Alice’s Restaurant

June 16, 2007

Workshops on FanLit Forever

Filed under: FanLit, writing, Writing Craft, Writing Life, Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 11:24 am

A while back I asked if anyone would be interested in having me run a workshop in The Workshop board on FanLit Forever.  The response was a resounding “Yeah, sure.”

Despite the fact I am a rank amateur who has never run a workshop in her life, I’ve decided to go for it.  Maybe, with luck, we can talk a published author into coming in and doing it right.

Actually, I’m going to run two at the same time.  I’m calling one “Details” and will focus on wording.  Not grammar or spelling!  We will have to get Pollyanna to run that workshop.  By wording I mean things as far flung as where to put a chapter break, how to handle dialogue tags, showing vs telling etc.

The other I’m calling “Story” and will focus on plotting, characterization, etc.

Hopefully we’ll all get something out of this.  And if not, I’ll chalk it up to a learning experience.

Both workshops will begin this Monday.


May 12, 2007

Anchors – Part II

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 11:36 pm

Each of the examples in the previous post comes from the beginning of their respective books.

Notice that in Exhibit 1 we not only visualize the tarmac of a parking lot, we see it as cold and slushy from a warm winter or early spring day.  We see high-end cars, and some sort of sports-oriented type building even though she didn’t specifically tell us to fill the parking lot or mention brick.

When we get into the building, we are going to throw in all sorts of sports-oriented details in our minds without being told to do so.  Simply having been told we are in Chicago means few of us will add red-rock sandstone or a Yule log in our minds. 

I seriously doubt anyone here is going to imagine the smell of sweaty sox while reading Exhibit 2.  Does anyone beside me see ladies in elegant gowns and gentlemen of an alpha persuasion leaning toward one another and whispering?  In all the rest of the scene my mind will provide a slight chill from cold seeping through the stones of a grand old building against the warmth of fireplaces.  If you’ve read any of the other Rothgar books, you’ll have an even stronger vision of the setting and the people in it while reading this one.

Exhibit 3 actually went on a bit long for my tastes, but by the time we get to three people huddled against the wind, we know we are in that strange combination of time-warn land and modern American society that is the Navajo reservation.  What’s more, the description dumped us right into the people who would be of significance to this story – two murder victims and a witness.  When we get to the blood, we see it against the red of the stone even though the point of view character is blind.

You’ll noticed I included a lot more of Exhibit 4 than of any of the others.  That’s because it’s Science Fiction.  In Science Fiction the challenge to paint a vivid image is stronger because the reader can’t necessarily rule out things like sweaty sox, red sandstone, or the yule log just because there is a red sun or Darkovan clothing.  Mind you, this example could have used a few more anchors earlier on.  But, considering the author has to lay out not only what the physical world is like, but also cultural aspects while still providing a conflict quickly, it’s not surprising the anchors are spread out a bit more.

In case anyone is still wondering what an anchor is, let’s go through Exhibit 4 in more detail.

In the first sentence we learn the character we are going to pay closest attention to in the scene is female, a messenger though maybe or maybe not actually carrying a message at the time, dressed locally, and walking through an older neighborhood at night.  In the second sentence we learn that she will be our Point of View character – when she “reminded herself” of a cultural phenomenon.  We now have part of who, and part of where.

The second paragraph gives us a little more of the where, mentioning the marketplace.

The third paragraph gives us a lot more of the where, pinning a point in the universe, while at the same time indicating this is from the class of Science Fiction occasionally called a Space Opera.  We can expect faster than light travel because there is an empire and space workers.  We know she’s walking through red sunlight, and that there may be high technology, but with a vendors who close shutters and scrape kettles, we aren’t talking Star Trek here.  Particularly telling is that a metal lock should stand out as a sign of prosperity.  You can be sure there aren’t a lot of forcefield around.

What kind of details would I add?  How about some indication of what a Darkovan woman’s clothing looks like?  No doubt it was mentioned in a previous Darkover book, but I haven’t read any of them, so I don’t carry the imagery from them to this one.  The crunch or clatter of whatever she’s walking on would help, and I’d love to have a name for her.  But even without those details, the world created here is vivid enough to interest me, which is what Anchors do.

