Monday, February 23, 2009

A Question For You

I've been knocked down by this year's version of the winter plague. (Now with extra croup for your coughing pleasure! It's not just for kiddies any more!) Which means that my daily agenda consists of mindless paperwork, goofing off, and blowing my nose. In that order.

So today, as part of the goofing off portion of my agenda, I got to chatting with an editor friend of mine. We were talking a little about submissions pet peeves, and something came up which I'd like to run past all of you.

She mentioned that she's had a recent rash of people who never respond to her requests for manuscripts. This does happen from time to time, and I usually assume it's because the author died, developed amnesia (with a secret baby complication, of course), or has been taken hostage by an obsessed drug kingpin/jihadist/domestic terrorist and is awaiting rescue by the Navy SEAL of her heart's desire. (He will, naturally, carry her laptop through the jungle/desert/subway so that she can promptly submit her manuscript the instant he rescues her. That's part of the external motivation. ;)

Or maybe it's because she sold the manuscript elsewhere, in which case a polite response to the editor's request might be a good thing, depending on circumstances.

Or maybe it's because she has run into one of those life complications that can temporarily move writing onto the back burner. We all have those. We understand. People get sick and pregnant and have to move to entirely new continents. It happens. But in that case, too, a short notice to the editor might be a good idea.

But I don't know. You tell me. Why would an author, after working so hard on a manuscript, ignore a request from an editor they've chosen? When would you choose to notify the editor of delays, and when would you simply let it go?


ETA: Given the number of PMs I've gotten over this post, let me say -- and I cross-my-heart promise this is the truth -- I'm not talking about any of my authors. I'm not talking about something that was submitted to me. It was something that came up in conversation with another editor. That's all. /worry, k?

An easy-to-use usage site

I was looking up e.g./i.e. (YET AGAIN... some things just won't take up residence in my brain-- thank goodness for Google) and came across this helpful site that lists common usage errors (like auger/augur... okay, some NOT so common ones) and explains when to use each. Here's the page where the reasoning is explained.

Present tense within literary past

Most novels are written in "literary past," that is, they are in grammatical past tense but are presented as if the scene is happening right in front of us. It's so conventional that we seldom have to think of it or consciously choose past tense.

But I use the term "that is" far too often in real life, and it creeps into my writing, and so do other present-tense terms, especially in deeper POV, when presumably this is being narrated by the POV character.

Here's an example:

She pushed the rewind button-- well, it had some other name, but that is what it did, rewind the video.

That's pretty easy to change to "that was", but what about when you use "that is" in that explanatory way, as "for example" or "what I really mean is" or "let me see if I can word that better this time" (as I did in the first sentence of this post). And whenever I do that, I think I should word it better the first time, but you know, sometimes in deep POV, I might want to show that whatever this is is difficult to explain, or maybe hint that the narrator has some problem being open about this.


The world didn't work that way, that is, he was wrong again.

Groan. It's late and I can't find a good example. But anyway, when "that is" is used in its conventional sense (i.e., I guess), and you're writing in literary past, do you change it to "that was"? Sounds very weird.

Another -- you know, I am really reductive tonight... actually focusing on one word-- is. -- another example of present-in-past is when you're describing something that exists in the real world, like:

He found himself on Adams Street, staring up at the Sears Tower. That is 110 stories of black glass...

Well, it's true. The Sears Tower IS whatever it is, because it's real. Or would you say, That was 110 stories.....

I notice some writers, when they're talking about something real, often use present tense.

He took her to Emeril's that night, that is, a seriously expensive tourist destination--

Alpha Centauri is the nearest star to the solar system, and that's where Tom was headed in his space cruiser....

The Hope Diamond has always been a treasure coveted by felons---

Well. I know, when I edit, I usually change these to past tense. Why call attention to something being "real" (note the quote marks around "real"-- I mean, really, what is real, huh?) and thus implying that all in past tense is, you know, fiction?

But it's sort of silly for us to pretend that we made up the Sears Tower or Alpha Centauri, and isn't that what we're doing when we put mentions of them in past tense?

There are things that are... uh, kind of universal, generalizations we make. Let's say the heroine of your new story is, mirabile dictu, an editor! (Let's pass on the issue of whether a novel has to be interesting. :) And you have a scene where she's reading a submission done entirely in present tense (I actually am more adaptable in my own reading than poor 20th Century Emily... I don't have much trouble with present tense stories):

Emily was a paragraph into the first page before she realized why she was so disquieted. The opening scene was in present tense. Most novels are written in "literary past," that is, they are in grammatical past tense but are presented as if the scene is happening right now. And this book, well-- she flipped to page 237, and it was still present tense.

She shivered. There was something wrong with the night. She closed the manuscript and went to the window. Were there demons out there? Present-tense demons?

She felt very alone.

There is a generalization that is true, and not just in the World of the Book, but in our world too. So do you show that it is True with a capital T by using present, or what?

Okay, so I'm obviously searching for items to prove how Very Difficult it is to edit. :) But really, have you ever come across this issue as you write? I tell you, every time I edit something that has this issue, it presents an existential dilemma.
Alicia who obviously needs something more important to worry about

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tell it slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---

Just a reminder to us all that the fiction in fiction is metaphor-- not of the word variety (hope is the thing with feathers) particularly, but still "slant". Fiction is not just the retelling of something that could have happened, but rather a metaphor for truth. There should be a metaphoric "slant" to a story. If you just want to send a message, write a bumper sticker. If you want the reader to experience the process of creating meaning, write a story.

Example: In Hitchcock's Rear Window, the James Stewart character is a photographer. He looks at the world through a camera lens. This is a metaphor for the experience of filmmaking (one of Hitchcock's preoccupations), but also of sexual voyeurism. And as in order to watch his neighbor's sexual encounters, he has to ignore Grace Kelly (in fab de la Renta's dresses!), it's also a metaphor for the fear of commitment. Now of course the "camera lens" isn't just a metaphor-- it's an integral part of the plot (the longer lens lets him see the activities that convince him there's been a murder). But it's the metaphorical aspect that transforms this from just a tale to an actual story.

Think about your own story. What is going to make it more than just a retelling of events? What's the underlying metaphor that connects this to something human or something universal?

I'm thinking about the story I just started. I think that it's not just about the heroine's secrets or the murder, but about choosing to live again after grief. So I should think of a central metaphor that represents that grief. Maybe it's loss-- she loses her purse and loses all her money, and that starts everything going, that loss. I don't know exactly, but I'm going to keep out a watch for some central metaphor which adds that fictional layer.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Make meaningful conversation

I was just working on a scene where the two main characters are stuck in an inn and share dinner. Now this is always a danger spot for me, because I want the conversation to be authentic, and so of course I start with the "how are you," "how are the kids," "did you see 24 last night..."-- you know, the sort of authentically mundane things we talk about between ordering and the food arriving.

However, it was just too boring to write. And that's sort of a sign that it would be too boring to read. :) So I thought maybe I'd just start in on the meaningful part of the conversation (they're both widowed, and are going to discuss grief), and I had the heroine says something sharp and important to get him responding back in kind, and they got right to the point, and ... and I never got back to writing the boring part.

So anyway, why bother to write the boring part? If in fact this scene is important enough to include in the story, why not have it be important all the way through?
What was really radical for me, the "seamless" (I like to think) writer, was I didn't even do a narrative bridge like, "By the time they'd started in on the appetizers, they'd exhausted all the small talk." I didn't even have them do small talk at all.

Why? Because I have to make the time together important to them as well as to the reader. This is the only man who knows what she's feeling-- why would she waste time making small talk when she has him there to discuss something that matters?

The special thing about this dinner is that these two are united in grief, and so they-- and I-- shouldn't waste the opportunity. She suddenly brings up the subject, and they never get diverted into lesser matters.

That's something I have to keep reminding myself. Make it urgent, make it special. Pacing is not just about speed of events, but about the essentiality of events. I used to think, "If it's not meaningful, don't include it," but now I think, "If it's not meaningful, they wouldn't waste their time doing it, so don't even allude to it in summary. Boring stuff can't happen to them because they're too occupied with changing their lives."

