Action/Reaction

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

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Action/Reaction.

Sir Isaac Newton should have been a fiction writer. When one of the most famous minds of the 15th century proposed his 3rd Law of Motion; that For every action force there is an equal and opposite reaction force, he may as well have been speaking at a writer’s workshop, wearing corduroy and sipping a cappuccino.

Because old Fig was absolutely correct. This rule applies not only to the nature of the universe, but to the nature of literature as well. Because for every action one writes in fiction, one should create a reaction. Conversely, for every reaction one writes, there must be a new action (or a re-reaction.)

We shall make that Rule #10: In fiction, for every action, provide a reaction.

Life’s like that. Reality’s like that. Fiction’s like that too—at least good fiction. Why?  Because that’s the way our brain registers life.

An example:

Action: Jason pulled a pistol and pointed the weapon quite calmly at his wife’s head.
Reaction: Martha screamed.

However, let’s back step a bit:

Action: Martha stormed into the den, where her husband sat, writing a letter. “You’re an evil, conniving bastard,” she screamed, raising a kitchen knife. “I’m going to kill you!”
Reaction: Jason pulled a pistol and pointed the weapon calmly at his wife’s head.

And again, another back step:

Action: Martha’s brother, Bob, a Morristown deputy sheriff, revealed on the phone that he had proof Jason murdered their mother to claim the insurance money. Bob told Martha not to “do anything stupid” until he got there.
Reaction: Martha stormed into the den. “You’re an evil, conniving bastard,” she screamed, raising the knife. “I’m going to kill you!”

One more hit, bartender:

Action: Martha’s ex-lover, Bruce, erroneously told Sheriff Bob that a surveillance camera had captured the image of Jason, killing his mother. (Although the man in the surveillance photo was really Phil, Jason’s long-missing twin brother.)
Reaction: Bob told Martha that he had proof it was Jason who murdered their mother to claim the insurance money.

See how this works? (The principle applies seamlessly as forward chronology as well.) An entire novel is essentially a ping-pong game of actions and reactions—each reaction also becoming an action in its own right.

A good novel is the literary perception of the Butterfly Effect—mathematician Edward Lorenz’s example of chaos theory—in which a small change (the air movement created by the flap of a butterfly’s wing) could conceivably create a much larger phenomenon; theoretically in Lorenz’s case a hurricane. Filmdom is filled with such examples (ironically including the time-traveling head-scratcher The Butterfly Effect). Another nifty example is 2003’s John Cusack-starring film, Max. In Germany, a Jewish art dealer befriends a young, unpopular, confused artist named Adolf Hitler. A tenuous friendship blossoms. Yet—sorry, a spoiler!—when Max is indiscriminately killed by thugs, an enraged Adolf Hitler forgets his budding art career and becomes—well, y’know. In terms of dramatic impact, a very good example. A terrific film.

After all, who are we as writers, if not those who can ask; “What if?”

Breaking the Rules (Sort of)

Simple? Ah, but what about this scenario:

Action: “Mrs. Tummins,” said the brain surgeon, “your loving Harold, your husband of 21 years, the father of your children, the keeper of the magic key, did not survive the operation.”
Reaction: “Thank you, doctor,” replied Mrs. Tummins calmly. She walked outside without another word, across the street to the Nuvo Café and ordered espresso and a bagel. She began flirting shamelessly with the waiter.

A valid reaction? On the surface, it’s an avoidance. Mrs. Tummins’ sudden, nonchalant detachment provides us with a delicious response—but not quite the reaction anyone might expect. If readers have already been introduced to Mrs. T as a rational, loving wife, then—for the moment—the writer’s got us hooked. But a writer has to keep us on that hook. We’re looking for an ultimate reaction. And if Mrs. T’s response isn’t ultimately revealed… then it becomes a bit of negligent plotting. (And, no—it’s not up to a reader to “determine” her rationale. That’s a cop out. It’s the writer’s job to divulge.) See: Rule #17: Don’t hide from your characters. (…coming soon.)

