Always leave 'em wanting more

Always leave 'em wanting more

A young boy discovers a time portal inside a hydroelectric dam. A car full of refugees drives into an impenetrable fog. A young woman wakes up to find herself the poster girl for a revolution. Another young woman walks away from the only life she’s ever known.

They all sound like great starts to stories, don’t they? There’s just one hitch. They’re all endings. I won’t spoil them all by identifying the books, but with the exception of the last one, they’re all well-known books by bestselling authors. The last one, of course, is mine (2 points if you know which), but it’s an ending too; an ending and a beginning. And that’s just how I like to end my stories.

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Favorite Literary Crushes - Darcy and beyond

By pure coincidence, today marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice, and just a few days ago I got word that Dermot Sinclair is the object of his first reader crush by way of one of the lovely folks on who has read the first three acts of The River Maiden. It's incredibly gratifying to have created a character worthy of a reader crush and since I've had a crush on Dermot for ages, it's nice to know I'm not alone.  41NDXC2JR4L._SL500_AA300_Of course one of my first reader crushes is Fitzwilliam Darcy. Because really how can a girl resist a guy that by turns calls you plain and refuses to dance with you, tells you your family is and embarrassment and then goes completely out of his way to fix things when your ridiculous sister practically makes your family untouchable all the while trying VERY hard not to seem in the least bit vulnerable and failing miserably until he says something like this.

"By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased." Oh, Darcy!

Of course, Darcy isn't just the romantic hero of Pride & Prejudice, and many adaptations since. He is all of the guys that look down their noses at smart, witty girls who don't quite fit in. He's the society that tries to tell us to be one way, because that's what's expected of us when all we want is to be another. And Elizabeth Bennett manages by persistently being herself and speaking her mind to bring him around to appreciating those very things that make her different and special. And he manages by being there when she needs him to show her that sometimes what society wants for you isn't completely intolerable.

I love Jane Austen with her sharp eye and witty pen. If there is a heaven for writers, I like to imagine Jane Austen, Johnathan Swift, Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker relaxing over a few drinks and having a great laugh over some of the more overwrought and self-important writers in literary history. My husband likes to sneer at my love for Jane Austen almost as much as he sneers at my love of romance novels. But, what he doesn't realize is that Austen's novels are just as full of social commentary as the Sci-fi and post-apocalyptic speculative fiction books that he likes to read. Same scathing look at society, just wrapped up in corsets and ribbons instead of gadgets and gun straps.

There are today on HuffPost Books two articles arguing the merits of the  two most visible actors to play Darcy in the last 30 years. There is of course Colin Firth who plays Darcy so well, he's done it in the BBC mini-series and in both Bridget Jones movies. There is also an article making a credible argument in favor of Matthew MacFadyen. This article has some good points, and had me wondering if part of my own preference for Colin Firth's Darcy wasn't wrapped up in my strong preference for Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth to Kiera Knightly's. Still, it left me wondering about other people's preferences.

This naturally led me to wonder about people's preferences for OTHER literary crushes. Such as, Edward Rochester, or Heathcliff.  Click on each one for a list of actors who have played these roles. I was going to put lists here, but they're far too long.  I'm telling my favorites.  Which ones are yours (comments please)?

Fitzwilliam DarcyColin Firth. Period. End of story.

Edward RochesterMichael Fassbender, though if you haven't see the 1943 version with Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine and a very young Elizabeth Taylor you really should.

Heathcliff: I'm not really a Wuthering Heights fan, but I know Heathcliff excites a lot of readers, and audiences. I will suggest that you watch the delicious Tom Hardy in the 2009 TV movie version and then watch him in The Dark Knight Rises. I think you'll find a lot of similarities in his portrayals of Heathcliff and Bane.

If these guys don't float your boat, who is your literary crush. My other big two haven't been lucky enough to be in film yet, though Sony Picture TV is working on an Outlander TV series. So we may see Jamie Fraser on our TV screens before too long. Alas, I don't foresee a Lymond Chronicles movie or TV series anywhere in the future, though I think Francis Crawford would give James Bond a run for his money.

Of Sense and Substance

Let's get started with a few quotes. "The boy's name was Santiago." Paolo Coelho - The Alchemist

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four day now without taking a fish." Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man And The Sea

"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out and touch the child sleeping beside him." Cormac McCarthy - The Road

What do these first lines from arguably very different books have in common?

It's simple. They get right to the point. They don't mess around with flowery description. They don't set the stage by telling you everything you need to know about their environment. They don't tell you the writer's opinion of the characters. They just drop you right into the action or emotion of the story. Coelho begins The Alchemist with a simple telling of fact and we are immediately attached to Santiago. This statement is evocative chiefly because it plays on the reader's ingrained sympathy for the young and the sparse language clues us in on the type of environment in which he lives. It's beautiful in its efficiency. Likewise, Hemingway effectively sets up the conflict that drives The Old Man And The Sea with one bare sentence. It conjures image of an old man at sea in a small boat and his desperation at not catching a fish for so long. We don't know Hemingway's opinion of fisherman. He doesn't tell us how we're supposed to feel about it, but the old man's desperation still comes through with the accounting of many days he's gone without a fish. McCarthy is a bit more descriptive in the opening line of The Road, but that description comes to us through the character. We don't know what he looks like, or what the woods look like, or that he's hungry. We don't even know what he's feeling aside from the physical sensation of cold, but we are gripped by the heart-wrenching image of a man in the rough caring for a child.

No, this is not a discussion of the importance of great first lines, though they are important. I'm more concerned with the very first of Strunk and White's "Reminders" from Chapter 5 of The Elements of Style. That is to "Place yourself in the background." I have no doubt that this was positioned at the top of the list because of its importance and because it makes the best starting point for developing your own style. They write:

"Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing rather than the mood and temper of the achieve style, begin by affecting none--that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style."

The key take away from this when writing fiction is to let your characters tell the story. The story is the "sense and substance" to which they are referring.  A "careful and honest" writer is one for whom the story and not the style is paramount. By contrast a careless and/or dishonest writer is one who may become so enamored of a certain style that their story becomes overshadowed by the writing. This is a particular pitfall of genres like historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy. Where the story is set in a world not familiar to the everyday reader, writers may find themselves too caught up in creating the setting. Some writers become so concerned with the environment that they are writing in that the reader loses interest in the story. For example, I recently read  a piece of historical fiction (that I will not name) in which the writer was so interested in mimicking a circuitous 18th century mode of speech that her sentences were sometimes rendered incomprehensible. Compounded by the fact that the novel was set in the late 19th century, the story was buried under the writer's affected style. This is precisely what Strunk and White are exhorting us to avoid.

As a test, try writing your story as a newspaper article, not a feature article like you might find in your local paper, but pure wire service type news. Just the facts. This can help you separate the "sense and substance" from the "mood and temper". It can also give you a point to start from if you decide to rewrite something.

But, you may be asking, how am I supposed to distinguish myself as a writer without affecting a style? We read on:

"As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts..."

In essence, focus on your story and trust yourself. YOU will emerge through the telling of your story. If you are honest and write naturally without affectation, your style WILL come out. You are unique, and no one but you is going to write with your voice.  In Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, Les Edgerton uses an interesting exercise to illustrate this very point. In the exercise you take a favorite passage from a classic book. Strip it down to the actions only, and then rewrite the passage in a way that is natural to you. Don't over think it, just write and trust yourself. When I tried this, I used a passage from Jane Eyre which I had read countless times. Despite the many times that I had read and reread and analyzed Charlotte Bronte's words, when I rewrote the passage in my own voice the "sense and substance" were the same but "mood and temper" were entirely mine. I highly suggest trying this exercise, it can be a real eye opener.

So, take a step behind the curtain and let your characters strut and fret upon the stage.

Don't Fear the Rewrite

About ten years ago (yes really, that long ago) I got the idea for the novel that I'm currently working on. It came in the form of a prologue. I know prologues are out of vogue, but I've checked and rechecked my reasons for having one, and I'm definitely sure it's the way to go. I wrote the prologue and was pretty happy with it. In the intervening years, I have outlined and written about half the book, other short stories, researched, had a career in corporate training, had two children, bought a house, sold a house, and generally lived a life. All of those things have contributed to my maturing as a writer. So, last year when I picked the novel up again after a hiatus, I read the prologue and was thoroughly unhappy. It meandered through the heads of the characters involved without direction. The descriptions were overblown and some of the dialog was down right syrupy. In the years since I wrote the original prologue, the characters have become clearer in my mind. I have even outlined a whole series of books with these characters. Two of them in particular aren't alive, during the main story line, so the prologue is the first of just a few places that the reader will be able to get their perspectives. The prologue should focus on them, and its original edition did not.

My years of writing training materials as a corporate trainer have conditioned me to write to an outline. It also got me used to working to a deadline, which I always managed to by keeping to an "always moving forward" way of working. If I get stuck on something, I move to something else until my mental block clears itself, or I find the information I need to finish. That's also why I always have multiple projects going. I'm always moving forward on one of them. So with that in mind, I was loath to spend valuable time going back and completely rewriting something that I had checked off my novel writing to do list. I told myself that I just had to get the rest out before I could go back and rewrite the prologue.

The trouble is, I floundered somewhere around chapter 9. As I was writing the rest of the story, the characters and events included in the prologue solidified in my mind more and more. I seemed to lose my way with the rest of the plot. I couldn't stop thinking about that prologue and how important is was to tell that story well before I could get the rest of it right. I finally had to bite the bullet and rewrite the darned thing. That's just what I've spent my few hours of true writing time for the last week or so doing, and I couldn't be more pleased.

What was unfocused and immature, is now true to the characters whose stories need to be told there. It has depth and subtext and foreshadowing that suggests where the overall series in addition to that novel will go. It doesn't reveal too much, but gives the right amount of characterization and a tantalizing glimpse of the heroine's back story. And best of all the writing doesn't make me want to hurl my iPad across the room as the original version did. It also has the added benefit of making me feel so much more focused about moving forward. I know some things in my outline need to be changed, what needs to be added and taken out. Rewriting took extra time that I could used to advance the plot, but it's also helped me refocus. Now, when I advance the plot I know I'll be moving in the right direction.