Monday, January 9, 2012

The Phantom in my Novels

If you’re a novelist, you have a phantom that creeps across your pages, a shadowy menace working hard to remain anonymous and undetected.

He stalls your work, keeping it from all it’s meant to be. And your phantom happens to like changing capes. (If he’s anything like mine.) So he shows up in disguise, lurking, chameleon-like with a tenacious bent toward flubbing your work.

Time to name the different disguises the phantom likes best:

The Frasier
Forced and flowery prose. Longwinded diatribes. Desperate to come across sounding erudite, the phantom likes to imitate Frasier. And while he’s at it, he’s good at distracting the reader from what’s really going on.

The Rambler
Frasier’s cousin. Purposeless dialogue bumping up against purposeless dialogue. The Rambler is bound to get our books slammed closed.

The Offroader
I often enjoy discovering a story within a story within a story. It’s like a Chinese nesting doll reading experience. But being entirely offroaded while reading a novel isn’t quite as fun. When I’m taken out of the story for no reason and plopped into another story, I can bet the phantom is hiding in the pages. He’s struck again, only I’m so offroaded I have a difficult time finding traces of him.

The Yawn Maker
You know how Mentos is the freshmaker, right? Well, our slippery phantom likes to be the yawn maker. He throws on a beige cape (poor beige, it’s always gotten a bad rap) and has our characters act like patients, always waiting, stuck in the purgatory of a boring doctor’s office. Excitement, escalating conflict, and action are nowhere to be found.

The Clogged Drain
Wearing a slightly different color cape than his Yawn Maker one, our phantom stalls action in our scenes. He slows everything down to a Sunday driver pace and causes readers to lose focus and any investment in the plot. Because good ol’ phantom is stuffing Styrofoam in the scenes you want to read fluidly.

The Light Dimmer
Sneaky phantom steals the power from setting when he plays his light dimmer role. He throws the entire scene on mute and thwarts it from living up to its potential by making the setting mundane, commonplace, and unimportant.

The Mary Poppins
Remember when Mary jumps into the sidewalk chalk drawings and the new fairy tale world is one big tribute to her? Phantom loves when we do this with our novels. He encourages us to let our own emotionally experience blend into our work so much that our MCs act in uncharacteristic ways. Why uncharacteristic? Because they’re acting like us and not them. A surefire phantom stamp.

Isn’t this one big beautiful example of displacement? Not fun to admit we make these mistakes readily in our novels, so go ahead, just blame it on that nasty phantom. Makes me rethink the term ghostwriting. ;)

Can you think of any other disguises our phantom wears in effort to weaken our novels?

*photo by flickr
**All “I”s are on somebody. Check out who (in a bit)


  1. There was an old skit from Saturday Night Live that Tom Hanks did called "Mr Short-Term Memory"

    Sometimes my phantom takes on that hat and I forget that I've said or shown something in a scene or even use the same action tag and repeat it again and again in different ways. LOL

  2. Ha - Jennifer Shirk - that is a phantom I am most definitely guilty of and don't discover until I reread and edit!

    I'm familiar with all of these, Wendy!

  3. My phantom likes to disguise himself as The Fairy Godmother, granting all sorts of happiness and unreality to situations. Happiness should be part of some characters' lives, but it should be real and believable.

  4. I've come across The Pauser from time to time. He stores commas beneath that cape and drops them randomly into the sentences, unannounced.

  5. I've seen many of these hiding out in my stories! I can definitely identify with Jennifer too. :)

  6. Those darn phantoms! I've been visited by several over the last month.

  7. I know all the phantoms you have mentioned are in their ultimate play zone while I write my first draft. But they'll be shaking in their capes when I start re-writes, red-sharp pencil in hand! There will be blood shed! :)

  8. I think I'll blame all my writing mistakes on the phantom.:) Oh, I'm definitely guilty of some of those.

  9. Loved Mary Poppins! So much truth here!

    Great post.

  10. Oh, I love this, Wendy. You are so clever in the way you teach! I'm going to share this one for all my novelist friends.

    The one I dislike most, and I'm not sure what cape he wears, is the description monster. He gets so into describing the scene or setting in minute detail that he loses me.

  11. Oh my gosh, Wendy! I think all of these have shown up in my writing at one point or another. I guess as long as I've fixed them or worked on them as I've gone along, then it's good. At least I'm growing :)

  12. Ha! Love this! I have that ridiculous phantom who thinks everyone knows what I'm trying to say without me actually saying it. Hello? Need to add details! Uggh!

  13. These offer great food for thought! Will consider these as I work on the WIP. :)

  14. I'm loving your creativity as usual, Wendy! And I love that I can now blame all my writing faults on the phantom. They have nothing to do with me, right? ;)

  15. Have to tackle b-ball and dance tonight. Well, I don't, my kids do. Anyhoo...

    Jennifer & Katie, Love that dude. Know him well. Pretty sure my novels are one of his old haunts.

    Lindsay, Good one and a sure sign of growth. See, admitting these are half the battle and blaming it on the phantom makes it that much easier. ;)

    Joanne, Yep, mine does the same thing. He picks them up sometimes, too. Bad, bad phantom.

    Jessica, Yes, Jennifer's was relable. Too bad I didn't think of it. I blame it on short-term memory.

    Susan, What we need is a phantom spray to douse all over us before we sit to write.

    Lynn, Huh, phantoms have blood? Learn something new every day. You take 'em down, Lynn. I'm rooting for you.

    Melanie, Isn't it fun. Makes light of those pesky nuisances that creep in our work b/c we all know it is a lot of work kicking them out.

    Loree, I've been guilty of the Mary more often than I'd like to admit. I often have to step back and say, wait, is that how I'd react or my mc?

    Jeanette, I know his counterpart, the lack of description monster. I often have to slay him in my edits.

    Cindy, Yeah for growth. I'm a fan of it.

    Jill, Yes, this is what I mentioned w/ Jeanette. Good thing we can take him down during edits. And you're good at that. Your writing is sharp, lady!

    Karen, Thanks!

    Sarah, Nothing at all. La, dee, da. :D Isn't that fun, for once to hop into pretend mode and displace the heck out of all the work that goes into our writing?

    Off to play carpool mom (or be carpool mom).

    Hope you're filled with inspiration and strength to grow.
    ~ Wendy

  16. How do you think of these awesome examples???

    What came to my mind is the Scene Stealer: the secondary character who kicks the MC off the stage.

  17. I can relate to every single one of those.

  18. Oh man. The Rambler has made a few appearances in my books. Yikes.

  19. Wendy, these are great! How 'bout the Need-to Man. He tells me all the time I need to do this first, before writing. :)

  20. Wendy, I always walk away from these style of posts with a fresh prespective. I do appreciate your creative way of bringing insight through your methods of personification.

  21. Haha! This was so great! I guess my Phantom is Mr. Name-changer. Halfway through a book or soemtimes even a scene, my phantom decides Marge is better as Barb or Elizabeth is better as Catherine.


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