Tag Archives: James Joyce

Desires and Objectives #amwriting

Several conversations in an online writer’s group has inspired me to drag out a  post on the importance of identifying desires and objectives, which was first published in June of 2016. This post contrasts the works of two authors with unique and distinct literary styles: James Joyce and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Although they were contemporaries, born ten years apart, the two authors couldn’t be more dissimilar. And yet their works have one thing in common: the protagonists want something and are willing to to some lengths to gain it.

This is the core of any great novel.


When we sit down to write a story of any length, a novel or flash fiction, we often begin with an idea, and great characters, and little more. To make those things into a story, we must first ask what the protagonist wants, and we must know what she/he is willing to risk in their efforts to achieve it.

Objectives + Risk = Story

In The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, Frodo is just an ordinary young hobbit, with no particular ambitions. On the same day as his older cousin Bilbo’s “eleventy-eleventh” (111th) birthday, Frodo (Bilbo’s heir) celebrates his thirty-third birthday.

At the lavish double-birthday party, Bilbo departs from the Shire for what he calls “a permanent holiday.” He does so by using the magic ring (that he had found on the journey detailed in The Hobbit) to disappear. He is aided in that by Gandalf with a flash and puff of smoke, leading many in the Shire to believe Bilbo has gone mad.

He leaves Frodo his remaining belongings, including his home, Bag End, and after some heavy-handed persuasion by the wizard Gandalf, he also leaves the Ring. Gandalf departs on his own business, warning Frodo to keep the Ring secret. Seventeen years or so pass, and then Gandalf returns to inform Frodo of the truth about Bilbo’s ring. It is the One Ring of Sauron the Dark Lord, and is evil. It forges a connection between the wearer and Sauron, and whoever bears it will be slowly corrupted, eventually becoming a Ringwraith.

From the moment of learning the truth about the Ring, Frodo’s goal is clear to the reader: he must get rid of the ring. In Rivendell, he learns the only way to do so is to carry it into the depths of Mordor and cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom.

Frodo wants to achieve this goal badly enough to walk into an active volcano and certain death to accomplish this.

At no point in the narrative is the objective unclear. The path is blocked many times, and each of the characters is tested by the evil ring, some beyond their ability to resist it.

The objective creates the tension, which drives the plot forward.

But what about a book where the goal is not so clear? Let’s talk about Ulysses, by James Joyce.

Ulysses chronicles the wandering appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin, taking place over the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Latinized name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce established a series of parallels between the epic poem and his novel. This book has one of the best opening lines of all time:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Structurally, there are strong correlations between the characters and experiences of Leopold Bloom with Odysseus, Molly Bloom with Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus with Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. It is set in early twentieth century Dublin with the events and political tempests of the time. Themes of antisemitism and the impact of Ireland’s rocky relationship with Britain as it was felt in those days are the underlying pins of this novel. It is highly allusive and filled with allegories.

There is no obvious quest, although many minor quests are completed in the course of living through the day. The book opens with Stephen Dedalus, the first protagonist, having breakfast with Buck Mulligan, who is perhaps a friend, or maybe a rival. Stephen is not Leopold’s biological son as Telemachus is Odysseus’, but he fulfills that role. Unconsciously Stephen wants a father.

But what do they want? It’s James Joyce, so it’s complicated.

Stephen shares his opinions about religion with Buck Mulligan, speaking of how they relate to the recent death of his mother, and Buck manages to offend him. They make plans to go drinking later that evening.

What does Leopold desire? He wants a son. In Episode 4, the narrative shifts abruptly. The time is again 8 am, but the action has moved across the city and to the second protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser. He and his wife have a daughter, Milly Bloom, who, at the age of 15, has left home to study photography.  As the day unfolds, Bloom’s thoughts turn to the affair between his wife, Molly, and her manager.

He also thinks about the death of their infant son, Rudy Bloom, who died at the age of 11 days. The absence of a son is what leads him to form an attachment to Stephen, for whom he goes out of his way in the book’s latter episodes. He rescues him from a brothel, walks him back to his own home, and even offers him a place there to study and work.

Finally, we come to Molly. Within the city of Dublin, Molly is an opera singer of some renown. She is the mother of Milly Bloom, who, at the age of 15, has left home to study photography. She is also the mother of Rudy, the son who died at the age of eleven days. A significant difference between Molly and Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is that while Penelope is eternally faithful, Molly is not. She is having an affair with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan after ten years of her celibacy within her marriage.

