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Flashback: June 6, 2009

Snoopy

If all went well, I’m at Continuum doing con-stuff today. In all likelihood, I’m either having a blast, or else I’m freaking out because how the heck am I going to follow up the Guest of Honor speech N. K. Jemisin gave last year???

In the meantime, I’ve been posting reruns from the blog. Today’s post is five years old, but I’d probably give pretty much the same advice etoday…

#

Okay, “wisdom” might be an overstatement.  But at Penguicon this year, it occurred to me that I’ve been doing writing workshops for a long time.  As a participant, I’ve done creative writing class discussions, the Writers of the Future workshop in ‘99, Critters, and then several years with a local group until they dissolved.  Eventually, I started cofacilitating workshops, helping to run them at ConFusion, ConClave, and now Penguicon, among others.

That’s a lot of fiction feedback, and after a while, you start to notice patterns.  I figured it might be helpful to list some of the more common feedback I’ve given and received over the years.  Like all “rules,” some of these can be bent.  Others can be broken.  Our job is to learn them well enough to know when and how.

Begin at the beginning.  I don’t know how many times I’ve read a story, and it takes several pages or chapters before things start moving.  As a writer, my first drafts often include a lot of brainstorming at the beginning.  I’m laying down backstory, trying to figure everything out, but the story doesn’t get moving until later.  As a general rule, your story doesn’t start with your hero getting up, making breakfast, and brushing his teeth.  It starts with the werejaguar that carjacks him on the way to work.

Your protagonist must protag.  Your protagonist wants something.  The story is about how she tries to accomplish that goal, struggling and eventually failing or succeeding.  If your protagonist sits around, passively describing what’s happening while never taking part in the action, you might want to consider either making her an active participant in her own story or else switching to another protagonist.

Who are you? Why am I against this wall? Why won’t my arms move? Where’s Buttercup?  It’s one thing to toss your readers into a scene, but you also need to orient them.  Where are we, and why should readers care?  I’ve learned that at the start of any scene, chapter, or story, I need to answer most or all of the following questions: Who is the POV character?  Who else is here?  Where are we?  How much time has passed since the last scene?  What’s going on?

Meet the twins, Bweryang and Bob.  Names are important.  Make sure yours are culturally consistent.  Unless you’re deliberately going for humor, your ogres named Grok, Flargh, and Kandi are going to throw me right out of the story.  Also make sure your names aren’t going to resonate with other culturally popular names.  Your story about OB/GYN medical droids where the head ‘bot is named O.B.1?  Yeah, that’s not gonna work.

The mysterious man and his mysterious quest.  As authors, we want to build suspense.  What better way than by keeping secrets from the reader?  Hide everyone’s horrible pasts, their true motivations, even their names!  You’d be amazed how many workshop stories don’t give the character’s name until well into the tale.  The problem is, it’s hard to care about someone we know nothing about (not to mention the convolutions the writer had to go through to keep things hidden).  I still find myself hiding too much in my early drafts.  But the more I share, the more the reader can empathize and get invested in the story.

I think I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  A lot of early drafts meander, until the reader starts to wonder if the author knows where the story’s going.  One character is on a quest to rescue his cat, but then it turns into a story about the veterinarian, and suddenly we’re preaching about animal rights, and in the end the vet’s kid wrecks the truck.  Lots of action, but totally disconnected.  For me, what’s helped is to boil each book, story, chapter, or scene into a single sentence to help me focus.

A certain point of view?  I’d say at least half the workshop stories I read have point of view trouble.  Sometimes it’s minor.  We’re in third person limited PoV, staying strictly within the mind of our protagonist, and then there’s a paragraph that tells us what some random character is thinking.  Other times it’s messier, jumping from one person’s head to another with no rhyme or reason, and no indication of when or why we’ve switched perspectives.

Prologues.  Prologues are not a requirement of fantasy novels.  The fantasy police will not break down your door and taser you if you fail to include one.  If you do decide to use a prologue, know why.  What does the prologue accomplish that you couldn’t do with a regular old chapter?  I’d say less than 20% of the prologues I read in workshops really help the stories.  Is this the most effective way to give your readers whatever info you want them to have?  If you want to give the full history of your world, great.  But you might be better off waiting until it’s relevant to the story rather than opening with 8 pages of infodumping.  (See also Begin at the beginning.)


That’s what I was able to come up with off the top of my head.  I hope it’s helpful.  I’m sure there are more, and I’m happy to hear other tidbits from folks.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
thedragonweaver
Jun. 6th, 2014 11:54 pm (UTC)
On POV
I saw a rather nice breakdown of POV that talked about the central point of the story. If the central point of the story is a certain character's development, then it makes sense to cut all scenes that do not directly relate to that character. No matter what. So if it's something that the character has to know about, but doesn't happen in their view, you have to figure out how they find out about it.

The reason this caught my attention is because it talked about the central point being something other than a single character. If it's the relationship between certain characters, you can have scenes set around either of them without losing that central point. If it's the story of the fall of kingdoms, well, GRRM can have as many POVs as he needs to tell the story. But in general, if you can't find the central point of the story, you're going to have trouble with the POV. (And probably the story in general.) Spider Robinson put it well in one of his books, where he had a writer talk about finding the "cri de couer" (the cry from the heart) at the center of the story before she could write it.
sylviamcivers
Jun. 8th, 2014 03:24 pm (UTC)
Re: On POV
Useful info about POV! I'm writing a historical novel, and there's things going on that my main character has no access to. So the spouse has a chapter every third chapter or so, and then they share info over dinner, and the reader can skip the repeat: they see teh the POV character coming home to a lovely smell in the kitchen, anticipating a nice chat.
wren08
Jun. 7th, 2014 09:46 am (UTC)
This should not have to be said... but I've read a slush pile and it does. Have a beginning, a middle and an end. I've read too many "stories" that left off the end, the beginning or both.
anglerfish07
Jun. 8th, 2014 03:55 am (UTC)
Very insightful and interesting! :) And I've read waaay too many stories that had annoyingly passive "heroes" while the other characters (including the antagonists) were much more active. So this struck a chord with me.
sylviamcivers
Jun. 8th, 2014 03:25 pm (UTC)
The one-sentence summary is a PITA, but intensely useful.

Thanks for hte post, very good overview of 'what not to do wrong'.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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