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Writer’s Mail
Tuesdays with Story
June 19, 2019

The first word . . .

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
– Stephen King (1947- ), novelist/short story writer

Tuesday eve at the B&N . . .

“They’ve been dropping like flies,” Jack said as we looked over the slim number of writers gathered around one table on the bargain books floor. A single table. Larry was on the road to Cleveland for a meeting. Chris had fallen ill. Paul was helping a friend. Mike was turning in early after a hard day of house painting.

Still there were six of us to examine the works of four of our colleagues. Here are some of the thoughts that were shared:

Cindi Dyke (chapter 1 rewrite, The Mansion Secrets) . . . Great suggestions came from the group on placing the story in 1980’s. Jessica suggested a classroom photo of President Reagan and Vice President Bush or something about Michael Jackson. Later in the book there are movie/TV references and wall phones to place the time period, but these are great ideas to establish the 1980’s at the beginning of the book. Jerry pointed out opportunities to have information coming from Michael’s POV. Tracey suggested there are many opportunities to remove filters.

Jack Freiburger (chapters 47-48, A Walk upon the Water) . . . The inside Sean’s head stuff seemed to go over well. As expected, the bio of the brothers was too long-winded and the photo collage Sean’s dad is building gets a bit lost from its symbolic primacy. A page of rewrite required.

Jessica Smith (chapters 1-2, Holding the Balance) . . . People liked the premise of the story. It was suggested to:

  • Get rid of the first page completely, seems like too much information and it’s unnecessary.
  • There is confusion about what “wards” are. Writing a prologue or clarifying the meaning would be helpful to those who don’t often read fantasy.
  • Add some more specific information, names and such of officers.
  • Make stronger the magical guidance that Laurel is getting, i.e. why would she remember her credentials and case file but not an umbrella?
  • Add Laurel putting on booties and such to walk into the crime scene.
  • Make Dylan more personable, give him a character and describe how he looks.
  • Have there be a reason for Laurel always looking at Dylan. (They know each other from the past.)
  • During Laurel’s drive to the police station have her go through her memories to explain the magic and her abilities to the reader.

John Schneller (chapter 8, Broken rewrite) . . . An overwhelming plethora of wisdom stated that the rescue of Broken was unreasonable for oh so many reasons. The reader (not the author) needs to believe the action/motivations.  Thanks for the urging. A solution rose out of the ashes on the way home. The mountain boys will reveal a tattoo common to the Protectors in the city, thus making the giving of help true to their nature, and giving Broken a reason to believe them. Hope that works for all.

Who’s up next . . .

July 2: Lisa McDougal (chapter, The Tebow Family Secret); Kashmira Sheth and Amit Trivedi (chapters, untitled novel); Amber Boudreau (chapter, Mavis); Jack Freiburger (chapters, A Walk upon the Water); Bob Kralapp (chapter, Capacity); Larry Sommers (chapter, Freedom’s Purchase); and  Jerry Peterson (???).

Fifth Tuesday . . .

It’s coming. July 30. Put it on your calendar. Larry Sommers and his wife will host us at their home on the westside of Madison.

We do have a writing challenge and here it is: Write a story with a deus ex machina ending.

What? you ask.

Let’s start with a definition. From Wikipedia: A deus ex machina ending is… a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.

Think of the movie Jurassic Park. Several of the characters are running from a dinosaur intent on eating them. They are doomed. Nothing they do can save themselves from becoming dino snacks. And then another dinosaur shows up. It kills and eats the first dinosaur, permitting the humans to escape. An unexpected intervention.

Dramatic? Yes, but not fully believable.

So that’s your assignment for Fifth Tuesday. Write a story with this kind of over-the-top, unbelievable ending. Go for the laughs. Make it funny. And do it in no more than 500 words.

Now should you be tempted to write this kind of ending for real in the novel you’re writing, here’s some guidance from Novel Writing Help dot Com:

How to avoid a deus ex machina ending

The literal translation deus ex machina is “god from the machinery,” and it derives from Ancient Greek theater. The characters in the play would get themselves into a terrible mess, and the only way to sort it out was for the gods, or the actors playing the gods, to emerge from the “machinery” of the stage and put the world to right again with their divine powers.

For our own plotting purposes, a deus ex machina ending means a contrived, awkward or unbelievable ending. It’s one which fails to flow naturally and logically from the events that came before it.

An example

Imagine a detective in a good old-fashioned Whodunnit. We’ll call him Smith.

Now, we know that Smith will unmask the murderer by the end of the novel (because that’s what happens in crime fiction). But for this unmasking to satisfy to the reader, the name of the guilty party must come to Smith as a result of his own skills and efforts.

Smith spends the bulk of the novel searching for clues, interviewing suspects, piecing together the evidence. In short, he does all the things a detective usually does in a crime novel.

Sure, he makes mistakes as he goes. And his initial thoughts and theories are proved wrong. But the reader has faith that his skills will eventually lead him to the truth.

And eventually Smith would have discovered the identity of the murderer, if his creator had been any good at plotting novels. Unfortunately, though, the writer calls in the “gods” and settles on a contrived ending instead.

Smith, you see, has reached a seemingly hopeless situation…

All of his leads have come to nothing. To solve the crime, he needs a mental breakthrough, one of those moments in old-fashioned crime novels when the detective suddenly exclaims…

Of course, they did it with mirrors!

But instead of Smith experiencing an epiphany of this sort, which is what the reader hopes for and expects, we get a deus ex machina ending…

Smith just happens to walk in on the murderer in the process of strangling his latest victim. The killer is arrested, Smith gets a pat on the back, and everyone is happy. Everyone except for the novel’s unsatisfied readers, of course.

Why are they left unsatisfied?

Because the crime was solved through Smith just happening to be in the right place at the right time, totally by chance.

The resolution came about because of forces outside the detective’s control, by the Ancient Greek god of “luck”, if you like. It didn’t happen as a result of his own skills and efforts. That difference is critical.

So how do you avoid a deus ex machina ending?

Keep the “gods” out of it. Leave it to the mortals in the novel to sort out their own problems. In practical terms, that means two things…

First, make sure that the eventual solution to the novel’s problem comes about because of the character’s own efforts. Whatever “breakthrough” happens in the third act of the novel, it needs to be an effect of something the character did or thought earlier in the story.

Second, plant “clues” to the resolution along the way, so it seems believable and logical to readers when it happens. If the resolution happens out of the blue, you’ll have a deus ex machina ending. And that’s not good!

From the ending, we go the beginning, to great first lines . . . and the last word for this edition of Writer’s Mail . . .

Joe Fassler, a top horror fiction writer, interviewed Stephen King in 2013. He asked King to talk about the importance, the magnitude of a novel’s first sentence.

Said King, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

The first sentence sets the stage—however long or short the text—and hints at the narrative vehicle by which the writer will propel the book forward.

Said King, “Context is important, and so is style. But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about ‘voice’ a lot, when I think they really just mean ‘style.’ Voice is more than that.

“People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice… An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection—a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.”

Wrote Gawker columnist Jason Parham in a follow-up to that interview, “There are thousands of classic opening lines in fiction—A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison come to mind—but often the most well-known are not always the best. First sentences, of course, have different functions—to amuse, to frighten, to mystify—and the mechanics a writer uses to achieve this connection vary from genre to genre. In looking for the best opening lines, I took all of this into consideration. What follows are the 21 best. These are the sentences that say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

“The time has come.” – Dr. Seuss, Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” – Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

“They shoot the white girl first.” – Toni Morrison, Paradise

“Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs.” – Lynda Barry, Cruddy

“An abandoned auto out in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootsack his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.” – James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential

“It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.” – Patricia Cornwell, Postmortem

“The man who had had the room before, after having slept the sleep of the just for hours on end, oblivious to the worries and unrest of the recent early morning, awoke when the day was well advanced and the sounds of the city completely invaded the air of the half-opened room.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dialogue with the Mirror

“Pale freckled eggs.” – Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar was the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.” – Toni Cade Bambara, The Lesson

“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.” – Victor LaValle, Big Machine

“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station.” – William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.”  – Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”  – Alice Walker, The Color Purple

“I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.”  – Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives

“Chris Kraus, a 39-year-old experimental filmmaker and Sylvère Lotringer, a 56-year-old college professor from New York, have dinner with Dick _____, a friendly acquaintance of Sylvère’s, at a sushi bar in Pasadena.” – Chris Kraus, I Love Dick

“See the child.” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

“I’m pretty much fucked.” – Andy Weir, The Martian

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Writer’s Mail
Tuesdays with Story
April 24, 2019

Way back in the bookstore

Ten writers trooped into B&N Westside last week to hear Tracey Gemmell, Larry Sommers, and Paul Wagner share about what they learned at Writers Institute held a couple weeks ago in Madison. Our writers also critiqued the works of six of their colleagues. Here is some of what was said:

 

Tracey Gemmell (query letter and synopsis, Life Like Lavender) . . . Most agreed the synopsis for Life Like Lavender was too long. Larry also suggesting cutting much from the query letter and replacing it with more wit. Many thanks for your suggestions.

