Monday, November 28, 2011

Forgot to Mention--

I had a post last Friday at Romance University, and I completely forgot to link it here. Blame my forgetfulness on the combination of the holiday and a virus that just won't quit. In any case, here's the link. The post is about the four aspects of "mateability" that we look for in a romantic hero.

Coincidentally, after the post went live, I pulled out my old copy of Leslie Wainger's Romance for Dummies -- which is a very smart book, notwithstanding the title, and probably the best all-around guide to writing romances I've ever read. I still had a page flagged in this book leftover from my study of Lost in Austen. Under the subheader, "Heroes are for loving," Leslie writes:

Think of your hero as a prize, the prize the heroine wins after all the conflict is resolved. (By the way, just so you don't think I'm being sexist: Make your hero realize that the heroine's love is the prize he wins.) 

This echoes Propp's fairy tale structure derived from Russian wonder tales, which ends with a wedding as a symbol of victory and as a reward for vanquishing the baddie. Yet more evidence to support the notion that genre romance follows fairy tale structure.  One difference, though, is that Propp seemed to operate on the idea that the hero won a bride, but in genre romance, the hero and heroine win each other, as Wainger notes.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Another Monomythic Structure

I was reading the October issue of the Journal of Popular Culture (yes, a little behind on my reading), and I stumbled across this gem in a paper about the Omen trilogy.

Jewett and Lawrence have argued that the classical monomyth is not a common pattern in American popular culture. In the United States, mythic consciousness has evolved into a distinct form that highlights redemption rather than initiation. It dramatizes the Judeo-Christian redemption discourse that emerged early in American culture to produce a narrative in which "[a] community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat: a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition: the superhero then recedes into obscurity" (Jewett and Lawrence, American Monomyth xx). In this mythic narrative, helpless communities are redeemed by a Christ figure who is never integrated into the community, but leaves at the end, remaining a perpetual outsider. He or she has an unchanging moral perfection and a strong capability for action while the community is changeable and must be saved through the violent action of the hero.

The author is Neil Gerlach, and the paper is "Antichrist as Anti-Monomyth." As you might imagine, this paragraph has grabbed my interest. I'm deeply interested in the ways these various monomyths might be useful to writers. So I hopped onto my university's library site and ran a quick search, and from this preliminary scan, it seems Jewett and Lawrence were primarily concerned with comic book narratives and characters, though they did apply some of these concepts to news stories about modern warfare.

Before I pursue this line of inquiry further, I thought I would ask if any of you have looked at this American monomyth, and if so, did you find it useful?


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When grammar elements go out drinking.

Jenny sent this along from a FaceBook post by Jeff Blackmer--
A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.
A question mark walks into a bar?
Two quotation marks "walk into" a bar.
A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to drink.
The bar was walked into by the passive voice.
Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They drink. They leave. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

More on Book Country

Here's an article quoting a few self-pubbing heavy hitters about Book Country, Penguin's controversial new vanity/direct branch. Penguin was given the chance to respond, but to my eyes, their response is thin. "You can avoid line spacing issues in the finished e-book." Um, okay, but if I hire a typesetter, any typesetter at all, I expect to avoid these kinds of issues. And other typesetters are cheaper by a mile. So how exactly does this translate to added value? In fact, you can easily run down the list of benefits in the Penguin press release (on page two of the article), compare those to places like Createspace, LSI, etc., and see for yourself whether it's a good deal. And if you think this is the best deal you can get, then by all means, take it.


Sunday, November 20, 2011


If you've been hanging around writers circles at any point in the last fifteen or so years, you have probably run into the concepts of "call to action" and "refusal of the call" from the hero's journey. There's another pattern which is something like the flipside of this call/refusal pattern, though, which centers around the concept of what is forbidden to the protagonist.

As a brief reminder, the call/refusal comes in the early part of the structure referred to as the hero's journey, the quest myth, or Campbell's sun god monomyth. This is a powerful and enduring story structure which begins with an extraordinary character, unaware of his true nature, who has been stashed in an ordinary world for safekeeping (or for some other purpose) during his youth. The call to action is the first major step in this character's evolution. An external force intrudes on the ordinary world and makes some request or demand of the protagonist. Whether due to fear, uncertainty, or a general feeling of unreadiness, the hero refuses this request or demand. Ultimately, of course, the hero changes his mind and does it anyway.

