Category Archives: ucla-novel3

Human Relationships, Character Relationships

Emotionally powerful fiction, as you know, brings characters into conflict with each other.

This is not to say that you can’t tell a story about someone who’s facing a powerful internal conflict, or a character who’s at odds with their environment, locked in a battle with impersonal forces, with physical survival as the stakes. However, the most affecting clashes in fiction are usually the struggles between individuals, those frictions that arise out of our natural attempts to connect with (and, sometimes, control) other people.

As I write this essay, I hope it’s true of those of you reading it that the important relationships in your life are positive ones: enduring friendships, solid family ties, and cordial business associations. So here’s an exercise: think about simple affection, and jot down some notes about the things you like about the people in your world. (Be as specific as you can. If you particularly admire your mother for her self-sufficiency, think of an example of a behavior that illuminates this trait.)

Now, look it over. What areas of common ground are the foundations of your friendships? Do you, like most of us, have a hierarchy of friendship: BFF, old schoolmates, colleagues, fellow writers, Twitter pals? How many worlds do you live in, and how well do these worlds co-exist?

All this exercise is meant to illustrate is that your characters probably don’t exist within a social vacuum. As you consider who they may clash with in a given story, think too about who supports them, and what resources—social and otherwise—they may have to draw upon.

If you’re stuck, consider a few common plots involving friendly relationships:

The Mentor—Be he Merlin or Obi-wan Kenobi, this older and more experienced ‘trainer’ figure turns up in adventure fiction, to prepare young heroes for big tests.

· Who are your real life mentors and inspirations?

Mercutio—this is the friend who serves as a sacrificial lamb. They are usually killed to up the stakes on a conflict already in progress, or to show that the villain really means business.

Loved one gone bad—sometimes a protagonist loses a friends’ support through selfishness, with the catastrophic result that the former ally joins forces with the antagonists of the story.

Confidante—Confidantes are handy—they give protagonists a chance to hash out their interior angst on the page. They are custodians of your characters’ secrets, and sometimes unwittingly betray them.

· Who do you confide in? What qualities make them especially trustworthy?

The above examples are just a small starter list of archetypes and the stories that spring from common, real-world relationships. Any of the ‘types’ I’ve listed above can be treated as a cliché or be fully-realized and brilliantly handled. The key thing to remember is that if your novel’s protagonist is so socially isolated that there is nobody at all to reach out to when they’re in a jam, you may have an underdeveloped cast of characters.

Here’s another thing: Affection and Conflict can go hand in hand!

Not all stories boil down to Hero Versus Villain, thankfully, and even the closest relationships can be eclipsed by conflict. For many of us, we’re far less likely to solve a murder or save the world from aliens than we are to have a painful argument with a loved one. How many of you might prefer getting a punch in the gut from a total stranger to having a verbal conflict with someone you love deeply?

A protagonist’s loved ones are in a more advantageous position to undermine, deceive and flat-out betray them than a villain-stranger. You cannot betray someone who doesn’t trust you.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk about lying for a minute. Lying, in fiction, has great potential to create both conflict and suspense: it also makes characters, and their motivations, more interesting. A common beginner mistake in writing is to have all or most of your characters tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Nobody is perfectly honest; don’t allow your characters to fall into this trap.

Insofar as fiction has any rules, here’s a biggie:

If an important character tells a big lie in a novel, the truth must come out by the end.

Here are some basic things to ponder with regard to lying:

· A character should lie more easily to a stranger or casual acquaintance than a loved one (this assumes they are not a sociopath)
· A character needs a reason to lie. They—or someone they care about—should have something big at stake.
· Lies and other betrayals of trust are unique opportunities to examine an intriguing facet of human nature. Few things are worse than the experience of being betrayed by a loved one: this is deeply personal, deeply emotional material.
· If a character is going to tell a big lie, it’s probably a good idea to make them sympathetic in other ways.

