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Thread: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

  1. #1876
    James D Macdonald

    Re: For when you come back--

    Are there any questions that would help a beginner improve, but which no beginner ever seems to think of asking?

    Oh ... my ... Ghod....

    Without reading the thread you reference....

    Listen, young writer. You ask what you need to do, to improve? You want to know the secret?

    Write your story... write your novel... then write another one.

    And for heaven's sake think. Think about what you're doing, what worked, what didn't. Be honest. Be brutal -- with yourself.

    But, above all,write.

  2. #1877
    James D Macdonald

    Re: For when you come back--

    The trick is, as the original question poses: who should be your perfect beta?

    I have a perfect beta. Just one person (and no, it's not my co-writer). But there's one person who I write for, and that's my beta.

    To her: Thank you.

    And -- I've been a beta. I remember one person. I read her novel, and my comment was (among other things) that I didn't see why the heroine and the villain didn't push the hero off the top of the nearest bell tower and make bets on how high he'd bounce.

    She never asked me to comment on another novel.

    That novel was never published.

    (That author has published other novels.)

    Honesty. If you're a beta, be honest.

  3. #1878
    James D Macdonald

    Re: getting awfully looooong here

    Is it time maybe to archive this thread as LEARN WITH JIM 1 and start anew? Just a thought.

    When we reach 100 pages. Perhaps.

    I imagine then the first dozen posts of the new thread will be links to the old one, to the Best Of posts.

    I'm also thinking of doing a FAQ.

    Q. How Do I Become a Writer?

    A. By sending your writing to editors likely to buy it.

    Q. What editor is likely to buy it?

    A. One who has bought similar things in the past.

    Q. What do you mean "bought"?

    A. Sent a check for cash money, to the tune of at least $0.05 cents a word.

    Q. How do I know who has bought similar things?

    A. By reading the magazine/imprint for which the person edits.

    Q. How do I submit?

    A. Double-spaced, on one side of the paper, with one-inch margins.

    And so on ....

    Many years ago, when I was young and innocent, I went to a presentation by a Famous Author, with questions after. And I wanted to be a writer, even then. And I raised my hand, timidly, near the end, and asked "How does one become a published writer?" or words to that effect.

    And the famous writer answered, something about inspiration, and vision, and much else that wasn't particularly useful (in that it took me fifteen years to figure out the answer to my question), which was, "Type it on one side of the paper, double spaced, and send it to someone likely to buy it. For cash."

    Let me tell you a true thing: if you have a talent for prose fiction (and most people don't -- I swear to you, most people don't), and you've practiced so that your talent is developed -- there are folks who will pay you cash money. You have a rare talent. You are one among a million. You deserve money for what you can do. Do not sell yourself short!

    But your first, or your second, or ... need I go on? Your efforts need to be practiced.

    Not only must you be good enough, you have to be good enough to go head to head against people who are as talented as you (or more!) and who have been practicing for twenty years.

    In the words of Dirty Harry: "Ask yourself, punk, do you feel lucky?"

    Guys, I've been talented all my life. I've been writing for forty years. I've been publishing for a bit over fifteen of them.

    This is work. This is not just raw talent, this is work. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

  4. #1879

    Plot question

    Hi everyone

    I have a question about plot. Basically this is something I have trouble with. So I am doing an experiement with another writer where I begin writing a story, he reads it in pieces as I go, and offers plotting suggestions. So far it is working well, but I am finding it really hard to keep things moving briskly. I was hoping you guys could give me suggesations for what to do next, or at least how to think of what to do next. Here is what I have so far:

    1) Before the story begins, a rich reclusive billionaire dies and leaves a will stating that upon his death he will turn his island over to the local populace for a giant treasure hunt and whichever of them finds the buried key can have the whole shebang. Our heroines (two sisters) begin the tale renting a boat to go out there.

    2) They are short money for the boat so they hook up with a Pakistani businessman (the person helping with the story is one and wanted to be written in) and an Amercian soldier who offer to share the boat with them. They go rent the boat, during which some backstory on them is revealed as they verify each other's credentials re. eligibility for the game

    3) On the boat ride over, they agree to cooperate on the treasure hunt as best as the rules allow to increase their chances. The older sister, who is a high-strung sort in serious need of learning her lesson, begins to get closer to the Pakistani businessman.

    4) They arrive at the island and our directed to a holding area where they must camp out until morning. There, they find harsh conditions, but are taken in by a friend of the younger sister, who has picked up some gossip about some of the other treasure hunters during his own wait. Further backstory on the billionaire is also shared by our sole local, the Pakistani, who hints that the billionaire may have been an art forger and thief. He also shares the old coot's love of puzzles and games, and his own suspicion that the treasure hunt is more than it seems. They get their first clue, a riddle that indicates there are spies on the island sent to watch over the game.

