Sep 23 2017

Self-narration and the self-aware narrator: Part 1 of 2

Narrative self-awareness
Narrative self-awareness is a frequent issue in first-person manuscripts from clients or potential clients. For a long time, I wasn’t even sure there was a name for it – it just fell into the “I know it when I see it” category that something was off in the writing.

Then at a writers’ conference years ago, a famous author (so famous I’ve forgotten her name or I’d give her credit) mentioned the self-aware narrator as one of the biggest obstacles many beginning (and some advanced) writers face. She went on to define the self-aware narrator as (and I’m paraphrasing):

“…when the first-person character, who is, of course, the story’s narrator, is aware that she is the narrator and mindful of you, the reader. Thus, she tells her story to you, always conscious of your existence and her role of telling the story. This generally makes for a very drab novel and keeps the reader outside the character’s experience. It’s the difference between watching a great movie or having a friend who saw the movie describe it to you in excruciating detail for an hour and a half. It’s boring and awful. Stop it.”

But how do you stop doing it if you don’t know what it is, how to recognize it, or how to address it?

The first-person narrator can become self-aware when the author feels distant from the character and projects the story to the readers through the character. The writer isn’t getting inside the character and letting readers experience the story through the character’s eyes, from inside her head and inside her skin.

Narrative self-awareness may be useful in certain narrative portions of a story in some genres – where the character steps into the role of first-person narrator to ruminate on life, reminisce about the past, or consider her options. But in an active or dialogue scene with other characters, the self-aware narrator needs to disappear and let the character experience the moment first-hand.

The self-aware character “self-narrates” the story (more on this in Part II). She tells readers what happens to her as opposed to readers experiencing the scene from inside the point-of-view character. The narration comes across as the character viewing herself and the story, then relaying that information to readers. It’s a distancing way to tell a first-person story (or a close third-person story, for that matter). It feels like the narrator is speaking directly to readers. It damages the biggest strength of a first-person narrative: the close, intimate perspective.

When the narrator/character talks directly to the reader, the reader’s brain subconsciously processes it as “this is the author stepping onto the page to tell me something… it’s a novel, fiction, not a real character or real events.” The self-aware narrator knows it’s just a story and that she has a role to play, and narrates the story from that perspective. This breaks the reader’s “suspension of disbelief.”

When this happens, it usually manifests as “self-narration.” And that’s often when a reader sets a book down and never picks it up again.

See Part 2 here.


Apr 29 2017

That which confounds us…

I received my copyedited manuscript back from my publisher, and am proud to say that it was VERY clean, except that I seem to completely miss the difference between which and that. Something about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, but that means nothing to me. Can you explain?David, author

Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses are adjective clauses – they modify or describe the noun, either the subject or object, of the sentence. They’re also called relative clauses because they relate to the rest of the sentence.

Restrictive clauses do just what they say: they restrict the subject or object. They add a specific description to distinguish the subject or object from any other. Removing the restrictive clause from the sentence would change the meaning of the sentence or make it confusing or too vague.

Non-restrictive clauses add additional information about the subject, but they don’t restrict the subject to a specific item. The non-restrictive clause can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning.

Makes perfect sense, right? Ahem. Okay, it makes more sense with examples.

The car was stolen.

‘The car’ is the subject of the sentence. It was stolen.

What car was stolen? We need more information.

The car, which was in the parking lot, was stolen.

That is a non-restrictive clause. There may have been lots of cars in the parking lot. If you remove this non-restrictive clause, it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. The car was stolen. The non-restrictive clause (‘which was in the parking lot’) adds additional information, but doesn’t restrict it to one specific car.

The car that was in the disabled parking space was stolen.

Oh, that car. “That” added more information that specifically restricted the subject of the sentence to that car. Not any of the other cars in the parking lot. That car. That car that used to be right there but isn’t there anymore because it’s been stolen.

Non-restrictive clauses (‘which’ clauses, adding more info but not restricting) are set off with commas from the main sentence because it is additional information, almost a parenthetical statement. The car, which was in the parking lot, was stolen.

Some ways it can get mixed up:

I love pasta, which this restaurant serves. (non-restrictive)

“Pasta” is the object of this sentence. This sentence means I love pasta in general. Some added information is that this restaurant serves pasta, but I’m not specifically saying I love the pasta served at this restaurant – I’m not restricting my statement to only pasta from this restaurant. In fact, my next sentence might say, “However, this restaurant’s pasta tastes like crap.”

I love the pasta that this restaurant serves. (restrictive)

This means I specifically love the pasta served at this restaurant. I may or may not love pasta from other restaurants — I am restricting the meaning of my statement to refer specifically to the pasta served here.

A way to check: if you can eliminate the word ‘that’ and it still makes sense and is grammatically correct, then it’s a restrictive sentence and you should use ‘that,’ not ‘which.’ Or, even better, you can just eliminate ‘that’ to save on word count and tighten your sentences. I’ve edited novels that contained 1,000 unnecessary ‘thats.’

I love the pasta this restaurant serves.

This sentence removes the word ‘that.’ It’s still grammatically correct, and the meaning of the sentence remains the same. I could use the word ‘that’ if I wanted it, but the sentence stands without it.

WRONG: I love the pasta which this restaurant serves.
‘Which’ is non-restrictive so it needs a comma to set the clause apart as additional, separate information.

WRONG: I love the pasta, that this restaurant serves.
‘That’ is restrictive, so there shouldn’t be a comma in this sentence. If you eliminate ‘that’ from this sentence you wind up with an errant comma and an incomplete sentence: I love the pasta, this restaurant serves.

If you’re referring to people, instead of using that/which, use who/whose. Who/whose can be either restrictive or non-restrictive, so it’s the commas setting the clause apart that signal to the reader whether it’s restrictive or non-restrictive.

