What’s your intention?

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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What’s Your Intention?

Each chapter (or individual scene) that you write must have a specific intention. Your goal is to propel the story rationally forward in terms of: scene-setting, character-setting and/or plot development. (Refer to Rule #5.) Each scene has, to some degree, a beginning, a middle and a conclusion—or if not a definitive conclusion, a consequence. A predicament. Each scene moves the reader from here to there with both precision and passion.

Even truncated scenes, brief interludes and segues—often the most difficult scenes to write—have an intention, if only to kill time (The icy grip of winter passed slowly while Martin languished in prison…), foil a protagonist, set a trap, build emotional tension or intentionally mislead the reader. Thus, each chapter—each scene,  paragraph and single line within—must be lovingly manipulated to best accomplish that task. When you’re finished writing a scene, ask yourself: How has the story improved? How has the novel advanced? If you can’t answer precisely, rethink your intent.

Remember, whatever your intention: clear and concise sentence construction, told dramatically and passionately.

While editing, I’ll sometimes come across a scene containing a character who is confused or muddled (or an amnesiac or drugged or dreaming) and the writer decides to mirror the character’s vague and perplexed state by writing vague and perplexing prose. Absolutely not! Rule #29: Your characters may be elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise. The writer must always maintain clarity, and in solid communication with the reader.

This excerpt from Mind Games (written by me, so I’m free to plagiarize):

He remembered only colors.

Neon spirals morphed into a myriad of indecipherable images, bright kaleidoscopic fragments of light that filled his sleeping mind—colors he had never before known, nor would remember again. He felt both terror and awe and swam chaotically through the illusion, toward the encroaching pallor of consciousness. Finally, exhausted, he opened his eyes to an empty room, the residue of color fading from memory. The dim haze of approaching dawn painted the small room’s only window and, standing unsteadily, he peered toward an unknown and distant landscape, mute with the greys and browns of an unwelcomed reality.

Meaning that my intention had been to introduce a character in some sort of mental anguish, perhaps on the verge of emotional collapse. Yet told (one might hope) with a lucidity that hints of both a specific setting and the character’s state-of-mind. Once established, it’s time to move the plot forward.

Hollywood’s directors are often screaming at struggling actors; “What’s your motivation?!” In fiction writing, that relentless director inside your head should be screaming those same words. What are my intentions on this page! What am I trying to achieve here? If you’re writing a visual scene, are you providing sufficient clarity, grounding the reader in sights, sounds and textural richness? In an action scene, are you including only what’s necessary; excluding elements that slow pacing; e.g.; eliminating passive voice and avoiding unnecessary inner monologue?

From On The Edge—again, one of mine—and deep in the midst of an action sequence:

Nikki had neither the time nor the inclination to announce herself as a federal agent, bringing her revolver into a two-handed firing grip, pointing at the gunman who’d invaded her night. She squeezed the trigger repeatedly and saw the back of the pea green jacket pucker several times between his shoulder blades—her fifth round exiting high, spewing bone and teeth fragments from the side of the intruder’s face.

“You shit,” she seethed. He’d crumpled to the floor, leaving a dark smear against the wall. She stepped quickly, her pistol still trained, one left in the chamber, ready to blow out whatever remaining brain matter at the slightest inkling of life. She nudged the shotgun away with her bare toe.

Keep the pacing taut, not bogged down (in red) with extraneous or irrelevant—for the moment—information.

Nikki had neither the time nor the inclination to announce herself as a federal agent, bringing her revolver into a two-handed firing grip, pointing at the gunman who’d invaded her night. Who was this stranger? Might he be the same man she’d seen around town for the last several days, following her? She squeezed the trigger repeatedly, the way she’d been taught years before at the academy, and saw the back of the pea green jacket pucker several times between his shoulder blades—her fifth round exiting high, spewing bone and teeth fragments from the side of the intruder’s face. She had never killed a man before and wondered if her sleep would be filled with nightmares from this day forward.

“You shit,” she seethed. He’d crumpled to the floor, leaving a dark smear against the wall. She stepped quickly, her pistol still trained, one left in the chamber, ready to blow out whatever remaining brain matter at the slightest inkling of life. She nudged the shotgun away with her bare toe. Now what, she wondered? What would happen next? How could she explain this to her boss, special agent Raleigh, who’d warned her to stay out of trouble?

In other words, in action scenes, your intention is to embroil your reader in a sudden rush of adrenalin. The verbiage in red may indeed be integral to the story—but not here. No flashbacks. No philosophical rhetoric. This is a literary inhale. The extraneous facts are the exhale (Refer to Rule #8)… and belong elsewhere, when the action is complete.

