Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Writer's Laboratory: Cutting out the Boring Parts

The Writer's Laboratory

"I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Elmore Leonard, New York Times bestselling author

In the last thirty years, I've written all kinds of fiction: literary

novels, mysteries, and urban fantasy.

But in each novel, my style is always the same. You will find humor, darkness, romance, wackiness, and food--

though you'll find a good bit less food in the urban fantasies. 

You will also find leaner prose, though it wasn't always that

way. When I was working on my seventh novel,

a wise editor wrote in the margins: "The pace is slacking for me here. Move her from the beach to

the parking lot--the reader will fill in the blanks."

My editor was right. Every scene in a novel is fueled (or bogged down) by pacing and transitions.

I didn't need to list every smell, taste, or sound. I needed to paint the details with a

broad stroke, just enough to place the character

in a vivid environment. The trick is finding the balance, and that's never easy. 

  I humbly submit a few tidbits about pacing that I have learned along the way:

1. Make every word count. Look at every sentence in every paragraph--ruthlessly cut the flab.

2. As the action rises, sentences and dialogue become shorter. That doesn't mean you can skimp on details. Just keep them lean. 

3. Try not to drag out the ending of a scene. Elmore Leonard does this beautifully by ending one scene and merging into the next with a few sentences.

4. Within chapters, use scene breaks (such as ### or ...) judiciously. Ask any literary agent, and they'll tell you that too many (#) breaks will create a choppy mess. If one scene ends at, say, 8 pm, and the next scene begins at 8:15 pm, nix the set up. Get your characters moving to the juicy stuff! But do it smoothly.

Let's say that a scene begins and ends in a restaurant. And the next scene begins just a few minutes later in a hotel room. Naturally you'll omit what happens to your characters after they leave the restaurant and step into the elevator--unless the elevator stalls between floors. Since a short bit of time has gone by, you don't need to show your characters walking down the hall, not even if the dialogue is brilliant. Get them to the next location, and quickly. You don't need a space break (#) to isolate each scene. Just start a new paragraph. And be sure to begin the sentence with a well-chosen word.

"When we walked into our suite, Vivi had not returned."

The key word is "when." (You can also use "later.")
This signals that a short passage of time has occurred and moves the action forward. You've skipped a plodding
step-by-step. And you haven't added an unnecessary gap in your chapter (this tends to call attention to itself, and it's the last thing you want if you're trying to get published). 

Learn how to handle short transitions by reading the novels of Mr. Leonard and Janet Evanovich. The boring stuff is left on the cutting room floor, and the pacing is flawless.

5. Significant scene breaks require a (#) space and should be treated like "mini" chapters (see #6). How much time has gone by? Where is your character? Get into her head. What does she see and hear?
Show. Don't tell. And be quick about it.

"Two nights later, Vivi was huddled in the back of a Mercedes sedan, watching the A-6 highway race behind them like dirty water."

6. Chapter breaks

Ending a chapter with a cliffhanger is always fun for the writer. The next chapter can open with dialogue or action. But readers don't always finish one chapter and breathlessly turn to the next. Life happens. The dog must be walked, meals must be prepared, etc. Try to open each chapter with as many 5 W's as you can: Who, what, where, when, and why. 
Get inside your characters. Feel what they feel. See what they see. Has their geography changed? Is it day or night? Is it cold, sweltering, rainy? Does the breeze carry the smell of grass and wild onions? Or the coppery tang of blood? 
Take notes. Roll up your sleeves and start writing.
Then start cutting.
Choose the most significant sensory details and let them lift the heavy furniture.
What if your chapters open with sub-titles, giving the city or time of day? You still need to ground the scene.
In HD, each chapter begins with the name of the viewpoint character and his/her geographic location. This technique helps to orient the reader, but it won't carry a chapter. The character must exist in a world that can be touched, smelled, tasted, seen, and heard--with brevity. Then dive into the action.

Chapter 22

Champs Elysees
Paris, France
       I walked to the balcony rail and stared down at the night-time view of Paris, watching car lights sweep around the Arc de Triomphe. Even though it was after ten P.M., tourists wandered down the sidewalks.
      "You have a lovely view, Dr. d'Aigreville," I said.
      She smiled, the wind stirring her little-girl bangs.  "Call me Sabine."
      "I saw you tonight at Chez Georges. Are you a regular patron?" I paused. "Or were you stalking my daughter?"

7. Larger Transitions

When an author separates chapters into "parts" or "books," she has a good reason. Perhaps a large passage of time has transpired. Or something monumental has occurred with the characters. A pivotal event might require its own section. The mood and tone may be shifting into a higher gear. If the author chooses to give each "part" a title, it's usually metaphorical. Sometimes quotations are used to help reinforce the book's theme.
The opening of each "part" must be treated with great care, employing the 5 W's--and lean writing.

- - -

The flow of a book is like a river, and it's the writers job to decide where to place bridges. Some bridges span the widest part of the water; in other places, the stream narrows, and you can easily leap to the other bank.

