Thursday, August 30, 2012

Character motto?

I was listening to some of the Tropical Storm Isaac coverage, and they said the convention in Tampa was postponed a day: "Better safe than sorry!" they said. And I thought about my dh's grandmother, whose motto, he said, was "You can never be too careful."

These "character mottoes" tell something about the person-- in this case, that safety is of paramount concern, but what's under that-- a persistent pessimism that you can't trust fate, that you have to be careful?

How about let's come up with mottoes for our own characters? Here's an article (scroll down) by Susan Gable which lists some of her characters' mottoes:
  • The glass is always half-full.
  • Do unto others before they do unto you. (Imagine how different that person would be than the one who believed the "right way"-- Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.)
  • Life’s short; eat dessert first.
  • Trust no one.
  • If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
  • Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,

 So what about your characters?  If they were to give a life philosophy, or a motto by which they live (and they were honest, which of course we can't assume), what would the motto be? To make this fun, let's use a proverb or slogan in common usage that everyone will recognize.

Examples, and as you read them, imagine what actions, motivations, and conflicts this character would have:
Grab all the gusto you can in life.
Love is all you need.
Family first.
Women and children first.
It takes a village.
Where's the beef?
Curiosity killed the cat.
A secret shared is a secret revealed.
 A man's home is his castle.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
A prophet is not recognized in his own land.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
Don't burn your bridges behind you.
Half a loaf is better than no bread at all.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone.
Let sleeping dogs lie.
Seeing is believing.

What are your characters' mottoes? And what do they mean? How does that internal motto manifest in action?

For example, I have a character who thinks,  "You can never be too careful." That doesn't mean she's a stick-in-the-mud. She's actually had an exciting life. But at every stage, she is very cautious. She's always trying to control the situation by taking great care. She never acts spontaneously or thoughtlessly. So when someone from her past appears and is going to tell her secrets, she acts to shut him up. She first diverts her lover-to-be by making him a lover-in-fact. Then she bribes the man from the past to leave. Everything in her life is done with care and thought... because otherwise, the dire forces will overwhelm her.

Her lover, however, is a rational man who believes that everything can be figured out: "It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness." Whenever there's a mystery or a secret, he wants to find out the truth. For him, "knowledge is power." "The truth shall set you free." So of course he's drawn to the woman who keeps so much of herself secret. But he does this by "lighting a candle" rather than, say, trying to force her to be open with him. He doesn't want her to -tell- him. He wants to figure it out. So he's trying to gather clues (as well as solve the murder of the man from her past).

Your turn! What's your character's motto, and how does that manifest in his/her actions?


Typo spotted in the wild

"Hypnotically speaking,...."

I'm assuming the writer intended "Hypothetically speaking," but spell checker or autocorrect or some other demon fixed it for them. This is why spell checker isn't enough! Proofread, too. We all make typos, and it's not a deal breaker in most cases, but it's always best to avoidable laughable gaffes if we can.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Competing Goals

Often when we think about goals, we think about external goals that come in the form of antagonistic opposition. That is, Character A has a goal and takes (or attempts to take) action to advance the goal. Character B says, "Bitch, please," and takes (or attempts to take) action to prevent the completion of Character A's action. This is the classic character-versus-character form of external conflict. But what happens if there's no Character B, no "Bitch, please," no antagonistic opposition from outside forces?

There can still be conflict. You can put one guy in a room all by himself, and he can be overflowing with conflict without any help -- or hindrance -- from anyone else. This doesn't have to be angsty, actionless conflict, though it can be purely internal. Or it can still directly connect to the outside world and outside acts. It's all in how you manipulate it.

The basic technique is pretty simple. Give the character two positive goals, and then make it impossible for her to achieve both goals at once. Create a scarcity of time (if she spends Friday night on a date, she can't also spend Friday night building a new porch swing) or of resources (lost in the desert, and just enough gas in the tank to drive to the sheriff's office before nightfall or deeper into the wilderness where the villain's secret lair might be). Create geographical limitations (if she goes north for a job interview, she can't make it back south in time to stop the bank from foreclosing on her grandmother's house). The point is to put the character in a position to have to choose between two positive, worthy goals.

