Category Archives: Writing Craft

Thank you, Philip Roth

Remembering Philip Roth last week, NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast archived interviews Terry Gross had done with the literary giant. I was especially gratified to hear the author of more than two dozen books including Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, and Everyman, talking about his writing process as an act of discovery.

“I don’t know anything in the beginning, which makes it great fun to write . . . You begin every book as an amateur. . . . Gradually, by writing sentence after sentence,  the book reveals itself to you. … Each and every sentence is a revelation.”

I couldn’t agree more. My experience is there’s nothing that compares to the joy of discovery. And I learn to write as I write. That meant it took 24 years to get Compromise With Sin into print, and I’m sure I tossed at least 100,000 words.

Roth’s comments reminded me of an aha moment that occurred to me as I was writing a scene. One objective was to show protagonist Louise Morrissey’s compassion, as she was not always an admirable character. The scene involved Louise’s caring response to the family of two brothers who accidentally drowned in Crescent Lake. In my first draft, the family was not known to the reader. Then I decided the tragedy struck Henryetta, Louise’s cook and housekeeper. For me, that hit home, as I already knew and loved Henryetta–and I hoped it would be meaningful for the reader. It’s moot, of course, because that scene didn’t survive a later revision. But it impressed upon me the importance of having readers invested in characters so that when something good or bad happens, the reader feels it emotionally.

Btw, this icky background color appeared and I can’t get rid of it.

Your comments? Leave a message.

Quotable

A dogfight on a Denver street is more important than a war in Europe.

–Frederick Gilmer Bonfils, Publisher, Denver Post

 

 

 

Cooperative? Controlling? Dialogue Reflects Character

In revising my WIP, Candlelight Confessions, I discovered a glaring instance in which dialogue didn’t fit the character. (I’m positive I’ll find more such instances as I get deeper into revision.)

To put this example in context: Irina Taylor has just revealed to friends that her sister, Christina, has written a novel that will expose their darkest secrets. She describes how Christina fictionalized their characters, and after explaining how she, herself, is portrayed, gets this retort from Jocelyn: “I doubt that people in Riverbend will recognize the character in the book as you.”

That’s what she said in the first draft. But she’s a woman who speaks her mind and rarely equivocates. So in revision, Jocelyn says, “You’re wrong. You’re not like that character.”

By contrast, in the same scene their friend Mercy says, “I know Christina needs a success after the failure of her last novel, but I wish she hadn’t taken our secrets. I’m praying that book never gets published.”

Jocelyn and Mercy represent people whose dialogue almost consistently falls near one end or the other of a continuum from control to cooperation. But most people, while they have a tendency toward one extreme or the other, adapt their behavior to their environment or situation. The general who barks with authority at work might be a pussycat at home.

What I find especially interesting in depicting characters through dialogue is to have a person who always speaks on one end of the continuum until a situation arises that forces him or her out of their comfort zone. E.g, take a worker who is the quintessential team player. She accepts the hardest assignments, almost never calls in sick, and works overtime without complaining. But when her supervisor’s request challenges a core belief, out comes her inner pit bull. “It’s not my fault you can’t control your labor costs. I refuse to work off the clock. And if I hear you get someone else to do it, I’m going to management.”

Quotable

We should only read those books that bite and sting us.

–Franz Kafka

Note to Self: Ixnay Contrived Plots, Stock Characters, and Boring Stories

When it comes to writing fiction, most gurus advise knowing your audience and delivering what they want. I take a different approach. I write stories I would want to read. (That’s not as simple as it sounds, and it’s certainly not a solo exercise. Achieving something I’d want to read requires many hours spent learning the craft and listening to feedback from others.) And I’m not tone deaf to readers’ preferences and complaints, which they sometimes address by leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites.

I think a writer can learn more from the one- , two-. and three-star reviews than from the glowing four- and five-star reviews. So, for this post, I cruised Amazon reviews, and here’s a sampling of what readers didn’t like:

“The main characters were not believable and I felt nothing for them but disgust.”

“I cannot understand the overwhelming, unmitigated praise for what seems an almost (“almost” because I hate to say it) cliched novel with stock characters . . .  contained in an outlandish plot that defies all credibility. Long on meaningless detail (let no research go unpublished) but short on character development. I could hardly make it to the end. I felt like one of the characters lost at sea for days on end without a credible character in sight.”

