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May 31, 2009

Passing Time in Fiction


Following my post on middles, I reflected on what it is about the middle which is specifically giving me the most trouble. I've decided it's because the middle is where I need time to pass, without specifically showing it. The beginning runs fairly fast, over a few weeks, and the ending runs quickly as well -- over just a few days in fact. In the middle, however, nearly a year must pass.

You know those sequences in movies? Where they show montages of characters doing things, intersperced with pictures of the trees losing their leaves, growing frosty, then budding into green? How does one show this in a novel? Especially because I want the reader to have a sense of being right there with the characters all along, I don't want to say, "A year later..." because that feels like we've left the characters to their own devices for a year, then returned to them. I'd like to show little bits of scene and scenery every half dozen weeks as the year goes by, then return to the blow by blow action at the end.

And all of this is complicated by the fact that I'm juggling two timelines, because there's a flashback sequence interspliced with the main storyline.

What are your best techniques for passing time that you've used or read? Any ideas?

May 30, 2009

Mush in the Middle

Why do the middles of books, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tend to get so mushy, squished and icky?

I am trying to brush up my book and I think the beginning and ending are adequate, but Chapters 12 and 13 are simply undigestible. I honestly don't know what to do with them.

Some of the problems are:

* too many truncated scenes giving a staccato feel to the chapters
* low tension sub-plots
* time bridges
* scenes which serve to set up later tension but are otherwise boring
* merely cutting or combining scenes results in illogical sequencing

May 29, 2009

Torn

I have a major character who is going to make a decision which will turn him from a hero to a villian. (Or as my son would say, "a bad guy!")

I'm torn.

I want him to bear responsibility for his own fall. He makes the choice unaware of the ultimate consequences -- he doesn't become a villain all at once. But he does make the choice.

At the same time, I also want the reader to retain sympathy for him as he descends into darkness, and even when he is called upon to do terrible things, understand why he is doing them (at least, how he justifies them).

Should I have him make his initial choice -- which sends him down the "wrong" path -- already be for selfish reaons, or for altruistic reasons?

May 24, 2009

Bad Guys

My son recently discovered Bad Guys.

Previously, all the stories we read to him and the tv shows he watched had no villains: Goodnight Moon, Barnyard Dance, Go Dog Go, Maisy Mouse, My Friend Rabbit, Theodore Tugboat.

Now he's suddenly the biggest fan of Superman, Batman and Spiderman; and his favorite book is The Lorax. All stories with Bad Guys. (And he interprets the themes quite literally. Hence, he suggested sending Spiderman to stop the neighbors' tree trimmers.)

By coincidence or not, he now also has the concept of friends, both "for real" and "for pretend." Superheroes help each other; bad guys "boom" each other. ("Boom" is always accompanied by an agitated finger gun motion.)

With the introduction of antagonists--and allies--into his story lines, his imaginative play is much more sophisticated.

It's funny, because I've always considered a story with no real bad guys to be the more sophisticated kind of story, albeit very hard to achieve. But I think it's fascinating to see how a child's understanding of conflict matures, and I wonder if this is a necessary stage. Once I would have said no, it was simply a symptom of our binary, dualistic, Cartesian culture, or maybe the military industrial patriarchy or something like that. (The fault of the Bad Guys, in other words). Now I'm not so sure.

One could blame my son's new obsession with Bad Guys on the content of the stories, but I think has as much to do with perception as content. Before, when he watched Cars, the main thing he took away from it was cars driving, and that was enough to thrill him. Now he notices the rivalry between Lightning McQueen and his friends and the Mean Green Car (and Frank, the Monster Harvester).

Meanwhile, my husband and I amuse ourselves during the 164th viewing of Cars by commenting on the deep philosophical meaning of the soul which has lost it's being being like a car which must rebuild it's own road. (Fun Fact: There's a car with the Apple symbol on the hood in the first race.)

Yeah. We've seen that movie WAY too much.

May 14, 2009

To Strive, To Seek, To Find, and Not to Yield


The Literary Lab had a post recently about making each word, each sentence count in a novel. There was some argument in the comments about whether this was possible, or even desirable.

One interesting accusation was that novelists who try to do this are secretly short story writers who haven't figured out the difference between 1000 and 100,000 thousand words.

It may be even worse. It may be that novelists who try to do this are secretly poets.

At times, especially if I've been off my meds for several days, I think of my novel as a ballad or epic of the ancient sort, in heroic rhyme. And why not? Much of the source material, the original epics upon which modern fantasies base their structure, were book-length poems.

When I become stuck in my prose, and everything I type is ugly and repetitive, when all beauty and simplicity escapes me, I fall back on poetry.

