Writing 101, a tutorial on fiction

Good Afternoon, Folks.

 

From time to time folks wander in and post who demonstrate little or no skill at writing, so I thought that perhaps some of us who have been writing a while might want to use this thread as a soap box for a discussion on writing in general, with an eye on fiction.

 

Now, as with anything, fiction is both an art and a science. That is, on the one hand a talented individual with little skill can sometimes write moving and effective prose, and on the other hand a skilled writer with little imagination can sometimes hit the right buttons to get a reaction. Thus, there are some things about fiction that can be taught, and others which must be learned from the soul.

 

Homer, in the Odyssey, has his old bard remark, "I am self-taught; the Muses have taught me." This dichotomy -- self taught, and yet taught by the muses, inspired -- is precisely what I mean. The ideal writer is both talented and skilled, Muse-schooled and self-taught. An effective writer must be one or the other, at the very least.

 

Thus, even if you have a talent for writing -- even if words spring into your head like an artesian fountain -- you still need to learn the skills of writing. Don't get me wrong: no amount of wordsmithing will turn a dull story into a best-seller. Many stories need to be taken to the incinerator and committed to the flames, as quickly as possible. Just the other day, I was talking to a friend about a book, and she said that the story caused her to say aloud, in an apostrophe to the person who loaned her the book, "Why did you make me read that! I effing hate you!"

 

I can only hope that nothing I ever write will inspire the reader to say, "I effing hate you!"

 

With that said, we should examine what makes for a good book, and some of the pitfalls into which writers are likely to fall.

 

First, you need a plot. The plot should have a minimum of three elements: A beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning we learn where we are and what's happening; in the middle we see a crisis develop and resolve, and in the end we see the lose ends tied up. A story can be as short as a single scene, so long as it has those parts. Here is an example:

 

PART ONE: WHERE / WHAT

     There were on the order of two hundred men in the dormitory, from all across country. The age range was narrow, since we had all joined up at about the same ages, and were at the same point in the training pipeline. Perhaps the oldest was twenty, and the youngest eighteen or nineteen. I, myself, was nineteen.

 

Okay, this is just some off the cuff exposition. It is implied that this is perhaps a military organization:  "We had all joined up." It is clear that this is a dormitory, domestic in one sense but not homely. The social rules are perhaps vague, as in a college dorm at the start of a term. We've begun. Now we need a crisis or conflict.

 

PART TWO: CONFLICT / RESOLUTION

     One man in particular drew my ire. He had a smirk on his face. He never left his room without it. I am a peaceable man, and will walk away from a fight if I safely can, but something about that smirk infuriated me. Every time we met eyes, that smirk mocked me. Clearly, he held me in contempt -- the jackass who didn't even know me thought I was beneath him and unworthy of his basic respect.

     One day I saw him in the corridor. We would pass each other, right sides to, and our eyes locked. I narrowed mine; he replied with that smirk. I gave him a sneer, in the hope that he would swing -- that he would give me any excuse to teach him the respect he so obviously lacked.

    But as I drew alongside him, shoulder to shoulder, I noticed something. He had a thin, wispy mustache which did not sufficiently hide a thin curling scar at the corner of his mouth. He had no smirk; he had only that pink line forever drawn upon his face. My anger dissolved in a moment. Without the smirk, the true expression of his face said, "Please don't hit me because of my scar."

 

Okay, there's the conflcit: I want to punch this guy and I can't. Precariously balanced forces. This is the part that is the true story -- the meat of the tale. And it ends with the twist, or with the climactic moment -- in this case, when I realize that I don't want to punch him. Now we just need to wrap the story up.

 

PART THREE: Loose Ends

     "Excuse me," I said, to his retreating back. "I owe you an apology."

     He turned, just out of arm's reach, and looked at me.

     "I've been misjudging you," I said. "That was wrong of me." I held out my hand.

    With the first smile I had ever seen from him, he grasped my hand and shook it.

 

Okay, the loose end is wrapped up. I've admitted my mistake, the nemesis has accepted the apology, and all is now well. Story over.

