Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

The Craft of Writing

Very good advice —

From Scott Lynch, hattip from Martha Wells.

Now, Lynch, as you may know is the author of THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA, which I liked quite a bit. It’s an involved, complicated coming-of-age politics-heavy story that was close to too dark for me, but never went over that line. Kind of like Brent Weeks that way, if that gives you an idea.

I enjoyed Lynch’s second book, too, but it ended with the protagonists painted thoroughly into a corner, so I suggest you may not want to read that one until the third is out (this year sometime).

Anyway!

Lynch says:

… there’s always a tiny minority I can spot by the nature of the questions they ask and the statements they fixate on. They’re not interested in hearing about hard work, study, or self-improvement. Their eyes glaze over when I talk about concepts like effort or practice. They want nothing to do with developing actual skills … They just want me to tell them how to duck under that imaginary velvet rope.

So, advice about getting published, obviously.

It doesn’t fucking exist, this shortcut. This magic steam-catapult to perceived stardom. This underground railroad for misunderstood slacker geniuses. It’s just not there!

Ah, those misunderstood slacker geniuses! I don’t know that I’ve met too many, actually, but isn’t that a wonderful phrase? The whole post is fun, not that the misunderstood slacker geniuses are likely to read it, much less think it applies to them, I guess, but the rest of us can totally read this and enjoy rolling our eyes.

And Martha Wells adds:

… if you knew someone who said they wanted to be a doctor, but they didn’t know they had to go to medical school first, that would be weird, right? Or if they knew being a doctor involved curing people, but they didn’t know what the process was for doing that? Or if they rented an office and got a stethoscope and a lab coat, and thought that was all they needed? That wouldn’t be rational. Especially as all the information about the process for becoming a doctor is readily available online. It’s kind of like that for publishing.

Which, yeah, exactly. Of course the good thing about publishing is that you don’t have to pay some school a boatload of money for the training, it’s all do-it-yourself to the max.

I was just talking to a student about this the other day — she had this assignment — and one of the questions was about what kind of degree you need to be a professional writer, and of course the answer is: None in particular. The more specific answer is: But if you don’t know anything about anything, good luck with that.

Of course you don’t need a degree to learn stuff these days, you just have to be interested in how stuff works in the world, right?

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The writing process can be weird

Through a miscommunication with the intelligent part of my brain, I seem to have the same important secondary character, Keziah, appearing in two scenes that are happening simultaneously.

Sigh.

The way this happened is, see, I thought there was going to be another chapter in between these two scenes. So there would be book-time to get the character from one scene to the other. But now I think, no. I think now those two scenes are happening simultaneously. And magic is all very well, but nobody gets to be in two places at the same time, because we sure don’t have THAT kind of magic in this universe. So, FINE. Now I have to decide in which scene the character can be most easily replaced by a different character.

And by “most easily” I REALLY mean “most effectively” because easiness is not actually the point. Quality of the story is the point. Though luckily I think the best chapter in which to replace this character is also the easier one to do it in.

Which character shall I sub in to replace Keziah? I have about three choices, assuming I use a continuing character from the first book, which I definitely will because there are enough secondary characters in the BLACK DOG world already, let me tell you. I’m thinking Ethan. Probably. Maybe.

Also, I think this would be a good time to gently remove another secondary character from the back half of chapter two and also from chapter three. I just don’t think that guy is going to have anything to do in the rest of the story, so I think I better leave him behind. Which is disappointing. I like that character! And I will lose a great line of dialogue! I think maybe I will save the version where he sticks around in case I suddenly think of an important role he could play later on.

Removing characters that seem promising but don’t play an important role: this is a thing. I always seem to be introducing neat characters with a vague feeling that I will do something with them, and then, no. And then of course sometimes you can leave them alone, but sometimes you need to get rid of them entirely and replace them with something like “the guard” or “the waitress” or whatever — some unnamed role. The FIND command is super, super useful for making sure later on that I have removed those characters completely.

Okay, so, the project for today is defined.

I’m thinking that I will not get any more pages written as such this weekend. But this kind of sudden important revision counts as progress, and hey, whatever, I am totally in fine shape as far as the deadline goes — I mean, I expect to beat the deadline by about six months — so that’s no problem.

If I get this whole revision done today, I think I will reward myself by reading Maggie Stiefvater’s SHIVER trilogy tomorrow.

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While we’re on the subject of epic fantasy —

So it turns out that Marie Brennen recently posted a long, detailed analysis of where Jordan went wrong with his immense Wheel of Time series, which I’ve never read, btw, so I can’t offer any personal commentary about that. But Brennen’s analysis is extremely interesting, especially in light of some of the problems I’ve had with modern epic fantasy. (And it’s even more interesting to me, because I can see my BLACK DOG duology stretching out to, say, five books or so, if all goes well with the first couple.)

Brennen says: “I’m speaking, mind you, as someone who has yet to write a series longer than four books (and those structured almost entirely as stand-alones). This is all based on my observations of other people’s efforts, not my own experience. But as I said to Tom Smith in the comments to “Zeno’s Mountains,” there’s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward. If you want to write a long series and not have it collapse in the middle like a badly-made souffle, you have to learn from other people’s mistakes.”

Whoa, is that ever true.

Brennen’s whole post is very much worth reading. She makes four main points:

a) The author had better figure out ahead of time the basic length of the series. Five books? seven? ten? — and set up some major goalposts up that are going to carry the overall narrative, and then stick to this basic structure, because otherwise it is too easy for the narrative to dissolve into chaos. Brennen says:

“As answers go, [discipline] isn’t perfect; keeping your series confined within its intended boundaries may result in a less satisfying arc for various plots than you would get if you let them stretch out to their fullest. But letting them stretch may very well be detrimental to other aspects of the story. Keep one eye always on the larger picture, and know what must be accomplished by the end of the current book for you to remain on schedule.”

Then she goes on to make lots of good observations about what happens if the author loses control of the narrative:

b) The author had better not let the pov characters proliferate unchecked. To which I say, amen — even though I often struggle to keep down the numer of pov characters in my books. (Someday I will write a book where there is only one pov character period, and in fact I have that book in mind, but not this year.)

“But let’s pretend for a moment that the information here is actually vital,” says Brennen. “Does that justify spending time in the head of this minor villain? No. Because here’s the thing: switching to Carridin is lazy. It’s the easiest way to tell us what the bad guys are doing — and I do mean “tell,” given that most of the scene is Carridin thinking rather than acting. Had Jordan restricted himself to a smaller set of pov characters, he would have been forced to arrange things so that his protagonists found out what Carridin was doing. In other words, they would have had to protag more. And that would have been a better story. Every time you go to add a new point of view character, ask yourself whether it’s necessary, and then ask yourself again. Do we need to get this information directly, or see these events happen first-hand? Can you arrange for your existing protagonists to be there, or to find out about it by other means? Are you sure?”

