Action vs. Information

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

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Action vs. Information:
The Oil & Water of Novel Writing

Years and years ago a prolific pal of mine, author Matthew Pallamary (who teaches a pirate’s workshop at Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference) uttered one of the most profound adages I’d ever heard. Matt apparently got it from Barnaby Conrad, who may have heard it from playwright/director David Mamet…so I suspect this little gem may have been around for years. But it remains one of the best tidbits of advice that I know. The simple truth is:

Information is the enemy of Action.
Action is the enemy of Information.

Meaning that, as a writer, it’s my obligation to choose one or the other concept (action-based or informational) to define each scene I develop. I can either depict (spectacular) action or provide (revealing) information to a reader. But I cannot simultaneously provide both, as the two concepts are inherently incompatible. Action sequences typically rely on external cues; on visual, sensory-heightened but otherwise superficially detailed observations. Conversely, information dissemination tends to internalize, and either through omniscient narration or dialog provides pertinent revelation, newfound knowledge or secrets unbeknownst to other characters or to the reader.

For example, let’s say I’m writing a fictional account of the Crimean War (1853-1856). Midway through my tale, I describe a gallant yet foolhardy British cavalry charge into Tennyson’s infamous Valley of Death.* Hidden amid the rocky hills surrounding the valley, dozens of fortified Russian cannon open fire and obliterate most of the advancing horsemen. As the smoke clears, two survivors of the bombardment—brothers, by the way, Niles and Ian—stand bloodied and haunted among their dead comrades. The men talk in a hushed whisper, speaking through tears about the heroism of their fallen comrades, about the enemy they see gathering on the precipice ahead, about the unlikelihood of ever again seeing the lovely Lady Desiree, the woman back home they both love.

The cavalry charge? That’s action. I want my audience breathless—so it’s all thundering hooves and glistening sabers and a distant blare of bugles whipped away by the wind. Explosions and carnage. Glimpses of both unfettered bravery and agonizing death. Action.

But then—cut to a new scene—the big guns have fallen silent. The two brothers crawl toward each other, dazed and isolated on the body-strewn battlefield. Ian begins to bind Niles’ wounds. They speak intimately about life and death and love and—for the reader—that’s information. Character-building usually is. The brothers ponder the probability of their impending doom, not to mention Ian’s long-overdue revelation of his love for Desiree.

As a writer, I’ve intentionally separated the frenetic action sequence (a fictive inhalation) from the more serene informational (a fictive exhalation) sequence. (Refer again to Rule #8: Keep your characters moving. Push them toward drama—inhale—or pull them away again—exhale.)

Can action and information co-exist in a scene? How separate is separate? Certainly, these two attributes can occasionally brush together…but brush lightly. Consider, for instance:

Acrid smoke drifts across the now silent valley. Niles suddenly draws his pistol and aims at his brother—but then shoots a Cossack who’s crept up behind Ian, ready to pounce with a gleaming scimitar. Ian turns, stares for a moment and returns to his comments, his thoughts once again focused on Desiree.

So, yes—a bit of cross-pollinating is perfectly legit; tidbits of action amidst an informative scene is fine. And, yes, one can intermingle snippets of information amid the action—but avoid attempting to force mass quantities of action and information into the same scene. Because the last thing a reader expects, midway through an exhilarating cavalry charge, is a flashback or a history lesson or a love sonnet. For instance, here’s a taboo:

As their horses rush the two men toward certain death, their sun-drenched sabers held high, Ian turns to Niles and admits that he’s in love with his brother’s fiancée, then demands a frank and earnest conversation about the matter.
…..“Now?” Niles shouted incredulously over the roaring wind.
…..“Yes, this very instant, I’m afraid,” Ian replied. “It’s terribly important to me, Niles. And by the way, don’t forget that you owe me twenty quid…”

Um… no. Because whatever raw emotion I’ve thus far developed is now moot, the drama unnecessarily deflated. Sure, Ian may love Desiree, and she may be weighing heavily on his mind—but now isn’t the time or the place to bring that particular plot thread to the page.

