The tech-savvy writer

2013_4$largeimg229_Apr_2013_114340717Helga’s Post # 108 —

As I prepared to write this post, I had a quick look at where our blog followers are located. As it happens, we are spread out across the continents. While the majority of our followers live in the US and Canada, a good number are in the UK and Australia, and a sprinkling in some other EU countries and Asia.

Geography, or distance, as it happens, becomes less important every year, even month. Our global community grows and gets closer and tighter with each improvement of social media and new applications. It’s an awesome concept to realize it only takes nano-seconds to link us across countries and continents to share what’s happening on our beautiful planet.

I was reminded of this two days ago, at the Indian Wells tennis tournament of all places. We were waiting with great anticipation for Serena Williams to start playing the semi-final with Simone Halep from Rumania. Suddenly, 43,000 shocked visitors watched as Serena appeared courtside, dressed not in her tennis outfit but a tracksuit to announce she has withdrawn due to a knee injury. I immediately texted family 2,000 miles away in Vancouver, only to hear back that they already knew. Even my son, who works on a boat that was somewhere in the Pacific with only satellite connection, knew the moment it happened.

This is how things have changed, even from a couple of years ago. Kids now grow up knowing how to text before they learn how to tie their own shoelaces. Not only texting. Applications abound to send pictures and sound clips without incurring a single penny of charges. Not so terribly long ago (in our techno world) we welcomed Skype as the manna from heaven to meet our communication need forever after. Still nice to have, but already overtaken by others.

I remember, years, no a few decades ago by now, how I communicated with my parents. I had immigrated to Canada from Austria and started a family a couple of years later. That was before computers and Internet. My contact with my parents in Vienna was limited to handwritten letters sent by post, occasionally augmented with grainy black-and-white Polaroid photos. Years later, our first phone call. The next one a year after. Only one call per year, at Christmas, as the cost was prohibitive. For comparison, one call, chatting for about ten minutes, cost about half a month’s salary.

Then our communication moved to a higher level: I recorded tapes on a Dictaphone and sent them by mail. Shortly after, my parents were able to visit as air travel to Vancouver became less cumbersome. Flight time was now about 15 hours compared to 27 that necessitated a stopover in Iceland!

More visits followed. Computers, Internet, Skype, Face Time, all came into play. Sadly though, my parents never did progress to high-tech, relying on other family members to physically print out my emails and photos. Though my dad tried his best and bought a computer, only to play Solitaire and a few other simple games. He did not connect to Internet because he worried about hackers! The best I was able to do for them was put hundreds of photos on memory sticks and mail them in bubble envelopes.

And the link to writing is?

We live in a state of flux and it affects every aspect of our lives, whether we wish it to be so or not. It also affects how we write and more importantly, how we make sure what we write is true to the technology for the time it was written.

This is a tricky beast. You finish the first draft of a novel, then a second and perhaps third, and finally you have a polished, marketable product. Your manuscript is ready to meet the world. If you decide to submit the traditional way it may take a long, long time. More likely, given statistics, the time never comes and your treasured manuscript gathers dust beneath your bed. So you might decide on self-publishing. Even that takes time. Tons of time. (I wrote a post about it a while back ‘Is trying to get published a time waster?’) The multitude of tasks you are suddenly saddled with until your book gets out to the world could be considerable.

And then your book finally sits on shelves, or more accurately, on Amazon’s or similar virtual shelves. Your book that you thought was the absolute trendsetter, whose writer was totally familiar with cutting edge technology. Time to break out the Veuve Clicquot (or lesser bubbles, depending on budget).

But that cutting-edge technology that was part of your plot is already passé. It’s suddenly boring.

What’s a writer to do in this fast-spinning techno world?

It’s not a problem for some genres. Romance novel readers are more interested in consummation than technical accuracy. Historical novels need to have their facts straight though, as do suspense, mystery and literary fiction writers. Nothing sinks a book faster than having their characters use a technology that didn’t exist at the time, or vice versa, NOT using it when it was already in wide use. Readers become ever more techno-savvy. They WILL notice.

So this is just one more aspect of writing we need to pay attention to. We know that character development takes center stage. We focus on it sometimes so much so that we neglect or don’t give other aspects the attention and respect they deserve. But a novel is multi-dimensional. Like an orchestra playing a symphony, it needs many parts. A soloist without the other players to back him up hardly makes for interesting listening (to my ears at least; music experts may disagree).

