C. Aubrey Hall's Blog, page 6
January 31, 2013
Don’t you dream about a writing life that’s calm, contemplative, and free of annoying distractions?
Well, writers are some of the uber-dreamers, right?
The need for quietness–not just absence of sound or commotion around us, but an inner space apart from stress, worry, dozens of appointments/commitments, and deadline pressure–is vital to the optimum working of our creative muse.
We need space. We need peace. We need a haven from the clawing talons of Interruption and her harpy-sisters, Distraction and Worry.
In our modern, hectic, multi-tasking world, however, where in the world do we find Thoreau’s pond? I’m sure you’ve heard all the usual suggestions: turn off the phone in your writing office; turn off the email chime; shut and bolt your door; train your family not to even speak to you unless a) the house is on fire or b) someone is bleeding.
I used to pitch some royal hissy-fits in order to finally convince my family to leave me alone. Result? Instead of knocking on my office door, someone would furtively ease it open and an eyeball would peer in at me. If I gave any indication that I was noticing this, the individual would then waltz in and cheerfully ask his question. If I steadfastly ignored the peering eyeball and kept typing–fuming inwardly all the while–the door would steathily close. I was interrupted all the same, but my family member felt virtuous about “not bothering me.” Gak!
In time, I changed my tactics. Once I had a day job and no longer wrote full time, I needed to guard my writing session more than ever, but interruptions increased. Tired of pitching fits, I instead became the stealth-writer. During parental visits, for example, I would either negotiate for a length of writing time, aware of someone impatiently hovering near my door or deliberately making noise elsewhere in the house as the end of my writing session approached OR I would wait until everyone in the house was asleep and then I would sneak to my computer and write in secret. Such tactics had an illicit feel to them, and could be fun … until sleep deprivation caught up with me and I grew cranky.
Currently, I try to arrange my life in the Asian way of little compartments, all kept as separate as possible. There are teaching days, writing days, chore days, and days chasing antiques. It’s a little too regimented for my artistic temperament, but when you have a book deadline or you need a sale–artistic temperament had better take a hike.
Recently I’m finding myself in a new squeeze of overlapping commitments. The compartment walls are melting, thanks to a side business that I started for fun. I felt I needed an outlet, and I’m always looking for a creative hobby or some kind of play time to keep my inner child happy and refreshed. Problem is, the business is trying to grow and the new friends and associates I’ve acquired are demanding more of me. They are untrained when it comes to my true nature. They admire the writing life while not understanding what it actually entails. These are not people I want to pitch hissy fits in front of. Professionalism requires that I treat them with courtesy and not roar my rage like some wall-eyed beast.
Which means, to survive and keep my writing time secure, I have to set firmer boundaries and enforce them. My inner child is yelling outrage at this notion. I don’t want to be the enforcer. I don’t want to be the disciplinarian. Too bad. If I want to write, I have to make clearance for it.
Today, as you’ve no doubt guessed from the subject matter of this post, life hit me with one of those curveballs that are so blasted frustrating for writers. I had my writing schedule blocked out for the morning. I had a number of non-writing tasks to complete, including working with a handful of students. I was on target–or so I thought. Then whamo! something else landed on me. It was unexpected, unanticipated, and totally in the way.
What to do? (Besides swearing?) I took a deep breath, and channeled my artistic frustration into focus. The kind of focus that is narrow and intense and ruthless. I took care of the interruption, and although it feels like a waste of half my writing day, the task is DONE. Better to face it, smash it, and clear it aside than to whine and let it drizzle over, say, a week of procrastinating misery.
Now, I can swing my thoughts back to the book proposal at hand.
January 28, 2013
Throughout my writing career, it’s been my custom to clear my desk after sending a manuscript to my publisher. Mundane? Yes. But the ritual helps me step away from the old story world I’ve created and now must leave. I can then start a new book with all decks cleared for action.
Somewhere along the way, I’ve lost this practice. Too harried by the demands of work and deadline. Too tired to bother. The old standards have slipped.
I’ve known writers whose offices look like the aftermath of a bomb explosion. Their sticky notes are so old that the adhesive is gone, and the cellophane tape they’ve used instead is yellowing and brittle.
