Everyone Should Write a Romance Novel Once

When I say “everyone” should write a romance, I mean everyone who wants to write in some genre whether it be literary or sci-fi or otherwise. I’ll start with the obvious: most novels have some sort of romance subplot in them. It’s always a good idea to do focused practice to get better at something. How many times have you cringed at the romance subplot of an otherwise good novel? Probably more than once.

But there are some less obvious reasons to do this exercise (and no, it doesn’t have to be a full novel or even good). I, and many other writers, get caught up in certain aspects of the craft. I tend to over-analyze and polish prose, as can be seen with the several dozen posts I’ve done here only looking at prose style. I’m also into plot, and I think most writers start a project because they are excited about a plot idea.

Now you might be thinking: what else is there? Exactly. That’s why you need this exercise. Romance novels almost universally ignore both prose style and plot. I know I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but just go look at the top few romances on Amazon. Browse the first few pages for free. The number 1 book for months and months has been Everything We Keep. The prose is almost laugh-out-loud funny, so clearly readers of the genre don’t care about that stuff.

This means you’ll be free to focus on other aspects of writing that often get ignored. The thing romance does well is create memorable, interesting characters. You’ll need to focus on characterization a lot.

Dialogue is very important as well. The dialogue should create tension and chemistry between the characters. Dialogue has to push the story forward by constantly revealing things. You can’t have a bunch of stiff “shoe leather” dialogue about the weather and small talk and greetings (unless its a historical where that type of thing might reveal status).

Lastly, setting description will be important. Romance readers want to be transported somewhere. This is a common focus of many other genres as well, but it’s one of the reasons so many romances take place in the lush countryside of Ireland or some Duke’s castle.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to write your romance. You are not to focus on plot. This has been predetermined. Pull up a random word generator. Here’s your plot. Answer the following questions using the random words. I’ll give sample answers.

How do they meet? Ans: “Dove”

Opening scene: They are both walking in a park and they stop on opposite sides of a pond to watch a dove. The dove flies off and poops on male lead. The female lead laughs. They meet eyes. He storms off.

Why can’t they be together? Ans: “Advocate” re-roll “Crop” So advocate for farming rights?

Male lead is a lobbyist for Monsanto-like corporation. Female lead is an activist against his company.

Next set of scenes: They meet at some high roller D.C. party, and she has infiltrated it with an attempt to wreck chaos as a form of protest. Right before she does it, they meet eyes across the room. He goes up and confronts her about laughing at him. Chemistry ensues. Early signs of love. Then she does her protest, and they realize they can’t be together.

They keep meeting up, falling more and more in love. They try to make it work despite their differences. There will be a sex scene or at least a kiss depending on how graphic you go. Eventually something so bad must happen that it seems they won’t be together.

You can use another random word here, or just tie it to what you have. Probably here it would be something like female lead makes male lead promise he won’t cross the line with some legislation. He promises, but gets caught in a no-win situation and crosses that line. She finds out and breaks it off. A scene or two of wallowing ensues.

Then there needs to be a proof of love scene. Here it’s easy. Male lead devises a way to kill the legislation, but it costs him his job. But that’s okay. Female lead is worth it. They live happily ever after. I know. This sounds suspiciously like The American President, but I swear those were my random words. And if you break down any romance, you’re going to find the same outline.

To recap, the form is easy. The leads meet. Only after some serious chemistry do they find a difficulty with their relationship. They make it work for a time despite this. Then something bad happens, and they seem to be permanently broken up. But then one proves their love for the other by sacrificing something important. They live happily ever after.

At any point that you can’t figure out what to do, use the random word generator. Throw some twists in with it. Do not, under any circumstances, spend a ton of time on the plot or prose. Get the characters and chemistry and dialogue and setting right. You’ll want to throw in a few side characters as well. Figure out their personalities with your word generator.

Side character 1: “Shark” So female lead has friend obsessed with sharks, maybe so much so that it offers comic relief. They sometimes protest together certain environmental causes, and this is how they met.

Side character 2: “Drunken” Male lead has alcoholic best friend. We see some of male lead’s redeeming qualities that female lead doesn’t see when he helps this friend in a scene.

I’ll end by reiterating that I do not believe this is how all romances are written. I’m not trying to make fun of them by doing this. The point is to forget about plot and prose as an exercise in generating interesting characters with chemistry and strong dialogue. So often these things get overlooked in other genres.

Also, it’s an exercise. Please do not publish this under any circumstances unless you take the time to make it good. The Amazon self-publishing scene is flooded enough with weak novels as it is.

Thoughts on NaNo and The Story Grid Podcast

Today I want to talk about my thoughts on The Story Grid Podcast. The story grid is a method of developmental editing invented by Shawn Coyne, and can be found in his book of the same name. The book is well worth reading to learn about story structure, genre, pacing, obligatory scenes, and much more. You may think you understand these things, but there’s a big difference between having a vague understanding of structure and identifying specific structural problems and how to fix them.

The Story Grid Podcast is an utterly fascinating case study using the story grid. It comes out once a week and is a conversation between Tim Grahl, a first-time fiction novelist (though he’s written nonfiction and works in the industry), and Shawn Coyne. Tim writes or edits specific parts of the book he is working on and then Shawn does his magic.

I thought I had a good grasp on the story grid before going deep into this podcast (I’ve now heard all the episodes). Tim asks a lot of great questions, and it always turns into interesting conversations. These questions range from general ones every level of writer thinks from time to time to really detailed questions on making subtle value shifts work in a particular chapter.

Among many other topics, they’ve covered: having the expected necessary scenes without being cliche, identifying internal and external genres, narrative devices, beats vs scenes vs sequences and making these flow together, what is a beginning hook and how to make it work, actually performing a full story grid analysis on already written books, theme, good writing habits, what in the world happens while revising a first draft, marketability, inciting incidents.

