Monday, June 30, 2008

Sentences and Fragments

I'm tossing this out for you all. I want you to look at your current manuscript and find a passage where you used a sentence fragment, and tell why. I'm asking this because of course, blah blah, bad, sentence fragments, but I also know how, when we're in voice, we often use fragments for effect, for rhythm, for characterization. So maybe you can give examples of fragments you kept, and ones you fixed (attaching to another sentence, say) in revision. And why did you keep the one and fix the other? How do they differ?

Another problem I have is explaining to my students what makes a fragment. Now, understand, if they've gotten to college and don't know what a sentence is, they aren't, um, necessarily absorbing the lessons well. But I find myself saying things like, "A sentence expresses a full thought," when you and I know that "I did" is just as much a sentence as "Charcot was the first neurologist, setting up practice in Paris in 1860 and serving as a major influence for Freud." So how would you define sentence and fragment? I throw up my hands and think if you have to ask, you'll never know.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More on Author Branding for Fiction Writers

In the comments to the post about Stephanie Pearl-McPhee and her brilliant branding, Josephine Damian asks:

Any advice for thriller writers? What sort of gimmick can we use?

Again with the warning that I'm no PR expert, let's take a closer look at ways that fiction authors of any genre might develop a persona or brand. To do this, because branding is so fact-sensitive, let's start with two imaginary thriller writers.

Author One has written a traditional crime thriller with a detective hero in an urban setting. There's a killer on the loose. The detective hero must stop the killer before he kills again. To flesh out the (potentially recurring) detective's character a bit, the author has decided to make him someone who cultivates orchids in his spare time. This hobby is difficult and demanding, but can be rewarding. There's a lot of science and lore associated with orchids which aides the detective in thinking through various problems.

Author Two has written a biomedical thriller about a doomsday virus on the loose in a remote desert area. The hero is a medical forensics expert, and the author does not intend to use this character in future books. The author has already started plotting a second book, which is about a tyrannical government attempting to exterminate a remote tribe as a way of ending border wars with that tribe.

So what does each author do?

We might be tempted to advise Author One to draw on the orchid thing for branding. If the orchid-loving detective will appear in several books, this might be a good option if the series takes off. The inherent problem, though, is that the orchids are part of the detective's branding. Not part of the author's branding. What will happen if Author One creates a strong website with orchid lore and cultivation techniques, and the series fizzles after three books? Must the next book's new lead character have something to do with orchids, or must the author begin a new brand?

Perhaps it might be wiser to think about the themes underlying the orchids. Precision. A difficult task. Some might call it an eccentric hobby. It's certainly something that requires a lot of study and scientific knowledge. The results can be exquisite, but fleeting.

By digging into these underlying themes, we might come to understand that Author One values tasks that require concentration, diligence, and specialized knowledge. It's not "orchids = interesting hero." It's "orchids = detail-oriented, science-inclined, intellectually curious hero = interesting hero." And if those are the qualities that make the orchid detective a good hero, then the next hero can be similarly interesting, whether he is a home brewer or a medical student.

And they're the same qualities that Author One can highlight in author branding. Maybe Author One can take a pen name that resonates with "Renaissance Man" qualities (Raleigh, Luther), or which pays tribute to an important amateur scientist (Newton, Franklin). Author One's web page can look precise and clean, with occasional flourishes -- symbolic petals on a wet black bough. (Poor Ezra deserves better treatment from the likes of me.) Maybe Author One's blog can report on interesting developments in the world of science, especially focusing on the accomplishments of amateurs or nontraditional researchers.

Two Questions for You to Ponder:

What else can Author One do to tap into those qualities of intellectual curiosity, precision, science, and absorption with a somewhat esoteric hobby?

How can you apply these same techniques to Author Two's branding?

Monday, June 23, 2008

More on openings--

More on openings--

I took some pitches last week, and something struck me. Well, two somethings.

First, if you do something great in that first couple paragraphs, or even something pretty good, I'm going to read on. There aren't any rules beyond, "Don't be boring or confusing."

Second, if you want more guidance than that, try this. Focus. If you try to introduce everything—character, conflict, setting, situation, plot—in the first paragraph, along with a hooky first sentence and a clear viewpoint, well, maybe you can do it, but most of us couldn't. If you don't want to waste time trying, focus on one or two aspects to introduce here. If you do that well, then the reader will go on to the next paragraph or three, and in that time, you can fill in as many blanks as you think necessary.

Just try that—focus. Decide that you're going to introduce the setting, say, and you're not going to try to shoehorn the characters in there yet. Here's an example:

Medicine Creek, Kansas. Early August. Sunset.

The great sea of yellow corn stretches from horizon to horizon under an angry sky. When the wind rises the corn stirs and rustles as if alive, and when the wind dies down again the corn falls silent. The heat wave is now in its third week, and dead air hovers over the corn in shimmering curtains.

Still Life With Crows, by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston

Notice how focused that is. All setting, and a nice easy transit from visual (sea of corn) to audial —no big jump here, as the audial is still about corn. Even within that restricted focus, there's emotion, a sense of the ominous in the "angry sky" and "dead air." The setting information leads inexorably to the problem, the conflict—this area is in a heat wave.

Here's a more personal focus. The opening starts deep in the point-of-view of one character, introducing her and her immediate situation and conflict:


Still alive.


Awakening was hard, as always. The ultimate disappointment. It was a struggle to take in enough air to drive off nightmare sensations of asphyxiation. Lilith Iyapo lay gasping, shaking with the force of her effort. Her heart beat too fast, too loud. She curled around it, fetal, helpless. Circulation began to return to her arms and legs in flurries of minute, exquisite pains.

Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler

See how that opening establishes the voice too. We are in the head and body of Lilith, but by then end of that opening, we know we're in the authorial voice—a bit elevated, a bit removed.

There are all sorts of entries into your story. If you're having trouble, try this. Think about what is most imperative right this moment, the moment you open. Obviously, in the Butler passage, the heroine's dilemma is all-important, and see how quickly you're drawn in because the author doesn't try to tell us what the setting is (she suggests it's night, but little more than that) or make any general philosophical observation ("It is a truth universally acknowledged…") or show character interaction.

Watch how focused so many of the most memorable openings are:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

You see how this presents a generalization, and then particularizes it—it's universally acknowledged, yes, but the focus narrows to parents of marriageable daughters in the vicinity of a newly arrived rich man. And the next paragraph narrows it even further to a particular pair of parents, the Bennets. See how that conversation is precisely set up. The opening leads to "parents" not "girls". Imagine how that opening would be changed if it were meant to lead to Lizzie and Jane (the two older daughters) gossiping about the new arrival.

Another "philosophical opening:"

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Notice what is set up here—binary opposition (best/worst, wisdom/foolishness, etc.), and that is carried through to the particularization— this best-worst time is the time where England and France (also binary opposites here) have these particular pairs of monarchs. And notice that ironic last line-- that things in general were settled for ever. So here's a motif (opposition) which resolves (for the moment) into unity—in both these cities, everyone knew nothing would ever change. (Of course, that sets up that they're going to change.)

Those are both what I'd call "social novels," concerned with the interaction of people within a group or society. Austen's society is very small (the village and its genteel residents), and Dickens's is very large (the two largest nations at the time), but both books are about interactions and dynamics. (Of course, both books also have major characters who have journeys to make, but the scope is wider.)

