Sunday, October 31, 2010

Prologue in queries?

Query Shark deals with a submitter who sends five pages, all prologue. She says that none of the characters mentioned in the query show up in the prologue, so it seems like another book. And she says, "That's one of the (many) problems with prologues. When you query with pages, start with chapter one, page one. Leave OUT the prologue."

What do you all think? I mean, of course, if you query her, follow her rules. But is this a good general rule? Her point is that a prologue usually only makes sense when you read the rest of the book, and so isn't necessarily a good "opening" if you're only supposed to send 5 pages or 10 pages. I tend to agree, but what do you all think would work?

Those of you who write prologues, how do you handle this?

Also, how do you handle it in the synopsis? Do you have the events of the prologue listed as the prologue in the synopsis? Or??

And if you write prologues, do you ever feel totally besieged by negativity from others? Everyone keeps saying, "Prologues=no!"


Friday, October 29, 2010

Opening with theme

Submission slush again. I've been reading more openings, and I keep coming back to the need to focus-- on something, character, setting-- but just ONE thing in the first paragraph. Too many writers string together a bunch of long sentences that jerkily introduce the character, the setting, the other characters-- it's hard to know what's important.

Think about starting the book with a hint of the theme. This is a lot easier to accomplish probably if you've finished a draft and have a good idea what your theme is. But I think it's
important to realize that it's the process of reading the book that creates the theme, so the actual theme or message should maybe start in the opening, but not be stated out-- the reader evolves understanding of the theme through the whole book.

So how can you "open" a theme? (And of course, you don't have to do this in the first paragraph!) Well, a couple thoughts. You can sort of set up a question. For example, here is the opening for
Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery":

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 2th. but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

See how it opens the question: What is this lottery? And it gives a few clues-- it's right around Midsummer (or just after the solstice-- I never figured out how Midsummer can be just a week after summer starts). It's scheduled (10 o'clock, ends by noon), and it's not unique-- other towns
have a similar lottery. But it's important. It's held in the town square, and everyone from the village comes. It seems kind of like a celebration, but certainly an accepted annual ritual.

But it doesn't answer the question. It just poses the question and gives some clues. The story as a whole answers the question, and it's through the process of being lulled into thinking from the opening paragraph that this is some ritualized holiday, boring, perhaps, but traditional, that
develops the real theme about what Arendt later called "the banality of evil," the domestication of brutality. That is, we need this happy, flower-strewn opening to set up how paradoxically horrible people can be to each other. (It was, not coincidentally, written shortly after the Holocaust.)

So one thing to do in the opening is pose (subtly) a question.

Another thing to do is to start a motif, and the motif here is numbers, the "o'clock," the number of hours, the number of villagers, the date. That of course will support the theme of the sort of mechanization of brutality, mimicking the Nazis' preoccupation with efficiency and numbers.

Finally, the opening can establish a tone. This is, in fact, probably more important than starting the theme going. The tone tells the reader a lot-- is this a comedy or not? Should the events be accepted as real or figurative? Is this going to be internal (within a character) or external (outside/omniscient)?

This doesn't mean that you have to start exactly as you're going to go on, but there probably ought to be a progression of tone. For example, the above paragraph starts "happy," with positive words like "morning" and "sunny" and "fresh," and references to flowers and grass. But that "fertility" motif (which is what it really is) is immediately undercut or maybe deepened by that mechanical focus on numbers. That is, there's a rapid progression AWAY from the happy talk, suggesting that the summer and the village square and the ritual celebration are somehow deceptive.

Now watch how the tone becomes slightly ominous in the second paragraph. There's still the ritual nature of the tradition, the sort of "ho-hum" attitude. But watch how individual words get a bit more unpleasant:

The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play. and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix-- the villagers pronounced this name "Dellacroy"--eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys. and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.

And of course you see how Jackson starts repeating that word "stone," which not only sets up the plot action, but also starts another motif, the stone, the stony attitudes of the neighbors, the implacability of tradition.

So just an example. Think of the opening as not primarily designed to establish the FACTS (though it's nice to do that), but to set up the tone and the "question" if you can. In fact, I'd really suggest that if the opening doesn't just come to you perfect -- you know how that sometimes happens-- you might not worry too much about the facts and rather "feel" the tone of the opening and write from that. Or choose one motif you want to get going on, and work from that. It's a start, so you should just start, and then see if you need to add anything later.

Generally, for example, the opening paragraph states the name of the main character. That lets the reader know "who am I"-- who is the central character, whose POV this is. Why
might Jackson have decided NOT to start with the character of Tessie (the one who becomes central)? In a way, I think she's saying that this is about the village, not the victim, that Tessie is randomly chosen and thus isn't actually as important as the process of choosing her. The
-process- is really the focus of this story, and so the story starts with the process, the assembly on a certain date and time, in a certain place.

So no do or don'ts, because I've learned my lesson. :) What works works. Don't do an opening because it's trendy or because some famous author "got away with it" (I hate that term-- so middle school) or because an editor described it as cool. What's right for your story? What's the
best way (or merely a good way maybe!) of getting your reader into the story? Of introducing your reader to you as the writer of this story? (I mean, the author theme and worldview-- we rather quickly get that Jackson, for example, is somewhat grim and shall we say, not touchy-feely warm fuzzy in her approach.)

