Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Saturday, January 28, 2006

CRAFT: Subversive Writing

No, not subversive in the political sense. Subversive in the sense that I don’t believe in rules and I don’t think you should, either. When editors say they want to see something different, I believe this is what they mean. They want something that fits their marketing strategies and lines, for example, if they publish contemporary romance or suspense then they want a story that fits that genre, but when you stop to think about it, that’s a pretty darn loose framework. In fact, you can do anything you want as long as the ending is satisfying to the reader and satisfies the expectations of the marketing framework, that is, boy gets girl by the end of a contemporary romance.

As Thomas Edison said, “Rules? There ain’t no rules around here, we’re trying to accomplish something!”

That’s what I’m talking about. Subversive.
This does not mean the following:

  • That you can forget about the rules of grammar. If you are an artist, you must be an expert with your medium. If you are a writer, your medium is writing and you absolutely must master the framework of writing, which is grammar. To not do so would be like an artist saying they don’t need to know how to draw a recognizable shape. Even an abstract artist needs to master the basic skill of drawing, and just like an artist, you must master your basic skill of writing, which includes grammar.
  • That you don’t have to make sense to anyone but yourself. Baloney. The point of writing is to communicate. If you don’t want to communicate your ideas or story with others, than don’t write it. Or, if you write it, keep it to yourself. You can’t communicate if no one can understand what the heck you’re talking about, so make sense.
  • Styling instead of writing your story. The perfect example of this is e.e. cummings. That’s the poet that went with all lower case and threw out many of the rules of grammar. That’s fine and it may have worked for the first poem or two, if that style was relevant to what was trying to be communicated in the poem. But after that, it became just another snobby, intellectual game.
    Do not chose style over content if you are trying to write something you want to sell as a novel, unless that style somehow supports what you want to accomplish. This sort of thing can be made to work, but you have to use your judgment. In fact, one of my favorite short stories was written in the form of a research paper complete with footnotes, and it was incredibly effective. Another author wrote their novel in the form of e-mails, which worked for that story. But in both cases, the story came first and the style supported that story. For goodness sake, don’t think of some “new” style and then squash a story into it, just to be different.

Surprisingly, that’s about it. You see? That’s really a short list.

Once you know how to write (that is, understand grammar and frame a story with a beginning, middle and end) you can use whatever techniques you feel are best suited to the story you are telling. I encourage you to try different things. When you look at the writers who have “made a mark” in one way or another, you often find they agree with Thomas Edison.

Nora Roberts completely ignores the rules about “staying in one character’s point of view, and avoiding head-hopping”. So do a lot of other writers. While I'm not fond of people shifting point of view to other characters when they are telling the story in first person (e.g. I was shopping last Friday and ran into a hit man...) I've seen this done effectively. The key is knowing when to do this.

P.G. Wodehouse made up words right and left, such as gazelling down the stairs. (That word really is brilliant and gives you a precise picture of someone gracefully jumping down the stairs.)

Michael McClelland completely ignored the advice about point of view and I don’t know how many other rules in Oyster Blues when he digressed for three fantastic pages about what happened when a chicken carcass was thrown overboard into the ocean. It worked. It was fabulous!

Those are just three examples, but they really do give you an idea of what I mean by subversive writing. It’s having the skill to support your story through the use of writing techniques that may not conform to every writing “rule of the road”. Slightly different techniques can enhance and make your novel different, and that’s just one of the things, and perhaps a very minor thing, that editors mean when they say they’re looking for that fabled: something different.

Of course, they also mean a different slant on the genre, a different theme, different characters, or many, many other things, but keep in mind that the rules out there may or may not help you. Learn them, certainly be aware of them, and if you are uncomfortable as a writer, you may follow the rules to keep from straying into the brambles or over an unseen cliff, but be aware that as you grow as a writer, you only have to remember one thing: do what is best and most effective for your story. That’s it.

Rules? What rules?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

CRAFT: Great Opening Lines for Novels

Name your favorite writing periodical, instructor, or mentor and you'll find that among all the other gems handed to you is the advice to write a great opening line. If not opening line, then at least opening paragraph.

What makes a killer opening?
I'm trying to figure that out myself.

Mostly, however, I think it's one or more of the following. Of course unlike salt or cayenne pepper, more really IS better, so if you can do all the the following, you, too, will have a killer opening...
  1. Sets the tone for the book. Funny if the book is funny, gritty if the book is gritty. If you're writing something with a humorous slant and you can make the reader laugh at the first sentence, you've got the reader hooked.
  2. Sets the scene. Where are the characters? What are they doing? You'd be surprised at how many books start out with a sentence about the weather. It was a dark and stormy night... But in many stories, this actually works. I'm not saying not to start with the weather, but if you do, make sure it sets the mood and scene. A very good example of one that works is shown below, written by Andre Norton.
  3. Introduces the hero/heroine. Even better if you know or learn something about where the character is or what their initial obstacle is. Like a dead body in the trunk (see Victor Gischler's first line below...)
  4. Creates a question the reader has just got to get answered. Whose dead body? What happened? (Sorry. I seem to be mentioning a lot of dead bodies around here.) Or, the hero is in jail. How did he get there? Will he get out? There is one question, however, you don't want your reader to have: What the heck is going on or happening? If your reader just gets confused, it's not working. You want to provide enough information to let your reader understand the situation, but still leave that tantalizing question in their mind to keep them reading.
So, taking a random selection of my favorite reading material, I came up with a short list of really terrific opening lines/paragraphs. As I mention them, I'll show how they drag the reader into the story...