As to where each of these examples comes from, check it out:
Exhibit 1 is page 1 of This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Exhibit 2 is page 1 of A Most Unsuitable Man by Jo Beverley
Exhibit 3 is page 1 of Listening Woman by Tony Hillerman
Exhibit 4 is  from page 5 of City of Sorcery by marion Zimmer Bradley


March 15, 2007

Central Conflict

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 8:22 am

Yesterday I said “It’s the way a character reveals him or her self through the struggle with the central conflict that keeps us turning pages.”  The first time I heard that sentence it simply went in one ear and out the other.  But it kept coming back over and over again.  Apparently there is something to it.

So let’s look at it. 

Conflict is important because it generates questions which can be used as hooks.  When you have a central conflict not only do you naturally generate all kinds of hooks, those hooks line up in a pattern which provides the reader with a sense of something greater and more significant going on.

With a collection of conflicts rather than a central conflict the story feels episodic or disorganized.  It’s possible to chose a pair of central conflicts which interact with each other and end up with something brilliant, but don’t count on it.

The right kind of central conflict can make it easier to build the book toward the climax, thus not only providing a structure, but the providing the kind of structure readers enjoy most.

So what’s the right kind of conflict?

Something that is not easily solved.  If it’s simply a misunderstanding between hero and heroine then they end up looking stupid for not talking it out quick enough.  If the antagonist is easily dealt with then the hero and heroine look indecisive for not dealing with him or her.

Something not impossible to solve.  If the conflict comes from the nature of the hero and heroine such that changing either of them to accommodate the other would make them less noble, less kind, or otherwise less worthy then it’s impossible to believe they will or should stay together at the end.

Ideally the central conflict will allow you to delve into deeper, more meaningful aspects of human nature.  If it involves archetypes then the resulting book is a lot more likely to be a keeper.


March 14, 2007

Alice’s Take on GMC, Part I

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 8:46 am

GMC stands for Goal, Motivation and Conflict.  To get the real scoop on GMC you need to refer to Debra Dixon.  She literally wrote the book on Goals, Motivation, And Conflict and does lectures on it for Romance Writer’s of America both in the RWA Chapters and at National.

The point of the book and lectures is that every effective character comes equipped with at least one set of goals which are motivated by the character’s beliefs and that the goals are thwarted by something, thus generating conflict.  She goes on to discuss internal and external goals and how to set up a chart showing how the goals, motivation, and conflict work together to make a GMC matrix.  (Note:  I think she used the word matrix for it.  It’s been a while since I read the book and I can’t find my copy.  If she doesn’t say “matrix” to mean the way the parts of GMC come together then tough because I’m going to.)

First, like most tools for working with the structure of fiction, focusing on GMC while working on the rough draft can mess you up.  I have found it useful in plotting before writing and extremely useful in both revision and critique, and am now so comfortable with the concepts that I can even think about them while producing dialogue and action narrative.  But trying to keep goals and motives and conflicts in mind while putting the words on paper before you are really comfortable with GMC can give you writer’s block.  So if this is new to you, don’t worry about it while you are actually writing.

Second, Debra may say that every character needs his or her own GMC, even the waiter delivering an order.  Personally, I haven’t the time.  I definitely recommend having a clear GMC matrix for the protagonists, and maybe for some of the more prominent secondary characters, but face it, some characters are little more than furniture.  Let them fulfill their roll and don’t worry about it.

Now lets talk a little about why you want to worry about GMC at all.  I know a number of people who fight the idea of putting conflict in their work, or dislike working with a character who has goals, or who aren’t comfortable with motivation.  You want a good combination of GMC because a really good GMC matrix gives your work what is kindly referred to as “good suction.”  In other words, the story sucks the reader in, then draws them helplessly through the entire story until the very end when they should “That was great!  Let’s do it again!”  You want that, right?

It’s the way a character reveals him or her self through the struggle with the central conflict that keeps us turning pages.  Finding a goal and motivation that apply to the central conflict act like the strings on a marionette – when drawn tight the jumble of parts turns into something approaching human.

