Category Archives: Writing – how to

In which I tell anyone who will listen things about craft I have figured out the hard way.

Lessons from writing a play still hold

TO TEACH A NOVELIST DIALOGUE

One of the better oldies, condensing several years of learning into a single post – and a much better sense of how to do dialogue.


From November 16, 2012:

For better dialogue in fiction: write a play

When you can’t depend on interior monologue to get your point across, you lose a huge advantage. As a writer of fiction, you can either be blatant (He felt like death.) or subtle (He remembered med school: learning all the ramifications of the vagus nerve, enervating myriads of gastric components and pathways, useless for pinpointing the source of trouble in his gut, useful only to prove something, somewhere, thought it was wrong. But he’d never expected to feel so many of them. Simultaneously.) when using interior monologue, deep or distant.

But you get to choose.

As a playwright, you work with action and dialogue. Period. And have collaborators – actors and directors – who may aid you or may fight you, but whom you don’t control.

Tradition in the theater preserves the playwright’s absolute control over the dialogue, the WORDS. Many actors and directors will routinely cross out stage directions and the author’s parenthetical instructions on HOW to say a line or move about on stage, but they will not change a WORD of the dialogue.

Even in an adaptation of the play ‘Mary Stuart’ in high school, in SPANISH (I was Queen Elizabeth I, the actual lead – whee!), our director limited himself to crossing out large amounts of dialogue (the play was too long for us), and making the tiniest transitions where absolutely necessary. He would not change the translator’s version of the WORDS.

This is an absolute gift for novelists.

I urge every novelist to go out and write a play*.

Buy yourself $100 worth of playwriting books (buy – so you can write in them). Swallow them whole. Pick a visual story. Write the darned thing (maybe I’ll get back to the how in a later post).

And learn to live within the constraints of the form: you tell your story in the DIALOGUE you give your characters.

Oh, all right. You also have setting, and choosing WHICH of your characters are on stage at a given time, and stage/dialogue parenthetical directions.

But DIALOGUE is your main weapon.

And your written dialogue in your fiction gets much better.

You shouldn’t do ‘talking heads’ or ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue, any more than you should do it in a novel – doing so demonstrates a distinct lack of technical skills.

It’s “I’m going to paint the Mona Lisa with BOTH hands tied behind my back, using only this paintbrush clenched in my teeth.” Because that’s what it feels like when you start.

But it CAN be done. It’s been done since the beginning of time. It can be done WITHOUT a narrator to gum up the works. And it can be done so the audience feels like eavesdroppers, watching something real happening right in front of them, right now.

Heady stuff. Ask full-time playwrights. Ask actors and directors.

Dialogue in plays is elliptical

(not the shape – the punctuation mark), at cross purposes, full of innuendo and half-said things. And lies. Lots of lies. But it must tell the story or you are merely doing pantomime. It has to add up. The WORDS matter.

And that is precisely its value for writing the dialogue – and telling the story – in fiction: it has to add up.

Doing it with time constraints – on stage – leads to the most economical method of telling a story, the fewest words. Doing it on stage, intended for a live audience which gets BORED and restless within seconds if the pieces of story it is receiving do not add up immediately, is like boot camp for dialogue.

The audience can neither skip ahead nor go back to review something unclear. And it won’t like being bored. So you learn to leave nothing out, and put nothing extraneous in.

Audiences want stories to make sense, pronto, and continuously.

So you learn to feed them the story in bite-size pieces, story beats, so they can put the whole thing together in their heads and follow.

It is an awesome discipline to acquire – and the results, in terms of the ability to do good dialogue in fiction, are equally awesome, so much so that stripping a scene I’m editing down to ONLY the dialogue, and walking through it as if I expected it to be performed on stage, is now one of the basic steps in my process, and a step that often shows exactly where the flaws are.

—–
* CAUTION: Even though they share similarities, movie scripts and plays are ENTIRELY different beasts. I don’t recommend (unless scriptwriting is your form and dream) writing a movie script unless you are a masochist: EVERYTHING is up for grabs in a movie, and even the actors have no compunction about slaughtering your words.


When a scene isn’t going well, sometimes I just tell it in dueling dialogue – and then go back and see more of the setting and work on the pace.

Another real advantage is that, with pure dialogue, you can actually change the point of view character, and then fill the scene in from that character’s perspective. Nifty if you’re not sure whose scene it needs to be (I’ve changed perspectives in many scenes).

Have you written a play?

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Resetting your writing after a break

AND YOU HAVE TO GET BACK TO WORK

Even when there are still aftershocks to contend with, and the normal has skittered sideways a bit, there is a time when you can’t keep reacting to interruptions constantly with the fight or flight response – and you have to settle down and figure out where you are and what has changed and what has not.

And, in my case, get back to writing.

I labelled a file ‘REDEFINING my life at URC >5/24/19’ and set to work.

Where was I? What was I doing? What was next? These are questions which I’ve been attempting to answer on the fly just to get some writing done in the interim.

But I promised myself I’d do something more organized an more formal asap.

The time is now – if you can

Otherwise the trial will fail – and you’ll get endless opportunities to try again.

But eventually it happens.

You start to realize you’d forgotten many of your own notes. But there they are. And you forgot your own plotting decisions – which will have to be redone, except… here is the file.

I do this periodically.


From October 2012:

Jamming the creative process: RESET to break the jam

Sometimes what keeps me from writing is not procrastination nor ego nor fear.

It is simply that ‘things’ – writing, life, house, … – have become so disorganized (and behind) that I can’t think, much less be creative.

Time gets spent, not in getting things done, but in thinking about getting things done. Thoughts go round and round, never settling long enough in one area to get that area started, much less finished.

How is the creative process affected?

By its main requirement: creating requires a free and nimble mind.

No further writing or editing on the WIP was getting any attention of QUALITY. Scheduling time for writing, blocking the internet by using Freedom, and all other methods aimed at the symptoms, rather than at the root cause – logjam – FAILED. Quite miserably.

The problem is analogous to computer mainframe usage in the good old days, when, to avoid a single user glutting the machine, the computer would ‘roll out’ an image of the core with a particular user’s program and all the user’s data, and ‘roll in’ someone else’s program and data. (Rolling in and out used a small amount of CPU time.)

Then it would compute for a while, and repeat the process with the next user in the priority list. If the algorithm wasn’t managed carefully, or there were too many users being allowed into the queue, the machine could get stuck in a place where all that was happening was sequential ‘roll out’, ‘roll in’ – but no actual work got done before it was time for the next. All the CPU’s time was being used to manage sequencing of jobs, none to doing the actual jobs.

No one’s job got done – and the CPU was busy all the time.

That is how my brain feels when things get too messy.

I can’t actually roll a job in and get a significant part of it done – the competing jobs are clamoring for brain/CPU time.

At this point the only thing to do is declare a reset – everything stops. Then only the top job or two are allowed any traction (typically one of these jobs is ‘TAXES’), everything else is blocked out, and, after clearing the logjam (i.e., ‘Filing taxes’), work is evaluated, rescheduled, cleaned up, dejunked, and otherwise processed before resetting the queue.

Something innocuous can start the jam: a visitor blows into town and occupies prime time space for a day or two (with, for us CFS folk, the several-day recovery that is non-negotiable). Or a new, shiny program beckons, promising to solve some long-standing problem and make future workflow more efficient. Or tax planning requires that all charitable contributions to be charged to the current fiscal year be RECEIVED by the intended organization by Dec. 31, not just MAILED (as it used to be), moving the paperwork time into the Christmas time-frame with a vengeance (instead of being done in that nice post-Christmas lull before New Year’s Eve).

Or [fill in here the life events that, by themselves, could have been handled, but collided with… to create the felt-like effect of a logjam, interlocked fibers].

It doesn’t matter what caused mine this time.

If you’re really curious – ask. And be prepared for long tale of woe…!

Ahem! The solution is to RESET – and that is what I’m doing.

