Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Would you like them in a house? Would you like them with a mouse?

The lead editor of SmokeLong Quarterly (the online magazine I work for) is leaving to be the director of an MFA program. I'm happy for him, but now I'm sending out many more rejection letters myself--hundreds of them--and, I feel bad. I took on this job because I love writers, and I feel like I'm telling writers that I hate them.

The problem: Too many writers are trying to reach too few readers. So, somewhere along the publishing pipeline, there must be an elimination round.

Right now, agents and editors are responsible for much of that elimination, which gets people upset. If we self-publish, the elimination process transfers to self-promoters. The people who can get their own name out there will do better than those who can't. This can also be discouraging. I suppose we writers could start to discourage each other. Lines like, "Scott G. F. Bailey, really? Eels?" might do the job of eliminating some writers. But, again, we don't want to upset each other. (And, Scott has a ferocious temper.)

So, I'm curious to know: As fellow writers, where are you most willing to have the elimination round to take place? And, who do you want to do that job?


Is there an alternative? Would we be happier, for example, if more writers reached fewer readers?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Character-driven Narration

Last Friday I was a cheerleader, but today I'm going to be a pedant and talk about craft again. That doesn't mean I'm not still High On Life and not still thinking that We Writers Are Superheroes. Because I am and we are. Just saying. Onward, though.

One of the things agents and editors go on about is "voice." Voice is mostly an undefined term, and possibly people mean a great many things when they use that word (I pause to think of Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride"). But I think that "voice" is mostly just the way the narration of the story works. How are we telling the story, as one person (the writer) to another (the reader)? Are we casual, formal, revealing, secretive, speaking like our reader or speaking like a stranger? What speech habits does our narration have? That's "voice," as far as I can tell: the style of narration, whether through a character in the story or directly from the author. So let's talk a little about narration, and how it ties to voice.

One thing about narration that we have to be aware of is that all of it should reflect the emotional tone of the story. You'll no doubt have descriptive passages, talking to the reader about places, things or characters in the book, and in these passages it's easy to withdraw into our authorial space and distance ourselves from the emotional lives of whichever characters are placed into the locales or action we're describing.

For example, suppose you have a character walking down a street in a big city. You describe the street as Stella (our character) goes along:

The buildings lining the avenue were modern steel-and-glass skyscrapers, reflecting each other over Stella's head, each side of the street seeing itself across the avenue. Workers in 15th-floor offices looked out and saw themselves mirrored sixty feet away, not really ever seeing the building opposite...

And stuff. Weak, I know, but it's early. Anyway, this passage reveals my own fascination with modern architecture and the phenomenon of curtain-walled glass buildings reflecting the facades of buildings across the street, but it's got nothing to do with Stella. As a narrator, I've withdrawn from the story and am just handing out some facts and observations that don't involve Stella, down there on the street between the shiny skyscrapers.

In character-driven narration, which is what this post alleges to discuss, these sorts of passages are written from a distinct point-of-view that come from the dominant voice of the novel. If the whole book is written in a distant, emotionless style like the above passage, then the above passage fits with the voice of the book. Which is fine, if we're writing a textbook. But if the voice of the book is not distant and emotionless (and let's hope it's not), your descriptive passages shouldn't be, either. When you withdraw emotionally from your readers, they return the favor and either start skipping ahead or start looking for something else to read.

So, you should tie your narration to character. What does the landscape have to do with the characters within it? Tell us that. Don't tell us your authorial impressions of objects, places or persons. Tell us what they have to do with your characters, what they have to do with the emotional lives of those characters. Have your characters drive the narration.

The street scene, driven by character:

Stella walked down the avenue. She looked up at the modern steel-and-glass skyscrapers around her, noticing how the buildings on each side of the street were mirrored in the glass of the buildings opposite them. If I worked in a 15th-floor office, Stella thought, I'd see myself when I looked out my window and maybe never really see the building on the other side...

We get the same physical details, but now they have meaning to Stella. We have put our character into the narration and are letting her drive the narration.

Remember that your POV character doesn't exist merely to give her perspective on the action and the conflict. Your POV character gives perspective on the entirety of the narrative. When you come across passages that seem cold or distant, don't let the first question you ask about them be "what's wrong with this sentence?" Ask yourself first if the passages are about your characters. The prose itself might be fine, or better than fine. What might be missing is an emotional connection between the prose and the reader: a character driving the prose.

I'll try to come up with some better examples, possibly from real books.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Young Voices Foundation

As you all know, we're hosting our first Genre Wars contest, which will include the publication of a print-on-demand anthology. We're donating the proceeds of that anthology to a writing/reading non-profit organization, and we'd like for you to have a say in which organization that will be. So, over these next couple of months, we'll feature some organizations for you to consider. The first is the Young Voices FoundationTM, directed by Bobbi Carducci. We had a chance to interview Bobbi and find out more about her group:

LL: Can you tell us about the Young Voices FoundationTM?

BC: Thank you for hosting this interview.

The Young Voices FoundationTM ( is a 501 (c) (3) educational non profit established to mentor young writers and inspire a life-long love of reading and writing in young people. It is located in Round Hill, VA about 60 miles west of Washington, D.C. I am the Executive Director and my husband, Mike, is co-director. We have a wonderful team of volunteers who assist us throughout the year by judging the writing contests, putting out press releases, hosting fundraising events, etc.

In order to help fund our mission and to encourage authors and publishers to produce quality books for young readers, we established the Young Voices FoundationTM Awards honoring books and products that inspire, mentor and/or educate young people and their families. It is primarily a literary award program at this time, but we hope to see it grow to encompass games, products and other types of media. (

LL: What is your mission, and how did you get started?

BC: The mission of the Young Voices FoundationTM is to reach out to creative kids across the country and provide them with a system of support that will encourage them to develop their talent. Every day families, coaches, community members and fans gather to support young athletes playing all types of sports. They are encouraged, coached and awarded trophies for their efforts, and that is a wonderful thing to see. My goal is to establish a similar system of support for creative young people. Our long term goals include establishing Young Voices FoundationTM writers groups in cities and towns across the country, to host young writers conferences where they can meet and learn from adult writers, editors and publishers, and last but not least, to receive enough funding to publish a literary magazine by and for emerging young writers.

The answer to how we got started is a bit long so I’ll try to be concise.

I was having coffee with some adult writers, and we were talking about what it was like when we were young writers, how there was very little encouragement and virtually no place to send our work for possible publication. We noted that sadly not much had changed over the years.