To me, this is the best writing podcast out there right now. I also listen to Writing Excuses, The Self-Publishing Podcast, The Creative Penn, and many that have to do with books and book reviews. Writing Excuses is also very good on the nuts and bolts of writing, but the advice tends to be quick and generic. What makes The Story Grid so good is that you get to watch an experienced editor talk through his thought process and make a draft better in very specific ways.

They talk about things you’ve probably never thought about even if you have a book or two out there. Shawn will make Tim identify the main value at stake in a scene, then determine if it shifts and in what direction. Then they compare it to nearby scenes to make sure the value shifts are contrasting. This creates a sense of forward motion and interest in the reader.

Maybe a beta reader told you it got boring somewhere. Before learning to think this way, you’d probably be at a loss and write it off as their subjective opinion. After learning to think this way, it will probably be obvious that their was no value at stake, or it had been moving in the same direction too many scenes in a row. This probably sounds abstract, but seeing it in action is amazing.

This brings me to a related topic. I’ve talked about this before. NaNoWriMo is going on right now. It is a great way to get 50,000 words down fast so you have something to work with. I often participate for this reason, but you should not be under any delusions that what you have at the end of this is a novel that can be proofread a few times and will be publication ready.

Now I have a really clear case study and proof of this. Over a year ago, Tim popped out his first draft of the novel he’s working on. Even with an experienced editor helping every single week (look at the website to see there hasn’t been any down time), Tim has barely finished the developmental edits on the Beginning Hook section (about 25% of the novel).

I’m not saying it will take everyone this long, but if you somehow edit significantly faster (let’s say a year for the whole process on your first novel), you might want to consider that you’re doing it wrong. Tim isn’t wasting time tinkering with stuff that doesn’t matter. He has Shawn guiding him to parts that actually need editing.

I’ll also point out that these are merely developmental edits: story structure. I’m not sure if Tim has been warned that after all the developmental edits are done, he’ll have what I usually call a rough draft (as opposed to a “first draft”). The rough draft will then have several passes to edit for prose style, tone, voice, flow, tense, point of view, sense, detail, description, and so on.

I could see this process of getting his first novel in shape to submit taking three or four years. I’ll reiterate that this is all happening under the guidance of an experienced editor, so it is highly efficient compared to a first-time novelist working through these issues on their own.

I’ll end with a thought. If you read this post and you’re saying: what the hell could be taking so long? You might want to start at the beginning of the podcast and listen all the way up to the current episode. May the scales fall from your eyes. Writing is an art and a craft, and many that have a life-long career doing it still feel like novices.

Structural Analysis of Bag of Bones: Chapter 1

Last week I was somewhat disparaging about opening hooks of novels. Today I want to do a thorough analysis of the structure of Chapter 1 of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, because I think it is an example of an opening hook done well.

I read enough books on writing and listen to enough podcasts on writing that I might conflate a bunch of terminology. Some of this will be Story Grid or Writing Excuses or classical Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Sorry for not sticking to one style of analysis.

The chapter consists of seven scenes or segments (some are quite short, so “scene” might not be quite the appropriate term).

Scene 1:

The first paragraph let’s us know the narrator’s wife went out for routine drugstore supplies and wound up dead. This is the inciting incident for Act I, but also for the chapter and the scene.

King doesn’t tell us how it happens, and this is the hook. What makes this a good hook is that this opening starts at the beginning of the story. This isn’t some artificial action to draw us in. He doesn’t tell us how she dies, and that is the driving force behind keeping the reader interested. It’s the removal of information rather than the giving of information that makes this work.

The scene rounds out by the narrator looking at what his wife purchased. He ends on a cliffhanger. He sees something that indicates she might have been living a double life, but he doesn’t tell us what it is. Now we have removal of information again. We want to know what the item is, and we want to know how she died.

I find it hard to imagine someone reading this first scene (less than 1000 words) and being able to put the book down. This hook is really, really good without being patronizing or condescending.

Scene 2:

It opens with the wife leaving the drugstore. He establishes the narrative voice by indicating the narrator is a writer, and he’s only re-imagining what the scene looked like. He foreshadows the death of the wife being a car accident.

“…there was that shrewish howl of locked tires on pavement that means there’s going to be either an accident or a very close call.”

It shifts to two old women in their own car and a large truck barreling at them. What’s brilliant here is that Scene 1 set a lot of expectation. We know the wife dies, but she doesn’t appear to be in the oncoming accident. This is how King creates tension in the scene. He prolongs telling you what actually happened by describing tangential things. This gives the reader the chance to imagine her own scenarios: truck veers off into wife?

The narrator shifts to the truck driver telling him about the accident. This really ratchets up the narrative drive. If the truck driver kills the wife, would he really be on friendly terms, talking about it to the narrator? Then bam. The truck hits the car with the two elderly women, and both are fine and the wife is fine!

This is a reversal of expectations. The wife watched it happen, but then she falls down when going toward the accident. The tension in the scene increases as no one pays attention to the down wife. This is narrative irony at work, because we, as readers, already know she dies, but we still get mad when people ignore her. It’s as if we think she could be saved if someone attended to her.

The scene, of course, ends with another cliffhanger. We’ve resolved one mystery: how she died (brain aneurysm). As soon as it gets resolved, another is introduced. At the coroner’s, the narrator reminds us of the other unanswered question.

“I told him what she’d purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question.”

Now we doubly want to know the item, because it prompted the double life comment and a question for the coroner. Dig that hook in deeper.

