventure at the snap of a finger, (sometimes less).  It might sound cliché but a well-formed character can help direct the plot when the author isn’t sure where the story is going.  They will tell you who they are and what they want to do.  Sometimes, it’s a matter of exploring a direction a character’s personality might gravitate towards instead of imposing your rigid plot line on them.  Remember: it’s the characters that people get invested in, not the antics they get into.

Lesson #2: Impart wisdom without preaching.

Many of the episodes involve a crazy stunt that seems implausible on the surface but usually has a relatable and valuable lesson at its core.  The writers behind The Simpsons make countless statements about society, our politics, and our cultural values in a subtle and subversive way.  They don’ try to force their opinions on others but they do take a stand.  Most importantly, their own values are never expressed in a way that detracts from the story.  It’s a really fine line for writers to walk and The Simpsons does it brilliantly.

Lesson #3: A good story has layers.

Every time I go back to an episode, I see something new in it.  There’s always a joke or a remark that goes over my head the first time but when I come across a rerun years later, (after I’ve had some time to learn new things and grow intellectually), I suddenly spot things I missed.  One example that I’ll never forget is from season 6, episode 21 titled ‘The PTA Disbands’.  With school no longer in session, Lisa starts going crazy and builds a perpetual motion machine which disobeys the laws of thermodynamics, (nothing in the universe disobeys the laws of thermodynamics, the theory will be rejected if does).  When I was younger, I laughed because of the tone of the conversion between Marge and Homer was funny.  Now I laugh because I actually get the joke and it’s ingenious.  A good novel should function the same way.   Here’s a clip of the scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy0UBpagsu8

Lesson #4: Awareness

The writers of The Simpsons know that the show is no longer at the height of its run.  If you don’t believe me then just watch the intro to the 500th episode.  Before you even reach Bart’s chalkboard writings, they call the episode ‘a meaningless milestone’.  As a writer, it is almost impossible to be subjective about your own work.  You’re so familiar and emotionally involved with the plot and its characters that you often can’t step back and be honest about whether or not your work is any good.  And be honest, you must; even if that means you need to ditch what you’re doing and start again.  Acknowledging your weakness and being honest about the caliber of your work will help you identify where you can improve.  It will make you a better writer in the end.

Having been on the air for almost 23 years, The Simpsons have done it all and brought us along for the ride.  I’ve gotten so many hours of entertainment and laughs that the show has become a staple in my life.  They’ve even shown me an aspect of myself—what it’s like to be a writer.  Because only The Simpsons could show you how to write a novel while being outlandish and make fun of Neil Gaiman while having him in on the joke, (season 23, episode 6).  And you still think they haven’t got it? Of course you don’t 😉