Friday, July 13, 2012

Mantras from Writers Groups

I trained as a Mathematician and then as a Computer Scientist. So, when I finished my first novel, I figured I'd better find out how awesome it was. About that time I saw a notice of a fortnightly writers' group meeting on Wednesdays. And about a month later I learned of a second writers' group on Thursdays. And I started going to both. Then the Wednesday group started meeting every week. It was like drinking from a fire hose and I learned a ton of useful stuff about writing.

The first thing I learned was the social dynamic between writers and how some of them did things that made everyone hate them. That's when I started writing murder stories where an archetype of each annoying person in a writers' group got bumped off. It was very therapeutic.

Over time I started noticing other things. Certain exhortations about good writing kept recurring. It wasn't that people weren't listening. New people coming into the group were doing the same things.

I started writing them down and calling them "mantras" because I kept repeating them. The list is fairly long and I won't burden you with the whole thing all at once.

These mantras are general principles, not rules. Treat them as forces that you balance between one another. There are times when one principle contradicts the other and pulls you in different directions.

Imagine iron filings sitting on a table obeying the law of gravity. When you pass a magnet over the table, the iron filings are pulled in the opposite direction because of the law of magnetism. The iron filings stay on the table or fly toward the magnet based on whether magnetism overcomes gravity. In a similar manner, balance these mantras against one another.
  1. Work your opening paragraph to death.
  2. Give no excuse to dismiss your work in the opening pages.
  3. Bracketing a story often works.
  4. So does “in media res.”
  5. Make your reader want to “get on the train” with your characters. 
These are just the first five mantras. I plan to enumerate the rest at a later date. 

Work your opening paragraph to death

Unless your work has been assigned as homework, every reader looking at it will make a decision to read it or not. After people judge a book by its cover, they start reading. Most people start reading at the opening paragraph. The better that excerpt is, the more likely they'll decide to read further.

The reader you're aiming at is an agent, editor, intern at the publishing company, or the customer at a bookshop. Sadly, a lot of publishing decisions are taken without consideration of the last category of reader.

"It was a dark and stormy night" is more than just something Snoopy typed in the Peanuts cartoon. It was written by Edward Bullwer-Lytton a very popular Victorian novelist, who contemporary writing experts LOVE to hate. They even have a bad-writing contest in memory of Bullwer-Lytton.

You want to Not Be That Guy.

Give no excuse to dismiss your work in the opening pages

This is less important today than it was a few years ago. Nowadays you can self-publish and avoid the gatekeeper editor.

Editors bring to the manuscript certain expectations. Fail to live up to those expectations and your manuscript will never survive the slush-pile. Your spelling has to be correct. You'd better know your grammar well enough to get all the jokes in the Grammar Nazi video.

There are other expectations an editor will bring to your text. If you stake out any identifiable political or religious territory, remember that your editor also brings to his reading his own political and religious opinions. "Springtime For Hitler"won't fly.

I've never seen that, but I have seen someone bring in a writing project that was a mix of Religion and Letters to Penthouse. I figure that anybody who reads Penthouse would be offended by the religion and anybody who's religious would be offended by the sexuality. Offend one group or the other group, but not both.

Bracketing a story often works

One reason why I like The Princess Bride is the exchange between the narrator, Peter Falk, and the grandson, Fred Savage. They serve to contextualize the work for the viewer. This device is one of the places where the sly writer can slip in some editorial comment.

In ancient times, the Greek Chorus served this role. You seldom go wrong following a literary trope of the classics. Freaking Shakespeare used this technique.

In addition to providing editorial comment, your story might need a bit of explanation that would be untidy to include within the narrative proper. OK, have the grandson interrupt the story and voice an objection so that the narrator can explain it.

If you're really good, you can intertwine two narratives in such a way that one narrative provides answers that are not elaborated in the other narrative and vice versa. Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon followed WW2 and contemporary narratives to good effect. But there's a risk in doing this. Few authors can take this on without leaving some threads dangling or (almost as bad) tied up in a mad rush at the end.

So does “in media res” 

Captain Nathan Sanderson keyed the mike and laughed, "Your butt is mine, sucker." He didn't wait for a response but pulled the trigger unleashing a stream of simulated rail-gun projectiles at the Blue Force fighter. The scoring computers on the Blue fighter and Sanderson's Opfor fighter negotiated an equitable degree of damage and degraded the Blue fighter's capabilities accordingly....

In media res is Latin for start with something going on.

Did the paragraph above interest you? Maybe not if you picked up a romance novel.

I left gaps in between the facts that I presented in that paragraph to capture attention like Velcro loops grab lint. You probably realize some kind of mock aerial battle is going on and I hope you'll want to know how Sanderson gets splashed by the girl four paragraphs later.

The war-game serves to introduce a larger story. Don't mistake this for a framing device of a story told in flashback. The story builds on this bit of action, but because the action came without explanation, it raises questions in the reader's mind that I had better answer in the next scene introducing the girl and the navy of the Sirian Confederacy.

Make your reader want to “get on the train” with your characters
A story is an investment of time. The reader's most valuable possession is her time and reading is a bit like getting onto a train with the characters of the story. Are the characters in the story jerks? Are they people you can relate to? Sure, sometimes you will want to hang around some unpleasant person to see them get their comeuppance.

Just think for a second of your reader's experience, his response to your prose. Do you want fear and loathing of the despicable Snidely Whiplash? Or fear that sweet Polly Purebred will suffer a fate worse than death? Your reader engages with the characters. Even if you're in the distant reaches of outer space, you want someone the reader relates to and cares about. I recall a rather disagreeable TV show that had plenty of action that I liked, but it was all happening to and with characters I could care less about. If the ship exploded killing everyone in the series, it would have been an improvement.

Recently I started a novel that had plenty of interesting back-story. Although the novel was extremely exposition-heavy, the universe the writer constructed had a lot going for it. But then I found out that everyone on the space ship was just an AI made to seem like some dead person. Oh. They're just robots. Nobody's human? Nope. Oh. And after the protagonist died and became a robot, she also became a lesbian. I can relate to alternate lifestyles, even gorgeous fembots with a penchant for evil, but seriously?

It really wasn't the robot lesbian angle that put me off so much as that it was the last straw. There wasn't a single character I could relate to within light years of anywhere the story was going. And the exposition-heavy opening didn't help. I didn't toss the novel across the room because I was reading it on my Kindle, but I found something else to read in short order.

Update: This is the first of a series of writers mantras. The next one is here.


  1. Hm. . . I never got my department-issued Luger. Am I supposed to buy my own?

  2. Thanks for these! Excellent points!


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