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A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     One of the unique abilities humans have evolved is to mentally put ourselves in someone else’s place. We have the ability to watch someone doing a physical act and literally feel ourselves duplicating the action. It’s not a matter of saying, “I do this, and then that,” we physically fire off the proper neurons, but at a level that doesn’t produce overt movement. We are, in effect, debugging the procedure before we try it ourselves.
     It’s a handy ability, and allows us to learn quickly. And it’s so complete an ability that if the one we’re mirroring in our mind hurts themself we’ll feel that pain. Unpleasant though it might be, pain teaches us to be careful, and that mirrored pain teaches us what to avoid, just as would having made that mistake ourselves.
     So what does that have to do with writing? Everything. That ability to mirror action and emotion is what gives us the way to literally pull our reader into our stories as a participant. Done right, we can terrify our reader with a horror story, and make them afraid to turn out the lights—in spite of the fact they know it’s only a story. It’s why we weep when something terrible happens to our fictional friend, and feel triumph at the climax of the story.
     All the tools—the techniques we use—have one and only one goal, to evoke that empathetic ability that places our reader on the scene.
     Our hero is locked in combat, his sword weaving a protective shell around him. We could list each thrust and parry and leave it at that. But that won’t evoke the empathetic sense because it’s impersonal. Instead, as the fight goes on, we have our hero think, He’s better than I am.
     The character has that realization, but the reader mutters, “Oh shit now what?”
     Sure, our reader knows the protagonist isn’t going to die. If that happened the story would be over. So the question is, how can we avoid death? And with that realization, those thrusts and parries take on new meaning, because while we know things are going bad for the protagonist we need time. We need to stay alive till something presents itself as a solution. Now we focus on the events, while at the same time thinking over the possibilities—exactly-like-the-protagonist, which means we are the protagonist, and living that fight.
     Let’s assume that the reader thinks they know what stratagem can save our protagonist—will at least allow escape if victory is not possible. Now, in addition to fighting the battle we’re shouting to our avatar, trying to remind them of that solution. And when our hero is nicked on the hand we curse, and feel the pain. Done really well, we can cause the reader to have to stop and recover because it gets too real.
     And if in our brilliance we not only cause the reader to be shouting encouragement and advice, we provide a better solution, one the reader feels they should have thought of, we have a reader who saying, “I really like this book.” And what more can we ask for?
     Facts? Who cares? Facts only inform. But mirroring the action in our mind as we read—living the adventure. That entertains.

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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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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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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.

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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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The Beginner’s Corner

The Beginner’s Corner

Fiction Writing Hints


 
 
 
     This article is directed toward the new writer, so all you multiply published and shamelessly adored writers can just walk on by, thank you. We’re going to gather in a quiet corner to talk about how we manage to screw up a perfectly good story.
     Of course you may ask why I, someone who has had only a few novels and shorts published, and those with modest sized publishers, presume to advise you on how to write. The answer is simple. Without doubt I am the dumbest of all writers. If there’s mistake to be made you can absolutely depend on me to make it. Who better to say, “For God’s sake, don’t do this?”
     So, that being said, let’s dive right in.
 
A Word Or Two On Plots:
     How many new writers have said, “It’s not fair that agents and editors only read a few pages before making a decision. After you get to know my characters, and as the plot grabs you, you’ll love my story.”
     But plot will never sell a story. You have to have one, and it has to make sense, but consider this: At the half-way point of your story it could have dozens of perfectly acceptable and pleasing conclusions, ranging from sweet, to exciting, to out-and-out alien abduction. The reader has no idea of which path it will take, so the plot is meaningless to anyone but the writer—at that point. What is important is that the reader is still with the story. And if they are, it’s because you’ve made them care about your characters. If the writer doesn’t do anything wrong the reader will reach the end, lean back and say, “I liked that story.”
     So… an okay book is one that keeps you reading till the end. A good book is one that makes you say, “Hmm, I have to look for that writer the next time I go to the bookstore.” A great book is what my sister likes to call a bathtub book: A story so good that you start it in the bathtub, then let out the water when it gets cold and sit there, wrinkled and chill, but still reading. Of course my sister always has been a little crazy.
 
