Tag Archives: writing craft

The Quest for the Rare, Diamond Studded MacGuffin #amwriting

The nerve of some characters… lazy creatures.

Right now, my protagonist is staring at me. “What the heck is a MacGuffin, and why must I go searching for it?”

“Because,” I reply, “I’m the author, and I said so. You owe your very existence to me, and right now you’re doing nothing. I need to keep you busy and the plot moving forward. In your case, the MacGuffin is Dragon’s Milk, which your future mother-in-law, Queen Evilla, requires for some obscure reason. It should be placed in this diamond studded container.”

“Seriously? You want me to drag a diamond studded bucket through the seediest part of town just to milk a dragon?” Sir Rediculis is the only man I know who manages to look noble even when he pouts. “They do have that little issue of flaming breath? Remember that? Thanks to you, my armor no longer shines, no matter how I polish it.”

Oh, yeah… I do recall that scene. It was awesome, the way he nearly got fried. But it was his squire who really did the dirty work…  still, the hero must have a glorious task, and what could be more glorious than a diamond studded bucket of dragon’s milk?

So… ah ha!  I can have him cross the… but he could accidentally… which will give me the opportunity to promote Randall the Former Kitchen Boy turned Squire to Hero First Class. “Now, now, Rediculis. Be a good hero.” I embrace my hero one last time. “Big knights don’t whine. Princess Babs has her sword strapped on and is ready to go. Your squire has the map, and he’s ready too. Get out there and bring back my MacGuffin.”

Randall regularly fantasizes about spending a week or two trapped in a cave with Princess Babs, naughty boy that he is. Lucky for him he’s nimble, as fetching the MacGuffin will offer me the opportunity to write more hot scenes set in the Fiery Lair of Doom.

Both Randy and Babs are lots braver than this bad boy and they don’t mind a little dirt, so… note to self: have Sir Rediculis cross the Lake of Boiling Dragon Poo via the Rickety Rope Bridge…  heh heh… this is gonna be fun.

So, let’s talk about thin plot devices, or MacGuffins.

According to the Font of All Knowledge, Wikipedia: The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and thereafter declines in importance. It may reappear at the climax of the story but sometimes is actually forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively identified as plot coupons.[1][2]

The name “MacGuffin” was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations. Many times, it is inserted into the narrative with little or no explanation, as the sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

If you are crafty about your plotting and careful how you portray your plot device, it ceases to be a MacGuffin and becomes a quest worthy of writing a story about. Hitchcock was the master at creating great, compelling stories around thin plot devices:

Quote from Wikipedia:  Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University in New York:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’. The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” using the same story.[8][9]

Hitchcock’s term “MacGuffin” helped him to assert that his films were in fact not what they appeared to be on the surface. 

Thus, the object of the quest might not be the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it. The true core of the story might really be the internal journeys of Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaunessy, two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

A good plot device emerges naturally, MacGuffin or not. Done well, it will be entirely accepted and perhaps even unnoticed for what it is by the reader. It can take the form of an object or person being pursued, often by both the protagonist and the antagonist. A good plot device can also be more intangible, perhaps the pursuit of love or power.

If the object of the quest is too outrageous or is inserted clumsily, the reader won’t be able to suspend their disbelief, and likely won’t finish the book.

Don’t let your MacGuffin become

Give the quest for the MacGuffin some closure. If the quest to acquire the MacGuffin is only meant to give the characters something to do while they are interacting and chemistry is happening, please, at least have it be a thread that continues throughout the entire story, as Dashiel Hammett did in The Maltese Falcon.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “MacGuffin,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=MacGuffin&oldid=814738104  (accessed December 10, 2017).

St George and the Dragon, Gustave Moreau 1889-1890 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cover of the original novel “The Maltese Falcon” 1930 File:MalteseFalcon1930.jpg, Fair use

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The Functions of the Scene #amwriting

A great story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, and is made of scenes. We have action, emotion, ups and downs, a plot all sewn together by the thread that is the theme. But the entire structure of the novel is built scene by scene, connected by transitions.

Scenes may consist of conversations, or they may be action sequences, but put them together in the right order, link them with a plot featuring a good protagonist and a worthy antagonist, they combine to form a story.

I perceive the scene as a small area of focus within a larger story with an arc of its own, small arcs holding up a larger arc: the chapter. So, scenes are the building blocks of the story. Strong scenes make for a memorable novel and we all strive to make each scene as important as we can. Therefore, no scene can be wasted. Each scene must have a function, or the story fails to hold the reader’s interest.

