Monday, November 4, 2013

L is for Language

When drafting your piece, be it short fiction or long, it's important to remember that the words you choose carry weight and that consistency of voice will add depth to your characters just as much as the actions and thoughts and feelings that those words convey.

When I'm writing a first draft, basically I'm grabbing at whatever words will do to get my point across. They're like place holders. The first draft is a marathon and LANGUAGE doesn't matter as much as getting the ideas down on paper.

When I'm editing, word choice becomes much more significant. The language I choose to describe a scene will greatly enhance the experience of the reader. Words hold powerful influence over how we perceive a character or setting.

Consider the following three examples taken from the first pages of three incredible books. (By the by, I'm moving in a few weeks, so all my Harry Potter books are already packed. These three books were chosen from what has not been packed yet.)

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There's enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother's body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim's face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner, as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his hoe; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman's days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention of r. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of hear, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.

The Book of Flying - Keith Miller
I am dreaming. I'm dreaming of a city, a white city in the sun by the sea, a city of bells and birdcages, boatswains and ballyhoo, where heart-faced wenches lean bare-breasted from balconies to dry their hair among geraniums and the air is salt and soft and in the harbor sailors swagger from ships that bear cargos of spices. In this city a thousand doves live in the hundred towers of a hundred bells and in the mornings when the bell ringers toll a summons to the sun the doves scatter like blown ash across the tile roofs and light under eaves whispering lulling words to sleepers, bidding them stay in bed a little longer. And on the silver sky other wings rise.

In each case above, the language employed by the author paints a distinct picture. The narrative voice and the setting are solidified through the words chosen to describe the action. Imagine the picture you would get if the opening passage of the Hunger Games was written in the style that Keith Miller uses for the Book of Flying. You might not feel Katniss's discontent or sense of urgency at all. Miller is painting us a picture of a beautiful land of enchantment. We couldn't imagine otherwise after reading those opening words.

Jane Austen's prose, far from being just a portrait of the times in which she lived, is calculated to give you an idyllic impression of the situation of the social class she is writing about, just before she smashes it all to pieces (ever so subtly and wittily, of course).

When they say a picture paints a thousand words... remember that a word, that LANGUAGE paints pictures as well. Choose your images with care.

Friday, November 1, 2013

K is for Kinesics

When you're writing, every pen stroke/keystroke/pencil scribble should exist to support the characters and/or the plot. Every stroke has meaning, down to the painstakingly selected word so imbued with context and flavor that you could not possibly avoid using it to describe your MC's eye color.

Which is why you really have to be a student of kinesics for your active prose to come alive. defines kenesics as:
  • "the study of the way in which certain body movements and gestures serve as a form of nonverbal communication."

As with any and all literary concepts, the key here is balance. The art of kenesics is to find a way to convey meaning with a movement. But you can't just show us your characters' movements. You also have to give us meaningful context for the movements. Here's an example from (who else?) J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
   "I'm going to wash," Harry told Bill, looking down at his hands still covered in mud and Dobby's blood. "Then I'll need to see them, straightaway."
   He walked into the little kitchen, to the basin beneath a window overlooking the sea. Dawn was breaking over the horizon, shell pink and faintly gold, as he washed, again following the train of thought that had come to him in the dark garden...
   Dobby would never be able to tell them who had sent him to the cellar, but Harry knew what he had seen. A piercing blue eye had looked out of the mirror fragment, and then help had come. Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.
   Harry dried his hands, impervious to the beauty of the scene outside the window and the murmuring of the others in the sitting room. He looked out over the ocean and felt closer, this dawn, than ever before, closer to the heart of it all.
   And still his scar prickled and he knew that Voldemort was getting there too. Harry understood and yet did not understand. His instinct was telling him one thing, his brain quite another. The Dumbledore in Harry's head smiled, surveying Harry over the tips of his fingers, pressed together as if in prayer.
The actions in this scene are relatively few, but they are powerful in their simplicity. Harry washing his hands after just burying his loyal friend... this is a symbolic act of sorrow as well as resolve. By the time Harry clears the dirt away he has a better picture of what he needs to do next in his quest to defeat Voldemort. There is no need for excess here... no mention of turning on or turning off the faucet, or rubbing his hands together, or wiping his face. Those actions would convey a different emotion than Rowling wants for Harry here. The quiet, contemplative act leaves you with a sense of Harry's resolve.