Then, with the choice clearly delineated, the character's actions will show her values. For example, let's consider the character who is lost in the desert with limited gas in the tank. We might be tempted to describe this limitation as a conflict, but actually, it's probably better to call it an obstacle. She has two goals: (1) go to the sheriff's office to report a crime, and (2) pursue the criminal, who is racing toward a hidey-hole. She can achieve one goal, but not both, because the limited gas is an obstacle to achieving both. This obstacle creates conflict because now she must decide between two competing goals. What does she value more?

-- Safety. Going to the sheriff's office guarantees she won't be stranded in the desert at night, and what is she doing chasing badasses with secret lairs in the first place?

-- Justice. Chasing the criminal will allow her to bring him to justice and see order restored.

So her choice is about more than which way to point the car. The choice is between her values. If she values safety over justice, she goes to the sheriff. If she values justice over safety, she finds the lair and kicks the door down. But this is only the starting point for the negotiation. The next question is whether she can satisfy both values with either choice.

-- Safety. Going to the sheriff is safer, and she might also get justice if the sheriff helps her track down the baddie. (Or not.)

-- Justice. Chasing the criminal makes it more likely that she'll catch him, and she doesn't have to kick the door down. She can find some other, safer way to capture him. (Maybe.)

This analysis is interesting to readers because it portrays an inner conflict and an attempt to solve a problem. The reader might agree or disagree with the rationale or with the ultimate decision, and either way, they'll continue to read to discover the outcome of this choice. But it's important to remember that when we set up these kinds of value-based choices, close calls are more interesting than clear winners. That is, if the heroine knows she has a gun and the baddie doesn't, the safety concern is diminished. If she suspects the sheriff is in cahoots with the baddy, she's less likely to get justice from that choice. But if the choices are roughly equal, then the decision becomes harder to make. And the importance of values becomes more exaggerated.

Notice, too, the lack of antagonistic opposition. Nobody is in the passenger seat arguing with her. She doesn't say, "Let's chase the baddie," and have to argue with the passenger, who wants to go to the sheriff. No outside force is trying to prevent her from reaching either goal. It's merely that she can't possibly accomplish both.

Think, for example, of a high school senior trying to choose a college. He wants to be an engineer, and he's accepted into the two top engineering schools in the country. His parents will approve either choice, so there's no opposition from people whose opposition might act as a veto. Both schools will give him full scholarships. (It's a fantasy. Stick with me.) In fact, let's say everything is equal except for climate. One is located in a warm and sunny beach town, and the other is located in a cold mountain climate. If he likes to surf, he chooses the beach. If he likes to ski, he chooses the mountains. But what if he likes both, and likes them enough that he would really hate to give up one sport? It's the roughly equal status that makes it a hard choice, and his ultimate choice will tell us which sport he truly prefers.

Of course, it's rarely that easy. If we start layering in other choices, in fact, the problem grows more interesting. The mountain school is large, with hundreds of students in a class, and he gets a little anxious in crowds sometimes. But he was on that beach campus for a visitation day, and half the students wore bathing suits and shorts to class, and that won't help his concentration much, either. (Social anxiety versus sexual temptation -- how else might these two factors affect his decision?)

In any case, this is how competing goals can cause conflicts even when both goals are good and there is no direct antagonism to either. And the resulting decision can say a lot about a character's values, so make sure they choose carefully. :)


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Theresa, this is about our Chicago-accented relations

Theresa and I both have generations of family history in Chicago, and I expect we both are quite familiar with the "youse guys" Chicago accent. Probably everyone is familiar with a bit of it because of all those SNL skits about the super "Da Bears" fans.

I've always so much associated this with Chicago area, I was quite surprised to hear a very similar accent in Cleveland and Buffalo. It's a Great Lakes accent, really, though I don't think those on the north side of the lakes (Canadians) have much of the accent. To some extent, it crosses the class barrier (that is, a banker might sound that way, as well as a steelworker), but not the race barrier (African-Americans and Hispanics, even those with generations in the region, tend not to have those distinctive vowels). The further you get from the Great Lakes cities, the less you'll hear it. I live 100 miles south of Lake Michigan, and no one around here sounds like that-- we Hoosiers are more likely to flatten out vowels than shift them.

Anyway, here's an article about the Northern Cities Shift ("NCS") or Great Lakes accent which points out the funniest aspect (apart from "youse," which I can tell you from my own experience is actually the possessive pronoun used by the purest speakers) is: If news of this radical linguistic shift hasn’t made it to you yet, you are not alone. Even people who speak this way remain mostly unaware of it. Dennis Preston, a professor of perceptual linguistics at Oklahoma State University—he doesn’t merely study how people speak, he studies how people perceive both their own speech and the speech of others—discovered something peculiar about NCS speakers when he was teaching at Michigan State University. “They don’t perceive their dialect at all,” he says. “The awareness of the NCS in NCS territory is zero.”

