Sunday, February 28, 2010

Commenter Prizes

We thought long and hard about the best way to reward participation in the exercises and comments. We wanted everyone who played along to have a chance at winning something, and in the end, we chose prizes that we though best reflected the spirit of these games and this blog.

So I printed out all the comments going back to the entry pool, cut them apart, and let my trusty sidekick Danger Boy pull three slips as winners. (This involved him putting down the tacos for two seconds, quite an accomplishment on a hungry day.) (Oh, to have that child's metabolism.)

Here are the winners, in no particular order--

Winner of the "We Talked About It On the Blog, So Now We're Giving It Away" prize--

Simon C. Larter!

Simon wins a download of Nathalie Gray's steampunk romance, "Full Steam Ahead," which we discussed on this blog a few weeks back. Simon, you lucky guy, this book isn't even on sale yet, so this is a true sneak peek! (The rest of you will have to wait until tomorrow to get your copies. It's on sale March 1 at Red Sage.)

Simon's winning comment was the one in which he recused himself from voting in a heat he'd entered. So once again, good sportsmanship leads to unexpected rewards!

Simon, please email Theresa at edittorrent at gmail dot com to make arrangements for your download. We hope you enjoy it.

Winner of the "It's Sort of Like the Heats" prize--

Holly Rutchik!

Holly wins a fabulous prize pack containing A Writer's Book of Days by Judith Reeves and a hardback notepad!

This book is packed with creativity prompts and writing exercises in the same spirit as the exercises we've done here for the past two weeks. The accompanying notebook is the perfect size to fit inside a glove compartment, perfect for capturing those great ideas we get while driving.

Holly's winning comment came from the Yes/No exercise designed to show us what we're passionate about in our worldviews. Holly, please email Theresa your snail mail address at edittorrent at gmail dot com so we can get this prize to your door!

Finally, winner of the "It's the Book Alicia and Theresa Giggle About All the Time" prize--


Spindriftdancer wins Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, a book much beloved by both Alicia and Theresa for being the funniest book about commas, ever. Spindriftdancer also wins a glove compartment-sized hardback notebook, useful both for jotting notes about your wips and your kips. (Yes, we get your name. Theresa's a knitta, too, yo.)

Spindriftdancer's winning comment came from all the way back in Heat #2: Curling (Him or Her Around Your Little Finger) when she revealed the true romance of her character being separated from her soul. This comment not only made several of us want to read your book, but it also won you the prize!

Please send your snail mail address to Theresa's attention at edittorrent at gmail dot com so we can arrange for delivery of your prize!

Thanks to everyone who participated! This has been loads of fun!

Heat Winners: Speed Scrivening

Ladies and gentlemen, we have an unprecedented result!

After much deliberation behind the scenes (including some well-reasoned arguments from several contestants regarding how to measure the winner), the judges have decided that all entrants in this event win the gold!

All of you stretched your writing muscles, and you all earned the medal!

If you emailed your numbers in accordance with the rules, you get this gold medal graphic and wicked cool bragging rights!


Heat Winner: Short-Track Speed Slating

The judges conferred and have made their ruling. It was a tough decision, but in the end, decided to call this race by a horse's nose!

Congratulations to Darkspires!

Darkspires wins the final heat in Short-Track Speed Slating! The editors were very impressed with the deft handling of the horse's point of view, and that's not something we can say every day.

Darkspires wins this gold medal graphic and wicked cool bragging rights! We hope both are put to good use!

Heat Winner: Wordic Combined

Congratulations to Dave Shaw!

This longtime member of edittorrent's Team Comments won the gold medal in the challenging Wordic Combined event with his entry,


which your fearless editors have decided to interpret as a twisted tribute to the process we all adore so. Ahem.

Dave wins this nifty graphic and wicked cool bragging rights! Brag away, Dave, and congratulations!

Heat Winner: Cold-As-Ice Hockey

Congratulations to Murphy!

Murphy won the gold medal in the Cold-As-Ice Hockey event with her taut paragraph, Entry #10, Afraid to Shatter!

Murphy, you win this nifty graphic to display on your blog! (Does this mean you'll start a blog now?)

You also get wicked cool bragging rights, and we just know you'll have fun with that! Woo hoo!

Heat Winner: Doggerel Sled Racing

Congratulations to Sylvia!

Sylvia penned the winning doggerel, Entry #4, an ode to procrastination!

Sylvia, you win this totally awesome gold medal to display on your website or blog, AND you get wicked cool bragging rights!

Closing Ceremonies: Did You Make Your Goal?

Back during the opening ceremonies, we posted our writing goals and joined teams.

Did you make your goal?

Brag about it in the comments so we can applaud your great efforts!

Anyone who made their goal can swipe this nifty graphic. (*If your blog or website has a commercial purpose, check the rules in your jurisdiction about whether you can display this emblem. An alternate emblem for those of you in this situation will be provided once we get it from our graphics guru.)

I made my goal -- 2 novellas line edited plus 3 revision letters written. (Actually, I beat my goal and edited 2.5 novellas, but one of them was very short.) So I'm going to post the graphic in the sidebar as a reminder that setting a goal and reaching it is good for the soul.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Heat #13: Short Track Speed Slating

This is our final judged event. Alicia and I are the judges.

Are you all familiar with flash fiction? Flash is ultra-short storytelling, complete with a protagonist, a conflict, and a resolution. It's focused, condensed, and often as delicious as a single bonbon. (There's a great article about it here if you want a more detailed definition.)

Your job today is to write a 300-word flash story. Your story can be on any subject, but you must use two of the three following words: short, track, or speed.

Post your entries in the comments before the Closing Ceremonies begin. Alicia and I will pick the winner.

Guest post on Ian's blog

I'm the guest blogger on Ian's blog. Actually, he tells me that I'm this this week's Super Guest Star, but I'd be too modest to say that. :) Anyway, check it out!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Heat #12: Freestyle Keying

Alicia says that voice begins with worldview and ends with word choice. Today's exercise gives you a chance to reflect on your worldview in a simple, black-and-white manner.

Use a kitchen timer so that you don't dawdle over this one. It can be very tempting to dwell and ponder and explore trains of thought, but this is just an exercise. The end result should be a bit of enhanced clarity of your personal worldview.

Take a pad of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle of the page. On the top of one column, write "Yes." On top of the other column, write "No."

The Yes column will be for things that make your creativity hum in a positively energized way. These are things that wake you up. Things that excite your curiosity. Things guaranteed to make you stop and look twice. They might not always be pretty or charming or nice. But they will always call out to you, and you will always be drawn to them.

The No column is for things that raise your hackles. If you want to write a letter to the editor about it, it goes here. If you want to slap your Congressperson over it, it goes here. If you want to stop total strangers in public and let them know why they shouldn't do it, it goes here.

Set your timer for ten or fifteen minutes or so. Write quickly. Don't stop to think about whether anyone will approve of your choices. Nobody but you ever needs to see this list. This is personal self-exploration, for your eyes only.

List items in the Yes column until you can't think of any more, then switch to the No column. When you get stuck in the No column, switch back to Yes.

Don't worry about why a particular item makes the list. It can be irrational -- we all have pet peeves, after all. It can be mundane -- there's a reason we all cringe to see someone pick their noses and wipe it on their shirts, right? But the underlying reasons or values aren't important. All you really want is to write a list of things that make you buzz with emotion.

This list represents part of your worldview, the part that taps into your emotions and creativity. It's worth a few minutes to get all those things down where you can see them together, isn't it? Leave a comment about this exercise to be entered into the drawing for the Closing Ceremonies!

Entries for the Wordic Combined Challenge

Here are the entries -- vote in the sidebar poll for your favorite! These are so clever that it might be hard to choose just one, so I've set the poll to allow multiple votes.

