Epistolary Novels–Some Drawbacks

April 1st, 2010

San José, by Denis SalasNovelists constantly strive to present well-rounded characters and believable plots, and this struggle often begins with the selection of a narrative style. Should the author tell the story from the point of view of one character or of several? Should the story begin in the present and reveal important details in flashback? Should the reader learn of events as they happen or only hear about them through a character’s retelling?

One particular narrative choice, the epistolary form, has been popular for centuries–in novels like Pamela and Dracula–and seems to make a resurgence periodically–in books like Griffin and Sabine and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Writers like the fact that the epistolary form allows letters or other kinds of text to drive both plot and character development. When properly executed, an exchange of letters between characters–or a dramatic series of newspaper articles or diary entries–can create a compelling plot and sufficient characterization to keep the reader interested in the story. However, I argue that the epistolary form presents its own problems, both in terms of realism and in terms of immediacy.

The problem of realism lies in the fact that the epistolary form often requires letter-writing characters to reveal information for the sake of the reader, rather than for the sake of their own correspondence, creating unrealistic content in the letters. For example, in writing to her beloved sister, a character might say, “Thank you for the birthday present you sent me! How did you know that a hand-sewn tablecloth with red and green embroidery and yellow lace trim was exactly what I wanted for my forty-eighth birthday?” The details about the tablecloth and the letter-writer’s age exist solely for the benefit of the reader, since one assumes that the beloved sister knows exactly what she sent and exactly how old her sister is. Epistolary novels lend themselves to these sorts of problems with realism when the correspondents know more about each other than the reader knows about them. In an effort to convey information to the reader, the author of the novel puts far more information into a letter than it would otherwise have: “Dear Husband, As a nurse, I am deeply disturbed by the outbreak of cholera. Love, your wife.” One assumes that the husband knows his wife’s occupation, and in a “real” letter, his wife would never need to mention her line of work.

The problem of immediacy is one that presents itself frequently in epistolary novels. The beauty of the epistolary novel is that its characters can exchange profound, personality-defining thoughts while hinting at the action happening around them as they communicate. However, when the action needs to be more immediate–a battle scene or a violently explosive confrontation, for example–a letter describing the action might create too much distance from the reader. Compare, for example, a character’s personal account of a mugging with a letter about that same mugging. (“Charles stepped into the dark alley and knew immediately he shouldn’t have taken the shortcut. A man emerged from the darkness. He held a knife.” or “Dear Susan, I was mugged last night. I decided to take a shortcut home, but the minute I stepped in the alley, I knew I had made the wrong decision.”) The epistolary form keeps the reader at arm’s length, a distance that might not be suitable for describing fast-paced action.

I suggest that an author consider the shortcomings of the epistolary form before choosing it for his or her own novel. If the letter-writing characters know a great deal about one another, does it make sense for them to write each other exhaustively detailed letters that serve mostly to convey information to the reader? If the novel is to have immediate and jarring action, would it be more exciting for the characters to experience the action right before the very eyes of the reader, so to speak, or will the reader be satisfied to read about the action, secondhand, in a letter or newspaper article?

As always, Beaumont Hardy is a writer’s friend in times of narrative indecision. Send me your written work, your writing thoughts and your narrative concerns, and I will be happy to provide editorial guidance.

Precise But Distracting

March 18th, 2010

I’ve recently noticed an odd trend in mass-market fiction–a tendency toward distractingly precise description. Believing that lively words will necessarily enliven their prose, some authors are liberally sprinkling their writing with words that are, admittedly, precise but that are also misleading to the reader. These words sometimes have the wrong connotations, or they simply offer far too much distracting detail.

At Beaumont Hardy, I fully support authors’ efforts to create vivid descriptions for their readers. However, description cannot exist for its own sake. It must serve the larger purpose of enhancing both plot and character. When description becomes so specific that it pulls the reader from the story, it may be time for an edit.

The following sentences illustrate the kind of precision I believe distracts a reader, instead of enlivening the story.

1. Fear scraped at her insides.

I see variations of this sentence in many current thrillers. “Scraped” is a wonderfully descriptive word, but it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to fear or to its effects. Does fear really scrape? I argue that a reader will stop to wonder what internal scraping feels like and whether this scraping is more characteristic of something other than fear–like a corrosive acid. This kind of reader distraction can destroy any plot suspense the author hopes to create.

2. His gaze collided with hers.

The notion of a collision is effective, in certain narrative situations, but it seems unrelated to the actual process of making eye contact. Readers all recognize the power of eye contact and the shock of an unexpected gaze. However, readers might have trouble imagining one look colliding with another one. Once again, readers are pulled from the story into irrelevant thoughts about ricocheting lines of sight and violently clashing eye contact–not what the writer wants at a moment of interpersonal tension.

