Friday, October 18, 2013

New-old interactive storytelling

I am really interested in how we can change the "shape" of storytelling to take advantage of all the new media. Here's a good example of an update of Pride and Prejudice which uses Twitter and Facebook to develop the story and interactivity.

I once designed (on paper, how retro) a story-in-a-website. It was going to be set in a small town on Lake Michigan (I'm still planning on using this invented town somehow), and this was the town's website. So I'd planned that you could click on, say, the hardware store link and get the story of that family, and click on the pizza parlor link and get a conversation between a boyfriend and girlfriend who were breaking up, and the mayor would have blog, and there would be legal notices and of course the police reports, and...

Well, great idea, but all the story parts I came up with were boring! Now I'm thinking maybe I'll have short stories associated with each link, not sure what now, and they'll all be connected through the website and town. But they'll be pretty traditional short stories.

Anyway, is this something you've thought of? Any fun (and abandoned) ideas we could empathize with?


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reinventing Your Story: Part 1: Why reinvent?

 Why reinvent?
It used to be that you had one chance to sell a book to any given publisher, agent, or customer. If the book you wrote wasn't the book they wanted, well, you took the battered manuscript out of the SASE envelope, sighed, and went back to Writer's Market to find another possible market. (Anyone else remember those days?)

Once in a great while, an editor would send a "revise and resubmit" letter, and you might get another chance... but usually that wouldn't work out as a sale either. Publishers often had pretty strict guidelines for genre books, and no matter what they said about wanting "fresh voices," they really wanted "more of the same, only better." Or they wanted something quite specific, or what they wanted one year they didn't want the next, and if you didn't hit the bull's-eye on just the right day, you were probably out of luck. (I speak from long experience of just barely missing many sales....)

But things are different now. The market has changed so rapidly, we're all scrambling to catch up. And the publishing industry, always so slow to learn from their mistakes, is at least becoming a bit more wary of wholesale and arbitrary rejection. No one wants to be like one of the nine supposedly smart editors who rejected the first Harry Potter book. They are starting -- some of them-- to look beyond and consider what might sell in the long run-- a wonderful series idea, a great imagined world, a compelling voice. An author with one or more of those might be worth talking to, even if the offered book isn't quite right.

Agents too are realizing that the easy sales they had gotten accustomed to aren't so easy anymore, and that their captive clients are feeling more liberated and expecting something more than just another sale to the same old place and the same old contract. Agents have always talked about longterm partnerships with their clients, and some even meant it-- but now that's getting to be a necessity. Authors have other options now, and agents are having to think of ways to make themselves useful, including helping to manage an independent publishing career. In this case, they also will need to consider more intangible aspects of an author's craft, including the ability to self-promote and use social media. Again, the book might not be "just right," but the author might be.

Finally, even those authors who have decided to forego the traditional route and don't have to hit the mark with publishers and agents still might have to face the most discerning of all critics, the reading public. Readers now are much more likely to choose an AUTHOR rather than a single book. (If they like the book, they want more from the author.) But readers can be capricious, turning away from a book because of a single word in the description, or because the book seems too dark or not dark enough or too derivative or too innovative, or… That's one reason they can be so loyal to authors they like, and why they are often willing to take another chance if the "problem" has been fixed.

Problem is -- authors have to find the readers/publishers/agents who will want these books... and sometimes that will require making major changes in a book with an agenda of getting that longterm relationship.
So the good news is: We're getting more second chances!
The bad news is: We have to take advantage of those second chances!
Let's talk about ways to take an existing book and reinvent it to take that second chance.

Reinventing Your Story: Part 2: Types of Reinventing

2: Types of Reinventing

Let's talk a bit about types of reinvention.
There are three big categories, and we can deal with them each in new topics:

1. Reinvent the book. This happens when something has changed and the book that seemed just great no longer works. For example, my last book was written as a women's fiction, but sold as a mystery. Big surprise! The mystery plot was pretty lame. Why? Because I wrote the main plot to be the heroine's life journey to recover from a divorce. Sure, she had to solve her ex's murder along the way, but the big triumphant climax was her getting over her fear of disappointing or losing her son. Cough. I had to beef up the whole mystery thing, put in clues, motivation, suspects. All that stuff mystery novels usually have.

A friend of mine right now is trying to turn an old manuscript aimed at Harlequin (that is, a "category romance") into a "single-title" romance, which means, at minimum, adding in a subplot or two and deepening the interaction with other characters.
Another friend wrote a young adult novel in third person and the publisher likes it... but wants it in first person.
There are, these days, many reasons we might want to perform major surgery on what is a pretty good book (and complete too).

2. Reinvent the author. We used to just have to change our penname, you know, to let go of the baggage associated with our author name! But now, everyone knows that Jane Romance is really Bill Suspense, so it takes more than a name change.

Why would you need to reinvent yourself as an author? First would be after a long series of rejections if you're unpublished. But even published authors might need to start over after a long dry spell, or when the market for their type of book has dropped out, or if they've somehow screwed something up so that readers have started a boycott, or they were caught up in a scandal, or had some serious health issue that derailed them, and "Amy Author" is no longer a good person to be in the intense new publishing world.

3. Reinvent the career. In some ways, this is the adventure of the new millennium. We're all reinventing our careers, whether we want to or not. All the old verities are discarded, and what used to work to make for a great career might not anymore. And all the street savvy you might have picked up along the way might not do much to help you avoid all the new pitfalls.

Reinventing a career might involve discarding an agent or the entire "legacy publishing industry." It might be about changing genres or learning how to navigate social media or how to do your own negotiations. It might mean going from being just an author to being a business. It might mean finding and fixing a brand.

We'll just talk about reinventing the book now. For the moment, what would you say is your current situation? Anyone need/want to reinvent? Are there other categories?

Reinventing Your Book: Part 3-- Type of Story

3: Changing the Emphasis of the Plot

Reinventing your book.
First, think about what isn't working.
I found that if you can define what needs to be changed, you're halfway to changing it.
Let's go over the major categories, and share with us if you have other thoughts.

Say the book is fine, but it's a romance with a mystery subplot, and the publisher loves your voice and your characters, but wants it to be a mystery with a romantic subplot, for example. Or you decide that you want to make it a mystery because it will be easier to sell that way. At any rate, you've decided you need to flip the plots.
Most books don't just have one plot. They'll have what they call in the films an "A" plot and a "B" plot.

The A plot is usually the one that reflects what genre or subgenre this book is in, so if you wrote the book as a romantic comedy, say, the A plot is probably the journey of the romantic couple to fulfilled love.
The B plot is usually an important plot, and might actually take up as much space as the A plot. If you, for example, have your romantic comedy couple solving a crime, the mystery plot would be the B plot. If they are trying to rid the town of zombies, the B plot would be a horror plot. Because the B plot is usually so important to the structure of the story, it's fairly easy to beef it up and – if you need to—make it the A plot.
So let's start just with plot structure, and then scene structure.
Plot Structure:

Sometimes it's just a matter of emphasis and sequence that determines which of two major plots is the A plot, and if you fix the sequence, you can go a long way to flipping the plots.
You have probably absorbed a whole lot of "story grammar" and have done this instinctively or by learning: Usually we start with the A plot. That is, in the first scene or first chapter, usually we'll have the couple meeting if it's a romance, or a body being discovered if it's a mystery. We might have a slower opening, but we're still hinting in the opening what the main conflict/plot will be (like heroine has decided she'll quit dating –romance—or she's talking to her mom about how much everyone hates the mayor- mystery).

So if you want to flip the A and B plots, start there at the beginning. Revise the opening slightly so that the first hint of what's to come is the plot you now want to emphasize.
For example, in my women's-fiction-turned-mystery, I originally had the first scene between the heroine and her ex-husband involve her complicated feelings about him and his hints that he wants to move back home. When I flipped the plots, I kept all that "divorce heartbreak" stuff, but punched up Don's confession that he was getting sued by an angry client, and moved that up first. It took a bit of rewriting, but now the opening has changed subtly to make it a mystery opening.

