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Thread: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

  1. #5676
    practical experience, FTW janetbellinger's Avatar
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    That's exactly how I feel.
    Janet


    Originality is nothing by judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.
    Author:
    Voltaire


  2. #5677
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    May I again recommend Henning Nelms' Magic and Showmanship? Many of your questions about getting the reader to care will become clear when you read that book.

    Dan Brown's book is a poor example -- it's a thriller, true, but it's also a fad based on American anti-Catholicism. Its faults (lousy plotting, lousy writing) have been widely commented on in many venues.

    If I wanted to package Margaret Atwood's book as science fiction, I could. The difference would be in the cover painting, in the back-cover blurb, and the logo on the spine.

  3. #5678
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Let's talk about Getting the Reader to Care:

    Time to play the analysis game. This time, a classic work. Best seller, multiple editions ....

    CHAPTER I.
    Say, ye oppressed by some fantastic woes,
    Some jarring nerve that baffles your repose,
    Who press the downy couch while slaves advance
    With timid eye to read the distant glance,
    Who with sad prayers the weary doctor tease
    To name the nameless, ever-new disease,
    Who with mock patience dire complaints endure,
    Which real pain and that alone can cure,
    How would you bear in real pain to lie
    Despised, neglected, left alone to die?
    How would you bear to draw your latest breath
    Where all that's wretched paves the way to death?
    --Crabbe.
    It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at
    occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which
    swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling
    along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the
    lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest
    quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the
    police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary
    way. He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a
    description correspondent with the appearance of the quartier in which
    they were situated, and tended inquiry for some article or another which
    did not seem easily to be met with. All the answers he received were
    couched in the negative; and as he turned from each door he muttered to
    himself, in no very elegant phraseology, his disappointment and
    discontent. At length, at one house, the landlord, a sturdy butcher,
    after rendering the same reply the inquirer had hitherto received, added,
    "But if this vill do as vell, Dummie, it is quite at your sarvice!"
    Pausing reflectively for a moment, Dummie responded that he thought the
    thing proffered might do as well; and thrusting it into his ample pocket,
    he strode away with as rapid a motion as the wind and the rain would
    allow. He soon came to a nest of low and dingy buildings, at the
    entrance to which, in half-effaced characters, was written "Thames
    Court." Halting at the most conspicuous of these buildings, an inn or
    alehouse, through the half-closed windows of which blazed out in ruddy
    comfort the beams of the hospitable hearth, he knocked hastily at the
    door. He was admitted by a lady of a certain age, and endowed with a
    comely rotundity of face and person.

    "Hast got it, Dummie?" said she, quickly, as she closed the door on the
    guest.


    ====================

    End of page one. Well, do you turn the page?

    What do you know, and do you care?

  4. #5679
    Banned SpookyWriter's Avatar
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    End of page one. Well, do you turn the page?

    What do you know, and do you care?
    Would I turn the page? Yes I would. I cared little for nothing but to learn what secret he held. The opening (of this tale) allowed me to follow Dummie through the streets of London, of Old, as he set about retrieving an object from the butcher. But what was he carrying? What was behind the door?

    Thanks!

  5. #5680
    glad to be here Lilybiz's Avatar
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    I know:
    a storm rages
    we're in the London slums
    because I know who the author is I know it's the 19th century or before
    alone, Dummie goes door to door, searching for something that is not easy to come by
    a "sturdy butcher" (German? Austrian?) offers a substitute which Dummie thinks will suffice (a bone? flesh?)
    Dummie puts it in his ample pocket (eeuw) and takes it immediately to another part of the slums, Thames Court, to a woman (older, overweight). It's for her he's braved the storm to find this thing. For love? money? I don't know. But he's eager to bring it to her and she's eager to have it. Is she a madam? A criminal? Thames Court is a warm and inviting place. A brothel? (inn or alehouse, half-closed windows, hospitable hearth)
    The woman closes the door quickly behind Dummie. This thing he has brought her might be something to hide.

    I would turn the page.
    My reasons: I want to know what Dummie's got. I love creaky stories of old London. And I admit, since the opening line is so famous and I've never read beyond it, I want to know what's in the rest of the story.

    Frankly, I like the first paragraph just fine, even though the first sentence is famously burdensome.