So all those places where he's bored and staring out the window, and she's combing her hair and thinking about all she has to get done, well, I don't need that. They're too busy to be bored right now. (They are welcome to be bored when I'm done with them. :) That doesn't mean they won't have moments of contemplation... but not moments of boredom.

Just a thought, and now, back to setting up the murder. That's hard when all I know is: There will be a murder. Not who or why or whodunnit. But when, yes (tonight), and where (in the next room).

Who says I don't plot? "There will be a murder!" Isn't that a plot? Oh, how about, "And eventually they solve it." Enough to start with, right?

Monday, February 16, 2009

I sneaked/snuck in some past tense here

Commenters asked about "kneeled" and "snuck" as past tense forms of the verbs.

These are just variants, and both are generally acceptable. (I say "snuck" all the time—perfectly good word, though children use it to make dirty limericks, so it's good not to let them use it, I guess!)

But notice the difference. "Snuck" is an old form, from old English, when past tense was usually signified by a change in the central vowel (sing/sang, sneak/snuck, kneel/knelt). Think about why that is useful—the change is so clear that there's no doubt when you say "sang" that you mean it happened in the past. (The –ed form is NOT as sonically clear, and notice how often we do without it—we often slip into present tense, just as I did there!) This was probably helpful when the language was still being formed and you wouldn't always know whether the person in the next county could understand your accent—they would notice a big vowel change like that. I have seen that even those irregular verbs that have a sort of –ed sometimes do it with the harder "t" along with a vowel change—KEPT and KNELT—again, the harder sound there would make it easier for a stranger to "hear" the past tense even if he didn't quite understand your accent otherwise.

(Did you know that the prefix y- before a t-ending past word was the way a lot of verbs made past participles? I think the only surviving such word is yclept, which means "(something) has been named or identified." and I only remember it because it's so weird.)

Irregular verbs (those that conjugate past and/or past participle with something other than -ed) are usually among the oldest verbs in the language, often called "strong verbs," perhaps because they are so "strong" they have resisted change and standardization for a thousand years. These are often the most important verbs, the ones in most common use—go and come and bring and is and have and get and forget and think and know and wake and sleep, and a couple dozen more. These are the ones children and non-native speakers have trouble with because they logically assume that you add –ed to make past tense: "I already goed to class."

Believe it or not, formation of past tense has profound linguistic and even philosophical effects, which I won't attempt to explain (have you ever noticed that the word "Chomsky" is a synonym for "difficult?"). But here's an article about Stephen Pinker's exploration of this past tense issue. (Warning-- .pdf file takes a while to load.)

So what happened? Well, there was the Norman conquest in 1066, after which, for a couple hundred years, Norman French became the language of court and the courts (which is why bailiffs still call out "Oyez, oyez," to open courts in a lot of states). While most Brits still clung to their native tongues (the Welsh and Scots, of course, are British but have their own languages even now), French words entered the English language, often existing right beside the old word, sometimes being seen as the "classier" term ("beef" is French; "cow" is English). Most "Latinate" words – 70% or so of our vocabulary, but more nouns than verbs!—came into English through French (a "romance" language—that is, based like Italian and Spanish on Latin), but our syntax (sentence structure mostly) is still Teutonic (Germanic), from a much earlier contribution/invasion.

Okay, as I recall, somewhere around 1400 was "The Great Vowel Shift," where the vowels (especially those in the middle of the word) became more long—shifting from the middle of the mouth more to the front – "ah" became "ay". This had something to do with social dislocations from the Black Plague, but really, linguistics class was a LONG time ago. So those same vowels which changed to mark tense were changing, and maybe the distinction between the forms was getting muddy. Anyway, after that, came the great trend towards standardization, imposed by dictionary writers and teachers and preachers too. This is when the –ed for past caught hold. (You'll see very few –ed past tense verbs in Chaucer, but lots in Shakespeare.) The London accent became the preferred accent, and the London way of word formation became pre-eminent. But English is a great and flexible language, and here we are, 400 years later, and "standard" still has little hold on us, does it? That's especially true with verbs, which are not as subject to change in context as nouns because, well, "the action of going" hasn't changed as much as "the method of going" (i.e., carriage to car to plane).

So we have in common English, and even accepted "standard" English, all sorts of irregular verbs. Most verbs went compliantly enough towards the standard, and we find that we walked and talked (though not "runned" or "speaked" or "sayed") without too much complaining. But sometimes, the attempt to standardize an old verb hasn't really worked, so that we have the new –ed version right along side the old version. Kneeled/knelt and sneaked/snuck are examples. There isn't a lot of reason, or for that matter rhyme, to which ends up preferred. For example, most of us would say dived, not dove, is preferred, but what about drived vs. drove? If your child said, "Daddy drived me to school," you'd probably make a gentle correction, "No, honey, Daddy DROVE you to school."

For some of these verbs, one form or the other won out, and for others of these verbs, both forms still exist as acceptable (though often one is preferred-- usually the -ed form, like "dived" rather than "dove"). This is happening right now, with plenty of debate, and it's actually a great example of where dictionaries are often trying to dictate the more logical way (-ed) and usage keeps the old way in action. (Some verbs actually went backwards—I read that "dived" is older than "dove," for example. But that's unusual.)

How do you know which is right? (And keep in mind that the British often have different preferences. I have never seen the word whilst used by a modern American writer, but the British use it instead of while.) Choose a good dictionary that identifies the preferred version in American or British English—that is, if you're American and writing for American audiences, use Websters, not the OED (and, uh, this is why we rebelled in 1776! Didn't you see that in the Declaration of Independence? "Wherefore they want us to say 'whilst,' we don't wanna?"). If you're British, use the OED, but often the OED comes down on the "descriptive" side of the description/prescription debate (do we just describe the major usages, or prescribe the "right" way to use the word?), and so often just trying to figure out dived vs. dove turns into a four-hour (but very pleasant) session in checking and cross-referencing different words and sources. I don't know about Aussies and Kiwis and Canadians and "post-colonials"—you tell me? Which dictionary do you use?

(One thing I love about watching BBC shows is the variety of accents—the British, for a much smaller nation, have many, many more accents than we do, and some, like the Glaswegian Scots, are just about incomprehensible to me. But then, I grew up in SW Virginia, and I stopped to get gas at a SE Virginia – swamp country—station, and couldn't understand a word of the man next to me. The cashier, a young local African-American woman, was bilingual—I mean, she could understand me and speak to me in my "dialect," and then turn to the white local man and start speaking that other language that I guess was how they speak English in the Dismal Swamp! Anyway, I could really get then why profound changes in sound to signify important things like positive and negative, past and present, would be helpful when communicating outside your own region.)

Now as for whether and when you can use the non-preferred term without the editor changing it... well, first, remember "house style" dictates, and if you want to dispute that, take it up with the publisher, not your poor editor, okay? Understand that, absent a house-style ruling, we will usually opt for whatever the dictionary we use specifies as "preferred," and really, how much of a fight do you want over "sneaked/snuck?" Save your ammo for when I change your character's deep dark secret from "he murdered his grandmother in cold blood" to "one evening, he didn't go by his grandmother's room to read the Bible to her as he always did, because he was exhausted from working 16 hours to earn enough to keep her in a decent nursing home and he fell asleep and slept through till morning, and poor Grandma had a heart attack in the middle of the night and he's always blamed himself even though she was 94 and had a heart condition."

Pick your battles, and I'd think "kneeled" vs. "knelt" isn't a hill you want to waste too much of your infantry on.

Okay, let's say you're a total sweetheart, a dream to edit, and you want to make this manuscript so clean the editor won't have to change a word? Ask the editor what dictionary the house uses, and work with that. (Edition will often matter here, because this "standardization" is still going on. In my childhood, "snuck" was perfectly acceptable, and it's actually still what I say if not write, but it's not the "preferred" form in current dictionaries.) BTW, the preferred form is listed first in the dictionary entry of the present tense word, so in the "sneak" entry, the past tense will be listed as "sneaked, also snuck." That indicates that "sneaked" is preferred.