Some story analysts have suggested that the refusal of the call -- more specifically, the way that this refusal allows the protagonist to demonstrate humility, uncertainty, insecurity, or other less heroic emotions -- is necessary to allow the reader to bond with the character. Without it, the hero might seem foolhardy or arrogant. With it, he seems more moderate or tempered. So this might be the purpose of this refusal to do something we all know he'll end up doing anyway.

This particular story structure is naturally well-suited to action/adventure, fantasy, some scifi, and can be adapted to other story types. But there are other structural models, and one that I talk about quite a lot is the fairy tale structure which lends itself well to horror and romance. (By the way, if you've ever wondered why paranormal romance works so beautifully as a subgenre, but scifi romance is a trickier marriage, it may have something to do with these structural tendencies.)

In fairy tale structure, we start with a virtuous character in a hostile or treacherous world. (Virtue, by the way, doesn't mean sexual innocence in this context. It means the characteristics which we most value in that type of character.) Frequently, the hostility or treachery in the environment follows the loss of a key family member -- think about what happens to Cinderella when her dad dies.

But there might be another aspect to the hostility or treachery of this world, and it comes in the form of what Vladimir Propp (who analyzed a wad of Russian wonder tales much the same way Campbell analyzed all those sun god stories) calls an interdiction. This just means that someone in a position of authority -- or perhaps, an authoritative entity -- has officially banned some act. There might be legitimate safety reasons for that interdiction. "Don't go into the woods at night." Well, we all know what happens when you ignore this rule and go into the woods at night anyway. Freaky bad stuff.

But hey, we're going into the woods anyway, right? Because that's the next step in the structure. Just as the call to action is met with a refusal, the interdiction must be violated. If Cinderella is banned from going to the ball, you'd better be sure she's going to find a way to get to the ball. The ban must be broken, and the forbidden must be experienced. Yes, there will be problems. But those problems will test the heroic traits in a way that proves them to be true and worthy of reward. So, even though we might think it's bad for a "virtuous" character to break the rules, really, it's all part and parcel of that virtuous nature. (This technique, if not this exact structure, is sometimes used in "rebel cop" stories, too. Anyone want to discuss the difference between using this as a mid-scale character technique and using it as a structural element?)


Setting up the punchline

Sometimes when I'm reading a manuscript, I come across a passage or a scene which has a punch of some kind at the end-- humorous, emotional, or suspenseful-- that doesn't really pack the force it should.  The problem is usually that the writer cut to the quick, giving the punchline or disaster or surprise without sufficient set up. The reader needs some time, some development, some prep, to fully experience that "punch" in the end.

Good scene design helps here. Here's a kind of simple set up:
Context or status quo (the "before")
Change event
Big change momen
Contrasting punch

For example, this is kind of a humorous sketch, not very funny, but it's just an example.

Billy discovered a new species of marmoset!
A year later, it went extinct.

There's the bare-bones of it. (And that is pretty much what I've seen in a couple contest entries this month! Good idea, poor execution.)  Have you ever heard a 5-year-old tell a joke? It's like that. Just the punch line.

But the reader doesn't experience in a bare-bones way. The reader probably needs some additional context, some process, some transition. So here's a sketch of how I'd suggest fleshing out that bare-bones treatment:

Set the context: Billy was such a loser! (Maybe an explanation or example here.) He was the sort of kid who read the encyclopedia from A to Z, and would later bore dates by reciting the particulars about different animal species.
Change event: Finally, after failing miserably at school and profession, he found a job surveying the rain forest for resort development. Unfortunately, it was in Madagascar.
Big change moment: One day, while searching for his sextant, which he had dropped in the brush of the forest, he saw a quick little animal, the likes of which he'd never read about in the encyclopedia. He took a photo with his camera, and went back to his tent and emailed the picture to his friend the zoologist. A new species!
Results: Billy became the toast of the zoology world, giving speeches and powerpoint presentations to students and faculties throughout the world. (More here... women zoologists wanted to bed him, men zoologists wanted to shake his hand...)
Punch: Of course, a year later, the species went extinct.

