Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 21 & 22, 2012

Welcome to the first multi-day edition of Great Stuff. There’s lots to share, so off we go…

Let’s start with some posts on craft, shall we?

  • Joe Moore’s (@JoeMoore_writer) post Fried Catfish and Grits isn’t about food; it’s about setting written so well (in Ace Atkins’ The Lost Ones) that it gave Joe a hankerin’ for those southern staples. He then goes on to discuss ways to make your setting details contribute to the story.
  • Kim Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) video on How to Use Foreshadowing to Jazz Up Slow Scenes tells the tale of how fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss uses foreshadowing to keep his readers engaged through what Kim calls “[a] couple hundred leisurely pages of everything going pretty much the protagonist’s way.” A COUPLE HUNDRED PAGES!!! That’s some serious foreshadowing!
  • Next, David R. Gillham (@drgillham) provides 5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction on the Guide to Literary Agents blog. While the title says “historical” and Gillham does indeed focus on that genre, what he suggests applies to just about any genre: “Fiction = friction,” “Using language or accents” to name just two.

OK, enough for craft, how about the business side of things? Sure!

  • We’ll start with Alan Petersen (@AlanPetersen) discussing 3 Really Good Self-Publishing Ideas and 5 Hilariously Bad Ones on The Book Designer. I don’t know if the the 5 bad ones are hilarious, really, but they definitely are bad. And the good ones? I’ll summarize them this way: if you want to make money (from your books), you’ll need to spend money (on getting them ready) first. Just do it wisely.
  • Speaking of bad ideas, M. J. Rose (@MJRose) discusses how not to commit Social Media Suicide on Writer Unboxed. Of course, don’t write stupid things is part of her prescription. So is not going crazy on social media. Seems being smart about how to use social media isn’t so easy, at least for some folks.
  • So how do you market yourself effectively on social media (and elsewhere)? Harvey Stanbrough (@h_stanbrough) offers a set of Resources to help you figure that out. While he includes himself, he does also list Steven Pressfield of The War of Art and Dean Wesley Smith’s web site, which includes the tab “Think Like a Publisher.” Hmmm. Have to check that out myself.
  • Finally for this section, Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) wonders, Does the Publishing Industry Care Too Much About Writing Quality? This is a continuation of the discussion about the quality (or lack thereof) of indie-published writing. Seems to me the answer is clear: the publishing industry cares (as it should) about making a profit. The books that sell lots of copies but aren’t “quality” writing in the eyes of self-appointed experts are the very books that allow publishers to sell the “quality-writing” books that don’t make money. This shouldn’t be an either/or question. The answer is both/and. IMHO.

So much for the business side, let’s close with a couple of personal life posts.

  • Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) writes about Dealing with Impatience: what might cause it, why it can be a problem, and what you can do about it if it’s a problem for you.
  • Karen Jordan (@KarenJordan) offers some tips on Taking Time Out on WordServeWater Cooler when something–maybe it’s that impatience–gives you a “flat tire” on the journey of life.
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Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 25, 2012

Looks like it’s just going to be a busy week. Lots to get to, including something from The New Yorker! It seems that today’s theme is “knowledge.”

  • We’ll start with Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) Knowing What We Don’t Know. In this case, the knowing/not knowing has to do with how all the changes in the publishing industry are going to shake out and how we’re surfing that chaos–or not. “Interesting times” we’re living in.
  • Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) guest posts on Andrea Hurst & Associates’ Authornomics blog and answers a few of the questions she gets asked most: her most rewarding experiences, dealing with rejection, what authors should be concentrating on now, and suggestions for dealing with the changing publishing climate.

Moving from business to craft:

  • In my writers’ group we’ve had on-going discussions about semicolons, especially after a couple of recent submissions were replete with them. Veritable plethoras (plethorae?). So I had a pleasant surprise this morning when I read an e-mail from a member, relaying the article her husband had found in The New Yorker on that very topic: Semicolons; So Tricky, by Mary Norris.
  • Brian Andrews (@LexicalForge) guest posts on The Kill Zone about Scene Scouting: On Location or Wikipedia? Of course, being able to visit the locations a story is set in is best–if more than a little difficult if you’re writing off-planet science fiction or fantasy set in some other universe, but I digress–but there are options if the place is real but you can’t go there. Wikipedia is one, Google Earth is another (and not mentioned).
  • Finally, Kim Weiland (@KMWeiland) presents her weekly video blog post, this time asking, Is Your Character Stagnating? She offers ideas on how to tell and what you can do if your character has gotten stuck in the non-development swamp.

 

Critique Technique, Part 25—Misused Backstory or Flashback

A twisted red pencil

Image courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Backstory and its kissing cousin flashback are techniques authors use to provide amplifying information about a situation, a location, or a character. Flashbacks and backstory differ from “front story” in that the author jumps away from the story’s current timeline to relate them, then jumps back (but not backwards) to the story’s present to continue.

Jumping forward in time—a “flash forward”—can have the same purpose, and everything below also applies.

Flashing back is in fact a technique for relating backstory. A brief interruption of the story’s flow, it can be:

  • Initiated by the narrator to provide information not available to the characters;
  • A character’s memory; or
  • A conversation between two or more characters (“You remember when…?”), to name just three.

The words “flash” and “brief” are important here: flashbacks are over and done with quickly.

Backstory can be told more leisurely, as a stand-alone scene, for example, but doesn’t have to be. It might take the form of just a single, telling detail. For example, there’s this line in the recent Robert Reed novella “Murder Born,” which centers around a couple trying to bring back their murdered daughter: “But that didn’t stop [Lauren] from…curling up on the mattress cover that was washed every two weeks, the same as always.” That last phrase, “the same as always,” is the droplet of backstory that tells us so much about Lauren’s grief, expressed in her continuing care for her dead daughter’s bedclothes.

So while “backstory” encompasses all the background information that doesn’t fit into a story’s or article’s primary timeline, what I want to concentrate on here are four improper or ineffective techniques of presenting that backstory:

  • Starting with backstory;
  • Using backstory too often;
  • Spending too much time in backstory; and
  • Using backstory as front story.

We’ve all run into stories—maybe even written them ourselves—in which the author starts by explaining everything she feels the reader will need to know in order to “get” the story once it begins.

When a new member of my own writers’ group announced a few meetings back that he intended to start his novel that way, he was, shall we say, “counseled” against it. After a few repetitions of, “No, Jim,” “Don’t do it, Jim,” “You wanna get smacked up-side the head, boy?” (we didn’t really say that—so far as you know), he conceded the wisdom of our advice. We’ll see whether the wisdom stuck with him when we get chapter 1.

You know, of course, to start in medias res and filter the backstory in later.

The next three techniques have an important element in common: they cause the reader to lose track of the primary story line. And a confused reader is something you don’t want—unless you do for the purpose of pulling her through to the end, but that’s something else altogether. For our purposes here, confusing the reader is a bad thing.

Using backstory too often is another case of the author wanting the reader to know everything she knows about the story, characters, setting, situation, etc. This time, the desire gets manifested as flashbacks or backstory details being inserted at every opportunity, whether they’re necessary or not. “Necessary” is the key word here. You, as the independent reviewer, aren’t emotionally invested in the story, so you have the ability to look at a detail, a flashback, even a whole chapter, and ask, “Do I need to know that?” The more often you find yourself asking that, the more likely it is the author is using backstory too much.

Using backstory as front story and spending too much time in backstory mean the author isn’t clear on what information needs to be doled out in little pieces to deepen and enrich the story at key moments. Instead, he delivers info dumps, lectures by the narrator, or speeches by characters. Yes, deciding how much is “too much” can be subjective but again, if you lose track of the main story line, the author is guilty of this error.

If the author is suffering from either of these problems, the flow of the story will come to a grinding halt as it wanders off into material that isn’t relevant to the story’s current moment. (We’ll talk about tangents in more detail next time.)

