The Art of Narrative

showandtellI’m about to do my Show & Tell Workshop online for OCC this May, and I always put in a pitch not just to show more, but to tell better.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It doesn’t seem to be taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

Look at this passage from Delta of Venus by Anais Nin:

They fell on this, the three bodies in accord, moving against each other to feel breast against breast and belly against belly. They ceased to be three bodies. They became all mouths and fingers and tongues and senses. Their mouths sought another mouth, a nipple, a clitoris. They lay entangled, moving very slowly. They kissed until the kissing became a torture and the body grew restless. Their hands always found yielding flesh, an opening. The fur they lay on gave off an animal odor, which mingled with the odors of sex…

That’s beautiful, evocative writing–and it’s all narrative telling. But it works!

Or from the Dubliners by James Joyce:

Then late one night as he was undressing for bed she had tapped at his door, timidly. She wanted to relight her candle at his for hers had been blown out by gust. It was her bath night. She wore a loose open combing-jacket of printed flannel. Her white instep shone in the opening of her furry slippers and the blood glowed warmly behind her perfumed skin. From her hands and wrists too as she lit and steadied her candle a faint perfume arose.

Now, I’m not saying you have to strive for great art–although that’s not a bad goal. But narrative can be some of the most beautiful writing you’ll ever do. The trick here is when do you use narrative, and do you make it wonderful? Or do you slap down descriptions to hurry forward in the story, terrified that your pace is flagging?

I read too many manuscripts these days from young writers (and I mean by writing age, not their real age) which seem rushed. They  hurry into scenes without setting up the world and the time and the true pace of the story.

Showing can be a great too–but so can  narrative. Don’t neglect this invaluable tool! And to learn more about how to do this, check out the workshop. We’ll be doing a lot of hands-on work.

Picking a Point of View

pietown1940When I first began writing fiction my viewpoint wandered all over the place. I was fine in first person, but the rest of it…omniscient on steroids. I’d throw in the viewpoint of the dog on just a whim. Thankfully, I had some other writers who would read my work and who pointed out a better path. I’m teaching an online workshop on Point of View starting this week. Getting control of viewpoint in a story gave my writing a huge jump in quality. But what is it about viewpoint control that really helps a story?

1-A connection to one character helps the reader into the story. When I learned how to write deep third person POV, and how to stick to a viewpoint and smooth any transitions, I discovered I could better hook readers into the story by connecting the reader to one character. Let’s face it, walking into a room of strangers is tough. If you connect with one person, now you have a reason to stay at the party. That’s the same with any book. A wandering viewpoint or a distant viewpoint can keep the reader from getting past the first couple of pages in your story.

2-Viewpoint control improves the emotion in a scene. I sort of knew this from writing first person, but it didn’t really sink in until I realized that picking the character with the most emotionally at stake in any scene gave me a stronger scene with more emotion. Changes in viewpoint changed the tension and the emotion in a scene–so a change at the wrong time drained my scenes of their impact. A lot of writers know instinctively to stay with the emotion. But I’ve also seen writers change viewpoint right when things are really cooking in a scene–the writer backs off from the best emotion and the reader is cheated. This is where viewpoint control can really improve your writing a lot (with very little effort).

3-Viewpoint control keeps the reader focused. This may sound obvious–too many jumps in viewpoint and the reader gets confused. A confused reader puts the book away and may never return. I’ve seen this in movies, too. I had to stop watching the Transformer movies–too many jump cuts and changes and viewpoints and I not only stopped following the action, I stopped caring. It just became noise. You want to learn how to handle any shift in viewpoint so the reader isn’t thrown out of your story.

4-Points of view tells the reader what’s important. I’ve seen–and I used to do this–stories where EVERYONE’S viewpoint gets shuffled into the story. The guy holding the door open in chapter ten, the second cousin of the heroine who appears only for a page in chapter twenty…on and on. A lot of this and the reader starts wondering who are the main characters and starts wanting a scorecard to keep track. I’ve only seen this handled really well once–in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the point of view shifts are to anything that’s funny (which is the point of the book, really). Can a lot of viewpoints be brilliantly handled? Sure–if you’ve got the talent to pull it off. But why stress yourself and the reader–stick with the viewpoints of the people who matter. One big lesson I learned–when in doubt keep it simple. Stick to one or two viewpoints.

