Sunday, January 11, 2015

Adventures in Pantsing: A Plotter Tries to Cut Loose

Adventures in Pantsing. Just call me Jeniana Jones. I'm not kidding. That actually sounds cool.

The first ghost story I ever wrote sucked royally. It was derivative as hell, like everything I wrote in middle school. I named it after my favorite Julee Cruise song ("The Nightingale"), called my ghost heroine Mina (I'd just read Dracula), and made the hero kill the ghost of the woman he once loved (more shades of Dracula). My eighth-grade teacher made just one comment. He wrote "Good word use" next to "tentatively." I got an A. Then he read it out loud to the class. I was a little traumatized by having my private creation shared with the world.

I haven't written a true ghost story since.

Until now.

For the hell of it, I revisited two ideas I'm still uncomfortable with: pantsing a story and writing a ghost story. Let me preface this by saying I am SO NOT a pantser. I need things to be spelled out, plot-wise and character-wise, before I feel comfortable diving in. I like knowing where I'm going, so I can focus all my effort on the language and descriptions. If I'm too worried about the how, I can't think about the what. And as for ghost stories, mostly I don't write them because it's so hard to come up with something original. Hell, after nine and a half seasons of Supernatural, what's left for the rest of us?

I. The Prep Work
As a writer, it's my duty to try and grow as an artist, right? All right, fine, challenge accepted. As an exercise, I forced myself to pants my way through a ghost story. No pressure, no word count, no real goals other than to write for 30 minutes during my lunch break at work and just see what happened. I chose the first setting that came to mind--the area I live in--and what it's famous for--the gold rush. A long-ass time ago (okay, it was October of 2013), I watched a Discovery channel show on the Gold Rush. A couple of elements really stuck with me, so I tied in two of them: a struggling group of miners called the Boston Company and a cholera epidemic that struck the gold fields. And I started typing.

The gold fields lay empty, the sole glimmer emanating from the hard metal of the stars above. Once again, Frank had found nothing." - from "Gold Fever" by Jenni Wiltz

II. The Opening
Predictably, it was ASSLOADS OF HARD to get going. I began with a lame description of setting. Normally, my inner editor would take over and tell me to delete it all, but what the hell, I was pantsing, which meant I didn't know what I wouldn't need. I typed and typed. Blah blah starlight, blah blah cholera. I knew something creepy would have to happen, so about a page in, I casually mentioned that one of the miners had disappeared. When his horse returned to camp, they found him chopped into bits, stacked in the saddlebags. That took care of the whole "introduce a conflict" thing.

But then I had to figure out who had done this evil deed. (A ghost, of course. This is a GHOST STORY, after all.) That's why it really sucked when I realized a man had done the deed. An old man. A weird man. But a man. Damn it.

In keeping with my being a plotter, I could have overruled my gut. I could have made the man a ghost because it made more sense. But being a pantser isn't always about what makes sense. So I allowed the villain to take shape as a man inside my head. To further the conflict, I had to send my hero out looking for this man. Because I'm kind of a bitch to my characters, I made him half dead from cholera. Real hard to aim a gun straight when you're not even strong enough to hold it up.

Now I started to feel things coming together. I had a man, a conflict, a weakness, and a creepy villain. This was going to be easy, right?



"Ten days ago, the doctor said he would live. Seven days ago, Frank started to believe him." - from "Gold Fever" by Jenni Wiltz

III. The Complication
Once I put my hero on a horse and sent him in search of the old weird man's cabin, I realized I had no idea what would happen when he got there. Because I had no idea why the old man did it. Insanity only works in the legal system; it's not a good way to motivate a story. Stories need to be tied together more firmly than our minds are in real life. So the old man can't be a lunatic. He must have had a good reason for butchering that poor miner. But what the hell was it?

My hero approached the cabin at night and called out to the old man. When in doubt, generate more conflict, right? This was the most direct way of doing that, so I went with it.

I hesitated here...should the old man actually answer the door, or should my hero have to spy on him to get the information he needed? I decided to go for broke here, and have a direct conversation between them.

The old man opened the door and invited my hero in.

And then I realized why: the inside of the cabin was hung entirely with guns. Muskets. Rifles. Of all ages and types. Mounted on the wall. All pointing toward the old man's chair by the fire. Apparently, my old man was a suicidal paranoid kleptomaniac nut job. But now I'd given myself another problem: who was this guy, and how did he get a collection of weaponry that included guns that were 300 years old? And why was he in the Sierra foothills with this massive collection of Renaissance-era European weaponry? What the hell was happening?

The old man was running away with my story, writing checks my brain couldn't cash. I had no idea how I would explain any of this, but these are the images that popped into my head and that my fingers typed out on the page. In the true spirit of pantsing, I let him do it. It went against the very fiber of my being not to stop, think, and really figure out who this guy was before continuing. But I didn't. I wrote a garbage conversation where the hero asked the old man if he murdered the miner. The old man said he did. No surprise, and no tension. I felt the story floundering. Where could it go from here? And wasn't this supposed to be a ghost story? I had no ghosts, no whodunit, no motive, and a buttload of guns I couldn't explain. Because pantsing is AWESOME that way. You will never do this again, I told myself. As Bartok had warned, this would only end in tears.

"Farrier had left for the dark hill at dawn and been delivered back to the river camp in pieces, stacked neatly in his saddlebags. What had done the delivering no one knew." - from "Gold Fever" by Jenni Wiltz

IV. The Payoff...Maybe
But the next day, on the way home from work, I had an epiphany. I remembered something from a trip to Santa Fe I'd taken years before. The city was settled ridiculously early in history, in the late 1500s if I remembered right. And then I remembered...weren't all those early Spanish explorers looking for the one thing the miners had just found in California? Holy shit. That was it. The link that made my plotting self giddy: a historical connection. The Spanish explorers who came to New Mexico were looking for El Dorado, golden cities that would be overflowing with riches for everyone. And did they find it? No, but the miners did. Hell, I live in El Dorado County.

But now I had another problem: how does this historical connection translate for these characters? There's no damn way a dude alive in 1849 would have been alive in the 1500s...or is there? This was supposed to be a ghost story, wasn't it? So maybe the old man's a ghost after all. But if he was really a ghost, why all the guns? Are there guns that can kill ghosts? I was getting backed into a corner by my own pantsing. God, this is painful, I thought. Why do people do this? When did thinking really hard become passe?

V. The Reveal
So I had to nix the full-on ghost idea. The man is a man, which explains why he needs guns. He is also 300 years old, which makes him a kind of living ghost. But how? And why? What did I know about Spanish explorers? Only what I remembered from grade school. But that wasn't strictly true. A couple years ago, when I got obsessed with genealogical research, I discovered that my great-grandma's grandma was a Sevier.

A little online digging produced some circumstantial evidence that links the Seviers to the name Xavier, which was originally Javier. It was Spanish, or to be more precise, Basque. One member of this family became incredibly famous. His name is Francis Xavier, the Catholic saint. He traveled to Asia to spread Christianity, and died in the Philippines. So now I had a famous explorer (sort of), a connection to Spain, and the right time period. Now I just had to connect Xavier to my old man.

In typical Jenni fashion (overdoing it and over-thinking it), I created a grandiose link between the two men. No, I won't tell you what it is. That would ruin the story. But I poured out the whole story through the old man's lips, as his cholera-weakened adversary lay on the floor of the cabin in defeat. But there was just one more problem left to solve. The ending.