Point is, while we tend to mourn the loss of American dialects due to mobility and TV, this accent is actually become MORE distinctive. Interesting!


Monday, August 27, 2012

For those of us who grew up reading Bradbury:

This is too cool. A recorded voice from Mars. Sorry. I'm tearing up. I wish old Ray was still here to know what he inspired (and yes, I bet everyone of those astrophysicists in there read The Martian Chronicles in childhood).

The power of imagination made real.


Tough verb agreement question

Ugly sentence alert! But the question is:  Attract or attracts?

It's more memoir and non-fiction that attract lawsuits.

It's more memoir and non-fiction that attracts lawsuits.

Ruling and rationale?


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Quick scene exercise

I'm finding this helpful when I start a scene, just to jot down preliminary answers (which I can, of course, then disregard if something else comes up):

1. What is going to happen in this scene? (Like "While out with Katya, Matt is going to run into his old Navy friend, and they're going to talk about the past.")

2. What is (his or her-- usually the POV character's) goal for the time of the scene? (This can be really minimal, like "Katya wants to get Matt away from his Navy friend and go to their romantic dinner.")

3. Does (he/she) get the goal during the scene? These are Jack Bickham's "ending answers":
  • No (why not, like "Matt's now too depressed to take her out because he realizes he made a mistake leaving the Navy")
  • Yes, but something else (what) happens too ("Yes, in my scene, Katya succeeds in getting Matt to go to dinner, but the old friend decides to come along too.")
  • No, and furthermore, something even worse happens ("No, and they end up having to drive the friend across town.")
4. What surprise or disaster can happen at the end of the scene which changes things and sends the reader to the next chapter?
(In my scene, the friend is going to be accosted at dinner by someone he and Matt know from the past-- who is in next chapter going to end up murdered.)

I always finds it helps to know what's at the end ahead of time, otherwise I would just end the scene at sunset or when the check came.

What are some devices you use to direct scenes, or do you draft and then revise, or????


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Friday, August 24, 2012

Editing thoughts

Had this in an interview for a newsletter.

Why is it so difficult for writers to edit their own work?
I am actually right this moment revising one of my own books for my publisher (Belle Books), and though theoretically I know what I have to do (beef up the mystery), I find it very difficult to have the distance I need to edit the book. Here are my two thoughts:
1) I wrote this book, and it all works for me. I can't "see" where there might be plot lapses or logic gaps, or where the characterization falters. If I knew that, I'd already have fixed it. And the characters live for me, so I don't notice what might seem out of character to the reader.
2) What I love about the book might not be all that important to a reader. I love the voice, and the little clever asides, and the sparkling metaphors. The reader might not be as impressed with my "darlings" as I am.
Oh, I have another reason why it's hard to edit.
3) If we write it, our minds kind of automatically correct problems. Like I changed the venue of the murder in this book, so he fell off a cliff, not out of a window. It's been very hard for me to make the changes necessary so that the cause of death is consistent. In my head, I've already fixed everything, so I have trouble noticing where I need to change details and references.
So... it's difficult for writers to edit their own work because it's hard to get the necessary distance from events and characters we've created. That's a good thing, really, because it means that we're close to our characters and our story. 
Advice for aspriring writers?
This is going to be contradictory:
Take your time,
Don't waste time.
But it's not really contradictory. Take your time learning how to write, learning how you write best, learning what your strengths and weaknesses are. Don't be in a rush to get on the publishing treadmill, because the moment you decide to start submitting, is the moment your story ceases to be yours. Let there be years when you just don't worry about what editors want or what will impress agents or what the trendy new thing in the market is. Let there be years where you just enjoy exploring your stories and your skills.
But when you are ready to publish, consider what that means. That means getting your book to readers. So be alert for signs that this path isn't going towards readers, and be ready to take another path. For example, you might have your heart set on a particular agent or editor, and keep sending that person manuscripts. 
Maybe she says, "I like your style, but I am only looking for young adult books now." Don't go off and write a YA novel just to win over this agent. That's giving this person -- who doesn't want your current story-- too much control over your life and career. I was just reading that one agent considered 10,000 queries in a year, and didn't take on a single new client. Think about that. Do you really want to change your voice, your direction, your mission, for odds like that?
Decide when to cut your losses. If you've tried the agent search for a year, and haven't gotten a nibble, change course. Try going directly to editors (most of them will look at unagented material, though most won't say that out loud :). Try meeting editors at conferences, or becoming friendly commenters on their blogs. Try submitting to contests that those editors will judge.
And if, after a year, you can't get an editor's attention, consider what your alternatives are. "Publishing" is about getting your book out to readers. Traditional publishing-- the agent selling your book to an editor at a traditional publisher-- is one very good route to that. But it's no longer the only route.
Now of course I have to say that it's very possible your book hasn't gotten an agent or editor because it's not yet good enough. And that's something to consider-- maybe you need to take the book back and make it better. However, many very good books get rejected by editors and agents (I've written a couple of those myself :). So if you're having no success with the conventional method of publication, you might need to spend some time evaluating the book as objectively as you can, or, if that's impossible, having an objective reader do that. A friend of mine recently sent me her unsold book and said frankly, "Tell me what's wrong and how to fix it, or tell me it can't be fixed." 
If objectively you decide it really will please readers, then -- perhaps while continuing to look for an agent or editor-- look into other possibilities, like small press publication or indie publishing. 
Don't waste years and years going after an agent, and then more years going after an editor. Give yourself a year or two-- whatever feels right-- to achieve that sort of success. If you don't, fold your cards and start considering other ways of improving the book and its chances to reach a reader.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wanna hang out with me?

