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Thread: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

  1. #2776
    mr mistook

    Re: fonts

    The idea I have for my second novel is "What if there were no Hitler, and WWII never happened?"

  2. #2777

    Re: Story ideas

    Mistook, I think there are quite a few "alternate history" books on that...

    Of course, it's also pretty broad -- anything could have happened.

  3. #2778

    Re: Question

    Mistook, maestro's right, that is a very prominent idea for novels, but that shouldn't stop you. If you're interested in alternate history, there's a new novel out by Philip Roth called the _Plot Against America_. In case you haven't heard about it yet, it's what happens when Charles Lindbergh beats FDR in the presidential race in 1940, and America slips into a fascist government. Haven't read it yet - just bought it - but it's getting rave reviews.

    Maybe something to look into.

  4. #2779



    Actually I had asked a similar question earlier in this board but sadly, haven't been able to find a satisfying answer to my quandary yet.

    In a nutshell, my WIP is a coming-of-age, growth-of-character story. I have learnt, from numerous sources (including this board), that the best place to start a novel is in media res--in the middle of things. That is, when a character is already in a soup, or just about to fall headlong into it.

    Now, in my story (I assume this happens in all coming-of-age stories), I want to keep to a simple linear narrative, and show the growth of character from point A to point B. If I start off in the middle, his state of mind has already changed. Showing how he was before the change won't be as effective as showing the progression of change linearly, in my opinion.

    Maybe it will help if I give a few details. Simplifying the story considerably, the sequence is:
    Boy is lonely; boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; then both realise they cannot carry on due to other external (social) reasons; dilemma/conflict is of neither being able to stay together not being able to let go; climax/outburst/breakdown.

    Until I come to the point where they get the first hint of trouble (that will endanger their relationship) brewing in the background, there is hardly any conflict. In fact, my objective was to contrast the initial peaceful state with the one of conflict that emerges later on.

    So the suggestions I am looking for are on how to make the start more interesting, how to foreshadow the conflict that will arise later, how to start off in the middle of things when actually I am the beginning... I am not sure I want to use flashbacks. Someone had suggested using subplots at the beginning. Is it acceptable to start off with the conflict of a subplot, or will the reader consider it cheating because he had expected it to be the main plot?

    Help please.


  5. #2780
    James D Macdonald

    Re: Beginnings

    Does your protagonist have no problems at all? Not even what to have for supper?

  6. #2781
    mr mistook

    Re: Question

    I know alternate history's gonna be a bugger. Very heavy on research, and it brings "speculation" literally to an art-form. I do have ideas for where I want things to generally end-up by the end of the 20th century. Specifically, the story will focus on one fictional American city that chaged it all.

    The city blossoms in to a cultural mecca in the late 1920's and attracts one forlorn Adolf Hitler who can't find any support for his artistic dreams in Germany. He ends up being a successful, but very benign architecht in America, with no political agenda.

    In the modern day, I envision this world where America never truly reached "super power" status, and ends up this kind of happy-go-lucky nation where everybody gets around on trolley cars, and has plenty of leisure time - having reduced the work week to 20 hours.

    Meanwhile some other country (haven't decided who yet) is working on a nuclear bomb - a thing the rest of the world thinks of as only science fiction.

    And then some plucky guy from a parallel universe (our universe) comes in and saves their happy little world only to return to the planet of endless strife he calls home.

  7. #2782

    Re: Question

    In media res doesn't mean you have to start it right in the smack of a major conflict. You can start the book moments/hours before the first conflict. Or like UJ said, the protagonist must have some kind of troubles, even before his world is turned upside down... or something. You said "boy is lonely" -- well, that's a good place to start. What are the boy's problem and he's lonely... what about his home life? No conflict there either?

    The thing is, if your story doesn't have conflicts whatsoever for a while, it doesn't sound real and it makes for a dull read. Drama contains conflict -- either internal or external. Especially with a coming of age story, there must be at least intense internal conflicts. The boy is lonely is not a conflict -- but if the boy is lonely and he doesn't want to be anymore, but he doesn't know how to not be lonely and then BOOM! he meets his girl and she doesn't like him... now there's conflict.

    Or you can describe a normal day of this lonely boy and his conflicts with his parents... or something. There's ALWAYS conflict between parent and child... and good characterization would bring your characters and story to life and make the readers want to read on...

    Another way to "cheat" without falling back on flashback is to state the problem in the first sentence/paragraph, then go on with your "ordinary life" until the proper moment to connect back to the first paragraph... that helps foreshadow what is to happen, and it also keeps suspense/interest high. Something like:

    "They say love changes someone in the most unusual way. For Josh, he changed love. And he lived to tell the story.

