Thursday, June 24, 2010


Writer's block is horrible. trying to think of something to write for the blog today, I couldn't decide if I wanted to approach it from the perspective of the writing process, or maybe I wanted to talk about crafting language? Or, maybe I wanted to talk about crafting of story? All, of course, are very important to the creating of any fiction, or even non-fiction, piece of writing. So, I decided on one, and started trying to think of what topic under that to actually tackle. I failed. So I watched Mythbusters.

I saw something that is typical of Mythbusters--and entirely awesome, but that is beside the point--and rather unbelievable. I find it a bit hard to believe even though I just saw it happen. Cheese, shoved into a cannon, and used in place of a cannon ball. And working. Really, cheese!

Then I got to thinking. I mostly read sci-fi and fantasy, and come across things like this all the time. Unbelievable things. Sometimes I notice them, and having noticed it, I get pulled out of the story and feel disgusted with the book for breaking my suspension of disbelief. Other times I run right over them and never notice them until long after I've accepted it as reality of the book.

How, then, do you keep the reader to swallow your unbelievable events like a pill wrapped in peanut butter? Details. If you get your details right--which is to say, if you have details and they're consistent--they wont question what would otherwise be unbelievable.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Serial, or Oxford, Comma

In the last week, I've run into no less than three separate conversations regarding the Oxford comma, which is almost as heated a debate as the use of "said" versus "murmured," or "whispered," or any other verb that gets a character talking for attribution.

I suppose I should start off with what an Oxford comma is. The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is the final comma in a list. It separates the penultimate from the ultimate word. Example time:

  • Last night, I had chicken, chocolate cake, and noodles for dinner.
The comma between "chocolate cake," and "and" is an Oxford comma.

What does this little mark do? This is where the debate comes in. Those who don't like this form of punctuation claim that it's unnecessary; that the "and" signifies the last word in the list. Those who prefer it say the comma removes ambiguity, and keeps true to the actual function of a comma: to hold the place of a breath in speech.

Personally, I love the Oxford comma. I'm a huge fan. I notice it every time it's missing. I know there's other people out there who couldn't disagree with me more.

How do you feel about this fussy piece of punctuation?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Exposition: Experts do it without getting caught

When it is done wrong exposition is called ‘info dump,’ boring, slow. Yet exposition is a must have for writers. So what is it and how can we do it without getting caught? Exposition is how information is given to the reader. That information can include description, back story and clues. Since movies and television start out as writing, you can easily switch reader for audience. Exposition is a movie/show giving the audience needed information. Many of the following examples are video clips because they are immediate but I have a few book references as well. In Carolyn Wheat’s How To Write Killer Fiction, she describes poorly written exposition this way,

“It’s the scene where our detective sits over coffee with her best friend and bounces ideas about the murder around, only they both agree on absolutely everything and are really just committing exposition on one another. It’s the scene where the spy gets his orders from MI5 and just stands there as we readers try to absorb a huge chunk of geopolitical backstory that is essential for our understanding of later events but bores us silly.”

If your characters are sitting and talking then you are info dumping. But here is an example that works.
In the clip from The Sentinel a police detective and his partner are discussing a case (exposition) but there is movement, Jim is cleaning his gun, and they keep it brief. It also works because Blair (the partner) is the NEWBIE (more on that in a minute) and it is natural that they would share this information.
At the end of all Harry Potter novels, Dumbledore acts as a fountain of information and tells us all the answers (exposition). Why do we still read it even though it is several pages of talking and not action? It explains what happens, proving us right or wrong and it has little bits of quirky humor or emotional impact.
So all exposition (to be successful) should do three things: Tell us important stuff, reveal character, and entertain.