The final chapter of Ulysses, often called “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy,” is a long and unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness passage. During the monologue, Molly accepts Leopold into her bed, frets about his health, and then reminisces about their first meeting and about when she knew she was in love with him. It is comprised of some 20,0000 words of her thoughts as she lies in bed next to Bloom. What does Molly want? She wants to be loved.

In The Lord of the Rings, we have a clear and obvious quest, straightforward and seemingly impossible: Destroy the One Ring and save the world.

In Ulysses, we have a group of people who all want something, but just as in real life, what that may exactly be is not as clear as we would like it. But there is an objective: they just want to get through the day and in the process they find they are a family, thus achieving their individual goals.

Once we know what our protagonist wants and what he/she is willing to risk to achieve it, we have our plot.

How we dress it up is up to us—I admit James Joyce’s rambling is too daunting for me to read for pleasure. I had to read it in the environment of a college class to make it all the way through the novel with some understanding of it.

I am a huge fan of Joyce’s magnificent one-liners, though.

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

Ulysses, Episode 2


Credits and Attributions:

Desires and Objectives © 2016 – 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson was first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on June 13, 2016.

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#amwriting: breaking the rules with style

a writer's styleMuch of my blog time revolves around grammar and the mechanics of writing. As authors, it’s important to understand the rules of how the language in which we write works, no matter what that language is. Yet powerful writing often breaks those rules, and we are better for having read it.

So why am I always pressing you to buy and use the Chicago Manual of Style?

Authors must know the rules to break them with style.

Readers expect words to flow in a certain way. If you break a grammatical rule, know what you are breaking and  be consistent about it.

Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Alexander Chee, and George Saunders all have unique voices in their writing. Each of these writers has written highly acclaimed work. Their prose is magnificent. When you have fallen in love with one of these authors’ works, you will recognize their voice.

Ernest Hemingway used the word “and” in place of commas too freely.

Alexander Chee employs run-on sentences and dispenses with quotation marks.

James Joyce wrote hallucinogenic prose and at times dispensed with punctuation completely.

George Saunders writes as if he is speaking to you, and is, at times, choppy in his delivery.

But their voices work. They each break certain rules as set down by Strunk and White, but they produce brilliant prose that stands the test of time. Readers fall into the rhythm of their prose.

I will admit, I had to take a college class to be able to understand James Joyce’s work, and I did have to resort to the audio book for Alexander Chee’s work. It’s the hypercritical editor coming out in me, making it difficult for me to set that part of my awareness aside. It’s my job to notice those things.

I can hear you now: these are literary authors, and you are writing genre fantasy fiction or sci-fi. Shall I toss out a few more names?

Tad Williams mixes his styles. His Bobby Dollar series is Paranormal Film Noir: dark, choppy, and reminiscent of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories. In this series, he seems to be somewhat influenced by the style of crime authors, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It is a quick read and is commercial in that it is for casual readers.

Raymond Chandler was the creator of Philip Marlowe, the original hard-boiled, disillusioned, copper-turned-private-eye. His people take center stage, rather than the violence that characterizes so many detective novels of his era.

In his article, The Chandler Style, Martin Edwards writes:  Devising puzzles was always less important to him than style. He said, ‘I don’t really seem to take the mystery element in the detective story as seriously should,’ and joked about solving plot problems by having a man come to the door with a gun  Style mattered much more: ‘I had learn American just like a foreign language. To learn it I had to study and analyse it. As a result, when I use slang . . . I do it deliberately.’  And as he told one magazine editor whose proof-reader presumed to tidy up the Chandler grammar, ‘When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.’

Chandler understood how grammar worked. He knew what he was doing and did it deliberately. He was able to convey (to those who didn’t appreciate his style) why he broke those rules and was secure enough in his choice to continue writing in his own voice.

But Chandler also had to deal with the sort of sniping we all must deal with in our writing groups. Wikipedia says: The high regard in which Chandler is generally held today is in contrast to the critical sniping that stung the author during his lifetime. In a March 1942 letter to Blanche Knopf, published in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, he wrote, “The thing that rather gets me down is that when I write something that is tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, I get panned for being tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, and then when I try to tone down a bit and develop the mental and emotional side of a situation, I get panned for leaving out what I was panned for putting in the first time.”

