Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Paging Dr. Cannon

We've taken a look deep inside Drago and Johnny, our primary characters, and have constructed some complex characters with a lot going on inside and outside. We've constructed backstories, analyzed emotional needs, examined needs in conflict, and predicted behavior based on all these factors.

Do you want to do this for every single character in your story?

You can if you want to, and it might (might!) make your story richer. It sure would be a lot of fun, too, because let's face it, this stuff is fun.

But it would be awfully time-consuming to have to build every character in this complex and nuanced manner. For characters that play minor roles, that appear only in one or two scenes, there are other ways to make them vivid without writing dozens of pages of backstory and filling in detailed charts and questionnaires.

Think about this. You're attending a business function with a friend, say an awards dinner. The friend knows everyone, but you don't know anyone but your friend. You walk in, and your friend introduces you to someone right away, before you've even taken the lay of the land.

Immediately, you will begin to take in information about this new person to help you understand what kind of person he or she is. Clothing, hairstyle, smile, mannerisms, how loudly or softly they speak, even word choices -- thousands of cues that all mount up to create an impression of character. Some of these cues are large and some are small, but each plays a role in helpin gyo to understand what kind of person you've just met.

Here's what you don't get with your new acquaintance: details of their childhood, parents, siblings, education, and all the other backstory; goals, dreams, plans and other details related to external motivation; emotional weaknesses, core needs, emotional strengths, secrets, obsessions, and other things related to the deeper psyche; and, indeed, anything not appropriate for chat at a business cocktail party or dinner.

Yet you can still draw some conclusions about this character, can't you? He's bossy. She's needy. He's a really warm-hearted guy. She's the class clown. His conversation is limited. And you can use those conclusions to begin to predict character behavior. You begin to understand how that particular character would behave in a different setting even though you might not know every detail of their childhoods.

You do it all by staying in the present and analyzing only the information available at this moment and in these circumstances.

And now you're going to do it for Dr. Cannon. She's our pal, the interviewer surgeon on staff at a prestigious city hospital and involved in MSF. That's all we know about her so far.

Now, keeping in mind that every detail you choose must be evocative of a consistent character type, I want you to:

-- Pick out Dr. Cannon's clothing.

-- Give her a physical description.

-- Describe the meal she orders and how she orders it.

-- Describe her manner of interacting with Johnny and Drago.

That's it. In essence, you will build a character by analyzing her appearance and behavior in a given setting. Go!


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Foiled by Drago

In our last post, we created Drago and put him in direct competition with Johnny for a medical school scholarship. I gave you a simple exercise and series of questions designed to help you understand how to exploit "core conflicts" -- conflicts that arise from clashes between people's core beliefs and needs. We also had an external conflict in the competition for the scholarship.

As the comment thread shows, most of you had a relatively easy time putting Drago and Johnny into a position where these core conflicts would have an impact on the progress of the meeting. None of you hunted for common ground between Johnny and Drago -- same major, same age, same career goals, perhaps some other similarities that might form at least some basis for a casual friendship. All of you focused on their differences and on the way their differences create conflict. These differences are the soul of drama. Conflict can be created by two people who want the same thing (a scholarship), but that conflict becomes dramatic when the people involved challenge each other on some deeper level.

I did this on purpose. I created Drago specifically so that he would challenge Johnny and Johnny would challenge him for more than just a scholarship. And now I would like to take a moment to explain how I did that.

One Simple(ish) Method for Creating Foils

Step One.
Identify the character's core emotional need.

Johnny has a core emotional need for status. We already knew this, and knew some of his other competing needs. But I chose to focus on status when creating Drago.

Step Two.
Figure out what would threaten that core belief.

This is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Imagine something that would take away any possibility of satisfying that core emotional need. Johnny's need for status is expressed through material things. Taking away those material things in another character would call up the emotions for Johnny. See, it's not that Johnny actually wants all the latest gadgets and the shiniest car. He wants what these things represent. (Yes, he might actually want many of these things for themselves, but this doesn't explain why he always buys his new iPhone on the first day of release.) Taking away any possibility of gathering all these status symbols is good, but taking away both their physical presence and the desire for them is even better.

In the comments, some of you have mentioned that you know a guy just like Johnny. Have you ever had conversations with them about what other people own? In my experience, these conversations have three levels:
- envy (He has more than me, therefore he will be better than me until I get it, too.)
- confusion (I don't understand why he thinks this one is better. What am I missing? Do I have to get one of these things now, too, even though I don't understand it?)
- dismissal (They got nuthin. Ha! I win!)

In all those cases, Johnny is comparing what he has to what others have. This is how he relates to people. Remove the possibility of object comparison, and you remove his habitual means for relating to people.

So right away, I knew we wanted a character with nothing. But mere poverty would not suffice, because Johnny would dismiss them easily. After all, in the world according to Johnny, money can be made, even if you're a kid. Babysitting, lawnmowing, paper routes, even lemonade stands. So we needed a character for whom none of this would have been possible. And that impossibility would have been so absolute that even Johnny would see it.

I considered a scholarship student who grew up in foster care. I think we can all agree that foster children rarely grow up with silver spoons. Maybe he moved around a lot, so things like a paper route would have been out of the question. And there would have been some tragedy in his past that would have triggered the foster care situation, so this might have awakened some sympathy in people who met him.

But I changed my mind because of step three.

Step Three.
Make it big.

We talk alot about "big" books, but it's not always easy to explain what we mean. So let's look at an example. Remember, we're evaluating these scenarios in terms of how they challenge Johnny's core emotional beliefs.

Scenario 1: Character's parents are both doctors. He grew up in a wealthy suburb. Went to the best private schools. Drives a BMW convertible. He was raised to believe in service, the old "those to whom much is given, from much is expected" thing. He spends the lunch with Dr. Cannon discussing his volunteer work at the hospitals where his parents work. The discussion of volunteerism might challenge Johnny a little, but Johnny would still evaluate this character in terms of what he owns. There's little meaningful challenge here, so it's a fairly small conflict.

Also, it's worth noting that we're talking about a character with a fairly typical upper-middle class upbringing. There's nothing shocking, nothing to rouse our sympathies, and nothing to make it bold or unique.

Scenario 2: Our foster care student. This guy had little stability as he was growing up, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. We know that Johnny has some stability needs that tie into his status need. Johnny would feel uncomfortable around him on some level, but ultimately he would be able to resolve it. "The guy grew up with nothing and no possibility of getting anything. But it's different now. He got a free ride to a state school for his bachelor's degree. All the foster kids get that. It's guaranteed (stable)." And then, having resolved the stability question at least in part, Johnny would start thinking in terms of whether the free public school was "better" than the high-priced private school he attended.

This character's upbringing is less typical than the doctors' kid. There might be something shocking in his past that led to the need for foster care. Foster care can rouse people's sympathies, and so it's a bigger situation than that of our first student.

Scenario 3: Drago.

I don't think we need to revisit the ways in which Drago challenges Johnny's core beliefs. He does, and we've explored various ways that this might play out.

Let's look instead at the relative bigness of his situation.

Genocide is less common than foster care, which is less common than a middle-class upbringing.

Civil war is more destructive to a person's environment/stability/material accumulation than foster care, which is more destructive than a middle-class upbringing.

Civil war, genocide, being rescued by the UN, being an international refugee -- these are all played on a bigger world stage, where foster care is statewide, and a middle-class upbringing is local.

We could go on. I'll leave it to you to find other means for comparison, and post your ideas in the comments.

But here's your real assignment for this post. People have a fairly limited number of core emotional needs. Some common ones are needs for approval, power, or independence. Choose one of these, or choose another core need if you prefer. And then think of two ways (one smaller, one bigger) that this need could be challenged through a character foil.

Yeah, it's a harder assignment, but it's a fun one. Have at it!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Help finding a short story

I'm front-paging this for the selfish reason that I want to see if anyone knows the title or author of this story--
I remember an amazing short story (well, of course, not the title or author) where a little boy recently lost his mother. He has misplaced a beloved toy, and his father, not wanting him to feel more pain, hears him praying to God that the toy would be recovered. Well, Dad goes out and gets him a replacement toy and tells him, "I found it!" and the boy thinks his prayer was answered. Then Dad hears him praying to God that his mom will come back.

Great use of irony and pathos-- and "wrong thing for the right reason" action. (Anyone know this story? I'd love to use it in a class.)


Core Conflicts

Let's start by reviewing the way we've worked over poor Johnny the status-seeking pre-med student. (He would object to being called "poor Johnny." He deserves better than to be manipulated and exposed by a bunch of starving artists. Really, who the hell do we think we are? lol)

We started with a few key pieces of external behavior and worked inward to get to his core emotional need.

We used that core emotional need to predict simple, controllable behavior.

We used that core emotional need and companion needs to demonstrate how seemingly contradictory behavior can be consistent with that character.

