Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Hallowe'en | Go, Go, NaNoWriMo!

Happy Hallowe'en! Or Samhain if you prefer.

Celebrate the festive season with some Cat Bowling!

Which, by the way, is a nice, low-stress activity for when you're lying about the house recovering from candy-poisoning.


I wish the best of luck to everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year!

I think you're crazy. I do. But I admire your grit! And I wish you plentiful wordage this month. My pom-poms rattle for you!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nathan Bransford Is One Sparky Guy

Sir Nathan of the Bransford writes another great, intelligent post:
The Reverse Snobbery of Low Literature Aspirations

I really agree with the following:
I think we're in a cultural period that celebrates mass appeal and democracy and devalues experts.
I, however, have faith in the idea that talent will triumph again. When you give people access to everything, they start to realize how valuable the good stuff is.

All the world loves a slush reader, that marvelous filter; they just don't realize it.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, October 26, 2009

Meaty Mondays: SiWC 2009; Panel Discussion on Genre Fiction

This past weekend, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (free) a ten-minute agent/editor pitch and a ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.

This week:

Panel Discussion: Genre Fiction

I use the following abbreviations to identify speakers:
VD = Verna Dreisbach, literary agent, moderator
DM =
Donald Maass, literary agent and writer
MK =
Meredith Koffel, literary agent
BM =
Bob Mayer, writer
KS =
Kristin Sevick, editor

Topic: What's important in genre fiction?

- characters we care about
- problems that are big and urgent
- you need to delve deeper into characters to make conflicts and problems more gripping
- the story must resonate with readers
- it's NOT having a new gimmick or twist that makes books break out: it's having deeper character development. Twilight is a perfect example of this. The idea is not new; the depth of the character development is

(speaking with regard to YA in particular)
- agrees with DM it's the character rather than the plot that compels
- does want the addictive quality in the plot too, however
- the character is often an idealized version of ourselves

- don't chase trends; write what you're passionate about, because the passion is what readers respond to

- he doesn't want to write what he knows; he wants to write what he loves and reads
- agrees with KS that passion is what's valuable
- Notes that emotion is more important to success as a writer than business acumen is; reiterates that chasing trends is not going to work out
- says new writers too-often fail to consider what they want to write in the long-term until after a publishing contract has locked them into a particular genre

Topic: Cliches

- read the genre you write so you recognize cliches

- things like the cloning of Jesus or genetically modified doomsday viruses are cliches, but they have been done well (very rarely)
- the technique the successful authors used was to, step-by-step, make the impossible seem real by showing how each of the reader's arguments could have a loophole. They skilfully guide the reader through a conversion from scepticism to suspension of disbelief

- do research on your genre to avoid cliches
- anticipate the reader's objections to something outlandish (like Jesus cloning)
- make sure it's your characters and story that are selling the novel, not a gimmick or a topic that's currently in the news

Topic: Switching genres

- switching genres makes your publisher nervous because you are almost starting from scratch. There is no guarantee you can find a new audience and you risk alienating or losing your old audience (due to no new books of the sort they want coming out)

- you must break out in one genre before you can switch to another
- every plot has been done, but NOT every character has been done. This is why you want to make your characters compelling. They're what makes your story unique.
- Theme can also be what sets your book apart. The emotions provoked by the book's theme will stick with the reader long after the book is closed.

Question from the audience: What do we need to know about women's fiction?

- your main character should either be strong or show a growing strength

- a strong character acts, she doesn't just react
- he notes many authors try to create reader empathy for the protagonist by showing her in the grip of misery due to some tragedy, like the death of a child. He called these "women's disaster novels"
- pain is not enough to establish reader empathy; plant a clue early on to show there is something redeemable about this character--some spark still in her. If she appears simply miserable, the reader will not want to read on.
- the character should be likeable to both writer and reader
- question to ask yourself: How can I portray, in the first few pages, what I like about my character?