A sly writer may not reveal Mrs. Tummins’s inner truth until the next page or the next scene or even late in Act III—but her eventual reaction is crucial for the story. If Harold’s death proves unimportant to her, then why should it be important to us? So if Mrs. T’s reaction is never explained, her action remains an avoidance… and thus the action/reaction principle stalls. Miscue a few reactions as avoidances and the book may not ultimately ring true. Why? Characters can keep secrets from other characters, but the writer should not keep secrets—unless plot-essential and ultimately necessary—from the reader.

By the way, don’t confuse the action/reaction principle with Rule #8: Keep characters moving. (Although these two principles can work seamlessly together.) Tensing and relaxing the plot—that is, pushing characters tenaciously (inhaling) toward action, or retreating wearily (exhaling) from action—provides an overarching ebb and flow to dramatic impact—the calm before (and after) a storm. A good novel might alternately inhale and exhale once or twice each scene, or perhaps each subsequent chapter. (Tolstoy’s War and Peace for example. There’s war and then peace. They fight, they talk; they fight, they talk; they fight, they talk.)

Realize that the action/reaction principle can occur on the macro level (scene by scene) but can also function on micro levels; for instance, as immediate as alternating lines of a terse dialog—snap, snap, snap—fast and furious. One character shouts furiously and shakes his fists. The other walks away in a brooding funk, each action (or reaction) providing valuable dramatic impact and pushing or pulling the characters or the plot into deeper levels.

Both Rule #8 and Rule #10 are critically important to a novel’s success. No breathing, no reacting, and a novel will simply sit… like a lump, like a wet fuse, like a sleeping tiger, like an idling car awaiting a foot-stomp on the gas pedal. Remember, action/reaction need not be physical attributes—for instance, love found, love pondered, love lost, love rekindled, or an internal struggle with mental illness perhaps—each depiction of internal or external action followed by a reaction, continually, like the rise and fall of a butterfly’s wing, flapping furiously, anxiously anticipating that ultimate hurricane.
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Perfection

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

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Perfection.

Ah, that elusive, manipulative, petulant little imp known as perfection. I mention the illusion of perfection in a previous post (See: Where to Start) but it bears repeating. Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist. Stop trying to find it.

If you’re goading or flagellating or juicing yourself into writing a perfect novel, waiting for all those perfect ideas to fall—bump, bump, bump—into place, understand that you’ll discover no Holy Grail. No perfect chapter, nor page nor sentence occurs in a writer’s reality. Any word, any phrase, any idea, can be altered. Nudged. Tweaked. Deleted. As a writer, I can spend the remainder of my lonely days chasing a phantom that doesn’t exist—or I can sit down and write a story to the best of my ability. To the successful writer (or at least to a sane, successful writer), the glass is always half full. Knowing when to “leave it be” is key.

As scribes, we accept our limitations and strive for a single goal: Doing the best we can. So Rule #4: Do the best you can.

Don’t think of Rule #4 as settling for meh. Rule #4 isn’t about compromising your talents, it’s about stretching your genius—taking the time and making the effort—and trusting that your next book will be a tad better than your last. Only in a world unencumbered by perfection does room for improvement exist.

I bring up the notion of perfection again because I suspect a vast number of novice writers begin a manuscript with the expectation of reaching literary nirvana, the anticipation of soon seeing themselves at #1 on NYTBSL. Somewhere around page 3 or 30 or 300, those writers begin to realize instant fame isn’t going to happen. Some give up, leaving talent and a worthy, half-finished (and perhaps nearly awesome) effort behind. Pity.

Interesting mathematical statistic: 99.9% of all writers never make the New York Times Best Seller List. Many of them still find a way to live happy, fulfilling lives. Some even have cats.

I’m personally aware of several writers—and very good writers—who’ve been slowly chipping away at the same novel for years. Why? Some of us are seeking perfection, and not finding it, or maybe we’re simply seeking “good enough” and not finding that, either. (Occasionally we’re simply methodical writers—and that‘s a damn good excuse. A word of advice: Write at your own pace. Writing a novel isn’t a race, it’s an achievement.)

