Category Archives: Writing Craft

Writers, Heed the Name Sheriff

As self-appointed Name Sheriff In my writing critique group, Novel in Progress Austin, I recently cited Robbie Shapard for giving a key character in his very fine submission a name whose pronunciation was ambiguous. The name was “Strachan.” Every time my eye encountered the name, my ear balked: is it “STRAY-chan” or “STRAY-can?” Turned out to be neither. Robbie said it’s a Scottish name pronounced “Strawn.” Hmm. Don’t know if this ambiguity is a problem for other readers, but it seems to me the way to clear up confusion is to let the reader know the name rhymes with “drawn.” It could be handled seamlessly the first time Strachan corrects someone who mispronounces his name.

Robbie’s infraction was minor compared to one I encountered several years ago.  In a submission to the group, a writer whose story was set in Viet Nam had named his main character Phuc. Given my unsophisticated ear, this name stopped me every time I saw it. Turned out it’s pronounced “Fook,” I cited the author for choosing a name that would be a major speed bump for many readers.

Ambiguous pronunciation is just one way names can cause problems. Here are several others:

Names that sound too similar: Writers fixate on a single beginning letter. This is most problematical with first names for characters of the same gender, such as Joyce and Joan, and the confusion is compounded because both are one-syllable names.

Too many names for one character: I make a distinction here between major and minor characters. People generally have two names; some have nicknames. I would almost rule arbitrarily that minor characters be referred to throughout the novel by one name.  I say “almost,” because you can get away with more in a novel that has only a few characters.

All characters given Anglo-Saxon names: John Brown, Mary Crawford, Bill O’Brian, etc. Today’s novelists tend to me more sensitive to diversity. Unless your novel is set in Great Britain, there’s no excuse for not throwing in a Marta Letovsky or Zhang Wei.

Picky-picky: I’m not crazy about unixex names like Pat or Chris. I will most certainly arrest an author who fails to make the character’s gender clear upon first reference. I hate to have to adjust my perception of a character later on.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

 

Writing That Keeps It Real

Human beings are rational creatures, right? Well, to a point. So what’s wrong with the following description:

“When Tonya stood before her boss’ cluttered desk and heard him say, ‘You’re fired,’ she thought about what she would do and said, ‘I’m entitled to three months’ compensation, and I have sick leave and vacation coming.’ Feeling her blood pressure skyrocket, she swept her hand across his desk, sending papers and coffee mugs flying.”

OK, there’s a lot wrong with it, but here’s what I’m getting at. The way Tonya is wired as a human being is such that her first response would be her rising blood pressure, followed by her impassioned reflex, and then rational thought and dialogue. Sometimes these reactions happen so fast that they seem simultaneous, but when a writer presents them out of sequence, the reader senses that something is “off.”

I’m borrowing today’s post topic from “Writing the Perfect Scene,” by Randy Ingermanson, who borrowed it from Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. I recommend both. They call the structure I’ve described “Motivation-Reaction Units” or “MRUs.” Ingermanson presents this example:

Motivation: The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack.

Reaction:

  1. Feeling: A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins.
  2. Reflex: He jerked the rifle to his shoulder.
  3. Rational Action and Speech: He sighted on the tiger’s heart and squeezed the trigger. “Die, you bastard.”

Ingermanson says the Motivation is always external and objective, something any observer could see, hear, or feel if they were there, but I can imagine a scenario in which a character might be motivated by something like a heart attack or a dream.

He makes the point that not every Reaction will include all the above components of feeling, reflex, rational action and speech. But remember that the emotional/physical response must always precede rational action and speech.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Quotable

The author and the reader “know” each other; they meet on the bridge of words.

–Madeleine L’Engle

Reading Like a Writer

You can take a course or read a book purporting to teach you to “read like a writer.” I’m not sure why you’d want to unless you’re a writer.

I say this because sometimes I let my critical leanings get in the way of enjoyment. I might even stop reading and rewrite a passage. (I even do this with the newspaper on occasion.)

Here’s a passage from Summerlost, a novel for fifth to eighth grade readers, by Ally Condie. Cedar is a girl whose grief resurfaces long after her little brother’s death.

Excerpt: (My grandparents) knew that Ben’s favorite kind of ice cream wasn’t ice cream at all, it was rainbow sherbet, and he always ate the green first, and so when I saw it in my grandma’s freezer once and I started crying they didn’t even ask why and I think I saw my uncle Nick, my mom’s brother, crying too.

My Take-away: I applaud the author for creating a scene that evokes an experience of grief the reader can feel. Seeing the sherbet is an excellent trigger for this poignant moment. If I were to rewrite this passage, I think it could engage the reader more intimately if it hadn’t required so much explanation. Let the reader know long before that Ben loved sherbet and ate the green first. Then all Cedar (and the reader) has to do is see the sherbet still sitting in the freezer long after Ben’s death to have an emotional response. And don’t say again that it was Ben’s favorite ice cream as that would suggest the reader doesn’t have an intimate relationship with the story. I’d also lose “My grandparents knew . . .” as over-explaining. Finally, the reader should know before this that uncle Nick is her mother’s brother.

Emotions That Touch Readers–or Not

In Sweetwater Creek, by Anne Rivers Siddons, Buddy, Emily’s soul mate brother, has died. Her other brothers say the puppy she’s chosen is just a hound dog.

Excerpt: So she named him Elvis, and took the puppy to her room, and fell as irretrievably in love as she ever would in her life. Girl and dog were two halves of a whole, two chambers of one heart. The swirling black abyss that Buddy had left was almost filled. But only almost. 

My Take-away:  Writing about grief and love is difficult. I think this passage is simply and beautifully evocative. (It helps if you’re a dog lover.)  My friend Gaylon Greer suggested a long time ago that I read Siddons as a guide to expressing emotion. One thing I don’t care for in this passage, however, is that it reveals the future, as in the clause ‘as she ever would in her life.’ Not something I’d emulate.

Excerpt: Oh, Buddy. The words felt as if they were etched in acid on the surface of the iceberg inside her. Oh, Buddy.

 My Take-away: Yikes! Sounds like a thirteen-year-old wannabe writer straining for a poetic line.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Don’t Read This Book Like a Writer

I recently read a novel that challenges some of the important lessons I’ve learned about writing. I wanted to dislike the book because it is so flawed. But the fact is I’ll probably read it again because the author 1) pairs two unforgettable characters in an improbable relationship, & 2) tells a darn good story.

The novel is Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, a National Book Award finalist. Here are my problems, which I’ll describe in mostly general terms so as not to include spoilers:

  • The author writes dialogue without quotation marks. Most of the time it was clear who was speaking, but there were times I had to back up and re-read a passage. In John Gardner’s book On Becoming a Novelist, he extolls “the fictive dream,” a state that writers like me labor to achieve so that the reader gets so caught up in the story as to suspend disbelief. Writing that causes the reader to check back for clarification breaks that fictive dream.
  • More troubling for me is the jerkiness that occurs when Jiles “moves the camera,” so to speak, i.e., we’re seeing something through the eyes of the Captain & then she describes the expression on his face, something he cannot see. Even more egregious is a gunfight presumably viewed through the Captain’s eyes. His adversary is approaching from two hundred yards when the Captain fires after which we see his adversary’s forehead looking “as if his head had been suddenly printed with hyphens.” This & other occurances of improbable camera movement jerked me out of the fictive dream during one of the best scenes in the novel.
  • Another problem writers usually try to avoid is shifting point of view (POV) in a scene. In most novels, one or several characters have POV so that the reader gets to know their internal thoughts, opinions, feelings, etc. As a rule, in any given scene the writer gives POV to just one character, the person who has the most at stake. This keeps the reader engaged with that character. POV shifts are to be avoided, but not in Jiles’ world. And to tell you the truth, it doesn’t bother me much. I’ve long suspected that readers don’t care that much about shifting POV. (I’ll hear about this in my writing group.) Continue reading Don’t Read This Book Like a Writer

What Do You Like or Dislike in a Book Blurb?