3. The little girl launched herself into her mother’s arms.

“Launch” is an excellent descriptive verb, and it can clearly describe various actions. However, in this particular sentence, it conveys an action the writer might not have intended. Instead of suggesting a warm maternal moment, the word “launch” suggests the sudden movement of a projectile or the violent motion of a lion encountering an injured gazelle. It also connotes a long-distance leap more characteristic of a cheetah or an Olympic athlete than a little girl. Because of its violently athletic connotations, the precision of the term leads, I think, to more distraction than it does description.

4. The maiden gnawed at her muffin nervously.

Like launching, gnawing has very precise connotations, many of them rodent-related. Using the word “gnaw” to describe the relatively pleasant actions of a nice young woman seems incongruous and confusing. The reader may struggle with images of vermin, momentarily forgetting the trajectory of the story or the personality of the character.

5. “Get in the car,” the gentleman snarled.

Snarling is a very precise activity and one usually attributed to beasts of prey. When an author uses a word like “snarled,” instead of a more ordinary word like “said,” he or she must acknowledge the connotations of the word and consider whether these connotations are appropriate. In the case of the snarling gentleman, the author risks the temporary distraction of a reader who envisions werewolves or lions, instead of the fully human hero.

Accurate description is an art that I wholeheartedly support at Beaumont Hardy Editing. However, I recommend whittling away the kind of description that makes the wrong connotations and only serves to distract the reader.

If you have any concerns about your own descriptive passages and would like an expert opinion about them, please send them to me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Starting Over

January 18th, 2010

Writing can be burdensome, especially when you find yourself halfway through penning a novel with meandering subplots and indistinguishable secondary characters or a piece of non-fiction that has lost all direction. The text seems to have gotten away from you, and you suspect that your work might be deeply and irremediably flawed. Working day after day on a writing project whose very essence feels unstable can be both unproductive and disheartening.

Writers whose work has become oppressive and unmanageable have two options. As I discussed in an earlier post, the first option is to plow ahead valiantly, writing what I call the “terrible rough draft–a manuscript notable mostly for its completeness but, perhaps, harboring several kernels of pure genius. The second option is almost exactly the opposite–to set the partial first draft aside and to start over. The second option, drastic though it may seem, can be remarkably liberating an can often prompt a burst of productivity.

Starting over doesn’t necessarily mean taking a match to an unwieldy first draft. Instead, it means slowly following the trajectory of that partial draft to find the moments when it goes astray–and the moments that actually work. The beauty of this starting-over process is that it allows you to begin with a somewhat clean slate but gives you the reassurance of a “safety net”–your partial first draft.

Most people now write their novels on computers, but a hard copy of your imperfect first draft is very useful in the starting-over process. Not only does a hard copy allow for efficient side-by-side comparisons of your first and subsequent drafts, but it can also give you great psychological comfort. Thumbing through the pages of an imperfect first draft and crossing out mediocre passages can feel very productive and satisfying. Working from a hard copy also reminds you that your original first draft still exists. Knowing that you could always return to the original draft might make you feel more uninhibited about making drastic changes to it. (Of course, you can always refer to the electronic version of your first draft when starting over on it. Flipping back and forth between electronic versions of a manuscript can have its own emotional rewards.)

The starting-over process is straightforward. The opening of the manuscript is often fairly adequate and can usually remain unchanged. (The perceived problems usually start later in the piece.) You can feel fairly confident of the first sentence. Leave it in place, and continue through the opening paragraphs. Because you have written part of the manuscript already, you will have a good idea of the overall trajectory. In the starting-over phase, you can make sure that the opening paragraph truly moves the piece in the direction you want it to go. You can often head off many of the problems that manifest themselves in the first draft by reconsidering the opening of the piece.

As you proceed through the early parts of the manuscript, take none of your writing for granted. Just because a character or subplot exists in the first draft, it need not remain in any subsequent versions. Similarly, internal divisions and sub-arguments in a non-fiction piece need not remain in a new draft. Consider all aspects of your manuscript expendable, and honestly determine whether they contribute to the overall effect you hope to achieve.

You will often find a clear moment when your piece diverges from the ideal and begins to lose momentum or direction. At that point, you might very clearly see the “fork in the road” that pulls your work away from its true trajectory. Feel free to excise those directional missteps.

You will sometimes encounter first-draft passages that you like but that you suspect might create problems later in the manuscript. Bracket those portions of the manuscript (either electronically or in hard copy), and leave them out of your starting-over draft. You might later find that they fit perfectly into another part of the piece or that they lead in a profitable new direction that the original first draft might not have elucidated. The starting-over process provides your first draft with the “breathing room” that allows for these kinds of textual reconfigurations.

Starting over on a manuscript will often give you the satisfying feeling of cobbling together only the best parts of your first draft while simultaneously allowing you to clarify and rethink your original ideas. The process is the complete opposite of forging ahead until you write a terrible first draft, but it’s a refreshing option if you feel that your writing has begun to stagnate. Starting over can reinvigorate your writing and help you rediscover your authorly purpose.

