Half-Baked Planning

Half baked bread loaves being put into an ovenNote: In case you care, I have removed the rough draft of Thin Spots from Wattpad. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Having made it more than halfway through the draft of novel number one, despite having many other demands on my time, has made me a holy-rolling believer in planning your novel before you start writing it. I have my little setup of manuscript, scene sketches and fix sheet all constructed and waiting for me every time I sit down at the keyboard. The manuscript says “start here.” I look at my scene sketch and I start there. When I run across something that will need cleaning up later, I note it on the fix sheet.

Planning is a beautiful thing, but, I wonder, can you do too much?

I just finished writing a chapter that’s long, rambling and weak. It’s a prime candidate for the rewrite operating table, and I think the problem is Stebbins, a gladiator who shows up earlier in the story. Because Stebbins wasn’t there.

It’s a battle scene. Colin (the lead) winds up there unexpectedly and hides, because he’s injured. Then he comes out of hiding and meets… not Stebbins, but another guy named Calley. See, I was writing along, Colin came into the open and all at once Stebbins, who was not scheduled to appear, popped into my head. I could see Colin spotting his friend, being amazed and overjoyed.

This vision of the Colin-Stebbins reunion was powerful and required some consideration. If I went with it, Stebbins’ role in the planned story would change drastically. It would also greatly hork up Calley’s planned role. And I liked my plan. It was a good plan, and it was already there.

To stick with the plan or change things–that was the question.

My point here – and I do have one, as Ellen Degeneres says – is that I was in the midst of a good problem. Making decisions like this one lies at, or at least near, the heart of the fictioneer’s craft. It’s also a huge part of the fun.

If I had planned each scene in the novel down to the last pinhead, I’d be far less likely to land in such a delightfully uncomfortable spot. I’d be much too wed to the plan due to all the trouble I had put into it. I’d also find it much easier take the already mapped out path of least resistance.

Instead, since I have a plan that’s more general in nature, I get to make writing decisions on the fly. I am creating and solving fiction problems all the time, while at the same time not constantly trying to figure out the next big milestone in the story.

So, yes, for me, at this point as a nascent novelist, half-baked planning is best. I have the broad brush strokes. It’s filling in the detail along the way that keeps me turned on.

What’s your stand on planning? A lot or a little? In-between? Let me know in a comment.

Conflict at the Core

BoxingI recently reread J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, in honor of the movie’s coming out later this year. During the process, I ran across the following sentence:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

What Tolkien is getting at here is the importance of conflict to stories. It is possible to have a narrative without conflict, but it’s bound to be flatter than a bug after an encounter with a windshield.

I remember one example of a conflict-less story with a distinct lack of affection. It was a story about a doll. The doll started as a gleam in a little girl’s eye, continued as a conversation with a grandmother, was constructed of scraps collected by the oh-so-poor family, given to the little girl and then loved forever after. The closest this tale came to conflict was the family’s poverty and their struggle to collect the scraps, which wasn’t so much a struggle as a hunt around the old cabin or farmstead or whatever it was.

This was an oral story. The teller, or writer, if you prefer, had all the advantages of body language, gesture, vocal tone and dramatization. The teller used all these as best as possible, yet to call the result insipid is an insult to insipid things everywhere and indeed to the concept of insipidity itself. In fact I wish I could think of a word that conjured a greater level of insipidity that “insipid,” but I can’t and I don’t want to use and adverb.

Anyway, it was bad. Why? No conflict.

Now, what if the story had gone differently? What if the family had had to go to some extreme lengths to get the materials for the doll? What if the little girl was dying? What if the doll got made and was then stolen? What if the doll was possessed by evil spirits? What if the favor shown this little girl made her sister jealous and that had a disastrous effect on their relationship? The possibilities are myriad.

I think the reason we love stories with conflict, at least in part, is that conflict always involves something we must try to overcome. That overcoming presents us with a challenge and it’s wrestling with challenges that, win or lose, sharpens our characters and makes us grow. Conflict is at the very heart of our evolution as a species—would the first hominids have stood upright to see farther across the savannah if there hadn’t been predators to watch out for?

So, if your story seems a little flat, look at the elements of conflict. It could well be they need some pumping up.