Entry #1: edittorment
The feeling you get when you're editing your manuscript and you realize the first draft needs a complete rewrite. (Also the feeling you get when you can't think of something for an EditTorrent challenge! LOL)

Entry #2: Mysterotica

Entry #3: Horromance

2 and 3 are new genres sure to inspire great stories.

Entry #4: schadenfreudanista
(n) A person who finds glee in the misfortune of others.

Entry #5: bitchwell
Created in honor of the entrant's neighbor.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Heat #11: Pro-Boarding

Today we're going to put a new spin on the notion that success breeds success. Instead of looking to your own successes and building on them, we're going to examine what other successful writers do, and how they do it.

When do they write? Do they have daily page goals? Do they have rituals? Do they create rules for themselves?

I think that if you want to be successful, you look at what successful people do, and then you do that, too. You might find you need to refine their methods to suit your particular needs. You might find multiple methods and choose between them. Perhaps Annie Author locks herself in her attic office every morning, and doesn't emerge until she has written a thousand words. Perhaps Wrobert Writer spends months researching his subject and doesn't set pen to paper until the research is done. Whatever methods they choose, those methods have led to success. Why did the method work? How does that habit breed success?

In the comments, tell us a habit you learned from a successful writer, and tell us why you think that has contributed to the writer's success. Everyone who comments will be entered in the drawing for prizes, which will be awarded at the Closing Ceremony.

Entries for Cold-as-Ice Hockey Challenge

Is there a doctor in the house? This poor guy is freezing to death!

Here are the entries for the "Cold-As-Ice Hockey" writing challenge. Vote in the poll at the sidebar for the one that makes you reach for your hot cuppa and favorite blankie. Because of the number of entries, we'll let you vote for more than one.

Entry #1: White-bitten.
Everything seemed crystalline now, white-bitten, harsh and elemental. He could no longer feel his fingers or toes, knew the tips were blackening—a steady dark encroaching on the pale, lifeless flesh that crowned his limbs. Grey light, wind-whipped, laced with furious flakes, seeped into his mind through crusted lashes. Leaden legs breasted the drifts as though they would not accept capitulation, pulling him forward one laborious step at a time, a passenger in his own body. The warmth had begun to bloom in his chest, cloying harbinger. All white mind and gritted teeth, he rejected surrender and leaned into the gale. So far away, the treeline... shelter... so far.

Entry #2: Seeing White.
White. All Matt could see was white. Curled in a fetal position, wind keened through him, struck his bone marrow like knives. Crystals gathered on his eyelids, but he had no energy to strike them away. Matt heard bells. He stumbled to his feet, shambled in the deep drifts after the sound. After only a few steps, he collapsed. He drifted into sleep, jerked awake as heat coursed through his body. Matt tore off his parka. Stinging air hit his skin. Recognition hit. Hypothermia had set in. Sleep, and soon death, overtook him.

Entry #3: Glove on Fencepost.
His glove stuck to the fence post, ripping off a layer of leather when he pulled free. The wind leeched warmth from his exposed skin, stinging, hurting and then different, hot, blistering hot to make him sleepy. White swirled around him, easing him into a cocoon of forgetfulness. Nothing to see, but the dense wall of whiteness—no trees; no stars; no help and no light for him until the sun came up. He had come so far, surely he would be safe to sit down for just a moment? The white mound was soft and he scooped out a space for his body. So sleepy now. He would just shut his eyes for a moment.

Entry #4: Not a Bad Way to Go.
When he'd dug this cave, his hands could still move and ache, even with the waterproof mittens. Now the mittens kept him from thinking about his blackened fingers. He'd given up on exercise days ago—too weak and clumsy to stimulate blood flow. The pain and the shaking had left. He knew what it meant. It was time—possibly the last time. Hand over useless hand, he clawed over the packed white crystals to the mouth of the cave, pushing himself just to inch along. Finally, the white tunnel began to glow with surface light. He closed his eyes against the reflected glare; his burning thighs gave out. His wind-burned cheeks didn't feel any warmer as he sank to the floor, but the rest of him did. He pulled his legs to his chest. He was actually comfortable enough to sleep. Not a bad way to go.

Entry #5: Blood Clumping.
His blood began clumping in his veins, heart sluggish. Legs granite, arms tucked in close to his chest, the man dared not cry tears destined to still on his immobile cheeks. The wilderness enveloped him in indifference, a slight breeze blowing in the bleak, stinging night. He knew too well the land was a most apathetic mistress. She cared not for his life, not for his dreams. When he capitulated, returning to the inhospitable ground he laid on, the man would render his final tally.

Entry #6: Prayer for the Wolves.
Jake wrapped the tattered blanket around himself tighter to preserve as much warmth as he could. Tonight the mountain wolves were the least of his worries. Not even they could stand these conditions. The skin on his knuckles cracked, the blood hardening as it came in contact with the air. His whole body was tight, dry and papery fragile.
His lips fused together, he couldn’t open his mouth to scream for help. His joints were too stiff to move.
His eyes watered and a biting sensation shot through them as the moisture solidified. He tried to close his eyes against the pain, but the lack of lubricate caused his lids to fold in on themselves just as the night’s wind sent a vicious current whipping around him. A groan escaped him.
How much longer could he survive like this?
Jake clenched his cracked fists and prayed for the wolves.

Entry #7: Tundra Sky.
Karl watched the tundra sky staring down at him, the perfect black dotted with perfectly white stars. He remembered that he should get up, get moving. Then he remembered that the last time he had tried to get up he had discovered that he couldn’t move anymore – his hands and feet were already too dead from frostbite to support the rest of him. They would shatter if he moved. That was all right. His teeth had stopped chattering, and he felt peaceful. He remembered how in Grade 4 he had studied the Antarctic explorers. The men had written in their diaries that dying this way was nothing to fear. They said it was like going to sleep. Karl did feel sleepy. He watched the tundra sky staring down at him. He remembered to get up. He remembered he couldn’t. The sky had stars in it. He closed his eyes.

Entry #8: No feeling.
Jake couldn't feel his feet. Or his hands. They had finally stopped hurting. He almost felt warmer. So sleepy. He wasn't supposed to sleep, but he couldn't remember why. So confused. Why was he lying down in the white fluff? Must have fallen. He should get back up, but his stiff joints wouldn't cooperate. Why was he here? Hunting, that was it. A Christmas trip into the high Sierra. Bob broke his leg. Phone didn't work. Had to get help. Trudged through deep drifts for hours. Too sweaty, too tired. The sweat hadn't stayed warm. Stumbled and fell. Had to get up, had to keep going. But it would be so much warmer if he slept. Maybe just a short rest. He let his eyelids droop.

Entry #9: The End Was Here.
The end was coming. He could feel it. In one of life’s great ironies, dying on the tundra strangely felt like slowly burning to death, as human nerve endings can’t differentiate between extreme temperatures. But his skin had long ago passed the stage of blistering pain. Now, each step across the wasteland took more effort, his muscles refusing to work properly. He’d never make it to the promised warmth of the substation. Was he even going in the right direction anymore? He couldn’t tell. The relentless wind had cemented his tear-streaked eyelashes together. But he had no choice except to keep trying, pushing himself upright with every stagger into the deep powder. His breath seared his lungs as he gasped, open-mouthed, unable to draw air through his crusted nostrils. Another step – a stumble to his hands and knees. His last. The end was here.