Elizabeth Eyre
From Death of a Duchess
"From this very bed she was snatched!"

From Curtains for the Cardinal
"The Princess is dying. She can see no one."

From Poison for the Prince
"Have you come from the grave?"

These three openings are from mysteries set in the Italian Renaissance. They all three drag you right into the story. The first, because it immediately draws you in to find who was snatched, which is the first mystery element in the story. You also know they are in the bedroom (very bed) of the woman who was kidnapped. So this first sentence accomplishes a great deal. You know:
  • A woman was kidnapped; and want to know who she is and why she was kidnapped
  • You are located in a bedroom, and specifically, the kidnapped woman's bedroom

The second opening also gives you a tremendous amount of information in very few words. You know you are trying to gain entrance to see a Princess, and you know she is dying. You are set up to ask: Why is she dying? Is that why you're forbidden entrance, or is there some other dark purpose...

The third again draws you in immediately for the shock value. Who is the person being addressed and why were they assumed to be dead?

All of them make you want to read more. All of them have a economical style and wry humor that sets the tone of the story.

Victor Gischler
From Gun Monkeys
I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some plastic down.

This is a suspense with a strong humorous element. This first sentence says it all. You know:

  • The hero is driving a Chrysler, he's in Florida on the turnpike, with a dead guy in the trunk, so you also pretty much know the guy is a criminal.
  • And you know the character normally plans ahead, and he's gotten into or is going to get into difficulties pretty soon because of that vaguely ominous statement: I should've put some plastic down...
  • The dry wit firmly settles the reader into the tone of the book.
  • And oddly enough, it's that self-deprecating, dry tone that makes you like the hero, even though he really is quite the violent bad boy...

That last point is important because it highlights something more than just writing a killer first line. The tone of the first line in this book is what makes the hero sympathetic (because it sure isn't his actions during the first few chapters). If it wasn't for that wry humor, many readers would dislike the main character. They may still dislike him, despite the sense of humor, but none-the-less, for many readers, it's the tone that makes the difference.

So in this book, that first line is doing an awful lot of work. It's setting the scene, introducing the first complications, setting the tone, introducing you to the hero, and convincing you to like the hero, all without the overt manipulation of adding things like a pet dog to try to make your hero or heroine sympathetic.

P.G. Wodehouse
From Leave it to Psmith
At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.

P.G. Wodehouse is a brilliant humorist and is responsible for Jeeves, that annoyingly capable bulter. This first sentence has quite a lot in common with Mr. Gischler's first sentence, believe it or not. Let's see what this one covers:

  • It sets the scene at Blandings Castle, on a nice day (because the window is open)
  • We meet the Earl of Emsworth
  • We find out the Earl is both amiable and a bonehead
  • It sets the dry, witty tone and gives you an initial chuckle over the "bonehead" remark, promising more chuckles later on

Kathy Reichs
From Deja Dead
I wasn't thinking about the man who'd blown himself up.

Ms. Reichs is a wonderful suspense writer and unlike the other authors listed above, her tone is dark and tense. This short introduction to Deja Dead immediately sets that tone.

  • The tension is immediate--a man blew himself up? Who? How did it happen? And what else has happened that could possibly make the narrator not think about this tragedy?
  • The questions created by this draw the reader in with such tension and "need to know" that it would be impossible to read that and not continue for at least a few pages.

Here, the impact of the first sentence is to used to set the tone and create questions. That's enough. So you can see that it isn't always necessary to do everything in the first sentence, just enough to get the reader, reading.

The following is another example of setting questions and tone firmly in the mind of the reader, except the tone is changed again to wry humor...

Michael McClelland
From Oyster Blues
The rum alone would not have been enough to make Harry shoot them like he did.

  • We do have a little more information in the form of the character's name, Harry, and the fact that he's a little, well, drunk. And armed.
  • Why was he drinking? Was he drinking to forget (that's the romantic view, anyway)?
  • But again, we want to know: Who did Harry shoot? And why (because it apparently wasn't the liquor that made him shoot...)?

Andre Norton
From Witch World
The rain was a slantwise curtain across the dingy street, washing soot from city walls, the taste of it metallic on the lips of the tall, thin man who walked with a loping stride close to the buildings, watching the mouths of doorways, the gaps of alleys with a narrow-eyed intentness.