 

This is an example of a simple plot style, for a simple story. Thinking in three parts, or three steps, or even three scenes, will often give us a good basic plot. But there are bigger tools, as well. Gustav Freytag proposed a five part system:

 

Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement (catastrophe, resolution, revelation).

 

In this system, what we earlier called "Part Two" is divided into three parts.

 

RISING ACTION:

One man in particular drew my ire. He had a smirk on his face. He never left his room without it. I am a peaceable man, and will walk away from a fight if I safely can, but something about that smirk infuriated me. Every time we met eyes, that smirk mocked me. Clearly, he held me in contempt -- the jackass who didn't even know me thought I was beneath him and unworthy of his basic respect.

 

CLIMAX:

     One day I saw him in the corridor. We would pass each other, right sides to, and our eyes locked. I narrowed mine; he replied with that smirk. I gave him a sneer, in the hope that he would swing -- that he would give me any excuse to teach him the respect he so obviously lacked.

    But as I drew alongside him, shoulder to shoulder, I noticed something. He had a thin, wispy mustache which did not sufficiently hide a thin curling scar at the corner of his mouth. He had no smirk; he had only that pink line forever drawn upon his face.

 

FALLING ACTION:

My anger dissolved in a moment. Without the smirk, the true expression of his face said, "Please don't hit me because of my scar."

 

Now, you will note that that falling action and the resolution are very short by comparison witht he rising action and the climax. That's because once the climax occurs -- in this case, the confrontation in the corridor -- the story is essentially over. The remainder is clean up and completion. But that's not to say that the Falling action is unimportant -- the falling action and the resolution are the payoff for the reader. This is why he read the story, this is what he was looking for, here it is, and we can all go home.

 

The emotions that we raised in him in the conflcit, and his vicarious adrenaline, can now resolve into endorphins and the calm of a crisis passed. 

Comments

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Now, there are some things that don't belong in a plot, because they stop you from building the plot effectively. I remember a 10th grade writing assignment: We were to compose a fiction story of at least 20 handwritten pages. I wrote a brief murder mystery, badly resolved and rather oddly plotted, but fun to work on.

     

    A friend made his story about a photographer who went to Australia on an assignment and found an attractive model in his bathtub au naturel. And that is where his plot stopped. The resolution of his story was not something he could write for a tenth grade class. As a result, his project remained incomplete and he failed the assignment. From observing this, I realized an important rule of writing: Keep your erotic fantasies out of it.

     

    Of course, if you happen to be writing erotica -- not judging anyone here -- then so be it: Write erotica and make it good erotica. But in general, do not steer your plot by where your naughty bits want the story to go. Don't send your characters into bedrooms just because one happens to be male and the other female. If your characters wind up there, as a part of a plot that is not about sex, then so be it. But don't put it into the story "just because."

     

    John D. MacDonald wrote a great amny stories about Travis Magee, and many of them involve sexual encounters. But in every case, the act or event is a necessary -- or at least complementary -- part of the plot. It is not there just to be there; it is there because it gives an insight into the characters, or into the circumstances, or into the motives. It is "organic" to the plot; that is, it grows out of the plot, as opposed to an "artificial" event, which is stuck into the plot, often for no reason at all.

     

    On the other hand, many writers have written with no mention of sex whatsoever. Hercule Poirot, so far as we know, could be a eunuch. In many of Dick Francis' stories, the racehorse is treated with more passion than the female characters. To insert sexuality into those stories would be to graft in an artificial and thus obstructive element.

     

    Keep the organic elements in the plot, and remove the artificial ones.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Another point on plots:

     

    Make them realistic. Well, if you're writing fantasy stories in which magic trolls ride unicorns over rainbows, then realism is out the window. But for those writing realistic fiction, the plot needs to be realistic. As examples of this:

     

    Characters can't be perfect. Every real person has faults. You can't make a character who has no faults, and who is invulnerable to every attack. If you try, your story will be very dull. Real people are afraid, or irrational, or weak, or near-sighted. Fake characters -- carboard cut-outs -- are not.

     

    This also means that if your characters are modeled on real people, as writers sometimes do, then you have to know that the real people have flaws. You don't have to give the characters the same flaws that the models have, but they should have a similar type and degree of flaw. 

     

    The ancient Greeks had a name for everything, including the flaw in a character. They called it Hamartis. In the case of Achilles, in the Iliad, his hamartis is Hubris (a great pride that rules over everything else). Patroclus' hamartis is impatience and impulsiveness. Agamemnon's hamartis is to place his own desires above the good of the whole. And so on.

     

    Characters need hamartis. It makes us able to identify with them and to vicariously participate in what they do.

     

    Do not defy the laws of physics. There is a famous essay by Mark Twain, in which he lambasts James Fennimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. The name of the essay, fittingly, is The Literary Abuses of James Fennimore Cooper. Twain particularly objects to a passage in which three native Americans are sitting on a branch over a river, hoping to attack a passing canoe. The first leaps and misses, because the canoe has already passed. The second, seeing the failure of the first, leaps and misses as well. But the third leaps and lands in the very end of the canoe, and thus is able to steal forward and attack the canoeists.

     

    The passage in question rings hollow because we know better. If the first man to leap is too late, the second will not leap; he knows that he will miss as well. And in no case will the third succeed where the first too are already too late.

     

    This speaks to a broader principle: Know what you're talking about. There is a passage in Jack London's Call of the Wild in which a gardener on a San Francisco estate sells the family dog because the gardener is a gambler. He has lost a lot of money playing "Chinese Lottery" and needs cash to resume playing his system.

     

    No one alive has lost a Chinese Lottery. It is not a gambling game, as London supposed. It is a form of insurance, also called a Tontine, in which the last person alive receives the pool of money. To lose at a Chinese lottery -- a "Dead Pool," if you will -- , the gardener would have to have died, thus losing his stake in the kitty.  And to have a "system" for playing... Well, unless he was killing the other players, no system would really help him.

     

    London didn't know what he was talking about. A bit of research might have saved him a lot of embarassment. Let this be a lesson to us all.

  • That's far too much for me to read in a forum!

  • Marvellously written and detailed. Thanks. I am looking forward to other such useful advice.

  • Are you serious, Kevin? You write the longest answers to forum questions. A whole book as a response!

     

    @skoob -- You've inspired me to look for a writing club - to be forced to write. You made me want to write again.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Maggie wrote:

    Are you serious, Kevin? You write the longest answers to forum questions. A whole book as a response!

     

    @skoob -- You've inspired me to look for a writing club - to be forced to write. You made me want to write again.


    I blush. I wrote this because I felt like it needed to be written, and that it has helped someone is humbling and gratifying.

     

    Please do write: Bring what is in your soul onto a page. I wait anxiously to read it.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    kevinlomas wrote:

    That's far too much for me to read in a forum!


    Well, Kevin, then perhaps this advice was not for you.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    potetjp wrote:

    Marvellously written and detailed. Thanks. I am looking forward to other such useful advice.


    Too kind, Sir. Too kind.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Since we're on the topic, we should talk about what I call "The Rules of Fiction."

     

    Remember that a good story -- one that is pleasing to the reader -- has a payoff at the end. We satisfy the conflict that we have created; We produce a riddle, adn then tell the answer; we create uncertainty and then we re-assure. We tilt the universe, and then, at the last moment, we add the counterweight that restore order to the planets.

     

    Not all writing follows that pattern, and when writing does not follow that pattern, it had better be very, very good. A clever writer looks for a new way to satisfy that imbalance; a less-clever writer tries to sweep the imbalance under the carpet.

     

    I recently read a book by a writer here on this forum, and it was a good book, with a good plot and a moving story. Characters were real and vivid. The climax, however, came in a courtroom scene, in which a barrister suddenly produced a box of evidence that answered all the dangling ends of the plot. Still, the story felt out of balance, as the characters danced around in this information. We've seen the barrister's evidence, but we're wondering: Is it true?

     

    Then, at the very last moment, the main character says to his girlfriend that he can't believe it. Is it really true? She replies that no, they faked everything: It's all a bunch of baloney.

     

    That one sentence at the end sets the world right. It leaves the reader laughing that he or she has gotten so drawn in as to expect the evidence to be real. That is clever: It obeys the rules of fiction. It makes right the imbalance. And it does it creatively.

     

     

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Now, we should talk about characters. Once you have a plot, the characters should grow naturally out of the plot. If you are writing a Pirate Story, then Pirates grow naturally from the plot. There must be a captain, there must be a crew, there must probably be a mutineer, and if there's not either a monkey or a parrot, some readers will be disappointed.

     

    If you are writing a murder mystery, you need a murderer, a victim, and a detective. You can add in foils... Foils are characters whose sole purpose is to illuminate another character. So the murder victim may need to be explained by the survivors, who become foils for him. We learn from his widow that he was cheap with a dollar. We learn from his mistress that he had a buried treasure... oh, wait, that goes better with the pirate plot.

     

    The detective will almost always have a sidekick, who serves as his foil. Holmes had Watson. Poirot had Hastings. Wolfe had Archie. In each case, the foil reflects the nature of the detective, as we see the detective interacting with him. For example, suppose that a detective went to a restaurant, and was snippy with the waitress, but then apologized and left a big tip. We would learn about the detective: He is impulsive, impetuous, given to sharp words, but generous and apologetic when he has wronged someone. Thus the waitress is a foil for the detective.

     

    Characters cannot be supermen -- we mentioned that before. Not every hero can be six-foot seven and a professional kickboxer who holds an MBA from Harvard and a doctorate in Medeival Literature from Cambridge, where he was the starting bowler in the famous test match agaisnt Oxford. Some characters must be down to earth ordinary folks. A taxi driver, for example, who wants nothing more from life than a license for Airport access and a few good fares each day, or a gardener whose sole ambition is to make a laelocattleya bloom -- these are ordinary simple characters, who needn't be supermen.

     

    The story will be driven further, and with more power, by a character's flaws. The fact that a man can't drive with a stick-shift and so must walk twenty-three blocks, arriving late for his fiancee's birthday dinner, is far more interesting than the fact that he knows how to drive every vehicle ever constructed, and made the trip is six minutes flat while composing an opera in his head.

     

    Characters need to speak appropriately. You don't need to give them funny accents and speech patterns -- in fact, that gets annoying very quickly -- but an ironworker catching a bus home shouldn't speak King James English ("Verily, I besought a homeward bus, and herein found I myself") and by the same token, an archbishop shouldn't sound like a twelve-year old girl ("Like I was all, whaaaaaaat?").  Far better if the iron worker sounds like an iron worker ("Don't give me no guff. I'm goin' home an put my feet up") and the archbishop sound like an Archbishop ("Be at peace, my son").

     

    If you have a strong plot, and a strong set of characters, those characters will take care of the next part: Scenes that drive the plot to the conclusion.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    We should make an aside for a special kind of character: The Unredeemable. Sometimes a character crosses a line that makes it impossible to ever call him back to the side of the angels. He must die, and he must die either as a matter of justice, or as an act of redemption.

     

    A splendid example of this can be seen in the Kirk Douglas character from the 1965 war movie, In Harm's Way. As Commander Paul Eddington, Douglas takes a nurse to a remote Hawaiian beach. After frollicking in the water with her, his mind turns to romance. She rejects his advances, and in a fit of rage, he commits an assault upon her. He thus becomes an irredeemable character. By the rules of Fiction, he cannot be forgiven.

     

    As it happens, he is sent to a remote post and eventually dies in a heroic act of bravery and patriotism, thus showing that he is not completely evil, and is perhaps repentant. But from the moment on the beach, anyone familiar with fiction knew that Eddington must die before the movie's end. 

     

    A more classic example may be seen in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Several characters are beyond redemption, almost from the first scenes. Claudius must die: He is a regicide. Gertrude must die: She is unfaithful to her late husband. Rosencranz and Guildenstern must die: They are disloyal to their prince.

