Eight Thoughts for 2018

I was inspired by Natalia Sylvester’s post on the Writer UnBoxed blog: 18 Writing Lessons to Carry Into 2018. I don’t have 18 profound lessons to offer, myself. I do have eight general thoughts that I will be reminding myself of this coming year in my writing, so I decided I’d share them with you.

  • Just Write. Everyone knows this one, but speaking for myself, I need a constant reminder. Like every other habit of productivity, it only works if you do it regularly. This has been hard for me (I failed at my 10-minutes-a-day challenge last year) but I’m determined to do better. Wish me luck!
    • You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. (Jack London)
    • Writing is hard for every last one of us…Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal? They do not. They simply dig. (Cheryl Strayed)
    • Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. (Isabel Allende)
  • Minimize Distraction. This is a closely linked topic, but a more focused one. For me, a big distraction lately has been Twitter. Toward the end of last year I was posting once or twice a day in the various hashtag writing challenges. It was fun, but took too much time. I’ve cut back on that (now I only do #1linewed), but I could still do better.
    • Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet. (Zadie Smith)
    • It is doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. (Jonathan Franzen)
    • Writing is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the internet. (Anonymous)
  • Find the Right Words. I’m going through my WIP now to bring out more evocative descriptions and clearer action, But at least for my own style, I also want it to be transparent. It should open the window between the reader and the story, without calling attention to itself. That’s going to be quite a trick.
    • Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. (Anton Chekhov)
    • Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand (Anne Enright)
    • If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. (Elmore Leonard)
  • Listen. Read the story aloud. Though I do my writing on a computer, I printed my most recent version out and sat with it on my lap, reading aloud. I can’t tell you how helpful this was. I tweaked lots of sentences that didn’t flow right, which I only discovered when I stumbled over them while reading. There were places where things just came together to abruptly, or the rhythm was off, and wrote notations in the margin like “give this more weight” or “needs a beat” or “more reaction.”
    • Listen to what you have written. (Helen Dunmore)
    • Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are okay. (Diana Athill)
    • Reading aloud is a vital part of good prose. (Robert McCrum)
  • Focus on the Story. All the literary tricks in the world won’t help if the reader doesn’t deeply care about the story and about the people living in it, and that won’t happen unless I, too, care deeply about it. As I go through the revision process, polishing the form and structure, worrying about pacing and sensory detail, I have to keep the story itself front and center.
    • A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story question) and how he or she changes as a result (which is what the story is actually about). (Lisa Cron)
    • No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. (Robert Frost)
    • Write the book you’re desperate to read. (Keren David)
  • Deny Perfectionism. Sometimes people set such high standards there is no hope of reaching them. This can happen when people buy into the hype that you should never settle for second best, so it’s perfect or nothing. It can also happen when people unknowingly handicap themselves, because if I never accept anything I’ve done as perfect, then I never have to expose it to anyone else’s criticism. Either way, guess what — nothing is done.
    • The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly. (Joshua Wolf Shenk)
    • Progress, not perfection. (A principle of 12-step programs)
    • Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving. (Neil Gaiman)
  • Draft Boldly. This is a more focused version of the last one. I’m revising right now, but there will be drafting in my future as I move on to the next book, so here’s what I have to remember about drafting. Just get the draft done, pushing through to find the story. There will be time to polish later
    • I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles. (Shannon Hale)
    • The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. (Terry Pratchett)
    • Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. (Jane Smiley)
  • Be Wary of Rules. I collect advice like this, hungry for it as a squirrel after acorns, but in the end we’re all just feeling our way along. I’m still figuring out what works for me. The best rule is, do what works for you.
    • There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. (W. Somerset Maugham)
    • Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken. (Esther Freud)
    • Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. (Lev Grossman)

What ideas are lifting you up as you go into 2018? What helps you keep going? Share them with the rest of us.


Time Travel – Skipping Through Time in a Story

Weekend Words today were inspired by a recent post in the Pub(lishing) Crawl blog by Jodi Meadows: The Weight of Time (In Your Book). Jodi pointed out a mistake lots of writers, beginning and experienced, make in first drafts. The issue is how to get from this scene to that scene without dragging the reader through the entire time span in between. Go ahead and read what Jodi says, because she’s got it right.