That's just a sketch. But see how by setting up the "loser" context, guiding the reader through the big event and the results, we've given the switcheroo (back) at the end more power.

Our job, at base, is to give the reader an experience, not an outline. Anyone, frankly, can tell the punchline or jot down the turning point event. It takes a -writer- to make it into a joke (or a scene). Execution is all in creating a reader experience, and that goes beyond mere plotting of events into presenting not just the events but the context and process and consequences... and in the most effective prose too.

No, it's not easy. But deciding to do it well is the first step to doing it well!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Twitter Opinion Wanted.

I've added a poll to the sidebar ( in case you read this through a feed reader) asking for your response to a common marketing practice on twitter. Please note: I'm not asking whether you as an author engage in this form of marketing. I'm asking what your most common response is when you receive this from another author. Please be honest about your response. Don't answer with how you hope others might receive your marketing, but with what you typically do when you receive this yourself. It seems feelings run high on this subject. I'm looking for a measure of response to this practice, not for a defense or condemnation. Okey-dokey?


Friday, November 18, 2011

In a Book Country

"I'm not expecting to grow flowers in the desert."
~Can you name that tune?

Reader question: Is Book Country, the new "self-publishing" unit from Penguin, a good deal?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: It's the same amount of work for you, but you will earn less per copy, and there is no added benefit. If you want them to do some of the work (formatting or typesetting) for you, they will, but it will cost even more, and you can hire someone else to do the same work for a fraction of the price. There are loads of people out there who do great work with rapid turnaround times. Jim Brown is one I've worked with, and he's very reliable. (His conversion price is $75/6 digital formats. Book Country's is $99/1 format, and they limit you to one of six templates.)

If you want to do the formatting yourself, spring for Joshua Tallent's kindle formatting booklet, which is very easy reading and loaded with tips. There are also some websites with good, free information about formatting.


Paragraph power... at the end

Came across this. The speaker is a gunslinger type, kind of danger, one of those who survives partly because he's hard to kill.  The questioner, knowing that when Bishop was young, the "powers" had sent out a hitman to kill him as punishment for just this transgression, and almost succeeded, has just asked him, why wouldn't they do that now.

Point was to reinforce this guy's ruthlessness and recklessness, his continued defiance of authority.

So he answers:
"I'm not a boy anymore. Not so easy to kill. I do what I want and no one dares to interfere. I've outlasted them all. Even your commander, who has retired to the golf course."

 Hmm.  Got all the elements, the answer, the hidden threat, the bit of exposition (commander retired). But.. but it doesn't have much power. This is supposed to be a dangerous guy making a threat to the questioner (don't interfere), but it fizzles. Why?
Because it ends on the golf course.
If possible, paragraphs (especially speech paragraphs) should end on the note you want to leave in the reader's mind. So let's flip the sentences, so that golf course "no big deal" comes before the implied threat.

"I've outlasted them all. Even your commander, who has retired to the golf course. Anyway, I'm not a boy anymore. Not so easy to kill. I do what I want and no one dares to interfere."

Hmm. Now that I look at that, the most powerful and dangerous and threatening word in there is "kill".  Can I revise to end on that? Let's see.
"I've outlasted them all. Even your commander, who has retired to the golf course. I do what I want and no one dares to interfere. Anyway, I'm not a boy anymore. Not so easy to kill."

(Need one more revision pass so that there aren't so many short sentences... but maybe that's the way to convey that ruthlessness.)

 I'm not sure that these little revisions matter all that much, one by one. But I think if we go into revision with the mindset of revising for power, for that jolt of extra precision, we will find many opportunities. And altogether, they will create more drama and meaning.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sneaky dangling participle

I'm scouting nearby rental houses for a friend, and in an email to her about one house, I -almost- committed a dangler:
I just saw the sign driving by, so all I know is the house is for rent by owner.

Before I finished the "-ing," I felt something was wrong. And I immediately backspaced and made it:
I just saw the sign as I was driving by, so all I know is the house is for rent by owner.

Constant vigilance is the price of freedom... from danglers.

Anyone else "almost dangle" lately? Some of them are sneaky little buggers.