Scene 3:

The funeral. Because this is such a departure from the first scenes, there is a new, minor inciting incident for the scene. One of the relatives argues with the funeral director over the price of the casket. The narrator argues with this relative.

It gives conflict, but it is mostly a device to direct our attention away from the earlier question. In that conversation, the narrator tells him the wife was pregnant. This is the turning point of the whole chapter. This reveal is made more shocking by distracting the reader right before giving it.

Our first questions have been resolved. The unknown item was a pregnancy test, and the question to the coroner was to find out if she was actually pregnant. But now we’re left with a new unknown. Is the child the narrator’s? Our guess is no, because of the earlier double life comment he made. We’ve also learned they were trying for eight years with no success.

Scene 4:

We’re still at the funeral. Some standard funeral stuff happens, and we get moments of grieving. Earlier, when King strung the reader along, I called this increasing narrative drive, but because of the resolution of the most pressing issues, this isn’t the case here.

This scene serves as a reprieve to the tension of the first three. It offers character development and empathy for the narrator. The main conflict is the narrator discussing with his siblings what to do about their parents descending into dementia from Alzheimer’s.

The scene ends with the brother of the wife not knowing she was pregnant either, and that the baby was a girl. We end with same questions as the end of the previous scene.

Scene 5:

We get more dialogue as people leave to go back home after the funeral. This is more character development (learn how stubborn the main character is and won’t ask for help etc).

In the middle of the scene, an ominous warning is dropped. “And be careful.” “Careful of what?” “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know Mikey.” In normal circumstances, we wouldn’t think too much of this, but it’s Stephen King. This serves as the next unknown source of tension. Who got the wife pregnant? And now, what should the narrator be careful of?

The scene closes with more symbolic foreshadowing. There’s a description of dark rumbling thunder in the distance as night falls.

To take stock, we built and built and built the tension and unknowns all the way to the turning point, roughly halfway through the chapter. Then we get two segments where we came back down for a bit. But now he’s starting to turn the tension back up.

Scene 6:

We are again in a totally new segment: the narrator, by himself, after the funeral. So we get another minor inciting incident to get things moving again. The scene opens with the narrator having a crying fit. He calls it his “second crying fit,” which implies there’s going to be more.

The narrator hires a group of people to scrub his house clean. He keeps repeating that he feels like he’s in a dream. Up to this point, it seems the obvious way to describe mourning. But now the words have appeared a few too many times to be without significance. The scene ends by reminding us of the pregnancy test. He wants to rekindle that desire to find out what exactly happened.

Scene 7:

New inciting incident. In pre-cleaning for the cleaners, he comes across an open paperback the wife had been reading: The Moon and Sixpence. Side note: This book is about a man who abandons his wife and children to become an artist. Coincidence? Are we to believe the narrator abandoned his wife to be a writer?

What’s interesting is that every one of these supposed “clues” could be to throw us off. The narrator is grasping for anything to help him figure out what happened. But this doesn’t diminish their role in creating a strong opening chapter hook.

We find ourselves thinking: the book, the crying fits, feeling like in a dream, the pregnancy, the coming storm, what does it all mean? The book takes on much greater significance, because the narrator looks at the page, reads some of it, recalls time with his wife in college when they first read it. So many words are devoted to this that we can’t help but feel this is the strongest clue we’ve gotten so far.

He goes into another crying fit and falls asleep. In his dream, he tries to put the book back where he found it, but his wife is there. She calls the book her dust-catcher. She’s wearing what she was buried in. He wakes up. He checks for her, and she isn’t there in real life.

The chapter ends.

The overall structure is two builds with a turning point in the middle. There is a main hook that takes most of the chapter to develop: what happened for her to become pregnant? But he starts with smaller more immediate hooks to get the reader into the story faster. The main question doesn’t make sense without the context of the characters being developed a little first.

The chapter has an “ending payoff” when he finally links the ideas of being in a dream and the book and the wife in the last scene. Since this is King, we also have one extra cliffhanger for the end of the chapter. Was the last event a dream, or did he actually communicate with the dead wife somehow?

The Difficulty of Invisible Description

I’ve been reading Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second Dresden Files novel. In the middle of a fight with a werewolf, the narrator uses this simile:

I was flung back through the air like a piece of popcorn in a sudden wind …

I loved this image at first. It conveyed a vivid image of what happened. It did so with a completely original bit of description. In a sense, it seemed to follow all the “rules” for good writing. It shows instead of tells. It avoids cliche. So why did something feel wrong about it? Why did it pull me out of the story?

And that’s when it struck me. In a sense, the description was too good. It wasn’t invisible, which is why it pulled me out of the story. This is one of those things that no one wants to tell you, but sometimes writing can be too creative to serve its purpose.

Eventually, I realized I could pin the problem down even more. The word “popcorn” is the word that jumped out too much. In a fight scene with a werewolf, the word popcorn is too unexpected. I talked a bit about this in the post on tonal consistency. It isn’t the right tone for the moment.

As readers, we have baggage surrounding werewolves, and we have baggage surrounding popcorn. There is no overlap between these two histories. Sometimes this stark contrast can be done purposefully to achieve a desired mental state in the reader (comedy or Lynchian horror to name a few), but this was not the place for such a thing. A fight scene needs to have invisible description, and that’s often harder than the creative thing.

Let’s workshop how my own thought process goes for description. Say I’m writing a fight scene, and the antagonist yells an insult at Bob, our protagonist. My first draft has the sentence:

Bob was angry.

It’s such bad writing, but that’s what first drafts are for.

On revision, I think about the advice “show don’t tell.” I need to come up with some description that shows the anger. I replace the sentence with:

Bob’s cheeks flushed red with anger.