Here, then, are some questions you can ask yourself regarding backstory and flashbacks as you review someone’s work:

  • If you’re reading the beginning of a story or article, did the author jump right into the action and fill in the backstory later, or did he start with background information that could have waited?
  • Is the author peppering me with so many background details that I get confused or lose track of the story line?
  • Is the author dumping information, either through the narrative or via her characters, and causing me to lose track of the storyline?
  • Is the author spending so much time in backstory that I can’t tell what’s backstory and what’s front story anymore? In other words, has he lost track of his story?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you can start examining what information is necessary at that moment in the story, what can be told later, and what may not need to be told at all. Providing that information to the author will help her improve her work.

What other things do you look for when determining if backstory and/or flashbacks are being misused?

Critique Technique, Part 20—Too Much Setting Detail

The flip side of providing vague or insufficient setting detail is providing too much. Drowning the reader in the minutiae of a setting not only kills the momentum of the story, it causes readers to lose interest. For the lucky author, the reader will just skip ahead—a few times, anyway.

But for the unlucky author, or the one who insists on describing the three green sateen ribbons on the head of the second Pekinese from the left, the one with the ghost-grey patch of fur on its back that looks just like a giraffe if you look at it from the right rear, which was hard to do because the dog insists on spinning around, always clockwise, never counterclockwise, to face you, but is now asleep in the brown wicker basket with the braided handle that Rosalee bought for just 50 cents at the neighborhood garage sale over in Johnsonville from that nice lady wearing the darling sundress with the purple and gold iris flower pattern that went so well with her blond hair, that was now sitting on the linoleum with the orange and white pattern of squares and triangles and the 6” diameter water stain reaching out  from the far wall, in front of the oak veneer bookcase that Rosalee bought on sale for just half price at the dollar store because it was a display sample and they wanted to get rid of it, especially because the middle shelf was missing a couple of screws and so it sagged toward the back and she—Rosalee, not Janetta, the sales clerk with the gold teeth who always wears those big silver hoop earrings—hadn’t had time to go to Lowe’s to pick up the nickel-plated #10 by 1½” hex head screws that would be hanging up in the rack down toward the end of aisle 13, up where she’d have to stand on her tippy-toes to reach them, in the dark blue plastic pouch that she found so convenient if hard to open, meaning she’d have to find those Fiskars scissors with the pretty pink plastic handles her Gramma Gemma had given her when she was just six and working on her Kindergarten Christmas card project—the one where she spilled Elmer’s glue and silver sparkles all over the sort-of-brand-new kitchen table—and still had and they were still sharp after all these years, but even after she fixed the shelf the bookcase would still be wobbly and she doubted she’d be able to get her collection of The Great Books with their wonderful brown leather covers embossed with real gold and that still smelled real good, like an old saddle maybe, or Aunt Barbara’s fancy coat with the long sleeves that she wouldn’t wear in the winter because it would get wet, if you put your nose up real close, to stay in it because it would probably collapse in a heap—pause for a deep breath—that author is going to have the reader throwing the book across the room.

If they don’t fall asleep first.

And that wasn’t even a good bad example!

The point, of course, is that somewhere between that 454-word sentence and “the bookcase,” there’s a balance point at which the author has given the reader enough information to build the rest of the scene in his head. The fact that the scene he sees with his mind’s eye won’t be—can’t be—the same scene the author saw with hers doesn’t matter, so long as he knows what’s important about the setting.

The challenge for you as a reviewer is to determine whether or not a particular setting detail is important. The author may be planting that detail now but its importance won’t be evident until later. That’s a favorite technique in mystery stories. Or, lots of details may be important for establishing the environment, beyond the immediate moment of the story. Pick up an early Tom Clancy novel, for example, and you’ll find a story rich in details, such as of the close confines, the equipment, the displays, the sounds, and the men of the sonar room of a submarine.