The real sexiest man

The world's sexiest man: Gregg Breinberg, the choir leader at PS 22 in Staten Island, N.Y. (Check them out in Youtube.)
As a teacher, I am honored for him. Wish we were all as great as he is, but he is definitely #1.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Character vs. trait

A character trait isn't characterization. Just declaring that a character is arrogant or obsessive or showing that means little. What's important is the cause of the trait and the effect on the character's life... and the plot, of course.

For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is famously arrogant, and behaves arrogantly towards all, especially Elizabeth. The effect of this character trait is shown immediately. Almost no one beyond his old friend Bingley likes him, and Elizabeth rejects his impetuous proposal, declaring that she can't abide his arrogant assumption that she will love him back.

So the effect is shown soon (he is disliked, and E rejects him).  The cause is revealed more slowly, as Elizabeth herself comes to understand it. He grew up rich, of course, and indulged, but lost his parents early and found himself the guardian of a large estate, a huge staff, and a younger sister. His arrogance, she realizes (with the reader), was a response to the many responsibilities. She also realizes that he does not act with such arrogance to those he loves when she meets his housekeeper and his little sister.

So the cause and especially its revelation become part of the progress of the plot. But more than that, this central trait is actually changed by the events of the plot.  Darcy is a snob at the start of the story, making clear that he looks down on Elizabeth's family for being socially inferior. But when he begins to help rescue her wayward sister, he must interact with her uncle, who being only a barrister is far below him in social class.  He changes to someone who can appreciate the honesty and honor of this man, and even defends Elizabeth and her family against Lady Catherine, the most aristocratic snob in the book.

Arrogance is more than just a character trait here-- it leads him to behave badly and so is a catalyst for action (Lizzie rejecting him), but is also a catalyst for change, as he moves beyond his arrogance to win Lizzie back.

So let's not stop with assigning character traits to characters! That might be the start, but it isn't sufficient.

Character aspect:
What caused it? How is this revealed?
How does this affect the story events?
How does this aspect change because of the story events?

I'm also curious about how we reveal it, perhaps early, but don't necessarily show the causes right away. I think probably we'd have to show effects right away (as it will of course affect the scenes where it "appears"). But how do we hold off the cause so we aren't just dumping backstory?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Free writing books! Hurry!

Lisa K passes this along: 
Here are  6 Kindle books on writing that are free right now. Normally most are $15-20.

Act quick! I don't think this is going to last long!


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Description and texture

I'm the worst person to talk about description. I hate writing it, and I don't much like reading it either. I'm lamentably un-visual, and so reading what the scene or the room or the world looks like doesn't register for me, and writing it is just an ordeal, as I don't "see" well, and so I almost have to mentally invent the visual aspect of a scene.

However, I think if we think of description as merely description, we might be missing an opportunity here. Description is useful for deepening a scene, for making it seem more real and authentic-- books without much "scene-setting" often seem thin. We are, after all, the children of a visual age of cinema and TV, and we might need the additional details of the setting to make this feel real to us.

Another way we can use description-- perhaps the other important one-- is to create a tone.  A straightforward description of a room ("As he entered, on his left was a closet door, and on the right was the entry to a gleaming modern kitchen. Ahead were two leather couches set in sequence in front of a big screen TV. The effect was that of a tiny movie theater.") accomplishes that goal of making the scene seem real-- the reader can visualize this place.

But the straight description doesn't create much of an emotional atmosphere-- a tone.  I think a lot of us just fall short at this point. We describe what we want the reader to see, but we don't go further to create what we want the reader to feel.  This is a lost opportunity. We've wasted a few paragraphs on something many readers will just skim because it doesn't add much to the experience of the scene. I'd just like here to suggest some ways that you and I (especially I!) can use those paragraphs to deepen the texture of the scene.

1) Description can vary with the genre or the scene purpose.  That is, the same scene (a park, say) might be rendered in a romantic way in a romance or in a scary way in a horror film. It might just be a matter of emphasis, on what details we select. For example, in a romantic scene, what about this park would enhance the romance?  Maybe the sun filtering through the trees and casting beams on the velvety lawn. A lone park bench facing the pond, a pair of swans floating serenely by.
Now take the same park and make it "horror-fying"-- the wind is blowing the fallen leaves around. The sky above the pond grows ominously, paradoxically still.  The park bench is still empty, but now a few of those fallen leaves are trapped against the benchback.