On Body Language:
     One of the hardest things to get across, realistically, is emotion. One method is to use body language—the little ticks and mannerisms we use to tell others how we feel.
     As an example, Sarah has just been told something she doesn’t want to hear:
 
     Sarah slid her pad back into its case and set it aside, deliberately, then crossed her arms.
 
     Sarah’s action of placing the pad into the case and putting it aside says she’s clearing the decks for action—readying herself for a major battle. Crossing her arms says she’s not willing be swayed by argument, and really doesn’t want to even hear it.
     The reader has been told nothing of her thoughts yet clearly gets the message, and will relate her actions to their own in like situations. Forcing the reader to recall emotion is the surest way of drawing them into the story.
     Moments later, when Sara has been presented with facts she can neither refute nor deny:
 
     She took a deep breath and shrugged, but uncrossed her arms and slumped a bit before saying…
 
     Sarah tries to shrug away the evidence, but the reader knows she’s given up the fight. Using such things as having someone who has hurried till now begin to saunter, or having someone shred a paper napkin as they talk, provides a background commentary that can reinforce or even give lie to the dialog in progress. If you say, “She straightened, cocking her head,” you needn’t tell the reader there was a sound—they know it, just as they know someone is surprised when they drop their jaw, jump back, gasp, stare, or any of a dozen body-language giveaways.
 
A Warning On Agents:
      “New authors wanted,” the advertisement reads, but what it really says is, “Here, Dummy… here, Dummy.”
     The sad truth is that there are far more manuscripts than there are slots for publication, and as few as one in one-hundred will even be asked for a full manuscript. The rejection rate for new authors is between one and several thousand rejected for every new writer selected—a rejection rate of greater then 99.9%, which means a feeding frenzy for the predators. There have been “Book Doctors,” who used college freshmen to critique manuscripts. There are “agents” who send an oh so reasonable explanation of why you should pay huge up-front copying costs, and why they must charge a reading fee (refundable out of commission when your work sells, of course).
Sharks, all sharks, so hold tight to your wallet.
     Agents who claim to represent poetry and short stories should bring your defense-mechanisms to full alert, because fifteen percent of the income for poems won’t pay the postage to submit them, and selling a short story takes the same effort as a novel, so why bother?
     Publishers who suggest you send money for a “cooperative publishing venture,” are, at best, going to deliver carton after carton of unsold books, for storage in your basement. As promised, they will place an advertisement in the trade journals (an ad you pay for). But given their reputation, you can imagine the number of sales that approach will generate.
     You might be expected to pay the cost of reproduction, etc., after the sale, but if your work isn’t good enough to make an agent want to use their own money to promote it then it won’t sell. It’s that simple.
     And any agent who claims to “specialize in unpublished authors” is lying. What do they do, say “Take a hike,” as soon as you begin to sell?
     When in doubt, a good resource can be found here And to find that agent, look here
 
The Wonderful World Of Self Publishing:
     Turn on your television, or log on to the Internet, and you may see an ad telling you how easy, and cheap, it is to be published. What they don’t tell you is that there is a vast difference between being printed and being published. POD services which are seeking authors as customers are vanity printers, no more. The same is true of the on line ebook services. Real publishers use POD printers to produce books when print runs are small, but only as printers and as a distribution channel—which is all the POD houses are really offering you. Remember, publishing houses are not in business because they produce books. They are in business because they produce stories people want to buy, be that on paper, through your computer, or via methods not yet invented. They sift, they cull, and they edit. They cajole, browbeat, and do whatever it takes to induce their authors to strive for perfection. They do this because they have a reputation to uphold. Too often the self publishing promoter is like the mens-wear salesman who says, “Sammy, the man wants a blue suit. Quick, turn on the blue lights.” Sure they’ll edit your work… if you pay for it. But will you be edited by someone who knows, through experience, how the reader of your genre likes to see the work presented? Probably not. And will the POD house be able to get you space on the shelves of a bookstore clear across the country from where you live—or any distribution at all? How? They have no sales team, or credibility with the bookstore owners. Many bookstores won’t even order a POD self-published book.
     Self publishing can be done, but the success stories are a very tiny fraction of the total titles offered. To put it simply. If you cannot sell your story to an editor working in the field you are not going to sell your work to the bookstores. And standing outside your local book store, selling books out of your trunk is sooo tacky.
 
