Monday, July 28, 2008

21

I received my 21st acceptance of the year today, for a confession I submitted in January.

Friday, July 25, 2008

20

I received my 20th acceptance of the year earlier today, for a confession I mailed off on the 6th.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Beginnings

The Short Mystery Fiction Society is discussing the "rules" of opening scenes. Among the "rules"--some of which are cribbed from Elmore Leonard--is "don't open with a description of the weather." There's debate on how valid these rules really are, with members pointing to this story or that as prime examples of great stories that begin with a description of the weather or that break other "rules."

I suspect the dilemma isn't the "rules." Here's what I posted:

I doubt that taking a few sentences to set up the atmosphere of a story is frowned on in today's market. I think what's frowned on is wasting multiple paragraphs describing weather that is unimportant, or a character's actions upon rising from bed, or background details that delay the start of the story.

There's a big difference between:

At 1:22 a.m., almost four hours into a thunderstorm that rumbled up the mountain and enveloped the lodge without warning, we lost power. At 1:23 a.m. someone pressed the muzzle of a .357 between the innkeeper's eyes and squeezed the trigger. None of the other guests recognized the sound, but I did. I woke immediately.

and

We all stood at the window and watched the storm race up the mountain. The lightning flashed across the evening sky like wayward fireworks and soon rain drops fat as marbles rattled the windows. The dark clouds made the night seem even darker and cast an ominous feeling of dread over all of the lodge's guests. I'd been in worse storms, I suppose, but this one was something more. It felt bigger, somehow, because the lodge was surrounded by pine forest and the nearest neighbor was ten miles down the mountain. The other guests slowly peeled away from the window. Some went to bed, others went to sit by the fireplace. By midnight, though, everyone else had turned in. I decided I might as well join them. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and changed into the new pajamas my wife had given me just before we'd left home. Then I slipped into bed beside her and watched the storm until I finally fell asleep sometime later.

A familiar sound woke me and it wasn't thunder. It was a gunshot, a gunshot that must have sounded just like thunder to the lodge's other guests....blah, blah, blah.

Both examples begin with weather, but the first example makes the weather a vital part of the scene. The second example makes the weather more of a space filler that delays the start of the story.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Writing Dialog

"Dialog is difficult to write," I said.

"Why?" An attractive young writer, eager to learn the secrets of my success, sat across from me. This wasn't the first time we'd met to discuss writing.

"Because it must be realistic without being real."

"I don't understand."

"Well, um, I'm not sure I can explain it, but--let's see--real people, like, they stop and start and, um, they st-stutter and talk in run-on sentences. Or incomplete sentences. And they don't always think before they, um, open their mouths and stuff. You know?"

"That was bad."

"Wasn't it, though?" I said. "I hear people talking like that every day."

She leaned forward. "So how do you make dialog realistic without being real?"

I considered for a moment before continuing. "Take out the fluff. Don't start sentences with 'well.' Eliminate the 'um's and 'er's. Eliminate throwaway bits such as 'by the way.'"

"That sounds easy enough, but that can't be it. There must be more."

I reached across the table and patted her hand. She didn't pull away. "There's much more, but perhaps we should order a drink before continuing. You game?"

After she said she was, I called the waiter over, ordered a pair of frozen margaritas, and watched him walk away. Then I continued. "That was a good example."

She appeared bewildered. "Of what?"

"Of knowing when to write dialog and when not to."

"I still don't understand."

"I could have written, 'I called the waiter over. He introduced himself, "Hi, I'm Bob. I'll be serving you today." "Hi, Bob," I said. "What will you have?" he asked. "Two frozen margaritas," I told him. "Is that all?" "Yes, Bob, that's all," I said. Then I watched him walk away before I continued.'"

"That wouldn't have advanced the plot at all, would it?"

I smiled. She was beginning to understand. I said, "Not at all."

"Anything else?"

"Avoid long blocks of 'dialog' where a single character does all the talking. Once a character has said more than three consecutive sentences, you're in danger of writing a monolog or a soliloquy. Even worse is when each of your characters speaks in long, uninterrupted blocks. That creates alternating monologues."

"That was four sentences."

"You could have interrupted me and broken it up a bit."

"No," she said. She licked salt off the rim of her glass. "I like listening to you."

I liked what her tongue was doing but I couldn't allow myself to be distracted. I had much more to teach her.

