Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

Not open for further replies.


Re: Ulysses, that Great of Greats

I agree with you on Rowling's generous use of adverbs. I think her target audience is young enough that she needs to be very simple and straightforward. Some writers call her lazy, but perhaps she does it for a purpose. I myself definitely prefer Hemingway's style to Joyce's. Sometimes it comes down to preferences. Some readers don't want to think... rather, they'd like the author to "tell" them. I had a beta reader before who criticized me for leaving some things out because she didn't get it -- she wanted the narrator to tell her if the protagonist was indifferent or angry, meanwhile he was "pounding his fists on the window."

But then again, how much can we expect from the readers? Should we all shoot for the lowest common denominator?

James D Macdonald

Re: Ulysses, that Great of Greats

I had a beta reader before who criticized me for leaving some things out because she didn't get it -- she wanted the narrator to tell her if the protagonist was indifferent or angry, meanwhile he was "pounding his fists on the window."

If a reader tells you that there's something wrong, he's almost certainly right. If he tells you what's wrong, he's almost certainly wrong.


Re: On the Climax

Uncle Jim, I have a problem. Let us consider it in terms of the movie GalaxyQuest.

Technically, I know the climax is supposed to be where the ship comes plowing in through the atmosphere, smashes one wall of the convention center, and delivers our heroes safely home again -- after the false ending with the main bad guy, that is. I mean, if anything in cinema is a climax, that is.

Problem is, my heart keeps telling me the climax of the movie is the delivery of the line, "I knew it!"

What's going on? Which is it?

James D Macdonald

Re: On the Climax

Which is it?

At which of those points did the audience spontaneously burst into applause?

That is the climax.


Re: Outline

I have a question about prologue vs. chapter 1. In Dan Brown's books, he uses prologues to begin his story, really, by describing a murder that involves two characters: the victim and the assassin. One can argue that it should have been the first chapter (authors like Patterson would open his book with a murder like that). However, if you cut out the prologue you really don't miss much. So the prologue only serves as a "teaser" -- something to hold the reader's interest.

In my novel, I have a very short prologue which is news about an accident. Then the real story happens in Chapter 1 when the protagonist is oblvious (but the readers, having read the prologue, would know that his parents just died). In this sense, the prologue is very important to "set up" the story but it's not quite the beginning of the story. Well, one can argue about that and make the news the first chapter.

Yes, no, doesn't matter?


Re: On the Climax

It's funny. She didn't say "something is missing" but "you did not put in such and such." So it seems like she does get it, but she wants some explanations to go with it.

Example: I have the protagonist picks up the phone. And then in the next chapter/scene I have him at the funeral. In movie terms, that's a "jump cut" (not sure if it's applicable in novels). But my beta reader asks me: "What was the conversation? Who called? What was his reaction when he heard about his parents' death? How did he get back? By air? By train?) The fact is, all that is answered LATER in chapter 2 as narrative. Not sure what to think.


Re: Ulysses, that Great of Greats

I agree with you on Rowling's generous use of adverbs. I think her target audience is young enough that she needs to be very simple and straightforward.

I would say that this is valid, logical reasoning ... except that I've looked through works ranging from Stephen King, to Ray Bradbury, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Robert Heinlein, Anton Chekhov and more. They all break the rules to some degree, and some of them, in my opinion, extensively.

Rowling's books target a young audience, but they've also proven their mass appeal. Straightforward, yes. Simple, I'd argue.

James D Macdonald

Re: On the Climax

Not sure what to think.

What I think is that this is one of the ills of workshopping: The cheapest, easiest crit to give is "I wanted to hear more about XXX." This comes from looking at books piecemeal rather than as organic wholes.


Re: Outline

In the 2nd novel I'm writing there is a Prologue. It takes place in a Spanish desert village in 1799 and shows how a ring becomes possessed with a vampires spirit. Chapter one takes place in present day San Francisco and shows how a teenage girl is killed by a vampire.

I said all that since someone was talking about Prologues. I'm aware that what happens in my prologue could have be interweaved into the novel's story, but I felt the prologue was necessary.

Jim, do you think it would be better for me to just interweave
the prologue in the novel's story or leave as is?




Dialog or dialogue? For all questions about spelling, consult a dictionary. For that word, either spelling is correct, but the longer one is preferred.


our english friend

above made a very valid point about the american proclivity for dispensing with "u"s ... whether or not it's in favour, i think the english spelling should be considered correct on these shores. nevertheless, i do prefer "prolog" ... just as a personal preference.