5-Strong viewpoint control lets you increase the tension in your scenes and your stories. When I was jumping around with everyone’s viewpoint my story lost focus. The pacing suffered because I was sending the reader off on tangents. It’s a lot like that party I mentioned earlier–if you’re wandering around a party hearing snippets of conversations, you’re not really involved or caring about any of them. But if you stop and focus on one conversation or get involved in one argument, that pulls in your focus. Now you have something you care about, meaning things matter. That is key to having tension in a story. If the reader doesn’t care that the heroine may not ever really love the hero, or that the hero may not save the world, you can have all sorts of great action but the book is going to be a yawn. You want your viewpoint control focused and tight so the reader is also focused–and caring about what happens next.

6-Viewpoint control helps you write. I used to get stuck in stories. Somewhere between page fifty and one hundred the story would wander off a cliff. When I went back to look at these failures I saw I was not really attached to any one character–I hadn’t figured out whose viewpoint mattered, and so I didn’t really know whose story this was. It’s important to figure out the viewpoints you want to use because you want to tell those character’s stories–and you want to know who is at the center of any story. These days if I get stuck in a scene I always try two things: I change the viewpoint, or I go back to see if I have the conflict identified. That fixes just about every roadblock in my writing.

7-Smooth viewpoint shifts keep the reader in the story. Any transition–between viewpoints or in time or between scenes–is a place where the writer can lose the reader’s attention. It just seems a natural stopping point. Elizabeth Daly who wrote lovely mysteries in the late Forties and in the Fifties taught me a lot about how to smooth and handle transitions point. The key is to hint or introduce the start of the next scene before the last one ends. Nora Robert’s books also taught me a lot about handling viewpoint shifts. When you find writers who do something really well, take the work apart and see how they do things.

When in doubt, you can always stick to first person–but even first person has some tricks to it to keep it from becoming all about “I…I…I” But that’s something to cover in the workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do you need a synopsis?

tablettypeIn these days of Indy publishing a synopsis can seem an unnecessary burden. Why write one if you’re going to self-publish? Right?  This April I’m going to be teaching my Sexy Synopsis workshop for Outreach International Romance Writers, and here’s a few reason why every writer could use a strong synopsis right from the start.

1. A road map helps you avoid dead ends and detours. Maybe it’s different for other writers, but in every book I’ve written I get to a point where I forget what I set out to do. Lost in the woods–heck, lost in knee-high grass even. The details swamp me and I look at the story and it gets stuck. A synopsis is my tool to remember what it is I need to write next, and to get me back on the path. You don’t have to be a slave to a synopsis, but it can save you.

2. A synopsis shows your weak spots. This is really helpful. You can look at a synopsis and understand at once that the second act action is contrived, or the main character motivation is weak, or the ending fizzles. Correcting these structural errors in a synopsis can save you pages and pages of revision. I’ve known writers who had to throw out large chunks of their book–that’s never fun, and frankly I’d rather write a synopsis than face revision hell.

3. Your synopsis is the start of your marketing copy. Every book needs a blurb–a good one if it’s going to sell. If you find you don’t have a kickass opening paragraph for your synopsis, chances are you’re going to also have a rambling, weak blurb for your book. This doesn’t help you grab readers. Pitching to an agent, or an editor, or a reader is all the same thing–you need a hook and your concept locked solid. That’s where a synopsis can help you refine your idea.

4. A synopsis can be revised. Get a new idea? Check it out with a revised synopsis? Does the whole story still make sense or is the new idea pulling you in a direction that won’t work for your other characters? A synopsis lets you check your story beats, your character motivations, and also lets you check in new ideas. A synopsis should not be written in stone–you want to be able to weave in those great new ideas. But you also want to keep control of your story so you give the reader the most satisfying story possible.

5. A synopsis is vital for any series or connected books. Did you forget the name of the main character’s neighbor? What about the hero’s eye colors? Are you writing about three sisters and now you have to go back and pull out details that sister two needs in her book? For the connected books I’ve written, the synopsis becomes the most useful tool to keep me on track so I don’t have to keep reinventing worlds.

6. A synopsis will show if you really have enough conflict to carry the story. One synopsis I did ran into pages and pages due to having a lot of characters, and a lot of conflict. I soon realized I had a novel not a novella on my hands. If you can easily fit your story into a one-page synopsis you may not have enough conflict for 80,000 words. Better to find that out with your synopsis and not on page sixty where the story runs out of gas.