Other friends in this business could compete with a banker for the tidiest-desk award. Jack Bickham might allow a single sheet of paper to lie on his desk top. His manuscript went into an in-box, precisely aligned on one corner. Presumably he kept all his notes in computer files or in his head.
Another friend of the banker style neatly tucked her pages out of sight in a desk drawer at the end of each writing session. She didn’t even leave an ink pen in view. Her file cabinet was a model of efficient organization, and a small bookcase held a handful of reference books and copies of her published novels. There was nothing else, not even dust.
Across the years, I’ve possessed beautiful offices that were decorated and plush. I’ve also had ghastly holes. I enjoy dreaming my way through coffee-table books about fabulous offices assembled by interior designers. I’m still kicking myself because I didn’t buy a house with an entire upstairs devoted to office space, complete with windows and a fireplace. (The cramped kitchen and a whirlpool tub plumbed in the back hallway might have influenced that decision, however.)
Whatever my surroundings, I am–in organizer parlance–a “piler, not a filer.”
Try as I might, my desk quickly becomes heaped with references, scribbled notes on scraps of paper and stickies, sample chapters and drafts, copy-editor style sheets, complicated emails of editorial instructions that I’ve printed out, and other miscellany such as amazon.com receipts and book contracts.
I prefer to have everything concerning a project right out in the open in front of me, beside me, and behind me. I fear that if I put away that index card containing my villain’s motivation, I’ll never see it again.
There’s no logic here. If the item goes into the pile, I’ll never see it again anyway. At least, not until the book’s finished and I no longer need it.
Mostly I blame a lack of discipline for the problem. The books I’ve read on feng shui say that messy clutter bars the entrance of new ideas. Perhaps so. I do know that my system causes inefficiency and frustration.
So, it’s time to clean the office and get it into proper order. When I moved into my current house, I didn’t have an opportunity to sort and clear the old office. All sorts of rubbish were packed along with important file folders, resulting in chaos. I’ve only unpacked the most vital things because I’ve been occupied in writing a trilogy, and the book must come first.
With THE FAELIN CHRONICLES finally off my slate, I have no excuse. While I wait for my agent to think over a book proposal I’ve submitted, I’m determined to transform my office into an orderly and pleasant workplace.
Easy to say. Harder to do. If only I had the luxury of a secretary–efficient and devoid of any personal attachment to scribbled notes of sample of dialogue.
As I sift and sort, I start to read. Once I start to read, I remember what I wanted to do with that idea. I can’t bear to toss the note on the back of an envelope. It might, after all, be the genesis of my life’s masterpiece.
The scribble goes into a new pile, just a little one. I promise myself that I’ll label a folder for it. Only what is to be done with a jumbled assortment of inspirations? File them under what category? Inspiration? Assortment? Jumble?
Those of you who’ve been proficient with computers since you were toddlers must be squirming right now, yearning to remind me of the convenient neatness of Cloud files–behold the paperless world! It sounds very nice, only I’m a visual person. I’m tactile. I do not float in the abstract. If a file cabinet causes me trouble (because once a paper goes inside it, it tends to vanish forever), how am I to remember the name of that computer file I’m searching for? And do I want yet another dratted password in my life? No, I do not.
However, good things do come from the task of excavation. For example, over the weekend I located my French book contracts. Woo-hoo! But quick! Get them in the contract file before they disappear again.
I feel like an archeologist sifting through layers of soil. Here are research notes from that last Google search on 19th century plantations. Lower is the style sheet that I needed six months ago. Beneath that is a draft of a magazine article that I wrote–when?–and have yet to polish and market. And … aha! Now I’ve located my favorite pen. Even better, here’s a book weight I’d forgotten about. Why do I have eight used ink jet cartridges taking up valuable space? They should go to the office supply store for recyling, and I’ve said that the last eight times I’ve changed the ink in my printer.
Recently, I’ve started wondering if I’m becoming a hoarder. Thank you, reality TV, for putting this worry in my mind. People used to be reassured that if they feared they were going insane, it meant they were perfectly sound of mind. Can I cling to the corollary that if I fear I’m a borderline hoarder, I’m not one?
(I’m not quite convinced.)