If we can isolate details that help create the genre tone, that will put the reader in the right mood to accept whatever romantic or horrifying or suspenseful event is going to happen momentarily.

2)  Vision isn't the only sense. Describing the sound of the wind or the smell of the stagnant pond or the feel of the grass under the character's feet-- those can individualize and flesh our the description, while giving us more details to select from in order to create that mood or tone.  Most of our sensory information does come in through our eyes, no doubt, but the depth of our understanding of the world probably depends on the addition of our other senses.
Some writers will laboriously tick off each sense and make a line in each paragraph about that sense:
He saw the sun filtering through the leaves, and beyond in the clearing, the campfire. The smell of woodsmoke filled his nostrils. He could almost taste the roasting marshmallows. The crackle of the leaves under his feet woke him from his reverie.

That's sort of dull, and it doesn't add up to much. Think instead about starting with a little topic sentence that might put this in context, like:
The grotto was ancient and long-forgotten, the mossy ground soft and rotting underfoot. The tiny pond was filmed with algae, and the air stank with the smell of the stagnant water. Even the rustle of the wind over the water was hushed and abashed.

Another option is to have a sentence of visual (can't escape that), but then really zing into the most imperative sense.  If this park abuts the town dump, then the smell is probably going to overwhelm the pleasantness of the visual. If there's a bagpipe band playing in the bandstand, then very soon the visual will give way to a recounting of how the lonely music wails across the still air.

3) Don't forget the character. If she's hungry, then no matter how picturesque the scene is, as soon as she sees and hears that ice-cream truck blaring out "Bicycle Built for Two," her mouth is going to start watering and she's going to "almost taste" the creamy ice cream and the nuts on the top of the Drum Stick and the sharp tang of the orange popsicle.

Her emotions might also distort how you describe it.  If she's worried, she might see even the most pleasant scene in a pessimistic way-- those kids on the merry-go-round look hysterical, not excited.
Also consider the character goal. Why is she in the park? If she's frantically searching for her lost wallet, she's not going to notice how pretty the flowers are in the rosebeds. If she's dallying there, waiting for her boyfriend to get out of work and meet her for lunch, she might see everything in a rosy glow of anticipation... or be scoping out the area for a place to sit and picnic.  How she apprehends the scene will vary depending on why she's there, so describe it as she experiences it.

4)  Don't lose the emotion, but use it. What is he feeling when he enters this setting? How does that change what he experiences through his senses? How does the setting change his emotion-- that is, he might grow more agitated if he sees disorder (overflowing trash barrels, cracked sidewalks), or more calm if the breeze is soothing. But show the emotional transition happening, show the setting details that affect his mood.

5) If the character interacts with the environment, the description becomes integrated with the action, and takes on dual purpose. So rather than just describing a muddy playground, we could have our character cross it, trying to pick his way from dry spot to dry spot, worrying about his shiny shoes, stepping accidentally into a  puddle, grabbing for the pole of the monkey bars to extricate himself.

6) One of the most valuable techniques I learned in graduate literary criticism class was to reveal what's not there. Yeah, I read all that impermeable Derrida stuff about deconstruction, but here's what I took away-- what isn't there is as important as what is.  So describing the absence of something can increase the emotional quality of the scene.  An empty swing, creeking eerily in the wind, suggests loss-- of a child, of childhood, of hope. You can mention what's missing ("empty") to add a subtext. As MacLeish put it:
For all the history of grief
 An empty doorway and a maple leaf

Anyway, no need to moan and groan as I do when I realize I probably ought to describe this room where they're going to have the big argument. Stop thinking of it as a "place" and start thinking of it as a "revealer," and describing it might come easier.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Author interview

Nicholson Baker in a good interview in Paris Review (h/t James Wolcott)-- talks about the ultimate question of a novel, and I like the idea-- is live worth living?

The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living? That's a major question, a huge question, but the best way to answerit might not be to crank the novelistic universe into a crude, lurching motion by employing a big inciting incident. Sometimes life provides only the tiniest of telling incidents--that your left shoelace snaps within a day of your right one. That's enough for me. When something is beautiful, it can't be minor.

I kind of get that-- we don't always know what the meaning is that this event or moment will convey, but if it's amazing, the reader will find the meaning.