Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Camouflaging Exposition

Some very talented writers can make exposition intriguing for their audience. Tolkien and Hemingway are prime examples. Those authors make the explanations of setting into more than just description. They mentally transport the audience into the world in their novels.

For the rest of us mere mortals, the safest thing to do with exposition is to minimize it. I include myself in this second group.

In the first chapter of my novel-in-progress "An Amazon Scorned", I want to describe the Amazon city. I want to tell the audience about the thousands of people who live there, about their lives and livelihoods, about the culture and architecture... because it's such a complex environment, and well worth sharing.

However, explaining the finer points of Amazon architecture would likely bore the audience enough that they'd drop my novel back on the shelf after skimming the first few pages.

So, instead I open with a chase scene. The main character is running for her life. I still get to mention Amazon architecture, the number of people in the city, and their sacred traditions, but the architecture is only mentioned as it helps or impedes the main character's attempt at escape. The people in the city are snapshots rather than in-depth character analyses. One is a witness, others are pursuers, and so on. Traditions are shown in the course of the chase scene itself, in which weapons people use and how doggedly they pursue the main character.

Exposition has it's place, but I've found that it's best buried farther along into the novel. The first few chapters are about introducing your main character and making him or her likeable to the audience, not about boring them with every inane detail of the main character's life.

As practice, take the prompt I've provided below. I know this lends itself to a flowery description, but try to avoid writing a purely descriptive or expository scene. You might want to add some hungry wildlife, or grumpy locals. Have fun, and keep writing!

Prompt: The mountains were beautiful this time of day. The way the sunlight played over their slopes and sudden drops was breathtaking. The only thing that blocked his view of the mountains was a...

An Amazon Scorned Update

Remember the modern-day Amazon story I started talking about 2 days ago? The working title is "An Amazon Scorned", and now I'm at more than 126,000 (aka 277 pages).

I'm trying to get to the end of this project, but it's tricky. I need to wrap up most of the loose ends, set up for the sequel, and do it all without slipping into the fatal trap of exposition.

As a result, what should have been a day's work of writing a few scenes has turned into a few weeks of agonizing over the nuances of those few scenes.

On the positive side, my writing style has remained relatively constant throughout this project, and the quality isn't suffering... the only casualty is my self-imposed deadline of finishing by tomorrow.

There's still hope that I can finish tomorrow, as I've set aside a few hours solely for writing. Either way, I'll post tomorrow night about my progress.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Delicate Art of Raising the Stakes

When writing a conflict for your main character, there's a fine line between giving them a problem that's too easy to solve and giving them a plot that even Sherlock Holmes would find impossible to unravel.

Make a problem too easy, and your audience will lose interest. Make a problem too difficult, and they'll lose patience.

How do you find that happy medium? I try to look at the conflict on a scale, from 1 to 10. A "1" problem would be something that your main character could solve on three hours of sleep. A "10" problem would be something so confounding and difficult that your character's best hope is that some other, more talented character shows up and saves the day.

The second of those possibilities has potential, but only if you're writing a main character whose primary role is that of an observer. If your main character is the sort of person who shouts tips from the sidelines as other characters fight, or who steps nimbly out of the way as danger passes, then having a "10" problem can serve well for comedic relief. (I.e. - isn't your main character glad he's not involved in that mess!)

On the other hand, if you want your character to do more than point and laugh at the main conflict, you may have to bring the conflict down to a level that they can handle.

For example, in my current writing project (the modern-day Amazons story I mentioned yesterday), the main character eventually faces several dozen opponents, all at once, with very few weapons or allies. However, she starts out the story just facing one opponent. He's kind of worn out and down on his luck. Even so, my main character wouldn't have survived without some unexpected help.

Starting your main character out with an easy problem and then ramping up to a 10 (or 11) at the end shows character growth, and has the side benefit of keeping the audience intrigued with your story.

In today's writing prompt, play with the problem I present. Make it the most boring version you can think of, and then write several more versions, working your way up to a 10! Have fun, and keep writing!

Prompt: He studied the terrain carefully, pondering his next step. Stretching, he reached and touched his toes, then bounced back up to limber up his arms. He knew he had to cross the _____. If he failed, the consequences would be...

Monday, January 28, 2013

What exactly are you writing?

Have you ever had a story that seemed to have so much potential, but it just wasn't long enough to make a novella or novel-length book?

