Saturday, May 19, 2012

Passive Voice Was Used to Write This Post

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my own writing, something that I struggle with in every manuscript, has been writing in the passive voice. Passive voice is often seen as lazy and amateur writing. So I decided to focus this particular post on passive voice; what it is, how it works, how to avoid it, and when it is appropriate.

To begin with, let’s talk about what passive voice is. According to the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina: “A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence.” If you remember your basic sentence structure lessons from elementary school, you know a sentence is typically composed of a SUBJECT (actor/doer), a VERB (or predicate) and often times an OBJECT. Allow me to illustrate using ninjas, pirates, and zombies.

Izumi’s blade sliced clean through Mitsuko.

In this sentence, Izumi’s blade is the SUBJECT, sliced is the VERB or action, and Mitsuko is the OBJECT. If this sentence was to be written using passive voice, we would take the OBJECT, Mitsuko, and place him in the position of the SUBJECT at the beginning of the sentence, like so:

Mitsuko was sliced clean through by Izumi’s blade.

This sentence says the exact same thing and yet is less direct, less interesting, and longer. Here’s another example:
Passive: The Cutter was knocked off course by the blusterous storm.
Active: The blusterous storm knocked the Cutter off course. 

You may think that the ship would be the subject of this sentence, and in its current position in the passive sentence it is. But who/what is the actor/doer? The storm. The storm is performing the action—knocking— against the ship, therefore it is the subject of the sentence and the ship is the object. 

One reason to use Active rather than Passive Voice in your writing is to add strength and credulity to your words. Passive Voice is seen as soft, or weak. It is less direct and thereby less interesting. Consider:

The zombie was blasted in the face by Jackson’s shotgun.
Jackson blasted the zombie in the face with his shotgun.

Isn’t the active sentence much more direct and action oriented? In the first sentence, the zombie was acted on by Jackson. In the second, Jackson acted upon the zombie. Yes, it means the same thing, but it makes Jackson rather than the zombie the doer/actor and adds immediacy to the action that the first sentence lacks.
The active voice is also the natural voice. We as human beings tend to think, see, and speak in active voice. When we watch something happen, we see the subject acting on the object. Rarely do we view it from the object’s point of view. 

Another reason to avoid using Passive Voice is that it tends to create ambiguity and thereby confusion. 

The mindless brute was knocked suddenly from Susan before it could sink its teeth into her flesh.

See the problem here? Who/what knocked the zombie from the woman? If you were to change this into active voice, you would be forced to add a subject (actor/doer) or end up with an incomplete sentence.

Jackson knocked the mindless brute from Susan before it could sink its teeth into her flesh.

No more confusion. We knew who did what. Passive voice is often used this way purposely by politicians to avoid admitting to mistakes or accepting blame.

According to government sources, the virus had been created in a laboratory.

Created by whom? The government? Terrorists? High School kids? The sentence leaves the subject undefined. This is a good example of when passive voice would be used on purpose to create ambiguity and shuck blame. 

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and EB White state that, “The habitual use of the active voice… makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.”

So how do you spot passive voice in your writing? For the most part, it’s a simple matter of looking for a form of “to be” such as is, was, were, are, am, have been, has been, will be, will have been, etc. followed by a past participle, (a verb typically ending in –ed). The palace has been breached by members of the Black Claw. In this example we have a form of “to be” in “has been” and the past participle “breached”. The active version of this sentence would read: Members of the Black Claw breached the palace.

Now, this doesn’t mean that every sentence with a form of “have” or “be” in it is passive. The crew has to bury the treasure. Since the form of “to be”, which is “has” in this sentence, is not attached to a past-tense verb, it is not a passive sentence.

The best way to tell is to ask questions. Is there action in this sentence? Patient Zero’s cells were invaded and quickly overrun by the virus. Yes, the action is the invasion of the cells. So what’s at the front of the sentence, the subject or the object? Who is doing the invading? The virus. Whose cells are being invaded? Patient Zero’s. So Patient Zero is the object and the virus is the subject. The sentence should read: The virus invaded and quickly overran Patient Zero’s cells.

Another way to spot passive voice is to look for the word “by”. It won’t always be there in a passive sentence, but it is a good indicator that you should take a second look at a sentence. Anytime you say something was done by someone, that someone is obviously the actor/doer, or subject and should be at the beginning of the sentence. 
Passive: The ship was taken over by the crew.
Active: The crew took over the ship.

Passive: The Emperor was assassinated by the legendary, Black Panther.
Active: The legendary Black Panther assassinated the Emperor.

So, is passive voice always wrong? No. There are a few instances where using the passive voice is acceptable, even preferable. Scientific writing is one example. By removing the scientist from the report, the reader can focus on what is being taught. Then the human genome was sequenced… Doesn’t matter who did the sequencing, just that it was done. But, even in these circumstances, active voice can help avoid any ambiguity. We then sequenced the human genome…

That being said, we’re here to talk about passive voice in fictional writing. However, before we discuss these options, note that these are rare cases. Even in the examples I give, most of them could potentially be made stronger by restructuring them in active voice. 