As I said, I think it can be good to start with the sort of beginning of a question, maybe sneak in a motif. But the real purpose is to get them to read on. You can abuse this-- and many authors do-- by starting with a clever hook that doesn't actually match the story but is like a crash on
the side of the highway or a Real Housewives fight-- weirdly compelling yet oddly empty. (You do NOT want the reader going to Chapter 2 feeling ashamed of herself for falling for that trick. :) But you don't need tricks to interest your reader. You need, uh, something interesting and
connected to this story. (No false advertising! Don't start with a fabulous glitzy opening scene if the story is actually about a small town... unless, of course-- here I am with the no don'ts-- you want to contrast the glitz with the mundane.... which could be cool-- but you have to do that contrast. It's probably not enough just to have the glitzy scene and then the farmyard.)

Openings are hard. Really hard. And there's no shame in waiting till you have a draft all done and know what themes and motifs and conflicts the story will develop.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Characters Who Speak Other Languages

This question comes from Jessica Lei.

Theresa, I have a question that I'd love to hear your opinion on. I'm writing a fantasy story where my characters aren't speaking English, but (obviously) I'm writing it in English. It's come up that I might want to mix around some words or phrasing to represent that difference.

When you see a book you're editing that's in 'another language,' do you want the characters to sound like a normal person speaking English? Does it strengthen the book if these people categorically think and speak in a slightly different manner than normal? Can a writer rely on imaginative consent for this?

Jessica, this comes up pretty frequently, and each time it does, I find it's best to consider the question in the context of the work as a whole. In other words, I don't use a bright-line test that applies to all works across the board. What's appropriate in one book might fail in another.

I acquired and edited a book called Kitsune by Lila Dubois. (Link to Kindle store version.) Kitsune is based on a Japanese myth about a supernatural fox/woman/sprite thingie who speaks no English at all on page one. She's smart, and she's got amazing superpowers -- including the ability to fill suitcases with clothes and shoes just by looking at magazine photos WHICH WILL TOTALLY BE MY SUPERPOWER WHEN I EARN MY CAPE -- so she learns conversational English pretty quickly. But for the early part of the book, we had a heroine who spoke only Japanese, a hero who hates his Japanese roots, and a heck of a decision on our hands about how to handle their dialogue.

Step one for me was finding a native Japanese speaker to vet all the Japanese the author had written into the text. It's not enough, I find, to use someone who studied that language. Native speakers understand idiom and syntax differently than book-learners. In this case, Lila's Japanese turned out to be spot-on, though I have had instances with other books and other languages where we had to edit the foreign phrases. There was a good bit of Japanese in Kitsune, but it was all in dialogue. When we were in Joe's point of view, it was easy enough to leave the Japanese dialogue intact and let his confusion guide the reader, as here:


“Hello,” he said.
“I don’t speak Japanese.”
“Hai. Nihongo o hanasu.”
“No, I don’t. I can’t understand you.”
The kneeling woman tilted her head slightly to one side, causing a faint stirring in the long black hair that shielded her body.
“Watashi ga itta koto o ikani shitta ka?”
“Don’t you speak English? Who are you?”
“Watashi no namae ha Sakura de aru.”


This works in part because Joe is voicing the reader's own lack of comprehension, so instead of alienating the reader, we've helped the reader enter into Joe's experience at this moment. So the context actually allows us to get away with more Japanese there.

Because this story has a paranormal slant, we were also able to take some liberties later in the text. When Joe needs to start understanding her speech, it is magically delivered simultaneously in both Japanese and English:


“May I touch you? You’re very beautiful. I want to know you.”
“Hai, hai, yorokobasu tame ni watashi ni fureru koto ga dekiru.”
The words echoed, Japanese and English layered over one another, though she was the only speaker. He nodded.


Lila came up with that on her own, and I thought it was a clever work-around. Obviously, it won't work in all cases, but you know, when you have magic in your book, you might as well use it. This provided a nice sensual detail in the layered sounds, and it aided reader comprehension and got us past the "I don't understand you" phase of their first scene.

Nathalie Gray did something similar with her French-Canadian heroine in Heartless. (Kindle linkie again, and again, this is one I acquired and edited.) I'm going to quote a larger chunk of the surrounding narrative here so you can see a bit of the context.


Another level she climbed. Another, then another. Wind hit her square in the face as Anne-Marie crested the roof ledge. Around her, rooftops bristled with antennas and satellite dishes, sheds, vents and chimneys. Her stomach in a knot, she ran across the roof, her soft boxing boots crunching on gravel and tar, and reached the other side only to realize she wouldn’t be able to clear the gap to the next building. Not without a lucky jump.
Merde, de merde, de merde .” She chanced a glance behind her. Nothing. No smell, no sound. Was it gone? Had it even existed? Was she going completely nuts?


Even without the sound layering thingie, and even without any knowledge of basic street French, we can all probably understand that the French there is an expletive, and we might even correctly guess that merde = shit. And I think this is really the crucial point: it's all in the context. If meaning is suggested by context, then you have more room to play with foreign words.

We might be tempted to look at the foreign words and phrases and evaluate them on their own. And there are ways to evaluate those foreign bits that will help. Here are a couple of things I look at when evaluating the foreign phrases themselves, without respect to context.
  • Length. Shorter bits are easier to absorb than longer ones.
  • Frequency. A once-in-a-while merde will go down easier than long dialogue exchanges.
  • Familiarity. Some foreign words are just better known that others. If an Italian guy says, "Salut," we probably all know what that means. But how many of you can parse a Polish guy saying, "Dziekuje"?
  • Common roots. Some words appear similar to their English counterparts because of shared linguistic roots. (And because English is a dirty thief that steals whatever it likes. *cough*) So when Edith Piaf belts out, "Je ne regrette rien," a mindful reader will see "regrette" and recognize it as a fancified version of "regret."
But really, even with this analysis, context is still crucial. Examine the word choices themselves, but also look at everything surrounding them. The key question, as with any other piece of writing, is whether the reader will be able to get on board with what you're doing. If the answer is likely yes, then laissez les bons temps rouler et bonne chance!