Yet, although he writes Bobby Dollar in a Chandler-esque style,  Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn Trilogy is true epic fantasy, with lush, poetic prose, multiple story-lines, and dark themes. It is written for serious fantasy readers who want nothing less than the big novel. The story starts slow, but the powerful writing has generated millions of fans who are thrilled to know he has set more work in that world.

Beginning slow, going off on side quests, writing poetic prose, and gradually working up to an epic ending is highly frowned upon in today’s writing groups, but Tad broke that rule and believe me, it works.

Roger Zelazny wrote one of the most famous fantasy series of all time, the Chronicles of Amber, and was famous for his crisp, minimalistic dialogue, and he was also heavily influenced by the style of wisecracking hard-boiled crime authors like Chandler.

Most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing, and do it deliberately. Craft your work so it says what you want, in the way you want it said.

GRRM Meme 3If your editor asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author. Explain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand, and your editor will most likely understand. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so.

However, if I am your editor, you must be prepared to break that rule consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

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#amwriting: Desires and Objectives

LOTR advance poster 2When we sit down to write a story of any length, whether a novel or flash fiction, we often begin with an idea for a plot, the possibilities of great characters, and little more. To make those two things into a compelling story, we must discover what the protagonist desires most, and find out what she/he is willing to risk to achieve it.

Objectives+Risk=Story

In The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Frodo is just an ordinary young hobbit, with no particular ambitions. On the same day as his older cousin Bilbo’s “eleventy-eleventh” (111th) birthday, Frodo (Bilbo’s heir) celebrates his thirty-third birthday.

At the lavish double-birthday party, Bilbo departs from the Shire for what he calls “a permanent holiday.” He does so by using the magic ring (that he had found on the journey detailed in The Hobbit) to disappear. He is aided in that by Gandalf with a flash and puff of smoke, leading many in the Shire to believe Bilbo has gone mad.

He leaves Frodo his remaining belongings, including his home, Bag End, and after some heavy-handed persuasion by the wizard Gandalf, he also leaves the Ring. Gandalf departs on his own business, warning Frodo to keep the Ring secret. Seventeen years or so pass, and then Gandalf returns to inform Frodo of the truth about Bilbo’s ring. It is the One Ring of Sauron the Dark Lord, and is evil. It forges a connection between the wearer and Sauron, and whoever bears it will be slowly corrupted, eventually becoming a Ringwraith.

LOTR advance posterFrom the moment of learning the truth about the Ring, Frodo’s goal is clear to the reader: he must get rid of the ring. In Rivendell, he learns the only way to do so is to carry it into the depths of Mordor and cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom.

Frodo wants to achieve this goal badly enough to walk into an active volcano and certain death to accomplish this.

At no point in the narrative is the objective unclear. The path is blocked many times, and each of the characters is tested by the evil ring, some beyond their ability to resist it.

The objective creates the tension, which drives the plot forward.

But what about a book where the goal is not so clear? Let’s talk about Ulysses, by James Joyce.

Ulysses chronicles the wandering appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin, taking place over the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Latinized name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce established a series of parallels between the epic poem and his novel. This book has one of the best opening lines of all time:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Ulysses cover 3Structurally, there are strong correlations between the characters and experiences of Leopold Bloom with Odysseus, Molly Bloom with Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus with Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. It is set in early twentieth century Dublin with the events and political tempests of of the time. Themes of antisemitism and the impact of Ireland’s rocky relationship with Britain as a it was felt in those days are the underlying pins of this novel. It is highly allusive and filled with allegories.

There is no obvious quest, although many minor quests are completed in the course of living through the day. The book opens with Stephen Dedalus, the first protagonist, having breakfast with Buck Mulligan, who is perhaps a friend, or maybe a rival. It’s James Joyce, so it’s complicated. Stephen shares his opinions about religion, especially as they relate to the recent death of his mother, with Buck Mulligan, who manages to offend him. They make plans to go drinking later that evening.  Stephen is not Leopold’s biological son as Telemachus is Odysseus’, but he fulfils that role.

What does Leopold desire? In Episode 4, the narrative shifts abruptly. The time is again 8 am, but the action has moved across the city and to the second protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser. He and his wife have a daughter, Milly Bloom, who, at the age of 15, has left home to study photography.  As the day unfolds, Bloom’s thoughts turn to the affair between his wife, Molly, and her manager.

