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Thread: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

  1. #5751
    Professionally Paranoid
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    Milton, does the reader need to know the background, or do the characters? If the latter, then you can provide the 'news you can use', but unless the characters, moving through the story-space, need the information, I would be hesitant of clogging up the story with backstory.

    It also depends on the novel though, as in some sub-genres, it might be perfectly fine. Like an epistolary or Dickensonian tale. (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke comes to mind). Tons of backstory might fall flat in a more present-tense action narrative.

    Another way to put it. Is the information there because you feel it needs it, or because the reader actually needs it?

  2. #5752
    practical experience, FTW Berry's Avatar
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    I agree with Dru. If this story doesn't need it, leave it out. After all, in a detective story when the cop says "You have the right to remain silent", we don't need to learn about the Miranda Decision, the Supreme Court, the structure of the American legal system and the founding principals of the constitutional rights we have today.

    If you've done all this work for your world, though, it will come through in the depth of detail that you show the readers. Just don't feed it all to them at once.

  3. #5753
    glad to be here Lilybiz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Milton
    Help! My WIP turns out to be very heavy on background, with several tribes of people who have important backstories. Can anyone remind me of books that successfully presented tons of background? I'm at a loss about how to work it in.

    --Milton
    Milton, I'm not an expert, and others have given good answers.

    There are probably lots of different ways to do this, depending on what you want your book to be.

    I remember Frederik Pohl's outstanding novel, Gateway (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gateway_%28novel%29), the first in a series that imagines a complete world. Pohl creates a mystery about the world, its creatures and its history, so you have to keep reading to find out about them.

    He doesn't give it to you all at once. He feeds it to you in little bits, almost as questions, making you wonder so you read on. Each answer only creates more questions. It's a wonderful book, and I'm not even a big sci-fi fan.

  4. #5754
    Milton
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    Thanks, everyone. I have read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Gateway, and Lord of the Rings. Jonathan Strange hugely intimidates me, but I should read Gateway again. I think Lord of the Rings is more leisurely than I can afford to be, but I could certainly learn from it. I might try something like Ringworld again, too.

    The advice not to tell it all is good, and easy to forget. I also remember some masters like John D. MacDonald, who could take care of a character's backstory in a single fascinating paragraph.

    Oh, well, I'll make it work. I'm learning that I can just wing it -- I can always fix it in the next version.
    Last edited by Milton; 11-11-2006 at 07:17 AM.

  5. #5755
    practical experience, FTW anodyne's Avatar
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    Currently in the process of reading the undiluted version, and something sparked a question that bugged me all through work today.

    Quote Originally Posted by Uncle Jim
    Hey, that's nothing. In some of my outlines I have myself as a character, talking about what I want to have happen in a scene, discussing it with the characters.

    Whatever it takes to get words on the page. You can work with words on the page. It's a lot harder to work on ideas that are only in your head.
    What in the world does that look like? I keep trying to visualize it in my head. I'm not the type of girl who giggles often, but that worked. I keep imagining a Frankenstein/bird nest manuscript with chewing gum wrappers, pieces of kite string, and dialogue neck bolts sticking haphazardly out of some twigs.

    I don't know if this has already happened, I'm only a little past the section I quoted in the thread, but can you (or rather will you,) post a sample outline? I know there are thousands of sayings about not showing unpolished writing in public, but I'm insanely curious. This concept fascinates me because it's so different from my usual approach and I'd like to try it, but I'm not exactly sure what it is.

    P.S. In the unlikely event that I derail the current train of thought with my necromancy, I apologize.

  6. #5756
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    In The Lord of the Rings we don't get a whole lot of backstory until the Council of Elrond, by which time we've been chased from the Shire to Bree to Rivendell by Black Riders, gotten trapped by a barrow wight (and a willow), and much else besides ... and the reader cares about the characters and is asking "What the foo is going on?"

    We also have the hobbits, who don't have a clue themselves, and so need to have everything explained them.

    Giving the reader the impression that they're studying for a test is bad. Few people read geography books for fun.

  7. #5757
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by anodyne
    What in the world does that look like? I keep trying to visualize it in my head. I'm not the type of girl who giggles often, but that worked.
    From The Gates of Time (work in progress):
    "I don't have a plan," Satan said. "And this miracle isn't my doing. Angelo ... he's won. We're outside time and I can't touch him. Not only that, we're stuck here."

