Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Pacing Triad

There are more paces than just "fast".  Let's start there. When authors talk about pacing, they often mean, "How can I make this book go as fast as possible?" The first question, however, should be, "What pace will help me give my readers a better experience?"

After all, readers who like a Henry-James-like contemplative approach don't actually WANT your book paced like The DaVinci Code.

So what pace is right for your book? More on that in another post, but right now I want to talk a bit about a technique that can help create a different pace. That's what I call the "BAR" method.

Build up.
Action (or event).
Reaction (or emotion/aftermath).

This is a typical sequence for a pacing/event unit. (Pacing is all about how many events you have and in what period of time/pages.)  We will, of course, have a bunch of these in a book, maybe 15 in a fast-paced book, or 5 in a leisurely-paced book.

First you do the buildup, whatever decisionmaking, investigation, exposition, and/or consideration has to happen before the action or event.  Like if Sadie is (in the coming action) going to find a clue, the buildup might be where she figures out what she needs to know, and decides to risk arrest to get it. This is about anticipation, preparation, consideration.

Second, there's the action or event-- what happens. This is the most essential part of pacing as it's how we calibrate pacing. A thriller is "fast-paced" because it has a lot of actions and events coming quickly. A more contemplative or leisurely paced novel will have fewer actions in the same amount of time. The action or event is something that a character does (or happens to the character) that changes the course of the story. So this would be where Sadie breaks into the office and steals the old typewriter and finds the letter on the old typewriter ribbon. (Typewriter ribbons were really cool clue-locations.)

Third, there's the reaction or aftermath. That's where the character (and/or the world of the story) reacts to the event, shows the emotional or actual change because of this event. So Sadie gets back to her apartment and reads the typewriter ribbon and realizes it implicates her own mentor, and she is plunged into doubt and despair and can't decide whether to turn this over to the police, or protect her mentor.

Now those three elements can be each in a separate scene of more or less equal length, or separate scenes of different lengths, or just passages within a scene. But I think -- just speculating here- that if we want to make the pace of a book something or other, we can do this by manipulating the relative length of these elements.

Let's say we want a more methodical pace that's suitable for a police procedural. We might amplify the Build up section to show the careful consideration Sadie goes through figuring out what she needs to, why she needs this clue, whether she ought to commit a crime to get it. Or conversely, for a suspense thriller, we might want to expand this passage to build up the suspense, the danger involved, the threat to her life and career, the looming darkness that is the villain-- before she does what she has to do. Fear, suspense, threat have to be created in the reader by the build up to an event. But of course, that creates a slower pace.

Or maybe we want a fast pace for an adventure book. In this case, the build up might be pretty short, just enough to set the stage for the action. Then the action scene might be long, exciting, and richly detailed, very physical to give the reader a visceral experience. So in this case, there wouldn't be a lot of Sadie debating the morality of breaking in-- She decides to do it and just does it, but we get a full account of all the obstacles she encounters and the last-minute interruptions and the near-miss security guard patrol, and the slippery feel of the folder in her fingers.... Expanding the action passage to a greater length than the other two elements will lead to a more adventurous pace.

But then, what if we want the reader to feel emotion, to identify with the angst and triumph and despair of the character? Then we might spend the most time on the reaction or aftermath, where the character deals with the impact of what she's done or learned or experienced. Romances particularly I think often need long aftermaths to create the depth of feeling and the potential for interaction that deepens the love story. So in this case, Sadie might be rocked by her sense of betrayal by the mentor, remember all the times Mentor helped her do her math homework, and plunge into a despair because he is the only person she trusts, and now she might have to betray him. (And she has to call that hunky but arrogant police detective.... Romance!)

Anyway, no rules here, but if our story doesn't have the appropriate pace, it might not be a problem with the plot or characters, but rather just a matter of manipulating this BAR sequence so that the most important element to our pacing choice is emphasized by being longer than the other two. I don't mean making the action scene 15 pages long in a fast-paced book (long scenes will slow down the pace), but rather making it the longest of the three, so maybe we have a paragraph or two of build up, five pages of action, and two paragraphs of reaction.

What do you think? Look at your own stories. What sort of pace are you hoping for, and what kinds of passages or scenes go on longer?

Monday, January 30, 2012

I have a guest blog post


and another!


See, I'm so addicted to blogging, I do it in my spare time. :)

Also-- I don't know how to get followers except by begging. Can some of you just follow us so I can prove to my friend Lynn there is a reason for Twitter?
Alicia Rasley and Lynn Kerstan are tweeting as . Two novellas about two sisters, see? Tweeting sisters- Twisters.

And if you have advice on how to achieve world domination or at least a bit of notice through Twitter, plz share. (See! I've learned twitter-spelling!)


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Little adverb movements make everything precise

In the previous post, I was reading it over and realized I'd (horrors!) misplaced a modifier.
Too late she remembered the reason for that generous gift, and how embarrassed he had been, confessing to his secret fear of windmills last year.

This is a common mistake with "time" adverbs and adjectives like "back then" and "in the past" and "on Monday."  Here, the problem is that with the modifier placed at the end of the sentence, it's not clear whether he became afraid of windmills "last year,"  or if the embarrassed confession was last year. Why make the reader wonder, when all it takes is a bit of movement?

The modifier should be placed right next to whatever element actually happened at that time. In this sentence, the gift and embarrassment and the confession happened "last  year," so the modifier can go close to either of those, whatever sounds best. So:
Too late she remembered the reason for that generous gift, and how embarrassed he had been last year, confessing to his secret fear of windmills.

We need to be sensitive to what our sentences actually say, and open to the minor fixes that make it say what we actually mean. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Just to Clarify

Many questions regarding my post yesterday. One of them is important enough to post about. Several of you asked whether this clause came from one of those agents helping an author self-publish.


These particular agents have no hand in any self-published material. They don't read and provide feedback on manuscripts, format or typeset them, or provide cover art. They don't write jacket copy or arrange blurbs. They don't upload anything, and they don't download anything, and they don't provide networking assistance.

They do nothing. It could easily come to pass that you would self-publish a work without them even seeing it or being aware of it. And yet you would owe them a commission on it. It could even come to pass that you would have This Book with them, and while they shop it, you upload That Novella as a self-published work. They fail to make the sale on This Book, and yet they are still entitled to a commission on That Novella. (One of you argued that this would never happen in the real world. Maybe not -- certainly it should not -- but the language I saw would allow this exact possibility.)

I could draw lots of analogies here to help you understand how damaging this is. Imagine you bank at Big Horrible Bank With Protesters Out Front. And every time you make a transaction at this bank, they charge you a quarter. You don't mind paying the fees because you figure they've earned them. It's fairsies. But then you open another savings account at another bank, and the Big Horrible Bank With Protesters Out Front is now claiming that you owe them a quarter on every transaction made at the new savings account, whether they ever touched the money or not. So when you find a ten dollar bill in the grass and decide to deposit it in the new bank, BHBWPOF wants a commission on that. And when your grannie writes you a birthday check from a bank other than BHBWPOF and you deposit it into your new account, you owe BHBWPOF a commission on that. And so on. "It's only fair," they say, "because by using our banking services, you learned some things about using banking services." Yes, and they were paid for it, a quarter every time you made a transaction at BHBWPOF.

Just remember what you own and what you pay for. You own your brand. You own your skills and knowledge. You might pay someone to help you improve those things, the same as a soft drink company pays ad agencies to craft memorable, brand-building commercials. But that doesn't mean your ownership is suddenly converted to co-ownership. It means you paid for a service.

One of my friends said, roughly paraphrased, "It used to be my trad pub that made my house bills and insurance payments each month. Now they can only make the house bills, but my self-published books are covering my insurance. Just barely, but they're covering it. If I have to give that up or split it, I would have to get a day job again. I can't take any more cuts to my income."

To that, many industry professionals would respond with a shrug. If this one drops out of writing, ten others are waiting in the wings to take her place.

That attitude and reality has scared authors into accepting bad terms in the past. But the difference then was that there was only one path to publication, and that path ran through the people offering the bad terms. Now there are other options. Is self-publishing the savior of everything? No. It changes some rules of the game, but we're all still playing the same basic game. Nevertheless, it's an important change because of the way it empowers writers. Don't give away that power. Don't even give away 15% of it.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Sign of the Times?

I heard a disturbing rumor -- and I have to repeat, this is a rumor, not something I saw personally -- about an agency contract that takes a standard commission on an author's self-published books. Self-published. So the author would be contractually obligated to pay 15% of their self-published royalties to the agent even if the agent has never laid eyes on the book.

The theory behind this is that the agent is "building" the author's career through traditional sales, and the author benefits from that in direct published sales, so the agent is entitled to a cut.

This is utter garbage, of course. Not every tenuous connection creates an entitlement. What's next -- if you write on your day job, they can take 15% of your day job salary, too? Agents act as brokers, selling books to publishers and earning a commission on those sales. Why should they ever be entitled to earn anything without performing the work?

You know what's really going on here? They're gambling that you're more desperate than they are. They're pretty desperate, some of these agents, because sales and advances are falling across the board, so agents are taking hits just as much as anyone in this business. Or, to put it another way, 15% of nothing is nothing. Actually, that's 15% of 8% or whatever your trad pub contract calls for. But your direct pub royalty rate is probably anywhere from 30% to 70%, depending on how you distribute and price the book, so 15% of that is a bit more of a cut to the agent. As an added bonus, it's free money because they didn't have to lift a finger to earn it.

But there will be some writer out there who's been struggling to break in and who sees this as the one chance to do that. And they'll sign away their kidneys and lungs if they think that will get them a good book deal. So what's 15% in perpetuity on work the agency never sold? As long as the agent signs you, it's all good, right? No. Not right at all. For one thing, you don't know that this agent will ever sell a single thing for you. Plenty of authors are signed but never sold. You don't know whether this agent will treat you well or screw things up for you -- and if you don't understand that agents can screw up a writer's career, you haven't spent much time talking to writers about agents.

Don't get me wrong. A good agent is worth every (legitimately earned) cent you pay them. If you get a good agent, thank your lucky stars and buy them chocolate. But how do you know what kind of relationship you'll have with your agent when you're at the signing stage? Oh, you can go by reputation. Maybe Agent Alice has a great reputation because she represents a bestseller or two. But sometimes these powerhouse agents focus all their attention on the stars. They take you on in the hope they can get a star deal for you, too, but if they can't, they're stuck with you just as you're stuck with them. That's how their stables get filled with authors who wonder why they can't get a call back.

And reputation only tells a partial story. In this business, in public, we're all quick to praise and slow to criticize. (Notice, for example, that even though I'm not hiding my annoyance at this contract provision, I have not named the agency or the agent. I might be mouthy, but I'm not that stupid.) If you don't share a confidential relationship with at least one of the agent's clients, you might not be hearing the whole story.

Be smart, kids. It's a cruel and treacherous world we're living in.


ETA: Since this post went live this morning, I've received confirmation of two agencies doing this. One was the original agency that prompted this post, and the other is a mid-sized agency with questionable ethics. Anybody know what the AAR has to say about this?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

As You Know, Alphonse...

Theresa's post about exposition reminds me of something our friend Lynn Kerstan used to laugh about, the "As You Know, Alphonse" dialogue, where one character tells another something they both know, just to get the information (exposition) out. Like:

Paula said, "As you know, Alphonse, Murray is our own sainted father, and you and I lost him twenty years ago in a tragic windmill accident, right in front of your very eyes. And ever since, you have been deathly afraid of windmills, so much so that when you won a trip to Holland, you gave the ticket to me, your sister."

What's the problem? Well, of course Alphonse already knows his father's name and that Paula is his sister, and surely knows he himself is afraid of windmills. It sounds artificial, and it is, because of course Paula would never really say it that way. She'd never recite a bunch of info that her conversation partner already knows. It's a clumsy way to avoid putting exposition in the narrative (where it belongs-- that's one of the purposes of the non-dialogue parts).

Of course, we can do exposition (information conveyance) clumsily in narrative too. But while it might be clumsy, it won't be too inauthentic if it's not in the mouth of someone who would never say it.

How then can we convey to the reader the reason for Alphonse's terror of windmills? Or whatever the important info is there? The ticket to Holland? The name of their father?  One question is, of course, what does the reader NEED to know to understand this scene and to build suspense or interest for what's to come?  One problem I see a lot in exposition passages (in or out of dialogue) is that the information is thrust out indiscriminately, without consideration for what is the important piece of information, and without consideration of if this is the best time to tell it, or if maybe it should be presented only partially (to build suspense). Another aspect which is important especially in dialogue but also for character point of view is the character's motivation for telling/thinking this bit of info.

Let's start at the top. What's the important info here we want the reader to know? Maybe it's that ticket to Holland. (Don't ask me what the plot is where that's most important. This is just an example!) In that case, maybe all that other stuff isn't necessary right here. Maybe it is, but notice-- all that is ALPHONSE'S motivation, not Paula's.  Paula didn't see the windmill accident and suffer lifelong trauma. What's Paula's motivation here? What does she want? Why is she bringing up this no-doubt painful subject? Once we know that, we can decide what about that paragraph of info is really necessary, and we can decide how best to convey it.

