Tag: Writer Unboxed

If You Could Visit. . .

As mentioned before, I follow the blog Writers Unboxed. Some time ago, in response to a post about discouragement, Donald Maas wrote what amounts to a love letter for writers.  I printed out parts of it for future inspiration. You can read the whole post here.

After the Christmas break, I’m getting back into my writing routine, but finding it hard to pick up the pieces of the story. I’ve re-read Mr. Maas’ post and found one of his suggestions really touched a chord in me. He asked about my story world. If I could visit, where would I go, who would I speak to, what would I eat, where would I lay a flower? Just reading those lines seemed to give me permission to turn “work” into “play.”

I know exactly where I’d go in Prospect. I’d visit the Rockingham Hotel and have tea with Emma North. I’d wander the boardwalks and drop in at The Mercantile. No doubt Bella Barclay will give me an earful about the latest goings on. I’d wander by Rev. Stanton’s church and spend a little time by the duck pond. Nothing like squabbling ducks to raise the spirits.

At the end of the day, I’d hire a horse and take the road through the woods to Pine Creek Farm. When I reached the house, I’d leave my horse and walk up the hill to the orchard. There I’d sit on Sean’s bench beneath the Sweetheart Tree and watch the sunset. I might feel a little melancholy remembering Lottie’s early life, but from my perch, I can see Bridget and her little brother playing tag on the verandah. Present joy replaces past sorrow. I’ll linger until I see Sean and Michael come in from the fields and know the family is sitting around the kitchen table, secure, happy and full of love.

Now that I’ve had my imaginary visit to Prospect, I’m eager to pick up my pen and continue the story. Thank you, Donald Maas for your insight and your compassionate words for writers.

How about you? Any story places you’d love to visit in person? Would you go back in time to Green Gables, perhaps, or are you a seeker who longs to float among the stars with Mary Robinette Kowal? What makes you want to visit a fictional place– the people? the landscape? the time period? Would you visit Prospect if you could? If you don’t know the gold rush town of Prospect, B.C. visit my books page and meet some of the characters.

 

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“Stuff Happens”

Kathleen McCleary at the Writer Unboxed blog posted last week about an American survey that shows the books we read as children remain the best loved books of most adult readers.

I can understand that. In my post on The Book that Matters most, I noted that the people in my book club referenced books of their youth as being the most influential stories they had read. Granted, my book club is a small sample, but it reflects the much larger sample cited in Ms McCleary’s post.

McCleary believes the reason we love our childhood books is because “stuff happens.” Compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Waiting for Godot, and the thesis becomes clear. Alice encounters all kinds of “stuff happening,” as she journeys through the rabbit hole.  Nothing happens at the bus stop while Didi and Gogo wait for Godot to show up.  I remember the first time I saw the play. I was outraged that I’d sat through it all listening to these characters speculate on the state of the absent Godot and a few other non-sequiturs and then have them amble off-stage.  The play was over and nothing happened! Academe considers Waiting for Godot one of the most significant English language plays of the twentieth century, but it doesn’t show up on many “I loved this story” lists.

I like “stuff happens” as a plotting device. An author can outline her story as the inciting incident and then this happens and then this and then this and then this . . . until “they all lived happily every after.”  It not nearly so elegant a device as Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict, or Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey but it keeps the importance of action in the forefront of the writer’s mind.

We don’t all write adventure stories or grand operas, but action is important in any good story. Even books which focus on character development and a journey of self-discovery need action to hold the reader’s attention and give the character a framework to make that journey.

I’ve never used the “and then. . .” method as a writing aid, but whenever I’m stuck, I ask myself, “What will make the reader turn the page?” The answer to that question is usually, “something happens.”  And then, something else happens.

What about you, dear reader? How important is “stuff happens” in your reading choices?  Can you wait for Godot and engage in philosophical discussion or would your rather encounter a March hare? Do books you read when young still resonate?

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Opening Lines

Heading into my final round of editing this week. I’m very excited and scared to death at the same time.  This book, the third in the Prospect series, has been a long time in the incubator.  Now that it’s ready for publication, I want to get it “right.”

I’ve already made several passes through the ms on the computer, now I’ve printed it out for a final read. My twentieth century brain “sees” things on paper that it misses on a screen.

Aside from the usual eye out for typos and inconsistencies, like changing hair colour or a week with two Mondays, I want the story to engage the reader right from the start. I’ve been studying opening lines in my favourite books, reading advice columns and watching “flog a pro,” on Writer Unboxed.  Ray Rhamey  writes a regular feature on that blog where he quotes the opening paragraph or two of a best seller and asks readers if they’d turn the page.  It’s a fun game, but I’m often at odds with him.  Rhamey wants lots of tension and action in the opening lines.  I understand that.  It’s a great hook.  Yet, when I check out my favourite stories, they often begin slowly, setting the scene, hinting at a problem but not diving straight in on the first page.  Many books on my keeper shelf begin with dialogue, which may seem innocuous but speaks to character and motivation.

