Author Archives: funny

What’s a Mr.-and-Mrs.? If you’d asked me… *FREE READ*

Just for you: a chapter from a book in progress. You can buy a copy of the whole book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. See the collected chapters so far, FREE online at If You’d Asked Me… For details, visit our home page or send a request through our Contact form.

30

Why is there no combined abbreviation for Mr. & Mrs.?

Because even though they’re married, they’re still two individuals?

Who comes up with these questions?

How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal

Derailed from the Ella’s Story project!. I’m afraid this week’s episode  ain’t a-goin’ online tomorrow (Monday), as scheduled. That would be because I’ve spent the last ten days or so working on a new book proposal — one to be sent out to real publishing houses, one after another, until someone folds and buys the thing. 😀

First part of next week, I’m sending this thing to a prominent Canadian university press, mostly because the subject matter (which shall remain unnamed until I have a contract) has had more press and regulatory attention in Canada than in the U.S.

Writing a nonfiction proposal is a project. And since you don’t do this every day for a living, it’s usually a gestalt project: interrupted every time you turn around by more immediate concerns. Kids, jobs, spouses, barking dogs, blog posts… Hereabouts, paying work has been coming in over the transom — the Chinese mathematicians do not spend any time sitting on their hands! — so of course their projects take precedence over a speculative endeavor. Even though I expect this speculative endeavor to turn a few shekels. Eventually.

But now is more immediate, by far, than eventually.

So here’s a plan: Not having a chapter of idle fiction to post, why don’t we talk about how to write a nonfiction book proposal…

Probably we should start with why one would do such a thing.

Here’s my line of reasoning for this book:

Amazon is all well and good for a bookoid that you don’t think is very important (the Fire-Rider series, for example, or yet another diet/cookbook, or a strange fictional ramble that doesn’t fit into any standard genre but surely isn’t literary fiction either…). But if you have something you think people will buy, or a subject you think is important enough to bring to a wide audience (not just your friends, relatives, and those folks on Fiverr you paid to write reviews), you’re best off to bring it out through a real publishing house: a commercial publisher or a university press.

Advantages:

  1. Publishing houses have marketing departments. No, they’re usually not the high-octane variety, but they at least give you a leg up.
  2. Publishing houses have copyeditors. You don’t have to pay those copyeditors to clean up your manuscript and make it fit Chicago style.
  3. Publishing houses have book designers and page layout artists.
  4. Publishing houses have acquisitions editors and editorial committees and marketing committees. Yes: the dreaded gate-keepers. When you can get past those gate-keepers, you signal to interested parties that you have a half-way decent product. Maybe even a salable product.
  5. Publishing houses have advertising budgets. They also have catalogues and websites that feature your book — free of charge to you.
  6. Book reviewers at major publications — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times,  the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and that ilk — will not give your self-published tome a second look. Nay, not even a first look. To get real book reviews in real markets that reach real readers who are likely to buy your book, you need to be published through a publishing house with a real gate-keeper. And that doesn’t include CreateSpace.
  7. Libraries and bookstores will pick up your book from a real publisher without you having to jump through hoops to make that happen.
  8. Real publishers will pay you an advance against royalties. You don’t have to return that advance if your book doesn’t sell enough to earn that much for the publisher (they may not love you, in that case…but at least you get paid something for the work you put in to writing the book).
  9. Real publishers don’t jack you around, trying to get you to give your book away for free in their profit-making “lending” program.

Okay, so once you’ve decided you want to get serious about publishing and moving your writing career a notch above the outsider level, you need to write a winning proposal.

The proposal is your sales pitch. It’s the tool you use to persuade the staff of a publishing house that you have a book idea that fits the company’s mission and that they can market successfully.

So, a proposal is a pretty standard document — though you have to write with some flair and have a winning idea to make it fly. Here’s what’s in a proposal:

  1. Cover letter to the acquisitions editor. (Find this person’s name at the publisher’s website or from a current edition of Literary Marketplace.) Give your book’s working title and explain what the book is about and why you think their house is the appropriate publisher for it.
  2. An overview of the book
  3. A discussion of why you’re writing it.
  4. Explanation of how your book compares to others in the field. (It’s OK if there are other books on the subject: sometimes the existence of similar books even helps to sell yours by showing there’s a market for it.
  5. Description of the intended audience. Who do you think will buy this book, and why. If there’s a special market segment — such as textbooks, for example — say so and explain why the book fits into that segment.
  6. Statement of the anticipated length of the final manuscript.
  7. Description of the number and nature of any graphics (tables, illustrations, figures)
  8. Explanation of your qualifications for undertaking the project.
  9. A table of contents: a list of chapter titles.
  10. A chapter outline: bulleted outline or narrative description for each chapter.
  11. Your book’s introduction and one to three completed chapters.

None of these things is very hard. But they can be time-consuming. You shouldn’t let yourself get in a big hurry to do them: leave time to let it sit, come back to it, and revise.

Like I say: It’s a project.

The Complete Writer: Dialogue

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

[26]

Dialogue

Of late in my editorial role, I’ve been reading a lot of dialogue in manuscript. Some would-be famous novelists are better at it than others. Ditto some published novelists.

Recently two things have struck me about the products of people who are developing skill in writing conversation: they either get so baroque with the attributions as to become unintentionally silly (“Let’s go,” said Tom swiftly . . . or better yet, “Let’s go!” Tom ejaculated), or they go full throttle in the other direction with no attributions (“dialogue tags”) in page after page of back and forth. This, by the way, is called stichomythia: extended dialogue with no they saids.

Dialogue serves several purposes in fiction. It fills in backstory. It helps to characterize the story’s people. It slows down action. It may deliver the occasional surprise. Whenever you use dialogue, you should use it to accomplish something, not throw it in there because you think every work of fiction must have dialogue.

Dialogue does not exist in a vacuum.

People think things while they’re talking. If the scene is told from a single character’s point of view, the writer will share only that character’s train of thought. But everyone’s outwardly visible activities can be shown, allowing us to surmise what they might be thinking. People get up and move around. They sigh. They smile. They frown. They raise an eyebrow. They look puzzled or quizzical. They observe other speakers in the scene. They become momentarily distracted. They indulge an idiosyncrasy. You name it, they do it.

In narrating dialogue, then, describe the whole action, not just the motion of the mouths and the vocal cords.

Here’s a dialogue-heavy passage. Note the parts that are not dialogue but that complement or elucidate it:

Kay and Fallon walked back toward their camps. They were joined by Devey Mayr of Metet, a tough A’oan who, though Kaybrel thought he looked too young to sit a horse, had led his party of fifty men straight through Roksan’s main gate in the minutes after the barriers fell. Devey affected a little strut that made him attractive to women, and sometimes made other men wonder what he was trying to prove.

“So you think the pickings are pretty slim on the coast?” he asked Kay.

“I know they are,” Kay replied. “Well, actually—they say the people in the far south are better off. But about ten years ago Hef of Aber’—you remember him, Fal? He died at the battle of Pakta.”

“Vaguely,” Fal said.

Of course, Kay thought. Fal would have been about twelve or fourteen at the time. “Hef and I crossed the Wammets and reached the coast about as far north as Bose. We damn near starved out there. Didn’t find many people—a few ruins poking out of old silt flats, nobody living in ’em. They don’t have much food, and truly, we didn’t see any decent stock as far as we went. We made it down into Galifone, to a place the locals called Hamun Bay. The ocean is something to see, but it’s not worth driving a whole army over a mountain range.”

“No farms?”

“A few. Not many. Doesn’t rain there much. Most of the seacoast is desert. We ended up having to live off the land most of the way—and believe me, there’s not enough to support twelve hundred men.”

Devey looked disappointed. “I’d like to see that ocean,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s almost worth the trip,” Kaybrel agreed. “But go there on your own. No point in taking a big party. Just go check it out.”

