How to write transitions

I got tired of the double space asterisk break, and decided to write some stuff with transitions and not breaks.

Can I tell you how to write the transitions? I have no idea. It depends on whether or not I actually know anything, and it depends on your writing style and voice, and certainly on the material you’re working with. All I can tell you is how I do it.

The thing I relied upon was the character’s feeling. Of course, the setting helps guide the the character’s thinking, and her interior feeling. That’s what triggers the transition for the character and provides the logic for the reader.

Here’s the first transition from the party to the beach (examples from the Amazon short “Nikki This Hollywood Life” by Vanessa Gordot:

A glass of wine in one hand a cigarette in the other, Nikki eased away from the guy beside her. Not Benjamin. Benjamin was over on the other side of the room yelling in the ear of a skinny kid in rimless glasses.

The guy trying to talk to her was okay and actually about as out-of-place as she was, older if maybe thirty was older, clean-cut, jacket, no tie. He looked like a professor at a girl’s school. She couldn’t hear a thing he was saying. She’d really had it with this party.

“Gotta go!” she screamed, “Nice talking to you!” turning away, not caring if he heard or understood. Jesus, what a zoo.

She used her elbow to push open the sagging screen door and made her way down the dilapidated wooden stairs. Wary of her silk dress, the flaking paint, she stepped carefully, watching out for the cracks between the boards. Following a narrow alleyway, she emerged onto the wide sidewalk that separated the buildings from the beach.

And there was the Pacific Ocean.

The sun had just gone below the horizon and a swath of neon pink and fuchsia splashed across the sky. It looked like a set decorator’s idea of a sunset, a wash of vibrant color on a pale blue scrim, way over the top.

“Fake,” she breathed.

Here’s the transition from the beach to the flashback. You know the fiction notion of starting a scene as far into as possible? This occurred to me at the time, so I started the flashback at the very end of it, as she’s leaving it: [Caution, adult language ahead]

She sat there, holding her shoes in her lap, watching the night fold out over the Pacific, thinking about Michael Brockton and the Oscars and how the trades always mentioned his captivating crooked smile, weighing what she would have to do to retrieve the lighter she’d left upstairs against how much she didn’t want to end up letting Benjamin take her home and screw her. He always wanted to put her on her hands and knees, as if he wanted to be Christian Bale in American Psycho. Whatever happened to plain, old-fashioned face-to-face fucking?

Maybe it was the ocean, the sky, the sunset, the inexorable gathering of day into night, this perfect seascape evening sliding down the western slope of the world. Maybe it was a moment of lonely calm. From wherever it came, the awareness floated into her mind that she didn’t like herself anymore.

It was creepy, this wanting to float off into nothingness, to let go of the endless pretending, to never again have to look at her face in a mirror. The icy feeling curled around inside her.

She knew it was the aftermath, the fall-out.

Tuesday of last week she’d come out of the hotel room, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Beach hotel room, the heavy door swinging closed behind her, the lock clicking into place with a steel-embedded-in-oak finality. It was like the last sound that echoes through the theater at the very end of a really good noir picture. The audience is hushed, then the sound of that clicking lock breaks the tension and everyone knows it’s over and they can start breathing again.

The door closed behind her, she walked down the hallway, even the hallways rich and luxurious, feeling strangely proud of herself. Hell, that wasn’t so bad. If that’s all it took, if that’s all it was. She could do that. Not as a regular thing, no. But if that’s what it took, she could do it.

She’d been tipsy, well actually pretty blotto, but that wasn’t an excuse. She knew what was happening every moment, saw it with the clarity that comes with enough champagne cocktails. You might not be able to drive too well — though actually after it was all over she had driven herself home, no problem — but you could see the face and the eyes of the person you were with, see what was behind them.

[There’s a full discussion of writing this story elsewhere.]

Here’s the transition from her apartment to the metro in the first part of  “Zoe in Real Life.” It seemed to me that if I was describing things, if Zoë was clicking right along, all I needed was a short sentence.

The bastard! It was time for a change.

She dressed quickly, throwing on a tiered chemise in a buttercup shade that showed off her figure, a cream colored pleated skirt, sandals and a cropped silk jacket in a nautical stripe. She wore her dark hair loose. She ran a comb through it, ruffled it with her fingers, shook her head and she was ready. She caught the metro.

