Category Archives: Writing Craft

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:

 

Links for Writers v1.1

This is so much fun. This post was inspired by Cory Richardson, an aspiring writer related to my husband, Tim. She lives in a very small town and is eager to learn about writing resources on the internet.

With so much available, a Google search can be daunting. So I’m listing some links as a starting point. The cool thing about having a few resources is using them as a springboard to even more good stuff.

First of all, take a look at my posts in the “Writing Craft” category, especially Links for Writers v1.0 in which I refer to posts on character development and pacing, and Writing the Perfect Scene.

Get the juices flowing with writing prompts, for example the 365 Creative Writing Prompts from ThinkWritten.  

Since Cory wants to write science fiction, I Googled “science fiction writing prompts” which turned up several, including “58 Science Fiction Writing Prompts” from the blog of Mandy Wallace.

For plot development, I like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. 

Readers, can you help? Getting feedback on your writing is so important. My writing education has come mainly from the critique group Novel in Progress Austin. But I know now everyone has the luxury of a live group, and there are online groups and places online where you can find a reading buddy to exchange material with. I just don’t know where they are.

It’s almost time for NaNoWriMo.  Join the nearly half a million people who will take the challenge to write a 50,000-word novel between November 1st to the 30th. I’ve never done it, but I know people who have, and it’s a great immersion experience. One reason I like the concept is that in order to write about 1,00 words per day, you have to allow yourself to write crap. And really, that’s what a first draft is and should be. It’s the time to let the creative juices flow and turn off the editing Nazi. And there’s help and camaraderie as you and others bounce off ideas in the interactive NaNoWriMo Forums, such as the Character Cafe and Worldbuilding.

There you have it for starters, Rory. Have fun.

Quotable

I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple. Tell the damned story.

–Tom Clancy

 

 

 

 

Janet Fitch’s Rules for Writers


As I’ve said before, White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, is a book I look to again and again to study writing style.  I’m happy to see that Fitch has a new novel coming out November 7th, entitled The Revolution of Marina M. It’s called “a sweeping saga of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of one young woman.” (Just wish she hadn’t chosen the chopped-off head look so in vogue for covers today.)

A while back, Fitch, who teaches writing, shared her advice for writers with a blog of the Los Angeles Times.

Janet Fitch’s 10 Rules for Writers is worth taking a look at. Not wanting to reprint it in full without permission, I’ve taken just a sampling:

 Write the sentence, not just the story 

Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

My Take-away: I find reading Fitch’s rules heartening. I like to picture her laboring over craft just like I do.

Glimpse of the Past

I was recently talking with a friend about my former career as a newspaper reporter. This was before computers so stories were typed. We made small revisions following a copywriting guide, so, for example, if you crossed out a phrase and later decided to keep, it you wrote “stet” and circled it.

For big revisions, we had scissors and rubber cement. Need to move a paragraph? Cut it off and paste it where it belongs. Hence, “cut-and-paste.”

Quotable

The truth is libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy, and community. 

–Paula Poundstone 

 

 

Getting Inside a Character’s Skin

How is it that sometimes words on a page can make us feel as though we are experiencing what the character experiences? We feel the danger, loss, grief, whatever as though it’s happening to us.

Writers often achieve this by minimizing “psychic distance.” We have John Gardner to thank for spelling it out in The Art of Fiction. There are degrees of psychic distance that range from viewing a character as an observer to inhabiting the character’s skin. Gardner illustrates how a narrator’s description of a character can be more or less objective or intimate:

1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

There’s more on the subject of psychic distance on the blog of Emma Darwin, “The Itch of Writing.” (Thanks to Sharon Scarborough for that.)

As for my own writing, I only achieve intimate psychic distance on revision. First of all, in early drafts I’m just getting the story on paper. I don’t outline, so I’m busy figuring it out as I go. Second, getting inside a character often requires diving into emotional depths that don’t necessarily want to be explored.

Quotable

A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent,or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

–Junot Diaz

Tell, Don’t Show

 When should a writer break the commandment “Show, don’t tell?” Frequently. I’m turning to Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer to support what I believe. In the book she uses an excerpt from “Dulse,” by Alice Munro, a story about Lydia, a middle-aged, divorced poet and editor.

Excerpt: She had noticed something about herself on this trip to the Maritimes. It was that people were no longer so interested in getting to know her. It wasn’t that she had created such a stir before, but something had been there that she could rely on. She was forty-five and had been divorced for nine years. Her two children had started on their own lives, though there were still retreats and confusions. She hadn’t gotten fatter or thinner, her looks had not deteriorated in any alarming way, but nevertheless she had stopped being one sort of woman and had become another, and she had noticed it on this trip.

My Take-away: Prose uses this example (along with a preceding paragraph I didn’t cite) to illustrate that writers often need to tell, not show. She notes that much time would have been wasted had Munro shown Lydia working as an editor, writing poetry, breaking up with her lover, dealing with her children, growing older, before the story actually begins.

I agree that well-written narrative can accomplish much, and the last sentence of the excerpt resonates with me–and probably many readers. It’s the dope slap of awareness that I’ve “stopped being one sort of woman and become another.”

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.

–Joyce Carol Oates

Boost Writing’s Impact With Timing

Writers, want to make a good characterization or scene memorable? OK, not everything you write can be memorable, but you can heighten your writing’s impact if you’ll consider timing. I’m using “timing” here in the broadest sense: time of day, season, occasion, etc. Here are a few examples:

A young woman gets a much-anticipated phone call from the prominent researcher who’s offering her a job as his assistant. She’s happy. We’re bored. What if this call came at 3 a.m.? Same message, different time of day. That raises questions: is he drunk? Can she trust him? Is calling people at 3 a.m. just a quirk?

A woman holding a glass in one hand spills vodka while loading clothes into the washer. Suggests she has a drinking problem, right? What if she’s home alone while the family is attending church on Sunday morning?

An aspiring golfer spends three hours making nine-iron shots to a practice green.  Obviously dedicated. But really determined to improve his short game if it’s January and there’s snow on the ground.

A young single mom who marries the man of her dreams is warned by her divorced mother-in-law that the groom’s father is a convicted child molester.  Sobering. What if this communication takes place at the young woman’s wedding reception? Wow. (I didn’t make this one up.)

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

–Anton Chekhov

Intimidate With Names

 In one life I toiled in the trenches as a substitute teacher, mostly at the high school level. One of the first things I’d do upon entering the classroom was to surreptitiously scan the seating chart and learn four or five names. Then in the first few minutes of addressing the class, I would look at a student and call him by name. I could feel everyone flinch. If she knows his name, she might know mine.

After citing a few more names, I felt pretty confident that things would go smoothly. There’s nothing like hearing your name and thus having your veil of anonymity lifted to make a person feel vulnerable, as in a student who doesn’t want to get written up, or special, as in being called up out of an expectant crowd for having won a drawing for a new Toyota Prius.

It’s even possible to break someone’s anonymity without using their name. That’s why the guy stocking the grocery store’s shelves is taught to greet the customers.  He’s not being friendly. He’s making it psychologically difficult for customers to shoplift. But I digress.

While donating blood the other day, I got into a conversation about names with my phlebotomist, Will, and told him about this post. He said in Catholic demonology, if someone calls the demon by name it will make the exorcism go easier. Now that’s some  powerful intimidation. So I googled the subject and found a site called Religious Demonology.  Its author is Adam C. Blai, Peritus, M.S., a clinical psychologist who, among other things, trains priests in exorcism.

He answers this question: “Knowing or saying a demon’s name gives me power over it, right?” by saying “No. Only God has power over demons.” Later he says, “People not called to spiritual warfare who know a demon’s name have no more ‘power over’ that demon than a high school student has power over a professional boxer in the ring just because he knows that boxer’s name.” I suggest you read the post as it’s more nuanced than I’ve presented it here.

Does any of this matter to a writer? Maybe peripherally. A character who is dealing with a rude customer service rep or nurse or flight attendant asks, “What’s your name?” Or, in a thriller, a woman is approached by a creepy stranger who addresses her by name.

Another random thought about names. In real-life conversations, people rarely use one another’s name. Woe to the writer whose dialogue sounds like this:

“Did you pick up the dry cleaning, Brad?”

“No, Malinda. I didn’t have time.”

“So, Brad, what do you plan to wear tonight?
Etc.

Quotable

Why do they call it Vers-otchi? I don’t put an Otchi bandage on my ankle.

–Steve Skarnulis

 

 

 

 

Word Choice: Latin vs. Anglo-Saxon Words

Think of a suitable instrument for playing a romantic tune like “If I Loved You.” Unless you wanted a comic effect, you wouldn’t choose a tuba.

Words are like that. Word choice is one way to set the tone of your writing, and writers can choose from a plethora of synonyms in the English language in large part due to derivatives from Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots. In general, words from Latin have a loftier or more formal tone compared to the more down-to-earth, sometimes streetwise sound of their Anglo-Saxon cousins. Often, but not always, the Latin derivatives are more likely than the Anglo-Saxon derivatives to have multiple syllables.

Some examples:

  • prohibit vs. ban
  • beneficial vs. good
  • conflagration vs. fire
  • altercation vs. fight
  • intoxicated vs. drunk
  • juvenile vs. young or child
  • copulate vs. screw
  • explosion vs. blast
  • vigilant vs. wary
  • multiple vs. many
  • estimate vs. guess
  • smart vs. erudite

In practical terms, analyze your writing in terms of word choice. Chances are too many Latin derivatives will drag down an action scene, while they might improve the tone of a romantic scene.

Consider how you might differentiate characters by their word choice in dialogue. The stuffed-shirt will speak formally whereas the pandering politician will use informal language or slang.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.

–Nicolas Chamfort *

*According to Quote Investigator, the origin of this quote is often erroneously attributed to Mark Twain.