"Did you kill John Farrier?" / "I don't know your names." / "Did you chop him into pieces and put him in a saddlebag?" / The stubble on the man's lower cheeks began to move. He was laughing. "Kill one of you? I have killed almost all of you."

VI. The Triumph
So, the good guy is lying half dead on the floor of the bad guy's weird cabin after a brief skirmish. It hardly seems fair. I mean, the bad guy wins? Whaaa? Is that how it works when you pants a story? Not if I have anything to say about it. I had to create a way for the good guy to triumph...even if his cholera kills him. 

Going back to the basic mechanics of fiction helped here. I had to think about what it was my villain (the old guy) wanted. And then I took that away from him, with one sentence from the younger man. So, whether the younger guy gets away and dies of cholera, gets away and survives, or is killed by the angry old man, no one wins. I like stories like that. When I'm doing literary-style stories, I always aim for the gray area. Black and white is good for genre fiction, but not a story like this. In that, I might have succeeded.

Which brings us to the end of the story.

Or is it? I still have to figure out how to explain all those guns, after all.

Damn you, pantsing.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

8 Lessons Learned from Taking 2 Years to Finish 1 Novel

Book Cover: The Red Road by Jenni Wiltz
What, me, self promote? Perish the thought.
I'd never be so brazen as to tell you that it's
available for pre-order on Amazon or Kobo.
Official release date: January 26, 2015.
So if I don't write a post for five months, will anyone notice? It's been eating at me - the time I've spent away from blogging about reading and writing. My last post was in July, for goodness' sake. I had lots to say, but no time to say it. But now that The Red Road is finished, I feel like a weight has been lifted. It's cliche, and as a writer, I should do better, but that's exactly what it feels like. 

This two-and-a-half-year journey is finally coming to an end. I started writing The Red Road in May of 2012. As of December 2014, it's done. As in file name "TheRedRoadFINALFINALNOREALLYIMNOT
KIDDINGTHISTIMEFINAL.epub." It's formatted, tested, and ready for pre-sale on the interwebs. Now it's time to wrangle some marketing and take stock of what I've learned. And, boy, this is the book that's taught me the most. Here's some of what I've learned.

Lesson #1: Writing about real life is hard. In thrillers, it's easy to come up with a quip and have the bad guy shoot someone to get out of a tough spot. In a book about high school girls? Not so much. These characters don't have the spatial freedom grown-ups have. I had to give up the easy answers that thrillers and paranormal tales had to offer.

Lesson #2: Writing about real people is hard. I don't think I will ever do this again. Characters based on my mom, dad, and sister are in this book. And I did bad things to them. I stripped every character of safety and left the worst versions of themselves exposed. This is much easier to do with people you're not sitting across the table from at Thanksgiving.

Lesson #3: You have to care about something a hell of a lot to work on it for two and a half years. There were times I cried, shut off the computer, and told the hubby I needed to find something else to do with my life. I never actually wanted to give up, but it felt good to say. It gave me the freedom to come back the next day and say, "Well, since I'm giving up, I guess it would be okay to tweak this one thing just to see what would happen." Sometimes that was enough to take the pressure off and shut down my inner editor, who is a world-class psycho hose beast. 

Lesson #4: Don't go into a book with a social or moral agenda. When I started this book, I was fresh out of grad school. I wanted to write a literary novel, a novel with purpose. I picked out all the social ills and evils of my hometown and forced them into the story. Guess what? The first draft was embarrassing. Preachy. Overwrought. Lacking connection with the characters. And, worst of all, boring. I deleted most of it.

Lesson #5: Presentation matters. File size, epub2 versus epub3, fleurons, dropcaps, embeddable fonts, line height, media queries...holy crap, I didn't know what I didn't know until I decided not to rely on Smashwords or Microsoft Word. My brain hurts. But this is the best-looking book I've ever put out. Now I'm kind of ashamed of all prior efforts.

Graphic: Purple nametag that says, "Hello, My filename is TheRedRoadFINALFINALNOREALLYIMNOTKIDDINGTHISTIMEFINAL_VERSION3_USETHIS.epub"

Lesson #6: Never give up. Be as stubborn as you can. The day that ends in failure? It's just today. Tomorrow's different. You might spend weeks trying to figure out the dumbest thing (why the eff images come out huge in Adobe Digital Editions when they look great in the InDesign file). And you might feel really stupid and small because you can't "get" something that most people don't even bother thinking about. But if you keep working at it, you'll unlock it. And then everything you do from here on out will be right and you'll know why. It won't be an accident.

Lesson #7: Take the time you need. This goes hand-in-hand with Lesson #6. Any sane person would have said, screw this ninth draft. Screw this stupid image that won't size right. I can't spend any more time on this. Those Write, Publish, Repeat guys have serialized a twice-as-long sequel to War and Peace in the time it's taken me to figure out what CSS is. They don't write ninth drafts. And they're making money. So why should I do it? 

You should do it because you care about your work and your name and the story you're telling. If you care more about production time and the number of titles you can crank out in a year, you and I are different and that's okay. I want to take my time. I want to savor the process and learn every part of it. Delayed by 10 weeks to learn InDesign and eBook coding? Fine by me. Delayed by 3 months to add new character arc and revise book again? If it makes the story stronger and will leave readers more satisfied, I'll do it every damn time.

Lesson #8: Stay true to you. The writing world is full of posts and books that offer strategies, productivity tips, and shortcuts. Hell, I'm writing a tip-filled post right now. You have to know which are going to help you and which are not. You have to know what you believe in and why. And you have to know your own strengths and weaknesses. All advice must be filtered through your self-awareness. I'm still learning how to do this. But I'm getting better every day.

You are the architect of your own success. Good luck out there.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

First Impressions: "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I've been looking forward to reading The Goldfinch ever since it came out. It sat, neglected, on my Kindle for months while I worked on my own book. I'm still working on that book, but I finally decided to dive into the book that won this year's Pulitzer Prize for literature.

As soon as I started reading, I realized I was going to have to start writing stuff down. Not because I was loving it, but because I was confused. That's the word that sums up my experience of this book so far: confusion.

I loved The Secret History. I haven't read The Little Friend. Those are the only other books Tartt has published, so there's not a heck of a lot of room for comparison. I immediately got sucked into the deep sense of mystery and foreboding in The Secret History. It opens with a murder, for heaven's sake. The Goldfinch doesn't. It's....difficult, and not in a good way. I'm still reading the book. But I started digging through reviews to see if other people were having the same WTF moments I'm having.

Let's take a look at some of those moments.

1. Problematic narrative voice. The narrator of The Goldfinch is a 13-year-old boy named Theo. Well, not's actually an older Theo, looking back on his life from a hotel room in Amsterdam. We have no idea how old he actually is when he's telling the story. He says he is too afraid to "telephone" anyone in Amsterdam, which is not something anyone under 25 would say (probably under 35). This made me think he's an old man now, or at least a middle-aged one.

Well, that theory worked until the narrator threw in a reference to a Jet Li movie that came out in 2005. This was in a flashback, so the narrator could have been anywhere between, say, 10 and 13 when that incident occurred. This means the narrator is probably in his very early 20s. I've seen reviews that say he's 23 as well as 27...apparently I'm not the only one having this problem. The other alternative is that he's telling his story from the future, in 2020 or something, thus accounting for the older feel of the narrative voice.

