Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Exploring an Issue for Coherence

So I'm reading this annoying legal thriller, which is especially annoying because it turns out to be better than I first thought. And as I get deeper into it, I'm coming to realize that the author sets things up in order to turn them around. And the author is also doing something that I think immensely aids the coherence of the story and kept me reading even when I was really annoyed at what I saw as the smugness and complacency of the main character.

See, what the author is doing is exploring an issue. This is more thematic than structural, but the decision to explore this issue helps select (and de-select -- what DO you think of that as a verb?) plot events, and shape them to explore this issue more.

The issue in this book is "power".  This takes place mostly in a courtroom, and the power is mostly about the power of the judge, and there's an implicit question revealed as the story goes on: What happens when a sociopath becomes a judge? (Answer: He uses the over-the-top power of a judge within the courtroom to send his lover's husband to an asylum and the attorney to jail.) But it's not just power as in power over others. There's the related issue of "control" (power over oneself). The attorney thinks of himself as utterly in control of his demeanor, attitude, courtroom performance. He's proud of his ability to control the responses of witnesses by asking questions in just the right way.  And he has sympathetic scorn for his friend the alcoholic (who keeps talking about how you have to accept your own powerlessness) and scornful sympathy for mental patients who have no control over themselves.  In fact, almost everything in the story has a bit of a "power" resonance, either power or the lack of power. 

Identifying an issue to explore (or that is being explored) can help us select events and even the trajectory of the journey.  For example, where does the story begin? Maybe, if we're exploring the issue of power, we want to start with an event that has to do with power. (The thriller starts with the judge's murder-- lack of power-- suggesting it is the result of the real opening, the main character's recollection of this judge sending him to jail-- abuse of power.)  And even the romance is about this issue-- the protagonist seems to will himself to fall in love, and then finds out that he actually doesn't have much control at all. He thought he could control the volatile nature of human interaction. No luck. :) Then other aspects of power might be explored throughout the story-- the powerlessness of defendants in the courtroom and of abused children, the machiavellian power of one brilliant seemingly powerless mental patient.

Once we identify an issue that's being explored, we can emphasize that in scenes. For example, Huck Finn is all about family-- blood families, adopted families, chosen families, fake families.  Where does the story start?   Huck has been "adopted" by the Widow Douglas, but when his birth father arrives back in town, a judge who believes that family is all about blood transfers custody. In contrast to the Widow Douglas's selfless if clumsy parenthood, the motivation of Huck's father is to get Huck's cache of gold. He is drunken and abusive.  Clearly the "birth family" is no ideal.
And in fact the adoptive family, though better for Huck, isn't an ideal either. Huck runs away and meets up with Jim, a slave of the Widow's sister.  He has overheard her talking about selling him away from his own family, and has fled hoping to find freedom and bring his family back together. "Family" is presented for both Huck and Jim as the opposite of "freedom".
In this picaresque novel, plenty of things happen, of course.  But Twain textually and subtextually connects almost every event with some aspect of "family."  So in the beginning, while Huck chafes at the confinement of his adopted family (and is soon literally chained up by his father), he longs for the chosen bonds he's forged with Tom Sawyer (his "brother") and Tom's new "robber gang".

Here's how Twain describes the initiation into Tom's gang. Notice how he makes it about "family."
   Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath, and asked Tom if he got it out of his own head. He said, some of it, but the rest was out of pirate-books and robber-books, and every gang that was high-toned had it.
   Some thought it would be good to kill the families of boys that told the secrets. Tom said it was a good idea, so he took a pencil and wrote it in. Then Ben Rogers says:
   "Here's Huck Finn, he hain't got no family; what you going to do 'bout him?"
   "Well, hain't he got a father?" says Tom Sawyer.
   "Yes, he's got a father, but you can't never find him these days. He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain't been seen in these parts for a year or more."
   They talked it over, and they was going to rule me out, because they said every boy must have a family or somebody to kill, or else it wouldn't be fair and square for the others. Well, nobody could think of anything to do -- everybody was stumped, and set still. I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered them Miss Watson -- they could kill her. Everybody said:   "Oh, she'll do. That's all right. Huck can come in."
   Then they all stuck a pin in their fingers to get blood to sign with, and I made my mark on the paper.

 Later Huck uses the excuse that his father has smallpox as a way to escape from attackers. Again, this is a casual but purposeful use of "family." Huck could have said that anyone was the smallpox sufferer (he'd made it all up), but he said his father-- a family echo.

 In another "family" example, Huck meets a nice family (the Grangerfords), which is family enough, sure. But Twain chooses to have them in a feud with a neighboring family. The latest complication of the feud?  The boy of one family and the girl of another fell in love and ran off together (creating their own family and joining the two families, whether they liked it or not). 

And the duke and the dauphin seem like garden-variety (if oddly erudite) con men. But what's their next con? They impersonate brothers seeking to collect on an inheritance, and trying to scam a set of sisters.

Huck and Jim then stumble on a family of nice people who not-so-nicely are planning to "sell" Jim back to his owners to collect a reward. However, they mistake Huck for their nephew Tom (yes, THAT Tom), who is set to arrive. Huck goes along with the error in order to protect Jim, and when Tom arrives, he has to take on the masquerade of his own little brother Sid. In this complicated way, Huck finds himself truly (well, sort of) the "brother" of the boy he has thought of as a brother-- the sibling relationship is made real (though of course it's not :).  The fractals here of real and artificial and created families become ever more complicated. But always "benevolence and love" win out over blood, as Jim ends up sacrificing his chance at freedom to take care of Huck.

(And  Huck, btw, rejects the family, both invented and adopted, and chooses freedom. But Twain has him specifically choosing freedom over family.)

