One of the things that Chuck Wendig’s brilliant post In Which I Critique Your Story (that I haven’t read) points out–in a hilarious yet gentle way–is that writing teachers see beginning authors making the same mistakes over and over. He covers a lot of those basic errors within the post. Memorize every word.
When I teach novel writing at the more advanced level for the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program, I get to see the next generation of mistakes… the things writers do after they’ve learned the lessons of Chuck. In Mysterious Informants, I’ve talked about some of the dynamics that arise when you have one in-the-know character teasing your protagonist and the reader, while failing to reveal any useful plot clues. Now I want to talk about a different kind of informational exchange: it’s a scene where one character is telling others about something that the reader has already witnessed, in an on-stage, pie-in-your-face, OMG watch out for the clown-car, Noooooo!!! unforgettable kind of scene.
Whatever it was, it mattered to the characters… obviously, or they wouldn’t be updating the people who were home, tucked into bed, during the clown car collision. But what I see in newer novelists tackling this transaction is this: a faithful and complete summary of something we vividly remember.
And that’s boring.
What can you do? These other characters do have to be brought up to speed, right? Tommy can’t freak out over Chris cheating on him until Pat mentions having seen the two of them playing tongue-lacrosse in the sauna, am I right? Plus, the reader needs to see how Tommy reacts. Maybe the next thing that happens in the story depends on that reaction!
The difficulty lies not in the transmission of the narrative of the clown car collision. It’s the faithful and full disclosure that’s problematic. That’s what reduces us to feeling as though we are binge watching something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and we’ve hit the Previously On section. Previously On is a useful refresher when you’re watching the show one hour at a time, at one-week intervals. But hey–if you just saw all this same stuff five minutes ago, all it’s good for is a bathroom break.
1. Summarize: We have the bearer of the news, and the audience. If the bearer really is going to tell the listener everything, try giving them one opening line. “Maybe you’d better sit down,” is a classic. Then just wrap it up: “I told her about Frankie’s meltdown the day before, working hard to remember every detail.”
2. Give them a reason to leave out a crucial bit: Why do they provide every detail? As yourself: who is this person, and might they have a reason to omit something? “He outlined what happened, telling her everything except the part about how he squeezed the mustard bottle so hard that they all went home covered in yellow stains. ”
3. Think of witness bias: does your gossip, the bearer of the tale, actually see what happened in the same terms as the other characters involved? Events worth spending not one but at least two scenes on better be a little intriguing. They’re hopefully dramatic, and preferably they’re life altering. If you put ten people in a room and show them life-altering, is there any chance their stories are going to line up perfectly? If Joy kills someone in self-defense in chapter two, how much more interesting is it if chapter three opens with, “Are you kidding? It was cold-blooded, premeditated murder,” Mallory declared.
4. Can they fight? Which brings us to: how many tellers are there, and are they in complete agreement about what happened? “Holy shit, Emily, Bobo the Clown totally swerved on purpose to hit us! Stop apologizing for him?”
What if they exaggerate? What if they lie?
5. Is the news-bearer clueless? What if your reporter saw the whole thing and had no idea why it was important? “Yuck yuck yuck, we saw Elizabeth nailing some dude, in the steam room, didn’t see his face… hey, buddy, you okay? You’re lookin’ kinda furtive all of a sudden. So, as I was saying…”
6. Why is this message getting passed along at all? Review the reasons why you’ve got this briefing onstage. Fictional characters are just as happy as we are to text the boring bits to their friends and loved ones. Is the bearer motivated by good will, the desire to gossip, or the need for solace or support? Have they been asked to spread the word? Are they hoping that speaking up will make them look good? Are they after revenge?
7. Does the recipient want to hear it? What if they’ve got their fingers in their ears and are screaming “La La La Get Out!!”
By now you can see the point I’m making: unless there is some kind of twist on the second telling of your clown car massacre, there’s no point in taking us all through it again.
Remember before you go into the scene that the thing we already know isn’t important. You are writing this passage because the character reactions matter, because someone is going to give inaccurate or incomplete or just-plain-wrong information, because new light is going to be shed on the events or characters involved, or because this conversation is going to trigger the next round of important character and plot developments.
Figure out what the important thing is. Craft the scene so the crucial bit is the one that receives the emphasis.
