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Thread: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

  1. #201
    qatz
    Guest

    Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

    ... i crashed the junior prom one night because i didn’t have a date or anything else to do. i think i was just collecting literary material. i really felt out of place. i left soon after that. pretty much the story of my life with the opposite sex back then.

    i feel sort of the same way here. wondering if i’m just intruding where i’m not wanted and spouting pontifical nonsense articulated by a loser which people endure in the pretty well-founded hope that i’ll just drift off after a while to some apparently greener pasture, hoping to distract myself from the knowledge that in the long run, i’m all dead. not to mention unpublishable. i won’t actually admit to that label until i am dead but if i don’t get some income fairly soon it may not be all that long to wait.

    ... about laziness, i went to an excellent college and about the only things of substance i accomplished were, i wrote a lot, i read a lot, and i did a lot of dope. how is the dope of substance? just in terms of volume. i did not work hard on my writing, i figured i was already there. i won a couple of prizes. i shared one of the prizes with a classmate who (i thought) wrote in a pedestrian way about boring topics. he really worked hard on his writing. kept at it. scott turow. the difference between inspiration and perspiration.

    later in the seventies i went to home to plant trees and law school instead of the iowa writer's workshp, and my fate was sealed, my seat was failed, and my feet were sailed. the great tillie olsen lamented my choice, and she was right. but there was some kind of practical imperative making me do what i did -- can't remember what it was. maybe i just lost my nerve. maybe my friends in jail just needed help too much. maybe i thought i could always go back again. this having even read the original Thos. Wolfe; anyway, a big mistake in the long run. you roll the dice, you takes yer chances ... i made a million dollars, i lost a million dollars. what a career choice.

  2. #202
    qatz
    Guest

    Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

    now, though, after a train wreck (a real one along with figurative ones too), my life has been completely disordered and through the chaos i perceive a chance to return to my roots. i am reasonably optimistic about my latest book, a non-kids-book non-glossy story with an unlikeable tiger as the hero, which i will make plausible “somehow.” it's the result of some serious but very strange writing i was doing this summer with my mainstream minister friend – something was wrong with the picture there. when that book finished, i threw it away and let him go back to his flock. no, i wasn’t priestnapping him. Even so, this tiger’s much more respectable literarily. though he does kill.

    by the way, did you know there's a british website on erotic vampire writing? oddly, though, or perhaps not oddly enough, the stories remind of porno movies. i would comment further, but regular words seem so puny after that.

    and no, i’m not a deviant. i’m pretty mainstream really. i want to be talking about the quiet center at the root of things – peter matthissen, paulo coehlo, tenzin gyatso. my last several books have been exercises in tonal breath control, on the way to get there. for various reasons, their being trash not always at the top of the list, they weren’t saleable.

    ((notes ... 1. one of robert stone’s successful books (he was starting on it when i was his student) is a well-thought-out and crafted interpretation of a classic Indian epic poem (i think the ramhaparada) in a war-torn central american country. 2. along the same lines, one of my failed books was a hastily-done and not-very-well-thought-out interpretation of wolfram’s “parzifal” based in part on the diary of cabeza de baca, a very early spanish explorer of florida and points west in north america. 3. this was written mostly between 5 and 7 am. my main accomplishment was getting up! though once i got my coffee and reached the easy chair it almost worked well as a routine, my mind was too groggy to concentrate, and having a fulltime job is death to creative juices; i’m sorry, if you want me to write in a construction site, take the hammer out of my hand.))

    anyway, i would like to write full-time from now on. (he gets to the point at last!) (what point?) (well, you know, whatever.) you can imagine how helpful i am finding this thread. who out there can help? and no, i don’t mean psychiatric help, i already know i’m crazy. i will have another novel draft at some soon point, and am interested in making money to live by (now there’s a title – “money to live by”) in the near future doing something literate and useful. are there any other leads anyone can give me so i can actually make money in fiction down the road, and put bread on the table in the meantime?

    ps.&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp

    sadly, my kind of book (leaving talent out of it) is more like “jude the obscure” than “the matrix.” yes, i know everything i just implied.

    ah well, that's it for me.
    :hat

  3. #203
    jpwriter
    Guest

    Re: fonts

    Jim,
    I have heard from others that 12 pt courier is preferred. If editors live by their eyes, wouldn't 12 pt be easier for them to read. Is there another reason for 10 pt courier that I don't know other than saving paper.
    Jerry:smokin

  4. #204
    James D Macdonald
    Guest

    Re: fonts

    Courier 10 and Courier 12 are equally acceptable.