Now, when the narrative is in character voice (deep POV) and in dialogue, use what the character would say. But if most of the narrative is in your voice, educated, intellectual, erudite, elegant, and then suddenly Their father drived the kids to school, well, don't tell me that one verb is "character voice". Character voice isn't just a word here and there. And if you are really in character voice, I'll know whether the words fit the voice. In fact, I'm likely to note, "Would he actually think the term erudite? Or would he think smart-assed?"


Narrative Summary

And so, the door at Walker and Daughter was open a little bit late and eventually a little bit later than that. Soon enough, at the end of the long workweek, a few regular customers took to popping in with their knitting -- sweaters and scarves and cell-phone socks -- and asking questions about all the mistakes they'd made while commuting on the subway.

"I just can't get the buttonhole right!"

"Why do I keep dropping stitches?"

"Do you think I can finish it by Christmas?"

Without ever putting up one sign or announcing the creation of a knitting club, these women began regularly appearing in the evenings and, well, loitering. Chatting with one another, talking to Anita, gathering around the large round table in the center of the room, picking up where they had left things the week before. And then, one Friday last fall, it became official. Well, sort of.

~~ The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

If you've ever wondered what good narrative summary looks like, that's it right there, baby. Narrative summary (sometimes also called narrative compression, condensed narrative, summation, transition, etc., etc.) is a variety of exposition that takes events occurring within the story's real time and condenses them into a tight, focused summary.

The events are not narrated in real time. There is no scene in the sense of a singular event presented moment by moment in the order of occurrence. There are characters, but who are they? There is dialogue, but who speaks it? There is a point of view, but no viewpoint character allowing us to experience the events through her perspective.

Instead, a mash of Fridays after work are presented as a circumstance -- not an event -- giving rise to a conclusion. After many (indistinguishable, lumped-together) Fridays at the knitting shop, a club of knitters was created. Not scene and sequel, but situation and result.

A friend gave me this book to read because she was taken by the unusual narrative style and wanted me to see it. (Hi, A! *waves*) I can see why she had the reaction she did. Almost the entire book is presented in some form of exposition, and we just don't see that much these days. Beautifully written, engaging, entertaining exposition. Just when you thought it was buried forever next to the dinosaurs, here it comes back, full of life and breathing fire.

Even though we've been clinging to deep, intimate points of view for a while -- and by "we," I mean readers and authors and industry folk alike -- there have been signs that objectivity was making a comeback. If you've been listening, you've heard those signs right along with me. A reviewer complaining about being bored with first person stories. Two friends at the bookstore, picking up and dropping title after title before agreeing that they all "sound" the same. A book lover raving about a romance, and then adding almost wistfully, "But I kind of wish we'd known more about the parson's wife," or some other character who played a pivotal non-pov role.

Prose has been cozy and intimate for so long that objectivity feels like something totally new. Remember Sherry Thomas's first book, Private Arrangements? Remember how it started with that almost Victorian passage about the definition of a good marriage? Talk about deft writing. That book came out just shortly after Friday Night Knitting Club. And I'm sure if you think about it, you'll quickly identify other stories, or other places in stories, where the viewpoint character isn't immediately identifiable. Or maybe there was a viewpoint from outside the story, as in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or The Crimson Petal and the White, two stories on the more literary end of the spectrum that created narrative distance not through pure objectivity, but through the eyes of a disinterested external narrator.

I'm only on page 80 or so of Friday Night Knitting Club, so it's far too soon to draw any conclusions about the text as a whole. But the text up until this point has been heavy on narrative summary, light on intimacy. There are bits which are firmly rooted in the pov of this or that character, and given the popularity of this book, it seems as though readers are having no trouble connecting to the characters. I am certainly engaged by the text.

Does that seem like an oxymoron? Have we spent so many years flogging the deep pov/show don't tell horse that we've forgotten about other methods to become transported into the narrative?

Don't get me wrong. A solidly crafted limited-subjective third person pov is always going to be an important tool in the writer's kit. It might even be in the top five. But narrative trends come and go, and if the trend is moving toward broader perspectives, then expository writing might just find itself becoming a more important tool.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Logical thinking

I was writing a line:
They had already closen ranks.

It sounded right, but looked wrong. Took me a while to notice that while "broken" is the past participle for "break," and "chosen" the past participle for "choose," the past participle for "close" is ... closed.

I work with a lot of ESL (English as a Second Language) students, and they make these perfectly logical mistakes all the time. You know, why NOT bring brang brung, huh? After all, there's sing sang sung!

Not great thoughts here, only just a gentle admonition to professors everywhere-- only native speakers can be expected to get all the illogical parts of our language right. (English isn't any more illogical than any other language, btw.) So ESL writers shouldn't be overly penalized for these little fluency errors. This sort of mistake does not make them bad writers. Content, sentence construction, thematic unity matter more than whether they write "in" rather than "on" in some idiom.

That said, ESL writers should-- until they are very confident -- ask a native speaker to read over ALOUD every draft to catch those little errors. And the reader doesn't have to be trained in editing. They should be able to catch and help correct most of the little fluency issues, and that will make for an easier read by the target audience.

(But "closen" ought to be a word. :)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Limitation is Strength

I have lately become obsessed with the Bravo show Top Chef, where chefs compete in all sorts of cooking challenges. (Hey, no calories if the food stays on TV!)

Anyway, there is really an interesting dynamic evolving this season. Several episodes, one or two chefs faces some disaster that would seem to doom the effort. For example, one time, Hosea's food was kept in a broken refrigerator and spoiled overnight. So he had to deal with that handicap as he cooked for the challenge the next day... he had to improvise, start over, work around. And he won the challenge, over all the chefs who had a much easier time and could cook exactly what they'd prepared.

Last night, the incomparable Fabio, he of the adorable Italian accent, broke his finger while starting to cook. This obviously is a great handicap when you have to chop and mix. But he somehow managed, and... won the challenge.

The corollary too-- whenever a contestant says, "Oh, piece of cake," because this is a seafood dish and she's a seafood chef, she always loses. It's as if strengths are dangerous because you get complacent!

I'm sure this connects to writing somehow. :)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Selection, selection, selection

Events matter. The right event can really focus your story.

Okay, enough preamble, because I don't know how to introduce this except by saying: Select the right event, and the right VERSION of the event.

Let's say you want to show that your hero doesn't trust in the future. (What conflict would cause that?) And you know -- just know -- that you can show the effect this has on his life by suggesting the perfect symbol for the future-- a baby.

But you want to save the actual baby decision for the end of the story, to show hero triumphing over his despair and cynicism. You want to show earlier in the story how he refuses to take this route to the future, so when his wife wants to have a baby, he refuses, even to the point that she leaves him.

Now my question for you is, under what circumstances would you have it be that she wants to conceive with him? And in what case would you want it to be that she wants to adopt a baby (let's say, in this case, she can't conceive)?

Do you see what I mean? Both scenarios will bring a baby into their lives, that wonderful symbol of the future, that distraction from despair, that source of joy.

What difference would it make what the delivery method is? Well, you tell me. There is no right answer here-- it all depends on what you want for him-- what sort of conflict, what sort of resolution, and also, I think, it might depend on how major a character she is. (That is, if she's another protagonist, you might want the infertility conflict so that she too has a journey.)

So what implications does it have if what he refuses is to conceive a child (that is, a more passive resistance), and what if he refuses to adopt? What message does each send about his attitude and conflict? What does each symbolize for him? What in fact is he refusing with each?

That is, there's a difference in what precise conflict or attitude would best be explored with refusal to conceive and which with refusal to adopt. Since you're the one in charge of selecting events, in what case would you choose which?

What I'm trying to get at so awkwardly is that nuance matters-- we should use a scalpel, not a butcher knife, to carve this sculpture of story. So your turn-- you're in charge in comments. Give us a scenario where the right "babymaking" event that he refuses (and then in the end, presumably, accepts) is conception with his wife, and one where the right event is adoption. I have some ideas, of course, but don't know... I just know which one will make a difference.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Waves Crashing on the Beach

I've received quite a lot of emails, etc., asking me to identify the awful book. Not gonna do it.

I've also received a lot of guesses about its title. None of them have been right.

In case you have a book in mind and are wondering if it was the one I ranted over, here's a handy little test.

Question 1:
Did it have waves crashing on the beach during a moment of sexual liberation? Actual waves. Actual beach.