However…! Seeking perfection (and not finding it) is an entirely different dilemma. Occasionally, a story isn’t good enough. One’s writing isn’t fully developed or else bumps into impossible obstacles that we find ourselves unqualified or emotionally unable to handle. Most of us have a novel (or two) that has “gotten away”…that sits unfinished in our closets or in some obscure folder on our desktop. And that’s okay too. I consider those failed attempts to be a necessary learning curve. Those manuscripts are part of the process, part of our eventual success. Let them rest in peace.

So what are a few possibilities for a stalled manuscript?

  • Seeking perfection. Right. Doesn’t exist. Refer to the above.
  • Fear of failure. Understandable. Although… d’ju know what’s worse? Thinking you might have the gift, but not even trying. On your deathbed, trust me, that’ll be a big regret. You’ve been warned.
  • Fear of success. Although I’m not sure why. Talent deserves success.
  • Fear of the future (good or bad). As in…what if it doesn’t sell? What if it sells big, but my next book sucks? What if people begin to love me for all the wrong reasons? Or hate me for all the right reasons? What if I take a tumble heading toward the stage to collect my Pulitzer. Please refer again to Rule #100: Get Over Yourself. (In it’s own humbling way, it really should be Rule #1.)
  • Writer’s block. Yeah…a bummer, but the phrase ‘writer’s block’ is really a catch-all for various reasons not to write: An emotional, psychological or physical fatigue when words and their meaning become lost in a haze, or simply run away from your brain. You’re overtired or stressed or simply out of ideas. Don’t worry, because the empty vessel will eventually refill. But if the vacuum persists, it’s possibly something else. Eventually, it becomes an excuse. (Valid or otherwise.) One can insist to family and friends “I have writer’s block,” for a year or two…but then we just smile politely and realize the book’s not forthcoming. (It’s OK, we still love you.) But either the book’s wrong for you, or you’re wrong for the book. And, hey, it’s not your fault.
    ……I wanted to be an astronaut once. Never was. Moon block. By the way, my own personal solution for writer’s block? Stepping away from the computer and watching a Firefly marathon—and guilt-free, because self-loathing will ultimately get you nowhere!—or else reading a book I absolutely love… for the 4th or 5th time. (Recently for me: The World According to Garp, The Forever War, The Sirens of Titan and Elmore Leonard’s Cat Chaser.) When my eyes blur or my head clogs, I clean the garage or drive up the coast. I give myself permission to declare a mental-health holiday from writing. It’s part of the process. If you find that your mind’s still writhing with uncorked creativity, write a short story or work on an outline. Dream up another novel. Paint a picture. Take some photos. Often, alternate forms of creativity can replenish your writer’s drive. Give it time. That creative lust will eventually return.
  • Fear of ridicule. (Rare, but it happens.) Your friends may find you pretentious for even trying. Seriously? Find new friends.
  • Fear of offending somebody. That somebody is usually a friend or family member, and a typically unsavory character prominently featured in your tale. Sorry, Aunt Lucy! The homicidal maniac in chapter 8 isn’t really you. Trust me, they won’t see themselves in your book. Just be sure that you change the names.
  • Fear of offending yourself. Ah, but here’s where the circle closes. We’re back to looking for perfection. Refer to Rule #25 again.

While I have no degree in shrinkology, most fiction writers are somewhat familiar with the above ambiguities. Most writers can relate. So… don’t worry, just write.
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Active Composition

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

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Active Writing (Part 3): Active Composition (Plotting)

To recap: I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice. 2. Language. 3. Plot.

The late, great Elmore Leonard addressed this dilemma very well: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Simply put: Tell an exciting, engaging story. A writer divulges the highlights and skips the low points. Determining those potential chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences and words to exclude is no less important than what is written. Active composition is knowing the difference.

