Wednesday, February 23, 2011

200 FOLLOWER GIVEAWAY! + Sentences Makeovers

Woo! Thanks to all my newfound bloggy-buddies, I have reached 200+ followers. To celebrate, I am giving away private CHAPTER CRITIQUES (17 pages max). There will be THREE WINNERS chosen. Alternately, if you don't wish to have a chapter critiqued, I will offer copies of JUNCTION 2020 (my YA light fantasy POD novel) for giveaway. Your choice. To enter:

1. Be a follower of this blog
2. Comment on THIS post by Tuesday, March 1 at midnight PST
3. Be sure to say "enter me" or the equivalent so I know you're interested and not just cruising by as part of the Crusade
4. Winners will be chosen in a random drawing and announced Wednesday, March 2

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SENTENCE MAKEOVERS
As a writer, you cannot produce strong writing without crafting strong sentences. Each sentence must do its share of work. The foundation of the sentence must be sound as well as the parts. Here are some (simple, basic) ways to make the strongest sentences possible:

1. Use Strong, Active Verbs
Verbs are words that provide the ACTION in a sentence, so weak verbs can make a sentence sag. Weak verbs include "was/were" constructions as well as bland or unspecific verbs.

Okay: She was wearing a two-piece navy suit.
Better: She wore a two-piece navy suit.

Okay: The most beautiful lamp she'd ever seen was on the end table by the couch.
Better: The most beautiful lamp she'd ever seen stood on the end table by the couch.
Best: The most beautiful lamp she'd ever seen graced the end table by the couch.

Okay: Holding back her tears, Molly walked from the auditorium.
Better: Holding back her tears, Molly dashed from the auditorium.

Okay: He sat down with a sigh.
Better: He flopped down with a sigh.

2. Omit 99% of all adverbs
Adverbs--which tell HOW, WHERE, WHEN, or WHY--are usually unimaginative and indicate Telling. They are also often paired with unimaginative verbs. Most but not all end in "ly."

Okay: "Get out of my room!" she said angrily.
Better: "Get out of my room!" she yelled, shaking her fist in his face.

Okay: They walked along the riverside, talking cheerfully until the sun went down.
Better: They walked along the riverside, chattering like squirrels on caffeine until the sun went down.

Okay: She followed Uncle Festus hesitantly into the dining room.
Better: She followed Uncle Festus into the dining room, her shoes dragging across the carpet.

Okay: I watched a very good play last week.
Better: I watched an excellent play last week.

3. Be Spare With Adjectives
Choose your adjectives with care, and watch that you don't string bunches together in one sentence (alas, I adore doing so). Adjectives indicate: HOW MANY, HOW MUCH, WHICH ONE. Don't use an adjective with every single noun, and make sure two adjectives aren't saying the same thing.

Okay: The smoky, hazy cloud from the blaze swept across the land,
Better: The hazy cloud of smoke from the blaze swept across the land.

Okay: Far below the dark rocky cliffs, the blue-green sea thrashed itself into a dingy and frothy foam.
Better: Far below the dark cliffs, the sea thrashed itself into a dingy foam.
(Since cliffs usually are rocky, the sea is pretty much always blue-green, and frothy is close to foam, those adjectives are unnecessary.)

4. Be Careful Using Qualifiers
Watch the use of qualifiers such as: Quite, somewhat, rather, seem, appear, sort of, kind of, mostly, hardly, slightly, almost, nearly, probably, usually, barely, basically.
They dilute the strength of a statement in a sentence. If your character is truly hesitant or uncertain about something, it's one thing, but consider how much doubt you really want to indicate.

Okay: It appeared that Grandma's dog had escaped from the back yard again.
Better: Grandma's dog had escaped from the back yard again.

Okay: He was somewhat reluctant to open the package.
Better: He was reluctant to open the package.
Best: He wiped the dampness of his hands upon his jeans and took a steadying breath before he opened the package. (Show reluctance rather than tell about it, as well as omit the qualifier.)

YOUR TURN
Are you extremely fond of using adverbs or adjectives?
In rough drafts, do you use was and were a lot, and do you have to ferret them out later?
Do your verbs tend to be tired and unimaginative; do you have to spice them up later?
Do you tend to use a lot of qualifiers in your writing?

