Showing posts with label Susan Slater. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Susan Slater. Show all posts

18 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part III

Susan SlaterIn previous weeks, we answered three critical questions about writing fiction. We pick up this week with two more questions and then give you the opportunnity to participate.

• Question: Why is word choice so important starting off?

• Answer: You don’t get a second chance to do it right!

To establish mood, introduce character… Readers are unforgiving. They’ll often put a book down before they’ll make excuses for you and keep on reading… yeah, even your best friends will find it difficult to keep reading telling themselves it will get better. If you’ve disappointed them, there’s probably another book on the nightstand or already in the Kindle that promises to be better. It’s competitive out there— don’t forget that! Whether the reader continues is often “set” by the end of the first paragraph. The term “hook” is used when describing how the reader is roped in, committed from the very start. You have an obligation to your readers— a lot of things rolled into one—to entice, promise something worthy of their time, set up the framework (character, setting, plot) and you better deliver right from the very first word!

Consider what we know from the 5 word opening of April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black: “Momma, are you a virgin?”

We know the approximate age of the speaker (probably pre-teen or just turned 13); we know the extent of her sexual knowledge; we know she trusts her mother with “delicate” material; and because of this we know right up front “character roles.” And we know that the book fits into the “Coming of Age” genre. Whew! That’s a lot in just five little words!

• Question: What’s in a name?

• Answer: Everything!
The Pumpkin Seed Massacre
Nº 1 in Ben Pecos series

Would you have finished Moby Dick if the first line had read: “Call me, Larry”? Make names work for you and establish names upfront. If you write a series, give your protagonist a name that will last and be easy to remember: Kinsey, Walt Longmire, John Rebus, Harry Bosch, Ben Pecos, Leaphorn and Chee.

Names can establish age. For example, today 90% of those named Susan are 50 years of age or older. What about names like Edith? Nettie? Or Mame? They instantly suggest another era. While names like Britney, Misty Dawn, Amber and Tiffany might suggest younger women with tattoos. Likewise for men—those named Donald are usually over fifty, the same for Frank, Arnold, Arthur, Harold, Herbert, and Stanley. Those younger tattooed bikers might be a Josh, Brett, or Brandon. It remains to be seen if the Apples, Sparrows, Blankets, and Shilohs of the world will cause a stampede of like namings.

Exercise 1— Starting with Dialogue

He saw her leaving the Mall by the side door and caught up with her just as she slipped behind the wheel of the Mini-Van.

“Stephanie.” He caught his breath, “And Eric.” He hadn’t seen the man in the passenger’s seat at first.

Directions: Write a paragraph of dialogue among these 3 persons—identify them only by voice or action; do not use he said / she said.
* * *
Exercise 2— Identify Approach You’ve Used

Look at an opening paragraph from your own writing. How and why do you started the story where you did? Would you do things differently after today’s discussion?
* * *
Exercise 3— The Very First Sentence

The word beginning is a misnomer—you aren’t beginning something; you’re plopping the reader down in the middle of something that’s been ongoing.

Consider these first lines:
  1. “They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.” The Lady with the Dog, Anton Chekhov
  2. “She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.” Gesturing, John Updike
  3. “I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.” Medley, Toni Cade Bambara
  4. “Jericha believed herself already an orphan—her mother was in the ground by the time she could walk on it—so the loss of her father when it came was not an exceptional thing.” Jump-up Day, Barbara Kingsolver
  5. “I got over to the side of the road as far as I could, into the grass and the weeds, but my father steered the car over that way, too.” The Undesirable, David Huddle

Write an opening sentence. It can be a part of dialogue, a narrative, a description of person or place; it can be first person or third.
* * *
Exercise 4— 10 in 10

Again, using something you’ve written, count the facts in your first paragraph.

Work on these fundamentals and you're well on the way to your first story.

Next Week

Dale Andrews returns!

11 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part II

Susan Slater
Last week, we asked and answered the question:
• Question: What do readers need to know right up front??

• Answer: Whatever will keep them reading!

This week we tackle three more questions on writing.

• Question: How do you know where (within your story) to start?

• Answer: Start as close to the ending as you possibly can!!

Why?? It makes you consider and reconsider using backstory and should encourage you to plop your reader down in the middle of action.

Too many times the lure of backstory makes a writer add a prologue. If you can’t start your story by simply dropping your reader into the deep end, you may want to rethink your storyline. Prologues seldom work!

