Sunday, July 24, 2011

Draconian Divorce -- New York in the 1950's

A big part of the plot of Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty circles around Sophie’s parents’ divorce. Exiled takes place in the 1950’s in an imaginary version of my Long Island hometown. Back in those days, divorce was very different from the no-fault, bye-it-was-nice-knowing-you system prevalent throughout the US today. And New York State had the most draconian of all divorce laws.

For those of you who don’t live in the United States and didn’t have to sit through an interminable term of what our high school teachers called “Government”, laws concerning marriage, divorce, birth control, driving, education and a lot of other things differ from state to state. That’s thanks to a quirk of the US Constitution that reserves to state governments everything not specifically mentioned in the Constitution.

In 1956, the year Exiled takes place, every state was different. Laws ranged from Nevada, where you merely had to establish six weeks residence, file a petition and get a divorce, to New York, which restricted divorce to only those who could prove the adultery of their spouse. Even then it took ages to go through the complete process to the final “Decree Nisi”, which said the marriage was officially ended and the parties could remarry.

Early New York divorce law had an interesting quirk. Until the state constitution was modified in the early 20th century, there were two routes to divorce. The one was a judicial route, in which a party could be granted divorce upon proving the infidelity of the spouse. When the law permitting this was originally proposed in 1787, it also stipulated that the adulterous party would not be permitted to remarry, but when it was actually passed two years later, that provision was dropped as too onerous.

The other route was called a parliamentary divorce. It allowed the parties to apply to the state legislature, who could then pass a special law permitting the divorce. This allowed a much broader range of grounds, but was very hard to get.

As a result, even as early as the 19th century, a large number of New Yorkers sought divorces outside the state, in what is known as “migratory” divorce. This was the route my own father took in 1946 when he split from his first wife (who was not my mother). The states preferred for divorce were those with very short residency requirements, chiefly Alabama, Nevada, Florida, Idaho and Wyoming. The wealthy often went overseas. There were divorce “mills” in Paris, Havana and Mexico.

There were domestic scandals, as well. Several times in the state’s history, divorce “rings” were exposed, in which professional “co-respondents” were paid to attest to having sex with one or the other of the parties in order to provide the necessary grounds.

Of course, in Exiled, Marta’s adultery is a proven fact. Even so, Jan needs hard evidence for court, which is why he appears to stalk her. Courts were not favorable towards women caught in adultery, by the way. Happy Murphy, who divorced her doctor husband to marry Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1963, was forced to give up her four children by Murphy.

By 1956, citizens were clamoring for reform and a commission was created to study the divorce laws, but its limited mandate prevented it from accomplishing anything. In fact, reform was strongly blocked by the Catholic Church, which had a strong hold on the lower and more populous half of New York State. It took another ten years before the 1966 Divorce Reform Law was adopted. This law allowed for a wider range of grounds, including desertion, imprisonment, “deviant” sexual behavior and “cruel and inhuman treatment”. It also permitted “no-fault” divorce based on legal separation, which was carefully defined.

The reforms, while an improvement, were by no means equitable. In the 1960’s, the majority of women were still economically dependent on their husbands, and legislation did not guarantee a divorced woman sufficient means of support. It wasn’t until the feminist movement and further reform in 1980 that this was addressed.

Source: accessed 22/8/08

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Enhancing Language

Finally we’re at the part of layering the scene that most new writers consider “editing” or “revising” – enriching the language. By now, if you’ve been following my Layering Your Scene blogs through all nine parts (has it really been that many?), you’ve discovered there’s a lot more to enhancing a scene’s emotional impact than “fixing” the words.

Actually, words are the last thing you should look at, because by the time you’re finished puttering with everything else, those words may not even be there.

OK, you’ve got your scene working hard, contributing to the novel’s plot, conflict, theme, character development and building tension as it goes. Your scene has a strong beginning that jumps right into the central conflict of the scene and it has a hook that spins the characters off into a new direction.

You’re ready to look at the words.
  • Backload your sentences to strengthen their power.
  • Tighten the language. Get rid of redundancies and unnecessary verbiage.
  • Replace clichés with fresh writing.
  • Layer in rhetorical devices that heighten the emotional impact.

There is already so much good advice on the internet on how to enrich your language that I’m not going to repeat it all. Instead, I'll to point you in a few choice directions. So here goes:

"Backloading" is an expression that I think was coined by Margie Lawson, though she’s not the first place I discovered the concept. Backloading a sentence means putting the most powerful word in the sentence in the most powerful location in the sentence: its end.