  6. #5681
    glad to be here Lilybiz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald
    If I wanted to package Margaret Atwood's book as science fiction, I could. The difference would be in the cover painting, in the back-cover blurb, and the logo on the spine.
    If I remember correctly, you're referring to The Blind Assassin. I read it quite some time ago and I don't remember all the details, but I do remember being floored by Atwood's mastery. She had three different plots going, all related, all enthralling.

    Specifically I remember in the first plot, there's an intriguing man who's mentioned but not seen until at least page 100. I wanted to see him and she put me off, kept me waiting. I stuck around. I cared about a character who hadn't even appeared.

    Atwood may not be to everyone's taste, but she is a master at her craft.

  7. #5682
    practical experience, FTW
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    I definitely wouldn't turn the page. I could barely make it past the first one.

    That piece seems vaguely familiar. I get the haunting suspicion that it's the book that we have to thank for the Bulwer-Lytton awards.

  8. #5683
    I felt the same way; wanting to know more. So, I did just that and, well, was pretty disappointed after the action suddenly stopped and went into a detailed description of the surroundings in the subsequent paragraphs.

    I have to admit he lost me at that point, after all the build up.

  9. #5684
    It's green they say FennelGiraffe's Avatar
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    No, I wouldn't turn the page. I realize it was once a respectable practice, but I absolutely hate it when the author plays coy with the reader--telling us the char "tended inquiry for some article or another" without telling us what the &$#% thing is.
    In a science fiction novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will use this to figure out the level of technology in the society.

    In a mystery novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand that one of those objects is a clue.

    In a literary novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand it to be a metaphor for the protagonist's mental state.
    - James D. Macdonald, discussing Reading Protocols, 6 Apr 2009

  10. #5685
    glad to be here Lilybiz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rllgthunder
    I felt the same way; wanting to know more. So, I did just that and, well, was pretty disappointed after the action suddenly stopped and went into a detailed description of the surroundings in the subsequent paragraphs.
    Bummer.

  11. #5686
    Rep Point Whore Nangleator's Avatar
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    Given this start, I'd definitely read more. Sure, it's got problems, but I'd chalk them up as afflictions common to stories of an earlier age.

    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald
    ...fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the
    lamps that struggled against the darkness....
    Poetic. A living author can't say stuff like that in the narrative, but I can still comfortably read it.

    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald
    ...He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a
    description correspondent with the appearance of the quartier in which
    they were situated, and tended inquiry for some article or another which
    did not seem easily to be met with....
    A bit more wordy than it should be, even for its age. Inefficient.

    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald
    ...Halting at the most conspicuous of these buildings, an inn or alehouse, <snip> He was admitted by a lady of a certain age....
    Too indistinct. Third Person, Extremely Limited? Third Person, Poor Observer?

    Still, I'd read more. Something interesting is happening, and just like I'd watch someone who seemed to be doing something fishy, I'd want to know everything about this Dummie.

  12. #5687
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    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald
    Let's talk about Getting the Reader to Care:

    It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at
    occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which
    swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling
    along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the
    lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest
    quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the
    police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary
    way. He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a
    From Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford, yes. The awards are named after him but not because this opening is particularly bad but because Snoopy from Peanuts used "It was a dark and stormy night" as the opening to each of his shlocky novels. B-L's been maligned.

    FWIW -- the opening of my Hats of War story began with "It was a dark and stormy night."

  13. #5688
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    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald
    May I again recommend Henning Nelms' Magic and Showmanship? Many of your questions about getting the reader to care will become clear when you read that book.
    Yes, you may, Jim. But I'm afraid that it wouldn't work for my particular style of learning. I'm a haptic learner. I'm not very good at learning by analogy.

    2 x 4 upside the head is sometimes most efficient.
    Last edited by retterson; 10-29-2006 at 09:03 PM.

  14. #5689
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    Blind Assassin

    I've owned Blind Assassin for five years. For five years I've tried to read it.

    The book (for me) completely lacks Gotta.

