Blog Archives

Chapters – A to Z: C

C is for Chapters. Chapters typically divide distinct sections of a book so that words, sentences and paragraphs that belong together form a logical piece of a book. We all know what chapters are, but have you ever given much thought to how many different ways there are to use (or not use) chapters?

The grouping of pieces of a book into chapters can happen for a number of reasons, such as different points of view, different spans of time, to give the reader a natural time to take a break (or intentionally the opposite, with a mini-cliffhanger at the end of a chapter), or simply because the author wants to emphasise a change of pace, or attitude. A chapter can be a single sentence, or dozens of pages long.

There can be “special” chapters: the prologue and the epilogue to start and end a book, respectively. Often, these can be separate from the main story, or tell a piece of the story that lies outside the “normal” narrator’s knowledge, to offer the reader special insight to what’s going on.

Some authors don’t use chapters, even in rather long books. Wilbur Smith’s African-themed adventure novels come to mind: they’re usually divided into sections (separated by a row of a few asterisks) that can be any length, but no chapters. Many authors number their chapters, but some don’t. A chapter can be called simply “Chapter 5″, or it can have a heading of its own. It can be numbered or not; chapter titles can be unique or repeated. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance, uses the name of the POV (point of view) character as the chapter heading but leaves them unnumbered. Some books, especially in sci-fi, can use dates or timestamps instead of chapter names.

Some authors use simple chapter titles, some use very descriptive or poetic ones. In some cases, chapter names or numbers can even be used to give the reader meta-information of some sort. The number of chapters can be significant or completely coincidental. Wikipedia’s article on book chapters has some interesting examples of unusual numbering schemes. Robin Hobb’s Farseer and The Tawny Man trilogies use short “meta-story” excerpts describing the first-person narrator’s experiences as he is writing the main story. Her Rain Wilds Chronicles use short letters sent by bird between the world’s birdkeepers; taken together, these tell a “meta-story” of their own. Patrick Rothfuss prefixes some chapter titles with “Interlude” to emphasise that these lie outside the main story, in the “story around the story”. Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story has 26 chapters, beginning with the letters A to Z, with fancy-looking drop caps specifically designed for the book by an illustrator – how fitting is that for the A to Z Challenge?!? ;-)

The Neverending Story, Chapter 3

The Neverending Story begins each of the 26 chapters with a full-page drop-cap letter of the alphabet; Chapter 3 begins with “C”

Which chaptering style do you prefer a) in books you read, and b) in your own writing? Let me know in the comments.

Five aspiring authors in a cage

Most people would have read the “five monkeys in a cage” tale. If not, google it or (if you’re lazy), watch the summary on vimeo. Essentially, it is a tale encouraging us to question why things are sometimes done the way they are done with no apparent reason.

Five monkeys in a cage

Five monkeys in a cage (ok, the picture has more than five… it still gets the point across I think)

Today, I read fellow blogger Jodie Llewellyn’s nice post on “Adverbs… yes or no?” and I agree with her about adverbs getting a bad rap (not “wrap”, by the way ;-) ), but couldn’t help but notice that some of the comments there were fairly one-sided and “anti-adverb”. Is comparing people who advise against using adverbs to the five monkeys left in the cage a little extreme? Perhaps, but so is flat-out advising against the use of adverbs.

Adverbs are not evil, people.

As with so many things, the importance is to use adverbs in moderation. Granted, many of the commenters did advise moderation, and some pointed out why their overuse should be avoided. I don’t disagree with that. But saying their use is the “easy way out”, or a “shortcut”, that removing all adverbs from a manuscript makes it “stronger”, and that “said” should never be modified with an adverb? Really? I don’t want to offend anyone, and I don’t want anyone committing the strawman fallacy of claiming that I advocate liberal use of adverbs in all styles of writing (I don’t), but that just sounds like parochial adverb-bashing to me.

I also noted (with the slightest of smirks, I must admit), that those with adverb-allergies don’t mind using rather long adverbial phrases. How is that any better?

Journalism is probably an area where adverbs should be avoided more than in fiction. Sections in fiction where the reader should be left to fill the partially-drawn canvas with her own imagination should have fewer or no adverbs.

