Archive | December, 2008

Critiquing Mark

In recent weeks, I’ve been critiquing selections of novels posted by my loyal blog readers. Today will be the last of these for a while. I think it’s time to move on to something new in 2009, and I have some plans for that.

Today, we’ll look at six paragraphs submitted by Mark Goodyear, who was in my mentoring group last spring at the Mount Hermon conference:

Here’s something from a revision I’ve been working on. I’m especially interested in how MRUs work when the motivations and reactions occur through dialog.

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“I haven’t been to Decoration since my parents died, Odysseus,” John said.

Odysseus was John’s dog, and John was drunk.

“Every year now, for seven years, I drag out this cheap tent,” he motioned to the wad of polyester flapping in the bed of his truck. “And I tell myself, ‘This year.’ This year I’m going to Decoration.”

The dog was a mottled black and white mutt. Medium-sized, athletic, and just big enough to make a person grunt when she sat on you. She thought she was a lapdog, but she wasn’t dumb. For instance, she knew better than to sit on her owner when he was driving in the middle of the night on a country road.

“I probably shouldn’t be so hard on myself, right? Crying about my parents every year same time. Promising myself this year I’ll get over it. This year I’ll go out to the cemetery like we always did.”

John took a curve too fast, and the tires squealed. Odysseus whimpered on the passenger’s seat and trembled slightly like dogs do sometimes when they are scared or cold or nervous.

Randy sez: This is near the beginning of Mark’s very promising zombie novel. John and and his dog get killed early on in the story and become zombies, doomed to roam the earth until . . .

No, I won’t tell any more. What I’ve said so far would be the first sentence of the back cover copy for the novel, so I haven’t given away anything.

I’m going to guess that this is the new opening for the novel. It’s a pretty solid opening. Remember that at the very beginning of a novel, the author often needs to “tell” more and “show” less than he would once the novel is rolling. The question is always, “How much should you show and how much should you tell?” As we saw a couple of months ago, JK Rowling opted to start out with a full page of “telling” in Book 1 of her Harry Potter series. She seems to have done all right. :)

My own rule of thumb is to do as little telling as possible, but no less. Let’s look at Mark’s paragraphs and see if we can reduce the amount of telling:

Paragraph 1: “I haven’t been to Decoration since my parents died, Odysseus,” John said.

Randy sez: This is a good strong opening. It tells us immediately that John has a goal for this weekend — to go to Decoration (whatever that is). It also gives us a wee bit of backstory: John’s parents are dead. And it also raises the whole topic of death early, which makes good sense in a zombie novel.

It’s a nice start. The one immediate qualm I have is using Odysseus’s name in dialogue. People don’t actually do that too often in real dialogue with real people. When they do, there’s usually some emotive undercurrent — anger, disapproval, or whatnot.

HOWEVER, people do often do it with their pets. I certainly use my cats’ names quite often when I talk to them. The reason is that cats don’t understand English, but they do understand their name, so when you use their name, they react to that, and you feel like they’re reacting to what you said, even though they are really just reacting to the potential for more kibble.

We don’t know that Odysseus is a dog just yet, but we will in the next paragraph . . .

Paragraph 2: Odysseus was John’s dog, and John was drunk.

Randy sez: This is straight “telling.” Mark tells us that Odie is a dog and that John is drunk. There’s nothing particularly wrong with “telling” so early in the story. But is it possible to “show” this? The answer is yes, it’s possible. One way to do it is to use an action tag in paragraph 1 that shows both the dog and the drunkenness. I’ll show you a quick attempt at this after we analyze everything.

Paragraph 3: “Every year now, for seven years, I drag out this cheap tent,” he motioned to the wad of polyester flapping in the bed of his truck. “And I tell myself, ‘This year.’ This year I’m going to Decoration.”

Randy sez: This has the feel of wedging in a lot of information — maybe more than a real person would normally give in dialogue. I think it could be trimmed. Whether it should be is a judgment call.

Paragraph 4: The dog was a mottled black and white mutt. Medium-sized, athletic, and just big enough to make a person grunt when she sat on you. She thought she was a lapdog, but she wasn’t dumb. For instance, she knew better than to sit on her owner when he was driving in the middle of the night on a country road.

Randy sez: This is all telling, but it’s nicely done, so I say Mark should keep it. I can see this dog. Can’t smell it, but that can easily be rectified.