Think: how many times have you told a casual acquaintance who asked how you were that you were “Fine,” even though the answer was anything but? Does that make you dishonest, a chronic liar? No. Withholding information and even deceiving people can self-protective, a necessity or even a kindness. We all do it. Remember this when your characters start to tell random strangers too much about their current situation.

As an exercise, look at the following lines of dialogue, assume they are untruthful, and see what you can deduce about the speakers:

· “That dress looks fab on you, darling.”
· “It’s all over with my ex—I was just returning some stuff he left at my place.”
· “I never touched her.”
· “I have no idea where Chris is.”
· “I sold the rifle—I’m not hunting anymore.”
· “I’m not very smart. Not as smart as you.”
· “It’s a gift for my sister—can you take it back to the U.S. with you and mail it?”
· “The dog ran away after you left for school today, sweetie.”
· “I will never touch another drink again.”
· “The doctor gave me a clean bill of health.”

Just knowing the above statements aren’t true laces them with conflict, doesn’t it? Try coming up with a few of your own. Look for speeches that are creepy, heartbreaking, or hilarious—hit as many emotional notes as you can find.

Betrayal

What about when the untruth is malicious—when it’s backed up by bad action? As I’ve said, betrayals by their very nature can only occur in relationships characterized by a certain degree of trust. This is true whether a character is a spy selling military secrets, an adulterous spouse, or a corporate embezzler.

In fiction, betrayals and lies tend to get bigger as your story unfolds—the dishonest character’s actions make things worse—and by the time the truth comes to light, the ‘victim’, whoever it is, has a significant chance of being hurt.

Imagine one of the sentences before: “It’s all over with my ex—I was just returning some stuff she left at my place.”

What if the speaker initially said this to his new girlfriend because his ex tracked him down and tried to start things up again? Perhaps the initial ‘fib’ was merely an attempt to avoid worrying the new girlfriend. Not necessarily a terrible crime, am I right? But then the ex starts calling, and he doesn’t want to admit he was dishonest. Now, in an all-too-human burst of panic, our speaker tells his new love something wildly untrue. “My ex has been diagnosed with leukemia,” he says. Suddenly things are very sticky, and can spiral out of control in a number of ways.

And, remember, sooner or later the truth will come to light, and then there will be consequences for everyone involved.

This brings us, finally, to. . .

Reconciliation

Not all betrayals are forgivable, and not all characters are capable of forgiveness. Scenes where your characters do let go of this type of pain can be tough to write. How do you say “I forgive you,” without falling into cliché?

One strategy is to look at what else there is in the relationship you’re exploring—the common ground that makes forgiveness possible and worthwhile, the past history. Often a reconciliation scene is less explicitly a case of Character A saying “Forgive me,” and Character B replying “Okay!” and more a case of a gentle, careful reaching out into one of those areas of commonality. This doesn’t mean things go back to the precise way they were before the betrayal occurred. Betrayal inevitably changes things—the trust is damaged, and the rules of the relationship will to reflect that.

Since fiction is, after all, about character change, this is fertile ground, well worth exploring.

So far, I’ve talked about engaging our protagonists in conflict not only with obvious bad guys, but with their loved ones. I’ve talked about how the people in a given character’s life can, even with good intentions, mislead and betray. Finally, because I’m still focusing on essentially positive relationships, I’ve talked about the potential for forgiveneness and reconciliation. Now, there’s one more thing you may want to consider . . .

Love, Intimacy and Sex

Writing about sex can be daunting, so take a breath and remind yourself that everything I am saying about friendship—its joys, its power to support and nourish a protagonist and its potential for conflict—goes for intimate relationships too.

Think about falling in love. Consider what happened, how the feelings developed, what you felt and what, if anything, went wrong. Most people may find that their love interests and sex partners are the people they trust most, and are most vulnerable to.

A huge proportion of Western literature traces the love relationships of thousands of couples, both conventional and unconventional. When you try your hand at showing people in love or on their way to it, remember, once again, to look for the details that make them and their romance unique.

