Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Troy: Writing Tips and Other Sharp Points, or, What I've Learned in My Something Years as an Odd Writer, or, How to Get Your Foot in the Transom

I realize I’m going out on a limb by offering advice to fellow writers, but isn’t that what fiction’s all about? Get a guy up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down. I console myself in thinking that most writers are nearsighted—hence, their aim is poor. I hope to get back down without taking too many hits.

So, upsy-daisy.

VOICE Talk to most editors and they’ll tell you that voice is what matters. Of course, without voice you wouldn’t be able to talk to any editor, so I’d say they’re right. If you're like me (like me-me-me-me), with a nondescript, run-of-the-mouth voice, you should throw it. This is what the industry calls "The Pitch". But beware: if you throw your voice too hard or too far, you may never get it back. Or it may crack and you'll sound like a youth stuck in adolescence. So pitch it against something soft, like a couch potato or round character. Then—and this is the important step—acquire a new voice, like that of Robin Williams or Spike Milligan. If you’re still unsure of your voice, try gargling with vinegar and salt, which changes the voice instantly. (Consult an ENT specialist should complications set in.) When a voice is appropriate to the work, the reader may stay engrossed for hours, even days. It’s reported that one reader in Antarctica has been engrossed since 1997. Need I say more?

BEGINNINGS Grab the reader’s attention right away. Start with a great one-liner. Dialogue works. For example: “Hey you, reader! What’re you staring at?” That’s actually a two-liner, but catchy, isn’t it? Danger works, too. Suspense. Plant a gun on the mantle in the opening scene, or a body, and be sure it explodes later on. Begin in medias res, you know, in the middle of something, such as a horse. For example: Gertrude could not help herself: she kept sliding off the saddle. Makes you want to ride read on, doesn’t it? Connect the emotions of your protagonist to those of the reader. Of course, you don’t really know what emotions your reader has, but they’re usually feelings we all share, like: pity, sadness, happiness, chagrin, panic, dubiousness, mawkishness, and perplexity. Any one of these should work. Example: When Hamilton broke his incisor on the ship’s railing, and instantly knew he should not have been resting his elbow there, and knew that playing bocce with Belinda later that evening would not be as thrilling as he had hoped, he stared blankly at the water, wondering, “Are the fish biting?” Don’t you feel dubious? Chagrined? Perplexed?

TONE Openings should also set the tone. I’ve narrowed tones down to a fab four: monotone, poly-tone, sepia tone, and dial tone. Monotone is not as easy as it sounds, and contrary to what you might think, can be exhilarating. Just as short words or lines in poetry propel the reader forward, or actually, downward (down the page, which is what we hope to accomplish), monotone serves the same purpose. Use short, choppy, monosyllabic words. For example: Just do it. Try. Write the whole thing. By avoiding multi-syllabic words like productive, prolific, and intelligence, the tension mounts. But long sounds have their place too, including sesquipedalians, commonly called Dickensians, those run-along sentences that do exactly that: run along, all the way down the page (which, again, is what we want to accomplish), sentences that, even as they are being composed by your circuitous imagination, create a mesmerizing effect, like an arduous journey to goodness knows where, off to some distant complication that only you, the writer, know (or don’t, depending), and the reader can only anticipate, as he or she continues to the end of your sentence, which should leave him or her breathless and desperate to … turn the page. Before I depart that page, however: to the subject at hand. Tone. I nearly overspent myself on that last one, which I did not identify but demonstrated by showing, not telling—OK, I’ll tell: it’s poly-tone—so I'll be brief. Sepia tone. Anything historical. Western history, for example. You know, cowboys. Last comes the dial tone, which, no less intriguing than the other tonalities, can be a writer’s ploy. To establish dial tone, have one of your characters, preferably the protagonist, call up another character, who appears later on in the narrative. This is a subtle way to introduce someone else, and to create dialogue that the reader is privy to (whereas in real life you only get one side of a phone conversation, unless the sound is on DEAFENING or SPEAKER). Oops, I’ve been disconnected.

PLODDING PLOTTING Actually, it is like plodding. Your protagonist puts one foot in front of the other, and the more obstacles you can place in his path (a crevice, a bum, a banana peel) the more complex the plot.

RAISING THE STAKES Any one who’s been to a KOA knows where this expression comes from. When you raise the stakes, it increases the conflict, such as the risk of stumbling headlong into the dirt, or worse, having your whole tent collapse.

THEME Everyone has one. Restaurants, weddings, blogs. Anything will do—dogs, colors, onions. The stronger the theme, the stronger the story. Be sure it’s something you believe in, or readers will not be convinced. Even a story that’s full of holes, like…well, HOLES, (with all due respect to Louis Sachar) will hold up admirably. Remember the onions?

ACTION VERBS Action verbs are like action figures: they provide immediate drama, coming to the rescue of an otherwise dreary line. They are the muscle of a sentence; the bouncers. Examples of action verbs are run, perspire, sneeze, litigate. Examples of non-action verbs are snooze, think, yawn, die. Go through any written work, replacing non-action verbs with active ones, and watch it come alive. The writers of early grade-school fiction knew the importance of these superheroes. “See Jane run” is far more enticing than “See Jane yawn”.

MIDDLES Any aging writer has experienced the middle spread, also known as the muddle. How to remedy this? Cut and run.

CLICHÉS Clichés are certain death. Avoid them like the plague, if you’ll pardon the expression.

FONTS Don’t get fancy with them. This is the 21st century, not the baroque period, and economy is in. You wouldn’t show up for an interview wearing an Elizabethan collar, would you?

THE FIT Once you’ve finished your manuscript, be sure to tuck it away in a drawer, because most editors have drawers in their desks, and if your book is too big, well, imagine an editor’s frustration in an already “space-challenged” New York office. You will likely get a rejection notice informing you that your manuscript “doesn’t fit”.

COPYRIGHT Leave the © notice off your title page. They know you own it, so there’s no need to gloat.

THE END Whatever you do, don’t put The End at the end. It has a dreadful ring. This is your monster; you don’t want to sound pessimistic. Be positive!

That’s it! I’m down.


  1. I like it.

    Those of us muddling through the middle (pardon my theft) like a little levity in the afternoon. Thanks a bunch!

    And I'm still a little intrigued by why Gertrude kept on sliding out of her saddle....

  2. Right ... Gertrude. I guess I have a story to finish.

    (I enjoyed reading through your blog, and wish you all the best.)

  3. I love this post!!

    But, but - I ALWAYS write the end. It's my reward for getting to the end! Of course the copy editor always marks it out. So I guess I should learn it's not necessary and stop it. :)

  4. I like that, Lisa — putting The End at the end as a reward. It's given me an idea. I think I'll put Almost Done! at the beginning of act three ...

    BYW, I saw your Edward Cullen / FAR FROM YOU video, and loved your inventiveness.

  5. Loved the post! Informational and humorous. I especially liked the info. under Fonts. Funny.
    The beginning part helped me realize a few things about revising the beginning of my novel which I've been stuck on. Great info! Helped for sure.


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