Go Ahead and Scrub my Mouth Out

The recent release of a new app, CleanReader, has created quite a stir in the indie writing community. The app replaces any profanity in a book with euphemisms, offering a choice between Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean settings.

Many writers are upset, complaining that their work is being censored and diminished. Try as I might, I can’t understand the consternation. Like any other writer, I give a lot of thought to the words I use, especially when I put profanity in my characters’ mouths. If it’s there, I put it there deliberately, to create a certain effect. So why am I not steamed that a piece of free software may go in and chop it right out?

Because it’s nothing new. Writers have never been able to control how readers encounter their books. You can’t keep them from reading the last chapter first. You can’t keep them from reading the whole thing in five-minute chunks while distracted by the TV. You can’t keep them from skimming your battle scenes, or mispronouncing your character names, or deciding that your ending sucks and the one they have in mind is what happened instead.

And you certainly can’t control the lifetime of experience they bring to your work, which will inform and distort how they perceive it.

Given all this, is it really that big a deal that you also can’t make them read fuck?

Perhaps the problem is that many a writer sees himself as the director of a movie—when in fact he’s really the producer of a script. You hand that script over to the reader, and she performs it, in her own mind. And like any performer, she is apt—and even entitled—to make alterations as they suit her.

In fact, it is almost inevitable that she will.

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Technician’s Life: Maternity Leave

See this gorgeous face? It is two and a half months old. Which means it’s about time for me to wrap up the maternity leave I’ve so generously granted myself, and return to writing.

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Getting back in the groove after a long hiatus is always a painful thing for me, fraught with stomach-churning anxiety, Herculean feats of procrastination, and bouts of real depression. A friend of mine recently posted this image on Facebook:

Being-a-writer-is-like-having-homework-every-night-for-the-rest-of-your-life.

and I don’t know whether it makes me want to laugh or cry. I only know that it’s the truth. There is rarely a moment when I don’t feel anxious about the writing that needs to get done, or guilty about the fact that I’m not doing it.

So what if I just gave it all up? What if I raised my babies and took care of my home, and at the end of a long day, I knew that there was nothing else that required doing? Instead of stressing out about writing, I could spend the last hours of the day pursuing my hobbies, or maybe just kicking back for a couple of guilt-free hours in front of the TV?

Honestly? It’s a fantasy I return to from time to time. It sounds like a really nice life.

It just wouldn’t be my life.

 

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Wool

Wool, by Hugh Howey
Publication: Self –> Hybrid
Genre: Dystopian Sci Fi
Verdict: Yes

If you keep abreast of the news in self-publishing (or possibly even if you don’t), you don’t need me to tell you that Hugh Howey’s Wool is selling. It’s the Next Big Thing, the latest book that proves that self-publishers can in fact find an audience, excite them, and make a zillion dollars. It is also a really compelling piece of dystopian science fiction, and as your local Technician, I set out to analyze why.

Wool starts out with the promising premise,

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death…

and goes on to tell us all about Holston, and the life of desperate misery he’s been living for the last three years, ever since his wife left the underground silo in which their entire society lives to clean the lenses of the cameras that provide them their only view of the bleak, dangerously toxic world outside. People don’t come back from cleaning, so sending someone out to clean is the method of execution. And as the silo’s sheriff, Holston had to help do it to his wife.

But he’s now determined to join her, to find out for himself what actually exists beyond the silo’s walls. Could his wife still be alive? Holston, in his grief, seems to simultaneously believe she is, and isn’t. Why was she so determined to leave the silo? And why do the exiled people clean the lenses anyway? Why don’t they just sit down on a rock and wait for death, to spite the society that sent them to their doom?

Before the end of the sample, Holston will have the surprising and horrifying answers to all these questions. And that is what makes the sample of Wool such a compelling selling tool: it tells a complete story. It is a sample in the purest sense: it tells you what this writer can deliver as a storyteller, not just at the beginning of a tale, but at the end.

This is a tactic frequently employed by self-publishing authors, though usually in a slightly different form: release an abbreviated version of your book, or a short story based on your characters, for free. Use that to sell your larger work. It’s a good tactic, and what makes it even more effective here is two things:

1. It leads seamlessly into the larger novel, and
2. It not only answers questions, it raises others.

In the final pages of his story, Holston will learn of a terrible lie that has shaped life in the silo. It will bring his tale to a satisfying end, but it will leave us readers with a couple of important questions to answer: Why perpetrated this lie? And why?