That's it. That's your test.

And now the oldtimey romance writers will join me in being appalled. We're the ones who remember when "waves crashing on a beach" was a shorthand insult of the romance genre. Back in those days, romance writers were chided for writing about sexual relationships in a coyly disguised manner. We were teased for using euphemisms -- waves crashing on a beach -- to describe sexual feelings. When book reviewers wanted to get their snark on, they would talk about the waves and the beach as a way of implying that the writing quality was poor and the writing was unobservant and cliched.

My, how things have changed. Now it's the ones who talk about sex with any frankness who are chided and even scorned.

So we have this book that's flatly literary, dressed up like commercial fiction, and borrowing a metaphor used to scorn genre.

And that wasn't even the worst of it. That was just the part that made me feel safe in ranting about it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

What Not To Do

I just finished reading a book that will probably go straight from my nightstand to the trash can.

This was the second book from an author whose first book achieved some critical praise and better-than-expected sales. I didn't read it, but I heard good things about it. The second book was given a beautiful cover. The jacket copy made it sound like just the sort of thing I enjoy. I read the first page and liked what I saw, so bought the book.

Usually that's the trifecta of indicators that I'll like a book: good cover, good copy, good first page.

Unaware of what lay before me, I started reading. The first 100 pages were so confusing that I almost put the book down then. Characters were introduced all in one clump -- and by "characters," I mean, "enough bodies to fill a cathedral." These scenes of introduction consisted almost entirely of dialogue tagged with a character name. And by "dialogue," I mean, "cocktail party chitchat about their children, celebrity gossip, and other trivia that damned well better not be the basis for a plot."


One hundred pages in, I had more or less figured out who were the main characters -- more or less. I was wrong about one of the characters who started strong but dropped out of the book without so much as a whisper. And I thought I had figured out what the plot would be. All of the scenes to this point revolved around an impending event. People discussed it (at least sometimes), and prepared for it in various ways, or at least thought about it in passing while they were doing other things. The event was in the near future and there was a feeling, albeit subdued, that something important might take place at that event. It was the only unifying factor that tied all these chitchatting bodies together. My thought was that the first 100 pages was an elaborate set-up, and that the plot would take hold at the event.

It didn't.

In fact, that's where it all fell apart.

The event came and went with remarkably little worth mentioning, but that didn't prevent the author from spending 30 pages on it. The next 400 pages of the book took place over an eleven-year span. That amounts to roughly 36 pages per year. I know. I did the math. It was one of the little tricks I used to try to keep out of a coma during the long middle of the book.

For about 300 pages, we moved from one character to the next, skipping entire years in this or that character's life, dropping in on another character for a cup of coffee and a light gossip. This one's mother is ill. Oh, dear. (Does the illness have any effect on anything? No. The next we hear of it is years later, when someone reminisces about mom's fever.) Another one visits her uncle and he's in a bad mood. Poor old man. (Does his bad mood have any repercussions? No. His relationships are unchanged.) One of the male characters takes an interest in sports, and so we sit in the bleachers with him for a scene. Go, team.

And so on.

Don't get me wrong. There are actual scenes here. People do things. They go places. They talk to one another, and sometimes they want things.

But it's all disconnected. We spend one afternoon with one character in July, then skip forward to another character in October, then to a third character in December, and nothing leads us from one scene to the next. They're just sort of there. I'd describe it as a bunch of short stories under one book cover, but that might give you a sense of coherence that simply doesn't exist.

So after perhaps 450 pages and nearly 11 full years in book time following no fewer than 6 major characters, a rumor is started about one of the characters. She denies it. People don't believe her. About 50 pages from the end, she admits that it's true. People shrug and go back to pruning the roses. The End. (Whaddya mean, what about the other major characters and their verging-on-subplot story lines? Who cares! We're out of pages! The book is over!)

This book inspires me to make a top ten list of what not to do in novels:

1. Don't give us the entire cast in a single page, especially when the cast numbers in the dozens.

2. When you introduce a character, give us something to remember him by. Hint: The character's opinion of white bread probably won't do it unless you plan to have him eat a lot of sandwiches.

3. Oh, yeah. This is important. Don't forget to have a plot.

4. Don't create major point-of-view characters in the first 50 pages, and then forget they exist.

5. Don't expect subplots to substitute for plot.

6. Don't let time gaps drain any sense of urgency from the events.

7. Don't let major characters feel complacent. If they don't care, why should we?

8. Don't tack on a false crisis as a way to end the book. Hint: If you don't know how to stop writing, but could easily go on for a few more pointless decades, you might not have a handle on your story.

9. Unless you want your readers to be very bored, don't pick a theme like, "Nothing changes, and so what if it did."

10. Don't create a whole whack of story threads that lead nowhere and accomplish nothing and are never resolved.

who believes she may have accidentally read a hifalutin post-post-modern nihilistic literary novel dressed up like genre fiction.

More themes

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about: being true to your dream(s)?

Now this is sort of the opposite problem as the last one-- this is not too individualized; it's truncated. Being true to your dreams what? Do you mean a moral edict here? You should be true to your dreams? Or a recommendation: Being true to your dreams will bring you happiness? Or a warning: Pleasing others will mean you can't be true to your dreams? Or Being true to your dreams will make you selfish?

(Themes do not have to be sentences. There's a different type of theme that I call "the concept theme", where a concept like fate or evil is explored, as Oedipus the King explores the theme of fate. But for reasons I haven't deciphered yet, positive or happy ending stories seem usually to have sentence themes, perhaps because these stories are usually meant to be morally exemplary, so have an aphoristic approach.)

So let's assume that the theme is a positive one, that being true your dreams is good. So how to set up?
Let's look at a rather clever (if I do say so myself) way to present the process of theme in the three-act structure. It's based on Hegel's dialectic, which kind of applies to everything. ;)

Thesis: The statement. (NOT THE THEME. The theme derives from working through the story.)
Antithesis: The negation or flipside of the thesis.
Synthesis: What after going through those two in the story, the crisis/climax third act leads to.

Let's try a very common thematic progression, where a character has been hiding his past. Oh, you know, there's some of that in MAD MEN, so let's use that as an example.

Thesis: You can escape your past. (Don has discarded his past, has a new name, a new history, and it's a success-- he married a beauty queen, started a great career, lives in the suburbs. No one knows about his humble origins.)
Antithesis: You can't escape your past. (Don's younger brother finds him and contacts him. The brother wants his love, wants to be part of his family, but Don cannot allow it. The young man commits suicide, breaking Don's heart but-- it seems-- keeping the past secret. Then a young rival coworker -- who is interestingly like his brother in looks, but is rotten and venal-- finds out part of the secret and threatens to expose him. Don defies him, and manages to get away with it-- the boss doesn't mind... "All ad men lie, big deal." But now his secret is coming out.)
Synthesis: Only by accepting the past can you move on into the future. (Maybe that'll happen in the next season. :)

See how that breaks into the standard Aristotelian three-act structure:
Shortish setup
Long complication and reversal, rising action and conflict.
Explosion into crisis, then climax and conflict resolution.

Okay, so how does that apply to "Being true to your dreams is (something positive)"? I don't want to assume what it is in a statement form, but just thinking generally, this is just an example of how this might be structured:
Thesis: Adulthood is all about giving up your youthful dreams. (When I grew up, I put away childish things.)
Antithesis: Giving up your youthful dreams means giving up your self.
Synthesis: Maturity means finding and fulfilling a dream that works with your new adult self. (Groan... okay, so the synthesis should be like that only intelligent. :)

That is, in the process of the book, the theme might actually evolve. Like maybe we start off with a preliminary theme that we should stay true to our dreams. But as we write the story, we just can't make it work that our hero is going to end up abandoning his family and business career to fulfill his childhood dream of being a professional comedian. But we also can't condemn the poor guy to the life he thinks is trapping him. And so we come to some synthesis in the end that takes into account the totality of the story, maybe that he starts doing standup on the weekends at a local club, creating a new dream that is more consonant with his adult self and the responsibilities and joys of his life, yada yada. (I once knew a guy who in his thirties, decided that he was going to fulfill exactly that youthful dream. Interestingly, his first step in doing this was to dump his girlfriend-- a friend of mine-- to date another friend whose father was kind of prominent in Hollywood. Kind of an unheroic route to fulfilling his dream!)

