Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rules of engagement: When the words work, and when they don't.

Yes, I said the other day that most self-published books don't sell very many copies because they're poorly written.  No, I'm not apologizing.  No, I'm not taking it back.

Nor am I saying readers can't or shouldn't enjoy books that I think are poorly written.  It is, after all, only my personal opinion, and anyone is free to disagree with me.  Furthermore, readers are free to read and enjoy anything they wish.  A poorly written book can still be fun, just as well written books can be boring, depressing, frightening, or in any other way a waste of the reader's time and money.  Enjoyment is a personal experience.

But to you authors who think I'm being mean and bullying, I suggest you take off your anger and ego and look at some other possibilities.  If your book isn't selling, and especially if it isn't selling after you've logged 20 or 30 or 50 gushing 5-star reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, maybe you need to consider that just possibly it isn't a very well-written book.  (If it's not selling and it has 50 gushing 5-star reviews, I'd be willing to bet real money they aren't independent, unbiased customer reviews.  If it is selling, you don't need to be reading this.)

I realize there are people who won't agree with my individual assessment of what constitutes a well-written book and what doesn't, but at least I think I've always been able to support my opinion with specifics.  This post is part of an attempt to define the reasonably objective criteria I use and then illustrate those criteria by applying them to a variety of works.  If you're truly interested in improving your writing, in making your book appeal to more readers, then read on.  (And I may have more parts of this attempt in later posts.  Maybe.  Depends on how much time I have.)

But a word of caution:  I know first hand how hard it is to write a book.  I know the sheer hours it takes to write -- by hand, by typewriter, by computer -- all those words.  I know how easy it is to hit a snag in the plotting or discover a detail in Chapter Three screws up the way you wanted to kill of that villain in Chapter Twenty-eight.  I know there are a zillion things that can go wrong with the writing. 

And that means your book may have more than one problem.  It's possible there's no way to salvage the book you've labored so hard over, no way to turn it into a tale millions of people will pay you real money for.  So be prepared for that eventuality.

This post attempts to illustrate, in a way that will be understandable to most writers, one aspect of writing that can spell the difference between a reader's immediate dismissal and her decision to keep reading.  It's not foolproof, it's not guaranteed, and it leaves plenty of room for exceptions.  But I do believe that it offers some ideas that will help writers who are disappointed with their sales take a closer look at their work and, with luck and hard work, revise it to attract more readers, as well as help others start off on a better path to success.

Allow me to start by establishing some credentials, just in case you're new to my blog.   That brief post didn't come out of nowhere.  I have more than a little experience to back up my statement.  Not just a half century of reading historical romances.  I read a lot of other genres as well, but my main focus is historical romances, the first of which -- Leslie Turner White's The Highland Hawk -- I read in 1962, or earlier.  Not just the 3500 books in my personal library or the slightly over 1,000 e-books downloaded to my Kindle.  To be honest, not all of those titles are novels, and of those that are, I haven't yet read all of them.  But I've read a lot.

Add to that experience also the years I spent judging RWA contests and seeing some really, really crappy writing.  I can tell you right now that every manuscript I judged with high marks -- in contemporary, historical, and even paranormal romance categories -- went on to be published, with one notable exception, and I'll get to that later on.  Yes, every single one. They didn't all win those contests -- though some did -- but I gave them high marks because I believed they were well crafted and well written. 

Conversely, not one of the books I gave low marks to was ever picked up by a traditional, established publisher.  Several have surfaced as author-published digital editions, but none attracted a print editor's attention enough to generate a contract.  And from what I can tell, none of them have attracted a substantial readership either.

There are also the manuscripts brought to the critique groups I belonged to, both in person and online over a period of roughly 15 years.  I still have many of those manuscripts, and in looking over some of them, I can't say that my comments would change very much.  Bad writing is still bad writing.

That phrase actually covers several different types of "bad writing" that can afflict novels, some macro and some micro.  The macro elements are things like plot construction, characterization, continuity.  In other words, the story-telling aspects that begin in and can usually be fixed at the concept/outline stage but may not be easily repaired after the book is completed.