Some readers won't care. They can just go with it. I can't. Why? Because this narrative voice is old. Antiquated, almost. The sentence structure and word choice are difficult to believe as the product of a 20-something mind, even one who was educated at a posh Upper East Side private school. So either there's a huge disconnect between the voice Tartt chose and the character she chose to embody that voice, or the book isn't supposed to be remotely realistic and we're just supposed to go with it and screw everything else.

Why does this bother me so much? Because the story starts when Theo is 13, but so few of his thoughts and impressions ring true as those of a 13-year-old boy. The vocabulary and style alone rule that out. The voice is also asexual, which I'm pretty sure isn't a defining characteristic of most 13-year-olds. It's constantly jarring to be reminded that Theo is 13, when the impressions, phrasing, and descriptions he provides are those of a middle-aged man.

Here are a few examples:

" was upsetting him so."
Do you know a 13-year-old boy who would talk like this? I don't.

"...a chill wind of unreason blew over me."
Again, do you know a 13-year-old boy who talks like this?

"Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light."
Unless we're in a weird reverse Oedipal scenario, I'm not sure most 13-year-old boys would describe their mothers this way.

"His voice was very faint, very scratchy, very cordial, with a ghastly pulmonary whistle."
Do you know a 13-year-old who uses the words "ghastly" and "pulmonary" on a regular basis?

I'm instantly reminded of that moment in 10 Things I Hate about You where Michael drops a bit of Shakespearean dialogue ("Sweet love, renew thy force!") and Patrick says, "Hey man, don't say shit like that to me. People can hear you." Teenagers are the ultimate bullshit detectors for language.

That being the case, why did Tartt need the framing device at the beginning of the book? Why not let us experience Theo's adventures in real time, with the eyes and voice of a real 13-year-old? I'd care more about a boy's trauma if it weren't described in the dry, pontificating voice of some old guy. Plus, to me, it would mean more to show Theo progressing through the life events that help him arrive at the book's ultimate meaning (something about art being the only thing that lasts) than to start the book as Tartt does by telling us, "Hey guys, I'm old and jaded now, but there's a meaning to this story. In 700 pages, I'll tell you what it is. You're cool with that, right?"

Interestingly, the narrative voice is what the Washington Post's Corinna Lothar praised about the book. Here's what she had to say: "Permanently damaged and scarred by the explosion and the death of his mother, the voice of the traumatized youth and the cynical, self-involved adult is ingenuous and startling."

So far, I disagree. But I'm willing to keep going.

2. Clunky sentences. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I'm having problems. My inner editor wants to cut out words and phrases in nearly every other sentence. Tartt has a Pulitzer. Clearly, she knows an assload more than I do about how to write good fiction. Still...I'm actually cringing at some of these sentences. Here are just a few, all from Chapter 1, Section V:

"The boys muttered, audibly."
This made me stop. Does the word "muttering" mean that muttered words are generally inaudible, requiring the adverb to clarify that they were? If so, doesn't that mean "muttering" isn't the right word for what the boys are doing? On the other hand, if mutterings are generally audible, why add the redundant adverb? Something's not right here.

"I had made it over to where he was when--unexpectedly fast--he shot out his dust-whitened arm and grabbed my hand."
Wouldn't "suddenly" convey the same thing as the clunky "unexpectedly fast"? For that matter, why is clarification even needed? "Shot out" pretty much implies a sharp, quick action. This whole construction is a bit janky.

"For a moment I wasn't sure; I listened, hard; and then it spieled off again: faint and draggy, a little weird."
The semicolons. Make them stop. And if the narrator can come up with a verb like "spiel" to describe the motion of a sound, "a little weird" rings false. Either get rid of "spieled" or "a little weird." I'm not buying both of them in the same sentence.

"Often, in the afternoons, perfume-smelling women with shopping bags dropped by for coffee and tea..."
Hold up. The way this sentence is constructed, it sounds like the women are professional perfume smellers. If they smelled of perfume, it should have said "women smelling of perfume with shopping bags." I'm so confused. Why is a bad construction like this there? Is this some form of characterization? Or in a book that's more than 700 pages, did no one take the time to fix small things like this?

There are also an assload of -ly adverbs ("audibly," "unexpectedly," "fretfully," "thickly," limply," "awkwardly," "fearfully," etc.). Giving Tartt the benefit of the doubt, maybe these are meant to convey a lack of sophistication appropriate for a 13-year-old narrator. But then why does the overall tone still feel so old? Like I said, I'm confused.

3. Drag-ass scenes. This is a slow-moving book with zero narrative tension (yet). It's not a spoiler alert to tell you that there's an explosion at the Met that happens while Theo and his mother visit (this happens in the very first chapter). The aftermath of the explosion takes freakin' forever (at least 50 pages). Theo wanders and wanders and wanders and describes bodies and his perambulations through the wreckage like he's getting paid by the word (maybe that's what people mean by saying this novel is Dickensian?). Each time Theo clambers over another piece of wreckage or accidentally touches a body, the description is repetitive to the point of being sleep-inducing. You'd think a scene like this would be tense or fraught with peril. Nope. I understand that this is a literary novel, but so far, if this book were left behind in a time capsule, future generations would think literary novels and page-turners were mutually exclusive. That's a shame, since Tartt's own The Secret History proves that wrong.

4. Strange editing choices. This is nitpicking, I know, I know. This doesn't have an effect on the overall power of the story. It just makes me wonder about the production value when I see the phrase "middle-school kids" (note the hyphenated multi-word adjective) and "non working phone" (note the non-hyphenated multi-word adjective) in the same chapter. This is the curse of being a writer and an editor and a reader. I can't turn off other parts of me when it's time to read for fun. If I saw this in one of my books, I'd fix it. Similarly, internal dialogue is sometimes italicized, sometimes put in quotation marks, and sometimes not. I'm still confused.

5. General weirdness. After the explosion in the museum, Theo sees a dead woman and notes her fake tan. How does he know it's fake? Because she's dead and still has "a healthy apricot glow." Now, this made me stop and go, huh? How does a 13-year-old kid know whether freshly dead bodies (we're talking minutes) lose their natural tan? Do they? Heck, I don't know. Maybe Theo's right and dead people instantly lose any natural tan they have. But that detail felt wrong. It pulled me out of the story and made me want to research what happens to dead people's tans. It made me think of all those episodes of CSI: Miami where they find dead girls on the beach (Were they still tan? Shit, why can't I remember?). I shouldn't be thinking these things. I should be thinking about Theo and wondering what happens to him next. Nope. Furthest thing from my mind.

Interestingly, there's a huge literary kerfuffle over this book and its literary worthiness. Apparently, you're either a big fan of the book's Dickensian reach and ability to touch the heart (Michiko Kakutani, Stephen King) or you think it's clunky, poorly written, and full of cliches (James Wood, Francine Prose, Lorin Stein). You can read more about that debate here, in a Vanity Fair article.

Personally, I don't give a shit about literary merit and whether the book is "serious" enough to deserve all its praise. All I care about is understanding why so many folks like it, and why I'm having such a hard time with it. I'll report back when I'm further through and give a final verdict.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

How Gossip Girl Helped Me Revise My Plot

Meme: "The day may come when I stop watching Gossip Girl. Today is not that day."
I'm a huge Gossip Girl fan. Deride if you must, but know that George Sand being the writer a character most wants to have dinner with was an actual plot point in Season 2 (episode: "New Haven Can Wait"). There was also a Wharton tribute episode ("The Age of Dissonance"), plus GG gave us a memorable nickname to denigrate hack literary writers: F. Scott Fitzjackass ("The Fasting and the Furious"). Suffice to say, there are a lot more literary Easter eggs in the show than appear at first glance.

