Tag: craft

Avoid the Second Night Blahs

At one time of my life I was involved with amateur theatre. I loved it. Rehearsals were a blast. Meeting the cast, who became your family for the run of the show. Costumes, make-up, staging– it kept me coming back year after year. Opening nights were the best. The air buzzed with excitement. Players vibrated with nerves and anticipation. The energy backstage could have powered the stage lights. When the curtain went up, we reached out to that audience with both hands, determined to shake them out of their seats and send them home amazed by the talent right there in their home town.

The second night, meh. . .  The actors were exhausted from the effort they’d put into opening night. We had to work at putting energy into the performance. Second night audiences always seemed uninvolved. Even though the show might be technically more polished than opening night, it usually felt flat to the cast. We just hoped the audience wouldn’t notice how hard we were trying.

The book I just finished, felt a bit like second night at the theatre to me. It wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t right. If this had been the author’s second book, I’d have put its shortcomings down to time pressure — an editor or agent demanding a new book in a few months whereas the first one took a year or maybe years.  But this was the third book. What happened? How can we avoid this let down in our own writing?

I’ve just finished reading a book I anticipated with joy. Unfortunately, the actual book disappointed. I’d read two of the author’s previous books with pleasure. The latest had the same WWII, England setting. The main characters were a group of women, just like in the earlier books, yet this one relied on too many co-incidences, too many unmotivated changes of heart, and too easy resolutions to the conflict. 

          Have a Big Idea   

 Sometimes, with the pressure to produce a new work in less than your comfortable timeline, an author may jump at the first idea that presents itself. If it’s a small idea it may work for a short story, but won’t be enough to carry a whole novel. Even if you are a pantser, try to jot down a few turning points to be sure your idea will carry a whole book.

         Do You Have a Passion for this Book?                   

 That first book, was likely a story that had been brewing in your imagination for some time. You just had to write it. You were in love with the characters. The setting was a place you knew well, whether real or fictional. You couldn’t wait to spend time in that place with those people.If you are now writing on command from reader or publisher expectations, you may be creating a less interesting place with one dimensional characters. Even if you are under pressure, make sure the story you tell is one you love.

          The Editor on Your Shoulder

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could “un-know” much of what we’ve learned as we wrote those first words? In blissful ignorance, we plunged right in and let the characters tell the story any way they wished. We didn’t worry about head-hopping, or point-of-view, or beats, or three-act structure. Now, all of those writing crafts are important. Learning them and using them in your own process will improve the quality of your book in second and third drafts. But all that stuff can clutter up your brain in the rough draft. Replace that nagging editor with a bluebird of happiness — one who chirps “great line”, “too funny,” “I’m crying.” That’s the voice you want to listen to when getting the story onto the page. When you’re ready to edit and revise, set the bluebird free and let the nagging editor do her job. Just don’t let her try to edit the blank page.

Remember the Rules of the Craft

After years of writing and a bunch of manuscripts, it’s possible to go on automatic pilot. That may have been what disappointed me in the book I just read. First rule, we need conflict and it has to matter.

In this book, the conflicts were real and important, yet they were easily resolved with a single conversation, or even a character just having a change of heart for no particular reason.

Character development. In this example, the characters had a sameness to them although they came from very different backgrounds. There wasn’t enough difference in their speech or in their inner dialogue to make them stand out. And they were all “nice.” We all want nice people in our real lives, but in fiction they are bland and boring. 

Go Deep on POV.  It seemed to me that this author had given us an outline of her story rather than the finished product. She set up intriguing situations but only scratched the surface of the characters and the  conflicts. Even the setting was given a mere glance. Rationing, food shortages, enemy bombers, black marketers . . . these are all riveting elements for a novel, yet I was never really afraid, or hungry. Mostly I was disappointed. An author that I know can write a gripping tale, had short-changed me on this one. I don’t know why. I just know I’ll think twice before putting down money for another of her books.

And that is the real lesson for authors in this experience. It is a truism that you are only as good as your last book. Don’t kill your career by putting out something that is less than your best.

