Gentlewriters, start your engines

Recently, an e-book came to my attention under circumstances which hinted that it might, uh… not be written very well. I’m sorry to report that the hints weren’t mistaken, either. I don’t plan to name the book or its author, but I do want to discuss the flaws that make the book a frustrating read, and in particular the subtle key flaw.

Some of the problems are just easy to pick up, so easy that they should really have been caught by a proofreader: The repeated use of “where” in place of “were,” for example, or joining together with commas what should have been three or four individual sentences, separated from each other with periods.

Other flaws are more subtle: the dialogue and description and characterization are “level one”, showing no signs of attempts to push these things further, give them more zest and character and life. I plan to write about the “level one” trap in a later entry; all I’ll say for now is that if a summary of the important points of a dialogue reads exactly the same as the dialogue itself minus quote marks (e.g., Charles said “I want to wait until the inheritance comes in” becomes Charles says he wants to wait until the inheritance comes in) that dialogue needs serious work.

But the most serious flaw, the one that weakens the story the most, is simply this: it doesn’t know where its engine is.

The engine is simply what makes the story worth reading; it’s not infrequently also what makes it worth writing. Every writer is well-advised to figure out what the engine of their story is going to be, and then bring that engine front-and-center as early as possible.

The most obvious engine to use is slam-bang action. If your story is filled with exciting gunfire and car chases, you want to show the reader as early as possible “See? If you came here for shootouts and adrenaline, you picked up the right book!” It’s why the James Bond movies always start with a pre-credits sequence of action, which often has nothing at all to do with the main movie’s plot; it’s simply there to say “Do you want to see Bond besting bad guys with his wits and fists and super-spy mad skillz? Do you want to see Bond sexing up the ladies? That’s what you’re in for!” The makers know what the engine of the Bond films is, and they start each movie reassuring the audience that they know what we came for, and will deliver.

Of course, beginning writers are often advised “start in the middle of the action,” which is too easily misunderstood as “start with slam-bang action even if slam-bang action isn’t the engine of your story.” Sure, a tense chase scene is likely to intrigue readers and get them to read further… but if the rest of the book is a courtroom thriller, is that chase scene really going to get your readers’ appetites ready for what you’re planning to give them? What if the action of your novel is all the protagonist’s inner conflict? That chase scene, even if integral to the plot, is going to confuse readers who thought what they were getting in the beginning was what they would be getting in the middle and end.

So, what kind of action forms the engine of your story?

Would you believe that the answer might be “none”?

At least consider the possibility. Just about every volume of advice on writing may advise you to establish a strong plotline and make sure you take it through rising action after rising action, up to a point of highest stakes where the plot is resolved, followed by a denouement – but haven’t you read books that in no way match that description but still were tremendously enjoyable anyhow? What made you keep reading all the way through to the end? Perhaps the characters were funny and engaging people, and reading through their adventures felt like spending time with good friends. Perhaps the book was a fascinating tour of a part of our world where you’ve never been, or of a world from the author’s imagination. (Maybe you’ll just read anything with vampires in it. Hey, it’s cool! We’re not judging!)

Even for these non-action story engines, the rule of “start as you mean to go on” still applies, and again, the engine of the story is probably whatever gets you excited about writing it. Which means if your reason for writing a Western is simply “I love Westerns,” then you should immerse your reader in the Western milieu as soon as you can: give them the dusty trails and the leather saddles, the desert prospectors and the rugged lawmen, the clip-clop of horseshoes and the yip of the far-off coyotes under the moon.

(Ironically, when your story is dependent upon an engine of this kind – immersion in a particular milieu – that may be exactly the time when it’s hardest to tell if you are connecting with the power of your engine. Your most enthusiastic pre-readers may gush about how awesomely you’ve brought to life just the kind of cyberpunk world they love to read about. But did you? Or are those readers simply filling in from their imaginations what you forgot to fill in from yours? A good test might be to ask yourself, “Would my work be a good starting place for someone who would love this genre, but hasn’t encountered it before now?”)

It might not seem that there’s any particular technique involved in connecting to the engine of the story. It might seem that it’s simply a matter of “whatever your story’s got going for it, get to it early and often.” There is, however, one particular technique that deserves a bit of discussion, simply because it’s so useful but starting to get a bit of backlash.

That technique is the beginning flash-forward: starting at a moment when the engine of the story is in high gear, then moving back chronologically in the narrative to explain how everything got to that moment. It’s widely used, and for good reason: it lets you connect to the engine of the story right out of the starting gate. However, I’ve seen grumbling on some Internet boards about the use of the technique, calling it a cliché that’s getting ever more tired.

