Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between


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The Best Laid Plans

It has been quite some time since I last posted, but the reason is simple: I have been completely immersed in the final book of my science fiction trilogy. The first draft is now done. I tend to be rather eclectic in this blog, but just so you know, this post is just about writing, specifically about the journey I undertook to write a trilogy, and what I have learned about the craft in the process. Fair warning: there are no pretty pictures; just a lot of words, which I hope are interesting enough that pictures will not be required.

The amazing thing about writing is that no matter how much you do and no matter how long you do it, there is always more to learn. Language is the most complex thing we humans do, and writing is the most complex aspect of language. I could live to be 300 and write books the entire time and never know everything there is to know about language — or about writing. That complexity is deceptive, though. Since we apparently acquire language effortlessly as infants and cannot remember a time when we couldn’t communicate with words, language seems to be a simple thing. Everyone does it, and most people take it for granted.

(Note that I did not say we “learn” language. Until the age of six or so, we acquire language in much the same way we acquire the cells in our growing body. After that, though, if we want to learn another language, it is definitely a learning process. To wait until high school to require a foreign language is nuts; it goes against everything we know about language acquisition. Foreign language training should start in pre-school. Kindergarten at the latest. Our school system is stuck in the Nineteenth Century — but that’s another blog post.)

One of my writing instructors in college said that if you don’t have a plan in mind when you start a novel, you’ll find that you have written yourself into a corner by page 100. I didn’t believe him. I thought, “How can you know that will happen, much less by page 100? What’s so special about page 100?”

Well, it turns out he was right. For the first novel I started (and which I may yet return to — I still like the premise), I did not have a plan, and sure enough, by page 100 I was stuck. So when I decided to write a children’s science fiction novel, I knew I needed a plan. I bought a book called The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, by Evan Marshall. The book presents a formula for designing an effective novel. Now, normally I abhor formulas. When I was teaching Freshman English in college, there would always be a significant fraction of students who would attempt to fulfill the assignments I gave them with the infamous “5-paragraph essay.” It drove me nuts. The person who came up with the idea of the 5-paragraph essay as the ideal model for that form of writing should be forced to sit in a room and read nothing but freshman 5-paragraph essays for a week — and then EAT them! They’re horrible, contrived, and formulaic in the extreme. So you can imagine that I was dubious about using a formula to design a novel.

Nonetheless, I had to start somewhere. As it turns out, I didn’t stick precisely to the formula, since it was based on multiple point-of-view characters, and my novel had only one POV. I also opted for third-person limited, to keep the structure simple. The reader knew only what the protagonist knew. All that being said, Marshall at least gave me a rough structure, and he taught me the importance of mapping out a novel completely before starting. In the first book of the trilogy, The Talisman of Elam, I knew what was going to happen from beginning to end (except for minor details). It made the actual writing process very straightforward, and I didn’t get stuck at page 100 — or anywhere else for that matter.

Originally I had intended to write only one novel, but in mapping out the story structure I discovered there was no way I could get it all in one book. That’s when I decided to go for a trilogy. So I mapped out the whole, epic story, then broke it down into three parts and mapped the first book in more detail using Marshall’s techniques.

It worked well. Once the mapping was done, it only took me a couple of months to write the first draft. So naturally, I took the same approach to writing the second book, The Hand of Osiris. If you’ve written a trilogy — or even if you’ve only looked closely at trilogies — you can see there is a definite structure to them. The whole trilogy is like a single story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The first book is the beginning, the second the middle, and the third the end that contains the big climax and denouement. But each book must also stand alone as a complete story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. This makes the middle book of a trilogy rather challenging, because typically the middle part of a story is where tension builds as we head toward the climax, but the excitement of the beginning is gone, and we already know the big climax is not going to happen here. It’s just a series of obstacles the protagonist must meet and overcome, with each obstacle more difficult than the last. Finding a compelling beginning and a compelling climax to the middle part of the story, thereby making the middle stand on its own as a complete story, is not easy. At least, it wasn’t for me. That difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the second book you are constrained by what happened in the first. You can’t do just anything. You’ve established your fictional world and the direction of the narrative, so you don’t have the same freedom as you did in the first.

So it should come as no surprise that mapping out the second book was harder than the first, and it took longer. Nonetheless, the Marshall system worked again. I stuck to the script I developed and was able to write the first draft fairly quickly. (Interestingly, though I think the writing is better in the second book, and though I think the story becomes more interesting, people seem to like the first book better. Perhaps because the first book is more clearly good vs. evil and there are no blurred lines. Things become more complicated and more nuanced in book 2.)

If you are constrained in book 2 by what you did in book 1, imagine how constrained you are in book 3! In fact, I found that mapping out book 3 was much more difficult than I had thought it was going to be. I knew where I needed to start and I knew where I needed to end up, but the middle part gave me fits. Finally, I finished mapping it out and began to write. And then a very funny thing happened. The writing went flat. The characters went flat. It was almost as though they had taken on lives of their own (something I felt very strongly in book 2) and were telling me that I was making them do things they didn’t want to do. It just wasn’t working. By page 100 (there’s that magic number again! I wonder if that’s coincidence?!) the whole thing felt dead. It was boring to write, which I knew meant it would be boring to read. That is worse than death for a story.

So I quit. I threw away those first 100 pages and I threw away the plan I had worked so hard on and I started over knowing only where I would begin and where I needed to end. In essence, I let the characters drive the story. Once I did that, the story came alive and took off. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with it. As I noted earlier, I have now finished the first draft and have begun the first revision. The characters took me places I had absolutely NO idea I’d be going, but in the end it worked. I’m very excited about it. I think this is the best book yet, and I think the story will boggle a few minds. But like all writers, I won’t really know until readers get their hands on it.

I’m looking forward to that, and to finally finishing this project that has occupied me for the past ten years. I’m already thinking about the next novel, a completely unrelated fantasy.


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Liberal

I came across this the other day:

liberal

I had seen it before, but this time I decided to fact-check it. As it turns out, both Webster’s New World Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary not only corroborate this definition but go much further.

This made me wonder how on Earth this word has been made to mean something bad to so many people. The way some pundits and talking heads spit out the word “liberal” as though it’s a piece of rancid cheese, you’d think being liberal is downright un-American. And yet, the exact opposite is true. This country was founded on the most liberal principles known to humanity at the time. In fact, they were downright revolutionary! (No pun intended.) Imagine! Government by the people instead of a king! It was practically heresy.

And even now those people who most vilify the word “liberal” nonetheless continually espouse liberal principles — such as tolerance of others, favoring individual freedom, broad-mindedness, and democracy — even as they demonstrate exactly the opposite in their words and actions. Yes, I’m talking about you, Faux News.

The word “liberal” literally defines the United States of America, both in its founding and in its often-stated principles. So how did this fine little word come to mean something so foul to so many ill-informed people?


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Murky Writing

Anyone who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard has made mistakes, and the process of creating vibrant fiction is rife with potential errors. I should know; I’ve made most of them. Malcolm Gadwell said it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something, and after spending a lot of those hours writing, I can see that he was right. As Jimmy Buffet said:

Simple words can become clever phrases,
And chapters could turn into books.
Yes, if I could just get it on paper.
But it’s harder than it ever looks.

Indeed it is, harder than it ever looks. At least, it is for most of us. But I think I’ve gotten to the point where I can see the mistakes — even in my own writing (because it’s always harder to spot the problems in your own work; you’re just too close to it). That’s half the battle.

There are many reasons why I have reached this point in my writing career. One, of course, is all the practice. Another is all the reading, and by that I don’t mean just reading the really good writing. I also mean reading, shall we say, unpolished writing. Murky writing. Writing where the writing itself, through its unpolished nature, gets in the way of the story. And the fact is, all good writing starts out as unpolished or murky writing, a point Stephen King makes quite clearly in his book, “On Writing.”

Murky writing can be fixed, of course. And that’s kind of the point. We all strive to make our writing better, and with time we do get better. But here’s the cool thing: no matter how good you get as a writer, you can always get even better. You SHOULD always be getting better, if you’re doing it right. Language is such an amazing and complex process that no one ever gains total mastery over it. I don’t think total mastery is even possible. Those 26 letters in English alone can form a virtually infinite number of words, and those words can form a virtually infinite number of sentences, and those sentences can be used to create a virtually infinite number of stories. How could any one person master an infinity piled on top of an infinity piled on top of another infinity of possibilities? (Though, granted, some people have come perilously close. Here’s where you name William Shakespeare and your other favorite authors who can make prose sing.)

So, all that being said, here are a few mistakes that writers (including me) make that clouds their prose and impedes their stories. These are mistakes that I’ve seen in nearly every self-published novel I’ve read — or started to read and couldn’t finish.

1) Too many words. And by too many words, I don’t mean the novel is too long (though it may well be). I mean the writer is using more words than necessary to get the information across. Extra explanation and extra exposition. These extra words clog up the prose and impede the story. Why make the reader sift through lots of extra words to get the meaning, when the meaning becomes abundantly clear and precise with fewer words? The trick to clear writing is to use only the absolute minimum number of words necessary to impart the information or get the point across. Any more than that is clutter. Example:

“The conductor called out the name “Rollinsford Station” a few minutes before the train rolled to a stop. Tom grabbed his briefcase and stood. The only other person in the dining car was an old man. He’d boarded at the last station, when most of the other people had disembarked. Now he just sat nursing his drink and didn’t look up when Tom passed him on his way out.”

(Let me establish here that we will never see the train or the old man again, and no one else who was on that train will appear in the ensuing story, nor will their brief mention have any bearing.)

You can make the case that the old man helps set the scene and establishes the moment. You can also say he’s irrelevant, especially since the setting is about to become utterly unimportant when Tom disembarks the train. But let’s leave the old man in for now. What about the rest? Does it matter to the story that everyone else got off at the last stop? No. Does it matter that the old man got on at the last stop? No. All of that is just clutter and can be eliminated.

If the information is not important to the story, if it doesn’t move the story forward, or if it doesn’t establish the present scene or illuminate character, it simply isn’t needed. And I would say that, in most cases, it should do at least two of those things.

Getting rid of extra words can be as simple as eliminating unnecessary “said” attributions in dialogue. Prose also benefits by eliminating a few commonly over-used words, such as:

2) The indeterminate words “seemed” and “something” (and, by extension, “somehow, someone, and sometimes”). These words are dreadfully overused, and they almost never do any good. They cloud prose with vagueness when clarity is required. Every writer should do a global search for these words and eliminate most of them. “Seem” can be used as part of dialogue or inner thought (“It seemed to him that Tom was being a bit vague.”), but when it’s part of exposition it rarely works. “It seemed cold.” No, it either was cold or it wasn’t. Make up your mind. And, in fact, just saying it’s cold is telling, not showing. Another error (see below).

In the same vein, “something” is a throwaway word. “Something like anger rose up within him.” What is “something like anger”? It was either anger or it wasn’t. Diluting the anger with “something” robs the moment of its punch. And again, this is telling, not showing. And since I’m on the subject:

3) Telling instead of showing. We all hear this a zillion times. It’s drilled into us. “Show, don’t tell.” Yet we all still do it. I know I do. The key is spotting it and eliminating it. Often this “telling” is as simple as using a couple of sentences to summarize an incident or a series of actions that precipitated the present fictional moment. I call this “in-place flashback” (as opposed to actual flashback sequences where action is shown). Sometimes summarizing previous events is unavoidable. Obviously, we don’t want to show everything, only that which is necessary to the story. But if there’s too much summarizing, it bogs things down. It usually means there’s a problem with the story itself. Too much telling makes the story go dead to the reader. The action and tension die.

Generally, if those preceding actions were important, they should be shown. If they were not that important, can they be eliminated? If they cannot be eliminated because they are critical to setting the current scene, but not important enough to expand into a scene, then keep them short and move on. Or re-write the scene.

At a one-on-one at a conference once, an agent told me that there was too much telling in the ten pages she saw. I was shocked. I had gone over those pages a zillion times, polishing them to make them shine. I thought I was showing. But she was right. I looked again with fresh eyes, and I, too, saw too much telling. Too much summarizing. I had to go back and breathe life into those pages.

4) The word “as.” Every writer should do a global search for this word in every manuscript and eliminate 95% of them. “As” is used most frequently to denote simultaneous actions, but in reality, actions are rarely simultaneous. One almost always occurs before the other. Even worse, I have noticed that when a writer uses “as” in this way, the action after the word “as” almost always occurred before the action that preceded the word. This forces the reader to do mental gymnastics to put the actions in the proper time sequence. It’s probably subliminal, but it still is like throwing sand in the fictional gears.

I see “as” used in this manner way too frequently in unpolished and/or self-published work. It drives me nuts. Here’s an example:

“The engine roared as he pressed on the accelerator.” Obviously, he would have to have pressed on the accelerator first, or the engine would not have been fed the fuel to make it roar. It would be much more direct to say: “He pressed on the accelerator and the engine roared.” This reads more clearly and doesn’t make the reader have to do a miniature, mental time flip to make the sentence make sense.

The word “while” is often used in a similar way and to similar ill effect.

I’ll no doubt have more to say about these subjects, as well as other elements of language and writing, but for now I hope other writers out there in blog-land may find these observations useful.