I’m pleased to report that my wood desk has been cleared. I ruthlessly dislodged the vintage manual typewriter, stacks of books, and assorted paper and notebooks. Now I can see the deep scratch in its glass top, a boo-boo courtesy of my most recent move. I’ve had this desk forever. I paid for it out of my third book advance, and it has served me well.
I’m making progress in cleaning off the computer desk. Half of the stupendously messy pile is gone, which means I can use the full surface of my mouse pad again. I’ve found two novels that I’d lost. Now if I can shift the stack of twenty-two books from my desk chair (the stuff atop the wooden desk had to go somewhere), I’ll have a work space that’s useful instead of cluttered.
Perhaps I’ll even find the willpower to maintain order by using an in-box. I know I have one … somewhere.
January 21, 2013
Can you remember the first time you thought about being a writer? Where were you the moment you thought, I could write a story? What were you doing when the dream, the possibility, and the desire struck you?
About once a decade, I come across a student whose parent is a writer and has been a sufficient influence to motivate the student to take up the writing craft.
But where do the rest of us come from?
I find the majority of fledgling writers to be like those clueless civilians in science-fiction films from the 1950s. Going about their ordinary lives with no inkling that a flying saucer is about to swoop through the skies and hover above them.
Zing! There’s the super-cosmic gamma-slamma ray bathing the next victim in eerie light. The energy beam soaks into the individual’s brain, filling it with imagination and wild thoughts that have never teemed there before.
When the attack is over, the person will never be the same. Now he or she is filled with a fiery new ambition–to write, to put words to the page, to bring story to the world, to live and breathe the tragedies and triumphs of imaginary characters.
Family and friends shake their heads, saying things like, “Zelda never wanted to write before. I wonder how long it’ll be before this fit wears off?”
Probably never. Zelda gets a laptop and taps out her first, wobbly few paragraphs.
To borrow from Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton and Billy Crystal’s film, THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN …
The night was … dark, moist, raining, bleak, drizzly, foggy, sultry, aromatic … AHA! The night was aromatic with the fragrance of … jasmine, petunias, coffee, burned toast, hot roof tar … AHA!
The night was … NO. That’s too much passive construction. Try again.
The night smelled of hot roof tar and laundry hung to dry on clotheslines strung between the buildings. Ella sat in her open window, yearning to catch the nonexistent breeze. Behind her, Cuthbert snored in his broken-down recliner. A half-drunk beer tilted in his slack fingers. She was counting the minutes, counting his snores, counting her heartbeat, and all the while she was wondering if this was the night she had enough courage to leave him and the kids. Just take his wallet and the car keys, and go.
Surprised at what has suddenly burst from her imagination, Zelda sits back and reads over this opening paragraph. Is it a story? Not yet. Not quite, but her instincts tell her something’s there. She’s got a character now, the miserable Ella who longs for escape. She’s got a place–dingy and unappealing, the kind of setting no one wants to be trapped in. That makes Ella sympathetic, except why would this woman leave her children? Or are they her children? What if they’re Cuthbert’s and he was married to Ella’s sister who died and Ella came to help for a few days but has become trapped here as Cuthbert’s drudge, guilted into staying on and on.
Um … maybe, but would it be a stronger story if Ella were the mother and seriously contemplating abandoning her own children? How can a mother do that? What would drive her to such a desperate measure? What kind of woman is Ella anyway?
So now, Zelda has a toehold in the precipice of this story. And if Zelda doesn’t reach for the “easy button” by copying the cheap tricks that sometimes pass for plotting in the worst television shows but continues to ask questions about her protagonist’s motivation and goals, then it’s possible a story will come of her efforts.
The more Zelda writes and drafts and strikes out and hits dead ends and tries again, the more she’ll learn. The more she’ll grow.
When you’re starting out to write your first story, or maybe your second or third or twentieth, you can’t expect perfection. Writers don’t whip out an ideal draft in ten minutes and then run around for the rest of the day, giving interviews and being glamorous.
Writers write. They keep gnawing at the bone that is their story project until they’re satisfied. They can comb through books on writing and blogs on writing. They can (and should) take classes on writing craft. They can ask questions of other, more-experienced writers. But in the end, they learn most about people, characters, motivations, and story events by putting themselves in their desk chair and beating at their story’s problems until they figure things out.
January 17, 2013
A few years ago, while attending a writer’s conference, I met a guest author named Leonard Bishop. He was an old man with the bulky physique and heavy shoulders that spoke of past physical strength. There was something direct, even blunt about him. A no-nonsense type of guy with an edge. He said what he thought. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. The bright and phoney young editors who were also guest speakers failed to impress him. And underneath his rather gruff, intimidating exterior beat a warm and generous heart for new writers trying to make it in this tough business.
I’d never heard of him. I’d never read any of his novels. He’d never heard of me. He’d never read my work. We were introduced. We sized each other up quickly, the way working novelists do. We were instant friends and colleagues.
I bought his book on writing. He signed it on the title page as follows: “Deborah–Thank you for buying this book. If you have any suggestion on how to improve it, keep it to yourself.”
Even today, that little flash of witticism still makes me smile.
DARE TO BE A GREAT WRITER is a handbook of 329 tips. It’s written piecemeal. No pontificating chapters of advice here. No table of contents. No index. No attempts to impress. Instead, his suggestions and insights are as honest, direct, and insightful as the man in person.
What comes through strongest is his passion for writing. Bishop grew up a street kid, rough and semi-literate. He didn’t decide to be a writer until he was 27, and what he chose to write about was raw, straight from the heart and guts.
He chose his title deliberately and carefully. (And he would hate all the adverbs in that sentence!) He doesn’t want to help you be a good writer. He wants you to be a great writer.
He wants you to write from the core of who and what you truly are. Not what you want people to think about you. Not from behind a mask or a safety net. He wants you to write what he calls powerful fiction.
That takes courage.
But as they say in the South: “Go big or go home.”
Are you holding yourself back? Dare to check into Bishop’s work and see what you might become.
January 15, 2013
A few days ago, I read a blog post from author Robin LaFevers (GRAVE MERCY) where she advised writers to expose themselves to readers.
Another term for this concept of self-exposure is the author’s voice.
Several years ago, when I was a mere grasshopper with less than ten novels published, I was very surprised to hear my writing mentor tell me that he couldn’t find my voice. There was nothing of me in my books.
It was like being told I was a replicant in the film BLADE RUNNER. Less than the real thing.
It’s been said that you don’t have to search for your authorial voice or create one. It’s supposed to be as distinctive to you as your fingerprints.
But what if you’ve hidden it? Hidden it so deeply and successfully that it can’t be found by a reader? Then your books may be adept and fast-paced, but they won’t be loved.
You can’t touch a reader’s heart if you don’t expose yours.
January 10, 2013
During the hectic rush and bustle of the recent holidays, my writer’s mind locked in on a puzzler: why can I watch the 1947 version of the Christmas film, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, endlessly but cannot bear, endure, or tolerate the 1994 remake?
For a week or more, the AMC channel played endless repeats of the two films. I’ve loved the original all my life, but this Christmas I probably saw it at least six times. No matter what I was doing, if it was playing, I usually plopped on the comfy chair and watched.
Obviously it feeds my emotions and creative heart somehow, but how?
And why does the modern version irritate me so?
I admit I’m a huge fan of the old studio-system method of making movies. Sure, there were problems. Any system will have them. But the writing was usually top-notch!
Pushing aside the obvious elements of casting and actors’ abilities or lack thereof, I considered a few preliminary areas of story analysis: history, source, similarities, differences.
History: The 1947 version was distributed in English and Dutch. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (Other Best Picture nominees that year included GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT, which won; THE BISHOP’S WIFE; and David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Terrific films all!)
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET brought home Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (awarded to the marvelous Edmund Gwenn; he beat out the also-marvelous Charles Bickford in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER); Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies); and Best Writing, Screenplay (George Seaton). The film also won two Golden Globes.
The 1994 version garnered one Saturn Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Richard Attenborough), but did not win.
Source: When I found a hardbound copy of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET for sale in an antiques shop, I ignored my rule against acquiring used books and snapped it up. Okay, Mr. Davies, I thought, let’s see what YOU wrote and how closely do the two films follow your version?
To my surprise, I discovered that this novella was published by Harcourt Brace the same year as the movie’s release and was actually written as a movie tie-in. It simply follows the script, with few deviations, mostly in narrative summary instead of actually dramatizing full scenes. The dialogue is almost identical to the screenplay’s.
The book, then, offers me no answers. Phooey!
Similarities: On the surface, the two films are … not much alike. Both deal with a similar premise: an old man thinks he’s Santa Claus; a little girl doesn’t believe; a couple who love the little girl learn to love each other; Santa is put on trial; Christmas is saved.
Differences: The 1947 version is 96 minutes. The 1994 version is 114 minutes.
Despite its shorter length, the older version manages to keep a crisp pace that doesn’t sacrifice characterization either in the major roles or the brief walk-ons. From the child Susan who may appear to be completely devoid of imagination but harbors a secret dream of a house with a backyard to play in … to the harried mother whose feet hurt as she searches for a fire engine toy … to the neurotic and malevolent Mr. Sawyer … to the judge whose grandchildren won’t speak to him because he’s put Santa on trial … to the post office employees–characters are vivid, touching, or funny.
Think about the doctor who vouches for Kris’s sanity when the Macy’s store is about to fire him. The doctor appears briefly in a couple of scenes, the one I’ve just mentioned and later when he’s almost speechless over receiving the X-Ray machine he needs so desperately. We see this man who cares deeply about his patients. He’s well-spoken and obviously competent, yet he’s chosen to work in the geriatrics field–an area that the more ambitious doctors often ignore. I would want this man to be my physician. Why? Because the writers took a short span of time to make me like him.
The modern version tosses the key character Alfred away. Gone is the gentle teenager befriended by Kris at work. Alfred’s little part is pivotal to illustrating Mr. Sawyer’s petty malevolence. Saving Alfred is Kris’s motivation for confronting Sawyer and striking him, thus giving Sawyer the opening he needs to have Kris tricked and committed to the asylum.
Instead, the modern version cooks up an evil store owner right out of comic-book casting. A couple of mindless henchmen (one’s female, so are they henchpeople?) trail Kris around and eventually grab him. It’s a ludicrous plotline that’s silly, cheap, and absolutely devoid of what gives fiction its heart and soul.
People matter. At the root of successful storytelling is the awareness that people must be important. People drive the story, whether through their attempts to accomplish something or through their anguish or belief in what Mr. Gayley calls the “intangibles.”
The 1947 version has a central theme about the joy and hope of the Christmas spirit. It deals with people who have been hurt in the past and are afraid to have faith in miracles or … each other. It’s a story about how kindness and joy can carry people through whatever problems they encounter.
My favorite part of this story is the scene with the little Dutch orphan. This film was made two short years past the horrors and devastation of WWII. The child has lost her parents in that war. Holland was occupied by the German forces, and the people nearly starved before the Nazis were driven out. This girl has been adopted by American parents, and while she’s clearly adored and well-cared for now, her loss of family, home, language, and country are to be seen in her little face. All she’s got is her belief in Santa mitigated by the fear that he won’t be able to communicate with her. And when Santa speaks Dutch to her–a notoriously difficult language–she lights up in a way that always touches my heart.
I realize the 1994 version was trying to “update” the film for modern audiences, but in choosing a hearing-impaired child instead, the writers forgot to include the underlying emotion and backstory that’s so evident in the Dutch girl.
In short, the remake hits what its writers perceived as the audience buttons, but they failed to create story from the heart. And story from the heart is what creates an emotional button that audiences respond to.
When Kris Kringle and the Dutch child sing together, I believe.
January 4, 2013
I know that we’re already a week into the new year, and Christmas 2012 is behind us. But writers must keep their inner child alive, bright, and happy. Here’s one of the ways I did that during the recent holidays.
This year, my home office desk supports a tacky little white artificial Christmas tree. It’s loaded with atomic-age robot, rocket ship, astronaut, and alien blown-glass ornaments.
I was in a Christmas shop in early December, seeking a gift, when I saw these crazy 1950s robots hanging on a tree along with T. rex ornaments covered in bright glitter. It was obviously a tree designed for a little boy’s room, and in some whacky way the dinosaurs and space ships worked together.
