My World Is Defined by What I Write

I’m learning a particular style of writing.  I’m not saying that it’s the only style or even the best style, but it’s what I’m focused on at the moment.  It does seem to be the “in” thing as far as modern writing goes.

This style says that the following opening is horrid:

Joe lives in Dallas.  In the year the story takes place, 2012, he’s 22 and working at an entry level position as a bank teller.  With a degree in economics from LSU, he expected more from life.  He’s frustrated with his low pay, menial job and his lack of a love life.  His hair is cut short to conform to his employer’s dress code but spiked to try to give him some degree of individuality.  The length still riles him every time he looks in the mirror.  Even his car annoys him – a 1996 Ford Mustang with two dents and holes in the upholstery.

The main problem with the passage above is that I’m trying to tell the reader everything they need to know about the character up front instead of developing him slowly.  A secondary concern is that I’m revealing details that may not be relevant to the story.  For example, does the reader need to know that he went to LSU?

In the style of writing that I’m learning, a setting detail should be included only if it does one of the following:

  • Sets the scene, but only a thumbnail sketch – Think of a play.  A single cardboard tree stands for an entire forest.  A table with two chairs set with plates indicates a dining room.  Add a menu, and it’s a restaurant.  You can be a little more detailed with the written word but not much.  Give the reader only enough information to create a picture in their mind.
  • Set emotional context – We’re viewing only the things that the character sees.  If he’s looking at roses and admiring their beauty, that says one thing about his emotional state.  If he sees leaves decaying on the ground, it says another.
  • Provides some important plot purpose – If the character is going to stab someone in chapter 2, you need to make sure that, at some prior point, he has access to a knife.

Take Joe.  He looks in the refrigerator and sees:

  • Perhaps a bottle of Abita Beer – Since this is a, presumably, small regional brand, this helps set the scene.
  • Perhaps a carton of milk – This can remind him of his dead father who used to guzzle milk straight from the jug, much to his mother’s annoyance.  It’s a fond memory of happy times but saddening due to the loss.
  • Perhaps a bottle of juice – Later Joe is going to drink that juice not knowing that his roommate has poisoned it.

Similar to setting, I’m going to develop my character through his actions, but I’m only going to show you those things that have some bearing on plot.  Perhaps Joe has a complicated love/hate relationship with his mother.  Since the plot revolves around Joe’s poisoning by his roommate, maybe that relationship with his mom has no place in my story (unless the roommate’s motivation for attempted murder is driven by his annoyance by the telephone fights to which he’s constantly subjected.)

The point is this:

I am only going to reveal details that directly impact the story.

This constraint gives me an important advantage; it allows me to keep my story tight and engaging.  There’s no getting bogged down with unimportant details.  There is no chasing of rabbits.  It does, however, lead to an important caveat.

This method only works if the reader allows me to shape my world as I go.

This is the first line in Power of the Mages:

The bottle slipped through Xan’s fingers. 

My expectation of the reader is that a void exists in his mind when he opens my book.  After reading that first line, he fills that void with a figure and a bottle.  Perhaps the figure is humanoid or perhaps not.  The bottle could look like a soda bottle or a whisky bottle.  The only thing firm is that the figure has some indeterminate amount of fingers.

Later I give more details:

At seventeen, young for a journeyman apothecary, he strove for perfection, to be precise in his movements.

Now the reader knows the figure is a male, young, and probably human.  If the reader, for whatever reason, had pictured Xan to be old with a wrinkled face, I expect the reader to replace the image with that of a young man.

The reader’s responsibility is to fill in his mental picture with dashed lines for the details I have not yet given.  When I write something specifically showing that detail, he has to erase the dashed lines and replace them with the solid ones I’ve shown.

My responsibility as the author is to keep the solid lines consistent and the reasonable.  If I show Xan with curly hair and later show it to be straight with no explanation in between, the reader has every right to throw the book away.  Similarly, I must keep the details within the realm of the possible.  If Xan has three-foot long hair and gravity in all other ways works normally, I can’t have his hair stand straight up without some explanation.

BrianWFoster’s Ninth Law of Writing

Ninth Law: Every Word Counts

One difference between an amateur writer and someone who has studied the craft is that the expert relentlessly eliminates unnecessary words.  You won’t see “all of the” in his work.  Redundant phrases are tossed out.  Sentences are rearranged to promote economy of expression.  Each and every word pulls its weight.

A difference between the master and the expert is that the true wordsmith not only utilizes brevity but chooses perfect expressions to set mood and develop character.  He considers emotional connotation.  His character might say “all of the,” but the inclusion of “of” tells the reader something about that character.

This principle is one of the reasons writing is so difficult to master.  Power of the Mages will consist of around 120,000 words.  It’s hard to string together the perfect sentence, much less an eighth of a million words.

I do not in any way, form, or fashion claim to be a master or even an expert.  I’m just someone who is striving to improve.  From my experience, I can tell you that the more I concentrate on my word choice, the better my writing becomes.

On Why the Rules of Writing Are Important

While frequenting online writing forums, I often find the following attitudes expressed:

  • There are no rules in writing.  Sometimes this outlook even extends to basic grammar.
  • Rules stifle creativity.
  • Writing is art, and, apparently, art can’t be learned.

If these were accomplished authors who had produced literary masterpieces, I wouldn’t be all that concerned.  For the most part, these complaints come from beginners who have no idea what they’re doing.  These are the people who end up giving self publishing a bad name by putting total dreck out there.