You, the writer, are the conductor of your orchestra. You make your characters dance to your tune. Like a conductor who chooses the music that is to be played at a concert and decides how it should be played – loud or soft, fast or slow, you do the same thing – deciding on voice of your characters and tempo of the plot.

So while we have control over this part of our writing, keeping up with trends in our fast-paced world is a challenge we can’t afford to ignore. It needs research and perhaps a keen outside eye if you’re not savvy enough yourself.

As for me, I’ll try to walk the middle line after a mistake I made not so long ago. I unwisely chose a topic for a historical novel that took an inordinate time for research. How about a story around the limited nuclear test ban treaty of the late Fifties between Eisenhower and Khrushchev?

Ah, the errors of a novice. But I can tell you all about the secret Soviet nuclear cities. How is that for a sexy topic?

Keep your promise to your readers

Helga’s Post # 106: During our recent downsizing from house to condo I was forced to part with a multitude of boxes containing heaps of notes and articles about writing. I lovingly and dutifully collected this treasure trove over years at writing workshops and conferences. I had even hoarded term papers from writing classes of my university years.

A painful process, judging what to keep and what to shred. Most of it went to the shredder. I did not want some dumpster diver getting his hands on my early manuscripts, basic though as they were.

I still recall some of my creative writing classes at Simon Fraser University, and the first year I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Like a dry sponge I absorbed every word of dispensed advice! I made copious notes of everything my professors and workshop leaders offered. More importantly, I believed every word from my classes and conference workshops. Passionately.

Then came the second year of the Surrey International Writers’ conference, and the third, and more after that. They turned out to be still interesting, but much of the information was by now repetitive, and quite a lot of it contradictory. The most obvious that most of us are familiar with: Always outline. You can’t ever finish a novel without. Never outline. It will stifle your writing. Each camp has its devoted disciples.

Gradually, I sifted through all the learning from my early writing years and applied what sounded most practical for my style. Not only ‘applied’, but relied on it. But here’s the rub: I got increasingly stuck trying to squeeze the multitude of ‘rules’ into my writing. I tried to use them all. I spent more time trying to write to the ‘rules’ than letting my story flow. After a while I felt like getting buried in an avalanche.

Until I realized that it wouldn’t work for me. Time to change tactics. To find a better way.

I am not suggesting that new writers should disregard writing rules. Every writer needs some rules. But the key is to be selective. Just as some writers absolutely have to outline, it would stifle the writing process for others. We need to apply the rules that suit our individual style and preference. Cherry-picking, rather than one-size-fits-all.

Nonetheless, some cardinal rules apply that have stood the test of all writing styles. Take those related to starting your story. Mountains of books have been written about the pivotal ‘First Chapter’. If it doesn’t start right, nobody will read your novel. Those rules are ironclad. Ignore them at your peril.

Some of the cardinal rules that have been most useful for me are also the most basic. They continue to serve me well. Here they are, in a nutshell:

Start your story with an action scene. That applies to all genres from romance novels to thrillers. Start with the ‘real’ tension and conflict. Don’t start with the main characters reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing something.

First chapters are a bit like speed dating. A reader knows within a few minutes if they will be interested enough in your story to continue. They might hold a really good book in their hands, but your story has to grab them or they’ll drop it and never buy another book you wrote.

Avoid backstory on your first pages at the fear of torture. Don’t spoon feed your reader with detailed explanation. Let them guess – less is more. Use dialogue instead of narrative. And by all means, use conflict. Ideally the main conflict of your story should be clear at the end of the chapter.

In my early attempts at writing I made the mistake of introducing my protagonist in a way to ‘force’ my readers to like him/her. I did this either by ‘telling’ a heroic quality early on, or by giving her/him some kind of flaw, counting on the reader’s empathy. Reading through my first manuscripts I notice how hard I tried to have my readers ‘like’ my main character in the first few pages with all kinds of backstory, when instead, I should have focused on an action scene to keep my readers turning those crucial first pages.

Consider this: Your first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they can expect to get. Without going into details, or worse, backstory, the reader should know the main conflict of the book and have some sense of the main character’s personality.


Headhunters: How did we get from this…

Keeping the promise to your reader is of utmost importance. We can all think of a book or movie that broke that promise, and we feel cheated at having wasted our time. For example, I watched ‘Headhunters’ on Netflix the other day, a movie based on Jo Nesbo’s book by the same name.