I generally use a mix of dialogue and narrative, in the point of view of one character. That is, the speaker says something, and the POV character (the speaker or listener) reacts mentally, maybe filling in some important bit of information, maybe translating the information (rightly or wrongly). And the dialogue doesn't have to say much-- just enough that the listener and speaker both have enough to know what this is about, and the reader gets some idea too. (It's important to cut the speech off -after- the speaker has said enough that the reader has at least some notion of what this is about.)

For example, let's say the whole point of this, Paula's motivation, is that she wants Alphonse to accept a gift of money that he needs but is too proud to accept. So she wants to remind him that she owes him because he gave her that trip to Holland.  See how immediately this will transform that exposition? Now there's a reason for it to be there-- her desire to give back.  Let's see:

Paula said, "Come on, Alphonse. You know I owe you. Remember that trip to Holland you gave me? You didn't--" Too late she remembered the reason for that generous gift, and how embarrassed Alphonse had been last year, confessing to his secret fear of windmills. She tried to cover up her lapse. "I mean, really. I owe you more than a thousand dollars for that."

Let's say you want to convey a bit more, maybe that Alphonse is her brother, which isn't apparent there (and presumably wasn't established before-- if it was, don't worry about it now). Well, in narrative, a bit of explication isn't all that noticeable, so you could amend a bit:

Paula said, "Come on, Alphonse. You know I owe you. Remember that trip to Holland you gave me? You didn't--" Too late she remembered the reason for that generous gift, and how embarrassed her brother had been last year, confessing to his secret fear of windmills. She tried to cover up her lapse. "I mean, really. I owe you more than a thousand dollars for that."

It's one of those narrative conventions that a name can be replaced in dialogue with either the pronoun (he) or a simple descriptor that the character might actually use. We do think of our siblings as "my brother" or "my sister," so that wouldn't strike the reader as odd.

Notice that the exposition there is confined to just his fear, but notice that the addition of "secret" helps make this seem more important. No, I didn't talk about the tragic windmill accident... but now the reader is alerted to something about windmills. Suspense is all about making the reader anticipate something bad-- in this case, some secret event involving windmills that terrified Alphonse. Later maybe one or the other could mention or think about dear old Dad's tragic end.

Now what if I want to be in her POV, but convey that Alphonse is still reactive to this subject?  Add her perception of his body language, like:

Paula said, "Come on, Alphonse. You know I owe you. Remember that trip to Holland you gave me? You didn't--" She saw her brother tense up, and too late she remembered the reason for that generous gift, and how embarrassed he had been last year, confessing to his secret fear of windmills. She tried to cover up her lapse. "I mean, really. I owe you more than a thousand dollars for that."

One thing to keep in mind is that the POV character is the one that tells us what's going on (for example, she sees the body language of her brother). The POV character doesn't have to interpret this correctly (Alphonse could be tensing up because he heard a car door slam outside and thinks it's the police), but how she interprets it can be a way to slide in more information gracefully (that he'd confessed a fear of windmills).

Now watch how different it can be in Alphonse's POV. Why? Because then we know his motivation at this moment, and also we can see him interpret (or misinterpret) Paula's purpose here. (You know siblings. Always assuming the worst.)

Paula said, "Come on, Alphonse. You know I owe you. Remember that trip to Holland you gave me? You didn't-- I mean, really. I owe you more than a thousand dollars for that."
Alphonse studied his sister coldly. Of course she'd take advantage of his financial problems to remind him of his humiliating fear of windmills. Hell, maybe she was even trying to tell him how much she blamed him because, long ago, as a child, he wasn't able to keep their father from climbing that windmill. It would be just like her, pretending to be all generous and giving, then sticking in the icepick of memory and twisting it in his guts.

Little edits after the first draft can help a lot in subtly pointing things out to the reader. For example, I first had "his father" then changed it to "their father" so that the reader wouldn't wonder, if only for a moment, if they had different fathers.

There are no rules here, but good writers can adroitly manipulate narrative and dialogue to convey what they want to convey. But the speaker and POV character's motivations in imparting this info are key to doing this effectively. The reader doesn't have to know every bit of backstory, but she needs to know what information is important right now to the story and characters. However, in the deeper forms of narrative POV, it's essential to impart info subtly enough that it seems to be coming out authentically from the characters' speech, thought, action, and reaction, rather than from an imposing author.

It helps me to read the scenes of authors who do this well and see how they do it.  Any suggestions for subtle authors and scenes?


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Question About New Scene Transitions

In the comments, Michelle asks,

Great post! I have a question, though. It doesn't really relate to your topic, but the topic reminded me of this.

What do you do when you have long passages of time you're skipping over? Do you summarize it? Make a note that so much time has passed? Or do you just jump right into the action and slip clues into the text that tell the reader time has passed?

Actually, Michelle, this is on topic if we define our current topic as, "Theresa rambles about exposition, etc." The start of scenes is a common place to rely on exposition to transition a reader to a new time and space. This can be done with a subheader at the top of the scene, such as--

January, Okanagan Lake

This tends to work best when it's already been established that the protagonist will be located at this spot for some reason. Maybe he's searching for Ogopogo, the famous sea monster of Okanagan Lake, so the reader has been prepared for him to reach the shores. This kind of quick, non-narrative transition allows the text to zoom forward without a lot of set-up at the start of the scene.

There are other times this type of transition will work. Maybe you have a multi-thread plot and keep shifting the reader between the pieces. Then the subheaders can help the reader track which plot thread is which. The current scene is Larry searching for Ogopogo on Okanagan Lake, and the next scene is Jessica searching for Nessie at Loch Ness, and the next scene is Bonita in a secret science lab trying to hatch a lake monster egg. The three of them are racing to produce a live lake monster, and the plot shifts freely between the three  threads, and the subheaders help the reader track it all.

In any case, some authors avoid these kinds of headings because they don't want to clutter the page, and there might be some good arguments against using these kinds of subheaders. Much like chapter headings and title/author headings, these pieces contain words that help identify something in the story but are not really part of the story. So they might serve as a distraction to the reader. If you think this isn't an issue, consider the reason we put last name/page number headings on the upper RIGHT corner of a manuscript. This keeps us from turning the sheet and processing the heading as the first line of text on a new page, which can break the flow of the narrative. Scene headers are not quite as disruptive, given that they're inserted in breaks in the story action, but they are still external intrusions of a sort.

So that takes us to narrative transitions at the start of new scenes. How much is too much? Can you ever skip it all together? I have a rule of thumb for this, but it's one of those things that can be hard to apply. But here's the basic idea. At several points over the course of most manuscripts, we will have to effectively press a reset button for the reader. The protagonist or another character will have changed enough, or the plot or setting will have changed enough, that we will need to create something like a touchstone for the arc within the text. Those touchstones can serve like transitions in to the next big piece of the plot. The bigger the changes, the greater the need to press the reset button. The greater the need, the more text you might need to re-orient the reader. But that's by no means hard and fast. Sometimes it's possible to re-orient the reader with a very quick transition. That's why I say this general rule of thumb is hard to apply. It can be difficult to gauge just how large a touchstone you need to create.