Always keep in mind that you as the author have choices. You can choose to have the hero escape through a window or through a door. You can choose to have the dispute about a will or about a loan.  You're in charge here.  Think about making some choices reflect the central issue under consideration.This will give you more direction in scene design, and help you make the story more coherent and meaningful. You don't have to know the "theme" of the story to accomplish this. You just have to identify for yourself a major issue you want to explore.

So everyone identify an issue you're exploring!  I'm working on a romance where I think the major issue is "self"-deception. I don't mean so much deceiving yourself as deceiving others about who your-self is. So the heroine has kept secret her identity, and let the world think she's just  another housewife. Only the hero knows that there's something more in her. But I think I'll play with the whole issue of masked identity, of people hiding behind nicknames and false names, and hiding who they really are.

What about your story? What's an issue you're going to explore?


Monday, March 28, 2011

Quick Answer to a Quick Question

Anon in the comments asks,

Where do you come down on the whole "as though..." was/were thing? As though she were the adult here, as though she was the adult. If I were sick, if I was sick. I see was a lot in books--is that acceptable?

This is a species of the conditional, and it creates a lot of confusion because colloquial English and standard English have two different rules. So this gives us a good opportunity to discuss the difference between the two different grammar standards, and how fiction writers should handle them.

First, the standard rule can be a little complicated, but your example is the conditional expressed in the subjunctive. So, the ordinary way of structuring a conditional sentence is in two parts:

If condition, then result.

"If I had a million dollars, I'd buy you some art (a Picasso or a Garfunkel)."

That line is from the Barenaked Ladies hit from a few years back, "If I Had a Million Dollars,"  a/k/a Exhibit A in the long list of evidence proving that the conditional is alive and well in the English language. Bet you can all think of other examples, once you think about it. Look for the word "if" -- If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning.

If the asserted condition in the first part of the sentence is contrary to fact, then we have to play some games with the verb tenses to signal the untruthful or hypothetical nature of the statement. Compare:

If I had enough cash, I would buy dinner.
If I have enough cash, I am buying (or will buy) dinner.

You know almost intuitively that in the second statement, the speaker might actually pick up the tab, but in the first, it's just not going to happen. Right? And the clues are in the verb tenses. If the main clause (the result) includes would/could/will/might or similar tentative conjugations, and if the dependent clause (the condition) is stepped back in time from the present moment of the sentence, then we know we're dealing with something contrary to fact.

There are some little hitches in the rule. For example, if the verb in the condition is "to be," the past conjugation is always "were" regardless of person or number.
If I were a millionaire
If we were millionaires
If she were a millionare
And so on, in every permutation of the verb in this tense.

English speakers tend to ignore this in colloquial speech, unless they're educated people or writers or other disreputable types. *cough*  So in common everyday usage, it wouldn't be startling to hear someone say,
If I was a millionaire, I would buy dinner.
And everyone at the table would know who's not picking up the tab, right?

So what's a fiction writer to do? It's kind of a case-by-case matter. If you're writing the interior monologue or dialogue of a person likely to use the colloquial expression, then it's safe to use the colloquial variant there. If your protagonist is a lawyer or English teacher, or if your prose style tends away from the colloquial for other reasons, probably not so much.

And this could be said of many common colloquialisms, such as "probably not so much" in the previous sentence. That's not correct formal English, but it's acceptable colloquial English. Fictive grammar is always something of a blend of grammar rules, part formal grammar, part wild English. How you blend them is part of your voice, but that doesn't mean you get to do it blindly. Do it deliberately, with grace and control and clarity, to achieve an effect.

Does that answer your question? It's not cut and dried, I know, so if you have questions, please do ask.


Rant about about reviews

Here's a fun rant about the NYTimes Book Review before it vanishes behind a paywall, and really, has anyone ever been as clueless about digital media as the NYTimes?  "Hey, it worked so badly the first time, charging for online news! Let's do it again! It's not like they can get news anywhere else!"

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The proverbial proverb

If you use a cliche, putting "proverbial" in front of it does NOT make it fresh.

I've seen this several times lately, and it never gets new:

So John put the proverbial cart before the horse.

You hit the proverbial nail on the head that time!

Keep it up, and I'll hit the proverbial ceiling.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

About the Narrative Elements Workshop

I've fielded several questions about the narrative elements workshop starting April 1, and because those questions raised some good points, I thought I would also address them here. People seem a little confused about the exact content of this workshop. Probably with good reason. This topic isn't commonly taught on the genre conference circuit, though I've taught it a few times over the years. But usually, I prefer to teach it in small groups so I can monitor closely whether people are grabbing hold of the concepts. By the end of the class, I fancy I can always tell who the real writers are. This is the one that separates the writers from the daydreamers.

So what is this class about? It's about the way story is revealed through written words. The narrative consists of the words on the page. Those words can take different forms. Which form they take can have a dramatic impact on the narrative, of course, but also on the story.

Former workshoppers have said that after taking this class, they're almost perfect at identifying "show, don't tell" errors. But this class is about much more than that. It's heavy on mechanics, but not grammar or usage mechanics. Narrative mechanics. Active setting, transitioning without transitions, all sorts of cool techniques, all are built on concepts taught in this class.

So, I hope that clarifies things. If not, please do ask any questions in the comments. There are still a couple of spots left. Our workshops tend to fill to capacity in the last few days before they start, but there's time to register yet, and there's still a bit of room on the roster.


Go, Dawgs!

What a game. Butler is for real. I would never have imagined after last year they'd do it again, but here they are, Final Four. They just find a way to win.  Sometimes it's not playing a great game. :)


Friday, March 25, 2011


I'm reading a book with a very tight POV, and so I'm in the protagonist's head all the time.  (It's a mystery, btw, not a romance.) And I'm seeing something interesting. He thinks he's utterly in love with an old flame, and says it a whole lot. "I'm so in love with her." "She's the one I never got over." "If I'd stayed with her all these years, my life would have been happy."

Well, I don't believe it. As I read, I keep ticking off the clues (to me) that he's just deceiving himself, like he didn't think of her at all till she suddenly arrived at his house one day, and that their epic separation (engineered by her over-protective father, natch) would never have been successful if he'd just, you know, picked up the phone and called her, but he didn't bother. And that even now, he never thinks of her and doesn't pursue her-- she always has to go to him. And their conversations are all about how wonderful it was to be 16 and in love (only now they're in their 40s), and how tragic it was to be separated for so long, and not at all about current life, like her children and his job. 

Anyway, I want to take him aside and say, "Dude, you are just not that into her."

But I know he'd look at me with those starry eyes and reply, "What do you mean?  She's the love of my life!"

Now I'm wondering if at the end of the book (I'm still about halfway through) he's going to realize, or she is, that this great passion is 90% nostalgia for youth, and not actually love at all.  But there's something about the presentation of it that suggests to me that this is NOT what the author is setting up (the realization of self-deception), that the author actually does think that this is Twu Luv 4-evuh, and that the book will end with the two of them holding hands and gazing at their youthful photos in their high school yearbook and talking sincerely about how much they're in love. (I mean, that the author is deceived too. Because I'm so right-- the lady is just trying to escape her boring life by relighting an old flame, and the guy is just in love with the memory of himself in love.)

Has anyone had to work with this sort of issue? I was thinking that when you're really falling in love, it's more of a conflict than this, and there's more internal questioning and debate. But then I remembered one of my favorite Joan Wolf romances, where the hero has known that he has loved the heroine all their lives (they grew up together), and never for a moment did I doubt it (nor did they).  So it's not doubt and conflict that are the keys, I don't think.  Why do I think the mystery fella is lying to himself, but not the young Regency horse-trainer?

But we'll see. Anyway, I'm wondering what you all do when you want a character to deceive him/herself, but you don't want to make it too obvious or have an omniscient narrator make that observation.  How do you make the self-deception plausible (that he could really be in love with her) but also set up for some epiphany or change at the end?
And how does this differ from the way you'd handle the same set of circumstances if there WAS no self-deception, if this were truly true?

So-- scenarios. (Deep POV, remember-- we're in his head, no veering off into the common sense of his best friend or secretary.)
Protagonist is with a woman. He thinks he is in love with her. He thinks this is real. How would you present it (and I don't mean the ending) if:

1. It's not real. He's deceiving himself.
2. It's real. He's right. He really does love her.

Today at RU - Before the First Meet

Today at Romance University, we're talking about what must happen between page one and the first meeting of the hero and heroine. And what must not happen! Come join us!


Thursday, March 24, 2011


We were talking about "tone" recently, and I'm thinking that tone of most kinds has to do both with sentence and scene/passage design.  "Purple prose" is an insult hurled at fiction writers, and it's a really bad insult, sort of the equivalent of "you slut," and perhaps especially damaging to popular fiction writers. Literary fiction writers get purple too, goodness knows, but in literary fiction, where innovative and incisive prose is in itself a value, purple prose is usually the result of trying too hard to be descriptive and maybe not having the right vocabulary to do it afresh. (I mean, the purple litfic writer might be trying to be incisive without the innovation.)

In popular fiction, prose can be innovative and incisive, but that's not really the point.  The point of prose in popular fiction is usually to most effectively convey the story (with all its parts), whether that is deeply or swiftly or thrillingly or dramatically or humorously.  Prose is "purple" in popular fiction when it calls too much attention to itself, thus taking the emphasis off the experience of the story for the reader.

(I'm always amused/appalled when I read reviews -- I see these frequently in the NYTimes Book Review!-- which highlight certain sentences for marvelling.
1) The sentences are almost always early in the book, which makes me suspect that the reviewer might not have really read much further than that.
2) Often the sentences are ornate, prolix, and constructed more for, well, marvel than meaning. I do marvel at them, set proudly in italics in the middle of the review, because often these sentences feature glaring (to me, anyway) dangling modifiers.  The greatest danger of intricate sentence construction is the inadvertent dangler. Yes. The danger is the dangler. You heard it here first.
3) What about the plot? What about the character development? Sentences are great, but they're supposed to be in service to something greater.
4) Sometimes the sentence highlighted seems to come from nowhere-- an ostentatiously pithy observation no character in the book would have the objectivity to observe. Omniscient POV is all well and good, but smug omniscient always makes me mutter resentfully, "You think you're all that, don't you."
Ahem. Anyway, if a reviewer can excerpt a single sentence to marvel at, I would worry that the actual story didn't capture his/her attention.)

A major aspect of purple prose is overmodification.  (I love modifiers, so I'm not dissing them, just OVER.) What constitutes overmodification?  The most apparent purpling comes when you add an adjective or adverb to an already strong word, especially if the modifier merely amplifies and doesn't deepen or contradict. "She shouted furiously" is purple, but "she whispered furiously" is not.

However, I have spoken loudly-- declared declaratively, as it were-- about the occasional brilliance of overmodification. Cf. Faulkner's garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.  I think the distinction is novelty, that is, the modifier should add something new or deeper.

So if you're worried about your prose being purple, I'd suggest the first revision review should be for modifiers. Can you make the verb or noun stronger so you don't need the modifier, say?  ("He drove a sporty car." vs. "He drove a Corvette.")

 There are some modifiers that, almost by definition, are purple. "Delicate," say.  "Sparkling." "Magnificent." They are in themselves excessive, and when they're applied directly to another word, well, purple ensues. But what if the (noun) really is magnificent? Think about kind of dampening down by separating modifier from modified, like "The view was magnificent," or "He stopped at the canyon edge to take in the view. It was magnificent." I'd still think about trying to find a more interesting way to say that, but at least it's back to merely being trite and isn't so twee.

Some modifier/modified combinations have become over, well, over over.  (I was just thinking, goodness knows why, maybe I read that one of the participants had died, of the whole Tidal Basin scandal, back in those innocent days when the "powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee" was found splashing with "The Argentine Firecracker" -- shortly to become, natch, "The Tidal Basin Bombshell"-- in the Washington Tidal Basin. And I remembered the funniest modifier consequence of this. Wilbur Mills had been "powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee," but after his disgrace, the post he had to vacate was invariably called "the  head of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee". That is, the power was in the position after that, not the person. BTW, the firecracker's name was Annabella Battistella, which deserves a place in history and not just my memory. :)

What was I saying? Oh, yes. Purple AND cliche.  "Sparkling brew." "Babbling brook." "Majestic peaks." "Glowing orbs." I always chortle (meanly) when I read about a "single tear" coursing (yes, it usually courses, that lonely tear) down a (usually weathered) cheek. And then there's "one smooth motion." I don't know why that always amuses me. What are some others? With these pairings, well, don't use them. They end up meaning virtually nothing because I don't think they even make it past the eye into the brain. They have no resonance because they don't even in the most elementary way make the reader think. I'd suggest being utterly ruthless with this sort of purple prose. First, think about whether this glass of lemonade or beer or whatever needs to be described at all, or just mentioned:
He quaffed the sparkling brew.
He drank off his beer, and said, "..."
That is, it could be that you need some minor action or setting detail on the way to the important element (what he says) but don't need MUCH.  So don't give much.

Second, if you decide that this magnificent vista really is important enough for whatever reason (I don't know, maybe while he's gazing at the magnificent vista, he sees the cavalry coming over the ridge), don't settle for an empty cliche. Go with something really descriptive, something that distinguishes this magnificent vista (desert) from that other magnificent vista (ocean beach), like "He stopped at the cliff and gazed down at the desert floor, purple and orange as the sun set."  I'm no good at description, and I always opt for clear and plain rather than pretty, because I don't do pretty well.  But if you can do pretty, go for it, but try not to use any of the terms in the cliche.

Sometimes the individual modifier-modified term is fine, but a superfluity of them sends the passage into the purple territory. This is especially true if the term combinations are mostly about the same thing, as here, where they're all sort of about dirtiness and decrepitude:
With ink-stained fingers, he raised the blotched shade and gazed out the fly-specked window at the junk-strewn expanse of broken asphalt.

What's important there? What's superfluous?  (I'd get rid of the ink-stained fingers first. The only reason they're there is to let us know he's been writing, right? I mean, what would he use to raise the shade but his fingers? His teeth? His tobacco-stained teeth? :) 

What would I keep? I like the asphalt. I'd probably -- after I got rid of all the other terms-- feel like I could find a more fun word than "broken," though nothing comes to mind. It's hard this month, when chasm-sized potholes appear violently in front of my car every day, to be restrained and judicious about broken asphalt.  "The EXPLODED asphalt." "The axel-shattering, smashed, volcanically ruined asphalt." Okay, overdone, yes, but true. Just ask my axel.

Anyway, be ruthless. But pruning the purple doesn't mean you can't have any fun words or descriptive terms. Just strive for the new, the interesting, the insightful. And don't overdo.

Now purple also happens in the action of the scene. This is maybe a bit harder to explain, but the most common manifestation of it is "sentimentality." Supposedly JD Salinger said (I mean, supposedly it was him who said it, though it doesn't really sound like him-- good observation though, so JD can take credit :), "Sentimentality is giving a thing more tenderness than God would."  It's -lavishing- with tenderness, rather than letting the whatever just be there and inspire tenderness.  When something is sentimental, we sometimes respond with cringing (like when our parents would use each other's petnames in public), or sometimes with a perverse antagonism: "If they don't quit making googly eyes at each other, I'm going to shoot them both."

I'm reading a book now where the romance (it's not a romance-- the romance is just a subplot, fortunately, or I'd stop reading because it's a truly treacly romance) scenes have no conflict. That I think is key. No conflict. Everything is just fulfillment without any prepwork. 
"You're so wonderful. "
"You're wonderful too."
"I thought you were wonderful the first time I laid eyes on you."
"I remember that first time! Remember how we slow-danced all night?"
"I remember how your actual date got so mad and stormed out. But we didn't care. We'd fallen in love at first sight."
"We're still in love. Because you're so wonderful."
"You're wonderful too."
Now come on. Admit it. You skimmed, didn't you?  That's because there's no conflict.  Imagine how much more interesting it would be with some conflict:
"You're so wonderful. "

"You're wonderful too."
"I thought you were wonderful the first time I laid eyes on you."
"I remember that first time! Remember how we slow-danced all night?"
"I remember how your actual date got so mad and stormed out. But we didn't care. We'd fallen in love at first sight."
"She kind of forgave me. I married her, you know. We have three kids now."
"You're-- you're married? But wait! What are you doing in a dark booth holding my hand if you're married?"
"Really. I never forgot you. Even as I was speaking my vows to her, I imagined she was you."
"That's sick. Give me my hand back, or I'll shoot you."

Hey, that's likely to inspire some plot action at least!  The "we're both so wonderful" scenes are not just treacly, they're usually extraneous, with little plot propulsion. 

Gratuitous scenes meant to display or inspire emotion often are purple.  I don't just mean the unhooked romance scenes, but also scenes of violence or grimness which don't arise out of or propel plot action. Anything that isn't part of the plot action is likely to seem gratuitous, as an excuse for emotion rather than a scene of emotional change to the characters. 

What is "purple" to you? What do you do to keep your prose un-purple? What in revision helps?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On the Benefits of Being Edited

Our friend Epic Black Car wrote a post about why it's important to be edited, and mentions me along the way. (Actually, he calls me a "glowing mystical being" -- and he doesn't even follow it up with "and therefore we must kill the alien." Nice.)


ps. Yes, blog posts have been thin lately -- we're both in crazy busy cycles at the moment. And yes, I do still have some setting examples which we will get to. Soon. I can see the light at the end of this deep, black tunnel, so thanks for your patience, and we'll be back to regular posting schedules soon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Getting to perception

Some writers who want to practice deep POV might get too deep, narrating perception (what the character feels, senses, sees, hears) but not the action (reaching and touching, turning head, opening eyes, cocking her head to listen) that leads to the perception. But the reader needs both-- needs to know what action led to the perception.
Here's an example of perception without action:

The door slammed shut behind her. The rain cooled her burning face.

See how passive that is. The character is experiencing (door slamming shut, rain cooling, face burning). But she's not acting. Imagine inserting an action in there that shows her interacting in some way with this surrounding. Like:
The door slammed shut behind her. She turned and opened it and slammed it herself, just to show him. Then she straightened her shoulders and strode down the steps, the rain cooling her burning face.

I often over-narrate, setting up the rain thing earlier in the passage, because I figure you notice right away that it's raining. But maybe she's so mad she doesn't notice right away (in which case-- I told you, I over-narrate-- I'd probably have something like, "Only then did she notice the rain cooling her burning face"). Not saying anyone else should do that. Just that I do.

Now you might say there are some perceptions that don't require an action. For example, you might say that feeling heat or cold just happens, that you don't have to move in order to experience. Or seeing a flash of light or hearing a sudden shout. But:
1) Some perception requires or benefits from an preceding action to anchor the perception in the surroundings or the character's movement through the scene.
2) Action is more volitional than perception, and so can often better express what this person wants or is willing to do.
3) Keeping the character moving will mean a more active narrative, and will also make for a more active character. This isn't just someone who "feels," but someone who does.
4) An action before the perception can help focus the reader's attention on the character. Even perceptions like a flash of light could be emphasized as startling or unexpected or expected or dangerous by showing the character's action. (Go with the logic here-- the action might have to come after the perception sometimes. What comes first logically?)
5) An action first can be a physical transition between one place or stance and another. That way the narration is flowing, not jumping.
6) An action can also set up a surprise or change, force this to be more than a perception but also something that forces more action.

It was rain, wasn't it? She stopped on the first step and raised her hand to her face, and it came away sticky. She stared at her fingers, red in the pale glow of the porchlight.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Future of publishing at South by Southwest

Interesting article about how publishers/authors can explore the future of publishing through discussing other art forms. Just what I've been saying. Maybe I should have said it to musicians.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Your Setting Examples -- Where Are We? #10-ish?

Batter up! Who's next?

Blackberry Gap was a wide spot in the road on State Highway 90N. As northern California towns went, it was pretty normal. The highway formed the central street and was intersected at right angles by three cross-streets. The middle intersection formed the central corner, with four red brick structures facing each other in all four directions. Constructed of red brick with windows and doors picked out in white brickwork, those buildings had formed the core of the town in its hey-day. Now they were flanked on all sides by more modern developments, gas stations, a strip mall and eventually, farm land. Several cars passed up and down the street, and a few parked head-in along the sidewalks in the same way farmers had parked horse-drawn wagons when the town was young.

Okay. This is a pretty big block of description without much to break it up. The closest we get to action comes from the line, "Several cars passed up and down the street." Everything else is static. No dialogue, no clear point of view character -- actually, no characters.

We've talked about ways to make description dynamic and to integrate it with the text. We're not going to talk about that again here. Instead, we're going to take a different angle altogether and talk about why you might want a passage like this, one that breaks the basic guidelines, but does it with clean prose.

So here's your assignment. Read that passage very slowly. Read it aloud, if that will help you slow down. Really listen to the tone and voice. And tell me in the comments when a stripped passage like this would be effective. What type of character would evaluate a setting like this? Under what circumstances in the text would this type of description feel that it's advancing the plot? (In other words, can you envision a scene and character in which this block of description would read as appropriate in both pace and content?)

I can think of two right off the top of my head. Here's one to get us started. The character is a location scout for a film production company. He's tired. He's determined. And he'll know it when he sees it, but for right now, this town is a Plan B type location. So it would make sense that he catalogs all these details in his head in this somewhat emotionless, viewpointless way. His viewpoint really isn't all that important, anyway. What would matter is how the camera would see this town.

What else? There are more. The point is that sometimes it makes sense to abandon the ordinary guidelines, and being able to recognize those exceptions is part of the writer's art.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Your Setting Examples - #9

Keeping the party train rolling with another anonymous example. To set this up, a man and a woman have just arrived at this house. The woman is sleeping in the front passenger seat. The man first studies her, but then, when he remembers that she has rejected his advances, he turns away and stares through the truck's front window.

The stone farmhouse with its sunburned thatched roof looked the same. The lamppost light spilled yellow beams across a yard overgrown with weeds enclosed within a rusty fence. Battered shutters, that long ago lost their white sheen, hung at precarious angles on the bare windows. Tall, gnarled oaks hovered over the house. A few branches seemed determined to push their way under the roof.

The place seemed derelict. Exactly the way it was supposed to. His gaze slanted over to the washed-out red barn. The building still leaned a little too heavily on its right.

I suspect some of you out there read this and expect me to talk about the passage being overwritten. By current standards, it is overwritten, and in edits we'd tighten it -- for example, we don't need lamppost, light, and beams in three out of five words, and we probably should have only one sentence about the trees. And I think there would be some value in taking a passage like this and showing you all how to reduce it in edits so that the subtextual emotion and vivid imagery is preserved.

But we've been using this series to focus on the good -- well-used techniques for manipulating setting details to achieve certain effects. In keeping with that, we'll look at this one for tone and mood because this author does a great job using setting details to echo or reinforce the pov character's emotional state. It's subtextual, and it's effective.

Before we get into that, I do want to point out that the author is using techniques we've discussed in other posts in this series. The verbs are strong and vivid. There's a sense that things have changed ("long ago lost their white sheen") or will change ("hung at precarious angles" / "branches seemed determined to push").

Let's look at some details.

His Emotion:
Tense because she rejected him. (Trust me, it's in the material that precedes the description.)

He Sees:
Defects (overgrown yard, rusty fence, broken shutters)

The Technique:
Symbolism. But a very subtle kind of symbolism. We can assume there's some defect in him that led to her rejection. (It's probably one of those romance defects such as emotional detachment or inability to trust.) He doesn't see defects when he looks at her sleeping on the front seat. But when he looks elsewhere, he sees the defects, and this mirrors the way she looks at him -- or, at least, at this stage of the game, it's what he imagines she does when she looks at him.


His Emotion:
A Bit Unsettled

He Sees:
Things that give him a sense of stability. See "looked the same" in the first sentence, "Exactly the way it was supposed to" in the second paragraph, and "The building still leaned" at the end.

The Technique:
Contrast. By having the character witness things that contrast with his current mood, we show that he is reaching for a new state of mind. This reaching might be subconsciously done, but he's doing it nonetheless.


So here's my big question. Bat this one around in the comments, kids, and see what you think. Ultimately, do you think he wants to change? Or do you think he wants her to see him as he is -- defects and all -- and recognize that he's "exactly the way it was supposed to" be?

I don't know that we have enough material to be able to answer this question definitively. The answers might lie in other scenes. But just based on what we know, which way do you think this one goes?

ETA another question: Look at those tree branches. What's the symbolism in what they're doing? I think that's pretty cool, personally.


Monday, March 7, 2011

April Workshop on Narrative Elements

What is narrative? What is story? And how do narrative and story intersect? In this workshop, Theresa will teach you to identify narrative elements and will show you how to manipulate them to achieve certain effects. These tools are useful at the drafting stage and can make the revision process even smoother. But the main goal is to provide writers with a comprehensive system for understanding what's on the page.

Most of the lessons are suitable for beginning to intermediate writers, but the final lessons introduce some advanced narrative techniques.

Have a few pages of draft material ready for practice sessions, and be prepared to do some writing exercises!

The workshop begins Friday, April 1, 2011, and ends Thursday, April 14, 2011. Cost is $50.00. All courses are conducted on an email loop. Email edittorrent@gmail.com with any questions. Sign up between now and March 28 -- this class tends to fill fast!

Power Slots

I talk sometimes about power slots -- those sentence positions with the most potential for impact upon the reader. The main verb, the subject, and the direct object are the main power slots (with the verb being most important), and others include indirect objects, objects of prepositions,  and maybe well selected adjective and adverbs.

So, Gary Lutz wrote an article some time ago in The Believer, and I just got around to reading it this weekend. He talks about power slots, and I thought it would be worth quoting that here.

Before we turn our eyes and ears to the entirety of a two-clause structure by Christine Schutt, maybe we can agree that almost every word in a sentence can be categorized as either a content word or a functional word. The content words comprise the nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and most verbs: they are carriers of information and suppliers of sensory evidence. The functional words are the prepositions, the conjunctions, the articles, the to of an infinitive, and such—the kinds of words necessary to hold the content words in place on the page, to absorb them into the syntax. The functional words in fact tend to recede into the sentence structure; their visibility and audibility are limited. It’s the content words that impress themselves upon the eye and the ear, so the writer’s attention to sound and shape has to be lavished on the exposed words. They stand out in relief. (Pronouns, of course, do not quite fit tidily into this binary system; pronouns tend to be prominent when they are functioning as subjects or objects and tend to be shrinking when they are in a possessive capacity. And some common verbs—especially those formed from the infinitives to be and to have—tend toward the unnoticeability of operational words.)

The entire article is worth a read. It's long, but the biographical material is intriguing and his discussion of sentences is fascinating.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Your Setting Examples - #8

This one comes to us from someone whose name I recognized instantly, but who didn't say whether anonymity was preferred. In keeping with my standard policy, then, I'm not going to disclose the name. What we have here are two pieces of setting interrupted by a long action sequence, and we'll pull the action sequence out.

The docks spread out across the wild prairie, the tall grass punctuated with octagonal landing pads like a flattened fullerene molecule.  The Iron-clad lay several pads away, the square, bulky monstrosity the only other ship in sight.

(intervening actions - Protag gets threatened by a bunch of Hunters)

He glanced back at his ship.  The cargo ramp lay a dozen steps away.  Three, four seconds max.

The leader followed Deep's gaze.  “I wouldn’t do that.  Just give us the crate and walk away.”

The wind droned through the prairie grass drenched blood-red by the morning sun.  The horizon spread out around Deep, empty save the distant and smug Iron Clad, and now more than ever he wished his father was still with him. 

But he was alone.

In the comments to the Example #7 with the weedy herringbone driveway, we briefly talked about the way we can use different narrative elements to frame other elements on the small scale or at the scene level. And now, conveniently :) , Anon is giving us an example that zeroes in on this exact technique.

First let's start by explaining what a narrative frame is. The term is usually used to describe two pieces of story, one on the first page and one on the last page, that act as a container for the rest of the story. Usually this frame occurs outside the regular story timeline, perhaps with different point of view characters narrating, perhaps with an entirely cast or setting or time period, with the result that the whole piece feels much like a story within a story. A great example of this technique can be found in the film The Princess Bride, in which the outer frame is the story of a boy and his grandfather, and the inner story is about Buttercup and the farm boy.

If we shrink this frame device down to the smaller level -- not the story as a whole, but a scene or a piece of a scene -- we end up with something much like the knocks on the door in Example #7. There's a knock. There's a pause to describe the setting. There's a second knock. Those knocks frame the description with action.

Here, we have the reverse of that pattern. Now the bits of setting description are used to frame the action. I bolded two particular words used to build the frame -- prairie and grass in the opening frame, and prairie grass in the closing frame is the first, and spread out is the second. That deliberate repetition, not just of an image but of the words themselves, proves that sometimes repetition can be a good thing. What else is repeated? The Iron-clad and the sense of vastness or openness.

Note that Anon's frames aren't exact duplicates of each other, though. The term "prairie grass" is used differently, first split into two pieces and last as a compound noun. The verb "spread out" is used first in conjunction with the prairie, and second with the horizon. This is how to build a repetition -- repeat a key element and recombine it with something new. (Though, I might advise ditching one of the two uses of "out" -- dealer's choice on that.)

There are two possible narrative effects from using a frame on this level. The first is that the framed inner story will feel contained to such a degree that it will have a "case closed" feel. This is the rarer of the two effects. The more common effect is that the framed inner piece will feel elevated in significance. If we were to read Anon's story as a whole, I suspect this confrontation would provide a lot of narrative fuel, a lot of tension that carries over into other parts of the story.

In either case, it's a good example of this particular technique.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Your Setting Examples - #7

This example comes from an anonymous author too shy to send her example in directly. She asked a friend to do it for her. I want to commend our shy friend for taking this step. It can be hard to share your work if you feel intimidated or unsure. I think Alicia and I are pretty friendly and approachable most of the time, and yet I hear frequently that we scare people. Must be with our claws and scales and firebreath, not with our attitudes, or at least so I hope. In any case, sorry if we come across like dragons, and pat yourself on the back, Anon, for donning your armor and entering the fray. It's a good thing, and we're glad you're here.

She paused and glanced at her surroundings, taking note of the weeds forcing their way through the herringbone-patterned driveway, the overgrown lawn and the growing collection of unused charity bags tossed into an empty flowerpot at one side of the welcome mat. Ted O’Malley’s garden was his pride and joy, a riot of colour last time she’d visited in the summer, yet looking at it now it seemed unlikely the elderly man had made it outside in weeks.

Still the bungalow’s door remained shut. She frowned and knocked again, standing slightly back to make sure she was easily visible through the peephole.

Those of you who've been around the blog long enough to remember the neverending PPP rants will not be surprised to see me single out the "taking that" phrase. It's what I do, and there's no help for it, so let's just accept that this is going to be my first comment about this piece. In fact, let's just line edit that sentence.

She paused and glanced at her surroundings. Weeds forced their way through the herringbone-patterned driveway and the overgrown lawn, and a growing collection of unused charity bags had been tossed into an empty flowerpot at one side of the welcome mat. Ted O’Malley’s garden was his pride and joy, a riot of colour last time she’d visited in the summer, yet looking at it now it seemed unlikely the elderly man had made it outside in weeks.

Still the bungalow’s door remained shut. She frowned and knocked again, standing slightly back to make sure she was easily visible through the peephole.

It's a simple change but it yields big dividends, even without any modification beyond what's needed to change the structure. We eliminated "taking note," which is a bit weak as far as verbals go. We can't picture "taking note" the same way we can picture "writing a note" or "taking a nap." It's not concrete or active. And it sort of duplicates the idea contained in "paused and glanced." It's not a direct repetition, but it's the same basic notion. And finally, it's what some people call filtering -- what happens when the act of thinking is narrated in the text. This can be a complex notion to grasp, but the basic idea is this: it puts a layer of interpretation between the character's direct experience and the reader's grasp of that experience. It's a form of micro-exposition, and I've never yet read a manuscript that didn't do this at least a little bit. (You can get away with it a little bit. A very little bit. And as far as we know, Anon rarely uses this type of narration. I'm really not trying to be a dragon about this, but it's an important concept, so I have to talk about it.) (And in the effort to stem my firebreathing tendencies, I'll just point out without further comment that "looking at it" can be cut for much the same reasons.)

Now, we're supposed to be talking about setting, so let's take a loot at how it's being manipulated here. In that second sentence, we have six concrete setting details -- weeds, driveway, lawn, bags, flower pot, welcome mat. Boom! That's a packed sentence, and I like it. It works. Why? Because what we're seeing aren't lifeless details, but specific details used to show the way the environment has changed. Overgrown. Weedy. Trash mounting in a specific way in a specific location. These details are evidence of negative change, and even without the conclusion offered in the final sentence of that paragraph, we know that something's not as it should be.

Let's take a moment to look at that conclusory sentence:
Ted O’Malley’s garden was his pride and joy, a riot of colour last time she’d visited in the summer, yet looking at it now it seemed unlikely the elderly man had made it outside in weeks.
If you're going to have a character state a conclusion, this is the way to do it. First she evaluated the evidence in a way that let us see the evidence and experience it with the character. Then we got the emotion (pride and joy -- a bit of a cliche, but we'll let it go on the assumption that it fits the character's viewpoint), and then the past state for contrast (riot of colour last summer). And then -- and only then -- we get the conclusion (unlikely he'd been outside in weeks).

Using a progression like that -- specific details, evidence of change, an emotional component -- leads the reader to understand how the conclusion is being formed. More than that, the reader will be silently, and perhaps subconsciously, thinking, "Yes! That's exactly what I think, too!" So the psychological bond between reader and character is deepened by this small moment of agreement. And none of us are surprised by the final paragraph with its suspenseful action. Something is very wrong at Ted's bungalow, and we all know it.

So there's a good structure here, and some good detail, and we'll just pretend we never saw those little PPPs. :)


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Setting up the turning points

Turning points are the major plot events that cause some big change and modify the trajectory of the characters in the plot. But the "turning" comes from the CHANGE. It's not just a big dramatic event, it's an event that "turns" from what's come before.  Yet, if you want a logical, coherent plot, you want that big turning event also growing out of what came before.

Tall order!

But think of the turning point as the culmination of something.  Then set up for that in earlier scenes.  Then the turning point will have something to turn FROM. It will be a pivot point from one situation to another.