The train was full, all the seats taken, a throng pressed together in the aisle, jostling against each other as the train wove its rumbling way through the black, crooked tunnels, bumping through switches, stopping and starting, the yellow lights flickering. Someone was pressed tight against her from behind, and Zoë cast a quick glance.

Here’s the transition from the metro into her daydream, which becomes a brief scene:

As the car lurched the young man’s leg pulsed against her derrière in a not altogether unpleasant way. Zoë shifted to increase the contact. Warmth seeped into her tummy and she thought of the woman in the pictures, the model for Enrique’s porn. Who was she? What was her name? She was young enough, was she perhaps attending the university, a friend of the young man rubbing against her?

Zoë felt her sensibilities become hazy. The porn girl, Veronica, she would call her. And the student behind her, he was Clément, a gentle, loving soul, but poor, oh so poor. Yet he was brilliant, gifted beyond so many others. But he had no connections, no patron, so he depended entirely on Veronica for his support. Veronica, with little education and no connections of her own, with nothing but her unusual beauty and long legs, had turned to a shark, a greasy Sicilian, borrowed money she could not now repay. Of course the inevitable came to pass. The Sicilian caught up with her on a street in the Sixth, took her elbow, directed her to a corner table in a café away from the few other customers.

Here’s a transition from a flashback within the restaurant scene into another of Zoë’s daydreams:

They’d been the very best of friends ever since the day four years before—they’d been fifteen—when they pledged their loyalty on a summer afternoon beneath a bridge beside the shimmering Seine.

They’d stood close, facing each other. “Put one hand here,” Heidi said, placing Zoë’s right palms on her breast, “and the other here.” She put Zoë’s left hand on her crotch. Zoe felt Heidi’s pubic bone, her fingers curled into the unusually wide space at the top of her thighs.

Then Heidi put her hands on Zoë’s breast and cupped her minou.

“Now we kiss,” Heidi said. “Don’t forget to open your mouth.”

Their lips touched delicately, sensuously, and Zoë felt Heidi’s pink tongue come slipping into her mouth, tickling, teasing at her own. The kiss went on for minutes, the two of them like statues, only their tongues exploring, dancing together. When they broke Zoë was breathless. Heidi’s eyes glittered like the sun on the water.

“I adore you,” Heidi said simply.

“And I you,” Zoë admitted, a bit embarrassed at the state the little blond vixen had brought her to.

They’d been meilleures amies ever since.

Recalling the feeling, Zoë’s mind swept back to the girl she’d imagined earlier on the metro, Veronica. Veronica, who was both Clément’s girlfriend and also Enrique’s porn girl. What had happened? Oh, yes, Salvatore had sent her to meet a strange man with the promise of a thousand euros. But for what in exchange?

It was a modest hotel, small lobby, tidy elevator and hallways, though not of the first rank, and Veronica tapped lightly on the door of room 403.

A masculine voice: “It’s open.”

It was a sitting room, fairly large, patterned green carpet, furniture from perhaps twenty years ago, long off-white sofas on either side of a glass-topped coffee table and beyond them tall windows with sheer curtains, and a man looking down at the street, hands clasped behind his back.

When he turned, Veronica recognized him: the owner of a shoe store and nearby dress shop on Avenue Montaigne. His precious little mustache was centered in a round face. He wore a morning coat and pinstripe trousers.

There you go. Hope it helps.

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Stringing out the tension

Peter D. wrote:

I like Terence Malick movies and he does this thing where you will be in the midst of a battle scene, and the camera will just look away to show a lizard or a crocodile or something.

So there is the idea. I like to use it to break up dialog. In the midst of the scene launch into a paragraph describing some element of the scene. It doesn’t have to be important to your story. It is just there to ground the scene in reality. To make it seem that your story is happening in a real world.

So what is my question? Does anyone else use this technique, and does it have a name, other than “The look away”.

And do you think it is a good idea?

It is a technique and one I’ve used (example below). I don’t know that it has a name, maybe postponing reader gratification, or maybe (better?) stringing out the tension.

Interesting that you point to Malick’s example of being in a battlefield, where (one assumes) tension would be high.

I think the fundamental of the technique is that when you have the reader really wriggling on the hook (“oh, my God, what’s going to happen?), at that point you play the game of seeing how far away you can go and still keep the reader wriggling.

I was finished.

Flat on my back. My left arm hurt like hell where the slug had gone through my bicep. Gordo stood over me holding the .45 pointed at the middle of my chest, five feet away.

