Category Archives: Writing – how to

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

Scene not working? Change something MAJOR

NOVEL SCENES HAVE A PURPOSE

They are not just ‘something that happens next.’

There are many different ways to accomplish that purpose, but there’s a tendency, as a writer, to have things happen in a particular way, and to have that way get stuck in the chute.

The more things a scene needs to accomplish, the longer it may end up needing to be.

But writers’ brains have the same habit of getting stuck behind the wrong idea as any other brain. And maybe my ME/CFS brain does this more than most writers’ brains because change is so difficult for me.

When it isn’t gelling

So the first thing to do when a scene isn’t writing itself, after a reasonable amount of time expended trying, is to separate the essentials from the window dressing, and consider finding a different way entirely to enact the required elements – and change the window dressing to something else entirely.

A scene could be huge, with many characters interacting.

Or a scene can be small and intimate, or small and intimate within a chaotic outer setting, or the kind of scene where it isn’t until the end that you realize a whole bunch of things have come together.

A paced novel will have all kinds of scenes, to avoid monotony, to keep the feeling of surprise and discovery going.

But few scenes have only ONE way to accomplish their task.

When I started writing this post, I had just made a deceptively small change – the hour of the scene went from 4pm to 8pm – taking it from mid-afternoon to sunset – and was able to unstick a line of attack completely. The number of participants also dropped – from crowd scene to two principals.

Lawrence Block says that when things get stuck and you don’t know what to do next, you should bring in a man with a gun.

That’s a pantser’s move.

I’m an extreme plotter, so that’s not really an option.

But one of my writing guides, Armando Saldaña Mora’s Dramatica for Screenwriters has a whole section on how to change the scope and size of a scene, and still accomplish that scene’s purpose. Which is the real advantage of my kind of plotting, where everything has a place.

Changing a scene completely is often a budget move for movies

If the purpose is for the Protagonist to say goodbye to the Antagonist, say, the scene can be large and showy and done in front of hundreds of extras – or it can be small and intense and private and done in the back seat of a taxi (“I coulda been a contender” speech, Marlon Brando, On The Waterfront). Where the taxi isn’t even really moving.

It is something only the novelist will know in a novel, where words themselves are relatively cheap, even if producing them costs blood: was this scene completely different at any point before publishing?

Changing the scene in NETHERWORLD

You don’t have to choose between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ a scene; there is more than one way to ‘show.

The original scene was going to happen while ON the set of Opium, filming in India, where the main character would watch the filming for an hour or so, and then form her own conclusions about the undercurrents in the cast.

It works much better without the actual filming being observed, and the scene purpose is fulfilled in an even more intense way. Since the details of filming were background in PURGATORY, the reader gets the idea – and I don’t have to repeat it.

The result:

  • An unstuck scene
  • A better scene
  • A scene between two main characters, instead of one with many to track
  • Advancing the plot
  • Better dynamics
  • Definitely better dialogue

So if it isn’t working, and you’ve spent enough time that it should have gelled by now: consider that you can use a lot of what you already figured out – but reframe how the reader is going to learn what you need the reader to know.

Be bold; try something different.


Really different.

Have you done this?


 

Creating a roadmap for scene arcs

I’ve done this before – and didn’t realize it actually needs to be a ‘thing,’ a part of my regular writing ‘process.’

Most of the time, my plotting assigns all kinds of details to scenes, leaving the actual writing to when I get that far in the list of scenes, as I work one at a time until it’s finished.

So I can concentrate on writing one scene, one little visual polished bit, at a time, knowing that the scene will fit into the story like a jewel into a necklace.

But a scene can be too small an entity to work with when the story arc needs several scenes to tell a part of the story, during which point of view will shift in each scene (I stick religiously to a single pov per scene), but the story will continue, and, if I’m skillful enough, the reader won’t notice the patchwork quilt squares, but only the whole.

IF my plotting is good enough initially, and thought out in enough detail, I can trundle along, scene by scene, and the bits will connect.

But when the plotting was changed in the great 2007 reorganization?

Then I was forced to make some large decisions and some fine grained decisions about what would go where of all the bits in the story, and some of those details were tentatively assigned to a scene, or a point of view character, and I knew I would have to rearrange some of the bits when I got there.

I’ve done the several-scene roadmap idea more than once before. The first three chapters of Purgatory, for example, are all about the Night Talk show where two of the main characters meet in New York, while the third main character watches the show from Los Angeles.

So I’ve worked with the concept before, that plotting can have arcs even within the larger story, but I never stopped to formalize that for myself.