Anyway, how would you set that up in the opening? Seems to me that you might not show his dream so much as his current life... but there's something that hints at the previous dream. Like maybe he's actually really funny. He's teaching math at the local high school, and his students think he's hilarious because he's always wisecracking. So maybe the first scene starts with him teaching an algebra class, and he can't help himself-- he makes some joke, and the kids fall apart laughing, and he looks through the little window in the door and the principal is passing by. And he's suddenly reminded of his responsibilities and snaps into stern-teacher-mode. (This might really respond to parallel structure-- the very last scene replicating the setting and situation -- hero in his classroom, but this time, he goes with his gift, knowing that the students will learn better if they're engaged, maybe. One of my favorite books, Up the Down Staircase, uses this structure. The new teacher in the first scene regards a student yelling, "Hey, teach!" at her a sign of disrespect. When in the end scene, a student yells that at her, she responds with a cheery, "Hey, pupe!")

So we see in the first scene his sense that he must be responsible and sober, and there is only a hint of that youthful dream of being a comedian, and-- I think this is important-- we see him specifically "putting away childish things" by assuming that stern mode.

I do think it's essential to SHOW things happening. It's not enough, I'd say, to have him teaching in a classroom. That doesn't present the thesis of putting away the youthful dream. (You do not have to get explicit, like it might be if he threw his copy of "How to Make It in Standup Comedy" into the trash.) While the readers might not immediately understand the importance of his telling a joke to his students, then seeing the principal, then assuming a stern mien, they will add that in to all that the story unfolds, and later see this especially in contrast with what happens in the second and third acts. The readers accumulate understanding of your story-- everything adds up (if you do it right). And the theme is the product of this process of accumulating meaning through the unfolding of the plot and the change in the characters.


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Theme setups, commenter examples

I'm just going to take some themes offered by the commenters and suggest stuff, but just as an example-- could be entirely wrong for the story, etc. Standard disclaimers apply. No hard feelings, okay? :)


Okay, the main theme is: redefining ‘preconceived’ ideas about a romantic relationship and dealing honestly with the subsequent needs that drive the desire for a meaningful partnership.

This feels more like a journey than a theme. The theme is about the whole book, not a character. Themes really aren't initially that complex usually-- they're either statements ("First impressions are deceptive") to be exemplified or concepts ("fate") to be explored. The above is probably a good character journey, but a story is more than the journey of a character, and the theme should probably be more ... flexible.
Let's take that "First impressions are deceptive." That's pretty simple and obvious. It's also the theme (one of the themes) of Austen's Pride and Prejudice. And I think it bears some relation to your theme above. But notice that it's not just the heroine who has a faulty first impression of the hero. He has a faulty first impression of her. And all through the story, there are examples of first impressions being right (everyone's first impression of Rev. Collins, that he's a self-righteous social climber, is correct), and long-derived impressions being wrong (Mr. Darcy's father is completely wrong to trust his protegee Lt. Wickham). So the simple "first impressions are wrong; long acquaintance impression is right" is not sufficient. Only by reading the entire book does the reader evolve the somewhat more nuanced theme that First impressions are deceptive. (They wouldn't be deceptive if they weren't sometimes true.)

And throughout the story, there are all sorts of contributors to the process of this theme. There's the main story (as someone says, "About a man who changes his manners, and a woman who changes her mind"), but there are other subplots and revelations that add to our growing understanding of first impressions. For example, the Jane-Bingley romance starts off shockingly well-- both of these pleasant people seem to fall in love quickly and readily. But as Jane learns, Bingley is too willing to believe that he was deceived by his first impression of her, and she herself must face the reality that this perfect young man has a terrible flaw-- in his eagerness not to be too gullible to her, he is too easily persuaded against her.

Even the reader might have a first impression that proves faulty. Mr. Bennett, Lizzie's father, at first seems charmingly wry, and her mother a monster of materialism. But (and not every reader will come to this conclusion!) through longer acquaintance, the Bennetts reveal themselves as more than their first impressions-- Mr. Bennett is a rather awful father, and Mrs. Bennett, for all her many faults, at least does care about providing for her many daughters.

And the theme which sounds so simple becomes increasingly complex as more complicated examples and developments emerge in the story. For example, Lizzie and Darcy actually benefit from their rash and negative opinion-formation, because they have nowhere to go but up in their mutual esteem. Jane, however, starts out adoring her Bingley, and can never quite again achieve that level of respect once he has proven himself less than worthy. BUT... he actually becomes more worthy when he starts to think for himself-- and what does he think? That his first, admiring impression was correct.

So-- I use that example because it seems that you're also working with initial impressions or attitudes. I hate to be reductive, but think about boiling your maybe too-individualized observation into something a little more general and universal. Not that you shouldn't individualize the STORY... but the theme is usually more open, more universal.

Breaking it down, I would say that the heroine has to redefine what she wants because she has changed whereas, the hero has to change to redefine what he wants. I see the events that are introduced at the beginning - more in way of being plot driven with an undercurrent of change - maybe time for change...and the main inciting event is the catalyst for this change. That one character is forced to change due to circumstances and the other is making a conscious change because of circumstances. How would you set this up in an opening?

Okay, I think your theme might be about change, more change of identity and self-image ?? Anyway, I think that change as a theme means starting with the "before"-- what's the world and character like before the change? But also, what in the world and character mean they need change, that change is not just inevitable but maybe necessary? Show that. For example, if the heroine is afraid of change, then she pretty much has to change to overcome that fear. So-- just an example! -- she can be at the hairdresser's (this is a dumb example) and the hairdresser can say, "Oh, I saw this really cute cut that would do wonders for you!" and the heroine refuses. Or she sticks with her current boyfriend because he's reliable. As far as motifs, I'd be thinking of motifs that have something to do with lists or instructions or formulas, just to set up that notion of doing things by the book, of following a recipe. (And the motif can change each time to reflect where the theme is, like after the big change, maybe she tries to cook and realizes she doesn't have all the ingredients in the recipe, and then maybe at the end, she looks at a recipe and then closes the book and improvises and it works. Notice if "recipe" or "cooking" is the motif, it's not enough just to have her improvise at the end-- you want to show her having a recipe there and refusing to use it-- need the concrete object of the recipe to carry the symbol.)

But I don't know if that works-- I just think "change" is more what your theme seems to be about than romance-- that is, the PLOT is romance, the JOURNEY is towards a healthy relationship, but the THEME is about handling change. Maybe? I don't know, but try pulling away a bit from your exact plot journey and think about what it MEANS. The "why," not the "what".

Next up when my hand is not so numb--
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about: being true to your dream(s)?


A Dash of Tension

If you haven't read Alicia's last post about happy families at amusement parks, you might want to read it before you read this post. And then read the comments, particularly the one from Green Knight. In fact, let's just move that comment to the front page:

The happy family is an interesting problem. (As a reader, I'd hate a book with that theme, but that's another matter. But it offers interesting possibilities for setting up an undercurrent. The 'frantically happy' would not have occurred to me, but I would take it a step further and add an element of pressure. Both the theme park and the waterskiing will fit into that, and I'd sharpen that - a family trying to fit as much happyness into a short vacation as they can. Getting up at the crack of dawn, rushing the kids into the car (with laughter and jokes, but still pressure), a drive through rush-hour traffic, trying to get to all the rides (rather than enjoying the ones you love over and over again, no you have to pack all the experiences into it. Fast food, because there is no time to stop - they still haven't done all the rides, the kids chivvying each other along, leaving at the last minute, everyone on a high.

I like the idea of showing them happy - *but* they're working hard at it and nobody could keep that up for long.

And I'd go for background details that play with that picture -one of the kids gets a toy catapult, but the elastic snaps. Daddy fixes it, but still. The high speed train that could be seen from the road, sleek and powerful - but they come to the train crossing and have to wait for it.