Here we have an example of starting with the weather, but it works because it sets the dreary, yet ominous scene. This first sentence, while long, sets up the ordinary world and tension for this fantasy. We get the following elements:

  • The setting is described: A filthy, dismal 'ordinary world' of the city.
  • We meet our hero and know a great deal about him: he's tall and slender and is alert. He's aware of his surroundings. This alertness immediately begins to make us like him--he's not some dimwitted slob stumbling blindly through the rain, he's an intelligent man who in the midst of desperate circumstances is watchful and cautious.
  • The first line sets the tone and tension, because we know he's checking for signs of something...
  • We want to know why he's studying the doorways and alleys. What kind of trouble is he in?

Although the line, It was a dark and stormy night, rather deflated the idea of using weather as a way to set tone, it is effective if used properly. I actually had to go through several books to find first sentences which did not use weather in some way in the first sentence. For many writers, they see the beginning of a novel as a general, wide-angle camera scene where the reader is introduced to the location outside, seeing the landscape or building drenched in whatever weather exists. Then, the writer tightens the focus from the general to the specific hero or heroine. While this can work, you do have to be wary of the "dark and stormy night" phenomena.

I've also heard warnings about opening up with conversation, but I've found this to actually work quite well if you're as good at it as Elizabeth Eyre. The trick is to have a character say something interesting to set the scene.


All-in-all, it looks like great opening lines are exceptionally difficult to write. Anything that looks that smooth and easy, but does so much and presents us with so many questions just has to be hard to do. I know I certainly find it difficult.

But, if you can write a first sentence that introduces your character, sets the tone, sets the scene, gets your reader asking questions, and mentions the weather ;-) your story will be unstoppable and unforgettable.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Restored Faith in Our Judicial System

Well, shut my mouth. I got "stuck" on Jury Duty this week and expected it to be the week from h*ll, but it actually wasn't. It was a civil suit. The plaintiff was suing for medical expenses after a car accident. There were actually three issues we had to decide:
  1. The plaintiff, Ms. X, claimed she reinjured her back (broken 2 years previously in a 4-wheeler accident) through the negligence of Miss Y. So issue 1 was: was Miss Y negligent?
  2. If issue 1 was 'yes' then we were to decide how much money to award Ms. X. She was asking for enough to cover her medical expenses.
  3. Issue 3 was that Miss Y was suing the driver, Mr. Z, of the car Ms. X was in, for negligence. If we awarded monetary damages to Ms. X, and found Mr. Z also negligent, then he and Miss Y together had to pay Ms. X.

Mr. Z and Ms. X at the time of the accident were boyfriend/girlfriend. They were in the same car.

Miss Y was part of a caravan of college students from another state, driving to the beach for summer vacation. They were using 2-way radios to stay in touch and had decided to stop at a fast food restaurant for lunch. Miss Y was in the middle car in the caravan. The first car had already turned into the fast food restaurant when the accident occurred.

As soon as we saw the pictures, I knew what had happened. Mr. Z and Ms. X had been using the turn lane to bypass a line of cars at a stoplight 1/4 of a mile up the road. Miss Y was in that turn lane, waiting for an opening in oncoming traffic to turn into the fast food restaurant. Mr. Z was zipping up the turn lane, saw Miss Y ahead and tried to go around her on the left, realized there was a median strip ahead so he had to swerve back to the right to get back into the turn lane before he hit the cement median. At that moment, Miss Y took her foot off the brake to turn left into the restaurant, not seeing Mr. Z coming up on her left where there should have been no traffic. Mr. Z hit her, catching her front driver side bumper with his front, right-side (passenger side) wheel well, bending outward Miss Y's bumper.

I had narrowly avoided an accident such as this, myself, last year in Chicago, when some jerk tried to swoop around me on the left side when I was in the left turn lane with my blinker on to turn left. I fortunately saw them and did not let my foot off the brake. Miss Y was not that lucky. However, her boyfriend, seated next to her had the presence of mind to take a bunch of photos at the scene.

The attorneys for Ms. X and Mr. Z tried to claim Mr. Z (traveling illegally up the turn lane that is one of those marked for both north and south bound turns into various stores for 1/4 of a mile before a light) had been in the turn lane and Miss Y tried to turn into the turn lane and from there into the restaurant from the normal thru-traffic lane. However, given the position of the cars, and Mr. Z's skidmarks, this was simply not possible, even though they drew plenty of diagrams to make us think that it was, and to make us think Mr. Z's skidmarks started out while he was completely in the turn lane instead of being of the far, far left of the turn lane where he actually was.

Anyway, when we were finally told to go and make our decision, I was groaning to myself thinking, well, this jury has to come to a unanimous decision and I sure don't want it to take days, so I was planning to make little paper cars and show why Ms. X and Mr. Z's stories didn't hold water, and failing that, recommending the smallest monetary recompense we could do. Because there were some other facts about Ms. X's medical expenses that didn't seem right to me. Like her doctor was the doctor she worked for, and the fact that she had another accident a week later. And she didn't appear to acquire pain medication until about 2 months later according to the pharmacy bills.