If so, you've probably read every possible blog post, writer's help book, and watched every author interview on how to make your writing longer. (Add subplots, add extraneous characters, explain everything twice, give details about the most mundane aspects...not!)

If you've done all of that and the story is still too short, there are a few options.
Option A: Roll up the manuscript and use it as a fly swatter.
Option B: Reinvent the story completely. (Try a different time or place, or explore parts of the story that you didn't think were important. Maybe they're hiding plot points in the details!)
Option C: Write other stories of the same type. When you have enough, put them together as a collection. (That should make one substantial fly swatter!)

In all seriousness though, this is exactly the problem I'm encountering with my own writing. I've got a story that's as finished, expanded, expounded, plotted, and detailed as it can possibly be... and it's only 84,000 words long. As a random number that sounds like a lot, but in book terms, it's barely scraping by as a novella.

How have I fixed this? Long story short (excuse me while I recover from tripping over that pun), I haven't fixed it. I started writing another story, which is currently at 124,000 words.

The upside to this is that once I finish, I can start sending the longer story off to agents. The downside is that, if I get turned down for this one too, then I'll have confirmation: it's quality that was lacking, not just quantity.

Don't worry; this isn't a pity party. Maybe someday I'll take my own advice about the shorter story, but for now I'm having too much fun writing 124,000 words about modern-day Amazons!

Okay, now that everyone has sat patiently through my rant - or scanned until you saw 'prompt' in a paragraph, here's a prompt to help you get started on your next writing project. Remember, the length isn't as important as writing well and frequently. If you write on a consistent schedule, your story will end up being the right length for the characters and plot lines.

Without further ado, here's a bookend prompt. It's by, for, and about writers. What will you make of it? Let me know whether this prompt (or any of them, really) get to short story, novella, or novel length!

Left Bookend: She glared at the blank page and seriously considered banging her head against the desk in frustration. This had seemed so much easier when...

Right Bookend: With a sense of relief, she typed out those two scariest of words "the" and "end". Exhaustion set in as she realized that this story needed a sequel.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Talking About the Weather

Besides being safe elevator conversation, describing the weather in your novel can serve as simultaneous word-padding and plot details. Why is that character in your international thriller novel wearing a heavy coat in July, or why would one of your secondary characters risk a trip through a hurricane?

Describing weather just for the sake of padding your word count can cost your readers. The audience realizes quickly (usually in a few sentences) that they're reading fluff, even if that fluff is disguised as the ice storm of the century or a description of a hot, dry, day with cracked asphalt on Main Street.

If you use descriptions of weather as plot points, it will have the advantage of drawing your audience deeper into the setting and dropping hints about upcoming plot turns in seemingly a innocuous explanation of the different accumulations of snow in various parts of the city.

Here's a book-end writing prompt. I'll give the beginning and the end... you write the middle. Include as much weather description as possible, but only if you can make a connection to the plot.

Bookend Prompt Beginning: He'd always known that snow shoes were clumsy, but he'd never considered them dangerous before...

Bookend Prompt End: He put his feet up, glad to be rid of the cumbersome snow shoes, even if they'd just saved his life.

Have fun, and keep writing!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Two Prompts for the Price of One

I've finally made the leap into Twitter. It looks like a phenomenal time-waster, but might also be great for finding fellow writers and getting advice from literary agents. There is a writing prompt posted there right now, under my name ().

Don't worry; I'll still post prompts here... and they'll be different from the ones on Twitter. That means you'll get 2 prompts whenever I post, rather than just seeing the same material recycled on each site.

My Twitter Prompt was about the weather, so this one should be about something less mundane. Let's try... sea monsters!

One good thing that came from posting on Twitter was my new idea that people could request a personalized writing prompt. Want to get started on that steamy romance novel, but don't know what your character should look like? Need a hint about how to begin a fantasy story? Email me at, or find me on Twitter, and I'll respond ASAP.

Okay, enough stalling... on to the prompt!

Salty Depths Prompt: The ship swayed gently underfoot, and the half-full form of the moon lit up the surrounding waters like a searchlight across a rolling prairie. He strolled easily across the deck to the port side rail, his feet finding the wooden boards without difficulty despite their ever-changing positions. Across the moonlight-speckled waters, he saw something break the surface, something unlike any marine life that should be in this region. The only way to describe it was...

Have fun, and keep writing!