To emphasize the object.
Isaac was killed by the zombies last night.
The important part of this sentence is that Isaac, presumably a known character, was killed. By placing him in the SUBJECT slot of the sentence, we show him as being more important than the mass of faceless zombies that ate his brains. However, as I mentioned, this may be effective, but is still seen as a weaker sentence and would probably be made more forceful in active structure; The zombies ate Isaac’s brains last night. 

To de-emphasize the subject.
The captain’s head had been stuck upon a pike and left on deck.
If you don’t know who the actor/subject is, OR if you want to keep this information from the reader, you emphasize the object, in this case the captain’s head, and de-emphasize the unknown subject. Just remember that if it’s important that the reader know who the subject is, use an active form of the sentence to inform them. Old Seadog, the cook, stuck the captain’s head on a pike and left it on the deck.

If it’s irrelevant who the subject is.
The white flag was raised just after dawn on the fourth day.
We don’t know who the subject here is and we don’t need to know. Be it some peasant or the Emperor himself, the important aspect of this sentence is that the fortress surrendered. Once again, though, if it’s important that your readers know who did it, then use an active structure to tell them. The Emperor himself raised the white flag just after dawn…

Always keep in mind that these exceptions are rare. Many people can, and do argue that passive voice should never be used, ever. In reality, the use of passive voice is subjective. It’s your writing. If you think the sentence is better or more effective in passive voice, then use it. BUT, if it’s possible to restructure your sentence in active voice, 99% of the time you probably should. 

So, now it’s time to check your knowledge. I found a few online quizzes based on the passive voice. The first one is a simple yes/no style quiz in which you select whether the provided sentence is active or passive. I scored 18 out of 20 on this one, so I guess I’m learning. The second quiz is a little more difficult as it forces you to reconstruct the sentence yourself. NOTE: Not all of the sentences in his quiz are passive or need revision, so pay attention. I scored 9 out of 10 on this one.

Rather than providing a writing prompt for this post, I want to challenge you to take these quizzes and post your scores in the comments.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Destination: Philadelphia


Many of you may know that I've been traveling for work a lot lately, almost weekly. I've been to several places now all across the country. It's been a unique, neat, and eye opening experience thus far. Well, prompted by the suggestion of a friend and fellow writer, Mikey Stephenson, I've decided to keep a sort of travelogue of all of my destinations, a journal of sorts of each city; the feel, look, and a few detailed places that I can refer back to in my writing for stories that may be set within these cities or just to give my fabricated cities a little more life and realism. I will post these travelogues here for any of you to read, learn from, and perhaps refer to in your own writing and I hope that you will use them.

The City of Brotherly Love
Philly is the most recent city visited in my professional travel. I will start here as it is most fresh in my memory. I will add posts later for cities past such as Boston, San Francisco, and Kiawah Island, South Carolina.

Philadelphia is known as the "City of Brotherly Love." I used to view that statement with no small amount of cynicism. I have visited Philly once before in my life when I was about 16. I don't remember much from that trip other than a few tourist spots and the prevailing feeling that everyone wanted to kill me. I'm believe now that there may have been a bit of youthful naivety influencing my judgment at the time as I was just a kid fresh out of my Utah suburb and wandering in a city the likes of which I had never before experienced.

This trip changed that view almost entirely. My hotel was about a twenty minute walk from the convention center where the event I was teleprompting for was being held. I spent six days there and walked to and from the convention center twice daily, to and from, plus the occasional tourist wanderings in my free time. I found the city itself, the overall atmosphere, to be, not exactly friendly, but welcoming; comfortable. The people on the streets didn't quite stop and engage in conversation, or even so much as look up and smile, but they didn't seem uninviting, annoyed, or mistrusting of the outsider either. It was simply a matter of having better things to do. But I did feel a sense of acceptance among the mass denizens of the city. It truly felt like a brotherhood, everyone accepting of everyone else.

There was the usual compliment of homeless people, beggars sitting on the sidewalk with cardboard signs and cups asking for handouts, but they weren't pushy. They carried more of a humble air to them, a sadness even. Alas, my own personal disdain for beggars kept me from offering them any aid, financially or otherwise. Part of that may have stemmed from the abundant collection of street performers that also lined the sidewalks. Here, people still asked for handouts of change, but they worked for it to some degree by sharing with everyone around some musical talent. Be it singing, guitar, accordion, drums, or even flute, each of these performers filled their little niche of street corner with melodic songs, most of which were very well played. These people have real talent in their instruments. I found myself enjoying their music as I walked along, and even stopped to listen to a few. Unlike the standard beggar, here I can appreciate the work that these people put into learning their craft and sharing it.

