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Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’


Anyone who’s ever been in a fiction critique group will probably run into questions. Some are just garden variety questions, but others poke and prod at the very center of your story—questions that make you want to scream at the idiots asking them because isn’t the answer, you know, obvious? Well no it’s not, and usually for good reasons.

No matter how irritating these questions may be, they usually will reveal themselves to be valuable to the writer. Garden variety types can often be resolved by a few tweaks here and there in the plot, or a bit of dialogue to reveal something the reader can use to realize some aspect of a character’s motives, for example. The other kind, the kind that gnaw at you, are more problematic. It could mean rewriting an entire chapter or more, throwing out thousands of words, some well-crafted and stylish. It could mean that you really don’t understand your main character, after all, so you spend hours contemplating motives and backstories that you thought were set in stone. Or it could mean that your story is actually working rather well.

How’s that?

I’ve noticed that one can divide readers into two basic camps. One camp likes everything tidy, plots to follow definable arcs, characters with relatable motives, an ending that lets the reader let out a sigh because everything has been satisfactorily completed with nothing left unresolved. For these readers plot twists are fine, but only if they make sense; quirky moods are fine, but only if they are integrated into plot and character. The idea of reading a murder mystery that goes unsolved at the end is abhorrent to them.

The other camp—and I’m guessing fewer readers are in this one—aren’t so picky. They don’t mind if a character goes missing with no explanation, or that the main character’s motives aren’t fully revealed. Sometimes a particularly poetic passage triggers something in their emotions that overrides the rest of the story’s flaws. Sometimes an unanswered question is what they find most interesting about the story in the first place.

Consider The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s famously creepy horror movie about birds that attack people for no apparent reason. What starts as a few isolated attacks escalates into larger, more furious ones, not just scaring people but threatening their lives. No explanation is ever given for this behavior, and the key question—Why are the birds doing this?—hangs over the story like a storm cloud.

For some moviegoers, the fact that the question never gets answered is a major disappointment. They might enjoy the buildup, the ratcheting up of suspense, but when the end doesn’t give them that definable “Aha!” moment, they grumble “I don’t get it,” and dismiss the story as incomplete. For other moviegoers, however, the unanswered question is the central element around which everything in the story revolves. They love the fact that it’s up to the viewers to supply their own ideas as to why the birds attack, and it’s fine if one admits that not even having an answer of one’s own makes the story more appealing.

So if the people reading your novel draft act puzzled and don’t understand why or how certain things occur in your story, take heart. It could be that you need to make your characters more believable and your plot better paced. Or it could be that you’ve stumbled onto something that will make your readers eager to read on and try to figure out what it all means.

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“Said bookisms” is a term I ran across recently when a critique partner wagged her finger at me for using them in my fiction. Also know as a “dialog tag,” a said bookism is when a writer substitutes another verb or verb phrase for the word “said” in dialog. The intent of a said bookism is to inject emotional content, emphasis, or visual and/or sound information into a piece of dialog, thereby helping to bring the interaction to life. Thus we have, “Come back!” she pleaded, “I’ll get you yet!” he huffed, or “Out of my way!” she boomed.

A variant of the said bookism is modifying “said” with an adverb or adverbial phrase: said nervously, said hopefully, said with a lump in her throat. This practice has been used a great deal in pulp fiction in an effort to pump emotion into a scene, so much so that it spawned an entire pun category, known as the Tom Swifty. (Tom Swift was the hero in a series of books for young people in the early 20th century, similar in style to the Hardy Boys. Tom hardly ever “said” anything; his words were always modified by how he said them. A “Tom Swifty” replaces “said” with a verb or verb clause that puns on the words actually spoken. For example: “Happy Birthday,” said Tom presently.)

In general, said bookisms belong to that class of prose that can be described by three words: tries too hard. Instead of letting the action and words speak for themselves, the author tries too hard to make the story meaningful, exciting, or vivid. A similar device, one which many writers employ, is the adjective splatter, a practice I consider boring, meaningless, tiresome, unnecessarily overwritten, and rankly amateurish. I’d never resort to adjective splatter myself.

None other than Stephen King Himself (everybody Tebow) has decried the use of the said bookisms, so they therefore must be avoided whenever possible. And yet…I find them creeping into my writing, despite my vigilance. As a writer I enjoy using words, verbs especially, and “said” is a pretty pedestrian word. And as a contrarian and a curmudgeon, I declare that said bookisms have their place, if used sparingly, especially in comic scenes where how what’s being said is as important as the words said themselves.

It’s not as if said bookisms are going away, either. I notice that they are particularly plentiful in children’s fiction, especially picture books and chapter books in which an easy way to show a colorful character is to describe how they say things, and a said bookism has the value of doing this is a compact manner. Misadventures and comic fairy tales for early middle graders are frequently packed with said bookisms.

Insisted the blogger.

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One the surface, the difference between writing in past tense and writing in present tense is simple: if it already happened, it’s past tense; if it’s happening now, it’s present tense.

Of course we all know it’s not that simple.

I recently ran headlong into the subtle puzzles our language throws at us when it comes to choosing what tense to use in writing a novel. The problem with my WIP is that the first third is in past tense and the rest of it is in present tense. I’d intended only a small part in the middle to be in present tense, but when it came time to switch back to past tense I couldn’t do it. Once my first-person narrator made the jump to present tense, I didn’t want to abandon the immediacy that it brings.

Two different camps will offer a solution here: The mainstreamer will frown and say, “It’s obvious, put the whole thing in past tense. It’s what most readers expect. Too many writers these days think that putting their story in the present tense will somehow make it more expressive, more hip, and more contemporary.” The mainstreamer will go on to say that, ironically, writing in past tense actually makes the events more immediate to the reader, because the reader will be more distracted by the pretense tense gimmick, as well as confused because the present offers only a narrow window through which to view events. The present tense may work fine, says the mainstreamer, in poems, dreams, or recipe books. Otherwise, stick with the tried and true.

The other camp will politely point out that it’s precisely this stuffy attitude that has resulted in so much boring fiction these days. And check out how many successful novels are in the present tense now. Exhibit A: The Hunger Games. No, says the fabulous indie writer, the present tense is perfect for drawing the reader in and holding her there. We live in a world full of video stories that grab the viewer’s attention, and if our novels don’t do the same, they’ll wind up gathering dust.

Of course we all know it’s not that simple.

Even a story written in present tense will have dialog in the past tense, and the narrator may well describe something that happened in the past using past tense. Then there’s the whole subjunctive thing, with its implied future tense: if such and such is true, then this will happen. The main problem I have with present tense is the difficulty finding a suitable framing device.

But for you? For you, the solution is simple: If you were to use the second-person future subjunctive tense, your work would immediately acquire that distinction we all crave, if not an actual paying readership.

Want more? Check out Peter G. Pollak’s blog article, Writing First Person, Present Tense? Think Again. The book Pollak describes, On Writing Fiction by David Jauss, is also worth checking out.

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