     

    Hamlet himself must die: He has brought about the madness and death of Ophelia, and he is plotting to kill the King. Note that he may be excused in the matter of Rosencranz and Guidenstern; they were plotting against him. As enemy combatants, they received their fair deserts. But even though loyalty for his father demands that he kill the King, to do so works against his duty as a subject, a prince, and a stepson.

     

    The final scene of Hamlet leaves every unredeemable dead on the floor, thus fulfilling our expectations by the Rules of Fiction. In his last gasp to Horatio, the loose ends are tied up, and the play may end satisfactorally.

     

    In modern fiction, it is now popular to let the Unredeemable escape. Silence of the Lambs breaks this rule, allowing Hannibal Lecter to slip away unscathed. Still, we are left unsettled by this. There is a justice that has not been set right, there is an imbalance with no counterweight. The story tends to haunt one, because it fails to obey the rules.

     

    In general, however, we must see to it that any Unredeemable in our stories must have a fitting end.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Now we have all the building blocks: We have a plot and we have characters. The last piece of the puzzle is to "flesh out" the skeleton.

     

    If we have a strong plot and dynamic characters, the characters will naturally propell the plot forward. Characters who are too dynamic, however, can drag our plot off course, and require us to drag it back onto the theme. We can allow our characters a little latitude, but we can't let them run amok. 

     

    Imagine a scene in which a man is checking into a hotel. Our outline requires that he reach the front desk, interact with someone there, obtain a key, and go to his room. But how does he do it?

     

    Let's say that he is a businessman, serious and solemn, his mind full of transactions and sales. He has been in meetings all day, so he slouches wearily to the desk, leans on it, and gives his name carefully, spelling it for the clerk.

     

    Or let's say that he is on vacation, and sees himself as a bit of a wolf: He strides into the lobby, surveys the aly of the land, and glides to the counter with confidence. He gleams his sparkling teeth at the clerk, and tries to persuade her to join him in the bar.

     

    Or let's say that he is a showman, with a few screws loose. He prances into the lobby in a garish suit, twirls around the planter, sings out his name to the clerk, and then performs a bit of soft-shoe dance on his way to the elevator.

     

    The difference between these three is solely in the character, and the nature of each character determines the events in the scene. Each of these scenarios opens different possibilities to us. In the first case, the clerk might be annoying and squeaky, but this wouldn't fit the second or thrid cases. In the second case, the clerk might decide to take her break in the bar with him, or she might become upset and call her supervisor. But those possibilities don't work in the other two cases. And in the third case, she doesn't need to be there at all.

     

    So which possibility best furthers the plot: To have her meet him in the bar, to have her be insulted, or to have her be squeaky and annoying?  Whichever best fits our long-term goal, that is the choice we should select. Let the characters write the scenes. All you really need to do is to guide them towards their destiny.

  • Well, it's done. I just joined a meet-up called "Shut up and Write."

     

    And I haven't written a single word, and have no  idea what I'm going to write as others are typing away next to me. This should be fun.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Now, about style and sentence structure...

     

    There are many ways to say anything. I follow a simple rule: If I get to the middle of a sentence and can't make it sound right after three tries, I erase the entire sentence and try it a different way. In fiction especially, there is no real right or wrong to sentence structure -- well, so long as it doesn't sound like Yoda and Doctor Seuss trading favorite movie quips. Consider these examples:

     

    It was a wet day.

    The rain came down in sheets, obscuring visibility.

    The rain fell like a scourge across the roof.

    Raindrops, like bullets, tapped at the gutters.

    Rain, such rain; would it never stop?

    The steady rain was like a curse upon his soul.

    Rain, blessed rain; at last it came down, quenching the scorched soil.

    Another day of wet pavement and damp jackets.

     

    Each sentence is different. In the right context, any of those could be the "right" (or wrong) sentence for the job. And yet, each of them conveys exactly the same idea: Water fell out of the sky. If the weather is merely incidental to the scene, we might use the first sentence or the eighth; if it is to set a mood, we might use the third through the seventh; if it were part and parcel of the events to follow, we might use the second. The fourth could be a foreshadow.