Entry #10: Afraid to Shatter.
He was stiff. Afraid to fall. Afraid he’d shatter. Like glass thrown against the pavement. Except there was no road ahead. Only an opaque sky that fell to the ground in crisp white layers crunching beneath his feet and burning his soaked-through soles to the bone. A solid blast pierced him to the core and embraced his insides within its deceptive warmth. A siren’s call echoed in his mind, whispering like the towering pines that dizzily swayed overhead: You’re weary, take shelter from the storm. Rest. Lie down within the scattered wreathes of powder, shimmering like clouds dusted by a thousand diamonds. So beautiful. So inviting. Maybe for just a moment he could share in the radiance. He was tired. Too tired. He sank into the pristine oblivion and let the cunning maiden, wrapped in her blanket of white, lull him into eternal sleep.

Entry #11: Hand-Cranked Movies.
He sits, drowsy and heavy-lidded, watching the deer move closer as they browse on tufts of brown grass barely breaking the heavy, white cover. Thoughts come in slow motion like an old movie cranked by hand. He holds up his right hand, the tips of his fingers an aching grey, and puts them to his lips to let the warm air glide over them, hoping they will stop hurting soon. There are no sounds near, no civilized sounds. He knows his perceptions are dulled, tempting him down the giving-up path. He can’t care anymore. He just wants sleep, gentle sleep, to show him the way home.

Entry #12: Blank Landscape.
Andrew leaned back against the tree. It was too small, shaking with his every movement, sprinkling white powder over him, making gentle mounds across his shoulders and head. Mounds he couldn’t find the energy to push off. He should have chosen a larger tree; a more solid one. Maybe a tree that kept had enough leaves to provide some small protection from the wind, though that wasn’t really the biggest threat right then.
The real threat was exhaustion. He knew it. He should still be walking, but he couldn't seem to convince himself to stand back up. The danger fluttered across the front of his mind, but it really didn’t matter as much as it should. One more hill. One more valley. One more step. He hadn’t been lost too long, he could still make it. All he had to do was stand.
Stand up. Walk.
And he would.

Entry #13: George and Tilly
George stamped along the tracks. The pale light was fading fast. He trudged on, knowing Tilly was right, he should never have left. The wind whistled through his layers of clothes. George stumbled, striking his knees on the jagged ruts he'd followed for hours with dwindling hope. Thick brown scrub-grass poked through the rubble crust of the track's edge. He rolled over and sat, taking advantage of the spiky insulation. So this was the end. He pulled his arms around his knees. Tilly used to talk about dying like this, said the last thing you remembered was sleepy contentment. George pursed his cracked lips in an attempt to whistle, but no sound came. He hummed a sad tune that Tilly sometimes played. Maybe Tilly was playing that fiddle now in front of the campfire, a mug of whiskey next to him. George smiled at the thought and closed his eyes.

Entry #14: Seductive Lethargy
A seductive lethargy was seeping through his bones. “Must stay awake,” the man whispered to himself through cracked lips, fumbling for a match with stiff, unresponsive fingers. He barely noticed as the biting wind tore into his thin protective awning. The canvas ripped away, a ragged flag fluttering in the desolate landscape marking the narrow trench he had scraped out of the hard earth hours earlier. The man lay curled like a foetus around the empty shell of an oil lamp, which had long since guttered into darkness. White flakes whirled around him, softly settling in the shallow hole, dusting his hair and eyelashes. He knew the matches must be in his pocket, but his hands were no longer sensitive to touch. He could no longer remember why he had wanted them. Light.... warmth... it no longer seemed important. His mind drifted.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Heat #10: Wordic Combined

Shakespeare created as many as 1,700 new words for our English language.Today, you get to follow in his footsteps and make a new word, too.

Take two existing English words which commonly exist in most people's vocabularies.

Combine them into a new term. The meaning of this new term must be clear and easy to grasp upon first reading.

Example: Shakespeare gave us coldblooded, moonbeam, and skim milk.

(He also gave us Olympian. Huh. What a coincidence.)

This is a judged event. Enter more than once if you wish, but get your entries in no later than February 26 at noon central time. Mail them to edittorrent at gmail dot com. Polling will go live at the deadline and will continue until just before the Closing Ceremonies.

This Just In

Today at Fierce Romance, one of my authors, Carly Carson, blogged about something that might interest the edittorrent readers. Remember the Curling heat where we talked about the unromantic romantic gesture? Go read her real life story. It will warm any writer's heart.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Heat #9: Figure Stating

Today we're going to build on the Skeleton from Heat #6.

This is not a judged event, but everyone who comments about it will be entered into the prize drawing.

You already know your new character's age, gender, social roles, and mannerisms. Today, your job is to use that information to build a physical description of the character. Think closely about how these factors might influence physical characteristics. Your aim is not to list the merely visual, but to understand how a confluence of factors might allow you to create a visually coherent character. For example, does your 16-year-old fry cook have bad skin? Burn marks on his hands? A slight paunch from all the fries he sneaks? Or does your 16-year-old fry cook have a serious light to his brown eyes and a bankbook perpetually tucked into his back pocket?

You can take the same set of facts and slant them toward very different descriptions. Your goal is to find a description that is meaningful.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Heat #8: Cold-as-Ice Hockey

They say that Eskimos have like eleventy squillion words for snow and cold.

Today, you're banned from using any of them.

Your task: Write one vivid and evocative paragraph (not to exceed 150 words) depicting a man on the verge of freezing to death in the wilderness.

The catch: You cannot use any of the following words:
Cold, frozen, arctic, bitter, cool, freezing, frigid, frosty, glacial, ice-cold, icy, nipping, nippy, numb, numbing, polar, shivery, shiver, shivering, winter, wintry, subfreezing, subzero, zero, chill, chilled, cooled, frosted, iced, ice, snow, refrigerated, unheated

This is a judged round. Send your entries to edittorrent at gmail dot com. Entries will be posted anonymously on the 24th, and voting will remain open until just before the Closing Ceremonies. Have some fun with this one! Make us really shiver!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Heat #7: Biothlon, Take Two

In the Opening Ceremonies, we asked you what your "parade moment" would be. At what moment will you know, right down to the tips of your toes, that all your hope and faith in yourself has been justified?

Your Heat task today is to write the author bio which will be true when you experience your parade moment. How many books will you have released by then? How old will you be? What does your daily life look like? What are your new career goals at this stage of your career?

Leave a comment about this exercise to get an entry in our drawing. Prizes will be awarded at the Closing Ceremonies.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


You should be halfway through your goals today. Are you?

It's a simple yes or no question. Post your answer in the comments.

No heat today. Your only task for today is to find your second wind and apply it to your goals. Push, baby! Work it! If you get over today's hump in good shape, then you can start thinking about the finish line!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Want a Substantive Post?

We've been doing a lot of exercises and not so many substantive posts lately. If you're jonesing for a lesson, head on over to Romance University, where I'm talking about a couple of ways to organize the guts of a paragraph. Pendulum or frame? The amount of action can help you decide.


Doggerel Sled Racing -- the Contestants

Take a gander at these, and then vote for your favorite in our sidebar poll. Polling will remain open until just before Closing Ceremonies.

Entry #1: Not Quite Haiku

A squall line of panic ushered in the winter storm.

Entry #2: Not Quite a Limerick

There once was a writer named Chance,
Who worked hard on her ‘I’m gonna be published’ dance.
She donned her best pearls,
And perfected her twirls,
But her prose, she gave not a glance.

Until, one fateful day,
A friend stopped by to say,
How goes the romance you have penned?
Did you to a publisher send?
To her horror and dismay,
She realized she’d gone astray!

Back to the drawing board she fled,
Her egocentric manner, did she shed.
It might have taken months to do,
But now she truly could pursue,
Her steamy romance to be read.
By some disapproving egghead!

Entry #3: Not Quite an Ode on a Grecian Game

The Olympics awaited!
Susanna rejoiced in her chair,
her breath was bated,
her nervous fingers sought her hair.