I was intrigued the way it started: Stylish Scandinavian setting and actors, beautiful house and art exhibits, great theme (high-end art thefts to support a lavish lifestyle), all the right things. Our protagonist gets in trouble, finds his wife cheating him, etc. But then the theme gets derailed and confused.

.... to this ?

…. to this ?

Suddenly I find myself watching a horror movie, with some disgusting scenes including when he has to hide inside the dump hole of an outhouse. All the way, deep down, and then we are forced to watch him emerge in glorious detail. And on it goes for most of the film. So where’s the theme? Suddenly the lavish lifestyle is gone, and all we get is blood and disgusting other stuff. To me, this is a good example of a broken promise. If the film had started differently, fine, I knew what to expect. But that way I felt kind of cheated. As an aside, book reviews praise this standalone work by Nesbo. I assume the filmmakers used his theme as a platform for the gory version.

After all the lectures and conferences I’ve attended over the years, the first and most useful rule then, is this: If you’re writing a murder mystery, don’t start your first chapter like chick-lit. Or vice versa. Set the tone and stick to it.

Once you got your first chapter down and you haven’t lost your reader, things will get easier. And more fun.

(Until you get to the sagging middle)

Genre roulette

Credit: iStock Photo licensed image.

Credit: iStock Photo licensed image.

Silk’s Post #33 — I’m confused about genres. Just a wild guess, but I’ll bet you are too.

It seems like genres have been hanging out with each other, no doubt under cover of darkness, and mating.

I can’t help but visualize Chick Lit and Horror making it on the floor of an abandoned, Gothic, beer-bottle-strewn party house under a cobwebby chandelier, and begetting this whole sex-obsessed Vampire offspring, for example. And that crazy Steampunk! It had to be conceived when the geeky sci-fi-addicted computer science major finally got that shy, Victorianaphile girl from the library tipsy on one glass of port, and then she doffed her spectacles and let down her hair and … well, you know what happened next.

Some of these genre couplings are yielding some pretty wild genetic traits. And that’s not even counting the scrambled DNA resulting from threesomes. Or the beasts issuing from inter-species liaisons. Talk about genre roulette!

No wonder there’s so much conflicting information out there about genres: what to call them … what they represent … who reads them … how hot they are. Writers hoping to be published are advised that they must be able to assign their work to a genre, for the convenience of agents and editors. And, of course, to aid the understandably confused book sales workers who must figure out which real or virtual bookshelf each title belongs on. By thy genre shall thy audience know thee, we’re told.

If it were only that simple.

First of all, what is a genre? A no less lofty publication than The Guardian provides an “A-Z List” of “Book Genres” numbering sixty-one. Sixty one! It includes such designations as Ballet, Paranormal Romance (children and teens), Fairies and True Crime, but no Steampunk. To me, the Guardian list looks like some poor editorial assistant finally gave up trying to classify books by genre, and just threw some genre names together with a mixed list of topics and audiences.

Remember: it’s all about eyeballs on bookshelves.

Popular reader website Goodreads looks promising when it comes to genre identification … at first. It does offer a genre short list for browsing purposes, which includes:

Art – Biography – Business – Chick Lit – Children’s – Christian – Classics – Comics – Contemporary – Cookbooks – Crime – Ebooks – Fantasy – Fiction – Gay and Lesbian – Graphic Novels – Historical Fiction – History – Horror – Humor and Comedy – Manga – Memoir – Music – Mystery – Non Fiction – Paranormal – Philosophy – Poetry – Psychology – Religion – Romance – Science – Science Fiction – Self Help – Suspense – Spirituality – Sports – Thriller – Travel – Young Adult

Okay, I can find my way around that. But then it also has a link to “More genres …”

Don’t go there!

It’s enough to send a writer looking for genre guidance into a catatonic state for a week. This “more genres” list turns out to be three very long pages with hundreds of listings (Goodreads calls them “shelves”), which includes such esoterica as Amish Fiction, Butch-Femme, Fat Acceptance, Geek, Lesbotronic, New Weird, Polyamorous, Post-Apocalyptic, Shapeshifters, Southern Gothic, Swashbuckling, Thelema, Urban Legends, Viking Romance, Whodunit, Yaoi, and the ever popular Zombies.

Well, at least I know what Whodunit means.

