Monday, May 30, 2011

To Read or Not to Read

Mark Twain once said that a classic was “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” I guess English teachers were assigning some pretty dry reading in his day, too. It’s a rare student who can say they never met a classic they didn’t love, but there are some exceptions to Mr. Twain’s rule.

Hollywood knows how to tap into a good story, and that’s why there are movie versions of Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Rebecca, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and more recently, Jane Eyre, to name a few. These may or may not be in your to-be-read pile, but seeing the movie often inspires me to read the book, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one.

Just what gets a book pegged with the dry moniker of ‘a classic’? I did some sleuthing, and the general consensus is that classics all share these traits:

  • Authentic storylines and plots that reflect social issues of the time
  • Idealistic characters. In the end, the good guys win.
  • Language that is intricate
  • A moral lesson
  • Longevity. Their popularity doesn’t diminish over time.

Christian fiction classics go a step further, having the ability to propel readers farther than simple messages of morality or social change can take them, to where they profoundly impact our patterns of thinking on a spiritual level.

If you did an online search of Christian classics, you would find some classics that are not labeled as Christian fiction but are steeped in Christian values, nonetheless. I’m thinking of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, for example. Great, wholesome entertainment that sticks to your literary ribs.

But a Christian fiction classic is poised to help the reader go the step further, books like C.S Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, Catherine Marshall’s Christy, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe. These classics have profoundly impacted me over the years. Others by Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor have left their imprints on me, as well. There are, of course, many excellent Christian fiction books out there – many of them destined to become classics - but I mention these in particular because they are older and have withstood the test of time. It will be interesting to note which ones will make the grade 20 years from now. I predict that Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love will make the list.

What have you read recently that changed you in some way and that you feel strongly will be a future classic?

Friday, May 27, 2011

"He Says ... or Does He?"

As Katy points out in Wednesday's post, Elizabeth George and Elmore Leonard -- and many other experts on the writing craft -- opine that "said" is the best choice when seeking a dialogue tag, for the very reason that it doesn't compete with or interfere with the flow of the dialogue. And I concur. Does that mean I -- or they -- believe a writer MUST ONLY use the word "said" in writing dialogue? Absolutely not. Nicole, in her comment to Katy's post, said, "You know, "said" is boring. Repeatedly "said" is annoying." I agree. The point is not to ply the page with one "said" after another. It's to find a way to make your dialogue sing, to stand out from the masses, by writing dialogue that needs minimal attribution, and by employing action tags that don't simply replace dialogue tags for the sake of replacing dialogue tags, but that add to the story and character development.

Another writing book I'm partial to is Shut Up! He Explained by William Noble. Is that the best title ever, or what? In Chapter 8, He Says ... or Does He? Noble writes that Harold Ross, unpredictable and somewhat zany editor of The New Yorker, developed editorial rules for manuscripts. Noble writes (forgive the lengthy passage):
One of the rules ... was that a passage of dialogue is best followed by "said." Anything else --"shouts" or "exclaims" or "retorts," for example -- is just wasted motion. No verb, in other words, should substitute for "said." It got me thinking ... "Stuff it in your ear!" he ... said? Wouldn't "retort" be better? ... I thought further ... A writer should be able to phrase dialogue so the impact of the words would be clear. "Go to [hades]!" he shouted -- could be redundancy. "Go to [hades]!" itself is a strongly worded statement, and why do we need "he shouted"? Of course, maybe we don't need any modifying phrase at all. "Go to [hades]!" could stand by itself. No "shout," no "said," no nothing. The reader's imagination could probably conjure a fitting modifier.

Today, even The New Yorker allows substitutions for "said." Yet the rule shouldn't be dismissed because [it] ... had considerable merit. A writer should be able to create dialogue that doesn't rely on the descriptive modifier; the words a character speaks should carry the emotion in which the words are spoken:

"You-you aren't my dead uncle's long-lost great-great grandson!"

"Oh Everett, I love these children so ..."

In the first sentence do we need modifiers like he gasped, or he blurted out ...? Wouldn't he said work as well? Perhaps we don't need to say anything -- maybe that would work even better.

In the second sentence, do we need she purred, she whispered --? We could insert she said, and it wouldn't detract from the impact of the dialogue. Then, too, perhaps nothing at all would be even better.

There are no precise rules on when to use "he said," when to use a substitute, and when to use nothing ... Generally, however, we can say this:

"he/she said" is the basic modifier, and it should be used at least three-quarters of the time any modifier is used."
That is my belief, and the principle by which I write dialogue. I believe those 1% of writers that Katy mentioned in her post -- that 1% that outshines the average writer -- are not the ones that find a variety of substitutes for the word "said," but rather they are the ones who write dialogue so expertly that attributes are not simply unnecessary, they get in the way. Consider this passage from Kathryn Stockett's The Help:
My phone ring, making me jump. Before I can even say hello, I hear Minny. She working late tonight.

"Miss Hilly sending Miss Walters to the old lady home. I got to find myself a new job. And you know when she going? Next week."

"Oh, no, Minny."

"I been looking, call ten ladies today. Not even a speck a interest."

I am sorry to say I ain't surprised. "I ask Miss Leefolt first thing tomorrow do she know anybody need help."

"Hang on," Minny say. I hear old Miss Walter talking and Minny say, "What you think I am? A chauffeur? I ain't driving you to no country club in the pouring rain."

Sides stealing, worse thing you'n do for your career as a maid is have a smart mouth. Still, she such a good cook, sometimes it makes up for it.

"Don't you worry, Minny. We gone find you somebody deaf as a doe-knob, just like Miss Walter."

"Miss Hilly been hinting around for me to come work for her."

"What?" I talk stern as I can: "Now you look a here, Minny. I support you myself fore I let you work for that evil lady."

