Sunday, October 28, 2007
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Action Technique #2:
Break It Down Now: Probably the most common way of showing action in fiction. Also the easiest to screw up.
The basic idea is simple. As the action heats up, our description of it slows down. We break everything into individual steps, stacking them one on top of the other. The reader (hopefully) gets a clear idea of what's going on. The writer gets to spend time getting deep into the most exciting parts of the book.
I think this technique is so popular because it intuitively mimics the effects of adrenalin on the human nervous system. Our time sense distorts. Memory scrambles. Perception sharpens.
"You shouldn't be here," Bob said.
Sylvia took a half step closer. Bob felt the heat of her breath curl in the hollow of his throat.
Neither touched. The moment stretched, widened, spun out of control.
They fell together, growling. His hands were strong and knowing. Her tongue was hot and quick, her teeth sharp.
Lee Child may well be the current king of this method. He's certainly a damn sight better than I am. (I tend to be real sparing with this method, so it's not my strong suit.) Pick up any of Child's books, and you'll see the simple act of racking a slide and pulling a trigger, or of throwing a punch, pared down to tiny fractions of a second. Often with long lectures on physics!
Thing is, when *he* does it, it works. :-)
When it doesn't work, it falls flat. Your big action scene lies dead on the floor.
So, how do we make it work?
1. Choose the *right* details. This is the heart of storytelling talent, and it may be the one thing no one can tell you. Best advice I can give is to stay tight in your POV character's head and, no matter how tempting, do not use a detail your character would not notice.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Also, be sure that you're clear enough to your target audience about what happened. The Tiny Dynamo *loves* the Bridget Jones movies (yet she likes me anyway - go figure), but it wasn't until we watched the director's commentary that she found out Bridget had anal sex with Daniel Cleever. That particular item was handled too subtly for her innocent ears to pick up.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Official Word-o-Meter Day 4 Word Count: 6621 words
As readers of this blog may remember, I was, for a considerable portion of this current WIP, reduced to writing with a quill pen.
Yup. Dip. Scritch scritch scritch. Dip. Scritch, scritchscritch. etc.
Well, the quills are back in the art supplies now were they belong. That drawing in the top right corner was done with a quill. But writing with one? Let's just say, some things are obsolete for a reason...
These days, my method has changed a bit. So far, it's working for me. Finding out it worked 3000 words' worth was a surprise,but a happy one.
My newest method:
I keep a pen and paper with me and 'sketch' out scenes. Quick notes, in present tense to keep me from taking it too seriously and 'binding up' on word choice and language. Sometimes, I hear dialogue, or that telling detail of imagery swims right up. I jot 'em down. Otherwise, I just kind of loosely walk the characters through their conflicts and challenges.
Mostly, I do this at night. But I keep the tools with me, just in case. Yesterday, I sketched out a fine scene while the Tiny Dynamo shopped for shoes. I'd been thinking about it while we were at the supermarket. Basically, no scrap of time goes to waste.
When it's 'writing time', I sit down with the laptop in my, well, lap and my sketched notes in front of me. Now, I'm listening to imagery and language and what, exactly, is going on in the scene.
Kane was up with the dawn. Hostel dorm beds were the same the world over. Thin mattress and squeaking bedsprings, other backpackers turning lights on and off or stumbling drunken in the dark. Between the loud wet snoring and the faint smells of vomit from the bunk below him, Kane’s sleep was fitful.
Finally, he quit trying. Kane climbed down from his bunk, took his pack out of its locker and dressed in the dark. At a small market on Frankton Road, he paid too much for apples and cheese, nuts and french bread and a bottle of water. The mountain air was still watery and gray when Kane walked into the hills.
Midmorning, Kane stopped. He took his rest on a flat rock, warm in the sun and sheltered from the wind. The cheese was sharp and strong, the apples crisp and tart. Overhead, hawks circled, riding the thermals, hunting.
After a time, Kane moved deeper into the autumn forest. Leaves were turning all around him: yellow and gold and orange and brown and splashes of deep brilliant red. He hit a path and followed it. Bright leaves and dappled trunks gave way to stunted alpine scrub and harsh cold sunlight.
Faint scallops were visible in the grass. Deer, passing through. Past the ridgeline, the tracks descended into the forest shadows.
Kane felt at peace.
Now, careful readers might notice this scene breaks one of my own main rules: there's no conflict. Fair cop, guv. Guilty as charged. But I feel this scene is necessary for three reasons:
1. Pacing: We need a little rest between to high-tension plot points.
2. Characterization: Kane's a solitary man. One of the best quick and dirty shortcuts to charcterization is to put your character in a fitting environment and say 'he's like this place'.