Sex Scenes

What if it’s time to get your characters into the bedroom (or the supply closet? Or the Macy’s parade?)

Some writers revel in creating smut. Others are embarrassed. Most fall somewhere in between. Writing honest, unabashed sex scenes can take courage. What if your grandmother reads them, after all?

Assuming, though, that the threat of Grandma doesn’t stop you, here are a few important things to remember:

1) Sex scenes are about atmosphere, not which body parts end up where. Technical writing (“He inserted Tab A into Slot B”) is, generally speaking, something to be avoided. Creating an aura of sexual action, where readers can imagine what’s happening is more important than the blow by blow.

2) Sex scenes are about revealing character traits, developing relationships, and furthering conflict.

3) Sex doesn’t begin or end with intercourse.

Okay, enough of this chatter about good guys. What about villainy?

What I’m hoping you’ll remember as you sit down to write is that your protagonist’s allies come from somewhere. They are family, friends, compatriots and lovers. These are the threads from which your whole story is spun, so consider their color and texture carefully. A main character’s parents, siblings, spouses, ex-spouses, bosses, their sons and daughters, teachers, fellow-sufferers, doctors, grocers, landlords, classmates, slaves, confessors–and even their media heroes, are all potential sources of inspiration, nurturance, support and well-intentioned conflict.

Now, remember this too: your story’s antagonist or ‘bad guy,’ if it has such a thing, comes from the same pool. A rapist need not be merely an unnamed shadow-figure: he can be a teacher. A co-worker can set out to have your main character fired; an officer on the other side of the battlefield can take it into their head to maliciously shell your character’s foxhole. As you move from considering a character’s mostly-positive relationships to thinking about deliberate bad behaviour, consider the possibilities for complexity in these relationships too. The individuals involved aren’t just pieces of your plot. They are still human and should have comprehensible motives. What makes them a baddie is that their intentions are actively harmful.

Which brings us, conveniently and at last, from sex to violence!

One of the ironies of Western culture is that many of us are quite uncomfortable when writing about love, lust and sex. . . but we’re only too happy to dive into a war scene or a barroom brawl.

Most of us are fortunate enough to live in less violent worlds than we write in. Fiction is full of murder, fighting, and carnage because we fear these things, and we want to experience them in a safe, controlled fashion. Part of us likes to believe that practicing violence in this manner can prepare us for the reality. It can’t.

Isn’t it odd, then, that it can entertain?

Like it or not, fighting is entertaining. Hannibal Lecter is, to many, a cool character. Film genres like anime make terrible acts look bloodless, even beautiful. To write about violence in an entertaining fashion is to pretend that we can shake it off—that police can get into gunfights and sleep soundly at night after slaughtering nameless bad guys.

This is perfectly okay. It’s escapism, it’s part of our culture, and there’s no sense in pretending it’s not fun. But what if you want to say something true about violence? The answer lies earlier in this essay: you make its participants real to the reader.

Before we delve too deeply into the mechanics of violence, I want to revisit two points I mentioned with regard to sex scenes:

1) It’s not about which body parts end up where.

2) Intimate scenes are about revealing character traits, developing relationships, and furthering conflict.

The above statements are equally true whether your characters are rolling around on a beach in the throes of passion or if they are trying to drown each other.

Imagine a world where all the fight scenes were a literal description of the action:

Smith hit Jones, breaking his nose.
“Ow,” Jones said. He stabbed Smith in the chest with a barbecue fork.
Smith fell, clawing in his jacket for his gun.

Even if the above were more stylishly written, it would be pretty dull, wouldn’t it? Remember this about fictional violence—be it a knock-down brawl, a hair-pulling fight between five year olds, or even a vicious, relationship-ending father-son argument—people in conflict are emotional. Most of us live fairly pleasant, violence-free lives (I hope!) and it takes a great deal to get us to lash out physically. Yes, in fiction violent situations crop up more frequently than they do in the real world. And yes, some characters do round out their working day with a swordfight. This is no excuse to have them be emotionally distanced from the experience of harming another being—or being harmed by them.