Are you going to enter the GIVEAWAY?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Page Critique: The Twin Suns of Innis

Today's post features a first-page excerpt from a YA fantasy novel that I wrote in 1996 and recently unearthed; this is one of my shelved novels, but I thought comments might help others. Add your feedback too!

THE EXCERPT

The Twin Suns of Innis

The twin suns of Innis glared down upon Niesha like relentless glowing eyes from the sky. Niesha winced, and shaded her eyes.

Why did she swelter out here in the fields each day, harvesting wheatseed until she felt like bread crisping in a too-hot oven? Merenkin didn't require her to work like this, nor did Merenkin's easygoing husband Toff. She guessed it was simply that she preferred the year-round fieldwork to sitting around embroidering posies and setherbirds on linen edges. Merenkin's three plump daughters were welcome to that daily routine.

Tight-lipped, Niesha swung her scythe back across her row of wheat, watching it fall into splayed heaps by her sides. She hacked with intense energy, as though her arms were fighting the bland color of her world. For grain's sake--yellow, yellow. Everything was yellow, from the golden double suns to the endless march of wheatfields that stretched to every horizon. Even her hair was traitorously yellow, long and wheat-straight.

She paused and closed her eyes against the swirl of grit in the air. Her hot damp palms smoothed her apron skirt. Ah, how wonderful it would be to immerse herself in cool greens, to plunge like a wildthing into the sea. The sea had to be green, didn't it? Or blue. Yes, blue sounded lovely, too. It couldn't be yellow. Yellow was the color of boredom and sweat, the color of a deserted child.

She was that child. Deserted at age five, left in the Wheatlands for twelve long years.


THE CRITIQUE

SPECIFICS: Words, Italics
1. I'd ditch the "Ah" in the second to last paragraph.
2. I'd ditch "simply" in the second paragraph. That adverb is not necessary; when it comes to adverbs, more is less, and this one doesn't add much. I see "traitorously" as more necessary.
3. Perhaps use a different word than "wildthing." A more specific creature, perhaps?
4. Perhaps omit the italics on "that." It's not good to overuse italics; it begins to lose effectiveness. I kind of like the emphasis on "yellow," though.
5. Five instances of weaker "to be" (was, were) verbs are used here, that could perhaps be made stronger by more active verbs.
6. Omit "endless." It's redundant with "that stretched to every horizon."

GENERAL: Conflict, Pace, Telling
7. There's internal conflict here but no outer conflict yet. Outer conflict does arrive soon (the following page), but again, the story needs to be streamlined and the pace livened/quickened.
8. This is somewhat of a slow start. This section goes on a little long without any action happening--it's all internal thoughts. Action does begin on the next page, but if I were to rewrite this, I'd trim this opening.
9. A lot of it--especially the last sentence--strikes me as author explanation/intrusion (telling). It would be better to introduce this info in a more natural place, but at least reword it to sound less info-y. In the last sentence, I suppose I was trying to let the reader know her age. *grin* I suspect I was also trying to describe her appearance in the third paragraph, although it's not as blatant as having her look in a mirror (never do that!). It would be better to SHOW Niesha interacting with Merenkin and Toff, as well as with the plump daughters. That way readers can see Toff's easygoing nature for themselves.
10. There may be too much similarity to THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan. In that novel, the main character's primary goal/desire is to visit the sea.
11. I had publisher interest in this novel, but it was eventually rejected. The editor said she was "not convinced enough by the fantasy world" to add it to their list. If I were to query it today, I'd label it as LIGHT fantasy.

YOUR TURN
Have you ever begun a novel in a similar way, with a character reflecting?
Do you object to coining combined words like setherbirds, wheatfields, and wildthing?
Do you think one page of internal dialogue is too long--did you feel like this is somewhat of a slow start?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Writer's CRUSADE

I've joined a Crusade! This 3-month event is sponsored by Rachael Harrie at Rach Writes. The official title is: The Writer's Platform-Building Crusade.

The Crusade will run from February 1st to April 30th, 2011.
It's a great way to network with other serious writers who are interested in building a network and a solid online presence.

CLICK HERE to find out more info or join.
Hurry!--the event participant window closes FEBRUARY 12 at 11:59 EST!!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Agents, Dialogue, and Book Covers

Starting with Dialogue
The last two posts have generated discussion on whether or not to start novels with dialogue. I read a recent article HERE on Guide to Literary Agents by the agent Jon Sternfeld of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. He doesn't represent MG or YA, but he talks about things in a query that are automatic deletes for him. He says:

"I’m not a fan of dialogue as the opener (though my more commercial fiction colleagues say this isn’t such a no-no). Nevertheless, I tend to delete manuscripts that open with a line of dialogue (esp. one with an exclamation point) and those whose opening line “dumps” exposition."

