Key Points: Avoid discontiguities. Stomp out the cliche that all fantasy starts with a long, dry, boring description. Character before things! Punch it up and show us a character's viewpoint. Consider your genre, but put the promise of the story as early as possible. Start the story where it starts, and don't tell us all the stuff you wanted to tell us, just start it and go. You don't have to fill in everything. One telling detail beats pages of prose. Evoke plot, character, and setting. Make each sentence do multiple things. When you rewrite, make decisions. Consider your pace, and rearrange information as needed.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Five, Episode 16, Critiquing Dan's First Novel.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And I was so dumb.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] All right. So we did this with my first book. It is now time for Dan to get the treatment he deserves...
[Dan] The wonderful treatment.
[Brandon] We're just going to read some of this. We're going to do a straight out critique. We may do some line edits, we may do some macroscopic edits. So, I'm going to try and read pretty quickly, so that we can get through more of this than we did last time. All right?
Captain Fendis of the Royal Guard stood at unbending attention in the long, narrow throne room of Peredro Castle, watching his king pace slowly from the throne to the heavy wooden doors and back again. The dryads who built the room had called upon a magic completely foreign to humans, pulling stone up through the ground and molding it into a castle that was a single piece, front to back, top to bottom, still unsevered from the earth itself. Here in the throne room, towering stone pillars rose up from the floor like trees, splitting into an intricate web of branches when they reached the vaulted ceiling. The windows were spaced unevenly, and each was a different flowing shape, yet the effect was not one of chaos, but of pastoral grace and natural splendor.
[Howard] Okay. There's a... is that one paragraph?
[Brandon] That's one paragraph.
[Dan] Frankly, we're lucky it's not one sentence.
[Howard] There is a discontiguity in there.
[Brandon] Is that a real word?
[Howard] Yes. Discontiguous.
[Dan] So bad he had to make up a word.
[Brandon] Dis-contiguity? That is a real word. Maybe.
[Dan] It's a potentially real word.
[Brandon] Yes. Given... in German, I'm sure that's a real word.
[Howard] Okay. We're critiquing Dan's book, not my word. I'll say it differently. There is a disconnect between we're watching the dude at attention watch his king and then suddenly for the whole rest of the paragraph, we're watching that big ol' dang room. Everything in there is probably stuff that needs to be established. It shouldn't be established in the same paragraph in that way.
[Brandon] I'm going to say, it's super unfair. You're like 20 times better than I was on your first book then I was on mine.
[Dan] I wouldn't say that.
[Brandon] Okay, at least 10.
[Dan] This was written many years after your first book.
[Brandon] Yeah. This was your honors thesis. Whereas... the one thing I can stand up for myself on...
[Howard] This is a hard binding.
[Brandon] Yeah. My seventh book was my honors thesis. So I was... but this is actually not bad at all. I mean... yeah. Your prose is excellent, for your stage. Now I'm going to agree with Howard. There is nothing happening. Which is a pretty big cliche of the fantasy genre that we really need to, as writers and new writers, I feel we need to stomp to death, is the cliche that fantasy starts with a long, dry, boring description. Sometimes it can start with a description. But... you essentially have a guard watching a king doing nothing.
[Howard] I... I sound like a broken record sometimes when I tell people, "oh That, you need to punch this up." The thing that is happening when you said, "He stood at unbending attention." Okay. Attention is itself unbending. What you were trying to say is, in spite of the fact that this had been going on for quite some time, he still stood at attention. Okay?
[Dan] Which humanizes him more. It puts more stuff into it.
[Howard] Which humanizes him more. That's how, if I were to dive into that paragraph, if that's the point I wanted to make, that's what I would punch up. The aches in his knees, the aches in his back... and as he thought about those aches, they paled in comparison to what he knew the king must be going through right now. Now I'm part of the story.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's excellent.
[Dan] I think that would be a great way to fix that, though looking back at it now, I wonder if it's just too inactive of a concept to begin on anyway?
[Brandon] Maybe. If Fendis is really interesting to us...