In a story, words are time. The reader spends roughly the same amount of time reading per word throughout the whole book (yes, it varies a bit, but not significantly). So when deciding how to cover a period of time, what we need to be focusing on is how much time we want the reader to spend with that experience, not how long the actual experience takes. This is part of what is meant by pacing. We want to slow the reader down when a lot of important things are happening, so we need to spend more words there. When nothing important is happening? Fewer word. Even no words at all.

Here are two examples from great stories by skilled authors.

The Deep Blue Good-by (1964) is the first of the splendid Travis McGee stories by the incomparable John D. MacDonald. Nobody can create characters and settings as vividly in as few words as MacDonald. He also handles time and pacing very well. About two-thirds of the way through this book (p. 149 in my copy), narrator McGee finishes up with a conversation with one character and leaves her to visit another character, Cathy. Cathy is in the hospital, following a severe beating from an ex-lover, and McGee needs information from her to find him and bring him to McGee’s form of justice. Here’s how MacDonald handles the transition, with the closing dialogue of the previous scene (with the character talking about the pants she’s wearing) and the start of the new one:

“I bought them today. I don’t feel very secure about them.”

Cathy was in a six-bed ward. I pulled a chair close, kissed her on the forehead and sat beside her.

See how much time MacDonald spent on the transition? None at all. We hear the last line and then, blink! We’re in the hospital. No need to walk through the whole process of getting there.

Pattern Recognition (2003) is an all-time favorite science fiction novel by William Gibson. Cayce Pollard is someone with an unusual sort of mental power who finds herself embroiled in an increasingly confusing and dangerous world as she tries to avoid kidnappers and soviet-era spies. The disconnected, other-worldly feel of the story is reinforced by Cayce’s frequent sleeping and waking up in new places, and having to remind herself of where she is and how she got there. (This book contains a wonderful description of jet-lag.) The up-to-the -minute atmosphere is also strengthened by frequent references to current technology. Here’s one transition, as she goes from flying in the first-class cabin to another country and connecting with Bigend, the person she’s going to meet. This is the last line of one scene and the first line of the next:

Decision out of the way, she closes Taki’s jpeg, puts the iBook away, and returns to bed-mode.

When they exit immigration, Bigend is waiting, the only smiling face in a scrum of glum chauffeurs holding hand-lettered sheets of cardboard.

Once again, there is a discontinuity in time. We don’t see her arrive, deplane, find her luggage, and go through the immigration line. There’s nothing there the reader needs to see, so no words are wasted there.

My lesson. I really need to learn to do this. When I looked at my work in progress with this in mind, I found no examples where I went from one scene to the other without at least skimming over the time in between. Things like, “After dealing with all the aftermath of the disaster, I was heading down the road…” This is going in my revision checklist. Where can I cut through that whole transition cleanly, like a film cut, jumping straight from one scene to another with nothing in between? I have to make each of those transitions prove to me that they’re worth it, or out they go.

What do you do when you need to go from one scene to another? Do these transitions give you trouble, as they do for me?


Drawing Characters Like Picasso – the Telling Detail

picasso-dogPicasso did this so well – sketch out an entire character with just a few lines, as he did with this lovable dog. As writer, we want to do the same thing! We want our readers to see our characters as complete, three-dimensional people, but don’t want to spend a lot of tedious description to make this happen. How do we do this?

I’m just a beginner on this path, but there are a few times when I think I’ve gotten it somewhat right. The main thing is to pick one or two details that are specific to just that one person, and put them into the dialogue or into the action of the scene. It’s part of the “show, don’t tell” rule – make the description happen as an action, not just words. We want the detail to do the telling, without actually telling explicitly. Clear, right? Maybe some examples from my work in progress can help.

Naia is what one of my critique partners called a “happy Valkyrie.” She is the primary fighter of the group, wielding a mean sword, but she has a ton of fun doing it. That sentence is description, telling you about her, but that’s not how the information is presented in the story. For instance, here’s what happens just after Naia fought and defeated some really scary other-worldly creatures. Kay, the narrator, is ranting a bit about how she doesn’t understand what’s happening, and she says “There are monsters out back!”