The scientist who discovered gravity was named Newton.
This sentence is restrictive, so no comma. I’m referring specifically, restrictively, to the one scientist who discovered gravity. And yeah, don’t quibble on my science here. But here we use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ because it refers to a person rather than a thing.

My favorite scientist, who discovered gravity, is Newton.
This sentence is non-restrictive. Take out the clause and it still make sense: My favorite scientist is Newton. The non-restrictive clause adds additional information. Newton is my favorite scientist, oh and by the way, he discovered gravity. Here, we use ‘who’ rather than ‘which.’

My favorite scientist, whose discoveries included gravity, is Newton.
Non-restrictive clause adds more information to this sentence, but it still makes sense without the clause. The clause is set off by commas, uses ‘whose’ (possessive) instead of ‘which’ because the clause refers to a person rather than a thing.

My favorite scientist who discovered gravity is Bhaskaracharya.
Restrictive clause. Two scientists discovered gravity, and this sentence restricts my favorite to only one of them.

As we’ve seen above, when it’s a restrictive clause, you can often eliminate the word ‘that.’ Sometimes you can change the verb in the restrictive clause to an -ing verb and eliminate the ‘that.’ For example:

I watch the whales that swim next to the boat.
Restrictive ‘that,’ no commas, specifies exactly which whales I watch. I watch those whales that swim next to the boat. I do not watch the whales that swim a mile away. I watch those whales right there.

I watch the whales swimming next to the boat.
Restrictive, same as above, but drops ‘that’ and changes ‘swim’ to ‘swimming.’

WRONG: I watch the whales, swimming next to the boat.
Does not take a comma here as it is a restrictive clause. Also, that little comma confuses the whole meaning of the sentence. Does it now mean I am swimming next to the boat while I watch whales?

Got all that?

Short version:
Use ‘that’ without commas to restrict the subject or object of the sentence to a specific one. The sentence won’t make sense without the restrictive clause.

Use ‘which’ with commas to add extra information about the subject or object of the sentence. Sentence will still make sense without the clause.


Jul 4 2016

Military terms and style in fiction: Get them right

NOTE: The following are general guidelines on usage and capitalization of military terms, services, and ranks when writing primarily for a U.S. audience.

Using the wrong word, or capitalizing a military term incorrectly, may fly right by a reader who has never been in the military or is unfamiliar with military terminology and style, but if a reader has served in the military, it waves a big red flag that the writer didn’t do the research. Minor errors can create the impression in the reader’s mind that the author is writing about something with little to no knowledge of the topic. That breaks the ‘suspension of disbelief’ for the reader.

So as a diligent writer, you do the research on usage, and guess what? You’ll find a variety of conflicting advice, recommendations, and style choices. Which one should you use?

There are two basic and safe choices to make: Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) or Associated Press (AP). There are even a few differences between the two. CMoS is generally regarded as the primary style guide for fiction and non-fiction books, and AP is the premier style for journalism.

There are also formal military writing style guides. Each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has its own style guide for how they use military terms. Like many organizations, they prefer to uppercase a wide variety of terms in internal writing and documents that the fiction writer wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, normally capitalize.

RANKS
For ranks such as private, captain, and admiral, there are traditional abbreviations and capitalization styles, and then each service branch has their own set of styles.

For example, if Fred Jones is a colonel in the U.S. Army, the military would write his name as COL Jones (all cap, no period). But Bill Smith is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, so he writes his name Col. Smith.

It’s going to look pretty awkward and inconsistent if you have both COL Jones and Col. Smith as characters in your novel. Your best bet is the traditional abbreviation “Col.”– and the recommendation of both Chicago and AP style is stick with the traditional abbreviations regardless of which branch your character serves.

Keep in mind that different branches of the military have different ranks. Call a Navy officer a colonel and you’ll lose a lot of readers since there is no such rank in the Navy.

In the Navy, a captain is a senior-grade officer, the same level as a colonel is to the Army, Air Force, and Marines. On the other hand, a captain in the other services is a junior-grade or company-level officer, three ranks below that of a Navy captain. One way to help remember this is that in the Army and other services, a mid-rank officer may captain a small group of people (like a company, which usually consists of 100 to 250 soldiers), but in the Navy, a much higher ranking officer will captain a ship or the largest ship in a fleet and all the sailors onboard.

There are also a variety of levels of some ranks. If your character is a lieutenant, is he a first lieutenant or a second lieutenant? Is your character a sergeant, a staff sergeant, a technical sergeant, or a master sergeant? Study the ranks and be familiar with them. Your readers may well be.

When do you capitalize a rank such as Colonel/colonel or Sergeant/sergeant?

Sticking with CMoS and AP style, only capitalize ranks when used as a title with a name or as a name. Use lowercase when referring to the rank generically or collectively for a group.

“I spoke with Col. Jones today.” (title is capitalized)
“I spoke with the sergeant today.” (generic term even though referring to a specific person)
“Yes, sir, Admiral.” (used as a proper name)
“We’re meeting with several generals at the Pentagon today.” (generic, collective)

Notice the title is only abbreviated when used with a name. In other cases, spell out the word, the same as you would with Mr. or mister or Mister and Dr. or doctor or Doctor.

Besides the exact ranks, know the difference between enlisted ranks and the officer corps; between commissioned, non-commissioned, and warrant officers; and between field officers and general officers. Know which ranks, in what order, for each service, and know the general job duties of each rank. You don’t want a general piloting a fighter jet (not likely) in a war zone, and you don’t want a corporal leading a brigade or a lieutenant giving orders to a major.

BRANCHES
The names of the services are another conundrum for deciding when to capitalize.

Is it Army or army, Navy or navy, Marines or marines, Air Force or air force?

