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Friday, June 28, 2013

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe

I'm in love with a dead author who wrote about an equally enticing 1940s-style detective.

I bought a collection of four Philip Marlowe stories and read one a night for four consecutive nights. I rushed to devour each tale and then saddened to see the final page. Now I'm trying to study each one. But it's hard. Because I keep getting sucked into the story.

His style is charismatic. Here are a few samples:
  1. USING NEGATIVES: ...with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearing of the foothills (p. 3, The Big Sleep).
  2. IRONY AND HUMOR: I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it (p. 3, The Big Sleep).
  3. UNIQUE: I was calling on four million dollars (p. 3, The Big Sleep).
  4. CHOICE WORDS: ...didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair (p. 3, The Big Sleep).
Notice the page numbers referenced above? All these gems came from one page of one book of Chandler's.


And instead of kicking me out of his novels with his in-your-face style, it draws me closer. How is that?

I can only proffer one theory at the moment: sincerity. He wrote from such a depth of honesty that it has to resonate with his readers.

I want to do that.

Anyway, this is a short post today, but I hope you enjoy Raymond Chandler's words as much as I do.

Denise Barker, author + blogger + copy editor

Saturday, June 22, 2013

James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure

DISCLAIMER: I took a full sixteen double-sided handwritten pages of notes culled from my highlights on my Kindle. So much of the below is paraphrased from Bell's words. When I knew it was a direct quotation, I indented same. Any personal opinions of mine appended herein should be obvious.

Now for the best parts.

Here's another how-to book regarding the art of our craft which is recommended reading for all. There is something for each author in this text.

Bell starts off his book with an apt quote:

I have the typewriter and I have white paper and I have me and that should add up to a novel. William Saroyan


Then Bell proceeds to tell us to write fresh, which is the key to originality, which lies within us and comes from who we really are. See my earlier post this month where I really took off on this concept. But Bell summarizes it to mean we should pick an issue we care about, not some mediocre idea that births no emotions. Robert Ludlum said, "I think arresting fiction is written out of a sense of outrage." So the author is seen as a moral voice. Use yours.

Write about what you are passionate about, something you are burning to tell. Playing it safe leads to flat writing. What does your novel ultimately mean? Every story has a meaning. So does every author. Good artists create out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life...that is worth pursuing.

If you stay true to your own awe, your books cannot help being charged with meaning. That's not just a great way to write, it's a great way to live.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? This should be the facile part as we are all individuals. However, I find it hard letting loose, not protecting my ideas and words from my internal editor much less the awaiting critics.

Character first, Bell says. I happen to agree as a pantstering character-driven author type. Obsession by its nature pushes a character to action. So give your main character an obsession and see where it takes him or her. The stronger your characters, the better your plot as the lead provides access to the plot. [Or as I argue below, character = plot.]

The most compelling fiction has death hanging over the lead. It could be physical death or a psychological death to his very well-being or could be a professional death as in "you'll never work again in this town."

If needed, use every human emotion to stir your readers. Also, when writing "hot" as Bell calls it, you will have plenty to say, no writer's block on your horizon. To help you out, here is a compilation of various feelings found via the internet:

  • anger
  • fear
  • envy
  • shame
  • pity
  • indignation
  • surprise
  • wonder
  • happiness
  • courage
  • amusement
  • modesty
  • pain
  • pleasure
  • caution
  • respect
  • love
  • hope
  • faith
  • confusion
  • disgust
  • confidence
  • contempt
  • grief

As per Plot and Structure, Bell notes the first reaction is an emotion. The character then considers (internal thoughts) followed by a decision which leads to action (including dialogue) he undertakes. Plus we all have doubts and inner conflicts. Even if we feel we must win, lack of confidence often bubbles to the surface.

Bell states we love the underdog who overcomes (think Rocky), plus a lead who sacrifices his objective for the better good is also beloved (think Casablanca). Bell offers this wonderful overview of the two types of sacrifices: one is of CHOICE and involves the moral courage to sacrifice his personal goal whereas the other is of BATTLE and requires physical courage to sacrifice his safety.

I love his three rules: (1) act first, explain later; (2) even when you do explain, give only 10%; and (3) set your info/backstory inside confrontation. Another should be his later axiom: keep the readers worried.