Some things a scene can show:

  • Information
  • Confrontation
  • Revelation
  • Negotiation
  • Decision
  • Capitulation
  • Catalyst
  • Contemplation/Reflection
  • Turning Point
  • Resolution
  • Myriad deep emotions

Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.

Let’s examine a watershed scene that occurs in the Fellowship of the Ring, book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series: The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.

Each of those characters attending the Council has arrived there on separate errands, and each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their different agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the Ring and protecting the people of Middle-earth from the depredations of Sauron, if he were to regain possession of it. This scene serves several functions:

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond serves the purpose of conveying information to both the protagonists and the reader. It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy needed information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have the critical knowledge.

The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension. At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the full story of the One Ring is explained, with each character offering a new piece of the puzzle. The reader and the characters receive the information at the same time at this point in the novel.

Confrontation: Action/confrontation, conversation, reaction. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed confrontational conversation (an argument/dispute) gives the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

At the Council of Elrond, long simmering racial tensions between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf surface. Each is possessed of a confrontational nature, and it isn’t clear whether they will be able to work together or not.

Other conflicts are explored, and heated exchanges occur between Aragorn and Boromir.

Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated. Tom Bombadil is at first mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring, or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see the conflict with Sauron as a problem. Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another. Each reason offered for why these characters are found to be less than satisfactory by Gandalf and Elrond deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.

Turning Point: After much discussion, many revelations, and bitter arguments, Frodo declares that he will go to Mordor and dispose of the ring, giving up his chance to live his remaining life in the comfort and safety of Rivendell. Sam emerges from his hiding place and demands to be allowed to accompany Frodo. This is the turning point of the story.

(The movie portrays this scene differently, with Pip and Merry hiding in the shadows. Also, in the book, the decision as to who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to the one day.)

So, within the arc of the story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by scenes. The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it began, leading to the brief transition scene.

Transitions can be as simple as a change of setting, one character leaving the room for a breath of air. They can be hard transitions, the scene ends and with it, so does that chapter. Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. If using a conversation as a transition, it’s important you don’t have your characters engage in idle chit-chat. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

All the arcs together  form a cathedral-like structure: the novel. By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel.

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#NaNoWriMo Getting word count when you’ve fallen behind #amwriting

For some NaNoWriMo novelists, falling slightly behind becomes a death knell to their project. They feel there is no way they can make it up, that they are doomed, and therefore they quit.

In my experience, falling behind on your word count is the easiest problem to fix.

First, don’t let self-doubt creep in. This is human nature, but don’t let it defeat you.

Second, you must buckle down and write more than the minimum for a while. That is also hard, but if you catch it early, you can do it.

Do a little math. Figure out how many words per day you will need to write to make up what you missed. Add that number to your daily word goals. You might want to add a hundred or so words to that number, so you have a little wiggle-room.

Remember, what you are writing is a rough draft, so your story arc is going to be bumpy and uneven. It doesn’t have to be perfect so don’t fuss over making so. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough draft written in thirty days. So, every time you have fifteen minutes to spare, sit down and write as much as you can in that short time period. Spew your story as fast as you can in those moments before you are pulled away. With six or seven short bursts of writing, you can really rack up the word count, and perhaps make up the difference there.

We all must eat, so during NaNoWriMo, I am the queen of the crockpot and anything that can be baked in the oven. Think about it—once the food is in the oven, you will have at least half an hour of downtime. Set your laptop on the counter and write while things are baking/nuking. That is how I cook Thanksgiving dinner for my extended family—I start prepping food on Tuesday, and by writing every time I have a ten or fifteen minute pause in the preparations, I don’t fall behind. This also allows me to enjoy my family on Thanksgiving day, because most of the work is already done.

Yes, the vegan does roast 2 turkeys for the numerous carnivores, but everything else is plant based and homemade. Despite the extra work that Thanksgiving week adds to my life, I get my word count every day and still get my house ready for guests by using this method.

For much of my working life, I was a single parent, sometimes with three part-time jobs. My main job was as a bookkeeper, or working in data entry for corporate America, but though the 1990s I worked weekends and holidays as a hotel maid. I’m retired now, but although I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo, I was a secret novelist, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was writing.

What I did in those old days was this—I always took my lunch to work and wrote during my lunch half-hour. You don’t have to announce you are writing a book if you don’t wish to—I certainly didn’t feel comfortable doing so. If you want to spend your lunch time writing, politely let people know you’re handling personal business and won’t have time to chat.

Some offices will allow you to use your workstation computer for personal business, but most of my places of employment frowned on that. I brought a notebook and pen as I didn’t own a good laptop. By writing down all my thoughts and ideas, I had a great start when I finally did get a chance to write. If your work allows, bring your laptop or your iPad/Android. So you don’t get into trouble with the boss, sit in the lunchroom (if you have one).

I always wrote in the evenings while my children did their homework, which sometimes meant a lot of stopping and starting, but I did get some writing done. Some is better than none! You can also set aside a block of time on the weekend to make up some words, though that can be difficult, as setting aside an un-infringeable time on a weekend can become a hardship, especially if you have a young family.

But by writing in short bursts whenever you have the opportunity, you might get your first draft finished, and get that certificate that says you completed 50,000 words in 30 days.

One way to cultivate your emotional and poetic mind, and to improve your writing skills in general, is to write in the stream-of-consciousness style. This is unstructured, unedited writing. It reflects your (or your character’s) observations. Writing in this fashion mirrors the way internal thoughts in the human mind work – you are quickly processing thoughts and perhaps switching from one topic to another with a certain amount of abandon. Just go for it.

Remember what I said above? Don’t worry about perfection. The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough draft written in thirty days. In January or March, or whenever you go to rewrite your rough draft, you might be amazed to find that much of what you originally wrote has life and passion.

The point is to keep on writing even when you have fallen behind. Use whatever motivational tricks you need to encourage yourself, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Far more importantly than simply getting word count, the goal is to finish your novel.

And remember: you can do it.

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Developing Discipline #NaNoPrep #NaNoWriMo2017

Every author knows that writing is about so much more than merely laying words down on a page.  Most people with a minimal education can do that, and can even whack out a creditable paragraph or two. However, sustaining the momentum and carrying that vision through an entire novel is quite another thing.

Over the years, I’ve seen disparaging articles where people have expressed their scorn and disdain of authors who participate in Nation Novel Writing Month, mocking the notion of a “competition,” deriding both the authors and work that emerges from this month of madness and frozen pot pies.

They’re missing one important point: to write a novel one must begin a novel and make the time to complete it. It takes discipline to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Most people don’t have what it takes to commit to that kind of regimen. Participating in NaNoWriMo forces the author to sit and write a minimum of 1,667 new words every day. If the participant does only that, they will have completed a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I generally manage between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day during NaNoWriMo.

So, to the naysayers, I say, “Fine. If it takes a special month of writing and a group frenzy to get some people fired up about an idea they’ve had rolling around in their heads, who am I to complain?” I am a reader as much as I am an author. The more books that are written, the merrier I will be.

Here’s a short list of well-known novels to emerge from NaNoWriMo particpants:

  1. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. On the best-seller lists for over a year, turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, started as a NaNo novel.
  2. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. What eventually became The Night Circus began life in 2004, seven years before it was finally published, started as a NaNo novel.
  3. Wool, by Hugh Howey. Howey’s dystopian sci-fi novel is one of those credited with putting self-publishing on the map, started as a NaNo novel.

Authors all begin knowing very little about how to write something another person would want to read. But if you maintain the dedication you develop in November, you can learn how to express what your heart feels. Work at learning the craft as hard as you worked to get your wordcount, and you will develop that talent for storytelling.

I think of the many authors to come who will gain both discipline and love of the craft through participating in NaNoWriMo. Many truly talented people are now embarking on learning a craft, committing their time and resources to educating themselves about how to write a novel that others will want to read. Several years down the road, who knows what wonderful works of fiction will have emerged from this year’s madness?

I only know that I am always looking for a good book, and so I will be first in line, hoping to be impressed by a fresh, new work of art. Therefore, I volunteer as a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo. Every year we have new, young writers, with fresh, amazing ideas. But we also have many new older people who are writing their first novel, embarking on a dream they always had but never thought they could do.

The fact is, most people who begin a novel in November do not reach their goal of 50,000 words and never finish those novels. They do not have the discipline to sit down every day and dedicate a portion of their time to this project.

A great number of NaNo authors discover that doing NaNoWriMo is just like doing karaoke. They love to read, and they want to write the next Gone with the Wind, but their work reads as pleasantly as a tone-deaf drunk singing Wind Beneath my Wings. They are not talented writers, and their work isn’t stellar. Just because the rough draft was finished in thirty days and the author got the winner’s certificate of completion, it doesn’t mean that what they wrote was good. It just means they had the discipline to write it.

But despite the high number of would-be authors who fail to finish their novel, a few writers in each age group will continue writing after the month of madness is over. They will embark on the process of educating themselves in the craft.

These authors see the goal and are filled with the desire to finish what they started, knowing they will have to rewrite, edit, revise, and edit again to truly finish their book. When I talk to them and hear how fired up and passionate they are, I am proud to have been a part of their writing life.