Power words (also called “loaded words”) are words that resonate with readers’ emotions. They’re strong words that carry their own baggage, words like death, prayer, rape, caution, silence, blood, guilt, knife, edge, fall. Words that contain connotations of death, injury, disaster, chaos, pain, joy, love are all power words, as are many action verbs.

There are two ways you can backload a sentence.

 Chop off words and phrases that aren’t necessary and that cause the power of the sentence to trickle away.

Thinly scattered streetlights reveal vast lawns, long, curving driveways, and tall, old trees whose bare branches twist like witches’ arms in the moonlight. 
The power words here are “witches’ arms”. I’ve already mentioned streetlights, so I certainly don’t need moonlight. It can go.

Thinly scattered streetlights reveal vast lawns, long, curving driveways, and tall, old trees whose bare branches twist like witches’ arms.

Here's another original that can be chopped:

I remember now the ambulance arriving, and realize they must have come up the same lane we did.
Revised, it looks like this:
I remember now the ambulance arriving, and realize they must have come up the same lane. 
Another way to backload is rephrasing the sentence so the power word is at the end.  Here's the original:
We were both sitting cross-legged on our beds, our summer blankets pulled over our shoulders, even though it was hot outside

Rephased to move the power words to the end:
Even though it was hot outside, we were both sitting cross-legged on our beds, summer blankets pulled over our shoulders.

My revision has other problems, namely lots of fat, so let’s move on to my second bullet point and look at how to tighten it.

Mr. Stewart, my junior year high school teacher, introduced me to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style close to fifty years ago. The book was already a classic text for writers then, and still is now. It should be in every writer’s reference library. Mr. Steward repeated Rule 1 of Strunk and White so many times that it still rings in my ears: “Omit needless words.”

So what needless words can go?

First, anything that the reader could have guessed from context. Like “both”.

Next, anything that can be said more concisely: “Even thought it was hot outside” can become “Despite the heat”.

Third, look at the verb. Compound verbs that contain “begin to”, “start to” or anything similar can be reduced to the main verb. Progressive tenses (is + verb+ing) are also suspect. No, they are NOT passive voice, though critique partners and contest judges who have a mediocre grasp of grammar will try to tell you so. A progressive verb indicates that something, while active, is happening (see a used one right there) while something else happens. In other words, it indicates synchronicity. But you don’t always need progressive tense. Test the sentence by replacing the progressive form with the simple form of the verb. Does it still work? If so, use the simple form.

My sentence now looks like this:

Despite the heat, we sat cross-legged on our beds with our blankets pulled over our shoulders.

Now that "pulled over our shoulders" – the power words that indicate there’s some strong emotion making these kids feel cold – is at the end of the sentence, the phrase “cross-legged on our beds” seems to intrude on the main idea (the emotion). When that happens, ask yourself, “Do I really need that image”? Ninety percent of the time, the answer’s “no”. Often, when the answer’s “yes”, you can find another place to work it in (possible a different sentence) without weakening the sentence you’ve just strengthened.

I’ve merely scratched the surface tightening your writing. Author/agent Lois Winston has an amazing blog post that covers it in detail.

Clichés crop up at us when we least expect them. There are two that sentence. “crop up at us” (which I think is a misuse, as well) and “when we least expect them.” The point is it’s easy to write clichés. They’re so strongly embedded in our culture that when we open to the door to our Muse, there they are.

The trick is recognizing them and replacing them with something fresher. Fresher equals stronger.

Having trouble recognizing them? Just Google “cliché lists” and you’ll find over five million lists.

There are also plot clichés -- those predictable bits of action that bore the reader. You know, the hero who spots the unknown heroine at a ball and just has to pursue her, the girl who trips so the hero notices how pretty her ankle is, the dog that eats the crucial piece of evidence (otherwise known as “the dog ate my evidence”), and so on. Hopefully by now you’ve gotten rid of them, but if you’re still new to writing, you may need help recognizing them. Google will point you toward websites with lists of them, as well. One of my favorites is

That leaves layering rhetorical devices. Rhetorical devices are the things you learned in poetry: metaphors, similes, hyperbole, alliteration and so on. Actually, there are heaps more. If you’re serious about upping the standard of your writing, take any of Margie Lawson’s courses. Her EDITS course includes practice in many rhetorical devices that writers use all the time, but that you probably were never aware were RD’s and could be used to create specific effects.

That wraps up my series of blogs on Layering Your Scene. Have fun revising!.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Endings

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sharing the content of a workshop I gave for the C2C chapter of the Romance Writers of New Zealand. We’re nearing the end – and appropriately this blog is about the scene ending.

