Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From the Style Guide: Who/Whom

Usage of whom is becoming increasingly rare. Some say it's inappropriate for casual genre writing. However, this depends in part on the tone of the manuscript. Use the overall tone as a guide.

The test for appropriate who/whom usage is fairly simple. Whom and him both end in the letter M. Who and he do not. If you can accurately substitute the word him in the phrase or clause under question, then whom also may be used. If you can accurately substitute he, then who may be used.

The new writer, (who/whom) submitted a manuscript today, has never published before now.

The clause in question is (who/whom) submitted a manuscript.
You would not say, “him submitted a manuscript.” You would say, “he submitted a manuscript.”
Therefore, the correct choice is who. (No M.)

Are you the right person to (who/whom) I should submit my manuscript?

The clause in question is to (who/whom) I should submit my manuscript.
You would not say, “I should submit my manuscript to he.” You would say, “I should submit my manuscript to him.”
Therefore, the correct choice is whom. (With the M.)


Monday, November 29, 2010

This Picture's Worth 50,000 Words

Worldview and subtext

Worldview is so integral to who we are and how we interact with reality that we can't always distinguish between what we believe and what might make sense to others. This is a good thing, because it gives us a place to stand, and a unique viewpoint.

However, I think worldview can also create unconscious subtext, and it's worth examining your own work for that.

Subtext can be conscious (like you want the reader to sense that this character is lying, or you want the reader to realize-- without your ever spelling it out-- that humans are afraid of death and that's maybe why they create religion), or unconscious (usually the subtle revelation of some issue you're dealing with personally, like death or feeling trapped in your life). Sometimes unconscious subtext can reflect a societal issue that might not even really affect you all that much personally but shows up in your writing just because this is pervasive in your culture.

What is pervasive in our culture, alas, is often hard to recognize from within. And what is a subconscious issue for us will also be hard to acknowledge (that's why it's still "sub"). When these two unconscious subtext coincide, whoa, Nelly! It might come out in our writing, and there we are, accidentally offending or alienating readers.

Worldview, as it's sort of our own personal subtext (the values or approach we don't consciously recognize), like cultural subtext, can be hard to notice from the inside. I grew up in the 60s, and what now is clearly the culture's attempt to put women down and make them feel like children was so pervasive, only the most discerning noticed it, like Betty Friedan. We actually accepted being told that we couldn't play "real basketball" in gym class because it would disrupt our ability to bear children. (I still remember we played something called "four corners," and the guards had to stay under the defensive basket, and the forwards under the offensive basket, and the center's role was to stay at half court and throw the ball from one to another-- because, you see, the uterus can manage repeated childbirth, but not running all the way down the court.)

Nowadays, tell that to Tamika Catchings and she'll laugh at you. But back then, we were surrounded by loud and subtle messages that told us we were put on earth for two related purposes, to please men sexually and to bear and raise children. It takes someone able to stand back and consider this reasonably to say, "Wait a minute." (And for that reason, I'd like to recognize Blacksburg High School's very own Jacqueline Robinson, Diane Frederick, who just wanted to play basketball, and kept bugging the school administration until they finally gave in and let her build and coach a team that could use the gym, only for a half hour at 7 am on a couple days a week, but at least it was something. And the next time someone fulminates against Title 9, remind them of that. Hey, Diane, wherever you are, hats off to you!)

Anyway, point is, we have to -- after we draft-- remind ourselves to look for subtext that we don't really mean but are perhaps the effect of our having a particular worldview. For example, that deeply person-focused worldview of some of the authors of the "collapse of 2008" books indicates that the most important element of anything is the people involved. Okay. But an aspect of that is blame. That is, there's a tendency (nothing wrong with this) to feature one person as "the villain," the one to blame. After all, if you subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, that major events are caused by important people, then bad major events will also be caused by someone-- the villain.

No problem there. Where the unconscious subtext might come in is if you have unwittingly absorbed your culture's prejudices and identify that culture's "outsider group" as the villain. (I'm not saying that the outsider isn't sometimes the villain-- but notice and determine consciously if that's so, or if you are just unconsciously reflecting your culture's prejudices.) Even if you think you can justify it, examine it as someone from the outside would. For example, I might have written a book about the 2008 crash, focusing on the investment bankers. Now if I profile 20 such managers, and single out three of them for scathing commentary on the bad things they did (trading short after they recommended long to their customers, using the corporate jet for personal purposes, engaged in risky trades with OPM -- other people's money, took big unearned bonuses), I might think, Hmm. Did all or most of the investment bankers do similar things? Yeah. So why did I focus on these three? I might even think that they're not all alike. After all, one is an African-American in New York, and this one is Pakistani and he's in London, and the third one is a Turkish Muslim and he's living in Singapore! See? They're all different!

Now imagine being someone from the outside, someone maybe from Mars who hasn't grown up in cultures permeated with human racism. (I say "human" because the Martians probably have their own form of racism. :) The Martian might say, "But they're all dark." Bingo. Somehow, unconsciously, I have profiled 20 investment bankers whose business practices are similar and "villainized" the three dark-skinned ones. (I am actually modeling this example on something in one of these books.)

But... but... I sputter. But I am not racist! I contribute to the United Negro College Fund! I send my kids to an integrated school! I love Kanye!

Well, if I'm not actually racist, I should be able to understand why others might wonder if I am. That is, I should move beyond the limitations of my own ego and my own worldview and regard this more objectively. And if I don't want readers -- just some readers; subtext is never picked up by all readers, but that doesn't mean it's not there-- I should realize that this might be an unfortunate effect of having a worldview (which is a GOOD thing overall), and consider what to do to mitigate it.

So what do I do? Clearly it's easier to do this in fiction, where with a stroke of my mighty pen, I can turn that Pakistani in London into the heir to an impoverished earldom, who grew up with all the luxuries and will do anything to keep them. There! Now I have three villains, and only 2/3rds are non-majority race.

Harder in non-fiction, where people don't transform so easily. But I can be objective and see that it wasn't just the minority bankers who used the corporate jets and insisted on private elevators. And these three weren't actually any more the villain (as in the ones that caused the bad stuff to happen) than the other 17. So whether or not I focused on these three because of their non-majority status, or for some other reason, I might consider if I could focus on one of the 17 as emblematic of the snobbery and rottenness. Or I might (if I pride myself on my depth of characterization) introduce some nuance, learning to love and not just scorn these characters.

Point is, we need to step outside ourselves sometimes. We are not our readers, after all. We might not realize how what seems perfectly plausible to us might be off-putting to reader who do not have our particular worldview. This doesn't mean you can't be unique and speak from your own perspective. I'm just saying that you might want to examine your own presentation for undesired and unconscious problems. We might need to use both the unconscious and the conscious parts of our brain. And we need to be both writer and reader-stand-in, making sure that we convey what we want to convey, and not what we don't.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

NaNo Update

Right now, I'm at a 46,672 words in my nanawrimo manuscript. I expect to clear the 50k mark by midday Monday, leaving Tuesday, the last day of the nano month, to travel to meet Alicia for a week-long work and wine fest.

This has been an interesting adventure, to put it mildly. I was apprehensive because I didn't think I could cram a single extra task into my already overpacked schedule, but I also know that I operate best when I have too much to do. It's like that old saying: If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. Those of us who live this way know how to make things happen, and this month has been a reminder to me that I can always find a way to do more.

So here's how I did it. I don't know that there's anything earth-shattering here, but it's what I did and it's worked so far.

* I used Dr. Wicked Write or Die. This might the second greatest tech invention ever for writers, the first being word processing software. Thanks to this nifty little software, I learned that I can write about 1800 words in an hour when the scene is pre-plotted, and about 1200 words in an hour when it is not. This means that I was able to hit my nano target in usually around an hour a day. Not always possible to block out an entire hour in one swallow, but with careful planning, I was usually able to do it at least 4 days a week.