What does this have to do with writing tips? 

I'm about 70% through the fourth draft of The Red Road. This is the do-or-die batch of revisions, the one where I have to make final decisions about what stays, what goes, and what needs to be added. Drafts 2 and 3 were mostly about cutting my ridiculously verbose paragraphs down to their essence, and losing the overly "literary" tone that appeared every so often. This draft is about plot and subplot arcs, character arcs, and themes. 

The good news: the book has plot and subplot arcs, character arcs, and themes. The bad news: they aren't right yet.
Meme: "Hey girl, let's stay in tonight. I want to watch Gossip Girl and eat Nilla Wafers with you."

The other night, I was super frustrated by the amount of work left in front of me. So I did what any frustrated writer would do--poured a glass of wine, turned off the computer, and settled down to re-watch a Gossip Girl episode with the hubby. One of the million reasons why I love my husband is that he tolerates...dare I say shares? unholy fascination with Gossip Girl.  He routinely uses that "F. Scott Fitzjackass" quote. Anyway, we're currently on season 4, when the Brooklyn team (Jenny, Vanessa, and Juliet) work together to take down Serena.

You don't need to know much about Gossip Girl to understand this particular plot arc. In a nutshell, the "outsider" Brooklyn girls want to 
ruin Serena, a glamorous rich girl from the Upper East Side. Their plan is simple: one by one, they will strip away everything Serena has that they don't: a devoted best friend, two boys who like her, her academic future at Columbia, and her family's trust.

Meme: "I don't always watch television shows, but when I do, it's Gossip Girl."
They develop elaborate ruses to strip away each of Serena's support networks, and then go in for the kill: one super-elaborate ruse that is meant to destroy Serena's credibility for all time. The girls map out each takedown and orchestrate them individually. And guess what? It almost works. Serena gets put in the nuthouse and everyone thinks she's a lying, slutty drug addict.

And then it hit me: The Red Road needs a little Gossip Girl action. One of the main problems I'm having is that I feel the heroine's actions are too abrupt in the third act. I take her from a smart but worried schoolgirl into a revenge-seeking assassin. It doesn't work because she doesn't have enough reason to jeopardize what she has going for her. 

I realized I need to get all Gossip Girl on her ass and strip away the things she has one by one:
  • Best friends
    • In GG, the villain selected Blair for entry to an exclusive on-campus club at Columbia, leaving Serena out in the cold. Blair, who's always had self-esteem issues where Serena is concerned, now feels like the superior one. 
    • In my book, I need to make sure to isolate the main character by giving her friends what they want, so they have more reason to act selfishly and maintain the status quo than they do to support Emma.
  • Her academic future
    • In GG, the villain sends an email from Serena's phone, asking one of her professors to trade sex for grades. This is, of course, enough to get her in trouble with the dean, who wants to expel her. 
    • In my book, I'm adding two new chapters that basically put a black stain on Emma's academic record--enough to make good schools question her suitability as a scholarship recipient. The action she takes is entirely her choice, which means she knows exactly what she's doing, but can't help herself. She'll have a choice, and I need her to make the wrong one.
  • Her family's trust
    • In GG, the villain drugs Serena, dresses up exactly like her and takes pictures of herself snorting coke, then dumps Serena in a crappy cross-town motel and basically waits for her to overdose. When Serena wakes up and calls for help, her family thinks she's returned to her old, careless ways that apparently involve doing massive amounts of drugs and generally not giving a crap.
    • In my book, what would disappoint the family most is Em sabotaging her own future--and acting out. This family values strength and silence in equal measure. So the worst she could do is show weakness, make mistakes, and be vocal about it, forcing the other family members to witness her collapse. This happens after the incident I'm adding that destroys her academic future, in a new chapter or two I'll have to write from scratch.
  • The boy who likes her
    • Chuck Bass meme: "Sells girlfriend for hotel. Still considered dreamy."
    • In GG, the villain starts an anonymous rumor that Serena has an embarrassing case of VD. This makes both of the guys who like her consider other options. Once this is proven false, however, the villain has a backup plan. She masquerades as Serena ('s a masquerade ball) and while disguised, kisses both guys. Naturally, there's photographic evidence floating around that turns both guys against Serena.
    • In my book, this is the one step I'm not sure I want to take. I kind of want to keep her love interest on her side so she always has a way out...and then I want her to refuse to take it. 
Every single one of these Gossip Girl plot points applies to my character...and maybe to yours, too. 

The next time you're looking at your book's lumpy middle and wondering how to stiffen it up, think Gossip Girl. What does your character have that the villain needs to take away? Pick it off in small pieces, and those small pieces will add up to a collective whole that gives your hero plenty of work to do in the story's climax.

If all else fails, just stream old episodes of your favorite TV show. You never know what will spark an idea for your next plot twist.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Book Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
I don't normally read YA, but the description of this book hooked me instantly: Medieval nuns in Brittany teach young women how to become assassins, all in service of Mortain, the God of Death. I mean, seriously. Nuns teaching girls to use crossbows and poison? I'm there. Let's see if the book lives up to its premise.

3 Things I Really Liked

1. The setup. Let me reiterate...medieval nuns training teenage girls to be assassins? What more do you need, people? This is awesome. And it mostly works. The novel opens with Ismae Rienne, our 17-year-old heroine, on her wedding day. Traded away by her turnip farmer stepfather to a cruel man, Ismae faces a future of abuse, verbal and otherwise. She escapes to the convent of St. Mortain. Mortain is a pagan god of death, still served by the nuns of the convent. 

As it turns out, Ismae is not susceptible to poison because her real father is Mortain himself. Now we start getting into one of the parts of the book I didn't like (#3 in the "dislike" section below), but stay with me for the time being. Anyhoo, the nuns at the convent train Death's handmaidens, as they're called. Each nun imparts a skill: fighting, poisoning, seduction, etc. When the girls have all the training they need, they are sent out into the world to do the abbess's bidding. As setups go, it's golden. Who doesn't want to know what happens to a 17-year-old girl, taught to kill, who's sent out into a medieval world full of bad people? I would kill for this to be my idea, my series. My hat's off to Robin LaFevers on this one.

2. The setting. Medieval Brittany feels real. From the clothes to the food to the locations to the events off the page, it felt like I was there. This must have been a hard line to walk for a YA author. You have readers like me, who, even as a kid, wanted extremely realistic historical settings. Then you have readers who want a little bit of setting, but might get overwhelmed by the vocabulary and the setting if it's too heavy-handed. In a YA, you have to watch out for these things. But the author handled this perfectly. 

Chuck Bass meme: Sells girlfriend for hotel / Still considered dreamy
3. The supporting characters. I can't talk about this without a big SPOILER ALERT. If you don't want to hear what happens to some of the characters in the end, skip down to the next section. The main character, Ismae, is fine. I didn't love her. I didn't hate her. She was a vehicle, and that's fine. Same goes for the love interest, Gavriel Duval (I keep wanting to call him "Duvel," after the excellent Belgian beer). I only watched the first couple episodes of Reign, but Ismae and Duval remind me of Mary and Francis. They get the job done, but you're probably not going to "ship" them the way you do Chuck and Blair, Dean and Castiel, or even Elena and Damon. There's not enough electricity there. They start out disliking each other and at cross-purposes, then they realize that's not the case and end up falling for each other. Big surprise. They don't do it with the magnetism of Chuck and Blair, the endearing awkwardness of Dean and Castiel (okay, these two don't actually fall for each otherthey just become reluctant friends), or the smoldering intensity of Elena and Damon. They're vanilla. 

