Friday, August 1, 2014

Reds Writing Rules: Our Hooptedoodle

HALLIE EPHRON: A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of teaching a writing workshop at 30th annual Antioch Writers Summer Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I got to work with an incredibly talented group of up-and-coming writers and listen to experts offer up their wisdom on how to. (I also got to hang out with frequent Jungle Red commenter Cyndi Pauwels whose first published novel FORTY & OUT comes out in September and she'll be back then to talk about it!)

Even I don't have an MFA so I don't know the right lingo, most of
what I heard was familiar. But I had a genuine Aha! moment when Tara Ison (author of "Rockaway," "The List," and "A Child Out of Alcatraz") wrote a quote on the white board. My memory of it is only approximate, and I can't even remember who said it, but here's the gist: 
Plot is about what a character needs and what he's willing to do to get it.

So simple.

Now for years I've taught that plot (aka story) is about what a character WANTS, and that conflict growing out of characters with competing goals. But somehow changing that "wants" to "needs" and combining it with: and what he's willing to do to get it, set lights flashing in my head.

So a character may WANT to win a contest, get the guy, find the treasure, destroy the broomstick on the wicked witch... but driving the want is a need. And if that character is going to risk life and limb, then the need has to be profound and personal.

After hours over glasses of wine, we talked about various 'rules' that are useful but should not be taken as gospel. Like don't start a novel with a dream or weather. Because lots of terrific novels start with nightmares and storms. (A Wrinkle in Time begins with "It was a dark and stormy night," just for instance.)

But this idea that story has to be driven by what a character needs does not seem to be to be one that can be ignored.

So have you found any rules that are sacrosanct (or at useful to follow); and are there others happily you break with impunity?

RHYS BOWEN:  It depends on the rules. There are some that are sacrosanct to me like playing fair with the reader, not switching point of view within a scene. Showing not telling. Not bombarding the reader with backstory or information. Not having two characters with similar names. Not introducing us to too many characters at once.

But there are many supposed rules for mystery novels that I break all the time. I don't mind starting a book with weather, with a dream, with conversation if I feel they are needed. I don't always have a body for a hundred pages or more.

I never manipulate character to fit the plot.

It comes down to whatever works for me.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  I'm looking out the window, staring at the sailboats on the Charles, and wondering if there's a "rule" I would never break.

Huh, okay. I would never change point of view in the midst of a scene.  I often start a scene with one line of dialogue, but rarely two, because I am always careful to make sure the reader knows where the scene is taking place. 

I would never have a stupid secret, like missing twin, or sex change operation.

I won't have a phone call where someone says: I can't tell you on the phone, but meet me later. (You KNOW what's about to happen then, right?) (Although it's fine, and pretty funny, if the meeting goes as planned.)

I guess--I always ask myself: Is this believable, original and interesting? Do I care? And if I can say yes, I pretty much do whatever works.

Oh, that's what Rhys just said.

LUCY BURDETTE: Okay, just thinking off the top of my head, without any wine...I really really try not to insert a plot twist or clue just because I love the idea. If it doesn't work with the story and even more importantly, the characters, I try to deep-six that little bit of brilliance.

Second, also hard, is try not to have the heroine trot into dangerous situations without a damn good reason. Hayley Snow is a food critic not a police officer, so I try to keep that in mind.

Oh and one more little thing--try to make sure SOMETHING  HAPPENS in each scene, that it advances the plot or shows something critical about the characters.

My hub asked me yesterday: "So what's happening with your plot?"

Me: "They're eating bad Japanese food. That's it." Sigh, back to work...

DEBORAH CROMBIE: What Rhys, Hank, and Lucy said:-)

Interesting that we are all obsessive about changing viewpoint within a scene. I HATE that!! It will make me put down a book.

And I am VERY big on Play Fair in crime novels. I don't like unreliable narrators, and I think the readers must be given all the information available to the sleuths, be they amateur or professional.

Like Rhys, I've started books with weather, and with dreams, and often there isn't a murder until a good way into the book. So who makes up these silly rules, anyway???

I guess (without a glass of wine or two) that my big unbreakable rule is Everything Must Advance the Plot. And sometimes that mean throwing out things I really like. And not putting in things (and characters) I really like.

HALLIE: And there you have it! The Reds have spoken. But really, every writer has his or her own rules that they write by and rules they ignore.  

So what "rule" might a writer break that will make you put down a book?


  1. I never gave “the rules” much thought, but after reading these comments, I think the books I don’t enjoy [or, on occasion, don’t finish reading] are those that don’t play fair with the reader, those that come up with some out of left field, unbelievable last-minute “trick” . . . I guess that’s Hank’s “stupid secret” . . . or those in which the character behaves so unbelievably out of character that it makes me want to toss the book across the room in frustration.
    Otherwise, go ahead and start that story with the weather, or a dream; wait a while to have that body turn up . . . those things don’t bother me at all . . . .

