Thursday, October 15, 2020

Complicated questions for sophisticated writers: Short Stories- how do you make them SHORT!

 

I just did a “Plot Finish Fest” day (6 very intense hours!) with a group of plotters. This is a bonus available to writers who enroll in my Plot Blueprint Course.  For each story, we worked through the three acts and then the nine turning points of the plot-- just in time to start drafting the scenes in NaNoWrimo (National Novel Writing Month).

When writers with different types of stories interact, we often have to adjust our brainstorming for “medium”— whether a novel or a short story or a TV script or whatever new form will rise up next. In the last month, I’ve worked with writers working on projects as varied as a 1-act play (a musical!) and a novel that could be adapted for a Netflix series.

Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” And that was before the Internet, where the medium has become the message, the messenger, and the messaged all at the same time. Well, when it comes to plots, I don’t think the medium IS the message necessarily, but it certainly AFFECTS the message.

One of the plotters, Vikk, was discussing an old standard medium—the short story.  How does a “natural novelist”—used to plotting in three acts for 300 pages or so—compress the plot down to 15-50 pages? Or do you instead compress the message—chart just a segment of a character journey, explore a smaller conflict? Or do you focus  on deeply describing a moment, a slice of life, rather than a sequence of events?

I had a few thoughts—fairly random—about one way to make stories short.

I think a short story will not just be compressed plotwise. In some cases, the plot might have to be smaller, less complex-- a shorter journey from beginning to end. I think of an episode of a TV show rather than a season-- it's complete in itself, but just has one main incident or problem that can be dealt with more quickly.

But I’m more drawn right now to the conflict or problem that can be experienced and resolved in just a day or two.  An example is the Roddy Doyle short story Life without Children, about a man travelling on business during the quarantine. This gave me a good sense of compressing the "problem" in a short story. His protagonist starts out by answering "no" when he's asked if he has children. In fact, he does have children, and a wife too. And he's not sure why he lied, but it makes him feel liberated. And pretty soon he's deciding he's going to quit his life-- throw away his phone, disappear, be free!

He  starts planning his escape, and he does throw away his phone. And then in the end, after flirting with the idea, he gets a new flight and texts his wife from his tablet and decides to go home.

That is, the problem is that he feels trapped and old and disheartened, and just entertaining the idea that he could escape lets him feel relieved, and he can resume his life. The problem is resolved in a way that doesn't need a lot of events—just the set up of the problem, and then the decisive event, and the aftermath.

In this case, the “shortening” comes in a shorter distance between problem and resolution.

 This was of immediate interest to me, because during NaNo month, I want to experiment with writing interrelated short stories. They’d all be set in the same place and (I hope) combine to create the story of a town under the shadow of a curse. Each would involve a different character, and perhaps only peripherally involve the curse and only marginally advance the big plot. I’m hoping the ‘scatter-stories’ will create almost a collage, but one with a narrative thrust. And I think probably they might not all be “short” in the same way. Maybe one will be just a compressed novella, and another will be a slice-of-life, and another will just follow as the character comes to a realization…. Well, we’ll see! But I’m excited at the prospect of narrowing my focus and plunging in every day to something new—a new story each day.
What do you think? If you write short fiction, how do you get it all done in so few pages?

Would anyone be interested in mutual support for NaNoWrimo? Here’s a Facebook group where a few of us will be doing writing sprints and sharing encouragement. We’ll have fun!
 
Alicia


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

First sentence in the scene -- Starting the experience

  First sentence in the scene 

 Starting the experience   

 



I’m having some fun creating a big Building Bolder Scenes course, and now I’m focusing on the mechanics of creating the scene experience with the sentences and paragraphs. Scenes are EXPERIENCES, not just recountings. So getting the experience started early—the first sentence!—can set the reader up to FEEL all the way through.

  Just keep in mind that your reader is apprehending the scene holistically-- she's incorporating every detail, not just your character's thoughts and feelings, into her experience. So you can imbed emotion subtly in the description and action. Just remember not to overdo. But yes, you can use adjectives and adverbs here. Just don't use them when you don't need them ("shouted loudly, bright scarlet"), and then when you DO use them, they'll have more effect.


You can set the stage early, hint at that "beginning emotion" of the emotional arc of the scene, by anchoring the setting in the first paragraph or so... but meaningfully. Here are some examples of how to sneak in emotion with physical/setting detail in the first paragraph of the scene:

LIGHT
His bulky body filled the entrance and blocked most of the afternoon light.

She shielded her eyes against the harsh noon light and squinted at the broken window.

He parked in the pool of yellow light from the streetlamp and slowly got out of the car.

She woke when the dawn light sliced through the curtains. Nothing had changed.

He squinted to see through the dimness in the barroom, searching the dark booths for the woman he had lost.

The car brakes skidded on the gravel, and when they finally stopped, the moonlit lake was only a few feet from their front bumper.

TIME OF DAY
The Angelus bells were ringing when she started across the muddy field towards the church.

She woke suddenly. The red glowing numbers on the bedside clock read 2:04. It took her a moment before she realized she had missed her flight.

He was going to be late for work again. Again.

All she wanted to do was rush home and be halfway through a quart of Java Chip ice cream before American Idol came on.

INSIDE/OUTSIDE
She pushed the porch door open and stood there a moment, drinking in the view and the crisp mountain air.

Jamie woke up cold and damp on the bare open ground.

I knew this place—the kitchen looked familiar and unpleasant.

Patty rubbed the condensation off the passenger-side window and looked  out at the snowdrift. "How stuck are we?" she asked.

He put his fork down on the dining room table and grimly called the family to order.

The old barn stood alone on the hill.

The road gravel infiltrated her sandals, and she was limping and lost by the time he found her.

It was a lady's parlor, all dainty and tidy, and he didn't think he better sit down on any of the little chairs.


AIR
The barroom smelled of ground-out cigarettes and spilled beer.

She zipped up her parka and pulled on her gloves, took a deep breath, and stepped out the door into the howling Chicago winter.

From the lantern-lit park pavilion across the river drifted the lazy strains of a dance band.

The library was so overheated every breath felt like she was sucking in a blanket.

It was going to snow. She could taste it with every crystalline breath.

Not a breeze stirred the evening air, and she hesitated with her hand on the gate.