I like the approach to book genres found at the website of independent editors BubbleCow. They show separate lists of genres under “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction” that seem to hit an appropriate and understandable level of categorization. They even have created a cool word bubble graphic of genres that appears to distinguish the mainstream of literature from its smaller creeks and tiny rivulets.

Oh, but wait. At the end of their list, they provide a link to that amorphous list from The Guardian with the advice that it “should help.” Aaaargh!

The ever-reliable Wikipedia provides sensible genre lists in “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction” flavours, which actually attempt to define each genre in a few words. However, it seems to be missing many of the common genres listed in other sources; for example it oddly lists Tall Tales, but not Thriller, as a fiction genre.

But just keep scrolling … whatever weird and wonderful genre you may be searching for can be found in the Wikipedia section titled “Genres and sub genres”. Steampunk, for instance is shown as a sub-sub-genre of Science Fiction (itself a sub-genre of Speculative Fiction). And Steampunk even has its own sub-sub-sub-genre offspring: Clockpunk, and her siblings Dieselpunk and Atompunk. 

This got me thinking about all the promising genres that haven’t yet been invented, but are sure to evolve as existing genres continue to mate and as our speed-of-light media culture continues to stoke the genre fire with the newest crazes.

Here are some speculative predictions for genres yet to be born. Remember, you read it here first …

Dystopian Cookbook Cormac McCarthy meets Martha Stewart in this genre featuring roadkill recipes for survivors of the Apocalypse.

Junkpunk – A Steampunk specialization inspired by “Hoarders” programs.

Vegan Porn – Rude photographs of vegetables.

Alternative Legal Universe – Constitutional law as a fan fiction work-in-progress, dramatizing the tragicomic results as the constantly changing legal canon plays out in courtrooms.

Religious Erotica – Oh, wait. We already have that.

Anti-Freedom Conspiracy – Exposés documenting insidious plots of the Liberal Media, Academics, Tree Huggers, Unions, Ethnic Groups, Queers, Judges, Feminists and other Factions to take away Freedom-Loving, Law-Abiding Citizens’ most basic, God-Given human rights, like packing in shopping malls. Or wherever said Citizens freaking well want.

Women’s Fit Lit – Narrative amalgamation of diet books with inspirational fiction designed to empower generously-endowed women. Like a whole Oprah genre.

Orange Pulp – Pulp fiction specifically set in Orange County, CA.

Financial Suspense – Reality-based how-to books for amateur investors that focus on the dramatic tension and excitement of wondering whether you’re making a fortune, or losing everything (may be classified as either fiction or non-fiction).

Wuxia Romance – Martial arts meet marital arts.

Query Thriller – Heart-pumping, rollercoaster tales of writers’ quests for publication, coupling the soaring highs and wrist-slashing lows with sound and helpful advice from actual literary agents and editors (additional fees may apply).

Timing is everything, no matter the genre

Mexico resort

Karalee’s Post #28 — I took last week off with my family in Mexico for Spring Break. I knew of Paula’s imminent goodbye to Contessa and all our 5Writer’s hearts are with her and John.

Thanks for sharing your story Paula.

Time marches on and that is something none of us can control no matter how many anti-wrinkle creams are invented and applied.

Although all around the world time is measured precisely, to me it is also relative:

  • one’s entire lifetime can be reviewed in minutes
  • childhood is  measured in milestones attached to age, often in weeks and months
  • every day can be split into segments; daytime/nighttime, hours, seconds, minutes
  • a year can be measured in months, weeks, days, seasons
  • historical events are often referred to in hundreds of years
  • evolution is measured in thousands or millions of years

There is also time to (or not enough time to):

  • eat, sleep or do other physical activities
  • work and play
  • laugh, cry, love, hate, get angry, etc.

Then there’s the timeline of my novel and every other writer’s novels. Timing is important no matter the genre. A book has to start and end;  scenes, plot-lines and relationships take time to develop; and timing creates tension and suspense whether in a love scene, an epic novel, or like in mine, a mystery thriller.

And timing is my nemesis.

In my outline I drew a timeline based on my protagonist’s recovery from an accident and then returning to work in the midst of my villain’s case. Layered on top of this timeline is the timing of my villain’s crimes and happenings in my protagonist’s personal life. It seemed to work in the table I’d set up, but in writing it out longhand the spread over six months was far too long to keep up the level of tension I wanted.

So I took the advice given in many of the how-to-write-a-great-novel books in my library, and shortened the timeline. And then shortened it again.

