Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Craft of Writing

It was with much interest that I read Susan's post from Wednesday. I too am a forgetful blogger and I especially find it hard to come up with "Alien" related posts, especially when I'm working on the other part of my career, that of historical writer Cindy Holby. I am currently working on a historical called Fallen and waaaay behind in my writing. As each author has a different process and has to find what works for them I'd thought I'd do some craft stuff and those of you interested can figure out what works for you and what doesn't.

At the moment I'm more worried about getting the pages done that the quality of them. I figure I can go back and fix them later. (I've got six weeks to write 300 plus pages. Yeah, no pressure. I usually need six months) So last night I realized that I was telling instead of showing when it really should be the other way around.

This is my first draft. The time is 1774, Aberdeen Scotland and the hero, Captain John Murray of His Majesty's Army has just gotten a letter informing him of his mother's pending death and the death of her third fiance.

John could not help but shake his head at his sister’s unbelievable run of bad luck where marriage was concerned. Lord Fansler had been her last hope at making a decent marriage as she was now known about London as the Virgin Widow. The gossip would only be worse now and all the eligible men would avoid her like the plague. Beyond her apparent beauty, she had nothing to offer. There was no dowry and Carrie was more likely to knock over a tea service than serve it. Still she was a pleasant companion and had a wonderful sense of humor along with a peaceful mien that made her pleasant company. Any man would be lucky to have her for a wife, lack of dowry notwithstanding. Perhaps he should introduce her to some of his comrades, such as Rory.
Rory’s father would likely not allow it. As would any of his friends parents who were of the peerage. Marriages were made to garner wealth and position which was something Carrie did not have. She was past the age of becoming a governess also.
John sighed as he realized that he would likely have to provide for his sister for the rest of her life. But thinking on that was better than thinking on the real reason for the letter.
Their mother was dying. Their father was in the colonies. If Carrie had sent father a letter at the same time she sent John’s then it was weeks away from delivery, and that was if father was at a post. The last he’d heard his father was on the Western Frontier, in a place called Pennsylvania, along a river called Ohio, fighting the savages. It could be months before Carrie’s letter found him and then more months before he could get home. What were the chances that Mother would still be alive if father got to come home?
John hated to ask for leave now since he had only recently come to Aberdeen. It would have to wait. Wait until mother was sicker and closer to death. There was nothing he could do for her or Carrie. Being there wouldn’t change anything. At least his visit would be something they could look forward too.

Boring right. John is sitting in his room just thinking. A friend and I call it rock sitting. Long story but same principle.

This is my final without edits. In this rewrite I added John's room-mate Rory to the mix.