“Maybe next summer,” Devey said. “I’d have to get leave from Bose. And Lhored, I expect.”

“You’ve done your job,” said Fal. “They won’t mind.”

“Wonder if he’d let me and a couple of my guys run over there now. We could probably get ourselves back to A’o before first snowfall.”

Kay laughed. “I wouldn’t, if I were him.”

“Somebody’d have to take my men while we were gone. How’s about you, Fal?”

“Not likely!” Fallon countered. “I’ve got enough chuckleheads to ride herd on—I don’t need more trouble.”

Devey smiled and scratched absently at a half-healed rash on his arm.

“Wait till next summer,” Kaybrel said. “If I come into the field, I’ll take your men with mine.”

“What ‘if’? You planning to stay home next year?”

“Maybe.”

“We need you out here.”

“Well, I’m not so young any more, Devey. Three or four months in the bush gets a little tired, you know, after a while.”

Devey considered this for a moment but couldn’t let it rest. “You’re no older than the brez,” he remarked.

“I’m four years older than Lhored,” Kaybrel said. “Our mothers were the same age. We were both first-born.”

“Lhored is still going strong,” Fallon said.

“Yes. But his time is coming to an end. Just seven more years.”

“Seven springs?”

“Six.”

“Long enough,” said Devey. “You must be forty-two, then?”

“Add a year or three,” Kaybrel suggested.

Fallon rarely contemplated the possibility that his friend was past the middle of his life. Kaybrel always struck him as vigorous, and Fallon thought of him as somehow near his own age. In truth, Kaybrel had come to the time when six and a half years looks hardly more than a day in the future. To Fallon and Devey, it still seemed a long time.

They passed in the direction of the A’oan campsites. A round, red-headed lad emerged from that crowd, waved, and strode over to Devey.

“Hey,” he said. Devey gave him a rough hug and a playful shove. “Duarto and Guel’ say you brought us a new chacho,” he said to Kay.

“That’s so, Porfi,” Kay replied.

The remark that “Devey affected a little strut . . . ” is what literary journalist Tom Wolfe used to call a “lifestyle marker”: habits or personal accouterments that reveal, sometimes deliberately but often unconsciously, some cast of mind or statement about oneself.

Similarly, “that made him attractive to women” and “made other men wonder what he was trying to prove” are elements of description that serve to help characterize Devey. Dialogue, like description, lends itself to lifestyle markers. The way people speak and behave while they’re talking often says as much about them or about what they’re thinking as what they say explicitly.

Within the book’s context, Devey is an adventurer; Kay is a seasoned warrior who also has passed some time as a traveler and adventurer; Fallon is Kay’s follower, for whom Kay serves as a mentor. Both Fallon and Devey are younger men; Kay is old enough to have grown tired of war-making. These characteristics are introduced or developed in the passage of dialogue, which appears near the top of chapter 1.

Fal would have been about twelve or fourteen at the time.

“I’m four years older than Lhored,” Kaybrel said.

Kaybrel had come to the time when six and a half years looks hardly more than a day in the future.

Dialogue doesn’t stand on its own. Let it articulate with the rest of the story, and work in narrative and description to help accomplish that.

Have You Ever Walked Out on a Doctor? If You’d Asked Me *FREE READ*

Just for you: a chapter from a book in progress. You can buy a copy of the whole book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. See the collected chapters so far, FREE online at If You’d Asked Me… For details, visit our home page or send a request through our Contact form.

29.

Have you ever walked out of a doctor’s office because the doctor was being disrespectful to you?

Sure enough. This happened about four decades ago. Think we live in a dystopia today? {chortle!} You should’ve been a woman in the early 1970s. 😀

Most of the time a woman of my generation expected a certain amount of condescension from doctors, and the assumptions that a) the female patient was, by her nature, not too bright and b) her time was worth nothing.

I’d gone to a gynecologist’s office (interestingly, back in the Day gynecologists were the worst in this regard) for a routine exam. Like all gynecologists at the time, this guy could make you sit in the waiting room until the cows came home — that was to be expected, so you would bring a book or a portable job-related project to work on.