Advice for writers always emphasises the importance of the opening line. It should ask a story question, hint at the protagonist’s character, introduce the setting and exhibit the author’s “voice.”  All in ten words or less.

I think lots of writer advice books are geared to high-concept stories – thrillers, action novels, suspense; the type of book, that when turned into a movie, opens with a gun fight or a car chase.

Romantic movies usually start more gently. “You’ve Got Mail,” begins with a long sequence of shots setting the location in Seattle.  “Casablanca” starts with a map and ominous music while a voice over sets the scene.  In a book, that would be omniscient author. “Titanic” is a sepia scene of passengers waving from the deck of a cruise ship.  There are other examples, but you get the idea – no gun fights.

My book starts with setting, gold rush town in 1888. The heroine is excited about a new business venture.  She has risked her inheritance.  She has a sister.

There’s more, of course, but if we were to follow Ray Rhamey’s model, that is all you would get before he asked the question “would you turn the page?”

Over to you, dear readers. How do you like your opening lines in a romance?  Would you read the next line after this opening?

On a hot sunny morning Louisa Graham stood on the boardwalk of Prospect’s main street and pointed with pride to the brand new sign over the photography studio.  “What do you think?” She craved her sister’s approval.

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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!

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Lesson from a Master

Dancer Fred Astaire was one of Hollywood’s best box office draws during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Some say he was the most popular music dancer of all time.  Although his style appeared effortless, those one take sequences on film were the result of hours and hours of rehearsal.  Previous to Astaire’s success, Hollywood musicals concentrated on large chorus lines, filmed from different angles, resulting in a kaleidoscope effect.  Astaire changed all that, presenting a solo dancer or couple in full-figure with minimum edits and camera angles.  When you watch Fred Astaire, you see the real thing, no cameral magic to cover a misstep.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were before my time but I’ve always enjoyed watching them in old movies. I never thought of him as much of a romantic hero – too thin, too small, slightly balding – but I admired his dancing.  Recently I saw an old movie clip of Astaire that segued into a modern dancer performing the same routine.  I was astonished.  The difference was so stark even a layman like me could see the difference.  The modern dancer was competent, never missed a step.  But Astaire was grace and elegance and fluidity and style with a capital S.  Despite having watched his movies, I never really appreciated his talent until I saw a poor comparison.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfyXPONE7Ws

As writers we’re encouraged to study our heros. Find an author we admire and enjoy.  Study her methods.  Read and re-read her work.  Dig out what makes her words special and then incorporate what we’ve learned into our own writing.  I admit that lesson doesn’t produce good results for me.  I’m so overwhelmed with admiration for the authors who write with energy, and style and grace and elegance and verve and . . . that I forget I’m supposed to be pulling the story apart and doing a critique.  I also find it hard to put my finger on just what it is that makes a particular author’s work so compelling for me.

Now, using my experience of watching Fred Astaire and an also-ran, I’m studying a “bad” book. This is an assigned reading for my book club.  Otherwise, I’d have tossed the novel after the first five, boring pages.  There are no “rules” for writing but there are certain conventions and expectations.  For readers of fiction, I believe the first expectation is to be entertained, from the very start.  One of the blogs I follow, Writers Unboxed, has a regular feature called “Flog a Pro.”  Here the writer community is asked to comment on the first page of a best-selling novel and determine if they, as an editor, would turn the page.  I’m sure the first page of this book would receive a “fail” in his test.  It does not engage this reader, nothing happens, there is no story question, there is no pithy dialogue, there is no appealing character.  In short, the beginning is boring.

Note to self: Reread first page of manuscript and be sure there is action, a question or a character who is so engaging the reader can’t help wanting to know more.

Most teachers of creative writing suggest limiting the story to one or two point-of-view characters. This book has four at least plus a couple of secondary POV segments.  Not only does the story bounce around from one POV character to another, it bounces around in time from pre-war, to present day, to London Blitz, to post-war England and other points in between.  When the author finally caught my attention, she jumped to a different character in a different time.  When I got involved there, she jerked me to yet another time and character.  By this time, I’d forgotten the initial question and I no longer cared.

Note to self: Teasing the reader with tidbits of information to draw her along in the story is a useful technique.  Driving the reader nuts with endless, unresolved cliff-hangers will see your book make a splat on the wall.

The “heroine” of this book, is an unlikeable character. She is deceitful, conniving and self-absorbed.  Tragedy in her personal history does not excuse her outrageous and damaging behaviour.

Note to self: Make your heroine likable.  Flaws make a character more believable, but if the character is your hero/heroine, there must be some redeeming features. (S)he must grow, change and present the reader with an admirable personality by the end of the book.

Thank you Mr. Astaire, and the also-ran dancer who showed me the true genius of the master. I still wish I hadn’t had to read the last book, but you’ve shown me how to learn from a bad example.

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