 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Subtext in scene/dialogue

I'm looking for examples of subtext within a scene, especially in dialogue. Any ideas? Here's one-

Let's say that Tommy is keeping a secret from his co-worker Lucy.
He's planning a big surprise party for her birthday Saturday night.

So she's talking about her plans for the weekend.

"I think Saturday night, I might call up Susie, and take her to that
play at the Phoenix. The tickets will cost a fortune, but I've been
saving up."

Tommy's fists stilled in the bread dough. Then, after a moment, he
took up kneading again. "You don't want to see that play. I hear it's
lousy."

Susie slid the tray of bread loaves into the big oven. "It won three
Tonys. So it has to be good."

"Nah," Tommy said quickly. "Tonys don't mean anything. Look. Really.
Tell you what. I want to see it too. But -- but I have plans Saturday
night. So maybe I can take you-- both of you-- to the matinee Sunday."

Susie glanced back over her shoulder as she closed the oven door. "You
just said you heard the play was lousy."

"Yeah. Lousy for a Saturday night. But for a matinee, it's great." He
plunged his fists back into the bread dough, and said, "Come with me
Sunday. Really. Not Saturday. My treat!"

---

He's trying to keep her from going, only he can't tell exactly why, so he
pretends it's about the quality of the play. The point is to have him
reveal to the reader that he's deceiving her -- give us a hint of that-- without
telling us (or her) why. So she can pick up on the deception and not
know what it is-- maybe she'll think he's taking another lady to the play
that night and doesn't want her to see him, she thinks.

Just think of how the people around you-- maybe even you :)-- often
converse with somewhat complicated agendas. They're trying to get you to
do something without actually coming right out and saying it. Or they're
trying to hide something. Or they're hinting at something. How do people
do that in conversation? How can you put that complication into words on
the page?

The first step is to be aware that much of the time, people aren't saying
exactly what they mean. :)

Alicia

Saturday, January 19, 2019

http://www.aliciarasley.com/index.php/dialogue-class-feb/

DialogueDynamics Course
With Alicia Rasley
February 1- 15 
Interactive Easy-Email Class With Personal Feedback From Alicia On Your Story’s Character Conversations
Just  $50 For The Two-Week Course
An Interactive Email Class For Story Writers
with Alicia Rasley
Make your story character conversations
authentic, dynamic, and dramatic.

Openings and Edits (old posts, just gathered so I can link to it all)


Voice example here-- opening-- C.P.

Here's something different, from an exercise we posted a long time ago, so don't flood us with more, everyone! I have to get back to paying work. :) But this is an opportunity to talk about voice, and I promise, I'll finish later my thoughts about voice being more about character and world view than word choice.
Thank you so much for blog! It's by far the most helpful one I've seen.
I would like to submit the opening of my young adult novel, Shifter, for dissection. It is posted below.
Regards,
C. P. Dotson
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.
If there were other shape-shifters in the world, they would probably despise me for being so shallow. But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.

I like how quickly you got to the point and the intriguing aspect of shape-shifting. Now I'm wondering why she (he?) didn't know if there were other shapeshifters. I'd suggest making that a bigger point, which means maybe trying it as a separate sentence.
Also, you are in first-person narration, in a young adult novel, so I'd read every single paragraph aloud to make sure the voice sounds right. I'm thinking that your sentences might be a little long, with too many elements, for a narrative that is probably supposed to sound conversational. I'd suggest reading aloud, because the reader will be able to sense when a sentence is too long to be read in a breath. That doesn't mean that every sentence has to be that short, but I'm counting three sentences there, and they're all long.

So see if you can break one of those sentences. It's pretty easy when you have two-clause sentences like the last one (just a period instead of comma and conjunction).

First-person narration can be dicey because you have to decide how colloquial you're going to be. But of course, what counts is that this is the character's voice. A repressed George-Will-wannabe high school chessplayer might speak in long sentences and complex paragraphs. A Jane-Austen addicted teenaged poet might use high-flown constructions and poetic metaphors. Most YA narrators talk, well, like teenagers (only without all the "you know what I means" and "and, like, so I'm going I kinda love you, and like, he's going I sorta love you too, and then we're going kissy-huggy...." although actually, that might be kind of funny). If you establish that this voice sounds like your character, that's what's important.

However, IF you have a more verbose narrator, go with it-- don't just go with long sentences. Work on the diction too. What words would this person use?

It could be fun to vary the voice with the shape he/she has shifted into also. The supermodel shape probably has a different voice!

Anyway, let me parse your opening, at long last.
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.

In these crucial opening moments, sneak in information when you can do it subtly. Is it "my water-spotted mirror"? Or the water-spotted mirror in the Dew Drop Inn's bathroom? (Notice that going with shorter sentences lets you add more detail.) I think we need to get an idea quickly of where we are, where this mirror is, because-- and this could just be me-- by the end of the second paragraph, I've already decided this is a honky-tonk bar, and I'm not sure that's what you want me to think. (It was the Texas two-step that made me think honky-tonk, btw.) If you want to cut short my probably incorrect speculation, put some quick unobtrusive setting info in the first paragraph. And it doesn't take much. If you have "my mirror," I'll know she's in her home.

I liked that verb "shifted" and the ease there-- no big deal, I just shifted into a supermodel. The syntax is just odd enough to make me know that something unusual is happening, but not odd enough to confuse me.

Do supermodels have juicily curving figures? I have to say, I'm not sure how actual supermodels would go over in a bar in cow-patty territory ("I like a woman with more meat on her"). The word "supermodel" is instantly understandable, and that's good, but precision matters. Supermodels do tend to be thin and straighter than curvy, from what I can see in Vogue magazine. So you might have some young people read that and see if they're getting the picture you want them to get. For some reason, I'm thinking "cover model" and "curvy figure" fit together better. "Supermodel" connects in my mind (and I'm not your target audience, of course!) with "thin and angular".

Otherwise, the sentence works pretty well to draw me in, and the diction seems appropriate to the genre you're writing in. The sentence is long but not very complicated, so I didn't have to re-read and untangle, and that's good. :)

If there were other shape-shifters in the world, they would probably despise me for being so shallow. 