That short conversation stayed with me. A few weeks later I shared it with my husband, and he said, “let’s change it.” Within two weeks we had met with our attorney and our accountant and established a boutique publishing company. A week later we announced our first writing contest for kids in grades K-12. In 2007 we published an anthology of short stories written by 62 kids. A year after that we published 64 more. The response from the kids and their parents was so positive and so full of gratitude for the support we were offering we knew we had to go bigger and to do that we would need funding. That’s when we established the Young Voices FoundationTM, allowing us to accept donations and grants and begin to offer support to kids all across America. Since then we have had over 173,000 hits on our website and received stories from kids in 43 states.

LL: Specifically, what are some of the things you do to promote writing and reading to children and young adults?

BC: The Young Voices FoundationTM sponsors four writing contests a year, with a new one opening each quarter. There is one premier contest with over $1,500 in cash prizes and three standard contests with a total of $350 each in cash prizes. The winning entries are published on the website and, with parental consent, we send press releases to their local newspapers and contact their schools to announce their success. Writers can enter in one of three age categories established so third graders are not competing with high school seniors, etc. We also send Certificates of Achievement to hundreds of kids whose work did not earn a cash award but is very good and deserves to be recognized.

Every month we present a young reader with a free book. Kids across America fill out an online entry form for an opportunity to receive the Book of the Month as listed on the website. The books are often donated to the foundation by the author. One month it will be a picture book, the next a young adult title, sometimes it’s a board book. We like to vary the subject and the age range to appeal to as many young people as possible. We are always looking for books that will appeal to an otherwise reluctant reader.

There is a message board on the website, and kids are encouraged to share their writing experiences, ask questions about writing and/or publishing, talk about their favorite books, and announce their successes. And I am always available to answer their questions off line if they want or need more help than can be found on the website. My personal goal is to help beginning writers of any age reach their writing goals.

LL: Can you tell us about some of your success stories?

Kelsey Baker of Purcellville, VA: Her short story, The Sign, was the First Place winner in the middle school category in the 2007 Young Voices of Loudoun County short story contest. Kelsey helped mentor other young writers by helping to create the Young Writers of Western Loudoun writers group and serving as its first leader. Her essay about life in rural Loudoun County appeared in Elan magazine.

Katie Bock of Macon, IL: Katie won first prize in the Young Voices of AmericaTM Rewrite a Story contest. This contest was inspired by a request from Sacra Nicolas, PhD, who is a professor of elementary education at the University of Oklahoma and a former middle school teacher.

Dr. Nicolas wrote: “In 1990 2 of my middle school colleagues and I wrote a young adult book and entered it into the Ted Turner book contest (focus on creating a better world). It didn't win (Ismael was the winning submission), and we have sat on it for almost 20 years not knowing the appropriate next step. We have just had the idea that we would like to put it online and let students rewrite the book in some kind of contest and the winner would share authorship with the three of us.”

Katie is now working on the rewrite of the entire book and will be listed as co-author when the book is submitted for publication.

Maureen Howard of Leesburg, VA: Maureen’s Thanksgiving-themed short story, "Thanks to Tank," was first published in the 2007 Young Voices of Loudoun County anthology. She has since adapted it into a childrens book scheduled for publication in September 2010.

A number of participants have contacted us to express their thanks for the opportunity to share their writing and to tell us they are now considering careers in journalism, writing or teaching.

LL: Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know about your group?

BC: We know that not all the kids who participate in our programs will become writers, just as parents know that every kid who plays high school football will not become a pro athlete. However, it is creative thinking that built America, and it is creative thinking that will bring the scientific advances and engineering breakthroughs of the future. By encouraging creative young minds to express themselves, we are teachings kids not what to think, but how to think.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Call Yourself A Writer

That's right, you: call yourself a writer. Look into the nearest reflective surface (unless you are a vampire) and say to yourself, "I am a writer." I don't care about the ongoing and pointless debate over the meaning of writer versus author. Really, I don't. And if you do, I don't know why. Tell me what's to gain. On second thought, don't. But I digress. We were telling ourselves that we are writers. Do it. Do it now.

Next, tell everyone else you know. As writer Jonathan Evison says, you have to own it. You have to claim it. "You'll feel a whole lot better," he says, and he's right.

Has Bailey been drinking on a Friday morning again? No, I haven't, darn the luck. I have, however, been thinking. To be a bit less vague, I've been thinking about things that interfere with writing. My writing, to be specific. And as my immense ego lets me believe that I can generalize from my own experience, here I go.

Things That Interfere With Writing:

1. Forgetting that we are writers.

2. Not making time to write every day.

3. Not remembering to tell everyone we know that we are writers.

4. Second-guessing our sublime, cosmic genius.

5. Worrying about what you lot all think of us.

6. Forgetting that in the beginning was the word, and words are what we do. See item Number Four.

See where I'm going with this? Essentially, I am flirting with the sin of pride, reminding myself that writing is an ancient and worthy art, and as even the most humble practitioner of that noble art, I'm still entitled to call myself one of the worthies and be proud of what I do. Yes, even if what I write sucks. Because I'm a writer.

People (non-writers, that is) will tell you that even if you labor for decades, sweating blood over your writing, it's only worthwhile effort if you get published or if they've heard of you. Or worse yet, only if their Composition teacher has heard of you. Those people are wrong. Sucks to their comp teachers. Bring them 'round and I'll put a bit of stick about. They are wrong, and We Are Writers. It's a long road, and it's hard work, but what we do matters. Writers are part of the holy community of artists who carry civilization on its back into the future. That's some burden.

So remember, we're all superheroes. We are the future of our culture. We are writers. Remind yourself of this every day, and remind everyone around you, too. Now go write something.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

If My Life Were a Novel

Olivia Williams in Miss Austen Regrets - an excellent film about the later part of Jane Austen's life. I always like to think if she chose a book she could step into and live, it would have been Persuasion.

If My Life Were A Novel:

1. I could charge through to find out if I end up happy,

2. and then I could write up an outline and fix all the things that never made any sense

3. I could spend pages and pages on one delicious moment in time focusing on one or two details that send shivers down my spine

4. I could go back and change my words

5. I could make mistakes and know they'll probably be redeemed later

6. I could get feedback on every. single. word. event. moment

7. I could know what the other people in my life really think of me

8. I could relive the best moments over and over, and tweak them to make them even better

9. I could cut out all the boring crap where nothing happens, like cleaning the kitchen and laundry

10. I could have flashbacks where every detail is crystal clear and has something to do with an event that's just about to change my life,

11. and then I'd get rid of the flashback because they almost never work when I write them

12. Everybody would be amazed by my layers of expertly woven symbolism and metaphors

13. I could sum up my life in one really important blurb that makes me sound like the best thing you'd ever want to read,

14. and you could read me over and over again and keep me on your shelf

15. I would never die, even when my life ended

Who in their right mind wouldn't want to write a novel? But I think one of the most important things to remember when we put that pen to paper, or our fingers to the keys, is that novels are usually not meant to portray real life. They. Are. Fiction. Even if it's a memoir or an autobiography, we don't include the boring details that have nothing to do with the point. There must always be a point. Every scene, every line, every word needs to move the plot and characters forward. If it's something experimental or postmodern, there still needs to be a point, even if nothing happens or moves forward.

