Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More from Tom Sawyer

Check back here every Wednesday for a few thoughts on the craft. Here are today's:

Wednesday's Writing on Writing...

Last Wednesday I offered insights gleaned from my well-worn copy of Fiction Writing Demystified. Here’s more from Thomas B. Sawyer’s great book:

“Don’t be afraid to give your protagonist an attitude that may be irritating to others in your cast, and even to part of your audience.

“If it becomes too abrasive, too edgy, you can always moderate it, dial it down. Short of creating a lead character that people will out and out hate, it is not nearly as important that audiences love everything about him or her as it is essential that they stay with your story to find out what becomes of them. Literature is full of such protagonists, leading men and women who are as exasperating as they are captivating.

“And with good reason. It’s difficult to imagine anything duller than a flawless, goody two-shoes central character. Unless you’re writing allegory (which I don’t recommend) or satire, ‘Nice’ puts us to sleep.”

I was particularly struck by Sawyer’s counsel on attribution (the he-saids and she-saids). Like me, Sawyer has come to see attributions like “she asked” as redundant, as they always follow a question. Even “he said” is redundant if the novelist has done her job and described enough action so the reader already knows who is speaking.

“And then there are ‘he blurted,’ ‘she exclaimed,’ ‘he queried,’ etc. If you must attribute, rather than committing those atrocities, ‘he said’ begins to look attractive. Almost.”

Sawyer claims it is possible — and I know this is true because I accomplished it with The Last Operative, my Tyndale House novel to release in July 2010 — to “write an entire novel without employing any of those phrases, nor, actually, any direct, conventional attribution.”

Here’s an example of how it works:

Jim slammed his palm on the table. “The next time you come in this late, you’ll regret it.”

Sue flinched and narrowed her eyes. “Don’t you think I’m a little old for that kind of supervision?”

Sawyer also has interesting things to say about others’ opinions of our writing. “Absorbing their views, making changes based upon them, can help your work.


“But in the end, we are the ones who must decide whether our writing, our art, is what we want it to be. We must, therefore, consistently ask ourselves the tough questions …

“All of us, no matter how experienced or professional, are vulnerable to rejection and criticism. It’s also difficult to avoid reading the put-downs as a rejection of us — of ourselves.

"But that way madness lies …

“Scary though it may be, we have got to put it out there, our writing (ourselves), believing that we’ve said what we want to say — or at least have come as close as we’re able.”

And when you do that, how about sending your work to our annual First Novel contest? For rules and details, go to

I'll write more about it in my January 13 Wednesday's Writing about Writing, but don't wait. This may be the best Christmas present you give yourself this year.


Yvonne said...

I'm learning not to use dialogue tags, but I haven't figured out how to show someone whispering without using one. Any suggestions?

Gretchen Ricker said...

Taking this a step further, in the Craftsman Course retreat, Brandolyn and Jerry worked and worked to help me figure out how to alter mood in a scene with word choice. Using the right action words in dialogue can accomplish this and avoid dialogue tags at the same time. This finally made sense when I listened to John Olson's talk on Writing in the Shadows. I finally "get it." Now to DO IT!

Barbara J. Robinson said...

I've read the book, and I love the examples you've given here.