Or, should two characters fall in love, are you clearly identifying those characteristics—two young, confused lovers pondering their next move? Even if your lovers are doomed to ultimately fail, are you clearly elucidating only those first tender moments—and not telegraphing the heartache that will appear 200 pages later? Because revealing too much is as erroneous as revealing too little. Your intention—in this scene—is only to delve into their burgeoning passion. What comes before and what occurs next—well, everything in its own sweet time. (See Rule #16: Focus on the now.)
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2014 World Science Fiction Convention Loncon3 Hosts Award-Winning Author Leslie Ann Moore in London, Aug 15-16

Muse Harbor Publishing’s Science Fiction/Fantasy Author Leslie Ann Moore to speak to fans and promote her upcoming “A Tangle of Fates” trilogy novel at Loncon3 in London, August 15-16, 2014, home of the famed Hugo Awards. Moore is the author of the romantic fantasy, “Griffin’s Daughter” trilogy, winner of the acclaimed IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for Best First Book in Fiction.

Los Angeles, CA (PRWEB) August 11, 2014

The 72nd Annual World Science Fiction Convention (Loncon3 2014 London) will host Muse Harbor Publishing’s Award-Winning Science Fiction and Fantasy Author, Leslie Ann Moore, as a guest speaker on two nights; Friday, August 15, and Saturday, August 16, 2014. Loncon3 features art, comics, film, literature, music, science, TV and is the home to the 2014 prestigious Hugo Awards.

Moore is the author of the romantic fantasy Griffin’s Daughter trilogy, winner of the acclaimed IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for Best First Book in Fiction. Moore’s latest book, A Tangle of Fates, Book One in the Vox Machina Trilogy, is a New Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy/Romance novel featuring a young, gutsy heroine and heir to the kingdom, Deanna Hernaan. Moore’s unique tale of ‘Snow White as a revolutionary, instead of a pawn’ takes place four hundred years after a devastating war on the alien world Nuetierra, in the still recovering, steam-powered, dangerous civilization of Nue Bayona. Here, massive air-breathing jellyfish float through violet skies trolling for prey, and giant creatures roam the ancient ruins seeking human blood.

Forced from her comfortable home after escaping an assassination attempt by her own stepmother, the brave Hernaan embarks on her revolutionary journey where she befriends the oppressed Tiqui people and must choose between love and sacrifice, justice and safety, a shaman’s wisdom or her own instincts, all while the fates of three women, two people, and one planet hang in the balance.

Emma Bull, Author of War for the Oaks, says, “A Tangle of Fates mixes planetary romance with a fairy-tale subtext and serves it up with an intriguing background of reimagined technology and religion. The result is delicious.”

On Friday, August 15th, Moore will give insights to her success as a professional sci-fi fantasy storyteller, as well as the practical side of the industry, specifically the realities of making a living in today’s digital age of Science Fiction literature. On August 16, Moore will discuss disparities that arise between authors and readers in the interpretations of stories, and what tools authors can use to help convey their intended message to their audiences.

Steven Barnes, author of Lions Blood, says, “A Tangle of Fates is an exciting start to a new, lushly written and deeply imagined fantasy trilogy.”

Moore’s books can be found on Amazon.com, Museharbor.com. Like Moore on Facebook at leslie.ann.moore8 and follow her on Twitter at @Leslie_AnnMoore.

Moore has been a storyteller since childhood and a fan of science fiction authors Ray Bradbury, Terry Brooks, and J.R.R. Tolkien since middle school. Her creative writing training and fascination with science fiction/fantasy inspired her to write the popular, 2008 IBPA award-winning “Griffin’s Daughter” trilogy. Moore, a graduate of UC Davis and a practicing veterinarian, now shares her love for writing and cosplay with her husband in Los Angeles, California. Vice-President of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society, Moore is an animated and engaging speaker, and can be reached for book reviews, radio, TV, feature articles and blog interviews or event speaking engagements by contacting margaux(at)museharbor(dot)com.

Based in Santa Barbara, CA , Muse Harbor Publishing was founded in 2011 as “writers helping writers, in service to our readers.”

 

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Show. Don’t Tell.

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Show, Don’t Tell. (Take the long road home.)

Show, don’t tell. Most writers are aware of the axiom, and many aware of the literology behind it. Yet some of us continue to persist in taking shortcuts that scrape the passion off our creative intentions.

However, since the adage is bandied about so often, perhaps it’s not always easy to glimpse that archetypal forest through the proverbial trees. Perhaps the time has come to dissect the meaning of the phrase, splatter some metaphoric blood, and see what makes the damn thing tick.

A writer I know once elucidated, rather ineloquently; “It means make love to me with your prose; don’t just fuck me with words.”

