I Pledge Allegiance to the Flow

When did you first know that you were a writer? I can trace it back to saying the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. Whenever we got to the line “one Nation under God” I thought it sounded awkward. Now mind you, I had no knowledge of the political forces and controversies surrounding the words “under God” in the Pledge. My reaction stemmed purely from the writer’s sense of something being wrong with the flow.

When a piece has good flow the words and sentences have a smooth, unbroken rhythm. Think of reading a passage and following the words with your finger as you read. If at any point your finger pauses too long or stops completely, you have a potential problem with the flow. It means your brain is either working harder to process the written words, or it has come completely out of the story.

In fiction, good flow requires such things as: no logic problems in the plot; no out of character behaviors that are incongruent with the plot; and no inconsistencies like the color of a car being red on one page and blue five pages later. Any of these things may draw the reader’s brain away from the story and off on a tangent saying, “That’s not right.”

Good flow also means there are no awkward pauses or phrasing, no irregular word usage, and no sentences long enough to make you winded if reading it out loud. The reasons behind these problems are usually much harder to articulate. Authors and readers can often tell good flow from bad, but the mechanics are not easy to define.

It would be years later before I learned that “under God” came about through government editing of author Francis Bellamy’s original work. As it turns out, there have been five editing jobs on the Pledge since being published in the September 8th, 1892, edition of The Youth’s Companion. Each change either improves or disrupts the flow and I decided to try and figure out the reasons why. Let’s start at the beginning with the Pledge as it first appeared in The Youth’s Companion:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

The first editing on this piece came from the hand of Francis Bellamy himself. He inserted the word ‘to’ before “the Republic”:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

What does the alteration do for the statement? In the original form, “the Republic for which it stands” has only a passing relationship to the earlier subject/predicate “I pledge allegiance.” By adding the word ‘to’ in front of the phrase, the connection is made stronger thus improving the flow. The change also helps reduce some slight ambiguity of the word ‘it’ which could refer back to either ‘allegiance’ or ‘Flag.’ In the new form of the sentence, I not only pledge allegiance to my flag, but also to the republic for which my flag stands.

At some point in time, the colon in the Pledge gets changed to a comma. Since I couldn’t find exactly when this change happened, I’m going to take some license and examine what the change does while the sentence is in a simpler form:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

While use of either a colon or comma is grammatically correct, the tone is different depending on the choice. Read the version with the colon and then the one with the comma. Did you give a little more emphasis to the words “one nation” when reading the version with the colon? Was the flow a little more monotone when reciting the version with the comma? A colon adds some drama to the sentence while a comma is more casual. In this case, I think the colon is the better option because it fits in with the ceremonial nature of the Pledge. When grammar rules give you a choice, take care that the tone imparted by a colon is in line with the character and tempo of the overall piece.

In 1923, the National Flag Conference released a new version of the Pledge designed to take away any confusion immigrants might have about which flag they were honoring. The words “my flag” became “the flag of the United States”:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The following year, the conference added the words “of America”:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Before adding “of America” the flow is choppy. Is it just coincidence or luck that using the full name of the country improves the flow? I don’t think so. Referring to our country as “the United States” is the common way of speaking. It’s only in formal situations that we add “of America.” The flow of the 1923 version is uneven because the casual usage of the name is at odds with the formal nature of the Pledge.

Congress adopted the Pledge as part of the national flag code in 1942 and it remained unchanged until 1954 when the words “under God” were added:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

So what did I hear that made the flow sound off to my young mind? The phrase “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is complex with no verb or conjunction to help the brain process what is written. Even without the addition of “under God” the statement is hard to interpret. However, the extra words make it more difficult. The complexity becomes more apparent when you see the translation the brain has to do to understand both statements:

Before: one nation standing indivisible, with liberty and justice for all

After: one nation standing under God and indivisible, with liberty and justice for all

The difference may seem subtle, but it is important. I’ve never heard the Pledge spoken without a pause before the words “under God” even though there is no grammatical reason (e.g. a comma) to hesitate there. That stop in the flow is the brain doing a synaptic two-step trying to process the sentence. Tough enough for an adult to figure out let alone my grade school self!