Maybe childhood nostalgia hit me (although I’ve never pined for the return of the 1960s). I thought of Robbie the Robot from the classic science fiction film, FORBIDDEN PLANET. Mainly, though, I was smitten by the glittery pink robot. It was goofy.
I smiled. I resisted. I nearly escaped the store unscathed.
Then it hit me … I write science fiction and fantasy. What a perfect tree to set up in my office!
But how absurd. How nonsensical. How impractical.
How utterly enchanting.
The stark reality of my Visa bill is still an abstraction of the future. Meanwhile, I spent a fun hour that day picking ornaments. From that point, my OCD kicked in and everywhere I went thereafter I was tuned in to robots. Why hadn’t I noticed before that Target was carrying STAR WARS ‘bots? I skipped over Darth Vader and C3PO (too gold!) but came home with R2D2. Then I found cool ‘bot ornaments at Hobby Lobby and snagged the last tread-tracker a split-second ahead of a little boy’s admiring fingers.
(What kind of Scrooge notices that a child wants robot ornaments and reaches for them faster? Do I feel guilty? Not at all! The kid got the last rocket ship ornament. Drat!)
The next step was determining what kind of tree to hang this loot upon. A green tree? I’d already put one up in the living room–very traditional and pretty. I didn’t want to buy another tree. I’d splurged enough on this impulse.
Then inspiration hit me. Stored in my garage is one of those old aluminum trees, circa 1964.
When I was a child, we aquired one of these shiny foil atrocities. My grandmother owned a big one for a while, complete with color wheel, but then it disappeared. My mother, however, loved her little one. She put it up, year after year. It was quick and economical. She had no intention of wasting money on one of those gorgeous cut trees at the grocery store.
I hated the aluminum tree. It was weird. When I was old enough, I landed the annual chore of putting the thing together and hanging shiny red balls on it. When eventually it no longer graced our living room, I still wasn’t rid of it. Mom decreed that it would be put up in my dad’s office reception room, and so I continued to suffer seeing it, in all its shiny silver ugliness, year after year. When I went to graduate school and was too poor to buy a tree, she gave it to me. Ungrateful, I tossed the thing in a garage sale.
That’s when I discovered–too late–that aluminum trees had become highly desirable collector’s items. These mutants were valuable. Who knew?
So out of guilt–and because Mom never quite forgave me for selling hers for $5–I tracked one down and stuck it in the garage.
Realizing it would be perfect for my extraterrestrial space tree, I dug it out and assembled it with glee. It proved to be too fragile to safely support the breakable ornaments. I gave it a cold, objective stare.
It was a moment of honesty. I didn’t care how collectible aluminum trees are. An atrocity is still an atrocity. Age and trendiness can’t change that. I’m glad it wouldn’t work for the ‘bot project. Out it went.
Still, I needed a tree. My garage is like Aladdin’s cave–full of treasures and junk. A few years ago, during the height of the Shabby Chic decorating movement, I had purchased a small white tree at a post-season closeout sale. Never used, lacking any lights, it proved to be perfect for my ‘bots.
Like the proud owner of a new puppy, I took pictures and sent them to my closest friends. These individuals may think I’ve lost my mind, but they’ve been too kind to say so. Writers are, after all, inclined to be a bit–um–peculiar.
Although it’s my custom to take down the decorations on New Year’s Day, I’m loath right now to part with my space tree. It makes me smile every time I look at it. And this was an emotionally rocky Christmas when I needed all the smiles I could garner.
It reminds me that no matter how adept I may be at writing technique, I should keep my imagination–my fey spirit–blithe, impulsive, and ready to have fun when I sit down at the keyboard. Like most artists, I need frequent doses of whimsy to keep me going.
If it’s not fun, writing is just too hard a task to pursue.
What’s whimsical in your writing life? Are you indulging it or ignoring it?
January 1, 2013
If you compare the genre fiction of today with books written, say, in 1972, you’ll see a leaner, quicker product in the modern novel. That change doesn’t necessarily generate a better, more satisfying reading experience. It’s simply different. Twenty-first century readers assimilate information in short, fast bursts from multiple sources. They don’t want a long setup or lengthy description or a lot of background.
