I told myself I am not going to write about Corvid19, quarantining, masks, six feet of distance or the improbably exotic recipes popping up in my in-box (sheesh, they sound like neurosurgery). Do I have anything other than what’s top of all our minds to share? With relief, I realize I do.
My current project is editing a non-fiction manuscript written by a gentleman who has a national, well-respected reputation as a consultant and researcher to advertising agencies. He tests and provides direction for successful ads. He is doing a book on memory. Not his remembrances of things past, but how memory works with firing neurons and synapsis and all the physiological doo dads whirring around in our brains and how that leads to building different types of memories. (After all, the manufacturer does want her snack food/disposable razor/perfume/car to always be the strongest memory, always top of the consumer’s mind.)
My client bases his approach to successful ads on the structure of storytelling as that innate human characteristic is ultimately what drives communication—this is something the Slice of Orange community knows quite a bit about so it is fascinating to see the storyteller’s principles applied to something as work-a-day as marketing. He uses the work of neuroscientists, philosophers, script writers, cartoonists and psychiatrists to back up the idea that human speech developed from the need to communicate a story – gossip.
Okay. I don’t quibble because I know that storytelling is fundamental to every human I’ve ever met. It’s the good storytellers, the writers, who touch us the most deeply; those are the stories that are memorable. What the good storyteller knows—the arc of inciting incident to climax to resolution, and all the beats and color and emotion and drama that get the story to those points—is also fundamental to good advertising. And that is linked to how our brains make memories.
I consider the ads that stick in my memory. Some of these are really long-term memories, coming from childhood—does anyone ever forget Speedy Gonzales or Tony the Tiger? They’re complete, miniature stories and I’ve retained the high points. “Where’s the Beef” had all the emotional beats of a 350 page novel and whether or not I consciously made the connection, I had Wendy’s top of mind for my beef fix. It was impossible to see a giant choir of fresh-faced kids singing I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing without thinking of Coca Cola and hearing a million different emotion charged stories. All of those marketing moments—and more—hit an emotional note that became an indelible memory. Wow! Good story telling is magical.
This new perspective, with its emphasis on memory and the potency of storytelling, will be top of mind for me on my next fiction project. I don’t know that it will change how I look at the content of a story or the effectiveness of the structure and style. I’m not sure it will effect how I edit the manuscript but it’s refreshing to learn that the things good writer’s know instinctively can be measured and diagramed and graphed and applied to any creative endeavor.
There is one sticking point, however. I remain unconvinced that language developed from an irresistible urge to gossip. Putting myself in caveman days I prefer to think our species began talking because of an irresistible urge to warn me of the saber-tooth tiger leering at me from the cliff above. It’d clearly be time to run—and that’s a story.
Beware the company you keep.
Hunkered down, social distancing, getting that restless cabin fever thing. Having made myself nuts listening to 24/7 Corvid19 updates I’ve weaned that to 5 minutes a day. That leaves a lot of free time. I tried cooking. The eggplant parma that came out of my oven looked nothing like the one onscreen at Food & Wine. I won’t comment on the pea soup, though I may try to sell it to a prop house. Enough wasting precious food stuff; back to what I know best.
Books are my ‘go to’ and like millions of us, I’m bingeing. That’s not anything new, of course, but this time I’m really binging—like eat, drink, sleep, dream, 24/7 bingeing.
I decided the Cozy offered what I need most—to be surrounded by friends— friends with far more exciting lives than mine. Cozies are character driven, filled with smart/plucky/idiosyncratic/befuddled/unique MCs. There’s always a supporting cast of peculiar vicars/spinsters/widows/jolly butchers; a bucolic village or a quaint boutique of some sort (I always over-eat when the MC owns a bakery) and an historical local feature—castle, manor, deserted distillery etc. Oh yes, and a dead guy or two. All stuff a socially distanced gal can sink her teeth into.
I started with Agatha Raisin (M.C. Beaton). I love this character—egotistical, insecure, smart, intrepid etc. Agatha gets bored easily and by book 7 a nasty suspicion began to nag me. Was she orchestrating all this mayhem? We know her PR skills, her lust for the limelight, her mastery of manipulation. Could it be that beneath her plucky facade lies a serial killer? What better way to keep one’s fame flame burning than solving the statistically improbable number of Cotswold murders? Do I really want to hang with her?
I turned to Miss Marple (Agatha Christie, of course!). She’s a chameleon. She blends to invisibility in any setting just by sitting demurely with her her knitting. She sees and hears everything and remembers it all. Murder plagues even her slightest acquaintance and she perches like a spider ‘til the culprit shakes her web and he is revealed. Even with six degrees of separation, I don’t want to know her. I could be the unfortunate victim of her butcher’s wife’s cousin-in-law. It’s too bad because the village of St. Mary Mead sounds so lovely—until I recall Miss Marple’s own words, “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.” Time to move on.