“This book was nothing but contrived situations with PC caricatures.”

“I did not feel anything for the characters.”

“Really wanted to like this but had to put it away after a few chapters. Contrived is the best word to describe her writing and the story.”

“The writing was very simplistic and did not contain any depth in the character development. There were no surprises and the problems were solved in a simplistic manner.”
“You could cut 100 pages from the book and not miss anything. It dragged and I couldn’t finish it.”
What amuses me about this sampling, is that I’ve been guilty of every sin mentioned. But I hope, that by the time my book made it to print, I had atoned for those sins. And now I’m in the midst of writing another novel, making mistakes, revising, getting feedback, revising, getting feedback. Rinse, wash, repeat.
You might be interested in a somewhat related post, “Three Questions Readers Ask.”
Your thoughts? Leave a comment.
Quotable
 Anytime you write something, you go through so many phases. You go through the ‘I’m a Fraud Phase.’ You go through the ‘I’ll Never Finish’ phase. And every once in a while you think, ‘What if I actually have created what I set out to create, and it’s received as such?’
–Lin-Manuel Miranda

Domesticating the Paragraph

I have a confession to make. In writing my novels, I tend to take an intuitive approach to paragraphing, except there are two rules I follow religiously: 1) a shift in speakers, time, or place  requires a new paragraph, and 2) the end of the paragraph is the power position and to add anything beyond dilutes the power.

 

What’s Wrong With This Paragraphb

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?” “I’m on it,” Dan said. Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and went to the guest bathroom. She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.” That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”  “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

I don’t think I can count the number of problems with that paragraph.  Now read this version:

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?”

“I’m on it,” Dan said.

Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and headed for the guest bathroom.

(location shift) She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.”

(speaker shift) That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”

(speaker shift) “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

To add clout to the topic of paragraphs, I consulted my friend and fellow writer Gaylon Greer. I asked him specifically about handling stimulation and response, and he provided insight on how paragraphs control a novel’s pacing, and, hence, influence the reader’s experience. Here’s what he said:

Short, snappy paragraphs generally pick up the story pace; long, winding paragraphs slow things down. For that reason, action scenes rely heavily on short paragraphs, with stimulus and response boxed separately. Whether the action scene is dialogue or physical action, the short paragraphs give it snap and momentum. When you want to create a more relaxed mood, to give your readers a breather, perhaps, you will want to use longer paragraphs, perhaps combining stimulus and response in the same paragraph. Consider this example:

“Stop it,” Carla screamed.

 Beatrice, too terrified to hear her, clung to Carla’s back, her arms clasped tightly around her neck.

Carla fought to free herself, but Beatrice’s panicked grip was too strong to break. It was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.

 

 

If the writer wanted less tension or a slower pace, she might write:

Carla screamed for her to stop, but Beatrice was too terrified to hear. She pasted herself against Carla’s back, her arms clasping tightly around her neck. Carla fought to free herself, but it was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.

Both snippets communicate the same facts, but the first does so, it seems to me, in a manner that is more fraught with tension. The rational is that the initial stimulus creates tension because the reader wanders what the other character will do in response. The paragraph breaks in the action version of the scene serves two purposes:

  1. It emphasizes what has gone before by isolating it. In the first example, Carla’s scream is stark—it stands out. In the second example, the scream is buried, made secondary to Beatrice’s action.
  2. The end of a paragraph is a signal for the reader to pause briefly. In this case the pause permits her to savor the building tension. Using separate paragraphs keeps the tension building.

 

For another example, consider a tennis game. One player hits the ball; that is a stimulus for the other player, who must react. The reaction becomes a stimulus for the first player, and so on. If the stimulus and reaction are in separate paragraphs, each described in enough detail for the reader to picture the action, it becomes more dramatic. If the back-and-forth action is presented in a single paragraph, the tension is dissipated.

 

The issue is the same as for dialogue. There is no grammatical reason for two characters’ dialogue strings to be in separate paragraphs; the purpose is to emphasize each characters’ comments.