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The case against torture

I'm watching that new Sherlock Holmes fanfic show-- I mean, Sherlock in modern times. I spent way too long wondering why they chose a Sherlock who looked like a young Mick Jagger.

Anyway, Sherlock solves the mystery, of course, and then he's alone with the murderer who is dying of a gunshot wound (Sherlock didn't shoot him). As the man is dying, Sherlock demands the name of someone (the person who told the murderer about him?). The man refuses to talk. Sherlock then grinds out something like, "You may be dying, but you can still feel pain!" And then he steps on the man's wounded shoulder, and grinds his boot in. The man screams and tells him the name.

Now really. I know that torture has become not just allowable but cool, and that it's been used for years in 24 as a plotting short cut to get Jack Bauer whatever information he's too lazy to get any other way. Heck, Jack's a thug, really, and it's not actually out of character for him to resort to torture. In fact, he's just a big torture machine.

But Sherlock Holmes? Huh? The most brilliant detective in (fictional) history? What? The great detective who can look at another man and immediately deduce that he's recently returned from Afghanistan, that his limp is psychosomatic, and that his recently divorced brother is a closet alcoholic? He can't detect the name? He can't talk the guy about to die around to a deathbed confession?

No, it's easier just to resort to torture, because, you know, gosh, everyone's doing it.

"Everyone's doing it," however, should be a great big STOP sign for a writer. If everyone's doing it, it's not what your unique, individual, intriguing character should be doing. If you've created a hyper-rational, highly intellectualized detective, well, your readers want to see how THAT type of detective works out a problem. Anyone can resort to torture. Too easy, and whenever something's easy-- well, that's another signal that it's the wrong event for your story.

Think how much more interesting it will be to plot out an action that comes out of this character's unique set of skills and values, an action that reveals something about him as he acts in that way.

And torture-- well, really, would you want the torturer to come home and move in next to you and start dating your daughter?

Torture harms the torturer as well as the victim. But the easy resort to torture writers? They probably have no interest in exploring the consequences of such an act on the character.

Lazy plotting makes for inadequate writing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Get It On The Page

These things come in waves -- one week, everything I edit has jerky, arrhythmic dialogue, and the next week, it's all clumsy tags or draggy exposition or murky motivations. I don't know why it happens that way. It has an almost woowoo metaphysical feeling sometimes, something like when three people in a row will randomly mention their car tires to you, and then you get a flat the next day. Things just clump up like that sometimes.

So a while back, I had a run of about three weeks in a row where everything I edited led to in-depth discussions with authors about whether they were accomplishing their authorial goals. The conversations went something like this:

Me: We need to understand why the character does XYZ here.

Author: He does this because blah blah blah....

Me: But that's not on the page.

Author: Okay, but, he wants to blah blah blah....

Me: Then put it on the page.

There are two basic problems underlying conversations like this one. First, the author is sliding into defending the work instead of fixing it -- a common problem in critique relationships, but not something an editor is likely to engage in. We'll listen to a certain amount of that, sure, with the goal of helping you to fix the work. But at some point, it has to stop being about what the author hoped to write, and start being about how to write it better. In other words, it's not enough for you to tell me, "This is what I was trying to do here," unless that defense leads to a solution.

And that leads to the second problem underlying these conversations. The author had a clear idea for the scene and characters, perhaps, but it's not coming through on the page. An author can defend it up, down, and sideways in a conversation with her editor, and it's not going to put any extra information on the page.

And the author will never get to have that conversation with her readers. In the end, the only thing the reader will have is the actual text, the actual words on the page after the book is finalized and sold to her. Those words have to tell the story in a way that makes sense. Those words have to satisfy the reader's desire for interesting and coherent characters, strong and dramatic conflicts, and scenes that appeal to the mind and the heart. (And maybe other parts, too, if you write erotic romance. heh Related note -- I once had an author who forgot to write the climax to a sex scene. The scene itself was a good five or six pages long, so it was well developed and certainly entertaining. Just no, er, fireworks at the end. Luckily, that was an easy fix of the "get it on the page" variety.)

Now, we're not talking about secrets and mysteries here. We're talking about ordinary motivations and information necessary to scene and plot development. Get 'em on the page, and if someone tells you, "I don't understand this," resist the urge to defend. Channel that energy, instead, into a revision that will make everything clear to the next reader.


Proofreading difficulty

A student passed this on with the heading "Why proofreading is so hard":

Why is proofreading your own work so hard? This passage about a Cambridge University study helps explain it:

The huamn mnid is so pufowerl it can dcodee tihs txet eevn tguohh eervy sglnie wrod is slepled iocenrtclry. The one cavaet is taht the frist and lsat lertets are pervresed in erevy wrod. Cidrgbame Uitesirnvy cetoudncd a sduty and fnuod taht the biarn deos not raed eevry snlige lteetr, but wodrs as a wohle.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Sandburg Dinner

My poor little digital camera really got a workout last night, and it didn't quite stand up to the task of photographing the stage. The lighting in the room made things tricky to begin with, and we were in the cheap seats. ("Cheap" in this case meaning a thousand dollars a plate. The library foundation raised over $1.1m last night. Woohoo!)

In any case, that's the only photo that comes even close to showing the glory and beauty of those two ladies. Toni Morrison, on the right, was wearing the prettiest brocade shawl edged with beaded fringe. I wish the picture did it justice.

I did take a lot of photos, some of which are at the bottom of this post, but let's start with a recap of Toni Morrison's comments. What a charming, sassy, brilliant lady. She is so poised, and she slipped with ease and grace from joking to deeper, more serious commentary. I could have listened to her for hours -- hell, days -- and been fascinated throughout.