One Penn Plaza 
The streets of Philadelphia are narrow. Most of them are one-way streets just wide enough for a bank of parked cars on each side of the street and a single lane down the center for one-way traffic. My hotel was in the heart of downtown Philly and the streets tended to feel a bit claustrophobic. With such narrow travel ways, banked by lines of parked cars, and towered over by skyscrapers of fifty stories or more, you can't help but feel a little boxed in. Here and there the walls open up for a park or historical location. I visited a few of these parks, including Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square (which houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of Washington's revolutionary war army), and of course Independence National Historic Park. Almost every park hosts at least one bronze statue of some historical figure or another from our nation's history. Every park is filled with people sitting on benches, sitting on fountains, laying on the grass, talking, laughing, eating lunch, taking pictures, many of them reading or napping in the sunlight. The parks were never at a loss for population.

George Washington's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Liberty Bell is housed in its own museum across the street from Independence Hall within Independence National Historic Park. It is a long museum in which you walk from one end to the other reading about the history and significance of the bell as a symbol of freedom and liberty. There are banks of photos and historical memorabilia about the bell all leading up to the Liberty Bell itself at the far end of the museum. The bell sits on a two-pronged pedestal in an open room large enough for several people to be able to walk entirely around it. It rests before a large glass wall looking across the street to Independence Hall where the bell was originally designed to hang and ring. Alas, I did not get a chance to tour Independence Hall, but did take a few photos for reference.

Independence Hall as seen from the Liberty Bell Center
The Liberty Bell

Philadelphia City Hall

Taxis are abundant in Philly, but the sidewalks are never at a loss for people either. Many of the cities denizens walk about the city during their daily business. Due to the lack of space, there are many car park garages where people leave their car in the morning and it is crammed into a garage so tightly that you can only get them out again one at a time in reverse order. Cars are parked in the morning, then the people walk everywhere else for the day, and pick up the car at night.

The last place I want to talk about as part of my Philadelphia travelogue is the Reading Terminal Market. Situated next to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where I was working, the Reading Terminal Market is an enclosed "open air" market of sorts. Once a train shed for the Reading Railroad, (Yes, the same one as in Monopoly), the terminal was converted to a market sometime in he 1890's. The market is filled with grid-layout rows of restaurants and a variety of meat, produce, and bakery markets. I ate here for lunch almost every day of the convention. There is a huge variety of restaurants to choose from, from delis boasting famous Philly Cheesesteaks to Italian bistros and Dutch markets, a salad buffet, and even a sushi bar. The food was fantastic, and I can now attest that even an original cheesesteak, straight from the heart of Philly, is made better with bacon.

The thing I loved about the Reading Terminal Market was the throng of people. From open to close every moment of the day the aisles were packed with people shopping, out to lunch, or just sight seeing. In the center of the market is a wide section of tables like a food court, but crammed together to accommodate as many as possible; and it was never enough. People stalk the tables the same way they stall stalk people at the supermarket, watching, waiting, following anyone who even looks like they are walking toward a car to leave. In the Terminal Market, the moment you stand up from your table, taking care not to jostle the people at the table immediately next to you, someone is already moving to take your seat while motioning to the other members of their party that they have a place.

Food Court at Reader Terminal Market
Reading Terminal Market

I loved the market for its atmosphere and think it would be a great setting for a chase, a clandestine meeting, or even a comedic scene of chaos. The variety of ethnic markets and restaurants makes for a vast array of culture that can be mixed into any story for color and realism. Details such as open fruit stands and raw meat markets can add elements of everyday life into your scenes.

In all, Philadelphia was a wonderful experience rich with history, cultural variety, and everyday human life. If you get a chance to visit, take it. If you plan to set a story in Philly, or a similarly large city, take these few details and mix them in to add some spice and believability to your tale.

Philadelphia; The City of Brotherly Love.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Writing Action and the Betrothed Daughter of a King

This week's discussion on writing is going to be about how to write action. I'm taking the main points of this post from the LTUE2012 panel on Writing Action by action master and self-proclaimed gun-nut , Larry Corriea. Larry is the author of several action packed series of novels, from the Monster Hunter International series to the Grimnoir Chronicles. Check him out of you haven't already.

So, why do we put action in our stories? Is it not enough to say, Boy meets Girl, Girl plays hard to get, Boy persists and eventually wins Girl's heart, Boy and Girl live happily ever after? 

Instead we say, Boy meets Girl, Girl plays hard to get, Boy wins Girl's heart, but leaves to seek his fortune to support her, Boy gets killed by Dread Pirate, Girl is agrees to marry Prince, Girl is kidnapped by Thugs and subsequently rescued by Dread Pirate who she later discovers is actually Boy, Prince-who plans to murder Girl to start war-pursues Boy and Girl, Boy and Girl get lost in Fire Swamp and must fight quicksand, fire bursts, and ROUS's to survive, Prince captures Girl, sends Boy to Pit of Despair, Boy is rescued by Thugs and revived, Boy and Thugs storm palace, kill Prince, and rescue Girl, Boy and Girl live happily ever after.

Ok, so I didn't exactly make that up on the spot, but did you see the difference? Even though the second plot summary was much longer, it was also tons more interesting. We write action into our stories to build suspense, to keep things interesting, and just because it's downright fun.