Personally, I don’t think the argument that the flash-forward is a cliché holds up under examination. The flash-forward is too basic of a technique, for one thing; deeming it a cliché also logically implies that telling all events of the narrative in a straight chronological order must also be a cliché, since it’s been employed even longer. I made my own choice to use the technique in Nightbird Descends; it wasn’t in my earliest drafts but as I edited and shaped the story, an initial flash-forward seemed the best way to tell the reader right away “this story starts with the comforting everyday world you know, but it won’t stay there; there will be suspense and fear.”

Perhaps, in the e-book I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is a good story trying to get out. It’s hard to tell whether there is, however, because it’s hard to tell even what the author believed the engine would be. The worldbuilding? The unfolding of the unknown? Strong, independent female characters? All these could be strong engines for a story. But the strongest engine won’t take you anywhere if you don’t connect it to anything.

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Outlining, sizzle reel style

Today I conducted a solo walking/dining/shopping/relaxing expedition to a nearby metropolis, and reaped big rewards! Like, more than just a Monsters Crash the Pajama Party DVD with two pairs of 3-D glasses; I now have a somewhat rough but complete outline for the next Nightbird story. I’m ready to reveal a bit about the story: the working title is Ministering Angels, and it takes place in a hospital where not everyone is adhering to the rule of “First do no harm.” The research is proving a bit difficult, and more will be needed before I’m ready to write the biggest scenes, but forward progress is definitely happening.

I tried something different in the outlining process this time around, writing most of it in what I call “sizzle reel” format. For those not familiar with the practice, a “sizzle reel” is a tool that television and movie producers use to pitch their proposed projects, a short presentation showing their vision for the production. The idea is to show a potential investor or executive “see, if you give me backing to make this show, here’s the cool stuff you can expect me to do with it!”

My “sizzle reel” outline format is halfway between that model and a “Previously, on TV Series!” recap. Like the recap, I’m trying to cover every important point that’s needed to understand how things go together; like the sizzle reel, I’m trying to pack it as densely as possible with awesome. Elmore Leonard has said “I try to leave out the parts that people skip”; I’m trying to put my sizzle reel together entirely from the parts that people don’t skip.

Of course, I completed the outline today by abandoning the “bullet points” format (each bullet point being a key action or line of dialogue) and covering the last missing sections with a couple of summary paragraphs. But that’s okay; this is, after all, only a tool for my own use. Those summary paragraphs are where I can’t go into further detail until my research tells me what details are most appropriate; writing them down makes it clearer for me what answers I need to be looking for in my research.

This is the first project on which I’ve tried the sizzle reel outline; I’m looking forward to trying it on others, though I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t produce quite the same results for works that aren’t action-oriented, as Nightbird is. Those are problems for another day, though. My problem for tonight: how do you wear regular glasses and 3-D glasses together?

Note: My answers to Kindertrauma’s “It’s a Horror to Know You!” questionnaire went up today! Check it out here and if you have any interest in things horrific, do yourself a favor and browse the rest of the site; both the thoughtful analysis and the humor are top-flight.

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New-cover Nightbird Descends published!

The 2nd edition of Nightbird Descends, with the new cover (and a couple of typo fixes!) has just been published over at Smashwords!

In other news, I would have had a blog post up earlier, but I had a tool failure: the app I was editing in destroyed a week’s worth of writing just after I’d finished up. Choosing a replacement app, as you can imagine, was not a decision I wished to be casual about.

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Striking the right chord

Here’s the not-very-helpful advice you’ll get when you first start trying to write melodies for songs:

“Sure you can do it!  Here’s how you do it:  just try lots of combinations of notes until you find some that sound good together!  Then put those combinations together into bigger groups until you have a whole melody!”

Now here’s some slightly more helpful advice on the subject:  Certain combinations of notes sound better (more musical) when played together than others do.  These better-sounding combinations are called chords.  If you play a C, D, and E at the same time, it will sound better than if you simply picked three notes at random and played them together.  You can also use these chords as a basis for melodies:  if you construct a melody mostly from the notes C, D and E, it’s probably not going to be the most exciting melody – but it will sound better than if you just picked notes at random to play, or just kept playing one note like C over and over.

The point of this is not to convince you that I am a musical genius (trust me, I am not) but to talk about using theme in your fiction.  Many writers are unsure about how to approach theme in their fiction, or whether they should even be trying.  As a result, they frequently end up taking one of two unsatisfactory approaches:  they don’t think about theme and the thematic notes they hit are picked at random, or they know one thematic note they want to hit – and simply hit that one note over and over.

There is a much better way to approach theme in your fiction:  as you plan your project (or, as you learn during the process of writing it what it is you’ll be writing about) try to find not just one thematic note to hit, but a set of thematic notes, interrelated but distinct, with which to weave a more complicated pattern.

What do I mean by a thematic note, or by hitting those notes?  A valid question, so let’s start with the basics.  “Theme” is a subject that your work is about, or that it explores.  In a love story, to give one obvious example, the subject of love is going to be pretty prominent.  (If it isn’t, that’s one weird love story you’ve got there.)

