Something fun and exciting that happened this month was an invitation that landed in my inbox from the Gotham Writers' Workshop. Gotham is the largest adult-education writing school in the country, with an e-mailing list of over 75,000, so, of course, I was both a little flabbergasted and very excited when they offered to feature an excerpt from and giveaway of Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success in one of their e-letter issues.
Plot snarls were the name of the game these last few weeks. I realized I'd created quite a little conundrum for myself by placing two characters who needed to be in the same scene on opposite sides of the country. Whoops. I then further realized that an important military maneuver in the subsequent chapters was similarly hampered by geographical improbabilities. So it was back to the drawing board, the map, and the calculator as I tried to devise routes that would get all the characters where they needed to be when they needed to be. Looks like we'll have to add cartographer and military strategist to the job titles of an author!
We all know there are days when writing is chore. You know the ones—when the ones words come harder than honey from an angry beehive, when the infernal internal editor is harping on your worthlessness and utter lack of talent, and when you can't stand your characters and they can't stand you. Fortunately, aside from those plot snarls, my writing days of late have been more of the opposite. I've been having a grand old time, writing away. My infernal editor seems to be largely on vacation in the Bahamas, and I find myself cracking up over my own silly in-jokes probably entirely more than is good for me. It's been a good month!
Featured Book: Give the Lady a Ride
This month, I'd like to point your attention to the rom-com inspirational western of my very special critique partner Linda Yezak: Patricia Talbert is a high-class social coordinator from New York. Talon Carlson is a rugged bull rider from Texas. He thinks she's too polished. She thinks he's insane. Opposites aren't quick to attract when the lady who enters the cowboy's world is on a mission to sell the ranch. But a box of letters changes her mission—letters of unshakable faith and a love deeper than anything she's ever experienced. Soon she finds his integrity appealing. Her spunk draws him in. He has the faith she craves; she may be the love he longs for. But faith and love aren't achieved in a single weekend. To buy time to explore the possibilities between them, she issues a challenge: "Teach me to ride bulls." From here on, they're in for the ride of their lives.
Q: I'm writing a historical novel, but the opening chapter is set in a contemporary setting, so that the historical part is told by a contemporary character. On reflection, I wondered how best to do this, as the opening chapter (and characters) is what grabs a reader, and is it all right for those characters then to disappear until the very last chapter?—Chiara Keren Button
A: What you've described in your question is called a "frame technique," and it can often be very effective at pulling disparate elements and lengthy timelines together into a coherent whole. (For a good example of how this technique can be used, you may want to check out Barbara Wood's Green City in the Sun; I discuss her book and this technique in this post.) However, in general, I would recommend skipping the frame technique (which essentially is nothing more than a matching prologue and epilogue) and letting the reader get right to the main character. Prologues—or any technique that forces readers to begin a story twice—get in the way more often than not and can end up frustrating readers because they don't offer clear indications about which characters should gain the readers' primary loyalty
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What reader doesn't enjoy a genuinely witty character? Even the darkest of stories can benefit from the presence of someone whose snarky tongue can bring a chuckle to his compatriots and his eavesdropping readers. But wit is easier said than done, and nothing is worse than forced wit. In the last few years, there have been a rash of movies (mostly summer blockbusters) that try really hard to live up to the witty legacies of films such as Indiana Jones and the original Star Wars, only to fall sadly short. Why is this? Often it isn't the jokes that are to blame. Words that might have been hilarious coming out of the mouth of Han Solo fall flat on their faces coming out of the mouths of other characters. So what's the difference?
In a nutshell: character. The secret to pulling off a witty character is putting the emphasis, not on the wit itself, but on the character. As we're planning or writing our stories, it's easy to say, "You know, it would be fun to have a witty character. A wisecracking hero or a bumbling sidekick." So we stick 'em in. But our immediate problem with this decision is that we're trying to force the humor, instead of allowing it to emerge organically from the character.
Humor grows all the more funny in context. And when that context is a fully developed personality, the humor is then able to offer not just a bigger laugh, but a deeper understanding of both the character and the plot. If your character is nothing more than a smart mouth, readers will instantly perceive he's cardboard cutout, stuck in by a lazy author who wants to garner a cheap laugh. Some readers will forgive you for this, particularly if you happen to be able to write hilarious dialogue. But others will resent it and go looking for something that manages to combine both entertainment and intelligence. So the next time you decide to write a witty character, make sure you're not just sticking witty words in his mouth. Rather, create a complete personality from whom the wit can flow realistically, organically, and engagingly.
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