Saturday, October 30, 2010

Coal in the Pudding

As writers, we know far more than we tell, but there’s always a temptation to use everything you’ve researched. When we succumb, it’s like finding lump of coal in the pudding—the big action scene is at hand, our pulse is racing, and whoa! We stop to watch the heroine prepare her hot air balloon for the escape from the rooftop, and we’re treated to every detail. Ah, yes, you think. The writer spent an afternoon researching with a balloonist and made note of every tuck and fold. And here it all is—every tuck and fold. The story comes to a dead halt, or maybe there’s a brief mention of something important—which you’ll probably miss because by then you’re skimming past this fascinating scene. If you’re still reading at all.

Think before you let the research take over. Make sure the information is something the reader needs to know. Bring it in when it’s pertinent to what is happening in the plot. Mix it with action. If it doesn’t move the story forward, sit on your hands until the urge to tell all has passed.

And then there’s necessary information and how to present it. Although you can let a character explain what the reader needs to know through dialogue or thought, this too can be heavy-handed. There must be a valid reason for the character to explain.

Dave answered the door. “Hello, my daughter. How’s the architect business today?” 

A little obvious, don’t you think? But it did tell us their relationship and that she’s an architect.
Information should pertain to the story or reveal character. Maybe the daughter has a roll of blueprints with her and forgets them when she leaves—they should have some significance other than being a device to tell the reader what she does.

Dave answered the door. “Hi, Brenda.” The roll of blueprints in her hand bumped his chest, blocking his welcome hug.

“Sorry, Dad.” She propped the drawings beside the door. “The Richardson’s house plans. I forgot them this afternoon. I’ll have to drop them off tonight.”

This lets us know their relationship, that’s it’s a warm one, her occupation, and that she’s going to arrive at the Richardson’s unexpectedly.

Then later, when she stops by the Richardson’s, she finds something important to the story. If her being an architect isn’t important to anything, maybe it should be left out.
Just something to think about.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Current Reads

A Nail through the Heart by Timothy Hallinan. He writes beautiful, lyrical prose about terrible things. It can break your heart. I'm only a few chapters in, but I'm hooked. Thanks, Peg Brantley, for recommending it. It's a library hardback but I'm lugging it around anyway. I got to read for half an hour Thursday night waiting for a high school choral program to start. (That was fun too, but it's another story.)

The PostmistressI also got The Postmistress by Sarah Blake recently, but I had to give it back to the library before I got anywhere. I heard some of it on Radio Reader, which is why I requested it. But things came up and it came due too soon. That's the good and the bad thing about the library. I don't have enough time, but I do have access to many more than I can buy.

My TBR stack is big enough to be a hazard now. I should quit buying or requesting anything for a while and try to catch up, at least a bit. There are so many good books I want to read. I still have Richard Helms's Six Mile Creek waiting, and I loved his Pat Gallagher books--also Grass Sandal, so I'd really like to get to this one.

So, shall I read or write? That's the question.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Hook and a Promise

Don’t you read at least the first paragraph before you decide on a book? The beginning of story lays down the promise for the rest of story and the author has to live by the rules she or he sets. I hate it when the opening of a book promises humor and delivers tragedy, or the opposite. I often chose my next read by my mood. Sometimes I want drama, sometimes light humor—whatever, the opening paragraphs guide my selection. If the book turns out to be something else, it’s a disappointment. So, writers, be careful to open with the right tone. 
The beginning of your story should do at least three things: get your story going and set the tone; introduce and characterize the protagonist; and above all, engage the reader's interest!

The opening scene can also create mood, introduce the narrator or narrative voice, introduce other characters (one or two, possibly even three, but too many is just confusing and dilutes interest in the main characters), the setting, time, and so on.

For example, volcanic openings—those with high drama—promise that the rest of the story will leave you breathless too.  It’s difficult to deliver on a promise like that.  Think about it. You may want to be a little more subtle in the opening, make a little less noise at the outset.  If it leads to melodrama later on, so be it.

Jennifer Crusie promises wit, romance, and a fun read in Fast Women.  It’s all there in the opening, and she keeps it going until the very end.
The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway. Meeting Gabriel McKenna just meant she’d arrived.

Gwen Hunter opens Delayed Diagnosis with an ominous tone, and she delivered!
I had never been a coward, but it took all the courage I ever had to walk in to Marisa’s room. She was just sitting there, slightly slumped, her face and form in silhouette, framed by the window and rising sun. Unmoving. A mannequin in shadow.