I'm teaching a one-day seminar in Hartford, Connecticut, next month. This is a fun class that will look at structure and monomyth in a new way, with a strong focus on Propp's fairy tale theories, but we'll also talk about Campbell and my main man Aristotle. It's geared toward romance writers, but all are welcome.

Deets here.

I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Setting up the Plot

I'm reading an old "cozy" mystery, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, and it's brought up some issues about getting the plot started. The basic premise is that Mrs. P is an old lady (long widowed, kids in their late 30s, so probably she's near 70), and she becomes a spy for the CIA. And there's a series of books about her spy adventures.

This is the first book, and the opening chapters set up not only the first book but the whole series. So the set up is more meticulous probably than in most cozies. And it was written in the 60s, so the plot is a bit more creaky in prep than we'd have now, with our rapid openings. However, it does something missing from a lot of submissions and manuscripts I see today. Whether in the background or foreground, many books aren't really setting up the major opening plot action.
Two kinds of set up:
1) Major character motivation.
2) Action necessity.

Let's see how this is set up in this cozy mystery:
1) Mrs. Pollifax as the book opens feels so bored and useless she's actually contemplating suicide. And it's not just a theoretical "no one would even notice if I were gone". She's actually standing on her apartment house roof moving her plants around when the thought occurs to her to just step off. That's how bored she is, how much she longs for a more meaningful existence. Her doctor, recognizing her depression, asks her if there's anything she ever wanted to do that now (kids grown) she has the freedom to do. She remembers a childhood spent preparing to be a spy, a plan cut short by society's dictate that she marry. As soon as she imagines spying for her country now, she perks up and forgets to be bored.

2) But of course, we all want to be something, and the universe doesn't have to cooperate. It's not just enough that Mrs. Pollifax decides she wants to be a spy. Somehow the necessity for this has to also be set up. So in a complicated series of events (but not implausible), she goes to the CIA and applies and is accidentally assigned to a mission.

That is:
A. She is bored and depressed (her state as the book opens).
B. She is led towards an action that scares her into a better action (going to doctor).
C. Doctor gives her the seed.
D. She remembers her youthful dream.
E. She acts on the dream (goes to CIA).
F. CIA scoffs at her (conflict/resistance).
G. She's there at the CIA waiting for scoffing CIA agent.
H. CIA senior agent needs woman courier.
I.  Mistakes Mrs. P for the courier.
J. Appoints her to mission.

That's about two scenes (first chapter). Now, as I said, this is an older book. Now we'd probably compress that into one scene to get to the inciting incident (her being assigned to the mission) quickly, so she'd probably be at the CIA when the story opens, and there's some quick fill-in back-paragraph like "She wondered what Dr. Billups would say if he knew.... But he was the one who suggested...."

