Three Dirty Birds Talk Story Trumps Structure and Story Gimmicks

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Today on Dirty Birds, we’re talking about the last chapter in Steven James’s Story Trumps Structure–Gimmicks.

Ana: I like the first line already: “If your novel isn’t entertaining, it’s not worth reading.” I think this is also why a lot of novels that aren’t that well written do better than some that are; they’re entertaining.

Zoe: For people who don’t get headaches when they read clunky writing…yes, they’re entertaining!

Kate: My first ever experience of editing in my head while reading happened a few years ago. I still finished the book, because I liked the characters and it was a good story, just clunky writing. I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything by that author since, though.

Zoe: Readers can forgive a lot if you’re pushing their (good) buttons. Plus, writing is easy to fix—it can be tightened and cleaned up. But telling a good story is hard, writing engaging and interesting characters is hard, drawing readers into the story is hard, leaving them satisfied at the end is hard.

Kate: It is, which is why I’m so conflicted about the author I mentioned above. I’m much pickier about the writing mechanics now than I used to be, so I’m afraid to try any of this person’s other books, but I keep looking at them.

Ana: Sometimes I wish I weren’t so picky about mechanics, but studying writing just does that to you. I still remember fondly the times I could lose myself in really crappy fanfictions.

Zoe: I used to read the hell out of Sidney Sheldon…and now I’m afraid to open one of his books. Over the years, the highs get higher when I find good writing—because I know more about what makes it great—but the lows get more plentiful.

Ana: Good point. I do appreciate some books more now than I would have some years ago, simply because I can appreciate the work that went into them. But, sometimes, I think we need to remember that the average reader doesn’t care that much about the rules.

Kate: So, you can worry less about your mechanics if you can tell a rollicking good story with great characters. In this chapter, James talks about Gimmicks, and warns the young writer to stay as far away from them as possible, because it spoils your story. (And here I am trying to be clever, when James says to NOT DO THAT!)

Zoe: His first advice is to stop trying to be that, yes.

Ana: I find it funny that he mentions trying to write books without a semicolon. I’ve heard some editors at certain publishers hate semicolons with a passion and so writers shy away from using them.

Zoe: I can verify that there are publishers that will edit out the semicolons (or ask you to).

Kate: Yes. Which makes me all the more likely to use them. Because I actually do know how to. (contrary Kitty)

Zoe: They’re a tool. They have a purpose.

Ana: I think my editor put like 90 semicolons into Lab Rat’s Love. Taught me never to comma splice again.

Zoe: Good!

Kate: I had to laugh when he talked about people picking a number of words and writing their story so it’s exactly that amount. Is that a thing? Have I been doing this all wrong? o.O

Zoe: I hadn’t heard of that for novel-length works (like he mentions), but it’s of course a thing for very short stories. (And I used to love writing to exactly 100 words. You learn a lot about tightening, and what’s really important to the story, that way.)

Ana: One author I read recently talked about her plotting process and she mentioned having a number of words for every scene she writes so that when she’s done with a scene she can check if it’s not too short. Like, if she wants a scene to be 1000 words (she sets the amount while plotting) and it ends up only being 700, she finds ways to add more words. (I do not think this is a good approach.)

Zoe: No, it seems kind of arbitrary.

Ana: It made me see why some of her book dragged.  I guess sometimes we think important scenes SHOULD take a lot of words, but quite often, they don’t.

Kate: I was just going to say, it would make me worry about adding fluff. The comment on the dialogue tags was spot on. When, or have they, stopped teaching students to use all sorts of different words instead of said?

Zoe: I don’t remember being taught either way (but school was a loooong time ago).

Ana: It’s different in German. We love our variations of said. The first time I read a book in English (Harry Potter) I thought all the ‘said’ all the time was off-putting. But I got used to it.

Kate: I wonder if that will come back in style again some day. I will occasionally use something else, but only if using that different attribution will save me words elsewhere in the text. Mostly, I try to stick to action tags or beats if I can.