She discussed her process a bit. Here's a surprise. She doesn't read at all when she's writing a novel. At all. She's composing a new novel now, and she said someone sent her a book, and she started looking at the first pages but had to hide it away because it was too good. She wanted to read it, but couldn't allow herself to do so. This contradicts what so many of us are told -- read, read, and read some more -- but it just goes to show you that there's no accounting for process. We all must do what suits us best, and in her case, she doesn't want to get caught up in someone else's sentences when she's trying to stay caught up in her own.

She referenced sentences several times throughout her talk, and I came away with the impression that for her, sentences are really where it's at. Not vocabulary (she describes her word choices as "plain" and "ordinary"), and not scene (which she never mentioned in the context of process), or structure (which she only mentioned once, when quoting a review of "The Bluest Eye" that panned the book for having no beginning, no middle, and no end). But over and over, she referenced sentences and how she likes to play with them, how she reads for sentences when she does read, and so on. I kinda dig that, and I think it shows in her work.

She also talked a lot about character, and for her, the generative process seems to be built largely around the task of creating characters. She said she starts by assembling the cast and learning their names. Then she "listens" to them -- she got several laughs by describing how they won't shut up and only ever want to talk about themselves -- until she understands them "in the marrow." And then, she said, she just puts them together and watches the book unfold. She spoke frankly about her failures when she had time to write, and did write, but didn't yet understand the characters deeply enough. She talked a lot in terms of active preparation for the moment when the writing would be ready for her. I had a hard time gauging how long this part of her process lasts, but it sounds as though it could be several months. She says she does other kinds of writing during these periods, but doesn't read.

She also talked about how things in publishing have changed since her first book in 1970ish, and she spoke in strongly positive terms. She says things have changed much for the better. She said in her early days, serious books by African-American authors were expected to be read only by white readers. Here's one of my favorite quotes from the evening: "Invisible Man? Invisible to whom? He's not invisible to me."

So against this backdrop, she aimed to write a book that would not be too "simple" (which is how she described books aimed at African-American readers back then) but that would be culturally authentic. She spoke candidly of her dismal sales in the early days and of her confidence that the books were good, regardless of the readership. (She has a lot of confidence in her work, and she's always careful to distinguish between her work and herself. I found that sense of separation interesting.)

Her breakout book was "Song of Solomon," which is a personal favorite of mine. When asked why that book was able to break through to a bigger readership, she said it was because the main characters were men and were therefore more appealing to a wider readership. It's worth noting, though, that by this time her books were appearing on university reading lists, and the new generation of readers might have acquired a taste for her prose style. I can't prove that to be the case, but her readership was certainly growing by then.

In any event, she says that things are much better now for African-American readers and authors, and that there's more crossover these days. (My opinion -- probably still not enough, but we're making progress, I hope.)

One thing she said that surprised me, and I'm not sure I can agree with her on it. Oprah asked her for her reaction to having her books slotted in with magic realism. Toni Morrison claimed that magic realism is a literary ghetto, made so by a small group of British literary critics who adopted a sort of post-colonial colonialist attitude when discussing the works of Garcia Marquez and other magical realists. She said they would never apply the term magic realism to the work of a European writer, and she specifically cited Kafka's Metamorphosis as an example. But even if I can appreciate this sentiment, I can't get behind that example. Some analysts have slotted Kafka in with the magical realists, though most call him a modernist, surrealist, existentialist, etc. He's just hard to pin down, I think, both because his work was so innovative and because it spawned so much diverse literary energy in other writers. But that's a minor quibble.

Want to see some photos now?

When we first arrived at the venue, there was a cocktail and canape thing happening in a large curtained-off room. A jazz band was playing, and though I'm not generally a big fan of jazz, I thought this music set the perfect tone. Also, the quail's eggs were delish, and I'm told the steak tartare was worth a try.

When we entered the main banquet hall, the walls were lit with photos of the libraries and with quotes about libraries and books. These slide shows were very nicely done. Though, really, the whole event was so beautifully composed that even if Toni Morrison hadn't spoken, it would have been a memorable night. The table centerpieces were green-shaded library lamps and stacks of freebie books, another artfully composed touch.

Some of the quotes:

Some of the library snapshots:

So, you want to know what you eat when the ticket price starts at four figures? It ain't a rubber chicken plate, I promise you that. We started with quiche and an amazing field greens and olive salad.

Then us vegetarians had butternut squash ravioli seasoned with nutmeg -- so incredibly good that I think I will forever sprinkle my squash with nutmeg in tribute to this dish.

The carnivores had a nice filet with peas and pearl onions and pot stickers.

Then came the cheese course, which we were all eagerly anticipating because they had promised the program would start with the cheese course.

There were a few sweets served with the cheeses, too, like this pistachio and cranberry chunky stuff.

And some really delicious truffles.

But that wasn't dessert. Dessert was served in a separate room, buffet style, as Eula Biss signed her books. Here's a terribly lit picture of Eula Biss signing:

She's an essayist and another award-winner last night, and her speech about the power and meaning of libraries was so moving that I think I'll have no choice but to read all her books now. She's got a quiet grace that was very appealing.

One final note. There was a short tribute to the outgoing Mayor Daley, or Hizzoner the Younger as he's sometimes known around here. I pay very little attention to local politics (mainly because I never planned on staying here for long), but even my fleeting notice has managed to observe how good he's been for the city. He's cut the ribbons on 54 libraries during his tenure, and that alone will make him a tough act to follow.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Complex or Confusing?

