Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Retain the Heart of a Student

As I considered the various topics I could discuss today, I at first thought I should write on something that would generate a post of notable length without being tedious. My goal for these posts, after all, it to be entertaining as well as informative. However, as I settled on today’s topic, I realized that, much like books, length is far less important than content. You could have told me that, right? I should have remembered a lesson like that.

Which brings me to part of the essence of today’s subject. Do you ever go back and reread old craft books? How often do you review notes on past writing classes or break open a book on plotting or characterization? Do you still seek advice on elements of writing via blog posts, other writers, or articles?

Once we get comfortable with an aspect of writing, it’s easy to assume we understand it. However, much like rereading Shakespeare, if you go back and reread an old craft book, you will see things in it you missed the first time. Part of this is because no human can hold all that information in their head all at once. Part is because we sometimes forget things. But also, after much practice and growth, we see things in a new perspective and can often attain greater depths of understanding. This is true with any subject, be it writing, scuba diving, or biology. Content is what’s important, and returning to good content to study it more can often reveal great insight.

So, while this post is on the short end, I hope you’ll focus on the main point: No matter how much experience and success we gain, we should always maintain the attitude of a student. And by that, yes, I mean a good student. Especially as writers, we should always be learning and always be open to what ohers and life can teach us about our craft.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 28

In any case, welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at this best selling book and what makes it work.



Chapter 28: Kisses and Drawers

Summary: Claire soon finds a place and a rhythm at Lallybroch, helping Jennie, in the gardens, and making herself useful wherever else she can. The place practically feels like home. If only she didn’t have to leave it soon.

Jamie intends only a short stay at Lallybroch, enough to set things in order. Then he plans to take Claire to his grandfather in hopes of getting aid. If nothing else, perhaps they can escape to France. One way or another, he’s still outlawed and in danger.

One morning, Ian, Jenny’s husband, asks Jamie to go down to the millpond because something is causing the wheel to stick. Jamie agrees and asks Claire to accompany him. As they walk down to the mill together, Jamie and Claire share stories about their first kisses.

At the mill, Jamie is obligated to swim into the freezing water to figure out what’s blocking the wheel and fix it. He wears an ancient, worn, and patched pair of red flannel drawers that belonged to his father to do so.

While waiting, Claire gathers water plants in the giant basket she brought. An old woman named Granny MacNab sits beside her and offers advice on plants. She also advises Claire on how to get pregnant and entreats her for a favor, asking that her young grandson be taken as a stable hand to save him from his father’s beatings.

As they talk, a troop of redcoats marches in to buy meal. Just in time, Granny MacNab sits on Jamie’s clothes to hide them and signals Claire not to say a word and reveal her English accent. Claire merely hopes that Jamie isn’t spotted.

The soldiers’ commander, however, when he learns that the mill isn’t working, enthusiastically insists upon fixing it. Apparently, he knows the workings of such machines. No effort by Granny MacNab can dissuade him, and if the mill starts working while Jamie’s hiding near the wheel, it could be disastrous.

Then suddenly, the wheel begins to turn, and up with it comes Jamie’s patched, red flannel drawers. The redcoats retrieve them to inspect what was blocking the wheel. The commander takes them as a souvenir, and the troop heads off.

Just as they disappear over the hill, Jamie bursts up from the pond and wades toward shore, shivering and blue. Granny MacNab folds her hands in her lap and begins explaining the favor she’d come to ask. Jamie stops her and tell her that he’ll grant anything she wishes as long as she gives him back his clothes before he freezes.

Writer Comments: A close brush for Jamie. I wonder if this will hasten his parting from Lallybroch or at least make him much more cautious. In either case, I did love seeing how all his tenants immediately moved to protect him. Granny MacNab hid his clothes and helped Claire and he hide themselves, pretending Claire was her mute daughter-in-law. The miller pretended not to speak English.

That last is a significant, though subtle, element of this chapter. What supporting characters say and do around a main character indicates a lot about that main character. It also helps set the mood and tone. If minor characters hastily dive in to give aid or defend a main character, as happens in this chapter, it suggests good things about that character. This is a great tool for implying character traits to a reader without ever having to state them outright. It’s also more realistic to life. After all, the way others react to someone is a mojor indicator of that person’s character, no pun intended.