"Social novels," I note, are for more likely to open with setting or idea/philosophy. In contrast, the "personal novel," like the Octavia Butler one, focuses more tightly on the journey of one or two characters. In a personal novel, you'll generally find a tighter "deep third" point of view, and the opening will preview that by starting inside the character's experience.

So if you aren't sure how to start your book, consider—is it a social novel or a personal novel? That might give you some direction for the opening.

The Power of Author Branding

I know very little about the inner mechanics of literary publicity, but I know enough to recognize when it's being done well. Last week provided an excellent example of author branding taken to an extreme level, and yielding awe-inspiring results. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee came to town, and around four hundred people turned up for her book signing.

You read that right. Four hundred people. I recognize that a number that large requires evidence, so here are a couple of snapshots of the crowd which I took about thirty minutes before the author arrived.

Do you know who Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is? Have you ever heard of her before this moment? Have you noticed her name atop the Times list, the USA Today list, the PW list? If you haven't, it's because you're probably not part of her target demographic. If you have, I can just about guarantee one thing: you knit.

Three years ago, Andrews McNeel released Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's first book. It was called Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter and it was a knitting book unlike any other knitting book. No patterns. No charts or diagrams. No tips or techniques to make your nupps clean and your cables tight. Instead, it was a book of humorous essays about knitting. And it took the hobbyists' world by storm.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee has done several things brilliantly to build her brand and her sales. Let's look at what she did, and maybe think of how it might translate to your personal brand.

Step One: Create a Memorable Brand Name, Then Leverage the Crap Out Of It.

Stephanie's first book and author blog both bear the brand name "Yarn Harlot," and in the beginning, both books and blog hit hard on her core theme: excessive and sometimes irrational love of all knitty things. Especially yarn. Any yarn. (Harlot, get it?) It's a clever, memorable name, and she leveraged it to the hilt. Half the first book plays on this "extreme love of yarn" theme. She has essays on everything from how to hide yarn in your house so nobody will know it's there (pianos and sofa cushions figure prominently), to the difference between a knitter and a Capital-K Knitter, to an essay about her ongoing war with a renegade squirrel who steals freshly laundered fleeces from her backyard. Every word builds on her image and brand.

Step Two: Connect to Readers Online With Readily Available Methods.

"But I already have a blog," you say. Okay. Good. That's a good start. Now, how are you using your blog?

Each of Stephanie's blog posts racks up several hundred comments, and when you post, you must provide an email address. And guess what? Sometimes, she emails you a response to your post. This is always a cause for shocked excitement in my area knitting circles. People love it when their fan mail gets an answer, and really, how long does it take to send out a one or two line email to a fan? This is something above and beyond responding in the comment thread, which is also a good idea.

Stephanie also occasionally reads the blogs of her commenters, and leaves comments of her own. How long does it take to post a comment to the blog of one of your readers? It doesn't have to be an every time thing. Once in a while will do. Just remember that the blogging community is a two-way street, and take a few moments to travel their way once in a while. They'll love you for it.

Step Three: Connect the Audience Back to the Author.

Stephanie also reaches her core audience in person. Initially, she toured yarn shops and bookstores to promote her book. It didn't take long for her to outgrow little shops, and as you see, now she fills ballrooms.

What fascinates me is the way these tours also provide her with blog fodder and essay material. She gets to talk about the bookstore managers who have no idea what they're in for, and I love her story about the store that set out ten chairs for one of her signings. She paced the stockroom and pleaded with the manager to get more chairs. "Don't you understand? THE KNITTERS ARE COMING!" (This ties into one of her secondary themes, that non-knitters just don't "get" knitters.)

And she gets to talk about the wonderful things knitters make while she speaks, and the cool shops she visits, and of course, all the new yarns she gets to fondle and hoard in the course of a book tour. Really, the audience is providing part of her message every time she goes out. She goes, she sees, she writes about it all. And who doesn't like to read about themselves?

At her booksignings, she speaks for about an hour (reading a prepared humorous speech on her topic). Then she takes Q&A. Then she signs books, and that is where she shines. She spends a minute or two with each reader, asking them what they've knit, how far they came to see her, and the like. She keeps her camera handy and posts pictures of attendees on her blog with various notes. (Check out her blog and you'll see what I mean. The June 22 post is about the signing I attended. I know half the people in those pictures, and they've been squeeing ever since the blog post went up.)

Step Four: Develop Some Shtick

Shtick? Yeah, baby, she's got it. There's an old knitting legend that says if an expert knitter places knitting needles in an infant's hand, that infant will develop a love of knitting. So knitters bring their infants, and Stephanie photographs them and hands them needles and carries on about how wonderful babies are. That's her first thing.

Tying into that, she will look for the youngest knitter at the signing and post a picture on her blog. If several young knitters show up, they usually all make it onto the blog, because hey, they're kids, and it's fun, and it lets her put the focus back on her audience for a bit. She will also post pictures of senior knitters, knitters who traveled long distances to see her, knitters who bring her gifts, and so on.

At some point, probably in connection with an essay about packing knitting to go on the road (which is harder than you might guess), she started The Travelling Sock thing. For each tour, she knits one pair of socks. She deliberates over yarn and patterns (more blog fodder), and then she photographs the sock everywhere she goes. She talks cab drivers, yarn store owners, waiters, tour guides -- everyone she encounters, just about -- into posing with her sock. And she starts every signing by taking a picture of the sock with the crowd, like so:

And she makes people hold the sock for posed pictures with the author, like so:

(Author on the left; Tricia Kennedy of Nana's Knitting Shop, which sponsored the signing, on the right.)

Other shtick has evolved as her brand has evolved. I won't go into further detail except to explain that most of what she does connects directly to her central theme (yarn harlotry) or to one of her secondary themes (knitters as a social phenomenon, inexplicable knitter behavior, knitter/non-knitter encounters, and the like).

Step Five: And This Is Relevant to Fiction Writers How?

What are the take-aways? I think the big one is to make it about your audience instead of about you. I'm sure you've all heard the advice, "Be very careful in public, because you're always in danger of alienating a reader." But guess what? When you're talking about the reader in a positive way, that danger evaporates.

Second, identify your core themes and messages, and yes, you do have them. Get past the trite or universal. "Love Conquers All" might be a truth universally acknowledged in romance land, but go deeper. Find the personal truths that compel you to write. For example, what precisely does love conquer? And how does it go about making that conquest? And why?

Once you've identified your themes, you're in position to build your brand. If your theme is about how love can make an ordinary day feel bright, then you might want to take a girl-next-door pen name and write sweet, homespun contemporaries. If your theme is about the mystical force of love and how it brings completion to the human soul, you're probably not going to write wisecracking romantic comedies.

How else can you apply the techniques we've discussed here?


Friday, June 20, 2008

Revelations and Flashbacks

Revelations and Flashbacks

This is not going to be a how-to or why-to about using flashbacks. I can't stand the things myself, though they have their place, and some authors can make them work in some kinds of books. When I see a flashback done well, I accept it and go with it.

However, I would like now to meditate a bit on why flashbacks can shortchange the story, and if you're considering a flashback, you might consider that the effect of the way you reveal information (on the story and on the reader) might be more complex than you imagined.