But what if Desiree is important to the story? What if my entire novel is based on a decades-long love triangle. So where does Lady Desiree belong?

Some writers may believe that she belongs exactly when and where she pops into mind—but consider how her sudden appearance will effect the overall pacing and the reader’s emotional quotient. As previously stated, her character certainly doesn’t belong here, in the middle of a raging battle. Amid the carnage, poor Desiree’s attempt for a modicum of stage presence feels extraordinarily misplaced. The importance of her presence, or her words, may easily become lost as readers gloss over this unexpected, lilac-scented intrusion, eager to learn how the attack concludes.

The simple solution? Alternate action and information scenes. (As in often, throughout the entire novel.) Because a more opportune moment for Desiree to bloom would be during a scene or chapter before the cavalry charge, for instance as she tearfully pens letters in her Wembly Park bedroom for both Ian and Niles—letters that may dramatically change the lives of both men. Or else place her in a scene after the charge, perhaps as a flashback in Ian’s memory. Perhaps we see her swoon into the arms of dear Uncle Clive as she’s notified by courier of Ian and Niles’ status as MIA, both men presumed dead. So allow Lady D. and her thoughts sufficient ‘quiet time’ to fully engage the reader.

Be aware that the primary advantage of alternating action and information scenes is in potentially increased drama. How delightful, plot-wise, should Ian reveal his affection for his brother’s betrothed in the chapter preceding the cavalry charge! How might Niles’ thoughts be distracted or tormented as he lines up for the assault in the following scene? Now you’ve piqued the reader’s curiosity—and possibly created a perfect cliffhanger that you’ll tie together in an appropriate, upcoming chapter. Might Ian die (your readers will wonder), his love for Desiree forever unrequited? Might brother turn on brother? So, yes, separating action and information scenes has definitive advantages. Intuiting how and when to separate these two crucial elements can nicely turn up the heat in terms of tension and future plot-development.

A basic rule of thumb to follow would be (and not always, mind you, but more often than not):
Scene-setting: Information
Character-building: Information
Plot-building: Action or information (although tread carefully, as building a plot via information may feel like reader-feeder.**)
Forward Plot Momentum: Action

For those uninterested in the Crimean War, let’s say I’m writing a gently comedic romantic coming-of-age tale. Action can be all about the rampant teenage angst and confusion and turmoil leading up to a first kiss. That slow, undulating tension can be as terrifying as the whole British cavalry charging forward toward certain death. Because what’s action if not a sensationalized visualization of dramatic events?

Oh yes, so now it’s a rule. Rule #26: Don’t mix Action and Information. Keep these two incompatible concepts separate.

And—because every rule has its own #!@$!%?! exception—let’s consider dialog. Dialog can certainly be action-oriented. (“If I ever see your ugly face again,” Sheriff Bob shouted, “I’ll shoot you dead where you stand!”) But dialog can also prove informational. (“I’m afraid I’ve never told you, Penelope, about the letter hidden inside father’s wall safe.” Bertram slowly swung open the heavy steel door. “I believe it’s time you finally know of our nefarious family secret.“)

So then, what is dialog?

…ah, the perfect opportunity for a cliffhanger.

 


*The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It’s what people read before Twitter.

**Reader-feeder (a quick guide):
…..“Steve, I just got a phone call from the hospital. I’m sorry, but Mother passed away last night.” (is not reader-feeder)

…..Steve, I just got that phone call from the hospital we were both dreading all week long. I’m sorry, but our mother, Mary Anderson, passed away last night.” (is reader-feeder)

 


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Index

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

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Welcome to the blog!
……Here’s what’s what.