Zoe: I probably use a word other than said once or twice per novel.

Ana: I use ‘shout’ or ‘whisper’ occasionally. Sometimes my characters mutter or mumble.

Kate: Those are good ones. Because there’s more than one word’s meaning in them.

Zoe: My characters ejaculate from time to time, but not with their mouths.

Kate: Lol. James also talks about vocabulary. Now, my mother loves to read books where she needs a dictionary to understand them. (My mother is weird.) But most people don’t. So, unless you can get the meaning of your new word across in the context, it’s probably better to find some other word to use. I totally agree with James on this one.

Ana: Yeah, one author I occasionally read, the first thing I think when I see her name is: Oh, it’s the one with all the big words I never know.

Zoe: He also says to avoid the temptation to impress your readers with your knowledge of the flora and fauna of western North Carolina, which was a huge relief, because it means I don’t have to go outside. (I can see western NC from here. I’m sure their flora and fauna has crossed over the TN line.)

Kate: I see this in critiquing a lot, and have to watch out for it myself. You’ve done so darn much research, you can’t wait to trot it out. But does the story need it? Probably not, especially if it turns your entire first chapter into an info-dump, with only a couple of lines of action. (I have, indeed, seen this.)

Ana: I’d be surprised if anyone who’s ever critiqued hasn’t seen it.

Zoe: And next James talks about style. Which is something I don’t have.

Kate: Writing, Zoe. Not clothes.

Zoe: No, even there. I always think of my writing as “utilitarian.” I don’t care about “style”—I want to disappear. I don’t want you to realize you’re reading. When I’m editing on a word- or sentence-level, I’m busy removing speedbumps and “style.”

Ana: I’m kind of the same there. I think of my ‘style’ as ‘simple.’ Still, people have told me they like my voice and I’m like, I have a voice? But at the same time I’ve been told it’s not something you usually see yourself. I’ve even read somewhere that authors shouldn’t try to figure out their voice because when you do, it becomes something co
nstructed.

Zoe: Right? I’m all “What voice? I’m just telling the story.”

Kate: I like simple. I generally do my best to stay out of the way of the reader when I’m telling the story. I try to focus on the emotion and let that lead the way, and then I hide behind it.

Ana: It looks like we’re all trying to do kind of the same thing style-wise, still we all read different. I guess that’s voice.

Zoe: Must be!

Kate: Ha! What did you guys think of his name examples, when he was talking about not getting too precious with your characters’ names?

Ana: Honestly? I thought of Remus Lupin.

Zoe: It wasn’t what I was expecting when I saw the section heading, “Just use normal names.” I thought he was going to talk about how, if you’re writing contemporary (or historical real-world) fiction, people should (mostly) have the names you’d expect for people of those ages/locations, etc. I don’t think I’d notice much if people got “clever” in the way he describes.

Kate: I think, sometimes, that’s part of the voice, or the charm, of a book. It’s one of those layers that you might not notice the first time around, but once you do, it’s like a little in-joke. It’s part of what makes Shakespeare so great.

Ana: I don’t think I’d mind much as a reader, but it might be one of his pet peeves.

Kate: Oh, is he inserting himself into the text again?

Zoe: I hadn’t noticed him having pet peeves…

Kate: Lol. The last thing he talks about is not inserting yourself into the story. (See what I did there? Am I being too precious?)

Ana: He might have taken this advice for himself when writing this book….

Zoe: Yes, so don’t use your story for therapy, for imposing your political or religious (or plotting) views on readers, or to impress readers with your greatness.

Ana: Yes, that’s what blogs are for.

Zoe: He closes the chapter (and the book) with his advice for how to get readers to clamor for more: simply write emotionally gripping fiction. I can’t argue with that.

Kate: Nope.

Come back on Wednesday, when we’re going to talk about the book as a whole, and give it a rating.

Ana: Dun dun dun.

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