So, here are a few questions you can ask yourself as you’re reviewing someone’s work:

  • Are there so many details that they kill the story’s forward progress?
  • Do the details provide information but not knowledge? That is, do they tell me things, but I don’t understand why I need to be told them?
  • Are there so many setting details that I lose track of the story?
  • Are there so many details that I stop caring about the story and its characters?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, be sure to tell the author about what you’ve seen and suggest ways they might remove or compress details to make the story better.

What other things cue you to the fact that the author is providing too much setting information?

 

Critique Technique, Part 19—Vague Setting

As I start to write this, it’s 8:30 on a Sunday evening. I’ve been up since 4:30 this morning, volunteering for the third long day in a row with the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. I do this every year to honor the memory of a friend of mine who, along with 167 other people, was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in OKC in 1995. Which is a long and complex way of trying to excuse in advance any incoherence in this post.

Last time I wrote about authors not providing setting information at all, or not providing it soon enough. Not providing enough detail about the setting is a similar problem, but different enough that it gets its own post. Next time we’ll go to the other extreme and discuss providing too much information.

It’s easy for an author to fall into the vagueness trap: after all, his mind’s eye sees the setting the characters are in. That knowledge becomes so ingrained that he forgets the reader isn’t right there with him: she doesn’t see what he sees, know what he knows, etc. In the end, details get left out, even when they’re new and important, and the poor reader becomes a member of the Fugawi Tribe (see Part 18 for an explanation of who they are).

Setting details do much more than locate the reader in place and time. They establish, or help establish:

  • the mood of the story;
  • the relationships between the characters and the place, time, and culture of the story;
  • the relationships between the characters; and
  • the activities that might be expected to take place there, to name a few.

Let’s take some quick examples:

  • Mood: “It was a dark and stormy night.” While this famously bad opening fails for many reasons—how dark it was, how stormy it was, and what kind of storm was going on wherever the story was happening—Bulwer-Lytton was trying to establish a mood. Of course, weather isn’t the only way to establish mood and is probably the most cliché, so writers should use it with caution but the reader’s initial reaction to a dark place or a bright place only begins to set a mood. But even darkness alone isn’t enough information: consider the difference in mood for a couple in a dark forest and the same couple in a dark bedroom. That’s still not enough detail: they could be happy to be in the dark forest or terrified by being in the dark bedroom. The only way to properly set the mood is to provide enough detail.
  • Culture and relationships: Think of the differences between, say, the England of Pride and Prejudice and Florida, Texas, and California of The Right Stuff. The cultures of Victorian England and America’s first astronauts were worlds apart, as were the ways in which they interacted with those environments and each other. Those differences will show in the settings in which the characters live and operate.
  • Activities: Readers will have different expectations about what is likely to be happening in a hospital operating room (OR) and in a trailer at a construction site. Setting details can either confirm or upset those expectations. What if the OR is being used as a place where people are tortured, or the trailer is where a secret operation of some sort is being conducted? The details—the blood on the walls, the racks of special communications gear—provide the clues without the author having to come out and tell the reader what’s happening.
  • Who or what is there—or missing: This can be an interesting and subtle point. Let’s continue with the operating room example. There’s a big difference between an OR that’s full of modern equipment, clean, and well-lighted, and one that’s nearly empty, dirty, and lit by just a single bare 60-watt bulb, isn’t there? Similarly, there’s a big difference between an OR that’s staffed with nurses, doctors, and technicians, one that’s empty and seems abandoned, and one that has just a single man in ratty fatigues holding an electric cord with bare wires at one end. Even these generic details tell the reader a lot.

Within reason, the more details about the settings the author provides, the more the reader is able to inhabit the world of that moment of the story.

In the end, this whole question of how much setting detail a writer needs to provide is like the quest for just the right word. You’ve probably heard of Mark Twain’s famous statement that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning-bug.” (It seems to me that a better contrast would be between “lightning bolt” and “lightning bug,” but that’s an issue for another day.) In either case, the analogy is apt: either form of lightning—bolt or bug—provides inadequate illumination, just inadequate in different ways.