He also thinks about the death of their infant son, Rudy Bloom, who died at the age of 11 days. The absence of a son is what leads him to form an attachment to Stephen, for whom he goes out of his way in the book’s latter episodes. He rescues him from a brothel, walks him back to his own home, and even offers him a place there to study and work.

Finally, we come to Molly. The significant difference between Molly and Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is that while Penelope is eternally faithful, Molly is not. Molly is having an affair with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan after ten years of her celibacy within the marriage.  In Dublin, Molly is an opera singer of some renown. Molly wants to be loved.

Ulysses_(1967_film_dvd_cover)The final chapter of Ulysses, often called “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy,” is a long, un-punctuated stream-of-consciousness passage, which is arguably the most difficult passage to read and/or follow in the Western canon. (The body of books, music and art that scholars generally accept as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture.)

At the end of the day Molly allows Leopold into her bed, and worries about his health. She reminisces about their first meeting, and about when she knew she was in love with him. This long-winded monologue is comprised of some 20,000 words of her thoughts as she lies in bed next to Bloom, who is unaware of her internal rambling.

In The Lord of the Rings, we have a clear and obvious quest, straightforward and seemingly impossible. In Ulysses, we have a group of people who all want something, but just as in real life, what that may be is not as clear as we would like it. But there is an objective: they just want to get through the day and in the end, they each want to love and be loved, and perhaps be part of a family.

Once we know what our protagonist wants and what he/she is willing to risk to achieve it, we have our plot. Personally, I like a certain amount of literary prose, but I prefer reading books that are a little more straight-forward than Ulysses. That’s why Tolkien’s work spoke to me when I was still in grade school.

How we dress it up is up to us—and, while I admit James Joyce’s rambling is too daunting for me to read for pleasure, I am a confirmed fan of his magnificent one-liners.

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

Ulysses, Episode 2

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#amwriting: know your style: hypocrisy in the industry

a writer's styleIn writing, style is far more than simply choosing to wear high-heeled shoes with jeans. Style is a multilayered representation of your voice and your knowledge of the craft of writing.

An author’s style affects the overall readability of his/her finished product. Good readability is achieved by:

  1. Understanding: Keeping to generally accepted grammatical practices. Purchasing and using a style guide when questions arise regarding a creative writing project
  2. Rebellion: if the author chooses to break the accepted rules, he/she does so in a consistent manner.
  3. Wordcraft: The way the author phrases things, and the words he/she chooses, combined with his/her knowledge of the language and accepted usage. Invented word combinations, such as wordcraft (word+craft) and the context in which they are placed.

Simply having a unique style does not make your work fun to read.

Ulysses cover 3Let’s take a look at James Joyce, the man I think of as the king of great one-liners. If you look up great lines quoted from modern classic literature, you will find excerpts from his novel Ulysses represented more often than many other authors.

Yet, while the average reader has heard and often used quotes from Joyce’s work, most people have not read it. They may have picked it up, but then put it down, wondering what all the critics loved so much about it.

The mind of the literary critic is as inscrutable as that of an ex-spouse: hard to understand but easy to run afoul of. I personally learned to love Joyce’s work when I was in a class, taking it apart sentence-by-sentence. Prior to that, I couldn’t understand it, despite the fact it was written in modern, 20th century English.

What makes Joyce’s work difficult for the average reader is his style: he was Irish and had the Irishman’s innate love of words and how they could be twisted, and often wrote using what we call stream-of-consciousness. In doing so, Joyce regularly, but consistently, broke the rules of grammar.

Consistency and context are absolutely critical when an author chooses to write outside the accepted rules of grammatical style. If you just don’t feel like enclosing your dialogue within dialogue tags, it is your choice. Simply tell your editor that is your decision, and she/he will make sure you have consistently omitted them throughout the manuscript.

Queen of the Night alexander cheeYou may, however, have written a book that is difficult for the average person to read, as Alexander Chee has in his brilliant novel The Queen of the Night. While his writing is sheer beauty, this particular style choice is a mystery to me. It makes the book difficult to get into, because you’re reading along, and suddenly you realize you’re reading dialogue, and you have to stop, go back, and reread it.

It is incomprehensible to me why an editor for a large publisher would accept a manuscript that is as annoying as that one flaw makes this otherwise amazing book. It is also proof that large publishers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in this case) are just as guilty as indies when it comes to making strange decisions that can negatively affect sales. They may have done this to elevate it to a “status” read,  a must-buy literary name-dropper for those who wish to appear fashionably cultured. If so, it’s a disservice to a work that is brilliant despite a flaw that would be fatal if it were to appear in an Indie author’s work.