Green Knight, I like the way you think. Adding pressure adds tension. This shows how tension is different from conflict, actually. A marvelous day, memories in the making, can still have tension. The people are getting along and enjoying themselves. How boring! A dash of tension is just what the reader wants to keep turning the pages. Alicia describes one very subtle way to add tension, that is, by ramping up the joy until it appears fragile and unreal. The reader absorbs all these cues and learns not to trust the bare facts. This creates tension because on the one hand, the reader is absorbing all this surface happiness, and on the other, they know it's false.

So I'd either ramp up the sense of impermanence and frailty in the happy day (show the ice cream melting, show the flowers wilting), or I'd cut the opening in the theme park and just show the family trudging through the parking lot, exhausted and blissed out. Show the effects of the perfect day without making us read the blow-by-blow. Your novel isn't a travel piece or a sales brochure. It's a novel, and the engine that drives a novel is tension. If you can't load enough tension into the happy day to make it interesting, then cut it.

Alicia and I debate this point pretty regularly -- and, as with most of our debates, the point will never be resolved because the real answers are case-specific. Theme is important. Theme needs to be set up early. Is setting up theme, by itself, enough to carry a scene, or any part of a scene?

I lean toward wanting more than just set-up. This is true regardless of what you're setting up, be it theme or setting or character. I don't prefer a slow buildup to the initiation of the conflict. Some set-up is required, of course, but the sooner the conflict is initiated, the sooner the reader becomes engaged.

Conflict is tension on steroids. You might not initiate the conflict until page ten, but pages one through nine will still need tension. Start with the happy family having the perfect day, if you like, if you think this is an effective way to lay the foundation for what follows. Just don't bore me while you're doing it.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Setting up story themes and motifs in the opening

Annie mentioned in comments using a prologue to set up themes, and that made me think of how character and story themes are set up in the opening of a story. I happen to be working with someone on a story opening, and so it's on my mind.

This is, btw, a good reason to go back, after you've written a draft, to the opening. Sometimes the chapter 1 you first wrote is exactly right (maybe your subconscious "saw" the whole story, even if your conscious had to work at plotting it) and nothing needs to be changed. More often, the story didn't develop exactly as promised in the opening, or the opening isn't adequate to introduce the wonderful rest-of-story.

But one task of the opening is to set up themes and motifs that will be amplified in the story. This doesn't mean stating a theme outright (how boring and non-fictional), but rather setting it up to be explored through the whole book-- giving the reader a preview, an entree, into this issue.

I'm not going to define theme here (I explore it in some depth on my website, I think-- here's a q/a session on theme). But let's say that theme and motif are the way most writers convey subtextual messages or connections: "more than mere words can say." Theme usually is revealed to the reader by the process of reading the story (which is why it probably shouldn't ever be stated out straight-- it should take the whole book cumulatively to create it), while a motif is a recurrent pattern or image or something that links important scenes, characters, events, emotions, whenever it is reused.

So if you read over your draft and think, "Aha! I realize that I'm developing a theme that happiness is precarious, as Oedipus's chorus says: Count no man happy until he dies!", well, good for you! But then you go back to that opening chapter and realize it's just a generic opening, a family having a fun time at a lake. That opening doesn't really do all that much to set up the theme, other than presenting the family as pretty happy.

The danger isn't just that the opening is generic (a HUGE problem, of course), but that the tone of the opening might not fit the rest of the book. If the opening is really lighthearted, it might not fit a grimmer story. And that sort of disconnect between the opening and the rest of the story is hazardous, as the reader might think there's false advertising going on. But really, you want to show the family as happy before you strip it all away from them, right? I mean, your theme is about how we can't trust happiness, so you do probably have to show them being happy in the "before" picture so that the "after" picture can be even more poignant.

What can you do in revision of the opening to make this happen?

Well, one thing is to make it a teensy bit extreme. I know that sounds oxymoronic (teensy bit and extreme? Can extreme be only a teensy bit?) but that is actually exactly right. It's not just a routinely happy family occasion-- it's almost frenetically happy. The parents keep touching each other because they're still/again so in love. The kids are not annoying as they typically are on such occasions (maybe it's only MY kids who were typically so :), but almost heartbreakingly adorable. There are none of those minor hassles that always happen on such outings-- Dad immediately finds a great parking place, the cooler hasn't dripped melted ice all over the trunk. Everything's going frighteningly well.
That's the key. Can you somehow manage to make this incredible good fortune seem a little too much? Like a gold chain glittering in the sun but stretched, stretched, stretched... and the reader feels anticipation and dread, sure it's going to break? And maybe it never does, but it's still stretched too far, still promising disaster, even if it doesn't occur then?

How-- well, I'd be looking at slightly intense modifiers, maybe a bit too powerful verbs. You have to be careful to do this well, because you don't want the reader to think you're just overwriting. Take the diction up one notch, not ten. The sun is brilliant, not just bright. The children shriek with laughter, they don't just laugh. Dad grips Mom's hand, he doesn't just hold it.

Also see if the setting/situation can up the stakes and also provide the opportunity to start up a couple motifs that can recur later (like when the happiness explodes). Maybe the lake isn't exciting enough to build this subtle sort of tension. How about a theme park? Think of how expensive it is to take a family to Cedar Point (I can tell you-- I'm on Cedar Point's mailing list, believe it or not-- for a family of four, not counting hotel and transportation, count on $300, just for entrance fees and food for a day). So maybe they've had to save up and anticipate it for months. Dad probably has bragged to the kids about the FOURTEEN ROLLER COASTERS and they've worked their little souls into a frenzy of desire. (I swear, Cedar Point ought to hire me as a spokesperson. :) And it's really, really a wonderful day. See, schools in Ohio don't let out for summer until June, so in late May the weather is great AND there are no crowds on schooldays, and that is what our lucky family finds. No lines! All rides up and going! A blue sky and yellow sun!

Whatever your setting, try taking it up a notch for more and more and more joy! Lots of joy! Amazing joy! It's not just a day at the lake, it's the day the kids actually get up on their water skis! They're not just going to the first night of a blockbuster movie, but one of the stars happens to be there and signing autographs! They're not just going to a baseball game-- Dad catches a home run!

(And notice that the motifs just tumble out. Roller coaster (up and down). Sports (victory and defeat). Lake (water). Find one of these and see if you can reuse them later in the book in a different form, like Dad and the kids play catch in the backyard while Mom waits for the results of the biopsy.)

The point here is not to make the characters feel dread that the happiness will end. No, the characters are too busy being happy. It's to make the reader worry, "This is too good to last." Suspense is disaster postponed, but the suspense comes from sensing disaster ahead-- but it's the reader feeling the suspense, not the characters. (I think the doubling effect of reading is fascinating-- the reader simultaneusly identifies with the characters and feels/knows more than the character does.)

So that's just an example of setting up a theme. Ask me in comments maybe about other themes, and I'll suggest ways to set it up in the opening. The opening ISN'T the theme, but starts the process of making the theme.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Form Rejections-- bad form?

About form rejections-- you know, when I started acquiring, I said I was going to send a personalized letter with every rejection, giving suggestions for improvement. The publisher said, "We'll see how long that lasts." She said the good thing about form rejections is that they don't give the submitter much to argue about.

But it's so impersonal, sez I.

Exactly, sez she.

Anyway, I rather quickly understood her reasoning, because about a third of my carefully worded rejections were answered with arguments, and those were usually the rejections that were for cause-- I mean, the submissions weren't good enough, or were actually bad.

Let's say I rejected a story because, as I pointed out in the letter, the characters weren't sympathetic. (I'd probably even-- I tell you, I was a sap-- explain why, and how they could be made more so.) Well, in return mail would come a disquisition about how the characters were (natch) based on real people in her family, and they were lovely people, and maybe I was just too jaded to appreciate real people anymore.

Or maybe I sent a rejection saying that the story is interesting (interesting, by the way, is what we say when we can't honestly say "good"), but the mechanical problems make this hard to read, such as (example). This sort of letter always engendered a reply about how the submitter had majored in English or always got As on papers or worked in (insert field requiring -- presumably-- some writing skill), and that I was frankly wrong about the issue I identified (which was usually something really not debatable, like how dialogue is punctuated). And besides, if the story is interesting, what's your problem, editor? Isn't your job editing the prose? Are you saying the grammar is more important than the story? Huh?

