Tag Archives: writing techniques

A Good Excuse to Read

For the last two weeks I’ve had the flu!  What fun.

Actually, it was kinda. Last year when we got the flu after our Christmas trip, I read a Vince Flynn book that I’d had on my shelf for ages: Transfer of Power. I enjoyed it a great deal.

Tranfer of Power

I’d read his first novel, Term Limits, years ago and thought it was really lame and juvenile, so I never tried another. But he went on to become a very popular, best-selling author, so I decided, in the hopes that he had improved his skills over time, I would try his second book, mentioned above. Surprise!  I liked it.

Of course I did have the flu, and it was a welcome diversion from the wretchedness of being ill, but really, I thought it was pretty good. Transfer of Power is the first one where his series hero, Mitch Rapp is the main character, and it is about terrorists taking control of the White House, killing dozens and taking hundreds hostage. Rapp, the CIA’s “top counterterrorism operative” is sent in to take care of the problem.

With this most recent bout of the flu, I turned to Flynn again, seeing as I had found at the used bookstore the next two of his novels in the series: The Third Option and Separation of Power.

Third Option

I read both, back to back, all the while going through boxes of Kleenex almost as if I were some sort of Kleenex soiling machine. (I couldn’t believe how fast I went through them, nor how much “stuff” I had to soil them with!)

The verdict? I enjoyed both books, though I struggled at bit with The Third Option at the beginning because I kept getting lost. Finally about a quarter of the way through, when I realized I had no idea what was going on, I wondered if I was no longer capable of reading books as complex as these with my aging brain… Or was the problem really Flynn simply not being clear? After all, the characters in The Third Option had been presented as if I should know who they were, but I couldn’t remember any of them and there were no reminders for those who might be in my position.

Finally I went back and dug up my old reviews of Term Limits, his first book, and made my first discovery — the characters I was puzzling over In Transfer of Power were indeed the main characters in Term Limits. A book I’d read 11 years ago!  No wonder I couldn’t remember them nor the operations they’d taken part in!

I also went back to the beginning of The Third Option and started going through the writing itself, just to see if it really wasn’t very clear.  (This is the kind of thing a writer does. Normal people probably don’t. If you are an aspiring writer, however, I recommend you do this… It can be very enlightening and help you avoid similar mistakes)

And what was the result of my investigation of technique? The writing was, indeed, unclear.

For one thing, Flynn writes from the omniscient point of view, which means he jumps into any characters’ viewpoint whenever he wishes all within the same scene. The problem with this type of point of view (pov) is that if you’re not careful you can lose your reader along the way, and that’s exactly what happened. You have to be very clear you’re making a pov jump and to whose point of view you are jumping, which Flynn didn’t always do.

For example, the first chapter starts in Rapp’s point of view where he’s walking alone through the woods in Germany, reconnoitering the estate he is about to “invade,” then returns to a cabin where his two teammates have set up.  He enters. There’s some description of the man and woman already there,  the interior, and some equipment. Then it says

“Rapp had never met the man and woman before. He knew them only as Tom and Jane Hoffman. They were in their mid-forties, and as far as Rapp could tell, they were married. The Hoffmans had stopped in two countries before arriving in Frankfurt. Their tickets had been purchased under assumed names with matching credit cards and passports provided by their contact. They were also given their standard fee of ten thousand dollars for a week’s work, paid up-front in cash. They were told someone would be joining them and, as always not to ask any questions.”

All of that is consistent with Rapp’s point of view, which we were clearly in. In the next paragraph, there’s no reason to think it’s not Rapp’s as well, recalling things the Hoffman’s have told him about their journey to this point (or perhaps that he knew from other sources since he’s running this operation):

“All of their equipment was waiting for them at the cottage when they arrived. They started right in on surveillance of the estate and its owner. Several days later they were paid a visit by a man known only to them as the professor. They were given an additional twenty-five thousand dollars and were told they would receive another twenty-five thousand dollars when they completed the mission. He had given them a quick briefing on the man who would be joining them…”

The problem is that this second paragraph is all from the Hoffman’s pov and includes information Rapp does not have. But there’s nothing in the text to give you even a hint of that. In fact, in paragraph one they’re told by their contact that someone will be joining them and in paragraph two that this “professor” has joined them… so… it seemed logical to put those two together, all of it stuff that Rapp knows about.

