May 28, 2013

Short and Snappy

pinterest: the white sail's shaking
There is something incredibly overwhelming about being asked, "So, what's your story about?" 

On the one hand, our egos just love to be tickled by the question (if the asker actually cares; when they're only being polite, it isn't any fun at all): I don't know about you, but for me there's always a giddy burst of adrenaline that makes me grin and look altogether idiotic.  Then I bumble around for a minute or so, trying to cram a 100,000+ word story into a respectable sentence, and in the end they put on their uncomprehending face and say, "Oh!  That sounds interesting!" Which is nice of them, but I'm pretty sure my performance wouldn't garner any enthusiasm from an agent in a similar circumstance.

That reaction is, I think, fairly universal - and understandable, since if you have a particularly intricate story, it's no easy matter to convey its plot succinctly.  But if you intend to sell your story, especially in a face-to-face setting, it becomes necessary to bring the bumbling up a notch or three.  You're no longer trying to explain to your aunt what you do with your time; you're addressing an agent or a publisher who you kinda-sorta-really would like to take on your book.  (Depending on your family, the latter might actually seem less daunting.)  You have to condense your story, preferably into a pithy one-sentence summary that in film-speak is called the logline and in novel-writing the elevator-pitch.

When I'm not called upon to use them, I find this sort of thing enjoyable, so I was most pleased to be asked to read a slim book on the subject called Finding the Core of Your Story.  It isn't a large treatise at all, and wonderfully to the point - and it has examples.  I love examples.  The author, Jordan Smith, is a filmmaker, but the subtitle of the book pretty well encapsulates its usefulness to all forms of story-telling: How to strengthen and sell your story in one essential sentence.

Smith coaches the reader through the ins and outs of logline-writing, starting with the basics of what a logline is and its importance, then moving on to the nuts and bolts.  A second skim-through of the chapters brings out the key points - things we already know, hopefully, but which are irritatingly difficult to squeeze into a single sentence.  Protagonist and goal; antagonist and goal; conflict; setting.  There is also the usefulness of irony in conflict.  His example here was a logline for Jurassic Park (which I've never watched), wherein a scientist who hates kids has to protect two children.  I think this tends to denote humor, though that is not the case across the board: sometimes it merely emphasizes the tension.

One of the book's most helpful points, I thought, was Smith's chapter on finding the main thread of a story.  Of all the hang-ups when it comes to explaining to a stranger what my story is about, this is the most common: trying to make sense out of the confounded thing.  I've got subplots, and I've got themes, and I've got a half-dozen characters "what need keeping track of" - and it can be deuced tricky deciding what to say and what to leave unsaid.  I haven't yet begun a synopsis or query for Tempus Regina, but I fought about six different versions of a logline for it after reading Finding the Core of Your Story and still don't like what I came up with. 

"Well, bother it!  There's a woman, and there's a watch, and there's Victorian England - and then there isn't Victorian England because there's time-traveling - and there's a dude and another dude and a third dude, but the third dude is less important than this other gal, and there's the White Demon (but you don't really need to know about him, so forget I said that), and there's alchemy and some STUFF and other STUFF and LEGENDS and the first woman's younger brother and then some DOOM and GLOOM and now you're going to represent me, right?"

All right, so that wasn't a serious attempt, but it's about how I feel.  Pulling out the main thread is a difficult business, but I did feel that the process of narrowing down the loglines helped to clarify my own vision of the story.  I don't know that I would try loglining a story before writing, as Smith suggests - my stories don't usually take on a proper scope until I've written three-fourths of the plot - but I have a feeling it will be helpful, not just in the querying process, but in the nearer work of editing.  You've got to know what your story is primarily about before you can bolster the weak bits.

Of course, after you do all that you still have to memorize the logline and practice delivering it.  I haven't worked up the courage for that last bit, though I did fiddle with a preliminary pitch for The White Sail's Shaking:

A bumbling young man's good intentions land him in the U.S. Navy, where his hopes of winning glory are turned inside out by the murder of a fellow officer - and the presence of the killer on board.

It is, at least, a start.  And once you have the basic structure in mind, and the tips to help you along, it's actually quite enjoyable.  You're inserting your monocle and peering at the story until you find its core (which helps with editing), then finding out how many ways you can succinctly express that core (which helps with pitching and marketing).  It is a little daunting, but also, in an egotistical way, rather fun.  And we are an egotistical bunch, aren't we?

May 20, 2013

I'll Remember That

I've been scarce around here recently, partly in an effort to rest my eyes, partly in order to let my mind revamp and produce some more ideas.  On the former front, I wrote a chapter by hand this past week (Elisabeth would be proud if she weren't off resting her eyes, too) before deciding most of it wasn't necessary to the story after all.  Eh.  You win some, you lose some.