This, I think, is the best way to use a short story as a selling tool, whether you’re releasing it as a standalone story or as the initial pages of your book. Let some balls come to rest, but leave others in the air. Satisfy and perturb. Tell us that you know how to end a story. But whatever you do, don’t end it completely.

Posted in Dystopian, Hybrid Publishing, Reviews, Sci Fi, Self-Publishing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Technician’s Thoughts: No, Knitting is My Hobby

Since we moved to Seattle, I have been fortunate to make many friends who, like myself, are stay-at-home moms. They are wonderful. They are sweet and caring, and generous with their time. They are, on many days, the linchpin of my sanity.

But they don’t understand what I’m doing here.

As a writer, I mean. By and large, I’ve found that my mommy friends just don’t get what writing means to me. Some of them have referred to my writing as “something for you” and “a really great hobby.” I say this without rancor, really without even irritation, but just with a sense of quiet surprise. Because writing fiction is not, and never can be, a hobby for me. It is my Real Work, just as it was when I worked at a newspaper, just as it was when I worked in the game industry. It is the thing I’m meant to do.

(So, does that mean that motherhood has become my new day job? Well, no, not really. Motherhood is my real work, too. I’ve got two real jobs, and though there are times when the writing must get short shrift, I am trying to make them both work.)

I was thinking, when I began this post, that this was sort of a Mommy Issue, that once you have kids, people start to think of your work as more of a pastime than a vocation. But as I look back, I realize that this is how people have always thought about my work. It seems to me that this is less of a Mommy Issue than an Artist Issue. Specifically, an Unpaid Artist Issue.

If you work at a bank, and your family comes into town for a visit, no one expects you to take a vacation day. If you work at home, for no pay? They pretty much do. And the fact that this expectation is there makes it easier for you to do it. After all, you  probably want to anyway, because who doesn’t like a day off work now and then?

And the same thing is true for all sorts of small social and familial obligations, like letting in the neighbor’s cleaning lady, or being the one to drive a yowling, incontinent cat halfway across town to the extra-special, inconveniently located and outrageously expensive kitty eye doctor. People assume you will do these things, because you are the one who is “not working.” And in some cases, you really should, because you are the one with flexible work hours, and it’s nice to help out people who don’t have that same luxury.

But in other cases, you should hold your ground. Treat your work with respect, and others will do the same.

Back in mid-2011, I started The Indie Book Podcast, a show that reviewed self-published books. After Story was born, I didn’t have the time, much less the quiet space, to keep recording—but for a while there it was something I was pursuing with gusto.

One day I was browsing around the Kindle boards, where self-publishing authors like to congregate, and saw someone mention that she had sent me a review copy, and she hoped I’d get around to it. I posted that I enjoyed the opening of her book, and was planning to review it. She then responded something to the effect of: “This is a lesson for all of us: always be really careful what you say online. I had no idea Jane would be stopping by this forum!”

This amazed me. I was just a girl who had bought a microphone. This other woman could have bought a microphone, too, assuming she had eighty bucks to spare. I wasn’t anybody special, not a Name, not a voice to be heeded.

Except I was. By starting the podcast, by promoting it and taking it seriously, I had begun treating my work with respect. And the moment I did, the entire world around me followed suit. Not one of the writers I contacted about interviews ever responded with anything less than enthusiastic courtesy. All I did was ask for respect, and respect appeared.

My point is that if you are a writer who thinks you do not have the authority to speak on your field, well—you’re right. But it’s not because you’re not published, or not traditionally published, or not making enough money.

It’s because you think the authority isn’t yours. But the moment you grab it, it is.

Writing this blog is, in some way, an act of faith. I’m betting that people will care what I have to say about plot and structure, not based on the strength of my career (which is minimal), but on the strength of—well, of me. Of me being here and telling you I have something to say.

So, the next time a friend refers to my writing as a hobby, I’ll kindly but clearly say, “Well, really, it’s my job.” That is likely all I’ll have to do.

 

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Exposition Done Right

The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge
Publication: Traditional
Genre: YA Steampunk
Verdict: Yes

Last week I blogged about a book with a disappointing lack of exposition, which prevented me from becoming truly engaged with it. This week I’m flipping the bit, and talking about a book that does a lot of exposition, and does it very well: The Iron Thorn, by Caitlin Kittredge.

