Considerations in a First Person Opening

This post walks through my thought process in starting a short story. Hopefully, it will help someone out there who might one day encounter a similar situation.

To begin with, I try to keep myself focused on the goal of my writing and the goal of my story.

Primary Goal:

Write two short stories, one from the point of view of a mage and one from a noble, that explain the causes of the Wizard’s War.

Secondary Goal:

There are a lot of readers out there that want a story that will make them feel something. If you can achieve that goal, you can tap into a significant market absent any other criteria. Beyond that, I personally admire any author that can both keep me engaged and evoke an emotional response. Those two criteria, in fact, comprise my main objectives for what I try to achieve with my writing.

One way to learn a technique is to find a book that accomplishes a particular objective really well. Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun did a better job of evoking an emotional response in me than any other book.

My goal for these two short stories is to emulate the techniques in that work. That means a deep immersion into the character from an emotional standpoint and writing from in a 1st person POV.

My Process:

I’m a discovery writer, so, going into my first story, I don’t know much about the situation or the character. I know he’s a young mage nearing graduation at the academy that serves the Three Kingdoms. He’s in Love and wants nothing more than to marry his sweetheart. Luckily, she feels the same, so it’s not a “win the girl’s heart” story (not that that’s a bad story; I just want to pursue a different plotline than my novelette, Abuse of Power). Instead, the conflict comes from a decree from the nobles requiring that permission is required for any mage who wants to marry.

I think this is a fairly smart start. The protagonist has a relatable goal. Who can’t sympathize with someone who fights for love? And the situation provides lots of opportunities for conflict.

Problems Inherent to a First Person Opening:

1st Person offers a lot of great advantages, chief among them the ability to slip thoroughly inside the protagonist’s head. It also puts up a couple of roadblocks straight from the start:

• Describing the character is difficult. People don’t generally give a lot of consideration to their how they look to others, so getting in a good description is problematic. The appraising glance in a mirror has been overdone. I’m pretty minimalist when it comes to description anyway, so I’ll probably just throw in some pertinent details in conversation – “You know I can’t see well at night with my dark eyes” OR “My light skin burns easily if I’m out in the sun too long.” I’m not overly concerned at the moment about his appearance, and I’d prefer to let the reader draw their own pictures.
• Getting the character’s name in. A pet peeve of mine is an author going too long without giving me the character’s name, and this is much more difficult in first person. This consideration shapes a lot of decisions at the start of the story.

On to the Story:

“Tomis. I’m sorry.”

That was my first thought for the opening line. By starting the next line with “I,” it immediately establishes the name of the POV character as the first word. My main problem with it, however, is that I’m having a person other than the protagonist perform the first action (speaking) in my story. That just grates on me.

Instead, I’ll add the following as the first line:

I knew something was wrong when I saw his face.

That’s definitely the sentiment I want. It filters the situation emotionally, but there are some major issues:

• I will not start any story with the first verb being “knew.” Not going to happen. I need something more active that conveys the same emotion.
• “Saw” is the bad type of filtering.
• I don’t like the alliteration.

Modified, it becomes:

I faltered at his expression.

“Faltered,” to me, conjures the exact right picture — a guy walking along and hesitating from the emotions caused by something he sees.

I do have a problem with “his.” If I were beta reading your story and saw this, I’d write, “What, exactly, is the antecedent to ‘his’?” The pronoun use without the proper antecedent, however, allows me to focus on the protagonist. I think leaving who “his” refers to as a bit of a question doesn’t harm me all that much at this point.

“What’s happened?”

I like this response, but I need to constantly remind myself to filter the situation through Tomis’ emotions. The more I do so, the better — for this experiment anyway. I need to add something like: My alarm grew. Since that’s a bit telly, I’ll change it to: My heart raced.

Granted, that’s a pretty generic indicator. Better might be something more specific to my character. Three problems, though:

1. The absolute weakest part of my writing is coming up with those perfect beats. It’s usually something that has to wait for the 3rd or 4th draft.
2. I don’t know enough about the character yet to establish the perfect beat.
3. Would a more specific indicator detract from the focus as the reader has to parse the meaning?