I had no way to get up, much less get up fast. And to get out of the way of a .45 slug coming at a thousand feet per second, when it’s only five feet away—no chance.

Gordo sneered. “You think you can be like the others, the straight people?” he said. “Doan make me laugh. You one of us, you on our side a the fence. You can’t go over that fence. It ain’t in you. You ain’t got it in you. You done too much shit over here to go try and clean up your act over there. It ain’t never going to happen, homey.”

The bastard. It sounded true, and I hated that it sounded true.

I sank back, let the tension go, felt my body mold itself into the damp earth beneath me. I gave up. Here I would end. Finito. Adios.

I could see Gordo’s big brown hand wrapped around the pistol’s grip, his big fat finger starting to tighten on the trigger.

I didn’t want to watch. And I sure didn’t want to think about what was probably happening to Taylor, left alone back there with that ugly pock-marked fucker called Facil. Yeah, he was easy, all right. Easy to hate.

I looked up. We were out in the orange grove. I saw the tops of the trees, the green leaves and beyond them blue sky. I could hear tires humming along the distant highway. I pictured the people in the car, a guy at the wheel, a pretty girl beside him, happy, laughing, cigarettes going, listening to music. No idea what was going on in the middle of that orchard over there.

A bird called out. A bird that didn’t have sense enough to get away from the shit going down in his neighborhood.

“Stupid fucking bird.”

I guess I said it out loud.

“Huh?” Gordo said.

One hell of a blast made me flinch like a girl, and I must have closed my eyes. The thought went thorough my head that’s it, I’m dead. Shit, it didn’t even hurt! And I can still think. Hell, this being dead, it’s not so bad.

So is he dead?

Well . . . then he couldn’t be narrating, could he?

The rest of the scene:

I opened my eyes and it was all in slow motion: Gordo standing there, except now where the .45 had been there was only a bloody stump on the end of his arm and there was a misty spray of blood settling out of the air.

Gordo’s eyes were open even wider than mine. He turned his head, took a half step and looked over to the side of clearing.

I looked, too, and there was Taylor, cradling a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun at hip level, a wisp of smoke rising from the barrel. She was naked to the waist, a skinny girl with a wild look in her eyes, blood on her cheeks and dripping from her chin, blood on her chest, her arms and hands. She jacked the action on the Winchester to put another shell in the chamber, and it made that serious steel-on-steel racking sound they make. She was holding it loose and low with the muzzle pointed right at my head and I froze in fright, even more scared than I’d been when I thought Gordo was about to off me. If she’d been squeezing the trigger when she jacked that shotgun, I wouldn’t be here telling you about it.

She swung it up and over on Gordo. He said “Fuck!” in that insulted and pissed-off way you say it if somebody spills coffee in your lap.

Taylor just looked at him for a second or two as he stood there, holding his stump of an arm up as if that might somehow stop the spurts of bright red blood shooting out of it.

Taylor pulled the trigger and there was another blast from the shotgun. I don’t know if she was aiming or just lucky, but this one caught Gordo right in the groin. The impact lifted him off his feet, knocked him back a couple steps and sat him right down in the dirt on his big fat ass.

He looked down to survey the damage and said “Jesus!” like you’d say to a kid look what you’ve done now.

Taylor took three quick, silent steps in her bare feet across the clearing and stood over Gordo like he’d been standing over me. She racked the Winchester again and held it right on Gordo’s fat gut and pulled the trigger. The shotgun clicked on an empty chamber.

She didn’t seem to notice. She kept racking it and pulling the trigger and the shotgun kept clicking on empty.

I stumbled to my feet and put my arm around her shoulders, pulled her against me and took the shotgun out of her hands. It made my arm ache like hell.

She relaxed into me.

I asked her, “Are you okay, are you cut?”

She looked down at the blood on her hands and arms, on her chest.

“It’s not mine,” she said. “It’s that guy’s.”

She looked up at me and got a weird half-smile on her face. “I bit off his dick,” she said. She made it sound like she’d brought home a report card with an A on it. “I bit off the end of it and spit it out in the dirt and he fell down and couldn’t get up. He couldn’t take his hands off it, holding his dick, trying to stop the bleeding. He couldn’t get up.”

“You did good,” I said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

I tried to start her away, head back to the car, but she stopped me, pulled me around.

“We need to kill him,” she said, looking at Gordo.

He was sitting there, pasty-faced, his eyes a little glassy with the shock, holding his stump in the air, looking at us. His crotch was a mass of blood and flesh and shredded Levis. He was sitting in a widening black patch of blood-soaked dirt.

“He’s dead,” I said. “There’s a big artery that goes right from the heart down to Gordo’s particular problem area. He’d dead already.”

As I said it the air went out of Gordo. He slumped and then slowly keeled over on one side.

“Come on.” I pulled Taylor away and we walked slowly back through the orchard to my yellow Camaro.

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Pantsing and enjoying the journey

Ross pointed this out:

When you aren’t rushing to a destination, the journey becomes the focus.

To which I could only say: Yes.

The discussion was about Haruki Murakami, who maintained in an interview that he wrote without a plan, not knowing where he was going. This is sometimes called pantsing (I guess after seat-of-the-pants).

But even pantsers have resources. When you start, you know some things.

And along the way you’ve digested a lot of stories (probably), absorbed a lot of notions about how stories work (probably), and so can rely (more or less) on what you will at that point probably call your “instincts”* to — on the one hand — provide you with good stuff and — on the other hand — keep you (more or less) away from the ocean of crapulousness you don’t want to enter.

*Not really instincts at all, but rather the accumulated grasp, understanding, comprehension and adeptness with all of this kind of stuff in the most generalized and at the same time most specific sense.

So clearly it’s not just “seat of the pants” but rather seat of the pants plus everything contained in the pants and also by the way all the other body parts above. Your complete Writing Self is engaged. Or is yearned for, depending.

I had read it before, but in response to this discussion (thanks, Ross), pulled up 1Q84 on my device and began reading it again. It seems to me Murakami allows himself wide latitude if for no other reason than it’s more fun to write that way, and if he’s having a good time, chances are the reader will have a good time too.

And it’s educational and fun to watch him solve some of the problems he raises for himself. For example (and this example is moderately X-rated, so if you’re of a tender disposition stop right here), in Chapter 5 of 1Q84 Murakami has one of his principal characters, Aomame, go to the cocktail lounge of a high-end hotel in order to pick up a guy and have sex. This character (spoilers ahead, so you might want to stop right here), an attractive young woman, has just assassinated an evil businessman, and she wants to blow off some steam and relax by having sex with a stranger. Seated at the bar, Aomame has a few drinks and eventually the right sort of guy sits down a couple stools away. They strike up a conversation. Everything up to now is the sort of thing that’s in most writer’s tool box. It’s work to write it, but not difficult work, just an application of craft. But now Murakami faces the problem of getting Aomame what she wants — sex. How to raise the subject? At this point the reader understands that Aomame wants to have sex and is sympathetic so there’s no need to go into that. The writer’s difficulty is that the situation is so susceptible to a hackneyed or cheesy way of handling it. How to get the sex thing going in a way the reader hasn’t often encountered in fiction, in a way that’s fresh and entertaining and different? That’s the problem. Here’s how Murakami handles it:

The man talked about sailboats. He moored his small sailboat in the Nishinomiya yacht harbor, he said. He took it out to the ocean on holidays and weekends. He spoke passionately of how wonderful it was to feel the wind as you sailed alone on the sea. Aomame didn’t want to hear about any damned sailboats. Better for him to talk about the history of ball bearings or the distribution of mineral resources in Ukraine. She glanced at her watch and said, “Look, it’s getting late. Can I just ask you something straight out?”

“Sure,” he replied.”

“It’s, uh, rather personal.”

“I’ll answer if I can.”

“Do you have a decent-sized cock? Is it on the big side?”

So that’s it, uh, a fun way to introduce a new topic.

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Writing “Nikki this Hollywood Life”

Nikki, This Hollywood Life

This is a guest post by Vanessa Gordot, who’s short story “Nikki this Hollywood Life” is available on Amazon here. Her bio appears at the end.

When I began this story I started with the idea of writing  a little exercise using a technique I’d never really explored: the interior monologue, or “internalization” as it’s sometimes called. I had a fragment that I’d written a long time ago, something that had a moment:

The sun was almost down, a swath of neon pink sunset splashed across the western horizon. The tide had turned and the waves were small, little more than a gentle wash that rolled softly up the beach then expired with a sigh.