And we might now try to avoid the coincidence that got the senior CIA agent to choose her for the assignment. We might make Mrs. P secretly slip into the office and pretend that she's the supposed agent, or have the young agent who likes her maneuvers to get her chosen.

But one way or another, this is what we want-- to set up the motivation for the action, and then whatever is necessary to make the plot get started plausibly.

Today, we get things started quickly. But we shouldn't skimp on set up. We should set up what we need to set up the opening of the plot: Character and action.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Commas before quotes

Usually, of course, when you hook a quote to a sentence, there's a comma in between, like:

He opened his eyes and said, "Not you again."

What do you do, however, when the quote is just a piece of the quote, and the sentence isn't a nice neat quote tag (he said)?

This is a sentence I adapted (just the details changed-- same construction and punctuation) from the newspaper we have often relied on for perfect copy editing (that one with all the news that fits, I mean, that is fit). If it weren't in The Newspaper, I'd probably just sniff and feel superior. But... but... surely the Gray Lady's copy editor can't be wrong????

Here 'tis:

She once termed this, “the ultimate trend in technology.”

 Your thoughts on that comma? I would never use it. The quote isn't the full quote, and the tag is really a substitute for whatever identifying clause came in the actual quote. The quote itself is really just the appositive (explanation) for the pronoun 'this," "this" being the object of the verb "termed".

I wouldn't use a comma there, but let's try a non-quote substitute. (Clearly, I'm still assuming if the NYTimes -- oops, told ya-- copy editor puts a comma there, it was done judiciously.)

She once called Paul the last honest man.

Hmm. No, I wouldn't put a comma there. 

Ruling from you all? And rationale?


Friday, August 17, 2012

Today on RU

Some of you who have been around a while will have heard tales of the Great Semicolon Debate of '08. I think my wounds from that battle have healed sufficiently to talk about semicolons in fiction again. But be gentle with me. The PTSD isn't completely gone, and I'm running low on xanax and chocolate.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Progressive Tenses

Progressive tenses cause some confusion -- and because I recently ran across an example of this confusion, I thought it would make sense to talk about it. We'll talk about the example in a moment, but first let's review what a progressive tense is.

Progressive tenses indicate an action which occurs over a span of time -- an ongoing action. The action can span the past, the present, or the future. The verb is formed with an auxiliary that indicates the time period PLUS a present participle. It's always the present participle regardless of the time of the ongoing action.

I was talking on the phone when the doorbell rang.
I am talking on the phone when the doorbell rings.
I will be talking on the phone when the doorbell rings.

The bolded pieces are the progressive conjugations. We call these progressive because they denote an action in progress (get it? progress --> progressive), and they are usually used to indicate an ongoing event at the time of another non-ongoing event. The doorbell rings once, in one moment, unlike the talking which spans a spread of time.

Here's where people sometimes get into trouble with progressive tenses during sentence-level edits.

I was talking on the phone when the doorbell rang.
I was on the phone talking when the doorbell rang.

Notice that in the second sentence, we've moved the prepositional phrase (on the phone) between the auxiliary (was) and the present participle (talking). This doesn't change the fact that this is a past progressive verb -- the verb has just been cleaved by that phrase.

In the example I was shown, a professional misidentified that participle as a gerund. (Which gave me a seizure, but that's another issue.) A gerund is a present participle used as a noun.

Talking on the phone is easier than emailing someone.

Now the participle talking is being used as the subject of the sentence. It's a gerund a/k/a a noun. Participles are slippery little buggers that can mutate from verbs to nouns to adjectives, but they don't mutate because you shift a phrase. They mutate because of how they're being used. Back to our sample sentence --

I was on the phone talking when the doorbell rang.

Cleaving the verb doesn't mean it's not a verb anymore. It's still a past progressive verb. In the example I was shown, the writer was advised to convert the "gerund" (ack ptooey) to a modifying phrase, and the resulting change would have introduced both confusion and error into the sentence. This is a perfectly serviceable sentence. No changes are needed. It's cleaner to keep the auxiliary and participle together, but it's not necessary.

The other kind of bad advice we usually see with progressive tenses focuses on that poor little auxiliary verb. Can I get an amen from everyone who's been told to cut "was" from their texts? But you can't cut it from a progressive conjugation without destroying the sentence.

I talking on the phone when the doorbell rang.
I talked on the phone when the doorbell rang.