The end result of those considerations is that I’m going to leave it alone for now.

Cale’s eyes darted toward the arched doorway leading to the main hall before focusing behind me to the right. That he couldn’t bear to look at me wasn’t a good sign. “Another decree.”

This section is okay for a rough draft. I finally reveal who “his” referred to, and I don’t think the wait was too long. I also give him an action that shows his anxiousness.

The next line is more problematic. Normally, I’d say RUE, but I’m trying to learn a new technique rather than do what I normally do. Establishing emotional context is far more important right now than worrying about overexplaining. I can already see, however, that this issue will present constant struggles.

I like the terseness of the explanation in that it both presents a hook and fits the image of Cale that I’m trying to build as being reluctant to explain the situation to Tomis.

Putting It All Together:

I faltered at his expression.

“Tomis. I’m sorry.”

My heart raced. “What’s happened?”

Cale’s eyes darted toward the arched doorway leading to the main hall before focusing behind me to the right. That he couldn’t bear to look at me wasn’t a good sign. “Another decree.”

(Overall, it’s a little choppy, but it’ll suffice for the rough draft.)

Thoughts?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Are you intrigued by where I’m going? What do you think of the technique? Any comments on my thought process? Does this help you at all?

Advertisements

Evaluating Abuse of Power Based on the Principles of Good Writing

In this post, I set forth my thoughts on what constitutes good writing. An author should be his own worst critic and constantly examine his work for improvement. To that end, I’m evaluating my novelette, Abuse of Power, based on those principles to see where I need to concentrate my efforts for future learning.

Principle 1 – Do no harm

Clean, concise prose is my strong point. While there’s always room for improvement, trying to get better at writing technique will take a great deal of time and result in little benefit.

Likewise, I think I do a good job of making story choices that don’t provide distractions for the reader. The structure for Abuse is straightforward, and it flows well.

I give myself a solid 4.5 stars here.

Principle 2 – Create relatable characters

Before getting my editor’s comments, I thought I did a pretty good job with characterization overall. While I think Auggie and Alaina are pretty relatable in their overarching goals and struggles, I’m lacking in a couple of other areas:

• Variation of character voice. One of Tim’s big complaints was the lack of differentiation between the voices of Alaina, a baker’s daughter, and Auggie, the son of the duke. Oops. I did my best in the revision to use vocabulary to create more of a divide, but I don’t think this is one of my strong suits. I’ll continue to work on improving this aspect of my craft, but, truthfully, I don’t see it as a huge impact.
• Of more worry is the fact that Tim felt my characters were too one-dimensional. I’m struggling with this one. Since Abuse is a novelette, I tried hard to keep the plot concise and didn’t see a lot of opportunities to expand on the characters. In the revision, I added a little bit of detail, but I’m not sure I adequately addressed his concerns. I’ll be interested to see if he feels this problem extends to Power of the Mages where I spent much more time developing characters.

Because of the two fairly serious concerns, I give myself only 2 stars here. 😦

Principle 3 – Present a series of significant events

The structure and pace of Abuse is spot on. Tim had no major complaints, and I feel the story moves well. He noted a few places where I could ramp up the tension a bit, and I did so in my revision.

Again, there’s always room for improvement, but, in general, I know how to add tension and how to keep a story moving.

I give myself another solid 4.5 stars.

Principle 4 – Filter the events through the emotional lens of your character

This principle is the one that I discovered most recently in my writing career and the one I feel is the weakest element of my writing. While Tim was overall pleased with the emotional movement, I’m still not satisfied.

I know a lot of writers criticize Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, but, in Midnight Sun, she does the best job I’ve ever read of filtering. Every sentence brings the reader closer to Edward’s emotions.

I’m not saying that I should try to emulate her style as I’m not sure it would be appropriate for epic fantasy, but I think I have a long way to go in truly learning and embracing the technique she implements. I’m making a further study of it a high priority on my to-do list. Perhaps I’ll pen a short story that explores her methods.