My name is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. I began writing Rules of Engagement for beginning (or curious) writers, based on what I perceive to be fundamental obstacles that many of us confront when beginning, or struggling through, a new novel. Perhaps I can offer useful advice—or maybe not—although I certainly know what excites me as a reader—and what excites me as an editor who accepts and rejects manuscripts. Thus, the following blog may be worth a look.

1. Good Writing, Bad Advice.
Rule #1: Finish your book.
Rule #2: Don’t listen to anybody if the advice doesn’t resonate.

2. Simple, But Exciting (Part 1)
Rule #7: Write in clear, precise sentences.
Rule #8: Keep your characters moving. (Either push your characters toward drama or pull them away again.)

3. Simple, But Exciting (Part 2)
Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. (Nothing else matters.)

4. Exciting, But Simple.
Rule #3. Always write for yourself.

5. Active Writing (Part 1): Active Voice.
Rule #20: Don’t extend a scene past the “just enough” point.
Rule #12: Write only what matters. Leave out the boring parts.

6. Active Writing (Part 2): Active Language (Grammar)
Rule #6: The Jumping Cow Rule (Active vs. Passive Voice).

7. Active Writing (Part 3): Active Composition (Plotting)
Rule #14: Develop your story from A-to-Z. (Know where you’re going)

8. Where To Start.
Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story. (Discover your core elements.)

9. Perfection.
Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist.
Rule #4: Do the best you can.

10. Action/Reaction.
Rule #10: In fiction, for every action, provide a reaction.

11. Show, Don’t Tell.

12. What’s Your Intention?
Rule #29: Your characters may remain elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise.

13. Focus on the Now.
Rule #16: Focus on the now. (Stay in the moment.)

14. Hammering It Out.
Rule #25: Write one thought at a time. (And don’t worry about the rest.)

15. My Favorite Films About Writers and Writing (A personal aside.)

16. Finding Your Voice (Part 1)
Rule #9: A great novel is not so much what you tell, but how you tell it. That’s a writer’s style.

17. Finding Your Voice (Part 2): Do your characters speak to you?
Rule #12: Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories.

18. Finding Your Voice (Part 3). Point of View: Narrative vs. Authorial Voice

19. Basic Plotting (Part 1): Right Brain (creative thinking) vs. Left Brain (critical thinking). Unfortunately, we need both halves.

20. Basic Plotting (Part 2): Plot ahead.

21. Basic Plotting (Part 3): It’s all about the drama, dahlings.
Rule #27. Make drama your novel’s constant companion.

22. Action vs. Information: The Oil & Water of Novel Writing.
Rule #26: Don’t mix Action and Information scenes. Keep these two incompatible concepts separate.

 


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Basic Plotting: Part 3

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

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Plotting (Part 3): It’s all about the drama, dahlings.

Books and blogs about “plotting a novel” are as ubiquitous as leaves on a summer tree. I suspect some of these efforts are actually very good. Others? Not so much. That being said, let me cut to the chase. Good plotting can be explained in one word: Drama.

Yup. Drama. It’s all about the drama, dahlings. That’s the secret ingredient; the single most important element of successful fiction. Writing a book that’s lacking dramatic impact? It probably won’t (IMHO) sell.

And don’t confuse drama as “some little ruckus” that one sprinkles sporadically around a story. Drama isn’t a garnish. Nor is it specifically reserved for those dark, thunderous Shakespearean epics where witches cackle, swords clash and treachery abounds. Drama is a constant that should infuse every fictive work. That should be a rule—and so now it is! Rule #27. Make drama your novel’s constant companion. It lurks upon every page—either undulating or overwhelming—ready to spring or having already sprung, hiding, panting, waiting to lunge again. Waiting to snatch away banality. To consume normality.

And yet, don’t confuse drama with impending tragedy. Yes, a tragic tale is fraught with drama. A child’s death, a war, an emotional breakdown, a marital conflict… all dramatic, fictive situations that a writer can utilize to build a story. But what about light-hearted romance? What about comedy? Realize that every romantic tale is laden with great gobs of interpersonal drama. And comedy, even slapstick comedy, is simply drama interpreted through a playful or joyous lens. But it’s still about drama, first and foremost.

