Thursday, May 12, 2005

Book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing a Novel

Books

To start off my new blog, I'll post my required reading journal. The first book is by my current mentor in the Seton Hill WPF Program.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel
by Tom Monteleone
Idiot's Guide

I probably reference this book at least twice a week, mostly because I have issues with setting, or my conspicuous lack thereof. Tom says to establish the setting early and let the reader know where she is before you start into the story specifics. You would think that after writing fourteen chapters I would remember this. The problem is, I’m one of these people he refers to in his Style section who ‘prefers the loose look of watercolors’ as opposed to the ‘precise, realistic lines of pen-and-ink.’

You know what he would say to that?

'The key…is balance.’

Balance also happens to be the first sub-heading in the Setting section, so I suppose that shows its importance. Here he gives the perfect recipe for story advancement:

1. Mix your action, dialog, and description of setting. (the ingredients)
2. Remember to use your passages as instruments of pacing. (the 3-speed mixer)
3. Use scene-setting to break up long runs of dialogue or action. (the mixer at work)
4. Work in some creativity to taste. (the secret ingredient)

And, just like anything else I make from a recipe, it never turns out exactly like it’s supposed to. Maybe that’s why the title of Chapter 15 is Another Name for Writing Is Rewriting. Tom reminds you throughout the book that it’s more important to get everything down first, then go over it with the red pen later.

The rewrite is also when he suggests to liven up your language with interesting verbs, master the use of simile and metaphor (like my recipe from above), get rid of the cliches, and pay attention to syntax. Oh, and run the spellcheck.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself and almost forgot about my two favorite chapters; Dialogue and Characters. Since my own work is very character-driven, it’s obvious why I’m also drawn to dialogue. Like Tom says, it’s a good, subtle way to include backstory, set the mood, create tension, show the character’s background, and make each character sound like an individual. This last one is tougher than it sounds.

For one thing, the rhythm and cadence for each character has to be a little different. He suggests that as you keep writing and get to know your characters, you’ll also know how they will respond verbally in certain situations; and, much of this depends upon their schema. In essence, the reader should be able to tell who’s talking in most instances even without the dialogue tag. (Oh, and a thing about that dialogue tag--the best one is still plain old ‘said’, sans adverb.)

Much of a character’s dialogue style will depend upon which archetype he or she most closely resembles. In my own writing, I have a large cast, so sometimes the archetypes overlap. For example, there is one main protagonist and antagonist, but a few others serve to fill those roles throughout the work as well. My skeptic and conscience guy are one in the same, but my emotionalist and her opposite, the rationalist seem content to stay within those limits.

The trick with archetypes, as Tom cautions, is not to make them stereotypes. To avoid this, you can work with a character’s physical appearance, cultural and social influences, psychological background, and previous experiences. Let’s take my military guy, for instance. Yeah, he’s big and muscled, strong as an elephant, and highly trained, but he’s also very happy and carefree, quick to smile and joke. He’s not dark and broody and always thinking of the next big battle. (There’s another guy who’s like that, the scientist.)

Now, as useful as the first part of Tom’s book is, I have to tell you, I can’t wait until I have to reference chapters 18-20. Those are the ones on Marketing, Publicity, and Publishing. Maybe next year.

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