Information Dumps

An information dump is exactly what it sounds like: a steaming plop of backstory. It includes facts about characters and events that are relevant to your storyline but predate the opening scene. Often times, these factoids are the very building blocks of your story, but to start with them at the beginning – which is where they belong according to history – would carry as much suspense as a three-legged-turtle race. That’s why most suspense novels start with the main conflict already in motion. The characters develop as they navigate this conflict and the backstory comes in as they do. There are seven tools novelists can use to fill backstory: prologues, flashbacks, dreams, nightmares, internal thoughts, conversation and revelation.

Each has their place, but when you examine the first four, you quickly discover conflicts with the first rule of suspense, which is action! The last three rely on quieter moments in your story, and the information arrives between the action scenes. If all dumps go into toilets, then the first four are outhouses and the last three are indoor plumbing.

Prologues and Flashbacks
A prologue is positioned as the first read in your story, preceding Chapter 1. It can carry on for several pages. Flashbacks deliver the same kinds of information, only doled out between chapters and breaks in the story. It is hard to hold suspense in either format because, by their very nature, both take the reader out of the main story to enlighten them. Full stop, dump info, now back to the action! Most readers will let you get away with this once, but if you make a habit of it you’re likely to lose your audience to a tennis match on television.

I recommend writing prologues and flashbacks in the present tense, even where the rest of your novel is in past tense. This seems like a contradiction, but present tense allow your reader to become the parrot on your character’s shoulder, quietly watching the prequel unfold in real time, which, in and of itself, can build tension from even the most mundane events. In past tense, the same information comes out like a midnight visit to the outhouse: it’s all business, you wouldn’t be here if it was necessary, and it’s not some place you want to hang about.

It is important that your characters, not the narrator, tell the backstory, even if the characters in the backstory are not the main folks in the novel. Narration ruins tension, pure and simple. Past tense narration is a big yawn.

Dreams and Nightmares
Where flashbacks and prologues tell of past factual events, dreams and nightmares show the future, and they are not real. Even where the dream relives some past event, the circumstances in the dream are always different from what really happened, and that makes them unreliable for information dumps. Dreams hardly ever work with tension, but nightmares can have a place if the information you’re dumping is traumatic. Fires, the tragic loss of a loved one, or the face of the killer the night of the pummeling can work very well in nightmares, providing that someone wakes up the dreamer. Suspense is intrigue, not mystery, and readers deserve a “true” meaning of it all. Without this “truth” conversation between two on-page characters, your readers are still in a dark outhouse – they don’t know what, if anything, they just heard is trustworthy.

Minimize your use of prologues and flashbacks, dreams and nightmares, and you will minimize your problems with backstory. Now, let’s look at who flushes properly.

Internal Thoughts
Internal thoughts allow your characters to quickly dispense past information and future schemes at the same time while staying within your main conflict. (Consider: He reads the email and thinks, First time I met Sluggo, didn’t have my gun. Won’t make that mistake again.) People do not have long conversations with themselves – or talk in complete sentences. One past fact, relevant to the story’s future, that’s what you want. Too much internal thought and your readers are going to go huh?  because with internal thoughts, you are not only inside the character’s head but the reader’s head, too.

Conversation
Far and away, the best place for your backstory is between the quotation marks. Just don’t make it sound like a witness’s testimony. Conversation is just that; it is two or more people conversing, not one character speaking to an audience of one or more. In filling backstory with conversation, usually one character will know the past event and the other character will draw it out of them, either intentionally or entirely by accident. You need to decide who’s going to be telling this prequel because you can’t be in two people’s heads at the same time. Think of our parrot jumping from protag’s shoulder to the other guy’s, back and forth, back and forth; poor bird will get so dizzy he’ll drop off the page. And so will your readers.