Except that he doesn’t, as I said, the viewpoint having shifted out of Rapp’s specific awareness at the end of paragraph one and into a general omniscient.  And since that’s not remotely clear, the result is confusion on the reader’s part. At least on this reader’s part.

You could say this was the fault of the reader not reading carefully enough, but I disagree. As an author, you want the reader to rip through your story, especially if it’s a thriller. They aren’t going to be reading carefully, they’re reading to find out what happens and “How is he going to get out of this?!”

 No, it’s up to the author to make it all clear and smooth so the reader always knows through whose eyes he’s experiencing the story.  C.S. Lewis once said something to the effect of (I’m paraphrasing) “Readers are like sheep going down a path. If there’s any way for them to go besides the way you want them to, that’s where they’ll go. Hence, you have to make sure that every gate is closed to them except the ones you want them to go through.”

I don’t think Flynn did such a great job of that in The Third Option, at least not in the beginning. Once I had figured it all out, though, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. And it was especially  good to know I wasn’t all washed up as a reader of complicated political/military thrillers, which I love! 🙂






Second Real Day Back

events stack

Well, finally, after all the catch-up I played last week after our trip, I’ve gotten back to work. It was a productive day!

When I started, though,  as I looked at the three hundred or so  2″ x 3″  cards scattering my desk, I felt quite overwhelmed. Over time I’d used them to note down ideas as they had occurred to me — ideas about character, about incidents or events that might happen, about a character’s intentions or desires or reactions… each to its own card, but the cards all in a jumble. All waiting to be put into some kind of coherent plotline.

Augh! How was I going to do this? It was all swirling around —  random events and occurences that seemed to have no relation to one another. I needed, so I thought, to form some kind of plot line, but I felt lost in a fog of indecision.

So I went to the Lord, which I’m doing a lot more now than I have in the past — about almost everything.

“What should I do?” I asked Him, wanting to run away from it all yet again…

Well, He drew my attention to the fact that I have three placemats on my desk and enough space for another, though I don’t have one.  That’s more or less 4 sections. I could at least divide up the stack into general sections…

So I took up my stack of “event” cards (above)

And began to go through them one by one… placing some of them on the “beginning” placemat, some on the “ending” space and  just parceling out the rest of them as seemed fit, more or less where I thought they would fit in the story. Some events were predicated on others, some had to come after others… Sometimes I had two cards with different options for the same event, mutually exclusive. Sometimes I had two cards with slightly different takes on the event, or different details or trappings for it.  I just laid them all down, some in rows, some on top of other cards, some bridging two rows. Some of them I even put between the placemats when I wasn’t sure.

It was kinda fun, because I didn’t have to decide, just generally divide up the cards. Some of them I even threw away. And it was something of a comfort to find that for several of the events I’d envisioned, I’d made two, three even four cards with the same event on it.

Once I had them all parcelled out, I divided them into four piles, which I gathered together in a rough approximation of the order they’d been placed on the table.

The operative word here is “rough.”  I was not demanding that I be precise and orderly, it was just to be a general dividing of the concepts.

parts 2 - 4 small

Above you can see parts 2 -4 all gathered up and secured with rubber bands.

Where is part 1?  Well, once I’d gotten all four of my stacks divided, I took up Part one and began to lay out those cards in terms of cause and effect, order, etc.:

cards part 1

And having done that I have the beginnings of a line of events to work with. Nothing finished by any means but a start. There are lots of holes, and some of them are just ideas that need fleshing out. Some — those either/or cards — require a decision to be made one way or the other.

But that’s all tomorrow’s work. Oh, and I’m still loving my Freedom program, which I blogged about awhile back. That and turning off the phones, continues to give me what feels like a safehaven in which to relax and focus on the work… Plus something about the suspension of being available for contact motivates me to use the time to advantage rather than simply dink around.

A Tomato, a Coin and a Die

Today I actually managed to get around to working on Sky for a good five hours!Actual story writing as opposed to  note organizing. A tiny bit of progress.   YAY!

I did so using a new technique that I’ve recently discovered and an old one I’d forgotten.

A Tomato

The new technique, developed to help increase productivity, is called The Pomodoro Technique, so named because its inventor used a red tomato kitchen timer to implement his system. He’s Italian and “pomodoro” is Italian for tomato.

The technique was designed to also investigate where various distractions originated and to provide a means of dealing with them.

I used it pretty much as outlined (click on the link above for the full thing) when I started a couple of weeks ago.   There is a free booklet you can download and some official pages as well:  a To Do Today sheet and an Activity Sheet.