"The info dump should also be avoided," I told her, "especially in dialog."

"What's an info dump?"

"An info dump is when the author needs or wants to convey information to the reader and chooses to do it in a block of text rather than parceling it out in bits and pieces as the story progresses." I took a sip from my margarita and realized she'd already finished half of hers. "It's especially bad when one character tells the other character something they both already know."

"Give me an example."

"As you know, we're sitting in the bar of Bonita's, a place you once described as your favorite Mexican restaurant. Bonita's was opened in 1910 and is still owned and operated by the same family. It started as a hole-in the-wall and has grown significantly since then. What makes Bonita's unique is that the founding family--the Fitzpatricks--are Irish. It's the best place in town to celebrate St. Patrick's Day and Cinco de Mayo."

I saw a twinkle in the young writer's eye. Maybe it was my charm. Maybe it was just the alcohol. "I did know all that. So why did you tell it to me?"

"Info dump."

"Will it be important later in the story?"

"I doubt it."

She caught the waiter's attention and ordered two more frozen margaritas. I had barely finished my first one when he arrived with the fresh margaritas.

"What else?" she asked.

"Avoid blathering."

"What's blathering?"

"When one character asks a question that can be answered simply, but the second character uses it as a jumping off point to ramble on and on."

"For example?"

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Jo," she said. "I was named after my uncle Joe, but my parents dropped the 'e' to make my name feminine. My uncle Joe was a cool guy. He taught me to hunt and fish. Well, my uncle Joe and my Dad did. They took to me to Clauson's farm every summer. The Clausons were my mother's cousins. My mother never went out there with us. She liked to stay home. She said she enjoyed having a little time to herself. She--" The young writer stopped and looked at me. She had beautiful blue eyes. "I'm blathering, aren't I?"

I smiled and repeated something she'd said earlier. "I like listening to you."

This time she reached across the table for my hand and our fingers entwined. Then she wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and looked deep into my eyes.

I cleared my throat. "Of course, most of these rules can be broken if the story warrants it. Sometimes you need a character who stutters or one who blathers. But just one."

She stroked my palm with the tip of one finger. "What else?"

"Always have a good line to exit the scene."

Jo lowered her voice. "And what do you have?"

I already knew her answer, but I asked because it was the best way to end the scene. "Would you like to go to my place and see my manuscripts?"

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sunday, July 13, 2008

To market, to market

I didn't feel particularly creative this weekend, but creativity is only part of what it takes to be a writer. Instead of writing, I spent a good part of the weekend pulling manuscripts from the drawer and matching them to potential markets. Ultimately, I found places to send 12 unpublished short stories and two previously published essays.

Alas, I ran out of weekend before I ran out of manuscripts. I still have about half a file drawer filled with manuscripts that are between submissions. (And doesn't "between submissions" sound a great deal more appealing than "unsold"?)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Five years of fiction

I have reached a milestone that I think few other writers--especially writers too young to have written for the pulps--have achieved: I have had one or more pieces of short fiction published every month for 60 consecutive months.

That's five years of fiction.

Dare I hope for six?

POV

On the Short Mystery Fiction Society Yahoo group, Victor J. Banis posted the following link:

http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/PDF/ForceOfNature_Sampler.pdf

This is a link to a large file (which may take a long time to download if your Internet connection is dial-up), but beginning on page 54 is one of the best--if the not the best--article on Point-of-View that I've ever read.

Written by Suzanne Brockmann, who I know nothing about other than the information that's included in the file, this article will benefit writers no matter what their skill level.

Read it. You'll learn a lot.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

19

My essay for the textbook was accepted today, making it my 19th acceptance of the year.

I need a slew of acceptances to meet my one-acceptance-a-week goal and I don't see that happening. On the other hand, maybe it's time to stop setting my goals based on quantity.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Textbook contribution

Several months ago I was asked to contribute to a textbook on writing genre fiction. I finally--finally!--finished my contribution this evening and e-mailed it to the editors. I hope it meets their needs.

Nice melons...

Recent news reports indicate that watermelons contain the same key ingredients as Viagra and require no prescription. There's only one problem: Have you ever tried to swallow a watermelon?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Quoted

I'm quoted in "In Praise of Good Editors" by Darlene Ryan (First Draft, July 2008).