But as with all exposition, you will usually be better off minimizing the length as much as possible. Let's say, for example, that our monster-hunting friend Larry has been searching for Nessie for years and only just learned about the existence of Ogopogo. His goal has always been to find Nessie, so traveling to Canada would be a big change that might not support his original goal. Why would he do it, then?

Maybe there are scenes in Scotland with his band of Nessie hunters in which they debate the matter. Maybe Larry is opposed to going, but the group votes that one of them must go. Maybe he wants to go, but the group scorns him and tries to prevent his departure. In any case, the moment when Larry arrives on the shores of Okanagan Lake will be the moment when his quest has changed. Depending on what came before and what follows, you might need a small touchstone or a large touchstone. But, unless the change has been adequately prepped in preceding scenes, you will probably need a touchstone. (This is also partly dependent on how much has happened since the last touchstone. As I said, this analysis is very book-specific.)

But let's say you're not worried about pressing the reset button and reorienting the reader. Let's say everybody already knows why Larry abandoned Nessie for Ogopogo. In that case, a simple clause indicating time and space might be all you need.

Larry shielded his eyes against the bright spring sunshine glinting off the surface of Okanagan Lake.

Boom. One sentence, all action, no exposition, and yet we know the time and place after reading it. Or maybe you're a traditionalist and prefer an adverb clause.

When Larry reached the daffodil-covered shores of Okanagan Lake, ...

This is an expositional transition, and it's brief enough that it won't drag on the pacing. In ten words, we get the new time and space. It might be enough information.

What you probably want to avoid, unless it's strictly necessary for reader comprehension, is a long run of exposition like this.

Okanagan Lake was a deep lake with two islands. Because of the temperate but rainy climate, Larry knew he would need a different equipment and clothing. He shopped for two days to gather waterproof fleece pullovers and windbreakers, new rubber boots, waterproof matches, and a supply of his favorite Scottish tea, which he was pretty sure would be rare in rural British Columbia. The hardest part was deciding which camera equipment to pack. He only wanted to have one suitcase and one carry-on, but the equipment took a lot of space. But he would only be there a few days. He did pack some extra socks in case it rained on the boat and tossed in his favorite copy of a Douglas Adams book to read on the plane. Maybe this trip would be a complete waste of time, but at least he arrived in Vernon with everything he needed.

These kinds of blocks at the beginnings of scenes are almost always worth cutting or trimming. Notice how much of the text summarizes things that happen in the moments between the last scene's ending and this scene's beginning. Shopping and packing are usually dull events, so we wouldn't want to convert this passage into actual scenes if nothing dramatic happens. But if they're dull, guess what's also going to be dull? This info dump of a transition. If for some reason we need to plant the notion that Larry packed specially for this trip and bought new gear, we can reference it in an adverb clause transition.

After two days of shopping and packing, Larry arrived at Okanagan Lake with more than he probably needed.

And then, if the extra pair of socks is necessary to the action of a future scene, you can probably just have him change his socks then and there without a lot of explanation. If it's relevant to character or theme, maybe you would have Larry think about the cautious packing when he changes his socks.

He stripped off his sodden footwear with silent gratitude that he had remembered to pack extra socks.

But this depends on whether the detail is the kind of detail that needs to be set up in advance. Packing extra socks for outdoor adventures in a wet climate is probably not remarkable enough to require set-up. But again, this is one of those things that is highly book-specific.

So, to answer your question: Depends on the book, depends on the scene, and depends on the author's goals. But it's usually best to keep start-of-scene transitions brief.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Exposition, Not Dialogue

Yesterday, among other things, we looked at a sample passage of description and discussed why it was description and not exposition. Today, I want to show you a paragraph in which dialogue is replaced with exposition in the form of narrative summary. This is from a story called "Gryphon" by Charles Baxter that has to do in part with a substitute teacher talking to students.

She talked for forty minutes straight. There seemed to be less connection between her ideas, but the ideas themselves were, as the dictionary would say, fabulous. She said she had heard of a huge jewel, in what she called the Antipodes, that was so brilliant that when the light shone into it at a certain angle, it would blind whoever was looking at its center. She said that the biggest diamond in the world was cursed and had killed everyone who owned it, and that by a trick of fate it was called the Hope diamond. Diamonds are magic, she said, and this is why women wear them on their fingers, as a sign of the magic of womanhood. Men have strength, Miss Ferenczi said, but no true magic. That is why men fall in love with women but women do not fall in love with men: they just love being loved. George Washington had died because of a mistake he made about a diamond. Washington was not the first true President, but she did say who was. In some places in the world, she said, men and women still live in the trees and eat monkeys for breakfast. Their doctors are magicians. At the bottom of the sea are creatures thin as pancakes which have never been studied by scientists because when you take them up to the air, the fish explode.

You might think this is dialogue, but it's not. It's a condensed, representative version of a 40-minute ramble from a substitute teacher. It might or might not contain exact quotes from her speech -- we can't be sure which sentences might have fallen as-is from her lips and which are the schoolboy's representation of the teacher's words. Because really, even if some of these words are verbatim, they're all part of the schoolboy's rendering of the speech.

This works as a technique for the purposes of this story because nobody wants to read a verbatim record of the entire 40-minute speech. So instead, Baxter chose to use narrative summary, which takes events on the story's true timeline and compresses them in to a smaller space. This way, we don't have tons of page space being consumed by a rambling monologue, but we still get the full flavor in this "highlight reel" type of compressed version. This is a rather long patch of narrative summary, so Baxter leads us into it carefully with some explanatory notes at the beginning (also exposition). And he peppers the passage with "she said" and other reminders that this is not the actual speech, but the boy's recollection of it.

If it had been written as actual dialogue, not only would it be substantially longer, but it would be in quotation marks to indicate that these are the true words spoken aloud by the character. It might look, in part, like this:

"I've heard of a huge jewel in the Antipodes," the teacher said, "that is so brilliant that when the light shines into it at a certain angle, it will blind whoever is looking at its center. The biggest diamond in the world is cursed and has killed everyone who owned it. By a trick of fate it is called the Hope diamond. Diamonds are magic, and this is why women wear them on their fingers, as a sign of the magic of womanhood. Men have strength, but no true magic. That is why men fall in love with women but women do not fall in love with men: they just love being loved."

This still feels like a bit of a ramble, but we lose the sense of time unfolding slowly as these stories about diamonds are told to the children. But doing it as Baxter did serves two goals: it enhances the sense of time passing, and it avoids weighting down the pace with a long but accurate representation of the actual dialogue.