    5) The younger sister goes off with her friend, and the older sister is left alone with the Pakistani, where she shares her fears that her sister will find the treasure and leave her. (This part, my reader found especially riveting, after complaining that the prior section with the riddle was too slow. He then suggested I have him try to kiss her, then be interrupted by the younger sister falling into the water or something).

    So, I am assuming that when we resume tomorrow they get their hands on the island and go off to start finding the treasure. And? I need some tension, some actual plot. I am worried this will become like my first novel, which was all conversations. Somehow 'conversations, but with treasure' does not seem like much of an improvement. I am thinking that some of the competitors will try to corrupt the American and have him sabotage his little team somehow. And possibly there will be a death. But I am just at a loss for what else to do to keep it interesting. Suggestions?

  5. #1880

    correct path?

    I've got two quick thoughts for you:

    First, since you acquiesced to your reader and "wrote him in", he is probably less likely to give you honest assessments as to where your plot should go, particularly when it deals with "his" character. I'm sure he wants to be the hero or get the girl or something like that, so he may not want you making his character look foolish or even suffer through some of the obstacles that characters must suffer through in order to reach or fail their goals.

    Second, why are you having someone else decide your plot for you? Where's the fun in that? Sounds more like a classroom assisgnment to connect the dots according to someone else's wishes. I could maybe see you two becoming a team if he's the outliner and you're the writer; filling in the details to the blueprint he draws. But sounds like he's playing it by ear if he's reading a sample then deciding where to go with it. Not that this can't be done; just it's much harder for newbies like us to get away with.

    If you two can come up with an ending and connect the dots BEFORE you start tapping away, and ensure that his ego won't be hurt if you have to trash "his" character, I think you'll have a better shot.

    Good luck.

  6. #1881
    James D Macdonald

    Re: Plot question

    Oh, dear, Joanna.

    First, you might want to read The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven.

    Now, consider these possiblities:

    While these people are on the island, a bio-engineered plague kills everyone else on earth. What is the treasure worth to them now?


    The billionaire is still alive, and for reasons of his own wants these particular people corralled. Either they're capable of thwarting his plans elsewhere in the world, or he's planning Weird Medical Experiments.


    There never was a billionaire; this is just another stupid reality TV game show. When the participants realize this, they destroy the cameras, go to New York, and take over the network that had been sponsoring it. One of our heroes becomes a prophet, but is only able to reveal where lost bread boxes can be found. Since few people have bread boxes any more, and fewer of them lose 'em, this isn't too spectacular. The soldier is accused of having murdered the head of the network. The jury returns the verdict "Justifiable Homicide."

    The night before the treasure hunt is to begin is a perfect time for the plot to take a wild turn. Whatever happens should call off the game.


    I've thought about this a little more.

    What's the theme of this book? Who are the characters, really? Once you know those things, you'll have a better idea of which way to move the plot. But since the Pakistani businessman is plotting it for you as you go ... I don't know what to say.

    Maybe the Weird Medical Experiment is a mutated form of VD, bioengineered by the billionaire in a failed attempt to create a means of restoring his failing manhood, which has the powers of being a) a true aphrodasiac, and b) horribly fatal. The story is a clever commentary on HIV/AIDS.

  7. #1882
    Kate Nepveu

    Re: You Are What You Eat

    Are you only listing juried awards, hence no Hugos?

    (Science fiction and fantasy, make an interesting comparison with the WFA and the Nebulas:
    1994: Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson [sf, 2 of 3]
    1995: Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold [sf, middle of long-running series]
    1996: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson [sf]
    1997: Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson [sf, 3 of 3]
    1998: Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman [sf]
    1999: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis [sf/farce?]
    2000: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge [sf]
    2001: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling [fantasy]
    2002: American Gods by Neil Gaiman [fantasy]

    I think all of the genre lists that I'm familiar with are mixed bags, but I'd put _Deepness_ up against just about any novel on these lists.)

    (PS: sorry about whatever's making you spend time in a nursing home.)

  8. #1883
    John Buehler

    Re: Plot question

    But I am just at a loss for what else to do to keep it interesting. Suggestions?
    What story are you trying to tell? Why are you telling it? Is it just a random sequence of events that are intended to be entertaining because something is happening? Train wrecks and sex?

    Stories like the one you're working through are often an illustration of human nature having to do with selfishness and selflessness around material gain. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory would be another possible source for you (I don't know if the original book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has the same message of ethics and morality built into it.)

    If you just want interesting plot twists, figure out the twists in advance and then figure out how to tie it all together. You have key plot elements that serve as the starting framework of the story. The stuff in between the key plot elements serve as transitions and buildups to those climaxes of plot.