This weekend, I read a book on Technique in Fiction that addressed the comments above in its foreword.  The author related this story attributed to Leo Tolstoy (paraphrased from my memory):

If you ask a man if he can play the violin, he’ll either say he can or he can’t based on whether he has studied how to play the instrument.  If you ask a man if he can write fiction, he’ll say, “I don’t know.  I haven’t tried.”

The point, of course, is that the comment is ridiculous on the face of it.  Just like playing the violin, writing requires study and practice.

The rules of writing are summations of the combined wisdom of generations of authors passed down to give you guidance.  Do I advocate following any rule you read blindly?  Of course not, but, if you find advice from a reputable source, you certainly shouldn’t disregard it until you fully understand it.

Links about Marketing Books

Today, I have some links from around the web that give some insight on marketing books.

  • This one discusses gaming Amazon’s system.  Be sure to follow the links for Best Practices and Maximizing Sales.  Good stuff.
  • This one discusses SEO optimization.
  • Okay, this guy makes his advice sound a little sketchy with the way he presents it, but there are some kernels of good ideas buried if you’re willing to dig.
  • This one discusses whether fiction authors should try to understand SEO techniques in a traditional sense to try to drive traffic to their platforms.
  • A story from a guy who found a lot of success.

Let me know if any of them help you.

Is It Time to Boycott Amazon?

I despise poor customer service and believe that, when a company thinks it’s grown too big to need to be accountable, it’s time to teach them a lesson.

Check out what Amazon did here

Yes, once the problem made it to the press, they rectified the situation.  Did they do it to make things right?  No.  They did it to avoid further embarrassment.

Taking away someone’s purchases without even informing them of what supposed policy they broke is not right.  Amazon should apologize and issue a statement announcing that they are changing their policies.  Unless that happens prior to the holiday season, I will be doing my Christmas shopping with them.

Why Beta Reading is a Soul-Crushing Experience

Admit it: when you send your work to your beta readers, all you really want to hear is, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read!”

What you actually hear is a litany of what you did wrong.  The whole process can crush your soul and put a muzzle on your production.

My advice is to get over it.  You are too close to your work to see your mistakes, and it’s much better for your friends to point it out than for random strangers to tear you to pieces in Amazon reviews.

These are some of the things a beta reader can find for you:

  • Confusing passages – Of course it made sense when you wrote it; you know exactly what you meant to say. Your beta reader only has to go by what you actually wrote.
  • Inconsistencies – From characters who don’t behave as expected to huge plot holes, a good beta reader is going to spot these for you.
  • Wording and phrasing – Probably realized you didn’t how worded weirdly a sentence that was.
  • Overused words – Sometimes we use words overmuch when we don’t even realize we used that word when another word could have been substituted for that word.
  • Pacing – It’s hard to determine for yourself where the work drags.

If you go into the process with the expectation that it’s going to suck but it’s going to make your writing better, you’ll be much better off.

Writing Example – Adding Emotion

Here’s a short excerpt from the version of my novelette, Abuse of Power, I sent to my beta readers.

Auggie crept through the moonlit forest.

Dark hues and roughened buttons replaced the royal blue and shiny gold trim of his uniform.  His blond hair hid under a black cap, and a layer of mud covered the white of his face.  To keep his broadsword from moving, straps fastened the sheath to his thigh.

He chose a specific spot for each step.  Despite his bulk, the resulting crunch of leaves and sticks blended into the sounds of gurgling water and a gentle breeze stirring the canopy of treetops.  Behind him, Benj employed far less care.

Auggie glanced back.  Keeping his voice low, he mustered sharp emphasis despite the low volume.  “Are you familiar with the concept of sneaking?”

With their help, I discovered the following issues:

  1. The paragraph of description breaks the flow of the narrative and ruins the immediacy.
  2. If you read the story as written above, you would have thought the significant situation involved Auggie and Benj chasing horse thieves.  In fact, the current mission is a small plot point that ties in later in the story.
  3. In the first 1,000 words, there was little, if any, emotion.

Here’s how I fixed it:

Auggie crept through the moonlit forest.

He chose a specific spot for each step.  Despite his bulk, the resulting crunch of leaves and sticks blended into sounds of gurgling water and a gentle breeze stirring the canopy of treetops.  The cool night air and the excitement of the chase made him feel alive.

How dare Trina ask me to give this up.  The thought made him want to tear a limb from a nearby tree and crush it into splinters.  If she knew how I felt, maybe she wouldn’t have asked, and we’d still be together.  A quiet voice in the back of his mind reminded him of how many times he had told her just that.  Fighting not to scream in frustration, he picked a patch of ground covered in moss and stepped on it.

Behind him, Benj employed far less care.

Auggie glanced back.  Though he kept his voice low, he mustered sharp emphasis.  “Are you familiar with the concept of sneaking?”

  1. I moved the descriptive paragraph to later in the scene.
  2. The story is a romance.  I moved Auggie’s concerns about his love life front and center.
  3. I added emotion.

Two takeaways:

  1. I’m a big believer in Show, Don’t Tell, but I placed artificial constraints on myself by following it too much without thought.  When dealing with emotion, pure showing can be misinterpreted by the reader.  I’ve learned that it is best to blend showing, telling, and dialogue to properly convey emotion.
  2. Every word in your writing has a purpose.  In your editing process, go back and carefully consider what you’re trying to accomplish and if what you wrote is getting you there.