This is especially important with the events that have a strong emotional component. You want to set up the emotion that will be changed or forced into conflict by the turning point. For example, the reversal is a big scene that happens usually in the middle of the story, reversing something that is "true" in the first half of the plot.  Like: "I can trust Paul. He's my best friend." or "My boss is all wrong about this acquisition. He used to be really wily, but he's losing it." The reversal reverses this-- Paul turns out NOT to be a best friend, and the boss was right about this acquisition.

This is a great opportunity for a emotional buildup or set up. Set up the "before" emotion in the scenes before the reversal, and then try using a bit of opposite terminology (don't be too obvious, of course!) in the end of the reversal scene.

Let's take Paul. Keep it subtle, but in the scenes before the reversal, have the protagonist realize that Paul is his best friend. He might even say at some point, "Okay, Paul, whatever you say. I trust you." Doesn't take much to set up the association of Paul being the one the protagonist trusts. Then the reversal, when Pro discovers that Paul is the one behind the poison pen letters or whatever, will be emotionally as well as plotfully dramatic.

And the boss-- well, let's say the protagonist has been observing him. She sees some evidence of mental failure, like he looks at the financial material about the company to be acquired, and blinks, and thrust the page away like he can't absorb it all, and she thinks maybe even sympathetically that his once-sharp business mind isn't as sharp anymore.  And of course his arguments against the acquisition might come across as prejudiced and unfounded: "I don't trust that CEO. He has a weak handshake!"  And she can think that his prediction of failure in the acquisition are just a sign of his desperate fear of losing control of his company.

Then the reversal-- the utter disaster of the acquisition, on the Time-Warner-AOL merger level, proving that he was right all along-- can be that much more dramatic because it has been set up for AS A REVERSAL. 

I really think this is a key to creating a dramatic and yet coherent plot. We can have all the right turning points, but they won't zing unless they really -turn-, and that requires setting up beforehand what they're turning from.

Examples? Who has a turning point event they want to share?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Your Setting Examples - #6

This one comes to us from a writer who would like to remain anonymous.

He grunted before leading her into his study. The walls were covered in maroon flocked wallpaper. A big antique desk dominated the room. The air smelled of leather and old books, with just a hint of tobacco. She hadn’t stepped into Aldous’ study for many years. The giant Remington typewriter he’d always used was still on the desk, but shoved to one side and shrouded in a plastic cover. The heavy velvet curtains were half-drawn, allowing only a pale wintery light to dilute the gloom. Saffron rubbed her upper arms, chilled by the atmosphere, a mood of faded glory, of golden triumphs tarnished by loss and the passing years.

Okay, so let's start with the assumption that this is a poignant moment for her. There are signals of emotional importance, especially toward the end of the paragraph. If this significance has been set up before the paragraph begins, then it makes sense to slow down the pace here and let the character observe the room, detail by detail.

So the pace might be appropriate, but then again, maybe not. She's with a man and the interaction between them is entirely suspended once they're inside the study. So the question then becomes, is there a way to slow down the pace here to allow her to absorb the atmosphere, and yet not have him temporarily drop out of the scene?

Yes, and the solution lies in the way the details are presented. Let's take a look at the first descriptive sentence:

The walls were covered in maroon flocked wallpaper.

The sharp-eyed among you will notice right away that this is in passive voice. "To cover" is a good, vivid verb, but without a subject to take the action of covering something, the verb loses some of its vigor. But does it follow, then, that the best way to fix this sentence is by switching it from passive to active? Hmm.

He had covered the walls in maroon flocked wallpaper.

Because of conventions associated with literary time, we have to shift that verb into the past perfect. After all, he's not papering the walls in this very scene. It's already been done sometime before she entered the room. The problem now is that story chronology has been interrupted to take us out of the scene moment and into some other, less poignant moment. So this isn't a great solution. We want to stick with the present scene moment.

How do we do that? How do we make it both active and present? Well, we have characters. Let's use them. Show the characters interacting with the setting. Some examples:

He lounged against the maroon-flocked walls.
He flicked the lightswitch and his fingers brushed over a patch where the flocking had been rubbed from the maroon wallpaper.
She froze inside the doorway and clutched the maroon-flocked walls for support.

These aren't equal sentences, of course. The first suggests a casualness, the second hints at obsessiveness, the third contains a strong shock response. We could keep going, I'm sure, until we hit on a sentence that conveyed the right degree of action with the right emotional connotation. It's out there. It's just a matter of finding it, and that might take a bit of mucking around with words. Which is pretty darn fun, so aren't we lucky to be able to do it?

The second sentence is much like the first -- dominated is a strong verb, but the sentence itself is static. But what if this is a scene in which the woman begins to feel dominated by the man? Then the desk becomes something of an emotional stand-in. If surrounded by material that shows the power balances (or imbalances), then this could become symbolically significant description. But as it stands, it's a good sentence that could be made better.

Now it's your turn. Pick a descriptive detail in that passage and tell me one example of how a character might interact with it in the present scene moment. Then tell me if there's an emotion being suggested by the action. You don't have to use the characters in this sample paragraph. This is just an exercise.

Thank you, anon, for sharing your work with us. You're off to a good start! With just a bit of revision, it will be even better.


Titles inside your text

Someone asked me how to format titles within the text (not on the title page of the story-- just center and CAP that).

Of course, "house style" dictates, as ever, but the rule of thumb is that the titles of short things are in quotes, and the title of long things are italicized. 
So an article title is in quotes:  "Butler's Thrilling Run to the 2010 NCAA Finals"
But a book title is in italics:
Small Colleges, Big Hearts: The History of Small College Basketball

You can generally apply this to all media. A song is in "", and an album/CD is in italics:
"Wild Horses"
The Gift
A TV episode is in "", while the TV series is in italics:
"School Hard"
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Not a big deal, but if you know the rule, you don't have to waste brain cells on deciding how to format.
Alicia (who does not have a lot of brain cells to waste)