Monday, December 31, 2007

Onstage and Offstage Action in Fiction

On the stage or screen we witness most of the story, don't we? Occasionally, some action takes place offstage, and we learn of it through hearsay. For example, in Hamlet we don't witness what happens on Hamlet's voyage to England. But we do know that Claudius has arranged for his murder there. So, we see Hamlet reach the coast, thunder his great soliloquy, and embark. Then, back at the ranch….

The next thing we know, a good deal of time has passed, and Hamlet must already be dead. Things are going to hell in Denmark. Claudius and Gertrude are trapped in the web they wove. Suddenly, we are as surprised as Claudius to learn that Hamlet isn't dead and has returned to Denmark. What could be more dramatic and ominous? He might as well be the Christ returning in a cloud for Doomsday. How angry he must be! Shakespeare accomplishes this stunning dramatic effect simply by not showing us what happens at sea. Instead he has Hamlet relate a brief narrative summary of those events later.

Was Shakespeare lazy? Did he leave out this exciting action to shorten the play? No, he had good storytelling reasons to keep that action offstage. By doing so, he eliminated material unnecessary to prove his premise. Also, by not showing what happens next — by skipping that scene and jumping ahead to what happens weeks later in Denmark — he maximizes the plot's dramatic impact.

So, on stage and screen, some scenes are left out for good storytelling reasons. Nonetheless, notice that Shakespeare puts the lion's share of the story in immediate scene on stage. He relates only bits of it through narrative summary. Indeed, think how boring a play or movie would be if many things happened offstage and the characters just told us about them!

So most of a story on stage or screen is in immediate scene (or dramatic form), and some is narrative summary (or narrative form). In a novel, there's no set, so a third mode of conveying information is necessary, description.

Readers prefer immediate scene as much as a theater audience does. In fact, to get published today, the bulk of a novel's text must be immediate scene, with brief narrative summary only when appropriate, and with brief descriptions brought to life by filtering them through a character's viewpoint.

Immediate scene plays in the reader's imagination. That's the novelist's stage or screen.


Friday, December 28, 2007

The Business of Writing

Some thoughts on the business end of writing. But first a disclaimer: If you are getting business advice from me, you are in trouble!

That said, here are a few things I learned and noticed. Note that, in college, I was one of those "helper types" (studying to be a teacher) who would have felt it beneath me to stoop to a mercenary course of study by taking any business classes. So, what I do know, I have learned by reinventing the wheel.

The first lesson I learned is that it isn't about "making a better mousetrap."

You can have the best mousetrap in the world. Head-and-shoulders above the competition. Your mousetrap can be a "revolutionary breakthrough" – a real one – and that won't do you any good.

Let me qualify that statement: It won't do you any good until you have made a name for yourself in that industry.

That's because people may rave about your product, but they won't spread the word. Not unless word is already spreading because you have already made a name for yourself. Go figure.

I learned this the hard way. I have a product like that, my first product: The Operation Doubles Tennis Strategy Guide. It isn't just better; it's much better. It is no hype when I say that its formational approach truly is innovative, that it is revolutionary and a breakthrough.

Unfortunately, those terms have become such a cliché that I can't use them in sales copy for fear of the boomerang effect they would have on potential customers, making them think this book is just more of the same ole same ole + the same ole hype.

I expected word-of-mouth publicity to kick in and gradually increase sales and traffic to my tennis site. But it didn't. Go figure.


I don't know, but I suspect that much buying is merely conspicuous consumption or buying something that may even be useless junk, just because the buyer thinks buying this junk is all the rage.

In fora where players discuss various products, you can't miss the almost fanatical loyalty to the famous name of the author or the well-known name brand, rather than the product itself. Which reminds me of the first designer to get the bright idea of putting his name on blue jeans. People nearly trampled each other in the stampede to become walking billboards to make his name famous. Almost like it's a popularity contest and everyone wants to be on the winning side.

Even in the case of a product like this tennis book – one that has a big impact on how many tennis matches you win. Go figure. Vanity and the herding instinct trump success on the scoreboard.

But I think there's more to it, because people really do want to win more tennis matches and therefore must be buying with that end in mind. Unfortunately, however, "experts" today have people thinking that we aren't qualified to make any judgments ourelves.

This is a selling handle, of course. Undermine people's confidence in their own common sense, good judgment, and even EXPERIENCE to make them buy yours.

These "experts" feel that they need to insult our intelligence by even pontificating on what to pack in our tote bags. Like we are that stupid. Like we'd never have thought of throwing in a few band-aids without that "expert" advising us to do so.