Would this be the year
her beloved sport of Snowball Fight
would on TV appear?
It might, it just very well might.

There it was - on TV!
A tie score, to the death, in overtime.
The Finals! Oh squee!
Any more excitement would be a crime.

But then, just as the players took their positions,
they interrupted the game
to show a tale of surviving an inquisition,
the survivor - a player they named.

Susanna threw the remote!
Who cares about this story of woe?
Fury from her eyes did smote.
For god's sake, get on with the show!

She stood up and swore:
Never again!
Passages of backstory are no more!
Never again!

I will stop my plot for exposition,
never again!
I have learned my lesson for fiction!
Never again!

Entry #4: Not-Quite-Heroic Quatrains

I'm really supposed to be writing
but you know, I have all day.
Reading blogs is so inviting
I'll pass just an hour this way.

I'm really supposed to be writing
but it's almost time for lunch!
and February cold is so biting
I *need* something to munch!

I'm really supposed to be writing
but it's so very hard to think.
Maybe if I try handwriting...
once I find just the right shade of ink.

I definitely need to start writing,
I shouldn't procrastinate
but Twitter just got exciting
Neil Gaiman's posting what he ate.

I meant to do lots of writing:
navigate storylines uncharted.
But blank pages are so uninviting,
I'm not sure how to get started.

Tomorrow I'll do lots of writing
I promise I mean it this time
My words will all be delighting
despite the evidence of this rhyme.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Heat #6: Skeleton

Your Heat for today is a simple character or subject mapping exercise. Choose a new character or subject for this one. This is not a judged exercise, but everyone who comments will get another entry into the drawing for the prize awarded at the Closing Ceremony.

For your new character or subject, write down all of the following:
  1. Age. (Does the character's age create any physical, mental, or emotional characteristics?)
  2. Gender. (Ditto -- but go for non-obvious characteristics here.)
  3. Social roles. (Start with the main role(s) played by the character in the story, but then brainstorm the character's other social roles. Is your waitress also a student at the community college? A Meals On Wheels volunteer? A daughter, a girlfriend, a mom?)
  4. Mannerisms. (Include physical mannerisms, such as scratching an elbow, that might be unrelated to mood or emotion. Also include physical mannerisms that flow from internal states, but try to avoid the obvious such as smiling when happy.)

Congratulations! You've just outlined a character or subject, and you now have a skeleton which you can flesh out as you choose.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Heat #5: Cross-Query Skiing

Today's Heat is open to everyone. This is not a judged Heat.

Your task is simple. Using Query Tracker, Agent Query, Writer's Market, or any other reference tool you like, identify one editor or agent who takes the kind of work you write. This must be an editor or agent you haven't previously researched. You're looking for new terrain to explore.

Once you've identified this new-to-you agent or editor, find their website. (If your reference site doesn't have a link, use google.) Read their submissions guidelines. All the way through. No skipping of paragraphs allowed. If you choose, you may also take a moment to browse books they've repped or published to learn more about their preferences.

How easy was that? Leave a comment about today's Heat, and we'll enter you into the drawing to win a prize at the closing ceremony.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Heat #4: Speed Scrivening

This is an easy one. Anyone can play. This is a judged event with prizes and bragging rights.

For those of you competing in the Drafting event, take a moment to imagine a scene you must write. No writing yet. Just daydreaming, but daydreaming with a focus. You want to give some thought to where they are, what must happen, what the dominant moods of the characters will be, and how they are thwarted in the context of the scene.

For those of you competing in Pre-Writing, choose whether to focus on character histories or plot summaries. Don't bother pre-thinking. You want all your words to get spooned up straight from the deepest part of the psychic soup bowl. No filtering or stirring allowed.

For those of in Submissions, this will be a chance to write a new synopsis. Don't review the old synopsis, if you've already written one. Just take a moment to think about your plot and refresh your memory about the order of events -- no peeking at the manuscript or outlines, though. You're aiming for only the key events, the parts you can remember most easily, the biggest moments in the plot. If you refresh your memory, you might get sucked into the quicksand of detail.

For those of you competing in Editing, pick a scene which is giving you trouble. Longish scenes with structural issues might be best suited for this exercise. (Too bogged down/not developed enough/action gets sidetracked/etc.) Read through the scene one time only. Then set it aside in some place where you cannot see it. This is important. You want to be working from a refreshed memory.

Next, everyone, go to the Write Or Die tool created by Dr. Wicked.

Set the time goal for 15 minutes.

Write as fast as you can until the time is done. Don't worry about word choices or spelling errors or other nits to pick. Your goal is to write fast and get a flow through the events. Don't let your hands stop moving!

Drafting -- write a new scene, as imagined.
Pre-writing -- get busy exploring your plot or characters.
Submissions -- write a new plot-based synopsis. No peeking at the old one!
Editing -- take another stab at that complex scene. No peeking at the old one!

After you're done, send your final word count to edittorrent at gmail dot you-know-what. Everyone who sends us their word count will be entered into the pool for prizes at the Closing Ceremony, and another prize will also be awarded once all entries are received. Get your entries in by midnight tonight, and we'll announce a winner tomorrow!

Ready, set, GO!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Heat #3: Doggerel Sled Racing

This is a judged event, and it's open to all Pen Olympics Team members.

Doggerel. adjective
Etymology: Middle English dogerel, probably diminutive of dogge dog
Date: 14th century
: loosely styled and irregular in measure especially for burlesque or comic effect; also : marked by triviality or inferiority

For today's Heat, we invite you to write a short comic verse on the topic of writing, winter, or athletics. Send your entries to edittorrent at gmail dot you-know-what. Entries will be posted anonymously on the blog, and judges -- that's everyone who reads the blog -- will be invited to vote for their favorites. The winner will receive a special Medal graphic and wicked cool bragging rights.

Get your entries in no later than February 18, 2010. We'll post the competitors the following day.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Heat #2: Curling (Around His or Her Little Finger)

Today is the High Holy Day of Romance, so of course our Heat must have something to do with twoo wuv. Everyone is eligible to play this Heat.

For Team Fiction, choose a happily committed character in one of your stories. Romantic leads are a good choice, but certainly not the only choice.

For Team Nonfiction, choose an interview subject you can easily reach for a brief interview. Got any elderly relatives who would appreciate a phone call?

For Team Submissions or Team Drama, choose whichever method suits your project best.

Your subject or character must answer two questions:
  1. What was the most romantic thing your lover did for you that nobody else would have thought was romantic?
  2. Your lover is charmed by a trait of yours which everyone else finds annoying. What is that trait, and why does it charm your lover?
You should be able to complete this heat in under 500 words. Feel free to post your answers in the comments, or if you prefer, just post an insight gained by this exercise. Everyone who comments will be entered into a pool of pen athletes to win a prize at the closing ceremonies. (Yes, this means that the more Heats you enter, the more chances you have to win!)

By the way, I must give a tip of the hat to Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayer, who inspired these questions with their brilliant romance, Agnes and the Hitman. Here's how Agnes might answer the questions:

  1. He bought me an air conditioner. I can't believe he bought me an air conditioner. He saw that I needed it, and he went out and bought it. Just. Like. That. I was trying to pretend that he wasn't the right guy for me, what with him being a paid killer and all, but I was a goner as soon as he bought me that air conditioner.
  2. Okay, so I have this slight habit of assaulting people with kitchen implements. Frying pans are usually pretty handy, but meat forks are a great way to make a, er, point. Usually people tell me it's wrong to bash cheating boyfriends and other reprobates in the head with skillets (even if they're not cast iron!), but Shane didn't mind. He did disarm me a couple of times, but that might have been just so I wouldn't get blood on my Cranky Agnes apron.