The point being, why limit your chances or risk an automatic delete by sending your work to an agent who may think this way? (At least do your research to find out if they dislike dialogue openers or not.) Mr. Sternfeld goes on to say that since querying by email is the norm now, agents are more inundated than ever with queries and sample pages, and they are on the lookout for ways to let them decide quickly if a project is worth taking on.

BOOK COVERS
Have you ever visualized the cover of your fledgling novel, or the illustrations of your picture books if you write those? A lot of writers have--I certainly have. A striking and compelling cover is necessary for the following reasons:

1. It is often the first thing buyers see, that either draws them to the book or fails to catch their eye. Whether the image is online, printed in a purchasing flyer/magazine, or displayed on a hard-copy book in a store, there is no denying that certain covers evoke a stronger connection than others. Of course, it's often subjective as to what makes a "good" cover or a compelling image.

2. Covers give an indication of what a book is about. This is very important. Publishers in the past have been under fire and/or reissued a cover because of inaccurate representation. For instance, a main character on a cover. You may be aware that last January 2010, Jaclyn Dolamore's novel, MAGIC UNDER GLASS came out with the MC is described as black-haired and brown-skinned. So why was there a brown-haired, white-skinned girl on the cover?  

In 2009, Justine Larbalestier's novel LIAR came out with a cover depicting a long-haired white girl rather than a short-haired black girl, which the story is about. The cover had to be reissued to correct this.

3. Covers give a tone and a mood to a book. Therefore, it is crucial that it depicts the proper atmosphere and details. Paranormal books must look dark and edgy, light and humorous contemporary books must look well, light and humorous. (Okay, as a writer I can do better than that with my adjectives…um, how about playful and bright?)

4. Covers have design elements that catch one's eye--or not. Designing a cover involves the careful use of color, textures, font size, font style, and composition. If the font on a cover is too difficult to read, whether from style or lack of color contrasts, potential buyers may pass up the book. Colors also elicit underlying emotional responses: blue is calming, red is invigorating/powerful/ intense. Complementary colors accentuate each other and add vibrancy; this means pairing blue with orange, red with green, yellow with violet (this is why greens are often placed in the meat section of your grocery store--it makes the meat look redder). Diagonal lines indicate energy and draw the eye in, while horizontal lines are more serene and peaceful. It all depends on the type of book and the effect the graphic designer wishes to produce.

NOTE: All this isn't to make you feel anxious about your potential cover and whether it will help sell your book. After all, publishers hire book designers who are professionals and generally very good at what they do!

However, the importance of having an accurate and striking cover is all the more reason to be represented by an AGENT. An agent can plead your cause for you if your cover totally misrepresents your writing; he or she can give you extra leverage for change if it is needed.

YOUR TURN
Have you ever visualized the cover of your book(s)?
Have you ever mocked up an actual design for the cover of your book(s)?
Do you ever worry about the cover of your future published book cover?
If you are a published author, are you pleased with your cover(s)? Is it an accurate representation of your book, and a compelling image?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Page Critique: Witches Don't Wear Socks

Announcing: new critique format! A little shorter overall, with the main critique points highlighted in blue to help you scan key points faster. Hope it helps.

Today's post features a first-page excerpt sent to me for critique, as per the sidebar instructions if you're interested. This is taken from a MG/YA paranormal-mystery novel by Cinette Santangelo.


THE EXCERPT

Witches Don't Wear Socks

"But Mom, witches don’t wear socks!” I heard Raz yell. I opened my bedroom door to find her standing outside of my door, at the top of the stairs in her underwear with her hands on her hips and a wide-brimmed, pointy black hat on her head.

“I could dig out a pair of Grandma Stella’s itchy black wool stockings for you, if you’d like.” Mom’s voice carried up the stairwell.

Raz gave a six year-old’s exaggerated huff. “I’ll find something else!” She turned from the stairs and spotted me in my doorway. “Morning, Alex. What are you being for Halloween?”

“Me. What are you supposed to be?” I was beyond slow, first thing in the morning.

“A scary witch,” she cackled, raising her clawed hands next to her face.