    Josh's parents were the most extraordinarily ordinary people east of the Mississippi..."

    Something like that...

  8. #2783

    Re: Beginning


    You know, that's exactly what I did in my second draft. Changed the starting to say something in an omniscient, look-ahead kind of way. It did make the start better. And then I fall back to the normal linear narrative. The rest of the book is in 3rd person limited POV, so going by the rules, the first one or two paragraphs violate the POV by becoming omniscient. Hope that won't be noticed.

    Uncle Jim, I should be able to put in other kinds of conflicts at the beginning, perhaps something to do with his loneliness. One of my questions was whether the conflict hinted at in the beginning can be any conflict of the protagonist, or it has to be the main conflict? If it can be any other conflict, which might get resolved soon, then I can see my way through.


  9. #2784

    Re: Beginnings

    About medias res, one of the things you could do is have the boy and girl start off with a bad situation - she running from a house after an argument, the boy driving off from the scene of a fight, where he'd beat up a friend of his who'd turned on him, and so set himself up for a summer of revenge, and he's driving down this back road at night, and he takes a corner, and there's this girl walking the road, crying...

    Then they're bonded together closer, needing each other more, and when all that started at the beginning of the book reaches a boiling point, they're torn apart again.

    Crap... that's Romeo and Juliet. Dang - thought I actually had a good one there. But it's true - you can't start off with everything all lovey-dovey 'cause no one will care. Make us want them to be happy by kicking them around at first.

    You could also watch some movies on the same theme and see how they begin. "Rebel without a Cause" and that Leelee Sobieski farmland one both have the "new kid in town" theme.

  10. #2785

    What is it??

    Here’s a million-dollar question: What separates the Stephen Kings, John Grishams and Danielle Steeles et al from the rest of the pack? How is it that they can repeatedly write books that command such huge readerships, earning them millions and millions and millions of dollars? What are they doing differently? Does it come down to using genre as a starting point to attract the widest audience possible? Plotting? Creating a certain kind of protagonist?

  11. #2786

    Re: Beginnings


    You've been given some good suggestions here. Starting off with a conflict, no matter how trivial, is the best way.
    But when do get to showing Boy and Girl having a wonderful time, you can juice it up with key foreshadowing.

    Boy and Girl are out having a magical date. The dinner, the wine, the dancing, alas, it was a perfect moment. But like all perfect moments, things could only go downhill from there. Or, little did they know, it would be the last time they'd truly enjoy each other's company.

    Obviously you can say it better than that. But when everything seems too 'nice,' as in boring, a little sting on the end like that can yank a reader's attention back into place.

    Some may say that's a cheap trick, and I'd have to agree. So only use it sparingly, perhaps just once, where you need it most.

    On another note, Uncle Jim, OSC's Ender's Game was mentioned on the previous page. Have you read it? What are your thoughts on the ending? Does it deliver?

    Did anyone find it... anti-climatic?

    I don't know if anti-climatic is the right word, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone. But it'd be great to hear some thoughts on this particular ending.

    I thought it was a great book, however, I felt like it was over before i knew it.


  12. #2787
    Silfer Darkflare

    Re: Beginning

    */Introduction: I have been reading this looong and interestign thread, and after a long while I have finally reached it's end. Hooray, now I can post to it. I am a wannabe-writer, setting up my BIC routine and the like... This thread has been most teaching. Thank you, Uncle Jim.*/

    On "Ender's game": I have read that book, and IMHO it is great, and you keep turning pages... and then at the ending, you still turn them, but it is telling, not showing. The author of that book made it a long postscript, like on movies, when text rolls over the ending page telling that "Ten year later, they were all run over by a truck..." or similar. That is one problem, as I wasn't inside the book anymore, but was hearing it told. Second (and main) problem is that the ending does not have any turining points, or climaxes. Same pace, ntohing much happens, zzz...

    On the other hand, the ending did create a feeling of despair and hopelessness, and if the author intended that, it did work - a really big "No happy ending here" thing.

  13. #2788

    Re: Question

    How have some of your story ideas originated? It would be helpful if some of you could perhaps lead us through this process: how the initial impulse for a story arose and how it was developed into a novel.
    For me it's always been a premise that launches the story. I develop the characters and the story lines secondary to that. My first published novel centered around a real-life experience. I'm an ER nurse and I once (several times actually, since he came to our ER often) took care of a Vietnam vet who had shards of metal shrapnel in his brain. He swore those bits of metal had given him the ability to read minds and foresee the future and he used to entertain the ER staff with his "predictions." He was a bit of a mental case but one day he did "predict" something that turned out to be true and rather astonished us all. It got me to wondering. And then a newspaper article I read years later that talked about serotonin and aggressive behavior added a second element. Those two things came together in my mind in a "what if?" and a novel was born.

