Monday, November 15, 2010

Writers: Check Out This Book!

Good Afternoon Writers! I have a treat for you today. It’s called Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, a fantastic treasure trove of tips and techniques you might not even know you need. Plus, it’s fun to read. How did I come by this book? An agent recommended it to improve my manuscript. Here’s some things it did for me:

1. Don’t use dialogue for exposition. Here’s an example:

Eddie looked at his friend. “You ever been involved in a kidnapping investigation?”

“No,” said Luke.

Eddie pulled the car into the street. “A lot is going to happen in the next couple of hours. We have to establish that Melody is missing . . .”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“I know how it sounds, but that kid could be hiding in the attic for all we know. Tess’s house gets a thorough search. Don’t forget the ‘balloon boy’ case.”

Luke grunted. He could only hope for such an innocuous ending.

“As a first-responder, you’ll be interviewed as well.”

Even though I’ve taken pains to hide it, I’ve got one cop explaining procedure to a second in order to pass this information to the reader. This kind of information belongs in the narrative:

Luke had never worked a kidnapping case, but he knew the basics. First, they had to establish Melody was missing. For all they knew, the little girl could be playing hide-and-seek in the attic. Luke could only hope for such an innocuous ending. Horrendous alternatives were all too possible. The area’s sex offenders would be getting unannounced visits today. As a first responder, Luke would be on the hot seat as well.

2. Handle flashbacks with care.

My first draft was written without a blueprint—an “out of the mist” experience. There’s nothing wrong with this style of writing as long as you have the know-how and stamina to iron out all the wrinkles in the editing phase.

As a byproduct of “out of the mist” writing, my manuscript included two long, detailed flashback sequences. Having them take up pages 50 – 100 didn’t work. It created a convoluted storyline and some bad information dumps. I had to reorder the chapters chronologically and parse out the story. This was no simple cut-and-paste, but in the rewrite I found opportunities to increase the suspense and add depth to the characters.

In the old draft, each chapter began with a newspaper article, TV interview, or email as a way to develop a background story. With over 40 chapters, these introductory bits added another level of complexity and wrecked the flow. They had to go, leaving me with a huge chunk (10K) of stuff to either kiss goodbye or weave into the storyline. A few became flashbacks.

I love Stein’s advice on transitioning into a flashback: lead with an “arresting” sentence. Here's one of mine:

It was an obsessive compulsive’s nightmare come true.

Hopefully that line makes you curious. What nightmare? What would terrify an obsessive compulsive person?

I took a hiatus from blog world for six weeks to address these issues. It was well worth it. Thank you, Agent A.


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