So: I absolve myself of guilt (no one would do this to herself ON PURPOSE), and RESET. I put the editing on hold for as long as this one takes, get extra rest, do the top project or two.

And: we’re back in the writing business (I’m assuming this post – except for the mixed metaphors – shows coherent thought).

Editing sounds positively enticing – I can’t wait to see the final version of the current scene.


And how does that connect to what I’m doing in 2019?

Current editing is Scene 26.2 in NETHERWORLD.

Current writing is Scene 26.3.

And I would say the current tale of woe is the continuing saga of replacing things we had in New Jersey that worked fine (such as doctors and driver’s licenses) but we still don’t have here. One by one.

And I no longer do taxes since hubby retired!!!

But I’m writing. And reconnected with most of my research and organization files. And stuff I didn’t even remember was there. Phew – it would have been a lot of work to re-do some of that!

What do YOU do when you need to reset YOUR life?

How true can a story be?

IF YOU WANT ‘TRUTH’ WRITE MEMOIR?

Knowing that memoir, non-fiction, history… all are someone’s version of  ‘the truth’ or ‘what actually happened.’

Back before I finished Pride’s Children: PURGATORY, I remember wondering whether it was okay to tell a story that would take quite a lot to be true, and yet should feel absolutely as if it was true, as all fiction that lasts does.

The image above, or a very ripe strawberry, reminds me of one of the early scenes in Firefly (one of our family’s all-time favorite TV shows), where Kaylee acquires an amazing strawberry from Shepherd Book, as part of his passage on the ship.

Is the idea better than the reality?

I can’t eat one – and we have them daily here – without thinking of the look on her face as she bites into the perfect fruit. All of them aren’t that perfect, but we don’t care – the idea of  ‘strawberry’ is a powerful umbrella which covers a little imperfection here and there.

I stopped worrying, went ahead and finished that part of the story exactly as I had planned, making it as true as I could make with smoke and mirrors.

I’m trying to do the same sleight-of-hand with the next volume.


From October, 2012:

Telling fairytales: giving readers false hopes

One of the things getting in the way of getting on with editing Pride’s Children, the WIP, is an insidious little voice in my head saying, “That could never happen!”

My brain tells me I shouldn’t write the story of someone who gets something in the story she would never get in real life – and that it would discourage people with similar problems from even thinking about what happens in the book – lest it give them FALSE HOPES.

And then I remembered that’s why humans tell stories.

In stories, the ugly duckling turns out to be the swan, more beautiful than all those picking at him. And Cinderella, the girl whose stepmother and stepsisters treat her like a servant, marries the Prince.

The point is – if we don’t tell stories and read stories – all we have is reality. Reality is harsh. If it were not for stories, humans would all die early by ‘failure to thrive.’

We need stories in which there is hope.

That it may be temporarily false is not important. If we mature, we will grow up to discover our own place, our own story, our own Prince – our own way to be happy. Either we will become President – or we will decide it is too much work to be President, anyway.

Children – and I think most people can remember being different, wanting more than they had, wishing they were more popular, or their parents had more money (so they could have that pony my eldest still asks for – at 26) – don’t have the tools to create their own reality where they are happy. Stories teach them (and adults who are still struggling with the same questions) those tools, or at least, that there ARE tools.

This could happen.

My story, if I am successful in my aims, will let someone spend a bit of time thinking ‘this could be me, this COULD happen,’ and thus keep that someone happy enough to keep trying for another day.

That is a good enough reason to write.


 

Can you relate to imperfect characters?

HOW FAR MUST YOU MORPH?

Readers have always been able to switch gender; well, female readers have often had to – there wasn’t much to read with positive heroines when I was growing up, not in popular fiction – it’s amazing the number of women scientists who pay tribute to Nancy Drew in their background!

I’m sure the number is dropping, because there are more role models, and some writers deliberately create unrealistically powerful young women as characters, hoping to up the ante. (Yes, I’m perfectly aware of all the advances made in opportunities for women; but that the situation for women in physics, for example, is not much different from what it was in the 1970s when I was in grad school.)

The ability to imagine yourself as a shape-shifter or an alien is part of being a reader – and even more important when a lot of the characters are not like you.

Diversity is the Holy Grail

Though more honored in the breach than in the observance, still.

And readers are only willing to go so far before they’re not interested, requiring a modicum of something they can identify with.


Which brings up a post from late 2012:

Does your character make readers uncomfortable?

When I set out to tell the story of Pride’s Children, I was originally driven by a sense of the unfairness of society toward those who have most need of its kindness.

Specifically, your DISABLED character?

There are two USUAL ways to deal with disability in a character: as a decoration or as a problem.

The first – a ‘feature’ of a character – gets mentioned every once in a while, but doesn’t seem to stop the character from doing most of the things ‘normal’ able people do. And it mostly leads that character to be a secondary character, a sidekick, the ‘friend in the wheelchair.’

The second leads to ‘inspiration p0rn’ (avoiding search engine problems here), and the solving of the ‘problem’ consumes the space dedicated to the story, with inspirational results – problem solved – or, sometimes, the character’s death (in a disturbing trend, by suicide while making life easier for those left behind).

Ignore the fact that suicide has a horrible effect on the people left behind. Most of us know of someone close to whom that has happened, and know they would do almost anything if they could go back in time and help.

Disabilities in real life

Disabilities are far more abundant than people think. If you count all disabilities – and I do, of course – estimates run over 20%. Don’t forget the invisible ones: FM, mental health issues, pain, CFS, non-visible genetic ‘abnormalities,’ a thousand things that make life difficult for the disabled person, but generate wrath in observers who watch them use the handicap parking space. Don’t forget old age and its common memory and mobility problems.

The counting is made difficult because of a human tendency to hide problems if it is at all possible, so you will not be ‘different’ or ‘other,’ and attract unwanted attention. Presumably there was some evolutionary benefit to getting rid of tribe members who would slow you down when your tribe was in the hunter/gatherer phase (a rather long time ago).

We ‘pass’ for normal/able as long as we possibly can, which also makes us suddenly appear very disabled when we can’t pretend any more.

Animals do it, too – everyone knows of a pet who didn’t let its owner know something was wrong until it was far too late to help. Wild animals do it so as not to appear vulnerable, as the weak and the sick are noted as easy prey.

But there is a different way for a writer: reality

I have taken the step of writing a disabled MAIN character, with a significant disability, which she ignores as much as possible, and bows to when inevitable.

For this disabled character, writing is a job – and she’s been successful at it, very slowly – and by staying hidden from the world.

An Amazon reviewer:

…while much of the plot centers on the cautious romance, Pride’s Children is also about a writer’s way of interacting with the world, living with a chronic condition (CFS – … I realized that I couldn’t think of any book I’d read, recently, involving a character with a disability or chronic illness – a significant hole in terms of diversity), and the struggle to remain balanced and kind when new people and routines enter one’s carefully-ordered sanctuary…

Disability is a learning experience

Those who are or become disabled have a steep learning curve: everything is harder. Moving, learning, thinking, being independent, even making new friends – all these are more difficult the farther a character is from the norm.

And the effects are interwoven: difficulty reading means trouble holding a job, getting to that job on public transportation or by learning to drive. No disability is purely one thing you cannot do.

There are few disabled characters in fiction (which is why they stand out) because writing them is extra effort. It’s easier to write about kickass heroes and heroines who tough it out through thick and thin and keep on ticking.

Just tonight we watched, in the same show, a character get stabbed in the back by an enormous kitchen knife embedded at least four inches by the blood shown carefully on the blade when it was pulled out by the stabbed character, who then went on to limp a bit while he walked around, interacted, and finally was not shot by the police detective – and who survived with no visible effects by a short time afterward; and a character poked at in the stomach by a little knife who died instantly. Neither of these seemed at all realistic – but the plot required one survivor to talk and talk, and the other to be removed quickly from the scene.

In the same way, disability in fiction is mentioned when necessary to make a quick plot point – but not there pervasively.

FICTION = EMPATHY

I have written about how properly-constructed fiction is uniquely helpful in creating empathy in humans because it allows them to live alongside a character the life affected by the choices the author has made (type ’empathy’ into my search box).