Naia interrupted, “Were monsters.” She tossed the wadded-up paper towel in a bin and celebrated her shot a pumped fist.

In that brief moment, Naia shows that she’s proud of defeating the monsters, that she didn’t find it particularly stressful, and that she’s cheerfully competitive, even about tossing away the paper towel. Not bad for 20 words.

Here’s an example with a minor character, one for whom we never even learn a name. Kay comes across him as he is heading off into the woods directly toward some similar monsters, but he doesn’t know the danger he faces. She tries to stop him, but it doesn’t go well. The young man accuses her of representing the oppressive adult power structure.

“I don’t care what you say.” He tossed his head and the black curtain of hair fell back perfectly over one eye. He’d paid a lot of money for that haircut. “I can’t keep on living like this.”

It was a proud moment for me when a critique partner casually referred to this character as the “emo teen,” because that’s exactly what I had in mind when creating him. I could have describe him that way explicitly, but instead I had him express his attitude in his own words, and in the toss of his head. The expensive haircut, ostentatiously covering one eye, cements the picture of a whiny, over-privileged adolescent who thinks the world is out to get him. Unfortunately, at this moment he’s close to right about that.

One more example. Alex, an important character in the team, is tough and demanding. Kay often thinks of her as acting like a school principal, and this shows in her actions and her speech. There’s one moment early on, though, that’s different, that hints at a whole area of motivation we don’t see otherwise. They try to rescue someone from the monsters but don’t succeed. After the fight is over,

Alex knelt beside the boy I had tried to save. She stroked his face gently, touched the old scar on his hand, bowed her head. Miss Martinet herself, grieving for this small stranger.

We come back to this well-hidden bit of Alex’s psyche later in the story, but for now there’s just this one sentence allowing one small peek. It explains something about why the others stick with Alex despite how prickly she is. There’s no explicit flag here (Look! She really cares about these people!). There are just her actions, for the reader to interpret.

As I work through my revision, I try to watch out for those places where I try to use a big, broad brush to paint a character, telling about them rather than showing them. For instance, just this week I flagged a place where I described a character as “crusty outside but soft inside, like the bread she baked.” This is too direct a description. I need to show her being crusty but soft, and once I show that I won’t need to tell about it. If I’m vigilant, I may be able to find and dig out most of these descriptive slip-ups, and replace all that telling with a telling detail or two.

To Pop or Not: Pop Culture References

I have a writing dilemma I want to share with you, my blog readers, and a question for you at the end. You didn’t know there would be a test, did you? 🙂

In my WIP, the main character is a bit of a nerd, and she has a snarky sense of humor. The same is true of some of the other characters she interacts with. As is usual when people who share interests and experiences get together, they often talk in shorthand, using references to their common experiences to represent ideas they don’t have to explain in detail. This means that there are a lot of pop culture references and nerdy science ideas tossed around in my story. Here are some examples (all from early in the book, so these aren’t significant spoilers):

  • Kay (my narrator) is unhappy with her tendency to avoid challenges, choosing to escape rather than face trouble. She thinks to herself, “I could be the lamest Doctor Who companion: The Girl Who Runs Away a Lot.”
  • When Naia, another character, sees Kay’s beloved ’76 Gremlin, she says, “You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.” Kay glares at her to acknowledge the joke.
  • When someone brings up magic, Chass, the scientist of the group, says, “Magic, or whatever. Any sufficiently advanced technology.” Then he goes on with his discussion of the topic at hand.

These three examples show different ways to use pop culture references, and may not all be equally successful.