I’m a student of blurbs these days, those teasers that appear on the book jacket or on Amazon. I listened to a useful podcast, “How To Write Your Book Sales Description,” in which Joanna Penn interviewed Byron Cohen. (The full transcript is available on the site.) He makes the point that 99% of authors provide a synopsis in their blurbs & says, “That won’t sell.” He then puts forth the elements of a successful blurb.

I’ve started collecting blurbs from Amazon, mostly for historical novels. They range from the very lean blurb for Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, to those that virtually give away the story, as in The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, & News of the World, by Paulette Jiles. I hate that. (Guess I shouldn’t click on “Read more.”)

My favorite blurb is for Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen:

Blurb: Jacob Janowski’s luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

My Take-away:
This description says enough to pique my interest, although to call Jacob “orphaned” is misleading because it suggests he’s a boy or teen.

I’ve struggled with the writing of a blurb for my not-yet-published novel Compromise With Sin. Here’s draft #144. OK maybe I exaggerate.

Compromise With Sin blurb: 

She stops at nothing to maintain a veneer of Victorian respectability, but the consequences of infidelity prove far worse than mere exposure. 

After straying into the arms of Doc Foster and becoming pregnant, small-town civic leader Louise Morrissey faces ruin if anyone─especially her husband─finds out. 

When infection steals the eyesight of her newborn baby, Louise knows it is punishment for her infidelity. What she doesn’t know is that the web of deceit she weaves to safeguard her marriage and reputation will eventually ensnare her husband and daughter with tragic consequences.

Guilt-ridden and seeking redemption, Louise risks revelation of her secrets as she joins Helen Keller in a grassroots movement to end the blinding scourge known as “babies’ sore eyes.”

In a confessional moment, Louise signs in Helen’s hand: “When you wrote ‘they enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin,’ you were writing about me.”

A fictional version of real events, the story pits Louise, Helen, and others against society’s taboos as they champion what would become one of the greatest public health triumphs of the 20th century.

I’d welcome your feedback on my blurb or any opinion you have about blurbs. Leave a comment.

Writers Stretching

comfortable-couple-1464737_1280This post is about two very different ways writers stretch.

A Simple Stretch

The following excerpt is from the short story “Fable,” by Charles Yu, published in The New Yorker, May 30, 2016.

Excerpt: Together they shared a quiet existence that was defined by well-managed expectations. Perhaps not the stuff of legends. Not quite deserving of “once upon a time.” But it was comfortable and honest.

My take-away: I can picture this couple. More than that, this seemingly simple passage reminds me not to short-change characters who, on the surface, are bland. It’s easy (if anything writers do is easy) to portray the tumultuous or ill-starred relationship, which invites  dynamic language and disturbing encounters. It stretches a writer to describe a relationship that’s “comfortable and honest” without losing readers’ interest.

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Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

NaNoWriMo: A Speedwriting Stretch

It’s October, which means National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, is upon us.  If you’re unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it’s a promotion that encourages people to write a 50,000-word novel between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. That’s almost 1,700 words a day.

I’m not the least bit tempted to try it, but I understand the appeal. Get moving on that first draft & write it so fast you don’t care if it sucks. It has worked for some best-selling authors, including Sara Gruen, whose novel Water for Elephants began as a NaNoWriMo ordeal. I can imagine, as rich as her Depression-era story world is, that she had done extensive research into circus life of that period prior to putting words on paper.

I’d like to know your thoughts on the idea of speedwriting a novel. Have you tried it? Would you?

A Fun Guide to Reading a Person’s Nonverbal Cues for Writers & Anyone Else

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How would you caption this photo? I can think of a half dozen possibilities, such as, “How am I supposed to know what to wear? You hate everything in my closet.”

OK, I’m going into teacher mode here, resurrecting the days when I taught speech communication. What you can observe with certainty is how the man in the picture looks. If you were face-to-face with him, you’d know what he’s saying & his tone of voice. In neither case do you actually know what’s in his head, but we make inferences nonetheless.

