The Fiction Writer’s Handbook by writer and master teacher Shelly Lowenkopf will soon be going out to reviewers and will be published in November. As writer Christopher Moore explains in the foreword, when he first had a workshop with Lowenkopf, Moore thought, “The man is a lunatic.” Then Moore went back the next year, and again, until Moore found much success as a writer.
This book is one of the more unusual writing books. As Lowenkopf says in his preface, he wrote it because he’d been bored with books on how to write fiction. They often begin with explanations that sound canned and glib. “The good stuff is often buried, too anecdotal, way too one-size-fits-all. I wanted to produce the book I needed when I was setting forth as a writer, a book you could pick up any page and be led by your own needs and curiosity rather than the logic pattern of a development editor.”
Thus, The Fiction Writer’s Handbook is arranged alphabetically, an encyclopedia of terms important to fiction writers. Here is a sampling of four terms, below. See if you’re charmed as much as I am (which is why my company is publishing this.) Goodreads is also giving away ten copies of the book. To throw your name into the hat, click here.
- buyer's remorse
A dramatic condition where characters appear to hold the same opinion, or share the same agenda, the operant word here being “appear.”
The appearance of agreement between characters becomes a signal to expect the conflict of disagreement, exacerbated perhaps by the “I changed my mind” defense. Characters who are comfortable with situations in which they find themselves, thus in agreement with the status quo, are seen by the reader as a ticking time bomb prior to the explosion of rebellion. In stories where leadership and loyalty are significant issues, a protagonist may come to suspect too much agreement from his or her underlings.
Agreement is a force that brings dramatic narrative to a screeching halt (see stasis) unless it is used in a manner that provokes tension, as in how long the agreement will continue. Agreement also provokes irony as a result of some characters seeing it as a much-desired goal, only to discover later how being in a relationship of any sort that relies too heavily on it provokes suspicion of unrest or tension.
When characters agree, watch out.
A place where story is the featured event; a locale for a scene or the entire story, its landscape never neutral, in fact frequently inhospitable. In some stories, the characters may not know they are in an arena, content to think of it as a place—perhaps not the optimal place nor even a good place, but not a bad place. readers, however, understand the unspoken irony. Why did Bobbie Ann Mason's iconic short story, “Shiloh,” take place on the park grounds that were once the arena for one of the most fierce and bloody battles of the American Civil War? Was it mere accident that Allison Lurie named her protagonists the Tates for her dark, funny novel, The War between the Tates?
Arenas in story are located in bedrooms, offices, law courts, tennis courts, front seats of automobiles, back seats of automobiles, hospitals, supermarkets, Roman coliseums—anyplace where characters gather to explore and exploit their agendas.
Writers should consider the settings for their scenes with the same care and deliberation they use in selecting characters. If there is some plausible reason for including a particular scene in a story, its venue should be chosen with as much purpose as the cast of characters is selected, allowing its personality to have a tangible effect on the characters, whether a sneeze of allergy, a memory of a painful experience from the past, a sense of discomfort and unwelcome—or a sense of familiarity that causes one or more of the characters to relax, lower their guard, and thus become vulnerable to the consequences.
Arena is a good mnemonic for the fact that characters take their cues and hints from one another—differences of opinion may emerge from contact, agendas may clash, intentions may be misunderstood.
The means of identification of who is saying, thinking, feeling something relevant to the story at hand, but it is also a quality possessed by an animal, a person, place, or thing in a story; the most common use of this term is as a direct distinction of who is saying what, perhaps even with the adverb or adverbial clause attachment of how the thing being said was spoken.
Even at the risk of repetition, the identity of the speaker or performer is uppermost, beginning with the reader knowing for a certainty who the narrator of a given scene is and at all times who the speaker is, who the listener is, who the one who acts is, who the one being acted upon is. This important standard prevents such awkward, difficult-to-unravel locutions as “She knew she would go with her no matter what she did or when she did it because it was her basic instinct to help her whenever she felt she needed help.”
The reader becomes so grateful as to forgive repetition of names, although this gratefulness does not extend across the board to careless, unintended repetitions, which do nothing but make the reader cringe (if the offense gets past the editor in the first place).
In the matter of attribution in dialogue, the verb “said” has demonstrated over a long history its neutrality, thus Jim said, John said, Fred said will not raise any reader hackles that might have been raised if Jim said but John remonstrated and Fred averred. Thus, do not keep at hand a list of synonyms for said, in particular avoiding “expostulated,” “admonished,” and “uttered.”
Verbs that convey feeling are welcome in all other places as synonyms for said. Do not, however, let characters bark or growl; ululate is also a no-no, the main reason being that the word may appear to be an authorial judgment rather than from a character.
Unless the string of dialogue between two characters goes on for some time, it is not necessary to continue with the “said.” If there are more than two characters on stage, the writer might consider burying the “said” in mid-action or mid-sentence: “This is not going to work,” Fred said, standing, stretching. “We need another approach.”
In such scenarios, the writer will do well to pick a dramatic (suspense producing) place to break up the sentence. “This,” Fred said, standing and stretching, “is not going to work. We need”—he looked about him as though tracking a fly unseen by the others—”another approach.”
Yet another way to tack an attribution to a line of dialogue is with a sentence immediately following that contains action. “This is not going to work.” Fred stood, spotted a roving waiter, and motioned him over.
A condition achieved by a reader when it becomes apparent that the writer has let story slip through his grasp; a situation in which the writer begins to rue having taken on a particular story or the mentorship of a particular character; a time when the reader feels himself the victim of too much promise and not enough delivery.
The term may also refer to one or more characters who are suffering from the consequences of past actions that may have seemed like a good idea at the time but now serve as reminders of disaster. Making the most of a bad situation is the sort of action a character can take to make us admire the individual’s ability to innovate.
Causes Christopher Meeks Supports
Associated Writing Programs