At any rate, I have been doing some specific research, some general research, and some reading that isn't technically research at all.  I don't typically write about this aspect of my writing, simply because what interests me in its nonfiction format isn't always what interests other folk.  But, on the other hand, sometimes it is enjoyable to hear what tidbits an author has dug up.  So rather than doing a great big post on the Age of Sail or the healing properties of comfrey, here is a snapshot of some of the things that have stood out to me in researching for Tempus Regina and writing in general.

what ho!

The Minoan civilization, which populated Crete and the islands of the Aegean some millennia before the birth of Christ, had running water and sewer systems.  And toilets!  That flushed!  (Sort of.)  If the culture hadn't been wiped out, plumbing might have been widespread much sooner in the history of the West.  I think that constitutes a tragedy.

Aristotelian theory posits that all forms of matter are simply combinations of the four elements (earth, water, fire, and air) in varying proportions, which means that if you were able to alter the proportions, you could change the matter entirely.  Which means that under Aristotelian theory, alchemy is not an unreasonable pursuit.

Chinese alchemy makes no sense, but they did manage to make chemistry sound pretty.

Common speedwell is also known as "Paul's Betony."  I'd like to know if that was the reason for the actor's name.  Probably not.

The walls at the Minoan palace at Knossos were inlaid with wooden frames for support against the frequent seismic activity.  In the final cataclysm it obviously wasn't one hundred percent effective.

Wood avens was once thought to drive away rabid dogs, evil spirits, and venomous snakes.  Good thing to have on hand, I suppose.

The original copper sheathing on the USS Constitution was most likely imported from Britain, not manufactured by Paul Revere; he only got to do the ship's detailing, since his copper company wasn't founded until 1801.  He may, however, have provided the sheathing for the USS Argus in 1803, which is the brig Tip ships out in. 

have you found out anything intriguing of late?

May 9, 2013

Ventriloquy and Belief

pinterest: tempus regina
I finished a book the other day.  (Surprise!)  The Daughter of Time was one of those books that crept up on my consciousness for several months before I got around to actually buying it, and from buying it to reading it.  I don't think I had heard about it before this year, but I understand it is a pretty popular and famous work: a landmark book in the mystery genre, in fact. It is, I think, either the last or the second-to-last book in her Inspector Alan Grant series, the most celebrated, and takes place entirely within the walls of a hospital room.  (Which, by the by, gets quite old.)

The main character is a Scotland Yard Inspector, laid up for several weeks after an injury incurred on the job.  To keep him engaged while he's lying on his back staring at the ceiling, a friend brings him a collection of portraits from historical cold cases - everyone from Mary, Queen of Scots to Louis XVII, the boy-king.  Only one of them, however, catches Grant's eye: a painting of Richard III.  Intrigued by the story of how the wicked uncle murdered his innocent nephews, Grant begins to conduct a police investigation from his hospital bed.  An acquaintance assists by conducting all the research, and the story progresses methodically through back-and-forth conversation between the two men.

Unsurprisingly, this also gets old.  It would be bound to get old in any story that takes place within the same four walls with - let me think - one main character and only about five other people who regularly drift through to talk.  But I realized not far into the book that part of the oldness had to do less with those factors and more with the story not actually being a story.  It is a vindication of Richard III, plain and very simple.  Now, I happen to take an interest in Richard and could follow Tey's arguments with relative equanimity; but even agreeing, I was extraordinarily peeved by the authoress' tactic.  Because it becomes apparent as soon as Richard III's portrait shows up that what you, reader, are getting is Tey's opinion en toto, as articulated by Character 1 and Character 2 with occasional prompting from Random Other Peoples.  It isn't a novel, it's just, well, historical preachiness.

The Daughter of Time is an extreme case, and I would go so far as to wager that Tey intended for it to be.  The trouble, however - the trouble of an invasive author, if I could put it that way - is one that crops up and should crop up before every writer.  We've all heard books described as "too preachy."  It's usually applied to Christian fiction, and it is all too easy to stick our noses in the air and determine that people only say that because there is no longer a belief in objective truth.  Which is very probably the case, but does nothing to alleviate the issue as far as good writing is concerned.