My advice (to reiterate from Simple, but Exciting): include only those ingredients that 1) build or strengthen plot development; 2) build or strengthen character development, or; 3) set the scene for the reader (where, who, when… perhaps why and how).

I shall chatter many times in this blog about the necessity of plotting… but it’s best to begin at the beginning. How does one go about preparing a good plot? It’s good to think ahead.

The most important preparation of Active Composition is this: Before you begin to write (or certainly before you write too much… as some writers approach a blank page, a fresh idea, a new novel, with blissful ignorance) is know where you’re going. Certainly before you finish your first chapter, I recommend knowing—at least intuiting—where your story will end.

Rule #14: Before you wander along too far, develop your story from A-to-Z. Meaning, formulate a solid game plan, either in your head or outlined on paper, ASAP. Be sure you have both your plot and your characters fairly well determined—with no insurmountable obstacles—from page 1 to THE END.

A hypothetical. Let’s say I want to write a novel about Lisa, a young, adopted woman with a prosthetic leg, who decides to walk from Miami to Seattle—a 3300 mile trek—to meet her birth mother for the first time.

In one sentence, I’ve outlined a credible protagonist, her intent, and the probable (or at least possible) conclusion of her ordeal. I can begin to intuit a host of conflicts and stimulating engagements along the way, an opportunity for personal growth (did I mention that Lisa’s afraid of the dark?), the chance of encountering many delightful or mischievous characters and, of course, the obligatory dramatic conclusion.

While I probably won’t know (not yet, not exactly) all of Lisa’s trials and tribulations along the way, I’m already intuiting my story ending in Seattle, with an encounter between Lisa and her mother. Will the woman be receptive? Will she be dismissive? Perhaps that element remains hazy. However, as a developing plot, I’ve mapped myself much or most of an A-to-Z game plan—a beginning to an end. I trust that I know enough about my character, and about myself as a writer, to begin my story.

It’s okay at this point that neither my protagonist nor I know what’s lurking around every corner. I may not know what specific event will transpire on page 25, or on page 250. Maybe Lisa finds true love along the way—but where? Walking through Georgia? Through Kansas? Through Oregon? Those specifics may still be whirling around my head. We need not know every detail before we embark. And even if we think we know, much will likely change as we continue the journey.

As I begin to compose the basic plot points of my novel, I’ll highlight only those areas of Lisa’s marathon walkabout that matter to a reader. It’s important to write only what matters to your story. That’s Rule #12, by the way. I need not depict every one of the 6,508,014 steps that Lisa will endure to complete the trip—but I definitely want to mention the 2am tornado she encounters in Nebraska, the kind stranger in Tennessee, the motorcycle gang in Missouri and the moment she finds true love in Montana.

So active composition means including only the essential elements of her story, while eliminating or ignoring those parts that don’t move the plot forward. If Lisa picks up a discarded gum-wrapper on Interstate 40, outside of Rapid City—what’s the big deal? Doesn’t interest readers in the least. However, if Lisa finds a gum wrapper in Gainesville and vows to pick up every piece of rubbish she discovers along the way—that development becomes an important character trait and a plot point! As an author, I need not document every piece of trash she picks up, but show me a few unique examples… oh, and include the discarded Lottery ticket she plucks from the roadside in Buzzard Springs—that happens to be a $180 million winner. That’s probably worth a mention.

So, yeah, Rule #12: Leave out the boring parts. (Write only what matters to your story.)
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Active Language

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

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Active Writing (Part 2): Active Language (Grammar, sentence structure, linguistics)

To recap: I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice. 2. Language. 3. Plot.

I’ll keep this simple, for both your sake and mine. If you need a grammar lesson, we’re both in the wrong place.

But, in the English language (as compared to, say, Kayabi, and whatever Yoda spoke), the simplest way to invoke energy and emotion into sentence structure is typically: Subject (S) + Verb (V) + Object (O).

Thus (SVO): John kissed Mary.

John (S) + kissed (V) + Mary (O). Or else: Laura (S) + killed (V) + the snake (O).

As opposed to Mary was kissed by John. Or, The snake was killed by Laura. Or even more heinously passive: It was the snake that was killed by Laura.

By rearranging the sentence structure to the less energetic Object + Verb + Subject (OVS), the writer’s placing the action’s instigator at the end of the sentence and slightly altering the emphasis. And in longer, more complex sentences, both nuance and structure can become uncomfortably apparent. You’re also clogging your story with extremely passive verbs; “was” and “were;” unnecessary prepositions, pronouns, articles and the so-called “little” phrases (e.g.; it would, that were, of the, by which). Such utterly unexciting placeholders act as a buffer between words and action.

For instance, a subtle but distinct difference exists between: Prince Clarion crushed the giant orc’s head and The head of the giant orc was crushed by Prince Clarion. While both structural formats can and will ultimately co-exist in your novel, play with the most active structure first. This is especially important in scenes of passion, action, high tension or terror.

Rule #6: The Jumping Cow Rule (Active vs. Passive Voice). I learned this tenet once upon a time in Eng. Lit. 101. This simple, sage advice has kept Prince Clarion blissfully crushing orcs’ heads ever since:

Active (SVO)The cow jumped over the moon.
Passive (OVS)The moon was jumped over by the cow.
Bad passive (WTF)It was the moon that was jumped over by the cow.*

An active/passive correction can be as simple as choosing a more active verb, or as complex as restructuring a sentence. For instance:

Uninspired but acceptable: The moon was bright.
Better: The moon burned brightly.
Or even the more elaborate: The full moon blazed with an intensity that illuminated the village in an intense, chalky sheen.

Because once a writer can identify the difference between active and passive writing, one seldom returns to the excruciatingly mundane.

While I doubt any author can (or should) write an entire novel strictly using SVO sentence structure, I do suggest keeping this grammatical sequence as a staple tool for active writing. And, no, simply because Hemingway frequently used passive voice, you may not. And, no, because David Foster Wallace did so in present tense—“I am this” and “I am that”—you may not. “It was…” is glaringly overused in modern fictive writing. More often than not, excessive passive voice is a sign of tired writing. Meaning your brain’s full. Put down your pencil. Take a walk. Take a nap. Clean the house. Because most “it” usage can transmogrify into far more descriptive prose. Occasionally, it fits such sentence structure may suffice your needs, but most often, it does not your words can be easily rearranged with far more passion and creativity.

A good many novice writers (and even published pro’s) can occasionally slip into a steady flow of passivity. Be on the constant lookout for:

It was a dark and stormy night. Linda was sleeping. There was a noise that awakened her with a start. What was that? she wondered. Was somebody standing outside her door. Was it her husband, Teddy? It was because she didn’t know that she tiptoed to the door. There was only silence beyond the door. Linda was scared and we, dear reader, are ready to close this book forever.

So look closely for any steady stream of passive sentence structure beginning with tired phraseology: It was, They were, There was—and the dreaded It was because…. Each of these sentences can be actively rearranged (and the more you begin to do so, the easier such restructuring becomes).

I’ve occasionally come upon an interesting side-effect of passive language. If a writer twists and contorts various, meaningless phrases long and hard enough, the words sometimes almost sound correct. In fact, a writer may even be convinced that such lavish flow of language sounds positively Shakespearean. But this style of writing is roughly akin to spritzing a pig in expensive French perfume. He may smell nice for awhile, but you still won’t want to kiss him.

For example, this sentence still smells like a pig: “Of that substance to which Richard was most disinclined ever to confront, he promised himself never again to touch it to his lips.”

Keep your message simple. What’s the idea you’re trying to impart here? Basically, it’s that: Richard hated chocolate, right?

So how might one say that creatively, and yet without losing your basic premise? How about: Richard couldn’t understand the world’s love affair with chocolate. On his tongue, the candy oozed like motor oil, and tasted, to his best perception, like dirty butter.

A simple thought, distinctly perceived, clearly transmitted. Active, not passive.

