Mature content

As a grade school child, I read a book called Black Beauty. It was actually written for adults. In the first chapter the son and only heir to the family dies of a broken neck in the foolish sport of fox hunting. After this tragedy, the parents decide to sell their estate, and this begins Black Beauty’s downward plunge into the increasingly abusive world of the working horse.

If this were to be depicted as “mature content” the writer would have described every gory detail of this young man’s deadly fall, shown the psychotic cries of his parents, described memories of everything they had done wrong concerning him in the past, including dealing with his or their own sexual indiscretions. All of this would obscure the foolish waste of life caused by his hobby of fox hunting.

Those kinds of explicit descriptions are not there to inform adults but rather to entertain them by immersing them into a dark world that drags emotion out of us. When this kind of story is written for YA, the author deletes some of the explicit description and adds magic, so the son can be brought back to life. No tragedy would be so dark that it could not be completely reversed. The glut of fantasy works for YA today may prevent them from seeing the actual world through books that describe real tragedies.

We often think of mature content as too disturbing to present to teenagers or someone younger. We may deal with it as a badge of honor showing our toughness that we can read these texts. But, many people are affected in a way that they do not realize as they become jaded or hardened to such content. I heard one person bemoan that even slasher horror films no longer terrified her. I do not know if this was a brag or actual plea to find novels and movies that would  affect her deeply. 

Mature content should preserve the impact of the event without resorting to being written in a titillating manner. One way to increase the emotional impact is to create characters that matter to the reader. Larger than life characters, such as the chosen one who will succeed no matter what or the broken alcoholic who is still very competent at his job despite his struggle with booze lose their realism. They also fail to gain the reader’s concern.

People will still read to escape sometimes, but a constant diet of violent and explicit escapism may also lead to a dose of unnecessary detachment. We leave behind a part of ourselves when being “scared to death” doesn’t seem frightening anymore.

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Plotting against yourself

The plot may not be the most important part of the story. A plot cannot exist without characters. There are novels that meander so that the reader has a hard time unearthing the conflict. But, if this novel has interesting characters, some parts of it are still enjoyable. The same thing is true for rich descriptive passages. Poems may not have a plot, and yet I enjoy them for the imagery, especially the juxtaposition of normally conflicting ideas.

However, plots are still important. What are some plot  problems that make me cringe the most?

1) Repeating clichés

The first page is an exciting introduction and I continue to read until I realize that I’ve seen this all before, multiple times. To be true, there is nothing new under the sun. The plot that I am using has been used before. However, if it has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning, the reader will start yawning. They have read it so often that it has no effect on them.

2) Using plot armor

The protagonist is in really deep trouble. How is he going to get out of this fix? By magic… and the story is not even a fantasy. He will survive impossible odds simply because he has to. He is the hero. I need to carefully consider the logic of each action that my main character takes. If I cannot figure out a believable way to get him out of a particular problem, I should not put him into it.

3) Telling the story without creating scenes

Whether I plot the entire story beforehand or do this as I write, I need to consider constructing scenes in which the actions occur. Each scene should take place in a specific location and within a limited time. Each one has a distinct beginning and end. Otherwise, the story will keep rolling on without breaks. I can intersperse expositions between the scenes and often do this at the beginning of a chapter. But, I better be saying something important to the plot when I do this.

4) Characters who flip back and forth

This may sound like character development because people in your story should change. However, there must be reasons for a character to turn from one side to the other beyond adding interest to a dragging plot. I should be aware of the temptation to change a major character from the right side to the wrong side to pick up the pace. One change of heart is good, if that is the major point of the story. It requires immensely more skill as a writer to get by with doing this multiple times with the same character.

5) Too much or too little action

There is a wide range of actions that work. The more poetic your words are, the less action you need. However, there must be a conflict and the main characters need to struggle to overcome this problem; even if it kills them (as in a tragedy). On the other hand, if I repeatedly use similar events (such as surprise attacks) in which the protagonist wins by the same strategies this gets very repetitive. I need to plan arcs in the action, so that the novel goes through a few cycles of rising and falling action.

