…in the Details (Writing Theory Thursday)

Last Thursday I talked about the important foundations  of writing: plot, characters, premise.  Those are the cake, so to speak.  Today, I’ll talk about the icing, the little details of writing style that make or break it all.  Few people want to eat icing without any cake underneath, but nobody wants to eat a cake that’s covered in stinking, soured, spoiled icing.  And almost everybody loves a good cake with top-notch icing.

Again, I say this as a fellow journeyman, not a master who’s “arrived.”  I haven’t “arrived” in any way in my writing.  But I know just from my own improvement that I am on a good path.  Maybe not the only good path, maybe not your good path.  But a good path.  So I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me.

God and the devil are in the details, as the saying goes, and writing style is all about details.  Readability is paramount.  Some books are much easier to read, even compared to other books with content of similar difficulty.  It’s almost as if writing styles are user interfaces to the ideas and content within.  Some applications (and some books) have easier, more intuitive user interfaces than others.

I’m working really hard on this one myself.  My instinct is to write long sentences with several clauses, sentences that sort of curl back on themselves and don’t flow directly into each other.  I know this is slows the reader down unnecessarily, so I’ve tried to stop.  But it isn’t always easy to change ingrained habits overnight.

I’ve also learned to stop qualifying my sentences with unnecessary words.  Many times something can be said directly and quickly, without “seems” or “like” or “that.”

But short, fluid sentences aren’t the end-all and be-all of writing style.  Things like character voice are also vital.  Character voice is exactly what it sounds like: each character’s dialogue should “sound” distinctive.  Readers should be able to tell who’s speaking without saying “Angie said” or “Zac said.”  This takes some practice, and it helps if you create characters who are significantly different in interests, education levels, and temperament.

The only caveat is that it’s usually best to avoid writing dialect into speech.  I say usually because sometimes it’s absolutely vital to the story or novel.  If you have to write dialect in, be as respectful as possible.

Let me reiterate just how difficult this can be.  If all the characters come from the same culture (middle-class American, for example), it can be hard to make them sound different.  If they come from different nations and cultures, it can be hard to make them sound authentic.  This can even be a problem with fantasy races … I can’t tell you how many fantasy dwarves I’ve seen who sound like a cross between James Doohan’s Montgomery Scott and Michael Meyers’s angry Scotsman.  But I can tell you that I’ve been to Scotland three times and never heard that accent from a real Scotsman, not even once.

Sensory details are another key aspect of writing style.  When writing fiction, it’s best to frequently include details that will “stimulate” the various senses.  Describing colors, smells, tastes, sounds, textures, and temperatures really helps draw people in.  It’s important to try to hit them all as much as possible, because people have different sensory preferences.

I’d suggest avoiding “sensory dumps” where you drop a heap of sensory information into one paragraph after ignoring them for two or three pages.   I’m prone to doing that myself, and it’s kind of embarrassing to go back and read later.  I mean, really?  Three pages of bare dialogue and then one jumbo economy-size sentence in which I hit every sense I can think of?  Um, no.  I don’t normally rewrite, but sometimes I have to break my own rule.  Ick.

That said, Roger Zelazny peppered his Amber novels  with sensory dumps, but they worked.  He’d hit the senses during a meal, when the narrator was really hungry, and you could practically taste the food.  During the Hellrides or Pattern walks, he’d give so much sensory information I felt I was there.  But  these were in-character sensory dumps.  The characters’ senses were going full-blast, and the text conveyed that.  They’re great books, and I highly recommend them.

But don’t take the word of some nobody blogger like me.  The best thing to do is find a couple of authors that you respect, and go read a few pages from the middle of a story you’ve already read.  That way, you’re not caught up in the story, and you can focus on how they handle character voice, how they handle sensory input, how they write their sentences, etc.

You might also like to read a story and create a plot outline, to see just how one of your favorite authors breaks down story, character and rising action.   I don’t think you should try to be “the next ____.”  You should try to be yourself, as honest as you can be, even if you’re using a pen name.  But for the craft aspect, the skill aspect, it helps to study people who’ve already arrived.

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After-Action Report: Writing the First Short Story

As I’ve said, writing short stories is hard for me, and I almost broke the rules on this one – it’s about 50 words shy from being a novelette (7501-17,500 words).  The hardest thing is getting over the fear and actually getting the story written.  But now that I’ve done that, I’ve had more ideas for short stories just start flowing.

I have a few things I’m still worried about – the story is set in Tarafore a fantasy setting I’ve been toying with since childhood.  It’s the first story I’ve been able to write set in the main area of focus in Tarafore, the City-States (specifically, the City-State of Cassa).