It’s an improvement but not by much. I call this “fake showing,” because I’m still telling the reader “with anger” and I’ve only put in a shallow, cliche idea.

How did this happen? Well, I heard the word anger, and I thought the color red. I also thought the phrase “hot head.” The description came out as something red on the person’s head. It’s dull and uninformative.

Here’s a technique I learned from one of Orson Scott Card’s books on writing. The first few things you think of will always be cliche and ordinary. That’s why you thought of it first. So make a list of 10-20 descriptions, and only start working with ones that fall near the end of the list. This forces you to exhaust all the common tropes. Don’t worry about sentences. Get the idea for the sentence down.

Anger welled in his gut. (cliche)
He shook with anger. (cliche)
Balling of fist. (cliche)
A low growl of anger in his chest. (semi-cliche, but better)
Tightening of muscles: face? neck? chest? (getting somewhere)

We could move to even more ideas, but let’s stick with this last one. I wanted to get away from the head, so let’s not use the face. There’s too much danger for cliche there. I like neck, because it isn’t so inventive as to automatically draw the reader out of the scene. I can’t recall ever reading this description for anger, but it strikes me as something everyone will immediately relate to: the tightening of the neck muscles.

Let’s try it.

The muscles in Bob’s neck coiled into a tense knot.

It’s okay. It’s a bit general and vague. Which muscles? How did it feel? We’ve replaced telling of the anger to telling of the feeling of anger.

Also, I’ve sort of lost that we’re talking about anger, and it’s cheating to tack on “of anger” to the end of that sentence. I even see this in established authors. It makes me cringe, because if it’s needed, you haven’t used he right description. If it isn’t needed, why is it there?

Let’s make it a bit more descriptive in a way that edges us back toward the anger.

The long muscle running down the left side of Bob’s neck snapped to a rigid knot and pulsed with a fiery violence.

I think the anger has come back a bit. It walks up to cliche with “fiery violence,” but I don’t think it crosses the line.

Are we done? No! Now we have to do the hard part. Will it be invisible in the scene? That’s hard to say without the context of the sentences around it. But there is a major danger with the way it is written now (I did this on purpose). It personifies a muscle by giving it an emotion. Like the simile I started with, this is a dangerous thing for invisible description. Any simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, (insert word here)-ification, will draw attention to itself.

There are tons of situations in which description doesn’t have to be invisible, like setting a scene. In those situations, the literary techniques can run wild with creativity. The middle of an action sequence can’t pull the reader out of the story, so invisibility is more important.

Now let’s try to do one more revision where we tone it down without losing the essence. I first notice some excessive wordiness, which I’ll try to contract and simplify.

A fiery pain jolted through the left side of Bob’s neck as the muscle tensed into a knot.

This is close to done. It will probably need some more tweaking in context to make sure it is invisible and conveys the anger in the appropriate amount. Good luck on your own invisible descriptions!

P.S. My parents complain that it takes me too long to write a book. Here’s a 1000-word thought process in an attempt to edit a 3-word sentence. How long does it take to edit a 90,000-word novel? Do the math.

The Fine Line Between Original and Nonsense

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

— Mark Twain

I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and it never ceases to amaze me how good she is at crafting original sentences and plots. She has fast become one of my favorite authors. Each book shocks me with how completely different it is from the last.

Anyway, that’s beside the point of this post. I’ve also been reading a lot of first-time writers in an online critique group. Conventional writing advice says to convert cliché and boring descriptions to precise, original ones. This post is going to be about how this advice can lead people astray.

To me, it is better to have a cliché description that is correct than some original bit of nonsense that actually leaves the reader more confused. It is really easy to fall into this trap, because flowery language can sound really good until you think about it (and whether it is the “right word” as Twain put it).

I won’t embarrass anyone by using a real example, but these are pretty easy to come up with. On the first draft, Writer has the sentence:

I wanted to punch him with every fiber of my being.

Writer recalls the advice and decides to take this vague, cliché statement of feeling and “show rather than tell” a more specific and original description. After a few revisions, they are proud of the new version—confident in its detail and originality.

My balled fist seethed with fury, a red flare arcing from my evaporating essence toward Bob. The hum of rage deafened my senses to a pulp of what I used to be.

Hold on. What is going on here? We’ve gone from simple cliché to overly melodramatic. First, we should ask ourselves if this level of drama is necessary. Maybe the correct solution was to just delete the whole sentence, because it was clear from context that the character wanted to punch him. If not, maybe the correct solution was change it to “I wanted to punch him.”

Whenever you start to change things, you should ask yourself: have I made it more correct or less? This question must override any concerns of originality. Rather than draw a reader in, incorrect flower language can push a reader away. This is the point of this post. Sometimes the more original phrasing can be nonsense. It’s a fine line (as we’ll get to in a second).

What does “evaporating essence” mean? This is one of those things that sounds fancy on the surface but is nonsense once you try to think about it. What does “deafened my senses” mean? It is another fancy but partially incorrect phrase. Only one sense can actually be deafened, and though in some circumstances this might work, why not use a more accurate fancy word like “enervated” if we’re going the nonsense route. “What I used to be” isn’t the proper ending. It sounds semi-deep but it’s incorrect and confusing grammar at best and nonsense at worst.

What’s scary is that there are probably first-time writers out there who read these two and would pick the second, when it is clear to me that the original cliché is infinitely better. The cliché gives a “correct” description whereas the creative description is a mess of nonsense. It sounds better, like something a sophisticated writer would write, but no great writer would let that nonsense through the editing phase.

This is going to sound mean, but when agents say they can tell in a few paragraphs if a book is going to be any good, this is the type of thing they’re looking for. A trained eye can easily tell the difference between this fancy nonsense and good creative writing. First-time novelists might think they’re imitating how a professional does it, but they can’t tell the difference yet.