    When I decided to write something that was more in the mystery line as opposed to suspense it was a thought I had while observing my first autopsy that became both the genesis for my story/character and the first line in the book. That thought was this: "I'm surprised by how much the inside of a dead body smells like the inside of a live one." As a nurse who briefly worked in the OR and later a student who observed a number of autopsies (for reasons I won't go into here) I had knowledge of both smells. And I realized after I had the thought that it would make a great first line for a novel because it raised all kinds of intriguing questions.

    My characters are always a secondary development but they are what I typically spend the most time developing.


  14. #2789

    Re: What is it??

    Here's a million-dollar question: What separates the Stephen Kings, John Grishams and Danielle Steeles et al from the rest of the pack? How is it that they can repeatedly write books that command such huge readerships, earning them millions and millions and millions of dollars? What are they doing differently? Does it come down to using genre as a starting point to attract the widest audience possible? Plotting? Creating a certain kind of protagonist?

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    Genre: books that show up on the bestseller lists tend to certain genres more than others. Technothriller is more popular than SF--more accessible. Fantasy is a niche audience. Romance sells a lot, but not in hardcover. Thrillers of various kinds seem to sell a lot: John Grisham writes legal thrillers, Dean Koontz and Stephen King write horror (or horror-ish) thrillers. The latest NYT hardcover fiction top ten has:

    Da Vinci Code (thriller).
    State of Fear by Michael Chrichton (thriller).
    The Five People You Meet in Heaven (inspirational?)
    Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz (thriller).
    Night Fall by Nelson DeMille (thriller).
    Black Wind by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler (thriller). A Salty Piece of Land (by Jimmy Buffett--that probably does more than genre to explain its place on the list)
    London Bridges by James Patterson (thriller).
    By Order of the President (thriller).
    Hot Target by Suzanne Brockman (romance/thriller?)
    Lest you think literary novels are completely out of the running, #11 is the new Tom Wolfe. But I think that's a representative sample, no?

    Genre and plotting are closely linked, and I think what it comes down to for these bestsellers is what I shorthand as 'narrative force.' Whatever it is that keeps you turning pages.
    --A particular style of writing that lets you read the words quickly, get their meaning, and not get bogged down in the beauty of the prose. But there's also an authority in the style: you instantly hear from the author, "I know what I'm doing." It's confident.
    --Lots of events happening in short order. Exciting events! Terrorists! Things blowing up! Dinosaurs! Use of cliffhangers to keep us turning pages.
    --Complicated plotting that focuses a lot on big events (a couple of those books are terrorism-focused, for example), and not so much on human relationships or intra-personal conflict.
    --Characters that are usually very, very competent, characters you wish you were. But they're up against forces as big as they are: victory isn't guaranteed or easy.

    I'm saying this not to demean people who write bestsellers, nor to praise them. It's one way of writing; it's a way a lot of people like. Narrative force is incredibly important in all kinds of genre writing--I think all of the above are characteristics of the novels I like to read, but not in ways that are as extreme. I don't think it's the only kind of writing there's room for in the world. I, for one, think I'm more likely to write a good novel by writing the one I'm writing now than one about an eco-terrorist and cloned dinosaurs in Hollywood, but that's me.

    If you really want to write a best-seller, read those ten, analyze the heck out of them, pull apart what makes them tick in more detail than I've just done...and see if you still want to write one.

  15. #2790


    Oh, what I meant to say and didn't:

    I am sure that one of the reasons Stephen King et al are so successful is that they don't cold-bloodedly sit around and think, "Now, how can I write a book that will sell a million copies?"

    It's hard to fake enthusiasm for a story you don't like. Readers can tell the difference.

  16. #2791

    Re: Beginnings

    About Ender's Game, I thought the book was great and deserves its place as a classic. The dramatic ending was a good twist, even though you know something's gotta happen quick since you're getting right near the end of the book.

    And as for the "what happened next" bit after the dramatic ending - I felt it was perfect. As I wrote in the book, "This last chapter adds so much - the moral balance and depth and calm, clear vision that the rest of the book is without. Opens up the other side, to a true victory."

    And you know what? Looking at it now, I noticed that right across from that last page is a list of Tor books, including The Price of the Stars - Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald.

  17. #2792

    Long form to short

    Hello all,

    I've been a long time lurker and finally finished getting through the entire thread. Something that I'm currently struggling with is the ability to write short stories.