We examined self-image as a facet of emotional need and as a predictor of behavior.

We looked at how Johnny's desire to hide pieces of his personality might influence behavior in a common social situation with zero conflict.

And this has all been leading up to this post. Now we'll look at how to exploit core conflicts.

Meet Drago

What we haven't done yet is create a second character with an external goal which puts him in direct conflict with Johnny. Remember, the pretty party girl was not a developed character. We let you all stand in for her and imagine how you would respond to Johnny. We didn't give her her own set of needs and goals. This is why we need Drago now.

Drago is a survivor. He grew up in a region of Europe torn apart by civil war. The wars left his remote village intact for the first few years -- his village is so remote, in fact, that the communist government never could figure out how to get electricity to them. They didn't import much of anything, but they did a little bartering with neighboring villages. As a child, Drago sometimes walked the three hours through the mountains to the next village with a load of homemade cheese in a pack on his back. He enjoyed the return trip more because he could spend his time in anticipation of his village's excitement to see what he managed to get in trade for the cheese.

One day when Drago was making this trip, rebel soldiers came to his village, collected all the men and boys, and slaughtered them. Then they moved on to the next village and did the same. Drago survived only because he was on a mountain path that the soldiers didn't know about. Drago, his mother, and all the other surviving women and girls were taken in by the UN, moved to a refugee camp in another part of Europe, and eventually were settled in the US.

Drago's self-image is "survivor," and his core emotional need is justice. He wants to be a doctor because he wants to right the wrongs committed by bad men, brutal soldiers. He has watched his mother struggle to adapt to her new environment. She may have been the best cheese-maker in the mountains, but her lack of exposure to modern living has made it impossible for her to even find work as a cleaning woman. This has also made Drago hyper-protective.

Drago, Meet Johnny

Drago got a scholarship to college, and he needs a scholarship if he's going to go to med school. He and Johnny have both applied for a prestigious internship that would pay their tuition and expenses. In addition to these benefits, the intern would be allowed to work during school breaks under the mentorship of a famous surgeon at an internationally-renowned NYC hospital. This surgeon is heavily involved in Doctors Without Borders.

The selection committee uses a precise calculus to determine the winner of the internship/scholarship. In the event of a tied score, the selection committee interviews the two candidates, and they have lunch together with the famous surgeon. (Let's give her a name. Dr. Cannon. Assume she's a placeholder character much like the pretty girl at the party. You may stand in for her if you want to.)

Johnny and Draco are meeting each other and Dr. Cannon at this lunch for the first time. The lunch is at a white-tablecloth place. Hushed music. Heavy silverware. Well-trained waiters.

They have an external conflict. Obviously. They're competing for a scholarship.

But here is your assignment. Just by being in the room together, even without the external conflict, these two will be projecting needs, values, goals, and hiding aspects of their shadow selves. Your job is to think through how they interact on this level. Consider:

-- What do they see in each other that makes each of them feel uncomfortable about themselves?

-- How do they each handle that discomfort?

-- What do they see in each other that makes each of them feel good about themselves?

-- How to they each handle those positive feelings?

-- How does the environment impact their interaction? What does it highlight about their interpersonal conflict? What do they order for their meals, and why?

-- Finally, how do they try to control their self-image to each other and to Dr. Cannon?

AFTER you've considered these questions, write the scene. But do think about the core conflicts first. Don't settle for what is easy and obvious. Dig deeper. Think it through. You might find some surprises along the way.

There are no wrong answers to an exercise like this. No two writers will handle the same core conflicts in exactly the same way. Your interpretation of character and behavior is part of what gives you a unique voice.


By the way, Drago's story is real, except that he did not survive. Author Kate Rothwell a/k/a Summer Devon works with the women who did survive that day. Look here for photos of the sock booties they make and sell. Look here for details on ordering their handiwork. They make great holiday gifts. Just sayin.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pulling for the main character

This posted on the wrong date, so I copied it again, and Jordan's comment--

Wes said: Many books state that writers should cause readers to pull for the MC. Well, duh......but few books if any discuss how to do it. I can see some obvious ones such as being an underdog, having a noble cause, being a likable guy/gal, having a lot to lose, but what are some other specific techniques?

I wrote a long article about this-- Sympathy Without Saintliness.

Okay, so I'm going to be difficult, which is, I know, a really sympathetic trait. I actually think nobility is NOT a sympathetic trait, and I don't think sympathy is very much connected to motivation. (It can be. And new writers should start there, maybe, so that they don't accidentally create unsympathetic characters. But let's let others address the newer writers and let's discuss this for more advanced writers, who already know that the character probably needs a past and a motivation. I say "probably" because I bet some of you could write a great character without either. :)

So what works? Well, many things do-- as I say in the article, I think "struggle" is the key-- readers sympathize with struggle more than success. This makes sense, because struggle implies conflict, and we all know: Conflict is the fuel for the plot, and for characterization too. It's also more interesting psychologically. You want a recipe for sympathy? Remember this: "I learned more from failing hard than I ever learned from succeeding easy."

I'm going to pose a question here. Can you come up with the same basic scenario of character action, but in the first:
Character does the wrong thing for the right reason (noble/sympathetic motivation).
Character does the right thing for the wrong reason (selfish motivation).

Choose one (or both). Can you quickly sketch a sequence of events/actions that will make a character sympathetic with either of those, your choice?

And think about whether one process is more appropriate for a particular type of book (for example, right thing for wrong reason is a great set-up for comedy-- can you make that work for a non-comedy?).

So you try it. Maybe take a character of your own and speculate about some action or reaction you're thinking about happening. How will this play out differently if it's wrong thing/right reason vs. right thing/wrong reason? Does this help with sympathy?

at 7:38 AM
Labels: characters

Jordan McCollum said...

I can second that Alicia's article is GREAT about this! I also really found How to Write a Damn Good Novel II helpful on this. And a couple months ago I had a whole blog series on creating sympathetic characters: http://jordanmccollum.com/series/creating-sympathetic-characters/

I'm going to ponder your scenarios while running, and I hope I'll have an answer when I get back!
September 21, 2009 6:28 PM

Another mark of the amateur

Here's a real mark of the amateur-- when you're not using the perfectly sensible, accessible, and learnable techniques that help a reader know what you mean, like names instead of pronouns or recasting the sentence to identify who is thinking, acting, speaking; punctuation and paragraphing to make it clear what's happening. You have to go beyond what you know in your head (you do know who is saying what) to see what you've put on the page, and how to revise to make this understandable to the reader.

This is an adaptation of an actual submission (I changed everything but the structural issues):

Hal said, "I've always wondered. Have you forgiven yourself yet?” He shook his head. How could he forgive himself? His parents had lost their life savings because of him. He'd gotten caught up in the adrenaline rush of starting a new company, and they were his parents, and they wanted to support his efforts. And he wanted them to be proud of him, the first in the family to make something of himself. “How much was it?”

He turned abruptly to face his tormenter.

“The bankruptcy court hasn't figured it out yet.”

“And you never wanted to ask them what it cost.” As Hal touched his arm, he felt the sympathy. But one person forgiving him—everyone forgiving him—wasn't going to make it right.

(And it goes on like that-- Hal speaks, "he" reacts/thinks/acts in same paragraph, and it's all very jumbled.)

When I read a passage like that, I figure I'm not dealing with an accomplished writer, because this writer has no understanding of what is happening in the passage, what the reader will be experiencing while reading.

(And yes, of course you can go beyond the conventions of paragraphing and punctuation... if you know what you want to accomplish and know when you've accomplished it and when you haven't. I'm all for that... but I also think if you do it well, the editor or agent will probably understand what you're doing. :)

This is especially important in that first couple paragraphs. There's a real tendency to want to shove too much into the first paragraph, and often this is shown in very long complicated sentences. (More accomplished writers tend to the other extreme-- they are often so cryptic that I can get a page into the story without knowing what's going on.) But as you know, if you lose an editor on the first page, you've lost her forever. You don't need to be clever or innovative in those first paragraphs-- clarity matters most. (That doesn't mean that you have to tell all, or that the reader has to know everything-- but the reader should know what you want her to know, and be intrigued enough to keep reading.)

Anyway, another in the long-running "mark of the amateur" series. But you guys aren't doing that stuff! So often I think I'm preaching to the choir. (At least you don't make me blow on a pitch-pipe!)


Foreshadowing with Recurrent Images

Last night on Mad Men, we saw a great example of foreshadowing by repeating images.* I want to briefly look at how they did it.

First, Lane (the miserly, uptight Brit currently running Sterling Cooper's offices) is given a stuffed snake in a basket. His bosses mean it to represent his promotion to head of an office in India. But because Lane knows he's being shunted aside, it's symbolic of power and failure all in one glance. This dangerous snake can't bite anymore.