So how do we do it right? Well, according to Larry Corriea, the first rule of writing action is: If it sucks, don't do it; if it's awesome, do it. If you don't enjoy it, your readers won't either. You can get away with almost any action scene you want in a novel, no matter how ridiculous, provided you set it up right and make it as plausible as possible. In the first book of Larry Corriea's, Grimnoir Chronicles, Hard Magic, the finale of the tale as Larry puts it is, "...a teleporting magic ninja fight on top of a flaming pirate dirigible." It sounds ridiculous, but since Larry took the time to set it up right in the novel, it not only works, but is dang awesome.

Another tip Larry gives is to do your research. If you're going to have a gun fight, make sure you know how guns work, how people react around guns, how bullet wounds affect people, and what residual consequences there may be from your shootout. For example, if your characters are fighting indoors with black powder rifles, make sure to take into account the vast amount of smoke put off by a single muzzle blast. Take recoil into account; and ammunition. Unless you are writing and Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, don't give your characters bottomless magazines. People will notice.

If you don't know anything about guns, talk to someone who does. Visit a shooting range. You'll find many people more than willing to share with you their immense knowledge of firearms.  The same goes for any action skills; martial arts, para-trooping, scuba diving, midget wrestling, sword fighting, car chases, or curling. Chances are, whatever you are writing about, someone in the world is an expert at it. Google them.

Another tip is to not just write action. You have to break up your story into high points and low points, the high points being action, suspense, etc., the low points being your plot and character development. Now that's not to say you can't develop both plot and characters within and action scene, you very much can and should. But if your entire story is high points, all action all the time, then the suspense level ten you've built up will begin to feel like a suspense level three. If it's all action, then it gets boring, you'll lose your readers. 

Along those same lines, you have to vary your action scenes in order to avoid monotony. If every action scene is a gun fight, then your reader will begin to expect and even predict the outcome of your action scenes. It will become dull. Break it up. Start with a shoot out, then have a car chase, then a sword fight atop a tank, then an all out assault on an ice-fortress. Whatever your story is, make sure to vary your action.

Avoid writing a checklist in your action. "I (or he/she) did this, then I did this, the I turned and did this, then I did this..." Again, variety. "He did this, then this happened. Moving over he saw this. This happened, then this. This happened suddenly and it forced him to do this..." As Larry said, "We're not choreographers, we're writers." 

And don't worry too much about avoiding cliches. If it's cool, it's probably been done. That's ok. Remember Rule #1: If it sucks, don't do it, it's it's awesome, do it. If it's a cliche action, twist it a bit to make it your own, but as long as you set it up right and write it well, no one will care. However, if your reader expects something to happen, that might be a good time to subvert the narrative and pull the rug out from underneath them.

Finally, to use a Star Trek reference, don't be afraid to kill bridge crew. If you kill a main character early on, then it shows the reader that you're not afraid to kill anyone in the story, and that helps immensely in keeping up your tension.

Challenge Accepted:
No one responded to the writing prompt last time, but it's ok. It was kind of vague anyway. And technically I cheated. So here's a simpler one for us all to try, relating to this post: 
Write an action scene that makes curling interesting. 
Challenging, I know. Don't forget to do your research, you can't write about curling if you don't understand it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Dual Shower Heads and a Rotten Tomato.

As I said in the last post, for the writing prompt I'm going to share an old story of mine that is an example of a bad Tomato Surprise. But first...

For those who don't follow me on Twitter--for some reason--I just spent a few days in Dallas for work. The hotel was pretty nice, but the most amazing part about it, and the whole trip really, was this:

Yup, dual shower heads. The hotel called it their "Heavenly Showers" and they are right. The ability to have the top nozzle blasting you with the tight massage spray while the bottom nozzle sprays wide to cover the rest of you is indescribable. Now, perhaps I'm just unrefined, or unsophisticated, and the rest of the world has partaken and moved on to bigger and better things, but to this simple suburbian, this is indeed, "heavenly".

About the only thing that could be better would be this full wall shower from the movie, Imposter.

And now, on with the story...

I want to preface this story by saying that I am only using this as an example of what NOT to do. I wrote this story almost seven years ago, in college, and haven't made any changes since. So don't take this as an example of my writing style, I'd like to believe I've improved since then. The story is called, "Angel". It was written for a college project where we were supposed to take three unrelated items we had on us at that moment and combine them into a story. Two of my three items were a deck of cards and a ticket stub from a Metallica concert. I can't for the life of me recall the third item. Maybe you can find it in the story. Anyway, enjoy...