Paragraph 5: “I probably shouldn’t be so hard on myself, right? Crying about my parents every year same time. Promising myself this year I’ll get over it. This year I’ll go out to the cemetery like we always did.”

Randy sez: The only issue I see here is that so far, John is the only person doing the acting, so it’s starting to feel like a monologue. We need Odysseus to respond a bit. She’s a mutt, but she’s still able to respond. I’d like to see her do so.

Paragraph 6: John took a curve too fast, and the tires squealed. Odysseus whimpered on the passenger’s seat and trembled slightly like dogs do sometimes when they are scared or cold or nervous.

Randy sez: This is a mix of John’s action and Odie’s reaction. In the language of Motivation-Reaction Units, the first clause is a Reaction and the rest of the paragraph is Motivation. The main issue I see is that it’s really telling. I’d like to see this better. “Taking a curve too fast” is narrative summary.

Now let me see if I can tweak all of the above slightly:

“I haven’t been to Decoration since my parents died, Odie.” John took another long pull of his Heineken and wedged it on the pickup seat next to his dog.

Odysseus was a mottled black and white mutt. Medium-sized, athletic, and just big enough to make you grunt when she sat on you. She thought she was a lapdog, but she wasn’t dumb enough to sit on anyone’s lap while driving in the middle of the night on a country road. Odie looked up at John with her big brown eyes that said she wanted to hear all this again for the eighty-fourth time.

“I probably shouldn’t be so hard on myself, right? Crying about my parents every year same time. Promising myself this year I’ll get over it. This year I’ll go out to the cemetery like we always did.”

Odie leaned against John and licked his hand. The reek of damp fur washed over him.

John realized halfway into the curve that he was taking it too fast. He eased off on the gas and gripped the wheel with sodden determination, letting the squealing tires bleed off speed. Not bad for a half-sloshed guy at midnight.

Odysseus whimpered on the passenger’s seat and trembled slightly like dogs do sometimes when they are scared or cold or nervous.

Randy sez: OK, I’m trying hard not to inject too many of my own words here, since I’d rather try to work with Mark’s original. Did you miss Paragraph 3, which I cut out entirely? If so, where would it fit most naturally?

Interview With Tosca Lee

Not too long ago, I did an interview with Tosca Lee. Tosca’s latest novel HAVAH got a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. PW doesn’t give out many starred reviews, so that’s quite a feather in Tosca’s cap. HAVAH is Tosca’s second book, and it’s a novel about Eve, the primordial mother of all mankind in the Genesis story. (HAVAH is Hebrew for Eve.)

I doubt very much that the reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly believes in a literal Eve. But everyone can understand guilt. HAVAH is a novel about a woman who lives a very long life, carrying the guilt of introducing evil into the world.

HAVAH is beautifully written (although it does not have any exploding helicopters — I have discussed this failing with Tosca and she’s sorry.)

About Tosca Lee: Tosca Lee earned her BA in English and International Relations from Smith College. She also studied International Economics at Oxford University. She has held the titles of Mrs. Nebraska-America and Mrs. Nebraska-United States and was first runner up to Mrs. United States in 1998. Tosca works as a Senior Consultant for the Gallup organization, training managers and leaders worldwide. Her first novel, DEMON: A MEMOIR, gained her critical acclaim. Her most recent novel, HAVAH: THE STORY OF EVE, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Visit Tosca’s web site at www.ToscaLee.com, and read more about her books at www.havahstoryofeve.com and www.demonamemoir.com.

Tosca Lee, author of DEMON and HAVAH.

Here’s a photo of Tosca. There is a stereotype that says that beauty queens are not very bright. Like most stereotypes, that is balderdash. I’ve known Tosca for a bit more than a year now, and I consider her brilliant. (Sadly, she is not very good at math — but many intelligent people lack that pesky “math gene.”) In high school, she was (like most of us writers) considered a geek. Want to know what her friends called her? Read on . . .

Interview With Tosca Lee

Randy: What was your high school nickname and how did you earn it?

Tosca: My friends used to call me Weird Tosca. I think it was a nice way of saying, “We love you, but you’re a goofy nerd girl.” I never quite fit in — bi-racial kids into ballet and poetry weren’t as in vogue in Midwestern football country in the 70s and 80s, you know? I read Arthurian fantasy fiction and idolized Red Sonja, watched Thundarr the Barbarian on Saturday mornings, and honestly believed Luke Skywalker was going to whisk me off in a borrowed X-wing one day.

Of course, I’m not that way today.