On the micro side of "bad writing" there are also at least two distinct incarnations.  There's the bad spelling, bad grammar, bad punctuation kind of bad writing -- mechanical issues with language that are usually identifiable as discrete individual errors and therefore correctable.  While annoying for the reader, mechanical errors by themselves usually don't affect the story.  Many writers will hire a proofreader to find and correct the errors, and if that's the only thing that's wrong with the book, the rest of the story will be fine.  Proofreading will not, of course, repair a poorly constructed story nor fix weak narrative style.

The second kind of micro-level bad writing involves the writer's word choices that, while they may not break any rules, don't work to convey the story effectively.  This goes much further than mere stylistic preferences, because that alone doesn't affect how well the story comes through to the reader.  Style may affect how well the reader enjoys the work, but not how well the reader understands it.  Style is the difference between Ernest Hemingway and William Morris.

I'm referring to a type of bad writing that makes the reading experience either so difficult or so unpleasant or both for the reader that she decides not to read the book.  The story fails to come to life for the reader the way the writer intended.  And while it may be tempting for the writer to push the blame for that failure onto the reader for her failure to understand whatever it was that the writer wrote, the good writer will eschew the easy way out and will accept that it is her responsibility and hers alone to convey her story.

The way she does that is through the specific words she chooses to construct the individual sentences that are the building blocks of her tale.  That's why this is micro-level bad writing:  It's how each individual sentence, no matter how long or short, works to advance the story.  It's "show, don't tell" and a whole lot more.

And it is probably one of the most difficult aspects of writing for a writer to fix once the book has been written, because it may require not only a complete page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence rewrite but also a complete rethinking of how to write. 

And as it's a concept much more readily grasped when shown than told, allow me to demonstrate with a detailed analysis of some examples.

The first is the opening two paragraphs from the "Prologue" to The Eye of the World, Volume One of Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time series.

The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet. The dead lay everywhere, men and women and children, struck down in attempted flight by the lightnings that had flashed down every corridor, or seized by the fires that had stalked them, or sunken into stone of the palace, the stones that had flowed and sought, almost alive, before stillness came again. In odd counterpoint, colorful tapestries and paintings, masterworks all, hung undisturbed except where bulging walls had pushed them awry. Finely carved furnishings, inlaid with ivory and gold, stood untouched except where rippling floors had toppled them. The mind-twisting had struck at the core, ignoring peripheral things.
Lews Therin Telamon wandered the palace, deftly keeping his balance when the earth heaved. “Ilyena! My love, where are you?” The edge of his pale gray cloak trailed through blood as he stepped across the body of a woman,her golden-haired beauty marred by the horror of her last moments, her still-open eyes frozen in disbelief. “Where are you, my wife? Where is everyone hiding?”
Jordan, Robert. The Eye of the World: Book One of 'The Wheel of Time' (Kindle Locations 139-149). Tor Fantasy. Kindle Edition

What Jordan has done with the first paragraph is to set a visual stage so the reader immediately forms in her mind the image of where the action takes place.  She is, if not actually on stage herself, at least in the front row.  The very first words, "The palace," convey the location of that image, exactly like the first frame of a motion picture. 

Rather than go into a static description of what this palace looked like, Jordan plunges the reader without hesitation into action that has created what the palace looks like.   "The palace still shook occasionally" gives the reader an immediate awareness that something momentous has happened.  And that's in just five words, the very first five words.  Palaces don't normally shake, in our reality, so the idea that this palace is still shaking, but only occasionally, implies that the world of this story is going to be at least slightly different from our world.  This implication is confirmed with the rest of that opening sentence: the desire to "deny what had happened" explicitly states that something had happened and that there could be a reason to want to deny it.  Generally we think of denial in terms of something unpleasant, something we don't want to deal with.  The notion that the whole earth is in denial gives the impression of something momentous happened.  That something was powerful enough to shake the palace and leave it still shaking.

Having begun with action, Jordan proceeds to fill in details.  The words he uses are active and powerful, so that they convey not only sensory description (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) but mood and movement.  Even when he describes the dead, he does so with verbs and participles that paint action.  Not with adjectives and forms of "to be."  Always active words.

