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Thread: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 2

  1. #1
    James D Macdonald
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    Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 2

    Continued from Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

    ======================

    It strikes me that there's a need for a thread on the art and craft of writing commercial novels.

    To that end, I'd like to start that discussion. I plan to put down my thoughts on the elements of professional-quality fiction. I'll answer questions, and go where ever the discussion leads. I'll do some notes on the business of writing too.

    Here are my qualifications for starting this topic:

    My bibliography

    A workshop I help teach every year.

    My mutant talent is to make my opinions sound like facts.

    =============

    I have two basic rules: everything that's said should be true, and everything should be helpful.

    =============

    There's one other thing that needs to be said, McIntyre's First Law: Under the right circumstances anything I tell you can be wrong.
    Last edited by James D. Macdonald; 09-22-2011 at 02:15 PM.

  2. #2
    Esteemed thinker Calliopenjo's Avatar
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    Uncle Jim,

    Has it ever been written that someone sat under the mangrove tree?

    Somehow it's in the back of my head. I'm thinking I heard it somewhere, but looking up Mangrove trees it's impossible to sit under the Mangrove trees.
    Unless you're a fish.

    Wounded I sing, tormented I indite. — Victor Herbert (1859-1924)

  3. #3
    Naked Futon Guy allenparker's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Calliopenjo View Post
    Uncle Jim,

    Has it ever been written that someone sat under the mangrove tree?

    Somehow it's in the back of my head. I'm thinking I heard it somewhere, but looking up Mangrove trees it's impossible to sit under the Mangrove trees.
    Unless you're a fish.

    Decision for Disaster: The Battle of the Bay of Pigs


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  4. #4
    Where did I put me specs? euclid's Avatar
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    What do you think about this fragment, Jim:

    "a thousand small spiders’ webs sparkling in the frosted grass."

    Unintentional alliteration? Or just too purple?
    Any suggestions how I could de-alliterate it?
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  5. #5
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by euclid View Post
    "a thousand small spiders’ webs sparkling in the frosted grass."

    Unintentional alliteration? Or just too purple?
    Any suggestions how I could de-alliterate it?
    A little of both, I think. But it might depend on the tone of the rest of the book. As far as de-alliterating goes it's mostly a question of finding appropriate synonyms/alternate descriptors.

    A moment of consideration gives me these possibilities:
    "A thousand small/tiny/fragile spiders' webs sparkling/twinkling/glittering/glistening/shining in the frosted grass."

    Of course, which combination works best depends on overall tone and language in your novel. That's the fun thing about words. You get to play with them to find the best possible combination.
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  6. #6
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Why are you asking me about sentence fragments?

    The smallest unit of meaning in the English language is the paragraph.

    The question is more properly asked in Share Your Work, as part of an entire chapter.

    -------------

    I'm certain that someone, somewhere, wrote that a person sat under a mangrove tree. People write a lot of things. I haven't read all of those things, nor have I memorized everything that I've read.

  7. #7
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Euclid, I've already recommended Mark Twain's Rules of Writing. I'm going to recommend them again.

  8. #8
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    Uncle Jim. I'd like to ask an advise for the following problem:

    In my present WIP there are so many details what I'd like to write into it... or I already did, but unfortunately that made the story to very long (Really long). The major problem with it, most of the details are necessary as they're returning elements and / or giving twists in the storyline. It's a long story with dozens of layers and these details are giving the basics of these layers. Now if I take out one, that sublayer and other layers may collapse. How would you eliminate these things to reduce the size of the novel, while you keep the whole thing intact?
    Last edited by Freelancer; 09-03-2009 at 11:19 PM.

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    Esteemed thinker Calliopenjo's Avatar
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    Thanks guys. I took a shot.

    Wounded I sing, tormented I indite. — Victor Herbert (1859-1924)

  10. #10
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Freelancer View Post

    In my present WIP there are so many details what I'd like to write into it... or I already did, but unfortunately that made the story to very long (Really long).
    Have you gotten all the way to THE END?

    Have you aged it for a month or three in your desk drawer?

    There isn't a mechanical solution to your question. What you have is your art. And I certainly can't answer your question without reading your work. Beta readers (after you're at second or third draft at least) might be able to comment with details.

  11. #11
    Absolute sagebrush Ken Schneider's Avatar
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    UJ, I assume at this juncture of your's and Deb's career that you don't have to query?

    If you did, what would the first line of your query sound/look like?

    Would it be a one line synopsis?