Again, I apologize for the late posting today. We’ll resume Outlander by Diana Gabaldon next Monday. Until then, join me Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, March 20, 2015

When Authors Break the Rules

So you’re reading your favorite author to take a break from all that tedious writing practice, but something jars you out of the story. Here, in a bestselling book by an author that should know better, you spot a sentence ending in a preposition.

Yes, that’s right, a preposition!

How dare that author do such a thing! Everyone knows you’re not supposed to end sentences with a preposition. How did you ever think this guy was worth reading?

So you toss the book aside and grab a different book off your shelf and begin reading. A page in, you realize that this author is just as incompetent as the first. Look at all the info dumping at the beginning. How did you ever find this story interesting the first time you read it?

You hurl this book across the room because, well, what else does a mediocre book written by an author that betrayed you deserve?

You pick up a third book and begin to read. This one has tons of glowing reviews from the highest authorities in the industry. It has sold millions of copies. Surely this author can’t be a quack.

But right there on page twelve, what do you find but a wandering body part, a hand performing an action rather than the character herself. And two lines down, this author has italicized something they shouldn’t. And three lines down from that, there’s an -ly adverb in the dialogue tag!

This time, fueled by rage, you rip the book in half, throw hunks of it out the window and rip the rest into a wet mass with your bare teeth. You get online and blast all three authors for theirs stupidity.

Afterward, you sit back from your computer disquieted. No matter how satisfying you found dissing those incompetent, clearly inbred writers, you cannot escape the fact that the industry let them get published while your novel sits limp and rejected from all the abuse it’s gotten from failed queries and publishing attempts. You wonder perhaps if fiction as an industry is simply a cheap hoax played on the ignorant masses. If these authors who are considered top sellers and craftsmen can’t write correctly, what does that say for everyone else? What does it say about the state of humanity? Of the very fabric of the universe?

What does it say about you?

While I doubt that few of you have ever literally eaten part of a book in rage at spotting an -ly verb in a dialogue tag, I’m sure that all of you have spotted writing no-no’s in novels that are supposed to be superb. How can authors acclaimed for their brilliance get away with this sort of stuff? After all, your writing group rips you apart every time you do something like that.

The simple fact is that no author is perfect. Even fantastic writers break the rules on accident, sometimes on purpose. Editors miss things on occasion. It’s part of being human. Yet these books sell like mad and gain nations of adoring fans. But why?

In truth, a book needs little more than to connect emotionally with a reader to snare interest. The plot can be full of holes. The characters might be two-dimensional. There could be glaring flaws in craft, but if that book speaks to readers, it will gain momentum. When you have a novel that’s well-written, for the most part, and speaks to readers, it can skyrocket. Even books glaringly lacking in good writing technique have mesmerized masses of fans. I’m sure, like me, a title or two has already popped in your head.

Think back to before you got serious about writing. Did you know about not ending sentences on a preposition? Did you know to avoid ly words? Probably not. Rather, you probably spent happy hours blissfully oblivious to authorial mistakes, and it did you no harm. Most readers are like this. When you get down to it, writers are the most critical of others’ writing. We think we know what to look for. We can get snobbish about it if we’re not careful.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to create the best written, most solid fiction we can. It doesn’t mean we should gleefully toss in sentence fragments, run ons, or info dump to our hearts content. It doesn’t mean we should surrender to laziness and wallow in passive voice or tell our readers what’s going on rather than showing them. It does mean, however, that we shouldn’t get so wrapped up in the correct way of doing things that we lose sight of the main purpose of fiction: to entertain. An engaging story is far more important than perfect grammar, and it certainly isn’t worth losing sleep over, bashing our writing friends about, or abandoning favorite authors or books.

Do your best to write well, but don’t obsess about the minutia.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 27

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we look at what  works in this book to make it a compelling story.



Chapter 27: The Last Reason

Summary: The next day, Jamie goes off with Ian and the men to tend the land, and Claire stays behind with Jenny. All day, Jenny and she fence with words, being utterly polite but utilizing subtle exploratory thrusts. Jenny challenges Claire’s ability to handle Jamie, who she practically raised. Claire holds her own in insisting that she can.

Later, Jamie comes home and finds Claire. Amidst teasing, he finally confesses the last reason he agreed to marry her: that he loved her and, as his father once said he would, knew she was The One from the moment she bandaged his wounds that first night and yelled at him.