* I carry small notebooks with me everywhere. I wrote notes and scene roughs when waiting for new tires to be installed, when waiting for my brand new and suddenly flat tire to be repaired, when waiting in the school parking lot for the kid to get sprung, when waiting for the teller at the bank drive-up, and so on. (Usually I knit during those stray moments. My knitting has really suffered this month!) Not all of these scribbled notes went into my nano draft. Some of them were pre-plotting for scenes -- my scenes come faster when I rough them out in advance, so this was important for time management, if not for actual word count.

* I didn't worry about secondaries. All my focus has been on the three main characters and their main conflicts. Some of the secondaries, I sketched out in advance. Of the rest, some bloomed as I typed, like a housekeeper who had been in the shadows of several scenes, but suddenly became real and developed a recognizable voice at around the 30k mark. Or they are acting as placeholders until I can think through the lesser parts, like the hero's many siblings who decorate several scenes but don't really participate in the action -- they're tagged as Sister Two or similar until I can figure out whether to develop or cut them.

* Some of the subplot scenes have been written, but only in those places where the subplot intersects with the main plot. By not getting sidetracked with subplots, I've been able to keep my page count climbing at a steady pace. No distractions. Once I get the entire main plot roughed out on paper, I can see how much room I have for subplot development and go from there. I'm thinking the main plot will settle around the 75-80k mark, leaving plenty of room for some extra subplot scenes. We'll see. I haven't written any of the sex scenes yet, and those can gobble words by the thousands.

* I've used the crap out of twitter for motivation. There are loads of nanoers over there, and they're very upbeat and encouraging. I could always find impromptu sprints when it was time to write, because there was always some other tweep ready to go. (Hey, Lisa! Hey, Leona! *mwah*) I've found better support there than at the nano site itself, but that's in part because the nano site kept crashing or locking in the beginning of the month. But I'm very grateful to all my tweeps, whether nanoing or not, for keeping me amused during the long hours at my desk this month. My other work hasn't mysteriously vanished just because I added nano, and some of these days would have felt endless if I couldn't talk turkey (and lizards and assorted other creatures) with my tweeps in the stray moments between tasks.

* I blocked out several afternoons to meet a local nano friend at a coffee shop. My productivity was lower during those blocks of time, but my enthusiasm was higher. (It must be said -- she reached the 50k mark on November 20. She is a goddess.) I think the trade-off was worth it. There were times I wanted to chuck it all and go back to a more plodding pace, but Amy kept me honest. I'm really grateful for that.

* When I felt stuck, I went back over the draft and "spackled" it. My first drafts tend to be little more than dialogue with a bit of stage blocking and similar action. When I go back over the scenes, my first goal is to check all the action-reaction dynamics, followed by a spot-check of all the emotional signifiers. Then I try to think deeply about the setting and how to leverage it in the context of the scene's emotions and conflicts. Adding these details -- filling in the chinks between the lines of dialogue and blocking -- reminds me of spackling a wall because it makes the scene nice and smooth and pretty. This also adds necessary words and makes the scenes feel more finished.

* And whenever I started to worry that the writing quality is subpar or that the process is flawed, I stepped back and reevaluated. First drafts are always full of suck, so I can't let that stop me. Bad sentences can be fixed as long as the plot, pacing, conflicts, and other bigger elements work. This fast-draft process has been an invaluable tool for seeing the large-scale structure of this book unfold scene by scene. I'm going to keep up the pace until the first draft is done and then rewrite it scene by scene to make it, you know, less crappy. Will I use this process for every book? Dunno. I think the process worked for this book mainly because I've been kicking around the idea for over a year, so it was plenty ripe for the writing. Not sure it would work as smoothly for something less ripe.

So, let's hear it. For those of you doing nano, will you make the goal? What have you learned from the process? What are your best tips, and what pitfalls did you encounter?


Saturday, November 27, 2010

"The human heart in conflict with itself "

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1949

William Faulkner

William Faulkner's speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1950
Listen to an Audio Recording of William Faulkner's Banquet Speech (paragraph 1-4)
3 min.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work - a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Worldview and story approach

I know I'm the only one obsessed with this, LOL. But I'm exploring the issue of how worldview-- comprehensive attitude, values, and viewpoints on the author's part-- influences the voice, and in fact is a part of the voice.

Now this comes to me because, as I've said before, I'm trying to get more of an understanding of the 2008 economic crisis, just for the heck of it-- or rather because I think it's emblematic of so much of what TODAY is, and everyone just breathed a sigh of relief that the worst didn't happen, and has moved on to other problems. It's like we gave a disaster and not only did no one come, no one even read the notice in the newspaper.

One book was about the HP "spying" scandal, and it's very narrow in scope, focusing very tightly on the boardmembers-- not on the company or the industry that might have caused the level of suspicion that leads to industrial spying. There was almost no discussion of the context, of what this all meant.

The narrowness of scope, I think, says something about the worldview. That is, the author just isn't interested in the big picture, in, say, indicting capitalism or big business. He's also not interested in exploring how the computer industry works, or the rivalries that have shaped it. He doesn't think of the issue as being the extension of historic forces, or the inevitable if regrettable result of the American culture, or even a sign of our decadent materialism or our readiness to innovate. In the "person-focused" scope, the worldview is that it's the people who matter, and they matter because of their position, not because of anything they do or cause.

Anyway, I keep reading books, trying to find someone, anyone, who has an important insight as to how this happened and what it means. Alas, this quest is hampered by the fact that most of the books are written by journalists or bankers, and neither of those professions seems to reward deep insight. And let's face it-- you can hardly expect a bracing critique of capitalism or even finance from those whose paychecks depend on Wall Street being Wall Street.

But I do think that it's more than self-interest that means so many of these books end up being insightless-- long on "what happened," and short on "why". I think it might be our worldview that makes us choose one profession over another, one interest over another. And that worldview is going to affect how we view a situation or present it or explore it.

One way to understand worldview is to do exactly this, to read a bunch of books about the same subject. It works better with non-fiction, probably, because the reality observed presumably doesn't change, so differences are usually attributable to the author's particular viewpoint-- what he/she chooses to discuss, and how. But it can work in fiction too, when there are several books that treat the same subject differently.

Example: The Middle Ages in Europe. Bernard Cornwell has a very different approach than Ken Follett. They're both interested in how cultures dealt with the transition brought by advances in engineering and technology, and how these affected the move towards individualism that would be the central attitude in the Renaissance.

However, Cornwell chooses to look at men at war, and the technology he deals with is the technology of weaponry and military strategy. Follett is much more interested in "ordinary people" deeply involved in the feudal and religious society, and his technology is about building of cathedrals-- a massive task, sure, but very much in the middle of the medieval world. Cornwell's characters are on the outside, in their own culture (military), where Follett's characters live in their corner of the wider world. Cornwell's characters are trying to conquer, where Follett's characters are trying to build (a cathedral). Both of these were actually quite important activities in the Middle Ages, a time of strife and construction. So they each prefer a "realistic" presentation, and this leads to minute and careful accuracy in description. Let's just say, neither of them are likely to introduce zombies into the landscape for some new kind of conflict.

However, what they choose to be realistic about reflects something about their worldview, I think. What? Well, I think part of it might be about whether they look more closely at individuals or groups, individual action or systems, whether there's more emphasis on how the people affect the culture, or how the culture affects the people.

The worldviews of both the authors, then, is focused on as much as possible (within fiction) accurately reflecting the real life of the characters in their Middle-Ages world. This reflects, I think, a worldview that privileges accuracy and realism, that the best historical fiction is that which most reflects history.