A Word Or Two On Tags:
      “I don’t think so,” John stated.
      “I think she will. I really think so, but only if it rains,” Sam said.
 
     The first example has been called “Tag Bookism.” (named for, The Tag Book, a mimeographed “book” sold in the Writers Digest classified section in middle of last century) New writers almost always fall into this trap as they try to avoid the use of “he said.” But, “John stated,” tells us nothing. Of course he stated it. Nearly everything John says is a statement. Simply put, the reader has expectations. Give them something other than what they expect and it had better be something that makes them say, “That’s neat!” If it’s not, there will be a little splinter of annoyance pushed under the reader’s skin each time that unexpected little trick appears. That doesn’t say you have to use only “s/he said.” James Mitchner seemed to positively adore finding new ways of using tags, and he does seem to have achieved a measure of success. The key is to make every single word work for you—which pretty well sums up the subject of writing, I suppose.
     Now look at the second example, with the tag telling us that Sam said something—but not until the idiot’s been spouting off for three full lines. One might as well present the Gettysburg Address enclosed in quote marks and follow it with, “Lincoln said.” When using a tag, the number of words between the start of the line and the first word of the tag should be kept as short as possible. It is perfectly acceptable to jam the tag in the middle of a sentence, though: “I love you,” Bunny said. “I’ve loved you forever.”
     A tag can appear before or after the dialog it connects to: Luke sneered as he said, “You’re a dead man, Raintree, and I don’t talk to dead men.” This can be very effective, because it insures that you hear the words in the proper tone of voice, rather than modifying what’s been said after reading the line. But: beware the “announcement.” Don’t fall into the trap of using leading tags so often that the reader sees it as an announcement that, “Dialog is coming. Dialog is coming.”
 
On Editors And Agents:
     Think of how you buy a book from an unknown author. If the title or cover catches your attention you pick it up and read the blurb on the back to get a feel for the story type. You heft it, and look at the size, balancing its word-count against your available time. Then you open to the first page and begin reading, to see if the writing style matches your tastes. You read a paragraph or two. If that sounds interesting you go on to the bottom of the page, perhaps as many as three pages, then stop, thinking—deciding. You might read a bit more, but you probably won’t. There are things you need to be doing, and other books beckon for your attention.
     Are editors and agents any different? They open a query and start to read. What kind of book is it? What’s the word count? Is it of a type I’m looking for? If it sounds right they turn to the first page of the story or synopsis. From that point on you have one page, perhaps as many as five if you’re lucky. The rest of the slush-pile is screaming to be read and other tasks await, so you must take that agent by the shirt-front and lock your fangs firmly on the throat. Do that, and do it quickly, or you sink into obscurity.
     The first paragraph must make you want to read the second, and the second must make you want to finish the page. By chapter’s end a reader must truly care, and wonder what’s going to happen. And, each chapter ending must make you say, “Okay, I’ll read just one more.”
 
On Turning Corners And Car Wrecks:
     Writers adore surprising their readers. It’s the unexpected twists and turns of plot that can make a story memorable, after all. But readers are easily confused when faced with the unexpected, and when a reader says, “Huh?” you could be in big trouble. Why?
     I had finished chapter one, happy, because my readers were in for a shock. My protagonist had been given a magic ring. Then, disaster piled on disaster had left her floundering, deep under water so cold that even the will to struggle has been taken from her. In despair she accepts her coming death. The reader then turns to chapter two to find my protagonist has been transported somewhere else, and finds herself breathing normally while still under water—as a mermaid. A great surprise, right? The protagonist lives and the story has taken a turn that will leave the reader saying, “Brilliant. I love it.”
     Except… what they actually said was, “I hate it.” and “Sorry, she’s just not a believable character.” It took me a while to realize that I had poured my heart into making her demise absolutely believable, and had succeeded. I’d done such a good job of killing her off that for her to be out of danger—and in what amounted to an entirely different story—that I’d left them saying, “But…but what about that stuff in the harbor? I thought she was, well…dead.” My test readers had skidded off the roadway of plot into the bog of confusion. They did not like that. A fix was mandatory. But how?
     Since I’m using driving terms, what I did was to “bank the turn.” Just before death claims her, the protagonist notices that the ring has begun to glow, the patterns on it blazing with light. Prepared, the reader turns to chapter two saying, “I knew it. I knew the ring would save her.” Now they’ve rounded that turn with their foot to the floor, tires screaming, heading off in my new direction, saying, “A mermaid you say? Cool idea, tell me more.”
 