Writer Comments: No, this chapter isn’t long, doesn’t contain much, and thus is why today’s post is so short. However, much like the Loch Ness chapter (chapter 19, The Waterhorse), it represents an important moment in the story. For this reason, Gabaldon highlights it by ensuring other story elements don’t clutter the chapter and by making the chapter significantly shorter than most.

Chapter length, like sentence and paragraph length, is one of the ways authors manipulate story and tension. Short chapters often give a story a swifter pacing and make it easier for a reader to keep saying, “Just one more chapter. This next one is only five pages.” However, as you can see here, manipulating tension isn’t the only thing that intentionally controlling chapter length can be used for.

Remember that chapters are just larger Legos of a story. Words are the smallest Legos, then sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and finally, chapters.

As to the content of the chapter, it gives readers a sense of what Jamie and Claire’s domestic life will look like, at least for the short term. And, of course, saying those three words, “I love you,” or whatever version a character manages, is significant in most books. It’s particularly vital in romances, however.

Thank you for joining me for today’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Learning Story Structure

Story structure is perhaps the most essential element of fiction. Without a solid structure, it’s nearly impossible to sell a piece of fiction. Unfortunately, story structure is often one of the last things an author learns. I didn’t study it until I’d been writing for a few years. Had I realized how important it was, or even that it existed, I would have started off much stronger.

The challenge with learning story structure, however, is that it’s rarely taught. It isn’t as compelling as characterization or world building. It’s not as obviously essential as good sentence structure and basic grammar. It isn’t as well known as GMCs (goal, motivation, conflict). For me, it was years before I even knew I needed to study story structure beyond the basic rising action, climax, etc.

The other challenge is that story structure isn’t obvious. The best way to learn anything in writing is by studying other authors’ work, but when you look at a tome of adult fiction or get caught up in the tropes of a specific genre like romance or mystery, finding the bones of good structure can be difficult. However, there is an easy solution if you’re willing to read outside the norm.

This solution didn’t hit me until recently when I was traveling via car across multiple states. The kids were in the back seat, and we had audiobooks playing to keep down fights and as a defense against the inevitable, “Are we there yet?” Naturally, we listened to children’s books: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson. As I was listening, it struck me how straightforward and solid the story structures of these books are and how, as an author, they’d be perfect for study.

Thinking back to other children’s and YA books I’d read, I realized that, as a general rule, these books are much easier to follow structurally than most adult fiction. They tend to have fewer subplots, and what subplots they contain are often straightforward. Characters’ goals are clear. Much like real life children and adults, the motivations of the younger characters are less muddled that characters in adult fiction. This isn’t to say that adult fiction doesn’t have plenty of characters with obvious goals and motivations, but children characters tend to be more upfront and honest about their purposes. Too, because these books are geared for children, they don’t have all the frills adult books do. Frills like extensive descriptions, playing with sophisticated literary devises, and layering of all the complexities adults bring to life can obscure good structure from view even while that structure is solid and well-crafted. The clarity of children’s and YA books makes them ideal for study.

So, once you acquire a basic understanding of story structure from an instructional book like Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by K.M. Weiland or a class, read a number of children’s and YA books to see the techniques in action. Once you get a firm grip on how it all works, move on to more complex, adult novels.

(By the way, Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz Series had the advantage that the narrator occasionally inserts witty observations about stories and writing into the series. Yes, he breaks the 4th wall constantly, but in a highly amusing way.)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 26

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we explore what makes this bestselling book work.



Chapter 26: The Laird’s Return

Summary: Having decided to stay in the past, Claire rides with Jamie to Lallybroch, the home he left when Randall took him into custody and raped his sister. Near to Lallybroch, they meet a man on the road who knows Jamie. The man’s stare reminds Claire how abominable they look, dirty and clothes torn and worn, hardly the lord and lady they’re supposed to be. But the man finally recognizes Jamie and welcomes him back.

Writer Comments: Claire has a habit of getting dirty and beaten up. One of Gabaldon’s admirable traits is that she’s not afraid to mention the grittier elements of life. This helps make the story feel more real. After all, despite Hollywood portrayals, the heroine’s hairdo certainly shouldn’t remain intact after her struggles with the villain or his minions.

Further in the scene, Gabaldon foreshadows Jamie’s coming to Lallybroch. We don’t yet know exactly what reception he’ll have, but the mere fact that this man welcomes him gives an upbeat, hopeful air to the return.