    You've gone over advice to go from the short story to the novel, but is there similar recommendation to going from novel mindset to short stories?

    Are there open market contests or places to get published for novella and long stories? I see oodles of short story submission locations, far fewer for anything past 5,000 words.

    Thanks in advance!


  18. #2793

    Short story books...

    Two books you might want to check out are "The Art of Fiction," by John Gardner, which is one of the most-respected books on writing available now (or so I believe) and "A Short Story Writer's Companion," by Tom Bailey, which is extremely informative on the art and features lots of recommended reading. These books focus on writing of a literary nature; if you are interested in genre writing you'd probably want to supplement these books with others.

  19. #2794
    James D Macdonald

    Re: Long form to short

    Are there open market contests or places to get published for novella and long stories?

    Well, I wouldn't enter contests at all. As to stories -- what's your genre? You'll find that there are some magazines that specialize in one genre or another. Some of them take quite long stories. Keep your eye open for original anthologies.

    If you're a novella kinda person, you have to recognize that you've picked a very tough length to sell.

    The reason I talk mostly about novels here is this is the novel board.

  20. #2795

    Re: Beginnings

    Thanks for the pointers on those two resources.

    The more active WIPs are one sci-fi and one urban fantasy, which BIC and Lessons 1-23 has been instrumental in getting from index card-butcher sheet outlining to about 30,000 words each so far (only in rough form though).

    I guess part of the problem for me is that I find it far easier to wrap my brain around a story (usually some type of speculative fiction) when dealing with novel lengths, as I feel comfortable about the amount of space and time I have to create the world, immerse the reader and create tension. The "big lie" is easier, I guess.

    You've mentioned previously that the novel is a very different beast than the short story, and that adding characters/subplots generally helps morph and expand a short story, and I was wondering if the converse was true. Does removing extra characters or plot items help reduce the length of something while maintaining the core?

    I fired this in here because how incredibly useful all the comments and questions from people over the thread age have been, but I'll hie off to the Short story forum and repost there.

    Anyhoo, thanks for the great resource.

  21. #2796
    James D Macdonald

    Re: Beginnings

    With a short story, you ought to keep the ending in mind. It should be a satisfying one, and tie up the loose ends. (You have more room to leave unresolved threads in a novel.)

    Think of a short story as a joke, a novel as a comedy routine.

    Okay, markets:

    Where do you find the short stories you read right now? (I trust you're reading short stories -- a lot of them.) Submit your stories to the same places you find the stories you like. Follow their guidelines to the letter.

    If you're finding short stories in an anthology, write to the anthology's editor, and ask if he or she is planning another. Editors are friendly. If you enclose a SASE you'll probably hear back.

    Analyse the heck out of the stories you like the best. Why do you like them? What's the author doing? Why? Read the stories like a writer, not like a reader.

    And write. And send what you write off to people likely to buy it.

  22. #2797

    Re: Short story books...

    James, please check out my post about apostrophes.

    If they aren't exactly correct, will the agents and publishers toss the manuscript aside? If it's a good story will they overlook it and let their editors handle the problem. Thanks.

  23. #2798
    James D Macdonald

    Re: Short story books...

    James, please check out my post about apostrophes.

    Looked to me like your post was about comas, not apostrophes, but (as someone else around here likes to say) what do I know?

    If your grammar and punctuation are workmanlike or better, you're fine.

    If you aren't confident, get a school review text and work your way through it.

    When you're reading published prose, see how the punctuation works.

    Other than that, concentrate on your story. Have a beta-reader who's a fiend for nitpicking the sentences.

  24. #2799

    Re: Beginnings

    Illlynne, if you're nervous about agents/publishers being somewhat anal about punctuation, your fears are well founded.

    Do they care about the odd one or two slip-ups? Nah. Many successful writers admit to being a bit vague about punctuation and even spelling, and rely on others to fix their mistakes before publication. (Although it's a long time since I've read a book that didn't contain several errors, perhaps not always the author's.) The good-story-well-told will always prevail over minor considerations.

    But as a new writer desperately seeking attention in an overcrowded market, it's well worth your while to eliminate as many avoidable errors as possible before submitting to anyone that counts. Poorly detailed work shrieks 'AMATEUR' to the overburdened reader, so if you don't have a strong opening, minding all your technical p's and q's, there's a good chance no-one of any consequence to your writing future will read far enough to see how wonderful your story is.

  25. #2800

    Re: Beginnings

    You can always hire a copy editor for your final once-over...

    Focus on your story first. Mechanics are important, but not to the point when they impede your writing...

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