    "Liar."

    "Flattery will get you nowhere." He went over to the open doorway and pressed against the air. His hands stopped at the threshold.

    "Then I have some things to do," I said. I pulled the elfstone out of my pocket and screwed it into my eye. Johnny was standing in the corner, having performed some vital function that the author will think of later. Perhaps he was the one who brought in the relic of St. Eloy and the pistol and gave them to me after I'd been searched. That would be a good thing for an invisible servant to do.

    Anyway, I turned to Johnny. "I'm ready to hear your confession," I said.

    "This might take a while," he said, coming toward me.

    "No worries; we've got all the time in the world."

  8. #5758
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    A database of which agents sold which books to which publishers (in the SF & F genres) over the past two years:

    http://www.members.optusnet.com.au/%...in19/locus.htm

  9. #5759
    glad to be here Lilybiz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald
    In The Lord of the Rings we don't get a whole lot of backstory until the Council of Elrond, by which time we've been chased from the Shire to Bree to Rivendell by Black Riders, gotten trapped by a barrow wight (and a willow), and much else besides ... and the reader cares about the characters and is asking "What the foo is going on?"

    We also have the hobbits, who don't have a clue themselves, and so need to have everything explained them.

    Giving the reader the impression that they're studying for a test is bad. Few people read geography books for fun.
    Yes! I woke up thinking of this today. The main character's POV is the reader's POV. So how is the MC getting information about the world of the story?

    The MC learns as s/he goes along--as though s/he's completely new to the world. Or, if s/he's already deeply entrenched, then the information comes in as needed. When the MC needs it, the reader needs it. In Jim's example, the Hobbits get the information they (we) need at the Council of Elrond (when not only do we need it, but we're willing to listen).

    I'm learning this, too. My MC has read about the world she's entered, but she's never been there before and what she's read doesn't always turn out to be true. So she has preconceived notions that come up against reality. It's coming down to Show, not Tell once again.

  10. #5760
    glad to be here Lilybiz's Avatar
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    It strikes me that my previous post is so damned elementary. It's just that I get all gleeful when I learn something.

  11. #5761
    Barbershoppin' Harmony Whore BardSkye's Avatar
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    Nothing wrong with being gleeful at learning something. Learning should be fun.

    And congratulations on the anniversary Uncle Jim! We have all enjoyed being a part of the thread and hope for many, many more anniversaries.

  12. #5762
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    What we're up to these days:

    Publicity for our most recent book.

    Yeah, I know, I keep saying that authors aren't in charge of doing publicity, yet here I am, doing publicity. So, what have I done?

    Answer: I've put stuff about the book on my web page. This is wonderful, and free (I already have a web page because, face it, who doesn't?). Whether it will lead to any sales, who knows?

    I've talked about the book here, and in my news group at SFF Net.

    I have it in my sig line here at AW (I rotate various things through there) -- the sig changes, and by the time y'all read this perhaps something different will be in the sig. (Look at the bottom of this post.)

    I posted the book in the AW library. (More content for AW! Woo!)

    I've been doing readings from works-in-progress at SF conventions for years. Since this book has been in progress for years....

    When the publisher sent us a bunch of ARCs, I dropped them on various places (including my two local weekly newspapers). I live in a town of 2,000 people; those guys are personal friends of mine (the writers' community), and we got a couple of very nice newspaper articles out of 'em. Hurrah, go us!

    Now the signings and such. Where did these come from?

    Answer: from the publisher. They found the bookstores, and worked out the dates and times. (We talked to the publisher's publicity guy, he talked with the bookstores.)

    And this leads us to the next bit, when we got an e-mail from New Hampshire Public Radio, asking if we'd like to be on one of their programs, about our upcoming book. The answer was, you betcha.

    So yesterday we had a telephone pre-interview (to find out, perhaps, if we're the sort of authors who can actually talk, and have anything to say that might fill a half-hour). Upshot of that: We'll be on The Front Porch on Monday, 27 November, 6:30PM EST.

    This is New Hampshire Public Radio, and the show is available on the air, as streaming audio, and archived afterwards.