Next, in the context of a private meeting to discuss business, Conrad Hilton shows Don a pair of cartoon ads featuring a mouse. When Don points out that nobody wants to think about a mouse in a hotel room, Conrad admits the mouse is his idea. We're meant to conclude that Don is better at this than the guy on the cover of next week's Time magazine, but the cartoon character mouse is also symbolic of something else, I think, something juvenile, something to do with immature -- as in not fully grown -- concepts.

Finally, Don attempts to explain his lack of greed by telling a story: Some snakes can go months without eating, and then when they finally catch a mouse, they are so starved that they can eat too quickly and suffocate to death on their meal.

That's it. That's his story. Snake eats mouse and dies.

We don't need next week's preview to let us know that the Hilton account will go badly because of Lane's poor stewardship, do we?

But here's the question I haven't been able to answer yet. When you have paired symbolic objects like this -- two snakes, two mice -- those pairings are not accidental. So. We also have two Genes. Grandpa Gene and baby Gene. This was a big issue in last night's episode. Young Sally is all freaked out because she thinks baby Gene is actually Grandpa Gene. Wakes up screaming, ditches her gift-from-Gene Barbie in the bushes, all sorts of troubled-child behavior.

And there's already a suggestion of immaturity with the mouse, and of death with the snake.

How do the two Genes fit in with the two snakes and two mice? Do they?


*This isn't quite the same as motif (recurrent images or statements used to develop theme), leitmotif (pairing two unique items so that the presence of one always indicates the presence of the other -- think dun-dun music and the shark in Jaws) , ordinary symbolism (an object used to indicate an abstract idea), or "Chekhov's gun" type foreshadowing (which allows for no unnecessary objects, such as stuffed snakes in baskets). But those are posts for different days. :)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Johnny, Dressed in Layers

You're at a cocktail party. A young man walks up to you and introduces himself.

"Hi, I'm Johnny. I'm a status-seeking pre-med student with a low tolerance for financial instability and a moderate tolerance for emotional instability. Can I get you a drink?"

Yeah, that ought to woo the women.

We very rarely craft our self-images to project our emotional needs (even though the end result might betray those needs). But we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how we hope to be, the image we wish to project, and what we want others to think of us.

It's something more than simple self-image. It's a combination of self-image and projected image, with a healthy dose of hiding just to keep things interesting.

If you're at all familiar with astrology, you might already have some basis for understanding this concept. (We're going to file this under "things I learned in creative writing school.") When an astrologer casts a natal chart, the first three placements identified are the sun sign, the moon sign, and the rising sign.

The sun sign is a person's core personality, the foundational traits which will always make up part of their character in some way. These traits can be magnified or diminished by other factors, but they're still pretty constant. When we say things like, "Geminis have quick minds," or, "Capricorns are good with money," we're usually referencing a sun sign trait. And when we read our horoscopes in the newspaper, we're reading for our sun signs.

When creating a character, the "sun sign" part of it will be things like long-term goals, backstory, immutable traits, socioeconomic position, career path, and the other enduring, big-picture factors that can be used to define the basics of who that character is. When a character defines himself or herself, these traits will factor strongly on the list. Example: Betty Draper is an upper-middle class housewife who worked briefly as a model before stepping in to her expected role of wife and mother. She has three children, a husband, and one married brother. She enjoys riding horses and uses and English saddle. Men are strongly attracted to her, and she places a lot of value on appearances.

The rising sign is the person's external or public personality. Think of this like a layer of external traits on top of the core personality, much like a layer of clothing over the body. Just as line and color and texture of a dress can influence the way the body looks, the traits of the rising sign can make a character "look" a certain way. Rising sign traits are often the first things we notice about people, even though they are often not the most important.

When creating a character, the "rising sign" part of it will be how others see the character. It's a mixture of projected image and actual impact on others. Part of thinking through this part of the character requires us to understand where a character tries but fails to create certain impressions. Example: Betty Draper is well-spoken but she doesn't have much to say. Her person and her home are meticulously well-maintained, but she does little of the actual maintenance work herself, though she does think she struggles to maintain a "perfect" facade. People think she's naive, pampered, and lucky, but when they get to know her better, they feel sorry for her. The impact she has on people, therefore, depends somewhat on how well they know her.

The moon sign in a natal chart indicates the hidden or shadow side of ourselves. This is the part of ourselves we hope people won't notice, the part we try to leave out of our public personalities. This doesn't make this part of us less real or valid. It also doesn't mean it's an automatic negative. But it does mean that we might not be quite as accepting of these parts of ourselves. The moon sign, in some ways, points to where we will struggle.

In creating a character, the "moon sign" often relates to our deep emotional needs and how we try to obscure them. These are the parts of ourselves we don't want others to notice. Is the character insecure? Hot-tempered? Afraid of her own basement? These might be seen as flaws, but they don't have to be outright bad traits. Think also of the ways a character indulges in self-sabotage (the dieter who hides candy in her sock drawer), takes a good trait too far (is he a saver or a miser?), or tries to obscure his upbringing or cultural background (the white suburban kid who dreadlocks his hair and tells you it's iree). Finally, think of the traits people will know only when they know us well. Everyone might know the man on the corner who is the high school football coach, who has outfitted his garage like a boxing ring, who drives a Hummer and wears the blackest sunglesses and the toughest leather coats. How many people also know that he grows and breeds show violets with his wife? How might he explain this when it becomes known, and what does it say about his self-image?

How does this relate to Johnny? We've already defined some of his core externals (pre-med, good student, etc.) and some of his shadow-self needs (status, and the ways status manifest for him). But there's more to it than this. How does Johnny want people to see him?

Johnny won't talk openly about seeing the world as a hierarchy and wanting to be as close to the top of the heap as possible. He will talk about money (which frequently masks another emotional need) and his elevated tastes. He might joke about being high maintenance. (This would be a joke to him, because we can diminish the dark part of ourselves by laughing about it.) He might use one obvious aspect of his shadow self to try to deflect attention away from the truth. Example: He might talk about his love of a good meal in a fine restaurant in terms of the food and flavors and choices, but in fact he thinks most steaks taste pretty much the same and he chose this restaurant because it's the "best" in town. There's a chance he won't admit even to himself that he would be just as happy with a Big Mac. We frequently turn a blind eye to our own shadow selves.

But this doesn't mean we can escape them. Johnny will dress and walk and talk a certain way to cultivate a certain image. Whether this effort yields success, and at what point people begin to see through it to his deeper self, is part of what makes people -- and fiction -- interesting.

So. You're a beautiful young girl at a cocktail party. You see a man, Johnny, across the room. Tell me--
1) What he is wearing.
2) What he does when you make eye contact with him.
3) How long it takes him to approach you.
4) How he approaches you.
5) What he says when he finally reaches you.

(Because, when it comes right down to it, lists of traits are nowhere near as interesting as watching a person with those traits in action. This is storytelling.)


Friday, September 18, 2009


Remember our discussion of anti-heroes? I just discovered some anti-heroines!

Well, two.

Sarah Connor in The Sarah Connor Chronicles (sadly cancelled).
Gemma in Sons of Anarchy.

Anyone familiar with these?

Notice a certain similarity--
Both are older (older than 35 anyway). Not nubile.
Both are outlaws (one on the run from The Terminator, the other the matriarch of a motorcycle gang)
Both are highly sexual, though Sarah tries to deny that part of herself
Both -- this is probably REALLY important-- are mothers of teen or young adult sons who are the sons of murdered fathers, and are themselves in constant danger
Both are physically tough and emotionally resilient

Gemma (I like her MUCH more, not sure why) is actually based on Gertrude in Hamlet, though she's more Lady Macbeth-with-a-cause. (Sons of Anarchy is a modern Hamlet, btw-- Hamlet is Jax, Claudius is Clay.) But Gemma is ten times tougher than silly Gertrude.

Anyway, I wonder if you're more likely to be an anti-heroine if you're Of a Certain Age... and the mother of a son you love fiercely.

Anyone watching SOA?


Don't undercut the drama

I actually like underwriting, where you strip your prose of the more heavy-handed indicators of emotion and drama. You say, "Her anger," not "Her blazing anger," or you let the character's body express the emotion. Or you might use irony-- He got it. She was slightly pissed.

But remember the big moments should probably FEEL big. Not exaggerated, but as big as they are. You might achieve this by underwriting (I -love- it when a moment POWs with subtle language). However, there's a danger here. This underwriting at dramatic moments should be intentional (or effective, at least). You don't want to undercut by accident.

There are two ways you might accidentally undercut the drama of a big scene. One is placement. For example, usually the most intense emotional scene is positioned right before a big turning point scene, like the crisis. You want to work up to this, with a series of scenes building up the tension, then the Big Emotion, and then the Big Reaction. No burying it in the middle of the book between two low-key scenes. And reaction is essential. You don't want the reader thinking, well, the hero seems utterly unchanged, so it must not have been dramatic after all.

