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.

Advertisements

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.

 

 

 

First-Page Critique #5: WWII-Era Story

zorraHere’s a new first-page joint critique from Meg Gardiner and me. The anonymous author’s page is below. Meg’s and my comments follow. Thanks to the author for submitting.

_________________

Chapter 1

The barrels towered against the warehouse wall spilling out on the yard, one on top of the other. The stevedores tilted their heads and stared through the April morning haze. Their assignement started at first light. The warehouse owner wanted it done with a minimum of fuss, and before the regular hours of the harbour.

“How old did you say these barrels are?”

The youngest of the stevedores was barely 18 years old, with muscles straining against his shirt.

The foreman spat tobacco on the ground. “The oldest are from the last year of the war,” he said. “1918.”

The kid scratched his head. “Holy shit. Are you telling me that some of those barrels are older than I am?”

“That they are.” The foreman stuffed another wad of tobacco under his upper lip, and sucked tobacco flavoured saliva through his teeth. “We can use the crane to lift off the top layers and lower them directly on the barge. The barge will take them to the landfill.”

The kid wasn’t done being awed. “But isn’t it weird that the barrels have been here for so long? It’s 1940 for Gods sake. Why haven’t they removed them before?”

The foreman snorted and pulled on a pair of thick gloves. He was a big, burly man, with a face marked from a life on the docks. His shoulders were more powerful than the kid’s, as was his back.

“Our job is the clean-up. Get up there, you know how to work the machinery.”

The kid climbed up the crane. It gave him a tremendous feeling of power to look down on the foreman. One day he would take his girlfriend up here, and really show her … the view.

The thought made him grin while he started the engine.

A few hours later they were down to the last layer of barrels, closest to the wall. The barge had made one trip to the landfill already, and was waiting for them at the pier.

The foreman kept a close eye on the barrels. He waved up to the kid, and the crane stopped it’s creaking rhythm.

He bent over a barrel and looked closer at the metal hoops. He could clearly see rust, and he was unsure it if would hold.

If the hoops broke, the contents – litres of putrefied brine and rotten herrings — would spill all over his feet.

___________________

Ann’s Comments:

I like this first page. Set in a different time, it interests me enough to keep reading. The last line leads me to believe that the barrels aren’t, in fact, full of brine and herrings, and I am intrigued to see what they will find left over from World War I.

The writing is solid and focused, but perhaps a bit wordy. Let’s look at some specific suggestions:

  • The barrels towered against the warehouse wall spilling out on the yard, one on atop of the other. The stevedores tilted their heads and stared through the April morning haze. Their assignment had started at first light. The warehouse owner wanted it done with a minimum of fuss, and before the regular hours of the harbour. [Assuming UK English in use.]
  • “How old did you say these barrels are?” The youngest of the stevedores was barely 18 years old, with muscles straining against his shirt. [No need for second paragraph.]
  • The foreman spat tobacco on the ground. “The oldest are from the last year of the war. ”
  • The kid scratched his head. “Holy shit! Are you telling me that some of those Those barrels are older than I am?”
  • “That they are.” The foreman stuffed another wad of tobacco under his upper lip, and sucked tobacco-flavoured saliva through his teeth. “We can use the crane to lift off the top layers and lower them directly on the barge. The barge will take them to the landfill.” [At some point, he has to spit.]
  • The kid wasn’t done being awed. “But isn’t it weird that the barrels have been here for so long? it’s 1940 for Gods sake. Why haven’t they removed them before?” [Careful with giving such precise dates like this. It can be easier, but weaker writing. Perhaps find another way to give an idea of the current date.]
  • The foreman snorted and pulled on a pair of thick gloves [this would be a good time for him to spit]. He was a big, burly man, with a face marked from a life on the docks. His shoulders were more powerful than the kid’s, as was his back. [This information should be important at some point, or we don’t really need to know it, unless he is a main character.] “Our job is the clean-up. Get up there, you know how to work the machinery.” [No need for separate paragraph.]
  • The kid climbed up the crane. It gave him a tremendous feeling of power to look down on the foreman. One day he would take his girlfriend up here, and really show her … the view. The thought made him grin while he started the engine.
  • A few hours later they were down to the last layer of barrels, closest to the wall. The barge had made one trip to the landfill already, and was waiting for the last load. them at the pier.
  • The foreman kept a close eye on the barrels. He waved up to the kid, and the crane stopped its creaking rhythm. He bent over a barrel and peered looked closer at the metal hoops. He could clearly see rust, and he was unsure it if would hold. If the hoops broke, the contents – litres of putrefied brine and rotten herrings – would spill all over his feet.

