Time Travel & Teleportation Aren’t Just for Science Fiction

The written word defies the laws of physics. Right now, as you read this, the author of these words could be parasailing in Grand Cayman, or tied to a chair in the belly of an abandoned oil tanker while being pistol-whipped by thugs (a case of mistaken identity, surely), or (gasp) even dead. Okay, that last one’s a bit morbid, but the only thing you can be relatively certain of is that on Sunday, when I wrote this, I was none of the above.

But do you see what’s going on here? I’m talking to you from the past. Yup. We’re time traveling. I don’t know what “voice” you imagine when you read my words (I hope it’s a resonant, clever & sexy voice and not Steve Buscemi’s nasally weasel-whine), but the thing is… I’m not really speaking them, am I. It’s all in your head.

And that, my writing friends, is the magic of the written word. It takes on a life of its own the moment it lands on the page for someone else to read. And while all writing does this little trick to some degree, the best writing does more than simply speak from the author’s yesterday – it takes you to places you otherwise might never go, introduces you to people you otherwise would never meet.

Have you taken a train to Hogwarts? Stared in awe at Mt. Doom? Have you listened to Reuben Land’s asthmatic wheezing? Fought cold and fear with father and son as they walked Cormac’s Road? Felt the ache and uncertainty of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting’s honeymoon night on Chesil Beach?

The mark of a truly excellent story is its ability to grant you the impossible gift of living someone else’s life – to feel his or her pain, fear, wonder, joy. When you read a great novel, the words on the page dissolve into adopted memories nearly as real as the once-lived ones.

Does your novel do this? Or is it just a bunch of words on the page? Here’s an easy way to find out. Give your story to someone who doesn’t have to sleep with you at the end of the day. Ask him or her to read it, then… forget you asked. In a month or two, go back and ask what they thought. If their eyes light up and they recall a character or a story element in great detail, that’s probably a good sign (at least of that particular story element). If they say, “It was good” and that’s all? I think you have some work to do. (If they say “it was pure crap,” then surely they don’t know good literature – or maybe it was pure crap.)

Okay. That’s all. Nothing really earth shattering today. I mean, it’s Sunday after all, right? What’s that? It’s not?

I know.

Pretty cool trick, don’t you think?

Don’t forget about the “First and Last” writing contest. Still plenty of time to enter.

Just Something to Ponder

Since you’re super busy writing your entry for the “First and Last” contest I announced on Friday, I won’t fill this space will heady writing wisdom that might otherwise distract you from the task at hand. I will offer a question for you to ponder. Which would you choose to tell your real life story: a non-fiction memoir, or a novel based (loosely or tightly) on your life? And why?

That’s all for today. Don’t forget to write… your entry for the contest.

The “First and Last” Writing Contest

contest-boxOkay, it’s really quite simple. Below are three “First” sentences and three “Last” sentences. All you have to do is write a short story or scene that begins with any one of the first sentences and ends with any one of the last sentences. Please, keep your entries under 400 words. Mystery. Romance. Science Fiction. Angsty or humorous. Write whatever you want.

You have until midnight next Friday, July 31, to submit your entry. Depending on the number of entries, it will take me at least a week to sort through and determine the winners. Yes, you read that right “winnerS.” There will be three, chosen by me based on a secret criteria I’ll never reveal. First prize will be $50 Amazon gift certificate and a complete collection of Mold-A-Rama animals from Chicago’s own Brookfield Zoo. (More on these later.) Second prize is a digital micro recorder – a useful device for when you have a great idea but are far from your computer. (Not recommended for use in the shower, however.) And third prize is a $15 Amazon gift certificate.

As before, paste entries in the body of your email and send to this address. Be sure to include your name somewhere in the email. And please, no attachments. I reserve the right to change the rules at any time.