Similarly, the A plot is usually the one fully resolved in the climactic scene (which is usually the second-to-last scene in the book). Again, it might take some rewriting to get the murder plot, say, resolved in that scene. But if you can do that, you'll be sending the structural message to the reader that this is at base a mystery novel.
Scene Endings:

The great script doctor and workshop leader Robert McKee offered this invaluable tip for establishing the genre (or sub-genre, or just major plot): End the turning point scenes, particularly the "inciting incident" (first turning point), on a moment that reflects the chosen genre. Sometimes this just means extending the end of the scene and closing on a comic note or a horror note or a mystery note. That is, you don't have to rewrite all the turning point scenes… just the ending.
This is quite helpful if you have been getting rejections that say, "You're a great writer, but this doesn't fit our romantic comedy line," and you just know that it's a romantic comedy. Look to the end of the inciting incident scene (which is probably in the first or second chapter). Does that end with a moment that reflects the chosen genre?
Let's try an example:

Tom is fairly young. Under 30. Start the scene
however we want, couple paragraphs maybe of Ordinary World or whatever
works here.

Out of the blue he gets a call from a funeral parlor, saying that his
Uncle Walt has died and is there and Tom was listed as next-of-kin. (Keep
in mind that we're going to be making choices all along, and every choice
leads to another choice-- you make a million choices in every scene, and
only some are conscious. And some can be deferred, so we don't have to
decide yet whether uncle Walt is his blood uncle or an un-related
(We also presumably will have to decide at some point whether Tom knows
Uncle Walt and is grieved by his death, or barely knows him, or has never
before heard of him and can't figure out how Tom's name appears as
next-of-kin. In a cozy mystery, for example, usually the murder victim
isn't personally important to the sleuth. So if you're, say, switching from a suspense novel—which has intense emotions—to a cozy mystery—which does NOT have intense emotions, you might want to make Uncle Walt more of a distant relation so Tom doesn't have to grieve.)

So he goes to the funeral parlor. Here maybe some internal conflict--
maybe when he was 19, both his parents were killed in a car accident and
he had to handle all the details, and ever since ge's avoided funeral
parlors. Now notice-- if we go with that backstory, that heavy tragedy in
the past, we are immediately darkening the tone of the book.
If we go with the death, and if it's going to end up a comedy, it's going
to be a dark or black comedy. One of the issues that comes up a lot with
openings is what I call "inappropriate emotion", and I don't mean
actually the character's emotion, but the emotion that the events inspire
in the reader. The opening and backstory do have to be tailored to the
scope of the book-- and, as we're seeing, it's really important that you
know as you draft, or as you revise, what your story IS.

If you mean this to be a suspense thriller, sure, go with the tragic backstory, and also maybe
make Uncle Walt a real uncle and close to Tom. But if you want to make it a cozy
mystery, the "coziness" comes from detachment from the bad
circumstances-- the victim is usually someone not well-known by the
sleuth or is actively disliked. And the internal conflicts are minor,
more quirks or annoyances than traumas.

If it's a deep dark wrenching romance, go with the tragedy. If it's a
sweet romance, or a romantic comedy, see if you can come up with another
reason Tom hates funeral parlors.

Think about connecting the conflict-causing backstory to the type of
story. For example, in a romantic comedy or a cozy mystery, that might be
something kind of jolly but embarrassing, like when he pledged his
fraternity in college, one of the challenges was to steal a shoe off a
cadaver, so ever since, he's been squicked out by funeral parlors.

Just keep the backstory appropriate to this scope. I can't tell you how
many contest entries I've seen where the story is supposed to be light
and there's some huge tragedy in the past, or when this is a "serious"
story, maybe a romantic suspense, and it opens with a "cute meet" or
clever comic scene. It's just jarring, and it makes me wonder if the
author is actually INTO her story. If she were into it really, she would
feel the right feeling as she wrote and conceived that first scene.
She would be sensitive to the effect this whatever choice had on the
reader. Again, begin as you mean to go on! Don't bait-and-switch the
reader. So if you're switching MOODS here—like from a serious romance to a cozy mystery—make sure that the backstory is changed to reflect the new choice.

Okay, so there's some stuff that goes on that is consistent with his
backstory and the tone of the story and the scope of the story that
influences HOW he meets the funeral director and what they talk about.
But at some point, the funeral director takes him to "the chapel" and
there's the coffin, and the director discreetly leaves Tom alone to pay
his respects to Uncle Walt.

If this is the initiating event scene, something's going to happen,
right? And the END of a major scene is when the disaster (or "surprise"
if we want to be politically correct happens.
Disastrous things can happen all the way through the major scene, of
course-- after all, getting a phone call that your uncle died is pretty
disastrous- but THE disaster should come at the end of the scene, to
impel the reader to the next scene. Yes, it's the cliffhanger, but it
doesn't have to be all dire and scary. The point is to disrupt the
trajectory of the story, derail the scene protagonist, and start
something new going. So the end of the scene can be some kind of question
or mystery or puzzle or problem—and you can shift that to reflect the new choice of a plot.

Okay, back to Tom and Uncle Walt. Tom is alone in the "chapel". Soft
lugubrious music is playing on the speakers. The room smells like (choose
one that fits your tone/scope-- lilacs, disinfectant, death, Tom's own
sweat, expensive wood....). The light is dim. He approaches the coffin.
It is (choose what fits) an expensive mahogany and satin casket, or a
plain wooden box, or a ridiculously elaborate shiny white boat with
gleaming gold handles.
The lid is (choose what works for the new choice) closed. Open. Half-closed.

He goes up to the coffin. (Does he have to open the lid?) He sees....

Now here is where you delineate the scene ending – the
disaster/surprise-- which makes this a major scene, but also a major

Let's say this is a mystery. What would he see if this is a mystery?

Let's say this is a horror story. What would he see, or what would

Let's say this is a comedy. What's going to happen? (And what if it's a
black comedy? What would happen that's different?)

Let's say that this is an adventure story. (Tom, I suddenly realized,
could be a Navy Seal!

Let's say this is a thriller.

Let's say this is a family drama.

Let's say this is a suspense novel.

Let's say this is a romance. (You can have a woman come in if so... but
why? Who?)

What if it's a romantic comedy?

What if it's a sweet romance?

What if it's a dark romance?

Let's say this is a paranormal/occult story.

Let's say this is an urban fantasy.

Let's say this is a literary fiction novel.

Let's say this is a near-future s/f post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Now very probably in the original, you're ending that scene on the moment that reflects that original type of story. So say you end with Tom seeing his father's signet ring on the corpse's hand and grabbing at it and knocking the coffin over and spilling the body on the floor—a comic ending.
If you're changing the A plot to a romance, you might just move the romantic meeting to right here—he dumps the body out, and in walks the funeral director's daughter… who will become the romantic heroine.

Go through the major scenes, the turning points, and look at the ending moments. Can you change most of those to reflect the shift in A plot?
Questions? Suggestions?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reinventing your book. 4: Reinventing the Length

