Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sagging Middle-- dropped plot?

I was talking to another writer about that dread syndrome, the sagging middle. This is when your opening chapters bristle with potential and power, but then sags when you get past the set-up into the second act of rising action. We realized that often the middle sags because we've dropped a plot line, or diminished it to a sub-plot that enters scenes only occasionally rather than directing the course of the story.

For example, in an adventure story, the writer might be having so much fun with the action plot, moving the characters from one near-disaster to another, but forget about the internal purpose of the events, to change the main character from a loner to someone capable of affiliating, maybe.

Or-- I see this a lot with romance plots-- the writer concentrates on the romance, showing the conflicts and compatibilities of the couple, letting them conceal and reveal secrets... but forgets about the external plot. For example, maybe the situation that got them together in the first place is an election for mayor. This is the external plot and shouldn't be going on in the background, arising only when the romance flags. Rather every scene ought to involve some problem or solution or event having to do with the election, and the "end of the middle" (the crisis scene) probably ought to be when the election seems lost or the candidate corrupt-- something external that connects the characters to outside events and challenges them in some psychological or emotional way.

Anyway, if you're in the middle of your story, and you're feeling a sag, feeling like you have to drag the reader to the next scene, or that you're replaying unimportant situations (like "eating dinner" or "going on the run") from earlier scenes-- go back to your essential story lines. You might have a central plot, but you probably also have another important plot-- the mystery plot, or the internal journey plot. See if you've plotted that all the way through. I always benefit from outlining the steps involved in the underused plot, like what is involved in the election campaign, or what he has to do to learn to trust again-- break the plot down into steps, and then develop those steps in the scenes I've already planned out or drafted for the non-neglected plot.

And don't forget, the middle is the time of rising conflict, where the "on-the-brink" situation in the opening chapters gets more and more intense. This applies to each of the major plots, not just one!  If the external conflict is a campaign for mayor, every scene makes the election outcome less predictable... and the costs of victory more acute. If the romantic conflict is that the heroine is disguising her identity, then every scene should bring her closer to discovery, and her deception should become more dangerous to their growing love. 


Friday, March 29, 2013

Civil Disobedience Lives!

In defense of the apostrophe: Vandalism, protests, lawsuits. There'll always be an England!

Post-modern novel within novel... Hmm. Didn't Hamlet do that with a play?

Here's an essay about a couple recent examples of the post-modern novel, which seems to have devolved to "this is actually a novel written by an author character, and you thought it was really a novel written by an author! Ha, ha, fooled ya!"

I have come to think that it's really far, far more radical and destabilizing to write a book that engages in a conspiracy with the reader that the events here are real, not invented, you know, the way novels usually are. That's a lot more interesting than "ha, ha, fooled you!"

But I thought Atonement (mentioned in this essay) was much more interesting because SPOILER ALERT! in the end, it turned out the whole book was written "in atonement" to "fix" the tragedy the writer-character had created. That actually made fictional sense, though the same author in the newest book pretty much just has a "fooled ya!" purpose, and that's sort of dull.

What do  you all think of this not-so-new trend? I still want a purpose within the novel for creating the novel-- something that creates a within-novel reason for the trick.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Perception --> conclusion

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. 
Elmore Leonard

That's a really harsh edict, isn't it? As a reader who tends to skip most descriptive passages, I find myself wanting to skip writing the whole look/sound/taste/smell part of the narrative. But it's so boooooring, I say! I hate describing! I don't see the point!!!

Much of this resistance is me being lazy. But then again, the point is... what's the point? If we don't like writing description, and if after hours of labor we present this paragraph or passage that the reader is just going to skip.... what is the point?

Exactly. What is the point? We're not just writing to fill up pages. So... what's that descriptive passage there for?

Actually, sometimes a description of the setting is needed, to set the stage for action, to outline the context of the conflict, to reflect some aspect of the character. And I think if before I start, I can figure out my purpose here, why I'm describing this, maybe I won't hate writing it, and the reader won't want to skip it.

In deep POV, or in first-person, the essential purpose of description is to show something about what the POV character perceives... and maybe to show what's changing in the character-- what this all means to him/her, how he or she interprets this.