Want to know just how many pov characters Jordan’s series wound up with, total? Go read Brennen’s post and laugh, because it really is, as she says, a totally absurd number.

c) The author had better not let the number of sub-plots proliferate either, which will certainly happen if the number of pov characters gets out of control. “Making up subplots to keep a character busy is a cascading problem. The proliferating points of view created and/or abetted new plot complexity, which meant the central ropes of the narrative got stretched out farther than they were meant to go.” And also:

d) The author ought to try to centralize the action — to get all the main characters together at some point in every book, doing something important.

Yes, definitely, to both those points. Seriously, there’s lots more and it’s all worth reading, and the comments are worth reading, too, so you should click over.

Nor is epic fantasy alone in struggling with sprawl. You know who I find myself thinking about here? SM Stirling. I think this is a huge issue with the later books in his ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME series and particularly with his Novels of the Change series (the series that starts with DIES THE FIRE). I find the early books of those series much more compelling than the later ones, and in fact I have drifted away from the Novels of the Change because I’m just not that interested anymore.

Plus, moving into space opera, I think David Weber and Elizabeth Moon have had problems with this, too — the former with his Honor Harrington series, obviously, and the latter most distinctly with her Esmay Suiza series. I’ve always thought that was one big reason that Moon started her other space opera series, the TRADING IN DANGER one featuring Kylara Vatta — to start over with a much more tightly focused narrative. Though even that series, which works much better, dose start to lose focus toward the end.

You know what one ultra-long series comes to mind that does NOT suffer from any of these problems? CJ Cherryh’s FOREIGNER series. That’s up to what, twelve books? But the ultra-tight focus on Bran Cameron as the sole pov protagonist through the whole thing means that Cherryh completely avoids every problem Brennen discusses. That right there is a lesson for us all.

What do you all think? Got any candidates for series that lose focus, sprawl into a mess, and wind up becoming a salutary lesson for others? Or alternatively, for long series that keep their focus and wind up with a clean narrative arc through the whole thing?

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The Craft of Writing

Further thoughts on revision —

— Or: Why your editor’s (and readers’) reactions to characters in your novel may be unexpected.

I was thinking about how often Caitlin’s comments could be boiled down to: Your character needs to show more emotion in this scene.

This is not an unfamiliar comment. My Knopf editor asked me to do something similar, asking: Can you put the reader more into your protagonist’s head?

I do work on this. Honest.

But this morning these ideas sort of struck a note of familiarity. Ah hah! I exclaimed at last, and went looking for this essay.

It’s an essay by Marie Brennan on the trouble the author, as an introvert, can have in getting across a character’s reactions to the readers. And of course, you won’t succeed with all readers, so there’s no sense worrying about it.

I’m not trying to imply that all authors are introverts, btw. Just that this paticular issue might be something that applies to authors who are.

Brennen says: “Some readers love my characters for their believability or depth, while others dismiss them as lifeless cardboard. . . . as I am a fairly reserved person, my characters’ idea of demonstrative floods of emotion may not look like much to the extroverts out there.”

And there you go. Doesn’t that make so much sense? Especially when you add to it the obvious truth that the author knows what is in her characters’ heads whether they wear their hearts on their sleeves or not?

Brennen adds: “So I, not really being the sort to wave flags when I’m excited or angry or whatever, don’t tend to wave them for my characters, either. Or rather, I do — by my standards of measurement. And maybe if you’re a similar sort of person, then the things I intend to be flags register as such, and voila, you see depth of emotion. But people who are more used to wearing their hearts on their sleeves will only see a faint tick on the psychological seismograph, and think the character is made out of wood.”

I could hardly put it better. And yes, Brennen adds that this isn’t going to be the full explanation for how differently various readers perceive characterization in any particular book. Of course that’s true. But the idea really resonates with me.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t gotten to her book, MIDNIGHT NEVER COME, which is down on my TBR shelves and has been for literally years. I swear I will get to it this year. Probably. For me, stand-alones filter toward the top of the pile and series fall toward the bottom, especially if the last book of the series isn’t out yet. I just don’t always have TIME to read a whole trilogy, if I’m supposed to be working on a project of my own. Even though I read fast.

Anybody read Brennen’s series? (Probably everybody but me, right?) What did you think of it? Her Swan Tower essays are good enough that I’m pretty confident I’ll really enjoy her books.

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Revision letters sometimes take over your life

I’m sure you’re all fascinated by the revision process, right?

Right?

Well, I know some of you are writers or know writers or want to be writers, and I thought you might be interested in some real specifics about the revision process. My revision process, anyway.

Besides, it’s the other main thing taking over my life for the rest of this month. In fact, I should be working on this revision right now, obviously, rather than doing internet stuff. But! Soon! It’ll just take a minute to write this post!

So, anyway: what I have here is a five-page letter from my agent. This is not this manuscript’s first revision, either: this is the second. I can’t remember how long the first revision letter was. The only thing I remember specifically from the first letter is that Caitlin (my agent) said: “I feel like this story doesn’t really start till Chapter 7.” I also remember that I wound up cutting Chapters 5 and 6 entirely during the first revision. That’s just as dramatic as it sounds. I thought maybe I’d work bits of those deleted chapters back into the manuscript, but basically didn’t wind up using anything from them.

Anyway, after THIS revision, the manuscript will FINALLY go to my editor, who will take a look at it for the first time. She is quite the perfectionist, which is something I like AFTER she accepts a manuscript of mine, but it means both Caitlin and I think it’s REALLY IMPORTANT that the manuscript be just as perfect as possible before she sees it. Luckily Caitlin used to be an editor and has excellent editorial chops, so her comments are usually super-helpful. All I give her to work with is vague questions like “Does the romance between Him and Her work for you?” What she gives me back is a chapter-by-chapter analysis of what doesn’t work and specific suggestions for fixing things.

It’s not that she expects me to take every single detailed suggestion, btw. Sometimes I do something she didn’t suggest that I think will work better to fix the identified problem. Occasionally (rarely) I think over a suggestion and wind up not changing the manuscript at all because I think it works fine the way it is.

So! Here we go: “The opening scene is better, but it still feels too slow and lacks emotional or plot urgency. . . . It would help to give them a mission in the first chapter, they shouldn’t just be sight-seeing. Your protagonist should feel more about [her love-interest] in this scene, plus we need to see more about her difficulties adjusting to her new life. And this other boy has become a more important character; maybe he’s romantically interested in your protagonist too?” [All of this is paraphrased, I just summarized four paragraphs, but it’s pretty true to the meaning.]

“Can your protagonist be more active in defending her choices and defying everyone else to do what she believes is right? If she goes to [this place], there needs to be a reason for it — can she have a specific plan for something she needs to do there, but she is prevented? Can your protagonist be a little more verbal and defend her ideas more to everyone? She needs to be more passionate and intense about her feelings. When she can’t explain and is rebuked, then she can relapse into self-doubt. Right now she comes across as wishy-washy.”

