Monday, March 31, 2008
Actually, when I was writing the POV book, I studied a lot of first-person openings, and the self-intro ("My name is...") was a real convention. Almost all the books had that in the first page or so. Interesting. The author would use that to establish something about the character and his/her attitude. "Call me Ishmael!" shows a peremptory and perhaps deceptive narrator (not "I am Ishmael," notice). "My name is Joan Smith, and don't worry, I don't expect you to remember that. No one does," indicates a self-deprecating and perhaps self-pitying narrator.
First-person narration is not simply third-person with a change of pronouns, after all. The whole point (I think) of first person is to set up a conversation or at least a monologue of the narrator with the reader-- otherwise, why not just do it in deep-third person? That self-introduction is a great way of having the narrator step out of the frame of the conventional narrative and address the reader directly. "You're probably wondering who I am, and how I got myself in this fix. Well, the first part is easy. I'm John Jones, and I used to sell real estate until the market crashed. As far as the second part, I have no idea how I got into this fix. I just know that it all started when my friend Brian called and wanted me to check out a foreclosure house for him. I took my camcorder to get some video for him, and so I was lucky enough-- ha!-- to videotape his murder."
See how that works? Start with the action (narrator maybe on the run from the murderer AND the police), then stop, have the narrator step out of the frame and introduce himself to the reader. That's what first-person is all about-- the narrator interacting with the reader. Otherwise, save yourself the hassle and write in third-person. :)
As for how to do an opening line of dialogue in first person-- I think in a first-person book it's fine to attribute dialogue this way--
"Here's an opening line of dialogue which Alicia just has to point out often is much clunkier than you hope, but go ahead, as long as you attribute it," I said.
"Here's the opening line of dialogue which Alicia just has to point out often is much clunkier than you hope, but go ahead, as long as you attribute it," Josh said.
I rolled my eyes. Josh was always quoting Alicia. You'd think she was his guru or something.
You don't have to say who "I" is yet. The reader just needs to know who said that opening line, and "the first-person narrator" or "someone talking to the first-person narrator" is plenty good info at this point. You could even, if you want to really be enlightening, add more to the quote tag-- I said, adjusting the focus on my camera.
But just remember... if you have a line of dialogue and then start a new paragraph with a person doing some action, the reader is going to assume the person speaking and the person acting are two different people. That's how we were taught to read-- a shift to a new paragraph means a shift to a new speaker. So much as writers love the bare line of dialogue, just hanging there on the first line looking all elegant and sparse, you have to think about the effect on the reader. The first page should be all about the effect on the reader, because, cough, if the effect isn't what the reader wants, you might lose her right there. "I can't figure out who's saying what, and who's doing what! This is too frustrating for a fun read!"
Tantalizing the reader= good. Frustrating the reader (except in experimental fiction)= bad.
Friday, March 28, 2008
"Is there supposed to be this much blood?"
The medical student struggled to hold the camera steady with a shaky hand. The image bounced on the monitor, and he had to bring up a second hand to keep the instrument pointed at the pulsing flow of red in the middle of the screen.
I have to tell you, this is a great first line, one of the best I've seen. When we talk about opening hooks, this is what we're talking about -- a line that is so compelling, we have no choice but to keep reading to learn more.
The next two sentences dilute the impact of the first line, though. We start with something visceral and immediate and almost troubling, and move into something viewpointless (is that a word?) and, by comparison, disengaged. The second two lines almost read like a distraction from the problem of all that blood.
I find myself wondering if this is a deliberate choice. Does the author intend to imply something about the story or create some special kind of impression by juxtaposing that high-impact first line with the disembodied second paragraph? I keep trying to decide how this series might, as a deliberate style choice, be used to advance a particular authorial goal, and I'm coming up blank. So I'm going to recommend reconsidering this choice because I don't think it works.
Breaking It Down
I'd leave the first sentence exactly as it is. Don't change a word. It's strong dialogue, conversational and realistic and concise and evocative.
But follow it with speaker attribution. (No surprise that we recommend that, right?) If the medical student is the speaker, this can be achieved by removing the carriage return at the end of the dialogue.
"Is there supposed to be this much blood?" The medical student struggled to hold the camera steady with a shaky hand.
You see? Now we know the medical student is the one questioning the amount of blood.
Am I the only one who thinks the poetics of that second sentence fall a bit flat? Usually, when we use paired alliteration like that -- student struggled -- it's a way of emphasizing the alliterated words. We use it on the high point of a sentence, the part we want to highlight. The echo in the paired words causes the words to resonate.
But here we have three repetitions -- student struggled to hold the camera steady -- and the general rule for tripled alliterations is to separate them so that the echoes are spread over the sentence: The medical student holding the camera struggled to keep it steady. Not a brilliant sentence, but it illustrates the point. Do you see how the alliteration creates a poetic rhythm by tying the separated parts of the sentence together? The st sounds become like stepping stones across the flow of the words. This rhythm feels more fluid and natural.
Also, I'm not convinced we need the shaky hand. If the student is struggling to hold the camera steady, doesn't that imply a shakiness in the hands? I think it does. We already know there's a shocking amount of blood, and that the medical student is questioning it. If we throw in the struggle to hold the camera steady, I think we can assume that this struggle is tied to the amount of the blood and not to some other factor, such as standing on top of a giant rubber ball or being jostled by a crowd of fellow students.
The image bounced on the monitor,
Why do we care about what's on the monitor? Why is our attention being drawn to the monitor and away from the amount of blood? Who is watching the monitor, anyway? Instinct says it's not the medical student, because the medical student ought to be preoccupied by all that blood and by the task of holding the camera steady. The medical student has quite enough to contend with already without watching the monitor, too. Also, because the medical student will not likely think of himself as "the medical student," we can assume that the actual pov character is someone else. And that someone else is watching the student (who, after all, just spoke and drew attention to himself) rather than the monitor. This detail, while it may be accurate, reads like a distraction.
and he had to bring up a second hand
Again, this is presented from the viewpoint of an interested third party watching the medical student, and not from the viewpoint of the medical student himself. The difference is created by the verb had to bring up, and is emphasized by a second hand. If we were experiencing this moment from inside the medical student, the verb would be more immediate -- needed -- because he wouldn't be watching the upward motion of his own hand. He'd be thinking about the problem he's trying to solve. Problem: shaky camera. Solution: need two hands.
And it's not his second hand. It's a second hand. The use of the article instead of the possessive pronoun disembodies the hand. There are times this is a neat trick. I don't think this is one of them.
to keep the instrument
Why instrument? This is another distancing word because it's sort of vague and clinical. Instrument can be anything, any tool or device. Lens, camera, viewfinder -- these are all specific and concrete, and they'd do a better job connecting the reader to the specific moment. But I'm starting to get the impression that all this distancing language is deliberate. We're watching the medical student from outside -- we don't know from where, because that's not identified -- and I suspect we're meant to pull back from him. Which would be fine, if we had somewhere else to go. Without a clear point of view to act as a filter for all these distancing details, though, I'm left floating untethered and wondering why we care more about the distanced filmmaker than the blood.
pointed at the pulsing flow
I like pulsing flow. Pulsing flow is active and descriptive and immediate.
I'd using the noun blood here in place of the adjective red. It feels a bit coy to avoid the blood at this point. We started with the blood, which was a huge attention-getter, and have been backing off from it ever since. I want to get back to what caught my attention in the first place.
in the middle of the screen.
I'd kill this last pair of prepositional phrases. He's not pointing at something in the middle of the screen. He's pointing at the blood. The blood is not in the middle of the screen. The blood is in a body. And there's so much of it. Keep the focus on the interesting element, and pare down the rest.
With all this said, I would probably edit the three sentences down to two:
"Is there supposed to be this much blood?" The medical student needed both hands to keep the videocamera pointed at the pulsing red flow.
If you wanted to triple the alliteration, you could use palms instead of hands. But do you see how tightening this keeps the energy higher and keeps the focus on the blood? We get the same basic information, minus the presence of the monitors. If the monitors are important to the scene action, the third sentence could reference them, but in a way that gives us a viewpoint frame of reference. The third sentence could continue to highlight our attention-grabber, all that blood in that body:
Mitch looked away from the victim and at the nearest monitor.
