Thursday, April 21, 2011

A good "B" story

A friend told me she would not attempt to write a novel if it could not be of the highest quality.  It felt like she was criticizing me for trying. 

A reader on my favorite critique site said a chapter I'd posted showed no particular literary quality.  His critique was kindly put, so I didn't take offense.  I can't remember his exact words, but he did say it was "standard prose."  I think he said I paragraphed well.  The token praise pleased me anyway.  After all, good paragraphing is necessary.

Suspecting he's a reader with good taste, I understood what he meant.  I love substantial writing, images that stimulate recognition and recall, well-expressed ideas that complete my half-formulated thoughts, and characters and stories that broaden my awareness.  And of course, words used in eye-opening ways.  I call those stories A+.  They win prizes, are translated in many languages, and appeal to all kinds of readers.  There are never enough of them.

I don't expect my writing to reach a high literary quality, though I continue to work hard.  But while I admire many novels with great language (simple A's, maybe), sometimes their stories don't hold my attention.  I do often enjoy good B stories (in 'standard prose'), and would be proud to add one to their number.

Write on!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

Handy-dandy AutoCorrect

You can save time and avoid mis-typing difficult words like strange and unpronounceable character and place names with a feature in Microsoft Word and OneNote called AutoCorrect.  Other word processors may have a similar capability.  In Word and OneNote, the icon is a little lightning bolt.  It's under the tools menu in OneNote, but harder to find in Word 2007. 

I use AutoCorrect like shorthand for character names, but it works for phrases too.  When I type the first letter of a character name, like M, the letter is immediately replaced with the name I've entered in the AutoCorrect options dictionary: Morningstar.  If I have several characters or place names that start with M, I can create other abbreviations:  Mb, Mx, Mfg.  If I don't have dozens, my shortcuts are not hard to remember.

The AutoCorrect feature is easy to find in OneNote.  It's on the "Tools" menu at the top of every page.  It's harder to get to in Word 2007, but you can add the icon to the top bar.  More about that later.

First, OneNote.  (Directions here for adding a word to AutoCorrect's dictionary also apply to Word, and--this is neat--the two applications share the same dictionary.)  From the Tools menu, select "Auto Correct Options." 

Near the bottom of the options box is a scrolling list of the current dictionary entries. Above that scrolling list is a "Replace" field and a "With" field.  If I type H in the "Replace" field and Hramxtvm in the "With" field, my correction is added to the dictionary. 

The AutoCorrect option is on the tools menu of older versions of Word, but in the 2007 version you locate it through the "Office Button" at the top left of the document screen.  From there you go down to the bottom bar of that menu to "Word Options."  The full path is Office Button/Word Options/Proofing/Auto Correct Options.  If I'm making a lot of AutoCorrect entries, that path is a pain.

But Word gives us the ability to put our favorite icon short-cuts on the toolbar.  To get the AutoCorrect icon up front once and for all, follow this path:  Office Button/Word Options/Customize/Choose Commands From (a drop-down menu)/Commands not on the Ribbon/Auto Correct Options.  Highlight "Auto Correct Options, click on the "Add" button, and the lightning bolt symbol will pop over to the box on the right.  Click OK.  Your AutoCorrect symbol should now appear on the very top bar of a Word page and be available whether you're in the Review pane, Home, Page Layout, etc.

When you've finished a project, you may want to remove the entries in your AutoCorrect dictionary.  Just scroll through the dictionary and remove or replace them.  Otherwise your old characters may show up in your new book.  But wait--that might be a good thing. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Faced with writer's block, listen to your minor characters

You wrote a furious first half, then faltered.  Blocked.

You'd  set up the situation of your story and put your characters in motion, felt good about what you'd done, and suddenly could not find your way forward.   Oh, you could keep writing.  You had a plot outline, and you weren't totally blank, but you didn't like any of the possibilities that came to mind.  Or something like that.

Hopefully, your work didn't fall into a drawer or the trash at that point.

Facing a block today, I remembered an exercise from a writing workshop--writing a first-person monologue from the point of view of a minor character in the story.  The purpose of the exercise was to add depth to characters and learn more about our developing stories.   Writers like to say "learn" as thought the story is waiting to be discovered.  That's how it feels.  It may be more accurate to say that there can be many reasons for a character's actions, and looking through the eyes of the POV character isn't always the best way to understand them. 

Guess what, learning more about the story can help a writer get over a block.  Seems obvious.

I gave today’s monologue to a character named Bright, a man antagonistic to the main character, but unlikely to affect events in a big way.  He'd appeared only twice, and I chose him for the exercise because I knew he needed to get into the story again.  I've noted before that we can't introduce characters and forget about them.  That happens in life, not in fiction.  Well, maybe in some types of fiction, like if dropping people is supposed to be the point.