February 14, 2007

Where to Start A Story

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 9:31 am

Readers who haven’t tried their hand at writing tend to belittle the problem of where to start.  They don’t see the characters lives starting out before the first word, or the little silly things like the way a character spends a day.  The characters don’t live for them the way they might for a writer.  From inside the lives of the characters it isn’t so clear where an event really begins.

So how do we bridge the gap between the imaginary world of a character’s life and the starting point of the dramatic world of a characters story?  In other words, where should a story begin?

The author needs to step back.  One way to step back it to look at the story with the Hero’s Journey in mind.  The journey starts with the mundane world, the world those characters would consider normal.  This gives the reader a point of reference by which to judge what comes next.

In most cases the mundane world can be set up with little more than a couple of paragraphs.  It seems too trivial to bother with, but consider that for a vampire what is normal isn’t the same as what is normal for Suzy Home Maker.  Taking the time to show the reader which end of the spectrum we are starting from won’t go amiss.

Next, and this is still part of the beginning of the story, comes The Call To Adventure.  In other words, the character will be tempted, or forced, to do something he or she would not normally do.

You want to get to this part fairly quickly, because it’s where the story really takes off.  Many books incorporate The Mundane World into The Call To Adventure.  This can work perfectly well, and can sometimes be mixed with, or the first scene end with, The Crossing of The Threshold.  Once you’ve hit the crossing, there’s no turning back.  However, rushing through the steps too quickly can cause problems.

It’s easy to tell when you’ve missed the mark.  Miss placed beginnings tend to be either confusing or boring. Or in my case, a little of both.

Generally when it’s confusing the first scene opens too far past where the story really begins, in other words, too late in the storyline.  This happens a lot when an author tries to “jump into the action” in search of a hook.  Too much ground covered too quickly makes it hard to understand what is going on or why the characters are doing what they are doing. 

Just as often having jumped into an action scene right at the beginning can lack meaning, which is boring.  This is where I end up with beginnings that are both confusing and boring.

Most of the time when it’s boring, the author is filling in too much backstory, or focusing on something that doesn’t offer your protagonists a challenge.  In other words, the writing starts too early in the storyline.  Looking at the character’s goals, motives, and conflicts can clear this up.

Miss placed beginnings can result from an author’s attempt to include something about the characters that would be better handled in flashback.  Starting with a scene involving nothing of significance to the rest of the story tends to cause boredom, and confusion.  Focusing on an image, no matter how powerful an image, can make a good hook, but be the wrong way to start a book if the image doesn’t set up the changes the protagonist will have to make.

Any number of things can derail a story in the first scene.  But every bad beginning has an easy remedy.  Remove it, and put in one that caters to the needs of the story.


January 31, 2007

Hooking Readers

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 1:44 am

A hook is anything that makes a reader want to read more.  Hooks are generally found at the beginning and ending of scenes and chapters.  They are what give you the cliffhanger feeling.

Most of the time hooks are questions the writer intentionally places in the reader’s mind.    Probably the most common is, “What’s going to happen next?” 

Having been both panned and complimented for my hooks, I think I have a reasonable idea of how they work. The best hooks seem to come from something substantial in the story itself.  The questions left in the reader’s mind will involve something to do with the characters motivations, goals, or conflict. 

There are always elements about a story that are simply too big to fit in.  It seems to me most new writers react by simply telling it.  These over-sized elements are excellent sources of hooks, provided you show instead of tell.  For instance, a spy who may be a double agent can provide plenty of hooks, so long as you never come out and say she is a double agent.  Leave the reader wondering – is she, or isn’t she?

Withholding important information does not necessarily make a good hook.  A lot of times it will simply backfire by leaving the reader confused.  If a character is behaving oddly because he is a werewolf, and you don’t get around to saying he’s a werewolf until page 150, then most readers are going to get frustrated and pitch the book.  Withholding a pet’s name without a very, very good reason will backfire.  Withholding all of a character’s motivation or goal will backfire.  Withholding some, on the other hand, can be tantalizing.