Chee’s editor did one thing correct, however: the lack of closed quotes is consistent throughout the book, and so one can sort of get into the narrative—at least until the dialogue starts up again. This blemish is why I will only recommend the audiobook to readers who are easily discouraged.

Your style choices are critical. They convey your ideas to the reader, and if you make poor choices, you may lose a reader.

James Joyce and Alexander Chee made style choices in their writing that an Indie could never get away with. The world holds Indies to a higher standard, so the choice to omit something as vital as quotation marks would result in instant finger-pointing and mockery of the Indie publishing industry as a whole.

What you choose to write and how you write it is like a fingerprint. It will change and mature as you grow in your craft, but will always be recognizably yours. As you are developing your style, remember: we want to challenge our readers, but not so much that they put our work down out of frustration. Most of us who are Indies can’t rely on our names to sell our books.

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Finding demographics is not finding Nemo

My New Year’s resolution this year is to identify who I am writing for, and tailor my marketing strategy to that segment of the population.

I should have picked something simple, like losing weight, or bringing about world peace.

I would be lying if I said I write for one particular type of person–although Huw the Bard falls into the not-for-children category. I like to think my books can be enjoyed by both men and women.

Who are youIt’s just that I write whatever I’m in the mood to read, and I read everything, Fantasy first, sci-fi second, then mystery, historical, paranormal, books of political intrigue, books filled with naughty vampires. Romance, YA, hard sci-fi, epic fantasy–I read it all. This makes it difficult to categorize myself .

Looking in the mirror doesn’t help.

At IHop, I am a 55+, getting discounts and a special old people’s menu. I am a senior, according to AARP, and am entitled certain discounts when I produce that all-important AARP card.

These things tell me I am an older person, as does the mirror.

However, these visible signs don’t show the woman with mad kick-ball-skills, who plays Lego Star Wars until the grandchild says she’s had enough games for one day, and he’d like to play outside now. They don’t shed any light on me. the person who will read and reread a book until it is nothing but shreds–if I fell in love with it. The gray hair, the slightly less-than-svelte physique–these clues don’t offer a hint about my obsession with Final Fantasy XII.

And that is the problem.

I write for me, and I don’t know who I am.

The Creative Penn offers 5 tips to assist me in this process:

1. First we must isolate what types and/or groups of people the content of the book would interest.

Well-that is just the problem, isn’t it…but they do give an idea on how to approach that:

 "Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

“Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

“Example: If your book is about an archaeologist who uses Stone Henge to travel into the future, your book would probably interest history buffs as well as fans of speculative fiction/sci-fi.  If that hero happens to be a former Marine, your book might also interest military personnel and/or the families.” (It’s a direct quote, so I am ignoring the terrible itch to edit out the misspelling of Stonehenge.)

Okay–I think I can do this. My book details the adventures of a bard who is forced to  flee his comfortable existence and who finds himself running from one disaster to another with death-defying regularity.

2. Second, we must: identify other books that are comparable to your book and look at the profiles of those books’ main buyers/readers.

They also explain that concept a little further “The target audience isn’t always who the book was written for, but rather, who it ends up appealing to.  Twilight draws in tween and teenage girls with its premise involving a normal, everyday girl falling into a romance with an young, attractive male (the bread and butter of many young girls’ dreams), but it’s appeal stretched to the cross-section of middle-age female readers who love romance and enjoyed Anne Rice in her heyday.”  

Alrighty then–I was heavily drawn, as a reader, to David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, Tad Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, P.D. James, Carl Sagan, Agatha Christie, Piers Anthony, and Fritz Lieber–so I suppose my books reflects a certain amount of their (rather jumbled) influence.

Oh, and don’t forget Roger Zelazney. And Mercedes Lackey.

Well that has narrowed it down quite a bit! (Sarcasm–I know, it’s a nasty habit.) I could have included Tolstoy, James Joyce, Horace Walpole, and Louisa May Alcott, but I didn’t have time.

330px-Pin-artsy3. You are next encouraged to pinpoint what is special about your book.