"Who you think you talking to, Aibileen? A monkey? I might as well go work for the KKK. And you know I never take Yule May's job away."

"I'm sorry, Lordy me." I just get so nervous when it come to Miss Hilly. "I call Miss Caroline over on Honeysuckle, see if she know somebody. And I call Miss Ruth, she so nice it near bout break your heart. Used to clean up the house ever morning so I didn't have nothing to do but keep her company. Her husband died a the scarlet fever, mm-hmm."

"Thank you, A. Now come on, Miss Walters, eat up a little green bean for me." Minny say goodbye and hang up the phone.
There's only one dialogue tag in that passage, yet it's not at all difficult to follow who's speaking. And the information gained by what's woven throughout the dialogue goes so far beyond what any dialogue tag could accomplish. That alone is my point, why I beat the drum so regularly about the careful use of dialogue tags.

We all want to rise above the masses. We all want our work to stand apart. Rules will never accomplish that. But Katy is 100% correct when she says, "An author who learns the rules takes a great first step away from amateur status toward publication. An author who learns when it's better than okay to break those rules makes great galumphing strides in the direction of art."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"You Write So Wonderfully," The Editor Murmured Financially

A writer learns early that her manuscript has scant seconds to convince an editor of its merits. I've watched hopeful new authors at conferences, seated at tables with overworked editors who scan the first page, then one or two in the middle. Sometimes that's all he does before he lays the manuscript down, folds his hands, and gently, respectfully... shakes his head.

Harsh reality. And the reason behind it is this: there are things new authors do in their writing that instantly mark them as amateurs. They string cliches together to form lifeless paragraphs. They force readers to stand by while characters search under the bed for their shoes only to find... (ho hum!) shoes.

They gussy up their dialogue with gaudy tag lines. Their characters beseech, giggle, hiss, choke, and gush. And they do it laconically, suddenly, hoarsely, and good-naturedly.

In "Write Away," one of Sharon's favorite books on writing, author Elizabeth George tells us that most of the time, a simple said will suffice:

What happens when a writer uses said in a tag line is that the reader’s eye skips right over it. The brain takes in the name of the speaker, while the accompanying verb—providing it’s the verb said—simply gets discarded.

Elmore Leonard agrees with her. In "Writers on Writing," he says: “Never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. . . . Never use an adverb to modify the word ‘said.’"


In "Spunk & Bite," one of Bonnie's favorite books on writing, Arthur Plotnik counters:
“Well, this annoys me,” I say pointedly. “This annoys me,” I hiss. “This annoys me!” I trumpet through cupped hands.

Plotnik does not suggest we ignore the general rule of thumb. I imagine he's seen and lived through the scenario I described at the beginning of this post. But he calls us to remember that rules of thumb have exceptions:

... maybe they are 99 percent right. But it’s the 1-percent-wrong part that intrigues me, because that’s where some of our most commercially successful writers live; because that’s where the thrill of risk and reward comes into play; and because rigidity can hamstring an idea on its way to expression.
His point is that on occasion, a well turned fancy-tag can add humor or clarity or interest to your writing. Of all the excellent examples he offers, my favorite is this from Fay Weldon's novel, "Worst Fears:"

“You prurient old cow!” shouted Alexandra. . . .

“I understand your anger,” said Leah.

“No one understands my anger!” shrieked Alexandra.

“This session is at an end,” said Leah.

Can you imagine any simpler, faster, better way to show the reader the contrast between one character's rage and the other's cold composure?

An author who learns the rules takes a great first step away from amatuer status toward publication. An author who learns when it's better than okay to break those rules makes great galumphing strides in the direction of art.

Tell us about you: Read any fabulous dialogue tags lately? Written any?

We love to read what you have to say.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Dialogue about Dialogue - A Novel Matters Roundtable Discussion

We'd like to draw your attention to a new feature to the blog--"search this blog" function has been added to Novel Matters to help you locate archived articles on Novel Matters. Give it a try! And keep coming back to discover new ways to engage in the conversation about writing and the writing life.

This month, the Novel Matters Roundtable is a true roundtable discussion. What follows is a transcript of the six of us in discussion about the topic of dialogue in fiction. We got a bit silly a couple of times, but that is how it goes whenever the six of us get together. We laugh a great deal. We sincerely hope you enjoy this transcript. When we were done, Patti Hill remarked, “It makes me want to have a retreat with all of you.”

Bonnie: Rich discussion this month on Novel Matters—I’ve noticed that dialogue has cropped up a number of times in different posts. Strong dialogue. Believable, driving plot, revealing. A tall order. When you sit down to write (or edit) a scene with lots of dialogue, how do you know your characters are ringing true? There is what is being said, and then there is conveying the manner in which it is being said, and the manner in which other characters perceive it’s being said.
Uh... What was I saying?

Katy: For me it's like being an actress, and getting into character. If I crawl into my character’s skin, take on the past that she has lived and feel what she must be feeling in the moment, then I can open my mouth and the words will come out. The tricky part is to inhabit more than one character at the same time, so I can carry all sides of the conversation. Sometimes I have to type quickly.

Bonnie: In theater that is called method acting. Method writing! I’d love to see you in action, Katy! So, for each character, you write an extensive history? Or how does that work?

Katy: Ha! I shut the door when I write - it looks too crazy. After I’d done my first novel this way, I discovered that Brandilyn Collins had written an excellent book on method writing, titled "Getting Into Character." She suggests writing very extensive histories by interviewing your characters, asking them questions and accepting as normal reality the fact that they answer back. I don't do it quite that way. I start off with just highlights of their past, because I know they will tell me more as the story progresses - and would do so even if it contradicted what I had already scripted for them.