Yesterday, Alicia talked about a self-contradicting character in a book she's reading. The character had an affair which seemed to mean little to him as it happened, but then two years later he is still dwelling on its importance. This kind of contradiction, if managed properly, can be accepted by the reader because feelings do change over time. We don't always recognize the importance of events as they unfold. (Of course, the key is managing the change so that it's accepted by the reader. That's part of the authorial control Alicia mentioned.)

Her post resonated with me, though, because three times in as many days, I've had to read manuscripts in which characters have unresolved self-contradictions like this. I won't discuss the specifics of any of those manuscripts (except to say these aren't private clients, but a rather unusual circumstance that put these manuscripts on my desk), but here's an example of the sort of thing I mean. Imagine your heroine has an older cousin and they've always been close. The heroine admires the cousin and wants to be just like her, rhapsodizes about her elegance and kindness and femininity and whatever. But the heroine also hates everything this cousin has ever done in her life, and complains constantly about the cousin's string of personal and professional failures.

"I want to be just like this woman who is a total failure."

Okay, so there might be ways to work this heroine's character and arc so that this statement isn't a contradiction, but rather is evidence of complexity. Perhaps the heroine does want to model her behavior after a total failure -- perhaps she thinks she can do it better, or perhaps she wants to fail, or perhaps part of her journey is moving from awareness of the model's virtues to awareness of her flaws. Any of these patterns could take this apparent contradiction and work it into a resolved whole.

But here's the thing. In all three recent manuscripts, I saw no evidence of any attempt to resolve these contradictions. There wasn't even an attempt to address them or recognize them. It's possible the authors were unaware of the contradictions, or maybe they thought they had managed to handle the details more effectively.

This is the catch with character complexity. We slather on characteristics to try to breathe life into our paper people, but sometimes those characteristics don't resolve into a lucid whole. So when you're doing your character work, take a moment to think about any possible contradictions. Not just contradictions, but also characteristics that don't ordinarily go together -- you know, like a quiet, bookish man who attends cage fighting matches every weekend.

Once you've identified the contradictions, the next step is figuring out a way to make them gel into a coherent whole. Think about underlying traits that might be generating both traits that cause the apparent contradictions. For example, our quiet man might love cage fighting and books because each offers him a safe avenue for emotional release. If that's the case, then every time this man reads a book, talks about a book, watches a fight, etc., he *must* be experiencing some kind of catharsis. Or at least hoping for it. The need for release might come out in other safe ways, too, and frustrating that need might lead to plot twists.

But -- here's the kicker -- that core need must be revealed to the reader. Otherwise, the reader will be left wondering what kind of guy she's reading about. Discussion of the need can be subtle, and it can even be implied rather than addressed directly, but it still has to be something the reader can at least figure out on their own from the actual clues on the page. And if someone tells you that it's not making sense, then even if you *think* you've done the work to unify your character, guess what? It's not on the page. Therefore, it doesn't exist for the reader.

When we talk about depth, this is part of that discussion. It's something to do with underlying coherence, with recognizing deeper character drives that manifest in different ways. And then communicating them to the reader in a way that demonstrates -- here's that phrase again -- authorial control.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Telling the reader

I'm reading a book now (big literary bestseller) that does sort of microscopic analysis of the characters. Very close POV, very tight perspective. It's sort of cool, though I have to say, I keep waiting for some external plot.

Anyway, there's an interesting issue I've observed, where a woman risks her heart and her marriage for a man, and then spends the next few years obsessing about him and can't get over him. And then the POV shifts to this guy, and he's hardly thinking of her at all. It's as if this life-changing affair hardly even happened to him. And that's kind of fun, because it's so true-- often the affair is life-changing only for one partner.

But then the man starts thinking (after two years) about how deeply he feels about her and others, and I was sort of taken aback. He'd never actually shown in his behavior any deep feelings. And so at first I thought-- author is telling us that this guy is deep, and really has deep feelings, because he recognizes (the author) that he hasn't really created a man with that much depth. Then I thought, maybe we're supposed to notice the contrast between what he thinks about himself and what he really is. His thoughts about his feelings aren't supposed to reflect reality, but rather his own inability to understand himself.

Complicated, yes. And it could just be faulty characterization. But I also think that it's an indication of how readers respond to authority-- because the characterization has been so sharp so far, I'm assuming that he is being slyly observant here. I might be giving him too much credit, but that's what "authority" does-- makes us trust the author and give him the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Writing Pitfalls to Avoid

Tip of the hat to Joanna Sandsmark for sending this list. Words we can all live by, eh?

Writing Pitfalls to Avoid

1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat)
6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
7. Be more or less specific.
8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
10. No sentence fragments.
11. Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly
14. One should NEVER generalize.
15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
16. Don't use no double negatives.
17. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
20. The passive voice is to be ignored.
21. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical statements
however should be enclosed in commas.
22. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
23. Kill all exclamation points!!!
24. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth
shaking ideas.
26. Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed.
27. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations.
Tell me what you know."
28. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: Resist
hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
29. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
30. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
31. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
32. Who needs rhetorical questions?
33. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

And finally...

34. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Today on RU

Today on Romance University, I'm answering two questions on POV. So many writers have trouble with POV, but it helps to think of it in terms of subjectivity and objectivity rather than "person."


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Transition Words

Tip of the hat to Larissa Ione, who tweeted about her synopsis this morning and reminded me that I wanted to post this list of transition words. (If you're not already reading her books, what are you waiting for?)

One of the most useful things you can do in a synopsis is spackle the chinks with transitions that demonstrate the links between the components. Of all transition words, my favorite is probably "because," because it shows the causal connection between sequential events. If you can communicate those connections in a synopsis instead of merely laying out the order of events, you'll be presenting a story synopsis with the illusion of coherence. This is a good thing.