Since the Olympics are on, here’s an analogy. Many people watch gymnastics in awe and think certain routines are absolutely perfect, yet the trained eye of the judges still find over a point in deductions. One must train the writing eye to see the nonsense descriptions even if they sound fancy.

I’ll just caution anyone considering self-publishing in the face of massive rejection by the publishing industry that the rejection may be for this reason. Some people choose self-publishing and hire excellent editors and do it the right way for the right reasons. Self-publishing because it is the only way to get something bad out there is the wrong reason (and glancing through Amazon’s self-published stuff tells me that more than a few people have chosen to go that route for the wrong reasons).

Now let’s look at some original ways to describe things that are not nonsense. This is where Margaret Atwood comes in. She is so good about this. She is inventive with her language, yet the descriptions are correct. They enhance the reader’s experience rather than confuse them.

The orange tulips are coming out, crumpled and raggedy like the stragglers from some returning army. I greet them with relief, as if waving from a bombed-out building; still, they must make their way as best they can, without much help from me.

She makes an original comparison of the tulips to a returning army. The simile is apt and vivid, making it a good one. It puts clear images into our minds, and she reinforces the idea with adjectives that help tailor the comparison toward the elements she wants us to think about. This is a correct way to do original description.

But then it gets even better, because she doubles down on the simile and keeps it going. The main character greets the army of flowers, and she imagines her own building caught in the war. She can’t help them, though.

This conceit is almost too much for mere flowers, but the consistency in tone and image help it cohere into a truly original description that hasn’t gone over the line into nonsense. Context would help here, because the main character is aging and can’t kneel to do her proper gardening. The sadness in the image helps give the reader some empathy for how the character feels, and her inability to help the army enhances her feelings about her inability to help the flowers.

It takes a lot of work to write this way. Atwood came up with a fascinating and original description of tulips, and then took the time to make the entire passage reinforce the simile and shed light on how the main character felt. Too often writers think that originality means taking a cliché and then using a thesaurus to merely replace the boring words with less common ones. This often leads to nonsense.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 11

Today we’re going to look at the prose of J. M. Coetzee. He is a South African writer and is known for his controversial topics. His 1980 work Waiting for the Barbarians is about a town magistrate that takes on disturbing power by preying on the fears of the people about an incumbent attack by the barbarians. This novel is now seen as an eerie and accurate premonition of the events in the U.S. after 9/11 that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the forfeit of our freedoms in the name of safety.

The novel I actually want to look at is his more recent 1999 novel Disgrace. The main character is a disgraced English professor who loses his job after having sex with a student under dubious circumstances. He moves in with his daughter in the countryside to recover from the affair and try to turn his life around. While there, the two suffer a brutal attack coming from lingering apartheid tensions.

I won’t give more away, but a hallmark of Coetzee’s writing is how much he packs into so little space. This novel is short, more like a novella, yet it contains more plot and emotional content than many 90,000 word novels. And this is where I’d like to start with his prose. If you’ve never read him, I highly recommend taking one or two days to go through one of his novels. The bare and exposed prose breaks every rule we’ve been taught, yet it suits his subject matter perfectly. It is unlike anything I’ve read. I can’t even compare him to other people.

To set the scene, the professor has just called Melanie, the student, at her house. Her mother answered and has left the phone to get her.

Melanie—melody: a meretricious rhyme. Not a good name for her. Shift the accent. Meláni: the dark one.

‘Hello?’

In the one word he hears all her uncertainty. Too young. She will not know how to deal with him; he ought to let her go. But he is in the grip of something. Beauty’s rose: the poem drives straight as an arrow. She does not own herself; perhaps he does not own himself either.

The first segment is the professor’s thoughts. Part of the slimness of Coetzee’s writing comes from how he slides into and out of the head of the main character with no frills. No italics. No “he thought” to punctuate and emphasize what is already obvious. I like this style, and find some writer’s overemphasis on pointing out character’s thoughts as needless distrust of the reader’s comprehension.

The punctuation through this segment is brilliant. It also allows Coetzee to do away with excess words that the professor wouldn’t be thinking anyway. It flows quickly like actual thoughts would. It’s word association rather than something logical.

Then we get to the actual words. He notes the rhyme between Melanie and melody. But the brilliant thing is calling it a “meretricious” rhyme. This word does so much work in the passage. On the face of it, he wants the rhyme to be deceiving because he doesn’t want a melodic girl but a devious one. The word meretricious doesn’t merely mean deceiving though; it has the archaic meaning “of, like, or relating to a prostitute,” exactly how the professor views the student in that moment.

In four sentences, we, as readers, feel so much. We get to watch how the professor thinks about this student. We watch how his mind turns things around. We see how he starts to justify his actions to himself. In context, these four sentences give us a sense of revulsion at the main character’s true self that we wouldn’t get from a mere surface description of the act. There’s something deeper and more disturbing about the scene playing out this way.

After she answers the phone, the point of view shifts out of his thoughts, but things only get worse. Now we see that he understands that what he is doing is wrong. He understands that he needs to leave, but the narrator joins in on the justification. He’s out of control. She’s out of control.

As a reader, we start to feel helpless. Even the narrator is pushing the act along, and we learn that we cannot trust the narrator to show us the moral condemnation we hope for. We want to shout, “No! He does own himself! Stop making excuses for him. Lust is not reason enough to lose control of one’s actions.”

Shakespeare is quoted with “beauty’s rose,” reemphasizing the fact that the English professor knows his stuff, but it is more significant than that. This comes from Shakespeare’s first sonnet, and this is the first scene to start the plot of the novel. The full sonnet is about an older man who self-destructs under his selfish and gluttonous ways. That brief phrase “beauty’s rose” is a deep foreshadowing into the rest of the novel.