Contrast that with, say, Ellis Peters' long series of medieval histories. Peters also has a focus on characters rather than systems or processes or cultures. But while her handling of the medieval world is detailed and sure, her disinterest in "realism" rather than "believability" is shown in her choice of character and story type. After all, while the Middle Ages was famously brutal, probably there weren't actually quite as many interesting murders in one small city even so. And Brother Cadfael reflects far more the time he was created (the 1960s) than the time he supposedly inhabits (the 12th Century)-- he is a peace-loving, scientific minded hippie, really. Now this is not to diss these mysteries, which are wonderful. (I love them far, far more than the Cornwell and Follett books, which I suspect reflects MY worldview. :) Point is, Peters isn't really interested in faithfully replicating history-in-fiction. She is interested most in how humans interact, how small societies work, how people compromise their individualities in order to live in communities. While her stories are deeply imbedded in their time (the British Civil War -- the second one, Maude v. Stephen-- is going on throughout most of the series), they could be moved to another time with some modifications and work just fine. Her worldview is not a historical one, but a psychological/sociological one. She thinks the basic elements of humanity haven't changed that much, that young people will always fall in love, that old men will always think they know most everything, that people want to be liked, that the ones who prefer to be feared will end up with the power.

In fact, that's sort of my worldview too, and that's why, no doubt, I re-read these books constantly. I think probably the author whose worldview matches with yours is probably the one you love. :)

Okay, so anyway, by examining several books that are about the same topic, you can get a better idea of how worldview affects how the author presents the book. This has a parallel, btw, in the study of history. History, like fiction, has such a huge scope, so many possibilities for exploration, that most historians have to decide on an approach or worldview. These aren't mutually exclusive, but historians do tend to have an inherent focus, I think. I learned this when I worked at the state historical society, where one of my colleagues was fascinated with people (we were writing the history of newspapers in the state, and she loved finding out that one editor had moved in 1854 from the Madison Democrat to the Bloomington Herald). Another was obsessed with old systems, like how trains were scheduled.

There are many of these historical approaches, but I think the ones we novelists would recognize are:
The great man approach (focusing on Napoleon, say, the major figures who affected the event)
The everyman approach (finding how events affected the regular people in a society)
The systems approach (looking at how groups and governments changed things and responded to change)
The social evolution approach (societies are evolving, and history is the story of how a society evolves)

What intrigues me is how so many of these business books are relentlessly person-focused. It's weird, because it's like the "great man" approach in that these CEOs and stocktraders are presented as being worthy of the most minute description (this one was a valedictorian, that one skis at Aspen, this one drives a sports car). These are the men (always men :) who create and fuel the economy, smarter (and richer, but deserving) than the rest of us. Somehow in their biographies must be some answer to ... well, what? What happened? No, because usually the books that go into such exhaustive detail about where these titans of finance holiday accept without much question that none of these guys had any idea what was coming. The collapse of the industry is presented as something like the tsunami, an unexpected and devastating event. This might seem paradoxical, that these men were so clueless and helpless, and yet somehow are worthy of the Great Man treatment.

Now I would think that an exploration of systems (how the regulatory system failed, say, or how the marketing of mortgages to those who couldn't afford them came to be so essential to the economy) would probably get us closer to "what happened". That's the sort of book the economist Paul Krugman wrote, long on substance, short on sizzle. While this probably isn't any more fascinating than "This CEO went to Princeton, was Jamie Dimon's assistant at Citibank, and favored English tailoring and was ever known for his ascots," it has the virtue of stressing and finding causation as a worldview. "There is a reason this happened!" means "We can prevent it happening again!" So it's an oddly optimistic worldview, emphasizing the power of human-made structures to affect even the most complex situations.

But others might think that everything is socio-cultural, that what's interesting is exploring how a culture or society changes, how the culture beliefs and values cause something to happen. That's sort of what Michael Lewis does in his article about how Iceland's cod fishermen got bored with fishing and turned to currency trading, thereby bankrupting the country. What people are featured are usually presented as representatives of a certain group (bored cod fishermen); the culture is the star, and how people interact with the culture is shown to be central.

What of these would translate well into fiction? Well, one already has. A long article about the collapse of Bear Stearns (the first investment canary to falter in the CDO mineshaft) suggests darkly that a conspiracy was at the root of this. While the conspiracy theory worldview might not seem entirely plausible in non-fiction, it translates perfectly to fiction. Notice that the Oliver Stone Wall Street sequel bases the initiating event on just such a conspiracy (though it's not developed nearly as well, IMHO, as in the article-- note to Mr. Stone, merely announcing a conspiracy isn't enough). Is that a worldview? Yes. An author who (in reality or just when writing) thinks that disasters are the results of conspiracies is merging two common worldviews-- everything is connected, and no one can be trusted (or humans are innately bad).

This has gotten long enough! I will explore worldview and subtext in another post. Point is, anyway, that whether you recognize it or not, your worldview is a determinant of what you write and how you approach the topic, and demonstrate the assumptions you make about the world and people. How conscious of this are you? How conscious should you be?


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What's wrong? What's next?

A writer friend is faced with turning a suspense plot with women's fiction elements into women's fiction with suspense elements. If you read both, you'll probably have some sense of how the emphasis will change from physical threat to emotional threat, from perhaps the danger being mostly in the future (implied threat of physical harm that might happen) to maybe something that happened in the past (some hidden problem that is currently causing conflict, whether recognized or not).

Anyway, I was listening to a lecture on "The Art of Reading" by Prof. Timothy Spurgin, and he mentioned that openings often present one of two questions:

What's wrong?
What's next?

I am thinking that those are good "genre questions" that can help you design a plot so that the story fits better into one category or another. I think of plot as "what happens," the events of the story. And "story" is how the events are presented, including sequence, journey, scene design, voice, all that.

Story is a lot more flexible than voice. And one big part of that is what the journey is, as that kind of determines whether the plot goes mostly forward or mostly back, and that determines even more. "What's wrong?" might be a good start to a women's fiction story, while "what's next" could be a good question for a suspense story.

Let's start out with a similar set of precipitating events. A woman is abducted, abused, and left for dead. (This is grim!) The action starts a couple years later, when she's living in New Orleans and has a catering business.

Now a "what's wrong" story would mean probably that, well, something's wrong. Maybe the trial is over and the abductor is in jail and she's trying to move on. But she keeps having nightmares about the abduction, only the sequence of events is different in her nightmares than in her memories. So she goes to a hypnotist to figure out why she can't let go of this and move on. And the journey is towards her discovering what's wrong with her, what she doesn't remember that happened in the past.

On the other hand, in a suspense novel, the threat has to be present and threaten danger in the future. So she can have pretty much recovered and be living happily, when the abductor's girlfriend sends her a Christmas card. Only the abductor is safely ensconsed in the prison and swears he has no girlfriend. And then there's a bouquet of roses left at her door. And then there's a box of candy left on the seat of her car. And then....

You might actually start with "what's wrong" and have the "wrongness" precipitate "what's next," like she's got amnesia about the events, and has been useless in the trial of the abductor, and he gets off, and comes after her with threat after threat. And only by remembering the past can she overcome the new danger of "what's next?" (Suspense)

Women's fiction is usually a pretty flexible genre because it mainly just means "character-based fiction that mostly women will read", and it can incorporate mystery, suspense, romance, whatever you want.

What characterizes women's fiction is -- no matter what other elements there are-- the emphasis is always on the woman's journey from one psychological place to another. For example, a woman discovering the secret of her past is very common. Or a woman coming to terms with aging or the loss of a loved one. Or a woman constructing or reconstructing a family. As long as you have something like that, you can call it women's fiction even if there's a murder in it!