- inject some hope and inspiration into the scene
- she should be relatable despite her misery

Question from the audience: Are there out-dated themes?

- No. Themes are universal and timeless. People are people.

- Styles get outdated, however

Topic: Do agents/editors work with writers who have fire and a good idea, but whose writing isn't quite there yet?

- usually no, unless very excited
- would only offer editorial suggestions and invite a re-query
- agents are doing more of that sort of editing these days

- there are very good independent editors out there, and there are crooks
- be a very smart consumer
- that said, the right person can be incredibly helpful (JJ's Note: DM's wife is an independent editor, and she gave a very good workshop right after this one)
- from someone you think to hire, ask for samples of work, timelines on when to expect them to get back to you, and run away from people who make false promises about what they can do for your career. There are no guarantees an editor can get you to publication
- he says over the past 10 years, agents have been doing more editing than some editors do. However, in the past year or two, the trend has begun to swing back the other way (JJ's Note: I didn't quite understand what market forces were driving this)

- 1st time authors are a gamble because they, perhaps, can't take editorial direction
- thus, 1st time authors have to have a book that is almost perfect, as is
- on 2nd and 3rd books, editors often do more work on a novel because they know whether the author is easy to work with by that point
- if a 1st time author is close, but not quite, KS kicks the issue back to the agent and invites a requery, i.e. if the writer can't take direction, it's now the agent's problem.

- the "almost there" books are the hardest ones to say no to, but agents must due to time constraints

- if the voice is there, that's more persuasive; editing is about fixing plot and characters. However, you can't fix voice if the writer doesn't have a grip on that yet

- accepting editorial direction is a key skill if you want to be a successful writer. Of the people BM has done workshops with, he estimates 95% of them WON'T change their manuscripts. He makes suggestions, but they merely rearrange the same errors and don't fix the problem.
- BM jokingly outlines the 5 stages of accepting editorial direction:
--- Denial: "Nothing's wrong with my book. The editor is crazy."
--- Anger: "Correction. The editor is crazy and evil."
--- Bargaining: "Okay, maybe some things could be better. But only small things."
--- Depression: "My book sucks. I suck. Life sucks."
--- Acceptance: "Okay, then. I am going to rewrite it until it doesn't suck."

- the problem with "almost there" stories is usually that the writer has not taken the story deep enough or far enough
- the stakes have to be higher
- dig deeper, emotionally

- concept editing is what agents do, i.e. how and what to change, rather than line edits

Topic: DM asks KS if she sees the following trend--does the 2nd book in a series tend to be a less brave novel than the first was?

- sometimes

- the author has less time to write their 2nd book; 8 months instead of an arbitrary number of years

- no author training exists; we authors need to figure out our long-term plan, and we usually haven't when the first contract comes in
- the panic caused by getting signed causes writers to react rather than to act, and that generates weaker, less well-thought-out books

- writers need tools for developing novels. (JJ's Note: I think he means a mental roadmap for assembling a plot, rather than pure instinct and muddling) Writers who turn out a lot of novels have these.

- Author dissection: choose some authors who have careers like you would like to have. Study how they conduct their career and model your career on theirs.

- writers need to study the business and learn all aspects of it

Question from JJdeGoblin: Where's the line between "fresh and original" and "crazy and inaccessible"? (JJ's Note: I got some laughs from the panel by asking that. Nice feeling!)

- good enough writing can overcome resistance to any idea

- an audience does exist for wild ideas, but it might turn out to be a small audience
- you cross the line only when no one at all wants to read your book
- DM represented a novel featuring schizophrenic and clinically depressed characters in an oppressive environment. It didn't sell well in North America, but sold extremely well in Eastern Europe. Apparently gloom and madness really resonate with, for example, Bulgarians.

Question from the audience: Must a book fit into a well-defined genre?

