Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lesson 5: Rev Up Your Search Engine

We’ve all watched the Behind The Scenes footage at the end of a DVD. Sometimes the footage can be just as long as the movie: especially if there’s a lot of costuming and special effects. But we all know that the massive amounts of extra footage is just a tiny nutshell of what really happened during the filming process. For every minute we see on-screen, there are thousands of man hours prepping for that scene. So it should be with our writing. Sometimes, the most important words are the ones that don’t make it on the page.

Yes, I’m talking about RESEARCH!

For each book I write, I have a binder full of information. (Not women. Ha ha. Oh wait, that joke is too old? Sorry.) Each notebook is full of research on history, setting, and character development, including a very detailed character bio. Most of this information never makes it into the novel. Remember how we talked about weaving? All the research done for a novel should be carefully disbursed throughout the novel, like leaving a trail of crumbs (preferably chocolate cake crumbs, because those are always the best) for the reader.

I’ve currently been researching the Gilded Age and more specifically, Newport, RI. In addition to reading non-fiction books about the locale and time-period, I’ve been reading novels set in that time period as well. One modern novel I read used large chunks of description that, I kid you not, came straight out of one of the non-fiction books. The description of the house in the novel (an imaginary house) was almost the exact description of one of the Vanderbilt mansions. I understand that the author wanted her readers to sense the ornate world of the Gilded Age, but there are a few things wrong with letting research (and in this case--near plagiarism) show up on pages of your manuscript.
1. It shows a lack of creativity and originality.
2. It can make the author seem like a know it all
3. And related to #2: it makes the author visible on her pages. It’s a form of AUTHOR INTRUSION. What is author intrusion? It’s any time the reader is pulled out of the story and reminded that an author is there, pulling the strings on each of her character puppets. Don't be rude: never intrude!

If research shows up on the pages of your novel, it’s going to distract readers because it will be an INFO DUMP and it will likely not be in the author’s voice. An oversimplified way to think of how to bring your research to light is the Kid History videos. Children are retelling—in their own voices—a story they have heard their parents talk about. As an author, you will take little tidbits you have learned and disburse them throughout your story in your own unique author voice. But remember: if it’s not information your POV character would know, it should not be there. (Again, that’s author intrusion.)

So far, I’ve given research a bad name. Let me clarify:  research is NOT bad! On the contrary: it’s crucial to your success as an author. Like I said in the first paragraph, just as much time—if not more—should be spent researching before a single sentence is typed. If you are writing a historical, this is especially important. You want your reader to feel as if they are living in the same world your characters are, and this can only be done if the author is intimately aware of the time period. For my last novel, The Reign of Trees, I looked up thousands of words to make certain they were in usage in the 1500’s. (Simple words like billowy) Most of them weren’t and needed to be replaced. An author must be meticulous if she is going to immerse her reader in the story.

I wasn’t always so meticulous though. Several times in The Seasons of Mae, it was obvious I didn’t do my research. For example, one character mentions listening to Bach. This would imply listening to a phonograph, but guess what? The phonograph wasn’t invented until 1877. My book takes place in the early 1880’s in Montana. Do you think the phonograph would have been in mass production in just a few years AND available to people who lived beyond the edge of civilization? No, probably not.

Another mistake I made several times throughout the novel was not understanding social decorum of the day. Unmarried men and women weren’t allowed to fraternize without a chaperone, yet this happens frequently in Mae. One scene that stands out under such circumstances involves a muddy road and a carriage that becomes lodged in said mud. As the characters work to free the trapped carriage, the male character, Reese, uses the backside of Mae’s dress to wipe his muddy hands, and therefore leaving intentional muddy hand-prints, making it look as if he had goosed her. Even if Reese is from backwards Montana, no respectable 1880’s man would have ever done that to a woman, let alone to a society debutant. Writing scenes that don’t fit in a particular time period make an author (in this case, moi,) lose all credibility. 

Research isn’t just for writers of historical fiction. Your novel may be set in a place you’ve never been to, or have only visited once. Make certain you spend hours studying the area, including using Google maps street view so you can get a better feel for the area. I recently read a novella which took place in Montana, and I happen to know a thing or two about Montana. However, the author had not done enough research. She referred to our beloved University of Montana as the UM. UM, that’s not right. It’s the U of M. Yes, readers will be that nitpicky if you get your facts wrong! It’s your job to fact check everything in your novel. Get it right, or the readers won’t buy it!

