Saturday, December 8, 2018

Want to Write or Revise Your Story Opening? Class starting Jan 7

Hey, everyone! This is Alicia Rasley. I'm teaching an email class about "Story Openings" in January.
If one of your resolutions is to get going on that story, here's your chance to start with expert Alicia Rasley. Open Your Story Right! is an interactive workshop (that means I'll respond with helpful and SPECIFIC suggestions to your questions and exercises).

It will all be done in an email list, so participation will be simple and low-tech, very 1999. :) So you won't have to learn how to navigate a forum. We can just focus on learning to open your story in the most powerful and effective way.

Interested? This class is being sponsored by a writing group, which means that it's also very low-cost.
Just click on this link to sign up. It starts in a month, so don't delay! 

Openings–Starting Your Story Right with Alicia Rasley​

Jan. 7-25th-- Just $35 (I told you it was cheap, I mean, low-cost.)

It's time to get started on that story, don't you think? Just two weeks of class can help you get started the right way, setting up the rest of the story in the most compelling way. Let's have fun and get this story started!
And if you have a story already written, now's a great time to revise that opening to fit what you've developed.

Alicia Rasley

(Feel free to share this with friends and fellow writers.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Serial fiction site

I don't know anything about this site, except that a few writers I know say they have made $ posting their books in a serial fashion here: Radish Fiction.

Check it out and see what you think:

Can you write serially? I have in the past, and it was fun, but I've gotten so skittish about deadlines these days.  I think I'd have to have a story that "wrote itself" the way some blessedly do. Or I suppose write the whole book first, and then just release it chapter by chapter.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Voice suggestions?

I'm going to be doing a course on Voice in fiction writing.
Let's talk a bit about "voice".

  1. What does it mean to you?
  2. What would you say are the elements of voice in fiction? (that is... like sentences, word choice, attitude, distance, viewpoint, whatever).
  3. Have you read manuscripts and book and stories that didn't have much voice? What was the effect? (Examples from big bestsellers who won't be harmed by our using it as example.:)
  4. How would you characterize your voice-- three adjectives maybe? (Ex. Spare, stark, precise./ Lush, over-the-top, poetic./ Subversive, ironic, clever.)
  5. Do you work on your voice as you draft, or do you go with what comes naturally?
  6. Can you "revise in" your voice, or do you stay with what your voice comes out as in your first draft?
  7.  Have you written passages or scenes where you thought you didn't have a voice?
  8. Now let's say I want to ask people to characterize their voice using some kind of metaphor or analogy, like "if your voice was a food, what would it be?" "Is there a song or musician who sounds like your voice?"
  9. Any great thoughts about voice I can steal (with attribution)?

This is really hard to teach-- it's kind of vague, and yet deeply individual.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

I'm going to work through some items which were lost in comment moderation limbo:

From Adrian:
Recently, I've been noticing how much of television drama starts with the effects and most of the story involves the revelations of the (often surprising) causes of those effects. The easiest example of this is the police procedural. We open with a dead body (the effect), and the story centers on the detective figuring out who killed them and way (the cause of the death). Of course, there's a framing story with a more traditional cause-then-effect structure: The detective finds a clue (cause) which leads to a witness (effect). And the witness provides a bit of information (cause) that leads another clue . Et cetera. But it's not just mysteries that start with effects and work backwards to the causes. I just watched a new ensemble TV drama that started with an inciting incident that caused the rest of the cast to wonder why it happened, which leads them to wondering about their own situations and relationships (effects). Most of on Three Acts: Three "Things' That Can Increase the Coherence of Your Conflict

I just saw a film-- Bad Times at El Royale-- which made me think of what you mentioned about effect first, then cause. In the late 1960s, four people show up at a derelict Lake Tahoe hotel (literally half in Nevada, half in California-- I've been at the model for this... it's been closed for a long time, but used to be a Hollywood and mob hangout).