Again, the Creative Penn offers us some insights on how to go about this: “If you tell someone you’re writing a book about a witch who uses her power of communing with animals to rescue a lost dog from an evil dog-napper, then A. Wow, you have an interesting imagination!  B. You may or may not have taken in 101 Dalmatians too much as a child and C. With such a premise, chances are, your story is more light-hearted than scary, so your target readers to which the mystery aspect of your story will entice are more cozy-type mystery consumers.” So what are the few key words, the hook I can use to sell Huw the Bard? How do I boil the plot down to a few key words? This could take a while, but I’m sure I can do it.

Honest.

4. Now we need to determine some demographics.

That’s the problem–I am the demographic, and I don’t know who I am. Mature Audiences, definitely. There is some graphic sex, although it doesn’t devolve into a porn-fest, There is violence, a witnessed rape, and murder. These are all there because they are watershed moments in Huw’s life, things that change his view of the world. There are also a haunted village and a bisexual knight who talks to his horse, so there is humor midst the misery.

chekhov's gun5. Finally, the Creative Penn suggests we feed the previous four tips into each other to gain even more insight and narrow down who our target audience/s is/are.

Just give me Chekhov’s gunnow. I need to shoot something.

Several times.

Seriously–the article I’ve drawn these suggestions from is a good article, and it goes on to discuss how to use your target audience, which I did find somewhat illuminating.

At this point, if I can get even ONE concrete idea that works, I am feeling good about it. After all, it’s January! I’ve got a whole year to get this down, before I have to admit that this New Year’s resolution has gone the way of my weight-loss dreams and visions of world peace.

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Sinking the Hook

book-cover-middlemarchThe books that ring my bells all start out with a really great hook–in some cases the first line is the clincher, but most definitely by the time the first page has passed, I am hooked and ready to be enthralled.

Some of the best first lines ever: George Eliott’s Middlemarch starts, “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” That line makes you want to know Miss Brooke. And who is the observer who chronicles this?

How about this first line from Ulysses, by the king of great lines, James Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

pride and prejudiceOr, take this quote from the Guardian regarding the first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The one everyone knows (and quotes). Parodied, spoofed, and misremembered, Austen’s celebrated zinger remains the archetypal First Line for an archetypal tale. Only Dickens comes close, with the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light etc…” 

Good first lines are critical. They have a singular duty, to involve the reader and kidnap them for the length of the book. Our first lines must make the reader beg to know what will happen next.  We have to think about that first line, those first paragraphs, and how to land our reader.

TheEyeOfTheWorldDoes your first line have to introduce your main character? I think not. Dickens introduced an era in his opening lines, and it works. In his Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan frequently opened with a glimpse into the side of evil, illuminating that which Rand Al Thor must somehow prevail against, and that always hooked me.

Regardless of what you introduce, the hook MUST pertain to the tale. It must reveal something about the book in such a way that it sticks with the reader. Do not waste time in getting to the plot, because even a good hook cannot save a bad novel.

The first pages of books that intrigue me introduce a “dramatic question” and even if the reader doesn’t realize it, that question can often be answered with a yes or a no–will the hero succeed? Will good conquer evil? Will love triumph? What the hell happened to drive Lews Therin Telemon mad and what will happen next?

Consider these things when writing the opening paragraphs:

1. The opening lines set the tone for the story

2. The opening lines introduce the dramatic question that is the core of the story

3. The opening lines introduce the sense of place, the setting of the story.

Ask yourself where the story truly begins, and start there. What came before that can be cut from the final draft, as it is just background information that is necessary for your reference.

I think it’s good to read books outside your genre, and read them with the idea of understanding what makes them classics. Read literary fiction, read romance, read sci-fi–read widely if only to see what a different genre is about, how it is different from what you write. In all fiction, the first pages are the ones that kidnap the reader. Covers and blurbs may sell the book, but the first pages plunge the reader into your world.

 

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Words

Ulysses cover 3I’ve been having a kind of rolling conversation with Professor Stephen Swartz regarding James Joyce’s Ulysses. It reminded me of what I realized when I was reading it in college–that it is a series of great one-liners strung together. It is nearly incomprehensible to folks like me when taken in a large chunk, but like all of Joyce’s work,  cut down to small bits, it’s got some hilarious, witty moments. So what is this fascination that I feel for James Joyce and his work? I’m a moderately uneducated hack-writer of genre fiction, but there is something about his way with words, a kind of addiction that keeps pulling me back.

