Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Comic Novels of Charles Sorel: A Study of Structure, Characterization and Disguise (French Forum Monographs, 32.)Comic Novels of Charles Sorel: A Study of Structure, Characterization and Disguise (French Forum Monographs, 32.)

Tonight I want to talk to you about a trend I’ve been noticing in my own Fiction Writers’ Group on LinkedIn. So many young writers worry about a good deal about competition, about whether and when they will get an agent, be published by one of the big Houses, or even be published at all.
These are important things to think about, but not yet.
Not yet.

What’s important now, and this applies to all writers, is the story. Always and everlasting, the story. That is and must be your total focus.
Since the beginning of time, as long as Man has occupied our beautiful little planet, there have been storytellers. Whether it was a hominid (yes, I know he wasn’t quite Man, but close enough, just now) telling his group in primitive signs that he had seen something with too many teeth to argue with; or a male Australopithecus pointing for his clan the way north out of Africa; or a Cro-Magnon man—or woman—drawing tales the hunt, of anticipation and terror and delight, on the walls of a French cave, Man has been a storyteller.

We have found many ways to tell our stories, in television, movies, audio cassettes, in person in schools and churches and around campfires, and by parents and grandparents telling the tales to children. Oral histories; old legends with the fire of truth in their hearts; fairy tales; ancient stories told a thousand times and still new, still funny and horrible and tender and memorable, stories are like a fire that can destroy and consume, or warm and comfort.
We are the keepers of that ancient flame, and we must see to it that it never dims, never falters, never fails.
The story, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is the thing. Stories must start as close to the rising action as possible. I don’t give a tinker’s dam whether Millie-May Jumbles sleeps on her left side, wears a flannel nightgown, and puts in her teeth before she waddles into the loo to wash up and comb her hair and floss her teeth, unless that’s vital to the essence, the core of the story.

But if the story begins when she steps into the barn and hears the click of a gun’s hammer snapping back, Im suddenly alert, and I'll be all ears from then on.
The description is fine, and often necessary. but don’t turn off your reader with incidentals before you hook him. Once the reader has committed to reading your piece, then fine, drop in the description bit by bit, hopefully by showing us, rather than telling us. And only tell us what we need to hear.
Don’t give poor old Milly-May her false teeth unless they’re going to play a role in the story. That is to say, for instance, that she can keep complaining about her false teeth, how they make her mouth sore, and keep trying to fall out, and are a total bother; and perhaps the nervous intruder keeps telling her to shut up.
Then, if he carries her off, maybe her dropping those teeth somewhere they’ll be found or snagging them on a cactus (or whatever) as she passes, will spin the story around into a completely new direction. That would follow. But if you’re going to simply tell us she has false teeth (just to be cute) and then never mention them again, or mention them to no avail, forget it. You’re wasting your time and the reader’s time, too.
Here’s a non-rule that works like a Rule: Don’t show your reader anything—especially by mentioning it two or more times—unless you’re going to use it in the story.

Everything is important; you just have to decide what’s the most important in your story.
More next time.

Lang out.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Give Your Protagonist Some Distinctive Quirks or Habits

I had a professor in college—an ex-merchant-marine captain-turned-Jesuit—who was almost a stereotype: he was short, well-muscled, balding with a thick "St. Anthony fringe" around the edges and a tuft of fiery red hair sticking straight up from the middle of his shiny pate. I was always reminded of the paintings of “The Descent of the Holy Spirit Upon Mary and the Disciples,” when everyone had flames standing over their heads.

His name was Father Thomas J. Walshe, and he was a bundle of energy, striding up and down before the class. His voice was constantly rising and falling, harsh one moment and silky-soft the next, expounding with laughter and Irish brogue and sober statements the great philosophical tenets of the Greek Philosophers.

I loved him like a dear uncle.

He had a habit—undoubtedly developed aboardship—of scrubbing rapidly at his dry, red, potato of a nose with the back of a fist when he got excited, which was often. And he was right, there was so much in his teachings to get excited about. I’ve never forgotten him, nor the lessons he taught, knowingly or unknowingly.

Let’s consider another example:

In Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” the character named Uriah Heep keeps proclaiming his unworthiness, his humility, his complete and utter lowliness—to underscore which he keeps bowing, hunching and looking up at the world from under his brows. He’s a despicable character, full of false pride and nastiness, but the idea of his hunching and glowering from beneath his brows sticks with me, even today. It’s memorable, and is another proof of Dickens’ genius.

There. That’s it. Your lesson for today. The bringing-to-life of a person or persons you have never known, giving them distinctive quirks and/or habits, “seeing” and “hearing” them clearly. You did “see” and “hear” them—didn’t you? If not, please let me know. No one is above learning from his colleagues.

That’s all for now. We’re under a tornado warning, and I’m watching the weather news.

More next week.

Lang out.

PS Oh, I almost forgot to mention my “Simon Lang’s Basic Writers’ Course” which will be available shortly at I’ll also be putting up a workbook for Catholic High School Students as well, for homeschoolers and others who are interested, as well as my unique story-plotting aid, HANDS-ON STORIES®. Check it out!