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Category Archives: Writer’s Guidelines
More great advice from Nancy Curteman that actually applies to any novel. And as always, she says it in a lot less words than I would have.
via Global Mysteries
Okay, I’ve been writing about Writer’s Rules on and off since firing up this blog in 2002. What about when the time comes to break the rules?
Depends on what rules you break. For example, I’m planning a novel in which nobody gets killed. For me that’s a definite leap forward. I’ve got one friend who always razzes me about the body count in my books – but I never try to make it gratuitous. However, the novel will still have a bar scene and a love triangle, both of which can also be found in most of my works.
But I don’t know if that’s so much breaking the rules as a personal pattern. Sort of like if Spielberg made a movie without some sort of running undercurrent of conflict with a father figure.1
I’m talking about breaking the rules of fiction as we know them – showing instead of telling. Breaking the momentum for lectures about one thing or another that the author finds relevant within his or her own little corner of the universe – you know, the kind of thing that Heinlein used to do all of the time. Well, by that time, Heinlein was Heinlein and could get away with that sort of thing.
What about a new author who does that sort of thing. Career death, right? Or at least a hard mash on the pause button while his/er writing style cleans itself up?
Yeah, pretty much. But occasionally you get a first-time author who breaks the rules but manages to pick up four dice and roll boxcars all the way across. Kind of like what happened with a book I just finished reading, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson.
So what did Larsson do that broke the rules?
First of all, he did a lot of telling instead of showing. That’s rule number one in fiction, you show something happening instead of telling. However, I think Larsson had his reasons for telling. There was an enormous amount of information that had to be conveyed in order for the rest of the story to function, and most of it was in the opening chapters. So much so that it made me wonder if he had been in touch with an editor at Baen books.2 It was so prevalent that, as I read the sample of the book on my Kindle, I seriously thought about not picking the book up. Still, there was something about the characters that had me curious – and I figured that at $5.50 for the Kindle edition, I could afford to not finish it if I really hated it.
I think part of this was because of Larsson’s background as a journalist. Telling was his natural storytelling medium, because showing was what his sources, the ones who appeared in the footnotes did. Eventually the telling faded out and the showing began, although it popped up again from time to time in annoying fashion. But by then the characters had their hooks in me.
Second, Larsson also had a few moments where he lapsed totally into journalismese and lectured us on certain aspects of Swedish society. Yeah, it fit what was going on, but it broke the flow of the story. At least when Heinlein lectured, he had one of his characters do it, in character, for the benefit of another character. It’s still annoying, but at least it was shoehorned into the flow of the story.
Note here that some of these complaints could also be attributed to the fact that the novel was written in Swedish, then translated into British English. I have no problem with British English, having lived for a time in Canada and watching a lot of British stuff on PBS and BBC America. So I knew what the word g-a-o-l spelled and some of the other British idioms that no doubt sat in for Swedish idioms. I was actually kind of surprised that there wasn’t an American English version – although maybe this was the case for the domestic hardcover and paperback. I don’t know.
Then there was research. As a journalist, I’m sure Larsson did his homework, but he overlooked one thing that was the most jarring mistake for me – he had a character threaten another with a Glock pistol. Then the character set the safety on the Glock before putting it down. There is no active safety switch on a Glock, unlike probably every other pistol made. And yet I see safeties being set on Glock pistols all over the place in thrillers.
People, go to the local gun shop and ask the friendly helping salesperson about the difference.3
Finally, there was the fact that he was running two mysteries at once, and for me the most interesting one resolved first, leaving a quarter of the book devoted to tying up the other one, which was much more obvious than the first. That and the remaining mystery proved to be a cakewalk, which I think hurt the book’s pacing in the closing section. I’m not sure how I would have handled something like that. I may have to write a book with two parallel mysteries in it just to see how I would.
So what did Larsson do that kept me reading until the end?
There were lots of little things. I liked the way Larsson took the concept of a locked room mystery and twisted it up. There were interesting references to literary characters, and I like the way he paralleled what was happening to two characters in two different places – the same thing happening to each, but with two totally different attitudes and results.
Most of all, the characters were fascinating. Larsson managed to build up a world populated by tragic and broken people, all with their own fascinating strengths and appalling weaknesses. The most fascinating was watching these characters collide and ricochet off of one another and the chain reactions they created. Great stuff.
And how did Larsson get away with this?
I suspect he knew the rules. There are references to mystery authors throughout the book as one of the characters reads thrillers to pass the time. If Larsson knew titles and authors, he no doubt knew the books, too. Which means he knew the genre. Which is the day’s lesson.
If you want to break the rules, you still have to know them. But you also have to have writing power behind you to offset those broken rules. Which means you still have to hone your chops and skills.
Finally, I suspect that as a journalist, Larsson had already written his first million words before he started work on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
How far along in your first million are you?
- Although he may have by now – I just don’t follow him that closely.