Ulysses was never originally published as a single volume, instead it was first published as a serial in the American journal, The Little Review over the span of two years from March 1918 to December 1920, in 18 episodes, and was first published as a single volume in 1922. It’s an incredibly long book for the era, 265,000 words. Books of that length are much more common nowadays, but usually only in genre-fantasy. (Robert Jordan, Tad Williams.)

Ulysses 4Ulysses details the wandering appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin over the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus, the hero of a classic Greek heroic tale that was Joyce’s favorite as a boy,  Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. The novel establishes a series of parallels between its characters and events and those of the poem.  Leopold Bloom corresponds to Odysseus the Wanderer, Molly Bloom to Penelope (Ulysses’s long-abandoned, ever-faithful wife), and Stephen Dedalus, Telemachus (Ulysses’s and Penelope’s son who seeks endlessly for knowledge of his father.)

265,000 words to describe one day in the life an extraordinary Irishman.

But they are great words, a series of deliciously twisted, carefully structured phrases strung together in a delirious, stream-of-consciousness that hovers on the edge of making sense while entertaining you–if you can face the wall of words that is each episode.

“History,” Stephen said, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. 

“Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand.”

“Bury the dead. Say Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.”

“We were always loyal to lost causes…Success for us is the death of the intellect and of the imagination.” 

 

UlyssesJames Joyce’s prose is deliberate, shocking and full of puns, parodies, and allusions. He shows us his characters clearly, and depicts them with broad humor.

All of what James Joyce put into his work is what we, as modern writers, want to inject into our own work; only perhaps in a more accessible form that a broader audience of readers will enjoy.

It takes a special kind of obsession to wade through a doorstop like Ulysses for pleasure, as most people are forced  into it (as I was originally) by the requirements of a college class in literature. It’s the sort of thing no one does without a good reason.

For me, that reason is the fabulous one-liners that pepper the nearly hallucinogenic narrative. I simply open it to any page and start reading, letting what happens on that page sink into my consciousness, cringing or laughing as may be.

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The 2nd Draft—Part 2, The Last 5 Hurdles

CC_No_06_A_Tale_of_Two_CitiesIn your first draft, the rough draft, you have the basic story down. Once it is finished, and you have let it rest in a dark closet, out of sight and out of mind for a month or more, only then will you pull it out and feel fired up about it once again.

This is where we’ll mend those plot-holes and narrative gaffes that we couldn’t see when we were in the throes of the writing frenzy.

The previous post covered items one through five, and can be found here: Part 1, The First 5 Speedbumps.

So now, we continue working on the second draft of our manuscript, with roadblocks six through ten:

  1. Too Much Description (my own particular bugaboo–I love words)

Take this quote from the ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ the classic novel by Charles Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Though it is beautiful writing, and in my opinion, perfect–it would never fly today. In prose as in clothing, fashions come and go, even in fiction. Readers once liked flowery description and even demanded them. People took the time to read a story, and were in love with words. And while some readers, like me, still love this style of poetic description, most readers aren’t so patient. It is sad, but modern editors and publishers don’t want to see this sort of work in their submissions pile.

One of the things that is drummed into us in our writing forums and groups, is that modern readers have no attention span and want action from the first page, the first paragraph. They want it from the first word and they don’t want pretty and descriptive prose unless they are into literature as opposed to modern action-adventure style novels. Therefore, go easy on the descriptions. Use them sparingly as if you were seasoning a good meal. A little bit goes a long way if you are writing modern genre fiction.

The wrong way to slip  in a lengthy description is to use a phrase like: “He felt his eyes roll over his host’s attire”  and then follow it with a paragraph describing the host.

That unfortunately phrased line is from an indie book that I am trying with all my heart to read right now in order to review it, but I’m not sure I can finish it, if this is what I have to look forward to. The thing is, I write goofy stuff like that in my first drafts, too. I try to eliminate them in the second, because if I don’t catch them first, my editors will beat me with them! So for the sake of my bruised ego, I try to slip descriptions in less obvious ways, with no clumsy lead in that announces a lengthy exposition is forthcoming.

Descriptions must be part of the background, so the reader doesn’t notice them, and the second draft is where you weed out narrative boo-boos.

Easter_Bunny_Postcard_19077. Head Hopping (Oh yeah–guilty as charged!)

I love that term! It makes me think of the Easter Bunny! However, head hopping creates confusion. One important rule of good novel technique is to restrict each scene to one character’s point of view (POV). This strategy puts the reader in the character’s skin for a more immersive experience.