These very first sentences bring the reader into the story.  She is there, in that palace, feeling that shaking, smelling the blistered paint and seeing the crumbled friezes, and hearing the madness that had gone quiet.  Jordan takes the intangible madness and puts it into sensory form so the reader can experience it as if she were there.

He takes the reader's imagination from the description of the ruined palace, through the madness of the dead, to the contrast of the items that were untouched by the catastrophe.  And he ends the paragraph with the ominous and foreshadowing "mind-twisting."

It's a long paragraph, and its sentences are long, but each one works hard both by itself and with its fellows to create the setting and start the sequence of the story.  Most important, however, is their function of bringing the reader into the fabric of the story.  Immediately.  At once.  Without delay or hesitation.

In the second paragraph, Jordan introduces a living character, Lews Therin Telamon.  This is not a name most of his readers would encounter among their circle of acquaintances, and yet it has a distinctly human ring in both form and syntax.  (Think Georg Phillip Telemann, which may or may not have been the model for Jordan's invented name.)  It's pronounceable, with a comfortable balance of vowels and consonants, but it's still different from what most English-speaking and -reading readers would be familiar with.   (Since Jordan wrote in English, it's a pretty safe bet he expected his readers to be reasonably familiar with the language.)   If there had been any doubt during the reading of the first paragraph, that doubt is securely laid to rest by the end of the second:  This story is not set in any ordinary earthly realm.  This story takes place Beyond the Fields We Know, and there is Magick.

In the process of introducing this first viewpoint character, Jordan never lets up on the action.  Lews Therin Telamon wanders (not walks) the palace, and his actions give insights not only to how he wanders (deftly keeping his balance) but what kind of person he is.  He's looking for his wife, whom he calls "my love."  Yet for some reason, even though he is looking for his wife, he is apparently unmoved by the sight of the dead woman whose body he steps over.

Think about what Jordan accomplishes with each carefully chosen word.  Look at that phrase "deftly keeping his balance."  First and foremost, that phrase identifies Lews Therin Telamon as male.  The name itself suggests a male character, based on western culture, but the possessive pronoun confirms that detail.  The phrase also shows that Telamon has the physical ability to keep his balance against some force that would cause him to lose his balance, and he does so "deftly," rather than with difficulty or pain or injury.  Four words, but Jordan makes them accomplish a great deal.

Telamon speaks, but Jordan provides no speech tags at all.  They aren't necessary.  It's not nearly as important how Telamon calls to his wife, but only that he does.  "Ilyena!  My love. . . ." the words themselves suggest concern and worry, not anger or threat.  They also establish that the character is most likely an adult.   If Jordan had wanted to contrast the way Telamon speaks with what he actually says, then speech tags light  have been necessary.  Telamon's actions, and the scene he is moving through convey the tone of his voice and his emotions, and Jordan maintains the momentum of the story without ever stopping.  The camera keeps rolling; the reader's imaging (visual and audio) of the scene never stops, and the reader is further pulled into participating in the story.

Jordan has engaged the reader.

Now let's look at another sample.
Waves pounded the shoreline, spraying mist into the wind that stirred white sands glittering in the moonlight.  A dark ship with dark sails, anchored in the reef, swayed with the movement of the water and the wind.  In the distance, black, threatening thunder clouds roiled in the sky over the ocean, hurling fierce lightning bolts through the rain.  It was a magnificent storm that was swiftly approaching.

From the glistening beach, moist air blew upwards, carrying the ocean's salt toward a towering cliff.  Wind in the subterranean caverns that wove deeply into the heart of the land whistled a musical sound that echoed through the winding passages, falling just short of discovering underground secrets that were lost to the ages.  Outside, the sea spray floated up the side of a cliff that ended at the foot of colossal walls of a great, white palace.  Constructed of a series of concentric towers, the palace was resplendent, even in the night.  The constant touch of wind, sand, and water never dulled its shine.  

