Archive | March, 2010

Critiquing Rob

I’m in Indianapolis this weekend for the joint board meeting of American Christian Fiction Writers (I sit on the advisory board and we’re meeting with the operating board to set the vision for the coming year). We’re in the hotel we’ll be using for our national conference in September. From where I’m sitting in my room, I can see the state capitol building just across the street. I’m really excited to see how the conference is shaping up. More on that in the coming months.

I’ve got a few minutes free right now to critique another one-sentence Storyline — something we’ve been doing here for the last couple of weeks.

Today’s entry is by Rob, who posted this Storyline:

A young father searching for his abducted toddler son becomes the pawn in a terrorist plot to bomb a crowded NASCAR speedway.

Randy sez: I like this. Let’s look at the parts to see what makes this work well:

“A young father” is a strong lead. I constantly hear the comment that “young father” is redundant, since we see shortly that he’s the father of a toddler. My response to that is, “So what?” Redundancy isn’t always a bad thing. My experience is that when you’re describing your lead character, if you haven’t got any other adjectives to make him or her more precise, the word “young” is almost alway a help (if the character actually is young). I’d guess that’s because America is a youth-oriented culture. So I favor keeping it “young father.”

The phrase “searching for his abducted toddler” is very strong, for all kinds of reasons. This pushes the emotional hot buttons for anyone who’s ever been a parent and for most people who haven’t been parents.

The phrase “becomes the pawn in a terrorist plot to bomb a crowded NASCAR speedway” is also strong. It’s a little wordy. It might be possible to shave a word off here or there. But count the emotive words: “pawn” and “terrorist” and “plot” and “bomb” and “crowded”.

The word NASCAR is specific and concrete and it suggests that our author knows something about racing and will put it into the novel. If Rob had said merely “a major sporting event,” that would work less well because it’s less specific. You might imagine that “a major sporting event” would appeal to more readers than “a NASCAR” event. Not really. “A major sporting event” is squishy and out of focus. Rob has this story sharply in focus. This Storyline will appeal to a lot of people just because of the strong thriller element. It will appeal massively to racing fans who like suspense.

Good job, Rob! In 22 words, you’ve shown us both the personal and the public stakes for this novel. If I saw this book on the shelf with this sort of ad copy, I’d open the book to see if I like the writing. That’s the job of a one-sentence Storyline. If you sell this book to a publisher, your editor will know exactly how to position the book and both the Marketing and Sales directors will know how to do their jobs.

The Curious Case of Carrie’s Characters

We’re currently analyzing the one-sentence Storylines submitted by my loyal blog readers. Today, we consider the curious case of Carrie’s characters. Carrie has two Storylines, each focusing on a different character:

Here’s the first one:

A demon-banisher must save a young oracle from kidnappers, possibly including her own fiancee.

Here’s the second one:

A man who watched his sister’s murder must battle her killers to save a young girl.

Randy sez: Let’s analyze each of these in turn.

The term “demon-banisher” is a bit awkward. It doesn’t carry much emotive punch, and it’s definitely not a common term. The usual term is “exorcist” and this does carry some emotive punch, especially if the words “Linda Blair” mean anything to you. Since it’s only one word, Carrie could then afford to add an adjective or two to give us more information on this exorcist. There are all sorts of ways to do so: “A witch doctor exorcist” is very different from “A mathematician exorcist” who is in turn very different from “A five-year-old girl exorcist.” There is room here to make this character unique.

As for those pesky kidnappers, what do they want? If they are holding the oracle hostage for release of their fellow freedom fighters, that’s one thing. If they want a million ounces of gold bullion, that’s another. If they want safe passage to Mars, well, now you’re talking real loonies. In any event, telling us what the bad guys want is an inexpensive way to get us to invest emotionally in the story.

I think the word “possibly” here is leeching the very life out of this Storyline, so kill it if you possibly can. :) On second thought, kill it, kill it, kill it. If the fiance is one of the kidnappers, then say so. If it’s really not clear, then leave it out. The Storyline is not the place to fool your readers.

I don’t know the story well enough to fill out this Storyline the way it needs to be. Only Carrie can do that.

In the second Storyline we’ve got a lead character who is “A man.” Those two words are pretty bare. Tell us more about him. Is he an accountant? A professional wrestler? An Elvis impersonator? In any suspense story, it’s very helpful to give us some idea what skills our hero might bring to the table.

This man, however, “watched his sister’s murder.” That’s pretty potent stuff, and this Storyline would be stronger if you backloaded it so that this phrase is at the very end.