Judine (Terry Brooks' wife):
- speaking as a former bookseller, genre is for marketing purposes only. It's for fitting books onto shelves

- write the story in you; worry about shelving later

- when you sell enough copies, genre becomes irrelevant

- "kitchen sink" novels usually have one thread that works better than the others

- agrees with MK that one thread will be strongest, and that can be used to pigeon-hole the novel
- notes the publisher has to pick one bookseller only from e.g. Barnes and Noble, so they need to know what genre to call the book
- that said, you can let your agent and editor figure it out

- in the industry, we use "comp" titles. Authors seem afraid to mention comp titles (JJ's Note: "comp" titles are "comparative" titles--books similar to yours. See Eric's explanation on 'Pimp My Novel' for more details.)
- agents would find this helpful
- even inaccurate comp titles are useful because they give the agent something to react against

- but the comp title needs to be accurate

- authors don't necessarily know good comp titles, especially new authors

- Pet peeve: know your genre, i.e. read it extensively

- but new writers don't know
- example: published writers get more from BM's workshops on the pitfalls of starting writing than new writers do. He gets comments from the former saying, "Wish I had known that before..."

Topic: Learning

- 1st novels are often too safe, because the writer is trying to break into publishing. Then, the writers often don't improve
- great writers keep trying to improve, keep going to workshops (gives an example of a best-selling author he saw in the back of a seminar room scribbling notes as ardently as the 150 unpublished writers in there with her.)

- teaching helps writers improve too

- teaching has helped my writing immensely

Terry Brooks (bestselling author of the Shannara series):
- You're learning at every point of your career. You never know it all.

- it's like yoga

- teaching helps my writing too
- learn from anyone; get a range of experiences; listen to people you don't agree with
- sometimes you realize you were wrong
- exchange of ideas: the teacher learns as much from the students as vice versa
(JJ's Note: this applies to giving critiques; it's a form of teaching.)

Panelists sum up:

- you must practise writing; it's a skill. You need to study and practise.
- it's a life-long process
- also, be a professional. Treat your writing as you would any aspect of your day job.

- be open to learning. That's the biggest difference between those who will succeed and those who won't.

- pet peeve: promotion won't make you a success.
- throwing money at your book won't make it succeed. The only thing that makes a book succeed is the quality of the story in it

- authors do need to promote their own books
- think about branding when you create your Facebook, Twitter, etc.

- read philosophy. Read theology. Read Aristotle. Understand people.

End of Panel discussion


Bonus: The Story of D'oh.

Thursday night, I (JJ) was obsessing over having all the information I needed printed out, plus five-page samples, cover letters, business cards, partials, and whatever else I might need just in case.

Y'know. Just in case some editors spontaneously leap on me and cling like groupies, only to be scraped off with sample pages.

Thus, I arrived Friday morning with a sizeable brick of dead tree in my backpack.

And it was only when I sat down in my first workshop that I realized, despite all the paper I was hauling, I had forgotten to bring any paper to write on.

So now I'm scribbling notes on the back of one of my partials. If I meet any predatory editors, I'm hooped.


Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Pardon Me, For I Must Squee (Again.)

Y'know what makes your day?

Or my day, rather, here at SiWC 2009?

Okay, I'll give you a hint. It may have been Terry Brooks, New York Times bestseller and author of the beloved Shannara fantasy series, reading the first four pages of my WIP and saying--and I quote--"I love this!"


Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ooh, Pretty!

Why, yes. Yes, I do think I need a car made of clear acrylic.

Of course, I didn't know that until a second ago...

Wonder Woman's jet is the next logical step, n'est pas?

Car made by Lexus, link found via Geekologie


PS - I'm attending the Surrey International Writers Conference this weekend. All three of the talks I saw today were great, so tune in on Meaty Monday for a summary!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, October 19, 2009

Meaty Mondays: The Form of Passive Voice

Today's post is one I'd love some discussion on, because I'm not speaking with any authority on this issue; it's just something I've noticed.