So anyway, here's my thought. And I am NOT trying to argue anyone out of using a flashback. You might be one of those who do it wisely and well. I'm just thinking out loud, and that is, after all, why you pay me the big bucks. I do think out loud very loudly. :)

Okay. I had this thought while reading Oedipus the King and some commentary by Arnold Weinstein. O the play is one of the most inventively plotted stories, intricately plotted stories in the canon, and bears re-reading every year or so. Every time I read it, I find something new to make me marvel. Anyway, it's a very plotty story, but it's also character-driven. Sophocles was like Shakespeare in that—he didn't think he had to choose either plotting like the DaVinci Code guy or deep characterization like Henry James. ("But nothing happens!" we told our Modern Novel professor after reading The Ambassadors. "Except in his mind," Professor Ellmann assured us, "and that's enough!" Well, not for us post-teens, it wasn't.) Oedipus the King is not just a tightly plotted story full of extreme action and danger and even grotesque violence, but also a complex character portrait of, perhaps, the first modern man. (I think Odysseus might be a rival for that title, but he and Oedipus were almost exact contemporaries— Homer has Odysseus meeting Jocasta in Hades, and it seems as if the events of the play Oedipus happened while Odysseus was at Troy. Anyway, they're both modern—rational, unimpressed with the gods, arrogant, scientific, problem-solving, cynical.)

This is a play with a lot of backstory, most of which would have been known by its first audiences, because it's based on a popular myth. You probably know it—Oedipus was fated to kill his father and marry his mother (interestingly, this fate is a way the gods punish his miscreant father—it has nothing really to do with Oedipus), so when he's born, his father Laius has his ankles pierced ("Oedipus" means "messed-up foot") and sends the baby off with a shepherd to be exposed (left to die) on a mountainside. The shepherd (as in Shakespeare, btw, the working class is portrayed as more compassionate and humane than the nobility) can't bring himself to do it, so gives the baby to another shepherd who works for a neighboring king, and the second shepherd brings the baby to King Polybus and Queen Merope, who raise him as their own son and love him far, far better than his natural parents did.

But that's just the beginning of the backstory. (Well, the real beginning is the story of the crime that got Laius cursed, and it's thematically fascinating, as it's again about the violation of a child.) Oedipus grows up assuming his adoptive parents are his biological parents, and when he's told by an oracle that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, the horror of his potential future sends him reeling away, determined never to endanger them by seeing them again. Of course, you know the rest. In his flight away from his fate, he runs right into it, killing his real father and marrying his real mother, and reigning over the kingdom that was stolen from him. All is well till the inciting event, a plague in Thebes, forces him to find out (this is also the first detective novel :) who killed the old king.

So lots of backstory, and the process of the plot is to unravel the knot of his own past as Oedipus solves the murder. That is, the plot action is the revelation of the past, leading to the solution of the murder, and the character journey for Oedipus is from unknowingness to knowledge, and Sophocles adroitly propels both with every event in the story. Let that be a lesson to all writers-- plot is character, and vice versa. Everything that changes the plot should change the character.

But that is not what I'm discussing today. I want to talk about how revelations are handled in this play. This is definitely an example of how limitations can liberate you. Sophocles was dealing with a very limited cast and rather restricted technology. He couldn't do flashbacks. (Ah, the great power of print… The Odyssey is about half flashback, but then, flashbacks take no technology or labor force in print!) I don't know that he'd have used flashbacks even if somehow he could have made them work on the Athenian stage. (Arthur Miller staged a flashback, I think, in Death of a Salesman. I saw one production where a video of the earlier event was flashed on a screen in the back of the stage, so it was quite literally a "flashback".)

Instead, Sophocles used revelation—nuggets of fact and truth dropped by actual characters. That is, the revelation happens not in the past, but right there on the stage as part of the present action of the play. Even the most distant past (like Jocasta recalling—deceptively—the loss of her baby) is brought forward to be part of the present. The story of how the baby got adopted is brought by a herald/former shepherd (who also brings word that Polybus has died so apparently Oedipus has another kingdom now), and the corresponding Theban story (how baby Oedipus ended up taken to that mountain) is revealed by another shepherd (who also fingers the shocked Oedipus as the killer of Laius).

Let's not fall into the sophomore's guffawing trap of "too much coincidence!"—that the shepherds both reappear serves the purpose of echoing the doubling of roles (Oedipus= husband AND son, etc.), not to mention was necessitated by the tiny casts allowed to Greek tragedies back then.

Okay, here's a link to a new translation of the play: The two translations used most these days, by the way, are by Fagles and Fitzgerald, but they aren't in the public domain. This one is copyrighted to George Theodoris, and apparently he's offering it for public use. Anyway, the Fagles translation is the one I've taught most, and that's definitely worth buying. (The Fitzgerald is quite beautiful, but done in a rather anachronistic meter.)

I want to concentrate on the effects of having the revelations happen in real-time, so that they are revelations not just to the audience (who actually probably knew the story) but also to Oedipus. (Some of it is not that big a revelation to Jocasta, and that itself becomes part of the story action, and propels Oedipus to his final extreme action. Later with that….)

At the very end of the first act, the herald arrives from Corinth, searching for Oedipus to tell him that Polybus has died of old age; that is, he was not murdered by Oedipus as (O thought) the oracle predicted. Jocasta seizes upon this as proof that gods and oracles cannot be trusted. Notice this—right away, the herald's first revelation starts to have character effects. Jocasta and Oedipus actually have a bit of an argument, with him insisting that he still cannot go home because he might end up marrying his mother, that he at least must still heed the oracle.

The herald, listening with interest to this quarrel, asks if that was why Oedipus "left us" so long ago. That struck me on this last reading-- the herald, a servant, after so long still feels the sorrow of the inexplicable disappearance of the young prince. Oedipus responds with a confession that he hated to leave— "I loved those two" (his parents)—but did it to protect them and the kingdom from the sacrilege of patricide and incest. That is, having someone who knew him back then, knew his parents, reveal the first bit of information engenders real emotion, and in real time. The interaction between the herald and the man he remembers as the young prince is a much more dynamic way to reveal the information than a flashback or a mere memory would have been.

The herald protests, saying that Polybus wasn't Oedipus's father:

Herald: He was as much your father as I was.

Oedipus: But how can a stranger be equal to a parent?

Herald: Because neither he nor I had anything to do with your birth.

Oedipus: Why then did he used to call me his child?

Herald: Learn this, my king. Old Polybus received you as a gift from my hands.

Oedipus: How then having received me from a stranger’s hand he loved me so much?

Now read back over that revelation, and see the immediate response from Oedipus: "How then having received me from a stranger’s hand he loved me so much?" That is, the revelation would seem to be (and is) important to the plot of the mystery solution. But as important is the effect on Oedipus—right there, right now. He says, "He called me his child!" and "He loved me so much!" The first thought Oedipus has is not of murder, not of fate, but of love—that his father could love so well someone who was not his birthchild.

In fact, this revelation being revealed in real-time, and by someone who clearly cares for the family and remembers the young Oedipus fondly, elicits a change. Oedipus to this moment has been alternately angry, driven, purposeful, and arrogant, a king yes, but not a son. Now this revelation brings out the loving son in him, the son who marvels at his father's ability to love.