There's just one person working there, a young shy man who handles all the jobs of the hotel.
There's a vacuum cleaner salesman with a fake southern accent and a lot of casual racism and bonhomie.
There's a Catholic priest who is really slow at answering questions like "where is your parish?" and "what is your name?"
There's an African-American singer (the great Cynthia Erivo, who is actually British) who arrives with two big bedrolls with those egg-shell foam rubber mattress. (She's going to use them to soundproof her room so that she can rehearse.)
There's a foulmouthed hippie chick in fringed leather jacket, who let's just say is not into hippie peace and love. Very soon she is seen to carry a girl into her room and tie her to a chair-- kidnapping.

Each one immediately seems suspicious-- why are they here? 

And the film unfolds with slow revelation, with each contradiction in character being explained-- why they're here, what they want, where they came from.
So even as the film moves forward and they interact, it also moves from the "effect" (each of them arriving at the hotel) back to the cause (what event caused them to come here).

The only one who has a really straightforward reason is Darlene, the singer (she's got a singing gig in Reno, and so wants to prepare),

The back and forth and backforth again kind of slows down the pacing,  but this is a "noir film", so that slower pace does build suspense.
Anyway, as I was watching, i thought-- this is what Adrian meant!


Monday, October 15, 2018

Moody Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen The Street. Click to hear the song.

Leonard Cohen died November 7, 2016.

Here's a lyric that sticks in my mind--
I know the burden’s heavy 
As you wheel it through the night 
Some people say it’s empty 
But that don’t mean it’s light


Friday, October 12, 2018

Tackling the questions-- Ellen

I'm going through the old comments I missed and trying to answer the questions-

I recall your article on 'Stone's Fall' by Iain Pears. One of those 'hard to put down' books. I must admit I found myself absent-mindedly copying his style in some, not all, of my chapters. I'm not a fan of a writer who babbles on about other character's past, but he didn't babble, he entertained. His writing, however, in the third person was awful, but maybe it was an author of the same name.
Have you ever found yourself subconsciously copying another author's style?
Ellen Dudley. 

I didn't think so! But then I re-read the Narnia series (to which I'd been addicted in childhood), and thought,  good grief, I copied CS Lewis's style! (At least, you know, I steal from the best.)

I think just like some people can do vocal impressions, some writers can really soak up another writer's style and unconsciously ape it. I don't mean plagiarism-- not the copying of sentences or ideas. With me and old CS, it's things like parenthetical asides (like this!), and ending a sentence on a lilting syllable that makes it sound ironic.

What about you? What do you "hear" in your own style that "sounds like" someone else?


Lost comments

Sorry, I had the comment settings set wrong, so any real comments got lost in the viagra spam!

It's really hard to believe that anyone would buy viagra because of some spammy comment on a blog. I think though that the bots or whoever post those comments get paid by the link, whether or not anyone clicks on them.

Anyway, I'll fore-ground the comments and questions when I get back from my WALK. (New resolution. Walk every morning. Please ignore the fact that it is not currently morning anymore.)
Adrian, I'll answer those questions you had!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Either/or== Must we choose between proper mechanics and creativity?

I'm asking this because this is a question that comes up a lot: "So someone submits a perfectly clean manuscript, every comma in the right place, but it's boring. And someone submits a manuscript with a lot of grammar mistakes, but it's a great story. Which would you take?"

Hmm. That's a toughie. It's especially tough because in my experience, good creativity and good mechanics are NOT mutually exclusive. Far from it. Language is the way we present our stories, and the presentation is important for getting the story right.

To tell you the truth, I seldom see a "great story with terrible mechanics." (I have seen a few perfect manuscripts with boring stories, a few fairly good stories with terrible mechanics... mostly I've see okay stories with okay mechanics, alas.)

First, I guess I'd like to say-- no editor is looking for a perfect manuscript. Editors assume that there will be a few typos, a few infelicitous phrasings, some small format problems. No editor starts hyperventilating at the prospect of working with a writer who is a little less than perfect on every page. Got to justify existence, don't we? Perfect writers don't need editors!