Because Tim thought I did well overall, I give myself 3.5 stars.

Principle 5 – Give the reader an emotional payoff

I like the ending of Abuse. Each time I read it, I smile.

On the other hand, it doesn’t provide the emotional payoff that I really want. Part of that is the limitation of fitting the story into a novelette and part is my weakness at emotional filtering.

3 stars.

Overall, Abuse of Power is a solid story at 3.5 stars, but I have a lot of work to do in getting better at my overall craft. I’d be interested to know what you think of my evaluation. The final version should be available for free download from the site sometime no later than early next week. If you get a chance, please read it and comment.

Examining the Essentials

As my planned date of publication for my debut novel draws closer, I find myself thinking a lot about what makes a story worthy. What should an author most pay attention to? I came up with 4 essentials.

Essential 1 – Don’t Make Stupid Choices

So your story takes place in some ancient country that I’ve never heard of. Great. I’m sure it’s a wonderful setting, but do you really have to use authentic names for your characters? The five scholars who make the study of that country’s history their lives’ work will be appreciative, but the rest of your potential audience will give up reading when they lose track of who and where.

I do understand that no problem is too great that it can’t be solved, and a creative writer can make anything work.

The truth is, writing something people will want to read is freaking hard. Becoming competent in the basics is challenging enough. I just don’t need additional hurdles.

Essential 2 – Setting and Events Don’t Matter Without Context

Let’s say I’m writing a story and choose for my setting: late evening in the French Quarter of New Orleans on February 7, 2010.

To the vast majority of people, the time and date will have no relevance. The location might have some. They may remember a drunken Mardi Gras. Perhaps they have a pleasant association involving their appreciation of the city’s architecture. Maybe they have a negative feel for the place because an old girlfriend from there dumped them.

I wasn’t there at the time the story takes place, but I get goose bumps thinking about it. If I expect my audience automatically to feel the same way, I’m an idiot. It takes work to get them to that point.

The story isn’t about a setting or the events; it’s about a guy. If I show him as a long-suffering Saints fan — throwing the TV remote at the end of yet another 3-13 season, his despair at a series of poor decisions and squandered opportunities — when I take the reader to the culmination of Super Bowl XLIV with this guy surrounded by throngs of the faithful, I can make any reader feel the same emotion that I do (well, maybe ANY reader. It requires the capacity for emotion, and I have a hard time ascribing any human attribute to a Falcons fan.).

Essential 3 – Tension

If a story is life without the boring parts, tension is what removes the boredom. Truthfully, if you want to find a single area on which to concentrate, pick this one.

A story with the tension done right will keep the reader turning pages even if everything else about it pretty much sucks. The reader will finish the book and say, “That writing was kinda crappy,” but they’ll probably buy your next book.

A Brief Aside…

Not making bad choices is the least important of the essentials. Unfortunately, it’s also the one I’m the best at.

I didn’t come to understand the importance of filtering through your POV character until writing my 3rd draft, and I think it shows. I made a valiant effort in my editing, but I still have work to do.

I don’t think that tension is a weakness of mine, but I also wouldn’t consider it a strength. I’ll try to ramp it up in both the final drafts.

That brings me to:

Essential 4 – Emotion

If you want your reader to love your book, you have to make them feel something. The only way to do that is to get the emotion right, and that’s not an easy proposition. You can’t just tell the reader what the character feels; you have to demonstrate it in a way that makes the reader truly understand. If you go too far, though, it induces eye rolling.

This morning, I used my DVR to catch up on an episode of Grimm. One of the ongoing plot lines is the development of a relationship between two of the supporting characters, and it struck me how well the writers are handling that subplot. They don’t devote a lot of time to it, but, what time they do spend, they use well.

First, the guy is just enough of a loser to be sympathetic. I’m firmly rooting for him to win the girl.

Second, they don’t get sappy. He never pines over her. Instead, they show him doing things that indicate his feelings.