Seriously.

I write a scene as a poem. Sometimes even with aliteration and rhyme, though often just with unrhymed metered verse. I write it one line, one word, at a time. I let the rhyme and meter decompose through layers of editing. I rearrange and deconstruct and reconstruct until the bedrock poem is there only as a skeletal structure, disguised by less ornate prose. Consistantly, beta readers rave over these as my best passages--and want to know why the rest of the prose is so unispired and infantile by comparison.

Well, now you know why.

Should I do this with every single scene? I am not sure. There's the danger that taken to extremes, stacking too many such scenes, purple prose could accumulate to toxic levels. But more to the point, I just finished a scene like this and found that, after four hours, I had written... 400 words.

Still, if it takes an hour to write a 100 decent words, isn't that better than spewing 1000 words an hour if those words are worthless and ugly? If they must be re-written again and again regardless?

What about those scenes which errupt like volcanoes, far too fast for poetry, but hot with plotty goodness and juicy character tension?

Ah, at least, though, hot and fast or cool and slow, I remember at such times why I love writing.

May 13, 2009

When Do You Lose Your Voice?


I've been on both sides of the beta read.

In the following hypothetical situations, I've also been the reader making vague or specific suggestions. For simplicity's sake, I'll discuss it from the writer's side today.

I've experienced what it's like to have someone tell me: "This paragraph [scene/chapter/last third of the book] doesn't work. You could probably cut about 10,000 useless words if you tighten this."

My response: That's great, but how? If I knew which words were useless, I wouldn't have included them.

Then again, the beta reader may rewrite the five-page scene where the hero and heroine storm the castle as, "They ate ice-cream."

My response: Wtf? That isn't what I wanted to say, or how I would have said it.

However, frequently I do accept a beta reader's suggested changes, especially of clunky sentences, even scenes, wholesale.

Suppose what I had written was originally, "Laboriously, yet also suddenly and instantaneously the bullet kaboomed and zoomed out of the gun muzzle on the gun she was holding and pointing at him, hurtling through the air like a speeding bullet, which in fact it was, until it began to pierce his broad yet vulnerable chest, fragmenting bone and hurting a lot."

The beta reader suggests, "She shot him."

And I think, "Brilliant! This captures the whole thing in just three words! Why didn't I think of that?"

But then a part of me looks at the stripped down version, and wonders, but has it lost my voice? Did I do more than put out the fire on the roof, did I kill the spark in the lamp?

Do you ever worry about losing your voice during rewrites?

May 11, 2009

The World's Worst Food

I needed a disgusting, yet believable food for a scene in my book. A previous scene already covered the dietary needs of cannibals, and I needed this to be even worse than that.

Little did I know there were so many contenders.

After some thought, I decided to keep the Icelandic name for the chosen dish, an indelicacy which has been declared "the world's worst food": hakurl -- putrified poison shark.

So what does hakarl taste like then? It tastes like crying. It tastes like broken promises. It tastes like the Lord God Almighty ripping the Bible out of your hands and saying, "Sorry, this doesn't apply for you. I think you want "Who Moved My Cheese?" It tastes like the Predator wading into a Care Bears movie and opening fire.

Sadly, I won't be able to use this description of it, much as I would love to.

May 9, 2009

Hearing Back From Beta Readers

Another of my fine beta readers sent comments back to me on The Corn Maiden. This is for the version prior to my current revisions, so I expected to hear about problems.

It's funny, isn't it? Your head can tell you that you want hear what the problems are, you need this information; your heart, however, just wants to hear affirmations. So I opened the email and attached file with rumble-belly dread. How bad is it?

Actually, the criticisms were extremely consistent with what other beta readers said.

(1) To paraphrase: Why is every single character, including your MC, unable to see the Completely Obvious Plot Point? Is everyone in your story world really Too Stupid To Live?

(Answer: Er... not really, no. Just the author!)

(2) The pacing drags in places. (I hope to find out more about which scenes were boring when I read the line-edit comments).

This beta reader also pointed out two new things:

(3) The hero is too perfect; he hasn't enough flaws to seem human.

(4) The opening scene in the story promised one thing, but the main character plot arcs delivered something else; if not for the set-up, the story would have been fine, but after the expectations set by the opener, the story disappoints. Ouch.

Finally, the beta reader made an interesting point, not about how things were wrong, but asking about a change.

(5) There are three major story threads in the book: the main story, a subplot in the present, and a subplot in the past. Each thread, though intertwined with the others, is independent enough to not need the others. This reader found the subplot in the past to be the strongest, and wanted to know why I didn't just make it a book in and of itself, or, alternatively, cut the subplot in the present entirely. Undeniably, either of these actions would take care of my word count problem!

