Archive for category Rules
Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.
So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’
It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?
1 It’s interesting
Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’
But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
2 It’s about people
We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?
In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)
3 A storyteller is luring us in
Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.
The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.
Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson
What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos
Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.
First of all, what is good language?
I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.
But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:
‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.
Tip 1: Be clear
Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.
So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:
- ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
- ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
- ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
Tip 3: Suit the material
The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.
More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.
Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Using notebooks
In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.
Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr
How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
If you read this blog regularly you’ll be familiar with my friend, the writer and editor Victoria Mixon. Her book, The Art & Craft of Fiction – A Practitioner’s Manual, is a favourite of mine. If friends utter the words ‘I think I’ll write a novel’, they soon find themselves armed with a copy because of the way it deftly bridges the gap between good reading and good writing. Victoria is about to release the follow-up, The Art &Craft of Story, and asked me to contribute a blurb. While reading it I came across a stand-out passage that I wanted to make into a post of its own.
It’s the tale of how she and husband Jeff created a logo for their publishing company (as well as an editor, Victoria is also a graphic designer). She wanted to use an icon of her childhood, an antique advertisement which features a young woman in an enormous feathered hat with elegant gloves and a dreamy expression. But when she and her husband scanned it, there was too much shading and detail for it to work as a logo. So they started reworking it in Photoshop.
Here’s the story, in Victoria’s words.
She needed enough big dark elements to be recognizable at a casual glance—even tiny—but she also needed her itsy-bitsy little facial features to show up with their soulful gaze. We blacked in her hat and gloves (although the gloves have wonderful highlighted wrinkles in the soft leather) and exaggerated her eyes and mouth. We erased all of her from chin to gloves and then went back, meticulously re-creating only those lines absolutely necessary to give her definition. She has a lot of ruffles around her face, which looked weird when they disappeared. We had to get just enough of them in to remove the weird without competing with her more important elements.
The pièce de résistance turned out to be not even a part of her, but the shadow her cardboard cut-out cast on the wall when she was photographed. It’s only behind one arm (the light came from an angle), but it’s a lovely calligraphic line that thins and thickens as it goes around the curves of her sleeve. We sharpened it up. Then we looked at her other arm, which has no such line. We paused.
We were going to flip the line and use its opposite on the other side.
But then I remembered a fascinating fact about stylized images: what the eye knows should be there it will see even when it’s not there.
And this is something all writers must remember—what the reader knows should be there they’ll supply even when it’s not.
Not only that, but that simple act of the reader supplying the essential last detail is what engages them, sucks them in, pins them down, makes them part of the story.
When we look at our favorite logos, our eye doesn’t keep going back to them because it’s found every single speck of information it needs. It goes back because there’s something missing, and our eye knows what it is. We feel the satisfaction of supplying the missing piece, the sense of completion, the instant of epiphany.
In the book, Victoria uses this anecdote to delve into the way storytelling works in terms of structure, characterisation and description. But as I was reading I was thinking it could apply just as well to revising a novel.
As you might know from reading Nail Your Novel, I believe in messy first drafts. Pile everything in, then prune. This stage is the work of deep imagination – where I make the story come alive after so long constructing it at a distance with broad strokes. The first draft is where I immerse to let the imaginative juices flow. Description, characters, events, back story – all the detail tumbles out of my head and goes into that draft.
Then I come back to my senses and it’s time to edit. To decide, ruthlessly, what detail isn’t needed and what is. It’s exacting, brutal and transformative.
In particular, I have to take what erupted from the imaginative blunderbuss and make it serve the story. And often that means difficult sacrifices.
Only what’s needed
You’ll see that the picture Victoria started with was lovely in its own right, but now it had to do a job.
This is one of the deepest secrets of good writing – or writing that makes effortless reading, which is the same thing. To take something that is good in its own right – a rich scene or a description or a character – and be able to see what part of it your book needs.
Like Victoria with her cherished but too-detailed lady, I examine whether the ruffles are telling details or discardable darlings. Whether the sensually rippled leather gloves are too distracting. And what I need to make each adapted part fit seamlessly together. If you do this stage of the editing right, every letter of your prose works as hard as it can.
The power of suggestion
Although novels build their worlds though telling details, there is only so much a reader can absorb. Too much and you have a muddle; too little and the reader isn’t immersed. While real life is a broadband activity, reading is like dial-up – we can handle only limited input at once, so writers have to be selective about what we focus on.
This applies not just to descriptions of physical objects, people or scenes, but to emotional states, reactions, textual resonances. Sophisticated writers develop a feel for what they can show and what they can suggest.
When you do it right, you invite the reader to fill in the rest.
And, as Victoria says, that makes them feel very good. It’s as if the book is having a conversation with the reader. It creates fiction that feels profound and resonant; stories that linger in the mind and the heart long after the book is closed.
(Excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story used with permission)
Anyway, this has deviated a little from Victoria’s original argument, and that’s definitely worth a read. You can find it in her book, available on Amazon from September 30
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
In Hitchcock’s film Torn Curtain, there’s a scene where the protagonist kills a taxi driver. Normally you’d expect scenes like this to be presented in close up. We’d see the struggle, the driver’s desperate fight and the hero’s anguish in taking someone’s life. We might wonder what the outcome will be.