Whatever gets a writer fired up and writing is fine by me, and we are all the better for the experience.

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Writing to a Theme #NaNoWriMo2017 #amwriting

November 1st begins the merry month of madness known as NaNoWriMo. Once again, as I have for the last seven years, I will spend the thirty days of November on an intensive writing binge.

Every day I will sit and write at least 1,667 NEW words on my current work in progress. If I do only that, I will have 50,000 words by Nov. 30th, which will bring the rough draft of that book nearly to completion.

But I generally manage between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day, and I work on several different projects. This year, while I WILL work on the rough draft of my current work-in-progress, my official project is another collection of short stories, poems, and flash fictions, all of which will be written to a variety of different themes.

The reason I need to build the backlog with a wide variety of themes is that most anthologies and many publications will call for submissions based around a central idea–such as  redemption, bridges, asylum–a large concept that  unifies the disparate stories.

So, my plan is to write to as many different themes as I can think of. Hopefully, if an opportunity presents itself later, I will have the perfect story ready, one that will only need some revising and editing.

One question I hear often is “how do I identify the theme of my story?” I have discussed this before, but it bears mentioning again. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes.

Sometimes it’s difficult to write a short story unless you start out with a theme in mind. The same can be said for novels, although the theme can emerge more slowly than in short stories. For me, writing to a theme makes the process easier because half the work is done—I know what I’m writing about.

Several of the stories I will be working on are for themed anthologies with open calls for submission, but whose closing dates are rapidly approaching. When I made my list of proposed stories, I searched Submittable for open calls, so I know the desirable themes in advance. Some publications have submission dates that are quite a ways out, some have short deadlines.

Knowing the trending themes publishers are asking for is crucial to building your backlog with salable stories, so if you don’t have a Submittable account, you should get one.

What I hope to do in each story is to layer character studies, allegory, and imagery to emphasize the central theme and support the story arc. Sometimes I am successful, other times, not so much, but I still keep trying.

Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape their reactions and personal growth. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

Science Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle. These are the themes that were most powerfully depicted in the books that rocked my early reading world and are the sort I still seek out.

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Literary or Genre Fantasy? #amreading

A question was recently asked in a Facebook authors’ group that centers around literary fiction, “What is literary fantasy?”

The answer is complicated, and many people who are hardcore readers of obscure literary fiction will radically disagree with me: Some work qualifies as literary fantasy because of the way in which the story is delivered. Because of the style in which they’re written, these books appeal to a much broader fan base than work pigeonholed into either the “genre fantasy category” or the “literary fiction category.”

Each story has a life of its own. Authors envision how that tale must be set down, and some stories that take place in a fantasy setting are focused on the characters and their internal journey more than on the external experiences. That focus on the internal rather than the external is a literary trope. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well. Allusive prose, steeped in allegory, is also a literary trope. Place those tropes and your characters in a fantasy setting, and you have literary fantasy.

Consider Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, volume I, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and volume II, The Ingenious Knight,  written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age. As a founding work of modern Western literature, and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published.

Yet, it is a fantasy, written about a man who believes he is a superhero.

Don Quixote had a major influence on the literary community, as shown by direct references in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

Among modern work, in my opinion, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairy tale about a young man’s internal journey to manhood, steeped in allegory, and told with beautiful, poetic prose in an unhurried fashion.

Within the burgeoning population of authors who are just learning the craft, opinions regarding style and voice run high and loud. Among readers, those who love  and seek out literary fiction are deemed “snooty” while those who love the sheer entertainment offered by genre fiction are deemed “unschooled.” Readers are just people after all–there are haters on both sides of the literary aisle.

Let’s talk about Stardust. According to those critique groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge, in the very first sentence of chapter one, Gaiman commits the most heinous crime an author can commit: he tells the story with leisurely, poetic prose.

Quote: There once was a young man who wished to gain his heart’s desire. 

Those narcissistic gurus armed with tattered copies of Strunk and White, and limited talent of their own really lose their minds over what he does after that first sentence:

  1. He sets the scene: In a style reminiscent of traditional fairy-tales, he explains how our hero, Tristam, lives in the village of Wall. It’s a tiny town about a night’s drive from London. A giant wall stands next to the town, giving the place its name.
  2. He goes on to explain that there’s only one spot to pass through this huge grey rock wall, and it’s always guarded by two villagers at a time, and they are vigilant at their task.
  3. Gaiman comments that this guarding of the gap is peculiar because all one can see through the break in the wall is meadows and trees. It looks as if nothing frightening or strange could be happening there, and yet no one is allowed to go through the break in the wall.
  4. Only then does he bring us to the point: Once every nine years, always on May Day, a unique, traveling fair comes to the meadow. That is the only day the guards ever take a break from their posts on the gap in the wall.

