Saturday, October 31, 2009
I was talking to someone about a friend who had suddenly gotten sick (the flu, it turns out). I said, "Oh, it sounds so bad, that she's IN the hospital."
He replied quickly, "It isn't that bad. She's just AT the hospital, not IN it."
That is, she hadn't been admitted, so she was not IN it. The condition wasn't so bad, so they were treating her AT the hospital.
I think most of us would get the distinction right away.
Full moon for Halloween, huh? How often does that happen? Well, almost full. I guess it'll be fully full tomorrow.
In the simplest form, here are two definitions.
Character-driven: When something about the character's essential self leads to a particular action or event in the story.
Plot-driven: When a character takes a particular action so that the result is a particular plot point.
These definitions are fairly abstract, so let's take a look at an example.
Let's say that when you first dreamed up Johnny and Drago's story, you thought of a couple of plot points right away. You knew that these two would start their struggles at the lunch with the doctor. You knew they would end up working at the same hospital, and that they engage in a grim and brutal competition there. And you have a clear vision of Johnny, bloody and prone after some terrible event -- Drago leans over him, their eyes meet, and neither of them knows for a split second whether Drago will save Johnny or let him die.
That's a rough story structure right there. Three points, beginning, middle, and end. The conflict is initiated at the lunch. It escalates while they work together. It climaxes during that scene where Johnny is gravely injured and Drago holds the power of life and death.
That final scene -- we'll call it the bloody Johnny scene -- is a plot point. You're going to have to do something to get the characters to that point. You will start by asking a few basic questions. Where does the bloody Johnny scene occur? Regardless of the answer, you'll have to find a way to get them there. How does Johnny get injured? This event must also be narrated in a scene or scenes.
In other words, that bloody Johnny plot point will drive several other key points along the narrative. And those points -- travel, battle, whatever -- will be plot-driven.
But before you get to that scene, you'll have these two characters engage in a fierce and nasty competition. First they compete for the internship. Regardless of how that internship question resolves itself, you know that in order for their characters to really engage in conflict escalation -- the "rising action" in Aristotelian structure -- you must have them both in the same place. Working in the same hospital. Interacting with the same people.
You want really juicy stuff to happen in the hospital so that you can avoid the dreaded sagging middle. So you ask some questions. Drago's got that survivor's quiet toughness; how can I make him appear weak? Johnny's got that suave charm; how can I make that a liability instead of an advantage?
These questions focus on aspects of character. You might come up with a short list of key character traits which you want to attack in the rising action. These traits can be positives or negatives.
Johnny -- arrogant, charming, sophisticated, smart but not intellectual
Drago -- withdrawn, strong, suspicious, intellectual but not smart
And then you start brainstorming things that can happen to exploit these character traits. Johnny flirts with a nurse and gets in trouble for fraternizing. Drago sits alone at lunch until someone joins him one day without even asking. (Who will it be? How will this affect Drago?) You might come up with a list of ways to exploit each man's character traits, and pick the most dramatic to craft a series of events along the middle of the plot.
When a plot point occurs as a way of advancing the character's arc, or when it is a direct outgrowth of a character trait, that is a character-driven plot. All our work on core conflicts is a form of character-driven scene mapping. We first decided who these people were, and then we decided what could happen to them.
It's worth repeating here: most writers and stories use a blend of character and plot to drive the narrative.
One special point for romance writers. Romance writers tend to use the term "character-driven" and "plot-driven" to talk about something a bit different. Because the endpoint of a romance is always presumed -- an HEA between the hero(es) and heroine(s) -- the story will always be plot-driven. That is presumed. It's built into the conventions of the genre.
And because romance requires the resolution of characters into a pair-bond (or trio-bond, or alien-orthodontist bond, or what have you), there will also always be aspects of the story which are character-driven. Each character will have to figure out a way to evolve in order to be worthy of the HEA, and that evolution will take place in the context of action. So romance is also always character-driven. It is presumed and built into the conventions of the genre, just the same as the HEA is a plot-driven aspect of the genre.
So given all these assumptions, romance writers use the terms character-driven and plot-driven to describe something else, something particular to their genre. Romance stories always have what are known as the external and internal plots (or, sometimes, the internal and external conflicts). Let's look at an example from "These Old Shades," the classic Georgette Heyer Georgian romance.
External: The young boy is actually a girl. She was swapped at birth with another baby, and since her pseudo-parents died and she went to live with her brutal pseudo-brother, she has been in disguise as a boy. The hero discovers her true identity and uses her as a pawn in a game of revenge against her true father. He buys her from her psuedo-brother and takes her into his house as a page before transforming her into a lady with appropriate manners.
Internal: The girl must come to terms with her femininity. She must adapt to the ways of the aristocracy and lose some of her sharp edges. She must learn how to trust, and whom to trust, and when. The man must leave behind his cruel and arrogant ways if he is ever to succeed with this girl. He must find his personal goodness. He must learn to be a protector. And so on....
You might notice that the external plot has little to do with the formation of the romantic bond, and the internal plot revolves around the formation of that bond. External events might help the couple face internal obstacles, or might drive the internal plot in other ways, but the external plot is generally something separate from the pure romantic plot itself.
So when romance writers say their story is plot-driven, they're usually referring to the external plot. And when they say it's character-driven, they're usually referring to the internal plot. The internal plot tends to draw more upon true character-driven plotting techniques (even though the endpoint is a predetermined outcome), and the external plot tends to draw more upon plot-driven plotting techniques (even though the endpoint can be up for grabs).
This is a flip on the usual way we mean these terms. If the endpoint controls the outcome in a plot-driven story, and the external conflict in romance has an open endpoint, then that aspect of the story is not "plot-driven" as non-romance writers generally use the term. You follow me? It's a distinction in terminology, but it's one I wanted to address in the context of this post just so we're all clear on what we mean.
Now, you're probably wondering why this matters. Who cares if your story is plot-driven or character-driven? The truth is that the technique will not show in the final manuscript. When I read a book, I can't tell if they started with a character or an event. And I shouldn't be able to.