You can show some internal dialogue within conversation, but only if it is brief and it moves the action forward quickly. (“Sure, I was there. Hundreds of people was there when the lights went out. But I didn’t see who knifed’m,” Sluggo said with air of defiance, confident they’d never be able to identify him in the pitch black.) Now we know  that Sluggo did it; his “internal thoughts” just told us one thing while his “dialogue” told the questioner something else. Your reader knows more than this other character does!

It is always best to pull backstory out of your characters and avoid using narrative as much as possible. Some narrative will be necessary, like in the above example with Sluggo, but the more you let your characters tell your story, the stronger they will become.  Sweet-scented candles burning in the lavatory.

Revelation
Revelation is a surprise to both your readers and characters alike, and it hits like a thunderstorm. It can come in the form of a phone call from the doctor’s office, old letters found in the attic, or a sudden, unknown, rich relative, but it has to be a shocker. It has to be a turning point in the story. There is nothing gratuitous about revelation, and placement is just as critical as content. They don’t work in the very beginning or at the very end of your story (unless your protagonist is Sherlock Holmes). In the beginning, not enough has already been established; it’s all revelation. Plop it down right at the end and your readers are going to feel cheated. But incorporate it as a turning point in your story and a revelation can both explain the past and set the table for the rest of the banquet in an instant.

Imagine a different story… Back in Chapter 10, the sweet matriarch of our imaginary story died, leaving our hero, Andrew, without any benefactors. At the end of Chapter 15, we read how, Andrew has finally been evicted along with his new wife and infant from the home he’s grown up in all his life. The nanny’s son, he was, always helped out where he could. And now, the nasty niece, Nancy, and her troop of lawyers have taken over the estate and kicked Andrew and family out after 22 years, penniless and hopeless. Chapter 16 opens with Andrew’s wife pounding on the outhouse door and shouting, “The doctor’s office just called – DNA confirms that the letters in the attic are REAL! He was your father! The estate is yours, not Nancy’s!” Now that’s a revelation. The entire story turns at this point. Our hero who was destitute in Chapter 15 is now master of the house, and in the final scene of Chapter 21 we gleefully see Nancy on her knees scrubbing floors as Andrew’s five-year-old comes storming into the kitchen in muddy boots, demanding, “Where is my lunch?” Your reader gets up from your sumptuous table feeling full, and full of anticipation for what you’re going to cook up next.

Dump the dump
So if backstory always work best woven into dialog, why not just dump the dump? What if, instead, you scattered the information like a soft, spring rain. Now, the scat dissolves slowly and enriches the plot. For example, when getting into the head of your bad boy, what if you have one character in Chapter 1 tell how he was kicked out of Boy Scouts for fighting, and a couple of chapters later have another character, an ex-con, talk about how he was a model prisoner and released early. Then in Chapter 8, his first wife tells us how he battled alcoholism after losing his business to the IRS. We see this character’s evil development was years in the making; something not possible in one cognitive scene. In the end, the rain dissolves the information when and where necessary and the roots of our story grow stronger because of it.

Next Month: Pace
Suspense means action, and action demands quick movements from both your characters and your plotlines. However, a suspense novel is a marathon, not a sprint. Run too fast and you’ll burn out before the finish line – or your readers will. You want to keep a strong cadence, but there will be times you’ll want to back off just a bit and let your characters – and your readers – catch their breath. Next month, we’ll look pacing; when to trot, when to gallop, when to graze.

Abram

After two serious pieces, I was planning on writing a lighter, more humorous blog, this month, something more tied to my first piece which came out in February.  That seems so long ago. It’s hard to believe that I once was having a problem thinking of something to write about.

Then I reread the comments people made about “More Voices From the Past”. I immediately noticed something new. I had readers. Real readers. Readers who not only read what I wrote but took the time to comment on it! I was convinced. I needed to stop worrying about lightening the mood and write about what they wanted to know: What happened to Abram?

I’ve grown up with the story of Abram. I’ve known it by heart, ever since I was a young child. Writing about him now, I wanted to see if there was something more, some detail that I didn’t know or might have forgotten. So I decided to call my Mom. She’s now 101 and living with my sister in California. She remembers everything as if it happened yesterday.