One of the first wave of the current type of women's fiction was Ordinary People, where we are introduced to a family where something is clearly wrong. They're not connecting. The mother is remote and uncaring. The father is anxious. The son is acting out. What's wrong? Well, an older son was killed in a boating accident the year before, and the family has found it easier not to talk about it, to "move on" without grieving. And it's not until the surviving son starts going back in therapy and understanding what happened that terrible day that the family can heal.

For women's fiction, the best plan is always to deepen the emotion and psychology of the journey. For example, she might not just find out about what really happened, she might find out why she suppressed the real memory. Or in investigating the abductor's past, she might discover her own and realize that she'd never known that her grandfather was connected to the Mafia.

Of course, you can make it a "suspense with women's fiction elements," and that's a matter of emphasizing the danger from pretty much the beginning-- a detective arrives to tell her, maybe, that the abductor has escaped.

How you tell the story, your emphasis, will make all the difference in genre. It really does help to read deeply in the popular fiction genres and analyze particularly the openings. Often to move into a new genre, you don't really have to change your plot much, just the presentation, particularly how you present the first few chapters, what you emphasize, what you hide.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Le mot juste

The right word... well, a single word can convey a lot. There are words with connotations that can come across as positive or negative. Connotation can be situation-dependent, so what is positive in one context can be negative in another. That's why precision of language can be so important, because some words mean more than what they mean.

I was reading an article about family money issues. It was just one of those articles you read while waiting for your car to be repaired, you know? But this one posed a question and then asked regular people what they thought. The question was, "If you help one of your children out financially, should you tell the others?"

Hmm. Good question, especially in this time of financial insecurity for young people. One of the respondents said, "Yes, you should tell the other children, because you shouldn't keep secrets from them."

Another said, "If you help one child out, you should keep it confidential."

Now I was struck by that, because (as usual) I agreed with whatever I was reading. (I'm really easy.) Oh, right! Keeping secrets is bad! Oh. Right. Keeping confidentiality is good.

Hmm. Okay, so I didn't actually come to a decision about this issue. But I did notice that both respondents used the same word (keep) and then another word that means the same basic thing. One talked of "keep secrets" and the other said "keep confidential."

Both those refer to the very same action: Doing something and saying nothing about it.

But from one view, that's "keeping secrets" and bad, and from the other view, that's "keeping confidentiality" and good.

For the writer, the existence of "connoted terms" like "secret" and "confidentiality" can be another tool in the toolbox. Those who live or die by rhetoric already know this. They know that the language is full of paired synonyms, one which could be positive in this context, and one which would be negative. And the one you choose can give a boost to the tone or feel of your sentence or paragraph.

Let's work on some of these pairs, just for fun. The ladies (talk about a connoted term :) will recall a list of masculine and feminine attributes that were actually the same:
Men are determined; women are stubborn.
Men are ambitious; women are pushy.
and there were reversals, where the attribute that was positive in women was negative in men:
Women are gentle; men are weak.
Women are nurturing; men are needy.

Okay, enough old-line feminism. :) Point is, if you want to make determination a negative, call it "stubbornness," right?

So what are some pairs like that?

My kids point out that the word "youth" almost always is connected to something negative, while "teen" is a pretty positive term, and "young adult" is quite positive.

How about "moral" and "moralistic?" Okay, they might mean something different, but how much of the difference is actual, and how much is connotation? That is, I might think (insert famous preacher's name) is "moralistic," but I bet he thinks he's "moral." The words have slightly different meanings, though the same basic meaning, and the connotation will probably be negative or positive.

"Interrogation" and "questioning or asking." Have you ever tried in a friendly fashion to get information out of a youth, I mean teen? He says, "Stop interrogating me!" and you say, all injured innocence, "I'm just asking!"

Even colors. I remember buying a lovely sweater that the boutique owner described as "citrine," but my dad called "baby shit yellow."

What about "escape" (positive) and "abscond" (negative)?

"Praise" and "flattery?"

What are some others, and how would you take advantage of their connotations in sentences or passages? How about dialogue?


Verb Agreement with Compound Subjects

Once upon a time I had to write a house style guide from scratch. Someday I'll do a post on the process of creating that guide, but in the meantime, I thought I would post some excerpts from it. Last week, in response to a bunch of questions about possessive nouns, we looked at the basic rules for apostrophes and apostrophe-s constructions. Today we'll look at compound nouns and the number of the verb. This is one of those little nitpicky things that can lead to big-time copy editor battles.


When a subject is a compound joined by the conjunction and, it takes a plural verb regardless of the number of each individual noun in the subject.

EXAMPLE: Lucy and Harry were childhood sweethearts.


When a subject is a compound composed of two singular nouns joined by or or nor, it takes a singular verb.

EXAMPLE: Either Lucy or Harry always orders apple pie.


When a subject is a compound composed of two plural nouns joined by or or nor, it takes a plural verb.

EXAMPLE: The Smiths or the Joneses want their pie heated.

Or/Nor With Singular and Plural

When a subject is a compound composed of a singular and a plural joined by or or nor, the verb agrees with the part of the subject closest to it.

EXAMPLE: Either Lucy or the Smiths are wrong.
EXAMPLE: Either the Smiths or Lucy is wrong.

Exception: When a compound noun is thought of as a single unit, it is treated as singular regardless of the number of the nouns contained therein. Therefore, “macaroni and cheese” (singular and singular), “peas and carrots” (plural and plural), and “chicken and dumplings” (singular and plural) each take singular verbs despite differences in the numbers of the nouns.

Also note: Odd singular-plural agreement constructions can be avoided by editing the structure of the sentence.
EXAMPLE: Either Lucy is wrong, or the Smiths are.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Twain's last words

According to Newsweek's account of Mark Twain's autobiography, this is the last thing he ever wrote, after his second daughter died:

“I lost Susy thirteen years ago; I lost her mother—her incomparable mother!—five and a half years ago; Clara has gone away to live in Europe; and now I have lost Jean. How poor I am, who was once so rich! … Jean lies yonder, I sit here; we are strangers under our own roof; we kissed hands good-by at this door last night—and it was forever, we never suspecting it. She lies there, and I sit here—writing, busying myself, to keep my heart from breaking. How dazzlingly the sunshine is flooding the hills around! It is like a mockery.

“Seventy-four years old twenty-four days ago. Seventy-four years old yesterday. Who can estimate my age today?”


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Top Five Mistakes Authors Make in Proposals

I did this as a guest blog and am reposting here, so if you think you've read it before, well, you might have. :)


Let me start off with a dirty little secret: When you submit a proposal to editors or agents, you can't assume they'll read past the first page. I know, I know. It's not fair, etc. But let’s get real. They're really busy, and they have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of submissions a year. And their primary task in sorting through that slushpile is to reject most of the submissions so that they can go back to their real work (with the manuscripts they've already accepted).

Your job in submitting the proposal is to keep from giving them a reason to reject you quickly. You want the editor or agent to read through the whole proposal and ask for more, right? (Proposal for fiction is usually: Cover letter, short synopsis, first three chapters, but it's actually whatever they ask for in their guidelines.)

So here are the Top Five Mistakes that you might want to avoid:

  1. Typos, especially in the query letter, and mechanical errors in the first page of the synopsis and chapters. I can hear you groaning. You KNOW this, right? You don't need to be told, right? Then why, I ask you, do I see so many submissions and contest entries with the sort of errors that make me cringe? I know, I know, those careless clueless submitters are not you. Agreed. But we don't know what we don't know, so if you're getting very quick rejections, you might go over your proposal word by word to make sure that you haven't got "Big Name Publishing Comporation" in the address heading of your coverpage, or "Napolean" seventeen times in your Napoleonic-era spy story. Typos jump right out and attack the eyes of editors and agents, and you don't want to cause that kind of anguish.