    (I thought I was going to be away -- turned out I wasn't.)

  5. #205
    James D Macdonald
    Guest

    Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

    a classmate who (i thought) wrote in a pedestrian way about boring topics. he really worked hard on his writing. kept at it. scott turow. the difference between inspiration and perspiration.

    Way, way, way upstream I said something to the effect of "revise, revise, revise."

    And rewrite.

    Once you have the first draft, or a strong outline, anyway, you have the equivalent of a potter's ball of wet clay. Sure, there's a vase in there somewhere, but all you have at first is the clay.

    I'll get practical about how to outline, and how to revise (at least a scheme that works for me), but first, before anything else, you have to have the raw material.

    A story in your head doesn't count. What counts is what's on paper. Yeah, it's going to be dreadful. That's okay, I give you permission to be dreadful. The revision process will take care of the dread.

  6. #206
    qatz
    Guest

    Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

    thanks jim. but i have to say one last time, a pox on all courier troglodytes! i wasted a whole day in the caverns of font hell, just to see what it would look like. courier 10 looked teeny and unreadable, courier 12 looked dull and space-wasteful, and both of them caused my wordperfect9 all sorts of indigestion. now, it was not the butler who did it, it was the g. ... d. ... fonts! now i'm not the kind of one who believes in gremlins residing in computers -- i go more for the large brownish cockroach theory -- but there, i guess, you have it.

    don't worry, everyone; i understand i'll be stuck in courier (for times is even worse; my old law partner insisted on times; could that be why we broke up?) till the end of the universe if not longer; you need not berate me any more, or supply wise avuncular (what is the female form of avuncular?) advice as may be. i'm consigned to my fate, and if i remember right that was the same thing i've been hearing for lo these many decades, so its about time it sunk in. obviously i can live with reality as it is, but what i'm grousing about is the loss of the ability to look at a document and see the way it'll be printed, which is what it comes down to. i guess i've already lost that what with kerning and all, but loss of freedom is a bitter pill.

    again, thanks for all the advice.
    :hat

  7. #207
    Dancre
    Guest

    Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

    hi uncle jim,
    i'm glad you're going to discuss outlines. i love 'em! i can't write a story without them. they are my steering wheel. but i do admire those who can write by the seat of their pants. i tried that once, but became frustrated and ran back to my trusty outline. i can't wait to see what you say. hey, what's your opinion on character profiles? once again, i can't write without them. what info do you put in yours? and do you use one for minor characters as well as major ones?
    kim

  8. #208
    HConn
    Guest

    Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

    ... but what i'm grousing about is the loss of the ability to look at a document and see the way it'll be printed...
    I don't understand what you mean. Courier New is a true type font. It should print exactly as it looks on screen.

  9. #209
    SRHowen
    Guest

    think they mean

    what it will look like in book form. The idea of font--well, your ms is not "what you see is what you get." It is a working document. Font etc. will be up to the publisher.

    And really folks, once you start using Courier New--it will be normal to you. I used Times for years, then switched to Courier--at first I hated it and fund it almost unreadable, now when I see Times( or other fonts) they look wrong.

    Shawn

  10. #210
    PixelFish
    Guest

    Re: think they mean

    I bet it's easier to make copy edits on a monospaced (Courier) manuscript. More room to mark it up with a red pen and all that. No confusion about lines that run between letters that were too closely kerned by the writer's word processing program.

  11. #211
    qatz
    Guest

    Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

    thanks all. i am definitely resigned to courier, just could not resist one last crabbing. thanks again to all you writers for checkin' out my ravings.
    :hat

  12. #212
    EJ
    Guest

    Re: Outline

    I don't know why, but I've always had trouble with outlines. I never really know what I'm going to write until I start writing it and my mind tends to go blank on me when attempting an outline.

    When I was in high school, there were times when we had to do essays and we had to turn in an outline. I'd always write the essay first, then the outline.