But that’s not what Hitchcock does. The scene is shot from a distance, as though it is happening to someone across a road. Almost as if it’s not even happening to the protagonist.
There are no questions about whether the MC will succeed. The driver is killed, and that is that. The MC doesn’t even pay a price by getting hurt. He doesn’t flinch from what he has to do. The distance of the camera plays with our empathy, representing how the characters distanced themselves from the deed. And so we see a normal, married man forced to kill an innocent stranger in cold blood. We see the resources he has in his soul that will ensure he survives. What does it do to the viewer? It makes us complicit in an uncomfortable world. As if we have made that choice too.
In Persuasion, Jane Austen shows the final reunion between the lovers as though she’s filming it at a distance. It’s surprising, but allows the characters privacy in their moment – which is all the more touching.
Of course, you need to use distance carefully. I often see scenes where writers duck out of showing a key event, possibly because they didn’t feel up to writing it. There is a strong likelihood that if you pull the prose camera away, the reader will feel cheated. You have to make a careful judgement call. If there are any questions lingering, the reader needs to see what happened. But if the reader can fill all the blanks and be just as satisfied, it might be powerful indeed.
Every event we share in a story has an effect beyond just showing what happened. And distance can sometimes lend more power than a close-up. Like Hitchcock, you could create an interesting complicit effect, show characters turning a corner. Result? The audience is disturbed in a way that is far more complex and chilling. Jane Austen had spent so long keeping her lovers apart that we wanted them to be together. When they finally were she went one better – she allowed them to be totally alone. Result? Reader satisfied.
That’s just two examples. Give me yours and tell me why you think they work!
Oh, and (spoon tapping glass). My Memories of a Future Life is getting great reviews. Episode 2: Rachmaninov and Ruin, is limbering up for release on Amazon at midnight as 4th September turns into 5th. You can find episode 1 here and you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here
The most F of FAQs that I’m being asked at the moment is this: was it easy to split my novel into four parts? Did I originally write it that way?
When I first had the idea of releasing My Memories of a Future Life as episodes I was wondering how on earth it would work. Perhaps it wouldn’t go.
But when I divided it according to page numbers I found that, give or take a few, at the end of each quarter was a major shift. The stakes changed, or what the narrator wanted changed. I did some minor tweaking to punch up the episode beginnings but the structure was there already.
I might add that I was rather thankful.
But if you’re not planning to release your novel in episodes, why is this relevant to you?
Because all stories need these major shifts.
On the count of three…
Hollywood talks about the three-act structure for movies. Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the inciting incident. Act 2, the second two quarters, is where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution.
Now Hollywood movies have pretty formalised structures, but that’s not just because they like formulae. The three-act structure isn’t just a matter of convention. It comes from the way the brain naturally looks for change – and the way it likes to see a problem explored.
For the character’s journey to feel significant, we have to feel we have gone a long way between start and finish. That’s not done by dragging them through a lot of pages. It’s not done with the number of characters you whirl in and out, or the number of locations you visit like a James Bond movie. It’s done with an internal shift for the character. It’s done by altering what the journey means.
The stakes can’t be the same at the end of the story as they were at the start. The character must change what they want.
Three acts, four episodes?
Hang on, classic Hollywood structure is three acts. I’ve got four.
That’s because there’s also the midpoint.
I refer you to Blake Snyder, of Save The Cat fame. He explains that in his early days of movie-writing, he used to tape movies on C90 cassettes and listen to them in the car. At 45 minutes, where he turned over, he realised the most compelling movies had another crucial change – the midpoint.
The midpoint shifted the whole dynamic of the story. It was the threshold between the beginning and the beginning of the end. It was, to quote the great man, ‘the point where the fun and games are over and it’s back to the serious story.’ (And fortunately I had that too.)
Once you understand what the reader psychologically wants at each point of the story, you can give it a really thorough workout.
You can even tell if you’ve misunderstood it. In this post, Darcy Pattison discovered that her second act began far too late, did some soul-searching and realised she was focusing the story wrong. She thought she was writing a quest, but her structure told her her story was actually about the characters maturing. When she revised with this new focus in mind, it helped her create a tighter, more compelling manuscript.
From now on, I’m going to try splitting all my novels into four.
Have you ever analysed your novels by splitting them into acts? Share in the comments!
My Memories of a Future Life, Episode 1: The Red Season. Launched 30 August.
Everyone’s talking about how publishing has broken all its rules this year. We’ve had agents publishing their authors’ backlists as ebooks, or arguing about why they shouldn’t. We’ve had agents lobbying for authors to get a much higher percentage of ebook rights. We’ve had authors tearing up their contracts and going indie – and some of them have become the infamous Kindle millionaires.
One idea I’ve heard whispered in these discussions is whether longform fiction should be serialised. Usually it’s quickly dismissed. Oh no one’s doing that.
Yes they are. I’m going to.
And this is it. I’m going to publish it in four hefty parts.
The entire novel is a scale-breaking 100,000 words, so each episode is roughly 25,000 – a good novella’s worth of reading each time.