Typos aren't the only mechanical errors that make an editor or agent send a quick no. I've started keeping a list of what we call "the marks of the amateur," which clue us in quickly to the "not ready for primetimeness" of this submitter. That's mean, isn't it? But it's reality. So if you don't want to be typed as an amateur, it might help to find out what makes an editor brand a submission as from a newbie. For me, it's dialogue punctuation. I figure that if you've been reading for twenty or thirty years and have never noticed that there's a comma between the "she said" and the quotation mark, you probably aren't all that receptive to learning.

For a friend of mine who has served her time as an agent's assistant (facing hundreds of manuscripts, 99.9% of which she was supposed to divert – read "reject"-- before they got to the agent), the primary "mark of an amateur" comes when the author uses the character name in every sentence. "There's a reason they invented pronouns!" she points out. Her boss is famous for her sensitive "ear" for the melody and rhythm of prose, and nothing is as discordant as a constant repetition of a name.

Probably all editors and agents have their own "marks", whether they share them or not. How do you find out what they are? Well, first I'd suggest asking the editor or agent. They all have blogs these days. Send a question (anonymous if you think best) which says, "What mechanical error in a submission clues you in that this isn't an accomplished stylist?"

A few typos, even a couple grammar errors, will probably get by. But don't count on it. Just remember that an editor especially has to look forward to editing this book, and if there's a recurrent error in the first few pages, she's got to consider how much time it will take to fix every single dialogue passage, or switch out 90% of the hero's name checks with "he and him and his." You don't want the editor's dominant impression upon reading your proposal to be, "Life is too short."

  1. The second mistake to avoid is coming across as crazy or obsessed, especially in the cover letter but also in the synopsis. While not every writer is crazy, I suspect just about every crazy person wants to be a writer, and their submissions slush up slushpiles. Most will get dinged because of mistake #1, but if they happen to be a very controlled obsessive, they might do everything right mechanically. Still the obsession will generally leak through in the cover letter, and if you're not crazy, you don't want to have the editor taking your impassioned and yet well-reasoned defense of the metric system as a signal that you are a crank.

Just remember that your cover letter is about your story, and your story is about the characters and what happens to them. Whatever obsession you have might have fueled the writing, and that's good. But keep the focus on the story, not your pet project.

For example, I've had several submissions where the cover letter goes into depth about the author's religious faith. If I worked at an inspirational or Christian publisher, this might be okay (I don't know). But it's beyond irrelevant to me in my job at a sexy romance house. I know that it's hard to know what's relevant or not to another person, but most aspects of your life are, take it from me, irrelevant. If the story is good, I don't need to know who your personal savior is. Of course, if the story is good, I suppose I should get beyond that fear of getting trapped in a relationship with someone who wants to save me, or sell me on the merits of metric. But an editor likely to have a heightened sensitivity to any "proselytizing" in the synopsis or chapters.

This is about the story. This isn't about your life or your passion or your obsession. Of course, what has made you you will come out in your voice, story choice, and characters, but let those do the talking for you.

  1. A confusing and/or boring synopsis. Well, first, let me say that you don't know whether the editor or agent will read your synopsis first or your chapters first. There isn't any rule. I tend to scan the synopsis quickly, just to make sure it's the sort of book my publisher will publish. If it's not, I'll send a quick rejection saying just that.

(Don't bother to send it if it's not the sort of thing this publisher publishes. I don't care if it's the second coming of Harry Potter—if we don't publish children's books, we're not likely to change our whole business and marketing plan for your book. Or maybe we will, but trust me, I'm not the one you need to talk to if you want that. WAY above my paygrade. Go over my head and right to the publisher—that's an actual position at most, uh, publishers. :)

Anyway, usually if I don't think much of the synopsis itself, I still will read the chapters. Plenty of great book writers are bad synopsis writers. However, a bad synopsis could derail your proposal because the editor doesn't make it to your book. So don't assume that the editor or agent will set aside an incoherent synopsis and judge just on the chapters. Make the synopsis as good as you can, given the length requirements.

Oh, right, mistakes to avoid. Well, the mistake is thinking that the synopsis is a summary of the PLOT. It should in fact be a summary of the STORY. What's the difference? Well, what's the difference between this:

Sheet music for Ave Maria

and this:

Pavarotti singing Ave Maria

The story is more than what happens. It's the journey of the characters, the emotion they experience, the theme and voice. All that should show up in your synopsis in some way. If this is a funny story, the synopsis should have humor. If the characters go through psychological agony, the synopsis should explore a bit of that.

I am aware, having written many of these damned things, that a synopsis is hard to get right. But having read even more of these damned things, I can tell you this: You will NOT write a good synopsis if you start with plot. I can just about guarantee this. The simplest plot sounds convoluted and tedious when you tell event and then event and then event. And if you have a truly complex plot? Well, I am going to get lost once you decide your job here is to give me a detailed map of the labyrinth.

So you might be asking, what do you write about if not what happens? You write about the situation (the small southern town "invaded" by freedom-riders in 1963) and you write about the characters (the African-American girl who has to integrate the high school, the politely racist shopowner who finds himself throwing rocks at her the first day of school, the college student from the North who joined the freedom-ride because he wanted to impress a liberal girlfriend). You write about how things change, and yes, you'll probably talk some about the plot events because they show the changing. But if you start your writing with the plot events, you'll never get beyond that, and your synopsis will likely be as excruciating to read as it was to write. "This happened, then that happened"—that's the worst model for a synopsis, and yet most of them start there. Don't. Don't try to revise a bad synopsis. Start over, and this time, tell us about the characters and the situation and what is wrong and what changes and why.

  1. And then in the opening of the first chapter, the most common big mistake is a lack of focus that results in confusion. I've read a lot of first pages where I'm exhausted just from trying to keep track of the names of nine characters and make sense of the situation, the people, the setting, the action, and the thoughts.

Look, the purpose of the first paragraph isn't to tell everything needed to understand the book. It's just to get us to read the second paragraph. :) But we probably won't read on if the first paragraph reads like this:

Aaron Cathcart ran his hand through his sweaty hair, gazed up at the Porter mansion on the hill, where it sat foreboding and grim against a dark sky, and began trudging up the gravel driveway towards the marble front steps. Along the way he passed a jasmine bush, and the pungent smell assaulted his nose. On either side of the door were footmen in the blue and purple Porter livery, and as he approached, they moved in unison to open the great oak doors so he could enter the hall.

Reading that, I've learned exactly one important thing—a character's name. Sure, I know there's a mansion, and it apparently belongs to the Porters, and they're rich enough to afford footmen. But I don't care, because I don't know if they matter to Aaron or if he just wants to use the phone to call the auto club.

Two things to remember about your opening: First, think of the opening as posing a question somehow that will tempt the reader into reading more. For example, the opening to Shirley Jackson's famous short story "The Lottery" poses the question, "What is this lottery they're gathering for?"

So the opening to Aaron's story could pose the question, "What's he afraid he'll find here?" or "Why is he entering the house of his enemy?" But the question has to be relevant to the story. Think about what question you want the reader to ask, and see if you can set that question up with the first few paragraphs.

Second, focus the opening. You simply can't get everything in there, the setting, the characters, the situation, the backstory, and you end up leaving out important stuff like the conflict. Don't even try to be comprehensive here, or you'll just confuse. Think about one thing you want to introduce. But make it important. Think about starting with the character in some conflict.