But some of you are getting ready to start NaNo. You'll need some tricks to keep your story moving forward at a fast pace. So here is one: if you get stuck in the plot, switch tactics. If you've been focusing on the action, switch to the characters. If you've been giving the characters free rein, create an event and make them work toward it. It's a quick and dirty way to get unstuck, and as an added bonus, it can make you see new angles in your story and develop it more deeply in the fast-draft/first-draft stage.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Some usage rules come out of a distant past when Latin grammar was presumed to be the standard, and one of those is "never split an infinitive," easy enough to obey in Latin (infinitives are one word), but not so easy in English, with its two-word infinitives. Anyway, William Shatner did what William Shakespeare feared to do, boldly splitting an infinitive on national TV ("To boldly go where no man has gone before," vs. "To be or not to be," see).
And I am not going against Captain Kirk!
But actually, I want to talk about prepositions. Another old rule is that you aren't supposed to end a sentence on a preposition. (I don't know if this is based on Latin-- do you know Latin was the ONLY class I ever failed? Really. I did get a D-- a total gift-- in Matter, Energy, and Organization, and you'll know why when I tell you I don't even know what that title means.) This rule engendered Churchill's inimitably lofty comment: "That is an impertinence up with which I shall not put." But you know, it's not a bad rule completely. That is, sometimes a sentence-ending prep is fine, and sometimes it's a signal that your thought is incomplete.
(What's a preposition? It's one of those usually little words that describe some connection-- usually time or space-- between two things. These are not always logical-- I notice that a whole generation logically says "on accident"-- why not, when there's "on purpose"? And in NYC, they stand "on line" where most everywhere else, we stand "in line". This is the hardest thing for non-native speakers to get, even harder than articles. After all, a native speaker would probably never use the wrong article -- a for an, maybe, but that's more a dialect thing. But even the most adept native speaker occasionally messes up on a preposition, and they can differ by region too. Anyway, there are lots of prepositions, and most of the constructions that use them are not too complex. In fact, they'd be utterly ignored if we weren't all concerned about That Rule.)
The first exception is the "verb+"-- many English verbs take a preposition. Usually the preposition is the distinguishing factor: Look up, look down, look over, look away-- those are all different actions, and so really, though the base verb is "look," each compound term means something different because of the preposition. The preposition word is being used as an adverb, modifying the verb. Part of the eternal growability of English is that many verbs can be mutated by adding a preposition as a modifier. It's okay (though not always strong) to end a sentence on one of these compound predicates:
She looked up.
It's really ending on the verb, right?
Now I recently came across a great example of a preposition-ended sentence. It's from the song with the beautiful melody but ugly name-- Big Log by Robert Plant.
My love is in league with the freeway
Its passion will ride, as the cities fly by
"Fly by" is one of those compound predicates-- "fly by" or "fly away" or "fly over"-- they're all diffferent. "Fly by" is particular evocative in this song, as it's exactly what happens on a freeway-- the cities fly by-- or rather, we do, in the cars. This is, btw, a terrific example of an extended metaphor (love is like a freeway, being in love is like being on the run), with wonderful uses of "car" motifs like the rearview mirror:
Eyes in the mirror, still expecting they'll come
Sensing too well, when the journey is done
There is no turning back, no. There is no turning back, on the run.
Extended metaphors are probably more effective in poetry and in song than in fiction, but boy, would it impress me to see as graceful a metaphor as this in prose.
Also there's a later line that never gets transcribed right ("should I rest for awhile on the side" or "should I rest for awhile and decide" are the common transcriptions, but listen)--
My love is exceeding the limit,
Red-eyed and fevered with the hum of the miles
Distance and longing, my thoughts do collide
Should I rest for awhile beside?
Probably there's an elliptical "you" or some other object of that preposition (beside the road?), but leaving it elliptical not only completes the rhyme, but also focuses the attention on the singer's question here-- should he rest? And it's much sexier too-- resting beside. And remember that the last word in a sentence is a power position, and so ending on "beside" can make that position powerful. (I suspect that getting rid of the object there, the "you" or "the road," makes "beside" an adverb, answering the "where" question... funny how a word can change role that way!)
Anyway, lovely song, lovely metaphor, such control in the writing!
So back to prepositions. Here's a BAD preposition-end, and here's where I say take this as a clue that something is missing (paraphrased, but same preposition):
The mutineers were made an example of.
What's wrong? Well, it's a passive sentence-- "the mutineers" is supposed to be the object of that preposition, but it's in the subject position. The passive construction means that the sentence has to end on "of" because the object is being used elsewhere. The problem usually with the passive construction is that it lets the true actor (who ever did the making of example) off the hook. There are reasons to do that (if you don't know the true actor-- "She was murdered at 1 am"-- or the true actor isn't important-- "She was buried Tuesday at Forest Hills Cemetery"), but usually the actor of the action belongs in the subject position, and if you do that, you probably won't have that orphaned preposition:
The Navy made an example of the mutineers.
That is, the prep-ending is a clue that the thought is incomplete. In fact, I would probably add the "how"-- how did the Navy make an example of the mutineers? (unless I wanted to be mysterious).
Point is, the rule is only a suggestion, okay? It's based in real logic-- generally, a preposition is followed by an object, so look and see if you've misplaced or ignored the object. But because there are allowances for exceptions, you have more flexibility here-- you can see what meaning each possibility creates. And of course, violating a rule is always subversively exciting, and stop laughing. Okay, it's not as subversive as shooting heroin or swimming nude, but for a writer, it's pretty thrilling.
So think of it this way-- the more rules you understand, the more you can violate. :)
Thursday, October 29, 2009
I'm putting a poll on the sidebar -- feedreaders, please pop over to the blog proper if you want to vote. We're trying to decide if we should use November to do some motivational posts, or maybe focusing on productivity issues, or just tralala along in our normal harebrained fashion.
ETA: The poll lets you vote for more than one answer, so if you want both productivity and motivational tips, you can ask for both.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
I also think that the advanced READER wants more than just a plot. Someone who has read two novels a week for twenty years needs more texture, more interactivity, more continuity, more coherence, than a new reader would need.
Any novel that can be reduced to a few Twitter tweets, well, that's a novel that might appeal more to the new reader than to the Constant Reader.