“Full house, suckers!” Johnny slammed the playing cards face up on the blue milk crate they were using as an ersatz table. The other three guys sitting around the crate groaned and threw in their hands. Johnny laughed wickedly and scooped up the pile of dirty and crinkled bills and coins underneath the cards. “Don’t mess…with the king,” he said adding his winnings to his already impressive pile.
            The sun was shining through a cloudless sky in mid July in Denver and the boys were all gathered outside Mile High Stadium waiting for the start of a Metallica concert. The parking lot was crammed full of cars and trucks of various sizes, stereos pounding and hibachi grills smoking away. Already outside the gates entering the stadium the line was starting to build up, even though the concert was still over five hours away.
            Johnny, a short kid of seventeen with dusty blonde hair and the scruffy hint of a mustache, didn’t have a ticket for the show, yet, but he was hoping to acquire one shortly. He was dressed in old jeans and a sleeveless Metallica T-shirt. The three guys around the table were other concert-goers who Johnny had coerced into joining him in a friendly game of Texas Hold ‘em. Now, forty-five minutes later, he had already taken almost everything these guys had. Everything, except a ticket, that is.
            “One more round guys?” he asked, looking around at each of them.
            “I don’t know man,” Tilley, the guy in the red flannel shirt said, “You’ve already taken all my money, and my watch. I don’t have anything left.”
            “Sure you do,” Johnny countered eyeing the ticket stub poking out of Tilley’s shirt pocket.
            “You want us to bet out tickets?” Tilley’s brother Squirt, asked, surprised. “No way, dude. Not worth it.”
            Johnny turned to the last guy, Buck, a rough looking kid of maybe twenty. He wore a black hoodie and ripped jeans along with a spiked bracelet and several rings of various skull shapes and sizes on both hands. His wallet was attached to his pant loop by a thick silver chain. “What do you think, Buck,” Johnny asked, “Double or nothin’?” Buck still didn’t seem convinced.
            “Tell you what,” Johnny said, itching to go to the concert, “I’ll put up everything I’ve won here, against your one ticket, all or nothing.”
            Buck looked from Johnny’s eyes to the pile of cash in front of him and back again. “All right, if you’re that desperate to lose everything you’ve worked for, you’ve got yourself one last game. Squirt, deal ‘em out.”
            Squirt shuffled the deck of cards a few times and had Johnny cut it. He then dealt two cards to Buck and Johnny each. Both boys glanced quickly and secretively at their cards and then waited for Squirt to deal the first of three cards, or the Flop. The first card was the ace of diamonds; the second, the eight of clubs; and the third was the king of hearts. Neither boy gave any indications of folding; this was all or nothing.
            “How about it, Johnny,” Buck asked with a grin on his face. “You wanna back out?”
            Johnny grunted and scratched his lower thigh. “Just deal the Turn, Squirt.”
            Squirt flipped the fourth card over, and the fifth; the eight of diamonds and the ace of spades.
            Johnny held gaze with Buck for several moments, not even looking at his cards.
            “Let’s see what you’ve got,” Buck said.
            “You first.”
            “All right…full house, eights and kings.” Buck dropped his cards on the table; the eight of spades and the king of clubs. “Looks like you’re going home just like you came: empty handed.”
            “I wouldn’t count on it,” Johnny replied softly. He set his cards down in front of Buck; the ace of hearts and the ace of clubs. “Four aces. You lose.”
            Buck’s jaw dropped open and stayed that way for several moments. “How…what…?”
            “I’ll tell James Hetfield hello for you,” Johnny taunted, and he reached across the table to retrieve his winnings, Buck’s concert ticket. As he leaned forward, something slipped from under his right thigh and fell to the asphalt below. Two cards: the two of spades and the five of hearts. All four boys looked at the cards. Johnny, knowing what they were, quickly looked up to see if the others realized it also. They did. Johnny had cheated.
            He’d learned how to cheat from his old man; one of the very few things the man had taught him in his life. That was before the he’d been hauled away to prison. Johnny had used the trick before to win lunch money at school, but it had never back fired like this.
            Time stood still as the other three boys looked up at Johnny. Ever-so-slowly their expressions turned from confusion to outrage. Knowing his time was up, Johnny grabbed the ticket from the table in front of Buck with his right hand; with his left he grabbed as much cash from his winnings pile as his first would hold.
            Then he ran.
            He ran as fast as his short legs would carry him, weaving in and out of various crowds of people ducking behind cars and jumping over hibachis. The three boys stayed right on his tail. He wanted to get to the front gate and use the ticket so that Buck couldn’t follow him in. Once inside he could lose the other boys or pay them off. But the line was huge and moving about as fast as an old woman racing a puddle of molasses. Seeing that that was no good, Johnny headed out of the parking lot, leading his pursuers into the alleyways of downtown Denver.
            Street after street, alley after alley he ran, dumping trash cans in his wake, hopping fences in vain. The boys stayed right with him. Finally, after fifteen minutes of running, his adrenaline gave out. He slowed just enough so that Squirt managed to grab him by the shoulder and pull him to the ground in an alley behind an Italian restaurant. They both landed with a grunt and skidded several feet. By the time Johnny got up, the other two were on him and took him down again.
            This is how I met Johnny. I was sitting farther back in that alley, minding my own business—and I would have remained minding my own business—but when I saw those three boys begin to beat the life out of poor Johnny I just couldn’t sit back and watch. I waited until all three boys were distracted by the pounding of their fists into Johnny’s crumpled form; then I jumped them.
            I’m not much of a fighter, never have been, so I fought the only way I knew how: I scratched and bit and screamed and howled like any good girl would. I must have really startled them because they all turned tail and ran. I howled at them again, but let them go.
            Walking back over to Johnny, I found him still crumpled up in the fetal position. He had a gash on his forehead that was bleeding pretty badly and I cleaned him up as best I could. After a minute he uncurled, sat up, and looked at me.
            “Thank you,” he said softly. “I don’t know why you would help me; you don’t even know me. But thank you.”
            I didn’t reply; no words were necessary. I looked at him caringly, wondering if he needed anything else. He seemed to read my mind because he said, “I could sure use something to eat.”
            I didn’t have any money, and the boys had taken all of Johnny’s, including Buck’s ticket. I didn’t even have a home at the time, hadn’t for several months. I had been living on the street. But, knowing that Johnny needed something to eat, I went over to the trash can by the back door of the restaurant and tipped it on its side. It’s kind of gross, but when you live on the street, you take whatever you can get.
            I sifted through the garbage hoping to find something still in a carryout box. Suddenly, the back door of the restaurant was flung open and out stepped a massive man with dark skin, a black mustache and a gut the size of a wrecking ball. He wore a stained white apron and one of those silly floppy chef’s hats. He took one look at me and started yelling.
            “You again!? I told you to stay away from here, you tramp!” Before I could react, he had come forward and grabbed me by the neck. His fingers dug into my skin and I whimpered in pain. “Now I’m gonna have to teach you a lesson,” the chef said pulling my face close to his. Then he hit me; hard. He lifted me almost into the air and hit me again. Weak from lack of food, I landed on all fours and tried to scramble away, but the chef wasted no time in kicking me in the ribcage. I yelped out in pain and landed on my side. He was about to kick me again, but Johnny was up from his place on the ground in a flash. I had saved his life, now he was returning the favor.
            “You leave her alone!” he screamed charging the chef. Before the chef knew what was happening, Johnny cold-clocked him right across the chin. The chef spun around backwards and collapsed like a sack of potatoes into the pile of spilt trash.
            Then Johnny and I ran.
            We ran as far away as we could, not stopping for anything. After a good solid fifteen minutes, we finally collapsed in a park. It was dusk by then and the park was mostly empty. For a long time neither of us said anything, we just lay there gasping for breath.
Then, between breaths, Johnny said, “We make…a pretty good…team…you and me. We…should be…friends.” Then he seemed to notice me for the first time. Thin, scrawny, my ribs were poking out and my hair hadn’t been combed in months. I was a sad sight.
            “Ain’t you got any home?” he asked sitting up. I didn’t respond, I was still panting for breath. I just glared at him. I would think the answer to that was obvious.
            “Well, maybe you could come stay with me? Mom would be cool with it, I’m sure.” Then he stopped as if something had just occurred to him. He laughed softly and said, “Listen to me, I don’t even know your name…And yet, you’re like…you’re like my guardian angel. Angel, yeah, that’s a good name. I’ll call you Angel.”
            I gazed at him lovingly. We had saved each other that night, two wretches from the inner city, and a bond had formed. I don’t know, maybe it was fate. Maybe I am his guardian angel. I just stared at him.
            “I love you, Angel,” he said. Then he reached out and scratched me behind the ear. “You’re a good dog.”