7. A synopsis can help an artist create a book cover for you. More than once I’ve pulled out the short scene and character information from the synopsis to create a book cover–for traditional or self-published, indy or small press, a synopsis is simply a really good marketing tool.

So, take a deep breath. It’s not that bad once you get the knack of it. And now you’ll have to excuse me. I need to get a synopsis done for the book I’ve started and which now needs a better road map.

Getting Tense

samfootpaintIt seems a lot of folks are jumping on the Present Tense bandwagon. Now, don’t get me wrong, present tense can be cool–it can also come across as pretentious. The good news is that at least it keeps you from the mistake of slipping up on using past perfect tense when in past tense. But let’s go over these basics for those who may have skipped this class in school.

Present Tense – This is where you write as if things are happening now. I paint a picture. The sun is setting. It’s all going on in the present. The tricky part of present tense is what do you do with things that have happened–you have to not slip back into past tense.

Past Tense – Things have happened. I have painted a picture. Notice the verb change–we’re now in the ‘ed’ world. This is the most widely used verb tense for story telling. It’s comfortable for a reason. The trick here is when you are in past tense and you’re talking about the more distant past you have to switch to past perfect.

Past Perfect Tense – Things had happened a long time ago that need to be mentioned. Back when I was five, I had painted a picture of my world. The key word is “had.” If I had a nickel for every time a writer needed that had and left it out, well, I’d probably be doing other things with those nickles. Anyway, leaving out the ‘had’ can make for reader confusion. The ones that throw me is when a character is thinking about something that happened in childhood, but due to only using past tense it sounds as if this just happened in the story–and I then have to reread the paragraph and pick apart the meaning. I hate that.

 

Now there are other verb tenses, and a nice easy list can be found here at English Grammar Revolution. It’s worth the link to nail this down in your own writing, particularly if you plan to get fancy with your writing.

 

Make Your Scenes Real

mealVery often when I’m reading a manuscript for another writer the scenes will fall flat. The primary reason for this is that I (as a reader) am not pulled into the scene. The world feels flat because the only description is a little bit of what can be seen. When you neglect the other senses, the scene suffers. To be plausible, a scene needs to pull in the reader by using all the senses so the reader experiences the world.

So how do you weave in the five senses–sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste–without overloading the scene or the reader? Here are a few tips.

1-Start with the strongest sensation. What would your character notice first? Give that to the reader first, too.

For example, here’s a description from Burn Baby Burn where the heroine, Mackenzie, walks into a building on the edge of purgatory:

No reception desk. No chairs for waiting. Just lots of black marble, and the painful graffiti of demon-Aramaic dripping red across the ceiling and floor. Someone had also turned the air conditioning to ice-burn cold.

The chill crept along her skin as she walked, and it slipped through the soles of her boots.

Notice that the sense here is touch (the cold touching Mackenzie). There’s a little description of what can be seen (people are visual), but the strongest sensation here is of cold. So the details focus on providing that detail, and that sense is used to make the scene more real and vivid for the reader.

2-Be specific. The more specific, the better. If you say, He smelled like the woods. That’s nice. It’s poetic. But woods can smell moldy, damp, or like pine and very fresh and dry, or like a lot of things. And many readers have never been out of the city. So “woods” is not a specific description or smell. You want to layer in details that make the sense specific.

Here’s another example from Burn Baby Burn:

The half dozen other times she’d had to come down to this musty hole—and every time it had been to dig Josh out of his research—she’d thought it looked like the stacks at UCLA’s library. Miles of tall shelves with wide, leather-bound books stretched into climate controlled coolness. It smelled like library stacks, too—like dry, old paper. The place left her itchy. But any memory of college did that.

Notice the words used. Musty. Dry, old paper. A comparison is made to library stacks, so if the reader’s ever been in stacks, this will make the scene vivid. But even someone who hasn’t ever been into any library still gets the details of leather, dryness, mustiness. The more specific your details, the more the reader will “sense” the scene. Or in this case, smell the scene.

3-Go for the unexpected. If you use the usual descriptions this makes the world seem cliche. You want sensations that stand out and catch the reader.