“Could [the protagonist’s love interest] be more torn? He wants to support her but he can’t go against everyone else? This mistake could be what gives him strength and determination to follow his own beliefs later. Also, make your protagonist’s feelings about the way he doesn’t support her stronger and more explicit. She should be angry with him and hurt that he didn’t support her, even though she understands with her head why he didn’t.”

“Somehow in the events of Chapter 7, this big crisis gets lost. Then in Chapter 9, it gets lost again. It’s a nice bit of writing in Chapter 9, lots of info conveyed via dialogue, but I’d like to see more of your protagonist’s feelings as well. Also, maybe your protagonist could be the one to discover this particular crisis, which might happen a little later, thus providing action and hightened tension during what is otherwise a lull.” [She suggests a specific place where that might happen.]

“Chapters 12, 13, and 14 are excellent.” [These little comments are nice, you bet.]

“In Chapter 15, your protagonist should show more emotion, thinking about herself and [her love interest] and also worrying about her skills and whether she can do things she needs to do.”

“Chapter 16 is elegant and beautiful but lacks suspense. You don’t need to change what happens, but the tone should be different.” [Specific suggestions follow.]

Chapter 17: “Do we have to have your protagonist sulking in her rooms again? Also, we suddenly have a lot of secondary characters in this scene. Either use them earlier in the book or trim them down here.” [Caitlin’s tone is not quite this dictatorial, though.]

Chapter 21: “More romance, please! Let’s have a kiss at least! The lack of romance here is very disappointing!”

Okay, I’ve left a LOT out, obviously, but that should give you an idea. I hope I gave a reasonable impression about how specific Caitlin can be? This chapter-by-chapter analysis is extraordinarily helpful. I see that she has made specific comments about 11 out of 21 chapters, or roughly half the chapters. Many of the other chapters will need to be tweaked just because I’ll be changing stuff in the rest of the manuscript, but some will be barely touched compared to others. It does give me a nice sense of progress to skip ahead seventy pages now and then.

Q: So how does it feel to get a critique letter like this, with blunt comments like: This chapter lacks suspense or Your protagonist needs to quit sulking in her room or This lack of romance is very disappointing?

A: You hear so much about how an author feels outraged and furious at editorial comments and has to fight to be civil until she cools off and can think about things rationally. Well, maybe. I have a hard time even believing that (though multiple authors have specifically mentioned feeling that way).

IN GENERAL, I feel like whapping my forehead and exclaiming: Of course! How could I have missed that?

EVERY NOW AND THEN, I say to myself: Well, that specific suggestion won’t work, what else can I do that would fix this lull in the action?

VERY RARELY, I think: Ouch.

Caitlin balances the Ouch moments by saying things like This Chapter is excellent as is.

And I am ALWAYS grateful that Caitlin is there to tell me that something doesn’t work, rather than leaving a problem sitting in the story to be spotted by the editor — or worse, by the readers. This is particularly important with later drafts, where overfamiliarity generally makes it really hard for me to tell whether something works or doesn’t work.

Okay! Writing this post took AN HOUR. Back to the revision!

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About those prologues —

There are SO MANY posts out there that essentially declare that friends don’t let friends write prologues. And I think this is basically true, most of the time, unless it isn’t. And of course this is because so many prologues are dreadful.

Here’s a great post, by Rachel Aaron (THE SPIRIT RING) on writing a prologue your readers won’t skip. The money quote: “The most successful prologues fall into two types: prologues that exist to feed the reader information they otherwise couldn’t get, and prologues that set the mood.”

To which I would add, if the info given in the prologue is not actually crucial, don’t include it. A huge info dump of boring history may let the reader understand the complex origins of the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist (for example), but since the reader isn’t yet invested in the struggle between them and doesn’t yet have a reason to care about the protagonist, most likely the reader is going to find this BORING BORING BORING. It is NOT crucial information for the reader. Any tidbits that ARE crucial, if any, should just be worked into the story proper.

I mean, Tolkein didn’t include The Silmarillion as a prologue to The Lord of the Rings, right? You shouldn’t do that, either.

In the post I just linked to, Rachel Aaron explains how she used a prologue in her second book. I’m sure it’s obvious that one thing that might have made that work (I haven’t read her books and can’t judge) is that — and she herself points this out explicitly — the prologue is in the SECOND book, which means readers are already invested.

Nathan Bransford has a short post on prologues, back from when he was an agent, that’s worth a look. He basically reiterates that if a book works without the prologue, then you shouldn’t have put the prologue in — of course this is true. And he adds that a prologue ought to be short, self-contained, and comprehensible — which does rather beg the question of “how short is short?”

Two of my favorite good prologues are very, very short.

This one is from MaryJanice Davidson’s BETSY, THE VAMPIRE QUEEN series — The third one: Undead and Unappreciated. These are cute, fun books and Davidson plays with cute, fun prologues in several of them. In this book, she actually has two prologues, which right there indicates she’s having fun and not taking herself too seriously. The first prologue is this:

Once upon a time, the devil was bored, and possessed a not-very-nice pregnant woman, and ran that woman’s body for about a year.

The devil still drank and smoked, but only in moderation. The devil was good about taking prenatal pills but grumbled about the inevitable constipation.

And eventually the devil gave birth to a baby girl.

After a month of diapers, night feedings, colic, laundry, spilled formula (the devil hated to breast-feed), and spit-up, the devil said, “Enough of this,” and went back to Hell, which was infinitely preferable to living with a newborn.

The devil’s daughter was adopted and grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her name was Laura, and she liked strawbery ice cream, and she never, ever missed churc. She was a very nice young lady.

But she had a terrible temper.

There you go, that’s the whole thing. It’s short, self-contained, comprehensible, clearly sets up an important plot point, leaves the reader knowing something that the protagonist isn’t going to (but in a good way). And it’s funny.

A serious prologue that’s just as short but much more serious is in ALMOST PERFECT by Brian Katcher, which is a contemporary YA that was one of my very favorite reads from the past couple of years.

Everyone has a line they swear they’ll never cross, the one thing they say they’ll never do. Not something serious like I’ll never kill anyone or I’ll never invade Russia in the winter. Usually it’s something less earth-shattering.

I’ll never cheat on her.

I’ll never work at a job I hate.

I’ll never give up my dreams.

We draw the line. Maybe we even believe it. That’s why it’s so hard when we break that promise we make to ourselves.

Sage Hendricks was my line.

Here’s (part of) a much longer prologue that works beautifully, from Judith Riley’s IN PURSUIT OF THE GREEN LION

It was in the Year of Our Lord 1358, in the summertime, just two days before the Feast of Saint Barnabas, that a Voice spoke out of heaven into the ear of my understanding.

“Margaret,” said the Voice, “just what are you doing there?” My pen stopped, and I looked up.

“Surely, You know already,” I said to the still air.