Reinventing the Length
The most effective length of books varies, of course, and you should write the book to the length you think the story needs. But if later you decide for whatever reason that the book would be more effective longer or shorter, here are some tips to make that easier.
Longer: Today's new adult readers read 700-page books (okay, all starring Harry Potter) when they were 10 years old. So they won't be intimidated by length. Whether a long book would be more marketable as one volume or two or three is a discussion for another time. And you never want to stretch a short plot into a long book—the threads get pretty frayed then!
However, you might be looking at an older category book (written for a line like Harlequin Intrigue or Berkley Prime Crime), and considering expanding it to single title length, which is generally between 75K and 100K words. You don't want to just add more words—that's like drinking milkshakes to bulk up your muscles. Add length by adding complexity.
One way to do that is to add an additional major plot. Shorter books naturally tend to have a single central plot (a romance will have a central romantic plot, a mystery a central crime plot), and any other storyline is generally reduced to subplot level, starting further into the book and being resolved earlier than the main plot. Rather than adding more subplots—a lot of subplots often leads to confusion—beef up the subplot that is most connected to the main character's emotional or psychological journey and make it clearly support the main plot.
For example:
Character journey: In this romance, the heroine's father died when she was a child, and her mother married again and moved her far away from dad's family. The subplot might be about reconnecting with the family—phone calls, setting up a visit—but it's resolved quickly because the original purpose was just to get her back to dad's hometown where she meets the hero.
What's her emotional journey? She's moving perhaps from a fear of abandonment to trust? That's a good journey for a romance, as learning to trust is a major step on the way to love. To lengthen the book, consider having that subplot of reconciling with the family take place over most of the time of the book. That will mean adding conflict—that is, to make it a full plot, you can't resolve it in Chapter 3 when she starts interacting with the hero.
If you want to have her start with fear of abandonment, you could have her—instead of reconnecting –before- she comes to town—keep quiet about her identity, come to town, and scope out the family before revealing herself. After all, if she's afraid of abandonment, she might think the family kind of abandoned her by losing contact. So she could come to town, planning to observe her relatives in secret before deciding whether to approach them. This would add a motif of disguise that could complicate the budding romance (is she open with him about her real identity and connection to the town?), and if you make him have some issue with the family (business or political rivalry, maybe), this would add a further conflict to the romantic plot.
That is, add conflict, not words. This will affect the entire story, of course, and require changes in most existing scenes and additions of new scenes, so this isn't a task to take on lightly. But it's a choice we witness a lot these days as authors go back to perfectly good category books that didn't sell back when category was king. Now they have a real option—keep it short and try to sell it as is, or add 10-30K words and sell it as a single-title.
Just as common these days is the decision to shorten a book. This is more the norm for me as I always write too much and have to cut on the order of 35K words just to get it down from "epic" length to "single-title" length. So I know there are different kinds of "too long." Take a few days and read over the book as it is. Is the plot too long and complex for the length you want? Or (as always in my case) are there the right number of scenes, but the scenes themselves are too long?
Diagnose the problem before you start cutting! You don't want to end up just cutting words when you really would do better to cut out a subplot or combine several scenes. It can really help just to boil the plot down to an outline with a line or two of summary for each scene.
See if there are some scenes where only one plot-important thing happens, or none at all. For example, I've edited books where the only really essential event is that the sleuth finds a clue. In that case, could that paragraph or page about finding the clue be moved into the previous or subsequent scene, so that one scene can be eliminated? What I like to do then is find whatever in that scene is important (either to the plot or to the author—you know what I mean, the perfect sentence of description, a great interchange of dialogue) and start stripping away everything else in the scene. What's essential and/or worth keeping? Move that into an adjacent scene.
Also look for scenes that basically do the same thing (like the hero twice encounters his prime suspect downtown) without any escalation of conflict. You might not need both those scenes. Another place you might find extraneous scenes is in the beginning. We often write long openings because we're trying to get to know the story and the world, but that might mean that we start a couple scenes before the story really begins. Leisurely openings can be interesting, but if you're trying to trim your book, you probably can't afford extraneous scenes.
Now if you're like me, you might have just the right number of scenes, but spend too much time on each. When I decide to cut the length of scenes, I start at the beginning. Often I can cut a couple paragraphs right from the first page of the scene. I also replace long explanations of motivation or action with a "narrative bridge" of a few words, like "She gave up, too exhausted to continue." I also look for redundancy, where I show something in the action, and then explain it again in introspection—I cut out the introspection unless there's no way for the reader to get the point of the action.
Trimming like this can really improve the pacing as there aren't pages of narration between important events. (By the way, it's always painful for me to delete my passages, so I just cut them and paste them into a "cut file," just so I'll have them if I need them. That makes it easier!)
To cut radically, as when you are trying to turn a novel into a novella, you probably have to get into the very structure of the plot and simplify, first by cutting out a subplot or two, and second by streamlining the conflict. The main conflict might have to be simplified so that it can plausibly be set up, intensified, and resolved in 150 pages. Think about diminishing the internal conflict. In a longer book, perhaps a man can get over being unjustly imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, but for a shorter book, you could diminish that to an unjust accusation without any imprisonment (maybe he got off because of a hung jury), so that he just has to vindicate himself, not deal with the ramifications of having been in prison.
Reinvention takes re-imagining. But I've found it much easier to do when I am clear about what the book IS and what I want it to be. Just asking the questions about whether I need to change the plot or just the scenes gets me half the way to determining what reinvention will transform this story and make it new.
What reinvention situations have you encountered? What did you do?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Who is what? Confusing sentence alert

I think there's a term for this-- there's a term for everything-- something about "squinting" because it makes you "squint" and look back to figure it out. Anyway, confusing sentence in a news article (names changed to avoid getting all politicky):

He is a friend of John Doe, the son of spiritual leader Don Doe, who was killed Friday.

Who was killed? I think John Doe, but maybe it's his dad. I can't immediately anyway figure out a way to make that clear. Can you?
Appositives are interruptives, and presumably you can just withhold that, and have:
He is a friend of John Doe,  who was killed Friday.
So I'd probably go with two sentences--
He is a friend of John Doe, who was killed Friday. John Doe was the son of ...

maybe getting rid of the comma ---

He is a friend of John Doe, the son of spiritual leader Don Doe who was killed Friday.

would make it clearly Don who was killed, so having the comma makes it John who was killed?

Well, I don't know. Don't put three people into a sentence as if they're all equally important, I guess. What's important? The friendship? The killing? The father-son relationship?

Sometimes I think the "need for a lede" misdirects journalistic writers. Everything doesn't actually have to be explained all in one sentence. That's why we have paragraphs. 


Good site

Our old friend Jami Gold has some really helpful worksheets for creating scenes. I love that kind of mind! Check it out--


Saturday, July 27, 2013

First lines

Sorry to be so incommunicado. Both busy with work. It never ends.

Anyway, thought I'd stop by and post this link to an article about first lines-- authors tell their favorite first lines from other writers' books.

What do you say? What's the best first line you can remember, and why did it work for you?

And would you say we're too obsessed with first lines? I'm just asking because so many of us just agonize about the first line. I always find the last line the hardest to write. "And then they walked hand-in-hand into the sunset." No matter what, all my last lines kind of sound like that-- treacly, trying too hard to resolve.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Editing today

I was asked for advice on becoming a book editor, and of course, as a young friend calls me, I'm the dreamkiller. I go around being "realistic" and/or "negative" and killing people's dreams. It's a thankless job, but maybe someone will thank me someday. SO THIS IS JUST MY OWN EXPERIENCE! OTHERS MIGHT BE FAR MORE POSITIVE AND HELPFUL!

Anyway, there aren't many editing jobs in the old traditional ways, frankly. New York is full of laid-off book editors. So most now are working free-lance, doing copy editing, proofreading, rather than acquiring and taking a book into production for a publishing company. (Those jobs still exist, but there aren't as many as in the heyday of the 90s. It will help, no doubt, to be young and cheap and willing to live in an outer borough.)

As for me, my advice to a student thinking of a career in editing who still wants one even if there aren't many jobs in the traditional book publishing sense:
1. Absolutely take a couple advanced grammar classes, especially those which deal with syntax, if you're going to be doing mostly actual editing (and not the whole book acquisition-production process). Editing is a valuable skill, and in some demand, but you really have to understand how written communication works to fix it when it doesn't. 
2. Get familiar with the sort of editing required for web-based writing (like websites), as that's where much of the work is going to be. If I were going to do it all over again, I'd study document design too-- not coding, really, but laying out the text on a page, choosing graphics, all that, just like they used to do for magazines.
3. Free-lance editors generally work for authors, not publishers, and on a free-lance basis (no benefits, no guarantee). That is, the authors are trying to get the book ready for submission to a publisher, or ready to self-publish. You have no power to say, "This is good enough" or "You're rejected." You have to work with what they send you. This requires a level of interpersonal skill that equals the level of technical skill required.   Most authors think what they write is wonderful, and maybe it's not, but they're the boss. You have to make it as good as you can, knowing that often you're not going to end up with a great book. And you have to "fix" without being critical. It's a lot harder than editing used to be, when editors could just reject books they didn't think were good enough.

