Thursday, June 25, 2009

Breathing Life into a Dead-end Scene

This is about showing vs. telling, about making bad writing better, and about turning nothing into something.

You and I both know we should write every day, and hopefully we do our best to accomplish that. Writer’s block is nothing more than, as poet William Stafford said, writers who can’t “lower their expectations.” If you’re going to write every day, which is a necessity for most who write novel-length fiction, you’ll face many days when you don’t have your “A game.” So how can you work through those days and those drafts that seem to go nowhere? Below, I have written 103 words of fresh copy, a would-be opening paragraph that in its current state poses few if any interesting questions, grabs the reader with all the power of a dead-fish handshake, and makes no one, including the author, want to read on. But I will work with this scene and see if I can shape it into a potentially successful opening. I invite you to go along for the ride and take whatever you feel is useful from it.

She looked out the window, and saw the boy crossing the street alone. He was too young to cross that street by himself, she thought. His mother should be there. The sun was setting at 5:25 that Thursday afternoon. The boy was no older than seven, wearing a worn winter coat, the zipper of which was broken, the right sleeve torn. She sipped her tea and continued rocking, wondering if the sleeve had been torn by bullies and thinking, again, his mother should be walking him home as she once did with Jane, before the diagnosis, and long Jane was laid to rest.

Brutal. There is only one direction this scene can go. One sure-fire way to add tension is to change the tense.

She looks out the window, and sees the boy cross the street alone. He is too young to cross that street by himself, she thinks. His mother should be there. The sun is setting at 5:25 on Thursday afternoon. The boy is no older than seven, wearing a worn winter coat, the zipper of which is broken, the right sleeve torn. She sips her tea and continues rocking, wondering if the sleeve has been torn by bullies and thinking, again, his mother should be walking him home as she once did with Jane, before the diagnosis, and long Jane was laid to rest.

The opening sentences now pose several questions—always a goal I have when starting a story or novel. But the last lines are still flat. I’ll try playing with the syntax, shortening the sentences, and adding more tension by taking liberties with fragments.

The boy is crossing the street. Alone. Head down. Tiny sneakers shuffling through the snow. From where she sits, Maggie can see his breath coming in small puffs in the cold air. Too young to cross that street by himself. Where is his mother? It is nearly dark at 5:25 Thursday afternoon. She thinks of Jane, before her diagnosis, much before all that followed. The boy is no older than seven, wearing a worn winter coat, the zipper of which is broken, the right sleeve torn. She sips her tea. Rocks slowly. Thinking. Jane? Jane? Did bullies tear the boy’s sleeve? Where is his mother? She’d been there for Jane, although it didn’t matter. The disease was the ultimate bully. Rocking slowly, the teacup begins to tremble. The realization made her stop: This boy’s mother doesn’t deserve him. The next realization was the one that made her set her teacup on the windowsill and stand. There is an empty bedroom downstairs. The rag. The ether. She will save this boy. She knows she must.

Still rough around the edges, but I can work with this. Most importantly, I want to work with this now. The old lady has come alive. She’s creepy now, and she offers me lots of questions to examine during the writing process. What was her relationship with Jane? Does she feel guilty about Jane’s death? What will she do when she gets the boy? Are the bullies only imagined? Did you notice that I never explicitly offered Maggie’s age, but rather, I gave details (including a name) that I hoped would resonate?

How far will this story go? No way to know until I really delve into it, but now the story is there. I have a character ready and able to lead me someplace interesting. Most importantly, I’ve turned nothing into something, which is the goal of every writing session.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday's Guest Blogger: Lyn Hamilton

Lyn Hamilton is the author of eleven novels of “archeological mysteries”, featuring antique dealer (and sleuth) Lara McClintoch. The are clever, engrossing and, well, if you haven’t read any of them, you should! A link to her website is provided at the bottom. Thanks, Lyn!


I have been musing lately on the ability of fiction to illuminate social issues, to get to the heart of human experience through the telling of stories that are not, well, real. I am not sure why I’ve been thinking about this, other than that it has already been a long, hard winter here in Toronto even if it’s only January, and the gloom perhaps lends itself to thoughts of some of the ills of our society and how they are best documented and explored.

It is also because of my interest in the case of Herman Rosenblat. Rosenblat wrote a Holocaust memoir called Angel at the Fence, and it was to be published by Penguin’s Berkley Publishing, which just happens to be the publisher of my archaeological mystery series. Rosenblat wrote that he met his wife Roma at a sub-camp of Buchenwald where she is supposed to have sneaked him food. Trouble is, that isn’t true: apparently, they met on a blind date in New York. With that revelation, and Berkley’s decision not to publish the memoir, Rosenblat joins the likes of James Frey who also made up a memoir. Unlike Rosenblat, Frey’s book got published before the subterfuge was revealed, and he is perhaps best known for annoying Oprah no end.

Rosenblat’s excuse, I suppose you could call it, for making this all up, was that he wanted to better spread his message. (Comments on the other side of this argument are to the effect that a heart-warming false memoir like this just demonstrates our culture’s unwillingness to confront terrible events like the Holocaust.)

So why pretend it’s true? If the story is as compelling as those who read it, unaware of the subterfuge, have said, would this same book labelled a novel not have spread the message just as well? Do we ignore the messages of fiction, because they’re not populated by real people? True, biographies and memoirs sell better than fiction, by and large. Is that the reason for doing this? They sell better?

I am a judge in the Arthur Ellis awards for the best crime writing in Canada this year. That means I am working my way through a lot of crime fiction these days. In the last few weeks alone, I’ve learned a great deal about human trafficking, about abuse of children, about war, about the human toll of great natural disasters – all through the medium of mystery fiction. Does that make what I have learned any less relevant? I don’t think so. I’ve always been proud to be a part of the mystery community, because I believe that popular fiction can illuminate social evils – in fact has led in the exposure of ills in some cases – through the compelling telling of stories that may not be absolutely real, but which represent the world in which we live vividly and accurately. In fact, one of the reasons I began my archaeological series was to talk about issues of patrimony and heritage, and the loss of same by people all over the world, by the action of greedy smugglers and art dealers, to say nothing of museum curators. I wanted to do that in a way that people would find engaging, but at the end of the day, if someone thought twice about buying a pre-Columbian object on their trip to Peru and sneaking past customs in Canada, I’d be pretty happy. Of course, I wanted readers to stay up way too late to find out who dunnit, but I had other reasons for writing as well, and fiction, based on my knowledge of some of the less than acceptable goings-on in the heritage community, seemed as good a way as any of getting at those issues. By and large, mystery writers work hard to make sure that their fictional depictions mirror real life issues. Readers of mystery fiction want to be entertained, but they also want to be informed, and mystery fiction is a valid way of doing that.

Regards, Lyn Hamilton

PS – There’s a free mystery up on my website ( for a limited time. It’s in manuscript form, but you’re welcome to download it. I only ask that if you do so, you consider making a donation, however small, to a women’s shelter in your community. Speaking of social issues!!