Nuggets for July

Nancy Kress always gives good and advice and she does it so clearly

If you're writing cops,

I'm not a big fan of writing rules, but I can get behind these, and not just for fantasy stories:

Donald Maas

A fabulous example of how to avoid trite emotional responses from Gem State Writers:

Some good stuff in Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling, especially if your looking to get unstuck.

Nuggets for August

Alexandra Sokoloff always has interesting things to say. Maybe it's her screenwriting background. Or maybe it's that she writes horror (those folks are always a little "different.") But her slightly altered perspective

A different perspective on pricing ebooks

Patricia Wrede has some suggestions on what to do with that novel with the great beginning that you don't know what to do with.

Another thoughtful post by Kristine Rusch about what should be deal breakers in publishing contracts.

Whether you're looking to make your manuscript rise above to catch an agent's eye or you intend to publish independently, a developmental editor may be what you need. How do you know? The book deal explains what you should get from a developmental editor at  Don't miss following the link about how to find a good one.

Story structure isn't as easy to implement as it seems, so I love when Larry Brooks writes about it because he really understands it.

Thursday Writing Quotes

“I felt so guilty about how badly I treat my characters, that I wrote myself into a story and let one of my character’s kill me.” – Mickey Spillane

The Art of Fiction - A Review

by Ayn Rand
Penguin Putnam 2000 

The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and ReadersAyn Rand is one of the most controversial authors in modern history. Some love her, some detest her. A philosopher first, a novelist second, her best-known books (Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead) have remained influential and have never gone out print. Regardless of your opinion, that achievement indicates that she knew something about how to write.

The book, The Art of Fiction, is actually a transcription of a workshop Ms. Rand gave about the writing craft, so the voice is different from most writing books. There's a lot of comments directed at "you" but it's something I adjusted to quickly, so I don't think it will cause anyone great distress.

One of the things I like about this is the way Rand believes in the power of the subconscious to do much of the creative work for you, but she also believes you have to stock your imagination for it to work well. That you need to train your mind to associate abstracts with concrete images. You fill your subconscious like a well-stock larder. This is the essence of show, don’t tell.  FREX, a patriot does more than flag waving. He stands, hand over heart, at the national anthem even if he’s in a crowd of people who show no respect. He donates time at the VA Hospital. He politically educated, because he knows he must guard his country with more than a show of arms.

Rand also talks about making every word count, and she puts her money where her mouth is by breaking down samples of her own writing, like this one: 

Clouds had wrapped the sky and had descended as fog to wrap the streets below, as if the sky were engulfing the city. She could see the whole of Manhattan Island, a long, triangular shape cutting into an invisible ocean. It looked like the prow of a sinking ship: a few tall buildings still rose above it, like funnels, but the rest was disappearing under gray-blue coils, going down slowly into vapor and space. This was where they had gone—she thought—Atlantis, the city that sank into the ocean, and all the kingdoms that vanished, leaving the same legend in all the languages of men, and all the same longing.

The description had four purposes:  (1) to give an image of the city from Dagny’s window, namely an image of what New York looks like on a foggy evening; (2) to suggest the meaning of the events which have been taking place, namely, the city as a symbol of greatness doomed to destruction; (3) to connect New York with the legend of Atlantis; (4) to convey Dagny’s mood. So the description had to be written on four levels: literal, connotative, symbolic, emotional.

Like most worthwhile books on writing, this one prods you to think about what you want to do and how to do it. On that level, it's easy to recommend. For those who write nonfiction, she also has a book about how to write that.

Thursday Writing Quotes ~ Rod Sterling

Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are. - Rod Sterling

Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade - A Review

Screenwriting Tricks of the TradeScreenwriting Tricks of the Trade
By William Froug
Silman-James Press

As a novelist, I've been walking on the wild side for about a year now, reading more books about screenwriting than about novel writing. It all started with Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder (which I review here.) Much of what I got from these books that I couldn't get from books about writing novels involved story structure, but there were lots of other valuable things as well.  Snyder even included a few "tricks of trade" such as the save-the-cat moment (hence the books name) and Pope-in-the-pool. These ideas weren't new to me. I'd pretty much figured them out on my own, but it was nice to have validation. It would have been much nicer if I'd read about them sooner and hadn't had to figure them out myself. So that's what I was kinda hoping that this book would offer.

In that arena, this book is a disappointment. There are no little tricks of the trade like Pope-in-the-pool* that was offered in Save The Cat! That doesn't mean this book doesn't have value. It just doesn't deliver what the title promises.

I have to say that I’m disappointed in this book.  I just didn’t see anything here that made me feel like I was being let in on any professional secrets for story writing. Neither is there much that’s new or unique.

That doesn’t mean this author doesn’t have worthwhile advice; it just means that you can find most (if not all) of what he has to share elsewhere, and generally in a lot of elsewheres.  Mostly, what you’ll find here is an attitude that you need to write the best story you can and that you should be willing to take risks by going against standard wisdom.