In the monologue exercise, Bright redefined his role from his point of view.  Result:  a new scene, new possibilities.  Block over.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

POV choices and the External Narrator

My current project is a first attempt to write a story from a single point of view.  It seems harder than using multiple viewpoints, that is, having several characters who tell portions of the story as they experience events. 

Using a single point of view limits choices to what the POV character does, sees, thinks, overhears, or is told by others.  This method is called "limited omniscience," meaning I don't let the reader know everything--just what the POV character knows.  It means I can't write a scene without the POV character in it. 

I'm also using third person (she, they, instead of I, we), and no obvious narrator.  More about that in a minute.

In a first person story, the main character can say "My story began [or begins] at a railroad crossing… ."  She can comment on her story as it plays out.

Changed to third person pronouns, this might be, "Her story began [or begins] at a railroad crossing."  Writing it like this implies the presence of a separate narrator, a lightly or heavily felt voice in the story or even a participant, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.   Look at the line again.  You can hear the narrator’s voice. It's an ancient and perfectly legitimate device, though not what I want to do.

I prefer to write "She stood at the railroad crossing..." because the action feels more immediate without a narrator, who has to be telling us about something that happened in the past.  My choice uses past tense, but readers accept past tense as present action.  In the above example, no narrator interprets the character's presence at the crossing as the start of a chain of events that will become the story, though if it's the first line, we'll figure it has some significance.

After years of being out of fashion, omniscient narrators may be making a comeback.  In Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News (1993), a narrator guides us into a unique, poetic rendering of the main character's backstory:  "Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle..."  If you're wondering how backstory can be strong and poetic, check it out.

One narrative device is not better than another, though most readers no longer enjoy Charles Dickens' narrators, who let us know their opinions as much as those of the characters.

I've not studied the narrator's voice in The Shipping News, but I think it's important and subtle.  "And so Quoyle began [to tell a story to his daughter]."  The voice of this narrator seems to elevate the tone of a dark story and point to the heroic quality of Quoyle, "A great damp loaf of a body."  A few times the narrator shows the minds of other characters, but mainly the point of view is limited to Quoyle.  I'd call it third person limited omniscience with an external narrator, meaning one who isn't also a character in the story.

Beginning writers need to be aware of their narrative choice and control it, because inconsistency can cause readers to lose focus.  If you want to show several points of view, it's safest to confine your POV characters to different chapters or distinct sections within chapters. 

If you happen to be curious about the return of the omniscient narrator in contemporary fiction, see

Friday, April 1, 2011

Writing Techniques: Lessons I've learned about characters

You’re a step ahead, writers, if you instinctively avoid these pitfalls when you introduce characters.  I've stumbled into most of them.

Showing or talking about several new characters in short order, say within a page.  Even well-regarded novelists do this at times.  Readers with heavy intellect might be able to peg and remember these people but the rest of us skim or read back for clues to who they are.  Or close the book.  If the main character goes into a room and meets five people, let them be encountered slowly and one at a time, with dialogue or action in a little scene.  Of course, such scenes can be boring if they serve only to introduce these people.  But if the main character meets them while engaged in his immediate goals, the introductions take on a greater purpose and the scenes can be more compelling. 

Introducing with too many physical details.  Details can be as dull as an info dump.  For example, a story begins with the main character observing a beautiful woman.  There's a sentence about her hair, one about her lips, her limbs, her supple neck, eyes, etc.  Who cares?  If there is no attitude embedded in the description and the reader does not yet know the main character, detail may not work.  As the reader, I don't know what to think—I don’t know the point of view.  The woman’s description could be introduced with attitude, revealing something about the observer (he's sleazy, lonely, repelled, whatever), but it's easier and more dependable to first let the reader know something about him.  I don't know how well this succeeds, but If I can't describe a character with one great line (and usually I can't), I try to mix the details with action and filter them a few at a time. 

Having one or more characters who never appear.  They may be dead parents, or exes, or mentors, often part of the main character's back story, somehow influencing the current situation.  While they're real in the writer's mind, the reader probably needs to see them to understand the MC’s feelings about them.  I say "probably," because a great writer may find a way to make the relationship real while keeping the character offstage.  But seeing is believing, right?

Having characters with no clear role in the story, or who serve the same role as another.  Any character who is more than part of the setting needs to be included for a reason, either what she reveals about the main character or events, or how she affects the story.  By the end of a first draft, I hope to have only essential characters with clear roles.  A character with some presence in the beginning who fades away before the end without significant impact may need to be revised or written out.  But throughout that first draft, the characters can be loose.  For example, in my current project, the main character has received a present that makes her uncomfortable.  She doesn't know who sent it but has two, maybe three suspects.  I think there might be a fourth, but I'm only halfway through the first draft, and that character is still loose, so I don’t know yet.  I'm enjoying the suspense.

Good techniques--things to do--are easier to practice and establish than good style, which is more dependent on artistry--word choices and unique ways of seeing.  And important as they are, good techniques, like well-constructed sentences, do not guarantee that characters or story will make readers care.  More about that later.