 

Kashmira Sheth and Amit Trivedi (chapters 12-13, untitled novel) . . .  Amit and Kashmira submitted chapters of their book. Readers wanted to see more interaction between Uma and her father to show she was aware of what was going on in the country. Also, some part of Kedar’s chapter sounded more like stage direction and readers wanted more description of what Virabha looked like. Thank you all for your comments. We will work on the chapters. (more…)

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Writer’s Mail

Writer’s Mail
Tuesdays With Story
September 21, 2018

Tuesday evening at B&N

Nine writers circled the chairs on the store’s bargain floor for an evening of ghost stories, lost memories, changing lives, magic, and cauterized wounds. Here is some of what was said in the critiques:

Meg Matenaer (chapter 3, Write in Time) After a lively garbage disposal discussion, the group decided that Marie should drop a thin juice glass into it instead of a thick coffee mug. Jack suggested the line, “The garbage disposal could be reset, but her day could not.” Amber, John, and Jerry noted that the readers know little about the professor. The group was alarmed about John’s (Rueger not Schneller) ear and thought he should be too.

Lisa McDougal (chapters 3-4, The Tebow Family Secret) . . .

Amber Boudreau (chapter 13 rewrite, The Dragoneer) Amber read from Chapter 13 of her novel The Dragoneer which she is deep in the middle of rewriting. John and Jerry enjoyed the piece but had suggestions on switching a few sentences around for clarity and deleting some mundane dialogue.

Mike Austin (short story, “Go Faster”)  I received a lot of really good comments and input for, “Go Faster.” I found that I need to start naming things. John wanted me to name roads and locations, Jerry wanted me to name the beer they’re drinking. There was a brief discussion about fingers tickling, “as light as spider’s feet.” In the end, I was allowed to keep it. Jerry thought I could say “humerus” instead of “arm bone.” Sounds kind of funny to me. Okay, bad pun. I was concerned that the humerus through his chest (Hm. Now I’m starting to like it.) might seem contrived, but was assured that it was not. Thank you, everyone, for the encouraging comments.

Jerry Peterson (short story, part 1 rewrite plus 6 new pages, “Death Rides the Rails”) . . . The scene of Early hunting a rabbit was not serious for Amber Boudreau but a comedy. “Could you add a few more animals?” she asked. John Schneller said a hawk would not attack a man, that another way has to be found to injure Early so the next scene—he cauterizing of his wounds—can be saved.

 

Who’s up next

October 2

Bob Kralapp (???)

Paul Wagner (???)

Larry Sommers (chapter, untitled novel)

Jack Freiburger (chapter, A Walk on the Water)

Cindi Dyke (???)

John Schneller (chapter, Final Stronghold)

Tracey Gemmell (chapters)

 

Fifth Tuesday

As, yes, October 30. And we now have a writing challenge. Here’s the prompt: “A howling good time.”

Your story, in no more than 500 words, doesn’t have to be a Halloween story, but it could be. Figure out where you’re going with the prompt and start writing!

 

Our editor

Tracey Gemmell loves editing our e-newsletter so much that on October 1 she moving back into the chair where she will shepherd the next two issues. Email your good stuff to her.

 

Why you need an inciting incident

From Randy Ingermanson who bills himself as America’s Mad Professor of Fiction Writing:

 

First, let’s define our terms. The inciting incident is some “new thing” in your protagonist’s world. It marks the change that is ultimately going to pull your protagonist into your story. Usually, this is something external to your protagonist, but it’s possible it could be an internal change.
I don’t see a problem with starting the inciting incident in the first two pages of your novel. You can put it pretty much anywhere you want, so long as it’s reasonably early in the story and as long as it works. Some stories start fast out of the gate, and some take longer to get rolling.
I do see a problem with a scene that has no conflict of any kind. Conflict doesn’t get in the way of your reader caring about your protagonist. Conflict is often the reason your reader does care, at least early on. When we see somebody in trouble, we instinctively care about them. We might later stop caring about them if we decide they aren’t worth caring about.
But let’s face it—when somebody’s in trouble, we care. The news concerning twelve young soccer players and their coach in Thailand trapped by rising floodwaters two and a half miles into a cave, made people care. The minute we heard about them, we cared. Because that’s what humans do.
Fiction is about giving your reader a powerful emotional experience whether it is external or internal, conflict is conflict.
Do all scenes require a Goal, Conflict, and Setback? The answer is no. That’s one strategy, and we call that strategy a Proactive Scene. But another strategy is the Reactive Scene, where you have a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision. (For much more on both of those, see my latest book, How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method.)
I strongly recommend that all scenes be either Proactive or Reactive. These are solid design patterns that work well and that your readers are already primed to understand. If you have a scene that’s neither Proactive nor Reactive, you should be able to explain to yourself what makes the scene work—why is it giving your reader a powerful emotional experience? And then you should ask whether you can make the scene better by turning it into either a Proactive or Reactive scene. Because usually, you can.
Let’s circle back to the inciting incident. I don’t sweat the exact location of the inciting incident, as long as it’s in the first several chapters. Remember that the inciting incident is not what makes your reader start caring about your story. The inciting incident usually comes much too late for that. Long before your reader reaches the inciting incident, she should already care about your story.
My thinking is that you want to start pulling your reader into your story with a strong first sentence.

 

  1. Followed by a strong first paragraph.
  2. Followed by a strong first page.
  3. Followed by a strong first scene.

 

If you do all that, then it really doesn’t matter when the inciting incident happens, because your reader already committed to the story from the very beginning. The inciting incident just gives your reader words to explain why she’s committed.

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Writer’s Mail

Writer’s Mail
Tuesdays with Story
September 7, 2018

 

Our Tuesday evening collect

Ten of your colleagues gathered around the tables – yes, we had tables! – on B&N’s bargain floor Tuesday evening. Here’s some of what was said in the critiques:

Paul Wagner (part 1 rewrite, “Mad Jack”) . . .

John Schneller (chapter 29, Final Stronghold) . . . A great deal of discussion was generated over a dirty rock. While the author limped away from the stoning, he did resolve to make things more clear to the reader instead of explaining himself to the critiquers. Thanks for the input. I think I figured out a way to develop the scene which will make the rock more useful when it shows up again later. The other concerns about the cashbox dynamics also need clarity, but doggone it, the description of the jail cell will  …..o heck, that will probably go also.  Thanks for the comments!  (more…)

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Writer’s Mail for May 14, 2012
by Jen Wilcher

Blending in with the students preparing for finals, five of us gathered at Barnes & Noble for critiquing and fun.

Up first, Terry Hoffman read from The Great Tome. Carol liked the improvements with the library scene, but would have liked some physical manifestations of the emotional pain Rachel surely must have suffered upon seeing the other children. Jen wanted to know why Rachel didn’t defend herself with the truth when Doug confronted her about not answering her phone – it was in the car. And Jack thought Doug made a bit of a leap in connecting Rachel’s disappearance to her messing with the book again. Andrea suggested letting the conversation move toward that – go from anger and worry about her being late to discovering she has the book again. Also felt that Rachel’s reactions were kind of child-like. These are both adults, here. Carol liked the hiding place for the book.

Jack Freiburger contemplated theology with Jesus and a cup of coffee in Jesus at the IHOP. There was some concern about being able to follow the time jumps which are both reflected by Johnny waking up. Terry said she had no trouble following it. Carol pointed out that the use of the month of “May” wouldn’t be likely, given the time period. Spring, perhaps. Terry and Andrea weren’t sure about the reasoning behind Jesus stealing Johnny’s coffee, but Carol liked the idea of him being a bit of a thief.

Carol Hornung read the next scene of Sapphire Lodge, which was a bit of an information dump. Jack said getting through the information would be more fun if it was funnier – give Finley a chance to play around with words and joke a bit. Terry felt that Finley is a little too eager to give up information. Make him a bit more coy, make Saffi work harder to get the information out of him. Andrea pointed out the too-frequent mentions of “sadness.” Need to cull that out a bit. Refocus on Finley – he’s lost part of his memory, and he has to be frustrated at that. That frustration would probably come through as snarkiness. (more…)

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