 

In an article for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop (Writing Fiction, New York, Bloomsbury, 2003) Hardy Griffin makes the point by contrasting a work by Joyce Carol Oates (“The Fine Mist of Winter”) with one by Arundhati Roy (“The God of Small Things”). Throughout her story, Oates employs long, winding paragraphs that combine stimulus and response in the same paragraph. But Roy achieves fast-paced drama by employing short paragraphs that separate stimulus and response.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

–Jodi Picoult

 

 

 

Stories Unfold in a Season, not a Vacuum

Photo credit: Shannon Richards, Unsplash

I’m not fond of novels in which the author compulsively overuses weather and seasons or begins every chapter with atmospheric descriptions of clouds, sunlight, etc. That said, characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and I like getting a sense of their natural environment, especially if it has an impact on them.

Here’s an example of how seasons matter. I live in Austin, Texas, where one of my favorite things about the Easter season is the profusion of wildflowers, which bring out legions of families plopping kids among the bluebonnets for iconic photos.  But the season also brings out a plethora of snakes on the move. This is the time of year you’re most likely to see them. They’ve just awakened from hibernation, they’re hungry, and they’re hunting for food.

I’ve just given you two facts. Do one or both matter if your novel is set in Austin in late March or early April? Maybe or maybe not. After all, most of your readers don’t live in Texas. But if you’re aware of these and other seasonal characteristics, you’re better equipped to craft a scene that will feel real to readers.

I could write more about seasons here, but the topic has been covered very well in this post, “Seasonally Adjusted Writing” on Alison Morton’s Writing Blog. Alison is the author of the Roma Nova althistory thriller series, the latest being Carina.

Here’s something else to consider. Brad Whittington, prolific author of novels such as Muffin Man and The Reluctant Saint, uses actual information about weather, and the hour the sun and moon rise and set to inform his writing. His sources are The Farmers Almanac and the U.S. Naval Observatory website. Check them out.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

A Request

I could use your help in promoting Compromise With Sin. I’ve posted a trailer on YouTube. I’d appreciate your taking a look and sharing it with friends. Thank you.

Quotable

Whenever I have to choose between two evils, I always like to try the one I haven’t tried before.

–Mae West

 

Break up Dialogue With Beats

Why does dialogue, especially in long conversations, need beats? Two reasons: 1) To anchor the reader in the scene so it doesn’t read like a ping-pong volley between talking heads, and 2) To add subtext, and 3) To add tension (I never was good at numbers.)

What are beats? They’re little actions or sometimes internal thoughts accompanying dialogue.

Anchor the Reader in the Scene

A couple working in a garden:

“Your mother called last night.” She took the tulip bulb from his extended hand.

Add Subtext

A boss meeting an employee at a busy restaurant arrives fifteen minutes late:

“You did put our name in, didn’t you?”

She resisted glancing at her watch. “Yes.”

Add Tension

Action scenes in which characters talk depend heavily on beats. A patrolman stops a speeding motorist:

“Get out of the car.”

“Yes, sir.” Slamming the car into reverse, the driver backed up, stopped, and aimed the vehicle at the officer.

Internal thought can be a good way to add tension to dialogue. Here’s a teen leaving the house to go drinking with friends:

“‘Bye, Mom. I’m meeting Carol to study at Starbucks.”

“Take your key if you’ll be out late.”

“OK.” She’s such a pushover.

The tricky part about beats is to know when, where, and how often to use them. Renni Browne and Dave King cover the subject well in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Quotable

If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.

–Somerset Maugham

Streamline Novel’s First Revision

I’ve just finished the first draft of my new novel, Candlelight Confessions, and it’s lean and ugly. I work out the story as I go without much regard for style or details. As an admitted “pantser” (as opposed to “plotter”) I don’t outline first, so the story sometimes takes off on tangents that I’ll worry about later.

Later is now. Just as I was approaching the first revision, I got a timely tip from fellow author and Austin Novel in Progress chair Tosh McIntosh. He picked this up in a workshop presented by Holly Lisle. With apologies to both, here’s a crude approximation. Before doing the first revision, go through your draft and write a one-sentence description for every scene.  I included the date with each description so I can readily see if the order of scenes makes sense. After making the list, you’re ready to perform triage. Cut any scene that doesn’t serve the purpose of the story. Now you’re ready to make the cosmetic changes to your draft, and by ruthlessly cutting scenes you won’t be wasting time, as Tosh says, putting lipstick on a pig.

Now I know that scrutinizing each scene can seem daunting. But for me, it was a piece of cake because I’ve been composing my WIP in Scrivener and writing a very brief synopsis of each scene on a digital index card in the “Inspector.” (That’s Scrivener-speak for a place to make notes and perform some housekeeping duties.) Moreover, I can see all these index cards together on the “Corkboard” and move them around if need be. It’s most enlightening. I not only have scenes to scrap, but I see holes and disconnects in the story that need patching. And this seems to be the perfect time in the creative process to do those things.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d only type a little faster.