It's a little complex when it come to marketing, as there's no doubt that many best-sellers are "just the plot, ma'am". Why is that? It's because to make book a best-seller, you need (first option) a very large base of readers, and that usually happens because you've been publishing for many years and have gathered fans with every book (Stephen King, say, who uses plenty of details :). Or (second option) you need to grab the one-book-a-year buyers in great number, the ones who buy the latest novel as a gift for an acquaintance, or need a book to read on the plane and don't have, let's say, the towering TBR (to be read) pile that you and I have. Those readers buy the books that are marketed heavily (and easy to find-- you don't need to go to a bookstore), and because they're newer readers, they don't "parse" the details particularly well, or even notice them, and don't need them. A book with a strong or sharp plot and a fast pace will appeal more to the new reader. Nothing wrong with that... but to reach those readers, to get the level of publisher support required to market to those readers, you have to get an editor to buy your book first, or really, really inspire marketing to write great jacket copy. :)
So I don't know what the route to best-sellerdom might be for any individual author. I just know that most of the books we all love-- and we're Constant Readers, aren't we-- are not "just plot". They're NOVELS. They start with plot, maybe, but they don't end with it. They provide a story that will (we hope) satisfy the newer reader, but characterization and detail and texture and subtext that will add more interest for the sophisticated reader. That's the reader who will buy your next book, not to mention blog about it and recommend it to his/her friends and send you fan emails and suggest that the local library buy it. You don't fascinate and enthrall readers with "just plot". And I don't think you maintain a reader base, book after book, without appealing to the Constant Reader.
However, I'm not naive enough not to have noticed that many publishers have decided that the New Reader is the only one who counts, hence the constant chase for the next trend, the frenetic search for the next (for two years) best-selling writer, the new emphasis on looks and performance in authors (so they can look good on the Today show). I also notice that the industry as a whole is losing the Constant Reader (go figure), and doesn't seem to care much. But there should always be Good Books (any type of book can be Good-- I'm not being elitist here), and there'll always be readers (I hope) who will seek them out. And I hope there'll always be writers who challenge themselves to attain the next level, even if commercial success and best-sellerdom eludes. There will always be a need for story, and "story" is far more than "plot," as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, and JK Rowling taught us.
When Alicia and I were first brewing up this blog, we talked quite a lot about how there was a good amount of beginner information available to writers, but that advanced techniques and topics were harder to come by. That material is out there. It can be found. It's just not as prevalent as the other stuff. And so we wanted to include a fair dose of more advanced writing discussion because we saw a need for it.
As this blog evolved, we found ourselves talking frequently about topics on all points of the learning pyramid. For newbies, we've addressed danglers, beats, and the problem of the proboscis. We've hit the vast middle, too, with posts about reversals, backstory, and loads and loads of discussion on verbs. We've touched the peak briefly with ancient Greek theories of drama, reflections on pov in Ulysses, and transitioning to interior monologue when in a subjective pov.
In other words, we try to mix it up a bit. Not all posts will be useful to all people at all stages of their careers. But then, we're not providing one-on-one coaching through this blog, either. Do as the title suggests, and grab bits of the torrent which interest you most.
My friend emailed me with a grave concern about yesterday's post. She was worried that I strayed so deeply into detail that I had overlooked the importance of moving the plot forward. "Who cares about the carpet and the menu? The characters need to do something already." That about sums up her entire concern.
But here's the thing. When you're first starting out, you're learning how to control a plot. You might not know how to move it forward consistently, how to keep tension high, or how to manipulate pacing. You might become entranced with the sheer possibilities in creating entire worlds out of words. You might get seduced by the lure of all that creative energy, a siren's song. and spend so many pages describing wallpaper than you lose the actors on the set.
That's a beginner's problem. When intermediate and advanced writers fall into the detail trap, they do it with a foundational understanding about the importance of plot. And they usually understand that the lovely twenty page description they wrote about the park at the end of Filbert Street was a useful exercise, but it must get cut from the manuscript.
What happens when you're a solid plotter, then, and you're looking for ways to level up? Your manuscripts land in the "almost, but not quite" pile on editors' desks. You get great personal rejection letters with lots of helpful advice. You might have even published a book or two to lukewarm reviews and indifferent sales. You know your plots are solid and your characters are competent. You just want something more. You want to find a way to break out.
That's when you think about Drago and Johnny, core conflicts and resonant detail. Or maybe you need to improve your scene transitions, use jump cuts, strengthen your secondaries, enlarge your reversals, develop your pov -- the list of possibilities is long. The point is that after you master the basics, there are entire oceans of techniques that might help you raise your game.
I started the Johnny post series with three goals: to introduce the concept of core conflicts, to explore ways to leverage core conflicts between characters, and to show ways that detail can tie into core conflicts. These are complex, interrelated topics that I knew would require several posts to explore. We took it in stages, and we covered a lot of ground. I tried to do it in a way that would allow all types of writers to follow along. I think we achieved these goals.
*After* you know what happens in the scene, and *after* you know that the action moves the plot forward, *then* you get to play with core conflicts and resonant detail. These are not the plot. The plot is the plot. (sigh -- did I really just write that sentence? lol) If you liken writing a novel to building a house, first you pour the foundation and frame the walls, and *then* you pick the paint color for the window trim. Do you get to ignore the foundation and walls? No. Of course not. Can you build an entire serviceable house and use only plain white for the paint? Yes. Of course you can. But at some point, you might also think about where your house should be plain and where it can get colorful. The judicious use of detail is what can set your house apart from every other 3-bedroom ranch on the block.
It doesn't hurts to expose newbies to these techniques. They're probably going to want to learn most of it eventually, anyway. Will they understand it all? Will they use it properly? Maybe not, but so what? They've got a long learning curve before they get to publication. There will be much trying and failing along the way. Nothing wrong with that, really, as long as they keep learning.
Keep learning. That's the real message here. Yes, action and plot are important in a foundational sense. But at some point, you have to grow beyond that.
** My friend did give me permission to quote her email, but not to name her. I mention this because it lets me reiterate that we avoid treating people as blog fodder. It's worth restating: we usually make up our own examples. Anything we see at work, whether from slush or from interaction with our authors, we use as a springboard to create examples of our own. We think that's better than making examples out of the people we interact with. In some cases, when we pull something from the comments (which you all can see, anyway) or get permission from the source (as in this post), we might use direct statements. But those are exceptions to the general rule.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Now let's talk about setting.
In fairly large proportion of manuscripts I read -- perhaps as many as half -- setting is under-utilized and overlooked as a tool for creating dramatic impact. We know the scene has to take place somewhere, so we choose a kitchen or an office or a car, and maybe we paint the walls an interesting color because that's what the character might like. Maybe, if we get into it, we add a Viking stove or a corner-window view or whitewall tires. Neat. Now the setting is coming alive, right?
Eh, maybe a little.
It's a start, a solid base hit, but it doesn't get you all the way home. It's good to present physical details of the world in a way that grounds and orients the reader.
But it's better to present them in a way that grounds and orients the reader AND adds a new layer to the conflict and action.
When we first introduced Drago to Johnny, we did so in a restaurant. I provided the following setting description:
The lunch is at a white-tablecloth place. Hushed music. Heavy silverware. Well-trained waiters.
In the list of questions at the end of that exercise, I posted:
How does the environment impact their interaction? What does it highlight about their interpersonal conflict? What do they order for their meals, and why?
This question was meant to start you thinking about the impact of setting on character and conflict. Most of you understood right away that Johnny (the status-seeker) would feel at ease in this setting, but Drago (the survivor) would not. And most of you saw how Johnny would leverage that disparity to make himself look better. So already, we have a basic, big-picture understanding of how to use setting to highlight a conflict.
But what about details? This is where Show meets Tell. We can tell each other that Johnny feels comfy and on top of things. But how do we show it in the scene? What does Johnny actually DO that shows his ease? What does Drago DO that shows his unease? What other details come up that can highlight this situation? I asked specifically what they ordered for their meals, and why. (That was a test question, by the way. I was wondering if any of you would look deeper into Drago's background and make the jump to religious dietary restrictions. Epic fail, but I forgive you. *wink* More on this to follow.)
So let's look at an example from the comments. We're going to have two specific questions in mind as we look at this.
1 -- Does the setting detail accurately reflect character?
2 -- Can the conflict be exaggerated by choosing a different detail?
Johnny knows Drago is unprepared, so he graciously offers to allow him to order before him. Drago doesn't want to fumble looking at the menu, so he says that he'll have the same as the Dr. When the waiter turns on Johnny, instead of ordering right away, Johnny asks the waiter how he is? The waiter is noticeably put at ease and is pleased that he's been acknowledged. Then Johnny orders his lunch. It's very precise, although it's a switched up version of something they have on their menu and will need to be changed - it's not so outrageous a demand that anyone would balk at it.
We have three interesting details here. Let's break them down in order.
1 - Johnny defers to Drago.
This isn't really a setting detail (it's an action choice), but it's worth discussing as an aspect of character. Usually, alphas eat first. Johnny is a status seeker, so we would normally expect Johnny to want to order ahead of Drago. The fact that he deferred -- and especially, that he deferred so that Drago would look bad -- shows a secondary characteristic. Johnny is cunning and a bit manipulative here. He gets to look like he's being polite (enhance his self) while simultaneously exposing Drago's unpreparedness (diminish his opponent). For a guy who goes through life ranking everything and everyone around him, this was a very interesting and appropriate move. (Note: Drago fumbles with the menu -- a character interacting with setting in a way that reveals the character's inner state. Would this be better if the menu was on a chalkboard? What if the waiter presented the day's specials in
French? Do these things enhance the conflicts, or detract from them? What if Drago had insisted that Johnny order next?)
2 - Johnny asks the waiter, "How are you?"
The waiter is part of the setting, so this qualifies as a setting detail. This is a salesman's move. Ordinarily, a status-seeker would treat the staff as invisible, right up to the moment he requires something, at which point he'll be evaluating the quality of service. But a salesman tries to put the entire world around him at ease as a way of eliminating objections in advance of his pitch. I'm not sure this detail perfectly gels with Johnny's character, but the scene could be worked in a way to overcome my hesitation. (Note: What does the waiter look like? Does it make a difference if he's smoothly handsome or dumpy and doughy? Can you dress him in a way that says something about the conflicts?)
3- Johnny orders a heavily modified version of a menu item.
Nice. The menu is part of the setting, so this definitely shows the character interacting with setting. What kind of person orders off the menu? Maybe two rough groups -- the supremely health conscious, and the supremely confident. In either case, this works to Johnny's advantage. Given that the doctor has already ordered a heavily modified version of a menu item (presumably to make it healthier), Johnny would understand implicitly that by behaving in the same manner, he creates an equation between himself and the doctor. Drago, who ordered the same thing the doctor ordered, may have hoped for a similar type of equality. But instead, he is reduced to imitator. This is a really good example of character interacting with setting to demonstrate subtle things about those characters and conflicts. (Note: What if Johnny ignored the menu altogether? What if, as Drago fumbled with it, he left it lying unread on his place setting?)
Because we weren't seeing a lot of concrete examples in the comments of the way the setting might influence the scene, I asked this question:
Drago might not know a fish fork from a salt cellar. Does he try to cover up his ignorance, or does he flaunt it?
My point was to try to make you all get specific and concrete. It's one thing to talk about a setting in the abstract (it's elegant) and another to think about how that abstraction is made manifest through details (fish forks and salt cellars).
I'm willing to bet that by now, at least one of you is wondering how to exploit setting without a block paragraph of description. You know that description is static and that it slows down the pacing. You worry that I'm about to advocate for more setting details -- and you're right. On all counts.
But keep in mind our basic formula for a scene:
Against a Setting.
Motion is what links the characters and the setting. You don't just list a catalogue of details: white linen, white china, thick carpeting, waiters with long linen towels wrapped around their waists. You *show* the characters interacting with those details in a meaningful way. How do you do that? You start by brainstorming physical details about the setting. Then you think about how those details impact the characters as they move through the scene. Then -- and this is the crucial step, perhaps -- you decide whether this is the best possible detail to showcase the conflicts. And if not, you find something better.
Let's do a couple for practice. I'll start. Thick carpeting means that footsteps are muffled. So Dr. Cannon in her swanky high heels -- she clacks along the sidewalk, and then grows silent as they move through the room. Does this help the conflicts? Perhaps. If I can use it to show something about how she's hard to read, her cues are muffled, she seems different outside the hospital setting, etc. Or maybe I want to tap into the stealthy feeling creating by silent motion. Is she stalking her prey? Is she dangerous?