The other way to undercut drama is to use dismissive and undramatic language. Sometimes, of course, this can be effective-- if you do it well. But generally, if the hero is spurned by the woman he's loved desperately, or the heroine is defeated by a hated rival, or he finally comes clean on something he's been hiding, or she learns the truth about her parents... your prose should reflect the power of the event. This isn't the time to resort to cliche:
The jar was empty.
All those crumpled dollar bills, collected in twoyears of waiting tables on the midnight diner shift, meager tips from the drunks and the derelicts and the disappointed, were gone. Stolen.
Oh, well, win some, lose some.

Just as bad would be:
She was pretty unhappy.

Dramatic writing doesn't have to mean lots of pounding adjectives and high-strung verbs. Let the body show the emotion. What would be a good action or sequence of action to show her despair at finding two years of savings gone? She replaces the jar on the shelf. Then what does her body do?


Big Bird Says...

Today's post is brought to you by the letters R and U.

Come on over to Romance University, where we're talking about how to deliver bad news to your writing partners. It's not easy, but that doesn't mean we have to make it hard.

We'll also be talking some more about our friend Johnny, the status-seeking pre-med student, over the weekend. Johnny needs a few more layers, don't you think? :)


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Deepening Your Characters

There are a number of methods for deepening your characters, but today we'll look at just one: Identification of dominant needs.

Typically, genre fiction writers think in terms of goals and motivations. "Johnny wants to ace his finals because it will help him get into med school."
Goal = good grades.
Motivation = acceptance into med school

This is fine, and you can build a sturdy plot this way, but you might end up with slightly flat characters. We don't know anything about Johnny's core characteristics at this point. You might be thinking that we can extrapolate certain characteristics from the core facts, but can we? Johnny might want to ace his finals, but he might also want to watch the ball game. Is it safe to assume he has the self-discipline and focus necessary to study simply because he "wants" good grades? Or is it possible that is competing desires might be stronger? The truth is that although a person's goals do say something about that person, they might not say enough to be accurate predictors of behavior.

The way to get around this is by digging deeper into the motivation to find the dominant emotional needs. You're probably already doing this on some level. If you find yourself asking "Why?" frequently when examining your characters, you're trying to dig past the wants and into the needs. But this can also lead to flat and even circular reasoning. If you've spent much time in writers' brainstorming groups, you've probably run into conversations something like this:

Why does Johnny want to go to med school?
To become a doctor.

Why does Johnny want to be a doctor?
He wants a stable job with good pay and benefits.

Why does he want this kind of job?
Uh, doesn't everyone? Beats the hell out of living under a bridge.

We're getting nowhere because we're focusing on externals. It may be true that people want good pay in general, but that doesn't tell us much about Johnny in specific. As a character he may be an expression of universal human tendencies, but that doesn't mean he can be generic. So how do we get past this generic or universal external desire and into the gears of Johnny's unique mechanism?

Try taking the external goal away, and see where it gets you. Johnny wants to go to medical school so he can become a doctor and have a good job. What if somehow Johnny is precluded from attending medical school? Is he still the same character, or do the changed externals change his personality, too? Or, to put it another way,

Why does he choose medicine over some other stable profession, like law or big business?
When he was a kid, he heard someone say, "Don't be a plain Mister Jones when you can be a Doctor Jones." It stuck with him.

Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. The money might be a good rationale for this profession, but there's also a deeper emotional need at play. Johnny wants status. Money is an external symbol of that status, but other things are, too. How else would Johnny express his need for status? Clothing, housing, designer luggage, expensive haircuts -- all these status symbols might be deeply important to Johnny.

Johnny might be the kind of guy with an expensive car, too, but it's not because he's a risk-taker. He doesn't speed. He pauses at intersections and lets people get a good look at him in the driver's seat. And unlike the guy who buys the exact same car out of some need for attention, Johnny won't squeal his wheels when the light turns green.

I want to pause a moment and consider what we've just done. We started with an external fact or goal, worked inward to the core emotional need, and are now turning it around to work back out. We're examining that emotional need for other ways it might express itself in Johnny's life. Johnny buys that car because of what it says about his status. By identifying the core need expressed by his car, we can also figure out how he drives it.

By doing this inside-out analysis, we might also identify some self-contradictory behavior. Let's think about Johnny's lady for a moment. Notice that when Johnny first started explaining why he'd chosen medical school, he referenced stability as a goal. If his core emotional need was for stability, he might choose his spouse early in life and then make darn sure their marriage was a contented one.

But if his dominant need is for status rather than stability, and stability is merely the need he's willing to cop to in public, then will Johnny marry young? Maybe not. Not unless he manages to snag a supermodel or the sorority president. And even if he does land a girl like that, he might also go for some side action as an expression of status. Because that's the rumor: high-status males get more nookie.

So now what we have is a status-seeking male who claims to value stability (and who might, in fact, value it to some extent, especially in financial matters) who undermines the stability of his personal life by joining the girl-of-the-week club and/or cheating on his wife.

We can complicate this further. If his need for financial stability is greater than his tolerance for personal instability, Johnny might avoid cheating because he doesn't want to lose his house in a divorce. So instead taking his side nookie to a nightclub, he'll go to the same club on date night with his spouse and flirt with the waitresses, but he'll only dance with his wife. Now he's satisfying multiple emotional needs: He has the status-symbol wife on his arm, the status-enhancing flirtation, and the stability of a public display of loyalty to his wife. Plus, at the end of the night, there's little risk that his wife will take half of everything.

So, now we understand that mining a character's emotional needs can help us understand why they do the things they do. They might even help us predict how a character will behave in a given situation. Next time, we'll look at how a writer can use all this to exploit conflicts.

Any questions? If not, I have one for you. Does Johnny study for his finals or watch the game with his friends?


Pulling for the main character

Wes said: Many books state that writers should cause readers to pull for the MC. Well, duh......but few books if any discuss how to do it. I can see some obvious ones such as being an underdog, having a noble cause, being a likable guy/gal, having a lot to lose, but what are some other specific techniques?

I wrote a long article about this-- Sympathy Without Saintliness.

Okay, so I'm going to be difficult, which is, I know, a really sympathetic trait. I actually think nobility is NOT a sympathetic trait, and I don't think sympathy is very much connected to motivation. (It can be. And new writers should start there, maybe, so that they don't accidentally create unsympathetic characters. But let's let others address the newer writers and let's discuss this for more advanced writers, who already know that the character probably needs a past and a motivation. I say "probably" because I bet some of you could write a great character without either. :)

So what works? Well, many things do-- as I say in the article, I think "struggle" is the key-- readers sympathize with struggle more than success. This makes sense, because struggle implies conflict, and we all know: Conflict is the fuel for the plot, and for characterization too. It's also more interesting psychologically. You want a recipe for sympathy? Remember this: "I learned more from failing hard than I ever learned from succeeding easy."

I'm going to pose a question here. Can you come up with the same basic scenario of character action, but in the first:
Character does the wrong thing for the right reason (noble/sympathetic motivation).
Character does the right thing for the wrong reason (selfish motivation).

Choose one (or both). Can you quickly sketch a sequence of events/actions that will make a character sympathetic with either of those, your choice?

And think about whether one process is more appropriate for a particular type of book (for example, right thing for wrong reason is a great set-up for comedy-- can you make that work for a non-comedy?).

So you try it. Maybe take a character of your own and speculate about some action or reaction you're thinking about happening. How will this play out differently if it's wrong thing/right reason vs. right thing/wrong reason? Does this help with sympathy?


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The myth of sentence variety

I was talking to an author last week, one I regard as a terrific stylist, and of course I had to drag her into my pondering of sentences. I asked, "What do you do to vary sentences?"

She regarded me with some confusion. "What do you mean, vary?"

"You know, make them different lengths, so you don't have two short sentences in a row."

She said slowly, "But what if I need two short sentences in a row? I'm not going to make a long sentence just because the one before is shorter."

"But what if too many short sentences in a row sounds too juvenile?"

"It would only sound juvenile if I wanted to sound juvenile. If I wanted to sound terse, it would sound terse. It's not the length of the sentences that I care about, but what they convey, and if what I wanted to convey went best in a bunch of short sentences, that's what I'd use. If not, I'd use sentences that do what I want."

I didn't bother to ask her about intro participial phrases, because I figured I knew what she'd say. If she needed a sentence to start that way, she'd start it that way. Otherwise not.

What's the point here? It's the meaning that matters. It's the effect that matters. Sentences should be designed to convey some meaning, and whatever length or opening creates that meaning, that's what writers should start with. Now of course, if the sound is wrong, if the sound of the sentences together detracts from the meaning (which is greater, of course, than just the surface meaning of the words in sequence), the writer should explore why and how to fix that-- if one sentence needs another beat, or if starting with a placement preposition ("In France,") would set the stage more efficiently. But the hard part is writing sentences that mean what you want them to mean, and putting them together in an order that adds even further meaning, and adding the connectives and keywords that increase the coherence.

