This article may be aimed primarily at screenwriters, but it’s great advice for fiction writers as well. “As human beings we are created with unique and differentiating perspectives; characters should be created with that same concept in mind.” Etc. (NB for the copyeditors among you: If you’re anything like me, you’ll wish you got your hands on this before it was posted, but read it anyway. Please.)
I’m forever saying, chanting, and otherwise reminding myself that “the way out is through.” This is true, but often it’s distilled down to “Just do it!,” which can be useful but sometimes isn’t.
Sometimes the way through is circuitous. Sometimes it’s so circuitous that it looks like procrastination, like when you give up in frustration, go for a walk, and come back with an insight that eluded you while you were staring at the screen, or when you take an entire week’s break from the work in progress to do something else, maybe writing-related or maybe not.
So one of my characters — Felicia, the mother of one of my viewpoint characters, Glory — just made a momentous and unexpected discovery. With each draft, Felicia is becoming more crucial to the plot, but she started off as a bit player and I still didn’t know her very well. My hunch was that she’d call Shannon, the other viewpoint character, but I didn’t know what she’d say. So I left a note to myself at that point in the file and went on.
Plenty of writers do this regularly: When a scene isn’t jelling or they need to do more research, they skip over that part and come back to it later. This is far better than getting stalled at the troublesome spot, but I’m not all that good at it. When I leave gaps behind, I feel like I’m balancing on a rickety ladder. Nevertheless, I kept climbing, looking uneasily down at the ground from time to time.
A little while later Shannon was about to fill her friend Jay in on a totally different story and what came out of her mouth was a sketch of a post-midnight call from Felicia. It turns out Felicia was furious, she and Shannon reached a détente, but at the end of the conversation her trust in Shannon was still shaken.
The actual phone conversation remains to be written, but now I know Felicia better than I did before. One reason that the first two drafts of this novel didn’t reach a climax is that much depends on what Felicia does when a major secret is revealed and I didn’t know Felicia well enough to hazard a guess. But now that I know what went on in that phone conversation, the end is getting closer.
Sometimes you can move characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Other times they want a say in the matter. In those cases the way through may be to let them have it, even if you have to wait a bit before you hear what they’re saying.
Mired in the thickets of writing and editing, we sometimes lose sight of why we do what we do. We’re creating stuff — fiction and nonfiction, stories, poems, essays, and whole books — that will get people to read. Here’s a reminder. Thanks to Charles French for his blog post calling this to my attention.
There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.
Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.
Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:
Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with…
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“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”
This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.
I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.
An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?
Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.
This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.
When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.
Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .
Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.
And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you. This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?
If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.
Jonathon Owen’s Arrant Pedantry blog is always great reading for writers, editors, and other word people, but this one might be especially interesting to writers of dialogue. It discusses the difference between direct speech, when you come right out and say something (“What time is it?”), and indirect speech, when you do it indirectly (“Do you know what time it is?”). The expected answer to “Do you know what time it is?” is not “Yes” or “No” — though you can be sure that one of your wiseass friends will occasionally respond with one or the other!
Indirect speech acts are often used to be polite or to save face. In the case of asking a child or subordinate to do something when they really don’t have a choice, it’s a way of downplaying the power imbalance in the relationship. By pretending to give someone a choice, we acknowledge that we’re imposing our will on them, which can make them feel better about having to do it. So while it’s easy to get annoyed at someone for implying that you have a choice when you really don’t, this reaction deliberately misses the point of indirectness, which is to lubricate social interaction.
How one character phrases something is often as important as what he or she is saying. How other characters hear and respond to it can show a lot about those characters.
Source: “Politeness and Pragmatics,” illocution | Arrant Pedantry
This seems related to my recent post about details. Using her experience as an actress, the author writes: “Actors spend years honing their craft; good actors know this includes getting out of the way in a performance so people can become immersed in the story on stage, not the actor’s impressive craft on display.” I think something similar is true for writers.
“I’m noticing a pattern in your work, and it’s a problem,” my mentor said.
I was near the end of my third term of my fiction MFA when she put her finger on something happening in my writing whenever emotions grew strong. To show an intense scene’s rage, anger, or grief, I’d throw in more adjectives and adverbs, believing more description would create more emotion and show I really meant it. Only it had the opposite effect. Instead of getting across intensity, my frantic, overly dramatic writing pushed readers away by taking them out of the scene.
“But it feels that intense,” I argued.
“It’s not your job to feel it, it’s your job to make your readers feel it,” she replied.
I remembered, then, something I’d learned decades before, working as an actress. In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard, the director had…
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Almost three years ago, in “Details, Details,” I noted, “Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)”
“Some other time” has finally arrived, and strange but true, this is a book I’m reading for pleasure, not a manuscript I’m critiquing or editing. After its publication in 2008, it become a New York Times best-seller and an Oprah Book Club selection. All of which suggests that it was pretty well edited and very well liked, or at least that a lot of people bought it.
I’m actually liking it myself: I’m about two-thirds of the way through and I plan to keep going. But still — the details!
At first I was impressed. Truth to tell, I still am. A rain-washed street, the noises each stair in an old farmhouse makes as a boy walks down them, an old tractor engine rumbling to life — all these and many more sights and sounds are exquisitely observed and vividly described.
Especially impressive to me is the detail devoted to the raising and training of dogs. I know enough about dogs and dog training to recognize the author’s expertise. The title character is my novel in progress is a dog; his behavior and training play a significant role in the story. My own treatment of the subject suddenly seemed pale and rushed by comparison. Maybe I should put in more details?
At some point, though, the exquisitely observed and vividly described objects and interactions began to slow me down. Even the parts about dogs. Get on with it, I’d think. I can visualize in detail the peeling paint and the rusty latch — what’s happening on the other side of the door?
With an ebook or an old-fashioned print book, I could have skimmed past the in-depth descriptions and gotten on with the story, but I’m listening to this novel on CDs as I run errands in my car. With an audiobook you can’t skip ahead with any precision. So I listen even when I’m itching to fast-forward.
I wondered if the author was also a poet. In poetry image and detail are in the foreground. They’re meant to be savored. They’re important in fiction and memoir too, but if you spend too much time savoring the imagery and detail in a 580-page (or 18-CD) novel, you’ll never get through it. As far as I can tell, this author isn’t also a poet.
Interestingly enough, despite his minute attention to small details, the author skates right over some of the big ones, like how does a 14-year-old who’s never been away from home manage to survive for weeks in the very deep forest?
Naturally, being an editor by trade, I wonder what I would have said if this book had come to me as an unpublished manuscript for critiquing. I would have been impressed as hell by the writing, but I’m pretty sure I would have flagged numerous places where the narrative bogged down or where stitches got dropped and weren’t picked up again. Obviously the book did spectacularly well in its current form — and, as usual, I don’t know what it looked like, or how long it was, when it was first submitted to agent or publisher.
I intend to keep reading, or listening, to the end, so neither the wealth of detail nor the dropped stitches nor the long meandering detour away from (what I think is) the main narrative has stopped me. The importance of dogs to the story is a big motivator for me, and I’m intrigued by the brief glimpses of magical-realist techniques in the author’s style. When I finish, I’ll read some reviews and comments to see what other readers had to say.
The book, by the way, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski.
An insightful piece about giving a reading and (of course) other things. I recognize what Lupita Nyong’o calls “the seduction of inadequacy” — boy, do I ever. There’s a big payoff for feeling unworthy: you don’t have to try, don’t have to risk, don’t have to make mistakes. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only writer who sometimes falls for the seduction!
By Katrina Otuonye
I took part in a reading with The Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville last week, and I read for about 10 minutes from a collection of nonfiction I’m working on. I think it went well, even though I was a little nervous, though a bit less than usual. Practice does actually make perfect. But the first couple paragraphs, getting over the dry mouth, mentally smoothing over the shakiness in my voice, my little animal brain kicked in, the one that always says, “What are you doing?”
The voice comes from a little preppy version of me, in a pleated skirt and my hair up, in a bow. She sits cross-legged on my shoulder, filing her nails. I’ve been meditating and going to therapy to help with my anxiety and latent feelings of not-good-enough-ness that have followed me around for nearly 20 years now (thanks, middle school). Before…
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Beyond (possibly) acknowledgments and an author’s bio, fiction writers and editors generally don’t have to think much about backmatter. That’s a publishing term for the part of a book that comes after the main text ends.
