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Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

 
 
 
 
       As writers, we face a problem: We’re not the reader. This may sound obvious, but it has important ramifications. Our reader is, in many ways, unknowable, because we have no idea of who will end up picking up our work. We do know some things, though:
       Their background probably won’t match ours. Their tastes will be different. Their age group and education will be different to an unknown degree. And, there’s a 50-50 chance that their gender will be different, too. In fact, it’s unlikely that we and a given reader have all that much in common.
       Given that, how can we write anything that will be acceptable to all readers? The answer is, we can’t. It is literally impossible to write anything that will be viewed in the same way by all readers.
       So, do we accept the fact that the majority of people who read our work won’t “get it?” Or is there a way to eliminate those differences? Obviously, there is, or I wouldn’t be writing this article. The trick isn’t to make our work universally accepted no matter the reader’s background. It’s to make all readers the same.
       What we need to do is to make our reader become our protagonist. If we can make them see the situation exactly as the protagonist does; if we give each reader the same set of resources the protagonist will use; if all readers have the same desires, needs, and imperatives as our protagonist, then they will decide on what must be done next in exactly the same way as our hero will—and do that before the protagonist makes that decision—if they read and absorb that before they read the protagonist’s response to the situation—they will become our protagonist and react as that character does.
       Do that and you avoid the impossibility of making the writing universal. Instead you’ll make your readers universal. And with that as our goal, let’s see how we can accomplish that.
 
       We’ve always relied on presenting the facts accurately, concisely, and dispassionately because that’s how we were taught to write. And it works well for book reports. But when writing fiction, instead of eliminating differences in viewpoint it encourages them. Everyone has their own interpretation of your presentation, based on what the words mean to them. Tell the reader, for example, that the protagonist is at peace, and each reader will take a slightly different meaning from the statement. To some, being at peace means there is no stress in their life. For others, that there is no war, or argument. In Islam, peace is based on submission and surrender to Allah. And there are hundreds of other shades of meaning to that one word. So expecting a reader to know our viewpoint is impossible unless we focus on that reader, and are able to interact with them, so as to refine our words to fit their background and preconceptions. But, make the reader know why the character feels they are at peace by making that reader view the protagonist’s world as the protagonists does, and the reader’s interpretation of the word no-longer-matters. They will feel as the character feels, emotionally, because for the moment, they will have superimposed the protagonist’s view on their own.
       Can we do this using the writing techniques we all learn in school? Hell no. Our teachers spent zero time discussing the nuance of point of view. They taught us how to write dispassionately, with accuracy of observation the most important item. Why? Because most people will do their writing in a business setting, where accuracy is critical. We were, remember, learning skills to make us useful to employers. Those book reports we wrote were practice for writing business reports. Those essays, practice for writing papers and letters. No one explained how to use tags, how to structure a scene, or even basics such as the three questions a reader needs answered quickly when entering any scene so as to have context to make sense of it it.
       Converting the reader into our protagonist requires skills that are unlike those used for telling a story in person, or creating a story on the stage or screen. Our medium is different, and has different strengths and weaknesses. Instead of stressing fact and accuracy we stress emotional connection. Instead of presenting things from the narrator’s viewpoint we presented from the protagonist’s. Same story, but a very different approach to presenting it. And that means a very different tool set must be used in the presentation.
       Our goal, remember, isn’t to make the reader know about the terror our protagonist may be feeling. Our goal is to terrorize the reader. We don’t want the reader to learn about the plot. We want them to live it. If you can make a reader put down your work for a moment, to decompress, because the emotional situation is so intense they can’t handle it, you have a winner.
       In the end, we having name for doing this: it’s called point of view. And POV is the single most powerful tool in your repertoire. It is the thing that makes all readers the same.
       John W. Campbell, a noted editor once wrote an article in which he presented a hypothetical situation involving an observer and a climber. It went something like this:

     Observer: “Don’t climb that tree. If you knew what I know, that’s not just a tree, it’s being used as a power pole, so there’s dangerous high-voltage up there.”
     Protagonist: “If you knew what I know…that I’m a trained lineman, doing my job with the proper equipment, you wouldn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know, that your safety gloves are from a shipment that contained defective product, you wouldn’t go.”
     Protagonist: “Ah…but if you knew what I know, that we heard about the defect and have inspected them to remove the bad gloves—and that the gloves I use will be pressure tested just before I put them on, you needn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know…”

       Point of view is critical. In the example above, were the observer made to know the situation as the protagonist does, confusion would be eliminated and the conversation would never occur.
       Obviously, the protagonist could be wrong. He or she could be missing or misinterpreting data, as could the protagonist in our stories. But that’s okay, because both our protagonist and our reader will have the same misunderstanding and make the same mistakes, which drives our plot. And our reader will be just as surprised, shocked, or perhaps pleased to learn of the misunderstanding.
 