“Of course I do, but I want you to tell Me, and that is entirely different,” the Voice answered.

But to begin in the right place, I must begin with God’s gift of daughters, which is made to mothers as a test and a trial. For on the Day of Judgment when we must answer for all things, what shall we answer if our daughters be too stubborn and impatient for the needle? Thus does God try our souls, and likewise cast out vanity, for the mothers of ungovernable children must always be humble.

Now the day on which the Voice spoke was all fair and warm, and everything was blooming and growing. We had removed our household from London for the summer once again; the disorder in the kitchens at Whitehill Manor had at last been put right, . . . . The air was so fresh, and the green fields so inviting, only a fool would imagine that two little girls as willful as Cecily and Alison would remember their duty. . . . . Still, as I climbed the long outside stairs to peep into the bower up under the eaves, I did not foresee what I would find. Empty! It was clear enough what had happened – two little pairs of shoes tumbled underneath the embroidery frame, a few dozen halfhearted stitches added to the work of months, and on the windowsill, Mother Sarah’s abandoned distaff.

“And she’s no better than they are! How could they?” I called out the window, “Cecily! Alison!” and thought I could hear the answering shriek of children’s laughter from a far-off place. Oh, failed again, I brooded. However will I make them into ladies? And then God will say at the end of the world, “Margaret, you allowed your daughters to become hoydens. Their French knots unravel. And those daisies. Ugh. Exactly like toadstools. Pass on my left, unworthy woman.”

But the silence of the abandoned bower was so inviting. I could feel the wonderful possibilities rising from the floor like mist. Mine, all mind, rejoiced my careless heart. Space, room, and quiet! And before I knew it, I had my paper and ink from the chest, and my writings about housewifery spread about me.

Now you must know that long ago I made a plan to write down all the wisdom Mother Hilde taught me, so that it would not all be lost. And my girls shall have it after me, and so become celebrated for their mastery of the arts of healing and cookery and housewifery. And it is very well that it all be written, even though these are all true secrets, for suppose some grief should come to me – how would they manage then? And this I must say of them, though they are slow at the needle, they are swift at the art of reading, which is most rare among females.

I set the pen at the place I had left off. “To keep the moth from woolens . . .” I had written, all those months ago, in London. How much had happened since then! Their father dead, so much changed. A bright shaft of sunshine from the little window above made a warm puddle of light on the page. Moths. How can keeping the moths off make my girls happy?

“Oh, bother moths! What do I care about moths? What ever possessed me to write about moths anyway?”

“Certainly not Me, Margaret.” The Voice sounded warm and comfortable, as if it were somehow inside the sunlight. I looked up from the paper and inspected the sunbeam carefully. The only thing I could see were thousands of dancing dust motes, all shimmering golden.

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time,” I addressed the sunbeam. “But now it’s all turned into moths and recipes for fish. And I don’t even like fish.”

“Why write about them, then?”

“I thought it was proper.”

“What is proper is what you understand best, Margaret.”

So, of course it was all clear. It wasn’t fish and moths I needed to write about after all. It was about something much more important. And certainly something my girls should know about, for the world tells them nothing but lies, leaving them entirely deluded on the subject.

“Why so busy, and so inky?” asked my lord husband that very evening. “Have you take up that recipe book again? Write about those tasty little fruit things in pastry – they would definitely be a loss to posterity. My future sons-in-law will bless me.”

“I’m writing a love story.”

“Another tale of courtly love to add to the world’s stock of lies? Surely you lead mankind astray. Pastries would be far better.”

“No, I’m not writing about that false, flowery stuff. Jousts, and favors, and lute playing in rose-covered bowers. I’m writing about the happily-ever-after part. I’m writing about true love.”

“Real love? Oh, worse and worse, Margaret. Nobody writes about that. For one thing, it’s not decent. For another, it’s impossibly dull. Now, if you wish to write about love, you must respect the conventions. What interests people is the trying to get, not the getting. Look at Tristan! Look at Lancelot! What kind of romance would it be if they could have had what they wanted? Tristan marries Yseult, and they produce a dozen moon-faced brats! . . . You must face facts, Margaret. You don’t understand anything about writing love stories. Stick to recipes.”

So of course I set to work right away. After all, my lord husband considers himself a great expert on the topic of love, because he has written a number of poems on the subject. But I, I have loved greatly.

I snipped a bit out, but that gives you the flavor of it. This prologue is about four pages long in the book. And what makes it work? Why, the protagonist’s voice, of course. THat last sentence is a beautiful hook: we are given a delicious sense of anticipation because we know just enough about what the book is going to be about. For me it’s a plus that we also know things are going to come out well at the end. But you see we certainly aren’t being handed an info dump of any kind. We do see something important, though: That God speaks to the protagonist, who takes this in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s intriguing and a nice draw.

There’s another kind of prologue that I hope works: the one that starts off as a chapter and then gets called a prologue kind of at the last minute. I know this because of *my* prologues. How long was the one in the third Griffin Mage book, The Broken Earth? About 25 pages? THis certainly doesn’t count as short, does it? I actually wrote that as Chapter 1. I and my editor went back and forth quite a lot before deciding to call it a prologue, the deciding factor being that it opens up with Mienthe’s childhood and thus well before the story proper begins. I wanted that chapter in there for several reasons, though, one being that I wanted Miente to be perceived as the main protagonist and that meant letting the reader see her pov first, before Tan was introduced. And that meant stepping back in time since the story proper really didn’t start until Tan crossed the river.

And in my as-yet-unpublished novel that opens with a prologue, that one started as a chapter, too. I eventually cut it A LOT and since it also involves a character’s childhood — though it also sets up a crucial aspect of the plot — anyway, I eventually started calling it a prologue. It’s perhaps five or eight pages long and I think it works quite well. But I admit this one is still going back and forth between myself and my agent. (I expect to send it to my Knopf editor pretty soon — I’ll be crossing my fingers about that.)

So . . . the “All prologues are bad” advice is too simplistic, but I do think it’s a good idea to SERIOUSLY think about whether your prologue is really an exception to the rule. As always, the take-home message: everything depends on you just being able to tell whether the prologue you wrote is a good one that will serve a crucial purpose effectively, or a terrible sucking wound that is draining the life out of your story.

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The Craft of Writing

Dialogue Tags: The Bad, the Visible, the Audible, and the Absent

Dialogue should bring your characters to life. We all know that. It should contain and express their unique voices! It should be witty or profound or surprising or interesting or in some way effective! Right? Just serviceable dialogue is not good enough. Dialogue must not be boring or stilted or too predictable, and it should not make your character sound like Mr. Spock, unless, of course, he is Mr. Spock. Above all, dialogue should avoid silly or incompetent use of dialogue tags.

I mean, we all know perfectly well how a bad writer sometimes handles dialogue tags. Like this:

“You can’t mean it,” she exclaimed.
“I assure you, I mean every word,” he smirked.
“Oh, you’re too, too cruel,” she moaned.
“You better believe it, babe,” he sneered.

I’ve actually seen fanfic written like this, so don’t think it never happens. But of course most writers understand that “said” is invisible and most other dialogue tags are visible, right?

Which, actually, is a bit of an overstatement. The fact is, as I recently noticed while listening to an audiobook, “said” is often but not always invisible. In a minute I’m going to provide several examples of dialogue and take a look at what makes “said” pop out of the sentence almost as much as the tags above, and what techniques writers can use to keep that from happening.

But first! Let me add that actually quite a few other dialogue tags are nearly invisible if used effectively and in moderation. I don’t think everybody acknowledges this, though it is obvious.

Some other tags that generally work include: “shouted”, “whispered”, “protested,” “murmured”, “muttered”, and “answered.” But this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Opening up my current WIP, I see that in the first conversation, I use “inquired”, “observed”, “conceded”, “added,” and “repeated” as well as “said” – I only use “said” a couple of times. This is all within two or three pages, yet (I would argue) none of these tags stands out or catches the reader’s eye.

I really do want to emphasize this: if used smoothly and correctly and in moderation, lots of tags besides “said” sound just fine, barely draw the reader’s notice, and in fact add to rather than detract from your dialogue. To use them properly, of course, you need to have your character shout only when she ought to shout, and so on. And it’s certainly true that you don’t want to tag too many lines with any of these. But go actually look at what kinds of dialogue tags are used by really good writers such as Patricia McKillip and you will find plenty of variation, far more than you might expect given the popular advice to avoid tags other than “said.” You definitely don’t want to surrender your artistic judgment to some simplistic rule – even a rule that is cited everywhere as though it was handed down on a stone tablet from God.

And, hey, while on the subject of overstated advice, how about adverbs? I mean, how often have we seen advice to cut all adverbs from dialogue tags? That’s going a little far, too. Of course you don’t want this:

“I really must get my husband to a doctor at once,” she said urgently.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her heartily. “There’s a hospital less than half a mile away.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she exclaimed thankfully. “Can you help me get him into that taxi?”

But if you open any novel by Patricia McKillip, you will see that she sometimes uses adverbs in dialogue tags. If she does, then clearly it’s okay! So that no-adverb rule is better conceptualized as “Don’t use too many adverbs in dialogue tags, and never when the adverb is redundant.” Lots of times it is perfectly clear from the context that your character is worried or in a hurry or awkward or whatever, and if it’s perfectly clear, then you don’t need to have her say something worriedly or hurriedly or awkwardly. Or rather than “said quietly” maybe you should be saying “whispered”? Because you don’t want to use an adverb merely as a substitute for the actual right word.

But it’s important to understand that neither “murmured” nor “whispered” nor “muttered” mean the same thing as, for example, “said gently.” The first sounds quiet, the second tentative or secretive, the third embarrassed. Only the adverbial tag sounds kind. Sometimes you really do need to say “said gently” and no other construction will do. It’s important to have enough of a feel for language to know when that is, and be confident enough to ignore overstated advice.

Now, back to use of the ordinary “said” tag. Look at this tiny sample of dialogue, from Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS, which I just listened to. And it was really good, btw – an excellent choice for audio format. But look at this:

“I was promised a long story,” Duvall said, after they had gotten their food and drinks.
“I made no such promise,” Dahl said.
“The promise was implied,” Duvall protested. “And besides, I bought you a drink. I own you. Entertain me, Ensign Dahl.”
“All right, fine,” Dahl said. “I entered the Academy late because for three years I was a seminary student.”
“Okay, that’s moderately interesting,” Duvall said.
“On Forshan,” Dahl said.
“Okay, that’s intensely interesting,” Duvall said.

Notice something? Every single line is tagged and in all but one case, the tag is “said.” Besides that, in all but one line, the dialogue comes first and the tag afterward – the sentence pattern is nearly always the same. Of course I selected this tidbit on purpose to illustrate a point, but I promise you that the overall feeling you get, given Scalzi’s writing style in this book, is that every single line is tagged with “said.”

I wonder how many readers actually start to notice all those “he said, she said” tags? When you’re reading, I wonder if you don’t just skim over this dialogue so fast you really don’t notice the tags? But I can tell you, when you’re listening to this in audio format, those tags sure catch your ear. They don’t sound exactly silly, but they start to pick up a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard quality.

Then you get used to it and the dialogue tags stop being so annoying, and I actually did find this story highly entertaining, and honestly it is an excellent choice for a short drive (the whole thing is six cds, but that includes three short stories; the main story is only four cds long).

But listening to this story made me really notice dialogue tags, which is exactly what the use of “said” is supposed to avoid. Compare the above sample to this, which you may recognize as a bit of dialogue from NINE PRINCES IN AMBER by Zelazny:

Just as she neared, I sat up.
“Good evening,” I said.
“Why – good evening,” she replied.
“When do I check out?” I asked.
“I’ll have to ask Doctor.”
“Do so,” I said.
“Please roll up your sleeve.”
“No, thanks.”
“I have to give you an injection.”
“No, you don’t. I don’t need it.”
“I’m afraid that’s for Doctor to say.”
“Then send him around and let him say it. But in the meantime, I will not permit it.”
“I’m afraid I have my orders.”
“So did Eichmann, and look what happened to him.” And I shook my head slowly.

Out of fourteen lines of dialogue, only four are tagged. Using so few tags could lead to confusion, but in this case it doesn’t, because it’s perfectly clear from context which character is saying what. Only one tag is “said”. Neither “replied” nor “asked” stands out or sounds the least bit stupid. The fourth tag is, of course, a movement tag, which is an excellent way of tagging a line without using “said” or any substitute.

You know who really does a great job with movement tags? Sarah Addison Allen. Check this out – it’s from THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON, which I’ve decided is my favorite of her books:

“You’ll never guess what Stella told me last night,” Sawyer said, strolling into the kitchen just as Julia was finishing the apple stack cake she was going to take to Vance Shelby’s granddaughter.
Julia closed her eyes for a moment. Stella must have called him the moment Julia left her last night.
Sawyer stopped next to her at the stainless steel table and stood close. He was like crisp, fresh air. He was self-possessed and proud, but everyone forgave him because charm sparkled around him like sunlight. [ . . . ]
“You’re not supposed to be back here,” she said as she put the last layer of cake on top of the dried-apple-and-spice filling.
“Report me to the owner.” He pushed some of her hair behind her left ear, his fingers lingering on the thin pink streak she still dyed in her hair there. “Don’t you want to know what Stella told me last night?”
She jerked her head away from his hand as she put the last of the apple and spice filling on top of the cake, leaving the sides bare. “Stella was drunk last night.”
“She said you told her that you bake cakes because of me.”
Julia had known it was coming, but she stilled anyway, the icing spatula stopping mid-stroke. She quickly resumed spreading the filling, hoping he hadn’t noticed. “She thinks you have low self-esteem. She’s trying to build up your ego.”
He lifted one eyebrow in that insolent way of his. “I’ve been accused of many things, but low self-esteem is not one of them.”
“It must be hard to be so beautiful.”
“It’s hell. Did you really say that to her?”
She clanged the spatula into the empty bowl the filling had been in, then took both to the sink. “I don’t remember. I was drunk, too.”
“You never get drunk,” he said.
“You don’t know me well enough to make blanket statements like ‘You never get drunk.’” It felt good to say that. Eighteen years she’d been away. Look how much I’ve improved, she wanted to say.