Patti: Uh, is this the roundtable discussion going on? Is this the official start? Still waking up!

Bonnie: It has officially started, yes. Jump in!

Sharon: I don't have to shut the door, because I'm mostly home alone when I write. Which makes talking to myself all the more crazy. But I definitely do work out loud on my dialogue, and rehearse it over and over till I get it right. Because it's hugely important to get it right. When I'm not alone, I do a lot of whispering to myself. The point is, my lips are moving a lot, but it's often not because I'm involved in dialogue with real people, or real people who might happen to be in the same room with me. My family doesn't even question it anymore.

Bonnie: Katy, Love this. Reminds me of Arthur Plotnik’s guest post about Stage Business. The line he wrote that has always stuck with me is: "I love you," he told her. She checked her cell phone. No messages. "Love you, too." Sharon, I read aloud too. Not just dialogue, but especially dialogue. There’s authenticity to test, as you point out. I also listen to the character’s dialogue to ensure it’s unexpected, surprising, and interesting. I want my characters to say what they are saying without saying it in a way a reader would expect it to be said.

Sharon: Exactly, Bonnie. Straightforward dialogue can be extremely boring. I've read a number of manuscripts as contest entries this spring -- and a few books up for awards -- and I find this problem in the dialogue of novice writers all the time. Sub-text is a vital element to good dialogue in fiction.

Patti: Funny how so many of us have method-writing in common. And I agree, you must close the door if other people are in the house. If I don’t, hubby calls up from downstairs, “Did you say something?” Uh, yeah. Uh, no. That little contradiction reminds me of what’s so important in dialogue and deepens characterization. In good dialogue, the characters have opposing goals. One wants to talk about a new treatment for cancer. The other has already decided to forgo treatment but isn’t ready to say so. One wants to learn more about their relationship. The other would rather talk about anything else, so she talks about the high price of tomatoes. One is pleading for help, the other is squirming, changing the subject, interrupting, leaving the room. I’m not talking about arguments, but all of our characters want something, sometimes they want the same thing. They just go after it differently, and this shows up in dialogue.
I love writing dialogue.

Latayne: Recently I went back and looked at what I consider an exemplar for dialogue, The Help. Since it is all first person with multiple POVs, technically it's all dialogue. Stockett does a great job, I think, of creating distinct characters all participating in the same scenario. However, large sections of the book are each character's recounting of "quotation marks" dialogue where each recalls conversations. That's a bigger challenge for a writer, I think, when the narrator is already showing biases and distinct voice, and then conveys conversations.

Debbie: Maybe because I'm a visual learner, I love good movies (and some funny ones that wouldn't win any awards). When I sit down to write a scene, I 'see' it like it would play out in a movie from a script in front of me. I'm usually an onlooker, not a character, though I have to get into their heads. I'm a voyeur? :)

Katy: A voyeur that gets into people's heads. Sounds like a great plot for a movie...

Bonnie: ‘Being John Malkcovich’ is a movie about that very thing. Adult content—but an interesting movie if you like indie films.

Katy: I was thinking about the X-files, and that creepy guy that slithered through people's heater vents. Are we off topic?

Bonnie: Mildly. Just a titch. LOVED that episode. Creepy! Remember the toilet scene?
Okay, we should backtrack to Latayne’s excellent observations of dialogue in THE HELP—which was so clever, I’m not sure that it didn’t just sail right over my head.
I read THE HELP last year. I’ll have to revisit it and then interrupt, I mean, interject my (assuredly) intelligent observations.

Latayne: No, I’m not being clever. (But I’d love to be clever) I’m thinking through some of my frustrations with trying not to insert too much of myself into my narrator. Or dialogue. Or narrator’s dialogue. I hate this indecision.

Katy: Patti and Latayne both bring up what I consider to be the best kind of dialogue, the kind that tells the reader more than the characters themselves know, by use of cues other than words. It's one of the best ways a writer "tells it slant" that I know of.

Bonnie: Dialogue that is made up of non-verbals. Okay, Katy, you’re going to have to ‘splain that one more!

Katy: Non-verbals are the best part of dialog. What people don't say. (He says "I love you." She spoons sugar into her coffee and stirs.) Or, as Patti showed, what they say that has little or nothing to do with what was just said to them. A man tells his wife, "I'm worried about that lump in your breast." The wife says, "Do you think the blazer would look better than the cardigan?" and we know she would rather think about her breasts as fashion problems than health problems. Or she avoids the issue altogether and says, "Do you think it's too early to plant marigolds?"

Latayne: Remember a while back when we had a post about ways to insert “extra beats” of silence into dialogue? Like the verbal equivalent of a rest in music? That’s a non-verbal. Well, it’s a verbal way of conveying silence, which is by definition non-verbal. Right?

Bonnie: Okay, what about someone reading your dialogue to you? Anyone tried this? This is more difficult because while still writing the writer is still in don’t-day-anything-negative-about-my-stuff-or-I-will-cry-and-you-will-sleep-on-the-couch-tonight mode. Uh. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

Patti: I’ve recorded passages, including dialogue, to play back. Especially if I wait a day or two to listen, the words come to me raw and stilted and wooden, all things that can be fixed during revision. Am I being too negative? Did I already say that I love writing dialogue? I meant it! It flies onto the page. I don’t do any attributions in the rough draft. I do my voyeur best to take dictation. The key is to really know your characters and what they want and what they want to hide. We all want to hide something.

Katy: Today I have a very sore throat and it hurts to read aloud. So I'm using an old trick I often use when revising: I get a text-to-speech program to read what I've written back to me. I like TextAloud because it adds the function right into Microsoft Word. It's not the same as "performing" the dialogue myself, but I do catch things that I can fix.