[Howard] Is Fendis the guy who's standing up [inaudible]
[Brandon] Yeah. Captain Fendis. If he's really interesting to us, it's going to work, no matter what. You could have a story begin with such silence as everyone is tensely waiting for something to happen and then pow, it comes and everything changes. That can be a great beginning.
[Howard] Is Fendis a veteran? Does he have wounds?
[Dan] He is. He is a grizzled warrior.
[Howard] Okay. Then as he's standing at attention, some of the things that ache are wounds that he received in the king's... that draws us into him and tells us he's interesting and there will be action later. He will fight a lion again.
[Dan] Maybe. You think.
[Brandon] Second paragraph.
Behind Fendis stood four rows of soldiers and across from him four more, stretching the length of the throne room in an opulent display of power. Their mail coats glittered in the sunlight that shone through the windows and their stiff leather leggings were newly washed and dyed a deep blue of the Peredro house. On each soldier's breast hung a blue leather vest bearing the Peredro coat of arms, a white shield trimmed in gold... um, lum, lum, lum... king wasn't paying any attention to them... nah, nah, nah...
[Howard] Blah, blah, blah.
[Brandon] The king was waiting for a visitor. After 2000 years, a dryad was coming in peace to Peredro Castle.
[Brandon] Is how it ends.
[Dan] You guys think that Brandon was skipping over stuff. That's actually what it says. No.
[Howard] You got that past the thesis committee by sneaking the blah, blah, blah in the middle of the paragraphs?
[Brandon] No, I mean, I skipped things because I didn't want to go too far into stuff we had just talked about. So... we get our story hook at the end of the second paragraph. Two big, meaty paragraphs, followed by "The king was waiting for a visitor. After 2000 years, a dryad was coming in peace to Peredro Castle."
[Howard] You know what? That sentence right there... "After 2000 years, a dryad was coming in peace to Peredro Castle." is a great first line for a book.
[Brandon] Yeah. That could... that's very good.
[Howard] And you jump from there to the king pacing back and forth nervously and now we know why. His guard is watching him, and now we know who are point of view character is. You flip the whole thing upside down, and you've... broken record, broken record... punched it up.
[Brandon] I'm not going to flip it upside down, personally. I'm going to say I really like the Captain Fendis standing at attention aching, and put it in his viewpoint, as he waits, either nervously or what, and then end it with this sentence. But put it into his viewpoint, kind of show us a little bit more of what he thinks of dryads, why he's worried, that sort of thing.
[Howard] Stylistically, both approaches work. I'm not sure what the whole story is about. But I am increasingly convinced that your first line... embedded in your first line, you need to have the promise of the whole story. If this is Fendis's story, and he's valiant, then him at attention is great. If the dryads are changing history, then the other is great. I don't know what works better.
[Dan] I do think a lot of it also depends on genre. In an epic fantasy that's going to be very long, you can have a hook two paragraphs in.
[Brandon] You can.
[Dan] That's a very small thing to get through. If you're writing a book that's supposed to be much quicker and punchier, then you would want the hook to come as soon as possible.
[Brandon] See, I... like I said before, this is not nearly as dreadful as things I'm used to seeing from new writers. This is much better. This is really actually pretty solid. I wouldn't mind a hook two paragraphs in. I just want more of a character hook. I'm less interested in this opulent room than I am in the people that are in it. That's a common failing from new fantasy writers is to talk about the things and not the people.
[Brandon] All right. Let's stop for a book of the week which Howard is going to give us.
[Dan] Go for it.
[Howard] Last week, Emily plugged Wee Free Men from the Tiffany Aching series. I just finished reading I Shall Wear Midnight which is the fourth book in the Tiffany Aching series. It is absolutely delightful. It's my favorite of those books. Terry Pratchett has this ability to make me laugh and make me cry and draw me into these characters, draw me into their story in a way that very, very few writers do.
[Brandon] I haven't tried the Tiffany Aching books. One's sitting on my Nook right now to be read. I have heard though for many readers of Terry Pratchett's works, that they think they are his finest books.