Writers and editors of some kinds of nonfiction don’t have to think much about backmatter either. Memoirs and how-to books, for instance, may include a few endnotes and a “for further reading” list, but that’s usually it.
I edit a lot of the other kind of nonfiction. University press books, academic papers and dissertations, trade books about history or current events, that sort of thing. (Note: “Trade” in this sense means more or less anything that isn’t academic.) These works are based on research, so documentation is crucial to their credibility.
If you’re somewhat familiar with a work’s subject matter, a skim through its bibliography can give you an idea of well the author has done his or her homework.
All sources are not created equal. Multitudinous notes and a long bibliography alone do not necessarily translate into a reliable book. Maybe 20 years ago I copyedited a mass-market book about UFOs. It cited plenty of sources, many of them on the World Wide Web (which was pretty new at the time). Fact-checking was part of my job, so I checked all the URLs. Woo-whee! This was my introduction to conspiracy theories about UFOs, alien abductions, chemtrails, and what has come to be known as the alt-right. The “evidence” for UFOs was internally consistent; it just wasn’t linked to the world of verifiable facts.
The job I just finished was thoroughly, even exhaustively, sourced. I was warned before I took it that the (electronic) manuscript was about 750 pages long and about a third of those pages were backmatter — endnotes and bibliography. Fine with me: I actually like copyediting this stuff. My detail-oriented brain kicks in, recognizes missing info and info out of place, clarifies inconsistencies, and knocks everything into shape.
Different fields and disciplines have different citation styles. Most of the books I work on follow one of two systems laid out in the Chicago Manual of Style, often with some adaptations. I expected this one to do likewise.
Well, it did and it didn’t. In Chicago style, the titles of books and comparable works (such as films, TV shows, albums, full-length musical works, and the names of journals and newspapers) are generally italicized. Shorter works, like short stories, poems, songs, journal articles, and book chapters, are set in roman and with quotation marks. In the Works Cited section of this job, there were no italics and no quotation marks anywhere. My Chicago-trained eye had to look hard to tell the books from the articles. I had to figure out which was which and apply the appropriate style. I was warned about this too. “Billable hours,” said my production editor.
While editing the text (which presented few problems and was very interesting), I flipped back and forth between it and Works Cited, doing maybe 10 pages of entries at a time. I was cruising. It was a big job but for sure, I thought, I was going to make the July 5 deadline.
Then, around July 1, I took my first hard look at the endnotes. OMG. Most of the notes contained three to five citations in author-date style, often along with some text and a full citation or two. It was a hybrid of Chicago‘s two styles: notes and bibliography, and author-date. I’d never seen such a thing.
Author-date style is common in academic writing. You’re reading along and you come to a sentence like this:
The aardvark population of West Tisbury has been stable since 1998 (Sturgis 2016).
For the full citation, you flip to the Works Cited section, where you should find something like this:
Sturgis, S. J. 2016. “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?” Journal of Creative Solutions 14(2): 37–42.
You should be able to find the source article, “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?,” on pages 37–42 of volume 14, issue 2, of the Journal of Creative Solutions.
In a work that uses the notes and bibliography style, instead of “(Sturgis 2016)” you’ll probably find something like this:
The aardvark population of West Tisbury has been stable since 1998.3
The superscript “3” tells you to go to note 3 for the current chapter, where you should find this:
Susanna J. Sturgis, “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?,” Journal of Creative Solutions 14, no. 2 (February 2016): 37–42.
In most cases (newspaper articles are a frequent exception), the work will also be listed in the bibliography:
Sturgis, Susanna J. “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?” Journal of Creative Solutions 14, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 37–42.
In my author’s hybrid style, most endnotes included multiple author-date citations, each one of which had to be cross-checked on first appearance with the Works Cited list. I split my Word screen so I could flip back and forth easily between Notes and Works Cited . . . and realized PDQ that many — perhaps as many as 20 percent — of the works short-cited in the notes were not in Works Cited at all. And that some of those that were had discrepancies in the year of publication or the spelling of the author’s name.