We talked for a while and went over the major points. I had a few more questions I wanted to ask when she said, “Claire, this is so sad. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let’s change the subject.” Imagine, I thought, this is seventy-three years later and for my Mom it was like it had happened yesterday. Poof! Seventy-three years vanishing in a few seconds and the terrible sadness and loss is still there.

Mom remembered that my Dad had finally gotten Abram the visa to come to the U.S., probably sometime in late 1941. But Abram had insisted (and I remember Grandma and Papa saying the same thing) that he had to stop off in Switzerland for his health first. He wasn’t feeling well. He’d see a doctor and after that he’d come straight to America.

Why? Why? Why did he insist on stopping off in Switzerland first and then coming to America? I remember my parents and grandparents asking this question over and over for many years. There was never an answer.

Abram never came again to America, not in 1941 or ’42 or ever. It was a fateful decision.

Next time I’ll talk about what happened to him and how we found out.

Lights, Camera, Action: Verb!

I had one of those ah-ha!, slap-your-head-with-the-palm-of-your-hand-*duh* moments recently.

This time, that moment was about writing.

An article I read discussed ways to improve your writing. In your first draft, the most important thing is to get the words down in whatever perfect or jumbled form you can. The revision stage is where you get creative from those bare bones you have constructed. What is the one element that will instantly make your writing more compelling, creative, and interesting? That’s right: verbs.

Verbs allow us to hear and see. They are our senses. Verbs are integral to any writing, and using them is as simple as Schoolhouse Rock professes. They are action, or lack thereof, and how we manipulate them is important. One word can change the whole outlook and approach to a story. Verbs tell the story. In retrospect, it is an obvious solution, but I didn’t believe it could be that easy until I played around with verbs…and ah-ha!

Consider the sentence: He took the box to the car. The sentence gets you there but not in style.

The verb, the action, in this sentence is “took,” which is the past tense of the word “take.” Often action is seen as immediate, but the past tense is the most common tense used in writing whether that is a novel, magazine, or a news story. Past tense does not negate a reader’s experience in the present. Now change one word: the verb. This is what you get:

He dragged the box to the car.

He pushed the box to the car.

He rolled the box to the car.

He pulled the box

He hefted the box

He carried the box

He lugged the box

He hauled

He hoisted

He moved

Each verb changes the meaning of the sentence and enhances the story. “Drag” and “push” suggests that the box is heavy (is there a dead body in it?) or that the character is weak (is he sick or injured?). Suddenly, the reader has the potential to know more about the story and situation. “Hoist” and “heft” imply circumstances more than “carry” does, but each of those words suggests that the box size is important (is the box lifted by hands or a crane?) or that the character’s physical strength (is he struggling or showing off his muscles?) is integral to the story. The reader becomes more intrigued about the contents of the box and the overall situation. “Move” suggests that the box was in one location (is it hidden in a bedroom?) and has to be in a new place (why and to where?). Now the reader is enticed into the plot and the character’s circumstances.

Now the writer has the opportunity to delve deeper into the overall experience to entertain readers. Consider the sentences above that evolved from changing the word “took” to a more specific and situational verb:

He dragged the box across the gravel towards the station wagon, but it was a long driveway.

 

He carried the blue box in his suit pocket because it had to be a surprise, and she was already waiting in the car.

 

He swayed and stumbled with the box on his shoulders, hoping it would fit in the trunk of his beat-up Ford Mustang.

 

The box had to be moved–now!–so he whipped it up in his arms and dashed outside to the only place he could think of: Jesse’s car.

 

He placed the brown moving box lightly on the dolly, but he did not see the Fragile This Side Up sticker until he rolled the dolly to the car.

 

Flip, flop, end over end, Smithy spent ten minutes pushing the empty refrigerator box to the far end of the dump where the rusty motorcycle and broken dresser were already stacked.

 

All that magic occurred from one changed word. What magic can you create? Ah-ha!

Soft, Hard, Harder

When you think romance novel, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Sex, right?

Now don’t get distracted visualizing.