  15. #5690
    practical experience, FTW aghast's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Delarege
    How can a reader care if they don't know anything?
    do you need to know everything about someone before you care about them? not everything but just enough so that you know they are real people so they want to find out why this and that happens - if i see a mother of three drown her children and then kill herself, i dont need to know anything about them at first to care and thats when the intrigue comes - why did she do that, so the trick is to get the readers to ask questions and to start with something extraordinary - otherwise, if you start with a guy eathing his sandwich, i'd definitely say why should i care if its ham or turkey

  16. #5691
    Rep Point Whore Nangleator's Avatar
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    And another thing. How does the opening "It was a dark and stormy night" come from the guy who, just a few lines later, writes "He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a description correspondent with the appearance of the quartier in which they were situated, and tended inquiry for some article or another which did not seem easily to be met with. All the answers he received were couched in the negative; and as he turned from each door he muttered to himself, in no very elegant phraseology, his disappointment and discontent."

    How did we not end up with "He asked around the bad parts of town for something and didn't get it. So he grumbled."? Did this guy start writing a book, give up after his first few words, read a bunch of Poe, and start in where he left off?

  17. #5692
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    One thing y'all should remember about 19th c. novels is that they were meant to be read aloud -- by the pater familias in the parlour as an evening's diversion, for example.

  18. #5693
    practical experience, FTW aghast's Avatar
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    we should read our own work aloud but not in that 19th c way, hope not anyway - to me excecution is just as important as the story itself and prose like that, at least for modern literature, really takes me out - i would probably wonder what is happening next but i doubt i will turn the page, suspense alone is not going to do it

  19. #5694
    Absolute sagebrush Ken Schneider's Avatar
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    Not every book is a literary masterpiece that starts out with a bang.

    Readers have to have a stick to it mindset to get into a book.

    Here's the opening scene from a book that everyone knows.

    In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a Hobbit hole, and that meant comfort.
    It had a perfectly round door, like a port-hole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob right in the middle. The door opened onto a tube- shaped hall like a tunnel;a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats— the Hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill— The Hill, as all the people for many miles around called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another.

    If you didn't know the rest of this story would you read on?

    If you picked this book up for the first time and didn't have a reader's fortitude to continue you'd miss a heck of an adventure.

    Why would a reader continue to read a book with such a bland opening. IMHO.

    Just to find out what a Hobbit is? Poor reason.

    May be the reason this book found little popularity until the author's death. The Hobbit was written in 1937.

    Likewise with the current fad involving C.S. Lewis.

    I first read this series in 1978, in book form, of course. I still have those original books purchased for me as a Christmas gift, still on the shelf, still in the cardboard box-set packaging.

    Peter S. Beagle, who worked on the revised edition wrote in the introduction forward in 1973:
    It's been fifteen years at this writing since I first came across The Lord of the Rings in the stacks at Carnegie library in Pittsburg. I'd been looking for the book for four years, ever since reading W.H. Auden's review in The New York Times. I think of that time now—and the years after, when the trilogy continued to be hard to find and hard to explain to most friends.

    AND LATER: I've never thought it an accident that Tolkien's works waited more than ten years to explode into popularity almost overnight.



    Most will be hard pressed to answer this question without drawing on what they know about the rest of the story.
    Last edited by Ken Schneider; 10-30-2006 at 07:19 PM.
    J.D. Salinger told The New York Times in 1974. "Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."

  20. #5695
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Schneider
    Not every book is a literary masterpiece that starts out with a bang.

    Readers have to have a stick to it mindset to get into a book.
    And Harry Potter begins with a description of how boring and ordinary the Dursleys are . . .

    I agree absolutely -- not every book has to start out with a bang -- not every great book has. It kind of makes you wonder about all the great books that don't get published because the slush-pile reader didn't have the patience to get into three or four pages.

    I've heard that the rule of thumb is that a novelist has as many as ten pages to capture the reader. A short-story writer has 13 lines.

    Tolkien -- in my mind (and let the reply posts begin!!) -- is an icon but by no means a literary master. He excelled at world-building. But the storytelling of his novels -- well, I haven't read such tedious bilge (how many words for "meadow" are there and do I really care?) in a long, long while. I'd be so bold as to say that Tolkien is a giant despite how he wrote his stories -- not because of how he wrote them.

    I tried many times to read The Hobbit. After the movies came out, I finally managed to make it through the trilogy -- but I only think I was able to because (having seen the movie) I was finally able to hold the through-line in my head amid all the really boring stuff that's in those books -- and, perhaps more importantly, I had come to care about the characters because of the movies. Mind, I'm a big fan of the 19th century writers; so I can stomach a lot of meant-to-fill-a-TV-less night detail, but Tolkien just makes me want to scream.