[Howard] I believe that. I think they are his very finest work. Anyway, so have a visit to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can kick off a free 15 day, or 14 day, free membership... trial membership. Support the podcast, and enjoy some fine, fine work while you're at it.
[Brandon] All right. Let's delve back into Dan's book, because we've got something very interesting to talk about in the next paragraph, I think.
[Brandon] This is a very common problem with new writers.
A messenger from the eastern border had arrived bearing the news of the visitor only an hour ago, but somehow the King had known of it much earlier, and had set the castle bustling since before dawn to prepare for the visitor's arrival. Maids had scrubbed the corridors of the castle until the stone shined like glass and the courtyard had been scrumptiously... scrumpulously?
[Brandon] Man, I can't read today. Scrupulously cleaned...
[Dan] I like the scrumptiously cleaned before.
[Howard] Scrumptiously would be pretty discontiguous.
[Brandon] scrupulously cleaned and straightened by the pages and stable boys. Every wall between the front gate and the throne room had been hung with tapestries and lots of other cool stuff done for about five more sentences. Um... the ancient standards of the dryads whose castle this had been 2000 years ago, is how ends.
[Dan] Cool. I write really long sentences. I've cut down on the length of my sentences significantly since then.
[Brandon] That's a very meaty paragraph. You guys only got a little bit of it. So, what's going on here that... the first thing I would point out is, new writers like to not start the story where the story starts or feel bad when they actually do start the story where the story starts of all the stuff they didn't get to tell you, and so spend paragraphs and paragraphs telling you about all the stuff they would've put in if they would have started the story earlier.
[Dan] Yeah. And I know, I... from when I first started writing, the first two or three books that I wrote, I felt obligated to cover... to actually describe everything the characters did all the time, which you don't need to do.
[Brandon] You don't.
[Dan] So I could've started that back when, "Oh, look, there's a messenger coming." But then I would have had to say, "Well, okay, and then Fendis sat around for an hour waiting for the messenger." All the time you don't actually have to fill that I felt obligated at that period to fill.
[Brandon] Right. The other thing is, you really could have done this... again, there's some really good writing in this. The descriptions are quite good. But you could've done it with one or two uber-sentences instead, if you would have been on a little bit higher level of description, and had Fendis notice even that tapestry on the wall that hadn't been cleaned since his grandma lived in the castle had been taken down and washed and now he could see the little details and markings of the battles that have been lost in grime since he had been a little boy. Even that had been cleaned. That one moment, one description like that could indicate the entire castle's been scrubbed clean and do it in a much more descriptively interesting way.
[Dan] And do it through the lens of a character. So it's not just the narrator telling you, it's the character noticing things and pointing out the things that are important to him.
[Brandon] We want to have everything evoke plot, character, or setting, and do multiple things in each sentence. Right? That's what, Kurt Vonnegut's rules of writing? In this, if you could have it, the sentence indicate how long he's been in the castle and things like this, you could give backstory to him while giving visual cues of the current setting.
[Howard] I took issue with the sentence, "The messenger had arrived..." is that the way that sentence begins?
[Howard] The messenger had arrived... okay, I'm not an English major, so I don't know what tense of the verb we're dealing with. But the effect on the reader is you've stomped the brakes all the way to the floor. Any motion that we had has just been thrown off. We could talk about the messenger whose arrival kicked all this off without using that particular construct. "The messenger whose arrival had the king so worried stood in the corner, casually..." whatever.
[Brandon] See, that's what I would have done, is had him glance at the messenger who was pale faced and glanced back at him. Fendis knows his name, and knows that this is not an easily shaken person, and to see him white faced makes Fendis even more worried. Things like that.
[Dan] Or if the purpose is to show that they're waiting for this dryad or whatever to show up, it could also work. This is me post editing my own stuff. If they can see him in the distance, that's our clock. They look out the window, "Okay, he's coming. Looks like he'll be here in about 15 minutes... he's getting closer..."