Remember our pov quadrant?
This can come in handy when thinking through setting details. Step outside your current perspective and consider how the detail might look to another character. Silence might sound peaceful to Drago. It might soothe him. (Think of the relief he would feel when the guns stopped firing.) Or he might equate it with death. (Think of how silent his village must have been when everyone in it was dead.)
For Johnny, silence might not be as meaningful. Or is it? Some men associate that clatter of high heels with feminine power. Maybe in Johnny's pov, we could have a sentence like,
They padded behind the maitre d' to their table, the powerful clicking of the doctor's heels neutralized by the plush carpet.
And that might give us a subtle suggestion that Johnny is using the environment detail to brace himself. She is muffled -- they all are -- they are on equal footing now, so to speak.
Here is the point. You can keep the setting detail small. You can braid them into the action. You can let them be subtle. But as long as you control and exploit them, you're going to add another layer of complexity to your scene.
Now. About those religious dietary restrictions. Drago's native country is predominantly Muslim. Who orders pork, and what effect does that have?
Saturday, October 24, 2009
I mean, of course, comedy in the sense of a positive ending, not ha-ha. I was thinking that in popular fiction, we have the same structure as a tragedy, but the tragedy happens in the dark moment ("When the worst that can happen happens"), not at the climax-- in "comedy" there's a climax where the tragedy is resolved and maybe fixed or at least transcended. (The tragedy, I suppose, does have to be fixable-- you don't really have much room for a happy ending tacked on to Hamlet, after all! Everyone's dead! But you know, it IS a happy ending for Fortinbras, who gets a new kingdom without any work at all.)
Hey, I learned something! I was wondering why there's this trend in performances of Shakespeare comedies to have all the actors appear at the curtain call and then dance to some happy music (usually pop). I assumed there was some Journal of Shakespearian Comic Theatre and they'd had an article saying that audiences like this, so all the directors stole the idea. Turns out this has been done since S's time, and it's called "the Jig," and the purpose was to get the audience to see that all the actors were alive again and everyone was happy. (I don't know why they didn't have those after tragedies, where you think they'd be more needed.) What a good idea. It's fun, but what if you could act but you couldn't dance???
The world is full of light,
With suns and moons all over the place.
The world is wild and bright.
Going mad, shooting sparks into space.
Yeah, I'm in Stratford, Ontario. Theresa is responsible-- not for me being here, but actually for my going to West Side Story, which, duh, I saw the film, so why go to the play.
But she emailed me and told me that if I was stuck in Canada (long boring story, no arrest, however, but that wouldn't be boring) I should see plenty of plays-- you know, Stratford is worldclass theatre-- really-- better than Broadway, I swear, and if you're in New York or New England or the Midwest, it takes only eight hours and a passport --
Anyway, saw West Side Story with a theatre-full of high school students, and it was wonderful, and they were wonderful-- they laughed at the jokes and applauded every number and gave the cast a standing ovation and restored my faith in live theatre-- they cried at the end and I was amazed to find myself crying too-- I mean, really, a 50-year-old musical based on a 400-year-old play based on a 2500-year-old myth (remind me about Shakespeare parodying himself in Midsummer), and here are a bunch of cynical facebook teenagers, and they LOVED it. And so did I (though I have always thought the funny Officer Krupke song should have been in the first half rather than after the tragedy). It's wonderful seeing plays surrounded by teenagers-- they are so REACHABLE-- they care. But of course, this story was told for them. And live theatre is made for teenagers-- reckless and intemperate and in the moment.
Anyway, thanks to Theresa for the sage advice and the calming down (I was a little panicky, just a little, when I thought the only way home involved a bus dropping me at midnight in downtown Detroit...) (okay, REALLY panicky), and I will be home eventually (after Midsummer Night's Dream, A Funny Thing/Forum, Macbeth... really, this is just the best theatre in the world, and so close!).
And here for you is more reason that Youtube totally rules:
Bernstein rehearsing Jose Carrera in Tonight. I can't help it... I love this song.
Alicia (still stuck in Canada-- did you know it's another country? You need a PASSPORT!!!) (Yes, I have a passport, but-- no, really, it's too boring to explain, and Theresa's already heard it all, and she's been really patient...)
Friday, October 16, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Isn't the goal of the first page to invest the reader in the story so that they turn to the second page? And without a character to feel invested in, the reader won't feel a connection? So, dialogue can work, but only if it pulls the reader in and helps to form that connection? And authors should consciously consider if it's the best method for connecting the reader to the story? And not just do it because of some trend, or because it feels "immediate", or because it shows you're starting in scene and not in backstory, etc.
And I responded,
Jami, that's it exactly.
I know this is a roundabout, somewhat tortured way to make the point, but I thought if I led everyone to think it through, it might resolve the question in a more thorough way.
Your goal at the outset is to cement the reader to the characters as quickly as possible.
Starting with dialogue can slow down that process. CAN. Not MUST.
So some authors use dialogue to start because it helps them reach the goal of snatching reader interest right away. Depends on the dialogue -- how long, content, what follows it.
Another problem, from my perspective, is that we see bad dialogue openings over and over and over. Until we want to cry. Until we become convinced that they must be impossible to pull off. That belief lasts just until we see a manuscript do it right.
I bought a manuscript that starts with this line of dialogue:
"Make me a door, Four."
Grabbed me right away. I wasn't sure what it meant, but I wanted to find out. Will everyone be hooked by that line? Maybe not, but it has turned out that lots of readers have been satisfied with this line and this story.
Compare that to,
"Honey, where are my keys?"
(not all that unusual a question)
(ditto, and then some)
You can add a speaker attribution without furthering the basic goal.
"This city is the capital of Argentina," Alex Trebek said.
The bottom line: There are rules, and there are tools. The rule for the first page is, "Grab my attention." The tools to help you get there are conflict, character, specific detail, and so on.
I thought it was important to move this to the front page for those of you who don't get to read the comments. It's the answer to our earlier question about opening with dialogue. Yes, you can do it, but only if you do it right!