In the episode I watched today, the character, a clock repair man, gives his girlfriend a, wait for it, clock. He doesn’t go on and on about his feelings for her; he goes on and on about how awesome the clock is. The camera cuts to the girl, and her expression indicates her understanding of his meaning. It’s fantastic writing.

Quite simply, the 3rd draft of my novel is not where I want it to be in this respect, but I’m working on it. I found this blog post recently that offers tremendous advice: http://awriterstouch.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/words-concrete-and-stacking-stories-3-tips-for-writing-emotion-in-fiction/

I strongly suggest you check it out.

We Hold These Truths About Self Editing

In my travels around the internet and my adventures critiquing others’ writing, I’ve found two statements about editing that bother me.

“Truth” 1: You can’t edit yourself.

Before you editors in my audience get too worked up, I’m not disagreeing with the premise that a finished, professional product requires the services of a professional editor. I can’t imagine putting a work for sale without, at the very least, a structural edit.

I disagree with an implication I’m getting from the statement, one that I’m not sure was intended but that bothers me a lot — that an author shouldn’t do everything he can to edit himself. After all, if it’s not possible to edit yourself, why should you try?

More indicative of this attitude is a statement I’ve seen too many times to count from those who have been critiqued:

“Truth” 2: I don’t have to (punctuate correctly, understand basic grammar rules, craft a coherent thought, produce more than a jumble of random words, etc.); that’s what editors are for.

That attitude makes my head want to explode.

Here are my truths about editing:

Truth 1 – If you’re going to be a writer, do it right.

You simply must employ the services of an editor before hitting “publish” for your precious manuscript. If you’re not serious enough about producing a quality product that you can’t make that monetary investment, how can you expect anyone to pay for your work?

The most likely results of failure to do so is:

• You embarrass yourself.
• You make the rest of us self-publishers look bad.

If you truly don’t have any money, try crowdsourcing. If your work has any merit, you should be able to generate enough money for at least a manuscript review by a freelance editor. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.

Truth 2 – Self edit before the edit.

Three reasons:

• Your editor is a professional, meaning that’s how he makes his livelihood. He’s charging you per word as a way to estimate the amount of time he will spend working on your manuscript. He cannot afford to spend more than that allotted amount of time. Once he hits that limit, he has to move on to the next client. Would you rather he spent his time taking your work from horrible to readable or from good to great?
• Editing is freaking expensive. Unless you have a publisher that’s paying for it or you expect your book to make six figures, it’s simply not cost effective to have an editor fix mistakes that you could have caught.
• An editor can only take your work so far above the starting point. When I critique someone, I can’t do much if I can’t understand what they’re trying to convey. All I can do is point out the confusion. If I can understand but the wording/technique is off, I can suggest a remedy. If the wording/technique is good, I can focus on how that piece fits in with the overall story.

Truth 3 – Sweat the small stuff.

Similar to the attitude that it’s the editor’s responsibility to fix all your wrongs is the attitude that small mistakes don’t matter.

What’s more important — not using adverbs or having a coherent plot?

Obviously the latter.

The big stuff — plot, character, tension, emotion — take your work from useless drivel to readable. If you want to find any audience at all, you must master these elements.

If, however, you want your work to be great, you have to master the small stuff.

No one, beside another writer, is going to read your book and say, “It was awesome. The author didn’t overuse adverbs.”

What’s going to happen is, since you found ways to immerse the reader in lieu of using adverbs, the reader is going to turn page after page until the end and say, “Wow, that was awesome. I couldn’t put it down.”

Each time you make a mistake, you pull the reader out of the story. Enough mistakes, and you lose them.

Every Word Counts Pt 2

In this post, I discussed the What, Why, and When of Every Word Counts. The post below concludes the series.

How

Get rid of all of the words in the sentence that you don’t need.