(This becomes all the more important in the next act, when the other shepherd, the Theban one, tells of the unloving actions of the "real" parents.)

But Oedipus is not the only one emotionally affected by this revelation. Jocasta, listening in, is starting to understand… and immediately starts damage control. Oedipus wants to find the Theban shepherd -- the herald received the baby from a Theban shepherd-- and Jocasta dismisses this notion. Oedipus assumes that she is being a snob and doesn't want to learn that her husband was "third-generation slave" though that wouldn't matter to him at all. (See, I told you he was modern… what an un-Athenian notion!) But Jocasta, with dawning awareness of what might come of this, tries to halt the revelations, and that itself is a revelation. (What we conceal is what we reveal, remember.) Whatever the other shepherd might have to tell, she doesn't want it told. (The chorus intones, "I wonder if perhaps some new disaster will emerge from that silence of hers," implying that the silence itself will cause some disaster. Jocasta's need to conceal the truth will end up telling the truth—about her own part in Oedipus's fate.)

As Arnold Weinstein points out, this forces character action and reaction that simply could not happen if the revelation didn't happen in real time and onstage. It is not just the fact but the way it's revealed – publically, not in someone's head like a flashback might be—that causes change and elicits emotion that deepens the characters.

Then in the next act, Jocasta's worst fears come true. The Theban shepherd is brought to the palace, and his own story is going to be revealed. But notice how reluctant he is, compared to the Corinth herald, who is so happy to find his young prince alive and well and eager to alleviate his fears with his story. The Theban shepherd prevaricates and even lies on his way to telling the truth:

Oedipus: (Indicating the Herald) Look at this man here. Have you ever seen him before? Met him anywhere around there?

Shepherd: (Feigning ignorance) What? Which man?

Oedipus: This one here. Have you ever seen him before?

Shepherd: No. At least, not that I can remember him… immediately.

Herald: Well, then, tell me. Can you remember giving me a baby to raise as if it were mine?

Shepherd: (Angrily) What’s going on? Why are you asking me such things?

Herald: (Indicating Oedipus) Because, old man, this is that boy! This man here, my old friend, is that little boy! Look closely. It’s king Oedipus!

Shepherd: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, my Lord. It’s all hot air! Hot head, hot air!

Oedipus: So far, my questions were put to you politely, shepherd, yet you have not answered one of them. Perhaps your own tears will make you talk.

Shepherd: By the Gods, my Lord, don’t hurt me!

Oedipus: Someone please tie his hands behind his back!

Shepherd: Damn my luck! What is it, my Lord? What is it you wish to know?

Oedipus: Did you give the child to this man?

Shepherd: Yes. I wish I had died that day.

Oedipus: You’ll die today if you don’t tell the truth.

Shepherd: It’ll be even worse for me if I do tell the truth!

Something else to learn from Sophocles-- never stage a scene twice. This is another "shepherd-revelation" scene, but see how differently it develops. The Corinth herald's revelations left Oedipus almost in tears, realizing something important about the past he has put away— not just that he was adopted, but that his adoptive parents loved him deeply. But this new revelation comes reluctantly, actually forced, compared to the herald's eager admissions. Oedipus becomes angry, compelled almost to thuggery. (This outburst helps us understand how he impulsively killed Laius years before. He's got anger-management issues!)

But there's a connection too, in the cliffhanger ending there. In the earlier scene, Jocasta tries to halt the truth-telling. Now it's the truth-teller himself, the shepherd, who has to be forced into revelation. Watch the reversal here, when we learn what Jocasta was concealing:

Shepherd: Damn this luck of mine! Here comes the worst of it!

Oedipus: For me, too, old man, but I need to hear it!

Shepherd: They said it was his own child but… your own wife would be able to tell you better about this.

Oedipus: So… was it she then who gave you the child?

Shepherd: Yes, my king.

Oedipus: And why did she do that?

Shepherd: To make it disappear.

Oedipus: Its very own mother asked you to do this?

The linkage between the two very different revelation scenes is in that "mother/wife" mention. In the earlier scene, the mother Oedipus didn't want as his wife was his beloved Meropi. Now the wife he doesn't want to be his mother is Jocasta.

But more than that is happening here, and again, this is a result of the revelation playing out in front of us on the stage and on the page. In the earlier scene, Jocasta clearly fears that some truth will come out. Well, here it is outed. It's not just that Oedipus is both himself and this child grown up, or even that the oracle was right (therefore, Oedipus must have committed the murder of Laius). Those are terrible enough. But it's the emotional revelation here that she has feared.

In the earlier scene, Oedipus learned something good along with the bad: That his parents not only loved him, but they loved him in a way that amazes him, given what they knew and he is just learning—that he is not their natural child.

Now he learns something bad along with the… um, bad. Not only is he the child given away—thrown away. But it was his very own mother (now his very own wife) who handed the child over. Jocasta chose to protect her husband by giving up her son to death. Now that son is her husband—but in this moment, he is the surrendered son.

In the herald's scene, Oedipus's preoccupying issue is shown by his continued questioning about his adoptive father's feelings. Now he asks three times about Jocasta's action. Neither of those are reactions the plot-information might elicit (that is, Oedipus is supposed to be trying to fit these pieces into the murder puzzle), so the diversions are revealing. What most concerns this very directed, very cynical man, at this very moment playing out before us, is parental love and its absence.

If the revelations didn't happen in real time, as plot action, Oedipus would never have revealed this—he might not have realized it himself until the revelations forced this on him.

(Of course this all affects the plot too. As he realizes that his wife/mother abandoned him as a baby, he becomes enraged enough to kill her. Another act of parricide—interrupted only because Jocasta has committed suicide. Oh, yeah, to complete the horror, Oedipus uses her brooches to poke out his own eyes.)

Positioning the two shepherds as the revealers becomes doubly important (everything is doubled in this story). Not only are they the ones with the essential information bits, they are the ones whose compassionate actions saved the baby targeted for murder by his own parents. So the revelations they bring also reveal one of the play's many themes—that love has nothing to do with blood. The child Oedipus is mostly kindly treated by strangers—the shepherds and his adoptive parents—and learns also that his blood relatives were quick to sacrifice him. (This skepticism about the "bond of blood" is amplified in the two other plays in the Oedipal cycle, when the elderly Oedipus gives himself over to the kindness of strangers, and his children are mistreated by his/their uncle Creon.)

So… what's this have to do with flashbacks, you ask?

Just that a flashback's appeal is that it presents the past in a scene, as if the action of the past is happening right in front of the reader. But consider that—it happens in front of the reader. It's not happening in front of the characters. It might happen in one character's mind (that is, be a flashback of a memory), but it's not happening in the real-time of the characters. So this can separate the reader's experience from that of the characters—the reader is experiencing something outside the true action of the plot. Even if it's one character's memory, it's not being experienced by the other characters.

So remembering the flashbacked memory might change that one character's understanding and even actions, and presumably he can then tell the other characters what he'd learned from experiencing the memory. But since the revelation, whatever it is, isn't the result of characters interacting, its effect probably won't be the sort of chain reaction that comes from the revelation occurring (as in Oedipus) as a result of plot action. It will be a static event in the plot rather than a dynamic one.

(Even more static, I think, is the orphaned flashback—a scene from the past just occurring, set within the narrative but not attached to the viewpoint of any character. The reader gets the information from the past, but how much effect can the revelation have if no character experiences it?)

