Focus on the Now

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

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Focus on the Now.

Writing the Now is crucial in those segments or scenes of dramatic relevance (particularly action or emotionally-charged sequences). The Now is all about focusing on an immediate moment in your plot or in your character’s story—and not reminding us of what’s previously occurred or inferring what might happen next. In those tension-charged “inhale” moments (see Rule #8: Keep your characters moving) one’s writing should never dawdle, or drift, or pull away from visual or emotional impact. Thus, this rule’s addendum to #8’s sage wisdom is this: Keep your characters—and the reader—grounded in space/time. (Seriously.) Keep us here. Keep us now. When you’re confronting drama, your writing should be its most concise and free of asides and philosophical segues. Keep your writing linear.

Ah, yes, linear writing! We humans lead our physical lives (and we writers tend to tell our tales) in linear progression. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to do otherwise. Yesterday, today, tomorrow. It’s how to build a house, how to prepare a meal, how to walk from here to there and how to write a book; word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter.

Yet in terms of thinking—that is, processing our thoughts—we’re typically all over the bloody map. In a single moment, we may be pondering the water bill, what we ate for breakfast—do I have clean clothes for tonight? What was her name again?—while concurrently anticipating a vacation to Maui. We’re a myriad, a kaleidoscope, a raging volcano of random and unconnected thoughts, every minute of every day.

Unfortunately, we writers have to mute this cerebral cacophony and assemble a string of linear thoughts sufficient to complete a coherent book. When we sit down to write, some of us have barely a vague notion of what comes next. But we typically begin with a single idea that will (and must) grow and expand in a polite and orderly fashion—that will eventually encompass several hundred pages.

So how do we squeeze out the fat but leave the gristle? My suggestion (and now Rule #16) is this: Focus on the now. Stay in the moment. Don’t remind us of what’s already happened, and don’t allude to what might happen.

Thus, midway through a daring cavalry charge against a hoard of angry hostiles, a writer shouldn’t suddenly decide that the protagonist once had an aunt named Rita who smelled like persimmon blossoms. Maybe the dear woman exists in your mind—but now isn’t the time to introduce her.

Or perhaps we’ve maneuvered Rhonda and Robby, a pair of young lovers, atop Misty Mountain, alone beneath a full moon and about to share that first kiss. Once the puckering begins, we shouldn’t decide to pause to extensively examine what Rhonda ate for breakfast this morning. If there’s a plot-specific reason for depicting breakfast, sure, mention it—but not here. Not now. See Rule #26: Don’t mix action and information (and vise-versa). Meaning that once you’ve decided on action, stay with the action—follow it through. When you’ve fully inhaled—that is, infused your scene with sufficient drama—then it’s OK to exhale.

Ideas often form in bits and pieces; can ease into a writer’s consciousness like fragments of a wispy dream. It’s too easy to sidetrack ourselves, or to take off on flights of irrelevant fancy. Our fragile minds generally lack the comprehension skills to immediately structure each necessary thought in proper sequence, chronologically from A to Z.

That precise chronology requires editing and re-editing and re-re-editing. Adjusting. Pruning. So replay each scene, stripping needless verbiage until you’ve whittled your prose down to raw excitement. If you determine that Aunt Rita’s germane to the story, then by all means include her—but at the proper moment, where she can enter your tale bringing her own excitement with her. (As Sophocles once said* about drama; “T’is better to crash through a window than stroll through a doorway.”)

It’s typical to write a draft or two filled with holes and gaps, fits and starts, of competing scenarios and conflicting timelines and ‘what if’ possibilities; additions, deletions, asides and notes-to-self. We’ll rearrange our thoughts—finding Aunt Rita a proper home at the proper time, for instance—and telling us, preferably, only what’s transpiring at this moment.

To more closely examine the two major culprits that I typically find bogging down the momentum of Now:

The Recap. Recapping is reminding a reader, or summarizing, passages or events that have already transpired. A good novelist tells the reader once and moves on. Typically, a recap tends to be an unnecessary reiteration of a previous scene or sequence. Yet strong prose needs no reassurance. If you’re unsure whether a reader will remember your relevancy, revisit that scene and strengthen its potency (in its own Now.) Then move along.

BTW: Beware summarizing any verbiage as a fictive device. Usually lacking drama and stylistic intensity, a summary is a limp noodle of a segue or brief passage. Say it eloquently, or not at all.

The Telegraph. It’s common for some of us to inadvertently sneak bits of clairvoyance to a reader. For instance, I already know that Sheriff Bob and the Schoolmarm are going to sneak a kiss in Act II, even if I’ve barely started writing Act I. So it’s easy to placate my own excitement by writing: One day, Sally Sue knew she’d share a kiss with Sheriff Bob, and had dreamed of little else for the last two months… if only because I’m damned excited about that impending kiss. So I deliberately or subliminally tease the reader to wait for the fireworks. But what I’m really doing is telegraphing that probability to the reader—defusing the tension—and when the moment of the kiss arrives, many readers may feel cheated. T’is far better than to surprise the reader than render the moment predicable by providing that unnecessary wink and a nudge.

BTW: There’s a difference between a telegraph and the perfectly acceptable foreshadow. The foreshadow is a whisper; the telegraph is a shout. Or, to revisit Sally Sue’s predicament in a less obtrusive way: Sally Sue had never been kissed. So, sure, in the midst of revealing her loneliness, such observation can provide insight, yet won’t tease away any secrets or deflate tension.

So… Beware of recapping past events. Of foretelling the future. Stick with the events of the moment. Mesmerize your reader with the vibrant immediacy of the Now.

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* Or maybe not.
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“Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks” Sparks Controversy in Science World

Muse Harbor Publishing launches controversial book, Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks by noted dissident mathematician, astrophysicist and author Hilton Ratcliffe. Loved by some and reviled by others for challenging the scientific powers that be, Ratcliffe examines the sociology of belief, dissecting the almost impenetrable layer of belief that protects our opinions and convictions, and offers a novel method for revealing objective truth in any and all fields of enquiry.

Los Angeles, CA (PRWEB) November 21, 2014

Why did Stephen Hawking become so famous? What is it that makes Albert Einstein so instantly recognizable? Why have they become icons to rival film stars? South African-born physicist, mathematician, astronomer and author Hilton Ratcliffe seeks out the answers to those questions, and discovers that they have nothing at all to do with science. In Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks (Muse Harbor Publishing, November 21, 2014), Ratcliffe puts it plainly:

“It is profoundly important that I state up front what this book is about: The power and influence of belief over data-driven science in creating our opinions, and the eternal, polarising conflict between belief and instinct in the development of our mindset. This book is not about my scientific theories, nor does it promote my personal models of the Universe. Please bear in mind that I am not proposing an alternative model of anything; I am merely tendering a method that favours objectivity in the development of all theories and philosophies, whatever they might be.”

In the prologue to “Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks”, Ratcliffe says, “The aim of this discourse is not to prove either of us right and the other wrong, but for us both to find an accurate and realistic way of looking at the world. I contend that everyone, without exception, is powerfully affected by personal belief, so I suppose I have at last produced a book that is relevant to 7 billion people!”

Against the backdrop of his own worldview as a philosophical astrophysicist, Hilton Ratcliffe:

  • Examines Dr. Hawking’s career and what he achieved;
  • Describes the empirical scientific method, exposing its inherent weaknesses and how untested theory-stacks lead to the so-called standard models;
  • Investigates the nature of belief and the influence of dogma;
  • Illuminates the synergy between scepticism and pragmatism;
  • Drills down into defensive social groups, including sects, gangs, cults, conspiracy theorists, and the scientific elite;
  • Reveals the territorial imperative as a fundamental instinctual driver of human behaviour;
  • Offers a solution to all these dilemmas—an investigative method called scientific pragmatism.

Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks is available on AmazonBarnes and Noble, iTunes and museharbor.com.

On the issue of recent theories on black holes, Ratcliffe believes this video, “Einstein Said There are No Black Holes” by Chief Scientist, Focus Fusion Research, LPPhysics.com, Eric Lerner, addresses the issue best.

Dr. Cliff Saunders, Cybernetician, says, “South Africa’s very own Dr. Hilton Ratcliffe shows, in this remarkably entertaining book about the physics of reality, the inevitable and tragic hubris of Prof. Stephen Hawking and most of all, he shows me my very own place in this Universe, this folly we call home.”

South African-born astrophysicist Hilton Ratcliffe has garnered respect amongst the global scientific community for his classical approach to space science: His belief system is based upon observation rather than esoteric theory, a reversal of the standard approach to cosmology. The author first exposed the suffocating control exercised by an entrenched scientific orthodoxy of which he was once part. He opposes the stranglehold that Big Bang theory has on astronomical research and funding, and to this end became a founding member of the Alternative Cosmology Group (an association of some 700 leading scientists from all corners of the globe).

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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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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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 are 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, 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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