Key points: Word choice can identify genre. Inherent conflict builds interest. Be careful with names. Concrete is better. Make sure the reader knows what's going on. Tell us what the character feels. Be careful about details that feel natural to the character but may be disorienting to the reader. Use word choice to bring out tone. Use contrasts to build interest. Consider letting the reader understand the character, quirks, interests, motivation. Instead of reporting sensations, let them happen.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Six, Episode 12, Making Fun of Howard... I mean, Revising Howard's Piece.
[Howard] 15 minutes way too long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And Howard's not that smart.
[Howard] I did not see that coming.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Howard] Brandon, and Dan, and Mary are going to to dissect this manuscript that I actually don't have in front of me. That I wrote when I was 22 years old, which, yes, was 21 years ago. So...
[Dan] This shouldn't be...
[Howard] I have half of my life between that manuscript and me right now, and I apparently am still not emotionally distant enough from it to let you start talking.
[Dan] This is something we've done before with Brandon's first novel and with my first novel. We're going to do it today with Howard's, with an eye specifically toward description that we talked about last week.
[Brandon] Yep. We want to see if we can make these descriptions do more than one thing, and he handily started his story with... Let's see, two pages, three pages, four... Oh, no wait... Four...
[Dan] It was nice of him to plan ahead.
[Brandon] Four... Five...
[Brandon] Five pages... Okay, six pages before we have any dialogue. So, we've got lots of description to work with here. We're going to try and make it do multiple things for Howard. Mary, you're going to be reading this for us because Howard informed me you have a better reading voice than I do.
[Mary] Well, I am a professional.
[Brandon] Yes. Well.
[Howard] Nice. Sizzle.
[Mary] All right.
The wind rushed over Jones Bradley’s skin at several hundred miles per second, which registered as something of an itch. Jones had been gas mining Jupiter for a full eight years now, and his neural augments, implants and prostheses had paid for themselves in the first two.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's stop there. Let's just go ahead with these two sentences. All right. So what do we do with this first sentence? "The wind rushed over Jones Bradley’s skin at several hundred miles per second, which registered as something of an itch."
[Dan] now, first of all, I want to say, miles per second as a descriptive term immediately tells us that this is science fiction. It's very effective in that way.
[Mary] Actually, kilometers per second would do it even more.
[Brandon] Yes, kilometers per second would be much better.
[Dan] I suppose.
[Howard] No, I agree. What would be even better than that would be for me to have gone in and figured out what the densities of Jupiter's atmosphere are like at various altitudes so that I know whether or not that speed is going to burn up conventional materials.
[Howard] All sorts of science considerations in that first sentence.
[Brandon] Yeah. Let's step away from those because we're not talking about that specifically. There is something really good happening in this sentence. As a first sentence, it is inherently in conflict with itself. You say wind is coming at several hundred miles per second and it is only an inch. Which you've got a backtrack on us, you've got... It's actually a nice first sentence. Except for the fact that, it kind of glares at me. Because it registers as something of an itch... It's a little bit passive.
[Mary] Yeah. This would be good if we were going to be going to go into a comedy, but scanning forward, it does not look like it's a comedy.
[Brandon] Yeah, I'm gonna be...
[Dan] I didn't read this as comedy, though.
[Howard] I sure didn't.
[Brandon] I'm going to be okay with this first line, personally. I don't know that I would ask for heavy revisions on this, as long as the next line brings me full into... This is kind of abstract.
[Howard] Oh dear. Well, let's go into that next line.
[Dan] Okay. Well, let me say one thing before we leave this sentence. The name Jones Bradley? Jones Bradley... That's a first name as a last name, and a last name as a first name. I had to read it two or three times to figure out exactly what the guy's name was.
[Howard] Had I this to do over, the name would be the first thing to go.
[Dan] Well, there you go.
[Brandon] All right. So. Second sentence. Let's hear it again, Mary, and then we'll talk about it.
Jones had been gas mining Jupiter for a full eight years now, and his neural augments, implants and prostheses (oh, goodness) had paid for themselves in the first two.
I am a professional.
[Brandon] Well. All right. So. At this point, we're going into concept. I personally feel, as a reader, this is a weird enough situation he's in, I need two or three more lines of description so that I know what he's doing. I mean, the wind is rushing over his skin. Where is he? This is actually... This is a common problem I notice in new writers' writing. You don't always have to start off with a big description of where someone is. But when it's as unusual as this, I need some blocking early on.
[Dan] Well, see, the reason that that's effective is because that's description of action rather than description of setting. So it's a much stronger way to start a story.
[Mary] Well, see, I would say that this could actually be doing a lot more than it is.
[Howard] Oh, heavens, yes.
