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Some thoughts on the art and craft of writing

What In The Hell Is POV – The Grumpy Writing Coach

What In The Hell Is POV – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

What In The Hell Is POV?


 

     If there’s one thing that causes both me and new writers anguish it’s point of view. For them it’s the anguish of making it work. For me it’s the whimper when I read something as pleasant as fingernails on a blackboard. POV, as it’s usually abbreviated, is the single greatest hurdle in the battle to change from writing reports to writing fiction.
      We all know how to report, of course, it’s the essence of verbal communication. We tell about our day, our feelings, and our stories. Just visit Facebook and you’ll see that in action. It’s told as a report because we’re alone on stage, the star of our own one-person show. So naturally, when we begin to write fiction we tell the story as we always have.
      So why is that not enough?
      The setting for this example is easy. We begin with a single character standing on the shoulder of a blacktop road next to a field of soy plants. The character’s hands rest on a fencepost. Before them the ground is level, but it slopes away in the distance into a shallow valley a few miles wide and extending an unknown distance in either direction from the vantage point. In the distance, close to the far side of a narrow river, the shoulders of a mountain thrust upward, forming the backdrop of a truly magnificent view. As far as the eye can see there’s farmland, interspersed with wooded areas, with the tracery of roads and the border-lines of fields dividing the view into visual pixels.
      Above, the afternoon light throws a cloudy sky into relief, much of it heavy with the possibility of rain. The air, too, carries a hint of moisture on the gentle breeze, though the roadway behind is dry.
      Got all that? It’s the scene. Any character placed in that scene sees precisely the same thing. So, if you tell me, “small watercourses could be seen here and there in the valley,” it’s a report of what the writer visualizes, and what even people driving by can see. So who cares? It’s static. It’s unrelated to the character and what the character is doing. Unless I’m reading the work in search of a beautiful view, it’s a waste of time telling me about it. It’s a greater waste if the description is in prosaic terms.
      But every new writer does exactly that. They tell what there is to be seen, not what the character is noticing.
      Let’s look at something very different. We’ll look at the scene as several different characters see it by plugging them into the setting I detailed, above and talking about what they notice, not what can be seen.
 
The starving farmer:
      This man hasn’t seen rain for over a month. The valley is there for him, yes, and it’s just as beautiful as it always has been, but he sees it every day of his life, and it’s commonplace—unnoticed. He’s looking at the plants in the field in front of him and noticing the way the leaves are drooping, moisture starved and close to death. He’s noticing the clouds, poised so teasingly overhead. He frowns at the haze showing on the mountain where the breeze strikes the slope and sweeps upwards, condensing the moisture and causing it to rain on the flanks of that mountain, to run into the river and be carried away. He’s thinking of his family, and of how he’s not going to get through the winter if the crop fails. He looks, and he thinks, and everything he does is underlined by the prayer that fills his being: Please… Dear God, please send me rain.
 
The tourist:
      This person is a visitor from another country, where drought hasn’t struck. She’s an artist, here to paint, and she sees the view through the eyes of an artist. She views the roiling clouds in terms of their contrast to the serene scene on the ground. She sees the drooping plants but understands their significance not at all. She sees the rain on the mountain and feels pleasure at the way it completes the picture, and smiles over the fact that it’s not where she is, ruining her perfect moment.
 
The wet farmer:
      This lady is sullen. She stares at the rain clouds and hates every one of them. In the fine detail of her world the plants droop not with dehydration, but from drowning roots, as the result of a saturated summer and the probability of more rain conspire to push her to the brink. Her thoughts aren’t on beauty, but on giving in and accepting a man’s offer of marriage—he of the stinking breath and awkward hands. To her, rain and tears are inexorably intertwined. And everything she looks at reminds her of the decision she must make before nightfall. Beauty? There is no beauty there for her.
 
The lover:
      This man stands by the road, surrounded by glory, but he notices it not at all for itself. The fields represent life, and remind him of his lover, and the children they will have together. The vista, with its airy beauty, makes him reflect on the comfort he’s found with her. The mountains, reaching upward, remind him of her as she climaxed under his ministrations. He laughs as his eyes trace the series of peaks and his mind relives her gasps and clutchings. His focus is the coming evening.
 
The geologist. The bounty hunter. The land developer… All see the same image, and all take away only what they, uniquely, take away. And in doing so—in seeing something we wouldn’t see because our perceptions are shaped by our own needs—they take our interest.
      Each of us is unique. Each of us perceives the world in a way that’s shaped by our own needs and experiences. Each of us have a different story.
     Tell the story, not its setting.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
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Posted by on September 22, 2011 in The Grumpy Old Writing Coach

 

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Deconstructing Samantha – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Deconstructing Samantha – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

Deconstructing Samantha


 

     Many people seem convinced that to learn to write, all you need do is read, and there on the pages lie the secrets of the masters, ripe for plucking. But can it be that easy? Can you learn to be a good bowler by watching an expert? Can we learn to cook by eating good foods? We all read, so it seems strange that so few of us achieve success of that level, if it’s that easy.
     Certainly, by reading we can develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. And we can generate benchmarks for ourselves, with which to measure the success of our own work. But any profession has trade secrets. And any profession has a body of knowledge that must be studied and mastered by practicing until it’s automatic, because those things aren’t obvious—or intuitive.
     Reading, or even closely examining any finished product tells you little about the process—unless you know that process so well, yourself, you “recognize the tool marks.” And the whys—the necessities—of a line being stated as it is, instead of another way, aren’t obvious.
     Wouldn’t you love to have a marked up copy of your favorite favorite author’s first draft, to see what was changed in editing? How about a conversation with that author on what he or she was attempting to do, and what the role of every line is, in contributing to that goal?
     I’m not your favorite writer, and I make no claim to be a writer of great skill, but none-the-less, I’m going to take the opening scene of Samanta And The Bear and deconstruct it for you, so you can see why I did certain things. I chose Samantha for this because it sold, which means I was doing at least some things right. Plus, it’s been republished, and could use a bit of shameless promotion.
     A suggestion and a challenge: Read the scene first, without referring to the notes, to get your reaction and see if the situation becomes at all real to you. Then go to the comments to learn why I did a given thing. See how often you nod and say, “I knew that.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Samantha and the Bear – opening scene:
 
     It was the kind of cold that bit at her face like tiny rodent teeth—so intense that the moisture in her nostrils froze each time she inhaled[1].
     As the night deepened [2] Samantha worked her way deeper and deeper into the blankets, but there was no place left to go. She woke to find herself huddled into a heat conserving ball, shivering[3].
     The breeze that huffed around the building at dusk was now the angry hiss of wind overlaid with ice crystals[4]. The cold, unbearable then, was now beyond anything she could have imagined.
     Until tonight it was an annoyance to spend her time bundled up in layer after layer of clothing. Now, as she gathered her courage to leave the bedding she was afraid.[5]
     The van? The road was impassible, but its heater could still provide warmth[6].
     But she had no confidence in its ancient battery, and if she made the attempt and was unable to start the engine there was little chance she would survive the trip back to the house.
     Bracing herself, Samantha pulled the covers from her face, opening her eyes to near darkness. The lantern had gone out so the only light came from the burners of the stove, their flames reduced to half their normal length by the chill[7]. A glance at the windows showed new snow had drifted against the wall and was covering half the glass[8]. Sometime during the night a storm-front must have passed through the area, bringing new snow and an arctic cold.
     With an effort, she slid from the table and limped toward the stove, to warm her hands enough to change the tank on the lantern[9]. The house had no functioning heater so she was forced to sleep in the kitchen, where the stove burned constantly. It helped only a little.
     She tried to read the thermometer mounted just outside the window but there was not enough light. It didn’t matter, though. It was cold enough to kill her. Nearly fifteen below when she had crawled into the blankets, it was well beyond that, now[10].
     Ten minutes later she was trying to hold back tears. She had changed the lantern’s cylinder, but the cold was so great that she was unable to get the lantern to light[11]. Back at the stove once more, she huddled herself as close to the burners as she could without setting her clothing alight, listening to the wind and assessing her chances of survival. They weren’t good. Unless she found a way to warm her feet she would soon be unable to stand, and if she fell she would die. She estimated that she had less than a half hour before that occurred[12].
     If I could curl up in a frying pan like a strip of bacon, that would be heaven. She blinked, then, as something tickled at her cold-fogged brain. It was a stupid idea—a desperate solution to a problem that had no solution.
     But, if it works…[13]…
     Praying that she was not simply hurrying her death, she extinguished all but one of the burners. Then, on legs that were numb, and as responsive as stilts, she hobbled to the table for a chair, one with arms [14] that would support her in sleep.
     It took much of her remaining strength to lift the chair to the stove-top and center it over the burner[15]. Most of the rest was spent in wrapping aluminum foil around the periphery of the chair’s legs to keep her blankets from the flame.
     The rest of the job, moving her blankets and the dragging a second chair to use as a step-stool, were tasks she could never quite recall, but in the end she was enthroned high over the kitchen floor, the burner beneath her and warming her tented bedding.
     It took nearly fifteen minutes, but it finally came: first the jangling pain that heralded a resumption of feeling in her fingers and toes, then blessed, life-restoring heat. Not just warmth, but true heat, spreading through her like a balm, thawing her bones and restoring her soul[16].
     It was an uncomfortable place to sit and a worse place to sleep, but she didn’t care, she was warm, and nothing else mattered. Slowly, her chattering jaw unclenched, and slowly the shivering of her body subsided. Slowly, she came back to life.
     Just before she drifted off to sleep she imagined a snow sprite peering in through the window, its whiskers quivering in surprise to see the queen of winter holding court in a frozen Oregon kitchen[17]. The thought pleased her very much. I may look like an idiot, Mr. Sprite, but I won for a change. This time I won!
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     The why of it:
 
1. The first line is the single most important one in the story, because you only get one chance at a first impression. I added this scene as a prologue to the novel, because the original first chapter, while it ends with excitement and what I think is a really good hook, began with: “Don’t forget the newspaper, Miss Hanover.” That’s hardly impressive enough to make you say, “I have to read more.” I also wanted the readers to know that Samantha is a stronger person than she appears to be in the following few chapters, so I inserted a prologue and began with a sensation that combines the cold most people have felt—cold that bites the cheeks—with the hair freezing in their nostrils, something most haven’t, to make them feel what she’s feeling. There was also a tiny hope that if they’ve never been out in –12 or lower, they would say, “Your nostril hair freezes? That’s gross… but interesting.”
 
2. I used this term, rather then something simple, like “passed” to take advantage of the connection between “deep in the night” and depth, as in the temperature being as low as it can get.
 
3. Everyone’s been there, at least so far as huddling under the covers. Again, I’m trying to draw the reader in via shared experience.
 
4. A simple line, but I rephrased it endlessly, trying to say it in an interesting way while giving a picture of the current—and past—situation, outside.
 
5. This paragraph both sets up for the shock of cold and gives tiny bit of backstory. Note that I framed it as information on the current situation, so the reader doesn’t realize they’re being fed a bit of backstory on what happened before they arrived.
 
6. I’ve coupled her actual thought with the meaning of that thought. It’s a part of my personal writing style, to show the thought and give its meaning, as if to herself. I can’t tell if it works, it just feels right to me. Others use different techniques, and there is no right or wrong way.
 
7. I placed her action before I filled in the details on the room so they could be her observations as she sat up. Note that doing it that way removes the need for the author to give the information or even put in “she observed,” etc. A little thing like “opened her eyes to near darkness,” tells us that Samantha noted darkness. Saying it as, “It was pitch black in the cabin when Samantha opened her eyes,” puts the author into the role of reporter rather then being a kind of translator.
 
8. Again, I use her action as a way to put in more of the scene-setting detail. The trick is that she now knows of what I described, and will react to it, which pulls me further from the picture. Even though I’m telling about the storm front, she’s the one seemingly observing it, so we’re inside her head, not mine. That matters.
 
9. Seemingly a straightforward action, but in reality a setup for disappointment. The next line is pure backstory, but I could see no way out of slipping it in, so I kept it as short and as related to her present condition as possible.
 
10. Adding in cause for her state of mind, here, and placing the reader there with her, as her hope has reason to ebb further. As a minor point, it’s bad form to start a story with only one actor on stage, for any length of time. Faced with the challenge of a single person on stage I created a second one—her enemy—the weather.
 
11. I’ve been there, too, as a scoutmaster to a troop waking up in a cabin in which the temperature was –12°f. The obvious solution is to hold the tank over the stove to warm it, but I wanted the reader to shout that to her, and realize that she was too cold to think straight. And if they didn’t think of the solution they see that she’s in trouble and say, “Oh shit,” along with her, so it still works. You need to be aware of the state of mind of your readers, both those who know less then you do about a given subject and those who know more.
 
12. The problem has been stated, and now we add in a deadline and penalty, to make it acute.
 
13. Strangely, I was painted into in a corner till she mentioned curling up in a frying pan. Samanta thought of the way out, not me—which is why you want to know your characters, and let the action flow from the way they would behave, not the way your plot seems to indicate.
 
14. A friend pointed out that she would tumble out of any chair that had no arms, so I mentioned arms on the chair to reflect that. You need readers to catch what you miss, and there will be a lot of that, because you see the scene in your mind, and know what’s supposed to happen. Unfortunately, what you typed may not be what you see.
 
15. My wife nearly killed me when I put a kitchen chair on our stove, to see if what I was having her do was possible. Pointing out that I’d put cardboard under the legs to keep from scratching the stove didn’t help much. I didn’t sit on the chair, though. A modern stove would support me but be damaged. An old time stove would handle the load easily. In any case, Samantha was past caring, at that point. Note that I didn’t dwell on the actual job of readying the chair because it has no importance to the story. It’s the result, a place to sit, that counts. I put in the aluminum foil business, though, because without it her blankets might burn—or at least some people might think so and would question that.
 
16. The pain was added because people who had been that cold complained that I didn’t mention it. And of course, it’s told from her point of view so you can feel her triumph.
 
17. This was added later, as a foreshadowing. The man is real, a neighbor, though she’s still too fogged with hypothermia to realize that.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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Batman Is My Role Model – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Batman Is My Role Model – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Batman Is My Role Model


 

     People sometimes ask me what books they might read to learn the craft of fiction writing, and I usually suggest, Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, or perhaps Debra Dixon’s, GMC: Goal Motivation and Conflict. But lately, I’ve been telling them to read a comic book, because everything that matters can be found there. Batman can teach you how to write.
     People often look down on comic books, and those who write them as unworthy, but many of them are master writers, who know their craft, and know what really matters, so far as getting a story told.
     So let’s look at a typical comic book and see what makes it tick:
 
     When we enter the story things are going well. Our hero, Atomic Wedgie-Man, has a nice supply of criminals to thwart, who never seem to wise up to the fact that they can’t win. So, life is good. This is pretty much what you can expect at the beginning of any novel. We meet and get to know the characters. They have dreams and plans for a predictable future, but we know that’s not to be. Things will go to hell pretty rapidly, because it’s the nature of stories to have that happen.
     And sure enough, on a routine patrol Wedgie-Man encounters a problem, the foe who refuses to be classified. Our hero tries the usual things, but they prove ineffective, and because of some unexpected ability or device, the criminal escapes. It’s more annoying than troublesome. But still, our protagonist seems to have lost the skirmish. He needs to treat his wounds, salve his damaged pride, and decide what to do next.
     In a novel, we often call that the inciting incident. Your protagonist’s comfortable and stable world has been knocked over. Perhaps he’s just met the woman who makes him say “wow!” and she seems uninterested. Perhaps the pilot of an airliner has just learned that one of his passengers is a madman. Whatever it is, uncertainty has just entered the story and a new long-term goal has been introduced. It might be revenge, survival, or a date for the prom. But no matter what it is, it’s something the protagonist both wants and needs. And, it’s something with just a bit of urgency to it, which brings with it what the reader feeds on: tension.
     So, with a new plan and renewed dedication, Wedgie-Man reenters the fray. But, victory is not his, and his nemesis not only wins again, our hero must retire from the field or lose everything. Things have just gotten a whole lot more serious. Our protagonist may be wounded. He may escape thru some “just in case,” contingency he carried into battle. But make no mistake, he has lost the battle, and knows it.
     As in our novel, despite everything our hero has done, the girl he favors still thinks him a fool. Worse, she’s showing interest in the man who wants her only to thwart our hero.
     And that sequence continues: regroup and rethink, try the new plan and fail again—in scene after scene, as the stakes are raised and the focus inexorably narrows. One by one the options fall away. In fact, things become so serious, and so personal, that Wedgie-man questions his own dedication, and the need to continue—as do we. As readers, we may even suggest he say to hell with it. Yet, what choice does he have? One by one, as we watch, his options disappear, till all that’s left is to run or risk all in a hopeless final confrontation. But flight, while it may be attractive, isn’t one of his options. Perhaps the city is held hostage, endangering many lives. Perhaps a woman who Wedgie-man loves or respects will be harmed if he fails to act. Whatever the reason, he has no choice but to continue, though the situation appears hopeless.
     And so we have the black moment, when the climactic battle has been joined, and our hero is on the threshold of defeat. In that moment, in desperation, our hero looks around seeking something, anything, that might be used to turn the tables. And there it is, the lucky break that poetic justice says must be there. It may be a piece of discarded chain lying within reach. It might be a handful of dust snatched from the floor. It could be the admission or compromise the protagonist swore never to make, thus changing his definition of what he will and will not permit himself to do. For Wedgie-man, it might be a chance glimpse of the antagonist’s waistband protruding at the back of his pants as he bends over to administer the death-blow. But whatever it is, we take advantage of the hero’s one true and reliable weapon, dumb luck, in order to snatch victory away from the antagonist. A reach, a grab, a quick pull and Atomic Wedgie-Man is once again victorious.
     And that climactic moment, as always, brings us to our feet, cheering. Our hero has prevailed, and all that remains is the denouement, where the hero learns what the prize is, for having been steadfast and heroic.
     Okay, laugh if you will, but that sequence encapsulates humanity’s hopes and dreams, and has been bringing cheers from listeners, viewers, and readers for thousands of years. It’s what made the movie Rocky so memorable, and it fueled every Batman film. It played out in The Devil Wears Prada, and in every Nora Roberts novel.
     But is it simply a formula? Is it, “Do this,” followed by “Next, do that,” with no talent or creativity involved?” Does it reduce our writing to a sheeplike, “me too,” status? Of course not. Godzilla and Changeling both follow that same path, as did, Lord of the Rings, and, Harry Potter. Does that mean there’s no creativity that went in their creation? No. A great deal of creativity is required to convince the reader that this story is unique, and not at all like those they’ve already read.
     Are they simply different tellings of the same story? Yes, they are, in the respect that there is constantly rising tension, interrupted by places where a reader can “catch their breath,” followed by the climax and the denouement, playing out as they always have. But are they lifeless retellings because of that? Of course not. They’re a recognition of human nature, and desire. They’re what has often been called the hero’s journey.
     Can we vary from the formula? Sure, if we do it knowingly and with purpose. But would you want to invest hours in following a protagonist who, in the end, turns out to be unworthy of the time you’ve spent with him/her? Do you want the story to end, after the hero has been steadfast and resourceful, in defeat with no hope of redemption, and the hero unchanged from when we met him/her? Maybe, as a change of pace, and if the author can deliver an exciting and satisfying reading experience. But, read that as a steady diet? Absolutely not.
     So what should you be looking at to learn how to write? I’ll still go with the two I usually recommend, first, but for a good overview of how and why it works, go read a comic book.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Care and Feeding of Peeves – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Care and Feeding of Peeves – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

Care and Feeding of Peeves


 

     At times, it seems the job of a grumpy writing coach is a lot like that of a zookeeper, because of the number of pet peeves I have to feed and care for. And lately, the biggest one, the podium peeve, has been a positive pain in the neck.
     I’ve been making the rounds of the various writing venues, and counting the stories that are told as a transcript of the storyteller at the podium, against those in which we seem to literally be with the character, as observers and participants. By my count, it’s close to ninety-five percent told as if the reader were sitting across the table from the writer.
     Now, good sense would seem to say that they’re on to something, and that if so many people write that way they must be right. Certainly, the reviews people give each other on such sites would seem to say that. Unfortunately, a look at the bookstores says that while many books are written in omniscient mode, few are written as an extended one-sided conversation between writer and reader.
     So the question arises: How can intelligent people make such a dumb mistake? Why don’t those stupid editors realize they’re wrong and embrace the majority viewpoint?
     It’s the answer to that question that’s the subject of this particular rant.
     First, I need you to perform a thought experiment. You’ll like it because we’re about to make you a famous storyteller, one who fills theaters with people anxious to hear what you have to say.
     Ready? Here we go:
     Tonight’s storytelling performance will be especially good, and the house is sold out. It’s a story that has love, betrayal, adventure, and a host of subplots that will grab the audience where they live, and bring a standing ovation at the conclusion—and it has every time you’ve performed it.
     There’s only one problem. It’s a half-hour before curtain time you’ve come down with laryngitis. You can’t even whisper. So what can you do? Cancel, and refund the ticket price? It looks like that’s the only choice, until…
     The stage manager says he has a great idea. His nephew has volunteered to take your place. The boy’s not a trained storyteller, of course, and he’s neither read nor heard the story. In fact, he’s never been on stage before. But he loves to read, though he stumbles occasionally on unfamiliar words.
     Unfortunately, because of the short time before the curtain goes up, and your uncooperative throat, you can’t even give the boy stage directions, or pointers on how to present the various characters. So it’s going to be a cold-read of the words of your presentation, by someone without a clue of how you want it done.
     
     So, here’s the question: Given that situation, what do you think the chances are that there’s going to be a standing ovation tonight? What are the odds the nephew will duplicate your expression, body-language, tone, delivery, and those little pauses you toss in for emphasis? How about where you just sigh, give the audience a long suffering look, and then spread your hands in the eloquent shrug that’s your trademark? Will he know to do that—and where?
     You had better be saying “really good,” because that is precisely the job every writer assigns their reader. And that’s exactly how much training they have for the job.
     That reader takes your words and will apply the proper voice to it as they read—but only if you make it clear exactly what that voice is. And if you don’t, they’ll have to guess, and do that before they even know what a given line will say.
     So… Would you like to know why you can’t use a transcript of you telling the story, directly, and why the techniques of the fiction writer are a lot more than just fluff? It’s because the reader can neither see nor hear you. It’s that simple—or should be. Somehow, though, no one ever seems to get it—other then those pesky editors who keep rejecting our stories.
     Since the reader can neither see nor hear you, how can you talk to them? You can’t.
     How can you let them know about your protagonist, and what their life has been like? You can’t.
     Who is there to bring the reader up to date and introduce the opening of the story? No one. You just open it. You raise the curtain, cue the actors, and you get out of their way while they perform your little play—or better yet, live it.
     Is it beginning to dawn on you that you haven’t a clue of how to do that? It should. It’s what I’ve been telling you for all along. Face it. You can’t write. Your mother can’t write, and your neighbor is even worse. Why? Because writing fiction is no more a natural skill than was learning to place words on the page in the first place.
     There you sit, ready to write your story. You’ve even diagrammed it, so you know every character, every thought, and every expression on everyone’s face. All you need do is record it. But in what medium? You have a choice. It could be told on film. It could be a play. You might tell it verbally. Or, you could turn it into a novel.
     Now, if you write it as a screenplay, do you need specialized knowledge? Of course. And if you write that film script can it be used for a stage version? Of course not, the constraints of the media differ. Having a slow motion fight on stage would be pretty silly, for example. But slow motion is an effective tool in filmed work.
     My point? Why would you believe that storytelling and novel writing use exactly the same techniques? Given that you were taught nothing about making a film in school, why would you believe you were given what you need to write a novel—or a story to be told by the campfire?
     But we all believe we know everything about the act of writing. Every single one of us, even our teachers believe that. When we sit down to write that story we’ve mapped out, we never doubt, for one second that while we would need to learn the craft-set used for what amounts to brain-to-screen translation, we already own the brain-to-novel set, and the brain-to-storyteller set. But we don’t. What we do own is the brain-to-gossip set, and the brain-to-office-writing set. And it all boils down to something I’ve already said, in quoting Mark Twain, who was an extraordinarily perceptive man: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
     So you want to be a writer? Great. I applaud you, and encourage you to go for it. The world needs more crazy people. And you want to be a published author? Fantastic. But here’s a secret: Experience is a stairway, one that leads upward. But education? That’s the Star-Trek transporter that allows you to zap past whole flights of stairs.
     If you’re looking for a shortcut to success—the magic bullet that rockets you to the top—turn to another writer, W. Somerset Maugham, who said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
     So what can you do? Where do you turn for a writer’s education that will give you the tools you need but won’t bankrupt you? Start at your local library, there’s a wealth of information there, written by those who know from experience what works and what doesn’t. And while you’re there, look for a book titled, “Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain.” It’s the book that every writer needs to have in their library, because it covers the basics of how to approach the job—the nuts-and-bolts elements that all stories have in common. It tells how to get out from behind the podium and into the prompter’s booth, giving direction and purpose to the actors without getting in their way. And if Swain’s work isn’t there, look for Jack Bickham’s, Scene and Structure, a book almost as good.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
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Posted by on April 27, 2011 in The Grumpy Old Writing Coach

 

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Am I Ready to Submit My Work? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Am I Ready to Submit My Work? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Am I Ready to Submit My Work?


 

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
  ~ Mark Twain
 

     At some point every writer asks the same question: “Am I writing for myself? Friends and family say they like my work, but would someone who doesn’t know me—someone knowledgeable about the craft—say the same thing?”
     You write, you polish, you edit, and you even submit your work to a publisher or two hoping for lightning to strike. But in the end one thought circles, needing an answer: “On a scale of from one to ten, where seven is publishable and ten is godhood, how close to eight am I?”
     That question brings you to the grumpy old writing coach, with your work in hand, hoping for a bit of advice and maybe a number on that one to ten scale—hopefully some praise, too. That’s as it should be, but you need to be aware of one important fact: Of the first time offerings, virtually every single one displays the same recurring problems. The words change. The story changes, but invariably, the problems are the same.
 
It’s Not My Fault
      Not only are the problems the same, when I point that out, what do I hear? “No Jay! Take a closer look. My work is the exception. I have a natural talent for writing. Everyone tells me so.”
     Uh-huh, but it also could be that instead of trying to argue the reader into liking the work the writer should be asking: “Why? What could make everyone screw up in exactly the same way?”
 
Blame The Schools
     The answer to that is a classic Catch-22 situation. The people who plan the school curriculums aren’t fiction writers, and haven’t a clue that writing fiction requires as much training, experience and practice as any other profession. And of course, the teachers presenting that curriculum are training the people who will take over their job when they retire, perpetuating the problem. Freshman creative writing courses in our colleges are very often no more than a continuation of that training.
     A well kept secret: The successful writer is not someone with a knack for storytelling, though that does help. The successful writer is someone with a knack for using the tools of the writer. Why? Because craft is the horse your talent must ride. Given that, it makes a lot more sense to be riding Pegasus than the puny little pony issued by your school system.
      A second secret: In school they’re teaching you to reports, not fiction, and reports require the fact-based techniques of the non-fiction writer. Schools were created to provide employers with a standardized work force, remember, and fiction has little place in office writing, other than in stockholder reports, of course.
 
But… but I’m a great storyteller… really
     You might be the most brilliant storyteller of your generation. But without the necessary tools—without the emotion-based techniques of the fiction-writer—new writers are forced to graft their existing verbal skills onto the non-fiction tools they’ve learned in school. But can we do that? A storyteller is alone on the stage, taking every role. It’s damn hard to be all the people in a conversation, so the storyteller increases the role of the narrator, until the story becomes an interpretive dance, in which the choreography includes body-language, tone, delivery, facial expression, and cadence. By necessity, the storyteller talks about the story—as a series of facts—because one can’t very well stab a character, be stabbed, and be the bystanders, too. And of course the techniques of the non-fiction writer appear to mesh with that because they’re fact-based, too.
     When the audience can see and hear the storyteller that works. And as they say, the best place by the fire is reserved for the storyteller.
     But… pluck out that marvelously flexible instrument that is the human voice. Remove the visual portion of that dance. Remove everything but the words the reader sees when they open the page. What’s left? A parade of facts about the story that will drone in the reader’s head like the voice of a text-to-speech program: It’s the lecture hall, when the reader came to ride the roller-coaster. Think of yourself in an office with me, trying to tell your favorite story by scribbling it on paper slips and handing them to me. How much emotion and excitement would there be in what I got?
 
Am I tricky enough?
     Desire is fine, but if the only tool you own is a hammer everything is going to be whacked on the head, because everything is going to look like a nail. So, let’s see how many tools you own.
• When we begin writing there are a host of tricks and techniques we should already know, through osmosis, because we’ve been reading for most of our lives. But for unknown reasons, virtually every new author won’t know many of these tricks or recognize that what they’re writing is totally unlike what their favorite authors turn out. Look at the list of some basic terms below. If you don’t recognize and use them you may be in trouble.
     POV, black moment, info-dump, three act structure, inciting incident, backstory, climax, scene and sequel*, fly-on-the-wall, omniscient, third person limited, scene-goal, tag, prose, exposition.
• Do you have the feeling that if given your choice you would rather submit something other than your first chapter, because all the background material you had to include makes it less exciting than you would like? It’s the most common new author problem. Simply put: Start your story where the story starts, and feed in backstory unobtrusively, and only as needed for the reader’s understanding of that story.
• Look through the work. Do you have more than a handful of exclamation points in the novel? In most cases, lots of bangs say you’re trying to put excitement into prosaic language through delivery tricks, like gluing on glitter.
• Do you use the word “had,” in the sense, “He had been thinking about it all morning,” in your work? If so you need to rephrase the line in more current terms, because everything after “had” can only come from the author, and the reader wants to walk in the character’s footsteps, not yours. There is an old expression, that says to really know someone you need to walk a mile in their shoes. The goal of fiction is to make the reader make the journey in the character’s shoes, not just know where they went.
• Does your story read like something you would relate after saying, “Wait till you hear this,” told all in the storyteller’s voice? That’s as exciting, emotionally, as reading a transcript of a boxing-match announcer at work.
• Do you, in your voice as author, talk about a character, or something within the scene, as though you were there watching? Did you feel the need to explain something to the reader that wasn’t obvious? This is the second most common cause of rejection.
 
One Strike And You’re Out
     Sad but true: when an agent or editor looks at your work you have one chance. Bore or confuse them for one single line and it’s over. So, in continuation of the points above, open your story to page one and let’s check for what an editor may find as a rejection point. And when I say rejection point, make no mistake. I mean that editor stops reading right then.
     1. A “told” story: It reads like one side of a phone conversation. It’s a storyteller’s dance without the dance steps. This is a problem with the vast majority of work submitted by new authors.
     2. Backstory: In an attempt to bring the reader up to speed the author talks about the characters rather than opening the story with action, so the first chapter is a history lesson. Zzzzzzz.
     3. The info-dump. The author calls for a freeze-frame, locks the characters in place, and then pours in buckets full of backstory, area history, and a host of things unnecessary to the action that we’d much rather be experiencing. An info-dump of backstory is boring to read, just as the name implies.
     4. The explainer: The author, an invisible character in the story, follows the characters around and volunteers information and gossip about them to the reader. And strangely, though they politely wait until it’s over, none of the characters seem to notice, and none ask who that stranger in their bedroom is.
     5. The big bang: Having gotten a discount on exclamation points at the grammar store the author sprinkles them ten to a page rather then ten to a novel.
     6. The beauty pageant: The author in trying to be poetic uses three paragraphs to say, “It was a nice day.”
     7. Said-Book-itis: There was once a small tome that listed all the alternatives to “he said,” and the writer is trying to hit them all.
     8. The philosopher: The story opens with a dissertation on why the story is being told.
 
Everyone Writes Crap, We Just Write Less Of It As We Progress.
     The odds say you’re still reading because you need advice on filling that tool kit and in making that effort you’ve spent on creating your story work for you.
     So let’s get the bad news out of the way, first: You can’t fix the story, you’ll probably have to rewrite it… from scratch… twice. (Lord, I love telling writers that, especially when they whimper)
     The good news is that unlike most professions, once you know how to use the tools of the writing trade, the experiences you’ve been accumulating for years, through just living, give you things to write about.
     More good news is that the university-trained fiction writer has no major advantage over the person who takes a more humble but diligent approach. That’s because successful authors and writing teachers like to write about what works for them. For less than the cost of dinner at a nice restaurant you can have a conversation with writers like Ben Bova, Stephen King, and Debra Dixon. For the same price, editors like Sol Stein, teachers like Dwight Swain, agents like Donald Maass, and a host of others, will sit at your elbow and whisper their secrets in your ear as you write.
 
Writing Is A Journey, Not A Destination.
     So what do you do? You get to work collecting the tools you need, and perfecting their use as you slip them into the toolbox. If you have no more training than English class and maybe a freshman creative writing course, you might want to take it as a given you need to spend time with a book or two on writing technique. If grammar is your weakness, let Strunk and White’s Elements of Style be your Bible (A free, updated version can be found here: http://home.ccil.org/~cowan/style-revised.html)
      And when you think you have things under control, workshop a few pages, posing the question most new writers forget to ask:
      “If you found this in your bookstore among the new books, would you pay the going rate for it? Would you choose it over what you usually find there If not, why not?”
      Take a deep breath, then, because the answer might sting a bit. It will, though, tell you what you need to know, rather then what you hope to hear.
      And when you get response, always remember Shel Silverstein’s observation that if you pay attention to the good reviews you also have to listen to the bad ones.
 
The most important thing:
     All of us—every single one of us—start out not knowing which end of the crayon goes on the wallpaper.
 
 
* Lots of writers haven’t heard of this one (though if they’re selling they’re using it), but it’s an important point. There’s a pretty good article on it here in Pearl Luke’s Blog.

 
 

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Wolves In Hiding – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Wolves In Hiding – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Wolves In Hiding


 

      Thank you for your recent submission. Unfortunately…
 
      So begins the response to that fragile carrier of your hopes and dreams—the query letter.
      We’ve all been there, and it hurts. It hurts a lot. But it’s how the writing game goes, so we shrug, hone the query, and fire off another batch… and another—while depression deepens and self-worth hovers one notch above absolute zero.
      Then it happens, you discover the ad in the back section of Writers’ Digest: Agent accepting new clients. And best of all they’re looking for unpublished authors! Sure, your daddy told you that if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. But hell, if we had an ounce of brains we wouldn’t be writers, would we?
      With trembling fingers you stuff a query into an envelope, cross your fingers, and hurry to the post-office. A week later back comes amazing news. They like you! They like your work enough to want to see more. They like you so much that your brain turns off, and you never question that terribly reasonable explanation of why you should also send a shovelful of money along with the manuscript. “The sample chapter was wonderful,” they gush. “But since so few unpublished authors have it exactly right the first time, we need to see the entire manuscript, just to make sure the loose ends are tied up.” And surely you can’t expect a busy agent to give up precious time without charging you a teeny little service fee, can you? Well can you?
      You sure as hell can. The simple truth is that an agent or editor who makes a living through selling other people’s writing can recognize writing skill in a paragraph and marketability within a page. You prove that true each time you take a book from the rack at your local bookstore. When was the last time you read more than a few pages before you decided not to buy? The difference between you and an agent or publisher is only that they shop from the comfort of their desk.
      No reputable agent charges a fee for reading. Engrave that statement in stone above your desk. They’d love to charge, if for no other reason than in retaliation for having to spend so much time wading through crap submissions. But they don’t, because the rules of The Association Of Authors’ Representatives, the AAR, forbids that.
     And reputable agents don’t, as a rule, recommend a specific editor to an unknown writer who’s making a submission, though they may suggest editing. Edit Ink*, the most notorious example of abusing that suggestion, paid a commission to the agent or publisher who recommended a client. A submission to one of their shill agencies (never a member of AAR) was likely to bring a letter suggesting that they might be interested… after editing. And, “oh yes, we’d suggest you use our good friends at Edit Ink.” The insidious part of that is that the agency—who made a fifteen percent commission if you took the bait—and Edit Ink are in different parts of the country. There couldn’t be an unsavory connection there, could there? There were millions of dollars charged for editing work done by college students and new grads working at minimum wage rates, money that will never be recovered.
      Book-doctors are another thing to avoid if you write fiction. Why? Use your brain. If someone could take your book and fix it so it would sell, they’d be selling their own work and making a lot more money. And forget the idea of giving your manuscript to a published author in return for cover credit for supplying the story idea and rough draft. All new writers lust after that one, but any competent writer can fire off ideas faster than you can record them. It’s writing well that’s hard. That author would have to know your story as well as one they wrote, in order to meaningfully rewrite it. Starting from scratch is easier and more profitable.
      Read those advertisements carefully for the scam tip-offs, like the mention of representing poetry or short stories. No reputable agent represents poetry. The fifteen percent agent’s commission on what the average poet makes on a sale won’t pay postage for the submissions. And no reputable agent is interested in short stories because the effort of selling a three-thousand word short is exactly that of a selling one-hundred-thousand word blockbuster. Any agent who claims to sell either poetry or short stories is to be avoided, and those who request a “one time reading fee” or money in advance for reproduction and mailing, are to be laughed at.
      So how can you tell if you’re ready to submit your work professionally?
      • Study writing. Craft is invisible, but necessary, and as I mentioned a few issues ago they didn’t teach it in grade school. Some of my personal favorite books on the subject are: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain; GMC: Goal Motivation and Conflict, by Debora Dixon; Sol Stein on writing, by Sol Stein; and Writing the breakout Novel, by Donald Mass. And if you’re broke, look for Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones in your library. It’s an older book, but a good solid introduction to writing technique.
     But, those are just a few. Everyone has their own favorite, and there are many available.
      • Do your research. Don’t submit a two-hundred-thousand word family saga to Precious Gems, or fiction to an agent who specializes in cookbooks.
      • Join a critiquing group—one composed of writers whose work you respect—people with skills matching (and hopefully, exceeding) your own. Your local library is a good place to find notice of what’s available. Almost nothing is as useful as the feedback you get from a writer of greater skill.
      • Find a grammar fairy to touch your manuscript with stardust. You want nothing to distract the editor’s eye from your glorious prose.
      • Study under the masters. Once you know what you’re looking for, analyze your favorite authors to see what made you like them. Look at how they handle dialog and characterization. Do they favor long sentences or short? Rewrite one of their scenes in your own style, and then compare the two for content and readability. Did you tell as much in as few words? Did you stay as focused? Do your words flow into the reader’s mind as smoothly?
 