It’s a lot of work

I think of it as fractal in nature: pick a scope – sentence, paragraph, beat, scene,… and plot first, then write – and the dialogue will happen, the interior monologues will support it, because we all know where we’re going, together.

Sometimes a film director will allow actors to improvise – but it is always within the director’s (and the script’s) larger vision of the whole. Within that whole, individual pieces can be executed in many ways, but all have to serve the story. Or they will have to be expunged (kill your darlings) from the final product, which will otherwise be a mess.

But for extreme plotters like I am, breaking up the process, and doing the structure solidly FIRST, allows me to just write when I get there, to listen to the characters in my mind, and write down what they say, because I’ve given them the setup – and the writing part of my brain seems to have a mind of its own.

Back to my skyscraper analogy

Get the plumbing and the elevators and the water lines and the steel structure right first – or the sewage from the 29th floor won’t proceed to the treatment plant, and the first time someone flushes up there won’t be pretty for those on the 28th floor.

But after that, interior walls may have some variation (as long as they aren’t load-bearing), so that one floor can have a large open conference room where the floor directly above has offices or apartments. That is my roadmap idea. Within the plan for a whole building, there can be individual floor designs – followed by the decorating (writing) of the individual rooms which is the ultimate purpose of the skyscraper – interior spaces of all kinds and sizes within the plan.

Sometimes I can plan a whole building at a time, others a floor at a go, sometimes just one room, and sometimes a perfect grouping of furniture before the fireplace where we will sit and talk.

And the roadmap part?

Think of the roadmap as linear, while the floorplan of a skyscraper’s floor is 2D, and the building itself is 3D.

The ROADMAP allows you to visit every room on each floor – in a particular order, the one chosen by the storyteller.

Think of it: the last time you let a Real Estate Agent show you a dwelling, did they arrange your tour so you ended up in the perfect room? The one the agent knew would close the deal?

The ROADMAP is how I get you where I want you, the Reader, to go.

I work and plan and think and manipulate – so you will say wow.

The whole idea is to tell the story for YOUR pleasure – and for that you have to let me be dramatic, and show you everything in an order I hope you will like.


Just when you think your writing process is a lock – there’s something more to write ABOUT it. For me, it’s one more thing nailed down that I won’t forget to do because my brain isn’t working.

It’s an interesting way to work, with a limited brain as my tool.


 

Maggie2 is here with nowhere to go

s-l500

MY NEW AIRWHEEL S8 IS HOME

I thought she wouldn’t get here until April 2, and she was several days early.

Shipping is erratic in these times.

It was so easy – plugged the one connection between the saddle and the supporting column, put it on the charger, and a couple of hours later everything was charged up and ready.

The next day I hopped on, went down in the elevator, and brought home the mail – just like before.

As if the entire time between Jan. 29 and March 31 had been erased at a single stroke.

But things have changed so much in the interim!

The entire world is now upended – and I have very few places I need to go, as today, Yolo County, CA, told us to close the pool – not even supervised socially distanced hours are to be allowed.

It’s a big loss – and not necessary. I hope they take it back in a while – I don’t see what could possibly contaminate people who don’t even get to use the dressing room, are in chlorinated salt water, and go home to take a shower. Abundance of caution.

But I can run around the corridors at night with the wind in my hair if I want – even in normal times there’s never anyone around after about 9pm.

I could even do it in my pajamas!

When the world returns slowly to some kind of normal

I will already be in position to move around.

Because I am in the vulnerable cohort, older, with chronic illness, and physical disabilities that keep me from walking or standing long or comfortably (which is why I got Maggie in the first place), I assume it will be a long time – on the scale of a year – before we’re even allowed out of quarantine.

Just having beds available again in hospitals will still not make covid-19 easier for us to survive – although it might make it possible in the few cases where a ventilator makes a difference. The illness itself is hard on my group – and most people here are older than we are.

We have to wait for the vaccine – and hope it is effective (the flu shot is around 60% effective, I understand). We have to hope the immunity it – or surviving the disease – confer on people of my condition is long lasting.

The future is not known

We have to hope they learn enough from dealing with this that there isn’t another pandemic for a long time.), and

But maybe they’ll reopen the pools, and limited visitation (maybe for those who are certified survivors (if that makes them unable to infect us), and I’ll resume riding my little steed to the pool. One can hope.

It is a mistake to expect the worst. But it is life-threatening to risk what you know may kill you even with a lot of medical help.

I’m just happy my long hunt for a mobility device is again satisfied – for now.

The original Maggie will be repaired as soon as I can get a control board (assuming that’s the problem) and someone willing to watch the Youtube videos and install the board for me, and a backup now sounds like a very solid idea.