James D Macdonald

Re: Outline

Jim, do you think it would be better for me to just interweave the prologue in the novel's story or leave as is?

I haven't read your book, so my opinion is based on general principles rather than specific cases.

That being said: If you leave it as a prologue, half your readers won't read it.

That being said, I've used prologues in my own works about half the time.

We've been talking about rules? There are no rules. There are only guidelines, some of them stronger than others.

While most people are having great fun skiing down the slope on skis, every once in a while you'll see someone gliding up the slope on an ironing board and making it look easy.

"It works" trumps everything.


regarding climaxes

i said somewhere, and i hope my partner repeats my advice when she gets around to addressing this subject, that the one utterly true verity of writing (other than myriads pointed out by Uncle Jim) is that endings are always harder to write than beginnings. this explains a lot. it explains why the greatest american novel is 80% preliminary. it explains the inordinate value we place, and rightly so, on how a novel turns out. i have to disagree with U. Jim, however, in one particular. the good guys did not win in "1984." that is precisely the point of the novel; it posits a real time when the good guys might not win. thus, its horror. its message might be the contrary, but only because that is the power and the glory of an incredibly strong ending.


Re: regarding climaxes

I find endings easy to write -- most often I already have the endgame set up. The beginning is somewhat harder, not knowing exactly which point of "interest" to begin sometimes and end up doing some character development instead of bringing the readers into the plot (and setting up that "dream state" of theirs). Mid story is a long, weird process. I usually build my characters first and have some key "set pieces" set up and let them get to the points.. it's a challenging process but also rewarding when it works.

I wrote an epilogue but later discarded it. I think epilogues are dumb and most authors still misuse it as the conclusion of the story; instead, it just means the author couldn't let go or it should have been the last chapter of the book.

MacAl Stone

Re: On Outlining

The celtic knotwork outline suddenly brings everything I've been struggling with into sharp focus.

I have a notebook full of different character/theme/storyline threads, so that I can make sure I follow each to its rightful conclusion.

I've been battling away with the unruly bits--each character proclaiming that this is THEIR story, dammit; each event clamoring to be THE pivotal piece of the puzzle--unsure of how to balance and interweave them into a harmonious whole. I felt terribly virtuous struggling away with stuffing them into various roman-numeral slots. Nevermind how poorly that worked.

Then Jim dropped the solution in my lap. The farkin' book exists in my head as a big, convoluted, three-dimensional pattern.

This helps immeasurably. I can stop reworking the entire freaking outline whenever the story runs away with me. The first 70-80 pages can be massaged into their respective knots on rewrite. Right now I'm afraid to look back at them, mostly because they ain't nearly as pretty as I wanted them to be, and I know it.

Thank you, Jim.



Re: Outline

I use the "hero's journey" as a guide for my outline sometimes (if it fits the story arc), and that has worked very well for me.

I also use a visual method by drawing charts and diagrams -- I tend to use few words in my outlines, mostly just pictures. I plot out the different points in the story in terms of conflicts and release, forming a big squiggly curve which crescendoes to a "climax" then a final resolution (conclusion). Each high points on the curve is a specific conflict/problem (either internal or external) and each valley is a "resolve." And now on this curve I can mark up the "hero's journey" milestones as well as all the major set pieces.

This evolving exercise helps me:

- clear my mind and focus
- think out all the key plots and subplots
- visualize the "game" and its structure
- know where I am at in the process and where I am going


I started my spell checker, and then...

Dear Jim,

The grammar checking function in Microsoft Word consistently indicates an error when "then" is used without "and" to start a dependent clause.

Could you kindly send a note to Mr. Gates and request that he leave writing to the professionals? His attitude is really starting to bug me.


James D Macdonald


Thanks for your comments Jim.


Actually, Jeri, I didn't answer your question.

Knowing only what I know from what you've posted here:

One concern I have is whether the prologue gives away too much of the story.

The prologue (literally "before the word") has been used, mostly in drama, to explain what's coming, and at the same time give people time to get back from the candy counter, find their seats, sit down, and shut up.

You find prologues in movies and TV shows: those segments of action before the opening titles. These can be badly done: the voiceover in <A HREF="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0780622553/ref=nosim/madhousemanor" target="_new">Dark City</a> is an example.

They can be well done. The opening narration in <A HREF="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00003CWT6/ref=nosim/madhousemanor" target="_new">The Fellowship of the Ring</a> (material that Tolkien wisely put in the Council of Elrond chapter, nearly half-way through the first volume, after the readers were engaged and cared about the information) is an example of a sucessful prologue.