Anyway, another telling point was that we couldn't get the police officer's accident report. I'm convinced this was intentional on the part of the plaintiff who wouldn't want that entered into evidence because it would clearly have stated that the accident was Mr. Z's fault. No police officers testified at all.

Was I in for a surprise! When we got in the jury room, everyone said: it was Mr. Z's fault, no doubt about it! No one even disagreed! I didn't even have to bring forward my arguements (that I had been mentally preparing) with the little paper cars or the fact that this was a civil suit because clearly, Mr. Z was at fault and Ms. X was his girlfriend and could not or did not get his insurance to cover her medical bills. Not to mention that one week after this accident, she was in another car accident so it would be difficult to state which accident aggravated her back problems, if indeed they were aggravated by either. It was interesting that her bill for medicine was dated in August when the accident was in June. I guess she didn't need any pain medication until August. Hmmm.

So the final decisions were:

  1. NO. We found in favor of the defendant. [The plaintiff, Ms. X, claimed she reinjured her back (broken 2 years previously in a 4-wheeler accident) through the negligence of Miss Y. So issue 1 was: was Miss Y negligent? no. She was in the turn lane, waiting to turn.]
  2. $0 [If issue 1 was 'yes' then we were to decide how much money to award Ms. X. She was asking for enough to cover her medical expenses. She got zip because Issue 1 was no.]
  3. -- [Issue 3 was that Miss Y was suing the driver, Mr. Z, of the car Ms. X was in, for negligence. If we awarded monetary damages to Ms. X, and found Mr. Z also negligent, then he and Miss Y both had to split the payments to Ms. X. Because of answering NO to 1, this issue was left as is - Mr. Z was clearly at fault.]

Anyway, I was really impressed by how well all twelve jurors with differing education and backgrounds were able to weigh the evidence and every one of us came up with the same conclusions. Maybe this was just a simple case, I don't know, but I have to say I was impressed with my fellow jurors who covered a wide, wide variety of lifestyles and showed an uncanny ability to sift fact from fiction. I was further impressed that they didn't hold the fact that Miss Y was young and from out-of-state against her. They didn't find in favor of the plaintiff just because she had lived locally all of her life.

Maybe there is hope for us yet! Maybe our judicial systems has the occasional good day.

(Although I have to say, I thought this law suit was frivolous to begin with, but I'm glad we decided the way we did.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Will it never end?

The saga continues...
We got power back (yippee!) only to find that four days later, our pump failed due to the electrical stress of having no power-some power-no power. So we had no running water again for three days.

But I did establish a routine.
1 - Evening: a. Drag four empty buckets to the pond. b. Fill buckets. c. Drag back to the house. d. Flush toilet(s). e. Go back to the pond, refill buckets and bring back to the house. f. Fill largest pot and leave on the stove. g. Fill as many plastic gallon jugs as can find. h. Wash. i. Realize just used up morning water. j. Go back to pond. k. Drop flashlight into pond. l. Fish flashlight out of pond. m. Refill buckets. n. Stumble back to house in the dark because the flashlight doesn't work anymore.

Trivia: Water weighs 7 lbs per gallon on the first trip. Each subsequent trip adds 1 lb per oz.

2 - Morning: a. Go to the kitchen and turn on stove to heat large pot of water. b. Eat breakfast. c. Take boiling pot of water upstairs. d. Trudge back downstairs and get a plastic jug of water. e. Go back upstairs. f. Take pot of boiling water and jug of cold water and get into the shower. g. Fill small bowl with boiling water. h. Pour over self. i. Scream (gently so I don't scare the dogs and cats staring at me in disbelief). j. Dip another bowl of boiling water, remember to add cold water, pour over self. k. Wash. l. Rinse, remembering to add dollops of cold water, particularly when rinsing burned areas.

Go to work. Nope, sorry, make that Jury Duty because I got selected this week.

Come home.

Sit in numb horror staring at the dishes piling up in the sink. Drape towel over dirty clothes so I can't see how deep the pile is getting.

Go to step 1a.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I'm back and as annoying as ever...

This has certainly been an interesting couple of weeks. I now know why bathing is a luxury despite what we think. U.S. citizens are really obsessed with whiter-than-white teeth and cleanliness. Not that I'm not. I brush my teeth after I eat, and I mean that. I carry a toothbrush with me. But my teeth are still the same off-white they've always been despite everything.

Anyway, this is not about teeth.

It all started with the local power company. They decided to change out our electricity meter to a new-fangled digital one without asking us if we like the idea. I would have told them, no. Digital is all fine and well, heck, I'm a computer geek (geek girl) but unlike most Technophils (those who love technology, as opposed to Technophobes who dislike technology) I believe all that is digital is not good. There are some very good analog devices, ones that are simplier, and that, in fact, work better because they are simplier. There is less to go wrong, and you can "play" with analog. Tune it and get marginal results which may be better than no results. I'm not a fan of the binary on-off quality of digital. I like the marginal, not-always-all-there zen of analog. But, I digress.