Not a great sentence -- truly, it's not, and I know that, but I'm trying to demonstrate a way to use the monitor in a way that doesn't take the focus off the impact of the bloody body, but gives us a grounded point of view. By the way, one of the reasons I'm so intent on getting a viewpoint character established is that I know this is meant to be a suspense novel. Suspense novels deal with threats, and threats become meaningful when they are personal. Give me a person, and then I'll have a more compelling reason to worry. That said, I'm open to the idea of starting a suspense novel with a teaser scene in a very objective point of view. And it's possible that this is the author's goal, and all the distancing language is meant to enhance that. (But I still don't think it works.)
Overall, this is a good attempt, but the focus is off. It's easy enough to fix, though, and I suspect there's a strong story following this slightly muddled opening.
In other news, Alicia and I are going to be in the same place at the same time today. Sometimes planets converge, and sometimes it's editors.
I'm going to try for a more substantive post later. This is just a drive-by.
*ETA: Well, whaddya know. She closed her blog. That link is dead now, folks. Too bad. It was an informative and entertaining piece about editor-aspiring author interactions. Not just about a stalker.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
When you have a list of a large number of items, the reader will almost always recall those items in this order:
Then, if they remember more of the list -- and chances are, they won't -- the item remembered becomes more random.
Think I'm kidding? Without looking, try to recall the items in the long Don DeLillo passage she posted yesterday. (Was that from White Noise, btw?) I'll give you a couple moments to think about it. But no peeking!
If you remembered the Mystic Mints and the Dum-Dum pops, you remembered the last two items on the list. Those were the two I remember most clearly. I also remember stereos. And Kabooms and Waffelos. And other than that, I remember a generally confused impression of lots and lots of crap on a big yard.
What do you remember? Does your memory of the list resemble mine? The only way my recollection veers from expectations is that I remembered the stereos, but DeLillo actually wrote about stereo sets. And I missed the fruit chews and toffee popcorn, skipping right over those to recall the Waffelos and Kabooms. (I wonder if that's due to the brand names?)
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
One of the more interesting theories I've encountered applies Jungian dream analysis principles to the novel. I'm no expert in Jung's theories, far from it! So please keep that in mind. This is my understanding of the theories, and I'm sharing it because I'm interested in hearing what all of you think about it.
Jung said that dreams were ego mirrors. That is, people and features in dreams didn't stand for what they actually were, but for some aspect of the dreamer's ego. Your third grade teacher is not actually your third grade teacher, but some representation of your interaction with authority. Your empty refrigerator is not actually your empty refrigerator, but a symbol of your feeling that some basic need is being left unmet. Your first apartment is not actually your first apartment, but a symbol of newfound independence. And so on. Not a difficult idea.
And in some measure, it makes sense to transfer this notion to the novel. All of the ideas on the page spring, in some way or another, from the writer's individual psyche. We may think we've modeled the character of the waitress on a girl we knew in high school, but in fact, what we've done is model the waitress on our interpretation, our understanding, our memory and sensory impressions filtered through our own unique consciousness, of that same girl. The character has more to do with how we interpret people in our world than with who those people actually are.
So the novel itself becomes a mirror of the writer's ego. Here's where it gets interesting. Does this affect our definition of protagonist?
I saw one scholar argue that it should. (I can't find the link -- it was on my old computer, and didn't transfer to the new one.) This person theorized that if the novel, like the dream, is the writer's attempt to heal the psyche, then the "protagonist" should be properly identified as the character that changes the most. (I guess we have to assume that healing creates change, or change creates healing.) Whether we're pointing to the focal character or some secondary character, transformation would be the hallmark of the protagonist.
What do we think of this? Does this theory have any practical application to the day-to-day task of writing a story? Does it help with revisions, writers block, anything? I'm inclined to think it doesn't, but maybe I'm missing something.
Anyway, when we read the first page of a manuscript with "author authority," we can just sit back and relax and read, because we know-- this author knows what to do.
So how do we know that? There are a thousand indicators that let us know that this author is going to give us a good ride. But I'll just talk about one common one today, and no doubt we'll add more later.
Items in a series. NOT very exciting, huh? But for various reasons-- sentence balance, conveyance of trivia overload, conveyance of overwhelming force, all sorts of reasons dependent on context-- authors often like to list things. And HOW you list them tells me whether you have an ear for rhythm, a consciousness of significance, and an awareness of construction.
Here's a famous example, the characterization of Byron by Caro Lamb: "He was mad, bad, and dangerous to know," which is such a great capsule description of the dark hero. I love the interior rhyme there (mad/bad) and the last item's transfer of meaning from who he is (mad, bad, dangerous) to the effect on people (to know).
So some guidelines, just in case this doesn't come naturally to you.
1) Think about your numbers here. How many items are you putting in there? The Byron example uses the magic rule of three. This rule, which isn't a rule but an observation, follows the notion that that triangle is at once the most stable and most conflict-filled situation. Mom, Dad, and me = three. Red, white, and blue= three. Three strikes. Three outs. Three point play (just cuz it's March Madness. :). Three-time loser.
Two's a coincidence... three's a pattern.
Notice that Caro Lamb knew that we respond instinctively to three items. We feel a completion with three. With "mad and bad," we would be left waiting for the punchline. (Notice how many jokes are "three"-- A rabbi, a priest, and a minister walk into a bar.)
Our expectations, however, mean that you can play with that rule of three. If you put only two items in a series (AND, and this is a big AND, you've given us reason to think you haven't just screwed up, that you've done this to some purpose), then the sense of suspension, of waiting, can make us wait-- subconsciously we're waiting for something to happen. That's actually a good way to set us up for some disaster, and thus is an important component of suspense-- make us wait for that third item.
And using more than three can make us laugh and then make us annoyed, which is great if that's what you want. Notice that standup comedians often start with a list of three, and then pause, and start adding to it, so it's kind of like this (I'm not very funny, so don't expect to laugh):
So I ate the peach. And then I ate the pasta salad. And then I ate the burger. (Long pause.) And the five-bean salad. (Pause.) And the baked beans. (Pause.) And the scalloped potatoes. (Pause.) And the au-gratin potatoes. (Pause.) And the tablecloth. And my nephew. He got in the way.
The repetition (and the...) adds to the accumulation and sets us up for the punchline.
Going on beyond three is a way to really pound home a point. Here's an example from a Don Delillo novel:
As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.
That's a critique of capitalist society, in case you didn't notice, but for those of us with kids in college, it seems pretty true to life. Yes, it's annoying, and even gets a bit boring there at the end, but see how visual the scene becomes, as we imagine all that junk coming out of the car and piling up on the sidewalk.
But breaking the rule of three only has the effect of transgression because inside each of us is that expectation of three. So start with that, and then decide if you want to bust that expectation. But authority lies in your knowing WHY-- what effect this will have on the reader. You don't have to know this consciously, but your readers can tell if you know instinctively what you're doing and why.
2) Start with parallel structure and violate that at your own risk. Parallel structure is the expectation that all items in a series will have the same grammatical form, that is, they'll all be adjectives (mad, bad, dangerous) or all nouns (the stereo sets, radios, personal computers). If they are phrases or clauses, they are all the same type (participial, relative). And all the items in the list should follow from the sentence root, so for example, if the sentence is structured if the sentence is Subject-Verb- LIST, every item in the list should be structured to follow the verb.
I want to know everything. I want to know how the sun rises, and why the sky is blue, and tomorrow's lottery winner.
I want to know everything. I want to know how the sun rises, and why the sky is blue, and who will win tomorrow's lottery.
3) Rhythmic balance is important. Lists are really poetic devices, and you're using them for poetic effect, so go for rhythm rather than clunk. That usually means putting the shortest item first, and the longest last. Look again at "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," and read it aloud. Hear yourself drawing out that last item so the list comes to a conclusion right at the right instant? (The interior rhyme helps by pairing the first two, so that the three-word last item is still longer, but only just enough.)
4) Also try and end on the most important item:
He was tried for usury, embezzlement, and high treason.
(I'd suggest adding something to "high treason" so it's also longer than "embezzlement," say, "rank high treason" or "attempted high treason," but I'm compulsive.)
If the last item is more than one word, try to end it on the word you want to linger in the reader's mind. "Treason" is a strong word, and if you had, say, "... a high treason attempt," you'd be ending instead on a weak word (attempt means he didn't manage it!). Think of where the conflict is, which item opens to a story better, and it's not always what you might think. After all, torture is worse than temptation, right? But look at this: The devil specializes in torment, torture, and temptation. Temptation is the one that will open up story/scene possibilities, right? Torment and torture are solutions, however nasty. Temptation is an open question-- will the victim resist or succumb?