I can hear the group’s de facto emperor pontificating now. What was Gaiman thinking, starting a fantasy novel with a telling, passive sentence followed by an info dump? Why, everyone knows real authors only use active prose and never, ever, offer information up front.

To that breathless expert, I say “not true, my less-than-widely-read friend.” Lean prose can be leisurely and poetic and still pack a punch. That is what true writing is all about, conveying a story in a style that is crafted and has a voice that is uniquely that of the author.

That is why I consider Stardust literary fantasy.

In Stardust, each character is given a certain amount of importance, and even minor players are clearly drawn. The circumstances and events gradually pick up speed, and in the end, the reader is left pondering what might have happened after the final words on the last page.

If you saw the movie that is loosely based on the book but haven’t read the novel,  you might be surprised at how different the book is from the movie. There are no cross-dressing sky pirates in the book, although Robert De Niro was awesome in that role in the movie. The movie bears little resemblance to the book, and, like The Hobbit movie, should be looked at as a different entity entirely.

In the opening lines of Gaiman’s Stardust, nothing unimportant is mentioned although the prose meanders in a literary way. Yes, he takes the long way, but the journey is the best part of this fairy tale. He never devolves into florid, overblown purple prose, yet it has a poetic feel.

In my opinion, the arrogant perception of “fantasy” as having no literary merit is complete hogwash when you look at the books that make up the western cannon of great literature. ALL of them are fantasies of one sort or another, beginning with Don Quixote and going forward, and all of them were created for the enjoyment of the masses.

True authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.

You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. Read old books and new–but read. When you come across authors whose work deeply moves you, study how they crafted the sentences that moved you. You may find yourself learning from the masters.


Credits and Attributions:

Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

First UK edition cover of Neil Gaiman‘s novel Stardust, Illustrator: Charles Vess, Publisher Avon Books, Publication date: 1 February 1999, via Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use.

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The Stranded Novel #amwriting

Good first lines are critical. They have a singular duty, to involve the reader and kidnap them for the length of the book. For that reason, first lines and the opening chapters frequently become all that is ever written of a would-be author’s novel. Yet the authors of those few chapters have the entire book locked in their head.

Participating in NaNoWriMo teaches authors to write the entire book before they begin editing.

In your first draft, DON’T OBSESS over the small things and the finer details as these will derail your work. You will never get past the first chapter if all you can focus on is writing a brilliant opener. Write the entire story as quickly as you can, let it sit for a month or two while you do something completely different, THEN come back to it and focus on shaping the prose. Once you have the entire structure of the novel laid down on paper, you won’t be left wondering where to go next, writing and rewriting the same first chapter.

So, let’s assume the rough draft has been completed, and you are pleased with the way it ends. But you are looking at your early chapters, and they feel lackluster. Now is the time to shape the words, to write them so they are the words you would want to read if you were looking for a book to purchase.  The second draft is when you should obsess about your first lines.

One of the best first lines ever: George Eliot’s Middlemarch starts, “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” That line makes one want to know Miss Brooke and the reader wonders who the observer is who chronicles this. It is a novel, but if it had been a short story, it would still have hooked the reader.

Good first lines make the reader beg to know what will happen next.  How about this first line from Ulysses, by the king of great one-liners, James Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Or, take 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.” 

Should your first lines be required to introduce your main character? I think not.

Dickens introduced an era in the opening lines 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…” 

In his Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan frequently opened with a glimpse into the side of evil, illuminating the foes whom Rand Al Thor must somehow prevail against, and that always hooked me.

All of the above books were begun as great ideas and the manuscripts were finished, which is why they were published. Admittedly, Robert Jordan did pass away before the final books were completed, but he wrote 12 of the 15 books and left a complete story arc with enough notes that Brandon Sanderson could finish the job. Jordan left behind a complete story, not just a first chapter.

If you are serious about writing, it’s necessary to read, to see how other authors have completed their work. Of course, you must read works published in your chosen genre, but to become an educated reader/author, you should look outside your favorite genre. You don’t have to spend your precious book purchasing funds on books you believe you won’t enjoy. Do a little advance research via the internet and then borrow the books from the library.

Most importantly–published authors, whether Indie or traditionally published, have finished their work. Maybe they didn’t do as great a job as some people think they could have done, but they did finish the job.

