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Title That Isn't "Bringing Dexy Back"

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Sep. 21st, 2008 | 07:42 pm
mood: excitedexcited

. . . I couldn't help it. In my editing of Rabbit and Cougar, I've just reached the part introducing Dexy, who is one of my favorite characters of all time. He's just so much fun to write.

My recent editing has brought to my attention one writing technique to explore here and one pitfall to avoid.

Pitfall first: This is, first and foremost, a matter of point-of-view consistency, but it's a sneaky one. You might think of it as making your POV character slightly prescient. See the following example:

"I'm not sure that was a good idea," said Bridget. Actually, she suspected it was illegal.
Aaron slid off the bed to look for his glasses. "I haven't much choice, have I?" He shuffled through some papers on his desk, then opened the refrigerator. "Ha, got you!" He pulled out his glasses and put them on.


Don't be distracted by the fact that Aaron has put his glasses in the refrigerator and possibly also broken the law: Bridget is the problem. Apparently, she is psychic. She knew immediately that Aaron was looking for his glasses. This is an issue both because it is unrealistic, if in a minor way, and because it removes the reader from the character. It's nice to have the reader discover things at the same time as the POV character, to have the two on the same (forgive me) page. Basically, the story has slipped briefly into an omniscient POV. Try it again without that bit:

"I'm not sure that was a good idea," said Bridget. Actually, she suspected it was illegal.
Aaron slid off the bed. "I haven't much choice, have I?" He shuffled through some papers on his desk, then opened the refrigerator. "Ha, got you!" He pulled out his glasses and put them on.


I acknowledge that it sounds better partly because the word "glasses" isn't repeated, but a legitimate issue has been eliminated. The prescience problem sometimes follows the word "to." Make sure that when another character is going to do something, your POV character doesn't know the intention or the next action before someone in her position would. Sometimes, the "to" phrase indicates that the character is already doing the next action: She opened her laptop to search for bank robberies in their area. "There haven't been any in thirty years." Note how "to search" could have been replaced by "and searched," indicating an actual action rather than an intention. Alternatively, the intention could be obvious: "He climbed onto a chair to reach the top shelf." The word "to" doesn't always appear, though; in the original example, one could have said "Aaron slid off the bed and went looking for his glasses." The problem remains.

Now, for the technique: working the story-within-a-story. I discovered, while editing Rabbit and Cougar, that Cougar tells some rambling stories. While storytelling is part of his character, some of these stories seemed pointless. I don't beat myself up too much over these things: that's what editing is for. When I'm writing the first draft, sometimes I don't know what will come up again and what won't. Dealing with one particularly pointless story was easy: I replaced it with another story that included important backstory (and actually made more sense for Cougar to tell at that point).

The second story posed a problem. Its primary significance was to explain the history of a town Rabbit and Cougar were about to visit, but that town (not to mention its history) is hardly a blip on the plot horizon of the overall novel. I didn't want to cut the entire story, because it accomplished one other point: establishing the existence of hobgoblins as a dangerous force in the fantasy world. The story read like one of those instances when the writer wants to tell you something that you may not need to know. I actually did need to show that hobgoblins existed (they appear later), and it made sense to use a story because of Cougar's upbringing and predilection toward storytelling. Unfortunately, the length and detail of the story seemed to imply that the upcoming town would be important. It was the town equivalent of giving a tavern wench a first and last name, full physical description, and family history, then having the protagonists walk out of the bar and never see her again. What to do?

I got someone else to look at the story and help me streamline it. Then, and most importantly, I changed what the characters got out of it. In my earlier draft, when the story ended, Rabbit commented on a character and asked a question about the town. In my edited version, Rabbit asks a question about hobgoblins and whether they might encounter any. (Foreshadowing much?) This changes the focus and direction of Cougar's story. To continue the "tavern wench" metaphor, let's say our protagonist spots a nasty scar on the tavern wench serving ale. Knowing a plothook when she sees one, Pattie Protagonist asks about the scar. The tavern wench replies that she got it in a hobgoblin raid when she was a child; her father lost his leg in the same raid. If Pattie now asks what it was like growing up with a disabled father, then she had better be prepared to have Wendy Wench become a prominent character in her story. If, on the other hand, Pattie expresses sympathy and comments on how nasty hobgoblins are, then she's just set herself up to meet hobgoblins later. If your story requires the former, by all means, go for it; mine needed the latter.

On a note related only to this journal itself, it's very odd to write original examples for these points. Obviously with the second one, I was being somewhat silly. I've read journals and articles like this blog, and I rarely see original examples in them; I think it's because of how self-conscious one gets about them. Honestly, even choosing names suddenly seems like inviting people to judge you. But, of course, no one ever got anywhere in writing by not letting their work be read, and sometimes examples make these things much easier to understand! I hope they've been helpful.

Now, off to pack. Very soon, I will be leaving for England!
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Comments {1}

sunshinecampusa

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from: sunshinecampusa
date: Sep. 22nd, 2008 05:02 am (UTC)
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Actually, I love the original examples- remember how I said some of them sounded like real stories. Plus, the guy put his glasses in the refrigerator. That makes me happy.
Happy times in England! Hopefully, at some point I will have enough money and vacation time to go visit you.

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