I’ve done this and I’m excited about the change in pace. Now the difficulty is lining up all my ducks again so everything happens at the new “corrected” time.

And time is running out.

May 15th is our drop dead send-it-out-no-matter-what time.

And starting June 15th it’s time to start our critiques.

Time will tell.

Book buying

books and books

Joe’s post #18 — How do you buy books? By genre? By authors? By recommendations from friends? By the pretty picture on the cover?

Ok, but let’s be more specific. How do you decide to buy a book by a new author, by someone you’ve never read before?

That’s a challenge for all of us new writers. How do we stand out? How do we get the attention of an agent, of a publisher, of millions of readers?

I’m not sure I have the answer, but I can look to how I buy a book by an author I’ve never read before.

1) Genre. It’s my first filter. New or old, I go to a section that I love to read. Mystery. Thriller. Fantasy. As new writers, we don’t have much of a choice where our books get put, but we can help agents and publishers by delineating where we think our books belong. My latest book, YA fantasy. One day, I hope to be able to move out of that genre and into mainstream. Sort of like moving out of my mobile home and into a spacious condo overlooking the city of Vancouver.

a-game-of-thrones-book-1-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fireCover and Title: Yes, it matters. At least to me. If the cover has a bare-chested man with a half-naked women pressed up against him, I won’t care that there’s a dragon in the background. But show me something like what’s on the latest Game of Thrones, and you got yourself a sale. Have a cool title like “The Bone Collector?” Even better.

So, writers, make sure you have a cool title.

Any recommendations: Has it won awards? Does GRR Martin recommend it? Oprah? Are there any quotes from famous authors, like “Best book I’ve read since my book” or “I’m going to kill this bastard for writing such a great story.”

I can tell you one thing, if I ever get published, I will shamelessly pester all my published writer friends to write something nice about my story.

The Flap: Ok, I made that word up. It’s the ‘blurb’, or the synopsis or why the hell should I buy this book?  So now I’m standing in a ‘section’, trying to look cool, and I’ve picked up a book with an interesting cover and a neat title (and maybe with a nifty recommendation.) Now, I read the back (or, in the case of the hardcover, the promo inside the dust jacket.) It has to wow me. I’m sorry, it does. If I read ‘bored housewife…’ I put the book back. If I read something that might interest me, then I move to the last filter.

The First Pages.   You can fool me with a nifty cover – I’m easily distracted by pretty colors and half-dressed women on dragons. You can fool me with recommendations – Writers have been known to get together at comicons or mystery writers at wine tasting nights and agree to endorse each other’s books. You can fool me with a cleverly written blurb – Hey, they have entire marketing departments working on this in-between martinis. But it’s harder to be fooled by someone’s actual writing. So I read the first pages, a few paragraphs somewhere in the middle, and then I make a decision.

As new writers, I think we need to remember this. Words matter. Voice matters. Style matters. How a story starts… matters.

The Way Around It All: Frankly, the way I usually buy books by authors I haven’t read is that I’ve been told it’s awesome by a friend I trust. Any time I get a text like “OMFG you have to read this!!!!!!!” I will give it a try, despite the number of exclamation seanpoints. If someone brings a book to a coffee chat and the first thing they say, after telling me how handsome I look, is “I have just read the most amazing book of amazingness ever!” then I’ll give that book a try. I mean, why not, they’ve done all the work and all I have to do is look up that author?

Like this one. Check it out. It’s a FANTASTIC book.  !!!!!!!

But no matter what your own personal filters are, give a new author a try.

We need all the help we can get.

Mixed genres

Karalee’s Post # 12 — In the last month I have had the privilege to listen to more live music concerts than ever before.  First Leonard Cohen, then the Mike Allen Quartet, and last Friday we took the entire family to the Barenaked Ladies with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO). The genres go from Folk (OK some people refer to Leonard Cohen as Pop/Rock too) to Jazz to a true mixed genre of alternative Rock with a Symphony Orchestra.

Now single genre music such as Folk and Jazz are highly entertaining with a certain expectation of style. But the Barenaked Ladies and the VSO, now that’s a different ballgame and it WORKED. I was curious what the combination would sound like, and it was great entertainment; moreso since it had a dash of the unexpected.

I think that goes for new book genres that have emerged over the last few decades as well. The first story written by the first author that introduces a ‘new mix’ of genre types is read with the anticipation of experiencing something different. Then of course, other authors follow suit and the genre (or subgenre) is truly born and becomes more mainstream.