But since illumination is what we’re after, let’s see if we can shed some light on what you as a reviewer should be looking for when evaluating the setting details an author has provided. Ask:

  • Can I picture the time of the story or scene: the time of day, the season of the year, the century, or the era?
  • Can I picture where the story or scene is taking place: the planet, the nation, the specific location?
  • Do I have a sense of what the author wants me to expect is happening there?
    • Is there enough information for me to even have expectations?
  • What do the people and/or things who are there, or absent, tell me about this scene?
    • Do they match or upset my expectations?
    • Can I tell if that’s what the author intended?

Now it’s your turn: What kinds of things make you realize that an author’s setting descriptions are too vague?

Critique Technique, part 18—Lost in Space

This is the first of three posts on setting.

Remember that old TV show, “Lost In Space”? Neither do I, really, but that’s OK. The title’s the important thing. I used to be in the Air Force, and there was a joke among us aviators that navigators were members of the Fugawi Tribe. (This was true for Naval aviators, too.)

“Why is that?” you ask.

“Because,” I reply, “you could often find them huddled over their paper charts (this is back in the day—today they huddle over GPS displays, mostly) with their compasses and protractors and special rulers and rotary slide rules. If you bent close and listened carefully, you could hear them muttering strange incantations and imprecations, in particular, ‘Where the fugawi?’”[1]

Or so I’m told.

In any case, something an author never wants to do is initiate their reader into the Fugawi Tribe. A reader who doesn’t know where he is—or where the characters are—isn’t going to be a happy reader. He doesn’t want to be lost in space…or time (which causes me to flash on another 1960s TV show: “It’s About Time,” whose theme song began with the lines, “It’s about time, it’s about space, / About two men in the strangest place…”).

TV and movies (and all the visual media) have a built-in advantage over printed fiction and non-fiction stories because they show the viewer, right up front and right away, where and when the story is taking place. They can’t help but do it.

It’s another matter in written fiction.  The author has to make a conscious effort to present that information to the reader. And she needs to do it quickly and in every scene. Well, maybe not every scene, but the exceptions are situations like where the story is quick-cutting between sets of point-of-view characters who are all in the same place. Once their position in the setting is established, so long as they don’t move or leave, those quick cuts back to them don’t need to reestablish the characters’ location. The reader will assume they’ve stayed where they were.

One of the members of my writers’ group demands to know where the scene is set immediately, right from the very first line. OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but her point is pretty much on target. Readers are usually willing wait a paragraph or two to find out where a scene is set, but after that they start to feel lost in space.

The solution, of course, is straight-forward: provide enough detail early enough in the scene or story to place the characters in time and space. At the beginning of the piece, the time-setting needs to be broad-scale: is it set in ancient Rome, the 1880s, the modern day, or some time in the distant future? This can be done many ways. Here are just a few:

  • By explicit statement: “By 1885, Dodge City…”;
  • By mentioning characters unique to the time: “Emperor Diocletian…”;
  • By mentioning a technology or using a term that is clearly identified with a period: “…the horseless carriage sputtered down the street…”;
  • By mentioning a custom, a style of dress, a building or event new or specific to that time and place, etc.

Later on, the details may be fewer and more specific, if the new setting remains within that original context. If it changes, of course, then the writer needs to provide more information.

Note that future settings can be tricky: it’s impossible to predict with confidence what a future setting will “really” look like and the farther into the future a story is, the worse the problem is. Science fiction writers get past this by establishing a futuristic setting and not worrying about the exact year in most cases. My own work-in-progress is set in the near future—2035-ish—which is actually harder than if I’d set it farther out, because we can take some educated guesses at what 2035-ish technology and living conditions might look like. It’s easy for a reader to disagree with my prediction–and be able to support that disagreement.

Some kinds of fantasy have their own unique situation when it comes to time: depending on the story, the setting may be completely divorced from the Earth we know and from its historical timeline. So while a sword-and-sorcery fantasy may be set in a place that looks like Medieval Europe, it may not be—Europe or Medieval. The good news is that fantasy readers understand this and are quite happy to go along without knowing “when in the course of human events” the story occurs.

