Saturday, December 31, 2011

"if" Negations

Last post I found myself writing a construction that always confuses me, but is so common it was the first wording that appeared. Something like:

"I wonder if the realization of the perfect ending isn't part of the pleasure of reading."

"Isn't". Negative. Huh? (I think it has something to do with the subjunctive created by "I wonder if", but not sure and too tired to think it through.

I made it positive and CLEAR-- I wonder if the realization MIGHT BE....
Anyway, do you ever use that negative construction? Like:

She had to consider if he wasn't lying to her.
I questioned if she couldn't be this cheerful every day.

Well, now I'm having trouble coming up with examples! But I know I encounter this all the time in editing.  The "I wonder" and other conditional verbs seem to cause this.

Anyone else come across an example?  Anyone have any ideas why we do that?

Blog about writing process

I'm starting a Goodreads blog to chronicle my writing process and the questions and problems that come up as I write. I doubt anyone's interested in this, but what the heck. Maybe some future anthropologist will find it illustrative of the creative process or something.

Anyway, come join me there if you like watching sausage get made, I mean a book get written, though this probably is something you know from your own experience.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Article on ending

I thought it was just me, but this article on endings reports, "Earlier this year, researchers demonstrated that readers enjoyed stories more when they knew in advance how they would end, but the belief persists that an untimely revelation of plot points will ruin the experience."

 I do like to know the ending (I know, I'm a wuss), but I wonder if part of the pleasure of reading the perfect ending might be the surprise. That is, you're momentarily surprised, but then the rightness of the ending impresses you even more?

I don't mean twist endings. (I'm your father, Luke!)  I mean the sort of end the article talks about, that truly makes sense of the whole story, like 1984 ending with Winston professing his love for Big Brother. Will that realization be spoiled truly if you're told ahead of time, "Oh, Winston is brainwashed and ends up loving Big Brother?"

I hate coming up with last lines.  I never seem to find the right one. I often do a variation of "and they lived happily ever after" (well, not that bad).
What about you? How do you decide on a last line? Do you feel like you want to provide some philosophical coda?


Monday, December 26, 2011

The "Why" of Character Worksheets

There are a lot of character worksheets floating around. You might have seen a few yourself. They list hair color, eye color, occupation, age, clothing preferences, voice qualities, car, hobbies -- the lists vary, but the idea is the same. Fill out this list, and you will have a quick reference sheet to help you recall whether the police detective drives a Ford or a Buick and what color the pretty waitress's eyes were in chapter three. It's a good and useful aid to memory, and any good copy editor will have several such forms on hand to help them do their jobs.

But if you, the author, fill out a sheet like this and think you've created a character, you might have only done half the job. Sure, you have to remember whether the heroine's house is a ranch or a Cape Cod. But if I tell you, "Juliet lives in a white brick Georgian house," do you understand her character any better? Not really. Not without knowing why she lives there. Is it her dream house, or does she think it's a lemon? Did she inherit it? Did she buy it in a rush when her job relocated her across the country? Her relationship to the house -- the why of the house -- tells us more about the character than the fact of the house alone.

When you fill out one of these worksheets, ask "Why" at every stage. Sometimes the answers might be a little pat. Why is the romance heroine 27 years old? Because this is a good age to marry and start a family. It might really be that simple. Then again, think about how your story would change if your romance heroine was 67 or 17. Maybe now she doesn't have to worry about getting pregnant. Or maybe the hero has to worry about the age of consent. How does a simple detail like age affect the essentials of the story? Whatever the effect, understanding that will help you understand the "why" of your character choices. And when you understand that, then you understand your characters in a deeper, more meaningful way.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Over at RU

I'm talking about form and content and innovation and genre and why this isn't the same as a formula over at Romance University. We could subtitle that post, "This is what Theresa thinks about when she's walking through a roomful of Monets on her way to view the Rothkos."


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Scene Length

Someone emailed a question seeking guidance for how to determine the best length for scenes. She said her CPs were complaining that her scenes were too long, and she wasn't sure why they were making that comment.

Scene length is tricky because each scene is different. There's no set template for scenes or even for types of scenes. But if people are saying, "Your scenes are too long," that might mean they're literally physically too long, or it might mean there's a pacing issue within a scene that is a more or less appropriate length. These are related problems, of course, because if a scene goes on for 5k words and all they do is check their calendars to see when they're both free for coffee, chances are the length problem stems from a pacing problem.

How do you know when it's a pacing problem? Pacing problems occur when the story elements are not given an appropriate amount or type of attention in the text. To diagnose a pacing problem, start by identifying the important story elements in a scene. The more important an element is, the more space it should occupy on the page. (This assumes you're not trying to hide an important detail in plain sight, as sometimes happens with mystery clues. In that case, minimize the amount of page space granted to that detail.) Less weighty details should occupy less page space.

However, there's more to it than just the amount of page space. We also have to look at the type of narrative element being used to reveal the story element. So, let's say the story element is a bit of action -- someone does something in the physical world of the scene. Action is usually faster paced just by its nature, but it's possible to slow it down by revealing the character's physical movement through dialogue or exposition instead of through action.

Right then, Aaron pulled the trigger. (action)

"I am pulling the trigger right this second," Aaron said. (dialogue)
Aaron realized this was the appropriate time to use a pulling motion against the trigger. (exposition)

So, we've said that important story moments require more space on the page in order to carry their own narrative weight, but in this case, the longer the sample sentence gets, the slower the pace gets. What makes it slow down? Instead of directly conveying movement through action, it's being translated into another element, and the reader will have to mentally translate it back from dialogue or exposition to actual physical movement. This creates a drag on the pacing.

So, pacing is a complex issue that requires careful appraisal, and the general principles of pacing and length sometimes work against each other. That said, we can still formulate some very broad ideas about how long a scene should be.

Broad Idea #1:
If a scene is built around action and dialogue, it can be a bit on the long side.

Broad Idea #2:
If a scene is built around description, interior monologue, or exposition, it can be a bit on the short side.

These first two broad ideas work from the equally broad ideas that action and dialogue are faster (so you can have more of them before they feel slow), but description, interior monologue, and exposition are slower (so you should scale back on them to prevent a pacing drag).

Broad Idea #3:
The more the reader's emotions will be engaged, the longer the scene can be.

The reader's emotion can result from sharing the characters' emotions (as in a fight scene or a love scene), or it can occur from scene tension (as in a scene where the reader is on edge about what will happen next).

Broad Idea #4:
Modulate both the pace and the length of scenes.

Unless you're writing something meant for serialization and have strict format requirements, use a mix of lengths and paces to avoid a repetitive tone in the text.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Call to action

Working with a friend's ms, and I suggested she pump up the "call to action." That's usually in the first chapters, and is where the protagonist is given the incentive to act. It doesn't have to be a big high-stakes event, or some insistent demand, but I think a good "call to action" (Vogler calls it the "call to adventure," which is maybe more intriguing!) can entice the reader to keep reading and also launch the story into the second act of rising action.

Sometimes the call is rendered a bit too subtly to provide enough motivation for the protagonist to get off her duff and get moving.  However, we don't necessarily need a Wizard of Oz style tornado call to action. It can seem minor and become more important later, or actually be minor but end up dragging the character deeper and deeper into danger. Point is, whatever the incentive is, it should be enough to motivate the character out of her routine and into doing something.

and I came up with a few suggestions that might help power up the call, and give the reader a clue that conflict will be heating up.

1) Make it matter to the protagonist.  The main character is usually our surrogate in the story, so it has to matter to him/her for us to feel that it's important. I was just reading a pretty good book, a police procedural, that could have benefited from a stronger call to action.  The detective saw the central crime as just another murder of the 20 or so he investigates a year. There wasn't anything special about this murder, at least as far as he was concerned, and his "just a job" attitude made it easy not to get really invested in the conflict.

So what's different about this conflict event? Why is it a "call to action" that's more imperative than "get to work on time?" How can you show that either when the event is initiated, or as the character gets more involved?

2) Place it early. Don't make the reader wait too long. The call to action is the signal to the reader that the plot is getting underway. But it's also the event that tells the character to do something, to get started on the goal or overcoming the obstacles. In the classical dramatic schema, it's the end of the setup and the beginning of Act II. It means things are changing.
Even if you want to ease into the conflict-- it seems like just another murder at first-- think of having some little signal that this particular one is just a bit different, like the police commissioner calls right after the body is discovered in Chapter 1, oh so casually, to ask who caught the case. That way, when the victim is revealed in Chapter 3 to be the commissioner's mistress, the reader will experience a certain glee-- aha! I knew something was up!