Something must matter in every scene. So think of the worst thing that could happen to your lead from the outside, from the inside and even from the world (example: war, strike, famine, plague, hurricane, etc.). Bring to light his dark secrets. Or one of his loved one's. Add more complications in the form of another character, another subplot, a romantic element, etc. A scene needs conflict or it is dull.

Cutting almost always improves your book. Great final editing tip. Another nugget of wisdom from Bell is his "last page resonance" theory. We must affix a feeling to the reader's soul with our final words. This leads to sales of our next books. A fast-moving story is a good thing; one that lingers inside the reader long after is another.

I love themes and Bell concurs stating characters carry theme. Always. So develop yours (may have to be after the first draft is written), decide what is the take-home value for your story? The lesson or insight? The new way of seeing things? Theme emerges without effort in your plot. Bell feels the character arc is part of the subplot. I would have to differ with him here. To me, it is the plot. Maybe because I'm character-driven as an author that I see it this way.

Bell also believes the classics prevail due to their unusual penetration into human character, keeping them fresh and alive. That what makes a plot truly memorable is not all the action but what the action does to the character, what changes he makes. [Which proves my point above about the character arc is the plot.]

However, Bell continues by stating when characters grow they deepen the plot. A strong character arc will enhance any plot. In Bell's words, the plot is the action happening externally while the character arc takes note of what's going on internally. I see it more as action/reaction, cause/effect. I say potato, he says...

Speaking of produce, he has a great layers (as in onions) approach to our core selves. The layers get softer (easier to change) as they move away from our central idea of self. From outer to inner, they are opinions, dominant attitudes, values, core beliefs, then our self-image at the very center.

Here is another great quote, about one of his beloved characters in his Left Behind series, courtesy of Jerry Jenkins:

I didn't kill him off. I found him dead.

That is priceless.

Since I'm a pantster taking dictation from my main characters, or a hybrid plotter at best, I do some of Bell's plotting instruction. I'm also a fan of the Snowflake Pro software, which starts off with a one-sentence summary of my book, then a one-paragraph version, then a back blurb version, on to some of the major plot points as set forth by Campbell, then graduates into chapter summaries which are then written out as first drafts.

Only I've been known to do the process backward. Writing first drafts totally by the seat of my pants. Works for me. For my lead characters, I like the adjective + noun descriptor tied to one emotion and maybe an archetype. All to keep me on track as I follow my characters around.

I really enjoyed Bell's approach to revision as something to strengthen my novel. Addressing clarity issues, dragging middles, cuts to be made and additional info/action needed. Remember to use contractions in dialogue and to employ transitions to avoid jerkiness.

Bell lists some of the main plot patterns and discusses each: the Quest, Revenge/Justice, Adventure, the Chase, One Against (hero type), One Apart (the anti-hero), Power (at a moral cost) and Allegory.

Here's another gem from Bell: the craft of writing is largely solving problems. You write; then you solve.

At the end of this wonderful collection of writing tips is the homework to set aside eight to twelve weeks for. It's a study of your particular genre, and I'm anxious to start mine. But I'm the eternal student and love assignments such as these. Bell even has a back cover blurb formula to go by.

This book is worthy to sit among your private collection at home. Take a weekend to read the whole of it. Then take another couple days to find the salient points for your particular style. Make a checklist and keep it by your writing desk. Best wishes all!

Denise Barker, author + blogger + copy editor

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print

LOVE this book from Renni Browne and Dave King. To say it is only a developmental look at a manuscript is to limit it. While it is not on a copy editor's level per se (confirming when to use semicolons in lieu of colons or commas), the text does address some grammar and language usage that I correct on a freelance level. Yet Self-Editing for Fiction Writers goes beyond both to encompass style and voice and to differentiate between the two.

Read it. Whether you are a traditionally pubbed author or an Indie, like me, your work will benefit from the knowledge contained in these 267 pages or 280 pages if you count all the back matter.

And who would have thought to put cartoons into a nonfiction piece? Evidently Browne and King. I adore the George Booth cartoons! What a stroke of brilliance to add them and what a stroke of genius on the artist's part to portray the author's mentality in one frame. Beautiful minds at work.

Here are some highlights which spoke to me specifically or are those universal tips that need to be mentioned again for all of us:

  • Names of People and Places. Connect with your readers by naming characters and locales. My writing is contemporary in that anyplace-will-work world. Still...I find myself reading others' works and wondering about the setting. Details help with the mood, too. I'm lean on description to the point of morphing my generic city to no place, a nonexistent nowhereness. But these co-authors have made me rethink that position.
  • Show vs. Tell. There's a place for both. Exposition/narration (maybe backstory?) engages your reader's intellect. But you want to engage their emotions with scenes incorporating action and thoughts and dialogue.
  • Contrast. This can be on many levels, in assorted applications. Like using tell not show as a transition to link two scenes that are aided by the contrasting pace. You can also pit two unlike characters in a chapter to highlight their differences.
  • Backstory/Answers. You don't want to give your readers info; you want to give them experiences. Resist the urge to explain. Make the reader wait for answers. Spread them out over the length of your novel.
  • Deep POV. This shows the world as your character sees it, through his filters and his beliefs and his experiences. Masters at this move the reader effortlessly from seeing the world through the character's eyes to seeing the world through the character's mind and back again. Seamless transitions. Thoughts as if dialogue.
  • Diversion. This is such a great tool that I am failing miserably at using. Thanks to this wonderful book, I have been reminded. Misdirection falls in here, too.
  • Copyediting Tips. Cut out LY words. Stick to "he said" or no dialogue tags at all. Reduce italics. Per Browne and King, avoid ING and AS phrases since they tend to remove the reader by lessening this action plus can cause logistical problems. At least, vary the positioning of the ING phrases. Move them to the end of the sentence or the middle.
  • Beats. This equates to action in its many forms. Yet too many are what Margie Lawson calls "walking the dog" and what these authors call condescending to your reader. Too little are disembodying and disorienting. Beats can also be used for pacing but don't be interruptive with too many. Utilize beats for deepening the emotional content. Especially when in contrast to what is said via dialogue. Browne and King give a great example of a unique beat: blew his nose on a sheet. I have a vivid mental picture of this guy from one minor act that spiderwebs in my mind into so many other details about his person and personality.
  • Conflict. As Donald Maass says, have conflict on every page. Which these authors state is one of the simplest storytelling tools: to reinforce the tension of your story.
  • Repetitions. This can occur on many levels: by word, phrase, sentence, body language, chapter info, plot device. Vary your sentence constructions. What out for those repetitive paragraph/chapter beginnings and endings. Cut those reps! We are creative folks. Surely we can find another word or many more verbal tics or visual tells for our characters to act out. And we don't need three scenes among different parties that tell our reader the same thing. Once your reader knows, skip the retelling in whatever form.
  • Multiple Uses. If each element of your story accomplishes one thing only, then your story will subtly, almost subliminally, feel artificial.
  • Style and Voice. These authors note style and voice are not interchangeable. Every author has or can have a literary style, but by no means does every author have a literary voice. Again the way to develop voice is not by working on your style. When your style overshadows your story, it's defeating its purpose. Your primary purpose as a fiction author is to engage your readers in your story the best way you can. That's voice.
This review does not do justice to the book. I highly recommend it for all authors, newbie or seasoned, trad-pubbed or Indie. Your writing will be better, stronger, more efficient, multilayered.

This book also has many checklists or exercises at the end of its chapters along with a recommended reading section at the back. Do yourself a huge favor. Read this!

Denise Barker, author + blogger + copy editor

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Write Who You Are

I know sometimes the depth of who we are is even hidden from ourselves. That philosophical endeavor will have to be answered by someone greater than me. But for the other easily accessed parts, here's my proposal.

I recently read James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure. I recommend it for my fellow authors. His book is dense, and I was not able to read it in one sitting as per my MO. But for those of you with no time to read the whole of it, check out Bell's Appendix A. It is a wonderful overview, especially if you are a seasoned author.

I'll condense the fifteen double-sided pages of handwritten notes I've accumulated from my reading of this text and share some shortly in another post.

In the meantime, here's enough to keep us busy. Bell opens this nonfiction offering of his stating that freshness is the key to originality which translates to writing WHO you are.

From this one thought, I have expanded it into an author's arsenal. Which has prompted me to gather many materials to be hole-punched and incorporated into a physical Brainstorming/Mindmapping notebook (or five).

For my application, this would be the ultimate go-to book. For those of you who like to create individual bibles per book, then you would be making those separately but leaving the original source intact.

