Because science into life doesn't go

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Writing Lab

So, the exciting development that was hinted at yesterday!

Although I realise that my daily wordcount numbers are a fascinating statistic in their own right, I thought that there might still be ways of spicing up these posts further. Difficult, I know, but probably not impossible. And I like a challenge.

So, lightbulb moment! What about talking about some writing issue that's come up during the course of the day? That might mean anything from analysing a single sentence's construction, to what to do with all those rejection slips, to how to really piss off an editor/agent at a con (#1 Follow into the toilets one of the few people who can help you make it in the writing game, then push your shitty manuscript under the cubical door while he/she is taking a crap. No prizes for guessing what gets used as loo-paper).

Since I meant to post such a dilemma yesterday, but was foiled by a dropped internet connection, I will talk about, not one, but two issues today!

First up, what's a reasonable characters/words ratio for a first scene of a short story? I'm not talking about all those nameless goofs who might be making up the numbers -- Rebel Alliance homecoming crowds, Star Destroyer minions, you know, those kind of folk -- but the people you actually name. You see, when a reader comes across a Luke Skywalker or a Harry Potter on the first page a little memory stack in the brain gets used up. Actually, it's probably not so little. There's probably lots of anticipatory clearing of the cobwebs so that the mind is ready to begin storing everything from what little Harry ate for breakfast, to what his big conflict is. There's only so many such folk the brain can handle (unless you were born in 18th century Russia in which case a named cast of hundreds is just dandy), and nothing pisses off a reader more than Auxillary Sandwich-Machine Maintenace Engineer Billy Gimes getting stage-time in the first paragraph only to never appear again in the rest of the story. Personally, I think a 250 words per character is a reasonable maximum for the opening scene. Any more and the reader won't be sufficiently grounded in any of those characters and they'll stop following the story you're intending them to read. Of course, clever sods might deliberately name Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, and Sneezy very swiftly to engender a sense of confusion that mirrors their protagonist's feelings, but that's a special case. In practical terms, if your planned first scene is a short one, but involves all five of your main characters together in speaking roles, you probably need to change that scene. And the corollary is that you should never name any of the grunts. Let them do the dog-work anonymously!

Second conundrum. How do you slip acronyms into the text? Some are easy. Everyone knows what CIA means. You don't need to write "Central Intelligence Agency", the reader is not a moron. But what about CME? Do you know that, smarty pants? It stands for Coronal Mass Ejection. But, ahhh, your characters don't go through that mouthful every time they say or think the concept. They refer to it as a CME. Thus, satifying both your reader and your character is a mite tricky. Do you use, "Corona mass ejections -- CMEs -- flared off the sun," making an ugly halfway house that at least allows you to never again have to utter the bastard phrase , or do you just fuck the reader and write "CMEs flared off the sun," and let them work it out, or do go all skiffy and make up some new term that is understandable to the reader and plausible for the character, "Spewers flared off the sun,"? I don't know the answer, but every time I commit "CME" to the page I feel dirty. Suggestions?

And the wordcount? 458.


Anonymous Sarah K C said...

I'll admit I haven't given your first issue much thought. On the second, you've GOT to define the acronyms immediately otherwise the reader gets annoyed. I try to slide them in there two ways:

In diaglogue: Char 2 "Holy crap! Is that a coronal mass ejection?"
Char 1 "It can't be. CMEs don't show up like that on our monitors." (followed by an interesting description of how these characters are aware of CMEs and why they care.) Then everyone calls them CMEs from there on out.

In descriptive exposition:
Joe arrived at the solar observatory, anxious about what they'd found. The intensity of the coronal mass ejection that started last Tuesday was still increasing. A normal CME would be fading out by now.

Thanks for the fun thought exercises!

7:51 AM

Blogger Steve said...

I think another possible way is to use the phrase that everyone uses, and then show how they interpret it in their terms i.e. they themselves may have forgotten what the acronym stands for.

"The sun crackled with CMEs -- enormous spurts of hot plasma that reached halfway to Mercury."

. . . or . . .

"CMEs -- Vince had forgotten what the damn letters stood for, but he knew very well what it meant from bitter experience: like Mount Vesuvius erupting on the sun and then being helped along by half-a-tonne of dynamite in its belly."

11:35 AM


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