Saturday, November 20, 2010

Break time

From the Chop-tensils blog

After much thought, I've decided that I need to take a break from the blog. It's that time of year (holidays + end-of-semester) when there's simply too much to do.

I am also at a crossroads, preparing to leap through the proverbial door that the universe recently opened to me.  Which means... I need some time to figure things out. But I will return in January. I'll have new content (already working on it--very excited!) and a new look. In fact, even the name will go. As I said, it's a transitional time.

I am incredibly grateful to all of you who stop by, read, and comment. Thank you. Good luck finishing NaNoWriMo, PiBoIdMo, or whatever other -Mo you've been participating in. I wish you all the best.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Making your writing accessible to the reader

I'm reading Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages (thank you, Justine!), and I had to laugh when I got to his chapter on style, particularly the standard academic style.  Noah gives fabulous (if exaggerated) examples of each of the issues he discusses in the book. Here's one sentence (yes, just one) from his example of the academic style:
The internal structure of the bureaucracy, as witnessed by Chief Councilor Spiros Andros an documented by Epilos, was not unlike the Cartesian dynasty of the 6th century, under the little-known Habacus of Southern France (ibid, p. 899), not in its want of a political head, that is to say, a leader, but rather in its seeming tolerance and perhaps even inclination towards that one desire man has been struggling to conquer since the earliest days of Scripture.

Makes you want to get out the blue pencil, doesn't it? As an academic, I found this hilarious because... it's true. This is what reading academic papers is like (not all, there are some fabulous writers in academia, but they are rare and their writing should be treasured). I always wondered why I fell asleep when doing research as a grad student—why I couldn't remember what a paper was about for the group discussion just one hour later—but now it's crystal clear: it's because academics write like this.

I've been writing for Nature Education Knowledge, which is an online educational resource geared toward undergraduates (but also applicable to the advanced high school student). I've contributed to the Ecology topics, both as a writer and as a reviewer. All papers are peer-reviewed: reviewed by other members of the academic community for readability and accuracy. 

I've noticed two main problems in the papers I've reviewed. One is a lack of accessible vocabulary; the use of jargon that only other scientists would know. The other is the tendency of academics to write long, convoluted sentences (see above) that are nearly impossible to follow unless you are already intimately familiar with the subject matter.

This doesn't work for an educational publication. More often that not, I find myself suggesting that the author cut long sentences into two, sometimes three separate sentences. If the reader can grasp the concept within one short sentence, then s/he will be prepared to take on the next one. But if the concept is wrapped within another concept, this task becomes nearly impossible. Particularly when the reader must understand the terminology in order to understand the concept (authors can mark terms for inclusion in the glossary, but readers must look up the terms before they can continue reading).

This may sound like it's only applicable to academic writing, but it's not. In writing for children, one of the reasons non-fiction articles are rejected by magazines is because they are written at an inappropriate level for the intended reader. The same goes for writing books for children. New terms must be explained in an understandable way, using short sentences that the readers (or listeners) can understand. Knowledge is built, step by step.

And this all applies to fiction just as much as it does to non-fiction. Know what farandolae are? Or what kything is? Did you know what a pensieve was before you read Harry Potter? These are all fictional objects from fabulous books, terms that may become commonplace, but only because the authors who coined them explained them in an accessible way. So think about the vocabulary you use. Pay careful attention to sentence length. And see if your writing doesn't improve.

What is your favorite object from a work of fiction? What does it do?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Surgery and the rules of Vonnegut

I'm not blogging much these days, largely because I've been playing surgeon, and, like most surgeons, I have found it better to focus my attention on one thing and do it well, rather than do lots of things poorly.

After taking a close look at my MG fantasy, I decided the first half was... how to put this delicately... in need of some first aid. I started bandaging it, but after too many bandages, I realized it needed a full-on operation. So I donned my surgical gloves and rewrote most of the first 20K words over the past 10 days. It's now out of intensive care but will be going in for check-ups (i.e., revisions) over the coming weeks.

Speaking of revisions, Elana Johnson has a great post about how her revision process works. You probably already check her blog on a daily basis, but in case you don't (or missed it), go check it out.

What, you ask, does this have to do with Vonnegut? Nothing really, except that my husband found Kurt Vonnegut's Tips for Writing Fiction. And since I'm mired in that process and found it helpful (#6... gotta work on #6!), I thought you might like it, too.

How is your WIP coming?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Query questions

I am still working on revisions for my MG fantasy, and I've hit a bit of a stumbling block.

The agent I will be querying liked the first 500 words and said she wanted to continue reading, at which point she asked me to query with the first 10 pages. But she also had some comments within those first 500 words about things that would need to be changed.

My question: when I query, do I submit the original 10 pages, so that she is (quite literally) reading on? Or do I submit revised pages, to show that I am a good little author who can work with comments and revise accordingly? I'm leaning toward the latter, but I really don't know.

I need advice, writer friends. What would you do?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Things to know about agents

Since I'm in the process of writing query letters (two, actually, one for my nonfiction PB, another for the MG fantasy), agents are very much on my mind this week.

And what should I discover on Twitter but a marvelous blog post by Nicola Morgan about the misconceptions people have about agents. If you want to get an agent, check it out. Then go and read Rachelle Gardner's post and the series of posts by Wendy Lawton about agentfail.  They are all well worth the read.

Do you have an agent or are you looking for one? What are your expectations?

Monday, November 1, 2010

On your mark! Get set! Wait a minute...

I'm back! Sorry for the two weeks without posts. I was busy enjoying time with family that I hadn't seen in over a year. I have some fun things from my trip to share, but not today. Now I'm home, jet lagged (why is the sun shining at 2:30 in the morning?), and ready to launch into NaNoWriMo.

Or not.

Last week, I got a rather exciting email. A literary agent asked me to query my MG fantasy after reading the first 500 words. Somehow, I don't think it would be in my interest to wait until December to do so.

So now I have to write a query and do some serious revisions on the MS to make it respectable shine. Looks like my first NaNo attempt will have to be postponed. :(

Next year, NaNo, next year. You can't avoid me forever.

What are your plans and goals for this month?