I think Courier is very ugly, but I'd never reject because of that font. And underlining is a holdover from typewriter days, when you couldn't italicize, so I prefer italics. But really, that's not important, and neither says much about the writer as a writer, the way, oh, headhopping does, or being boring. :)
So I'd just ignore probably. If I got the submission as an emailed document (not paper), I'd very likely change the font to TNR or something I like better-- I really, really hate Courier, especially the light version-- which will mess up the pagination, but none of this will matter much in my consideration.
The reason, I think, many writers choose Courier is because it's, geez, I forget the term. Proportional? And that's kind of irrelevant these days, at least with electronic submissions, as font can be changed in an instant, and anyway, the typesetter doesn't care-- the ms will be transformed into whatever is house-style. So don't use Courier just to be proportional-- unless the publisher specifically asks for that.
I don't get it. I know I've read books that start with dialogue. So why does everyone keep saying that it's bad to start with dialogue?
I'm going to answer with an example.
"But I like dialogue." John pushed his manuscript across the kitchen table toward Mary, almost knocking over his mug of cold coffee.
Mary shrugged and uncapped her red pen. She drew a big circle around the first line on the first page. "So do I. But I guess this is a rule. Doesn't make a lick of sense, but lots of rules don't make sense. I mean, they tell you they want your word count, but then they say it doesn't matter whether you go off the computer count or the number of pages multiplied by an average. That doesn't make sense, either."
"Word count, shmerd count. I write stories with lots of dialogue, so it's natural to start with dialogue, too." John removed the red pen from Mary's hand and recapped it. "Let's keep the dialogue."
Here's what we have:
* A notch over 100 words, so roughly half a page.
* Two named characters
* Clearly attributed dialogue
* A few small setting details
* A hint of conflict
Now, I have a question for you. Whose point of view are we in?
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
1. Dropping a Stranger's Name/Botching a Personal Referral
"Annie Author suggested I send this to you." You know, sometimes we will ask Annie Author if she actually made this referral. Sometimes Annie Author is downright puzzled that her name is being bandied about by random strangers, and that might just get you a rejection. It may very well be that you met Annie in line for lunch at a conference, and she said you should look into submitting to her publisher. But that's not quite the same as a personal referral.
The absolute best way to handle a personal referral is to get Annie Author to send me a quick email right around the time that you sub your work. Also, a good rule of thumb is to assume that your published friends will do less for you than you would like them to do. This is because a) you probably want too much, and b) when you ask an author for a referral, they're likely to give you the nice polite answer.
You're safe to assume that when I ask Annie Author if she referred you, her answer will be somewhat muted and self-protective. "Yes, I know her. I see her at chapter meetings a few times a year. She seems nice." This endorsement might seem lukewarm to you, but at least nobody is stabbing you in the back. That happens, too. "She asked me if she could use my name. Awkward! I couldn't exactly say no." Or, the dreaded, "Yes, I know her. She told me I was committing career suicide by writing erotic romance. Did she actually use my name?"
2. Asking for Representation Instead of Publication
"Hello, I hope you will consider representing my book, The Pregnant Billionaire Sheikh's Matchmaking Virgin."
Nope. I won't consider that. I understand that you may have drafted a form query when seeking an agent, but it's not appropriate to use the same form letter when submitting directly to publishers. You do understand the difference between an agent and a publisher, right?
3. Issuing Demands
"Here's my plan. You publish this in December so we can get lots of holiday sales."
(Great plan. Good luck with that.)
"If I don't hear from you by Friday, I'll sell it to someone else."
(Okay. ::shrug:: Good luck with that.)
"My marketing plan requires you to publish this in X formats."
(Heh. You think your marketing plan leads our distribution? Good luck with that.)
Does this sound cruel? I think we often go to great lengths to accommodate our authors. I even consult with them sometimes about their preferences for release dates and similar decisions. (Sometimes. When I have that flexibility and have a reason for exercising it. It's not always possible.) But there is a wide world of difference between talking to a contracted author about whether March or April suits her better, and accepting a slush sub from an author who thinks they have rights over the entire corporate calendar.
4. Providing Cover Art
I won't say this is an auto-rejection. Does that surprise you? We've let several author make their own covers, and we've been dazzled by the results. Creative people are often cross-functional. Think about how many writers you know who are also pastry chefs, guitar players, avid scrapbookers, seamstresses, and so on. Why shouldn't a writer also be a graphic designer?
But here's the catch. Your art had better be good, and it had better fit in with our house style. Covers are a very tricky business. We often reject covers or ask for changes to various elements, and those are covers provided by artists who've worked with us for years. This isn't because we're capricious, but because the cover is hoo-damn important, one of the most powerful selling tools we've got.
If you want to do your own cover art, my advice is that you first establish your relationship with the publisher. Get them to buy your manuscript. Show them you're capable of taking constructive criticism. Demonstrate that you understand house style. And then, if you can deliver a strong cover, we might consider it.
In other words, don't submit your proposed cover with your manuscript. Wait until later.
5. Never, Never, Never Send a "Hurry! Act Now!" Letter
Do you really want me to equate your query letter with junk mail? 'Nuff said.
6. Selling Yourself Short
I can't tell you how many queries include some variation of this statement:
I might not be Hemingway, but I hope you'll give me a chance.
Okay, first of all, know your audience. "Not Hemingway" might actually be a selling point rather than a detraction. Alicia will remember this -- we were once at a conference together, God knows when, but I think it was in Indianapolis. The speaker was trying to make a point about using simple, clear, direct words. This was a romance conference, keep in mind. Romance insiders enjoy poking fun at Hemingway and speculating on just how tiny his penis must have been if it required that much overcompensation. I mean, really, think about it. Hemingway is sort of the opposite of romance.
So the poor speaker, a very nice man who deserved better treatment, said something about how magnificent Hemingway was because he only had 3500 words in his vocabulary. And the entire room erupted in sighs, groans, eyerolls, titters, and muttered comments about how that explains a few things. The speaker was shocked. He couldn't believe that an entire roomful of people would have a laugh at the expense of St. Ernest. (Required FTC Disclaimer: I have not been compensated in any way for stating my opinion -- perhaps we should say suspicion -- that Hemingway had a tiny penis. If it turns out that he had a cock like a yule log, his publishers should not be fined for my deceptive statement.)
