Archive | June, 2008

Research, Planning, Writing, Editing

It’s Friday, which is not normally a blog day for me, but I thought I’d comment on a couple of reader comments on yesterday’s post on subtexting.

Wayne wrote:

So subtext would then seem to be a literary technique like dramatic irony involving information withheld from the characters.

But you say “I don’t plan subtexting either. I just write.” Why not plan subtext? Shouldn’t an author plan what info to withhold?

Also, what is the broader term for literary techniques that withhold information?

Randy sez: I’m not sure if it’s a matter of withholding information from characters, so much as it’s a matter of characters acting the way real people do–which is to say they lie, fib, prevaricate, obfuscate, and dissimulate. Once in a while, they even tell the truth, if it suits their interest.

Elizabeth wrote:

You said that you “don’t plan subtexting either. I just write.” which I’m surprised to hear; when I write dialogue or interior monologue, I’m very aware of what my characters aren’t saying, as much as I am of what they are — perhaps I’ve spent too much time studying Pinter, but that’s crucial for my character development.

Randy sez: I’ll answer Wayne’s second question and Elizabeth’s first at the same time. There are really four main activities we do as writers when we create fiction:
1) Research
2) Planning
3) Writing
4) Editing

Different people put different amounts of efforts into each of these, depending on their personal tastes. Let’s look at each of these:

Research: Michener was a research puppy and Clancy is one now. Grisham doesn’t care for research. I like research, and have done some rather insane amounts. I have a lunar calendar valid for Jerusalem between the years A.D. 50 and A.D. 75. I made it myself, using astronomical tables of new moons. I once wrote a computer program to calculate trajectories of spacecraft between earth and Mars (for my novel OXYGEN). It took me 3 weeks to answer a question my coauthor and I had about whether a deep-space rendezvous could be done. I showed that it could, and calculated the exact date it could occur. We revised our plot slightly to accommodate this.

Planning: Frank Peretti and Davis Bunn like to do quite meticulous outlines. Jerry Jenkins and Robin Lee Hatcher prefer to just sit down and type the story without any planning. My Snowflake method is a planning tool that is very flexible and will accommodate both the meticulous folks and those (like me) who want to have some structure but leave some surprises, although it is not much use for those who don’t want to plan anything. I need to plan out the large-scale structure of the story, but I need to NOT plan out the details. There is no right or wrong choice on planning that works for everyone–there is only the right or wrong choice for YOU.

Writing: Some people hate writing first drafts and some love it. I love it and write quite fast. In January, I interviewed Susan Meissner on this blog, who shared how she routinely writes a novel in 30 days or so. That speed is about right for me, too, IF I’ve done my research and my planning. But there are also those who write very slowly and painfully, leaking the story out of their veins one word at a time. Again, whatever works for you is whatever works. I have tried writing slower and the result was worse writing.

Editing: Some people love editing and others hate it. I don’t particularly like it. I have a suspicion that those who hate the first drafts love the editing, whereas those of us who love the first draft tend to hate the editing. Once again, this is a choice each writer has to make.

The bottom line then is that you only have 100% of your time and effort to give to any project. You can apportion more or less of it on the four phases: Research, Planning, Writing, and Editing, but it’s all going to add up to 100% in the end. There is no set of proportions that is “best” for all writers. But for YOU there is probably one best way to split your time in order to get the best out of yourself. Your mission is to find that split and stick to it.

Here’s roughly my split:
Research: 40%
Planning: 20%
Writing: 30%
Editing: 10%

Now I can answer Wayne and Elizabeth on why I don’t plan my subtexting–I prefer not to. It works better for me not to. But for some people it works better to plan it.

I’m curious how my Loyal Blog Readers split their time. If you’re brave, post a comment with your estimated apportionments for Research, Planning, Writing, and Editing.

Thoughts on Subtexting

Yesterday, I started a new series of posts on the topic of subtexting in dialogue. I gave an example from Harry Potter Book 4. Today, I’m going to respond to comments from my loyal blog readers:

Sean wrote:

Ah, great subject! I’ve been pondering this one for a while–how exactly does one go about writing subtexted dialogue? It’s easy enough to spot, and it’s wonderful to read when done well (as in the example of Lizzie vs. Lady Catherine in Pride & Prejudice), but how do you do it? Clearly you must have a previously established context that drives the subtext. But where I stumble is on the actual dialogue. How should what is said relate to what isn’t said?

Randy sez: Subtexting happens when the characters, for one reason or another, can’t say what they really think. So they dance around the issue. In the example I showed yesterday, Ron is scared to death to admit (even to himself) that he likes Hermione. Since Hermione likes Ron, she doesn’t want to mess things up by saying that she likes him. If she didn’t like him, she’d laugh in his face and tell him, “You’re just jealous!” And there wouldn’t be much conflict, because Ron would just scowl and say, “You’re mental!” and then he’d be off the hook and so would she.