This particular day, they called me into the back office, parked me in an examination room, told me to take off my clothes, don a tissue-paper robe, and assume the position. The room was COLD. Sitting there in a paper gown was uncomfortable, but then the whole procedure is uncomfortable, so a little icy air-conditioning didn’t matter much.

The minutes ticked by. And ticked by. And ticked by. And ticked by. And ticked… About a half-hour or 45 minutes later, I realized it was the lunch hour and most of the staff had left the office. I could hear the doctor and those still at the desk yakking and joking around. Possibly they had forgotten me. Or possibly they simply thought my time was worth nothing and so they could leave me sitting there until they felt moved to get around to proceeding with our (now VERY late) appointment.

I got up. Tossed the gown on the table. Put on my clothing. And walked out. Not one person even noticed me walking out of the office!

That, IMHO, is a variety of disrespect. And indeed it was: the point is that in those days a woman’s time had exactly zero value. So it was OK to waste it by leaving her sitting in an examination room until after you finished eating your lunch and socializing with your coworkers.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 28

Ella’s Story follows people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story

28

It took her two days to decide to do it.

She knew she was going to do it. Sooner or later. But deciding to do it was different from knowing she would do it.

So beautiful, he was. She thought she loved him. No: she knew she loved him. But…did he love her?

Did he love her? If he loved her, would he put her at the kind of risk they both ran? One slip, just one slip and they both would be walking dead. Or maybe only she would be. If she alone were caught massaging the books, would she give him away?

He was a brother in the bond of the Syndicate. She was bound to him, and he to her, by the oath. But…

Was she?

Where was he going when he journeyed down the tunnel to Takrat every few days? Far as she could see, there wasn’t any business that should call him to the mine offices every time he turned around. Except, perhaps, Haidar? That glance the woman had shot him when he introduced them…the memory didn’t want to leave her mind. It nagged when someone would ask him about Haidar and he would change the subject, direct the conversation elsewhere.

Who else could be helping him to disappear offloaded cargo?

Anyone, she supposed. Any number of people. Was Haidar one of them? The one?

What if Lohkeh was taking advantage of her? What if Lohkeh and Haidar were taking advantage of her?

The thought had crossed her mind more than once.

What if? Would the oath still apply?

Would it apply to her and not to him? Why?

Sequestered inside the den-like cubbyhole of her enclosed bunk, the drapes pulled shut and snapped closed, she studied the printed ndata by the night-lights’ glow. If there was a pattern to it, the pattern was vague, at best. She couldn’t see any predictable variation. Probably, she thought, that was deliberate. Where was the stuff going? She had no idea. To the planet’s surface? If so, why offload it on Zaitaf? They must be transferring it to some outbound freighter. Or freighters. Going where?

What would Bhodil think if he saw this stuff? He had spent month after month teaching her to read and write Varn and helping her convert the kind of math Samdis used for bookkeeping into the variety used in Ethra Port. He lifted her out of the laundry room so she could do…this?

He would, she guessed, be furious. The prospect made her wince.

Maybe she should keep quiet about it. Just let Lohkeh go on exploiting her. Maybe they would never be discovered.

“Never” was forever. How likely was it that they could keep the con going forever?

Not very, she thought.

Could she ask to be transferred? Maybe…the low gravity gave her headaches. Sure.

Not a chance.

She heard the door on the corridor’s south end slide open: Vighdi, making her last round of the day. Quick, she shoved the the papers under a pillow and stretched out on the bed.

Slender gray-brown fingers undid a couple of the curtain snaps, and yes: Vighdi peeked in.

“Lights out, sister,” she said. Her tone was friendly but firm.

“Yes’m.” Ella reached for a switch, then paused.

“Boss?”

Vighdi, already moving on:. “Yes?”

“Could we talk tomorrow? Just us?”

“I expect.” Vighdi lowered her voice. “When?”

“Early?”