There is still nothing on the market that I find as perfect a solution for me.

Now back to writing NETHERWORLD.

Today was a good day – I made progress into the next scene – all my process still works, plus I added some new strategies from Donald Maass’ Writing 21st Century Fiction – heartily recommended.

I can’t do anything about the world out there – younger healthier people will have to gather the data and do the research and create a safe and effective vaccine – but I’m still excited about where the current scene is going (Rachel will be pleased), and how the end of the Chapter is designed, and how the plot keeps kicking.

That is my job. I’m not bored. I’m not looking for other things to do. This I can.

Wish me luck.


 

Small comforts big in stressful times

Pond with the sign University Retirement Community in the background.

The burbling pond by our entrance

MENTAL HEALTH REQUIRES GETTING OUT!

For the first time in a month, I got over being scared of everything, and went out for a short trike ride.

I rode around the greenway in Davis, near our complex, and stopped to admire how gorgeous California is right now, after a bit of rain, and in springtime.

There were flowers everywhere, and the backdrop of the water-saving yucca and succulents were beautified by trees, rocks, and inventive gardening.

Six feet apart to not become six feet under

Saw a few people inside our community, and a few outside. We stayed apart, carefully.

One kid was running a remote control car around his court.

I didn’t have much energy, so I pedaled very slowly, resting and sitting (which you can’t do on a bike) frequently. I kept my hands on MY handlebars the entire time – and washed everything very thoroughly when I came back.

I didn’t touch my face while out or before washing. I didn’t get off the trike. I didn’t touch the elevator buttons.

But I did have to touch my own trike to get the lock off. Unlikely anyone else has touched it, off on the side where it is locked to a bike rack in the basement.

Dinner had nothing I could/would eat

I hope they figure out their system. I’m a picky eater at the best of times, and I don’t eat most carbs (they fog my brain even worse). But we seem to be getting almost random food selections – tiny milk cartons one day, tiny cans of juice the next day, large glasses of milk with fitted lids the next, then back to tiny milk cartons. The large glasses had no indication what kind of milk was in them.

The protein was lamb; I don’t eat lamb.

Last night all I could eat from the delivery was the small container of salad greens – one for the both of us.

We have food. We have backups. We are used to being in charge of breakfast and lunch, anyway. This is not a complaint – it is an observation. Their system is still getting itself organized, but the logic is odd.

It’s been less than a week since total lockdown.

Groceries

This morning at 6 am the husband set out on foot for the local grocery store pulling our wheeled cart from Staples. And hour and a half later, he was back with supplies.

The store had a time for seniors and disabled people – and they all stayed 6 ft. apart. He wore disposable plastic gloves until he was out – and then trashed them.

He is my HERO!

We ALL worry that if we get too low on basics, the stores will not be back to providing them the next time we need to go. We try not to hoard. We have TP, but never bought an unconscionable amount.

And we hate wasting food.

Exercise

They have closed the indoor and outdoor pools.

And both gyms. The gyms, I understand, because in the best of conditions, there are people who don’t wipe off equipment, and they can’t have an attendant all the time. However, we have a number of people whose disease management REQUIRES them to get exercise – or they deteriorate even faster. They are unhappy.

We just got a memo that there will be a supervised swim period MWF from 8-noon – with the Wellness Center director supervising we stay apart – because the director freaked out (as he probably should have) when people were too close to each other in the mail-room.

They have installed no-touch gel stations in mail-room and library.

We will wash our hands on top of that.

I have my trike. A few people here have recumbents of their own. Husband decided to walk to the grocery store rather than trust that the facility’s bikes are safe to touch. Fortunately, it is a 15 min. walk.

Social life

I called several people this morning – they seemed surprised to have me ask about their well-being. I figure if we all check on our closest friends and neighbors, most people will have someone here giving a call.

Next door neighbor and I realized that our balconies provide privacy – but no way to communicate – the building makes it impossible.

I ran into people walking their dogs, or going from the main building to a cottage (there are a few garden apartments in a separate building, and a small number of detached small houses). We stayed apart – didn’t chat too long – didn’t sit down.

Still doable.

Communication within and without

The newsletter group is getting Zoom ready to have their meetings that way. You can download it for computers and phones, and it’s free up to a certain size. Thank you, Zoom. We will be using it for family meetings from four different cities.

The main problem at URC is that our average age is mid-eighties, and some people are not really computer literate. And those of us who are can’t go in to their apartments to set them up.

And their kids and grandkids can’t come in to show them how to use technology.

There are still telephones.

Staying busy

There are MANY options, from free opera to paid books.