Your turn!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Heat #1: Biothlon

We thought it would be fun to do Heats just like real athletes. Each day during the Olympics, we'll post a Heat exercise. None of these exercises should swallow all your writing time (unless you let it!), but I still want to urge you to put your Event goals first. Some Heats will be judged heats with rewards, and some will be just to help you build your creativity muscles and stretch your writing muscles.

Today's is in the second non-judged category, and it deals with your specific project. We're going to write a bio. (Get it, biothlon! When your words are shot with deadly accuracy! *teehee*) But this won't be an ordinary bio. Here's how to play:

  1. Choose a character you would like to know better. (For Team Nonfiction, choose an interview subject you've already interviewed at some length, or someone you know particularly well.)
  2. If your character/subject could meet anyone in history, living or dead, who would they choose to meet?
  3. Now here's the twist. Imagine your character/subject through the eyes of this historical person. From the POV of this historical person, write a short piece describing the character/subject and what it was like to be interviewed by that character/subject. How did the character/subject behave in the presence of such an important person?

Did you learn anything new about your character or subject? Did you find it difficult to look at your character or subject through a different lens?

Leave a comment about this exercise, and you'll be entered into a pool of pen athletes to win a prize at the closing ceremonies!


Friday, February 12, 2010

Olympic ceremony

And my favorite Leonard Cohen song! Hallelujah-- that most beautiful song. I will never not love most Cohen's own version, and the amazing Jeff Buckley cover... but KD Laing did it pretty well.

And such details in the lyrics. :)And the rhymes. Who would rhyme "knew ya" with "hallelujah"?

It's interestingly downbeat. I wonder if they just decided on this song after the tragedy today. She does sing it well.

And Donald Sutherland! He looks wonderful. And Bobby Orr! He was always such a charmer. (You can probably tell what mattered more than athletic ability for me. :)


The Parade of Athletes in the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics is one of my favorite events to watch. Period. I anticipate this with the same fervor as the Final Four, the season opener of Mad Men, or the first weekend of summer at the lake. It's that good.

Why? Why would anyone care about watching a bunch of athletes walk in a big circle and wave? They're not competing. Nothing is being scored or graded. So why care?

For many of those athletes, the Parade represents something magical. Think about all they sacrifice for the right to walk around in a circle. Day after day, year after year, they get up at oh-shit-hundred for the sake of their training schedules. They make their bodies hurt on purpose from exertion, and sometimes they break parts of themselves in the process. Because of the rules governing amateurism, they must hold down jobs and pay their own bills, and frequently pay for gym time and training and sparkly sequined skating dresses for many years before they make the Olympic teams. You think sequins are cheap? Yeah, not the good ones, and you basically need a new set of spangles for every competition.

They opt out of cable tv because they need the money for equipment, and anyway, they're never home to watch the box. When they travel home for family events, they worry about how many pairs of sweat socks to pack and how little control they'll have over their diets. They consult professionals and read medical journals for enhanced understanding of human ergonomics. It's almost like an obsession.

They work for it. For what? A teenage athlete chooses to forego the Friday night football game, even though his friends and that one cute girl from biology class will be there, and instead goes to the gym for an extra set of reps with the weights. Does he make this choice because he knows that someday he'll be in the Parade of Athletes? All he's really got to go on at this point is hope and faith in himself. He knows if he works hard and makes the right choices, he'll get a shot. Whether he'll make that shot is another question. But that hope and that faith can't exist without doing the work. The end results are beyond their control. But they control what they can, and their reward is internal.

You all have something in common with that athlete, that potential future Olympian. There's a long learning curve in fiction writing. Some of you get up very early in the morning to write. Some of you sit at your desks, BICHOKMOM*, until your muscles shake with the need for relief. You know what it's like to turn off the tv and get back to work. You know how to do your work even when it isn't fun anymore. You risk carpal tunnel and sitter's spread, and you hold down a day job in between writing sessions. Many of you even live on the special writer's diet of ramen, chocolate, coffee, and whiskey. Not that we recommend that.

You really can't know whether you'll ever get published, but if you write every day, and take the classes and join the crit groups and do the thousands of other things that can help you advance your craft, you get to dwell in hope. That hope may swell and crash at times, but it will always be there as long as you're doing the work. The work creates the hope, and the hope sustains the work.

Think about the nature of that hope when the Olympians parade and wave tonight. So many of them won't even get to compete, let alone stand on the podium. But this parade is the moment when hope reaches its zenith. The events themselves will be their opportunity to compete, the moment when all those years of physical exertion and struggle reach their culmination.

But that's the external. The internal, the hope and faith that they survived on for years, reaches its peak when they get to walk forth before the cheering hordes, in a TV shot seen around the world, and smile and wave. Watch their faces. Look for the bliss. It won't be hard to spot.

And then let it motivate you. You might live on corn chips instead of protein shakes, and in fuzzy slippers instead of sneakers, but you have a lot in common with those athletes. Find your hope, and hold fast to it while you do your work. Find your dream, the one that fills your heart -- maybe a book signing to a packed house, or a fan recognizing you on the street, or that magical day when you finally get to quit your day job. That will be your shining moment, your parade. There will be a lot of groans and pains between now and then. Forget about those. They're temporary. But that parade, that will stick with you forever.

What is your parade moment?

*BICHOKMOM = Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard, Mind On Manuscript. Try it. :)

Details, details... they create trust. The right details, that is.

There are good details and bad details. The bad ones distract the reader and make the wrong things seem important. But good details reveal something that deepens the experience for the reader.

So those who say details don't matter, only the plot matters, well, a plot without details? That's a skeleton, and skeletons can't live. As John Gardner points out, it's details that flesh out the "fictive dream" and make it live in the imagination of the reader.

Story is more than plot. Character is more than plot. Stephen King says, "Plot is the good writer's last resort, and the dullard's first choice."

But of course, details can be wrong, or too generic, or too blatant, or too numerous. That's where "details" gets the bad rep, because too many writers resort to describing the world or the character by throwing a bunch of details out and hoping they stick to something. Don't do that. Choose details that reveal, and -- this is important-- present those details with the right terms, the right emphasis.

From News from Lake Wobegon:
But George takes himself too seriously. (Assertion.)

He earns too much money. You can tell by the way his hair is cut, the tweeds he wears, the wool scarves. That's okay. He's successful, and more power to him. But he talks about things you're not supposed to talk about. He talks about trips he's taken that cost more than the people he's hunting with earn in a year. And that's not good form in Lake Wobegon. He's just out of place somehow. He shouldn't have told them about going to that spa in India and the steambaths and the women who bathe you every day, and breakfast on the veranda.

And he wants to talk about big things that Clint just doesn't want to talk about. He wants to talk about Obama, and he wants to talk about Wall Street, and he wants to talk about health care reform. And he wants to talk about the vote in the Lutheran church back in August about ordaining gay pastors. And Clint just doesn't want to talk about that. You don't talk about that when you're hunting, don't you see. You want to get away from the dry life of paper moving across a desk and get out in the woods. The reason is not to kill deer necessarily, but to restore your primitive senses, to listen again, to be quiet, and to listen and to watch and hear the leaves rustle and to hear the squirrels dash across the ground, and to hear the sound of the porcupine as he moves towards you, and the fisher moving through the weeds, and the nuthatch and the chickadee. And to hear rain falling, little drops of rain on the leaves on the trees-- to hear all of this. The hunter is focused on the real world around him. And George somehow wants to talk about the ELCA, and Clint does not.

