Simple, But Exciting (Part 2)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.

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Simple, But Exciting (Part 2)

A writer will also utilize three necessary ingredients to successfully navigate a successful story—and you’ll continually weave these components throughout your writing, like spiraling filaments in a thread.

In no particular order:

• Scene Setting. As a reader, I want to be grounded early in each new chapter or scene. Give me a glimpse of where I am, and who I’m with and, if appropriate, when. (After dark? Before lunch? Late autumn?) Depending upon your writing style, setting a scene can be elaborate enough to fill several pages (a la George R.R. Martin), or as sparse as a few suggestive wordsI walked into Charlie’s ramshackle Bar & Grill. The place smelled like old cigarettes and older sweat. You know, the kind of establishment where patrons paid in dimes and quarters, where cockroaches and winos went to die. — enough to impart sufficient information to identify or intuit the whereabouts of your character(s).

• Character Development. Give me essential information that builds or strengthens or reveals the important nuance of a character. Not all at once, of course… but bits here and there. Character development often relies on subtle nuances, appropriately placed.

• Plot Development. Give me essential information that builds or strengthens the plot. Sometimes nuanced, sometimes with the speed and intensity of a runaway train. But keep pushing the plot forward. It’s as simple as that.

In each scene you write, you’ll combine elements of scene setting, plot development and character development. Include nothing else. If you find yourself writing material that doesn’t further the plot or distinguish a character or ground the reader in time or place, those words probably don’t belong in your novel. (And if the words feel important to the the story, look closely—they’re likely one of the above ingredients.)

These three key elements, by the way, comprise Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. In novel writing, nothing else matters.

Okay, so here’s a brief hypothetical:

 

Barnaby awoke before dawn, shivering beneath the insufficient weight of a blanket that smelled of manure and wet straw. The frigid air lay heavy with smoke drifting from a myriad of scattered campfires that burned in the meadow. He gazed upward through the misty tendrils, into a coal black winter’s night. High amid the heavens, he could see the constellation Orion. The hunter.

…Come daylight, he knew, they would all become hunters.

He could hear a distant murmur of sleepless men, of braying horses. Somewhere in the tall grass, a young soldier sobbed. Even though he’d slept, Barnaby instinctively sensed dawn’s approach—soon the drums and bugles would beckon the war, and with its arousal, an unmitigated savagery would descend upon the brigade. Before sunset, many of those stirring restlessly around him would lay dead.

Not long ago, he might have wept at the thought of the carnage that morning would bring. But staring into the heavens, he wished for only solace. He longed for an eternity absent of fear, of hatred, of misery. For the first time since the fighting had begun, Barnaby found himself anticipating the absolute surrender of death, and relished its embrace.

…….….……
In the above paragraphs we find a piecemeal semblance of scene-setting and character development, although not much plot. Yet by the end of the passage, we infer a battle’s brewing (basic plot development) and, if properly scene-set, we suspect our character to be a soldier of some bygone era. Campfires. Horses. Bugles. Even by the discreet choice of names—Barnaby—the writer implies a subliminal clue. No, we don’t know which war…but we assume we’ll be told fairly soon and, if the writing moves us, we’re willing to wait. Nor do we have a clear physical description of Barnaby (our protagonist we presume, although still uncertain)—and yet we’ve glimpsed the lost fear in his soul. Another important character trait.

By juxtaposing well-considered snippets of information, each sentence becomes an integral piece of an enormous puzzle, yet none of the overall picture which will be revealed in haste. The writer utilizes only those pieces that properly fit, and has already begun interlacing individual filaments (of plot, character and grounding) that will eventually weave into a narrative tale. We may not know key elements of the character until far into the novel. We’re learning about this man piece by piece. We may not learn about the writer’s true intent in telling his story—perhaps not the war itself, but rather a young man’s journey to find himself, through various aspects of fate. The writer’s only begun to build a mystery of voice, of plotting, and yet each sentence is precise and methodical, like so many footprints in the sand, one after another after another in meticulous formation toward an inevitable conclusion.

* * *

One last note: When is simple too simple? When simple becomes passive. So keep your simple sentences active. (See Active Voice.) For instance:

Passive: John was sleeping. (Simple? Yes. Exciting? No.)

Active: John’s snores reverberated through the house with the fury of an approaching thunderstorm. (Better.)

Remember: Simple, but exciting.

 


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Simple, But Exciting (Part 1)

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

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Simple, But Exciting (Part 1)

If I could distill the fundamentals of potentially great storytelling, my advice would be this: Keep it simple, but exciting…exciting, but simple.