       So how do we do that? How do we gain those necessary skills? How can we turn our narrative around and make our reader view our story from the inside out, as against from the outside in? How do we change our own perspective of how to present a story?
       The answer to that is quite simple. We do that by learning all we can about point of view and the other important skills a writer needs. We add to our existing knowledge, just the way we did, grade-by-grade, as we built our current set of of writing skills. And the more we know, the greater the number of viable choices we have when handling a given situation. The more we know, the better we know what a reader will respond to. And, the more we know the better we get at making our reader feel like our protagonist.
       Simple? Absolutely. Easy? Of course not. If it was easy we’d all be rich and famous. Any profession takes time and practice to perfect. So the question isn’t if it’s easy or hard. The question is, is it worth the effort? And that boils down to: should we continue to write using techniques inappropriate to the task, or should we add professional skills to our toolbox? I don’t think you need my help to answer that question.
       But still, that’s a lot of work, especially given that we won’t know if we have the potential to make effective use of those skills, and to be successful, until we own and apply them. And that’s a big if, especially since most of us are not going to have people lining up to buy our work. So in reality: do we want to be a writer badly enough to to invest lots of time, and perhaps a few dollars to become a writer as a publisher views that term?
       That’s a difficult question to answer, other than to say that if someone can talk you out of writing you aren’t meant to be one. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s our curse and our blessing.
       Something to keep in mind when making that decision: writing isn’t a destination. It’s a journey, one that lasts a lifetime. And if every day we write with a little more skill than we did on the previous day, and we live long enough…
       So…now that I’ve discouraged you with the news that you probably won’t get rich from your writing this year, let me make a suggestion as to how to begin your transformation from outside-in to inside-out writing.
       A very good article on creating a strong point of view can be found here. It’s based on the work of Dwight Swain, who is notable for having defined many of the techniques that professional writers use, in a clear and concise way. I’d advise you to read the article, think about it, and when it begins to make sense, check the fiction that made you feel as though you were experiencing it, to see how the author made the technique work for that story. And if it seems like something that would help your writing, pick up a copy of Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It both expands on that technique and will show you many others, equally meaningful. Read it slowly, stopping at every point where a new concept is introduced, to think about and practice that point, so as to make it your own rather than to simply learn that it exists.
       And when you finish the book put it aside for six months. Use what you’ve learned, gaining skill and competence. Then, read it again. This time, knowing where he’s going, and better understanding the concepts being introduced, you’ll learn as much the second time as you did the first.
       Will it make you a published author? Naa. That’s your job. What it will do is give you the tools with which to become one, if-it’s-in-you to do that. And that’s the best we can hope for. Maybe it will turn out to be something interesting, but still, success will still elude you. Could be. Happens to most of us. But still, new writers appear all the time. Why shouldn’t it be you? And as they say, you never know till you try.

       Hang in there, and keep on writing.
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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’s in a Name? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

What’s in a Name? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     The other day I reviewed a new writer’s story, all about a man named John. In the course of the first few pages John walked, John saw, John said, John thought… The list was endless and boring. By the end of the second page I wanted to throw John in the john. After three I had all I could stand.
     And people wonder why I’m so grumpy.
     Everyone knows that when we tell a story in first person we used the pronoun “I” to refer to the protagonist. No one has a problem with that. So, why is it that virtually no one understands that the third person equivalent to “I” is “he” or “she,” not John, Betty, Susan, or any other name? Turn to almost any new writer’s work, though, and you’ll find the character’s name sprinkled like salt in virtually every paragraph.
     Here’s the thing: we never think of ourselves by name unless we’re addressing ourselves from a third-party position—lecturing ourselves for some reason. What that means is that every time you, as a writer, use the character’s name in describing their action, that’s a-point-of-view-break. Yes, there are times when it’s necessary to use the name because a reader might become confused over who you’re talking about. But those times are few. And readers won’t forget your character’s name if you don’t use it ten times a page. They really won’t.
     And here’s another thing that needs to be taken into account. If we more often use the other character’s names, while sticking to he or she for the protagonist, that makes the protagonist unique.
     Sure we want to use the protagonist’s name, initially, to introduce them. We also want to use the character’s name at the beginning of scenes or chapters so the reader knows who were talking about. We want to use it in dialogue, where the speaker is placing an emotional emphasis by referring to the character by name. But that’s it. Almost anything else is a POV break, and has the risk of distancing the reader from the action that’s taking place. Make sense? I hope so.
     In addition to that problem there’s the use of the possessive, his or her. That too, is often overused, because the reader already knows who the text is referring to. And when we use the possessive we often add verbosity, along with it, that slows the narrative.
     Look at a few examples:
     “As she hoped, her vision was unchanged.” Is that “her” required? Could we not just as easily say “As she hoped, vision was unchanged.” ? After all, who else’s vision could we be talking about, if the character is alone, or if we already know who’s being referred to?
     And with the line, “She moved her hands to cover her eyes with fingertips” wouldn’t it be smoother to say, “She covered her eyes with fingertips?” Of course. Yet virtually every manuscript I look at is filled with unneeded detail, linked to the possessive, like that.
     Small things kill a reader’s enjoyment, each driving in a tiny splinter of annoyance: Unnecessary references; excessive use of the protagonist’s name; unnecessary description. Each is a minor distraction, but such distractions are additive. So anything you can do to remove the unnecessary and distracting words will both speed the narrative and render the author invisible—placing us in the prompter’s box rather than on stage. And isn’t that were we belong?

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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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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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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.

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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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