Grand ideas about what you intend to write mean nothing if you don’t finish the job. If you want to lay claim to being an author, write the ENTIRE novel! Get that story arc down on paper before you begin rewriting the first chapter! If all you have ever written is the first chapter, over and over, and over… perhaps you need to set that idea aside and begin one that interests you enough to inspire you to write a complete novel.

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Details and Exposition #amwriting

For me, as a reader, the skill with which the delivery of background information was handled in a given work is what makes a great story. Yet as a writer, I must continually battle the foes of Bloated Dialogue and Too Much Information. Fortunately, I have a large contingent of writing friends who keep me on my toes in that regard and editors who show no mercy.

In my previous post, we spent a great deal of time on world building. We created a mountain of information, the details we, as the authors, needed so we would know what we are writing about.

Now I’m telling you to keep the details to yourself We’re weeding through that field of dreams and constructing the skeleton of the world for the reader to flesh out in their imagination.

The trick to walking the fine line between too much and not enough is to consider what the characters must know to advance the story. In some ways, writing in the first person makes controlling the dispensing of important details easier for me. When writing in this voice, the story unfolds for both the character and the reader as they go. For this reason, many of my short stories are written in the first person.

Background information should be delivered as the characters require it, no matter what voice we write in. Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those become info dumps laced with useless fluff, sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. This is referred to, in the industry, as bloated exposition.

When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things.

 “Remember the first day at the academy? We showed up wearing identical uniforms. I was so humiliated. I hated you for that. I didn’t speak to you at all until Commander Janson forced us to be partners in the biology lab, but I managed to get us through that with all A’s. But look at you now, you lucky dog. Here you are, my second in command.”

“I know, sir. I despised you too, especially when you made me do all the dirty work, cutting up that alien amphibian. And you took all the credit for it. But now here we are, the best of friends and in command of the finest ship in the United Earth Space Fleet, the USS George Lucas. I really, really love being your flunky. It is just the most awesome gig ever.”

Probably not gonna happen. When two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. The only time exposition in dialogue works is when both the reader and the character being spoken to don’t know the information being dispensed, but need it to move on to the next event.

In the second draft, we seek out and remove

  • Repetitions
  • Nonessential dialogue that does not advance the story
  • Nonessential historical information

We check to make sure the story

  • is cohesive,
  • only has events that flow logically,
  • has dialogue that contains information the reader must know.

If I were to tell you my story and place myself in my setting, I would say

It’s three in the morning. A woman sits at a broken desk, surrounded by dusty boxes. Bowed shelves filled with books loom above her, worn volumes, some more abused than others. The flickering glow of the computer screen illuminates the woman, the boxes, and books.  A train rumbling in the distance and the clicking noise of her keyboard are the only sounds to be heard in the night-silent house.

I’m not going to go into details you don’t need because you don’t care what is in the boxes, who our mortgage lender is, or that the furnace filter was just changed. The boxes, the books, and the keyboard are important—I write in our storeroom, also known as the Room of Shame. Right away, you know I’m not much of a housekeeper, I write at odd hours of the night, and you may suspect that trains symbolize an important thread in my life.

In real life, you might want to talk at length about the small details, but most of the important information is dealt with right away, and the rest is just socializing. When I think of the novels I enjoy the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.

Including nonessential socializing “just to show who the characters are” is where many first-time writers lose the reader. Your characters must socialize, but their conversations must revolve around the matter at hand.

Consider a private phone conversation you receive while you’re at work. Perhaps a friend just had a car accident. Your friend has a story to tell, and you have questions, but you don’t have time to get into the details. “Are you hurt? Can you drive the car? Do you need anything?” While the boss is glaring at the back of your head, you won’t ask if the other driver had insurance or if your friend will sue.

If writing a concise, cohesive narrative that readers will enjoy is not enough of a reason to keep your background information to just what is needed, I have another thought for you to consider.

In the real world, Indies and self-publishers pay the costs to publish their works up front. The length of the book determines these costs. In the eBook format, costs are minimal, and length doesn’t matter, but a paper book by a new author priced at more than $12.99 may not sell well.

Remember, with a longer book, external circumstances can also increase your out-of-pocket costs. Until you’re established, you must purchase your own stock to sell on consignment in local book stores. You’ll also need to buy books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and book-signings. Traditionally published authors also pay these costs, although they may not have to pay upfront as these costs will be taken out of their royalties.

Whether you are traditionally published or Indie, you’ll want to keep your cost as low as possible and still turn out a good book.

To do that, choose your words so they express what you want to say. Use them creatively to show the story, and employ every trick you can think of to keep the word count down to your target length without gutting the narrative.