Sentence variety is a minor consideration, if that. If the paragraph or passage sounds wrong, sounds repetitive, if the information is redundant, those are all reasons to revise sentences. And the lack of variety might be a symptom of one of those. But it's just a symptom-- lack of variety in sentences is not, in itself, a problem.

In fact, if you follow a mental set of rules (don't begin two sentences with the same word... don't have the same opening construction more than twice in a paragraph), you will very likely be depriving yourself of some important tools to make your prose stronger-- musical and meaningful.

Just keep that in mind-- if you want more poetic prose, read poetry to discover the useful poetic devices. If you want more musical prose, listen to music to get a sense of the musical devices.

And you know one thing both poetry and music have in common-- repetition. Yep. Repetition of words, phrases, and constructions.

Here's an example (from the immortal Smokey):
I don't care what they think about me
I don't care what they say
I don't care what they think if you're leaving
I'm gonna beg you to stay

I don't care if they start to avoid me
I don't care what they do
I don't care about anything else
But being with you being with you.

Now that "I don't care" repetition isn't just musically appealing (though it is). The accumulation of "I don't care" makes each stanza sound defiant, and more than that, establishes the stakes here-- the singer is choosing his girl over everyone else. He's telling us with the "I don't cares" what he is being warned, what will happen if he makes this choice.

Now there's art to this-- you see in both stanzas three "I don't cares" and then a capping line (one that, btw, finishes the last "I don't care," which adds to both the forward propulsion and the coherence of the stanza). That is, the identical sentence structure of the two stanzas (which is very common in popular music) connects the two thoughts, and also then highlights the distinctive final lines.

One thing repetition does is focus the attention on the non-repetition. You pay more attention to the change because you're used to the repetition. So, in fact, a repetition of phrasing or structure BEFORE an important thought will subtly let the reader know that it's important. (So again, if you want to hide a clue, don't put it in the "important" position-- put it in the middle and make the structure and/or phrasing repetitive-- the reader might "elide" over it and not give it too much attention.)

Here's a poetic example. TS Eliot, a master craftsman (oh, yeah, good thinker and all that stuff too), often used repetition at the beginning of stanzas to unify the stanza or connect it with other similar stanzas:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

(This is the poem that ends with "This is the way
the world will end, not with a bang but a whimper."
It always reminds me of a friend's brother, whose
ex-girlfriend broke up with him to start dating
a more "suitable" young fella, one who worked
in a bank. The brother said ruefully, "And that's
the way the world will end, not with a whim
but a banker."
And I ask you-- which guy would you choose?
The one who works for the bank? Or the one
who can -- just like that-- make a twist on Eliot?)

So every stanza (this is, btw, near the end)
starts with a "Between (this) and (that)"
and ends with "falls the shadow".
Is the repetition a problem? No, of course
not-- it's the point.
By repeating that formulation, the poet focuses
on the connection and separation of the pairs,
and the reader has to think, "What is
the shadow between the idea and reality?"

And the precision of the repetition of the stanzas
contrasts with the sudden insertion of those comments
("For Thine is the Kingdom").

Yeah, yeah, that's poetry. But prose can sing too,
and you can use that "music" to draw attention
to a conclusion, a striking metaphor, or a theme.

I'm not trying to get you to be repetitive. Rather
I'm trying to refocus your thoughts onto what sentences are:
1) Units of meaning, and
2) Parts of bigger units of meaning (paragraphs and passages).

What creates meaning, what creates the effect you want,
in sequence and in combination-- That is a good sentence.
Paying too much attention to non-meaning factors (like making
the opening sound different) can actually detract from
your ability to give the reader the experience
you mean them to have.

Get the meaning right first. Know what that is. Know it
inside you before you write and before you revise.
(It might help to free-write here before you start.)
Then let your desire to communicate this to the reader
guide you to the best preliminary construction. Then check
on the big things-- is this in the right point in the
passage? Do you need some kind of transition to connect
it to what comes before? Is the sentence clear so the
reader can get your meaning (or however much of it you
want to convey right now)? Is there some poetic or
thematic thing you want to echo in here?
(And of course, if you're writing in character voice,
are there any words or formulations that don't sound
like that character?)

Get that stuff right, and then I don't think the
construction will worry you, because the sentence will
be meaningful and interesting and go well with the
rest of the paragraph.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Resolution scenes

In more character-driven books (where the internal journey of the main character is important), the final scene isn't just a way to ease out of the story, but an essential last chance to show how the internal conflict is resolved in some actual but symbolic action. This is why the final scene (after the climax) is often called "the resolution scene," because it shows the resolving of the internal conflict. (The scene doesn't RESOLVE the internal conflict-- that's done through the process of the entire plot-- but this is your chance to show in some concrete and yet symbolic way that the conflict is resolved and that has some measurable effect on her life.)

BUT... it probably helps to think this scene through and make sure you've set this event up and aren't undercutting the significance.

For example: Let's say you see Joan's journey as something like "alienation to reconciliation". The final scene might be her visiting her mother's grave-- see? Reconciled to Mom.
However, if she has been going to Mom's grave every year on Mom's birthday, this gesture loses its force. You've undercut the power of it in your setup... yes, even if you make a big point that this is NOT Mom's birthday. Come on, "Visiting Mom's grave on June 20 instead of July 19" doesn't show a real journey ending.

But if she's been unable to go to Mom's grave at all, out of guilt or anger or whatever, then her going to the grave at the end will show a real change.

Let's try another. I'm a sucker for stories where a cynic is reminded of the importance of whatever by association with an innocent. So here's a scenario:
A handsome and cynical rogue of a space pirate (sigh... you cannot believe how many of my buttons just that description pushes) has won a pretty little ship in a cardgame. He won it from, I don't know, the fellow that built the ship, or something that indicates a deeper connection between the first owner and the ship than Pirate has. (Makes me wonder why the original owner gambled it away then... but that's another story.)

Innocent youngster stows away on the ship. He/she is being chased by bad guys. But his/her innocence, though a subject of amusement to Pirate, ends up winning the day, and Pirate ends up less cynical because of exposure to the blushing naif.

Final scene after bad guys are thwarted: Pirate says, "I'm giving the ship back to the original owner."
Now see how this loses force if he says (and it's true), "I always planned to give the ship back after this voyage." That means that the exposure to the innocent and the events of the plot didn't change him. He's just following through with the planned return of the ship.

But let's change that. He NEVER meant to give the ship back. He was going to use it to secure his fortune and fame as a pirate. But then, after exposure, etc., he has changed. In the last scene, he turns the ship around (and notice that an actual action towards giving it back is going to be stronger than him just saying he'll give it back), and says, "Okay. It's his ship. I'm taking it back to him."

That is, set this up so it's a real change in his plans, in what he thought he was going to do, in what the man he used to be (when the story opened) would have done. Only then will the resolution event have the symbolic significance of the end of the journey.

And I want to stress again that this should be An Event-- an action on his part, not just a thought or change in attitude or decision or avowal, but an action that concretely shows that. Not "I love Mom again," but going to Mom's grave. Not "I'll give back the ship," but turning the ship around and heading for the owner's home planet.

Now one question: If you were writing this, would you go back and make it clear that he had cheated in the card game to win the ship? Or would you have it be that he won it fair and square? (No right answer here-- just your thoughts on which would work better from your perspective.)


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Interpreting body language, etc.

Jami said about Theresa's great post:
Thank you for this post. My question is - how can a writer tell when they've put the "right amount" of information in? Since I know the whole story, it's hard for me to know if I'm including enough information for the reader to draw conclusions. I
want my story to have to make the reader think things through and not just spoon-feed it to them, but how do you find that happy medium?

I feel like I've been going back and forth on a teeter-totter with this issue in my WIP. Take for, example, facial expressions. In real life, you can't know why someone makes the facial expressions that they do, so I often try not to include an explanation. I'll state that the POV character notices someone's eyes narrowing, but I don't say "in anger" or "in confusion", etc. But feedback readers have told me to add more to that to explain why the other character is doing something. To me, that seems out-of-POV and spells things out too much. Is my approach right, wrong, or just confusing? :)

I know you're going to tell me that to have that deft balance of revealing/concealing, it takes a skill or talent or experience or something that I just don't have yet, but any pointers would be helpful. :)

Jami, I'd suggest thinking about how the narrator/POV character interprets this... esp. if the interpretation is wrong. Let's say she sees that he's turned away from the sight of the body, and she jumps to the conclusion that he's grossed out by the blood (a perfectly sensible interpretation). But in fact, though the POV character can't know it now, it's guilt that is making him turn away.

That is, she can interpret the body language or expression, but HOW she interprets it should tell more about her (she's always giving people the benefit of the doubt, or she's really proud that she's tough and doesn't have to turn away from the gore, maybe) than it tells about the "target" character.