First, the backstory:

I struggled with getting rid of passive voice in my writing because, even after educating myself on what it was, I still had trouble seeing it.

I have an intuitive understanding of English only. Don't ask me what a participle is; I dunno. But I do know if a sentence sounds right, and that's my trouble with passive voice: it's not wrong. My brain doesn't kick me and say, 'that made no sense.'

I'm pretty good, now, at avoiding writing in the passive voice, but it still sneaks in once in a while.

This post isn't about that.

Before I get to what it is about, however, a refresher on what passive voice is:

Passive Voice:
The ball was caught by the woman.
The ball was caught.

Active Voice:
The woman caught the ball.
That 'by [the noun]' construction at the end of the sentence is the tip-off--even when it's not there. If your sentence either has 'by [the noun]' or could have it, then you're using passive voice.

Passive voice divorces intention from your character. The woman caught the ball, but did she intend to? Can she be blamed for it? Why should the reader care about stuff that just sorta-kinda happens? Passive voice implies passivity on the part of the person who is acting, and it creates an emotional distance between the reader and that character. Both things give the reader too much opportunity to become disengaged from the story.

Remember in this post, I noted the construction '[This] was [that]' (e.g. '[The sky] was [blue]') is a form of 'telling', rather than 'showing'. You've informed the reader of a fact, rather than trying to force the reader's imagination to picture what you're saying.

Passive voice is telling also. '[The ball] was [caught]' is the same construction as '[The ball] was [red]'.

But that is not what this post is about, either.

This is a bit weird, but I want to talk about the form of passive voice--as in the actual order of words on the page.

Compare the form of the following two sentences:
1a) The ball was caught.

1b) She caught the ball.
with these two sentences:
2a) The sky filled with clouds.

2b) Clouds filled the sky.
Sentence (2a) is not passive voice. However, I would argue it's like passive voice, in that it has a similar structure. Instead of having 'was' there to tip you off that your writing isn't as visceral as it could be, you have the word 'with'.

Here's some more examples:
The room filled with people.

His face lit with joy.

She splashed the salad with vinaigrette.
Like passive voice, there's nothing at all wrong with these sentences. Furthermore, they have the merit of being invisible--the reader's mind is not going to hiccup over any of these.

Although we should strive for effective prose, there's a great many bestsellers that prove the only real rule for fiction prose is that it be invisible, i.e. the reader should only be aware of the story blooming in their head, not the words on the page.

However, compare the above sentences to the following ones:
People clogged the room.

Joy lit his face.

She jostled the bottle, and vinaigrette splashed the salad.
In two of those cases, at least, I can argue the '[This][did something] with [that]' construction should be avoided simply to adhere to Strunk and White's rule of "Omit needless words."

However, I'd also argue the second batch of sentences are a bit more vivid and active than the first. This may just be because they're more unusual constructions, and thus strike me as fresher. I don't know.

I wouldn't suggest avoiding the '[This][did something] with [that]' construction in every case, but I think it's worth rethinking sentences that use it. Using a variety of sentence structures always spices up prose, and I'm fond of this particular method of changing things around.

What do you think? Is saying 'Joy lit his face' intrusive to your writerly ear, or do you like the construction? Do you use this form already? If not, do you think you might start? Do you think I'm addled to draw a parallel between '[This][did something] with [that]' and passive voice? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment trail.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Free Stuff!

My writer-buddy, Sandra Cormier, is celebrating the trade paperback release of her book, The Toast Bitches (a super-spicy story of friendship in the face of adversity), with a contest on her blog. You could win autographed copies and more!

Just say in the comments of this post what you would do for a friend in a given situation. Use your imagination, amuse Sandra, and score free stuff!

Let the BFF marathon begin!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Yay, Travis!

Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent Insane Extraordinaire, occasionally hosts contests on his blog. These tend to draw massive numbers of entries, and the First Paragraphs contest Nathan ran this past week was no exception. Over 2,600 entries!