Okay, this is probably the sentence that clinks wrong for me. The inverted opening there ("If there were") is not really conversational and indicates a narrator with a more sensitive understanding of English grammar than most YA readers will have. That does NOT mean you shouldn't use it-- only that you need to make sure that it suits your character (and I suppose that your character suits a YA novel). I am definitely getting the idea that this narrator isn't a typical teen-- well, I knew that, since he/she is a shapeshifter, as we can tell by your clever use of "other" there (nice subtle touch). And really, as long as the voice expresses the character, it can work in any genre, probably. (Lemony Snicket's books-- wildly popular with grade-school readers-- feature a pompous 19th-C-run-amuck omniscient narrator, and it's the perfect voice for the stories.) Just make sure that the voice I'm getting is representative of this character-- that he/she would use "despise" rather than "hate", for example.

This is the sentence, anyway, that seems wrong and out-of-voice, but maybe it's not. It might work better if you went with two sentences that told more, like (just an example):
I didn't know if there were other shapeshifters in the world. But I did know they'd probably totally hate me for being so shallow. (My teenaged students would probably say "superficial," I think, but "shallow" says what you mean.)

or maybe:
You're probably wondering if there are other shapeshifters in the world. I didn't actually know, but I knew they'd probably hate me for being so shallow.

or if you really want to exploit that whole weird "who am I talking to" aspect of first-person:
Any other shapeshifters out there? Okay, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I was shallow and not a respectable representative of the shapeshifting community. Well, duh. 

IOW, there are lots of ways to say that, different voices, same message. This is really about channeling this character, and I do mean this-- if your sentences are matching your character, that's what's important. I'm just getting sort of a writerly vibe there, so I want to emphasize that you need to make sure-- in first-person-- that the narration sounds like the character, that we understand more about who this character is by how he/she sounds.

But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.
I like your glimpse of "the land". Now you're using past tense throughout ("If there WERE"), and that's actually kind of important in a first-person narration. There is the past of the book time, and there's the present when presumably s/he's telling the story, and you don't want to get us confused. Like what I'm getting is that she's not telling us that NOW (in the present) s/he knows or doesn't know there are shapeshifters, but rather that at the time of this scene, all we know is s/he doesn't know then. That's good, because you don't want to tip your hand (s/he might learn in the course of the book that there are other shapeshifters). But really, the most effective way to do this is to cast pretty much everything in past tense, so you're not posing the question in the reader's mind. "I live? Does that mean that s/he still lives there after the events of the book are done? Have to find? So s/he still has to find entertainment-- she hasn't found any fulfillment in the book?" If you aren't meaning to make some specific point about "after the book events," put all your verbs in past tense, and avoid the issue. (Some writers put it all in present tense, but that means narrating the events completely as they happen, with no retrospective at all, which can be fun, but might not be what you want.)

I think what confused me is what you mean by "so I have to find entertainment where I can." First, what's the entertainment? You might need to go back and add enough to the first paragraph that makes us know a bit about what he/she plans to do in that supermodel body. We just don't have enough info here. For example, after:
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.

... try adding another line to that first paragraph, like, say, "The cowboys around the bar would love me." Or "The boys hanging around the prom punchbowl wouldn't know what to do with me." Or "I was going to totally intimidate all the other candidates for cheerleader."
That would help nail down the setting and situation more, and also set up for that "entertainment" in the last line.

Back to the final line:
But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.

"Where I can"-- "where" seems a bit imprecise, because presumably she's not talking about a place. "How I can?" "When I can?"

Picky, picky, but every word should be just the right word in the opening. Also be aware of what the target audience is going to get from this. I'm not your target audience. I'm not even an editor who acquires for your target audience. So I might be completely wrong here. I do teach teenagers, though, so I hear their voices ALL THE TIME, so I don't think the character sounds like a normal teen... but of course, he/she isn't a normal teen, so that's fine. I'd just suggest making sure the voice sounds like the character-- and reveals what you want to reveal about the character.

Very intriguing! I like the idea of a shapeshifter in the YA world. Wish I'd had that capability back at Blacksburg High. :)

Alicia

Saturday, May 23, 2009

chris's question-

Chris's question (and sorry about all the formatting problems-- I can't get them fixed!): 

Dear Edittorrent,
I was hoping that you might be able to analyze my opening and help me with the use of 'had.' I like this opening, but it feels clunky and I can't pinpoint why...
It's for an MG.
I'm very grateful for any help, whenever you have a chance...
Thanks!!
:-)
Chris
“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!” Mr. Pasternak stood behind Seth, his arms crossed over his chest.
Seth hadn’t heard his father enter the freezer. He was too busy zipping and unzipping body bags, looking for somebody whose nose was bigger than Morie Sorenson’s. He’d been looking for three years. He wished he would’ve taken a picture of Morie’s nose while he’d had the chance. His memory of it was beginning to fade.
“But Dad, nobody cares.” Seth motioned to the rows of dead bodies on both sides of him. “Except maybe Mrs. Heffinger.” Seth smiled and patted her on the head. “She likes me.”


Well, I like it pretty much. It's a cute opening. Just a couple thoughts-- This is maybe what feels clunky: 
“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!” Mr. Pasternak stood behind Seth, his arms crossed over his chest.
Of course, many times I've argued against starting with a line of dialogue, and this is an example of a clever line that might work as a hook, but ends up clunking. Why? Well, whose point of view are you in? Mr P's? No one's? Seth's? Or maybe omniscient?

We don't have a clue, so the tag there (Mr. Pasternak...) that tells us presumably who said this clunks. Let's say it's omniscient-- omniscient is good at setting the scene, telling where we are, etc. We don't have any of that. So it's probably not omniscient ("The freezer was dark and cold and the corpses ....").

It's probably not Mr. P's, because we pretty quick go into Seth's mind.

So it's probably Seth's POV, but notice that while you're pretty deep into his head the rest of the passage, that first line is nowhere, and confusing besides. Mr. P is his father-- Seth wouldn't call him Mr. Pasternak, would he? Plus if Mr. P is standing BEHIND him, Seth couldn't see that he's got his arms crossed.

Put us in Seth's body as well as his mind. Here's this sudden demand:
“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!” 
What does Seth do? Spin around? And how does he feel? Guilty? Scared? Amused? Don't wait until you fill in what he used to be doing-- establish the Right Now. If you don't want to establish the Right Now, then start farther back, when he's getting started examining the corpses.