    A paragraph of the back cover blurb type?

    Or something else.

    Thanks.
    J.D. Salinger told The New York Times in 1974. "Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."

  12. #12
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    If you did, what would the first line of your query sound/look like?
    I'm particularly unqualified to answer that question, since I've never in my life written a query letter.

    I've written cover letters (for short stories), but never query letters.

    There are many career paths in this profession.

  13. #13
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    I will say that a back-cover-blurb type paragraph is particularly hard to write. My reason for saying this is: I make a small part of my living from writing cover blurbs for other people's novels (publishers hire me to do this; I make about a buck a word to do it). Most back-cover-blurbs written by authors are awful. Inept market-speak is dreadful. And the purpose of a back-cover blurb (to induce a reader to carry the book to the cash register) is different from the purpose of a query.

    I've had to do tons of synopses for various novels. These have ranged from one page, to ten pages, to (on one occasion) thirty pages. (And that one was written in one day, and had the folks from the art department at the publisher singing one of the songs* from the synopsis. But that's a story to tell over a beer somewhere.)

    One cover letter I once wrote read, in full: "Roses are red/ Violets are blue/ Here is a story / I'm sending to you."

    Don't try this at home, kids. I already knew the editor on a personal basis, but (up until then) not on a professional one. (He did buy the story.)


    -----------

    * ("Did you really put a song in a synopsis?" "Yes, I did.")

  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW 5bcarnies's Avatar
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    Wink ???

    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald View Post
    I'm particularly unqualified to answer that question, since I've never in my life written a query letter.

    I've written cover letters (for short stories), but never query letters.

    There are many career paths in this profession.
    Care to enlighten?

    Sorry, I don't mean to come across as a well, a noisy smart @$$. You opened a door that made my feelers raise a notch. I'm sure their are a dozens ways to get published, query or no, but now I am dreadfully curious about how you got started. What was the first professional leap that led the great James D. Macdonald to where he is now?

  15. #15
    Whore for genre HConn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Schneider View Post
    UJ, I assume at this juncture of your's and Deb's career that you don't have to query?

    If you did, what would the first line of your query sound/look like?
    Ken, if you don't mind, I'm going to jump in here.

    This is the full text of the query letter I sent to the agent I eventually signed with. Well, not the full text; I've taken out the addresses and stuff.

    Dear Ms. Blasdell:

    Ray Lilly is just supposed to be the driver. Sure, he knows a little magic, but it's Annalise, his boss, who has the real power. Ray doesn't like driving her across the country so she can hunt and kill people dabbling in dangerous magic, but if he tries to quit he'll move right to the top of her hit list.

    But Annalise's next kill goes wrong and she is critically injured. Ray must complete her assignment alone; he has to stop the man who is sacrificing children to make his community thrive, and also find the inhuman supernatural power fueling his magic.

    Harvest of Fire is a completed 99,000-word contemporary fantasy in the tone and style of a crime thriller.

    I have sold several short stories to the magazines Black Gate and On Spec. The latest is "Eating Venom," due out in the next issue of Black Gate.


    Thank you for your time,
    Not that "Eating Venom" has come out yet.

    For the record, I don't think the credits at the end did anything for me; I'm proud of them, but I'm not publishing my novel under that name (we're dropping the middle name, to be specific).

    Also, I shaped the synopsis there to match the recommendations of an agent (Kristen Nelson? She writes a blog called "Pub Rants" and I'm too pressed for time to check right now) who suggested that the query description should set up the world, the characters and the big plot twist that falls on page 30-50.

    You can see that in the query--it's all set up. When I wrote a full synopsis, though, I included the ending.

    I hope that's helpful.

    BTW, on 9/29 I'll be doing a chat on the Suvudu about being a new author and all that good stuff. I'll be interviewed by my editor, Betsy Mitchell, who's the editor-in-chief at Del Rey. All are invited to ask questions or heckle.

    Sorry for thread-jacking, UJ.
    Look for CHILD OF FIRE from Del Rey! Read a sample chapter. Hey! it's been named to Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2009 list!

    Book 2 in the Twenty Palaces series: GAME OF CAGES. or check out these sample chapters.

  16. #16
    Sheriff Bullwinkle the Poet says: RJK's Avatar
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    Harry, Congratulations on your success. I remember seeing your posts early in the Vol 1 thread. I guess you took UJ's lessons to heart.
    I checked out your web page and noticed there are no pictures of you. RU shy? or is that a strategic decision?
    Last edited by RJK; 09-07-2009 at 07:18 PM.