3) Make it new. The police procedural never really overcame the "just another job" problem you see often in books where the protagonist's job is taking care of this problem. The call to action might SEEM routine-- just another murder for the homicide detective!-- but think about how you can pretty quickly make it more than just another job. Maybe the victim is the mayor's college roommate, or the evidence points to the police chief, or the modus operandi reminds an old-timer in the department of an unsolved murder, or.... What's different about this event? How is it not just routine? How can you show that early enough that the reader's attention doesn't wander off?

4) Make it demand some action. The "call to action" means the protagonist should act or react because of this, and not just the usual or routine (opening a file, stopping at the bank). What does the protagonist have to do in response to this event that's different than usual? Maybe he agrees to call the police commissioner back after the autopsy. Maybe he stays late to wait for a call from the Pacific Time parents about their daughter, and so misses the pickup at his kids' daycare center and gets into trouble with his ex-wife.  Or he has to call her at 5 pm and ask her to do the pick-up, even though it breaks his heart to hear her voice. The call to action should quickly disrupt this person's life and call for some unusual activity.

5) Use scene placement to show that however negligible this might seem, it's actually important. Anything placed at the end or beginning of a scene gains importance just from the position, from the pause that comes before or after, from the sense that all builds up to this event or ripples from it. 

6) Use another character to elicit some notion of "specialness".  The police commissioner is elaborately casual in his inquiry... too casual. The ex-wife remarks that the detective has always picked the kids up-- what's wrong?  The detective's partner passing by the desk picks up the file and mentions that this is the third "Brittany" killed this year-- weird, huh?

7) Don't be too gradual. This is my mistake every time. I think I want to make it entirely plausible, completely logical, and so I spend three scenes carefully setting up the interlocking clues that This Is Special. (I also keep telling myself to "bury" the big clues in the middle of other clues, so I have to create all those other clues, hence more scene detail, more scenes.) In the first scene, maybe the detective notices her charm bracelet. In the second, he has to call her parents to tell them that she's dead, and they weepingly tell him that she had a new boyfriend, someone important. In the third scene... you get the idea.  By the time the reader has carefully picked through the minefield of event, clue, detail, I might have lost her interest.
Stack.  Get more than one big moment into the "call to action" scene.  Start with the charm bracelet, have him call the parents, let the partner notice something-- all in one scene. Let the small event build into the larger revelation or realization that.... "this is different!"

8) Show the change soon. Again, don't be too gradual in the opening. (I think in the middle of the plot, you can probably take things more slowly and meticulously, but in the opening, you want to get underway.)  The call to action changes things not three scenes later, but right now. If you can make the change clearly a result of his taking this unprecedented action, all the better. As soon as he agrees to keep the commissioner informed, he gets caught up-- the commissioner is "casually" calling him the very next morning.

9) Show the character having to change-- that is, how does this skein of events make his actions and/or attitude different?  For example, he might be sort of flattered that the police commissioner is paying attention to him, but he knows that his captain won't approve, so when the commissioner calls, he lowers his voice and takes the phone into the hall so no one, not even his trusted partner, overhears.

10) Let this call to action open to a new world or a new opportunity.  Say the police commissioner is grateful to be kept informed, and invites the detective to his club where the mayor and the judges hang out. Or the trail of clues leads to Los Angeles and he has to board a flight and leave the frozen Midwest for the beach.

11) Notice what you set up in the call to action scene and use that later in the book, to deepen characterization or develop new conflict.  If you want him to get back together with his ex-wife, for example, in the end, how can you let the call to action and aftermath set that up? Like instead of just abandoning the kids at daycare (not conducive to later getting back with ex!), he uses this as an opportunity to call her, get her to do the pickup, and... this is the important thing... promise her in exchange a nice dinner out. That last in the chain of actions will set up the much later "date" that resolves the romantic conflict.

Again, you're in control here. You're the one who determines what the event is, and how it first appears. You can turn up or down the emphasis. You can move the initiating event earlier or later. You can use dramatic or understated prose. You can select detail that adds to the suspense or narrows the focus. You can show the ripples of the event on the character's life and the setting.  Challenge yourself to use the tools you've got to make this event a real call to action, for the reader as well as the character.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Four years ago today, Alicia and I plunked ourselves down at a Panera and opened a single laptop between us. An hour later, this blog had been born. We had no idea what we were getting into, really, and I remember at one point sort of wistfully wondering aloud if people would ever read it.

Here we are, four years later, and this blog has turned out to be a blessing in so many unexpected ways. We've made new friends with so many writers we might not otherwise have met. Our readership averages nearly 20k unique hits a month -- a fact that never fails to shock me. Several of our early readers are now published authors, and several of our published authors are now topping bestseller lists. We're humbled by the response and the effect this little blog has generated.

Thank you, all of you, for making that happen.


Monday, December 12, 2011

It takes more than a question mark to make a question.

Thea asks:

"I wonder if" sentences I was taught take periods at the end because they make a statement. These days, I often see "I wonder if" sentences end in question marks. Have standards changed on this matter? I'm wondering what is the correct handling of such sentences. Thank you.

There are two issues with the construction you mention. Let's start by creating a sample sentence. We'll work in third person because that's the standard for most kinds of fiction.

She wondered if this sentence would survive the red pen?

As written, I would want to correct this sentence. But I see two issues here, one of style and one of grammar. The grammar issue is a quickie, but it will help show the style issue for what it is.

Normally, to make a question in English, we do two things. We replace the period with a question mark, and we invert the main subject and verb. In our sample sentence, the main subject and verb are, "she wondered." Those are followed by a dependent adverb clause starting with the word "if." We don't invert the dependent part of the sentence. We invert the main subject and verb. So we would end up with:

Did she wonder if this sentence would survive the red pen?

That looks kind of bad, right? If we're in the pov of the "she" from this sentence, then she would know if she was wondering or not. The pov character's thoughts would not be hidden from the pov character. (Well, barring any plot elements involving mental derangement, experimental mind-bending drugs, and the like.)

You see, the real issue with this sentence lies not with the punctuation, but with the relegation of the important thought to a dependent clause attached to a "thought tag" type main clause. Thought tags attach to interior monologue the same way dialogue tags attach to dialogue.

She asked, "Will this sentence survive the red pen?"
She wondered if this sentence would survive the red pen.

In the dialogue, the tag serves to identify who asks the question. It's necessary to tag dialogue (or add a beat that identifies the speaker) when the speaker might not be otherwise clear. But if you're writing in an intimate point of view such as limited third,  then the identity of the thinker ought to be known to the reader. The pov character can't think other people's thoughts. He can only think his own thoughts. So we don't need to attribute those thoughts if the pov is clear. And if that's the case, slice off that thought tag and move the dependent material into an independent clause of its own.

Will this sentence survive the red pen?

Now it's a proper question in terms of grammar, but it's also better fiction style.

Yes, there will be times you'll want to attach thought tags to the interior monologue because the nature or manner of thinking is important to the action. For example, if you're writing about a brain-trauma patient becoming capable of thinking again, then using those kinds of words -- he realized, he reasoned, he thought, he wondered, etc. -- at the moment when thought returns would be important to the text. But for ordinary circumstances, the fact of thinking is not critical to the plot, and so these kinds of words serve only to weigh the pacing and create narrative distance.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Minor Rant About a Bad Trend

This afternoon, I was taking a moment to read one of the few non-publishing blogs I visit, and something in the comments section made me cringe. A regular commenter there, who is articulate and intelligent, used a colon in his comment. A colon, you know, is the one that has two dots stacked atop each other, a smile, not a wink. ( : ) Immediately under this comment, another commenter praised this use of a "semicolon" ( ; ), and then she claimed she was an editor.

Now, this error didn't escape my notice, but it did escape my censure, because we all can make a simple error like this in less guarded moments. We talk about semicolons all the time, and about colons only rarely. Her fingers may have typed the word semicolon automatically, and then she didn't catch it before she clicked to post the comment, and this is one of those places that doesn't allow for comment editing. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she caught the error too late to change it. It's an embarrassing mistake, but what happened next was even crazier. Others chimed in with, "Hooray for semicolons! I'm an editor, too!" type comments.

And those are a little harder to overlook or forgive. The bigger problem, though, is that they point up a disturbing trend I've noticed growing over the past six months or so. Seems everyone is claiming to be an editor these days, and some of these folks are displaying an appalling lack of command over the language. It's not just this chain of me-too comments from self-styled editors who don't know colons from semicolons. I've received DMs from people on twitter advertising their "editting" skills. I've heard countless tales of authors who hired the cheapest editor they could find, and were shocked at the complaints from reviewers about horrible editing. As more and more people pursue direct publishing, I imagine this trend will continue to grow.

