Thursday, January 31, 2013

Technical Topic -- The Elements of Writing

Somebody asked elsewhere, "How do I write a Romance?" and "How do I write, anyway?"

I was thinking what advice I'd give someone who was just struggling with the first draft of the first manuscript.

What would I say if I wasn't going to say,
"Why don't you become a lawyer or an accountant or the manager of a sporting goods shop instead since that is going to pay a lot better and your evenings will not be filled with angst and scribbling and desperate searches for a word that is not 'suspicion' but sounds a little like it and means something close and what the devil is it ... ah skepticism!"  That kind of evening.

Anyhow, I was trying to come up with something important and basic to the tendons and muscle of writing and also useful and a good first step into the business of thinking like a writer.  (Bit of a mixed metaphor there, isn't it?)  

Since I hate to waste advice, as I give it so rarely *cough* (not)... I am dragging the advice I gave there, back here.

What I said:

The first and best advice to a beginning writer is -- Read.

Read for fun, of course.  Read widely.  Read well.  (i.e. read crap but don't just read crap books.)  Read the best of your genre.  Read outside your genre.

But also read, not as a reader, but as a writer.  

This is maybe somewhat like looking at scenes
Since you are going to write Romance genre I will send you to pick yourself up a couple of books by Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz. They should be available in your local used book store. Try for short books, something not as thick as your thumb.

Go invest in a set of highlighters -- yellow, red, green, blue etc.

After you've skimmed the book, go back and look at the first scene in Chapter Three. You're going to mark the beginning of the scene by drawing a pen line across the page.

Scenes are the building blocks of the writing and that's why we're cutting one out and looking at it.
Since you're maybe at the beginning of analyzing books, you can ask yourself -- "what makes a scene?"

Speaking very generally, a scene is in one setting; it deals with one problem or intention; and the main character of the scene is there from beginning to end.  When you go somewhere else and start doing something else or you switch to another focus character, you're in a different scene. Generally.

Writers, being wonderful altruistic folks, are apt to put a little space at the end of a scene or change the chapter altogether.

So. Go hunt down and mark the other end of the scene.
How long is this puppy? (Pages in paperback average 250 words per page.)

I have a JAK in hand, Copper Beach. Chapter Three is one scene, a talking heads scene between the protagonist and a boat captain. It's seven pages which is roughly 1750 words.  In JAK's The Family Way, Chapter Three is 22 pages, 5500 words.  J.D. Robb's ( Nora Robert's) Reunion in Death is a less straightforward scene because it starts with a technically beautiful flashback, but it's sixteen pages, 4000 words.

One reason to look at the length of a scene is that a common problem with early manuscripts is the scenes are too short. They're too short because they leave out or shortchange some elements of writing.

So we're going to mark those elements of writing and study them squirming on pins, metaphorically speaking. 

Anyhow.  Let us mark.
Red, green, blue, and the ever-popular fuschia
Mark all the dialog -- the stuff inside quote marks -- in red.
Mark all internals -- that is, when we see the character's thoughts -- in blue.
Mark anything that shows movement of the body in space -- sit, turn, walk, light a cigarette, shoot somebody -- in green.
Mark description -- color, smell, placement of objects, landscape, shape of somebody's nose -- in yellow.

Anything that's concerned with stuff happening outside of the scene can be fuschia or whatever you have left. 
is for backstory. 
is for fascinating factoids about the Lost Kingdom of Horowitz or how the ion-drive works.

Sometimes this outsider wordage will be a narrative intrusionary. Often this out-of-the-here-and-now comes in internals. And there's fuschia chat between the characters where they inexplicably tell each other what they both already know.
What all this fuschia boils down to, though, is the writer talking to the reader, passing along information.

So if the character says, "That's a pretty flower," it gets marked in red.

Looking at the elements of story. Putting them together
If the character goes on to think, A rose. I wonder why she has roses on the table. Did somebody send them to her? It gets marked in blue.

If the character knocks the ash off his cigarette, it's green.

If the character then thinks, We had roses in the garden of the priory, when I was seven or I'm going back there someday to root them out of the ground or My mother was a great gardener or I could grow roses if I had to, that might be fuschia.
It's not in the here-and-now of the story.

Let's say you start out with:

"That's a pretty flower," he said, taking a joint out of his wallet. A rose. I wonder why she has roses on the table. Did somebody send them to her?  Has she found herself another werewolf?

He didn't care much for that possibility. He patted through his pockets. He had matches in here somewhere.

He remembered . . . Mother had been a great gardener. She loved the flowers more than her children. We had roses everywhere in the garden of the priory, between the wolfsbane and the foxgloves, back when I was seven.

A few red petals had fallen from the bouquet onto the white tablecloth. They were the color of blood.
Interpreting the elements, you might end up with something like:
"That's a pretty flower," he said, taking a joint out of his wallet. A rose. I wonder why she has roses on the table. Did somebody send them to her?  Has she found herself another werewolf?

He didn't care much for that possibility. He patted through his pockets. He had matches in here somewhere.

He remembered . . . Mother had been a great gardener. She loved the flowers more than her children. We had roses everywhere in the garden of the priory, between the wolfsbane and the foxgloves, back when I was seven.

A few red petals had fallen from the bouquet onto the white tablecloth. They were the color of blood.
The 'parts of writing' -- dialog, action, description, even the excursion out of the scene and to another place and time  -- work together.
NR and JAK are masters of balancing these elements.

After you've done a dozen scenes from NR and JAK, go back to some of your own work and apply those highlighters. 


  1. Thank you so much for this wonderfully helpful post.

  2. I think we all do this a little bit -- sorta unconsciously. The trick with the markers makes it blatantly visual. It simplifies. We see the overall picture.

    Interesting to compare how different published authors do this. Interesting to see the rhythm and trading of elements back and forth. You can just 'see' the author thinking, "Well, time to add some description."

    Always interesting to see how a run of dialog is interrupted by non-dialog. Where it's done and what's used to break up the run. It's just fascinating to follow a good writer doing this.

    Maybe we go back to our own work thinking -- "I have no internals. No wonder my betas keep saying they can't understand the motivation."
    Maybe we say -- "My color pattern looks like an Ian Fleming. Is the world ready for Ian Fleming Romance?"

    Or maybe -- like me -- it's "I'm all internals. I'm pages of internals. AKKK!"

  3. As much as I like playing around with crayons, I am not fooled. This is WORK. This exercise requires me to analyze what's on the page. It will make my brain to hurt. Drat. If only I liked sports, or accounting, or the law.

    Thanks, Jo!

  4. I'll fess up. I present this as a first look at the elements of writing. But the whole balance thing never gets mastered.

    Early on -- when we're just picking up the quill pens as it were -- it's the stage-business-y twitching where every line of dialog is marked by turning, sighing, looking, smiling, blinking and the ever-popular lifting an eyebrow.

    This is a good habit to break.

    But even years later we still have our favorite patterns. I end a lot of chapters using the same general pattern of elements. It's not wrong; I'm going to keep doing it;, but it's probably useful to see myself doing it.

  5. I've heard about highlighting my scenes to analyze them and see if I'm too heavy in one area or another, but I've never seen it explained so succinctly and--above all--in a way that I actually understood the delineation between the parts (especially the fuchsia bits). And for the love of all that's holy, can I just call it pinkish purple? Because I can't spell that f-word to save my life! *grin*

    Thanks very much for this, Jo!

  6. Fuschia, as a color, is from fuschia, the plants, described about 1700 and named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs.
    That doesn't make it easier to spell, does it? I mean ... that's not much of a 'naming after' if it doesn't get the spelling right.

    (Why the plant discoverer didn't call the plants Leonharts I cannot imagine. We would then have Leonhart-coluored hats which would be charming. Or he could have called them bugloss, I suppose, so we may count our lucky.)

    Fuschia as a color does not exist in English till late Victorian, so none of my characters can wear it. Not that they would anyway.

  7. Lol, I did a word search just like that this morning.

    I definitely tend towards internals.

  8. Ah. Internals.
    I am so lucky. My editor just patiently strikes it all out. And strikes it all out. And ...

  9. Anonymous1:39 PM

    I've heard of this method before and have been a little afraid to try it. I'll get there.

  10. I'm with Grace...this is WORK. But perhaps I do it in my mind. I do read critically and notice when there is too much of one thing or another or if I'm wanting to skip paragraphs that go on and on as to what the h/h are thinking.

  11. I remember doing this exercise at the Forum in September. It worked my tail off. ; ) But it's good for us to learn how it all comes together.

  12. Really interesting post, I will definitely try this on a second-hand book, and then my own writing. I think mine will have a lot of people have to stop thinking and actually DO stuff!

  13. Thank you! I've heard this suggestion before, but now I can really see how it should be done. I suspect that the best writers are those who slip the other things in among the dialogue, and as a reader you only notice how it's done when you break it down like this.

  14. Your post is making me laugh and smile, Jo. Yesterday, my 14-year-old daughter asked me, "Mom, how do you get to be a good writer?" I said "First, you have to read. A lot." She smiled, and said "I've got that one down, haven't I?" We then went on to talk about the next steps: practicing and developing your craft.

    Sitting on a desk in my office is a scene from Cecilia Grant's first novel. I admire her writing so much, and wanted to unpack it, to see how it worked. So I retyped it, then changed the type color for each type of sentence: dialogue, action, interior thoughts, observations, backstory, metaphors. Whenever I'm struggling with my own writing, I take that scene out and look at the balance of the colors on the page, and can return to my own work with a better sense of what's off.

    When I used to teach writing, I would often have my students make post-paper outlines. I wonder how many of us would be up to the challenge of doing this highlighting exercise on a scene or chapter of our own writing?

  15. Hi Ella and Regan --

    I do find it fun, marking up a book for a good cause. I mean, the last time I slapped color all of a book I was probably three and doubtless got spanked for doing so.
    So there's something of the go-wild about this.

    And I like to do a little phrase-by-phrase analysis once in a while. Makes me think about what I'm doing. Not a bad thing.

    We can't -- we shouldn't -- analyze while we write. It would muck with the creative process but good.

    But the thought and realization of an excursion into book vandalism gets tucked into the subconscious. I really believe that. The next time we go groping around in the dark of our minds for a line, I think our subconscious hands us some description instead of internals if that's going to make the 'color palette' look better.

  16. Hi Zan Marie --

    Was this one of my old exercises, or a new one?

    I love to see all the activity in that section, but I have no time. No time. I can never drop by and read and comment as I'd like to

  17. Hi Mr.

    My problem exactly.

    I go in thinking all is well. And then it's ... "Do I REALLY have that much internals?"

  18. Hi Helena --

    An example of how a great writer handles the 'interspersed with dialog' effect -- see Dorothy Dunnett. Such a wonderful stylist. She teaches me endlessly. (Books are such patient teachers.)

  19. Hi Jackie --

    I'm a huge fan of Cecilia Grant. She and I are both shortlisted in the ALA RUSA Romance category this year.

    Kristen Callahan won, with Firelight. I gave away a signed copy of Firelight and an ARC of her Winterblaze a few weeks back on the blog. Can I pick 'em or can I pick 'em?

  20. I've done this exercise before, and I've always found it immensely useful for seeing where things are working and where they're not. But what I find really fascinating is your comment about scene length.

    I have it pretty together in small snippets of work, but I fall down in whole chapters or sections- everything happens too fast. One of my keen-eyed beta readers described the scenes as being like "condensed versions of themselves". Now that I'm working on my final draft, I'm finally seeing the difference- I haven't looked at word count to start with, but I've looked at pace. Places to pause and take in the scenery. Moments to think, not just do. And my scenes, which always rang in at 2000 words on average, are now coming out at 4000.

    I've noticed the obvious improvement in quality, but quantifying it like that is certainly the most visible sign of it so far.

  21. This is probably the best writing advice I've ever read. Thank you.

  22. "One reason to look at the length of a scene is that a common problem with early manuscripts is the scenes are too short. They're too short because they leave out or shortchange some elements of writing."

    That's for me. I'm always afraid things are going to drag so I leave too much out. This exercise is a particularly useful prod for me. Thanks.

    1. Hi Lil --

      When I look at first manuscripts, I see this all the time. The writer has just sketched out what happened. It's put down in electrons, but there's no real attempt to drag the reader INTO the scene.

      So maybe that's how to convince yourself to enrich your scenes. Take the reader by the scuff of the neck and walk her through what's happening. Put her eyes on the action. Let her feel the character live through the moment.

      The lengthening of scenes -- Claire says this above -- is all about pacing.

  23. Christine9:46 AM

    That was a very interesting post. I had a flashback to my law school days where one fellow student used to sit in the front row with an assortment of highlighters he would use furiously as he took notes, clenching some in his teeth to facilitate a quick switcheroo of colors!

    I think it's interesting you use Jayne Ann Krentz as an example. I've always enjoyed her work and have read her for literally decades at this point. While her work and yours don't immediately jump out as comparable in style in a lot of ways I have noticed there is one big similarity- the immediate immersion in the story.

    There is nothing that makes me groan or loses me as a reader quicker than the huge prologue stuffed with description of the clouds, scenery, the hero/heroine at eight years old etc etc with no sense of the situation/danger/conflict or of the main character.

    Get me to know the main character immediately, give me a sense of what the stakes are and why I want to commit x many hours of my life to this book.

    While I am not an author I do love to read about the process of writing and one book I had read years ago titled something like "How To Write A Romance Novel- And Get It Published" had a chapter by Jayne Ann Krentz about opening lines and chapters. It made me take more notice of why her books hooked me immediately and it was something I thought of again reading yours.

    1. Hi Christine --

      I haven't read the article by JAK, but will make an effort to do so. I imagine I'll learn a lot. She's very skilled.

      And she's a good writer for a beginner to look at. That immediacy you speak of comes from straightforward pacing. You can easily see where her scenes are paced in story time, how she moves to a different element to let time pass, and then she goes back to story time again.

      'Copper Beach' Chapter Three starts with the captain entering the marina. It ends with the boat docking. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes pass.

      About half the passage of time is accounted for by dialog, action, internals that proceed at story time pace.

      The other half is slipped in with two passages. (a) A piece of description of the dock and -- immediately following that -- (b) a maybe 300-word passage of fuschia that talks about life in the San Juan Islands.

      That fuschia is not just info dump. It's been put where it is so it can pace the chapter. We wouldn't want straight story time for that scene. It'd be too ... I dunnoh ... too close and overwhelming.

      The other story elements that can pace so much slower lengthen the reader's perceived time. They open up the scene in a couple different ways -- not just in time but also in visuals.

      Anyhow, JAK is good to learn from because she does all this stuff right, in simple language and structure, and she makes it look easy.

  24. Hi Claire --

    I love this particular exercise because if helps everyone, at every stage of writing.

    You can do it first thing when you still don't know quite how to punctuate dialog. (I have been there. I have done that. My very first manuscript submission back in the days of carving on stone tablets had the punctuation all wrong.)

    You can do the exercise when you've been writing a while and you're working on how to fine-tune your pacing.

    I gather that's what you're doing -- the pacing bit.

    There's a whole art to it, isn't there... ? We use dozens of tricks to tell the reader how much time is passing in the story -- and make her BELIEVE an hour has gone by when we've written 200 words. Or make her believe seven minutes have passed when we've written 2000 words.

    Straight dialog, for instance, is perceived as passing in 'real time'. It's concrete rigid in this respect. Very difficult to budge. (We actually read dialog faster than it could be spoken, but our sense of time passing adjusts.)

    Action is more elastic. We can write an action scene that takes ten minutes to read but two minutes in the story. Or two minutes to read and half an hour in the story.

    Switching from dialog to other story elements can lengthen out the time of a scene.
    We dip into the pace of 'story time' with some dialog, then step out of that time in a set of actions or descriptions. Then we go back into dialog and back to the pace of story time passing.

    Or we can shorten time. In fifty words, we can add fifteen minutes or an hour to the scene. Time enough for Reginald to murder the colonel in the library with a candlestick, as it were.

    As in:


    "Oh, I say. That looks good."

    Jeeves brought in the tea tray and we all had crumpets. Bit of a jammy business, all round, but that's crumpets for you.

    "Tell me, since we're being frank here." George licked the odd boysenberry off his fingers. "How is the old girl, really?"


    We can do a long, nebulous passage of time and events punctuated by the odd dialog. Fr'instance, in MLAS I start out Chapter one with Jess walking. We go:

    Anything could hide in that fog. Probably did.

    "Welcome home, Jess," she whispered. She pulled her hood up and kept walking. The afternoon folded in around her, drizzling.

    In the fog, on both sides of her, all the length of Katherine Lane, citizens were closing up shop, putting merchandise away, giving the day up as unprofitable. ...

    and I continue for two-and-a-half bloody pages before we dip back into story time with a piece of action and a line of dialog.

    A shadow shifted. A hulking shape emerged from the dark of a doorway. He came toward her, walking out of the gloom, soft footed for all his size. He carried his lead pipe with the nonchalance of someone to whom this was not a novelty.

    "Well now." He slapped the pipe across his palm with a meaty thunk.

    Story element, just put in the driver's seat and running the pacing.

  25. Hi Faith --

    Well thank you very much. I hope you find something I've said useful.

    There are two things we need as writers -- technical skill and the art of story telling.
    Anyone can learn the technical skills, and that's what i talk about here and there on the blog.

    But the ability to tell stories is the great and essential gift. It's the heart of writing.

    That, I do not know how to teach.

  26. Anonymous11:00 PM

    Am so glad I found this! Priting this out and sticking it in my folder!!

  27. I'm glad you like it. Hope it's of some use.

  28. Hey Jo,

    Just wanted to drop in and thank you for your wonderful, informative blog. I have finally taken the plunge into this crazy world of writing! I have joined in the Writers' Exercises at the Book and Writers Forum. Claire referred me to your blog for tips. I have been living here lately reading and re-reading, and hopefully applying as many of your tips as I can to my new endeavor. Thank you for your generosity and encouragement to writers everywhere (newbies especially) :-)

  29. Oh, *sniffle*. Thank you so much.
    I surely do hope the posts spark off some ideas in writers' minds.

    We all teach ourselves. In the end it's always 'just me and the manuscript'. But it's nice to hear other folks' experiences, I think. That's what the Forum is so good at.

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