On Exposition:
     The single most misunderstood item in writing fiction is point of view. On that, alone, I could write ten articles, each longer than this one. Instead, I’ll cheat and let someone else handle the harder part of the job.
     There are two methods of telling a story that can make it seem real. Most stories use a combination of the two.
     The first, and the hardest to understand and make our own is that of placing the reader on the scene, in real-time and as the protagonist, to observe and decide in parallel with the protagonist. This is, by far, the most real the most involving, and the approach that makes us duck when a punch is thrown at our protagonist. For that I’ll defer to a paraphrasing of Dwight Swain’s work, here.
     The other area is in exposition, the words that hold conversation and action together. Exposition sews scenes together. It can also be used to create a scene, as an on-page version of the storyteller’s art, modified to take into account that the reader can’t hear our golden voice, see our smiling face, or know the slashing hand gestures we would use…if only they could see us.
     Here’s one secret of exposition: You arrange your prose so that what you say raises a question, one which the reader mentally asks—though not necessarily in words—and which you next answer. That gives the reader a feel of being with you and conversing. As in music, it’s tension and release providing a heartbeat to the prose.
     So you raise a question. Then, the next thing you say flows from the previous to continue the string, generating a feeling of continuity as we go. To illustrate, look at a paragraph from the Last Unicorn:
 
“One day it happened that two men with long bows rode through her forest, hunting for deer. The unicorn followed them, moving so warily that not even the horses knew she was near. The sight of men filled her with an old, slow, strange mixture of tenderness and terror. She never let one see her if she could help it, but she liked to watch them ride by and hear them talking.”
 
     It would seem that this is a passage of pure telling, but look what happens when I take the role of the reader:
– – – – – – –
One day it happened that two men with long bows rode through her forest, hunting for deer.
     Really… what happened?
The unicorn followed them, moving so warily that not even the horses knew she was near.
      Ahh. But why did she need to hide? Afraid?
The sight of men filled her with an old, slow, strange mixture of tenderness and terror.
     Really? That’s odd, but interesting. Tell me more. (a “tell me more,” situation, is a hook)
She never let one see her if she could help it, but she liked to watch them ride by and hear them talking.
     Ahh… so she understands? Or is she just fascinated by the voices?
– – – – – – –
     To me who is always the last to get the message, learning this was an epiphany. There is an art to providing exposition that I never consciously realized existed.
     My forehead was bruised from whacking the heel of my hand on it while shouting, “You idiot! How in the hell did you miss that one? It’s Dwight Swain’s motivation/response units applied to exposition!” Duhhhh.
     Look at fiction you love and I’m betting that you’ll see this river of linked conversation throughout. But then look at your own story.
 
A Few Writing Hints, Some Of Them Actually Helpful:
 
1. Never forget that writing for publication is a business. Publishers aren’t looking to bring great writing to the public. They’re business people looking to make a buck or two. That editor you’ve just queried loves good writing, but editors live or die by accurately judging what will sell. Is it any wonder they’re so picky?
 
2. Start your story at the beginning. This might sound like obvious advice, but time and again I’ve seen stories that spend the first thousand words telling, “what has gone before,” as though the reader were coming in on part two of a serialized story. If there is no way to slip the backstory in as part of the action you need to either rethink what you’re trying to do or start your story earlier.
 
3. Read your work aloud, as though at an author’s reading. Better yet, get someone to read you a few pages. You’ll be amazed at what jumps out at you. A text to speech program is a wonderful tool. And never forget that the reader doesn’t hear your voice, filled with emotion, as you do. To simulate what they get, read your story with no emotion, and at a constant rate.
 
4. Always edit a printed copy after you’ve done as well as you can on the screen. It reads differently. And change the margins when you print it, so as to reposition the words and force yourself to read what you typed, not anticipate it.
 