Before you write, make sure you READ, READ, READ. You should become completely immersed in the genre you are writing in before you ever type a word. It is through prolific reading that a writer becomes an author.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lesson 4: Over The Top Makes A Book Flop

Last week, we related theatrical performances to writing as a method to ensure that your characters are acting rather than being acted upon. Let’s continue with that analogy for a while today, alrighty? 

A stage actor has been taught to be animated. Their face needs to look alive. They need to project. They need to sell their performance to the audience. But some novice actors go a touch too far and instead of just acting, they over-act. You’ve seen this before, right? While watching the performance, you might hope the actor will turn it down a notch. If this actor has one of the lead roles, you might get so annoyed with their OVERACTING that you can’t wait to get out of the theater. 

Oftentimes, novice writers do the same thing. OVERWRITING is a symptom of writers trying to be more vivid with their writing.  If “showing, not telling” is the fundamental language all writers need to learn,  then it is only natural that diligent, hardworking writers are going to try to do just that and write prose that is meant to describe every scene to perfection. There’s a key word in that last sentence. Do you know what it is? It’s TRY. 

And sometimes when we TRY, it means something is not coming naturally to us. Trying too hard in writing results in manuscripts that are bogged down with flowery, superfluous prose which detracts from the storyline. 

If you feel like I’m contradicting what I said last week about slowing down the pace of The Seasons of Mae to let the reader absorb the lifestyle of the late 1800’s, I’m not! It IS confusing. But don’t worry: filling your novel with just the right amount of imagery is possibly one of the hardest tasks to master.

Last week’s good example of imagery was one small paragraph. Now take a look at a bad example:

The old wood floorboards creaked underneath the weight of the sturdy rocking chair as Mae absentmindedly rocked back and forth. The rhythmic rocking mimicked the perpetual beating of her heart, which she gave no thought to either. It was the magnificent sunset which held her interest.  She watched as the vibrant orange clouds mingled with the shockingly pink sky until they seemed to meld together like paint on the palette of a skilled painter. It wasn’t until the sun had completely fallen behind the tree-clad mountain that she remembered her surroundings. Her arms were ripe with gooseflesh from the brisk nighttime air and a chill ran up her spine as she heard the howl of a straggling coyote. She shouldn’t be out here alone, but what choice did she have other than to keep her eye on the lonely horizon until he finally came?

What stands out to you as you read that paragraph? It’s the overabundance of adjectives, isn’t it? They are like little speed bumps along the road to your plot. Picture yourself driving over a speed bump in a low-rider as you read every adjective in that paragraph. Are you annoyed yet? Unless you are aiming to annoy your readers, you’re going to need to plow down half of those speed bumps.

Don’t get me wrong: adjectives are good! BUT! Like everything else in life, they should be used in moderation. Take that first sentence for example: if the floor boards are creaking, we can assume that the wood is old. That’s an easy elimination. Examine your sentences carefully and get rid of unneeded adjectives. Also make sure the adjectives you pick pack a punch. Rather than saying “she had shoulder-length blonde hair” try something more descriptive by saying, “her flaxen hair rustled in the wind like a wheat field just before the harvest.” (Hasty example, but you get the idea.)

One of the best similes I’ve heard lately came from an episode of Psych, when Shawn says, “My heart feels like wet toilet paper.” Isn’t that the perfect description of a broken heart? Not only does it match the character’s personality, it gives the viewer a vivid image to attach to how Shawn is feeling. And notice how short that sentence is! See, you don’t always need to be wordy to illustrate your point. 

In addition to choosing powerful adjectives and nixing the rest, oftentimes novice writers spend too long dwelling on details. I once read a book where the author took an entire page to describe a waterfall. Yes, really. We’ve all seen waterfalls before (well, maybe except for the people who live smack dab in the middle of the Sahara Desert, but we’ll forget about them for now.) so why would we need to waste so much time describing how water descends from mountain top to valley floor? Nor should we spend more than a few sentences describing a character’s appearance—at least not all at once. Remember to weave those details throughout your story. You wouldn’t notice every feature on a person you have just met; your readers shouldn’t have to learn all those details at once either. Pick your character’s most prominent feature to describe first, and then later on, let your narrator notice how his hair curls up at the nape of his neck after he’s spent the afternoon working in the yard.