“After breakfast?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll see you then.” She smiled. “Sleep tight.”

Sure.

In the dark, Ella slipped the papers from beneath the pillow and shoved them between the mattress and the smooth metal wall, then lay back, pulled the blanket up, and sighed.

Oh, gods!

The Complete Writer: Writing Fiction *FREE READ*

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Chapter 25. Where Do Your
Characters Come From?

Athena springs full-fledged from the head of Zeus

Who are the people in your fiction? Where did they come from? Come to think of it, do you even know how you dreamed them up?

I have to admit that sometimes I have no idea. Fire-Rider, the first of several tales of an invented world in the far, far future, teems with characters who bear no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever met or even read about. Homicidal warlords and foot soldiers, powerful ruling women and their sister wives, a boy prostitute and a prosperous madam, a tribe of young refugees unhomed by ceaseless wars, a woman hunter and trapper, the foreman of a vast ranch-like estate, a healer who’s also a warlord, a wandering teacher and bard . . . whence did these people arise?

Well, out of the writer’s mind, obviously. Often I think that each character is a fragment of the writer’s consciousness, some part of her or his own personality in some way hidden until it pops out, full blown from the head of Zeus, and materializes in the form of a new (albeit imagined) human being.

Other times I think, “That is just not possible!” These people do things I have no experience with; they know things and say things that I could never know or say. I have to do hours of research to envision some kind of understanding of their world, their lives, and their loves.

Is there ever a real-life model for such characters?

Occasionally. Just now I’m writing a chapter in the first-person voice of a character who’s a kind of public intellectual, to the extent possible in a time when almost no one can read or write. He’s a wandering teacher and bard. After Hapa Cottrite coalesced in my imagination, I realized that he resembles one of my editorial clients, an international banking CEO and long-time ex-pat with a sharp mind, broad curiosity, and zest for living among foreign peoples. Once that dawned on me, I began to model Cottrite explicitly after this man, to the extent that their moods, outlook, and even physical appearance are similar.

But most times, there’s no visible connection between a character in one of my tales and a real-world human being. They don’t resemble anyone I know, because no one I know lives in a reimagined analog of the European Middle Ages amalgamated with life in medieval Asia.

William the Conqueror and pals

Probably they spring from what I know of life in the medieval period and of the world-view of the people who inhabited that time.

That’s a fair amount: before I first engaged the doctorate in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean English literature and history, I wanted to specialize in the medieval period. So, I took quite a few upper-division and graduate courses in medieval literature (both British and continental works, because my undergraduate major was French). And I still edit scholarly works of medieval history.

Some pretty heady stuff went on during those times. And it was weird. If you or I could magically step through a time warp and come out in 1250, we would feel like we’d landed on another planet. That’s how different the people were from us.

So I suppose you could say the Fire-Rider characters are sort of “modeled” on what I happen to know of a typical medieval warlord, informed to some extent by what I’ve learned about Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan’s time. That’s pretty broad. And since no two of these characters are the same, it’s hard to say where their individual personalities came from.

The women’s roles, however, are completely re-imagined and warped. Never in human history have women, aristocratic or otherwise, done what Fire-Rider’s women do. In their cases, I’ve had to invent, invent, and re-invent. Even to imagine what they look like, to say nothing of what they get up to, requires a great deal of focused, concentrated work.

Maybe we could say, then, that our characters come out of our experience, learned and observed, and out of our invention, purely imagined.

Or maybe they spring full-formed from the head of Zeus?

Kaybrel FireRider

Kaybrel FireRider, Kubna of Moor Lek

Why Is It Illegal to Not Wear a Seatbelt? If You’d Asked Me *FREE READ*

Just for you: a chapter from a book in progress. You can buy a copy of the whole book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. See the collected chapters so far, FREE online at If You’d Asked Me… For details, visit our home page or send a request through our Contact form.

28.

Why is it illegal to not wear your seatbelt? The only person it could endanger is yourself.

Because the rest of us end up having to foot the bill for someone who fails to wear a seatbelt.