For me, transitions are a joy to write and to read. I love it when Elmore Leonard guides me across a river, asking me to walk a few steps, rather than a mile.
No matter how many steps I take, each journey is different, each one is miraculous.
top photo source: shutterstock, license purchased.
cake photo: Michael Lee West

Friday, February 8, 2013

The gods of Snark: Comic Relief in Fiction

The gods of Snark
Laughter is a force of nature. It defuses terrifying situations, turns enemies into friends, and cures broken hearts. In motion pictures and novels, the tension can become unbearable, threatening to pull the audience out of the moment; comic relief eases the pressure and keeps the suspension of disbelief going.
But humor is elusive. It was invented by the gods of Snark, who added a distinct musical beat. Unfortunately, only dogs can hear it. Sometimes, though, the gods take pity on writers and raise the volume. This usually happens when the author is working by candlelight and falls asleep. After her hair catches on fire, those twerpy gods will swoop down and offer a choice: do you want curls or laughter?
When I was working on Hunting Daylight, lightning set off our fire alarm. Beneath that noise, I heard another beat, a droll, unmistakable tap-tap-tap. I’d just finished a chapter that had ended with a horrific event. Now, I just wanted to catch my breath.
As noise blared around me, I began a new chapter, narrated by thirteen-year-old Vivi Barrett, a girl with pink hair and razor blade earrings. She was the central figure in a prophecy, one that would end the immortal race, and vampire monks had issued a fatwā. But to Vivi, her biggest problem was her helicopter mother. Momster was doing wacky things, like renting Scottish castles and having Vivi’s father declared dead.
Her mood improved when a white, gangster-like limousine pulled into the driveway, and her godfather, Raphael, climbed out. This handsome Italian vampire had brought a vampire dog and a pretty human lady named Gillian Delacroix. After a little banter, Raphael gave Vivi a box of candy. She flung off the lid, expecting truffles. Instead, she saw a dozen tiny marzipan pigs, pink and plump, lined up snout to tail.
Pigs were the last thing Vivi wanted, but I liked them. When she and Gillian walked to the herb garden, I followed.
“Is your mom a vampire too?” Gillian asked.
Vivi frowned. “No, are you a ho?”
“I’m a malpractice attorney.”
“You could’ve fooled me. I thought you were an airhead.”
“You’re a rude little thing.” Gillian pronounced thing with a hard a, making the word rhyme with twang.  “How does Raphael put up with you?” she added.
 Vivi shrugged. “Before he was a vampire, he was a monk. He even went on a pilgrimage. Something about a homage to Saint James.”
“It’s an homage, not a homage,” Gillian said.
“So you’re a lawyer and the grammar police?”
Gillian shrugged. “I taught English before I went to law school.”
“Why do you talk like a swamp rat? Dropping your g’s. Pouring sugar on each word.”
“Honey, it takes unimaginable skill to talk this way,” Gillian said. “So how old is Raphael?”
“Maybe a thousand. Give or take a few centuries.”
Gillian sighed. “I’ve always liked older men.”
“He likes anything with tits.”
“Then we’ll get along perfectly.”
 “You’re freaky.”
“Honey, I’m from Louisiana. It’s against the law to be normal. But isn’t it a little odd that you know so much about vampires?”
“I found out about them when I was nine. My mom and I were spending the Christmas holidays in Australia. Raphael and Arrapato came to visit. On Christmas morning, we sat in the dark living room—Mom always kept the curtains pulled tight. I couldn’t see my presents, so I flung open the drapes.”
Gillian made a face. “Lord, what happened?”
Vivi lifted her eyebrows, remembering how light had blasted into the room. Arrapato had yelped, and smoke curled up from his fur. Raphael swooped down, his face red and blistered, and carried the dog out of the room. 
“My mom explained that Raphael and Arrapato were vampires,” Vivi said.
Gillian pointed to her right foot. “He bit me the other day—the dog, not Raphael. See those marks? I was afraid I’d turn into a vamp. But Raphael said it wasn’t that simple.”
“Yeah, it’s not three bites and you’ll grow fangs,” Vivi said, repressing a grin. She’d never talked to a human about vampires, but it felt good.  
Their dry banter felt good to me, too. It created a sturdy bridge to the next, more emotional scene. I could barely hear the fire alarm, because the gods of Snark were tapping out a snappy beat.
photo credit: mleewest

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

5 Spoiler Free Facts in Hunting Daylight

source: publisher
5 Spoiler Free Facts in Hunting Daylight
Book 2 in the Night Series


Acquainted With the Night presented a new mythology of vampires and focused on an enigmatic prophecy, a vengeful London pharmaceutical company, and a quest for an ancient text on immortality. Two pivotal characters, Caro Clifford and Jude Barrett, embarked on an adventure that raced through Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Egypt. Caro’s search for the truth led them to Mount Sinai, where a life-altering event awaited them.
 The story in Hunting Daylight brings new problems, expands the science of vampirism, explores exotic locations, and forces the characters to make unbearably tough choices. New plotlines deepen the series’ over-all arc, which centers around the Barrett family’s role in an 8th century prophecy. New and old characters come together and apart—and not everyone will survive.

Here are 5 Spoiler Free Faces about Hunting Daylight:

1.     New Villains:  No pharmaceutical company appears in book 2. The main antagonist is a wealthy Ottoman vampire who owns diamond mines in South Africa.  Mustafa Al-Dîn becomes afflicted with a rare medical condition and his final wish is to walk in daylight. His assistant is a beautiful, kick ass vampire who always gets the job done--and gets what she wants.   

2.     A Scientific Expedition:  The Al-Dîn Corporation has set up a base camp in an unmapped region of Gabon’s Birougou rain forest, and their scientists are hunting a bat species that has a “low-light” gene--this could be a breakthrough in the immortals’ sun-sensitivity. The discovery will fulfill one vampire’s dreams and fuel another’s nightmares.

3.  Romance:  No spoilers. But I’ll give a hint. It’s fanged and torrid.

4.     Exotic Locations:  The action dives into an unexplored African rainforest, and sweeps to a Scottish castle overlooking the sea; an island in the Arctic Circle, during the Polar Day; a charming Swiss town near the Matterhorn; a mansion in Paris and a race across the Seine; the souks and riads of Morocco; a vineyard in Provence; a secret, underground compound in South Africa.

5.    The Girl With Something Extra: A thirteen-year-old girl with pink hair finds herself at the center of a prophecy that pits humans against vampires, and if her talents aren’t controlled, they could set off a personal tragedy . . . or even a world-wide apocalypse.