This is what makes Coetzee such an experience to read. His sparse prose strikes immediate emotional response into readers with no analysis necessary. But upon a deeper reading, we can find a shocking amount of extra information layered in through precise word choice.

A Case Study in POV

Point of view (POV) is one of those things that is hardly noticed when done well but can ruin a story if done poorly. Today we’ll examine how POV affects Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Elizabeth Strout’s Abide With Me.

Never have I encountered such perfect novels for this case study. Gilead is widely regarded as a modern classic. Abide With Me is mostly unknown. Yet they both tell remarkably similar stories. Both have Protestant ministers as main characters in small town America in the 50’s. Both authors have won Pulitzer Prizes. They were published a mere two years apart (2004 and 2006). They deal with the same themes. Their lengths are roughly the same. So why the difference in reception? I think it can be completely attributed to Strout’s error in POV usage.

Gilead is told as a sequence of first-person letters from a Congregationalist minister to a son who will not know him. It is deeply personal and reflective to use this POV and serves as an excellent way to delve into discussions of faith in a broadly secular society, religion, theology, disappointment, judgment, fears, and so on. These manifest through conflict the minister has with his small town and what the minister sees as his own personal failings regarding his family.

Abide With Me is told in a very loose, meandering third-person (semi-omniscient) POV. The focus is still on a minister in a small town and his conflicts with the parishioners about theology and personal failings regarding his family. One could try to make an argument that Abide With Me focuses on the town itself as the main character, and this is the point of using a meandering POV. But I can’t get behind this. My guess is that over 80% of the novel is in a close third-person limited view of the minister, so the POV is wrong even for that argument. Also, all of the drama and emotional content come from the minister’s POV. To me, this novel would have been a much cleaner and powerful one if those few POV switches were cut or changed to the minister’s.

Let’s dig a little into why first-person worked so well in Gilead. Here’s a sample:

I get much more respect than I deserve. This seems harmless enough in most cases. People want to respect the pastor and I’m not going to interfere with that. But I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.

We learn so much from this one brief passage. The pastor is modest and sympathetic. We get to hear his voice and see how he thinks. We learn how others see him and how he understands how they see him. He’s funny! His sense of humor comes through, because it is in his voice. When you read a whole novel like this, you feel like you personally know him, and I think this is why the novel resonates so well with people. It’s the POV, not the content. This is why Strout’s novel is not held in the same regard.

But Mrs. Slatin arrived for a visit, and took Lauren shopping for curtains, a bathroom rug, a crib, dishes with apples painted on them. And when Mrs. Slatin left, saying, “Well, you won’t be here for long, dear. This is just temporary,” Lauren said she wanted the horrid old place painted pink, she couldn’t stand it, and so Tyler asked the church, and then painted the walls of the living room and the dining room pink. “Perfect!” Lauren said. “I love you!”

Joy filled him, and trepidation, for the job of being pastor of this church was, for Tyler, an assignment of great seriousness. He was moved by the kindness of his parish, how they sometimes left notes for him by his office in the church, saying how his sermon had touched them.

I chose this passage, because I think it is trying to do a similar thing to the other one: establish how the pastor is received by the congregation and how he understands what they think. Look at that opening, though. It focuses on his wife’s POV. We get some of her character, but we’re kept at arm’s length by this distant third-person narration.

This distance is necessary to easily flow between points of view, but it leaves us feeling cold here. When we do switch to Tyler’s POV, we’re just told how he is received. We don’t get his voice. We don’t feel like we fully understand his thoughts. It is a one-dimensional description of his feelings and lacks his voice.

The whole novel reads this way, and it is a strange choice. I’m not sure why Strout chose to tell such a deeply personal story from such a distant and cold POV. There are few times in published literature where one can point to such a blatant mistake, but I think this is one of those times. I can only imagine what this novel could have been if a more personal POV was used.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 10

“Good prose should be transparent like a windowpane.” – George Orwell

If you’ve listened to fantasy writers talk about their craft much, you’ve probably encountered this idea that Brandon Sanderson heeds the Orwell advice with clean, minimal prose and Patrick Rothfuss uses beautiful, stylized prose to provide added layers of depth to his writing. I’ve probably heard this three or four times from various sources (writing excuses and otherwise). The idea is that neither is wrong; they are just different philosophies.

Today I want to dispel this idea by examining prose from Patrick Rothfuss’s first novel The Name of the Wind. Rothfuss can write in a stylized manner, and I think his novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a prime example of this. But that novella didn’t exist when the meme started.

I’ve discussed this several times in past installments, so I won’t dwell on it here. What the starting quote means is that you shouldn’t see the words. The words merely provide a framing you look through, and the images appear in your mind as you read.

We’ve been told that Sanderson uses a clear window and Rothfuss uses different colored glass to tint the experience. The clear glass means using words that paint the picture in the clearest way. Using colored glass means using unnecessary or less accurate words pictorially that add something else.

Here’s an example showing the difference. He watched he white snow float to the ground. Maybe that paints the picture accurately, but there are other things that could tint the image. The harsh white snow glared into his eyes as it fell to the ground. Words like “harsh” and “glare” and “fell” tint the sentence with emotional content that wasn’t there before, even though the picture is pretty much the same.

Anyway, let’s move on to the actual prose. I’m taking from the beginning of the book just so no one can claim “editorial fatigue” (meaning, maybe he got lazy with the prose in the middle where no one would much notice it anyway).

The innkeeper appeared with five bowls of stew and two warm, round loaves of bread. He pulled more beer for Jake, Shep, and Old Cob, moving with an air of bustling efficiency.