     

    Some of these are simple, and others dramatic and poetic. The dramatic and poetic ones are not better or worse, but merely different. It would be a mistake to spend too much time on it in many cases. We might take pages to talk about how the rain caused someone to feel, and what it represented to them, and how it was that kind of rain that lifts a scent from the earth... and then the train hit him, the end.

     

    The emphasis would be on the wrong spot. Better to have spent those pages describing the train, and why the man was on the tracks, than describing what the rain made him think and feel.

     

    Paragraphs are a group of sentences. They may be as short as a single paragraph, or they may run for a page, possibly two. I believe that it was Thurber who joked about German sentences diving in headfirst, and emerging pages later on the other side of the atlantic, with the verb in their teeth. But those are the exceptions, never the rule.

     

    A good paragraph should be about four sentences, in general. A single sentence may be a paragraph, or seven or eight sentences, but a four-sentence rule will serve most new writers well. The grammatical rule is that the paragraph must change when a new speaker speaks, or when there is a change of subject or setting.

     

    If you're talking about umbrellas, and you want to stick in a bit about puppies, you need a new paragraph. If you're writing dialog, each speaker gets a paragraph each time he speaks:

     

    "Hello," he said.

     

    "Allo," she replied. "It is a lovely day, no?"

     

    "But it is," he replied.

     

     

    "I ave always loved the rain."

     

    "It looks good on you. Might I lend you my umbrella?"

     

    "But no, I would not prevent the rain from my head."

     

    A change of subject, however slight, deserves a paragraph.

     

    Many men of a certain age have begun to go grey, or have lost hair. It is inevitable.that they should age, and with that age comes the thinning and lightening of the hair. As surely as day and night, so it comes.

     

    No so, with Mr. Aberthynom. His hair held to his head and retained its color, well into the seventh decade.

     

    Mr. Aberthynom's hair is the same general subject as the hair of men of a certain age, and yet it deserves a separate paragraph because we have changed the subject from men in general to one specific man. And so we add a paragraph. We do this again when we change to speaking of Mr. Johnson's hair; it is a different specific man.

     

    We can also change the paragraph when one single paragraph becomes too large and unwieldy. In geenral, if a apragraph takes half a page or more, break the paragraph just on principles.

     

    There are two styles for paragraphs. The classic style is to indent the first line, and then to begin the next paragraph on the next line after the first paragraph. The second style is to make no indentations, and to skip a line between paragraphs. My advice here is in the second style.

     

    It is important to pick one or the other, and not to mix and match.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Maggie wrote:

    Well, it's done. I just joined a meet-up called "Shut up and Write."

     

    And I haven't written a single word, and have no  idea what I'm going to write as others are typing away next to me. This should be fun.


    Dive in and enjoy!

     

    Feel free to steal a line from anywhere in these notes... Smiley Happy

  • Maggie wrote:

    Are you serious, Kevin? You write the longest answers to forum questions. A whole book as a response!

     

    And if I replied to all of the above, imagine how long it would get!

  • Well, Kevin, then perhaps this advice was not for you.

     

    Possibly, possibly not. Without doubt those who read it all may find it very useful. Why not publish it?


  • Skoob_Ym a écrit :

     

    Imagine a scene in which a man is checking into a hotel. Our outline requires that he reach the front desk, interact with someone there, obtain a key, and go to his room. But how does he do it? [...]

     


    English has an amazing number of verbs that describe the way a character walks. French, for instance, is not so rich, so that translators often have to use periphrastic phrases to render them. This contrast reveals that English speakers pay more attention to gait than we do, and, as you illustrate Skoon_Ym,  a good writer should not fail to resort to this device to make the character real, and convincingly animated.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    potetjp wrote:

    Skoob_Ym a écrit :

     

    Imagine a scene in which a man is checking into a hotel. Our outline requires that he reach the front desk, interact with someone there, obtain a key, and go to his room. But how does he do it? [...]