In any case, if you name a famous author, you do so without knowing what I think of that author. And my opinion might surprise you. Even if our opinions coincide perfectly, don't let false modesty get in your way. You send me your work because you want my opinion on its publishability. Don't invite me to form a negative opinion before I've opened the file.
7. Overselling Yourself
"My daughter thinks this is every bit as good as Stephenie Meyer's books."
(Cool. Is your daughter going to publish it, then?)
"This book is going to make us both rich."
(Your lips to god's ears. Sure, lightning can strike. And Dr. Emmett Brown can even predict where and when. The rest of us have to rely on P&Ls with past performance indicators, and if you're a new author, your indicator is not going to be Dan Brown.)
There are thousands of reasons why you shouldn't boast in a query letter, and I suspect those reasons are obvious. Your book might be the biggest breakthrough in romance since The Flame and the Flower, but you're not the one who gets to decide that. The marketplace does.
8. Using Rhetorical Questions as Hooks.
"Did you ever wonder what the world would be like if trees developed the ability to speak and walk, and they conquered the world?"
Um, no. Can't say I have.
Hucksters use this kind of Q&A format to try to build bonds with their audience, which they can then exploit to make a sale. One of the keys to this selling technique is picking a question with a predictable and controllable answer. Have you ever worn clothes? Have you ever smelled food cooking? Have you ever seen dirt? Why, yes, I have! However did you know? Then boy, do I have a product for you!
This techniques simply doesn't translate neatly to fiction queries. It's hard to build that common bond by referencing something unique like warlord trees, on the one hand. And on the other, if you do reference something common enough to build a bond, you're in danger of losing what makes your book unique. (Do you long for a story with a happy ending?)
It's a hard technique for a query letter, and you're better off avoiding it.
These are a few of the things we see over and over in query letters that make us doubt the readiness of the author. I'm sure there are more! Alicia, you have anything to add to the list?
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Here's the sentence, from a NYT article on California's water problems (you Californians must feel like a plague of locusts is next)--
...(I)t was Mark Twain who was believed to have said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over” ....
What's wrong? Well, the awkwardness of that "who was believed" is a clue. It's actually introducing a new "character"-- the unidentified person or persons who believed Twain said that. Notice the passive construction-- well, how this forces a perfectly active subject/verb (Twain said) combo into passivity (Twain... was believed, and who believed is never stated, so passive), and then into some weird past perfect tense, and for what? To indicate that the reporter isn't sure Twain really said that? (I do understand-- I'm sure he never said a lot of the pithy quotes attributed to him.) But then also the past tense there -- was believed? So he's no longer believed?-- starts forcing questions on us (who believed that, do they still believe that), and why? Why construct a sentence that opens up so many irrelevant issues? If you want to use the quote, go ahead, but simplify the sentence so it says ONLY what you want it to say:
Twain said this maybe
Here's what he maybe said
What's the problem? Well, first, "it was Mark Twain" diminishes the sentence's true subject (Mark Twain, the one that did the action of saying) into a predicate nominative (what "it" was), thereby diminishing the importance of the most important word. There are reasons to use "it was" there-- for rhythm, for a longer sentence-- but the tradeoff is wordiness-- and an editor (obviously not the NYTimes editor:) will probably try to cut that and put Mark Twain in the pride of place-- the subject position.
Second, it's that darned relative clause:
... who was believed....
Relative clauses are adjectival usually, modifying a noun-- here Twain (they can be adverbial and modify a verb, but that's less common). Relative clauses start with a relative pronoun (usually who or which). Clauses of any kind take on more importance in the sentence just because they're clauses and have a subject and verb (Subject -- who, verb-- was believed). But that means that relative clauses (which are JUST modifiers, that is, not syntactically that important) often distract from the main clause of the sentence, especially when they break up the subject/verb sequence as here.
The first technique to trim and simplify a sentence is to decrease relative clauses to a modifying word or phrase. Doing that will put the emphasis back on the most important elements (subject and verb-- actor and action), and also get rid of that distracting and complicating clause in the middle of the sentence.
So how would I edit this? Well, the "who was believed" is really meant to say, "Twain is reputed to have said this." So go with an adverb that modifies the verb! After all, it's the verb (said) that you want to call into doubt, not Twain-- Twain did exist, so HE is not alleged. It's his saying this that is alleged. Also if I diminish this from a clause (which needs a verb and so tense) to an adverb, I just move around the issue of tense (is he still believed to have said that, or was it only in the past he was believed) by not presenting it as an issue in the "was".
Mark Twain supposedly (allegedly, reputedly) said, "===."
Or I might make the quote tag a dependent clause, and the quote the main clause, depending on whether I want the emphasis on Twain or the quote:
As Mark Twain allegedly said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over” ....
To simplify, determine what's important in the sentence, and make that or those the clauses, and avoid making the less important thoughts into clauses. Simple! :)
Monday, October 12, 2009
This is something I'd never really contemplated before becoming an editor, but every editor I've spoken to since knew immediately what I meant. That is, "What tips you off about a submission that this isn't an experienced writer? What are the marks of the amateur?"
Now I don't mean to be insulting here. These marks don't actually mean that the writer is an amateur, rather that we see these mostly in submissions by newer or inexperienced authors, and so we sort of automatically assume.... well. What's important is to make sure you don't inadvertently trigger our "oh, amateur" assessment.
So anyway, when I was in England (very nice-- I want to live there, seriously, and I've narrowed my future home choice down to Somerset, Wiltshire, or the Yorkshire Dales), I asked my friends who had edited what they would put on this list.
Just to get started, and please add on or ask questions as we go:
1) Improper dialogue formatting. That's first for me, because, uh, if you've been reading for decades and never noticed there's a comma after the quote tag and before the quote mark, and a capital letter starting the quote, and the punctuation INSIDE the quote mark, and a new paragraph with a change in speakers, well, you are apparently not really absorbing writing conventions as you read. That will make the work of editing this rather onerous.
2) A whole lot of introductory participial phrases. One or two or three, sure. Sometimes the meaning of the sentence calls for that. But for whatever reason, whenever there are many intro participles on a first page, the submission proves to be a little amateurish in several ways. Hey, I don't make the rules. I'm just reporting.