With competition like that, you can imagine how delighted I was to see blogger-buddy, Travis Erwin, has been chosen as one of the ten finalists!

Please head over to the voting post, read the finalists' entries (which are the first paragraphs of a novel or memoir) and vote for your favourite in the comments.

Congratulations, Travis! May this lead to big things for you and your memoir! (And when you get it published, I am definitely buying a copy. :-) )

UPDATE: Squee! Travis WON! Congratulations, Travis Erwin!

Pardon Me, For I Must Squee.

Have I mentioned lately how awesome my sister-who-lives-in-the-US is? Look what I got my hands on! (And feet; it's hard to hold something and photograph it at the same time.)

Thanks, Sis!

And while I'm on the subject, here's part of the reason why I'm excited to get this book--how cool is this?

Thanks, Stuart!

Some Wow For Your Friday

An amazing gallery of award-winning medical and historical photographs:

Wellcome Image Awards, 2009

Found via Lynn Flewelling's Twitter

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ooh, pretty!

Remember this dragon made of pop can tabs?

Well, someone made a cheap plastic knock-off.

(Yes, that is disposable cutlery.)

Artist: Toge-NYC, found via Geekologie

Monday, October 12, 2009

Meaty Mondays: Show, Don't Tell (5 of 5)

This is an updated version of this post in which I try to explain the nuts-and-bolts of how to apply the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle to your fiction.

I've split this topic into several parts because I think there's many levels of subtlety when it comes to 'showing' rather than 'telling'. I'll start with what I consider the most basic techniques and work my way up to the most sophisticated ones that I've managed to mash into my wee brain.
I'll be covering topics in the following order:

Preamble: Show, Don't Tell (Sept 14, 2009)
Technique 1: Dramatize the Scene (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 2: Avoid the 'To Be' Construction (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 3: Avoid Cliches, Choose Fresh Language (Sept 28, 2009)
Technique 4: Action, Not Words (Oct 5, 2009)
Technique 5: The Art of Implying Information (Oct 12, 2009)

Technique 5 of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’: The Art of Implying Information

Comparison of grey-scale face and line drawing

Which picture looks more lifelike to you?

Probably the one with grey in it, as opposed to the black-and-white one. When faced with ambiguity, your imagination fills in the blanks and infers what should be there. For example, the edges of the grey face aren’t well-defined on either side, yet your brain probably has no trouble believing they’re there.

A similar thing happens when you read the description of a scene in a novel. Not every detail of the scene can be mentioned, but if enough of them are, your imagination will fill in the blanks and give you a complete picture. Often, just one or two vividly-described images are enough to trigger this effect.

With insufficient description, a scene feels flat to the reader, but with too much, it becomes tedious to read. The ideal is for you, the writer, to limit yourself to relatively few sentences of description, but to work hard to ensure those sentences are vivid.

In choosing what to describe, try to pick a few slightly odd things that would stick out in a person’s memory. The commonplace parts of the scene are exactly what you can count on your reader’s imagination to fill in for you.

Here’s an example:
Light leaked between the shack’s planks and painted lines across a floor scabbed with blots of mildew.
What material was the floor made out of? Was the room bright or dingy? Did the air smell musty? This example doesn’t say, but check the picture you have in your mind: did your brain fill in details beyond what was described?

Here's another example:
Sun had bleached the shack’s wood silver and laid a carpet of grass across its roof.
What shape did the shack have? How many windows? Did you picture the sky behind it? The landscape in front of it? Again, your imagination probably added more to the picture than the text itself did.

Also, note it’s only implied in those two examples whether you’re inside or outside the shack. That’s another blank your brain filled in automatically.

As a writer, you want to strive to create a complete and vivid world using as few words as you can get away with. The way to do that is to strive to force the reader’s imagination to do half the work for you.