Foreplay, Intercourse, Pillow-talk and Pregnancy

No, we haven’t slipped back into the smutty gutter—but remember that third point? Violence, like sex, rarely begins and ends with the act itself. There’s lead-up to the actual event; afterward, there’s character reaction to deal with. Depending on the degree of realism in your work, there may also be long-term fallout in the form of trauma.

Trauma, naturally, is yet another of those things that comes with a set of conventions and clichés. You’ve all seen stories that open with someone screaming themselves awake from a nightmare. You’ve all seen fictional victims of violence shrinking from the touch of others, having flashbacks, resisting therapy and then opening themselves up to that process. These things do happen, of course, but the range of human behavior is wider than the few possibilities I’ve mentioned. As with anything else, finding a more unique and yet believable response will make your work stand out.

Violence makes for exciting, suspenseful reading, and I invite you to try writing scenes that bring your characters into physical conflict. But what if that just doesn’t fit with your story? What if you’re writing about two people who are vying for a promotion at work, a parent attempting to bond with a difficult child, a person coming to grips with loss, or their gender identity, or even just something unexpected?

In a sense, the answer is the same either way. Whether you’re writing about an interpersonal struggle between two passive-aggressive relatives or using words to stage a knife fight, remember: sex, violence and conflict are all about the same thing—power. Who’s winning, and who’s losing? Who’s in control and how are the other parties responding? Does one character have something the other wants? These are the underlying dynamics of good scenebuilding—use them well.

Fisticuffs can be great, in other words, but not all stories need them. What they do need—what this entire lecture is about–is passion, purpose, and characters who work their way into your readers’ hearts.

Novel Writing III begins October 3rd

Starting in a couple weeks, I will once again be teaching Novel Writing 3, which is an all-genres class that follows up on, naturally, N1 & N2. The syllabus is here: the gist is you write fifty pages and provide workshop feedback to your classmates on their novels-in-progress as you go.

Novel 3 has a somewhat lighter workshop load than N2–in the latter class, we’re putting the books under a microscope to see that they’re well begun. In this one, the workshop looks at things that are more a matter of nuance than necessity. (This is an oversimplification, but the upshot is fewer workshop weeks and more focus on your own book.)

Can you take this course if you haven’t had N1 and N2? The answer is a qualified yes. If you are fifty or more pages into a novel, and want a little structure in which to work on the next fifty–in many cases, the middle of your book–it might be for you. Check out the syllabus and talk to me. That said, The UCLA Extension Writers’ Program is also running N1 and N2 this quarter, with Dan Fante and Leslie Lehr, respectively: you can jump into that stream at the beginning. Or take the NanoWrimo course.

Finally, here’s a heads-up: I will be teaching Writing the Fantastic, my intermediate SF/F/H course, in January. This one is offered rarely and fills fast, so if you’ve been waiting do mark your calendars.

Instead of #amreading, here’s what I’m teaching in the fall…

Last week I read all three of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games books. It may have been too much of the same thing at once, and maybe I’ll have more to say about them once some time has passed. I also reread Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, but I’ve almost certainly written about that before.

Instead of treating you to semi-coherent Peeta/Gale mumblings or some variation on Wow, I sure don’t have what it takes to be a high-altitude climber!, I will tell you that my next UCLA extension course is Novel III, it starts on October 3rd, and there’s a discount available to people who sign up before the 24th. Here’s the description from the course catalog:

For those with a minimum of 50 pages of a novel-in-progress, this workshop guides you to generate at least 50 new pages as well as learn essential self-editing techniques, with the instructor and peers reviewing each participant’s project in detail. Refinements of character, structure, emotional content, and the development of the writer’s voice also are explored. The goal is to produce a substantial portion of your novel.