How about this? Once upon a time there was an dad who, after a fantastic but exhausting day with his son, needed to come up with a Wednesday blog entry, even though he was was reeling with fatigue…

See you next time. I’m going to bed!

Scene Templates Might Save Your Bacon

SignpostLast Wednesday, I wrote about the Beat Sheet and how great I think it is now. With that bad boy knocked out, I feel I’ve got a coherent, streamlined structure for a story that might even be worth reading one day.

So what’s next? Jump into writing?

I have to say I’m strongly tempted. Although I do love planning, I love the creative play of writing much more. But I am holding off for a few more days to complete scene templates for at least the first few scenes I’m going to write.

Why? Because whenever I have gotten stuck before, scene templates have saved my bacon.

I picked up the form and idea for these templates from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, a fine tome on the mechanics of novel-writing, especially when combined with Story Engineering and Outlining Your Novel. Since adopting Marshall’s original templates, I’ve tweaked them to meet my own purposes and temperament and am tweaking them still as I go along. Here’s an example, with descriptions of each part in [brackets]:

Scene Title: Mine! [Scene title. Like, duh.]

Scene # and description: Satan writing “Mine” all over his map. [I am not using scene numbers right now because the tools I use don’t support auto-numbering and if I rearrange things I don’t want to have to change all those scene numbers. I like using a nutshell description. One could also put the descriptive paragraph here.]

From # N/A [Title of the preceding scene; this helps you keep the dots connected.]

To # [Title of the succeeding scene, again for connecting those dots.]

Action/Reaction: [In an Action section, the viewpoint character for the scene does something. In a reaction section, the viewpoint character mulls things over and decides what to do next.]

Scene Viewpoint Character: [Three guesses what you put here.]

Where: [I use a nutshell description, but this could be as long as you want.]

When: [I like to use a date and time of day; however, I suppose you could use the relative timing of events, as in “after John gets a parking ticket, just before he trips over the coffee shop doorjamb.”]

ACTION [Use this part of the template if the scene is for Action.]

Goal from viewpoint character’s last section: [Here’s the concluding goal from this character’s previous section (just put N/A if it’s their first one), which provides motivation.]

Against (person or circumstance that brings crisis): [This is whatever is at the root of the conflict in the scene.]

Conflict (occurrence of crisis; section character’s reaction): [This section might just as well be called “Action,” except that would be confusing. Here’s a synopsis of what happens in the scene.]

 Failure (unless opposition) (inability to undo or deny crisis): [Because a good story requires the hero to be up against the wall most of the time, she is always failing on some scale at the end of a scene (at least until you get to the very end). The bad guys, on the other hand, mostly experience success.]

 New Goal (or go to a Reaction section) (character doesn’t necessarily have to devise, but describe it here; can devise here, though, or devise in Reaction section): [Having failed, the hero decides what to do next; you describe that here.]

 Cliffhanger: [At the end of most scenes, I like to have at least the appearance of a major disaster occurring for the hero. This is some kind of action, as opposed to thinking up a new goal.]

 REACTION [Use this part of the template if the scene is for Action.]

Failure from scene viewpoint character’s last action section (briefly describe; the section will restate it): [Pretty obvious, eh? This can be a cut-and-paste job, if you like.]

 With (other characters that share the section): [Often it’s good to have at least one other character, perhaps a confidant, in the Reaction scene so the hero can talk out his reaction some.]

 Emotional reaction (character’s gut reaction to the previous failure): [Describe the viewpoint character’s emotions here.]

 Rational reaction (character’s analytical reaction to the previous failure): [Describe the character’s more calculated thoughts about how to make things right.]

 New Goal (character devises): He/she will X in order to X. [The emotional and rational reactions work together to engender the new goal. Describe that here.]

At this point, you might be thinking I am the most anal-retentive creature in existence and have devised a way to suck all fun and discovery out of story creation while at the same time putting off any actual writing.

I beg to differ. Crafting the scene templates, I’ll admit, tastes more of work than play, but it’s worth it. As you fill them out, new ideas will occur to you for nifty development or much-needed fixes. These things are not carved in stone—you can reorder them and rejigger them any way you like as you go along.