The point of POV is to reveal what this viewpoint character sees, but more important, how this POV character feels and thinks about what she perceives. This way you get both-- the narration of the world around her, which the reader can make use of, and also the thought/feeling that reveals more about the narrator.

What do you think? It's a pretty subtle way of adding another layer of characterization... but also I think draws the reader in and makes the reader work a bit-- "Okay, that's one interpretation of what he's doing, but..."

The Words Not Spoken, The Steps Not Taken

I'm reading Stone's Fall by Iain Pears, an exquisitely talented mystery writer whose first book, An Instance of the Fingerpost, is a near-perfect clinic on first person narratives. This new book is gorgeously written in reverse chronological order similar to the movie Memento, but covering a much broader time span.

But I'm struck over and over again not by the structural pyrotechnics but by the simple way he incorporates missing details that lesser writers might just leave out. Instead, by referencing the words not spoken and the actions left undone, we get a richer, more complex narrative. This is not an author who merely watches scenes unfold in his head and then records where the characters are standing and what they are saying. This is an author who embraces the totality of events from every angle.

Here's the first place I noticed this technique, on the bottom of the opening page. We're at the funeral of a woman so old that the narrator, a friend from decades ago, didn't realize she was still alive until he read her obituary in the morning paper.

It was a fine enough service, I thought, although I was not an expert. The priests took their time, the choir sang prettily, the prayers were said, and it was all over. A short eulogy paid tribute to her tireless, selfless work for the unfortunate but said nothing about her character. The congregation was mainly freshly scrubbed and intense-looking children, who were clipped around the ear by teachers if they made any untoward noise. I looked around to see who would take charge of the next round, but no one seemed to know what to do. Eventually the undertaker took over.

The paragraph goes on to describe the plans to inter the body and the procession of pallbearers. But by that point, the main work of the paragraph has already been accomplished. Pears hasn't once referred to the deceased woman's family or close friends, but we all understand they are not present. It's probably the main point of the paragraph, and it's made so obliquely that an inattentive reader might fail to draw the conclusion.

So how does he do it?

That phrase, but said nothing about her character, jarred me right out of the otherwise mild and pleasantly correct catalog of details of a very old woman's funeral. Instantly I wondered why the eulogy of an old, rich woman known for her charitable works would not reference her character. Normally, we might expect such a eulogy to talk about her kindness, her warm heart, her empathy or her sympathy. That's the key signal: Hey! Wake up! Important things are missing here! Pay attention to what's being left out!

Then we get fidgety children and casually brutal schoolteachers. There's a sense of duty attached to their presence, but no real feelings of mourning. Then the service ends, and right at the point where a family member or other designated spokesperson would talk about the next steps in the process, no one steps forward. But Pears handles it so deftly that but for that earlier key signal, we might not reach the proper conclusion.

A lesser writer might have written something like,

While the choir sang, I looked for familiar faces but found none. Of course, she'd never had children of her own, but what about the rest of her family? I also couldn't find a single representative of her husband's family. Or her second husband's family. No friends. No one even close to her age. No one but the dutiful and the curious and a cluster of children from the charity school she founded.

To be candid, that's not an entirely ineffective technique, even if it lacks Pears's masterful sleight of hand. A narrator who notices what's missing is an engaged and thoughtful narrator, and he's more likely to be interesting than the narrator who merely watches the scene unfold and records,

It was a pretty church with a small altar and vaulted ceilings. The pews were filled with school children from the charity school she'd founded. They fidgeted while the choir sang prettily, and their teachers clipped their ears to make them stand still. The priest gave the eulogy and talked about her many charitable works. It was a fine service, I thought, and at the end of it, the undertaker invited us all to the interment that afternoon.

Do you see how that works? It's a technically smooth paragraph with many of the same physical details as the Pears paragraph. But without the active mind of the narrator noting what's missing, the writing feels flat.

This is a technique Pears uses over an over to great effect. Look at how he focuses on what's missing here:

Not all journalists are editors, not all artists are members of the Academy. John Praxiteles Brock, my fellow lodger, was not then a success; his torment at having to look out every morning at the proof of unattainable glory in the next street was balanced by his desire to rub shoulders with the famous, who might assist him in his career. He would come home occasionally bubbling with excitement and pride: "I said good morning to Sargent this morning!" or "Henry MacAlpine was buying a pint of milk in front of me today!" Alas, it was rare that either said good morning in return. Perhaps his desperation frightened them; perhaps the fact that his father was a sculptor (hence his unfortunate middle name) of retrograde opinions and unpleasant temper put them off; perhaps they felt that youth has to fight on its own. Now he is more successful, Brock gives little encouragement to others, either.

Gorgeous, isn't it? Look at all the ways he uses negative statements and awareness of what's missing to paint a clear picture of this character. Can you spot them all?

A writer's work is as good as her powers of observation, and this includes a sensitivity not just to what is recordable, but to what is missing. Pay attention both when you're reading and observing, and ask yourself, What is being left out? How is it relevant? Because there's more to good storytelling than recording where the characters are standing and the words they speak. Sometimes the most significant details are those the characters leave out.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In Which a Famous TV Writer Sees Things My Way

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this in my season-four Mad Men predictions:

I can't explain why, but I find Don's position the least interesting of all those set up for us last night. So, he arranged to have Betty's senile father move in with them. So, he prevented Betty's nasty brother from glomming onto Daddy's house and all its contents. So what?

This week, in only the fourth episode of the season, Betty's senile father fell down dead while buying peaches in the A&P. It's not too surprising, really. There wasn't enough meat on those story bones to sustain an entire season. Don is not engaged enough in his home environment for this to have made much difference to him. It was a flat conflict, and now it's done.

This was a mostly unremarkable episode (that is, entertaining and well-written, but without as many surprises or aha insights as we've come to expect). There were two powerful moments in terms of emotion and storytelling. First came when Betsy closed the door on little Sally Draper after learning of Grandpa Gene's death. Betsy is a lousy mother (except to that neighbor boy, Glenn, who alone of all the children can capture her attention). And poor little Sally Draper -- Don had better start setting aside a nice chunk of each paycheck for her future therapy needs. I don't know whether she'll end up in a drug-soaked commune or in a hospital on permanent suicide watch, but her parents clearly are grooming her for a tragic end.

The second powerful moment came when Sal danced the Anne Margaret commercial knockoff for his wife. Sal won't be able to keep that closet door locked much longer. He's losing the battle of Sal v. Sal by inches. He's one of the most interesting characters this season, a true tragic hero, and I can't wait to see what happens next with him.

We're being set up for more conflict between Don and Betsy over their mutual withdrawal from the home and family life, and Peggy is going to continue to surprise us as she emerges from her cocoon, and Joan's husband, if he continues on his current path, will not be long for this world. He'll disappear one day, and she'll serve a tasty "venison" stew buffet-style in that lovely chafing dish that was a wedding gift from the chief surgeon. Bye-bye, Dr. Rapist! Joanie, you simply must give us your recipe! (Okay, maybe not, but Joan is holding on to her job at Sterling Cooper for a reason. That's her safety net when her sham of a marriage fails.)


College shouldn't be for-profit... except for students

I'm going to link to this article about a for-profit online college not because I agree with it (I don't), but because I want to give you a different, shall we say more practical, perspective. I think what he's writing is dangerous for students, because it's directing them to a prospect that probably won't pan out. If you have friends or young relatives who are thinking of alternative higher education, please have them think it through and really investigate the situation, and start NOT with for-profit but their own state schools.

There are plenty of reasons that prospective students might have to look beyond the traditional four-year public or private college. Maybe you live in a rural area. Maybe you screwed up in high school and barely graduated, or just have a GED. (Many soon-to-be great students, btw, weren't great successes in high school.) This is why most states have extensive community college systems, to provide an alternative track to education.

I'm a community college teacher (I also teach at a 4-year college, and I've taught at both state and private schools), and I know this: You can get a 2-year degree or two years of college, fully transferrable, fully accreditable, at most state community colleges, no funny stuff needed, for about $3000 a year (and most students qualify for federal and/or state aid, which makes it cheaper). You can take that $6000 first two years of college to most of the state's 4-years colleges and get full credit, and you'll pay more for the last 2 years, but you will still get a 4-year degree accepted as a real degree at any graduate school, the military, and any employer.

And most students don't need to go far for either in-person or online education. Most states have a community college system with transferrable credits and many, many campuses. (My own in a medium-sized state has 23 campuses.) And you can also take many of the lower-level (freshman) courses, the required ones, online either at a community college or a big state school (University of Maryland has a very extensive online system, used by many in the military-- full disclosure here-- I tutor online in their writing center). It's cheaper, of course, if you take the courses in the state where you reside (much cheaper). But there is extensive financial aid available, and extensive advice on all this, at the colleges themselves.