I try to remember these things as I'm writing and revising. My readers don't care what the room looks like unless it matters. They don't care what a character looks like unless it matters. No matter how important it may seem to you, or how vivid it is in your mind, please don't put it in unless it accomplishes something productive.

I've talked about this before on several occasions, but even for me, even when I hear it over and over, I still throw meaningless things into my work. It's probably why I can usually cut my 102-thousand-word novel down to 70-thousand. Stupid details are okay for me with a first draft, but after that, they've got to go. If I only I could do that in real life.

Question For the Day: If you could live your life like a novel, what would be the best part for you?

~MDA (aka Glam)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Forward and Backward Revisions

A couple of weeks ago, my friend/writer/teacher, Ellen Slezak, met with me for lunch. She had read the latest draft of my book, and she was kind enough to give me a few tips to finish it off. One of the things she suggested I do was to read through the book one more time and make sure that all of the sentences were flowing. This seems like common sense, right? But, I realized that this was a step in my revision process that I had neglected until now.

I thought about how I had been revising my book. For the most part, my last few drafts involved me reading through sections, identifying problems and then going back to fix those problems. Sometimes, I'd also scan through random sections and cut out words or details that weren't really contributing to the story I was trying to tell.

To me, this revision strategy is a backward movement. I don't mean backward in a bad way, but this revision involves hindsight--reading a section, and then going back into it to fix the problems. There is nothing wrong with backward revision. In fact, I'd argue that much of the time it is essential. But, something that I had been ignoring was the opposite strategy: forward revisions.

Forward revisions involves starting from the beginning of the story, or at the beginning of a long section of the story, and moving through it forwards, fixing things on the fly as you go along. This is what I did in my latest draft, and it really helped me fix the problem Ellen had identified. I started from page 1, and I read through the book quickly, all the way to the end. If something caught me--and awkward sentence or strange grammar--I fixed it quickly, backstepped a good ways, and then continued to race through the book forwards again.

My book was about 65,000 words long when I gave it to Ellen. I felt that it was focused, coherent, and told the story I wanted to tell. I thought is was pretty much done. However, after my forward revision, which did little aside from adding extra words here and there to make transitions work, my book ended up being over 67,000 words. As a result of these extra words, I find that my prose flows much more smoothly from one scene to the next. I also think my voice comes through more clearly.

The key to forward revisions is to go through the book quickly. I think this is an effective way to get natural sentence rhythms flowing again, and it allows you to see the book more as a whole than when you move slowly and dissect each scene. In a similar way that an outline gives you a quick overview of the structure of your story, racing through the prose quickly gives you an overview of the prose style of your story. It's an important last step, one that I had neglected because I was focusing so much on bigger elements of my book. AND, for those of us who fear that we may have lost the original spontaneity of the story by overworking it, I think this forward revision can bring some of that back.

Questions: Do all of you do this sort of fast, forward revision? Do you think it's important? If you don't do this, is there another approach you use for getting those final touches done on your manuscript?

Additional Question: Why didn't I get a MacArthur Genius Grant?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Making a Scene

I am a firm believer that the basic building block of a story is The Scene, and that stories are most strongly told when composed of scenes. I am always surprised when I see a writer say that they aren't sure what, exactly, a scene is.

A scene, in my opinion, meets five criteria:

1. It is dramatized, not summarized.
2. It takes place in the "story present," seeming to happen in real time for the reader.
3. It has a beginning, middle and end and is clearly set apart from the surrounding prose.
4. It is a single, self-contained event in a single, discrete location.
5. The situation for the characters is different at the end of the passage than it was at the beginning.

Let's look at a passage that advances the story:

My journey seemed tedious--very tedious: fifty miles one day, a night spent at an inn; fifty miles the next day. During the first twelve hours I thought of Mrs. Reed in her last moments; I saw her disfigured and discoloured face, and heard her strangely altered voice. I mused on the funeral day, the coffin, the hearse, the black train of tenants and servants--few was the number of relatives--the gaping vault, the silent church, the solemn service. Then I thought of Eliza and Georgiana; I beheld one the cynosure of a ball-room, the other the inmate of a convent cell; and I dwelt on and analysed their separate peculiarities of person and character. The evening arrival at the great town of--scattered these thoughts; night gave them quite another turn: laid down on my traveller's bed, I left reminiscence for anticipation.

This passage moves the plot along. You could say there is action even: the narrator is traveling across country, and we see her thoughts along the way. But it is not a scene, because:

1. It is not dramatized, but is a summary of action.
2. It does not take place in the "story present," and fails to happen in "real time" for the reader.
3. It has no dramatic arc (no beginning, middle and end) and is not set apart from the surrounding prose.
4. It is not a single, self-contained event, but is part of a longer summary of events, nor is it in a single, discrete location.
5. The situation for the characters is the same at the end of the passage as it was at the beginning, except that the narrator has apparently traveled and spent a night or two at an inn.

Plot is advanced, but that's not enough to make this passage a scene. It is, rather, a transitional passage between scenes. It's connective tissue, as it were.

Here is another passage from a page or so after the one above:

"Hillo!" he cries; and he puts up his book and his pencil. "There you are! Come on, if you please."

I suppose I do come on; though in what fashion I know not; being scarcely cognisant of my movements, and solicitous only to appear calm; and, above all, to control the working muscles of my face--which I feel rebel insolently against my will, and struggle to express what I had resolved to conceal. But I have a veil--it is down: I may make shift yet to behave with decent composure.

"And this is Jane? Are you coming from Millcote, and on foot? Yes--just one of your tricks: not to send for a carriage, and come clattering over street and road like a common mortal, but to steal into the vicinage of your home along with twilight, just as if you were a dream or a shade. What the deuce have you done with yourself this last month?"

"I have been with my aunt, sir, who is dead."

"A true Janian reply! Good angels be my guard! She comes from the other world--from the abode of people who are dead; and tells me so when she meets me alone here in the gloaming! If I dared, I'd touch you, to see if you are substance or shadow, you elf!--but I'd as soon offer to take hold of a blue ignis fatuus light in a marsh. Truant! truant!" he added, when he had paused an instant. "Absent from me a whole month, and forgetting me quite, I'll be sworn!"