But I know you want to start with that line of dialogue, and I guess it's pretty clever. So how can you do that, park the POV in Seth's mind, AND establish the Right Now before telling what he was doing?

I'd suggest start with the line. And then BE IN SETH'S BODY. DO SETH. 

“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!” 
At this sudden demand, Seth spun around and saw his father there in the opening of the freezer, arms crossed over chest.

Now what? Think about whether it would be better to have Seth answer him (No one minds) first, and then backtrack to think about what he'd been doing. Why? Because a question (or demand) needs an answer, and if you postpone that, the reader gets antsy. Let's try it, just to experiment, and you decide if you've lost anything by rearranging: 

“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!” 
Seth hadn’t heard his father enter the freezer, but at this sudden demand, Seth spun around and saw his father there in the opening of the freezer, arms crossed over chest. 
He recovered quickly. “But Dad, nobody cares.” Seth motioned to the rows of dead bodies on both sides of him. “Except maybe Mrs. Heffinger.” Seth smiled and patted her on the head. “She likes me.”
He couldn't tell Dad the truth, that he'd been busy zipping and unzipping body bags, looking for somebody whose nose was bigger than Morie Sorenson’s. He’d been looking for three years. He wished he would’ve taken a picture of Morie’s nose while he’d had the chance. His memory of it was beginning to fade.
I don't know-- see what you think. But I would say the one real problem I see is that second sentence, where you have Mr. Pasternak. It messes up your POV approach and is going to confuse the reader. Begin as you mean to go on here-- if this is Seth's book, from the start, put us inside Seth. Try it and see if it feels better to you.

Good luck!
Alicia
 

Monday, May 4, 2009

Starting right in

I am reading a memoir (My Lobotomy, by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming), and it starts like this:

My name is Howard Dully. I am a bus driver. I am a husband, a father, and a grandfather. I'm into doo-wop music, travel, and photography.
I am also a survivor. In 1960, when I was 12 years old, I was given a transorbital, or ‘ice pick’ lobotomy. My stepmother arranged it. My father agreed to it. Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy, told me he was going to do some ‘tests.’ It took ten minutes and cost two hundred dollars.

The surgery damaged me in many ways. But it didn't "fix" me or turn me into a robot. So my family put me in an institution.
I spent the next forty years in and out of insane asylums, jails, and halfway houses. I was homeless, alcoholic, and drug-addicted. I was lost.



So... this is a memoir, not fiction, but it's still story. (Can't you imagine this as a first-person novel opening?) So... what do you think about starting right in on it, stating the conflict right up front, and here even the whole story is previewed ("the next forty years").

Now do you like this? Does it make you want to read more? Or do you feel more like you don't need to read more, because the whole story is right there-- there's no suspense?

In what case would you start a story so suddenly? What sort of story or character would elicit that sort of opening?

I think one thing we should all realize is-- there isn't a one-size-fits-all opening. It's often a good idea to "start right before something happens" or "start in the action" (and it's seldom a good idea to start with an unattributed line of dialogue :). But the opening has to fit the story. And so the question is, does the opening fit your story?

And with an opening like this, what sort of story would it be good for? Why would you make the decision to open with a comprehensive summary?

One danger I see is that the reader won't hang on for the first few pre-lobotomy chapters, which are essential (because we need to know why his parents even considered the surgery, what was "wrong" with him). But I notice that he says, "When I was 12," and that actually creates some anticipation/dread as he narrates in the first chapters his childhood. And knowing what is to come, we can hear about his misbehavior and his trauma (his mother dies when he's five, and he's never told anything but that she's gone away and won't return) and feel even greater dread-- that this isn't one of those stories where some wonderful teacher realizes that this is a troubled boy who needs some extra help, that it won't end up happily. We know-- he's going to get a lobotomy, and he's going to spend most of his life in institutions. (But we know there's eventually a happy ending too-- is that what keeps us slogging through the misery?)

That is, the author's decision to tell all in summary makes the details of his childhood more meaningful-- it's not just a bad kid, it's a kid who is going to be grossly mistreated. It's not just another wicked stepmother, it's a stepmother who has him lobotomized. It's not just a misspent youth, it's going to be a wasted life.

An interesting choice, anyway, and so far, it works to draw me in. (And next time I grump about how we treat kids with kid gloves these days, protect them too much, I need to remember this story! This is actually the era I remember-- he's 8 years older than I am-- as free and liberated, with parents benignly letting kids be kids without overprotecting or diagnosing them... yeah, and kids we now would recognize as having ADD or learning disabilities were just considered "bad" then, and expelled or sentenced or... well, I guess lobotomized.)
Alicia
--

Anon edits-- Main character's name is Beulah

Beulah buttoned her spring jacket and clutched her lunch bag in her hand as she surveyed the schoolyard. Both Effie and Nell and were absent and Minnie was inside working on math. Beulah hoped that she would see someone sitting by herself, but all the other girls had tight knots of friends gathered around them. The largest group gathered around Winifred Waldfogel, and even some of the boys stood close by her.

Great names there. But too many of them for the top of a scene. Each will take attention away from the reader getting to know the main character. What's important? It's lunchtime. Beulah is alone. We don't need to know why she's alone. What we need to know is how it makes her feel. So Get rid of Effie et al. Mention them later, as needed.
Beulah buttoned her spring jacket and clutched her lunch bag in her hand as she surveyed the schoolyard. 
This does a good job of identifying the character and providing enough info that we know the situation: School. Lunch. Spring.

You don't need "in her hand." You only need to add more to "clutch" if the whatever is being clutched in something other than her hand (her teeth, for example).

Now to make the buttoning of the jacket more important (so it doesn't just seem like a way to get action in there), think about adding something that hints at why she's buttoning. Like if it's early spring and still chilly, maybe she buttons it "tight" or "up to the neck" or she buttons "every button."

Blocking is important here because you have two actions that require hands. You can clutch using only one hand, but it's hard to button using only one hand. It can be done, but more likely you'd put down whatever is in your hand and button using both hands and then pick up the whatever again.

That might be more description than you want for a relatively unimportant action. So think about a substitute action that accomplishes the same sort of thing, but without hands. Maybe, if you want to show that it's cold, she can "hunch her shoulders against the wind" or stick her free hand in her pocket or use that hand to pull up her hood.

