Sunday, August 8, 2010


Okay, I feel better now. I do apologize for groaning in your ear first thing on a Sunday morning. But I'm getting too old to be digging pits in the back yard -- especially when there are no metaphoric bodies to go into them. Add in a round of paining walls, after the requisite taping, redoing a website -- almost done -- and trying to find time to write and, well, you now know why I'm groaning.

I am also groaning because that wonderful idea I had for a blog post just flew out of my head, replaced instead by one of my characters demanding to know why I haven't been writing HER story. Hasn't she been patient? She's let me write short stories and another novel and almost finish a second and get started on plotting a third. All the while, she's languished in the back of my mind, waiting oh so patiently for her turn. Can't she come out and play?

Whine, whine, whine...and I'm not sure if it's the character or me or both of us whining.

The problem with this character is that, while she's loud enough, she doesn't exactly resonate with me. I've doodled with a story involving her but, well, it just doesn't work. So she's been pushed to the back burner while other stories, stories that do interest me and are fun -- when they aren't driving me crazy -- are written.

Now, I know there are folks out there who will say I ought to go on and write the story...and, fortunately, it is only a short story. At least that's the feel of it. These are the same folks who say you don't need to like a story or enjoy it to be able to write it. Maybe that's true for them, but not for me. If I don't like the story, I find all sorts of things to do to avoid writing. And not just painting and digging pits in my back yard. As much as I grouse about them, I enjoy that sort of physical labor. No, I'm talking about doing such things as washing baseboards, or rearranging the pantry by alphabetizing the contents.

So, what's the point of all this except to let me whine? It's simple. Every writer, editor, agent, or anyone who thinks of themselves as a reader has a set of rules a writer should follow. Some of these rules are essential. You need characters a reader can care about -- whether they connect with the character or are so appalled by him. But they have to care and want to know what happens next. Hannibal Lecter is a perfect example. Here is a character that is so totally evil that it is hard to like him. But, as a reader, you're fascinated by him and what to know more. What made him the way he is? What is he going to do next? Will he get the justice he so richly deserves?

You need a story that has a beginning, middle and end -- even if the end is simply the launching point for another story. Okay, okay, I know there are pieces of "literature" out there that don't fit this but, well, I'm not talking literature. Sorry. More than that, your story has to be written in such a way that your reader keeps turning the page. The first step is to get them to turn the very first page. So hook them immediately. Give them a reason to keep reading. Remember, if you are submitting a short story for publication, you get only a very few paragraphs to hook the editor. A book might get you a couple of pages. But they don't want to read a quarter to a third of the way through a submission before getting to the hook. Honestly, no matter how good the writing, without the hook, they won't read that far.

Most of all, you need a compelling voice for the story. You have to be able to bring your reader into the story, whether you are writing in first person or third. This is the old show-don't-tell adage. And it is harder than it sounds. After all, it's easy to write, "I walked into the room and saw him. Furious, I moved to him and, without warning, slapped him as hard as I could." Those few sentences tell you what happened. They even tell you that the narrator was mad. But there is so much more that could be done with them.

So, dear readers, here's your assignment. Take the above example and expand it. Show us what is happening there. Limit yourselves to three paragraphs. I'll come back later today and add my own take on the scene.

Also, what do you see as the rules that have to be followed in writing a good story?

Okay, I'm off for more coffee and another round of painting. Later!


Stephen Simmons said...

Hmm ... lots of possibilities in that prompt. Too many to settle on a choice quickly. It will have to gestate while I do battle with the lawn.

Other "rules"? Most have been touched on here on the blog, now and again. One of my biggest as a reader that hasn't been is: let me do my share of the work. Give me an adequate collection of dots, but let me do some of the leg-work in discovering how those dots should be connected. That will keep me more actively engaged in the process of consuming the story. And let me have some input into how *I* perceive your setting, unless the specific details are significant to the plot. Otherwise we end up spending so much time and effort on the minutia that we lose forward momentum.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, your dots, or breadcrumbs, are very important. There are two problems I see that tend to occur. The first is that there aren't enough dots and, suddenly, on the last page or two of the book the villain is revealed and the reader goes, "WTF?!?" because there hadn't been clues along the way to point in that particular person's direction. It's one thing to lay those crumbs subtly so your reader doesn't figure it all out too soon, but it is a capital offense, imo, not to lay them.

The other problem is when there are too many dots, or too many tangents, that are left unresolved at the end. I think we've all read those books where a character is introduced at the beginning, we learn to identify with them and after chapter 2 they are never seen or heard of again. Red herrings are good, but they have to make sense, at least within the framework of the story.

Nothing will turn a reader off of a writer quicker than to feel that writer has cheated them. Not connecting your dots and not tying up loose ends is one sure way to have books thrown against the wall -- or out the window.