The salty mist came to settle upon a foreboding scene in the inner garth of the keep, the highest structure.  On the dais, in the middle of the courtyard, lay a fair-haired, bearded man chained to a marble altar.  A man in black stood just above him facing the front of a ring of spectators who were lingering in the shadows.  The man in black was tall and broad, with thick black hair that was sleeked back from his brow and dark eyebrows that slanted menacingly.  He appeared anxious.  His eyes combed the light of the torches that spotted the mantlet wall of the ward, as if he were looking for minute cracks in it that held the answer.  The man on the altar appeared calm but his fatigue, to his great relief, could mask even his fear.  He was dressed in white robes.  It seemed that at least his captors allowed him that.  It was small thing, but a blessing, for the marble was cold ... and the night was cold ...

Douthit, Melissa (2011-05-27). The Raie'Chaelia (Kindle Locations 55-71). Couronne Press. Kindle Edition.

In her preface to The Raie'Chaelia  author Melissa Douthit acknowledges being heavily influenced and inspired by Jordan's Wheel of Time series:  "So, that morning, inspired by Jordan's life story, I sat down and started typing.  I soon found that by having read his books, as well as many others by other authors, the writing came naturally and the words flowed."  (Douthit, Melissa (2011-05-27). The Raie'Chaelia (Kindle Locations 41-43). Couronne Press. Kindle Edition.)

Douthit has also received a lot of criticism for the poor quality of her writing.  To be fair, Jordan's style isn't universally praised, and in terms of story, I personally gave up on Wheel of Time after about the fourth or fifth book.  But in terms of writing style, of effective versus ineffective prose, of how well the opening engaged the reader,  I felt the comparison of the two was a good starting point.

The immediate impression of Douthit's opening paragraph is that it's description of a scene without action.  There is nothing about waves pounding a beach that suggests story action.  Movement of the water yes, action of the story no.  The first sentence is lovely description, but it could just as easily be a description of a painting.  There's no threat, no conflict, no mystery, no human involvement, no departure from the ordinary.   Mist, sand, wind, moonlight.  So?  So what's happening?  Where's the anticipation?  The excitement?  It's just waves on a beach.  Waves are supposed to pound the shoreline.   What makes these waves or this shoreline different, or at least different enough for me as a reader to want to continue?  What story is hinted at, what questions are raised by the pounding of waves on sand?

Another problem with this sentence is that it implies a significant passage of time.  Use of the plural "waves" indicates one wave, then a pause while that wave recedes, followed by another wave and the sequence repeats exactly as waves have crashed on beaches ever since there were waves and beaches.  Based solely on this opening sentence, nothing exciting has happened, nothing exciting is happening, and nothing exciting is anticipated in the immediate future.   There's no immediacy to this scene.

The very next sentence shifts the focus of the reader's imagination from the shoreline to a ship riding at anchor on the reef.  A dark ship with dark sails, but no other description.  Galleon?  Frigate?  Schooner?  A tattered old pirate wreck or a sleek new racing yacht?  No specifics are given, just an undefined generic ship with generic dark sails.   Nor is there as yet any hint of tension, threat, menace.  Just a scene, and a peaceful one at that.  Everything is as it's supposed to be.  Waves, moonlight, sand, wind, ship.  Kind of like a picture post card.

The third sentence takes the reader to a storm in the distance, a storm far enough away that it hasn't affected the ship at anchor.  The ship is only swaying, not tossed.  The clouds have not blotted out the moonlight.  So this magnificent storm is approaching, but it is not here yet.  The fact that it is far enough away not to have stirred the waves or the wind removes its story value; it is not an immediate threat.

Look what the four sentences of this opening paragraph have done to the reader's perspective.  They have taken the camera's focus effectively from the shoreline out to the reef and then beyond to an approaching storm. 

The camera is moving away from the shore, as if out there in the storm is where the action is going to begin.  The reader has no fixed vantage point from which to watch the story unfold.  Where Jordan puts the reader immediately into his palace, Douthit flies the reader from beach to reef to storm with no idea which will actually be the stage on which the action begins to take place.

And as the reader moves into Douthit's second paragraph, the whole scene suddenly shifts yet again.  The camera pans away from that magnificent storm 180 degrees back to the beach and then inland toward towering cliffs. 

Wait, what about that storm?  What happened to that magnificent storm that was approaching?