Yes, this is an experiment. It could be argued that it’s a 150-year-old experiment as it’s the same model used by another famous self-publisher – Charles Dickens.
It’s either a great idea or monumentally dumb. But I’m already breaking rules by self-publishing a literary novel when most indie releases are genre, so why not stomp on another?
My agent tells me he’s watching with great interest. Not just out of curiosity, but to see if this is a viable model for the agency’s own ventures into new publishing models. So it’s not just a small step for me…
How much will it be? The magic 99c per episode. If you’re late getting to an episode, don’t worry – once they’re up in the Kindle store, they will be up for two months. Although you might have to block your ears to the chat on Twitter about it…
So that’s my secret weapon. My Memories of a Future Life is a literary novel written to be released episodically, week by week, the way Dickens wrote his serialised novels. Starting Tuesday August 30th, then Mondays thereafter – September 5, September 12, and the final episode on September 19th.
Wish me luck. And just so I feel more emboldened, tell me what rules – writing or otherwise – you’ve broken this week.
Like any genre, historical fiction has expectations and pitfalls. How much detail should you include? If the characters talk and behave differently from the way we do, how will you make that relatable? I put these thorny questions to KM Weiland, author of the medieval novel Behold the Dawn and historical western A Man Called Outlaw.
1. Obviously one of the attractions for readers of historical novels is immersing themselves in the details of that world. But clearly you can’t overload the text with too much detail. How much historical detail do you include, especially of world affairs?
At its heart, historical fiction is no different from any other kind of fiction. The rules of description and backstory that apply to contemporary fiction also apply to historical fic. Love of history or no, historical readers aren’t likely to have the patience to sit through pages upon pages of pontificating about Roman politics or Napoleonic battle tactics or Regency etiquette. They want what every reader wants: a ripping good yarn. The history is just icing on the cake.
So you include only those details that are necessary. Unless your Roman character is interested in or affected by politics, you don’t need to explain Senate procedures. If the Senate procedures are important to the story, then by all means slap them in there. But never flaunt your research in your reader’s face. Give them only what they need to know and make it matter to the story.
2. How much explanation would you give for the small details of everyday life – eg if a character made a cup of tea or brushed their teeth?
The small details are actually some of the most interesting to include, both because they are often little-known factoids and because they contribute so beautifully to the verisimilitude of the story. Fiction is in the details. But, just as with sweeping historical context, you have to be careful to contain your details—your drinking of tea and your brushing of teeth—to what’s pertinent. If you can work in strange and interesting details, it’s often an excellent opportunity to add originality to your scenes. But if the cup of tea is in there merely to show readers how tea was brewed in the early 1700s, it’s extraneous and will only serve to bloat your story and slow it down.
3. How do you find an appropriate idiom for the characters’ dialogue while still sounding natural?
This is a delicate balancing act, since the speech patterns that were acceptable in times past now sound stilted and even pedantic to modern readers. For instance, back in Charles Dickens’s day, contractions were used only by the lower classes. But to write dialogue sans contractions nowadays sticks out like Ebenezer Scrooge at the office Christmas party.
It’s important to develop a good ear for the rhythm and flow of period dialogue, by reading extensively in period literature. Some people have had excellent success mimicking period dialogue (Patrick O’Brian comes to mind), but usually it’s best to find a happy medium. Give your dialogue just enough of an “antique” flavor to keep the reader in the period without bogging him down in alien speech patterns. For example, in the time period in which my recently released medieval novel Behold the Dawn is set, modern-day English was almost entirely unknown, so I had to find a speech pattern that would be intelligible to readers while still grounding them within the setting.
4. With characters’ behaviour and culture, how do you make characters who modern readers can relate to, but don’t behave anachronistically?
Social mores have a way of evolving and devolving in some pretty crazy ways. What used to be perfectly acceptable would now be considered barbaric. Much of Behold the Dawn centers around the tourney games. These gladiatorial mock battles, which were wildly popular at the turn of the 12th century, are shocking in their violence to us in the 21st century.
And yet the wonderful thing about history is that no matter how much the world changes, the basic elements are always the same. Willa Cather wrote, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.” So human nature, in all its tragedy and triumph, remains essentially the same in every time period. We can still find depravity and integrity, guilt and redemption, disappointment and hope—and these elements can translate even the most foreign of situations into something we can all understand.
5. You write fantasy as well. How has writing historical fiction helped?
My first fantasy novel Dreamers Come (due out in 2012) featured a society with a medieval basis, so I got to use much of my historical research as a launch pad. Having taken meticulous notes during my research period for Behold the Dawn, I understand the power of precision in my descriptions of places and battles. But it was an interesting experience being freed of the strict timeline of a historical period. In fantasy, I’m free to create my own timeline, which was both liberating and a little bewildering. I have several ideas for future stories that incorporate fantasy elements into actual historical periods, so I look forward to the melding of the two worlds!
Thanks Katie! As well as writing historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska, KH Weiland blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture. She also has an incredibly useful e-book, Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Guide to Bringing Your Characters to Life, available on her website totally free.