     


    English has an amazing number of verbs that describe the way a character walks. French, for instance, is not so rich, so that translators often have to use periphrastic phrases to render them. This contrast reveals that English speakers pay more attention to gait than we do, and, as you illustrate Skoon_Ym,  a good writer should not fail to resort to this device to make the character real, and convincingly animated.


    We do have the advantage of 500,000+ English words to choose from, while French is limited to 200,000 words, tightly controlled by the Academie Francais. Even as a student of French, I often had to resort to circumlocution, usually because I hadn't done my vocabulary work for that week.

     

    Still, it is the character who chooses how he enters a room -- quietly, emphatically, dramatically, avec un sens de bon-vivre, avec un sens du peur, avec mal dans son ame -- (sorry, I can't do a circumflex on "ame").  That was my point, of course, that the plot drives the characters, and the characters drive the actions, and the actions make the scene.

     

    It does seem to me -- and I generalize here -- that French writers rely much less upon the scene. It is sufficient to tell us that they are on a beach, and not necessary to tell us that the sand is white, the air is warm, and that the beach towel is blue with a pattern. In Camus' L'Etranger, Camus does not even tell us Mersault's first name.

     

    But perhaps this is merely the writers whom I have happened to read.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Let me add: This is not just a thread for me to pontificate. I am certainly no Hemmingway and no Shakespeare.

     

    Please add whatever you would like newer or less-experienced writers to know. Later today, I thought I would add a post on editing and preparing a manuscript.


  • Skoob_Ym a écri
    tightly controlled by the Academie Francais.

    LOL One of the many amusing prejudices I detected among British and American people. L'Académie Française, like all similar academies in the world, is merely in charge of recording new terms and new usages. Dictionaries like Webster's and the OED do the same for speakers of English.


  • Skoob_Ym a écrit :

    potetjp wrote:

    Skoob_Ym a écrit :

     

    We do have the advantage of 500,000+ English words to choose from, while French is limited to 200,000 words,
    Indeed. It may be said that an English dictionary is about like a French and a German dictionaries rolled into one.
    On the other hand, like all languages, English doesn't have all the words it needs. For instance, you only have "pride" for "orgueil" et "fierté".

     

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    Now, about formatting and editing.

     

    Your font should be of one of two types: Serif or sans serif. There is considerable debate over which is easier to read, and therefore better. The traditional wisdom is that that serif fonts -- Times New Roman, Garamond, Bookman Old Style -- give the eye a line to follow and threfore are more legible. Some modern writers argue that san-serif fonts, such as Arial or Calibri offer faster recognition and thus allow faster reading -- there are fewer unneeded lines.

     

    When in doubt, follow the more traditional route and choose a serif font. The Lulu templates tend to use Garamond, which will work fine. Do not, under any circumstances, pick a novelty font. You may enjoy Comix font, or a script font, or a font that puts your letters onto little birthday cakes. That's all well and good for your drafts, but make it Roman, Garamond, or Bookman before you publish it.

     

    Even Courier or other Typewriter fonts are tiring to the eye after a few pages. You can use a Copperplate Font for some fine print at the bottom of the copyright page, perhaps, but not on every page, and certainly not for the entire manuscript. Have a little mercy on the reader, and keep novelty fonts to yourself.

     

    Choose whether you will use indented paragraphs or paragraphs with space between them, as here. Do not mix and match. If you're writing fiction, especially, an indented paragraph with no extra lines between paragraphs is strongly preferred. If you're writing non-fiction, either will work well.

     

    In either case, fully justify your paragraphs. Both edges, left and right, should make a smooth, even line down the side of the margin. Only the first and last lines of a paragraph should be shorter than the margin's limits.

     

    Set the tab-stops on your word-processor at .2 or .3 inches -- about 5-6 spaces -- instead of the default .5 inches, which is far too much. An indent that is too small or one that is too big will distract the reader.

     

    Lines with 1.15 spaces per line seem to flow well, though some people have published books with up to 2.0 line spacing. Do not go above 2.0 unless you're writing a legal brief. Truly tight line spacing, like 1.0, may seem a bit cramped to the reader, and your low-hanging characters may tend to make ligatures with the taller characters on the line below. White space, in moderation, is good. It reassures the reader that he's not diving in above what he can read.