  • The first one explicitly mentions Doctor Who, which will almost certainly be recognized by anyone who reads fantasy as a BBC science fiction/fantasy TV show. It goes on to say that she’s labeling herself as a lame companion and clearly describes why. Even those who’ve never seen the show will have no trouble understanding what she is thinking.
  • The second is a bit more subtle. It explicitly labels Naia’s statement as a joke, and its meaning should be pretty clear even for those who don’t recognize it as a Star Wars quote (said by Princess Leia the first time she saw Han Solo’s space ship, the Millennium Falcon).
  • The third one is subtler still. Chass’s statement about “Any sufficiently advanced technology” is a reference to the third and most famous of Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems to me that this reference has a pretty high probability of being recognized by someone from the general public (though I may be wrong about that), but it’s placement is subtle in that it’s not explicitly labeled in any way as a joke or an intertextual reference. Someone who is not familiar with Clarke’s law or who simply doesn’t recognize it in this context might simply be confused by what Chass said. That would be a failure of my writing.

I find myself dancing on this fine line a lot. I want my characters to express themselves the way I and my nerdy friends do, which includes nearly constant references to familiar ideas in nerd culture. However, I don’t want to leave behind those who don’t happen to have the same set of references, and I don’t want to be shrill or annoying in how often I bring these ideas up. This is where my critique group can be both a help and a trap. Everyone in the group writes some form of science fiction or fantasy, so they are the audience that will most appreciate these kinds of references (in fact, in my most recent review with the group one member pointed out a missed opportunity to throw in a Dungeons and Dragons reference, which I gleefully added). On the other hand, if I ladle it on too thick for other readers I’m not sure this group will spot that. For now, my decision is to keep these references in but try to make sure that people who don’t catch them will still understand what’s happening and how people are responding. It’s always easier to cut out this kind of thing than to add it later.

Now for the test: Did you get these references before I explained them? Do you think this kind of reference enhances the things you read, or not? Do you use pop culture references like these in your work, and if so how do you make sure they are successful?

Answer any or all questions. Please show your work. 🙂

Loading Chekhov’s Gun

Today’s Wednesday Words installment is about gun safety: the proper techniques for loading and handling Chekhov’s Gun. This is based on advice from Anton Chekhov, a highly skilled writer of novels, plays, and short stories, who is quoted as saying: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” (You can learn more than you ever wanted to know about the various elaborations and variations on this idea in the entry on TV Tropes.) Chekhov was talking about economy: don’t pad your work with miscellaneous junk that’s not going to be useful. I’m turning it upside down today and talk about how I’ve handled the minor Chekhovian items in my WIP.

As I worked through my first draft, I came again and again on situations where I needed something to be there, but I hadn’t set it up ahead of time. Rather than stop now to describe the lamp that’s now being chopped up for parts, I recognize that this is a pop-pistol version of Chekhov’s gun. I need to hang that puppy on the wall at an earlier point, so I can now just reach up and grab it.

There are lots of techniques for loading that gun. I’m some of my readers are using Scrivener, and you might be able to post information about how to do this effortlessly in that system. Everyone I know loves it, but it’s never clicked with me. I do my writing the old fashioned way, with a quill pen in word-processing files, so here’s how I handle it. As I’m reaching up for a gun that’s not there, I add a marginal comment right then that I need to set this up. Later, when I’m looking back at the work for the last few days, I see that note and poke around in earlier chapters until I find a good place to plant it, and I drop another marginal note at that point, something like: “Describe lamp – you’ll need it in Chapter 8.”

Here’s a specific example. For reasons I don’t want to explain now (you’ll have to read it when it’s published *grin*), my main character Kay has to be able at a climactic point in the story to reach into a kind of space she can’t really see to find a weapon. That invisible, almost intangible space is the ghostly remnant of the pantry in the kitchen of the hotel where she works. To set this up I have the following passage, which will appear on roughly Page 3 of the book:

I was working quickly as I sorted the last tray of mixed flatware into their drawers at the back of the pantry, scalding my fingers on the hot metal. Still, I had to be careful, because there were some steak knives in the tray and they had to go in the drawer the right way ’round. When I first started here I earned a rap on the knuckles for getting some of the knives backward. “Some day,” Jana said, “you will reach in there, going quickly, looking not so much.” She managed to glare down her nose at me, which isn’t easy for someone who didn’t reach my shoulder. “One knife is backward, and you will maybe wish someone had been more careful.” I bowed my head and apologized sweetly, because losing a job in two days would have been a record, even for me, and she let me off with just the glare.

