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Monday, July 13, 2009

Food for thought

I've run across some really good advice over the course of the last week on little things that seemed to be just what I needed to hear. But as I mentioned elsewhere on the blogosphere, I feel like a newbie driver who has to consciously remember to look at the rearview mirror, the speedometer, figure out where the median line should appear to be if I'm in the right place, etc. . . . I don't seem to have it all integrated so that I can remember to do all these things without giving it much thought. I frequently find myself forgetting lessons I've learned and needing to relearn them.

So here's a sampling of recent advice that has hit home for me. Posting it here seems more sensible than bookmarking the pages, since it's little blog snippets. So I'm really doing this for me, as an easy way to store stuff I'd like to find later without cluttering my own browser. But who knows? Other folks might find this useful too.


Here is a great rundown of EVERYTHING* writers should be thinking about in order to make their manuscripts un-put-down-able. It's from Nephele Tempest's livejournal. The whole list is great, but the part that I found personally most useful was this little tidbit on "voice":

Voice. Agents talk about this all the time, and it covers a lot of territory for me. Mostly it's about what your narrator sounds like in my head. Vocabulary, chattiness, thoughtfulness, etc. Are they intellectual, sarcastic, uneducated but smart, somewhat slow, ethnic--and this is more about word choice than anything, so please don't try to get elaborate about writing accents phonetically--young, old, etc.? Whatever it is, it should be distinctive to the story and the character. It should fit, there should be a reason for it, and it should be consistent.

At some point I'll probably cross-post the thoughts that sprang to my mind when I read that, but for now I'll just say I think I understand what voice is quite a bit better now.

During Nathan Bransford's recent absence from his blog, be had other folks post guest entries. This post by editor Victoria Mixon was another catch-all of things writers should be thinking about as they polish their work. It's all great, but here's the bit that really caught my eye:


Leave out most of the words. No kidding. Leave out oh, well, yes, no, um, uh (definitely these last two). Leave out names except for extreme emphasis. Leave out first articles and even subjects of sentences wherever possible. Do you answer a question with, "It's on the table," or with, "On the table"? Try it and see how much snappier your dialog becomes. For heaven's sake, leave out ellipses. Be like Emily Bronte and use em-dashes instead. Leave off dialog tags. Replace them with brief significant actions or, if you can get away with it, nothing at all. A book filled with characters talking the way we really talk, with tags, goes on forever and bores even the writer to tears.

Unless absolutely necessary, make characters talk at cross-purposes. How many of us actually listen to other people? We don't. We're always thinking about what to say next, when they shut up.

This morning, I ran across this entry by Mary Robinette Kowal talking about a point where she was stuck this week, and how she unstuck herself:

But! I was still stuck. I looked at the scene again. The historical figures weren’t the problem at all! It was just dull. I backed up and asked myself the usual helpful question, “What does Jane want?” and then thought about ways to deny her that. Things went much better after that.

It's not anything I haven't heard before, but that's kind of the point of this whole post. There are a lot of things I hear and forget. This was vividly stated, and hopefully I'll remember it when I'm stuck.

(I've read a handful of Kowal's short stories by the way, and she manages to write stories that are intelligent and highly entertaining--a great mix that's not as common as one might wish. I wanna be like that when I grow up.)

And finally, Lynn Viehl is doing a series of con-workshops-via-blog on her blog, and linking to others doing the same thing. She did the same thing last year--I don't know how many years she's been at it--right around RWA time, for writers and aspiring writers who are unable to attend. I found a *lot* of very useful "workshops" last year, and highly recommend to anybody that they follow Viehl's blog this week and follow all the links to other workshops she provides.

Anyway, today she was talking about the conceptual plan behind a story, whether you're a plotter or a pantser, I think, and I found this tidbit on hooks/high concept particularly useful:

A hook needs to be a lot of things, but primarily it should be brief, simply-worded, and contain the real power and conflict of the story:

1. A vampire hunter discovers her dream lover is a captive, tortured, blind vampire.

2. The secret lovechild of a powerful politician is the only witness to her father's murder.

3. A half-alien athlete trains as an assassin to kill her rapist father.

4. An outcast prostitute must save her friends and former family by harboring two spies intent on destroying them and their city.

5. A mystery writer haunted by the ghost of her worst critic tries to solve his murder.

Look at the juxtaposition of the concepts contained in the above hooks. The more conflict potential they have, the more powerful they are:

vampire hunter - blind vampire

secret lovechild - powerful politician

half-alien assassin - rapist father

outcast prostitute - enemy spies

mystery writer -- ghost critic

The situation as presented also plays a major part in the impact of the concept. For PBW's neighborhood, it has to be an almost impossible situation; what I think of as the worst possible situation for the protagonist to find themselves in. But whatever your situational preference is, the elements in the predicate you use in the hook (verbs, adjectives, objects of verbs) need to provoke a strong emotional response:

--a vampire hunter loving the a helpless vampire.

--a lovechild witnessing the murder of her powerful father.

--a half-alien assassin training to kill the rapist who created her.

--a prostitute protecting enemy spies to save those who cast her out.

--a mystery writer solving the murder of her worst critic.

Again, not anything I totally haven't heard, but specifically, what I found useful here was how she built up her examples, and how she embedded to conflict right into the hook, basically designing her protagonist as the person who would most struggle with the situation. Any old Bella can fall in love with a vampire, but what if she's a vampire hunter? I'm thinking now that maybe I don't give enough thought to why This Plot should happen to This Character.

I'm starting to think that I'm embarking on a phase of my learning where I'm moving away from worrying about polishing my prose, and moving toward an increased focus on characterization.

* Well, not really EVERYTHING, but it's pretty amazingly comprehensive.

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