Features, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

How to Make Yourself a More Trustworthy Bookworm // Part 2

May at Forever and Everly wrote a post* about “How Much Should We Really Trust Book Reviews and/or Reviewers??? #trustissues.” It makes some really good points about reviewers… What I took away from it is that READERS (aren’t we ALL ONE!?) struggle to put into words WHY…

Why didn’t I like the writing!? Why was the beginning slow but the end perfect?! Why didn’t I care that it was ALL TELLING?! ETC, ETC…

Here is part 2 to understanding WHY…!

Lightbulb Line Editing 101 - Pink

Lighting a Writer’s Toolkit is a feature where I share thoughts that would be beneficial for writers of reviews or books, all connected to EDITING (…my favorite part of writing #sorrynotsorry)!


Toolkit: Writing Style

Readers throw around the phrase writing style all the time in their reviews. Ask a writer what writing style means and you will get a variety of answers…

It’s a writer’s particular point of view, hence the advice to write what we know. If a story lacks conviction about the subject matter there is no style.”

Ask another and they will say “style is craftsmanship… it is placing the right words in their proper place so that things are said a certain way.”

Many writers feel “style is simply their stamp on the material.”

All three of these have aspects that are true about writing style…

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So what is writing style?

Each writer puts their own stamp on their words through their choices. By examining four principle styles we can see how a writer using different writing methods affects their prose.

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4 Principle Writing Styles

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Balanced Style Banner


Who uses it? Think Nora Roberts!

What is it? Follows the basic rules and principles of fiction writing and prose. There are references to sensory descriptions of sight, sound, taste, smell and feel.

How does it use prose? Balanced use of telling (expository) and showing (narrative) in an effort to form a connection between the POV character and the reader (the persuasive part of prose).

Benefit of the style? Ease of reading it, balance makes it effortless.

Weakness of the style? It’s so basic that creativity and depth must be developed or the story feels like something you’ve read in the past. There aren’t any design details that make the style stand out from the pack and at the same time there is nothing to hide any flaws!

Talking Spoilers Just a Line

Lyrical Style Banner


Who uses it? Think Laini Taylor!

What is it? The author takes the reader by the hand and escorts them through every aspect of the story so they feel as the author felt when writing it. Balance takes a back seat in favor of using whichever method illustrates the author’s thoughts best.

How does it use prose? The descriptive aspect of prose is amped up with extra metaphors and long strings of descriptive words that not only add to the physical world but also reference the emotions of the characters.

Benefit of the style? Power of emotions drawing them through the story making it a favorite among readers.

Weakness of the style? The narrative can become quite heavy when too much of any one element is used. Too much description, heavy. Too much telling, heavy. Too much internal angst, heavy. And all this heaviness equals slow or boring moments.

Talking Spoilers Just a Line

Relatable Style Banner


Who uses it? Think Rainbow Rowell! 

What is it? The narrative is deliberately powerful so the POV character takes center stage and does all the persuading. 

How does it use prose? The descriptions aren’t amped up, rather pop culture references and societal issues are used so the character is extremely relatable to the reader. Summarizing events is common so the character can tell the reader how they felt. Dialogue is much of what makes up the showing.

Benefit of the style? The intimate connection between protagonist and the reader through a shared head space and understanding.

Weakness of the style? A propensity to be in the head too much! Summarizing can take over and it all becomes telling with zero showing. Without plot there is no journey.

Talking Spoilers Just a Line

Action Style Banner


Who uses it? Think Lee Child!

What is it? This style is stark and minimal in details unnecessary to the premise and the plot. Characterization takes a back seat as much of what relates to them is inferred through the details of their circumstances and suggested through their experiences. 

How does it use prose? Events drive what telling there is and relies on the situations that arise to show character and internal motivations. 

Benefit of the style? The reader is able to immerse themselves into the experience through the character’s circumstances.

Weakness of the style? When characters aren’t given enough detail to make them feel like individuals. We are told they are different because they are the ONLY ONE WHO CAN _______ (fill in the blank!) Whatever the situation needs the character can do it but there isn’t enough back history or understanding for us to believe it is anything more than coincidence.

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What did we learn…?

We can see from this exercise that PROSE is what a writer crafts and STYLE is how the writer executes it.

Imagine Prose as a detailed map of the story.

In London.

Writing style then is the path the writer takes to get the reader from where they are to London.

Some fly in quick and easy. Some take a scenic cruise ship, long and languishing. Others backpack with a friend through Scotland first. And others hit road block after road block until they finally arrive for the big show.

No one way is more or less correct than another. But I may prefer to backpack rather than take the cruise. …Or not.

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So what is Writing Style?

Prose has specific functions that to varying degrees are or aren’t used in a writer’s writing style. Whether you LOVE a writing style or not is all dependent on whether you enjoy the way they use the functions of prose. Hence…

Talking Spoilers Just a Line


Style is the distinctive way a writer uses the functions of prose when designing a narrative.


Talking Spoilers Just a Line

Of course a writer’s point of view will come to bear on these choices. And craftsmanship or the use of words will dictate how a reader responds to the style. This is when storycraft comes into play… but that’s for next time!

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Instead of struggling with WHY…

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By incorporating these two basic tenets into our reviews we’ll make ourselves MORE TRUSTWORTHY BOOKWORMS…


Exposition, description, persuasion and narrative are key to delivering a story’s complete message. Missing one of these? Then the prose is poor.


Even if the prose is poor or even imperfect YOU CAN STILL ENJOY THE AUTHOR’S WRITING STYLE!!


Following these will make us more confident when writing our reviews, like this…

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Which writing style do you prefer reading? Is there a style weakness that annoys you?

Do you struggle with WHY?

Thank for Reading XOXO

Dani Signature

*Inspired my post’s title!!

We all struggle to put into words WHY... why did we feel that way about the book we just read... Here's the second way to get a handle on WHY... Come check it out!

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Features, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

How to Make Yourself a More Trustworthy Bookworm // Part 1

New Feature Alert! Whereas my writing partner excels at laying words on a page in a pretty and persuasive way, my strength as a writer is my ability to edit… (i.e. arrange, revise, and prepare the written word). Hence my blog!! I need to be able to gather and put my thoughts on the page… now that I’ve gotten that “skill” down let me share a little of my other skill…

Lightbulb Line Editing 101 - Pink

Lighting a Writer’s Toolkit is a feature where I share thoughts that would be beneficial for writers of reviews or books, all connected to EDITING (…my favorite part of writing #sorrynotsorry)!


The Toolkit

The idea for this feature came quite by accident. There I was minding my own business on Goodreads (trolling for new books to add to my massive TBR list #kiddingnotkidding) and here comes a review of Strange the Dreamer! I just finished reviewing that book I thought… I wonder if they thought the writing was heavy?!

When we write reviews there is a toolkit of words that we use when talking about a book. Words such as pacing, point of view, narrative, characterization, plot… just to name a few. There are two mega-stars we reach for every time and those are prose and writing style!!

It’s not, really! #basic #easy #promise …I’m going to take a different term or idea each post and shed some light on it’s place in the writer’s toolkit…

You probably haven’t given a lot of thought about the difference between prose and writing style. After all reviewers and even writers use them rather interchangeably… but they actually represent two different but connected roles in the writing of a book. Let’s start with prose…

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Writer’s Toolkit: Prose

Did you ever read the Iliad or the Odyssey by Homer in English class?! It’s like one gigantic poem… Did you get sick of it? I DID!! And swiftly too… so I’m not surprised that back in the day people started to get sick of the way writing was written… in poems. And they wanted a NEW way… that is where prose comes in.

Prose is simply writing that is similar to the way we really talk except that there are full sentences used with proper punctuation. NO MORE POEM stories!!

So when a reviewer says they LOVE the prose it makes sense that what you are saying is that you like the way the story was written. But prose is MORE than that… (really!! I am NOT kidding you this time…)

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Note: These functions are for the purpose of talking about the prose in fiction books or stories. These are not your textbook breakdowns (i.e. don’t study these for a test!!) Thank you for understanding ❤

4 Functions of Prose

At its most basic the purpose of a story is to share, through the written word, the happenings of characters as if they were real people moving through a real world. That purpose is fulfilled through prose. These four functions are key to delivering a story’s complete message.


Expository (i.e. exposing the world)

This part of prose is all about relaying information. All stories have ideas that need to be explained so that the reader understands how they relate to the character and the world. This type of information is the stuff the author TELLS us.

This can happen through dialogue, through the POV character sharing with the reader or events where information can be relayed in a natural environment. When this sharing of information is cliched and clumsily done we call it INFO DUMPING!


Descriptive (i.e. sensing the world)

This is pretty self explanatory… this part of prose describes something with pertinent details. Specifically. The 5 SENSES should be put to work… helping you visualize what the character sees, hears, tastes, smells, and feels!

Physical landscapes are formed, features swim into focus, actions and movements come to life… situations, locations and environments all described in a manner that has enough detail for a VISION to develop in the mind of the reader.


Persuasive (i.e. focusing the world)

Everything in a fiction book is run through a character or a point of view. The author’s own opinions can bleed through but the point is for the POV character(s) to persuade us that their view of their world is the right one! Persuasive prose does this…

We obviously don’t get into a debate with the character…We don’t expect them to lay out evidence nor to weigh the pros and cons of their ideas and viewpoints. At the same time that is EXACTLY what we expect. We want to be persuaded that their POV is RELATABLE with proper MOTIVATION making it worth the journey!!


Narrative (i.e. moving through the world)

Now everyone is probably familiar with this function of prose. We are talking about the basic plot, the story line. These are the events that make up the story and which happen to the characters.

A passage of time is explored and events set out. This is SHOWING. Much exposition can mix with a narrative as the course of events are explored. Description of the surroundings and people is woven in as they come up. And we learn what the character is thinking as they experience the narrative.

Narrative prose should bring the other three types together to form the story! It should in an entertaining and moving way answer the question: “What happened then?”

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The Enemy of Prose

When one of these 4 functions fails or is poorly executed then the prose is poor too! Sometimes the exposition part of the writing is so fresh that we overlook that the narrative or events of the story didn’t work at all. At other times the lyrical prose overwhelms our senses and we disregard the info dumps and lack of character motivation.

More often than not though a book has been the victim of the enemy of prose… dun, dun, dun — cliche. There are many names for this enemy… worn tropes, stereotypes, unoriginal. It boils down to a lack of creativity!

YES! Then the ally to prose is imagination… This can be a fresh take on an old idea, it can be a more specific or unique POV, it can be developing a world in a totally different direction. You see the buzz words: fresh, specific, unique, different.

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So Writing Style…?

Yeah… I can’t explain that here… this post is long enough! The point though of understanding prose is this…

Even if the prose is poor or even imperfect YOU CAN STILL ENJOY THE AUTHOR’S WRITING STYLE!!

BUT… you talked about becoming more trustworthy… DANI! YOU MADE A PROMISE!

May at Forever and Everly wrote a post* about “How Much Should We Really Trust Book Reviews and/or Reviewers??? #trustissues” If you haven’t read this yet then you should! It makes some really good points about reviewers… What I took away from it is that READERS (aren’t we ALL ONE!?) struggle to put into words WHY…

Why didn’t I like the writing!? Why was the beginning slow but the end perfect?! Why didn’t I care that it was ALL TELLING?! ETC, ETC…

We ALL know these struggles… But now YOU GOT THIS!!

Through knowledge of prose you can better state your argument about WHY! You know the 4 functions of prose and that if a story is creative then you can overlook a few prose issues! Or if the prose is really great but you still didn’t enjoy it that much you know that it was probably cliched…


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I’m no teacher, I’m better at doing than explaining but I hope that this helps?! What do you think about this feature? Did it make sense? Did you read May’s discussion? What do you think about my new comment graphic?** (It’s a work in progress…)

NEXT TIME… I’ll delve into writing style and why it’s different from prose…

Thank for Reading XOXO

Dani Signature

*Inspired my post’s title!!  **Totally inspired by Ilsa @ A Whisper of Ink! Thanks ❤

 

We all struggle to put into words WHY... why did we feel that way about the book we just read... Here's one way to get a handle on WHY... Come check it out!

A Few TV Thoughts, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

Expanding Details In Plain Sight

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit words in or out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other stories the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.

Writing Diagnostic #6:  let’s explore how expanding details put in place by a previous episode’s writer adds depth and canon to a television series.

Women are always in search of strong women characters. This is quite odd to me; I find most women deserve the hashtag #strong. Whatever our current circumstances, all women have had to be strong throughout some sort of tough times. Of course, then we have to argue about the true definition of tough times. This conversation could easily turn into a long running argument about how we feel, what we perceive, is reality and not what the other person perceives.

So it’s long fascinated me that television shows in America tend to be written by different screenwriters. How can there be any consistency in a story if different people pop in and out dragging along their personal perceptions and their baggage?

One answer is the actors. With their knowledge of the character, they take the new circumstances and interpret the plot in a way that works with their character’s point of view. In other words, an actor can take a mess of a screenplay and make it consistent and sensical through their interpretation of it. The right answer to the question, though, is the executive producer. One of their major jobs is to keep the themes within the story consistent. In this way the stories found in each episode should work to highlight the personality and struggles of the central characters.

In Plain Sight Banner

In Plain Sight was an American television show on USA Network that ran from 2008 to 2012. The show follows a small WITSEC office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as Deputy US Marshals settle and protect people in their area for the Witness Protection Program. The show ran for five seasons in spite of the production being riddled with problems to do with their producers. Realistically, the show made it so long due to the core cast. Mary McCormack, Fred Weller, Paul Ben-Victor, Lesley Ann Warren, and Nichole Hiltz were all excellent from day one and their recurring guests Rachel Boston, Cristián de la Fuente, and Joshua Malina supported them well.

Personally, I adored Mary McCormack as Marshal Mary Shannon. She’s that expected strong woman with a twist. Due to her father’s abandonment she is the head of her dysfunctional family and has major trust issues, something all women can identify with. Her struggle to overcome her issues with baseball boyfriend, Raph, were compelling, especially when he got caught up in her sister, Brandi’s problems. When Raph and Mary got engaged I was over the moon for her.

Two details changed my whole perspective of Mary and Raph’s love life. The first was when Marshal Marshall Mann, Mary’s partner became angry that she revealed to Raph her job (and his by association) as a WITSEC Marshal. Why was he so angry and almost…hurt? Was there a deeper issue at work here? Mary doesn’t even understand why he’s so mad. The second was in a later episode when Marshall becomes verbally impotent, Mary’s words not mine, at the news she’s broken her engagement with Raph. Why is he speechless for the first time…ever? Is that a subtle glimpse of hope in his expression? These two details were layered into the story by separate screenwriters in different episodes but they clearly have a connection.

In Plain Sight Stan and Marshall

A third detail, developed further than the other two, forms a pattern that we can begin to make sense of. In the last episode of season three, the story line formed by these three details play themselves out. Marshall’s feelings for Mary are revealed in a lovely scene of jealousy that evolves into a moment of revelation. He’s reacting to a bit of flirting between Mary and an agent he doesn’t like. A man very different from himself.

He tries to explain how she really needs a man like him. A man who would challenge her, call her on her bull, get in her face, make her think. He even gathers all of his courage to tell her he loves her before he’s interrupted by their boss, Stan. And to be honest Mary seems relieved. We can see from these details that each screenwriter took a moment that another screenwriter built up to and put their own spin on how the characters would react.

It speaks to Fred Weller’s skill as an actor that he made it a believable part of his laid back character for him to have been hiding a love for Mary. Through all the time they’ve worked together and even through her engagement. The season two finale where Mary’s life is threatened certainly provided Marshall a wake up call to his feelings for his partner. Looking back we can easily insert this moment into the Marshall loves Mary story line as it makes a nice plot support for his growing feelings. We can better believe that those two initial details developed into full-blown love and jealousy. These factors certainly played into the success of Marshall loving Mary, but it’s the way each screenwriter developed those details into special moments that made it possible for them to be expanded into the full story line.

In Plain Sight Mary and Marshall

Laid into the story by different screenwriters, developed through each one’s perceptions then supported by the plot and actors these details became the central dilemma for the series finale. Would Mary Shannon return Marshall Mann’s feelings and break up his engagement to Abigail? This question became a rabid point for fans of In Plain Sight. Mary McCormack even came out with her own opinion as to what the outcome should be for Mary Shannon. Whether you agree with the conclusion that Mary and Marshall are professional soul mates, not meant to have a personal relationship is for you to decide.

The point is these details were added to make a single moment in an episode shine with truth and depth and ended up making a series shine with depth and canon. Yes, expanding details are essential to a television show. They are the points along a story line that other screenwriters reference and then develop during the course of their own episode. In Plain Sight had some excellent screenwriters. I know it because it’s a show riddled with excellent details. Many of these details might not have been expanded into a story line like the Marshall loves Mary story line but they all made excellent moments. Ones of pure potential. With better producers the show could have been a well-developed piece of rope with story lines expanded into many more seasons.

Many shows have excellent premises and production teams paired with stellar characters and actors to portray them. What shows need now are equally excellent details and stellar screenwriters and producers who develop those details and build those story lines. The results would be depth and canon and fans that rave about your story.

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Did you love In Plain Sight? Did you want Mary to move on or go for Marshall? Do you like USA Network television? Is your preference light and fluffy shows or dark and deep explorations of the human psyche? Are you a rabid fan of any current television?

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ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit words in or out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other stories the easier it is to diagnose… Continue reading Expanding Details In Plain Sight

Book Reviews, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

When Rooting for the Villain is Better than Good

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.

Writing Diagnostic #5:  let’s explore how a change in point of view makes a villain better than good and his antagonists better than evil.

Finding a new series is not easy so I get super excited when I come across one I might like…still I find it smart to approach cautiously. So when I ran across Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, Shadows of the Apt series, namely book one: Empire in Black and Gold I had to read most of the first chapter just to be sure…and was totally captured by the characters and the opening gambit. Wow, I thought, I normally don’t like fantasy books solely about war but this really seems like a series I could get into. Did you see where I slipped in my gaffe? Yup, I read MOST of the first chapter. Aaghhh, most! Before you judge me, go read most of the first chapter on Amazon… see what I mean…sounds good, right?

Tchaikovsky Stenwold Header

Characters draw you into the story. When we are teased with compelling men and women only to find it a bait and switch trap…yup, we are not pleased. While my favorite character was killed perhaps yours lived. My great disappointment though spoke to a strength in the work: the races. I talk about why racial diversity in this work is a powerful draw here. In this series the world is populated by insect-kinden. Each kinden is gifted by an ability and traits related to the insect after which they are named, but are wholly humanoid. I found the various races highly creative and both Empire in Black and Gold and Dragonfly Falling were worth the read simply to experience them.

Despite this the characters were the weakest part of the story for me, quickly followed by the plot. So why is the series worth saving if everything is so ho-hum…?

Stenwold Maker‘s friends die so he can spread the word about the wasp empire. He epitomizes a Beetle-kinden. Stocky & trundling he persistently creates a network of resisters behind the scenes as the only Lowland spymaster. While he works as a statesman to loyally protect his city, Collegium, from making the same mistakes of other fallen cities.

The problem: on paper he should make an unusual and fascinating main character. I found reading about him to be ineffective, bumbling and shallow. I struggled to root for him as he too epitomized his people.

Cheerwell Maker is Sten’s niece and more than anything wants to be a part of her uncle’s life. As another Beetle-kinden Che is stocky and plain and treated about as well as you’d think a stocky and plain person is treated. This causes massive self-doubt and isn’t helped by the way her uncle excludes her.

The problem: I couldn’t relate to her until “the action” got started, i.e. we lingered too long on her status quo. The way she was presented simply made me dislike Sten more. As far as heroes go, she’s the best we start off with.

Tynisa is Sten’s half Spider-, half Mantis-kinden ward who he treats as a daughter. Presented as this beautiful and charming rival to whom Che whom has no hope of rivaling.

The problem: she contributes to your dislike of Sten when we don’t need any more dislike of him and it’s hard to get over the way she’s initially presented. She’s really a lot more complex with her half-blood but instead of leading with that conflict we wait for her father, Tisamon, to turn up to delve into her feelings. Her place is waiting for another book it seems.

Prince Salme “Salma” Dien is a Dragonfly-kinden nobleman and one of Sten’s spies. A male version of Tynisa he knows full well what the Empire is up to as his people have already been subdued.

The problem: Again he is presented as extremely shallow and while you feel he has possibilities they are never fully realized. As a dragonfly, one of my favorite bugs, I though he would pop ability and trait wise. Disappointed expectations make it hard to commit to his romance novel plot.

Totho rounds out the group as one of Sten’s students, another half-breed, this time Ant- and Beetle-kinden. He wants to be great but is only distinguished by his love-lorn passion for Che.

The problem: Actually he’s a brilliant artificer with a war loving twist from his Ant parent. Loved that, but we don’t see any of this until Dragonfly Falling. A jealous fool does not a character make. He did eventually become my hero, but I wanted him to stay with the evil Drephos and at least be less pathetic than what he had been up to this point.

Tchaikovsky Wasp-kinden

You can see the pattern now, can’t you? Yes, the way the characters were presented. I beat this drum a lot but character sympathy is so important. We don’t have to love everyone from the get go, but please, that doesn’t mean make them pathetic. At least connect us to the characters so that we feel they’re redeemable so when they do develop we care what is happening with them.

The plot is not such a problem as the characters. Many of the details were well imagined with loads of possibilities. The problem boils down to Tchaikovsky taking these details and heading back into well-known territory. Empire of Black and Gold boils down to a rescue mission with a cool foray into a creepy forest. While he didn’t use his best elements well and relied on the contrived too much, at least the way he split the group worked.

In Dragonfly Falling, he did better plot wise because we experienced different aspects of the start of a war through the different character eyes. In this way he took stereotypical plot and ran it through a personal experience which helps ho-hum plot a great degree.

The off-putting aspect in this book was this strange subplot with a dragonfly royal. She was a cool character and somewhat intriguing but really had nothing to do with any of the main characters. So at the end when we should have gotten a pay off from her character we were severely disappointed. I expected her to have some connection to Salma as they share a background. He could have at least shed a light on why she was included in the story.

The plot problems: we have major creativity that is not presented in a creative way with added story-lines that have no connection to the central characters.

I have a solution! The villain.

Thalric is a wasp-kinden and a major in the Rekef, the secret organization that really runs the Empire’s military, he’s basically Stenwold for the villains. He’s a true spymaster with all the good intentions, morality and focus…the only problem is he’s totally loyal to the empire.

So we have many problems but turns out the solution is simple…present Thalric as the protagonist and the protagonists as his antagonists.

Why would that work? First, Thalric is the best written of all the characters. You feel for the conflict between his personal ideals and his nation’s ideals in which he represents. He’s one of the few characters whose kinden plays little into his character except to put him squarely on the villain side. Which is a rather important detail. It also makes him highly relatable by any and every reader.

Second, by making Thalric the protagonist and central character from which to introduce all other characters we eliminate the need to present Sten, Che, Tynisa, Salma and Totho at all. When we come upon them in the action is when we meet them. We can see their flaws while also witnessing them rise above their status quo. This presents the “good” characters in a better light.

This presents a dichotomy about whether these “antagonists” are even worth saving. It softens the contrivance of Thalric being on the wrong side and switching to the right side. It builds in the reader a sympathy for the good side as seen through Thalric’s point of view. We needed this sympathy for Sten, Che, Tynisa, Salma and Totho. I believe it would have achieved Tchaikovsky’s aims of utilizing a unique point of view centered around characters of realistic morality.

Well, what about the true villain of the book? Really the secondary villain in Empire in Black and Gold would make an awesome main villain. Being able to take on anyone’s face, male or female, has it’s benefits and makes one a massive opponent. In Dragonfly Falling this villain character, Scyla, becomes more an opportunist villain than on any real side so why not just start out with her as such from the beginning?

By changing the point of views we also have an opportunity to delve deeper into the plot. When we have unusual point of views on ho-hum characters we can take them out of their safety zones and really explore their characters.

Tchaikovsky Book 1 and 2 Covers

Tchaikovsky did really well having degrees of good and bad people. The main characters are so flawed as to be almost not worth saving while the main villain has such promise you want him to succeed. At least the villain villains are such that you want them taken down at any cost. For all it’s faults there is something compelling about the Shadows of the Apt series. Certainly the battles play a large part in making the world feel real, whether on a personal scale or on an army scale, especially in Dragonfly Falling.

When a writer finds what really works well in their work they should run with it. Yes, even when rooting for the villain is better than good. At heart all an audience wants is a compelling point of view. Tchaikovsky’s world worked, really worked. The insect-kinden are incredible. Now if only we could root for the good guys as well.

Have you read any of the Shadow of the Apt series? Do you enjoy fantasy stories? War stories? Do you enjoy rooting for the villain? Do you read or watch movies? Is ten books too many for a fantasy book series?

Save

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is… Continue reading When Rooting for the Villain is Better than Good

A Few TV Thoughts, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

Discrimination Works in the Right Tone

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.

Writing Diagnostic #4:  let’s explore how one character change could have saved the discrimination in Prime Suspect.

I love the start of things. The first blush of love. A tendril unfurling from the rich soil. Your first bite of a brand new recipe. The darkness that fills the theater on opening night. There is an anticipation that builds in your breast, centered, at the heart, on the unknown. That’s why I love watching the premieres of new television shows.

The faltering steps of a writer’s new baby making their debut in the world…the introductions, the potential, the buzz, it all creates this environment of creativity and exploration. As a writer myself I know we worry – will our work say something about its maker that will embarrass us, will it reveal an inner strength that swells our chest? Whatever feelings, good or bad, you have for your work, what matters first is that it’s complete (pat yourself on the back!) and second, and perhaps most important, how it is received. For the audience, they know what they want it to be – but will it?

Prime Suspect Header

That’s the power of premieres! Whether a new television show or a returning favorite – premieres set the tone for the year’s stories. We get a sense of the character, their relationships and their struggles. The mechanics of a new show are established. Will it be a procedural or character driven? Who are the rivals, villains and antagonists? Who are the besties, allies and lovers? What is the protagonist’s weakness and strength?

I wanted to watch Maria Bello’s new series, Prime Suspect, since I found out she was starring in a TV show. I didn’t really know what it was about, except they remade a Helen Mirren series. Bello has a certain quality about her that says strong, independent woman, not in an unattractive butch sort of way but a wholly feminine one.

The opener really caught me, simple but speaking to character. I knew what sort of woman and detective Jane made right from the beginning. When we got to the squad room things became distinctly uncomfortable. A knot of anxiety built-in my belly as I realized along with Jane that the case the other two detective were talking about really belonged to Timoney. I thought she held her cool a lot better than I ever could have, even with my boss.

Injustice makes my blood boil and this situation between Jane and her fellow detective just wasn’t right. I knew without knowing the details, no way did she sleep with big cheese, Dan Costello, to get her rank. No, she earned her way. I liked her by the book attitude and how she crossed off a suspect and found a lead because of it. I became just as caught up with her boyfriend’s conflict with his ex-wife and his desperate need to have his kid over to his apartment. Without going into further detail here, I can’t rave about this show enough. The cast, the realism and the story arcs all work. The writing and dialogue are spot on as well.

Prime Suspect Cast

Possibly the only con of the series is the chance for the writers to cross the line and become too heavy-handed, especially with the gender discrimination and the work place conflict. The show is already tense enough and the balance needs to be maintained perfectly. I also realize she needed to run after her suspect at the end and risk getting a beat down by him because that’s the kind of woman she embodies. I also don’t want that theme repeated the exact same way each and every episode either.

In Prime Suspect’s premiere, the details are what really made the difference. In choosing wardrobe with the fedora and her civilian bobby jacket, Bello balances between her English roots and wearing her uniqueness externally. The men in her squad wear a suit. They could have put her in a female suit. Instead they illustrated she wasn’t your typical anything by the manner of her dress.

In choosing where she works at home. The location where she thinks and ponders and spreads her photographs the bathroom was the perfect choice. No overdone dining room table, no lying in bed with her partner while he reads. You know the woman is ready and willing to use every resource in her power no matter how lowly.

The opener spoke right to character. She was out there to try to beat her smoking habit. When she gets into a taxi and the driver is puffing away she asks him to put it out. When that doesn’t work she insists. It’s not about being nice or politically correct or making friends. It’s about keeping at it and not letting others distract you from the prize if you can help it. Later you find out she’s doing all that so her father will quit smoking too. If she does it there is no excuse.

That scene with her father really worked because she was there to store her guns for her boyfriend so he could have his kid over to their apartment. An excellent way to introduce us to the father and not a contrived moment. Of course she’s going to ask after his smoking and mention her own at the same time. She going to talk with him about some work choices she made and she can be open with him. It all makes sense plot wise but also emotionally. Her boyfriend and her father are her emotional connection to the world.

The bold way she blindsided her boss by asking for the case while he was still grieving spoke to me on a primal level. After her interactions in the bull pen with her colleagues you needed to know she wasn’t going to be pushed around. Her believability as a protagonist was in question and she answered the call. Then the contrast of her conversation with her father really upped the ante. Even though she put on a bold face to her boss, internally we saw she wasn’t so sure. The contrast balanced each other and it was all in the details.

As for the case itself I appreciated how she tried to run with her premise that this case was linked to the others but kept getting stonewalled by the vice detectives. I thought the fact she “deputized” the witness who didn’t want to narc in order to humor him into being her eyes and ears. Besides bringing him around to her way of thinking, it really added a funny, light moment in a rather serious series. We needed that light moment after the heaviness of the bull room scene. The handling of the child witness also shone as a bright moment of darkness made light. He wanted to kill his mother’s attacker, perfectly reasonable for a child, especially a boy. She understand and didn’t patronize the child.

The boyfriend is probably the best counter point to the stress at the office. Plot and emotion wise a very wise choice. It’s not that she has no conflict there – she showed his ex her rifles in the spirit of honesty she claims, even though we all know the woman was really getting on her nerves. Yet in the end she took them to her father’s as an apology of sorts. In thinking about it you realize she understood that his ex was playing a power game with her boyfriend. So even though it’s not how she wanted to play it she found dirt on them to make her boyfriend happy. On her side of their relationship we found she really needed him as a safe harbor from her work conflicts. Not a long moment at all but without seeing her cry and beg her boyfriend to talk to her even though he’s still mad we would have found their relationship shallow at best. These series of moments, set up as brief details of the bigger picture build this view of their relationship we don’t need to be told about to understand.

The best handled moment of the show stands out to me as her conversation with her nemesis, Detective Reg Duffy, the best friend of the head detective who has just died. It happens at the coffee cart in the cemetery, put there to raise money for the widow. They start off really cordial and polite. She never lets the conversation devolve and lays out her point of view in a strong yet solid way. Duffy sees her point and doesn’t care, even against what his boss has said he maintains his point of view. Both actors used the dialogue to further their characters’ depth.

These moments were all in the details. They built to this picture that held such promise of both conflict and character. You knew it would be all about solving the case but would be done so through relationships and choices. Nothing needed to be told us flat-out, we could deduce the whole through the details.

The problem was the tone so lovingly established by the writers was not maintained through the whole season. At the time, there was criticism that work place discrimination was a thing of the past and the writers announced they would be lightening this aspect of the story as the season progressed.

Back peddling was their first mistake. To reduced the tension between Timoney and her fellow detectives was not the answer. It sapped the entire show of its motivating force and the sympathy the audience had for its protagonist. She became this crabby detective that simply couldn’t work well with others. It went against the tone established in the premiere!

Realizing that male discrimination in the workplace is not as believable as during Helen Mirren’s time, the writers should have brainstormed ways to create other forms of discrimination. The writers themselves already had the seeds of the right idea, they just planted them in the wrong place.

Prime Suspect - Elizabeth Rodrigues

Elizabeth Rodriguez portrayed peer, Detective Carolina Rivera, beloved by every single detective (all male) in their squad (plus past partners with Timoney’s nemesis Reg Duffy). Writers had her come on the show as a detective from a different squad in episode three. Three! (Oh the potential lost…) She really rattles Timoney’s cage, as she uses her sexuality and charm to buddy it up with Timoney’s co-workers. Something Timoney deliberately doesn’t do. Rivera’s effect on Timoney was spot on – workplace rivalry between female peers whose conflict is built around differences in opinion; in just how they should relate to their male peers.

It was a good idea, but there was a better idea. Instead of being a peer, she should have been a superior. Replace Timoney’s very male lieutenant, who rightly treats Timoney fairly in the premiere, with someone who differs with her on how to act and who successfully used those ideas to advance herself. In this way we mimic the 80’s discrimination sensibility with a very real, very modern take.

Women are known to discriminate against other females, even in a world of women support-itude. A very real contest happens in the workplace with women due to an attitude of either you’re with me or against me. Add a heavy dash of ambitiousness and you have a recipe for conflict. Rivera doesn’t even have to really be Timoney’s enemy but only exist as a perception of an enemy, even if she isn’t, simply through their differing views. We are what we believe after all.

The show desperately needed an influx of female blood. In this new age of sexual equality, a call for more women in male dominated careers only makes very real sense.  Near the end of the first season I’d have killed off one or two of the male detectives and brought in one or two female up and comers on the detective front to threaten Timoney in new ways. At heart Timoney is ambitious and yet she doesn’t know how to interact with her peers as equals. This should have been understood by her writers and played up and heightened.

When I look back at the choices I’ve made, moments shine like a beacon and others cringe in seething regret. Everyone has these points in life that we remember as defining you for you. For me some of the most potent moments are those I shared with specific people. It’s their relationship with me that shaped, for good or bad, who I was and hopefully they feel the same about me.

With a character we as writers are shining a bright light on those moments as if they were real people walking about a real life. In shaping our characters we chose details that build up a person who we can see up and about life. We desire to share our visions with our audience, to inspire them with the experiences of our characters. These details must stand on their own and create a vision that everyone can relate to as another human being. No two humans have exactly the same experiences nor do they react the same as every other person in the same circumstances.

Prime Suspect was cancelled, not because it didn’t have potential or great introductions, but because Timoney’s writers didn’t have faith that what made Timoney stand out from the crowd would also endear her to her audience. Everyone who experiences discrimination can relate to the same in others. The audience just had to be shown that Timoney was in her own unique circumstances and like all of us dealing with it the best way she knew how.

Did you watch Prime Suspect? Helen Mirren’s version? Did you enjoy them? Find them a wash? Does discrimination make your blood boil? What do you think of Maria Bello?

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ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is… Continue reading Discrimination Works in the Right Tone

Book Reviews, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

A Flaw in Fae Plot — 3 Important Rules

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.

Writing Diagnostic #3:  let’s explore how three plotting rules can strength the story in Late Eclipses.

Lily in Late Eclipses

Genre Fiction’s best strength is its searingly swift and twisty plot. We start with a protagonist we love and now we want to follow them on an exciting journey, where having fun and beating the villain is more important than what our hero learns. Because it’s all about plot when there are flaws they become super huge warts on the story. Here are three rules of plot to keep your readers faithful…

Fortunately, even if specific stories in a series have flaws readers will overlook these and will never-the-less seek out the next installment. This gives writers the opportunity to improve their plot mojo in their next story.

As a reader myself I expect in any book for there to be questions left unanswered. It’s best when these questions are to do with foreshadows developed for books later in the series. As a writer myself, I love finding these and noting them for the future. There is another sort of question though that nags at a reader and will not leave them in peace.

These are dangling concerns and questions to do with the present plot. Loose ends such as these are contrived to move plot along to the writer’s desired ending. If developed properly these would feel to the reader as certain and necessary happenings along the stories journey. Anything that keeps our readers reading is a good thing. Using Seanan McGuire’s October Daye’s series and specifically Late Eclipses, let’s explore three rules any writer can follow to develop believable and read-worthy plot.

#1 – COMPLICATE THEM

Develop each and every plot point fully with at least one complication.

Plot points need to be complicated in some way to keep the protagonist from solving their issues right off. It’s not enough that a character needs to go to point A and B to fix the problem. That’s just traveling. Some element of the plot point has to become a problem. An action on the part of the protagonist, preferably that takes some effort, must be needed to overcome that obstacle. As a writer, if you want the end result to be a certain outcome, the protagonist can’t reach that outcome until “such and such difficulty” is overcome. Complicating plot is as simple as that.

In her first book, Rosemary and Rue, Toby was exploring San Francisco’s faerie world after having lived as a fish for many years. This allowed the reader to learn about the world as she investigated her mystery. Complications in a brand new world are fairly easy to come up with, the readers don’t have much to go on so almost any complication to plot will work well. As we get to know the world more and more complications will be instrumental in keeping the reader guessing as to the means and motivations of the book’s villain.

For example, in Late Eclipses, when Tybalt’s people were poisoned all Toby (short for October) had to do is take the meat to Walther and voila a cure for all the cats.

Where’s the complication? What is keeping her from almost instantly healing the cats?

Not a thing.

To get around not having any real complications, Toby runs around doing each and every step herself even though anyone can carry the antidote. With more allies, comes a need for more complications. One of the least dangerous tasks a protagonist can do is deliver something, especially since nothing happens along the way. If a few complications had been thrown in then her squire could have been sent to deliver the meat and she could have been distracting the reader. Complications worry the reader and that’s a good thing.

As a writer if you can’t complicate a story element properly then perhaps it is an accessory best taken out of the story. Incorporate threat to the secondary character from a different angle. Utilize what the villain knows to cast doubt on allies. Each and every one of Toby’s friends didn’t need to be poisoned. After two poisonings Duke Torquill should have been willing to admit it had to be Oleander as poison is her weapon.

By complicating each story element from different angles you illustrate how devious a villain is and how real the story world is.

#2 – SUPPORT THEM

Support your plot points with foreshadow, conjecture or world knowledge.

A pet peeve of mine is when writers have a certain outcome they desire for their plot but don’t support that outcome. As a reader myself, I want to feel like I could have known that was going to happen if I’d remembered such and such detail. This helps convince those reading that the plot point was a forgone conclusion. A reader doesn’t want to think the protagonist is so stupid they couldn’t see something so obvious, but they also don’t want to think, ‘well that came out of nowhere!’ 

The most basic way a writer can support a plot point is through foreshadowing. A detail slipped into a previous scene goes a long way later when the plot clicks together for the protagonist later. It doesn’t need to be heavy-handed, we don’t actually want to guess what is going to happen. We simply want it supported in some concrete way that it could happen. A detail, comment, thought placed previous to the plot point accomplishes this support.

Now many writers want to be the next Agatha Christie, they want to write a story with a mystery but not present all the facts. The one flaw with this is that Agatha used detectives. A detective ties all the loose ends up at the end of her story. Every plot point is supported by the detective’s conjecture about how and why things happened in the murder. This can be adapted for modern stories but then you need to support your plot point with conjecture of some kind by your own protagonist. Conclusions and connections told through dialogue or thoughts can accomplish this.

A third way to support your plot point is done quite expertly by McGuire using knowledge told to us about the world. Oleander is a Peri, they aren’t illusionists on the level of the Gwragen, but they’re close, narrates Toby. In this way it is hinted to us, using knowledge of the Peri being illusionists, that Oleander is hiding in plain sight as someone most wouldn’t notice. McGuire is touch and go supporting her plot points. This time it worked. When it comes to how Oleander found Lily’s pearl it doesn’t.

Using foreshadow, conjecture or world knowledge a reader is kept guessing about how the plot will come together in the end.

#3 – MOTIVATE THEM

The way a character reacts to plot points and why they reacted that way must make sense.

Plot points are there for the protagonist and other characters to react to them. Reacting isn’t enough though, we have to understand why they reacted the way they did. And it all has to make sense with what we know or are shown later about that character. Isn’t this just a way to complicate a plot point? Yes it is but it’s also essential that the motivations behind a character’s reaction work with how the plot point develops. By back-loading your plot points with character driven motivations and sharing these motivations with the reader we believe that the plot point had to happen that specific way. 

In Late Eclipses, one plot point that is really weak is the fact that Toby kept returning to Shadowed Hills even though she had been warned each and every time she showed up that if she returned she’d be hauled off to face the Queen. She knows the Queen wants any reason to throw her in jail or worse, kill her. Yet she kept testing her luck by repeatedly showing up at Shadowed Hills just to check on what is happening!! What?! Yes, the only time she showed up at Shadowed Hills with a good reason behind it is when she got arrested! She had to return and see if Luna really had been murdered too. I get that, but what about the 3 or 4 other times when she didn’t have a good reason to be there and had an even better reason not to be there?

The best thing about a whole slew of secondary characters is that each one provides an opportunity to further complicate the plot points with their own agendas and motivations. We have May, Toby’s fetch who is deliberately opposite to Toby in all things. Quentin also rates high up the list as her squire in training whom Toby is super protective toward. We have Luna, the super secretive wife of her liege who was able to remain sane while her daughter went total bonkers due to the same experiences. We have Lily, who didn’t need to kick the bucket quite as swiftly as she did. We have the Duke himself, Toby’s liege, Sylvester, who would go absolutely bonkers himself if he knew there was just a threat to Luna’s life. As well as Conner and Tybalt, the two love interests as well as the minor secondary characters such as Marcia, who takes tickets at the Tea Garden, or Danny, the bridge troll taxi driver. I haven’t even mentioned the handful of antagonists that could be mentioned.

The thing about secondary characters all writers need to remember is they have their own identities. No two people no matter how close share exactly the same thoughts and perspectives, the same is true for characters. Yes Toby’s friends are loyal, that doesn’t mean they always have to agree and see things the same way. Using secondary characters’ specific motivations and emotions plot can be filled with depth and feel oh so real.

By back-loading plot points with motivations a story can go in literally thousands of directions…well at least hundreds.

RULES IN ACTION

Plot wise, what does a club and Late Eclipses have in common?

At one point in my life, I had my car stolen from me by someone super close to me. The pertinence of this story to writing is that this person was able to drive off with said car, no breaking an entering needed. I have a sneaky suspicion where he got an extra set of car keys from but how in the world did he get off the club? Only I had a key to that. If your first question is what in the world is a club then here’s your answer: a metal bar that keeps the wheel from turning. The thing is this person had no skills with tools or super secret master keys. They didn’t have a wealth of cool friends who know how to get through such things. So the next natural question is how did he manage to make off with the car?

I’m sure there is a super logical way for this to have happened. It’s probably so simple I’d slap my forehead in disbelief. I even have a few theories that make sense to me. The thing is I still wonder today, over ten years later, how they managed it. I guess it’s all about not knowing for sure, not having the loose ends tied up. This is especially difficult for readers with burning questions left unanswered in their favorite paperbacks. While genre fiction isn’t filled with the deepest stories, they are all about plot. So plot questions especially grate.

In Late Eclipses, Lily’s pearl is found by Oleander de Merelands (the villain) and summarily poisoned through scrapes the assassin made on it’s surface. I appreciated how she managed the poisoning and it was supported well through world knowledge. It was also clever when Oleander was taunting Toby and slipped up, giving Toby the clue she needed to figure out she was looking at an illusion. Thanks to some great conjecture and a few moments of foreshadowing we realize she couldn’t be talking to herself because she never knew Lily’s real name. The burning question I have about the whole situation is how did Oleander know where the pearl had been hidden? No where did McGuire hint at or foreshadow Oleander’s means of obtaining the pearl.

This should be eating readers alive.

The poisoning of Lily was such a masterful plot point that if instead of being a quick and simple death of another friend, had been complicated further might have provided more depthful plot. For example, using the fealty issue (when she was made the next Countess of Goldengreen) the threat of taking the blame for her friends’ deaths would have arisen naturally from the two plot points colliding. In this way Toby could stay away from Shadowed Halls as long as possible even though it’s threatened that she would return. Then when she’s finally forced to return through another plot point, like Oleander hinting Luna was already dead, it makes sense when Toby is arrested. A reasonable way Oleander found the pearl could have been added to the added scenes.

I don’t have to like McGuire’s ideas about how things are complicated. To me they might not make sense or they might seem out of character. I do have to be given some thread, some detail satisfying me that the writer came up with an adequate means for the pearl to be found. Now to be honest, I can surmise ways I’d have a character find the pearl, but without some support found within the book itself all it can be is conjecture. By complicating simple plot points like Lily’s poisoning a writer has many opportunities to support and motivate all the major points of the story.

Sure, how I figure my brother got that club off is probably correct. Oleander is very capable and devious, I have no doubt she could find the pearl. What lingers in my mind, casting doubts over my satisfaction is how she managed it.

October Daye Header

Late Eclipses isn’t exactly complicated, in fact if you break the story down it’s terribly simple. Too simple. To hide the very simplicity of her story McGuire added many disparate plot points. Since Toby is the protagonist I can see why McGuire went with this process. I don’t mind simplicity but if that’s the route you are going then you have to map out each point with skill and care so the reader is led one way while reality goes another. In this way complications give rise to natural action that in no way risks the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

As a writer myself I want to get better. As aspects of a book come together, the better a book the more obvious a flaw. The major flaw of the Toby Daye series in general has to do with plot. Late Eclipses’ strengths outweigh it’s weaknesses sure but the journey to a perfect book is only a few extra stops along the way. These three rules: complicate them, support them and motivate them strength plot and make for a better story.

Does bad plot ruin a story for you? Do you care about a character’s motivations? Does your suspension of disbelief ever get popped by bad plot? What’s your favorite plot? Did it have flaws?

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ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is… Continue reading A Flaw in Fae Plot — 3 Important Rules

All About Movies, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

Smartest Man in the Room…Really?

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.

Writing Diagnostic #2:  let’s explore how a little creativity adds the smartest man in the room back into the action hero Sherlock Holmes.

I made a good case for shifting Irene Adler out and scooting in the gypsy Simza here. Instead lets allow Adler to have one high impact moment right at the start of A Game of Shadows. We’d open with Adler and Moriarty at the tea room. She orders new tea, sips it and then everyone gets up and leaves at Moriarty’s command. She’s carried away. By starting the movie in this way we know that Holmes and Adler’s relationship has changed – she’s in distress and nothing will stop him from rescuing her. This even sets up the idea of a third movie and gives writers a core plot.

Then we flip to a china-man ushering an older gentleman swiftly through a china-town warren of shops and people. It’s not until we arrive at Holmes bolt-hole, their destination, that we realize it’s Sherlock Holmes, the smartest man in the room. He sends a Chinese boy off to get his brother, Mycroft, and in his verbal “note” we learn the man is a politico he managed to save from Moriarty’s schemes. Enter Watson stage left to play a dressed up decoy of the politico. Holmes as the china-man and the disguised Watson lead the goons meant to make the politico’s death look like a mugging on a merry chase. They can spend the whole time arguing about Mary, weddings and bachelorhood and how each lacks merit in the other’s eyes.

When one of the men splits off to report their failure is when the bait and switch tactic bears fruit. The leader, a disguised Moran, sends off another compatriot to pass off a package to a woman. A woman dressed in a similar navy blue dress and hat as when Holmes followed Adler in Sherlock Holmes. He believes it’s Adler partially because Moriarty has gone to pains to make her appear so and partially because he wants it to be her. It is really the gypsy Simza off to deliver the bomb to the doctor. Holmes flips her around confident he’ll find Adler and he finds a stranger instead. We see a shocked/disappointed expression on Holmes’ face, reminiscent of what we saw in the restaurant when Adler didn’t appear.

First, we introduce Mycroft and why he becomes embroiled in the case. Second, we include Watson in the chase scene and the whole marriage debate introduced in a less boring manner than an argument at Holmes’ place. Third, we include Simza earlier, better and more cleverly. And it makes more sense how Moriarty was using Simza – he needed a Adler replacement.

The whole “saving the politico” could be a fake out by Moriarty as well. The man could really have never been in danger at all. Moriarty made it appear he was going after the man to lure out Holmes. This is all so Moriarty could lead Holmes to Moran and the bomb package. The best plans lead to multiple loose ends being tied up at once and Moriarty would love that fact. We got to see Holmes use a different tactic other than “follow Irene Adler” and while he was out foxed it was done in an elegant and clever way. It never made sense that either Moriarty or Adler thought a couple of thugs could take out this version of Holmes and Moriarty’s motivation would be to kill the pesky fly not swat it away.

Instead of the mad map on the wall and that sadly contrived conversation with Watson, Sherlock is lazing about with Mycroft – a distraction from Watson’s wedding distraction. Sherlock can even be playing his violin here. We see the map unfold in his head as he explains all the connections that lead him to the politico, hopefully with little inset flashbacks of him looking at dead bodies. They can both agree that the politico was a trap for Sherlock that ended up paying off with a lead. Mycroft can tut-tut his younger brother for putting himself in danger only to be tut-tutted back for never putting himself in danger. We can also get a contribution from Mycroft here, who routinely helped his brother with sticking points that would pull the case together for Sherlock. Then off they go to the bachelor’s party and chasing down his one lead.

We use Mycroft in a better, more canon way while also showing how Watson HAS been gone more. Sherlock really is feeling his absence – he had to go to his older brother for a sounding board. And we instantly get the brothers’ relationship from this scene while utilizing the missing canon details that makes Holmes, Holmes.

He plucks a letter from Simza at the auction, who carried it as a reminder of why she was doing all this, her brother was in danger. So while Holmes loses the gypsy at the auction (just like he did in the Adler version) he locates her again through the sister/letter angle during Watson’s bachelor party. Not as the place the letter was to be delivered but as the place the letter had already been delivered to, which is why she had the letter, she was the recipient. He can even recount in flashback or show Watson right before they leave for the “bachelor party” how he recovered the address. Obscured in some way so as to be untraceable, but which, he, due to his knowledge of science, was able to recover.

It never made sense the Doctor gave Adler a letter to deliver to Moriarty when Moriarty had her deliver the bomb. If he did it as a trap it still doesn’t make sense as it led Holmes to Simza whom Moriarty was already going to kill because she was a loose thread with information to impart. In my rendition, since Holmes saved Simza from the bomb package, it’s really logical there is an assassin waiting to kill her at her place of business. Since she had completed the tasks Moriarty needed done with the absence of Adler her blackmailing was done and he needed her killed. Moriarty wouldn’t anticipate a family letter that would connect Holmes to Simza. This is exactly the type of plot point that used to lead Holmes to gaining a clue on the super clever and shadowy Moriarty.

I can even see some dialogue to add to the Adler/Simza comparison. “I was born under a lucky star.” It gives Holmes a pang because he always thought Adler had been too (a little bit of the supernatural here). I can see Holmes tucking away in his breast pocket a tarot card from the chase at her place of business that we realize later lead him to the gypsy camp, so we know he let her escape. “You won’t be rid of me that easily.” Holmes can even try to leave Simza out at the end to protect her – he doesn’t want another Adler. We can use it to show her motivation better. “I have someone I care about too. I won’t give up on him.”

On the ship I suggested “drug use” to pass the time for Holmes instead of staring at the ocean. This is where I suggest adding in more Irene Adler. As a reminder she’s distracting Holmes by being on his mind but also showing that she’s a motivation for Holmes (as setup in Sherlock Holmes). He could flashback to some new scene where he and Adler spoke between the time at the end of Sherlock Holmes and her death/kidnapping. So we still get Holmes and Adler by-play dialogue and chemistry that everyone loves but not the contrived, overused, follow scene that makes everyone, not only the smartest man in the room, appear stupid.

By taking out Adler and utilizing Simza it allows the writers to start fresh with new secondary characters and new techniques for Holmes to garner clues. It makes the audience anticipate the end to see if Holmes will be able to do anything about the Adler situation. It also creates a reason for Holmes to be distracted – his whole point about women is that they distract him from solving cases. This “fixes” the misstep in the canon from Sherlock Holmes that made it appear Holmes is a ladies man. And Watson still fulfills his role in the bromance that was one of the few story points that worked so well in A Game of Shadows.

Either way the ‘Holmes following Adler’ scene as it is doesn’t work, and it made Sherlock Holmes look naive on top of it. It’s a great example of the flaws in A Game of Shadows and how to easily fix those same flaws with a bit of added Holmes flavor. Done as suggested the inference is that Moriarty could very well be more clever than Holmes. And when the quintessential detective beats the master villain at his own game we’d know it’s because he’s the smartest man in the room, not because he’s a modern action hero.

Growing up at the knee of the smartest man in the room and the best portrayal of said quintessential detective you get to know his character well. I explored how modernizing added to Sherlock Holmes canon and how it created great gaping losses in the character. Now I’ve shared how a little creativity would improve A Game of Shadows into a stellar modern story of Sherlock Holmes.

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is… Continue reading Smartest Man in the Room…Really?

Book Reviews, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

Writing Diagnostic: Caleb’s Crossing

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in or out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.

Writing Diagnostic #1:  let’s explore Geraldine Brooks’ newest book, Caleb’s Crossing, and its pseudo-diary format.

Calebs Crossing - CoverPutting aside all the problems with the title character, Caleb, you can easily commit that you hold Bethia with genuine affection and identify with her situation. This is obviously a superior writer, Geraldine Brooks knows how to setup a narrator and develop sympathy between the reader and the protagonist. Divided into three sections, based on time period and location, I ran into trouble with the writer’s diary format.

Right at the start time twisted oddly before and after Bethia’s mother died. A modern technique, I believe the writer used it because it’s her trademark, not because it added to the story. It does contribute slightly to the feeling you are in a person’s head, but it adds majorly to a feeling of confusion. We have yet to be oriented where we are in this girl’s story and already we are being yanked back and forth in time. While a person will think back on a memory and apply thinking from one time period to the present, in this case it’s unnecessary. Bethia, herself, tells us this is her diary. While conceivable, in a diary, to write in a stream of consciousness manner Bethia doesn’t have that luxury. She goes to a lot of effort to explain how she’s writing on scraps of paper left over from her brother’s lesson with limited space.

No. She would order her thoughts and starting from the beginning would concisely tell us what is important. Hence jumping back and forth in time from one line to the next would be highly unlikely. So problem number one is starting from an unclear place by using an unnecessary technique.

Now Bethia is writing this diary as a young, uneducated girl. She’s not an old woman or even a now educated woman looking back on her youth. She’s writing this real-time as illustrated by her using her brother’s scraps. This leads to my second problem: the words she used would have been simpler and less complex or flowery. Especially as compared from when she was a girl starting to write (the Great Harbor in 1660 and Cambridge in 1661 sections) to as an old woman in the Great Harbor in 1715 section. From page one she waxed poetic like an adult with an adult’s view yet told us clearly and explicitly this was a narrative written from when she was a girl. There should have been a gradual improvement in her writing from simple and clear to more flowery with more time and education to the beautiful language of a wise woman in her later years.

A symptom of these problems is a lack of understanding about Bethia’s feelings in relation to those she loves. We understand how they effected her actions and experiences but not how she felt about their effect. While we feel sympathy for Bethia and what she’s experiencing, because we are experiencing it with her in real-time we don’t really get a sense of her emotions. Many people have to think about what they feel, many times years later, before they know themselves.

For example, her baby sister, Solace. Bethia raised Solace after their mother died at her birth. Not one mention was made about how she loved that little girl, the affection she held for her in her role of mother, nor was either intimated through actions or some matter of plot. I really desired to feel the conflict a birth-death inspires in a person toward their sibling. I wanted to be inspired to love the baby as much as Bethia herself did. She had to adore that little girl to feel a pang at her loss so many years later in life. So why not inspire that pang in me so when I think back I feel it too? A little mention here and there and anyone would have felt the heartache.

The premise of writing on bits of paper is so darling and one women readers would adore, so I understand why the writer included that bit of the story. The sticky point is that then it needs to be executed so it reflects that kind of diary format. Skill and effort would need to be applied to make the idea work as it is and it would still lack emotional resonance unless worked at to add it. It’s not that Geraldine Brooks doesn’t have the ability, she just didn’t execute it.

The solution is to setup from the start that she’s old now and writing about her youth. She’s using notes she’s taken on scraps of paper left over from her brother’s lessons and memories that even time hasn’t work away. Give us a peek at the wisdom she’s distilled from her experiences and hint at us that the journey back through time is worth our efforts. This immediately solves both problems as well as the emotion-less symptom. It gives us a proper and clear starting point. We start as a girl with her mother’s death and jump off from there. It explains the consistent, poetical voice of Bethia and why she’s able to elaborate with such depth and breath when she only has scraps of paper to write on.

She can explore what she was feeling then and how her thoughts have changed from then to now. We can experience what Bethia felt at Solace’s death, her sale into what amounts to slavery and her joy at the choices she made. And most importantly, we can start to see how Caleb’s Crossing still lingers with her even when he’s been gone for some time. One expects when the narrator is old that they wouldn’t linger on boring or uneventful times so it supports the writer’s hot scotch time jumping, particularly through the Cambridge in 1661 section. Because there wasn’t this intentional reflection all along, the weakest section of the book was what should have been the climax, Great Harbor in 1715.

The jump from 1661 to 1715 is massive. As an old woman, about to die, she could have brought us to certain conclusions that she hadn’t even realized until late in life. Cambridge was too havey-cavey, the time jumping creating only a tenuous connection to the girl we got to know in Great Harbor only the year before! If written in an organized manner this last section would have neatly knotted the story together and allowed for reflections that would illuminate the readers’ lives.

As it was the Bethia I’d grown to love was gone, like someone I knew as a child but had grown too distant from as an adult. We no longer shared anything in common and as such I only distantly cared where she’d gone. Instead of understanding the core of Bethia and sighing with her at the end of a well lived life, I felt a pang of loss then moved on; not much impressed by my first Geraldine Brooks’ book.

The organizing thread running through you story is essential. If you retain plot details because they are touching rather than effective that thread starts to unravel. As a diary format was what the writer chose to use, it should have been backed up and reinforced through the story and how that story was told to us. At the core of every story is the protagonist’s emotions, without them there is no heart. Two different methods could have easily strengthened this story and really hit us with how Caleb’s Crossing made Bethia, Bethia.

Are you a fan of Geraldine Brooks? What’s your favorite book of hers? Did you love Caleb’s Crossing? Do you enjoy… themes of religion? The history genre? Diary format stories?

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in or out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose… Continue reading Writing Diagnostic: Caleb’s Crossing