A good plot makes a hefty contribution towards crafting a novel worth reading. If I am not aware of my shortcomings with plot development, I may end up with a novel not worth the reader’s time.

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How do you say that?

The debate on how to write dialog well is often an unnecessary one. Our opinion of what makes good dialog depends on how we and the people around us speak. My stories tend to have a large amount of conversations. I could say that I write what I hear when people talk. But, that’s not true. I must condense their words into a much shorter form without the meandering and repetition that exists in normal speech. Also, my dialog is not as polite as usual conversations because it is often the first clue of the existing conflict.

I attempt to imbue characters with their own particular eccentricities when they speak. The cocky young man does not sound the same as the timid one; nor does the intelligent high school girl use the same speech pattern as the flirtatious one. A reader might comment that one person sounds normal and another does not. Perhaps this is more of a reflection of the reader’s personality, than the realism of the dialog. People often cluster in groups that speak the same way. Fictional characters should not.

When I write dialog, I start with a format that looks much like a play script. The words in the conversation follow the characters’ names. Afterwards, I will add the dialog tags and, if necessary, the character’s expressions and movements. Too much description of these during a conversation breaks into the flow of words, and so does using a lot of deep point of view to express interior thoughts. 

The words characters speak may not reflect exactly what they are thinking. For example, parts of my stories concern romance, but the dialogue itself is not romantic. The couple will begin to speak to each in an unguarded manner, sometimes bragging, sometimes critical, but still paying attention to what the other person says. Listening to details of the other person’s life shows more care or concern than any pledge of enduring love. Persuasive sweet talking or syrupy language is what a con man uses, and characters seem manipulative if they do that.

This snippet of dialog introduces how one couple meet each other. 

“There is no ticket for your car, Ms. Montelongo.” The young mechanic grinned at me.

“Where’s Uncle Marco?” my friend asked. “He called her and said it was ready.”

“Picking up a water pump.” He paused and smiled even wider. “Montelongo…. that is not a common name. Are you related to Stefani?” he asked.

“Unfortunately,” I replied. “So, why is my car not ready?”

“The water pump is for your car. It went out during the test drive to make sure your gas feed problem was fixed. Sorry!” he apologized. “So, your sister is a cheerleader. Are you going to the game tonight?”

Now, I had to deal with a young mechanic with a crush on my sister, who didn’t seem to care whether or not I had a car to drive.

Note, that I summarized the conversation in the last sentence showing internal thought. Obviously this pair has a long way to go before they get together. However, readers will not always pick up subtleties in conversation. There is no guarantee that they will talk the same way as you or your characters do.

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Extended time generator

Time for reading and writing both come from the same pool of time. During one phase of my career I created training for an application called the Extended Time Generator. This allowed manufacturing supervisors to move chargeable time to different phases of a project. It did not really extend the total time in which all the tasks could be done but shifted it.

As much as we would all love a device to increase our time, it doesn’t exist. With this in mind, it quickly becomes apparent that I can read too much, and not have enough time to write. This often happens when I am doing research. I discover another intriguing aspect to chase after and emerge from that rabbit hole hours later without accomplishing much.

I don’t read to entertain myself or to become more educated but to quench my curiosity. Therefore, I don’t attempt to keep track of books I’ve read or movies that I’ve watched because I tend to remember them. Perhaps it is because I am picky with my reading time and put thought into choosing books. I will read more than the first page, usually up to five chapters. However, books that I start, I can close and never finish if they lack quality for me to continue. I do not keep reading just to find out what happens.