“A letter from home?” Rory asked as he came into the room. He quickly removed his coat and hung it next to John’s, loosened his stock and stretched out on his bunk with his hands crossed behind his head. He appeared quite content and John knew, without asking, that his friend had recently been with a woman. “Bad news?” Rory asked.
“Yes,” John replied. “Full of it.”
“Give me the least of it first,” Rory said.
“Carrie’s latest fiancĂ© has passed.”
“How many is that now?” Rory asked. “Three?”
John nodded. “This one expired of old age.”
“Tell me John, how can this be considered bad news. Beyond the obvious lack of income for your sister.”
“She has no dowry and now no prospects. Lord Fansler was a last resort on our mother’s part. He had no heirs and no property, but he did have some money and a nice little house in London. It would have been enough to keep Carrie comfortable.”
“I supposed now it will all go to some distant relative,” Rory concluded.
“Yes,” John sighed. He dropped the letter on the desk the two men shared and stretched out on his own cot. “They call her the Virgin Widow you know.”
“Yes,” Rory said. “I’ve heard.”
“It’s too bad really,” John said. “She would make someone a wonderful wife. She’s pretty and intelligent and a most pleasant companion.”
“Indeed,” Rory agreed.
John looked hopefully at his room-mate. “She has a wonderful sense of humor also.”
“I know what you are thinking John and my father would sooner disown me than allow me to marry a woman with no wealth or title no matter how well he thinks of you. When and if I marry it will be to enhance the family coffers with coin, land and titles.” Rory looked over at John with a wry look on her face. “Although it might be worth the disownment to watch Carrie pour tea in his lap as she did when I visited with your mother when we were last in London.”
John had to grin at the memory. What Carrie possessed in beauty she lost in clumsiness. She had a dreadful penchant for tripping over her dress hem and knocking over tables and such.
“How is your lovely mother by the way,” Rory asked.
John sighed. “Not well. Not well at all.” He pointed at the letter. “Feel free to read it. I’m not sure I can stand to say it aloud at the moment.”
Rory quickly read the letter and sat down on his cot to look at John. “I am so sorry old friend,” he said. “What do you plan to do? Ask for leave?”
“I don’t feel as if I can at the moment,” John said as he too, sat up and faced Rory. “Even though I know the General will allow it because of his friendship with my father. I don’t want anyone thinking I am taking advantage of that friendship and asking for special privileges, especially since we have only recently come to this post.”
“I’m sure no one would think that, given the circumstances.”
“Oh but someone will,” John said. “It would come out, sooner than later. It would be on my permanent record and follow me wherever I go. There is some time. I think it would be better to wait until…later…”
“It would give her something to look forward too,” Rory added.
“What about your father,” Rory asked. “Do you think he knows?”
“It depends. I think now, at the present time, he does not know.” John rubbed
his hands over his face as the seriousness of the situation settled upon him. “If Carrie sent Father a letter at the same time she sent mine then it is weeks away from delivery, and that is only if Father is at his post. The last I heard from him he was on the Western Frontier, in a place called Pennsylvania, along a river called Ohio, fighting the savages.” John continued. “It could be months before Carrie’s letter finds him and then more months before he can get home. What are the chances that Mother will still be alive if and when he gets here?”
Rory reached out and laid a comforting hand on John’s shoulder. “There is only so much you can do from here, and nothing you can do about the things you can not control. Write Carrie and tell her you will ask for leave this fall and that your prayers are with her and your mother. Then write your mother and tell her you look forward to seeing her soon and make no mention of her illness. I have found in my own experience that mother’s like to think they are in charge and can make things fine just by wishing them so.”
“It is the same with mine,” John said.
“Then she will appreciate your subterfuge,” Rory said. “I will leave you in peace for a bit to write your letters.” With that he stood and stretched his arms over his head as if waking from a nap. “I suddenly find that I am starving and will have to go raid the mess lest I expire before meal time is upon us.”

I was able to cover all the information I wanted the reader to see, plus show a bit of Rory's personality. Rory is not a central character to the story, other than the fact that he will be senselessly killed and John's reaction to that death is important in his relationship with Izzy, the heroine. By doing this however, I developed Rory's character a bit more, showed how close their friendship is and hopefully in the long run have the reader be saddened by his death.

Its much more interesting this way, or so I hope.


  1. I loved your post. As a avid reader but a non-writer I love seeing what writer can do with words.

  2. Excellent demonstration of dynamic rather than passive information feed! And it avoids the "As you know..." trap that writers can fall into when using dialogue to convey background.

  3. It's like in school when kids do Show & Tell. It's far more entertaining when the kid actually shows the class some gadget or cool picture.

    Of course, some amount of telling is necessary, but the telling resonates so much more through the interactions of characters, as your example shows.

    Ms. Carter is so right about the "As you know, Bob" stuff. I just put down a recently published book after a few pages because of that issue. I can't believe it's not obvious to more people when writers rely on such a poor technique.

    Great post!

  4. Yes, that's how it's done! And yes, no two writing projects require exactly the same technique. A writer changes over time, too.

    But the difference between a professional writer and one who writes occasionally when in the mood is just exactly this -- GET THE PAGES DONE.

    Just write. Make words day after day, hour after hour. The real secret is in the rewriting. You can't rewrite until you've written.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg