Nathan Bransford, Author


Friday, July 10, 2009

Guest Blog Week: Everything You Need to Know About Writing a Novel, in 1000 Words

By: Victoria Mixon

PLOT

Plots are myriad, but plot structure is simple: hook, development (with backstory interwoven), climax.

Shakespeare's five-act play, Syd Field's three-act story, Freytag's triangle (although Freytag called complications climax and climax resolution---causing untold confusion): like a holograph, hook-development-climax works on all levels, from the big picture down through chapters, sequences, scenes, to actual lines of dialog.

"What the hell is this?" Kerouac calls out to Slim in On the Road.

"This is the beginning of the rangelands, boy. Hand me another drink."

Hook your reader (make them curious), tell your story, throw them off a metaphorical cliff when you're done.

The five biggest mistakes in plotting:

1) Starting with backstory. I know, chronology works in life, but not so well in fiction. Chronology did work back when Moll Flanders wanted to tell us all about where she came from before she told us where she was. But that was then. This is now. Hook your reader first. You've got to make them curious before they'll listen.

2) Letting the complications sag. The middle of a book is common bogland, and that's why you hear so many people say, "I started that book, but never finished it." Fitzgerald spent a lot of energy (and his publisher's patience) on the galleys because The Great Gatsby sagged mid-way. It's the writer's job to keep upping the ante on the complications, starting a bigger problem the minute the last one's resolved, keeping the reader turning those pages.

3) Dragging your denouement out. If at all possible, end at the instant of climax, like Henry James in The Turn of the Screw: "His little heart, dispossessed, had stopped." You may grieve to let your characters go, but your reader just wants to find out what happened. And if you're so brilliant they can't let go--wow! Even more reason to quit while you're ahead. The best compliment a writer can get is, "I didn't want that book to end." Hello, Constant Reader.

4) Putting the climax too far from the end. That's what your reader is reading for, and when they've found it--they stop. It's true, some brilliant works have been written where the catastrophe is the hook and the rest of the story is exploration of that catastrophe, but that's sleight-of-hand. The climax is still the point where the writer confronts the reader with the pivotal event. The end.

5) Using a trick ending. Never conceal information from the reader so you can whack them over the head with it on the last page. Even mysteries, which appear to be all about trick endings, give the reader the clues to see through the trick before they get to it. John Gardner was adamant: if you set the reader up to resent you--they will. Good-bye, Constant Reader.

SCENES

Character

It might be your hook that catches the reader's attention, but it's the characters who drag them in and hang onto them for life. Know thy characters. They must be real people, not two-dimensional cartoons, with real bodies, real mannerisms and tics, real foibles, dreams, insights, and idiodicies to be ashamed of. Know them backward and forward. Then don't tell it all. Hemingway said, "The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

Dialog

Leave out most of the words. No kidding. Leave out oh, well, yes, no, um, uh (definitely these last two). Leave out names except for extreme emphasis. Leave out first articles and even subjects of sentences wherever possible. Do you answer a question with, "It's on the table," or with, "On the table"? Try it and see how much snappier your dialog becomes. For heaven's sake, leave out ellipses. Be like Emily Bronte and use em-dashes instead. Leave off dialog tags. Replace them with brief significant actions or, if you can get away with it, nothing at all. A book filled with characters talking the way we really talk, with tags, goes on forever and bores even the writer to tears.

Unless absolutely necessary, make characters talk at cross-purposes. How many of us actually listen to other people? We don't. We're always thinking about what to say next, when they shut up.

Description

Keep it brief and significant. Raymond Chandler used to be able to burn up the whole first chapter describing a house. You can't do that anymore. Everyone knows what a house looks like. Find those details that make a person, place, or thing important or unique, mention them, and get back to your characters.

Action

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Action is character." No matter what complications you throw at your characters, no matter what climax you have in store, each character must act in the only way they know how. If you've got characters who can react in various ways, you don't know your characters well enough. Go back and learn them. They have reasons for only being able to respond under pressure one way. And the different ways different characters deal with trouble is where the tension lies, so it's best to have characters with very different personalities going through this hell together.

Donald Maass also makes the point that action is not necessarily external. Action is very often internal. Conflict is very often internal. Total climactic catastrophe---as we all know---is only too often internal. "Tension on every page," Maass says, and this is about as good as advice gets.

EXPOSITION

Exposition seeks not to just inform but to enlighten. Don't waste your reader's time with explanations. They've got brains. Let them use them. Leave out every explanation that can be inferred from the context. When you must cast light upon a scene, do it in context. Either you need to give the reader a breather between bouts of excitement or the tension can be heightened by knowing a little more about what's going on. Take advantage of pacing to interweave backstory and exposition, but always keep up with your characters.

Go for it.






125 comments:

Mira said...

Wonderful.

First of all, let's talk about putting this together at the last minute. Research and quotes? References? Arrgghhh. I'm going to go committ Hari Kari. I'm also going to hire you to do all my papers for me.

But now, I can talk about the best thing about this article. You role-model alot of what you're talking about. This is especially true when you talk about short, snappy writing. This piece is brisk, informative and clear.

I LOVE what you had to say about dialogue, and I don't know if I've seen it said quite that well before.

Great post, Victoria. Very impressive.

Lupina said...

I could print out this perfect nutshell of writing wisdom and throw away my other how-to books. (Well, maybe I'd keep Strunk and White).

The part about just getting that ending down rather than letting things dribble on and on is especially valuable. Lame and long endings are my own pet peeve.

Great job, Victoria, and excellent pick again Nathan!

Thermocline said...

I find exposition to be especially tricky. I feel like I should be leaving bread crumbs but drop slices and whole loaves because I don't trust the trail I'm marking is clear enough. It's more that I worry about my skills as a writer than that my readers aren't smart enough to figure it out on their own.

If I could just stop looking over my shoulder while I write to see if my reader is still with me....

Lupina said...

Hey Mira, we were first and second to the party! I'm usually around comment #167.

Lupina said...

It just occurred to me that, were these posts part of a novel, my previous mini-post would have broken the exposition rule bigtime by pointing out something very self-evident. Sorry!

susiej said...

Thanks Victoria! Its nice to get an advice post with such concrete examples. (I'm off to delete any ellipses. Its so funny how many people hate those.)

Thanks to all who contributed. It's been a great week.

And thanks to Nathan for putting it all together.

If anyone is interested in one of the posts he didn't chose, I took his advice and put mine on my LJ- you can read it @ http://elfmama.livejournal.com/7877.html

Laura Martone said...

After working on a novel for several years, I finally began to research the current state of publishing a few months ago. Yes, I know it's a bit backwards, but I wanted to write in a vacuum - not swayed by others's opinions - and THEN take a look around.

Since March, I've read several helpful "lessons" on what NOT to do in your novel. Yours, Victoria, is as helpful as the others, but I nevertheless have a stomach ache.

I happen to like the long, descriptive-heavy books of old, but I've finally accepted that that's simply not the norm today. When a beta reader recently compared my style to Dickens', I knew I was in trouble.

Yet I can't help but wonder - do these "rules" apply today because readers have, in fact, gotten more sophisticated and don't need to know everything about the characters and backstory, or because we live in a faster-paced age where people have shorter attention spans and want to get to the heart of the novel right now? Or is it a combination of both?

While I appreciate such guidelines as yours, Victoria, and know that I need to revamp my story with them in mind, I still fear that if we all follow them, our books will begin to look and sound the same. Is that a rational fear - or am I just experiencing revision-shock? :-)

Scobberlotcher said...

Great post!

Laura Martone said...

Oops. I meant to say "others' opinions".

Anyhoo, regardless of my ramblings, I just want to say thanks to everyone this week for such wonderfully inspiring and/or educational posts. And thanks to Nathan for leaving us in such good hands. Perhaps the next time you go on a volunteer vacation - or just a regular ol' beach getaway - you can do the mini-contest again!

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say... I can't wait to hear about your adventures in South America!

P.S. I still don't understand, though, what's wrong with ellipses?

Victoria Mixon said...

Thank you, Mira and Lupina! You're very kind.

Thermocline, don't look over your shoulder. Keep your eyes focused on your characters. Your reader loves the excitement of running to keep up with you, like a little kid being allowed to follow a big kid around. That's tension!

Victoria

Kristan said...

I agree, this is an AWESOME reduction of like every (contemporary) Writing How-To book.

And I do like/appreciate how she points out that (a) this is for modern writing, not meant to serve to retroactively critique literature, and (b) there are exceptions.

Great guidelines, thanks!

DebraLSchubert said...

Thanks, Nathan, for letting some wonderful writers take over your blog this week.

I'm in the middle of what I hope is my final edit on my current novel, a cozy mystery. This post was very helpful. Thanks, Victoria!

Amber said...

This is all great advice!

I couldn't agree more on the bit about description; Tolkien may have been a brilliant mind, but six pages merely describing Tom Bombadil's face is hard to digest in a world where reader are accustomed to the quick pace of film and video games.

I agree as well about trick endings. I invariably throw books like that on the other side of the room (before retrieving them and nursing them, of course, but that's irrelevant). It's a tempting trick when you're on the other side of the book, but in the back of my mind I always see that sixteen-year-old chucking my book at the wall because the ending came out of nowhere.

Thanks ever so for the advice!

Victoria Mixon said...

Laura Martone, I am totally with you. I love long descriptive passages. It took me literally decades to accept that modern readers won't stick with you through them. And I deeply mourn their passing.

You are absolutely correct that it has to do with our fast-paced era. Dickens could go on for hundreds of pages because he wrote the equivalent of TV sitcoms--reading was what people did in the evenings then. His were just so great that they went into permanent reruns.

We don't have that kind of audience anymore. There's too much going on--too many cable channels, too much email and texting, too many blogs, too much Twitter.

If it helps any, think of your descriptions in terms of haiku: every single word must carry great import.

I go ahead and write my long, lush descriptive passages in the first draft, then cut them out and put them in an outtakes file, saving them for the collapse of technology, when people will need lots of stuff to read again.

Victoria

Rebecca Knight said...

Victoria--excellent post! I'd never really thought about why long descriptions no longer worked when they worked in the classics. I don't do them because I find them tedious, but that's because I'm a Modern Reader.

Makes a lot more sense :).

Thank you for the insight and the wonderful advice!

Amanda J. said...

Fantastic post! Thank you, this is very useful and will come in handy when I start revisions. Thanks Victoria - and you too Nathan!

Ink said...

Hey, can we argue? Does that break protocol for kindly guest-posting?

I quite liked this piece (though with the caveat that all rules are really more like rough guidelines... yes, we must always trust in Disney's pirate code), but I have to put a few words of support in for those friendly denouements. Yes, a three hundred page denouement is cruel and unnecessary punishment for a loyal reader. I think point number four*, though, handles this aspect of overly long and drawn out denouements (*don't have your climax too far from the end). But no denouement? Climax and out, sayonara, thanks for the fun time? Yes, the one-night-stand motto might work for some books... but certainly not for all books.

A great climax is, well, great. And yet great climaxes sometimes need time for reflection, they need to be unpacked a little, to be unwound and deciphered. Sometimes the greatest meanings are found in the effects of the climax, not the climax itself.

Climax and out... well, that can be very abrupt. Sometimes that "I wish the story didn't end" can be be a bad thing, can be a voice saying "I'm not satisfied. How does it come together? How does the dust settle? What are the ramifications of that wonderfully exciting conflict?" Abrupt endings can be uncomfortable, can leave a bad taste in the mouth. I watched The International the other day, and it's excised denouement almost ruined a decent thriller for me.

Even some long denouements are quite valuable. The Lord of the Rings, for example, would be a thematically lesser work if not for long denouement chapters like The Scouring of the Shire and The Grey Havens. So be concise, sure. Avoid the run-on denouement, great. Know when to close up shop, wonderful. But tell the story that needs telling. And I have to think that if it needs a denouement you write a denouement.

Though if anyone writes one that's three hundred pages long I think Victoria will be fully within her rights to slap you with a fish.

Duluk said...

Readers haven't become more sophisticated; they've become more impatient and arrogant. And a little joydrog. (yeah it was the verification word)

I blame video games. Everyone else does. :)

No, but seriously, good post. I've always found it interesting how dialog in books needs to be un-realistic to be more real.

TERI REES WANG said...

Victoria!
...a serious crash course of 'mind-and-manage-the-pages: game-plan'. Phew.

Mira said...

Ink - I think you make some really good points. I do think sometimes the reader needs some wrap-up. Especially if they are involved with the characters, and there were....what are they called? B storylines. A and B storylines? Am I making that up?

For example, maybe Storyline A is saving the world. But storyline B is the love story. You need time to resolve both.

Victoria - see? You not only created a wonderful post, but you're getting a good discussion going as well.

Nathan - wonderful choices. It does occur to me that there are some outstanding writers that come to your site. Thanks for giving them this opportunity. It's been major fun.

Des said...

Thank you very much. This post was excellent.

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

This is an invaluable check-list that I will certainly use to evaluate what I've written. Thank you Victoria.

When I'm selecting a book I've always turned to page 49 too see if I'm being drawn to enter the world held within the pages. Only after that page will I check the blurb and the show-home perfection of page one.
The idea that chronology need not be maintained is at the heart of that method of book selection.
I love the feeling that you've been hooked and are being wound slowly, ever deeper into the character's mind, life and world though.

Kate Levin said...

This is great!

Matilda McCloud said...

wow...great post.

As a writer, I always get stuck in the bog in the middle. It's tough keeping up the tension.

And as a reader, that's where I put books down. Great beginning...then it slowly sinks into nothing (though I'll occasionally peek at the end to see what happened after the boggy part).

Elizabeth said...

This is a fabulous post. Thank you.

Phil Tolhurst said...

You know what I needed something just like this - it's made me think long and hard about what I've written so far in my book. Food for thought as they say.

However I have a query; what the hell to people use ellipses for in writing and what's an em-dash?

Actually that was two but the point has confused me!

Laura Martone said...

Victoria -

Thanks for the response. I appreciate your perspective and expertise - and I'm glad I'm not the only one who likes "long descriptive passages." I, too, deeply mourn their passing.

On the other hand, long-winded "classics" aren't the only things I read. I have eclectic tastes - and shorter books like THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB or the series that Kathy Reichs and James Lee Burke both write are up my alley, too! So, it's not like I want everything to be long and drawn-out, and I fully recognize that my story could use some major editing!

I guess it comes down to a simple decision: Do I want to pout, stick my head in the sand, and write the way my literary heroes did of old, or do I want to catch up with the times, trim the fat, and be published already?! I can blame Twitter and cable TV all I want, but ultimately, I'd rather get with the program. Just be advised - my family was the last one on the block to get a VCR and a microwave - so my learning process is a slow one. :-)

Thanks again, Victoria - I especially like your "haiku" comparison - that's an extremely helpful analogy! And I'll take your advice - and save my "long, lush descriptive passages... in an outtakes file" for the potential "collapse of technology" someday. Hey, it happens in the movies all the time - just look at THE ROAD WARRIOR. Course, post-apocalyptic folks are usually only concerned about survival. Reading long passages might not be critical for them either. :-)

Dolores said...

Great, helpful post. Thank you.

annerallen said...

Great post. Really well put.

But I am so with Ink and Mira on the climax-and-out thing. So many books these days are like bad boyfriends who roll over and go to sleep two seconds after they're done.

All those abrupt endings make me feel manipulated. The writer seems to be saying, "Neener neener: you have to wait for the sequel!" instead of providing a satisfying resolution.

Strange Fiction said...

Victoria thanks for your timely post. I’m in the process of plotting my second book and revising my first. I think you’ve nailed the key elements of the contemporary novel.

I also have concerns and fears regarding the direction that saleable literature is taking. One of my beta readers suggested that I dumb-down my vocabulary—I thought about it—for about 30 seconds. Do we stand on principle or do we suck it up and write a saleable book?

Sell to the masses and eat with the classes or sell to the classes and eat with the masses?

Laura Martone said...

I agree with Bryan, Mira, and Anne. I'm not always a fan of books that end with a climax and a short wrap-up. But I suppose it depends on the genre. Perhaps mysteries, romances, and crime thrillers should end this way, but literary novels - especially those that focus on a character's major change in his/her life direction - have a little more leeway in that department.

abc said...

That was delicious AND nutritious! Thank you, Victoria.

Kristi said...

Thanks for a great post Victoria - very well written and concise.

Nathan - great job picking guest bloggers this week. Oh yeah, that's your job to spot great writers but you do it well.

This was a great week and the guest bloggers were all fantastic. Happy Friday to all! :)

Oh, do any bloggers out there know how you save your own blog posts if you created them directly in Blogger? I have no teenagers around at the moment to ask. Thanks.

LindsRay said...

There are 300 page writing books that basically say this. Great short summary of the basics.

Ash D. said...

That was a wonderful post. Thank you!

I feel inspired to get back to work on a manuscript that I'd abandoned because I'd gotten "bogged down" in the middle.

Thanks again, Victoria, for the words of wisdom aand encouragement!

ryan field said...

This was an excellent read.

Ash D. said...

Whoops.

Sorry for the typo :)

Mira said...

Annerallen,

That was the funniest thing about the boyfriend.

I was drinking something at the time. I'm sending you the clean-up bill. :-)

Victoria Mixon said...

You guys are great for taking these points and running with them!

Sure, any time the reader gets the feeling the writer is yanking their chain, you've lost a reader. Don't thumb your nose at anybody you ever want to pony up for a book of yours again.

Your ending is where this episode ends for the main character. If your story ends when the main character has an epiphany about what happened, then that's where the episode ends. It's your pivotal event.

The point is to make it the reader's epiphany, not just the character's. Go out with a bang, not a whimper.

"so we beat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past..." --F. Scott Fitzgerald

Of course, you can keep writing past that for as long as you like. Nobody's going to stop you. That's the beauty of a solitary art!

Thanks for the in-depth discussion!

Victoria

Anonymous said...

Perfect timing for this. Thank you, Victoria.

Cat Moleski said...

Thanks, Victoria. I thought your blog was brilliant. It's always good to have a reminder of what needs to be on the revision check list. No bogs? Check!

Tammy Stanwood said...

Phil, here's some information on the em dash. http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/dashes.asp

Steph Damore said...

Thanks Victioria - great post and I love the follow up discussion.

If it helps any, think of your descriptions in terms of haiku: every single word must carry great import.

Your quote seriously makes me think of Marisa de los Santos (BELONG TO ME) and Barbara Kingsolver (BEAN TREES). I am envious of their writing style, vocabulary and especially their descriptive abilities. The imagery's not drawn out, but it's specific. You understand exactly what they're talking about. It's perfect. I want to write like that.

Melanie Avila said...

I'm with Mira -- I'm very impressed you wrote and researched this in less than a day. VERY well done. Thank you for this post!

careann said...

An informative, concise look at the process. There's lots to think about here. Thanks!

Careann/Carol J. Garvin

evepaludan said...

Terrific post!

Bob Sanchez said...

Great column, Victoria. Thanks. I love having my characters talk at cross purposes.

Bob Sanchez
http://bobsanchez1.blogspot.com

Sarah Erber said...

I love it when I find useful information like this with a click of the mouse. *grins

I have to agree with everyone else, this is a great post! Thanks for taking the time to share with us!

Victoria Mixon said...

Aw, you guys are all so kind!

For the record, I didn't do a lot of research (looked up the exact quotes I wanted). I walk around with this information in my HEAD.

Yeah, and admittedly it's all extrapolated at length on my blog.

I've had a rewarding 30 years in this field! As the greats all say: "Become a writer if you just love this stuff."

Victoria

Scott said...

Excellent post. Thank you, Victoria.

One question, though. I always thought ellipses and em-dashes were two different animals. I use the former to suggest a pause for thought or for similar dramatic effect, and the latter for a faster change of direction or interruption. When used properly and in conjunction, I find my dialog is allowed to generate more interesting rhythms.

Anonymous said...

This is great!

Kirk said...

Been reading this blog for a while. Registered just now to simply say this post is amazing. Succinct, enormously helpful, and engaging. Thank you.

Victoria Mixon said...

Scott,

Good question! Yes. Ellipses indicate a pause, generally over making a decision. Em-dashes indicate a leap in logic (either to set off a phrase more strongly than with just commas, or to get to the next point).

The truth is that ellipses sound indecisive. They also drag a bit. Aspiring writers often use ellipses because they're having trouble either finding the right words or having confidence in the words they've chosen.

Readers don't like either indecision or drag, and they want to feel the writer's confidence oozing out of the work. They're such sensitive little critters.

Emily Bronte taught me how powerful em-dashes are in dialog, making her characters leap from point to point without finishing their sentences. They're not stopping to mull it over--they're just blurting things out. This is an active, possibly half-cocked character operating under high stress, and these are qualities readers like in their fiction.

Read the deathbed scene between Cathy and Heathcliff, when she really lays into him. Talk about powerful dialog!

Victoria

P.S. Phil, I didn't mean to miss your question about em-dashes. I explain them, along with a bunch of other punctuation marks, on my blog under Punctuation.

V said...

Wow, thanks, Kirk! Words to warm a writer's heart.

Victoria

Anonymous said...

Ink,

Like the pirate's code, I'd say they're more like guidelines, and everyone knows a good pirate sometimes make their own rules and breaks them.

Scott said...

Thanks for addressing my question, Victoria. Especially since I failed to make it an actual question. :-)

I'll have a look at the passage you suggested. I rarely use either device except if it fits the rhythm perfectly. In fact, em-dashes always looked a little noisy to me in dialog (I love them a little too much in description and internal monologue, maybe) so I should really explore how they're used effectively.

susiej said...

Ok- on ellipses-(good point Scott) What if the character is indecisive or choosing his words carefully? Its suppose to make the reader wonder what this guy is keeping back? That's why I use ellipses.

But, I've read twice this week tweets of editors who hate them.

And had a manuscript contest judge who hated them too. I chalked it off to opinion but now I wonder.

Mariana said...

This is the most practical and complete, yet suscint, advice on creative writing I've seen so far. Thank you so much for taking time to share this with us!

And again, thank you Nathan for the great choice. Can't wait for the next.

Anonymous said...

brill-i-ant. thank you!

V said...

SusieJ,

What's happening with the ellipses thing is that readers like TENSION. They like active characters barging off in wrong directions, blurting things out without thinking, getting themselves into hot water. They like stuff going wrong.

An indecisive character is less likely to hold your readers' attention. A character who's hiding something is exciting, but your readers want them to be hiding it in a forceful rather than cautious way. Let them hide it with incomplete answers or by interrupting themselves (when you can use an em-dash).

Amthor in Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (chapter 21) is oily-smooth and deceitful. He doesn't need either ellipses or em-dashes to hide what he hides. He's just himself!

Victoria

Jessie said...

Good stuff here. Thank you.

Scott said...

Well explained, Victoria. I am definitely going to check out the em-dash more closely if readers are digging the forceful, quick-change pace of them. It mirrors what we see in pop culture today, after all. In fact, maybe reader culture is predicating the downfall of a literary convention? Wouldn't be the first time.

On another point in Victoria's excellent post where she says, "readers want to know what happens next"––that's so telling of our info overload and reality-based media culture. The plethora of in-depth and baldfaced reporting of real life phenomena is something every writer really has to compete with. Drama is everywhere, these days, so why read fiction that barely measures up?

I don't want to predict the extinction of book readers, but I can see how the current economic climate has forced writers to find a great hook and to punch harder. It happened to film with the advent of TV. Why should we be spared?

Lady Glamis said...

This is an excellent article. I'm printing it out right now, and following your blog. Thank you Victoria!

Victoria Mixon said...

Two modern masters of lush description:

Sasha Troyan told me years ago that excessive description "is always a mistake." I told her she was nuts. She's only written two Booksense Selections (Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island). What the heck does she know about fiction?

If you've ever read her stuff, you know her descriptive powers are mesmerizing--

http://sashatroyan.com/

On the same note, Lucia Orth once got a standing ovation from a workshop at Squaw Valley Writers' Conference (I was there) with her description of Ferdinand Marcos' self-glorifying inauguration. Her gorgeous novel Baby Jesus Pawn Shop was nominated last year for the Pulitzer Prize. Another writer with an extraordinary understanding of description--

http://luciaorth.com/

Victoria

ElanaJ said...

Thanks Victoria. I especially liked the advice about dialog and characters. Excellent post. :)

anicalewis said...

I really like the advice that a character must only be able to react one way. Readers should get the sense that, "of course that's what s/he would do!" Or, if they don't, they should be curious as to why the character acted that way - and not be disappointed, as when the answer turns out to be, "for the sake of the plot."

I suggest that Laura Martone check out Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a recent bestseller (and awesome book!) that broke a lot of "rules."

susiej said...

anicalewis- I totally loved Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrel! I hear its going to be made into a movie.

Victoria, thanks again. Good points. Still wondering though as my character is hiding things but not oily, at all. Doesn't really want to be hiding things. Still, I'm going to go over his dialogue- be sure it doesn't drag.

sputnitsa said...

Remembering to keep one's POV grounded in the reality of the character is such sound and important advice.

:)

Victoria Mixon said...

Strange Fiction,

You asked a great question, and I missed it my morning fog. Sorry about that!

Who do you write for: yourself or the market?

You can write ANY BOOK YOU WANT. I love that about words. They're free! And yours! Nobody can take them away from you. It was either Solzhenitsyn or Dostoyevski, I think, who was rumored to have memorized his poems while in Siberian prison camp because he had no way to write them down.

I can tell you I spent 20 years writing my novels in stubborn resistance of the market (ergo my response to Sasha). I love those novels. They're happy in their little drawer.

I now write fiction I know is more likely to sell. Why? Because I want to make a living as a writer, not a short-order cook. I used to be able to depend on technical writing for my paycheck, but economic conditions have changed, and I've learned so much about fiction it seems a shame not to use it.

Toni Morrison has said, "Write the book you want to read."

If it turns out to be a book nobody else wants to read--well, you got to do what you love.

But if you lavish all your skill and education and dedication and responsibility upon it, learn how to write clearly and concretely according to the standards of your time, and act like a professional in seeking publication--you'll probably make it.

I like to picture John Gardner arriving in an editor's office in his motorcycle leather, with his helmet under one arm and a paper bag full of manuscripts under the other, and the editor saying, when Gardner didn't leave, "Well, I'm not going to read them while you WATCH."

Victoria

Lucinda said...

Laura: I can relate to your “Dickens” style comparison because my son told me (after reading only a short portion of my original book) that he did not like to read “Shakespeare.”

For curiosity’s sake, I went back to the original and read the first page again. At first, I loved it. Then I read my “final” rewrite again and ended up reading several pages before realizing I was reading. The rewrite “hooked” me to read more, but the original “dramatic” version moved me more. I am thinking about converting it to prose somehow, someday.

I also wrote, or I should say, “created,” and then went in search of learning to refine the craft to make my creation marketable. The transformation of my book is amazing; the education is priceless and thanks to Victoria, (via this fabulous blog) it continues to be refined.

Thank you, Victoria, for a wonderful and concise lesson. Your points have shown me that my years of rewriting, refining, and reading the advice of professional writers has not been in vain. Most of your points hit home with me, but in retrospect, many of them have already been hunted down and eliminated. (except in bogsville which is where I am currently working on rewriting – even I am bored with it) Thank you for a great and concise “rule-of-thumb” for writing. I am saving it for later reference.

And....thanks to everyone giving more to Victoria’s advice here. I loved reading them all.

Mira said...

Oooo, another cool discussion - writing for money or for art?

Have I mentioned how much I love debate, btw? Hee. Thanks, Victoria!

I used to be really down on people who wrote to make money, (how could they!) but I've come to understand that is a worthy goal. If someone wants to make writing their livelihood - that's great. What a wonderful way to make a living. These are also good people for agents to represent; they're bread and butter.

For me, though, writing...well, I decided that I had to separate out the money all together. Because if you write for money, then they can tell you what to write. They can say: write this because it sells. Or: write this because I'll buy it.

And you'll write it or go hungry.

Writing for me is deeper self-expression and communication. Get money and survival concerns out of the picture, please.

I wouldn't mind making money at it, though, if it happens. Don't get me wrong. But that's not my motivation.

So, I think you have to decide. Are you writing for money or not? Can you do both....I think that is very difficult to do. Maybe some people can wear both hats. I know I'd have trouble doing it. That would actually interest me - can you wear both hats?

Lucinda said...

Kristi

I am not sure how to answer you on saving your blog responses, but I have been putting the emails from Nathan's blog into a folder in Yahoo. When I want to read them again, they are there intact with links. So far, none have been eliminated from the Nathan's site. Hope this is helpful.

If what you want is a permanent copy of your responses, you may want to highlight, copy, and paste to Word in a file on your computer. (then back up your computer)

Lucinda

Dawn Herring said...

Very informative post. Great future reference material. I especially appreciate the advice on dialogue and ending the story at the climax.

Will take to heart as I conclude my novel.

Anonymous said...

Love this!

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John said...

Excellent. Taping it by the computer now.

Victoria Mixon said...

Mira,

Flannery O'Connor said, "Nobody was hotter after the dollar than Henry James." So, yes, you can wear both hats.

However, some of the most cutting-edge fiction was dismissed during the lifetimes of its authors. Emily Bronte. Jean Rhys. Jane Bowles. The list goes on and on. Perhaps we should say, "You certainly can write for both art and money, but don't expect to be the one in your family who gets the money."

Victoria

Mira said...

Victoria - Lol.

I didn't know that about Henry James. Interesting.

This was all a wonderful discussion, and great post. I'll read it more than once.

Nathan chose well.

Thanks.

Laura Martone said...

Anica - Thanks for the tip about JONATHAN STRANGE... I will definitely check it out!

Lucinda - Thanks for your comment about Shakespeare. I feel less alone now. Yahoo! :-)

Mira - I fully believe that you can balance money and art. Michael Chabon and Toni Morrison seem to do okay. So can we!

Anonymous said...

Mira,
Money. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, because I know it isn't the "right" answer. But it's the truth.

Victoria,
Thanks for sharing your vast knowledge. You said you're in the business -- do you mind if I ask what you do (besides write)?

Kristi said...

Thanks Lucinda :)

Strange Fiction said...

Cheers Victoria.

Marsha Sigman said...

Reading this late in the day and I am blown away. Incredibly good post!

lotusgirl said...

Fantastic advice, Victoria. This is one to print out and check myself by.

Victoria Mixon said...

Victoria,
Thanks for sharing your vast knowledge. You said you're in the business -- do you mind if I ask what you do (besides write)?


Not at all. I'm a fiction editor. I edit people's novels for them!

I also maintain a blog on the craft of fiction, so if you can't afford me, you can still learn what I know about the art. It's pretty much this post, exponentially.

Thanks for asking!

Victoria

Craven said...

Wow, Victoria, you rock. Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post. Thanks Victoria and keep up the good work! I'll definitely be checking out your own blog regularly now.

Keren David said...

Some great advice, but disagree violently with ' Leave out oh, well, yes, no, um, uh' You can do a great deal with these little words. For a teenager one 'um' is sometimes worth fifty words. It's all in how you use them.

Marjorie said...

All "Grey Gardens" (documentary) fans, please check out my blog. I have an interview with (the real) Jerry, the Marble Faun.

Anonymous said...

Like everything else -- these are NOT absolutes. They are ingredients for creating cookie cutter stories, so you should use them... up to a point.

For example:
[i]"Tension on every page," Maass says, and this is about as good as advice gets.[/]

This isn't the great advice you think it is. Tension on every page exhausts the reader like too much adrenaline. If there's tension on every page, then there's never a resolution.

Anonymous said...

Well, if these blog posts are an example of the readers of Nathan's blog,I have only one word to say:

WOW!!!!!!

This stuff is rich, rich!
What great company we keep here!

Thank you, Guest Bloggers!

(Nathan, consider doing this more often, for for the weekends, please!)

Joseph L. Selby said...

You hooked me with enlightened and straightforward advice, then went all Michael Bay on me.

Mira said...

Anon 7:48 p.m.

No, no, I didn't mean to make anyone feel badly. Writing for money as a livelihood is honorable! My opinion anyway.

But it's not the only reason to write. And if you have a different reason, money can confuse the matter. That's all I'm saying.

Mira said...

Links are okay, right?

Nathan said writing a sports story is hard. And since we're never ones to overlook a challenge, at CIC, we're writing a group one.

Anyone can join in to create a masterpiece of sports literature!

p.s. It's just for fun.

Group Sports Story

Victoria Mixon said...

Joseph L. Selby,

Sorry, I had no idea who Michael Bay was. I had to look him up.

I think you may be mistaking tension for violence.

I wrote about why people like to read stories where things go wrong on my blog, under Theory.

Victoria

Val said...

Oh, so excellently done! Grrrr. Make that: So excellently done!

Currently working on revising my ms. Will need to check backwards for compliance with much of your advice. Thanks.

Laura M., I like your "revision-shock". Being a person who goes into shock every time I start revising--or think about revising--my writing.

Katie Koulos said...

I like this a lot. I'm probably going to have to go back through my entire story and rebuild it, but I don't mind because this piece is really helpful in making everything I write 10 times better, and 20 time more likely to get a literary agent once I finish everything.

Anonymous said...