Inspiration from reading novels written by good authors provides me with much more insight than following a book with rules about writing. So, I do take notes on fiction books occasionally. There is no other way to read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Solzhenitsyn if I don’t keep track of the characters. (However, I never found this necessary when reading Lord of the Rings.) If the plot becomes too complex, but I still find it intriguing, I create notes. I used to jot down ideas that occurred to me in a notebook, but illegible handwriting means sometimes even I can’t even read it. Now, dictating notes onto my phone has replaced this habit. Even when I read a poorly constructed story or piece of convoluted nonfiction it is not a complete waste of time. This clues me into what I should avoid when writing.

But, no matter how efficient I become when reading, it still subtracts time from writing. What I attempt to do is prevent it from subtracting as much energy from writing. I reserve the times of the day in which I’m most creative, which are mid-mornings and evenings. I spend increasingly more time writing than reading as a novel or another writing project continues. In fact, I’ll just dispense with the time spent reading completely near the end of one, unless I feel my creative well is drying up. In that situation, there is the other factor beside reading to inspire my writing, and that is actually living life.

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Try a little name dropping

Imagine you are discussing a current government situation with a friend. You mention an insight you learned about behind-the-scenes working of government while in our capitol. Perhaps you briefly mention that when George Bush explained this the first time, you didn’t quite catch it, but now you understand. 

You’ve implied that you talked personally with the former president. However, you could have simply heard his explanation while sitting in a hotel room in Washington D.C. listening to the evening news. What you are doing is leaving a hint about a famous person that you hope will be understood in a manner to make you seem more important—name dropping.

Allusions are also a type of name dropping. They make your writing—the setting, the situation, and the characters—seem more important because of their relation to famous ones. However, a weakness in current writing exists because the allusions often refer to a person (real or fictional) of temporary fame, a person who will be forgotten next year. Because of the visual nature of  the internet fictional characters are compared to others based on appearance. However, if allusions are going to help your reader connect to the character, they should have staying power and reveal motives.

Shakespeare was a master of using allusions as short-cuts in developing characters. For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare makes allusions to Greek mythology, Roman literature and the Bible. Hamlet despises his uncle who has stolen the throne by marrying his mother within a month of his father’s suspicious death. (The whole plot to Lion King is a retelling of this play, without the tragic ending.) 

Hamlet decides to keep mum and not to tell everyone that he suspects his uncle was involved in his father’s death. But the prince has a hard time not letting his feelings leak out. Rather than a direct verbal attack, Hamlet compares his father and his uncle using the phrase as “Hyperion to a satyr.” Hyperion was the Greek sun god, a fairly noble one; the satyr (more familiar to modern audiences) was a lecherous, half man-half goat creature.

During the play the Prince Hamlet requests itinerant actors perform a play at his palace for the “entertainment” of his mother, among others. For this play within a play Shakespeare uses Hecuba’s stirring funeral speech as written by the Roman poet Ovid. According to the ancient legends, Hecuba was the Trojan queen who grieved eloquently at the death of her husband and son. The purpose of this illusion was not just to throw around Shakespeare’s knowledge of classical literature. It was to portray a parallel situation so the audience could see how Hamlet was trying to embarrass his own mother because of her hasty marriage to a questionable man.

Hamlet also refers to Cain murdering Abel, from Genesis in the Bible so almost everyone in his audience could get this allusion. The less learned people in Shakespeare’s audience would realize that Hamlet was stating that his father’s murderer was none other than his own brother. The majority of modern readers would catch this last reference even if they missed the other two.

In Shakespeare’s day, literary allusions were flung left and right during a play. The Baird didn’t underestimate the intelligence of his audience and they appreciated that. If you were watching a play and caught the meaning of an allusion, you thought of yourself as a learned person. For those that didn’t, well, there was plenty of lowbrow humor and sexual innuendo to keep them entertained.

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Does being well-read help you write?

Despite the flood of self-published books, there are still agents searching the field of writers attempting to discover the next best-selling author. I read a long list of short blurbs written by these agents describing what they required of those submitting to them. Although most didn’t specify a shelf life for “comps,” some would only consider writers with submissions comparable to more recent well-known books.