Again, assuming you’re writing for a U.S. audience, then remember that proper nouns are capitalized. The names of the official branches of the U.S. military are proper nouns – like corporate or organizational names.

- U.S. Army
- U.S. Navy
- U.S. Marine Corps
- U.S. Air Force

Do you still capitalize the U.S. military branches even when you shorten the term by dropping the ‘U.S.’ It depends. Chicago Manual of Style says no, but AP style says yes. Here, my personal preference goes to AP as the word is still referring to the proper noun of the official organizational name.
CMoS: Bill served in the navy in the Gulf War.
AP Style: Bill served in the Navy in the Gulf War.

Do not capitalize when referring to a generic military or to the military of another country, unless you’re specifically using the proper noun for the foreign military organization.

Sarah became friends with her counterpart in the Iraqi army.
The navies of five countries clashed in the battle that waged for three days.

SOLDIERS, SAILORS, AIRMEN, MARINES
Another point you want to get right is the correct term for a service member based on which branch of the military he or she serves. Meet a Marine in a bar and call him a soldier, you may find yourself with a black eye. Call a Marine a soldier in a novel, you’ll get a black eye from many readers.

Army – soldier
Navy – sailor
Air Force – airman (male or female, doesn’t matter, they’re all airmen)
Marine Corps – Marine

One exception: the word ‘soldier’ is a good generic term for a military service member, especially of a non-U.S. military, when the specific branch is not specified or known. But if your generic military member is serving onboard a ship, chances are he’s a sailor, not a soldier.

Did you catch the capitalization difference on Marine used above?

In AP style, Marine is treated differently than soldier, sailor, or airman. That’s because Marine is one of two cases in which the title of the service member is the same as the proper noun of the organization (we’ll get to the second case later). CMoS, however, doesn’t draw that distinction and does not capitalize marine when referring to an individual member of the Marines. To me, the AP distinction makes sense because it is specifically using the proper noun. But if you want to be consistent and stick with CMoS throughout your book, then go with lowercase marine.

Joe is a Marine, serving in the Marines. (Marine is capitalized in AP Style, but not in CMoS)
Susie is a soldier, serving in the Army. (soldier is not capitalized)

Only follow this capitalization rule on Marine if you’re writing about a U.S. Marine (who serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, which is often shortened to ‘the Corps’), and writing for an American audience.

Boris is a marine, serving in the Russian marines.

Here again, the military branches have their own style guides that differ. If you’re in the Army, for example, and you’re writing a document for the military, the Army’s style guide will capitalize Soldier. But that’s not the style fiction writers should follow.

Here’s a point you won’t find in style guides. For those who have served in the Marines, they take a lot of pride in their service and their branch of the military, and they have a saying: “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

If you’re writing about a character who used to serve in the Marines but is now out of the military, the word ‘ex-Marine’ can cause a lot of consternation from readers who are or have been Marines. “There are no ex-Marines,” you may hear from readers. While there’s nothing technically wrong with this term, why irritate readers unnecessarily? A ‘formerly active-duty Marine,’ or ‘a Marine who served in the 1990s,’ or some other phrasing that makes it clear this character used to be in the Marines but no longer serves might show a Marine reader you get it. There are no ex-Marines.

One other organization to mention: the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is slightly different in that it is under the Department of Homeland Security. Previously, it fell under the Department of Transportation. It is not under the Department of Defense, but it is still considered a military service branch, although it’s the only military service not under Defense.

A member of the Coast Guard (male or female) is a Coast Guardsman, capitalized like Marine since it shares the same title as the proper noun of the organization.

MEDALS OF VALOR
One last pet peeve of mine, and this will set teeth on edge with any military readers.

Athletes win medals at the Olympics.

Service members do not win medals.

Service members are awarded medals for acts of valor and heroism. It is not a contest or a competition. It is awarded for an unselfish act of courage. If someone has received a medal, he is a recipient of that medal, not the winner.

Never say a soldier won the Congressional Medal of Honor. You’ll have military readers throwing your novel across the room in anger.

OTHER STUFF
If you’re writing about military matters in any detail, do your research. It’s important to get it right. How many people are in a squad, a platoon, a company, a brigade, a battalion? How many sailors are onboard an aircraft carrier? What’s the difference between a destroyer, a cruiser, and a frigate? Why do some Navy ship names start with USS and others start with USNS? Isn’t every fighter pilot in the Air Force? (The answer is no.)

The details are endless, and a good portion of your readership will know if you get it wrong.

Post Script: Discussion has arisen about use of periods in the abbreviation U.S. vs. US. Again, there are different styles. AP still uses periods in text (U.S.), but CMoS says either are correct and prefers without (US). However, CMoS says to use without periods if you use the postal code abbreviations for states (NY, MD, IL, CA), but use periods with U.S. if you use the standard state abbreviations (N.Y., Md., Ill., Calif.). I find the postal abbreviations in states awkward in fiction writing, so my personal preference is to stick with U.S. and standard state abbreviations.

RESOURCES
Army ranks: https://www.army.mil/symbols/armyranks.html

Navy ranks: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ranks/officers/o-rank.html

Air Force officer ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/officer-ranks.html

Air Force enlisted ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/enlisted-ranks.html

Marine Corps ranks: http://www.marines.mil/Marines/Ranks.aspx

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robb Grindstaff has never served in the military, but for thirteen years worked for Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper published for U.S. service members and their families stationed overseas. He served in positions including general manager of the Asia/Pacific region, based in Tokyo, Japan, and executive editor in the Washington, D.C., headquarters. Robb’s newspaper career has spanned more than thirty-five years. He has edited fiction for ten years and has two published novels (Evolved Publishing), one of which is about a teenage military brat growing up overseas (Carry Me Away), plus a dozen or so published short stories.

 


Feb 6 2016

In search of the perfect sentence

What makes a perfect sentence in a work of fiction? Should writers care? Do readers care?

Stanley Fish in a New Statesman article (Feb. 17, 2011) says: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships. Fish is the author of the book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.

Those well-crafted, logical sentences are what conveys the story in a way that pulls the reader in.

Well-crafted sentences with well-chosen words have a purpose: to engage readers with the story and characters. Sentences aren’t meant to stand alone so we can admire the sentence and think, “What a beautiful sentence. What a brilliant writer.” Well, perhaps in the realm of poetry, but not so much in fiction.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, a writer can spend so much time finding the perfect word or perfect sentence that they never finish the story, or have a blah story filled with perfectly crafted but blah sentences.

I’ve read several John Grisham novels. No one has ever accused him of being a great literary writer. But his words, sentences, paragraphs, and scenes are tight and serviceable – in service of the story. I can read one of his books, be caught up in the plot and action, and enjoy every moment in the story. At the end, I never noticed his writing. Not good, not bad, but invisible. A fun read. But neither are they stories I remember for life or have a desire to re-read time and time again.

I’ve read several Dan Brown novels, and enjoyed them the same as I would a Grisham novel, except for that occasional clunker, amateurish sentence that stops me cold, takes me out of the story, and I wonder how a writer (and numerous editors) missed it.

I’ve read books – I won’t name the writers or titles – that were so caught up in making a pretentious point of exhibiting all the writer’s glorious literary skill that I was bored in minutes. Often those sentences come across as amateur middle-school poetry. Blah.

And then there are writers like John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Tan, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Haruki Murakami, and countless others – writers who craft a story and characters that draw you in from the first sentence and carry you away in another world until the last sentence, with unique insights and perspectives and an art in their writing that never interferes with, but adds to, the beauty of the story and the depth of the characters.

Most novels are made up of thousands of sentences that are ‘good enough.’ Simple, straightforward, functional, and taken as a whole, they tell a story that engages readers. That’s what matters.

All sentences need to be ‘good enough.’ Every sentence needs to convey information in the best way possible while still conveying the individual writer’s unique style and voice. A few clunkers or confusing sentences in a novel can ruin an otherwise good story for readers.

Even what might be a simple, straightforward sentence might be ‘perfect’ in context – it was exactly the set of words in the right order for that specific moment in the story. If you read that sentence alone, it might be grammatically correct and clear but not particularly memorable or powerful. But in the context of the story, connected to the sentences preceding and following, it might have tremendous impact on readers.

The Bible verse “Jesus wept” is a simple, declarative two-word sentence, the shortest verse in the Bible. Editors today might say it’s “all telling and not showing.” But in the context of the scene and story, that two-word sentence is emotionally powerful and conveys layers of depth.

While the sentence “She cried” probably isn’t going to have that level of power in your novel, it could, depending on context.

But now and then, while reading a good story, a particular sentence will so perfectly capture a moment that it can take your breath away. Or make you see something routine in a whole new way. Or describe a scene or setting or action or emotion in a way that resonates deeply. A sentence that you can stop and re-read two or three times to savor it, wallow in it, and doing so doesn’t take you out of the story, but pulls you in even more. The sentence that, as a writer, you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Why have I never thought of saying it that way?”

These are the sentences you can read “standalone,” with no context, and they still resonate. These are the ‘perfect’ sentences I have in mind.

A perfect sentence may be a longer, complex sentence with several clauses, lots of big words, commas, and, for crying out loud, even semicolons. It may use words that are clear but unusual, not the most obvious word choice, but going for something different, and it works especially well. Or that perfect sentence may be a simple sentence using common, ordinary words to describe something those words aren’t normally associated with.

The perfect sentence may be a simile or a metaphor, or a simple declarative sentence. It may have a rhythm or cadence that sings in the reader’s mind.

In short, there is no formula for the perfect sentence or we’d all be writing perfect sentences all the time. There’s no book or course that teaches how to write a perfect sentence. What’s perfect in one writer’s style and voice won’t match another’s.

What do some other writers say about the ‘perfect sentence’?

Diane Nelson: “Rather than ‘perfect’—which is too subjective, too prone to popularization, too cultishly precious—my metric is based on how a particular arrangement of words slices through the fog of banalities and reveals some essential truth.”

Matt Sinclair: “I will revise often, which might involve changing words, revamping the sentence, removing perfectly good sentences that don’t add to the story. Rhythm, pacing, selecting “le mot juste,” etc., all factor in. And I pray that others think the story is as interesting as I do.”

Jim Murphy: “The goal for me is to get the idea into the reader’s head with the least possible effort. If the reader has to stop and think about what the sentence meant because of some ambiguity of wording, then that presents a hurdle for the idea.”

Marj McRae: “It depends on what sort of story you are writing. I want my reader to be so absorbed that they never give a thought to the actual words or the arrangement of words, but are seeing the action in front of their eyes. If they stop to think about the perfect sentence, then the action is interrupted.”

Rick Pieters: “For me, anyway, when I hit that kind of sentence, it doesn’t take me out of the story, it immerses me more deeply. The pause is no more than a brief, deep breath, a moment that lets me ‘see’ more deeply what the author is saying. If it stopped the flow, interrupted the story, my pause would more likely be to throw the book across the room.”

 

I asked some writer-friends on social media to submit examples of their best sentences. Most writers are willing to share their work, their favorite passages, even their favorite sentences. Writers can have egos, but they can also be very insecure. Ask a writer to provide a perfect sentence they’ve written, the insecurity rises to the top.

No writer wants to say, “Here’s a sentence I wrote, and it’s perfect!” That’s opening yourself up to a barrage of critique, criticism, and snarky derision–mostly from other writers.