Well, maybe Douthit is going to come back to the storm.  Maybe it will have some significance later.  Let's read on.

The second paragraph consists solely of description on a macro level.  Where Jordan kept his focus narrowed on the palace where the shaking had taken place and where Lews Therin Telamon was wandering, Douthit's opening sentences go from shoreline to ship on the reef to approaching storm at sea, back to the beach, then to the cliffs, then to subterranean caverns in the cliffs, and even into passages the wind can't reach.  In other words, this description comes from an omniscient narrator completely outside the story.  That's the very essence of "telling, not showing."  Melissa Douthit, author, is telling the reader that there are "underground secrets lost to the ages," because there's no one else within the story -- or at least not in this opening scene -- who can impart that information from character point of view.

From those lost secrets the description moves back out to the mist and the cliffs.  In two paragraphs, this is the third reference to mist/spray/moist air on the wind.  Once would have been enough, because that mist isn't indicative of action.  It's not an active part of the story.  Or at least it hasn't been presented that way.

The contrast is to Jordan's description of the effects of the lightning on the palace.  He uses "scorch marks," "broad black smears," and "soot" to create the image of what the lightning had done without telling the reader that.  These marks and this destruction are out-of-the-ordinary.  Douthit hasn't made her mist anything other than ordinary mist.

That mist, however, finally brings the reader at the end of the second paragraph to a "colossal" palace, "resplendent" in the moonlight.

So, okay, what happened to that storm?  And the ship?  What happened to the ship?  (she asks, like Fred Savage in The Princess Bride.)

Well, rather than on that dramatic storm waiting offshore, the next focus is on the "salty mist."  Yes, the third paragraph opens with yet a fourth mention of the mist.  Then it settles on a scene inside the palace.

The question becomes, then, why didn't Douthit start her scene in the palace to begin with?  Why all the verbiage of mist and wind and beach and ship and cliffs and forgotten secrets?

I don't know why.  I can't answer that.  But she did. 

She tells the reader that the scene is foreboding rather than showing its forebodingness.  She tells the reader there is a man chained to an altar and another man standing over him.  Neither of them is a viewpoint character -- at least not yet -- and they really aren't doing anything.  Douthit tells the reader the one man's eyebrows "slanted menacingly," but little else.  He's looking around -- I'll get to the wandering body parts in a minute or ten -- and he "appears" anxious.  Likewise, the man on the altar "appears" calm. 

To whom do they appear anxious or calm?  To each other?  To the crowd lingering in the courtyard?  Again, Douthit is telling the reader rather than letting the actions and characters of the novel show the reader what's happening. 

She's not engaging the reader.

It's not bad writing in the sense of poor grammar and misspelled words.  But it's very ineffective writing.  And yes, it's only the opening.  Is it possible the writing becomes more effective later on?  Yes, it's possible.  If so, however, why wouldn't the author put her most effective writing at the beginning, where she has the best chance to engage the reader and pull her into the action of the story?

Sidebar:  WABOPs.  Wabops are "wandering body parts," or those portions of the human anatomy that seemingly detach themselves from the whole and act independent of their host.  The eyes do this most frequently, and I'm sure almost every reader has encountered more than one example like "His eyes followed her as she crossed the room" or "Her eyes reached out to him".   So when Douthit's man in black's "eyes combed the light from the torches," that's a WABOPs moment.

Does this analysis begin to illuminate what I mean by effective vs. ineffective writing at a micro level?  If so, and if I haven't entirely bored you with it, let's look a bit closer at the comparison.

Jordan stays away from "to be" verbs.   They only appear in Telamon's dialogue.  Douthit, on the other hand, uses them frequently: "It was a magnificent storm," "the palace was resplendent," "the man in black was tall and broad."  These verbs are almost always weaker than any substitute, and can be improved merely by asking a variation on the old Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson question, "How tall was he?"

Douthit also relies heavily on present participles, which, like the "to be" auxiliaries they require, are almost always weaker than substitutes.  For example,
A man in black stood just above him facing the front of a ring of spectators who were lingering in the shadows.
Just a minor tweak of this single sentence to replace those -ing verbals results in stronger prose:
A man in black stood just above him and faced the front of a ring of spectators who lingered in the shadows.

Jordan's writing is not immune to criticism; nothing's perfect.  He, too, has some repetitions that could perhaps have been avoided.  "Marred" appears twice in those two paragraphs, as does "attempted."  But there are far more weaknesses with Douthit's in terms of how effective her writing is in pulling the reader into the story.  Mechanically, her writing is clean, with no major errors of punctuation or grammar or spelling.  The problem is with her narrative style.  She starts with a description of a ship and a storm, but never follows up.  She has no viewpoint character and relies too much on author-intrusive telling.  Those aren't criticisms that can be applied to Robert Jordan's opening to The Eye of the World. 

Most readers will not read with this type of close analysis.  Most readers read for entertainment.  They are not invested in the books they pick up to sample, and when they have dozens or hundreds or even thousands of choices, the sooner the writer can engage that reader in the story, the less likely that reader is to put that book back and go looking for another.

Let's examine another example:

Montgomery Woodruff scowled at the low, dirty clouds as though they had appeared just to torment him. He tugged at his lapels, jerking his greatcoat close as the wind tried its best to wrestle a way into his inner garments. The end of January had been unrelenting with blizzards, storms and freezing temperatures. Woodruff entered his carriage and yanked at the folded blanket on the seat, his impatience sending it sliding to the floor. With a muttered oath, he arranged the blanket to better suit his needs, ignoring his clerk who stood dithering in the elements waiting for last minute instructions. Woodruff sent him a withering glare before a curt command from his driver, Sykes, sent the showy black horses away from the three-storey Georgian building to merge with the traffic in the bustling streets of the great Yorkshire town.

Sighing heavily, Woodruff stretched his neck from the starched collar, trying to relax as they traversed around pedestrians and vehicles. Winter gloom and the cold sent most people hurrying home, shop keepers were packing up, women scolded children towards their own hearths while business men headed for the warmth and smoky atmosphere of expensive clubs.

Woodruff grunted, he also should be ensconced in his club, cradling a brandy and discussing world issues, but too many men wanted him for than his views on politics and such like, no, they wanted much more — money!

Brear, Anne (2011-06-08). The House of Women (Kindle Locations 35-45). Knox Robinson Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Brear's opening differs from Jordan's and Douthit's in that she immediately puts a character on stage.  Her opening sentence establishes a number of details: Woodruff's mood, the weather, and his attitude toward the weather.  Through Woodruff's actions the reader gets an impression of some kind of stress, some impending unpleasantness that needs to be resolved.  Woodruff doesn't just pull his coat around him:  He tugs and jerks and yanks, and these are motions that display his mood.

All of the sentences in these three paragraphs keep the focus on Woodruff, and all of them are at least nominally in his point of view.  There are, unfortunately, some punctuation errors -- run-on sentences -- that could easily be fixed but are also probably indicative of more such problems in the rest of the book.  Brear also, like Douthit, seems to rely heavily on present participles when she could have made her writing much more dramatic with substitutions:
Sighing heavily, Woodruff stretched his neck from the starched collar, trying to relax as they traversed around pedestrians and vehicles. 
With a heavy sigh, Woodruff stretched his neck from the starched collar and tried to relax as they traversed around pedestrians and vehicles.

The greater problem with this opening is that once Woodruff is in the carriage, his actions become limited.  He can think, he can muse, he can look out the window, he can remember, but he can't actually do very much within those close confines.  The carriage ride can become a vehicle -- pun fully intended -- for the author to dump a lot of backstory.  Or the carriage ride can be interrupted, in which case it might be better if Brear opens with Woodruff already in the carriage so the interruption can happen earlier and thus engage the reader that much sooner.

Another problem with this paragraph is that the camera focus shifts awkwardly, from Woodruff in his carriage and his reactions to the weather to the clerk dithering in the cold to Sykes the driver to the Georgian building to the city through which the carriage travels.  Even if the focus comes back to Woodruff, the fact that it shifts away from him may be enough to confuse the reader and allow her to put the book down.

