Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Words of Wisdom

No matter where you are or what level you've attained in life or your job, there is always something new to learn, each and every day. In fact, it is rare that I don't learn something every day, even if it is only a confirmation that I don't know as much as I thought I did. Which is pretty sad considering I had a number of teachers in High School and College who tried to convince me that I knew more than I thought I did. In reality, I think I knew less than they thought I did.

In any event, in my journey as a writer, I've had many pearls of wisdom thrown at me. Some were just silly (if your heroine isn't sympathetic, give her a pet cat) and some were really important.

Make sure the reader understands the character and character's motivations from the beginning.

That's harder than it sounds because it is so drilled in to writers that they shouldn't spend pages on background info that can be "dribbled in" as needed later. Yes, sort of true, but the reader at least needs to understand the character's current situation, even if it just "superficial" and doesn't explain the deep, dark issues.

I do have to say, however, as a reader, that I actually prefer it if the author gives me one or two pages about the character to give me at least an overview of how the character got to where they are when the book starts. But then, I always like things explained to me. My favorite part of any mystery is at the end where the hero (or heroine) sums up everything and explains why the bad guy did what he did and how the hero figured it all out.

Motivate the action tags.

Another place where I figured the reader would just know and I shouldn't be explaining… Yes and no. What this means is that, if your character flushes, you need to give us at least a hint as to why. Because people can flush for any one of a number of reasons, including anger or humiliation. Most actions can be interpreted in a number of ways and the reader isn't there to see all the body language, so you have to clue them in. She touched the lace of her collar with nervous fingers. It's the word nervous that clues the reader into the fact that the heroine is nervous—her gesture reveals that. However, it is vastly different than the less-than-helpful tag: She touched the lace of her collar.

As a writer, I was trying to avoid telling the reader what the character's emotions were, I wanted the gestures and conversation to show what the character was feeling. The problem was, I wrote things like: She rubbed her palms against her skirt. This left the reader with the image, but no real notion of why the character was doing this. Was she nervous and wiping away the dampness of her palms? Was she trying to control her anger?

You see the issue.

Make sure the action and reaction is in the proper sequential order.

Thomas stood in the doorway and remarked, "It's sure cold in here." When Sylvia refused to acknowledge his presence, he crossed his legs and picked up a magazine, completely prepared to ignore her, too.

The problem in the above paragraph is not one of sequence so much as leaving out an important point. Thomas must have taken a seat at some point, but it isn't mentioned. So the reader is left with the jarring sensation if missing something, since not too many people can cross their legs while they are standing up and still keep their balance.

Thomas said, "Nice work, Alice!"

Alice fumed behind her desk, wishing she had her own office.

Now, in the above sequence, it sounds like Alice resents what Thomas said and wishes she didn't have to share an office with him. But, what if the author meant you to understand that Thomas saw Alice fuming over her lack of privacy and tried to cheer her up by saying, "Nice work, Alice!". That's a sequence problem. You would have to switch the two sentences if Thomas' statement is in reaction to Alice's foul mood. If Alice's foul mood is in reaction to Thomas' statement, then the sequence is appropriate as show above.

Tricky, right?

Just a few things to think about as you write your way into the New York Times Bestseller list!

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