Tarafore is defined by The Breaking, a period every 250 years, lasting about 25 years, during which time magic returns to the world, powerful Warlords rise, and kings and empires are brought low.  One thousand years ago, Tarafore emerged from the Great Breaking, and its people fear that each new breaking could be a return to 1,000 years of chaos and darkness.

During each Breaking, humans from Earth come through to Tarafore, and they are in part responsible for Tarafore’s technology (early Imperial era, more 16oo’s than 1500’s, really) and society (mostly late Renaissance).

Most of the natives of Tarafore look quite human, but are actually descendants of a handful of ancestral Beasts, and thus separate species.  However, noble families still have to intermarry their younger children in order to establish political or economic alliances.  This has led to some unusually modern views on adoption, and some very un-Renaissance views on the origins of noble superiority (which, on Tarafore, are based on education and raising, not bloodline)

I think you know I’m a Shakespeare fan.  Well, about ten years ago I had occasion to read several historical monographs about Renaissance Italy in particular and early modern Europe in general.  A lot of that made it into Tarafore, especially in the face of the City-State of Cassa.

Cassa is, as best as I can write it, like something drawn from historical Renaissance Italy, and from Shakespeare’s Italian plays (including tragedies such as Romeo & Juliet, Othello, and Titus Andronicus [which was actually Roman, but fits the mood pretty well] as well as comedies like Much Ado About Nothing).

A council of five Great Houses rule Cassa – the Merengo, led by the idealistic reformer Cruhuer (who is loved by many, but hated by more, even within his own House); the Fiorentino, led by the dissolute, decadent prodigy Giuseppe, who hates the Merengo with an almost mad passion; Crynnlynn, secretive, calm, always scheming; Peccavi, who once were mercenaries and have now become a family of priests, though they have gone from penitents to princes of the church; and Kamitaas, once a tribe of warriors, now the strong arm that keeps order, sister-house and ally to Peccavi.

The alliance between the Kamitaas and Peccavi provides a great deal of stability, standing in the path of both bloody chaos and needed reform.  Meanwhile, the houses fight their cold wars, executing their vendettas in secret.

Frankly, it’s a perfect place to play against my violent imagination.  Dueling, vendetta and assassination are always at hand, but the close family ties means nobody goes unmourned, and that every act of violence likely begets more and more violence.

“Peace?  I Hate the Word” is the story of one short outburst of violence, and the cost it extracts from House Merengo.

It wasn’t easy to write.  Though I believe I have succeeded in making each character’s voice sound unique, I worry that the dialogue is a little too “Shakespearean” for something written in 2012 (there’s a fine line between period-appropriate and stiffly pretentious).

And I’m not entirely sure I’m really through with it.  I think there may be enough there to turn it into a novella, by expanding upon the motivations and plans of the various characters and factions involved.

Not only that, but now that the floodgates are open, I can tell you with full confidence that I’ll be writing more short stories set in Cassa.  I’ve already got one outlined.

Accomplishment Unlocked: First … Story … COMPLETED!!

Whew!

I just finished the first short story of my short story challenge.  I had hoped to finish it on Friday, so I could spend the weekend pondering the next story, but life intervened.  I worked on it steadily (except Sunday), but I wasn’t able to finish it until today.

And I wasn’t at all sure I was going to be able to finish it today (life intervenes a lot, doesn’t it?).

I want to run it by my first reader and make sure I didn’t do anything stupid, then I’m going to post it here for a short period of time before putting it up on Kindle and Smashwords (I’ll leave a sample up permanently).

It was hard, but I managed to make progress on all the issues I wanted to work on (the whole reason I started this challenge in the first place):

  • distinctive character voice
  • proactive protagonists
  • stories with a clear premise
  • dealing with the violent imagination

So needless to say, I feel REALLY happy about this one.  It’s pretty long, at just under 7200 words (if it had been 7501 words, it wouldn’t even have been a short story anymore, but a novelette).

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: A Memoir and One of the Best Books About Writing I’ve Ever Read

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, starting with my post on Dean Wesley Smith’s electronically publishedKilling the Sacred Cows of Publishing, and then blogging about Algis Budrys’s classic Writing to the Point.

The third and final member of this triad is a bit different, in that it is only partially a book about writing, by a relatively young writer who had great success with some books and not-so-great success with others.  While the first two books were (rightly) by experienced professionals, long-time writers and publishers (both Dean Wesley Smith and Algis Budrys have been involved in “both sides” of the writing experience), the third is a powerful, personal book about the nature of narrative, and finding the storyline within your life.