[Brandon] Yeah. Let's talk about making it do more. Let's make this sentence do more.
[Mary] I mean it, one of the things that it's not doing, is it's not telling us anything about how he feels about where he is right now, and it could. "Gas mining Jupiter, even over an eight year span, hadn't gotten him used to that itch."
[Brandon] Right. Or "Still mining gases on Jupiter..." If you... Just that one word makes him seem weary of it. Or if instead he's loving the fact that he's on Jupiter away from his ex-wife? Like, can we embed that with a few words into this sentence?
[Howard] In terms of where the character is headed, he is comfortable with the situation. He's making really good money. I would think that the... This is me going back and revising... T would think that the reason he still registers the itch is that it lets him know that he's pushing his new ship within tolerances, but right to the edge, and that feels like money.
[Brandon] He's in a ship?
[Mary] He's in a ship?
[Mary] Yeah. So...
[Brandon] Okay. That's...
[Dan] There's this wind rushing over his skin?
[Howard] You get that about two paragraphs later.
[Brandon] How is it rushing over his skin?
[Mary] Remember, the ship is him.
[Howard] It's the ship's skin. It's the augments. That all gets described two paragraphs further down.
[Brandon] Oh... Wow!
[Mary] Way too late.
[Dan] I thought this dude was like windsurfing or something.
[Howard] See! See how much trouble it's in? It totally needs to be turned inside out for the blocking to work.
[Brandon] Okay. Why don't we skip the several paragraphs of...
[Mary] [chuckle] Sorry.
[Brandon] You're reading ahead.
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Mary] "I feel full."
[Brandon] Let's skip the next paragraph and go with, "With a thought..."
With a thought Jones reached out with giant ‘arms’ of magnetic fields, and greedily scooped ammonia, funneling and de-charging it as he stuffed it back into receptacle two. I feel full.
[Dan] That's awesome. Now, see, I think that there's a big conflict that a lot of authors struggle with here, which is on the one hand you want to say this is very normal for him to think of the ship as his own body and that says something cool about the setting. But, on the other hand, you still need to communicate it to a reader who doesn't understand that.
[Brandon] Yep. This is... I mean, on the one hand your instincts were good to make it feel natural. But it's disorienting. It's hugely disorienting.
[Howard] It is hugely disorienting. Like I said, if I had it to do over, I think I would need to turn it inside out and say... Or front to back and say, "He's in a ship." Then start telling you the ship's hull feels like his skin. The electromagnetic fields feel like arms, and the holds feel like his belly.
[Brandon] Yeah. That would need to be right at the start.
[Mary] But you could do that in the existing first line.
[Brandon] Yes. Yeah, you really could.
[Mary] "The wind rushed over Jones Bradley's ship at several hundred miles per second, which registered as something of a... Which registered on his skin as something of an itch." I mean that's badly...
[Brandon] Or "registered to his enhanced mind as an itch as if the metal were his skin." That right there is a better first line, because we retain a lot of the inherent conflict, but we're setting us in what's going on as well.
[Brandon] We need to stop for our book of the week. Mary, you have our book of the week this week?
[Mary] I would like to recommend Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow which is a wonderful science fiction novel, in particular the way she handles description. She's dealing with a lot of different character POV's and different voices for each of those characters and the way they interact with the environment tells you a lot about them from the descriptions.
[Howard] You can pick that up at audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 14 day free trial membership, get yourself a free copy of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, narrated by David Colacci. Help support the podcast so we can keep flying Mary out to Utah and having great fun.
[Brandon] Where we make fun of Howard.
[Mary] Yes. More of that, please.
[Brandon] Let's get back to this. I want to... We're not really making fun of you. It's more like lovingly ripping you to shreds. I... One thing we talked about...
[Howard] You're so tender.
[Brandon] Yes, I know. In the last podcast was tone. The descriptions are not working... Could work harder on giving us tone.
[Howard] Oh, yeah, there's very little tone.
[Brandon] I want to look at these sentences. I mean. Two of these sentences we've read... The one about... Both of him gas mining... The one where he reaches out... I love the idea of he reaches out with his arms and scoops in the ammonia. There's almost a kind of loving mother reaching for her children sort of instinct here going on. I don't know if that's the right tone.
[Howard] That's actually... I like that a lot because he later reaches out with the arms as weapons, so the contrast would be very useful.
[Brandon] You could work a very interesting contrast here as well then, because he's sitting in his ship... Is the ship being rocked by these winds? Is this being buffeted and things like this... Compared to him feeling the ship, these winds shaking him... Like what is the tone? How is the contrast? Jupiter is a storm. We think of Jupiter as a massive, powerful storm. That's got to be part of our tone. Somehow, you've got to be working that in to what's going on here. Either he sees the winds as playful children that shake him and then he scoops things out of it...