They do, however, have to read said fiction, which means it has to be surrounded by the best entertainment the writer can provide.

I’m not surprised there aren’t more disabled characters, but I’m disappointed that indie isn’t more of a place where, since the big publishers are not supervising the product, there are more disabled, diverse, and simply ‘different’ characters and stories.

But there is that pesky thing about having to write well to sneak the empathy bits in under the radar. It takes more space, more words, more time.

It is MUCH harder to market.

I still think it’s worth it.


Do chronically ill/disabled characters make you squirm?

To write a character become the character

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW – YOU CAN LEARN

I have taught myself to write from ‘right behind the eyeballs’ of the characters I’m giving voice to.

It is a process similar to Method acting – or to becoming possessed.

I even try to keep the observation of the character to the minimum intrusion I can do.


From October 2012:

Writing characters: To be someone else

The only way I can write a character is to find the part of myself that IS that character.

I contain multitudes.

Everything I have ever heard or read is part of me, and every part of it has to fit in to what I know of the world, my version of reality.

I don’t know what features and programs I came pre-loaded with, but the only access I have to it is how I react to things when they happen to me. Nothing inside me is untouched by the world I was born into, and the world I have added to that every day of my life.

Everything is a product of my experience plus how ‘I’ reacted to that experience.

One of the pre-loads is obviously that marvelous capacity for self-examination, the human consciousness, the ability to be self-aware. I don’t always know why I did something, but, with patience, I can often figure it out. Eventually.

What does this have to do with characters?

Before I can write how a character thinks and acts, I have to put myself into an alternate universe where I imagine or create how the character got to the place where he can be what he is, or she can do what she does. The backstory has to explain the present that I write in.

It gets scary: by the time I have it, at whatever depth, the character IS me – if I had lived through what she has and started with who she was born as.

I have to do some of that even for minor characters, where it helps to cast a few steps back from the present, so that the present at least seems grounded in some kind of logical conclusions.

But for the major characters, it has to go deep – deep and very far back. As far back as the baby he was, who his older sisters were, and where he fit his family’s needs.

I add his alternate universe, and mark him with the events that will take him to where I need him to be.

Then the present makes sense, a convoluted but self-consistent sense, and his actions and words are inevitable.


It takes extra time to switch from character to character, to give a reader the right perspective for each scene, so it contributes to the story whole.

It would be so much simpler not to.

But I would neither be doing my job – nor having so much fun.

Do you like to become the characters you read?

Gather scene plot points before writing

WARNING: FOR PLOTTERS

I have no idea how pantsers (those who write ‘by the seat of their pants’) decide what goes where in their books, or scenes, so if you’re a writer of that persuasion this post isn’t for you!

Even plotters have many variants

Some plotters are outliners: they construct a detailed outline for their novels, listing events in each scene, and, when they have a clear enough picture, follow their characters along and write down how they talk to each other as the events unfold.

There are writers who plot part of the time, as necessary, when they get stuck or when a section has to have a chronology to make sense.

And then there are people like me (I hope I’m not unique!): decisions are made in advance for every little thing that could happen in the whole story – an interaction between two characters about their Motivation; the introduction of a theme; the next step in a plot sequence that spans the whole trilogy…

I don’t know if I would have been this controlled had my brain still functioned the normal way – I didn’t write novels ‘before.’ But it helps me function when the amount of work I can keep in my head at a time is about one scene’s worth. At times, one beat – a section of a scene. My problem when I don’t do this it that the same ‘good idea’ will end up, in slightly different words, in more than one place in the novel!

So, necessity or temperament:

I call us Extreme Plotters

All this goes into the scenes in the list. Each scene has its little laundry list.

And then the improvisation can begin – everything is ready but the words.

And that little bit of ‘business’ will occur in only one place in the novel – and I know where and why.


From January 2013 (but I still use it every writing session):

Appreciations: Stuff that has to go somewhere

There are marks that a story has to hit to be considered complete.

For example, Blake Snyder, in his Save the Cat series on screenwriting, lists what he calls beats (on his ‘beat sheet’), things such as Opening Image, Theme Stated, Catalyst, and Dark Night of the Soul.

James N. Frey, in The Key: How to write damn good fiction using the power of myth, has a similar set which he calls a stepsheet that includes marks to hit such as the Call to Adventure, the Confrontation with the Evil One, or Obtaining the Prize; and a set of mythological characters to encounter such as The Armorer, The Evil One’s Sidekick, or the God with Clay Feet.

Other theorists have their own sets of points to hit for a novel or screenplay, and other structural systems such as Dramatica have their own collections of ‘pieces’ to include somehow in the finished product.

Finding a home for the pieces in the list of scenes

The last part of my Scene template is the section where all these systems have space to assign their points to particular scenes. I call these appreciations, or apps, from the original Dramatica version terminology.

Many of these systems have points in common, and are different ways of interpreting features that stories need. Odds are that people evaluating a novel or screenplay for acquisition will have their favorite system- and there is no reason why different systems can’t be accommodated within the same story and story structure.

The appreciations remind me that somewhere within THIS scene, I have elected to show, say, my protagonist preparing for the quest ahead by consulting The Wise Woman, or that this scene is the place to illustrate what Snyder calls the ‘All is Lost’ moment.

The illustration (‘encoding’) of the appreciation could be a bit of description or setting, a phone call and one or both sides of the ensuing dialogue, or a character’s thought expressing the theme for the reader. My choice – and where the writing and the artistry happen.

There are an infinite number of ways to illustrate any appreciation.

When done, a list of the appreciations showing the required points, scene by scene, could show an editor or studio exec that the story follows his favorite system* – and ‘validate’ the story’s structure. The point is that if the story needs to have a ‘consultation with a Wise Woman’ in it, I need to know which scene I’ve chosen to put that into. When I’m writing/I’ve written the scene, I can check the beat/story point/mark off my list once it is illustrated somehow. It is bookkeeping – that’s what templates are useful for.

The remaining few lines at the beginning and end of the Scene template situate that scene within its Chapter, and keep track of the action on a larger scale.

It looks like a lot of work to create and maintain this much structure. I think of it as preparation before going into battle. I know that when I reach the end, each of my scenes has done its job, and I haven’t left things out.

And it frees me up to do what I really want, which is to write the scenes: the stage is set, the actors are costumed and ready, and we get to Action!


*This is not an original idea – that you somehow include different ‘systems’ into the same book or screenplay – but I can’t remember where I ran across it. It makes sense – many systems are different ways to accommodate the same structure, and are not necessarily incompatible.

Thoughts?


 

Fiction dialogue easier if you write a play

TO WRITE FICTION, WRITE DIALOGUE

Beginners novelists have a lot of craft to learn.

Technically, you are still a storyteller if you write the story as prose, an epic poem, a graphic novel, a play, or a movie, but the crafts are very different. But learning the particulars takes years, and most writers pick a format and stick with it, with each form (Ex: prose) having long (novel) and shorter (story, novella) versions to practice on.

But you don’t stay a newbie novelist if you find you like writing, and learn some of the finer details such as point of view, plotting, or theme. There is room for continuous improvement, and one of the areas which bedevil beginners the most is the art of writing dialogue.

Mine became adequate as I went along (and no, I’m not showing you early drafts of Pride’s Children), but I needed to kick it up several orders of magnitude.

It took several years before the play (Tangled Webs) I naively thought would be ready for my daughter’s sixteenth birthday present was finished, and she was in college before I did, and here is part of what I learned.


From November 2012:

For better dialogue in fiction: write a play

When you can’t depend on interior monologue to get your point across, you lose a huge advantage. As a writer of fiction, you can either be blatant (He felt like death.) or subtle (He remembered med school: learning all the ramifications of the vagus nerve, enervating myriads of gastric components and pathways, useless for pinpointing the source of trouble in his gut, useful only to prove something, somewhere, thought it was wrong. But he’d never expected to feel so many of them. Simultaneously.) when using interior monologue, deep or distant.

