Thursday, September 10, 2009

THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: Vivid Imagery in Your Narrative

CURRENT WORK: Finishing up a cover art project today.
MOOD: Is groggy a mood? Read a book too late last night.
UPDATE: Hubby bowled 623 in 3 games last night. He's not so old after all!


I'm reading a great book right now that totally hods my interest. I'll tell you all about it later this month
, but right now, let me just say it's IMMORTAL OUTLAW by Lisa Hendrix, and it's an excellent example of my subject today.

I've read a lot of manuscripts lately that ought to be wonderful, at least in having a good plot and intriguing characters, yet somehow don't excite me. Personally I think that's fixable, where a story that has no conflict or character growth has to be completely re-thought. The story with the right skeleton can be fleshed out but a boneless body really can't move much, no matter how pretty the flesh. So let's talk about how to make the writing more exciting.

The first thing that comes to my mind
is passive writing- I think because I've also seen a lot of that lately. I've caught myself doing it, too. I think it's something most of us do because it's part of everyday speech.

An explanation: Passive writi
ng, passive voice and passive verbs are not the same thing, but they're related. Passive verbs are verbs that don't do any action, they simply "are". Zen-like. Passive voice occurs when the sentence is "written backwards" so to speak, and the subject is treated as the object. "It was written by me." instead of "I wrote it." Again, the passiveness takes over and makes the first sentence feel flat.

Passive writing involves all of these things and more. The work
takes on a Zen-like inactivity. (Zen has its value as a state of mind, but genre fiction needs its opposite, action, to achieve its purpose.) Conflict is softened. The Black Moment is mitigated until it is sort of dove gray. The story loses its tautness and meanders, as if it can't find its purpose.

To me, passive writing
also includes choosing words that lack a vivid sense. This includes verbs, nouns and modifiers. We can add our modifiers to them, but it's better if the main word bears most of the load. Often when I can't seem to get a visual of the scene, or the characters don't dance before my eyes, its because nothing in their descriptions has caught my imagination. They "move", but they don't "frolic". There's often a lot of thinking going on, but little of it is recollection of vivid scenes.

Sometimes those mental gyrations can be made vivid. As I was writing this, I remembered this scene as an example. Instead of Ned thinking about his twin sister's death, he recalls this scene:
Ned saw in his mind the newly green slope of parkland that ran down to the brook. Cecily laughed, no, giggled, as they ran together, each with a homemade kite, and she could not get hers into the air. He'd had to stop and do it for her, while she held his. But the minute he had her kite airborne, she squealed with delight and forgot about the one she had been holding for him. It slipped from the sky, tumbled limply downward and crashed against a rock.
Lots of internal thought is very hard on a story. That's because it lacks action. It lies either in the past or in the future, and so it doesn't have the intensity of the present. But in a scene like this, the memory Ned has of Cecily is one of action, so it SHOWS the memory as if it were right now, not so many years ago. Never does he think how much he still loves and misses his twin. But we know.

Adrienne de Wolfe once told me, "Enough of the brown horse! We know he's brown. You only need to say it once." Yes, every time I'd mentioned the horse, he'd been "brown horse". But it was not another word for brown I needed. Think about how much more vivid it would have been to show things about the horse's unique way of moving, the way it tossed its head, or plodded. The horse was no major actor in my story, but he could have added to the dramatic vitality of the knight who rode him if I had not portrayed him like a horse in a child's coloring book.

SHOW, DON'T TELL is the best way to make a story vivid. But I neglected some really important things in the paragraph above: the other four senses. We can see the mane tossing in the wind. But we need sprinklings of the other senses as well. Horses make all kinds of noises. Our hands running over their coats feel their sleekness, but if we rub the other way, they become bristly. We can scent them, for horses don't smell the same as pigs or cows. We can smell the dust their hooves churn into the air as they run. Dust, we can even taste. Use of the other senses beyond sight and hearing need to be used more sparingly, and all such details need to be chosen carefully and not over-used. I try to avoid more than one detail at a time because too much description can over-load a scene and bog it down.

Women, I think, write this way more often than men, but I could be wrong. I read mostly women's work. But I think we go overboard trying to get our points across. We seem to be afraid we haven't got our point across so we try to re-phrase it. Then we explain it. A recent paragraph in a manuscript I read had the heroine first think about what she was going to say, then say it. Then she showed her thoughts with her body language. Then she had a narrative paragraph following explaining why this had happened. If you want to bore me, this is how to do it. ell it to me once, one way, then get on with the story.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

SAVE THE PROLOGUE! Making Your Prologue Do Its Job

3 full book covers for print books.
And a new, exciting ending for FAERIE.

MOOD: Goal-oriented and focused.
UPDATE: Kitty is doing very well after her surgery, and a cooling fan/laptop stand has saved my crashing laptop. Unfortunately I will be too broke for awhile to buy the bigger hard drive I need so badly.