Here's another moment from earlier in the book, between Ron and Harry:
   The sword clanged as Ron dropped it. He had sunk to his knees, his head in his arms. He was shaking, but not, Harry realized, from the cold. Harry crammed the broken locket into his pocket, knelt down beside Ron, and placed a hand cautiously on his shoulder. He took it as a good sign that Ron did not throw it off.
   "After you left," he said in a low voice, grateful for the fact that Ron's face was hidden, "she cried for a week. Probably longer, only she didn't want me to see. There were loads of nights when we never even spoke to each other. With you gone..."
   He could not finish; it was only now that Ron was here again that Harry fully realized how much his absence had cost them.
   "She's like my sister," he went on. "I love her like a sister and I reckon she feels the same way about me. It's always been like that. I thought you knew."
   Ron did not respond, but turned his face away from Harry and wiped his nose noisily on his sleeve. Harry got to his feet again and walked to where Ron's enormous rucksack lay yards away, discarded as Ron had run toward the pool to save Harry from drowning. He hoisted it onto his own back and walked back to Ron, who clambered to his feet as Harry approached, eyes bloodshot but otherwise composed.

Kinesics is a practice closely related to beats in dialogue, in that they both contain character action. The point is to understand which actions will be the most effective in gathering up the emotional context of the scene and delivering it to your readers.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

J is for Jargon

The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition) lists the first definition for jargon as confused, unintelligible language.

While this definition holds true of a lot of first drafts (and quite a few of this blog's posts, admittedly), the definition I want to focus on is "the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group."

What more special group is there than your novel's cast of characters? How often to you find yourself writing dialogue (or exposition) that makes complete sense to you, that falls well inside the normal speech patterns for your characters, only to hear from your beta-readers that they have no idea what your characters are talking about?

Especially when you're writing fantasy, unique terms and phrases to describe objects or states of being are necessary! But the problem is how to introduce those terms, that jargon, without throwing your reader into a tailspin of confusion as they try to decipher exactly what your characters are trying to say.

Once again, I turn to the talented J.K. Rowling to illustrate what I believe to be a top-notch example of how to work jargon into accepted language for the reader.

"Where was I?" said Hagrid, but at that moment, Uncle Vernon, still ashen-faced but looking very angry, moved into the firelight.
"He's not going," he said.
Hagrid grunted.
"I'd like ter see a great Muggle like you stop him," he said.
"A what?" said Harry, interested.
"A Muggle," said Hagrid, "it's what we call nonmagic folk like them. An' it's your bad luck you grew up in a family o' the biggest Muggles I ever laid eyes on."

If you do this too often, unfortunately, you're going to overwhelm your reader and cause them to fall out of sync with the story. But! For the important terms, it's worth experimenting with ways to sneak the explanation in.

One thing to note about the definition of the word muggle here and all it's nuances the importance of characterization in helping to paint the picture of the term. Rowling has spent chapters by this point characterizing the Dursleys and their relationship with Harry so that when Hagrid labels them muggles, the implications of such a word reach far beyond nonmagic. So much so that when you hear the word muggle, do you not immediately thing of Dursley?

Take some time and create a list of the jargon you employ to build your world. Which meanings are obvious to your readers? Which are creating unnecessary confusion? How can you craft your narrative in such a way that the meanings of the words stretch beyond the literal definitions?

Monday, October 28, 2013

I is for Inciting Incident

Yeah, that's right! TWO I's! There must be some sort of prize for that, right?

You hear the term Inciting Incident a lot in screenplay writing self-help articles. And it's true that the II is highly important to movies and T.V. You have to have something for people to stick around for after the commercial! (of course, not so much in this age of computers... but when I was a kid... yeah)

In writing it's just as important. Wiki Answers has a couple of great definitions for II:

* The conflict that begins the action of the story and causes the protagonist to act 
*Without this event, there would be no story. Also, it is better described as the State of Imperfection made explicit.
The II is what sparks the adventure! Where would Harry Potter be if he had never gotten his letter from Hogwarts? And I don't need to tell you, master storyteller J.K. Rowling didn't make that as simple as walking out to the mailbox, either. The amount of potential energy wrapped up in what it took to get that letter to Harry and for him to find out he was a wizard carried her through 7 novels and 8 movies! Oh to write a scene like that...