Beulah hoped that she would see someone sitting by herself, but all the other girls had tight knots of friends gathered around them.

Hmm. This is okay, but I wonder if you can make it more active, not just a sort of static hope, but something that shows this in motion? You're designing the scene, so you can do almost anything. :) I'm thinking of something like Beulah seeing a classmate sitting alone and starting over there, but before she can get there, a knot of girls emerges from the school and heads to gather around the bench.

The largest group gathered around Winifred Waldfogel, and even some of the boys stood close by her.

Again, this is fine, and I love the name. But think about putting Beulah in motion. She starts towards the one bench, where there's only one girl, but then the other girls beat her there. She turns (she does need somewhere to sit to eat lunch!), and is looking right at Winifred and sees that the group around her is even larger.

I like that "even some of the boys" because it tells me subtly that this isn't high school yet because it's unusual for boys to be hanging around girls, and it's a testament to Winifred's attractiveness that they're hanging around.

Just think about showing Beulah's hope and disappointment in action. It's not a big deal; the emotion is really what matters. And actually, if this is for children, especially middle-grade or lower, you might want to state the emotion out (Beulah hoped) as the younger reader might not be experienced enough to interpret the action as "hope and disappointment".

Alicia

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Splatter edit

Splatter:

The old man had been whispering to Cammie all day. He’d started at dawn. The field, illuminated by the frosted gold of the sun’s rising, was just becoming visible at her fingertips when she felt a slow hum building. It was like crickets singing, so familiar she barely noticed – and she certainly didn’t say anything. After all, this was the first spring Cammie was old enough to help with the planting, and she was doing her best to seem grown-up. Mother always said to stop making things up, to stop being so childish, and she hated it when Cammie talked about the sounds she heard. So Cammie ignored the lazy song in the back of her skull and half-walked, half-bounced, tossing fistful of seeds that disappeared in the dusky morning. She tried her hardest to throw them just like her Mother, who produced such a pretty fan-shape with each casual toss. But the hum became a buzz and the buzz a whine, and then he was there, his breath against her ear and his words only half heard, as though a wind caught at his whispers and pulled them away.


I like the motif of whispering.

Notice that you go from a very specific moment-- this dawn, these whispers-- to a general time, not even "today" but "this spring". I think you're trying to cram too much into the first paragraph. You know, really, all you need to do is make it interesting enough that the reader goes on to the next paragraph--- you don't have to shove all the backstory in there. :)

So take it slow. Think of what the central idea of this paragraph is-- the old man. Whispering. This dawn. Not other people. Not other whispers. Not other times. NOW. If you want to talk about something else, start a new paragraph. You lost me as soon as you went from the specific to the general, from "right now" to "back then." There's a time for "back then," but it's not in this paragraph. So let's cut off all the non-whisper/non-now stuff and concentrate on the moment:

The old man had been whispering to Cammie all day. He’d started at dawn. The field, illuminated by the frosted gold of the sun’s rising, was just becoming visible at her fingertips when she felt a slow hum building. It was like crickets singing, so familiar she barely noticed – and she certainly didn’t say anything.

See how you're making "right now" be retrospective? "The old man HAD BEEN whispering"-- past-perfect (had) tense is often a sign of retrospective narration. There is a place for retrospection, sure, but is it here? You're kind of telling the reader, "The interesting stuff has already happened, and I'm going to start after that." You don't want to tell the reader that. :)

Make this moment a special moment. It might be when the whispering starts, or it might be when the whispering suddenly stops, or it might be when she reacts to it or realizes what it was-- I don't know. But NOW is important, isn't it? You're starting NOW because it's important, right? So where does NOW start?

Let's say it's when the whispering starts.

The old man started whispering to Cammie at dawn. 

Immediate, right there.
The field, illuminated by the frosted gold of the sun’s rising, was just becoming visible at her fingertips when she felt a slow hum building. It was like crickets singing, so familiar she barely noticed – and she certainly didn’t say anything.

Notice you have several sonic events here-- the whispering, the hum, the crickets. The latter two are apparently what the whispering is like. But we don't know what the whispering is, and the hum and crickets references don't help, because they don't sound like each other, and they don't actually sound much like whispering. Oddly enough, the best metaphors are often unrelated to the object being compared-- because if they're related, we can't really get the metaphor. We're thinking, "But a hum doesn't sound like a cricket. Cricket songs are high-pitched."

I'm not sure which the whispering is like, but I'd choose one of those and go with that. A whisper that is like a low hum would be low-pitched, throbby, seductive, sleepy. A whisper that is like a cricket song would seem to me to be high-pitched, scratchy, exciting, anxious. Which is more like this old man's whisper? I can't get much of an emotional sense of this because those two comparisons each take me in a different direction. Be aware of the signals you're sending, and send the ones you want the reader to get. :)

The field, illuminated by the frosted gold of the sun’s rising, was just becoming visible at her fingertips 

I like the sound of this but had to read it a couple times before I figured out what you meant was at her fingertips. Why fingertips? She's planting? Okay, but you know, this is visual, and it might be messing with the coherence. Can she SEE the old man? Or just hear him? Think about sticking with the aural perception for a few lines, and then switch to the visual, but connect it with action. For example, if I heard someone whispering at me, I'd turn and look. There's your visual cue. She turns and looks for the source of the whispering, and the dark is lightening and the sun rising-- if you want to make this immediate, let her provide the cues for what is perceived and what isn't.

Also -- minor point-- you might slip in some adjective before "field"-- the strawberry field, the cornfield? Just to give us a bit more info.

I'm not clear on whether there really is an old man or if she's imagining him. If he's not there in physical form, how does she know he's old? What quality in his voice or what he says makes her think that?

You don't have to address all this at once, goodness knows, but just be aware that the reader will be asking, and that's a good thing. :) But what is he saying? Can she tell?
What is her emotional reaction? Is she scared or not?
It was like crickets singing, so familiar she barely noticed – and she certainly didn’t say anything.
"She barely noticed..." way to diminish the importance. :) At first she barely noticed? I can believe that-- there's this sound, and it's not too intrusive (a whisper, not a shout), but as time goes on and it doesn't shut up, then she notices?

and she certainly didn’t say anything.