However, adverbs can (I stress can) be useful: they can clarify, modify, moderate, strengthen, explain; they can be elegant, precise, and more succinct than a laborious adverbial phrase. I suspect a number of adverb-despisers don’t realise how heavily they use adverbial phrases, and that sometimes – sometimes – a good adverb can be better. Adverbs have their place in first-person perspectives, for instance, where the narrator’s opinion should colour the reader’s impression.

I see close similarities between what is considered to be “good writing” and what is considered to be “elegant programming” (in my day job). Inexperienced writers, like inexperienced programmers, tend to sometimes follow certain patterns, or do too much or too little of something. Editors or code reviewers pick up on these patterns and, in formulating advice on how to prevent such anti-patterns, sometimes generalise a little too much, or state their advice as though it was doctrine. Such advice has its use, but experienced writers or programmers should take this advice with a hefty pinch of salt. The turkey city lexicon is a prime example. Know the rules, know the conventions, but also be aware of when and how they should be broken (or at least bent).

The comment that scared me into writing this post was one from a writer who said he was new to sharing his writing, hadn’t considered the use of adverbs too much, and now thought he should indeed remove adverbs to make his writing stronger. Please… let’s not create more monkeys who do things just because “that’s the way things are done around here”.

A little wiser tomorrow

I’ve made very little progress writing this week, at least in terms of writing new stuff. However, I’ve recently been busy reading what I’ve written, mainly on the train to and from work, and have been making so many notes of little things I need to change that it took me most of my creative day this week to apply all these improvements to my manuscript. Guess that leaves this weekend to finally make some progress as far as the word-count is concerned.

While reading, I’ve also made notes about ideas I’ve had concerning the ending, but don’t like getting ahead of myself and skipping large sections – I always find I have to edit too much when I do that.1

Many writers say you should write your complete first draft before you go back to edit. The perfectionist in me won’t always let me do that.

Writing away when I’m “in the zone” is great and gets me closer to completing my manuscript much faster than the “write a bit, edit a bit” approach. Occasionally, though, I need to take a step back to see the bigger picture, re-read my work in light of that bigger picture, and adjust what I’ve written accordingly. It stops me from going off on a tangent that’s interesting, but not all that relevant to the story I want to tell, gets me back on track, and lets me insert those all-important little details in the right places, details that will only make sense to the reader later when the right threads are woven together.2

Only very recently have I bothered to think about why it is that certain things work for me while others do not. I suppose I have the fact that I’ve started this blog to thank for making me think about this at all; looking for blog-worthy topics means I have to think about what I do and why I do it as well as doing it.

1 Why does skipping large sections not work well for me?
2 Why does frequent editing work for me when most others advise against it?

Thinking about these questions, I can’t help but think how I sometimes edit my own writing and ask myself, “What were you thinking when you wrote that?” This made me realise that I always look back on my “old self”, if you will (be that the self that started writing many years ago or the more recent self that just wrote the most recent chapter), with an ever-so-slight air of superiority. Why? I think it’s because part of me realises that, right now, I’m ever-so-slighly wiser than I was yesterday, or a week ago, or a year ago. I could be deluding myself, of course, but doesn’t it seem logical that I improve as I write more, read more, think more? I’m certainly not yet at an age where I decline mentally, so I’m at least as wise, or smart, as I ever was… probably more so. Well, slightly.

Once I accept that reasoning, the (slightly uncomfortable) truth is that tomorrow, I’ll be another little bit wiser than I am today.

1 That’s why, if I skip a section now, I’ll have trouble connecting smoothly to it tomorrow – because I’ll know more details about how my story gets there once it does get there. If I have what seems like a great idea about what happens later, notes or fragments should suffice for now. I can edit them in later. Or not, if the “future-me” doesn’t think it’ll work.

2 That’s why I can edit my writing now, but later, I’ll have another idea about how to make a miniscule improvement, how to phrase something less awkwardly, how to make dialogue seem more natural.

Hmm. Maybe that means the writers who say “edit later” are correct after all. I’ll have to think about that one….

Whom do you trust more, the “now-you”, or the “future-you”?

The other side of the (Literary) Submission Circus

Sometimes this whole submission thing seems to me a little like the Submission Circus I blogged about last time. I apologise to any agents or editors and hope they’ll forgive my exaggerated presentation of how the process can appear from the writer’s side (not that I expect any of them to actually read my humble blog). Of course there’s another side to the Submission Circus.

I get it, I really do. Agents and publishers need to make a living as well, they need – nay, are forced – to make cut-throat decisions to sort the wheat from the chaff. With so many manuscripts to read that reading them – something we all passionately love to do, right? – becomes a tedious chore, and turns even the most enthusiastic professional reader into a cold-hearted cynic, the Powers That Be of the publishing world need some sort of method of wading through the slush piles; there just have to be multiple filters to weed out the various layers of The Unworthy:

  • The masses of wannabe-authors who suffer from self-delusion and can’t string a grammatically correct sentence together, let alone a complete story. Not entirely unlike those pathetic dorks who make fools of themselves on TV talent shows, and even though it’s painful in a way because you want to sympathise, the expression on their faces when they realise that they’ve just given their best and the judges are trying not to laugh… is just too delicious. Along with millions of other couch potatoes, you laugh yourself hoarse at those idiots, even though you’d never have the guts to even get up and have a go….
  • Those who are, well, not that bad, and something could be salvaged from their manuscript, but only with the help of some book quack. Er, book doctor. Sorry.
  • Those who are, grammatically speaking, absolute geniuses, but their book idea has been done before, or is just plain lame. Maybe they end up being cynical enough to become book doctors.
  • The writers with the heart of a poet, who, like a grand master pianist, can entwine several harmonised melodies so beautifully it makes your heart ache, make their music tug at the heart-strings, make it invoke the full range of emotions from their audience… their audience of five, three of whom are family members, because, let’s face it, man, who the f*ck wants to listen to “classic” music anymore, get real, that’s so last-friggin’-millenium, dude, shut the hell up and let me check my twitter feed as I roll my eyes.
  • Then come the truly talented, who get what it takes to write a story even the twitter generation may want to read, and can do so. But they lose heart at all the obstacles in their way and just aren’t willing to jump through all the hoops. Or they can only receive so many rejections before it gets to them and they can’t take it any more.
  • Finally, there is that tiniest of percentages, who persevere through it all, who are realistic about their chances but cling to that glimmer of hope, who learn from their mistakes and who don’t give up.

For a very few of the latter, Lady Luck finally relents and gives them the chance they deserve. They seize that chance by the throat and, well… the rest of us end up reading their books. Maybe.

Kudos to those last few, most of you really deserve it and we wish you all the best (though it’s hard to entirely suppress the suspicion that some got through because they “know somebody”, because occasionally, books get published that shouldn’t).

But my heart bleeds for the writers with the heart of a poet, and the truly talented who lose heart or just don’t persevere long enough, and Real Life just doesn’t wait long enough. Despite being worthy, their stories are lost to us forever.

It’s a little like in school, where the ones that do best are those with above-average intelligence who are also willing to do the boring legwork. To the really brilliant, smarter than the ones who do best but they don’t do as well because they’re either lazy, or rebellious, or they have street smarts but not book smarts, this school rewards system seems rather unfair. Sometimes Real Life is the great leveller, they all find their niche, and the brilliant are able to laugh at the book smart ones who can’t fight their way out of a paper bag, but all too often, that’s not the case. A word to those with the street smarts, though: sometimes, having street smarts means you need to get your hands dirty and do what the book-smart kids are doing.

I don’t have any answers about how to fix the established submissions system. And if I did, I realise it would be nigh impossible to change the existing system, not even over the span of many years. I can only write down my own personal observations about it. Not to whine for the sake of whining, but to encourage others – and myself – not to give up, to accept things for what they are, to persevere, to roll up our sleeves and to jump through the necessary hoops so that one day, baby, one day we’ll be old… but our story will have been told. (Pat yourself on the back if you get that reference.)

Welcome to the (Literary) Submission Circus!

Step right in, don’t be shy! No, silly, your time of just watching is over… now you’re the performer. Shout three quick words – choose wisely, for your audience behind the curtain has many more performers to watch, and has watched more than you can count, so you must make it memorable, but hurry! – and off you go, now jump through this hoop and that one, and, wow, that was one terrific quintuple somersault, but sorry, kid, the audience of one (for whom you must perform before you can show your act to the world) stopped watching long ago. Seems she heard those particular three words before. Oh well.

What are you doing, still standing there? Get off the stage, freak! Don’t you realise there are hundreds – nay, thousands – of other performers waiting in the wings for their turn?

There’ll be other towns you can perform in. Not all that many, at least for your particular type of act, but there are others, and maybe the audiences there haven’t heard your three words yet, or you can tweak them slightly. Which won’t matter, because you’ll forget that their hoops are at a slightly different angle, or height, and, well, you should’ve done your homework better to read up on their particular hoops, shouldn’t you?

And what about the remaining twelve towns that, according to your new research, have audiences willing to watch your particular genre of performance? It’ll go a little something like this:

One won’t like that you addressed him by his surname before you started. Too formal, you’ll sound like a pompous prick.
Two won’t appreciate you using her first name. Presumptuous pervert, you.
Three, Four and Five are currently doing something else, but they’ve left assistants (not that you’ll be able to tell the difference) with instructions to send you a very politely worded “thanks, but not quite right for us just now” letter.
Six and Seven will be enthusiastic about helping you, praising you lavishly, but Six’ll want you to first pay some money to his friend, Six Point One, just to help you polish up your act a bit, you know how it is, and then you and Six will take on the world, while Seven will think that your performance would be just perfect if only you’d be willing to take your clothes off.
Eight. Well, Eight will want to watch your performance, but he needs four months to think about whether he really liked it. During those four months, you can’t perform this particular act for anyone else. And after four months of waiting nervously, your tentative enquiry about whether he did in fact like it will be answered with, “Who were you again?”
Nine will only allow you two words, but you’ll think you can get away with your standard three. Gotcha!
Ten will only do taped performances, not live ones, and will sell tapes of your act to anyone, but they need to go to his stand and pick out your tape from amongst a trillion others. Plus you won’t get much cash each time your tape does get picked.
Eleven and Twelve will be the last on your list. They’re old-fashioned and want you to actually walk to their towns. If you arrive by car, or even by bicycle, they won’t even watch anything you do. You’ll arrive at Eleven, exhausted, only to find that they’ve gone on a Christmas holiday, so you need to come back again next year. Then you’ll arrive at what you think is Twelve with bleeding feet, desperate but not yet losing hope. You’ll perform your act better than ever before… but you’ll never even find out that the reason you never heard back was that your street directory was outdated and your performance simply… lost its way.

Live and learn, baby. Come up with another act and start all over. Or just make it easier for everyone and give up now. You didn’t really think your performance was good enough for the Big Top, did you?

But… wait! New research reveals there’s a Thirteen you didn’t see before, because you weren’t searching hard enough, and thought, “Surely one out of One to Twelve will get me.” Thirteen is looking for something just like your act right now, and she’s willing to overlook that you touched the side of the second hoop a little when you jumped through it. She actually watches your full performance. What’s more, she likes it. She makes a few suggestions of how it can be improved, and you’re skeptical at first, but realise she knows what she’s talking about. In time, she helps you to get an audience with The Ringmaster, and with Thirteen’s support, you’ve finally made it at last. The Big Top. You can share your performance with the world as you’ve always wanted.

Fellow writers of the world, may you persist until you find your Thirteen.

(More on my take on the submission process in the next post, The other side of literary submissions.)

Anthem of Why

Joe lives with his folks at home
Smokes little plants he grows
Cool for a kid
But today is the big “Three-Oh”
It seems all of his hopes and dreams
Got lost in habitual themes
Now he is crying
Tears of what could have been

He is saying, “Why, oh why
Did my life pass by?”
Could it be that all this time saying, “Why?”
You should’ve said, “How?”

Thirty candles you are blowing
None of which deserves a light
The only music you’ve been playin’
Is the Anthem of Why
Always dreaming, never doing
So they never did take flight
Still the music, that you’re playin’
Is the Anthem of Why

Stacey, dreamt of becoming a pop queen
Suddenly when she turned fifteen
Everything changed
She found out she had one on the way
And so she took all the posters of Britney
Mariah, Beyonce and Whitney
And with her dreams
She threw them all away

She was saying “Why, oh why?
If not for that night….”
Could it be that all this time saying, “Why?”
You shoulda said, “How?”

All the hopin’, all the wishin’
Girl, you traded for a night
And the music that you’re playin’
Is the Anthem of Why
Now you’re feelin’, all your dreamin’
Was just a waste of time
So the song that you are singing
Is the Anthem of Why

Always saying “Why oh why
Did my life pass by?”
Could it be that all this time saying, “Why?”
You shoulda said, “How?”

All the hopin’, all the prayin’
No, they never should have died
But they faded when you traded
“How” for the Anthem of Why
Gotta dream it, gotta feel it
If you ever wanna fly
Never sing it, never play it
It’s the Anthem of Why

— Guy Sebastian, Anthem of Why


Know anyone who’d rather ask “Why?” then “How?”

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, but encourage anyone who sings the “Anthem of Why” not to forget that they need to go out and chase after those dreams. Good luck to any aspiring authors out there chasing their dreams.

Like Guy Sebastian’s song “Anthem of Why” from the album “Beautiful Life”?

Australian publishers who accept online submissions

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately – both offline and online, a book, other people’s blogs, agents’ and publishers’ websites, etc. – and found that more publishers here in Australia accept unsolicited online submissions than I would’ve expected. I thought I’d list some of the barebones facts here for anyone interested (NB: always check the publisher’s website for detailed instructions by clicking on the name before submitting anything). If you have a similar list for the UK or US, please let me know in the comments and I’ll update the post to link to your site.

Publisher When Accepts Details
Allen & Unwin: The Friday Pitch On any Friday No poetry, picture books, straight romance, short stories, or scripts

See their website for more details and a link to their “What we publish” page. There are separate instructions for academic submissions and for children’s/YA books.
Email with title information sheet (see website), first chapter and 300-word synopsis attached in Word format (PDF for illustrated work)
Austin Macauley Anytime Almost anything (as far as I could tell) Email cover letter, 400-500-word synopsis, three consecutive chapters
HarperCollins: The Wednesday Post Every Wednesday No plays, poetry, mind body spirit, religious titles, health and fitness, children’s books and educational texts Webform: synopsis, upload first 50 pages or three chapters, short note about yourself
Pan Macmillan: Manuscript Monday First Monday of every month

Note: Submission only open between 10am and 4pm AEST
Commercial fiction, literary fiction and non-fiction, children’s/YA, commercial non-fiction; no scripts, plays, poetry, or romance Webform: form fields, upload first 100 pages, upload 300-word synopsis
PanteraPress Anytime No picture or illustrated books, children’s, cooking, self-help, health/well-being, travel, poetry, plays/scripts, short stories, compilations, novellas, or chapter books Email details, attach up to two-page synopsis, full manuscript, and up to two-page bio, all as PDFs
Penguin Books: The Monthly Catch

Note: Penguin and Random House are the same company but have separate publishing divisions and therefore separate submission processes. Random House only accepts snail mail submissions.
1st to 7th of every month No poetry, educational textbooks or plays/scripts; separate instructions for children/YA Details in email body, with 300-word synopsis and full manuscript attached separately in Word format (up to 3MB total)

As of yet, I’m undecided whether it would be a good idea for me to approach publishers directly (i.e. without securing an agent first) or not. Agents can’t pitch your work to a publisher who’s already said “No” to you. On the other hand, if your work is good enough….

Did I forget anything, or get any details wrong? Know of another publisher I should list here? Let me know in the comments.

Twitter twats

Based on recommendations, I’ve taken the plunge and created my Facebook and Twitter accounts. To be honest, I’m not a fan of those. I can see the use, and the allure, but personally, I see too many people wasting too much time on them, and being dumbed down by using silly abbreviations to make that 140 character limit.

Is my opinion a bit extreme? Probably, compared to most. I’ve ranted about word limits before, and have given my 2 cents about common grammar/spelling mistakes. So don’t worry, I’ll hold my tongue this time.

The main reason was to reserve the usernames for… drumroll… when I get famous. Which will take time, but given my brilliant writing, it’s only a matter of time. Actually, I’m not really that optimistic, but I guess it can’t hurt, either.

For me, the action will still be here on the blog, not on Facebook or Twitter. Who knows, I may come around to it. Convince me. Or not.

Reading what you wrote

I’m my own worst critic. In the seemingly neverending iterations of writing, reading, and editing, I’ve found that one thing that helps me to see my own writing from a different angle is to read it in a different format than the one in which I wrote it.

Today is my creative day, so I don’t have much time to blog (since I need to keep working on my book – but I promised myself I’d do at least one blog post per day for the first week and then at least once a week after that), but I’ll try and keep this short and sweet.

I like to try and set up my favourite writing software, LibreOffice Writer, so that I can see what I’m writing in a “book-like” format: two columns to a landscape page. Maybe it’s conceit on my part, but I enjoy imagining what it could look like as a finished product.

Book in LibreOffice

A screenshot of how I’ve formatted my book in my favourite writer (the text is deliberately smudged… I’m shy, sue me)

However, every once in a while, I find it extremely helpful to view it in a different format, especially one that I read “real” books in. Printing pages out on paper might work for some; personally, I enjoy reading books on my Android mobile phone during boring train rides to and from work. So I’ll save my book’s chapters as little text files, copy them to my mobile, and use CoolReader to read it like any other book.

This helps me to view my own work from a different perspective, to read it as though I’d never seen it, and therefore to take a step back, see the bigger picture, and be able to critique it without being in writing or editing mode, purely in reading mode.

Reading this way, I often find myself switching to a note-taking app to note down what I need to change, things I wouldn’t have found if I’d just read it in the same format in which I write. When I read a passage and completely forget that I should actually know exactly what’s going to happen next, I know it’s good.

What techniques do you use to help you read/write/edit more effectively? Do you prefer a relatively plain format of your book-in-progress, or do you style it up a certain way? Let me know in the comments.

How to make time for writing in a busy life

Having just read an interesting post by Nathan Bransford about not having to write every day, I thought I’d add my 2 cents as well. (Since we round to the nearest 5 cents in Australia, I can actually hand out 2 cents to all writers without beggaring myself in the process. I don’t do foreign exchange, though, sorry.)

Nathan advises writers to do “whatever works for you”, and here’s what’s worked really well for me when I really wanted to complete the manuscript I’d been working on for about ten years while still working full-time.

Designate a “Creative Day”

Originally, the idea behind it was to get the kids to stop relying on electronic devices so much. They seemed to believe they had the right to watch a movie every day, plus get their “half an hour of video game time” (that’s our limit, but the tricksy little hobbitses got around it by watching each other’s half an hour… grrr!), plus use the PC for homework. Ok, we can’t get around that last one, but the others are already too much in some parents’ books.

Thus we decided that we’d have a day where they couldn’t watch TV or a DVD, or play games on handhelds or consoles or computers or tablets or phones or whatever else there is. They had to do something… creative. Like craft something, paint or draw something, build something with Lego or the like, play with their toys, play board games (just like the grandpa in The Princess Bride says, “When I was your age, television was called books,” we told the kids, “When we were your age, MMOs were called board games…” – but no, I wasn’t into D&D). Even reading is fine (imagining things is creative, right?).

The unexpected side-effect of this was that we, the parents, couldn’t really be couch potatoes while the kids were being creative. Using the “PC for homework” analogy, I convinced them that I should be allowed to sit in front of my computer after work and write.

Wednesdays worked best for us, and I was lucky enough to be able to arrange it so that I could stop working a bit earlier on Wednesdays and use the remainder of the afternoon and most of the evening to write until my fingers bled. Figuratively, not literally.

Between Creative Day every Wednesday and the time I took to write on the weekends, I made an amazing amount of progress and wrote more in the last year of working on that manuscript than I did in the nine years before that. (More details on my progress/failure/revamp there in an earlier post, The Road So Far.)

What works for you?

This might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you find you’re having a hard time squeezing in some quality writing time between work, family, and other hobbies, perhaps this can help you as it helped me. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford writing full-time, I’m sure you’ll recall a time when you struggled to find the time. If you can squeeze in an hour or so every day, brilliant, do that. Whatever works for you, just make sure you keep on writing!

Feel free to share your tips and tell me what works for you in the comments, or blog about it yourself and let me know where to read about it.

Cheers,

AMC

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 196 other followers