Don’t believe so? Think of any comedic film. (I’ve discovered that remembering a film sequence is far easier than remembering a specific snippet from a book. And easier to dissect as well.) For instance: Notting Hill. Lovely romantic comedy—and filled with drama. The Holiday? Filled with drama. Annie Hall? Filled with drama. Wedding Crashers? The Princess Bride? It’s a Wonderful Life? The Hangover? Drama. Drama. Drama. And drama. Remember Finding Nemo? The little guy loses his mother and 99% of his siblings. Gets lost at sea. Almost eaten by a shark. Captured and confined to an aquarium. Makes a daring escape. It’s funny—but it’s also constant drama!

Groucho Marx once said,“Comedy is when you slip on a banana peel. Tragedy is when I slip on a banana peel.” And yet both banana-based scenarios contain drama—both genres must provide a continual tool bag of genre-specific dramatic moments to survive, and to thrive in its fictive form.

Refer again to Rule #8, which states, in part: Keep your characters moving. You’re either pushing characters toward drama or pulling them away again.

I can’t really give a writer much additional structural information on basic plotting. Have an idea? Play with it! Test it! My personal belief has always been: write what you feel, write what you want. (So long as it’s dramatic, of course.)

And do understand that dramatic plotting isn’t always about remarkable external circumstances, about drooling zombies or horrific wars or big ships slowly sinking. Good plotting is also about (and sometimes only about) great character development. (Check out: The Madness of King George. Or Before Sunrise. Or Pride and Prejudice. Beautiful films, with stories predominately carried by superb dialog.) I’ve often said that if you lock two interesting people in a closet and give them great, dramatic dialog, I’d rather read that book than about all the Transformers in the world.

So, yeah, successful plotting is a combination of great dialog, great timing, great suspense (comedic or tragic) and certainly great writing in general. Good drama is larger than life. Deeper than reality. Great plotting is the result of daydreaming that begins with a single, simple “what if?” concept.

Another secret ingredient: Daydreaming.

Another word or two about “creative dreaming.” (More about creative daydreaming in Plotting: Part 1.) Remember when people (probably your parents, your teachers) told you that daydreaming was a waste of time? Well, don’t believe them. Daydreams have their place in the creative brain. If you’re a novelist, daydreams have a crucial, creative role to play. Every daydream is a potential novel.

Think not? Pick a daydream. Any daydream. A friend once told me; “I sit in front of a monitor 8 hours a day and crunch numbers and hammer out Excel spreadsheets. There I sit, day after day, thinking about running through a sun-drenched field filled with wildflowers.” That’s it. That’s her daydream. Doesn’t seem like much, does it? But what happens when that particular daydream belongs to a writer? Sooner or later that flowered field is going to lead me toward…? Maybe a dark, encroaching forest? Over a rickety bridge laden with cackling crows? In the distance, might I glimpse the crumbling spires of a deserted castle? A forgotten cemetery? A cave deep beneath a massive granite outcropping?

Any writer worth their salt will, of course, move forward for a closer look. Am I simply out for a stroll? Perhaps. Or am I searching for someone? Running away from something? Sounds like a more potential dramatic scenario, right? (Because I can also build a plot backwards as well as forward!) As I push my way through the tangles of underbrush, maybe I come upon a forgotten, weed-choked mansion, hundreds of years old. Intriguing. Broken windows. A shattered doorway. After a few moments of exploring, I hear a child crying from somewhere deep inside….

Or, perhaps I hear the faint echo of a woman laughing. Or the sound of a gunshot. Or an ominous growl. And at that point, my daydream has officially become a plot concept. Maybe not one I write down (yet), but one I might consider. Where do I go from there? Can I transfer that same curiosity, that same excitement, to the page? Can I find a sufficient creative flow to ask-and-answer these same “what if?” scenarios for another few hundred pages?