That's like paying an MD to show you how to take your temperature.

So, I suspect that, until you have been generally recognized as an authority figure in an industry, people don't trust their judgment about your product enough to spread the word about it. Even FACTS don't measure up to this mysterious aura of being an authority figure. Even if this book has drammatically raised players' ranking or their first-serving percentage. Oh, they will rave about that – to you and those who already know about it. But word-of-mouth publicity never gets going. Go figure.

It took me a long time to get my head around this fact. I kept trying to improve an already outstanding product. Fix – oh, how horrible! – a typo in it. Rewrite a sentence that could be misread or that the reader could miss the point of. Improve the aesthetics of the layout and design. Make purely technical improvements to improve the quality of print or to reduce the number of points in those drawings of tiny human figures in the court diagrams.

I felt like a hamster in a treadmill. None of it did any noticeable good. Sales didn't get off that flatline and take off until I became a recognized authority in the industry.

But that isn't all. I discovered other things that help, too, though we writerly types may fail to see the value in them. More on these other stepping-stones to success, later.



Sunday, December 23, 2007

Writing in Immediate Scene

Via Bertram's Blog:
It wasn’t bad, merely boring; it read like a synopsis rather than a fleshed out novel.

Like a synopsis, eh? In other words, no immediate scene.

I have finally given way to the belief that many would-be novelists just don't know what immediate scene is! They're faking it when they pretend they know what you're talking about.

Nonetheless, you'd think they'd notice the glaring difference between the way they relate information and the way a real novelist does. How can they fail to have some of that technique rub off on them?

You suggest that they write in immediate scene and they reply, "Uh, yeah, I know I should do that more," but then they go back and rewrite with not one more bit of immediate scene.

If you're serious about this business, you'll bother to make sure you understand the principles. Writing isn't any magical power some people are born with. It isn't inherent in you. You have to learn it.

Bertram also comments on writing that's mere expressionism, not entertainment for readers. That's fine. Journaling is fine. It's therapeutic. But let's not confuse it with art.



Friday, December 21, 2007

On Writing & the Price of 50-Pound Paper

I recently revisited one of the many writers' fora on the Net and was immediately reminded of why I quit doing so. I suppose there are some good ones out there, but I haven't run across any.

In this case, right at the top I found the one billionth example of good advice going in one ear and out the other. The obtuseness of 99.9% of these people is amazing! It all bounces off their foreheads.

How many times can you tell them to "show instead of tell" and have them come back with another piece that tells, tells, tells, and never shows?

As Bob Dylan would say, the answer is blowing in the wind.

They must either be incredibly stupid or are doing that on purpose - just pretending to be so stupid, just pretending that you didn't say the advice they don't want.

Mediocrity to fore!

For example, a moderator recently gave the standard advice to "Take it easy on the adverbs," to challenge every one and get rid of any that don't carry their weight in the sentence.

Some clown argues. He thinks this principle of good, professional writing is a matter of opinion. A matter of taste and preferences. The next thing you know, he's made a moral issue of it: Who is she to say how many adverbs are the right number? Some people might like a lot of adverbs in writing. And blah, blah, blah.

Look at the cock-eyed way he's viewing the issue - as though it's a moral issue, as though there's some fair and just answer to the question. As though it's debatable and he's arguing his case in a court of law. By doing so he proves nothing except that he is clueless. He has no idea what professional writing is all about.

He's like one of those tennis players who thinks there's a "right" way to swing at a forehand and obsesses over form, paying no attention to strategy, tactics and where the darned ball goes. Instead, he's just gotta do it "right," you see.

Why doesn't he just go hit against a wall then? He has no idea what the GAME of tennis all about. He thinks tennis is about form, not substance.

Same here, with writing. That advice on form was FOR THE SAKE OF SUBSTANCE. But neither that tennis player nor that adverb lover can see far enough past the tips of their noses to be aware of that. Substance is wholly forgotten in their obsession with looking good or sounding good = form.

They think it's all about form. Form is the end, not just a means, in their eyes.

Most of these people are just glorified journalers. All they want is attention, which comes packaged as responses from other board members that say, "I really liked the way you expressed...."

Every day, in every way, you will see their posts littered with remarks to the effect that the purpose of writing (and all art) is for the author to EXPRESS themselves.

What is writing to them then? Therapy?

Never do you see any evidence of the understanding that art is a form of COMMUNICATION.

You know, as in...


...not just...


That advice about the adverbs was just standard advice. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Steven King would say the same thing. So would ANY qualified editor.

I'm sorry, but it isn't debatable. It isn't a matter of opinion any more that Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation or Einstein's Theory of Relativity is.

Anyone can take a sentence with unnecessary adverbs, remove them, and see how much better it is. How much sharper and stronger it is. How much more focused it is. How much more clear, concise, and to the point it is. Now the central message sinks in with impact. Before it had to battle its way through fog.

That's a matter of fact, not opinion.

And we know that no one likes reading grandiose writing. Correction: only those who write it like reading it.

The vast majority of so-called writers out there are just expressing themselves and think the whole world is dying to hear them sound off.

Wrong. People read only for what's in the writing for THEM. Especially these days, when we have so little time to waste and are constantly bombarded with writing from all directions clamouring for our attention. Result? We don't read it just because it's there.

"What's in it for us?" we think as we decide whether to read something. "Is it worth my precious time?"

Readers of fiction read for entertainment. Not edification. They don't read to be wowed by your way with words. They want an imaginary experience that can compete with the quality of experience they can get on film. They want to be taken on an emotional ride through a vicarious experience. Give them that or get a day job.

As James Frey wrote, fiction writing is a service industry, not a bull horn.

Readers of non-fiction want information. They have better things to do than plow through fancy-sounding gobbledygook. They will read competitors instead, writers considerate of the time and the effort it takes to parse and comprehend language.

If you think your "authority" on a subject needs boosting with devices (like writing in the passive voice and other verbosities) that imply the semblance of authority, maybe you haven't enough true authority on the subject to begin with.

Professional writing is a product needing a market. As in any product, user friendliness is a virtue.

But many wanaa-be writers wanna be writers just to be writers, not because they have any goods to deliver.

The surest sign of a glorified journaler passing himself off as a serious writer is that he or she will scoff at today's readers, refusing to condescend to writing at the more readable level they demand.

That's just an ego trip on delusions of superiority and makes as much sense as General Electric or General Motors scoffing at customers for wanting user-friendly products.

Such a writer (or any artist) has completely missed the boat! Then they scratch their heads and wonder why they're starving.

Respect your customers. Most people can understand 11th or 12th grade writing when they must. They just refuse to slog through that salt marsh without a machete whenever they don't have to.

Your academic papers written at densely foggy 14th-to-16th grade level are read only by students required to read them and by a couple hundred other academics seeking sources to quote in their equally foggy stuff.

Don't expect stuff like that to get published in a trade paperback for a general audience of people free to NOT read it. Paper is just too expensive these days.



Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Distancing Characters in Fiction Writing

Though you ordinarily want reader intimacy, sometimes it's best to keep the reader at arm's length — either from the story or from a character (even perhaps the protagonist) or both.

For example, especially in the opening of a novel, you don't want to the reader to feel accosted by something off-putting that is too close for comfort. He hasn't been hooked yet and may put the book down. So, if the story is grim or gruesome (especially in the beginning) or rattles the reader's cage, some authors distance it from the reader with a subtle reminder that it's fiction. Other writers, like Steven King, never pull back, except in the opening. For example, in the opening of Carrie, he pulls back by relating the rain of stones on Carrie's mother's house in the form of hard fact, but in a distancing way, as newspaper articles about the event.

Writers often do this when a story brings reader into a confrontation with the pure will to evil. The story needn't be too unreal: it may just as well be too real. For example, the story might turn the reader's world upside down by showing how evil pulls an image-switch with goodness. The reader can perplex on you and refuse to suspend disbelief, because what he's reading is a little too true and unsettling.

If a character is chillingly evil, the author might refer to him in impersonal and distancing terms instead of by character name or through a pronoun.

Distance is also good for a deliberately unrealistic, bigger-than-life character you simply don't want to diminish, like Sherlock Holmes. Or say he's an assassin — not the type of person you'd call by his first name.

Conventional wisdom says the reader feels closer to your lead character if you call him by his first name. You keep the reader at arm's length from a male character when you call him by his surname. But, be wary of trying to distance a woman or child by using their surname. Writers almost always get on a first-name basis with women and children (which is patronizing). So, referring to a woman or child by surname is so unusual that it overdoes the distancing, alienating the reader from a child or female character.

Multiviewpoint novels often call the protagonist by his first name and all other characters by their last names, even in scenes where they are the viewpoint character. This first-name label then becomes a literary "white hat" to designate the good guy.

The more you use any name, the more you distance that character. So, using pronouns as often as possible creates intimacy. In dialog use direct quotes and just enough s/he saids to avoid confusion about who's talking.

Using a subordinate character as a narrator — an Ishmael or a Watson — is a distancing device. Using a frame is another distancing device.

Labels: ,