    • 88.3, Nashua, WEVS
    • 89.1, Concord, WEVO
    • 90.3, Nashua, WEVO
    • 90.7, Keene, WEVN
    • 91.3, Littleton, WEVO
    • 91.3, Hanover, WEVH
    • 97.3, Plymouth
    • 99.5, Jackson, WEVJ
    • 103.9, Portsmouth
    • 104.3, Dover, WEVO
    • 107.1, Gorham, WEVC
    • MP3 Player Stream
    • Windows Media

  13. #5763
    Rep Point Whore Nangleator's Avatar
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    Woo hoo! Close enough to Nashua that I can listen to the live broadcast.

    Congratulations!

    I will be listening hard for promotional interview techniques, although I think it probably boils down to "Remember my name the next time you're in the bookstore."

  14. #5764
    Recovering Gumshoe jpserra's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SRHowen
    with the red pencils and highlighters--cept my fav place is the back patio.

    Another thing to add to the reading out-loud is to read it into a tape recorder and play it back. And a trick I am sure you know, but others might not--read your stuff backward, you find typos that way.

    Shawn
    Microsoft has a text to voice engine called Microsoft (of course) Reader. When I want to hear it read back, I generally use this. The voice is somewhat mechanical, but it gives me the option of listening and editing on the fly on the computer.

    This has been very helpful in finding "pace killer" passages. It also helps find those troublesome duplicate phrases that sometimes elude the eye.

    John Serra
    Author, Kokopelli's Flute
    www.johnserra.com

    NOT getting rich, one sale at a time!

    Visit my AW Book post!



  15. #5765
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Rules for Writing: http://mumpsimus.blogspot.com/2006/1...r-writing.html

    As far as mechanical text-to-voice solutions: they can be fun. But reading it aloud has its own advantages. Machines won't get out of breath during over-long sentences. You will.

  16. #5766
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Isn't The Paris Review taking submissions any more? How about Harper's? Woman's Day? F&SF? Cemetary Dance? Hitchcock?
    <snip>

    Aim high, people. You won't know if you're good enough to play in the big leagues until you've submitted your stuff there. You should work down to the 1/4-cent-a-word and 4theluv places. You won't work your way up from them.
    Hi, Uncle Jim.

    This post spurred me to get my AW password reset so I could reply. I'm feeling contrary.

    I understand what you're saying, but... I don't think Woman's Day publishes fiction any more. If they are, and if I ever write something that's suitable for them, please shoot me.

    Regarding 1/4 cent a word, SIGH. My only published story to date (science fiction) is in Not One of Us--h/df/sf, 1/4 cent a word. When I got my author's copy, I read the whole issue and then ordered some back issues. Man! This editor thinks like I think! Wow!

    Fast forward to this year. Another story--offbeat, definitely not for the mass market--is ready. The editor of Not One of Us still thinks like I think, and he's advertising for submissions. Maximize my chances of publication by submitting to an editor whose work I like and who bought a previous story? But he's still paying 1/4 cent a word.

    Sigh, again. The story is currently at a 1 1/2-cent-a-word market. If that editor doesn't want it, I'll try elsewhere--still below the radar. But there was a good match between story and market at 1/4 cent a word.

    Brenda Kalt

  17. #5767
    haz a shiny new book cover Christine N.'s Avatar
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    I think Women's Day runs a yearly novel contest. It might be a children's books contest. I forget who the publisher/partner for the contest is, I think it might be S&S?

    Anyway, the terms for winning the contest are terrible. No money involved, just a bunch of free copies, and no rights to your work ever again. No royalties, even if the book goes on to be come one of their best-sellers.

    Avoid it like the plague. There's a thread about it somewhere in the Children's writing forum. I'll see if I can dig it out.

    ETA: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/...7s+Day+contest

    It's Scholastic that runs the contest with WD.

    There's also one about the Woman's Day essay contest somewhere in the Networking: Sharing Leads forum. I don't know what that one says.
    Last edited by Christine N.; 11-24-2006 at 07:56 AM.
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  18. #5768
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Here's Woman's Day's essay guidelines: $2,000 for 650 words.

    Here's their article guidelines.

    Woman's Day isn't a fiction or poetry market in the USA.

    Woman's Day in Australia is.

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

    Brenda, if your story is good fit at Not One of Us, then sell it there. But really, do let the top markets reject it first. Don't reject it for them.
    Last edited by James D. Macdonald; 11-24-2006 at 08:17 PM.

  19. #5769
    Quote Originally Posted by James D. Macdonald
    But really, do let the top markets reject it first. Don't reject it for them.
    I appreciate your encouragement to think the best of our work. I've read through your thread and appreciated it very much. I've basically been a lurker because I was starting novels and getting stuck and starting another one.