The important thing about the II is that it should come along fairly early in your story line. It doesn't necessarily have to be in the first chapter or in the second, although usually SOMETHING inciting should have happened by the end of the second chapter. In HPaTSS, in the second chapter we find the prelude to the II... the incident at the zoo reveals that there really is something highly unusual about Harry, setting us up for the II actual in chapter three.

If you have too much set-up, you risk losing your reader's attention. Pushing your II up to the second or third chapter helps to tighten your plot and get your reader invested in your characters development (or survival: see Hunger Games).

What other examples of IIs can you think of in your favorite books?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

H is for Hyperbole

Hyperbole, if used correctly and sparingly, can convey a great depth of emotion. It is the use of exaggeration to make a point, to create emphasis.

People use hyperbole most often in everyday speech. "That bag weighs a ton." "I'm starving." "I died laughing." None of those statements is meant to be taken literally.

Choose your moments carefully, when using hyperbole. It's important for your readers to recognize when to take you at your word, and when you're just making a point.

No Harry Potter references this time. Sorry! I'll work him back in soon, though.

Monday, August 5, 2013

G is for Genre

Knowing the genre you're writing is important when you're crafting your novel. Genre is more than “a term for any category of literature or other forms of art or entertainment...” Genre is your novel's home.

Once you can accurately identify the genre you're writing in, all sorts of doorways and opportunities open up... and others close. A women's fiction novel, for instance, is not likely to include flesh-eating space aliens or a guild of ninjas. But a sci-fi novel would definitely have flesh-eating space aliens... and maybe even that ninja guild, too, if they are from the planet Zarkon on the edge of Galaxy 5. Giving yourself parameters to work within helps you better deduce which of the zillion options for your story are the most compatible and which are the most likely to make sense to your readers.

A lot of writers get cagey when asked to define the genre of their novel. It's like they don't want to commit... or they think that they can reach a wider audience if they use more than one genre in their query letter or manuscript description.

This is a big no-no, though. Agents and publishers will put aside a novel that claims to cater to more than one audience because it seems to signal a lack of vision. A targeted audience and a well-defined genre are a must for query letters. If your book is as amazing as you know it is, it will shine in chosen genre and then from there other types of readers will likely pick it up.

There are SOOOOooo many genres and sub-genres to choose from, too. There's no need to feel limited by having to choose one and run with it. So as you're writing, consider your characters, consider how and where your story fits in the marketplace (HINT: this is important for self-publishers as well).

So what genre are you writing in today?

Here are a few suggestions! Can you think of more? Action and Adventure, Chick Lit, Children’s, Contemporary, Crime, Erotica, Family Saga, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Gay and Lesbian, General Fiction, Graphic Novels, Historical Fiction, Horror, Humour, Literary Fiction, Military and Espionage, Mystery, Picture Books, Religious and Inspirational, Romance, Science Fiction, Thrillers and Suspense, Western, Women’s Fiction, Young Adult.

Friday, August 2, 2013

F is for Feedback

Ok, so here's a step away from the elements of a novel. This one is more focused on the editorial process.


I'm talking about taking your precious work that you've been slaving over for months (years for some of us) and sharing it with people whose opinions you trust and who can give you honest, constructive criticism for how to improve upon the clarity, structure and style of your work.

I  know, it's a scary prospect. I have yet to show anyone more than the smallest taste of my own manuscript because I already know what the feedback will be.

Unfortunately, the main problem I see with manuscripts in the slush pile is lack of feedback. A manuscript that has been read and vetted by trusted critique partners and/or professionally edited has a lot better chance rising above the rest of the slush. A lot of authors would save themselves a giant helping of humble pie if they would only take the time to get feedback on their work and then put that feedback to work in a revision (or 10).

What's your process like? Do you have trusted critique partners that you go to?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

E is for Entry point

Entry point is where your story begins... When we crack the book open and read the first page, what is your character doing?