[Dan] Or he finds it thrilling to work in this environment, which is why he's still here. Something like that.
[Brandon] We need a sense of tone, of danger or playfulness or something. Let's read another one. Let's see... Why don't we skip... Wow! Okay. This is all setting.
[Howard] Yeah. There's an awful lot of setting there at the beginning. Bad Howard, no biscuit.
[Brandon] Wow. Okay. Three silver spots on the horizon. Do you see that one, Mary?
Three silver spots on the horizon called immediate attention to themselves when they began charging high energy particle coils, an action that showed very clearly on Jones’s field strength sensors.
[Brandon] Okay. So how can we make this sentence do multiple things?
[Dan] Well, first of all, I assume... From reading ahead... That these are weapons being charged. That this puts him in danger. Yet it's an incredibly distant and clinical way of describing "there are three ships charging weapons on me." So I would add some sense of danger to this description.
[Howard] One of the reasons... And here I am defending it... He's never been in a fight. He's not in an environment where he is expecting... He's never seen a warship.
[Brandon] No, that's good information for us to get. At that point, we don't need that sense of threat. We maybe want to continue this sense of playfulness, "Oh, something new. Every day on Jupiter brings something new."
[Dan] Well, see, and in that, we need a sense of curiosity.
[Mary] Well, the next sentence is that these particle accelerators... I'm paraphrasing but... Only have... He recognizes that they're only good for punching holes in things. Then he dives and runs.
[Brandon] Right. Although I still think this sentence, just hearing what he said... Might work better as, "What is that?" Then his sensors beep and he's pulled out of being this one child swimming through the winds. Suddenly he's a man in a ship again, and on this flashing screen is "Warning, weapons charged, pointed at us." He goes into panic mode. So you can have this whimsical... Of course, you have to cut this whimsical first three pages into a whimsical two paragraphs. Then we have a really sharp contrast which will work great for this story in pacing wise. Because of this kind of leisurely beginning where we're getting used to the idea of a man with a ship that is arms and then boom! We're back in the cockpit. He's lost his fun. Now there's danger and threat. We can shift tones really dramatically with the word choice there.
[Mary] I completely agree with that.
[Brandon] One thing we're not getting here also... Let's just back up. We're not getting individual personality from him. This is a different way to go. With the paragraphs I just described, you probably wouldn't want to put very much of that in. But we're doing this to illustrate. Another way to take this would be to work in to him quirks of who he is, what makes him him? What makes him tick? What is he interested in? What are his hobbies? That sort of thing...
[Howard] The reason those things are missing is because when I wrote this, I did not know any of that. This was a character who was being defined by the circumstances into which he was thrust. Which we haven't really seen yet. The character development that I had in mind for him... Yeah, it never happened.
[Dan] Well, the good news is that kind of stuff would be easy to add. I mean, one of the first things we get is he's been mining Jupiter for eight years, he's paid off his augments. Talking about why he's still here, does he enjoy his job, does he hate his job, what is he saving money for... All of those kinds of things would be very simple to...
[Brandon] I would work it...
[Howard] But those are all presented as backstory, which I abhor...
[Brandon] Right. But here's the thing. You could work these augments... Where I might go with this is say... Make the augments do more than one thing. He's bought augments that somehow reflect his personality as well as his job. He's got an augment that lets him play chess with somebody back on Venus, and he's playing chess while he's doing this. Or he's bought an augment that allows him to make music by tapping his fingers. Or something like this. So that we start to build a personality into a plot device.
[Mary] Absolutely. The other thing that's going on in the sentences is you're doing a lot of reported sensations... A report. Like called immediate attention to themselves. Showed very clearly. Then back on that first one, registered as. You can get away from those by things like, "On Jones' field strength monitor, three silver spots popped up."
[Brandon] Or even better, probably you want to put, "The three silver spots popped up" first so that you don't have a reversal of subject.
[Mary] Well, yes. Although in theory, the... When you're looking at the order of importance of something, the reader tends to remember the last thing you report first... As the strongest, so you can...
[Brandon] Yeah, that is true. That is...
[Howard] "Jones looked at his monitors, suddenly curious at the three spots that had appeared."
[Brandon] There you go. That way we won't have such clunky prepositions. That's a good point. Anyway, we need to be tying up this podcast. Howard, thank you for letting us dig into this.
[Howard] Oh, I'm so glad this is over.
[Brandon] We should really let you post this whole thing for people in the liner notes.
[Howard] Oh, that would just be awful.
[Brandon] Then our writing prompt can be, start with his concept and write your own story.
[Howard] Very good.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.