Be careful when you hire an editor. When you submit to a house, of course, you don't always have control over who does the editing, and not all in-house editors are built alike. You get what you're stuck with. But when you hire a private editor, you have more control over who edits your work. That's one of the benefits of DIY publishing, right? So why would you hire a shoddy, cheap editor with no credentials other than the claim that they can edit? Would you hire a plumber without first checking whether they can actually fix pipes?

There are plenty of good editors out there. Really, there are, and we're not hard to find. Ask around. Ask your author friends for referrals. Word of mouth is the best advertising for any of us, but a good editor can usually point to a solid track record of published projects, strong reviews, endorsements, and the like. (Take a look at my minimalist informational website for an idea of what I mean. I cobbled this together in half an afternoon just so I'd have something to link to -- believe me, other editors can boast better developed sites, but mine at least has listed the basics.) And though many of us don't like to reveal the names of private clients without express permission, an absolute refusal to reveal anything about past projects probably means that there aren't any, or those projects never amounted to much. 

I'm hearing some of the same complaints about people trying to claim that they're cover artists. They're selling cover art for a pittance, and the grateful author snaps it up without realizing it's the wrong specs or there are copyright issues with the artwork. I haven't heard of similar problems with disreputable typesetters or file-makers, but that might just be because I haven't heard of them. The whole thing reminds me a bit of the days when everyone was rushing to set up an author website (mid-90s, late 90s) and so many people got burned by homecooked design jobs. Just be careful out there. There's a sucker born every minute, and right now, it seems a lot of people think writers are the suckers.


Mouse help?

Help! I need a mouse, I mean, really. I hate the touchpad. But my mouse isn't working-- suddenly.  Here's the scoop:

Put another battery in mouse.
Tried another mouse.
Tried all the USB ports.
Flashdrive worked fine in all USB ports.
Tried mouse in another PC and it worked fine (not mouse problem).
Reinstalled drivers.

I did all the troubleshooting and stuff, and nothing worked. I thought it might have something to the function key F9, so tried to toggle that, and nothing happened.

Device manager doesn't list the mouse, just the touchpad, now.

Any thoughts? I am pretty sure it's just a setting issue, that I inadvertently switched something off or on, so I'm really reluctant to spend $70 to have the tech keep it for a week and say, "Oh, you just needed to press Ctrl something."

Windows 7. Computer is about 2 years old, no problems.

Help! Any ideas?


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Editing and rights

RWA reports that at least one publisher (let's guess which) is suggesting that authors who get their rights back shouldn't use the edited book as that's a collaboration.  (Let me say quickly that RWA's position-- they got an attorney brief-- doesn't support this at all.) 

This is pretty pernicious. (For one thing, the finished book is usually copyrighted NOT to the publisher or editor, but just the writer.)  RWA suggests that everyone in this position should check their contract's reversion clause (none of mine, btw, say anything like that).

RWA does point out that material actually written by the publisher's employees, like the back cover copy, might be better left unused. (And the cover.)

Anyone have experience with this sort of situation?

I'm getting the idea that everyone wants to get yet another piece of the pie.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dean's at it again

I love Dean Wesley Smith's jaundiced blog posts looking back over 40 years in publishing.  He's got one up about agents, and maybe if you read it, come back and let's talk about this question: Are agents still essential? Were they ever? If you have decided to go another route, how does it work without an agent? Will agents be useful in the new publishing climate? How?

I was just in a discussion of "how to use IPads in a writing center," and I thought, "We're trying to come up with a purpose for the hardware!" So tell me if you think delineating "roles of agents in the new publishing climate" is sort of like trying to invent a purpose that isn't really there-- to help agents out, not expecting agents to help writers. I'm wary of that, because as Dean points out, the 90s and later, the industry kind of shifted in order to create roles for agents. Many writers were enriched that way, yes, but many never got past the door too.

Anyway, read the post (and comments-- Laura Resnick's is intriguing) and maybe tell what you're doing, how you've dealt with agents in the past, whether you're looking for or using an agent for your NYC-submissions, and whether if you're going direct or small publishing, whether you're using an agent, etc.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Who did Nano?

Who did Nanowrimo this November? Results?

No, not me. Sorry. I graded about 50K words of papers, but I don't think that counts!


Why Romance Novels Are Feminist in Nature

This might be the greatest thing I've ever seen on youtube.

Writing to Genre

This tends to happen more with newer, inexperienced writers, but it also happens with those who have been hanging around writer circles long enough to understand the mysterious and baffling world of genre. Here's the basic scenario. A writer generates a manuscript that doesn't fit any particular genre. There's a mystery, but it's handled in a subplot. There's a romantic relationship, but it already exists on page one and doesn't really change by the end of the story. The main character is female, but her personal journey doesn't form the central plot or structure -- some other external plot does, and the protagonist doesn't change as a result of the external plot action. There are family dynamics involved, but those dynamics are not large enough to carry the weight of a family saga. There are supernatural characters or horror elements, but all the other competing elements relegate them to a supporting role. There might even be a political assassination attempt thrown in somewhere around the midpoint. And, the cherry on top, it's set in 1870 in Wyoming. In short, the book is about everything and nothing, and it doesn't fit into anything like a recognized genre, let alone a particular subgenre.

A book like this will be hard to market even during good times. During these times of across-the-board uncertainty, it will be virtually impossible.

I know that's a tough reality. Believe me, I see the evidence of how tough it is for writers with this kind of book. This is something I deal with pretty regularly with clients, and these dealings tend to follow predictable patterns. I suggest ways to shift the book more firmly into one or another genre (which is the right move, especially if you're a new writer with no track record or fan base). I usually outline more than one strategy to accomplish this so that the writer has a choice of direction. But the response is usually uncomfortable, sometimes even hostile. "Why do I have to change this?"

Because you do. Because books are a retail commodity marketed under "the same but different" principles. Because you are an unknown. Because until readers start asking bookstore clerks for your books by your name -- "Do you have the latest Steven King/Scott Turow/Nora Roberts?" -- they will be more likely to buy your book if it bears a resemblance to the latest King or Turow or Roberts.

Someday, you might have enough pull, or times might be good enough, so that you can publish your hybrid romance/mystery/horror/political thriller/family saga/coming of age/western novel. But when you're new and untested, the best way for you to find readers will be by writing to recognized genre standards. Innovate within the form now, and innovate the form itself later. (If ever. Chances are, after you have ten or so books out there, you'll also have a tidy collection of tales of woe from authors who risked books like that. Seriously, folks, there's a reason these books rarely get published. No matter what happens on the actual last page, the story almost never ends well.)

Does this mean the hybrid book is terrible? Of course not. In fact, I've read some excellent hybrids over the years. None of them have seen publication, but they were darned good, and I'm glad I had the chance to read them.And yes, there are tales of breakout, genre-busting books -- and yes, some of the books I've read could find huge crossover readership. Or they could end up disappointing readers who were looking for "the same, but different," and found not enough same, and too much different. Regardless, the reality is that these books are a damned hard sell, and if you're interested in being a career writer, it's wise to start by writing to genre specifications.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Misdirection for emotion

I just saw a heartrending scene on TV (Law and Order, actually), which would be devastating anyway-- parents identifying the body of their slain child. But the scene made it even more excruciating. When the cover was drawn back, the mother breathes a sigh of relief and says, "It's not my baby." For a moment, there's this hope... and hope, you know, is the most dangerous emotion of all. The husband looks at her, and embraces her, and his face tells the truth-- it is indeed their son.

I'm wondering if that moment of misdirection is something we can use when we designe scenes, as long as it fits and doesn't seem contrived. (In this case, of course, we understand that the mother might wish so hard she sees what's not there, or doesn't see what is there.) The misdirection gives another moment of suspension, a gathering of dread and hope-- and then the emotion that results is that much more intense.

How can we postpone the emotional denouement to increase the power? It's all in scene design.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Poll results

We recently polled our readers about a common twitter practice seen from authors.
Here are the results.

An author followed you on twitter, and you followed them back. They immediately DMd you a link to their amazon page. This is:

Smart marketing, and I will click the link.   2 (1%)

Acceptable marketing, and I will not click the link.  6 (4%)

Something I delete without further consideration.  31 (21%)

Bad netiquette, but other than temporary annoyance, I let it slide.  82 (56%)

Unacceptable, and I unfollow them, and maybe report the spam.  25 (17%)

Of course, this isn't a scientific poll, but I think we can safely assume that sentiment runs against this particular PR practice. If the poll is accurate, this means DM spam is 12 times more likely to result in an unfollow than in a clicked link. About three out of four people find it bad or unacceptable, and only 5% view it as smart or acceptable. Even if these numbers are off by a wide margin, that margin won't be wide enough to reverse the trend. In fact, given that many of our readers are authors who are on twitter and looking for ways to promote their books there, I tend to suspect any error is in the other direction. I tend to suspect self-promoting authors are more tolerant of author self-promotion (even bad self-promotion) than the general public might be.