While such advice may seem paradoxical (“Paint it black, but paint it white.”) you’ll find a marvelous co-dependency at play in writing a novel that: A) moves the story swiftly forward, without confusion or unnecessary intrusions, and; B) imparts a breathlessness, a passion, a cerebral metamorphosis that transforms the reader’s reality into one entirely of your choosing.

One manages such duality by keeping: A) the fundamentals simple, and; B) your voice exciting.

Simple: The mechanics and structure of your writing, the clarity of your language. (In other words, grammar.) Note that simple doesn’t mean uninteresting or brief, nothing synopsized or truncated—but rather clear and concise.

Exciting: The unique personality of your style and voice, the ebb and flow of your journey (that is, the structure of your plot), your joie de vivre. Your subtle—but oh-so-witty—nuance. Your tantalizing dialogue. (See Exciting, but Simple. Also see Dialogue.)

Even those writers who attempt to climb (metaphorically speaking) the Mount Everest of epic adventures or those who navigate the Pan’s Labyrinth of complicated plots, the basic mechanics of fiction remain fundamentally simple: Write in clear, precise sentences. (That’s Rule #7, by the way.) Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession of relevant information.

Think of writing a novel as being similar to a long trek through the Sahara. As a reader, I’m following the trail you’ve intentionally set out on page one. I must be able to follow (e.g.; comprehend) each footstep you take along the way. A misplaced thought or a convoluted sentence will give me pause. What did you mean? A muddled chapter and I may be stymied. Am I still on track? Which way did you go? Lose readers midway through the desert and they’re likely gone for good.

My advice? Don’t get deviously clever or snarkingly cute with your audience. Do not withhold necessary information or keep secrets—intending a sleight of hand later in the story. Do not write under the influence of an advanced thesaurus. Do not assume we’ll dig deeply enough to catch your subliminal brilliance, your existential aura, your interpretive, Nureyev-like rond de jambe. Yes, your characters can be devious, but not your language. Sure, your plot can be multi-layered, but not your innuendo. Your protagonist may be shrouded in mystery, but do not shroud your words from the reader. Maintain clarity. Keep it simple.

Stagnation = Boredom. Movement = Drama.

Another fundamental? Every sentence you write, every scene, every chapter, every act, must constantly push your characters toward trouble (a.k.a. conflict, a.k.a. tension, a.k.a. drama), or else snatch them away again.

You’re either pushing your lovers toward elusive but everlasting happiness, or else dragging them away.

You’re pushing your swashbuckling adventurer toward a buried treasure, or wrenching her away again.

You’re pushing your Hobbit toward Mount Doom, or dragging him away (…again and again and again and again).

You’re pushing a hapless antihero toward a life of crime, or pulling him back—perhaps toward that carefree Montana horse ranch where lithesome Marilyn toils, pining for a good man. But, wait! Her ominous, one-eared stepbrother, Bart, also has lusty designs on Marilyn. Why? Because one can (and should) impart many tug o’wars into a story, often working in simultaneity. A writer is continually pushing or pulling each character into or away from situational danger, continually building or relaxing tension—with always a final goal in mind.

Such constant motion need not include physical expression (sprinting, dueling, skydiving without a ‘chute) but rather be certain that your writing is rich in emotion and dramatic impact. For instance, you’re concocting elaborate schemes inside your prisoner’s head that will ultimately spring him from his tiny cell, or you’re creating unforeseen obstacles that pull him away from his anticipated freedom.

See a pattern developing? If you’re not constantly pushing or pulling, you’re miring the plot, your characters, in mundanity. Think of movement this way: A novel is like an aardvark. Both have to constantly breathe—inhaling, then exhaling; inhaling, then exhaling. A flat plot or uninteresting characters or passive writing (see Active Voice) is pretty much total exhalation. Ask an aardvark to exhale continually for 300 pages and what happens? Right. Dead as a door nail.

Hint:

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’s 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 and gets munched.

Exhale: Sobbing afterwards, safe and sound, you and your family mourn poor Aunt Mildred. But, wait! Wasn’t the dear woman carrying your only map to the Zombie-Free Safety Zone? And also your last bottle of water? Now you have neither. You all stare at one another, aghast. Overhead, thunder rumbles ominously.

Thus, Rule #8: Keep your characters moving. Either push your characters toward drama or pull them away again. (a.k.a.: Inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale…)
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Good Writing, Bad Advice

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

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Good Writing, Bad Advice.

My name (once again) is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. My job is to: 1) read manuscripts, 2) reject most of them as incompatible with our needs, 3) accept a limited number of promising tales for potential publication, and; 4) edit the living daylights out of those same pieces—then expect the writer to do likewise—before MHP commits to a publishing contract.

I have few friends.

