Sunday, November 20, 2005

Read your dialog (at least) out loud

Your writing will sound more natural if you practice reading it out loud, preferably with an audience. You'll quickly catch on to what sounds too stuffy, to which sentences are too convoluted for the listener to follow.

This is especially important for dialog. If someone's going to say it, it must sound the way someone WOULD say it. You can get away with certain words in written speech which are hard to use clearly in spoken speech. But in general, write it the way you'd say it.

-- Rachel Holmen

Sunday, September 11, 2005

It doesn't matter if a story IS true; it must SEEM true

Occasionally during my days at MZB's we would reject a story and get back a letter complaining, "But the story is true!"

Marion's rejoinder was always that it mattered not a whit if the story WAS true, it had to SEEM true to a reader.

This requires walking a fine line between oblivion and defensiveness. Picking a believable tone is important; there's no need to sound stuffy and academic, but your narrator must appear to be credible (or if not, this must be deliberate -- for instance you can create a pretty interesting story if you tell the same incident from three points of view, two of whom are the same narrator under different circumstances; in one of the circumstances, the narrator must appear to be explaining why he has lied in the other circumstance).

If your story is flat-out fantasy, you need to put in enough plausible details to bolster the illusion so that your reader can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy your tale.

-- Rachel Holmen

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Providing Background

All fiction needs to convey some information about the background of the story. What's the world like? Politically, socially, physically? Yet no reader wants to wade through a lot of information to follow the story. One of the most important skills in the craft of writing is conveying information subtly, in small, easily understood pieces. Too many facts at once, and you are guilty of creating an "expository lump". So rather than saying "Borzania was 12.5 miles wide (measured east to west), 17.37 miles from north to south, and contains two major lakes, Chuvo and Gandar. The country is ruled by a hereditary monarchy, and the current king is named Fletchit," you might have two characters discussing how long it would take to travel to some point in the next kingdom (which provides an opportunity to discuss the size of THIS one, while also conveying something about its rulership); they can debate how to get across one of the lakes; and so on. Remember the adage, "Show, Don't Tell" as well.

--Rachel Holmen

Friday, June 17, 2005


Most stories are told in the past tense: I remember when. But it's consdered very modern in some circles to put everything into the present tense: I'm walking along Main, and I see a spaceship at the next corner. You could even, I suppose, write the story in the future tense: And then you will walk along Main, and you will see the spaceship. But that seems as much PREscriptive as it does DEscriptive.

Another decision is the time setting for your story -- again, one is pretty much limited to past, present, and future. Past is nice because you can romanticize it, justify all your research. Present seems easy, but stories set in the present have a bad habit of becoming dated as time passes, and with hindsight come questions such as, "What do you mean, you didn't NOTICE the political implications of the women's movement?" Some writers take to science fiction because they can invent any world they want, probable or improbable, but it's hard not to base things on the NOW and then you might as well plan to exaggerate some aspects to make a point. Writers who have not been regular readers of the sf genre can also make howlers of mistakes by forgetting some of the basics of science.

-- Rachel Holmen

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Who's telling this story?

How do you want to tell your story? Do you want events to unfold as described by some neutral observer (usually called "the omniscient narrator"), using the third person? This is the style used for newspaper articles and most academic writing. "John Smith, a tall brown-haired man, was walking to work when he noticed the spaceship landing at the next intersection. The light was still green."

Or do you want to tell the story from John's point of view: a first-person narrative? "I'm John. I walk to work every morning -- keeps my cardiologist happy. Tuesday I was shocked to notice a spaceship landing at the intersection of Grant and Stockton."

More rarely, a story is written in the second person. "You remember, darling, how we used to walk to work? And the day you saw the spaceship landing? You thought the markings seemed Russian, but of course they were Phringlant."

A related issue is whose activities you follow in the story. Do you report only on what John does? Or do you follow Mary as well, and George, and Sam, and the Phringlants? A classic bestseller such as Alex Haley's HOTEL follows a different person each chapter for a while, then brings characters together in some chapters for interaction that advances the plot.

Short stories generally only follow one person, and are typically written in the third person. But you add texture to longer works when you trace the actions of various characters. (And sometimes you can even get away with telling an entire story from a differing point of view, and sell it as a stand-alone novel. Consider Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME and ENDER'S SHADOW.)

-- Rachel Holmen

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Don't make the magic too convenient

The essence of fantasy is some magical element. But don't let the magic be too trivial, too convenient. Every action of daily life should NOT be magical: magical warm rooms, magically heated food, no illness, no disagreements with anyone. In order for the reader to feel engaged with your characters, they must have obstacles to overcome, and a worthwhile goal to attain. Omitting these elements leads to a rather boring story. Magic should have a price -- a common cost is the slow slide to selfishness and evil; or the user might be exhausted for days after casting a spell; or the user might have to abstain from some food or drink or activity in order to wield power. (Often the magic user must be celibate; personally, I feel this ties in too well to our already-restrictive culture. But how about a wizard who can't drink coffee if he wants to succeed? Now some folks might find THAT a real sacrifice.)