So, here's the thing. The same basic story elements are being conveyed in the original and in my partial modification. A teacher is talking about diamonds, sharing legends and fables about diamonds in either case. The difference is not in the story content but in the narrative element being used to present the story. This is the cool thing about narrative. It's very flexible in how it can convey story.

The trick is learning how to manipulate those elements in a way that has the best impact on the reader. Ordinarily, we would urge you to avoid long runs of exposition. But here, in this case, compressing the dialogue into exposition was a good choice. So I wanted to share this for two reasons, first to give you practice in seeing the difference between exposition and dialogue, and second, to show you one place where the general guideline was rightly ignored.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Question from the Comments

This is a really good question from Chemist Ken. It was posed on one of Alicia's posts, but I'm going to take it because this is a pet topic of mine.

I have a question about the sample text you wrote:

The grotto was ancient and long-forgotten, the mossy ground soft and rotting underfoot. The tiny pond was filmed with algae, and the air stank with the smell of the stagnant water. Even the rustle of the wind over the water was hushed and abashed.

Would that sentence or series of sentences be considered telling? I'm still confused by the concept.

 You're not alone in this confusion, Ken. The rule sometimes referred to as "Show, Don't Tell" is a shorthand way of advising against the use of exposition. Exposition is a narrative element, a way to categorize the words on the page, which basically refers to text that compresses, summarizes, explains, or otherwise reduces story material into condensed passages. We all learn expository writing in school, so for even the best fiction writers, we sometimes lapse into exposition almost as a default style in places.

Some exposition is necessary in every text. Micro-exposition (things like dialogue tags, thought tags, transitions, and other tiny bits of exposition) are key ingredients in good writing. The trick is not whether you have exposition, but how you use it. Here are some general rules of thumb for exposition.

  • Avoid long runs of exposition.
  • Avoid using exposition in place of action, dialogue, or description.
  • Make sure the interior monologue is actually interior monologue and not exposition.
  • Make sure the opening of your novel is as exposition-free as possible. (By "opening," I mean the chunk of text from page one until the start of the rising action, usually a few scenes, a few chapters, maybe 10-25% ish of the text, depending on story)
  • When you have to use exposition, keep it as brief as possible.
  • Exposition in the form of narrative summary (compressed events within the story's real time line) is useful for shorthanding trivial or repetitive action. But it should be kept as brief as possible.
  • Use action beats in place of expository dialogue tags.
  • If you're writing in a subjective point of view, eliminate expository thought tags.
I could go on. In fact, I could probably write a post on each of these points, and maybe I will. The point is that the use and misuse of exposition is a broad and complex subject, and "Show, Don't Tell" has become a shorthand rule of thumb for handling exposition.

But Alicia's sample is not exposition. It's description. Description is not "telling" in the same way exposition is, but description does contain its own set of pitfalls. For one, it can be static. If you look at Alicia's example, all three of her sentences contain a verb of being, "was," in some form or other. This is a static word -- not to be confused with passive voice, no matter how many times good-intentioned people insist that verbs of being are passive voice. The confusion on that point stems from this: Static verbs are the opposite of active verbs, and passive voice is the opposite of active voice. "Active" is used to name both things, so people sometimes think "passive voice" refers both to the type of verb and to the type of sentence structure. It does not.

In any case, although we generally say that active verbs are better than static verbs, this is anything but a hard and fast rule. Sometimes we want the emphasis in a sentence to be on something other than the verb, so a quiet little verb of being or appearance can help you accomplish that. Sometimes an active verb is so overused that it becomes worthless -- reach, pull, push, move, look, gaze, stare, and many more besides these, although active, have become associated with weak writing merely because they are repeated so frequently.

So, in Alicia's example, where she was trying to convey a still, dead, stagnant wilderness area, the description relied on static verbs. This makes sense. But if she'd been trying to describe a school playground at recess, more active verbs might have worked better.

I know I'm throwing a lot of concepts into a single post, and I hope it's not confusing. But I thought it would be better to do a comprehensive, if short, answer.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Abstract from concrete

Was watching the waves collide and crash today. (Yes, at beach. Lovely.) And I remembered how mathematicians and physicists extrapolated all sorts of complex stuff from ocean waves. They looked at the concrete, real, or natural, and came up with something abstract.

That made me think about-- yes, even on a beach, I am thinking about things to blog :)-- how in fiction, the abstract also grows out of the real.  I'm thinking of motivation and conflict here.  We start with something concrete and external, and then as the story goes on and we get to know the character, the abstract is revealed. But the external/concrete is a clue to the internal/abstract.

This is one thing, I think, that distinguishes popular fiction-- the external plot is a way to manifest the internal problem. Example-- Well, let's say I'm thinking of this protagonist and I know that his major internal motivation is a fear of failure.  That's abstract-- it's real in that it exists, but it's not obvious and probably not something he would be able to articulate.  "I have an outsized fear of failure:" no, he probably wouldn't say that.

But we can show something real like the ocean wave, crashing into his life and making him act. So maybe he's got some big job promotion coming up, and he suddenly quits the job so he never gets promoted. The question the reader will have is "why? Why quit just when you're about to achieve so much?" The answer is more abstract and will be revealed later-- he is afraid (if only subconsciously) that the promotion will launch him into a job he can't do, and will fail at. His act of quitting was an early, concrete representation of his fear of failure.

So... try that. Real/concrete/external early. Manifests the  internal/abstract which is revealed later.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Today at Romance University

We're starting a new line editing series at Romance University today. If you send in the first 2 or so pages of your manuscript, I will line edit them and explain what I would change and why I would change it. Take a look at today's column to see what you would be in for if you volunteered your pages. Editor Gina Bernal (currently with Carina, formerly with, um, Ballantine? can't remember) will be alternating months with me, so this should be a lot of fun. I don't know how they're choosing which pages go to which editor, but Gina is very talented, so you would be in good hands with her, too.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Jody Wallace, who sent in the pages for the column today, is a Red Sage author. I never had the pleasure of editing her when I worked there, but I certainly kept my eye on her and her projects. It was fun for me to be able to dig into her prose myself. 

On a side note, thank you to everyone who has sent good wishes to my mom for a speedy recovery. It's been a difficult, stressful time, but the good news is that she will make a full recovery.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Another Oddity

Just one of those odd constructions.

"That academic article used so much jargon. I didn't understand 20% of it!"

Okay. How much did I actually understand?

A. 80%.
B.  Less than 20%.

What if I would have added "even?"

"That academic article used so much jargon. I didn't understand even 20% of it!"

What if I would have done this as most people would with the "even" before the verb?

"That academic article used so much jargon. I didn't even understand 20% of it!"

When I said this, I meant that I understood less than 20%, but the friend I was speaking to assumed I meant I understood 80%.
Just an oddity, but to be precise, I would have to probably add the "even"-- "even 20%."