And when you finish, you have actual credits. I don't know if you get a great education-- though I teach online, I'm the first to say that in-person classes can be better -- but then, I think you can get a great education online at Podunk Comm College or a terrible education in-person at Harvard. It depends very much on the student's desire and willingness to work hard. I just hate to see those virtues exploited as they traditionally have been by the for-profit college education companies (I don't know if this one in the article is exploitative, but the history of the industry makes me pessimistic). Yes, non-profit colleges also engage in chicanery (I think they often make freshman classes onerous so that students will pay tuition and then drop out), but at least, if you persist, the degree is worth something. (I'm a firm believer that the purpose of all this is knowledge, wisdom, all that good stuff, but you know, my students aren't wrong to think that there should be a more pecuniary reward too. And, uh, I know from experience-- the only way they can be charging only $99 a class is by trimming teacher-student interaction to the barest minimum, which means probably there's not a lot of wisdom-transmission going on.)

The only profit that can be made from selling college education, I fear, comes by ripping off students in some way. Education isn't a profitable pursuit. It's not supposed to be, and it never has been, and it never will be.

If you know a prospective student who is unsure of how best to return to college, please suggest that he/she call the state community college and ask to speak to an admissions advisor. (They can email me, too-- arasley@ivytech.edu.) Most comm. colleges accept GED-- in fact, most have classes preparing you for that test-- and also help you get CLEP credit (which gets you college credit for life and occupational experience). And the advising is free, and so is the help to get financial aid. Every community college has had many thousands of students and the staff and faculty have a lot of experience working with non-traditional and returning students.

I just never want to talk to another despairing student like the young man I met last month. He'd taken 4 classes at a for-profit school. He was the first in his family to go to college and didn't have a lot of knowledge about it. He paid $4K, most of it financed by student loans. The courses couldn't be transferred. He never got the cushy job they'd suggested he would get, and he ended up defaulting on his loans... which means that he can't get any more student loans when he goes to an accredited school. He was so sad. And he felt betrayed, because here he'd tried hard to raise himself, to challenge himself, and someone exploited this to rip him off. He thought it was his own fault.

Say what you will about state universities and their monopolies and all that, and the terrible tuition increases every year (very little of which, btw, goes to teachers :). But the non-profit colleges and universities are filled with dedicated faculty and staff members. And they aren't in it to get a profit. Few of us would be working for such low pay if we didn't love students and want to help them. :)


Monday, September 7, 2009

Getting away with it--

I have noticed a sort of interesting attitude in some submitters. It's that the trick is "getting away with it". You know, say I point out that a four-page long prologue all in italics (because, I guess, it takes place in the villain's head) might be kind of annoying. (I'm making this particular issue up, as the attitude is the important thing.) And the submitter comes back with (rule #1-- don't argue when you're being rejected... it doesn't help), "But (insert bestselling author's name) got away with it!"

"Got away with it." It sounds sort of childish, doesn't it? "But you let Ryan stay up till nine last week, and that was a schoolnight! How come he can get away with it and I can't?"

Sure, I know it's infuriating to be told that you've done something wrong, when you know for a fact that publisher, maybe even that very editor, let someone else get away with exactly this. Maybe you left out quote marks, and you know Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain did just that and got away with it. Or maybe you start with a line of dialogue, and someone like, well, me, points that out as a particularly egregious obnoxiousness, and you go to your bookshelf and pull out FOUR books that start with a line of dialogue!

Or maybe the editor rejects with a comment that your opening situation is cliched, and "we're looking for fresh premises," yet (insert Old Dinosaur Author's name) is published by this house and no one can figure out WHY she's still getting published, since she is on her 50th book using the same characters (just changing the names). How come she can get away with being boring and repetitive, and you're just using a conventional opening scene and you get dinged?

Is that fair????

Possible Answers:
1) No. It's not fair. Neither is life. How old did you say you were?

2) (Big name author) did it right. You did it wrong. Maybe the editor says your use of all that Regency detail is didactic and dull, and you point out that (insert best-selling Regency author, if you can find one :) had all that info about tin mining in Cornwall in (book title), and all the reviews said that the detail made the world of the book come to life. So how come she got away with it, huh? Well, maybe she deftly inserted the detail through character-- hero is a mine owner, heroine's father died in a mine collapse, while you relied on page-long info dumps of research material, barely changing the Wikipedia wording. Doing something at all is not the same thing as doing it well.

3) She did it better than you did, or differently, and you're remembering the general (italicized prologue) and not the specific (villain's POV). Maybe that italicized opening worked for Big Name. Maybe she did amazing things with it. Maybe this villain's perspective is really fascinating, so fascinating that the editor agreed to leave in the italics, which would draw attention to the villain's careful controlled raving... but yours was not so good, and all the italics did was hurt the reader's eyes.

4) You're right-- you do it just as well or better. But the publisher has never made a dime off you, and he's made a lot of money from Big Name, and is willing to cut BN some slack, or rather, has to do that or BN will go elsewhere.

5) You're right-- BN's plots are totally redundant and it's embarrassing. (I agree, and say everytime that this is the LAST BN book I'll ever read!) But you know, BN has this readership that will read everything he writes. It's a guaranteed 75K sale-- in hardcover. Your story, on the other hand, might be done better, but "better" isn't actually what BN's readers are looking for. They like the comfort and familiarity of the themes and treatment.

6) Yep, redundant. But BN's agent had lunch last week with Matt Damon's agent, and Matt was stuck in the Boston airport and had nothing to read but the 10th in that series, which his agent had stuck in his carry-on, and he hadn't read the other nine in the series so wasn't struck as we are by the repetitiveness, and guess what-- by the time the flight arrived at LAX, he called and optioned the film rights. Does your agent lunch with Matt Damon's agent? No? Too bad, so sad.

7) You're right-- yours is better done. But that author was sitting next to the Managing Editor at a banquet and it turns out they both love dogs, and both had lost their pets recently, and they held hands and cried together about Fuzzy and Rover, and Author told Managing Editor about this great project where you can adopt a retired racing greyhound (who would otherwise be euthanized), and the brindled former champ "Diddy" came to live with Managing Editor, and Diddy is so loving, so great with the grandkids, and Managing Editor wants to bring Author as much happiness as Diddy has brought the family.... There might be a lot more involved here than you know, or could possibly replicate.

8) This agent has one, count 'em, one author who writes needlepoint mysteries, and she's not about to take on a competitor. Her loyalty goes to her current client, not a submitter, especially a better one.

9) Yes, back in the past, what you and BN author did with sentence fragments was just fine, great, in fact, post-modern and all that. And we all used to think leg-warmers were sexy. Jennifer Beals still looks pretty good in leg-warmers, and besides, Flashdance was so cool. Back then.

10) True, Editor doesn't like this thing you did that BN did too. Editor can't tell you this, but he went to the mat arguing with BN about this, and BN brought in her agent-- you know, the one who is BFF with Matt Damon's agent-- and there were veiled threats made, and Editor's company just laid off three editors, and this really wasn't a good time to alienate Big Name Author and Big Name Agent, so Editor backed down, and has thought ever since that he was a big coward, that he should have made a stand on that issue, and he's vowed never to let that Whatever into another book. Even if it means that he rejects the next Harry Potter.

11) You argue with Editor about this Whatever, and she was thinking of working with you, and now she thinks about what it be like, working with you when you argue like this, and life's too short.

12) You use those words, "But you let someone else get away with it," and it sounds real juvenile, and this isn't a children's literature publisher.

You know the bottom line here? What counts is not whether Cormac McCarthy "got away with it." What counts is whether the story works for the reader. And if you're submitting to an editor, any single element can make that story not work. Maybe it worked for Cormac, maybe it didn't. But whether it worked or not for him, the fact that he did it doesn't make yours right.

First go back to your story. Imagine you're the reader. Does this thing, whatever it is, contribute to the reader's experience-- in a way that the reader will appreciate? (I say this as someone who thinks that a reader will really be a lot better off for having read my mini-history of how West Virginia seceded from Virginia-- really! It's part of American history! You have a problem with learning more about history?) And maybe you're right-- the reader will LOVE it. But the reader will never see it if--

Well, you know the end of that sentence.

I remember Laura Kinsale (who does amazingly dangerous things in her plots and prose and "gets away with it" because she's BRILLIANT) wrote an article about "when you get the call" (from the editor), and she kept repeating, "How badly do you want to sell this book?" Well, how badly DO you want to sell this book? Badly enough that you'll change that prologue from italics to Roman font? Badly enough that you'll ditch the whole prologue? Yes? Well, it's time then to humbly thank the editor and go off and make the changes and resubmit and hope that is the ONLY problem she had. Your story is more than that one thing, or it better be. It might even be lesser without that-- but maybe it'll be better, and anyway, maybe it'll be more saleable.