Just from reading the back cover copy, you know that a big draw of The Iron Thorn is going to be its setting. That’s because it takes place in the city of Lovecraft. The city of Lovecraft! And as we move into the story, it’s clear that Kittredge has created a complex world, and has a lot of information to convey about it. This is tricky.

Because despite my assertion last week that readers are more interested in exposition than you may think they are, you still want to slip that exposition in smoothly. You want the information to come across as the character’s natural thoughts, not as the writer’s deliberate efforts. You don’t want to be seen standing behind the curtain.

That is very much what Kittredge manages, as in this passage, in which the narrator, Aoife, sits beside her mother, Nerissa, in a madhouse:

I picked up the mirror and ran my thumb over the backing. It was silver, and it had been pretty, once. When I was a child I’d played at being beautiful while my mother sat by the window of Our Lady of Rationality, the first madhouse in my memory, run by Rationalist nuns. Their silent black-clad forms fluttered like specters outside my mother’s cell while they prayed to the Master Builder, the epitome of human reason, for her recovery. All the medical science and logic in the world couldn’t cure my mother, but the nuns tried.

There’s a lot of information here: religion, for one, is not like we know it in our own world. The nuns in the city of Lovecraft don’t pray to God the way we understand him, but instead to a Master Builder. Reason, not kindness, is considered the ultimate virtue. And it’s all conveyed very naturally through Aoife’s point of view, focusing on the thing that is most important to her at this moment: her mother’s insanity.

After Aoife leaves her mother to return to her boarding school, we get a few more glimpses of Lovecraft:

Dunwich Lane ran under the feet of the Boundary Bridge, the iron marvel that Joseph Strauss had erected for the city some thirty years before…it was the model we practiced drawing schematics with, until we were judged competent to design our own. If you couldn’t recreate the Boundary Bridge, you had a visit with the Head of the School and a gentle suggestion that perhaps your future was not that of an engineer  There had been three other girls in the School until that exam. Now there was only me.

Again, while we’re learning about the world, we’re also learning about Aoife’s relationship with it. From this paragraph, we know that she’s isolated in her school, and perhaps more talented or tenacious than the other female students. In nearly every expositional passage, Kittredge makes an effort to tie in Aoife’s interests and feelings.

I also think it’s worth noticing how much space is invested in these paragraphs. Each takes up about a third of a page, no small sum of words. And in the case of the Boundary Bridge, it’s not even critical information. In fact, this paragraph exists for nothing more than local color.

Does this mean the author would be better off cutting them, that we should go ahead and get to the chase, find out where this plot is taking us?

Not on your life. An intriguing plot is worth its weight in gold–but you cannot sacrifice readers’ interest in your character for their interest in your plot. Nor, when you’re writing a deeply setting-driven book like this, can you sacrifice reader interest in your setting.

So when Kittredge takes her time to paint a picture of Lovecraft with expositional brushstroke after brushstroke, it’s absolutely the right decision. Her investment in expositional text is large–but it’s one that pays off.

I’ll be reading The Iron Thorn. Even though I can’t seem to stop calling it The Iron Throne.

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Technician’s Thoughts: I Only Buy Weird Chocolate Now

Spoilers For: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

I recently finished reading A Trace of Smoke, a mystery by Rebecca Cantrell, in which the narrator, Hannah Vogel, faces a fascinating dilemma. Hannah’s brother has been murdered, and during the course of trying to find out whodunit, she uncovers a stash of love letters to her brother from Hitler’s best bud, Ernst Röhm. It’s 1931, Nazi power is on the rise, and now Hannah has the means to destroy one of the party’s most powerful members. The problem? She has to destroy him for the “crime” of loving her brother.

This is the classic “Do the ends justify the means?” dilemma, which I always find interesting, because I am not a hardliner on this old adage. I feel that sometimes the ends do justify the means, provided that the ends are necessary and the means bearable. So for me, each new combination of means and ends is, of course, different and interesting.

In this case, I think I could publish the letters for the purpose of bringing down Röhm. Or I could, at least, knowing what we know now about how history unfolded. But if I try to imagine myself in 1931, the question of what to do becomes a bit more murky. Picture yourself as a good German citizen in 1931. You’re appalled by the Nazi ideology and methods, but you don’t really have any idea yet of how bad things are going to get. Even if someone told you, you might not really believe it. Surely your country is going to walk itself back from this precipice. Surely you don’t have to betray your dead brother to make that happen.