But the examples below are sentences the writers felt, and I agreed, are better than the average sentence, a sentence with some degree of depth or new perspective that makes the sentence stand out, even when read with no context of the surrounding story.

 

This night, this time and place, the music and the slow rhythm of not belonging ached in ways that sinned. – Good Boy Bad, Nya Rawlyns

His blue eyes danced with merriment and he smiled, revealing dimples at the corners of his mouth, held slightly open, as if he were weighing the effect of his pretense on this unsuspecting observer. – A King in Time II, Mary Enck

Arson was sounding a lot more sensible than living with a pothead and his Jesus freak boss. – Cassia (publishes March 2016), Lanette Kauten

And whom shall I fear if not the devil, the grim torturer who conquered my aspirations and left me without a recognizable world of my own? – Forgive Me, Alex by Lane Diamond

The silence while they ate occupied palpable space in the room, a constant guest at their table. – “Winter’s Birds,” Summer’s Double Edge short story anthology, Rick Pieters

Turning my back to you, I sought to distance myself from the beat of your irregular heart. – “Bedtime Story,” from Alalitcom, Alabama Writers’ Conclave 2008, Deanne Charlton

The bourbon smelled like a hangover and a fight with my wife. – Untitled work in progress, Matt Sinclair

Very little of what you learn is ever useful or important, Nikolai. – Sin Eater, P.K. Tyler and Jessica West

 

I’ll even toss in a couple of my own to wrap things up.

As the baby waves ran back to their ocean mother, they erased my footprints and left only a faint trace, a distant memory of where I’d walked. – Carry Me Away, Robb Grindstaff

She’d learned to shoot left-handed after he’d removed her trigger finger with a pair of pliers. – “Desert Rain,” from Sonoran Dreams: Three Stories from Exile, Robb Grindstaff

 

Do you have a favorite sentence from fiction, whether something you’ve written or from someone else’s work?

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Nov 12 2012

Cart? Horse? When to hire an editor

Here’s some unsolicited advice from an editor to writers. I’ll start with a message I receive way too frequently (a composite paraphrase of multiple emails here):”Dear Robb, I found your website (or were referred to you). I have spent the past 6 months (or year, or 5 years) writing my first novel. It is a 150,000-word epic saga, the first of a planned trilogy. I have decided to self-publish, and have set a launch date, have a book-signing event set up, ads on Facebook promoting the upcoming debut, and the cover art designed. The launch date is set for the first of next month. Would you be able to edit my manuscript by next week?”

Um. No. Cart? Horse?

If you spend six months or six years writing a novel, plan for the editing and revision process too. Make sure you have completed the editing and revisions, and that you’ve had a thorough final proofread done and complete before you announce a launch date or start submitting to agents and publishers. If you’re self-publishing, you’re setting your own deadlines. Why set it up so that you don’t have adequate time for revisions and editing?

An editor may be booked up with work for weeks in advance. So you’re out scrambling to find an editor who happens to have an opening next week. Hmmm. An editor with no work on his schedule? It happens to all of us at times, but any editor who has been doing it for a while and has a good track record probably isn’t sitting around hoping a new customer walks in the door because they have no project scheduled for next week.

Once the editor begins works on your manuscript, how rushed do you want him or her to be? Or do you want your editor to take his time and be thorough? Allow your editor at least a month to spend on it. At 150,000 words, maybe two months.

When the edits have been completed, how much time do you think you should spend going through those edits? A day? A day and a half? Maybe you should plan on at least another month to make the edits and revisions. Maybe you’ll have questions for your editor and will need to have conversations back and forth to figure out the best solution for a particular issue. Maybe you need to plan for more than one edit of your manuscript with a series of revisions to be made.

Why the rush? You’ve spent hours and weeks and months and maybe years to craft your story. Take your time with the editing process and put out a product you will be proud of and readers will enjoy.
There’s no benefit to publishing it a month or two earlier rather than a month or two later, especially if your book is considerably better a month or two (or six) later.Take a breath. Horse. Cart.

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Jun 5 2012

Desert short story trilogy released

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The Sonoran Desert in the American Southwest is a place of extremes and contrasts, of beauty and death, of independent spirits and lost souls, of fresh starts and exiles.

SONORAN DREAMS: Three Short Stories from Exile, published June 2012 by fiction writer Robb Grindstaff of Phoenix, Arizona, is a collection of stories in three different genres, all set in the Arizona desert, each featuring characters in exile of one form or another.

Available now in all e-book formats, currently on Amazon for Kindle SmashwordsBarnes & Noble for the Nook, Kobo, and soon on Apple iBooks.

 The trilogy features the award-winning horror story, Desert Rain, selected by readers and editors of Horror Bound magazine for its ‘Best of 2008-2012′ collection.

 

SYNOPSES
Cordelia lives alone in a shack miles from civilization, somewhere no one can find her except for a very determined suitor. Raymond shows up every twelve years to consummate his marriage to the bride he’d claimed at her birth. Every twelve years, Cordelia fends off his unwanted advances—by killing him. The smell of death precedes his arrival each time, unless the sweet scent of a freshly fallen DESERT RAIN masks his approach.

Denny has lost everything in the recession. His business. His Scottsdale home on the side of a mountain with swimming pool and four-car garage. His ambition. His wife. With nothing left to lose but his sanity, his life, or maybe his injured foot, he heads out on a hundred-mile DESERT WALK in search of Hope.

When the sun goes down and the scorching heat cools to an uncomfortable swelter, bored teenagers gather to spend the DESERT NIGHTS out by the power lines, drinking beer, hooking up, arguing over the best rock bands of all time. Maybe shoot at some rattlesnakes and jackrabbits. Nothing could possibly go wrong here.