But the book shines in its secondary characters. Sybella, one of the other girls at the convent, gets sent away on a mission before Ismae. She's borderline crazy, and grabbed my attention more than Ismae did. That's with a maximum of a few chapters, as compared to Ismae's 560 pages. The hero's mother, Hivern, is your standard bitchy mother-in-law type...until she isn't, in one amazing scene where she reveals what she's been fighting for the whole time, and what it cost her. Suddenly, you don't want anything bad to happen to her. 

The hero's best friends, Beast and De Lornay, make you weep for the knights cut down at Agincourt, because you know they were all just like those two. They're playful, protective, brave, charming, and likable...and they don't get much face time, either. Still, and here's a big SPOILER, when you realize they don't make it out of the final battle, you're feeling like shit about it. Because they're good people, and they believe in something, and they should be rewarded. They aren't, not in their world, and the fact that I gave a crap tells me how skillfully the author built these characters.

6 Things I Didn't Like

What do we want? Past tense. When do we want it? Now.
1. It's told in present tense. Oh, for the love of all that's holy, when will people stop writing books in present tense? It's awkward as hell, and if you're writing a historical novel, PEOPLE ALREADY KNOW THIS HAPPENED A LONG TIME AGO. YOU'RE NOT FOOLING ANYONE. Think third-person past-tense historical fiction can't grab the reader? Ever heard of a book called Gone with the Wind? Present tense works for a short story because it creates a rhythm that's alluring. At 550+ pages, this isn't a short story. Present tense is far too limitingand gratingto hang your whole book on, let alone your whole series. It's trendy and overdone, like those bedazzled pockets on Miss Me jeans.

2. The rushed romance. For a book that takes 500+ pages to reach the climax, things sure wrap up in a hurry. Ismae and Duval spend the entire book moving gradually from mistrust to awkward cooperation to trust to physical attraction. And then, it's true love. Bam. Based on how slowly the rest of the romance moved, it's just not believable that their love is suddenly earth-shaking. The foundation is there, but not the frame. This is a big problem because what happens next (see next item) means you really have to believe in their love story.

3. The silly climax to the rushed romance. So...yeah. If you don't want to know how the book ends, skip to the next point. Consider yourself warned by a SPOILER ALERT. In the end of the book, the villain poisons Duval. This is believable. Then Ismae saves him by having sex with him. This is not. 

WTF breakdown: Remember how Ismae is immune to poison? Well, she kisses him and he gets a little better. Once she figures this out, she hi-tails it back to the palace, finds him mostly dead, and they have sex in a secret passageway. He recovers just about instantly. So, apparently she's more than immune...she's an antidote, too. This is borderline ridiculous. Why go through all the bother of turning a medieval girla creature virtually powerless in that societyinto a killing machine, and then have sex be her redeeming feature? I get that it was her choice, I get that she was in love...but it's a big let-down in terms of the potential empowerment theme this book could have conveyed. 

Henry VIII meme: Creates new church just to get divorce / kills new wife anyway4. The lack of explanation supporting the book's supernatural elements. This is one of the biggest problems I had with the book. I love genre mash-upsI've written a historical/paranormal romance mash-up. But the weird supernatural elements in this world are never explained satisfactorily. For instance, let's start with the fact that Death himself is Ismae's father. I don't mean spiritual father, or metaphorical father. We're talking biological father here. So...does this mean the old gods are real and Christianity is false? Or is Mortain Satan? The medieval world was highly polarized in terms of religion: You were a heretic or you were a believer. You had the burning of the Cathars and the Spanish Inquisition...obviously there were grave consequences for any deviation from orthodoxy. And then you have this convent, which defies orthodoxy and no one thinks it's weird. In fact, outsiders don't question it at all. I find this extremely odd for a book that is otherwise so firmly grounded in the nitty-gritty details of court life and politics. Not one person thinks being a pagan is weird, which I just don't buy. I mean, it's the fifteenth century. In about 100 years, Henry VIII will have to create an entirely new religious denomination to marry Anne Boleyn. Anne's stepdaughter will burn Protestants at the stake. As you can see, the supernatural element here creates more problems than it solves.

What makes it worse is that the story could easily have been told without any of the supernatural features that cloud the plot. Say you have an order of nuns who are famous for taking in girls who have been beaten or otherwise abused. The nuns teach them to defend themselves, using weapons and poison. They teach them the art of seduction so they always have control. Legit, right? Then the nuns deploy the girls on missions that help preserve the good folk of Brittany, including its young duchess. You could even have the nuns worship the old gods. But bringing the magic element without any feasible grounding is disorienting and gratuitous.

5. The strange combination of modern language and historical elements. So, the setting is great. We're rocking crossbows and porridge, and then Ismae says, "I'm starving." Say what? A lot of the book's dialogue feels modern. Since this is a YA, I see why the author did it. She's trying to appeal to modern readers, and unstuffy dialogue can really help with this. I get it, but I don't like it. This is another one of those hard lines to walk, the one she did so well with when it came to the setting. But the dialogue really drops the ball. You get words like "poleaxed" and "methinks" and then you get dialogue that sounds like it comes from an episode of Scandal. It's jarring.  

6. The extra 100-150 pages the book is carrying like dead weight. This book could have been edited  quite a bit without losing any of its spice. Things drag on for a loooooong time in the castle. Ismae doesn't even assassinate that many people. She mostly skulks through hallways and hides when people are coming. The slow-burn romance with Duval could have been accelerated to make the ending more believable. The bloated middle of the book is mostly about the political machinations surrounding the throne of Brittany. Who will the duchess marry...a French suitor, a Breton noble, or someone else entirely? The problem is this this particular problem isn't the book's central conflict. It's a plot device. It's entertaining, but if you removed it from the plot, absolutely nothing about the ending would change. Nothing. That's a problem. If you look at the Amazon reviews for this book, a LOT of people complain about the length and the amount of time spent on Breton politics. I like the politics, but I don't like it when subplots don't really affect the main plot. Trim the fat, or turn the fat into muscle with some revision. Easier said than done, I know.  

Obviously, I'm better at complaining than I am at praising. Despite the length of my "didn't like" points, I liked the book overall. In fact, I'll probably read the sequel, especially since it features Sybella (one of the really intriguing minor characters). 

It's rare to find a book with such a laser-focus on medieval politics written for a general audience, let alone a YA audience. I recommend it...with the caveats listed above.

Friday, April 18, 2014

14 Examples and 2,300 Words on How to Sharpen Your Sentences

14 Examples and 2,300 Words on How to Sharpen Your Sentences

I just finished the third draft of a book that’s going to take at least five drafts to finish. The biggest problem until now was sheer word bloat. I knew I couldn’t make the additions the book needs until I made a buttload of subtractions. Imagine trying to evaluate the health of a garden when it’s so full of weeds and overgrown shrubbery you can’t see a single stalk or bloom. All you know is there’s an awful lot of green shit underfoot.

To hack away at that green shit, I focused on sentence-level editing. This meant fixing (or deleting) things like:

  • Sentences that use imprecise verbs or descriptions
  • Sentences that convey the same information in two different ways
  • Bloated sentences with filler words like “just,” “only,” “that,” etc.

This is no small task. And a lot of writers never do it.


