Characters Are Key

Who would you be sadder to see die: Daenerys Stormborn or Bran Stark?

For me, it’s Daenerys, all the way. I care about her. I’ve rooted for her since we first encountered her. She has a story I have embraced, and I want her to succeed and become queen.

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As for Bran, his character (in the TV series, anyway) is so underdeveloped (though with great promise) that I simply don’t care about him. We haven’t been given enough to buy into him emotionally, at least I haven’t. His great knowledge has yet to be shared, and since he became the three-eyed raven, he is cold and aloof from everyone. Will he live, or will he die? Meh. (Even as I write this, I am aware that there could be a HUGE surprise awaiting us where Bran is concerned. Still, as of this moment, I say Meh. I might retract it, I know.)

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Brianne of Tarth, on the other hand, has just been sent into harm’s way. Not Brianne! We want her to marry Tormund Giantsbane and have giant warrior children! They’re not main characters, but oh do we care about them!

When you are writing your characters, whether hero or villain, or even secondary characters, try to make your readers care about them. If readers become invested in your characters, you’ll keep them engaged in your story. If not, it won’t matter how wonderful your story or plot is, the reader will be able to put the book down and walk away.

We recently watched “Rectify” on TV. The characters were so engaging, even damaged, that we found ourselves talking about them as though they were real, discussing their reactions and fears, eager to watch the next episode to know how they were getting on. Now that’s good writing!

Even less-dramatic shows, such as “Better Call Saul,” can have us caring when someone does a favorite character evil. Are the stories unique and memorable? Not always. But they make us care about the characters and remember the plot because of those characters.

In your writing, do your best to bring your characters alive. Make your readers invest in them. Good or evil, your characters will make you story memorable.

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Finding the Essence Is Crucial

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” Mark Twain

As each year passes, I find that I require fewer words to write. I still love long, languorous sentences if they serve a purpose, but I find more often that pithiness is key, and powerful. Often, I review what I’ve written and immediately see what to omit. First, I get my thoughts out, and then I edit.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Mark Twain

It takes time to write well. It takes time and effort to edit well. But the result is worth it.

How much better to write of the “spare Lincolnesque man who limped through the grocery aisles surreptitiously filling his pockets with soups and raisins,” than to write, “He was a tall, thin man, with chin whiskers and a top hat, who dragged his leg as he haunted the aisles stuffing the coats of his pockets with canned veggies and soup and bags of food such as nuts and raisins.”

“A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.” Mark Twain

I am currently forcing myself to finish a book where the author desperately needed an editor to clean up his prose. If the reader knows the facts of a situation, and one character goes to share those facts with another character, the author can imply that the facts were conveyed, not make the reader sit through yet another iteration of said facts. Cut that part and get to the consequence of sharing that information.

Assume intelligence on the part of your readers: they can remember facts, they catch implications, and they are likely ahead of the characters when it comes to tying things together.

Tighten your prose. Still paint with the glory of the entire English vocabulary, but write succinctly. Allow each word to carry its own weight.

Elements of Excellent Fiction

Fiction writing is a work of art. And, as will any art, it is a form that requires practice to master.

And, again, as with any art, there is no single way to write fiction. How we write depends on our personal experience, and on our goal in writing the piece. But for all fiction, there are guidelines.

Each story must involve characters. Whether we love them or hate them, no narrative is complete without characters. Journalism stories cite people involved in an event, but rarely do those characters come to life in those stories. In narrative writing, readers want to know the characters, so that they care about the outcome of the story.

As with any good story, conflict is vital in fiction writing. Think of the earliest stories you heard as a child: there was always an element of conflict. Think Snow White and her Stepmother, or Mowgli and Sher Khan, or Fern Gully and the evil corporation that threatened the animals’ existence. Without conflict, there is no story, only narrative.

The story connecting the events surrounding the conflict is called the plot. The plot is a series of events relating to the conflict, which leads to the final resolution of that conflict. The resolution is the climax of the story. Typically, the climax comes near the end of the story, leaving only room for final reflection.

When writing fiction (though, truthfully, in all writing), try to make your first line absolutely compelling. First lines should pull the reader into the story immediately. My favorite first line is: “Call me Ishmael,” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The first time I read that book, I read the first line and immediately put down the book and looked up the name Ishmael, knowing that the name was key to understanding the entire book. Now THAT’s fine writing!

Or take the opening line in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Or the opening line of Lawrence Hill’s book The Illegal: “Go home.”