I’m pleased with this passage because it does several things at once, which every paragraph in the book should do to earn its keep. Here’s what I was trying to accomplish in these 154 words:

  • Grounding the action in the present time, showing what Kay (the narrator) is doing at the time when things start going seriously awry.
  • Illuminating something of Kay’s personality with those last few lines about how losing her job so quickly would have been a record, “even for me.” It says she’s not someone who is known for sticking around for the long haul.
  • Showing Jana’s character, in that she’s a stickler for procedures, isn’t above rapping a new employee’s knuckles, is considerably shorter than Kay, and speaks English with an accent (I’ve written before about writing an accent).
  • Loading that gun. When Kay realizes later that she can reach into the back wall of that pantry, hidden though it is with magical glamour, she knows just where to find a knife. At that time she will spare a thought of thanks for Jana’s insistence on doing things right.

If you think about Chekhov’s Gun and how it works in your writing, then when you reach up it’s there — and BOOM!

How have you handled situations like this in your writing? Share your ideas with the rest of us.

Sailing, D&D, and Writing: Two Analogies that can Help with Action – Wednesday Words

I have trouble writing action sequences. Scenes that positively glitter with excitement and portent in my mind sometimes elicit nothing from readers beyond question marks. I’m getting better, though. Here are two analogies and two concrete steps that have helped me write stronger action.

Continue reading

Accent and Dialect – Wednesday Words

I know, it’s Thursday. I plead temporary madness due to the election debate here in the US. It’s made many of us crazy.

Still, I don’t want to skip a week, so here we are on Thursday with my Wednesday Words. I want to talk about how to handle accent and dialect in dialogue. There’s often a temptation to try to spell out what something sounds like phonetically: “Ah wurnt goan ta say nuttin bout dat, but ya dun got me awl riled up.” This is generally a bad idea! The reader gets bogged down trying to decipher what the person said. The writing on the page gets in the way, so that the reader is focused on spelling and sounding things out, rather than just hearing the conversation unfolding naturally.

A much better technique is to allow word choice, grammatical structure, and rhythm to convey the sound of someone’s words. Here’s an example from my current WIP. Kay is talking with Jana, the woman who runs the hotel where Kay works. It’s the end of a work day, the last day before the hotel closes down for the winter, and Kay tells Jana she’s all set to go. Jana, who knows Kay doesn’t have another job lined up, disagrees: “You are not so set. Next week I go to Florida, helping at my sister’s store in Boca, selling post cards and silly hats to people with sunburns. What do you do, eh?” Every word is properly spelled and the grammar is standard. However, it’s just a little off-kilter for a native speaker of English. From just this one snippet readers will know that Jana is from somewhere else, and many of them would be able to place her accent as something European or Eastern European.

To accomplish this, I recommend doing three things:

  • Read. Go back to books you like where people have accents, and dissect how the author accomplished it. What aspects of word choice and sentence structure creates the sense of people talking in a nonstandard way?
  • Listen. When hanging out in a waiting room or a coffee house, get out your writer’s notebook (you have a writer’s notebook, don’t you?) and jot down snippets of what you hear, especially from people who aren’t native speakers. Don’t transcribe phonetically; capture the word choice and sentence structure. Later, after you’ve forgotten what they sounded like, read back through your notes and see what brings the flavor of the accent to life.
  • Get feedback. Critique partners are terrific for this. When people get distracted by the accent, not hearing it as organic but seeing it as an author’s trick, they can let you know. You can make it a specific question for your readers. Ask, “Did you find yourself having to re-read passages to figure out what someone was saying? Did you feel like skimming through the dialogue to get the gist and move on? Whose lines did you most enjoy reading, and whose made you annoyed?” Listen to what your readers say. Remember, when readers say something didn’t work for them, you can’t argue with that. By definition, it didn’t work.

This is one small jot of diversity in our writing: including characters from elsewhere. Bringing their voices to life in a way that respects and celebrates this diversity is our job as writers.