At Beaumont Hardy, I’m happy to help any author with a terrible rough draft, a starting-over draft or any other piece of writing.

Complain! We’ll Help.

December 1st, 2009

Beaumont Hardy is a fan of the well-written complaint letter and a friend to the complaining consumer. Recently, we have all had much to complain about–businesses with terrible customer service, unfair company policies, unfriendly and difficult store employees and misguided government officials. At Beaumont Hardy, I help clients write complaint letters for all of these occasions. I proofread and revise client complaint letters, making them more precise and effective. I also write complaint letters for clients who send me the details of their particular issue or misfortune.

Now that consumers and voters are increasingly left to fend for themselves in a hostile business and political world, the complaint letter has become one of the only tools to effect change and to allow people to voice their opinions. Send me the details of your complaint–or the rough draft of a complaint letter you have already written–and I’ll help you hone your argument and achieve the maximum results from your complaint.

The following is an unedited complaint letter. For the sake of confidentiality, I eliminated the name of the store in question and replaced it with “Store X.” Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

Dear Store X:

Please stop having your employees push store credit cards so aggressively. I enjoy shopping at Store X and go there at least twice a month to buy something. I’m a faithful customer, but I might stop being so faithful if you keep up your credit card campaign.

Last week, I went to your store to buy some home accessories. I was pleased to note that each one had a 50% off sticker on it, although I liked them so much that I would have been willing to pay full price for them.

I took my items to the checkout line, where I waited patiently at the end of the line. When it was my turn to check out, the cashier asked if I would like a store credit card. I told her I would not. Then, as if I hadn’t even spoken, she proceeded to tell me all of the benefits of store credit, one of which being a further 10% off my current purchases. I told her that I still did not want a store credit card. Then, as if I still hadn’t spoken, she told me that Store X’s credit card will actually improve the economy, because it will make more people shop at Store X and put money into the economy. I told the cashier that I did not want to take on the burden of another credit card.

Then, she became angry and said, “Well, here’s someone who doesn’t want an additional 10% off. She must be rich. The rest of us would like 10% off.”

I told her I would always like 10% off, but not if it meant acquiring a new credit card.

She responded by calling out again, saying, “Well, I guess this woman doesn’t want to help the economy. I thought we all wanted to improve the economy, but she doesn’t.” She pointed at me and pretended to smile playfully.

At that point, I considered leaving my items on the counter and leaving the store completely. But I liked my selection and still wanted to buy what I had found–10% off or not.

The cashier continued to roll her eyes as she checked out my items. She didn’t speak to me again and never said a word to me as I left.

I love Store X but am seriously giving second thoughts to ever shopping there again. Store credit should be optional and voluntary, and I should not be scolded by an employee for exerting my right not to sign up for store credit. I also think I have the right to shop at Store X without receiving a lecture about how to improve the economy from its employees. (Besides, isn’t excessive credit part of our current economic problem now, and wouldn’t I contribute more to the economy by paying the additional 10% that is deducted from store credit users?) Please reconsider your aggressive policy in promoting Store X credit cards. I believe your current policy will create a great deal of animosity.

Sincerely,

After editing, the complaint letter reads as follows:

Dear Store X:

I enjoy shopping at your store, and I buy something from there at least twice a month. However, I’ve begun to rethink my faithfulness to your store, now that you have implemented an aggressive Store X credit card campaign.

Last week, I went to your store to buy some home accessories. I was pleased to note that each one had a 50%-off sticker attached to it, although I liked the accessories so much that I would have been willing to pay full price for them.

When I reached the checkout line, the cashier asked if I would like a store credit card. I told her I would not. Then, as if I hadn’t even spoken, she proceeded to list the benefits of store credit, one of which was a further 10% off my current purchases. I told her that I still did not want a store credit card. Ignoring me once again, the cashier told me that Store X’s credit card would actually improve the economy, because it would encourage more people to shop at Store X and put money into the economy. I told the cashier that I did not want to take on the burden of another credit card.

Then, the cashier became angry and said, “Well, here’s someone who doesn’t want an additional 10% off. She must be rich. The rest of us would like 10% off.” I was offended by her comment, but I remained polite. I told the cashier that I would always like 10% off, but not if I had to acquire a new credit card to get it.

She responded by calling out to the other people in line. She said, “Well, I guess this woman doesn’t want to help the economy. I thought we all wanted to improve the economy, but she doesn’t.” She pointed at me and pretended to smile playfully.

At that point, I considered forgoing my purchase and leaving the store completely. But I liked my selection and still wanted to buy what I had found–10% off or not. I decided to ignore the cashier and her aggressive offers. The cashier continued to roll her eyes as she checked out my items, but she didn’t speak to me again.  She never said a word to me as I left.