The breakdown for types of editing, from an author's perspective:
There's the story (content or main) editing, which identifies problems in the story structure, like that the hero tends to whine and the heroine sometimes acts irrationally, and that there are these two big scenes that
ought to pack a punch and don't, and that there are three endings and no beginning. This will be examining things like motivation, logic,conflict, and drama. Plot, character, structure, scene, sequence.
There's the line-editing, where prose problems are identified and fixed, particularly on the sentence and paragraph level-- things like making all those darned one-sentence paragraphs into, you know, actual paragraphs; and determining which fragments add to the conversational aspect of the voice and which just annoy; and replacing static and vague verbs with stronger ones. This is probably the most time-consuming aspect, and the one most likely to result in conflict, because this very much involves the author voice.
There's copy-editing, which is where the Chicago Manual comes in. :) This is the step that readies the manuscript for publication, where grammar mistakes are rectified if they weren't in the line edit, where potential mistakes are identified ("Didn't she have blue eyes in Chapter 2?"), formatting is standardized (all chapter headings the same), and research is questioned and checked. 
Then of course, there's proofreading, to find and fix typos, duplicated or dropped words, formatting errors.
The last two are what authors often seem to think are "editing," and yet,when they come to an editor, they aren't clear about that being all they want. I recently was talking to a writer who said that she wanted her
book "edited" and was shocked when I said for a "full edit" she'd be looking at maybe 5 cents a word. (Of course, many editors work for much less.) As we talked, though, I realized she only wanted copy-editing and proofing, which don't do much to change the story or voice. She didn't WANT to change the story or voice, and so shouldn't go out and hire someone who is going to make a bunch of suggestions she won't want to follow. (Whether she ought to make big changes is another story... but it's her book, and she should decide.)
As writers, we should get to know our process, and our strengths and weaknesses before we send the book out.  And an editor is sometimes not what we need to help us with those weaknesses. Probably most writers do need a copy-edit and proofread, just because those involve fairly arcane decisions and training, and it's next to impossible to do that close a reading of our own work. But not all need story-editing. Not all need line-editing. I would say I don't actually need line-editing, as I'm pretty strong on the prose level. But
I can never tell when the tension has dropped in my plotting, or when I love characters a tad too much so that readers will be alienated. So at the story level, I often need help, which is why I have a great critique
group, and brainstorm a lot with several discerning friends. 
Great storytellers are not always great writers. But a great storyteller probably doesn't need a content editor-- she already has good "story grammar," knowing how to pace and dramatize and characterize. She might need help, however, making the prose match the story.
"Wordsmiths" might not need much line-editing, as they already experiment and edit sentences as they write. They might, however, benefit from story-editing, because they can't always see the big picture of plot and
character and scene. 

Free-lance editors have to get authors to state what editing they want, and they're in charge because they're paying.
I work mostly free lance these days, but of course those who work for a publisher or a company are having different experiences (and probably vacation and sick time too).

Monday, April 22, 2013

Flashback or memory?

My younger son lives in LA, and he told me this is a game he and his friends play, looking at the people walking down the street talking to themselves, and asking, "Insane, or Bluetooth?"
(That is, crazy, or talking to someone on the phone?)
Another contemporary issue:
Flashback, or memory?

A commenter asked:
What is the difference between a flashback and the thought level POV when the character is thinking about the past?
From Alicia:
A flashback is an actual scene that takes place in the past. It might start in the character's POV, but doesn't stay there. 
Think of it this way. I'm going to assign years to the same character, because the PRESENT character might be remembering the PAST character experience, but isn't experiencing it:
2013 Anna looks back and remembers 1995 Anna's firing. She has a wider perspective on it now. She realizes that the job was really wrong for her, and she probably wasn't very good at it; however, with the benefit of hindsight, she has figured out that her boss was threatened by her greater insight. Anna now gets that she was lucky to get out of the toxic situation, and anyway, if she hadn't been fired, she might never have gone back to school and gotten the computer security degree which has led to her getting the job she really wanted. So 2013 Anna looks back and remembers what happens, but also realizes it was all for the best.
Flashback (book is in 2013, and 2013 Anna is the main character):
1995 Anna gets called into her boss's office. She goes in to find her boss cursing at and pounding the computer, having once again clicked on an email attachment that has let loose the virus that eats all the files AND sends the whole company's clientlist a pornographic picture. 1995 Anna feels guilty because she forgot to back up her own files last night, and they're probably gone now, eaten by the virus. She ventures a comment that maybe we should have a company-wide meeting about computer safety. Her boss yells at her, and then fires her. 1995 Anna stumbles out, feeling like a loser, full of shame as her coworkers watch her pack up her stuff and leave.
(Back to 2013, and super-accomplished and happy Anna with the computer security degree and the great job).
See the difference? It's 2013 Anna. Is she remembering? Then it's a memory.
If she stops being for a moment, and 1995 Anna has a scene, then it's a flashback, and presumably 2013 Anna isn't remembering-- it's just being related to the reader. 
So which is yours? Is this "happening" to 2013 Anna? Is she changed by the memory in some way (like feeling better about herself when she realizes it was good that she got fired back in 1995)? Then it's a memory.
But if it's an actual scene that takes place with 1995 Anna, then it's a flashback.
I never have any success persuading writers who love flashbacks to rethink them (been trying a long time: or at least to understand how to make them work. But let me just say, the "present of the story" is when almost all the scenes and actions should take place. If too much happens in the past, then why aren't I writing about that great exciting past time? Why am I setting the book in 2013 if I'm really so interested in 1995? 
Now if what I want is for 2013 Anna to realize that she was lucky to be fired back then, I'd make something happen NOW that makes her remember (briefly) getting fired. What sets off the memory? Seeing that her old boss was sent to jail, I don't know.
That said, I tend to use flashbacks AND memory when I'm stuck for plot events in the present. That's always a sign I need to plot better quickly.
So what do you think you're doing? It's possible to improve the scene, even a flashback, so it doesn't bother readers and actually adds to the story. Here's the question: What difference does it make? How does this memory or flashback change things in the present?
What do you think?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Words that mean the opposite of what they mean

Here's an article on "contronyms," words like "cleave" that have two meanings which are opposites --to cling, and to separate.

The one that most drives me nuts is "seeded," to sow with seeds, and to take the seeds out.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sagging Middle-- dropped plot?

I was talking to another writer about that dread syndrome, the sagging middle. This is when your opening chapters bristle with potential and power, but then sags when you get past the set-up into the second act of rising action. We realized that often the middle sags because we've dropped a plot line, or diminished it to a sub-plot that enters scenes only occasionally rather than directing the course of the story.

For example, in an adventure story, the writer might be having so much fun with the action plot, moving the characters from one near-disaster to another, but forget about the internal purpose of the events, to change the main character from a loner to someone capable of affiliating, maybe.

Or-- I see this a lot with romance plots-- the writer concentrates on the romance, showing the conflicts and compatibilities of the couple, letting them conceal and reveal secrets... but forgets about the external plot. For example, maybe the situation that got them together in the first place is an election for mayor. This is the external plot and shouldn't be going on in the background, arising only when the romance flags. Rather every scene ought to involve some problem or solution or event having to do with the election, and the "end of the middle" (the crisis scene) probably ought to be when the election seems lost or the candidate corrupt-- something external that connects the characters to outside events and challenges them in some psychological or emotional way.

Anyway, if you're in the middle of your story, and you're feeling a sag, feeling like you have to drag the reader to the next scene, or that you're replaying unimportant situations (like "eating dinner" or "going on the run") from earlier scenes-- go back to your essential story lines. You might have a central plot, but you probably also have another important plot-- the mystery plot, or the internal journey plot. See if you've plotted that all the way through. I always benefit from outlining the steps involved in the underused plot, like what is involved in the election campaign, or what he has to do to learn to trust again-- break the plot down into steps, and then develop those steps in the scenes I've already planned out or drafted for the non-neglected plot.

And don't forget, the middle is the time of rising conflict, where the "on-the-brink" situation in the opening chapters gets more and more intense. This applies to each of the major plots, not just one!  If the external conflict is a campaign for mayor, every scene makes the election outcome less predictable... and the costs of victory more acute. If the romantic conflict is that the heroine is disguising her identity, then every scene should bring her closer to discovery, and her deception should become more dangerous to their growing love. 