The power company changed our meter. By Friday, Jan 13th, we had no electricity. This, of course, is the start of a 3-day holiday weekend. They were unconcerned about this and blithely told us that the lack of electricity was NOT THEIR PROBLEM. Thank you. I wanted to point out to them that it seemed a little UNREASONABLE for them to have this attitude since:
a) We had electricity BEFORE they changed out the power meter.
b) It was the start of a 3-day holiday weekend. In January. And we have our own well, which interestingly enough, requires electricity to operate the pump. So not only were we without electricity for things such as lights, we also had no heat and no water. In January. I'm not even counting things like cooking with our all-electric range and our electric refrigerator, and our electric microwave. I don't think they even make a propane microwave, but I may be wrong.
c) They couldn't even recommend an electrician to help us out, and the power company indicated they would charge us $100 if we had them come out and turn off the power in the unlikely event that we found an electrician who might be willing to help us.

My husband, however, handled the communications with the electrical company, so they did not get the privilege of hearing my remarks. My husband has awe-inspiring self-control.

We did not get electricity back until January 19th.

However, we are nothing if not inventive. We have a pond so frequent trips with buckets allowed us to use the bathroom facilities when absolutely essential (we dumped pond water into the commodes to flush them for those who haven't a clue what I am talking about). It also rained, so I was able to take a natural shower outside. Of course, this was at night. In January. But we live on a 20-acre farmlet and our closest neighbor is 2 miles away, so being arrested for indecent exposure was the least of my worries.

Surprisingly, I did not catch my death of cold, so Myth Busters, you can add THAT to your list of busted myths. You do not catch cold or death by standing naked outside in January in pouring-down rain.

What is good about this is that it serves to remind me that even though I'm not crude enough to have characters in my historical mysteries that don't bathe, bathing really is a luxury. If you are hauling water and chopping up wood to heat that water, and you are given a choice between using that water to, say, cook dinner, or to, say, bathe or wash clothing, I think the priority item is going to be food. You're not going to waste water (it weighs 7 pounds per gallon, by the way) you've struggled to get into the house for something trivial like washing, because then you're going to have to haul MORE to cook, and you'll get all sweaty anyway, again, from lugging that water around, so the washing bit is rather pointless...

On the bright side, the last few years have blessed us with hurricanes and ice storms so we have a LOT of trees down in the woods, therefore gathering wood for the stoves (that we didn't yank out even though we talked about doing that) is not a huge chore, although you still have to chop it up. We also have a generator so we could keep the freezer going. And we have propane and propane accessories (hmmm, that sounds SO familiar) for cooking, in addition to the wood stove, and the cats and dogs are happy to curl up on us for warmth, so all-in-all it's not as tragic as it sounds. Once you get used to no television, no lights and no running water, you get to see the advantages. No vacuuming. No laundry (unless you drag it all to a laundromat). No television. No computer, no email. You can read books by candlelight (or the itty-bitty book light). Food cooked over a fire really does taste better. Spit bathes with ice cold water take less time than a shower. You finish faster and are more than ready to dress for the day.

After all is said-and-done, I don't mind no electricity so much. Television is completely unnecessary to me now--I have no idea what is even on anymore. I like that. I also like running water, though, particularly WARM running water, but heck, cold water builds character faster.

I must have a LOT of character.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Visionary? Get real...

This is getting really scary. I did another of those cute, "answer these questions and see what it reveals about you" blogthings and yet again, it is babbling on about visionaries. Me? Umm, that is certainly a new one. I have never thought of myself as visionary. Dumpy maybe, or even practical, but visionary?

Your Hidden Talent

You're super sensitive and easily able to understand situations.

You tend to solve complex problems in a flash, without needing a lot of facts.

Decision making is easy for you. You have killer intuition.

The right path is always clear, and you're a bit of a visionary.

What kind of soul are YOU?

Okay, I tried to be honest, but somehow I think I missed the boat on this one. I expected it to say something like: You're practical and down-to-earth and generally react with, "a soul? what's that?" when discussing anything outside questions such as: "what's for dinner?" or more importantly, "what can I use to kill fire ants?"

Maybe I just *think* I'm practical and maybe that explains an awful lot that's been going on lately, that I've just been putting down to: "aging stinks because you don't get wiser, you get stupider, not to mention forgetful..." (Oh, man, did I forget to turn off the stove this morning or not--man, I'm going to have to go back home and check! Then, driving down the road the second time, Oh, man, did I remember to lock the front door? I've got to go back and check...again!) Somehow this doesn't seem very spiritual to me.

You Are a Visionary Soul

You are a curious person, always in a state of awareness.
Connected to all things spiritual, you are very connect to your soul.
You are wise and bright: able to reason and be reasonable.
Occasionally, you get quite depressed and have dark feelings.

You have great vision and can be very insightful.
In fact, you are often profound in a way that surprises yourself.
Visionary souls like you can be the best type of friend.
You are intuitive, understanding, sympathetic, and a good healer.