Do we begin at the beginning? “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole , filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort." In The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien begins by explaining Bilbo to the readers. It is our first encounter with a hobbit after all. Through the first chapter, as the action unfolds, Tolkien characterizes Bilbo so solidly that we end up with a vibrant picture and well-defined expectation of what Bilbo is like. And then he does something unexpected. The adventure is just about to begin... and what an adventure!

Are we in the middle of the action? “My husband’s mistress leveled the gun at me. Her perfect, blonde curls bounced as she took a firing stance in the doorway to the conference room. Our eyes met over the gun, and the alien clone holding me, hitched up my arm to use me as a shield. The clone adjusted the quiack knife against my neck to make sure I knew he meant it. My husband’s mistress, Trish, puffed her bangs out of the way and squeezed the trigger." This was the beginning of a novel written by my blogging friend, the amazing and talented Rena. I won't go into the reasons why she changed her entry point, but this, as one of her previous options, illustrates the idea of jumping RIGHT into the action. We learn a lot of details rather quickly about the characters and have immediate tension and excitement to draw us further into the story.

Does the narrative start in the past (to set the stage) and then jump to the present? The best example of this is still Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Chapter 1. Other examples frame this kind of entry point as a prologue. Example: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, “I remember being born. In fact I remember a time before that..." Depending on the amount of back story you need to set up your reader's understanding of the current action, this can be a good idea... or it can be a bad idea. If the information in a prologue needs so very much to be part of the story, you might want to consider ... making it part of the story!

Entry points can and do change over the course of drafting and revising. Sometimes skipping the set-up and heading straight for the action is the best thing you can do to jump-start a lagging narrative. Other times the set-up, artfully done, is required to help attach your reader to the main character. How does the current entry point of your WIP set the stage for your novel?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

D is for Dialogue

(Reposted from Fairbetty's World)

The general feeling is that if dialogue in a scene needs the tags, it's poorly written; that writers should aim for conveying emotion through the characters' words instead of spoon-feeding it to the readers in the narration. It is the mark of an insecure writer that he feels the need to give you information that should have been conveyed in the dialogue, to make sure the reader understands that his characters are emoting or what the scene is supposed to reveal. Trust the reader to figure out what the dialogue “means". And after having a couple of critique partners review it, if they point out that a run of dialogue really is too obscure, then take the time to re-write. Beats are easy to add where they are needed. It's harder to extract them, I find.

In the book “Self-editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and David King, the authors suggest:
“It's best to replace only a few of your speaker attributions with beats. A beat after every line of dialogue is even more distracting than too many speaker attributions. What you want is a comfortable balance."
I tend to agree with that sentiment. Too many tags or beats in a run of dialogue can throw off the momentum of the scene so much that the readers forget what the characters are talking about by the end of the page!

I don't think that all beats and tags are bad. I do think a writer needs to choose her beats wisely and make the most of them. First she needs to understand the anatomy of the scene she is writing: What are the key emotions at play here? How fast is the exchange between characters supposed to feel? What else is going on in the scene? and Which actions are important to the development of the scene?

And now, because examples in real life are always fun, I'm going to borrow from J.K. Rowling to illustrate my point. What I love about Rowling is that she's not perfect. But her characters emotions are perfectly conveyed.

Excerpt from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban":
“I DON'T BELIEVE IT!" Hermione screamed.
Lupin let go of Black and turned to her. She raised herself off the floor and was pointing at Lupin, wild-eyed. “You-- you--"
“--you and him!"
“Hermione, calm down--"
“I didn't tell anyone!" Hermione shrieked. “I've been covering up for you--"
“Hermione, listen to me, please!" Lupin shouted. “I can explain--"
Harry could feel himself shaking, not with fear, but with a fresh wave of fury.
“I trusted you," he shouted at Lupin, his voice wavering out of control, “and all the time you've been his friend!"
“You're wrong," said Lupin. “I haven't been Sirius's friend, but I am now--Let me explain..."
“NO!" Hermione screamed. “Harry, don't trust him, he's been helping Black get into the castle, he wants you dead too--he's a werewolf!"