- Baen was the house that wanted me to rewrite A Death of Honor so the entire world was explained in Chapter One. I had a polite conversation via letter with the editor about why I thought this was a bad idea, and in the end we agreed to disagree – and I would later place the book with Del Rey.
- Okay, maybe Larsson didn’t have this option open to him because I don’t know what the gun laws are in Sweden. But there is such a thing as the Internet, which is put to good use in Larsson’s novel.
I could be opening a can of worms here, but I’m going to talk about it anyway because it’s what I did for my writing this evening.
I fulfilled a long overdue social obligation. Namely, I gave someone a critique of a short story and made some suggestions on which magazines to send it to, and how to prepare the manuscript.
Now before you start firing up your e-mail programs and attaching manuscripts for my perusal, let me stress one thing: I do not accept manuscripts of any kind for any reason from anyone. Any attempt on your part to send such a thing will result only in scorn and derision from me, so don’t even think it, okay?
It’s not because I’m Mister High and Mighty Writer or anything like that. It’s because we live in such a litigious world. In fact, any other writer of note has exactly the same policy. If you don’t believe me, check out what the beloved Stephen King has to say about looking at manuscripts from people. You might think you have produced a uniquely original manuscript about left-handed lesbian terrorist nuns threatening the world with a chronosynopticon… but what if I happen to be working on the same kind of project? And what if my book comes out after you’ve sent me your manuscript? What are you going to think? Are you going to believe me if I tell you it was just a coincidence?
After all, there are only 37 basic plots in the world (I believe the actual title of the book is “The Thirty-Seven Dramatic Situations”). And when you add archetypes into the mix – you know, those fun literary themes that show you how The Wizard of Oz equals The Lord of the Rings equals Star Wars equals The Matrix the odds decrease, and heavens, I should get my chronosynopticon novel finished before Tom Clancy finishes his…
So if I don’t take stories to look at, why did I look at this one? It’s the exception that proves the rule. It was written by the son of one of my oldest friends. And let me tell you this: I’m glad I got to see this story because the kid is good. Which means the more he writes, the better he will get. If you’re into hard SF, you’re going to be buying his novels someday, so remember this name: Pascal Clark. Meantime, unless your relationship with me goes back to 1969 or 1970, or you have a direct blood relationship with someone who does, hang onto your manuscript.
“But golly,” you might wail, “how can I get an opinion on something I’ve written.”
The same way other pros did – and some pros still do – with a writer’s group.
Just take care of what kind of writer’s group you join. Find one that’s compatible with the kind of writing you’re doing. Believe me, I know how important this is. When I was in one in the small Wyoming town where I grew up, I didn’t have a choice. There I was, an aspiring writing of near future thrillers, going to meetings with a bunch of… how can I put this delicately? Mature women whose primary interest in life was writing poems for magazines that paid in copies. My relationship with them ended when I read them a particularly descriptive chapter from ADOH that I had recently finished and was quite proud of. When I finished reading and saw them all sitting there slack jawed in horror, I knew that the group had outlived its usefulness to me. I wasn’t much on critiquing doggerel anyway, so I quit going.
If you’re reading this, you have Internet access, and that is a haven for writer’s groups. I was in a writer’s group on CompuServe that I liked; they had a message board and chats on Thursday nights. I only left it because I changed to a local ISP. More recently I thought about joining one incognito, but never did. The one I had my eye on seemed to be dedicated more toward members flaming each other than actual productive writing.
So choose your place carefully. And remember that, like Christmas, with writer’s groups it is more blessed to give than receive… so be ready to read and critique your share of work.
And if you’re not into that, then be willing and prepared to work in a vacuum. A lot of writers do.
Anyway, tonight I read Pascal’s story and sent my advice and opinions back. Hopefully he will tell me when he has had some luck in placing the story, and I’ll pass it along.
In other news, people have told me they haven’t been able to reach me via Yahoo! Messenger when it’s showing that I’m online. I may have to install AIM Remote instead. We’ll see.
NP – Joe Jackson, Summer in the City
Slack jawed and bleary eyed. Another long day. Busy at work, a farewell party for a cousin when I got home, and then pounding the keys on And/News.
Well, congratulate me. It’s a novel.
That’s right, I passed the 40,000 word mark tonight. That’s where the territory of the novel begins, although you’d be hard pressed to find a modern novel that short unless it’s a juvenile or young adult. Some genre books, like more traditional mysteries, romances and westerns used to come in at that length. But I don’t even think they publish romances that are that short nowadays.
The modern novel generally comes in at 100k words. That’s a little over 300 book pages (in paperback), and people then think they’re getting their money’s worth. And/News should have no problem hitting that. My projection is that the finished manuscript will come in somewhere around 120,000 words. Stick around for a couple of months and see if I’m right.
While I’m still coherent, tonight’s score:
Page: 170 (+7)
Words: 41,090 (+1814)
Now maybe I can get a little guitar in. I missed it last night.
NP – The Orb, U.F.Off: The Best of the Orb (Disc One)