For instance, though he acknowledges that the most common story structure is the three-act structure, he thinks it stifles creativity. He may be right, but like any other rules, I think it’s important to understand the “rules” so you know when and how to break them. As a reader and movie viewer, I’m less excited about the avante guard stories I suspect result from this idea. Maybe that says more about me than it does about those who want to break away from the standard structure.

Among other things, he says:
There is no “one-size-fits-all” method of writing.

Don’t revised during the first draft. Notes in the margin are fine. Once started, press on like there’s a pack of wolves nipping at your ass.

The criteria for a scene are: Does it (1) advance the story, (2) increase the dramatic tension, (3) deepen our interest in the story and/or the character, or (4) create laughter? Of the 4, the most important is (2) increase the dramatic tension.

What else does it deliver?

It has some thought provoking things to say. For instance, the author, W, doesn't believe your protagonist has to be likable. He does believe you must create a fascinating, compelling, interesting, and understandable protagonist. I think that's reasonable. It doesn't work 100% with the romance genre, which is what I write, but in many other genres, fascinating works.

I do like what he says about villains. They can't be straw men. They must be the most dangerous villain imaginable. The villain or opposing force must seem much stronger than your protagonist...The danger of a weak villain cannot be overstated... Unless the threat is deadly serious, it's a joke and your protagonist will be ridiculed. He goes into more detail, of course. Most intermediate and advanced writers already get this, but it's something I've seen newer writers struggle with. Anything that helps reinforce this knowledge is worthwhile.

The rest of the book contains lots of worthwhile information, but frankly, I've seen all of it done better and covered in more depth elsewhere, so while this isn't a bad book, it's nothing special.

If you'd like to see other writing resource reviews, they're here.

*The Pope-in-the-pool (mentioned above) gets its name from a screenplay (unproduced as far as I can tell) where the plot calls for a lengthy but necessary information dump. To keep it from being boring, the scene was set at the pool at the Vatican (your guess is as good as mine about whether such a pool actually exists). The idea is that, if there's something interesting going on alongside it, the info dump won't be as boring is it normally would be.

Thursday Writing Quotes ~ Margaret Atwood

The thing about writers that people don't realize is that a lot of what they do is play. - Margaret Atwood

The Effect of Story Telling Ot How to Make a Swashbuckler Boring

At my day job, we have United Way events, one of which is our annual used book sale. With 600 people in our building, we generally have a pretty good selection of books, so last year, I pick up Zorro: A Novel by Isabel Allende. She’s a well-known, widely-respected, main-stream writer. Probably considered a literary writer. I’m not a big fan of literary books, but the idea of a story that starts with Zorro’s parents and presenting his growth into the legendary hero appealed to me.

I’m on page 95 and have been for more than six months. The book has been sitting beside the stairwell, waiting for me to pick it up again. I intend to. Really. Some day.

So why am I not engaged? It’s certainly not the concept of the book. That’s plenty intriguing. Nor is it the story events. It’s the way it’s told.

Actually, I should use capital letters there.

It’s the way the story is TOLD.

An example (chosen at random):
During those five stormy days the governor’s wife had refused to see anyone, including her three-year-old son. The teary-eyed child was sniveling, curled up on the floor outside her door, so frightened that he wet himself every time his father beat on the door with his cane. The only person allowed to cross the threshold was the Indian girl who carried in food and carried out the chamber pot. However, when Eulalia learned that Alejandro de la Vega had come to visit and wanted to see her, her hysteria disappeared in a minute. She washed her face, put up her long braid, and dressed in a mauve-colored gown, with all her pearls. Pedro Fages watched her enter, as splendid and smiling as on her best days, and he entertained a hope for a steamy reconciliation….

As one would expect from a writer of Allende's stature, that’s not badly written. There are good details here, and if the entire book wasn’t written like this, it would be okay. After all, you can’t show every detail. The problem is that this paragraph goes on for nearly a full page (and we’re talking trade paperback pages.) Flipping through the book (384 pages), it’s not hard to find plenty of examples where a single paragraph fills the entire page. Dialog is scarce, often no more than half a dozen lines, and pages of dense paragraphs separate these brief exchanges.

The Telling holds me at arm’s length and keeps me from feeling engaged with the characters.  I don’t actually care that Zorro’s mother seems to regret marrying his father. I don’t feel for his father who doesn’t understand why his marriage isn’t what he’d hoped it would be. And the child who will become Zorro. Meh.

White space? Compelling pacing? Close POV? It’s as if the author has never heard any of these concepts. She’s managed to take a swash-buckling, larger-than-life, classic, heroic figure and make him . . . well, boring. I couldn’t have imagined that in a million years.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I don’t like literary works. Writing in a more popular genre, one hears “Show, don’t tell” all the time.  While not every little thing needs to be shown, Zorro is an excellent example why one should strive for the showing to outweigh the telling by a significant margin.

The book isn't a total waste of time since it's a forceful reminder that I need to apply those methods that make the reader engage with the characters. Now if I can just convince myself to finish the book before it starts decomposing . . .

What books have you been disappointed in?

Thursday Writing Quote ~ Mark Twain

The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell, together, as quickly as possible.  – Mark Twain