Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Organization -- writing tip

The Russian military is trying to perfect a secret system that will make their submarines virtually immune to attack, and secure them control of the world's seas. An American working in Russia as a spy for Israel is trying to uncover the secret. In The U.S.A. an unsuspecting family has developed a product that is capable of solving the one problem preventing the Russians from achieving their goal. russian agents, led by the country's top female operative, Olga Andreyeva, are dispatched to steal the product's formula.

Remember that this book takes place during the Cold War, and the Russian political references will never be anachronistic.


Question: A friend  read my manuscript and said it was a great story, but it got her "mixed up" a tad too often. What do you think she means by that?

Answer: Remembering always that I haven't read this, when I hear folks say this kind of thing to me about my work, it usually means there are anachronisms in the text.

It all has to do with organizing your information so it flows smoothly. First things should be first. My usual mistake is that I give a character brown eyes on one page and blue on another. I always write a short bio of each character with a physical description, so I can check if I forget.

But there are other kinds of problems that can creep in. People can't go upstairs if they are already upstairs. If characters begin to talk in a bedroom and later go upstairs to look for a missing diary, that's a problem. A student once wrote:

They walked down the steps, crossed the grassy lawn and drove away. The vehicle was a black phaeton pulled by two gray stallions.

I found this confusing as they drove away before I knew the carriage was there. She argued it was there, right in the very next sentence!  But they would have seen it waiting when they came outside and that's when it should have been described. Also it is downright impossible to have two stallions work as a team. Two geldings, yes. Two stallions, absolutely NOT. And most people would know that, too.

It's truly as simple as first things first .

It's always a good idea to use a character's full name on first reference (unless it's a minor unnamed character like "the waiter"), and to get the physical description in when the reader first meets the character. It can seem a small thing, but if your reader envisions a blond on first reference, only to learn that the character is dark a few pages later, it can be really confusing to him. It wakes them from what John Gardiner calls "the dream" of the story.

Believe me, I've seen some real "wake up calls" even in commercially published material. Once I was reading a historical romance set in Elizabethan England. Obviously the author had written it first as a modern story, then set it back in time, because historicals were selling. There was a wonderful wedding scene. It had whole roasted pigs, jongleurs (what the hell is a jongleur, anyway?), lute players and troubadours singing bawdy songs of bridal beddings.

Then a minor character praised the cheese served in the wedding "buffet," saying to the bride's father, "Where did you get this wonderful cheese?" To which the bride's father replied, "Oh, I'm glad you like it, okay? We had it flown in special."

"Buffet" and "okay" would have been bad enough, as in Elizabethan times "buffet" was a cupboard and "okay" didn't come into use at all until the mid-19th century.. But "flown in?" How? 


  1. Didn't you ever hear of carrier pigeons? They probably raised some very large pigeons in those days just so they could have cheese flown in from France.

  2. Arline, This is a great reminder for all of us. Thank you for sharing these practical tips. I remember writing up those character sheets for you!

  3. When your writing process is as disorganized as mine, with many passes to go back and rework passages, it's so easy for anachronisms to creep in. I've caught a few and MISSED a few too.