    This month I'm doing the NaNoWriMo thing and have worked through so many blocks. As I do this I think about how you started out getting up at 4 AM and writing a couple of hours before you went to work. And I remember your permission to write badly as long as my fingers are on the keyboard.

    I'm plowing through without any edits at all -- that will be later. I'm finally getting what it's all about -- just write. I know now that I can finish. I can do this.

    I can't tell you how good it feels to finally get it. Thanks to you, UJ, and all of the fine folks here at this thread for sharing your thoughts, ideas, and encouragement.
    ~Suzanne

  20. #5770
    practical experience, FTW anodyne's Avatar
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    Isn't it nice to have the extra motivation P-Sue?

    Uncle Jim: Hi, it's me. I'm back again.
    a.) your thread has gotten me writing again after a long hiatus.
    b.) I love you forever, long-time.
    c.) my husband has followed your advice, and is handing out the booklist for this thread whenever anyone asks us what we want for christmas.
    d.) question to follow...

    How do you feel about colloquialisms? And please, please, don't say that a sufficiently good writer can make anything work, and sufficiently ham-handed writer can break anything. It's true, but extremely unhelpful.

    The reason I ask is because when my mom (and a couple of friends) heard through the grapevine that I was writing again, they demanded that I give them what chapters I had.

    The feedback has been mostly typical, (can't wait for the next chapter, want to know how things end, think the writing is great) because they're my friends and family. They're sort of obligated to say that. But the one "criticism" has been that I use a particular phrase three times, and if it doesn't come up somewhere in the climax or conclusion then it's just irritating.

    Going back to:
    Quote Originally Posted by Uncle Jim's Law #364
    When a reader tells you something is wrong, they're right. When a reader tells you what it is, they're usually wrong.
    Should I assume that there is a problem I need to fix, or just do the easy thing and take the phrase out (since it's just flavor anyway.)

    Just so you don't have to list abstractions because you know nothing about my novel, the excerpts are below. Thanks!

    =================================
    Just a bit and some change over five feet tall, Lissa embodied the tree-hugging hippie stereotype. (31)
    =================================
    I stuck my tongue out at him. He’d always teased me about my sketches. There was a chalkboard a decade and some change before that bore testament to my revenge. (142)
    =================================
    Those are the only times I've used them, and since it's first person, and thus privileged speech, I wasn't sure if it's just something my mom doesn't like, or what. The novel, and the passages wouldn't be fundamentally altered if I removed the text.



    Yes. I'm stalling. Race to the end. Write quickly, rewrite brilliantly. Got it.
    Last edited by anodyne; 11-24-2006 at 01:35 PM.

  21. #5771
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Quote Originally Posted by anodyne
    =================================
    Just a bit and some change over five feet tall, Lissa embodied the tree-hugging hippie stereotype. (31)
    =================================
    I stuck my tongue out at him. Hed always teased me about my sketches. There was a chalkboard a decade and some change before that bore testament to my revenge. (142)
    =================================
    Although it's privileged speech, I'd still ax the "and change" part. It doesn't add color or description; it doesn't advance the story. It isn't neutral, either, because those two words slow down the tempo of the sentences. Try removing the two words and re-reading the sentences out loud. The second example is a particular stumble -- "and some change before" is hard to read.

    IMHO

  22. #5772
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    If it was me, I'd leave the first and cut the second (put in the actual number, maybe).

    Making the reader pause to figure out what you meant probably isn't a good idea.

    Rewriting now, before you've reached "The End," probably isn't a good idea either. Unless you really gotta.

  23. #5773
    practical experience, FTW anodyne's Avatar
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    Nope, don't gotta. Just a delaying tactic.

  24. #5774
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Giving readers info that characters already know

    A belated suggestion for Milton, Dru, et al.:

    I had the Fearless Leader give a (short) speech to his followers. As he reminded the followers why such-and-such was important, the reader was receiving the info for the first time.

    When I tried to think of a real-world example in which the listeners didn't mind hearing what they already knew, I realized that the first third of the Gettysburg Address is pure information dump. The listeners all knew that 87 years ago their ancestors had created a country based on the principle of equality and that now they were fighting a war to preserve that country.

    FWIW.

    Brenda Kalt

  25. #5775
    practical experience, FTW anodyne's Avatar
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    That's brilliant! Awesome idea.

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