So never worry that the editor is going to read 200 pages and on page 201 discover that misspelling and decide to reject. That won't happen. But what if there are four misspellings on the first page? What should the editor do then? (When encountering a lot of mechanical problems right away, I started sending back the submission without reading further, and saying, politely I hope, "I know you would like another chance to edit so that this is easier for me to consider." Generally, the writers have all thanked me for the chance, though who knows what they're really thinking. :)

One thing I do have to point out is that there really isn't an either/or here. Creativity might be messy at the creation stage, but I know very well there is no need for a good story to be messy at the submission stage. Most good stories go along with at least adequate mechanics, because the writer cares enough about presentation and narration to work hard at things like sentences and paragraphing. Most good writers don't assume that "story" is just "idea," but understand that ideas are developed in scenes which are made up of causally linked passages which are made up of paragraphs and sentences.

A mechanically inept manuscript is, in my experience, more correlated to inept development of the central idea or plot. I might see, in a mess of a manuscript, a good plot idea, or a glimmer of brilliant characterization. But that's usually all there is-- an idea, a glimmer. The execution and development aren't done well, particularly at the scene level. Why, well, interestingly, I think, there is "story grammar" and "scene syntax." Just as in a sentence or paragraph, stories and scenes have relationships that are shown in the structure or design. If the writer doesn't get that this pair of sentences shows a causal relationship:
He lurched forward, his mouth open.
I got out of the way.
Then probably the same writer isn't going to design a scene developing the cause/effect relationship between bigger events, although those events might be terrific.

Have I ever seen a great story with lousy mechanics? Yes, but mostly with my college students. If they come from a storytelling family or culture, often they get the story grammar talent with mother's milk. They've been surrounded by great stories all their lives. But usually this is oral storytelling, and often their ability to write it down is limited. We see this a whole lot with non-native speakers, especially those who left their home culture before high school, so that they aren't "writingly fluent" in their native language either.
We also see this in native speakers who didn't have adequate educational experiences (or who weren't paying attention... the class clown comes to mind-- usually he's a great storyteller.) The issues are usually spelling and punctuation, not sentences-- that is, it's really the -writing- stuff, the letters and punctuation marks which aren't clear in spoken English that cause the problem. Sometimes word choice is lacking too, especially in non-native speakers-- they just don't yet have the vocabulary. But they do have the ability to describe setting and people, to design scenes for maximum drama, to select the telling detail.

I had two students like this in one semester. They both would have gotten an A if I taught speech. As it was, one got an A, the woman who wrote very affectingly about her grandmother being diagnosed with Alzheimers the same week the writer found out she was pregnant, and how that baby ended up helping the grandmother keep her speech long into the illness. She worked closely with me and a tutor to find the mechanical problems that got in the way of the story presentation.

The other was a young man who wrote (this was a kind of emotionally wrenching semester) about getting to the hospital just a few moments after his mother died, so he couldn't say goodbye. The urgency of the journey across town -- wow. Beautifully structured with great suspense. But he didn't have the time to transform this great story into a great paper, and didn't get as good a grade (though I made sure he knew that he had all the right stuff and just needed to go this additional step, and I hope he did in the future).

So I know it's possible to have great story/bad mechanics-- but I have to point out that these were students in freshman composition, each coming out of an oral tradition that rewarded great story design and impressive vocal performance (which they had-- as I said, they both would have gotten As in a speech class). Transferring that to written language is a separate process.

But if you're submitting a written manuscript to a book publisher, well, it's expected that you are as adept at the tools of the craft. Those students might not know so much about punctuation and other elements of written language, but they did know how to use vocal expression and pauses and body language as they told their story. (They weren't so great at first at transferring that to writing, but they really did have the vocal tools for storytelling.) If you choose to write this story, it's kind of expected that you would use the written-language tools adequately.

Now, as I said, minor errors are not the issue here, and I think writers who get upset when I say I want a mechanically adept manuscript might think I mean no typos. But what I mean is-- well, truth is, most of you would be shocked to see a story with dialogue like this:

He said "Joni Im sorry about your cat's.
She said don't worry about it. There probably hiding in the garage"

That's not actually the sort of "messiness" that goes with creativity and great ideas. But that is what we see a lot. And that sort of leaden presentation means the voice is usually leaden too. Voice isn't just about word choice-- it's developed through sentencing and punctuating too.