Ok, ignoring the fact that, because of the narrator, the story suddenly switches from third person to first person narrative, and that there is no real way the narrator could have known so much about the poker game if she'd been in the alley whole time--the Tomato Surprise comes in the very last line of dialogue, when the big reveal is that our narrator, Angel, is actually a dog.

When I wrote this, I thought I was quite clever. If you reread the second half of the story, once we get that Angel is telling the story, you'll see that I purposely included many hints that Angel was a dog. The way she scratched, bit, and howled like "any good girl would". I wanted the reader to reach the reveal and go, "Whoa", and then look back at the story and see that it was obvious from the start.

Sadly, but understandably, my instructor hated it. In her review she basically stated that she'd been very intrigued by the little street urchin who would fight to help this stranger, and felt cheated when the last line of the story turned it from a touching tale to a "one line joke".

When I read the review, I was confused because I hadn't intended the story as a joke, only as a play on reader expectation. But, looking back at it now, I can easily see how jarring it is to become enamored with the characters in this story, only to have the rug pulled out from you at the very end.

The bottom line is, if you're going to have a twist, or unexpected reveal at the end of your story, be certain it is something that will enhance the story not cheapen it, and is something your reader will appreciate rather than disdain.

Your comments are welcome. About the story, not the writing, ;P

Monday, February 20, 2012

Short Stories and Tomato Surprises

Well, I've decided that since my work is currently focused on short stories in my continuing effort to win a place in the coveted Writers of the Future contest, short stories would be a good place to start my blog on writing. Not to mention the fact that I have yet to actually finish a novel...