Friday, March 29, 2013

Civil Disobedience Lives!

In defense of the apostrophe: Vandalism, protests, lawsuits. There'll always be an England!

Post-modern novel within novel... Hmm. Didn't Hamlet do that with a play?

Here's an essay about a couple recent examples of the post-modern novel, which seems to have devolved to "this is actually a novel written by an author character, and you thought it was really a novel written by an author! Ha, ha, fooled ya!"

I have come to think that it's really far, far more radical and destabilizing to write a book that engages in a conspiracy with the reader that the events here are real, not invented, you know, the way novels usually are. That's a lot more interesting than "ha, ha, fooled you!"

But I thought Atonement (mentioned in this essay) was much more interesting because SPOILER ALERT! in the end, it turned out the whole book was written "in atonement" to "fix" the tragedy the writer-character had created. That actually made fictional sense, though the same author in the newest book pretty much just has a "fooled ya!" purpose, and that's sort of dull.

What do  you all think of this not-so-new trend? I still want a purpose within the novel for creating the novel-- something that creates a within-novel reason for the trick.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Perception --> conclusion

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. 
Elmore Leonard

That's a really harsh edict, isn't it? As a reader who tends to skip most descriptive passages, I find myself wanting to skip writing the whole look/sound/taste/smell part of the narrative. But it's so boooooring, I say! I hate describing! I don't see the point!!!

Much of this resistance is me being lazy. But then again, the point is... what's the point? If we don't like writing description, and if after hours of labor we present this paragraph or passage that the reader is just going to skip.... what is the point?

Exactly. What is the point? We're not just writing to fill up pages. So... what's that descriptive passage there for?

Actually, sometimes a description of the setting is needed, to set the stage for action, to outline the context of the conflict, to reflect some aspect of the character. And I think if before I start, I can figure out my purpose here, why I'm describing this, maybe I won't hate writing it, and the reader won't want to skip it.

In deep POV, or in first-person, the essential purpose of description is to show something about what the POV character perceives... and maybe to show what's changing in the character-- what this all means to him/her, how he or she interprets this.

Here's a short passage (end of chapter) in Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris. (Very good book, "boarding school thriller," I'll call the genre.) It's in dual first-person (the good guy and the bad guy). This is the good guy, an old Latin teacher at the boarding school. He's been there forever, and at this point, things are starting to change in ways he doesn't like. So the author uses this "change" to provide an opportunity to describe the place:
     As I said, it's hard to explain St. Oswald's: the sound of the place in the mornings; the flat echo of boys' feet against the stone steps; the smell of burning toast from the Refrectory; the peculiar sliding sound of overfilled sports bags being dragged along the newly polished floor. The Honors Board, with gold-painted names dating back from before my great-grandfather; the war memorial; the team photographs; the brash young faces, tinted sepia with the passing of time.

Okay, notice how very much this is in HIS viewpoint-- the description is filtered through his memories, his values, his affection for the place.  And notice how the beginning perceptions are very sensual, very focused on the experience of the senses in this place. But then, the 'summary" becomes something more personal (my great-grandfather) and poignant (the brash young faces). The nostalgia and sadness of that last (this is in Britain, so the names of many of those "brash youngsters" probably are etched onto the war memorial) leads into the deep feeling of the POV character. This is the paragraph that ends the chapter:

Gods, I'm getting sentimental. Age does that; a moment ago I was bemoaning my lot, and now here I am getting all misty-eyed. It must be the weather. And yet, Camus says, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Am I unhappy? All I know is that something has shaken us; shaken us to the foundations. It's in the air, a breath of revolt, and somehow I know it goes deeper than the Fallow affair. Whatever it may be, it is not over. And it's still only September.

Notice that he is commenting on his own description, analyzing what his own choices of perceptions mean. The movement in the first paragraph from pure sensual description to nostalgia and sadness creates a slow accumulation of emotion. And the POV character is the one who, without using the word, identifies that emotion-- dread. Something wicked this way comes.

Description should never just be description. It should be there for some purpose. It should somehow advance the plot, or develop the character-- something that deepens our experience not just of the setting but of the story as a whole.

Why not look at some descriptive passage you have in the last scene you wrote, and tell what the purpose is, and how you furthered that purpose with the sensory description?


Friday, March 15, 2013

Always ask "why" about punctuation rules

A student asked: I am wondering if you have any advice on avoiding the comma splices that I seems to create without realizing it? Apparently, I am horrible at following semi-colon/ comma rules.

What is a comma splice? It's usually a two-independent-clause sentence (two subject-verbs) with just a comma connecting them. The question is, why is it an error just to have the comma?

(I'm not going to get into the exceptions here, as they're just confusing... again, when we know the rules, we'll know when to break the rules. So ask me later and I'll see if I can figure out a good example of an exception and the reason for it.)

So let's think through the sort of sentence that would generate a comma splice.
"Two independent clauses" means that each could be a sentence on its own. We've just chosen to put them into one sentence. 
Let's make that one sentence, just to illustrate:
"Two independent clauses" means that each could be a sentence on its own, we've chosen to put them into one sentence. (THIS IS A COMMA SPLICE, BY THE WAY. I'M JUST DOING THIS TO ILLUSTRATE THE JOINING OF THE SENTENCES.)

See how we've taken two sentences and put them together. My first point is that we don't HAVE to join them! They're perfectly fine as two separate sentences. (And there's no danger of a comma splice if we keep them separate.)

So that's the central issue. Why did we put these two sentences together, risking a comma splice or a too-long sentence or some other problem? We did that, presumably, because there's some extra meaning or understanding if they're put in one sentence. And that little extra meaning is conveyed when we link them... but just linking them  isn't enough to get that meaning across. If all we're going to do is replace the period with a comma, we aren't indicating in the new sentence what the meaning is-- what the CONNECTION is. 

And that's shown not in the punctuation but in the addition of the connective word, the "conjunction." The most common conjunctions are abbreviated in the acronym FANBOYS: for (meaning because-- the old meaning), and, nor, but, or, yet, so. (For, nor, yet are kind of old-fashioned, but I think they're needed to make that acronym a word. :)

"For" implies a causal condition (Clause A happened because of Clause B).
"And" implies addition (Clause A and Clause B both happened the same time or way).
"Nor" implies negation (neither Clause A or Clause B is true).
"But" implies contrast  (Clause A and Clause B are in some conflict).
"Or" implies alternation  (either Clause A is true or Clause B).
"Yet" is another contrast like "but".
"So" is causal like "for," but in the other direction ( (Clause A causes Clause B to happen).

A comma splice is incorrect NOT because this is an arbitrary rule, but because without the conjunction, the reader won't know how these two clauses connect. Without the conjunction, the reader won't know what we're supposed to make of them together. This is really important when there's a contrast or a cause. The reader shouldn't have to puzzle about whether the author is confused and just doesn't know that the clauses conflict with each other -- I like blue best, (but) I chose a red car-- or that one causes the other -- Mary forgot Joe's birthday, (so) he forgot Valentine's day. Put in the doggone conjunction to show that you know what you're implying.

So let's go back to that first pair of clauses, and let's think about what the connection is:
"Two independent clauses" means that each could be a sentence on its own, (conjunction here) we've chosen to put them into one sentence. 
What conjunction would you put in there? ABOS? (I've taken out the old-fashioned ones, and you can see it's not as good an acronym!) And? But? Or? So? Which of those words best implies the linkage? (Read it aloud, and I bet you'll "hear" the right one.)

See, it's the conjunction more than the comma which adds meaning. The comma is just a substitute for the period that would be there if these were still two sentences. The conjunction is important, and yet, that's the element that's dropped in a comma splice. So don't think of a comma splice as a comma problem. It's a MEANING problem. There's a missing word that supplies meaning. Add that conjunction, and you add meaning (and oh, yeah, you fix the comma splice).