Again, at any point, you can defy reader expectation for comic or suspense effect. They'll expect, for example, that the last item will be the most intense or important, so if you put something trivial there, it will be amusing:
He was tried for high treason, murder, and spitting on the sidewalk.
5) As I said, the list is meant to be poetic and rhythmic, so if you have a secret hankering for alliteration (torment, torture, temptation) or anaphora (Churchill: we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.) or rhyme (mad, bad), go for it. Don't go for it too much, but this is precisely the place to have some fun.
Monday, March 24, 2008
This is the place to vote for your favorite. Leave a comment to this post, and this post only, telling us which entry gets your vote. All entries are anonymous, but please sign your votes -- even initials will suffice -- and one vote per person, please. We'll leave voting open for one week -- so, get your vote in by next Monday, March 31.
If you vote in a comment thread to one of the entries, chances are your vote will not be counted. Vote here, please.
Have fun! I know I was quite amused with these entries!
Meanwhile, back on the farm in Oklahoma, Frederick Farmer nudged the hat that sat grudgingly on his head glaring at the cloudless sky that refused to rain on purpose. His thoughts centered not at the work at hand, but on the Love of His Life.
She ruled his thoughts with an iron grip that made his brain hurt with a vengeance that surprised her. Oh, how she dearly loved Frederick who loved her back dearly, too.
“Yoo-hoo!” Fiona’s dulcet tones set the cows’ nerves on edge, and they mooed in protest, thinking her sweetly uttered call was music to Frederick’s ears. “Frederick!”
His heart leapt in his chest, beating to burst out and embrace her like she’d never been hugged before. Gone completely now were any lingering thoughts he’d harbored about tilling the parched land that wished for nothing more than a long drink of water. No, he had eyes only for Fiona that looked at her with such fierce enchantment he thought he might be able actually ask her to marry him.
“Fiona! You came! I feared the weather would keep you home. Not much is stirring in this heat wave.”
“I had to see you. Half a day is too long to be away from you and your manly aroma. I love a man who isn’t afraid to sweat, even though that sweat might rabidly turn on him and cause a real stink.”
“I’m your guy, then.” The wet patches under his arms added their voice to his heart-felt vow.
“I don’t owe you a flippin’ thing!” Dwayne had always hated his older sister. “I don’t even owe you the time of day!”
Jackson was comfortably ensconced onboard his boat, the Suited Aces. And the Aces, currently anchored in international waters, just off the Florida Keys, was presumably immune to any and all scrutiny. So, no worries there.
“Tell me where Jackson is?” Helga demanded.
Disgusted, Dwayne turned to go. “I’m outta here!”
“In a pig’s arse!”
Helga rushed him, shoving him in the chest. Dwayne cartwheeled backwards, landing hard against the edge of her coffee table. Empty beer cans clattered, skating across the filthy floor.
“Answer me, Dwayne.”
Helga tucked her hand deep into the pocket of her bathrobe, fondling the reassuring coolness of the Colt .25’s grip. The handgun had belonged to their grandfather, who died in action on Corregidor.
Helga was fifteen when she’d surreptitiously liberated it from a rusty footlocker in her grandmother’s attic. At sixteen, exploited by an older boyfriend, she’d robbed her first convenience store.
She didn’t hesitate shooting then. She wouldn’t hesitate firing now. But first, she’d try reasoning with Dwayne. Again.
“If grandma wanted you to share in her lottery winnings,” he reminded her, for the ten-thousandth time, “she would have so stipulated in her will.”
“We’d been estranged,” Helga qualified. “For years.”
“Your choice. Not hers.”
“So, she left it all in trust for Jackson? Disinheriting me in favor of that yapping Yorkie she doted on?”
“Not Fair.” Helga was sure she was entitled.“
As her favorite grandchild, I’m to see that her wishes are kept.”
Helga had reached her saturation point. She pulled the Colt, siting a bead directly in the center of Dwayne’s forehead. “Twenty-seven million, after tax, dollars, buys a whole mountain of doggie kibble, doesn’t it?”
“Where’s Jackson, Dwayne?”
Wham! went the front door, as unexpected as a fire detector would have been in Hades.
"Slit my nose nostrils if I'm wrong, but I could have sworn you agreed to join the living tonight," a voice said imperiously as the paperback book Shannon had been reading fell to the floor with a thunk, the pages flapping.
"Ow," whispered the affronted door. Spitefully, it expanded itself, knowing it would make their exit a struggle.
Spread-eagled with fright in the over-stuffed chair she'd named Raven, Shannon stared at her intruders in slack-jawed astonishment. Wearing a form-fitting black pants suit and a scowl outlined in scarlet, Olivia stood looking like she was going to untie the chiffon scarf at her neck and yank it around Shannon's. Brett was wearing a pink shirt and more eyeliner than usual, which made her glare seem all the more fierce.
"How rude," it huffed.
"Hush," Shannon said to the chair. Then she gasped. "Oh! It's tonight, isn't it?"
"It's in thirty minutes," she was corrected with emphasis.
"Don't leave us. You can't leave us now."
She groaned. "I don't think I have a choice."
A perfectly manicured hand pointed at Raven's leg. "Is that an open container of sour cream cheese icing?"
Shannon lunged for the container. Ormond had just learned of Eustacia's perfidy during the last spoonful. "Hey," she said to the vegan fitness guru. "I'm going to die some day anyway."
"Yes, years before your time. So get up. There's not a moment you can spare."
“Sir,” Reuter rode over to where Kess was involved in a heated discussion with Gorst. “Allenby has denied our medics access to the field. I suggest a white flag…”
“No!” Kess waved an angry cigar at Reuter.
Reuter threw up his hands. “If you’ll not go, send me or Colonel Gorst.”
Kess gave Reuter a murderous glare. “Gorst, you do it.”
It flapped in the wind, this white rag, signifying his humiliation. He was crawling, there was no other word to describe it. Crawling to the British with his hat in his hand to beg them for a favor. Gorst cursed when he saw O’Brien ride toward him.
O’Brien took his time. He rode a complete circle around Gorst, his eyes running up and down his foe like he had never seen a Prussian before. He even snickered a little when he saw the flag. Gorst’s mortification was complete. He flushed scarlet in anger. Enough of this! “I’m Colonel Gorst ,” he snarled.
“I’m General O’Brien.” O’Brien was happy that he outranked the little man.
“I know who you are,” Gorst snarled again. The hatred in his voice shook O’Brien. Reilly drew nearer; his hand resting on his pistol butt in warning. “General Kess requests a cease fire in order to remove our dead and wounded from the field.”
The request was sent up the hill. While they waited, Gorst continued to glare at O’Brien. O’Brien, up to the challenge, kept his own glare fixed on Gorst. Reilly glanced at his chief. What if O’Brien didn’t remain content with just glaring?
“Especially at dinner time.” The cheese stretched in long gooey strings between the slices. “Why pepperoni?”
Why indeed. “Pizza comes in many flavors.” The coupon said, “Two dollars off a large pepperoni pizza.”
Staring in disbelief, pouring a little more red wine in the rapidly emptying glasses, only green peppers would have improved the matter.
“Ha! Green peppers ruin a pizza.”
A greasy chin quivered with suppressed emotion. And a few chewing motions. Who would rather fight than eat?
Well, that settles that. Next time, we’re ordering Chinese.
“Will you go no matter who wins her?” Juan asked.
He saw doubt, fear, and greed on their faces.
“Will you?” Juan demanded.
“Yes,” Roberto conceded.
Juan snatched a handful of stems from a bunch of gamma grass. He kept four and snapped them into lengths. “Longest straw gets her,” he said.
“You don’t need none for me,” Kincaid said. “I don’t want no slave.”
“Suit yourself.” Juan tossed one stem away. He cupped his hand around the remaining stems and raised them up to the other Mexicans.
“Let Kincaid hold them,” Roberto demanded.He felt like he had turned another corner. Now he had two enemies, three if you counted Baptiste. Well, the damage was done. Let’s get on with it.
He offered Roberto his pick. Roberto quickly grabbed one. It was fair to middling; might be the winner.
Defeat was on Carlos’ face, as if chance never favored him. Sure enough, Carlos pulled one half the size of Roberto’s.
Without waiting, Juan pulled the last, and it beat Roberto’s.
Juan looked at each man..