But what if you don't want to sell it that badly? What if the issue isn't just the font, but something so integral to your vision that you simply can't change it? Well, okay, just don't go all sulky and pre-teen and pout about how someone else "got away with it." You really can write something brilliant that isn't going to sell to this publisher. Or maybe any publisher (now). Maybe it's really, really good. Maybe this thing you're doing (the thing Susan Howatch got away with :) isn't wrong, is terrific, but is just too experimental or innovative for traditional publishing... now what?

Well, know yourself. Know your work. Don't idealize here. It's time to evaluate as objectively as you can whether the story is as good as you think. (Put it away for a bit first.) If it is-- if you have your own certainty AND some objective evidence, like contest wins or editorial regret ("This was a very hard decision for me...") or an agent's support-- then start thinking about your options. (First, love yourself for having written something wonderful.) Traditional publishing is not the only option. (And even if it is, you have options-- waiting a couple years and resubmitting, getting another agent, submitting to hardcover houses rather than softcover or to smaller regional presses....) You can self-publish. You can go with a non-trad press. You can break new ground and try some interesting web-publication (a scene a week in a blog? Hey, why not?). You have a lot more options now than ever before. Don't sell yourself and your story short, so pay close attention to your rights and the reversions thereof. The traditional publishers might actually be MORE interested if you sold 10K copies in e-format, or if your "Twitter-novel" has a thousand followers. You need to have accessible print rights to take advantage of such an opportunity.

Keep looking for options. Recently an author sold an English-language novel to a Spanish publisher (it was translated and published there). Some novels have been turned into screenplays and sold that way (of course, you lose the italics then :).

Just don't whine. No "but so-and-so got away with it!" That sort of attitude doesn't just alienate editors and agents. It gets in the way of your understanding of your own story, because that attitude is All About You, and the story better be About More than You. This is about connecting the story and the reader together. If Whatever Thing works to help that, good. But it doesn't work because someone else got away with it. You have to pull away from the personalizing of this situation, thinking of the editor or agent as a parent and other authors as siblings or even rivals. Go back to your story. This isn't about you, and it's not about what you can "get away with."

I don't think it's delusional for you to think that a book can be wonderful and still widely rejected-- been there, endured that :)-- but I do think it's unproductive to think about this in terms of "getting away with something." If your story is really good, see if it's measurably harmed by losing whatever is identified as a problem. And if it is, then you have decisions to make... fortunately, you also have options. You have many options. But you can't reach those options or make good decisions unless you can be objective and thoughtful and analytical about your story.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

adjective punctuating

Okay, let's present this as an issue. :)

Let's say you have two adjectives before a noun. When do you put a comma between the adjectives and when not?



Assemble that-- with or without comma?

How about






Also, would the rhythm of the sentence or the pace of the passage (action scene maybe) affect your decision?


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dependent clauses and commas

Mystery Robin said...

Quick follow up question re: your "because I failed Algebra" example. I thought "because" was always preceeded by a comma, just like 'and' or 'but'.

Is that not a hard and fast rule? Or not a rule at all and I'm just confused?

"And" and "But" are coordinating conjunctions. That is, they (among other roles) connect two independent clauses, and yes, in that case, they are preceded by a comma (or rather, the first independent clause is followed by a comma and the conjunction to the second independent clause). This is called a "compound sentence" because it connects two units of equal grammatical weight (both independent clauses-- can be sentences on their own).

But "because" is a subordinating conjunction, which subordinates or makes a clause subordinate, dependent rather than independent. The dependent clause cannot be a sentence on its own. When you use a dependent clause with an independent clause, this becomes a "complex" sentence-- complex because you are presenting a distinction between the two elements, one being more important (the main/independent clause) than the other.

The "because" (or "although" or "as" or "before" -- there are a couple dozen of these) is called the "subordinating conjunction". The rule is-- when the dependent clause comes first in the sentence, there's a comma after it. But when it comes AFTER the main clause, there's no comma.

I occasionally put a comma in there to separate the independent/main clause from the trailing dependent clause, especially with "because"-- when? I think when it's clearly a conclusion and the comma signifies that, or when it's non-restrictive (not necessary).

But the rule is, dependent clause comma independent clause.... independent clause no-comma dependent clause. Of course, here I go again-- if we know the rule, we can then violate it for a desired effect, as long as we understand the editor might change it back. :)

Let me see if I have a link to a punctuation website.

Leading and Trailing Modifiers

Someone asked if we're as skeptical of trailing participial phrases (those after the main clause) as leading ones (those before the main clause). Good question. The main answer is-- I'm skeptical of almost any modifier (participial or no) before the main clause. That doesn't mean I think they're all bad, because they're not-- often we need some essential bit of information (time or place, say) to get the full impact of the sentence. Additionally (just like that, in fact:), a transition (like "additionally," I mean) can serve to link this sentence with previous ones, smoothing the bump there to the new thought.

And sometimes what are called "phatic phrases" (relatively meaningless turns of speech) can add the necessary few beats for cadence, or make a polite deferral ("Needless to say"), or invite some ritualistic bonding ("As we all know").

That is, leading modifiers can have functions beyond actually modifying the subject (or the whole sentence, as many of them do). And of course, some of them legitimately modify the subject and fit well there, letting the reader know something needed to be known before she gets to the main clause.

However (another transition :), placement of modifiers ends up being more important at the beginning of the sentence. For reasons I'm not clear on, usually intro modifiers are "bound" in some way to the immediately following words. Well, you know, if you think about how readers figure out what a sentence is saying, they are accumulating meaning as they read, and in the beginning of the sentence, they need everything to go together in order to get the right meaning. So it is more important to have the modifiers modify the nearby words when those first six words are all there are so far. Bound modifiers are usually "restrictive," required for the meaning of the sentence because they restrict the modified word in some important way. ("The woman who had been waiting for him"-- the subject is not any woman, but the one who had been waiting for him.) So it's important if you have a modifier that restricts the modified word to keep those close together so they are read and understood together.

By the end of the main clause, the readers have a lot more context and perhaps don't need as much connection. (This is why, btw, dependent clauses at the -start- of a sentence are followed by a comma, but when they're at the end of a sentence, they're usually not preceded by a comma-- Because I failed algebra, I couldn't take calculus vs. I couldn't take calculus because I failed algebra.)

Modifiers after the main clause are more likely to be considered "free," and they aren't likely to annoy as much if they don't modify the nearest noun or if they're adverbial and modify the predicate instead of (as many adverbs do at the start) the whole sentence.

Now I'm kind of coming at this backwards. The issue is not actually whether a particular modifier goes at the beginning or end. The issue is that the start of the sentence is an important position, and that's why the reader is going to interpret what comes at the start as important. And if you start with something inessential, something that is "free" and unrestrictive and could go elsewhere in the sentence, you might be wasting that valuable real estate, that chance to set context or focus the reader's attention. Many of the modifiers that get edited out seem to have one reason for being at the start of the sentence, and that's not "context-setting" or "transition-making" or anything that helps create meaning for the reader. The reason often seems to be "varying the opening construction", and that is seldom sufficient reason to "bind" a modifier that might be better elsewhere.

What to do if you have four sentences beginning with "he"? First, determine if that's truly a problem here (sometimes it's good for rhythm or emphasis or alliteration or balance to start a group of sentences the same way). If it is-- if the repetition is annoying or distracting-- think about using what might be essential introductory material, like a time-marker (In 1816,) or a transition (However,) or a necessary bit of information about this subject (The president of Switzerland,) or what they used to call a "sentence modifier," a word (usually just a word-- not sure why) that is meant to affect the whole sentence (like "Frankly," or "Regardless,"). That is, find something introductory that adds to the meaning of the sentence, that starts the meaning, in some essential way. (Sometimes, yes, this can be a participial phrase-- just not all that often. Why? I think probably it's because a participle is supposed to be an action, and if it's an important action, it might be better in the main clause, and if it's not that important, it shouldn't be starting the sentence.)

Notice that most of these important introductory things are short-- a few words or less. (Intro dependent clauses, especially "If" clauses, tend to be longer, and often I end up making them independent clauses, or transferring the conditional-- if-- to the second position. But dependent clauses-- because they're clauses with their own subject and predicate-- can be longer even at the beginning... easier to understand and accumulate the meaning when there's a subject/verb.) Shorter intros will "hide" the repetitive opening ("he"), while offering some essential piece of information ("In 1816") without burying the lede (main clause) too deep.

Okay, that was as clear as mud. But do be thinking of the start of the sentence as a place where you want something important, even essential, to the understanding of what is to come. This usually just isn't a good place for a mere place-holder, though paradoxically it's often a good place for that "phatic" phrasing. So much of "polite speech" (which phatic speech usually is) is meant to beat around the bush, to blunt the sharp point of the sentence, and in that case, burying the lede (there I go with the mixed metaphors again) is actually sort of the point. Needless to say, in point of fact, as we all know :), in that case, go ahead, put soothing filler at the start of the sentence-- just don't dull the point so much the reader doesn't get it.