“You don’t look very scary.”

“But YOU sure do!” Giggling and shrieking, she bolted for her room and slammed the door.

“OH! Burned by a six year-old. Slipping at your game, are you?” Cassie called from the bathroom across the wide landing.

I hated morning people.

She was applying mascara, and, of course, was already dressed in her cheerleader uniform. Her long, dark hair was styled into cascades of ringlets, and a light blush highlighted her fair, slightly freckled cheeks. She had taken to Mom’s Irish roots, while I had the darker complexion of my Mediterranean-born father.

Stepping out of my room, I felt the usual tingle and pull as I passed through the wards Grandma Stella set over my room.


MY CRITIQUE

Starting With Dialogue
To reiterate from my last post: The main reason starting with dialogue is advised against is that the reader is dropped into a scene mid-action without knowing who the characters are, if the character is someone worth caring about, who's speaking, or what's going on. This can be confusing. It's usually better to introduce the story or main character with a sentence or two first.
Middle Grade or Young Adult?
This feels more MG to me. If YA, it'd probably be lower YA. It also depends on the age of the main character and the type of conflict/plot; MG generally involves protagonists ages 8-12, while YA is 13+. There are exceptions, of course, such as THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, in which the protagonist is 11 but the Holocaust theme makes it YA.
Wording and Little Things
1. The phrase "standing outside of my door" reads smoother without the "of." Also, door is repeated.
2. Is the mom trying to dissuade Raz when she says "itchy black wool stockings"? If an honest offer, she might not say "itchy"--since that's negative.
3. Six-year-old would be all hyphenated.
4. Don't overdo caps. I'd omit them on OH. Alternately, you could use italics for YOU.
5. The "light blush highlighted her fair, slightly freckled cheeks" is quite a mouthful. I'd trim that description. Having both light and highlighted is too much of an echo.
6. Cassie has long, dark hair; Alex has a darker complexion. Also a bit too much of a repeat.
7. If the ward/spell is something Grandma has already done, the verb tense would be "had set." And I admit I wasn't initially sure what a "ward" was.
Other Things
8. The second sentence is quite long, especially if it's MG. It might be better as two: I opened my bedroom door to find her at the top of the stairs. She stood in her underwear with her hands on her hips, and a wide-brimmed, pointy black hat on her head.
9. Would a six-year-old say "Morning," and say her sister's name/Alex? It sounds more like the author is making sure the reader knows the main character's name. To me, Raz would probably say, "Hey. What are you being for Halloween?" but it depends on Raz's personality. She does seem pretty informal to me, since she's bellowing on the stairs in her underwear. LOL
10. The "burned by a six-year-old" phrase repeats the info that Raz is six; this isn't needed. If omitting one instance, I'd choose the first, leaving that line as: Raz gave an exaggerated huff.
11. Cassie sort of appears out of nowhere. Initially, I didn't know anyone else was around, and I thought Alex had responded with that dialogue line. This could be cleared up (a bit) by bumping Cassie's dialogue tag phrase to before she says the line about Alex slipping her game. Or insert a short action phrase by Cassie to introduce her before she speaks her line.
12. I assume Alex is a female--but there's really nothing so far that indicates her gender.
13. The Mediterranean part seemed like a ploy to describe Alex's appearance, and while this is a fairly natural place to describe Cassie, it interrupts the action and story flow a little.
14. Passive sentences, weak verbs: when describing people, places, or things, writers often lapse into weak "to be" verbs like was and were. In this excerpt, the verbs are nice and active until Cassie is described, when phrases like "was applying" and "was styled" appear.
15. From what I've seen (all of chapter 1; Cinette was a 100-follower giveaway winner of a chapter critique) I would label this a fantasy rather than paranormal, but that could be just me, and it could veer off into something more paranormal later.

Kudos
The "burned by a six-year-old" line works well to let the reader know Raz's age in a natural way. The tone and voice is light and playful; I like Alex's disdain for morning people. There's a hint of conflict on the horizon. I like the tingle and pull of stepping out of the protective spell, the inherent question of WHY she needs that protection, and the nonchalance about magical things in her life. The story feels like an interesting cross between Harry Potter and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

YOUR TURN
Can you add anything else to this critique?
Does this feel more like MG or YA to you?
How old do you think the main character Alex is?
What would make this novel paranormal rather than fantasy--which does it seem like to you?