So Nathan -- Yoohoo!?

Will you be posting any quick links to other nonwinning posts? Like a "best of the rest" list?

Although, probably not everyone has a link. Mainly just entries. Maybe that wouldn't work then. Darn.

solv said...

Another super posting filled with pragmatic advice Nathan, thank you.
Taking a step back, would you say that everything you list serves to elicit emotional response? (I've always regarded that as our top priority.)

LV Cabbie said...

Wow! Thanks for this. Will make sure my friends know about it.

AM said...

Thank you.

cipherqueen said...

Thank you. My only problem now is having too little description....

Andrew said...

I'm somewhat aghast. I mean, people, Really?

Victoria, for your part, hey it's well written, concise and achieves what it set out to.

But I have google, I have fingers, I know words such as "writing tips novels". I've read all of this in one form or another (whether or not I put this into practise or not is another argument =0P) and I also have the power of memory so I don't forget this stuff as soon as I read it.

So why's everyone gushing about the content? I mean I understand it's brilliant to have a concise crib sheet for beginners, but I don't for one second believe that too many here are beginners. And to be honest, if you aren't new to this, and this info is mind-blowingly insightful, then you haven't done your research so shame on you budding writers. Shame shame shame!

Truth is that any advise, simplified and truncated, can only do so much. I understand that not everyone wants to read the minutia of how to spot, and omit, unnecessary compound clauses. But that's, unfortunately, the kind of detail you have to go into to move from using 70% of your writing ability, to 75%. And then the next step is harder and so on. Going from 10-60% is easy, because it's learning the basics.

So while congrats Vic on Nathan picking your post out (Mine was overlooked, probably because it was rambling, unnecessarily verbose and crap), and the article itself is perfectly fine, I can't help but think the overall reaction to it is somewhat excessive.

Word verification - Slyinale: A dishonest gastropod

Mira said...

Andrew - you're funny. Wrong side of the bed this morning?

Just for the record, I'm fairly new to writing, and I thought this was wonderful.

And, oddly enough, I'm not at all embarrassed about being new.

I loved the way she laid it out - very clear, concise and accessible.
I didn't agree with every word, but that just gave an opportunity for some fun discussion.

But even if I wasn't new: Lots of people write about writing. The trick is to do so in a way that is helpful, and I really think Victoria accomplished that.

There is also, by the way, a thing called supporting your fellow writer when they've been given an awesome opportunity. That's not the same as not being truthful, but it is in the general range of not being too critical. You might want to look it up. It's under 'supporting your fellow writer when they've been given an awesome opportunity.' So that would be under the 'S'.

On a different note, Nathan is back today! Yay!!

AM said...

Andrew,

I’ve realized that if I revisit what I once learned, I do so with new eyes and deeper understanding.

It behooves us all to reexamine what we already know or think we know.

I am genuinely grateful that Victoria, a professional editor, took the time to prepare and share.

Shame, shame, shame on all authors who think they’ve already learned and comprehended everything they'll ever need to know about writing – or who think they’re too good to revisit basics.

Andrew said...

Mira:

I've got no quibble (love that word) with people new to writing. I was once. I said "dumb stuff" quite alot. I've got even less of a problem with Victoria's post, which does exactly what it says it will do in 1000 words. My shock was the number of people who came across seemingly taken aback by the news. Really, it shouldn't have been.

Fine, comment and say well done I've got no problem with that. Comment and whoop about Nathan picking a "friend of the comments board" (Which sounds like some cool middleearth title). And if you're new to the whole process, then gape in wonder, copy, paste into a word document and save on your desktop.

But I'd be shocked (hey I could still be massively wrong at which point I'll prepare a hat ragu to eat) if the note-leavers hadn't read/come across this info already. And in all seriousness (IF they are experienced and serious about writing) they should have.

I'm not raining on Victoria's parade - well done to her (She kicked my literary ass - my entry probably came 300th out of 250....hehe) but sometimes you can say well done without feeling like you have to justify that praise with some personal anecdote. It comes across a tad patronising (unless of course I'm wildly wrong and everyone that posted truly had heard nowt of the posted advice - in which case I retract everything I said and will find a hole to curl up in)

Word verification - reres: male ra-ra skirts

Victoria Mixon said...

Aw, Andrew. This has been a great bunch of comments! You don't mean to tell me you're discouraging folks from saying wonderful, kind things whenever and wherever the urge takes them?

Don't do that!

Actually, I just checked in to thank Nathan for offering his site (and his great readers) to the five of us. It was really a terrific week.

Thank you, Nathan!

Victoria

Laura Martone said...

Hi, Andrew.

Well, as one of the "new" writers who'd previously commented on Victoria's post (and thanked her for her insight), I just have to say that, of course, I've encountered such advice before. That's, in fact, WHY I commented.

Although exceptions certainly exist, it seems that publishers, editors, and agents are encouraging today's writers to write books that more closely resemble streamlined screenplays than the classic ramblings of old.

Nonetheless, though I've read these "guidelines" in many other places, I thought that Victoria did put them together well, and I'm not ashamed to thank her as I did - for her time and her perspective.

Like you, I'm not a fan of obsequious flattery - and you're right, any "new" writer worth his/her salt should've read all this before. But I still have to agree with Mira - perhaps someone did get up on the wrong side of the bed today... Hmm?

knight_tour said...

While this is an excellent summation of what seems to be the conventional wisdom these days (and I do follow it as best I can), I have to admit that when I read over the novels that I love the most, I see those authors breaking these rules regularly. When I come across a novel that follows these rules closely, I tend to like them okay, but not love them.

Amy said...