Here's a short passage (end of chapter) in Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris. (Very good book, "boarding school thriller," I'll call the genre.) It's in dual first-person (the good guy and the bad guy). This is the good guy, an old Latin teacher at the boarding school. He's been there forever, and at this point, things are starting to change in ways he doesn't like. So the author uses this "change" to provide an opportunity to describe the place:
     As I said, it's hard to explain St. Oswald's: the sound of the place in the mornings; the flat echo of boys' feet against the stone steps; the smell of burning toast from the Refrectory; the peculiar sliding sound of overfilled sports bags being dragged along the newly polished floor. The Honors Board, with gold-painted names dating back from before my great-grandfather; the war memorial; the team photographs; the brash young faces, tinted sepia with the passing of time.

Okay, notice how very much this is in HIS viewpoint-- the description is filtered through his memories, his values, his affection for the place.  And notice how the beginning perceptions are very sensual, very focused on the experience of the senses in this place. But then, the 'summary" becomes something more personal (my great-grandfather) and poignant (the brash young faces). The nostalgia and sadness of that last (this is in Britain, so the names of many of those "brash youngsters" probably are etched onto the war memorial) leads into the deep feeling of the POV character. This is the paragraph that ends the chapter:

Gods, I'm getting sentimental. Age does that; a moment ago I was bemoaning my lot, and now here I am getting all misty-eyed. It must be the weather. And yet, Camus says, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Am I unhappy? All I know is that something has shaken us; shaken us to the foundations. It's in the air, a breath of revolt, and somehow I know it goes deeper than the Fallow affair. Whatever it may be, it is not over. And it's still only September.

Notice that he is commenting on his own description, analyzing what his own choices of perceptions mean. The movement in the first paragraph from pure sensual description to nostalgia and sadness creates a slow accumulation of emotion. And the POV character is the one who, without using the word, identifies that emotion-- dread. Something wicked this way comes.

Description should never just be description. It should be there for some purpose. It should somehow advance the plot, or develop the character-- something that deepens our experience not just of the setting but of the story as a whole.

Why not look at some descriptive passage you have in the last scene you wrote, and tell what the purpose is, and how you furthered that purpose with the sensory description?


Friday, March 15, 2013

Always ask "why" about punctuation rules

A student asked: I am wondering if you have any advice on avoiding the comma splices that I seems to create without realizing it? Apparently, I am horrible at following semi-colon/ comma rules.

What is a comma splice? It's usually a two-independent-clause sentence (two subject-verbs) with just a comma connecting them. The question is, why is it an error just to have the comma?

(I'm not going to get into the exceptions here, as they're just confusing... again, when we know the rules, we'll know when to break the rules. So ask me later and I'll see if I can figure out a good example of an exception and the reason for it.)

So let's think through the sort of sentence that would generate a comma splice.
"Two independent clauses" means that each could be a sentence on its own. We've just chosen to put them into one sentence. 
Let's make that one sentence, just to illustrate:
"Two independent clauses" means that each could be a sentence on its own, we've chosen to put them into one sentence. (THIS IS A COMMA SPLICE, BY THE WAY. I'M JUST DOING THIS TO ILLUSTRATE THE JOINING OF THE SENTENCES.)

See how we've taken two sentences and put them together. My first point is that we don't HAVE to join them! They're perfectly fine as two separate sentences. (And there's no danger of a comma splice if we keep them separate.)

So that's the central issue. Why did we put these two sentences together, risking a comma splice or a too-long sentence or some other problem? We did that, presumably, because there's some extra meaning or understanding if they're put in one sentence. And that little extra meaning is conveyed when we link them... but just linking them  isn't enough to get that meaning across. If all we're going to do is replace the period with a comma, we aren't indicating in the new sentence what the meaning is-- what the CONNECTION is. 

And that's shown not in the punctuation but in the addition of the connective word, the "conjunction." The most common conjunctions are abbreviated in the acronym FANBOYS: for (meaning because-- the old meaning), and, nor, but, or, yet, so. (For, nor, yet are kind of old-fashioned, but I think they're needed to make that acronym a word. :)

"For" implies a causal condition (Clause A happened because of Clause B).
"And" implies addition (Clause A and Clause B both happened the same time or way).
"Nor" implies negation (neither Clause A or Clause B is true).
"But" implies contrast  (Clause A and Clause B are in some conflict).
"Or" implies alternation  (either Clause A is true or Clause B).
"Yet" is another contrast like "but".
"So" is causal like "for," but in the other direction ( (Clause A causes Clause B to happen).