I love Store X but am seriously considering never shopping there again. Store credit should be optional and voluntary, and I should not be scolded by an employee for exerting my right not to sign up for it. I also believe I have the right to shop at Store X without receiving an economics lecture from its employees. (Besides, I argue that I can contribute more to the economy by paying the additional 10% that is deducted from purchases using store credit.)

Please reconsider your aggressive policy in promoting Store X credit cards. I believe your current policy will create a great deal of customer animosity and destroy the goodwill so many of us feel toward your store.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Below is the piece with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

Dear Store X:

Please stop having your employees push store credit cards so aggressively. I enjoy shopping at your store, Store X and I buy something from go there at least twice a month to buy something. However, I’ve begun to rethink my faithfulness to your store, now that you have implemented an aggressive Store X credit card campaign. I’m a faithful customer, but I might stop being so faithful if you keep up your credit card campaign.

Last week, I went to your store to buy some home accessories. I was pleased to note that each one had a 50%off sticker on attached to it, although I liked them the accessories [I changed “them to “the accessories” to maintain the clarity of the sentence.] so much that I would have been willing to pay full price for them.

I took my items to the checkout line, where I waited patiently at the end of the line. [Although this first sentence helps to set the scene, I cut it, because it does not further the argument.] When I reached the checkout line it was my turn to check out, the cashier asked if I would like a store credit card. I told her I would not. Then, as if I hadn’t even spoken, she proceeded to list tell me all of the benefits of store credit, one of which being was a further 10% off my current purchases. I told her that I still did not want a store credit card. Then, as if I still hadn’t spoken Ignoring me once again, she the cashier told me that Store X’s credit card will would actually improve the economy, because it will make would encourage more people to shop at Store X and put money into the economy. I told the cashier that I did not want to take on the burden of another credit card.

Then, she the cashier became angry and said, “Well, here’s someone who doesn’t want an additional 10% off. She must be rich. The rest of us would like 10% off.” I was offended by her comment, but I remained polite. I told her the cashier that I would always like 10% off, but not if I had to it meant acquiringe a new credit card to get it.

She responded by calling out again, saying to the other people in line. She said, “Well, I guess this woman doesn’t want to help the economy. I thought we all wanted to improve the economy, but she doesn’t.” She pointed at me and pretended to smile playfully.

At that point, I considered leaving my items on the counter forgoing my purchase [I’m trying to avoid using “leaving” twice in one sentence.] and leaving the store completely. But I liked my selection and still wanted to buy what I had found–10% off or not. I decided to ignore the cashier and her aggressive offers. The cashier continued to roll her eyes as she checked out my items., but sShe didn’t speak to me again. and She never said a word to me as I left.

I love Store X but am seriously giving second thoughts to considering never shopping there again. Store credit should be optional and voluntary, and I should not be scolded by an employee for exerting my right not to sign up for store credit it. I also think believe I have the right to shop at Store X without receiving an economics lecture about how to improve the economy from its employees. (Besides, I argue that I can isn’t excessive credit part of our current economic problem now, and wouldn’t I contribute more to the economy by paying the additional 10% that is deducted from purchases using store credit users?.)

Please reconsider your aggressive policy in promoting Store X credit cards. I believe your current policy will create a great deal of customer animosity and destroy the goodwill so many of us feel toward your store.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Please send me your thoughts or comments about this post. I look forward to hearing from you.

Romance Lives

November 16th, 2009

sunReaders have always used literature to escape the grim reality of their lives, and escapism continues to influence publishing during these slow economic times. In true escapist fashion, romance literature thrives when the markets are at their worst. Romance editors report strong sales in their genre, and romance publishers continue to expand their various imprints.

All of this is good news for writers of romance. The market for their books is strong, and writers have plenty of places to sell their work. Of course, no matter how strong the romance market is or how badly acquisitions editors want new manuscripts, hopeful writers still need to submit their strongest and most polished work. At Beaumont Hardy, I help romance writers streamline their plots and perfect their submissions.

The following is an unedited portion of a romance novel. Immediately after it is the same passage, after editing. After both is the same passage with my editing comments.

“You’re holding it the wrong way!” a voice bellowed from somewhere behind Sloane, and she dropped the ice ax with a clatter to the floor. Sloane whirled around to spot a very tall man looming in the shadows of the storehouse. “You can get hurt like that,” he said softly, then stiffening again as though he had made himself angry.

The tension of the day suddenly settled heavily on Sloane, and she spun around angrily to face the man fully. “That’s why I’m here, Mr Vaughn–I assume it’s Mr. Vaughn, world-class ice-climbing champ?” She interrupted herself, glaring at the man who had stepped into the light and who looked even taller when he walked into the light again. “You did get my message, didn’t you?” She shot the man her most piercing stare.

