Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

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

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James D Macdonald

Re: Characters

Good morning, everyone! Coffee all brewed? Ready for another day in the word mines?

Let's talk very briefly about those characters. We have to put them into conflict, else nothing much is going to happen.

In the chess games, it's white vs. black, because if you didn't have that conflict, you wouldn't have a game.

There're all kinds of conflicts we can use. Man vs. nature, man vs. fate, good vs. evil. Revenge may be a lousy motive out here in reality, but it's powered many novels.

Let me mention one of my favorites.

Anyone can do good vs. evil. The audience knows who to cheer for. The author knows who's going to win. This can get boring, for everyone. (Important safety tip: Your readers can always tell when you're bored.)

If you want to make your characters sweat, and keep your readers guessing, make the conflict good vs. good. Love of family vs. love of country. Search for truth vs. charity and forgiveness. Faith vs. reason. You get the idea.

All that's visible on the surface in your novel is the plot and the characters. The themes, the stories, the conflicts -- those are hidden. You know them; you're the author. You make them consistent throughout, and the reader will believe the plot and believe in the characters, at least until the book is finished. That's the art and the skill. And that's where lots and lots of unpublished/unpublishable writers fall down.

James D Macdonald

Re: Characters

Another thing about the characters: they don't know they're in a novel.

(Generally speaking, the characters in art don't know they're in art. That's why the lights are turned down and the audience is quiet in theatres: so the characters won't realize they're on a stage. That's why characters in the movies don't look at the camera. (Have you noticed how distracting it is, in amateur film, when an actor's eyes focus on the camera?)

Well ... you can have the characters notice they're in a book or on film or on stage (it's called "Breaking the Fourth Wall"), but this is generally done for comic effect. "Bromosel looked at the huge wad of pages in the reader's right hand. It was going to be a long epic." (Bored of the Rings) or pretty much any of the Police Squad shows.

One thing you don't want to do is have a character say something that'll remind the reader that he's just a reader: don't have one character say to another, "You're talking like the villain in a sleazy detective novel," lest the reader say "Wait a minute! He is the villain in a sleazy detective novel!" This can break the illusion. Illusions are fragile things. The chapters you've spent building the illusion will be wasted; it's not entirely certain that you'll be able to get that willing-suspension-of-disbelief back.


Re: Characters

Excellent lesson James. Lack of conflict is the reason good news is perceived as undereported. Looking at the camera is the ultimate sin in film. I spent four consecutive years working in film and television, and it was a constant battle, especially without lines to look authentic; stay busy, natural and most of all, believable.

Many newbies looked like the night of the living dead in scenes. Stiff, lockstep movements and in some cases even waving at the camera and mugging for it. Right before the director had them ejected from the set.

I remember one time in a film Richard Benjamin was directing "Pentagon Wars" and I got up from the table at an upscale Washington D.C. restaurant, and walked out of the shot. "Cut! Why did he leave," RB yells at the 1 st. AD. (Directors don't talk to the help directly, usually)I stood there dumbfounded.

"No motivation," he said. In essence, I forgot to act. He wanted a look from me. I spotted a friend, showed it and went to visit. It's harder than it looks.

Out here in LA LA land they don't suffer fools long. I suspect it's the same in literature.

James D Macdonald

Re: Characters

The number one lesson to learn about commercial fiction is: We are part of the entertainment industry!

FM St George

Re: Characters

quite enjoying this thread and just wanted to give thanks for your most valuable input here...

many thanks!


RE: Learning to write

&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp I have been enjoying the lessons and advice. I started writing on August 2, of this year and have a lot to learn. My goal is to become a published author within six years and be making high five figures within nine years. I have broken down what I will need to learn and use into these basic areas:
1. Create and write stories in volume, starting with shorts and moving to novels. This includes rewrites and polishing.
2. Become proficient in language skills, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure.
3. Learn to use the elements of fiction: Characterization, setting, conflict, plot and so on bringing my writing to a higher level with each work.
4. Marketing and presentation. This includes marketing to Agents, Editors, Publishers and the public.
5. Submission to the correct markets in increasing volume.
&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp I am working on each of the above simultaneously with more time on the earlier items than the later at this point.
&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp Is there anything you suggest that I should add to the list? Do you have any other comments?

James D Macdonald

Re: RE: Learning to write

Hi, Jerry --

I've recommended some books and some exercises already ... I'm quite serious about those. Get the books, do the exercises. Develop the habits.

I'll be recommending more books and more exercises as time goes on. Please trust me enough to play along. I can't give you a publishing contract, but I can take you where they grow.

More advice, just for you? Sure:

You've put down timeframes and dollar amounts in your goals. I've seen people do this before; I've even seen 'em figure which year they were going to win what major award. That's counterproductive. Just concentrate on the day, and on the current project. Let the future take care of itself.

Have a life. Go to interesting places, do interesting things. Observe people. You have to be the best observer around. No matter what you're doing, part of your brain should be turning the scene into descriptive prose.

Read widely. Take classes just for the heck of it. You can't know too much.

Consider joining a writers' workshop. Look for one that has at least one or two people with legitimate publishing credits in it. If workshops aren't for you, they aren't for you, but give 'em a try. You'll need a set of trusted friends who'll read your work and give you their honest opinions. No matter how much those opinions may hurt, thank your friends cheerfully and sincerely.

Make every story you write be the best one it can be. Submit them to places likely to buy them (paying markets only). Send 'em out 'til Hell won't have 'em.


Re: Working At It

I'm surprised no one else has commented on this. If they have I missed it.

Maybe I'm the only one who was struck by it.

By "my work" I mean ten pages of original prose fiction every day.

That isn't so bad, really. It's only about 2,500 words. It's only two hours or so.

*Boggle* at the idea of writing ten pages in two hours.

At first.

James, when I read that, I was astonished to hear you were that productive. I work for about two hours every day, and I do three to four pages in that time. I've never been able to do better than that.

But when I started to break it down, I realized that 2.5K words in two hours is slightly less than 21 words a minute (we don't need much more precision than that). Writing four pages in that time is slightly more than eight words a minute, and writing only three pages is slightly more than six.

I thought to myself, six words a minute? What the hell am I doing with my time?

That night I examined the way I work. I was working on a scene, and I wrote a single sentence. Just a nothing, people-enter-the-room sentence. Then I highlighted it and hit alt-t, w.

That sentence contained 20 words. And I thought. That's all I'll write for the next three minutes.

That was not a happy thought.

I mulled it over (I'm not very bright and think slowly) and tonight I decided that I would try for a sentence a minute. Not all my sentences are 20 words (most are much shorter), but surely that was a pace that my lame typing skills and struggling imagination could manage.

I set my watch on my desktop and worked in ten-minute blocks (roughly). In the first block I wrote 182 words. Eighteen words a minute! Most of the later blocks were not as productive, and one was more productive, but they were all respectable. I admit to making lemonade and turning over laundry between the blocks, but it was still a great session.

I expect to struggle with it more tomorrow, but you've really opened my eyes about this. Frankly, I hadn't even thought to examine my word-a-minute productivity before.

Maybe I should work on my typing skills, too.

Thanks a ton.



Re: Working At It

A fun way to work on typing skills-- Yahoo Typing Shark But watch out it can get addictive.

As far as speed goes. That's a matter, or some of it anyway, (I'd say a lot of it) of making a habit out writing. Sit and write, edit later to get the most out of each day. Then go back the next day and spend no more than a few hours ( a set amount of time, James suggests 2hrs, I do 4) editing what came the day before.

If you become very prolific then you won't get through what you wrote the day before in the alloted time, but you will catch up when the actual writing is done.

My latest finished novel--90,000 words (first draft) in 32 days. I take one day a week off--so that was actually 28 days. So the average was 3200 some words a day. I was also editing book one in that time, working on the magazine, and working on an earlier project that I am changing POV on.

Every writer writes differently. You can try what works for others, but you have to find your own way of doing things.

I only sleep about 4 hrs a night and type close to 120 WPM--that helps. I don't fret over my work. I work, write, edit(not the book I am currently working on) a bit, play some silly game, work, write, edit(not the book I am currently working on getting finished)

I am often up at 2 am yet writing and have to stop or I would fall asleep in the keyboard.

This is not for everyone.

But the thing you must do is park butt in chair and develop a writing habit. Not every one can do 3,000+ words a day, not everyone can do 2,500 in two hours--many writers only do a few pages a day--

Does this mean you are wrong? Not at all--you have to find what works for you.

Set a goal per day and work your way up. As with any habit you will get better as your mind says --OK butt in chair--muse will now engage.

James is referring to his "work."

You have to find what "your work" habit is. Choose a word limit per day--you can waste a lot of time doing non-writing things while sitting at your desk. The word limit works better for most people.

Say I will write x number of words today and every day for 2 weeks then I will write an increase of x number of words for the next two weeks--etc and so on, you will be surprised at how soon you can write a huge block of text in 2 hrs. But no one will start out with 2,500 words in 2 hrs.



Re: Working At It

I can say I thought James pumped out a large chunk on a daily basis, but I think this mathematical analysis of how is in the same category as how long is a chapter? As long as it takes. Who cares? Books are written two to three pages or more at a time. In the end, the ones that made the cut constitute a book. That's how long a book is and how long it takes.

James D Macdonald

Re: Working At It

There are no right or wrong answers. The only thing you'll know if you listen carefully to what I tell you here is how I work, and what works for me.

Still, there's that professional attitude. If you're a professional writer, writing is your job. Treat it that way. Sure, it's a job you love, one that you'd do even if they weren't paying you for it, but it's a job.

You can get the sweatshirt and wear it proudly.

Now, some other fun things before we start today's nattering.

Here's the Turkey City Lexicon. We can't talk about -- some would say we can't think about -- things for which we don't have the words. These are some words that you might find helpful in thinking about your writing.

Here's something even more fun: The Sobering Saga of Myrtle the Manuscript. If you ever wanted to know the truth of what happens in a publisher's office, this story tells the truth. It's about short stories, rather than novels, but it's still Pretty Darn True.

Myrtle tells the story from the editor's point of view. If you want to Really True Truth about writing a novel from the novelist's point of view, I recommend you get a copy of The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey. Here it is as a single volume, or as part of a collection.

The Unstrung Harp is very funny, and devastatingly accurate.


Now, today's discussion. Let's say that you have a full novel all done. Three hundred some-odd pages of typescript in standard manuscript format. What do you do now?

Now is the time to put it into pleasing shape. This is what I call Agricultural Work. This is where you prune and transplant, and fertilize the book. Look at the end. Is everything that happens at the end properly foreshadowed in the beginning? Look at the beginning. Does everything that you planted there have a payoff at the end?

You remember Chekov's saying that a gun that's hanging on the wall in the first act must be fired in the last act. Here's where you hang the gun on the wall. Here too is where you make sure the gun goes off.

I see my novels as having form, like a building. They are a space. The walls go all the way to the ceilings, the walls meet at corners, the roof is in place and pitched to shed the rain, the doors swing easily, the floors are level, and there are plants to mask the ugly place where the foundation meets the lawn (in addition to the pure aesthetic pleasure that those pretty flowers give.

You're looking for balance here. You may need to move scenes, shed scenes, write new scenes. Characters may appear or vanish in this part of the rewriting.

To make a statue of an elephant, take a block of marble and carve away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. The first draft, the thing you vomited out at the rate of ten pages a day, is the block of marble. Now you are cutting away everything that doesn't look like a novel.

As you gain skill and experience, the marble will arrive at this later stage more closely rough-cut than it did the first few times you try. Still you will get to know revision. Revision means, literally, "looking again." Look again at all the parts of your book, from basic plot through character, action, theme, story, text, subtext. You are the master of this world you are creating.

The readers are counting on you for one thing: they are trusting you to find the one perfect ending for this novel. (That's why the Choose Your Own Adventure books flopped -- they were a novelty, not a novel. Not all endings are as good as others. You, the artist, choose one.)

The readers expect to be surprised by the inevitable. This sounds like a tall order. It is. There are a couple of cheap tricks I can teach you, but try for the real thing.

(Cheap trick number one: Start a story arc. Before it reaches its climax, start a second story arc. When that second story arc reaches its climax, substitute the climax for the first story arc. This sounds silly, but it really works. For an example, see Chaucer's The Miller's Tale.)

Okay, before I end today, one more rule of thumb: Unless you're writing War and Peace or the Bible, try to have all your characters on stage and moving by page one hundred.
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Re: Working At It

I've reformatted my wisp-like start on a novel in the fashion standard for that venue. I suspect though, based on my experiences here that the story of myrtle will enrage many of the newbies here. They will be insulted by the truth, and accuse the professionals of dreamkilling. They'd be wrong.


"five figures"?

making high five figures within nine years

This isn't exactly relavant to the thread-but maybe someone could clear this up for me. Does five figures mean five numbers (10000)? or does it mean five zeros (100000)?

By the way, james, I'm really enjoying this. Keep it up, and publish it on your website when it's done.


Re: Working At It

For a fictional account of my latest nonfiction book I highly recommend "Arnudel." Kenneth Roberts' diary "I wanted to write" is fascinating day-to-day account of his writing career. It's only available at libraries, unless abebooks has a copy.



Re: Working At It

I interpret the phrase to mean 99,999 as the upper end. All of the numbers are meaningless from the poster's perspective.



I interpret the phrase to mean 99,999 as the upper end. All of the numbers are meaningless from the poster's perspective.

yeah, after thinking it over for a couple of minutes, that's what I arrived at, too.

I agree that it's meaningless, i just wanted to clear up my confusion...


Re: Working At It

In the years since Myrtle the Manuscript first hit the net, I've seen far more newbies who were soberly encouraged by reading it. What they need is solid, reliable information about what to expect, and how to interpret the reactions they get. MtM's good for that.

Anyone who's enraged by it was probably a dip to start with.


Your comments and suggestions

I already have all but one of the books you recommended already. The one I didn't have I will be getting soon, The Chicago Manual of Style.
I haven't been doing the exercizes yet. I have been busy polishing two stories for a contest deadline.
I will play along though.
As to goal setting. I am 56 and have had two careers. I was trained early as a goal setter and it works for me. I usually succeed in surpassing my goals, then set new ones. I do not micromanage my goals. I set them and then get busy on the current project. That project may be 1000 words before I quit or to finish the story. I don't look at the clock while I am doing it.
Have a life. At 56 years old, it is a work in progress.
Read widely. I started reading at 5 and have read, I am sure, over 5,000 books in my life, fiction , non-fiction, all genres and even Travis McGee!
No classes yet but I am part of a critiquing group I BSed them into making me a member when one dropped out. Several are published, one works for The Austin Statesman as a staff writer, at least one has a masters in writing of some type (I forgot what the exact name of th degree) These people can tear you a new ass, that is for sure but it is valuable stuff.
Workshops are out for now. I work 60 to 70 hours per week, take care of a disabled wife and write, study writing and polish stories. (I don't sleep either and type fairly fast)
I make every story the best I can and then after a bit more study, which I mostly do at work, I do more rewriting.
My wife is my "first reader" and I have 3 more fairly competent readers I use. (I read Steven King's "On Writing")

Here is the book list I currently have other than my many dictionaries and reference books: Steven King's "On Writing"; Strunk & White "Elements of Style; Series by Writers Digest called Elements of Fiction Writing (6Books);"Writing Fiction" by Burroway; "Immediate Fiction" by Jerry Cleaver; 2004 Novel & Short Story Writer's Market;"The First Five Pages" by Noah Lukeman". I also subscribe to the Writer's Digest magazine. I also have a loose leaf binder full of articles and info I have printed off the net.
Well, got to go. Have a story to work on.