And that’s the heart of the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ principle: it’s always the reader’s imagination that brings your story to life. Your words are merely a way to trigger it, and your task as a writer is to figure out how to.

There are lots of other places in your story where you can imply information, and thereby ‘show’ the reader things, rather than having the information come out in dialogue or exposition.

Emotional Information, or Subtext:
To expose what’s inside your character’s heart, I recommend using subtext. Let me define that: In acting, there is this idea of text and subtext. The text is the words in the script; the subtext is the meaning that the actors add to the text using vocal intonation, pacing and body language.

While the text gives a scene its structure, what makes it magnetic is the subtext. Think about how two actors portraying lovers can set the screen on fire by refraining from looking at one another. Remember how John Cleese in Monty Python’s Flying Circus could make one silent stare convey four different things in the space of about two seconds. Think about the body language that tells you when a character in a movie is lying. That’s subtext, and since it is ‘shown’, not ‘told’, it fascinates and engages the audience.

A novelist gets to add their own subtext, rather than relying on actors to do it, but I find it’s fruitful to consider how an actor would accomplish the job and then have your characters behave that way. A woman saying, “Where have you been?” while fiddling with her hair conveys something far different than a woman saying, “Where have you been?” while fiddling with a knife.

As always, it’s harder to ‘show’ something than to ‘tell’ it. It’s faster to have one character tell another that Bob is scared of women, but the reader will be far more interested in what’s going on inside Bob’s heart if they have to figure it out through seeing Bob consistently reacting to women in a way that implies fear.

Plot points and backstory can also be implied, rather than stated. I'll discuss these separately.

Plot Points:
If you describe a pattern of blood stains on the floor of a room, you’re forcing your reader to imagine that scene and to draw conclusions about what those spatters mean. This is ‘showing’, and it gives your story some ambiguity. Your reader can’t be sure they’re coming to the correct conclusion about what they’re imagining.

For this reason, ‘showing’ is a powerful tool when you want to set up a mystery. It leaves the reader slightly unsure until the moment you decide to definitively reveal your secrets.

Ambiguity has its problems, too. Some readers won’t be able to picture the scene accurately and will become confused or frustrated. This pulls them out of the story. If you’re worried this may happen, then ‘tell’ your readers the information instead. It’s better to be clear and dull than confusing but vivid.

Inserting backstory is notoriously difficult. Any lump of information delivered by exposition, whether via the writer informing the reader of facts or one character telling another those same facts, is what’s called an info-dump. Large info-dumps constitute ‘telling’ and thus are dull to read.

A better way to get the information across is to imply it as you go along. Have characters mention things in passing that, over the course of the entire novel, build up a complete picture of the backstory. Have the people in your book act in ways that are in keeping with whatever prior traumas they experienced, and then let the reader guess at what the traumas actually were.

Robert McKee in Story (a book on screenwriting that I heartily recommend to novelists also) has a suggestion for how to do this that I think is brilliant. He says the best way to use backstory is as ammunition: One character can use a shocking fact from the past to hurt, startle, or provoke another character, which will also be a delicious shock to the reader.

Let me give you some evidence in support of my claim that implying information can create a more believable story than simply informing the audience of everything.

First, the confession: I am a ginormous dork. I went to see Star Wars, Episode II, Attack of the Clones, twice while it was in theatres.

If you saw that movie, you probably agree with me there were some very awesome bits (multi-Jedi lightsaber fights, whoo-hoo!) and some very terrible bits (Anakin’s wooing of Padme.)

The first time I went to see the movie, I probably saw the same version you did. The second time, however, I saw the IMAX version. As it happens, IMAX film projectors cannot physically fit the reel for any movie that is much longer than two hours.

In other words, the IMAX version had to be more tightly edited than the director’s cut.

