Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Who Couldn’t Use a Smile?

Last week I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Raise your hand if you’ve read this novel. If you’re hand is lifted, I bet it's clutching a soggy tissue. Holy waterworks is this novel amazing. I loved the way John Green delved deep into the heavy-duty issues of sickness and health, life and death, yet sprinkled in wit at the exact moments when the 
Photo by Grafixar at www.morguefile.com
reader (or, at least, this reader) needed relief in the form of a smile. As in life, when situations get tough, a grin, a snicker, or a laugh is welcome medicine.

Yet, wit can be tricky. It’s about perception. It’s intelligent rather than slapstick. And although what I find hilarious may not be what another person finds funny, some elements of wit seem almost universal. Don’t you smile or snicker at an unexpected perspective or absurdity? Don’t you giggle or at least grin at a surprise understatement? This sort of wit often stems from characters and their actions. So, it can make these characters more endearing. The Fault in Our Stars is a great example of character wit. And yes, these characters are endearing--thus, the tissues.

Have you read a novel ripe with wit? Do you appreciate it in writing?

If you are a writer, do you incorporate wit into your writing? If so, what sort of wit works best for you?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

She Did What?

You’re happily reading along and BLAM, you stop dead because something does not ring true. Maybe there is a coincidence that isn’t feasible. Or a situation makes no sense. Or a character

does something bonkers and out of the range of expectations. Someone or something is not believable. Hitting something unbelievable while reading is like running into a brick wall.

If you’re a writer, you want everything about your story to be believable, right? Writers are on the lookout for anyone or anything that seems improbable. Yet, creating believable characters, situations, scenarios, and so on can be easier said (or typed) than accomplished. I know. Not so long ago, a valued reader questioned the believability of the actions of one of the characters in my work in progress. Yup, this reader face-planted against a wall.

What to do? Here are a few tips:

1. If there is a believability problem, try pointing it out. When characters note that something seems improbable,that situation may be defused. It may no longer be the great ape in the room.

2. Nix any coincidences. If something seems too convenient or easy, it probably is. Try foreshadowing the scene or coincidental element. Set ups usually erase coincidences.

3. Use back-story to legitimize a character’s behavior. A past experience or experiences might justify or provide an understandable reason for a character’s actions.

Have you ever come upon something unbelievable while reading? Did this feel like hitting a wall?

Writers, have you had a brilliant reader pick out something that he or she couldn’t buy into? If so, how’d you fix the believability issue?

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Grabbing Attention

Consider this line from the March/April 2012 issue of

Writer’s Digest, in a wonderful article titled “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make” by Steven James: “Too many times a writer will grab readers’ attention early on with a scene that’s clearly been contrived just for that purpose. . .” This stuck to me like fly paper (and if you’ve ever dealt with fly paper, you know what that means). I’ve read more than one manuscript that included a big event at the beginning that felt sort of contrived and not in keeping with the body of the story. And yes, these have been my own first drafts, but never mind that.

The beginning of a novel sets up readers for what is to come, so it must be true to the whole of the story. Makes sense, right? At the same time, though, it's important to hook readers. The big, dramatic opener can be tempting for writers. Exciting scenes give immediate pay off and lure readers into a plot. An explosion (for example) can be exciting and riddled with tension and intrigue. It will probably snag readers attention and make them turn pages. However, if a novel begins with a bang, readers will expect the following pages to have lots to do with this boom. Even the tone and the pace of the novel may seem set. So, if the story turns out to be a quiet romance, there’s going to be some serious head-scratching going on. Maybe even reader disappointment and frustration at the realization that the explosion had been contrived. Sure, some sort of romance could bloom between those involved in the explosion, but the writer may have to do all kinds of construction to build the bridge between the explosion and the quiet romance. And readers may still be left disappointed. Sooner or later, a contrived scene is going to stick out.

For readers: Have you ever read a story with a contrived beginning scene? How did that work for you?

For writers: Have you ever written or been tempted to write in a big event at the beginning of a story to pull readers into it, even if the fit was awkward? Were you able to make the contrived scene compatible with the main thrust of the story?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Maybe it’s me, but I cringe and gag a little when I hear that “fillers” and “by-products” have been added to food. Don't get me going on the "pink slime" that's been in the news. In case you

haven’t read or heard about this loveliness, pink slime is the result of beef trimmings mixed with ammonium hydroxide. It’s said to be safe, but mixed into foods such as hamburgers and served at some fast food restaurants and schools. Ick. Blech. Nasty.

Anyway, there are fillers in writing, too. And readers may have a similar reaction of ick, blech, nasty. Although, maybe without as much gagging. What are fillers in writing? Wordiness that doesn’t contribute to meaning. Last week I wrote about beautiful writing that can be distracting. This filler stuff isn’t pretty. It’s excess language that often signals a writer struggling to find what he or she is trying to say. Believe me, I know about this. I’ve written pages trying to corner an elusive point.

Here are some examples of fillers:

Qualifiers such as very, most, hopefully, practically, and really (to name a few of my favorites) are signs of wordy writing. Once they are deleted, sentences are more direct. Very few people will usually argue that kittens are, generally, really adorable is not as strong as Few people will argue that kittens are adorable.

Using two words that convey the same meaning is another example of wordiness. In the sentence Gwen worked hard to achieve her hopes and dreams, hopes isn’t necessary.

Stock phrases are also fillers that can sneak into writing. The fact that Lee had a crush on Jules bothered everyone is clunky. Lee had a crush on Jules, which bothered everyone is better.

What are your thoughts on fillers in what you are reading and writing? And, okay, feel free to share your thoughts on pink slime, as well. But I warn you—I may gag.

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