Souls you are most compatible with: Old Soul and Peacemaker Soul

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Post-Submission Blues

Trying to become a published author is going to kill me, I just know it. My agent just submitted my manuscript to two publishers and for the first time, I have post-partem depression. I so want an editor to fall in love with my story, and I'm so afraid they won't. On the other hand, I'm also terrified that they will fall in love with it and have expectations. I hate people having expectations about me. I mean, you then have to start living up to expectations. This can be a very bad thing. While it may make you perform better, it can also drive you crazy. It could also mean they want to see another manuscript soon.

I'm getting frantic about that next manuscript soon thing, because I've realized that while I can whip out a new rough draft in no time, that rough draft is in no way something I want any human being to ever see. I like it to sit for a while, preferably about a year while odd thoughts percolate through my pea-brain, at which point I go back and start the revamp process, which may take another year of piddling, doing something else for a month or two, and then piddling again. Not that I'm not continuing to write more manuscripts in the meantime, but that first one can take up to two years to get where I want it to be before an agent or editor sees it. My mind munges edits very slowly and it takes a long time for me to think of all the things I really wanted to reveal in a story.

Over the last two years, I've managed to write three rough drafts (I was depressed in 2005 - normally I can do 3 rough drafts in a year) and one of those is within inches of being sent to my agent. But that is not a high production rate when you think about it. And one of the ones I've written is "outside" of my normal genre, which is Regency-set romantic mysteries. The oddball is a contemporary vampire tale, just because I felt like doing something different and everyone is doing one. And I loved John Carpenter's "Vampires" movie, which, okay, is old-hat now, but still, it was inspiring.

Anyway, my survival at this production rate will be dependent upon me "staying ahead of the curve" by writing enough manuscripts far enough in advance that when some publisher (or my agent) wants to see something new, I can give them something which I wrote, say, two years ago, and have since polished to a diamond-like sparkle.

I recently poked around Sue Grafton's web site (she's my idol) and she indicated that she had to convince her editor to let her do one book every two years instead of one book every year. This made me feel marginally better because she's this terrific, big-time writer and it takes her time to polish her stuff, too (at least that is what I'm assuming, although it could mean she takes 1.5 years to research and then 6 months to write/polish).

So maybe I just need to quit worrying and get to work writing about 60 rough drafts so over the next few years I can have a book published every 6 months and everyone will think I'm this brilliant writer who can whip out a book in 3 months. Yeah. That's the ticket. Okay, I'm on it.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

CRAFT: Characters, POV and Sympathy

This week, I'm rereading one of my favorite books, Death of a Duchess by Elizabeth Eyre (actually, that is a writing team). It's a mystery set during the Italian Renaissance. What I find very interesting about this book is the use of point of view (POV) and descriptions of the hero. This book violates just about everything I've learned in writing classes, and yet I personally find it hard to put down and it ranks as one of my all time favorite books. I wanted to bring this to other writers' attention because it highlights that there really are NO RULES: There is only what works (as published authors are so fond of saying).

Death of a Duchess is the first in a series of books about a man who performs investigations for his Duke. In this first book, the duke's duchess has been murdered, although it starts out with one of the noblemen's daughters being kidnapped. I provide this information so that you understand the situation and realize this is the first introduction to the main character, Sigismondo.

POV in this book ranges from inanimate objects, e.g. the wind, to characters, but mostly resides in Benno who is a servant picked up on page 6 during this first book. This is somewhat reminiscent of the role Dr. Watson plays with Sherlock Holmes.

It is rife with passive voice. I mention this because we are so often told that passive voice is a no-no. Another rule that really should be more of a guideline (and a loose one at that) than a rule.

Anyway, here are the first several paragraphs in the book. I sincerely hope I'm not violating any copyrights, and I do encourage folks to buy the book because it is extremely good. It starts out with a very exciting statement, which (in my mind) immediate captures the reader. This very sentence sets up a puzzle in the reader's mind that demands an answer. It is what keeps the reader, reading.

If you can write something which catches the reader's attention as well, you are either a published author, or will be, soon.

(I've highlighted mentions of the hero in bold red.)
...From the Death of a Duchess

    "From this very bed she was snatched!"
    The Lord Jacopo di Torre's long sleeve followed his dramatic gesture and swept a scent bottle from the bedside chest. The Duke's emissary, with an agility unexpected in one of his strong build, caught it and stood turning it as if to admire the carved onyx and gold. Jacopo waited for a comment about the bed, whose sheets had been wrenched back, pillows tossed abroad with every sign of a violent struggle. There could be no doubt that he was right. This had been the very bed.

    "You heard nothing?" asked the deep foreign voice.
    The emissary's dark eyes genially surveyed the doorful of servants who gaped and manoeuvred for a better view. "And no one else heard anything?"

    Heads were shaken. An elderly woman in an extinguishing headkerchief kept up a low wail amid her linen. Jacopo glanced at her in irritation. "Even my sister slept. No one heard anything. In this whole household, every living soul slept!"

    Not one of the servants seemed ready to oppose this. To sleep soundly at a legitimate hour was, after all, the mark not of laziness but of exhaustion brought on by virtuous toil.