In any case, this all leads me to ask one question. If sentiment is so strongly opposed to this kind of self-promotion, then why in the world would anyone continue to do it? Is it mere ignorance, or are we missing something?


Monday, November 28, 2011

Forgot to Mention--

I had a post last Friday at Romance University, and I completely forgot to link it here. Blame my forgetfulness on the combination of the holiday and a virus that just won't quit. In any case, here's the link. The post is about the four aspects of "mateability" that we look for in a romantic hero.

Coincidentally, after the post went live, I pulled out my old copy of Leslie Wainger's Romance for Dummies -- which is a very smart book, notwithstanding the title, and probably the best all-around guide to writing romances I've ever read. I still had a page flagged in this book leftover from my study of Lost in Austen. Under the subheader, "Heroes are for loving," Leslie writes:

Think of your hero as a prize, the prize the heroine wins after all the conflict is resolved. (By the way, just so you don't think I'm being sexist: Make your hero realize that the heroine's love is the prize he wins.) 

This echoes Propp's fairy tale structure derived from Russian wonder tales, which ends with a wedding as a symbol of victory and as a reward for vanquishing the baddie. Yet more evidence to support the notion that genre romance follows fairy tale structure.  One difference, though, is that Propp seemed to operate on the idea that the hero won a bride, but in genre romance, the hero and heroine win each other, as Wainger notes.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Another Monomythic Structure

I was reading the October issue of the Journal of Popular Culture (yes, a little behind on my reading), and I stumbled across this gem in a paper about the Omen trilogy.

Jewett and Lawrence have argued that the classical monomyth is not a common pattern in American popular culture. In the United States, mythic consciousness has evolved into a distinct form that highlights redemption rather than initiation. It dramatizes the Judeo-Christian redemption discourse that emerged early in American culture to produce a narrative in which "[a] community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat: a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition: the superhero then recedes into obscurity" (Jewett and Lawrence, American Monomyth xx). In this mythic narrative, helpless communities are redeemed by a Christ figure who is never integrated into the community, but leaves at the end, remaining a perpetual outsider. He or she has an unchanging moral perfection and a strong capability for action while the community is changeable and must be saved through the violent action of the hero.

The author is Neil Gerlach, and the paper is "Antichrist as Anti-Monomyth." As you might imagine, this paragraph has grabbed my interest. I'm deeply interested in the ways these various monomyths might be useful to writers. So I hopped onto my university's library site and ran a quick search, and from this preliminary scan, it seems Jewett and Lawrence were primarily concerned with comic book narratives and characters, though they did apply some of these concepts to news stories about modern warfare.

Before I pursue this line of inquiry further, I thought I would ask if any of you have looked at this American monomyth, and if so, did you find it useful?


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When grammar elements go out drinking.

Jenny sent this along from a FaceBook post by Jeff Blackmer--
A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.
A question mark walks into a bar?
Two quotation marks "walk into" a bar.
A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to drink.
The bar was walked into by the passive voice.
Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They drink. They leave. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

More on Book Country

Here's an article quoting a few self-pubbing heavy hitters about Book Country, Penguin's controversial new vanity/direct branch. Penguin was given the chance to respond, but to my eyes, their response is thin. "You can avoid line spacing issues in the finished e-book." Um, okay, but if I hire a typesetter, any typesetter at all, I expect to avoid these kinds of issues. And other typesetters are cheaper by a mile. So how exactly does this translate to added value? In fact, you can easily run down the list of benefits in the Penguin press release (on page two of the article), compare those to places like Createspace, LSI, etc., and see for yourself whether it's a good deal. And if you think this is the best deal you can get, then by all means, take it.


Sunday, November 20, 2011


If you've been hanging around writers circles at any point in the last fifteen or so years, you have probably run into the concepts of "call to action" and "refusal of the call" from the hero's journey. There's another pattern which is something like the flipside of this call/refusal pattern, though, which centers around the concept of what is forbidden to the protagonist.

As a brief reminder, the call/refusal comes in the early part of the structure referred to as the hero's journey, the quest myth, or Campbell's sun god monomyth. This is a powerful and enduring story structure which begins with an extraordinary character, unaware of his true nature, who has been stashed in an ordinary world for safekeeping (or for some other purpose) during his youth. The call to action is the first major step in this character's evolution. An external force intrudes on the ordinary world and makes some request or demand of the protagonist. Whether due to fear, uncertainty, or a general feeling of unreadiness, the hero refuses this request or demand. Ultimately, of course, the hero changes his mind and does it anyway.

Some story analysts have suggested that the refusal of the call -- more specifically, the way that this refusal allows the protagonist to demonstrate humility, uncertainty, insecurity, or other less heroic emotions -- is necessary to allow the reader to bond with the character. Without it, the hero might seem foolhardy or arrogant. With it, he seems more moderate or tempered. So this might be the purpose of this refusal to do something we all know he'll end up doing anyway.

This particular story structure is naturally well-suited to action/adventure, fantasy, some scifi, and can be adapted to other story types. But there are other structural models, and one that I talk about quite a lot is the fairy tale structure which lends itself well to horror and romance. (By the way, if you've ever wondered why paranormal romance works so beautifully as a subgenre, but scifi romance is a trickier marriage, it may have something to do with these structural tendencies.)

In fairy tale structure, we start with a virtuous character in a hostile or treacherous world. (Virtue, by the way, doesn't mean sexual innocence in this context. It means the characteristics which we most value in that type of character.) Frequently, the hostility or treachery in the environment follows the loss of a key family member -- think about what happens to Cinderella when her dad dies.

But there might be another aspect to the hostility or treachery of this world, and it comes in the form of what Vladimir Propp (who analyzed a wad of Russian wonder tales much the same way Campbell analyzed all those sun god stories) calls an interdiction. This just means that someone in a position of authority -- or perhaps, an authoritative entity -- has officially banned some act. There might be legitimate safety reasons for that interdiction. "Don't go into the woods at night." Well, we all know what happens when you ignore this rule and go into the woods at night anyway. Freaky bad stuff.

But hey, we're going into the woods anyway, right? Because that's the next step in the structure. Just as the call to action is met with a refusal, the interdiction must be violated. If Cinderella is banned from going to the ball, you'd better be sure she's going to find a way to get to the ball. The ban must be broken, and the forbidden must be experienced. Yes, there will be problems. But those problems will test the heroic traits in a way that proves them to be true and worthy of reward. So, even though we might think it's bad for a "virtuous" character to break the rules, really, it's all part and parcel of that virtuous nature. (This technique, if not this exact structure, is sometimes used in "rebel cop" stories, too. Anyone want to discuss the difference between using this as a mid-scale character technique and using it as a structural element?)


Setting up the punchline

Sometimes when I'm reading a manuscript, I come across a passage or a scene which has a punch of some kind at the end-- humorous, emotional, or suspenseful-- that doesn't really pack the force it should.  The problem is usually that the writer cut to the quick, giving the punchline or disaster or surprise without sufficient set up. The reader needs some time, some development, some prep, to fully experience that "punch" in the end.

Good scene design helps here. Here's a kind of simple set up:
Context or status quo (the "before")
Change event
Big change momen
Contrasting punch

For example, this is kind of a humorous sketch, not very funny, but it's just an example.

Billy discovered a new species of marmoset!
A year later, it went extinct.

There's the bare-bones of it. (And that is pretty much what I've seen in a couple contest entries this month! Good idea, poor execution.)  Have you ever heard a 5-year-old tell a joke? It's like that. Just the punch line.

But the reader doesn't experience in a bare-bones way. The reader probably needs some additional context, some process, some transition. So here's a sketch of how I'd suggest fleshing out that bare-bones treatment:

Set the context: Billy was such a loser! (Maybe an explanation or example here.) He was the sort of kid who read the encyclopedia from A to Z, and would later bore dates by reciting the particulars about different animal species.
Change event: Finally, after failing miserably at school and profession, he found a job surveying the rain forest for resort development. Unfortunately, it was in Madagascar.
Big change moment: One day, while searching for his sextant, which he had dropped in the brush of the forest, he saw a quick little animal, the likes of which he'd never read about in the encyclopedia. He took a photo with his camera, and went back to his tent and emailed the picture to his friend the zoologist. A new species!
Results: Billy became the toast of the zoology world, giving speeches and powerpoint presentations to students and faculties throughout the world. (More here... women zoologists wanted to bed him, men zoologists wanted to shake his hand...)
Punch: Of course, a year later, the species went extinct.