The murderers are also threatening a young girl about whom we know nothing. We need to know more. How is this young girl related to the man? What reason might he have for wanting to get involved in a kidnapping (rather than calling in the FBI)? What do the kidnappers want? What are the stakes here–are they personal, city-wide, national, global, or cosmic?

It’s not clear to me if the “young girl” of Storyline 2 is the same as the “oracle” of Storyline 1, but if so, then Storyline 2 might work better as follows:
“A xxx man tries to rescue yyy who has been kidnapped for zzz by the men who murdered his sister.”

Here, you’d need to fill in xxx with something that tells us more about our hero, and you’d want to fill in yyy with something that explains the emotive bond between our hero and the kidnappee. ZZZ tells the reason the men kidnapped the girl, and it may or may not be necessary, depending on what the reason is. If it’s for ransom, that’s not all that exciting and you might want to leave it out. If it’s to bring nuclear ruin to Washington D.C., the stakes are a bit higher and you could definitely stand to leave it in.

When writing a one-sentence Storyline, you want to push whatever emotive buttons you can to arouse fear, desire, rage, empathy, or whatever powerful emotional experience that you can. You also want to arouse curiosity in the prospective reader. You also want to use as few words as possible. That’s not easy. It’s hard, in fact. But it’s worth doing.

Snowflaker Wins Commonwealth Africa Prize

I was going to critique some more of the one-sentence Storylines that my loyal blog readers have submitted for critique over the last couple of weeks. However, I thought today I’d just take the opportunity to congratulate a young woman who came to this web site a few years ago, read about the Snowflake method, and then did the hard work of writing a novel, getting an agent, and finding a publisher.

Her name is Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, and her debut novel, I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE, was just named the winner of the Commonwealth Africa Prize in the first novel category. You can read all about it on the Book South Africa blog.

Congratulations Adaobi! I’m delighted to hear it!

Let’s be clear about one thing. The Snowflake method (or any method) will not magically get you published or win you writing awards. It focuses your efforts and helps you manage your creativity. That’s all. That’s enough. Getting published and winning awards requires talent, dedication, training and hard work. Tools are just tools — they make the hard work go a bit easier, better, and faster.

Tomorrow, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled critique of your one-sentence Storylines, which is of course the first step in that pesky Snowflake method.

You may remember that I interviewed Adaobi here on this blog a few months ago. If you’d like to congratulate her, leave a comment here. I’ve emailed her just now, so she’ll be dropping by shortly, and I’m sure she’d be happy to see any comments you write her.

Appraising Grace

In my last blog post, I critiqued a couple of one-sentence Storylines submitted by my loyal blog readers, and then I invited comments on a Storyline by Grace, which runs as follows:

A Belfast biologist is forced to run from her own creation — across the real world and into a virtual one, where a strange power wrestles for control of her life.

A number of you gave very insightful appraisals of Grace’s Storyline. Well done, folks! Now let’s try to improve on the Storyline. Grace gave us the back cover copy for the book, which I’ll quote again here:

If you could end world hunger, you’d do it, right? What if governmental experiments caused your miracle fertilizer to become a weapon of mass destruction? Meet Naomi, the Belfast biologist forced to run from her own creation–across the real world and into a virtual one. But there, a strange power wrestles for control of her life.

Randy sez: My philosophy in writing a Storyline is to make the problem clear, without necessarily hinting much at the solution. The problem is that Naomi’s government is messing with her good science and turning it into evil science. Naomi’s solution to the problem is, in part, to flee into a virtual world. This is intriguing, but I don’t understand enough of it to incorporate into the Storyline. Nor do I have a good handle on the “strange power.” So I’ll work with what I have. Here’s my first cut at a revision of Grace’s Storyline:

A Belfast biologist creates a miracle fertilizer that could end world hunger — but her own government uses it to create a weapon of mass destruction.

That’s a little long — it’s 25 words — but it captures Naomi’s essential predicament. It does leave out the extremely intriguing flight into virtual reality and I wish I could see how to capture that, but my brain has turned into oatmeal today after talking to four different mortgage refinancing folks.

Now my challenge for you all, and for Naomi, is to tweak this. Can you make it shorter? Can you capture that bit about the virtual world? Can you do both? Can you make it better? How good can this Storyline get?

To make progress, we’ll need some info from Grace on what forces Naomi into the virtual world. It may turn out that we really don’t need to know anything about the virtual world because it not be essential to the story. I don’t think I understand the story well enough to decide on that point yet.

This exercise highlights the remarkable power of the one-sentence Storyline — it forces you to isolate the most critical parts of your story.

Next time, we’ll wrap up on Grace’s Storyline and tackle the next couple of Storylines on the list of submissions, which has grown to a very large pile in the last week or so.