So let’s look at the ending.
  • Does it have a hook?
  • Is the hook fresh and interesting?
  • Does it move the plot in a different direction?
  • Does it have a “Shrek moment”?

Not sure whether your scene has a hook? Read your last few paragraphs to a partner. Get feeback on whether the hook’s working.

Every scene should have a hook.

Most paragraphs should have a hook.

Most sentences should have a hook (I’ll talk about how to do this in the next blog).

First draft writing looks something like this, from my WIP, Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty. This scene is from a chapter that I eventually cut entirely from the book. In it, Sophie and her father are at the beach discussing her brother Marion’s tragic death.
Dad slapped at a mosquito. Like Marion, he was blond and gray-eyed with the finely chiseled features of a handsome man. Mosquitoes loved him.
“Time to go home.” 
It’s not bad, but there’s nothing about it to make the reader turn the page. Mary Buchanan, in one of her workshops, says that every scene should end with a hook that drives the reader to go on to the next scene.

Usually, however, the first draft of any scene ends on something that would put a potential reader to sleep. That’s because beginning writers have the urge to feel closure. It's what happened with this scene. You know what’s going to happen next. They’re going home. I could have shown them packing up their picnic and loading the car, but by the time I wrote this I’d gotten past writing most of what Margie Lawson calls “walking the dog”.

Signs of walking the dog at scene endings include:

  •  Saying good-bye (unless there’s something about the good-bye that spins the characters on their heads)
  •  Putting things away
  •  Any of the rituals of leaving (putting on clothes, shaking hands, opening and closing doors, walking away.)
While this is logically how the action in the scene would play out, there is no conflict in any of these actions. Without conflict it is dead.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use good-byes to end a scene. But if you do, they have to be laden with conflict. Last night I was curled up in bed with Margaret Mahy’s YA Alchemy. Look how she turns a good-bye into a page-turner:

Roland, the hero, has been pressured by a teacher into getting to know Jess, a classmate who has no friends. Roland sums up the courage to visit her at her home, where he’s welcomed with the warmth of an Antarctic winter. Here’s the end of the scene:

Jess thrust his game of Viper towards him, then walked on to fling the front door wide. Stepping out onto the porch, Roland turned, shooting an apparently casual glance over her shoulder as he did so. There was no one and nothing on the landing. All the same, a moment earlier, he had seen – he had seen – he knew he had seen…

Of course, the reader wants to know, what has Roland seen? Mahy, right at the end of her scene, sets up a story question that propels us into the next part of the book.

My favourite “good-bye” at the end of scene – one that works dramatically well – is the penultimate scene from Gone with the Wind, in which Rhett walks out on Scarlett with the famous line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

But if you look at the scene itself, you’ll see that although he tells her he’s leaving, we don’t actually see him walk out the door. Not until the next – and final – scene in which Scarlett picks herself up from the disaster, determined to go back to Tara, which always gives her strength, and figure out a way to win him back.

As a writer you don’t need to begin or end the scene where the character enters or leaves the setting. Begin it as close to the central conflict of the scene as possible and end it as soon as possible after the scene reaches its climax. In the Gone with the Wind scene, the climax is the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.
The ending to the GWTW scene twists around not just love scene we as readers expect (Scarlett entered the scene determined to tell Rhett she finally realized she loves him), but the whole the Happily Ever After ending, as well.

As a hook, the scene works magnificently, setting up at the last minute a new story question that leads us to read the last scene, which is not action, but introspection. GWTW is one of those novels in which the novelist doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, but the author has painted such a vivid portrait of a young woman who always manages to get what she wants, that the reader know Scarlett will somehow find a way to win back Rhett. On the other hand, it does leave open the question of how. If Margaret Mitchell had chosen to write a sequel, it, like GWTW, would have been a runaway best seller.

We can learn a couple more things from this scene:

  • Good hooks often set up story questions – things the reader is dying to know.
  • Good hooks surprise the reader.
Look at your scene ending. Is it predictable? How can you twist the scene and make it different?

