Man and Boy; Tennessee, 1932

“Boy, what you straining with?”

“Don’t know, pa. It’s fighting me, though. It’s fighting me.”

“Look at that pole bend. Ease up a bit, boy. Give it some slack. See? Your pole’s not twitching. Whatever it is, it’s not fighting you, it’s dragging. Maybe something crawling on the bottom.”

“But it’s coming, pa.”

“Want me to take her for a spell?”

“I’d like that, pa.”

“Give it some slack before we switch poles. Something that heavy, you got to work slow, might have to get upstream of it to pull it in without snapping the line.”

“Look, pa. There it is. I see it.”

“Damn thing’s in the glare of the sun. What is it? Can you see? Feels like some bottom grass. Pity if we can’t loose the line.”

“It’s a man, pa. A black man.”

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What do you mean, exactly, when you tell me to Read and Write to be an author?

It’s what they don’t tell you that’ll ruin you

Almost every writing-how-to book I’ve read has something about having to read, read, read and write, write, write to be a good author. Few books (nor any classes I’ve taken in classrooms, workshops, online, et cetera) include the two pieces of information without which all the reading and all the writing are…well, maybe not worthless but definitely worth less: How to Read and How to Write.

Reading
Read anything and everything. Read omnivorously. Read trashy novels. Read pulp. Read magazine articles, newspapers. Read onlines. Read prizewinners. Read in and definitely outside your genre.

Here’s what nobody told me; Read for craft, not content.

Pay attention to what you’re reading.

 
Pay attention to how characters are developed, pay attention to how scenes unfold, how things are foreshadowed, pay attention to how mood, atmosphere and tone are constructed to create specific effects. Pay attention to how the author does everything they do to get you to read their story.

Especially pay attention to what they do that makes you stop reading their story.

An example of the former is from Fritz Leiber’s A Pale of Air. I read this story mumbledy-mumbledy years ago and remember literally feeling cold after the first few paragraphs. No idea why and continued blissfully ignorant for ever so long. Take a moment to read the opening and enjoy the chill:
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Tension

Like a tightrope. Around your neck. Cutting off your air. Your eyes popping out. Your brain screaming for oxygen? That’s what you want your readers to feel.

What is “tension”?

Noun: tension
1. (psychology) a state of mental or emotional strain or suspense
2. The physical condition of being stretched or strained
3. (literature) a balance between and interplay of opposing elements or tendencies (especially in art or literature)
4. (physics) a stress that produces an elongation of an elastic physical body
5. Feelings of hostility that are not manifest
6. The action of stretching something tight

Verb: tension
1. Put an object in tension; pull or place strain on

(from WordWeb.info)

 
Have you ever read James Blish’s short story Surface Tension (originally published in the August 1952 Galaxy Magazine and muchly anthologized)? It deals with people striving to break through the surface of water. Any liquid creates a surface where it meets something other than itself. This surface creation is why two drops of water meeting bond into a larger drop rather than staying separate. The permeability of the surface is called “surface tension”. Doesn’t seem like much of a story, does it? People? Water?
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Heartbeats

Characters come to life when we give them reasons to live

I demonstrated creating memorable character names in Naming Names with Lucky Jones, the one-eared wonder. If creating memorable character names were enough to make characters memorable I wouldn’t be writing this post as a follow up.

Lucky Jones became the memorable”Lucky Jones” because I gave you a reason to remember him; I placed him in a dangerous situation with obvious conflict and obvious threats:
Lucky Jones backed away from The Swede as soon as the knife came out. It didn’t matter that The Swede was as big as any Viking Jones could imagine, it mattered that the knife looked as long as a battleaxe. The Swede swung but Jones was already making for the door and the only thing The Swede caught was Jones’ ear, which the police found the next day under The Swede’s body. Albert Swanson Jones became Lucky Jones and a wanted man that same day.
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Macauley and Lanning’s “Technique in Fiction”

A worthwhile read to get you to the next level regardless of what level you’re on

Nuance. Technique in Fiction is a must read because it teaches nuance.

It teaches much more. Just when I thought my brain had filled with as much technique and suggestion as possible, there’d be another bit that I had to write down and practice so I could remember it.

The basic takeaway is that authors should read this book after they’ve finished something big (novella, novel, novelette, noveletta, novina…okay, maybe not a novina) so they can figure out how to improve their writing during the rewrite/editing process. Story writers will also benefit provided they give themselves some down time between writing and editing so their minds can absorb what’s in these pages.

Great stuff!
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