Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Proportion or “Killing the Darlings…again”

--Summarized from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. By Browne and King--

Sometimes, I am enjoying a book when I come to a passage and think, “YAWN.” The plot grinds to a stop, or an action which should take a moment takes pages to describe, and I am suddenly reminded that I have to switch the laundry or wash the dog or trim my dinosaur’s toenails.

Or, occasionally I’ll be reading along and have to stop because I get lost in the action. Where did that character come from? He wasn’t holding a sword before. I don’t understand. At that point, I either re-read until I understand, wrecking the pace of the story, or I fling the book at the wall and stomp off to vent my frustration on some unfortunate inanimate object.

What happened?

This is a problem writing instructors call “proportion.” To oversimplify, it’s a matter of focus. Usually, a piece that is labeled “out of proportion” means that the author has decided to either indulge in a long description for its own sake (and to the detriment of the pace of the story), or, on the other end of the scale, omit description that would be helpful to the reader.

Both of these are sins of a writer who is not thinking of his or her reader. When you are writing a first draft, you should NOT think of your reader, but when you are editing, revising, polishing a draft, you should imagine your reader peeking over your shoulder. If she starts yawning or tapping you to ask “What’s that mean?” you need to adjust the proportions—the focus—of your details.

Now, all asides—chunks of information—should do something beside impart information. Usually they reveal character, set a scene, develop a subplot, or give the world of the story some depth.

However, many writers write about the things they love (“darlings,” if you will). If you’ve ever talked to someone who is in love, whether with a person, an object, or a hobby or passion, you’ve seen a person glaze over and wax poetical, usually about something you don’t give a hair for. Isn’t that boring? Don’t be that guy.

However, proportion can be a tool to manipulate your readers’ expectations. Mystery writers are experts at this, spending time developing characters and objects that lead the reader away from the actual criminals and murder weapons. These are called “red herrings,” but all the writers do to create them is focus on providing details on something that isn’t actually important. Most readers won’t notice this kind of manipulation, unless you pull a machina ex deus on them.

One last way to control proportion is by using point of view (POV). Every character notices and describes different things, so a writer can use different characters to control information. Imagine the difference between a scene described by someone watching a horse auction for the first time versus an old horseman standing next to him. Which is going to notice the slight limp of the animal in the auction ring? The writer needs to pick the point of view when deciding how much the reader needs to notice the limp.

To sum up, detail and description needs to work just as hard as the rest of your writing. If you have a chapter on the natural history of whales, as Mody Dick does, then you better be Herman effing Melville. You need to construct a balance between the focus of your descriptions, the purpose of those passages, and the attention span of your readers.

(By the way, you probably aren’t Herman effing Melville yet, but it’s good to have goals.)

1. When you are editing your work, first, let it sit a few days so you can gain some distance from it. This will help you look at the story with some objectivity. Then print out a copy (so you can resist temptation to fiddle with it) and read it as if you were a reader, not a writer. Mark everything that seems interesting, lively, intriguing to you as a reader.

2. Then, look at the parts that you did not mark. Why is that stuff there? If it doesn’t interest you as a reader/writer, why would it interest your reader? Is it needed? Can it be cut or dovetailed into another part of the scene via dialogue or a beat?

3. Then, re-read and look for parts where there is not enough description. Do swords suddenly appear? How did they get there?  If the reader needs to know about the intricacies of carburetor tuning to understand how the killer got away, you need to find a way to describe that unobtrusively. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Another way to be more productive

Trying Something New with Daily Writing Quota http://t.co/paQ3jqCI via @JeffAmbrose13 Well put, everyone could use this advice! -- Vencenzo Izzo (@whatnottodobook)

Since I have kids, too, writing time matters more than number of words.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Editing: Characterization

In the last post, I wrote about how writers often explain things in a chunk of prose that they could demonstrate in a scene. This is the old "show, don't tell," mantra.

Another way that writers tend to "show" too much is when they are introducing characters. Most of us want to tell our audience everything about new characters as soon as they walk into a room. 

Why is this a problem? Why shouldn't we get our reader up to speed on a character as soon as possible? 

It's because part of the pleasure of reading is the act of discovery. The pleasure of meeting new people is to figure out who they are. Real people aren't going to hand you a typed paragraph explaining what they would do in a given situation. Everything if they did, it would probably be wrong. Characters shouldn't be introduced by paragraph, either, and for the same reason. 

Character descriptions are inherently less interesting than the character's actions or dialogue. These things can actually demonstrate qualities that would otherwise just be packed into a paragraph of prose like so many sardines. Let the characters flop like fish on a deck. THEN I'll know who they actually are. 

Also, if you give a reader a character introduction, the reader will then expect that character to behave according to that definition for the rest of the story. The reader will feel cheated or betrayed if the characters strays from this definition, and may flip back to the page when the character entered the story and say something like, "No, wait. It says here that she NEVER liked sardines! Why does she like them now?" 

In this scenario, the curtain has been drawn back and you, and that big faker Oz, have been exposed. Good writing doesn't call attention to itself (which is WHY you are supposed to kill your darlings--more on that in another post). Making your readers notice a character straying from the guidelines you set for him, is a way to call attention to yourself. 

So, how does a good writer introduce a character without committing any of the above sins? Here are some things to try:

1. Define the new character through the observations of another character.

Trudy hated to admit it, but Calvin was charming, witty, and slippery as an eel worming his way through an oil spill. She was glad she wasn't the one signing the apartment lease, but she worried that she might have to call Calvin to fix something in the future. She didn't like the idea at all.

2.  Use the character's dialogue or actions explain it all.

Benny walked past the ashtray and flicked his cigarette butt onto the hotel lobby carpet and walked away from it as it smoldered. He glared at the broken elevator as if it had timed its malfunction to his visit. Then he began hefting himself up the carpeted stairs, muttering "Mother*****r" every third step. 

3. Use the characters POV to describe something else. 

Ginny had never been in a cathedral before, so she stood in the middle of the nave, head tilted so far back her mouth hung open, like she was drinking from the streams of colored light pouring from the windows. There was nothing like this in Eastern Oregon. She dropped her backpack onto the floor and was instantly embarrassed by the clatter, so she plopped into the nearest pew and pretended to pray,

When you introduce a character, you don't have to give up all the goodies at once. The reader just needs to know enough about him or her to get us started. Notice, I didn't give physical descriptions in the above examples, but I bet you have a picture in your head for each of them. I would further wager that your pictures are pretty close to what I have in my head. 

Your prompt:  Find a spot in your writing where a new character is introduced via a chunk of descriptive prose. Re-write the prose using one of the three options above.