  13. #213
    qatz
    Guest

    Re: Outline

    i have a strong inclination the same way, AJ. but in my (technical and nontechnical) experience writing (and you can see nearly everything i write is long) is usually so much better if it's organized before hand. i dont know if any of my novel drafts were really outlined first, it seems so deadly, and where do ideas come from? not roman numeral II. but in a long story, i think you need to have a sense of where you're going, at least in part, before you go there. otherwise there's too much danger of mush. my last "book" i slopped out sans outline this summer and though it cohered in its own way, it was useless as a book. 12 chapters, each with its own idea, but no clearly defined markers, and little progressive plot. it slithered all over the ground between fiction and nonfiction. and don't even start on POV.

    right now i'm really working on where my tiger hero is gonna end up ... the start's no problem compared to that ... and the end-up involves numerous plot choices on the way, some of them really surprising and substantively determinative. so they can't be avoided natalie-goldberg style. an outline seems needed.

    in general, i'm looking forward to what jim will say! :hat

  14. #214
    HConn
    Guest

    Re: Outline

    Lots of people (not saying it's anyone here specifically) who say they can't outline have a strict idea of what outlining entails. They usually think it means writing out a document with the whole capital A small a roman numeral 1 etc, with each step indented.

    Outlining is the term for any description of a story that isn't an attempt to create the piece of fiction itself. It's essentially a first draft, without any reader-friendly prose.

    Some people just dump their outline into the word document they write the novel in, deleting as they go. That makes me nuts. I like to have it printed out on the desk so I can note changes as I go.



  15. #215
    SRHowen
    Guest

    LOL

    Outline---well, ummm, I don't. Not at all. My first draft is a rough draft of the story. Running very close to what final product will be--no idea where I am going with it till I get there. I outline afterwards.

    Shawn

  16. #216
    sugarmuffin
    Guest

    do you use software to help w/outlining?

    Hi, I'm new. Well, not new as in just born (my 17 month-old daughter is much, much newer) but new to this website. I was wondering if Jim - and other folks - used writing software to help with outlining, story development, etc.

    I've done a lot of technical writing (manuals), poetry, attended writing workshops, and some other stuff, but every time I go for the novel, which is what I've always wanted most, I get stuck after a few pages. This has been going on for well, um, probably more than 15 years. I think the whole task feels so enormous I get overwhelmed before I go any distance. It's like I can sprint but I can't run the marathon. I actually get sick. But I am going to try yet again.

    So anyway, I thought I would try some software to help me look at a little piece at a time (like bird by bird) and then I might not get bogged down by the big picture. If anyone is using anything they like, I would appreciate the info.

    Thanks,

    Lisa

    I wish that writing was a procrastination task for everything else I have to do.

  17. #217
    James D Macdonald
    Guest

    Outlining

    I'll write more on outlining and the shape of a plot in a bit (have to shovel the $#&^@ driveway first).

    The quick answer on outline/plot generation/novel-writing software is that every kind I've tried has gotten between me and the story. The only "writing software" I use is a wordprocessor.

    Two things that do prove useful (which I've used, at least) are a deck of file cards (sixty-nine cents for a hundred at the grocery store) and flowcharts (written on the back of a Chinese restaurant placemat is a good place to do 'em: about the right size, and hot-and-sour soup helps clarify the mind).

    More anon.

  18. #218
    qatz
    Guest

    Re: do you use software to help w/outlining?

    hi, lisa. glad you're here, i think this is the right place for you. these guys are really helpful. read the whole string and hang around!

    :hat

  19. #219
    James D Macdonald
    Guest

    Outlining

    Right, then.

    The first thing about plotting is this: the reader's interest is always either rising or falling. It never stays at a constant level.

    You want the reader's interest to rise over the general length of your book, peaking at the climax. Therefore, your book should start at a fairly low level -- just sufficient for reader to pick it up, and turn the page.

    Each individual chapter will rise in interest, to its end. (You may also consider the cliffhanger in this context -- it at once provides closure for the current chapter, and provides a reason for the reader to start the next chapter (to find out what happened next), even though the next chapter starts at a lower level of interest.)

    The next chapter will start at a slightly lower level of interest than the preceeding chapter's close, but rise to a higher level at its end than the end of the previous chapter.

    You do not want to have your biggest, bestest, most special scene as your opening. The remainder of the book will be an anticlimax. Your strongest scene goes at the end of the book. Your second strongest goes at the half-way point. Your third strongest goes at the 3/4 point.

    The source of information in the book and the source of interest should be the same things.

    Your readers can only think of one thing at a time (the poor dears). It is vital that you don't confuse them.

    Your first scene, your first page, your first paragraph: a) seizes attention, and b) starts with a low level of interest. This seems contradictory, but... remember what you are doing to your readers. You are creating an auto-hypnotic suggestible state in them, in which the page opens up and pictures and sounds show in their heads. This state is fragile, and must be rebuilt constantly.

