Florence

Monday, June 18, 2018


Our next major stop was in Florence, where we spent three nights at the Hotel California. Don’t stay there. (The hotel, that is. Florence is a must see.)

Florence is the birthplace of two famous writers. The first is Carlo Lorenzini (pen name Carlo Collodi), who wrote The Adventures of Pinocchio in the early 1880s. Pinnochio dolls and puppets and souveniers are everywhere throughout the city. I didn’t take any pictures of them, and I regret that now. The drawing at the top of this page came from the Internet and is by Carlo Chiostri, who illustrated the 1901 edition.*

Centuries earlier another famous writer was born in Florence. Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy) was born sometime around 1265, although his exact birthdate is unknown. He had a very checkered history in his home town and was eventually exiled for alleged corruption. That’s his birthplace in the second picture.

In those days, only the privileged few could read. This was still the case when the Renaissance began. Most people learned history and Bible stories through oral tradition or art, such as the Bible stories cast in metal on the door to the Florence Baptistry (the building where people were baptized). The picture shows only the top half, and even it is a reproduction of the original, which is in safekeeping in the Duomo (cathedral) museum.

Then there is Michelangelo, born in Florence in 1475. His famous statue of David used to stand at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio but was replaced by a copy to protect it from vandals. We saw the copy, but we also saw the original in its current home at the Galleria dell ’Accademia. That’s the original in the photo.

For us, Florence was mostly a place to view art. We spent our free day in the Accademia and the larger Uffizi Gallery. At the Uffizi we saw many paintings by Botticelli as well as a few works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Then we went out for a nice dinner.

It was a great way to spend our 39th wedding anniversary.

__________

* Chiostri’s drawings are in the public domain because of their age.

Venice

Monday, June 11, 2018

Our Italian vacation took us to Venice, where master craftsmen create art with glass for the medium. We stayed at the classic Hotel Giorgione, and the first thing we saw upon entering was the huge chandelier that extends from the ceiling almost to the floor. Garish, but very impressive. I guess art in any medium is in the eye of the beholder.
We took a walking tour in the morning and saw sights such as the Grand Canal, St. Mark’s Cathedral, and the Bridge of Sighs. The bridge got that name because prisoners sighed as they walked across it on their way to the dungeons, which was basically a death sentence.


After the local tour, we took a gondola ride and then returned to our hotel. But the walk back didn’t turn our quite as we expected. Instead, we made a discovery that turned out to be common among our tour group: Venice is an easy place to get lost in.
Our main tour guide had given us maps but told us they weren’t much use, and she was right. She told us to follow the signs to Rialto, but that didn’t help much, either, since those signs were few and far between. And when we were finally able to follow them, they took us a round-about way that ended up in the same spot we would have reached by going straight. Roland is convinced that the signs were designed to lead us by certain shops or at least along the streets with the most stores.
I can’t resist a writing analogy here. Stories often take us out of our way. When done for pacing or suspense, those detours lead us by the stores we want to visit. But we have all read books that take us down deserted streets or ones with uninteresting shops. A good writer knows the difference and resists the temptation to use a detour that bores rather than enlightens.
We did make it back to our hotel eventually, and we enjoyed our time in Venice.

Nothing Goes as Planned

Monday, June 4, 2018


We just returned from a seventeen-day vacation to Italy. It was a good trip, but it got off to a bad start. No, I didn’t get arrested, but an Italian police car was one of my first photos from the trip.

Our flight landed in Milan on time, and a van hired by Go Ahead Tours picked us and some of our fellow travelers up at the airport for the one-hour drive to our hotel in Lecco. We were probably about halfway there when the van lost all power and coasted to the side of the road. After waiting in the hot sun for over a half-hour, we were finally rescued by a bus from the same company and taken the rest of the way.

Not a good start, but tomorrow was another day. That morning was set up with an optional excursion (which we didn’t take) and free time for the rest of us. Then we were to join up for a visit to Villa Carlotta and a brief tour of the town of Como. Villa Carlotta (a castle on the other side of Lake Como that had been built for a princess) was part of the package, and we were looking forward to it.

The group that went on the morning excursion made it to their destination and then took a boat ride on the lake before being dropped off at Villa Carlotta, as planned. At noon, the tour bus driver picked us and the others who had opted out of the morning excursion up, again according to plan. But after driving at least an hour along Lake Como through gorgeous mountain scenery, the bus was stopped by a police barricade and the driver was told that the road was closed.


The other group got to see Villa Carlotta but had to find another way back and returned via an excursion boat that took 2 ½ hours. They told us later that Villa Carlotta was overrun with a hundred school children whose teachers exercised no control whatsoever, and the same school children shared the excursion boat with them. That group didn’t see anything of Como.

For the rest of us, the driver took us to Como and said he would pick us up at 7:30 p.m. That gave us over six hours to entertain ourselves in a town with one or two hours of sights. We would have preferred to go back to the hotel but weren’t given that option. To be fair, it would have put a lot of extra miles on the bus and might have put the driver over his legal driving time limit.

After the first two days everything went pretty much as planned and we had a great tour. I highly recommend Go Ahead Tours and we will probably use them again.

Writing can also have unexpected detours. I thought I had my next few books planned. After my current two works in progress, I was going to write about life on the Erie Canal followed by a book on a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Those are still in the plans, but another idea may take precedence. I don’t remember how I discovered it, but when I heard that many immigrants were stranded on Ellis Island for weeks or even months, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. And even though I’m not ready to write it yet, I’ve already made lots of notes on a potential plot. I’m much farther ahead on it than on the other two, so it looks as if Ellis Island will be next.

Whether it’s travel or writing, we should be prepared for unexpected detours.

And they aren’t always bad.

Words, Words, Words

Monday, May 28, 2018


This week I’m covering the last two classifications in the rubric. The first has to do with the spoken word as depicted on the page, and the second covers the technicalities of the written word.

Dialogue

Objective 1: To identify who is talking without using irrelevant action or unnecessary dialogue tags.

Notice that the objective talks about unnecessary dialogue tags. I don’t agree with those people who say a writer should never use them. When not overused, “said” and “asked” are valid ways to handle attribution because they tend to fade into the background. But words like “interjected” and “articulated” should be avoided, as should adverbs such as in “said excitedly.” Those tags yell “look at me” instead of disappearing on the page. Instead of “said excitedly,” show her excitement in her actions.

That’s one way to avoid dialogue tags. Try something like this instead:

“It’s from Graham.” Lucy’s eyes sparkled as she grabbed the letter and tore it open.

As with any other action, however, one used for attribution must show characterization or move the story along. Dinner scenes can be especially hard to write because I am tempted to have my characters pass the potatoes or pour another cup of coffee for attribution purposes, and that gets boring after a while. It also sounds forced.

Objective 2: To write dialogue that feels realistic rather than dialogue that is realistic.

We all know how people really talk. “I, uh, saw Sue yesterday at, uh, the grocery store. In the produce section. She, uh, told me to tell you . . . Billy, stop pulling that dog’s tail! Now what was I saying? Oh yes, she, uh, told me to say hi.” Then there are the times when people talk over each other. And so on. Imagine putting real dialogue in a book without losing your reader. Impossible.

If a conversation doesn’t contribute to characterization or move the story along, leave it out. Or maybe you only need part of it. Two friends meet for lunch and talk about trivial things until they finish their dessert. Then Joan tells Cindy that Joan saw Cindy’s husband with another woman. You could provide a brief excerpt from the chit-chat or leave it out altogether and start the conversation with the bombshell. Unless you are using the chit-chat for a purpose, that is. Maybe Joan rushes from one trivial topic to another because she is too nervous to say what is really on her mind. Throwing in an “um” or two can also signal nervousness. But don’t overdo it, or you will still lose your reader.

Dialogue is one place where you should break the grammar rules. People rarely talk in complete sentences, for example, and the informality of their speech varies. If you have a very formal character, you can use his perfect grammar as a distinguishing feature. Otherwise, go ahead and break the grammar rules to make the conversation more realistic if—and this is a big if—the reader can understand the dialogue without slowing down to figure out what is being said.

That’s the problem with using dialects. They can be a lot of work for the reader. I have slave dialect in a book I am currently working on, and I tried oh so hard to get it right. (See the blog post on writing slave dialect that is linked below, which was written before I gave the manuscript to my beta readers.) I even cleared it with an African American writer friend. But when I gave the manuscript to my beta readers, they had too much trouble following it. So now I need to figure out how to provide the flavor without the actual dialect.

For purposes of the rubric, Objectives 1 and 2 are each worth 5% of the score, giving dialogue a total of 10%.