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Crafting Worlds #amwriting

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. I’m an avid reader, and always have been. Some of the worst books I have read were bad because the setting made no sense or was unclear. This has been as true of stories set in modern New York City as well as fantasies set in wholly imagined worlds.

The author is responsible for making the setting clear and real in the mind of the reader. To do that, the author must pay attention to building that world, even if that world is a well-known city. I can’t write about Seattle if I have no idea what it is like to live there. I can’t stress this enough: do the research.

Because I had noticed these shortcomings in some less than stellar traditionally published works, I made a list of questions to consider when I begin constructing a new society. The Tower of Bones series began as the core story for an anime-based RPG that was cancelled before it was built. For the game’s original concept, I made a checklist of questions about the world and used the answers to write the story of the community the game’s protagonist would live in, a word-picture of about 2000 words.  This is the method I still use today.

Answering the questions posed by the following list of ideas always leads to my considering a kajillion other rather large concepts that combine to make up a civilization.

Level of Technology: What tools and amenities do this society have available to them? What about transport?

  • Hunter/Gatherers?
  • Agrarian/farming
  • Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
  • Medieval metallurgy and technology?
  • Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
  • modern day?

How do we get around and how do we transport goods?

  • On foot?
  • By horse & wagon?
  • By train?
  • By space shuttle?

Social Organization: Society is always composed of many layers and classes. How is your society divided? Who has the wealth? Are there

  • Nobility?
  • A servant class?
  • A merchant class?
  • A large middle class?
  • Who makes up the poorest class?
  • Who has the power, men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect?

Every society that has merchants also has some form of accounting. The need to account for stores of food and goods may actually have given rise to the earliest forms of written languages. It has been postulated that simple accounting systems came before words.

Quote from Wikipedia:

The earliest known writing for record keeping evolved from a system of counting using small clay tokens. The earliest tokens now known are those from two sites in the Zagros region of Iran: Tepe Asiab and Ganj-i-Dareh Tepe.[6]

To create a record that represented “two sheep”, they selected two round clay tokens each having a + sign baked into it. Each token represented one sheep. Representing a hundred sheep with a hundred tokens would be impractical, so they invented different clay tokens to represent different numbers of each specific commodity, and by 4000 BC strung the tokens like beads on a string.[7] There was a token for one sheep, a different token for ten sheep, a different token for ten goats, etc. Thirty-two sheep would be represented by three ten-sheep tokens followed on the string by two one-sheep tokens.

Ask yourself:

  • How is monetary wealth calculated?
  • Do they use coins? What is their monetary system?

If you are inventing the monetary system, keep it simple. Otherwise, go with a traditional form of money if your society is low-tech. (For my low-tech worlds I generally use gold coins, divided into tens: 10 coppers=a silver / 10 silvers=a gold.) Conversely, use good old-fashioned electronic currency if your world is high-tech.

Language and the written word: Do they have a written language? This is important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a low-tech society because it determines how knowledge is passed on. Low-tech generally equals an oral tradition with only the elite able to read and write.

  • How are people educated?
  • Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
  • How are bards, storytellers and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?

Government: There will be a government somewhere, even if it is just the local warlord. Someone is always in charge because it’s easier for the rest of us that way:

  • Is it a monarchy, theocracy, or a democratic form of government?
  • How does the government fund itself?
  • How are taxes levied?
  • Is it a feudal society?
  • Is it a clan-based society?
  • Warlord, President, or King/Queen?
  • How does the government use and share the available wealth?
  • How is the government viewed by the citizens?

Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?

  • If not, why? What causes the tension?

Waging War: This is another area where we have to ask what their level of technology is. It is critical for you as the author to understand what sort of weapons your characters will bring to the front, and what the enemy will be packingDo the research and choose weaponry that fits your established level of technology.

  • What kind of weaponry will they use?
  • How are they trained?
  • Who goes to battle? Men, women, or both?
  • How does social status affect your ability to gain rank in the military?

Ethics and Values: What constitutes morality?

  • Is marriage required?
  • How are women treated? How are men treated?
  • How are same-sex relationships viewed?
  • How are unmarried sexual relationships seen in the eyes of society?
  • How important is human life? How is murder punished?
  • How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
  • What about drunkenness?
  • How important is the truth?
  • What constitutes immorality?
  • How important is it to be honest and trustworthy?

Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?

Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? If it is central, ask yourself: Is there one god/goddess or many? If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.

  • What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
  • What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
  • Who has the power?
  • Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
  • How does the priesthood interact with the community?
  • Who can join the priesthood?
  • Do people want to join the priesthood or do they fear it?
  • How is the priesthood trained?

You are welcome to use this roster as the jumping-off point to form your own inventory of ideas for world building.