Or, as Wikipedia states: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a technique often employed…to enable the reader to experience the story through action, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition and summarization.

Wikipedia further states: Author Chuck Palahniuk goes as far as recommending a ban of what he calls ‘thought verbs’: (“Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires…”) favoring instead the use of specific sensory details: “Action, Smell, Taste, Sound, and Feeling.”

I’m quoting from Wikipedia because I happen to believe Mr. Palahniuk’s essay is a particularly brilliant perception, profound and intelligent—and rather than read my attempt to paraphrase him, you can read his words here.

Simply stated, some writers are so busy telling us a bare-bones story1 that they forget to show us the underlying excitement: John came home. He went upstairs. He found his wife lying in a pool of blood. John ran screaming out the door, and then he called the police. An hour later, an old sergeant named O’Malley said; “It looks like murder, Mr. Smith. And you’re the prime suspect.”

That’s descriptive, sure—but it’s also a “shopping list” of chronological events. We might see John, but we certainly don’t know John. But by showing, not telling, the writer is breaking open John’s soul, and allowing us a long, honest, revealing peek inside.

I do equate showing with Active Voice and telling with Passive Voice. Not that sensory details and voice structure are synonymous, but they are compatible. I usually find that a writer plugged into the showing/not telling psychology is likely more aware of the importance of exciting, passionate writing. To me, a good novel is one that continually imparts basic grammar and story-telling mechanics (Subject-Verb-Object)2 with a powerful, dramatic voice.

I consider the above-mentioned exposition and summarization to be lazy writing. Or at least tired writing. (Certain stylistic machinations can effectively work, if properly orchestrated.) But let’s face it, even Hemingway used active voice only marginally—imho—and often slipped into a dispassionate “telling”. Would Hemingway be published today? Good question.

Because if you find yourself constantly beginning sentences with: “It was…” or “He was…” or “They were…” you’re pretty much writing in a passive, superficial voice that most readers will discover devoid of feeling. I guarantee that 9 times from 10, a writer can easily find a more passionate resonance. Consider: John was late for work.

With little effort, one can concoct a variety of active, far more visual solutions:

The alarm bell’s shrill scream sliced through John’s sleeping brain like a hot knife.

John hated mornings. He hated the sunlight playing peek-a-boo through his blinds, tormenting his eyelids with brain-numbing brightness.

John hazily recalled having closed Wiley’s Tavern the previous night with a final whiskey sour, and grinding out his last cigarette an hour later. He dreaded the encroaching dawn with a mental anguish that bordered on physical pain.

Thus, even the ordinary can become an unexpected and pleasurable experience for the reader. Plots are finite. Imagination is not.

Passion should be—must be—a staple constant in your novel. If you find yourself writing dispassionately, ask yourself whether the content belongs in your book. Often, you’ll discover the material extraneous, or redundant, or not fully refined, and your brain’s sending you signals. If your brain doesn’t want to be here… a reader probably won’t want to be either.

Writing is passion. If you don’t consider a novel as you would a jealous lover with expensive tastes—one requiring the diligence, the selflessness, the patience and the isolation (from all your other friends)—think again. And if you’re not ready for the commitment, perhaps its time to find a new lover.

1 Understand that the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ axiom isn’t a license to kill. Numbing a reader’s senses with unchecked imaginative spewing isn’t going to play either. So stay away from this sort of showboat overload: The fiery explosion of daybreak shattered the tranquility of John’s repose, scattering his thoughts into a billion imprecise fragments that danced in tiny pirouettes throughout his subconscious mind as might a shower of meteors bursting toward far-off galaxies on their disparate journeys through the harsh, relenting silence of space, never again to know the love of a good woman or the taste of a good beer.

Because simple, coherent prose is the yin to creativity’s yang. So, yes—free the reader’s senses to run wild, but do so in basic, uncomplicated sentence structure: Cogent thoughts, simply told, in precise chronology.

Subject + Verb + Object (SVO); otherwise known as Active voice. Conversely, OVS is often viewed as a more passive voice. Consider—once again—the Jumping Cow Rule:

Active: The cow jumped over the moon. (SVO)
Passive: The moon was jumped over by the cow. (OVS)

Bad passive: It was the moon that was jumped over by the cow. (O,OVS)

‘It’ being an abstract representation of the object (and also a repetition of that object): Basically a clunky sentence structure… although the rare exception exists when you might find this phraseology perfect for your needs. If so, by all means use it:

“It was beauty that killed the beast.” (Fictional Carl Denim in King King.) And how could that line have been spoken any other way?

Rules can be broken…but sparingly, please.
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