The horsemen stormed off the ridge. The Navajo girl looked up at the riders thundering towards her, and her mouth opened in cries of alarm and terror. Her mouth shaped words, but he only heard the pounding hooves, wind sucked in and out of horses’ lungs, and blood surging in his ears. He could feel the power of Rico stretching out to eat up the distance and the rough rhythm of his wild gallop. The feeling was exhilarating and savage, and carried him where quiet courage might not. He began to see the girl would lose her race to safety, and the wild riders would win. Kincaid faced her hogan hoping he would not have to fight.
Verne knew if he couldn't get the woman's attention, he'd never win the bet. "Down here!" he yelled, but she could barely hear him.
She glanced around, bewildered, not noticing the way her lush locks bounced on her shoulders in sultry allure. Who could have said that? she thought. "Who said that?" Polly asked the thin air, then the thick air, just to be safe.
The bartender set pretzels beside the voluptuous blonde who'd nursed the same green beer all night. She'd been stood up--his lucky day. "Not me."
Verne hopped onto a barstool and chomped a pretzel, smiling at his mark.
Polly hadn't noticed him before, and she'd been staring at every man who came into the bar. Maybe the owners had hired him for the celebration. He was wearing of the green.
"Hi there," he said with an Irish accent, though he was faking it.
"Hello." Uh-oh. If Verne was her blind date, she was going to kill her sister.
"Can I interest you in a bite?" Verne asked the woman, trying not to laugh.
"What?" Polly cupped her hand around her ear to hear him better.
"Can I INTEREST you in a BITE!"
"He asked if you want a bite." Feeling protective, Colt gave Verne the stink eye. He knew that gang and they were never up to any good. She didn't deserve that.
"A bite of what?" they both said, curious. Then their eyes metand...locked.
"A bite of me," Verne yelled, "because I'm magically delicious!"
He was also fifty bucks richer, even if the bartender got the girl.
“Oh yes he would, and he did.” She smiles back at him, wondering what he’s thinking.
No way, he can’t have, thought Gerald. Larry’s a stand-up kind of guy. “I don’t believe it,” he said aloud, shuffling his feet incompetently.
“I don’t get it,” you’ll say, misunderstanding what everyone’s thinking. “What is it that I’m supposed to have done?”
“Well, if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you now!” I poked him in the chest, signifying that he was guilty, guilty, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt!
“I wouldn’t tell him either,” she says, winking at him to suggest he might be getting some horizontal action later!
Now I’m wondering if maybe I was wrong about Larry, thought Gerald. Everyone else seems to have made up their mind about him. Maybe I should be a joiner too. “Smug little bastard,” he said at last, spilling his drink to emphasize his distaste for the tasteless activity that had been performed.
“You’re all against me! All of you!” you’ll complain, looking around desperately for a way by which you can be able to make your escape.
I knew the time had come. I drew my phased plasma blaster which I’d kept until recently in the chest at the back of my closet. Larry was going down.
Francine hates to see Larry grovel for his life, but the man has told his last lie. She sees the blaster shoved in his face and knows that he’s going down.
This is insane, thought Gerald. Larry’s lied once too many times. “Dude, you’re going down,” he said, watching the fingers tighten on the trigger.
The blaster will poke your face like some great, pokey weapon shoved in your face, and you’ll know that this is The End at last, that you are indeed going down.
“And that’s what happens next,” said Boyd, the GM. “What do you do?”
Harley shrugged. “I start a fight.”
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Last month, we looked at how to load description into a sentence for impact. In doing so, we reviewed the three main parts of a sentence: subject, verb, and object. This month, we’ll examine passive voice, which is a useful -- but dangerous -- way of obscuring the true subject of a sentence.
Let’s start with a quick review of the three parts of a sentence. Here’s our sample sentence from last month:
The dog ... barked ... at the intruder.
subject ... verb ... predicative object
It’s a simple sentence in active voice. A simple sentence is one with one subject, one predicate, and no subordinate clauses. Sometimes sentences -- or parts of a sentence, such as the verb -- are compound. Here’s an example of a compound sentence (two independent clauses joined by a conjunction):
The dog ... barked ... and ... the intruder ... jumped.
subject ... verb ... conjunction ... subject ... verb
Keep this in mind for later.
Has anyone ever told you to avoid passive voice? There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about what passive voice is and what it can accomplish.
Here’s a terrible but accurate definition: passive voice removes the true subject from a sentence, and replaces it with the true object so that the true object is the subject within the sentence structure. With a definition like this, it’s no wonder that there is so much confusion!
It’s much easier to understand by looking at an example.
The dog ... barked ... at the intruder.
subject ... verb ... predicative object.
The intruder ... was barked at.
subject (true object) ... verb
The dog -- the actor in the sentence, the one actually doing the barking -- has fallen out of the sentence and is only implied. The true object of the sentence, the intruder, functions like the subject.
Sometimes writers try to “fix” passive constructions by attaching the subject in the place where the object is usually found. As in:
The intruder ... was barked at ... by the dog.
subject (true object) ... verb ... object (true subject)
But the better fix is to put the sentence in active voice, letting the actor (the dog) be the subject and take the action, instead of being the object and receiving the action.
There will be times that you actually want to remove the subject from the sentence. For example, you may want to hide the identity of the subject, or it may be impossible to know the subject’s identity. Let’s say the point of view character is alone in a house and you want to heighten the tension. Passive voice might be appropriate. Here’s an example:
The doorknob ... was jiggled.
object ... verb
The pov character doesn’t know who is making the doorknob jiggle, so the subject is removed and the passive voice is appropriate. Hiding the subject creates tension. Who is jiggling the doorknob? The reader must turn the page to find out.
The problem with passive voice comes when the identity of the subject must be disclosed in order for the sentence to make sense. Remember our compound sentence?
The dog barked and the intruder jumped.
What happens when we put it in passive voice?
The intruder was barked at and jumped.
Sentences like this can slip into even the most lucid prose. The intruder looks like the functional subject, with a compound verb. But only one of the actions (the jumping) is being taken by the intruder. The other action (the barking) is being taken by a dropped subject. The result is confusing, even though there are only seven words in the sentence.
If your sentence feels tangled and you suspect that passive voice might be the problem, here is the fix:
1. Identify the verb. In the sentence, “A home run was scored by Sally,” the verb is “was scored.”
2. Next, identify who is taking the action of the verb. In the sample sentence, the action of the verb is scoring, and Sally is the one doing the scoring, so the actor is “Sally.”
3. Next, identify the structural subject of the sentence. In the sample sentence, the subject is “home run.”
4. If the actor is not the subject, you’ve got passive voice. Put the actor back in charge of the action by untwisting the parts of speech, and you’ll eliminate the passive voice: “Sally scored a home run.”
If this four-step fix doesn’t seem to apply to your tangled sentence, then passive voice might not be the problem. There may be something else clouding the meaning. Next month, we’ll look at other confusing types of passive construction that might be the culprit, including the dreaded “that” construction.
This is the sixth in the Redlines series.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I think the biggest point of divergence lies in my advice to writers to remember that your editor is on your side. Editors don't need to remember this. We know it already. What we need to remember, instead, is that especially for new writers, the collaborative nature of publishing may be difficult and even shocking. New writers are used to total control over their manuscripts. They think in terms of "my" book and writing what "I" want.
But signing a publishing contract turns the "my" into an "our" and the "I" into a "we." It's still the author's book, of course, but it's not only the author's book anymore. It is now also the publisher's book, and various people at the publishing house will have some degree of ownership in the project. Yes, ownership, which makes you a co-owner now. Editor, copyeditor, typesetter, cover artist, sales team, copy writers, cover designer -- all of these people, and more, will touch the project at one time or another. Some of this you might love (yay! a cover!) and some of it you might hate (like the author I worked with, many years ago, who demonstrated his hatred of his copyeditor by spelling "stet" s-t-e-t-g-o-d-d-a-m-n-i-t).
If you're a new writer, the thought of all those hands on your precious bundle might make beads of sweat trickle down your neck. What are they doing to your baby? Once you've been around that block a time or two, you'll know exactly what they're doing to your baby: giving it a glamorous makeover before sending it down the red carpet. It's still your baby. It's just shinier now.
When I say new writers, by the way, I'm not necessarily referring to first-book authors. There's a brand-new author, and then there's a new-to-me author, and both are new. I made a mistake some time ago with an author, a multipublished author, who I assumed knew the ropes. She didn't. There were reasons for that which I won't disclose here because I won't betray her confidence, but let's just say that what we were doing didn't compare to what she had done before. She got nervous, and my mistake was in not seeing that her nerves were actually new-author jitters.