When you have cemented the society in your mind, the world your characters inhabit will feel real and solid, and your protagonists will fit into it organically. Their society will be visually real to the reader, even if the world it evokes in their minds isn’t exactly your vision of it. You will have done your job, by giving them a solid framework to imagine the story around.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “History of ancient numeral systems,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_ancient_numeral_systems&oldid=799316402 (accessed October 8, 2017).

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Crafting Interior Monologues #amwriting

In writers’ forums, you will find a great deal of discussion regarding interior monologues, or how writers express their characters’ thoughts. It’s true that beginning authors can rely too heavily on them as an easy way to dump blocks of information into a narrative, instead of deploying it. A few people will even tell you they despise interior monologues, and while I disagree with them, I do see their point.

For the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy, and in most YA novels, it is an accepted practice to italicize a protagonist’s thoughts, and readers expect to see them presented in italics. However, we need to be aware of how daunting it is for a reader to be faced with a wall of italics.

A rather vocal contingent at any gathering of authors will say thoughts should not be italicized, that it creates a greater narrative distance, setting readers outside of the character and the events of the scene.

As an avid reader, I disagree with that statement if it is applied broadly, and will argue the point, although more than a sentence or two does exactly that. This is a personal style choice that you, as an author, must make for yourself, based on the genre you are writing in and the preferences of the intended audience for your work.

If we choose to omit dialogue tags for these internal conversations and don’t set them off with italics, it becomes confusing. The finished book ends up looking like a bunch of closed quotes were left out, and gives the impression of an unedited manuscript, even if the publisher has subtly changed the font just for thoughts.

So what, in my opinion, is the best way to indicate that a sentence or two of interior monologue in the middle of a scene is the viewpoint character’s thoughts (and not the narrator narrating)?

I found a wonderful, highly detailed article on crafting Interior Monologues, written by Harvey Chapman, for the website, Novel Writing Help. The following quote pertains to my post today:

Here are the possibilities open to you…

  1. Writing the thought in first person, present tense (which is the way we actually think them) vs. writing it in third person, past tense (so that they blend in with the rest of the text).
  2. Using italics vs. using normal text.
  3. Using a “he thought” tag vs. not using one.
  4. Wrapping the thought in quotation marks (either single or double) vs. not using quotation marks.

We can dispense with the final option straight away: Never use quotation marks around a character’s thoughts. Why?

Because the reader will assume the words are being said out loud, and will then have to make an awkward mental shift when they see a “he thought” interior monologue tag, rather than a “he said” dialogue tag, at the end.

We can also dispense with using italicized text when the thought is translated into third person past tense.

The only point of italics is to make a different voice and tense stand out from the regular voice and tense being used. When both the thought and the text surrounding it are in the same voice and tense there is no need for italics.

The following excerpt from Benny’s Gambit, a short fiction work-in-progress, illustrates how I write interior monologues. They must be natural, and organic to the flow of the narrative. Thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the reader’s interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she came from a wealthy family. The gold watch, the sleek sports car she drove could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

You could verbalize all that information in Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is shown all they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things work well when expressed as an interior monologue, especially if you want the reader in your protagonist’s head, as in the next paragraph of Benny’s story:

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot. He dipped the mop in the bucket and wrung it out, unobtrusively watching the elevator doors as they glided closed.

The first sentence is in the third person, past tense, as is the third sentence. The thought is italicized because it is in the first person present tense, showing his real-time experience. In those two paragraphs, the reader has also gained a whole lot of information.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is that Benny is actually a detective working undercover, and Charlotte is the secretary of his quarry. I could easily have have written it all in third person past tense but I chose not to, for a specific reason: I want you in Benny’s head.

Interior monologues are crucial to the flow of novels in which the author wants the reader planted firmly in the protagonist’s mind. However, these are tools we must use sparingly. The majority of thoughts should be shown through actions or external observations.

Those external observations are a subtle part of worldbuilding when you are writing a narrative that is an intimate portrait of your protagonist.

So, to wind this up, I feel that:

    1. Interior monologues are an organic part of some kinds of narratives, but not necessarily all narratives.
    2. When they are done well and sparingly, interior monologues can create an intimate connection with the protagonist.
    3. If an interior monologue is used in most speculative fiction, it should be short and set off by italics, and only rarely with the speech tag ‘thought.’
  • Italics should never be used for long passages.

Credits and Attributions:

Novel Writing Help, The Complete Guide to Interior Monologue, by Harvey Chapman, © Novel Writing Help, 2008-2017 https://www.novel-writing-help.com/interior-monologue.html#more-78, Accessed Oct 1, 2017

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