Language Use

Objective 1: To write clearly and concisely.

Any book is worthless if the reader can’t follow it. Writing is communication, and clarity is key. That includes novels and short stories as well as informative articles or blog posts like this one.

One way to NOT write clearly is to use long, convoluted sentences filled with adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. Another way is to use big words or allusions your reader won’t understand.

Obviously, there are times when you want a scene or some element of it to be ambiguous. But those instances will be infrequent.

When in doubt, keep it simple.

Objective 2: To use purposeful grammar and avoid typographical errors.

Writers who break the grammar rules because they don’t know what they are come across as uneducated. Worse, since grammar rules exist to provide clarity, those who break them out of ignorance may lose their readers along the way.

Notice that the objective talks about purposeful grammar use rather than proper grammar use. It’s okay to break the rules if you do it intentionally to achieve a certain effect. But you should know the grammar rules before you break them.

Here is a quote from Ernest Hemingway:

My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a great deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements. [1925 letter to Horace Liveright, quoted in Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Emphasis in original.]

The second half of the objective speaks to the importance of proofreading. That should be self-evident, so I won’t discuss it here.

For purposes of the rubric, Objective 1 is worth 15% of the score and Objective 2 is worth 5%, giving language use a total of 20%.

__________

TO LEARN MORE:

For more of my advice on dialogue and language use, check out these earlier blog posts.

Dialogue:




Language Use:



Can You See It? Creating a Movie with Words

Monday, May 21, 2018

When I read a good book, I see the characters and the setting and the action in my mind, playing much the way a movie does. But notice the adjective. Only a good book does that.

Today’s blog post discusses those elements that make a good book play a movie in the reader’s mind. As general categories, they cover “show, don’t tell,” action, and description.

Show, Don’t Tell

Objective: To keep the reader interested by showing those aspects of the story that are most important to plot and characterization and telling the rest.

Given that objective, the category may be misnamed. It would be more accurate to say “when to show and when to tell,” or simply “show versus tell.” However, the concept is usually described as “show, don’t tell,” so I’ll stick with that.

I’ve read many different definitions of “showing.” Some limit themselves to action, while others include descriptions of persons, places, and things that include enough detail to visualize the subject. Some definitions embrace entire passages that mix action with simple statements of fact, while others parse out the two. We won’t get into that debate here. For our purposes, if it helps you visualize the scene, it is showing. The best way to describe the difference is with examples.

TELLING: Brian kissed Karen angrily.

SHOWING: Brian grabbed Karen’s arms and gripped them as he smashed his lips into hers.

The writer should show only those aspects of the story that are significant elements of plot and characterization. Showing takes more space than telling does, and if a writer shows everything, the book will be massive. Massive and boring.

It’s impossible to do justice to this concept in the limited space I have here. You can learn more about it in the blog posts linked below.

For purposes of the rubric, the proper use of showing versus telling is worth 10% of the score.

Action

Objective: To use strong verbs and limit actions to those that either develop a character or move the story along.

There is a lot of overlap between this element and the previous one. Action is the strongest way to show. However, it deserves its own category.

There are two points here. First, a good writer will use strong verbs to convey the action at hand. Rather than walking slowly, a character could amble or shuffle along. Or instead of just blowing, the wind might gust or wail. This eliminates those pesky adverbs, too.

Second, we don’t want to hear every detail of the protagonist’s morning routine. If the fact that he had cereal for breakfast becomes important later, then tell us he had cereal for breakfast (a perfect example of when telling works best), but don’t show him pouring it into the bowl, adding milk, and taking a bite. Not unless those actions help develop his character or move the story along, that is. And if nothing about breakfast is important to the story, leave it out. You can find a more extensive discussion of this issue in a post I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog (linked below).

For purposes of the rubric, action is worth 5% of the score.

Description

Objective: To use strong nouns and limit description to that which is a natural part of the story.

The first part of the objective concentrates on using strong nouns. “House” doesn’t say much. “Shanty” and “mansion” do. This is also a good way to eliminate adjectives and tighten your writing.

Then there is the question of how much detail to provide, which may vary with the audience. Some people like to be spoon-fed with a complete physical description of every major player and location. When I was younger, I liked that too. Now I want just enough detail to give me the flavor or atmosphere and let me use my imagination to fill in the rest.