However, one insisted that writers not bother him if their comps were published before 2000. The agent wanted an author who was producing a sure thing, which emulated what currently sold. This short range of years for comps increased his likelihood of receiving works with synopses that sounded much like many others. I was certainly not going to interrupt his little bubble by submitting my own attempts to create unique novels.

Some authors want their work described as similar to a currently famous writer, while others fret about writing a novel that imitates another work too much. This second group wants to be well-read but not so influenced by their reading habits that they regurgitate something too similar. Their concern is that a reader with access to the real thing would not want to read an imitation. The best way to avoid producing work which simply mimics other author’s is to have a wide-range of reading, a range that goes well past twenty years and encompasses the work of five centuries or more. However, I have noted an increasing disregard for notable authors of the past centuries.

Before my first writing conference I read the biographies of all the speakers. One question asked of each one was “Which classic novel is on your want to read list?” There were a number of different answers, and with one exception I had read them all. Before that time, if asked, “Does writing well depend on being well-read?” I would answer with a confident “It definitely helps.” But, I’m not sure of that anymore. Over the years the question growing in the back of my mind is “Does being well-read actually hamper a writer’s ability to publish popular books, today?”

At that same conference, I sat across the table from an editor who described seeking a new kind of book, “dark” adventure and fantasy works. The keynote speaker stood up and inquired if any of us had the experience of reading the work of an author and wanting to write like that. Softly I blurted out, “That would be The Idiot,  the first book I read by Dostoevsky. The editor snapped “Nobody writes like that anymore.” Perhaps not, there is not a lot of concern about the soul of man in much current writing. However, The Idiot introduced a naïve Prince Myshkin into a corrupt society that was pretty dark. One man was dangerously obsessed with the love of a woman, and that woman was growing merciless to the man who had abused her. Perhaps a modern version of these struggles might have been exactly what the editor was looking for. But then, Dostoevsky wrote classics, not current best sellers.

Knowledge of classic authors from past centuries is not necessary to be well-read today. It doesn’t matter if their works have survived the test of time. Authors can copy ideas from them without too much concern about people recognizing the content, because nobody writes like them, or evidently reads them, anymore.

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Talking yourself into writing

I was rather amused by a study about learning foreign languages which concluded that extroverts learned to speak a foreign language more rapidly while introverts mastered writing in it quicker. The finding didn’t require rocket science, just a definition of those two traits.

However, some extroverts still long to write great novels. Because of this personality trait, they approach the task differently. A person who expresses their ideas vocally has the ability to use facial expressions and tone of voice. These are not available for words on a page. Instead the person must depend on action verbs, descriptive text, and connotation-loaded words to convey information. Extroverts have to consider how they verbally use stories to get their point across. Then, compare  the verbalized version with the written version to detect the basic differences.  

I recall listening to TED talks that seemed intriguing. Then, I read the transcript and realized that the ideas were simple, a bit too simple. But the story-telling that encased the idea created an interesting bubble around the basic point. In the case of the TED talks, some people with great ideas have been coached to talk in an engaging and enthusiastic manner for their presentation. It is not something that they do naturally or can keep doing for a long period of time. The extrovert may find they need some similar support to get through the difficulty of writing novels.

I don’t know if any formal study has been completed on this hypothesis, but I suspect that people who write with little planning and no outlines are a bit more outgoing than those who organize their ideas on paper before they begin. A person who “thinks out loud” in the manner of an extrovert may also prefer a writing process that is quick and allows writing down whatever comes to mind without much contemplation (otherwise known as being a pantser). This does work for some writers.  However, they soon discover that they have written three or four times the length of their book before they have a cohesive story that works for them.