Yes, flashbacks can explain some facet of the plot or character to the reader. By showing a flashback of the heroine's mother playing Fur Elise on the piano, you will alert the reader to the significance of that tune floating by in other scenes later. By showing a short scene of him as a child locked in a closet, you'll explain to the reader why Tom's got claustrophobia. But plot disclosure is not plot action, and character explication is not the same as character development. Action and development come from the dynamic of characters interacting with each other and with plot events, propelling them to change.

For example, if the hero has to tell his lover about the closet experiences, the revelation will have an impact on their relationship. She might understand now why he refuses to move to a small apartment in the city. Or she might insist he go to a therapist. Or maybe just telling her about this experience helps him to overcome the conflict.

That kind of propulsion requires a real event, one that happens right there in the story, in the interaction of character and plot. So if you're considering showing some backstory in a flashback, stop a bit and think of other ways this information could be introduced in the story, so that the revelation can lead to some character change, action, and reaction.

And read Oedipus again, and be humbled. What an amazing story, full of fascinating characters, interactions, and motifs… and it was written in the 5th C BC!


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pitch #5

I think one of the best ways to understand the pitching process is to practice giving and receiving pitches with other authors. In recent weeks we've talked a bit about the way "hearing" a pitch is much different from reading a pitch. We've talked about the importance of organizing information in clear, linear sentences that are easy to listen to. We've talked about questions and have practiced thinking up likely questions for a particular pitch.

This time, instead of a targeted focus on one or another aspect of a pitch, I'm going to ask for general feedback. Use this to test whether you've been able to pull together all the points we've discussed so far.

The rules:
Read the pitch through one time only. There are no do-overs when you're listening, so there can be no re-reads here if we want to accurately mimic the pitching experience.

Be gentle. One of the unwritten rules of pitching on my side of the table is that there's nothing to be gained by crushing anyone's hopes. If you have negative feedback -- and it does happen sometimes, of course -- present it with kindness. You're face to face with a real person, full of hope and probably sweating from an intense case of performance anxiety. Humaneness counts.

Your goal is to make one decision, and one decision only. Do you want to see the manuscript?

If your answer is yes, please let us know in the comments which part of the pitch sealed the deal for you.

If your answer is no, please let us know in the comments where the pitcher lost your interest. (But remember -- we are not sharks, and this is not a feeding frenzy.)

If you have questions after reading through the pitch, post them in the comments. Questions help a writer prepare for an actual pitch.

So, without further ado...

Pitch #5

Miracle Maker tells the story of a young woman pursuing her dream of commanding an interstellar warship like her grandfather. Unlike her grandfather, she joins the multi-national United Nations Defense Service rather than her home world's Space Militia, because she wants to escape her family's pity and sorrow over the defects in her genetic enhancements that have drastically shortened her life expectancy. She soon finds that hiding her advantages and weaknesses from the suspicious 'Normals' is harder than she ever anticipated, especially when she's assigned as a junior officer to a ship that encounters action far more frequently than its peers. The pressure to abandon her dream rises as she first falls in love with an officer in her chain of command and then accidentally kills a fellow crew member during a boarding action. Feeling guilty and longing for an ordinary life, she's on the verge of resigning her commission when circumstances force her to take command to save her ship and the lives of her crew and herself. When she succeeds despite very difficult odds, Defense Service Fleet Operations gives her a choice: Resign to be with the man she loves, or realize her dream of command in the face of a grueling war.

Miracle Maker is a 125,000 word science fiction novel intended to appeal to fans of the works of Elizabeth Moon, David Weber, Catherine Asaro, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

I have some thoughts on this which I'll share later. But for now, we'll use this one for more group practice.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Writer Questions

Last week presented me with the opportunity to talk to several groups of writers in slightly out-of-routine ways. A few things came up in those discussions which I thought might be worth sharing.

When an editor says, "I really liked this, but I have to reject it," what is the secret message?

It's not a secret message. It means just what it says. Sometimes we like things but can't place them.

Why would this happen? Maybe we're overstocked in one particular story type, or we just bought something with a too-similar plot, or the market appears to be turning and we're shying off from whatever you're selling. It's nothing personal. It's got very little to do with your work.

The one possible exception to this rule -- and it's not a deliberate trick we pull, but just something worth mentioning -- is when we compliment a specific area of your workduring a rejection. "I really liked your plot, but I have to reject this" could mean that your plot is strong, but not strong enough to compensate for other weaknesses.

Do you ever reject because of bad grammar or similar writing mistakes?


This question comes up pretty frequently, and I'm always surprised by it. Why would this even be a question? Think of it this way. If you can't drive a car, then I'm not going to hire you as a chauffeur. If you can't make toast, then I won't hire you to cater my party. If you can't write, then I'm not going to hire you as a writer.

You need a certain set of skills to be capable of performing a certain job. In this case, you need to be able to tell a coherent story with words on a page. This means understanding how to manipulate those words on the page to achieve a desired effect. Sloppy writing interferes with that goal.

What is the next big trend?

Um. Er.

This is always hard to answer because it asks me to predict reader behavior. I can tell you what looks fresh in my slush pile. I can tell you what seems to be selling well at the moment, or what appears to be falling off. I can put those facts together and come up with some educated guesses, but they're still just guesses.

That said, paranormal is still performing well. I'm skeptical of the rush to tout angels and demons as the next big paranormal wave, but it could happen. The world-building in scifi romance feels very fresh and inventive lately, and there's a chance readers might take notice. Snappy, bright contemporaries have a loyal core readership, same as historicals, and I don't expect that to change.

What I am more interested in, as far as trends go, is a possible shift in point of view usages in romance. We've been wedded to these very tightly focused, subjective forms of third person for a while now. First person, too, which is functionally similar to those tight and deep thirds. These pov choices create lots of wonderful intimacy with the characters, but we lose something of scope. There are hints and glimpses of more sweeping point of view choices starting to worm their way into books, and if readers respond well to that, we may start seeing books with more panoramic views. (If you've heard publishing people talk about the possibility of "the return of the big historical," this is most likely what they're talking about -- this trend is sneaking into commercial historicals from lit/genfic historicals, but only in a very small way yet. Stay tuned.)


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Indianapolis, Anyone?

Just a quick note to let everyone know that there will be a rare double sighting this weekend of both Alicia and I in Indianapolis. I will be speaking to an RWA chapter at the Fishers library Saturday afternoon. We'll be talking about proposals. Alas, not the indecent kind.

Also, pretty please read Alicia's post on secondary characters twice. This comes up more often than you might guess.

ps. Alicia, you're not a lardbutt! Why would you even think that? <--- note difference in female and male bonding patterns


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Secondary characters who do too much

This is the advice that gets the most squawks. Let me say first that some stories have a bigger scope than others. If this story is about how a town reacts to a mini-epidemic, then profiling several or even a dozen characters might work just great. (Just make sure each character gives the reader a different perspective on the events… combine characters who are quite similar, like the two elderly men who lose their wives can become one elderly man with one lost wife.) But if you're writing a book not about an ensemble cast, but rather tightly focused on one character or a couple or a protagonist or antagonist, look closely at the scenes involving secondary characters. The secondary-character-who-acts-like-a-primary is, I have to say, all too common in manuscripts, perhaps a holdover from the days when books weren't so narrowly focused. But this kind of character treatment not only takes up space, it makes the protagonist less of a protagonist when someone else commits too many major actions in the plot.