      The odds are against us succeeding. That’s a given. The success rate for manuscript sales by a new author is less than one in one-thousand—with good reason. No one is searching the stores for a book with your name on it other than your mother, so editors are looking for something extraordinary, not a “good enough,” novel. They already have more “good enough” writers than they need.
     But in spite of those odds, lightening does have to strike, so it could well be you. That kid shooting baskets in the playground could wind up stuffing them in as part of a professional team, and you could be the next great author to be discovered. So keep on studying and keep writing. If nothing else it keeps us off the streets at night.
     Just keep your eyes open and your wallet closed.
 
 
 
* Now out of business. To see a history, visit http://www.sfwa.org/beware/cases.html

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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Craft? What’s that? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Craft? What’s that? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Writing Craft? What’s that?


 

     Hello, it’s me, your grumpy old writing coach, pressing my arthritic fingers to the keyboard in order to destroy your new writer aspirations of fame. It’s my only remaining hobby, but that’s okay, because it’s also a service to humankind. If I can talk you out of writing I’ve saved you long boring nights at the computer, and I’ve saved many, many editors the annoyance of having to read your crap. Plus, I sleep better knowing I’ve destroyed someone’s dreams.
     Today’s lesson is: your writing sucks. Please feel free to respond with poison-pen letters. I find a day without one depressing.
     Okay, on to the bashing. You’re a creative person, or you wouldn’t be interested in writing fiction, so let me start with a thesis:
 
          1. Creativity without craft is nothing.
          2. The craft of writing fiction is taught in damned few high schools.
          3. It therefore follows that you have no craft.
                    Therefore: You are nothing.
 
     The world is filled with people who have not a shred of creativity, and require none. The cabinetmaker who’s spent decades honing woodworking skills, but who builds only tried and true designs, enjoys well-deserved acclaim. The doctor who treats you with care, compassion, and knowledge is a prize. The technical writer who produces readable and concise manuals is the ideal employee. Even the hack writer who turns out mindless, formulaic drivel gets by with no creativity. But: Picasso, with creativity but without craft, would have been a cipher, useless. The Mensa member driving a taxi because learning craft in some field is beneath him or her, is a taxi driver, no more. Picasso was, first, a fully competent journeyman artist. Adding creativity to that platform yielded a map for the less creative to follow.
     Take the tightly disciplined writing of the journalist, add a bit of genius, and you have Hemingway. Take John Smith without craft and you have “John who?”
     The vast majority of people suffer from having gone to grade school. They’ve been taught how not to write fiction by people who can’t. Worse yet, they’ve been tested to be sure they’ve not accidentally done something right. Finally, patted on the back for being ignorant, they’re turned loose, secure in the belief that they’re ready for a career in storytelling—a celebration of the blind leading the blind. And if you, as a member of that great mass of “they” go into education you have the honor of perpetuating that stupidity.
     My point should be obvious: Writing, like any craft/profession, is complex, arduous to learn, and is the horse your creativity must ride. The good news is that it’s fun to learn—as much as I hate to admit that anything is fun.
     Okay, so you stink at writing, your mother stinks at writing, and your friends do, too. And it isn’t going to get better with time and experience, I’m pleased to say.
     Why? Because no matter how hard you throw an egg down the damn thing still breaks—and always will until you begin to work on the real problem, in this case craft—or lack of it.
     New thesis (not because I’m trying to prove a point, I just like to be argumentive): People don’t read because they like the story, they like the story because of what they read.
     Ask anyone why they open a book and you’re going to hear, “For the story.” That’s a lie. They read for the misery, the suffering, and the disaster heaped on disaster. They read for the blood. They wallow in suffering, and a really good murder has them drooling. Try selling a story in which a nice guy meets a nice woman, has a nice courtship, lots of nice kids, and a pleasant retirement. See if anyone wants to pay to read that.
     But take the husband and give him a secret career as a spy-chaser. Let his wife catch wind of it after more than a decade of thinking him a mild-mannered salesman, and you have the makings of a story in which their teen aged daughter ends up suspended from the nose of a VTOL fighter-plane staring at the pilot and saying, “Daddy?” Isn’t the plot of True Lies, more fun than, Mary and John Grow Old Together? Except… if Mary has a lover, who is really…
     So why do we read? To worry, of course. To be interesting, a book has to be more fun than our own life. It has to be more dangerous, too. If we decided to try a bit of spying we would probably end up looking like a colander and leaking gore—and maybe radioactive blood. Not exactly the most desirable outcome.
     But by becoming Ian Flemming’s Agent 007 we can not only take absolutely insane risks, we’re guaranteed to live through it—even if we die. With a book in her hands the mousy bookkeeper who has come home to an empty apartment and a boring life can romance the man who in life wouldn’t even notice her. She can put on the skin of the woman she only wishes she could be, and live the adventure that would leave her quite dead in real life. With a book providing the wings she can fly!
     Okay, now that I’ve demolished your dreams of selling that manuscript you’ve been typing I feel a little better, so I’ll go see what’s in the fridge, or maybe taunt Dog-Breath for a bit. When the happy mood fades I’ll come back and maybe annoy you some more. Till then, an assignment:
     The setup: Our lives are an unending chain of linked events. You have stimulus, followed by response, which causes the next stimulus, which causes…
     The task: Take a look at your writing and ask yourself if every single act by your characters—every thought, movement, and decision—is a response to some stimulus your reader will be aware of before the act occurs.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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