Bonnie: And all the coolness of living in the future when all librarians will be robots. So that rocks.

Patti: So, like, having a painful sore throat isn’t even an excuse not to write? What’s left?

Debbie: Katy, I've heard that those programs are a great way to catch saggy spots in your dialogue, or your manuscript in general. When we read aloud, we tend to put inflection where we want it, but the reader won't necessarily do that. The dialogue has to be written so that the meaning comes across clearly without it, maybe using tags. I haven't tried one yet, but I'll try the one you suggested.

Katy: Good point, Patti. And good point, Debbie. I started using it because I like to hear what I'm writing. That may come from my days reading to my sons, when I steered them toward books that were fun to read aloud. To my mind, if it doesn't crackle when read aloud, it just doesn't crackle. Dialogue, especially, should crackle. No matter the age of the reader.

Patti: As a reader, I love dialogue too. All that white space and the immediacy of overhearing a conversation that is making things happen. Rarely does anything so satisfying happen when I’m eavesdropping in real life. Dialogue is like stepping out of a forest, especially like the one in The Princess Bride and coming to an open meadow with lots of sunshine. It’s a place to sigh.

Sharon: I agree, Patti --- and love the analogy of the forest in Princess Bride, which is one of my very favorite movies. I can overlook other shortfalls in a novel if the dialogue is right. It must be snappy, straightforward only when it must be, and it must do so much more than deliver facts. Good dialogue is a must if a book is to have lasting value.

Bonnie: Princess Bride has the best, most quotable dialogue (so does the book).
Patti, you used the phrase “white space”. When I read that, I thought maybe dialogue serves the reader as a kind of “relief” from the density of the novel. Except when I say that it doesn’t sound right.... Maybe it’s like when you’re writing a lengthy part in the novel (and no dialogue), you ensure you use different sentence lengths, and even interject questions instead of straight declarations. Dialogue serves to enliven the readers experience.

Am I close?

Patti: All of that, Bonnie. The white space around the dialogue does give the reader a break from the slower pace of narrative, but that doesn’t give us license to have plodding narrative. Yes, read everything you write out loud. Vary sentence structure and length. It’s always a good idea to shake it up, or your writing will sound like a Dick and Jane reader. Nooooo!
And what about you, faithful reader? What have you learned about writing good dialogue? Do you act out in front of your computer? Do you remember that episode of the X-files? We look forward to continuing the discussion with you!

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Dilemma

The story and the characters for the novel I’m beginning to write are solid in my mind. The plot is amorphous but like a blessing-river, has clearly-defined banks. That river is flowing and is like a living thing.

I know this story because it is a symbol and, like all true symbols, those which accurately reflect God’s realities and point of view, it has an outcome and that outcome is justice.

The people are real to me. I could close my eyes and reach out and touch their collars and feel the grain of the fabric. That real.

The setting is an actual place, the time a point of history that was documented by many observers.

It is as if the whole thing trembles with the vibrancy of a creation, and the brilliance of rain-soaked color.

The problem is me.

I cannot decide. Do I stand in the place of God—for that is what an omniscient narrator does, right?—and tell the story?

Do I let the characters tell the story, in their own words, with their own blinders?

Do I let one character tell the story?

And in all these cases, do I relay the information in present or past tense?

How does one make such decisions when the story does not demand any one of these choices?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bird by Bird Book Talk, sorta

I interrupt our regularly scheduled discussion of Anne Lamott's chapter, "Dialogue" to skip ahead. Such is the power of being the blogger of the day. But this isn't about power. We have a roundtable surprise for our readers on Monday on dialogue. I’m saving my best for that discussion. (Some of us—me!—have a shallow reservoir of knowledge and must siphon cautiously.)

For those of you just dropping by, we've been discussing Anne Lamott's classic writing book, Bird by Bird. Today, we'll be talking about her chapter, "Set Design." Let's say, for discussion purposes only, that you didn't read the chapter. By all means, chime in. We learn so much from what you add.

The very title of this chapter makes me squirm a bit. "Set Design" conjures up backdrops for school plays held in place with two-by-fours. Setting is so much more. In fact, setting should be a character in our stories. Setting moves beyond its generic role as backdrop to become a character when a landscape, an attic hideaway, or even a rabbit warren becomes a vehicle of change for the protagonist and his players.

Didn't you feel the grit of red clay on your face while reading To Kill a Mockingbird? Did you watch Cuba sink into the horizon in The Old Man and the Sea and feel your self-doubt growing? Did you luxuriate in the “moist hungry earth” in the company of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind?

A masterfully built story universe uses the elements of history and culture, geography and climate, and flora and fauna to shape the characters and the stories, and most importantly, to pull the reader irresistibly in.

Let's consider a recent bestseller, Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls. She does a great job of developing her setting as character, a force of change and challenge for the main character. Walls wrote the real-life novel as a telling of her grandmother's life, perhaps as an explanation of how her mother and father came to be such disappointing parents( Read: Glass Castles). Whatever her motive for writing the story, it's a great read, real-life or not.

Walls opens the story in a soddy on the west Texas plains around the turn of the last century. The West is still a very wild place, and Texas, especially, is known for its get 'er done spirit. School is a luxury few can afford, and, quite frankly, educating women seems like a waste of time. Standing apart from that culture and time, Lily Casey Smith, Walls' grandmother, wants to expand her learning and her father agrees, to a point. A get-rich scheme gone sour drains Lily's tuition money. She’s sent home with little hope of returning. She breaks horses with her father until a former teacher suggests she take a teaching position left open due to teacher shortages during the Great War. She is fifteen and she rides a horse 500 miles over twenty-eight days to reach the assignment. Had Walls not created a place with history and culture, Lily would never have had her mettle tested so convincingly.