Now of course, you can also use a semicolon! And that might seem like a simple way to "fix" a comma splice. But it's not... because the problem with a comma splice isn't the punctuation! It's the missing conjunction. Just putting in a semicolon to replace the comma makes the sentence grammatically correct:
"Two independent clauses" means that each could be a sentence on its own; we've chosen to put them into one sentence. 
But it doesn't make the sentence more meaningful. It doesn't tell the readers how to connect these two things in their minds. Only the conjunction can do that. (Notice that the adverbial conjunctions like "however" and "moreover" are just synonyms of the usual conjunctions-- "however" means "but," "moreover" means "and." For a couple reasons I can only speculate, we use the semicolon with them.)

Why then-- meaning-wise-- would we use a semicolon rather than the more meaningful conjunction+comma?
Two situations:
1) When the linkage between the two clauses is completely and absolutely clear without a conjunction: I went to the store; I needed milk. However, I would not use a semicolon for some lame sentence like that, just because semicolons tend to stick out and are often considered "stodgy" and "too formal," so they should be used sparingly. (Some editors think they should always be edited out, by the way. We call this disagreement The Great Semicolon War, and I have to say, I'm a combatant on the "let's keep semicolons" side.) 
2) When the writer wants the connection to be presented as ironic, without spelling it out. Mary forgot Joe's birthday; he forgot Valentine's day. The reader is supposed to figure out that, you know, Joe didn't actually forget, that he did that deliberately. Again, less is more. I'd do this only when I wanted to force the reader to figure out what I'm implying.

Anyway, just remember... the problem with a comma splice is that a sentence like that is missing the conjunction, and the conjunction adds the additional meaning that should come when you put two clauses together rather than leaving them on their own. Think "connection," not "comma" here. It's not an arbitrary rule, but a guideline meant to guide us to the greater meaning.

Does that help, or just confuse things more?

Friday, March 1, 2013

It's a matter of emphasis.

 The word you end a paragraph on is the POWER word, and it'll pay off to find the type of word that affects readers of your type of book.

Not great example: Readers of mysteries are interested, natch, in mystery and puzzles and thought and deception. So instead of:
He was lying to her again.
What's the power word for mystery readers? Not "again." Not "her".
Lie. Deception.
He was doing it again. Telling her another lie.
Actually, I might try to make that last a bit longer so that the power word arrives on some momentum. Maybe:
He was doing it again. Once again, he was telling her a lie.
The emphasis is always going to be at the end, isn't it? The final thought.
I probably wouldn't do that with every paragraph. But at the end of a scene?

What would you say are the things that would interest readers of your type of book? What words might be associated with that (just samples)?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

More than ambiguity

More picky stuff.
A student wrote about an exercise sentence:
"Many office managers value high achievers more than risk takers.” I thought that this sentence should be left unchanged, but in the back of the book it was changed to “Many officers managers value high achievers over risk takers.” This correction was helpful for me. It made me look over the initial sentence multiple times to see what was wrong with it. Finally, I discovered the lack of clarity in the “more than” statement. Do office managers value high achievers more than risk takers value high achievers? Or do officer managers value high achievers more than they value risk takers? 

Good questions, and you can see how comparisons so often lead to ambiguity! Generally I change "over" to "more than" ("over" being a word of placement, not comparison). But in this case, you can pinpoint the problem, as "more than" makes who values and who is valued ambiguous. Another way to fix it in an edit would be to add something to "risk takers" to make its function clear-- is it a second subject (that is, doing the valuing) or an object (being valued)?
Let's see:
Risk takers as a second subject-- add a second predicate/verb (do-- that is "more than risk takers value high achievers").
Many office managers value high achievers more than risk takers do.
Or, as is more likely the meaning, risk takers are another object-- being valued.
Many office managers value high achievers more than they value risk takers.

But "they" (referring to managers) might be ambiguous itself! You can see what changing the connector word there to "over" is easier. :)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Prepositional confusion

A student asked me about prepositions, those seemingly simple yet slippery little words:

Correct: Albert found himself very angry at Joanna.   

Correct: Albert was very mad at Joanna.

Incorrect: Albert was mad with Joanna./ Albert found himself angry with Joanna. 

That's a great example of how prepositions aren't always perfectly obvious and precise!
The example is complicated in the second instance (mad) because that word has two meanings: Angry and crazy.

Anyway, "angry at" is going to be very clear-- it means that Albert is angry/mad and that anger is aimed AT   Joanna. 

"Angry with" isn't so clear. (I grew up in the south, and I recognize that formation. Then again, we used to "brag on" our accomplishments, so "non-standard" was the common mode with prepositions.)

What will "angry with" mean to most people? "With" isn't aimed AT something. But it's about one noun "accompanying" another. "I am going to the store WITH John." So Albert being angry WITH Joanna could mean that they're both angry together (at someone else).  
And "mad with" to me could mean "crazy about" (that is, in love with), so I'd probably avoid that altogether!

I figure it's usually best to go with the uncontestable option, the one no one will misinterpret. 

What do you think? I'm looking for other examples of preposition situations where it just isn't incontrovertible which prep to use-- any examples?


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Question from comments re: sequential action

Arial asks:
I've got one for ya! Setup for the sentence: The heroine is in the saddle, sitting in front of the hero. He has just reached into his saddlebags for a bottle and... 
His arms coming around her, he uncorked a small bottle, took a swig and replaced the cork
I'm told that he can't have his arms come around her AND uncork the bottle AND take a swig AND replace the cork all at the same time. I'm told that the way the sentence is written above, that's what I'm describing. Obviously, my original intent was to have these actions happening sequentially, but I loathe writing, "After his arms came around her, he uncorked a small bottle, then took a swig before replacing the cork." BLAH! It's wordy and sloppy. Help! Thanks! Arial 
 Hey, commenters! How would you revise the sentence?

I have to ask Arial a question. Where is the bottle? In the saddlebags? Where are they in relation to the heroine?

Now let's have some suggested revisions!

Actually, this gives me the opportunity to mention a new guideline, but I haven't really formulated it yet. I'm just thinking that the complexity of the action sequence (and the time it takes) might dictate whether it's more than one sentence. I see too often that action is rendered too quickly, so the experience of the sequence is lessened. All the action pieces are made minor, and of equal importance.
So in the above, if this is a romance, it's a lot more important that his arms go around her than that he uncorks the bottle, but putting this all in one sentence makes it seem like they're of equal importance.

(Also it's hard to tell whose POV this is-- either way, though, the arms going around her should be FELT -- perception, emotion, not just movement, should be narrated here, I think.)

So I guess I'm saying, first, I wouldn't do it all in one sentence. And then, I would go into the POV of the POV character and narrate a bit of how it feels, what it means.
Okay, suggestions! What would you all do? Arial, what do  you think would help? Which of the suggestions would you think would work best?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Infinitives: To split or not to split

Infinitives are an oddity in English, as they're basically one word made up of two words, "TO + Verb", like "to go" or "to be". (In many other languages, like French and Latin, the infinitive is one word—aller is French for "to go".)

Infinitives are used to indicate purpose or intention, as in "I want to email Billy," or "To get certified, I must pass the licensing test." They can also be used as a noun to present an action as a thing ("To know me is to love me"), but we'll be talking about infinitives used as modifiers (adjectives or adverbs).

You might have heard an old grammar edict: "Don't split the infinitive." That refers to the previous forbidden tactic of inserting an adverb in the middle between the "to" and the verb. (19th Century English grammarians tended to honor Latin grammar rules, and clearly you cannot split a one-word infinitive as exists in Latin.)

As the great grammarian H.W. Fowler commented, "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solicism in the 19th century: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned." In fact, he divided the entire English-speaking population by their attitudes towards the split infinitive: "Those who don't know and don't care, those who don't know and do care, those who know and approve, those who know and condemn, and those who know and discriminate."

Let's be among those who know and discriminate!

So here's the question. I'm going to give you two famous infinitive quotations, both stately and portentous with meaning. One has the adverb BEFORE the infinitive in a way that even sticklers would approve. One cavalierly splits the infinitive to add an adverb.

Both are correct. Why? Why is each correct when one follows the "rule" and the other doesn't?

Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark:
To be or not to be, that is the question.

