Musings: by Sandra Yuen MacKay
Writers on writing: Nancy Kress, Margaret Lucke and James Scott Bell
So I recently finished Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress, an award-winning author who teaches writing. In her book, she discusses possible weaknesses in those three areas and how to improve each one. I also read Schaum’s Quick Guide to Writing Great Short Stories by Margaret Lucke and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. I share some of their ideas with you here. I tried to include a lot of information in one column, so it’s pretty concise. Please note: not all writers would follow all this advice. Rules are made to be broken.
The first sentence of one’s novel needs to be unique and grab the reader’s attention. The first scene should introduce at least one character, a conflict, be specific in detail, and credible. It has to be interesting enough that the reader will want to read on. It shouldn’t be generic but original, demonstrating that your book is different than others and special in some way. In the beginning of a short story, one wants to include an inciting incident, an event or situation that sets up the conflict or ignites the protagonist. It might be a problem or mystery that the protagonist has to solve. Details and aiding the reader in identifying with the protagonist will give one’s story more believability.
The first chapter may set up a promise. If someone is murdered, the reader wants the crime to be solved or be shown enough of a plot what lengths, detectives or others go to to find the killer. If a girl is attracted to a boy, the reader may expect a romance to fulfill that promise. If a character is conflicted within himself, battling with a conscience or inability to act, the reader wants to see the character go through a transition for better or for worse. The promise doesn’t always mean a happy ending, but a journey that explores, inspires or brings the reader to a different place then where he started. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a lesson learned but reveal a different perspective or give an insight into human nature.
Some writers get lost in the middle of a book. The momentum slacks, the story trudges on but slowly. Hopefully, one would want the middle of a story to increase in intensity, gradually climb toward a climax. When writing the middle section of a book, be conscious of point of view, character development, continuity, and relativity of information. Which character best tells the story or parts of the story? Does each scene have one point of view? When developing the motivation, emotions, intelligence, and personality of a character, how do these elements affect his actions? Does he act true to his nature? If he is a complex thinker does that add realism? Characterization may be shown by what the person says and thinks, how he acts, and what others say or think about him.
Think in terms of cause and effect when designing the plot. Sequences of events in a novel aren’t by chance. Each scene has a reason for being in the story. It should have an outcome or bearing on the plot or characterization. Novels may allow more freedom to go on a tangent than short stories but beware of getting off track. Mapping one’s plot and getting to know one’s characters can save a lot of editing and rewrites, but sometimes characters because of their nature might push the plot in a particular direction. Maybe their emotions get in the way of their ability to act in the way you’d want them to.
In real life, we don’t always find answers or have a clear picture of why things happen. People might drift in and out of our lives without us really getting to know them. If someone gives us the cold shoulder, we don’t always dig deep into finding out why he acts the way he does. And if we do ask, we might not get a straight answer. As writers, we have license to show as much or little of backstory that may give reasons for a character’s decisions. It’s up to the writer to hint or suggest how the reader interprets the characters.
In dialogue in real life, people might use fragmented sentences, bad grammar or unpolished sentences. In stories, dialogue has a specific purpose. It furthers the plot, shows individual aspects of characters by the way they speak, and provides information.
In literary fiction, the use of symbols is more common than in general fiction. The moon, an object like a red bicycle, a dead raven or the sun might be a metaphor for a character, emotion, or theme. A toy might ignite a specific memory of a previous event. Themes aren’t always spelled out or at the forefront when one is writing, but sometimes they surface later.
The final confrontation or conflict is the climax, the point of no return where the character may rise to the occasion. The climax is the culmination of all the fears, emotions, rage, or even love that has led up to that point. At this crucial moment, does the protagonist succeed or fail? This may be the point where the hero or heroine triumphs over evil or where the lovers finally profess their love and kiss.