  2. I dislike a book when the victim is relegated to a body or when the story becomes solely about the sleuth's quest to solve the puzzle. Even if the victim was a lowdown dirty snake, he or she was a living person. A murder is an unnatural event that should shake up the story world, not provide an fun outlet for the sleuth's curiosity. Although I use the term out of convenience, I dislike "body drop" because it is dismissive. Even a lowdown dirty snake has/had a mother, and this person had to die to give your story life, so respect the victim by making him/her a real person, not a body.

    I love unreliable narrators! And Hank, as a mother of twins, I must say the idea of one secretly going missing is too weird.

  3. I suppose it's all in the personal perspective a reader brings to the story, but this twin enjoys plot twists with twins and I love the idea of a missing twin!
    [This is probably due to the fact that those of us who are twins know that almost all of those plot twist things could actually happen.]

  4. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro once suggested that you start by putting your protagonist "in deep shit" and then piling it higher and deeper.

    When-- before "Game of Thrones"-- George R. R. Martin wrote the wonderful "Armageddon Rag," he started chapters with lines from pop music. He had to clear the rights to the use of every song. He said it was a nightmare. (Note to self: if you are going to use an epigraph, choose one in the public domain or write your own.)

    I love the fact that every minor character in a Sue Grafton novel is developed-- and that as you read through her alphabet, you find out more about Kinsey Millhone's family history (in some cases, just as Kinsey is doing so).

    I like starting a story with something along the lines of "Ordinarily..." to show how the day of the story is different. Or an "if" clause-- "If he hadn't dropped his car keys, he'd have walked out the door just in time to be hit by Clancey's falling body. Instead, he got to see it-- a sight he could never erase-- fresh on the sidewalk in front of him as he stepped out of his apartment building...."

    If you don't grab your reader by the short hairs, he/she might not keep reading. Of course, then you've got to sustain it. That's the hard part.

  5. I'm with you all on the changing POV thing. My Canadian sister sent me the first mystery by a certain very successful Canadian author who is a good friend to at least some of the Reds. I finished it but I kept saying, "You can't do that!" because she regularly slides from one person's head to another's mid scene. Took me a few years to pick up the series again, and now I read every new book because, well, she makes it worth my while, despite still breaking that rule. But it still kind of bugs me! Judging from her wild success, I guess it doesn't bug too many others.

  6. Edith, I know who you're talking about. I remember starting one of her books and putting it down for just that reason. The sliding viewpoint was driving me crazy. Then, as she racked up award after award, and readers raved about her books, I decided to try again. And this time I was hooked. The viewpoint still slides but the story so captivates that after awhile, even I (Miss Fussy About Viewpoint) was captivated.

  7. You are all so brilliant! I love that you share your writing rules with us.

    I'm not sure if it's a broken rule but I tend to put a book down if the characters are unnecessarily dumb. The helpless female, the truly dumb jock, stereotypes like that. One of the things I love about your books is the strong female characters. Thank you for that.

  8. O, man, POV. I'll drop a book with sliding POV faster than a hot potato.

    Worst amateur story I ever read opened with a POV description of the main characters-- and speculation about them-- by a rider already on the bus as they got on, a passing character who never occurred again. Hey, if you are going to open inside someone's head, he/she had better turn out to be important!

  9. I'm with you, Ellen, most of the time on that POV thing.

    Joan, Ramona - so funny what you both say about twins. But as a plot device it's so "Agatha Christie."

    Marianne, stereotyped characters make me lose trust in the writer.

  10. I am very big on the whole "play fair" thing. If I author defies that in a book, it's unlikely that I will pick up another book by that author. I can - but won't - name a small handful of authors who I don't read anymore for this reason.

    POV is interesting to me. When I am reading, I know a book is doing it right when I don't even notice the POV. It just feels natural (for the reading and I suspect for the writing). Because of that, when it goes wrong, I immediately notice.

    But as pointed out here, there are some cases I can think of where shifting POVs (within scenes) are done successfully and in those cases, again, it sort of goes unnoticed by me until I go back to write a review or something. So, it works! But it is not easy to pull off.

  11. Kristopher, you put your finger on it -- because good writing is invisible ... whether the writer is following the rules or breaking them, it's working when the reader is engrossed in the story and doesn't notice

  12. Yeah, about those multiple characters in the opening chapter.... The last book I read by a well-known mystery writer started with the main series protag attending a conference. The reader got treated to the names and backstories of every single person the protag met at the conference. And that was only Chapter one. We met even more in Chapter 2, and probably more in Chapter 3, but I'd stopped reading by then.