5. Involve all the senses to evoke the scene in the reader’s mind. Speak of the smell of food in your writing. Use the noise of the bar-scene, the scent of her perfume, hair, and skin—the texture of a wooden railing under the fingers. “The flat slap of the wooden screen-door closing,” is something we’ve all heard, and it evokes a memory that can make a scene real. Use all the senses—but use your head, too. Don’t do it in such a way as to be predictable.
 
6. Beware of presenting a neighborhood for which you must audition, a place where crowds of people act like individuals: It had snowed, and everyone was having trouble getting around. Everyone? No one was staying home, or had a four-wheel-drive vehicle, equipped with chains?
 
7. Beware of characters who turn on and off like a radio. The protagonist enters a room where people are having a conversation and introduces them to his companion, a lady he’s just met. He than proceeds to have a conversation with the lady, while those in the room turn off. They don’t try to join the conversation. They don’t have their own conversation. They simply sit, silently, waiting for their next cue.
 
8. The excitement belongs in your writing, not at the end of the sentence. If your words and the situation don’t indicate the degree of excitement, putting a bang at the end won’t help!
 
9. Use an unusual word sparingly. Say there was a plethora of ideas in chapter one, and then use plethora in chapter twenty. The reader will notice—and complain.
 
10. Use the unusual. Make the reader stretch a bit. Use sound terms for sight and sight terms for sound. Use allegory, and simile and all the other tricks you know to tickle the reader (but don’t overdo it or you’ll lose them. They must never be able to predict when it’s coming). “Corners like a billiard ball in a boa-constrictor,” is so much more interesting than, “the car handles well.” But that’s hard to measure against, “takes the corners like a slot car,” if the reader has to make a choice between the two.
 
11. In dialog, never have your characters do only one thing at a time. People look out the window, they drink coffee, and they scratch. The phone interrupts them, they digress, they change the subject, and they stare. Women hold several conversations at once, men don’t, and often become confused when a woman veers. Men are literal, but women often see implications in their words that weren’t intended (a great source of misunderstandings). When one character drops a profound remark the other never simply snaps an answer back at them. They digest and reflect, then nod, or lash out, or turn away. Their face pales, they drop their pencil, they laugh inappropriately or go perfectly still—but they always react. People hesitate and repeat themselves when they speak, even stop and change what they were about to say: “Sam, you can’t…I won’t let you do that.” Make use of such things to show state of mind and your people become more human.
 
12. Make every character unique. Have them speak with their own voice and their own vocabulary and mannerisms. Let them have faults. One lady of mine had a habit of interrupting everyone, but when someone did it to her she snapped, “Don’t interrupt me, damn it!” I came to love her, and knew when she was about to walk on someone else’s line. The hallmark of the beginning writer is that everyone speaks with the same voice, has the same opinions, and takes whatever stand will fit a given scene—smart when they need to be smart and dumb when the plot needs them dumb. But characters are people. They get excited and echo the words of others, or finish the sentence for them. And unless they’ve told you, the writer, to go to hell because it’s not in them to perform a requested action, they do not truly live—for you or the reader.
 
13. To sharpen your skills at brevity, set yourself the goal of reducing the word-count in a given chapter by at least ten percent. Get out that carving knife and slice away. Anything that’s not absolutely necessary goes straight to the word-graveyard. You may be surprised at the improvement in readability.
 
14. Find ways of saying things in fewer words. Don’t tell the reader what they can deduce for themselves. And seek out ways of making a given line do double or triple duty:
 
     “An errant gust brought a view of pipestem thighs peppered with goosebumps.”
 
Twelve words that tell you it’s both windy and chill; that the speaker is fairly close to the female being described; that she’s wearing a lightweight skirt—probably short; that she’s not dressed for the weather; and that the speaker doesn’t find her sexually attractive. We even know she’s not sitting primly—legs closed—because her thighs become visible. And best of all, the reader deduces all these things and feels pride at being so observant.
 
