Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

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Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

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James D. Macdonald

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Even when I was 14, I couldn't get my mind around it.

Couldn't get your mind around what?

Person, in a place, with a problem: Jeremy (age 14), on Second Street (after school), finds a wallet with $10,000 in hundred dollar bills (but no personal information showing who it belongs to).


There you are. If you can't get all that into the first sentence I'm mistaking the man. One down, 167 sentences to go. What's Jeremy do next?
 

Komnena

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What does Jeremy do next? He takes the money to his Pearl Harbor survivor Grandpa, with whom he gets along better than he does with his parents. They take off on a wild romp to Hawaii.
Now if I could just figure out how to get my second draft to work. I've made two tries at starting it and didn't get far with either.
 

James D. Macdonald

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Make sure your story is starting in the right place.

The right place is where the Exit Only door swings closed behind the protagonist and there's no going back into the nice comfortable room where he started.

(To become a better writer: Write tons, then cross out tons. No writing is wasted, but much won't be anything anyone will ever want to read.)
 

nevada

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I just wanted to say a quick thing about Bright Lights being in second person. I"ve not read the book so I don't know if the book supports my theory. But it seems to me that this character is in a bit of denial. In the first sentence already he's lying to himself. "you are not the kind of person" when it becomes pretty clear that he is that kind of person. So by talking in 2nd person he's denying any responsibility for his actions. He takes a step back from 1st person.

How often do we do that? We're making a point about something and instead of saying I do this or I do that, we use the encompassing "you". ie. You pay 12 bucks for a movie ticket so is it too much to expect other people to be quiet. Instead you have to sit there and put up with them text messaging." Why do we say "you" instead of "I" when it's obvious we are talking about ourselves? Because we like to think that we are not alone in our misery or indignation and we want to involve the person we are talking to in some way, so he may be more sympathetic to our cause. After all, it's not just happening to us but to "you" as well.

So in a sense, Bright Lights being in 2nd person accomplishes that as well. Or at least teh first page. First, the narrator is trying to distance himself from his problems. Secondly, he's trying to elicit our sympathy by including us. It's not just him, it's us as well.

Instead of finding myself distanced by 2nd person, I am drawn in. I don't know if that will hold up over the whole book, nor do I think I would ever write in 2nd person, but I like it. It's a false intimacy that I like.

And sorry, Ray, but I actually prefer the 2nd person to the 1st person. For me it loses something. I don't know what. It just doesn't ring like 2nd person does. For me, at least.
 

James D. Macdonald

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I think we can say that 2nd person is the right person for this story, told in this way.

Second person fiction is the prose equivalent of a Rachmaninoff sonata. It can be done beautifully, but you have to be good.
 

Will Lavender

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Not much to add to this conversation, but I'll just say that I enjoy 2nd person as well. I think the reason we don't see it very much is because it simply has never been employed with much frequency in the recent history of letters. Writers are terrified of reviewers calling their work "gimmicky" -- in fact the very idea of a gimmick is like anathema in literature -- and so they don't use it very often.

I, perversely, love gimmicks. Gimmicks of perspective, of plot, of character -- doesn't matter. Another book I would recommend with a strange POV is Joshua Ferris's terrific Then We Came to the End.
 

paritoshuttam

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Parallel plots across time?

Hi,

I am stuck in the plotting phase of my novel. I conceptualized it having a main plotline and two parallel (sub)plots. The main problem I face is that the different plotlines are in different eras. The setting (the place where most of the action is set) is common, but apart from that, what else can I use to tie the plotlines together? The character in the contemporary era is aware of the older characters (not a generational family saga, though).

Is this idea workable? Or do you think I have bitten off more than I can chew?
- Paritosh
 

Nangleator

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Are the modern characters slowly discovering bits about the historical characters as their own plotline develops?

I told a story like this, where the events of the past were very important to the present characters. I believe it made the historical plotline quite a bit more interesting, because it did a good job of "not giving the reader information until he wanted it."
 

dawinsor

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One of my favorite books is Connie Willis's "Doomsday Book," in which characters are all in or around Oxford but one set is in the 14th Century and the other is in the near future. It's really fascinating to see this reversal of the normal order in which characters are all in the same time but may be in different places.

Willis links the stories through time travel which is obviously not going to work for everyone. But maybe you could do it with common objects, perhaps one that affects both eras. For instance, in Doomsday Book, a near-future scholar is excavating a 14th century tomb. The person in the tomb died of a virulent flu and the excavation releases it into the near future. Maybe the ancestor owned an object, a ring say, that the present day person also has. It has some particular meaning in both eras.
 

FennelGiraffe

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I am stuck in the plotting phase of my novel. I conceptualized it having a main plotline and two parallel (sub)plots. The main problem I face is that the different plotlines are in different eras. The setting (the place where most of the action is set) is common, but apart from that, what else can I use to tie the plotlines together? The character in the contemporary era is aware of the older characters (not a generational family saga, though).
Most of the published novels I've seen with that structure had only two plotlines. Adding a third complicates matters, but I don't see any reason why it should be an insurmountable difficulty. You will want to use every possible technique for stitching the three plotlines together.

Basically, when you transition from one plotline to another, you want to build a bridge by repeating some element before and after the transition. Since you have a common setting, one type of bridge would be to transition to the same specific location. If your contemporary plotline leaves off with the MC in the kitchen, then your past plotline picks up with the past MC in the kitchen. Extend that to other aspects of the environment as well. Instead of location, transition from rain to rain, from early morning to early morning, from spring flowers to spring flowers. Don't forget the senses: the sound of a steamboat whistle on the river, the scent of the seashore, the taste of fresh-picked apples.

Also use objects. Transition from MC 1 carefully polishing his sword to MC 2 stubbing his toe on an old sword in a pile of junk or to MC 3 admiring the antique sword mounted above the fireplace. Note what I've done there; each char has a different attitude toward the same object. You can switch it around with the same attitude toward different objects. You can use emotion by itself, too. Transition from anger to anger, passion to passion, despair to despair.

Anything that would be present in more than one time period can be used as a bridge. But mix up the types of bridges. Too much of any one will get heavy-handed.
 

James D. Macdonald

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It isn't necessary to have the characters in the various plotlines aware of each other.

Here's one way to do it:

Write a story of about 30,000 words, set in a location, with a given theme.

Write another story of about 30,000 words, set in the same location, at a different time, with another view of the same theme.

Write a third story of about 30,000 words, set in the same location, at a different time, exploring a third take on the same theme.

When you have those three well in hand, slice them lengthwise, and layer them together like a sandwich. The reader, taking a bite from the edge and eating through to the other edge, gets a bit of bread, meat, and cheese in each mouthful. Sometimes with more pickle, sometimes with less, and a surprise dab of mustard in the middle that brings out all the flavors and textures in a new way.
 

paritoshuttam

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Are the modern characters slowly discovering bits about the historical characters as their own plotline develops?

Yes, that's right, more or less.

Thanks for the other replies, and specially to FennelGiraffe, for the details. Funny you should mention seashore, because the sea is an imporant part of my setting. And yes, I too had my doubts about using three separate plotlines.

Uncle Jim, that was a cool analogy about the sandwich. I guess this will take much longer than making a sandwich :)
 

RJK

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Narrator's voice

Another newbie here. I've spent months reading this thread from the beginning and feel that I've gotten a well designed graduate level course in how to become a published novelist. Special thanks go to Uncle Jim and to all those who have contributed their thoughtful comments.
I started your Christmas assignment with a short story narrated in first person by a 14 year old boy. In my narration, I'm using the level of grammar I would expect to hear from a boy of that age and it looks amateurish. For example "Eddie was really smart, but kind of crazy". If written in 3rd person I would have used proper grammar. I'm not sure how an editor would see it. How do the experienced writers feel bout using poor grammar in narration to carry the voice of the young character? How would an editor of children's fiction feel about it?
 

James D. Macdonald

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How would an editor feel? Dunno.

Does it help reveal character? Does it support the theme?

Write it the way you're going. You can go back and forth in subsequent drafts. Right now, go to the end, then read it to see how it sounds.
 

RJK

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How would an editor feel? Dunno.

Does it help reveal character? Does it support the theme?

Write it the way you're going. You can go back and forth in subsequent drafts. Right now, go to the end, then read it to see how it sounds.
Thanks UJ I just finished the first draft. It turned out to be 15 pages. It does reveal character. I'm still a little hazy on theme. I like the way it sounds but I'll see after my first beta responds. Thanks again.
 

James D. Macdonald

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A book Uncle Jim threw against the wall, and why he threw it.

The book is The Northeast Kingdom by Peter Collinson. The sell-line on the front cover is: "One prison is about to experience a riot and jailbreak. One town is about to learn about fear and survival."

Near as I can tell it's first (and so-far only) novel. I picked it up off the shelf in a bookstore, because I do that sometimes if a book appeals in some way. I like mystery/thrillers, this one is set near where I live, and the cover is a grabber. So I bought one.

And I started to read it. It started well.

The story is set in "Gilchrist, Vermont," a fictional town. Based on internal evidence it would be somewhere around where Island Pond, VT, is really located.

I was perfectly willing to believe that there was such a town (although I'd be familiar with it if it were real, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief that far).

