On writing

Betrayed by the author (or in this case, the film company)

I am not a fan of killing off characters unnecessarily.

The recent ‘news’ that Disney planned to drop Will Turner from the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie illustrates what I was saying.

The reason given for killing him off was money. Disney supposedly wanted to save money on the fourth movie.

The general feeling among fans we polled* was betrayal. Some people felt Will Turner was integral to the story, and should not be killed off for that reason, others felt more betrayed by the reason Disney was killing him off. As one of our surveyees said, “I can understand if there was a reason to kill him, but not just to save money. That’s a stupid reason.”

As it turns out, Disney have since denied the rumours.

* It wasn’t a scientific poll, more a ‘What do you think about …” among people we knew who liked the movie.

On writing

Improving your query letters

The first of two posts on query letters.

There are hundreds of books and internet sites that tell you what to put into your query letter. Even the manuscript guidelines for most agents cover briefly what they want it it.

I’m a person who likes to see examples. If I can see what other people do, what is wrong and what is right with their queries, then I am a lot better prepared to write my own.

Here are some web sites that can help you with this.

Miss Snark

Marathon effort from literary agent, Miss Snark, with her Crapometer #3. She analysed 110 query letters, along with the first page of the novel being queried. She did this over a period of four days.

If you send query letters it’s a must-read, not just to find how to improve your query letters, but for an insight into how an agent works.

Rachel Vater

Not long after this, over at Live Journal site, Rachel Vater began workshopping queries and first pages, explaining what was wrong with them and how to improve them. The workshopped pieces must then be submitted to ten markets after this, and the writers report back on the results.

It will be fascinating to see what happens.

Jacqueline K. Ogburn

Jacqueline Ogburn shows us a couple of sample query letters for children’s books and outlines what is wrong with them.

Preditors and Editors

Preditors and Editors has a sample query letter.


Lynn Flewelling has put her query for Luck in the Shadows onto the SFWA Writing site.

The second post is here, if you’re interested.

On writing

Does the fiction you write reflect your personality?

Does your personality come across in the stories you write?

Does your fiction sound like your non-fiction?

I am too close to this blog to know whether the way I write here sounds like the novels we write. Blogging is very personal. It is possibly more me than other styles of writing.

I used to work with a man whose work writing style was extremely formal. Every sentence was beautifully constructed. He wrote long sentences with perfect grammar and lots of commas and he never, ever used contractions like I’m or don’t. His writing had a Gunning Fog Index of about 16.

Needless to say, he wrote literary fiction.

Personality-wise, he matched his writing. Very formal, very correct, a little pompous.

My writing is considerably different.

For a start, it has a Gunning Fog Index that averages around six. It’s full of contracted words and partial sentences. First drafts, particularly, meander and are very passive.

Some people say I talk like that.

But what about even more deeply than just the words and how one uses them?

Until Sherylyn adds her feedback my characters tend to be self-pitying wimps. Does that make me one too? They lack emotion. Am I cold and emotionless?

Sherylyn adds much of the emotion to our stories. Everyone who knows us would agree she is more emotional in real life too. That aspect of our writing definitely mirrors our personality.

As we polish the work we change it. We clean up the writing, take out the passive words, and change what the characters do and how they say it to match the story we have created. The fifth draft of a novel is considerably different to the first. How much of a person is left in the story by that fifth draft, and how much is controlled by the characters we have created?

It’s an interesting question, and not one the writer(s) of the novel can answer.

On writing

How we write our blog

Lorelle, over at Lorelle’s Word Press blog, has put out a blogging challenge—how do you blog?

It’s another type of writing, and I thought it would be interesting to compare blog writing with novel writing.

The aim, when writing for this blog, is to produce one ‘article’ per week.

We use Word Press. Great tool, great community. (One day I am going to give back a bit to the Word Press people. I see they have some areas where they say they want more documentation. When I find something that I actually know enough about, I’m going to contribute.)

The progress report is easy. We write the novel as one massive Microsoft Word document (backed up every night, just in case). A quick word count while I’m inside the novel gives me the number of words, which I add to the post as a custom field. Custom Fields is a neat little plug-in created by Scott Reilly.

Because it is usually only a paragraph, I do a quick check of the text, and then post it.

The other two articles are not so easy.

As we are so busy at the moment, I tend to write the articles by hand while I am eating lunch. When I get home I type them direct into Word Press, saving often, as I am paranoid about losing files, particularly on the internet.

At those rare times when I actually have a PC to write on directly, I:

  1. Type direct into Dream Weaver, edit it there, and then copy and paste into Word Press, or
  2. Type direct into Microsoft Word, edit it there, spell check it, copy and paste into Notepad, and then copy and paste the Notepad text into Word Press. (I try to never paste Word docs into HTML, it’s a mess.)

If I have enough time, I then let the article sit as a draft for a couple of days. First drafts are never good. Sadly, I don’t always get much time to polish. One of the aims of this blog is to produce.

Even so, the finished post generally changes a lot from the original handwritten post to the published article.

We often go back later, after an article is posted, and tidy up some of the writing. Either one of us might do this.

How different is this practice to other types of writing? Not a lot, really.

Given the choice we (or I, at least), will always type direct to the PC if I can, but at times when we are away we’ll write on anything we can, just to get a first draft down. When we come to second and subsequent drafts, we need to do this on the computer.

Progress report

Writing progress

More travel, training, deadlines and disruptions. Can’t settle into a routine, which is not doing this novel any good at all.

Still on chapter four, with Mathers and Shannon at the scene of the ‘crime’.

Progress report

Writing progress

Finally getting some time to work on Barrain.

Chapter 3—Know we need to work a bit more on what happens between Scott, Elna and Caid to keep the timeline, but have jumped ahead to the first introduction of Mathers. Hence Chapter 3 is currently just a blank heading at present.

On writing

More on writer’s egos

I said in a recent post that ego is important in writing. It is, and if you believe your story is good, then don’t believe others who say it isn’t.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to their feedback. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can improve. For example, it came across fairly clearly that Potion starts slowly. If we can fix this, we will.

Just because you think your story is good also does not mean that you should expect personal feedback from every agent and/or publisher you submit it to.

I really enjoy Read ’em and weep, over at the Rejection Collection.

There are some interesting rejections in there. Some, such as this one, are fairly obviously from scam agents. As a writer you need to be aware of these, and ensure that you don’t fall into their clutches. Writer Beware is an excellent place to start to weed these out. In a few, the agent or editor is genuinely insulting.

In many of the replies, however, the agent or editor simply submitted a form rejection, and the author felt insulted. Take this standard form rejection to a query that didn’t click with the agent, for example. The author feels the agent couldn’t tell what the book was like from the query letter, and should not therefore have rejected it for not being his type of book. (I am simply choosing examples here, not picking on anyone in particular, and the ‘submitted by’ indicates that it’s not as black and white as I make it appear. Many of these posts are also tongue in cheek, and not as serious as I make them sound.)

Or what about this rejection, where the author got handwritten notes on the form rejection letter. This agent had taken the time to explain why they had rejected his novel, and the reasons were not because of the writing, but because they did not believe there was a market for his novel. I would be so happy if we got form rejection letters like this. All he needs to do is find another agent with a different view.

The number of people who got upset by scribbled comments on the form letter surprised me. In an ideal world we would all have personalised replies to every query we send out, but we all know how the slush pile works. Agents and editors are busy people, a form letter is what we expect (we don’t want it, but most of us can build a nice fire out of our pile of form rejection slips). Here’s another encouraging reply.

At first, seriously scared. Was I writing historical novels that were so badly plotted they couldn’t keep the reader’s attention? Was I so bad at research there were anachronisms in a book I was sure (through hundreds of hours of research) was historically correct?

Later, I became indignant. Chiefly because a) the book came fourth in a national award. Did this mean the six readers who had read it for the award were wrong? No, I don’t think so.

And I was fortunate enough to bump into a Doctor of historical studies, specializing in the era my novel was set in. She read it, and said the only anachronism she could find was the hero’s name, but most non-historians wouldn’t know that anyway!

Read ’em and weep Rejection Collection: submitted by Writer Wrong

Again, I’d be pretty happy with a reply like this. Well, not happy, exactly, but this is good feedback I can use. Feedback from someone who gave an honest assessment of what they thought was wrong with the book. Not only that, what they thought was right with it (great series idea). In this case I found the author’s initial reaction reasonable, but then they seemed to lose sight of the main response (plot was weak and no major line of suspense) and concentrate on what I felt were the two lesser issues, to the author’s detriment. (It won a prize, so what does this agent know, and there’s only one anachronism.)

There’s a very fine line between where the writer’s ego stops (my book is great, and the agent/editor therefore has no idea), and accepting real feedback to fix your story (maybe I do have to fix this). Nothing is black and white and everything is subjective. What one person likes another may hate.

It’s also easier to view other people’s reactions and see whether they are being reasonable or not. We still don’t really know if Potion is a saleable novel. We will never know unless we sell it.

Meantime, if an agent takes the time to write something personal on a form rejection letter, we’re going to be pretty happy about that.

On writing

Ego is important in writing

Got comprehensively trounced in Miss Snark’s Crapometer #3 when we put a Potion query and first page into the list.

The query was re-written specifically for the Crapometer. Apart from the fact it is appallingly written, and that there are typos (it was late, and I was in a hurry—always a bad move) it is funny that the one line that came from the original query was the only one Miss Snark really approved of.

The general consensus on the actual story, though, was that the manuscript should stay under the bed. That we should put it aside and concentrate on writing the next book.

Ego is an important thing in writing. You have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in your product.