You list the things you want to do on the first sheet. In the beginning, I listed things like “write a blog post,”  “read through all my notes on Sky,”  “transfer information on sheets to little cards,” etc.

Then you set the timer for 25 minutes  (a “pomodoro”) and get started. If you suddenly get a thought to go do something else, you are to make a tic mark in the column next to where you listed your task, then decide if the activity must be done  right now, or if it can be done later. If later, you note it on the Activity Sheet. If you feel it’s imminent — you absolutely HAVE to order that pizza now — you note it at the bottom of the To Do sheet.

One of the iron clad rules is that you cannot spend more than a minute or two on some distraction so if you do get up and order the pizza, then you have to void the pomodoro and start over, even if you’ve only got five minutes left.

It was in intriguing exercise which made me aware of all the things I kept thinking of doing in the middle of when I was supposed to be writing. Internal distractions the developer called them. They seemed to come rapid fire at first. But because I had the timer on, I stopped getting up to go do them and just noted them on my activity sheet. The more I used this technique, the less internal distractions I had. Plus having a place to note them helped a lot.

After the timer goes off, you place an X in the column next to your task, then take a 3 to 5 minute break to walk about, stretch, visit the restroom, or get a drink. Then it’s back to another pomodoro. . After four pomodoros you get a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.

It’s not as complicated as it might sound, but it’s pretty regimented and while at first it did a lot to get me back on track, ultimately I rebelled and one day I just couldn’t make myself do any of it and went out to play. I’ve since abandoned the activity sheet, since it’s not all that relevant for me.

I have, however, stuck with the 25 minute increments and the three-minute breaks, the latter because they get me out of the chair and walking around or stretching and that’s good for the body. And the former because I not only have to somehow quantify my task (“work on the book” is not specific enough) but it puts a beginning and an end time to it (as opposed to doing it “until I get tired”)

Before, if I hit a snag there was a good chance I’d just get up and walk out of the room on some inner directed tangent. With the pomodoro, I at least wait until the timer rings before walking off, though even then I haven’t wanted to dive into some other thing.

So that’s the new — modified — technique I used today.

Yes, I know… rules again. But not exactly. I think they’re more just useful guidelines that keep me on track. So for now I’ll keep using them. I have my own “pomodoro” all set up under my computer screen.

A Coin and a Die

The other technique, the one I’d forgotten, was to use a coin to build my characters. I had five male characters who were nothing but names that I needed to be in the scene I am currently working on.

So one of the things you can do and which I had actually made charts for years ago, is to divide characteristics into twos… tall/short, fat/skinny, muscular/frail … then flip a coin to determine the characteristic — eg, heads, he’s tall, tails he’s short.  If you have more characteristics than two, like hair or eye color, use a die — assign a color to each number, then roll the die.

It’s a way of breaking through the blankness. As the characters started to emerge, I found myself thinking, “Wait, I don’t want him to have light brown hair, it should be black instead.”  Or, “No, he’s not going to have a beard, he’s going to be clean-shaven.”  You aren’t bound to whatever the die or coin dictate, but if you don’t care, it’s a way of actually getting something to take shape.

So that’s what I did today using my pomodoros, and my coin and die. I now have five index  cards and five characters with a fair amount of definition. Since these are minor characters, I’m not yet sure how big of a role they’ll play so I don’t want to go too far in developing their profiles. For now, I have enough to work with.

Another thing I did, that came out of nowhere, was that as these guys were coming together I started seeing parallels to some of the Avengers, so I decided to just go in that direction and use the Avenger characters as a rough guide for my development. Oh! Horrors! She’s copying movie characters!

Not exactly. I think it was more a general template and lifting one or two characteristics from each. And it was fun. I know in the end it won’t be noticeable, because once they get “real” for me, they’ll take on their own individuality. Besides, they may turn out to have almost no role at all. I have no idea at this point.

All I know is, it helped me work, and as a result I ended up with one guy who’s a techie and another with anger issues. As an additional bonus, those two qualities triggered thoughts about the setting and the situation and suddenly the whole scene — characters, interactions, setting, situation and action — gained richness and substance and direction far beyond what I had when I started.

Oh yeah, and that new laser TSA is going to be using in 2013 — the one that can read your cells from 164 ft and tell if your adrenaline is rushing, and what you ate for lunch and if you have explosive residue in your fingerprint creases?  Well that’s just perfect for this scene as well. Only it won’t be a laser, and there isn’t any airport. 😀