Again, here’s an example from Burn Baby Burn:

Before she could think about it, she had him in her arms and had her tongue tangling with his. She heard his gun thud against the floor about the same time as hers, and she had her fists on his shirt to rip it off so she could get to his skin because she needed to touch him. And, oh, hell, could the man kiss—pushy and demanding, and just enough bite to make it interesting. He tasted of cherries, and if she didn’t get him on the floor in the next ten seconds, she’d die.

The guy Mackenzie is kissing tastes of cherries because he just drank a cherry Slurpee, so it’s logical that the taste would still be on his lips. This also avoids the cliche of him tasking like “man” or something else that would be too vague and not really locked into the scene and the character. Notice here, too, that we have both touch and taste being important, which shows the intimacy (you’re generally more into touch and taste and smell when you are really close to someone physically).

4-Look to contrast senses. A beautiful place that smells bad. A creepy sound along with a sensual touch along the skin. Contrast are always more interesting.

For example, in Burn Baby Burn Mackenzie walks into a beautiful house:

The rooms had a faint scent of lavender, and something else vaguely familiar. Stopping, Mackenzie took in a deep breath, and realized it was mint—with a vague hint of cloves, and something a little off. She’d know the scent of Josh’s charms anywhere, but this smell had a sour tang that made her want to open windows to air out the place.

So the house is described in a way that seems inviting, but the sour tang gives the reader an uneasy sensation that something is off in this place (and it really is).

5-Remember that a reader needs to be introduced to characters and to settings. This is where description is vital, and you do need to provide the right amount of description so the readers can see the characters and the world. This is very important in the first part of any story where everything is new to the reader.

Here’s a character introduction from Burn Baby Burn:

Glancing at the driver, she came up with an alpha silverback gorilla vibe; short hair going gray, and a lot of long-limbed muscle. The black dress shirt, rolled back at the cuffs and open at the throat, added to the image. And his khakis had not come off any rack. Judging by the expensive clothes and the weapon-edged angles to a face half-hidden by reflective aviator shades, she’d go for another line of work as this guy’s main vocation.

Notice that by putting the description in Mackenzie’s viewpoint it shows the reader what Mackenzie is seeing and thinking. That helps the description avoid the “laundry list” of physical assets. Also, this is where you can get a little lyrical and tell the reader a little not just about what someone looks like but what emotion does that look inspire.

Remember, all the senses help to convey an emotional reaction.

6-Use dialogue. The line from Star Wars, “What an incredible smell you’ve discovered,” delivered with sarcasm does more than say that it smells bad.

Here’s a similar line from Burn Baby Burn:

“This house smells of blood.”

The words came out a deep rumble, and Mackenzie glanced at Felix. Was this his way of saying this place creeped him out, too? Or maybe that he felt all homey because of it?

Have your characters react to the world in ways that help realize the world for your readers.

Viewpoint Shifts

One of the key techniques I learned as a writer is viewpoint control, meaning when to shift viewpoint and how to shift smoothly. This generally is not a problem for writers working in first person, but I’ve also read works lately like Shannon Mayer’s Rylee Adamson series which mix first person and third (that’s a trick too pull off!).writingdesk

I’m teaching a POV workshop this March-April and here are a few tips to help with knowing when to shift the viewpoint and how to shift smoothly.

When to shift viewpoint?

1-Don’t change the viewpoint unless you need to. Stick with the character who has the most emotionally at risk in a scene.

2-Stay with viewpoint as long as you can to keep the emotion and tension in a scene.

3-Only shift viewpoint if the scene becomes stuck, or the story forces you to switch.

For example, maybe you’re writing a love scene.  You’ve started in the heroine’s point of view because you want the reader identifying with her and this is a big emotional moment for her.  But the hero may have a moment, too, once the sex is over—maybe that’s the point he finds himself becoming emotionally involved with the heroine. You finish the scene out, and the hero has to leave. Right there, if you stay in the heroine’s viewpoint, the hero is going to walk out and that leaves the reader with just her and no conflict—if her issues in the scene are over, the hero’s AND his viewpoint need to come into the story.  Now you either have to have omniscient info about him and that could pull the reader out of the story, or you have to force thoughts into the heroine’s head that are going to read like plot exposition (and not really her thoughts).  Or you have to shift viewpoint if you want to follow the hero and stay with what’s going on with him. Now you have an excellent reason to change viewpoint.