And there’s another question to consider, which is that you are mucking about with a degree of power you really can’t control. If you try to take on Ernst Röhm, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe you bring him down, and the man who replaces him is even worse. Maybe you create a situation that becomes the catalyst for the Nazis to grab even more power. Maybe you bring a lot of notoriety upon other gays in Germany, and some of them wind up dead.

It would be tempting, considering these possibilities, to just walk away from the power you’ve accidentally acquired. To say to yourself, “I don’t have the wisdom to choose the right course. I can’t choose at all.” But that’s a false choice. Choosing not to choose is really just choosing not to act, and denying that you’re responsible for that choice. The power to choose is the responsibility to choose.

In a small way, the chocolate is like this. I recently learned that a significant chunk of the world’s chocolate is produced by slave labor—specifically, the slave labor of children. I learned this by reading Refuse To Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery, by Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim. I had two fears when I began to read this book. The first was that it would tell me I had to stop buying something I rather like to buy (Fear realized!) And the second was that it would prompt me to take action that might end up hurting the people I intend to help.

Back in the nineties, Americans got very interested in the plight of children working in sweatshops in Southeast Asia. It began to be a big part of the public conversation, and many of us began to boycott companies, like Nike, that had significant amounts of their goods produced in sweatshops. We used our consumer power, and we made a difference. The sweatshops began closing.

And the rate of child prostitution in Southeast Asia soared.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that removing crappy jobs from an economy without replacing them with anything might lead people to seek even more desperate ways of keeping their families fed. But, that’s hindsight for you. It does not seem completely obvious to me what a widespread boycott of chocolate produced by child slaves might do. I know it would make those cocoa farmers poorer, and more desperate. I don’t know what the price of that desperation might be, but I’ll bet there will be one. And I don’t know who will wind up paying it.

The fact is, I don’t have the foresight to make this decision perfectly. But, the power to choose is the responsibility to choose.

So, for now I am buying only Fair Trade chocolate, or chocolate sourced from South America, where child slavery on cocoa farms is not a problem. In particular, I will be supporting Fair Trade products from major chocolate producers, like Hershey’s Bliss line and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars. These companies buy a ton of cocoa, and so what they do has the power to really impact the supply line. And I want to do what I can to show them the way I, as a consumer, would like them to behave.

Part of me feels like this is the easy choice, the one that makes me look, and feel, like a good person. But I have to accept that, although I lack the wisdom to see all the possible consequences of my actions, I still am responsible for making the best choice I can.

I do recommend A Trace of Smoke, although, sadly, I feel the author kind of punted on this oh-so-interesting dilemma. I still don’t know what Hannah Vogel would have done, if she had really forced herself to make the choice between dishonoring her brother’s lifestyle or letting a powerful Nazi continue to flourish. Note to authors: when your character is facing a difficult choice, never, never let them off the hook. After all, we seldom get to do that with ourselves.

Posted in My Life, Mystery | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Breathe

Front Page Fatality by LynDee Walker
Publication: Self
Genre: Mystery
Verdict: No

I read a lot of genres, but probably my sentimental favorite is the cozy, i.e., the amateur sleuth mystery. These tend to feature female protagonists, cute pictures on the cover, and puns in the titles–and they also tend be filled with almost an equal amount of mystery and romance.

They are my thing.

So I was ready and eager to dive into Front Page Fatality by LynDee Walker. It’s about Nichelle Clarke, a crime reporter who, you guessed it, will wind up solving a mystery. But just as I was preparing to settle in for a fun read, I realized that the author was more interested in rushing me along.

Facts were coming fast and furious, with little time to absorb them. Consider the following passage, after Nichelle has walked into her editor’s office:

“I’ve got another dead drug dealer on Southside. They just found him this morning.” My words dissolved his annoyed expression to one of interest, his perpetual aggravation with my last-minute arrivals for the morning staff meeting forgotten at the mention of a homicide.

From this, we’re meant to understand that Nichelle has just walked into the staff meeting, late once again, and that the editor’s office is in fact full of people. But we’re never actually told that, and we’re given no details that might help set the scene, no, “The chief copy editor had taken up her usual position by the coffee machine,” or “The sports columnist grinned at me and pointed to his watch.”

But what’s worse is that we’re given no interiority, no notion of what’s going on in Nichelle’s head. Does she feels embarrassed for arriving late, or perhaps nervous about potential consequences? Is she relieved to have redirected her boss’s attention to her story, or does she consider him a big pussycat whose bark is worse than his bite? I don’t know. The writer has given me no clue.