Significantly, the debaters were usually the worst writers.

The better writers, the ones whose submissions were okay but no more than that, might respond, but the responses were usually more polite, maybe just a thank-you or an explanation of why they'd done this thing I'd identified. You don't actually need to send a thank-you, and I am not all that interested in your explanations, but I don't object to this sort of polite response at all. It certainly doesn't hurt to have your name associated in my mind with courtesy.

But even the courteous respondents would often ask if they could resubmit after fixing whatever problem I identified, and I would generally say yes because I felt sorry for them, wanted to validate their willingness to improve, whatever. Truth is, the problem I identified might be (probably was) just one of several problems, and fixing it wouldn't make the story something I'd acquire. So I'd have to reject the author a second time.

Anyway, after getting debating responses to what I meant as a politely worded "go away" rejection, I came to see the wisdom of form letters. Yes, they really do give less leeway for argument, though I notice Theresa gets argument replies to the form letters!

I should stop and say there are three basic reasons for a form rejection:
1) It actually doesn't fit our line, and I'm not making any judgment about its merits otherwise.
2) The submission isn't bad, but the ways it isn't good can't actually be elucidated in a letter... maybe there are too many problems to list, or maybe it's just really boring, or maybe it's just nothing special.
3) The submission is really bad, and if I'd tell you that, it would hurt, and why would I want to hurt you?

Whenever I got a form rejection (and I got them throughout my writing career, even for stuff I knew was good and ended up selling elsewhere), I just assumed, maybe to save my ego, that the reason was #1. And I do think that's probably the most common reason for form rejections, especially those that come from the first reader, who in bigger houses is often an editorial assistant, and her job is to weed out submissions so that only appropriate ones go to the editors.

If you're getting a lot of form rejections, and (this is important) you have some independent evidence that your writing is pretty good (like contest wins, agent interest, previous publication), consider that you might be submitting to the wrong editor/line/publisher/agent. Read the guidelines carefully, but (cough) be aware that they might not have been updated recently. More important, read the line you're thinking of submitting to, and see if your book is in the same region.

Of course, you can just go ahead and submit to everyone, except it's a waste of paper (not an issue with e-subs), and maybe a waste of time. But it's not that big a sin, and I seriously doubt anyone's got a file of "form rejection types" with your name on it and a comment like "I wish she'd go away." The problem is, once you submit a manuscript, it's kind of verboten to resubmit it to another editor in the same line, or a different agent in the agency. (If you realize, "Oh, wait, this is really a science fiction story, and I should have submitted it to that other line in the same publisher," that's probably okay.) Best to choose the right editor or agent first time. So if you're getting a lot of form rejections, try getting more selective about your targets, so that you don't limit your potential market for this manuscript.

In any case, a form rejection usually does mean that there is no future for this submission with this editor or line. No use arguing about it.

I must put in here that I do send personalized rejections in other cases, like when I think the writer has a good voice or good story-- that is, when I want to give a bit of encouragement or praise. And often there's some aspect that doesn't have to do with the writer's talent and I want to point that out, like "this is good, but too similar to a story we have coming out next month," or "I like this, but the (trend of the month) isn't selling anymore," or "I wish I could buy this, but we're no longer taking (some subject)."

But if I do reject the story, it's probably because I don't see it working for us no matter what. So if I don't specifically ask for resubmission, I don't particularly want to see this again. (Other manuscripts, of course, are fine, especially if I've praised something. When you submit something new, couldn't hurt to remind me, "When I submitted XYZ, you mentioned that you especially liked my hero.") But if I've rejected the story, I don't want to have to reject it again, so don't submit that story again, okay?

Now if the writer completely revamps the story, that's different. I won't mind looking at another version if you really did do a lot of re-invention, or you've taken a crash course in POV or grammar and can legitimately attest that you're writing at a new level and know what you were doing wrong before and how to fix it. (I'd suggest actually giving it a new title if you want to submit anew, not just because publishing houses keep track of submissions that way, but also because it signals that this really is a whole new book worthy of new consideration.) Should you remind me that I've already rejected it? Yes, otherwise I'll puzzle over why this storyline sounds familiar and waste time on Amazon and IMDB trying to track down the source. But do consider stating this in a positive way, like "You passed on an earlier version of this story. I read your suggestions and have done (list a few big changes)." I recently had a writer who vowed that I was actually the catalyst for her going back to school and taking a grammar course, and now she never wrote with out the Little, Brown Handbook at her side to check for punctuation rules. Well, heck, you know, if I changed your life for the better, I want to know. :)

Also, if I think the story has only a couple fixable problems, I send a "revise and resubmit" letter. Oh, let me say this-- sometimes, I know, all you see is the "Sorry, but this isn't there yet," and assume this is another rejection. READ THE WHOLE LETTER!!! Generally the revise and resubmit part is in the last paragraph, after we identify all that is wrong (but fixable). Look for a line like, "If you want to work on those aspects, I'd be glad to take another look." That is NOT a rejection. It just starts like one. I wonder if it would be useful to use a different color font for "resubmit" letters, as so many writers mistake them for rejections.

Anyway, I've come to appreciate form letter rejections, as an editor and as a writer. They're so... clean. And that makes the differential with a personalized letter that much more striking.

Rejection Backlash

Cathy in the comments mentioned rejection backlash, and this made me think of a post over on Angela James's blog a week or so ago. Angela was asking about the too-fast rejection, and how fast is too fast? It always shocks me when writers complain that we rejected them too fast. I've seen several backlash emails from authors who assumed the fast response meant we hadn't read the proposal. But all it really means is that you happened to submit right around the time when we were knuckling down on the slush pile. We sail in like pirates with red pens clenched in our teeth, looting and pillaging until the slush pile is a smoking remnant of its former self. Swash, swash. Buckle, buckle.

So if you get a fast response, thank your stars that you submitted on pirate day, and try to avoid writing back some snarky comment along the lines of, "Thanks a lot for the abundant time you spent reading this. Next time, try opening the attachments before rejecting them." (Yes, people really write things like that.) You know, sometimes people have to wait months and months for answers. And sometimes you get lucky, get a fast response, and can move on to the next submission target a little more quickly.

Another really poor choice for the rejected author is to email the boss with a complaint. These complaints usually land on my desk, and go something like,

I recently submitted a story to Ellie Editor after meeting her at a conference. I'm a serious writer and go to conferences and stuff. All my friends say it's good. So why did I get rejected? I think maybe Ellie didn't notice the part where my hero says she deserves a spanking and she says I dare you and he tries and then it gets really good. I know you publish stories like this. Except mine is better because the heroine has red hair. Ellie Editor didn't even say why she rejected it, and my mom said that I should write and ask for more information because we all think Ellie might have sent me the wrong letter by mistake. So could you check with Ellie. And also, how much do you pay?

Well, that's actually a fairly nice interpretation of a common "write the boss" letter. We'll call that one Exhibit A, a Rejection Backlash From a Clueless Newbie. More commonly we see something else, something that an agent once confessed she had dubbed Bitch Mail. I give you Exhibit B,

Ellie Editor had my manuscript for four months and rejected it, and I know it was a form rejection because it didn't even have my name on it. What the fuck? I waited four months for this? You need to know your employees are treating people like this. Plus, she was stupid for rejecting it. Either that, or she got lazy and didn't read it. She needs to get fired before she drags down your whole company. Also, I'm attaching my manuscript so you can see what I'm talking about. Please assign it to another editor who isn't stupid or lazy.

Now, what do you imagine that I do with letters like these? Our editorial and production team is small and intimate. My authors are topnotch people, and frankly, I think they get along better than just about any group of authors you could find. Do you think I want to drop a poisoned apple in that barrel? Do you think I want to expose my company's most precious asset -- its authors -- to this kind of attitude?

Of course not.

I don't reply in kind, because there's no point in that, but I do send a politely worded email explaining that my editors are empowered to exercise their judgment, and thank you for submitting, and so on.

