Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Using Ambiguity - The Difference Between Tension and Mistrust

I had a somewhat humbling experience recently. I critiqued an amazing
story for a fabulous writer with loads more talent than me. (That
wasn't the humbling part. I'm used to that, ha!).

One of the notes I gave in the critique centered around some ambiguity
in the motivations of a supporting character. Even as the story
finished, I was never quite sure whether this character was good or

"I don't want the reader to know for sure whether he's good or not,"
the author later said.

"The problem isn't the ambiguity itself," said I. "The problem is that
I can't tell whether you're doing it on purpose."

And that's where I got served a big ol' slice of humble pie, because
it was as if my words echoed back at me across a year or two.

You see, one of the main characters in my first book is similiarly
ambiguous. And a few years back a very knowledgeable agent took the
time to read my full manuscript. Her generous rejection letter
included extensive notes about that character.

She told me I needed to be clear with my intention for him. That if I
didn't show the reader the ambiguity was purposeful, I would lose the
reader's trust.

I thought she just didn't get what was I was trying to do. When, in
fact, I didn't realize just what golden advice I was receiving.

Now I know what she meant: You can have all the ambiguity you want.
You can write reversals and twists to your hearts content. BUT, in
every instance where we're waiting to find out what to make of a
character, make sure the reader knows you kept it uncertain on
purpose. Because if they aren't sure, the story becomes at best
frustrating, and at worst, downright unreadable.

Here's the litmus test:
GOOD: The reader is saying things like "What is up with that guy?" Or
"I have a bad feeling about this."

BAD: The reader is saying "I just wasn't sure what to make of that
guy," or, "I kept waiting to see what he would do, but it was just

Why? Because you want the reader's mind consumed with questions about
the story - not questions about whether they've correctly understood
the story. The former keeps them turning pages. The latter has them
going back to reread - if they have the patience.

So how do you make sure the reader knows the ambiguity is intentional?

One approach is to have other POV characters recognize the same
disquiet as the reader. If another character observes tension
regarding the ambiguous character's trustworthiness, then the reader
knows they're on the right track.

A little trickier, but perhaps more effective, would be the use of
body language in the ambiguous character. It takes real skill to imply
a character is hiding something, but if you can pull it off your
reader will be riveted, waiting for the big reveal.

Regardless of how you do it, the important thing is to make sure your
reader is drawn deeper into the story by what you're doing, rather
than being thrown out of it to figure out what they think is going on.

If they don't trust YOU to tell them the truth, they'll be measuring
your motives, rather than flipping pages to figure out your

Your Turn: I know there are more ways to skin this cat. So tell me
about a book you've read where the author used ambiguity to great
effect. Can you identify what techniques they used to show you there
was more to come?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Crisis of Confidence

You know what I'm talking about...
It's the day when you look at another author's achievement, or your
recent rejection, or... well, just anything really, and you're certain
you'll absolutely, positively NEVER be a success. Never get that
contract, or achieve those sales, or make that list. It's the day the
dark monster of doubt clamps himself on your back and sinks his teeth
into your resolve.

It can be a really lonely experience if you don't have some solid
writer friends around you. With the best of intentions, non-Writers -
we'll call them "Wuggles" - can, with the best of intentions, add to
your sense of failure, or fear of obscurity.

So today all I want to tell you is that you aren't alone. I wrestled
the doubt demon for hours this morning. But, thank the lord, I was
armed with all those quotes, anecdotes, and "advice to writers" blots
I've read. I realized that when you boil it all down, they all say one

The only difference between failure and success is perserverence. Keep
writing. Keep learning. Most important, keep trying.

One day your dreams will come true. And hopefully, so will mine.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

HELP! Every Writer's Nightmare

Today I lost my laptop for at least six weeks. Please join me in a
moment of silence, to mourn the loss of my creative fountain...

Okay, so this is my first attempt (a dress rehearsal, if you will) of
blogging via email. Did it work? Do I look okay in this? Have I grown
a third nose? Your comments regarding the viability / noticeability of
posting this way (especially any that can make me smile through the
tears) are most welcome.

Help me, friends. I need to remember there are more beautiful things
on the face of this earth than the rapidly-filling page in my MS Word


Monday, February 20, 2012

Your Questions for an Independent Publisher?

I've had my eye drawn to the independent publishing market recently - and by that, I mean the smaller, independent presses, e-book prints, etc. These publishers will offer little or no advance, but neither will they charge you - they're investing in your book.

It's an aspect of publishing I don't know a lot about, so I've been exploring.

A very generous and recently successful independent publisher has agreed to take our questions. Yes, that's right. You can submit any questions you might have in the comments of this post (or email me if blogger is blocking you) and I'll pass them on to the publisher who has agreed to visit Seeking the Write Life with the answers.


Here's the questions I've come up with - what are yours?

1. Does going independent in today's market essentially mean going solely digital?

2. Do independent publishers have access / distribution to bookstore chains?

3. Has the YA market embraced e-books yet? (I get that kids are big on gadgets, but at this point most of them can't afford to buy e-readers for themselves. My perception is it's the adult genres that are really taking off in the e-book markets... am I wrong?)

4. It appears that in many cases a writer still needs an agent to get in the door with any worthwhile independent publisher - yet many agents say the deals with indie's are too small to make it worth their while, so... how does an author gain an indie's attention otherwise?

5. Are we naive to respect the 'we're not accepting unsolicited submissions' guidelines? Do many authors ignore and throw themselves on the slushpile anyway, thereby getting a foot in the back door?

Your Turn: What questions do you have for an independent publisher? (Just in case it's relevant, please note the genre your question is about).