Get Some Perspective – in “Words Fail Me”


Today’s writing advice comes from Words Fail Me, by Patricia T. O’Connor, author of Woe Is I, and previously an editor at the New York Times Book Review. I love this helpful writing book by O’Connor. Im sure you’ve noticed a theme to my selection of books on writing: I enjoy a playful sense of humor to help me remember rules and guidelines. 

As a writer, perspective is an area I struggle with. O’Connor’s section on “Lost Horizon: What’s the Point of View?“, has some key takeaways that can help you flesh out a scene to help your readers visualize the setting.

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Easy Does It

I learned to drive on a stick shift, and the car protested loudly until I got the hang of it. Shifting smoothly takes practice, in writing as well as in driving A clumsy shift in perspective can be as grating as the sound of grinding gears.

Even there are many things to describe, it’s possible to move from one to another smoothly. Say we’re writing about a busy harbor town in a piece for a travel magazine. We start out small, with a particular red fishing boat bobbing at anchor. Then we pull back, describing the pattern all the brightly colored boats make on the blue water. We pull back further still, to include some gulls overhead, then the wharves at the foot of the village, then the bustling dockside street, then the houses extending up the hill and thinning out as they get farther from the water. Notice how the perspective shifts smoothly, moving from small to large, from particular to general, like a zoom lens on a camera.

Then let’s say we add the fact the red fishing boat has nets spread on its deck, drying in the sun. Crash! There we were, hovering somewhere in the sky above the village, when the bottom dropped out.

Be kind to readers. Let them down gently.

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My Thoughts

Honestly, she lost me when we got to the nets spreading out on the deck part. I think the example perhaps got too long–but I picked up what she was putting down (LOL). The gist of this section is that building the scene for your readers is most helpful if you apply the same principle as a camera lens. Whether you’re starting from a broad view and zeroing in on a specific focal point, or vice-versa, this method makes a lot of sense! When facing a blank page or a new chapter, having a starting point like this will make it so much easier to build a scene or environment.

Speaking of perspective, today is Thanksgiving, and I wish you a blessed day with your friends and family. It’s been a tough month with the election and the civil unrest all across the country. I’m so thankful for my family and friends. Diversity in thought can only help us build knowledge and empathy. Regardless of what our personal beliefs are, today is a day we should be grateful to have one another.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Plot Is a Verb – In “Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us”

Today’s writing advice comes from Thanks, But This Isn’t For Usby Jessica Morrel, author and developmental editor, another witty and fun guide in discovering the most common mistakes writers make.

In the section: Plot Is a Verb, Morrel points out some of the biggest Deal Breakers when it comes to plots. She lists quite a few, most of which you’ve surely heard before. I’ve listed out the sections below, the titles are drawn right from the book and are somewhat self-explanatory.

  1. Heavy-Handed Foreshadowing
  2. Limp Adversity
  3. Lousy Ending
  4. Excess – “when a plot is excessive, and the story meanders and becomes buried”
  5. Shadowy or Snidely Whiplash Villain
  6. Suspense that Fizzles

The one that stood out to me–and one I hadn’t heard mentioned before–was the section on Lonely Hearts.

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Lonely Hearts

“I cannot say it enough: if too many scenes in your story feature a character alone, the story won’t work. Especially if in most of the scenes a character is thinking, musing, recalling the past, or sighing. Especially sighing. It will be boxed in and lack conflict and fireworks. One memorable story featured a protagonist who spent most of the story alone weeping and despairing. In fact, when she wasn’t breaking down she mostly whined throughout the story. I don’t know about you, but I cannot handle histrionics and self-pity in real life, so I’m not going to pay $24.95 to read about.

Instead, imagine the drama as a play acted out on a stage–if a character is alone on the stage, usually within moments another character arrives to mix things up. Now, I realize that one-man plays are performed all the time, but for most writers a character hanging out alone is static and dull as dishwater.

In The Old Man and the Sea,  Santiago is mostly alone in the wide waters of the Gulf of Mexico throughout his ordeal. But the story isn’t based solely on inner conflict–he’s up against the villagers, who believe he’s an unlucky has-been; the sea; the marlin; the brutal, hungry sharks; and the dwindling capabilities of his aging, ravaged body. This means readers feel the pain of his scarred hands and cramped muscles, and worry about his survival. This means that even though Santiago is mostly alone, the conflict is staged and we can watch him fighting for his last chance. The solution here is that the conflict–your protagonist’s worries and doubts and struggles–must be staged and the adversary visible whenever possible. Put anguish into action and readers will care.

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My thoughts

What I like about this advice (and really, this entire book) is that Morrell does a decent job fleshing out her pain points, and following it up with real-life examples and/or exceptions. In the section above, she basically says “I don’t like reading a book where the character is completely alone,” but here’s a great book where the character is completely alone…and I liked it because…

Sigh.

To be fair, when it comes to the exception, she does a good job explaining why it works for that particular novel. What I took away from this advice was to be mindful of how much alone time my characters have in each scene/chapter and if they are all by their lonesome, what’s happening in that scene to build suspense and help move the story along?

Let me know what you think. Have you heard this advice or similar advice before?

Happy reading and writing.

The Deafening Hug – in “How Not to Write a Novel”

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I’ve been blogging since early 2009. I’m embarrassed to say that’s almost eight years of far too many random thoughts. Of all the posts, the following writing advice drew hundreds of visitors.

In How Not to Write a Novel we learn many lessons, hilariously and delightfully delivered. One that stood out to me is known as The Deafening Hug. Authors Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman point out how we need to be careful of creating an unintended love interest. Sometimes it’s obvious; sometimes it’s not. Especially to the writer.

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1. The Mayfly Fatale

A new character is described as a “handsome, muscular man with raven hair and a cheeky grin” or “a lissome blonde bombshell in a tight tank top.” The reader immediately thinks this is a love/sex interest. While real life is full of attractive people who–let’s face it–never look at you twice, protagonists live in a charmed world where it is assumed that all the attractive people they notice are already halfway to the boudoir.

2. Alice in Lapland

Any undue interest in or physical contact with children will set off alarms. If you do not want your reader to think he is reading about a pedophile, dandling of children on knees should be kept to a minimum by fathers, and even more so by uncles. If your character is in any way associated with organized religion, whether he is a bishop, a minister or the kindly old church caretaker with a twinkle in his eye, he should not even pull a child from a burning building.

3. We’re Going to Need a Bigger Closet

Male friends hug, toast their friendship, and later stumble drunkenly to sleep in the cabin’s one bed. The reader is way ahead of you–they are secretly gay, and nothing you say later is going to change his mind. If you do not intend them to be secretly gay, let Alan sleep on the couch.

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Hilarious right? And how true they are! Sometimes when you’re trying to describe particular activities or scenes in too much detail, it can take your readers on a different path than you intended. But now you’ve got the insight and can prevent your characters from doing some highly inappropriate and unintended activities.

Happy reading and writing! Remember to return next Thursday for another insightful post, or have it delivered straight to your inbox by signing up as a follower.