Immediately, we are intrigued by these lines. We are compelled to read on. That is the power of an excellent opening line.

Start with a powerful opening line and go on to tell your story from there, peopling your story with living characters, good and evil, who face a conflict … and tell the truth of that experience. When a story rings true, even if it’s fiction, you have the reader in the palm of your hand.

 

 

 

Describe, Rather Than Show: We all do it

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A couple of months ago, as she was editing the first draft of her latest novel, author Louise Penny wrote:

In the meantime, am writing away. had to severely re-write a chapter when I realized it was all done in retrospect – described – rather than seeing it unfold. Am being vague, I know. Don’t want to give too many details. But it sometimes happens, when I have, let’s say Gamache and Beauvoir analyzing something that happened, instead of showing it happening to them. Show don’t tell. Well I made that mistake and today had to un-make it. D’oh.

See, even successful published authors must rethink their writing.

“Show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard the phrase (commandment), but what does it mean?

It means to let the reader in on the action. Rather than having them read about an event in a newspaper account–“Plane Lands on One Wheel, Passengers Throw Bodies To Opposite Side to Balance Plane: A Wild West jet landed on one wheel today, safely, thanks to the quick thinking of the captain and the cooperation of the passengers”–let them be inside the plane with the passengers as the captain commands over the loudspeaker, “People, we have a situation here. Only one landing gear wheel has extended and locked. We must land, we can land, but we all have to work together to make this happen. I need everyone, and I mean everyone, to move to the left side of the plane. Men, women, and children … move. Find any empty seat, or sit on the seat of someone already in place, but get to the left side of the plane. Do it now. We have one minute til touchdown! Get over and sit and hold on, because it’s gonna get bumpy!”

Which of these renderings of the account gets your blood pumping faster, and your mind engaged in a whirlwind of thoughts? Was it the newspaper reporting of the account, or was it the in-the-moment account? I suspect it was the latter, even if you simply couldn’t accept that a captain would ask his passengers to do such a thing. You were engaged, and that means the writing was successful.

That is the difference between telling (reporting) and showing (putting the reader in the moment).

Review your writing. Do you engage your readers in the action? If not, perhaps you should try to rewrite, and Show, don’t Tell.

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Enriching Your Writing

Meg Gardiner has been blogging about how she makes her novels “cinematic” by writing to the five senses. I, too, have written about writing with the senses, a talent that draws your readers into the story, as the words on the page become more than mere words and entice visual imagery.

Today, write about adding new bits and pieces to your writing to give more information to your reader—by using nouns in an interesting way. Here’s an easy way to improve your writing by simply concentrating on the visuals of each sentence.

First, reread your piece, paying close attention to any opportunity for visuals in your sentences. Find the nouns that you could improve to give more information to your reader. For example, in this sentence, there are several words I could expand on for greater impact:

  • I put the food on the dish and carried it to the dining room.

How can I enrich this sentence? Here are some ideas:

  • I put the food = I piled the sliced beef precariously on the platter
  • and carried it to the dining room = and stepped gingerly into the dining room, carefully avoiding bumping into chairs or tipping the platter and spraying meat juice onto the guests

The sentence now reads: I piled the sliced beef precariously on to platter and stepped gingerly into the dining room, carefully avoiding bumping into chairs or tipping the platter and spraying meat juice onto the guests.

It’s as easy as that. If you envision what you are writing about, your reader will be able to envision, as well.

Here’s another example:

  • Jerzy looked at Gladys and left the room. Gladys simply stared.

How might I enrich these sentences? Here are some ideas:

  • Jerzy looked at Gladys = Jerzy pierced Gladys with a look of pure hatred
  • and left the room = and stomped across the carpet to the door, slamming it behind him.
  • Gladys simply stared = Gladys never blinked, unaware of any emotion wafting in his wake.

The greater imagery also provides more insight into emotions, without blatantly writing them out. Hatred, anger, and lack of empathy are implied by the stronger writing.

Review what you have written and see where you can strengthen imagery. It’s amazingly easy, and well worth any effort on your part to provide visual clues to your reader.

First-Page Critique #10: Gateway to the Divine

zorra

Here is the last of 10 first-page critiques offered to readers of my blog and readers of author Meg Gardiner. We hope you have enjoyed the critiques, and perhaps learned something from them for your own writing. The first step in any successful novel is getting the words on the page. The next step is proper editing. If you have editing questions, please feel free to contact me.

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Chapter 1: Kore’s Departure

As the biting wind stung her face Inanna clutched her as if her life depended on it. A chorus of leaves crunched beneath her feet cutting into the cold pulsing air. As she approached the bridge she paused – the creek water did not have its usual delicate trickling sound, but revealed gushing excitement. Soon Callie’s cottage was in sight. She paused once again and looked up at the sky. All hell is going to break loose tonight, she thought.

She rapped hard on the door. “Callie! Callie! It’s time. It’s time,” she uttered in a voice that hardly sounded like her own. She was highly cognizant of the urgency of the situation and was desperately trying to keep the panic in her heart from swallowing her whole.

The door opened slowly to prevent the wind from ripping it from its hinges. “Oh dear – it will take me a couple of minutes to get my things. Please, step inside for a moment,” Callie invited. “We’ll stop for Margot along the way,” she added.

As the two women gathered a couple of bags that had been prepared ahead of time, Callie slipped on her fur lined boots and swung her wool cloak around her. On the way out the door she grabbed her umbrella.

“Just in case,” she said as she winked at Inanna.

They two women strained to walk upright against the savage winds. Leaves and twigs raked against them and the percolating storm cut loose with a vengeance.

“Damn,” Callie bemoaned, “umbrella’s no use tonight.” She tucked it deep inside one of the bags, bouncing haughtily against her side. As if they hadn’t already been moving at a quick pace, the two women moved even faster. The contents of the bags was a constant reminder of what lay ahead this long night.

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Meg’s comments:

I like the urgency, the mystery, and the foreboding atmosphere in this scene. The storm effectively magnifies and reinforces the turbulence in Inanna’s heart, complicating her unknown mission. That’s all positive. What this page needs is another draft.

And, Dear Author—before you howl and rend your garments: this is a good thing.

This page has multiple early-draft issues—imprecise language, awkward sentence constructions, clichés. But the concept for the scene, and its execution, are basically solid. With care and attention, you can straightforwardly fix every issue. (I’m not telling you to throw it out and start over. See? Good thing.)

So:

Sentence construction:

1) The first sentence—the reader’s entry point into the story—is confusing. It uses her three times. Either the second her is a pronoun where a name should be used, or a word is missing. (“Inanna clutched her…” Her what? Pearls? Broadsword?)

2) Watch for overusing as. “As the biting wind stung her face,” “As she approached the bridge,” “As the two women gathered…” As can let a sentence get overloaded with too much action. Cut the word and cut the sentence in two. Or change “ ‘Just in case,’ she said as she winked,” to “‘Just in case.’ She winked.”

Speech tags. Stick with “said.” (Everybody who’s attended a writers’ group meeting with me is now stabbing a finger at their screen, thinking, “I knew she’d harp on this.”) On this page, dialogue is rarely said. It’s uttered, invited, added, and bemoaned. You’re allowed a speech tag that isn’t the word said—once a chapter. That exception is the word asked.

Clichés: “All hell is going to break loose.” “With a vengeance.” “As if her life depended on it.”

Come up with fresh similes and metaphors.

Imprecise imagery: Can a chorus “crunch”? Does a bag bounce “haughtily”? Does wind feel like “pulsing” air? When you say Inanna’s voice “hardly sounded like her own,” could you instead be specific? How does it sound different? Timid? Quavering? Too loud?

 

One larger issue is the disparity in Inanna’s and Callie’s reactions—Inanna is near panic, Callie breezy. That’s actually interesting. But Inanna doesn’t react to Callie’s breeziness. It’s a disconnect. If Inanna could show irritation, or anger, or be calmed by Callie’s seeming coolness, that would strengthen the scene.

This page has a lot of potential. So dig in and get going on the next draft.

Thanks for submitting!

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Ann’s Comments

I like the sense of turmoil and need for speed that comes across in the early paragraphs. This is lost, however, with Callie’s lack of intensity. Is that on purpose? Is Inanna being unrealistic in her hurry? If you mean to have two reactions, then the two characters should play against one another in those reactions. If this isn’t meant to be, I would suggest that you hasten Callie’s responses. I hope that the sense of urgency is important, because that’s what drives this first page.

I won’t cover the clichés in the writing, since Meg has covered those. Just know that if a phrase immediately comes to mind (quick as a wink, in a New York minute, in two shakes of a cat’s tail), it is likely a cliché. When you edit, look for such phrases and reimagine the imagery (something that happens rapidly: like drool forming at the sight of chocolate cake; or a quickly as a fussing baby calms in its mother’s arms). Give yourself time to reimagine the world from your unique perspective, and share that imagining with your readers.

I also agree with her discussions of imprecise imagery and speech tags, all things that I would normally point out. I won’t repeat them here, but simply agree with them. Pronouns are especially problematic, as are sentence lead-ins (such as “as”).

All of that said, I also agree with Meg that you have a strong first draft here, one that deserves another edit, and then more of the story.

Reread Meg’s comments, and then study my suggested edits as follows. If you compare this edit to your original text, you’ll get an idea of how to tighten your writing:

With the wind biting her face, Inanna clutched her (missing word?), protecting it from the clutches of the wind. A chorus of leaves crunched beneath her feet. At the lip of the bridge, she paused—the creek didn’t trickle as usual, but gushed with laden energy. She scooted across the bridge on panic-light feet.

Soon Callie’s cottage was in sight. She paused again and looked at the sky. All hell is going to break loose tonight.

She rapped hard on the door. “Callie! Callie! It’s time. It’s time!” She fought to keep the panic in her heart from swallowing her whole.

The door opened deliberately, to prevent the wind from ripping it from its hinges. “Oh dear—it will take me a couple of minutes to get my things. Step inside for a moment. We’ll stop for Margot along the way.” (Question whether she doesn’t feel the need for speed as well?)

Callie slipped on her fur-lined boots and twirled her wool cloak about her shoulders, then handed Inanna one bulging bag and grabbed the other. At the last moment, she grabbed her umbrella. “Just in case.”

The two women strained against the savage wind as leaves and twigs raked against them, the percolating storm at last cutting loose.

“Damn! Umbrella’s no use tonight.” Callie tucked it deep into the bag bouncing against her side. The two women moved trod faster, the contents of the bags a constant reminder of what lay ahead this long night.

You have my interest. I vote that you continue! Thank you for submitting this.

First-Page Critique #9: The Sugar Clan

zorraAuthor Meg Gardiner and I do another first-page critique, this time of the quirky Sugar Clan.

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THE SUGAR CLAN

Click-click. Click-click. Click-click. Great, her whole morning was now complete. Her car wasn’t starting, not even the slightest spark of life. She had just had it serviced last week. She was never going to make it to her advisor meeting on time. She might as well walk to campus. Maybe the two-mile walk would clear her head and burn off the growing frustration she was feeling.

Darcy started walking in the direction of campus at an angry brisk pace, leaving her car behind her, when she was slammed onto the gravel with an abrasive thud.  She felt the wave of heat whoosh past her before she heard the sound of the blast. As she looked back, she saw flames dancing ten feet high and plumes of smoke marring an otherwise clear blue sky. The briny breeze gently fanning the flames was now mixed with a smokey scent that felt oddly soothing under the circumstances.

Her car, nicknamed Fireball, had just become an actual fireball. “Words have power” never felt more true. Darcy decided she would be more selective naming her next car. Now she really wasn’t going to make it to her advisor meeting at all.

Feeling an inner surge of calm, she called Norma, her advisor’s secretary to tell her she wouldn’t make it. Norma seemed to be expecting an excuse. This wasn’t the first advisor meeting she cancelled this past year. When Darcy told Norma why she was canceling this time, she felt the first crack of emotion in that old battle-ax’s stoic demeanor. Instead of being the ever efficient and cool robot for her advisor, there was a glimmer of warmth and concern beneath her usually glacial facade. She clicked off, telling Norma she’d get back to her to reschedule once she’d sorted this mess.

Darcy proceeded to call 911, followed by her insurance. She had woken up this morning with an unsettling feeling from of a dream that she couldn’t quite remember. The alarm was already toning away on her phone on her bedside table as she came to full awareness. It was rare for Darcy to be woken up by the alarm and this was one of those days. Her body clock usually kicked in no matter how sleep-deprived she was. On her morning run she’d almost tripped over a rock she didn’t see because she was distracted.

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Meg’s comments:

This page starts with a bang, and has a kooky vibe that I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, I think the author should further exploit that vibe. Doing so will require work on setup vs. payoff and on balancing scene, summary, and flashback.