The first sentence is clearly wrong, and the second has a different meaning because the sequencing has been changed with the verb change. So don't do that. The bad verbs to kill are not the progressive tenses, but the simple past tense conjugations of "to be," such as --

The sky was blue.

That's a boring sentence. In fiction, it's not enough to describe something's state of being. We have to relate it back to the action of the plot and the perceptions of the characters.

The blue sky made her shudder with relief. They had survived the storm.

Now the description is being tied to a character's experience in a specific moment in time. That's why you should kill the "was" verbs in your text -- to elevate the text from straight description to something more specific. But don't destroy your progressive verbs. You will still need them from time to time.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Make it happen IN the scene

A student had a good example of an opportunity to show-not-tell.
Hero was going to argue with heroine, trying to convince her to take a certain action (break off their betrothal).
Heroine was going to almost be convinced, but then have to change her mind to ease her dying father's mind.
Now the "almost be convinced" could happen in her mind. She could think, hmm. I don't want to marry this man. He doesn't love me. I don't love him.
But if it happens only in her mind-- if she thinks it and we know this because we're in her POV and privy to her thoughts, we do know it... but it has no effect on the scene (or the rest of the book). It has an effect only when it's shown in the scene-- when she says it aloud, or pulls off the engagement ring, or rips up the contract, or... 
When it's done, however, out in the scene (by her saying it out loud), it can't be taken back. She can change her mind, but her proclamation will still have consequences, on the way the relationship develops, on how he feels about her, on how she thinks of herself.
The WAY she'd say it is important. For example, if she would say in a small voice, "You're right. I'd be a terrible wife," then later she might castigate herself for being such a weakling. And he's set up with the task to prove to her that in fact, she would be a GOOD wife and he'd be lucky to have her.
If she said, "I'd sooner die than marry you!" then-- well, she doesn't have to die, but at some point she's probably going to have to do something dramatic to avoid marrying him OR to show that (in the end) she really would rather marry him than die.
If she said, "I owe it to myself not to marry someone I don't love," (and of course she's going to marry him in the end) then she's going to have to fall in love with him and accept that she does love him, OR marry him for other reasons and be angry at herself for violating what she said.
Point is, though, if she never proclaims it outright in any form, she can change her mind without penalty or conflict. The original decision not to marry him will have no real consequences on the relationship unless he knows about it.

Make It So

 So some opportunities to "make it happen IN the scene":
Dialogue. Make them say it, argue it. Have the tension drive them to say intemperate things, make risky vows, whatever. What's said out loud can't be taken back. It can be apologized for, it can be expiated, it can be changed-- and all that requires ACTION. Good. :)
Setting. Make use of the setting to -show- something happening inside a character.  Let's say he's the strong silent type that represses his anger and doesn't speak it out. Well, he can use up the repressed energy by cutting down a tree, or building a treehouse. You're the one who decides whether the repressed anger leads him to destroy something or build something.... but anyway, it takes place in the external setting. In fact, interaction with the setting is going to "tell" a lot more than he's able to think/feel internally.
For example, I had a very controlled character who had finally worked up to asking something from the half-brother who acknowledged him as a friend but not a brother (illegitimacy, see). During this time they're discussing this, they are on a newly built pier, and Michael works off his nervousness (and irritates his brother) by "fixing" all the problems the carpenter had left (nails need to be hammered fully in, etc). That is, he was fixing mistakes left by someone else. This got him into interaction with the setting, but also echoed that long after their father's death, Michael was still trying to fix the problems Dad left.
Objects. What objects can you put in the scene which can be used to "show" what's going on? Objects really do have symbolic significance, and you don't have to get too obvious about it-- the reader will see the character doing something with that object and figure out what it means emotionally and practically in the scene.
Like in my scene above, John refuses what is asked, and Michael stays pretty cool, but he takes off their father's signet ring (which he has) and throws it into the ocean. Afterward, he says, "That hurt," but then walked away (meaning that the brother has to take the next step to reunite them). The object is a symbol, of course, of their bond and the father who abandoned them both.
Actions. Obviously all the above require character action (which is why they're especially useful!). Have the character -act out- instead of just sittin' and thinkin' or stewing silently. This can be a useful action that furthers his/her goal, like if he wants to give his daughter a birthday present (goal), building the treehouse helps achieve that. Or it could be a relatively useless action that doesn't seem to have much effect, but shows her emotion at that moment. For example, if she's feeling really agitated, she could calm herself by programming her cell phone as she should have done when she bought it.  Or she could count the change at the bottom of her purse. Whatever-- the action will show the emotion.
Anyway, always challenge yourself to make it (whatever IT is) happen in the scene. Remember Alicia's Maxim:
Popular fiction is the art of making the internal manifest on the external plane.
Emotion becomes action.
Thought becomes dialogue.
Conflict becomes scene.
Remember what Kate Moore said a scene was: We are somewhere. Doing something.
Example from a famous Dickens story:
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
Notice that there is an action there that SHOWS that Marley is dead, and also forces Scrooge into doing something-- he has to sign the register. Little tiny action, but see how it sets up something essential about Scrooge, his credibility. (There's a whole lot else set up in that paragraph-- it's a marvel of setting up-- but most important, by Scrooge committing this action, it sets up something about him and his identity: A man who is good for his word.)
Anyone have an example of a static passage in the scene that could use a jolt of the concrete/real/active?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Keep it together