He does tell that one good story about the trip to Antarctica. It was an expensive trip, but it involved seasickness and rough seas and diarrhea, so it was a good story. Then they got down to Antarctica, and the blizzard came, so they had to dig a hole in the snow to get out of the wind. When you have to dig a hole down into the snow and you have diarrhea, you have the makings of a good story. The smell that they gave off attracted the elephant seals, the male seals who took them as rivals for the hands of female seals. In order to defend themselves, the men had to sing in falsetto. They sang in high tremulous voices, "All You Need Is Love," and they had to sing it over and over again. That was a good story. But there weren't many stories. There were mostly just opinions.

What is particularly cool, actually, is that a bit after this, Clint saves George's life, and George, weeping, "wants to talk," but Clint still wishes he'd shut up: This is just what you do, that's all, in Lake Wobegon. You don't see somebody who is in trouble and pretend you don't see him. You do what you're supposed to do. He saved his life, but never mind. You know, you know, there's only so much you can do, but you do have to do that much.

The details are part of the voice of the author-- he's caring about nature and quiet, but also he's enough of a curmudgeon to grump about the specific topics George brings up (and notice how precisely this sets the time-- late fall, 2009). He has a pre-pubescent boy's fascination with the scatological, and he remembers certain things very exactly-- "elephant seals," and the title of the Beatle song. (This is Clint's point of view, of course.) He knows also what birds are there in the woods, and their names and habits.

But this plenitude of detail, of complaint, contrasts with the spareness of the big "plot event": "He saved his life, but never mind." Wow. (That is such a great sentence, btw.) See how the detail of the woods, of George's conversational topics, sets up the realization in the end. You do what you have to do. No need to blather about it or demand acknowledgment for it. That is, we know this is not someone who can't tell us more if he wants too. He can-- we see he can tell us all about the annoyance of George ("that spa in India"-- doesn't it just matter so much that he added "in India," so much more exotic than "in Sarasota?"). So when he backs off and telegraphs the big event, we know-- it's not because this is a writer or character who doesn't notice detail, who doesn't care. It's because he just did what he had to do, save a life, and therein is the point, isn't it? The details set up the theme by providing the contrast between the full description and the spare facts at the end.

So-- well, anyway, details can do a lot. :) And Garrison Keillor is a storyteller we can all learn from, because he goes deep and not broad. He uses details to make you believe this is a real place and these are real people. And he uses details to make you trust him, because he knows so completely this world-- it must exist.
Here's a link to podcasts of The News from Lake Wobegon.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Your Embellished Sentences, Part 2

Before we move off the embellished subjects which we discussed here, I want to foreblog some ideas from the comments and make sure we have some parameters for when to use an embellished subject.

To begin, Erastes rightly suggests,
Stick to the names once you know them, or "him" or "he" if it's not confusing - don't think you are being clear by using epithets because you aren't. I thoroughly agree that before you know that person's name - e.g. "The elderly woodcutter wiped his brow and said, " my name is..." but after that. NO NO NO. don't do it.

I don't think I can dispute that in any way. Once the character is established (more on this to follow), you want to avoid using labels or designations. "The elderly woodcutter" and similar character tags work best for new characters who don't yet have names. My corollary warning: Don't use multiple, disjointed character tags for the same character. He can't be "the elderly woodcutter" in the first paragraph, and "the cheerful baker" in the next.

Which begs a question: how do you handle it when an unnamed character remains present for a long stretch of sentences? The first reference should be a character tag with strong visuals. From there on, use a pronoun or, if necessary to avoid confusion, re-use the original character tag or use action beats relevant to that character tag. That is, the first time, he's "the elderly woodcutter." Down the page a bit, where you need something to clarify things, you might use a bit of stage action related to his age or occupation. "He dropped his axe and hobbled toward the door." See this post for more tips on using this technique.

Deb Salisbury points out,
The amount of description I'd include would depend on how important the character is, and what the reader needs to know for the scene to make sense.

Yep. It all goes back to relevance. One of the reasons secondary characters can often appear to "take over" a scene is that we weight them incorrectly. We give them too much room on the page, too many lines of text relative to their function. Or we give them super interesting characteristics and actions that make the reader more attracted to the secondary than to the mains. (Ooh, look! The sidekick just went Rambo on the bad guy, and his only weapon was a travel-sized bottle of shampoo! Hero--what hero? You mean that guy dialing 911 in the corner? Bah. I want more of shampoo man!)

Leona says,
sometimes I think people are too general and emphasize the wrong thing because they are too lazy to look at a better way. "the green eyed wizard" was a good example.

Yes. This is an old, familiar problem. Unless we're in a police lineup and eye color is a clue, who cares if the wizard's eyes are green? (N.B. Romance readers might care, in any case, because physical characteristics can contribute to their suspension of disbelief in the romance. Even there, you're better off limiting this kind of reference to fertility markers, rare features, and other factors which the opposite sex views as highly attractive.)

But Leona's main point is one I strongly agree with. Don't be lazy. Make your descriptions memorable. Which is more intriguing --

The little girl played in front of the house
The plump-cheeked toddler drew chalk circles on the driveway.

The thing is, if the kid and her toys are important enough to mention, you might want to mention them in a way that isn't boring. Relevance is still the guiding force, but if it's relevant enough to include, it might be worthy of specificity and authorial care. There's a middle ground between a dull sentence and a detailed treatise on Sidewalk Chalk Drawings: Color and Form. (Which is sort of where we started this whole topic, isn't it?)

Finally, thank you to Dave Shaw for making this point,
If the social role matters to the plot or to how the character appears or behaves, I think it should be brought in as early as possible.

Dwight Swain said there are four aspects of character which an author can use to create a dominant impression on the reader: age, gender, vocation, and mannerisms.

If my slush pile is anything to go by, vocation (or what we've been calling social roles) and mannerisms are least often used to good effect. Of these two, social roles are used appropriately when they're used (but they tend to be underused), and mannerisms tend to be least effectively used. We either see mannerisms so clumsy that the character reads like a collection of twitches and compulsive behaviors, or we don't see mannerisms at all. (Or we see trite mannerisms -- the ubiquitous hand pushed through hair to signal frustration or anger. These don't tell me anything specific to the character, and remember, we're talking about ways to identify characters for the reader now.)

I asked a question in the last post, and I think the answer may have been too obvious to warrant much discussion. How does the context influence your choice to use a gender noun (man/woman) rather than a social role noun (woodcutter/waitress)? When would you include an adjective?

The answer lies in Dwight Swain's four aspects. Look for character labels that hit on as many of those four as possible. Instead of man, dad -- which is both a social role and a gender noun. Instead of boy, Cub Scout -- which is indicative of age, gender, and social role. What other examples can you share?

I think we've about beat this to death. It's a useful topic because it so often gets botched in beginner manuscripts, but it's probably not important enough for us to dwell on it much beyond this post. So if you have any remaining questions, ask them in the comments and I'll address them there.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Announcing the Pen Olympics!

Do you have what it takes?

Are you ready to compete?

Do you want to taste the thrill of victory, and risk the agony of defeat?

It's time for the Pen Olympics!

The Purpose
To push yourself to new heights of writing accomplishment, using the Olympics as inspiration.

The Plan
You will state your team affiliations and goals in the comments to this post. Anyone can play, but please do show your team spirit! Make your goals a stretch! This is an opportunity to aim high and reach far!

The Teams
In the comments, declare which team you'll be playing on:
  • Team Fiction will focus on the fiction manuscript of the player's choice.
  • Team Nonfiction will focus on nonfiction books, proposals, or articles.
  • Team Drama will focus on plays and scripts.
  • Team Submissions will focus on queries, synopses, and sending out submissions.

The Events

In the comments, declare your event of choice:

  • Pre-writing includes character sketching, plot outlines, scene mapping, and research.
  • Drafting is for those who want to bang out new pages.
  • Editing is for those who want to make existing pages better.
  • Submitting includes writing queries and synopses and sending them out! No excuses!

