Sunday, July 4, 2010

Writing Advice from Bestselling Author Aaron Allston

Michael Salsbury
While at the Origins 2010 game fair, I had the opportunity to attend some writing seminars by New York Times bestselling author Aaron Allston. Mr. Allston has published many novels, including a variety of novels for the Star Wars and Terminator franchises, as well as his own "Doc Sidhe" series. On Mr. Allston's home page, he posts information about projects he's working on and includes a link to an online store where his writing can be published in eBook formats.

Here are some of the bits of advice Mr. Allston shared during his "Style and Mood" seminar:

  • Write all the way through a novel or story from beginning to end without stopping or editing any more than absolutely necessary. This will keep you from walking away from the work or getting bored with it before it's finished.

  • Do not set out to create "art", especially in the beginning. Set out to tell the story you want to tell. As you perfect your craft, you'll get better and your work will begin to approach what others (and you) will see as "art". If you set out to create "art" you'll never achieve it, always comparing the work you're doing to some lofty goal.

  • A genre is a way of deliberately limiting your writing to appeal to a specific subset of people. This is why some literature teachers don't see science-fiction as art, as it isn't designed to appeal to "everyone" but just to fans of that kind of work.

  • Mr. Allston recommends watching the show Dexter as an example about someone who is trying to be "human" and isn't.

  • Avoid writing "the shocking truth". He gave an example from a news story about a woman who had been attacked with an ice pick and didn't realize it until she got home, when she discovered "the shocking truth" that there was an ice pick stuck in her back. This kind of phrasing is trying to tell the reader (or viewer) how to react to the story, rather than sharing the facts and letting the reader react based on that.

  • Avoid the use of adverbs and adjectives like "the pain was excruciating". That's not a very clear image. What is "excruciating" exactly? Better to use a description like "it was like having someone scrape off part of a vertbrae with a file". We may not have a good mental image of "excruciating" but we can probably envision that "scraping" example very clearly.

  • Similarly, if someone is described as wearing "red shoes" it may be accurate, but if there isn't more to the selection of the color than that, it's a useless detail. Why did the person choose red shoes? What do those red shoes make the people around the wearer think of them? Is the wearer tasteless? Is the wearer trying to attract attention?

  • When you're reviewing and editing your work, look at every adverb and adjective. Consider replacing it with an expansion like the "scraping" example above. Don't do too many of those, however. Maybe 1-2 per chapter of a novel is enough.

  • Mr. Allston feels that Robert Heinlein was a master of brevity in dialogue and description.

  • Manage dialogue without any euphemisms for "said", such as shouted, uttered, murmured, or "ejaculated". Find other ways to let the reader know who is speaking, such as the characters' word choice, sentence structure, or dialect.

  • If you have written a scene and there is unwanted emotion in it (e.g., the bad guy looks more sympathetic than the hero), use the "Perry Mason" technique. In that show, the victim of a murder is always depicted as a bad person, so that the audience and the other characters in the story don't get too upset about them dying. By making the victim appear to be "awful" you can remove the emotional reaction to their death. Similarly, you can downplay any emotional reaction by offsetting it with other feelings.

  • Humor is anything that tends to make people laugh. Comedy is a genre, where there tends to be a setup and a punchline. People in a comedy say and do things just to set up the joke, things that a normal person in that situation might not do.

  • During action sequences, sentence and paragraph length should be shorter. Descriptions should be the minimum necessary to depict what is going on.

  • If you use time dilation (making something appear to happen in slow motion), don't overdo it. A paragraph or two at the most should accomplish what you need. Even if the hypothetical time dilation continues on for quite a while, it's not advisable to continue it in the text.

  • There shouldn't be large blocks of dialogue during action scenes.

  • In an action scene, if a character is doing something unexpected or unusual, provide only the minimum amount of exposition necessary to explain the action. For example, if a pacifist picks up a gun, show them hesitating to do it but realizing it's necessary to protect a loved one, then move on to pulling the trigger.

During his seminar on plot analysis, Mr. Allston provided information including the following:

  • The "point" of your story should be something you can express in a very short sentence, like "Family pride leads to murder."

  • The "themes" of your story are ideas that you explore or express during the course of the story. These can generally be summed up in a single word, and there should be from 1 to 5 in a story.