You might ask, what’s the point of this (besides writing fun stuff and winning swell prizes)? Answer: Problem-solving. Sometimes the hardest part of writing a novel is getting from point A to point B. Or point C to point D. Or point R to point S. (Okay, I’ll stop.) You know your starting point and you know where you hope to end up… but have no clue how to get there. This exercise is merely a lighthearted way to practice the art of problem solving. See? There’s purpose to all this frivolity.

Oh, and one more thing. I figured it would only be fair if I played along, too. So… while you’re thinking about what to write, jot down a first and last sentence you want me to consider for my short story. I’ll choose one of each from all that are submitted and write a story that I will publish on this very blog for all to see and critique. (Not participating in the contest? That’s fine. You can still suggest a first and last sentence for my story. Just drop me an email.)

That’s about it, really. If I think of something else, I’ll let you know during the week.

And now… the sentences you’ve been waiting for (and, yes, you can change the gender if you want):

First Sentences

  • Somewhere between roof and the pavement, Sam remembered where he’d left his wallet.
  • The sun didn’t rise on Thursday.
  • It was the best of times… no, really, the very best of times.

Last Sentences (Yes, I know the third one is a fragment. It’s for all you fragment fans.)

  • The bottle was empty.
  • She chose the blue one after all.
  • Monsters.

When Details Become Distraction

Version One.

Benny’s cherry red Converse sneakers squeaked their delight on the Asian Mahogany Pergo laminate floor while his mother stirred the Nestle Semi-Sweet morsels into the cookie dough using the wood-handled Le Creuset spatula with the blue non-stick silicone surface that never failed her.

“Now?” asked Benny, his brown eyes barely visible beneath the blue, red and white of the too-big Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

“Not yet,” she answered, and she stirred some more, thankful for her Paderno copper mixing bowl and her Okite Creama Botticino countertop and a pair of neon orange Crocs that might elicit snide comments from women who wear Giuseppe Zanottis and pretend not to enjoy shopping at Pottery Barn, but invite nothing but praise from her size-eight feet in the safety of her two-story brownstone.

“But I’m hungry now!” Benny picked at the Spiderman Band-Aid on his left wrist.

“Almost,” she said, a little more sharply than she intended, but Benny didn’t seem to notice. He had wandered into the twenty-by-twenty-four living room and grabbed the RCA remote from the back of the brown leather Lazy-Boy recliner and was aiming it at the 42″ LCD TV.

“Can I watch SpongeBob on Nickelodeon while I eat cookie dough?” He asked, stuffing his free hand in the pocket of his stonewashed Lee jeans.

“Sure.” She looked up from the copper bowl as the TV lit the room with an image of a familiar face partially hidden by Ray-Ban Aviators. “Wait, leave it,” she said. And then she wished she hadn’t.

“Hey, it’s daddy. What’s daddy doing on TV?”

The camera zoomed out to reveal her husband wearing his favorite black Hugo Boss suit as he was being stuffed into the back of a blue and white police car. Benny looked over at his mother with a puzzled expression. This is when she dropped the Le Creuset spatula, fell to the Asian Mahogany Pergo floor, and hit her head on the half-open door of the Fisher & Paykel Dishdrawer.

Version Two.

Benny’s cherry red Converse sneakers squeaked their delight on the mahogany laminate floor while his mother stirred chocolate chips into the cookie dough using the wood-handled spatula with the non-stick surface that never failed her.

“Now?” asked Benny, his brown eyes barely visible beneath the blue, red and white of the too-big Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

“Not yet,” she answered, and she stirred some more, thankful for her copper mixing bowl and her Okite countertop and a pair of neon orange Crocs that might elicit snide comments from women who wear Giuseppe Zanottis and pretend not to enjoy shopping at Pottery Barn, but invite nothing but praise from her size-eight feet in the safety of her two-story brownstone.

“But I’m hungry now!” Benny picked at the Spiderman Band-Aid on his left wrist.