I was yesterday, but not today.

So far.

Randy:  At first sight, a novel about a demon doesn’t have a lot in common with a novel about the primordial mother of all mankind. What’s the common thread that drives your writing?

Tosca: I’ve wondered this myself at times. But there is indeed a common thread: both books examine stories so ingrained in our culture as to be cliché (angels and demons, Adam and Eve) from unlikely perspectives. DEMON tells the story of the time before creation to the present day — as well as the love story of God with humans — from a demon’s point of view. HAVAH examines the story of Eve from a fresh perspective as well: hers. We already have the Biblical narrator’s take, the church fathers’ take, the medieval societal take on this woman’s life. But we do not have hers.

If you assume that demons and Eve are possibly real, then it seems to me that their perspectives, whether you like them or not, merit examination.

Randy:  Tell us a bit about your first novel, DEMON: A MEMOIR.  When you first pitched this novel, what was the reaction from publishers and how did you deal with that reaction?

Tosca: You mean after they pelted me with holy water?

Well, let’s just say that as a former technical writer and beauty queen from Nebraska without a theology degree I would have fared better proposing a football book on the merits of the I-formation.

Ultimately, I don’t think it was the subject matter that scared them. And I never really considered whether it would when I was writing it (though it scared plenty of my friends). The main issue they had with it was that it was written as a monologue. They wanted a more traditional structure complete with other characters and dialogue. I had no idea how to accomplish that.

Randy:  I’d like to follow up on that.  When you finally sold DEMON, your editor Jeff Gerke made a small but critical suggestion.  Tell us the story on that, and why it made the book better.

Tosca: After Jeff took DEMON to committee only to receive the same feedback — that it needed dialogue, other characters — he suggested I try rewriting the first 40 pages in such a way that the demon is telling his story to someone else. And so Clay, the Bostonian everyman and DEMON’S protagonist, was born. Now the reader had someone to identify with other than the demon. It also made the entire story richer for its parallels in human existence. After submitting the new first 40 pages, the committee took the book — as well as an orphaned one-page prologue on the story of Eve — in a multi-book deal.

Randy:  Your new novel HAVAH tells the story of Eve, the mother of mankind.  One might think there isn’t a lot to say about Eve.  Tell us why you wrote this book and what sort of research you did.

Tosca: The bones of the story are lean in scripture, it’s true. But her image, as painted by history, church and convention, has caused unending commentary and affected women for millennia. And even though Adam is called the “original sinner,” Eve retains the evil seductress stigma to this day.

That intrigued me.

I have to think that any one of us in a similar position might have done the same thing she did — probably would have at some point, I daresay. A reader just today wrote to me and said, “I am Eve.” And indeed, we all are.

In a strictly narrative sense, if you believe in a literal Eve, then the woman was as human and fallible as any of us, even if she had the benefit of a first-hand relationship with God, of perfect genes, of an unfallen world. And anyone human and fallible, who can claim to know God first-hand, who has undergone the transition from immortality to mortality… has a story-worthy perspective.

So I wrote it for those reasons, and because I hate two-dimensional, cliché characters. Just as I hate red-horned evil “muhahahaha!”-laughing demons, I hate the concept of a simple-minded “oh, that’s pretty, I think I’ll eat it anyway” Eve. If the woman was real, there was probably some interesting rationalization that happened there. Some very horrific guilt — not to mention the physical consequences of life outside paradise. How have we missed this? I can’t imagine living with myself after such a terrible mistake and disruption of, oh, the world as we know it. I can’t imagine living with new separation from a God I loved intimately. Or the horror of the first human death — of anyone, let alone my own son — at the hands of another son, no less. Of living nearly a millennium with it all.

Or being married more than 900 years.

The research was appallingly daunting. Theology and scripture, apocryphal and pseudepigraphic texts, the Midrash, Mesopotamian geography and history, ancient agriculture, horticulture, flora and fauna of the Levant. Basket weaving — I wish I were kidding on that — textiles, pottery, ancient arts like fire and tool-making. Childbirth. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. But I have to tell you, one hasn’t lived until one has read the Pentatuch As Narrative.

Randy:  HAVAH isn’t exactly G-rated.  In fact, the book comes with a warning on the content.  What’s the warning, and how do you think the Christian reading public will respond to the somewhat “spicy” flavor of the book?

Tosca: It’s been cited PG-13 by some reviewers and carries a “contains mature imagery” note on some sites. But so does the Song of Solomon.