She taught me an important lesson. Never assume. Never assume any author will understand the process from start to finish. Never assume that they'll know what a copyeditor does, or what galleys are, or why they don't have total control over their jacket copy. Sometimes I still forget to explain all these things as thoroughly as I probably should. And those kinds of explanations can do a lot of good for a nervous new author. Just knowing what to expect can soothe a lot of the worries. It's easier to trust in a process when you know what the process is.
So that's the difference in advice. Authors, trust your editors. And editors, be generous to your authors. (And Theresa, take your own advice!)
Special tip of the hat to Ian, whose comment yesterday made me think of this topic.
Side note. Alicia is off at an academic conference for pop fiction scholars. Yes, I, too, was surprised to learn of the existence of such a thing. Pleasantly surprised. She may be scarce for the next couple of days, but if we're lucky, she'll have all kinds of great insights to share on her return.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
If an editor has no suggestions or edits, sure, it might be your book is perfect, but what it probably means is that the editor is too busy to take any time with your story. Editors do sometimes have to practice triage, you know. If another author has been ill or had a family problem and delivered a very scratchy ms three months late, and it's due to the typesetter yesterday, the editor is going to focus on that. If your story happens to arrive right then (because YOU met your deadline, hurrumph), it's probably not going to get the attention it might otherwise get, and might need. If this happens to you, go through the ms again-- you'll have a better understanding of it now that you have some distance. Line edit it yourself (but tell the editor, so you don't end up with two different versions), and send it in-- "I thought I'd take advantage of the extra time to take one more pass--"
Anyway, don't ever take an editor's suggestions as an insult. But don't expect a lot of compliments. If your story wasn't good, it wouldn't have been bought. Quality is a given. The editor is a problem-solver, and focused on problems, and that's what she's going to spend time talking about.
Of course, there are suggestions (or edicts :) which are outrageous, plain and simple. Again, get a much-published author drunk and you'll hear about them. (The secondary character turned into a rodent, literally, for example.) Then what? I'd say, wait a week or so, talk to some trusted and experienced friends to make sure this is really outrageous, and then go over the editor's head. Yeah, I mean it. Editors aren't infallible. And the managing editor might want to know if an editor is not doing a good job.
BUT... consider if this is worth fighting about. Those multi-published authors with the horrific stories? I bet most of them swallowed their pride, accepted the edits (or deputized their agents), and kept their careers. The last thing you want is a reputation as "impossible"-- so really, really think this through. YOU think it's an outrageous change... will the managing editor? We've all had writers who thought every word was golden, and they MEANT to dangle that participle, damnit, it's their VOICE to dangle participles!!! And you sure don't want to go to the mattresses for the dubious right to dangle participles, because you know what? The managing editor is probably more likely to agree with the editor that dangling participles are evil, go figure.
Finally, no matter what, don't trash the editor or publisher on the internet. Duh. You know that. And yet, impelled by righteous indignation, a lot of authors have done just that. Complain by phone, okay? Call your friends-- complain to every single one of them. That's what they're there for. But phone calls are ephemeral. No one is taping what you say, and it doesn't last for more than a day or so. Anything on the internet lasts forever, and everyone who reads it is NOT your friend, and the insult is easily forwarded. If you cannot bring yourself to say this to the editor's face, do you really want it forwarded by someone reading your blog? The editor WILL see it, and maybe even other editors. You might not mind burning your bridges with one editor, but how about all editors?
If you have a complaint about an editor, take it to the editor's boss. But wait a while. Consider, just consider, that you might not be the best judge of whether you're right or not. None of us can be truly objective about our writing. So take some time. Consult with others. And tamp down the rage and listen. If your friends are lukewarm in their support, that could be their friendly way of telling you that you're wrong.
One more thing-- if you are, in fact, a good writer, you should be able craft an email that has a constructive and courteous tone, that finds common ground and presents useful alternatives. If you can't do that, you're not likely to convince the editor or the boss that you're right about your own stuff (even if you are). We all know that emails written in the heat of passion are seldom the most reasonable of missives. So whatever you write, even if you think it's nice and neutral, take a day or so and read it over.
It's hard to know, isn't it? Is the editor being unreasonable? Are you too sensitive? You really can't know. So what ever you do, do it knowing... you could be wrong. Always an uncomfortable realization!
1. Respond in haste, repent at leisure.
Don't ever respond to the substance of edits in the first 24 hours after you've viewed them. Most of the problems I've seen have erupted during this first tender period. Give yourself a cooling-off, and don't respond until you've cooled off. Can't stress that enough. You don't want to vent your emotions here, because it will not help your cause. Period.
If you get through the first 24 hours and your head is still smoking, write your editor a polite and brief note thanking her for her editing notes and telling her that you'd like some time to review them. She'll understand.
2. Remember that your editor is on your side.
You and your editor both share a goal of making your work as strong as possible. You might not understand or appreciate her methods, but that doesn't mean she's sabotaging you. How do you know when an editor is no longer invested your success? She stops editing you. If you get blanket approval of all your submissions, or if your editor offers only token revision suggestions, that's when it's time to worry.
I once knew an editor who worked on a freelance per-project basis. She admitted quite openly that her profits came from churning paper. Every manuscript that crossed her desk for substantive revisions received the same response: voluminous praise coupled with a suggestion to add an epilogue. Do you think she was doing those writers any favors? Do you think she was a worthy partner in the process?
If your editor gives you a manuscript with carefully thought-out changes, that's all the evidence you need that she's on your side. If she listens to you and responds in detail, she's on your side, even if it takes a while for her to get to you. Turnaround time is not an accurate measure of her interest. Engagement in the text is.
3. Assume your editor knows something you don't.
This is not the same as asking you to admit to your own stupidity. Instead, think of it like this. We are busy people. We don't make changes to your text out of boredom or a need to fill our hours. The editor's motto is, If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
In other words, if we're taking the time to fix it, that ought to signal to you that we see a problem. Maybe you used the adjective "dimpled" to describe something other than facial features twice in four pages. Maybe there's a technical error. Maybe one of your stylistic choices violates house style guidelines.
Look at the original text. Look at your editor's recommended change. See if you can figure out why she's doing it. You might just learn something. And if you're still confused and still think she's wrong, try asking -- politely, of course -- for more explanation. Example: "I don't really understand your suggestion about the point of view in chapter two. I've looked at the chapter, but I could use a little more guidance on how to implement this change. What is our goal here?" (Not, "I looked at the chapter and don't see any mistakes. I can't imagine what you were looking at. Someone else's manuscript, maybe? Anyway, I'm going to cross that item off the list.")
4. If you want to go to battle, make damn sure you're right.
Every editor can tell war stories about writers who declared war over some grammar or style choice, only to discover that they were wrong about the rules. Before you do battle over whatever nits have been picked -- improper use of past perfect verbs, or comma splices, or placement of participial phrases -- make sure you first review the rules governing the past perfect tense or comma splices or whatever else is at issue.
And make sure you really understand the rules. You can damage your credibility by incorrectly arguing a technical error. You can't win the argument if you don't know the rules.
Most of us would be happy to explain a rule to you if you ask about it. But if you come after us, guns blazing, we're more likely to duck for cover than to meet you halfway.
5. Don't ever insult your editor.
"Dear stupid obstreperous crankynose, Thanks oh so much for your recent so-called evaluation of my work. My cat has enjoyed batting around a crumpled up printout of your letter all morning long, which is about all it's good for. Why don't you get a real job? You wouldn't know real writing if it tattooed itself on you knees! Sincerely, a most exalted genius."
Okay, maybe you would never take it that far. But don't say anything that can be construed as an insult to your editor. You might not mean it as a personal attack when you label her line edits "careless and awkward." But if she called your work careless and awkward, how would you respond? Not well, I would imagine. You might think you're cleverly concealing your attack on her when you scream to everyone in the house that she's not explaining things in a way you can understand. But screams have a funny way of echoing, and everyone who hears those echoes will wonder why on earth you don't just work with your editor to learn what you need to know to follow her instructions.
If you need to vent, do it privately with people you trust. Good candidates are people outside of publishing, such as a spouse or parent or your best friend, the nurse. Or how about telling your dog? That's one audience guaranteed never to repeat your words. You can talk to your agent, too, but remember that this is a professional relationship. You may have the world's coolest, hippest agent, but you're still better off saving the zingers for other audiences.