But you get to choose.

As a playwright, you work with action and dialogue. Period. And have collaborators – actors and directors – who may aid you or may fight you, but whom you don’t control.

Tradition in the theater preserves the playwright’s absolute control over the dialogue, the WORDS. Many actors and directors will routinely cross out stage directions and the author’s parenthetical instructions on HOW to say a line or move about on stage, but they will not change a WORD of the dialogue.

Even in an adaptation of the play ‘Mary Stuart’ in high school, in SPANISH (I was Queen Elizabeth I, the actual lead – whee!), our director limited himself to crossing out large amounts of dialogue (the play was too long for us), and making the tiniest transitions where absolutely necessary. He would not change the translator’s version of the WORDS.

This is an absolute gift for novelists.

I urge every novelist to go out and write a play*.

Buy yourself $100 worth of playwriting books (buy – so you can write in them). Swallow them whole. Pick a visual story. Write the darned thing (maybe I’ll get back to the how in a later post).

And learn to live within the constraints of the form: you tell your story in the DIALOGUE you give your characters.

Oh, all right. You also have setting, and choosing WHICH of your characters are on stage at a given time, and stage/dialogue parenthetical directions.

But DIALOGUE is your main weapon.

And your written dialogue in your fiction gets much better.

You shouldn’t do ‘talking heads’ or ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue, any more than you should do it in a novel – doing so demonstrates a distinct lack of technical skills.

It’s “I’m going to paint the Mona Lisa with BOTH hands tied behind my back, using only this paintbrush clenched in my teeth.” Because that’s what it feels like when you start.

But it CAN be done. It’s been done since the beginning of time. It can be done WITHOUT a narrator to gum up the works. And it can be done so the audience feels like eavesdroppers, watching something real happening right in front of them, right now.

Heady stuff. Ask full-time playwrights. Ask actors and directors.

Dialogue in plays is elliptical (not the shape – the punctuation mark), at cross purposes, full of innuendo and half-said things. And lies. Lots of lies. But it must tell the story or you are merely doing pantomime. It has to add up.

The WORDS matter.

And that is precisely its value for writing the dialogue – and telling the story – in fiction: it has to add up.

Doing it with time constraints – on stage – leads to the most economical method of telling a story, the fewest words. Doing it on stage, intended for a live audience which gets BORED and restless within seconds if the pieces of story it is receiving do not add up immediately, is like boot camp for dialogue.

The audience can neither skip ahead nor review something unclear.

And it won’t like being bored. So you learn to leave nothing out, and put nothing extraneous in.

Audiences want stories to make sense, pronto, and continuously. So you learn to feed them the story in bite-size pieces, story beats, so they can put the whole thing together in their heads and follow.

It is an awesome discipline to acquire – and the results, in terms of the ability to create good dialogue in fiction, are equally awesome, so much so that stripping a scene I’m editing down to ONLY the dialogue, and walking through it as if I expected it to be performed on stage, is now one of the basic steps in my process, and a step that often shows exactly where the flaws are.

Thoughts?


A quick reminder: Pride’s Children will only be on sale for about another week, if you wanted to get the 0.99 ebook version. I’m putting it back up there, and, just for the heck of it, will try the $9.99 price point. (It was 8.99 before the dollar experiment.)


 

Listen to the priceless gift of feedback

HONEST FEEDBACK IS ABOVE RUBIES

This one’s as true as when I first wrote it, before even being published at novel length, and in general people who ask for feedback in my various online writer’s groups are open to getting it, and gracious when it isn’t quite what they asked for.

Maybe I’m getting pickier at the groups I’m in.

The principle is the same: if you’re going to argue with the messenger, don’t order the service.


FROM April 2013:

Feedback: the priceless gift

Had an experience that made me take notice – so I stopped to figure out what happened.

I had gone to a new website – looked mildly interesting – for a writer. This writer put up the cover of his first book as kind of a teaser for his second – so far so good – and it sounded interesting enough that I clicked through to Amazon – considering buying.

So: he’s got me as a live one.

I read the description of the second book, and my brain goes, ‘Wait a minute – something not quite right here.’

The description for the second book was for a science fiction book. Conspiracies and space warfare and etc.

It was supposed to be a sequel – to his first book, written a while back.

But here’s the problem: the cover for the FIRST book hadn’t said a word about SF, just a one-word title and a name (of new writer – not one who is known to write SF).

The importance of covers

The ARTICLE he wrote was about the importance of COVERS. So I was primed to actually consider HIS in more detail than I normally would have done.

And it didn’t say, to me, what it was supposed to say. To me, the image and the title did NOT convey ‘SF inside.’ My opinion, of course.

So, being the nice helpful person I am, I bothered to go back, think it through, and tell this writer my impression of his cover strategy. As mildly and inoffensively as I could. I don’t do this often, and only when I think I have something to add to a thread. It takes a bit of time,

And he ARGUED with me! When I happened to go back to see if there was further discussion (being interested in covers, as a writer who will be self-publishing one of these days, because that’s what drew me to his website/blog in the first place), I read that he thought I was wrong, that there WERE SF elements on the cover, and I had somehow missed the signals.

Which miffed me, again mildly. [By way of credentials, I have been reading SF since the 1960s, and even had a membership in the SF Book Club which kept good SF coming regularly.]

Do you argue with the gift-giver?

I stopped to think why, and realized that there is a lesson there for ME: If someone does you the favor of giving you unbiased feedback about any aspect of your writing from THEIR point of view, your only acceptable response is “Thank you – I will think about what you said.”

Not to argue that your visitor and commenter is WRONG.

I have done this before, left careful feedback, and clearly labeled it ‘my opinion.’ Heck – I did it at Hugh Howey’s website (before his current fame – not that long ago), and his response was exactly right: Thanks for the suggestion, and I will consider it carefully. As a commenter (and now a fan – having gone to Amazon after his response and bought the whole WOOL omnibus), I felt listened to and appreciated. As if, in a small way, I had been able to contribute something.

So I got a valuable lesson from the experience: the one thing you cannot buy is the unvarnished opinion of a new true commenter. It is a gift when someone offers a considered opinion of your writing. It is feedback from a new READER. And it means you have made a connection. The last thing you want to do is discourage or discount the flash of inspiration you get. The aphorism is “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” It is TRUE.


Thoughts?

Plot quirks as much as holes

AND HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?

‘Missing’ is an odd concept

For a visual or graphic artist, there a billions of colors – digitize the spectrum as finely as you like to get as many distinct numbers as you need.

Of course, you can’t use them all.

And at some point the human eye can no longer distinguish between the shades.

A complete scene is another odd concept

That’s where the art comes in, for each writer, in deciding how much stays, how much is irrelevant (including whether or not to use scenes at all, but that’s getting a little too experimental for me).

From January 2013 comes an answer that turned my brain topsy turvy:



Upending plots to find holes

I had an interesting experience recently which gave me ideas about finding – and solving – plot problems. In the course of playing too many games of Free Flow on DH’s new iPad mini, I solved all but a small set of the 14 x 14 levels included. It irked me that, no matter how many times I went back to the remaining small unsolved set, even starting completely from scratch, I couldn’t find the trick to the solution.

A minor problem, you say. Agreed. But games can be useful (I know – this doesn’t justify all that time spent gaming) – or humans wouldn’t have invented them, and wouldn’t get so much stroking from them, so much pleasure, that they can become addicting. There is a sense of completion that releases endorphins and other good brain chemicals when a puzzle is solved.

So, I continued to come back to this set of unfinished puzzles.

But it wasn’t until, in desperation, I turned the iPad upside down that I found my answers: even though I had started each level from scratch, the orientation of the dots (you are trying to connect each colored dot with its mate in such a way that all squares on the board have a color in them and NONE of the squares is EMPTY) had locked into my brain prematurely, and I literally could not see them in a different way.

It actually HURT my brain to turn the iPad upside down, and to view each puzzle WRONG – but in a new way.