That's just a sketch. But see how by setting up the "loser" context, guiding the reader through the big event and the results, we've given the switcheroo (back) at the end more power.

Our job, at base, is to give the reader an experience, not an outline. Anyone, frankly, can tell the punchline or jot down the turning point event. It takes a -writer- to make it into a joke (or a scene). Execution is all in creating a reader experience, and that goes beyond mere plotting of events into presenting not just the events but the context and process and consequences... and in the most effective prose too.

No, it's not easy. But deciding to do it well is the first step to doing it well!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Twitter Opinion Wanted.

I've added a poll to the sidebar ( in case you read this through a feed reader) asking for your response to a common marketing practice on twitter. Please note: I'm not asking whether you as an author engage in this form of marketing. I'm asking what your most common response is when you receive this from another author. Please be honest about your response. Don't answer with how you hope others might receive your marketing, but with what you typically do when you receive this yourself. It seems feelings run high on this subject. I'm looking for a measure of response to this practice, not for a defense or condemnation. Okey-dokey?


Friday, November 18, 2011

In a Book Country

"I'm not expecting to grow flowers in the desert."
~Can you name that tune?

Reader question: Is Book Country, the new "self-publishing" unit from Penguin, a good deal?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: It's the same amount of work for you, but you will earn less per copy, and there is no added benefit. If you want them to do some of the work (formatting or typesetting) for you, they will, but it will cost even more, and you can hire someone else to do the same work for a fraction of the price. There are loads of people out there who do great work with rapid turnaround times. Jim Brown is one I've worked with, and he's very reliable. (His conversion price is $75/6 digital formats. Book Country's is $99/1 format, and they limit you to one of six templates.)

If you want to do the formatting yourself, spring for Joshua Tallent's kindle formatting booklet, which is very easy reading and loaded with tips. There are also some websites with good, free information about formatting.


Paragraph power... at the end

Came across this. The speaker is a gunslinger type, kind of danger, one of those who survives partly because he's hard to kill.  The questioner, knowing that when Bishop was young, the "powers" had sent out a hitman to kill him as punishment for just this transgression, and almost succeeded, has just asked him, why wouldn't they do that now.

Point was to reinforce this guy's ruthlessness and recklessness, his continued defiance of authority.

So he answers:
"I'm not a boy anymore. Not so easy to kill. I do what I want and no one dares to interfere. I've outlasted them all. Even your commander, who has retired to the golf course."

 Hmm.  Got all the elements, the answer, the hidden threat, the bit of exposition (commander retired). But.. but it doesn't have much power. This is supposed to be a dangerous guy making a threat to the questioner (don't interfere), but it fizzles. Why?
Because it ends on the golf course.
If possible, paragraphs (especially speech paragraphs) should end on the note you want to leave in the reader's mind. So let's flip the sentences, so that golf course "no big deal" comes before the implied threat.

"I've outlasted them all. Even your commander, who has retired to the golf course. Anyway, I'm not a boy anymore. Not so easy to kill. I do what I want and no one dares to interfere."

Hmm. Now that I look at that, the most powerful and dangerous and threatening word in there is "kill".  Can I revise to end on that? Let's see.
"I've outlasted them all. Even your commander, who has retired to the golf course. I do what I want and no one dares to interfere. Anyway, I'm not a boy anymore. Not so easy to kill."

(Need one more revision pass so that there aren't so many short sentences... but maybe that's the way to convey that ruthlessness.)

 I'm not sure that these little revisions matter all that much, one by one. But I think if we go into revision with the mindset of revising for power, for that jolt of extra precision, we will find many opportunities. And altogether, they will create more drama and meaning.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sneaky dangling participle

I'm scouting nearby rental houses for a friend, and in an email to her about one house, I -almost- committed a dangler:
I just saw the sign driving by, so all I know is the house is for rent by owner.

Before I finished the "-ing," I felt something was wrong. And I immediately backspaced and made it:
I just saw the sign as I was driving by, so all I know is the house is for rent by owner.

Constant vigilance is the price of freedom... from danglers.

Anyone else "almost dangle" lately? Some of them are sneaky little buggers.

The real sexiest man

The world's sexiest man: Gregg Breinberg, the choir leader at PS 22 in Staten Island, N.Y. (Check them out in Youtube.)
As a teacher, I am honored for him. Wish we were all as great as he is, but he is definitely #1.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Character vs. trait

A character trait isn't characterization. Just declaring that a character is arrogant or obsessive or showing that means little. What's important is the cause of the trait and the effect on the character's life... and the plot, of course.

For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is famously arrogant, and behaves arrogantly towards all, especially Elizabeth. The effect of this character trait is shown immediately. Almost no one beyond his old friend Bingley likes him, and Elizabeth rejects his impetuous proposal, declaring that she can't abide his arrogant assumption that she will love him back.

So the effect is shown soon (he is disliked, and E rejects him).  The cause is revealed more slowly, as Elizabeth herself comes to understand it. He grew up rich, of course, and indulged, but lost his parents early and found himself the guardian of a large estate, a huge staff, and a younger sister. His arrogance, she realizes (with the reader), was a response to the many responsibilities. She also realizes that he does not act with such arrogance to those he loves when she meets his housekeeper and his little sister.

So the cause and especially its revelation become part of the progress of the plot. But more than that, this central trait is actually changed by the events of the plot.  Darcy is a snob at the start of the story, making clear that he looks down on Elizabeth's family for being socially inferior. But when he begins to help rescue her wayward sister, he must interact with her uncle, who being only a barrister is far below him in social class.  He changes to someone who can appreciate the honesty and honor of this man, and even defends Elizabeth and her family against Lady Catherine, the most aristocratic snob in the book.

Arrogance is more than just a character trait here-- it leads him to behave badly and so is a catalyst for action (Lizzie rejecting him), but is also a catalyst for change, as he moves beyond his arrogance to win Lizzie back.

So let's not stop with assigning character traits to characters! That might be the start, but it isn't sufficient.

Character aspect:
What caused it? How is this revealed?
How does this affect the story events?
How does this aspect change because of the story events?

I'm also curious about how we reveal it, perhaps early, but don't necessarily show the causes right away. I think probably we'd have to show effects right away (as it will of course affect the scenes where it "appears"). But how do we hold off the cause so we aren't just dumping backstory?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Free writing books! Hurry!

Lisa K passes this along: 
Here are  6 Kindle books on writing that are free right now. Normally most are $15-20.

Act quick! I don't think this is going to last long!


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Description and texture

I'm the worst person to talk about description. I hate writing it, and I don't much like reading it either. I'm lamentably un-visual, and so reading what the scene or the room or the world looks like doesn't register for me, and writing it is just an ordeal, as I don't "see" well, and so I almost have to mentally invent the visual aspect of a scene.

However, I think if we think of description as merely description, we might be missing an opportunity here. Description is useful for deepening a scene, for making it seem more real and authentic-- books without much "scene-setting" often seem thin. We are, after all, the children of a visual age of cinema and TV, and we might need the additional details of the setting to make this feel real to us.

Another way we can use description-- perhaps the other important one-- is to create a tone.  A straightforward description of a room ("As he entered, on his left was a closet door, and on the right was the entry to a gleaming modern kitchen. Ahead were two leather couches set in sequence in front of a big screen TV. The effect was that of a tiny movie theater.") accomplishes that goal of making the scene seem real-- the reader can visualize this place.

But the straight description doesn't create much of an emotional atmosphere-- a tone.  I think a lot of us just fall short at this point. We describe what we want the reader to see, but we don't go further to create what we want the reader to feel.  This is a lost opportunity. We've wasted a few paragraphs on something many readers will just skim because it doesn't add much to the experience of the scene. I'd just like here to suggest some ways that you and I (especially I!) can use those paragraphs to deepen the texture of the scene.

1) Description can vary with the genre or the scene purpose.  That is, the same scene (a park, say) might be rendered in a romantic way in a romance or in a scary way in a horror film. It might just be a matter of emphasis, on what details we select. For example, in a romantic scene, what about this park would enhance the romance?  Maybe the sun filtering through the trees and casting beams on the velvety lawn. A lone park bench facing the pond, a pair of swans floating serenely by.
Now take the same park and make it "horror-fying"-- the wind is blowing the fallen leaves around. The sky above the pond grows ominously, paradoxically still.  The park bench is still empty, but now a few of those fallen leaves are trapped against the benchback.

If we can isolate details that help create the genre tone, that will put the reader in the right mood to accept whatever romantic or horrifying or suspenseful event is going to happen momentarily.