However, I do have a modicum of knowledge for those of you seeking advice. Whether you’re already a contracted MHP author, a promising talent or simply passing by, I can offer a bit of insight. Because I certainly know what excites me as a reader.

Might I impart any significant pearls of wisdom on this page? I offer no assurances. Nobody in this business—in any business—can guarantee success. Finding a publisher is sometimes more luck (sadly) than skill. More good timing than dedication. Sometimes it’s who you know. Sometimes it’s who your daddy knows. Success is a subjective son-of-a-bitch with a chip on one shoulder and a crazed twinkle in its eye.

But knowing how to write well doesn’t hurt. And knowing a few rules won’t hurt either. Success may be elusive, but to an unprepared or apathetic writer, success is little more than a pipe dream.

Do you know the Numero Uno, Most Common, Most Discouraging Failure, the Tragic Likely Outcome of all novel writing endeavors? It’s not finishing the book. Losing interest or losing your way, losing your nerve or losing your religion. It’s fear of success or fear of failure or fear of wrestling all those words into place, from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.” But if you can overcome that particular obstacle, you’re already closer to writing success than most.

 Finish the book. That’s Rule #1.

In this and subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to reveal what MHP seeks in terms of a desirable manuscript, although—bottom line?—it’s a polished, professional voice. Yes, voice. We’re far more likely to accept an uncanny voice over a fancy plot structure. Lock two characters in a dark closet, give them great dialogue and personalities worth exploring, and we’ll consider that manuscript more closely than a story about brain-sucking aliens coming to digest Earth. (Although if your aliens have quirky, well-constructed personalities, we’ll look at them, too.)

Let’s face it, only so many plot-lines exist in literature. They’ve all been covered ad nauseam. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy is eaten by giant squid. (It’s been done.) But a unique voice is yours alone. Exclusive. Inimitable. Priceless. For a writer, a unique voice infusing excitement into a distinctive character is money in the proverbial bank.

Okay, enough preamble. I do have one significant bit of advice to share. My first shiny pearl isn’t a “what to do”—it’s “who not to listen to.” IMHO, it’s one of The Most Important Lessons an unpublished writer can absorb.

Rule #2: Don’t listen to anybody (and certainly not to me) if the advice doesn’t resonate. Go with your gut. Go with your own instincts. Sure, listen selectively to proffered advice—accept feedback when it’s constructively given, but about 80-90% of what you hear will be poison. Remember, success is as much about breaking rules as following them. If it feels right, crayon outside the lines. I think Gandhi said that. Maybe not.

To illustrate, here’s a story. This one still gives me nightmares. I still wake up cringing.

The most single, most horrific, most god-awful perverse piece of advice I’ve ever encountered occurred during a writers’ conference. (And a writers’ conference can be a wonderful, magical, scintillating experience… but, again, be careful who you listen to.)

One evening, a panel of “experts” bequeathed their brilliance to a capacity filled auditorium of eager, fledgling writers. An attendee stood and asked a panelist a question, and in doing so happened to mention that her nearly-completed novel filled some 360 pages. About 90,000 words.

Without a moment’s preamble—without a speck of empathy or a grain of intelligence—the so-called expert replied, “It’s too long. Cut twenty thousand words.”

This Expert of Knowing Everything While Knowing Nothing had no clue about the nature of the story or its genre, or of the writer’s level of craft, the tenor of the book. Simply “cut it.” The writer was, of course, crushed. And I have never forgotten my frustration over that absurdly idiotic remark.

Should anyone tell you to arbitrarily cut (or add) pages without otherwise knowing your story, smile politely and walk away. I’ve read too many manuscripts that feel truncated and unfinished… only to discover that the writer had been previously advised to “cut, cut, cut!” without further direction or counsel. In desperation, many writers blindly begin hacking all the style and nuance from an otherwise excellent story.

Think of a novel as a living, breathing person. If I feel that your story needs to lose a bit of weight, I’ll not advise you to remove its liver or stomach or left arm. The process is to shrewdly exercise your book—trimming adverbs, adjectives and excess verbiage like so many bloated fat-cells. Little by little. Or feed it more Skittles, should the opposite be true.

I acknowledge that the above-referenced workshop occurred before the Age of Internet Publishing. Stricter rules applied once upon a time (although stupidity didn’t count back then, either). And I continue to hear agents and editors and the so-called “people in the know” advising writers to cut or add pages, to alter a manuscript in order to satisfy some personal itch or the guidelines of a publishing system that no longer exists.

The biggest problem today? No one’s certain of the new rules yet. But in this rapidly changing paradigm of 21st century novel writing, here’s my best advice: Trust yourself—and hone those basic skills of storytelling in the (somewhat paradoxically) simplest, yet most exciting voice you can muster.
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