One of the difficulties that many extroverts have when attempting to complete their novel is the isolation caused by writing. There are hours alone, without verbal feedback which may lead to a sensation of being “blocked.” Extroverts’ progress in generating ideas depends on talking about the topic. New technology that provides accurate transcriptions of the spoken language can come in handy. Extroverts can produce the initial text by speaking, which is their favored form of expression and spend the time to revise it later, after receiving feedback.

Repeating the same ideas using different words may work when speaking because we can use various facial expressions and tones of voice. But, when the only voice a person has is restricted to words on paper repeating the same idea in different words just won’t cut it. Sometimes, I’ve found those that write well have a difficulty explaining all the ideas that go through their head during that process. However, some of the most informative speakers about writing are not the best writers. There are times that you just can’t have it all.

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Chemistry lessons

Chemistry–a subject in school that requires labs where students mix substances to observe what happens. However, the students spend much more time scribbling down equations on paper to calculate the result of reactions they never observe. Chemicals are often predictable. So, when I took chemistry, if the solutions we made in the lab did not yield weights within the correct range, I knew how to figure out an answer closer to what should have occurred. 

Chemistry between characters in a romance is an entirely different beast. Writers might observe people in love and attempt to capture the essence of interpersonal chemistry. But, we realize this valued trait is unpredictable. Describing the vixen-like female, and the strength of the hunky male does not necessarily result in chemistry. That is the result of the interaction between two different people, just as a lab experiment is about the interaction between two different elements.

So, there seems to be no way to scribble down a formula for chemistry between two characters. Or is there? For example, if two fictional characters are fated to love each other and there is never a conflict between them, there is also no chemistry. Stories and love affairs have some common elements. Both become interesting because we sense trouble. The suspense resulting from guessing what will happen next keeps us intrigued. 

The unexpected and entertaining way in which couples deal with conflicts leads to the desired quality of chemistry between the pair. This may spring from taking a chance at romance that may be rejected. One of the fated pair may struggle to reveal feelings or fear that becoming fully involved requires giving up too much. However, those of us observing the sometimes awkward dance between potential lovers do not regard this as a tragedy. We anticipate a victory over the obstacles in the road to romance that will lead to something much greater. When either person is willing to change, or to be frankly open with the other, we see sparks fly. This reaction between the two is chemistry. We root for the couple to find some creative way to get together.

Often chemistry-filled romances are between people of distinctly different backgrounds, classes, or ethnicities. The liaison is not convenient. It may cause rejection by family and friends who perceive it as inappropriate or even as a threat. This creates a barrier between the two characters. But, they keep trying to climb over these walls. The range of responses should vary from hilarious to occasionally heart-wrenching. The conflicts should keep us interested, wondering what will happen and not wear us out.

A warning–do not try too hard to introduce artificial problems to increase the chemistry between a pair of lovers. We may laugh at the couple as they test each other’s affection. However, too much of this testing is the exhibition of a full-blown borderline personality disorder. Reading about that kind of manipulation is unnerving, and we want to be free of it. In the chemistry lab an occasional overheating of a sulfur compound would result in a yellow spot on the ceiling. The teacher was not happy, even if the students were amused. However, if this happened more than once the teacher caught on that it was not accidental, and would slap a detention on the offender. When there is chemistry between a couple, we will find the tension intriguing rather than stressful.

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Mixing past and present can get tense

Authors sometimes play with the parts of a novel, like wooden blocks that can be rearranged. What will happen if the middle of the story is inserted at the beginning, or time moves forward and then backwards? What if exterior stimuli and interior thoughts occur meshed together as they do in real life? When reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf I adjusted to the stream of conscious style and noted the movement between the flood of thoughts in present tense, and the character’s actions shown in past tense.

But, one element seemed to remain consistent—the tense used to tell the story—the standard past tense narrative. Through years of reading, I did encounter some variations. One was the Babar series by Jean de Brunhoff. His use of present tense was not a difference that I noted as a child, but one that I stumbled over as an adult while reading The Story of Babar to my own children.