His last words were balm: they seemed to imply that it imported something to him whether I forgot him or not. And he had spoken of Thornfield as my home--would that it were my home!

He did not leave the stile, and I hardly liked to ask to go by. I inquired soon if he had not been to London.

"Yes; I suppose you found that out by second-sight."

"Mrs. Fairfax told me in a letter."

"And did she inform you what I went to do?"

"Oh, yes, sir! Everybody knew your errand."

"You must see the carriage, Jane, and tell me if you don't think it will suit Mrs. Rochester exactly; and whether she won't look like Queen Boadicea, leaning back against those purple cushions. I wish, Jane, I were a trifle better adapted to match with her externally. Tell me now, fairy as you are--can't you give me a charm, or a philter, or something of that sort, to make me a handsome man?"

"It would be past the power of magic, sir;" and, in thought, I added, "A loving eye is all the charm needed: to such you are handsome enough; or rather your sternness has a power beyond beauty."

"Pass, Janet," said he, making room for me to cross the stile: "go up home, and stay your weary little wandering feet at a friend's threshold."

I got over the stile without a word, and meant to leave him calmly. An impulse held me fast--a force turned me round.

"Thank you, Mr. Rochester, for your great kindness. I am strangely glad to get back again to you: and wherever you are is my home--my only home."

This passage meets all the criteria for a scene:

1. It is dramatized, not summarized.
2. It takes place in the "story present," seeming to happen in real time for the reader.
3. It has a beginning, middle and end and is clearly set apart from the surrounding prose.
4. It is a single, self-contained event, in a single, discrete location.
5. The situation for the characters is different at the end of the passage than it was at the beginning.

Think of a scene as real physical action that you can imagine, that's written to be read at more or less the same pace as it would happen in real life.

When I put together stories (no matter of what length), I write in scenes. I make a list (at least in my head) of all the events that must happen in the story, and how these events effect the characters, and then I make a list of scenes that will tell this story by encompassing the necessary plot events and character events into dramatic action. Those scenes make up the bulk of the writing, and everything else is transitional passage or the minimum of exposition that I can get away with. If I'm feeling poetic, I might add in a page or two about eel fishing, but in general, my stories and novels are sequences of scenes.

Do you make an effort to write in scenes? If so, how do you define "scene?" If not, why not? What is the basic building block of your stories?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Writing Merit Badges

I'm not an Eagle Scout. I made it as far as First Class in Troop 174, but I quit just before my second Survival Camp Out because I wasn't up to chopping the head off a live chicken and then eating that chicken for dinner. (Yeah, we were hardcore. Luckily for me, the first Survival Camp Out was vegetarian, and all I had to do was cook an egg in an orange peel.)

And, while I admit that I don't get to use my semaphore as much as I would like, the boy scout program taught me at least one thing that is essential when you're setting out to accomplish a big goal like publishing a novel--You have to set smaller goals and celebrate your accomplishments along the way.

So, I'm offering up a list of writing merit badges to celebrate the fact that--whether our books have been published or not--we have all accomplished some important things that we shouldn't overlook:

Point of View Merit Badge: You get this one if you've written in more than one point of view and can actually tell them apart.

Showing and Telling Merit Badge: You get this if you can tell the difference between showing and telling and have done both in your writing.

Punctuation Merit Badge: You get this if you have correctly used a period, question mark, exclamation mark, semi-colon, colon, and the variety of dashes in your stories, even if you ended up taking them out again.

Good Grammar Merit Badge: You get this if you can properly diagram a sentence.

Short Story Merit Badge: Have you finished a short story? I mean, really finished it? You get this merit badge! Have you submitted it to Genre Wars? If so, you get the first ever:

Genre Wars Merit Badge

Which might also get you the Short Story Publishing Merit Badge (Flash Fiction accepted).

Outline Merit Badge: For anyone who has completed an outline

Plot diagram Merit Badge: For anyone who has completed a plot diagram

Good Critique Merit Badge: You get this if you have offered up your work and critiqued a fellow writer's work in a constructive way.

First Novel Draft Merit Badge: Yes, even if it's not done, getting to the end of a first draft is a big accomplishment!

Query Letter Merit Badge: For finishing that dreaded query letter

Synopsis Merit Badge: For finishing that even more-dreaded synopsis

Public Reading Merit Badge: If you've read some of your work in front of an audience. Bonus points if there was a microphone involved.

(Are you ready for some more challenging ones?)

First Completed Novel Merit Badge

Second Completed Novel Merit Badge

Third Completed--Oh, you get the point.

Publishing Merit Badge (Self or Non-self accepted as long as you can offer a book for me to read.)

Acquiring an Agent Merit Badge

Acquiring a Publishing Contract Merit Badge

Getting your first Fan Mail Merit Badge

Seeing Someone Reading Your Book On the Subway Merit Badge

Obviously not everyone will try to earn all of these merit badges. We have to pick and choose our steps based on our own personal goals. But, let's celebrate the completion of those steps and not forget that we are constantly making progress as long as we push ourselves to become better writers.

So, which merit badges should be listed here that aren't already? Which merit badges have you earned? Or, perhaps more importantly: Do you take the time to celebrate your goals, even if they aren't your ultimate goal?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Literary Lab Quote of the Day #2

Unfortunately, having formed the habit of thinking aloud, [my aunt] did not always take care to see that there was no one in the adjoining room, and I would often hear her saying to herself: "I must not forget that I never slept a wink"--for "never sleeping a wink" was her great claim to distinction, and one admitted and respected in our household vocabulary: in the morning Francoise would not "wake" her, but would simply "go in" to her; during the day, when my aunt wished to take a nap, we used to say just that she wished to "ponder" or to "rest"; and when in conversation she so far forgot herself as to say "what woke me up," or "I dreamed that," she would blush and at once correct herself.

~from In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Friday, September 18, 2009

Emotional Tension

Sometimes we write passages or whole stories that fail to engage our readers emotionally, even though these passages or stories engage our own emotions. We fuss about with the plot, the dialog, the structure of the scenes but sometimes we still get nothing out of our readers. I believe one common cause of this is lack of emotional tension for the characters themselves.

A mistake I made when I began writing was to forget that I knew a lot more about the characters than the reader did; I carry around a whole world in my head, and I know what my characters think and feel about everything that happens to them. Sometimes I didn't bother putting any of that on the page. No matter how high the drama of their situation, my characters didn't seem emotionally invested in their own story. They didn't react to events in their own lives.

This is an easy mistake to make when writing as we balance plot, theme, setting, character and pace over the span of tens of thousands of words. It's an even easier mistake to make when we revise scenes. We put our characters into novel situations, hair-raising danger or whatever, but we forget to let our characters be alive within those situations. I just found a scene in my own book where a character gets a piece of very bad news, but her reaction is neutral when it should be almost violent. I was too concerned with writing flowing action in the scene to pay attention to how she felt about that action.