    And I'd encourage you to lose your Pakistani businessman. I have claxons going off all over the place in my head when I hear how this guy is influencing your story. Throw darts at a board with plot twists on it if you must, but don't rely on him.


  9. #1884

    Re: correct path?

    Writers write because they have something to say. You should have something to say, Joanna. You should have an opinion on your characters and their situation. You should orchestrate the story so that it brings out, in the most dramatic possible way, the strengths and weaknesses of your characters.

    Are they too cowardly to pursue their dreams? Do they value wealth above everything? Is a share in the treasure enough to satisfy them?

    Pick an idea that you want to write about. Use your characters--all of them--to illustrate that idea. The positives, the negatives, the moral quandries, the moral certainties.

    It's not easy. And it doesn't get easier by going to a message board and asking others to do it for you. This is the heavy lifting of being a writer, and you shouldn't be asking others to do it for you.

    Let me make a suggestion, though: Finding the key is not the climax of the story. The readers know and expect them to find the key. You need to get to that point in the story early, and move the story on from there.

  10. #1885

    Too many "shoulds"

    You should...should...should

    What is this, God? I wish I was smart enough to tell other people what they should do.

    Joanna--Uncle Jim has given you great advice, you can't go wrong following it. I love that you are writing so much, and are enthusiastic. If you didn't have some talent, you wouldn't know to ask questions.

    Speaking of God--as writer, YOU are God and master of your world. Keep writing and writing and writing. You will see your best voice emerge.

    My suggestion is to write at least 2 drafts and one hard revision, then show it to betas or critiquers. If you show it too soon, it can become collaboration. One can loose energy about telling the story, because it's already been told to all those people. Just and idea.

    Good luck.

  11. #1886

    Re: You Are What You Eat

    Thanks, guys. I guess I should have been clearer that it is MY story My friend is encouraging me to keep writing, and offering suggestions (such as at one point telling me it was getting dull and something needed to happen) but it IS my story and I do have an idea for how it ends.

    The reclusive billionaire was a lover of puzzles (especially the type in Alice in Wonderland, and in fact he is named for Lewis Carroll) and most of the "quest" will be more convoluted than it has to be. But this is the point---my mian characters are developing relationships that will mirror what goes on during the treasure hunt, and will similarly make things harder for themselves than they have to be. The ending will be about how the answer (to both their own problems and the quest itself) is simpler than they thought.

    I am a fan of reality shows and how they can expose aspects of people that might be unexpected and I always thought a reality show-type contest would be a great plot for a novel. But I was worried about it "dating" my story, so I figured a more old-fashioned "quest" story would be better. I am having fun with it and making real progress, writing scenes between breaks at work with my friend cheering me on and awaiting the next installment.

    In the Nora Roberts bio I read, it said she wrote 6 books before she was ready to be published. I have no problem at all doing this. My goal at this point is simply to put in the time writing, to write as much as I can and learn from it.


  12. #1887
    James D Macdonald

    Re: You Are What You Eat

    Hi, Kate --

    I left off the Hugos because I already had a list of SF award winners, and didn't feel like handing out too much homework.

  13. #1888

    Grammar question


    Do we always say "were" in a construction like "If I were to become the President"? Is using "was" instead of "were" allowed? What are the grammar rules about this? Do we go by the ear or what?

    Does the same apply to this:

    He looked at me as if he were doing me a favour.

    Or is it

    He looked at me as he was doing me a favour.


  14. #1889

    Grammar question

    Sorry, typo in the second part of my post (missed an if):

    He looked at me as if he were doing me a favour.

    Or is it

    He looked at me as if he was doing me a favour.

    - Paritosh.

  15. #1890
    James D Macdonald

    Re: Grammar question

    "Were" is the subjunctive -- it expresses conditions or events that the speaker wants to happen, hopes to happen, or imagines happening. Usually you find "if" preceding "were."

    "The boss would be happy if you were there."

    You can use "was" informally or in dialog.

  16. #1891

    Re: You Are What You Eat

    As I understand, "were" is to be used for something that you'd wish to happen, or something that is highly improbable or unlikely: if I were the President, I would... Also, if you're writing in past tense, it helps to distinguish the subjunctive from normal clause.

    This rule is rather relaxed now in modern literature and causual writing (including dialog -- "if I were" just sounds rather stilted sometimes). In your case, "was" would be correct:

    "He looked at me as if he was doing me a favor" -- he MIGHT very well be really doing you a favor. Here, "as if" is used in the manner of "like."

    "He looked at me as if I were an alien monster" -- use "were" because it's improbably and unlikely.

  17. #1892

    Ending a scene

    I have a scene which ends with one character leaving instructions for how the capture of another is to be handled. The instructions are ambiguous, hinting of possible danger. I'm not sure if this a hook. That danger never comes about due to other turns of events.