James T. Kirk, the Starship Captain:
To boldly go where no man has gone before.

 Your turn! What is the difference? Why in the first should the adverb "not" be placed in front of the infinitive "to be", and in the second, the adverb is correctly placed right before the verb? Speculations please!

(Here is a site that discusses Fowler's philosophy:
(And here's a fun rendition of "to be or not to be"-- A two-year-old playing Hamlet. )

Saturday, January 26, 2013

First Person uncertainty

Recently a writer said that the good thing about first person was that you get to tell the truth. And I-- never one to let a categorical statement stand categorically-- riposted that it all depends, as it's the character's understanding of the truth, which might or might not be true.

I came across an example of this in Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, which is in first-person. The issue here isn't whether the POV character is deliberately or subconsciously distorting the truth, but one of certainty-- she doesn't know to a certainty:
My sight lines weren't good, but I thought his hands were shaking.

That is, she's confessing that she doesn't really know because of "the sight lines", but she's reporting what she thinks she sees. Of course, two considerations here:
First, the narrator WANTS his hands to be shaking, that is, that he's evincing nervousness at being close to her. (She wants to think he's attracted to her.) So her perception might be less than accurate, just because she wants it to be so.
Second, one step removed-- the author put this in there. If there was no relevance, if it didn't matter, then the author wouldn't have bothered. We as readers generally assume that whatever is narrated has some importance, whether or not that's the fact. And the author knows we'll think this is important, and so decides whether or not to include this based on whether or not  he/she thinks it's worth getting the reader excited about these shaking hands.

So let's assume McEwan chose to put this in there because it had some (albeit perhaps slight) meaning. What are we to make of it? Is it actually true (the character's hands really are shaking)? Or is what he wants us to get is that the young lady watching wants him to be nervous, thereby showing us that she really does like him (despite her recent rejection of him)?
That is, is the "importance" the event (hands shaking) or the POV's perception (her thinking that his hands are shaking)?  The fun of this is, of course, that we don't need to determine that at this point in the narrative. We can wait to find out if he's really that affected by being near her, or if she's just hoping that he is.

Now think about how differently that simple observation would be rendered in the more common form of third-person. There would be no doubt, because ordinary third-person narrates what's happening.
His hands were shaking.

We wouldn't need the line about the sight lines, because this would be a narration of the action of the scene, not the narration from her perspective about what she's thinking as the scene plays out. In ordinary third-person, we are given no reason to doubt the truth of the narration. Clearly this is the POV of choice if you just want the reader focusing on what's happening, if you don't want them wasting time doubting or speculating. His hands were shaking. Nuff said.

But what about Deep Third POV, which is cognitively much more akin to first-person, in that narration is completely through the perspective of a character (though with third person pronouns -- he/she)?
In that case, the perspective-limiting observation (sight lines) and the doubt would probably be preserved.
Serena's sight lines weren't good, but she thought his hands were shaking.

A deep third narration is no more certain than a first-person narration-- both are colored and perhaps distorted by the limitations, desires, and biases of the POV character.

So, short work of it:
If you don't want the reader speculating, common third is your best choice. This would be more useful in plot-driven books, where the characters' inner workings and doubts aren't that important.
If you want the reader speculating and doubting if the character POV is transparent and accurate, use first-person or deep third. That is more appropriate for character-driven books.

Examples? I'd love to start collecting some examples.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mixed emotions

Sometimes (often!) emotion can be mixed-- we hate what we love, we crave what will kill us, etc. I would suggest that we might want to generally stick to more pure emotion or all our characters will end up like Hamlet ("On the other hand...."), but at some especially intense moments, we might want to present the complexity of our characters' emotions. (This might be particularly dramatic in the Dark Moment, when the motivations, emotions, and conflicts collide.)
Here's a lovely example of mixed emotion:
I don't really have any wisdom, but perhaps you can find some good examples in your favorite emotion books of powerfully mixed emotion. All I can assess is that in these intense, complex moments, you might try juxtaposing the two emotions in the same sentence to show the conflict and overlap.
From that Poison and Wine song, and notice that the conjunction isn't "but" but "and"-- so the juxtaposition shows the conflict, but the "and" indicates the reality that both are existing in the same person and the same moment:
I don't love you, and I always will.
Syntax (sentence construction) is the perfect way to illustrate complexity-- everything in a sentence belongs together, so any contradiction will be heightened.
How about a short passage of mixed emotion done well? Here's one I like which shows the complexity of the adult child's resentment of the parents:
The contents of the boxes (plates and bowls, cutlery, serving dishes, pans and pots, a few extras that David insisted on, including a set of bowls for the children with famous sports figures on them—they’re sports fiends, the grandchildren) have been purchased so that Noelle, Amram, and their four boys can eat in their house. Noelle won’t eat off nonkosher dishes, even if those dishes belong to her parents. Especially, Marilyn sometimes thinks, if those dishes belong to her parents.
The World Without You by Joshua Henkin
The complexity is shown in the juxtaposition of those last two lines, and the opposition/pairing of "even if/especially if". The similar order of those two last elements highlight the changes (even if to especially if). 
Other examples? What works to show the layering, the mixing, the conflict?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Is the Internet the Death of the Novel?

I found this article by Toby Litt really provocative, addressing some of the worries I have about how the rapid advance of new technology could spell the end of our old medium. It's mostly a lament, but it did spark thoughts about what sort of form "story" can take in the future. It doesn't HAVE to be in the shape of a novel. After all, The Odyssey was an epic poem, the dominant form of storytelling for many centuries, and while the form isn't used much anymore, stories still get told.

Anyway, what do you think? How can stories take on the methods of the Internet, or would it be better for novels to go on and provide a respite from the insistence of email and Facebook and all that?

Is the death of the novel coming? Will with it die the more contemplative forms of story?


Saturday, January 19, 2013

There's Subtle, and There's Obscure

The more sophisticated the writing and plotting, the less obvious the exposition. But that doesn't mean there's no exposition, only that it's done subtly and carefully through the characters in a way that is consistent with the way they think, speak, and interact.

An example of subtle exposition is in the movie Lincoln, which by narrowing the focus to a couple weeks before Lincoln's second inauguration, presents an unfamiliar take on a very familiar subject. That means that there has to be exposition (there's a lot we don't know), but it has to be rendered carefully (we think we know a lot, and we'll notice any "lecturing" or "As you know, Alphonse" explanations). So what the writer and director did was to portray Lincoln as someone who likes to hear and tell stories. (This happened to be true to the historical character, but is universal enough a trait that it could have been invented without penalty.) From the start, Lincoln is shown telling stories about people he knew, people he represented in court cases. So when in the middle of a folksy story, there's a nugget of actual information, it goes down easy. It "sounds" in character.

Oppositional characters-- the opposite of attentive listeners-- are used to evoke-- paradoxically, through their opposition to the telling-- more information. At one point, a fellow Republican exclaims, "Not another story! I can't stand to hear another of your stories!" which just provokes Lincoln to grin and tell another.

At one point, Lincoln provides his own opposition. There's a particularly knotty bit of explanation needed, because we all know about the Emancipation Proclamation, and I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who was thinking, "Why wasn't that enough?" Whenever readers are going to have questions, then it's a good idea to consider giving them an answer-- but subtly. So Lincoln asks this himself, and plays devil's advocate-- it might have been unconstitutional. Or maybe it was all right during the war, but the war is ending. Maybe he did the wrong thing. He argues with himself (to an audience of younger aides), and through this conflict, we get all the information we need to answer our question, why do we need an amendment?

So: Subtle.In character. In conflict. Use opposition. Use interaction.

But there's subtle exposition, and then there's obscure. I'm reading a book now which has a fairly complex set of events leading to the characters' having to make big serious decisions. I'm at the point where one major character is going to take some major action. So two of his aides are talking. A says to B, "I hope that C will do the right thing." B gets angry, and replies, "C always does the right thing." A comes back, "Well, just tell him, we're counting on him to do the right thing."