So start out with the author's requisites:
  1. Great Character Names List (first and last). Cull the best of the best from reading obits, baby name books, telephone books, etc. Remember to mark those you have already used (unless in a designated series). Also vary major and minor character names within each piece of fiction so you are not replicating the same first letter. Look at Firefly's cast from the master Joss Whedon: Mal, Inara, Jayne, Book, Kaylee, Zoe, Wash, River, Simon. Unless you count Serenity herself as a character (which she is), then S would be the only starting letter repeated. However, this is okay as there is no chance of confusing the doctor for the spaceship or vice versa, for those of you who speed-read the names and distill them down to the first symbol as I do.
  2. Intriguing Character Pictures. Gather from magazines, online, wherever. As the old but true trope says: one picture is worth a thousand words. FYI: Don't use these pictures for your covers unless you are willing to pay their usage/royalty fees. I'm just saying to base your characters in your novels on these people who captivate you in these photos you are amassing. Also some very entertaining obits are about the lives of such unique individuals that they are calling out to be the main character in one of your next books. Do I really need to tell you to change their real names? I didn't think so.
  3. Fascinating Places List. Write down the geographical locales that suck you into their vortex. Research for surprising facts or, if money abounds, go visit firsthand.
  4. Titles List. Add to this as you think of them. No editing. Just go with what spurs you on.
  5. What-If List. Take all those burning questions and compile them in one place.
Add in a dash of what you like:
  1. What are the genres you read? Those are the ones you should write as well.
  2. What do you collect? For me, it is quotations. So I find that one well-worded line can be a font of plot ideas.
  3. What are your folders within email? Mine them for subjects that excite you that can be part of that novel floating around in your imagination but not yet fully formed.
  4. What about key words for you? I subscribe to three different word-of-the-day subscriptions and sometimes one will sing out to me, causing images to flip across my brain. Those I sock away in my email folder entitled Brainstorming/Mindmapping for me to excavate later. Maybe for the actual binder, make separate listings where you categorize them into strong action verbs and concrete nouns.
  5. What are your tells? If you were in witness protection, what could you not give up that would give you away? Assuming I would have my key family members with me, then mine would be my addiction to Cajun, French and Mexican coffees; my love of animals; my twenty-year-old Del Sol; my home-away-from-home: book stores, libraries, continuing education classes.
  6. What are the main categories of books that populate your home library? Obviously those are subjects which hold your attention. Use that knowledge in creating your own books.
  7. What are your favorite movies? I started that list via Pinterest and have many. But I prefer happy endings and only killing off the bad guys or someone off-the-page who we haven't bonded yet with. Think of Margo, Charlie and Don Eppes's mother, from the series Numb3rs. Which works for me as I write romsus and falls in line even for that mystery I will write someday.
Mix in with a smidgen of what you don't like:
  1. What pushes your buttons? For me it is selfish people. Liars. Unsolicited solicitors. Bullies. Load your antagonist with one or more and you should have no worries about writer's block.
  2. Do you have any causes that rend your heart? Saving the Wild Mustangs, fostering dogs, feeding children, clean water, stopping abuse? Use them. That is what makes you real, original, 3-D.
  3. What scares you?
Combine with some:
  1. Poetry. Great lines (or even just a great pairing of words) can set off a new plotline instantaneously. Capture them.
  2. The Bible. The Good Book is full of stories (some good, some not). Study the parables for universalisms. Read the Old Testament tales for plot patterns. I bet no soap opera episode can top some of those. I can't even write it out here. Too gruesome. Read the Psalms for particular emotions.
  3. Your Life's Philosophy. What are those sayings you repeat all the time? Maybe "life's not fair" or "you can't trust anybody." Perhaps "life's a beach" or "I'm golden." Try recording yourself while gathered with your CPs one visit and listen in on what tumbles out of your mouth. Or better yet, while attending one of those family dinners.
  4. Great First Lines List. Start one now. See if any patterns arise that you can utilize (NOT PLAGIARIZE!) in your work. One of the best lines ever was written by one of my CPs. And if she doesn't hurry and publish that book, I will bust from not being able to share it!
  5. Music Lyrics List. Although I understand if you quote exact lyrics in your commercialized book, you incur royalties due to the songwriter. But if you could take your favorites and create your own, even better. The one that always pops in my brain is from True Blood's theme song by Jace Everett: you came in and the air went out.
So start your own hard-copy brainstorming/mindmapping collection. Review it as needed and certain elements will draw you in. Use those for that current project of yours. The next time you peruse your list, other items will want your attention. Rinse and repeat.

As always, use what resonates, toss the rest. Have fun!

Denise Barker, author + blogger + copy editor