Flavia deLuce (Alan Bradley). Just the ticket! Flavia is a prodigy, a wit, a poverty stricken blueblood and she’s 11 years old. She welds a grand vocabulary, intimidates adults, and has a Phd in cheekiness. Flavia’s hobby is chemistry and really, science in general, and she uses her hobby to solve the who dunnit of every body she stumbles on in “Bishop’s Lacey, a notable hotbed of crime.” See! I’m completely reassured. Flavia is the perfect company to keep. She does nothing to attract all that homicide; that’s just a Bishop’s Lacey issue. Besides, she named her bike Gladys. I’m sticking with her.
I hope all of you have found your binge worthy material. Read on and stay well.
Yesterday Rebecca Forster posted a challenge on FB. Write about whatever pops into your head right now. I’d just listened to the 1st WH news conference and feeling an odd mixture of ignorant, apprehensive and sardonic this is what came tumbling out:
Only one Rhode Island Red crowed like that. And it hadn’t come from Scoundrel’s pen. Curly Tuwitt ground his teeth—all seven of them. He hated that wart faced, belly slitherin’, wrinkled old hag on a good day but this—this was the last straw from a lifetime of her crap.
Already het up over the never ending updates and dire warnings about that Chiineeze virus pouring from the TV, pissed that he’d failed to stock up on anything and was out of everything. (There was that one lone can of beans, and he hated to think what that could lead to.) A second, clearly distant call from Scoundrel chased out any thoughts of supplies and focused his blazing anger.
The first time he’d seen her was skippin’ across his grannie’s strawberry patch, just a pickin’ and a nibblin’ her way through those fat ripe berries like she done own it all; like she’s the one who’d been out in the last frost, barefoot and freezin’, just to get the young plants covered and then come early summer who you think did the weedin’ and the waterin’?
He wasn’t but six and that girl looked tall. Despite that he knew she weren’t much older than him. With that fiery red hair and those rusty freckles like she was in the way come sloppin’ time he knew this was Marjo Geordy. Pa said that whole clan was troublesome.
“Hey, you there! Put them berries down now or I’m a gonna whoop your skinny butt fer stealin.” Curly’d made his voice as deep and growly as he could and he’d stood his ground, frowning, like a man ready to make good on his word.
Marjo looked up, slowly placing a purloined berry into the basket on her arm. Her mouth, red with the smear of ripe strawberries, looked to be dripping in blood. A slow, malicious smile bared reddened teeth. “Where you want me to put ‘em, big scary man?”
Marjo didn’t sound scared and for a moment Curly was flummoxed. “Down. Put ‘em down. Right there.” Curly pointed vaguely to the edge of the patch. He hoped he sounded as stern as Pa when he caught Curly in the sugar bowl.
Marjo looked to where he’d pointed. Her smile got even wider and she turned back to him. “Okay. But you better be ready to grab this basket quick. I don’t give up easy.” Her long legs took three steps to the edge of the patch and reaching out one long skinny arm she placed the basket high on the top of a bush. Three reverse steps took her back in the patch. She didn’t have to say a word; her whole body screamed challenge.
Curly looked to the basket and knew he’d have to jump to reach it. I’m fast; I can do it. Running like lightening he’d leapt into the bush, grabbed the basket and got a snoot full of unmistakable scent—poison sumac. A cackle of mirth faded into the distance. That was just the first time.
Curly understood life takes us on unexpected paths. From his family’s farm down the road of economic highs and lows he’d come near his end in this dusty settlement of trailers, not more’n 60 feet from his nemesis. There was some satisfaction in seeing Marjo brought to the same pass but she had taken Scoundrel and that was the final poke she was gonna take at him.
Heaving himself out of the recliner he slammed out the door, grabbed his pitchfork and stormed across the open 60 feet. “Marjo Jean Geordy you give me back my rooster or I’m gonna use this pitch fork to take him.”
“Possession is nine tenths of the law. Got papers to prove that last one tenth?”
“You stole Scoundrel and you know it, you skinny old cow.”
“Naw. No stealin’. I just took him to try him out. I like him. That rooster is as purdy as everyone says. I‘ll trade ya for him.”
It was always like this. Marjo Geordy bein’ all reasonable like and Curly Tuwitt gettin’ flustered and maybe a little confused. “You can’t trade for somethin’ ya stole.” Curly glared at Marjo who leaned calmly against her little storage shed.
“Mebbe not in regular days but things’re a bit different right now. Might be there’s somehin’ you want more’n that rooster.”
Curly lowered his pitchfork, eyes wary as he saw the familiar smile creep over her lips. “What could I possibly want more’n the best Rhode Island Red in the tri-counties?”
Still graceful and wiry after all these years Marjo turned and pulled the shed door open, bowing like she was presenting the Queen of Sheba. Curly stared into the shadows at rows and rows and stacks and stacks of toilet paper.
It had always been like this and it looked like it always would.