“Almost,” she said, a little more sharply than she intended, but Benny didn’t seem to notice. He had wandered into the living room and grabbed the remote from the back of the leather recliner and was aiming it at the TV.

“Can I watch SpongeBob while I eat cookie dough?” He asked, stuffing his free hand in the pocket of his stonewashed jeans.

“Sure.” She looked up from the bowl as the TV lit the room with an image of a familiar face wearing a pained expression partially hidden by Ray-Ban Aviators. “Wait, leave it,” she said. And then she wished she hadn’t.

“Hey, it’s daddy. What’s daddy doing on TV?”

The camera zoomed out to reveal her husband being stuffed into the back of a police car. Benny looked over at his mother with a puzzled expression. This is when she dropped the spatula, fell to the floor, and hit her head on the half-open door of the dishwasher.

And now, the explanation.

First of all, you’ll notice that there isn’t a huge difference between the first version of this scene and the second. This illustrates a very important principal of the editing process: it’s not always about sweeping changes – sometimes it’s all about the little tweaks. (BTW, some of my former cubicle-dwelling neighbors hate that word “tweak,” so I’m using it here mostly to annoy them in that friendly, poke-in-the-ribs-with-a-stick sorta way. Hi old editing pals!)

So what’s wrong with the first version? Well, it certainly does a good job of providing specific details. But sometimes, too much specificity can actually detract from a scene by drawing attention away from the heart of the story: the characters themselves. At worst, name-brand references (which, in moderation, add welcome verisimilitude) become little more than product-placement ads and the whole scene starts to look more like a catalog than a story.

So let’s look at the changes I made. Overall, I made the editorial call that there were simply too many brand names here and that some had to go. So which ones? Well, I cut the brand name and specific color of the flooring because “mahogany” and “laminate” give the reader enough information to picture it. And everyone knows what “chocolate chips” are – we don’t need to know they’re from Nestle unless that’s critical to the story somehow. (If the dad works for Hershey? Now that could give it purpose.)

The Cubs cap is perfect. Since most of us know the color of a Cub’s hat, you might wonder if we need the “blue, red and white”? No. But I liked the cadence of that sentence. So it stays.

You could easily argue to keep “Paderno” except that few people know about Paderno so eliminating the brand reference is no great loss. A copper bowl is unique enough to add texture to the setting. I kept the brand name for the countertop because it implies something about the mother’s knowledge of kitchens, and therefore (possibly) about how much she enjoys cooking. I edited out the color reference only because there are already so many details in this sentence. I might find a way to re-insert it somewhere else in the story because Italian words are so fun to read. Notice that I kept the rest of the details. Even if you don’t know who Giuseppe Zanotti is (and I sure don’t), it’s clear from context that the women are all about image over practicality. This contrast to the mom and her neon orange Crocs immediately tells you a ton about her that would have been lost with a generic description of the Pottery Barn ladies.

Spiderman stays. I mean, c’mon. It’s Spiderman.

Okay, the next paragraph was an easy fix. We don’t need to know how big the room is. We don’t need to know the brand of the remote (who would know the difference, anyway, except someone who has seen multiple remotes including the mentioned brand). And we don’t even need to know what kind or size of TV is in the room. The reader will draw his own picture there and that’s perfectly fine.

Two more easy cuts in the next paragraph. However… if part of what makes the Benny character unique is an unusual speech pattern whereby he always adds unnecessary details, then I’d keep his mention of Nickelodeon. I can cut “Lees” with ease, however.

I kept the Ray-Bans because it’s a familiar visual. Most people would see this exactly as the writer intended.

In the next paragraph I took the husband out of his suit. Did I have to? No. It might be important to the character. But the emotional impact of the scene is all about the mother’s reaction to seeing her husband being arrested. Unless the suit has a role to play in the story, we don’t need it here.

And finally, the last cuts are obvious. It simply takes too long for her to fall if we have to note every little detail of her Garden State moment. (Hey, it’s a movie reference. Didja get it? If not, ask someone who’s seen it. Or rent it yourself.)

And there you go.

As always, this is just one editor’s opinion. But if nothing else, I hope you understand the main point. What was the point? Um… you could have figured it out just from the title of the post. But thanks for reading this far anyway. I like you better than the people who didn’t.

Hey, tomorrow I’m introducing the next Noveldoctor writing contest. Sharpen your virtual pens. It’s going to be a good one.

Until then, happy self-editing.

Free Characters for Your Novel!

Is your plot dragging? Is your protagonist starting to annoy you with long, boring speeches that add nothing to the story? Are you contemplating plagiarism to fix the problem of a go-nowhere middle third of your novel? Well, put down that copy of The Pillars of the Earth (did you really think Follett wouldn’t notice you “borrowed” a few words?) and pay close attention to this post. I have the perfect solution for all your novel-writing problems: the introduction of a Brand New Character. That’s right, with addition of a BNC you can kick a dragging plot into overdrive or kick a protagonist in the asterisk so he or she stops blathering on about nothing and starts doing Very Important Things.

Today, and today only, I’ve got five, count’em, five BNCs you can add to your novel. And what’s the cost? Well, you’ve probably seen BNCs advertised for as much as $1000 elsewhere. But for you? They are Ab-So-Lute-Ly Free. You heard that right. Free. And they’re plug-and-play! Just select any one of the characters below, write him or her into your story, and watch the magic happen.

  • Sylvester Thorogood – Sylvester is a 64-year-old widower who recently quit his job as assistant manager of a local Ace Hardware, took the insurance money he got after his wife died in a tractor-pull accident (don’t ask) and bought a KOA campground he plans to turn into the “Disneyland” of KOA campgrounds. He has no hair (except for a gray ponytail which may or may not be glued on) drives a restored brown 1975 AMC Matador wagon, and is allergic to seafood.
  • Laverne DuPrix – Laverne is a seven-year-old girl who loves her first name and spells it out loud whenever anyone asks “what’s your name?” In fact, she loves spelling words so much she pretty much spells everything she says. She doesn’t have curly hair or sparklingly bright eyes, so don’t even try to work that into her description.
  • Skip (just “Skip”) – Skip is 19 and a high schooler (technically, still a junior) who may have actually forgotten his last name due to the drug-addled year his friends refer to as “the year Skip skipped.” He’s a really smart kid, but you wouldn’t know it because he only speaks when the topic of conversation interests him. And the only things that interest him are novels by Stephen King, serial killers, and angel food cake. With strawberries.
  • Pat Blurry – Pat is a forty-something woman who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “subtle.” No, you misunderstand. She really doesn’t know what the word means. Okay, and in addition to that, she wears gaudy, bright colors (think Carmen Miranda’s hat) and talks with a very loud voice that at times seems to have a southern accent and at other times a Canadian accent. She lives with a collection of exotic talking birds, one of which speaks only in profanities.
  • Gary Munson – Gary lost his high-profile job in the financial industry when the recession sent his firm into bankruptcy. He’s not a happy man. He has a gun. And he kills people. That’s all you need to know. (Keep him away from your protagonist. I mean it.)

Use your characters wisely. And have a good day.

[Fake Legal Disclaimer: While each of the BNCs will fit anywhere in a novel, they are officially certified to be effective only when inserted somewhere between the 20,000 and 40,000 word mark and only if The Writer doesn't change the BNC's name. Once a BNC is inserted into The Writer's novel, the BNC becomes the property of The Writer. Use of a BNC does not represent an implicit or explicit or illicit endorsement by the Noveldoctor or any real or imaginary members of the Noveldoctor Collective. Use of characters is at The Writer's own risk. Remember, never drink and write. Well, actually, that might not be such a bad idea. Especially if your novel is so troubled you're resorting to using a BNC. This ends the fake legal disclaimer.]