    At the end of the day, I'd put Tolkien in the category of someone who did some great world-building and told a nice story (although not a terribly new one). He was a pioneer. A giant in the field. But he wasn't a master story teller. (Peter Jackson is a master storyteller.)

    And I just know that I'm going to get a lot of responses to this . . .
    Last edited by retterson; 10-30-2006 at 09:50 PM.

  21. #5696
    It's green they say FennelGiraffe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by retterson
    I've heard that the rule of thumb is that a novelist has as many as ten pages to capture the reader. A short-story writer has 13 lines.
    That's how I choose books (as a reader). I do some pre-filtering, but once I actually open up a novel, I'm going to give it at least five or six pages. Sure, sometimes I hit a strong negative sooner, but never just because it "failed to hook me". I've always been a little bewildered when people start obsessing over the first line, or first paragraph.

    On the other hand, some of the blogs by editors and agents say that if they aren't hooked in the first 100-200 words, it's an automatic rejection. So maybe it's necessary to write that way to get the first sale.
    In a science fiction novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will use this to figure out the level of technology in the society.

    In a mystery novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand that one of those objects is a clue.

    In a literary novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand it to be a metaphor for the protagonist's mental state.
    - James D. Macdonald, discussing Reading Protocols, 6 Apr 2009

  22. #5697
    practical experience, FTW janetbellinger's Avatar
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    If the first few paragraphs don't hook me, I try to be fair and give the book a chance to change my mind. I do this by flipping a few pages into the story and reading a few paragraphs there. If it still hasn't interested me, I put it down.
    Janet


    Originality is nothing by judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.
    Author:
    Voltaire


  23. #5698
    glad to be here Lilybiz's Avatar
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    Tolkien's voice is what drew me in when I read those books years ago. When I was in college in the 70's I ate up The Hobbit and the trilogy and couldn't put them down. But I tried to pick up The Hobbit again a couple of years ago, and I couldn't get through it.

    Have I matured as a reader, or have my tastes changed with the times? Maybe both.

    I think there are generational differences in readers, and it's true some classic books might not pass the slush pile now. Do I enjoy the likes of Shakespeare, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, etc. because I'm over 40? Is it impossible to enjoy those authors if one has grown up in a faster-paced world? I hope not. I had to learn the language of those authors to appreciate them, and it was worth it. Younger readers can do the same, and it'll be worth it to them, too.

    I like modern authors, too. In fact, I am one.

    I can tolerate a slow beginning, but only--only--if the writing is excellent.

    Slush-pile readers are under pressure. They're also reading first-time, un-agented novelists. Once we've leapt that hurdle and become tried and true, we can write that excellent, slower beginning for our readers to relish.

  24. #5699
    Absolute sagebrush Ken Schneider's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by aertep
    I think there are generational differences in readers, and it's true some classic books might not pass the slush pile now. Do I enjoy the likes of Shakespeare, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, etc. because I'm over 40? Is it impossible to enjoy those authors if one has grown up in a faster-paced world? I hope not.
    Ding ding ding!

    In this fast-paced world of cell phones, fastfood, and the preception of so many things to do, stoked by advertising and keeping up with the Jones'...

    I've fallen in love with a winter snow storm/ blizzard for its abilities to stop the madness and bring peace, quiet, and stillness to my part of the world.
    J.D. Salinger told The New York Times in 1974. "Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."

  25. #5700
    Absolute sagebrush Ken Schneider's Avatar
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    I'd like to do one more opening, to see who may or may not turn the page, just for giggles. I'll reveal the author if someone doesn't pick up on who it is. Then, I'll get out of the way, as I don't want to highjack UJ.

    Just trying to make a point about writers and openings.

    ::

    An ancient English Cathedral tower? How can the ancient English Cathedral tower be here! The well-known massive gray square tower of its old Cathedral? How can it be here? There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, between the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect.What is the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe it is set up by the Sultan's orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white Elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours, and infinite in number and attendants.

    Like it, don't, know who worte it?
    Last edited by Ken Schneider; 10-31-2006 at 03:50 AM.
    J.D. Salinger told The New York Times in 1974. "Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."

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