While some people still settle into a comfy chair for an evening of reading with soft music in the background and a beverage at their elbow, many are reading on their SmartPhones while waiting in the fast food line, or commuting, or in the dentist’s reception room. Distractions abound, and the savvy writer must adapt to the needs of readers who are frequently interrupted.
I wince as I suggest this, but let’s superficially compare a John D. MacDonald novel to a James (ouch) Patterson story. Both authors deal with crime/suspense. Both have been hugely successful. Both created a popular, long-running series built around an appealing protagonist. Both, in turn, have been considered tight, fast reads.
Now for the differences:
1) MacDonald’s books have long, well-developed chapters.
2) Patterson’s chapters are incredibly short . . . two or three pages.
3) MacDonald takes his time in introducing characters vividly and capably, usually in action designed to showcase their personalities.
4) Patterson slaps a name on his characters and launches into the
5) MacDonald writes intense physical action, using sentence fragments.
6) Patterson writes physical action in narrative summary or scene fragments, hitting the gist of the encounter and cutting away to the next chapter.
So if you want to write today’s lean scene, consider the following:
1) Know exactly what your scene is about.
2) Does the setting have any bearing on the scene’s outcome? If not, take description down to the bare essential of one dominant impression, mentioned briefly.
3) Strip away all the extraneous characters. Center the scene on the protagonist and antagonist.
4) What does the protagonist want, right now, in this instant of story time?
5) How does the protagonist intend to achieve that desire or objective?
6) Does the antagonist want to stop the protagonist from accomplishing that objective? (The answer should be yes.)
7) What is the antagonist’s plan to thwart the protagonist?
8) What motivates the protagonist?
9) What motivates the antagonist?
10) How can the scene end in disaster for the protagonist?
Does your scene hit all ten of those marks? Take a scene you’ve already written and work through the checklist. Do you have four characters standing around? Chances are that two of the extra people have commented or interrupted the main argument. Remove them!
Have you spent three paragraphs explaining motivation and background? Well, now you know the motivations so you can let Greg Goode and Bill Baddun yell at each other from those points of reference. There’s no need to explain it all to the reader. Readers can put two and two together just fine.
Is the scene goal clear? Most writers who aren’t sure write a lot of unnecessary words in hopes of figuring something out. That’s great for rough draft, but not so interesting for what readers will be seeing. Remember the old adage: if you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get there.
If your scene hits all the marks but is still longer than, say, six or seven manuscript pages, look for any circular argument or repetitious conflict. What section of the disagreement is the most potent or important? Keep that, and trim the rest. Read it over to see if it makes sense when it’s shortened. If it doesn’t, what single comment will best fill the gap?
Writing lean takes extra time, extra care, and a lot of focus. You can’t afford to ramble.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
December 30, 2012
Occasionally, I crave the comfort of reading a cozy mystery … just as from time to time I want a hot-fudge sundae.
On a recent browse through the bookstore in search of comfort reading, I came across PLEATING FOR MERCY by Melissa Bourbon. Like so many of today’s American cozies, it’s part of a “themed” series, with the requisite pun title.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the plethora of “cupcake” mysteries, “scrapbooking” mysteries, “library” mysteries, “dog viewpoint” mysteries, “cat” mysteries, “herb-growing” mysteries, any number of “cooking” mysteries, “closet organization” mysteries, “antiques” mysteries, “knitting” mysteries, “home renovation” mysteries, etc. etc. etc. (The mind boggles!) Bourbon’s series is called “A Magical Dressmaking Mystery.”
Why in the world did my hand reach out to pluck this novel off the shelf? Well, I have an interest in sewing. Not in the sense of I’m-going-to-sew-my-own-clothes interest, but in sewing as a domestic art and a pleasant hobby. Personally, I sew only to piece quilts. However, the idea of reading about a couturier protatonist appealed to me. It hit several other appeal buttons: small-town setting; prodigal daughter coming home from a big city; multi-generation family life.
Bourbon–no doubt attempting to hit every possible marketing angle–also has a Texas locale, paranormal elements including a ghost, and a touch of history. (The protagonist is a descendent of Butch Cassidy.)
Conceptually, it feels like she threw in the kitchen sink along with everything else.