I’m writing again – it’s hard work more because of the hiatus than anything else, but I did choose to do something new and different with how the scene is organized – and that took some figuring out. I hope it is a much stronger scene as a result.

One lovely person took Pride’s Children PURGATORY out of Kindle Unlimited, and read 304 pages. Hmmm. Don’t know if they had read the rest before, or were able to or forced to stop before the end (around 385pp). I may never find out who it was, unless they leave a review.

When I reread it, I can’t stop that close to the end, but then, I wrote the book I wanted to read and couldn’t find.

There’s plenty else to do – Tai Chi will be meeting via Zoom – but I have no excuse for not doing what I moved here to do – finish the two remaining novels in the trilogy. And it felt so good to get back into Andrew’s head to write.


Signing out for now – hope we can keep this up for many months!

Stay well – drop a line as to how YOU’re doing.


 

The jump cut in writing fiction

TRUST YOUR READERS

This one is sort of new to me. New to my consciousness.

Because a reviewer pointed out something, and I hadn’t realized I do this all the time, and I like to make things clear to myself.

“…Too much seemed to be going on and I was having difficulty following the plot….”

Thing is, I must have picked it up from all the stuff I read in my life, and I have my own preferences which have developed out of all that reading, and which I expressed in my own fiction.

Baffled?

I will now proceed to make that clearer.

Novelists manipulate time.

Again: NOVELISTS MANIPULATE TIME.

We decide for you what the interesting and important parts of a story are, and how we will present those to you, and especially, in what order we will tell you the story.

And you may disagree with our decisions – and perforce not read our stories – but you can’t really change the story (skipping for the moment ‘choose your own adventure’ stories).

I am rarely intrigued or persuaded by novels which bounce back and forth in time, mix two or more storylines together, or switch focus from characters I have invested in to some place else. So I won’t write them. There are plenty of writers who will do that for you.

I even warn you.

If you saw the calendars and spreadsheets and lists I carry for Pride’s Children, you’d wonder when the invasion was.

I have to know when every child is conceived.

How long someone took to get out of high school.

What day of the week someone died.

When the Memorial Day celebration fireworks are set off the Friday night before the actual holiday.

I very clearly label each and every scene I write, and that’s right there in the book.

DATE; TIME OF DAY; PLACE.

But the reader doesn’t need to know all of this.

The reader just has to know it somehow ‘feels right.’ That there is a hand on the tiller. That there is, somewhere, a reason for how the story is fed into the brain.

And, more importantly, that the emotional journey will be always forward (okay, the kind of emotional journey I write).

Modern writers save you time.

Older movies and TV shows sometimes showed actual clocks with spinning hands and calendars with days/months/years being ripped off one by one.

Now there probably isn’t a viewer on the planet who isn’t comfortable with the jump cut: you are there in one scene with a set of actors doing something, and, literally one frame later, are somewhere completely different with different actors doing something else.

I even tried to stop the process, to see if I could catch the jumps, and I kept getting pulled back into the story.

My job is to write YOUR emotional journey.

And that journey is going to have some very intense days when a lot happens – with long or short periods in between where all that happens is dinner and laundry. If I waste your time with laundry, you can be sure something very important is buried in there somewhere, and the purpose is NOT to confuse you, but to plant a seed that will give you the pleasure of discovery – some planned time in the future.

Why? Because I write long, and I edit intensely, and I take out everything that I possibly can – and the books are still going to be goat-gaggers.

Because I trust my readers to be the kind of people who can handle it.

Want to handle it. Choose to handle it.

My favorite reviews state things like:

I cannot recommend this book, this trilogy, highly enough – but not to everyone. This is a book for readers who appreciate literary fiction and a very deeply developed romance with a thoughtful debate on ethics. I believe the pace and the delayed gratification will frustrate many modern romance readers who look for fast-burning romance, titillation, and simple love stories. However, if you are a reader who will appreciate a modern ‘Jane Eyre’, this trilogy is for you.

If you like insta-love romances this is not for you – however if you love detailed, meticulously crafted sentences, strong realistic characters, and an intricate story telling style you are going to love this.

My own pet peeve – with novels and with the world – is the new trope that men and women approach intimacy and love the same way, by hopping into bed. As soon as possible after they meet, and before any of that boring talking.

I just don’t believe it – it leads to reams of pretending. And there has to be something written that is for the readers who don’t believe it, either. Because there’s plenty of the other.

So trust me…

If it’s in there, if you don’t understand it quite the instant you read it, that okay because you are going to get it just in time.

And the jump cuts? That’s because I really don’t want to bore you with anything that doesn’t relate directly to your emotional journey.