Set up and payoff. In comedy and thrillers, a punchline or twist works best when it’s set up beforehand. Here, the twist is Fireball exploding in a fireball. But there’s no setup. The car’s nickname is revealed after the fact, as an example of irony, and then discussed at a length that dulls the joke. Possible ways to set it up:

  • Give readers a visual clue in the first paragraph—“Her rusting Civic, held together by a bumper sticker that said WORDS HAVE POWER, refused to start”—and, after the blast, have the smoking license plate holder inscribed with FIREBALL land at Darcy’s feet.
  • Show Darcy grinding the ignition, shouting, “Not even a spark? Why’d I name you Fireball, you stupid car?” followed by the WORDS HAVE POWER sticker floating past her on the soothing breeze.
  • Or, if you want to save it all for after the explosion, show Darcy sitting stunned, while pages of her term paper, titled “Words Have Power,” flutter across the asphalt. Then: She hadn’t believed it. But there lay her car, Fireball.

Scene, summary, and flashback. This page is thin on setting, and summarizes much of the action. That tends to flatten the scene to one emotional level. Darcy’s frustration about missing her meeting looms as large as her brush with death. Maybe that’s intentional, and part of the kooky vibe. But it slows the pacing—car won’t start, car explodes, Darcy calls her advisor’s secretary, reflects on the secretary’s personality, calls the police, and remembers waking up—to a single tempo. After the car explodes, expand on the drama. One beat at least. Give Darcy a real moment to feel the danger viscerally before she starts reflecting (strangely soothing…).

Flashback: the page segues directly from Darcy calling 911 to her waking up that morning. (I suspect that the story originally opened with her waking from the ill-remembered dream, before the author decided to spark things up with the fireball). Here’s the thing: flashbacks generally aren’t compelling unless the author first raises a question that the flashback provides the answer to. Right now the page offers no strong reason to rewind to Darcy getting out of bed. Why do we need to hear the alarm, or learn about the type of dreams she has? Don’t go there, unless it relates to the explosion and the initial scene shows readers that Darcy understands why her car blows up.

Minor points:

“Advisor meeting”—clarify up front that this means meeting with Darcy’s academic advisor.

“Proceeded to call 911, followed by her insurance”—this is the jargon of a police report or insurance claim form. It dulls the scene and detracts from the more curious point: Darcy calls her academic advisor before the cops.

Watch for sentence constructions that phrase events in terms of a character’s feelings. Using all five senses to describe a scene is great. But writing, “she felt X…” is not as strong as stating directly what’s happening. Instead of, “the growing frustration she was feeling,” go with, “her growing frustration.” Instead of, “She felt the wave of heat whoosh past her before she heard the sound of the blast. As she looked back, she saw flames dancing ten feet high,” try: “A wave of heat whooshed past her. Then the roar of the blast. She looked back. Flames danced ten feet high and plumes of smoke marred the clear blue sky.”

The idea for the opening scene would get me to read on. But the languid flashback would drain my interest. Rewrite, and keep going!

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Ann’s comments:

My first thought is, why is a grad student being firebombed? You have my interest.

My second thought is, this is a clear case of “telling” not “showing” in the writing, which immediately weakens the story for me. You tell us, for example, that the advisor’s secretary Norma seemed to be expecting an excuse, and then tell us that there was a crack in her façade. How much more powerful the writing would be if you showed us these things.

The difference between showing and telling is the difference between witnessing an event and reading an account in a newspaper. The account removes the reader from the action.

I like the idea of this piece, and its unusual voice and pacing. But I believe the writing could be tightened a great deal, thus improving the piece overall.

One criticism is that you use too many adjectives: “angry, brisk pace”; “clear blue sky”; “ever efficient and cool robot.” I would tighten those to “angry pace,” “blue sky,” and “efficient robot.” I’d also change this phrase, “slammed onto the ground with an abrasive thud,” to simply “slammed to the ground.”

“She felt a wave of heat whoosh past her before she heard the blast,” could be tightened to “a whoosh of heat foreshadowed the noise of the blast.”

Strive for immediacy, with tightened sentences and action rather than reporting. I agree with Meg’s comments about Fireball and the use of “words have power.” Make that idea count. It’s powerful, and if it signals something to come later, emphasize the idea now.

It strikes me as interesting that Darcy’s first thought after the explosion is to cancel her advisor meeting. I hope this is intentional, else why isn’t she panicking about her car exploding? Was it an accident, or sabotage? She shows no emotional reaction to her near-death whatsoever. I find that strange. Is it oversight or does it tell us something about Darcy? Hard to tell with what we have here.

I think this story has potential. I’d encourage you to continue, but be aware of loose wording, and keep the action moving forward. Unless the flashback has great pertinence, leave it out, or refer to it in dialogue rather than as flashback. You want a certain pacing, but that doesn’t have to come through excess verbiage. Let your ideas flow, but succinctly.

Despite the need for careful editing, I would still read on. I encourage you to continue.