[Howard] The lesson for those who are listening to the cast is that as we go back and review our older stuff, if this is a... this is a trunk novel for you. If you were to go back and rewrite it as, you would be making all of these decisions. You may be making much broader decisions and saying, "Oh, you know what? This Captain Fendis, he's not all that interesting. I'm going to go with a different character." Then the whole thing is out the window. But these are the sorts of decisions we have to make when we go back and do a rewrite.
[Brandon] Next paragraph. I'm just going to read a couple lines of it.
Calling them dryads, Fendis knew, was an epithet, and rather inaccurate, and though he had never seen one, he had been told by those who had that the first impression was never what you expected. The name dryad implied a wild, unkempt creature of nature, more tree than man, but in truth, dryads, called dawinians in their own tongue, were civilized and elegant. They had built this castle in ancient times... and then we go into a history lesson. A dryad visitor under the sign of truce was an event unheard of in four centuries of government. King Zandred chose to accept the visit, but had hung the tapestries as a reminder to his visitor of who had won their battles and who had lost.
[Howard] Did you just tell us dryad dryad dryad oh, by the way, never say dryad, dryad dryad dryad? Is that what you just did?
[Brandon] No, no. It's okay because it's in the viewpoint of a character who might use the epithet dryad.
[Howard] But he wouldn't use it as an epithet, would he?
[Brandon] He might.
[Dan] This guy would.
[Brandon] This guy... if he doesn't like the dryads, he calls them dryads.
[Dan] You know, honestly, what keeps occurring to me as you read all of this is that the entire thing would work really well as a walk-and-talk between Captain Fendis and the king. As they are discussing, the dryads are coming, contrast the racism between the two characters...
[Howard] How many times do I need to tell you, don't use that word?
[Dan] Things like that. We could get all of this in dialogue through character, instead of narration.
[Brandon] Yeah. You certainly could. The dryad shows up, I think four pages later, after lots of discussion, and it turns out...
[Howard] That's what I expected given the pace of what we've read so far. Brandon would've been halfway through the book before...
[Brandon] Yeah, we first go into more about the preparations, and Fendis being proud of his soldiers, and then talks about how awesome his king is. Then they sight the dryad. Then they have a short dialogue, and then there is huge paragraphs of description. Anyway...
[Howard] Fast track, man.
[Dan] This is in contrast to the John Cleaver books, in which over the course of the novels, I never even tell you what color his hair is.
[Brandon] Yep. You have certainly grown as a writer.
[Howard] I've always considered it as brown.
[Dan] Yeah, it is.
[Brandon] So, Dan, any last thoughts on this?
[Dan] Any last thoughts on that? It is not as bad as I remember it.
[Brandon] Yeah, that's what I thought about mine. There were certain parts of mine that are way worse than...
[Howard] I like the hardback binding.
[Dan] Yeah. It's definitely very overwritten. That was a huge thing. That's a thing that I knew and specifically worked on as a writer, was to stop over writing stuff. I've had that tendency since high school. But honestly, I think most of it is just a pacing thing. Rearranging the information...
[Howard] What degree did you get for having...
[Brandon] This is honors.
[Dan] Yeah. I graduated with University honors, and this was my thesis for that.
[Brandon] Okay, I teach writing to undergraduates. This is better than 95% of what I'm submitted.
[Dan] Burn, his class!
[Brandon] No, no. You guys listening, you're in the 5% too.
[Dan] Yes. Of course, all of you guys... because you listen to our podcast.
[Howard] Speaking of burn... the hardback binding and the pages there, that actually looks like fantastic cordwood for the zombie apocalypse. Should you need to burn things, start there.
[Brandon] All right, Dan. I'm going to let you give us our writing prompt.
[Dan] Our writing prompt?
[Howard] And remember that time travelers may be reading this writing prompt for last week.
[Dan] May be reading this right now? Okay. This is... take an idiomatic expression and literalize it. So, for example, the crack of dawn... a world in which dawn actually cracks, visibly or audibly. Then describe that going on. Not as a pun, but as world building information.
[Brandon] Who's Dawn, again?
[Dan] Well, whoever you want Dawn to be.
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write. That was a bad joke. I'm sorry.
[Dan] That was a scrumptiously discontiguous joke.