And I sympathize. I often feel, while writing the opening pages of a book, that I need to keep moving. Make stuff happen. Get this plot in gear. Don’t pause, don’t even slow down, or the reader will lose interest!

Right? Wrong. Too little exposition saps reader interest far more reliably than too much.

The thing you should be asking yourself when you’re writing exposition—by which I mean all the little bits of text where action doesn’t occur, but information is conveyed—is not whether it’s too long, but whether it’s interesting.

And don’t be too hard on yourself when determining where the bar for “interesting” lies. The lines I penned about where the copy editor was sitting, and the sports columnist taunting Nichelle—these are pretty mundane details, but I think they are interesting. They help to draw Nichelle’s world. Whether your book’s about a crime reporter or a refrigerator repairman, you have to assume that if a reader picked it up, she’s willing to be interested in that character’s world.  But she can only sustain that interest if you give her something to hang it on.

But regardless of how much scene-setting you do, the one place you must show us is the inside of your character’s heart. Let’s look at another passage:

Political jokes fired faster than a drunken celebutante’s antics circle the blogosphere, and I chuckled at the warring punch lines as my eyes skipped between the faces of my colleagues—my family in Richmond, really. They adopted me the second I’d stepped into the newsroom without a friend in a six-hundred-mile radius, the ink still wet on my degree from Syracuse.

This is the good stuff. Knowing how Nichelle feels about her colleagues makes everything sharper, realer, more involving. I do dearly wish this paragraph was expanded to about twice its length, that we got a look at a maternal copy editor, or a political reporter who Nichelle considers a sort of big brother. I could even go for a few pages of anecdote showing young Nichelle being folded into the witty, competitive, but ultimately loving bosom of her newsroom family.

In short, I want more.

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Technician’s Thoughts: Thank You, Sir, May I Have Another?

I took the following picture at Barnes and Noble the other day:

photo (1)

Do you notice what I notice? That every book is trying to look like Fifty Shades of Gray? What am I saying? Of course you notice. “Domination romance” has taken over the romance market, tied its wrists with silken cord, and demanded that it call this previously non-existant sub-genre “sir.”

I’ve been predicting for a while that fetish romance was going to become mainstream. But this was not how I expected it to happen. What I expected, actually, was that it would all happen in the form of e-books.

See, here’s the problem fetish romance faces: in order to be sold, they have to communicate what they are to the reader. And the established way of doing this is through what I like to call “cover code,” the pictures, palette, and font types on a book’s front cover that indicate what subgenre it belongs to. Over in mystery, a red and black cover, with a thin, spiky font indicates a grisly serial killer mystery; a candy-colored palette, with cartoonish images and a pun in the title, indicates a lighthearted cozy mystery.

In order to sell a spanking romance, a bondage romance, a domination romance, you would need to invent a cover code, because how else would readers know what they were buying? But then the readers would be compelled to carry that cover around with them, everywhere they wanted to read your book. You might be able to read a traditional romance in front of your mother-in-law, fifty people on the bus, or your teenage son—but you are never going to do that with a domination romance. It’s just too weird.

Or so I thought. But evidently there are plenty of people who are willing to pick up Fifty Shades of Gray (or one of its many clones), carry it to the register, pay for it, and, presumably, read it. There are enough of them to move the entire romance market. My prediction, that these types of books would become popular through the oh-so-discreet e-book format, was obviously a big bust.

I was wondering aloud to my husband why this was—had we become a less private people, due to Facebook, blogs, and all this modern sharing? And Mark pointed out that the only way you possibly can create a cover code is in the bookstore.

He’s right. In order for a cover code to work, it must be widely understood by the reading audience. And for that to happen, it must first become prevalent. And the only way it can become prevalent is in public. It has to be seen, and seen widely. It has to enter the public mind.

This difficulty is something for self-publishers to keep in mind. One of the things that excites writers about the new availability of self-publishing is that books that don’t easily fit into a genre are much easier to get out into the world. Writing a cross-genre zombie mystery? A sci fi romance? You can publish it now, and readers can be the judge.

Except, there’s the problem of cover code. On your own, can you establish a cover code? Maybe. Fifty Shades did it. But it did it with the help of an existing Internet fan base and a huge marketing campaign. Most self-publishers aren’t going to have those resources to bring to bear.