In a short story, sometimes the denouement is very quick in the final sentence. In a novel, the climax isn’t as close to the end of the story. The conclusion may be a little longer, tie up loose ends, or leave things unresolved. In some cases, the resolution sets up for a sequel or is circular, meaning it ends similar to where it started.
Once a promise is set up by the author to fulfill the expectations of the reader, there must be a payoff equal to the promise. If the reader has spent hours reading your story, he wants something out of it. In other words, make your ending satisfying and worthwhile.
Make the style of writing you choose unique to the characters in your tale. By style, I mean how you deliver the story in all its facets. Your version of an event or what you visualize may be different from another writer. That’s the reason why readers read. They want to see the author’s depiction of an experience.
I pondered the relationship between how a writer thinks versus how he composes. The way you think may filter into the way you write. Are you an analytical person, a dreamer, a perfectionist or well-read with a large vocabulary? Adapt your writing to the story and characters you are creating. Think about varying the pace and perhaps creating a rhythm of building tension with pauses in between. Slow down for emphasis and speed up for excitement. What is your world view and does the reader share the same? Do your characters have the same attitudes and beliefs you do? Can your reader develop an affinity with your characters enough that they care about what happens to them?
Are you an emotional person or deal more with facts? This may affect the way you show or tell your tale. Are you a linear thinker or does your train of thought go off on tangents or is it based on associations? If your thoughts shift a lot rather than being straightforward that may affect your use of flashbacks, layered scenes, and how you sequence your story. You may introduce symbols, metaphors, allusions or references borrowed from mythology if you think in images. If your story is from a child’s point of view, it may be less formal, the dialogue might be short, incomplete sentences with simple vocabulary.
Here’s something I read in Lucke’s book. Showing is using action words and dialogue. The nouns and verbs carry most of the description. Telling is using description (mostly in adjectives and adverbs) and exposition or analyzing. As an exercise, you might read a chapter of prose, take it apart and examine how it is put together.
Beware of possible weaknesses in narrative voice and be conscious of what choices you make while writing and the reasons behind them.
Here’s what I learned about editing.
Editing can be endless. I read there is no such thing as a perfect story. Prepare yourself to write your story. Think of a game plan. Have you thought out your protagonists and other characters’ attitudes, motivations and behaviours? Do you have an idea of the conclusion before you start? Where will your tale begin and where will it end? What is the main conflict? Why are you writing this story? What do you want to share, prove, teach or show? Some writers use a written outline, others think it out in their mind.
So you’ve got an idea. What about location of the story? Is it in Antarctica or the Philippines? A hut or a mansion? Does the location enrich the telling?
Here’s one way to approach the writing process.
Once you sit down to write, let it flow. Don’t stop and check each sentence, analyzing its beauty, just keep going. When you leave it and come back, don’t reread from the beginning. Read the last chapter and move forward. Be spontaneous, take chances, laugh, cry, feel the frustration of your characters. Live with them.
On the second draft, look for continuity and where you might expand a scene or remove unnecessary content from the story. Sometimes it helps to write in point form an outline of scenes and outcomes to keep the story on track and make sure each scene moves the story forward or shows development of character. If a scene accomplishes both, that’s best.
On a third edit, look for grammar, nuances, how the dialogue sounds, and other finer points. Sometimes by reading aloud, you can distinguish the differences in tone and style of the way each character thinks. By reading aloud, you can look for the rhythm of words and tension.
But beware of overediting. You may lose the freshness and liveliness of your first draft. If you edit too much, you may give up or your story may never be completed.
The time has come when I bid adieu. I’ve been with Majestic since December 2008 until now. I was a columnist for a year then an editor for two. I enjoyed working with other writers and writing a column.
I met some good people here and on Lit.org and found support and encouragement. However, I’ve decided to leave Majestic. This will be my last column as I pursue other writing goals.
Thanks for reading my columns and good luck to all of you out there. Maybe you achieve your dreams in writing.
My idiom of the month is “go for it.” If you want something, taking the first step is one step closer to your goal.