*My Writing102 tag is a 2015 addition to this site – it’s meant to indicate essays for writers who aren’t entirely inexperienced. The Internet has a wealth of information for people just starting out, and less for those looking to develop next-level skills. In these essays, I’m trying to explore questions that might challenge people who can already write coherent, readable prose and have some idea how a story may be structured–people trying to get to the next level.
I welcome your feedback, as well as other suggestions for similar articles.
I wanted to love Daredevil
. The casting was exemplary: Charlie Cox, Elden Henson, and Deborah Ann Woll made a perfect Nelson-Murdoch-Page family triangle, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin was a mind-blowing idea. Whoever came up with that one, I hope you’re still blissfully drinking champagne as all your friends and loved ones toast your incredible cleverness. Rosario Dawson was fantastic and it was nice to see Scott Glenn again, even though he did bring with him that first hint of “Uh oh,” because he’s one of those actors who lately seems to specialize in things that, ultimately, turn out to be not that good. (Also in this category: Gabriel Byrne and Donald Sutherland.)
My first Marvel love was Spiderman and I partook heavily of all the mutant titles in the Eighties, but Daredevil
always spoke to a particular sliver of my soul, even through writer switches and artist changes and wild swerves in tone and direction. He had a Don Quixote quality and loads of Catholic guilt, in a mix that appealed heavily to my readerbrain. Matt’s particular brand of self-imposed isolation always seemed to me to be more believable than Peter Parker’s. I think I’ve seen every attempt to adapt Daredevil to the live-action screen format, even the disastrous attempt to launch Rex Smith in a tie-in, “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk
.” (I’m only choosing to not mention the film because then I’d have to confess to liking it far more than it, and its lead actor, more than either of them deserves.)
Anyway, I came to the newest version ready to enjoy, ready to love, and at first things were going swimmingly. The line about Matt’s father always being on his feet when he lost a fight? Perfect. Great characterization, a smooth start-up, and the tease of knowing that eventually D’Onofrio was going to appear–everything seemed on track. The chance to see Manhattan regrouping after the events of the first Avengers movie was also a plus.
Ultimately, the story didn’t quite hold up. Fisk’s scheme was haphazard and poorly executed, and when you undercut your villain, your hero loses juice, too. It takes a smaller amount of grit and brains to defeat a random chaos machine. You find it and spork it, which is about what Matt did.
The true failure in the writing, though, was a lack of payoff on the thematic promises made by the earlier scripts: they talked about friendships that are more meaningful than romantic relationships, and then left Foggy and Matt in business-marriage detente. Losing on your feet? Didn’t happen. Who did put the devil in Matt, and did it get bored with the fight to drag him to the dark side? Fisk chips away at his villainous base of support while Matt builds his, but where was the underlying point? Additionally, I’d like someone to send all of us who watched this series about $50 for every time after the first incidences of either Matt or Fisk getting all emo and then starting a sentence with, “This city…” *
(C’mon guys, vary it up a little next year!)
I will say that Karen’s story arc was beautifully executed, and I loved where she ended up. As for the rest, what we got, in the end, felt like half of a season. Nothing much resolved, and everything put on hold.
wasn’t a complete disappointment so much as a faint let-down, and there are still characters and storylines I’m fascinated by. So I’m a sucker, but since it is a very special kind of poison, I’ll tune in for at least the first couple of Season Two stories. I’m glad they got a next year. Still, it was more or less a swing and a miss.
*On a similar note, I am thinking of adding a $10 really/actually charge for every manuscript I edit. You get three reallys and two actuallys per 200,000 words, and after that I start tacking money onto the invoice.
A (barely) belated Happy Book Birthday to Martha Wells, whose Stories of the Raksura: Volume Two came out yesterday! Martha has written over a dozen fantasy novels, and this particular series, Books of the Raksura, includes The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, The Siren Depths, and Stories of the Raksura Vo.l I as well as this new volume.
I asked Martha a few questions about her literary heroines. Here’s what she had to say:
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
Okay, this is going to sound weird, but it was Erma Bombeck.
What qualities of hers captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
My mother had her books, Just Wait Until You Have Children of Your Own, I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, and The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank. I remember the first one attracted my attention (I was probably around ten, maybe younger) because it had cartoons in it by Bill Keane. I know I liked it at first because it was funny stories about a family, and I was an extremely lonely kid. But it was also probably my first realization that authors of books were a) real people, and b) could be women. Here was this woman who lived a normal life in the suburbs and was a wife and a mother, but she also had a career as a writer. I think this was my first inkling that me becoming a writer was possible, that it wasn’t an impossible thing to want.