[revised slightly on April 12 -- Rachel Holmen]

Monday, March 28, 2005

Evoke the senses

Draw your reader into your story by making references to touch, smell, taste, temperature, and other sensations. I just finished an audiobook (Justice Hall by King) where the author vividly describes the character standing in a cold room next to a warm fireplace, turning this way and that to warm herself. Much better than simply stating, "the room was cold." -- Rachel Holmen

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Poul Anderson's approach to science fiction

I'm told that Poul Anderson's approach to writing science fiction was to ask himself, "Suppose we were wrong?" (Presumably he asked this question about established scientific principles, then set about devising an alternate explanation -- and then based his story on that.) -- Rachel Holmen

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Odd facts can liven a story

What are the three oddest facts that you know? What whole fields of knowledge are familiar to you? A solid factual background makes fiction interesting, and adds a foundation of believability. -- Rachel Holmen

Beyond dragons

If you want to have a fantasy animal in your story, consider the whole pantheon of such creatures. Dragons fascinate us with their power and intelligence, but consider unicorns, selkies, griffins. Study the folklores of other cultures to learn about their magical creatures. (There's a local bank named after the Nara, and the logo shows a bird with three legs. Now I want to know: what's a Nara?) Baba Yaga, a Russian witch, was famous for her house on bird legs; so if you want to create a magical animal, it doesn't even need to be a whole animal -- use parts of one. -- Rachel Holmen

Monday, March 14, 2005

Appropriate names

Give your characters appropriate names. If you are striving for the feel of a particular era, do some research into names, not just fashion and food, housing and transportation. -- Rachel Holmen

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Don't preach. Yet if you have no agenda, you have no story.

You can't hit readers over the head with your views; most of them won't stand for it. Yet you -- and by extension, your characters -- must care passionately about something or else the story won't matter to anyone. I guess this is a variant of the old adage, "Show, don't tell." Show the reader that your characters are passionate about something, rather than saying, "Meredith thought that music was more important than anything." -- Rachel Holmen

Simple definitions

It's a science fiction story if it uses new technology. It's a fantasy if the characters ride horses. It's horror if the main character, through no fault of his/her own, is punished. It's boring if all the characters are unlikeable. -- Rachel Holmen

Do you have too many characters?

Classic short stories tend to have only two or three characters in them. More are too difficult for the reader to distinguish. Use "character compression" -- if you need a character who is the hero's brother, and you need a character who's a painter, the hero's brother had better be a painter. If a character merely walks onto the scene briefly, furthers an action for a major character, and then leaves -- DO NOT GIVE THIS CHARACTER A NAME. Merely mention the character by job title, or function, or some other brief means. Otherwise you distract the reader needlessly. -- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: Write Longhand

I discovered a while back, while I was using pen and ink to write notes while I was on a plane (and where I particularly wanted to record my thoughts during takeoff and landing, when you're not allowed to have even a Palm Pilot in use), that I write somewhat differently when I can't type. During high school, I taught myself to write drafts on a typewriter, so when computers came along I fit right in. But handwriting is a wider window to emotion, even as it enforces brevity just because one cannot possible write as fast as thought without a keyboard.

Secondly, try to dictate a story into a recorder. Again, you'll discover yet ANOTHER small variant in your personal style. (For this exercise, I suggest a standard cassette recorder or see if your MP3 player makes recordings. I specifically advise AGAINST using a "talk to your computer" program such as Dragon Dictate or ViaVoice.) If possible, tell the story to someone else who is present in the same room or at least at the end of a phone line. You may discover you are clearer, more expressive, with a direct audience.

There are four kinds of aphasia: understanding speech; speaking; understanding the written word; and writing. So it stands to reason that there are different parts of the brain which handle these closely-related but not identical functions. -- Rachel Holmen

Search for commonly-mistyped words

Search for "form" and "from", for "you" and "your" and "you're". I'm sure I'll think of some others. Remember that there's a single letter difference between "win" and "wind", "whiny" and "whinny". As we say in the trade, porfreed carefilly. -- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: chop it up, use a database

Take the disk version of your file. Save it to a new name -- perhaps "EXERDATA.TXT" -- as a plain text file. Close the original story and open EXERDATA.TXT. Use a search-and-replace routine to put a hard return after every word (or, if there are some names that are phrases, such as "Arthur Rex" or "Queen of the Sky", leave these phrases together and put a return after each). Save the file. Create an alphabetical list of the words you've used -- you can either sort the file from DOS (instructions later), or load them into a spreadsheet or database program and perform a sort there. If you want to use the DOS method: run, and change to the directory where the file is located. Enter this command:


Exit from DOS, and open the file EXERSORT.TXT. Interesting things will be revealed, such as the six different ways you spelled "Deirdre". You will realize how limited, or grandiose, is the story's vocabulary. You will see every single character's name, every place name. You will note how many times you have started sentences with the word "And".

-- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: Look hard at your opening sentence

Does it immediately grab your attention?

Exercise: Rewrite a "Gunsmoke" plot from an old radio show

See "". Listen to a Gunsmoke episode. Rewrite it as a fantasy or as science fiction. -- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: Record moments that are emotionally intense

I keep an informal log where I list emotionally-intense moments. Maybe some day I'll hang some of them together into a plot. -- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: Read a collection

Read collections* by other authors in the field. Read one author's novels in chronological order by copyright date. You'll develop a sense of how the author is growing, and also see patterns. For instance, Tim Powers' novels almost always make a reference to the (non-existent) poet Ashbless. You'll notice plot devices, dialog styles, and other things which will make you more conscious about the craft of writing. -- Rachel Holmen

*an anthology is a group of short stories by different authors. A collection is a group by a single author.

Friday, March 04, 2005