    On confusing the reader: If you have confused the reader, he will stop reading, or will not understand the next thing that happens in your book. Therefore... you must be clear enough so that the slowest reader in your proposed audience (recall that you cast your audience as one of the characters in your book) will be able to follow it, while at the same time having enough going on that the quicker readers won't become bored.

    So:

    Basic structure of your book:

    1. Catch the reader's attention. Do this on page one. There are cheap ways of doing this: Sex and violence come at once to mind. The danger of using cheap tricks is a) you may come to rely on cheap tricks, and thus become a cheap author, and b) the reader may say "That's a cheap trick," and put your book back on the shelf." The game is to a) get the reader to pick up this book from the shelf and take it to the cash register, and b) have the same reader go to the bookstore specifically to buy your next book. Your page one gives you goal (a), the rest of the book gives you goal (b).

    2. The introduction. The remainder of chapter one, tells the reader what sort of book he's in ... a cosy mystery, a sex-and-shopping romance, a gothic thriller, a literary exploration of angst ... whatever. This is where you introduce yourself to the readers, and get them to become the audience you want them to be. Are you the detached observer? The helpful lecturer? The comedian? Are they the crowd at a NASCAR track or the crowd at the Pimlico? Interest begins here. Ideally interest starts on page one, near the top, but it's permissible for interest to show up on page one near the bottom. This is chapter one's purpose.

    3. You get your theme rolling. The theme will run throughout the book, but you state it here, at the beginning. Recall that I've said that every word must advance the plot, reveal character, or support the theme? Now is the time to state the theme. The Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Splendid Virtues are great themes, and just about simple enough. Theme is both simple, and necessary. If the plot is the engine pulling the train, theme is the track that the plot runs on. You can't get theme going too soon. You can also be fairly bald in stating your theme.

    4. The plot starts. Life continues; it's been going on for a while in all your characters, and will presumably continue (except for the ones who die in the course of your book) for some time afterward. But plot, that great literary convention, starts now. Imagine a firedoor in a theatre. Your main character steps through that firedoor, the wind blows it closed behind him. Now he has to do new and different things. Status quo is no longer available.

    <blockquote>
    A word on "plot" right now. Plot is merely a set of consequentially related events. Of which the word "consequential" is the important one. "The king died, then the queen died" is not a plot. "The king died, then the queen died of a broken heart" is a plot.
    </blockquote>

    5. The setup. We're in the early chapters now, and we're giving the readers the preliminary sets of tools and information. The setup may be quite long ... Moby-Dick is around 400 pages of setup, followed by 50 pages of action.

    6. Tell your readers what to expect. Readers hate surprises. Bring in the detective, tell the readers that he will solve the crime. Whatever. Just make sure it's clear what's going to happen by the end of the book, and have this out there by the middle of the book at the latest.

    7. Now comes the action, the running of your plot. In most books this is the longest, most complicated part of the story.

    8. The climax. This is what you've been aiming for; it rewards the readers for staying with you the whole time. You can get quite complex here, with multiple can-you-top-this? climaxes, reverses, twists, and anything that your devious little heart can devise.

    9. The bowknot. Tie off all the loose ends. This is the very last chapter, it tells the readers "the story's over, folks!" so they won't turn the last page and wonder why there's no printing on it. This is brief.

    That should give you the overall shape of your book, seen from a distance. I see them as actual physical shapes and spaces. How you see them may differ, but the whole of it will be there... though you may not know all the details until the second or third drafts.

    Now ... on using filecards.

    Take a stack of filecards. Number them (I use upper left-hand corner) 1, 2, 3, ... and so on. These are chapters. They're major divisions. They're scenes. They're whatever you want them to be. You may have only two at first, 1 and 2, the opening scene and the climatic scene, only a sentence on each. It's okay, doesn't matter.

    You can ignore dialog at this point. You can ignore setting. Now, between these cards, put other cards, numbered 1.1, 1.2, ... 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 ... 57.1... 62.19. You put intervening scenes on these. Things that must happen after one event but before another.

    Between 3.2 and 3.3, if you think of something that has to go there, put 3.2.1, 3.2.2 ... and so on. To any level you want.

    You are answering questions here: What happens next, and what does the reader need to know so he won't be confused?

    Never tell the reader anything before he cares!

    Too much outlining will take the fun out of the writing. After you're happy with the overall shape of your plot, that you've got the characters entering, doing things, and leaving, now's the time to type up a strong outline.

