Tuesday, March 26, 2013

When Your Verbs Say "Neener"

My favorite part of writing is the first draft because I love finding the story—having the characters take me on their adventure. But editing has its own joys because you get to clean up the story so that it’s ready for other people to enjoy it.

In the past, I’ve compared writing first drafts with riding a roller coaster with a blindfold on. But editing can be that way too. When I approach a new section, I have an idea of what needs to be done. Some sections need a lot of work. And other sections need only a spit-shine. But here’s the odd thing, sometimes the spit shine takes twice as long as the sections that need to be completely redone.

I can’t help wonder, “Is it me?” Was my brain functioning better on the rewrite day? Was I too easily distracted on my spit-shine section? You’d think that fixing a word or adding a beat (usually a physical action that breaks up a section of dialogue and grounds the reader in the text) should be easy. But sometimes…you stare at the verb. (Usually for me it’s the verbs that are difficult.) The verb stares back, waiting for me to blink. And when I do, it sticks out its tongue and says, “Neener.”

So I ponder my options for dealing with a weak verb. Throwing a modifier in would be easy and, probably, wrong. Adverbs usually weaken verbs. So, my first line of defense is a good thesaurus. Not because I’m looking for a synonym (also usually a weak way out), but because I’m looking for a new way to think about an action. For example, let’s say I have the phrase “he sighed.” An occasional use of “sigh” is fine. But “sighs” often become crutches—the literary equivalent of the verbal “um” or “uh”—a way of getting from one place to another. They’re okay in first drafts, but you can’t dump them on your readers.  If you check “sigh” in a thesaurus, you’ll get “groan, “lament,” “exhale,” etc. That’s where I usually start. I ask myself which one of these synonyms expresses what my character is feeling. Is he tired, discouraged, weary, etc.? Then, I figure out a different physical way of showing the same emotion or state of being. If he were physically tired, his eyelids could be half closed. If he’s discouraged, his shoulders could slump forward or his voice could sound old. Or I could add a simile or a metaphor to the verb—he inhaled as if he’d rather not.

Finding “the perfect word” is why editing takes so long. As I wrote this blog post, writing the alternatives for “sighed” took me twice as long as writing the rest of the post. *I sigh in retrospect.*  J Even now, I really don’t like the alternatives I came up with. And if this blog post weren’t already overdue, I’d stare at the verb alternatives for at least another twenty minutes.

I sure hope the next editing section needs a lot of rewriting…  

Free Tongue Out Smiley
This is my verb sticking out its tongue. Courtesy of Free Clip Art. http://free.clipartof.com/details/45-Free-Tongue-Out-Smiley

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Forgotten Treats

I’m almost two-thirds of the way finished with the first edit of book three! So barring any unforeseen difficulties, I’ll be finished with the first edit before my husband and I go the Paris for our 25 wedding anniversary. (If you missed that story, click here.) While I’m on vacation, beta reader number one will read the novel.

Editing is not my first love. I love writing the first drafts—seeing where my characters will take me. And I don’t mind second round editing—polishing the prose. But first round editing is a bit more like grunt work—notes I left myself in the text with all the stuff that I didn’t deal with in the first draft like “Where the heck is Character X?”, “How Character Y get a weapon?”, and “This dialogue sucks.”. But first round editing does have its amazing moments. If don’t know if other writers experience this, but in the time between writing my first draft and editing it, I forget things.

So I’ll be reading a chapter and a character will say or do something that takes me aback, and I’ll think, “What’s going on?” Sometimes I pick up a red pen and begin scratching things out. But I’ve learned better. Frequently, it’s a small plot twist that I forgot about. That makes it so fun for me.

And now I’m off to work on the edit, hoping that I’ll find more forgotten treats.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Babylon's Ancient Waterslide

One of the things that intrigues me about time travel fiction is the dual viewpoint it provides. You can present an historical culture, artifact, or place and see it from an ancient perspective and a modern one.

For example, in Screwing Up Babylon, several scenes take place in the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Besides the tremendous fun of figuring out how the garden was build and watered, I was able to look at it through the eyes of everyday Babylonians, who’d see it as a gorgeous but private place. Because Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens for his wife Amytis who was homesick for Media, it’s unlikely that an everyday Babylonian ever got to visit it. So when I wrote the scenes in the Gardens, I brought a servant there, which allowed the reader to experience the servant’s stunned impressions of the jungle of plants and flowers in the middle of an oasis in the desert. But I could also share with the reader the Garden’s impact on Henry with his modern sensibilities. He realizes that ancient technology was every bit as impressive as his own time. Yet, everything has its cost. And Henry sees the demands of the Gardens—it wouldn’t exist without the slaves turning the Archimedean Screw that waters the Gardens.

But Henry’s experience of the Gardens as an interesting artifact or technological achievement isn’t the end. He brings to the Gardens his modern experiences. So later when he and Miranda need to escape, Henry realizes that the man-made river, which waters the Gardens, is pretty much a functional ancient waterslide.  And then, I got to write one of the most crazy action scenes I’ve ever written.

The waterslide escape allowed me to show the fun side of time travel’s duality, which is its genius. We visit history without romanticizing it or feeling superior to it. And we realize that although cultures may change, people—both for good and evil—stay the same.

A 16th-century hand-colored engraving of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck, with the Tower of Babel in the background.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Not Your Sister's Unicorn

When I first started writing Screwing Up Time, I spend a lot of time planning and thinking about the time travel elixir. I wanted it to be a very natural, plausible, even scientific recipe. But, it needed a special ingredient. Something rare, something that bordered on fantastic, but not quite impossible.

Unicorn horn seemed like the perfect ingredient. Except, at the back of my mind, I saw all the silly unicorns—the stuffed animals with rainbow hued spirals, a kind of My Little Pony of the mythic world. And that gave me pause.

Historically, unicorns were powerful wild animals. Everyone from the ancients Greeks to Marco Polo spoke about them with respect. And ancient alchemists believed their horns (made up of alicorn) could be used to cure poisoned water and heal the sick.

Since Screwing Up Time was set in the Middle Ages, it only made sense that alchemists (and other ancient peoples) would use unicorn horn as an ingredient in a time travel elixir. And so, I decided to ignore the rainbow stuffed animals, trusting that my readers knew that unicorns were dangerous, unpredictable animals. Just check out the image below—it’s picture of a tapestry from the Cloisters museum in NYC. (I actually got to see the unicorn tapestries up close during a visit to the museum.) This ferocious beast is not your sister’s unicorn.

File:The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry 5.jpg

When I visit Paris later this spring, I plan to visit the Musee de Cluny where they have more unicorn tapestries. If they let me take photos, I'll be sure to post them here.

One more bit of excitement. This week, Smashwords is celebrating "Read An E-book Week," and Screwing Up Time is FREE when you use the coupon code, RW100, at the checkout. Enjoy!