So... let's say you are like my students, trained by tradition and upbringing and talent to be a great storyteller but not a great practitioner of the written discourse? You know what I'd suggest you do? I'd suggest you dictate your story into your phone recorder, and hire a good secretary or transcriber to type it. (If anyone knows of a speech-to-text app which does a good job, let me know. My "twalking" -- talk-walking- recordings always end up as gibberish as text.)

Many transcribers have been, uh, quietly editing their clients' prose for years, and know how to turn your dictation into an fairly adequate manuscript. (When I worked at the late lamented Grammar Hotline, most of our callers were secretaries who were interested in getting the grammar right, or in proving to their boss they were right, and they usually were.:) If the problem is getting it from oral language to written language, it's probably easier and cheaper to hire someone to make the transfer yourself.

Now that I think of it, the corollary -- the perfect manuscript and boring story-- happens more often. That's because you can hire someone to turn oral language into written language -- same words, after all, and it will still be YOUR story, not the transcriber's. But if you hire someone to design your scenes, deepen the characterization, create a suspenseful tone, structure the events-- it's not really your story, is it? All those things ARE story. (And that is why people hire ghostwriters, I guess.)

Thinking back on perfectpunctators/lousystorytellers... I have seen that too. I used to write Regency novels, a subgenre that attracted a lot of English teachers and librarians (it's set in the time of Austen, see). And when I'd judge a Regency contest, I'd frequently get an entry that was well-written on the basic word level, but lacking in story grammar. They knew how to write a sentence, but couldn't flesh out a character. They knew how to punctuate dialogue, but not how to make it sound authentic. The story would never be insane (that's much more likely with the messy manuscript, and yeah, I've seen that a lot too), but it would be "by the numbers," often using conventional situations (ballroom scenes, mistaken identity) with nothing fresh added.

In a contest, this would often score sort of on the high end of mediocre, but never win. And really, I don't have a quick solution ("hire someone to type it") here. The problem is more global, more personal-- that is, the writer probably doesn't have a great imagination and/or an innate or learned sense of story grammar, and you just can't hire that. (But I do think these would be great transcribers for the oral storytellers out there! :)

So... which of the two (messy but good story, clean but boring story) would be more likely to be published? Hmm. Well, of course, when we pick up a published book, we're seeing an edited version, not the original submission. So there might be plenty of previously-messy books that have been wrestled into rightness by a pair of editors and a proofreader, and we'll never know unless we get the editor drunk. ("You know that writer of mine who made the NYTimes list last week. Boy, you should have seen the manuscript when it came to me. One long sentence, the whole first chapter. I kid you not. You're buying the next round, right?") Notice that this requires a lot of time and energy from the editors and money commitment from the publisher, so a damn good story is required, not just a good story, to elicit that much effort.

But we certainly all read boring but well-written books. They're well-written enough that we don't take them back to the bookstore and demand our money back, or post nasty reviews on Amazon. We don't feel passionate enough about them for that level of response. Meh... we sort of wonder why this book was chosen out of the many the editor must have read that month. (Probably the original book for that slot didn't come in on time, so they needed a book to fill the gap, a book that didn't require much work to make presentable, and this one landed very cleanly on the desk at just the right moment. See why it's a good idea always to send in a clean manuscript? "Doesn't need much editing" is maybe not the fulsome compliment you were hoping for, but there are times when that's exactly what the publisher wants in a book.)

Well, anyway, we should all strive for great story/great mechanics. Figure out our weakness and what to work on to overcome it, but maintain our strengths too.

I'm remembering a query I got from one of those meticulous types, the one that made me really WANT to buy out of pity-- "I always make deadlines. I always deliver a clean manuscript. I have worked as a proofreader for a decade"-- it was sort of sad. Imagine an epitaph: "She always made her deadlines, including this one."

Writing articles

Saturday, September 22, 2018

How to Write a Great Sentence  , The Guardian

Every writer, of school age and older, is in the sentences game. The sentence is our writing commons, the shared ground where all writers walk. A poet writes in sentences, and so does the unsung author who came up with “Items trapped in doors cause delays”. The sentence is the Ur-unit, the core material, the granular element that must be got right or nothing will be right. For James Baldwin, the only goal was “to write a sentence as clean as a bone”.

An Edited Page from Flaubert's manuscript for Madame Bovary