  13. I'm big on playing fair and POV. And tense! I read a book that kept switching between past and present and every time it was like a punch to the guy. Ugh.

    As for the rest of the "rules," well, you Reds are my heroines. Except for short works (where you have to have the murder earlier because, well, fewer words), the murder tends to happen later than the "rules" say. But, and this kind of goes with what Ramona said, I really don't like killing someone before the reader has gotten to know (and either like or dislike) him/her. So I guess my other "rule" is don't shortchange your victim - he/she isn't just there to give the sleuth something to do.

    Oh, and I agree about not making characters do something just for plot, or plot devices that aren't true to character. The two have to get along.

  14. I try to all of my major players introduced by page 75. Not sure where I heard that, but it does seem to work well with pacing, but allows me to avoid bringing too many characters on stage in chapter one.

    What Ramona said is something that always helps me improve a book, and that's to pay attention to the victim. Sometimes it's something I do after the first draft is written, but when I make sure the victim is a solid character, the book is better.

  15. I'm another of the changing view points in a scene people. Drives me up a wall.

    And I'm of the opinion that you can break rules - if you know what you are doing. Is there a reason for it? Then do it and make sure you do it well. But the "rules" are there to make you think about why you feel you must do it.

    And Hank? I've said for years that if I were ever involved in a mystery and I knew a critical piece of information, I would call everyone I knew and blurt it out over the phone before even saying "hi." Otherwise, I'd just be asking to be the next victim.

  16. The problem for me with the POV thing is that I notice them. I'll often remark on them on a book both Jan and I read and she'll say -- oh, you're right, but it didn't bother her because she didn't catch it. My conclusion is that while I try like the dickens not to have a POV switch in the same scene, if others want to, that's fine with me, but they won't earn 5 stars from me.

    The play fair thing (assuming it's a mystery, not suspense or thriller where the reader knows more than the protag) drives me up a wall when not followed. If the protag knew something and didn't share, I'm done with the author. If a solution is plopped in the lap of the protag through no effort on her own -- at the very end--I am disappointed and it sours the whole book.

    ~ Jim

  17. A page and a half of back and forth dialogue, with no break, can leave me wondering "okay, WHO is speaking here?" I'll go back to earlier in the chapter and try to mentally track the conversation.

    Changing POV bothers me, too. I tend to avoid reading books that do that, unless it is made very clear at the beginning of the chapter that we are now seeing a different character's point of view. It is just frustrating when it happens mid chapter or mid page.

    I don't like it when characters have similar names, unless it's going to advance the story in some way.Two of my relatives have had the same first and last name as someone else in the community, people with less than stellar reputations. It created some embarrassing situations for my law-abiding relatives!

  18. I've learned so much from all of you! Hallie, one thing you taught me is to make sure my character is smart -- I was sending someone in to a dark alley without a very good reason. I always think of that as I write.

  19. Just have to mention that one of my favorite ever mysteries is about twins--Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey. I'm not sure anyone else could do a twin plot as well!

  20. My biggest pet peeve is inaccuracy in historical novels/mysteries. If the author makes an obvious error (like placing a character in the wrong century or having them married to the wrong person) then I don't feel the need to finish their book. I have started many books only to put them down when it becomes obvious that the author had not taken the time to do their homework/research. Thankfully, you ladies are not in that category! It's different if, like Sharon Kay Penman does sometimes, the author puts a disclaimer in her/his note that they moved an event or character to advance the plot. At least then the reader knows that the author knew what they were doing.

  21. Thanks so much for the shout-out, Hallie! It was my privilege to be your chauffer and go-to workfellow during AWW. We love having you visit Yellow Springs.

    I’ve had these discussions often, too (and not only at the fabulous AWW week!) And while I agree most rules are made to be broken (weather, dreams), I’m with the Reds on some of these:

    Rhys: I never manipulate character to fit the plot. (Characters drive my stories, and they take me such interesting places!)

    Hank: I would never have a stupid secret…(HATE when a story does that.)

    And like Deborah, I’m with the Reds about changing viewpoint within a scene – even though POV is one of my stumbling blocks.

  22. Bev,I'm with you about inaccuracy in both time and place. When I read something I know is wrong I can never finish the book. There is no excuse for poor research these days--although we all make silly slips from time to time (me included)

  23. As Kristopher and Hallie pointed out, good writing can commit a multitude of writing sins and come up reading like silk. I like that all the Jungle Reds have an open-minded attitude towards "rules," and your writing reflects how breaking rules can be done effectively.

    I'm a fan of alternating chapters for different points of view, as it leaves no doubt whose mind you've entered. I don't like sliding points of view, but, Edith and Hallie, I agree that the author referenced is brilliant and folds it into amazing stories.