For example:  mystery, horror, romance, fantasy and science fiction are examples of genres we grew up with. Then new genres or subgenres hit the scene such as:

  • Cyberpunk –  plots often center on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligence, mega-corporations that tend to be set in a near-future Earth
  • Steampunk – subgenre of Cyber punk set in an alternate history Victorian era
  • Chick Lit
  • Romantic Suspense
  • Paranormal Romance
  • And then Diana Gabaldon wrote the Outlander series that is a mix of time travel, romantic fiction, historical fiction and science fiction. And all together they work too.

I’ve always been drawn to the fantasy and mystery elements in both what I read and what I write. I do enjoy other genres such as historical fiction, women’s fiction and some biographies. And of course, cook books fill an entire bookshelf in my kitchen.

And like cookbooks, a little of this and that from different recipes can give an exciting end result or something inedible. So I say, go ahead and mix genres, try new combinations and see what the end result is. You may be truly inspirational, or you may need to start over. And as long as the process is fun and you learn something, it is worthwhile. Success of new genres is merely dependent upon what readers will read.

That said, I help some family friends by picking up their daughters after school on Tuesdays. Yesterday they dressed up my two dogs (the first time ever for them, and I must say the dogs were good about it).


The end result is a new blend; a Christmas dog.  I know, it’s seasonal at best.

What do you think?

And in case you are wondering about me reaching my deadline, Act One is done. My protagonist has gone through door #1 with no turning back.


Karalee’s Post #9

A few weeks ago a friend of mine organized tickets to see Leonard Cohen.

 Before buying them we sat around her table debating whether we should go. After deciding ‘yes’, there was the scramble to get the best seats in our price point. That done, we had to wait and wait for the day to arrive.

 Anticipation set in, floating sweetly in our bodies with promises of good times ahead.

 But there were spin-offs too. Other friends had bought tickets, so maybe we should get together for a drink before the show? Or better yet, why not dinner and drinks?

 Anticipation kicks it up a notch and settles in, giggling away and disturbing one’s digestion.

 Then the day arrives. Finally the evening too, and it’s time to get dressed and start the event. Dinner, drinks, and Leonard Cohen. Here we come.

 Anticipation is in full swing now, playing a fast game of  pinball in our minds. After dinner we make our way to Rogers Arena and sit in our seats facing the stage, enjoying the last bit of anticipation.

Then the show begins. The music is awesome, the night spectacular. Leonard Cohen sings and performs for over three hours. New songs and old songs with some poetry reciting in-between. Two encores and six encore songs later he still wants to keep going, but alas, had to stop. His time was up. The end.

Vancouver’s downtown curfew had closed him down! He literally ran off the stage to a standing ovation.

 What a way to go.

 The perfect end to anticipation.

 And it’s the way I want a reader to feel about my story.

 So what is in a book for a reader?

 Like buying a ticket for a concert, buying a book gives a sense of anticipation. A book’s genre is a promise for the type of story within and can be the deciding factor for saying ‘yes’. (Yes, I want to read that genre, or maybe yes, I want to try a different genre).

Then there’s sweet anticipation before reading Chapter One. It may only last as long as the time to download an eBook, or it could be the time to drive home from the bookstore and slide under the bed covers, or it could be longer, even months until you have the time to start.

But once the first page is turned the show begins and the chapters fly by. A surprise here, a dramatic event there, then more twists and turns and the final climax before the loose ends are wrapped up. And all the while the main characters are with you, taking you on their adventure.

Does the author have anticipations too? You bet. The author wants his/her characters to keep the reader enthralled until the very end. And once there, wanting more.

 You know, like Leonard Cohen leaving the stage to a standing ovation.

Battle of the sexes

Paula’s Post #9 — If you’ve been following this blog, you may have figured out by now that both Joe and I are writing YA novels.

In his post last week, Traitorous Doubts, Joe wrote:

Pages written: 125.


Joe, Joe, Joe… you’re killing me!

Those words terrify me. I want to throw down my outline and write. I can’t possibly keep tinkering, ad infinitum, with my outline’s sagging middle and murky ending.

I have to start writing.

Except I’m beginning to have my doubts about a few things.

Doubts so big, my target YA audience might even label these doubts ‘ginormous’. And while we’re on this rant, why doesn’t spellcheck recognize ‘ginormous’ as a perfectly good, highly descriptive adjective? How can I write a great YA novel when spellcheck doesn’t know the word ginormous exists?