We all pay the salaries of the police officers and firefighters who have to extricate you from the wreck that turned you into hamburger. We all pay car insurance and health insurance premiums to companies that cover the your unnecessary medical bills, which wouldn’t have been incurred if you’d bothered to put your seatbelt on. We pay the salaries of the judges who have to adjudicate at trials over the liability for the accidents in which you were severely injured.

Nope. You’re not the only one who is endangered when you drive around without a seatbelt.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 27

Ella’s Story follows people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story

27

It bothered her, what her boss said. Proud of her? Wouldn’t she be thrilled to learn what Ella had gotten up to with Lohkeh.

They had been getting up, all right: to more and more. That very afternoon, not two hours after she’d met with Vighdi, he showed up at her desk with a new set of “corrections” to enter in the lading records of the freighter that had just docked at Ethra Port. Part of the cargo was bound for Takrai – but not that much.

“How did your pow-wow with the boss go?” he asked.

“All right.” She shrugged. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Nothing ever is, around here,” he remarked.

“She did say she’s going to send Behji down to the planet to get trained for some new job they want her to do. I’ll have to bring up the new person to take her place.”

“That so?” He paused, appearing to consider. Then he said, “I know a guy who could do that job.”

The thought flickered like distant lightning on the horizon of her conscious. Oh, good! Let’s park someone in here to keep an extra eye on me! She tried to push it out, but it wouldn’t go.

“I expect she has someone in mind,” she offered.

“Probably. She’ll change her mind when she talks to this guy, though.” He winked, sexy and wily at once, and sauntered off.

Haidar had said Lohkeh was still in the life. “In”? The man personified the life. She even wondered if some Syndicate general had found a way to get him arrested, run through the cooker, and sent specifically to this place – just so he could do what he did best: steal. Embezzle, filch, swipe, and liberate.

He had drawn her back into the life, too.

Her first couple of years in service at Ethra had felt, ironically, like some kind of escape. She’d been bound into slavery, true; yet in the process she sprang free of the life. And that, she’d found, was like breathing clean air.

Which, she supposed, was what breathing amounted to here on Zaitaf. Filtered, recyled air. But clean. Very clean.

Hiding Lohke’s purloinments made her feel like she was back in the filthy air and daily dirt of the life on Samdela.

What if they got caught?

They weren’t going to get caught. Of course not. But if they did? She and Lohkeh would be summarily executed: deported down to the surface and infused with a fast-acting poison. Few, if any, questions would be asked. There would be no defense. Because there was nothing that could be defended.

But what about Vighdi? What would happen to Vighdi if they got caught?

They were not going to get caught.

But if they did…?

If they did, Vighdi would get some blame for it, so Ella figured. Vighdi’s job was to help oversee the Company’s slaves, to see that they did their jobs, got straight, and stayed straight. She was, after all, about to certify that Ella had spent the past year doing admirable work.

What would happen to Vighdi. If they got caught…

Would the blacksuits, the law, think Vighdi was in on the con? That she was abetting the theft of some tens of thousands of bars worth of rerouted goods?

How could she prove that she wasn’t… It would be her word and maybe Ella’s against Lohkeh’s. And Haidar’s, Ella imagined. There would be no way to prove Vighdi wasn’t complicit. Or at least selectively blind.

Even if she could persuade the authorities that she didn’t know what was going on, that would be held against her, too: ignorance a sign of incompetence.

Vighdi had never shown her anything but kindness. Even when she was being strict with Ella, even when her patience may have worn thin, whatever she asked, demanded, or ordered ultimately seemed to drift more toward the good than…otherwise.

How then, Ella wondered, was she, Ella, not returning the favor?

She turned on a printer and set it to emit several pages of figures. Working quickly – for she was a fast and efficient worker – she selected a page apiece from each of six recent lading books. She got up and ambled over to the refreshment bar. There she refilled her glass mug with hot kekel tea, one of her favorites. She paused to visit with Hanya, asking how the day was going, chatting about the previous evening’s dance competition at the rec hall. Picked up the printed sheets and carried them back to her desk, where she folded them in thirds and stuffed them into the waistbag she wore on her work belt.

