In dreams.

May 30, 2012 Writing Comments (0) 340

I’ve been writing since I was eleven years old (maybe younger), but last night was the first time I’ve ever dreamt a solution to a piece I’m stuck on. It was so good I got up at 5 AM, fetched the laptop, and wrote it all out.

I’ll share the dream, which was a telepathic, shape-shifting cockpit in a spacecraft that adjusted the layout of controls and displays to suit the pilot’s intuition. That seemed like the greatest idea ever from the time I woke up for the entire half hour or so that I was writing it out. It was only afterward that I realized it didn’t fit the novel’s tone or setting one bit. It’s not a terrible idea in general, but it doesn’t work in this story.

The good news is I spent another hour and a half hacking out a new and improved version, and I may have finally pushed through this chapter rewrite that’s been dogging me for months. If the section where the narrator sits alone on the ship’s bridge and remembers his childhood pretending to fly spaceships survives to the final version, you blog readers will know it originated with my dreams on May 30, 2012.

I’m not usually a morning writer. I write in the evenings and late at night, and save the mornings for the snooze button. I stole another hour of sleep from 7 to 8, but I still feel like a zombie.

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Two chapters.

May 15, 2012 Writing Comments (0) 245

Well, two chapters and some miscellaneous odds and ends.

That’s all that stands between me and a completed first draft of the novel I’ve been writing for three years. Why does it feel so far way?

This is one of those things non-writers often don’t understand. I finished “writing” the first draft months ago. Since then I’ve been “revising,” which also encompasses a good bit of rewriting. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m a fan of the clay sculpture mode of writing, wherein the first draft is (metaphorically) throwing a bunch of raw material onto an armature, and ending up with something that resembles a super-ugly, messy version of the finished product.

On review of that initial messy lump, shortly after congratulating myself on a finished first draft, I realized what I had was unreadable. Some chapters appeared twice, in two different forms. Vital plot details were revealed in three places, or sometimes not at all. Whole sections had been skipped, and I never returned to fill in the blanks. I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t even worth passing this mess along to test readers – their only comments would be things I already knew myself. Things like, “This doesn’t make any sense.”

So it was back to rewriting, which I initially aimed to complete by December 31, 2011. Then January 31. Then April 30. Now, I really believe I can realistically finish by May 31. But first, there’s those two damn chapters. Continue Reading

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Chimamanda Adichie: “The danger of a single story”

April 13, 2012 Writing Comments (0) 339

This is terrific. Author Chimamanda Adichie tells of her childhood in Nigeria, reading American and English books and then writing books with white characters playing in the snow, eating apples, and discussing “the weather,” then goes on to discuss the danger of knowing a people, place, or culture through only a “single story.” Well worth watching for anyone – if you’re a writer, I’d say it’s vital.


“I recently spoke at a University where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers, like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho, and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.”


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The Writer’s Lexicon: Inciting Incident

February 21, 2012 Writing Comments (0) 315

The inciting incident is the event that sets your plot into motion. It’s the thing that shakes your protagonist out of stasis (Act 1) and into change (Act 2).

Like most concepts in art, the inciting incident is the subject of various debates. One is whether the inciting incident must itself be a scene in your story. I’m of the mind that it does not – in the examples above, for instance, #2 occurs before the story itself begins. The inciting incident will often be a scene, but not always. Some, particularly in screenwriting, believe the inciting incident should always come at the end of Act I, and lead into Act II. Once again, I strongly disagree – this “setting out” by the protagonist is a reaction to the inciting incident, not the incident itself.

The second point of frequent debate is on what, exactly, constitutes THE inciting incident. Some will argue it’s the moment at which the main character can no longer turn back, but I disagree. My opinion is it’s the event on which things begin to turn, the cause to which all reaction can be traced – the fulcrum of the story, if you will. I also disagree with those who say the inciting incident must be something that happens to the main character. It can be fun, at least for those of us who find pointless intellectual exercises “fun,” to argue over what exactly the inciting incident is.


  • Is it when Frodo gets the One Ring from Gandalf? Or is it when Bilbo finds the ring in Gollum’s cave? Or is it the Council of Elrond?
  • Is it John Arryn’s murder? Or King Robert’s demanding that Ned Stark serve as Hand?
  • Is it Vader attacking Leia’s ship? Or Luke finding the droids? Or maybe even the initial theft of the Death Star plans?

Key to identifying the inciting incident, I think, is figuring out exactly whose story you’re telling. For a writer struggling with a plot structure, this can also help to determine what your central conflict is, and where the climax will fit. Conversely, deciding on whose story you’re telling might change your inciting incident.

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The Effect of Narrative Point of View, part two (an illustration)

August 19, 2011 Writing Comments (0) 273

A fellow author in my writer’s group is working on a first-person account of a terrible real-life experience. Year ago, her son was arrested and prosecuted for a crime he did not commit. I will avoid any more specific detail here, because it’s her story and not mine. I also want to make clear that I am not picking on her. Her story is compelling, and I think it is going to end up being a great book – but she has been struggling with a few core concepts that I want to illustrate.

The critical problem I think she is encountering is that the book is written from her own perspective, and the mother of the accused is always, always going to present a problem of reliability. My guess is, when the mother of the accused says “I guarantee my son is innocent!” none of us take this as fact.

Compounding the problem, however, is that almost all of the factual information presented in the story comes from the mother’s voice, with no attribution to another source. This includes the core concept that the accuser is using the alleged crime to further a political agenda, that the son is “not even capable of this kind of action,” and other essential facts that the reader needs in order to weigh the piece.

Even further complicating things, the mother/narrator mentions in places that her son has on occasion gotten into trouble for vandalism, and has a history of taking hallucinogenic drugs. These facts, combined with nature of the alleged crime, the reliability problems presented by the mother-as-narrator, push the reader in the direction of suspicion – which could make for an interesting story, but is not, according to the author, her intention.

There are a few relatively simple solutions, as I see it. The first, and simplest, would be to introduce other characters with more authority, and have them deliver facts to the reader through dialogue. For example, instead of the mother saying through exposition that the accuser is a known liar and political manipulator, there might be a scene where she has coffee with a sheriff’s deputy who tells her so. By putting this information in the mouth of an objective and authoritative source (or, at least, more objective and authoritative than the mother of the accused) the reader can treat this information as reliable, and use it to form their own opinion.

A more extreme revision would be to take the story out of the first person and present the entire thing from a third-person perspective, maybe even from an omniscient narrator. If this were the approach, I think it would be smarter to craft the work as a novel based on actual events, rather than a non-fiction work – this allays questions about the author’s own reliability, being that she was personally involved in the actual events. Even in this case, however, it is important that facts the reader is meant to take at face value come from a source as objective and authoritative as possible.

In my opinion, the most interesting approach for a work like this would be a first-person account, in which the bulk of the facts come from characters with varying degrees of reliability – the mother of the accused, the accused himself, the accuser, and the residents of the small town who regard the accuser as an outsider and don’t necessarily welcome him. In a story presented this way, the reader is left to decide who he or she trusts, and to form their own opinion about what probably really happened and what the consequences should be.

Another member of the group has compared this kind of narrative to John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book I myself have not read. But of course the decision belongs to the author, and it’s up to her to decide what purpose her story will serve, and how she would like her reader to relate.

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The Unreliable Narrator

August 17, 2011 Writing Comments (2) 800

You think you can catch Keyser Soze? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting caught and sticks his head out? If he comes up for anything, it will be to get rid of me. After that… my guess is you’ll never hear from him again.

— Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), The Usual Suspects

Few literary techniques can be as interesting – and few as frustrating for beginning authors – as the unreliable narrator. When someone (usually a fellow writer) accuses me of over-intellectualizing the craft and comments on how useless all my book-learnin really was, I bust out the unreliable narrator as proof that a good author must learn at least a few things about literary technique. Every reader is familiar with the unreliable narrator, and every reader responds to it – even if they don’t know the name, and often don’t recognize their own response.

As a concept, the unreliable narrator is simple. You’re sitting on a park bench, and a stranger sits down next to you. He begins to tell you a story. You as the listener, are doing two things: you’re listening to his story to try and follow the narrative strand, but you’re also (consciously or unconsciously) measuring the things he says to determine whether you can trust him as a source. You’re measuring how reliable a narrator he is. Continue Reading

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The effect of narrative Point of View, part one

August 15, 2011 Writing Comments (0) 1002

Get it? First Person?

Example 1 (third person): Jimmy never saw Rachel rob that bank.

Example 2 (first person): I never saw Rachel rob that bank.

Example 3 (second person): You never saw Rachel rob that bank.

Read the three examples above, one at a time. Imagine each as the first sentence in a short story, and think about where you would expect the story to go from there. Better yet, imagine you’re sitting on a park bench with a total stranger, and this is the first sentence of a story they tell you. Note the dramatic difference in effect, even though only one word changes. Note the change in your assumptions about the narrator, particularly his or her reliability. Do you find yourself, unconsciously, wondering whether you can trust what this narrator is telling you?

I have heard authors variously refer to this as voice, perspective, or mode, but as I understand it (and Wikipedia, at least, agrees), the correct term is point of view. The role your narrator (and, in second-person, your audience) plays in the story has major ramifications on the reader experience. It is critically important for the author to realize this, and to choose the right point of view to have the effect he or she wants.

Let’s do one more, with a more significant change. Think about how much this changes the way you read the sentence, and how you immediately make assumptions about Jimmy, about Rachel, and about the narrator.

Jimmy told me he never saw Rachel rob that bank.

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“Shitty first drafts” and writing-as-sculpture

July 25, 2011 Writing Comments (1) 996

The Intern today has an excised scene from Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, part of the site’s “International Sh*tty First Draft Week,” which reminded me of a conversation that came up at a recent writer’s group meeting. Many of us get caught up or blocked trying to write a perfect first draft, when a first draft is really meant to be raw material. As the expression goes, writing is rewriting.

I give you the writing-as-sculpting metaphor, which is either something I heard somewhere else or an original concept by yours truly. I honestly cannot recall.

Imagine writing as sculpting in clay. You begin with a rough mental image of what you’d like to craft. The first step is to build a skeleton that will support the whole weight of the work and hold it together. In sculpting, this is often a wire or wood armature. In writing, it is an outline.

A sculptor then “builds up” by throwing clay onto the armature, creating the rough shape of the final sculpture. It is from this rough shape that he or she will then cut away clay, bit by bit, to leave behind the final piece. Small pieces can be added on where needed, but mostly the final piece is “cut out” from the built up intermediate.

This is the important thing to remember about a first draft: in sculpting terms, the writer is “building up,” throwing material onto the skeleton that can later be cut and carved more carefully into the final piece. You don’t want it to look perfect, and you want to have more material than you need to work with, so you can mostly cut away rather than adding on.

Suma backs me up. From her remarks on the excised portion of her draft:

I write long. My first drafts are a study in endlessless and an experiment of how many times I can have my characters discover and rediscover the same thing and face up to the same epiphany. In first drafts, apparently everyone I write about has amnesia. That, or it takes me a few times to get a scene down right.

This means that when it comes time for revision the first thing I do is cut. I cut, then rewrite, then cut some more. (Then I do it again. And again.) The snippet of the scene I’m about to share isn’t something I cut out of horror–this does happen; I’ve been known to cut-and-cringe–this scene was simply something that didn’t fit the more I kept writing.

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How to respond to a critique

June 16, 2011 Writing Comments (0) 332

You say “thank you.” That’s it.

You remind yourself that this person took the time to (a) read your work, (b) give it enough thought to formulate comments, and (c) took the time to share those comments with you. You don’t get defensive or tell the person that he missed the point, that he doesn’t understand good writing, that he obviously wasn’t paying attention, that he doesn’t know or understand your genre, or that you never realized what an idiot he is in general until now.

If your reader asked any questions, you can answer them. If you are unclear about a criticism, you can ask for clarification. If you want to bounce a potential revision off him and see how he likes it, you can do that. And if you must – absolutely must – you can explain what you were trying to achieve with the work. Under no circumstances, however, can you tell the reader that he or she is wrong. Continue Reading

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Writing techniques: revealing character

September 17, 2009 Writing Comments (0) 343

The new Flaming Lips album Embryonic, is streaming in its entirety over on Colbert Nation.  I’ve been listening to it all day at work.  This is a good day.

I’m currently “reading” Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  I use the quotes because I am experiencing the novel on audiobook, as I do most of the novels I read.  I walk half an hour each direction to and from work every day and usually walk for forty-five minutes on my lunch break, and it’s damned difficult (not to mention unsafe) to thumb a paperback while walking the busy streets of Center City Philadelphia.  But it’s annoying to say “I’m listening to a book” and get odd looks from people, so I say “reading.”  Anyway, I digress.

In this morning’s passage there was a line where one of the main characters, John Percival Hackworth, experiences relief “like a puff of opium smoke.”  Or something very much like that – forgive me, it’s hard to look up quotes on an iPod.  It called to my attention a little-discussed writing technique.

In writing classes you’re generally taught that there are three ways to reveal character to your reader.  How the narrator describes the character, how other characters perceive the character, and how the character perceives herself.  There is another way, tied in with point of view, and that is how that character perceives her world.

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