2)  Vision isn't the only sense. Describing the sound of the wind or the smell of the stagnant pond or the feel of the grass under the character's feet-- those can individualize and flesh our the description, while giving us more details to select from in order to create that mood or tone.  Most of our sensory information does come in through our eyes, no doubt, but the depth of our understanding of the world probably depends on the addition of our other senses.
Some writers will laboriously tick off each sense and make a line in each paragraph about that sense:
He saw the sun filtering through the leaves, and beyond in the clearing, the campfire. The smell of woodsmoke filled his nostrils. He could almost taste the roasting marshmallows. The crackle of the leaves under his feet woke him from his reverie.

That's sort of dull, and it doesn't add up to much. Think instead about starting with a little topic sentence that might put this in context, like:
The grotto was ancient and long-forgotten, the mossy ground soft and rotting underfoot. The tiny pond was filmed with algae, and the air stank with the smell of the stagnant water. Even the rustle of the wind over the water was hushed and abashed.

Another option is to have a sentence of visual (can't escape that), but then really zing into the most imperative sense.  If this park abuts the town dump, then the smell is probably going to overwhelm the pleasantness of the visual. If there's a bagpipe band playing in the bandstand, then very soon the visual will give way to a recounting of how the lonely music wails across the still air.

3) Don't forget the character. If she's hungry, then no matter how picturesque the scene is, as soon as she sees and hears that ice-cream truck blaring out "Bicycle Built for Two," her mouth is going to start watering and she's going to "almost taste" the creamy ice cream and the nuts on the top of the Drum Stick and the sharp tang of the orange popsicle.

Her emotions might also distort how you describe it.  If she's worried, she might see even the most pleasant scene in a pessimistic way-- those kids on the merry-go-round look hysterical, not excited.
Also consider the character goal. Why is she in the park? If she's frantically searching for her lost wallet, she's not going to notice how pretty the flowers are in the rosebeds. If she's dallying there, waiting for her boyfriend to get out of work and meet her for lunch, she might see everything in a rosy glow of anticipation... or be scoping out the area for a place to sit and picnic.  How she apprehends the scene will vary depending on why she's there, so describe it as she experiences it.

4)  Don't lose the emotion, but use it. What is he feeling when he enters this setting? How does that change what he experiences through his senses? How does the setting change his emotion-- that is, he might grow more agitated if he sees disorder (overflowing trash barrels, cracked sidewalks), or more calm if the breeze is soothing. But show the emotional transition happening, show the setting details that affect his mood.

5) If the character interacts with the environment, the description becomes integrated with the action, and takes on dual purpose. So rather than just describing a muddy playground, we could have our character cross it, trying to pick his way from dry spot to dry spot, worrying about his shiny shoes, stepping accidentally into a  puddle, grabbing for the pole of the monkey bars to extricate himself.

6) One of the most valuable techniques I learned in graduate literary criticism class was to reveal what's not there. Yeah, I read all that impermeable Derrida stuff about deconstruction, but here's what I took away-- what isn't there is as important as what is.  So describing the absence of something can increase the emotional quality of the scene.  An empty swing, creeking eerily in the wind, suggests loss-- of a child, of childhood, of hope. You can mention what's missing ("empty") to add a subtext. As MacLeish put it:
For all the history of grief
 An empty doorway and a maple leaf

Anyway, no need to moan and groan as I do when I realize I probably ought to describe this room where they're going to have the big argument. Stop thinking of it as a "place" and start thinking of it as a "revealer," and describing it might come easier.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Author interview

Nicholson Baker in a good interview in Paris Review (h/t James Wolcott)-- talks about the ultimate question of a novel, and I like the idea-- is live worth living?

The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living? That's a major question, a huge question, but the best way to answerit might not be to crank the novelistic universe into a crude, lurching motion by employing a big inciting incident. Sometimes life provides only the tiniest of telling incidents--that your left shoelace snaps within a day of your right one. That's enough for me. When something is beautiful, it can't be minor.

I kind of get that-- we don't always know what the meaning is that this event or moment will convey, but if it's amazing, the reader will find the meaning.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Your Turn - Spot the Themes

We've been talking about routine tasks in fiction this week. First we talked about two common errors in the reliance on routine tasks, and then we looked at two example of scenes in which routine tasks are manipulated to highlight theme.

Now it's your turn to apply some of the ideas we've been using. But I'm not going to make it easy for you! This clip is of a scene sequence from the film Pretty Woman, the eponymous shopping scene. This sequence is not without its problems, but it also contains elements which many viewers loved. The trick now is for you to watch the sequence with the concept of deeper story architecture in mind. What are the themes, and how do those themes resonate in this sequence?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Another Good Example - Dinner Done Right

We've been talking about routine tasks such as cooking and getting dressed. We started by looking at two ways these kinds of actions are misused in the narrative, with clues to diagnose and tips to repair them. Then yesterday, we looked at the first minute and a half of Lawrence Kasdan's film, The Big Chill, as an example of how routine tasks are manipulated to establish the dominant themes of the film. Today I thought we could take a look at another example from film, this time a classic dinner scene from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.

First, take a look at the scene. Henry (Ray Liotta) and his partner have been sentenced to ten years for beating up a bookie. This scene takes places in prison.

It's a dinner scene, yes, and it goes into detail about a lot of mundane points: the thinness of the garlic slices, the number of onions, the need for pork in the sauce, the bread, the wine, and so on. But these details serve a deeper purpose by reinforcing the theme. This is a film that attempts to convince us that the mobster's life was glamorous and privileged even as it depicted the grittiness and tawdriness of it all. This scene hits that theme hard. They are in prison. It's not a pretty environment. Paulie wears a bathrobe, black socks, and sandals while he slices the garlic -- far from a glamorous look, and yet it shows us how relaxed his is, even in the cement-block prison environment. A single sheet hangs over the window in place of a curtain, and yet there is a linen tablecloth on the table. The gangsters have lobsters and steaks on ice in a makeshift cooler hidden behind an ugly oilcloth sheet. Everywhere you look, there are these pairings of something ugly with something that speaks to privilege and a better lifestyle.

What else do you notice in this scene that ties into the themes of the movie?


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How to Use Routine Tasks to Make a Deeper Point

In my post yesterday, we talked about scenes and scene starts which rely on trivial action in the wrong way. Today I thought it might be useful to look at an example of a scene that uses the same kind of action to make a larger point. I suspect most of you are familiar with the Lawrence Kasdan film, The Big Chill. The first minute and a half of that film portrays routine actions: a dad bathing his toddler son, a mom taking a phone call, a man dressing. I found a youtube clip of the opening -- it's got subtitles, but it was the only video I could find of the first scene. Take a look at the first minute and a half.

Now, the film's dominant themes have to do with the loss of innocence and the tension between idealism and everyday concerns. This opening sequence sets the thematic tone by using everyday, routine tasks as a counterpoint to the phone call that changes everything. One of my favorite moments in this sequence comes when, after the phone rings several times and is finally answered by the mom, the dad asks, "What's that?" We're all wondering the same thing because we know phone calls in movies usually have a big impact on the action. But, even though the dad has one eye on the phone call, the question, "What's that?" is actually posed to the kid, who answers, "Super-Nothing." The call is not about a superhero. It's about a Super-Nothing, a man who never found his way in life but now has found his way to death. The tragic news is delivered against the backdrop of a child in a bubble-filled tub singing Joy to the World.This image is filled with innocence and imagination, two key ingredients in the idealism examined by the film.

And then the opening credits are played over an image of a man getting dressed -- or being dressed, rather, for burial. Getting dressed is a routine act that we do every day, but we only are dressed for burial one time. The ordinary act is made extraordinary by its unique context.

Do you notice anything else here about the way the ordinary actions are used to make bigger points?


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dressing and Dining

We've all heard the advice to cut things like getting dressed or cooking meals from your narrative. And we've all heard the reasons behind this rule. These are non-dramatic actions. There's no tension or conflict in these actions. They weigh down the pace and bore the reader. They have nothing to do with the plot.

All true. But I thought it might be useful to look at two common ways authors slip into "dressing and dining" mode. I think there are reasons authors reach for these kinds of filler actions in certain spots, and understanding the usages might make it easier to revise them out of the narrative.

The Non-Transitional Transition

Sometimes, we see a long run of "getting ready" details at the start of a new scene. You know what I mean.

The next morning, Elsie woke slowly in the fading darkness before the sun crested the horizon. She stretched against the mattress and huddled deeper under the quilt. It would be at least an hour before anyone else rose. Time to herself. What a treat. With hardly a whisper of sound, she threw back the covers and donned her robe and slippers, made the bed, and headed toward her closet. It would be warm today, and Miller had warned her that their project would be physically challenging. T-shirt and jeans? But she wanted to feel pretty even if she was sweating over fence posts and rails. 