Parker wrote:

If I’m understanding this correctly, it seems that an overtly sarcastic remark is frequently the visible side of subtext.

Randy sez: Sarcasm can be a cover for a different message. Or it can just be rudeness. Subtexting happens when people can’t or won’t say what they think, whether from fear, anger, jealousy, or just plain cluelessness. And I’m sure there are a bunch more reasons.

Paulette wrote:

I have heard two different viewpoints about dialogue in our CBA fiction writing. One is that people who write dialogue are lazy and the other is that to tell a good story it should be full of dialogue to describe the characters in full.

Randy sez: What you are looking for is balance. The dialogue should be in the amount appropriate for your story and your genre. In an action-adventure novel, you’ll have less dialogue and more exploding helicopters. In a romance, you’ll have more dialogue.

Lois wrote:

And…Turn aside and cover your ears, Grammar Police…if your characters’ personalities, motives and situations drive the dialogue, doesn’t it happen naturally, or do we, should we, program it in? Does it, subtexting, should it, appear in all forms of writing?

How might it differ from one character to another? Dialogue has been one of my stronger points, so I’m told, but I have not been aware of planning it, or even if I’ve accomplished it.

Randy sez: I don’t plan subtexting either. I just write. Subtexting happens when appropriate and it doesn’t happen when not appropriate. When I go back to edit, I see it and buff it up to be better, but I don’t have a schedule that tells me, “Write 2000 words today, and make sure 184 of them are subtexted dialogue.” I wouldn’t know how to write like that.

Gerhi posted a fairly long section from Alice in Wonderland. I have no understanding of this story at all, because I never read the book. Can somebody explain what is going on here? I have no context for it:

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

`I didn’t know it was your table,’ said Alice; `it’s laid for a great many more than three.’

`Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

`You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; `it’s very rude.’

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

Subtext In Dialogue

Today I’d like to begin a new topic, and I think it would be cool to talk about dialogue for a bit. Dialogue is a big topic, of course, so let’s focus on subtexting.

Roughly speaking, subtexting refers to the art of putting a whole different layer of meaning under the surface, so that the dialogue is not really about what the dialogue appears to be about.

Let’s look at an example. This is from Book 4 of the Harry Potter series. Harry and his friend Ron are at the Yule Ball, very much not enjoying themselves, when they’re joined by their friend Hermione, who’s date for the evening is Viktor Krum, a student from the rival school Durmstrang:

“It’s hot, isn’t it? said Hermione, fanning herself with her hand. “Viktor’s just gone to get some drinks.”

Ron gave her a withering look. “Viktor?” he said. “Hasn’t he asked you to call him Vicky yet?”

Hermione looked at him in surprise. “What’s up with you?” she said.

“If you don’t know,” said Ron scathingly, “I’m not going to tell you.”

Hermione stared at him, then at Harry, who shrugged.

“Ron, what–?”

“He’s from Durmstrang!” spat Ron. “He’s competing against Harry! Against Hogwarts! You–you’re–” Ron was obviously casting around for words strong enough to describe Hermione’s crime, “fraternizing with the enemy, that’s what you’re doing!”

Randy sez: Subtext is tricky, because a lot of times you need to know the context, and that’s often not apparent in a short segment like this. The context is this: Both Harry and Ron dithered around for a long time before asking girls to the ball. Harry asked Cho Chang, who he’s had a crush on all year, and she turned him down because she’d already been asked. Ron asked Hermione, who turned him down, claiming that she’d already been asked out also. Ron didn’t believe her, but she refused to say who had asked her out. So he didn’t find out until he got to the ball and found that Hermione’s date was Viktor Krum, one of the best Quidditch players in the world.

Why is Ron so mad at Hermione? It has nothing to do with “fraternizing with the enemy.” It has everything to do with Ron being rather sweet on Hermione, and just assuming (since she’s rather a plain girl) that nobody else particularly is interested in her. So Ron’s angry at Krum for horning in on the girl he likes; he’s really angry at Hermione for not knowing it (oh, but she does); and he’s perfectly furious with himself (as he should be).

Ron can’t say any of that, of course, because it would mean admitting to emotions that he barely understands, so he makes up a rather stupid excuse to be angry.

Hermione knows all this, of course, but she can’t say anything, because this is something Ron is going to have to figure out for himself. If she explained it to him, it would ruin the game, and the game is that Hermione likes Ron.

Harry doesn’t get any of this. Like Ron, he’s way slow on the uptake, so he takes the entire conversation at face value.