Every author faces this last crucial challenge. You’ve already spent untold hours researching, writing and editing your book. Your title hits just the right poetic note. You’ve gone several tense rounds to find the perfect cover. All that remains is the book blurb, the opening salvo in the promotional war. This is the first (and sometimes only) chance to grab a reader and compel them to buy the book. And so, like click bait, you need to lure your reader with an honest but irresistible snap shot.
It’s an art, this writing of a synopsis that isn’t a synopsis, this sell copy that isn’t an ad. And for something that isn’t a science there are strict rules: you have to be honest – no misleading the reader. No spoilers or why bother to read it – which can be tough since the spoiler is often the most exciting part of the story. Keep it at 200 words or less and don’t make it one run-on paragraph. Use the proper keywords for your genre. Reveal something about the antagonist – readers like to know if they can root for the hero. This isn’t the place to relate the entire plot but you have to provide the zeitgeist, the feel of the tale. No easy task.
A lot of the writers I work with find this daunting and ask for help, which I am happy to provide. I think it’s difficult for the writer to step far enough away from their work to pick out the enticing, salient points and present them with the tension and intrigue that make for a successful blurb. To the author, all story points are important. I get that, but as an avid reader I know what works for me in a blurb. It’s not how much is said, but how compellingly it’s said.
I start with a deconstruction approach. It’s possible to distill any story down to bare bones. In his book Hit Lit – Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers James W. Hall provided the most distilled example I’ve ever seen. This is a beloved tale that we all know intimately: “A young girl wakes in a surreal landscape and murders the first woman she sees. She teams with three strangers and does it again.” It’s short, accurate and intriguing but would it sell the book?
I wouldn’t distill it down that far but it makes a great beginning. What if we knew something about the young girl – an orphan, a princess, a refugee? And what about the surreal landscape – gaping desert, oozing swamp, forbidding mountains? Then the three strangers – female, male, older, menacing, kindly? Is all this murdering spurred by necessity, thrills, defense, the three strangers or is it unintended manslaughter? And finally, what is the young girl up to – revenge, enlightenment, finding a way out of the surreal landscape? Flesh out those points, add some genre keywords, reference any kudos and you could turn those original 24 spartan words into a 160 – 200 word blurb that would peak curiosity and entice the shopper to buy.
If you can step away from the totality of your story and deconstruct the plot to the primary elements, then present those elements in a provocative way you can create an effective selling tool with your book blurb. BTW, that book Hall described? The Wizard of Oz.
Snow falling. No deadlines looming. Perfect day to cozy up on the couch and read.
Deep into a very funny paranormal romance I reach the climactic moment when the cheeky young witch meets the acid tongued evil vampiress. Biting insults fly back and forth with the speed of fiery spells. I’m laughing and then…wait. Who said that? I have to go back to the beginning to be sure I understand which character that pithy insult came from. The dialog rages on for a page and a half, not a dialog tag in sight. The punctuation alone sets apart the speakers. The rhythm of the story is broken when I lose my place and I wish the author had found a way to make that clever, long exchange read effortlessly. It’s still funny and well written though, so I read to the end.
Not long ago I’d given up on a detective story when I stumbled on yet another doozy of a dialog tag line: “I want to go home,” she said vulnerably. Really, vulnerably? The character’s husband has just been gruesomely murdered and her junky son is in jail. I’m pretty certain she’s vulnerable. Worse, given the flow of the narrative I know who’s speaking. That adverb felt like hitting a chug hole at 40 mph. Sigh. That was the final disconnect for me – I’d lost the rhythm of the story. I no longer cared who’d murdered the bookstore owner.
The writerly world is flooded with dialog tag dicta. We have the Elmore Leonard – Steven King school of absolute ‘she/he’ said (and possibly, maybe, sometimes ‘asked’). We have the proponents of injected emotion: ‘she yelled’, “he cried”, “she demanded hotly”. And then there are the minimalists who reject all tags, relying solely on punctuation to set speakers apart.
There are no rules for dialog tags, and I don’t champion making any, but smart writers are aware of how a tag affects the narrative flow and when it adds to, or detracts from that flow. The purpose of a dialog tag is to identify the speaker. Good storytelling shows emotion so the narrative circumstances and the wording of the dialog will convey how the words were said. Depending on how the scene is structured no tag would be needed, or ‘said’ would be enough.
And then there are those instances where a more elaborate tag is vital. (There really are no rules!) All the great writers occasionally use some variation of ‘she snarled’ ‘he groaned’ etc. Sometimes it makes sense to support the dialog by a little telling. Even Steven King admits to slipping in an adverb in a dialog tag or two. A writer’s gotta do what their story demands. As an editor and reader I prefer that the music of the dialog within the setting of the scene show me all I need to know.
The reader’s inner ear will hear good dialog; it’s an unconscious understanding. For my money the best dialog tags are invisible. All that need register at the conscious level is the identity of the speaker. Does anyone knowingly read ‘said’? It’s like a good child, seen but not heard. “Unless it’s little Parker next door whose screams of delight fill me with joy,” I say unreservedly.
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