We believe in Potion.

It has a slow start. Story beginnings are not a strong point. We continually rewrite them, even as we ship them out in the mail.

It’s a first novel, and suffers from that. (I have always said that if our first novel is as good as Anne McCaffrey’s Restoree we should always be proud of it. Restoree has aged, and it is obviously a first novel, but it’s still good for what it was.)

How many years can you polish and repolish the same story before you move on to other writing? We’ve done Potion. We’ve moved on, but we still believe in it enough to think it saleable.

Is it really good enough?

We don’t know.

When talking about our own fiction we say that Rainbow is probably the first novel we will get published. Why? It has a great premise, tied to a unique world, with interesting, likeable characters who have a lot at stake. By the time we re-write Rainbow we’ll also have a lot of novel writing experience under our belt. Assuming we have learned from what we have written prior, that is.

So should we give up on Potion and wait until Rainbow is done before we start sending out more query letters?


It is almost impossible for a writer to look dispassionately at their work. They always want it to be better than it is, or think it will never be as good as other people’s. Their first attempts at writing are pretty awful, particularly the first drafts. Not only that, they can’t see the flaws in the work (it’s still hard for us, sometimes impossible), even when they are pointed out.

But there comes a time when a writer has to be able to stand back and look at their work, and say, “You know, this isn’t too bad. This is better than some of the books I’ve read lately.”

It’s then that you have to believe in your book. Have faith in it, no matter how bad a hammering it gets. Whether you are right or wrong is irrelevant.

Will Potion ever get published? I don’t know. But meantime we’ll keep polishing it, and sending it out, until there is no-one left to send it to. When Shared Memories is complete (it has at least two major drafts to go), we’ll do the same for that one as well.

p.s. Sherylyn never liked the start. She has now convinced me to ditch the first four pages. All we have to do now is negotiate on the next four, which she doesn’t like either.

On writing

Other writers influencing your work

Deadlines, extra work. I am so tired I feel sick. Haven’t touched Barrain, or any other writing (outside of work), for days now.

It’s my own fault. On the one free day I had, when I could have been writing, what did I do? I picked up Lynn Flewelling‘s Luck in the Shadows, and then, of course, I had to read the second book, Stalking Darkness.

These two books stand alone, but there is a third with the same characters. The question now is do I find the third book, or do I wait until we have finished writing this draft of Barrain?

I try to not read books while we are writing the first major drafts. I find that no matter how hard we try, the book influences me.

For example, I remember re-reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy while writing an earlier version of Shared Memories.

Weeks later, going back to do the edits, we find that Roland grins wolfishly and does other wolfish things. If you’ve read the Farseer trilogy you’ll know where the wolfishness comes in.

The thing is, Roland is about as unlike a wolf as you can get. He’s not a grinner either.

There were two chapters of totally out of character behaviour. It took a while to clean it out.

It’s great when a book has so much impact on you, that you can’t help but carry it over into your story. However, it’s not a desirable thing to do.

After that we decided not to read and write at the same time. Not for any of the major drafts, anyway.

Talking about things

On-line writing forums

On-line writing forums are great, but if you don’t manage them carefully they can become a black hole that absorbs all your writing energy, leaving you no time for writing.

I know from personal experience.

Some danger signs, and how to avoid them.

Logging on to the forum before you do any writing

I used to do this to get into the mood for writing, and for a while it worked. But then I found I was spending so much time on the forums I had no time left to write.

Nowadays, I do my writing first and visit the forums later—if I’m not too busy writing to bother.

If I ever do pop into a forum before I start, I watch the clock, and try to get out within the hour.

The dead end relationship

Any forum loses members through natural attrition. People drop out, or get other interests.

In my experience a forum that has shrunk to a dozen or less active members, all of whom know each other intimately (on the web, at least), and whose posts can really only be understood by the other regular posters, is not worth it.

If you find that you are one of those last half-dozen posters on a site, and that it has become a general purpose chat session rather than specifically about writing, maybe it is time to jump ship.

Most forums have a finite life. Sometimes it’s kinder to let a dead forum go than to hang on to the bitter end. (The bitter end being when the person hosting the forum pulls the plug.)

If you really like the people in the forum, then by all means keep in touch, but if you’re in it for the writing don’t hang around simply out of loyalty.

The too scared to post forum

Everyone should lurk a little in a forum before they post.

Like any other social setting you need to know the do’s and don’ts before you start blasting away with your own opinion.

Once you know the etiquette, however, you shouldn’t be afraid to contribute.

If everything you post gets savaged, find another forum. You are not doing yourself or your writing any favours by sticking around.

(Inappropriate posting is a totally different matter —worthy of a whole subject to itself. I am amazed at the number of writers who ask people to review their work, for example, on forums that clearly state they do not do this.)

Used properly, online writing forums can be a great tool for a writer, but choose your forum carefully and beware of the traps mentioned above.