Simply tightening the prose helps move the story along and keep the reader’s interest. You could tighten further by leaving out some of the parenthetical prose (such as the foreman’s build, and the young man’s plan to take his girl on the crane). You want to capture the reader instantly. Too much chatter, and you risk losing the reader.

As I said, though, that last line grabs my attention. I would keep reading.

My comments:

All Ann’s suggestions are on the money. Using detail to show the era, the location, and set the mood are all great. But tightening this page will strengthen it, for several reasons:

1. Cutting the fluff (which isn’t that thick or fluffy, to be sure) will let the characters, setting, and events shine more clearly. Especially in dialogue, cutting echoes and verbal fillers will distill the conversation to its essence.

2. This scene is a set-up for the main story. Whatever spills out of those barrels is going to cause a disturbance in the world of the novel. It’s going to be the inciting incident that kicks off the plot. I’m confident that this the purpose of the scene because:

  • The author effectively creates a mood of mystery and anticipation (the barrels are so old! Their age is strange! They hail from the dying days of one massive war, and are about to be opened in the first year of another!)
  • The stevedores are minor characters who will probably only appear in this scene. Why? Because they’re “the stevedores.” They’re “the foreman,” and “the kid.” They don’t have names. That’s fine. But when minor characters appear, especially at the beginning of a novel, be careful not to give them too much personality. One identifying characteristic will be enough. If you describe them in detail, and show us their habits, and put them in lively conversation, and hint at their love lives, then readers will expect that they’re going to stick around and matter to the plot. When they don’t, readers will feel disappointed.

So: let the dock workers do their part. Don’t over-build them. Give readers one quick glimpse at the foreman (burly, tobacco-spitting) and the kid (fit, eager, young enough to be surprised) and then pry open those barrels. I want to know what comes spilling out, and see how the stevedores react.

Good job!

First-Page Critique #4: Pity the Living

zorra

Here’s a new first-page critique, of the British thriller Pity the Living. The page is below; author Meg Gardiner’s comments follow, with mine at the end.

___________________

 

Pity the Living

Craig stood in front of the faded hardwood door and hesitated.  He glanced left and right. A few cars drove by, but there were few people on the street. He was a little surprised. This was a popular residential area, and he expected commuters and children to be heading out to work and school. He turned his attention back to the door and knocked, hard. Ten seconds seemed to be a reasonable time to wait for a response, but at three he was pulling out a key, its once sharp teeth smoothed by many years of wearing holes in pocket linings—some of them his. He tried to remember the last time he’d used it. Six years ago? Seven?

Craig pushed the key into the lock, the clicking of tumblers drowned out by the noisy squawk of Brighton’s seagulls. He glanced up and smiled. Those damn birds had probably started their morning racket with the rise of the sun, two hours earlier. The wooden door, swollen from years of neglect, squawked louder as he pushed it inwards. He hadn’t taken a step when the salt-fresh sea air was replaced by the unmistakeable stench of death. His stomach spasmed. He turned and threw-up the roadside breakfast-in-a-bun he’d eaten less than fifteen minutes earlier. His first thought was borne of pure shock, and he knew he’d forever associate it with this moment. That shit didn’t actually taste any worse the second time round.

Craig wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and turned back to the doorway. He breathed in through his nose, deeply. The smell wasn’t one he ever wanted to get used to, but this wasn’t the first time he’d smelled death. Those times were different, though. This time it was personal. This time he knew whose rotting corpse was waiting for him.