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“Robb Grindstaff is a master storyteller!” —Maria Grazia, editor, Horror Bound Magazine

“I don’t think there is any genre Robb Grindstaff can’t conquer. Some writers excel at characterization, others at plot, and still others are best known for their unique prose style. Robb is a triple threat, and any book with his name on it is bound to be a great read. —S.P. Miskowski, author of Knock Knock

Robb Grindstaff has a wicked sense of humor, a keen eye on the human psyche, and impeccable timing. His prose crackles and doesn’t waste a syllable. These stories turn the desert Southwest of Cormac McCarthy into a carnival funhouse.” —Pete Morin, author, Diary of a Small Fish

“Robb’s talent for creating real-life characters and bringing us into their lives is extraordinary, but what marks him apart from so many others writing today is how American his voice is—Robb’s writing amuses, charms and yet, when you least expect it, can still challenge and shock.” —Alexander McNabb, author, Olives: A Violent Romance

“Robb Grindstaff’s seamlessly written stories are full of strong characters, rendered with wit and subtlety. Stories unfold gently, judgments are never made, and the reader is left with a story that resonates long after the book is closed. His writing reminds me of John Irving (The World According to Garp; A Prayer for Owen Meany). ” —Phillipa Fioretti, author, The Book of Love

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After a career in newspaper journalism and management took him from Arizona to North Carolina, Texas to Washington, D.C., plus five years in Asia and around the world, Grindstaff returned to the desert, where he now writes and edits fiction full-time.

He has two completed novels in preparation for publication while writing his third and fourth. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies, print magazines and e-zines. His articles on the craft of writing fiction have published in magazines and websites in the U.S., Europe, and Australia.

His editing clients include traditionally published, agented, and high quality indie authors from the U.S., Europe, Australia, and the Middle East.

For more information, to request a review copy or an interview, or to inquire about book editing services, email robb@robbgrindstaff.com.


Mar 11 2012

Never use an adverb!

If you’ve been writing fiction for more than a day, and have ever read a writers’ magazine, visited a writing website or blog, attended a writing critique group, or taken a college course in creative writing, you’ve probably heard this rule.

Here’s a good piece of advice: Anytime someone says ‘Always do this’ or ‘Never do that’ when it comes to writing, that’s a good time to tune them out. The only hard and fast rule to writing fiction: Never bore your reader.

But like many of these alleged rules and regulations for writers, there is a kernel of truth packed away underneath the prose fascist’s pronouncement.

Most of the time, these never-rules have morphed over time through misinterpretation, like the children’s game of gossip or telephone. What started as good advice to help keep novice writers from falling into the most common novice writer mistakes has transformed into dictatorial fiat by the literazis.

Adverbs are an easy place for novice, or even more experienced, writers to slip into lazy writing habits.

The problem is obvious in many beginning writers’ manuscripts. The problem isn’t that they’ve used an adverb. The problem is that they’ve never met an adverb they didn’t like. If a sentence feels flat—add an adverb! If one adverb is good, two must be better! There’s no adverb in this sentence—get one!

Adverbs aren’t wrong. They’re just weak. There is usually a better verb that conveys the image the writer wants to show, a verb that doesn’t need an adverb tacked on in an attempt to make a boring verb interesting. It’s like dressing a Chihuahua in doll clothes. Just get a more interesting dog, like a Basset hound or a Siberian husky or an Australian shepherd.

“I quickly ran home.”

Boring. Maybe “I sprinted home.” Or “I dashed home.” You’ve got dozens of choices more interesting than ‘ran’ that don’t need to be shoved into an adverb like Panchita into a Cabbage Patch dress.

One of the most common offenders of the ugly adverb syndrome is the dialog tag (he pontificated wisely). Dialog tags will be the subject of a blog post all to themselves in the near future, but if you’re adding an adverb onto your ‘said’ or ‘asked’ more than, oh, let’s say twice in a 100,000-word novel, you’re probably overdoing it. It sounds amateurish. Really, it does. Get over it.

“Wh-wh-what do you mean by that?” he stammered haltingly.

Is there any other way to stammer other than haltingly? In fact, why do you need to say ‘stammered’ since the dialog clearly shows th-th-the character stammering? You don’t. Lose it.

So when can you use an adverb? That’s easy.

When it’s right. When the adverbly verbed combination says exactly what you want to say, you’ve got the adverb in the right place for the right emphasis, and you’ve used them sparingly throughout your story. Adverbs, like adjectives, are a pungent spice. A little goes a long way. You can use them more than never, but less than distractingly, irritatingly, obnoxiously frequent.

And now a quick note on adverb placement for when you do use them—say, zero to twenty times per novel (okay, twenty-five if you’re writing an epic historical saga trilogy, or ninety-seven if you’re writing category romance or erotica). As a general rule, place the adverb closest to the word it modifies. This is especially true if it’s a complex sentence with two or more verbs or a prepositional phrase. Otherwise, you can change the meaning of the sentence. Consider these two sentences:

I nearly lost all of my money.

I lost nearly all of my money.

Example number one, nearly modifies lost. Something happened in which I came very close to losing all of my money, but thank goodness I didn’t lose it. I still have all of my money.

Example number two, nearly modifies all. Something happened in which I lost most, but not all, of my money.

Does the adverb go before or after the verb? Unless it changes the meaning, it doesn’t matter. Go with the one that sounds best. Putting the adverb first can change the emphasis of the sentence to the adverb.

Go boldly where no man has gone before.

Boldly go where no man has gone before.

Same meaning, different emphasis.

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It is acceptable to occasionally split infinitives.

It is occasionally acceptable to split infinitives.

The first one is the split infinitive, in case you were wondering, because the adverb comes between the two-word verb phrase ‘to split’.

So the next time someone tells you, “Never use an adverb,” remind them that ‘never’ is an adverb and they just used one.