We all have, or ought to have, core beliefs.  If we think we don't, it is only that we don't know what those core beliefs are; and at that point we had either better not write, or better keep our writing private, for the world doesn't need anymore hem-hah-ing and prevaricating.  So I'll start with the statement that we all have beliefs, and that on some level, we desire our writing to reflect that.  We hardly want readers thinking we condone abortion, or adultery, or marriage between believers and unbelievers, when we think just the opposite.  And oftentimes we not only don't want readers getting the wrong impression, but we also have an overdeveloped desire for them to get the right one.  As in, I-must-cram-the-Gospel-Jesus-and-the-Bible-in-if-I-want-to-honor-God-SOHELPME.

It is not a wholly unreasonable wish, and I am not here to tell writers exactly what balance to strike.  But if we desire to write a good story (which, I believe, is just as God-honoring and perhaps even more so than working in the Gospel inappropriately), we must be more attune to the characters themselves and not so quick to override their individual personalities.  We must let them be who they are.  Sayers mentioned this several times in regard to her famous character Lord Peter Wimsey, whom her Christian readers badgered her to "save" - and she ignored them, because it was not part of the character.  In a lesser sense, this is also true whenever a character of ours begins talking, especially about anything theological or philosophical.  Obviously we don't want to be seen as wrong ourselves, or propagate wrong-thinking, so we are more likely to switch into the mode of writing exactly what we believe to be truth in as clear a way as possible.  We do a little ventriloquy act through our characters, and an astute reader can tell.

Too often we think that in our writing we've got to try to evangelize not just the characters, but the readers - even though it is biblically clear that God ordained that work to be done through His Word preached, not through fiction.  Our business is to craft a good story, to let the characters think and say what they would think and say "if free-moving and placed within the literary field."  If that means that they think and say something wrong, well, then they shall.  It is my opinion that our core beliefs will show through the story in some manner; it just shouldn't be through ventriloquy.

“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”
g. k. chesterton

May 2, 2013

Trinitarian Writing

Some while ago, during her Friday Tidbits series, Anne Elisabeth Stengl wrote a post on the Rule of Three.  In it she talked about the frequency with which we see patterns of three cropping up in all forms of art: the triangle format in painting, drawing the eye in toward the main subject; the famous threes of literature, from three disturbing blind mice to Goldilocks and the three dinosaurs bears; and the three-pronged repetition in a story's theme.  She made the point that if something is mentioned only once in a story, it will seem of little importance; if it is mentioned only twice, it will seem a coincidence, a mistake on the part of the writer; but if it is mentioned three times, it becomes fixed in the reader's mind as a theme.

Since this is an aspect of writing I find particularly intriguing, her last point caught me most and has stayed with me longest.  Subconsciously, it was something I had recognized before; it appears in my own writing, both in themes and in foreshadowing.  And, upon consideration, it makes sense.  I have done several posts already on Sayers' The Mind of the Maker and won't bore you with yet another, but though I am not generally one for numerology or anything of that sort, it has occurred to me more and more since reading that book how often cycles of three do come into our writing.  Perhaps a very bold parallel cannot be drawn, but I do think there is a sense in which writing is trinitarian - little surprise, since we are made in the image of God. 

Anne Elisabeth's post and, more recently still, a reading of David Copperfield brought these thoughts out with greater clarity - for Dickens, consciously or not, was a master at conveying themes.  I can think of two instances in the book that followed the trinitarian cycle, the first exactly, the second with some latitude.  The first is when David tells his aunt how thoroughly he is in love with Dora, and Betsey Trotwood, knowing his foolishness, shakes her head and says, "Blind! blind! blind!" - which, of course, is also a repetition of three.  It springs to David's mind again at the end of that chapter.  It occurs for the third and last time when David, having lost Dora and being a little wiser now, realizes what he forfeited by his foolishness and recalls his aunt's words.

The second instance, I admit, is a little fuzzier.  There is a moment when the reader is given a glimpse of Steerforth asleep, "with his head upon his arm," as he used to lie at school - this is really a second-time occurrence, since it evokes the memory of the school-days.  It is brought home powerfully again after the shipwreck, when David is brought down to the beach and sees his old friend for the last time.

"But, he led me to the shore.  And on that part of it where she and I had looked for shells, two children - on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered - among the ruins of the home he had wronged - I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school."

You don't like Steerforth, since he's a cad, and yet the way the scene is evoked and the repetition of that line still manage to break your heart.  And that, I think, is one of the most interesting elements of a theme: if it is right, if it is true to the story and the characters, it gets down to the reader's heart.  It doesn't have to follow any particular rule - it's visceral, as most writing is - but I do find it fascinating how, in it, the pattern of three consistently reoccurs.  And I wonder, too, if it appeals to us so much because of that image of God. 

what do you think?  have you noticed the pattern?

meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
find me elsewhere
take my button


Follow by Email

published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

Bookmarks In...

Search This Blog