Minor sentence suggestion: When possible, keep connected words/phrases together without intervening elements. In the 19th Century, there was a bit of a fad for writing sentences that kept the reader waiting for the payoff word. That was, for some reason, considered elegant. You know:
Her ability, like so many of the useful tasks she had learned as a child, to sew a fine seam, though sadly diminished with the passage of time and her failing eyesight, remained a marketable skill.

Those are called "suspensive sentences," and in the 21st Century, they're no longer elegant. But I still see them a lot, usually, I'm sure, not the result of the search for elegance but due to a lack of reading aloud! If you'd read this sentence aloud:
The chances that the progress of their passion over the summer will lead to lasting love are slim.'d probably hear that the meaning of the sentence gets lost by the separation of subject and verb. Many "too complicated sentences" are too complicated not because of length but because of this separation. I can distinguish the main clause by diagramming the sentence (but I can't do the cool diagonals in Blogger):
The chances| are/slim.
The progress, etc., explains the chances, but as there's yet another clause (subject/verb) in there, the modifier can lead to confusion.
Here's a simpler sentence, with all the same words:
The chances are slim that the progress of their passion over the summer will lead to lasting love.

That remarries the subject and verb while keeping the modifying clause. Now there's also a guideline that modifiers should be near the word they modify, which is probably why the original author put "that the progress..." (the relative clause) by "chances." Sometimes there are two or three imperatives for a sentence, and you have to prioritize (or rewrite the sentence entirely, which is often a better idea). Here, because "slim" is a subject adjective (it just modifies the subject-- you could say "The slim chances") and the verb is "are" (which is like an =  sign), so in a way, the relative clause can be seen to modify the entire main clause, not just the subject. (In fact, writers often create clauses -- chances are slim-- out of adjective/subject just so they can make a complete sentence-- it's a way to avoid fragments.)

Point is, sentences can be recast, rearranged, rewritten. There's nothing sacred about the first sentences that embarks from our mind onto our page. Simplification, or at least sentence awareness, will let us add on to the basic sentence without adding confusion.

This is something I frequently find myself editing in my own and others' work. In fact, that "diagramming sentence" above started out as a suspensive sentence because I started it with "Diagramming the sentence.... much in between here... can distinguish the main clause." Then I rewrote it into a passive construction (arguably worse :): The main clause can be distinguished...." Groan. Third time's a charm. I know, it's still not a stellar sentence, but it's an understandable sentence.

Let's be candid here. What are the sentence problems you most find in your edits?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tone in fiction

I'm thinking about tone now, because I'm teaching a Scenes class, and tone is important in scenes. But... but what IS tone? It's not voice. It's not character. It's not plot. Related to all those, surely.

I'm thinking tone is more about effect-- the mood this is meant to create in the reader, and everything that goes into creating that mood is tone.

What do you think? Examples? Ideas? How is it different from voice? Help! Is there a corollary in music?

I'm going to make a list of tones I've found in book lately. I'd say there's usually a connection to sub-genre (that is, you wouldn't have a rollicking tone in a suspense novel), but I'm not entirely sure how one-to-one that is, if there's really only one basic tone per sub-genre. Anyway, types of tone-- are these too "individual" for use in explanation? Any to add?

As I type those, I realize that I'm trying to capture in a word the -experience- of the books I'm thinking of. That is, when I think about, say, the Charles Paris mystery I just read, it's a "wry" experience-- humorous but understated and ironic.

Thoughts? Additions? Examples? Arguments?