In line with the above point, never “tell” the reader something you can slip in as part of the scene. You can inform the reader that the protagonist has shoulder length hair, for example, by having her toy with her hair, which also tells the reader that her hair is in a casual and touchable “do.” Or the wind can ruffle her hair and cause her to brush it back with her hand. Never simply tell the reader anything, because you, the author, are not in the story and have no voice.
 
15. Beware of the trap of “some.” As in: Some of the people were playing with their children, and others were tending to household tasks. Be specific! Generic information has the feel that the writer doesn’t have a sharp view of the scene in their own mind, or was too lazy to spell it out. Better to give a razor sharp view of an ant, if that ant embodies the essence of the scene, than to give an out-of-focus view of the countryside. Remember, watercolor is for painting and for poetry, not fiction writing.
 
16. Beware the Info-dump. Certainly, you want detail in your writing. But when your heroine looks in the mirror, need you say, “Tabatha caught her reflection in the wall-sized antique gilded framed mirror her aunt had given her for her birthday?” Detail, like medicine for children, needs to be given in small doses, well disguised. Think of the times your own eye began to scan a paragraph of tedious detail, looking for something more interesting.
 
17. Passive voice can be pretty, but pretty is all it has going for it. Use it for decoration, and for scenes where the mood is quiet. For punch, though, “Sundays were when John saw Mary,” can’t compare with, “John saw Mary every Sunday.”
 
18. A semi-colon is not, not, not a device for connecting the various parts of a continuing sentence. Learn the rules of grammar; they are the fixtures you use to hold your words in place.
 
19. Beware the wandering body part. “Her hands flew up in the air,” makes you wonder why they weren’t attached to her body just a little better.
 
20. Adjust sentence length to the tension of the scene. In a fight scene use only active voice, and as the action becomes more furious the sentences should become shorter. Use more flowery language for pastoral scenes to help set the mood and contrast the action scenes.
 
21. One sentence, one subject. Don’t zigzag! This is basic as hell, but I’ve seen it violated endless times: “Susan loved dogs and all animals, and had red hair.” A-r-g-h-h-h!
 
22. Be careful not to make your people too understanding. When the protagonist runs into the room distraught and barking commands, those in the room will not have an instinctive understanding of the situation. One of the hallmarks of the beginning writer is that everyone the protagonist meets provides exactly what’s needed to move the story along. But people say, “Huh?” and people try to talk about what they think important. And they often misunderstand. This can be one of your more useful tools in making a scene real.
 
23. Remember, you are not telling the reader a story, you are being our eyes, our ears, and our noses. You are our hands on a lover and the fist that sucker-punches us. You are peering through the keyhole at life. Boiled down: Relate the story, not the plot.
 
In line with the above, in order to stay in the character’s viewpoint in first or third person point of view, you may not present information that the character doesn’t have reason, right then, to remember, think about, or notice. The sequence is: Present a real world event that the character will next respond to. You may not say, “He heard a noise,” for example, because that presents the noise after he’s heard, identified, and thought about it. You tell of the character of the noise, then have the character react. This provides the reader with the moment in time that the character calls “now.” These pairs of motivation/reaction units, or MRU are the basic building blocks of fiction. And this is true of every character for every action. In dialogue, each is acting as the stimulus for the other.
 
24. In writing, context isn’t important, it’s everything. If your reader doesn’t have context you wasted the time it took to write it.
 
25. Beware of slang, because what’s common in your area may be unknown in another.
 
26. Use dialect sparingly, so as to give the flavor of the speech. Used for a continuing character, it often becomes tedious. The exception to this is the historical novel, where the accents are expected. But even there, err on the side of clarity.
 
27. Research, research, research. People love to nit-pick. And beware techno-babble, especially if you write science fiction or fantasy. Never make the assumption that if you don’t know, your audience won’t either. And don’t set your story in someone else’s world. Ann Rice changed the rules for her vampire stories. But her rules aren’t binding on you. If you want your vampire to roam freely during the day because a sun-block rating of #200 protects her, feel free.
 
28. Do a check for the word “that,” because until writing becomes second nature you will have lots that can be eliminated, i.e. “He thought that it was a good idea.” Look for “it” and you will find some that need to be more specific. Another word that everyone seems to have a problem with is “from,” because it always seems to want to become “form.” And check for things like “Get off of the bed,” that should be “Get off the bed,” or even, “Up!”
 