And, as more and more self-published books enter the market, are we going to see a dilution of cover code? Self-published books typically have privately produced covers, and if the artist you hire doesn’t understand the cover code for your genre, the cover is likely to be slightly off, slightly confusing, slightly less communicative to potential buyers than the cover produced by a traditional publisher. That’s a problem.

So, no matter how effective e-books are at opening up the world of publishing, I think it’s clear that we writers are not done with the brick and mortar bookstores just yet. They still have a lot to offer us, and a lot to teach us about how to sell.

Posted in My Life, Romance, Self-Publishing | Leave a comment

On Clumsiness, and Balance

The House Girl by Tara Conklin
Publication: Traditional
Genre: Literary
Verdict: No

The House Girl is a dual story. One narrative takes place in 1852, and it’s about Josephine, a slave about to make a run for her freedom. The other is present-day, and concerns Lina, a young hotshot lawyer who, according to the back of the book, will soon be working on a Supreme Court case addressing reparations for the descendants of slaves.

I say it was on the back of the book, because on p. 34, the last page of the sample, I have yet to see this plotline introduced. Mostly what has happened to Lina is that a dude at her law firm dangled the case in front of her, but didn’t actually tell her what it was about. And then she went home and had a conversation with her dad.

If you can’t tell, I’m not too into Lina as yet. Which presents me with a bit of a dilemma when confronted by the Buy button, because I am into Josephine’s story. In a big way. It begins like this:

Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.

Josephine doesn’t really know why her master is pissed at her, just that he is, and that it’s his right to hit her. And the petty, casual cruelty of that moment rankles deeply, for her and for me.

Making your character the victim of an injustice is a quick and powerful way of putting the reader firmly on her side. And on her side I very much am. It also seems that Josephine’s story is quickly going to involve a lot of danger, drama, and emotional conflict (there are, after all, people on the plantation who she loves).

In other words, it’s going to make damn good reading.

Lina’s story hasn’t really kicked off yet. That may be a function of the length of the sample, but I think it also illustrates the difficulty of making a dual story like this work. Frequently when I read these I find myself drastically more committed to one narrative than the other; this unfortunately has the effect of making my B narrative a bit of a chore, a slog I have to get through to get back to the story I’m actually trying to read.

The only dual story I can think of that really worked for me was Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel, Maus, which dealt with the survival of the author’s Jewish father through the horrors of the Holocaust, and also with their strained relationship in the present day.

I think what made this one work was a deliberate imbalance between the stories. The Holocaust story was clearly the primary narrative, where most of the reader’s time would be spent. If you didn’t care much about this narrative, you knew to put down the book. And if you didn’t care much about the father-and-son narrative, at least you knew those sections would be brief. By clearly setting the reader’s expectations, Spiegelman removed the necessity of balancing the narratives perfectly.

Back to the House Girl. Conklin has set herself up for a really hard task, balance-wise, because it seems unlikely these stories are going to match in intensity. Josephine’s about to be running for her freedom, and her life. Lina’s about to be reading legal briefs. The book is marketed as literary, not thriller, so I’m just not optimistic that Lina is going to be dealing with stakes that match those of a runaway slave.

The only thing, then, that is drawing me into Lina’s narrative is the subject matter, slavery reparations. I don’t know much about the subject, and I’m interested to see it discussed in an intelligent, fair, and thorough manner.

But do I have faith that this will happen? Not really, and the reason why brings us back to that first sentence.

Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.

Clumsy, clumsy, clumsy! Why not just “hit?” Why not just “slapped?” Why include the detail about the left cheek at all? Why use thirteen words to do what three could do with more punch?

This inelegance is the sort of thing I could forgive in the middle of a book, but on p.1, it makes me leery. It speaks to a lack of effort on the behalf of both Conklin and her editor. And that translates to mashing Delete.

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Plot is Tech: My Four-Act Formula

Spoilers for: His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik; The Princess Bride, by William Goldman; Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card; Star Wars series

As a writer, I consider myself to be in the journeyman stage of my career. Even though I haven’t really made any money at it yet, I feel like my apprentice years are behind me. I’ve written a couple of books. I no longer find “How to Write” books particularly interesting. I’m sort of in the middle stage of my expertise, even if I’m still in the beginning stages of my professional career.

Part of being a journeyman, I think, is developing your own tricks of the trade, the little knacks and small arts that, along with the philosophies behind them, eventually earn you the title of “master.” One of mine is my Four Act Structure, which I use in plotting a novel. I don’t know if it will work as well for everyone, but I find it a serviceable tool.