  17. #17
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 5bcarnies View Post
    Care to enlighten?
    Okay, the way it worked:

    There I was in the Republic of Panama, with my rich uncle, Sam. And one time (after having entirely too much fun with a disease called leptospirosis) I wound up in Gorgas hospital, and after that I had two weeks of convalescent leave. (This was the period that Doyle calls "Our worst Christmas ever.")

    So, anyway, while I was home on leave....

    Well, back up for a moment. There I was in the Republic of Panama, and all the science fiction books were imported by just one importer, Servicio Lewis, and they only got a new shipment once a month, and it wasn't a great selection. So after reading them all there'd be three weeks or so until the next selection. So, in order to have stories of the kind we liked to read, Doyle and I started writing our own, for each other. (The other choices on base were alcoholism, adultery, and amateur theatricals. Writing science fiction seemed sort of a better choice all the way around.)

    .... home on leave, I typed up a story about werewolves. This wasn't really a random choice, we knew about an open anthology with the theme "werewolves." So I wrote a story, then Doyle worked it over, then I played with it some, and eventually we sent it off.

    And one afternoon while I was down on the boats, Doyle got an international long-distance phone call from the editor saying that a) she wanted to buy the story, and b) it was 8,000 words too long, could we cut it?

    So, we did. The story was eventually published and was the lead story in the anthology. (The two places you want to be in any anthology are either the first story, or the last story. Those are the positions of power. That's where the editors put their strongest works.)

    Anywho...from there, one fine day while attending a conference, Doyle was approached by an editor from a packager. You have to understand that packagers are folks who are very much like those annoying folks who come up to you and say, "I have a great idea for a book! You write it and we'll share the money!" Except, packagers really do have the money. And they've already sold the idea to a publisher. All they have to do is find the authors. And they trawl through anthologies and such places looking for young authors who've made one or two sales (so they know they can write on a professional level) and pitching them on writing a fast novel. So, we agreed to do this. I figure it was like an intensive course on How To Write A Novel, working with a real editor, and, as an added bonus, they paid us. In advance. Those books came out from Ballantine, under a pseudonym.

    I was still in the Fleet at this time. Doyle was living back in the USA by then.
    Then the editor asked if maybe we had something else? So we pulled out a bunch of letters that Doyle and I had written to each other (being at sea makes you a real letter-writer) where we'd been just telling stories to each other in a sorta medieval world. These were titled, in our letters, "Yet Another Scene."

    We whipped those into shape as the Circle of Magic series, and the packager loved 'em, and they're still in print. At that point we got an agent. Which wasn't too hard to do with two novels in print and a contract for six more in our pocket.

    By then I was out of the Navy and living with Doyle in Manchester, New Hampshire. And we figured that if we were going to be writers now was the time to do it, because otherwise I'd have to find a job. So we took a bunch of stories we'd written in Panama, and which had just been lying there (on Atari 5.25" disks) and cobbled them together into a novel. They'd aged around four years by then, and we'd written eight novels (mostly short YA novels, but still), so we'd had a bit of practice, and we put it together and polished it up.

    And I mentioned on the Science Fiction RoundTable on GEnie (anyone remember GEnie?) that we'd just finished a novel. And Patrick Nielsen Hayden (who I'd never met, or even heard of at that point), an editor at Tor, wrote and said, "Don't let your agent send your book to anyone before she sends it to me."

    So, he read it, and offered to buy it, but only if we wrote two more books in the series. So, I quickly came up with two more plot summaries, about 250 words each, and Tor bought it. It wasn't published as frontlist, or backlist, or midlist, it was published as an "off-list special." And the first printing sold out in the first month, they went back to press, and that book eventually had seven or eight printings.

    So we sold what was the first Mageworlds book, and the two sequels turned into four, then six ... and meanwhile, it was up to our agent to sell books, not us. Which all worked out pretty well. The werewolf short story was never reprinted, but it did turn into the first chapter of a YA horror novel, which eventually turned into a trilogy.

    The short story didn't need anything more than a cover letter, and from that point on it was editors asking us, not the other way around. (Something about being Locus Bestsellers with every book we wrote probably had something to do with that.)

    So that's why we've never written a query letter.
    Last edited by James D. Macdonald; 09-05-2009 at 12:30 AM.

  18. #18
    practical experience, FTW Blue Sky's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald View Post
    Okay, the way it worked:

    ...