Anonymous said...

I stalked into the room and spotted him imediately. I tried to keep the fury off my face as I eased through the crowd. He turned, his mesmerizing smile starting to spread as he recognized me.

I slapped him as hard as I could.

The slap was loud against the background of polite, civilized conversations. The conversations faded into an embarrassed silenece, then were hastily resumed. Stephen was white faced in fury, the print of my palm clear on his face. No more twinkling smile. I turned and walked out.

He followed, grabbed my elbow. "What was that about?" he was trying to keep his voice low, emotion turned it into a bass growl.

"That was about destroying your anonymity. Everyone here will remember you, and your movements." I pulled my arm from his suddenly limp grasp. He hadn't realized that I had discovered what he was.


Jim McCoy said...

"I walked into the room and saw him. Furious, I moved to him and, without warning, slapped him as hard as I could."

I stomped into the kitchen. At the table, sipping his coffee and reading his morning paper sat the lying, cheating bastard. He had no clue that I knew. I could feel my face flush and my pulse begin to pound at the mere sight of him. My facials features contorted into a snarl as I crossed the room.

The look of surprise on his face was soon replaced by one of shock. My open hand lanced out from my side and struck him on the cheek. He was knocked out of his chair, his glasses askew. The newspaper flew across the room and the coffee spilled and dribbled over the edge of the table onto his freshly starched suit pants. Never had I hit someone -or something- so hard in my life.

Kate said...

I was ready to bite something anyway, what with idiot co-workers, drivers who couldn't figure out the difference between the gas and the brakes, and the ass who'd parked in the only shaded spot in the complex, so when I got inside my apartment to find him there, leaning oh-so-nonchalant against the kitchen counter, complete with that 'I know best' smirk that always made me want to smack it off his face, well...

That's exactly what I did.

Brendan said...

I walked into the room and saw him. Furious, I moved to him and, without warning, slapped him as hard as I could.

He yelped and shied away from me, treading in the pile of poo he had left in the middle of the living room rug.  Urgh!  My temper had got away from me again and had made the situation worse.

"Bad boy!". I grabbed him by the collar and hauled him back to his mess.  A forceful thrust and his nose was in the middle of it and then I dragged him to the back door and almost tossed him out, barely containing my rage.  Rage with the dog, myself, and my father whose death had left me saddled with the damn beast.

Stephen Simmons said...

The questions started as soon as I saw him, a rapid-fire fusillade: What was *he* doing *here*? How did he get invited into the room with the principals? And on the dais, no less? Then I saw who he was talking to, and several pieces snapped into place. All those times the Senator had kept running into him on the campaign trail made a lot more sense now. The system couldn't handle a genuine reformer winning a fair election, so they had engineered a way to neutralize her, just in case. The whole conclusion crystallized down in the deep level where my real analysis happens; by the time my forebrain got the memo, my feet and mouth were already moving.

I heard my own voice, lower and grittier than usual: "Stay here, Senator. And throw me to the wolves when they come." I moved across the room, fury plain on my face. Without warning I slapped him, as hard as I could. "How *could* you? All those nights during the campaign, all those careful meetings -- I thought you cared about me! You bastard! You *used* me." I slapped him again, just as hard, as he stood there dumbfounded. The other people on the dais rushed in to wrestle us apart and I turned away, being careful to stumble a little and slump my shoulders, playing up the role of jilted lover.

As the photographers fired broadsides of flashes and the reporters flock toward me, I wondered, just for a second, if this is how the Secret Servicemen feel. If America was going to have *any* hope of moving forward with meaningful reforms, then the Senator was indispensable. The guy who ran the campaign to get her here? Not so much ...

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, FIVE paragraphs? C'mon, surely you could have destroyed Stephen in 3. [VBG] And you know I'm kidding, right?

Because your POV character was stalking into the room, I assume she knew he was there. So why is she angry at him? I'd like at least a hint. She hit him hard enough to leave a print. So how did it feel? Does her palm hurt? Maybe she's a little surprised she didn't draw blood -- maybe a little disappointed that she didn't?

Now, you do have me intrigued. Why is it so important that he be anonymous and why is she willing to create a scene to make sure he isn't? Are there going to be exploding elves? And, do the elves explode or doe they cause explosions? Inquiring minds want to know ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Jim, take your first paragraph and instead of telling me what happened, describe it. How does your narrator know her face face flushed? When the pulse began to pound, does it sound like drums in her ears so that no other sound is audible? Let your reader fell what your narrator is feelings. Put them in the narrator's shoes.

I like the way the second paragraph ends. However, think about the actual slap itself. For your narrator to have a chance of garnering enough force behind the blow to knock the lying SOB from the chair, she is either going to have to hit him from the front or from the back. A strike from the side won't do it with an open-handed slap. So, how is he sitting in relation to the table and to her? Just a couple of things to think about.