This strategy might work for some people, but I’m not one of them. For starters, I don’t see how it’s possible to publish that quantity of words that have been edited and polished to perfection. As Miracle Max said in The Princess Bride, “You rush a miracle man, you get a rotten miracle.”

How to Look at Revision: Don't Rush Your Miracle.

I’ve written before about the difference between storytelling and writing. I suspect that million-word publishers are storytellers more than writers. That’s fantastic for them, but I can’t do it. I can’t send a book out into the world without having analyzed every word of every sentence to make sure it earned its place.

And by “analyzed,” I don’t mean re-reading it, thinking it makes sense, and moving on. Or sending it to an editor for approval and sighing with relief when that sentence doesn’t come back with a red mark.
I mean analyzing the combination of words and punctuation to make sure the sentence is sharp, crisp, and effective. I mean owning every damn word. I mean seeing a passable but weak sentence become strong enough to punch the reader in the face.

Making that happen almost always involves deleting words rather than adding them.

To show you how, I’m sharing 14 examples of my sentence-level editing from this third draft. These sentences might still get cut or revised again. Are they works of art? Nope. But do they illustrate my point? Damn skippy.

Production Note: If the thought of deleting your original sentences makes you nervous, save each draft as a new document. That way, you can always refer back to the previous draft if you start feeling like you’re losing too much of the story’s original flavor.  Alternatively, you can work in your original file and paste all your deleted or altered sentences into a text file. This is what I do. I like having one main file to work in, but if I have a suspicion I’ve over-pruned, I can go back into the text file and browse through the sentences that didn’t make the cut. I’ve never re-inserted a sentence I’ve cut.

Sentence-Level Editing: Editors, Start Your Engines!

Original: Mrs. Evans was supposed to give them their Gatsby papers back today.
Revised: Mrs. Evans was supposed to return their Gatsby papers today.

This is a great example of imprecision. Sure, you could say “give them back.” But why would you do that when the word “return” means the same thing, and gets the job done in fewer words?

Original: The small things she’d worried about—quizzes and tests and papers—seemed like crumbs beneath a table now.
Revised: Quizzes and tests and papers were crumbs beneath a table now.

The shorter, punchier sentence conveys more urgency, which is appropriate for the character at that time. “Were” is also more decisive than “seemed like.”

Original: Two weeks ago, she would have sat here and gotten angry about the dirt and grime on the floor, or the flickering hallway lights, or any of the million things wrong with the school that her parents’ tax dollars should have fixed.
Revised: Two weeks ago, she would have been angry about the grime on the floor, the flickering hallway lights, and the million other things her parents’ tax dollars should have fixed.

For the love of God, trim the fat: (1) Does it matter that Emma would have sat while getting angry? No. The angry is the important part, not the sat. Get rid of it. (2) Also, what’s the difference between dirt and grime? If there’s a difference, is it important? No. Get rid of it. (3) Notice how I used “or” multiple times in the list of things wrong? It’s called “polysyndeton,” and while it creates rhythm and emphasis, the benefits don’t outweigh the bloat in this case.  Get rid of it. (4) Why am I using “or” in the first place? If anger is the point, why not have Emma be mad at all these things instead of just one, which is what’s indicated by “or”? Geez Louise. (5)  Emma could be mad at “any of the million things.” But “million” is used for emphasis, so why dilute it with “any of the”? Just say there are a million things wrong. Seriously. (6) This scene takes place in Emma’s school. So it’s obvious in context that the dirty hallway and flickering lights are at that location. No need to re-reference “school.”

Original: Up close, she could see the green of his eyes was more olive than emerald, close to his skin tone, and fringed with a blanket of lashes thicker than hers.
Revision: Up close, his eyes were more olive than emerald, fringed with a blanket of lashes thicker than hers.

What a terrible fucking sentence.  It’s like I got paid by the word or something. Let’s unpack this: (1) “She could see” is meaningless. In the scene, Emma is looking at Dan, her love interest. Of course she could see him. She’s not blind. (2) Since I’m using “olive” and “emerald,” it’s pretty clear green is the color I mean. No need to use “green” before either of those more specific descriptors. (3) Why mention his olive skin tone in this sentence? Let’s keep the emphasis on the eyes, and move the skin tone thing into an earlier scene.  Plus, it repeats the word “close” already used in the sentence opening.

Original: Mrs. Evans strode to the front of the class with a thick stack of papers in her hand.
Revision: Mrs. Evans strode to the front of the class with a stack of papers in hand.

This one’s relatively minor, but still deserves attention. It’s already been established that the class is getting their Gatsby papers back. Is it likely her stack would be thin? “Thick” is redundant based on the situation.  “Her hand” is also redundant, unless Mrs. Evans is using someone else’s hand to carry the papers.

Original: She did not curve the “j,” but wrote it as a long, solid line with a dot on top.
Revision: She drew the “j” as a long, solid line with a dot on top.

First off, if Emma didn’t do something, why am I wasting the reader’s time with that? Get it the hell out of there. Secondly, while “wrote” is an accurate verb, there’s obviously some artistic effect Emma is paying attention to. “Draw” conveys that better than “wrote.” Now that I look at this again, I’d probably take out “long,” too. If the “j” was drawn short, that might be worthy of note. But a “long”-drawn j?  Seems normal, and thus unworthy of note.

Original: She crossed it out, jiggling her pen in scribbles through the childish, malformed letters.
Revision: She scribbled through the childish, malformed letters.

I have a really bad habit of doing this! See how “she crossed it out” is redundant based on what comes afterward? Is there any way that jiggling your pen in scribbles over something could not be considered crossing it out? Probably not, and definitely not in this context. So why the eff did I write it twice? So lame.  Secondly, why did I say “jiggling” and “scribbles”? One verb can convey all of that—so just stick with “scribbled.”

Original: Elvira was already waiting for her at the entrance of the locker room.
Revision: Elvira was already waiting at the locker room entrance.

This is another minor edit, but one that needs to be made. Since Elvira is Emma’s badminton partner (and it’s already been established that Elvira waits for her before heading into the gym), “for her” is unnecessary. Who else would Elvira wait for? Also, why be all complicated with “entrance of the locker room”? I can save two whole words by saying “locker room entrance” instead. Bam.

Original:  Dan knew everything, and he was the only one whose opinion she wanted.
Revision: Dan knew everything about her situation, and his was the only opinion she wanted.

This is the rare sentence that got longer after a revision, and I’ll explain why. In the first version, you could interpret it to mean that Dan is the smartest guy in the world who literally knows everything and makes Stephen Hawking look like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. That’s not how Emma means it. She means he’s the only one she’s told everything to, which calls for some more specificity—hence “about her situation.” Secondly, the end of the first sentence is a fustercluck. What was I thinking? If opinions are the subject of the clause, keep them that way.

Original: Witch soup started in a big yellow bucket that had originally been loaded with sand tools.
Revision: Witch soup started in a big yellow bucket, originally loaded with sand tools.

This is another common mistake I make. “Had been” is a complicated verb pairing. It drags down the speed of a sentence, although it can be far more accurate than “was” if you really need to specify time in the past.  In this case, though, it’s not necessary to use a verb at all. Adding the comma and shortening the description preserves the meaning of the sentence and makes it easier to read and comprehend.

Original: Emma picked up her backpack and went back into the courtyard.
Revision: Emma picked up her backpack and returned to the courtyard.

Remember the first example, when shortening a sentence and adding clarity was accomplished by swapping out a phrase for a word? Keep an eye out for pointlessly wordy descriptors like this. They happen a lot (to me, at least).