It’s called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and it’s written by Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz and Through Painted Deserts.  Miller is an openly Christian writer (the first printing title of Through Painted Deserts was Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance), and while I find that a plus, some of you may not.  I ask you to bear with me, and bear with him.  The exploration of the nature of story and narrative in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is worth reading even if you have an abiding disregard for Christianity.

Through A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Miller walks through the shadowlands of minor celebrity, writer’s block, and the fear that nothing he writes will ever be as good as or as successful as Blue Like Jazz – taking us on a first-person journey through the realities of what Dean Wesley Smith called the myth of ‘If I can ____, then I’ve made it.

Don Miller taught me to expect more of my characters, to make them deeper, and to make their narratives have meaning to them and to me.  I’m also trying to learn a few things about living my own life (my New Year’s Resolutions have survived into February, though they’re a bit ragged, so that’s something, at least).

Miller has also helped correct one weakness I sort of “took away” from Algis Budrys’s work (not Budrys’s fault, I’m sure): the tendency to make the main character somewhat passive, or at least reactive, coming into action only when a problem happens to him (or her). Miller’s description of story, “a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it,” is at once the most succinct and powerful description I have ever read.

Again, I strongly recommend you check out A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  It’s very different from the other two books I’ve recommended, but no less valuable.

The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, Part Two

This week I’ll talk about a book I heard about in a discussion on Dean Wesley Smith’s website, the late Algis Budrys’s, Writing to the Point.  I’d always had a tremendous difficulty in putting together good plots, especially endings, until I read Writing to the Point.  Budrys lays out the basics of plotting, with incredibly clear examples, and does it in all of 64 pages.  Seriously, this is the author’s Book of Five Rings.

It sounds ridiculous, a writer who isn’t good at plotting, like a drummer who can’t keep rhythm or a skater with poor balance.  But I was there, and I think a lot of new writers spend time in that dark valley: you’re bursting with ideas, characters, and themes, but without a plot, you don’t have a story.  Without an internalized plot that you understand, you don’t have direction, and your writing goes in circles, wandering in the wilderness for forty revisions (well, yours might not, but mine did).  King Solomon said, “Without a vision, the people perish.”  Well, without a vision, my writing perished.

Combined with my buying into the myth of endless rewriting, this sucked me into an endless series of rewrites and revisions, and every time I finished one pass, I realized I had even more work to do on the next pass.  No matter how hard I pressed the gas, I always got further from my destination.  It seems like that would be an obvious sign that I’m going in the wrong direction, doesn’t it?

Writing to the Point was road map, GPS, and a passenger-seat navigator all rolled into one.  Within the first couple of chapters, Algis Budrys laid bare everything I’d been doing wrong, and showed me how to start doing it right.

I don’t think I’ll get in too much trouble if I give the basic seven-point story structure Budrys describes.  I’ve even heard online that it predates him, but you know how (un)reliable blogs and forums are. J

1) A character (or characters).

2) In a setting or context

3) With a problem (or a goal)

4) Basic attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal (calling the police, or realizing the police aren’t equipped to deal with a zombiepocalypse, for example.  This is mostly there so the readers know the characters aren’t carrying the idiot ball).  Clearly, this can’t work, or you don’t have much of a story.

5) Two or three escalating attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal.  Of course, these have to fail to resolve the problem, but they don’t have to be ‘failures’ in the sense of nothing getting accomplished or the protagonists being defeated.

6) The climax of the story.  Budrys calls this “Victory or Death,” and it’s the time when the main characters either stand or fall.

7) The denouement.  Budry calls this “Affirmation.”  Essentially, the reader needs to be assured that the conflict is over.  The goal has been achieved, the problem has been solved, or the character has failed utterly.  It’s done.

I’ve found this outline useful for writing everything from short stories to novels.  I’ve not yet written a novel with a single 7-step structures, but both Blood for Blood and Blood Guilt are composed of several of these story-structures with an overarching theme and timeline.

Part of being a writer is actually writing successfully, and plotting is absolutely foundational.  I can hardly express how helpful Writing to the Point has been for me on this point.  I think every writer, especially new and beginning writers, should read this book.

PS – On a related note, Writing to the Point is allegedly out of print, and people are trying to sell it on Amazon.com for $45, which is better than the $200 they were charging a year ago.  Even though the advice is well worth the price, don’t pay $200, or even $45 for a used copy: Action Publishing has new editions for $10.50.