Aaron Cathcart stared up at the Porter mansion on the hill. That was the last place he wanted to go, and the Porters were the last people he wanted to ask for help. And if it wasn't for the lady unconscious in his stalled car, he'd walk the two miles to the next town. But he had no choice, if he was going to save her life.


Or maybe you want to start with character:

Aaron Cathcart never asked for help. Nope, not now, not ever. He could take care of himself. That's what he had in place of religion, a stony self-sufficiency. And this afternoon, if he had any choice in the matter, he'd walk away, down the hill and away from his stalled car. But he didn't have any choice, because he didn't have the right to let the lady die for his principles.

Or you could start with setting:

The Porter mansion stood grim on a barren hill, the ugliest site in this pretty county. It had a sort of grotesque pride up there, surrounded by a gravel drive and a flat expanse of lawn, the gray tiles of the roof blank against the dark sky. No one could want to be there, and yet the Porter family had lived there for decades, when they could surely afford something else.

But focus on something. Don't try to get everything into the first paragraph. After all, the whole point is to get the reader to read the second paragraph, where presumably will be other important stuff happening.

5. Limping to a conclusion. Usually in a proposal you send the first three chapters of the book. Agents especially are known to vary this—they might ask for the first chapter or the first fifty pages. At any rate, too many submitters are sending in proposals where the very last sentence or word don’t do anything to inspire the agent to ask for more. You don’t want your proposal to limp to a conclusion!

Again, think about your purpose in submitting this proposal—it’s to get the agent or editor to ask to see the whole book. So that last bit they read is your last chance to make them want more. They probably won’t want more if you:

· End in the middle of a line just because that’s the end of the fifty pages.

· End on a boring note, like “She took a shower and went to bed.”

· End on a resolution, like “He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won.”

First thing to recognize is—they might determine what "a proposal" is, but you’re the one who determines what that is FOR YOU. If she says she wants three chapters, you don’t actually have to stop exactly at the point before “Chapter Four.” You can manipulate a bit here. Let’s say that the first two chapters are long and action-packed, and the third is more clean-up and transition to the turning point in Chapter Four. Well, you can take those first two chapters and make them three! Just divide them differently. For most of us, chapter divisions are fairly arbitrary—a chapter might be three scenes, might be two—and you can divide them differently to make more or fewer chapters.

Second trick—if you’re given a page limit, you can make tiny changes to get more into that 50 pages (or fewer). If you generally use Courier 12, try Times New Roman 12, which is about 15% smaller but is still 12 point, don’t ask me why. So that will give you 3-4 more pages to work with. Yes, all the agents know this, but unless they specifically say “no TNR,” go for it.

Of course, that’s only useful if those 3-4 extra pages are going to be a nice come-on. That’s the third trick. Whatever you need to do to make this work, end the proposal on something intriguing, something that captures the reader’s attention. A cliffhanger works here for high-action books, but a quieter book might need a mere suggestion of conflict or irresolution, something that makes the editor look around for the next page, and, not finding it, send you a request for the complete manuscript. Often this requires another sentence or paragraph at the end of a seeming resolution. Like take that one above:

He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won.

But as he was leaving the room, he looked back at Mary. Wait a minute. If he’d been the one to win, why was she the one laughing triumphantly?

So don’t limp to a conclusion of your proposal. Make sure the end of the chapters is an invitation to read on. A hint of conflict, an irresolution, will help encourage the editor or agent to ask for the rest.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Marketing madness

I just saw James Patterson on a commercial. He said, "Buy my book, or I'll have to kill off Alex Cross." (That's his fictional detective.) It was kind of funny.

He seemed like a really mild man to write such gruesome mysteries!


Brought to You By the Letters R and U

Today at Romance University, I'm talking about the concept of Ordinary World as it applies to genre romance novels. This one comes from the FAQ files because so many romance writers struggle to understand OW concepts in our context. With good reason, too. Maybe looking at some of the differences between quest structure and romance structure will help sort it out for us. Go read the post and let me know if this angle helps at all.

One commenter will be entered in a drawing to win a spot in the December workshop.

Opening-- what constitutes?

Anonymous Anonymous asked-

I have what may be an odd question... Where does the 'opening' end?

What are the parameters which define the opening?

Anon, good question. What constitutes the opening? That makes me think that we might have one of two different openings. The first is in media res, in the middle of the action, so that the opening of the book is inside the first scene. This has the effect of plunging the reader into the action and getting the story going right away. Often an opening like this is "deep POV", right inside the character experiencing the action. That might increase reader identification with the character, as there's never a moment of being outside the character.

In that case, I'm not sure the "opening" is a true opening with an ending. It's just the start of the first scene, and it ends when the first scene ends. Does anyone have a good example of that sort of opening, where the reader is immediately plunged into the moment of the scene?

The more traditional opening is a true opening, that is, an opening to the whole book and not just the first scene. This type of opening might have a bit of context (who are we, where are we) and/or set up some question the story will answer or start the process of developing the scene.

This sort of opening might be a paragraph or two or three, but while it might kind of take place within the time of the scene (the action that is about to happen), it's more outside, more contextual. It might be omniscient, and it might be "overall" rather than specific to this moment.

In that case, I think of the opening "ending" when there's a transition into something else, like the starting of the action of the scene, or a descent into one character's mind. In that sense, the opening is a bit different, not just the start of the scene. It's -before- the start of the scene, and ends when the scene starts.

Examples? I'll look for some, but if anyone has examples of 1) in media res openings, and 2) context-setting openings, please post in comments! I think I've done both, and which I'd do would depend (of course) on the needs of the story. But I would say that a faster-paced book might start in the middle of the action, within the scene. What do you think?


I don't have a Kindle, but...

I hear my new book is out in Kindle version now: The Year She Fell.

And no, I am not hinting to the family that a Kindle will be a great Xmas gift. :)

Hey, as long as I am not hinting, if you have a Kindle, tell me about it? Is the more expensive one with 3G worth the extra $? Can you surf the web with that or just get Amazon books? Also, are downloads restricted just to the Kindle store?


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Possessive Case

This has come up several times over the past week, so I thought I would post a few refresher rules on possessive case.

Possessive Case, Nouns

When the noun does not end in an s, add and apostrophe and an s.
Mike’s Corvette

When the noun ends in an s, add only an apostrophe.
Sailors’ delight

This rule does not distinguish between singular and plural nouns. This rule also applies to nouns used as possessive adjectives (five dollars’ worth of gas).

Possessive Case, Pronouns

Personal pronouns do not take an apostrophe. These nouns include his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs and whose.
Indefinite pronouns take an apostrophe and an s.
Everybody’s favorite story

Possessive Case, Compounds

In hyphenated words, names of organizations consisting of more than one word, and words indicating joint possession, only the last word takes the possessive form. The form of the possessive follows the rules for nouns in the possessive case.

* Ex-husband’s habits (hyphenated)
* Smith and Wesson’s finest model (organization, singular)
* Parker Brothers’ product line (organization, plural)
* Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (joint possession)

Exception: In the case of joint possession, when the first part of the pair is a noun and the final part is a pronoun in the possessive case, then the noun follows the rule for nouns in the possessive case.

* Robert’s and my anniversary

But note: this only applies to joint possession, that is, things owned in common. When two or more people possess something individually, each of their names is possessive in form.

* Shaq’s and Kobe’s championship rings (Each player has his own ring. They do not share a single ring in joint possession.)

This is just one of those things you have to learn if you want to be one of the cool kids.


Monday, November 15, 2010

How the Brain Processes Metaphor

Great article.

Speaking of cliches-

Here's a fun one, and another indication that Dickens really did some extremely modern stuff. Here his omniscient narrator actually comments on his own voice, and tendentiously connects his lazy use of a cliche to the nation's wellbeing (and the narrator or implied author here isn't actually Dickens, of course, but Dickens's invention):

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This so connects to "the medium is the message"-- he's saying that the "the simile" or cliche (the medium) is itself significant, "the wisdom of our ancestors." And all to justify using a "dead" image!