Craig pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his right hand and stepped over the threshold. He used his sleeved hand to push the door closed and stood for a moment, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the gloom of the familiar hallway. The two doors on his left were closed, as was the bathroom door at the top of the stairs ahead of him. Cheap curtains with no lining hung limply across the window to the right of the bathroom door, but did a poor job of keeping the morning light out.

____________________

Meg’s comments:

This page offers a good mix of anxiety, determination, and mystery. I like the way we sense that this is a story weighted with history, and that the author creates this atmosphere without dumping backstory onto the page. The history is going to be revealed organically, strategically, after Craig opens the door. The page tantalizes us with hints—about Craig’s background, both personal and professional, and about the surprise that awaits him inside the house.

The writing is extremely competent. This submission has no issues with grammar, usage, or tenses. This might sound like a minor compliment, but writing competently is a tall hurdle to clear. When professional readers come across clean, proficient prose, we cheer. And the author knows to start the story in the right place: just before the main character crosses an awful threshold into a world soaked with death.

My suggestions relate to sharpening the prose, and pacing revelations. The author is interlacing description amid the action. That’s a good impulse, but in places it slows the flow of the story and results in long, convoluted sentences. Some details might not matter to the story, and can be tightened.

Opening paragraph: the author can reshape or cut most of the middle sentences. “Craig stood in front of the faded hardwood door. He raised his hand to knock, and hesitated. He glanced left and right. [Why? Checking for surveillance?] The street was surprisingly empty. This was a popular, leafy neighbourhood, but no commuters were driving to work, no children heading to school. And nobody was watching him. He rapped on the door, hard. He tried to wait ten seconds, but after three he pulled out the worn key. When had he last used it? Six years ago? Seven?”

One thing to change: the parallelism in the structure of these paragraphs. Each one starts with “Craig.” It’s too much. Paragraph two:

“Overhead, seagulls squawked. Craig smiled. Those damn Brighton gulls had probably been at it since sunrise. He jammed the key into the lock and pushed the door open. Swollen from years of neglect, it squawked louder than the birds. Instantly, a stench hit him. It overwhelmed the salt-fresh air. His stomach spasmed. He spun and threw up his roadside breakfast. The smell permeating the house was unmistakeable. Death.”

End the paragraph with the hardest hitting revelation!

“He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. His first thought, borne of pure shock, was: That shit didn’t taste any worse the second time around. His second: I’ll never forget that a puked-up breakast-in-a-bun is what I thought about at this moment. He turned back to the doorway. He breathed in through his nose, deeply. [Clarify why? Because the olfactory nerves soon go numb?] The smell was one he never wanted to get used to, but this wasn’t the first time he’d smelled death. Those times were different, though. This time it was personal. This time he knew whose rotting corpse was waiting for him.”

In the final paragraph, do you want to show his emotional state as the first seconds of shock give way to action?

“He pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his right hand and stepped across the threshold. [If he wants to avoid leaving fingerprints, would he wipe the lock?] He shut the door with his covered hand and stood. His eyes adjusted to the gloom of the familiar hallway. His heart didn’t. It pounded. The two doors on his left were closed, as was the bathroom door at the top of the stairs ahead of him. Cheap curtains with no lining hung limply across the window to the right of the bathroom door, but did a poor job of keeping the morning light out.”

This is a solid opening page—but if the book is going to be an action-oriented thriller, then soon—very soon, within the next few words—it’s time to instigate some action. I suspect that those closed doors might hide bad guys. I hope so. Because as soon as possible, it’s important to put Craig into a scene with other people. That’s where conflict, dialogue, and story really get rolling. Don’t leave your characters alone!

Thanks to the author for submitting this first page. Good luck!

Ann’s comments:

I am immediately pulled into the story. You have used the senses to set the stage and provide something more than just the bare outlines of action.

He walked to a door, knocked, waited, let himself in, and found a body—This is so much more than that! We smell the salt air, hear the birds, hear the tumblers, see the neglected wooden door, and then smell death, not specifically but knowing that it is bad enough to cause the narrator to heave. Excellent use of the senses!

