Monday, January 30, 2012

Put Down the Eye-liner.

In the art of fiction, characters become very real to the reader. They love, they hate, they laugh, they cry. Even though they live in a two-dimensional world, that of words on paper or images on a screen, the characters live in three dimensions in the reader's mind. They love, they hate, they laugh, they cry. How can the author let the reader know how the character feel?

Stealthily, says Ben Marcus, writing for Wordcraft in the January 21, 2012 Wall Street Journal. You don't show the character having an emotional reaction, and you don't state that the character is feeling an emotion. If you do, you risk letting the reader feel manipulated, and nothing kills the relationship between the reader and the character faster than the feeling of manipulation. You show emotion by not showing it. Just describe the sadness of the situation and let the reader infer the emotions.

I don't quite agree with what Mr. Marcus states, but I do agree with what he is trying to say. New writers do put too much emotion in their stories. Too much emo, as the teenagers like to say. Too much drama. Why? It's not because new writers are trying to hit the reader over the head with emotions, or to manipulate the reader's feelings. For the most part, the new writer is merely trying to describe the depth of emotion that he himself feels.

Emotion in a story, however, is a lot like Chili powder. To make a dish taste good, you should add some, but for heaven's sake, don't throw in handful after handful. Don't upend the bottle. Don't even think, "one pinch makes the dish good, so a palm full will make it better." A little spice goes a long way.

A little emotion goes a very long way.

Mr. Marcus seems to argue that the writer shouldn't put in any emotion, but that would be like chili without any spice. And there are stories where the characters move through events, seemingly untouched, very wooden. Those stories leave the reader quite detached. Bored.

The trick, no, the art, is to put in just enough emotion, and to blend it into the story so that it doesn't seem to be there. Like spice, it adds to the flavor, but does not stand out on its own. Don't describe how a characters feels--but say how the character thinks about an object. Give the character responsive actions, such as, "He turned the picture facedown and did not look at it again."

Am I an expert at this? I think I'm getting better. I picked up a novel I wrote decades ago and found that the first few chapters dripped emo. The main character might as well have circled his eyes with kohl and auditioned for a role in a Japanese manga. Too much emotion. I've been slashing it out right and left.
Leaving room for something that all that emo was drowning out--tension.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Cake is a Lie

The GPS in my car is names GlaDOS, after an evil computer in the games Portal and Portal 2. GlaDOS uses the promise of a reward, cake, to lure her victim, you, into one dangerous situation after another. Just like GlaDOS, my GPS appears to be helpful, but will kill you if she gets the chance. She often routes me right past intersections with lights and turn arrows, and then demands that I make a left turn at a dangerous intersection with no traffic lights and a stream of oncoming traffic.

In truth, however, my GPS is not evil--she's just programmed that way. She calculates her route based on the shortest possible distance, and simply doesn't have the computing power to weigh the safety of one intersection against another. All roads are the same to her, so she is just as likely to route me down a narrow, two-lane, shoulder-less road as down a four-lane highway. I can't put my brain on hold while using the GPS. She's a tool, but I'm the one who thinks.

Spell-checkers and grammar checkers are the same way. They are programs, but they are tools, and you can't put your brain on hold while using them. Often, a spell-checker will not distinguish between a word and its synonym. I once read a story where the characters were horrified to come across a scull. I tried to point out to the young author that she had misspelled the word, and she assured me that the spellchecker had said it was right. Well, scull is spelled properly--if you are talking about a small boat.

The spell checker might help you find misspelled words, especially if you are slightly dyslexic, like me, but it can't replace your brain.

Grammar checkers are worse, I've found. Grammar checkers don't like stylistic writing. An author may use sentence fragments for emphasis, and when writing dialog, both sentence fragments and bad grammar can be deliberate. When the word processing program calls your attention to everything it considers an error, it becomes easy to turn a blind eye to it. The Little Grammar Checker calls wolf once too often, and then you miss something you should have caught. Grammar checkers do not replace proofreading.