6. For substantive edits, try it before you reject it.
I've never once had a problem with an author that came to me and said, "Theresa, about this subplot overhaul/new opening/whatever, I tried writing it a couple of different ways and I can't seem to get it right. Can we talk about it? Is there another solution?"
A smart editor handles substantive edits by first identifying the root cause of a problem, and then suggesting a solution. So if I recommend that you clip out the prologue and write a new first scene containing such-and-such, what I'm presenting to you is one possible solution to a problem.
If that solution doesn't work, there will surely be another option. There's more than one way to peel a potato. But how will you know if the solution doesn't work until you try it -- until you think it through, and evaluate the ramifications, and play with the idea a little? Give it a shot. It's not like you have to write the new pages with your blood instead of ink.
I hope this helps. Remember, none of us are perfect. We all have off moments. But a little trust and a healthy shot of kindness can go a long way toward helping you through any disputes.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Came across this in a couple submissions. You know how you sometimes use action instead of "he said"? You know:
Tammy rose. "You're a fool, Tommy. Bear Stearns is NOT a great investment!"
That's a good way to help the reader keep track of who's saying what, without repeating "she said" ad nauseum (or that immortal pre-war quote tag-- "Wow!" he ejaculated), and it injects some movement into what might be a static scene.
However, the action isn't JUST a quote tag. The astute reader is subconsciously keeping track, and if you have Tammy rising, and then standing up, and then pulling herself to her feet, well, the reader's going to wonder if the chair is following her around and repeatedly implanting itself on her bottom.
So block your action. Yeah, just like they do in the theatre. Make sure if there's an opening action, there's a closing one too. If she rises, she either sits down again or starts moving. If he pulls his cell phone out of his pocket, he should either answer it, make a call, or pocket it again.
In fact, it wouldn't hurt-- well, yeah, it'll probably hurt :)-- to actually write these "internal actions" down separately and make sure they make sense.
Says Alicia, who once had a cowboy hero remove his hat three times without putting it back on. Well, maybe he was a hydra-headed cowboy!!
(Nothing personal-- This isn't happening to me, either as an editor or a writer. Well, it did, recently, and after awhile I realized the editor was totally right and the book was much better with her suggested revisions... that always happens to me. I have an instinctive resistance, and then I realize I'm wrong. This actually makes me a better editor than a writer, I fear! But I have learned to keep my mouth shut for the first day or so after receiving the revision letter... I know I'll change my mind soon.)
Under what circumstances would you make a fuss? Under what circumstances would you hold your tongue? What's your experience been?
How would you counsel other writers to respond to editors' edits? Let's say you have their best interests at heart and aren't actually hoping to get the advisees blackballed in the industry, thereby culling your competition.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
1. Kansas? Maybe. North Carolina? Doubt it.
2. I will live on pizza and avoid answering the phone Thursday through Sunday, and then intermittently until Monday, April 7.
3. I'm seriously concerned about the marriage of some friends of mine. She went to Baylor. He went to Purdue. They live within an easy drive of DC. Can this marriage be saved?
4. Butler should have been a 5.
5. My blog posts have been sporadic this last week, and probably will be again this week. My plan this year is the same as every year: clear the decks, hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign around my neck, then watch the whole thing. There will be yelling. There is always yelling. There will be very little work done. This includes blog posts, emails, and the like. Fair warning.
Today may be the 16th day of the month, but it's the first day that really feels like March!
What is the definition of protagonist?
Can we come up with a simple, concise definition? Every time I try, I come up with reasons that the definition fails.
If we define the protagonist as "the character we root for," then this presumes that the protagonist's goals are always worthy. In the case of tragedies, they frequently are not. Really, did anyone actually want Oedipus to marry Jocasta?
If we define the protagonist as "the character in active pursuit of a goal," then this eliminates an entire class of protagonists whose only true goal is to preserve the status quo. Think of thrillers. Think of a bodyguard hero. His goal? To have nothing change. The antagonist -- the bad guy with an ax to grind and bullets to spare -- is the one who sets the plot in motion by setting a goal of killing the bodyguard's protectee.
If we define the protagonist as "the character on the stage or on the page most frequently," then ancient pieces with narrators and choruses get a bit muddled.
If we define the protagonist as "the character with the most central role in the plot," then what on earth do we do with ensemble pieces? Really, who was the protagonist in Crash? In The Big Chill?
And then there's romance. Can a story ever really have two protagonists?
I'm throwing this out there as food for thought and because I'd like to hear what everyone thinks. We've got some smart people hanging around this little blog.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
What I have a problem with is fragments that serve no purpose. Here's an example:
The editor was always bitching. About all sorts of things.
Now from a very accomplished writer-- you know, the type of writer whose voice just hums with authority, who can be counted on to experiment with prose and syntax and KNOW when it works and fix it when it doesn't-- I might think, "Oh! This very accomplished author wants me to read that differently than if it were one complete sentence!" And then I'll read it -that- way, and (rather like with enjambment in poetry) get both the broken up meaning and the complete meaning. So I'll read a great deal of exasperation there, even weariness. The editor was ALWAYS bitching. And then, I'll imagine a sigh, and the speaker/character/narrator wearily going on and starting to list all the many things the editor bitched about.
(This "reading"will be more likely if there is a series of fragments, a list of the bitch-topics, btw:
The editor was always bitching. About all sorts of things. About sentence fragments. About "everyone" as a singular noun. About dangling modifiers. Especially about dangling modifiers.)
If the author is trying replicate the staccato quality of some narrator's speech patterns, hey, I can go for that! I'm nothing if not avant-garde. :) But I won't believe that's what is happening if the rest of the manuscript is written in serviceable, not inspired, prose.
There's nothing wrong with serviceable prose, of course. It serves its purpose and doesn't get in the way of the story, but anything outre (there's an accent mark there, but I don't know how to do it in html and I'm too hungry to go look it up!) in serviceable prose is likely to be interpreted as a mistake, not as an experiment. And, well, that's because it usually IS a mistake.
So if you can identify a sentence fragment in your own passage and explain (as I just did about the bitchy editor) how the reader will "hear" it, why it adds to the reader's experience, and why it's worth violating sentence rules, okay! I'll be right there with you, egging you on. "Your narrator is a teenaged girl! So why not put in a 'duh' or two there, just to make the narrative sound more like her?"
(I tell my students that if they use a sentence fragment, they have to put an asterisk there and then at the end of the paper, explain WHY they made that a fragment and why it works better than a complete sentence would. If you think that's evil, keep in mind that when I started teaching 20 years ago, we were told to fail immediately any paper with a sentence fragment. That was unofficial policy. See how much nicer I am now?)
But more often, what I see are sentence fragments that serve no purpose, that the author doesn't recognize as sentence fragments, that add nothing to the experience of reading (except annoyance). Those are the ones I quickly edit, usually by linking them right to the previous sentence, or replacing "which" with "this," or something else the author could just as easily have done himself.
Here are a few examples, culled (and modified) from submissions and student papers.
John was about to leave. Although he wanted to stay.
I already knew the truth. The truth being that she didn't love me anymore.
She pulled off her jacket. Her cardigan too. (This actually might work, if the rest of the narration seemed conversationally adroit. So... why would that work?)
Gas prices were rising through the roof. The stock market falling.
Joella wasn't easily shocked now. By swearing. (See, if the fragment was "By anything," I'd think that it was meant to be emphatic, and thus purposeful.)
Too many people had already emigrated. Because of the potato famine.
She decided to go to dinner. With the group of skateboarders.
He turned the ignition on. Which started right up.
So how about some examples in comments? Most of the above, I'd just edit to connect the sentences. But see, there are two examples that made me speculate. Under what circumstances would you use a sentence fragment, and how would you explain it? Can you give an example? Or would you never use one if you could help it?
(Let me say that I don't consider dialogue as needing a justification for non-standard English, as long as the dialogue works. But even in dialogue, fifteen sentence fragments in a row will sound a bit... jagged. Theresa, please ignore ellipsis. Or if you can't, here's my justification. I wanted it clear that I was hesitating, searching for an adjective, and that perhaps I'd discarded a more nasty one.)