The story was set aside while the men tended to their dinners. Old Cob tucked away his bowl of stew with the predatory efficiency of a lifetime bachelor. The others were still blowing steam off their bowls when he finished the last of his loaf and returned to his story.

This is pretty much the first non-introductory, non-dialogue chunk of text in the novel. Let’s hunt for any description that might tint the glass a certain way. I see: warm, bustling, predatory. In context, the only one of these words that could maybe do double duty is “warm.” This is because the inn is portrayed as a warm, comforting place these people come to.

Honestly, this is a stretch in my opinion, because the loaves of bread were warm. It could be an unintended coincidence. The other two color words both modify efficiency (something I think Rothfuss would have changed if someone had pointed out the proximity of this word to itself). The two words are descriptions of individual people, so it would be bad if these tinted the overall picture of the scene. We certainly aren’t supposed to feel any sort of predatory sense at this stage (unless it is foreshadowing).

I have to conclude that Rothfuss, at least in this segment, also uses clean, transparent prose without the tinting many claim he does. This isn’t bad at all. I like this type of writing. I just wanted to point out that this idea is mostly a myth.

For comparison, let’s look at something from the beginning of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson:

It’s really happening, he thought with mounting terror. This wasn’t a drill in the camp. This wasn’t training out in the fields, swinging sticks. This was real. Facing that fact—his heart pounding like a frightened animal in his chest, his legs unsteady—Cenn suddenly realized that he was a coward. He shouldn’t have left the herds!

At first glance, the sentence structures are much more complicated. This already adds a layer of opacity to the windowpane that the Rothfuss passage didn’t have. We get color words like: terror, pounding, frightened, animal, unsteady, coward, herds. These all tint the glass in the same direction. The fighting is terrifying and the people like a herd of animals.

I’ve actually read both of these books recently, and they both continue along these lines, making the convention wisdom pretty much reversed. I can explain it, though. The prologue to the Rothfuss is quite abstract and poetic and colorful. So I think this is a mistake of first impressions. Everyone remembers how the prologue goes, and then remembers the rest of the book being the same way. I think Sanderson has shifted his style significantly toward this more opaque and stylized writing and people only remember his early works.

Year of Giant Novels Part 6: Seveneves

Seveneves is a giant sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson. I use the term novel loosely here. It isn’t so much a novel as a history textbook about an event that didn’t happen: the moon exploded. I say this because there isn’t really story or characters in the traditional sense.

The sense in which these elements exist is the same as a history textbook. The facts are presented in sterile, detached fashion. The main characters exist in the same way that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. are “characters” in a history textbook. History texts don’t really have character development, but the figures still go around doing things.

Another parallel is that the story often completely stops for huge, in-depth descriptions of important inanimate objects. I think of this as similar to how a U.S. history text might go into great depth on how a cotton gin, or some machine from the industrial revolution, worked. These might be important in preserving certain historical moments, but it is a terrible way to write a novel.

There was a time in my life where I would have praised this type of thing. I would have talked about how brilliant it was for him to break with standard novel writing conventions to record this alternate history of Earth in history textbook form. I would have actually considered this harder to do than to write a more traditional novel. Oh. The pretentiousness of my youth.

Nowadays this novel strikes me as a huge ego trip by the author (or laziness; I’m not sure which is worse). He’s written the first step of an SF novel and now expects everyone to read it just because he’s famous enough to get away with it. Every great SF writer produces 250,000 words worth of material about their world and story as the first step. It is such a common thing to do that it even has a name: worldbuilding.

What Stephenson doesn’t seem to realize is that when he reads a 90,000-word novel that doesn’t contain all 250,000 words of excessive detail about every little thing, it isn’t because the author didn’t think of it, it’s because that author actually did the hard step of writing and producing a novel from their worldbuilding notes. You don’t publish the notes to the novel just because you wrote them.

The reason I say this is ego rather than just laziness or confusion about what writing an SF novel entails is that he breaks other golden rules of SF “just because he can.” (I don’t know why I put quotes there. He didn’t actually say this.)

If you go to any of the famous print SF magazines, you’ll usually find a list of terrible things that will get you an automatic rejection. One thing that appears on all of these lists is basing a story on a random, major, unexplained event. In this case, the moon explodes. And what caused this? Eh. He seemed to want to write the book, needed this to happen, but couldn’t come up with a reason, so he left it out.

The reason this golden rule exists isn’t arbitrary. Stephenson is writing hard SF. To put some mysterious event in like this turns the genre into paranormal or supernatural or worse. You may as well use as your starting sentence: And Sauron came out from hiding and told the inhabitants of Earth that he would, in two-years time, bombard the surface of the Earth with fireball spells for thousands of years.

Then write a hard SF novel after that. It is deeply unsatisfying and lazy. The Sauron start would change absolutely nothing. It is effectively equivalent to the opening we actually get, except more honest. To use the moon exploding feels like a shady trick in an attempt to pull one over on the reader into thinking it is an explainable event.

For some reason, he thought he was above this (hence ego) and went ahead and wrote a book that wouldn’t have any chance at being published if by a lesser name. I can almost see the board meeting where the publishers are talking about this.

“Should we tell him this isn’t okay?”

“No. He might go with someone else. This book will make us tons of money. Who cares if it violates standards we’ve set for other writers.”

“Okay. I guess you’re right.”

Ugh.

I didn’t mean to bash the book this hard, but while I’m at it, I may as well continue to air my complaints. The second most important event is also weakly justified. The moon fragments keep colliding until there are millions (billions? irrelevant to this discussion) of them. At some point, their orbits will decay and start pummeling the Earth, killing everyone on it.