29. Do a search for “ly” and rip out those adverbs that creep in like weeds. Suddenly is a good example, because it’s horribly overused by new writers. In nine times out of ten, the word can be removed with no loss of meaning—as can most adverbs (including “horribly,” in the previous sentence). Of more importance, many adverbs imply emotion, and those words can’t be used for someone who is not the point of view character. Barbara cannot skip “happily” away unless we are either in Barbara’s point of view, or her happiness is obvious.
 
In speech, we act out adverbs as an emotional illustration. Thus, “slowly” becomes “sloooowly,” and you create a mood when you stress the word “absolutely,” in “absolutely silent.” On the page, though, they’re just words, so if the stress you use in verbally telling the story is necessary to make the line work, it won’t.
 
30. Foreshadow, foreshadow, foreshadow. And not just events. Foreshadowing can provide justification for skills and memories. Is the protagonist to save herself by remembering an obscure fact mentioned early on? Then have someone comment on her unusual memory, or have another, more benign memory episode happen in another scene. In the movie Vertigo, the protagonist hangs by fingertips over an abyss, generating a lasting fear of heights. At the time it’s just a bit of drama, but later, when it matters, his fear of heights is the point around which the plot pivots, and it keeps him from preventing a murder. Finally, at the movie’s climax, his fear is removed, underscoring that moment.
 
31. Chop out every single word that doesn’t actively move your story forward. And slice out every word that comes from you, because you are not in the story. In writing: Fewer words = more punch. So if you can say it in fewer words and still retain your distinctive “voice” then chop away. Watch for the redundancies. “Up on the horizon,” for example, can reduce to “on the horizon,” with no loss of meaning.
 
32. Remember that whatever the point of view character doesn’t know cannot be mentioned, except as speculation, when you are in their point of view. The woman we’ve known and loved as Betty must go back to being “the woman,” when the new character called Fred takes a seat next to her on the subway—if we’ve moved to Fred’s point of view.
 
33. If you are in third person point of view, and in your protagonist’s head, stay there unless you absolutely have to switch. You can give the other person’s thoughts without going to their head by simply saying, “She looked as though…” or some variation on that. Better, still, do it by giving the reader clues: “His nostrils flared, momentarily, but he said nothing.” Sure, Nora Roberts head-hops, but she’s Nora Roberts, you aren’t. At least not yet. You need the reader to identify strongly with your characters, and to do that you need to avoid needless head-hopping. By all means use more then one point of view character, but in a given scene ask, “Who will the reader care about,” and stay with that character unless there’s reason to be in another head. After all, if the reader knows she loves him. And the reader knows he loves her, why should they stay around till the two of them finally notice?
 
34. Something to try: Take a single chapter, or short story of your work, and copy it. Then go through it changing the color of every word of backstory, plus every word not absolutely necessary to move the story forward. Paint those beautiful character studies a bilious green, the history of the protagonist’s mother orange, and the scene where your protagonist looks in the mirror to describe herself, fuchsia. Then, if you’re on the computer, cut and paste, to move all that highlighted text to the end of the file. Now, read through, moving detail back where absolutely necessary, and smoothing the result. My bet is that you will move back not one word, and like the result much better then the original. I once tossed one-thousand absolutely beautiful words from a four-thousand word chapter. I cried as I pushed the delete button. But that was the novel I sold.
 
35. There are no hard and fast rules in writing. For every point I’ve mentioned you can probably show me an exception or three. The thing to do is know what a certain technique accomplishes. That way, when you “violate a rule,” it will be for a purpose, and far more likely to succeed. What most people call “writing rules,” are often techniques that have achieved the status of custom because many people have found them useful.
 
36. Why read books on writing? Why take courses? Because if the school of hard knocks is a stairway, education is an escalator. Education can tell you what not to do. It can expose you to the methods others use to spice their work—and those methods number slightly more than the total number of writers.
 
37. How can you tell if you have that spark of greatness? Well the first test is that the great ones never gave up.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

 
And so, at long last, we come to the end. Success. It’s impossible and it’s heartbreaking, but someone has to make it, and who knows, maybe you’re the one. For what it’s worth, I wish on you my all time favorite complaint: “Damn it, I didn’t get any sleep last night because of your #@$& 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, Jack Bickham, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
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Posted by on March 16, 2011 in The Craft of Writing

 

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Am I A Writer? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Am I A Writer? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Am I A Writer?
 