Original: Maybe the act of thinking about something over and over again made it seem possible, even if it wasn’t.
Revision: Maybe the act of thinking something over and over again made it seem possible, even if it wasn’t.

This is probably the nitpickiest sentence of the bunch! Still, if you’re using words and phrases, you have to prove you understand what they mean. You’re a writer. It’s your job. If the word “over” in this context means “once more” and I use it twice, “again” is redundant. There’s no way for something not to happen again if it happens over and over.

Original: If she didn’t go to college, if something happened that made it impossible, what would she be missing?
Revision: If she didn’t go to college, if something happened that made it impossible, what would she miss?

This is a two-pronged attack on passivity: (1) If I use the verb “to make,” it means something happens. That’s implied in the verb itself. You can’t “make” something without causing something to happen. So I don’t need to specify that something “happened” to “make” it impossible. It’s redundant. (2) “Be missing” contains two verbs. Two. Seriously? Isn’t there a way to convey this with one damn verb? Of course there is. I just had to find it. “Miss” instead of “be missing” is sharper and more direct.

Original: When her mom picked her up, she was the first one to speak.
Revision: When her mom picked her up, she was the first to speak.

This is an interesting example, and one that brings a stylistic choice into the matter more than the other examples above. For starters, let’s look at what got axed: the word “one.” It’s totally unnecessary. It modifies Emma and her mother, but it doesn’t matter whether Emma and her mom are humans or aliens—the point is that Emma spoke first. Now, you might be wondering why I didn’t just say that:  “…Emma spoke first.”  It’s shorter and punchier, which I mentioned above as being desirable. What can I say? I like the symmetry of the longer form. Six words before the comma, six words after. I like the emphasis on the word “she.” There’s a rhythm to the sentence that gets lost if I go with “Emma spoke first.” I like the rhythm. It’s gonna get ya. So that’s what I’m choosing here.

See how much fun that was? That’s what being a writer is all about. Making choices.  Give yourself the opportunity to make them.

Handing your first draft off to an editor (or worse, publishing it) robs you of the chance to make these kinds of choices. Get up in there. Make your words tremble at the thought of being chopped into pieces.  Whip them into shape. If, like me, you are the furthest thing from assertive in real life, this is your chance to go full dominatrix. Enjoy it.
Writers: Revel in the Choices You Make.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Creative Image Creation Roundup, Part 3: The Mules

Creative Image Creation Roundup, Part 3
I made this nifty 3D book cover image using
GIMP and Clipping Magic, one of the tools below.
This is Part 3 and the final installment of my series on creative image creation ideas. Part 1 covered free online photo editing options. Part 2 covered similar tools that were a bit more specialized. In this part, I'm talking about the least glamorous batch in the bunch. They do things like resize your images, remove backgrounds, or add clickable HTML to them. These tools aren't always pretty and they don't have a lot of bells and whistles, but boy, are you glad when they're there to haul the shit you don't have time or strength for. 

Let this fact sink in: there are almost half a million icons available on this site. Let's say you want to make a rating system for your book reviews. Well, you could come here and download icons that represent book elements. I actually found a bloody knife icon that could represent "murder," for example. There's all kinds of stuff you could do with these. If you search "social," you'll find a crap-ton of customized social icons, should you want to embed them on your website. I found all-pink social icons, for example. Don't worry, I won't use them. Or will I...

The other cool thing here is that you can download each one as an "ico," which is what you need in order to use it as your site's favicon. How kick-ass is that?

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Roundup: IconArchive
Pimp out your site with new social media icons.
Select "Social Network Icons" from the "Categories" menu.

Upload your image and easily resize it for a variety of custom outputs for FB, Twitter, G+, etc. If you're sick as shit of seeing Facebook posts in your feed where the images don't show up in their entirety, that's because the poster didn't size the image correctly before posting. Use this tool in combination with a current social media sizing cheat sheet and you can avoid that social shame. For example, did you know that Facebook fan page post images should be no more than 403 x 403 to display fully in your fans' feeds? This tool lets you select a custom size, or select from handy pre-sets including Facebook cover photo, Twitter header, G+ cover photo, favicon, and more.  

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Roundup: Image Resizer by Internet Marketing Ninjas
If you're at all interested in SEO or internet marketing, these guys know their shit.

36. Irfanview
This freeware tool does a little bit of everything. It can do screen captures, add text to an image, sharpen, blur, cut, crop, change color depth, or convert an image between filetypes. In fact, it probably belongs in Part 1 of this series. The only reason I didn't include it there is because you have to download the tool and store it on your hard drive. It's not something you can choose to use on the fly, which is the emphasis for this series. The good news? It's entirely free for non-commercial use, which is also a focus of this series. There are also a boatload of plugins that you can download either all together, in 4 packs, or at the individual links provided. 

Login required? No, but you have to download the program in entirety

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Irfanview
Don't let the old-school interface fool you. Irfanview is a powerful program,
powered by a really smart guy named Irfan. No joke.

If you use Windows, this tool is a total time-saver. If you're like me, you download an image, then open it in Paint or GIMP to resize it before attaching it to a social media post. Now you don't have to. This program lets you resize directly from Windows Explorer when you right click. You can choose standard sizes (small, medium, large, or mobile), or enter a custom width and height.

Login required? No, but you have to download the program in entirety

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Windows Image Resizer
If you hate having to open Paint just to size an image
for sharing on Facebook, this is the tool for you.
38. Pic Resize
This is a fast, easy way to upload a picture and resize, rotate, crop, or add filters. There's also a bookmarklet that you can add to Chrome, Firefox, or Safari to make it even faster to use. If you're browsing public domain photo galleries, this bookmarklet makes it a freakin' snap to load the photo straight into PicResize without having to save it first.

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Pic Resize
No muss, no fuss. Pic Resize is designed to be fast and easy to use.

39. Resize.It 
Another fast, easy way to upload a picture and resize, crop, blur, sharpen, or make a few more basic tweaks without having to own or use photo editing software. To resize, just select "portrait photo" or "landscape photo." You can also turn an image into an avatar.

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation: Resize.It
Simple, easy to use...and I love the Swiss Army Knife graphic on the right.

You know how some people have a nifty Facebook profile photo that looks like it's part of their cover? And you see it, and you're like, whoa, how the hell did they do that? They might have used this. Upload one picture and slice it onto parts. One part will be your profile pic, the rest of it will be your cover, and parts can also be your app cover photos. I really want to do something cool with this. Surely all of you guys have some ingenious ideas already. Please share them with me so I can curse my own lack of creativity. 

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Ideas: TimelineSlicer
Still wrapping my brain around all the cool ways to use this tool.

41. PicMark
Don't let the haters totally bogart your artwork. Instead,watermark those images before sharing! And by watermark, I mean put them in a nifty, colorful frame that contains your name, website URL, or other text. You have to sign up, which is kind of a drag, but they're giving you analytics in return, so it's a good thing. You can save the picture, or share it directly to Google+, Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest. There's also room for customization if you're not crazy about the width or colors of their standard frames. You can customize the font and size of your text, too. Of course, the haters can always swipe your image, throw it into Paint, crop to the interior image only, and re-use that, but you're at least forcing them to use a little time. It's the little things.

Login required? Yes

Creative Image Creation Ideas: PicMark
I can see this totally working for creating the Featured Image for each WordPress blog post.
It's branded, so if it gets pinned, you get more attention.