The Goals
In the comments, in addition to telling us your team(s) and event(s), please set your goals. "For Team Fiction, I'll compete in the Drafting event. I'll write one hundred new pages during the Olympics." Or, "For Team Submissions, I'll write the query letter and synopsis for my completed romantic suspense novel and submit it to five agents and two editors." Your goals will vary, but challenge yourself!

The Timeline
All events start when the Olympic opening ceremonies begin, and close at the end of closing ceremonies.

The Heats
We'll be posting fun exercises and events here on the blog while the Olympics are under way, and "medals" will be awarded. (And that's all we'll reveal about that right now! Stay tuned! Whee!)

The Winners
Everyone who meets their Pen Olympics goals will get a graphic to include on their blogs or websites. Of course, that will be nothing to compare to the satisfaction of bringing home a victory in your event!

Do you want to play? Post your goals in the comment thread before the opening ceremony begins. This should be fun! I can't wait to see what you all will accomplish!


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Deep POV myth #1

I was asked whether the writer can use the character's name when deep in his POV, especially if there are two men in the scene (you know, the infamous "two he's" problem we've talked about before). In other words, is the "rule" that says the POV character doesn't think his own name apply even in complicated sentences with two people of the same gender? That is, can we use the POV character's name to distinguish him from the other male character, like:

Danny handed his friend the controller, feeling a bit of triumph at his high score. Even the principal, who thought videogames were the tools of the devil, would be impressed if Danny won the big videogame match. But he had to beat Tyler here first!

Well, you know me and rules. Tools, not rules! Deep POV is not a set of rules, but a mindset that allows the writer to write from within the character, in the character's own voice. But... but you're still writing. That is, no matter how closely you try to replicate the character's inside experience, you're doing this with words. And therein lies the issue.

Okay, here's my question. If you ignore any supposed rules about what deep POV is supposed to require, and concentrate just what I said, drawing the reader into the experience of being that character, what do you think works?

See, the character Danny knows who he himself is. When he's thinking of himself, he doesn't have to use his name because, well, he doesn't think "he" is anyone but himself. To the extent that he thinks in language at all, rather than just has consciousness of "me vs. other," he'd think "I", right? He wouldn't even think "he".

But the reader isn't him, and this isn't first-person. So already you're imposing a different experience on the reader, and it doesn't help much to say, "Well, he wouldn't think of himself by name," because he wouldn't think of himself as "he" either. He wouldn't think, "I'm not Tyler!" because, well, he already knows that.

The reader already is making an allowance-- has to make an allowance-- for certain conventions of narrative, and the first is... this is all done in words, when, in fact, experience has very little to do with words. We have only language to convey everything in the world of the book-- how the snow sounds when you walk on it, and how the moonlight glints off her hair, and what it feels like to realize your lover is cheating on you. That's it-- but we really can convey it all in words, enough so that for several thousand years, written language (and spoken language for much longer) has been the dominant way of conveying and recording experience. Right? Right.

Okay. Given all that-- given that we convey experience using words, how do we convey what it's like to be Danny? Well, the first thing is acknowledge that "Danny" is who he is. That name is a construct, of course, but it's a construct that conveys everything about who he is. Everything that is Danny is symbolized by the name Danny. When one of his friends tells the tale of how they almost got arrested but Danny got them out of it, he says, "But that's Danny. Silver-tongued. He could talk the devil into converting to Catholicism." When Danny tells his mother that he's working 20 hours a day, she sighs, "Oh, Danny, you're just like your granddaddy, and he died of a massive heart attack when he was 40."

That is, Danny IS Danny. The reader knows him as Danny. If we're lucky, the reader can even, for a short time, BE Danny. But Danny is Danny, and there's no shame in that. Use the name. Of course. "Danny" is at least as much of who he is than "he" is. In fact, I bet he thinks of himself as Danny a lot more than he thinks of himself as "he"-- "Well, Danny, my boy, you've really gone and cocked it up this time."

Now given that this is third person, so there's not that easy distinction of first person ("I" and "everyone else"), and that the reader expects a certain level of narrative conventionality (that this is all in language, that it's in past tense even though to Danny it's happening right now, that Danny has to think of himself as "he"), the question is: What will give the reader the experience you want?

What will let the reader "sit in" the character?

What brings the reader out of the character first thing, immediately, automatically, is confusion. As soon as the reader has one jot of confusion that the character doesn't feel, one moment of not knowing what the narrator means, that's it. There goes the deep identification. "I'm not that person! I'm me, the reader, and I don't know what the heck is going on!" It takes only a second, and you've interfered with the reader's deep identification with the character.

What confuses the reader? Well, Danny knows who he is. He knows his achievement is something the principal would disapprove. He knows he feels a moment's triumph. He knows he got a high score. See what I mean? You have him think that "out loud," in words, though of course he already knows that. There's no other way to let the reader in on his thoughts and knowledge than to just say it in words.

Now why is only one word in all the world -- his name-- barred from use in conveying what Danny knows?

It's a fake rule, frankly. It's illogical that everything else-- the whole world, his whole consciousness, his whole being-- is conveyed in words, but you can't convey, "This is Danny, and this is the other guy," in the simple shorthand way of USING THEIR NAMES?

You can. When they invent some USB cable that truly lets us be inside another person's experience, maybe we won't need words. But we do. And we're writers, and we should love words. :)

Anyway, the worst danger in deep POV is to eject the reader from the experience. Trust me here-- the reader will NOT be ejected by the mere sight of Danny's name. She won't think, "Wait a minute! Danny called himself Danny, and that means-- while him calling himself 'he' didn't-- that I am not him!! Oh, my gosh! I'm not named Danny! I'm not even a man! I'm not living in the Cotswalds! I'm out of here!" The reader won't even notice. (You can, of course, do it maladroitly enough that the reader notices, like use the name 24 times in 24 lines, yes, but you're not doing that. :)

But what WILL eject the reader from the experience is confusion. If the reader for one second doesn't know what's going on (and the character presumably does), then the bond is broken. So it's much, much, much more important to create a smooth identification experience, a protected space of connection, a cocoon of consciousness, where the reader can trustingly BE, and BE IN the character.

So-- long long answer. Yes, use the name when the reader needs it. Why not? It's far more important that there is no "bump" of "huh? Who is that?" that reminds her, as "Which he is this?" will do, that she is not he.

This is hard. Don't make it harder by denying yourself the character's name. We need more words, not fewer, to help us create this fictive experience for the reader.

Sorry to go on so long, but "you can't use his name" is #1 Deep POV Myth. :)

Your Embellished Sentences

In our last substantive post, I asked you all to embellish a sentence. We presented a few key concepts in that post.
  1. Action, dialogue, interior monologue, and other narrative elements can be rendered descriptive by word choice.
  2. These elements can also be made descriptive by slowing down the speed at which the events are related.
  3. These elements can also be made descriptive by demonstrating the way the characters respond to or interact with the details
  4. This form of "descriptive writing" is not the same thing as "description."

I also want to frontpage one of the ideas in the comments. We discussed what might be called the Mystery Clue Exception. Think of it this way. The general rule is to allocate space in the narrative which is roughly equivalent to the importance of the detail being presented. Important details get more words or lines. But if we did that with clues in mysteries, we would give it all away. In those cases, we want to minimize the space (and downplay the presentation) of the important detail and throw the reader's focus onto other matters.

With that said, let's take a look at some of the embellished sentences. The original sentence was,
The man walked through the snow to get his mail.