As she watched, the street lights came on and were reflected from the wet sand where the waves receded. Someone had a window open, their stereo turned up. The cadences of a Mozart concerto floated out upon the evening air, seeming to settle all about her, like a benediction.

I thought I’d try to use the internal monologue because in following my idle curiosity I’d read a couple Daphne du Maurier novels, and in one of them, internal monologue was almost the whole book. The other interesting thing about how DdM did it, and something I simply copied altogether when I wrote this story, thinking it was a good idea, is to simply have the main character say, through the internal monologue, what the problem is. Why mess around, try and be subtle? Just have her come out and say it.

Go ahead, read Frenchman’s Creek for yourself and see how she does it.

Now, I think this is important: the lovely part of the technique is that lodges the story question right in the reader’s mind, directly from the character to the reader; here’s how it is for me, the character says, and that’s it.

The phrase “story question” might bother you. That kind of nomenclature used to bother me, too. It sounds so cold and manipulative, so artificial and far from what I want my stories to sound like and feel like. I certainly don’t want my reader to feel like she’s being jerked around like a puppet on a string or pushed this way or that way. But it doesn’t bother me anymore; now it feels comfortable. What’s more, now I know in an empirical two-plus-two way what’s going on when I get to the story question, and I think I’m in a better position to mess with it and get it to do the job that, within the context of the story, needs doing. It’s easier and surer to have a bit of empirical knowledge, to think “this is the way they say it needs to work” rather than to rely entirely on your instincts and your feel.

The phrase “story question” is a little misleading, though. The writer doesn’t actually ask a question. What she does is have the main character make a statement or think a thought, and this thought lodges the question in the reader to be worried about. For Nikki, it happens when she thinks:

From wherever it came, the awareness floated into her mind that she didn’t like anymore the person she had become.

I added a couple sentences to try an imply to the reader that if she continued to feel this way, she might very well kill herself. That’s what I wanted the reader worried about. Now (hopefully) I’ve got the reader rooting for this girl, hoping she pulls out of this nosedive.

I think one of the key things about putting the story question into internal monologue is that it is totally bound up with how the character feels about herself. However the character feels, that’s how the reader is going to feel her feeling, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously catch on to other stuff, she still receives the force of the implication.

The implication.

I think that’s so important. That’s what so much of fiction writing is about: putting the implication into the readers sub-mind, that level just a shade below conscious here-and-now.

Is there such a thing, am I making all this up?

Ever pass someone on the street (it happens in Manhattan), catch their eyes and get a creepy feeling, know somehow that things were not right with them, know this without really stopping to consider it? What you saw in that person’s eyes went into what I call your sub-mind. The person behind you, with a little more access to their sub-mind, or perhaps with less to worry about or less distracted might think, that guy is a raging psychopath. That’s how I think the sub-mind works, and that’s where I think a lot of fiction creates its effect. (I recently read an article in the New Yorker that talked about mirror neurons in the brain and it seems to me that’s the mechanism that makes fiction work. Same thing, more scientific.)

Once I got the story question in, I had an idea of where I wanted to get to. In the back of my mind was the core of what takes place at the Ritz Carlton. I had this line of dialogue that I’d heard oh, a long time ago. A friend of mine had told me about a remark made by an actress he knew. She said: “I sucked his cock and I still didn’t get the part.” It’s always seemed to me to be kind of an iconic line, and I’ve always wanted to find a place for it.

Another actress, from the same time in my life, had uttered the line, “Whatever happened to plain, old-fashioned face-to-face fucking?” That’s so good, it’s something I could never make up. She was a very tough character actress, and she said the line the day after a guy had broken into her apartment in Hollywood and raped her doggie style. Yes, she was pretty damn tough.

So once I got the story question in, I was thinking that’s where I wanted to go. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get there, or if I did get there, I had no idea how in the world I’d write it.

I felt really stuck. What do I do now? I knew I wanted to get to the Ritz Carlton scene and I had an idea of the general shape it would take (they have drinks, they go up to his room, etc.). But I didn’t want to start out they meet they order drinks they sit down they chit chat, blah blah blah. It was all a vague blur to me, a lot of non-dramatic folderol that isn’t going to be very interesting. It’s all stereotyped and clichéd.