I'm willing to believe that there was a SuperMax penitentiary in that town -- prisons are getting built in all sorts of rural areas. Heck, there's talk of building another one over in Berlin, NH. I was willing to suspend my disbelief.

This breakout is set in the midst of a howling blizzard, so the town is cut off. To aid to the being-cut-off, the villains have hijacked the town snowplows, so no one can get in or get out.

Even though, through local knowledge, I know that just about every 4x4 pickup truck in town would have a plow blade attached, I was willing to give 'em that one. I was willing to suspend my disbelief.

So, why did I throw this book across the room?

SPOILER WARNING

SPOILER WARNING

SPOILER WARNING

Quite early on in the narrative, the Head Bad Guy decides to tell one of the townspeople how he managed to escape (and get his band of equally evil and depraved criminal followers out too): His henchmen on the outside had drugged the guards by introducing drugs into their groceries over the preceding weeks. The guards had all gone unconscious at the same time, and our villains escaped!

And this brought me to the question of how in the heck did they know which guard had Wheaties for breakfast, and which one had nothing but coffee, and which one had a fried egg, toast, and orange juice; and how did they drug the right package with exactly the right amount; and how did they arrange it that the guard, and only the guard, ate from that package, and ate from that package for the first time ever on that day; and how did he arrange it that no one would be running late and decide to skip breakfast; and how did he know far enough in advance that a blizzard was going to hit on that day, so he could have his outside henchmen get to the various folks' shopping trips a week, two weeks, or even a month in advance?

And which the heck drug is it that you can eat at some time in the morning, that will produce rapid-onset unconsciousness at a specified time later that day, with no symptoms beforehand?

At that point the suspenders of my disbelief snapped.

The real sorrow of it was this: There was no reason whatsoever for the villain to explain how he escaped. He was monologuing (as they put it in The Incredibles). He could have left it mysterious. All we really needed to know is that he got out; how isn't a required element. We can assume that it was something Intensely Clever. The story doesn't even start until he and his band of criminals show up in town. No viewpoint character was around for the actual breakout. So to add a bit of icing to the blunder, this particular episode of over-explaining was a huge infodump Telling Not Showing.

Arrrgh!

I threw the book against the wall.

I keep meaning to finish it, but... it's been five years now. I don't think I will.
 

jst5150

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Jim, would you give your perspective on "character-driven" and "plot-driven" please?
 

James D. Macdonald

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Character-driven vs. Plot-driven?

Well, first of all, there isn't a bright sharp line between 'em. All stories must have both, character and plot, and either (and both) will move the story along.

Character-driven usually means that the story is more internal, and is moved along by the characters' wants and needs.

Plot-driven usually means that the story is more external, and is carried by the action. This-happened-then-that-happened.

Plot-driven means that we have to blow up the bridges at Toko-Ri. Character driven is one pilot's journey of self-discovery. Along the way he may also happen to blow up some bridges (which might, by chance, be at Toko-Ri).

Nothing's 100%. (Ray Nelson, who wrote "Eight O'Clock in the Morning," deliberately tried to write a story that was completely plot-driven, going so far as to name his protagonist "Nada." It didn't work. There's still character-driven elements in his story.)
 

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Thanks. That jives with my notes. Much appreciated.

Here's your 'Tommy Point.' :D
 

Chris Grey

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So how did you throw the book across the room?

I can understand the writer's point of view. The entire scenario was pretty improbable, and he probably knew your disbelief was getting stretched thin. What better way, in his mind, to restore some credibility than by explaining away the improbable events?

There exists a credibility bank. We take loans out to buy the disbelief of the reader. Can you pay the bank back so you can take out more credibility later? I have no idea, but apparently you can't pay the bank in counterfeit notes and get away with it.

Someone (probably UJ?) once said that if you're not the greatest orator of all time, don't make one of your characters give the greatest speech of all time. They're limited by what you know. If you're not a criminal mastermind (and if not, why are you writing?) with an excellent knowledge of poisons and their application (ditto!) then don't have your villain explain a criminal mastermind plot involving poison. If you don't know what he's talking about, neither does he.

Although, you could always go with some kind of food interaction poison. I heard that horse meat and watermelon don't go well together, for instance (not that you could use them in this setting). Maybe some other two-part poison with the second part triggered by a gas near the prison facility? Though why target only the guards when you could theoretically hit the entire town and thus ensure no resistance?

Personally, I would just say "sea turtles."
 

Nangleator

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That's irritating, that it wasn't even a fatal flaw that the author was trying to distract you away from.

I had a problem once in that my novel seemed to have a hell of a coincidence in the beginning, which was revealed in the climax not to be a coincidence at all. I agonized over whether or not I should let my readers think I was a lazy writer for most of the story. Now, that's a flaw.
 
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