You can check out the syllabus here. (It’s subject to minor changes only.)

Or, if you’d rather, here’s a newsflash: the trees know that autumn’s on the way.
Autumn leaves in sun

Who you gonna call? (Funkbusters!)

My current, lovely, talented and very hardworking group of Novel III students is reaching the end of another quarter, with fifty new pages under their belts, and some of them are feeling the re-entry burn. They have more to do, and they’re falling prey to the “Is this shit? Can I finish?” blues.

I’ve told them they’re not alone, and offered a few of my tried-and-true funk breaking-techniques (punitive amounts of caffeine, bribing myself just to keep on, freewriting, Ignoring it and Hoping It Goes Away), but I am always happy to hear more. The more so because my current story, “Wetness,” is kicking me in the head with the Pointy Boots of Vagueness.

**

On another note, M.K. Hobson explains here how you and twenty-six of your friends can earn Clarion West $1500 just by joining the Write-A-Thon.

Writing links, three bags full

My Spring 2011 Novel III class starts up next Wednesday and it’s about a fifty/fifty mix of students I’ve had in earlier classes and people I’ve never met before. It’ll be interesting to see what that’s like: half the projects will be new to me, and the others will be novels I’ve looked at quite closely.

One of the things I do with these classes is sift useful links from the flow of the Twitternets and other places and post them as guest lectures. Some are so valuable that I post them pretty much every time . . . which means they’ll be reruns for the folks who’ve taken my fall class.

I thought, for the sake of interest, I’d look at the links I considered postworthy last quarter. There’s a lot of them, and some were things I looked up as discussions progressed, so if it feels like the context is lacking, that’s why. There’s some interesting stuff here, and you all know a lot came up in the past quarter that could have gone on the list too, but this is what ended up hitting my classroom. Feel free to propose your faves in comments.


Workshopping
Scott Edelman – fifteen minute video, “How to Respond to a Critique of Your Writing

Craft
Juliette Wade – Character-driven approach to kissing and sex scenes
Jay Lake – Producing Story
Kay Kenyon – The Mush Factor
Jon Sprunk – The Journey from Seedling to Bookshelf
Jane Friedman – You Hate Your Writing? That’s a Good Sign!
Sonya Chung – Writing Across Gender (This essay quotes the sex scene from BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, so maybe don’t read it at work.)
Chuck Wendig – Storytelling and the Art of Sadness
Three from Cat Rambo – Three strategies for snaring the senses, Five things to do in your first three paragraphs, and Why Titles Matter.
Nicola Griffith – Narrative Grammar – An Exercise
Suzannah Windsor Freeman – Seven Tasks to Bridge your First and Second Drafts
Joe McKinney – Rules for Writing about Cops

Revision and editing
Jan Winburn – How to Edit Your Way to a Can’t-Miss Story (be sure to check out the slide show.)
June Casagrande – More Parsing Larsson

Marketing Books / The Publishing Industry:
Query Shark Blog
Anna Kashina – Interview with editor Peter Stampfel
Charlie Stross - How Books are Made
Christina Thompson – How to Write a Book in Ten Easy… Years?
J.E. Fishman – Twelve Common Miscperceptions about Book Publishing
Stina Leicht – On Agents
YA Fantasy Guide – Interview with Agent Sarah Megibow
Colleen Lindsay – Word counts for fiction, all kinds of fiction

The ever-changing state of self and e-pubbing:
John Scalzi – ePubbing Bingo Card
James Maxey – Pouring Cold Water on Kindle-ing
Eli James – The Very Rich Indie Writer
Tonya Plank – Meet Amanda Hocking
Book View Cafe

Turning Research into Narrative
Steve Pinker – Ten minute video on Language as a window into human nature
Yasmine Galenorn – Research Notebook from Hell

Life as a Writer
Finally, two from John Scalzi – “Writers have as much (financial) sense as chimps on crack“, and a tough love link on work habits.