In reality, the book is a pleasant read. The characters are quirky, yes, but not so bizarre that you wonder, who came up with these oddballs?
Forensic details are swept mercifully to the background. The protagonist is under the pressure of finishing the bride’s dress before the wedding, while wondering whether the bride or the groom is going to be arrested for murder.
Granted, this is no hard-hitting, suspenseful murder mystery. Finding a clue in a broken jar of vintage buttons may be too simple for your tastes. But the plot is solid. There’s enough of an internal conflict in the protagonist to make her interesting. A couple of romantic subplots add more questions. While I found Bourbon’s transitions to be rather rough and the paranormal aspects annoyed me only because they always do, these were minor things that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of a quiet, easy-to-read cozy.
Even if my favorite character was the grandmother’s pet goat, I will read the next book in the series. (Title: A FITTING END)
December 26, 2012
Do you ever read a novel that bogs down in the middle? Or gets vague and tangled up as it goes?
Do you ever write a story that maybe starts off in an exciting way but soon you find that every page you’re producing is a slog … uphill … through quicksand?
And then, when you read over it, it’s even worse than you thought?
How easy it is to write when you’re enthusiastic and passionate about your plot and characters. And why are you that way? Because you have an idea. You can envision that opening scene, that event. You see the setting vividly. You hear the dialogue. You feel what your protagonist is feeling, and you can’t wait to get to your keyboard. Oh, the joy of feeling those words flowing from your imagination to your computer screen.
And then, the big opening is over. You’ve written it. Now a fog closes in around you. The headlights that once shone across your novel are dim. Maybe one headlight has cracked, and now you have a tentative notion of where your characters are going next, but you aren’t sure.
In my experience, uncertainty generates a slow-down in pacing. You may not realize it because you’re so busy trying to juggle a dozen other writing techniques. But if you doubt the scene you’re about to write, it will come through as timidity, hesitancy, and caution.
Before you know it, your next scene, and the next, and the next are small. The stakes shrink. Your characters are talking instead of arguing. The conflict level has dwindled to zero. You keep saying, “I’m stuck. Why am I stuck? I had a great idea. What’s happened to it? It’s horrible. I hate it. I think I’ll write something else instead.”
As for your characters, when you’re unsure they become dull. Why? Because your caution will usually lead you to tone down their design. They become plain, ordinary, realistic people who chat with each other about nothing important.
You are in a whirlpool, my friends, and you are going down.
Go big! Go faster!
This is one of those rare times when a writer should work contrary to his instincts. It’s natural to shrink. But a writer must enhance, enlarge, go wild, be unpredictable, take chances … LEAP!
So how, you might be thinking, am I supposed to pick up the pace when I don’t know where I’m going?
Believe in your original story idea, the one you plotted in your preliminary outline, the one you smoothed and honed and thought over before you ever began your project. Believe in it. Trust it. Stick with it.
Also, if you’ve bogged down and can’t think of what’s going to happen next, go back to the point in your story where you stopped writing conflict, where your protagonist stopped actively pursuing a goal, and where no antagonist stepped up to oppose the hero’s success.
No aimless chatter allowed. The characters should be arguing, disagreeing, trying to persuade or plead or influence each other. Raise the stakes. Put your protagonist in trouble. Even if you’re still stuck, throw in a massively wild, totally unexpected danger that’s apparently unconnected to anything you have going on.
Planned? No. But do anything to get your story rolling again. You can figure out a connection later in revision.
The wild, out-of-left-field plot twist or new trouble is a technique that I call an “alligator.” Why? Long story. Just keep in mind that when you happen to meet a real alligator, you have only a few options–chiefly are you going to run away from it and maybe call the authorities or fight it? Alligators are primitive, crude, highly dangerous reptiles. They don’t allow you to stand there passively, staring at them. When confronted by one, either on land or in the water, you must TAKE ACTION!
Same thing with your plot. Alligators shouldn’t force your storyline completely off track, but give your characters an unexpected, new, immediate problem to deal with. Get ‘em moving. And above all, get them moving fast.
The more conflict you put them in, the faster your story will go. The more exaggerated and flamboyant your characters are forced to be, the more active they’ll become.
Give it a try, the next time you start slogging.