Excerpt from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix":
“There is no shame in what you are feeling, Harry," said Dumbledore's voice. “On the contrary... the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength."
Harry felt the white-hot anger lick his insides, blazing in the terrible emptiness, filling him with the desire to hurt Dumbledore for his calmness and his empty words.
“My greatest strength, is it?" said Harry, his voice shaking as he stared out at the Quidditch stadium, no longer seeing it. “You haven't got a clue... You don't know..."
“What don't I know?" asked Dumbledore calmly.
It was too much. Harry turned around, shaking with rage.
“I don't want to talk about how I feel, all right?"
“Harry, suffering like this proves you are still a man! This pain is part of being human--"
“THEN--I--DON'T--WANT--TO--BE--HUMAN!" Harry roared, and he seized one of the delicate silver instruments from the spindle-legged table beside him and flung it across the room. It shattered into a hundred tiny pieces against the wall. Several of the pictures let out yells of anger and fright, and the portrait of Armando Dippet said, “Really!"
“I DON'T CARE!" Harry yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace. “I'VE HAD ENOUGH, I'VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON'T CARE ANYMORE--"
He seized the table on which the silver instrument had stood and threw that too. It broke apart on the floor and the legs rolled in different directions.
“You do care," said Dumbledore. He had not flinched or made a single move to stop Harry demolishing his office. His expression was calm, almost detached. “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it."

These two scenes illustrate very different emotions. Characters in both scenes do a lot of yelling, but the timing of the dialogue is the key to the emotions in each scene. In the Prisoner of Azkaban scene, the urgency of the scene is conveyed by quick back-and-forth dialogue. If you remember the same scene in the movie, there are a lot of actions that the characters take (i.e. looking to and from one another; Hermione steps in front of Harry to shield him from Sirius and Lupin; Lupin reaches out to implore Hermione to listen). None of those actions are portrayed in the dialogue, because to add them, while giving you a physically more accurate description, would take away from the momentum of the scene. The readers can just as easily imagine the action as they read the dialogue.

In the second scene, from the Order of the Phoenix, the dialogue progresses much more slowly. The emotion  in this scene does not come from a rapid-fire exchange (although Harry does do a fair bit of shouting), but from Dumbledore's slow and calculated responses. The deep feelings of regret and care for Harry that Dumbledore expresses come to light through his patience in allowing Harry the space to explore his own emotions. The pace of the dialogue allows much more room for beats of character action (all taken by Harry, a detail that is also telling...). But more than that, each beat has a purpose, shows the emotion rather than telling it (more often than not).

As a writer, understanding what your characters are going through and how they would respond to one another in a scene can mean the difference between capturing the readers' hearts and getting lost in the details. The right beats in the right places give meaning to the words spoken and emotions felt by your characters, allowing the reader to peek through the windows in their souls.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

C is for Conflict

Every good story has conflict. The trick is how you utilize it. Conflict can help your character grow, can give her something to overcome, can peak the reader's interest in the plot. If your character always gets everything she wants without having to fight for it, that can make for a really short, or a really boring story.

Conflict adds intrigue, creating tension in the narrative. It comes in many shapes and forms, both internal and external.
(wo)man vs. (wo)man - Harry vs. Voldemort; Ulysses vs. Medusa; Hector vs. Achilles... in each of these instances the villain is (eventually) corporeal, someone that must be defeated to ensure the hero's survival. The odds are stacked against the hero and he will have to use all his wits to gain the skills necessary to overcome his foe.

(wo)man vs. nature - Katniss vs. the Hunger Games arena... technically this is woman vs. a machine taking the form of nature, but you get the point. Fire and rain, lack of water and food, tracker-jackers, mockingjays, and muttations, all these "natural" forces test Katniss's skills and ability to survive, and teach her about herself (and the reader about her).

(wo)man vs. self - Ista vs. herself (Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold... love her, btw)... In this lovely novel Ista has to learn to move past the trauma she has experienced and allow herself to be open to using her gifts for the good of other characters in the story. The external conflicts here are secondary to the internal conflict, and her character grows and changes in beautiful ways by “The End."