See that? Not just movement tags, but thought tags. We are carried straight into Julia’s point of view here, and her thoughts and reactions substitute for dialogue tags several times just in this little snippet. In fourteen exchanges, there are only three actual dialogue tags. But there are only three completely untagged lines. Movement and thought tags accompany the remaining lines of dialogue, keeping us completely, effortlessly aware of exactly who is saying what – there’s no possible way to get confused. Allen manages this even in a quite long scene with a lot of different characters, which, believe me, is a tricky kind of scene to write.

Let me just add that Allen also works a lot more description into her dialogue than either Scalzi or Zelazny, often with very beautiful unexpected metaphors and analogies worked in, like charm sparkling like sunlight and, oh, lots of examples – read the book.

Now, where does Allen stand on the adverb question? Let’s take a look:

“I’m sorry,” she immediately said. “I didn’t mean to –”

“Win, you know my brother would be alive today if it weren’t for her mother,” Morgan said tightly.

“No one in town has ever said a word about that night,” Win said calmly.

“Like I said, I didn’t know her well,” Julia said carefully.

These kinds of tags are not that rare in Allen’s writing; it took me no time to find a good handful of examples. And in every single case, the adverb makes the dialogue more effective. It really does. That “calmly,” given the context, conveys Win’s self-possession, which is his central characteristic. Saying “carefully” in that last line – it’s one more way of signaling the reader that there is a secret Julia is trying not to give away. All these adverbs do something, they’re important, and no, the feel they add to the story could not be conveyed just via the spoken words of dialogue.

So . . . to sum up, my advice is: be aware of the common advice to minimize adverbs and also be aware of why adverbs are considered to detract from dialogue, but do not write off the use of adverbs in dialogue until you’ve studied how authors like Patricia McKillip and Sarah Addison Allen write dialogue. And that goes double for dialogue tags in general: pay attention to how skilled writers handle dialogue tags, and don’t take simplistic advice like “only use ‘said’” or “avoid dialogue tags” too seriously. No simplistic rules can ever substitute for your very own feel for the language.

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Writing Dialogue —

So, you have two choices when you’re writing dialogue. No, wait, three.

a) You can write good dialogue.
b) You can write bad dialogue.

I bet that seems like it exhausts the possibilities, doesn’t it? But no, because

c) You can write dialogue incorrectly.

Starting with the most trivial case, one you don’t see all that often actually in print, unless maybe this kind of thing is more common in self-published books, which seems possible:

c) Incorrect dialogue.

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” She asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I see this in student narrative essays sometimes. Even if a student gets how and when to demote periods inside quote marks to commas, it’s less obvious that when you use a question mark inside quote marks, but followed by a dialogue tag, it is also demoted to comma status, sort of. ANYWAY, it doesn’t end the sentence. The dialogue tag ends the sentence, so that tidbit should go like this:

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” she asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I trust you see the lower-case “she”, right?

Any book published by an ordinarily competent publisher should be free of this kind of error, which is why you can pick any book off your bookshelves to see how to punctuate dialogue correctly. But look at this:

“You don’t have to retire,” Von protested.
“I do,” Eva rejected the compliment. “And if Liege Monitum doesn’t make me an offer soon, I will have to retire here.” She smiled. “You would keep me?”

And also this:

She took his face in her hands. “Promise me that you will be here? Promise me that you will dance with me?”
“I don’t know, Eva,” Von squirmed. “Liege Monitum may not want that.”

Do you see what’s wrong with these tidbits? Eva rejected the compliment and Von squirmed cannot in any way be substituted for Eva said or Von said. They are complete actions, not dialogue tags, but they are being used as dialogue tags. This is wrong. This is incorrect dialogue. In both these cases, there should have been a period rather than a comma inside the quote marks.

Unlike the vampire pterodactyls, I didn’t make these tidbits of dialogue up. This is from THE COURTESAN PRINCE, by Lynda Williams, which I’m reading now. There are things I like about this book, and I think I will finish it (I don’t finish any book unless I really do like it), but I already know I won’t keep it. Dialogue errors is one of the main reasons. Even though there aren’t a lot of errors, I keep mentally rolling my eyes when I hit things like the above and this is not conducive to a smooth reading experience.

b) correct but bad dialogue, type one

I’m a big fan of adverbs, compared to anybody who thinks NEVER USE ADVERBS EVER EVER EVER THIS MEANS YOU is a rule to live by. I think adverbs are a perfectly respectable part of speech, thank you. But here is a bit of dialogue which shows why so many writers turn against adverbs:

“I know we can’t do anything right for you, Ann,” he said, “by definition. But there is something I want to be sure you know before you go.”
“Flying is bad for my health,” Ann said sarcastically.
“Of course, but I didn’t mean that.” He looked down into his big, gentle hands.

This is from the same book by Williams. Actually, this doesn’t bother me if you only see it now and then. But if characters are always saying things sarcastically or hastily or nervously or whatever, probably the author should go through and strip at least two thirds of those dialogue-tag adverbs out of the novel. Three quarters. Nine tenths, maybe.

You want to beware of adverbs in dialogue tags where the dialogue itself or the situation makes it plain that somebody’s sarcastic or hasty or nervous. If a car blows up, you don’t have to say it blew up suddenly. Because, hello? That is the nature of explosions? To be sudden?

Where the dialogue and/or situation don’t indicate how a line is spoken, though, you can reasonably have somebody say something gently or sharply or harshly or whatever will draw the right picture for the reader.

Also, when combined with another error, too much variety in dialogue tags, overuse of dialog-tag adverbs really stands out. On just one page of this book, we have characters who:

Pleaded
Asked
Said
Countered
Volunteered
Exclaimed
Demanded
Pointed out

And the only two invisible tags in this list are “asked” and “said”. Any one of the others would be fine, even any two, but because there are so many different words used as tags, they start to catch the eye. And once the reader notices that there are too many different words being used as substitutes for the invisible “said”, this sounds more and more ridiculous.

This particular book is actually not horrible in this respect. It’s actually not horrible at all, which is why I may go on and finish it. But I was thinking about dialogue and so relatively mild overuse of different tags kinda stood out.

b) grammatically correct but bad dialogue, type two

Boring dialogue is just as bad as overuse of creative tags. There are heaps of books with boring dialogue out there, but I don’t keep them, so it’s hard for me to come up with a good example. I’m talking about the kind of dialogue where every line is predictable, where every line serves to convey information but nothing about it surprises or engages or entertains the reader.

Sometimes this kind of dialogue is just used to dump info, where you aren’t having a conversation but a series of monologues, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can have what should be a quick, light conversation and yet every line said is boring and predictable and clichéd.

Info-dumpy or not, this is the kind of writing where you find yourself skimming ahead to see what happens, but you aren’t really engaged in the story or interested in the characters. I personally seem to see this a lot in contemporary mysteries when I’m trying to find a new author my mother will like, which is hard because the old-time mystery writers were SO GOOD stylistically (Rex Stout, Emma Lathen, Ngaio Marsh) that it’s hard for contemporary writers to compete.

Next! The fun part! Want to see brilliant dialogue? There’s so much great writing out there!

a) Fabulous non-use of dialogue tags by Lois McMaster Bujold.

If you’re looking for an example of how to minimize use of dialogue tags, you could hardly do better than Bujold. Just take any of her books off the shelf, flip it open randomly, and you get something like this:

Miles sank into his seat with a groan. “Some bodyguard you are,” he said to Elli. “Why didn’t you protect me from that interviewer?”

“She wasn’t trying to shoot you. Besides, I’d just got there. I couldn’t tell her what had been going on.”

“But you’re far more photogenic. It would have improved the image of the Dendarii Fleet.”

“Holovids make me tongue-tied. But you sounded calm enough.”

“I was trying to downplay it all. ‘Boys will be boys,’ chuckles Admiral Naismith, while in the background his troops burn down London . . .”

Elli grinned. “’Sides, they weren’t interested I me. I wasn’t the hero who’d dashed into a burning building – by the gods, when you came rolling out all on fire –”

“You saw that?” Miles was vaguely cheered. “Did it look good in the long shots? Maybe it’ll make up for Danio and his jolly crew, in the minds of our host city.”

“It looked properly terrifying.” She shuddered appreciation. “I’m surprised you’re not more badly burned.”

Miles twitched singed eyebrows and tucked his blistered left hand unobtrusively under his right arm. “It was nothing. Protective clothing. I’m glad not all our equipment design is faulty.”

“I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I’ve been shy of fire ever since . . .” her hand touched her face.

Okay, he says five lines and she says five. How many actual dialogue tags are in this passage? Not ten. We have “said” once to get the conversational ball rolling. After that, there are no dialogue tags at all. But we aren’t allowed to get lost in who-said-what? confusion, because every time we need a reminder about who’s speaking, we get a movement tag. Elli grinned. Miles was vaguely cheered. She shuddered appreciation. He twitched singed eyebrows. She touched her face. That’s four lines of dialogue with no tag at all and five with a movement tag, and zero confusion.

Plus! Notice the adverb “vaguely”? See how great that adverb is? “Vaguely cheered” is so not the same as “cheered” – we get a way better idea of Miles’ state of mind because of this adverb. And in the next line, Elli declares that the picture of Miles on fire was “properly” terrifying. Then Miles tucks his hand “unobtrusively” under his other arm. See how good writers aren’t the least bit shy of using adverbs? But mostly don’t in dialogue tags.

Nobody I know of does dialogue better than Bujold. The rest of us could only improve by studying her dialogue and trying to consciously apply techniques that I bet she just uses by feel. That was from BROTHERS IN ARMS, btw, but I expect you all recognized it?

a) Snappy, fun, unexpected dialogue by Dean Koontz

The reason I was actually thinking about dialogue is that I just finished the latest Odd Thomas book by Dean Koontz, and this made me go back and re-read all the other ones in the series.

There are five now, incidentally, and the latest one doesn’t resolve any of the big, HUGE questions that are raised by the fourth book, in case you wondered; it’s an interlude rather than any kind of resolution. Just a warning in case you rush out to get the fifth book because you expect a resolution: No. Doesn’t happen. I’m not persuaded Koontz actually knows where he’s going, actually. But the fifth book is still good, though.

Now, one of the reasons I like Koontz is that he is kinda horror-light, if you know what I mean. Things turn out happily in his books. The characters you become particularly attached to never get killed, whereas when the bad guys get eaten by mountain lions (or whatever), they are bad enough you can cheer their deaths. If there’s a dog? It won’t get killed, either. You can just absolutely trust all this, which I deeply appreciate because I really am not a hard-core horror fan.

But the Odd Thomas books are really good, a definite step up from most of his other books imho, and the wit of his protagonist is one big thing that contributes to this. (So is the moral character of the protagonist, but let’s stick to the subject, which is dialogue.)

Listen to this, from BROTHER ODD, the third book in the series. This is [part of] a conversation between Rodion Romanovich, who is supposed to be a librarian from Indianapolis but certainly isn’t, and the protagonist.

The kitchen offers stools here and there at counters, where you can have a cup of coffee or eat without being underfoot. I sought one of these – and came across Rodion Romanovich.

The bearish Russian was working at a long counter on which stood ten sheet cakes in long pans. He was icing them.

Next to him on the granite counter lay the volume about poison and famous poisoners in history. I noticed a bookmark inserted at about page fifty.

When he saw me, he glowered and indicated a stool near him.

Because I’m an amiable fellow and loath to insult anyone, I find it awkward to decline an invitation, even if it comes from a possibly homicidal Russian with too much curiosity about my reasons for being a guest of the abbey.

“How is your spiritual revitalization proceeding?” Romanovich asked.

“Slow but sure.”

[. . . . .]

With his attention devoted to the application of icing to the first of the ten cakes, he said, “I myself find that baking calms the mind and allows for contemplation.”

“So you made the cakes, not just the icing?”

“That is correct. This is my best recipe . . . orange-and-almond cake with dark chocolate frosting.”

“Sounds delicious. So to date, how many people have you killed with it?”

“I long ago lost count, Mr. Thomas. But they all died happy.”

[. . . . .]

Romanovich’s brow seemed to include a hydraulic mechanism that allowed it to beetle farther over his deep-set eyes when his mood darkened. “I am usually suspicious of people who are universally liked.”

“In addition to being an imposing figure,” I said, “you’re surprisingly solemn for a Hoosier.”

“I am a Russian by birth. We are sometimes a solemn people.”

“I keep forgetting your Russian background. You’ve lost so much of your accent, people might think you’re Jamaican.”

“You may be surprised that I have never been mistaken for one.” He finished frosting the first cake, slid it aside, and pulled another pan in front of him.

I said, “You do know what a Hoosier is, don’t you?”

“A Hoosier is a person who is a native of or an inhabitant of the state of Indiana.”

“I’ll bet the definition reads that way word for word in the dictionary.”

He said nothing. He just frosted.

“Since you’re a native Russian and not currently an inhabitant of Indiana, you’re not at the moment really a Hoosier.”