The best part is, once you have a template for every scene in your story—or at least enough to get started with—the writing flows through those blank pages like hot lava through a scrub forest. The “duh” moments, when you don’t know what to put on the page next, are few and far between. This means you can concentrate on the quality of the writing itself—the crafting of language, the drawing out of characters, the description of setting, the arrangement of action—all the truly fun stuff!

Scene templates may not be for you, but I invite you to give them a shot, especially if you’re a writer who has started several novels but never finished one. They could make all the difference in the world.

The Beat Sheet: A Revelation

Sometimes a simple thing can be a revelation. Thus it was for me with the scene list, usually known by its cooler name, the “beat sheet.”

Though I had heard it mentioned before, I really didn’t know what the beat sheet was until I happened on Larry Brooks’s lucid explanation of it in Story Engineering. It sounded so good I decided to try it.

The beat sheet isn’t a complex thing. It’s just a list of your scenes with the minimal information necessary—a scene name and maybe a nutshell description. Having assembled your list, you start fooling with their order, adding some, subtracting others, until you have a satisfactory skeleton on which to hang the flesh of your tale. You can use whatever you like to make your beat sheet: a word processor, post-its, index cards, scraps of tanned cowhide. The main thing is that you can rearrange, add and subtract scenes with ease.

The beauty of the beat sheet is that it removes detail. If you’re trying to sort paragraphs describing each scene, or scene-construction forms of some kind, it’s too easy to get lost in the information about each scene, rather than simply concentrating on where it should go in the story. With the beat sheet, you get a couple of crystalline drops of data for each scene. These info-chicklets are easy to hold in your short-term memory, so you can juggle several at once and better determine how they affect each other, which insight goes into your scene arrangement. (FYI, the average short-term memory holds about seven items at once.)

I was stunned by my results with the beat sheet. I had a big sub-plot and realized it wasn’t working at all, so I cut it to the bone. I figured out how to tighten up the first three sections and began forming an idea of how the concluding section would go. Most valuable of all, I found that events in need of foreshadowing and questions in need of answering  jumped out at me like clowns popping out of a miniature Volkswagen.

Valuable as it was, the beat sheet still left me feeling a little short in the coherence department. I didn’t have a good sense of whether all the beats made sense or not. Now it was time to bring back some detail. The next step, writing a descriptive paragraph for each beat, helped me take care of that. Writing a paragraph about each beat helped me analyze it to be sure it held up as a worthwhile part of the story and also fit well with the other beats. I discovered more plot gaps, more foreshadowing needs and even a few more scenes that needed adding.

I’m still working on the descriptive paragraphs, but they’ll be wrapped up soon and when they are I’ll be in great shape to plan each scene to the point where I can write it easily. Then – joy of joys! – I’ll actually write those puppies!

Bonus! Here’s a beat with a descriptive paragraph to give you a concrete idea of the process.

1.      Colin gets killed. The Dough(boy) is Flat Colin gets hit by a truck while delivering pizzas.

Colin is toodling along on his scooter with the music turned up. [Look up some real scooter/motorcycle fatal wrecks and base the scene on them.] A truck runs a light; Colin doesn’t hear it coming and gets hit. He sees the famous bright, white light beckoning him forward. [What about other people who are in comas? Why don’t they get the same reaction as Colin? And if there are more like him, why don’t they recognize the smell of someone still connected to a body? Maybe de Retz, in his eagerness to make good, broke the rules and snatched a soul (Colin’s) meant for Limbo, Heaven or some other area; that hasn’t happened before. Also, Colin is the only person ever to find out he is in a coma someplace and that affects his behavior.] [If Colin is meant for Heaven, why is his body still alive? Maybe Colin’s angel is the one to escort him to Limbo or coma holding area.]


Cliff ClimberIn the last post, I noted in particular a change I had made to the scene template I copped from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. It’s a line in the template for a cliffhanger.

If I’m planning an Action section, there’s a line that says: “Cliffhanger from character’s last section” and another that merely says “Cliffhanger.” The former helps me take up from where the character left off and the latter helps me paint a thumbnail sketch of the latest mess the character’s wound up in.