–Isaac Asimov

Two Words for Novelists: Donald Maass

A couple of things have me thinking about Donald Maass and his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. First, Compromise With Sin just received a “very highly recommended” tag from Midwest Book Review, which follows a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. The opinions of both reviewers are read and trusted by booksellers, librarians, and readers.

I owe much of the novel’s critical success to a team that includes beta readers, editors, and my critique group, Novel in Progress Austin. And especially to Donald Maass. Doing the exercises in his workbook enabled me to add depth to characters, heighten conflict, develop settings, and more.

So the second reason I’m thinking of him now is that I’m using the workbook as I revise my work-in-progress. At the moment, I’m working on an exercise called “Adjusting the Volume.” As with all the chapters in the workbook, he gives a rationale and cites passages from published novels to illustrate his point. I agree with him that it’s hard to exaggerate a protagonist’s larger-than-life qualities, so I’m following his advice to pick a place in the manuscript at random where the character says, thinks, or does something, and heighten it:

“Make it bigger, funnier, more shocking, more vulgar, more out of bounds, more over the top, more violent, more insightful, more wildly romantic, more active, more anything.”

With that, I’m supposed to make the change in the manuscript, then lower the volume on the same passage. Oh, then find 24 more passages, and heighten and lower the volume for each.

I find that doing this work (and it is work) really forces me to get inside my character and discover layers I didn’t know were there. I’ve addressed 12 passages so far, and I’m going to tackle a couple more as soon as I finish writing this post.

As my writing friends know, I can’t say enough about Donald Maass and the workbook. I’ve mentioned him in two previous blog posts.

Your opinion? Leave a comment.

Quotable

There are only seven days in the week, and someday is not one of them.

–Rita Chand

Writing With Your Brakes On?

The act of creating is so personal. Do you need two cups of coffee, your comfy slippers, and a fresh legal pad to jump-start your writing engine? If that works for you, great.

Now, there are two types of novel-writers: the “plotters” and the “pantsers.” Plotters create character sketches and outline their stories before starting to write while pantsers take a germ of an idea and some sense of where the story is going and let all be revealed in the act of writing.

I happen to be a pantser, but I would never discourage a plotter. To be sure, the plotter is the more efficient of the two, but I love the discovery that comes from dumping words on paper (or a screen).

What I argue for is that regardless of approach, a writer should let the first draft flow uncensored. No stopping to look for a synonym or to perfect a paragraph or to see if a character was blue-eyed or brown-eyed in an earlier scene. Just let it rip. My mantra: “Give yourself permission to suck.”

Why? Because editing as you write shuts down the creative process. It’s like writing with your brakes on. There’s a popular theory that the right-brain is the creator and the left brain, the censor. Whether our brains are actually so specialized has been challenged, but I can say that writing without censoring brings me joy.

And that experience isn’t the exclusive province of the pantser. Plotters can, and often do, write freely within the constraints of an outline and consequently surprise themselves.

Perfection can wait. Of course, the novel anyone would want to read comes from ruthless revision and editing. But it begins with that free flow of ideas.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity. It must be produced and discharged, and used up in order to exist at all.

–William Faulkner

Lose Those Adverbs–or Not

Last week’s post included a quote from Samuel Johnson: “When a man knows he will be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Wonderfully?  Wait a minute. That’s an adverb. Every writer learns that adverbs are a no-no. “Search for all the ‘ly’ endings in your manuscript, and purge them. ” So goes the advice.

Stephen King has a vendetta for adverbs.  In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he says,  “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s–GASP!!–too late.”

Truth to tell, I’m not afraid to use adverbs. I do try to write with strong verbs, e.g., “he  shuffled” instead of “he slowly walked.” And my friend and writing buddy Gaylon Greer points out that if an adverb is needed, moving it so it follows what it modifies can boost the impact.

I’ve thought about Johnson’s quote, and for the life of me I can’t imagine it without the word wonderfully or with that word placed anywhere else in the sentence.

What do you think? Can you improve on the quote without using an adverb? Leave a comment.

Sharpen Your Pencils

NaNoWriMo begins tomorrow.