I had just advised a writing friend to cut out a bunch of stuff and start the scene as deeply into it as possible. That thought came back to me: why not start the scene way deep into it? Hell, I said to myself, I’ll just start this scene as deeply into it as humanly possible! So I started it with the only clear image I had in my mind: the hotel room door closing behind her as she leaves the room and the scene is over. I think it’s quite amusing in a bizarre, writerly way, to start a scene “deep in” with the last thing that happens when the scene ends. You can’t start any further in than that.

And yet it works. As soon as I closed the door behind her, since I was in internal monologue, I had to write her reaction to the scene she’d just been involved in (though, of course, I didn’t know at that point in any detail what had happened in the scene because I hadn’t worked it out or written it yet). But I knew she wasn’t going to feel good during the scene itself, so I went for the opposite: I made her feel a sense of half-assed achievement after the hotel room door closes.

And it makes logical sense. What do you say when you leave the dentist’s office after having a tooth pulled? You say hell, that wasn’t so bad. You say that because the anticipation of having a tooth pulled is often worse than actually going through it with a hefty dose of Novocain, and you say it because the Novocain hasn’t worn off yet.

At this point I should mention that my first inclination in writing something is a tendency to do the opposite. The opposite of where the characters are, the opposite of what the reader expects. So if the character is happy at the beginning (Oedipus is crowned king) he will be unhappy at the end (he finds out he’s been sleeping with his mom and gets his eyes poked out). Why do the opposite? It makes it interesting. Cast against type: make the heroine morally challenged. It’s more fun that way. I don’t know what you need for a reason, but that does it for me.

Once I got the door closed and her reacting, the rest was easy: Her internal monologue giving an overview of what happened, all from her tight personal point of view. It’s easy because she gets to characterize things and to give the highlights. It’s an announcer’s play by play. All I had to do was watch the pace, stay just ahead of the reader and pay attention to the sentence variety.

It does contain my most favorite line from the story:

She washed her face where her eyes had watered,

That’s it, no embellishment necessary. I like to think the reader winces.

The next scene transition, from the phone call and the reaction back to sitting there thinking about how she doesn’t like herself anymore, that was easy. You can take your character as far away as you want, in space or time, and when you bring her back, all you have to do is have her feel the same as she felt before, and you’re home free. Once again, it’s nice to know there’s a technique for this and you don’t really have to figure anything out; follow the dotted lines.

The dialogue between the two of them was fun to write. I love that stuff; I wish I’d been writing movies back in the 30s and 40s, I would have loved it I’m such a romantic fool.

The really good thing about having the clean-cut guy show up when he does is that it is a surprise to the reader when it happens, and then it clicks in as inevitable. Granted, it’s not a big surprise; it’s just a small one. It also helps keep the story tight; the character is already there in the beginning, so it’s “oh, yeah, of course, he likes her, she left her purse . . .”

The tone of the story changes so much from where her feelings are at and then to her transition into being an actress that I’m still not entirely sure I’m finished with that. I’ve done some work on it.

The ending was hard. Well, some of it was easy, but I got the first part of it, and thought I was at the ending with her happy. But just a plain old happy ending didn’t get it for me; I wanted it to be ambiguous, uncertain, and then, going back and forth with the writer Patricia DeLois, I hit on the idea that she snaps out of actress mode back into the reality of what she’s doing. So I thought I’d change the physical setting (the turn into the side street) to give a setting and tonal change to provide a clue to her change in perspective. It’s not great but it’s the best I could do. As Picasso once said, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to get the idea across.

I did that and then, in a later version, the turn into the side street is no longer there. The story was basically over.

Let me mention one other thing. Writers use the “cut” change of scene device. This is double space, a couple asterisks, double space, change of scene. I wanted to do this story without that device, which is, if you think about it, maybe over-used. So I wrote transitions that don’t do that.

I did take wrong turns during the writing. I think the major one was I gave Nikki a roommate, and the day after the Ritz scene Nikki tells her and they talk. Then, I don’t know, I guess God reached down and tapped me on the shoulder and told me I didn’t need it. No, actually the roommate turned into a very strong character and the whole story started to go off into another direction. So the roomy came out.

That’s more or less how the story came about. Roughly.

About Vanessa Gordot

Born in Paris, I speak French, English and Russian because I was a schoolgirl in Moscow where I lived for several years while accompanying my parents who were attached to a diplomatic mission. Both of my parents died in a tragic accident in 1996, when a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin Il-76, collided in mid-air near New Delhi, India with a Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747, resulting in the loss of all 349 lives. The accident was ruled pilot error, with the Ilyushin aircraft failing to follow air-traffic controller instructions.

