Sunday, December 28, 2014

The health care industry is robbing us blind. Fight back!

Spring forward/fall back:

Instead of opening your scenes with narration, use what I call (for want of a better term) the “spring forward/fall back” narrative device. A span of time usually passes between chapters and scenes. That’s the reason for those white-space breaks in the text. When you push the story forward to another point of action in a new chapter or scene, you should get the new scene going and then recap events that occurred in the interim, if you need to, quickly summarizing what happened since the end of the previous scene. In other words, you “spring forward,” then “fall back” briefly, and then pick up the action again. You do this to skip some boring stuff—or at least some less than compelling material that isn’t worth dramatizing. You’ll see professional novelists doing this all the time.

Note of caution: If your recap is long and detailed, then you shouldn’t have jumped so far ahead in story time. You should have just maintained the chronology of events and kept moving. A “fall back” recap that runs too long isn’t a recap anymore; it’s a flashback, which isn’t a device you want to use at or near the opening of a new chapter or scene.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The subjunctive mood of verbs

            Yes, verbs are moody little buggers, and one of their weirder moods is called the subjunctive. This form of the verb, which expresses an improbable condition, one contrary to fact, or a wish, command, or desire, is a booby trap for many writers. Its use in both spoken and written English is nearly extinct, but it survives in certain traditional phrases such as:

If I were you. . . . Wish you were here. . . . If I were a rich man. . . . Come what may. . . . Far be it from me. . . .

The condition contrary to fact is the construction that is the biggest bugaboo in the use of the subjunctive. Example:

If such a procedure as this were not used, many patients would not survive.

            This example is correctly expressed. But many clauses introduced by if do not express a condition contrary to fact but merely a condition or contingency. In such cases, the subjunctive mood is incorrect. Clauses introduced by as if or as though, however, usually—repeat, usually—express an unreal condition (a condition contrary to fact). Therefore, you must use the subjunctive mood of the verb with them in most cases. Example:

She looked at me as if I were Vlad the Impaler.

            Now look at this sentence:

If she were not on the scene, his chances would improve.

            Is the subjunctive mood of the verb (were) correct in this case? Is the sentence expressing a condition contrary to fact or simply a contingency? It’s talking about a contingency—an event that may or may not happen. She may or may not be on the scene. So using the subjunctive mood is incorrect. The verb,  therefore, should be was.

            Now you can amaze your friends by explaining when to use was and when to use were.

Paul Thayer
Your book editor

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Grand openings

Chapter One is extremely important. Do I really need to tell you this? In both commercial and literary novels, this is where you have to hook readers and reel them into your story. It should include a motivating incident (a.k.a. the catalytic event); the problem or at least a hint of the problem that the main character has to deal with; the main character’s response; and the conflict (internal or external) that the problem creates for the main character.

When you consider your main character’s response, you should ask yourself, “What is this person’s goal(s)? What does he or she want? Everybody wants something. I want to be paid for writing this blog, but I’m not holding my breath. The goal can be explicit or implicit, the latter being an intimation, a glimmer, or a hint that readers with an I.Q. higher than room temperature will sense.

Why is at least an inkling of the protagonist’s goal so important? Because without a goal the protagonist will take no action and experience no conflict as he/she strives to reach the goal. And without conflict your story will be snore fest.

In short:

Goal   Conflict    Struggle    Drama    Emotions    Readability

Before you introduce the components of scene-setting, you should have an attention-getting first line in order to pull readers into your story. This is one of my favorites from John D. MacDonald’s Darker than Amber:

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”
How could you not be sucked into a story that begins with that line?

From a much newer novel, Head Games by Craig McDonald, the first line is:

“We were sitting in a backroom of a cantina on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, three drinks in, when Bill Wade reached into the dusty duffle bag he had tucked under the table and plunked down the Mexican general’s head.”

The severed head of a dead Mexican general? That gets your attention. Notice how much scene-setting info the author includes in this first line. He tells us that there are at least two characters in this scene, probably male, where the scene takes place, and what happens. The sentence does double duty—grabbing the reader’s attention and dropping him into the fictional scene.

You can find many notable first lines by googling that subject. Here’s one good site:

I have read far too many uninspiring openings written by inexperienced novelists. Often they begin with backstory. They set up the story by downloading a ton of info to readers instead of getting right into the action of the story. In other cases the writer makes a minimal effort to get the story moving by beginning with a dull bit of commonplace action, soon followed by backstory, something like this:

“When Julia woke up, her bedroom was still dark. She shuffled to the bathroom and looked at her tired face in the mirror.”

Then the writer has to tell us why she’s tired, what color her hair and eyes are, how old she is, where she was born, where she went to college, where she lives now, where she works, what guy she has just broken up with, why she’s anorexic, why her mother hates her (or vice versa), her favorite color, the name of her best friend, and how she and her BFF bonded at age six after that day in the bathroom. Etcetera. I’m exaggerating so you get the idea.

This doth not a compelling opening make. Beginning a story with the main character waking up in the morning is one of the worst ways to start a novel. It’s beyond cliché.

Writing a reader-grabbing first line, first graf, and first chapter takes a lot of thought and experimentation. I urge you to read the beginning of a truckload of novels, analyze them, and determine what works and what doesn’t. Before long you will get the hang of it.

Tip: If reading the first page induces a coma, that’s not the way you should write.

Paul Thayer

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Use a singular noun with a plural possessive

            To avoid ambiguity you should usually use a singular noun with a plural possessive when only one of the things possessed could belong to an individual.


Four pilots crashed to their death (not deaths).
Mr. Smith knew most of them by their first name (not names).

See the plural possessive their in both sentences? That should clue you in.

Another example:

“Let’s go put something in our stomachs.”

People have only one stomach (although some look as if they have at least two), so you must use the singular word stomach. See the plural possessive our?

Paul Thayer