I thought both of these books opened with a terrific hook and a promise. I’m sure you have examples of your own openings or other books with good openings. Share some! We all learn from seeing them.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Controversial "Was"

Do you try to show everything? Do you avoid “was” like the Nile virus? I try to limit it, but too many colorful descriptions and exotic verbs can take you out of the story as quickly as too many dull verbs. (Since most stories are written in past tense, I’m using was instead of is or some other form of the verb to be.)

Was has a place in writing. It’s part of the English language, and to leave it out completely makes for awkward, usually overblown, prose. This has been a recent discussion on a list I belong to. There’s a lot of confusion about it was. It isn’t always passive voice. Passive refers to who performs the action. If Bill threw the ball, Bill, the subject, is performing the action and the sentence is active. If the ball was thrown by Bill, the subject, the ball, is not performing the action and the sentence is passive. In this case the use of “was” is passive. Even passive has a place. I try (but it still creeps in once in a while) to limit passive to the rare occasions when who did it isn’t important to the story. The meeting was postponed until Friday. That’s passive, but what matters is the postponement, not who postponed it.

Another frowned-upon use of was is in telling (instead of showing), when the subject is linked to an adjective. She was tired. You could go into a more lengthy description and show that she was tired, but that’s not always necessary. Showing takes more words, so you have to ask if it’s important to the story or if it slows it down with unnecessary detail. Remember, moderation in all things. I think you should definitely lean toward more showing than telling, but I disagree with Mae West—too much of a good thing is not always wonderful.

But there’s another use of was—progressive tense, when the subject performs an ongoing action. Ellen was crossing the street. This is not passive. Sometimes showing progressive action is the only way to make sense. Ellen was crossing the street when a car hit her. If I say Ellen crossed the street when a car hit her, it gives an entirely different picture.

Here’s a bit from The Peeper where I thought telling worked better.

Julie hung there, her bare ass balanced over his shoulder, her pale hair swinging against the man’s hips. The quick glimpse was enough. Poor Julie. Hot tears ran down Elliott’s cheeks. That image would haunt him forever.

I could have substituted something more colorful for was, but this is in Elliott’s point of view and The quick glimpse sufficed or The quick glimpse satisfied Elliott would sound stilted and unnatural, at least to my ear.

How do you feel about was? Do you think it has a legitimate use in fiction? Do you go to great lengths to avoid it? When do you use it (if you do)? Have any examples you’re willing to share? I’d really like to know your thinking on this.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Infernal Conflict

No, that’s not a typo. That’s how I think of it—hellish. Infernal (or internal) conflict is the kind that arises from within as opposed to external conflict, which is imposed from the outside. External conflict isn’t too difficult—it can be anything from a violent storm to a sick toddler to an ax murderer. It’s the internal stuff that’s hard to come up with. It has to be believable, and the reason or motive behind it must be strong. The stronger the motive, the stronger (and more sustainable) the conflict.

All stories need conflict. Without it, a plot is merely a series of related events. It’s the struggle we like to read about. We want our heart to pound with the protagonist's and to feel the emotions she feels. But the conflict should be appropriate to the story. If you’re writing romantic comedy, you don’t want the heroine claustrophobic because she was trapped in a well when she was four.

The character must be in conflict with herself. Logically she knows the cliffside path is safe, but she can’t make herself walk it. For this struggle with herself to be believable, she needs a strong reason for her fear. If she dropped her favorite doll into a ravine and lost it when she was a child, it’s not much of a reason and shouldn’t cause such paralyzing fear. But if she fell into the ravine as a child (how bad do you want it to be? You can always raise the stakes—maybe she landed in a nest of snakes), the reason is much more believable. The stronger the reason, the stronger and more believable her inner conflict will be. So at the climax, when she needs to go out on that path to save the injured man, she has to overcome her own terrible fear. And we want to experience her struggle, feel what she feels, and empathize.

Internal conflict comes from backstory. It has to be there when the story begins. Usually it stems from something that happened when the character was an impressionable child. Otherwise, the reader may think she should just get over it. She may feel a little trepidation, but it shouldn’t stop her from going along the path. It can be a hard sell, making the reader sympathize and share the emotion. Irrational fears don’t cut it in fiction.

How do you handle infernal conflict? Have any examples?