The Man
Some of you chose to embellish the man with an adjective:
The young man, The old man (Murphy)
The blond man (Livia)
The young man (Jami G.)
The gnarled man (Iapetus999)
The old man (Dominique)
The leather-faced man (Rachel)

And some of you chose to substitute a different noun, something more evocative than plain old man.
The minister (Dave Shaw)
The pensioner (John Harper)

In general, which is better? That depends. The substitute nouns are genderless, so if the sex of the character is relevant (or if it hasn't been previously established otherwise), using a plain noun like man or woman will be a good choice. If you do this and add an adjective, remember that descriptiveness is the goal. Which of those adjectives gives you a fast, unique visual impression of the man? I lean toward gnarled and leather-faced, both of which are strongly evocative and concrete.

But if the gender has already been established, tagging the character with a social role such as minister or pensioner will give the reader a way to understand the nature of the character in a slightly less visual way. There may still be visual elements -- pensioners are generally elderly, and ministers tend to wear those collars. But in this case, the descriptive element is about the nature of the character rather than the strict visual presentation.

Special tip of the hat #1:
The elderly trapper (Dave Shaw)

Here, Dave combined both approaches, using a role-based noun and padding it with an adjective. It's a trapper -- a job title that carries connotations of outdoorsiness, maybe burliness or other indications of physical strength, maybe jeans and flannels and boots. The adjective is the right kind of adjective, too, providing a layer of detail not implied by the original noun. It's a strong combination.

Special tip of the hat #2:
Lisa's brother (Suelder)

Here, Suelder used a noun that states a relationship, brother, and then created the relationship with the use of the possessive. It's not just any brother, it's Lisa's brother, and now we all know who we're talking about. So this is something like the social role nouns of trapper and minister, but it's enhanced by the stated relationship to another character. It might not be a highly visual subject, but remember that we're not talking about pure description but about "descriptiveness." By presenting this relationship between the characters, we know something we might not have known before. So this is a very effective subject, but it should be used sparingly. Once the relationship is made clear for the reader, we wouldn't want to keep seeing it detailed in the narrative.

Before we move on to other aspects of the exercise sentences, I want to toss out a question for discussion. Let's say that generally we have the following choices for our subject:
adjective + generic noun
"social role" noun
adjective + social role noun

Let's also assume that a proper name is not an option. How does the context influence which of these three options to choose?


Friday, February 5, 2010

Alicia and I have wrapped up the loveliest visit. Great, productive energy during our meeting sessions, and lots of good gabbing and yummy meals between times. I have a lot of catch-up to manage, but I've already started sorting through the answers to the embellished sentence exercise, and I expect to be able to flesh that out later today. I hope!

In the meantime, here's a little funny a friend sent to me. (Hi, Angie!) It seems to belong on the front page of the blog. :D

On my 66th birthday, I got a gift certificate from my wife. The certificate paid for a visit to a medicine man living on a nearby reservation who was rumored to have a wonderful cure for ErectileDysfunction. After being persuaded, I drove to the reservation, handed my ticket to the medicine man and wondered what would happen next..

The old man slowly, methodically produced a potion, handed it to me, and with a grip on my shoulder, warned, "This is powerful medicine and it must be respected. You take only a teaspoonful and then say '1-2-3.'

'When you do that, you will become more manly than you have ever been in your life and you can perform as long as you want."

I was encouraged. As I walked away, I turned and asked, "How do I stop the medicine from working?" "Your partner must say '1-2-3-4,' he responded. "But when she does, the medicine will not work again until the next full moon."

I was very eager to see if it worked so I went home, showered, shaved, took a spoonful of the medicine, and then invited my wife to join me in the bedroom. When she came in, I took off my clothes and said, "1-2-3!"

Immediately, I was the manliest of men. My wife was excited and began throwing off her clothes. And then she asked, "What was the 1-2-3 for?"

And that, boys and girls, is why we should never end our sentences with a preposition. One could end up with a dangling, er, participle.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Right This Minute

Alicia and I are sitting across the table from each other. Bottle of red number two is open and ready for tasting. We're reading over some old blog posts, reminiscing and tossing around ideas as we sometimes do. She's currently declaiming on the pointlessness of italics for interior monologue, and she's not getting much argument from me. The word "bling" figures prominently in our conversation tonight.

Dinner was at a hole-in-the-wall Thai place on the corner. I think we stunned the other patrons in this tiny restaurant by giggling about comma wars. They didn't get the joke.

Real posts will resume once sobriety has been restored. Meantime, here's a question for you all. Do we think there's such a creature as the Bling Fairy? Some ditzy chick in a pink tutu with a basket full of dots and dashes, sprinkling punctuation like glitter wherever she goes?

I say yes.

Only cuz it would explain a lot.


ETA: And now Alicia is googling for clip art of fairies. Clearly, we need a mascot for this blog. And we have decided with all due deliberation that if we can't find a suitable clip of a Bling Fairy, then John Hamm will have to do.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Description and Descriptive

We've had several requests to talk about ways to handle description. It seems there's some anxiety out there about this topic. How do you incorporate description without slowing the pacing? How do you layer description into the text so that it doesn't interrupt the action? How much is too little, and how much is too much?

Before we can really tackle this topic, though, we ought to take a look at a related matter that might prevent you from ever needing to contemplate these questions. Let's start with definitions.

Narrative which sets out the details of setting and the sensory impact of the characters and environment.

Descriptive Prose
Narrative which, although its primary purpose is to convey action, interior monologue, dialogue, or exposition, achieves a descriptive impact through word choices and sentence structures.

Before you can begin to assess how much description your narrative can (or should) include, you need to assess the overall descriptive impact of the prose. Do you write,

The woman ate a bite of cake.

Or do you write,

The cook-off judge tasted the caramel fudge torte.

Or do you write,

The cook-off judge dipped her fork into the caramel fudge torte. A strand of amber filling stretched across the pathway to her lips, and the spectators leaned forward to stare. She tasted, and almost as if unable to help her reaction, her eyes temporarily drifted closed and she lost her blank, stiff judge's posture.

Now, there's a lot more to these passages than additional text. The length does matter, of course, because you want to grant actions as much weight as their relevance requires. If the pov character baked the cake, then the third passage might make more sense. If the pov character is a cop searching the crowd for a suspect, maybe not so much detail about the gooey goodness.

Now, here's about as close to a rule of thumb as you'll ever get. Relative to the total narrative, you want to spend enough visual space on relevant details as is necessary for the reader to understand their relative importance.

In other words, if your text is very fast and light and streamlined, a very small relative amount of descriptive prose can shine a big spotlight on a moment. But if you write detailed, leisurely prose, you'll need to grant even more space to important details if you want them to register with the readers as important.

(Some of you right now are thinking, But if it's not important, why include it at all? This is where art comes in. Otherwise, all romance novels could be printed as, "These people fell in love. The end." And mysteries could be printed as, "A guy died, and another guy caught the killer. The end.")

The question is not whether a detail is important at all, but whether a detail is important enough to warrant the amount of space you assign it.

Other than the amount of space given to this moment, though, look at some of the other changes. We have highly specific nouns -- not just a woman, but a cook-off judge. Not just a cake, but a caramel fudge torte.

We have precise and vivid verbs -- not just ate, but tasted. And look at the additional verbs in the third passage. Dipped, stretched, leaned -- all verbs of motion that convey things we can see with the mind's eye.

Finally, in the third piece, we've broken down the act of tasting a cake into several separate steps, each described not just in terms of the visuals, but in terms of the impact on the people involved. The crowd reacts. The judge reacts. These reactions enhance the impact on the reader.

Let's try one in the comments. Here's a plain jane sentence -- your task is to do two new sentences, one light but more descriptive, and the other more developed for greater impact.

The man walked through the snow to get his mail.

Have fun with it!