Alice’s Restaurant

December 13, 2006

Themes – Making a Point

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 2:41 am

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen in amateur writing has been the failure to make a point.  I can only guess how often editors must suffer through pointless fiction.

Most of the time the authors who are doing it doesn’t even realize their story has to make a point.  They seem to think simply placing two characters on the page is all that is needed to create moving scenes.

Hah!

If you do not have a central theme around which the book revolves, you will have serious problems with your conflict, episodic and/or chaotic scenes, and a tendency for the writing to drift.  In contrast, having something to say can supercharge not only the scenes in the book focused on your point, but the writing experience itself.

Consider the story of Dick and Jane (as standard characters, not the movie) in the hands of a writer with a point.  Dick is an agent in a covert ops organization sent to retrieve Jane from an Irish pub where she is being held hostage by the IRA.  The theme of the story is overcoming the Stockholm syndrome.

Dick goes into the bar and suggests she leave with him.  She refuses.  He explains he’s an agent sent to rescue her.  She calls the IRA members over and has him trapped.  Now he must convince her to free him as well as leaving with him.  From here we could easily go into Dick facing his own daemons as the IRA works their Stockholm syndrome magic on him as well as her.

Consider Dick and Jane in the hands of a writer without a point.  Once again Dick is an agent sent to retrieve Jane from the pub where she is held hostage.  Dick comes into the pub to convince Jane she has to leave.  For the sake of conflict, she refuses.  At this point a lot of readers are going to ask why not.  Maybe Jane doesn’t trust him.  Maybe she thinks he is simply an IRA member trying to trick her.  Maybe she refuses because she’s trying to get the goods on the IRA members.  Which one?  All of them?  How do you chose?

If you chose all of them you are likely to end up merely confusing the reader.  And what happens in the next scene?  If you chose the option she is trying to get the goods on the IRA members, then you may find yourself accidentally using an old spy thriller set up, which may be more cliche than you intended.  Choose the she doesn’t trust him and you’ve given yourself the theme of trust.  Unless you try to change her motivation later on.  Then you get episodic.

You don’t have to necessarily know your theme before or while you are writing.  It’s quit possible for the subconscious to supply you with a point without your knowing it.  Then later, during revision, you can be surprised and delighted with what your muse handed you.

If not, if you are having problems with episodic writing or having no idea where to go, then you had better stop and figure out what the story is really about. 

Don’t try to grab a theme out of the air and overlay it.  Your point has to come from within the story itself or your characters, dialogue, and much of your narration will seem unreasonable.  You may get comments like “cliche”, “does not suspend disbelief” or “the characters seem shallow” on your contest results.

Your point has to be something you believe on a very basic level or what you tell the reader about your characters, and what you show them will not match up.  At least not without a lot of polishing.

Afraid having a point will make you preachy?  It’s a legitimate concern, particularly if you tried to overlay your theme onto your work rather than drawing it up from within.  Themes that are overlaid tend to come from what the author *thinks* should be true, rather than what an author truly believes.  It shows.

I could go on about what happens when you switch themes in the middle of a book, or what I mean by drawing something up from within, but this blog has gone on long enough, and I think I’ve made my point.

Alice
 

November 30, 2006

Prologues

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

I guess I’m just in the mood to pontificate.  Don’t worry, I’ll be back to gerbil fair soon.

This one’s for you, TessaD.

If you read Romance novels you’ve probably read a ton of prologues and never even noticed. Reaching across my desk for my recently – read – and – not – yet – removed – from – the – house pile, I see that in the last two months I’ve read 17 books.  Most are romances but a mystery and a couple of Science Fiction were thrown into the mix.  Of those books the following had prologues:

A Whisper of Roses by Teresa Medeiros
The Music Box by Andrea Kane
The Lady Chosen by Stephanie Laurens
My Seduction by Connie Brockway
Marriage Most Scandalous by Johanna Lindsey
My Demon’s Kiss by Lucy Blue
Dark Secret by Christine Feehan
Princess Charming by Elizabeth Thornton
An Offer From A Gentleman by Julia Quinn
Skintight by Susan Anderesen

First you’ll notice that neither the Mystery nor either of the Science Fiction had prologues.  If I’d read more of either genre no doubt a prologue or two would have cropped up, but not with the frequency of Romance.