Again, plenty of books have ensemble casts where several characters have near-equal status-- say, four members of a punk band, each with his own journey to make. And if your book is like that, great—just cut down on the OTHER characters' passages. But if your book has one or two central characters, he/she/they should probably be causing most of the plot action. (When it comes to plot-development, the antagonist is often one of the two-three central characters, even if we are never in that viewpoint.) If, for example, the protagonist doesn't confront the external conflict, make mistakes, fix those mistakes, take action, change the course of the plot – at nearly every juncture—is that really a protagonist? Rule of thumb here—the turning point scenes should almost always either result from protagonist action or cause protagonist reaction.

But all too often I see a secondary character, most often the hero's best friend, interestingly enough, doing too much of the protagonist's job. And almost invariably when I point out, oh, that the best friend needs to be throttled down a few notches (during the whole climax, the supposed hero is unconscious, and his wisecracking best friend has to save the busful of schoolchildren, rescue the heroine from the villains, and bring the mayor to justice), the writer will react angrily (my reactions to that reaction in parens):

It has to be this way because the hero gets knocked out (so the god who decided that—the writer—can decide to wake him up).

This is part of the hero's journey, because he has to learn to ask for help (he's not asking for help—he's abandoned the duties of a protagonist).

This is part of the heroine's journey, because she has to learn not to depend on the hero (okay with me, because he's obviously a loser—she should run off with his oh-so-effective best friend, who is the one who has really earned a happy ending).

This is part of the best friend's journey (oh, I'm sorry! I thought this book was about the hero! Let me run off and change the jacket copy to make clear it's about the best friend's journey!).

I have to set up the sequel, where the best friend is going to be the protagonist (and exactly what are you going to do with him in his own book, since he's already done most of the work of the protagonist in THIS book?).

This conception of books as having central characters who do most of the acting and changing is … is too restrictive! (Wait, I have to go email Aristotle and Shakespeare and tell them they got it all wrong.)

You know what the real problem is? The writer loves the secondary character too much, and the main character too little. Yep. Hey, I've been there. I've learned from painful experience that hero's best friend is incredibly seductive and can run off with the book if you let him. Two words for you: Han Solo. And that's fine if the book isn't tightly focused on the hero, and/or if you don't mind demoting the hero (Luke Who?). But be careful of plot incoherence, where the position of Luke indicates he is supposed to be the protagonist, but the plot development actually leads to Han's growing centrality.

Just decide what your book is, and be true to that. If it is a story about the friendship between these two guys, okay, maybe best friend can be a sub-hero. But if it's about the hero overcoming his conflicts, the best friend really can't do that for him. And popular fiction is about internal conflicts being played out in the external realm—that is, the hero can only confront and overcome his conflicts (in pop fiction, not, thank goodness, in real life) by confronting and overcoming some external conflict… and he cannot delegate that duty.

Special note to romance writers and erotica writers: Two men can be lovers. They can even get married now! (Yay, Massachusetts Supreme Court!)

But if this is a romance or an erotic romance between the hero and heroine, make the great love blossom between them. Make their interaction help them together resolve the plot. Too often when there's a hero's-best-friend in there, that becomes the primary love relationship. I've even seen supposedly hetero-romance manuscripts where the hero chooses his best friend over the heroine in some fundamental "love" way (though never, damnit, an INTERESTING way). Male bonding is really intriguing to us ladies (I have never understood how you guys can love each other and insult each other so badly—really, if MY friend called me lardbutt, she would not be my friend for long!), but determine what your central relationship is and focus on that. The hero can certainly, in the start of a romance, trust his best friend more than his lady, but if at the end of the book, the best friend is still taking precedence, methinks the romance has sputtered out somewhere. Or maybe the hero is sublimating his homoerotic affections, and really, that's fine! This is the 21st Century! Come out of the closet and declare your love, guys… just don't tell me that your real love is the heroine sitting there all dejected and rejected.

(Not all male bonding is homoerotic, but careful—men tend not to comment too much on other men's physical attributes, except, as above, in an insulting fashion. If your hero and his best friend are really just friends, how can you show that without making me think that they want to be more?)

Anyway, whenever (just about always) I tell a writer that the secondary characters are too prominent, I get bristled at. For some reason, this is a very delicate issue for many writers. Could that delicacy be an indication that these characters are getting a bit too much love from you? Taking some of your attention off the main characters?

Now, as I said, there are plenty of books with multiple protagonists, group protagonists, ensemble casts. But if you have a tightly focused story type, try being ruthless here. Look at the actions of the secondary characters. Can any of them be transferred to one of the main characters? Can something that is passive for the protagonist be made active? For example, I have seen secondary characters discover a clue and deliver it to the protagonist. Does the protagonist really EARN that clue, if it's just handed over?

I know I wrote an article about this... it had a cool title. Lemme see if I can find it. Ah, yes, buttinskis.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Questions During a Pitch

In our last post on pitching, which feels like two years ago, I gave you the opportunity to post questions about a pitch. Questions are an essential part of the pitch process. From my perspective, they accomplish several goals.

Questions let me tease out the essential stats.

I've said this often enough by now that I feel like a skipping record. (Does that analogy still work in the digital age?) I need the vitals on every single manuscript. Word count. Subgenre. I know that you're passionate about your characters and plot, and that passion counts in your favor, but I still need the vitals. Find a way to work them in.

Questions let me fill in the blanks.

It often happens that an otherwise good pitch will leave out some important piece of the plot, such as the way it ends. Or maybe you've alluded to a subplot without resolving it. Or maybe you gave me a great understanding of your premise and characters, but not so much about the plot. Actually, there are dozens of variations on this theme. Questions allow me to take your skeletal outline and flesh out the parts which interest me.

Questions let me control the meeting.

Occasionally, a writer will come into a pitch meeting and just start babbling. I know it's nerves, and I don't hold it against you. It happens. But if I take control of a rambling pitch by asking targeted questions and forcing the writer to stop and focus, a lot of times it helps us get on track. This way, the brief time allotted for your pitch won't evaporate, and maybe a more natural give-and-take dialogue will help you overcome your nerves.

Questions let me get you moving.

The flipside to the babbler is the freezer. I've had writers seat themselves, look me in the eyes, and literally freeze. Jaws open. Eyes stark. Faces white. Whenever this happens, I want to check the mirror to see if I've suddenly grown scales over my skin or something. I mean, I know I'm no supermodel, but small children hardly ever run screaming from my presence.

With a freezer, first I try to ask some neutral questions about the conference to loosen them up. Are you having a good conference, did you have to travel far, were you in the bar last night? Anything to get their brains and mouths moving again. Once they appear to be breathing, I'll try to lead them to (and sometimes through) the actual pitch.

Questions let me make you talk while I think.

Sometimes, I'll hear your entire pitch and get that nagging feeling. You know that feeling when you walk into a room and everything looks the same, but you know something's been moved? It's like that. I can listen to a pitch and know something's not adding up, but not be immediately able to pin it down. So I might ask you a question about something less important to buy myself a few moments of thinking time. You talk, and I nod and ponder your plot and characters until -- aha! I see it! Somebody moved the sofa two inches to the left! -- and then we'll come back to a more meaningful question.

Questions let me test how well you know your own story.

It's my experience that a writer who knows her own manuscript very thoroughly will generally deliver a more cohesive manuscript. If I can ask a tricky detail question and get a fluid answer, I know that this is more likely to be a well-thought-out story. But if my question draw silence or a stammering non-answer, it might make me a little suspicious. It doesn't mean the product will be bad. Not at all. There might be angles that haven't been fully explored or developed in the manuscript, but those can usually be corrected on revision.

Or, possibly, it means that I'm dealing with one of those extremely rare creatures who generate manuscripts so intuitively that every aspect fits together perfectly with almost no conscious thought. Personally, I'm skeptical of people who claim to fall into this category. I'm sure there are those who can legitimately compose a book out of whole cloth and without much thought. It's just that I've had a few experiences with writers who claimed to fit this category, but in fact, they were just resisting revisions.

In any event, an author who knows her manuscript thoroughly won't make me suspicious. Be prepared to answer my questions. If I ask you a question you can't answer, it's okay to say, "I haven't thought about it. Guess I'd better think that through before I submit."

Questions let me shape an unwritten manuscript.

Admit it. You all know of writers who've pitched ideas with the intent of writing the story only if they get a request. I'm the fish, and your story idea is the worm on the hook. Some editors are annoyed by this. I honestly don't care because I figure that anyone who's fishing is letting me direct the formation of the manuscript. So if your pitch is a little too pat, a little too focused on premise and not so much on plot, and if you can't answer my questions, I might start telling you how I think it should go. If you think I'm being officious, well, that's my prerogative when you pitch an idea on spec. Just ask movie and tv writers. They know all about this.

All of this is to point out one important way that you can prepare for pitches. You're prepared pitch is important, but so are your answers to my questions. Think about the kinds of questions an editor or agent is likely to ask during a pitch. Get your critiquing partners to help you. Practice playing editor for each other -- if you have to be the one asking the questions, it might help you also think of questions for your own pitch.

So, when I asked you to post your questions for Pitch #4, this was where I was leading you. Let's refresh. Here's that pitch again:

Gaining acceptance by the Rhiaton Crowd was not a problem for Kinush. Admittedly they had helped him to celebrate his elevation with a bath in the sheep dip, but now their world of elegant balls and magical discussion was wide open to him. When the Crowd drive his boyhood friend Meriok into hiding, and his best friend shows more interest in the cut of his sleeves than the fate of his brother, Kinush must make a choice between all he ever wanted and the friend he had served badly.

But magic is more than an elegant pasttime: with the right spells a group of mages could take down whole cities. Inevitably, the ambitions of the Rhiaton Crowd begin to attract unwelcome attention. As he gets more and more entangled in the politics of magic, Kinush - whose idea of hardship is a bed at a country inn - finds himself camped in an olive grove playing stare-me-down with two powerful mages, and he cannot afford to blink...

We could ask, what do we know about this book? And we could answer -- magic, childhood friends torn apart, political fights, a character out of his element.

But let's ask instead, what don't we know about this book? The answer to this question prepares you for your meeting and for the inevitable questions.

So here is what some of you would ask. (I'm rephrasing some of this for clarity and conciseness. I'm an editor. It's what I do.)

What genre is this book?
Who or what is the Rhiaton Crowd?
What is Kinush elevated to?
Whose brother's fate is at stake?
Is the book more about the friendship or the politics?
What's the target audience?
Why does the Rhiaton Crowd drive Meriok into hiding?
Why does Kinush become 'entangled in the politics' - ambition, accident of birth, destiny, bad luck, or...?
What's his real goal - protection of his friend, survival, leadership, personal gain, or...?

To this list, I might add:
How long is it?
How does it end?
Who are the two powerful mages?
Does Kinush ever break with the Rhiaton Crowd?
Do they actually "take down" any cities?
Are Meriok and the childhood friend the same character?

The thing about Pitch #4 is that it's a decent premise-based pitch. Someone else mentioned that it reads like compelling jacket copy, and I agree with that. Jacket copy sets up the premise and then raises story questions (and also, we hope, creates an emotional need to have those story questions answered). Jacket copy has a different goal than pitch copy, though. Jacket copy is meant to entice without spoiling the story.

But I'm not a browser in a bookstore. I'm an editor trying to evaluate your skills without seeing your product, and in order to evaluate your story, I need to know what the story is. So my questions would be designed to probe the plot. I want you to lay it out in plain English and tell me how it ends. Go ahead. Spoil it for me. Reveal the biggest surprises, the cleverest twists. That is what will dazzle me in a pitch. That is what will leave me wanting more.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What to leave out

What to Leave Out

Whether we like it or not, most books are shorter now than were their counterparts twenty years ago. Blame it on attention deficit, paper costs, whatever you want, but many stories now are more compressed. It's not necessarily that the plots have fewer events, but rather that there's little room for anything that doesn't directly affect the story. Those fun meanders into whale biology (thank you, Herman Melville) or digressions into the third most important family in town or backstory about the heroine's previous marriage, are less likely to make it into print.

That's because editors are probably going to cut all that. And so I'd suggest, save time and don't write it. Leave it out.

In fact, if you streamline your scenes, you might just have a bit of room for that backstory about her previous marriage if you can make it fit (I fear whale biology, however, is gone for good).

So a few thoughts on what to leave out, that is, what I as an editor would probably cut out, starting with the least painful:

  1. Roundabout scene openings. If there was ever a time when you could start a scene with the character waking up, getting up, brushing teeth, reading the newspaper, sipping coffee, and finally, finally getting into the car and driving to work, where she is met by her boss who gives her a new assignment (the action of the scene), that time is over. Those "getting up" scene openings are a waste of print. They are usually the writer's attempt to "write around" until he finds the actual scene opening. Write around all you want, find the true scene opening (where, um, something important is about to happen), and then go back and cut all that junk.

  1. Irrelevant events within scenes. Okay, say the heroine is given the assignment of interviewing the new mayor at his downtown club. Think about where you're going to end up. Say the mayor fields all her questions with aplomb, but when she asks a question supplied by her grizzled old colleague, the mayor gets all flustered and then abruptly stands up and leaves. So you know what the scene is aiming for—her realization that the grizzled old colleague has something on the mayor. Well, aim for that. Leave out anything that doesn't add to setting that up. That includes the whole "ordering lunch" digression. Okay, maybe that's not your choice of digression, but I've seen exactly that so many times I gave it a name, the "Waitress Digression." That's when the waitress comes over and we're treated to a play-by-play –

"Hello, I'm Judy. I'll be your server today."

"Hello, Judy. I'll start out with a martini. And get the young lady a – what?"

"An iced tea."

"And bring some of that bread, will you? I'm starved."

Etc., etc.

You think I'm kidding? I've seen these trivial encounters go on for pages, the characters debating the merits of red sauce or white sauce, the waitress reciting the specials, the viewpoint character making judgments about the mayor based on his selections, the mayor flirting with the waitress, on and on.

Do we really need to know all that? Really? Why? If you say, "Well, it reveals the mayor's personality, how charming he is," I have to ask, if that isn't revealed by the actual action of the plot, the actual meaningful interactions of the characters, why not? Don't relegate important character development to nothing-events. After all, we readers, who have probably been in restaurants before and ordered lunch too, are likely to skim that passage, and miss the mayor's charm, and then what will you do?