The point is you have to give the reader enough information for them to make some guesses about where the story is going to go.  Keeping back too much undermines the real hooks.

When you do set a hook, it should be with an eye to the theatrics involved.  Unveil the answer to one question, only to leave the reader about another.  You could say the double agent DID put a sleeping powder in the hero’s soup.  But she didn’t intend the soup for him. So who did she intend it for?

Don’t ask the question for the reader.  Leave it hanging out there and let the reader come up with the question on her own.  Don’t be to quick to answer it.  But don’t wait to long either.

It’s a matter of balance between how much you reveal and how much you hold back.  A lot of the time setting and releasing hooks is a matter of feel.  As they say “always leave them wanting more.”

January 25, 2007

Don’t Sweat The Little Stuff

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 1:49 am

Yesterday I gave examples of why details are important in writing fiction.  This week I tell you not to worry about them.  What?  Make up my mind?  Paradoxically, I believe both are true because of two things.

1]  Details are easy to layer in and can be layered in at any point in the writing process without creating huge problems for a story.

2]  Too much concern over details at the wrong points in the writing process can cause writer’s block.

Admittedly some details are too important to let slide.  How the hero gets the heroine off the roof of a burning building when she’s afraid of heights and hugging a chimney, for example.  Other details are best to deal with fairly early on because they are going to come up over and over.  What color the heroine’s eyes are, for example.  But for the most part, details can wait.

It is far more important to get the heart of the story down.  You can use details to make the heart beat afterward.


January 24, 2007

The Life of Your Story Is In The Details

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 1:07 am

The devil may be in the details, but so is the life of your story.

This was not a lesson I learned easily. It was darned hard for my critique partners to get my head out of the clouds so I could focus on the five senses.  To this day I have to remember to go back and add more.

Details make a huge difference.  I’m afraid this is the sort of thing most people aren’t going to believe without seeing for themselves.  So lets get straight to the examples.

Since I have no intention of really doing anything with it, let’s use the FanLit Forever Challenge 3 Round One story about the two brothers.  We’ll take the story from the point where Benedict has ridden out to Andrew, found him alive after the plain crash, and done what he can for him.  Andrew has a broken leg, but he’s awake and aware.  Remember, they had a falling out over a woman years earlier.


“She wasn’t worth it,” Benedict said.

Andrew only raised an eyebrow in reply.  He looked like he was in pain.  Part of Benedict wished he could do more to take the pain away, but another part took some satisfaction in his brother’s condition.

“She never loved either of us.”

“How do you know?”

Benedict poked the fire with a stick.  He glanced at Andrew.  “I read her diary.”

“That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”

“It was years ago, but I remember every word.”  Benedict had a good memory.  “The whole time she was going with you or me she was trying to go with this guy named Joe Tison.”

“Wasn’t he the guy she married?”

“I don’t know.  I never heard.”

“No.  No, it wasn’t.  It was Howard Tison.  She married Joe’s brother.”


This is both “white room syndrome” and “talking head”.  The two are both the result of insufficient details.  White room syndrome is the effect of feeling like the characters are sitting around in a white room.  They have so little contact with the world around them and so little description of it that they could be anywhere.  Talking head is where the characters seem to be disembodied.  It makes it much harder to see them as real characters.

Let’s try the exact same scene again, only with more details.



“She wasn’t worth it,” Benedict said.  He gave a sidelong look at his brother, whose leg rested on the sleeping bag Benedict had carefully placed close enough to the fire for warmth and far enough for safety.

Andrew only raised one dark eyebrow in reply.  Under a mop of ebony hair, pain etched itself into his forehead, making washboard of wrinkles.  The wrinkles looked too deep to have come about recently, and didn’t go away when Andrew gazed into the yellow glow of the fire, his jaw tight.

Seven years and they still had not laid to rest the ghosts Samantha put between them.  Benedict wished he could smooth away his brother’s lines, yet smiled ruefully.  If he couldn’t forgive, then he deserved them.