Lily lives on two ranches during her lifetime, one in Texas and the other in New Mexico. Both are hot and dry, but only Texas has tornadoes. The violence of one storm pushes Lily's family to leave for New Mexico. Geography and climate definitely press and refine Lily. New Mexico is yet another wild place, but different. The sky is wide open but canyons and sandstone walls give respite and adventure. Lily is ruined for city living, although she tries several times to enter the hubbub of urban life. She always ends up in the desert where too little and too much rain cause near ruin, and goodness--read that: water--is captured to sustain life and nearly destroy it. The paradoxical geography and climate of the West shapes Lily into a woman who can sell moonshine from under her son's crib and not wince.

We have to return to the soddy to understand how Lily can stand unblinking at the flora and fauna of the West. Worms, scorpions, and centipedes wriggled through the earthen walls to visit the family. In fact, a rattlesnake drops onto an Easter dinner. Her father pauses from carving the ham to behead the thing. Remember, at 15 she travels alone by horseback across 500 miles of desert. Lily isn't bullied by the cohabitants of her home. By living in such close proximity to all that is wild, she has simply learned to adapt, not romanticizing nor cowering. The flora and fauna of the desert west have made her a force to be reckoned with.

Half Broke Horses was a satisfying read because Walls didn't hang her characters against a generic backdrop. I don't think we should either.

What have you read lately where the author uses place as a character? Is it satisfying for you to read a story where the characters seem suspended in space? Why not? Care to give titles? Do you prefer books where you feel like you've traveled to another place and time? Please share. A reading list can't be too long. How do you develop setting for your novels?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lessons from a Siamese

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One of my favorite comics is 'Get Fuzzy' by Darby Conley in which Satchel, the compliant, gullible pooch, is abused by Bucky, the conniving, misguided Siamese. Bucky steals money from his owner's wallet to buy things on eBay and dabbles in writing.

Snoopy (Charles Schulz) was a struggling writer, too. I've clipped comics of his endless rejection letters and attempts at "It was a dark and stormy night." I often felt Snoopy's pain, but Bucky's forays into writing are strictly mercenary so he gets no sympathy from me.

On my fridge I have posted one panel in which Bucky reasons that if monkeys on typewriters could produce Shakespeare, then squirrels on word processors with Spellcheck would produce a script for Two and a Half Men. In today's comic, he has written a novel that falls woefully short of the word count, so Bucky adds a descriptive word (greenish) to make it longer. Today he struck a nerve.

Word count is a booger. Smart writers will do their research in advance to see which publishers (a) buy the types of novels they write, and (b) determine the word count the publisher requires. If life gets in the way of your writing (translation: work, family, illness, etc) it's possible that enough time can pass before you complete your manuscript so that publishers will either have changed their requirements or stopped publishing altogether. It's happened to me, and I don't think I'm the only one.

So, let's say you've been to a conference and met with an editor, and the great news is that they are interested! The bad news is that your manuscript is too short. They need 10,000 more words. Yikes. You, of course, agree. You can do it. Then you go home scratching your head. The story is done -
finis. It's tight and polished. You've said everything that needed saying. Do you really have to 'pad' it to meet the publisher's guidelines? You could insist that the story is complete as written, but you would most certainly not receive a contract.

By the time you present your manuscript to an editor, you've completed the editing process many times over. You've macro and micro edited, performed search-and-destroy on unnecessary words, cut stagnant scenes filled with description. The last thing you want is to fill the story with fluff and look like an amateur.

Besides, wouldn't it be a betrayal of your art to pad it for the sake of a sale? You could view it that way, or you could see it as an opportunity. Here's your chance to develop some minor plot points or delve more deeply into a specific character trait important to the story. You can insert some of those scenes you cut during the editing phase, or come up with some more definitive, compelling ones. You have the freedom to strengthen any part of the story without word count consideration, as long as those words survive the ensuing editing gauntlet.

Ten thousand words is really a gift, when you look at it this way. That's about 300 words per page, or 3.5 pages per ten-chapter manuscript, give or take a few pages. Not as big as it seems. Once you feel the wind in your hair, you may actually have to reign in your word count, instead of struggling to fill it.

What are your challenges with word count? Do you struggle to fill it or end up chopping volumes in the final draft? We'd love to hear!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lies in the Name of Truth

I apologize for the delay in posting this today, but Blogger was "Unavailable" for the past 24 hours!

I love the women I blog with here at Novel Matters. Really love them. They are all amazing women, amazing writers, and have much wisdom and experience to share on the craft of writing -- and on life in general. Katy's Tell the Whole Truth post on Wednesday was excellent. If you haven't read it yet, I hope you'll take a moment to do so.

Patti has been going through Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird the past few weeks, and most recently covered the chapter on Characters. In that chapter, and in keeping with Katy's topic, Anne gives us this wonderful nugget regarding truth in fiction:

"This brings us to the matter of how we, as writers, tell the truth. A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It's a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up. I suppose the basic moral reason for doing this is the Golden Rule. I don't want to be lied to; I want you to tell me the truth, and I will try to tell it to you."

It's very important that we stay true to our characters in telling their stories. By that I mean they must stay true to themselves under our watchful writer's eye if they're to be believed. We must have their temperaments, their quirks, their fears, their desires, their likes and dislikes firmly in mind in order to assure that we don't misrepresent them or blur the edges of who they are in our readers' minds to help them accomplish that. Ms. Lamott says, "You probably won't know your characters until weeks or months after you've started working with them ... Just don't pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don't. Stay open to them." To that I say Amen! The more time we spend with our characters, the better we'll know them and the more of themselves they'll reveal to us. There are all kinds of ways we can jar our readers out of our story world, and having a character act out of character is certainly one of them.