Let's look at a couple of other prologues:

From <A HREF="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305364613/ref=nosim/madhousemanor/" target="_new">Romeo And Juliet</a> by William Shakespeare:


Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.


Now from <A HREF="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00018D3PU/ref=nosim/madhousemanor" target="_new">Dr. Faustus</a> by Christopher Marlowe:


Not marching in the fields of Trasimene
Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens,
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love
In Courts of Kings where state is overturned,
Nor in the pomp of proud audacious deeds
Intends our Muse to vaunt his heavenly verse.
Only this, Gentles: we must now perform
The form of Faustus' fortunes, good or bad.
And now to patient judgments we appeal,
And speak for Faustus in his infancy.
Now is he born, of parents base of stock,
In Germany, within a Town called Rhodes.
At riper years to Wittenberg he went,
Whereas his kinsmen chiefly brought him up.
So much he profits in Divinity,
The fruitful plot of Scholarism graced,
That shortly he was graced with Doctor's name,
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th' heavenly matters of Theology,
Till swoll'n with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed Necromancy.
Nothing so sweet as Magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss;
And this the man that in his study sits.


Notice several things: First, that they are dispensable, second, that they are brief, and third, that they are self-contained.

So .... Jerir ... tell me about your prologue? Is it dispensable, brief, and self-contained? If it is, then make it a prologue indeed. If not, try it as chapter one, with a particularly long time interval between chapters one and two. See how that reads.

If the rest of the story-telling is strong enough, you'll have an editor who has read your work to comment on the appropriateness of your prologue. If the rest of the writing isn't strong enough, it won't matter.

And... please yourself. Pleasing yourself is a big part of the art of writing.

James D Macdonald

Re: I started my spell checker, and then...

...the grammar checking function in Microsoft Word... is something that every writer should turn off, disable, and delete from their wordprocessor.


Re: I started my spell checker, and then...


Here's my prologue, and I believe that it is dispensable, self-contained and brief. If you read the prologue, you will gain insight of the main story; if you don't, you won't miss a thing.



The boy looked on with curiosity. All around him, the many white and yellow flowers smelled sweet and the quiet psalm resonated with the whispering trees. A few large men gradually lowered a large, dark box into the ground, a large gray stone leaning close with his brother’s name cleaved into its face, every stroke hard and deep. And cold.

He tossed down a white rose. Rain fell and chilled his hands. His mother’s gentle palm brushed across his eyebrows, and then his eyes, his nose, and his chin. Only her lips were softer than her touch. She kissed him on one cheek, then the other, and finally his forehead. Her eyes were red, tears mixed with the rapid rain. He shivered, so she clasped his hands, giving them a warm squeeze. A dark green cape flitted above him; he looked up and saw his father--so tall and grand, like a statue of a stoic king. The rain kept falling, and his father never moved.

Kate Nepveu


I think that it is so short that I wouldn't take it amiss, as a reader, if it were the start of Chapter 1, set off with a section break, or possibly in italics, or whatnot.

(Also: did you intend to use "large" three times in one sentence? And I'm not entirely clear on whose POV is being used.)


Re: prologue

Maestro - nice prologue, hooked me right away. The only reason to move it to Chapter One in a manner such as Kate suggests, is to avoid the possibility of a reader skipping over it. And I think that's the whole point of the prologue/chapter one discussion. It has nothing to do with its validity as a writing technique, but in ensuring ALL your words are read by the greatest number of readers.


Re: I started my spell checker, and then...

Thank you! The reason why I put that in a prologue is that it is not part of the main story (except that it introduces all three characters, even though without naming them). The first chapter begins when the father and mother both die, and the boy is now a grown man.

I agree, though, if the readers don't read it, it's a waste of words. However, I don't really feel that it belongs in the main story and like I said, if they don't read it, they are not missing anything. It provides a psychological backdrop of the protagonist in the main story.

RE: three "large" in a sentence. I did it on purpose. That's to emphasize and contrast the "smallness" of the boy. I hope I am clear that it is from the boy's POV (his mother, his father, his brother, etc.) Even the langauage I choose reflects that POV, I think. There is no fancy words (well, except maybe stoic) for a boy to understand.


Too Much She

I had someone read the opening chapter of something I wrote some time ago. I received good comments and bad comments in return. One of the bad was a statement that I used the word 'she' too much. I had not really noticed this and have not read anyone else saying too much about this either.

My story's protagonist is a woman so there are an appropriate amount of "she said," I suppose.
Not open for further replies.