For me, writing love scenes is particularly tricky. First you are in her head making sure you have all that down, and then you are in his head, and –oh, the agony of whiplash!

Few things are more distracting for the reader than being in Adam’s head for the first paragraph and then being suddenly yanked into Eve’s head two paragraphs later.

In our first draft when we are just getting the story down we are all guilty of this, and so it is very important when we are working on the second draft that we are mindful of whose head we are supposed to be in, and we must make sure we stay there.

Head hopping turns a book into a tennis match. In each story, there are times when we write from different character’s point of view, but it’s important to remember to shift that POV only at the beginning of a new scene or chapter, and here in the second draft is where we make sure that is done properly.

This is a particularly difficult thing for me, because I want to write EVERY character’s POV all the time!

In the “The Mists of Avalon” Marion Zimmer Bradley handles that POV switch perfectly. One chapter is told from Morgaine’s point of view in the first person as the narrator, and in the next chapter  the author tells the story using the third person omniscient voice.

 

hook-movie-poster-1991-10101960168. A Slow Beginning (I’m sorry! I’ll never do it again!)

We are always told that good novels, even those not considered suspense, should begin with a clear dramatic hook, a story problem big enough to entangle the main character and promise struggle from the opening pages to the ending’s resolution.

Sometimes beginning writers spend too many opening pages or chapters showing normal life and wait too long to start the story. In some ways this is how info dumps happen.

My very first novel that I started writing in 1993 began with an info dump that went on for the entire first chapter. I had no understanding of the importance of beginning with an intriguing, active first page, and sustaining the rhythm of conflict-resolution-conflict throughout the novel.  This was a bad habit I carried though many of my novels until I was fortunate enough to fall in with a good writing group. Dramatic hooks are good and need to be plentiful, particularly at the ends of scenes and chapters.

 

Ulysses9. Long Speeches

Sometimes beginning novelists have characters speak in lo-o-o-o-o-ng stretches, seemingly without pausing for a breath. James Joyce in his novel,  Ulysses, enters the head of Molly, in the final chapter spewing an internal dialogue that runs on for more than 24,000 words with only ONE punctuation mark. The final paragraph of the book goes like this:

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t take too much of Ulysses in college no matter how often our young, rather arrogant professor assured us that a thorough understanding of this book would educate our literary palates.

We are constantly admonished that it is crucial to keep paragraphs short and eliminate long character speeches, in order to keep the attention of your readers. Many gurus who are hosting writing seminars these days seem to have a poor opinion of our readers, implying they have limited intellects. I disagree wholeheartedly–I believe modern readers are extremely savvy and intellectual, but they are pressed for time and we have created an entertainment culture that delivers instant gratification, and now readers expect it too.

There is a rhythm to storytelling—each scene leads to a new struggle for the protagonist, to  either an accomplishment or loss of some kind, and then to new goals, always building toward the completion of the core challenge facing the characters.

Some writing coaches have likened this technique to how a skater moves across the ice. Push—glide. Push—glide.

 


10. A Novel Lacking Overall Direction

Successful novels must present several important ingredients:

  1. A beginning with a bang, some major action or conflict
  2. Characters readers care about, people who immediately strike a chord with the reader.
  3. A big problem that needs fixing, and only your hero can do this.
  4. A conflict-riddled struggle that nearly defeats your hero.
  5. The successful conclusion to the conflict that  winds everything up, even if it is supposed to be the first book in a series.
  6. An ending that leaves the reader glad they read the novel, and wondering what happened afterward.

you've been warnedBeginning novelists often fail to do the necessary pre-planning to make these ingredients work together. They think they can just plunk into the chair and start writing—and a wonderful novel will magically appear. Some seasoned authors may write this way, as James Patterson seems able to do,  but most of us can’t, and it shows clearly when the reader downloads the book.

Good, strong, characters must have incremental goals that complement the story, and the story must move along with conflict, drama, action, and emotion.

Once we have completed the second draft, we set the manuscript aside for several more months and work on something else. Then, after once again gaining a bit of perspective on it, we begin the process of rewriting and formatting it for submission to an editor. We use these same guidelines when we make our final revisions before sending it off to our prospective editor, because despite our best efforts, we have missed a lot of rather obvious bloopers, and I’m not just talking about typos.

You will find that when the editor has her hands on your precious manuscript, that is when the real work begins.

 

 

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