And we should be more precise in our writing than our speaking, right? I sure hope so, because obviously in speaking, I'm imprecise!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reporting back on "Freebies"

I promised a report back on putting a book up for free on Kindle. Now my publisher has done this successfully for my standard-published book-- seriously. Coming off the few free days last Xmas and this, the book sailed into the top 100 paid in Kindle (the first year into the top 5), and into the top 10 for the genre. But I am not sure it works that well for individual direct publishing.

Still, I gave it a try for one book. To do this as a direct publisher on Kindle (other platforms work differently), you have to join the "Select" program which means Kindle has the book exclusively for 90 days.  I did it with a book I'd just put up without much history attached, figuring I don't yet have much of a sales record with the other platforms, so I wouldn't be losing much. This program lets you put the book as free for up to 5 days.  I put it free for 2 days, then returned it to the standard price.

Results: Still coming. I sold -- actually sold, not free-- about 50 copies (a lot so far for me) of the book in the week after it went free. Also I sold 20 copies of the "prequel" to the book and about 50 copies of other books of the same genre I had for sale. Not the sort of revenue to fund my next trip to England, but better than I had been doing before.  So it was worthwhile.

There were about 2500 free downloads (in contrast to last year, when my free book got 100K downloads-- but there weren't so many free books then). I think Kindle owners (esp ones who got the Kindle for Xmas) were trying to get books for free while they could, and saved them to read later. (That's what I do, anyway.)  So far, I have almost no new reviews on the book site, which is disspiriting. But maybe those will come.

So here are my thoughts, what I did right and wrong. Understand, YMMV, and all that, also I think this should have a long tail and could be months before all the benefits are realized (so I hope).
1. I chose the book pretty wisely. It's a good book, well-written, representative of the genre (Regency) but not confined to it. (There's Shakespeare and adventure for those non-genre fans who dl'ed it.)
2. The book is a sequel to another book already up for sale, so I put a note in the end that if they want to find out how two secondary characters met, they should buy (title). I think that led to a sudden spurt in sales of the second book.
3. I have several books for sale. If someone reads the free book and wants to read more of my work, they can quickly (immediately) buy the others.  I had a list of the other books there at the end of the book and a link to my Kindle bibliography page.  Some authors put their first book up for free to  "build name recognition," but I think we're all into instant gratification these days, and will be disappointed if there are no more books available, and might not remember the name a few months later.
4. I wish I would have put a short (1 page maybe) excerpt from another book in the end of the free one. Not the first page, maybe, but an exciting later moment.
5. I did put a pleasant "author's note" in the end, asking them to review the book on Amazon if they liked it because that really helps an author. Clearly, so far, this has had no effect. :)  But I do think we might need to work on helping readers to want to review!
6. I also included a bio with my website, blog, and email info. Again, I'm hoping to make readers feel benevolent towards me!
7. I am going to work more on the blurbs/descriptions. The great thing about direct e-publishing is that for almost no cost (the book isn't available for sale for a few hours), you can fix or change almost anything. The Indie Romance list I'm on has been discussing how many "buyers" of the free books are annoyed at the bad writing and editing of many of them and are coming to assume that free books are lousy. Well, maybe if I put in my blurb that the book is by a "RITA-award winner and bestseller," they will have more confidence that at least it will be a literate read.
8. Two days was a good amount of time. However, the downloads really tapered off the second day, so I can imagine that one day free won't have that different a result. We shall see-- will investigate.

So... worth trying anyway, at least if you have several books up for sale.
Next time I'm going to try putting out a short story on "permanent free," as a loss leader to attract the sort of readers who will like my other books. Some said that readers don't like short stories (even free?), so I'm trying to get together a Regency anthology, free, that each of us would place on our sites to promote all our works.

Anyway, we'll see. I know it CAN work because it worked with my standard publication. So let's see how well it helps get my name out there to my targeted reader.

Anyone else trying this method?

Monday, January 16, 2012

When to use modifiers

Just a minor note as I edit this chapter-- I'm a firm believer in making use of modifiers. Pace, EB White! The language wouldn't have evolved to have adjectives and adverbs if they weren't useful!

However, even I think too much is, well, too much. Sometimes a modifier is an unnecessary and distracting amplification of what's already there.  For example, I had:
Felicity slid the heavy box to the floor and used her foot to push it down the hall.

Well, obviously, if she has to push it with her foot, it's heavy. So I don't need the "heavy."

That said, I'm editing a Regency in the Georgette Heyer tradition.
The sort of stripped down style that might be fashionable now and useful for fast-paced adventure novel won't work in a more leisurely, "voice-driven" social comedy.  That's why we all (including me :) must be careful about issuing edicts about what constitutes effective writing. After all, what is effective in one kind of book might not work in another. I can't even imagine trying to write any comedy, especially social comedy, without adjectives and adverbs (which, because they "modify," carry much of the humor), but more than a couple absolutely essential modifiers will slow down an action book.  Multiple point-of-view will probably destroy the character identification needed for a psychological drama, but will add to the suspense perhaps of a thriller.  With the rise of the internet and the many niches created (knitting mysteries, Midwestern white bread family sagas :), it's more important than ever to know the type of book and what the readers above all enjoy about this sort of book.  What a non-historical saga reader might consider a distraction might be exactly what the typical historical saga reader loves most.

So whatever rules we all espouse aren't really rules-- just thought points that might not be relevant to your story, but might inspire some consideration which might help you enhance aspects of your own voice.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Making use of the tools at hand

When we come to the end of the book and want to wrap things up and resolve the conflict and finish the theme, a technique that can help "coherence" is making use of the tools-- motifs, objects, and patterns-- that we've set up earlier in the book.  This can help connect the ending to the rest of the book and make the climax feel more 'fitting," more like it really finishes this book and not just, oh, a generic mystery.

For example, that play I just saw by August Wilson, Golf Radio, has two "connectors" in the end.  Earlier, a secondary character had used paint to mark himself (the paint was itself an important prop, as the character was painting with it a house set for demolition, and so the paint symbolized sort of a futile action).  The character marks his face like a Hollywood Indian going into battle, to the amusement and horror of the main character Harmond (who is set to demolish the building).  Later, in the last scene, Harmond also paints his face as he leaves his office to join the forces protesting the demolition. The face-paint shows that he has chosen to fight for the right, and not just the legal, but also connects back to the earlier character and shows how far Harmond has come from despising that man and his quest.

Second is the "radio." Each scene in the play starts with the local radio station coming on with the traffic and weather and what's going on in the Black community that day.  The radio station is bought during the fourth act, by a predatory businessman who is trying to exploit Harmond's partner by putting him as the "local face" of the new ownership. The implication is that the radio station is going to stop covering the community and become some sort of generic Clear Channel clone.  I was wondering how the ending would deal with this, as the play had set up that each morning of the story starts with the radio coming on.  (Groundhog Day uses the same effective technique.)  The playwright understood, however, how to make use of the tools at hand, and has the radio announcer announce the "paint party" at the protest site, showing (I think) that the community radio is still tuned in to the community, and also that Harmond's old partner might actually be undermining his new boss.