So here's the list, shamelessly swiped from some of my teaching material from the uni. Some of these are academic in tone, so be careful before incorporating them unless the tone of your synopsis will support them.

and, also, furthermore, in addition, moreover, too, next

for instance, in fact, specifically, to illustrate

also, similarly, likewise

but, on the other hand, nevertheless, yet, although, on the contrary

in other words, in short, in summary, therefore, that is, to sum up

after, as, before, next, later, finally, meanwhile, then, immediately

to the left/right, beyond, above, farther on, opposite, nearby

consequently, therefore, if, so, as a result, for this reason, since, because

Now go spackle your syns. :)


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Another participle thing

A student sent me this from his revision: "Thought you might get a kick out my original. Don't worry. I fixed it."

Jeremy, bending forward in the doorway, stood straight up and glared at her.

Participles mean simultaneous action. You can't bend and stand straight at the same time.

How to fix? Well, I would probably imply sequence:

Jeremy, who had been bending forward in the doorway, straightened and glared at her.

Not a very good sentence, perhaps, but at least logical!

Alicia who loves students like this!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Different strokes

Okay, here I am raving about Sons of Anarchy again, but really, I don't think you guys get it-- this is a great show with many lessons for us. If you all just watch it, I'll stop bugging you. :)

Anyway, there was a moment in the latest episode that made me think about romance at different stages.
There are two couples in this story: The young Jax and Tara, who are negotiating all the problems of twenty-something love, job vs lover, identity vs. romance.

The other is Gemma and Clay, Jax's mother and stepfather. They have been married for probably 20 years.

So Gemma finds out that Clay has deceived her about their grandson (who has been kidnapped). Clay (for good reason) has been telling her that the beloved baby is "okay". So Gemma finds out about the kidnapping. "You lied to me!" she cries.
Clay says, penitently, but somewhat impatiently, "Sorry."

And then they go on to discuss how to get the child back.

I was thinking of how Jax and Tara would have handled that-- the young couple. Tara might say, "You lied to me! How can I go on with you, if I can't trust you?"
And Jax might say, "If you can't trust me, I don't want to be with you!"

What's fun about Gemma and Clay is why they're able not to make a big deal about this, and as a long (very long) married person, I find this interesting and ... I don't know. Mature.

1. They're never going to split. They each know this. They might get mad. They might have good reason to be angry with each other. But no matter what, they're going to end up together, so there's reason just to cut to the chase and get the nasty part over with.

2. While she doesn't like being lied to, she knows that Clay must have done that because he thought it was best for her. She knows that he loves her and wants the best. He could be wrong about what is best, but he won't be trying to hurt her.

3. She loves him. In some ways, nothing else matters. She's not going to stop loving him, no matter what.

4. They are middle-aged. They are not trying to establish their identities or figure out who is in charge. They've already worked most of that out. (Gemma is totally in charge. :)

So while the deception is an issue, it's not an issue that will break them up. So the conflict is not the deception so much as the problem that inspired it-- the kidnapping.

What this tells me is that conflict can be developed to fit the context. And timing is all with romantic conflict. What does this romance need to succeed? Early in the romance, so much has to be established, so much has to be worked through. The individual identity still exists, and can still be reclaimed.

But with an established romance, well, the individual identity might take a second place to the couple identity. The established couple might respond differently because they have put priority on the relationship. No matter what, they're going to end up together, so they might not spend as much time working through issues.

No big revelation here-- but here's a writer who really thought through the characters and understood them and their interactions. There's no settling for the generic, the conventional. Rather, there's a focus on these people and their reality.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Your Comments About Aggregate Action

A few days ago, I introduced the topic of aggregate action -- my term for when groups of individuals are presented as behaving in identical ways, much like a chorus line on the page. Sometimes this can be a useful shorthand, but it also contains many traps. Today I thought we might take a closer look at some of your comments to that post and see if we might come up with a list of rules or guidelines for aggregate action. But first, let's review the example we worked from:

The girls huddled together along one side of the gym and pretended not to watch the boys along the other wall. The boys were bolder. Their shoulders squared up to the girls in a forthright manner, though most of them also slouched enough to prevent direct eye contact. Feet shuffled. A shower of giggles erupted from one cluster of girls, followed by a squeal, a high-pitched protest, and more giggling. The boys seemed to take courage from this and bumped each other as they milled about in the casual manner of athletes in a huddle. Any moment now, they would begin pairing off.

So let's begin with this comment from Jordan:

IMO, at least the shoulder squaring needs to be individualized. I found it confusing to read that they squared their shoulders—oh, no, wait, they slouched. Then I'm off wondering whether you can do both.

Yes, this is one of the classic problems associated with aggregate action. Sometimes, the group does not function like a perfect chorus line. Sometimes, one guy high-kicks while the others are shuffling off to Buffalo. So from this, we can derive our first rule.

Rule The First
Action can only be presented as aggregate when all members are performing the same moves at the same time.

Green Knight suggests one possible fix for this imperfect dance routine:

I would alter 'also slouching' to 'alternatively squaring and slouching' - they try to pretend they're bold whenever they are watched, but they're really not certain.

By changing the way the action is described, Green Knight has resynchronized the group. This is a good trick. Describe the actions as sequential rather than simultaneous, and you're much less likely to drive the characters into mass contortions.

On a related note, Jewel Tones said,

High pitched protest (that one lost me, so I say it needs an identifier)

Good eye, JT. The protest is uttered by a single person, not by the group. Thus it really can't be presented as an aggregate action, and here it's attached to a group of girls rather than to a single protester. (Ditto for the squeal which precedes it.)