This is intriguing, because it suggests that she might be ashamed or worried or something-- that if others knew she was hearing it, they'd disapprove somehow. It also indicates that she thinks no one else hears it.

As a matter of fact, in a town north of me there's something called "The Hum." (Google Kokomo Hum.) Some people in town heard this constant hum, and it made them sick, and other residents couldn't hear it and thought the hearers were crazy. (There actually was a hum-- two big industrial fans.)
It's a great idea for individualizing her right off. She's the one the old man whispers to, or she's the only one who hears him whisper.

But you might say WHO she doesn't say anything to-- her mother? Everyone?

You're setting up a kind of cool motif of sound/silence (motifs are often opposite pairs)-- she hears, but she can't speak about it.

Alicia
--
The introduction to a WIP:

The killer strode purposefully toward the President, knife raised high.

The President remained unaware, staring out the window into the oppressively hot DC night. His back was exposed, unprotected. My sister and I were immobile, too startled to react. I tried to shout a warning, at least give the President a chance, but the words were stuck in my throat. 

How did it come down to this, two kids trying to prevent this murder – a century and a half before their own time?

Carin was between the assassin and his goal. He pushed her roughly out of the way with his left hand. She grunted as she spun around.

I saw her go down, saw the President still lost in thought, and before I could think about it, I was on the move. I jumped up on the President’s enormous bed, took two bouncing steps across it, and threw myself at the assassin. I grabbed him about the neck and upraised arm.

He glared ferociously at me and pushed me roughly back onto the bed.

The President had heard the commotion behind him, and he turned back from the window. Even in the dim candlelight, his famous profile was unmistakable – the beard, the height, the gangly arms, everything but the stovepipe hat.

The man aimed his knife at President Lincoln’s neck.

Alternative history? Just guessing. My brother Chris used to read Harry Turtledove's alternative histories. That's about all I know about it. I do remember reading one where the south won the Civil War, and the author was a lot more hopeful than I was (having grown up in Virginia, where the war ended in 2008, when it voted for an African-American president!). But what a great subject, and let's face it, if you want to write FICTION about an important historical event, you need to go beyond the fact. So you won't get me carping that he was killed at night and so couldn't look out the window, etc. FICTION means, as Archibald MacLeish said about poetry, "not true."

The killer strode purposefully toward the President, knife raised high.

The President remained unaware, staring out the window into the oppressively hot DC night. His back was exposed, unprotected. My sister and I were immobile, too startled to react. I tried to shout a warning, at least give the President a chance, at least give the President a chance, but the words were stuck in my throat. 

Why is he staring out at the night?

This is presumably NOT taking place at Ford's Theatre, where L was actually attacked, so see if you can sneak in some information, like "...staring out the White House window into...."

Can you sneak in a sense of where the narrator and sister are? "Immobile behind the couch" or "immobile in the doorway..." or?
at least give the President a chance, but the words were stuck in my throat. 

At least give him a chance to what? Work on finding ways to slide in MORE. Here's the difference between narrative and reality-- in narrative, you can slip in more information with little words. :)

Also there is no reason to stick all that in one sentence. Conclusion, ending, results-- those are more emphatic in a single sentence at the end of the paragraph. Start thinking about sentence design and paragraph design as ways of letting the reader what goes with what. That's all about meaning too-- sentences and paragraphs. Don't assume that words and phrases are the real containers of meaning. Readers are sophisticated thinkers-- accept that, and assume they get meaning from what you put together in sentences, and what you put together in paragraphs. If you want the reader to know this is important ON ITS OWN, put it in a sentence of its own, and you'll be signalling: "Pay attention. This is important." So:
at least give the President a chance. But the words were stuck in my throat. 

You don't need "were" there-- I'd decide on the basis of (you guessed it) rhythm. You can always vary rhythm by adding "nothing" words that don't really affect the meaning. This is the great skill that comes from writing bad but rhymed/metered poetry. No one who has ever written a bunch of sonnets will ever wonder what the rhythm of a sentence needs. :)

Helps to read Shakespeare and Frost aloud.
How did it come down to this, two kids trying to prevent this murder – a century and a half before their own time?
This is a nice first-personish way of quickly summarizing the situation.

I'd just suggest --
before OUR own time?

... makes it more personal. Those kids are "us", right?
Carin was between the assassin and his goal. He pushed her roughly out of the way with his left hand. She grunted as she spun around.
Opportunity to slide in setting info. Keep a watch for these, like:
Carin was between the assassin and his goal, there in the balcony seats... or there by the desk.. or?

In the beginning, the reader needs to have some sense of where we are, so slide in whatever info you can without being too obvious. This might be something you revise in. I tend to write in layers:
Dialogue
Action
Setting
Other

When you do your final draft, add in anything you think the reader needs (often only a word here and there). Then do another final draft and make sure everything is needed!
I saw her go down, saw the President still lost in thought, and before I could think about it, I was on the move. I jumped up on the President’s enormous bed, took two bouncing steps across it, and threw myself at the assassin. I grabbed him about the neck and upraised arm.
Okay, we're in his bedroom. The Lincoln bedroom! So... slide in info when you can with a word or two:
Where does she go down?
Is the president in his bed?
Block your action here. It sounds like she's on the other side of the bed from the assassin, but wasn't she/he just next to her sister?

I am really bad with action, but I try to compensate by story-boarding (with stick figures, natch) the movement. Where is "I"? Where is everyone else in the room? Make sure you know where everyone in the scene is positioned, because here, it sounds like "I" is bounding across the bed from the other side. It would probably take only a word or two to make clear where "I" is.
He glared ferociously at me and pushed me roughly back onto the bed.

Now how would you write this differently if "he" was on the bed too, and how would you write it if "he" was somewhere else in the room?

I am totally clueless about anything visual, so I truly can't imagine your action. That doesn't mean you should spell it out-- probably most readers are more visual than I am. But make sure YOU know where everyone is and what the action means. If "he" is on the floor beside the bed, he's going to reach UP to get to "I", right? Or "I" am going to fling myself from the bed and--- you're in first-person. What happens? Does "I" descend (as "I" would if "he" were beside on the floor) or not (if "he" were also on the bed)? And is Lincoln on the bed, or leaning on the window frame, or?