Oct 17 2011

Recycled stories

I have an early reader that was published in 2003 and is still in print. I didn’t sell all rights to it. Can I now resubmit it as a short story to a magazine? - Elizabeth, Michigan

Thanks for the question. The answer is: it depends.
It depends on the new publication’s acceptance policy and what rights the previous publisher retains. Every publication is different.
Some want ‘First Rights,’ which means they only accept stories that have not previously been published.
Others get more specific than that. They may only want stories that have never appeared anywhere, in print or online, even if it was only on your website or Facebook page. Some don’t care if the story has appeared online only, but don’t want it to have appeared in print previously. I’ve seen some magazines specify that the story can’t have appeared in a print publication with more than x,000 circulation or distribution.
Other publications don’t care if it has previously appeared in print. The key here is to make sure the rights to the story have reverted back to you, the author.
If you previously sold/authorized rights to another publication, you’ll need to check to see what rights you sold, if there is a set amount of time that they retain those rights, and if those rights have reverted to you or not. Usually that’s not a long period of time if it was published originally in a magazine. However, you mention that the story is in an ‘early reader’ publication or book that is still in print. That might mean the original publisher still retains some rights to it for a set period of time. You’ll need to check with them or check your original contract when you sold the story.
Some publications will want a credit if you republish the story elsewhere (‘This story first appeared in ‘Title of Publication’ by Such-And-Such Publishers in 2003′). Others don’t care.
So you’ll need to check with the publication to which you want to submit to find out their policies for acceptance and what rights they require, and if they accept previously published works. Then you’ll need to check with whoever first published your story to make sure the rights have reverted to you. If your story is in a book that is still in print, that might make it more difficult. Be upfront with the new publication that the story was previously published, when, and by whom.
A previously published story can reduce your options, but you should still be able to find a publication that accepts previously published stories as long as you retain the rights to that story.

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Or, you could dust off your computer and write a new story. You’re a better writer today than you were eight years ago.
At the very least, go through your previously published story to see how you could improve it.

Sep 12 2011

Creating complex fiction

I’m wondering if you can give some tips for creating more complex stories? I tend to gravitate toward writing stories with only a handful of characters, with only one or two subplots (the most I’ve done is seven primary characters, only one of whom is a POV character, and three minor subplots). This is fine, and I’m confident in my abilities to write these types of stories, but I’d love to try writing something…grander…than that. I’m just not really sure where to start or what to keep in mind. Any tips or suggestions would be great! Thanks! – Cameron Chapman, Vermont

Great question. One option is to write two completely different novels, print out the manuscripts, then shuffle the pages together like a deck of cards. Voila! Complexity.

Okay, probably not.

First, I’ll point out that there’s a difference between making a story more complex and just making a plot more complicated. Complicated isn’t always good. But if you want to go for more complicated, just keep adding new plot points and sub-plots and characters. Just don’t make it so complicated no one wants to read it. But that’s not what you asked.

There are more ways to develop or structure a more complex novel than any single blog post can address. So I invite any other writers out there to jump in with comments and share your experiences and knowledge.  The group here will be a lot smarter than any individual (like me).

And that segues nicely to one method to structure a more complex novel: ‘The Group.’

Instead of a single protagonist, or several individual protagonists, what if the protagonist is a group of people? Yes, the group is made up of several individuals, but there is a collective ‘group’ as an organism, person, or character as well. Think of the Lawrence Kasdan movie, ‘The Big Chill,’ as one example. There are seven primary characters. These adults, all thirty-something years old, were college classmates together some years before, and now they are gathered in a reunion of sorts because the eighth person in their group has committed suicide. They’ve gathered from around the country to attend his funeral and spend a weekend together. The interconnecting relationships, the memories, the shared grief and guilt over their friend’s death, and the emotions of coming together again after years of going in their own directions creates a tremendously complex plot.

Each individual in the group has his or her own story, his or her own conflicts. But the protagonist isn’t any of the individuals or all of the individuals, but the group as a whole and how the group comes to terms with grief and guilt, not just over their friend’s death, but all of life’s disappointments.

Rebecca Wells’ novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is another example of ‘the group.’ Lord of the Flies by William Golding comes to mind as well.

Another option to make a story more complex is to structure it in two different timeframes – current and past (or recent and more distant past). Back to ‘The Big Chill’ as an example, while there is some reminiscing going on about times past, the entire movie takes place over the course of one weekend. There are no flashbacks. There aren’t two different timeframes.

The novel, The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, has a single protagonist and narrator, Razi Nolan. The story, however, takes place across two timeframes. Razi is a young woman in 1920s New Orleans. She falls in love, and also has a dream of becoming a doctor – not an easy task or accepted profession for a woman in the early 20th century. Tragically, she dies at an early age. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. She remains ‘between’ this world and the next as a ghost. In today’s world, she hangs out in this old New Orleans house where a young married couple has moved in. Amy and Scott have their own set of relationship problems, and Razi involves her ghost-self in their lives to try to help them achieve the lasting love she was never able to enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start at the beginning in the 1920s, proceed to Razi’s death, then start up again 80 years later with the next plot development. That wouldn’t be complex. The story slips back and forth in time, drawing connections between the young Razi and the modern day Amy as the two story lines and the characters are intertwined with each other, until the resolution reveals an even deeper bond between the two women.

So not only is the story more complex with two timeframes, the overlapping structure of how it is told is also deeper and richer.

To tell a story from two timeframes doesn’t have to involve a ghost, of course. It might be the story of one character as a child or young adult and that same character years later. It might be intergenerational – the story of a man in World War II and his great-grandson in Afghanistan, their families back home, the letters they wrote, and a secret they share.

This is different from an epic novel that may cover several generations over the course of hundreds of years, but starts at the beginning and moves forward in time.

A writer can also go for the ‘grand scale’ novel. My favorite example of this – and one of my favorite novels of all time – is John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s a story that covers the entire life of the main character, Garp. It even starts before his birth and tells all the back story of his mother and how Garp came to be born (and named). But it’s more than just a novel about one man’s life from beginning to end. Everything about Garp is larger than life – starting with his mother and his birth. It stretches, but doesn’t break, credibility. It is perfectly grounded in reality, yet everything he does and all the rich characters that come in and out of his life are just slightly bigger, and odder, than reality. It’s much bigger than writing a standard, non-complex novel about one character’s life from beginning to end. Most lives, even of fictional characters, just aren’t interesting enough for 80 years or so to hold a reader’s attention from start to finish. But if that character is Garp, his life holds your attention throughout the novel, and plot threads that start in his childhood wind up in full bloom (for good or bad) later in life.

The character of Garp is a writer, and layered throughout the novel are the stories and novels Garp writes, drawing on the experiences of his ‘real’ life.

Beyond the grand scale of the story, a writer can also go for the grand scale of the story’s theme – a deeper, more complex theme. More complex than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl’s parents. Go for the deeper motivations. Not just the conflicts between right and wrong, but between one right and another right, or between two wrongs, such as when a moral person is forced into a situation where she must choose the lesser of two evils knowing whichever she chooses, it will hurt someone she loves. Explore that conflict in depth. How does it affect the character, and how does it affect the rest of the story?

Are there at least two levels to your story? There’s the story level – the plot development, conflict, resolution. And there’s the character level – inner development, inner conflict, and resolution. Just as you may have sub-plots and plot twists, you might also add sub-character conflicts and dilemmas.

In the novel I’ve just finished, ‘Hannah’s Voice,’ I tried to go for something a bit more complex in structure. I’m not claiming I’ve succeeded, but that was my goal. The initial idea was for the main character, who starts the story at age 6, to become mute. After some initial inciting events in the early chapters, she stops talking. What made that more complex to write was that it’s in first person. That’s right, a first-person narrator who doesn’t talk. I had to stop and think about every single scene and how to present it, how to convey the story through her voice when she doesn’t speak, and how she will interact with other characters. On top of that, I had to keep it in the voice of a 6-year-old for the first 100 pages or so before the story skips ahead in time.

I also went for the grand scale, as her silence is misinterpreted by various groups and factions. From a child whose silence tears apart a small, southern U.S. town, she grows into a college student whose silence rips an entire nation apart. We’ll see if I’ve been able to get the words on the page to convey to readers the complexities of the story in my head, but at least that was my goal.

So a few ways to deepen and enrich your fiction:

-          The Group protagonist

-          Two or more timeframes

-          The Grand Scale (of a character’s life or of a plot with higher stakes)

-          The Grand Theme

And that’s only four out of countless ways to add complexity in story, richness in character, and depth in theme to your fiction.

I highly recommend two books that address this topic in much more depth and expertise: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell.

Now, time for everyone else chime in with your advice on what has worked for you as a writer or a reader on how to make a story more complex.


Sep 2 2011

A surprising announcement!

And now, I’m going to tell you something very interesting and dramatic. It will be sudden and surprising. Ready? Okay, it’s coming up next: 

That opening paragraph is an announcement of what I, the writer, am about to tell you. Of course, it better be interesting and surprising or you, the reader, are going to be disappointed, or think that I’m being a bit overly dramatic.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just told you something, and you found it interesting and surprising?

It works that way in fiction too. Do you announce to your readers when a big scene or moment is coming?

Here are some actual examples from manuscripts I’ve edited (I’ve made some changes in the sentences so no one should recognize your work, if I borrowed from you).

And then, just when I least expected it, something exciting happened.

What happened next made her scream in terror.

Things got even worse after that.

So here’s what he decided to do.

The rest of the night went like this.

Later that day, something very strange happened.

For the rest of the trip, we had one stroke of bad luck after another.

Wrongly assuming it was my wife, I opened the door.

It was a calm day with bright sunshine and blue skies, not the kind of day they expected something horrible to happen later that afternoon.

Today things were good between us, but tomorrow, they would go terribly wrong.

I’ve heard these called announcement sentences or thesis statements. They can be useful—if you’re writing a thesis or an essay or a news story. They probably don’t belong in your fiction, at least not to announce to readers that something important is coming up.

An announcement tells readers in advance, ‘Hey, I know this section has been boring, but keep reading, something dramatic is about to happen.’

Why not just let something dramatic happen? Why ruin the surprise and the enjoyment for readers?

Especially in first-person stories, these announcements distort the narrative perspective. It puts the character into the future and looking back on events, telling the whole story in flashback mode. If the narrator knows something dramatic is about to happen, the narrator isn’t experiencing the story first-hand as it happens, and neither are readers.

There are also announcement words that can easily be eliminated most of the time:

Suddenly …

Now …

Began …

Started to …

Next …

These are only a few of the more common examples. Obviously there are times when you need those words. But when one of these words announces the next moment, see if you can drop the word or rewrite the sentence to avoid it. Don’t tell readers ‘Suddenly , this happens …’. Just let it happen, written in a way that shows it was ‘sudden.’

ORIGINAL: My husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying our peaceful Saturday breakfast when we couldn’t believe what happened next. Suddenly, a man neither of us knew opened the door and started to walk in. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now I noticed he wore no clothes. Next, I asked if he wanted cream or sugar in his coffee.

REVISE: My husband and I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying our Saturday breakfast, sipping coffee and munching on croissants and strawberries. I turned to refill our cups when the door flew open and a strange man walked in. Stark raving naked. “Cream or sugar?” I asked him.

In short, don’t tell readers you’re about to surprise them. It defeats the purpose.