Thursday, January 5, 2012

Preparing for the Genesis: Obstacles to Avoid

A few days ago, I offered cosmetic tips on manuscript presentation. Today, we'll discuss a few obstacles contestants will want to avoid along the road. This is by no means comprehensive. They're just a few techniques that can jostle judges, and readers, and possibly mis-align your entry.

And, we're off!

Every trip, whether it be to the store for milk or to the beach for a needed vacation, has a start, a middle, and an end, and a specific purpose. The same applies to a story. But as I recently discussed with a member of my critique group, determining where to start can often be difficult. To make matters more confusing, where you start also depends on the story's genre (Romance, Women's Fiction, Suspense, etc.) Starting at the wrong point can cause a story to drag, move too fast, or cascade into structural problems.

So where to start? A story covers a crisis in a character's life, so the time frame should encompass that crisis from start to resolution. And sometimes, a bit more to help set things up. Think of your favorite movie. Where in the character's life does it start? For Luke Skywalker, the crisis occurs a day or so before he's even aware of it--when an Imperial Star Destroyer captures the ship that's transporting Princess Leia, one of the leaders of the Rebellion. The chain reaction from that event literally brings the galactic fight to Luke's front door.

What would have happened if Lucas had started with Leia stealing the plans to the Death Star and then jumping into the ship? A far less powerful opening.

With Star Wars: New Hope, the story starts in the middle of an action scene, but that isn't always the case. In You've Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly's crisis begins when she strolls to her humble book shop one fine morning and discovers a mega-bookstore is about to open around the corner. However, the movie opens with her at home, talking to her boyfriend. All is calm, and we get a feel for her life and her character. This sets a nice pace for the movie, appropriate for a Romance.

So start in the right spot. To help you gauge where, look at the books and movies released within your genre. Shannon McNear has written a blog post on the subject, which is due to be released in the next few days. I'll post the link when it's available.

Changing Lanes

One moment, you're cruising in the right lane of a highway that's undergoing construction. Thanks to lane shifts and a confusing mix of newly painted and faded lines, you're trying to figure out where your lane is and exactly where you're supposed to be.

The same often occurs with characters points of view. One second, a character is walking down the hall. We read her thoughts, see what she sees. The next second, another character passes by and suddenly, we shift into his head with no clue how we got there, and we're looking at the world through his eyes.

Whether omniscient POV or head hopping, it isn't a good idea. Write each scene from one character's perspective. We see only what she sees, what she feels, hears, touches, and we know her mental reactions, and her reactions only. When you want to switch to another character's point of view, then use a line break and start from his perspective, or start a new chapter.

Officer, I can explain

We've seen it in movies, heard others talk about it, and some may have even done it themselves. A driver gets pulled over by a police officer and she attempts to talk her way out of a ticket by rambling on about the string of disasters that lead up to the infraction.

In similar fashion, new writers often feel the need to explain why their character is behaving the way they are, or what brought them to that point. It leads to a lot of telling and blocks of backstory, i.e., events that occurred before the story began. Camy Tang wrote a nice post on the subject for Seekerville. Thanks to her advice, I learned how to weave bits of the character's history into the prose instead of dumping it all in a block of text as I had been doing. Here's the link to the post.

So make sure the pages you submit flow, and the judges aren't pulled over while you fill them in on the character's history.

End of the Road

When we reach a destination, whether the store or the beach, we want the car to come to a nice, smooth stop. We park, open the door, and continue on with our life.

That sense of completion is fine for the end of the novel, but not for the end of chapters. So look over your chapter endings. If they wrap up nicely, or seem to be a good place to put the novel down, change it. Force the reader to move on. Keep the traffic moving down that story highway.

So that's it. As with the tips on presentation, advice listed on this page is also cosmetic in nature. A means of eliminating obstacles that may distract or stop the judges. Once the road is cleared, the time and effort you've put into crafting plot, characterization, and emotion will shine through.

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