And so on, the prose continues in a languid manner, dawdling over moments of solitude and ordinary household and hygiene tasks. Maybe some of this information is tangentially related to the plot, and maybe some it sheds light on the character or conflicts. However, most (if not all) of this kind of passage can be cut without having any impact on the story.

I think there are two reasons for this kind of flat scene opening: the author isn't sure what happens next, or the author isn't sure how to transition between two events or moments in story time. To cure the first issue (what happens next?), just keep reading until you reach a point where some kind of opposition occurs. Remember in high school when you learned all the forms of conflict -- human versus nature, human versus human, human versus god, and so on? Look for that kind of oppositional moment in the scene. The first place it occurs is the first place where actual scene material is unfolding. That is the natural start to the scene, the place where "what happens next" begins to actually happen. You might still need some kind of transition or set-up before that moment, but you want to open the scene close to that spot in the narrative.

I've heard advice suggesting that when your scene starts slowly with a solitary character, you should cut everything that happens until a second character comes on the scene. But that's not always a cure. Sometimes, a character can be totally alone and experiencing a tremendous conflict. Or a second character can arrive and spend six pages discussing the weather before anything meaningful occurs. The better option is not to look for the arrival of another character but for the commencement of the scene-level conflict.

But sometimes, these long intros don't result from author confusion over what happens next. Sometimes, it's a clumsy transition. Usually, we can identify these by the fairly small number of lines between the chapter heading (or scene break) and the start of the scene conflict. These clumsy transitions rarely go on for more than a full page, though it is possible for an author to get really bogged down and "transition" for a few pages. Usually, there's a real sense of wheel-spinning in the text, often in the form of multiple adverb clauses mentioning the passage of time. It reads almost as though the author keeps trying to formulate a good transition, and tries again, and again, and then finally kicks into gear with real action.

In those cases, the first question is, do we need this transition or can we start with the natural beginning of the scene conflict? Sometimes, you can jump right into the fray, and that means cutting all the false starts. Other times, a transition is necessary. In that case, pick the best one out of the false starts -- or cut them all and craft a new one -- but keep it to a single sentence, maybe even a single phrase or clause if you can manage it. With only rare exceptions, transitions don't need to be longer than that.

We sometimes see an author try to fix a flat opening by moving things around without cutting anything. In those cases, you often see a line of provocative dialogue, maybe a paragraph or two of real action, followed by a long blob of, "after the last scene, this is what the characters all did" type information. That doesn't fix the problem. The only difference there is that, instead of being bored by the first pages of the scene, the reader will be bored by middle pages. (It is possible to place transitional information after the natural beginning of the scene, but it must be short -- a single sentence, a single phrase or clause, as mentioned above.)

The Blank Background

Sometimes it happens that the characters are having a meaningful conversation as they eat or cook or get dressed. The purpose of the scene is to have that conversation. The purpose of the scene is not to eat or cook or get dressed. The author includes that "dressing and dining" action to keep the scene from lapsing into "talking heads" mode. It's the right instinct, but the wrong result.

Funny thing. More often than not, the author who uses routine household chores as scene background tends to use the same ones over and over again. Any editor who's been working in this game for more than, say, ten minutes can tell you a story of a book where the characters spend half the book occupied with some very ordinary task, always the same task from the same author. One author might have her characters bathe or shower in every other chapter. Another sends them grocery shopping six times in a 60k-word book. The conversations always occur over meals, or the sequel musings always happen while cooking. I will confess that an early draft of one of my manuscripts had the characters drinking tea on a shocking number of pages. Every now and then we'll run into an author who rotates cooking, bathing, eating, and the like, but more often than not, they reach for the same kind of filler background over and over throughout the text.

There's no cure for this but revision -- not just tinkering, but a total re-seeing of the scene. It helps to overhaul not just the scenes, but the way the author conceptualizes scenes. I recommend starting with the setting. Figure out places to set your scenes that prevents you from reaching for routine background tasks as filler. Make the setting relevant. Make the action interesting. Think deeply about what these characters DO over the course of the story, what makes them who they are, and figure out a way to leverage that.

This doesn't mean you have to make your characters practice their trapeze act while they discuss the suspects and clues in your mystery. You don't want the scene and background to overwhelm the meaningful action, after all.You're looking for something which enhances the deeper architecture of the story -- the themes and motifs, the characters' core beliefs, that sort of thing. This is going to feel hard and even frustrating if you're not used to this kind of scene construction. But it does get easier with practice, so suck it up, work it out, and look forward to the time when you can do this kind of scene construction easily. You know, you might even find that it's fun. Lots of authors do!


Sunday, October 23, 2011

More on Scene Design

I'm still obsessing about scene design, and I'm thinking the essence of keeping scenes dramatic might be knowing what's important to narrate and what can be summarized.

Here are some common scene-narration opportunities:

Many readers skim over even a paragraph which is just description. I think that's more in popular fiction than general and literary fiction, however. In pop fic, the setting might be best filtered through the POV character, or done in kind an omniscient opening to the scene (where it's conventional and won't bother many readers-- that's not always the best way to open a scene, of course, so do what's best for this scene, to accomplish your specific purpose).
Filtering through the character (more common in deeper and single POV) means presenting it as an observation by this person. What would she notice? How would he describe it? This gives the description the secondary purpose of developing the character. If she thinks about how much everything in the room costs, we might think she's materialistic (if she's spot-on about the prices), or poor and envious.

In general fiction and literary fiction, the descriptive passages can reveal the author's voice and perspective. Make sure they do. That is, don't wimp out and have some generic description. (This was a wealthy collector's house. On the left was a Renoir nude. On the right was a Rembrandt self-portrait. On the floor was a Persian carpet. The furniture was Louis Quatorze.) Highlight your voice, your powers of description, your way of approaching setting.

Now many writers are erring on the other extreme and doing almost no description.
Careful there. Think about what the reader needs in the way of setting and character description, and when. Readers don't want to wait till the third page of the story to realize, "Oh, we're outside?" They're trying to put together an experience of this scene, and that does mean they need to know where they are and what it feels like. (Visual is not the only descriptor, by the way.)
So can you establish a few points in the first few paragraphs of the scene?
inside/outside (try doing this with "feel"-- like the wind)
Even the most distracted character would probably register that much.
Also, you can describe through interaction. If he has to push through a crowd to get up to his bleacher seat and he sits down and has to shift to fit his butt onto the metal bench, and he can feel the heat of the concrete floor through his sneakers and he has to put on his sunglasses to shield his eyes from the sun, and as he's eating his hot dog, he squirts mustard on his shirt and curses, and the guy next to him takes offense and shoves him and he goes sprawling over the plastic seatbacks, just as the batter 350 feet away hits a home run and it flies through the outfield and strikes Tommy right on the head... well, we're going to a good idea of the setting because the character is in constant interaction with the environment.

For awhile, I was narrating lots of MOTION. It would take a page to get the character across the street. ("He stepped off the curb. Then he moved his left foot forward on the hot pavement of the street. Then he moved his right foot forward. Then...") I don't need to tell you how excruciatingly boring that was to write (just imagine reading!). Wonder why I did it! Maybe just to get a sense of the physicality of the character, and that's good, but not when he ends up sounding like a robot. :)

So how much motion do you want to narrate? Not that much. Otherwise, it's probably moment-dependent. If the character is engaged in some intricate activity, like picking a lock, you might want to convey how complicated it is with a few lines (don't get to the boring point :) of close narration of what his hands are doing and what his ears hear and what his consciousness blocks out.

In an action passage, like where she's running from a malicious bulldozer, you might want to narrate closely her dash through the floodlit construction lot, her trip on a concrete block, her scramble through a hole in the chain-link fence. (Notice how quickly the setting is described when she's interacting with it.) At the same time, if you want the action to move fast, you don't want to slow it down with involved description of how she pulls the parts of the fence apart and latches each to the side, and ... Go for strong verbs-- she yanks the fencing aside and ignores the pain slashing through her hands and she scrambles through the hole and then she's free in the cold darkness of the highway underpass.

Again, in almost any scene, the reader needs some sense of movement, especially of the POV character. (I discuss this some in this post about action.) You don't want the reader stopping in mid-scene and thinking, "Huh? He's done with building the playground equipment? When did that happened? Last I heard, he was just unloading the tools from his truck!" If it's just "business," just what he's doing when he's thinking or talking, then you don't have to closely narrate, but you should narrate enough that the reader has some idea that he's halfway done, or close to done. Consider using the "business" to make action tags for thought or speech. I never should have let her go, he thought as he screwed in the last screw on the teeter-totter. He gave the plank an experimental shove, and one side came up and clanked him on the head. Just what he deserved for being so stupid.)