Summary: At last, they reach Lallybroch. Unlike Leoch with Colum, there’s no grand welcome. No one rushes out to take the horse. Only the dogs come bounding to greet Jamie, and even they are initially uncertain. He soon makes friends with them again, and they bound all over him.

Jamie takes Claire into the house, much to the astonishment of the serving staff. In a room deep inside, he comes upon his sister Jenny, who is blatantly pregnant. Jamie is horrified and shamed at the mere idea that she’s whoring herself out. It was bad enough that she yielded to Randall. Their meeting grows even more tense when Jenny introduces her young son, who she’s named after Jamie. At that point, nothing can stop the explosive fight that erupts between the siblings over shame and honor and accusations.

Claire, feeling quite uncomfortable, quietly slips out to let the artillery land where it may. She waits outside, hearing frequent yelled words and insults. Men come in from the fields, among them, Ian Murray, Jenny’s husband. He’s quite friendly and has sense enough to shrug off the argument as typical Fraser tempers.

After a while, though, Ian accompanies Claire inside where Jamie and Jenny are still arguing. Ian takes little Jamie in with him and interrupts the quarrel with all politeness and self-assuredness. Jenny points out that little Jamie wasn’t even conceived until six months after the incident with Randall and that, for all his talk, Randall didn’t successfully rape her. Further, she defies Jamie to think badly of her for being willing to sacrifice for him.

Though tempers are still short, Jamie calms down enough to listen. Jenny also demands to see his back and chases him down until he reluctantly removes his shirt to show her the scars from being whipped. She becomes for tender with him then, asking if it hurt and if he cried. Jamie confesses that he did cry, and she tells him she did too, every day since he vanished. This confession goes a long way toward bringing peace between them, and Jamie and Jenny embrace as reunited siblings.

Writer Comments: I must say that I really like Jenny. She’s got lots of fire, a scathing tongue, and while she may fit plenty of stereotypes, she’s just plain fun.

Specific to this scene, despite the wonderfulness of returning home to people who love him, Jamie’s homecoming isn’t one of sweet bliss. Gabaldon understands that she had to keep the tension up to maintain reader interest. She’s just resolved, or seems to have resolved, several plot points: Claire choosing to stay with Jamie rather than return to her own time, Jamie returning to Lallybroch, them escaping Colum for the moment, and Claire escaping being burned as a witch. This could easily be the recipe for the climax of the book. However, it isn’t. It’s a little more than halfway through. Gabaldon then has to push in more conflict, which she manages here by having the fight between Jamie and Jenny. No matter what, tension should always be maintained throughout the story.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, join me Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Donning a Chameleon's Skin: Writing from Other Perspectives

One of the cool things about being a writer is that part of the job involves exploring perspectives, cultures, times, and places other than my own. The sheer enjoyment of this is a big part of why I never write stories that look anything like my own life. I’ve always loved meeting people from other walks of life and countries and listening to their unique perspective on the world. Writing gives me yet another medium to develop that interest.

Some authors tell wonderful stories based on people and places very much like what they’ve known personally. In fact, this sort of story is highly valuable. It gives a more intimate and, some might argue, accurate version of a real place, event, or people. We’d probably believe a story about Napoleon if it was written by one of his aides more than we would one written by a dentist living in twenty-first century Japan. To give a real life example, part of the charm of Mark Twain is that he wrote in the language and local color of his own time and place. He’s considered highly valuable for the insights this gives future generations. But not everyone is inclined to write this way.

Other writers, myself among them, feel compelled to write about places we might not have ever seen. We might invent our own worlds and call up a past that happened generations before we ever took breath. Such writers are wise to put in the effort to give such tales a sense of truth.

If you are such a writer or someone who would like to give this approach a try, there are ways of going about it that can help lead you toward success, or at least shorten the line of angry readers offended by what you said or created.

1) Treat the people and place you’re exploring with respect. It doesn’t matter if they lived  10,000 years ago or currently inhabit the Earth, they are or were based on living, real individuals. Just as you would not want someone to disrespect you, don’t start off by disrespecting them.