That is subtexting–two different dialogues going on at the same time, one visible, one invisible.

Do you have a favorite example of subtexting in a book you like? Post a sample of it here and we can talk about some of them.

Suzanne’s MRUs

For the past few weeks, we’ve been analyzing scenes using the framework of Motivation-Reaction Units. (For a review of this tool, see my article Writing the Perfect Scene.)

Today will be the final analysis. We’ll look at a few paragraphs posted by Suzanne. We could, of course, go on forever on this topic, but I think it’s time to be moving on, which we’ll do tomorrow.

Here is Suzanne’s full submission:

Mira Johns took long strides up Chule Vista Blvd., and paused at the crest of the hill, her heart throbbing heavily in her chest, to catch her breath and admire the sprawling white brick campus of Los Robles High School.

Her hands clenched anxiously into fists at her sides. Her new clothes—plaid shorts, frayed sneakers, t-shirt, and a pack slung across her back—felt stiff and foreign, as if she were in a costume. The sudden blast of a horn from behind startled her.

She jumped and turned to see a shiny, red Neon zip past her into the school parking lot. A boy in the backseat was poking his body half-way out an open window, and yelled a string of indecipherable words that floated away with the wind.

Her fingers self-consciously tugged at the hem of her t-shirt while she watched the car pull into an empty parking space. She pushed back the fear that they had been able to see through her that easily. While painfully aware of the fact that she was no ordinary student, she reminded herself that she wasn’t all that different either. Quite literally from a different world, she only had to do one thing to succeed: blend in.

She squared her shoulders and stepped forward, moving undeterred across the street and into the busy parking lot, focused on the building directly below the looming marquee that read: Home of the Trojans. Welcome New Students.

Randy sez: This reads pretty well. The question is whether we can make it read better. Can those pesky MRUs make a difference? Let’s take a shot and see what happens.

The first paragraph is mostly one long Reaction (by which we mean it focuses on the POV character.) The end of the paragraph has a Motivation in it which is mixed up with a new Reaction. I would propose to break this longish paragraph into several shorter ones that are either pure Motivation or pure Reaction. Here’s my suggestion:

Mira Johns took long strides up Chule Vista Blvd., and paused at the crest of the hill to catch her breath. Her heart throbbed heavily in her chest.

Beneath her, the white brick campus of Los Robles High School lay sprawled out.

Mira’s hands clenched anxiously into fists at her sides. Her new clothes—plaid shorts, frayed sneakers, t-shirt, and a pack slung across her back—felt stiff and foreign, as if she were in a costume.

A horn blasted directly behind her.

Randy sez: The first paragraph is Reaction, the second is Motivation, the third is Reaction, and the fourth is Motivation. Note that in the last sentence, I have eliminated the word “sudden” because it adds words and makes the horn blast LESS sudden (by making the sentence take longer to read.) Also, I have removed the statement that the horn startled her. The reason is that saying it startled her is “telling.” Remove that, and now it startles the reader.

For the next paragraph, I’d suggest breaking it up as follows:

“Oh!” Mira’s heart double-thumped in her chest. She turned to look.

A shiny, red Neon zipped past her into the school parking lot. A boy in the backseat was poking his body half-way out an open window. He yelled a string of indecipherable words that floated away with the wind. The car pulled into an empty parking space.

Randy sez: The Reaction in the first sentence is now clearly separated from the next Motivation–the boy in the car. The scene now has a somewhat quicker pace because we are not presenting it as if it’s all happening at the same time.

I’ve pulled part of the next paragraph forward to join up with the Motivation above. The rest of the paragraph now makes a nicely coherent Reaction:

Mira’s fingers self-consciously tugged at the hem of her t-shirt. She pushed back the fear that they had been able to see through her that easily. While painfully aware of the fact that she was no ordinary student, she reminded herself that she wasn’t all that different either. Quite literally from a different world, she only had to do one thing to succeed: blend in.

Randy sez: The reason I pulled out the bit about the car from this paragraph is because it had nothing to do with Mira. What remains is all about Mira–it’s all a Reaction.

Now let’s look at Suzanne’s last paragraph, which I again have broken up into a Reaction (that continues the previous paragraph) and a Motivation:

Mira squared her shoulders and stepped forward, moving undeterred across the street and into the busy parking lot.

Directly ahead of her a marquee loomed: Home of the Trojans. Welcome New Students.

Randy sez: Again, I’ve disentangled the parts that were about Mira from the parts that are about the school.

Now you be the judge: Have I disimproved Suzanne’s work or improved it?

Tomorrow, we’ll start on a new topic. I’ll figure out what it is between now and then.