A tricky beginning but one that does many things is what I call psychological backstory—tell a story within a story that shows the inner workings of the protagonist—his or her frame of mind. Consider Craig Johnson’s opening to Cold Dish:
“She might have knocked, but I didn’t hear it because I was watching the geese. I watch the geese a lot in the fall, when the days get shorter and the ice traces the rocky edges of Clear Creek… The geese fly down the valley south, with their backs to me, and I usually sit with my back to the window, but occasionally I get caught with my chair turned; this seems to be happening more and more, lately.”
There isn’t one of us who hasn’t daydreamed watching some act of nature—fish schooling, clouds drifting, rain hitting the window—and those moments of introspection are revealing—we’re contemplating problems, we’re wishing we were someplace else or with someone else. At the very least it sets up a longing, a hint that not everything is truly “right” with Walt’s world. “Geese flying south” . . . does he want to get away? What is he wanting/needing to escape? And because he’s so human, we want to find out what’s wrong and how he’s going to go about making it right. The reader is invested from the first. The foibles, vulnerabilities, Achilles heel—these are what hook us. He/she’s just like we are and we want to root for him or her. We want to see “growth”—where it starts and where it ends.

Consider Nicholas Sparks opening to The Notebook:
“Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end? The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. I’m a sight this morning; two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me. It clicks and groans and spews hot air like a fairy-tale dragon, and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been thirty years in the making. Eighty years, I think sometimes, and despite my own acceptance of my age, it still amazes me that I haven’t been warm since George Bush was president. I wonder if this is how it is for everyone my age.”
Again, backstory woven neatly with the present giving the reader psychological insight—a peek inside the character’s mind.

• Question: Why do you need to know the span of time your story covers BEFORE you start to write?

• Answer: It will act as a control.

A time framework gives (usually) much needed parameters to your story. In this case, write between the lines!

• Question: Why is word choice so important starting off?

• Answer: You don’t get a second chance to do it right!

I'll explain why next week.

04 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part I

Susan SlaterUndetered (or perhaps (shudder) drawn) by Leigh's communiqués covering the weirdness of Florida, Susan Slater recently moved from the Southwestern US (New Mexico, Arizona) to Palm Coast, between St. Augustine and Daytona. First she was beset with internet problems, then Sunday she telephoned SleuthSayers International Headquarters. horrified that her computer had died. Fortunately, she'd sent in her intended article, which appears today. Unfortunately, she will have to introduce herself personally when she gets her new machine. (She's considering using this opportunity to switch from PCs to a Mac, possibly an iMac, a Macbook air– or both! Me, I stick with my Underwood.)

Susan is the author of several Southwest mystery novels including single title and series, including the Ben Pecos series. She's also the author of the breakout 'henlit' novel, 0 to 60.


The Class of Writing, Part I

by Susan Slater

Most readers today– certainly those thirty-five and younger grew up with computers! They expect their information demands to be met quickly–they IM, email, download, text, twitter, speed-dial– anything that saves them time. And information is always at their fingertips– iPods, Blackberries, cell phones, laptops– the pace of life seems frantic and the amount of information staggering!

It's certainly no longer necessary to describe the elephant! The gorgeous prose of yesteryear is almost non-existent! We are exposed to so much more today. Poor Miss Marple is no longer gory enough– not when the reader has just seen a murder/suicide on the six o'clock news.

Taking It Home

How different from when I grew up. I wrote in a journal, posted notes to friends, sent honest-to-goodness thank-you notes on real paper in real envelopes (no Jacquie Larson here). As a child I read books written a hundred years before my time–and loved them. The richness of back-story, the lushness of description– I wanted to be another Bronte or Austen or at the very least an Agatha. I wanted to "live" with those characters–grow with them. A chat with Hercule Piorot? Too perfect.

I always chose the 'fattest' book on the library shelf to take on vacation–it had to last a week! No beach read, commuter scan, or summer light-weight for me. I personally think it's a shame we have very few epics being written today. I know I was meant to write The Thornbirds!

But in our bottom-line driven society, terms like having punch and to-the-point take precedence. There's very little patience for carefully crafted, in-depth stories with memorable characters. We have formula romance and formula mysteries. Readers demand (and get) fast-paced stories that mirror their lives. There are not a lot of characters in fiction today that I'd want to take home!

