Category Archives: Writing Craft

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.

Stuck on a Novel Opening

I’m in the mode of revising the very rough draft of my WIP. How rough? I practically get abrasions from turning the pages. But that’s OK. My philosophy is that any first draft is good, and truth to tell, I really like how this story is shaping up.

But as I revise, I know the opening needs a lot of work. It probably amounts to only one or two paragraphs, but I’m struggling. One things I’ve decided to do is draft five different openings and see what that tells.

What will help, I think, is to look at my little collection of novel beginnings to see what I can learn. Here’s one from One True Thing, by Anna Quindlen:

Excerpt: Jail is not as bad as you might imagine. When I say jail I don’t mean prison. Prison is the kind of place you see in old movies or public TV documentaries, those enormous gray places with guard towers at each corner and curly stripes of razor wire going round and round like a loop–the loop atop a high fence. Prison is where they hit the bars with metal spoons, plan insurrection in the yard, and take the smallest boy–the one in on a first offense–into the shower room, while the guards pretend not to look and leave him to find his own way out, blood trickling palely, crimson mixed with milky white, down the backs of his hairless thighs, the shadows at the backs of his eyes changed forever.

My Take-away: The first sentence hooks me. What follows pulls us into a description of prisons as we identify with what we’ve seen in movies and on TV. It leads us from the innocuous physical characteristics of a prison exterior to the vulgar assault of a boy with hairless thighs. I’m impressed with Quindlen’s ability to evoke the horror of that scene without overly graphic details. And this paragraph lets you know you’re in for a ride with a superb writer.

But on the whole, this is unfortunately a trick opening for what is otherwise a really fine novel. The narrator is not in prison, and she’s most certainly not in a men’s prison.

What I can take away from this novel opening and apply to what I’m trying to do is the recognition that my original draft failed to hit the mark in terms of suggesting what was to come. I have the protagonist grappling with one thing, when it’s really another matter altogether that dogs her.

Back to the drawing board.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, consists not of creating out of the void but out of chaos.

–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

 

Three Questions Readers Ask

When you set out on the journey of reading a novel, you hope you’ll enjoy the ride all the way to the end. Sure, you may have to forgive a few bumps along the way. But sometimes you encounter a read that you simply can’t finish. Why?

When he was a member of Novel in Progress Austin, the late Hub Ratliff used to quote some unknown source who said readers ask three questions: Huh? Oh, Yeah? and So What? That spoke to me as both a writer and reader. I’ve always thought of the questions as a handy sniff test and, at one time, had them taped on my computer.

Huh?

Quite simply, the writing must be sufficiently clear that I don’t stumble over clumsy phrases or have to re-read passages to get the point. I also don’t like ostentatious language and foreign phrases that suggest the writer is a lot smarter than I am.

Oh, Yeah?

It has to be believable. Characters must not act “out of character” unless the writer has planted clues to this behavior or is able to show later what motivated it.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman, tells the amusing and poignant story of an insufferable miser and curmudgeon, “. . .a man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.” When his wife turns up the radiators to warm their chilly house, he turns them down. The author failed to convince me that a) Ove’s sweet wife was ever attracted to him, and b) she truly loved him.

I think nothing trips my gag reflex faster than too much coincidence. I’m not OK with more than one coincidence per novel, and I really hate it when the climax hinges on it. Say the mysterious man Julie admired on the elevator at work shows up at her dog park, and the next day her dog finds a wallet that belongs to him, and she looks at the driver’s license and realizes he was her boyfriend in third grade, etc., etc.

So What?

Often this question pertains to characterization. Do I care if Hilda–gets the job–gets the man–gets over psoriasis? Even if I like, or at least respect, Hilda, if I feel the stakes aren’t high enough, I just want to tell her to get over it.

Do you have other turn-offs or examples? Leave a comment.

Indie Author Fringe

Mark your calendars for Indie Author Fringe, 24 hours of free publishing advice from ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) beginning Oct. 14th.

Quotable

I ransack public libraries and find them full of sunk treasure.

–Virginia Woolf

 

“Label Jars, Not People”

Out of the need to raise awareness about the dignity of all people came the slogan a few years back “Label Jars, Not People.” Referring to people as “the mentally ill” or “the blind” or “the homeless” marginalizes individuals and limits how they are perceived.

While I fully agree with this enlightened view, I’m appropriating the slogan for my own purpose which is to point out that labels are bad for writers, too. Why? Because they are a shorthand that robs the reader of the experience. If I write that my character suffers from “imposter syndrome,” you get the idea instantly, maybe you even personalize it, but you don’t feel it in your gut. What if I write:

“Without taking time to remove her stage make-up, Catherine sneaked out the theater’s service delivery door, but a fan accosted her: ‘You were marvelous tonight.’ Her throat tightened, and her breaths came in gasps. Hadn’t he noticed when she slipped out of character or when she slurred the word brewery?  She squeaked out a barely audible “Thank you.”

Another example: Writing about a character diagnosed with bi-polar disorder? Show the reader the behavior long before revealing the diagnosis. That gives the reader a full experience, after which comes the opportunity to think, “Aha, I knew it.”

Labels come to us easily. If I call a character “cute,” I know what I have in mind (not that I can picture it, because I don’t see pictures in my head–the subject of a previous post.) Better to provide a word picture or to give the reader an idea of what other characters notice about this person.

Btw, I want to thank Stephanie Hoogstad for her recent post “Imposter Syndrome–or I’m Not a Real Writer” in her blog The Writer’s Scrap Bin.  A good post that got me thinking about labels.

Your thoughts on labels? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Author Ian McLean posted this on Twitter: