Writing Tips from Novels: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman

Yes, there are lots of great books “on writing” (my favorite is the one that goes by that name, except capitalized; it’s by Stephen King), but I’ve found that you can get some great tips from the characters and narrators of Actual Novels. And isn’t it more fun to read a novel than a book about writing a novel? Sure it is.

I have a few of these lined up in the queue (gosh, I love writing that word), but I thought it might be fun to open this irregularly recurring blog feature with an unexpected little book. It’s called Alex and the Ironic Gentleman and is written by Adrienne Kress. Alex is a middle grade novel about pirates and treasure and schoolteachers and a train you can never leave and an Extremely Ginormous Octopus and the Very Wicked Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society. It stars young Alex Morningside who is actually a ten-and-a-half-year-old girl with short hair, not a boy at all.

The book is clever and quirky-with-a-capital-Q (watch for the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it scene featuring a pirate who uses a laptop to record the piratical business of the day). I’ve visited the author’s website and followed her tweets (that just sounds creepy) and I believe I can say with absolute most-likely-hood that she, like her novel, is also Clever and Quirky. And while Adrienne is a real life actress in addition to being a multi-published author (there’s a sequel to Alex, called Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate), she seems a very down to earth sort of person, quite unlike the Extremely Ginormous Octopus who tends to drink a lot because no one sees him as a serious Actor.

This is where we can all take a moment to offer a soft sigh of complaint that Some People are granted more than their fair share of talent and “why oh why can’t I have just a little of hers?”

There. I feel better.

Now, on to the helpful writing tips, taken directly from the novel. Feel free to apply the wisdom found here to your own writing. I trust your interpretation. After all, you’re Very Clever. (And Possibly Quirky, though I’m not sure how that applies here.)

On Imagination:

She also liked making up stories, though she wasn’t sure if the Alex in her stories was as brave as the Alex in real life. Well, it didn’t matter, because her imagination was her own, and she could do with it whatever she wanted.

On Plotting and Pacing:

“Um, could you tell me about the painting?”

“Oh, I am so glad you asked, dear,” replied the little old lady, spit flying out of her mouth. “It is of an uncharted island, somewhere far out to sea. Now I don’t know if you know about the tale of Alistair Steele and the Infamous Wigpowder…”

“Yes, I do – very well,” she said quickly. She hated it when people took too long to get to the heart of the story.

On Predictability:

Because of all their warnings, Alex half expected a cage to fall from the ceiling and trap her. But nothing happened, not even an alarm, and Alex went quickly over to the secret door.

Without waiting – as she knew well enough that, in stories, if you wait or think for too long, you get caught – she pushed the button, and the door opened.

On Showing Vs. Telling:

Philosophy is sort of silly like that. We spend all this time wondering why things exist, instead of dealing with the fact that they do.

On the Value of Interesting Words:

Coffee-table books are written to be so extremely dull that you can’t do anything but give up and look at the pictures. And you always start by reading the book, you always really, really, try, but it is no good. No matter how hard you focus, your eyes will start to glaze over, your mind will begin to wander.

On Problem-Solving:

Alex crossed the hall into the dark library. She looked out the window – again a steep drop down. She could see the town twinkling in the distance. It was so infuriating how close she was to escaping, and yet so far! There must be a way. There was always a solution to any problem. You just had to find it.

On The Importance of Setting:

Now sometimes, and I don’t know how it knows, the weather decides it wants to help with a certain situation by creating Atmosphere. At this moment, it decided to blow a gust of wind that rattled all the nonbroken windows and properly attached doors of the buildings along the bridge.

On Believably Imperfect Characters:

And what made one person good and the other one bad, anyway? In her long journey she had met good and bad people alike, people who were not pirates, but who had respectable jobs and were well-liked within their communities. And yet these same people could get away with the most reprehensible behavior. Couldn’t there be good pirates and bad pirates?

The Last of the Contest Entries

Just in time for the weekend, the last of the entries from the “First and Last” contest. (And, yeah, my short story, too.) Once again, thanks to everyone who participated. If you still haven’t read the winning entries, click here. Next week it’s back to regular blogposts, so be sure to come back to see what wisdom and nonsense I come up with.

Tanja Cilia titled her short story “Time, and Again”:

It was the best of times… no, really, the very best of times.  I’d married the handsomest man on earth, and I was pregnant.  We’d just moved to an old town-house, complete with antique furniture.

Idly, I twisted a knob on the bureau – and something clicked. A tiny drawer sprang open and a stack of old papers, tied with yellowing ribbon, fell out.

Hey!  That’s MY handwriting.   Weird.

The date on the papers is 1984. The squiggles crossing the t and the curls at the ends of the y and j are unmistakably mine. But…  I never use blue ink, because it reminds me too much of the school homework I loathed so much.

In those days, no one had made concessions for my dyslexia.  When, in my very last year at school, I had a teacher who understood what the matter was… it was almost too late.  Almost, but not quite.

She tutored me privately and taught me how to read, from scratch.  Eventually I got a job at an English-language newspaper.  I soon became their top accredited journalist.

The keyboard is the logical extension of my fingers. But for private use, I always use “nice” colour inks like aqua and lilac and preach…. curiosity got the better of me, and I felt compelled to read what’s written…

April 12… The day Ms Debono drove me home after I had twisted my ankle. It was the day before my sister’s wedding, and I was the hobbling bridesmaid!   Hey!  The name of the teacher as given here is Miss Camilleri.  But she could not drive…

I felt dizzy. I took the papers down to the kitchen and cracked open a bottle of fizzy water.  I took one sip, and forgot all about it.

I turned to June 5.  That was the day the brakes of our car didn’t hold, and we ran into the car in front of us.  Yes… here it is, “car crash”.  Oh, no!  It says we were in the ‘new’ Getz Malibu…  but the car had actually been dad’s old Triumph Toledo.

My husband returned from work, and walked towards the kitchen. I began to tell him what had happened – and then I glanced at him.

He was not my husband.  I saw the puzzled look in his eyes. And when I looked down at the papers, the pages were blank, and… The bottle was empty.

Because I am a fan of creative symmetry, the very first entry I received will be the very last one presented here. And it’s a good one from Kelly Sauer:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday.

Maybe it isn’t really Thursday, Annie thought, dragging her aching body out of bed. Maybe it was still Wednesday night. The crash was nothing but a nightmare. The sun had to rise today. It was her wedding day.

She groped in the dark for a light switch, tripping over a pile of clothing and stumbling into the wall beside her closed door. She flipped the switch.

Oh great, the power was out. Of course. Her digital clock wasn’t glowing.

Annie rubbed a hand over tired eyes. The darkness was so thick she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face.

She scrabbled through her bedside table drawer for a flashlight. She tried flipping it on. Hmm. Batteries must be dead.

Frustrated, she pitched the light across the room. It hit the alarm clock off her dresser, clattering to the floor.

The clock radio began to play.

“…80 degrees and clear for you today, with mostly sunny skies…”

Annie froze at the sound, then pitched forward, passing from one black world into another.

———-

Her cell phone was ringing. Where had she left it? Her head was spinning. She opened her eyes into darkness, pulled from unconsciousness by the urgency of the identifying tone.

“Jase?” She croaked into the mouthpiece. Why was she croaking? “I can’t see.”

“I’m coming! I’m here!” She thought her apartment door was coming down in the other room. Her ears were ringing.

Someone burst into her room, hitting her leg with the door. Then he was beside her, his touch piercing the isolating black.

“Please help,” she pleaded. “The sun didn’t come up today…”

———-

She was four months late for her wedding. The sun did rise that Thursday. One of her bridesmaids attended her in a silver frame at the front of the church.

Too many tears, Annie thought, leaning heavily on her father’s arm for her walk into Jase’s arms. But she could see them. The tears. The camera flash. Those who loved them. The look on Jase’s face. The tie he was wearing. She couldn’t quite see the color yet.

She stepped toward him. After weeks of blackness, she’d forgotten what colors she’d chosen for her wedding.

Sunlight streamed through cathedral windows across the aisle, bathing Jase in light, drawing her smile.

Ah. She chose the blue one after all.

And, finally, because I thought it would be fun if I had to write a story, too, I asked you to suggest first and last sentences for my own short story challenge. I chose “The striped cat glared at me” for the first line and “The rain washed it all away” for the last line.

Here it is.

The striped cat glared at me.

Horatio.

That was his name.

He was sitting in a circle of sunlight on the carpet, a statue in a spotlight.

“You want me to feed the cat?” I’d asked.

“Yes, if you would,” she’d said. “You do know the cat has a name, right?”

“Of course.”

“And…?”

“And I prefer to call him ‘cat.’”

She didn’t say anything. But I saw disappointment in the turn of her lips.

***

The next day I was sitting on her couch. She was beside me, smelling of cinnamon and sipping a glass of merlot, her body humming along with Sia’s “Breathe Me.”

We’d been friends for a long time. Shoulder-crying friends. Best friends. But something turned in me and before I could deny it, I realized I was in love with her.

That’s exactly when Horatio jumped onto her lap. Somehow, she kept from spilling the wine. I think she laughed.

I said words I wish I hadn’t. Words that weren’t true. Yet out they came, pressed by panic into an uncertain moment where they could do the most damage.

“I hate that stupid cat,” I said.

She hugged Horatio tighter and he purred.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean that. I love the stupid cat.”

“He has a name,” she said. Then she drank the rest of her wine.

***

After a week without words, she invited me over to watch a movie. Breakfast at Tiffanys. Not our first choice. But we were lazy. Do you know how it ends? The taxi ride. The cat. The engagement ring tossed on Holly’s lap. And all the while it’s raining and you’re wondering if she is going to give up a chance to be with the man who loves her.

“Where’s the cat” Holly asks, frantic.

“I don’t know,” says Paul.

And that’s exactly what I was thinking. I don’t know. Our relationship was at a crossroads. Did she see it too? I was afraid to ask.

As if cued by the closing credits, the night sky began sheeting water against her living room window. When thunder boomed Horatio leaped onto her lap.

“Horatio,” I said, and it was a sigh.

She turned to me, smiling. But this was a new smile. One that would lead to a kiss.

Suddenly, there was no more uncertainty.

The rain washed it all away.

Some of you might be disappointed I didn’t write a science fiction or fantasy story. But look closer. See the ending? It is a fantasy after all.

Okay, kids. Nothing more to see here. Get back to work.

See you Monday.

Revenge of the Still More Contest Entries

My poorly-disguised “original content hiatus” is nearly at an end, but not yet. Today, more entries from the “First and Last” contest for you to enjoy. For those of you who haven’t yet read the winning entries, click here.

If you’re new to the noveldoctor site, take a moment to read this old post on 7 Things that Keep Editors in Business. And then read a bunch more. And tell your friends to stop by, too.

Alicia Gregoire-Poirier entered this fantastical story:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday. This came as no surprise to the girl; she had been able to control the stars since quickening in her mother’s womb. The Destroyers were rapturous with the knowledge and each wanted the girl’s power for their own.

The girl’s mother, covetous in her own right, arranged fostering by The Destroyers’ mages – The Arcane Ones. Here, the girl learned of the delicate balance among the universe; how if one planet fell, all others were doomed. They imparted this knowledge to frighten her.

It empowered her.

Her powers blossomed under The Arcane Ones’ careful guidance, surpassing expectations of all. The eve she lost her maidenhead, she held the moon in her thrall until she and her lover were spent. The moon sighed in pleasure and disappeared for a fortnight.

Her lover was enamored of her talents and lavished her with baubles that were so prismatic in their beauty; they reminded the girl of the universe. She named them in accordance of her lessons.

Crimson. Saffron. Cerulean.

After their naming, the jewels rose and transformed before the girl and her lover. Each danced amid the elements they called forth with their lovemaking. Colors tattooed their bodies, an indelible mark of their union.

The girl’s infatuation with the boy was not in The Destroyer’s plans, and the boy foresaw his death in their eyes. The girl, clever as she was, did not have The Sight, not like he. For this, he sent his prayers up to The Deity. He asked for strength to carry his plan forward and that the girl would endure.

She was their salvation.

Unaware, the girl slept on and her lover chanted over her magic jewels. He sealed his life force in blue and death to his adversaries in yellow. He saved red for the destruction of all. Then, with his hand over her already ripened womb, he blanketed her with his parting wish.

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday, the day they sacrificed her lover, because it was her will. Darkness remained while her soul warred with half-imagined murmurings.

Murder was at her fingertips.

The babe stirred inside her.

She chose the blue one after all.

Here’s Jon Freestone’s creative entry:

Somewhere between roof and the pavement, Sam remembered where she’d left her wallet. That distraction was just enough to let her fly. Sam loved the H2G2 series but never thought you could really fly by forgetting to hit the ground.

Sam’s favorite dreams were the flying dreams, she even learned how to lucid dream to be able to control her dreams. Sam soared over the neighborhood, this was way better then any of her dreams.

The hardest part was deciding where to go. Fly home, buzz her boy friends house, or go pick up the wallet. While trying to decide Sam saw a red blinking light to her right and blue light strait ahead.

Why go home, I just want to fly, she thought. Sam started flying between the flashing lights. In the end it wasn’t too hard to decide which light to head for, after all her rival school’s colors were red.

So turning to the left, just to see what would happen, She chose the blue one after all.

Adrian Firth titled his creepy entry, “The Day of Screams”:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday. Dense fog hid the sky, hanging low across rooftops and power lines, smothering houses and decapitating trees. Diffused light brightened the world gradually, like God was turning a dimmer switch. More likely it was the Devil. Oblivious, I eased my Toyota down the driveway in the half-light.

At the letterbox, I leaned out and opened the lid to find nothing but real estate flyers. Cursing the paperboy, I sat trying to get something on the radio, anything at all. The neighbour’s cat chose that moment to stroll into the street.

Pam Jameson’s black moggy often sat in the road, usually early morning and sometimes at dusk, as if it owned the world. As if it were invulnerable. Top of the food chain. We used to think that way too.

A funnel of cloud spiralled from the sky to the white line in the centre of the road. It oscillated like a miniature twister. From the wobbling point, a smoky tendril formed and snaked toward the cat like a ghostly boa constrictor, engulfing the animal.

Cats can scream like nothing on earth. I still had a hand on the radio band selector.

Ahead of me, up in the fog, a massive shape drifted across the sky. Something like a building-sized shark. It seemed to broadcast fear. I sat motionless and cold until it left. Then I put the car in reverse.

I ran from the carport to the house. Inside, I locked the door and went to the television. No picture. No cellphone coverage. No dial tone. You are not connected to the Internet.

That was Thursday. The day of screams. The power is out, and the water doesn’t run now. The fog wraps all sides of the house, all the way to the windows. I keep the curtains drawn. I cower and cry and piss myself when I feel them overhead.

This is how it ends for us. Not nuclear war, economic collapse, or slow drowning in a rising sea. Not plague, asteroid strike, or a broken ecosystem. It finishes the way we have always feared, since the time we huddled around fires in smokey caves.

Monsters.

And while Robyn D. Stone’s story didn’t open with one of the assigned first lines, it’s does end with one:

If only he could see the future. He would know it would work out. Losing his father was surely the hardest thing he had ever been through in his life. Thinking of him now made him happy and sad at the same time. Happy for all the times they had been able to share. Sad for all the times lost.

Looking down at his own son dressed in his Sunday best, his heart was so full of pain. So full of pride. Would his son remember his grandfather? Would he know how much he loved him? How proud he was the day he was born? Steven wondered what words he could use to make sure this six year old little boy knew all the things his grandfather would have wanted him to know.

With his tie slightly askew and hair more than slightly rumpled, he looked so much like Steven had when he was his age. Everyone had been saying the same thing since the accident. Family from faraway places and out of town guests who had not seen Taylor since he was a baby were all amazed at the strong family resemblance. Strong jaw. Dark eyes. Heavy bangs. It was all there. The strong family traits handed down from generation to generation.

Pushing those bangs to the side, Taylor looked up with a sideways glance and gave Steven the signature lopsided smile. What was he thinking? Did any of this make sense to him? Steven had tried explaining it all to him before the services, but how much would a six-year old really grasp. He was having trouble grasping it all himself.

The wind began blowing softly, which sure helped on this hot August afternoon. Southern heat in August was something you could always count on, but his father had been very firm in not wanting a major production for his funeral services. He was specific in saying graveside services only. They had honored his wishes.

As the last trumpet sounded, he gave Taylor a tight hug and watched him walk away and get in the car with Julia, his ex-wife. He reached for his pocket and felt inside, it was still there. But, he knew, the bottle was empty.

Just a couple more short stories to go and you’ll have seen ’em all. Pretty good stuff, don’t you think?

I’m already planning the next contest, and I think you’ll like it. Much less work, but still loads of fun. And, no, I’m not saying anything else about it until September.