Think of how you would feel if you ate the entire bag of Oreo’s all at once. It’s too much! Relate this to your writing: you always want to leave your reader wanting more. Waiting for that next clue. That next piece of the puzzle the helps them see the plot you so meticulously planned. Give them one yummy little morsel at a time in a clear, precise fashion and you’ll have your readers eating out of the palm of your hand

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Lesson 3: What a Pace Case!

Everyone moves at a different pace. Some people have endless energy. You know the type: they run marathons, serve on the PTA board, bring meals to new mothers, and keep their family and house trendy and spotless. (I say that with no jealousy whatsoever.) Then there’s the type who enjoy a slower pace: the type who has a rocking chair on their front porch where they sit to shell peas from their backyard garden. (I also say that with no jealousy whatsoever.) The way each person lives at either breakneck speed or lackadaisical ease isn’t something we should judge. One way is not better than the other; they are merely different and unique to each life situation.

It is the same with a novel. There isn’t just one way to pace a novel, as each novel is unique in its execution.

A mystery or a thriller should have a fast pace. A character in such a novel might have times where they are running for their life. A good author will leave her readers feeling breathless as well. This is achieved by staccato writing: meaning short, precise sentences. Now is the time to tick-off English teachers everywhere, as you will use incomplete sentences and sentences that start with conjunctions to create a sense of immediacy. For example:

The door. She could see the door. She had to make it inside. And fast.

There isn’t a lot to think about in those sentences, making it easier for the reader to become immersed in the story and feel the same panic the character is experiencing. Most books in suspense genres aren’t very detail oriented, as taking time to describe houses, food, flowers, etc, would detract from the urgency of the storyline.

However, historical novels are a place where greater descriptions are appropriate. A historical novel does have a slower pace, as the day-to-day life at that time was indeed slower. (Read that last sentence again. It was SO profound!) In a historical, you want your reader to take time to absorb their surroundings. The Seasons of Mae is set in Bozeman, Montana in the 1880’s, and here is the scene where Mae sees her surroundings for the first time: 

As they approached the mountains, the scenery grew even lovelier. The large pine trees towered like stately statues guarding the earth’s most precious treasure. The smell of the evergreens was medicine to Mae’s soul. She closed her eyes, tipped her nose in the air and drew in a deep breath, relishing the aroma. It had been ages since Mae had felt such inner peace. Instantly, she had fallen in love with the Gallatin Valley. 

This passage is slow, serene, and descriptive. It’s exactly what it needs to be at this point in the novel. However, the general pace of the novel is off. Mae makes an impromptu, life-changing decision within the first 20 pages of the novel. When I wrote the book, I never thought of Mae’s character as being rash and impulsive, but after letting the book sit for a decade, I realize that is exactly how I have portrayed her. In several instances, she reveals deep inner desires and personal secrets with people who are practically strangers. After meeting someone once or twice, she feels like they are family or like she has known them her entire life. This isn’t really her true personality: it’s my own weakness as an author. 

In addition to allowing the characters to make hasty decisions and not giving them adequate time to develop relationships (one couple goes from strangers to secret lovers as the result of one conversation! This would have been highly unlikely during this time period, especially considering the proper upbringing of the characters.), I also didn't allow scenes to fully develop.

Picture a balloon. A few puffs of air and you have a toy that will instantly entertain a child. But if you spend a bit longer and sacrifice several more precious breaths, you can make the balloon bigger, more interesting, and a lot more fun. A word of warning though: just like a balloon can be overfilled and therefore pop, so can a story. Don't fill your story with unnecessary verbiage. Don't weigh your story down with TOO many details. You want your balloon to be just the right size. 

In most of the chapters of Seasons of Mae, I only skimmed the surface of each scene. Take this scene for example:

“If he has enough money in the bank, I dare say they don’t care what type of man he is,” Joseph said harshly.

Mae said that she was surprised to hear Joseph saying such things, for it was usually she that brought the conversation down a notch. She was worried that her bad example had rubbed off on him, but he replied by saying how the focus of Alice’s courting this past year had left a bad taste in his mouth.

I don’t know why that entire conversation wasn’t written out. Oh wait, yeah I do! It’s because I was cheating my way through this novel. This example is just one of thousands, making it obvious that I didn’t take the time to give details. And if the author doesn’t take the time to build a solid scene, it will crumble.