The flipside to this is that we have probably all encountered this sort of group behavior from teenagers. The girls huddle, and any one of them could be responsible for the ear-shattering noises emitting from the group. I think this kind of aggregation might work better if viewed through the prism of a pov character's perspective -- a harried mom trying to dash through the mall, perhaps, whose progress is arrested by Those Girls. She wouldn't care, necessarily, which of Those Girls makes which noise. She views the pack as an obstacle, a collective barrier to her progress.

But I think the reason it works, then, is that the pov is clear. Which brings us to this comment from Patty Jansen,

It depends on how deep your POV is. This example reads to me as almost-omniscient, shallow POV. Alternatively, it reads as an observation by a third person who is watching while all this happens.

Yes. Exactly. This type of writing is necessarily omniscient because it's a form of narrative summary -- the mechanics of this are a bit complicated, but just trust me when I tell you that narrative summary veers sharply to objective, rather than subjective, on the pov sliding scale. Even when we're in a narrator-character's subjective pov, when we shift into NS, that pov will shallow out.

Rule The Second
Aggregate actions are almost always presented as narrative summary, which can change the pov.

This means you lose a degree of intimacy between the reader and the character whenever you rely on aggregate actions. There are times this works without a hitch. When are those times? The answer lies in comments from PatriciaW and Alicia.

PatriciaW: The entire thing read fine to me, as a setup for individualized action to come.

Alicia: I was okay until the giggle from the "cluster". I felt like by this time, we should be narrowing in on the main character.

Both of these comments seem to rely on the same assumption, that this passage would lead us from the omni into the specific pov of a particular character. This is a good assumption, actually, and not just because of the way the example was framed. It's also because of a nifty pov trick that Alicia discusses in her pov book. (You've all read this book, yes? You should. It's really the only book that tackles pov from the writer's perspective rather than from the scholar's or analyst's.)

In the beginning of a new scene, we have some leeway to play with depth of perspective in pov. We can start more objectively and, as Alicia puts it, drop the reader down gradually into a deeper subjective pov. This means that aggregate action, which is naturally more objective anyway, will fit better into the start of a scene.

Rule The Third
Aggregate action, if used at all, is probably best used in the first lines of a scene.

Which, of course, is because we can occasionally fool the reader into not noticing that we're wandering out of limited pov at that particular point in a scene. It's best not to do this too often as it will begin to take on the appearance of an affectation, unless you're writing highly stylized, mannered prose, in which case, rock on.

But even then, keep in mind one of the pitfalls of aggregate action, hinted at in the comment from Cathy in AK,

If we're in Kendra's POV, and she is neither the squealer nor the protester, I'd say attribute those to single characters.

This type of writing doesn't really specify the relationship of the individual to the group, right? IOW, we don't know if Kendra is the squealer or the protestor or even if she's inside the huddle. And we won't know until the pov deepens again. And even then, the reader will have already made some assumptions about where Kendra is, which means that the eventual clarification of this point might break the fictive reality the reader established independently. This is not good.

Yes, there are ways to write around this orientation/reorientation problem, but why bother? Why not just avoid the problem in the first place? How do we do that? By keeping the introductory aggregate action short, and by getting into character pov before the reader can draw too detailed a scene.

Rule the Fourth
Keep it tight, and get into subjective character viewpoint quickly thereafter.

When you do that, you can start getting into the details recommended by Dominique,

Since you mentioned that the main character is worried about her position in the pack order, I think you'd want to point out the two leaders.... we might want to individualize an action related to the guy she'd like to pick her. Something to highlight characters of importance in her life.

Beautiful. Yes. The essence of drama is in the relationships between the characters. If all the characters are mashed together in an aggregate, then the relationships between them are blurred or abandoned altogether. But by separating the characters and showing their relationship with and their importance to the pov character, now we have hints of tension and drama. Kendra doesn't watch that boy because he's in that group. She watches him because he's the one she likes. That. Specific. Boy. But he's not looking at her ... or is he? (See how easily the tension loads into that precise moment now?)

Anyway. All of this is can be boiled down to a paired principle: Stick with the specific, which is where the drama lies, and if you use aggregate action, hit it light and fast and then get on with the scene.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Secret hinting

Now this isn't a likely scenario for anyone's book, but I always love this sort of twist. So let me set it up and ask you all.

One of the most agonizingly painful scenarios is when character A is betrayed by the lover, really betrayed. And you can really milk that for angst and pain and all that good stuff.

However, there are a few of us who want to make it EVEN WORSE. The 'betrayer" is actually doing it to save the betrayed, only this requires that everyone think it's betrayal.

Let me set it up so I can use he/she pronouns. I'll summarize the world's most tearjerking ending, of Dedicated Villain, by Patricia Veryan.
Roland is a "dedicated villain," a charming rogue who manages to ingratiate himself with a traveling troupe of performers who are (he knows) trying to leave with Prince Charley's gold to return it to the donors.

Roland of course wants to steal this gold from them. Along the way, he becomes friends with everyone and falls in love with Fiona, one of the girls in the troupe. They have no idea he's anything but a nice guy who wants to help them. Well, a couple of the men are suspicious of him because he's so smooth and handsome and all that.

Anyway, in the end, he realizes that the Evil Army Officer has figured out that the troupe has the gold and is going to arrest them (and after the Bonnie Prince's rebellion, arrest meant they'd be hanged). To save them, he has to make them all believe that he has betrayed them and stolen the gold.

And they do, realizing that he never was who he said he was. So he's sacrificing his own redemption (getting these good people to care about him) by exploiting the terrible reputation he thought he'd escaped. And he's sacrificing Fiona's love, but so that he can save her life.