My goal is to have a cliffhanger at the end of every action section in which a good guy is the viewpoint character. There’s not much point in having a cliffhanger for an opposition character’s action section, since the opposition gets its way until the very end (although I don’t suppose you have to rule it out altogether). If I’m working on a Reaction section, in which the viewpoint character takes a breather to reflect on what’s happened, draw some new conclusions and set some new goals, a cliffhanger isn’t needed either, since the character hasn’t done anything to get him- or herself into trouble.

I enjoy planning these moments because they exercise my imagination. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “why on earth would this scene lead to a cliffhanger?” This question often leads me to re-evaluate the scene at hand, always leading to improvements. At other times, the cliffhanger itself comes easily, but I find myself pulling my hair out coming up with a resolution to it. That effort can lead me to re-work the current scene, come up with a sharper subsequent scene, or both.

The classic example of cliffhangers, at least the one that leaps to mind first, is the old movie serials. Back in the days of yore, my high school had a film festival and every week’s presentation started with a Buck Rodgers serial. There’s one where you see the spaceship falling through the sky, and then a title card rolls: “See TRAGEDY ON SATURN, Chapter Two!” The spaceship doesn’t actually crash, it just falls through the sky. Maybe at the beginning of the next installment (which you have to wait a week for), Buck wrestles the ship out of its downfall and comes in for a safe landing.

Or maybe he doesn’t. Who knows? That’s the beauty of it. You’ve got to come back the next week to see whether or not the spaceman and his pals escape doom. The same principle applies to chapters, or sections, or maybe even pages if the writer is skilled enough. The uncertainty at the end of a part makes the reader want to find out what happens next. That’s the hope, at least, right?

Cliffhangers keep you, the writer (me, the writer, anyway) going, too. Looking forward to the next crisis and the next, and the next, pulls you through your plotting. They help you build the bridge while you’re walking across it, all the way to the end of your tale.

To Tweak or not to Tweak?

WaterfallYippee! I’m about to reach a big milestone in the production of Thin Spots: completion of the first third; that is, the beginning. I’m mighty pleased to have made it this far. Now that I have, the question is, do I pause here to go back and rework what I’ve done, or do I keep on writing the draft as it is?

The conventional wisdom says I should just keep going as fast as I can until I reach the end. That way the story doesn’t stop flowing out of my head but rolls naturally along through the middle section, through the ending section and wham, into the exciting conclusion. It’s a pretty appealing scenario, I must admit.

On the other hand, there’s other wisdom (I’m thinking particularly of Lawrence Block) that says, “to thine own self be true,” meaning do whatever the hell you want—it’s your book, pal. So, I’m thinking about taking a pause for the cause and reworking the beginning third some.

Why would I engage in such masochism?

My professional background is in project management, using—Geek Alert!—the waterfall model. In the waterfall model, you finish one phase before another starts. The theory is that each phase should have a solid foundation to build on. I’ve also built a treehouse, single-handed, and let me tell you the supporting struts and frame had better be good to go before you put the floor in and the floor had better be solid because that’s where you’ll be standing for the rest of the job.

I’m thinking that if I tweak the first third, make it a solid foundation for the next part, I’ll be way better off while writing the remainder. I’m not talking about prettying up all the language or making everything just perfect. What I have in mind is tightening up the loose ends. For instance, in “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Eternity,” de Retz has a brass truncheon he uses to whoop up on Colin and Cerberus. The object never appears again. Do I work it in later, get rid of it, or leave it as is? And what about Tanya? In her first chapter she’s taking her soul and Doc’s soul out of their bodies and doing this crazy healing stuff—do I need back story somewhere, and if so, does it come in the beginning section or later? There are plenty of things like that to consider, including the possibility of axing some pieces, like the part where Colin gets swallowed by a fish in the Cocytus—it’s fun, but does it move the plot?

I’m pretty sure I’m going to take the tweaking route, but I’m going to ask my writing group for advice first. I’m also going to ask you, gentle reader, right now. Should I keep going or should I pause to tweak? I’d appreciate your input. Thanks. And stay tuned!

Writing Lessons from Reading: “God’s Demon” by Wayne Barlowe

The author of God’s Demon, Wayne Barlowe, is an artist by trade; look him up on Amazon and books of his art are mostly what you’ll find. His novel was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, which provided subject matter for many of Barlowe’s paintings before the novel came along.

The main story arc concerns Sargatanas, a fallen seraph, now a resident of Hell, who decides to rebel against Beelzebub, who’s running the show, and regain himself a place in Heaven. The final score: Beelzebub zero, Sargatanas one ticket to Paradise. It’s a beautifully written book, fully imagined with many a subplot, character and challenge to keep you turning pages until the end.

As always, when I read I’m hoping to learn something new or reinforce something I’ve learned already. Here are a few gems of that ilk from God’s Demon.

Use metaphor and simile in description.

Adjectives are fine, but in the company of metaphor and simile they can be great. Here’s a sample: “From their altitude the world looked as it always had. Vast olive-brown plains, like sheets of skin, rended and folded, were cut by flowing, incandescent rivers of lava and pocked by scattered outposts, pincushioned with fiery-tipped towers.” The adjectives here, like “incandescent” and “pocked” are vivid, but the simile “like sheets of skin” and the metaphorical “pincushioned” are what make the scene pop.

Use an approachable observer to bring an intimidating character down to earth.

Sargatanas the seraph is larger than life, to say the least, at least twice as tall as a human being, with facial and bodily features that shift at will or with mood and a vision for turning upside down the established order of one-third of creation. It would be all too easy to make such a character pompous, distant or even grotesque. Enter Eligor, captain of Sargatanas’ Flying Guards.

The Flying Guards are Sargatanas’s personal bodyguard, so Eligor has a close professional relationship with the demon. Sargatanas also acts as mentor to Eligor, so there is a personal relationship between them as well. Eligor’s admiration and fondness for his superior comes through in his viewpoint, drawing the reader closer to this imposing main character.

Here’s an example of Eligor observing Sargatanas: “Sargatanas went about his tasks with a preternatural intensity that bordered on the obsessive. He never tired of directing the large and small matters of state. It was, Eligor guessed, his way of not thinking about the reality of their situation.” Through Eligor’s view of Sargatanas, we see not only the big boss demon, but the troubled soul as well. Barlowe uses this device throughout the book and it works beautifully.

Use artful foreshadowing.

One of the characters in this book, Semjaza the Watcher, seems for most of the book to be just part of the scenery, a way of showing how awful Hell is. A titan imprisoned in Hell long before Sargatanas, Beelzebub and the gang ever got there, Semjaza lies beneath Beelzebub’s city of Dis, making a scary racket once in a while. You first hear about him 17% through the Kindle edition (“…this giant Watcher, whom few had ever seen…”) and he doesn’t come up again until the 72% mark (“The Watcher had been unusually restless these past few weeks…). Then at the 91% mark he plays a key role in the resolution of the story, which comes as a surprise but is completely plausible, thanks to the foreshadowing that went before.

Thanks for reading. See you next time around!

Forced not to Write!

Handcuffs and KeyboardI try to be regular in my writing habits, such as they are. One hour a day, five days a week for fiction is working pretty well with the rest of my responsibilities right now. I’m able to produce without going crazy. Still, there are times when life interferes and I am prevented from key-pecking on my usual schedule or at all.

Just recently I had an entire week in which my usual writing time was taken up by unusual activity in my day job. Looking back on it, I can see I went through the five stages of grief described by  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. I can also see a couple of lessons in the experience.

Monday Morning–Denial: I told myself I’d still be able to stick to my regular lunch-hour writing schedule. Wrong! The demands of the work completely scrambled my somewhat orderly routine and made mid-day writing impossible.

Monday Afternoon and Evening–Anger: I bemoaned my fate, sulked at work, bitched to my family and was generally put out about the whole thing. It didn’t help matters and in fact made me feel worse.

Tuesday Morning–Bargaining: “Okay, I’ll trade an hour of sleep a night for an hour of writing,” I told myself. This just wasn’t realistic—I need a certain amount of sleep to function effectively and without biting the head off everyone around me. It’s not a discipline thing, it’s a genetic predisposition. The bargain fell through.

Tuesday Afternoon and Evening–Depression: This one was easy, since I’m kind of melancholic anyway. I went into a zombie-like trance of funk, certain my project would go completely off track, sure I’d never get the zing back. I was doomed!

Wednesday Morning—Acceptance: I finally realized that since there was no fixing the situation to my liking, I might as well go with the flow. After all, my philosophy for this project is, in part, to remember that it’s not the be-all, end-all, whoop-tee-doo major deal of the earth, that I’m not in a hurry, that I’m writing for my own pleasure first and foremost. Recalling that intention made me feel loads better and reassured me that the non-attached way I have been approaching the project is, for me, the best one.

Despite the roseate glow of acceptance, I still felt like writing—a lot. The feeling built in intensity over the week. It was something like the excitement I felt as a kid when Christmas day was near—it built with every passing sunset. When Saturday rolled around and I was at last able to get back to the story, all that pent-up energy exploded onto the page. It was great! I don’t know if I wrote anything good, but I wrote a lot of it and I had a wonderful time. The energy and joy lasted for several days more—what a gift.

So, thanks to a long week of enforced non-writing, I learned a couple of things:

  • Writing for its own sake works. It’s an application of the principle that the best way to prepare for future moments is to do your best with the present one.
  • Enforced time off, once accepted, can be a time of building energy for the writing ahead.

Okay, that’s enough. Got to get ready for work tomorrow…

Choosing the Right Word for the Situation

Word MagnetsAt my advanced age, I am still laboring under the impression that, I was a pretty darn good college poet. It’s more likely that a few of my poems passed the sniff test and the rest stunk, but I’ll retain my illusion, thank you. What I do know for reality is that I loved picking out the individual words for those poems and found that the exercise of poetry made my prose writing better.

Poetry taught me that the better your individual word choices, the better your writing. That might seem like a statement worthy of a “well, duh” response, but I submit to you that some writing sings and some talks in a monotone, and a lot of the difference is word choice.

So, here are a few thoughts on choosing words.

Audience. Who are you writing for? Adults? Kids? Women? Men? One writer who does a great job of taking audience into account is J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter novels increase their language sophistication with every book as Harry gets older. Or compare lines from the beginning of “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara to a few from the beginning of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:

From the former: “They are rebels and volunteers. They are mostly unpaid and usually self-equipped. It is an army of remarkable unity, fighting for disunion.” The words are mostly factual and sharp-edged. The closest you get to “pretty words” are “unity” and “disunion.” It’s my guess this book was originally aimed mainly at men, although with a Pulitzer prize to its credit I’m sure a lot of people of both genders read it.

From the latter: “In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.” The words are soft, lyrical—“delicate,” “aristocrat,” and “florid.” Mitchell is writing a historical romance, probably originally intended primarily for women, although it has garnered readers everywhere.

Meaning. Obviously, you want a word that means the right thing, but there are different opportunities with synonyms. You could say, for instance, “The starving dogs fought over the orts from the master’s table.” On the other hand, you could say, “The starving dogs fought over the scraps from the master’s table.”

“Ort” is a little-used word for a bit of food left from a meal. If you guess your audience will be full of people who like unusual words, or who might already be familiar with “orts,” or if you just plain want to be obscure, “orts” might be your ticket. “Scraps,” “bits,” “morsels,” or “chunks,” might be good enough, though. I mean, really… orts?

Context. What setting is the word used in? Who is using it? If you’re writing a tough-guy novel about an army general, he might say “Let’s start a war.” If you’re writing something about college professor, he might say “Let’s instigate a conflict.” If you’re describing a mountain outcrop as an inviting destination, you might use words like “majestic,” or “challenging.” If you’re describing the same outcrop as an obstacle, it might be “flinty” or “barren.”

Sound. Sometimes you need a word that falls into the ear the right way. That has a lot to do with the words surrounding it, but let’s take a couple of words on their own. Say your character is taking after somebody’s car with a sledgehammer. “Smash” sounds more like the action itself, whereas “demolish” doesn’t sound like the action and actually distances you from it.

“Smash” winds up with that “sm” sound—you can almost hear the hammer on the backswing—and then down it comes with “ash!” It’s a single, pointed syllable.

With “demolish,” the three syllables all have softer sounds. With “de” maybe the character is swinging the hammer back and forth a bit. With “mo” I don’t get much of an image at all, just a hushing—maybe the character puts the hammer down because it’s heavy. And “lish,” while it gives you the same “sh” as “smash,” is sapped of power by the gentle “li” sound and the preceding two syllables. So, do you want the reader to have that immediacy or not? Maybe if the scene is actually happening, “smash” is the best choice, but if the scene is part of a dream sequence, perhaps the more distant sound of “demolish” would work better.

I could go on, but I think I’ll spare you the agony. Just remember that choosing the right word for the right moment in your writing can make the difference between singing and squawking.

Writing Lessons from Reading: “Letters from Hades” by Jeffrey Thomas

Letters from Hades coverI found Letters from Hades by googling “novels set in hell.” You get a pretty good list that way. The story is presented as the journal of a man condemned to Hell for suicide. The journal itself is another condemned soul who has been formed into the cover of a book with an eye in its center. The eye sees and reacts to the action during the novel, which is just one of the interesting things Thomas brings to the tale.

I enjoyed this novel and I found some writing lessons, positive and negative, in its pages. Let’s get to them.

Use striking images. The novel begins with the line “On my fifth day in Hell, I found a praying mantis.” It’s an ordinary creature in a bizarre location, which grabs your attention. Thomas takes off from here with a description of his environs with sentences like “When the rain was over, the grounds of the university steamed with scarlet pools and there were even squirming, flopping eels and jellyfish in those pools that I realized were actually organs and entrails.” Vivid, eh? Notice how the description is packed with verbs and nouns.

Vividly imagine the setting and use it to support the story’s action. This lesson is an extension of the previous one. Regardless of where the protagonist wanders in this story, the setting is always played up, almost like a character itself. After his arrival in the city of Oblivion, the narrator describes a “…tower that seemed to support the molten sky like a column. Where most of the large skyscrapers had windows, housing either citizens or perhaps the Demonic class of Oblivion, this one had not a single pane, and its flanks were entirely formed of intricately woven black machinery heavily scabbed in corrosion like dried blood. Further, this machine building thrummed, gonged, chattered, whined, rang, chittered, hissed, rumbled, causing its immediate environs to vibrate. Steam billowed out of vents along its great height, curling like specters escaping from a gargantuan funereal obelisk.” This one building represents the oppressive feel of the entire city and the city itself lends its darkness to everything that happens there. You get the feeling that the things that happen there could happen nowhere else.

In a love relationship, try getting lovers from opposite sides. One of the best-known examples of this idea is “Romeo and Juliet,” I suppose. In Letters from Hades, the protagonist and a female demon named Chara fall in love and run away together. The fact that they are from such vastly different sides of the track and that most of the characters around them are against the relationship ratchets up the tension in the novel, so it keeps you turning pages.

In a first-person narrative, let the reader know the protagonist’s name. I wouldn’t call this a hard and fast rule—not that any of these are, of course—it’s just a touch I think enables the reader to connect with the lead character a little more. There’s no need to repeat it over and over—maybe just once or twice. It seems like this would help with verisimilitude, too—the lead is often in conversation—how likely is it nobody would ever say his name?

Avoid a flat narrative; be sure to have a beginning, middle and end, with a climax in there somewhere. The one objection I have to this novel is that there doesn’t seem to be any climax. It goes something like this: 1) Lead gets indoctrinated 2) Lead wanders, meets female demon 3) Lead goes to Oblivion City 4) Lead and demon fall in love 5) Things start to go badly in Oblivion City 6) Lead and demon escape Oblivion City and go elsewhere; the end. While this novel has several interesting points of conflict along the way, there’s never that big moment where everything is on the line, the situation looks hopeless for our hero, but then at the last instant, our hero prevails.

Jeffrey Thomas has written several novels, including Deadstock, which was a finalist for the John W. Campbell award and Monstrocity, a finalist for the Bram Stoker award. Clearly, the guy is no slouch. I learned a lot from reading Letters from Hades and I imagine I’ll be dipping into the J. Thomas canon in the future.