     You love to read or you wouldn’t be here thinking about writing and selling your work. And one of the things you love about it is the feeling that you are right there on the scene, sharing the adventure, and the moment-by-moment problems. At times you may stop and think of how you might have handled the situation differently than the protagonist, and what the result of that would have been. You are, in effect, writing your own version of the story as you play, “what if.” You are, in that moment, as much a writer—in the creative sense—as is the person who wrote that story.
If you’re like most people, you believe you have at least one novel within you—characters who reside in your mind, just waiting to be given liberty, via the keyboard and the word processor.
     Perhaps you’ve acted on that idea, and turned out a few paragraphs, a chapter, or maybe even an entire novel. And if you have, the all-important question occurs: Would someone be interested in publishing those words? It’s that question that I’m addressing today, in my role as The Grumpy Old Writing Coach, a position I play with enthusiasm and great skill—at least the grumpy part of the job. Hell, I have people who hate me all over the globe. Helps me sleep better.
 
So, do you have what it takes? Let’s look at the possibilities:
     First, there’s the idea that the ability to write on a professional level is God-given, an inherent condition of birth, or a chance alignment of the planets that uniquely affects the chosen person. Lots of people believe that. But if they’re right, you’re well and truly screwed. You don’t have it and nothing you can do will change that.
     But neither you nor I believe that, if for no other reason than that we’ve both proven too many people wrong, by doing what they said we couldn’t do. And the good news is that the people who sell novel after novel don’t believe it, either. Let’s look at a few who succeeded: On that subject Ernest Hemingway said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” Stephen King’s view is, “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” And, Larry Brown’s comment was, “There’s no such thing as a born writer. It’s a skill you’ve got to learn, just like learning how to be a bricklayer or a carpenter.”
     So the good news is that you and I… or at least I, can learn the skills of the professional writer. I’m not too sure about you as yet, but we’ll work on it.
     Next is the idea that we can take the writing skills we learn in high school, add a bit of practice and a story idea, and there we are, writing like a pro. I’m damn glad we don’t train brain surgeons and bridge designers that way.
     “Just keep writing,” our friends tell us, “Do that and your writing muscles will get stronger with every word.” Yeah, sure, I believe that. We spent twelve years having teachers try to beat the techniques of office-writing into our heads without too much success, and we’re going to raise that to a professional level of fiction-writing by doing nothing more than writing exactly as we’ve been taught—over, and over, and over…
     If you believe that one, then the successful authors I’ve quoted above are dead wrong on how to become a writer. And given that they seem to have had some success, just maybe they know something we don’t. In fact, my favorite quotation comes from Mark Twain, who observed, “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.”
     There’s also the school of thought that says to read, and read, and to analyze your favorite authors to see how they do it. Can that be done? Sure. It works at least as well as using Tarot cards to know when you have it right. It’s kind of like expecting to become a great chef by eating in a fine restaurant, then going home and reaching for your spatula. But what cook, good or bad, can call themselves a chef without having worked with one, or at least owning a set of cookbooks to act as guides? What engineer can design and complete a project without having learned the necessary engineering practices? Can a wanna-be doctor learn to take your blood pressure by wrapping the cuff around your neck and then pumping it up to see what happens? Hell no. In the words of Rosanne Cash, “Self-expression without craft is for toddlers.”
     And finally, there’s the belief that you can turn to one of the many writing sites on the Internet and get good sound advice from others who’ve been unable to sell their work. After all, who better to commiserate with? Who understands your situation better? Who will never make you feel bad by telling you that the rejections you receive are anything but bad luck?
     So, who’s right? Everyone is—at least a little. You do need a God given talent for telling a story. What good are all the skills without that golden voice to give it wings? But on the flip side, what good is that golden voice when using a media where the reader can neither see nor hear you? Craft is the horse your talent must ride. Given that, it makes more sense to capture and bridle Pegasus than plod onward on the back of the sturdy dray horse we’re issued in school.

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

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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