|by Sid Fleishman|
Here are a few writing tips drawn from the pages of The Abracadabra Kid, A Writer’s Life.
1. It’s the job of the hero or heroine to solve the story problem: don’t leave it to a second-banana character like Uncle Harry. You’d know something was wrong if Watson solved the crime instead of Sherlock Holmes. This clunky plotting sank many of my stories when I started out.
2. The main character should be changed by the events of the story. Remember your fairy tales? Change is built into the refrain at the end: “And they lived happily ever after.”
3. If there’s a hole in your story, point it out and the hole will disappear. For example, in McBroom’s Zoo I wanted to use the Hidebehind, a fabled frontier creature. No one knows what the Hidebehind looks like because every time you look, the animal hides behind you.
I saw the hole at once. All McBroom needed to do was to hold up a mirror and he’d see the Hidebehind’s mug. I plugged the hole by pointing to it. Works like magic. “I even tried walking around with a hand mirror.” McBroom declares. “But the Hidebehind was too eternal clever for tricks like that.”
4. Dramatize important scenes; narrate the trivialities. I have seen a lot of this the other way around.
5. Give weather reports. It helps the reality of a scene if foghorns are blowing or kites are in the sky on a windy afternoon or the day’s so hot wallpaper is peeling off the walls.
6. The stronger the villain – or opposing force – the stronger the hero or heroine. A wimpy problem delivers a wimpy story.
7. When possible. give important characters an “entrance”. That’s why grand staircases were invented.
8. Write in scenes. It’s generally hard to find any pulse in straight narration. Color it gray. Show: don’t tell. Color it splashy.
9. Imagery is powerful shorthand. It says in four or five words what might otherwise take you sentences to describe – and not as vividly. It takes time to think out fresh similes and metaphors, and they must be apt and exact. Practice helps. After while you develop a knack for it. Clumsy imagery must be ripped up instantly.
And here’s an example, from the opening scene in a recent novel, Bo & Mzzz Mad, showing many of these points in action. I might have opened the story with Bo’s cousin Madeleine, who calls herself Mzzz Mad, waiting for him at the bus stop. There’s no drama in that. and I wanted to give Mzzz Mad an entrance, as you will see. Note weather report, imagery, etc.
The bus pulled away, leaving Bo standing alone at the windy crossroads. He looked all around for someone to meet him. There was no one in sight – nothing, in fact, but a clump of cactus and blowing sand and a snake’s track in the dirt road.
But there was a homemade sign with a fading blue finger pointing towards the hills. Bo found the sign reassuring; the bus driver had let him off at the right place.
QUEEN OF SHEBA, CALIF.
THATAWAY, 4 1/2 MILES
Bo had a couple of relatives there, tenth or fifteenth cousins or something. Had they forgotten he was coming? He guessed that was just like those rattlebrained Martinkas. Bo himself was on the Gamage side of the family. His folks and the Martinkas hadn’t been on speaking terms since the Stone Age, as far as he knew. Or even before.
He hung around for a while in the shade of some dusty runt of a tree. He hunkered down on his heels and listened to the lonely whistle of the wind. Then he decided he might as well leg it before he dried up and blew away like everying else he could see out here on the desert.
Bo had walked about a mile, getting drier and thirstier, when he noticed a rising cloud of chalky road dust ahead. Barrelling toward him was an old Chevy pickup truck the color of Day-Glo red lipstick. On it came, rattling and squeaking and thumping like a one-man band. He had to jump out of the way before the girl at the wheel discovered there were brakes on the truck.”Run me down, why don’t you?” he yelled.
She backed up a little and hung out the window. “Trying to. You my cousin Bo? You one of them ornery Gamages? Where’re your horns and your mangy tail?”
For articles about writing by Sid Fleischman, see the following volumes of The Writer’s Handbook, published by The Writer, Inc., edited by Sylvia K. Burack. 1999 Edition, page 75, Sagging Middles and Dead Ends; 2000 Edition, page 431, and 2001 Edition, page 438, The Ouch Factor. An additional article, Begin with Fanfare, appears in the June 2001 issue of The Writer Magazine.