 

Visits: 79

7 Wonders


doing homeworkA schoolgirl, when asked to name the seven wonders of the world, skipped the pyramids and the Taj Mahal and came up with this list.  The seven wonders of the world are:
1. to see
2. to hear
3. to touch
4. to taste
5. to feel
                                                                  6. to laugh
                                                                   7. and to love.

The child may have failed her social studies exam but she nailed it for fiction writers. 

These days much of the author world is is focused on marketing,  Do ads work? Do we know an influencer? Can we find a niche? What’s the ROI on a publicity campaign? Should I buy space on a highway billboard?

With all these business questions hovering about our writing, we sometimes forget about craft. But craft is paramount. Without it, marketing is selling an empty promise.  

So, let’s take a little time today to think about the art of writing as opposed to the science of selling. 

One of the first “rules” a newbie author encounters is “use the five senses” — the first five wonders in our schoolgirl’s list. I notice she left off smell and that’s a really important one. Scent conjures up emotions and memories faster than any of the other senses.

But the senses alone aren’t enough for fiction. 

I’m reading a travel book just now . Here’s a description of town of St. Ives. “From the station we walk a jagged route along beach and cobble streets into town. A maypole dance is taking place just off the foreshore,  . . . Children skip and weave ribbons in a twisting rainbow.”

This passage uses the sense of sight but it misses out on feeling, laughing and loving. While colourful exposition is fine for a travel book, it is too shallow for good fiction.

By contrast, consider “The peaceful sea sighed as it lapped gently onto the white sand. . .” A.M. Stuart, Evil in Emerald. 

In the St. Ives example, we are observers only. We see the children skip, we see the jagged route, but we are indifferent. The second example adds feeling to the senses. Sighed and lapped are evocative words that draw the reader into the mood of the story. We expect romance — or mayhem, but we are no longer mere observers. We are participants.

**

“The Marsh stretched before them, smiling and lush in the September sunshine, yet with a suggestion of eery loneliness, about it. . .  ” Georgette Heyer, The Unknown Ajax. Even though Heyer is known for her light touch and sense of the ridiculous, this example shows her skill at conjuring a dark mood, in the midst of sunshine. 

**

“Intense wind picks up – fifty miles-per-hour gusting to sixty. Tide’s out, fishing boats and dories askew in the bay.” Here the travel book tells me the author is experiencing rough weather. But, although he may feel the wind, the reader doesn’t. We merely observe.

“My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones.”  Ami McKay, the birthhouse. Ms McKay gives only a minimal description, “churning tides,” but the reader is drawn into the battle to survive on the edge of a heaving ocean. 

**

“A man sitting in a chair in the sun, reading a paper, and three children kicking a ball about. A dog jumping around the children and barking. The scene before her was so ordinary after what she had just  been though that she almost laughed in disbelief. ” Tracy Chevalier, A Single Thread

Can you identify with the terror of the heroine in this example? We see and hear a pleasant scene, yet the last line draws us into the emotion of the moment. This is more than a travelogue.

**

“She watched as [they] strolled across the village green. At first she thought they were going to the bistro for a nightcap, but then they veered to the right. To the light of Clara’s cottage.

And Reine -Marie heard them knock on her door. A soft, soft, insistent knocking. . .” Louise Penny, The Long Way Home.

Note how the word choice entices the reader into the drama. “veered” instead of “turned”, knocking that is “soft” yet “insistent.” There should be a great distance between the reader and the story at this point. We are watchers observing a watcher, and yet we sense the danger/intrigue/menace/heartache of the unfolding events.

**

“A glaring sun bore down on the small mining town . . . bleaching the colour from the landscape and sapping the strength of its citizens.” Alice Valdal, The Man for Her.  In this opening sentence I’ve set an ominous mood with oppressive heat and listless citizens. The reader not only observes the street, she feels sweat under her collar.