“I am an expatriate Hoosier, Mr. Thomas. When in time I return to Indianapolis, I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.”

“Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.”

“That is correct.”

The pickle had a nice crunch. I wondered if Romanovich had added a few drops of anything lethal to the brine in the pickle jar. Well, too late. I took another bite of the dill.

Okay, I hope everybody finds that as much fun as I do, but since I’ve read the whole book and know what’s really going on with Romanovich, and also remember all the great exchanges between him and Odd Thomas, I have advantages. Trust me, though, the interplay between these two characters adds such pizazz to this book!

You can also see that out of nineteen lines in which somebody speaks, there are only four real dialogue tags – three using a plain “said” and the other an equally plain and invisible “asked”; none using adverbs. There are also two movement tags. The other thirteen lines I’ve quoted don’t use tags at all, but it’s always crystal clear who’s speaking. Partly this because of grammatical conventions – ie, switching paragraphs between speakers – and partly it’s because the two characters’ voices are so utterly different.

Not only are the voices distinct and distinctive, but also very little in this exchange is predictable and boring. Anybody see that line about Jamaicans coming?

Personally, I loved the bit where Romanovich says “I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.” He’s a great character with a wonderful voice. Plus, hey, cake! Which I will just remove some of the suspense and assure you that the cakes are not poisoned.

Okay! That’s enough, I’m sure! Go forth and pay attention to dialogue! Me, I’m going to go re-read something by Lois McMaster Bujold now.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

More On Beginning a Novel

While we’re on the subject of beginnings, check out the first page of THE PEACH KEEPER by Sarah Addison Allen:

The day Paxton Osgood took the box of heavy-stock, foil-lined envelopes to the post office, the ones she’d had a professional calligrapher address, it began to rain so hard the air turned as white as bleached cotton. By nightfall, rivers had crested at flood stage and, for the first time since 1936, the mail couldn’t be delivered. When things began to dry out, when basements were pumped free of water and branches were cleared from yards and streets, the invitations were finally delivered, but to all the wrong houses. Neighbors laughed over fences, handling the misdelivered pieces of mail to their rightful owners with comments about the crazy weather and their careless postman. The next day, an unusual number of people showed up at the doctor’s office with infected paper cuts, because the envelopes had sealed, cementlike, from the moisture. Later, the single-card invitations themselves seemed to hide and pop back up at random. Mrs. Jameson’s invitation disappeared for two days, then reappeared in a bird’s nest outside. Harper Rowley’s invitation was found in the church bell tower, Mr. Kingsley’s in his elderly mother’s garden shed.

If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.

But no one was paying attention. Least of all Willa Jackson.

What a charming book this one turned out to be! It’s the first one of Allen’s I’ve ever read, and really delightful, all about friendship and family loyalty and what it means to be adult and the bonds we feel to the past. Especially friendship, an emphasis I always appreciate. I’ve already ordered another of Allen’s books, THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON, because this one was really a pleasure. I think a guest poster over at The Book Smugglers recommended it, but I’m not sure. But I’m grateful for whoever drew it to my attention!

It’s also a story that falls into an unusual category: magical realism. This is a world where the saying that digging up one secret releases others isn’t just a saying, and where you’re not quite sure that the old tale in town about bottles filled with fog couldn’t be literally true. I really enjoy magical realism, which I first encountered in A WINTER’S TALE by Helprin. I loved that book, but Allen’s book is more approachable and has such appeal and charm, not to mention very sweet romances.

Also, not to belabor the point from the previous point, but see how this story starts? So gently and softly, even though the second paragraph sets up tension and also assure you that this book really is fantasy, which isn’t obvious, btw, and I was kind of thinking it was contemporary when I picked it up off the TBR pile, but it’s not, quite; and I thought it might be a mystery, but it’s not that either – quite. One curious little detail is that the protagonists never do find out the truth about the thing that happened in the past and that’s driving the story now – isn’t that interesting? (The reader does find out, but not the protagonists.) But the way the secret stays hidden ties into the theme of friendship and loyalty very nicely.

Also! I just read GUNMETAL MAGIC by Ilona Andrews, and if you like paranormals, you probably already know this, but Ilona Andrews is one of the best in the game. Is, are, whatever – you know that’s a husband-wife team, right?

This one features Kate’s friend Andrea Nash as the protagonist. For snappy dialogue and fun situations and a couple of GREAT practical jokes – I’m so tempted to give away the thing with the purple carpet, but I won’t – anyway, this is a great story. The story also offers a couple of very nice little tidbits about hyena behavior that are actually based on reality. Though that bit about how hyena siblings fight and kill each other, I don’t think that’s accurate, btw. Hans Kruuk never mentioned anything like that, and van Lawick provided anecdotal data which would tend to imply the reverse – strong friendly bonds between siblings. But the thing about hyena cubs digging dens too small for adults to fit into in order to get away from potentially deadly adult males is absolutely true.

Plus besides the stuff about hyenas, we get an Olde English Bulldogge! Nobody even knows that breed exists except me! And Ilona Andrews, apparently! I LOVE the way these authors know their dogs! So unusual!

Anyway, if you’re thinking about picking up a paranormal, this is a great choice. If you’ve never tried paranormals, this series is a good place to start, but I’ll just add that the first book is okay, the second better, and the series really hits its stride after that, so be patient and pick up the first three before you make up your mind. And the other series, the Edge series by the same authors – also quite good.

Plus! GUNMETAL MAGIC itself is long enough you don’t feel cheated, but – and though this is mentioned on the back cover, it was a nice surprise for me – as a bonus there’s also a hundred-page Kate Daniels novella at the back.

Let’s look at how GUNMETAL MAGIC starts:

Thud!

My head hit the sidewalk. Candy jerked me up by my hair and slammed my face into the asphalt.

Thud!

So you see, sometimes you really do start in the middle of the action. After my last post, didn’t want to leave everybody with the idea that you never do this. There’s this tiny little prologue, disguised as a couple of paragraphs of a newspaper article and clearly meant to orient new readers, but I think the authors are expecting most readers to be familiar with their world and characters, and I suspect they are right. So they jump right in with a series of action scenes before we start to develop the important personal dilemmas and relationship stuff that form the heart of the story.

On the other hand . . . ever hear how you aren’t supposed to start a novel with your protagonist waking up from a dream? Because actually, the above snippet IS a dream, and then Andrea wakes up. And it’s a great scene, because she’s tucked in the closet and holding a butcher’s knife. Sleepwalking to get a butcher’s knife probably does not count as the sort of dream that bores people! Which of course is why it works to start this book.

I’m very sensitized to beginnings just now, somehow!

Also, btw, just cut chapters five and six in their entirety from my WIP. Wham, there goes 16,000 words in one fell swoop! Not sure how much of it will go back in as I figure out how to connect the two disconnected ends again . . . but I think most of it will stay gone.

Man, this revision stuff. Can I just hire somebody else to do it?

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