A comma splice is incorrect NOT because this is an arbitrary rule, but because without the conjunction, the reader won't know how these two clauses connect. Without the conjunction, the reader won't know what we're supposed to make of them together. This is really important when there's a contrast or a cause. The reader shouldn't have to puzzle about whether the author is confused and just doesn't know that the clauses conflict with each other -- I like blue best, (but) I chose a red car-- or that one causes the other -- Mary forgot Joe's birthday, (so) he forgot Valentine's day. Put in the doggone conjunction to show that you know what you're implying.

So let's go back to that first pair of clauses, and let's think about what the connection is:
"Two independent clauses" means that each could be a sentence on its own, (conjunction here) we've chosen to put them into one sentence. 
What conjunction would you put in there? ABOS? (I've taken out the old-fashioned ones, and you can see it's not as good an acronym!) And? But? Or? So? Which of those words best implies the linkage? (Read it aloud, and I bet you'll "hear" the right one.)

See, it's the conjunction more than the comma which adds meaning. The comma is just a substitute for the period that would be there if these were still two sentences. The conjunction is important, and yet, that's the element that's dropped in a comma splice. So don't think of a comma splice as a comma problem. It's a MEANING problem. There's a missing word that supplies meaning. Add that conjunction, and you add meaning (and oh, yeah, you fix the comma splice).

Now of course, you can also use a semicolon! And that might seem like a simple way to "fix" a comma splice. But it's not... because the problem with a comma splice isn't the punctuation! It's the missing conjunction. Just putting in a semicolon to replace the comma makes the sentence grammatically correct:
"Two independent clauses" means that each could be a sentence on its own; we've chosen to put them into one sentence. 
But it doesn't make the sentence more meaningful. It doesn't tell the readers how to connect these two things in their minds. Only the conjunction can do that. (Notice that the adverbial conjunctions like "however" and "moreover" are just synonyms of the usual conjunctions-- "however" means "but," "moreover" means "and." For a couple reasons I can only speculate, we use the semicolon with them.)

Why then-- meaning-wise-- would we use a semicolon rather than the more meaningful conjunction+comma?
Two situations:
1) When the linkage between the two clauses is completely and absolutely clear without a conjunction: I went to the store; I needed milk. However, I would not use a semicolon for some lame sentence like that, just because semicolons tend to stick out and are often considered "stodgy" and "too formal," so they should be used sparingly. (Some editors think they should always be edited out, by the way. We call this disagreement The Great Semicolon War, and I have to say, I'm a combatant on the "let's keep semicolons" side.) 
2) When the writer wants the connection to be presented as ironic, without spelling it out. Mary forgot Joe's birthday; he forgot Valentine's day. The reader is supposed to figure out that, you know, Joe didn't actually forget, that he did that deliberately. Again, less is more. I'd do this only when I wanted to force the reader to figure out what I'm implying.

Anyway, just remember... the problem with a comma splice is that a sentence like that is missing the conjunction, and the conjunction adds the additional meaning that should come when you put two clauses together rather than leaving them on their own. Think "connection," not "comma" here. It's not an arbitrary rule, but a guideline meant to guide us to the greater meaning.

Does that help, or just confuse things more?

Friday, March 1, 2013

It's a matter of emphasis.

 The word you end a paragraph on is the POWER word, and it'll pay off to find the type of word that affects readers of your type of book.

Not great example: Readers of mysteries are interested, natch, in mystery and puzzles and thought and deception. So instead of:
He was lying to her again.
What's the power word for mystery readers? Not "again." Not "her".
Lie. Deception.
He was doing it again. Telling her another lie.
Actually, I might try to make that last a bit longer so that the power word arrives on some momentum. Maybe:
He was doing it again. Once again, he was telling her a lie.
The emphasis is always going to be at the end, isn't it? The final thought.
I probably wouldn't do that with every paragraph. But at the end of a scene?

What would you say are the things that would interest readers of your type of book? What words might be associated with that (just samples)?