But once again, I digress.

Suffice it to say that my ginormous self-doubts are so seminal to my novel, so important to every nuance of plot and subplot, I know I can’t possibly start writing until I decide whether to listen to those nagging little twinges of ‘self-doubt’ and make a HUGE CHANGE to my story, or just tell the nasty little buggers to scram and shove them head first into the nearest trash can.

So what are these ‘ginormous’ self-doubts

This weekend, almost half way through the 5writers challenge, I suddenly started to doubt whether my protagonist, my main point of view character, the kid on whose shoulders my entire story rests, should, in fact, be male, not female.

Ack, Ack, Ack! This can’t be happening.

Months ago I decided on a strong female protagonist. Teenage boys don’t read fiction. Sure, there are exceptions, (I’m guessing Joe is one of them) but apparently not enough to make agents and editors want to take a chance on a book with a male protagonist.

I get that.

But now that I’ve got the whole book more or less mapped out, I’m starting to doubt whether my characters and storyline will appeal to girls. Rather, I feel that I may be writing a novel that is more likely to appeal to boys.

And if so, how do I reconcile my Catch-22 dilemma? The one that says: don’t make your protagonist a boy, since 75% of all YA readers are girls.

Writers talk about having ‘beta’ readers. I’m only at the outline stage, and I’m out-of-town right now… 2500 kilometres away from my 5writers buddies. I have only my husband off whom to bounce ideas. Sure, I could call or email my 5writers buddies and seek their feed back on this dilemma, but to do so I’d have to divulge much of my plot, and that is something we 5writers more or less decided we would not do.

So I’m stuck with my husband as sounding board.

He’s a boy.

He reads.

His verdict? My protagonist should be male.

But after seeking his advice, I still felt conflicted. After all, how often do you take advice from your spouse?

For me, there is a lesson in all this: outlining has its virtues, but at some point, I feel I just have to start writing the damn book, even if I don’t quite know the ending yet. I need to find out where my characters are going to take me…

…oh, and what sex they’re going to be!

So yesterday I started writing. I now can clock in, just like my hero Joe:

Pages written: 19

Pie’s eaten this week: 0

Sex of Protagonist: Female…

…at least for now.

Rotten Tomatoes – a new candidate

Helga’s Post #8 — Collectively, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth on our blog since it started. A quick review produced some real doozies. Like these: (by no means the unabridged collection)

– Traitorous Doubts: I could see it coming.  A wall.  A big one.

– Pages written to date: Zero! Which means by whatever formula you apply, I’m in trouble, with a capital “T”.

– I know, I should hunker down and write that novel, like my four writing partners. But…

– Worse yet, if I am to continue with my ‘true confessions’ I must admit to not having written a word since October 22nd.

– No further plots plotted, period, full stop.

– Next to “the dog ate my homework”, mine is probably the most common excuse of all time: I’m sick.

– But wait … do I really have 137 days? Of course not. There are at least 8 “holidays” over that period, when I am not likely to write a word.

And so on and so forth. What motivated me to look back instead of going forward?

Because – and this is the biggest confession until now, on the entire blog, one that would have a priest flee the confessional box, cassock fluttering wildly, a confession that will surely make you gasp collectively in disgust – one that…. no, wait. This sentence is getting way too long. ‘Must write short sentences’, gurus always tell their student writers.

So, to pick up the thread of the subject of this post – confession.  Reason I looked BACK at our posts was in hope of finding some solace, something comparable to what I have done, so as not to feel like an outcast.

You will agree, once you read on, that the Rotten Tomatoes Award (if one existed for authors) must without doubt, be conferred to me. At least that would be the case if the clock stops ticking now and we would compare progress as of today. Forget your extended periods of writers block, forgive yourself for tossing out 30 pages of your writing, ignore above mentioned citations of gnashing teeth, because this, esteemed colleagues and friends, is nothing compared to yours truly.

Before I go on (confessions never were my strong suit) this picture will help me explain. Or rather ease you into it. The 5 books (ah, the number 5 again: an omen?) are the bulk of my research for my NEW novel.

Yes. New as in new since earlier this week.

So, now it’s out. While you wring your hands and mutter disparaging remarks, let me explain. I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of my protagonist. She just wouldn’t shut up about how she is bored with me, and she wants to do something different, something more worthwhile than what I’d saddled her with. She had the nerve to visit me during all hours of the night with absurd statements like “I don’t want my lover to get a new kidney from an executed Chinese prisoner. Who wants to read about organ snatchers anyway? Been there, done that. How boring! How morose. Who would want to read that book?”

