May 31, 2008

Black Box Scenes - On Being a Professional Amateur

Balance. Under explanation. Over explanation. Somewhere in the middle the perfect set of words exists. That rule holds true for dialogue, description, history…and scene settings. This week, Maya discusses ways of ensuring our writing doesn’t tip the scales.

Black Box Scenes
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

I recently edited a manuscript in which two characters were described as being in a theater. A dialogue ensued and I visualized the duo sitting in the empty hall chatting. I was surprised when the writer mentioned someone nearby coughing. Suddenly, the hall was populated and I had to revise the picture in my head. A page later, I was informed that this pair was waiting in the wings to go onstage, that the cough had come from their stage manager who had the flu and that there were a lot of other folks coming and going backstage.

Every piece of new information was like a tiny electrical shock that forced me to reorient myself. As a result I lost the sense of where I was, both in the characters' world and in their conversation.

But aren't we supposed to avoid lumps of exposition aimed at setting scenery? Generally speaking, yes, and there is a delicate balance between giving the reader enough information and giving her too much. The key is in carefully choosing what information you give. Ask yourself: what cues will set this scene most effectively?

For example:

"Did you see Susan today?"

"Today? No, why?" Tony peered across the stage to where a knot of actors assembled in the stage-left wings. He checked, again, to make sure the stunt pistol he needed for the upcoming scene was in his suit pocket.

"She's dyed her hair pink," Eric said. "She says because it's your least favorite color."

The reader knows immediately that the characters he's eavesdropping on are actors waiting to go onstage in a play. Just the glance across the stage may be enough to allow the reader to visualize the place, and a quick mention of the other actors populates the scene. The reader may also suspect, based on the dialogue, that Susan and Tony were a couple who split acrimoniously.

Yes, you could also just front the dialogue with a lump of exposition, but what would be the challenge in that?

If you’re new to Constructing Stories or you just missed the last few posts in Maya’s series, you can see all her other posts here. Thanks for stopping by!

May 24, 2008

Character Acrobatics - On Being a Professional Amateur

Sloppiness, language abuse, mixed metaphors… what’s next? Character acrobatics. Maya gives us another element of craft to watch out for. Unlike the previous entries, though, this one isn’t about sentence and paragraph structure, but about visualizing and tracking our characters…

Character Acrobatics
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Do you know where your characters are?

No, seriously. In any given scene, do you know where your characters are and what they're doing? Does your reader?

In one manuscript I edited recently, our hero was walking, then he was on horseback, then he was walking again. First he had a rifle, then there was no rifle, then there was... (No, wait. Isn't that a song by Donovan?)

Will-o-the-wisp characters indicate the scene is not written vividly enough to fix such an important detail as where the characters are in the writer's mind. If you can't picture where your characters are, your reader won't be able to either.

How does it happen? Sometimes the writer induces errors in logistics during the editing process, unintentionally deleting a line and leaving the heroine sitting in a chair by the window when he meant her to stand and cross the room to confront the villain. It's a shock to the reader when she suddenly slaps the villain across the face. You can just imagine how the villain feels.

Sometimes the writer simply loses track of where the character is, either because he wasn't paying attention when he wrote the scene or because he wrote the scene over a period of time.
In any event, the problem is careless editing. The writer never goes back and carefully rereads the scene. I know a number of writers who hate rereading and editing so much that they will do almost anything to avoid it (even paying me to do it for them). Why? I don't know. Personally I find editing as much or more enjoyable than writing. It's where I get to mold the details of my story. It's where the characters develop nuance of personality and mannerism. It's where the plot takes on new subtlety.

The antidote to this is careful editing, visualizing the scene as you read it, rather than allowing the image in your head to set the scene. Remember, your reader can't read your mind—only the words you put on the page.

I better go back over the last short story I wrote… In the meantime, stay tuned for the next segment of Maya’s series (on properly setting the stage for a scene). Thanks for stopping by!

May 18, 2008

Mixed Metaphors - On Being a Professional Amateur

If you’ve read Maya’s books or even her interview here on Constructing Stories, you know she excels at crafting powerful metaphors. Today, she helps us figure out how to do the same. And, if you haven’t already, check out her posts about sloppiness and language abuse.

Mixed Metaphors
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: This seemed a long way from the moment in which Gregor clearly saw through me as a fish out of water, acting out an unnatural scene.

How many metaphors did you count? I got three:
  1. He saw through me (meaning, I was transparent to him).
  2. He saw me as a fish out of water (meaning, he saw that I was out of place).
  3. He saw me as an actor in an "unnatural" scene.
Mashing these three ideas together results in what's called a "mixed metaphor." Our hero is a window, a fish, and an actor all in one sentence.

When this happens, the reader is at a loss to know which metaphor to go with. While in this case he may not literally envision each of these, the use of three metaphors blurs the emotional "image" of the relationship between these two characters.

What's a good metaphor? One that gives you more than one tangible image to hang your observations on. For example, let's say you go with the initial image of the window. You might say: "This was a long way from the moment in which Gregor clearly saw through me, stripping away any pretense of curtain or color."

In selecting a metaphor, think about what the images that go with it mean—how they look, sound, taste. Chose one that sends a single message to the reader's mind, such that each image you add enhances or focuses it. In the sentence above, Gregor sees through our hero as if he were a window without curtain (concealment) or color (disguise).

Check out Maya’s previous posts in this series, “On Being a Professional Amateur," and don’t forget to sign up for the RSS feed so that you won’t miss the next one!