Something to remember: Many of your readers are likely to be sophisticated readers, who read more than just the words to get the meaning. They're reading the rhythm, the structure of sentences, the punctuation, the word choice, the ratio of black ink (or pixels) to white paper (or screen). They're even reading the shape of words. All this can add to the meaning of the passage. They will love it when you exploit their greater meaning-making ability to good purpose. But their greater sensitivity means that they will be put off by signifiers that are NOT to a purpose, because they will react with a meaning-making that turns out to be unfulfilled-- meaning interruptus! (Tell me you know what I mean!)
And how do you know if you are at the level where you can play with those sensitive readers, or if you should stick with serviceable and correct prose?
Friday, March 14, 2008
Let’s start by reviewing the structural parts of a sentence. For our purposes, there are three parts of a sentence: subject, verb, and object. The subject is the actor within the sentence. The verb is the main action taken by the subject. And the object-- when there is one-- is the receiver of the action.
Here are a couple examples, with and without objects:
The dog ... barked.
subject ... verb
Sometimes dogs just bark.
The dog ... barked ... at the intruder.
subject ... verb ... object
And sometimes, the dogs bark for reasons we can identify. The action is directed at something. This is the object.
(Note to grammar gurus: Yes, “intruder” is the object of a preposition. But for our purposes, we are breaking the predicate into two pieces, and for convenience, the second piece will be called the “object.” Please forgive this sleight of hand-- this is not a grammar lesson, but an attempt to provide writers with practical tools to control the flow of their sentences.)
Both examples are simple sentences with clear action, but not very descriptive. Sometimes, we want to convey more descriptive information. Description, after all, brings readers into the scene in a vivid way, and helps them visualize the scene events.
But not all description is good. Here’s what happens when we add description to all three parts of the sample sentence:
The brown mangy dog, his spindly legs trembling as his paws scrabbled at the packed earth, barked loudly and wildly in a series of staccato bursts at the black-cloaked intruder who moved like a shadow against the fence.
The subject, “dog,” is loaded with adjectives (brown mangy) and dependent description (his spindly legs ... packed earth).
The verb is still “barked,” but we have added adverbs (loudly and wildly) and a descriptive phrase (staccato bursts).
And the object, the intruder, now sports a black cloak and moves in a certain way in relation to a certain object.
Let’s consider the impact of that string of words on a reader. C’mon, now, be honest. Your eyes glazed over before you reached the end of the sentence, right? It’s information overload, plain and simple. Description-itis, an inflammation of the sentence caused by too much information and leading to bored readers and bad reviews.
Luckily, there is an easy cure for description-itis. All you need is a bit of authorial judgment, and a decision about which of the three parts of the sentence is most important.
If the subject is most important, then keep the description about the dog and cut the rest. The sentence becomes:
The brown mangy dog, his spindly legs trembling as his paws scrabbled at the packed earth, barked at the intruder.
All of the descriptive focus is on the dog, and the reader’s mind stays on point. A sentence like this would be useful if, for example, the point of view character is more concerned about the dog than about either the barking or the intruder.
But that’s not too likely, is it? The intruder seems more interesting. So let’s look at how the sentence reads when the descriptive impact is focused on the object.
The dog barked at the black-cloaked intruder who moved like a shadow against the fence.
Not a great sentence, but it illustrates the point. The description focuses the reader’s attention on the object -- the intruder, who now seems both intangible and threatening.
To complete the example, let’s say that the most important part of the sentence is the verb. Maybe the point of view character isn’t concerned about the pending battle between the intruder and the dog, but really wants some peace and quiet. In that case, loading the verb with description highlights the noise.
The dog barked loudly and wildly in a series of staccato bursts at the intruder.
The sentence is a little clumsy. In fact, it suffers from having the subject and object separated by all those words, but that is a topic for another column. The main point here is that modifying the verb keeps the reader’s attention focused on the action of the sentence, the barking. We know what is most important in this sentence -- the noise.
Here is a simple process for fixing overly-descriptive sentences.
1) Identify the most important part of the sentence. Where do you want the reader’s attention focused? What is the most important purpose of the sentence?
2) Identify which words in the sentence link back to that important part. If this gives you trouble, it may be because you have two ideas competing for supremacy. Pick one.
3) Now cut everything that’s not linked to the most important idea. Leave the subject, verb and object intact. But otherwise, be ruthless. You can always put things back in, and see how they impact clarity, once you are sure that the sentence is clear to begin with.
Now that we have had our refresher course on the three main parts of a sentence, next month we’ll look at passive and active constructions and how to manipulate them for impact.
This is the fifth in the series of my dusty old Redlines column.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Reid eased to the edge of the mattress and felt around for his trousers, grimly confident that any sudden movement would have his head crumbling to little pieces or maybe rolling off his shoulders altogether. Not finding the trousers, he made the mistake of slitting his eyes for a look around, to have them seared by midmorning light through the shutters. "Damn."
Okay, so what I get is that Reid is seriously hungover. ;) Been there!
Reid eased to the edge of the mattress and felt around for his trousers,
I like that "eased"-- good verb choice there.
Felt around would be better maybe with a location? Felt around in the bedclothes? Felt around on the floor?
grimly confident that any sudden movement would have his head crumbling to little pieces or maybe rolling off his shoulders altogether.
I like the grimly confident (I, for one, like adverbs :). But the rest seems a bit overwritten-- too much. At first I thought maybe get rid of the "maybe" phrase, but the sentence builds up to that, so we don't want to get rid of it entirely. This is a case of "kill your darlings," I think. That's a nice, self-satisfied sentence... how about trimming everything extra? crumbling to pieces, not little pieces. any movement, not any sudden movement. I don't know, see how much you can trim out of that.
Not finding the trousers, he made the mistake of slitting his eyes for a look around, to have them seared by midmorning light through the shutters. "Damn."
"Not finding the trousers" is an awkward phrase. I'm not sure how to fix that, but see if you can find a positive way to state the negative.
"slitting his eyes"-- were his eyes closed before that? Should we know that earlier?
I like the way you slip in that it's midmorning.
Notice, though, that we get to the end of the paragraph, and all we know is that it's midmorning and Reid has a hangover. Now if this is a comic novel, that might be all you need, as you've established the tone. But if it's not a comic novel, you might deepen the tone or add more context.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Character A is in POV.
Okay, so that can mean that the scene is told entirely through her eyes-- that's what's often called "single-third" or "deep third"-- the narration is confined to this one person's experience.
But there are other possibilities. In a slightly more distant POV, say a limited omniscient, you don't have to be completely confined to the POV character's perceptions. That is, if you report thoughts and feelings, you only report hers, but you might also report events from a more outside perspective.
However, staying in Char. A's POV will be easy, because she's right there and can in fact see the rock being tossed. So you have several options for narrating that, and I think you might just go with what seems to fit the scene and how you've mostly narrated the scene.
1) Billy tossed a rock at the dirt mound.
2) Out of the corner of her eye, Joan saw Billy toss a rock at the dirt mound.
3) Joan watched, annoyed, as Billy tossed a rock at the dirt mound.
4) That damned Billy was at it again, carelessly tossing a rock at the dirt mound.
5) Jeez, Billy was such a dork. There he was, acting like a kid, tossing a rock at the dirt mound.
Those are sort of from most distant to most intimate. But they're all possible in her POV-- just depends on how close you are to her insides. :) And that's going to be shown in your approach to the whole scene. You wouldn't have the last (which uses her interior voice) in a more restrained narration, for example.
Does that make sense? POV choice doesn't dictate your narration-- rather your approach to the narrative in the whole book, particularly how much of the character voice you're using, should affect how "close" you are to the POV character. This is something to watch for as you read, especially as you read books in your chosen sub-genre, as often there's a preferred approach (thrillers, for example, tend to have a closer POV than mysteries do, as thrillers are more "emotional"). How do other authors do it? That's a good place to start.
One last thing-- remember that virtually none of your readers are telepathic, so they really won't expect to know what the other characters are thinking, any more than they expect to read their own friends' minds. So you do NOT have to have Character A tell us what the other characters are thinking. However, the other characters' actions and dialogue might tell the reader something about what they're thinking or feeling. For example:
"You can't tell me what to do." Billy stood up and flung a rock at the dirt mound.
See how a bit more action (he stands up) and a stronger verb (flung) indicate that he's mad... with no interpretation from Joan needed.
Good question-- I think it really depends on the contest. Luck and timing matter too, and having the right subject matter at the right moment, same as always. :(
I've known writers who were "discovered" by an editor in a contest, and others who have won many contests (and are very good) and haven't caught a contract.