Although this particular blog post is directed at writers, there's no reason why readers can't benefit from it, too.  Understanding why one book engages you as a reader -- and why another doesn't -- may very well make your reading experiences more enjoyable.  You may be able to pass on books that don't grab you and spend more time looking for and reading those that do.  Or you may be able to appreciate the story elements better in a book that's less well written but still interests you as a reader.

Readers, however, are not obligated to read books that don't interest them; and certainly they aren't responsible for the author's failure to engage them as readers.

Let's try another:

Jocelyn Renwick had loved a good ball—the dancing, the decorations, the costumes, the breathless excitement as guests arrived—during her very brief Season two years before. She’d been full of wonder and anticipation for a future that had seemed rife with possibility. Now, as a paid companion, she adorned the wall, and the balls she’d once enjoyed had become sadly lackluster.

It wasn’t that the balls themselves had suddenly turned dull. It was her situation. With no close relatives to turn to after her father’s death, she’d become the ward of a family friend, who’d inherited Papa’s property and meager estate. While her guardian had taken care of her, he hadn’t offered to finance another Season, and her trust wasn’t sufficient to cover the expense. And since there was no one marriageable—at least in her opinion—in her small village in Kent, Jocelyn’s options were limited.

She’d jumped at the chance to serve as paid companion to her guardian’s great-aunt, Gertrude Harwood. She was a charming, elderly widow, and Jocelyn was delighted to accompany her for what she said might be her final Season.

Unfortunately, Jocelyn’s Season so far hadn’t included meeting any eligible bachelors or any dancing. The only people she mingled with were Gertrude’s friends, who were even now clustered about.

Burke, Darcy (2012-09-25). To Love a Thief (Secrets & Scandals) (Kindle Locations 51-61). Intrepid Reads. Kindle Edition.

Burke also starts with a character, but is that character actually on stage?  Not really.  Though nominally offered through Jocelyn's point of view, these four paragraphs convey no story action and only background information.  In other words, this opening is just an info dump.  Jocelyn herself isn't doing anything.  She isn't . . . anywhere.  There's no scene described, no action set in motion, no threat or hint of excitement.

But To Love a Thief  is a Regency romance, not high fantasy.  Are the rules of engagement different for this subgenre of romance?

Look at a few others and see if you can find elements of tension and excitement and action.  Or do you see areas of weakness that could be strengthened so the reader's interest, her curiosity for "what happens next?" is engaged from the very first sentences?

The carriage rocked as it travelled along the cliff road. Charity Barlow grabbed the window frame with one hand, and the edge of her seat with the other, to hold herself steady. Following her parents’ deaths in a carriage accident some months before, she was a little nervous at the best of times.

The coachman’s curse was followed by a crack of the whip.

This rugged coastline was foreign to her and different from anything she had ever known. Through the mist, she glimpsed the white-tipped waves of the ocean pounding the black rocks below. The colors reminded her of death, and the rhythmic boom, boom, boom filled her with the same dread she experienced when a tolling church bell signalled a village disaster.

Tamping down the fear of tumbling to her death, Charity pulled her cloak closer, and directed her thoughts to what might await her in the castle on the cliff overlooking the sea.

Unfortunately, this produced anxieties of a different sort.

Charity had not seen her godfather, the Marquess of St Malin, since she was fifteen. Now, at two and twenty years of age, she found herself entirely alone and at his mercy. She remembered him as tall and somewhat haughty. Her father had saved his life when he fell overboard during a boat race on the river at Cambridge, and after that, they had become firm friends.

Now her fate lay in the marquess’ hands, for he had said as much to her father years ago. She was grateful for his kindness, of course, but would have much preferred to remain snug amid the green fields of Oxfordshire with her old governess who was like one of the family. This was now impossible, for her father had left very little money after making bad investments on the ’Change.

Her childhood home had been sold to pay off debts and Nanny sent to live with her sister in Kent.

Andersen, Maggi (2012-03-06). The Reluctant Marquess (Kindle Locations 33-50). Knox Robinson Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Let's try another:

Lady Chilton pushed back the draperies of her bedroom window and peered out into the night. In the distance she could see fire leaping up, and she shivered. It was the Mob. She was sure of it; she had heard their howls the day before, seen them pushing through the streets like some great amorphous beast, hungry for blood.