Now it's possible that this passage has something of plot importance, in which case, okay, keep it, but trim it, or at least make it interesting enough that we don't skim. For example, let's say the mayor questions the waitress closely about whether there are walnuts on the salad, and makes her go back to the kitchen to make sure. And he says in an aside to the reporter, "I'm deathly allergic to tree-nuts." Well, if he's going to end up dead by walnut, then that passage isn't irrelevant. (I must warn you, most readers are going to read that and say, "Aha! He's going to eat a walnut later and die!" Most readers are too savvy.)

One Psychological Device:

Imagine that you have to cut two pages out of every scene—and don't come crying to me. Theresa once had to cut 20,000 words out of a book of mine. (Okay, so I couldn't do it myself! But she was very gentle, and the book was MUCH better without all those amusing but purposeless digressions.) What would the reader skim? Start there. What doesn't add to the plot? Actually, it helps almost every book to give yourself the assignment: "Cut two words out of every paragraph. Cut three lines out of every page. Cut two pages out of every scene." If you can't figure out a way to cut out two words without destroying the paragraph, maybe you're already writing nice and tight… or maybe you should ask a friend to do it. Worked for me.

Anyway, if you force yourself to consider what is extraneous, you very likely will find the extraneous stuff. Let me give you an analogy. I'm out of town on a business trip, and I knew I'd be driving. So I knew that I had lots of room, and I packed accordingly. I put in 5 pair of shoes, because who knows, maybe I'll need rain boots, right? But last month, I was contemplating dragging two suitcases all over London, and what do you know, I managed to get everything into one suitcase. Why? Because I had to. See what you can leave out if you have to.

(I actually have a separate file called "cuts.wpd" for each project, and when I cut something, I put it in that file, so it's not really gone forever, and I know I can restore it if I have to... yes, it helps. I can be ruthless when I'm not sure it's permanent. :)

(Later... the painful suggestion that many will hate me for, and what the heck, many already do hate me for just that....)

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.
Elmore Leonard


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Redlines Twelve: Had and Was

I'm so busy right now. I keep wanting to return to our pitches, and we will, but until I clear a couple of major projects off my desk, we'll have to be content with the next redlines article.


Once upon a time, someone started a rumor that the words “had” and “was” should be excised ruthlessly from all prose. As with many good rumors, this one grew from a seed of truth. This month, we’re going to examine the reason behind the rumor and give you some guidelines for when to change these verbs.

Weak Verbs, Strong Verbs

Some say that English is a noun-based language, and they might be right. Our dictionaries are packed with nominalizations (verbs turned into nouns, such as “rely” into “reliance”), and with verbs that pull double duty as nouns (such as “walk” and “dance”).

One peculiar result of this noun-dependency is that in sentence structure, the main verb often works harder than all the attendant nouns and modifiers.

Think about the sentence, “She ate eggs, toast and fruit.” In this simple sentence, a single verb describes an action taken on three separate objects. That’s a lot of work for one little word to do.

It is important, then, that the crucial main verb in a sentence be a strong one whenever possible. In a previous column, we examined the concept of strong and weak verbs. To review, the strongest verbs describe a dynamic action. “Cooked,” “danced” and “fluttered” are examples of simple past forms of strong, active verbs.

The weakest verbs describe states of being instead of actions. Conjugations of the verbs “to be” and “to have” are generally weak verbs. Thus, writing, “She had eggs, toast and fruit,” is weaker than writing, “She ate eggs, toast and fruit.” “Ate” is stronger than “had” because it is active.

There is a middle ground of interesting verbs that describe states of being instead of actions. “Yearned” and “desired” are good examples of interesting verbs. Both are stronger than their counterpart, “wanted,” because they amplify of the state of being implied by the weaker verb.

Here, then, is the source of the rumor about cutting “was” and “had.” Conjugations of “to be” and “to have,” when standing alone, are weak verbs in a powerful sentence slot. Of course, they are not the only culprits. Let’s look at some examples.

“We took a walk by the lake.”

In this sentence, the word “walk” is functioning as a noun. The word “took” occupies the main verb slot. If you want to strengthen the sentence, change it to:

“We walked by the lake.”

“He had a fight with the bartender”
“He fought with the bartender.”

“She was full of hope for a call from Billy”
“She hoped for a call from Billy”
or, by amplifying the verb,
“She yearned for a call from Billy.”

These may not be brilliant sentences, but they illustrate the point. Do you see how the revised sentences are stronger because verb is stronger? Obviously, there will be times that this particular edit does not apply, but as a general rule, stronger verbs lead to better sentences.

Because “was” and “had,” standing alone, are conjugations of weak verbs, many writers embark on search and destroy missions to eliminate these two words. But “was” and “had” do not always stand alone. Both are needed to form other verb tenses--tenses that are necessary in sentences describing actions in sequence.

When The “Was” Rumor Is Wrong

Let’s start with participles. The past progressive tense is generally formed by adding “-ing” to the end of a verb, and “was” or “were” before it. For example, the past progressive of “to walk” is (singular) “was walking” or (plural) “were walking.” This verb tense is used to describe an ongoing action that is paired with a discrete act. Confused? Let’s look at an example:

“She was walking by the lake when the bomb exploded.”

The action of walking is ongoing, and the explosion is a discrete event that occurs while the walking is occuring. In order for the sequence of events to make sense to the reader, the participial form of the verb--with the dreaded “was”--is necessary. If you switch the past participle for the simple past, you get:

“She walked by the lake when the bomb exploded.”

This sentence is less clear because the timing sequence is not as precise. Did the walk lead to the explosion, or the explosion lead to the walk? Were the two events simultaneous?

When The “Had” Rumor Is Wrong

Now let’s look at past perfect. The past perfect tense is generally formed by placing “had” in front of the simple past form of a verb. So, the past perfect of “to ask” is “had asked.” This verb tense is used to describe events that occur prior to events in the simple past. Again, this definition is confusing, so let’s look at an example that might take place at a wedding reception:

He wanted to dance with her, but when he had asked her at the rehearsal dinner, she had said, “Not likely.”

It’s a clumsy sentence but it illustrates the point. The wedding rehearsal occurs before the wedding reception. If we use the simple past in the main body of the narrative--as we do in most fiction--then the past perfect is needed to keep the timeline straight.

Look at what happens when we edit out “had” from our wedding reception scene:

He wanted to dance with her, but when he asked her at the rehearsal, she said, “Not likely.”

Even with the temporal reference to the rehearsal, this sentence feels disjointed. The time sequencing is slightly off because of the incorrect verb tense. To my eyes, the edited sentence reads as if the entire thing takes place at the rehearsal. The version with the past perfect makes it clear that wanting to dance is placed in the time of the wedding reception, and asking and answering is placed in the time of the rehearsal.

As always, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes, simple conjugations of “to be” and “to have” are appropriate (as in this sentence--“are” is a form of “to be”).


Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.
Redlines Eight (on tension statements) can be found here.
We'll skip Redlines Nine because its topic has already been covered in other posts.
Redlines Ten (on backstory and narrative compression) can be found here.
Redlines Eleven (on parsing and pitching) can be found here.