What makes a book good?

I have to admit, I am rather kicking myself. I decided a few months ago that this was a valid lecture topic for my Novel III class, which starts in the not too distant future. But who am I to lay down Pronouncements on Literachurrr? Where does one even begin?

Well, it’s easy to say what makes a book bad, and it’s also pretty easy, in my opinion, to say what doesn’t make a book bad, and so I think I’ll start there.

First, I’ll dispense with the most obvious thing, the thing (I would hope) that goes without saying, but I consider a book superbad if it is hate literature. If its point, in overt whole or in sneaky part, is to portray some given slice of humanity as somehow less able, less noble, or less capable of goodness than another, it is propaganda, and evil, and I want no part of it.

Moving on, I consider a book to be not quite good if its line by line writing is clumsy, even if the story is compelling enough that I read it through with some enjoyment.

I also consider a book not quite good if its story or protagonist bore me, even if the prose is beautiful.

The above two points are important because as one develops as a writer, it becomes incredibly useful to know how to separate enjoyment from quality. We all have moments when we enjoy something that we know, objectively, isn’t all that great. And I will tell you something else… there is not one thing wrong with that. In fact, I’ve recently posted a review of a well-known Stieg Larsson book here, and in it I write about how I liked it an awful lot, even though it’s seriously lacking in the prose department.

This next bit is one of those things that should go without saying, but so many people demonstrate that in fact it does need saying: I do not consider a book bad if I have not bleeping read it. This is true even if if it is something I’m pretty sure I won’t like. Along the same lines a book isn’t automatically bad because it’s a literary novel, or porn, or mystery, or a teen gothic romance with sparkling vampires, or sword and sorcery with frighteningly cheesy cover art, or fanfiction, or entirely written in haiku. As a matter of principle, I believe there is every genre of fiction offers the potential for artistic excellence.

The above covers the bad and the ugly pretty decently, I think, but I’m back to the original question: what makes a book good? I like to think my judgment is pretty decent. Even so, as I’ve already said, the thought of setting myself up as a big ol’ authority makes me uneasy. Hey, everyone is wrong now and then, right?

Never mind that: here I am, out on the limb. How’s this for a proposition? A book is good if it is nicely written, tells a good story, makes you think, and if it makes you feel something, whether that something is recognition, surprise, grief, or hilarity.

Finally, it’s good if it is memorable. My annual books read lists are full of novels I cannot recall at all. Pixies might as well have erased them from my brain. I can go back to reviews of some of them, and with that kind of a prod in hand I can sometimes remember: Oh, yeah, I quite enjoyed that at the time. If it passed without a trace, I say no: it may have been fun, but it wasn’t good.

Critical judgment, the ability to separate our notions of what we like from the issue of what is good, is a tricky and subjective thing. It is the difference between a gut reaction and an informed opinion. Party of the sticky terrain here is that the issue of quality comes loaded with all kinds of emotional baggage. How many times have you mentioned disliking something–a movie, an actor, whatever–only to find the person you’re speaking to reacting defensively, or as if they’re hurt?

We are raised, generally, to think ill of snobbery, and we take it personally when people we respect don’t like our favorite things. And if you’re the person who didn’t like your BFF’s favorite novel ever, you sometimes want to apologize for having been judgmental in the first place. After all, telling someone their beloved thing isn’t good may diminish the pleasure they take in it, right?

Then again, it might make them think–you can’t know.

But I’m not suggesting you start mowing through your friends and family members’ various sacred cows, pickin’ fights and revealing their flaws to the harsh inner light of your critical judgment. I am saying that the more you can learn to discern whether a book is well-crafted, the more critical tools you’ll have to apply to your own fiction, and to the work of any writer you’re trying to critique.

So… this judgment thing. Where does it come from?

Alan Bennett says it far better than I could in his excellent novella The Uncommon Reader.