What I’m calling a thematic note, however, is more than just theme:  it’s how your work explores its chosen themes.  It’s the statements your work makes about the subject.  “Love” is a theme.  “Love leads you to be a better person,” “Love makes you blind,” “Love gives you strength to heal from pain,” “Love inflicts the cruelest pains,” these are all thematic notes.  Whenever you show one of these statements through the action in your work, you’re hitting that thematic note.  When you combine thematic notes, especially notes that contrast each other such as “Love gives you strength to heal from pain” and “Love inflicts the cruelest pains,” it’s like basing a melody on the notes of a complex chord.

An example from literature may help explain the difference.  The theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby can be expressed as “the gap in American society between the wealthy and the merely rich.”  The thematic notes Fitzgerald plays are all related to that gap, but all express something different:  “The gap between the wealthy and the merely rich is almost impossible to cross,” “The allure of the life lived by the wealthy can hypnotize people into forgetting how unattainable it is,” “The myth that says ‘you can achieve anything in America if you work hard enough’ fools people into thinking they can cross the gap between the merely rich and the wealthy.”  Just imagine what a boring book Gatsby would be if Fitzgerald had only played the first of those notes over and over, and the whole book was nothing but Jay Gatsby getting his face rubbed in the fact that he could never truly be part of Daisy’s world.  The novel is far stronger as Fitzgerald actually wrote it, with that note certainly being an important part of the composition, but hardly the whole of it.

The actions and the fates of your major characters are the strongest way you can hit a thematic note.  Suppose you are writing about a lawyer named Henry, whose weight problem is getting worse as he heads into middle age, and the main plot of your book is about the love he finds unexpectedly with Nancy, who he first meets as a client.  If Henry manages to resist the midnight snack that he craves by thinking of Nancy and the faith she’s expressed in him, and wanting to live up to her image of him, that hits the thematic note of “Love leads you to be a better person.”  But you can use minor characters and subplots to hit thematic notes, too.  You had planned to put an obstacle in Henry’s path by having his firm suddenly assign him the workload of Don, a colleague who’s suddenly been hit with bird flu and will be out for months.  But what if it isn’t bird flu?  What if Don’s had a nervous breakdown because his wife has left him?  Now you’re hitting a thematic note that warns “Love leaves you vulnerable to severe hurt.”  Suppose it’s actually Don who did the leaving – he’s been having an affair with his secretary for months, and now he and she have run off together, leaving everyone else to pick up the messes they left behind them.  Now you’ve hit a thematic note of “Love can actually lead you to be a worse person.”

Of course, if you really want it to be bird flu, it can be bird flu.  Melodies don’t have to consist of just the notes of a single chord in order to sound musical, and not everything in your work has to relate back to a single central theme.  Who says your work can only have one theme, anyways?  One reason Shakespeare’s Hamlet has endured as a classic so many centuries is that it has things to say on so many themes, from revenge to political power to sociological conflict between old ways and new ways.  Who says your work has to have any theme?  A good theme can make a book resonant and memorable, but plenty of books get along just fine without any real theme in particular.  (You’d think mystery novels would be about the theme of “crime and punishment,” but surprisingly often, that’s not the case; with ‘cozy mysteries’ in particular, the novel uses crime and punishment as a backdrop, but really has little to say about the subject.)  

Whatever you feel is right for your work in terms of theme – one theme, several, none – it’s to your benefit to think about what you’re doing with theme, and what the thematic notes you’re hitting might add up to.

Oh, and when you’re composing melodies, try using different lengths.  Whole notes, half notes, and even quarter notes.  Just keep putting ’em together until you find something that sounds good, and then just keep doing that until you’ve got the whole melody.  Works like a charm.

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Welcome to my hill; enjoy the vista

Well, here we are at last.  Hello, out there, whoever you are.  I’m JDC Burnhil, author of the action-adventure e-book Nightbird Descends, and my plan for this blog is to talk about the values I strive for as a writer, and everything I’ve learned over the years about the art of fiction.

Of course, at the current moment, all I can really talk about is the art of going slightly insane while preparing for a con, like the one I’m attending starting tomorrow.  With the way things have turned out, I’m actually quite relieved that my application to run a panel at the con was declined; as stressed as I am now, it would be worse if I had that additional obligation.  (Which doesn’t mean I won’t be trying again at different cons, of course!)

So, if you follow this blog, you’ll get musings and reflections on how we do this weird thing we do, making stories to catch the minds and hearts of readers.  You’ll get updates about new chapters in the continuing Nightbird story, as well as other projects I’m working on.  And probably you’ll get more than a few pedestrian thoughts such as, there has to be a really good to-do list manager app for iPad, and does anyone have any suggestions?

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