Basically, that’s how a book starts. Frankly, that’s how it ends too—a constant stream of carefully sequenced daydreams that the writer weaves together, page after after page. Oh, and while keeping up the story’s dramatic impact at every possible moment!

And, because it’s important enough to say again, here it is! Rule #27: Don’t confuse drama as “some little ruckus” that one sprinkles sporadically around a story. Drama isn’t a garnish. Drama is your story’s constant companion.
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Basic Plotting. Part 2

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

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Plotting (Part 2): Plot ahead.

To reit: Can one begin a novel with an incomplete plot in mind? Absolutely. However, the sooner you understand the direction of your novel (its purpose, its story line, its various, integral nuances) the better your ability to create and cohesively complete an intelligent tale.

One suggestion, before (or as you begin) a novel: Consider drafting an outline/timeline.

The process of outlining doesn’t work for all writers (it’s often tedious) but if you’re contemplating your first novel, or if you’ve started a few times and have never been able to write more than a few pages or chapters, an outline/timeline may provide you with the appropriate impetus and excitement to continue. Think of an outline as the basic, skeletal framework of an otherwise unwieldy beast. Even the mightiest of lions, without a backbone, is pretty much a slug. And nobody wants to write a slug.

An outline need be nothing more than a few brief notes you jot as a reminder: What info do I need to impart in this chapter? Who’s included in this segment? What keys fit what locks to forward the overall plot? Lacking an outline, some writers tend to get caught in aggressive wanderlust—on a momentary whim, veering away from an established plot (or idea) into uncharted waters, sooner or later completely unsure of any credible direction.

Some writers, of course, relish this sort of unfettered and unrestricted approach—although I suspect those writers, knowingly or not, have the ability to construct a rough mental map of their whereabouts. For many of us who can’t play chess—or outline novels—in our heads, the fewer false starts and wrong turns, the easier (and far more enjoyable) the eventual process of creative writing.

For instance, an outline can be as simple as:

Chapter 17. The Volvo’s radiator shot, Johnny finds himself stranded in a small, nameless town, somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Across the crumbling two-lane highway, in the diner, a few townspeople (whom he’ll soon meet) regard him suspiciously as he walks toward the dreary looking post-office/sheriff’s office and—as Johnny discovers—a three-room fleabag hotel. Except for the gas-station/diner across the street, and a distant scattering of drab trailer homes, he sees no other structures. Yet inside the $20/night hotel room, Johnny discovers [INSERT A TWIST HERE.] And the discovery boggles him!

So while the chapter itself may eventually fill 20-30 or more pages and contain several conversations and introduce multiple new characters, even a significant plot twist or two—the gist of choreographing this, or any, chapter is simply to remind you what should or must happen here, at this moment. Perhaps Johnny’s unexpected discovery drives the entire story forward. Or maybe he finds a friend, a useful device—through dialog, for instance—to more deeply delve into Johnny’s motivation for, well… [INSERT MOTIVATION HERE]. Drafting an outline may not immediately supply an author with necessary answers, but it prompts us to think about our plot structure, and all those potential “what if?!” possibilities. It prompts us to ask new questions. An outline should force a writer to create, to improvise, and to improve our original concept. An outline need not contain minutia—only the necessary basics. For some writers, the bare bones of the chapter might be as simple as:

Chapter 17: Johnny gets stuck in Bumfuque. He meets a mysterious stranger. The stranger tells Johnny a secret.

Remember, outlining isn’t a first draft. It’s simply a useful tool.

An admission: Outlining isn’t my favorite part of novel writing, but I typically discover new ideas and characters, and unexpected plot twists, waiting to emerge. So it’s become an integral part of my own personal process. I audition each and every new thought. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But if a notion doesn’t make the cut, I’ve saved myself a lot of time and heartache dumping it quickly, rather than trying to puzzle-piece a square peg into a round hole.