The present tense story-telling that appeared in children’s books has expanded into fiction for older adults. During this time, I noted that editors have tried to reduce, if not eliminate, some more complex past tenses such as past continuous (I was writing), past perfect (I had written), and past perfect continuous (I had been writing). One reason for this trend—it is easier for readers. Editors are set on reducing words and push the writing down to a sixth grade level. However, stories lose some of their texture when the past progressive and continuous verbs are excluded. These often set the stage for the character before another event happens.

 “He was watching the riots in the street below the hotel when the door slammed behind him.”

This complex sentence uses both progressive past and a dependent clause. But, there is nothing wrong with it. The compound tense provides a sense of the setting within time.

Another reason some people insist on deleting the “was watching” form of the verb is because it sounds like a passive verb. It is not. This is: “The riots in the streets were being watched.” Do not trust anyone that advises authors to avoid any form of ‘’to be” used with another verb under the assumption that it is always a passive tense.

However back to my first point, using present tense for the narrative still seemed peculiar. I heard warnings from writing gurus. Novels written in the present tense would not sound like a story but an instructions manual. Present tense in fiction would distance the reader from the characters. After I began reading All the Light We Cannot See, with a narrative written entirely in present tense, I realized this did not take away the immediacy from the story in this historical novel by Anthony Doerr. I was no longer listening to someone recount the past but in the current moment.

Writing in the present tense requires a different expertise. While continuing to work on a book written in the past tense, I decided to play with the present tense. I rewrote three chapters to see how they would feel. This change in tense improved the flow of events as it forced me to write in a linear manner, including each action as it occurred. This prevented me from jumping back and forth to explain events as I constructed scenes.

In the end, I went back and rewrote these chapters in the past tense, so they would fit in with the style of the rest of the novel. However, I left the improved flow of events. Since my experiment writing in present tense I have become less tolerant of the rambling style which hops back and forth between past explanations and currently occurring events. Present tense works for writing novels but requires a greater skill to use this technique well.

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Breathing life into your words

Where does the spark of a story originate? Walking down the street trimmed with frosted pine swags, hearing the distant hum of a children’s choir and a mother berating her teenage son for wanting to spend Christmas day at the house of his girlfriend, her voice drips with disdain. A scene both festive and a bit heart-wrenching. I often find myself drawn to this kind of imagery, beauty in a place contrasted with hurtful humans. No matter how idyllic the setting is, if people are there, some will demand other’s obedience or display a kind of selfishness that soon ruins the idyll.

What makes a story unforgettable? It has to reveal a struggle hidden deep in you. Your personal connection with a particular kind of conflict that allows you to pour in the energy, and emotion needed to draw the interest of other people. That doesn’t mean the story has to be about you. But, it does have to be about what you hold dear. This idea is the germ of the story.

However, producing the story requires so much more, including the discipline needed to take that idea and express it in characters as they develop. It requires the ability to play with events in the plot as challenges arise, until the pacing flows. It requires ingenuity in resolving the conflict. This kind of creative work, known as elaboration, is the most difficult and time consuming part of writing.

If you follow instructions and tick boxes when constructing a story, you will write a story that resembles ones that have been written before without the investment of your heart or stretching your ability to the breaking point by creating a vision that you have not yet seen. You can learn from instruction on writing, but at some point, you have to diverge from that to make a story compelling because it is your own.

Try this exercise. Keep a notebook with you the entire day. Whenever something intrigues you, an image, an event, or conversation, record them. If toting the notebook is a bit too much you can record these on a phone as I do. (Just make sure you are not connected to the internet so that you can shut down the drain of social media). If there is too much distraction in your world to write your thoughts, go to a dark room, with only enough light to write. It helps to observe not only what is going on in your vision, but also what is going on in your mind. At the end of the day review your writing and see which parts seem to draw you in while reading. Those are the themes and techniques that you can use to make your fiction come alive.

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