Of course, there are usually some items that are important to the story and need to be described. I’m currently working on a book that takes place during the Civil War siege of Vicksburg. The residents lived in caves, and the setting is crucial. If I left the cave description to the reader’s imagination, the reader would probably imagine something from his or her own experience, which would probably be wrong. So I described the cave and its furnishings, right down to the fact that there were quilts on the sleeping platforms instead of mattresses. But I didn’t describe the quilts, because that isn’t necessary.

Point of view is important here, though. If I had a POV character who loved quilts and examined every detail, then I’d bring the reader along as she did it. For example, “Charlotte ran her fingers over the outline of the log cabin pattern. The blue and green pieces brightened up the dark space, but how long could the quilt survive in the cave before the fabric became dingy and stained?” My character doesn’t think about those things, however, so I didn’t describe them for my readers.

Point of view also affects how the protagonist is described. A person doesn’t normally see himself unless he is looking in a mirror, and even then he might be paying more attention to shaving his face than to admiring it. Furthermore, the mirror trick is often a lazy writer’s tool that doesn’t sound natural. That doesn’t mean you can’t describe your protagonist, but you have to be creative.

For purposes of the rubric, description is worth 5% of the score, giving the movie aspects a total of 20%.

__________

TO LEARN MORE:

If you want more of my advice on these issues, here is a list of earlier blog posts.

Show, Don’t Tell:




Action:


Description:



Whose Story is It? Using Point of View Properly

Monday, May 14, 2018


Point of view errors can confuse readers and jolt them out of the story. That’s why the proper use of POV is an important element in evaluating fiction.

As a reader, POV errors drive me crazy, so you had better have a good story if you want me to finish the book. As a writer, using point of view correctly often spurs creativity, which, for me, is the most enjoyable part of the process.

The choice of a point of view character has a significant effect on the story being told. Imagine how Wuthering Heights would have changed if written from Heathcliff’s point of view and how different Gone with the Wind would have been in Melanie’s POV. However, that’s a creative choice and isn’t appropriate for evaluation.

The type of POV the writer uses is also a creative choice not appropriate for evaluation, but the way it is used is. Using POV properly involves two objectives, both included in this rubric.

Objective 1: To make it easy for the reader to identify the POV character and style.

If point of view is done right, readers may not even think about it. They just accept it as part of the story. But if it is done wrong, some readers can’t stop thinking about it, and not in a good way.

The most common types of POV are first person, third person, multiple third person, and omniscient. Each has its own limits and challenges.

When using first person and third person, the reader can only see, hear, and know what the POV character sees, hears, and knows. So the biggest challenge, and the one that gets my creative juices flowing, is figuring out how to bring in facts that occur outside the POV character’s experience. If she is standing in the library staring into the fire, she can’t see what is happening in the dining room, so your reader can’t see it, either. But maybe there is an argument in the dining room, and she hears it even though she doesn’t see it. Or somebody who was there reports it to her after the fact. Or maybe you are using multiple third person POV and a different POV character is in the dining room at the time. When using this last approach, however, you must be careful how you weave those scenes together. (More about that under Objective 2.)

This doesn’t mean the reader has to draw the same conclusions that the POV character does, however. As long as they are viewing the same events, they are free to interpret them differently.

Some people use omniscient POV (a narrator who sees and knows everything, including each character’s thoughts) to get around the limitations of first and third person. But omniscient POV has its own challenges, and I personally think it is harder to do right. And if it isn’t done right, it sounds like a sloppy third person POV.

I did a series of blog posts in 2015 discussing the different types of POV with their advantages and challenges. You can find those links below.

Objective 2: To use POV consistently and without awkward jumps.

Most writers know better than to mix first person and third person, but less-skilled ones often mix third person and a faux omniscient. This confuses the reader and may annoy her as well.

Readers also get confused and annoyed when the writer is in one person’s head and suddenly jumps to another person’s head within the same scene. In it’s worst form, it even occurs within the same paragraph. These POV jumps are awkward and can jolt the reader out of the story. Multiple POV can be a good choice, but only if each POV character has his or her own scenes.

But what about experimental fiction where a writer intentionally combines various types of POVs? There may have been a few successful attempts, but I’m not aware of them. And they certainly would be rare. Most of us are better off sticking with conventional POV forms and finding creative ways to deal with their limitations.

For purposes of the rubric, each objective is worth 5% of the score, giving POV a total of 10%.