A good scene should be a complete drama in miniature. It should have a beginning, middle and end, and there should be an emotional arc for at least one character. The scene should increase the tension for someone, or release the tension for someone. Either way, someone's emotional state has to change. If your characters don't feel anything, neither will your reader. If nothing has changed for your character by the end of a scene, your reader will also be unmoved. Even if you've moved the plot along.

This also means that your characters must be emotionally invested in the outcome of both the main story, and of each plot point along the way. What happens must matter to them. And we have to show readers that this stuff matters to our characters, and how our characters are affected by the events all through the story. Otherwise you have flat characters that your readers won't follow along on the ride.

One way to show increased/resolved emotional tension is to use a technique called "scene and sequel," which means that after a significant action, characters react. Action and reaction. Does a scene leave a character angry? Show it. Does a scene leave a character relieved, or sad, or confused, or defeated, or triumphantly evil? I suggest that you go through your stories, scene-by-scene, and after something happens, ask yourself how the involved characters feel about what just happened. Give them the opportunity to react to the events. Raise and lower the emotional tension as appropriate.

Yesterday Michelle talked about character motivation, and how essential it is for writers to know the answers to the questions:

What do our characters want to happen?
What are they doing about it?
How will they feel if it does/doesn't happen?

All of these questions come into play in every scene you write. Think especially about the last of these questions, and how your characters (not just your protagonist, but your antagonist and support characters, too) will react to the actions of your story as they find themselves closer to or farther from their goals at the end of scenes. Show those reactions, or your readers will react with a yawn and a search for something else to read!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dangling The Carrot

I have three things taped to my desk. A picture of my character from my current WIP that my friend Natalie was kind enough to draw for me, a map of what I call the ice-cream-cone diagram of my current WIP, which sadly, I cannot share on blogs, and possibly the most helpful thing of all - a Motivation Map. Without it my book would die a tragic death. Tragic, tragic, tragic.

I made this map a few weeks ago, and it has transformed the way I write. It opened a thousand doors. It revealed plot holes I never thought could exist. It gave me the opportunity to dangle carefully placed carrots in front of my characters, immediately giving my scenes more tension and direction.

This map isn't anything special at all. It's a flow chart that goes something like this:

Character Motivation + What Character Needs to Get What He Wants = Character's Main Action = Chain Reaction of Events Based on the Main Action

Seems simple enough, right? Guess again. I spent two days figuring out my character's motivations! And this is my third draft of the book - a complete rewrite this time around. You'd think I would know my character motivations, but it was surprisingly difficult. I suddenly saw why my book had major problems. As an example, here's the beginning of my main character's motivation chart. It changes sometimes. Well, lately, it's changed a lot as I shape my book into what I want. That's the beauty of mapping. It can change. All. The. Time.

Nick wants a second chance with Lilian and his daughters + Nick needs the bad guys gone and Catarina on his side in order to clear his name and ensure a new start = Nick goes to Lilian for safety = Nick gets his daughters to the inn for safety = Nick goes to Brazil to find Jeffrey and Catarina = and on and on and on

Everything's driven by Nick's main motivation. That motivation has to be clear, and it needs to stay present in every scene of the book.

It's pretty simple, really. Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't know my character motivations very well, but I'd challenge you to do this with every one of your main characters, even secondary characters. It was difficult for me to pin my character motivations into a small phrase, probably because they are complex beings with complex desires. Boiling it down feels unnatural, almost, like I'm not giving my character enough credit for his drastic actions.

My point here is that once you know that main motivation, use it. That's the carrot you use to drive the tension in your scenes. Rip the carrot away to drive your characters to the edge. So much fun.

Question For The Day: How well do you know your character motivations? Are you willing to map it out and see if you know them as well as you thought you did?

~MDA (aka Glam)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Help for the Tonedeaf

When I write stories, I try to serve up a range of emotions. From beginning to end, I want to include happy scenes, funny scenes, alongside the angry and sad scenes. Lately, however, I've come to realize that there are two layers of emotions at play in our stories.

First, there's what I described above. We can write about things that create different emotions. But, underneath that, there's a second level, a foundation emotion, if you will. I think this is what writers are talking about when they use the term "tone." Say we are describing a birthday party, for example. And, suppose that everything is going right in this party. The weather is nice. The cake is beautiful. The balloons are fully inflated. We could say that this is a happy occasion. But, as a writer, I could choose to write about this happy occasion in a sad way. This cake would be the last delicious thing they would ever eat again, for example.

Among the writers I most admire, there's a huge range in tone. Here are some first lines as examples:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. --One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it's a kitchen, if it's a place where they make food, it's fine with me. --Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. --Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. --Anna Karenina by Loe Tolstoy

Notice how we get different amounts of humor? difference amounts of seriousness? different amounts of magic?

For me, tone is a glimpse into the psyche of the writer. For a depressed writer, everything might have a dark tone. For a blissful writer, something as tragic as death might come out sounding not at all unpleasant. In my personal experience, the tone seems to be an uncontrollable side effect of how I'm feeling when I'm writing. And, maybe that's why I've been fixated on this concept lately.

As some of you know, I've been working on a story about a cannibal. I started a couple of years ago, but I tend to drop it and move onto something else whenever I start getting nightmares. Because of the subject matter, the tone of this book has been dark and depressing. But, recently, I've been feeling particularly good about my writing. I've been reading a novella called Hadji Murad, and I've managed to pick up some new techniques from it. I've also started to write my cannibal story from a different person's point of view, someone who isn't so in the middle of things. And, I wonder if both factors, my happiness at learning something new, and the fact that I'm not in the head of a murderer has changed the tone of my book.

Earlier in the book, I have: The air smelled of fresh paint. He could not make out any noise on the other side of the doors that lined the hallway. He moved carefully so as not to brush up against the walls or the paint-speckled tarp that lay against one side. He walked toward the elevator as the door to his mother's condominium closed and locked behind him.

Later on, I have: Only later did Victoria realize that the others had not spoken for several minutes, that they were exchanging glances with one another behind their magazines. She realized that her turn as the center of attention was over, and, blinking her false eyelashes, she leaned over toward Cynthia and complimented her on her new handbag.

I've had different internal emotions as I wrote these two sections, but I can't tell if the outward tone of the writing has changed. And, I wonder--if the tone has changed, is this within my control?

What do you all think? Do you get different tones from the two paragraphs I copied here? Do you think tone is something we can control, or is it just the consequence of how we are feeling?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Telling, Not Showing

I begin this post with a bit of bragging: last night I finished revisions for my agent. I so rule. But because I do all my writing and revising longhand, I now have to type up all my changes, which will be several hellish hours of my life I'll never get back. There are worse fates, I'm sure. But I digress from the digression with which I began.

While I was revising, I noticed there are at least a couple of cases in which the old rule of Show, Don't Tell does not apply. I found myself actually deleting passages where I had dramatized the action (showing) and replacing them with summary (telling). So this is sort of a "rules? schmules?" post. Sort of.

The action of my novel comes in three strands, which unravel and intertwine as the book progresses. That's a fancy way of saying that I have a couple of major subplots as well as the main plot, and they more or less all tie together at the end. I also have a first-person narrator, who is involved in all three plots. What this means is that either:

a) my narrator has to be present for every scene in order to know what's going on (and relate it to the reader), or

b) someone has to tell my narrator whenever anything important happens off-screen.

The first option could result in some highly improbable situations, as my protagonist doesn't have access to everything everyone does. The second option could result in lots and lots of conversations like this:

"So, Feng says Amleth is dangerous."
"Yeah, he thinks he's going to attack Horvendil soon. They had a bitter argument last night, while you were talking to Corambis."
"What did they fight about?"
"Amleth claims Horvendil is a fraud. Feng told him he's wrong, but Amleth swears to find the truth."
"That's bad."
"Yep. Say, what did you and Corambis talk about?"
"Well, let me tell you..."

And stuff. As it happens, I found that I did have a lot of that sort of conversation in my book, where A and B have a scene and then A and C discuss that scene out of earshot of B. It made me dizzy in a couple of places, and was entirely unneccesary. What I did instead was, as I say, cut the repetitious dialogue and replaced it with summary:

I met with Fernando and told him of my conversation with Corambis. We agreed that something would have to be done about Horvendil soon.

This is much briefer, far less ridiculous to read, and also gives you a chance to interpret the earlier scenes for the reader if you're into that sort of editorializing from a narrator.

The point of all this, aside from demonstrating how unfocused I am when I've not had any coffee, is that where you find this sort of repetition in your narrative, especially if you find dialogue that repeats previous dialogue or discusses previous action, it might be a good time to tell rather than show. Yes, you have to make sure the right characters all know the requisite facts to move the plot along, but if your reader already knows those facts, don't repeat them all over again.

So my rule is: Show, don't tell, unless you have to.

Monday, September 14, 2009

What should you say in a book review?

In our "Just Ask" section, Annie Louden said:

I have been seeing posts recently about not naming the books we're reading, in case we don't like them, because we don't want to upset an author or agent. Here's a link from Janet Reid

And here is a wonderful response that I agree with

I don't think we should be afraid to have opinions on books. They're just reviews. It's not bashing.

Anyway, I'd be interested in the discussion.


Hopefully, others will speak up on this topic as well. As I was thinking about it, two considerations came up. First, ethically, I think writers should feel free to name books and to discuss them as they see fit. The culture of fear we encourage and reinforce among ourselves in the hopes of getting published is, in my opinion, responsible for the monotonous writing we can often encounter in contemporary books and literary magazines. If we are afraid to give our opinions, then no one will hear our opinions, and no one will know what readers and writers are truly feeling about the direction of our art and which writing is truly affecting.

You had mentioned Janet Reid's post on invisibility. I'd bring up that she has another post saying that the discussion of art, whether good or bad, is a great thing. For me, this is a bit hard to accept, but I really do believe that any publicity is good publicity, if you are trying to get a readership. If someone writes a fair critique of your book, meaning they are able to discuss what they liked and what they didn't like, chances are it will help you see your work in a different way, and it will make readers curious about your book. If someone reads a bad review about a work, there is still a chance that he or she will read it. If someone has never heard of your book, there is no chance. If, on the other hand, someone writes an unfair critique of your book, whether it is all good or all bad, chances are, the review will end up revealing more about the reviewer than the original writer.

The second part of this discussion is the business side of things, or rather, the side where we are managing our images in the hopes of staying in everyone's good graces. Sometimes, writing a critical review of a book can offend an agent or an author. In that case, yes, you may end up hurting your chances of collaborating with a couple of people. And, perhaps you are hurting your chances with someone that really means something to you: a favorite writer, or an agent whom you want to represent your work. That's something for you to decide. But, I'll bring up that, though you may offend one person, you may also gain one or more fans who admire your courage, your intellect, and your taste.

What does everyone else think?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Our Big Announcement!

Today is the last day of our week on shorts, and we'd like to announce our 2009 Genre Wars Fiction Writing Contest!

We invite fiction writers to submit your 1 to 2,000-word short stories to us. The contest deadline is December 1, 2009 at 11:59 p.m. PST, and we plan to announce the winners on January 7, 2010, which marks the Literary Lab's 1st anniversary. Multiple submissions allowed.

With Genre Wars, we want to celebrate all genres of writing. So, whether you write science-fiction/fantasy, horror/crime, literary, romance/women's fiction, children's literature/middle grade/young adult, or experimental, send in your work!

Write something new. Send something old. Polish something up. If you've never written a short story before, now's your chance to try it out!

20-30 special selections will be chosen for inclusion in the 1st Genre Wars Anthology. All of the profits from this print-on-demand publication will be donated to a writing/reading non-profit organization that will be announced in the future.

6 genre class winners will be selected, one from each of the genres listed above (assuming we have entries in all genres). Each of these stories will be posted on our blog, followed by an author interview. Each winner will also receive a $10 gift card to a book store of their choice.

1 overall winner will be selected from the genre class winners. In addition to the prizes listed above, this writer will receive an additional $50 gift card to the book store of their choice.

Contest Guidelines
1. E-mail your 1 to 2,000-word short story to before December 1, 2009 at 11:59 p.m. PST. Paste the work in the body of the e-mail with breaks between paragraphs (hit return twice). We will be reading all submissions blind, thanks to a kind volunteer who will send us the entries with all names removed. No attachments will be opened.

2. In your e-mail subject line type GENRE WARS ENTRY. In the body of the email include your name, the title of your work, word count, and which genre category you'd like to compete in: 1. science fiction/fantasy, 2. horror/crime, 3. literary, 4. romance, 5. children's literature/middle grade/young adult, or 6. experimental--yes, you have to pick one.

3. Works must be previously unpublished, and we ask for the rights to post the winning stories online and/or in print in the anthology. Afterwards, you are free to include the story in your own collections or as a reprint in another anthology.

The judges for this contest will be the Literary Lab co-authors: Michelle Davidson Argyle, Scott G. F. Bailey, and Davin Malasarn. (We'll temporarily post our own writing samples in the comments section.)

Please Spread The Word!
We've created a button for you to put on your blog posts, sidebars, and websites. Please help us spread the word. The more entries we get, the more exciting it will be for everybody! Remember, all proceeds of the Anthology go to charity.

If you're uncomfortable dealing with graphics, advertise any other way you wish. I've pasted some directions in the comments. Thank you! Let the entries begin! We can't wait to read your work. We're excited!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Shorts Are Lookin' Pretty Good

As a writer who worked only with short stories and poetry in college, I learned a very important thing about finishing projects - it builds confidence. I now have a large portfolio of finished, polished poems and short stories. I have a small folder of unfinished projects, but the numbers are scanty. I only have 3 novels completed, and none of them are ready for querying. The truth is, they take a long time to write.

A short story doesn't take nearly as long as a novel, and like Davin says, you can experiment with short stories and not waste an entire year or more of your life.

I think all writers should at least dabble with shorter works. Give yourself something to work on when that novel is burning you out. In fact, many writers I know are constantly juggling around a hundred ideas. Why not put those into short stories instead of huge complicated novels? See what happens!

The novel I'm working on now is a mixture of three short stories. One I wrote in high school, one in college, and the other is an unfinished short story. Now I have a full-fledged novel. I wouldn't have had those ideas if I hadn't taken the time to work on some shorter works to develop ideas and see where they go.

So What's So Great About Them?
I love the Pixar Shorts. I have the collection on DVD they released awhile ago. My three year old daughter loves to watch them. She'll sit through the whole 54 minutes without budging. But she won't do that with a normal-length movie. So what makes the difference?

They're short. They keep her attention and string her along. Oh, one more. One more. One more.

Like the Pixar short, For The Birds, that I have pictured up above, short stories keep our attention. They're fun to read, and usually fun to write. They are also pretty basic in characteristics, dealing with a small cast of characters, usually one setting, rarely much exposition (if any), one plotline, and a small window of time. There are always exceptions to these characteristics, and once a short story moves beyond a specific word count, it enters into other realms.

I'll post this here again, as I did in my The Misunderstood Novella post. The generally accepted word counts for fiction are:

Micro Fiction
up to 100

Flash Fiction
100 - 1,000

Short Story
1,000 - 7,500


7,500 - 20,000

20,000 - 50,000

50,000 - 110,000

Epics & Sequels
over 110,000

Don't know about you, but a flash fiction piece is lookin' pretty good to me right now. I'm sitting at 52k with my current novel, and the beast is overwhelming me. Each chapter is like an intense short story, but it has to connect with 35 other chapters on about 20 different layers and a huge cast of characters.

Besides, I make a lot of writing friends online. It sure would be nice to get a taste of their writing style from a complete, polished short story than beta reading a huge complicated novel. I love novels, but my time is running short these days. Ironic, since I think it has to do with the long novel.

Gear up, everybody! Tomorrow's a big day!

~MDA (aka Glam)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Short Stories And Self-Promotion

One of the other bonuses that comes with publishing a short story is that it gets you a bit of publicity. These days, whether you're dealing with a print magazine or an online publication, titles and authors are usually posted on the internet, making you visible as a writer if someone were to search for you. In the case of online publications, your entire story is also made available, giving people a view of your writing without having to wait for a book.

The editors of literary magazines--places where short stories are usually published--tend not to make big profits, if any at all. That's actually an advantage for us writers. First off, people who run lit mags aren't just trying to make a buck. Most of the time they are in it because they want to help promote writers and writing. That means terms like "marketability" are not calculated into their acceptance decisions. Also, the people who run these publications tend to be other writers, rather than agents and editors. Again, for us, I think that means the art side of the writing will be emphasized over the profit potential.

Whether you are self-publishing or publishing through other means, having accessible short stories helps to build your platform. Readers, agents, and publishers who are unsure of whether or not your stories have an audience can at least see that other people already love your work enough to make space for it in their journal. And, your ability to get published sort of snowballs as a result. Whether this system is fair or not, the more publications you get, I think the more publications you are capable of getting. The people who make it their job to judge writing, often rely on other judges before deciding if your writing is worthwhile.

For a discussion of whether or not you should send your stories to online publications or print publications, check out this old post.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Short Stories For Inspiration and Experimentation

Most of our comments seem to come from people writing or attempting to write novels. But, this week, we are focusing on a different writing form: the short story.

The best thing about short stories is that they're short. Okay, okay, obvious, right? But, the reason the short length is so helpful is because most of us can hold the events of an entire short story in our head, while we can't hold the events of an entire novel in our head. That means that we can visualize an entire short story, evaluate it as a whole, and really see what works and what doesn't with one, albeit focused, glance.

By writing short stories, and writing A LOT of short stories, we are forced to practice all the elements of a traditional story. We also get the chance to experiment with less-common points of view, voices, characters, and other elements--things we may not be as willing to tinker with in a novel (even though that would be healthy too). So, while a novel is a different species than a short story, some components, such as basic story structure are relevant to both, and the more we practice this, the better.

The result of this ability, or willingness, to be more experimental is that we also tend to work with less strain when we write short stories. Ideas that we never dared to explore can suddenly show their real potential in the short story. So, short stories have the power to inspire. They can be the stepping stone to a longer work, if that is what you prefer to write. Sometimes we dip our toe into the water, but our whole body shivers.

All writers should at least dabble with shorter works. Give yourself something to work on when that novel is burning you out. In fact, many writers I know are constantly juggling around a hundred ideas. Why not put those into short stories instead of huge complicated novels? See what happens!

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Short Week

It's Labor Day weekend, which means this is a short work week. To celebrate, we're having a week on shorts. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, the three of us will chat up on the importance and splendor of the short story. Then, on Friday, we have a little announcement to make that we are all quite excited about!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Literary Lab Quote of the Day #1

"In two weeks it'll be the longest day in the year." She looked at us all radiantly. "Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it."

~Daisy Buchanan, from The Great Gatsby

Friday, September 4, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, Michelle and I were chatting about writing, and I told her that my recent six months in Paris was probably the time I grew the most as a writer.

True, part of the reason this time was so good for me was because I was surrounded by art museums and beautiful books. Another reason this time was good was because I had so few friends there that I had to learn to trust my own instincts. But, I have come to realize that the main reason I learned so much during that time was because I dared to experiment with my writing.

All of us know a bunch of rules about writing. We know and have discussed that these rules can be broken, and I'm sure a lot of us can figure out times when it's good to break these rules. I honestly believe, though, that until we TRY these things, until we prove ourselves right or wrong, we haven't really internalized the skills.

In Paris, I wasn't constantly working on my novel. Instead, I was writing strange short stories in strange ways. When I read Proust, I tried to write like Proust. When I read Sara Gruen, I tried to write like Sara Gruen. I wrote at night and in the morning. I tried to tell everything and show nothing. I tried to show everything and tell nothing. I used semi-colons. I used colons. I used all caps. Iranwordstogether! I basically tried every zany thing I could think of, just to see what the result would be.

The results of trying all this weird stuff, oddly, was that I freed myself and felt for the first time--eight years into my writing--that I had found my own voice. By proving how limitless my keyboard really could be, I stopped having to rely on tricks that other people had already developed. Instead, I wrote like myself.

So, dare to try things out, even if you already think they're not going to work. Prove it to yourself, and really understand all the nuances of such weirdness.

What experiments have you done lately?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Noodles And The Hard Journey Inward

A few years ago, I was part of a writer's group that included a man I'll call "Noodles." Noodles was new to creative writing. He was an older man, had finished one career in engineering, and was spending his time after early retirement on writing a book. What was this book about, you ask? That is a bit difficult to answer.

Noodles got a divorce about four years prior to when he joined the writer's group. He was literally thrown out of the house with only a few boxes of things and his car. So, he decided to take a road trip, and during that road trip, he went on a personal journey of learning how to date again.

So, if you asked Noodles what his book was about, he'd say that it was about how his wife had wronged him, and how he had to learn to be romantic and charm women again at an older age.

But, if you asked anyone else in the group what the book was about, we'd say it was about a man who neglected his wife, and how, after she left him, he travelled around the country treating other women as objects.

Why was there a discrepancy? Well, that was because Noodles believed that he could hide himself in his writing and depict a more likable man than he was. And, in moments, his main character was likable and charming. But, sometimes when Noodles didn't intend it, his true view of the world peeked through, and that's because, try as we might, very few of us can keep ourselves out of our stories.

Unfortunately, this means that, writing is even harder than we thought. Not only do we have to figure out how to create compelling plots and characters, not only do we have to learn all the rules and then understand how to break them, not only do we have to sacrifice our time--we also have to delve deeply into ourselves and confront our demons. We have to know ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, our biases, our flaws, so that we really know what we are putting on the page.

When you read, can't you tell when a writer is confident or scared or angry? Can't you tell when a writer has done her or his research on the topic, or when a writer is holding back or being completely honest? Even if we don't consciously attempt to write about ourselves, we reveal ourselves in our writing, no matter what kind of writing we do.

For me, that's one of the scariest things about writing, and one of the most beautiful parts of it. I love feeling connected, not only to the book, but also to the writer. I also believe this is why I tend to admire most every writer I've ever met. If they are even a little serious about what they do, chances are they have had to look inside themselves and understand themselves, which tends to make them more pleasant to be around.

This is just another reason why we should be proud of ourselves as writers. Often, it's more than just technique, emotion, and creativity. Writing is also a journey within ourselves, an internal cleansing that is necessary if we want to have any sort of control over these awkward things we call words.

So, if you are so inclined, take a moment and think about the character you play in your story. Can you see this character clearly? Can you see this character the ways other will?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Makes You Shine?

All right, so on Monday I shared a bit of my frustration about publishing and the art of writing. I want to liven things up today...and, admittedly, I need a little positivity!

So, I'm curious. What makes you shine as a writer?

We've talked about how there are few original stories. The originality comes from the writing, from the unique perspective of the writer. So, what's your unique perspective?

I personally think my unique talent is my ability to write stories from different points of view. I've been told that I can write convincingly from both male and female standpoints, young and old standpoints, and I even once wrote a story that includes the points of view of a goose and dog that I am quite proud of.

Now it's your turn. Help me to lift my spirits by celebrating the originality in our writing!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Who Owes What to Whom?

For the last month or so, I've been reading Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." It's about a whale, you know. Two weeks ago, when I was at about the 150-page mark, I decided that I'd had enough of Mr. Melville and his constant digressions about whaling, sailing, the color white and the nature of the soul. I put the book back on the shelf and read Barry Hughart's "Bridge of Birds," a fine romp of a fantasy novel set in a mythical medieval China. When I finished that book I took down the Melville again to give it another try, and after pressing on through a chapter about god-knows-what, the book is suddenly marvelous. The chapter I read last night was amazing; I was on the edge of my seat with excitement and everything about the writing was perfect. Which got me thinking.

We had a discussion not long ago about when, in the course of reading a book, we decide we don't want to keep reading it. It doesn't grab us, or we hit a dull patch and we say "life is short and there are loads of other books" and we move on to something else. I wonder if that isn't sometimes a mistake. Certainly I am glad I returned to the Melville, and I can think of plenty other books where I felt bogged down in the middle only to press on and find myself delightfully exhilarated in the last 150 pages.

A friend of mine subscribes to an audiobooks listserve. A week or so back, there was a discussion on this list about abridging novels when recording them as audio. A couple of people suggested that it would be easy enough to "cut out all the boring parts" and so not tire the listeners or waste their time with the author's ruminations that are tangential to the story. That's a foolish idea, of course, because what's "boring" to one of us might fascinate the next person. And, you know, when you read an author, you are reading that author's prose, immersed in that author's style and mindset. A good book will reveal that the supposedly boring and meaningless tangents are actually important to the setting or character or theme of the book later on. The bits about whaling and sailing in "Moby Dick" are coming in handy during the dramatic parts, I must admit.

There is also the idea that an author has the right to inform and think aloud, as it were, as well as tell a story. An essay on the nature of cloudwatching in the middle of an adventure tale isn't necessarily a bad thing. Should we eliminate all writing that's not overtly entertaining?

Which gets me, inevitably, to me because my immense ego won't let me talk about anything else, no matter how I try to disguise it. I'm working on revisions right now, and I am sort of streamlining the narrative and either removing or pushing into the background a whole lot of stuff about religious conflict and wars of faith and class structure. While there's no doubt that this streamlining is making the dramatic story stronger and putting the focus very clearly on the characters, I worry that a lot of the ideas that made me want to write this book are getting drained out of it. I worry that, as Davin talked about in his post yesterday, I am letting myself be too strongly guided by some sort of idea about commercial acceptability.

So there's this dilemma. Do we, as writers, tell ourselves that our job is to Stick to the Point in our story telling, or do we allow ourselves some elbow room in our narratives and pause to say, "oh, and by the way, I was thinking that..." to our readers? And do we, as readers, abandon books as soon as the writer strays from the story even if the remains of the book, once we sit through something not quite interesting to us, is absolutely wonderful? Do we risk boring our readers? Do we have the patience to be occasionally bored? What do readers and writers owe each other? What do they owe themselves?