And it was awesome. They chopped out Anakin’s retch-inducing speeches to Padme. They chopped that whole silly picnic scene. They shaved a few pretty-but-redundant scenes that had nothing to do with the young lovers. Suddenly, all the lousy bits were gone and what remained was one sleek, visually-glorious, kick-ass action movie.

The weird thing is that the romance between Anakin and Padme was more believable in the IMAX version. It was completely plausible that two good-looking young people living in each other’s pockets during a stressful time would fall for one another.

Why was this the case? Because the audience’s imagination filled in the blanks, and did so in a way that was more believable than George Lucas’ finely-detailed version of events. A few touches and meaningful looks were all the actors needed to communicate that Anakin and Padme were in love. The shenanigans with the picnic and the lusty speeches turned out to be utterly counter-productive to the story's intent.

In summary, acknowledge it is the reader’s imagination that brings your story to life, and that your job as a writer is to find ways to trigger it. Small, potent descriptions are your most economical way of doing this, because you can count on the reader’s mind to fill in the more commonplace details--provided you supply it a vivid enough ‘seed’ to work with.

Thank you for reading my blog series!

If you found this post (or this series) useful, please mention it to your writer friends. I'm trying to increase the readership of this blog. Thank you!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, October 09, 2009

Ten Minutes of Wow at 1,000,000 Frames Per Second

Guns skeeve me; I think they're ugly on a variety of levels.

But this--this is beautiful.

Found via Geekologie
, made by Werner Mehl from Kurzzeit

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday Fun

Dynastic Queen Interviews Goblin! Hilarity Hopefully Ensues.

Please read my interview with writer buddy and all-around awesome person, Stephe, a.k.a. Dynastic Queen, for her Background Check series!

So when did you realize you wanted to be an axe murderer author?


The Fun Theory:

I totally would have taken the stairs too.
Found via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, October 05, 2009

Meaty Mondays: Show, Don't Tell (4 of 5)

This is an updated version of this post in which I try to explain the nuts-and-bolts of how to apply the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle to your fiction.

I've split this topic into several parts because I think there's many levels of subtlety when it comes to 'showing' rather than 'telling'. I'll start with what I consider the most basic techniques and work my way up to the most sophisticated ones that I've managed to mash into my wee brain.
I'll be covering topics in the following order:

Preamble: Show, Don't Tell (Sept 14, 2009)
Technique 1: Dramatize the Scene (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 2: Avoid the 'To Be' Construction (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 3: Avoid Cliches, Choose Fresh Language (Sept 28, 2009)
Technique 4: Action, Not Words (Oct 5, 2009)
Technique 5: The Art of Implying Information (Oct 12, 2009)

Technique 4 of 'Show, Don't Tell': Action, Not Words

Below is an excerpt from the (wonderful) science fiction novel Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn.

The setup for this scene is that it is 1348, and a priest (Dietrich), soldier (Max) and the miller's wife (Hildegarde) in a small German town have just made first contact. They interpret the aliens to be demons and are half-mad with terror, but confused to see these 'demons' are burned and bruised, and have children with them. The miller's wife is a petty, thieving woman and also the town slattern, and she was recently charged by the priest to atone for her sins of pride.

From Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn:
At that, the tableau broke.

Dietrich cried out.

Max drew his quillon.

The demon behind them pulled a strange, shiny tube from his pouch and pointed it at them.

And Hildegarde Muller staggered down the ridge toward the demons below.
She stopped once and looked back, locking gazes with Dietrich. Her mouth parted as if to speak; then she set her shoulders and continued forward. Oddly, they drew back from her.

Dietrich seized his fear and watched the unfolding drama with dreadful concentration. God, grant me the grace to understand! He felt that much depended on his understanding.

Hildegarde halted before the demon spewing pus from his mouth and she extended both hands to him. The hands clenched, drew back, opened again. And the demon fell into her arms and collapsed against her.