The man nodded uncertainly. “You’re the reporter, I thought? You’re doing the Everest thing?” His eyes were a startling blue that reminded Sloane of the sky above the Himalayas.

“It’s not a thing. It’s an article,” Sloane spat reproachfully.

“And I’m leading your group of reporters up the mountain,” the man said, sneering as he said the word “reporters.”

“Yes, and for the duration of the trip, you report to me,” Sloane added. “I’m in charge. None of that renegade stuff you’re famous for. We’re all getting back from this trip alive.” She looked at the man triumphantly.

“You can be in charge,” the man said, smiling and folding his arms infuriatingly. “As soon as you learn how to use an ice ax.”

After editing, the passage reads as follows.

“You’re holding it the wrong way!” someone bellowed from behind Sloane. She dropped the ice ax, and it clattered to the floor. Sloane whirled around and saw a very tall man looming in the shadows of the storehouse. “You can get hurt like that,” he said softly. After he spoke, he seemed to stiffen again, as though speaking had made him angry.

The tension of the day suddenly settled on Sloane, and she stared the man straight in the face. “That’s why I’m here, Mr Vaughn–I assume it’s Mr. Vaughn, world-class ice-climbing champ?” She interrupted herself, glaring at the man, who looked even taller, now that he had stepped into the light. “You did get my message, didn’t you?” She shot the man her most piercing stare.

The man nodded uncertainly. “You’re the reporter, right?” His eyes were a startling blue that reminded Sloane of the sky above the Himalayas. “You’re doing the Everest thing?”

“It’s not a thing. It’s an article,” Sloane spat reproachfully.

“And I’m leading your group of reporters up the mountain,” Vaughn said, sneering as he said the word “reporters.”

“Yes, and for the duration of the trip, you report to me,” Sloane added. “I’m in charge. None of that renegade stuff you’re famous for. We’re all getting back from this trip alive.” She looked at Vaughn triumphantly.

“You can be in charge,” Vaughn said, smiling and folding his arms infuriatingly. “As soon as you learn how to use an ice ax.”

The following is the same passage with my editing marks. My additions are underlined. My comments are in brackets and italicized.

“You’re holding it the wrong way!” a voice someone [A person, and not a voice, bellows.] bellowed from somewhere behind Sloane,. and sShe dropped the ice ax, and it with a clattered to the floor. [“To the floor” is misplaced in the original sentence.] Sloane whirled around to spot and saw [Although “to spot” is correct, I think that “whirled around” is so descriptive that “saw” is a quiet complement to it. The “to” in “to spot” also suggests that Sloane purposely whirled around in order to spot the man, an idea I don’t think you mean.] a very tall man looming in the shadows of the storehouse. “You can get hurt like that,” he said softly,. After he spoke, he seemed to then stiffening again, as though he had made himself speaking had made him angry. [In the original sentence, “then stiffening again” is somewhat awkward. I moved that idea into a separate sentence to highlight it for the reader and to clarify some of the syntax.]

The tension of the day suddenly settled heavily [One adverb is sufficient.] on Sloane, and she spun around angrily to face the man fully stared the man straight in the face. [Sloane already whirled around in the previous paragraph.] “That’s why I’m here, Mr Vaughn–I assume it’s Mr. Vaughn, world-class ice-climbing champ?” She interrupted herself, glaring at the man, who looked even taller, now that he had stepped into the light and who looked even taller when he walked into the light again. “You did get my message, didn’t you?” She shot the man her most piercing stare.

The man nodded uncertainly. “You’re the reporter, I thought right? [The “I thought” construction feels less like actual speech than does the word “right.”] His eyes were a startling blue that reminded Sloane of the sky above the Himalayas. You’re doing the Everest thing?” His eyes were a startling blue that reminded Sloane of the sky above the Himalayas. [Ending his section with “Everest thing” leads more clearly to Sloane’s next comment.]

“It’s not a thing. It’s an article,” Sloane spat reproachfully.

“And I’m leading your group of reporters up the mountain,” the man Vaughn [I think using Vaughn’s name works better here, now that Sloane has introduced it to the reader.] said, sneering as he said the word “reporters.” [I like the sneering part.]

“Yes, and for the duration of the trip, you report to me,” Sloane added. “I’m in charge. None of that renegade stuff you’re famous for. We’re all getting back from this trip alive.” She looked at Vaughn triumphantly. [Is “triumphantly” the right word here?]

“You can be in charge,” the man Vaughn said, smiling and folding his arms infuriatingly. “As soon as you learn how to use an ice ax.” [This is a good ending to this interaction.]

Thanks for reading! Please send me your comments. I would love to hear from you.

Go, NaNoWriMo

October 19th, 2009

trees2It’s that time of year again. The leaves are turning, wool sweaters are appealing again, and writers everywhere wonder whether to do NaNoWriMo. Each November, the NaNoWriMo organization encourages aspiring writers to celebrate its National Novel Writing Month and pen a 50,000-word novel between November 1 and 30. Word count (or its equivalent page length) is the only goal of NaNoWriMo; the quality of the resulting novel is immaterial.

In the decade of its existence, NaNoWriMo has become both remarkably popular and intriguingly controversial. The NaNoWriMo website indicates that almost 120,000 writers participated in NaNoWriMo 2008. Among them were 12,683 NaNoWriMo winners–those who successfully reached the 50,000-word goal by the November 30 deadline. NaNoWriMo’s detractors take issue with the organization’s definition of “winning.” They criticize NaNoWriMo for encouraging people to write merely for the sake of putting 50,000 words to paper and accuse the project of contributing both to the proliferation of bad writing and to the underappreciation of the novel as a true art form. NaNoWriMo, critics say, encourages to write those who otherwise have no interest in writing. NaNoWriMo’s emphasis on sheer word quantity leaves no room for genius.

I support the NaNoWriMo project, not for its success in generating enormous quantities of “finished” text, but for its success in generating sizable rough drafts, ready for editing. At Beaumont Hardy, I have long encouraged the writing of what I call the “terrible rough draft“–a piece of writing that exists solely for the purpose of productive subsequent editing. In the case of NaNoWriMo, I argue that the 50,000 words are merely one triumphant stop on a longer continuum that will involve a massive edit, another draft and, perhaps, several later edits. These edits and drafts, time-consuming though they may be, tend to become more and more engrossing, as authors refine their ideas, familiarize themselves with their characters, and feel the fullness of their own plots.

NaNoWriMo, I think, should not be an end in itself. Instead, it should be the first stage of a writer’s long and productive relationship with a rough draft. I salute those who choose to do NaNoWriMo this year and wish them happy editing of the 50,000 words they write.

Character Development and Point of View

October 12th, 2009

In my two previous posts, I discussed character development in hint fiction and character development in a few short words or phrases. The following passage shows a new take on character development. The author describes two characters from each other’s point of view. This technique can be very useful. Developing one character through the observations of another character can serve two purposes–providing a portrait of the character being observed and simultaneously providing a revealing glimpse of the character doing the observing. This method also reveals a character’s own flawed perceptions and preconceived notions, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the true nature of each character.

The unedited passage reads as follows:

She stumbled over the old man to reach the last remaining seat in the waiting room. His legs were stretched out into the middle of the room, and he moved them so slowly that she tripped over them before falling into her own seat. Sophie glared at the old man, thinking he was too enfeebled to even notice the confusion he had caused. He wore a pair of jeans, ironed so that a pale crease ran up the front of each leg. Sophie imagined that someone dressed him each morning and wondered if he even knew what he was wearing. His gray cardigan drifted mellowly over his shoulders, pooling in thick wooly piles at his elbows. His shoes looked thick and sturdy, with thick, sensible-looking soles that probably kept the man upright as he stumbled through his days. Sophie felt sorry for him, bumbling along with no clue what he was doing or who was around him. She opened her book.

The old man sniffed as the girl across from him opened her romance novel. Her chipped red fingernail polish looked cheap and artificial to him. She wore the rhinestone-studded jeans the old man often saw in the windows of the cheap stores near the library. The girl moved her lips as she read. But at least she had stopped staring at him. The old man picked up his ball-point pen and returned to the New York Times Sunday crossword he had been doing before she tripped over him.

The following is the edited passage.

She stumbled over the old man in the waiting room. His legs were stretched out into the middle of the room, and he moved them so slowly that she tripped over them before falling into her own seat. Sophie glared at the old man, thinking he was too senile to notice the confusion he had caused. He wore a pair of jeans, ironed so that a pale crease ran up the front of each leg. Sophie imagined that someone dressed him each morning. She wondered if he even knew what he was wearing. His gray cardigan pooled at his elbows. His shoes were thick and sturdy and probably kept the man upright as he stumbled through his days. Sophie felt sorry for him, bumbling along without knowing what he was doing or who was around him. She opened her book.

The old man sniffed as the girl across from him opened her romance novel. Her chipped red fingernail polish looked cheap. She wore the rhinestone-studded jeans the old man often saw in the windows of the discount stores near the library. The girl moved her lips as she read. But at least she had stopped staring at him. The old man picked up his ball-point pen and returned to the New York Times Sunday crossword he had been doing before she tripped over him.

The passage with my editing marks follows. My additions are underlined, and my editorial comments are in brackets and italicized.