Dickens shows us that we can have fun. The opening of a book doesn't have to be just about getting the information in the right order. (The first paragraph kind of does that, by identifying the main characters-- Scrooge and Marley-- and the setting: the 'Change would be recognized by his contemporary readers as the City of London, as we'd know "Wall Street" was New York). But the second paragraph goes off and is just fun. Oh, considering that Marley's ghost appears in the next page and casts doubt on how dead "dead as a doornail" is, the discussion of the cliche sets up a comic motif. But mostly it's just for fun, laughing at our tendency to use somewhat incomprehensible cliches which don't bear close examination. Dickens shows he's still entertained by the language, a very good thing in a writer. And of course, by use of the term "as a doornail," he forces the questions-- what is "dead"? What is "living"?

There's no reason not to make that opening fun, in a fun way that complements the type of book. I don't mean a comic opening to a tragic novel, but an opening that perhaps sets up the ordinary world as interesting and lively before the tragedy occurs, or an opening description of some transcendent beauty or thoughtfulness, or a puzzle about some serious issue, like "am I me if I have no memory of my life?" or "when does psychic pain become insupportable?"

(And, interestingly, the character themes this sets up-- Scrooge's meticulous care for his reputation, his inability to truly feel anything, even sorrow, and of course the motif of record-keeping-- are all finished and contradicted by the close of the story... Dickens was an elegantly classical writer.)

But notice the economy there too-- we learn only as much as we absolutely need to. Marley was dead. Scrooge was connected to him enough that he was the chief mourner at the funeral. Do we need more than that? Obviously not, as Dickens "wastes" the second paragraph on some writerly joke. Keep that in mind when you think about what you have to insert into the opening paragraph: Probably a lot less than you think. If you're putting a lot more in there than a Victorian novelist does, for goodness sake, you're probably putting in too much.

So something to take away from this is that "information" isn't the most important attribute of an opening, is it? What else might be more important? I think Dickens is doing too more important things: First, he's setting up that "meticulous" motif of recordkeeping and specificity that will help unite the story. And second, he's setting up an ironic tone that starts us out as skeptics-- is Scrooge really mourning? Is Marley really dead? If he is, why do they keep saying it and having to prove it with signatures?

Again, I'm not sure most of us could write an opening with this kind of fractal quality when we start the story. I think this probably was created after the draft was finished and the writer know what themes and questions and tone were developed in the story.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

More publishing follies

James Frey resurfaces.

The Medium Is the Message

I was recently teaching a class in voice in fiction, which is one of the amorphous topics that even I doubt can be taught. But something I meant to say and forgot is (quoting McLuhan): The medium is the message. He meant, most likely (I skipped that class :), that the technology and/or the genre embeds meaning into whatever is being broadcast, so that a story will have a different message when it's told on Dateline NBC as a sort of docudrama than it would in a novel, that the mode of broadcast will in itself become the message (the Dateline message might be, We want you to believe this, even though we pretty much made it up; while the novel might say, I made this up, but it's got a truth truer than fact, for example). This becomes even more important now when we have so many forms of media, and "truth" depends a lot on the medium and much less on the intrinsic originating "message".

Okay, that's what he meant. That's not what I mean. I mean that the mode of expression, the voice, if you will, is the message, or at least should be the message, or by complicating or denying the perceived message becomes an alternate message. That is, how you choose to present the information is part of what the reader will absorb in accepting (or creating) the meaning of something you present.

Don't worry. I'll keep writing until this makes some sense!

1. Well, first I think that if we have little to say about this whatever, we tend to choose vapid or empty ways to say it, and the reader senses our lack of engagement. It will show in our lazy presentation, in our simplistic sentences, in the cliches we use to express what we haven't actually examined deeply. We are alienated from our own meaning, and that's the message the reader will get, that this isn't worth any effort. So a lack of "medium," that is, a prose passage that shows a writer just settling for ease of delivery, will result in a lack of message, for not a lot of importance is likely to be expressed without originality.

Interestingly, I see this often in scene openings, and I think what has happened is that the writer is trying to just get into the scene, trusting that at some point it will catch fire, that he will channel this character (talk about the medium :) or find the voice or realize what this is all about... and maybe at some point, the writer does achieve that union of medium and message, and the passage really gets going.

But if that's so, the writer should go back and rewrite the damned opening. And no one lecture me about voice and how whatever pearls flow from your fingers onto the keyboard are "natural". Sometimes "natural" prose is bored and uninspired. And that's bad at any point in the scene, but it's particularly bad at the beginning, when the reader needs more meaning to understand what is to come-- not necessarily more information, but more something. Take a boring passage, a vapid delivery, cliches, unimaginative sentences as a sign that you haven't challenged yourself enough to find the true medium or voice here. Think about what you want to convey. Consider who this character is. Think about what this situation is.

2. Sometimes the passage is workable deep point of view, faithfully replicating the POV character's thoughts. But characters can have boring thoughts! Characters can sit down on the couch and think about what they had at dinner and feel their stomachs protest and think in commercials: "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." Characters can notice that it's raining and think, "Rain, rain go away. Come again some other day." There's nothing particularly magical about deep POV; if the POV character is being boring, the passage will probably be boring.

The solution there is to make something happen. You never have to narrate every blasted moment. Skip over the moments where nothing is happening and go to the moment when something is going to happen. Or make something happen. He's gotten up groaning from the dinner table and is about to open his mouth to say something boring, and his wife breaks a glass and cuts her hand. Or he opens his mouth to say something boring and belches-- in front of his son's elegant prospective in-laws.

Another solution is to change the setting or situation to force more conflict. Yes, it's dinner, but it's at a restaurant far fancier than he's used to. Or it's the first dinner he has made for a new girlfriend, and he realizes as he gets up that she didn't eat anything and probably didn't like it.

3. What's thought can usually be said. And anything said aloud can be heard, and cause reaction and change. This is particularly important in relationship books, where the relationship changes because of the character interaction. Intemperate speech, threats, ultimatums, provocation, casual revelations, inadvertent utterances-- anything that can cause trouble will cause trouble. But it has to be spoken so it can't be taken back. Put the conflict out there, on the page. If the character is careful and never says anything without thinking, well, put him in a situation where he speaks out without restraint. You're in charge, don't forget. You can set it up that even the most close-mouthed character can be led to speak.

4. Okay, so there's conflict in the scene! Good! Go for it! But remember that HOW you express is as important as what you express. The medium is part of that message. So experiment. If you're in deep POV, think about how this person might mentally express this. An example is in Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, where one character uses legalisms to explain why she cheated on her husband, as if she's making a case in a court of law.

A character who is into "accounting," both the professional and the personal kind, might add up all the evidence and arrive at "the bottom line". Another character might list the pros and cons of a decision-- and yes, you can even express this as a chart the character jots down, with pro on one side and con on the other. Experiment, for goodness sake. It's not like you have much to lose.

Challenge yourself to express this in a vigorous, vivid way. Yes, most of the story will (should) probably be pretty standard narrative. But whenever you find that you've got a boring passage,
when your medium has no message, think about enlivening it by finding the conflict, or forcing the conflict, or creating some conflict, and then by using the situation or character to express this in an intriguing way.

Don't listen to those people who say, "Plot is all that matters." No. SCENE matters, and that involves more than some eventual event-- it involves interaction and action and presentation and conflict. Challenge yourself to go beyond your first draft. Rethink. Reinvent. Experiment. Put it on the page.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Force the conflict!