**

“[The dog’s] head would rise like a periscope and he would slide over the edge of his basket and work his way into the bedroom, keeping low to the ground, as if he were hunting. He would stop a foot short of the bed and cock an ear and listen . . . his nose only six inches away.” Stuart McLean, “Arthur”

Laughter, the sixth wonder. No reader can be disengaged from a story that makes her laugh. Shakespeare knew this. Even in his most heart-rending tragedies, he included scenes of comic relief. An audience, or a reader, needs release from tension. Put a little laughter in your story. Your readers will thank you for it.

**

“In her dreams Evelyn would always return to a pristine white beach where the sand felt soft between her toes and Henry’s hand was warm in her.” Joanna Nell, The Last Voyage of Mrs. Henry Parker.  Here we have the seventh and greatest wonder of them all, love.

**

In science class we are taught that the five senses are sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. As writer’s we should include the school girl’s wonders, feeling, laughter and love.

Visits: 79

Beginnings

This weekend I attended a meeting of my local romance authors group, where the workshop topic was “Brilliant Beginnings,” as presented by Vanessa Grant. We talked about hooks, and power words, and story questions, and tone, and sensory input and dialogue.  Everyone could agree on the importance to those qualities.  We also suggested a hint of the conflict should be present and something of the main character’s personality or background.  Quite a lot to pack into a few opening sentences, but we blithely agreed it could all be done.

Then we broke into groups to analyse the openings of several well-known authors and couldn’t agree on anything! In my group, I found the opening lines of Kristan Higgins’ novel, A Perfect Match, made me laugh.  I definitely wanted to read more.  Others in my same small group complained about a lack of conflict, not enough sensory detail and lack of story question.  When other groups reported in, there was a similar difference of opinion.

I was delighted to find disagreement.

I have maintained for some time that the axiom, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” applies to writing too. Readers have individual tastes, as do writers.  I may find a book that includes a character hooked on x-stitch intriguing while someone else may dismiss it as too old fashioned.  Some readers like lots of explicit sex, others, like me, prefer to close the bedroom door.  There is no one-size fits all.

This is not to say that studying writing, learning the techniques of successful authors, and  practicing the craft is pointless.  Those exercises are extremely valuable.  For by studying, learning and practicing an author can find her own style, her own set of “rules” and the readers who respond.  But as one who finds rules or templates hard to follow, I’m always seeking vindication.  Those who lecture on “this is how it’s done,” scare me.  I’ve tried to force myself into someone else’s shoes and my muse dried up completely.

So, I say “amen” to a difference of opinion.

What about you, dear readers? Want to play the opening lines game?  Here’s a few examples of my favourites.  Feel free to disagree.

“A fox got in amongst the hens last night, and ravished our best layer,” remarked Miss Lanyon. “A great-grandmother, too!  You’d think he would be ashamed!”  Venetia by Georgette Heyer

1801—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

As Clara Morrow approached,  she wondered  if he’d  repeat the  same small gesture  he’d done every morning. 

It was so tiny, so insignificant. So easy to ignore.  The first time. The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window.  Nothing great.  The furniture keeps disappearing, though.  That keeps things interesting.  A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

My house stands at the edge of the earth. the birth house by Ami McKay

 Maggie Ann Keaton swung shut the wrought-iron gates of her new home and secured the chain and padlock, giving them a hard tug to make sure they held, and hung a “No Admittance,” sign just for good measure. Love and Lilacs by Mary Alice Valdal

“I can’t believe we’re arguing about a waterbuffalo.” Annie Rush reached for her husband’s shirt collar, turning it neatly down. Family Tree by Susan Wiggs

Fear churned in Allie Tillman’s nervous stomach, like a butter paddle in a jar of thick cream. Bobbins and Boots by Shanna Hatfield.

Share your thoughts in the comments section and be entered to win a free e-copy of The Man Who Hated Christmas.  Winner announced Nov. 1, 2017.

If you enjoy dissecting the openings to books, the blog Writer Unboxed runs a regular feature called Flog a Pro.  Enjoy!

Visits: 437

© 2024 Alice Valdal

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