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The Mandarin Segment…

August 12, 2010

Something completely different?

OK, so, out of all the elements that make up a good story – which would I tell a novice they should take the time to study up on? You’re asking me? Really?

English usage? Strike one – C.J. gone done that one – fair‘n’square…

Plausibility, or, if your name is Greg: Keeping it real… damn it, Greg! Strike two!

No, please… Sharon, must you? Strike three… Out? Failed on account of characters?

But, in (my) reality all of the above and more ARE required. Now that really IS a problem for the novice writer.  So let me cast my mind back to when I had a story idea for a novel. What pragmatic advice would have helped me with the daunting task ahead of me? In fact, what was the first thing I wanted to find out about that ACTUALLY got me through the process of getting the idea down on paper?

Well, if you will bear with me – perhaps even read a little “flash” of inspiration… then maybe, just maybe, I’ll tell you…

The Mandarin Segment…

“Bye, honey,” she said “…don’t forget to eat something. It’s breakfast time! There’s a bowl of fruit on the table.”

With that his wife disappeared from view, on her way to the beach – his young son skipping gaily in-hand.

The writer sat at the small desk of the hotel they had checked into early that morning. It was the start of his holiday, but he had made a commitment. This last project, then he would relax. He had promised. He’d promised himself, promised his wife and child. He was an honourable man; promises were that: responsibilities to be met.

Sweat poured from his brow as the heat of the rising tropic sun screamed in through the open window. The gentle sea-breeze offered no respite. The effects of a sleepless early morning flight crowded his thoughts. Inspiration, that ghost of fancy, slipped from his grasp – that drowning muse parted his metaphoric grip as he, the sole survivor in his boat of life, looked helplessly, listlessly on.

Where to start?  It was his first novel… the commitment made to himself…  an outline of the story! A plan! Yes, damn it, he’d already qualified himself as a writer – but this was different… a novel? Eighty thousand words, he told himself… over three hundred pages. The thought scared him. Where to start?

He stood; he sat; he fidgeted.

The mid-day sun rose to its zenith… then fell.

Hunger avoided him as a plague.

The disappearance of his muse had long ceased to be that faded ripple on the outgoing tide of his consciousness. Oh yes! …he still had the idea …that glimmer of story hope that teased him into continuing his purgatory existence. But …eighty thousand words?

The deadline, the end of this day, loomed ominously. Soon, they would return: promises to fulfil.

He paced the room. Desperation rose as a geyser from the bottom of his soul. Bile kissed the back of his throat. Panic began to consume him.

His eyes, heavy in desperation, rolled downward. His glance set upon the bowl of fruit. Atop the bananas, apples and grapes stood a single mandarin. The small orange fruit melded with the colour of the now setting sun. The mandarin became one with nature, growing in stature as his vision occluded all else before him.

He stood, mesmerised by the immense vision of the mandarin that became the world before him.

He stooped forward. Reaching down with his left hand he picked the fruit from the bowl, surprised at its lightness, given the sense that it seemed, at that moment, to hold the source of all energy. The fruit became all.

Involuntarily, his right hand met his left, trapping the soft fruit between them. It radiated inspiration. It controlled his movements. He knew not why his thumb pierced the orange skin at that precise time. He knew not why the skin fell cleanly away as, caressed by his touch, the fruit rotated against the sharpness of his nail. He knew none of these things. He knew only that he now held the mandarin, its fleshy nakedness exposed. Its pithy segmentation beckoned him.

The fruit was whole, it invited him to enter… to consume, not be consumed, but where? Where to begin?

And then he knew. …A plan!

He smiled. He would break his story into segments. Each segment would begin as almost uniform, manageable scenes. Pithy links would bring the segments together, to realise the whole – an arc of enlightenment; from beginning to end.

He slid his finger into the mandarin… and breathed life, wishing he’d been hungrier, earlier.

****

And my point?

Pace.

The challenge, should you accept it, is to pace the story idea across something like 300 pages without letting the reader down. The writer must carry the reader on a journey through place, time and characterization, using effective language, well written and grounded in a reality that allows the reader to relax when the going gets tough. To my mind this takes a plan. It is a big challenge and, for the novice, breaking the story into manageable scenes is a great place to start.