So much of this is left a mystery, despite the fact that smart minds in the book have all worked out these calculations. This is hard SF. I want this explained better. I couldn’t care less about a several page description of how treadmills work on the International Space Station.

The fact that anyone predicted this is astonishing. The insane accuracy with which their models predict it takes this out of the realm of SF for me (they were within a few days). It was only a model. First rule of science: all models are wrong. Surely some of the parameters they thought they had nailed down were really wrong. I actually kept expecting a major twist of the book to be that the hard rain never came. That would have been cool. But it did come, just like the models predicted.

To go into more detail about what I would have like explained, why did these billions of chunks of moon orbiting Earth mysteriously start to fall to Earth? How small are the chunks at this point? Clearly they aren’t so small that they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, but they’ve crossed some critical size that they lose orbit. This, again, just strikes me as something Stephenson wanted to happen, couldn’t figure out why it would happen, and so just left it a mystery.

I think what’s frustrating about this is that if Stephenson had just written a 90,000 word novel that drew out the story, it would be a much more compelling read and simultaneously fix every one of these complaints. As I pointed out in my previous post, tonal consistency is important in SF. Stephenson goes into painful depths of science on some things, but then glosses over highly improbable other events. This inconsistency would be fixed if he let go of all the excessive description and focused on the story.

Now that the above 1,000-word rant is over, I will say that the book isn’t that bad. It’s an interesting thought experiment that goes on way too long. Prepare to be bored to tears by some excessive, irrelevant descriptions. Prepare to be frustrated to tears by other things that have no (or implausible) explanations.

You won’t connect to any characters. It isn’t really a novel. Once you get over all that stuff, you can start enjoying it. I never felt like quitting for any of the reasons I’ve given, and that’s better than some books I’ve read recently *cough* Ulysses *cough*.

Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 9

First off, Happy 8 Year Blogging Anniversary!

Although David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers of all time, I’ve put off examining his prose until this late in the series. I did this on purpose, because the writers we have looked at “follow the rules.” They use clean, minimalist prose. It’s easy to see and articulate why it is good. It’s what we should all learn to do before developing our own styles.

I know this is a bit of controversial advice. Many people say to develop your own style from the start and not waste time trying to emulate famous writers. It’s not so much that I think one should be able to emulate it, but that one should understand what makes simple prose effective before layering in complexity.

I’ve read about how DFW taught writing and believe he took this same approach. You can’t build a house without a foundation. I think that if anyone tries to write in the way of DFW without first understanding the basics, it will come off as a complete mess. So consider yourself warned, but do whatever you want.

To borrow a term from Greg Carlisle, DFW’s prose has an elegant complexity to it. The point of this post is to try to get at what this could mean (though Carlisle was referring to the overall structure of Infinite Jest with that term). His prose still has the elegance of the previous writers from this series but with a layered complexity built on top of it.

Here is a sentence we get early on in Infinite Jest:

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.

Most people should be able to read this and understand it on the first time through. This should strike you as strange. It begins with the placement of a person, followed by an 18-word descriptive appositive (containing further qualification after the relative pronoun), continues the first part, and ends with a 21-word, nonessential comma clause descriptor.

Normally, a creative writing instructor would mark this as too long and confusing structurally to be read easily. So why does it work here? That question is hard to answer, because we don’t have earlier, unedited versions to compare it to. The best way to get a sense of its workings is to try to think of some changes and see how it makes things worse.

One thing we could do is eliminate this business about the smile. The passage as a whole would read more easily. But the phrase “impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material” is too good. This sentence is on the first page of the novel, and that phrase, in particular, sets the tone of the novel perfectly.

Think about that phrase for a second. There’s something very dark about it. It implies the person is forced to smile constantly (“fixed”), but who does not smile often (the stamp of the smile reverts to the original shape because of the “uncooperative material” aka his face). At the same time, the description is so unique and striking, it almost comes off as comical. And this perfectly describes the tone of the novel. It’s dark, yet almost comical.

So we can’t eliminate that part. We could always break it off into its own sentence, but again, it just doesn’t seem important enough to do that. The subordinate flow we get by sticking it into an appositive fits its importance.

In the next part, could we eliminate “lately” without losing anything? I’d say yes. This fits with the rule: eliminate adverbs. On the other hand, we’ve basically gone all-in on the wordiness, so it might be better to ask: does it sufficiently detract from the meaning to remove it? I’d say no.

It fits the wordy flow to leave it in, and we have to imagine there were other ones that were cut, considering it is the only adverb in the entire passage. Think about the alternative and more wordy “something stamped hesitantly into uncooperative material.” The adverb there really does add a few too many unnecessary words to make the image appear in your head. It gets a touch too confusing.

The last clause begins by reiterating “the type.” This acts to reground the reader. It reiterates the subject of the clause, and we could imagine many ways to phrase it that doesn’t make it this clear.

In conclusion, the structure of the sentence may be complex, and the word count makes it look excessively wordy, but DFW keeps the excess to a minimum like we’ve talked about before. He also keeps each segment fully self-contained so that there is no confusion about the subject at each point. The basics of clear writing are still there underneath the added complexity.

Homework: Try the same type of analysis with this sentence from a later section (hint: it might have lots of places it could be cleaned up, but has the voice changed? is the tone intentionally different? does context matter?).

If it’s odd that Mario Incandenza’s first halfway-coherent film cartridge — a 48-minute job shot three summers back in the carefully decorated janitor-closet of Subdorm B with his head-mount Bolex H64 and foot-treadle — if it’s odd that Mario’s first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show — like a kids’ puppet show — then it probably seems even odder that the film’s proven to be way more popular with E.T.A.’s adults and adolescents than it is with the woefully historically underinformed children it had first been made for.