Since contests usually cost money (though not a lot per), if that's an issue, and it is for most of us, then it's a good idea to be judicious about choosing the right contests to enter.
So here are a few guidelines that come more from my "contest-slut-I-mean-queen" friends than from me:
1) Know what you want, and look for the contests that offer that. For example, early in your writing you might want some feedback, so look for contests that promise real critiquing (and if they promise that and don't deliver, complain to the contest coordinator). Later, however, you might be more focused on publishing, and you want to get your entry in front of an editor. In that case, choose contests which have editors judging the final rounds.
2) If there's an aspect of your story that you need help with, you might choose a contest that asks for (and critiques) that. For example, maybe you aren't sure about your synopsis. Then you might consider choosing a contest that bases a lot of the score on the synopsis, so you'll get suggestions about that. Conversely, if you're more interested in winning a contest, find a contests that will utilize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. I know some contest junkies, I mean, veterans who won't enter contests that call for a synopsis because they're not good at that, and they want to win or final.
3) If you're interested in placing or winning, look for contests that (I am so bad) have fewer entries. You'll notice that occasionally a contest's deadline is extended, or they're asking for more entries--- let me just suggest that it's possible there will be less competition in those contests. :)
4) If you want to get your work in front of an editor, see what editors are judging what. Usually it's the newer editors who are judging the finals of contests, and they're often the editors who are actively seeking new writers. But make sure they edit for a publisher you would submit to. The purpose of a contest (for you) is to bypass the submission slushpile and get the editor's close attention. So if you have, say, a chick-lit single title, what publishers would you be targeting? Look for contests where the single-title finalists are judged by an editor from that house.
5) However, don't keep contesting the same entry over and over. For one thing, judges get tired of seeing the same entry contest after contest. Be aware that many first-round judges -- being amenable to persuasion :0-- might judge 5 contests a year... and the fourth time they see your entry, it won't seem very fresh. And they might be annoyed if they'd suggested some improvements the first time they saw it, and you haven't made the changes.
6) Entries can get shopworn, just like manuscripts. If you keep entering contests and finalling and getting that entry in front of the same editor, re-think your contest strategy. If the editor didn't call you and ask for a complete manuscript the first three times, she's not going to ask for it this time. HOWEVER, if you enter another manuscript and that finals, the editor might well think that you're pretty impressive, and ask to see more, or ask to see a future project.
So yes, I think contests can help sometimes. But if you're interested in getting the book in front of an editor, you have to final first. (Editors are usual final judges.) And contests should never substitute for actually submitting to editors. It's just too random-- maybe you'll final, maybe you won't. Maybe the editor you want will be judging, or maybe in the six months from start of contest to finals judging, that editor has left the publisher. So keep on submitting.
Do editors pay attention to contest wins? I doubt many are combing the results looking for names. However, if in a query letter, you mention that this manuscript won some contest, that can't hurt. But don't say, "Tiger Lily has finalled in 18 contests so far!" The editor is likely to suspect something is wrong (like it's a great first chapter, and not so great after that), so bragging about many wins without a sale is counter-productive.
Announcing a New Contest!
So here's what we're going to do. Alicia had to wade through thousands of pov examples for her book, so we're going to kick that up a notch. Or down a notch, as the case may be.
Send us your made-up, original, 300-word examples of pov disasters. Head-hopping? Check. Can't tell who's controlling the pov? Check. Suspect, but can't prove, that the teakettle is the pov character, and the humans are mere spectators? Check.
Send your entries to edittorrent at gmaildotcom. We're going to post them here and let readers cast votes for their faves. S/he who gets the most votes, wins!
And the winner will get ... um, lessee ... we'll make it a copy of Alicia's character building booklet, because I think that would be useful to any of our readers, regardless of the genre you write in.
(Don't you love how I do that? In one neat post, I manage to fuss over someone who's shy of fusses, spoof her book, invite you all to spoof it with me, and offer something of hers as a prize. dusts off hands.... My work here is done!)
ETA: In a display of my formidable powers of organization, I failed to specify a deadline for entries. Heck, I failed to even think of the possibility that we might need one. (sigh) We'll call it March 21 -- ten days ought to be enough time to indulge your inner crappy writer. Best not let that monster out of the cage for too long, eh?
Also, thanks much to those of you who have already entered. I needed a laugh today.
Monday, March 10, 2008
I have two additional points to make on this topic. These don't contradict what Alicia has said, but are mere elaborations.
First, a mechanical application of Bickham's rule for scene, then sequel often results in a too-introspective story. Not all actions require analysis. As a general rule, I think we need this kind of analysis when the motivation for the character's next action requires some set-up. In other words -- not sequel, but prequel. And the amount of prequel should be in proportion to how much the character must change and grow in order to take that next step.
In other words, stop thinking about what just happened. It's over. Been there, done that. The only thing that matters now is what happens next, and you have to lead the reader to it without either boring them or undercutting the conflict.
So that's my first thought. My second has to do with Dan Brown. (Stop groaning, all you purists. There's a good technique lesson here.)
When The DaVinci Code hit big, everyone I knew who'd read it -- including people who read, on average, one book every decade or so -- made the same comment. "I couldn't stop reading. I kept thinking, one more section, one more chapter, but then I'd read the next part and still couldn't put the book down."
Hmm, thinks I. What's behind all this frantic page-turning?
I asked my writer friends who had read the book, and got a range of answers related to the short length of the scenes and chapters, the constant sense of danger to the characters, and the plot itself. But when I finally read the book myself, I noticed that Brown breaks the convention of treating scenes like self-contained units which begin and end in predictable places.
A complete scene unit usually follows this basic pattern:
- scene goal
- character action in furtherance of the goal
- character meets obstacle
- obstacle creates complications
- complications force decisions
- decisions lead to new scene goal
And then repeats itself, over and over, with minor variations, until the large scale conflict is resolved. Goal, action, obstacle, complication, decion, goal, action, obstacle, complication, decision, goal, action, obstacle, complication, decision, goal, and so on....
Under the Bickham model, a lot of emphasis is put on the moment of decision, enough so that he seems to recommend treating it as a standalone unit, perhaps in conjunction with the next goal. So the actions are clumped:
- action, obstacle, complication
- decision, goal
Because most people appear to think of scenes as some group of actions beginning with a goal and ending after that goal has been attempted (with whatever result), this Bickham model makes some intuitive sense. Put the active things together in one unit, and the analytical things together in a separate unit. Scene cuts and chapter breaks can fall naturally either before or after one of these units.
But if you're Dan Brown, you know that the moment when things are worst is the moment when readers are most interested. And when are things at their worst? During the obstacle, or maybe the complication. So he places his scene cuts and chapter breaks in the obstacle, or sometimes in the early part of the complication. His pattern, then, is:
- complication, decision, goal, action, obstacle
- finish previous complication, decision, goal, action, obstacle, start of complication
Which means that all the boring head stuff, the slower paced stuff, is buried in the middle of his scenes, and all the fast, OMG-what-now stuff falls right at the moment where a reader would normally put the book down -- the scene cuts and chapter breaks -- but in this case, must keep reading. Because really, who can put the book down when bullets are flying and the hero is trapped in an upside down sarcophagus and the bad guys are right!! there!! --
-- and what? we're cutting away from this scene now? Holy crap, the reader thinks, don't leave me hanging --
-- so we read the next line, which takes us to the other good guys, the authority figures or semi-good guys. (Brown triangulates his storylines -- good guys, semi-good guys, bad guys.) And damn it all if we didn't leave the semi-good guys this--><-- close to some disaster at the last scene cut. Which Brown kindly reminds us of, and then races us through to the next obstacle, before leaving us hanging -- leaving us hanging again! Are you freaking kidding me?--
-- And now we're with the bad guy, who is going to do what? No way! He can't possibly be so evil as to-- cut again! Leave it hanging! What exactly is that bad guy doing?--
-- But the first line of the next scene reminds us of the last disaster to the hero, and the bullets are still flying, and the hero is discovering he has a very dry roommate in the sarcophagus, and how the hell can anyone ever put a bookmark in the book? One more page, just one more page, and then we'll put the book down and go to sleep.
Yeah. I stayed up all night reading it, too. And yes, I agree with all the criticisms -- in particular, the women characters are badly drawn -- yet I still had to read it through in one big gulp.
All of which is to say, play with your sequel material. Minimize it where possible, bury it in unlikely places if you want the emphasis to remain on the action, and never forget to save the Dan Brown books for a night when you can skip sleeping.