Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The best writing advice Hallie Ephron received

Today Hallie Ephron -- a terrific novelist, writing teacher, reviewer and non-fiction author -- takes a turn at discussing our March theme.
By Hallie Ephron

The best writing advice I ever got came from Arthur Edelstein, a wonderful writing teacher who ran a fiction writing seminar at Radcliffe Seminars. Sadly, Arthur died a few years back but I keep a post-it in my office with two insights. These are so simple but at the they felt like bolts from the blue:
1. Write scenes
2. Kill the narrator
Write scenes? Arthur was the first person to alert me to the fact that scenes (not chapters) are the atomic particles of which novels constructed. A scene is bounded in time and place, though characters can enter and exit. When the scene shifts, the author double spaces. If you keep this in mind, it helps anchor your novel in drama (showing) instead of summary (telling). Chapter breaks can come anywhere, and the author can insert a chapter break in a scene to modulate the pace.

Kill the narrator? Well, not literally. But the point here is that the author’s voice doesn’t belong in (most) modern novels. The voice/viewpoint telling the story shouldn’t be the author but one of the characters, and each scene is narrated start to finish by just one viewpoint character. I know there’s a lot of controversy about this, but I still prefer an anchored viewpoint in each scene.

How do you pick which character narrates if your novel has multiple narrators? Tess Gerritsen gave me some great advice when I asked her how she picks which of her character narrates: “Writers are told to give the point of view to the character who has most to lose in a scene. I would disagree totally. Choose the character who is most uncomfortable, the most off balance.” Great advice.

And finally, following Anne Lamott’s advice from “Bird by Bird,” I long ago gave myself permission to write shitty first drafts.

Hallie Ephron is a writer, book reviewer, and teacher. Her novel "Never Tell a Lie" (1/09, Willliam Morrow) is a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and for the Salt Lake Libraries Readrers Choice Award. It has been optioned for film and has been translated into 7 languages. Hallie is also an award-winning crime fiction book reviewer for "The Boston Globe." Her Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel" was nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. She teaches at writing workshops across the country. She is also the author of "The Bibliophile's Devotional" and "1001 Books for Every Mood."

Tomorrow newly published author Norma Huss will share who--and what--inspires her.


Annette said...

Hey, Hallie! It's great to have you here!

I love your comment about choosing the character who is the most uncomfortable to "narrate" the scene. That's great advice!

PatRemick said...

Thanks for visiting Working Stiffs, Hallie, and sharing those bolts from the blue!

Joyce said...

Welcome, Hallie!

You always have such great advice. I constantly refer to my handouts from the session you taught at the Pennwriter's Conference a few years ago.

Cassy Pickard said...

Hallie: Well said! I love to "tune in" when you offer advice. From the time at Seascape to comments you offer on various sites, I always come away feeling as though I have rethought a bit of the writing process. Thanks!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

BAM! Right there in your face.

Hallie, you're right, so obvious, yet so true.

I've re-writen scenses from a different viewpoint before to see how it affects the tension. I just didn't know why one viewpoint came off better than the other.

Hallie Ephron said...

Hey, Tess, Pat, Joyce, and Cassy! So glad to be here. Wilfred you are brave and flexible... what amazing to me is how DIFFERENT the same scene depending on which character narrates. (If it's NOT then you've got the narrator at the mike.)

What gets tricky is how do you SHOW the reader what the narrator misses...without pulling punches.

Laurissa said...

Hi, Hallie. Welcome!

Thank you for great writing advice. Your advice on viewpoint is a tremendous help.

ramona said...

Hallie, for me, one of the best pieces of writing advice came from you! You told me I needed to better choreograph my characters by visualizing what each person is doing throughout the entire scene. That has been most helpful to me, especially when I have more than two characters to manage. Thanks--again.

Carol Kilgore said...

Excellent article. Thanks for posting.

Norma said...

Hallie, like Joyce, I remember your workshop at Pennwriters and the worksheets you handed out until they were all gone - and then you made them available to the rest of us on the web!

Inspiring then, and now.

KK Brees said...

Writing - like life - is a series of scenes. Getting lost in the scene lets the characters come to life. Like the post, Hallie!

Hallie Ephron said...

Thanks, Ramona -- The tricky part is to VISUALIZE each character from the viewpoint of the character who's narrating. If Bob is narrating while hiding under the bed, then 'visualizing' another character Dirk moving around the bedroom will be all about sound and vibration and needing to sneeze.

You're welcome, Carol!

Hi, Norma -- Pennwriters is a fabulous conference.

And while I'm at it, New Englanders should know about THE MUSE AND THE MARKETPLACE a wonderful conference run by grub street (www.grubstreet.org) first weekend in May.

And in my earlier comment I meant to write "(If it's NOT then you've got the AUTHOR at the mike.)"

Wilfred Bereswill said...


For me it's more like scared and desperate, not brave and flexible.

Patg said...

Oh, Hallie, how I love that advice about 'shitty' first drafts. It so goes with, just vomit it all out and then go back and clean in up.
Yes, great advice.
Now if I could only follow it.

Hallie Ephron said...

Patg -
Ha ha!! If only I(!) could follow it.
- H

Anonymous said...

I no longer even label my 1st draft files as chapters--scenes, scenes, scenes. And when I'm done with the scene I close that file & open a new one. I worry about how many scenes in each chapter later! :)

Nancy J. Cohen said...

I like your advice. I gave myself permission to write first drafts that are crap, too. It's important to keep slogging through until the end, then go back and fix things.

Hallie Ephron said...

Becky - I try to have that discipline of NOT separating out chapters. Because it's best done during revision. But it's like checking spelling and counting words, I can't myself because fussing with the darned thing is so much easier than writing it.

roseduncan said...

Good advice. How many drafts do you generally write?

ramona said...

Hallie, I wish I were closer to Boston to attend grub street events. Chris Castellani (the director) grew up in northern Delaware. When his last book came out, a mutual friend gave an author dinner for him, and it was a blast. He is funny and charming and a great writer. I'd attend any workshop of his in a heartbeat.

Hallie Ephron said...

Oh, Rose, you pseudonymous soul... you know, A LOT.

It really is hilarious that I give writing advice because my last novel I gave to my friend/critquers and they tore into the ending. Then I sent it to my agent who wasn't all that crazy about the beginning. I sent the revised ms to my editor and she...you guessed it...wasn't wild about that middle.

My other advice: stay flexible and roll with the punches because each time you really are (fingers crossed) making it better

M Pax said...

Some great advice. Thanks, Hallie.

Bolts from the blue are great gifts. :)

Bob said...

Great advice. Thanks!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Great advice! I just judged a contest where the author's strong narrative voice took over the story. It was difficult going for me. And thank goodness we are allowed crappy first drafts. Amen to that, sister!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Hallie! I'm running a day behind or else I would've been here yesterday to welcome you!

I used to keep your book
Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel on the shelf behind my desk. Had to keep turning around, so now it's right on my desk mere inches from my keyboard!

Paula Matter

Avery Aames said...

Great advice, Hallie! Thanks for sharing!
Scenes are so important. With beginnings, middles, and ends! A nice reminder.
Mystery Lovers' Kitchen