Attracting That Audience

So what does this mean for writers? If we want to attract a reading audience, we MUST take heed or not be published! This modern-day pacing has changed the way we write.
We no longer have the luxury of wallowing in lengthy back-story or page after page of description– hey, our readers have been there, done that. And they can always Google a topic they're not familiar with.

All this ranting brings me to some advice. Having taught writing for many years, I tried to come up with what might be the most helpful to writers. Comments on plot, characterization, scenes, POV? All are great topics but I decided to start (and aptly so) with beginnings. Those opening paragraphs that will make or break you. And I'm not just talking about "hooks"– but maybe more the nuances. See what you think.

• Question: What do readers need to know right up front??
First paragraph, first 5 pages, first 10?
• Answer: Whatever will keep them reading!
  1. It could a foreshadowing. Consider Connie Shelton's opening to Memories Can Be Murder:
    We come to certain crossroads in our lives. It is inevitable. Some are planned–marriage, career changes, cross-country moves. At other times we come to these crossroads quite suddenly, with no warning. I was orphaned in such a way over fifteen years ago and managed to get on with my life anyway. But within the past few days the discovery of some boxes of old papers dumped my preconceived ideas about my own life suddenly and completely upside down.
  2. If you don't want to "bait" your reader, snag him with a description (setting the stage or establishing tone) of something so unusual that he's propelled to continue. For example, Tony Hillerman in A Thief of Time:
  3. "The Moon had risen just above the cliff behind her. Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick-figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand. Sometimes, when the goat trail bent and put the walker's profile against the moon, the shadow became Kokopelli himself. The back pack formed the spirit's grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli's crooked flute. Seen from above, the shadow would have made a Navajo believe that the great yei northern clans called Watersprinkler had taken visible form. If an Anasazi had risen from his thousand-year grave in the trash heap under the cliff ruins here, he would have seen the Humpbacked Flute Player, the rowdy god of fertility of his lost people. But the shadow was only the shape of Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal blocking out the light of an October moon."
  4. 0 to 60Or pull the reader directly into the action–often done through dialogue. Let the reader experience (or discover) what is happening along with the main character. Consider Susan Slater's opening to 0 to 60:
    "I have a love child."

    "Ed, I don't have time for games. Ok, Ok, give me a hint. Movie? Novel?"

    She continued to slip his tux from its protective covering, twist the hanger handle perpendicular, and stretch to secure it over the closet door. She smiled. They hadn't played a version of What's That Line? for years. But back when things were simple– before children, a demanding job with a six-figure salary– they'd open a bottle of wine and just be together. Would it be like that again now that he was retiring?
    Here the reader is 'with' Shelly when she learns that her marriage is a sham. By experiencing the event, the reader buys into the story (perhaps, identifies with it) and wants to find out how Shelly will handle the crisis.

    Consider also, Erica Holtzer's Eye for an Eye, where a mother is on the phone with her daughter on Halloween and hears what happens when the daughter opens the door to what she thinks is more trick-or-treaters. The reader is right there experiencing it with her.

  5. If I'm writing a short story–where I do not have the luxury of space–I have to make every sentence count especially in the first paragraph. I call it the "10 in 10" rule– 10 facts in the opening paragraph of 10 lines! Look at the following opening paragraph from An Eye for an Eye, my contribution to the anthology of short stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. Can you find all the facts? ONLY count those that further the story–those that are necessary to the plot:
    Sliding behind the steering wheel, Edie started the rental and quickly turned the heater to three before pulling a New Mexico map from the glove box. At least she couldn't get lost. Ha! Her friends would laugh at that. She had been known to screw up going from point A to B in a straight line. But not this time. She shook out the map and traced the route with her index finger: highway 64 from Taos, west across the Gorge, cross 285 at Tres Piedras, continue on 64 and follow the signs to Durango. Piece of cake. Yeah, right. What the map didn't say was beware of wildlife. Was she taking a chance starting out well after dark? Probably. But as usual she was running late. Just another stressor. One she'd promised her shrink to work on.
Did you find these?
  • Her name is Edie
  • She's driving a rental
  • She's in New Mexico
  • She's going from Taos to Durango
  • It's cold out
  • She's sometimes inept–gets lost easily
  • Wildlife on the road could pose a danger
  • It's well after dark
  • She's running late
  • Being late is a stressor that she's promised her shrink to work on

Obviously, if your opening paragraph only has 5 lines or 8, the facts would match.

• Question: How do you know where (within your story) to start?
My response might surprise you.
• Answer: Next week!