May 13, 2008

Language Abuse - On Being a Professional Amateur

In Maya’s second post, she writes about some of the ways writers abuse language. How have you seen other writers abuse language? Leave a comment and let us know! And, if you haven’t already, check out Maya’s first post of the series on “sloppiness.”

Language Abuse
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: To attempt any consideration of Gaudi's life, he must be placed in his time and located in his place. To accomplish this, an overstanding of how he came to be is indispensable.

These two sentences have several problems:
  1. Bloat
  2. Word misuse
  3. Redundancy
Sentence #1 begins: "To attempt any consideration of..." When you see a phrase like this in your prose, deconstruct it. Try simpler synonyms for the words you've chosen. A bare bones rendering of this phrase is "To try to think about."

But that's not all. This is action once-removed. We are not going to think about Gaudi's life, we're only going to try to think about it.

The sentence continues: "he must be placed in his time and located in his place." This is a passive and bloated way of saying, "we must know when and where he lived."

Sentence #2 tells us what we must do to accomplish "this." "This" what? To accomplish trying to think about Gaudi's life, or to accomplish placing him? Oh, and don't bother to look up "overstanding" in the dictionary—it's not a word. The writer meant "understanding," but wanted something that sounded bigger and less ordinary.

Ultimately, he meant to say: "To understand Gaudi's life, we must understand the context in which he lived it." And: "To understand Gaudi, we must understand the forces that shaped him."

If you're thinking that the second sentence is virtually a repeat of the first, you're right. The writer used two sentences to convey what he might have done more clearly in one. In the end, he failed to convey the idea because he was overreaching. He was trying to sound eloquent by reaching for words and phrasings he wasn't at home with.

What to do? When you write, write simply. Get down the bones of your story. Use words that come naturally to you—words you don't have to look up. Go back later with your editor hat on and maybe look for nicer, more eloquent words and phrasings. But make sure you know your tools—words—before you use them. And don't repeat yourself—say it once; say it best.

This post reminds me of the old KISS philosophy: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It's true, though. There's no reason to say more than you need to. You're just wasting good words. What are your thoughts?

May 08, 2008

Sloppiness - On Being a Professional Amateur

Constructing Stories presents the first installment of Maya’s series, “On Being a Professional Amateur.” Please let me know what you think!

By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: Pausing for a moment to look over at the commander he noted the slight of approval who said, “besides, to obtain Washington approval could take months and we can’t have civilians interfering in our politics.”

What’s wrong here? Lots. In the first clause there’s a comma missing after “commander,” a word missing after “slight” (“nod”, I’m assuming), and a misuse of the word “who.” The phrase as written says that the Slight (Nod) of Approval is “who” uttered the rest of the sentence.

In the dialogue that follows, “besides” is not capitalized and should be, “Washington” should be possessive (Washington’s) but isn’t, and the sentence is run-on.

A run-on sentence is one in which there are two independent clauses that aren't separated by a semi-colon. In simple terms it means that there are two separate things happening here—the acting character (He who is not named) looks at the commander, the commander nods (we think) and one of the two men delivers the line (though we don't know which one).

How did this happen? The writer has not bothered to craft his sentences. He has thrown them down and just left them where they lie. It is, to use a cooking metaphor, a bad job of plating. This sloppiness fails to communicate clearly 1) who’s pausing, 2) who's nodding, and 3) who’s talking.

If a reader is patient enough and determined enough, she might realize that the soldier paused to look over at the commander, who nodded and uttered the dialogue. But it’s our job as writers to write clearly enough that that level of patience and determination isn’t necessary.

The moral of the tale? Your reader should not have to use a pickaxe to dig gems of communication out of your prose. Reading should be less like mining and more like picking shells off a beach. Reading your prose over carefully aloud can help find problem areas.

Do you agree? Let Maya and I know what type of “sloppiness” bothers you. What do you struggle with personally? Share your thoughts!

May 04, 2008

Introduction - On Being a Professional Amateur

When Constructing Stories started, I envisioned it being a place where writers could discuss how best to tell stories. Part of that vision was fulfilled when Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff became the first writer to be interviewed on this blog. Now, a little over a month later, she’s also the first to write an entire series of posts for Constructing Stories. It’s another way to bring different viewpoints to the table, and I’m thrilled to have Maya as a guest writer.

Having written six novels (with more on the way), Maya is uniquely gifted and full of valuable insights. Her series, “On Being a Professional Amateur,” starts today and will continue for the next 5-7 weeks. Tell all the writers you know to stop by and share their opinion, and be sure to sign up for the RSS feed so that you don’t miss a post! Enjoy!

On Being a Professional Amateur
by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Defining “Amateur”

To be an amateur in the original sense of the word simply means to do something for love, though our culture has added the rider, "not for pay." An amateur writer, then, is generally taken to mean one who’s not paid for her efforts.

“Amateur” has also come to mean someone who lacks polish, skill and craft. Synonyms for “amateurish” include: unprofessional, sloppy, inept, slipshod, clumsy, crude. That doesn’t sound good.

To me, truly being an amateur writer—a lover of writing—means you love your craft enough to have a professional attitude toward it, a desire to do it with the highest level of skill you can. So, how do you make your craft reflect true amateurism and not the other kind? By weeding out the signs of amateurism and cultivating craft.

In this series of short articles, I'd like to offer some ideas on how to spot the "weeds" of amateurism in your writing.

What do you think of Maya's definition? Leave a comment and let us know! Maya's next post (coming next week) will tackle the issue of "sloppiness" and how not to let it creep into your writing. Don't miss it! Sign up for the RSS feed before you leave!