Give enough narration of action that the reader knows this character has a body that is doing something, and isn't suddenly pulled up short with, "Huh? I thought..."

But remember what your scene emphasis is here. If the action is central to the scene (like he's mercilessly beating up the bad guy), then narrate closely and keep the focus there. Tell the scene through/with the action. But if it's just "business," keep the focus on the conversation or thought or emotion or whatever you really think is important. Use the "business" as you would setting detail, to help anchor the scene and character in the environment and life. But the focus is still on the important aspect.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Today at Romance University

Today at Romance University, I'm talking some more about what makes a romance heroine a good character and why flaws don't necessarily make a romance heroine more sympathetic. It's all in the fairy tale structure.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ruling please?

How about a ruling on this sentence?  My problem is the "visibly".

The tears were running visibly down his face.

Tears can BE visible, but can they RUN visibly? That is, is this an adjective (modifying tears) which is being forced into adverb (modifying run) position? 

I know it's not a felicitous sentence overall, but let's just focus on "running visibly." We know what it means-- the guy isn't trying to hide his tears. But if the narrator sees the tears, why do we need "visibly"?  Also, really, running visibly?  I don't even know why that makes my skin crawl.

What do you all think? If you were editing, would you let that sentence go by?


Monday, October 17, 2011

Young author imprint

Here's an article (rather hagiographic for my tastes) about a Harper line that seeks out (and awards small advances to) young authors with books that might not get a good reading elsewhere.  One tactic that jumps out at me is that they might do a small print-run (usually that's going to cause the book to fail), but they are willing to go back and do further print-runs if the book seems to be catching on. That's the sort of action we seldom see with big publishers and "small books," but the willingness to go back to print is essential to create the sort of slow-burning seller.

One of the worst aspects of publishing since the 90s has been the willingness-- eagerness-- of publishers to declare a book a failure after it's been on the shelves a month. We know that "word-of-mouth" creates sales, but it takes a while for those mouths to get talking, and it does no good if the book is no longer available after a month or two.  This is another advantage that the demon Amazon has over physical bookstores, and e-books have over print-- being able to depart from the "limited inventory" model where the shelves have to be cleared for the next month's offerings. That's also an advantage that small imprints have over large-- there aren't 16 more titles coming out next month!

It's always seemed to me the most cruel aspect of publication, that the books we spent a year on disappear in a few weeks, that there's often no chance of a slow success. I'm wondering if the future will hold

Don't like the "small advance" model, of course, because that often means that a publisher can abandon a book early without much cost. But it's such a dysfunctional notion, and anyway, so few authors get big advances anyway... hardly seems worth fighting for.  I mean, how many of us ever got decent advances, even in the "golden era"?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Controversy question

I read an essay I liked, clicked on the author's website link (in bio at end of essay), and came to a blog where the writer showed an obsession with debunking the "myth of global warming." I felt as I did when I learned Ezra Pound was a Mussolini fan.

Should we care? What if the author -makes- us care by linking to a website with views we don't agree with? What's the dividing line? I mean, I don't want someone to think about me, "Well, she's all for semicolons and gay marriage, so I'll never read another book by her."  Is global warming debunking okay, but we draw the line at fascism?

Or if we enjoy the essay or book, should we just be glad for that and not care about anything else?
After all, if we avoided writers with aspects we don't like, we'd have to quit reading.  But....

Anyway, what do you think? This does really reinforce my thought that we should probably not link our creative work to controversial material. But of course, what might be innocuous to us might be controversial to others... also, how bland do we want to be, just to sell books to the greatest number?  Maybe some people shouldn't read our books???

Monday, October 10, 2011

Testing the Middle: Subplots

A few days ago, we talked about some simple tests for the end of a book to make sure it fits the story and reads smoothly. In response to that post, someone asked me to do a similar post on the middles of books.

Middles are hard! They're like Tolstoy's families -- good middles share similar characteristics, but every bad middle is bad in its own way. For this reason,  it's hard to say with any specificity how to fix a bad middle, because every bad middle is going to require a different kind of fix. That said, I can tell you some of the things I look at when I examine the rising action. First up, subplots.

Subplots create a lot of problems for a lot of books, and a junky subplot can confuse the reader and create a drag on the rising action as much as a junky main plot. We see a wide variety of subplot issues -- wandering action, irrelevant ideas, dull secondary conflicts, characters that are taking over when they shouldn't, conflicts that are overwhelming the main conflicts, and so on. When a book has subplots, there are a few things I do during the structural analysis to test the subplot.

First, I question whether the entire subplot is necessary. There's a great way to test the necessity of a subplot to the main plot. Look at the moment when the subplot is resolved. Does its resolution change the course of the main plot's action? If so, the subplot is necessary to the main plot. Next, we have to evaluate whether every scene in the subplot (not just that final scene) is necessary to reach the point where the main plot and subplot intersect. This isn't too difficult -- just take the subplot moment by moment and figure out which are absolutely necessary. There should be a pretty clean chain of causation in these subplot events. Anything not a part of that chain of causation can probably be cut.

Necessity isn't strictly, er, necessary. A subplot can serve functions other than pure plot functions. So if the subplot does not change the course of the main plot's action, I start looking for a non-plot purpose for the subplot. Perhaps the characters in the subplot are foils to the characters in the main plot. Perhaps there's thematic relevance. Perhaps the author is building a motif or a parallel scene to enhance the structure. There are legitimate reasons other than plot which would lead an author to write a subplot, and those reasons usually manifest in what I call echoes.

Echoes are little more than subplot aspects which resemble aspects of the main plot in some ways. Whether in foils, themes, motifs, parallels, or any other kind of non-plot element, relevant subplot echoes will relate in some way back to the main plot. That relationship will serve to underscore the element in the main plot -- that is, the subplot serves the main plot by making some aspect of the main plot feel more significant through repetition or reversal.

So first, I have to identify the ways in which these echoes exist on the page. And then I check whether those echoes are strong and meaningful enough to warrant the continued existence of the subplot. This requires a bit of subjective analysis, and it's not easy to say, "THIS is how you measure these kinds of echoes." All I can say is that, if it feels weak, it's weak. If it feels irrelevant, it's irrelevant. That doesn't necessarily mean it has to be cut, but it will need to be fixed.

So, on to the fixing. In general, I find that the first and last scenes in a subplot are the ones that count. This isn't always true, of course, but it's true more often than not. So I start with those two scenes, and I look at what is being accomplished in those scenes. Do the scenes in their entirety echo the main plot? Or is it only certain aspects of the scenes which contain echoes? Because the first and last scenes of the subplot anchor the subplot to the main plot in a more direct way, those echoes should be strong and clear. Those echoes should dominate those scenes. If they don't, we have to find a way to make them so.

Once the anchor scenes are solid, I turn to the middle scenes in the subplot thread. It frequently happens that an author will build an entire scene in the middle of subplots to accomplish something very small. So I look at those scenes and try to isolate the important echo bits. Can any of those bits be moved into other scenes? If so, do it and cut the unimportant parts. In fact, that's pretty good advice for any kind of scene -- figure out what's important in the scene, and cut the rest. But it's even more vital to do this in subplots, which need greater justification to survive the editorial ax.

At this point, we should have two solid anchor scenes and some bits or even full scenes remaining. Now I look at this collection of pages and paragraphs, and I try to determine patterns. With good, well-developed echoes, they will probably reappear in various forms and at various times throughout the text, but they will tie into a single concept -- so, for example, if water is a motif, and it's being used to develop the idea that secrets cannot be contained, the text will show streams, bottles of water, rain, swimming pools, and similar water elements at various moments. Do those water elements appear when the secrets are relevant to the action? They should, if that's the purpose of the motif. So, if you have a subplot scene with characters drifting lazily downriver on inner tubes, but none of those characters are worried about keeping or revealing a secret, then the scene is only accomplishing half its job. Either supply the other half in revision, or cut the scene.

Sometimes it will happen that an echo will be a one-off. That is, the particular echo will appear one time only in the course of the entire novel. That makes it a likely candidate for cutting, but it can be spared if that single instance is important enough to change substantially the way a reader interprets a text. This is more likely to happen if the echo is symbolic -- think of Eve in the garden eating the apple of knowledge. She only ate one apple, and she only ate it once. So even though it doesn't recur in the way a motif would recur, it's important enough that the entire story of the garden of Eden would fall apart without it. (Yes, that's a main plot, not a subplot, but you get the idea.)

As I mentioned, it's very hard to diagnose subplot problems in the abstract, but this is more or less the method I use when analyzing subplots. It all boils down to relevance, and generally, the result of this process is a pile of scraps on the cutting room floor.