How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? What might your own heroines owe her?
I think her sense of humor made a huge impression on me, and probably helped form how I do characterization and humor in my own books, probably more than I realize. I haven’t re-read those books since I was in college, and I still remember lines and scenes from them. And she was the hero of her own stories, the one who had to deal with everything and who made mistakes but got things done. So Erma Bombeck probably is the literary ancestor of my female heroes.
About this post: it has been awhile since I did an interview series, and I’ve been wanting to ask some of my colleagues and friends about their artistic influences and their heroines. I’m planning to arrange for you all to see answers to these three questions, and variations on them, popping up throughout the summer from a number of terrific authors. Enjoy! (Or, better yet, comment, tweet, and repost!)
More about Martha Wells: She is the author of The Wizard Hunters, and the nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer, as well as the YA fantasies, short stories, and non-fiction. She has had stories in Black Gate, Realms of Fantasy, Stargate Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and in the anthologies Elemental, Tales of the Emerald Serpent, and The Other Half of the Sky. She has also written the media-tie-ins, Stargate Atlantis: Reliquary, Stargate Atlantis: Entanglement, and Star Wars: Razor’s Edge. Her web site is www.marthawells.com.
Kelly’s Tor.com novella “Waters of Versailles” will be out next week, on June 10th. It will be available for free reading on the site, as always, but you can also advance-order your very own keeper copy in the Kindle store, via iTunes, from Barnes and Noble, Chapters Indigo or from OmniBooks.
Kelly was working on this story in the months before we decided to leave Vancouver, and on through the stretch when we were, literally, in transition. It was a intense and freaky time, as we scrambled to figure out how to get ourselves and the cats across the country. Even at the height of the chaos, there were mornings where we would get up, walk the mile or so to Kafka’s, on Main Street, and spend a couple hours there drinking espresso and working at their beautiful communal project tables. We were still getting settled, here in Toronto when she finished the novella. Despite a massively multilayered upheaval on our homefront and in our working lives, Kelly didn’t put a foot wrong with the writing.
Sure, I’m biased… but Ellen Datlow says it makes her cry every time she reads it.*
“Waters of Versailles” is historical fantasy, and Kelly sometimes describes it as a story about “sex, magic, and plumbing.” It is also about deciding who you are going to be–about trimming away the frills and focusing on what matters. It is funny, sexy, heartbreaking, and frightening by turns. The backdrop of the palace and courtier culture is rich, beautifully researched, and–just to make it extra rich and delicious–infused with magic.
In other news, it has a gorgeous cover, by artist Kathleen Jennings.
*And all you people who want to sell to Ellen, I bet you want to know what makes her cry. My darling, that’s what.
I got up this morning to the news that Child of a Hidden Sea is on the longlist for the Sunburst Award, in the YA category. I’m in good company; in addition to a number of authors whose writing I know but whom I haven’t met personally, the ever-fantastic Caitlin Sweet and Charlene Challenger are on the list.
The full Sunburst 2015 longlist is here.
That’s a very cool thing. So, you know, EEeeee!!!
And here’s another: Kelly and I will be sharing a table of contents together, our first, within the new James Bond anthology coming out from ChiZine Publications
later this year! The anthology is called License Expired and the editors are Madeline Ashby
and David Nickle
My story features Moneypenny and is entitled “Through your Eyes Only”. Kelly’s is called “The Gladiator Lie” and is an alternate ending to From Russia with Love
. She has written on her own blog about why this story makes her obscenely happy
. And she should be. It is a furry, sick, snow-covered, ultra-bizarre thrill ride of a coming of age tale for the lovely honey trap Tatiana Romanova.
And my Moneypenny? I am extremely pleased with it, too! First, because it’s incredibly fun. But also because I’ve done some terribly clever things where voice and point of view are concerned … what this story does is not only nifty for readers, but it was a chance for me to try something new and quite hard and to pull it off.
So, having had our way with the Bond canon, we will be together in smugness between these covers, metaphorically waiting for someone to bring us our dry martinis and all the praise they can heap into an ice bucket.