She stumbled over the old man to reach the last remaining seat in the waiting room. [As the passage now reads, she reaches her seat at the end of this sentence and at the end of the following one. I’ve left only one mention of her seat, in the second sentence.] His legs were stretched out into the middle of the room, and he moved them so slowly that she tripped over them before falling into her own seat. Sophie glared at the old man, thinking he was too enfeebled senile [From what we later learn about Sophie, it seems she would be unlikely to use a word like enfeebled,” even in her own thoughts.] to even notice the confusion he had caused. He wore a pair of jeans, ironed so that a pale crease ran up the front of each leg. Sophie imagined that someone dressed him each morning and. She wondered if he even knew what he was wearing. His gray cardigan drifted mellowly over his shoulders, poolinged in thick wooly piles at his elbows. [“Drifted mellowly” doesn’t convey a clear description.] His shoes looked were thick and sturdy, with thick, sensible-looking soles that and probably kept the man upright as he stumbled through his days. [I eliminated one use of the word “thick.” Because “thick” applies to the soles of the man’s shoes, I also eliminated the mention of his soles.] Sophie felt sorry for him, bumbling along without knowing no clue [Although Sophie would probably use the term “no clue,” I think “without knowing” makes more sense.] what he was doing or who was around him. She opened her book.

The old man sniffed as the girl across from him opened her romance novel. Her chipped red fingernail polish looked cheap and artificial to him. [Nail polish is inherently artificial, so I cut this word. “To him” is already understood from the fact that the old man is looking at the girl and thinking about her.] She wore the rhinestone-studded jeans the old man often saw in the windows of the cheap discount stores near the library. The girl moved her lips as she read. But at least she had stopped staring at him. The old man picked up his ball-point pen and returned to the New York Times Sunday crossword he had been doing before she tripped over him. [I like this surprising ending to the description of the man. We learn a great deal about Sophie and about the man himself.]

Please send me your thoughts or comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.

Quick Character Development

October 5th, 2009

In my previous post, I discussed the possibility of character development in a piece of hint fiction, defined as having a word count of 25 or less. The 25-word limit seemed sufficient for the two types of character development I discussed–establishing three-dimensionality and showing character change throughout a story. Character development is certainly possible in hint fiction.

In this post, I now argue that character development is even possible in fewer than 25 words. Careful word choice and believable dialogue both contribute to character development. Examine the following examples, where character development happens in fewer than 25 words.

Example 1:

Dale held the beer bottle to his lips and spit. “That ain’t my truck.”

In fourteen words, the reader learns a great deal about Dale and the kind of person he is. This type of character development serves to round out Dale’s personality but does not show any character change.

Example 2:

“Well,” Priscilla blinked. “I have my maid do it for me.” She set her teacup down with a gentle tinkle and smiled stiffly.

This twenty-three-word example also serves to develop a well-rounded character. As in Example 1, dialogue and action combine to establish character.

Example 3:

The room suddenly seemed smaller and shabbier than he had remembered it. Jonathan wondered how he had ever thought it elegant.

In twenty-one words, this example demonstrates an interior shift in character. Although there is no dialogue, the character’s thoughts indicate a significant personality change that will be important in the story’s development.

Example 4:

“Hello, Charlie,” she said, leaning in for the kiss he usually gave her.

“Hello.” He turned his back to her, repulsed.

This twenty-one-word example shows character change through dialogue. Although the example contains very few words, the reader witnesses a significant shift in the behavior and emotion of the male character.

Thus, character development is possible in very few words–even in fewer than 25 words. Dialogue and careful word choice are important to character development. Writers who choose both judiciously can develop character quickly and efficiently.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.

How Many Words Do You Need to Develop Character?

September 30th, 2009

In a recent tweet, writer/editor Robert Swartwood made an interesting observation about character development in the new genres of short, short fiction. He mentioned a horror anthology seeking submissions for stories of 500 words or less. The anthology editors said that character development would be impossible in so few words. Robert Swartwood countered that character development is certainly possible in 500 words and that even hint fiction—a genre he himself created and with a word limit of 25—allows for character development. Of course, Robert Swartwood continued, we must all agree on the definition of “character development.”

I believe that character development is of two types, and both are possible in the 25 words of a piece of hint fiction. I also think character development of at least one type is possible in a shorter piece, although that will be the topic of a later post.

As I understand it, the term “character development” can refer both to 1) the action and descriptions that establish a character as realistic and three-dimensional and also to 2) the growth and change a character undergoes throughout the course of a story. The first type of character development is, perhaps, more static than the second. But in either case, the idea is to create a well-rounded and believable character.

In hint fiction, character development is severely limited by word count and by the fact that, by definition, hint fiction merely hints at character (as well as plot and conflict). Hint fiction can have a meaningful title (not included in the 25-word limit), which can be a big help in character development. As the following examples illustrate, character development of the first type—merely creating three-dimensionality and believability—does seem entirely possible in 25 words or less, although showing character might take away from creating plot. Character development of the second type—showing character change throughout a piece of fiction—might also be possible, although this character development relies heavily on plot.