I found an early outline/timeline that I created for my crime novel On The Edge. I’m including a random snippet below, to better illuminate the intent of the outline; that is to function as a convenient shorthand, reminding the writer: where, what, who, when and how. BTW, the text shown in red indicates incomplete thoughts that I’ll tackle later. Note that the italicized words are in-place chapter openings that allow me, with a quick glance, to more easily reacquaint myself with exactly where I am in the novel. (A timeline isn’t necessary, but if you’re working with multiple characters who must converge in a timely fashion, a timeline can be a life saver!)

Thus:

(Page) 112 • THURS AM
He sat on an aluminum chair in a small room…
Bobby’s questioned by the two cops (Scaggs and Ramona)
who are suspicious of his alibi. Bobby suspects Peter Dumas
is the killer but the detectives don’t share that assumption.

pg 119 • Backstory
Two weeks before Dumas pointed a gun at Elliot…
Elliot and Peter Dumas talk
about the hacked Intek secrets.
Dumas believes the data
is highly confidential, perhaps even
military secrets. He
tells Elliot to drop the matter. Too dangerous
for them
to pursue. Elliot reluctantly agrees—but end the scene
with
Elliot grinning mischievously when Dumas’s back is turned.

• THU PM or FRI AM?
Segue back to present. Bobby and Niki scene (who’s POV?)

but conversation probably about Dumas. Did he or not kill Elliot?
Motives??

pg 124 • FRI PM
Niki Song took a ticket stub and pulled her Celica….
Niki meets with agent Mitch Raleigh. She confirms
that her undercover status has not been compromised.

pg 131 • Backstory
Elliot had died for his sins… (Dumas reflects.) Flashback.
Is he frantic here or self-assured? First glimpse of Dumas’s
sociopathic behavior—or save this trait for later?

pg 135 • FRI PM
Dumas pokes through Elliot’s briefcase, looking for info.
Clues of Elliot’s deceit begin to fall into place.

pg 141 Backstory
(Put this here? Or move before pg 135?)

In a sane world, Mitchell Raleigh knew an agent…
Mitch Raleigh reflects. Worries that
he may be putting Niki
in harm’s way.)

pg 143 • SAT AM
Niki drives to Rancho Madera; meets with Dumas to chat.

pg 150 • SAT PM
She couldn’t stop thinking about Bobby Leland….
Niki searches for Bobby. She finds him and invites him to spend
the night in her guest room.
(Not a romantic scene. More like
two friends making amends.
Careful. Cautious.)

And so on…

Note that a timeline can be as basic as the outline itself. Many plots don’t need to choreograph a timeline. In my case (above) I have several sets of characters who will converge at a specific moment in the story. Thus, by creating even a vague timeline, I’m assuring myself that everybody gets there on time.

So, yeah, thinking ahead helps. Outlining can spark a creative energy that pushes your plot forward, catches wrong turns before they happen, and can even offer new ideas, fresh out of nowhere. So, for most of us, it’s a necessary tool. But, again, s’up to you.
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Finding Your Voice (Part 1)

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

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Finding Your Voice (Part 1)

I firmly believe that finding one’s fictive voice is among the most important—yet nebulous—foundations of crafting a successful novel. Those of us who dare presume how to instruct writers usually have a vague interpretation of what establishes any specific voice. I’ve heard such sage wisdom range from the technically ambiguous; “It’s an individual writing style, one of diction, syntax, punctuation and dialogue…” to the similarly oblique; “It’s uniquely your own writing.”

So, yes—one’s voice can be an imprecise stew of indeterminable ingredients. My best guess (and this isn’t a rule, merely an intuition) is: Voice = the writer’s style (personality) + character personality. Voice is that delicate balance of your wordplay, your wit, your clarity, combined with your characters’ various personas—their wordplay (e.g.; dialog), their wit, their clarity.

Meaning that most great writers don’t write alone. (See Finding Your Voice Part 2: Do Your Characters Speak to You?)

Although for the moment, let’s concentrate on your perceptions.

One’s writing’s style might be construed as a blending of those ‘left-brain’ (mechanical) attributes, such as a conversational sentence structure, engaging vocabulary, practiced cadence and word flow, coupled with ‘right-brain’ (creative) linguistic skills that ensures the reader understands and interprets exactly the vision you’ve intended. Every word you choose to include in a novel—and every word you choose to omit—every thought, every perception, every nuance, will be unlike any other writers’. Think of your style as your literary fingerprint.

Equally as important, you must be able to preserve that singular style; a similar cadence, syntax, and cohesive ambient integrity, throughout the entire story. Stylistically speaking, if you begin your literary journey poised on the back of a snarling lion, you don’t want to end on the back of a bleating lamb. Maintaining your stylistic integrity from the first page to the last is integral.

Perhaps there is a rule at play here, at least about a writer’s stylistic intent. So Rule #9: A great novel is not so much what you tell, but how you tell it. That’s a writer’s style.

Still unsure as to what might constitute your own personal style? I don’t believe a writer chooses a style so much as it chooses you. Where to start? Sit down and begin writing with no particular destination in mind. No plot or direction or goal. You’re not starting a novel or a short story; don’t concern yourself with a beginning or end. You’re writing an abstract, a throw-away, and with no other purpose than to vomit words on paper for the sheer pleasure of doing so. You’re not worried about an audience or criticism or feedback—you’re simply attempting to please, even bedazzle, yourself. And when you begin to do so, maybe you’ve also found the beginnings of your style.

There is, within each of us, a deep and secret place where plots are bred and characters born. I’m not sure where it lingers—but I do know that when it wants me, it finds me. It exists in every writer. And as soon as your characters peek out from this hidden place, you’ll know it. You’ll soon begin to trust those voices and… ah, but that’s what Part 2 is all about.

But first, a secret. Most editors, agents, publishers and thinking readers are able to determine a novel’s worth in the first four or five pages. Sometimes in the first four or five lines. When I read a manuscript, these are the fundamental, stylistic attributes I hope to discover in a book. (And, yes, I look in this particular order):

  1. Great dialog.
  2. Clearly defined yet sufficiently complex characters (those who are uttering such insanely great dialog*).
  3. Continuity and sequencing from paragraph to paragraph. Meaning that each new paragraph is a puzzle piece that fits seamlessly with the last. Your segues are properly energized (not summarized) and information flows without the slightest confusion (unless intentional) to the reader.
  4. Continuity and sequencing from scene to scene. Each new scene—whether a continuation of the previous scene or an entirely new environment—is properly developed. Meaning sufficient scene/character setting is necessary: Where am I? Who’s nearby? How do I feel? What’s happening or about to happen? Yes, all a part of a writer’s style.
  5. Plot.

Yup. When delving into a new manuscript, your plot is the least of my concerns. Some structure must exist, of course. Getting the reader here-to-there in a cohesive, entertaining, electrifying manner is important. But during those first few pages, electrify me (and subsequent readers) with your joie de vie, with a total awareness of your characters’ complexities, cognizant of how they speak and engage and energetically carry themselves from page to page. That’s how you get me to read your book. I’d vastly prefer two amazing characters, speaking dazzling dialog in a dark room for 300 pages than all the zombies, vampires and rogue Vultarian robots gathered together in a single book to annihilate mankind. (And lose, of course.)

– – – – –

* Please do not confuse Shakespearean eloquence or elocution as a substitute for “great” dialog. To me, great dialog is real dialog. If “Huh?” is the quintessential response to a poignantly asked question, relevant to the character and to the moment at hand, that’s what I want to hear.
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