    Is it misleading and cheating the reader to end the scene with this sense of impending danger and never produce the danger (at least not from this source)? Is it okay for the purpose of building a sense of suspense?

  18. #1893

    Re: Ending a scene

    If this 'hint of possible danger' was one of a number of potential outcomes, and one of the other outcomes is shown, then I'd say you are safe in leaving it as is.

    In fact, that's a good thing; like ending a chapter with the hero confronting a fork in the road and waiting until the next chapter to show the reader which fork the hero took.

    However, if this 'dangles', remains unresolved, then it is likely the reader might feel cheated.

  19. #1894

    Re: Grammar question

    A "hint" of danger would be a nice hook.

    I wonder though, why not present the readers with a real danger? You should turns of events prevent that from happening. I'm just wondering, would the danger make it more dramatic or interesting?

    At any rate, be careful to set up false expectations, then leave your readers hanging. It's fine if you only hint at possible outcomes. It's another if you deliberately mislead them.

  20. #1895

    word count

    Hoping some of the published writers on this thread have a better idea than me. What would be considered too short a word count for a novel; maybe relegating it to a novella? More specifically, what would be acceptable parameters for a crime novel? 50,000 words on the short end to 200,000 words on the long end for instance?

  21. #1896
    James D Macdonald

    Re: word count

    Technically, a novel is a book-length work of realistic prose fiction.

    What exactly "book-length" is, now ... if you're asking for a definition, it's anything above 40,000 words. If you're asking, "What's a commercial length?" think about 60,000 words. If you're asking, "Is 200,000 words too long?" the answer is maybe -- for a first time author. Or maybe not, if they're all exactly the right words.

    Your first goal is to have the right words, and only the right words, in your book. After that figure out whether it's a commercial length and what category to put it in.

    Here, try this: Go to a bookstore or library, find some recent crime novels, and count the words. (To count the words: take five random pages. Count the individual words on them. Divide by five, then multiply by the total number of pages in the book.)

  22. #1897


    Your first goal is to have the right words, and only the right words, in your book. After that figure out whether it's a commercial length and what category to put it in.

    And what does one do if one sees that one's book doesn't exactly fit any particular category? A few years ago, I came across Marshall's Plan for Novel Writing and there he speaks at length how important it is to know your market niche before you start working on your book. Well, in my non-fiction writing I'm a marketing freak and go out of my way to give the editor exactly what he/she wants, but I look at this "book-length" project of mine and realise it doesn't actually fit any category (as in, "urban fantasy", "dark fantasy", "epic fantasy", etc etc).

    What's one got to do? The bloody book just seems to be in a category of its own! :shrug What am I doing wrong?

    Is it a sign of being an amateur? Normally, when I learn to do something, I aim to either do it professionally or not to do it at all. :gone

    Thank you!

  23. #1898
    aka eraser

    Re: Category

    I'd recommend just writing the book and worrying about the labeling later. Seems there's a common denominator in the categories you say it doesn't fit and that's fantasy.

    If it's a fantasy of some sort it'll find a home there. Those racks are big in the stores I frequent; should be room for one more.

  24. #1899

    Re: Grammar question

    "He looked at me as if he was doing me a favor" -- he MIGHT very well be really doing you a favor. Here, "as if" is used in the manner of "like."

    Maestro, no! "He looked at me as if he were doing me a favor" is correct. The "as if" clause describes a condition contrary to fact. You need the subjunctive here. "Like" would be ungrammatical in that sentence, too.

    Only if you wanted to preserve the ungrammatical speech style of the first-person narrator would you use "was" and "like."

  25. #1900

    Re: word count

    Reph, normally it is true, and one should use a subjuctive when using the "if" clause (or "as if"). But this rule has been relaxed in recent times -- and most consider subjuctives archaic.

    if clauses—the traditional rules. According to traditional rules, you use the subjunctive to describe an occurrence that you have presupposed to be contrary to fact: if I were ten years younger, if America were still a British Colony. The verb in the main clause of these sentences must then contain the verb would or (less frequently) should: If I were ten years younger, I would consider entering the marathon. If America were still a British colony, we would all be drinking tea in the afternoon. When the situation described by the if clause is not presupposed to be false, however, that clause must contain an indicative verb. The form of verb in the main clause will depend on your intended meaning: If Hamlet was really written by Marlowe, as many have argued, then we have underestimated Marlowe’s genius. If Kevin was out all day, then it makes sense that he couldn’t answer the phone.

    if clauses—the reality. In practice, of course, many people ignore the rules. In fact, over the last 200 years even well-respected writers have tended to use the indicative was where the traditional rule would require the subjunctive were. A usage such as If I was the only boy in the world may break the rules, but it sounds perfectly natural.

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