Block your action, and then decide what you need to tell the reader.
The President had heard the commotion behind him, and he turned back from the window. Even in the dim candlelight, his famous profile was unmistakable – the beard, the height, the gangly arms, everything but the stovepipe hat.

Past perfect-- "had heard"-- is problematic in several ways. If the Pres can turn in real time, no past perfect, better. Understand that the reader is going to cut you a little slack here, because we all know how hard it is to narrate simultaneous action. So if the president hears and turns in real time, that's good. If it's an instant before or after, the reader probably won't care.

The President heard the commotion behind him, and turned back from the window. Even in the dim candlelight, his famous profile was unmistakable – the beard, the height, the gangly arms, everything but the stovepipe hat.

Here's where you can sneak in a tiny bit more info about the narrator. How does he/she know what the Pres looks like? If you have:
his famous profile was unmistakable from the one in my history textbook – the beard, the height, the gangly arms, everything but the stovepipe hat.
the reader will instantly know that this is a schoolkid, right?
his famous profile was unmistakable from the portrait on Wikipedia – the beard, the height, the gangly arms, everything but the stovepipe hat.
...then we can assume that "I" is probably an adult.
The man aimed his knife at President Lincoln’s neck.

You call him "assassin" before, and I wonder if it might work to keep that? I'm assuming this is more complicated than just JW Booth getting an earlier chance, so you don't want to say "Booth".

Interesting opening. I am really interested in the "meta" aspects of alternate history, how much you rely on the reader's knowledge of what "really" happen (and notice I put "really" in quotes, like it's not really real ), and what you decide is "canon"-- what you aren't allowed to change, like the Pres's temperament or the year of assasssination?

(Later-- I actually hate one-sentence paragraphs, so I'd combine some of these. Assume no editor is going to allow a series of short paragraphs-- how would you re-paragraph this?)

A

Saturday, June 20, 2009

lapetus line editing.

Lapetus posted:
A bulge of earth in the distance raced towards her at jet speed. As it passed, the ground ripped upwards, throwing Dawn into the air, almost 15 meters high. The earth threw off the top layers of soil, flinging buried pipes and wires as well as huge chunks of asphalt and concrete into the air. Dawn sailed over the soil, reminded of documentaries where tons of dynamite blew away a wall of material. The earth exploded in every direction. Dawn crashed onto a soft pile of debris and ducked from rain of high-flung rocks and bricks. A couple blocks away, Charlotte’s jewel, the HLSCO HQ building, the huge elegant structure almost a kilometer high, crumpled into itself, imploding in a huge cloud of dust and noise. Dawn spotted her own apartment complex, presumably with her Aunt Rose inside, settling down to the ground in a plume of debris.

"Bulge" seems to me still attached to the earth, not a projectile. Not sure if anyone else felt that way! Or do you mean it was still attached? You know, a line of description might clear this up-- however, it's possible only I didn't get it.

Good frenetic feel here, right for an action scene.

As it passed, the ground ripped upwards, throwing Dawn into the air, almost 15 meters high. The earth threw off the top layers of soil, flinging buried pipes and wires as well as huge chunks of asphalt and concrete into the air.
Maybe earlier say where we are? See if you can sneak it in-- like the bulge of earth ran past a highrise (we're in a city) or a silo (we're in the country).

Notice that you've buried the experience of the POV character, in the middle of a line. How close are you to her own feelings? If you're in deep POV, or any kind of personal POV, you'll want to tell how it feels to be flung that way. If you're in omniscient, however, you want to concentrate on the overall scene-- but seeing a person flung into the air might be worth describing. Are her arms flailing, etc?

Dawn sailed over the soil, reminded of documentaries where tons of dynamite blew away a wall of material. 
Uh, this doesn't seem to be a real person. She's sailing through the air, and a bulge of earth is pursuing her, and she's thinking about documentaries? Come on. Be in her. Close your eyes and imagine that you are her, and you are there on earth and suddenly you're flung into the air, and there is NOTHING you can do, but you try to do it anyway-- grab at the air, reach down for the earth, anything that can stop your flight. Be in her, and tell us what it feels like, and what you're thinking as you sail through the air to probable death.
If you want to talk about documentaries, you need to be in omniscient POV, I think.
Then again, maybe she's a lot cooler under pressure than I am!

The earth exploded in every direction. Dawn crashed onto a soft pile of debris and ducked from rain of high-flung rocks and bricks.How does it feel to crash? Can she scramble up, look wildly around, and then duck?

A couple blocks away, Charlotte’s jewel, the HLSCO HQ building, the huge elegant structure almost a kilometer high, crumpled into itself, imploding in a huge cloud of dust and noise. 

I like that "almost a kilometer high", and I can really see it "crumpling".
Maybe too many short elements there? The punctuation is right, but so many short elements might be kind of choppy, and the main purpose of the sentence might be lost. Maybe if you get rid of "Charlotte's jewel"? and end the sentence thus:
crumpled into itself and imploded in a cloud of dust and noise. 

See what you think--

Dawn spotted her own apartment complex, presumably with her Aunt Rose inside, settling down to the ground in a plume of debris.
I'd delete that "presumably" right away, as it bleeds out all your credibility. Come on, this is a novel. You're in charge. Aunt Ruth is there, as far as Dawn knows.

I live in the Midwest, and we have tornadoes that will mow down a town and then delicately take one car and set it down undented a mile away. So I envision that apartment complex landing intact and just causing a big dustbomb as it lands. What do you mean? Is the apartment complex destroyed? Tell us.

Also, Dawn is not just a camera. What's going on with her? Is she crouched behind a broken shard of concrete, watching helplessly as her home hurtles by and crashes into the cornfield/desert/parking lot?

See that? I don't know where we are-- the verdant farmland, the desert, the suburbs. "Ground" can be on the moon, for all I know. You did mention Charlotte, presumably the North Carolina city and not the girl I went to high school with. But you know, I'm from Virginia, just north of there, and I still want to know-- are those buildings crashing into the mountains? the mall? a lake?

Look for non-informative words. "Ground" says less than "dirt" even. Sneak in info whenever you can without calling too much attention to it. You can almost always replace a generic word like "ground" with something more interesting, like "the North Carolina clay," or "the desert sand," or "the mall parking lot."