Above all, make your decision to change viewpoint based on the fact that there’s no other choice to make this scene work.

How to shift viewpoint smoothly?

Shifting viewpoint is a lot like handing off a baton in a relay race–it’s easy to fumble it if you don’t smooth the shift for the reader. This  means you want to treat every point of view change as a place where you can lose the reader. Here are tips to help you smooth shifts:

1-Make viewpoint shifts happen in new paragraphs, not the same paragraph.

2-Use proper names not pronouns.

3-Use a bit of action to smooth the shift.

As an example of this, let’s look at an awkward viewpoint shift.

She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. She wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would he understand? He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.

Right there we trip up the reader in that we move straight from one character’s head to another. Most readers will need to re-read that passage. So let’s apply the three tips–break up the paragraph, apply names, and use action to shift the viewpoint.

She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. May wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would Tim understand? Leaning against the wall, May put out a hand to steady herself.

Tom covered May’s hand with his own. Under his touch, he could feel the heat from her skin, and her rapid pulse thudding hard in her wrist. He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.

The action of May reaching out and Tom covering her hand, the use of proper names before we move back into pronouns, and the paragraph break now all signal a viewpoint change.

But if you really want to force yourself to learn viewpoint control, write each chapter in one viewpoint only. You’ll learn a lot.

 

 

Horse Sense for You Charactes

akhal-teke1I’m doing my “Horse Sense for Your Characters” workshop over at Savvy Authors starting Monday (Feb 3), and there’s still time to register if you like. But I thought it would be good to talk about why I came up with this workshop–and why you might need it.

The workshop came out of my own frustration at reading what otherwise would be a really good story–except the things horses did (or had done to them) stretched out of my ability to suspend disbelief. This happens a lot with historical romances where you almost always have to include horses. And it can happen with modern novels set either around horse breeding, showing, or racing.

What are the worst mistakes?

1-The horse who acts like a dog. An recent animated movie committed this sin and had the horse lapping up water like a dog (they suck water down like Hoovers). Horses are not big dogs. Granted, they sometimes act like big, dumb dogs, but they have a whole different set of instincts due to being prey animals.

2-The horse who acts like a car. This is even worse. Horses do not park well, not even when tied. Horses have to be harnessed or tacked up and have to be cooled off and have to be walked and fed and watered and generally take a lot more care–this is why cars won the battle for convenient transportation.

buckedoff3-The easy to get up and down from horse. Even the shortest horse is a long way up from the ground. Unless we’re talking pony, most folks cannot easily swing up on  a horse (I knew one cowboy who had this trick, but forget it if we’re talking knights with armor here). Getting on and off a horse is a production–and horses seem to delight in moving right when you’re most off balance with one foot in the stirrup.

4-The stretch limo horse. Horses have limits of weight and speed and distance. The weight limit is a big one. Most horses can manage one person, but two is a huge burden, and generally puts weight over the horse’s loins (not good). It’s also really uncomfortable to ride double, and so not that romantic.

5-The kiss. Speaking of romance, the kiss from horseback is generally a myth. Yes, some horses will stand still for this (really, really well trained horses). Most horses feel you leaning and shift away–making for a really awkward moment. If you want some laughs at the expense of others, check out You Tube for the mounted weddings (hint: billowing wedding dresses and horses do not mix well–brings new meaning to the phrase run-away bride).

6-The stallion! Truth is stallions are generally a pain in the butt. If they’ve been used for breeding, they want to breed everything. You may think your mare is touchy, but stallions are just as moody. Yes, there are some good ones–and some very well trained ones. But, in general, if you want a good, steady ride, you’re looking for a gelding who’ll keep his mind on work.

arabian7-The big hero on the Arabian. Don’t get me wrong, I love Arabs–and I’ve ridden some great ones. I’ve  never seen one bigger than about 16 hands and that’s a rarity. They’re usually between 14 and 15.3 hands high (with a hand being 4 inches). This means they’re on the small side–any guy over 6′ is going to look like he is riding a pony. He will not look dashing–and I always start laughing at this point in any book that puts that big dude on that little horse.

So, in general, think of horses as characters–they want to eat (and eat some more). They have their own fears, their own opinions about things, and their own tempers. They aren’t dogs, or people, or cars. They are wonderful, however. And if you’d like to learn more, particularly about horses through history, stop by the workshop.