Second, you’ll notice the ratio of prologue vs non-prologue.  10 out of 17 books had prologues.  10 out of 14 Romances had prologues.  Of the ones that didn’t have prologues only one is an Historical.  Another of those without prologues is an anthology of Cowboy Romances.  Neither Cowboys nor Anthologies tend to run to prologues.  The other two are Romantic Suspense.  Notice that most of the books in the list with prologues are Historicals.

Keep in mind I tend to grab from my TBR pile in a somewhat random order.  In other words I read heavily in the genre I’m writing but otherwise simply grab whatever I’m in the mood for.  I never took into consideration whether or not a book had a prologue.  However this sample could be a statistical anomaly.  If you really need to convince yourself there’s nothing wrong with writing a prologue, head on down to B&N or Borders and go through the books on their shelves.

So it would appear the people who tell you to avoid prologues don’t know Romance readers very well.  It’s the readers you have to please, not some critic.  I’ve heard teachers, lecturers, and well-meaning critique partners all say you have to avoid prologues.  I’ve been hearing how out of fashion they are for the last 20 years.  I say phooey!  If a book calls for a prologue, then write the silly thing and move on.

What else do How To Write books and pundits like to say about prologues?  How about this one:  “Keep it short.”  Let’s go to the books and see for ourselves.

A Whisper of Roses had three scenes running for 10 pages total.  By the end I had forgotten it wasn’t chapter one and was jarred by a facing page labeled Part One.  Yet I found the book to be more compelling and the prologue more interesting than the one in The Music Box which only went on for 4. 

The Lady Chosen was 2 scenes and 15 pages long and one of the best parts of the book.  But then, she’s setting up not only the book but the entire series of The Bastion Club books.  Likewise the prologue in My Seduction went on for 20 pages (longer than some chapters!) covered only one scene, and was used to set up a trilogy.

Marriage Most Scandalous was short and sweet at 9 pages with a single scene.  My Demon’s Kiss went on for 26 pages (!) without a break.  The prologue for Dark Secret only went 8 pages and did not serve it’s purpose as Chapter 1 would have stood better without it.  Though it was part of a series, the prologue only attempted to set up the current book.  The one in Princess Charming went for 3, didn’t include hero or heroine,  and had minor repercussions throughout the book.  Likewise An Offer From a Gentleman colored the rest of the book with only 11 pages, but I’m not entirely sure it added that much.  The prologue in Skintight was only 2 pages long, as considering there was no change in character, time, or place, could have simply been part of Chapter one and been less confusing.

I’d say off hand you can throw out the book when it comes to “keep it short.”

The one truism I’ve heard over and over that does seem to work in Romance novels is use the prologue when there is a significant difference in time, place, and cast of characters.  Though frequently the hero, heroine or both would appear in one of these prologues, they generally did so as children.

So what is the REAL beef about prologues?

Beginning writers don’t know what to do with them.  They haven’t stopped to study the way prologues are handled by the writers they love to read, and overlook the basic cues writer’s use and readers pick up on instinctively.

Putting the word “prologue” in front of the section of your book is a way of telling the readers “this is a little different from anything else you’ll read in the book.”  I’ve seen lectures, poems, songs, and scenes with characters that are later spoken of but never appear outside of the prologue.  They all worked fine.

And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?  That the writer communicate as elegantly and effectively with the reader as humanly possible.

So when you revise your book don’t ask yourself whether or not you’re “supposed to” have a prologue.  Ask yourself if it does what you want it to.

Alice

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NaNo and The Internal Critic

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 1:12 am

May is having a sort of writer’s carnival.  She has invited people to write about writing technique every Wednesday, and let her know about it.  She will post a link on her blog.  Since Alice’s Restaurant is a Romance writer’s blog, I thought why not?  So every Wednesday I’ll be doing a little something gleaned from my 30 plus years of effort.  It’s too late to get my link in this week, but next week should make it in, and you’ve got to start somewhere.