The rhythm of the sentences is also outstanding. Whether read silently or aloud, the sentences slip off of the page without staccato or pause. Such a rhythm makes it easy to read.

Though you haven’t explained who Craig is or why he is there, but you’ve given us a lot to work on: the fact that he has been there before, numerous times, and the fact that he has a right to be there (he has the key). There is mystery, and a touch of suspense, but we immediately know that he has a right to be there, of one kind or another.

I like the breakfast-in-a-bun reflection too. Cleverly written, almost an aside.

I have no line-by-line specifics to correct. You’ve done a masterful job with sentence construction and punctuation.

Unlike Meg, I like the description worked into the opening. I don’t feel that this is an action-thriller, but will be more of a detective/mystery, in which such details can and should play such a part. It’s also a difference in taste between Meg and me. I like the detail. She can’t wait to jump off the ledge.

Well written and controlled. Keep going.

Free First-Page Critique (Limited Time Offer)

zorra

Image by Lucas Turnbloom

 

I’ve often talked here about writing: story structure, character development, conflict, action, dialogue, revision, editing—the elements of craft and style. Now I’m going give you a taste of how editorial review works. By giving you the chance to submit the first page of your manuscript for critique here on the blog.

Here’s the deal:

I’m teaming up with my friend Meg Gardiner (Edgar award-winning author) to offer up to five people a first-page critique. Meg is an author and has taught writing courses at the University of California and workshops in the US, England, and Europe. I have also taught fiction writing, at the University of California San Diego Extension program as well as in writing workshops in the US. I’m also a veteran journalist, newspaper editor, experienced freelance editor, and writing coach.

Here’s how it works:

Submit the first page of your manuscript—400 words maximum. Meg and I will choose 1-5 submissions from the first 20 entries submitted. We post the selected entries along with our critiques both here and on Meg’s blog, Lying for a Living.

If you want to participate, email Meg the first page of your manuscript.

Email your first page in the body of the email. That means: don’t send it as an attachment. Put the text in the email.

Send it to: meg@meggardiner.com

Subject line: CRITIQUE [Title]

We’ll post critiques of the chosen pages anonymously on our blogs. The writers’ names will not be posted. However, readers will be able to comment on each post, and if the author wants to jump in and identify him or herself, that will be fine.

Who’s in?

Meg Gardiner on the Writing Process

Edgar Award-winning author Meg Gardiner talks about the PROCESS of writing in an article in the Suite T authors blog of the Southern Writer’s Magazine this month.

Read the article here, and then remember, writing is a process. Very few of us can sit down and hammer out a novel in a month, despite the popularity of NaNoWriMo. That endeavor is GREAT for getting you started, but it doesn’t stop there. As Meg says, the first draft is often embarrassingly rough. A true writer then takes the time to hone and polish.

If you are doing NaNoWriMo, congratulations! You’ve made the first step. Now keep going. And find yourself an editor to help before the final steps toward submitting for publication.

How to Describe a Character

One of my pet peeves is authors taking the easy way out when describing a character.

Dan Brown makes me grind my teeth every time he describes a character. He’s a master storyteller, but I wouldn’t call him a great writer. Here’s one of his descriptions of Robert Landon, the main character in Angels and Demons (parenthetical comments are mine):

“Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an “erudite” appeal (whose quote? When did he ever hear that, when did ANYONE ever say that?)—wisps of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. A varsity diver in prep school and college, Langdon still had the body of a swimmer; a toned, six-foot physique that he vigilantly maintained with fifty laps a day in the university pool.”

Argh! How was this trip ever published? He goes on:

“Langdon’s friends had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma—a man caught between centuries. On weekends, he could be seen lounging on the quad in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history with students (of course he would! He’s so cool and hip and trendy!); other times he could be spotted in his (wait for it) Harris tweed and paisley vest (gag!), photographed in the pages of upscale art magazines at museum openings where he had been asked to lecture.”