Sigh. It is so wonderful.

Anyway, the question. If you've set up this sort of double-cross, this fake betrayal, would you (in the "betrayal" scene) hint somehow that there's something off about his actions, so that the reader kind of doubts that he's really betrayed them?

Or would you let the reader have the same experience as Fiona, thinking that Roland has really betrayed them?

And why? And how?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

author intent

Jorge-Luis Borges:
Since I do not think often about what I have written, I had not realized (that his story "El Aleph" is about the acceptance of fate). Nevertheless, it is better that (theme) should be instinctive and not intellectual, don't you think? The instinctive is what counts in a story. What the writer wants to say is the least important thing;the most important is said through him or in spite of him."

Emphasis mine.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Aggregate Action

We ran into this concept recently in a manuscript by one of my private editing clients, who was kind enough to consent to a discussion of the topic here on the blog. Though the client's work inspired the post, all examples are mine.

Here's the issue in a nutshell: When do we present actions undertaken by groups of people as aggregate actions, and when do we isolate individuals and track their actions as representative of the group?

Generally, we're going to be better off with the specific, unique example. In fact, that will be true of almost every case. But sometimes aggregating the characters can be a quick shorthand for setting a scene or accomplishing other tasks. The dividing line between these two choices -- the individual and the group -- isn't drawn in a permanent location, but it's almost always going to be better to stick to the individual.

This might be clearer if we consider an example. Your heroine is a 14-year-old girl, a freshman in high school, and the event is a gym class in which they're learning to dance. Class is assembling but has not yet been called to order. Our heroine -- let's call her Kendra -- is with a cluster of her girlfriends on one side of the gym. The boys are all milling awkwardly on the other side of the gym. There's one boy in particular Kendra would like to have as a partner, but at the moment, her more pressing concern is where she'll fall on the pecking order. She doesn't want to be the last girl picked, or even in the bottom half.

If we describe the entire event in the aggregate, we might have something like this:

The girls huddled together along one side of the gym and pretended not to watch the boys along the other wall. The boys were bolder. Their shoulders squared up to the girls in a forthright manner, though most of them also slouched enough to prevent direct eye contact. Feet shuffled. A shower of giggles erupted from one cluster of girls, followed by a squeal, a high-pitched protest, and more giggling. The boys seemed to take courage from this and bumped each other as they milled about in the casual manner of athletes in a huddle. Any moment now, they would begin pairing off.

So, let's start with this question: Which of these pieces of action is better off being isolated and attached to a single character, and which would you leave in the aggregate?


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Don't piss off the Harvard students!

I've been reading a few reviews of that The Social Network, just because it's hard to believe that a film about a computer thingy can be that good. (I still remember The Recruit, with a thrilling scene of Colin Farrell trying to carry his open laptop as he runs away from Al Pacino.) So disclaimer here, I haven't seen the film and am not going to comment on its quality. I'm just going to use this as an opportunity to ask: Authenticity or story excitement-- if you can have only one, which is better? (And I'm sure that's sometimes a false dichotomy, but really, no college is likely to be authentically an interesting film opportunity.)

Anyway, the reviews all seem good except for those written by Harvard people, like a law school professor who points out that Harvard undergraduates do not, in fact, talk in witty GB Shaw patter. And then there's this article (with a truly clever headline) by a fellow who actually knew the Facebook founder and lived down the hall from him.

So the article writer points out that the Harvard of this film owes a lot more to old movies and TV shows about Harvard than the reality, that dining clubs are not in fact the only places to meet future important people, that the WASPs don't really rule, that no one wears madras.

And I'm sure he's correct. There have been films made about one of my alma maters (U of Chicago), and they never get it remotely right, not the culture, not the ethos, not the ethnic mix, not even the weather. They're always presenting the school as one filled with rich upper-class kids, you know, like a Midwestern Brown, and in fact, probably the #1 parental occupation there is the low-paid college professor. It is an expensive but not rich place. :)

So I'm willing to accept the writer's assertion that the Harvard of the film isn't much like the Harvard he and Zuckerberg (the FB founder) attended. But what if Sorkin (the filmmaker) has the more filmable version of Harvard? What if his "striving Jewish kid up against an entrenched
WASP establishment" scenario provides more conflict than the real story would?

What do you all think? If you're writing a historical novel, how authentic does it have to be? Okay with no B-52s at the Battle of Waterloo, but what about inventing an argument among Napoleon's generals that distracts him so that he can't focus on the battle plan?

I remember reading that the Apollo 13 astronauts (no, that wasn't just a movie :) said that the disputes the film shows them having never happened, that they were unified in their decisions and didn't argue at all. Well, that's great, but three guys agreeing doesn't make for a great dark moment in a film.

But is there a point where you'd draw the line? Let's talk about the issues here. Is it okay if the Harvard of Sorkin's film isn't the real Harvard? What do you do when you're writing about real places and times?

Oh, and something most of us don't worry about because we make up our people. But Zuckerberg actually exists, and his friend down the hall says that the "Z" in the film is not like the real guy. Is that a problem? Do we have an ethical responsibility here?

Over to you! I don't know the answer, but as I was reading the review, I found myself thinking, "Yeah, but Sorkin's vision is probably more interesting than reality!"

Friday, October 1, 2010

My Hot Date

I can't wait for this. I'm re-reading Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon now to prepare for the dinner, and will probably re-read Beloved, too. Or maybe I'll read something else of hers, something new to me.

And given that Oprah is emceeing the event, you'd better believe the first thing I'll do inside the ballroom is look under my dinner seat. WHAT? A NEW CAR? OMG!

Which are your favorite Toni Morrison books?