She stepped back from the window, her hands twining together nervously. Emerson was certain that the Mob would not turn on them. Her husband had that careless, casual confidence of the English that no harm would dare come to them. Simone was not so sure. She was, after all, French, and a member of that aristocracy whom the Mob was so eager to destroy. The fact that she was married to an Englishman might not be enough to save her if the Mob came here—indeed, she feared that her French identity might destroy her husband, as well.

And the children.

It was that thought that made her sick with fear. What would happen to her little ones if the sans-culottes came to their house?

She stood for a moment indecisively, a beautiful woman with liquid brown eyes and clouds of dark hair, dressed in the finest clothes that Paris had to offer, her neck circled with precious gems, yet paper-white with fear, her huge eyes haunted.

Camp, Candace (2008-11-12). A Stolen Heart (The Lost Heirs) (Kindle Locations 76-86). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

And another:

The door to the upstairs library slammed viciously, rattling in its frame. Heavy steps marched across the room, bearing down on Hugo’s desk. Fists slammed against the wood surface.

“Damn it, Marshall. I need you to fix this.”

Despite that dramatic production, Hugo Marshall did not look up from the books. Instead he waited silently, listening to boots marking a path upon the carpet. He wasn’t a servant; he refused to be treated as one.

After a moment, his patience was rewarded. “Fix it, please,” the Duke of Clermont muttered.

Hugo raised his head. An untutored observer would focus on the Duke of Clermont, apparently in full command, resplendent in a waistcoat so shot with gold thread that it almost hurt the eyes. This observer would dismiss the drab Mr. Marshall, arrayed as he was in clothing spanning the spectrum from brown to browner.

The comparison wouldn’t stop at clothing. The duke was respectably bulky without running to fat; his patrician features were sharp and aristocratic. He had mobile, ice-blue eyes that seemed to take in everything. Compared with Hugo’s own unprepossessing expression and sandy brown hair, the untutored observer would have concluded that the duke was in charge.

Milan, Courtney (2012-04-21). The Governess Affair (The Brothers Sinister) (Kindle Locations 24-34). Courtney Milan. Kindle Edition.

 In each example, if you've taken heed of some of my analysis, you should be able to see how the author focuses the narrative, how she sets the scene as well as the tone.  Does she weave description with action, or does she stop the action to provide a "fashion show" or "freeze frame" portrait?  What words, and what kind of words does she use to convey emotion and mood, appearance or other sensory description, action or background information?   How much of the background information provided in the opening paragraphs is absolutely and totally essential to the opening, or can some of it wait until later in the book?  Which selections offer more background than is absolutely necessary to open the action, and which provide just enough for the scene to make sense? 

How could those that are less than perfect be improved?

For example, Milan's WABOP fists make me wince, and she's got a major dangling participle in the final sentence.  Camp relies too much on "was + adjective" description.  I like Andersen's opening paragraph because it ties background information to on-stage action.  Each example has its strengths and weaknesses.  As you learn to spot them in other writing, you'll be better able to spot them in your own, to build on the strengths and challenge the weaknesses.

It's not enough just to read.  To become a writer you must read with a writer's eyes, not a reader's.  And after you become a writer, you have to write with a reader's eye.

No one is going to peek over your shoulder.  If that book you so proudly put out there on Smashwords has sold only four copies over the past six months (and two of them were to yourself), no one is going to know if you look at your original MS Word file and analyze the hell out of the first page.  What sentences would you rewrite?  How would you rewrite them?  Which ones, if any, would you cut?

Needless to say, those of you who have not yet started writing or who are preparing to start a new work can use these ideas and suggestions to better your writing from the beginning and avoid at least some of the revising and rewriting process.  But before you get too enthusiastic and plunge right into the next (potential) bestseller, consider that all of these techniques can be applied to the entire book, not just the first few paragraphs.

Because once you have engaged the reader, you must keep her engaged.  The interest and excitement and curiosity about what happens next must be established early, but it must also be sustained right through to the end.

So, what does happen next?  Ah, you'll have to come back to find out.

No comments:

Post a Comment