Lori Wilde, to whom I am indebted for much of what I’ve learned on layering, suggests a couple of ways to do this:

  • End the scene the opposite of how you begin it
  • Look for a different motivation for the character’s behaviour
  • Add what Lori Wilde calls a “Shrek Moment”. A Shrek Moment – taken from the animated film Shrek – turns a cliché on its head. Shrek is filled with these. Most of them take iconic Disney conventions and give them an ironic twist. My favourite is the morning after Shrek has rescued Princess Fiona from the dragon. They are still in the forest. She hears birds singing and spots a mother bird on its next. In a typical Disney animation, this is a cue for the heroine to burst into song. Instead, the next scene shows a frying pan full of eggs.
Alexandra Sokoloff says that a good scene ending should contain a “disaster”. Like the ending I quoted earlier from Margaret Mahy, it should swivel the protagonist and the plot around in a new direction.

To create a disaster, ask yourself:

  •  What surprises can occur?
  •  How can I make things worse?
Next week: Layering Your Scene by Enriching the Language

Monday, July 4, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Theme

The next layer to add to your scene are the all the elements that have to do with the novel’s theme. For those of you who weren’t English majors (there must be a few of you out there) theme is basically the one-word definition of the abstract concept or ideal the book is about. For example, Othello is about jealousy, Hamlet is about revenge, Romeo and Juliet is about love. Often a work can have more than one theme. While Hamlet could be about revenge, it can also be about justice -- or indecision.

The theme is always a moral quality. It broadens the story’s scope, transforming it from a series of incidents that happen to a certain individual during a certain time at a certain place to a fable to which a broad audience can relation. In other words, the theme makes the story universal.

Although the theme itself is a universal quality, what each writer brings to a particular theme can be very different. For example, Titanic, Romeo and Juliet, and When Harry Met Sally are all about love. But they say very different things about love:
  • Titanic: Love lasts forever.
  • Romeo and Juliet: Love overcomes hate.
  • When Harry Met Sally: Friends can turn to lovers.
Every scene should reinforce the theme. But how do you do that?

One way to state your theme is to use the formula put forward by Stan Williams in his book The Moral Premise:

            ___________ (virtue) leads to _____________ (positive
            outcome) but  _______________________ (opposing
            vice) leads to _________ (disastrous result).

Once you’ve stated your theme, ask yourself, “How does the scene support this premise?” In other words, what lesson does the reader learn from the scene?

For example, in the first book of my Arthurian trilogy, The Deadly Peace, the moral premise is “”Trust leads to allies and success; lack of trust leads to lack of allies and failure”. In the opening scene of the sequence in which my heroine, her best friend and her maidservant plot to set a day for my heroine’s coronation, my heroine’s inability to trust men leads her (a) to have powerless allies in the form of her female companions (b) to be reluctant to team up with a potential ally, the hero.

If your scene does not support either the positive or the negative half of your moral premise, your scene is not working hard enough. In fact, it may be totally superfluous. At this point, evaluate the purpose of the scene, especially if you’re running over your target word count. This may be one of those scenes you can omit.

Or, if there are good plot reasons why the scene is necessary, consider the following alternatives:

  • Combine it with a scene that does support your moral premise (can you slide the information you need to convey from this scene into that scene instead?)
  • Revise the scene to support the moral premise.

Once your scene supports your moral premise, you’re ready to add another layer to your text: symbolism.

In the workshop she gives on Layering Your Scene for Maximum Impact, best-selling romance writer Lori Wilde claims adding this layer made the difference that led to her first sale. Lori adds to every scene a “concrete symbol that represents the POV character’s state of mind or the plot or the theme or the misguided belief or the goal or their vulnerability.”

Often the McGuffin can work as a central symbol.

In the movie Titanic, for example, the gem “The Heart of the Sea” starts as the McGuffin that the treasure hunter (and later Cal) seeks. But it also represents Rose’s imprisonment in a role she deplores, and ultimately as the symbol for her own heart.

 While overarching symbols can contribute to the literary quality of the work, not every symbol has to be carried through the book. A symbol can be specific to a scene. For example, at the beginning Titanic, the porters bring a number of the works of early modern French artists into Rose’s cabin. They’re easily recognizable as the works of artists who are famous today, but back in 1912, they would have been barely known. We never see these paintings again, but they reverberate on several levels. Rose’s recognition of the potential of these undiscovered gems says a lot about the heroine’s artistic sensibility, but her financé’s scorn for the same works also tells us a lot about him. The paintings become the focal point for the conflict between Rose and Cal. They also foreshadow Rose’s relationship with Jack. On a wider scale, the later loss of these potentially priceless works under the sea mirrors the incalculable value of the disaster’s lost human lives.

 Checklist for theme:
  • Scene supports the moral premise.
  • Scene contains a symbol that “represents the POV character’s state of mind or the plot or the theme or the misguided belief or the goal or their vulnerability.”
Next week:
Layering the Ending and Language