Re: Working At It

I thoroughly enjoyed it myself, but for once I was striving to be diplomatic. I hear you.

I don't know what the gentleman meant by that. The whole repsonse is open to interpretation? Fill in the blank?

Reuben Colburn

Re: Working At It

Happy Thanksgiving all. I've been banned from the board. Too many good answers I guess.

James D Macdonald

Today's Screed

Kinda a gallimaufry today:

Plots. Please try to avoid the Idiot Plot. An Idiot Plot is one that only works because all the characters involved are idiots. If the only reason something happens or doesn't happen is because otherwise it would be a very short book, come up with some other explanation.

Let me give you an example of an idiot plot, this time from the movies. How many of y'all have seen Tears of the Sun with Bruce Willis? Our boy Bruce plays Lt. Waters, a Navy SEAL who is sent into Nigeria to rescue an American doctor during a civil war. The doctor refuses to leave without taking her patients with her. What stops Lt. Waters from calling his boss on the aircraft carrier on his satelite phone and saying "Give me three CH-46s at the LZ"? Nothing other than that if he did it, the movie would have been only about twenty minutes long. That's an idiot plot.

What stops the characters in your novel, on seeing mysterious lights in the house next door, from calling 9-1-1? Motivate them. Eliminate "because I'm the author and I say so" as a reason things happen.

Sometimes, though, you'll have to have characters behave in basically stupid ways. You have two choices there: either build their characters to show that they're stupid people (reading stories about stupid people isn't terribly enjoyable, at least for me, but maybe there's a market), or get the action going so fast that the readers don't have a moment to say, "Hey, wait a minute! Why don't they just go to the bus station and buy a ticket?"

Next thought: On plots. Plots are simple things, like a piece of string is simple, but they are complex, like a three-strand four lay Turk's Head made with that same piece of string is complex. When you're thinking about plot, and about the shape of your book, consider the classical unities.

These come from Greek drama, and are unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. In a Greek play (formal as sonnet, those things were), all the action takes place in twenty-four hours (that's unity of time), it all takes place in one location (e.g. the square in front of the temple -- that's unity of place), and everything that happens deals directly with the climax (that's unity of action, and it's a darn good idea, chums).

Your novel probably won't take place in just one location in twenty-four hours. Still, it's probably a good idea to use the minimum number of locations, and the minimum time. If your character flies off to Miami to learn something he could have just as conveniently learned in New York, leave him in New York. If a whole chunk of your novel can be replaced with the words "What with this and that some five years passed," you may have to refine the focus of your book or replace that part of the novel with a chapter break or a line break.

Let us take for an example The Lord of the Rings. The time covered is almost exactly one year, and an action-packed year it is. Yet it starts in the Shire and it ends in the Shire. The hobbits are center stage on the first page, and they're center stage on the last page. You could do worse than to follow this template.

Let me give you another aphorism: The oldest engines pull the heaviest freight. If you were going to write a modern literary novel, you might consider taking The Trojan Women, and setting it among the Mormons of Mesa, Arizona, one afternoon in August, 1965. Vietnam is just ramping up. It's hot.

You've done your research on time and place and modes of speech ... and off you go.

By the time you've done the book won't resemble the original at all; you'll have something totally your own. Yet it will have a structure, and the structure will be sound, and your readers will appreciate it.


Other random thoughts: On words.

Beware the word "Somehow." You can use it in dialog when the character doesn't know, but you should avoid it in narrative. "Somehow" means the author doesn't know either. This is bad. The reader is trusting you to know what's going on and to guide him to the climax of the book. "Somehow" makes the reader look at you askance and ask "What's the matter with this guy?" It's as if he were following a guide through trackless wilderness, when the guide suddenly gets a puzzled expression on his face and says "Beats the heck out of me."

Example: Our hero is trying to sneak into a warehouse. The door is sliding shut. Then the narrative: Somehow the door failed to close all the way. What? Why didn't it close? Figure this out, author, and come back when you know. Did a mouse get jammed in the gears? Either come up with something reasonable, or give the guy a different way into the warehouse. If you do nothing else, delete the word "somehow." You still have the same action, but without the moment of doubt.

Next: Choose only necessary detail. You aren't constructing a full world. You're giving your reader a blueprint with which he'll construct his own world, which will be consistent with his own needs and experiences. If the room the reader imagines and the room you imagine differ, what of it? Give the reader three points and he'll do the rest. Just be consistent, and choose the important things. If it's necessary that there be a clock in the room, mention it. If it doesn't matter whether there's a clock, don't mention it. The reader may put one there, or not put one there, and it won't matter to the story. The room will be the right room for him.

Readers assume that everything you mention is important. They'll hold those things in their heads. Give them a payoff for everything you mention, a reward for their effort. You can't keep writing checks against your literary account without adding literary capital.

On sentences: There were and It was are weak openings. Not all sentences need to be strong: contrast and rhythm demand that sentence strength vary. Nevertheless, be aware of this fact, and use it as a tool. You are the author. All the words are yours. Be conscious of what you're doing.

Anything that doesn't add to your story subtracts from it. You know what you're doing with your tale; later on students and critics may come by and try to guess, but you know.

Take charge. This is your world, you are the master. Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha!
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James D Macdonald

Re: Your comments and suggestions

Hiya, Jerry --

When's your contest deadline? Deadlines are good things. They concentrate the mind wonderfully.

By "Have a life," I mean don't spend all your time in your room writing. Writers need to get out of the house, talk to people, observe the world. No one can create new worlds until he masters this one.

By "classes," I don't mean writing classes. Those can be good or bad experiences. I don't necessarily think they're required. By classes, I mean things like going to a local college and taking a course in Classical Mechanics, or Origami, or First Aid. Everything, everywhere, fits into your mind, ready to come out when a story needs it. Writers are generalists.

Did I ever mention my Quick Slick Research Method?

When you're getting set to write a story set in a particular time or place, you need to become an Instant Expert on the subject. Here's what you do. Go to the Children's Room in your local library and read a couple of recent kids' books on the subject. That'll get you up to speed, give you an idea of the shape of the material you'll need, and an introduction to the terms and people.

Now go to the adult section, and start reading the adult books on the subject. Start with the big survey books. The Oxford Book of _____ for example. Read only the chapters you need. It's easy to get distracted. Take notes.

Then go to the specialty books. Read the parts that you need (and you will know which parts those are from your previous reading), paying attention to the footnotes (the footnotes are where learned professors float their crackpot theories, or bitch about other learned professors -- footnotes are great fun). Take more notes.

You are now sufficiently an expert on your subject to write your novel. When you've got a decent draft of your novel, take it to someone who genuinely is an expert on the subject to read it and comment on it. Many academics are lonely folks, only too eager to talk with you. Cops and firefighters and emergency nurses love to talk with writers. Coroners will make time in their day to read your book and comment on it. Honest. You'll mention them in the acknowledgements in the front of the book and that's all the reward they want.

On Writer's Digest: this is the Brides Magazine of writing. It's a great mag when you're getting started and planning the wedding. It isn't so good on telling you what to do after the wedding when you wake up the next morning beside some fat guy who snores, smells of sweat, and has stubble all over his chin.

Everyone has a subscription to Writer's Digest once. It's time to reevaluate your career if you renew your subscription. Think about the old maid with the lifetime subscription to Brides Magazine. Yeah, it's like that.

One other thing about Writer's Digest: If an agent advertises there, cross that agent off your list.
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