What makes Victoria's post valuable is that it's not only succinct and engaging, but Victoria obviously writes from experience. The advice she delivers is not simply an aggregation of Google search results from questionable sources. That's why people -- myself included -- will print this out and tack it up next to their monitors. Going to check out Victoria's blog for more...

Haarlson Phillipps said...

Needs a re-write,viz. re-ordering of priorities, and examples referenced need to be more succinct and better placed. Other than that ok -

Michael Reynolds said...

I agree with most of what you wrote.

The one area I differ is on dialog. Humor sometimes requires the use of words like "Well," "So," "Um," and so on. Also ellipses. Timing is important to humor and you can use all those otherwise unnecessary bits to put comic timing on the page.

Andrew said...

OK well after a nights sleep (and a marathon fight with my internet at home which still refuses to work. It was proper ‘Jason and the Argonaughts’ type stuff!) I thought I’ll try and clarify a few things (also as no one will comment at this late stage I will have snagged the last word…mwa-ha-ha!!)

Vic: First off, I’d never discourage praise. I like praise, you like praise, everyone likes praise (Except any French stereotypical struggling painter…hehe). Looking back retrospectively perhaps I was a little heavy-handed about the whole thing and for that I’m sorry (as a qualifier I wasn’t, at any point, having a pop at the article) but alas these public forums don’t have the mediating effect of a hurt look to slow down ones fingers.

Laura: Not quite the wrong side of the bed, maybe the bottom corner perhaps. I just felt that the tone of a large number of post came across like salesman charm, ‘whatever it is that you do, it’s awesome Just please; like me, like me, like me, like me, like me…and buy this photocopier!’ You can go as berserk and over-the-top as you like, that doesn’t bother me, at least, but don’t dilute your excitement by some perceived need to justify yourself. It seems, well, mildly sycophantic. The only other answer seems that were honestly impressed by the advice, which is fine, there just seemed too many. Now while the truth probably lies somewhere in a mixture of politeness and excitement and total in its innocence, I still stand by what I said, albeit now I accept it was probably the illusion, not the intention I reacted to.

AM: I’ve got no problem with the work, no problem with people enjoying it; I said, quite clearly, that this shouldn’t be *new* knowledge to most people here. I stand by that fact - label me as arrogant if you wish, despite the irony of making such a judgement on an assumption of what I ‘think’. Yes, the basics are important. Yes, when things aren’t working the basics is the best. And Yes I don’t know everything about writing, which is why I continue trawling the net for more perspective, advice, tips, hints, etc etc. But I can say a hearty and honest well done to someone without making out they’ve just done the equivalent to cloning Christ. That is patronizing.

Amy: I’m not talking about your usual Google flim-flam. I’m talking Sawyer, Scott Card, King, Sanderson, Strunk. And that’s not including the new breed giving great advice. Carolyn Jewel said some stuff about back-story collision I’d never heard before and was really, genuinely blown away. That’s not belittling Vic’s experience, which as an editor may consist of vastly more pages of text reviewed than any of those I’ve listed above.

Phew….well, I think I’ve alienated everyone….my work here is done…=0)

Word Verification - hotiless: a room full of Michael Winner

A Writer from India said...

I have read quite a few books on the craft of writing, and own a few of them that I often re-read, but this post made me want to start revising my novel rightaway.

Very useful. Thank you!

:-)

Sophie said...

Really good advice. The exposition part especially. I don't want to be told. I want to be shown or even better figure it out myself.

A book that forces me to think makes me come back as a reader. That's what I strive to do as a writer

AM said...

Andrew,

Arrogance: an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions

Patronizing: to adopt an air of condescension toward ; treat haughtily or coolly

Projection: the attribution of one's own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects

Andrew said...

AM,

Tweed: a coarse wool cloth in a variety of weaves and colors, either hand-spun and handwoven in Scotland or reproduced, often by machine, elsewhere.

Coalesce: to grow together or into one body: The two lakes coalesced into one.

Caber: a pole or beam, esp. one thrown as a trial of strength.

Potato: Also called Irish potato, white potato. the edible tuber of a cultivated plant, Solanum tuberosum, of the nightshade family.

Cutlass: a short, heavy, slightly curved sword with a single cutting......

Sorry, I think I've missed the point of this game

Word verification - Chernab: Kidnapping of any once famous, plastic-coated vocal Diva

Colin said...

Andrew, frankly it's the American way for people to lick each others' butt-holes with generous heaps of overwhelming praise for any feat, however spastic. (Gee, that sure was so wunnerfull dude etc.) You see it all over the net. Don't be suprahzd to fahn an elemint of it here. National trait and all that.

Anonymous said...

Above all else, dialogue should be in the voices of the characters. If the character is an 80-year-old grandma from Germany, she certainly shouldn’t talk like an inner city teen – or a 40something wannabe teen – from Detroit. If the character is a distraught 5-year-old, let her speak as one, don’t shove her into the body of a tranquilized 30-year-old out shoe shopping simply because childish stammers piss off impatient readers.

When characters speak, writers need to put down the rulebook and listen.

SStegall said...

"Putting the climax too far from the end."

Or as Joe Bob Briggs used to say:

When the monster dies, roll credits.

Victoria Mixon said...

We've gotten so worked up over dialog on my blog that I'm offering new Dialog Workshops.

$10 for one hour of intense work on participants' own dialog (a few hundred words each). I'm limiting each workshop to 5 participants to give us time to really work in-depth on each piece and keeping the price low so everyone can be involved.

Please join us! BYOD.

http://victoriamixon.com/2009/07/20/dialog-workshop/

Victoria

Victoria Mixon said...

Now I'm also offering, on request, a weeklong Dialog Workshop over email, for those who can't reliably schedule a full free hour.

You can see all the details on my blog.

Victoria

Alan said...

Brilliant article.

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