I'm noticing that a lot of writers, when drafting, kind of elide over conflict opportunities to get to more obvious conflict (like an action scene). Okay, that isn't clear. Let me try to get at what I mean.

There are three basic kinds of conflict. Remember "Man against nature, man against man, man against himself?" Well, once we remind old "Man" that women can have conflict too, we can rename those, not so eloquently:
External conflict
Interactional conflict
Internal conflict

Now remember Alicia's Law. (You didn't know I had a law? Well, I do. And let's all refer to it that way: Alicia's Law. Please cap the "Law". Maybe I need a trademark symbol afterwards?)

Popular fiction is the art of manifesting the internal externally.

What do I mean? Hey, this is a LAW! It just IS! Do I have to explain it? Sigh. Just that we should never settle for just expressing a conflict internally (like in the character's thoughts). The whole point of popular fiction (IMHO) is to show that the internal comes out on the external plane, sort of like Freud said! If you're in conflict about your realization of mortality, you don't just sit and think about how lousy it is that you have to die. You decide to take up skydiving! Or if you're a different type of person, you decide to go to medical school and learn to save lives so that you can make a difference in your short time on earth. Or what?

Anyway, a rule of thumb I try to invoke (this is just a rule of thumb, not even a real rule, much less a LAW) is that what happens only in the character's head doesn't really happen. If the thought or conflict or preoccupation doesn't cause some ripple on the external plane, well, it's like that tree that falls unheard in the forest, only there's no real tree and no real forest. If a thought doesn't cause something to happen, it doesn't affect the plot, and it doesn't cause change.

So I'm trying to suggest that you "bring it out," or as Theresa says, "Make it happen on the page."

For example, you've done all this character work, and you know that your young man hero uses sports as a way to avoid intimacy with his girlfriend. So you have a passage which makes a clear connection between sports and avoidance of intimacy:
Kyle watched Sarah go into the bedroom. He should follow her. He could kiss her. But it was Monday night. Denver was playing the Steelers. He'd watch the game instead. Maybe drink a few beers. He'd let Sarah get a good night's sleep for now.

Okay, we get the point. He chooses sports over sex, like all those guys in the beer commercials. Trouble is, his thinking this doesn't DO anything. He thinks it. Sarah doesn't hear it. So she can't really respond to it. Yes, she's probably soon to huddle in her bed, weeping, but we won't know it or experience it. Most important, his thinking that doesn't cause anything to HAPPEN. Next Monday night, when the game comes on, he's going to think the same thing.

Contrast that with a scene where he actually DOES something that manifests what he's thinking. He could even SAY what he's thinking, what the heck.

Kyle watch Sarah go towards the bedroom. She stopped at the door and turned back to him, inclining her head invitingly. "We could go to bed early."

He ought to rise. He ought to go with her. He ought to kiss her. But he glanced up at the clock. "Game's about to start," he said. He picked up the remote.

"Oh, right. We can't miss that."

"It's Denver against the Steelers! You know what that means?"

"It means you would rather watch football than make sweet love to me, that's what it means!"

"No," he said in a soothing tone. "It means which of them gets the last wild card in the playoffs."

"And that's more important than sex. Than me."

"Of course not. But--" he hit the power button and, as the game came on, said, "Kickoff's about to happen. And it won't happen again. But you'll still be here after the game. And then-- I promise! I'll do anything you want!"

"Don't bother," she said, shoving the door open and disappearing into the bedroom.

Okay. She was mad. He could deal with that. Later. Now, the Denver kicker put it into the endzone, and the game began.

Sometime in the second quarter, she moved out. But Denver, who would have thought it, was two touchdowns ahead, and his fantasy football team -- wow. And everyone said he was nuts to have drafted Kyle Orton.

(Apologies to all those who find it really unlikely that Denver has any chance at a wild card berth:)

Showing the conflict in action (turning on the TV) is more powerful than lack of action (his not going into the bedroom). Dialogue (his saying it to her) is more powerful than thought (his thinking the same thing). And change (her leaving him) is more powerful than routine (her weeping unfulfilled in her bed).

Put it in the scene. If it just happens in the realm of pure thought, it's unlikely to inspire much action, interaction, reaction... or plot and character change.

Confront the conflict. Otherwise your characters will become minds without bodies or mouths, and your readers will end up in bed like Sarah, weeping softly and feeling unfulfilled. :)

(And I know some of you are going to say -- not just think! see?-- that "thought" is fine if it leads to decision. Sure. But SHOW the decision, or at least its effects, like Kyle can wake up in the morning and find himself alone in a bedroom devoid of womanly things.)


Friday, November 12, 2010

More on backstory

Jessica Lee said...

I find myself struggling with how much 'past' to reveal. I think a lot of what a character does, their motivations, should be informed by their past and therefore...when being read by an audience, they should to a certain degree figure it out, too. But sometimes that's not always the case, right? I'm not sure how to go about being both informative and clever...and not 'tell' instead of show how the past affects characters.

Good question! Backstory is, as I said, the characters' past, and it's important to the reader as it's important to the characters. But we all know that it can be imparted clumsily or adeptly. As you said, it influences what they do and why they do it, so to some degree, it should show in their actions. But how much will the reader get just from the actions?

1. Hmm. Well, first, I think is the question of what backstory should be revealed. Yes, backstory that has influenced the character -- but we're affected presumably by about everything that has happened to us. And we don't want to tell everything.

Relevance, maybe? Coherence? Like the accountant hero might have been made more competitive by seeing his father (an NFL football player- sorry, watching the Bengals-Bills game, and you want to know what's really irrelevant? A Bengals-Bills game) drop the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. Would you have him think about that, or flash back to that, or talk about that? Would you reveal that? Would it matter what was going on in the book? (For example, what if the story involved football in some way, or his father?)

2. What's backstory and what's just information? I don't mind-- in fact, I crave-- the little bits of information (not necessarily backstory, but sometimes) that tell me what I need to know to understand this early scene-- how these people are related, say. I should be able to tell from their actions if they love each other or hate each other, sure, but are they brothers or cousins? I don't know why so many writers now are withholding something so simple as that-- "His brother Joe..." "Sandy had been her best friend since grade school." That sort of information is just part of the narrative. Just as you'd make clear that this is taking place in downtown Syracuse, you should let me know what Joe knows and Tom knows and everyone in the book knows, that Joe and Tom are brothers. Why make me guess, and more important, why make me wonder if there's some reason that requires them to keep quiet about their relationship? No, just put in "His brother Joe" and be done with it.

What signal do you want to send? Be careful not to send the message that "this is a big secret!" when in fact it's not a secret at all. That's frustrating and distracting for the reader. So what information do you impart? What if it's backstory (too), like "Danny had been her date to the senior prom."

I tend to put in little informative stuff early, but try not to be obnoxious. Hey, there's a rule! "Don't be obnoxious."

3. And when? I think when is important. Backstory revealed early in the book can be a real problem, I know from experience. I'm thinking that if you want to set up a question to be answered later (like "what happened at the senior prom that still traumatizes her so much she can't talk about it?"), you probably don't want to tell too much too early. So if she takes her car to Sullivan's Auto Repair, and as she's driving in, she sees Danny looking all manly and oilstained bending over a Corvette in the garage bay, how do you set up "question about senior prom"? Maybe she turns around and goes to the Midas down the street. That makes the reader ask, "Why did the sight of Danny make her change her plans?" But how much info do you need? That connects Danny to something that bothers her, but doesn't bring out the senior prom thing. What if she had a quick thought as she drove in-- there's Danny Miller. All manly and oilstained. He was her date for the senior prom. No, best not go here? There's a Midas down the street?

How would you handle that? Do you think the reader needs that "senior prom" mention?