I just couldn’t get her to cooperate. Even after introducing another character, an intriguing sexy man, hoping I could con her. A guy most women would swoon over. But no, she didn’t want to speak to me any more. Dead silence. Writers block. Thick wall, much like Joe’s in his last post.

And then a new dawn. It came about over coffee with a friend. When she too agreed with my protagonist that this sounds like a really depressing book, I knew I had to make a change. Probably knew it all along, because my heart wasn’t in it. Because I found excuses not to write.

Out with the old, in with the new.

My new story, like my abandoned one, will be suspense, though nobody will snatch kidneys, livers, corneas and hearts from not-yet-really-dead people. But on a larger scale, it will be more sinister. In a less gory way, if you know what I mean. And there is hope in the end.

So for me, this is no longer a 5 month challenge. It’s a 3 month one. Given that I will be away for the month of December on another continent, where my writing time will be severely restricted, it’s more a 2 month challenge. And all I have to show for as of this moment, is an outline of an outline. And a protagonist that keeps following me. She wants a piece of the action. (Still working on the new villain).

You see why I chose the Rotten Tomatoes title? But I’ve made peace with my protagonist.

Like sands through the hourglass…

Paula’s Post #8 – I have a Mac. I’m sure it is more or less the same on a PC, but on my Mac, I have a little calendar icon affixed to the ‘dock’ that runs across the bottom of my laptop screen. Tonight, the number I see on that little calendar icon is a ‘5’. Look closely you can see the ‘5’ too.

As in November 5th.

As in ‘Yikes’!

Two months down, three months to go. Like the tick of a metronome  I feel the minutes, the hours, the days slipping past. Where have all those precious days gone? How have they slipped away? How can it be November 5th already? Somewhere in the background I imagine I can hear a riff of melodramatic organ music, a distant memory from some 1970’s mid-day soap opera where a rich, deep voiceover intones: ‘Like sands through the hourglass, so are The Days of our Lives.

I get it. I know I have to quicken my pace, that the numbers are not in my favour. My 5writers friend Joe likes to provide status updates. A sort of writers ‘show and tell’.  So here is my status update:

Pies eaten this week: 1/6th (Lemon Meringue)

Characters created to date: 21

Scenes outlined to date: 77

Pages written to date: 0


Yes, zero. Which means by whatever formula you apply, I’m in trouble, with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P”.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not without hope. If you’d asked me this afternoon (after I took the morning off to play golf, then lunched with friends),  I would have happily told you I had everything under control. That I had 77 scenes sketched out. And even if I hadn’t quite finished my outline yet, I was this close to knowing what that ending would be, and when I knew what that ending would be, I would be able to start writing ‘Chapter One’.

But tonight, I’m not feeling quite so confident. For one thing,  I’m not entirely sure how my 77 scenes and 21 characters are all going to fit together. Not sure if I know enough about the structure of YA fiction to pull this whole thing off. I do know I’m going to need one big blitz. A veritable marathon of writing. But can I embark on this marathon while writing in a genre so far from my comfort zone?

A little clarity would help.

An acclaimed, NY Times Bestselling author who recently ventured into the world of YA fiction  revealed that she is learning a lot of YA rules, and one appears to be: “No Adult Point of View Characters”.

Really? I’m just finding this out now! Just when I’m ready to outline the climatic ending to my novel? I’ve a dozen or more scenes told from the POV of my adult characters. Assuming that I now have to ‘flush’ the scenes that I’d planned to pen from the POV of an ‘adult’ antagonist, my actual scene count has to be closer to 60, a much more modest number.

And that’s not the only problem. How can I move the plot forward and reveal information that I want you, my readers to know, yet at the same time I want to keep hidden from my young characters, at least for a few more chapters. In the end, I’m left with one big dilemma: how does one reveal important parts of the narrative without the very useful device of having an adult POV antagonist?

Who knew there were so many different ‘rules’ about writing YA fiction?

I read the Hunger Games trilogy. I even purchased the aptly titled Writing Young Adult Fiction for DummiesBut even so,  I still have a lot of questions about this strange new genre, and very little time to find out the answers.

Or maybe I’ll just decide ‘some rules were made to be broken’.

What do you think?