Think of each scene like you are watching a play. If the scenery has changed since the last chapter, we need to know that. We need to know if the lighting has changed: indicating day or night, or possibly one character taking the spotlight for a time. And then most importantly: dialogue. What is being said? What is not being said, but is being implied through body language and sarcasm? Write all of that down. If my book was a play, the actors would be standing on stage, looking confused (twiddling their thumbs and possibly picking their noses) and not acting. The narrator would be saying, “Mae did this and then Joseph did this and then she decided to ….” Essentially, the narrator has hijacked the story!

Your characters have mouths: let them speak! It is through their words, their actions, and their thoughts—not the narrators—that your reader will see what is happening on the stage you have built in their mind. You are the producer/director/writer of the production: it is your job to make certain your audience is properly entertained. Slow the story down enough to let them visualize what is happening on stage. Let them get to really know the characters. Pull them to the edge of their seats when necessary. Don't cheat them, after all, they've paid for the best seat in the house. :)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Lesson 2: Getting Dumped

What do you think of whenever you hear the word "dumped?"  Let me guess: it ain't pretty! Whether you are thinking of getting dumped by a beau or finding moldy cottage cheese in the back of the fridge that needs dumped out pronto, most usages for the word "dumped" carry a bad connotation. 

When it comes to writing, you can give your readers this same unsavory sensation by telling them too much information too soon. This is called the INFO DUMP.

 Look at this passage from The Seasons of Mae, where she has just met her sister’s new man of the hour:

 Robert Hales was in his late-twenties and had lived his entire life in the lap of luxury. His father had risen from poverty and created a very successful shipping business, first by steamboat and carriage, which then gave him the opportunity to buy into the great railroad movement. Fortunes were made overnight, and with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, a world of opportunities opened. The elder Mr. Hales was the first to build transcontinental without being subsidized by the government. Many thought he was crazy, but his great foresight paid off, and he reaped the rewards. He eventually squashed the competition and owned most of the rail lines in the west. Robert had the same business smarts and great foresight, and was a great attribute to his father’s company. In addition the vast fortunes Robert had already made for himself, he stood to inherit his father’s company and wealth.

This sounds like it came right out of a history book (guilty as charged! It DID come out of a history book, but was embellished slightly) and not out of the pages of a romance novel. Yes, the information is pertinent to his character, but does the reader need to know all of this right now? No. 

If you were to meet Robert, imagine him shaking your hand and then saying, “I’m in my late twenties and I’ve lived my entire life in the lap of luxury. My father rose from poverty and …” blah blah blah. You would immediately tune him out and then you would glance around the room, looking for a way to escape this boring “conversation.” If you want your novel to feel authentic, each character’s introduction should be just like meeting a real person. The reader should be given visual clues about his persona. Mae noticed this about him as he entered the room: 

He was tall and thin—obviously his delicate frame was not accustomed to hard labor.

That line right there—while far from perfect—gives just as much insight into Robert’s character as does that long, boring paragraph from above. He’s a true 1880’s gentleman; meaning he’s not going to be built like John Cena. His body type shows us that he is wealthy; there is no need to go into further details about his father’s business at this point (page 5!) in the story. Those details can be woven in later on.

Speaking of weaving, writing is much like sewing. Take cross-stitch for example: it has a front and a back. Obviously, it’s the front side of the cross-stitch that is meant for display, but that doesn’t mean that the backside doesn’t exist or isn’t equally as important. But the backside is just for the seamstress to see. It is where the work of sewing is hidden away—the anchors, the knots and the places where the seamstress jumps with the thread from one detail to the next. 

It is the same with a novel. The author needs to know every last detail about his or her characters. Quirks, weaknesses, strengths, habits, backstory—that information should be written in your character bible, but it should not be written in such a straightforward manner for your readers to see. Those are your knots and long stitches on the backside of your pages. You don’t want those facts to be seen! They should be woven—one little thread at a time—into your story.

How would we know that Robert is the heir to a powerful railroad tycoon? While that tiny tidbit of information could be given, the rest of his backstory should be omitted. Instead, I should have shown the incredible respect Robert received at any public local. People from the working class would cower when in Robert’s presence. People from the upper crust would fawn over him, especially if they had an unmarried daughter. Robert’s power and influence should be given to the reader through a series of exchanges of dialogue whenever Robert is in a scene. Other hints can be given, like seeing his surname name written on the sidecar of a freight train. Show the reader who the character is, rather than telling the reader who the character is supposed to be. 

Remember the old proverb: ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS. Make your characters ACT. That is how your story will come to LIFE.