I told myself anything that made my brain hurt must be good for it (on the theory I hold that the brain is a muscle-like object, and it must be exercised).

I deliberately tolerated the stress – and quickly solved the remaining puzzles I had been struggling with for more days than I care to admit. Immediately. The skills I had developed for this particular little game had settled too soon into working on the default orientation – a technique that got me successfully through most of the 750 puzzle levels that came with the game – but not all.

I’m doing something similar with the scenes I’m revising now:

I have text for these scenes, text that I like, and a flow through the plot that strokes my brain (we all write, first, for ourselves), but it isn’t good enough.

Revising in place, just taking the words that are there, the order of words in a scene, and making them better, is good and useful and satisfactory – after all, I worked hard to write them originally.

But it doesn’t solve all the problems. I’m stuck, in some scenes, with a feeling that I haven’t done my complete job, that there are unexplored empty ‘squares’ on the grid. A feeling that if I notice a tiny void, a reader will, too. My brain hurts.

But the reader can’t fix the problem. That’s my job. If my writing isn’t satisfying me, it has no business going out into the world.

So I’ve been taking the elements of a scene, and going back to ‘start.’ Rearranging the order, re-thinking, re-visioning.

Letting my brain hurt.

Turning the scene completely upside down, asking beginner questions: What does this scene do? Why is this scene in the book? What can the reader only learn here? Even, Why the heck did he do that?

I’m hampered by the fact that I can – as an end result of many years of reading – turn out clean copy that LOOKS finished with relative ease. And once it is fixed in black and white on the page, it is very hard to question what looks ‘published.’

It takes time. It isn’t strictly necessary.

But if I identify the plot problems – the little bugs which irk the brain – those empty squares – and solve them, I get the endorphins. And a scene I have to admit is vastly better.



The interesting part has been that I have found extremely few places where I want to go back and change something in PURGATORY – which I just finished rereading.

Apparently, once I’ve got it, it locks in, and then it’s real, and I don’t need to go back. I didn’t think it would be so.


How about you?

If you’re a writer, do you find a strong stop for each scene – or do your scenes make you want to get out the editor?

If you’re a reader, can you tell when something is finished?

Just curious.

My writing rules have not changed

A white notebook with some sprigs of flowers with leaves. Text: From 2013 to 2019 the Rules I write by have NOT improved. RATS! Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

CHRONIC HAS NOT BECOME BETTER

These are the ‘rules’ I figured out way back when I started blogging.

I have moved cross-country, published the first volume of Pride’s Children, lived, exercised, eaten – trying multiple possibilities to no useful improvement.

It’s daunting.

Pain has increased a bit, and I walk less well. I’m avoiding any more surgery on my back unless 1) forced to (by a few things which can get dramatically worse), or 2) I’ve both finished all three PC volumes AND found a surgeon I believe can actually do anything useful.

Why? Because we CFS folk are sensitive to anesthesia, subject to wild pain fluctuations with surgery, and take forever to heal.

So I went back to look at the Rules, and am listing them, unaltered, so you don’t have to go look at the Archives for 2013. I may correct an odd typo or two.

Pray for me.

Contribute a few bucks to research on Dr. David Tuller’s fundraiser (he’s our wonderful journalist with a PhD in Public Health from Berkeley, where he works and which backs him up against some of the worst slanders about his abilities and motives. Why him? Because he’s been doing this for us for two years, and knows everyone and everything because he’s already up to speed. Because his research and letters, published on the Virology Blog, have been amazing. Because the other side, the fake scientists who insist I have a psychological disease, greatly fear him (they were getting away with murder until statisticians called them on it).

Rules from April 2013 – still valid:

*** DO NOT READ THESE RULES IF YOU ARE EASILY OVERWHELMED *** I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR CONSEQUENCES *** YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED *** YOUR MILEAGE WILL VARY *** DO NOT ARGUE WITH ME *** YOU DON’T HAVE TO READ THEM ***

Like physical laws, like gravity, especially, these laws are immutable.

Finding my laws – and exploiting them for MY benefit, is how I survive. Which I do, erratically.

Anything else is not only really stupid, but, like gravity, results in large crashes when I fall.

I have figured out these rules in detail only the last year or two, because I couldn’t afford to know them – and their immutability – before then.

I have the scientist’s orderly mind, and the drive to understand things that accompanies it. I would have made a decent scientist. Oh, wait – I did – for thirteen years.

I want to write. I am very grumpy when I can’t write.

1.    If I am playing video games, trolling the internet, or reading far into the night, it is not for pleasure. It is because my non-functioning mind can’t make decisions. This actually has a name: Decision Fatigue. It is part of the dreaded ‘brain fog.’

2.    The only way I can make good decisions is to be rested enough. Yes, I can tell. But only, Catch-22-like, if I ASK myself – and I’m often too non-functional at the time to remember that.

3.    The only way to reset the decision-making process, for me, for now, is to lie down.

4.    The best recovery sleep is one taken just as I’m getting tired – OR COLD. It is at least 35 minutes long (the extra five is to settle down). It takes three positions: 1/3 lying on my back, 1/3 on each side. It must be: as dark as I can manage the room; horizontal; warm enough (lowering body temperature is an indicator); completely dark (use eye mask if necessary); completely silent (use ear plugs, and if the neighbor is using his industrial leaf-blower – way too often – I must add to the earplugs industrial ear protection: the earplugs alone are not enough). There can, obviously, be nothing else going on, no TV, audiobook, music. Certainly I can’t talk to you on the phone and count it as a Rest.

5.    During the nap I actively try to do all my rest-and-meditation tricks (true meditation is beyond me, but I sometimes do a little praying as I settle down, especially if anxiety is a problem (it often is)): I do three yoga ‘surrender breaths’ at least in each position, more if necessary, in sets of three. Each of these breaths has me filling my lungs to the utmost, holding a moment, and then ‘letting the breath fall out’ by opening my mouth and just releasing all tension. I – not necessarily yoga practitioners – then use all my muscles to push every bit of bad air from my body. I think this compensates for somewhat shallow breathing the rest of the time – junk in the air in the lower alveoli? – but what do I know?

6.    If I am tense or twitchy, I use those first five minutes to do all kinds of stretches – some I’ve invented myself – all lying down (unless I have a touch of sciatica – I’ll discuss that separately).

7.    It doesn’t matter if I had a nap 40 minutes ago (this part I hate). If I need another one, I need another one. Typical days without too much stress get by on two, are better with three. If I am recovering from a bad night, it can take four or five. If recovering from overdoing it (described below), pushing my limits, hitting the wall, losing it – whatever – this process WILL go on for days – regularly as many days as I overdid it; if I am VERY observant, I may be partially functional sooner – but can easily lose it again if I assume I’m back to ‘normal’ too soon.

8.    My ‘normal’ is not what ‘regular people’ call normal. You’ll see. My normal means I can get through a day with only two or three required half-hour rests – and actually get something done. (Getting something done will be described later.)

9.    I cannot work through or power through my little ‘problem.’ It would be like driving a car without gasoline, or better still, without a required oil change that is long overdue.

10.    I can choose to try to bend, break, or stretch these rules. Another one of my little ‘bad decisions.’

11. I cannot evade the consequences of having done so.

12. I am consciously trying to find the implementation that allows me to make the best choices, aware that life is imperfect, and the best choices are often not available to me.

13. Stress – of any kind – loses functionality. The loss is directly proportional to the stress, but exponential, not linear.

14. My personal limit seems to be to leave the house no more than three times a week for a fully functional existence. It is very limiting, and it is a difficult limit to enforce. I often have to make an exception to not miss my yoga class; I always pay for the exception.

15. If I leave the house, on one of those trips I may stop and do a short shopping stop: more than 15 minutes, and/or without the walker, and we are done – I must leave.

16. I can’t eat sugar or refined carbohydrates very often; if I do so, it will take four days – no exceptions – to get them out of my system. Every couple of days I may choose to do the Drs. Heller’s method of eating ONE balanced meal a day with some carbs and staying within a strict limit of ONE hour from start to finish. If I do this only a couple of times/week, exactly as they describe, I minimize its effects. Minimize, not evade – but c’mon guys, sometimes you gotta have birthday cake.