Let’s take a look at the sentence above:

• “Get rid of” is wordy. Seems like we could replace it with something like “Remove.”
• The “of” after “all” is superfluous.
• Is the phrase “in the sentence” important? Aren’t most words in a sentence, and does it matter if the words are in a paragraph or on a page instead? If I get rid of it (Oops, scratch that, “remove” it), the effect is stronger.
• “That you don’t need” seems wordy. How about simply “unnecessary?”

That gives us:

Remove all the unnecessary words.

Much better, but not quite there:

• I’m not sure that “remove” is a strong enough statement. “Delete” seems more forceful.
• Why do I need “all?” It’s a waste of good bytes.

Delete unnecessary words.

There. Clear, concise, strong — exactly what I wanted.

To keep your writing tight:

• Get rid of weasel words and phrases. Almost, could, kind of, not quite — these add nothing.
• Examine all adverbs. Read the sentence without it. If the meaning isn’t changed, delete the adverb. Words like “very” that modify an amount to a non-specific degree are the worst offenders.
• Watch for extraneous words. That, all, some — these can often be removed without impacting meaning.
• Watch for extraneous phrases. If it doesn’t change the meaning of it… See, right there. What’s the difference between “meaning of it” and “meaning?” It’s as plain to see as the nose on my face. Where else, exactly, would my nose be? Get rid of “on my face.” It’s not needed at all. Speaking of which, neither is “at all.”
• Get rid of redundancies that you don’t need. Get it? Redundancies that you don’t need?
• Get rid of pleonasms (a word/phrase that, when removed, doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence). At dinner last night, I told Little Man, “Let your food cool down before you eat it.” I immediately felt like a horrible parent teaching my child that pleonasms are okay. I muttered, “What’s the difference between ‘cool down’ and ‘cool’?” I corrected my admonition to, “Let you food cool before you eat it.”

To choose the optimum words:

• Consider context, connotation, and mood for each word.
• Check out this list of feeling words. Scatter these words throughout your scene to establish emotional context.
• Be active. Words like began, started, had, and was steal a sense of immediacy from your writing.
• Specific is better than vague. Have your character drive a Honda Civic, not a car — though I’d say there’s not much difference in that example considering how generic… Never mind.
• Filter emotions not actions. You want the reader to understand what a given event means to your character from an emotional standpoint. “Joe’s eyes watered as he read the letter from his girlfriend” shows the reader that the letter produced an emotional response that is either tremendously joyful or sad depending on the context. Writing “Joe watched the mail carrier place the letter in the box” adds nothing. If we’re in Joe’s POV, we know he watched the events. Simply write “The letter carrier placed the letter in the box.”

Every Word Counts Pt 1

Consider this two-part series a slightly better than rough draft version of a chapter from my upcoming book on writing. I’d love feedback.

Every Word Counts

What

Every Word Counts is my way of expressing two fundamental concepts of good writing:

1. Keep Writing Tight – The process of removing unnecessary words and redundancies from your writing.
2. Choose Optimum Words – The process of considering context, syntax, emotional content, and connotation for each word.

Why

Every reputable author and editor whose advice I’ve read advises keeping writing tight. This reason is insufficient to provoke change in your writing. An author should understand the root cause of an issue in order to incorporate it. However, it is useful to know you’re going to get feedback of “not tight enough” as a complaint and “your writing is tight” as a compliment.

If you send me a work for critique, I’ll mark through unnecessary words and phrases. A lot of writers will say, “Those extra words are my stylistic choice. Don’t cut them just to follow some obscure rule.” While I sympathize with that writer, the truth is I won’t notice those words if the piece works. The fact I’m commenting on the problem means it didn’t work.

Remember the only absolute rule of writing: You can do anything you want as long as it works.

The corollary is: If it doesn’t work, follow the relevant rule.

More important to understanding why you should use this rule is the theory behind it.