I'm hoping the present revisions address issues (1) and (2). Issues (3) and (4) are both related to the fact (the beta reader recognized the problem), that this book opens a series, and not as a stand-alone novel. I'm not sure what to do about this. My original plan was to go the traditional route and give the first book in the series a "safe" ending, a happy-for-now-ending. That just didn't work. There's no way to end it without a cliff-hanger. And if the reader senses that the real story is just beginning, they're right. (It's comparable in this way more to The Fellowship of the Ring than The Hobbit.)

So I agree with 4 of the 5 criticisms. However, I disagree with (5). Yes, I could have three short, stand-alone novels for the price of one. (Don't think this hasn't occurred to me!) Yes, it would help with my word count if I eliminated one or even two of the subplots. However, the three plots are like strands of a braid. Though they could each work alone, I believe they are stronger together; together, they subtly change the meaning of the whole, making it more than the sum of its parts. At least, that is how it is meant to work, how it works in the books I most admire.

The story is an epic, after all. I find it's hard to convey epic with a single-strand story.

In a story with multiple plotlines, it's natural that some readers relate more to certain characters' story arcs than others. As long as different readers prefer different plotlines, this is not a flaw, but a strength. I've already noticed that some of my beta readers favor certain characters over others, and -- this is the good part -- they aren't the same characters. This is how it should be. If every reader universally panned the same subplot, it would be different, and I would have to consider deleting or seriously revising that subplot. I still wouldn't eliminate subplots altogether, however.

May 7, 2009

Hand, Heart, Mind and Soul

Why do we have genres? Some writers hate genre labels. They believe genres were invented by book stores to shove novels onto the narrow shelves of commercialism.

This is probably true. But it's not the whole truth. I think genres exist because they recognize deep and important differences in novels. It's easy to stop thinking deeply about genre, so here's a different way to look at it.

Is your story a tale of the Hand, Heart, Mind or Soul?

What kind of power does you protagonist need solve his or her problem?

* * *

Hand - Tales of the Hand are action stories. (Perhaps these would be better called Tales of the Foot, but that sounds funny.)  To succeed, the hero needs to run for his life -- or kick ass. Usually a combination of both. The energy in this kind of story is kinetic. Non-stop action. Ticking bombs. Countdowns. Explosions.

The hero of a Hand Tale might not be a brainiac, but he shouldn't be a meathead. Though the problems in this kind of story might come down to a slug fest with the villain in the end, the heroine may also have to be a brilliant problem solver. After all, she has to use all her wits and experience to figure out how to stop the ticking bomb, the enemy spy, the traitor in the government or the shark eating everyone at the beach.

Heart - The heart of the problem in a Heart Tales is a relationship. Romances, of course, are Heart Tales and deal with many permutations: Learning to trust and love, proving worthy to win a love, overcoming misunderstandings to love.

But not all Heart Tales have to be romances. There are other kinds of relationships -- friendships, parent/child and grouchy old man/lovable puppy.

Usually heart stories fall in the romance genre if they involve a love story, into YA if they involve a girl and her horse, chic lit if they involve four feisty female friends and literary if they involve an old man and an acquatic creature.

Just kidding about that last one. Old man and acquatic creature stories probably fall under Soul. See below.


Mind - Stories which make you think are dear to my heart. Most of science fiction and fantasy falls under this catagory, but many mysteries do as well. One way to look at the difference between these genres is to imagine which curriculum would best serve the hero in a story like this. For sf, you'd enroll your hero in physics, chemistry and maybe biology. For fantasy, you'd want her to brush up on your anthropology, history and metaphysics classes. For mystery, your sleuth had better understand psychology. Forensics wouldn't hurt either!

These stories often pose a puzzle, and guide the reader down a path of clues and red herrings until it is solved. But not all Mind stories are genre and not all sf, fantasy or mystery stories are Mind stories.


Soul - What if your story is really a close examination of the human psyche? In a sense, all stories are ultimately a study of humanity, simply because humans are writing the stories, but Soul stories ask not merely what it is to be human (like Mind stories) but what is it like to be this particular human being? I think about it like this sometimes: an Mind wants to know, what does the protaganist have in common with all other human beings? Where as a Soul story wants to know, like the youngest Passover child, how is this human being different from all other human beings?

Soul stories, told well, must have as rich a setting and be as accurate historically as needed to explain the individual life-history of this single soul (or two or three souls). The world built may be on a smaller scale. In a fantasy story, if one shows what the protaganist had for breakfast, the purpose is to show What Elves Eat For Breakfast; in a Soul story, the purpose must be to show how this habit or this meal has gone into shaping an individual. ("I no longer ate eggs at breakfast; even seeing a styrofoam egg container reminded me of my dead wife.") To "solve" a Soul story, the protaganist needs to follow the dictim, "Know Thyself."