    I have a pet peeve about dialogue when it's confusing who is speaking. It's the rapid fire dialogue that I sometimes have to go back and follow the lines again to determine who said what. That is probably just a failing of mine and not the author's. I may be so engrossed in the scene that I'm reading it too fast, but it still bugs me.

    Oh, and Hank, those silly secrets are completely annoying. Bev, I am troubled by historical inaccuracies, too. There is a popular male author who, when asked about such, stated he gets some of it right and makes up the rest. Arghhhh! And, yet, his books are good reading. I, too, like it when an author includes a statement about changing historical details, and I would be quite happy if all authors would abide by this habit. Of course, there can be unintentional mistakes, but I like authors to at least care about it. The Jungle Reds are top drawer in their attention to detail.

  24. I also have a pet peeve when it's confusing who is i. There is an Australian author who has wonderful stories but I get confused as in who is who and I find myself stopping in the middle and going back pages to see how that character was introduced.

    When I read, I do not have a rule in mind. Why would I stop reading a novel? If the story is too difficult to follow or the characters are not interesting.

    There was one YA series that I stopped reading because I felt like that character in the movie "Stranger than Fiction". I felt the author did not play fair. In retrospect, I think this series was written by formula and outlines then a team of writers filled in the rest of the story.

    There are books that my intellectual great aunt would call "bubble gum" for the brain.

    There are many books that I love because of the well-written character development.


  25. What a great post! Hallie, the want versus need a-ha'd for me as I read your text. Makes total sense -- there should be an underlying ache that propels the protagonist.

    I, too, know who you're talking about with the sliding POV, and I noticed it too. I wondered how she got it away with it for the first novel, before all the awards and etcetera. Still bothers me, but I think she's gotten a little more subtle about it over the years.

    I've got this thing about theoretical questions. I feel lazy when I do that--signal that there's something more to mine at that point.

  26. Not sure if you would consider it a rule or not but one thing that I really have a problem with is foreign word/phrases being overused. A word or short phrase peppering a characters speech or used as descriptive is fine, especially if it fits the location and the reader can easily understand the meaning.

    But, I recently was reading something where a short conversation took place between two characters in French. (Maybe a total of 12 lines of dialog.) The conversation was not translated in any way, even by having it summarized for the third person in the scene. I had no idea if I was missing something important to plot or was it just a "throwaway" conversation. By the time this type of thing happened for the third time I gave up on the book.

    A smattering of words, especially common ones, is one thing. To pull the reader out of the story by making them wonder what is going on in a conversation is another.

  27. What stops me reading (or at least starts me skimming) is long paragraphs of theorizing about how the crime was committed, and by whom. Especially if there's a time element involved, and it's multiple options in the vein of "well, if X was here and Y was there at this time, then one of them could've gotten to point C in so much time but not both of them unless ..." Such passages usually confuse me, even though I'm good at following details through a story. If you don't trust your readers to see some of the scenarios, and can't work the more complicated ones into the story less painfully, then may I respectfully request some revising and editing? (She said with a smile!)

  28. I'm only fussy about rules when the writing is sloppy, boring, and too lazy (Really? A stupid secret?). Like any other artistic endeavor, learning your craft means mastering the rules, then breaking them for the sake of creating something interesting. When this is done brilliantly, we don't notice. When this is done occasionally by an author we love, we can hunch a shoulder and keep reading.

  29. Shifting POV - I do hate to be reading something and realize I don't know whose mind I'm in. If I like the book, I'll go back and reread and make more of an effort. If not, I'll pick another book from the stack. But it's not a hard and fast rule for me as a reader. As Kristopher said - if it feels natural, it's fine with me. I have read numerous books where the characters are so distinct, or so real to me that I'm never in doubt.

    Twins - OK
    Doppelgangers - too creepy

    Sex change - I had a difficult time "Believing the Lie.

    If I get the urge to go Google something while I'm reading, it's no a good thing.

    What Charlie said about foreign languages! If you use a long quote in a foreign language, please give the source. Umberto Eco often makes me feel under-educated if not downright stupid. On the bright side he introduced me to Isaac Luria.

    So I guess I'll put up with a lot of broken rules. If an author gives me a book with a good plot, and characters I can feel something for, I'll keep reading.

  30. I loathe and despise (yes, I know it's redundant, but that's how I feel.) present tense. I have picked up a book because the synopsis sounds good, but can't read it.
    I also don't like it if there's no fair play. I don't like changing POV in the same scene...usually. I have read a couple of things when it was done by a master and it increased the suspense. But it's so rare. Usually it's just a pain. :)

  31. It bothers me when an author expects you to remember everything from a previous book in order to understand the current one. Obviously major plot elements are fine, but details and minor characters are another matter. It's probably been at least a year since the last book and I've read maybe 100 books in that time, so give me a break.