3) Lynn said semicolons, but really, I'm okay with the occasional semicolon, even in fiction. (Theresa is sighing-- another round in the Great Semicolon Battle.) But more than one or two semicolons on the first couple pages? Trying too hard to sound mature, are you? And improperly used semicolons? Even worse. It looks like a 10-year-old wearing mascara.
4) Clumsy quote-tagging. Everyone agreed on this. I am the most lenient (yes, really-- I am a positive libertine compared with Some Sticklers Recently in Yorkshire), as I don't mind the infrequent "hissed" or "grumbled" if that's in fact what the speaker sounded like. But the default for tagging your dialogue should be "he/she said" or an action.
He adjusted the rearview mirror. "I think we're being followed."
A bunch of "creative" quote tags-- He intoned, she simpered, he ejaculated (I couldn't help it, sorry!), she expostulated, she exclaimed, he temporized-- indicates to me that the writer is more obsessed with the tags than with the actual thing being said by the speaker.
5) More than a couple homophone mistakes (then/than, here/hear, etc.). This suggests the writer is making too extensive use of spell-check rather than actually READING the sentences.
6) Starting the passage with whatever the latest trend is-- an unattributed line of dialogue, a "cute meet" and (this is important, because a good writer might do this and I'd like it) doing it badly. Yeah, those are so old they should be interred with Milton Berle, but I'm still seeing them, and what they say is, "I don't care about what makes my story unique. I want to sound like all the others."
7) Starting with odd stuff that we might put in the published edition, if we got that far, but shouldn't be in a submission (acknowledgments, dedications, a history lesson). But you know, I do like maps. Go figure.
8) Too many names in the first couple paragraphs. Who is the POV character? That's the name we need.
9) POV shifts on the first page. This presages a book full of headhopping that I really don't want to have to fix. Not to mention this must be a submitter who has not read my many posts and articles (and book!) about POV. :) (I am NOT against multiple POV-- but keep it controlled, and open in one POV and stick with it awhile, okay? So I know you know how to do that? (Again, a good writer might have a good reason for doing this, but I'll know the difference when I see it.)
What else? We'll make a list.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Money is no contraint for her, because she makes several hundred thousand a year, and she is the daughter of another prominent surgeon.
And from that, Wes built a character wearing an expensively tailored, elegant suit and expensive but understated jewelry, all of which are appropriate to her socioeconomic status.
Gwen took her in a different direction:
She wears no jewelry, and her shoes are flat and suitable for walking. Her hair is dirty blonde and curly, pulled back in a quick bun. Tendrils are escaping from the front. She has blue eyes with slight darkening beneath them.
Where Wes was thinking about the status benefits of the job, Gwen was thinking about its demands. Flat shoes, efficient hair, and dark shadows under the eyes are some of the things a very busy doctor might be expected to have. This is also appropriate for the character, though the result is a different character.
Green Knight started by rejecting the request to describe the character's clothing, and ended up with a character who herself rejects fashion:
I can't describe Dr. Cannon's clothing - I don't have an idea of her character yet, and I don't know what I want to invoke.... Hm. I guess she took the easy way out and went to whereever women buy upmarket fashion and allowed a personal shopper to dress her. She liked the effect and bought the ensemble - her own wardrobe being out of date, and after six months in a dusty camp without running hot and cold water, she can't be bothered to invest the time it takes to keep up with fashion talk.
Again, by focusing on a slightly different aspect of the few known character details -- Dr. Cannon is not just any doctor, but one who donates her time to MSF -- we end up with a value system for this character that has tangible evidence in the way she dresses.
I also want to point out that Dave noticed a physical attribute unique to surgeons:
Her fingers are quick and clever, fitting for a surgeon.
When we started this series of exercises, I mentioned that there are no wrong answers to any of these questions. Now we start to see why. Each writer has a unique perspective -- voice -- which will lead you to create characters in different ways. Does this character play the same role in all version of the Johnny and Drago lunch meeting? Yes. Is the character identical across the board? No. Nor would we want her to be, because your unique voice (and the unique way that voice creates characters and other story elements) is part of what makes your story special and, ultimately, marketable.
So, your viewpoint -- your voice -- will influence your natural tendencies while building a character.
But here's where things get interesting.
Your other characters' viewpoints can also influence interpretation and extrapolation of secondary characters.
You're creating the secondary character, but that secondary character will be viewed through the prism of point of view. How that prism works depends in part on your pov choices. Who is the pov character in this scene? Johnny or Drago? How intimate is the pov -- do you choose a subjective, deep, intimate form of third person, or do you prefer an objective, external, narratorless omniscient?
During the "Paging Dr. Cannon" part of this exercise, some of you touched on how Dr. Cannon would view the students.
She's easy with Johnny, understands him. She can't help responding to his charm, which he turns on full blast; but she notices that he doesn't reveal much about himself.
~ Green Knight
Johnny seems eager, perhaps over eager, but he's charming enough. Drago seems nervous, which she can sympathize with, but he's also too pushy.
~ Jami G.
They looked worried and that’s exactly how she wanted them to feel.
So you're already primed to deal with the ways these characters see each other. Which leads us to our next exercise.
Take out a blank sheet of paper and divide it in half horizontally and vertically so that it is separated into four quarters. The left half side of the page is for Johnny, and the right is for Drago. The top half is for subjective (deep) pov, and the bottom is for objective (ominiscient) pov.
Here's your mission, should you choose to accept it. First, think about your version of Dr. Cannon, the character as you want her to be. Now, in the upper left quadrant, jot down the aspects of her character that Johnny would notice. These are things that are relevant to Johnny, things that he looks for when evaluating a person. Consider also the unique way he will react to these details, and jot that down too.
Now repeat this for Drago in the upper right quadrant. Are there details which both Johnny and Drago would notice, but would interpret differently?
Now we move to the lower part of the page. In the lower left quadrant, note the things that Johnny would NOT notice because they are NOT relevant to his personal worldview. Are any of these details important for the reader's understanding of the action?
Now repeat this for Drago, lower right quadrant. He'll ignore certain things, too, and these things might be different from the things Johnny ignores.
Sometimes it's difficult to choose the viewpoint character for a particular scene. By understanding how the unique character perspective can shade the interpretation of the scene -- or ways you would be limited by a given perspective -- the choice can be clearer.