  • "Arcs" (usually character arcs) are the personal progression of a character, from the beginning to the end of the story. These should not be an external change, like a new job, but a deeper and more profound internal change (like Scrooge going from a grouchy old miser to a decent, generous guy).

  • "Scenes" or "Events" are things that happen in a story in a confined space and time with specific characters involved. If you change the location, it's a new scene. Change the time period, it's a new scene.

  • If a scene in the story isn't accomplishing something to move the story along, it should go.

  • Scenes in a story generally do one or more of the following:

    • Establish characters: Their conflicts, names, descriptions, etc.

    • Establish facts: Any back-story, history, off-screen events that happen, or time-critical information getting to characters

    • Reiterate or Re-establish facts that were already established, such as showing a subtle fact seen earlier more clearly, or allowing characters who weren't present earlier to learn of a fact and react to it

    • Point to the future: foreshadowing and scenes that set up a situation now for a pay-off later (e.g., picks up some papers and later finds a winning lottery ticket in them)

    • Complicate matters: Add obstacles the slow things down, or a "quest" that the character must finish to get something needed to resolve the main conflict. These can also include "reversals" where we learn that something isn't what we thought it was (e.g., drug dealer is really an undercover cop).

    • Move things along, facilitating progress in the main story: This can (and where appropriate should) include the character looking at the options to solve his or her problem and choosing one, with the possible repercussions of the choice spelled out.

    • Reposition characters: Move them physically or emotionally where you need them. For example, getting them on a bus so they're across town at the right time, or having them get bad news that makes them sad at a critical time.

    • Address one of the themes: For example, if "loyalty" is a theme, test a character's loyalty in some way.

    • Address the point of the story: For example, show the good guy becoming corrupted.

    • Address a character arc: A spineless character has to make a choice that helps him grow, or chooses the wimpy option and sets himself up for failure later. Characters should, by the way, fail in at least some scenes. If they always win, it becomes melodramatic.

    • Wrap things up: resolve a sub-plot, resolve the main plot, or reveal something like a character realizing he no longer wants the thing he's been pining for the entire novel. Deliver a pay-off from an earlier scene. Give emotional closure.

  • Having multiple purposes to a scene can misdirect the reader. You can introduce something seemingly minor (e.g., an unplugged clock radio) that comes into play later (e.g., character is unsure of the time something happened).

  • During your review of the story, analyze each scene. Does it accomplish something? Can you hide additional things in the scene for a pay-off later? Should there be more action or a theme expressed? Does the scene accomplish "enough" to move the story along?

  • Good examples of plotting include: The Godfather 1 and 2, It's a Wonderful Life, and "A Man of Prosperity"

  • An example of how a scene can serve multiple purposes... Imagine that you've established that Kate and Jack are a married couple. Jack lost his job and is forced to work a crummy part-time job that he hates. Kate is the major breadwinner. Each night, she comes home from work, takes a nap, wakes up, fixes them dinner, they talk for a bit, and go to bed. One day, Kate wakes up to find her alarm clock didn't go off. It's not completely unplugged but it's unplugged enough to be "off". It's dark, and she hasn't fixed Jack's dinner yet. She comes out and finds him watching his favorite show. She apologizes to him. He blows up. He follows her around berating her. At one point, he grabs an old clock off the wall, shoves it in her face, and asks her if she sees what time it is. Tells her he's been waiting around for her. Smashes the clock over her head. In fear, she runs to the bedroom and locks herself in.

    What did this scene accomplish for the story? It depicts Jack's chauvenism, his tendency toward violence, and the couple's rocky relationship. It showed a fight between the couple. It also establishes something more subtle: the time that the fight took place. Jack showed her the clock before smashing it, so Kate saw the time. Imagine now that Jack's boss, whom he hates, shows up later in the story as murdered on that day and time. Kate believes she knows where he was. But does she? Her alarm clock was unplugged. Jack could have set any time he wanted on the smashed clock before she saw it. The show he was watching could have been on his DVR or VCR. The scene also therefore establishes reasonable suspicion in Kate's mind that her husband might be the killer. The reader will likely focus on the argument and violence, not thinking about the time on the smashed clock or the unplugged alarm clock until much later.

I thought Mr. Allston did a great job explaining his points and providing concrete examples of what he meant by each point.

I look forward to learning more from him at a future seminar.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


Post a Comment