The notes for this entry come from the panel "How to Write a Good Short Story", from LTUE 2012. The panelists for this panel were, Eric James Stone, Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury, Heather Frost, Suzanne Vincent, and Dan Willis. Please visit their sites if you haven't already as they are each a vault of knowledge and wisdom.

Ok, so how do you write a good short story? Let's first look at what makes a short story good, or interesting. Why do we read short fiction? Is it simply that in our ever-increasingly hectic lives fiction that can be read in one sitting is all we have time for? Or is short fiction all that our shortened attention spans are interested in? Although I do think there's some truth to these ideas, they're not the whole truth.

One thing I personally love about short fiction is the immediate setup and payoff. A novel is a serious investment of time and energy. Most people don't read a novel in a day or even a week. It takes time to introduce the characters, to develop a relationship between them and the reader, to develop the setting and plot surrounding the characters, and to show those characters' emotional and sometimes physical growth throughout the story. And, after all this, the reader expects the story to have a satisfying conclusion.

In short fiction, the author can sort of cheat. There are many short cuts that can be taken to skip some of the time consuming events I just listed. One of the ideas presented by the panel was the idea of Unity. Unity in a short story is the concept of One; one character, one problem, one setting, and perhaps even one effort. To expound on these:
  •  One Character doesn't necessarily mean only one character in the story, but only one Point of View. In short fiction you barely have enough time to get to know one character, let alone several. It's best to stay focused on one person's thoughts and actions. If you split story time between characters it can get confusing and also make your characters shallow.
  • One Problem could also be listed as One Plot. If you have your character(s) facing too many problems or subplots, it will not only make your story too long, but also will make it more challenging to reach a complete and satisfying conclusion.
  • One Setting, like Character, doesn't mean only having the story in one room of a house, or even one town or city. You can visit different places in your story, but remember that the more complex you make your setting, or any of these points, the longer your story will be and the harder it becomes to close it all up satisfactorily. Typically my short stories have been focused within the personal bubble, as it were, of the main character. (I couldn't find an appropriate term for "personal bubble", but it is essentially the idea that everyone lives and works within so many miles of their home and rarely venture out from it. If anyone knows a term for that area, please let me know.) In most of my short fiction, the setting is within the characters' job, home city, or family. But that doesn't necessarily limit the locations. In one story, the setting is a college campus, with a few different dorms and offices used. In another, centered around a space race, the setting is within the protagonist's space ship. The setting may cover lightyears of travel, but still only takes place within one setting, the ship.
  • One Effort for the most part means forgoing try/fail cycles. If you're unsure of what this is, it's the idea that, in order to build tension in the story, your protagonist(s) must try to solve the problem and fail at least a few times. Only when it seems like there is no other way for them to accomplish their goals, and then they do, is the ending as powerful as you want. In short fiction there often is not time for try/fail cycles, or perhaps only one. Unlike in a novel, a short story protagonist can solve the problem on the first try, provided the story is setup properly and maintains its interest.
In short fiction you can often skip essential elements of a novel such as backstory. (This can be done in long form as well, but is more difficult and more suited to short works.) In short form you can simply start at the climax of your story and leave the backstory to the imagination of the reader. In fact, this is one of the more provocative ways to tell a short story. Don't get caught up trying to fill the reader in on everything that has happened to lead the protagonist to this point. Simply provide the essential details, and leave the rest for the reader to dream up on their own. This creates a certain collaboration between author and reader and can make your story more powerful.

Some tips on writing short stories well:
  • Enter scenes late and leave early. This means to start the scene at the exact moment of decisive action for the protagonist, and end the scene before the calm settles in.
  • Trust your reader to fill in details you don't supply. We read to feed our imaginations, set the reader free as often as you can.
  • Cut down on the number of scenes, characters, and subplots.
  • Reduce the complexity of the main plot.
  • Tell, don't Show, SOME of the story. This goes against everything we are taught as writers to Show, don't Tell the story. But in short fiction sometimes you have to just info dump the important parts so you can get on with the current scene. But, be as concise as possible in this. Remember, in a short story every word has to count. As Orson Scott Card said, everything in a story has to fight for the right to be there. If it doesn't have the right, it is unimportant and uninteresting, cut it.
  • Finally, start the story closer to the end and just fill in backstory. Or, as we have already discussed, leave the backstory to the reader unless it plays an important role in the plot.
During the panel the question was asked, How do you know when to begin and end your story?
Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury explained one way to know is to use Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. Quotient. This is a list of four categories that are present in every story. Most of the time, one of the four dominates the story, but all four are always present. They are:
  • Milieu - This is the setting of the story; location, family, the world, weather, etc. A Milieu driven story is one where the setting is the main problem or antagonist to the characters. An example of this is Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves/Fern Gully/Avatar. Yes, these are all essentially the same story. A Milieu driven story begins when the protagonist becomes involved in the setting and ends when they either find a way home or choose to stay and join the setting.
  • Idea - This is the idea of the story. An Idea driven story is one where a question is presented and the characters must figure out the answer or solution to that idea. Most mystery stories are Idea stories. An example of an Idea driven story would be The Game. What is the Game? Is it really a game, or a life and death con? The Idea story begins when the question or idea is presented and ends when it is answered or solved.
  • Character - This is the character(s) of the story. A Character driven story is one where the protagonist is challenged in some way and must find a way to grow and overcome his/her personal challenges. Rudy is a good example of a character story as is the Lion King. The Character story begins when the character either decides he/she wants to change, or is changed by their circumstances and ends when they either make the change or accept it.
  • Event - This is a change in the status quo of either the world or the character's life and must be righted. Most disaster stories such as 2012 or Armageddon are Event stories, as are epic adventures like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. The Event story begins when there is a change in the status quo and the main character decides to get involved and ends when either the status quo is returned, or a new status quo is established, or in some cases, when the characters fail.
As I said, all of these things are found in every story to some extent. But most stories carry one in the forefront that drives the plot, while the others are simply there to flesh out the story. Especially in short fiction you will have one of these four things driving the story while the others may barely be touched upon. This a good way to keep your story focused. Decide what kind of story you are telling and make sure to keep the story centered on that.