Anyway, whenever we make use of the tools we've used earlier, we're adding to the coherence of the story. More than that, even without consciously trying, we're showing the change in character and the development of the theme since the last time in the story that the tool was used. The reader understands that all scenes using this tool are linked, and that the differences between how the tool is used or the effect it has will manifest a new meaning.

Give it a try.  The parellelity of the scenes using the tools actually creates meaning and subtext, whether we're conscious of it or not.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Another little ebook revelation: The format dictates in part the content

If I notice anything more, I'll try and let you know.  It's funny how the medium can affect the message! Well, I guess someone else came up with that formulation before I did.
I'm really interested in how paragraphs organize information in fiction. It's not as apparent as in non-fiction, but as an editor, I've gotten really sensitive to what belongs in a paragraph, and what should start a new paragraph. Will shorter paragraphs affect this? I don't know. I know writers think mostly one-sentence paragraphs are more "forceful" and "fast-paced," and they get mad when I say it makes stories sound juvenile and bombastic-- all assertion (topic sentence) and no evidence (rest of paragraph)!
Oh, one other thing about e-reading-- it's much harder to "flip back" to an earlier point in an ebook. (This is also true in audiobooks. I think if I missed something, oh, well. Too much trouble to find it.) I wonder if this will mean that we writers will get a bit more CLEAR in our narration, driving home important points. I wonder what this will do to mysteries, where hiding clues is the whole point.
However, ebooks do allow searching (though that feature can be cumbersome). And you can highlight interesting lines and-- here's the wild part-- see what others have highlighted, so as you read, you can see what captured the attention of other readers. I can't say whether this makes reading more communal or just less thoughtful. ("Oh, this must be important! Everyone says so!")
Amazon actually collects the most "highlighted lines" in books that have been out a while and puts them on the book sale page. I was interested to know what lines of mine captured the reader's attention. I think they can also highlight words and get a definition.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Not so brilliant observation about ebooking

Minor thought here as I once again wander into the labyrinth that is formatting a ms for e-publication:

I think long paragraphs aren't going to work well in ebooks. So many are read on electronic readers like Kindle, even on phones. and the font size is adjustable. So anyway, there are fewer words on a "page" or screen than we'd have on the average print page. (I'd say an average of about 200 rather than 300 words per "page"-- I say "page" because ebooks aren't really paginated like print books because the reader can change the font size, rendering page numbers unhelpful.)  So a really long paragraph will fill one screen and into the next. That's visually confusing to the reader.  So that's what I'm noticing right off-- shorter, or at least "non-longer," paragraphs. That has interesting implications, the paragraph being the way a writer organizes information bits. So ... maybe information is going to be broken into smaller bits. (That's already happened because paperback books have smaller pages than hardbacks-- compare, say, a Henry James paragraph with a Barbara Kingsolver one.)

That's as much wisdom as I can muster now. :)


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book for free-

Just for today, Poetic Justice is a free download on Amazon (you don't need a Kindle). Please go ahead and download and if you enjoy the book, leave a review! (And "like" the book for me?)
Let's see if putting a book up for free actually helps sales at all. An experiment!
 I'll report back on the success or failure therein.   

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Your author blog or website

This one comes from the FAQ file. People often ask me whether I looked at author websites and blogs when making acquisitions decisions. I did. I still do that sometimes with prospective clients to get a feel for where they are in their careers. And that's really the point, isn't it? You use your author site to lure people in, and I look at it to see how you've baited the hook. So here, I'm going to relate some of the specific questions I've been asked over the years about how (not whether) I look at author sites.

Do you have preferences for colors, images, layouts, and the like?

I interpret this type of question as a plea for guidance on style choices. Will particular style choices -- an orange background versus a green background, two columns versus three, etc. -- impact the way people view the site? The answer is both yes and no. If the layout and graphics appear professional and communicate a brand or type, that was a point in favor.

It sometimes happened that the blog or website would look sort of patched-together and sloppy, like something straight of of 1996 DIY-pagemaking, complete with sparkly Myspace-style graphics. This always baffled me because it's so easy, in this day of templates and pre-fab graphics, to make it look good with little effort and expense. For the record, I'm not talking about particular color preferences or other visual aspects that would appeal to me on a personal level. I'm talking about things that looked like errors on the page, like text that scrolls on top of graphics (when the graphics should scroll with the text instead of remaining static). (By the way, yes, I did once reject an author after seeing her very awkward website. I was on the fence about the submission and might have rejected it anyway, but the website was what tilted me toward a no.)

With that said, it's important to keep in mind that people do respond negatively to things like music that plays in the background. Certain colors, like orange, are more likely to draw strong love it/hate it responses. Certainly, it helps to pay attention to that sort of thing, but don't get crazy with it. I once knew a woman who spent months -- literally, months -- researching color preferences and color therapy and searching for particular graphics for her website. When the website finally launched, the internal links didn't work properly. Her time would have been better spent learning html than learning the demographic breakdowns of responses to an orange-red versus a blue-red. Keep your eye on the prize! The goal is to create a working site which will appeal to readers of your type of story.

What if there's a typo?

I'll let you in on a little secret. Editors live in a land of typos, missing commas, wordy clauses, and other niggling errors. Obviously, we want everything to arrive on our desks in perfect condition. But we don't anticipate that happening. So make your text as clean as possible, and make it internally consistent on style and usage points, and don't stress too much about debatable points. Chances are, no matter what you do, we'll edit it in our heads as we read it anyway. That's just what we do. It's not you. It's us.

But if the text is flat, poorly written, or otherwise a poor representative of someone's writing skills, that's a point against. But this can go beyond the basic typo/crappy writing thing. Think of it this way. You're a writer. Your blog or website should showcase your writing skills. I once saw a website where all the content was aggregated blog posts from other sites, quotes, and the like. The content was selected well and presented well, and the writer had obviously spent some careful thought on what to include and how to include it. However, it was still a point against, because my first thought was, "This one can't even write her own web page." This is not the impression you want to make, is it? That said, a few judicious quotes or other outside references can add personality to a page. Just remember that the overall goal is to communicate something about you, the writer. (For the record, I've never rejected someone for having occasional minor errors in the website or manuscript. But I have rejected writers whose blogs were just plain bad throughout.)

Do you need your own domain name? What if you just use a freebie platform?

There might be a split of opinion here. On the one hand, who cares what shows up in the address bar? That's not really important. As long as people can find your page, they probably won't care if the words wordpress or blogger show up in the address. On the other hand, it's probably a good idea to grab domain names so that you can't be prevented from using them later, should you want them. I can't make a website under my own name because other people own those domains. This is not something that puts joy in my heart.