Now, what if he’s saying, “What makes you think I’m mad?” Chances are you wouldn’t believe his words because his nonverbal cues contradict them.  Actions do speak louder than words, one reason being that they’re harder to fake.

As writers and as human beings, we’re always reading nonverbal cues: gestures, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, patterns of behavior, & other cues, because  they carry more of a message’s emotional content than do words.

We writers often struggle when it comes to portraying emotions. When you see us staring at a couple in a restaurant, we’re trying to read their body language & imagine the language we’d use to describe it. We also turn to resources like Creating Character Emotions, by Ann Hood, & The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman & Beccaa Puglisi.

I’m going to suggest an entertaining, yet authoritative, resource, a TV series called “Lie to Me.”

Dr. Paul Ekman, a pioneer of research in nonverbal communication, is the consultant for the show which features fictional episodes in which The Lightman Group works with law enforcement and other entities to solve crimes by uncovering deception.

You can get a pretty good education in nonverbal communication from the series, which premiered in 2009 & ran for three seasons. I suggest starting with the pilot in which the Lightman Group aids investigations of a high school teacher’s murder and the behavior of the chairman of the House Ethics Committee believed to have solicited services of a prostitute. Single episodes of “Lie to Me” are available to download from Amazon. Or you can buy DVD sets of all three seasons. 

When Novelists Expose or Exploit Real People

murder-of-stephen-king-copyIt’s a tempting story idea: the stalking of a famous writer by characters from his own novels. That’s the premise behind a novel, The Murder of Stephen King, by James Patterson “with Derek Nikitas.” The book, one of Patterson’s short BookShot “all thriller, no filler” novels, was to be released in November, but Patterson cancelled publication stating that after he learned King had been the target of aggressive fans, he didn’t want to cause discomfort for the King family.

This got me to thinking about what is fair game for a writer of fiction. Most authors who fictionalize real people don’t put their subjects in harm’s way, but often they exploit them in other ways.

The roman a clef is a literary tradition that fictionalizes famous people without using their real names. For example, Primary Colors, by Joe Klein, is about the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. I suppose that’s the price of fame (that, & not being able to go to Pizza Hut without an entourage.)

It’s another thing when ordinary people show up in fiction. We have the classic novel My Antonia because of Anna Pavelka, a young woman who became pregnant out of wedlock–could anything more shameful have befallen a woman of of her time & place?–& whose father committed suicide. Willa Cather didn’t tell her friend Annie that she’d written about her until after the book’s publication in 1918. Had I been Annie, I’d have been furious, but apparently the exposure didn’t damage the friendship.

Famously The Group,a 1963 best-seller by Mary McCarthy, broke ground with its explicit sexuality at the expense of some of McCarthy’s Vassar classmates. Some of their names are barely disguised. And then there’s Pat Conroy. He’s the author of one of my favorite novels, The Great Santini. But I wouldn’t want to be related to him.

I recently saw a T-shirt with the words “Be careful what you say. I’m a writer.” I guess I take a somewhat conservative stance on the issue. I’m not as conservative as people who say famous people should only be represented factually in fiction. In my own work-in-progress, Helen Keller is a character. I’ve remained true to who she is, but I’ve fictionalized her role. I wouldn’t intentionally relate stories that would expose anyone I know to shame or ridicule. I’d like to hear your take on the subject.

Use & Create Writing Prompts

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Pictures can be great writing prompts.

Today I’m going to send you off to another blog, “Daily Writing Tips,”  where Simon Kewin has a post on writing prompts, along with 20 examples. Here are a few examples from his list:

This time my boss went too far.
Red eyes.
It was the first snowfall of the season.
The garden was overgrown now.
They came back every year to lay flowers at the spot.

Prompts can be a great way to get the juices flowing. Use them routinely, maybe at the start of a writing session, or randomly. Tuck a few prompts in the little notebook you carry everywhere (which is more likely to be your smartphone), & play with them as you wait to have your car’s oil changed.

And while you’re creating, dream up some prompts & submit them to the Writing Prompts feature on Reddit. Reddit actually holds contests for the best prompts.