Showing posts from May, 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 retu

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


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?

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 ver

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 mete

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 a

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.

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

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

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

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

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-P