3. Foreshadowing: I'm not sure how this story ends, but I do know that Kane needs to be comfortable outdoors, and a decent tracker, too.
And, this is the first draft. Before this thing is done, I may well have a scene that does all three of these things *and* throws in some conflict too!
Monday, October 22, 2007
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
4. Use the Environment: Completely acceptable, and readers even like it.
"Do you love me?" Emily said.
Tom stared at the patterns on the rain-streaked window. The room was cold away from the dying fire.
"We have to talk," he said.
Readers are smart cookies. They're easily capable of making that jump between the rainy day, the cold room, and Tom's feelings for Emily. No stick-beating required. And if you can do three or four hundred pages of this with nothing really happening, literary prizes and fellowships may fall at your feet!
5. Striptease: Ever ask a question and get a question for an answer? Were you ever have so much at stake about an answer that you couldn't bring yourself to ask the question outright?
Revealing our feelings is often a gradual, I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours striptease. There's no reason for your characters not to do the same.
"It's been awhile," Emily said.
The waiter set their coffees in front of them. The cups were tiny, the porcelain almost unbearably fragile.
"Not that long." Tom sipped at his coffee and made a face. Emily stirred hers without drinking.
"You look good."
"So do you."
"You ever, you know, think about it?"
"Sometimes." Tom drained the rest of his coffee. The taste was black and bitter.
"Yeah, me too. Sometimes." Emily stood up, her untouched coffee splashing on the table. "Well, it's been nice, but I've got to run. Things to do, you know..."
In good fiction, as in real life, wearing our emotions openly is an invitation to get them stepped on. And yeah, I used a little cheat: Tom 'made a face', but it's a small cheat, and their exchange holds up without it. In fact, you may notice that the coffee is mostly there for 'stage business'-- it helps me control the beats and pauses in this uncomfortable conversation. But the 'stage business' does some extra work, too. The fragile cups, Tom's black and bitter coffee, Emily's refusal to drink, all have a little something to say about their relationship.
6. Deny, Deny, Deny: Rare air up here. This can be unbelievably effective, or it can fall on its ass. And it all depends on your reader, how much attention they're paying and what kind of sophistication they're bringing to your work.
You've got these POWERFUL emotions running, but you leave them completely under the surface. It's up to the reader to winnow them out. Think of the movie Goodfellahs, where Robert DeNiro waits until a fellow hood leaves, then asks the guy next to him, "You think he talks to his wife?" Without another word, nobody's a bit surprised when the guy and his wife show up dead.
Tom and Emily lay together. The tangled sheets smelled sour, and cold shadows from the rain-streaked window crawled across their bare skin.
Emily stroked Tom's hair. He stood up and began to dress. She bit her lip and said nothing.
Notice I fell back on my #4 crutch there, the sheets and their skin. Nobody says you can't, and I rather like that image, but the point is, I could take it right out of there and still be left with a sparse, bare, lean passage that works.
At least, it works *if* you get Emily's touching Tom's hair as tenderness, and Tom's standing up and hiding under clothes as denial of that bond. Hemingway used this technique powerfully. Or if you didn't get it, it was a man and a woman on a stalled train, and nothing really happened...
So, to recap, Steve's Heirarchy of Sloth:
1. I'm Telling
2. The Swiftie
3. Smile, Sigh, Frown
4. Use the Environment
6. Deny, Deny, Deny
And just to be honest, I have bad-writing days, same as anyone. But you'd better believe that every time I catch a character smiling, sighing, frowning, putting hands on hips or, God forbid, saying something menacingly, I go in there with red-hot tongs. Some smiles, etc. *do* have good reason to remain, but very few survive my trial by fire.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
It's long, rambling, and infinitely entertaining. Every paragraph was a little gem, and there's even some advice in there for writers:
Dan Whatsit and his preposterously awful Leonardo book are actually relevant to our theme. I usually last longer with any best-selling novel, however pathetic, than I did with his. But in his case I knew from the very first word that this was a writer of absolutely zero interest, insight, wit, understanding or ability. A blunderer of monumental incompetence. The first word, can you credit it, is ‘renowned’. ‘Renowned symbologist Henry Titfeather ….’ or something equally drivelling, that’s how this dreadful book opens. How do you begin to explain to someone that you just don’t start a fictional story by telling your readers that your character is ‘renowned’? You show it, you don’t tell it.
Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, legendarily fired off an angry memo to his staff after a broadcast in which someone or other was described as “the famous lawyer”. The memo went like this: ‘The word FAMOUS. If a person is famous it is superfluous to point out the fact, if they are not then it is a lie. The word is not to be used within the BBC.’ Way to tell them, Scottish guy.
One could do worse than to keep this point in mind...