…saw in the corner of the bookshelf the book by Ivy Compton-Burnett which she had borrowed from the travelling library and which Mr. Hutchings had given her all that time ago. It had been hard going and had nearly sent her to sleep then, she remembered, so perhaps it would do the trick again.

Far from it, and the novel she had once found slow now seemed refreshingly brisk, dry still but astringently so, with Dame Ivy’s no-nonsense tone reassuringly close to her own. And it occured to her (as next day she wrote down) that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed. She could read the novel with ease and great pleasure, laughing at remarks (they were hardly jokes) that she had not even noticed before.

In other words, developing your judgment is a matter of practice… and of practicing something that, in theory, you ought to already enjoy. It’s the same process one goes through if you’re trying to learn to appreciate chocolate, wine, cheese or anything else: you taste a lot of things, you pay attention, and you think about the experience. You discuss it with other people in the know; you see what other people are saying. You taste some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are aspiring writers who don’t read, and I cannot help but find that a shame. Love of books and reading, of stories, is–I hope–the thing that draws people to writing. And once you’re drawn, I hope you want to write good books. Not books of a certain genre, necessarily, not books that Tell Important Stories!, not works of propaganda, but well-told interesting stories that reflect, to readers, what it is to be human.

Revision, from Macro to Micro

When I think about revision, there’s a big mental divide: I can actually see the Grand Canyon. On one side is storytelling stuff, the nuts and bolts of plot and character that I’ve talked about before, the stuff that addresses the question, does this story go?

Way over on other side of the divide is the paint job: the question of whether the language used to tell the story is, in any way, pretty. I’ve written about that, too, listing some of the qualities I expect to see in well-written prose.

This isn’t the way I usually revise, mind you. I move through a document doing both at once, at least until I’m on the last pass. But I also know when I am making a structural revision, and when I am tuning the words. The best way for a new writer to know, if they aren’t sure, might be to ask: did this change necessitate others? If I altered this one thing, in other words, did I have to go through the manuscript and work through the consequences of the change? Or did it just make the whole thing flow better?

Belaboring the point: if you decide to switch from first person present to past, you are gonna be changing a lot of verbs. Or imagine if you change your main character’s sex. If you decide to substitute ‘lazed’ for ‘languished,’ on the other hand, you probably only need check that you haven’t used six languid variations already.

The qualities of prose post I mentioned before is something of a checklist. If your prose is ungrammatical, it says, get yourself some grammar. If it’s all dialog, all the time, you might have a balance problem, so consider putting in some narrative. Now, though, I want to talk about the process of actually shaping prose.

I have the idea that polishing your prose is pretty intuitive, at least for most of us. We read aloud, or work with a printed manuscript and a pen in hand, or we just sit at the computer and tweak, tweak, endlessly tweak. The goal, speaking very generally, is to come up with something that reads well–that offers maximum clarity to the reader and also possesses some glimmers of what I’ll call poetic rhythm. After we get to the point where the story’s told and the words are doing the job, we can strive to imbue them with some specialness.

I realize this is a gross generalization. Some writers cannot work forward through a story unless or until each sentence has a bit of sparkle. But a fair proportion of writers–especially beginning writers–seem to start with figuring out how to put together a working story, and then they move on to luminous prose. (It might also be hoped that for most of us, as we get better at the former, our prose also improves at the draft level.)

For sake of discussion, let’s assume you you’ve written a nice bit of fiction: the characters are okay, the plot works, it achieves a clear emotional effect, and the fact is you can probably sell it. But you want to work on the prose, and you want some kind of roadmap on how to start. What to do?

One strategy is to work from the big to the small, the macro, in other words, to the micro.

With this approach, you start by dividing the piece into scenes, then ask yourself: do the events unfold in a logical order? What’s the imagery, and how does it fit in? Does the scene do everything I want it to?

