Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Writer's Toolbox

Betty Dobson at Apollo's Lyre had a great post yesterday: The Top 10 Things Every Writer Needs. I love her list, but I'd like to add just a couple of items of my own:

1. A baby name book. This sounds strange, but it is an invaluable tool. Most times, writers have the names of their main characters already picked, but there are times when a minor character needs to be named and a baby name book can help with this.

2. A flash drive. Backing up your files is extremely important!
I've blogged on this before. Having a good flash drive will make backups much easier.

3. Index cards and a small file box. Every time you finish a story or other writing project, write down the information (title, word count, genre, etc.) on the file card. Under that, keep a list of the markets you are submitting to (noting the date you submitted and the date your response came). This is an easy way to keep track of your writing and submission record.

4. A library card. Writers need to read as much as possible, but who can afford to buy every book she wants? Libraries are a poor writer's best friend.

5. A sense of humor. Don't get me wrong, I love to write, but writing can be one of the most discouraging, frustrating endeavors a person could ever take on. To keep up my spirits, I keep cartoons (Snoopy atop his doghouse, writing 'It was a dark and stormy night'), funny bumper stickers ('Sometimes I creep myself out'), pictures of my kids (to remind me that there are other things in life besides writing) and other positive motivators pinned to my bulletin board.

6. Patience, patience, and more patience. Patience with yourself, with your writing, with the response times of the markets, and with everyone and everything that seems to get in your way when you want to write.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dramatic Irony

How I've envied artists over the years! Unlike fiction, paintings and drawings can be viewed (and judged) in an instant. Of course, I know that to gain a full understanding of great art, one must spend time studying it; however, no one can walk away in the middle of a painting. Even a cursory glance allows a viewer to see the piece in its entirety.

Not so with writing!

One of the biggest challenges a writer faces is to make sure that her audience reads to the end of the piece. This is especially true of slush editors who, within the first few sentences of a story, know whether it is worth their time to read on or not. Recently, I've had several rejections in which the editors indicated that they read to the end of my story. Even though the rejections stung (they always do!), it gave me great satisfaction to know that I could write a story that people - even editors! - wanted to finish.

So how can that be accomplished?

As I mentioned in a
previous post, a shocking ending is not a great way to accomplish this. A writer who composes a story with a shocking ending must put so much energy into the buildup, that other elements of story telling (characterization, setting) oftentimes get lost.

One great way to build tension in a story and keep a reader moving forward is the use of
dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a situation in which the readers know something that the characters do not. For example, in
Romeo and Juliet, Romeo thinks his beloved is dead. The audience, however, knows that Juliet is simply drugged.

Dramatic irony is a twist on story telling because in a traditional, linear plot, readers and characters are carried into the unknown by the writer. The advantage to dramatic irony is that the audience can become very anxious on the behalf of their favorite character, wondering when and how the character will finally come to realize what he doesn't know. Mentally, they can be begging him to do or not do something because they have knowledge he does not. (Sometimes, the audience might be verbally communicating this - have you ever gone to a movie and shouted at the actress on the screen, "Don't go into the basement!!"). At it's best, dramatic irony can create an almost unendurable tension in the readers, making them want to read on in order to see how the tension is resolved.

Of course, using dramatic irony is a difficult skill, for in order to work, dramatic irony must weave more than a single thread of narrative. There is the thread that the audience knows (Juliette is drugged, not dead), as well as the thread that only the character knows (my beloved has killed herself!). It takes some skill to do this, but the payoff can be tremendous.