The fact is, I’m pretty sure Adam and Eve did it. By “it,” I mean I’m pretty sure they had sex/did the chicken/the wild thing/hooked up — on more than one occasion.

Granted, I don’t write their intimate life in explicit detail. The book is put out by NavPress, a Christian publisher with a reputation for sound theology and the standards readers expect in Christian fiction. But you cannot separate scripture from human experience — an experience that includes pleasure and beauty (as well as depravity, too). Scriptures were written about and for humans.

At the end of the day, I don’t understand this suspicion of the sensual. The world is sumptuous, earthy and seminal — or was designed to be — and the marriage relationship is meant to be gorgeous.

If only all life were like that.

Randy:  Demons and sensuality. I’m told that some readers were hesitant to read your books — particularly DEMON — because of the subject matter. What do you say about that?

Tosca: If you do not believe in God, demons or Eve, it’s pretty much a non-issue. But if you are a Christian, demons and original sinners inhabit your world. We can cover our eyes — in which case they’d still exist — or we can examine what we believe to be there.

Ultimately, if demons and sex are offensive — as well as child sacrifice, orgies, or gory executions . . . then we dare not crack open the cover of the Bible.

Lucky for us if we do, love and grace and redemption lurk within those same pages.

Randy:  What’s next for Tosca Lee?  What are you working on right now and why?

Tosca: I’m thinking about that now. You know, Jeff Gerke just put a bug in my ear that just won’t die and is scaring me to death. I really wanted to write an “easy” book this next time around but this idea wouldn’t be easy. I won’t say what it is yet; I haven’t even mentioned it to my agent in the event that I chicken out.   Oh! And a movie. Drrr — I almost forgot. DEMON is getting optioned for film. If all goes as planned, it should start shooting next year.

Randy: Good luck!

Postscript: After the interview, I asked Tosca about that idea for her next book and she told me more about it, off the record. I love it! I hope she writes it.

If you’d like to know more about Tosca’s books, here are the Amazon links to DEMON: A MEMOIR and to HAVAH: THE STORY OF EVE.

100 Hour Special

It’s been quite a while since I had a 24 Hour Special on my fiction-writing products. The last time I had one was in April. So I am WAY overdue.

Since Christmas is just around the corner, I thought it would be nice to run a 100 Hour Special.

Everything I sell is 50% off.

This 100 Hour Special runs from noon on Thursday, December 11, 2008 to 4 PM on Monday, December 15, 2008. (All times are California time.) Sorry, but I can’t give extensions on these hours.

In order to take advantage of this 50% discount, you just need to know the coupon code.

You can discover this coupon code, along with information on all my products, on this page of my web site

* Do you need help learning the craft of writing? Try my two series of lectures which I’ve given at writing conferences across the country: “FICTION 101″ and “FICTION 201.” Going to a multi-day writing conference can cost you hundreds of dollars and will take days out of your life. You can buy my lectures with full notes for a fraction of that price.

* Do you need help getting your writing career organized? Take a look at how I got myself organized with the help of Strategic Planning Expert Allison Bottke. Allison and I did a series of five teleseminars, which we recorded. Get the full set of recordings, with transcripts and Allison’s incredible checklists. We call it “Clean Up Your Act!” because it’ll help you start acting like the professional writer you want to be.

* Do you want to learn to promote your writing (and get paid for it) by developing your speaking career? Check out the teleseminar series I did with Mary Byers, a professional speaker and author. The series has the incredibly catchy title “Promote Your Writing By Speaking.” Get the recordings along with transcripts and Mary’s worksheets and get going on promoting yourself and your ideas. Publishers adore writers who speak, because writers who speak are usually writers who sell.

* Are you planning to go to a writing conference in the next year? Check out author Meredith Efken’s e-book “Writer’s Conference Survival Guide” — 60 pages packed with everything you need to know to get your money’s worth out of that conference.

Click here to go to the page with the special coupon code to get a 50% discount during my 100-Hour Special:

Why Aren’t You Famous?

Qwest had a line down yesterday. Not too big of news, except that it was the line that connects me via phone and internet to the world. So I was cut off from civilization for about 10 hours yesterday. A horrible fate. Fortunately, the line is back up and I’m online again.

I’m heading out for the day shortly, but thought I would mention that my pesky plumber Sam is at it again. My latest humor column was posted a couple of days ago.

Sam the Plumber asks me the hard, hard question: “Why aren’t you famous?” Read all about it here.