Where discrepancies could be quickly resolved with an online search, I Googled. For each missing citation I typed a query in the notes: “Work not in Works Cited. Please add.” This quickly dwindled to the shorthand “Not in WC.” At first I typed a placeholder in the Works Cited list for the missing citation, but after chapter 4 I realized this was taking much too much time so I stopped.
Still, the billable hours were hefty, and I expect to pay off my credit card (dental bills!) and catch up with my quarterly tax payments when that invoice gets paid.
The moral of the story for writers: If you’re citing any sources in your work, get all the details and get them right. Familiarize yourself with the citation style(s) commonly used in your field. If you’re writing for a general audience in the U.S., Chicago will usually do. Your copyeditor will thank you, and if you’re paying the freight yourself, you’ll save a bunch of money.
Chances are you’ve been told at least once by an editor, a teacher, or another writer that “this construction isn’t parallel.” Or someone has scrawled “faulty parallelism” in the margin of your manuscript or in a comment on your Word file.
This is shorthand for straying from, as Words Into Type puts it, “the principle that parts of a sentence that are parallel in meaning should be parallel in structure.”
Faulty parallelism comes in an daunting array of varieties. It can involve nouns, verbs, phrases, clauses, and whole sentences. It’s easiest to spot in a list, like this one:
These tips might help you complete a long writing project:
- Schedule a specific time for writing.
- Write even when you don’t feel inspired.
- No distractions.
The first two elements are imperative verbs. The third has no verb at all. This is an easy fix: make the third element parallel to the first two by adding a verb. “Avoid distractions”? “Ignore distractions”? “Resist distractions”? It’s your call.
Faulty parallelism can be harder to spot in a sentence, especially a long, complex sentence — which is exactly where parallelism tends to go off the rails, so to speak. The list above can be turned into a sentence: “To complete a long writing project, schedule a specific time for writing, write even if you don’t feel inspired, and no distractions.” The sentence is short enough to make it pretty clear that something’s wrong.
The longer the sentence, the harder it can be to keep track of its parts. Here’s where the ability to diagram sentences can be very helpful. If you didn’t learn it in school or have forgotten how, plenty of websites out there can give you the basics, including “How to Diagram Sentences” on WikiHow.
It happens often enough that the parallelism is faulty but the meaning is still clear. I encounter many sentences like this one: “She let the dog in, gave him his supper, and then they went for a walk.” It sets off to be a series of three verbs with the subject “she,” but then the subject changes. What we’ve actually got here is two independent clauses, the first of which has two verbs, the second of which has one: “She let the dog in and gave him his supper, and then they went for a walk.”
I sometimes feel a little pedantic inserting the conjunction, because the meaning is clear, but often enough the meaning isn’t clear, or the sentence can be interpreted in more than one way. The other day I came across a doozy in a nonfiction book I’m copyediting. In this example, I’ve changed the details but retained the structure of the original. The original subject was a man who never wrote a best-selling novel and didn’t go to Spain either.
Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less write her best-selling novel.
See the problem? There are three verbs in the first part of the sentence — “begun,” “think,” and “traveling” — and it’s not obvious which one “write” is meant to be parallel with. Keeping in mind that even very good writers occasionally mess up our verb tenses, you could read this in (at least) three ways, some of which might not be accurate.
- Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less written her best-selling novel. (“Written” is parallel with “begun”: “Mindy had not begun . . . and had not written . . .” If this were the intended meaning, I would probably insert “yet” before “begun” to make it even clearer.)
- Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less to write her best-selling novel. (“To write” is parallel with “to think,” meaning that Mindy hadn’t begun either to write her best-selling novel or to think about traveling to Spain.)
- Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less about writing her best-selling novel. (“Writing” is parallel to “traveling,” meaning that Mindy hadn’t even begun to think about writing her best-selling novel.)
Context gave me no clue about which of the three options was intended, but my gut said it was probably #2 because it was the easiest to clarify: add the “to” to show that “to write” was an infinitive and therefore parallel with “to think.” So I added the “to,” but I also queried the author and explained the other options. He’s the only one who knows for sure what he intended and what was in the subject’s head.
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