Thursday, February 28, 2013

Everybody Can't Be Right All The Time

A couple of days ago, Jami Gold had a nice post describing her experiences at WanaCon. One of the things she discussed was how to know who to believe when you have receive conflicting opinions about your story—or about writing in general.

As a newbie who has yet to finish his first story, I’m certainly not the most knowledgeable of writers. I still have much to learn, and suspect that will still be the case in twenty years, but after spending the last 3+ years reading books on craft along with writing blogs (a quick check reveals I have over 1300 bookmarked links on writing alone, most of which I’ll probably never get around to rereading), I think I’ve got a bit of a handle on the subject.

And one of the most important things I’ve learned is that not everyone in the world of writing knows what they are talking about. Some bloggers present their personal preferences as rules of writing, despite the plethora of well-received books that ignore these so-called rules. The trick is to listen as much as you can to everyone’s advice and then sit back and decide what works for you.

The following four topics are areas that I find cause the most confusion.

1. Story structure. Very important subject, although I notice a lot of confusion amongst bloggers on the differences between the Hook, the Inciting Incident, and the First Plot Point—all of which are different and all of which have very specific purposes.
Hook – Meant to grab your attention long enough for you to get involved in the story. Example (Star Wars - THE ORIGINAL): The opening sequence. Space battles. Really big ships. Droids. You have no idea what the story is about yet, but you’re willing to wait long enough to find out.
Inciting Incident – The point at which the story or character leaves the “normal world.” May or may not have much to do with the eventual story problem. Example: when R2-D2 convinces Luke to remove a restraining bolt and then runs off, prompting Luke to chase after the little bugger. You still don’t know what the overall story is about yet, but this is definitely not a normal day for Luke.
First Plot Point – Happens at the 25% point in the story. A point of no return where the character either makes a decision or is forced into a decision. Either way, nothing is the same after that point. Example: When Luke returns to find his aunt and uncle dead, and decides he’s going to leave everything behind and join the rebellion.

2. Passive voice versus passive sentences. We’re talking pet peeve here, so bear with me. Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is being acted upon instead of doing the acting. That’s it. No more, no less.

Example: "The ball was thrown by the boy."

The ball isn’t doing the throwing; the boy is, so this is passive voice. No argument there.

How about: "The ball was rolling down the street."

This is not passive voice, no matter how many people will try and tell you it is. The ball is performing the action so it is active voice. Period. End of story. That’s not to say the sentence construction isn’t passive (read: boring). It would be better written as "The ball rolled down the street." But that’s the difference between passive voice and passive sentences.

How about: "The present was unwrapped."

Passive voice or active voice? The answer is: it depends. If the author meant that the present is being unwrapped as in “The present was unwrapped by the boy,” then it is passive voice. If the author is describing a state of being, as in “the present was dusty” or “the pizza was cold,” then it is not considered passive voice, at least according to Strunk and White. Of course, state of being verbs are also considered a sign of passive sentence construction and should be avoided when possible.

Am I nitpicking here? Perhaps, but I’ve seen so many bloggers confuse passive sentences and passive voice, I just had to say something. And ranting is good for the soul.

3. Showing vs telling. Some authors like to show everything and preach that everyone else should do the same. My advice is to thank them for their advice and then ignore them. Whenever I read a book where the author shows everything, I tend to throw the book across the room long before the end. (Well, not so much now that I have a Kindle) And I know other readers who feel the same way. Don’t believe me? Do a Google search for blog posts discussing why telling isn’t so bad (there are more of them out there than you might think) and scan the comments. You’ll find all sorts of comments about how much of a slog it is to get through “too showy” books.

Showing, within reason, is good. Telling, in moderation, is good too. Too much showing makes you sound like a politician, always skirting around what you’re trying to say instead of just coming out and telling us what’s going on.

4. Deep POV. Some authors swear by it. And that’s fine—as long as they (and you) understand that deep POV is a personal preference and not a rule of writing. I’ve come across far too many blogs and books that suggest if you aren’t using deep POV, you’re doing it wrong. Perhaps that’s true in certain genres, (although I doubt it) but certainly not in sci-fi and fantasy, where deep POV is more the rarity. It’s hard enough to describe the fantasy world you’ve created without handicapping yourself with the use of deep POV. So if you don’t enjoy writing in deep POV, disregard anyone who attempts to convince you otherwise.

Edit:  After reading a nice post on deep POV, it occurred to me to be a bit more specific.  I'm all for getting rid of filter words like felt, thought, and heard; or limiting the instances in which the character thinks of himself by name, along with the other tricks that move the POV deeper inside a character's head.  But not all writers have the same definition of deep POV. Some writers would consider:  "The principal shook his hand." as an example of being too distant to be considered deep POV and would replace it with "  The principal's hand enveloped his." because that's how the character would supposedly experience it.  That's when I have a problem with deep POV.

Of course, these are all just my personal opinions, which means you’re free to pick and choose what you agree with.

And that’s the whole point of this post.

What aspects of writing do you find to have the most conflicting advice?  I'd been interested to know.

BTW, if you know anyone else who feels as confused as I do about all the conflicting information we writers receive, feel free to pass this post on to them.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Action Or Description - Which Comes First?

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve always had difficulty with chapter beginnings. Writing those first couple of opening paragraphs often drives me crazy. I feel the need to begin with setting so as to allow the reader to orient himself properly—a paragraph or two if the area is new to the reader or a just a few sentences if it’s an old setting. But I also feel the need to get the scene moving as quickly as possible and that’s where the trouble lies. Scenes can be such sluggish beasts, hard to move at first (much like me in the morning), and unless the descriptions are lively, the scene stalls before it even gets started. And since I have trouble writing lively descriptions…. Well, you can see my problem.

Lately I’ve been rereading Brandon Sanderson’s book, Alloy of Law. It has a nice relaxed style which I find useful when teaching myself how to approach story problems. (BTW, for those of you who wish to write extended actions scenes without getting bogged down, this book has many excellent examples.) And I’ve discovered that one of his techniques is to begin scenes with a single line of action before starting the description. The action may be simple, but it gets the scene off and running before the reader hits the more static descriptions. Here’s an example:

Waxillium pounded on the door of the townhome. The area around them was a typical Elendel neighborhood. Vibrant, lush walnut trees lined either side of the cobbled street…(several more lines of description)

See how that works? Action is occurring in the very first sentence, so you scarcely notice the slowdown during the subsequent description. In fact, the description heightens the suspense as you wonder what’s going to happen when the door does open. I should note that the opening sentence doesn’t have to be a physical action. A simple line of provocative dialogue can be just as good an entry point.

Perhaps everyone else already knows about this trick and I’m just the last one to catch on. But if not, consider using this technique every once in a while.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sometimes, I'm My Own Worse Enemy

I’ve come to the realization that one of the biggest obstacles I face when editing my story is… me.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but after staring at a chapter for a while, sometimes over the course of months or even years (remember, I’m a slow writer), I find myself suffering from plot blindness. I get so used to seeing the scenes unfold in the same way every time I read through them, it’s nearly impossible for me to envision the chapter unfolding in any other way. And that can be a major hindrance if the chapter needs any kind of restructuring. I simply cannot see what's wrong, and so it usually requires an act of God for me to recognize the problem.

Although usually, it’s my CP.

Thanks, Sher.

Of course, even when I know how the story should be restructured, the battle is still only half over. Although I may understand that restructuring a scene is the right thing to do on a conscious level, deep down inside the recesses of my brain, I’ll fight that change to the death. The old version is still so ingrained in my mind that it can take weeks of work and internal struggle before I clean up all the rough spots.

Despite these obstacles, I finished just such a restructuring this evening, which explains the rather haphazard nature of this post.  It also means it’s time to send the chapter off to my CP. Hopefully she won’t discover another restructuring that I missed.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Insecure Writer and the Slow Pace of Revising

Today is February's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

What makes me an Insecure Writer this month?

Time. And the way it slips away from me.

If you read my last post, you’ll know I spent nearly all of January stuck on a revision of one of my early chapters. Four freaking weeks! All spent on a chapter that had already been through multiple revisions. Argggh!

I suppose I could have moved on to some other less challenging part of the book for a while, but I’d promised that chapter to a CP and I was bound and determined not to do anything else until I’d fixed the problems – or at least enough of them that I didn’t feel guilty sending it to him.

The worst part is that this is not an uncommon occurrence for me. I may fly through 80-90% of a chapter with no problem, but it’s that last 10-20% that can stop me cold. It’s like I hit a brick wall, and staring at those darn pages for weeks at a time just sucks the life right out of me. And skipping to an easier section doesn’t solve the problem either – it only pushes it back. At some point I’m going to have to fix that troublesome spot, and only the slow, brute force method of trying sentences over and over again is going to work.

And that’s when the weeks begin to add up.

I already have limited amount of time to write. If this keeps up, I’ll be lucky to finish a book every decade.

Argggh indeed!