And that’s what I want to talk about.  Starting.  Somewhere. 

Anywhere.

The one thing sure to face every writer at least once is the dreaded blank page.  Most of the time, in the last half dozen years, I’ve blown right past that blank page so fast I hardly notice.  But I spent years and years agonizing over every little word.

What makes it so agonizing?  The inner critic.  There is nothing worse than a little voice you can’t plug your ears against saying things like:

“This is no good.”

“You are wasting your time.”

“You’ll never be good enough.”

“This is too hard.  You don’t have what it takes to do this.”

“You don’t have enough time for this.  You’ll never get anywhere.”

“No one will ever want to read this or anything else you ever do.”

“Quit now, before you make a fool of yourself.”

Notice a pattern here?  Your inner critic claims to be trying to save you from pain, but most of the pain is coming from those nasty little thoughts.  The first thing to do is NOTICE the things you tell yourself.  The second is to realize it’s your own brain coming up with this garbage, and thus it’s under your control.  The third is to replace the comments with something else.

Replace it with what? 

How about your book?

These days I generally open a file when a scene, one that moves me, is already running in my head.  I sit down and start typing frantically trying to keep up with the images and dialogue and life of the characters before it all evaporates back into the mists from which it all came.  When I come up for air, I don’t even remember seeing the blank page at all.

Keep in mind, however, that I have already beaten the inner critic back so that It doesn’t trip me up when the words don’t match what’s in my head.  I know they aren’t going to match before I start.  Having gone to ridiculous lengths to try and make them match, I speak from experience.

I beat back the inner critic when I tried to quit.  Three times, I honestly tried to make myself stop writing.  I couldn’t do it.  The scenes still play in my head.  They’ve got to go somewhere.  Why not on paper?  And as long as I’ve written it down, I might as well share it.  Heck, I might even be able so sell something someday.  It’s a vicious cycle.  But once I realized I was never going to be able to quit, I didn’t care any longer what the inner critic had to say.

Takes too long?  So what?  I’m going to do it any way.  Not any good?  So what?  Never going to amount to much?  So what?  I’m a big looser because I spent so many years of this?  Too late to worry about that now.

I noticed something once I gave in to my writing addiction.  It was a lot easier to write.  It was more fun to write.  My writing has been getting steadily better.  I’m getting more and more positive feedback.  And I have little time for people who support my inner critic with stupid comments like “are you still at that?”

It seems to me that National Novel Writing Month is an attempt to get around the inner critic, one that doesn’t involve trying to tear your life apart in order to quit writing.  In order to write that many words in one month you have to go for volume, not quality.  You could sit there typing random words and meet the challenge.  It doesn’t matter what you write, merely that you do so.

Do the BIC-HOK  (Butt In Chair, Hand’s On Keyboard) because nothing will happen if you don’t.  And if you do, there’s a chance, just a chance, that you will discover that golden glory, that Holy Grail known as The Flow.  Trust me, even if you never get a word into print, even if nothing you write appeals to you when you read it months later, experiencing the flow makes it all worth while.

Here, on this next-to-last day of NaNoWriMo consider what you got out of the experience.  Chances are it wasn’t a sellable book.  If you are lucky and put a lot into it, then you learned some writing technique, got over some fears, and ended up with something that might someday be finished and revised into a sellable book.

In the worst case you listened to your inner critic and came out accomplishing little or nothing and feeling lousy.  Buck up!  Your “failure” isn’t real because writing a book doesn’t have to be done in a single month.  It can be done any old way you feel like doing it with the exception of never getting around to it.  Tell your inner critic to shove off.

By the way, that inner critic doesn’t limit itself to your writing.  See what it has to say about your job, the way you interact with your family, or even your hobbies.  It’s just as wrong there as it is in your writing.

Alice

Who has been there and back.

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