The following piece of hint fiction shows character development of the first kind. Although we learn what Lucretia is like at the particular moment the story describes, she undergoes no change throughout the piece. The title contributes to characterization:

Bully

One tableful of drunken wedding guests sat together the entire night. Lucretia was among them, snickering.

“Hey, Dottie,” Lucretia called mockingly. “Come talk to us.”

In this particular example, one might argue that plot has given way to character development. In order to establish Lucretia as a bully, little happens in this story.

Character development of the second type is more difficult in a piece of hint fiction. In general, character change in hint fiction probably comes across through plot, rather than through a character’s emotions. The following shows plot-dependent character development. Once again, the title contributes:

Redemption

Dwight cocked his pistol and walked into the bank. He chose the youngest teller. A child waved at him. Dwight put the safety back on.

Developing character and showing character change are both possible in hint fiction. However, the first might tend to take the place of plot, and the second might tend to rely very heavily on plot.

Please read my next blog, in which I explore the possibility of character development in less than 25 words, and leave your comments about character development in short fiction. I would love to hear from you.

Learning from the Rough Draft, Part 2

September 22nd, 2009

My last two postings have focused on the value of a complete first draft—one that records the writer’s every fleeting thought during the writing process. The first-draft-writing period is not the time for whittling away text and paring down ideas. That winnowing process will happen later, during an edit. The first draft should be filled with glorious excess—all possible characters, descriptions and ideas—because some of these will be good enough to survive until the final draft.

The following is an unedited description from a rough draft. Its author wrote a longer Regency romance, from which I extracted this paragraph. Below the description is the same passage with bracketed, italicized and underlined editorial comments to indicate the author’s thought process in a later edit of the rough draft.

Something about the room—maybe its scent—made Drusilla think of wealth. She had known wealth like that before, back when she was secretary to the Viscount. At that time/in those days she had perched on a velvet chair in front of a carved, inlaid walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips. She would smell the thick, perfumed air exhaled by the hothouse peonies on the exquisite Turkish side tables. The Viscount’s footsteps thudded dully/sounded thick and soft on the hand-tied/hand-knotted wool rugs that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener gleamed in the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther among his solid objects/in his expensive jungle/in his wood-paneled jungle.

Drusilla Now, Drusilla looked around the chamber in which she found herself./Now, Drusilla found herself in the chamber of the Duke of Ashton. Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded the air of wealth she had first noticed. However, the chamber lacked the sense of danger—albeit, mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

The following is the same passage with the author’s bracketed thoughts.

Something about the room—maybe its scent—made Drusilla think of wealth. [Change this sentence to “The fragrant room made Drusilla think of wealth.”] She had known wealth like that before, [Change to “She had known that kind of wealth.”] back when she was secretary to the Viscount. [Cut the word “back” before “when she was secretary.”] At that time/in those days [Keep “In those days.”] she had perched on a velvet chair [Change “chair” to “stool.”] in front of a carved, inlaid [Cut “inlaid.”] walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips [Change “words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips” to “the Viscount’s dictation”]. She would smell the thick, perfumed air exhaled by the hothouse peonies on the exquisite Turkish side tables. [Change this sentence from passive to active: “As the Viscount spoke, the peonies on the Turkish side tables exhaled their hothouse perfume.” ] The Viscount’s footsteps thudded dully/sounded thick and soft [Would the adjectives “thick” and “soft” ever apply to the dashing Viscount? Change this description to “footsteps thudded heavily.”]on the hand-tied/hand-knotted [“hand knotted”] wool rugs [“carpets,” not “rugs”] that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener gleamed in [What about “seemed to slice through?”] the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther among his solid objects/in his expensive jungle/in his wood-paneled jungle [“in his wood-paneled jungle”].

Drusilla Now, Drusilla looked around the chamber in which she found herself./ Now, Drusilla found herself in the chamber of the Duke of Ashton. [Change to “Now, Drusilla found herself in the Baron’s private office.” The Viscount should have the higher peerage rank.] Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded the air of wealth she had first noticed [Change to “an air of wealth that had, at first, reminded her of the Viscount”]. However, [Change “However” to “She realized now that.”] the chamber lacked the sense of danger—albeit, [Cut the comma.]mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

After this first edit, the draft reads something like the following. (The story will go through more edits before its final draft.)

The fragrant room made Drusilla think of wealth. She had known that kind of wealth when she was secretary to the Viscount. In those days, she had perched on a velvet stool in front of a carved walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the Viscount’s dictation. As the Viscount spoke, the peonies on the Turkish side tables exhaled their hothouse perfume. The Viscount’s footsteps thudded heavily on the hand-knotted wool carpets that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener seemed to slice through the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther in his wood-paneled jungle.

Now, Drusilla found herself in the Baron’s private study. Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded an air of wealth that had, at first, reminded her of the Viscount. She realized now that the room lacked the sense of danger—albeit mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this rough draft. I would love to hear from you.