     

    Pick an appropriate font size. 12 point is good; 10 or 11 is acceptable, 9 is too small, and 14 will seem a bit large. If you're writing a "Large Print" book, you may go up to 16 point. In geenral, the font size should be large enough to read easily, but smal enough to keep your paragraphs looking right.

     

    If you're not sure how your book should look, pick up a book that is as similar as possible to what you want to write, and compare it to your manuscript. I once had a discussion with a few folks on this forum about whether one should stop down several lines, or even half a page, at the beginning of a chapter. I made a quick survey of a few books off my shelf, and found that American books almost always do this, while UK and Commonwealth books seldom do this.  I have also used books on my shelf to count the appropriate number of lines per page and words per line, as a gauge to proper margins and font size.

     

    Once you've gotten the formatting done, you're ready to edit for content. There are several ways to do this. You can print your manuscript and read it upside down, print it and re-type it into the PC from scratch, or you can print it and bury it in your sock drawer for several weeks/months/years.

     

    The goal, in all of those cases, is to permit you to read the manuscipt as if someone else wrote it. By the time you finish writing it, you'll have read it so many times that it will tend to blur. Oh, this is the part with the dog, that is the part with the bus, there is the part with the cabin in the mountains. To edit effectively, you need to be able to concentrate on the words and letters, ignoring the content. That is why reading upside down and retyping it from scratch will work. Burying it in the sock drawer is intended to give you time to forget the story a little, and thus when you pull it out to re-read it, your mind is able to focus on the shape of a word, and not on what the word is supposed to convey.

     

    You can also try to edit it as a live electronic document, but that will be much harder because you cannot flip between pages to check details, and because, again, your eye will tend to gloss over the error in order to tell you the tale. It can be done, but it is brutally difficult.

     

    Scan for errors of spelling, grammar, fact, and consistency. One of my books began by mentioning a car with a 390 Cubic inch engine. On a later page, the car is mentioned as having had a 351 Cubic inch engine. To my chagrin, no fewer than four people called out to me that the engine size had changed; one even pointed out that the 351 would not fit into the chassis of that model-year of car. Clearly, I missed a point of consistency. I blamed it on a character with a bad memory...

     

    Look for boring parts. Let's face it, every book has at least one scene that's a real snoozer. When you get to that part, ask yourself: Is this scene really necessary to the story? What purpose does it serve? Be brutal. If a scene is boring and it does not move the plot forward, cut it out.

     

    Look for confusing parts. The reader does not live in my head, and therefore when I say, "That thing with the other thing came loose, and it wound up in that place there" the reader won't know what I mean. If I describe a room, and when I re-read the manuscript after its time in the sock drawer, I can't picture the room in my head from the description alone, I need to re-write that scene.

     

    Look for repetitive parts. If a man stays in a hotel for three nights, and each night you write a nearly-identical description of his passage across the lobby to the elevator, you're not doing the readers any favors. Skip a few of those scenes, or at least give them some variety. This is more important in a play than in a novel, because in a play, an actor will tend to confuse the similar events. This can lead to parts being skipped or repeated.

     

    Look for things that simply don't belong. You may have a fascinating scene about an elderly couple feeding pigeons, but if it's not germane to the story, it might be better to save it for the next book. Distracting elements make it more difficult for the reader to follow your plot.

     

    Give characters distinct names. There may be a compelling reason why three ladies in a novel might be named Jessie, Jennie, and Gina, but the reader will find them easier to distinguish if their names are Kristina, Jennifer, and Elizabeth. Likewise, Geoff, Jeff, Jesse, Jorge, and George might want to go by their middle names.

     

    On the opposite side of that coin, if a character is named John Albert Kilgore Smith, do not refer to him first as John, the Albert, then Kilgore, and then Smith. Call him one, or perhaps two of these, and stick to it. Otherwise, someone is going to wonder why John is wearing Albert's tie and sitting in Smith's chair.

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