Couple of useful techniques.
Use an exposition character.
The most popular exposition character is the GEEK. Examples include Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Erckel from Family Matters, Cliff Claven from Cheers, Spock from Star Trek. These characters are over the top and the information they give, though purposely not always essential, reveal how other characters respond to the subject or to other characters. Of course Spock will give statistical data on the likelihood of success. It’s Spock.
Another exposition character is the NEWBIE. Examples include Daryl Hannah’s character in Steel Magnolias, Harry in the Harry Potter books (new to Hogwarts), Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in 10 Things I Hate About You. Lots of stories start with a change. New kid in school or town. A new job. This gives the opportunity to reveal information in a ‘tour guide mode’.
In the following Die Hard 2 clip, Bruce Willis is giving the cop who is about to tow his car information, aka exposition for the audience. It very quickly tells us where he is and why.

Either a character, and thus the reader, is witness to other people talking or reads information that is given to the reader. The trap here is that it shouldn’t be coincidental. Make the eavesdropper struggle, plot, and swindle to get the eavesdropping chance. Then make the information misleading or hurtful to the character. Let there be a consequence. My favorite example is Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth overhears Mr. Darcy cut her at the dance.

Introducing Characters and All Their Luggage

When working with character description it is tempting to give the reader too much information. Less is more. Allow the reader to see what they want, to use their imagination. Use pre built stereotypes to build characters. If you know a character is a FBI agent you immediately think that he wears a non-descript suit, has short hair and is fairly smart. The reader doesn’t need to be told these things.
Examples: Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich
Character description for Ranger – “Sometimes I moonlight for a guy named Ranger who’s extremely bad in an incredibly good way. He’s a security expert, and a bounty hunter, and he moves like smoke. Ranger is milk chocolate on the outside…a delicious, tempting, forbidden pleasure. And no one knows what’s on the inside. Ranger keeps his own counsel…Ranger doesn’t often smile. Mostly he thinks about smiling, and this was one of those thinking-smile times.” Without them being described we know that Ranger is muscular, has had a tough life and has a secret.
FBI Agent Jules Cassidy in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter’s Series. “On a scale of one to ten in cuteness, Jules was a four million. He could have gone on an audition for a boy band and been signed without even singing a note.”
We also learn about the person who is providing the description. In Jules’ case it is his partner Alyssa Locke who loves him like a brother. The description should and does sound totally different in other books when Jules’ boss Max is describing him. Ranger’s description tells us about Stephanie Plum. It tells us that she is intrigued and attracted to Ranger. That she has a thing for chocolate and maybe even envies his grace.
Writers should use visual clues to inner assumptions. As the writer we chose what the reader sees. Jeans and a leather bomber jacket and the reader thinks bad ass. Glasses and enduring dimple and the reader thinks cute geek, extra smart. Blonde and trashy and the reader thinks dumb as dirt.
The following is a clip from Joss Whedon’s Firefly. It introduces all characters by name, their position on the ship and their relationships with each other. It is also very cool because it is a single camera shot.

Step 1. Describe a person while people-watching. Take five minutes and don't worry about grammar, only you will see your work. Work on using both physical attributes as well as things you ‘assume’ based on what they are doing or wearing.
Step 2. Now write a scene where you introduce a character that was abused as a child and is now a spy for the government or has a grave secret. Stick to one page. Use the description you wrote earlier as the model. Try it in first person as well as in omnipotent narrator. How does the point of view change the description?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

From the Beginning

I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing an accident today. Fortunately, no one was hurt, though I did have to wait around for the better part of an hour to give a statement to the police, and then write it.

I was excited. I did my civil duty, and I got to write. Life doesn't get much better than that. Or so I thought, until I started writing the statement, and I hit a point of doom: beginning from the beginning.

So often I find myself beginning a story somewhere other than the beginning, and filling in the beginning as I go. But, that doesn't always work. Or, information is just left out, leaving the story not only unfinished but also incomprehensible. Sometimes the beginning really is the beginning, and every single step has to be explained, one at a time.

Do you ever leave out vital information to a story?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Nancy Pearl

Have you ever met a librarian with her own action figure? If not, you should. I had the pleasure this afternoon to meet Nancy Pearl. She's a librarian, author, and general bibliophile of the highest calibre. She is the Linus Torvalds of librarians. Want to meet her? Well, there's still time. She will be at the downtown Boise Public Library! tonight at 7:00pm (yes I know, way short notice, I apologize, mea culpa).

- Sam