Now that I've given you a glimpse into the horror show that sometimes unfolds, let me share a story about the right way to question a rejection. I was introduced to an author at a conference, and she pitched a book to me. I liked the sound of it, and I knew the author's name because she's been knocking on our door for a while. After I had already invited her to submit her new project, we started talking about her other interactions with our authors and staff, and she mentioned a manuscript that had been rejected by another editor at our house. She didn't complain about the rejection, but it came up in the course of conversation, very casually and without anything resembling a nasty edge. She told me a little about that rejected story -- and it's a type of story that I know our publisher adores. So I prodded a bit to see if I could find out what happened there. I mean, this is someone who we know can write, with a story type we are actively looking for.

So she sent me the rejected story with a very polite cover letter thanking me for the second look. She never once complained about the editor who had rejected it. She seemed to understand she was getting a second bite out of the apple, and she treated this as a good thing. Another author might have thought of it as payback to the rejecting editor, an "Aha! I'll show her!" moment, but this very smart young lady knew better than to go down that path.

Consequently, I've spent a fair amount of time reading and thinking about this book, and talking to the other editor about it. We've reached a consensus opinion, and this polite and professional young author is about to get detailed feedback from not just one editor, but two.

The moral of the story? Be nice, and you get double what you need. Send me Bitch Mail, and you get a pirate's curse.


ps. I'm on facebook now. Friend me if you wish.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tales From the Slush Pile

It's a little tricky sometimes to talk about slush submissions without giving away the identity of the manuscript or writer. But some situations crop up so frequently that they take on an almost generic flavor. I thought today we would look at two common ways people get themselves rejected.

Following Up Too Soon

You know the old saying, no news is good news? This is very true in publishing, especially in houses that take unagented submissions. We get so much material, avalanches of queries and partials, that we develop particular methods for moving paper. Some editors apply the one-touch rule. If they open a file and start reading, they don't stop until they make a decision one way or another. I used to do it this way, but my response time was lengthening until even the easiest (for me) rejections were taking months to make. I suspect many of the editors whose response times are measured in years instead of months have relied on the one-touch rule.

When it became apparent that the one-touch rule was actually burdening me with too much paper, I started another method. I set aside blocks of time to do rejections. When I get a good number of new submissions in, I scan them all very quickly to see which ones can be ruled out fast. These all get form rejections. Usually, an author won't have to wait more than a month for this kind of rejection, but that can extend to six weeks or so when things are very busy. (To give you a frame of reference, yesterday I read just under 60 such submissions. That's more or less 700 pages -- 10 pages of manuscript plus a one-page synopsis and a cover letter per submission -- which all had to be crunched in a single morning. I won't read any more until next week at the earliest. Of all those submissions, I think two survived the first cut.*)

Although a manuscript may be ruled out quickly at this stage, the rejection is not necessarily an indication of quality. I know, for example, some particular inside rules that we don't discuss in our generic submission guidelines on the website. A good example of this: our publisher has an abhorrence of first person point of view. The rest of us like it pretty well and would be perfectly happy to take on an occasional story in first person, but we've been mandated to reject these. At best, you might get a revision request, but a first person manuscript has to meet certain other standards in order for us to even think along these lines.

So what this all means, really, is that if I can't reject a story in this first pass, it ends up in a reading pile of manuscripts that might be suitable for us, were tolerably well written at first glance, and weren't subject to a quick rejection for some other reason. If you end up in this pile, I'll either pass it on to another acquisition editor (Hi, Alicia! You busy? *g*), or I will save it to read myself. All of which takes time.

So if you follow up a week or two after submitting -- and trust me, there are people who will follow up within hours, neophytes who think that submissions are no different from any other form of correspondence -- you mark yourself as an amateur. And amateurs require a lot of training and hand-holding. And we don't have time for that sort of thing.

All of which is to say, please be patient. We know that slow wait times are frustrating. It's okay to follow up if you've waited a while -- say, half again the expected response time. But try to remember that if you don't get a fast rejection, that's a good sign, and let that cheer you while you wait.

Being Bratty in Follow-Ups

If I had a dollar for every snotty follow-up email I've received....

If you want a rejection, this is a good way to get one.

Dear Editor,

I submitted my manuscript to you on January 1, 2009. It is now January 22, 2009, a full three weeks later, and you haven't bothered to respond. How long does it take to read a book? I can read one in a weekend! Sometimes two!

About-to-get-rejected Author

Or how about,

Dear Editor,

You've had my manuscript for four months now. Does your boss know you take this long to read things? I'm copying your boss on this email, so if she didn't know it before, she knows it now.

About-to-get-laughed-at-by-your-boss Author

Yes, I actually get emails like this, and yes, they lead to form rejections on things I might have taken more seriously but for the author's attitude.

Let me contrast this with a happier story about the right way to follow up. We had some trouble with our automatic forwarding system on the generic submissions email address last year. For reasons that are totally mysterious, some people simply were not able to get through to the first reader. We don't know if it was particular mail servers, addresses, attachments, or some other factor that caused these emails to be screened out instead of routed to a reader. In fact, because it was so random, we aren't even completely sure when the problem started or how many submissions may have been affected.

One author submitted a partial in accordance with our guidelines. She followed all the rules and waited a few months before following up. When she did follow up, she was polite and friendly, but her follow-up also vanished. I found out about this author's situation very recently, and contacted her personally to apologize and explain the situation. She sent me her manuscript, along with a very warm and polite cover letter that made me think she's an okay kind of person. You know, the uncrazy kind, the kind we like. I started reading her story the same night I received it -- yes, that same night, because she was so nice and I felt bad for her -- and I wasn't halfway into it before I was eyeing the editorial calendar to see where we might slot this one. I haven't had time to finish reading it yet, but things are already looking good for this author just because she wasn't a brat.

What does it all boil down to? We're doing the best we can on this side of the desk. Be patient and polite, and hang in there.


* Since processing that group of 60 or so submissions, an almost equal number has arrived in my inbox. And that's in just under 24 hours. We never really get caught up on them, no matter how hard we try.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Paragraph disection-- not us!

Here's a fun site (well, fun for the likes of us). An author solicits opening paragraphs and takes them apart. So check it out-- Ilona Andrews livejournal. As she says, if we all took this much time to diagnose each paragraph, we'd go crazy. However, she shows how useful it is to train yourself to read closely (and quickly) and find what works and doesn't work, especially in the important paragraphs. Good stuff!

Since and Because

Here's a little nit that hardly ever gets picked any more. In popular parlance, since and because have become more or less interchangeable. However, they don't actually mean the same thing.

Since implies a temporal relationship between two factors. The item in the dependent since clause (or phrase -- since can be used in either) sets the moment at which the topic of the independent clause became true. It also describes an ongoing situation or event that has been roughly continuous from the moment of the since until the "present" of the main clause.

Since the day we met, I've been able to think of no other man but you.

In other words, something changed, and that change can be traced to the since moment, and that change has been constant from the moment of the since. You wouldn't write,
Because the day we met, I've been able to think of no other man but you.

Because implies a causative link between the independent and dependent clauses. The item in the dependent because clause led to the existence of the item in the independent (main) clause. Get it? Because = cause.

Because the temperature dropped below freezing, all my tomato plants died.

The temperature change led directly to the death of the tomato plants. The death of the tomato plants is a one-time event, not ongoing or evolving.

In the common tongue, people frequently say,
Since the temperature dropped below freezing, all my tomato plants died.

And loads of perfectly respectable, well-educated folks don't shudder at the horror of the botched adverb. I know, I know. Hard to believe. But there you have it. And those of us who know better -- which now includes you fine readers -- have to accept that the language changes over time.

So when is the difference between since and because relevant or irrelevant in your writing? My rule of thumb is to correct it outside the quotation marks. Inside quotation marks, the difference can be ignored unless the character would not ignore it. Lawyers, for example, with their obsessive addiction to causation and the types of links between things, understand the difference between since and because. They're trained in it. Their speech is more likely to reflect that training. So if you have a legal thriller under way, you might search your manuscript on the keyword since and fix it throughout. What other types of characters would preserve this difference?

I'm tempted to go on a mini-rant here about why precision in word choices is so crucial to good writing, but it's Monday morning, and who needs that on a Monday? None of us. So instead, I'll treat myself to a fresh cuppa and skip the rant.

January was bedlam for me this year. So glad it's February. It's lovely to have a moment to commune with the blog. :)