Another problem with grammar checkers is the ability to miss grammar problems. For example, in Word, the error in this sentence is caught: "Although the great Depression was the most severe, there has been others." A wavy blue line appears under has. But in this sentence, "Programs like this in the New Deal led by President Roosevelt helps the U.S. recover from the worst depression in its history in 1933," the error goes right past the spell-checker. Although the program can look for subject-verb agreement, or see that a helper verb is the wrong form, it can't see that a sentence should be past tense. Computers are tools, but you should never put your brain on hold.

The cake is a lie--never trust a computer to think for you.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Worst Advice

After my mother read my latest first draft, she said those words, the words no writer should take to heart. The words which are the absolute worst advice that a writer can follow--with one exception. Now, these weren't bad words, or mean words. My mother is a great fan of my work, as mothers should be. And she was quite pleased with the story. She offered me praise, and as praise, they are very nice words. But followed? Never. Well, hardly ever.

The one time that the advice should be followed, the only time that any writing advice should be followed blindly, is when it is accompanied by the words: "I'll get a contract right out to you."

And the advice? "Don't change a thing."

Never, never assume that your writing is so perfect that it cannot be improved upon. Never, never assume that you have written your story the only way that it can be written, or that your words are the best you can do. Writing is an exercise in creativity, and creativity is best found in flexibility. You should shift things around, experiment with more words and less words, and even examine scenes from other points of view. And if you keep backups of your work, you need not fear losing anything.

Spend some time working with the story.

Yes, at some point you will have to declare it finished and stop fiddling with it--if not out of consideration for your readers, then so that you may move onto other projects. Declaring a project finished too soon means that you will not get a chance to grow, explore, develop. Don't waste the opportunity. Tell your readers "Thank you," assure them that will you stay true to the vision in the book, and get back to work.

So if saying "Don't change a thing," is such bad advice, why do readers do it? Because they aren't giving you advice. They are giving you praise. They are telling you that the big picture worked well for them, that they enjoyed it. But they really don't mean, "Don't change a thing." After all, even my mother's statement was followed by, "And I've made up a list of corrections and questions that I have."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Starting a Story

Evey week the Wall Street Journal has an article on writing, titled "Wordcraft." Different authors weigh in on topics which range across the field, but all have to do with writing of some sort.  Sometimes it covers word usage, sometimes it deals with the professional side of things, and sometimes it covers non-fiction writing.  I highly recommend looking for it if you have access to the Wall Street Journal.

Look in the Saturday section with art, book excepts, and stage reviews.

This week's article, by Darin Strauss,  "The Fine Art of Where To Start," dealt with the opening of a story.  One does not, precisely, start at the beginning.  One starts as late as possible, when the action is already moving.  You draw the reader aboard the train which is already pulling out of the station, thrust him into a bar fight, or have him struggling for his life.  Or just as he has turned into a giant insect.

Once the reader is hooked, then you go back and explain how things came to be the way that they are.

This article reminded me of a Writing Panel I attended at a convention, I do forget exactly which one, but the speaker was Barry Longyear, and he was verbally critting a story by one of the participating hopefuls.  He read aloud the first page and a half, which showed a spaceship crew dithering about what to do with a robot which was floating in the ether before them.  Then they fired on it--and their ship was destroyed by the weapons that the robot carried.

Mr. Longyear, who was turning in an entertaining performance, told the author that she should give us more background on the crewmembers, have us get to know them so that we cared when they were killed.  The author objected to this, claiming that they really weren't important.  The story was about the robot, not the people.  He held his position that she should make them important.  She argued.

I turned to the person beside me and muttered, "It should start with, They fired on the robot, and that was their last mistake."

Go right into the action.  If the story focuses on the robot, then by all means, focus on the robot doing something.  Something lethal, preferably.

Lethal is always a good way to start a story.