Second, you chop the scene into emotional beats or passages and repeat the process. This is about the words, again, so you’re looking for clumsy bits, things that may toss the reader out of the narrative. You’re also checking how each thought leads into the next, because part of flow is about that–about giving the reader the information in an order calculated to achieve a specific effect. This is true whether you want to ease them through a little lump of character history or if you want to slap them sidewise with a surprise change in in direction.

The above stages are a bit like prepping to paint a room. You’re getting major obstacles out of the way: in a sense, you’re washing and taping your walls.

After passages, naturally enough, we get to painting our paragraphs. Does each accomplish what it’s meant to? Are there any sentences that echo each other, creating wordy redundancies? How do they sound when read aloud? Does the first sentence flow logically from the closer of the paragraph preceding it?

You can probably see where I am headed now. After the paragraphs, you work the sentences. Are they varied, or do they all have the same Character verbed the Subject structure? And after the sentences, you work the words. That means all the lovely fiddly things we think of as perfecting the piece: pruning the adverbs, making sure the pronouns aren’t ambiguous, looking for stronger verbs.

Long, time-consuming, fiddly? Perhaps. If you’re pretty sure you can sell the piece anyway, go on and send it to market, and see what happens. This is one of those exercises that can wait until you feel like a stretch.

Does anyone else do it this way? Your revision thoughts are always welcome.

Life is full, Alyx is Quiet

I haven’t been blogging much lately. I got some birds up last week from my outing to Vanier Park, with Barb, but posts about writing and the state of my life have been in short supply. One reason is that I temporarily diverted my usual blogging time into revision on an upcoming novel. Another is that I am doing the Quantum Leap rewatches, and a Favorite Thing Ever each week, along with prepping lectures for my Novel III class and writing 8-10 critiques a week for the current Novel II class.

At the same time, some of the bits and pieces of my life have been shifting around a bit, and lots of them haven’t actually settled yet. One example: I’ve always been an early riser, but for the last month and a half I’ve been starting my work day at 6:00 a.m. Another: I’ve been deep in preparations for a choir concert (video footage, including me mangling the word ‘collectivist’ and Badger being lovely and articulate, can be found here). This was my last concert for awhile, as I’m taking a break from singing.

I never quite got a chance to tell you that my birthday trip went down the flush, and I haven’t figured out what the new birthday plan will be. And I took on a new mentoring gig, which–with help from several other little life shifts–discombobulated the stable little Wednesday morning breakfast ritual that has been a mainstay of my and kelly-yoyoKelly‘s lives since we were twenty-five or so.

There’s been other stuff too, so much of it, some of it with the potential to either be quite big or evaporate in a pfiffle. And I’m like a lot of people, in that uncertainty will never be the topic of an Alyx favorite thing ever column. So there’s been lots of awareness of things unresolved, a resulting bit of tension, and radio silence.

A few things that definitely are going on:

–Kelly and I and Ana are going to the Vancouver Police Museum’s Forensics for Adults program tonight, to do a one-hour workshop on blood spatter. Come on, admit you’re jealous.

–When we first moved to BC and I got chances to experience the Seabus and B.C. Ferries, I started having fabulous seagoing adventure dreams. In these physically improbable scenarios, I often got to drive a ferry as though it was a speedboat, in really fast, really splashy chases. These dreams are so fun. Now that I have been on a cruise, I have cruise dreams too!

–After a couple years of random and unsuccessful attempts to find contact information for her, I have finally managed to reconnect with one of my Clarion instructors, someone I absolutely adore. This has been supernice.

All my carrots are belong to virtual reality. It used to be that when I achieved some wee personal goal, I’d buy myself a $2-5 packet of sticky notes, or a bowl from someplace like YokoYaya. But now I buy iPod apps! Today I loaded up Vancouver 150, which is a “Hey, Vancouver’s turning 150 so here’s a news and history portal” type thingie. But it was free, and the universe owes me a treat, so if you know of great iTouch apps that are not games, I am always interested.