She sat down and got back to work.

The Complete Writer: A Few Notes on Plot

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Chapter 24. Notes on Plot

Plot is the structure of a piece of fiction. When you write nonfiction, you’re building something similar to the fiction story’s plot: an organized narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, whose fact-based rising action leads to a high point and falls off in a resolution. It is, in a word, your work’s organization. A fictional work has—or should have—much the same kind of structure.

In fiction, plot is driven by conflict. Any conflict: could be between two or more people, between a person (or persons) and an external force (Man vs. Nature!), between conflicting emotions within an individual . . . any number of things. But conflict there must be.

Conflict moves the rising action from the beginning of the story up through one, two, or even more difficulties or calamities (often called turning points or complications), until the story reaches its climax. At that point the action is resolved into a dénouement, sometimes called falling action, that leads to the story’s end.

So here’s a question: do you write down a plot outline and dutifully follow it, or do you juggle your story’s direction in your head?

And, as long as we’re posing questions, if you have a written outline, what format does it take?

Some people—many of them prominent writers—claim they have no set outline, and that a piece of fiction seems to take form on its own, as it’s imagined. Others—also prominent writers—insist they must have a formal, carefully written outline, which they follow from beginning to end. Until recently, I tended to hang with the latter group.

For the current fiction enterprise, though, I got in the habit of sketching out ideas for coming action in notes at the end of a chapter in progress or in a separate Word document. It helps for remembering little insights and bright ideas.

But it’s not very efficient.

Recently it struck me that one of those Word docs full of ideas and notes was beginning to resemble a plot outline. So…now I’m about ten chapters in to what probably will be a 25- to 30-chapter novel. The ten chapters in hand aren’t in order—there are gaps, and they represent several subplots.

Those gaps and uncertainties, I suspected, could be wrangled with notecards. This makes it possible to shuffle chapters around, to move them from one section of the line of action to another, and to add or delete items easily.

I ended up with something that I called a “timeline.” It’s not exactly a plot outline, at least not yet: at this point it’s just a rough chronological arrangement of imagined events. The events in the timeline are narrated in the chapters.

One stack of notecards represents parts of the timeline. Each card shows what chapters are related to that timeline—presumably indicating approximately where they should appear in the finished manuscript, if not in what order. A timeline notcard also lists the subplots that would play out in those chapters:

In another stack, each notecard is dedicated to a specific chapter.

Exactly how well this will work for any given writer remains to be seen — by the writer. If it interests you, try it and see if it helps you to organize your scenes, chapter, and plotline. At the least, it should make it possible to keep track of a plot whose complexity seems to be running amok. At the worst, I doubt if it can do much harm!

 

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27.

Why are you a feminist? Which aspects of the feminist doctrine do you consider most important? How would you define your own feminism?

When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronomer. Loved astrophysics. Dreamed of spending my life learning matter, energy, space, stars, other worlds. At about the age of 12 or 13, I was informed that I would have to be a teacher or a secretary (this was in the late 1950s), but not to worry, “you can always have astronomy as a hobby.”

After I graduated from college with a Phi Beta Kappa key, I interviewed for a job in a bank’s management training program. The interviewer—ironically, a black man who one would expect might have had his fill of discrimination—said, in these words, “We don’t hire women into our management training program, but you’d be great in our secretarial pool!”

I am not a radical feminist. I personally feel the women’s liberation movement and economic changes that ensued actually limit women’s choices. We wanted to have the choice to pursue a career instead of or in addition to bearing children and caring for a man. Instead, we got the obligation to do so.

Now that it takes two salaries to keep a roof over your head, women still have no choice. Then, you had no choice to get a job. Now you have no choice but to get a job. In my ideal world, every worker—male or female—would earn enough to support a family, so that either parent would have the option of raising the kids at home.