Katy wrote in her post about truth, "Make your darkness dark, but make your brightness bright as well." Absolutely right on. I would add, make the darkness equal to the character's nature and situation, otherwise it will come across as melodramatic. In my early days of writing I had no problem making the brightness bright, but I went to great lengths to keep the darkness at bay, to present my protagonist as upright as possible. Again to quote Anne Lamott, "[characters] shouldn't be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting." Thinking back on the first novel I wrote, I can heartily agree with Anne. My protagonist was unreasonably reasonable, much too forgiving, acquiescing to the nth degree, and b-o-r-i-n-g. She had no known vices or foibles, and was too good to be true in the most literal sense.

I don't think that's the case with my latest protagonist. I took her (and myself) into that "white-hot center" Robert Olen Butler talks about in From Where You Dream, as I spent two years writing about the unendurable loss of a child. "I've got lots of ways of staying out of there," Butler says, and so do I. But to write this novel I had to revisit that white-hot place time after time, drawing from my own experience. There were many days I looked for any excuse not to sit down to this story, preferring grout-cleaning to writing. But I'd have been unfaithful to the truth had I diminished the darkness. Any reader would have seen that immediately, and as Anne points out, a reader doesn't want to be lied to.

What have you written that has taken you to that white-hot center? Or have you done your best to avoid it in your writing as I did once upon a time?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tell The Whole Truth

My plan tonight was to write about art as truth-telling, and hope you wouldn't flog me for quoting yet again from Robert Olen Butler's "From Where You Dream."

Actually, I can't help myself. Here it is:

"If I say art doesn't come from the mind, it comes from the place where you dream, you may say, 'Well, I wake up screaming in the night. I don't want to go into my dreams, thank you very much. I don't want to go into that white-hot center; I've spent my life staying out of there. That's why I'm sitting in this classroom, why I was able to draw a comb through my hair this morning. Because I haven't gone there, I don't go there. I've got lots of ways of staying out of there.' And you know what? You still need those ways twenty-one or twenty-two hours a day. But this is the tough part: for those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch."*

I think writers can fairly be described as morose. We spend great chunks of our lives thinking of ways to make our characters miserable, and still more time getting into, really into what miserable feels like so we can describe it to our readers. Healthy minds don't do this.

Just this afternoon, an upbeat conversation with my husband ducked into a dark alley and transmogrified into a discussion of one of the saddest episodes of my life. Then, just as I began to explore and map out the source of my tears - to a writer, everything is material - my husband wisely suggested a drive in the Miata.

The Miata is a joy machine: wind and sunlight and wide open skies.

Within moments, we pulled from our driveway and wound through the the neighborhood, waving at the lady in the BMW Z3 convertible who obviously had the same idea.

We stopped at the MacDonald's drive-through to get our soft-serve ice cream cones, and then soared off down country roads, with James Taylor singing from the speakers behind our ears: "Hard Times Come Again No More."

I know, the lyrics for the song are not cheery:

" Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;"

But James Baby sang them so sweetly, and for just that moment, we didn't pause in life's pleasures. We accelerated.

I am getting to the point. It has to do with another favorite quote from Butler's book:

"What I want to nurture in you is the impulse: 'I'm ravished by sensual experience. I yearn to take life in. My God! I've got this sense that the world has meaning. Things roil around in my dream space, and I've got to figure out how to make art objects of them.'"
Isn't that... joy?

Think about it: Isn't it joy, even if you're describing misery? Doesn't it ultimately source itself from the very Christian assurance that the essence of the universe is a loving, dancing triune God who works all things together for good?

But what if that inner joy, that thing that makes you an artist, is describing wind and sunlight and wide open skies? Can you get into, really into that as well?

Writers, tell the truth. The whole truth, with all your heart and soul and mind. Make your darkness dark, but make your brightness bright as well.

Here are some of my favorite examples:

"i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes"'
-- e.e. cummings

"My beloved speaks and says to me: 'Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come...'"
-- Song of Solomon 2:10-12

He woke in morning-light, whistled like a starling,
sang, 'Come, derry-dol, merry-dol, my darling!'
He clapped on his battered hat, boots, and coat and feather;
opened the window wide to the sunny weather.
-- J.R.R. Tolkien

Now you give me some of your favorite joy passages. Or better yet, write one.

We love to read what you have to say.

"Come, derry-dol, merry-dol, my darling!"

*Dana Gioia put it this way in a recent, wonderful Kindlings Muse podcast: "I try to write so truthfully, that someone who knew everything about me would not find any cheating, any prevarication, any sloppiness in it."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Getting Into Character-Guest Post by She Reads' Ariel Allison Lawhon

Ding! We have a WINNER! Thank you to everyone who entered the Find Your True Story Contest. I'm always inspired by the determination and commitment to the craft that I see in the writers who are a part of the Novel Matters community. I admire each of you. But, there can only be one winner, and that person is Tonya Couch! Tonya, your name was chosen at random as the winner! Congratulations. Oh, have I mentioned that I'm a very, very mean teacher? Did you know the last contest I held was called Teeth and Bones? Aw, that wouldn't bother you, right? heh heh. Seriously, congrats. I'm looking forward to glimpsing your work, and partnering with you to find the true heart of your story and crafting a killer "pitch line". Please contact me at and we'll go from there.
To everyone else who entered, keep reading Novel Matters. We plan to have lots of these "pop contests" over the months and there will be more opportunities to win!
Now, heres our guest post from Ariel Allison!
On Friday Bonnie explained that strong characters are crucial to a strong plot. Yet any writer worth her
salt knows that compelling characters aren’t easy to find. They are often complex, moody, and elusive. This is certainly the case with Stella, the main character in my new novel. She is aloof, glacial, and stubborn. When it comes to writing her scenes, I have to press in to the story in creative ways.

I hope you don’t have similar problems with your Protagonist, but if you do here are a few things that help me get into character. Perhaps try one or two of these ideas the next time that blinking cursor makes you cross-eyed:

Return to your original inspiration. Do you remember when your novel was conceived? That flashbulb-in-a-dark-room moment? A glimpse. A certainty. I do. And when I get stuck (which happens with more frequency than I’d like), I go back to the genesis of my idea – a single paragraph in a news headline. That article gave me a Protagonist, a Setting, and a Plot. Itcan’t write the novel for me, but it still serves as a “true north” when I lose my way:

Every August 6th for more than three decades, an attractive older woman entered a Greenwich Village bar, a place that had been a restaurant back in the Jazz Age. She sat alone in a booth and ordered two cocktails. She raised one, murmured, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.” She drank it slowly, rose and walked out, leaving the other drink untouched.”

Give your character a theme song. Art has a subterranean root system. It is connected in ways the conscious mind doesn’t understand. Music and painting, poetry and dancing, writing and sculpture. They breathe life into one another. I recently heard this song and knew it was Stella’s mantra. It’s filled with anger and revenge and fire, just like her. Getting into characteris now as easy as clicking play.

Look her in the eye. My particular novel-in-progress is based on a real person. Because the events happened in 1930, there are few pictures of her available. But I did find one and I keep it near me while I write. She’s a complex character and the story she’s telling follows suit. It’s easier to hear her voice when I see her face. Your Protagonist may not be a real person but I bet you can find a good likeness. Print it out. Tape it to your computer. And let her speak.

Sit with the story. A friend recently admonished me for over-thinking. I do this when I can’t get a grip on the narrative. I try too hard. “Allow yourself to sit with the story without writing a thing,” she said. “Just sit. And only when the story jumps on you are you allowed to write a single word.” I took her advice. And after three hours of uninterrupted silence, it worked. Staying up until 1:00 a.m. has never left me so energized.

I imagine that each of you have your own tricks for getting into character. Those who've spent time in the theater seem to be particularly good at this. If you have a tried and true method for luring your characters onto the stage, do share!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Do Plots Just "Happen"?

To outline or not to outline, that is the question. If you as Roger Rosenblatt he'll say, "Never!" If you ask John Truby he'll say, "Always!" If you ask me, I'll say "Somewhere between never and always." What I mean is there are elements of a novel that I work out in advance of writing, and there are things I trust to the writing and don't try to plan out in advance. Today, I'm going to share some of my ways of plotting a novel (and at the end, there's a new contest!) with two disclaimers: Disclaimer 1) I write non-genre novels. If you are writing a genre novel, you will need to plot very differently as you will be expected to hit all the expected plot points of that genre. 2) There is no sure-fired right way to plot a novel. And every novel you write will make its unique demands. It's far more important to trust what the story is telling you then to worry about if you're "doing it right". Writing is fluid and any attempts to restrict the flow of story will result in a dried up narrative.
When I approach a new novel (this is after I've done all the preliminary work ensuring the idea is novel worthy), I focus on "plotting" key elements of the story before I begin writing. These key elements are:
1) Strong characters. I need a protagonist and an opponent. These two characters are after the same thing in the story (the desire line of the protagonist runs the story. Everyone else in the story exists to either help the protag to get what he wants, or to try to stop him from getting what he desires. Everything hinges on this element), so they both have to be outstanding. They have to be compelling even if they were standing against a blank wall.
1a) In conjunction with strong characters, I don't start writing until I can hear them speak. Dialogue is plot. Knowing how my characters speak is the first step to discovering what they will say.
1b) A moral argument/theme. In great stories all the characters in the novel live out various expressions of the stories moral argument. I need to plot my characters so that as many facets of the moral argument or theme is being played out.
2) A strong sense of movement in the story. I tend to start with theme when I begin thinking about a new story. So I need to ensure my themes have taken on flesh and started walking around before I start writing. Until there is movement in the story, all I have is a collection of interesting ideas, and pretty images.
3) Setting. My favorite editor will laugh at this (I'm notorious for vague settings), but setting or non-setting is a huge influence on plot. There are things that can only happen because of where the story takes place. And there are things that cannot happen because of the setting. Also, setting is another character in the story and must also reflect the moral argument.

Here are some Bonnie Grove FAQ:
Q: Do you write a "pitch line" for a story before you write the story?
A: Yes. It's a premise line and I think it's necessary to write one before I start writing the novel. It guides the writing. This is both more simple and more difficult then it appears.

Q: Do you write a synopsis before you write the story?
A: No. I write a great many details and do a great deal of planning before hand, but nothing that resembles a synopsis. When or if I require one, I can write it quickly enough.

Q: Do you outline?
A: As stated above, the answer is sort of. After I do the plot work above, I write a scene weave sequence--which is a sentence or two about the main action of all the scenes I want to write. (e.g. At the store: Dan and Bob argue about money. Bob leaves angry.) Doing this allows me to track the tension/action throughout the story and still be able to make tons of changes without having to do a bunch of rewriting.

Q: Do you know the ending before you begin?
A: Yes. But I've rewritten endings, too. I like to know where I'm headed when I start out, but I am prepared to be wrong about my choice. I try to stay flexible. And I know when I start, I'll likely end up in the expected emotional/moral place I wanted to, but it might look very different when I arrive.

CONTEST!! Find your True Story:
Comment on this post today and through the weekend to be eligible to win. A winner will be chosen randomly on MONDAY, MAY 9th.
Prize: The winner will submit their short synopsis. I will work with the winner, digging through the story to find the key elements, and the heart of the story. Then, we will craft a killer pitch line (premise) that will be the guiding force behind plotting and writing your story.
Got a story you that won't come into focus? Want a steady hand to help you work through a problem area? This is your contest! Enter today! Not everyone who comments is necessarily entering the contest. We welcome all comments! If you would like to be entered include the abbreviation FYTS at the end of your comment.
Good luck!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Plot Structure and Satisfaction

Why are we so dissatisfied when a plot does not reward virtue and penalize vice? Or when the ending has no resolution of issues but leaves the reader wondering what and who was reliable in the novel?

In college I read Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which raised the expectations of my mystery-loving heart with its numerous clues and apparent trajectory toward a revealing. Instead, with all of its selfish postmodern heart, it refused to relinquish any surety, any certainty.

While novels written from the Christian worldview don’t and many times shouldn’t tie a denouement up with a pretty bow, they must 1) set up a scenario that has tension and promise and characters that evoke, at the very least, curiosity 2) a challenge or obstacle that puts something important in peril and 3) a concluding state that owes its nature to subsequencies or reactions to the peril.

(Hmm, Latayne says to herself: That’s the phases of faith, as exemplified by the life of Abraham and Sarah and all the heroes of faith.)

When Jesus told stories, He told them in this three-part structure, too. Most exemplary of this is the parable of the sower. There’s all the potential of a seed. And all the obstacles of the soils. And all the satisfaction – and inevitability – of the results.

Here’s an exercise to stimulate some plot creativity (and give you practice with a one-to-two-sentence “hook” that agents and editors expect you to craft.)

Choose a parable of Jesus. Write it as a three-part structure as described above, but using a modern scenario. Do it in one or two sentences at the most.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Holding the Lantern

Special Announcement! We will give away a copy of our ultra-cool Novel Tips on Rice: What To Cook When You'd Rather Be Writing cookbook to someone who comments today! And we'll mail it to you -- or to your mother -- just in time for Mother's Day. (What? You want a copy for Mother's Day? Just contact and she'll mail one out to you TODAY for your PayPal payment of $12.99 plus priority mail postage!) Now back to our regularly scheduled wonderfulness by Patti.)

Welcome to our book talk about Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. We're talking about her chapter on plot today. Even if you haven't read it, please feel free to add to the conversation. We're all teachers here!

We aren't going to learn all we need to know about plotting from the "Plot" chapter in Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird. She says as much when she suggests books by E. M. Forster and John Gardner. But she reminded me of things I definitely needed to hear.
"That's what plot is: what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn't..."
Stories are about what people will DO to get what they WANT even if what they're willing to do is a little--or a lot--crazy. I've read some wonderful stories over the last few years, but The Help stands out for its inconspicuous yet charging plot. Every character wants something worth dying for. Talk about tension on every page. And what do the maids want? They want to tell their stories. They want a voice. They want the world to see that the babies they loved and raised hate them beyond reason. As for Skeeter, she wants purpose--a bit of irony there but completely believable. Carrying her typewriter to the colored section of town was pure foolishness, unless you want to rise above your legacy, and Skeeter did.
"I'm the designated typist, and I'm also the person whose job it is to hold the lantern while the kid does the digging. What is the kid digging for? The stuff. Details and clues and images, invention, fresh ideas, an intuitive understanding of people. I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn't even know what the kid is digging for half the time--but she knows gold when she sees it."
Once I know my character very well and have a handle on what she wants (this will change many times), that's the time to lean in with the lantern. For me, this isn't sit-in-the-chair work. It's my hands-are-wet-and-I-don't-have-a-thing-to-write-with work. I daydream freely about my character--what she will do when she sees her world tilting and spinning away, how she will show the reader where her passion resides, and what she will do when she is pressed to the wall with a knife to her throat, metaphorically speaking.

The smart thing to do is dry my hands and write it all down--or the dreams evaporate, not that the dream stuff is always used, but it's all foundational, very important stuff to know about the character and how she moves through her story world.
"The climax is that major event, usually toward the end, that brings all the tunes you have been playing so far into one major chord, after which at least on of your people is profoundly changed. If someone isn't changed, then what is the point of your story."
While home sick from work a couple weeks ago, I watched lots and lots of movies. (I don't sleep well when I can't breathe.) Since we don't subscribe to premium channels, I did some pay-per-view selections from our cable company. I watched Black Swan and right after that, Country Strong. SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to talk about the endings of these pictures. In Black Swan, Nina, the ballerina who must play the dual parts of the white and black swan in Swan Lake, struggles to express the wildness, the wantonness of the black swan. As a psychological thriller, it's not always easy to know what is reality and what is mindscape, but Nina dances the opposing parts with perfection on opening night. And then she dies, probably by her own hand. In Country Strong, an alcoholic country star is prematurely taken out of rehab for a comeback tour through Texas. She botches her first performance, misses her second, but nails the third in Dallas, even though she is back on pills and booze. After her stellar performance, she locks herself in her dressing room and overdoses.

The endings/climaxes left me cold. The characters fight for change but find the change unsustainable, and so they destroy themselves. Perhaps the changes were unsustainable, but an option would be to redirect the protagonists' desires. That would have worked better in these movies, but I'm a hopeful person. Dead is a big change for a protag, but not a very satisfying one. Keep that in mind when writing your climax. I do not want to revisit the pessimism of the 60s and 70s again. Please!

Let's talk! What was the last book you read that had you sitting on the edge of your chair, saying, "Don't go in there," but you loved the story and couldn't stop reading? What does holding the lantern look like for you? Do you have your climax in mind when you start a story? Have you ever been surprised by your climax? What struggles do you have with plot? What resources have helped you?

We'll be talking about dialogue on May 18th.