As the title suggests, sex scenes come in different levels. They can even lean toward a softer side, the more graphic content eliminated. Each has their place in the pages you write. So let’s look at intensity, and what you might bring to your manuscripts; which I’ve learned from reading romance, research and (brows bouncing) experience.

Most writers have a preference and style to their sex scenes, depending on their genre. When I first started reading romance novels my go to author was Nora Roberts. If you’re a fan, she has a way of making us care about characters quickly and deeply. When her stories progress and hero and heroine are intimate, Ms. Roberts blankets us in a warmth, a caress, or a look using words that elude to what’s happening as main characters wrap themselves in each other. She skips over minute details that would be too graphic. Obviously, you know there’s nudity at some point, but she presents it in a way your grandmother who gets offended by a Victoria’s Secret commercials wouldn’t have a heart attack if she read the scene. On the other hand, she sometimes ramps up the intensity depending on the characters nature.

In Lori Foster’s, Men Who Walk the Edge of Honor series, scenes are a little steamier. The alpha males are intense in physique, mannerisms, and sexuality. Foster’s novels add descriptive instances adding more depth in sex scenes, baring more skin and, more heat than a PG-13 movie. When writing a sex scene use adverbs with more grit and aggression to get up close and personal with the sexy action verbs. This allows readers imaginations to overtake them making a cold shower or a romp with a significant other sound like a good idea. Be careful though, you don’t want to overuse adverbs. If you read any of the romance novels or series I’ve mentioned, in this or previous blogs, you’ll notice that the authors I’ve referenced use adverbs as little as possible. You want to show not tell. Look at this sentence. “Jacob was wildly out of control, as he took Charlotte.” Instead, omit “wildly” and describe what’s happening. “Jake was out of control. With no thought of time or place, he ripped open Charlotte’s shirt and pressed fully against her, desperate to feel her heated skin. His fingers wove through her hair and held tight as he yanked her head back and devoured her lips like he would go mad if he didn’t have her.” I think you can see how using just the word, wildly limits your creativity.

The next stop on the sexy train is Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Most romance readers know what I’m talking about, even the common lay person. Erotic romance novels like this have been taboo a long time and for good reason. Words on the page are stronger, harsher and can be offensive to readers who aren’t used to the subject matter. Some instances delve into BDSM and D/s (Dominance and submission). The details are so specific there’s nothing left to the readers imagination or in the least are so taboo they make readers uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the draw to the genre increases. Due to the stir that Fifty Shades caused, publishing houses are creating PG-13 covers drawing in broader spectrums of readers that won’t fear reading the hard core romance novel at their local Starbucks or in a doctor’s waiting room.

If we delve a little deeper into the examples above and look at the plethora of other romance novels out there, the sex scene is character driven; not solely on the page for sex’s sake. If you write an insipid man your female lead doesn’t enjoy being with, do you make the male character strong and commanding in the bedroom or a plain old missionary style man that she compares to a wet noodle? Pair violence with sex plus your main character, a scene becomes a catalyst vital to a protagonist’s character. The reader has to understand what kind of man is infringing on your heroines well being. The HEA (happily ever after) the reader expects has been turned upside down, creating conflict that tears at your heart and leaves readers wondering if the hero will scale the highest mountain to reach his soul mate, even if that mountain is an emotional jungle that resides in the heroines mind.

Your sex scenes are about the story you’re trying build. Use sex as an integral part moving the story forward. If you want to be soft, hard, or harder, if you need to express characters intensions, pick your words carefully. Ignore limits. Don’t be afraid to write what’s taboo either. If you’ve never written a sex scene, the first time is always the most nerve wracking.

On my website, Writers Canvas on May 10, I’ll introduce you to Jacob and Charlotte, so you can see how they meet. On May 17, 24th, and 31st I’ll show you the different levels of sexual content using Jake and Charlotte as their relationship grows. In the meantime, you can see why I feel, that just because something is classified erotica doesn’t mean it’s all about the sex, in my August 4th, 2013 entry.

Happy Writing!