Because of all the talk about creating sympathetic heroes, and my love for Sigismondo, I went back to see why this character works so well. The writing team of Elizabeth Eyre has done an amazing job with Sigismondo, as you can see from the text listed above. For the first few pages, all we have are brief descriptions of him and a few actions. Until page 9, he is just called 'the emissary'. On page 9, we get his name.

I believe we like Sigismondo from the beginning, because of the contrast between his calm, thoughtfulness and Jacopo's irritation and over-reactions. This is a point I really wanted to bring out. So many writers bring their heroine or hero onstage with a dramatic flourish where that character is fuming in anger or some other violent emotion. I believe that is a quick way to alienate readers, because what do people do when they see someone angry in public? They avoid them. I really dislike books where my introduction to the heroine is when she's angry or overreacting in some way.

In any event, here are the first few references to Sigismondo:
Page 1 agility unexpected in one of his strong build...
...The emissary's dark eyes genially surveyed the doorful of servants...

Page 2
...The heavy shoulders shrugged, and the emissary indicated, with a movement more economical than Jacopo's, the bed...
...The emissary nodded as if it were axiomatic that a wise dog would stifle noise for fear of harm. He asked no further about yard dogs...

...Jacopo chivvied him to the window with darting motions of the hands that failed of actually touching the fine black leather of the man's jerkin...

[Who doesn't love a broad-shouldered man in black leather who intimidates men in power?]

Page 3 (this is an absolutely WONDERFUL habit of Sigismondo described here and used hereafter - I adore this trait.)

...He had a habit, which Jacopo found as irritating as his sister's wailing, of humming deep in his chest when he was shown anything. It was not a tune, but a sound like a satisfied bee. It conveyed the disturbing impression that all he saw was what he expected to see. He leant over the stone balustrade and, narrowing his eyes...

...At his leisure, the large man reversed...
...The emissary would have had some difficulty not seeing the cloth thrust at his face, but he did not stir...

On page 6, we meet: ...The lack-wit had large round eyes. He looked up at the broad-shouldered man in black...

This brings onstage Benno, who is thrown out by Jacopo and immediately follows the emissary and picks up the narration to a large degree. This is another way we begin to like Sigismondo - he "picks up" this servant who was thrown out to starve and who actually proves to be beneficial to the investigation. Showing Sigismondo understands that the servant is more than just a lack-wit, and is kind enough to provide him food and employment. A few pages later, Sigismondo also provides a few coins to some beggar children and tousles their hair (despite it being matted and louse-infested).

So, that's the hero--no name until page 9. You never get into his head, except a few quick glimpses here and there. In this, he is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition.

POV purists would go insane with this book. To a large degree, there IS no POV (it's omniscient) or the POV is from an inanimate object's perspective. I really love that aspect because it makes many of the descriptions exceptionally vivid. Here are some of the finest examples:

This paragraph (p. 15) starts out from Benno's POV and then drifts. I'm including the entire paragraph because it begins with another of the sparse descriptions of Sigismondo.

    Sigismondo gave a hum of general assent. They walked down the wide cobbled ramp, and Benno began to speak, but, looking up at the dark, somewhat monumental face, he stopped and trotted alongside in silence. They left the Castello, coming out from the gatehouse tunnel and looking over the coral-and-gold patchwork, higgledy-piggledy, of tiled roofs punctuated by the tall spires of churches and the towers of minor palaces. Beyond these were fields and the great encircling wall with its gates and turrets; beyond that lay farmland, brown patches of woods and the rising undulations of the hills. The river, which through the centuries had sliced through the hills to the north, had come up against the outcrop of Rocca in the course of its meanderings through the valley and, recognizing an immovable object when it saw it, took a respectful loop around its base and dawdled off into the distance where, just visible, lay the sea.

P. 77

    The bitter wind from the mountains had been amusing itself all day, plucking at the roofs of stalls and women's skirts and coifs, blowing hoods and hats off heads, rattling shutters as though keen to come in by the fire and thaw the ice from its breath, sidling under doors to worry people's ankles, and driving straw and dust everywhere. Now, rejoicing, it met Sigismondo and Benno on the road outside the city walls. As they bent before it, furling cloaks over their mouths, urging the horses on, the wind threw in a sprinkle of snow as an added caress, token of what lay ahead in the hills they road towards.

To me that is one of the greatest descriptions of weather I've read in a long time. As I read this book, I'm just in awe of the writing. It's funny and exciting and despite an almost complete lack of introspection, you (or at least I) adore the characters.

I just wanted to send this because of the discussions about sympathetic characters. There is always more than one way to skin a cat, and there really aren't any rules, just guidelines.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Recipe for Red Cabbage

Recipe Alert!
I got this wonderful recipe for German Red Cabbage from my mother-in-law. We're having it for dinner tonight, along with ham and mashed potatoes, and I thought I share it. Cabbage is very good for you, and this is outstanding.

Red Cabbage
1/3 stick of butter
1 med. Onion, diced fine

1 Red Cabbage, washed and cup up fairly finely, e.g. for Cole slaw
1 c. water
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 whole apple, peeled, cored and cut up into a rough dice
1 bay leaf
2 whole cloves
1 pinch flour sprinkled on top

In a saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the onion. Add the cabbage, water, and all the other ingredients (except the flour), mix. Sprinkle with a pinch of flour, put on a tight lid and cook over medium heat until boiling. Then reduce the heat and cook until the apple chunks disappear. Check the water level occasionally to make sure it doesn't burn.

New Year's Day and Resolutions

I resolve...hmm. I actually never make resolutions, never did, and didn't intend to because most of the time, resolutions sound more like wishes. Wishes are things which are out of our control and have a low success rate, like losing 20 pounds.

Speaking of weight, back in 1991, I actually lost 30 pounds and became almost emaciated, but that was in the olden days when I hated life in general and I was in my "grit your teeth and bear it" phase. Iron will. You--will--exercise--today--because--it's--good--for--you--and--your--feelings--don't--matter phase. Life is unpleasant so get used to the idea. Just do it.

Then, I meet my future husband, grew happy, got married, grew happier still, and rediscovered the pleasure in life, which includes eating. So now, I need to lose 20 pounds, but you know what? I'm still enjoying life and I like food and maybe 20 extra pounds isn't so bad. It's not like I snack all day or lay around eating chocolates, because I don't. Never did. And many days, I eat just two meals. The problem is, I don't get enough exercise (sitting at the computer is not exercise, regardless of how fast you type) although I do walk the doggies a mile or two every day.

Any-who, this was supposed to be about resolutions and not about my expanding girth.

So, because others keep asking me about my resolutions, I finally gave in to the social pressure and made some up to give my friends something to talk about. These are resolutions as opposed to wishes, and I actually believe I have a good chance at making most, if not all, of them succeed.

In case anyone wonders, I'm trying to become a published writer, instead of just a wannabe, so that will explain some of the more esoteric ones. I didn't include the obvious: I will be published, because that really is a wish and not a resolution (see "wishes" below). I have no control over what editors do or think about any work my agent submits. All I can do is provide my agent with manuscripts and hope for the best.

New Year's Day Resolutions for 2006

I officially make the following resolutions with the appropriate caveats:

1) I will finish at least 2 more manuscripts in 2006 (unless my agent gets any of my existing manuscripts published, and the subsequent flurry of activity prevents this).

2) I will not moan (too often) about the difficulties of getting published to my already published critique partners or this blog. This honor will be lavished upon my UNpublished critique partner who is hereby required to be sympathetic under all conditions, no matter how desperate. In return, I will listen to her, or at least appear to do so, instead of staring at my belly-button and humming.

3) I will not become so depressed during the summer doldrums that I stop writing for days on end, or stop eating, which actually would be of great benefit in the "lose weight" department, but I won't do it, anyway. Losing weight is not one of my resolutions, so I don't have to do it. I shall thrust my self-loathing/defeatist attitude into my writing and depress my critique partners, instead, and remain at least 20 pounds overweight.

4) I will laugh in the face of morale-crushing rejections and file them away in a timely manner in my new 2" thick three-ring binder purchased for that express purpose (after I filled up my 1" binder with rejections from 2001-2005).

And lastly:
5) I will not accept defeat, regardless of what my agent says, or how many editors and/or postal clerks plead with me to cease-and-desist or beg the courts to swear out restraining orders against me making any more furtive trips to the post office with over-stuffed flat-rate envelopes under my arm.

New Year's Day Wishes for 2006
The above were my resolutions, now for my wishes:

1) I will be contracted by a real brick-and-mortar, single-title, paper-or-hardcover publisher in 2006, with said book coming out by the end of 2006, 2007, or 2008, whichever comes sooner.

2) My agent will continue to love anything and everything I send to her.

3) Furthermore, my agent will find an editor for me, who will stand in awe and bow to my obvious greatness as a writer, and expand the publicity budget on my first published novel to at least threee times what they normally spend on new writers.

4) Once published, all reviewers will sit in awe as they read my novel, bow obsequiously, and write wonderful reviews, thereby causing unheard-of sales of my first novel and thrusting it into the New York Times Bestsellers list for an entire month.

5) I will make obscene amounts of money on my New York Times Bestseller and rights will be sold to a major motion picture company. A major motion picture will be made, starring someone--oh, maybe Jude Law, although I'd really prefer Tom Selleck except I don't know if he'd be believable as a 28-year-old British guy, hence my Jude Law suggestion (hint, hint) to movie producers everywhere, who will undoubtedly be dying for a chance to produce my novel as a really major motion picture... Except under no circumstances will they hire an actress with fat, puffy lips to play my heroine. I hate fat, puffy lips.

That's it.
Here's to 2006 and may it bring everyone, everything they could desire instead of what they deserve.
(Oops, that was a little snarky, but I'll let it stand...)