42. Vector Magic 
So you have a photo or a bitmap, but you really want it vectorized so it can be scaled. No problem! You can upload jpegs, gifs, and pngs to this site and get a vectorized eps, svg, or pdf in return. There's one catch: you only get 2 free ones, and then you have to pay. Use them wisely. After you use up your free conversions, it's $7.95/month. I haven't used this yet, because I get all my vectors from royalty-free vector sites, but I figured I'd include it in case you just have to have a design that you drew vectorized.

All you do is upload your image and select it. The program will "trace" it into a vector image. Your original will be on the left, with the vector version on the right. You can make a few tweaks in terms of color and how much detail is included. Then, click "Download result" to have your vector image emailed to you. They'll send you an email with a code. Copy it and paste it into VectorMagic, click "Enable download," and choose your file output type: EPS, PDF, SVG, or PNG.

Login required? Yes

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Vector Magic
This site might come in handy if you have a photo
you want to vectorize and use as a logo.

This site has saved my bacon more than once. Yes, you can clip in Photoshop. I don't have Photoshop. Yes, you can clip in GIMP. I can't figure out how to clip in GIMP. So upload your image here, and make quick work of stupid tasks that waste time and give you floaters. Did I mention I love this site?

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Clipping Magic
Once you upload your image, select the green plus sign and click on what you want to save.
Select the red minus sign and click on what you don't want to save. It's that easy.

So we've mentioned other tools that can make favicons, but if you want a dedicated go-to site, this is it. Import your existing image, and this tool will help you size it, color it, and pick which parts need to be transparent. Download the result, and voila, you have a custom favicon.

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Favicon Maker
Favicons are a great opportunity for branding.
Use your logo or author photo for maximum impact.

Have you ever seen a blog header with embedded, clickable social media icons? I did, and I wondered how the f#*& they did it. Well, this is how. Upload your image, select the areas you want to be clickable, insert the link you want them to point toward, and grab the resulting code. Plop that code in your blog header or post, and you're good to go.

The only caveat? You need the final URL where the finished image will go. If you don't have that, you need to be able to tweak the resulting code once you do know that URL. If you're not good with HTML, it's probably easiest to upload the non-mapped image, grab the URL, and then start making your map. You can paste in the updated code, and everything should work because you started with the image's correct destination URL.

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Image-Maps
Look for a new header for this blog in the next couple of weeks, made using GIMP and this tool.

This tool lets you make a nifty little badge for your site. If you have friends who blog (or if you yourself have more than one blog), you can each make a badge and post them on the other sites you want to help publicize. Just enter your site title, URL, and an image URL. Then you get to tweak the design a little bit, and voila! I'm not suggesting you ask your co-workers to grab your button, but hey, if the shoe fits.

Login required? No.

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Grab My Button Generator
Minimal design required! You do need a hosted image, but that's about it.
47. Design-Seeds 
If you kinda suck at picking colors or designing new colorscapes, this is the tool for you. Me, I get locked into pink. This is going to help me break out of my rut. Oh, who am I kidding. I'm going to use this to see which shades of pink look really good together. Click "palette search" to see what looks great with your favorite colors.

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Design-Seeds
Take the guesswork out of selecting a color theme for your blog or the images that accompany a particular post. Start with a color you love, or search by theme to see what colors blend well together.

BONUS! Word Clouds

48. Wordle
You can make a word cloud out of any text you paste into this site. If a word frequently appears in your text, it'll appear larger within the word cloud. There are different color schemes and fonts to pick from, too. You also have the option to paste in your blog URL and find out what you *really* spend all your time talking about. Don't say I didn't warn you. 

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation: Wordle
This tool can also be used for web research.
Pop some competitor's web copy in and see which words
come up largest in their cloud. Those are probably their target keywords.

49. Tagxedo
On this site, you can choose an overall shape for your word cloud: classic, apple, dove, heart, or star. You can use your blog's URL, your Twitter ID, or a search term. There are a lot of themes to pick from, with names like "Arizona Sunrise" and "Quiet Morning." There are 9 fonts you can use, and I'm not even going to comment on the fact that "Avril Lavigne" is a font. Nope, not gonna do it.

Click the "Learn" tab to see what other people have used Tagxedo for...and find out how to make a cloud using just your own name. 

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Tagxedo
"Tagxedo" is a really hard word to type. The brain
just resists the "x" following the "g." Try it.

BONUS! Infographics & Charts

Make your own infographics! You can specify a share button, as well as add a map, chart, text box, pics, or a video. Let's take a minute to let that sink in. A map. What kind of kick-ass infographic could you make for your book if you could embed a map of where the characters go? Holy crap, I'm about to combust just picturing the possibilities. You do have to create a login, which is a drag, but you can login with Facebook or Twitter if you don't feel like giving them your email.

Login required? Yes

Creative Image Creation:
Infographics = link bait. Do it right, and you could earn your book or blog a lot of free publicity.

This is another make-your-own-infographic site. It's all based on "themes." You start with a theme, which is a basic infographic template (in their demo video, a stylized map of the U.S. is the sample theme). Then, you add graphics and your content. It's all done through a drag-and-drop interface, so you don't have create any of your own artwork.  

Login required? Yes

Creative Image Creation Ideas:
Watch their demo video first and browse samples to get an idea of what you can create.
Then go gather your data and come back to create your infographic.

52. Piktochart 
They make no bones about the fact that you need no design experience to use their site. Cool. 'Cause I don't have any. Choose the "Create for Free" option, and you'll be prompted to create a login. You can sign in with Google or Facebook if you can't bear to remember yet another password. Like, you start your design by picking a "theme." Then, fill in your text and tinker with the design (select an element, and hit the + or - button in the menu on your left to reposition it on the template).

Login required? Yes

Creative Image Creation Ideas: Piktochart
Keep it simple by using a "theme" and filling in the blanks. Boom. Instant infographic.

53. HohliCharts 
Need to beef up your book proposal package with some scientific-looking graphs? You can do that here. Create line graphs, bar graphs, pie charts, Venn diagrams, radar charts, and scatter plots. (And you thought that was just what I did when I wrote a book.)  

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Ideas: HohliCharts
"HohliCharts" reminds me of "Holy cats," which is what my grandma said when you told her something crazy. Coincidence? I think not.

54. amCharts
Here, you can generate impressive interactive charts for your website. Granted, it's a little scary looking at first, but it's cool because you can input your data and get html code to paste to your website. If you want the chart to resize automatically for mobile or tablet viewers, be sure to check the "resize chart when window resizes" box.

Login required? No

Creative Image Creation Ideas: amCharts
I wish I had information cool enough to showcase in an interactive chart. Alas, I am bereft. 

Phew! Are you guys exhausted? I kind of am. 

If you're like me, you might be thinking, "Okay, great, you've shown me all kinds of places to create cool graphics. But not only am I shitty at art, I'm shitty at photography, too. Where am I supposed to get all the images to upload into these photo editing tools, anyway?"

I've got you covered. I'm stockpiling big-ass lists of image sources, all royalty-free, because I know you're probably a cheapskate just like me. I'm going to do a couple of fiction-focused posts, and then I'll go back and do a few more reference-oriented posts, full of places to get ALL KINDS of images.

If you're like me, and get overwhelmed easily, just try one or two of these sites a week.  

So...for those who have already used some of these sites, which have become your go-to sites? I admit to a pathological dependence on PicMonkey, and a growing dependency on Clipping Magic. 

How about you?