Happy writing, mon braves! (…with no apologies to Richard Condon) 🙂

10 Comments leave one →
  1. James Garcia Jr permalink*
    August 12, 2010 10:09 am

    I agree with you, David. Well said!
    You know, many complain about Dan Brown’s works, but I think that is the reason why he has been so successful with Da Vinci Code, etc. is his pacing. The chapters are fun, cliff-hangers ending nearly every one of them. You cannot help but turn that page.
    Thanks for the post.

    • August 12, 2010 10:17 am

      Thanks, James… and I’ve never even read a Dan Brown! Perhaps I should! 🙂

  2. August 12, 2010 1:39 pm

    Great post David! I love the mandarin orange analogy. It’s a perfect way to explain it. And of course, you humor me with a clever little story.

    I haven’t read Dan Brown either and I even have Da Vinci Code sitting on my book shelf collecting dust! My hubby made me watch the movie and one of these I’ll break down to read the book.

    • August 12, 2010 2:43 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Ana. I’m glad you appreciate the humour (spelt differently, I’m British of course!) If you ever get there, let me know what you think of Dan Brown! 🙂

  3. August 12, 2010 2:40 pm

    Great post, David. I actually liked “Angels and Demons” better as a book, not the movie. IMHO the movies were good, but wasn’t anything like the books. James is right, the pacing is so important. I also like Stephen Cannel’s “On the Grind” for a book that has heart-stopping pacing and layering of conflict upon conflict. He is actually the one who used the cat in the tree story when he came to our local bookstore. Barry Eisler is good too on pacing.

    But on the mandarin orange part, well, Sir, are you sure you don’t moonlight in some romance genre? Starting with “Involuntarily” and ending with “beckoned him”, oh my.

    • August 12, 2010 2:52 pm

      Hi, Sharon, having tried to convert a short sotry of mine into a one act play, I am not surprised that movie scripts often lack something of the flow of a (well) written story line.

      I’ve seen the Dan Brown movies and, frankly, I have never rated them more worthy than an evening’s escapist entertainment. (Escpecially when accompanied by a bottle of wine!) Perhaps I should read the books! (But if I do that I cut into my writing time!)

      Anyway, I am off to Greece on Sunday, to really cut into my next novel. I’ll take a book, but I already know I am unlikely to read it! And, as far as genres go… I actually have no time for boundaries, I just write stories. And you can find romance anywhere 🙂

  4. August 13, 2010 7:43 am

    Excellent post, David and I’m sure women all over the world are buying mandarin oranges as we speak. Sunkist should be giving you a call at any moment.

    With all that has been written this week, I’m glad you mentioned planning. We can’t get anywhere with our advice until we actually make plans to write.

    Loved your use of the fiction to demonstrate the point. Your stuff always has a freshness that my bloated blogs lack.

    • August 13, 2010 9:55 am

      Hi, Greg, thanks for the kind words! And I’d never class your posts as bloated – well rounded is a far better and more accurate description!

      Now, I never thought of that… could I be accused of insider trading if I went into Mandarin futures? Gekko eat your heart out!! 🙂

  5. August 13, 2010 10:34 pm

    Neat post, David.

    I agree about needing a plan. The first manuscript I wrote on the fly and it was terrible! I was so unorganized. I thought I could keep track of all my ideas without writing them down. Needless to say, I’ve spent as much time editing that MS as I had writing it in the first place!

    I’ve recently discovered the joys of outlining and sketching. I will never go back to writing on the fly again.

    • August 14, 2010 3:00 pm

      Thanks for dropping by and for you comment, J.D.

      I think it was my training as an engineer that brought out the planning in me. I only know that, after planning my first novel (a two week process that ended in a 20,000 words extended, scene by scene synopsis), the first draft of the novel took only four weeks of writing.

      I am hoping to do the same with the sequel – ten days on holiday to get as much of the extended synopsis down in print!

      At least I’ll know what shape the mandarin is! 🙂

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