__________

TO LEARN MORE:

If you want more information on point of view, here are links to my 2015 series.




Keep the Reader Reading: The Art of Story

Monday, May 7, 2018


One of the regular readers of this blog told me that she found last week’s entry a bit confusing. Many writers are not educators and don’t use rubrics, so maybe that’s where the problem lies. Or maybe I just wasn’t clear. In any event, I’ll try to keep these subsequent posts focused on the fundamentals with fewer references to the rubric.

There are some writers who write purely for their own enjoyment, and a rare few may not care if anybody else finds their work worth reading. But most of us want an audience. When that’s the goal, fiction is worthless if it doesn’t keep the reader reading.

So what does keep a reader reading? The secret is in those building blocks that I call the Art of Story: plot, characters, and the opening chapter. Here is a brief discussion of each.

Plot

Objective: To give the reader a ride that creates and maintains tension until it reaches a satisfying conclusion.

It can be a rollercoaster ride with mounting tension, as in the Harry Potter books, or a slow train ride thorough the country that simply maintains the tension, as in Alice in Wonderland. The type of ride often depends on the genre.

Alice in Wonderland creates tension when Alice falls down the rabbit hole and maintains it as she tries to find her way back home. As the story progresses, things get “curiouser and curiouser,” but the tension doesn’t necessarily grow stronger. And it doesn’t need to. Between the tension that continues to exist and the adventures that happen along the way, the reader is motivated to keep reading.

A “satisfying conclusion” doesn’t always mean a happy one, although most readers would prefer that. A satisfying ending is simply one that makes sense to the reader. It doesn’t have to be a complete resolution, either. Voldemort remains a menace at the end of the first six Harry Potter books, but the immediate problem in each has been resolved.

For purposes of the rubric, plot is worth 20% of the score.

Characters

Objective: To create realistic main characters, including a protagonist the reader can identify with.

Readers engage best with a story when the main characters are multifaceted (round) rather than one-dimensional (flat). Real people are always multifaceted once you get to know them. If a reader sees only one dimension, the author has turned the character into a caricature. That’s fine for minor characters but not for the ones the reader spends significant time with.

Realism also requires major characters to be predictable—after the fact. The character may do something that surprises the reader, but the reader should be able to look back at the behavior and say, “that makes sense for this character in these circumstances.”

Roundness also helps the reader distinguish between characters. When they are multifaceted, there is room for differences even when the story calls for them to share many qualities. Or it can work the other way around. In my novel Inferno (which is currently circulating to agents), two cousins think they have nothing in common but discover that they are more alike than different. That mirrors real life, where I had the same experience with my first college roommate.

The protagonist is a major character and needs to be realistic, and the reader must also be able to identify with that character. This doesn’t mean the reader has to like the protagonist, but there must be some aspect of his or her problem or personality that the reader can relate to.

For purposes of the rubric, characterization is worth 15% of the score.

Opening Chapter

Objective: To begin the story by hooking the reader, identifying the style of the book, and providing information on characters and setting.

Opening lines are important, but they don’t usually sell books. Good writing sells books. It may take an entire chapter to hook the reader and set up the story, and that’s okay. Most readers will give you that much time before putting the book down. And even when leafing through the selections at a bookstore or using the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon, most purchasers will give you a page or so to convince them that you are a good writer.

Still, the pages that the potential purchaser or reader does give you need to grab the reader’s interest. Or it is probably more accurate to say they should grab the interest of the intended audience. Readers’ tastes vary, and no first line, first page, or first chapter will appeal to everyone.

The first pages also need to clue the reader in about the style of the book. This is mostly, but not entirely, a matter of genre. A sweet romance shouldn’t start with a chase scene or the reader will be disappointed when he or she discovers it isn’t a thriller. Or vice versa.

Readers also want to be introduced to the protagonist and given a sense of the setting. Not all first chapters do this, but the ones that eliminate those matters successfully are the exception rather than the rule.

For purposes of the rubric, the opening chapter is worth 5% of the score, giving the Art of Story a total of 40%.

__________

TO LEARN MORE:

If you want more of my advice on these issues, here is a list of earlier blog posts.

Plot:





Characters:



First lines:








And finally, here is a post on matching the opening scene with the genre:


__________

The picture is an illustration by John Tenniel for the original edition of Alice in Wonderland. It is in the public domain because of its age.