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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why isn’t this working?

Please welcome guest blogger Erin Kellison

You’ve taken the class on GMC. You can write snappy dialogue. You understand the danger of a sagging middle, and the importance of a black moment. Those are just some of the big concepts and skills associated with writing a novel. And I agree; all are critical. But for me, more often than not, craft is about working through the discrete, isolated issues of a specific manuscript. And here, I think, is where a lot of writers get tripped up.

For example, in my Shadow series, I have a realm of magic that shifts with perception, like a dream. My editor, upon buying the first book, remarked that she was very interested in the second book, where I would delve more fully into this realm, a place I call Twilight. When I settled down to write Shadow Fall (book 2), I bumped into a series-specific problem: how do you make a dreamlike place, and the surreal events that occur there, effortless to absorb as a reader? My crit partners (how I love them) helped me step through this very unique problem with a simple rule (they beat me over the head with it time and time again): Keep it grounded. Keep every possible detail concrete, so that when something unusual happens, it’s easy to grasp. In a sense, the scenes set in Twilight had to be more specific and relatable than the ones set in the real world.

As far as I know, there aren’t many courses on how to include surreal and/or dream states in genre fiction. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough. The solution we came up with may seem pretty straight-forward, but then I used the easiest example I could think of. What about the trickier, little things: How to manage that snappy dialogue when it includes both verbal and telepathic exchanges? How do you tag that when it should almost run stream of consciousness? Some readers will accept italics; some readers say ‘italics pull me out.’ Or what about managing three simultaneous critical events in three different settings? My editor taught me about the perils of overlapping time—btw, it’s not the way to go, though I’ve seen it used to great effect in other books. Okay, so how do you know when to mess with time one way, and when to mess with it another? Again, I don’t often see that course listed on a craft loop or broken down neatly in a craft book. Please advise me if I am wrong and have been beating my head bloody for no good reason.

Manuscript-specific issues are lonely issues. You might research how others solved a similar problem in their books (that has helped me some), but ultimately it comes down to the writer’s craft. I should say, ever-evolving craft.

(Actually, rereading this now, I see that the ‘keep it simple, keep it concrete’ works for almost all my above issues. And all three figure into Shadow Fall.)

My point is, every time I or my crit partners hand over pages with the disclaimer “what I’m trying to do…” I know that the macro skills aren’t likely to be the problem. And very quickly some of those “rules” of writing asserted in early craft classes don’t seem applicable. What if you need a flashback in a prologue, both of which I’ve heard are bad craft (early flashbacks and prologues). And here my editor likes my prologues. The one in Shadow Fall has multiple flashbacks. Hmmm…

I guess you can’t please them all. And isn’t that the most freeing state of mind? A good crit group will help you muddle through a problem, but ultimately it’s up to you and your story. This blog is first a recognition of those often frustrating issues when the course seems very uncertain, but it’s also intended as encouragement: Trust yourself. Tell your story. Explore this or that approach. Throw out the rules, if need be. The solution has to come from you (which is a good thing).

And that’s craft.

Erin Kellison is the author of the Shadow Series, which includes Shadow Bound and Shadow Fall. Stories have always been a central part of Erin Kellison's life. She attempted her first book in sixth grade, a dark fantasy adventure, and still has those early hand-written chapters. She graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English Language and Literature, and went on for a masters in Cultural Anthropology, focusing on oral storytelling. When she had children, nothing scared her anymore, so her focus shifted to writing fiction. She lives in Arizona with her two beautiful daughters and husband, and she will have a dog (breed undetermined) when her youngest turns five.

You can contact Erin though her website, www.ErinKellison.com, where you can also sign up to receive her newsletter.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/ekellison

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/erin.kellison

Shadow Fall


Custo Santovari accepted pain, blood, even death, to save his best friend. But a man with all his sins just isn't cut out to be an angel.


One moment he's fleeing Heaven; the next, he's waking up stark naked in Manhattan. In the middle of a war. Called there by a woman who's desperately afraid of the dark.


It gathers around Annabella as she performs, filled with fantastic images of another world, bringing both a golden hero and a nightmare lover.


He pursues her relentlessly, twisting her desires even as she gives herself to the man she loves. Because each of us has a wild side, and Annabella is about to unleash the beast.


Anonymous said...

Write on!
When you said, "A good crit group will help you muddle through a problem, but ultimately it’s up to you and your story." that really hit home.

Thanks for the encouraging post.

Nora said...

I confess. I'm a bit ital-challenged. Maybe we could color code those passages (just kidding!).

Great blog, Contessa. I learn more and more from YOU every day.

Your crit buddie, Madam N

KC said...

Great blog and so true. One must know all the rules, but rule following will only get you so far. In the end you have to trust yourself and isn't that the hardest rule of them all. Congrats on your new book releases and wish you many more.

Rebecca York said...

Good thoughts.

I've got very similar problems. Plus many of the usual ones. Like in the book I'm writing now I'm worried about how long the h/h are apart in the first quarter of the book. (There plot is complicated and there are some other things to deal with.)

It never occurred to me to use anything besides ITAL for telepathic communication. How else would you know the speech was silent?

I'm working on a proposal that kind of deals w/ reality that's NOT reality. Yes you've got to think about what you're doing.

Rebecca York

Anonymous said...

Great post! I've also found it helpful to ask people who don't read in the genre to review a sample of the work. If they get what you're trying to do, you know you're on track.

Keep it concrete--I'm adding that to the sticky note area above my desk. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

cool blog,期待更新............................................................

Anonymous said...