As a writer I have achieved nothing,  for I am as they say a complete beginning person. So I have everything to learn and nothing to lose except perhaps some innocence. And isn’t having innocence always the prelude to becoming more worldly? I should like to learn to write about some of the things I have seen happen to others and experienced myself, but making them into stories others can read and hopefully enjoy. All this sounds stupid to me now as I put it down, but I shall leave it as it is, for it is a true expression of some part of me that seems to want to go out into the world.

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The Most Important Thing

The most important thing you have to do with the opening of your story is bring it to life.

Make it go zing.

If that doesn’t resonate with you, then maybe so far you haven’t managed to do it. When you do, you’ll know.

There’s no rules for doing it, other than perhaps The Rule of Art, which is of absolutely no help at all. The Rule of Art: Make it Happen. (I made that up.)

I have a theory that you can make any sentence seem profound by writing the name of a dead philosopher at the end of it. —Plato

[Got that one online.]

The Rule of Art: Make it Happen. —Convivius The Uncertain

Even when you follow perfectly the Rule of Art, there are those who won’t like it. This doesn’t matter. Getting good grades from readers at an online writers’ site might feel good, but in reality it’s a meaningless exercise, because those readers are (by and large) neither successful agents nor active publishers. To put it another way, they aren’t buyers. They don’t write checks.

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So You Think You Want Rules

There’s nothing wrong with a piece of fiction so long as it works for the reader. That is the gold standard for fiction. I present as my evidence “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, which appeared in The New Yorker. It’s written as if it were a government operations manual more or less in the form of 140 character tweets. And it’s pretty ground-breaking and brilliant. Of course, as with everything, not everyone thinks so. But that’s true for all matters of opinion, isn’t it? I would also point to contemporary sitcom TV, where the old conventions of pov and the fourth wall have largely been dispensed with.

Do you think Samuel Beckett’s agent read Waiting for Godot and then asked for a rewrite, telling Beckett the characters keep forgetting what the other guy just said and repeat themselves too much?

IMHO there are a lot of things about writing fiction that are very good ideas. There are guidelines and there are techniques that are very much worth knowing. There are conventions that are often found in genre fiction. These things aren’t secrets, but one does need to go to some effort to seek them out and then figure out to apply them. This is stuff worth knowing. They generally aren’t taught in English lit courses. And they weren’t taught at all in the “creative writing” course I took in college.

Most people figuring out how to write fiction are accomplished readers. They read so easily that what they read seems (if they read good stuff) effortless. Naturally this leads to the next logical thought: how hard can it be to write this stuff that’s so easy to read? So they sign up at an online writing site and start asking questions. Which is perfectly fine so far as it goes. But you’re not going to get a grounding in the guidelines, techniques and conventions of creating fiction, and especially key questions like “why do readers read fiction?” just by asking the odd question here or there. Unless you happen to hit on the question “Why do readers read fiction?” and stumble across some people with good answers.

IMHO a writer can learn a lot more about these things from actually trying stuff out on the page, exactly the way Jane Austen did than from asking a question here or there. I think this is so because the writer is probably going to have to write a million words before she has a lot of facility with this stuff, so she might as well get busy.

But that’s just me and how I think about this stuff. I’m certainly open to better ideas.

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Description

When you ask it this way: “Which description is best?” you ask a meaningless question. Or one that anyone may answer with any sort of opinion. Unlikely that this will be helpful unless you’re goal is  to take a poll and not try to figure out how description best serves fiction.

Maybe ask rather “What do you want a description to do?”

One notion with fiction is to tell the story by causing the reader to picture things in his or her mind as if a movie of the story were taking place.

If you think of it this way, then one of the ideas of how to write prose is to make it “transparent,” so that the reader doesn’t really notice the words flowing past—the words don’t interfere with, confuse or slow down the movie-making process taking place in the reader’s mind.

A description can still be vivid, such as

guitar notes struck the air like silver dimes.

Which is from that classic of imagery and metaphor, Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron’s all but forgotten first novel.

A line like that is certainly striking, but its effect on the reader’s mind is why it is so good, taking something that’s auditory and making it visual as well. Is that what effective imagery always does or only sometimes does? Just asking.

A good thing to read on the subject of how to describe stuff in fiction is Stephen King’s essay Imagery and the Third Eye, Google it.

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