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Thursday, July 04, 2013


WELCOME TO THE FIRST INSTALLMENT of my writing primer entitled, The ABC's of How NOT to Write Speculative Fiction. Instead of taking a few months to rewrite the book (it's already seen two print runs), I've decided to do it in bits when I have a moment. From now on, when you see the ABC's logo on the left, you'll know I've posted a new bunch of writing tips. First up, is A is for Action. 

One of the first criticisms my agent gave me about an early version of The Tattooed Witch was about the ‘sag’ in the middle. Thankfully, that problem has long since been fixed, but her comment took me by surprise. The scenes to which she was referring were the quieter ones, where I’d allowed my protagonist a moment to catch her breath, revisit her past, and slow down after an action-packed opening. Like many of you, I’ve read plenty of ‘how-to’ books when it comes to penning a story. In one book, I’d been told that after high tension scenes, the reader needs a lull. Apparently, this was exactly where my book fell down. A lot of this inner woolgathering also occurred during a journey where little was happening. Sally’s response to me was, “Action, action, action!” (I always imagine her slapping her desk when she said this.)

Perhaps you can get away with more ‘lulls’ in literary fiction, or perhaps my 'lulls' were too long and it's a matter of 'how much and for how long'. In speculative fiction, my sense is that the reader wants more tension, more things happening/threatening, and greater adventure. I’ve always seen the short story as a gateway/getaway drug to the novel. Most people start with short fiction and go from there. The advice that follows relates to the short story, but it's also applicable to longer work:

ACTION IS A NECESSARY PART of telling a captivating story. One of the first things any writer learns is to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. For beginners, this can be a confusing concept. What’s the difference between telling and showing? Mostly, it has to do with narration. Instead of setting the reader into the scene as if he’s witnessing the action as it occurs, the narrator, protagonist, or secondary character describes it. This can range from a vast description of what happens over days, months, or years (exposition explaining why things are the way they are) to back story (which also revisits why things are the way they are). This isn’t to say exposition and back story are wrong, but you need to be careful with how and when you use them. In both cases – less is more. Why? Because both exposition and back story halt plot movement, or action. The reader is placed at arm’s length from the action while we fill him in, making it harder for him to settle back into the story. Experienced writers know how to get around this; one way is to write back story as if it's occurring in the moment, a flashback. With less experienced writers, telling usually results in a plot dump. Although it may be harder to write, it’s better to show what the risks are by letting the worst things happen to your characters (and if they're clever enough, to show us how they thwart those risks).

At On Spec, many of the manuscripts I’ve rejected contain the kind of action fault you’ll see below. There are always brilliant exceptions to the rule, but think twice before submitting short fiction that falls into any of these action pits. (You might think twice before using them in longer fiction, too): 

·           Non-action: Bad things occur to your secondary characters, but nothing really terrible occurs to your protagonist because she is a witness to the horror and is rescued in time. An example might be where your protagonist is tied up and listening to the torture of her friend in another room. She’s next, but luckily, she’s saved before the worst happens. Her role in this scenario? A bystander who does nothing, except report how awful everything is. This kind of story is dull and uninvolving.

·          Double action - Frames: a story within a story. For me, a personal pet peeve. Frames remove threat. The psychological message of a frame is that all of this has happened before, and the teller of the story has survived.  Someone stumbling across a diary written by the protagonist is an example of a frame. An old codger relating a hero’s story is also a frame, Drop frames like they’re something moldy, and get on with the inside story.

·           Too much action: (Note: this advice doesn’t apply to the novel): Your quest-following, sword-fighting, race-running, woman-abducting, revenge-seeking, and king-confounding action leaves the reader back at the moat. When so many things occur to the protagonist in a short story, the reader feels as if she’s reading a novel in condensed form. Because she is.

·           Pathetic action: Terrible things happen to your protagonist...and then he dies. Victim stories aren’t worth reading unless they have a strong pay-off in regards to character growth and reader empathy. I'd much rather read about a survivor who learns something about himself and life because he's changed by his experience, but again, there are always exceptions to this rule.The thing to ask yourself is this: what does my reader get out of my story, if my main character dies? Is this just a downer for the reader? Am I trying to make a point? (And if you are, be careful you aren't being preachy.) Remember, your job as a writer is to either entertain or give the reader an emotional experience that satisfies them on some level.

·           'Wrong' action, 'Implausible' action, or 'WTF?' action: In these types of stories, the protagonist’s outer actions and inner emotions don’t connect or make sense. An example might be a story about a man whose wife has left him. We’re told that he loves his wife very much, but they’ve just had a big fight. (Here's an example of telling rather than showing. Better to show us the fight.) Instead of trying to contact his wife or acknowledge that he needs time to sort through his feelings, the protagonist whiles away his time ignoring things until strange circumstances (ie. aliens landing) force him to deal with his situation.

·           Manipulated action: Somewhat related to the above is action that's forced, because the writer hasn’t thought things through and needs an easy way to further his plot. Strange coincidences fall into this category, as well as unlikely events that don't coincide with character. Such a story might involve a protagonist who asks his astronomer father-in-law a simple question about quasars. Instead of telling the protagonist what a quasar is (which might turn into an info-dump if the writer goes on for too long), the father-in-law admits he’s involved in a top secret project involving artificially created quasars (more telling instead of showing). Any scientist involved in such a high level of secrecy and security wouldn’t blab about it to a relative, unless circumstances force the issue. The only reason the scientist says such a thing is because the writer needs a convenient way to further his plot. This writing faux pas is also related to a 'B' error - lack of believability.

Next post: Those first three chapters: What are agents and editors looking for?

Stay tuned.

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