The last thing I want to discuss about is what to avoid when writing short stories. I've already discussed things like keep it short and simple. Don't let your plot get too complex, don't let your characters run away with (or from) the story. Keep it focused on the type of story you want to tell. Also, avoid what is known as Tomato Surprises. No, this is not a recipe with eggs, milk, and breadcrumbs (though if you Google it that is mostly what you will get). A Tomato Surprise is withholding some vital detail from the reader that, if it had been revealed at the beginning of the story, would take most, if not all, of the tension out of the story. It is used often to pull the rug out from under the reader and turn the entire story into a one-line joke. 

Not to say that the Tomato Surprise can't be done well; it's just very difficult. Two movies that come to mind where this is used effectively are The Book of Eli and The Sixth Sense. Both stories have a reveal at the very end that completely changes the meaning of the story. Unfortunately, most of the time when authors try this trick it does little more than confuse, disappoint, and upset the reader who feels deceived rather than satisfied by the twist. 

That's about all I have to say on the subject of short stories at this point. I think the most important thing I've learned about writing short fiction is that you have to start with the interesting stuff. With novels, you typically have one to two chapters to engage the reader. In short fiction you only get one to two paragraphs. A short story has to have a hook. Even if it means starting in the action and flashing back occasionally to set it up, start with the hook and work your way from there.  

I'm still toying with the idea of including a writing prompt at the end of each post, and then following it up with my own works based on that writing prompt, but with this subject, the writing prompt seems pretty straight forward: Write a Good Short Story. And since that is vague and well, stupid, I think instead I'm going to post an old story of mine written in college as a bad example of a Tomato Surprise. I guess if you want, your writing prompt could be: Write a Good Tomato Surprise Story. 

Feel free to share your writing prompt results with me, either by emailing it to me at, or you can post it in the comments on this blog. I look forward to whatever you come up with. Also, as this is my first blog ever, feel free to bombard me with ideas and suggestions on how to improve this blog or my posts.

That's the end of my first blog. Until next time, write something.

Thus it begins...

Here begins my first foray into the blogosphere...

As an aspiring author, I have decided the best way to get into the blogging scene is to write about what I am striving to learn the most of right now, which is writing. I have been writing semi-seriously to seriously for about six years now, since I graduated college. At first it was a slow process as I didn't devote myself enough to the art and really didn't try to learn about the craft anymore than I had learned in school . I was writing stories sure, and unlike many early aspiring writers, I was submitting my work, mostly to the Writers of the Future Contest. Sadly the results were no good, and understandably so as I was making many mistakes in my stories that young writers tend toward.

In 2009--after failing to win WotF for the eighth or tenth time--I realized that in order to improve my writing I needed to get more active in the writing community. I began attending the two major writing conferences in Utah; Life, The Universe, and Everything, hosted yearly by Brigham Young University, and CONduit, held locally in downtown Salt Lake City.

From both of these sources, after three years of attendance, I have gathered a wealth of knowledge on everything writing related. From story structure, to character development, to plots and subplots, to ePublishing and traditional publishing, to agents and editors, I have learned a great deal about the craft. And it is that knowledge that I intend to share through this blog. I have notebooks full of notes and handouts taken from these events that have helped me in my own writing and I hope to be able to pass on what I have learned and, hopefully, we can all learn more in the process.

At this point I intend to share thoughts and notes on a different topic for writing each week. I'm toying with the idea of ending each post with a writing prompt and following up the next post with my own results of the writing prompt, so readers can see the ideas in action. We'll see how things progress.

I want to thank everyone for taking the time to read this blog and hope that we can all learn something from the pages and pages of frantically scribbled notes I have stored away.