All that said, you did give me conflict, and a character I could understand -- at least for this short passage.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, no fair drawing from real experience -- not that you'd ever do that to your husband [VBEG]. Very good. I know your POV character's mood, and know she isn't someone I want to mess with. And I want to know more. I want to know who "him" is. Obviously, there's a history between the characters. So what, and does he really deserve to be smacked? Another question the passage raised was how he got inside her apartment. Oh, the possibilities.

Amanda Green said...

Breandan, GREAT last line. There is sooooo much there. I will admit, with my own dog sitting next to me right now, looking like he is going to die for lack of loving, the opening with the narrator slapping the dog had me going, "whoa". The way to cure that, in my case at least, would be to have your narrator enter the room and look around, angry. The tell-tale smell had warned her what she'd find before she saw it -- again.

But after that, you have a good start. Like I said, I love the last line.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, you have a strong voice in your paragraphs. That's always a good start. But reading through it, I got confused as to whether your narrator was male or female. The second paragraph seems like the narrator might be female but the last paragraph leads me to think male. Maybe I'm just tired -- which I am.

You have a lot going on here. This is one instance where I think there's too much information for the limits I put on the exercise. Ask yourself this: is there anything in these three paragraphs that can be pared out without destroying the voice and without taking away necessary information? The key word is "necessary".

But a very good try and, as I said, a really good voice.

Stephen Simmons said...

Part of your confusion was probably the result of the way I scattered the breadcrumbs. I left his gender till last, so it would be clear how his action equated to "taking a bullet for the Senator", the metaphor he draws in his mind. There's no real reason for handling it that way, though.

And yes, another big part was the 3-paragraph limit. But learning to increase the "density" of the writing is a really good exercise, imho. I found that my long prose got much tighter and crisper after I started selling flash.

Anonymous said...

Several of us leave questions that need to be answered quickly. We've hopefully intriged the reader, but we dare not leave too much dangling.

"Which matron was going to lose her jewels, tonight, Diamond Jim McCarthy? Oh, sorry. Stephen Burgess, or was it James Freebold?"

His eyes narrowed. "Oh, I think the _diamonds_ are safe tonight."

Judging how many questions need to be answered _immediately_ and which are part of the main story problem and not resolved until the end of the story is a part of the art of plotting.


Amanda Green said...

Stephen, the problem is, gender really doesn't have anything to do with who will or won't "take a bullet". Because of that, you need to be careful about dropping bombshells on your reader without leaving a few crumbs along the way. Otherwise, they will be scratching their heads along the way and may not finish reading.

And, yes, increasing the density exercises can be good. They've helped me. We just have to listen to that internal editor -- and this is one of the few times I do say that -- when he starts telling us we're getting too much information in too small a space.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, absolutely. My point was that sometimes a few of those answers need to at least be hinted at in order to pique the reader's interest. The other aspect of this, and I apologize to everyone because between work and working on the house I am not real cogent right now, is to get folks to think about how they can connect their reader with their pov character. Sometimes that really is doing nothing more than letting us feel what she feels, whether it is emotion, something physical or a glimpse into how that character's mind works.

Chris McMahon said...

Why am I thinking of SS interrogation scenes? :)

Anonymous said...

Stephen's character, with the low gritty voice, I assumed was male. This probably needs to be clearer for a proper jolt over the "jilted lover" scene. Also the assumed reason may need further clarity for the slow-to-follow. I assumed the man was being positioned to falsely claim a romantic scandalous) relationship with the Senator, and the MC leaped in to spike it. Stephen, was that your intent? Did everyone "get it"?

The next paragraph probably needs to be something along the line of "I don't have any issues with homosexuality, but I [am/am not] gay." Let the reader know how badly the man has messed up his life with further information. Were his parents deeply religious and intolerent? Is he married, engaged, dating, or madly in love with the Senator?


Kate said...


That's exactly what I was going for - just enough to show the character, with enough teaser there to make people want to read more.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, thanks so much. Now I'm thinking of BAD SS interrogation scenes -- you know the ones I'm talking about. Those straight out of the British comedies.

Stephen Simmons said...

MataPam, yes, that's pretty much precisely what I was aiming for. And it's not the homosexuality that makes the affair a career-ender, it's who the other man is -- a plant from the Senator-elect's political enemies. Which is exactly why he had to leap into action so quickly spike their guns in the first place.

I hadn't though so far as to whether or not to incorporate any stigma over the homosexuality for the narrative character. Upon reflection, if I were going further with this, I'd probably make him just fine with the idea (otherwise his ability to jump into the role so convincingly is a stretch of credibility), but I'd probably make it anathema to the putative Casanova ...