    A strong outline will be dozens (if not scores) of pages long, and will resemble you telling a friend about a book that you read. You'll include the major scenes, and sparkling bits of description, you'll start to fill in dialog.

    From this, write your novel.

    After the writing of the novel, comes the revision. This is the smoothing, the sanding, the staining, the waxing, and the polishing of this thing you've sculpted.

    Here you do the Agricultural Work. If you have something in your climax, you need to make sure it was properly planted in the beginning. If you have something in the begining that didn't sprout by the end, you need to root it out.

    If, at any point you become stuck on what to do next, remember this motto: "Listen! I'm going to tell you something cool!"

  20. #220
    Sunset Creator
    Guest

    Re: Outlining

    Jim- Wow...that's the word that first comes to mind. Not only did you give information, the key points...but you took the time to lay it all out and explain it...you no doubt deserve credit for helping so many people...I being one of them. Thank you

  21. #221
    HapiSofi
    Guest

    Re: Outlining

    This just gets better and better. I particularly like the part about what happens when you confuse the reader, and how you shouldn't ever explain something to the readers before they care about it. That's brilliant.

    I believe I've heard the bit about "And now, I'm going to tell you something really cool" attributed to Steven Brust, who attributed it to Gene Wolfe.

    I'm afraid I disagree with you about the reader's interest level. I can't imagine giving writers permission to start a book at a low interest level. The way I'd say it is that there are lots of different kinds of interest. Early on, "Who is this?" and "How's this work?" interest are good. Toward the end, "My god, are they going to survive this?" interest is more appropriate. But no matter what, there should always be some kind of interest, and a sense of urgency about turning that next page.

  22. #222
    James D Macdonald
    Guest

    Re: Outlining

    I believe I've heard the bit about "And now, I'm going to tell you something really cool" attributed to Steven Brust, who attributed it to Gene Wolfe.

    That's Brust I'm quoting.

    (I have a little Emma Frost the White Queen action figure on my desk, with a little comic balloon above her head that says "Write your book... NOW!")

    More on "interest level" later. I may be using a personal shorthand here -- "interest" and "attention" are different things. I'll expand on this.

    Also, I don't have a Grand Theory of Everything worked out. My writing this series of posts is helping me clarify how I think about these things.

  23. #223
    James D Macdonald
    Guest

    Interest

    Interest takes many forms.

    Tension. Plot development. Conversation. Logic problems.

    People's minds wander. You have to substitute in various forms of interest to keep that interest growing.

  24. #224
    qatz
    Guest

    Re: Interest

    aw, jim, no Grand Theory yet? and i thought you were God, like Eric Clapton. Well, leave it to S. Hawking for the time being... interest level -- sofi, i think there needs to be a hook at the front to catch the reader's interest, my first book started with howitzers blowing the bank doors off a bank in Montreal, but surely you don't want to put the climax up front. will be interesting to see what jim says. thanks, jim, for a superb post.

    :hat

  25. #225
    PixelFish
    Guest

    Re: Interest

    You do not want to have your biggest, bestest, most special scene as your opening. The remainder of the book will be an anticlimax.

    This must be why I didn't think Snowcrash (the example that sprang immediately to mind) was all that and a bag of chips--the first scene is too strong comparatively speaking. I read that scene, and was totally blown away by it, but nothing had the visceral impact that the first scene had, and the rest of the book was something of a letdown. As for the ending, the storyline just sorta petered out. (Most of my acquaintances, or those who have also read Snowcrash, reported similar reactions. A WTF? moment as we turned the page, looking for the rest of the story.)

    ----

    BTW, I've been a good little writer this week--I've gotten something written everyday, even if not in mass quantities. I think I've been following unconciously the "listen up, I'm going to tell you something cool" mantra. But for me, when I get stuck, I refer to the outline and proceed to the next clear picture I have in my brain and work things out from there. If a bit of dialogue sticks out, I type it down. If a description or an action springs to mind, I hurry up and get it out before it starts to turn into moldy toast. (Moldy toast is what happens if I don't get something down right away. It never comes out as crisp and as interesting the second or third go-round, and then I have to go and re-bake the idea to get it to work right.)

    Your advice is proving rather helpful, and your presence is certainly spurring me on. I have no idea if you're going to make any posts asking us if we got our word count or bum-to-seat/fingers-to-keyboard ratios in today, so I have to make sure I have something to report.

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