    So that's why we've never written a query letter.
    Thanks Jim. Great story! So you mean to tell me you and Doyle were doing what you loved, then continued doing it? Is that legal?

  19. #19
    practical experience, FTW CEtchison's Avatar
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    Great story! Thanks so much for sharing!!

    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald View Post
    And I mentioned on the Science Fiction RoundTable on GEnie (anyone remember GEnie?)
    This reference made me giggle. While I didn't use GEnie, I knew about it. My dad worked for IBM so we used Prodigy in our house.

  20. #20
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    We totally love what we do, and it's by lucky chance that we get paid (and not too badly, if I say so myself) to do it.

    Something that I think helped was that we weren't writing to please ourselves, we were writing to please another person. I was writing to amuse Doyle, and she was writing to amuse me. We had a specific audience in mind.

    And the first Mageworlds stories were written to please not only us, but a friend who lived in California and was having a bit of a rough time. We'd send ten pages every week, ending each one with a cliffhanger.

    And ... you know about Mary Sue, right? Suppose you write a Mary Sue but the Mary Sue isn't you? Those stories featured the adventures of a young lady who was sort of an idealized and way-competent and adventuresome version of our friend. We were writing a Mary Sue for her. And eventually we gave our heroine a boyfriend who wasn't unlike our friend's husband. And they had adventures together. And it was all good.

    I think that may have had something to do with the books selling pretty well. They were written for someone. A story isn't anything without the reader.

    Oh, and Doyle and I would sit around the kitchen gossiping about our characters. So that one day our elder daughter (then in Jr. High) asked, when coming home from school and walking into such a discussion, "Are you talking about someone I know, or is this just someone you made up?"

    We know lots of things about our characters that don't show up in the books.

  21. #21
    practical experience, FTW Blue Sky's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald View Post
    We totally love what we do, and it's by lucky chance that we get paid (and not too badly, if I say so myself) to do it.
    Chance? Perhaps. Inspiring in any case.

    From where I sit, your last two posts and the hints now and then reveal as much of how to write viable commercial prose as anything else here. Feels like a fresh ocean breeze.

    When my writing works best, it has always been with a specific person or a few people in mind. Larger audiences "get it"--which always amazes me--because each person is, well, a person. Ha! Imagine that.

    I met an author by email when I complimented a book that impressed me. We became friends and now my friend (published author) and I (e-articles only at the moment, one book ever so close to ready) look forward to the next surprise. I find my friend's candor and support priceless, not to mention lots of fun! We like to entertain each other with our comments as well, something you mentioned about your revision process.

  22. #22
    Whore for genre HConn's Avatar
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    RJK: Shy. But if you're really curious... http://www.harryjconnolly.com/blog/?p=328 (Link maker won't work on this computer.)

    Uncle Jim, I have been haunting book shops looking to complete the Mageworlds books so I can read them.

    eta: would you look at that.
    Look for CHILD OF FIRE from Del Rey! Read a sample chapter. Hey! it's been named to Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2009 list!

    Book 2 in the Twenty Palaces series: GAME OF CAGES. or check out these sample chapters.

  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW 5bcarnies's Avatar
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    Thank you for that wonderous tale. It was very enlightening. Just when I thought I was bombarded by all the crazy hoops that so many authors told me that I absolutely had to jump through I read your journey and am reminded that anything is possible.

  24. #24
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Minor brag: Nora here was one of my students at Viable Paradise some years back: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/jemisin_09_09/

  25. #25
    Today is your last day. FOTSGreg's Avatar
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    Uncle Jim wrote, Something that I think helped was that we weren't writing to please ourselves, we were writing to please another person. I was writing to amuse Doyle, and she was writing to amuse me. We had a specific audience in mind.

    There's a secret in there. One should not write to please oneself (except that writing does please oneself and one needs to gain satisfaction from it). Ultimately, one needsto write to tell a story that is pleasing and entertaining to one's audience.

    Uncle Jim doth speak truth that few hear in my opinion.

    We try to be storytellers. There is no storyteller without an audience. Someone has to like your stories enough to read them (or listen to them).

    I can honestly say that I have had people come up to me and say "That was a great story".

    That's what keeps me trying to ply this trade rather than succumbing to another mind-drudge day-job.

    Find my books on Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/fotsgreg
    Find my books on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/G.W.-Ellis/e/B...805&sr=1-2-ent
    WIPs: Dark Horizons, Hivers, The Bar, Gated

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