2) Don’t foist your beliefs and perspectives upon the other cultures or regions you’re writing about. Just because it’s politically correct to think a certain way about said group does not mean this is a perspective a member of that group shares. For example, I have known Native Americans who got offended at the term and insisted on being called American Indians. I’ve known an African American woman who was offended by that term. She would say, “I’m an American. I’ve never been to Africa.” I’ve known Muslims who happily eat pork, and I know that no historical Viking ever wore a horned helm. The point is that just because it’s popular to think a certain way about someone doesn’t mean that really reflects the world from their perspective.

Further, especially as writers who may influence a great many people’s opinions, we need to be careful not to let our own political, religious, or social philosophy infringe on another culture’s right to be themselves. No matter how we think or desire or perceive, we will not change reality.

3) Understand that to accurately reflect another lifestyle, culture, or place than our own will mean that, at some point, we come across something we find disquieting or downright repulsive. Going in with that understand can save us and our readers a lot of grief. Rather, if we go in with the mindset of an anthropologist, open to exploring another culture for the sheer sake of exploration, can help us move past such discomforts. This doesn’t mean we have to agree, accept, or like everything we discover, but again, we should still maintain an attitude of respect.

Perhaps that is easier with certain groups, but there might be times when respect is a hard attitude to maintain. One historical time that fascinates me is Nazi Germany. I find a lot of what happened horrific, because it was, and certainly undeserving of admiration. But I have to keep in mind that these were real people enduring real situations. I can look at the fact that humans have done similar things throughout history and that psychological studies have shown that, under the pressure of authority, the average person will commit true atrocities. The evil that occurred during this time certainly isn’t worthy of respect, but I can respect the individual people for being people in a difficult time. I don’t have to think they were right, but if I degrade them through disrespect I do just what the Nazis did, diminishing their humanity.

4) Do your research. Make an effort to learn about the time, place, and people you wish to write about. If inventing your own world, take time to flesh it out, perhaps drawing on inspiration from real world cultures and times. This is a form of respect. A writer who neglects to do so only makes themselves look like a fool.

5) That said, accept that there will be errors and flaws. Take responsibility for them graciously. With this, remember that different people will have different perspectives. Going back to my real life example, if I were to write a story about a Navajo and have my protagonist refer to himself as an American Indian, I would probably get at least one angry reader tell me flat out that the term was incorrect and inaccurate. It wouldn’t matter to that reader that I know someone in real life who considers himself an American Indian, not a Native American. Perspectives are as different and wide reaching as there are people to have them.

6) Enjoy learning and inventing. Try cooking food that might be eaten in your book. Move like your characters or like the real people you’re drawing inspiration from. In cultures that do not wear shoes like we do in the industrialized world, people do not walk by striking the heel of the foot to the ground as we do. They walk and run on the balls of their feet. If writing about a group like this, go barefoot and try to walk like this. See how hit changes how you move and feel. 

7) Keep an open mind. Other people throughout the world have completely different perspectives. Cannibalism is horrid to us, but to a culture like the Aztecs, who practiced it as part of religious ritual as well as to supplement their diet with an additional source of protein, it is standard and hardly repulsive. To a some modern American women, there mere thought of submitting to the authority of her husband might get her back up and have her ready to fight for enlightened ideas, but to other times, places, and women, this was commonplace and, in all likelihood, comforting in the social stabilities of that culture. In five-hundred years, people may look back at us and think it barbaric that we threw balls at each other for sport. Don’t force your own beliefs onto someone else or onto characters in your stories who shouldn’t reasonably have them.

8) Unpopular as this statement will likely be, don’t dismiss stereotypes just because they are stereotypes. In many cases, there is a kernel of truth behind stereotypes. For example, in my current WIP (work in progress), I have a Nok character. I dress her as Nok statues have been found to be dressed. Just because this style, as my husband pointed out after reading the first draft, matches the stereotype of the half-naked “savage” doesn’t mean I should dismiss it. To change how she dresses just to avoid the stereotype would be foolish. Instead, I dress her to match the statues found but give her a full, complex character so that she doesn’t risk becoming a stereotype herself. Accept stereotypes, but don’t let them control what you create. The best way to avoid this is to make fully, layered, and dynamic characters and settings.

9) Above all else, remember that it is fiction. As long as you take a respectful approach, don’t worry yourself sick over getting it right. Do your best, but ultimately, the real test of your work is whether or not it contributes something positive to others. If your readers, as a general rule, enjoy the story, don’t worry about the small handful of readers who might detest it.