– – – – –

* Exceptions always exist, BTW. You’ll occasionally, eventually find this particular phraseology a perfect fit for your needs and, by all means, use it. However, if you find yourself using this grammatical gremlin as a basic structural pattern—then no, you’re not infusing sufficient excitement into your writing. You’re using passive language way too often. And no, Muse Harbor will probably not publish you.

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Active Voice

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

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Active Writing (Part 1): Active Voice

When I’m editing a work of fiction, I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice. 2. Language. And, 3. Plot.

Active writing…the antithesis of passive writing. Friends who write and creative writing teachers, editors and agents, publishers and critics and helpful relatives at Thanksgiving dinner—they’re always imploring us to “Write active, not passive.” So what part of the creative writing process—voice, style or composition—should continually sparkle with activity?

The answer is: Yes, yes and yes. All of the above.

As writers, we should strive to constantly, continually push a character toward conflict, or else pull her away again. Rule #8: Keep characters in motion—either rushing toward action or retreating  again. For instance:

We’re either pushing our lovers toward everlasting happiness, or else dragging them away, toward the heartbreak of loneliness.

We’re pushing our swashbuckling adventurer toward finding that buried treasure, or wrenching her away again, thwarted by a shipwreck or a raging storm or a bout of cholera.

We’re pushing an intrepid band of Hobbits toward Mount Doom, or dragging them away (…and again and again and again and again).

Or think of such continual movement this way: A novel is like an aardvark, a living creature that must both inhale and exhale. Both actions are equally as important to survival. Pushing forward is a fictive inhalation: plot driven, visually stimulating and action-oriented. Pulling away is fictive exhalation: Character-oriented; an emotional, thoughtful, psychological or spiritual response.

For instance:

Inhale: A thousand snarling, brain-craving zombies lurch through a dark tunnel, hungry for you and your family. At the other end, you find the tunnel hopelessly blocked! But, wait! You discover a service hatch! While you all scramble safely through that well-placed emergency exit, Aunt Mildred trips over her shoelaces, falls and gets munched. (An inhalation scene is typically visually rich and plot-oriented. A battle. A hot romance. A mystery revealed. A chase. A munched aunt.)

Exhale: Sobbing afterwards, you and your family mourn poor Aunt Mildred. Still, for the moment you’re safe and sound! Time for a nap. (An exhalation scene is typically informational and character-oriented; poignant or empathetic, revealing or mysterious. An important conversation, an inner monologue. A nap.)

But, wait! Suddenly you remember that your late Aunt Mildred had been carrying your only map to the Zombie-Free Safety Zone! Without that map, you’re toast. Overhead, thunder rumbles ominously. Time to push forward toward unknown horrors. Time for another deep inhalation!

See a pattern developing? As writers, if we’re not constantly pushing or pulling, inhaling or exhaling, we’re miring the plot, our characters, in mundanity. Passive Writing (as opposed to Active Writing) is pretty much total exhalation. Ask an aardvark to exhale continually for 300 pages and what happens? Right. Dead as a door nail.

Another crucial element of Active Writing? Remember the age-old, somewhat obtuse and often marginalized basic fiction-writer’s adage: Show, Don’t Tell? Yes, the axiom remains a valid reminder to allow readers to emotionally experience (rather than simply observe) your story. New writers often overtly auto-focus on plotting—that is, in getting the reader from here to there, and ultimately do so as quickly as possible, and with very little sense of style, wit and panache. In that relentless drive to write a ‘complete’ plot, those same writers forget about those equally important attributes: scene-setting and character-development.

Simply put, Show, Don’t Tell is a reminder to stop and smell the roses along the way. Meaning… show the reader the gleam of the diamond, the glint of hard steel, the fragrance of new blossoms in the spring—and not simply tell us, it’s a rock, it’s a sword, it was warm.

When showing, not telling (essentially, using a passive, not active voice), the writer’s relying on a bare-bones, superficial sort of prose. Repetitive, inclusive passive voice produces very little excitement. Active voice greatly enhances a book’s enthusiasm and exuberance.
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