By this point, I’m tearing out my hair. But there’s more:

“Although a good teacher and strict disciplinarian (of course), Langdon was the first to embrace what he hailed as the “lost art of good clean fun.” (Again, whose quotes and when was it ever said? If not, why the quotes?) He relished recreation with an infectious fanaticism that had earned him a fraternal acceptance among his students (in reality, they would have mocked him for trying, at 40, to be one of them.) His campus nickname—“The Dolphin”—was a reference both to his affable nature and his legendary ability to dive into a pool and outmaneuver the entire opposing squad in a water polo match. (Baloney!)

Those three paragraphs would work for an author’s notes about a character, but they never should have made it to the page in that way. First, because it’s dreadful writing, and second, because it is the author intruding into the story in order to describe the character. Otherwise, who else is giving that description?

Poor writers think it’s necessary to describe characters immediately upon first introduction. “Clive walked into the bar, wearing a dashing turtleneck, flannel slacks, and a woolen blazer. His dark hair was carefully parted, but tousled at the sides, a sign that, while he cut a dashing figure, he didn’t really care about appearances. He scrutinized the crowded bar, his piercing eyes searching for the beauty he planned to conquer that evening. He spied her at the teak-and-brass bar and sauntered over, his thin, athletic body weaving among other guests, oblivious to his own sexual appeal.”

Yes, you can retch. I’m recalling a scene from the Modern Family TV show, and writing a description. A purposefully awful description. True, we know what he looks like, and a bit about how he moves in his world, but the writing is pedestrian. It has no flair, and once again the author is intruding into the story.

On the other end of the spectrum, this is how a master describes a character:

“Sister Rolfe saw that the detective had just come in and taken up his tray at the end of the line. She watched the tall figure, disregarded by the chattering queues of nurses, as he began to move slowly down the line between a white-coated houseman and a pupil midwife, helping himself to roll and butter, waiting for the girl to hand out his choice of main course…. Her eyes followed him as he reached the end of the line, handed over his meal ticket and turned to look for a vacant seat. He seemed utterly at ease and almost oblivious of the alien world around him. She thought that we was probably a man who could never imagine himself at a disadvantage in any company since he was secure in his private world, possessed of that core of inner self-esteem which is the basis of happiness…. Probably he would be thought handsome by most women, with that lean bony face, at once arrogant and sensitive.”

That’s PD James in Shroud for a Nightingale, having one character observe the main character, Detective Adam Dalgliesh. I’ve gone through PD James’s Dalgliesh books and have underlined everywhere she describes him, and I was amazed at the paucity of instances where she has done so. Yet he is so vivid in my mind! Physically and psychologically, I feel I know what he looks like and who he is. Any description of him is from afar, from another character, never something he thinks about himself. It’s description, with judgment, given by another character. That’s why it works.

Michael Chabon, in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, has numerous excellent character descriptions. Here’s one:

“Menashe Shpringer, the criminalist working the graveyard shift, blows into the lobby in a black coat and fur hat, with a rattling of rain. In one hand Shpringer carries a dripping umbrella. With the other he tows a chrome caddy to which his black vinyl toolbox and a plastic bin, with holes for handles, are strapped with bungee cord. Shpringer is a fireplug, his bowed legs and simian arms affixed to his neck without apparent benefit of shoulders. His face is mostly jowl and his ridged forehead looks like one of those domed beehives you see representing Industry in medieval woodcuts.”

Ask yourself, why does this work? How does it differ from the Dan Brown examples?

Descriptions don’t have to be long and detailed. Simple line-drawings work, as well, as in this character description also by PD James in Shroud for a Nightingale:

“The door opened, letting in a shaft of light from the passage. Miss Angela Burrows jerked back the curtains, surveyed the black January sky and the rain-spattered window and jerked them together again. ‘It’s raining,’ she said with the gloomy relish of one who has prophesied rain and cannot be held responsible for the ignoring of her warning.”

I know instantly that Miss Angela Burrows would not be my first choice for a holiday companion.

As you read, study how various authors introduce and describe their characters. Notice the pacing of those descriptions in the book, when and where and how they occur. Learn from the masters how to do it artfully.

MobyDick

I’ll end with one of my favorite, by Herman Melville in Moby Dick:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”