With a thin, high cry, she went to her knees in the dust and ashes and wood chips and cradled the creature on her lap. The greenish-yellow ichor stained her clothing and gave forth a sweetish, sickly odor. "Welc--" She stopped, swallowed, and began again. "Welcome, pilgrims, to the hospitality of my home. It pleases--It pleases me that you might abide with us."

Hildegarde, in this book, really isn't a pleasant woman, but this scene choked me up because the author showed me that while Hildegarde isn't nice, she is brave and at her core, has a good soul.

A person's deep character is exposed by their actions, particularly when they are under great stress. The stress makes it impossible for them to fake anything; with milder stresses, they might still be capable of veiling their true nature.

In fiction, you want to 'show' the reader who your characters are, rather than 'tell' them, and this is done just as Mr. Flynn did in the passage above. He put Hildegarde under incredible stress, then depicts her actions. When the reader learns about a character in this manner, it's a potent and emotional experience for them, and one of the hallmarks of effective storytelling--and great art in general--is that it provokes emotion.

It's fairly common to see a writer 'tell' the reader what their character is like. Perhaps the character declares his or her true nature: "No, Kara. Honesty is for all the time, not just when you think you might get caught. I won't help you do this." Or maybe a pair of other characters talk about the one whose inner heart the writer wants to illuminate: "I don't understand why she chases that fellow when Terrance would walk through hell for her."

Writers do this because it's easier. To 'show' someone's character, you have to engineer a situation where they react in a telling manner, and that takes a lot more creative energy than just slipping in some dialogue. Regardless, 'showing' is more effective.

There's actually a biological reason for why this is. Forgive my hand-wavey and inaccurate explanation of some fairly subtle science, but you have a left-brain and a right-brain. The left-brain takes care of you understanding the words you read, and, if you're confused by something, it helps you puzzle things out with logic. The right-brain takes care of you understanding the "big picture" that the words convey, and it's also responsible for you vividly imagining the story when you've been swept up in a book.

Your right-brain also triggers emotions. This is key. When a writer 'tells' the reader what a character is like, the left-brain comprehends it. However, when the writer 'shows' the reader what the character is like, the right-brain's "big picture" attribute is what understands it--and the right-brain can trigger emotion. This is why, when you 'show' the reader something, you increase their chances of responding to it emotionally.

As I mentioned, one of the things that defines great art is that it triggers emotion. A person can get very excited about an exquisitely-reasoned essay, but they don't call it art. Art is the thing that makes you cry, or laugh, or rage. Art gets into your heart.

So in summary, show your character's inner nature via their actions, particularly action under stress. This increases your writing's effectiveness by making the reading experience more emotional for your audience.

If you found this post useful, please mention it to your writer friends. I'm trying to increase the readership of this blog. Thank you!

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Weekend Anti-Depressants

These are some favourites of mine.


Jill and Kevin's Big Day

Where The Hell Is Matt?

Know of a video you think I'd enjoy? Leave me a comment!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, October 02, 2009

Frittering Fridays

Class exercise:

Go here and start clicking the squares.

Report back to say how much time you wasted long you amused yourself at that site.

PS - You need your sound turned on.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Ghosts of Belfast: US Release Day!

So there was this guy, right? Just a guy goofing around with a group of e-buddies (which included me) on the internet, trying to learn about publishing, trying to polish his craft, and dreaming of getting his novel on bookshelves, just like we all were.

And this guy was good--not just nice, but obviously extremely talented. Not only did I like him as a person, it sure seemed to me that if any of us deserved to get published, it was our buddy, Conduit, a.k.a. Stuart Neville.

I have been so utterly tickled this past year to see Stuart sail into what we all dream of when we write a book. Please consider buying his debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, which is out today in the USA, and which has been getting rave reviews.

I personally recommend Stuart as a writer who will not only keep your eyeballs stapled to the page until the very last word, he'll tell you a hell of a good story in the process.

And hey--I could have told you that two years ago! I feel all smug and vindicated now. :-)

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: