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Robert Plamondon’s Fiction Blog

I’ve been working on two novels at once, which has me thinking about fiction writing in general, and I’ll have some things to say about that. I’d love to hear from you about these topics.

Both novels are teenage fantasy-romances with the banter turned up to eleven, with mostly the same cast of characters. The working titles are The Princess and the Scamp and Jen Meets Her Match.

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Write Like You Talk. No, Seriously!

Lots of great talkers are terrible writers. Put a pen in their hand and they become dull and inarticulate. Why is that?

I’ll give you a hint: I saw a TV program once that showed kids selling goods at a farmer’s market in Brazil. They made change effortlessly and with near-perfect accuracy. But when researchers asked them to use the arithmetic they’d been taught in school, they became slow, hesitant, and inaccurate.

It’s the same with writing. In school, we’re taught a cumbersome approach that cuts us off from our existing skills as completely as the guillotine cut off Marie Antoinette’s head. That isn’t a good look!

Why do schools do this? Not my problem. This isn’t about fixing the educational system: it’s about you.

It’s the same thing with public speaking. People who are fascinating when you talk to them at lunch become awful if you put them on a stage. But we’re not going to fix that one today.

If you can tell an interesting story without having your audience run away three times out of five, you already have what it takes to be a writer.

Any halfway decent talker can be an interesting writer. You just have to write as entertainingly as you speak. The “making stuff up” part of fiction writing is less of a problem. Channeling a lifetime of telling whoppers into writing comes more naturally.

I admit that you’ll eventually need to learn all the nuts and bolts of the written word: how to place paragraph breaks non-randomly, for instance. But the things you were taught in school that still give you that deer-in-the-headlights look today aren’t that important. Some were never important in the first place. The others you’ll pick up soon enough. In writing, the main thing is to get your story written at all, because you can’t fix it until it exists.

Surf the Colloquial Wave

The trend in writing over the past hundred years or so has been informality. These days, professional writing (and especially fiction) has its tie missing and its sleeves rolled up. It’s been a long time since the button-down look has been fashionable.

Not that beautifully articulate formal prose can’t be wonderful: it can. But it’s no longer fashionable, which means it’s not worth your time.

For example, you’ll notice that I, a professional writer, use sentence fragments. A lot. I’ll boldly split infinitives where no infinitive has been split before and I figure that a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence on. (Sorry, Mrs. Rosendahl.)

What I’m saying is that if you pretend that you ain’t never been taught no grammar, you’ll end up with prose that, paradoxically, is more likely to win you the Nobel Prize in Literature. Your odds go from “zero” to “so close to zero that it can’t be measured”—an improvement of infinity percent!

Write Like You Talk. I Mean It.

Here’s the deal: if you write down a story the way you’d tell it to a friend, it’ll be livelier than if you told it any other way. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. Liveliness isn’t everything, but where there’s life, there’s hope. Dead prose is hard to resuscitate.

Here’s the mindset to use:

  1. Imagine that you have a story you really want to tell and an audience who really wants to hear it.
  2. Imagine that your audience is by invitation only. No Negative Nancies; no Teachers from the Crypt with Red Pens of Doom. Just people who are interested in your story.
  3. Tell the story to your audience. (That is, write it down. Don’t just imagine telling it!) Tell it all the way through.
  4. Celebrate. You deserve it.
  5. After the celebration comes the cleanup. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Ugly First Drafts

Many successful authors write first drafts that are so bad, you wouldn’t believe it.

Terrible first drafts are normal, even for the most successful authors. Don’t despair because your work isn’t as good as theirs, because neither is theirs.

They know the secret: you can’t fix it until you write it down. A story’s hard to work with when it’s still in your skull—it’s dark in there. So they bring it into the light and finish it in the second, third, or umpteenth draft. You can live down to this standard!

Ready, Fire, Aim

People who should be writing spend too much time preparing to write. Don’t do that.

When I get interested in something, I’m the King of Research. I read everything I can get my hands on, I watch YouTube videos, I listen to podcasts: the works. But I get my hands dirty at the same time. “Ready, Fire, Aim” is how I roll.

Let’s face it: the idea that you should sit in a classroom for years before you use your learning is what got us into this fix in the first place. As soon as you start writing your first story, you’ll have one relevant and meaningful question after another. That’s a good time to look for answers.

Be careful who you listen to! The best advice on fiction writing comes from published fiction writers. I’m especially fond of James Scott Bell’s books (and audiobooks) on writing fiction.

Q&A

Here are some questions and answers to get you started, though:

  • Do I have talent? Sure. I don’t believe in talent. I believe that practice makes perfect. By leveraging your existing skills, you put your best foot forward.
  • Should I wait for inspiration? Never wait for anything.
  • Do I need to read a lot of fiction first? See my answer to the previous question. You’ll probably want to read more fiction once you become interested in the nuts and bolts of prose fiction.
  • How do I pick a title? No one knows! It’s typical to pick a working title and change it later.
  • How do I open a story? How do you do it when you tell one to your buddies? Maybe like that. The opening introduces the rest of the story, so if you haven’t written down the rest of the story yet, you can’t tell whether you have the right opening. So don’t lose any sleep over it. Look at examples from books that drew you in right away, too.
  • How big should my story be? How big a story do you tell your buddies? Bigger than that, probably, but not vastly bigger. We’re leveraging your existing skills here. Don’t write something as big as Game of Thrones as your first project unless you absolutely can’t resist.
  • Novels or short stories? One of those, yeah. Or both.
  • What point of view and tense should I use? How would you tell this story around a campfire? I’m a big fan of the first-person yarn, where the storyteller is the main character and presumably wrote down the tale after the events are over. It’s a very human mode. If that doesn’t fit your project, I recommend the much-maligned third-person omniscient mode, since it’s the other natural, traditional storytelling mode, used in everything from fairy tales to nonfiction histories.
  • How do I become rich and famous? When you find out, let me know. Part of it is “keep writing,” though. This is a craft. You’ll keep getting better as long as you keep working at it.

So now go write something.

Deep POV is Way Too Shallow

Hey, let’s kick around so-called “Deep POV” for a while. It’s fun! Beating it up is almost too easy, but let’s do it anyway.

The idea of “deep POV” is that if you take a stream-of-consciousness narrative and clean it up so it isn’t too unbearable, you’ve got something uniquely wonderful. (People usually define it differently, but then, they would.)

Now, with stream-of-consciousness, you have an inherently shallow point of view, reporting on the viewpoint character’s surface thoughts and immediate impressions as if you were a brain recorder. Nothing deep about it.

Deep POV is exactly the same thing, but while stream-of-consciousness tends to use lots of self-interruption and sentence fragments to maximize its own tedium in the cause of “realism,” deep POV tends to use complete sentences to make the story marginally less ghastly.

Part of the problem with deep POV is that it assumes that the inside of the viewpoint character’s skull is far more interesting than it really is. Let’s face it: it’s dark and wet in there.

This error is compounded by deciding that only the stuff the character is experiencing in the moment can be described at all. All the things that the character knows but isn’t actively thinking about are kept secret from the reader. Thus, if you want to give some background information, you either have to contrive a scene where somebody talks about it or force the character to ponder it, hopefully in a non-random-seeming way.

In an ordinary story, the narration is done by the narrator. Take a traditional first-person story. The author pretends that the viewpoint character first lives through his adventure, then sits down and tells his story as best he can. Narrating his own story, in other words. This lets the author tell the story in a straightforward way, explaining things the audience needs to know as needed. You know: the way human beings tell stories. This isn’t allowed in deep POV. Strangling the narrator is the defining feature of deep POV.

Why would anyone bother? Admit it: you’d rather gnaw off your own leg than read a stream-of-consciousness novel. You’ll never read one unless you sign up for the wrong English class. Thus, the popularity of deep POV is a mystery to me. I assume that it’s a literary fad that affects authors rather than readers.

I’ve noticed, though, that a fondness for deep POV occurs side by side with a second literary spasm: the superstition that “an omniscient narrator is ipso facto a head-hopping narrator.” This belief is drilled into the heads of aspiring writers in spite of its obvious silliness. Omniscient narration is a narrative form; head-hopping is a beginner’s blunder. It’s equivalent to defining a manual transmission as “stalling the car by letting the clutch out too fast.” Nope. Not even close.

What is my favorite narrative form, you ask? It’s the first-person yarn. For example, Robert A. Heinlein starts his classic Have Space Suit, Will Travel with the paragraph

You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was this way:

From the very first line, we know that the story will be told as a personal anecdote, entirely different from the brain-recorder approach that deep POV uses.

In one of the novels I’m writing at the moment, Jen Meets Her Match, Jen makes it clear from the first paragraph that she sat herself down after the fact and told her story in her own words (and with no attempt to restrain her teenaged attitude):

My boyfriend is a real piece of work. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of girls whose boyfriends are vampires, werewolves, or even zombies. Those girls are lightweights. I don’t mean to brag, but they wouldn’t last five minutes with my boyfriend. Not that Frank is undead or anything. That would be too easy.

This entire paragraph would be impossible in deep POV, since it frames action that hasn’t been related yet, and that’s verboten. Nor would the next paragraph be permissible in deep POV:

It all started during the first week of school. Sophomore year. Wednesday, September 4, 1974. Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” was at the top of the charts, but other than that I was doing okay. I was minding my own business when Frank showed up next to me in the lunch line. He was new and we’d never spoken, but we had a few classes together and I knew his name.

Only the sentence “I was minding my own business when Frank showed up next to me in the lunch line” would be allowed in deep POV, since Jen isn’t consciously pondering the date, the Top Forty, or the list of things she knows about Frank during that particular moment. In short, in deep POV, there’s no framing, no scene-setting, no nothin’.

As you can see, I use first-person narration when I want to take full advantage of the viewpoint character’s voice and attitude. I only use it for highly articulate characters. With characters who aren’t as verbally flexible, I use third-person. That way, I’m limited only by my own verbal ability. While there are exceptions where a not-so-articulate character can be a fascinating first-person narrator (Flowers for Algernon leaps to mind), it’s an awfully tough row to hoe.

Does deep POV have any advantages? I haven’t found one: everything claimed as a unique advantage of deep POV is something I’ve been able to do with other viewpoints.

 

 

Banter: Swimming the Snark-Infested Waters

I grew up in a family of compulsive storytellers and conversationalists who engaged in constant verbal one-upmanship, so I have an advantage when it comes to snark.

People ask me sometimes how one writes banter-filled dialog.  I think it works about like this: it would be the same as an argument if it weren’t for the laughter. Like an argument, banter is competitive. But it resembles flirting because it’s cooperative at the same time. It’s a game, though often with enough seriousness that a misstep will turn it into an argument. That soupcon of danger helps make it good.

In fiction, characters who are attuned to each other can say almost anything to each other and get away with it because they understand what the other person means. In my in-progress novel, Jen Meets Her Match, Jen says “I hate you!” to her boyfriend Frank almost every day. By which she might mean almost anything.

I guess the main thing with banter, as opposed to, say, Spider-man mouthing off at people who don’t have the skill to hold up their end of the conversation, is that it takes two to banter. Some of the old screwball comedy movies, especially the Thin Man series, do very well with this. You also see good (if zany) examples in Duck Soup and other Marx Brothers movies, not to mention somewhat less ancient offerings like The Princess Bride.