So I read that scene, and I went back and skimmed the previous chapter, and I still had no idea what "the right thing" is. I mean, it's not just that I don't know precisely what they meant. I don't even know the basic area of what they meant. Did they mean morally? Did they mean about the staff? Did they mean legally? Did they mean about themselves?

That's too subtle. I'm a good reader, and I was paying attention. And while I'm okay with not knowing everything, I'd like to know a little. (There are about 12 major characters in this book, so, alas, I don't know enough about C even to know what -he'd- think this was.) But really, this is just a dialogue problem. A few more words here and there, and there would be enough to satisfy-- maybe not enough to make it all clear, but enough to keep me aware so that when (I hope) there's a resolution I'll know it's happening.

For example:
A says to B, "I hope that C will do the right thing about (one word, maybe? us? about the evaluation? about the account?)."
B gets angry, and replies, "C always does the right thing. He's no (deadbeat? traitor? idiot?)."

 A comes back, "Well, just tell him, we're counting on him to (what? keep us safe? tell the truth? solve the problem?)."

That is, with just a few words-- completely in character, because we don't actually speak that cryptically unless we're being overheard, and that wasn't happening here--  we could get a sense of whether this is the staffer scared they're going to be used as a scapegoat, or if this is about some payment, or if it's a problem only he can solve. We don't need to know everything-- but we do need to know a little.

And it only takes a little. How would these two converse if they weren't being forced by their author to be obscure? They'd still be subtle. But they wouldn't be cryptic.

The reader has only what we put in there. Now exposition can be handled many ways. But if there's exposition needed, decide how much the reader needs to know, and find a way to tell it.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Three Acts, Three Risks


Use the 3-act Structure to organize your plot events into setup, rising conflict, resolution, and that structure provides propulsion and the progression of events within the story arc. Willy nilly eventing won't build up the dramatic power that intensifies the emotion.  In fact, effective plotting is all about cause and effect. Events matter because they cause something else to happen and something to change and the characters to feel. The accumulation of events is what propels the reader to read on, and organizing this cause/effect sequence into acts will help you build tension and cause change.  

Three Acts:
Act 1 -- Set up conflict.
Act 2 -- Make conflict rise.
Act 3 -- Make conflict explode, and then resolve it.
Try breaking these acts into 3 big events of ascending emotional risk:
Examples- Three Things
3 times she needed help
3 times he got stuck
3 attempts to deal with the conflict
3 attempts to reach the goal
3 heartbreaks
3 secrets
3 lies

3 failures
3 betrayals
3 times she didn't ask for help

Just try it--ascending risk, remember!

Then what are the risks he/she is afraid of?
Why is this a risk? What might this risk cause, and what might be caused by their trying to AVOID the risk?

For example, let's take one that is just full of emotion-- secrets. Three secrets.
Kept or revealed? Or both? Maybe the attempt to keep a secret leads to revelation.Let's think of ascending risk --

Act 1: This sets up the first secret. She's an FBI agent, and she's sent undercover into a small town.
So the first secret is that she's secretly an FBI agent. There's not a lot of emotional risk in this secret because it's her job. But it sets in motion all the rest of the risks.
What does this cause? It causes her to be placed in this small town to investigate the local bank, and it causes her to have to take on a disguise—she's pretending to be a bank teller.

Act 2: The next secret comes when she meets and is drawn to the son of the bank president. This is just the sort of guy she despised when she was growing up, rich and polished and educated. But she's supposed to
investigate his father, and she's supposed to be a bank teller who would be flattered by his intentions, so she has to keep the secret from him about who she is... and the secret from her boss that she's falling in
love with one of the "targets".
What does this cause? She's getting deeper entrenched into deception. It's going to be far, far worse now
when her secret is revealed. She's also becoming alienated from her job, from her old self, from the FBI, as she's not reporting her contact with Junior. Maybe she's even started lying to her boss, withholding
information that could get Junior in trouble. 

Act 3: What's the final secret? It's probably her real identity, not just FBI, but her former identity. Maybe she's never told anyone that she grew up as "trailer trash," the daughter of a small-town prostitute or drug dealer. Her final secret is her shame, which has caused her all along to hide her past and her true self, to cut herself off from her old friends and her family, maybe even to make up a more generic and acceptable past.  (The big task would be—and I'm too brain-dead now to come up with an idea!—make the revelation of that secret in the start of Act 3 happen and affect the plot.)


Let's try another "Three Acts, Three Somethings."

Remember the film Casablanca?
Rick is a symbol of the United States before Pearl Harbor, isolated, uninvolved, as the world crashes around him. This is a tightly plotted story, and there are several "3 things", but the one I like to focus on is "Three Times Rick Refuses To Help."

Act 1: Ugarte asks Rick for 2 things—to hold the letters of transit for the evening (he agrees), and
later to help him escape from the police (Rick refuses).
There's some emotional risk from refusing to help—a few hours later, he drunkenly refers to it—but he can shrug it off as kind of a cost of doing business—sometimes, to run a successful saloon, you have to sacrifice a friend.
What does this cause? It's very important externally because with U dead, Rick is now stuck with these letters of transit, and as he says drily, "As long as I have them, I'll never be lonely." (I tell you, this film is SO well-written, because in fact, he is alone, and his loneliness is only ended because he has those damned letters of transit!)

Act 2: The news of his having the letters spreads, and he's approached by Victor Laszlo, a Resistance leader who will be arrested by the Gestapo if he can't get out of Casablanca. When L offers to buy the letters (which will get him and his wife to safety—do NOT ask why! Because, that's why. These are magic letters :), Rick refuses, and when asked why, says bitterly, "Ask your wife."

Much more emotional risk here! In refusing to help, he is acknowledging that the wife (Ilsa) hurt him earlier as he's using this as a means of revenge. His hard-won isolationist wall is beginning to crumble. Also, weirdly, he's sort of letting himself hope that Laszlo will find out about the earlier affair and cast Ilsa out so that she will come to Rick again.

What does this cause? Well, one effect is, paradoxically, to reconcile Laszlo and Ilsa. She's been keeping the secret of the former affair (she'd thought L was dead), and this actually lets Laszlo understand what happened and gently indicate that he doesn't blame her. (This becomes a huge part of her conflict, actually, as she realizes she still loves both of them.)
For Rick, this causes him to get more and more involved in Ilsa's dire situation and make it that much clearer that he's still in love with her.

Act 3: Ilsa herself comes to him and asks for—no, demands—the letters of transit to save Laszlo so he
can continue to fight the Nazis. She is so determined that she pulls a gun on him, and he is so determined to refuse to help her, that he invites her to shoot him. Rather than help her, he will commit suicide! Talk about emotional risk. Helping her would be worse than dying? (She as always ends up acting with love, putting the gun down and confessing that she still loves him, and he ends up embracing her—this is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film.)

What is the risk? That he will fall in love with her again (as he does), that he will lose all his defenses, that he will be hurt again, that he will lose her. This ALL happens. (That is, sometimes the greatest emotional risk should explode.)

 What does this cause? His refusal causes her to confess her love, and that leads to their tacit decision to use the letters of transit. But here's the amazing thing. Ilsa says to him, "You'll decide what's right? For all of us?" That is, she is telling him that whatever he decides to do, he has to help Laszlo to safety. (She assumes that he will give Laszlo one letter of transit, and she and Rick will escape together some other way. And you know what happens, or if you don't, go watch the film!!!!!)
The real result is Rick's return to the family of man, actually. He accepts responsibility for other people, and joins the war effort. He gives up his isolation and accepts the power of love.
Notice that a powerful place to put 'the thing' is close to the end of the act, and its repercussions propel into the next act.

So look at your own story, and see if you can identify "Three Things", or invent them, and center each act upon this thing.

1. What is the "thing" in "Three Things" in your story? If you'd like to speculate about what this means, how it relates to a deep internal issue or theme (like Rick's refusal to help is an aspect of his fear of getting too involved again and getting hurt), have at it.

2. Where can you put some manifestation of "this thing" in each act?

For each occurrence:
3. What is the emotional risk here (and remember to assemble these three in ascending risk)?           
4. What does this thing cause to happen?
5. How can this thing in the end of the story (maybe the dark moment?) cause a great emotional change?