For long moments they both huddled in their sleeping bags while the evergreen forest around them grew darker and colder, the air pungent in pine needles and tension.

“She never loved either of us,” Benedict said to the fire.

“How do you know?”  Andrew’s voice reflected the quiet of the night.

Benedict poked the fire with a stick.  He glanced at Andrew.  “I read her diary.”

“That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”  Andrew’s eyes narrowed with censure.

Benedict looked away, feeling guilty even after so many years.  Andrew had always been the noble one.  Not always practical, but always noble.

“It was years ago, but I remember every word.”  He could hardly forget the white, lined paper covered in swirls of cruel, black ink, her words having engraved themselves in his mind.  “The whole time she was going with either you or me she was chasing after this guy named Joe Tison.”

Andrew straightened up.  “Wasn’t he the guy she married?”

“I don’t know.  I never heard.”

“No.  No, it wasn’t.  It was Howard Tison.  She married Joe’s brother.”

They shared a bitter smile, a smile of brotherhood and understanding.


It gives you a better feel for who and where they are, doesn’t it?  But what if we had picked a different set of details.  Let’s try it again and see what could happen.


“She wasn’t worth it,” Benedict said, putting his chin out, though he didn’t really expect his brother to argue.

Andrew only raised a questioning eyebrow in reply.  The lime-green bedroll under him must have shifted because he winced, and rubbed the injured leg.  Benedict reached for the splint to check his work, but Andrew waved him away.

Always carelessly stoic, Andrew had the streeky-blond good looks of a beach bum.  In spite of the paint he must feel he looked around at the pine trees around them and breathed deeply, a hint of a smile on his face.

Benedict shook his head in grudging admiration.  He knew Andrew would never ask what he meant, probably didn’t want to hear it, but he had to say it anyway.  “She never loved either of us.”

“How do you know?”  Andrew betrayed himself with no hesitation.  He’d known what Benedict was talking about all along.

Benedict poked the fire with a stick.  He glanced at Andrew.  “I read her diary.”

“That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”  Slowly, a mischievous smile and twinkling eyes lit up his face.  Benedict tried not to smile back.

“It was years ago, but I remember every word.”  He remembered all right, and what she’d said still made his stomach clinch.  “The whole time she was going with either you or me she was angling for this guy named Joe Tison.”

“Wasn’t he the guy she married?”  Andrew leaned back on his elbows and looked into the deep, starry night, supremely unconcerned.

“I don’t know.  I never heard.”

Andrew sat up too quickly, making himself wince.  “No.  No, it wasn’t.  It was Howard Tison.  She married Joe’s brother.”

They stared at one another in stunned surprised.  Then Andrew started to laugh.  Benedict didn’t want to join him, but the longer his brother laughed, the harder it was to resist.  Soon they were howling, laughing until tear ran down their faces.


It’s the same dialogue.  You’d think the story would be the same either way.  And yet they come across very differently.

That is the power of details. 


January 17, 2007


Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 12:24 am

Early in my writing efforts I believed good pacing was simply to get the action going as fast as you could then keep it going as fast as possible until the end.

How exhausting for both reader and writer.

Pacing needs to have an ebb and flow in order to keep a reader’s interest.  The rate of the ebb and flow should match the tone of the story.  A slow paced Romantic Suspense may find it harder to keep readers interest than a slow paced cozy Mystery.  A fast paced Sweet Inspirational of family oriented Mainstream might annoy readers or leave them confused.  But let the story itself determine the best pacing, not simply what genre or subgenera it is in.

Like most of writing, several elements are involved in what produces fast or slow pacing.  The easiest to work with is probably the use of scenes and sequels.  I am referring to Dwight Swain’s use of the terms. 

In this case a scene is a section of prose in which the primary focus is on action.  It is characterized by lots of dialogue and/or descriptions of something taking place in the moment.  A sequel is a section of prose that focuses on a character’s thoughts, motives, memories, etc.  What I think of as a scene – a unit of prose set at a particular place and time – can and frequently does include both scene and sequel as those terms are used by Swain.  To speed up the pacing, have a higher proportion of scenes.  To slow it down have a higher proportion of sequels.

I have noticed word choices and sentence structure also influence pacing, though more subtly.  The slower, more lyrical passages need to have longer, more complicated sentences and can tolerate more passive verbs.  The faster, more intense passages need to have shorter, punchier sentences.  Putting complicated To go against this tends to annoy the reader, and can even pop them out of the story.  However, using the wrong sentence structure for the circumstances can also have comic or even cosmic effects.  This is one of those places where you need to know the rule in order to bend it effectively.

The storyline itself can have an effect on pacing.  The parts of the stories that are more intense can have more pull, increasing the pace.  I’m not talking about the difference between scene and sequel here.  I’m talking about one Swain type scene in which the action has more consequence than another Swain type scene. 

The pacing of the story should change as the story progresses, becoming faster as you go.  This will come from an escalation of the consequences in the scenes, but can be heightened by the shifting of proportion of scene to sequel, and should be accompanied by a change in sentence structure and word choice.  Get it all working together and you’ll really have something to crow about.


December 20, 2006

Dialogue Tags and Stage Direction

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 11:22 am

Dialogue tags are indicators of who is talking.  The most common dialogue tags are “he said,” and “she said.”  Dialogue tags can get as purple as “he whispered desperately in her tender ear.”  Actually, they can get even worse, but who wants to read it?

Stage direction is when the author tells the reader what the characters are doing as they talk.  “He placed a hand on her shoulder.” or “She winced.” Are stage direction.  They can also be used as dialogue tags.


Here’s a better example:
from Portrait in Death by J.D.Robb  aka La Nora
I’ve put stage direction in bold and underlined dialogue tags.

“Lieutenant, I found something I think — ” Peabody stopped her forward march into the office and stared at the small chunk of candy still in Eve’s hand.  “What’s that?  Is that chocolate?  Real chocolate?”

“What?”  Panicked, Eve shoved the hand behind her back.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I’m working here.”

“I can smell it.”  To prove it, Peabody sniffed the air like a wolf.  “That’s not chocolate substitute, that’s not soy.  That’s real goods.”

“Maybe.  And it’s mine.”

“Just let me have a little — ”  Peabody’s gasp was shocked and heartfelt as Eve stuffed the remaining chunk in her mouth.  “Oh, Dallas.”  She swallowed hard.  “That was very childish.”

“Uh-uh.  And delicious,” Eve added with her mouth full.  “What’ve you got?”

“I don’t have chocolate breath, that’s for damn sure.”  At Eve’s arch look, she pokered up.  “While others, who will remain nameless, were stuffing their face with candy, I diligently pursued an angle in the investigation that I believe might be of some interest to the incredibly selfish candy-hog primary.”

“It was dark chocolate.”

“You’re a mean person and will probably go to hell.”

“I can live with that.  What angle did you diligently pursue, Officer Peabody?”


Notice that Nora did not once use the words “she said,” yet you can tell who was speaking at all times.  Even at the end when there were neither dialogue tags nor stage direction, you knew who was saying what.  Also notice that Nora used stage direction for both characterization and as dialogue tags.  One last point, notice how she has the characters name one another in their dialogue.  When there are only two people in a scene, this is one way of indicating who is talking.  Very few characters will call themselves  “Officer Peabody.”

There are those who will tell you never to use “said” as a dialogue tag.  Considering how well a scene can be written without it, I can see the point.  However, there are times when coming up with some stage direction is less effective than simply saying “he said.”

Others will tell you to substitute a speaking verb like “she yelled” and yet others will tell you NEVER to use a speaking verbs.

I say it’s all a matter of balance.  Try to make each character as distinct as you can with attitudes and goals that will make it clear who is talking simply through what is being said.  Sometimes “she whispered” is part of making a character distinct and moving the plot forward.  If so, then use it.  After that, try to use stage direction to indicate who is talking.  But do it with an eye to revealing character and/or moving the plot forward.  Simply having the hero drive his fingers through his hair as a bad habit doesn’t cut it.  Finally, there will be times when “he said” is the best choice.  Don’t be afraid to use it.


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