Posts by Janine

Deus ex Machina is Not a Dating Site for Ex-Robots

Posted by on Nov 9, 2015 in Featured Articles | 4 comments

Deus ex Machina is Not a Dating Site for Ex-Robots

If you’ve ever heard of deus ex machina and wondered what it is, have I got an article for you. Deus ex machina is Latin and means “God from the machine.” It refers to a plot device that results in a miracle that saves the day when all seems lost and there’s no way out. This is used when the author has written themselves into a corner. It can come from a not-before-mentioned ability, a new event or character, a surprise object, or it was all a dream or something created in someone’s mind. The result usually leads into a happy ending. The Greeks were famous for their use of deus ex machina by dropping Zeus or Aphrodite or some other god into the scene to foil the villain’s plans at the last minute. Even Shakespeare and Jane Austen have used deus ex machina. So why is this frowned upon? It results in a plot that feels contrived and a reader that feels cheated and manipulated. It also undermines character development, but it ultimately paints the author as lazy and lacking in creativity. But surely this plot device isn’t still being used, right? Wrong. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz used the “it was all a dream” trope. But my favorite example of this is in the television show Dallas from the 1980s. Patrick Duffy, the actor that played Bobby Ewing, quit the show and the writers killed his character at the end of that season. A year later, Duffy wanted back on the show. How did the writers write themselves out of the corner? With the infamous shower scene that turned the entire previous season into a dream. Of course this use of “God from the machine” has been ridiculed and used as fodder for countless comedians in the late 1980s. Another example is the use of the eagles in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. After destroying the ring, Sam and Frodo are hopelessly stranded on Mount Doom with no hope of rescue. But then the eagles appear and save them from certain death. Of course this leads readers to eventually ask, why didn’t they just use the eagles to fly into Mordor and drop the ring in the volcano of Mount Doom from above? That’s one of the risks of using deus ex machina. It’s a simple plot device that in hindsight could have shortened the entire Lord of the Rings movie trilogy from over 9 hours to about 30 minutes. Of course I can’t talk about deus ex machina without mentioning Fight Club, which employed the “it’s all in his head” version. If you haven’t read Fight Club and don’t know the outcome, I won’t spoil it here. But in my opinion, Palahniuk’s use actually worked for me. Deus ex machina is used successfully in parodies and comedy for humor. But if you aren’t writing humor, it will most likely come across as a plot device and make your story’s outcome contrived. If it’s convenient or an unintentional coincidence, you should probably take another look at it and decide if it’s deus ex machina. And if you’ve written yourself into a corner, review and rewrite your story and resist the temptation to play God. What uses of “God from the machine” have you seen in books? Please share them in the comments below. Now… go write...

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NaNoWriMo is coming. Are you ready?

Posted by on Oct 19, 2015 in Featured Articles | 2 comments

NaNoWriMo is coming. Are you ready?

Yesterday my son reminded me that November is almost here, and I realized it’s almost time for NaNoWrimo aka National Novel Writing Month! I know, some of you are thinking I have such a thoughtful son, right? Hah! He’s more concerned that I don’t forget his school play and less about me being ready for NaNoWriMo. But I digress. November sneaked up on me. I’m still in the process of creating my writing space after playing musical bedrooms when my daughter left for college and my son wanted her room. But we finally got my new computer desk put together in my new office, which will double as my writing space. I have my comfy chair, computer, headphones, music, chocolate and caffeine. If your plan is to participate in or support someone in NaNoWriMo this year, I’ve put together a few things to make NaNoWriMo go a little smoother. Have a plan. How many times have you heard “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”? Too many times, I’m sure. Will having a plan guarantee NaNoWriMo success? Nope. But it just might make life a little easier, especially with all the demands on your time. Do you know what story you’re going to write about or are you waiting for inspiration to suddenly strike on November 1st? If you haven’t already decided what your story is about, it’s not too late. Make a decision today. You’ll still have time to bounce around ideas with your favorite betas to flesh out the story before you start writing. Whether you’re a plotter or pantser, you still need to have the premise of your story and a vision of where it’s going. Print off some character sheets and write down the basics of your main characters. Do the same with your plot and setting. But don’t get so hung up on the details of character names, physical attributes, and world building that you forget to do the big picture stuff to be ready to start. Know where you are going to write. Do you have a designated place to write? Whether it be your office, the coffee shop or the cupboard underneath the stairs, pick your designated writing space. Can you have more than one? Of course! Have as many as you like. Just know where you plan to write and then have a backup for those unexpected hiccups along the way. Then stock your writing cave, nest, nook, or whatever name you want to call it with those things that help you get into that creative mode. Make sure you have all the equipment you need to get the job done. If you’re going to write on your computer or laptop, make sure it is in working order. And save often. There’s nothing worse than reaching your goal for the day only to have your computer crash, leaving you sobbing in your coffee and bingeing on Haagen-Dazs. Okay, that last one doesn’t sound that bad. Who doesn’t love Haagen-Dazs! But the idea here is to make sure your tools of writing aren’t causing you grief. There is no crying in NaNoWriMo! If you like to use your tablet or your phone or multiple devices, store your manuscript on the cloud for easy access so you don’t have to deal with multiple versions. And if writing your story using pen and paper is what gets your creative muse hot, make sure you are never without a notebook and your favorite writing implements. This means several designated writing notebooks and fancy pens and pencils. I’m getting excited just thinking about it! Set aside time to write. There’s no right or wrong time to write. It can be in the wee hours of the morning, while the kids are at school, riding the train to work, or any time you’re able to catch a few minutes to jot down more of your story. If all you can fit into your schedule is several 15 minute blocks scattered throughout the day, then use them. One of the hardest parts of trying to write anything is...

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Voice Drift: Does your manuscript have it?

Posted by on Sep 28, 2015 in Featured Articles | 0 comments

Voice Drift: Does your manuscript have it?

You know when you’re around that one friend who speaks in an accent (Southern, British, Spanish, etc.) and after a while you find yourself using the same words and phrases or speaking with a similar accent as that friend? This is called voice drift. It happens in writing too. Have you ever read a book where the characters all sounded the same, the narrative (especially third person) sounded like all the other characters, or all the characters had a white bread feel to them? This too could very well be due to voice drift. Voice drift is when the voices of the characters start to sound like other characters, destroying any efforts you may have made to give each character a unique voice. When voice drift happens, it is often the default voice that has taken over. What is the default voice? Well, it’s quite simply the voice of the author. It’s a shift from the voice of the story. It’s no longer the voice of point of view character telling the story. It is the voice of the author. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the author is now the POV character, but rather the POV character now sounds like the author. Many times it’s not clear at first because you, the author, have created unique voices for each of your characters. However, as the story progresses, the characters’ voices might gradually start to sound alike. Books in a series are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. In fact, it is an aspect of writing that even experienced writers must watch for. But is voice drift something authors should be concerned about? If you want unique memorable characters that will stick with your readers, then yes. There are a some ways to determine if your book suffers from voice drift. He Said / She Said Have you had any of your readers or anyone in your support network have a hard time keeping track of who said what in conversations, whether it’s a two-person conversation or a room full of people? Unique Word Combinations Make a list of any unique phrases, sayings, idioms, etc. your characters use verbally and/or internally and who said them. Do more than one character unintentionally (as in you, the author, didn’t mean to do that) use the same phrase or saying? Unless there is a compelling reason for them to use these same elements such as siblings who pronounce “especially” as “exspecially” because that’s how their mother pronounced it, your characters’ voices shouldn’t be that similar. Sense of Humor Another red flag is if your characters share the same sense of humor. While we might have two characters who will generally laugh at humor, rarely do you find that all friends, family member, coworkers, etc. find the same things funny. Humor is tricky. One person might find something hilarious, another might find the same thing cruel. Part of the Crowd If your core group of characters—or if all the periphery characters—agree on everything and have the same opinion, take a closer look to make sure the characters aren’t too alike. Now I’m not talking about things that most people will universally agree upon, for example, most people will agree that world hunger is an awful thing. But what people don’t agree on how to rid the world of hunger and make sure everyone has food for the forseeable future. Cardboard is Boring If you’ve had complaints about boring dialogue or characters that are cutouts or cardboard, it could mean that your characters are too similar. Writing Exercise Take a conversation from your manuscript and remove all dialogue tags and narrative that shows who is speaking. Read it aloud to someone else without changing the tone of your voice or giving verbal cues. If the listener has a hard time following who says what in the conversation, take a look a closer look at your characters’ voices and the possibility of voice drift. One way to keep voice drift out of your stories is to constantly be on the look out for the offenders listed above. Another is to compare conversations...

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Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Posted by on Sep 8, 2015 in Featured Articles | 0 comments

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

I have found that the old adage actions speak louder than words is especially true in writing. One of the more difficult elements for a writer of fiction is the use of subtlety to show who your characters are. Especially when it’s so much easier to simply have your character say, “Derek is a jerk! Can you believe what he said to Sharon?” Then there’s the narrative that is oftentimes the author’s long inner-monologue about the various failings or perfections of various characters. It’s so much easier to tell your reader what you want them to know about your characters without allowing said reader the opportunity to discover who your characters are as the story unfolds. When I really think about the reasons for all the telling, several come to mind: Fear that readers won’t like your characters and that your readers won’t understand who your characters really are unless you tell them. Insecurity that your words won’t be good enough for your readers to see what kind of people your characters are if you try to show those attributes instead of simply stating them. Lack of understanding of what everyone has been going on about when they say “show, don’t tell.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In other words, if your readers aren’t complaining, why should you change how you write? Time constraints. You simply don’t have time to figure out the subtlety thing, but when you have a free moment, you’ll look into it. And… so on. Here’s the deal. If you’re serious about your writing and it’s more than just a nice little hobby, it’s time to look at how you write. Every book should ideally improve upon the last. Those who have worked with me before know I don’t try to correct every issue in an author’s writing with a single edit. Depending on the author, that can be a lot to take in and my goal as an editor is not to discourage, but to point out the biggest issues with the current book and the way the story was written. Once those have been tackled and the next manuscript comes in, my hope is that the author learned something from the first edit and has improved her skills so that we may move on to improving other aspects of writing. I learn something new with each edit, and I hope my authors do, too. Developing your skills as a writer is a process that takes time and practice. Telling is the ultimate safety net! If you want to use subtlety to show who your characters are, do it through their interactions with other characters. What they do and say are just as important as what they don’t do and say. Never give too much information and lead your readers around by the nose. Frankly, you insult your readers’ intelligence when you do this because it says you don’t trust your readers to come to the right conclusions. Have a little faith. I get it. It’s a scary thing to work without that safety net, and that’s exactly what telling is: a safety net. But your readers will connect emotionally with your characters if they can identify those characteristics through words and actions. Remember, a story full of telling makes for a boring book. (Don’t be hating the messenger.) Let’s look at two examples: Example One: Theodore loved his father’s leather chair where he smoked his cigars and pretended he was better than everyone else. This first example tells the reader what I want them to know about Theodore, but doesn’t show him doing anything or how he treats others. Example Two: Theodore sat down in the faded chair and caressed the creased leather arms worn smooth by generations of Carringtons. He took his time removing the cigar box from the side drawer of the massive oak desk before offering one to Derek, who waved him off. No surprise. He ran the Cuban under his nose before snipping off the end and lighting it with Father’s oversized lighter, and eyed the unnatural sheen of...

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Five Things You Can Do To Improve Your Writing

Posted by on Aug 17, 2015 in Featured Articles | 0 comments

Five Things You Can Do To Improve Your Writing

Writing a book is hard work. I’m sure there aren’t many who will disagree with that statement. Having your book edited is tough too. In fact, it can border on painful because your editor isn’t going to love every scene or character you worked so hard to create. There are a few things that can help you improve your writing. I mean, really, wouldn’t you rather fix it yourself than have someone else call attention to it? I’ve put together a list of five things you can do to improve your writing. This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Dialogue, or Maybe It Is… It should be simple to write a conversation between two characters, but it’s not. Dialogue is tricky. One of the best ways to learn how to write believable dialogue is to pay attention to real conversations. Listen to your own conversations and eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers. Take notes—covertly, of course—and pay attention to slang and poor grammar. When people talk they interrupt each other, switch topics often to follow tangents, don’t constantly refer to each other’s names, and don’t over-explain anything. If you characters are in high school then listen to how teenagers talk to each other. It’s difficult for a middle-aged author to write a YA novel and sound legit. Add too much slang and you’ll look like a poser. Add too little and your characters will sound like their parents. Writing historical novels has its own set of problems: mismatched dialogue and narrative, forward thinking characters, flowery dialogue, too much slang, etc. Part of the author’s job is to make the story easy to follow. The writing should never call attention to itself. And since you can’t eavesdrop on a conversation from the 1700s, I recommend finding well-written books set during the same period you want to write about and pay attention what the author did and didn’t do with the dialogue. Cut Out Wordiness—It Grows Like a Cancer Ah, wordiness. As long as this little gem is still around, I’ll have a job. Wordiness bogs down the narrative, dialogue, descriptions, pacing, etc. Basically, every aspect of a story can be infected by it, and it’s one of the hardest things to self-edit. I know when I started writing, a little voice in the back of my head—self-doubt—kept nagging me to describe everything or over-explain so that the reader knew exactly what was happening. Avoid making your readers spectators with the phrases he watched, she saw, they stared, he reached out, etc. This only leads to telling instead of showing. Yes, I know! You’re sick of hearing show, don’t tell, but an author who leads his reader around by the nose and tells them what’s going on will lose readers because readers don’t want See Jane run writing as the author tells what’s happening. They want to experience it and watch as the story unfolds.  Write In Active Not Passive Verb Tense Active voice puts the action on the person who is acting. What does that mean exactly? Take this example below: The shoe was thrown at Frank by Sally. If Sally threw the shoe, then Sally should be the subject of the sentence. This sentence isn’t wrong, but it’s cumbersome and wordy because it has shifted the focus on the shoe instead of the person who performed the action. The active version of this sentence is: Sally threw the shoe at Frank. Notice how much easier that was to read than the first sentence? It has fewer words and the message is clear. Now, imagine reading a book full of sentences written like the first example. It will have a higher word could, that’s for sure, but the reader will not enjoy reading it for long because passive voice shifts the reader’s attention away from the person who is acting and bogs down the story with unnecessary words. If you read a sentence and need to ask by whom or by what, it is passive voice. Throw Out The Fluff If it’s not an important part of the plot, it should be dropped from the...

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