17. If necessary, I carry Atkins bars, and can have up to a couple a day. These are for true emergencies – and are sometimes what keeps me from going off the deep end, the illusion of a candybar, some chocolate and peanut. They are good for a meal-on-the-run, but if I’m on one of those, we are already compromised, and I know it. Sometimes they are the only thing that gets me home safely when I have to drive. I WILL pay for it.

18. The BEST solution to leaving the house is to get into bed the minute I get back. I’m very bad at it, because by that point I’m living on fumes, and I make very bad decisions on fumes.

19. No matter how many times I beat myself up about it, no matter how many times I fail to do the right things, I don’t seem to be able to do this perfectly.

20. I’ve been collecting some of the above data for the entire 23 years I’ve been sick. Some of it ‘clicked’ but recently – I have a bit more time to observe myself right now.

21. If I can’t get to sleep at night, I can take 1/4 of a 3mg. Melatonin tablet (which, taken as I’m getting sleepy, works best). I can also take 1/4-1/3 of a muscle relaxant (Skelaxin), which helps when all my yoga stretching doesn’t quite get the twitches of RLS (Restless Leg Syndrome) out. I WILL PAY for these the next morning with between 1/4 and 1/2 day of additional grogginess. Most of the time these methods will get me to sleep – but the cost in functionality the next day is significant. Less doesn’t work. Taken too late (I told you I’m making these decisions from the very bottom of the decision quality scale), they don’t work.

22. It takes me 2-3 days to get back on a normal schedule if I stay up too late, longer, proportionately, if I do it for more than one day in a row. Most of the time I make an actual bad choice (I COULD set an alarm, or block the internet, or turn the computer off, or put the book or the ereader game down); sometimes something occurs late at night, usually by phone, occasionally because I HAVE to finish something. The REAL RULE is: go to bed. At the same time. As I get sleepy. Like a two-year-old.

23. When I get into the lowest energy state (zombie-like but still technically awake), and caught by something that gives my mind the appearance of intelligent occupation (pick your computer game of choice, or web-surf desperately for content), I’m amazed I can even make the decision to go to bed – after hours (literally) of being stuck in la-la land. I ALWAYS beat myself up when I do this. It never seems to help.

24. I get into the lowest energy state, because, goddammit, I’m a grownup, grownups don’t take naps like two-year-olds, and I hate taking naps (you see the lack of functional decision-making here, right?), and I’ve allowed myself (sometimes by design) to get to that state by going along as if I WERE normal, and not planning when the next nap needs to be, and how many I need to take to get through the day.

25. Here’s the new rule I just figured out: WRITING helps. And having it in an easily-accessible SCRIVENER file, where I can get to it before I do the next thing, helps even more. I’ve known these rules for year, have most of them written in the more than twenty notebooks that have journal pieces, my journey as I go through life, my writing notes as I work through revisions… BUT it hasn’t been until I’ve started using Scrivener – because of its ability to have so many files for a project and not take forever to open – that I’ve started adding a section to each project where I keep track of this stuff. Now, every time I realize I’m writing the same things, and nothing is new, I’m starting to use that as an indication that I’m ready to work.

26. Writing seems to help focus my mind – that’s why I do it. But I’ve written the same words many times before – in various chunks. Slowly. By hand – which is often a good things to do (I write most of my new text longhand, and revise on clean printouts much better than on a computer screen) is TOO SLOW to capture the torrent of thoughts which flow through my head.

27. Writing LISTS seems to help focus, as well. Brain says, “We’re doing a list,” and puts stuff out in some kind of order.

28. Getting things out of my head, and onto paper where I can see them, counteracts the ability to hold only one thing in my mind at a time (see post about likening my brain to an old-fashioned computer with a single processor: I DO NOT MULTITASK well.

29. Too many things in the queue leads to total paralysis – I can’t do what needs doing for one task before another forcibly takes over the single neuron I use for thinking (the other is used for breathing, thank-you-very-much, and should not be co-opted frequently: that least to hypoxia? anoxia? death? And it usually forgets to switch back). Putting the queue on paper is the trick – I’d discovered that when capturing the To Do list manually – but only the computer list allows for editing the list easily, putting things into the right order as I edit, and modifying lists items as I go. By hand that requires re-writing the list – and gets to be all-encompassing of the time, so much that list-making becomes the sole activity.

30. I dumped this out, non-stop, in a half-hour. Feels good. Now I have to eat something – and go finish taxes. I can work for maybe another hour before Second Nap. First nap was almost two hours because I went to sleep at 5am. I am coasting, feeling almost human, but it won’t last – another one of the rules: feeling good, functional, almost normal, DOES NOT LAST.

Changes since 2013:

Very few.

I don’t do organized yoga since I’m no longer vertically stable enough to stand, and half the yoga I was doing was done standing.

I am no longer in charge of taxes – I did them until hubby retired; then he took them over. Probably a good idea.

And it’s now TWENTY-NINE PLUS years.

I’m still trying. Daily.

Book 2 – NETHERWORLD – is coming along. Very slowly.


There’s an incorrect word up there somewhere, but I’m too tired to find it again. Lemme know if you do, and I’ll fix it.

 

Being a quirky writer for yourself

A wolf baying at the night. Text: Some of us writers please ourselves. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

I WILL BE A QUIRKY WRITER

Especially because I may write few books in a lifetime, where the fiction push started late, and already ill when I began writing, I have to make the books count.

There will be a shelf next to my bed in the last place I live, and the books there will have to be what I wrote – and what I love.

But it’s quirky in an odd way. Either a reader will like what I write, or not be of my tribe.

That’s not so unusual: all writers have a tribe, once they’re past a certain minimum of quality that they can stand to put their name on nom de plume on.

Or they wouldn’t keep writing.

I write in blood

But I will never write to market. Never mind that I can’t – writing to market takes a lot of energy. I don’t want to.

Now that I’ve moved, I never have to write again. There are a million things even I can do in the new place, and they all take energy, and they are all a lot more fun than writing.

And then one person comes up to me at dinner, and tells me how much she loved the TV talk show scene, and I’m hooked again, on the dopamine that comes only to writers who have done their best, and have been rewarded, and have no internal regrets about skimping.

I honestly don’t want to go back and change a single word in PURGATORY. Which is good, because it would be an incredible amount of work.

But it’s also making me insecure about picking up the metaphorical pen again, because I haven’t been able to finish the one scene I’ve been working on since before we moved.

So much is riding on this scene

Plot, characters, theme – everything is going through a knot.

Everything is getting kicked up several notches.

Because the middle book in a trilogy needs that.

And I had no idea it was this one place I would have foundered for a while, no matter where I had been, until I started writing and realized how many threads I held in my hands, how many things go from before – toward the end of this book, and the end of this story, and how critical it is to get it right.

I think my subconscious knew, and my brain protected me.

So I would have time to consider what I’ve set out, fully.

I can’t wait to get to these ends, but the path has to be lit and leveled and have the right slope and the best edging and a solid underpinning of rock.

Because it leads toward high cliffs, and I would rather my characters (whom I’m very fond of) found resolution almost any other way. But there is none.

Glad I got that off my chest

And may your New Year have that kind of pull on you.

Once you get over being afraid of heights, the view can be amazing.

Over to you: what’s in store in 2019 that you can’t wait for?

 

Preparation and then things just click?

Hot air baloon at sunset; text: sailing off into the sunset, Alicia Butcher EhrhardtWHETHER YOU’RE READY OR NOT

And we are so definitely NOT ready.

But the last flooring was installed, the staging ladies have done their thing, and our real estate agent is now our real estate agent (all the advice up front doesn’t count until you sign on the dotted line – at which point all kinds of things start happening, like open houses and a lock box on your front door…).

We haven’t recovered from the trip.

We have no place for our stuff – the stuff we need to function as inhabitants of a house (where is my skillet, and how will I make eggs when the gas isn’t reconnected yet?). Which may be a problem, as the period between when you put a house ‘on the market,’ and the time when you are removing your last belongings so you can hand over the keys, is an unknown variable.

I don’t know where anything is

It happens to everyone, but it is especially hard to deal with when you have ME/CFS and daily brain fog: and now it’s far worse because some of the stuff in this house was put away by someone other than me, in a hurry, and without labeling either the box or the corresponding card in my card file. Or worse still, labeled as ‘miscellaneous.’ Aargh!

I located a few of the critical items in very odd places. Not sure I have everything I need, as distinct from the comforts, even yet.

And the dryer vent, taped by the painter, is loose – so I’m not sure I can do laundry (I’m living with the absolute minimum amount of clothes out).

Everything is to be kept tidy

And by ‘tidy’ we mean the way the staging ladies left it (a model home look), or restorable to that condition on short warning, when someone uses the system to ‘book an appointment.’ Aargh!

Meanwhile, we do have to be allowed to eat. Other Half and his good friend are down there trying to reconnect, safely, the gas to the stove.

But the forever home may be available soon

Don’t know exactly when, as they actually have to get everything they asked us for, and decide whether they want us. It is possible for them to reject us.

And it is possible for us to be legally required to leave our ex-home because it belongs to someone else after all these years, before we have a place to land.

It’s a first-world type problem – and I’m not whining – except complicated by my limitations. Residence Inn America for two months? We probably could survive. Rent or buy an RV? Ditto. I think.

So we’re adjusting.

Again.

And I’m marveling that I’m still standing – and taking a nap every chance I get so that I can be coherent for the next crisis event. Such as talking to the people at our brokerage (Vanguard) and being able to satisfy them that I’m me, so we could transfer money. By phone. Since the money has actually been received at the other end by the right people, I did it.

A bit nerve-wracking: you will be asked a series of questions, based on (?) publicly available information, and if you miss one, you’ll have to go the long route of being identified some other way. I’m still chuckling over one question about a boat we owned. And wondering where husband hid it all these years.

I love Vanguard. They get things done, and always have alternatives. I am currently furious at one of our banks for the way they made a decision (which led to the nerve-wracking phone ID). And at the other for the fraught way they handle wire transfers, as if you were a criminal actively trying to circumvent laws. Why is it that the people the laws are intended to protect always feel the brunt, while the people who should be caught and punished never even feel a thing? Being law-abiding is becoming more difficult every day.

There is a For Sale sign on my yard. After 37 years.

Life is interesting, but I’m finding the watershed point was signing those papers, and I’m strangely free.

That and the deposit wire-transfer going through on the same day is… unexpected.

Off to the Gray Havens.


 

Liberate the writing mind from the tyranny of time

PLAYING WITH TIME IS THE WRITER’S TOOL

Freeing the mind from the constraints of the linear computer screen.

My ‘left brain’ is linear. Orderly. And must eventually win: the words I produce on the screen or page will have to load into the brain, even in chunks, in an orderly fashion.

I call that the tyranny of the chronology. Or the tyranny of time. Tyranny, in any case.

Even if the story is being told non-linearly, with foreshadowing and backstory, and revisits the same events from different points of view, the ORDER of the words in the final product must be a queue: one behind the other.

We are creatures of time, mired in time, stuck in time – and used to dealing with input presented to us, in time.

Half our metaphors and clichés involve time:

A stitch in time saves nine.
In a timely manner.
Time heals all wounds.
Time to die. Time for dinner.
To everything, turn, turn, turn.

Our most common question: What time is it?

We’re born.
We live.
We die.
In that order.

Time is a relentless dimension, going always headlong into the future from the past, with a moment only in the present – and we are dragged along, willy nilly.

So much so that we hardly notice it.

Time is like air, not noticed until there is a lack

The right brain, which doesn’t do things that way, is also dragged along. Even if it takes in many things at one perception, each instant in time will bring a different set, to be perceived and dealt with – if possible – before being assaulted by the next.

This affects writing in many different ways, but especially in giving a power to the words already on the page – in their ordered stream. The left brain resists changing that which is already sorted into a linear order. It did all that work to organize things, and now you want to change their order? It demands to know, Why? It gets in the way of finding a better order, a more coherent whole.

Loosening the grip of time

For me, one of the best ways to stop that linear progression is to go to paper: a fresh sheet of scratch paper invites scribbling. Pencil, pen, colored markers. A neon yellow highlighter. A printed copy of the current version or pieces of older versions invites scissors and tape. And rearranging. Always rearranging. Clumping – and stringing out. Grouping in different ways.

I know there is software for that – to make a screen more like a whiteboard. Maybe the next generation will be comfortable with its freedom, and not notice its inherent limitations: the screen doesn’t allow you to cut it into pieces.

But ‘going to paper’ stops time for me for long enough to see if this fiction has a BETTER timeline in it, a different order for all those perceptions and illuminations of the right mind.

Manipulating time – for story

Always in mind is the idea of how to slip all these bits and pieces of the story into the reader’s head so a coherent whole story can assemble, KNOWING the reader’s mind is different from my own, KNOWING that the story for the reader will be different from my version in many and subtle ways because every head is a whole world, and every world in a mind is different from every other one. Presenting the building blocks in the best way I can think of to invoke the reader’s use of her built-in software.

Overcoming my OWN Resistance to changing anything – to make it better – requires that I manipulate time for my own purposes, which also requires that I step out of the constraints linear time puts on ME.

‘Going to the paper’ does this every time I try it: there is something magical about messing with time, but I have to do it non-linearly, with different tools than my usual ones, and in a way that takes me back, metaphorically, to when it was okay to scribble anything anywhere (and I even had a hard time staying on the paper), before I was truly conscious of time, when there was only ‘now.’

‘Going to the paper’ in real life, too

I have to do a lot of year-end paperwork. It is stressful and confusing, and requires decisions from a mind not functional yet this morning. I can sit here, staring at the screen until the cows come home – and nothing useful will happen.

Making notes on paper, scribbling, adding bits and pieces, and drawing arrows from one piece to another – going to the paper – is the only way I’m going to get through it.

Respecting time

The most important thing a writer can do is to respect the reader’s time – and put nothing into a story that is not strictly necessary.

That said, it has to be in the context of the readers you hope to attract, as time sense is a strong predictor of the kind of books a particular reader wants, and the writer’s is developed by the sum total of everything the writer has ever read.

Pretty big order, there.

I think the most important measurement of respect is that your target readers will never demand back the time they spent reading you. And the ones who are not your ‘tribe’ will accuse you of wasting theirs.

How do you finagle ‘time’?

Does your character make readers uncomfortable?

WHAT CHARACTERS MAKE READERS SQUIRM?

When I set out to tell the story of Pride’s Children, I was originally driven by a sense of the unfairness of society toward those who have most need of its kindness.

Specifically, your DISABLED character?

There are two USUAL ways to deal with disability in a character: as a decoration or as a problem.

The first – a ‘feature’ of a character – gets mentioned every once in a while, but doesn’t seem to stop the character from doing most of the things ‘normal’ able people do. And it mostly leads that character to be a secondary character, a sidekick, the ‘friend in the wheelchair.’

The second leads to ‘inspiration p0rn’ (avoiding search engine problems here), and the solving of the ‘problem’ consumes the space dedicated to the story, with inspirational results – problem solved – or, sometimes, the character’s death (in a disturbing trend, by suicide while making life easier for those left behind).

Ignore the fact that suicide has a horrible effect on the people left behind. Most of us know of someone close to whom that has happened, and know they would do almost anything if they could go back in time and help.

Disabilities in real life

Disabilities are far more abundant than people think. If you count all disabilities – and I do, of course – estimates run over 20%. Don’t forget the invisible ones: FM, mental health issues, pain, CFS, non-visible genetic ‘abnormalities,’ a thousand things that make life difficult for the disabled person, but generate wrath in observers who watch them use the handicap parking space. Don’t forget old age and its common memory and mobility problems.

The counting is made difficult because of a human tendency to hide problems if it is at all possible, so you will not be ‘different’ or ‘other,’ and attract unwanted attention. Presumably there was some evolutionary benefit to getting rid of tribe members who would slow you down when your tribe was in the hunter/gatherer phase (a rather long time ago).

We ‘pass’ for normal/able as long as we possibly can, which also makes us suddenly appear very disabled when we can’t pretend any more.

Animals do it, too – everyone knows of a pet who didn’t let its owner know something was wrong until it was far too late to help. Wild animals do it so as not to appear vulnerable, as the weak and the sick are noted as easy prey.

But there is a different way for a writer: reality

I have taken the step of writing a disabled MAIN character, with a significant disability, which she ignores as much as possible, and bows to when inevitable.

For this disabled character, writing is a job – and she’s been successful at it, very slowly – and by staying hidden from the world.

An Amazon reviewer:

…while much of the plot centers on the cautious romance, Pride’s Children is also about a writer’s way of interacting with the world, living with a chronic condition (CFS – … I realized that I couldn’t think of any book I’d read, recently, involving a character with a disability or chronic illness – a significant hole in terms of diversity), and the struggle to remain balanced and kind when new people and routines enter one’s carefully-ordered sanctuary…

Disability is a learning experience

Those who are or become disabled have a steep learning curve: everything is harder. Moving, learning, thinking, being independent, even making new friends – all these are more difficult the farther a character is from the norm.

And the effects are interwoven: difficulty reading means trouble holding a job, getting to that job on public transportation or by learning to drive. No disability is purely one thing you cannot do.

There are few disabled characters in fiction (which is why they stand out) because writing them is extra effort. It’s easier to write about kickass heroes and heroines who tough it out through thick and thin and keep on ticking.

Just tonight we watched, in the same show, a character get stabbed in the back by an enormous kitchen knife embedded at least four inches by the blood shown carefully on the blade when it was pulled out by the stabbed character, who then went on to limp a bit while he walked around, interacted, and finally was not shot by the police detective – and who survived with no visible effects by a short time afterward; and a character poked at in the stomach by a little knife who died instantly. Neither of these seemed at all realistic – but the plot required one survivor to talk and talk, and the other to be removed quickly from the scene.

In the same way, disability in fiction is mentioned when necessary to make a quick plot point – but not there pervasively.

FICTION = EMPATHY

I have written about how properly-constructed fiction is uniquely helpful in creating empathy in humans because it allows them to live alongside a character the life affected by the choices the author has made (type ’empathy’ into my search box).

They do, however, have to read said fiction, which means it has to be surrounded by the best entertainment the writer can provide.

I’m not surprised there aren’t more disabled characters, but I’m disappointed that indie isn’t more of a place where, since the big publishers are not supervising the product, there are more disabled, diverse, and simply ‘different’ characters and stories.

But there is that pesky thing about having to write well to sneak the empathy bits in under the radar. It takes more space, more words, more time.

It is MUCH harder to market.

I still think it’s worth it.

Do disabled characters make you squirm?

What do you do with infuriating reviews?

NOTHING

I won’t even defend the grammatical correctness of that statement in the picture: EVERYBODY has an opinion, most of them WRONG.

WRITERS put their opinions out into the world where anyone can read them.

Readers have opinions, too, and they get to express them in many places, one of which is the very modern REVIEW.

This is the system now, people.

Get used to it.

For all the complaints, the reviewing systems are not going to disappear because they have enfranchised the disenfranchised billions who never had a platform before, and now they do.

Moderators may keep the discussion to civil levels.

Insecure bloggers will delete or alter comments they don’t like from opinionated readers who disagree with them.

But I’m finding that I don’t spend much time reading the word of bloggers who don’t ever bother responding to their interlocutors. Not worth it. It has become a two-way street.

[Sort of. The pitifully awkward communication via mobile may be the ONE thing that destroys the system, because it is much harder to do on those tiny keyboards. But wait for good speech-to-text software and microphones that can pick up the speakers subvocalisations, and we may be back in business.]

Everyone’s a critic.

Today a writer whined about her first 1* review, on an FB group I participate in – after writing a bunch of books! Lucky woman. Most of us get a 1* on the first book!

I could tell you stories. In fact, I will. Below. Because one of those reviewers (not the 1* one this time, but bad enough) got MY goat. [Lovely thing, name of Billy, soft, intelligent, beautiful brown eyes… but I digress.]

Writers are asking for it

Literally. We want reviews. We want feedback. We want to know when our arrow has hit their bullseye.

But we don’t want their bullshite.

We want praise. Glorious and unstinting and erudite and literate (not the same thing) praise.

Because, to be able to write well (assuming that’s what the goal is; with some writers you wonder… but I digress), we have to sit at the keyboard and open all our veins to get enough blood to write with (takes lots of extra blood for all those sidetracks and failed attempts that occur with good writing… but I digress).

And being open is a target for, well, bullies. (Anyone who doesn’t like our prose is… darn it with the digressions today.)

Unconscious bullies. Jealous bullies. Bullies-who-had-a-bad-day.

What to do?

NOTHING.

Nothing overt or aimed at readers or argumentative or likely to start a flame war online!

There is enough garbage on the internet already.

And we have the example of very popular writers: pick your favorite, and your favorite book, and go look at the reviews. All of them. ESPECIALLY the negative reviews.

And remember, on AMAZON a 3* review is NEGATIVE/CRITICAL. Don’t believe me? Check those reviews on your favorite book’s page again: the 3*, 2*, and 1* are CRITICAL/NEGATIVE reviews.

On Goodreads, 3* is good, 4* is great, 5* is ‘best book I ever read.’ According to their rubric (I don’t make these things up – what’s the point when you can check so easily?).

On Amazon, 4* and 5* are good, 1*, 2*, and 3* are bad. Just to summarize that neatly for you.

Got it?

Find a place where it’s safe to vent (your own blog should be such a place, even though it’s pretty public, as long as you don’t identify anyone specific or any specific negative/critical review). Better still, complain only to friends and on closed writers’ groups, but it may not be as satisfying.

The upside?

Another review is another review. They keep adding up. SOMEONE is reading.

And reader/reviewers write their thoughts and opinions in their reviews; other people may read the reviews and gain more understanding of what they may be choosing to read. This is good, especially with the negative reviews.

But it ALWAYS points out to you that your ad copy, cover, description, back copy, quoted editorial reviews – everything up until the sample/Look Inside – is attracting certain readers. This should make you pause and THINK.

I know I have a lot of thinking to do (I knew that already, but it was far down on the To Do list, and has moved up quite a bit) when I get a negative review from someone who probably should not have read the book. Because it’s really not their kind of book – and I can’t change it to BE their kind of book. The story’s already set in concrete, all the way to the end of the trilogy, even the parts I haven’t written yet. The style, tone, characters, plot – all implacably going to be very similar to what is already published.

If someone states unambiguously they don’t like Mexican food, don’t give them a coupon and invite them to rate your Mexican restaurant. ‘Twill end badly on Yelp.

So our signals are crossed.

I’m glad they tried something obviously out of their regular reading zone. I’m very appreciative of their reviewing – most readers don’t, and it is an effort I appreciate. I’m not particularly pleased they rated the way they did, but I’m very glad they pointed out in their review what they liked and what they didn’t. That’s data for me, not for writing, but for marketing.

Not sure this counts as a rant, but it is an attempt to bang my head on the wall. Without doing too much damage – I’m slow enough already.

As an author, I do not go to my reviews and down rate the reviews I don’t like. It’s better if readers do that.

Now I’m going to take a nap. All this ranting wipes me out. Especially the ‘tread lightly’ part.


A reminder that Quozio and Stencil provide me ways to make images, gratis, and I would get a subscription if I needed more than a few graphics a month. This little bit of advertising – and the things I create with their tools – will have to be my form of payment for now. I AM grateful. The words, of course, are mine.


What’s your favorite negative review?