Knowing your character's back story can help you discern when conflict will come up (ex: Hermione's muggle-born status fuels her desire to excel; Sirius and Snape's past animosity causes clashes when they are forced to work on the same side; Snape's love for Lily Potter motivates him to agree to protect her son, but his hatred for James Potter makes him antagonize Harry at every opportunity). The best conflict has a reason, even if it never has a resolution. Snape never forgave Harry for being James' son and it's hard to tell if Harry ever forgave Snape for killing Dumbledore... but the poignancy of the emotions that the conflict between those two characters creates is one of the most memorable aspects of that series.

So what conflicts arise in the lives of your characters (major OR minor)?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

B is for Backstory

(Cross posted from Fairbetty's World)

Back story is a tricky topic. You can't live with it and your MC can't live without it! The term “Back story" encompasses all those things that may have happened to your main character (or to the townspeople he's trying to help) before we meet him in the first pages of your book.

Take the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone**. J.K. Rowling sets the stage and the characters for her epic YA series in the first chapter and reveals a surprising amount of back story to her readers succinctly and with masterful characterization and style. By the end of chapter one we know all we need to know about the Dursley family and have tantalizing bits about Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid to carry us further into the story... as well as some crucial details about Harry Potter himself. Chapter two begins ten years later! We don't get any detail about what those ten years entailed, and we don't really need them because the characterization of Harry and the Dursleys in the subsequent scenes tells us everything, and I mean everything, we need to know just what happened during those ten years. But you can bet that J.K. Rowling knows what every minute of every day of Harry's childhood was like.

Each piece of back story that you know for your character can help create a more richly rounded picture of him (i.e., how and why he reacts to given situations, why he knows or thinks what he does about certain topics). You may think that it's just as important for your reader to know all this back story as it is for you. Honestly, though, it's not important... at least not yet.

SOME of this back story information is pertinent to the novel. MOST of it is not. Certain bits of back story, when they are revealed, dramatically enhance the action and push forward your plot. Knowing which bits are which can be difficult. Having someone read your manuscript with a critical eye and point out bits that don't pertain directly to the plot can help a lot!

Don't throw out or summarily delete all those delectable details, though! Someday you will have fans who will devour those bits. Save them for the special edition you release to your adoring fans after you've hit the bestseller list! Which bestseller list am I talking about? That is up to you.

**Editorial confession... I love Harry Potter deeply and dearly. I will likely use examples from that series a considerable amount during this series. If you love Harry Potter, too, I think we're meant to be BFFs for life. If you DON'T like Harry Potter... I'm sorry but it's just not going to work out between us...

A is for Action

(cross-posted from Fairbetty's World)

A stands for Action

Action is the main vehicle for getting your characters from “Once Upon a Time," to “The End." Without action, your MC would never learn that he is a wizard, find that golden ticket, stand up against the oppressive regime that forces children to fight children to the death, or fall in love with his best friend. Your MC wouldn't even be able to get out of bed in the morning!

One of the main pitfalls of the beginning writer is the tendency to want to describe everything, to tell the reader about the details of setting and characters, even down to the brand of jeans or what cars are driving by on the street. We spend hours crafting the perfect sentence that will describe exactly what everything in our head (or in front of our eyes) looks like. While nothing is more important that setting the scene, when it comes to details (or the overuse of them), less is more! They call this concept “Show, don't Tell." If the detail is important, somehow it will fit into the action.

This is not to say that a manuscript should be all action, but action moves the plot forward while description puts the plot in neutral... it's not moving backward, but it's not really going anywhere. Finding the balance that fits your plot is the key. If we're having a thrilling car chase or a heated argument, the rest of the details will naturally fall in the background (into that less is more category). If the MC is pondering the meaning of life while sitting on the edge of Santa Monica Pier, it's possible that the details will be more relevant to what you're trying to convey.

While some readers are philosophers, and some texts need accurate description to be understood, most readers are just looking for the action and they'll skim right over that detailed description of what the ceremonial knife set looked like. Even if they read it word for word, there's no guarantee that what they see is what you see. There are some things that have to be let go.

I know it's hard, but take a look at your WIP (work in progress). Locate those chunks of descriptive prose. Yes, you were poetic, an artist unparalleled. Now decide if that description really adds to the theme/symbolism/plot/character in a way that the reader will connect with. Can't decide? Ask an honest friend or a crit partner. If the answer is no, consider cutting it out of the action and squirrel it away for the supplemental materials they'll want to print after your book has made you famous.