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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 have a name for 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 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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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’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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Words and Music – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Words and Music – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Words and Music

     Music has the power to move us in ways that border the astonishing. With just a few notes it can change our mood in ways dramatic. A fanfare can make us smile, while a musical joke may bring a chuckle. Music can invoke the power of the raging sea or transport us to the tranquil moments leading to sleep. And it can do that all without words.
     Couple speech to that power and the possibilities are limitless. That combination of lyric and melody can inspire us to love, patriotism, and even despair. We whistle a happy song when we pass a graveyard, and celebrate the anniversary of our birth with a little ditty. It permeates our lives. Words bring the thought and music the emotion. Together they can accomplish miracles.
     So how, you ask, does that relate to writing fiction? That’s easy. Most of us have a voice, our instrument, that’s less than impressive. There are few, a very few, who were born with an intuition of song that makes them a natural fit to some aspect of music. The rest of us, should we pursue a singing career, must develop those skills through practice and study. And because the instrument we’re given as a birthright does not usually embody perfection, most of the most successful popular singers make do with something less than that. Even Ella Fitzgerald, the first lady of jazz, and someone blessed with a voice that only a precious few possess, had to be guided into the best use of her talents. And so it is with writing.
     The problem is that as we grow through our teen years we learn to present the emotional part of our stories through the physical techniques that are also useful when performing music. As we present the facts of the story with our words, we present the melody—the emotional aspect—though sweeping hand gestures, changing expression, intonation, modulation, body-language, hesitation, and the many tricks of delivery in the storyteller’s bag of tricks. We stop and shake our heads as if in sorrow, and our audience is given important emotional information. We lean toward the audience and speak softly, and they know we’re about to relate a secret.
     But then we turn to recording our stories in print. We can record the words, yes, but what about the music? What happens to the melody played by that marvelously expressive instrument, the human voice? Where is that interpretive dance we do to tell our audience, visually, the things they absolutely need to know if they’re to understand the character’s motivation?
     Gone. All gone.
     On the page lie our words, the lyrics of our song, lifeless, devoid of all emotion.
     And the reader, the one we’ve appointed to sing our song? What of them?
     Hand me the song lyrics to, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and the melody begins to play on the iPod of my mind before my eyes read more then the title. That’s true for almost any song we already know. But what about the song we don’t know? We’re handed the lyrics and told to sing to ourselves. But how can we do that? We don’t know what a line we’re about to sing says, factually or emotionally, until after we read it.
     How do we solve that problem when we give someone our brand new song? If we’re with them we sing it. If not, we may hand them a recording. But if neither are available? We supply the musical notation and the lyrics, the sheet music. The singer now has both, the words and music, the facts and the emotion. And in writing we have exactly the same situation. We need to present the reader with the facts of the story, while, at the same time, making them feel the emotion the character does.
     Over time, writers have developed the tricks of presentation that will give our reader what’s necessary to know our story as we do, from the inside, so to speak. Properly presented, we can make the audience feel is if time is passing, and can motivate the reader to speak the dialog as we would—as the actual character would. We can pass them the emotional part of the story by making them experience it, not just hear about it. It’s one thing to tell the reader that Sam was glad to see Ella when she enters the room, but quite another to make the reader say, “Damn, I’m glad she’s back. I like Ella.”
     The thing to remember: you’re not telling your reader a story. Your reader is a musical instrument—your musical instrument. They are both amazingly powerful and flexible, and certainly worth learning how to play. So don’t tell them a story. Take the time to learn to make them live it.

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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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Deconstructing Samantha – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Deconstructing Samantha – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

Deconstructing Samantha


 

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

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

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Batman Is My Role Model – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Batman Is My Role Model – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Batman Is My Role Model


 

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

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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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