Act One: The Challenge Accepted

This takes up maybe a quarter to a third of the book. It’s the part wherein your amateur detective decides to investigate the murder; the young soldier marches off to war; the swineherd decides to kill the dragon so he can claim the princess’s hand.

Except sometimes the challenge seems to be accepted right at the outset of the novel. You’re writing the third book in a detective series, and everyone knows the detective’s going to take the case the moment the client walks in his door. In that case, I think it’s useful to have a secondary challenge, one that can ultimately serve to bring this arc to a close. In the case of the detective series, The Challenge Accepted likely ends when the detective decides to take a personal interest in the case before him, or when he decides to continue pursuing it despite some very persuasive reasons not to.

Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel His Majesty’s Dragon, begins with Captain William Laurence discovering a dragon egg. Over the course of the first thirty pages or so, he determines that the egg will soon hatch, that a member of his crew must make an effort to bond with the dragon and become its rider, and furthermore, that that person must be him. He undertakes this task with dedication, but no enthusiasm, as it will mean the end of his Naval career. And on page 28, there he is, inextricably bonded with his dragon, Temeraire.

But that isn’t where The Challenge Accepted ends. Instead, Laurence spends a good third of the novel learning to see Temeraire as a fellow being, rather than a burden. The Challenge Accepted ends when Laurence accepts the second, hidden Challenge—becoming Temeraire’s true friend and companion.

Act Two: A Grave Setback

This act also takes about a third of the book, maybe a bit less. It involves the characters proceeding along with their efforts, until, bang! A Grave Setback occurs. The prime suspect in your murder mystery turns up as another victim; the young soldier’s unit is mowed down in battle; the swineherd learns that the dragon is not only not the one who’s been terrorizing the peasantry, but is actually a pretty nice guy.

The ideal Grave Setback challenges everything that has gone before it, and makes things immeasurably harder for your heroes. It leaves the reader asking, “Yeesh, what are they going to do now?

In The Princess Bride, the Grave Setback occurs when Westley dies. He dies! The hero dies! That is, as Mercutio might have said, about as grave a setback as you can get. The plot marches forward, and Westley comes back, but in a much-reduced state. Everything he does from this moment on must rely on strengths other than the ones he’s used to get this far.

Note: I know you’ve seen the movie. If you haven’t read the book, read the book!

Act Three: All is Revealed

This act takes up most of the remainder of the book. Any mysteries you’ve developed along the way are laid bare here. Here’s where your murderer is unmasked; where the young soldier discovers the betrayal that led his unit to their doom; where the swineherd learns that the king is actually the evil sorceror who has been making the peasants’ lives miserable.

All is Revealed is where all the little pieces click into place, where your reader can finally make sense of what’s come before. It should surprise the reader, yes, but a moment after that surprise registers, he should begin to slowly bob his head, to realize that this is the only way things could have gone. In other words, All is Revealed should grant answers that feel both surprising and inevitable.

In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, this act concludes when we finally learn the reason for the strange and brutal murders committed by the race of aliens called “piggies.” It all makes sense, then: not just why they committed those crimes, but also why their behavior doesn’t sem to gibe with their feelings of respect for the murder victims. A dozen little mysteries are cleared up with one revelation, which winds up seeming inevitable indeed.

Act Four: Someone Wins

This act is basically comprised of the climax and denouement. Note that it’s not called “The Hero Wins.” It is only necessary that someone win. Failing that, you can go for some sort of stable resolution or compromise—but that’s not my style. I like a good, solid victory or defeat.

In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s the villain who wins in this act, setting us up for the heroes to be in deep trouble at the beginning of Return of the Jedi. I do feel that letting the villain win works best in a series, where you have room to correct the injustice in later novels. But it can work in standalones, too. One of the members of my writing group has written a standalone literary novel with a bitterly shocking Villain Wins fourth act, which leaves the hero alive but forever diminished.

And so…

Not every book will easily break down into these four acts, or even break down into them at all. Like all writers’ tools, the Four Act Structure is a guide, not a harness. It’s meant to give you a way of thinking about your novel that can help you chart your way through the murky first stages of plot-work.

It works for me, and I imagine will continue to do so. But I won’t be afraid to step away from it if it isn’t serving the needs of a particular novel, and I’ll always be looking for ways to change it up and make it freshly surprising.

 

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