There won’t be any explaining. You are smart – you don’t need it.

And you’d pillory me if I wrote it in.

What say you?

PS I’m not sure what’s going on with comments, so copy yours before you submit them, and if they don’t post, send them along to me in an email to abehrhardt@gmail.com, and I’ll post them for you.


Thanks to Stencil for the free account to create images with (the words are mine, the pictures theirs). If you use a lot of images, check them out.


Pride’s Children NETHERWORLD is coming along nicely, and the brain is working every day again, but it’s still a lot of slow, careful work. I know where I’m going. And I think my kind of readers will like where it ends. The joy of writing has returned.

Meanwhile, the Pride’s Children PURGATORY – BOOK 1 – ebook is available on Amazon, as is the print book which is currently showing about 99% of the pages in the Look Inside feature; they tell me it will be fixed ‘soon.’


 

As close as writing can get

FICTION IS BUT BLACK AND WHITE DOTS

We are getting spoiled by high resolution. Actors now have to worry that every pore is visible to the folks at home. Photos take a lot of storage space – megabytes – because we can, and because we have Terabyte hard drives.

Most of us will never have occasion to use that detail, and we don’t want to write books that are that high resolution, either. Among other problems, they would take forever to read!


From November 12, 2012:

Digitizing reality: the fictive approximation

Even in the most connected and most fluid writing, choices have to be made. Which sentence follows which, which word is best. The basic principle of fiction is that reality cannot be duplicated, merely suggested.

When a painter uses a few strokes of red to suggest a roof, she must trust that the viewer will infer internal beams, two-by-fours, and nails to support that roof from the fact that the roof does not fall. Worse, even ‘fall’ is a suggestion: the painter does not ‘do’ gravity: the unsupported roof will not slide off the bottom of the page when the canvas is hung.

Reality is fine-grained

Reality consists of unimaginable numbers of tiny events, linked together by time, infinitely stretching in all directions. Fiction picks the stars in the skies as points, leaves us to connect the stars with planets, deep-space debris, and light.

So it doesn’t really matter which points are chosen, in some sense, because the same writer, on the same day, could select an entirely different set, and still tell the same story.

Beginners to digitization are astounded at how few black and white pixels it takes to express the iconic Abraham Lincoln. But even those few points are a random choice, because starting at each of a million different points, there are a million similar-but-not-identical digital Lincolns.

But what level of detail is REQUIRED for fiction?

It is only necessary to cover enough of the central story, at the chosen level of detail. “Wedding dress for sale. Never worn.” is in some sense exactly the same as “Great Expectations.”

What a writer strikes for is balance. For each type of story there are conventions, rough guidelines. An action thriller which spends half of its 300,000 words in interior monologue of its twisted dark protagonist is a deliberate contravention of the genre’s best-selling exemplars. It CAN be done, but must be written exceedingly well, and even then the audience for it will not be all thriller readers – because most of them want taut action-packed, skimpy-on-details, fast-paced writing with its interior monologue limited to “They killed my wife and child and now they will pay.”

Possibly, if done well, the audience will broaden to include readers who like longer stories, who appreciate the extra background, the crossover effect. A gamble. Done deliberately and competently and in a controlled manner, it may pay off. May.

How do you sketch a good-enough approximation?

I come by these thoughts today free of charge as a short scene–which had completely halted progress for over a month–suddenly resolved and melted into ink on page. I stopped trying to find better words to do what I was doing. I realized the words already there were a good digitization of the reality I was trying to portray–and that there is not a single perfect version of this scene which I have to locate somewhere out in the ether.

Life, complicated, millions-of-tiny-pieces life, had been getting in the way. I’m amazed at how few words needed changing, how few words I needed to add to what I already had. It is a good-enough version of the story reality. It isn’t missing any key pieces.

Time limits how much a character can do, say, or think

Finally, I could experience it from the inside of the head of the character whose point of view it was. In a few places, I added what she thought and felt to what she experienced–just a few touches restored that sense of balance.

I changed the places where I showed through: where her words would be different from mine, I chose hers. Mine were better–hers were hers. She comes from a part of me I disallow sometimes, with my over-educated, over-read self-image. She WANTED–in a way I rarely allow myself any more. I let her speak instead of censoring her–and the scene finished itself.


I love writing, because I get to choose the level of detail needed to tell the story my way.

My happiest readers will be those who like my granularity, somewhere between Hemingway and Rosamund Pilcher (or worse, Proust), whose brain needs the same distance from the subject. And it doesn’t hurt if they like my stories.

How much detail do you need?

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?

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.