1. Concise writing conveys information more efficiently than loose writing. Fewer words mean you get your point across in less space.
2. Readers today have less patience and shorter attention spans than readers of the classics. Verbose prose risks losing them.
3. Tight writing allows the reader to immerse themselves in the story rather than paying attention to the writing.
4. Tight writing improves clarity. A scene is often a step by step set of instructions leading the reader from one important point to the next. Unnecessary words detract from the reader’s ability to discern those points.
5. Optimum word choice subtly guides the reader to the correct emotional state.
6. Optimum word choice adds depth to your writing and develops a sense of trust in your readers. If they see the care in which you picked each word, they’re more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt as to where you’re leading them.
7. Editors charge by the word ().

When

Every Word Counts should be your default technique. Use it unless you have a reason not to.

The beginning author must master this technique. I’m not saying you can’t experiment but becoming proficient at writing tightly and choosing optimum words will benefit you in the long run. It is not a horrible idea for you aggressively to pursue choosing better words and getting rid of words you don’t need.

While choosing the correct word (since “correct” takes into account a wide range of considerations) is always the best decision, the intermediate writer should consider a more nuanced approach when it comes to tight writing. You might want to use more words for the following reasons:

1. Pacing – Long sentences equal slow pace, and short sentences fast pace. In a fight scene, you’ll want to keep your writing extra tight. You can be more verbose when writing description.
2. Putting space between important points – While tight writing helps your reader keep points mentally organized, plot developments can lose impact if placed to closely together. A few extra words can heighten impact by adding space.
3. Unique voice – The downside of tight writing is that it leads to homogenous prose. Sometimes, it’s advantageous to have a character’s dialogue, first person narrative, or viewpoint scene stand out as unique. While a stoic character tends to be terse, a bureaucrat may tend to use more words.

Remember the fundamental concept behind straying from a guideline: the benefit you gain must be greater than the problem you create. Consider whether creating that space makes your writing better considering that it risks loss of understanding. Does that unique voice add layers to your characterization or does it distract the reader?

Now that I’ve convinced you, hopefully, that you need to follow my advice with Every Word Counts, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to learn how.

Using Pro Writing Aid

When I first found out about Pro Writing Aid in a post on Mythic Scribes, I decided to check it out and discovered it to be a fantastic tool. It surprised me when some other posters didn’t share my opinion. I finally realized that the difference in opinion is because it is a tool, and, as with any tool, its worth is defined by how it’s used.

What Pro Writing Aid is — a brute force algorithm that looks at certain word and stylistic choices.

What Pro Writing Aid isn’t — a substitute for editing or for your judgment as a writer.

I’ve been using this tool for six months or so, and my writing is tighter than it was. I find that I make fewer and fewer changes after running a chapter through the editor because I’ve already caught most of the mistakes. Out of 3,000 words, I usually make three to seven edits.

Here’s what I get out of it:

• Overused Words – All authors have the tendency to rely too heavily on certain words. Pro Writing Aid highlights those you’ve, perhaps, used too often. I particularly tend both to use versions of “feel” and to “initialize” too often. Seeing these highlighted in red helps me examine each use and choose better words for variety.
• Cliches – I tend to use three or four phrases per chapter that the system flags as clichés. Such usage doesn’t bother me too much, but it’s nice to consider if there’s a better way to express myself.
• Redundancies – Most of the ones the system flags aren’t actual redundancies as it will count two words that are separated by a phrase without taking into account the meaning of the intervening phrase. Every couple of chapters, though, it will spot something worth changing.
• Sentence Length – The system feels that your sentences should average between 11 and 13 words. Mine tend to fall in the 8 to 9 word range. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not, and I haven’t tried to fix it.
• Diction Report – I find the end of sentence preposition highlighting useful and often find words that I can delete this way.
• Vague and Abstract Words Report – This report has helped clean my writing of words like “all” and “some.”
• Writing Style Report – This report highlights all your adverbs in green. It’s never a bad idea to read your sentences without the adverb to make sure they’re necessary. The report also shows hidden verbs in purple. I usually find at least one a chapter that I can make more active.

I haven’t tried the pay version of the editor. If anyone has, I’d appreciate a comment on what additional service is provided, how much it is, and whether it’s worth it.