All good stories have a bit of Soul, without being Soul stories. The difference is usually one of degree, and of intent. Other stories need compelling characters to keep you interested in the action, setting, relationship or ideas of the story. Soul stories need to have action, setting, relationships and ideas to keep you interested in the characters.

* * *

Of course, it can't be said enough, no book will be wholly one and not the other. Some of my favorite storiese are disguised as one genre, but really something wholly different. Take the spy thriller Dark Star. It appears to be a noir spy story, a class Hand tale of cross and double-cross. It's also a close study of a man crushed by political and personal disillusionment. In fact, however, it is a Mind story with a philosophical historical question at the heart of it: Who was the worse monster, Hitler or Stalin?

May 6, 2009

Baby Steps

My second son is learning to walk. (I wish he would learn to crawl first, but he's stubborn. Clearly, this is something he gets from his father!) There's nothing more humbling than watching the determination of a child learning to walk. He wobbles and falls. He steps and falls. He falls forward on his belly, he falls backward on his butt. He tips over to one side. No matter how or how many times he falls, though, he just giggles and grins and tries to take another step.

Who am I to complain about how hard it is to learn to do something right?

I also should keep in mind, when I am beta reading, that it wouldn't occur to me to chide my son for screwing up at this walking business. Beyond the occasional, "Whoops! Down you go!" I don't sit there pointing out all the things he's doing wrong. I just cheer him on when he gets it right.

I know the most powerful feedback is specific, positive feedback; this is something I need to remember when I give critiques. (I do promise to avoid cooing at my reading partners in high pitched nonsense babble.)

May 2, 2009

The Next Mountain

This time the revisions are going to do the trick. This time, I'll get the book right.

This mountain is the last in the range I have to climb. Then I'll be there.

Or so I tell myself.

I've told myself this before. On the last mountain. In fact, I've been telling myself since the first mountain. Just one more step. That will be enough.

Only, it's never enough. It's still not right. There's a mountain after this one. And another mountain. And another. The truth is, I have no idea how many more mountains I have to cross till I'm over the range. I thought the journey would be so much easier when I started out. If I had known how far I had to go, what a truly awful writer I was and how hard it was to become a good writer, would I have been able to start out on that journey?

Learning to write has taken me the same amount of time -- and effort -- and possibly even money -- as going to med school. For no degree and a lot less profit. If I had known that, might I have just elected to become a doctor instead? (Certainly, this is the point Certain Relatives kept trying to impress upon me.)

What if I had known how bad I was at the beginning, back when only adoring parents and teachers read my stuff and proclaimed me the Best Writer Ever? While highly unlikely it would have launched my medical career, it's possible I would have been too depressed to write. As it was, I had the immunity of youth. I heard people say you had to write a million words of dreck -- the equivalent of ten 100,000 word novels -- before achieving anything even close to mastery. Being a teenager, I assumed I was exempt. Because I was so good, you see. Natural talent would make it unnecessary for me to work as hard to achieve as much as soon as other writers. I still planned to work hard, but more from noblesse oblige than need.

I like to think that, if nothing else, I've learned to be able to hear how much further I still have to go without giving up.

Or maybe I'm just still trying to paint one leaf.

May 1, 2009

The Spandrals of Literature

It goes to show how out of touch with blogging I've been lately that three favorite literary bloggers are collaborating over at the Literary Lab and I completely failed to notice until now. Truly pathetic.

However, I believe my round of close edits is strengthening the book, and I'm only about a third of the way through. There's still a few extremely hard scenes left to tackle; the very last conversation between my hero and my heroine before the end of the book, for one.

Meanwhile, I am ferreting out all the spandrels in my book. These are scenes which I originally included because I had to. You know, I had to logically explain how Person A arrived at Place B and how it connected to Plotline C, but beyond that, it wasn't much fun. The scene was boring but functional. Beta readers didn't always complain about these dull scenes, because it was obviously necessary to keep the roof from falling down on the plot, but no one danced the jitterbug of Oh-Wow-I-Love-This-Part over these scenes either.

My goal is to change all that. My goal is to make these spandrels included on the Highlights of the Cathedral tour, to turn them into panda's thumbs, or even ballistic missiles. I want to take them from being dull but functional to riveting and critical.

One of the marks of a truly good book, I think, is when as a reader you honestly can't tell the functional from the facinating scenes, the veggies from the dessert. Every scene serves a nutritious plot function, and every scene also delivers delicious plot frosting.