Challenge yourself. Find every generic word and see if you can specific it up. :)

Alicia

Gwen editing

Gwen:

His eyes skimmed the specs, and he began to talk to the system. At first it turned him away. He was reminded of many swift rebuttals from women he'd propositioned. But then, with persistence, it began to change for him, open to him. Authorization? It asked. And he gave it. It was dummy authorization. Why fight the authorization by hacking passwords like some amateur when you could make her show all those hidden files that contain the password programming algorithms? He changed the password and walked in like he'd been here fifty times before. The glass case unfolded like a flower, and he stood up, staring at it. “I knew you'd come to me,” he grinned, putting his hand on the device. It burned his hand.

---
His eyes skimmed the specs, and he began to talk to the system.

Why are those in the same sentence? I don't mean to be confrontational, rather I think "and" implies we know the connection between him skimming the specs and then talking to the system. And maybe we do if we've read everything up to this point. But think about whether he just talked "while/as" he skimmed the specs-- that is, simultaneous actions-- or if there was more of a causal relationship, which I'm getting from the current line, not sure why-- what he saw in the specs told him somehow that he should talk to the system.

At first it turned him away. He was reminded of many swift rebuttals from women he'd propositioned.
These two seem like they should be more connected, maybe in the same sentence. (Also "it" made me go back and re-read-- what's "it"?) Or maybe you need to say HOW the system turned him down? It didn't respond? The cursor blinked contemptuously? You're presenting the system actually in conversation with him, so show that.

Also, "rebuttal" usually means "refutation," not "refusal." And rebuttals aren't like to be swift, because you have to counter-argue the points. So go with "refusals" or "rejections" maybe?

But then, with persistence, it began to change for him, open to him. 

You're summarizing here, and I think this is likely the very point where you should get detailed. Presumably this is an important scene, as he seems to be breaking in somewhere. And he's using talents, right? That contrasts nicely with his self-deprecation. So take it slower. Show him working . SEVERAL PARAGRAPHS. If you make it fun, it will work.

For example, you're setting up that he's kind of seducing the system. So play with that. Use seduction words to set up what he's doing-- "flirting" with the system, "complimenting" it, "admiring" it, etc. You probably only need a couple of those, but that will expand the theme you've set up and make this more fun.
Not in love with the "change for him, open for him". Double predicates sound like you can't actually make up your mind. At least they're a little different, and the "open for him" expands the seduction motif ("change for him" doesn't-- see if you can do that subtly-- trust him?). However, notice that you are jumping the gun here. You are stating the results before the action, I think. (The false authorization, I mean.) If you mean that the system asking for the authorization is the first sign of opening, say so somehow. Like After a few more totally sincere compliments, he got to first base. "Authorization?" she asked.

with persistence, it 

Have to point out-- this is a dangling modifier. It isn't being persistent-- HE is.
with persistence, he made it change for him...


Authorization? It asked. And he gave it. It was dummy authorization. Why fight the authorization by hacking passwords like some amateur when you could make her show all those hidden files that contain the password programming algorithms?
You have the system as "her" here, and "it" before-- choose one. "Her" goes better with the flirtation motif.

Authorization? it asked.
Lower-case the "i"-- even with the question mark rather than a comma, the "it asked" is still a quote tag and must be connected to the quote, not in a separate sentence.

See, the whole dummy authorization thing is going to confuse most of us (well, at least me). If you take this slower, show what he's doing, explain it, the reader will understand-- as long as you make it fun. (Is he stroking the system with his lies? Fondling it? Flattering it with sweet-nothing authorizations?)

He changed the password and walked in like he'd been here fifty times before. The glass case unfolded like a flower, and he stood up, staring at it. “I knew you'd come to me,” he grinned, putting his hand on the device. It burned his hand.

Okay, here's the culmination. Again, take it slower. Enjoy it. She "surrendered" to him, maybe. I like the unfolding like a flower because that is, of course, a common metaphor for a woman's, um, succumbing to temptation. Good! But I didn't know before that there was a glass case. "She" presumably is not the glass case but the security system? I don't know-- probably you mention that he's standing before a glass case. See, if you took this slower, you could have him seeing his reflection in the glass, etc. Work with what you have, but have fun with it.

And what is "the device/it"? "It" has been the system.

The burning is nice, but you might end with something that connects to the whole seduction motif. Just an example-- "It burned his hand, just like he always knew love would." Or whatever.

You want to know what voice is? THIS is voice. This is finding the fun, the excitement, in a passage, and using your word choice and your approach and your scene design to explore. You want to give the reader the most interesting and entertaining experience of this passage. THAT is your voice-- your way of seeing and presenting the story. You have something clever here, something that shows your playfulness and your irreverent attitude. (VOICE!!!) Use it, but use it well. Explore that motif of seduction. Use it to shape the interaction here, to present your own understanding of what's going on here. Yeah, you might overdo, but you know what? You can always cut it back in revision. Have confidence in your own ability to know what's too much. But a little excess here will mean you'll have a better idea of what works and what's excessive.

And I have to say, the seduction motif is perfect for this situation and character. First, the character-- it's first-person, so you want the narrative to reflect what's unique about the narrator. And he's apparently a felon. So he might be a bit excessive anyway! He's not going to be really conventional and stiff, right? And he's enjoying himself, breaking this system. Give him time to have some fun.

Also the back-and-forth of the situation exactly replicates sex and seduction, doesn't it? You felt that analogy. It's right. Have fun with it. You already are, I can tell ("opened like a flower" :). So take it through the whole passage. Make it a whole passage. I'd even think about doing it more or less in real-time-- that is, if it took him 10 minutes, take 10 paragraphs. You can always cut back if you think you've gone too far.

Notice what you do well, and do it well. :) You are having fun here, and being a little naughty. Well, that'll be fun to the readers too. We can be seduced just like the security system!

And if you take your time, you can get in all the info, like "security system" and "touchpad" and "glass case" and .... The more you put in, the more we'll be able to visualize the scene.

And you can always cut back. Keep that in mind. (Don't forget that step!) Let yourself go at first, and then you can get all analytical after. Try-- oh, two-three pages here. Too much, but that will give you a lot of great lines to choose among.
Alicia