Monday, June 20, 2011

Move the Story Forward

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Keep the reader turning the page. I always try to keep that in mind when I write a short story or a chapter in a novel. In a critique group recently, I was reminded of that when one of my group-mates observed that my chapter ended by wrapping up a mystery, but didn’t provide any teaser to propel the reader on to the next chapter where, presumably, things will begin to unravel (not for the author, of course, but for the characters).

“Why should I turn the page?” she asked.

Ouch! She was right. Mystery and conflict remain for the reader to discover, but I failed to show that. When I read or hear stories from other aspiring writers in my little world, I often think the same thing. Here are some common deficiencies:
  • Description - The story is crammed with flowing, minute descriptions of people, their movements, things, the weather, sounds. Description is great if it is done right, if it sparks your mind’s eye (see my blog posting Descriptive Dalliances). But, is the story lost in all the picture-painting? After 10 pages of prose, will the reader say, “All those words just to pick up the bloody knife in his hand?”
  • Pleasantness - The story’s characters go on and on in pleasant conversation about what they plan to do later or what they just finished doing or what they wish they could do. At the end of the chapter, they might walk out the door to actually go do something. But, the chapter is stuck in neutral up to that point. Maybe somebody should cry, or yell, or argue, or faint along the way. Hints about coming trouble can trickle out. Dinner can burn and fill the house with smoke. Aunt Agatha can reveal something shocking. These incidents can be used to set up future tension, or flesh out the characters’ relationships, and to cause the reader to wonder what it portends in coming pages.
  • Fizzled ending - The chapter comes to an end, but it feels like nothing interesting will happen next. A couple sits on the picnic blanket gazing out over the lake holding hands. Okay ... so? What if instead, they hear a strange rattling sound, but dismiss it? The reader might think, “Oooh. A rattlesnake?” This is basically the art of the cliffhanger - adding it at the end of each chapter or scene to spur the reader to stay tuned.
  • Preaching - One of the biggest turn-offs in a novel is when the author fills the pages with some agenda they feel strongly about: religion, environment, politics, conspiracies. These subjects don’t need to be eliminated altogether, just included in a subtle way that doesn’t overwhelm the story or bore the reader.
  • Blandness - This may seem obvious, but it happens a lot for aspiring writers. Characters engage in mundane dialog, or speak in ways that aren’t realistic. The narrator tells us facts and figures that may be nice for a scholarly article, but don’t hold interest in a novel where the reader wants action or romance or humor. Or, the pages may be filled with continuous dialog with no scene-setting, gestures, pauses, description, or narration.
You can probably think of several more substandard writing aspects than this. The bottom line is: will the reader feel compelled to turn page after page? If so, then you’ve done something right.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review: Bel Canto

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Ann Patchett's award-winning novel Bel Canto takes place in a Latin American nation, where attendees at a birthday party in the Vice President's mansion find themselves taken hostage by a rebel force.  The rebels plan to kidnap the President.  But he canceled his attendance at the last minute to stay home and watch his favorite TV soap opera.  The rebels aren't sure what to do, so they hold onto the most prominent men and the one woman at the party who matters: opera singer Roxane Coss, who was the party's entertainment.  Weeks go by.  Negotiations are stalled.  The rebels' strict regimen toward the hostages slackens, and life inside the mansion becomes a small, insular world of its own as hostages and some of the younger rebels bond.  Roxane Coss, deciding she must sing to keep her voice strong, practices her opera daily - delighting rebels and hostages alike.  Life outside the compound is nearly forgotten.  The standoff will never end, they think, so this is all there is.

The entire story takes place in the mansion.  As the story goes on, we see numerous characters contribute their own skills to the smooth operation of their new world.  A pianist.  A cook.  A translator.  The Vice President, who essentially becomes the housekeeper.  Many of the young rebels, who have lived only in the backwoods, learn about society and luxury they've never imagined before, such as watching TV for the first time.   One character, a multilingual Japanese translator named Gen, falls in love with Carmen, one of the young rebels.

Patchett does a masterful job of developing each character without dumping loads of backstory on the reader.  The reader feels sympathy for a General with the disease shingles, which causes an ugly, painful rash on his face. Or Cesar, who learns he can sing opera beautifully.  Or Carmen, who helps Roxane Coss arrange an amorous tryst with a Japanese businessman.  The reader begins to live vicariously in the little false world of the hostages, which is bound to come to a tragic end.

Patchett's language is lyrical, the descriptions rich and humorous at times.  She does not stick to any one character's point-of-view, but rather lets it flow from one person to the next, paragraph by paragraph - and makes it work.

If you long for a novel that explores complex situational character relationships, Bel Canto is worth your time.

Friday, June 3, 2011

It’s Real Life, For Once

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I just sent off a short story for Writers Digest’s “Your Story” Contest #34. The rules specified to start off with the line of dialog, “You won’t believe what came in the mail today.”

My novels and short stories are based upon anything but my real life. After all, I usually don’t shoot at people, or steal wartime secrets, or blackmail my parrot’s previous owner, or time warp back to 1889 to chase down an arsonist, or wear clown makeup to bed. Although, come to think of it, the clown makeup sounds intriguing.

But, for the Your Story contest, the opening line immediately brought to mind my elderly aunt who passed away a few years ago. The postman’s arrival seemed the big highlight of her day, judging by the attention she gave to all the junk mail that poured in. Scams and gimmickry abounded in nearly every envelope - all clearly aimed at taking advantage of the elderly, who are often all too susceptible to emotional pleas. Added to that, her world was rocked when mail delivery was changed to 5:00 pm. Horror of horrors. What would she have to talk about if not the mail? What would she do with herself all day? The change to her routine drove her to distraction until, mercifully, the postal service moved her delivery back to late morning.

So, my beloved aunt provided the exact subject matter I needed for my short story. The precious pieces of mail, the scams she fell prey to, the junk she ordered, the altered delivery time. No guns or clowns or parrots or arson. Just real life put down on digital paper with a bit of author’s poetic license to weave it all together. Whodda thunk?