Saving Prologues can't come close to the importance of fighting fires and saving lives, but I chose this photo to symbolize my topic today, mostly in honor and awe of the amazing fire-fighters who are battling the dangerous blazes in California and around the country right now.

So, what do I mean by 'Save the Prologue? I've told so many authors over the years to ditch their prologues. Why? And why, in spite of that, do I write prologues in my stories?

Prologues aren't bad things. They are just frequently mis-used. They, in fact more hinder a stry than help it. And truthfully, I've mis-used them myself, but always for what I considered a good reason. Not the first one I wrote, though. It was beautiful. Fabulous. It also got in the way of the story. And that right there is the one most important reason to not keep a prologue.

The real question, then, is what do I mean about getting in the way of the story? How does a prologue work, or not work? How can you tell if it is good for the story or not?

By definition, a prologue comes before the story. That makes it the dreaded "backstory". Once upon a time when reading was one of very few forms of entertainment available, people liked long, sometimes slow-paced books. That meant longer time could be spent enjoying them. Much of earlier fiction is like this.

If you pick up THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, for instance, you'll go through 17 pages in the beginning that elaborate history, characters and how they came to be in the area, family trees, and so on. There might be more- I don't know. That's as far as I got with the book on two separate tries. I know there's a great story there. I just didn't have the patience to get to it.

Contrast that with today's action movies and TV, or fast-paced adventure stories. Think of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER by Tom Clancy. Movie or book, it was gripping from the outset. The book did it better than the movie, in my opinion, but that's because a movie actually needs a little bit of time to get the audience settled in their seats and transported into the movie's world. The audience is captive simply because they went to all this trouble and expense to get there, and they aren't about to walk out. But a book can always be picked up later, so it's easier to put down.

Back story isn't story. Simple as that. If it's story, it isn't truly a prologue. If a book starts out with the history behind the story, not only is the reader getting restless in her seat, she's often being told ahead of time something that can be withheld and create suspense, and therefore be much more intriguing if revealed later, possibly as a secret unveiled. If you tell me in the opening of the book the one thing that makes the story a story, why would I want to read the whole book just to see that unfold? Maybe I would in some books, but I honestly can't think of any.

But when does a prologue work?

A prologue must be intriguing, so much so that the reader simply must continue reading into the story. That means a story question is set up, not aswered. It can be a short history lesson for the story, but only if it fulfills this requirement. It must contribute something valuable to the story, and it must not block any other part of the story.

I used one in APHRODITE'S BREW, first because this is a light, humorous book and I needed a humorous opening. I did need to explain why such a brave and dauntless hero, not to mention loyal, clean, reverent and dutiful, could be driven to hide in Bath just at harvest time when he loved most being home. And the reader needed to see for herself just how scheming and determined his match-making mama was that he could be caught off guard and have to flee to save his hide from matrimony. And the reader needed to know why and how much he detested scandal.

Backstory. Every bit of it. But it's full of action and decision, and character development, all of which lead directly into the story. I didn't want to hide this information and reveal it later because unless the reader knows these things, she might see the hero as a silly wimp. She'd know better later, but that's too late.

In my current work, FAERIE, which is a medieval paranormal romance, I need the prologue to help develop the interface between fantasy and reality. Building the world in a fantasy sometimes takes up more room, but it's still a romance so I can't take up much. The scene takes place between two secondary but very important characters who are deciding something about the hero, who stands close by, unsuspecting that his entire life is about to be changed by a promise broken and another fulfilled. The reader may get the feeling of suspense, and when the old crone leaves by walking through the wall, the paranormal theme is firmly set.

It's backstory to the true plot. But it fits in directly with the next scene, the first chapter, which ties hero and heroine, plus the two secondary characters, the king and the crone, together.

In my vampire story, DAMNED AND DANGEROUS, though, the prologue became a first chapter because it is the true beginning. It's when my "Hero's Hero" protagonist meets the vampyr and the dilemma my hero must resolve begins.

That's the clue: A story begins when the story's first conflict is set forth. I like my romances best if hero and heroine can meet in the first chapter, but often when the secondary plot line is very strong, that doesn't work out as well. In adventure stories, or strongly paranormal stories, those other elements have to fit in well, and this can slow down the romance. Sometimes establishing the story world in a prologue can accomplish this. It's a trade-off, and sometimes a very difficult balance to achieve.

It's best if a prologue is very short. A maximum of three pages. And yes, I broke that rule too. I'd say, if you're having trouble deciding whether the beginning is a prologue or a first chapter, go for the first chapter if you can. If you can't be sure to re-evaluate it, in particular asking yourself if you're giving away anything you can withhold and reveal later for better effect.

In other words, a successful prologue must do one thing: move the story forward, not explain the past. If it does this, and especially if it propels the story better because of it, that's when you should keep it.

About Me

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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.