Note, too, that time is inseparable from place, but place, while almost invariably intertwined with a time, can, in the hands of a skilled writer, transcend time or be used to show a lack of change over time, but that’s a topic for another day.

While it’s important to set characters in their time and place in each scene, it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. I’ll write about that in Part 20 in a few weeks.

One final item. Super-agent Donald Maass, in his book The Breakout Novelist, says this about setting:

“Description [of setting] itself does nothing to create tension; tension comes only from within the people in the landscape. A house is just a house until it is occupied by people with problems.”

This time the questions for you to ask yourself as a reviewer of someone’s work are pretty straightforward:

  • Does the author establish the time and place of the scene or story at all?
  • Does she establish the time and place of the scene or story quickly enough that I don’t wonder when or where it’s taking place?
    • If the time or place is established too late, where in the scene or story would be a better place for it, and why?
  • When she attempts to establish the time and place, are both clear to me, or am I confused by one or both?
    • If I’m confused, why, and what could she do to make this information clearer?

In the next two posts, I’ll talk about providing too little information, or too much, about the setting of a scene or story.

For now, what else do you look for when evaluating whether an author has established the time and place of a scene or story quickly and clearly enough?


[1] Translation: “Where the fuck are we?” You figured that out on your own, didn’t you?

The Poetics of Place

Tucson Festival of Books is coming up in a little over a month. If you’ve never attended this readers’ and writers’ extravaganza, I urge you to dedicate at least one day to it. (More information at the bottom of this post.)

I like to prime myself for events like this by reading my notes from the previous year’s presentations. It puts me in a writerly frame of mind and primes my synapses.

Last year a wonderful novelist and children’s book author named Ilie Ruby came from back east to give a workshop called The Poetics of Place. While it was aimed at fiction, what she taught is useful in any kind of writing where setting is important–in other words, almost everything we write other than grocery and honey-do lists.

Here’s the exercise Ilie gave the forty or so people who attended her workshop.

Step 1 – Close your eyes. Imagine something happened in a real or made-up place. Look for sensory connections to other experiences, real or imagined. Pay particular attention to the tug of place in your thoughts and emotions.

Step 2 – Set a timer for ten minutes and do a free write, using your memory or imagination of that place. Describe it after something unpleasant or upsetting has happened. Keep writing; don’t let your pen stop. Doing it by hand gives you an organic, sensory advantage.

Step 3 – Set the timer again and describe the same place after something wonderful has happened. Compare your two descriptions.

Here’s what I wrote for Step 2: Her father had slammed his way out the back door, rattling the windows. He had slammed the wooden gate and then come back to latch it in that resigned way he had. The girl had retreated to her bedroom, climbed onto the quilt, and hugged her stuffed horse. Maybe she had slept. When she became aware again, the house was silent in that underwater way it was when the fog came in off the bay and climbed the hills. She lay still, cheek pressed against the horse’s dingy pink hide, and one breath told her that things had changed. That invisible thing her mother called mold had awakened and crept up her nostrils to inform her.

I was writing toward her discovery that the house is full of fog. This actually happened in the Berkeley Hills in California I was three or four years old, and my mother, brother, and I had taken a nap and left the bay-facing windows open.

We had less time to finish the second exercise, where something wonderful has just happened: How had she not known how much she loved this house, this wooden womb, this only place she had lived since her mother’s body? Had she, in her nearly six years, never noticed the bright trails of slugs across the fallen bay tree leaves, the smells of dust and wet decay that excited her nose, the patterns of light wedging itself between the leaves of the canopy?

The point of this exercise is to develop the habit of noticing sensory details of setting and how they relate to a character’s emotions. Give it a try and see what your imagination serves up.

Dates for the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books are Saturday, March 10, and Sunday, March 11, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Information is available at http://www.tucsonfestivalofbooks.org. From the website you can get on their e-mailing list. There are a raft of panel discussions and individual presentations, not to mention a wide variety of foods. (Lines are sometimes long, so it doesn’t hurt to bring something to keep your blood sugar up.) Hope to see you there, or at least pass you in the crowd.