When we set up this blog four years ago, we chose blogger because it was free and easy to use. I had been using it myself for a few years at that point for a couple of other projects, and I knew Alicia would be able to pick it up quickly. In any case, I'm not going to fault an author for using a free platform when we made the same choice here. (I have never rejected an author because of their url, but I have gotten some giggles out of the strange email addresses people choose.)

How important is the bio/background/bookshelf stuff?

Pretty important, actually. When I go to an author's page, other than the general impression made by design and content, I was looking for specific things.
  • Had the author published? If so, where? When? How many books?
There are two basic reasons to look for this information. The first is so we can see sales history (such as Bookscan data, when available), and the second is so we can see what kind of work and work process might be familiar to you. Some houses are known for building strong authors. Harlequin, for example -- it's always a pleasure to work with authors who have experience there because they have a great professionalism about the process. Something about the culture there promotes this attitude, so I always viewed Harlequin experience positively.

  • Is there a platform?
This is really not as important for fiction authors, but it doesn't hurt. Platform can give the sales department a way of positioning your book. "This forensic analyst has written a crime thriller." That sort of thing. Platform is a point in favor, but it's not strictly necessary. Your website itself might even be your platform, depending on what we see happening there.

  • Do I think I might like working with this person?
This is the subjective factor, and there's not much you can do about it except try to come across like a basically decent person on your website. Whether your vibe is fun and playful or serious and scholarly is not as important as whether you seem like someone who will make the process pleasant. Or at least avoid making it unpleasant.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Switching senses

When you're in a character's point of view, you're probably observing the world through those "spectacles". What Joan experiences in the scene is what we narrate, right?  So her sensory perceptions provide the details of the description you make of the setting and the experience of the events. We feel with her body; we see through her eyes.

But as we all know from our own lives, the experience of a new place/time isn't always coherent and understandable. Some sensory input leads to overload immediately (smell, sound, and pain-- notice how when we are overwhelmed with one of these, we close our eyes). Sometimes the different senses come in sequence-- we might be more audial and so figure out what we're hearing before we figure out what we're seeing.

Anyway, in a scene, we have to narrate the experience in a reader-comprehensible way.  That might mean going back and forth between an inward experience ("she was overwhelmed by the din of the band,") and a more sequential and more mechanical chronological ("when she could hear again, she looked around and..."). But something that will help this feel more natural to the reader is to take care in switching between senses, with an action bridge easing the transit so that the experience is more than just an explosion of synesthesia (a confusion of the senses, so that the input doesn't result in the expected output, so you "feel" color and "smell" sound).

 Here's an example of how -not- to do this, with several sensory experiences jammed in together without a transition--

His nose was assaulted by the garlic fragrance while a Joy Formidable song played loudly in the background. In the corner a black-and-white Snoopy dog lay chewing on a toy.  Sunbeams streamed in through the open window.

There's no focus there, no connection, no experience. Whoever "he" is stops mattering as the sensory details just occur as if they are not being experienced by anyone, as if they're merely discrete occurrences. The reader is going to have a hard time assembling this into a place or experience. This is, btw, the sort of description that readers skip. They probably sense that it's just a pro forma description, dutifully put in there because scenes are supposed to have description.

So as you edit, consider rewriting such passages to actually create an experience. Some suggestions:

1. Think of this as a moment, a special moment. And choose it well. You don't have to describe the sensory experience of every moment-- that would be way boring-- so choose the moments you want the sensory to, if only momentarily, dominate. Have a purpose then for bringing in the sensory now, describing this moment.

2. The most important moment for the senses is at a shift in setting (when she leaves the hallway and enters the office, say, or goes outside), and when something in the setting changes, like another person enters it, or the tea kettle catches on fire. So whenever there's some change, particularly when the character moves from one setting into another, take a bit of time to describe the new experience. Many scenes will probably start then with a short unified paragraph about the new place. That sets the context for the reader, shows that there's been a change, and provides a way for the reader to experience the scene as if she's there. Describe the change, not just the setting.

3. Put it in someone's point of view. Really. This doesn't mean just sticking in the character name or pronoun (his nose). It means showing this character experiencing this.  That means considering who this character is and describe what he'd notice-- as he notices it.  If in fact he notices in a sort of scattershot way, all sorts of sensory input arriving at about the same moment, say so-- but make it important. Make it signify something about him or the moment he's in: The room was chaos. He couldn't breathe because of the garlic fumes; he couldn't hear anything over the pounding of the CD player. ... Most important, think of how he would experience it. Most of us have a dominant sense, and most experiences have a dominant "feel". What is that? If it's too loud for him to hear, that's likely to be predominant, so say that first maybe. If he's a musician, or loves or hates this band, he's going to have a different reaction than a tone-deaf Sinatra fan. Describe this person's experience, not a sort of generic set of sensory inputs.

4. Link the description to some danger or threat or awareness or emotion. The primary evolutionary reason we have most of our senses (especially smell) is to warn us of danger. Now of course every moment isn't dangerous, but our senses don't know that.  Think of what in the scene needs to be noticed (again, especially when something changes-- we don't usually notice when they stay the same).  If the picture of his mother on the wall is crooked... if a draft is coming in under the door... if the floor is gritty under his feet... those are things he probably couldn't help but notice and mentally remark.

5. You can have one sense dominate. That is, forget that about making sure all five senses are represented. That's mechanical and boring. Go into the experience and think about what it feels like. If she's leaving a dark movie theater and going out into a bright afternoon, for that moment, maybe the visual dominates. Talk about what the experience of dark to bright is like first. You can have her awareness expand as her eyes adjust, but thrusting in the lingering taste of popcorn at this moment will detract from the more primary sense.

6. What do you want it to MEAN? Do you want this to echo some emotion in the character? If she's angry, everything will be objectionable, including the lingering smell of her husband's aftershave. If he's feeling oppressed by a dream he had of his mother's funeral, the crooked portrait of her might amplify his sense of dread. If in fact the crooked painting is a clue that someone's been in the room searching for the papers he's hidden, show that awareness dawning in his head as he sees the painting. You can fill in the blanks around the meaningful bit, like she also angrily notices that the faucet is dripping again.

7. Think cause and effect. The sensory bit causes the character to do something, or he notices it as an effect of something he does. It's not just happening in some static between-worlds moment, but inside a scene where things are happening. Link it to action, maybe-- what he experiences as he moves through the scene or interacts with the setting. He notices that the floor is gritty because/as he walks over to the painting. Not every sensory bit has to be linked to action, but try that first. So he -stops in the doorway- and sees the room. He smells the garlic and waves it away with his hand, or goes to open the window. This will keep the scene moving, and the narrative focused on action.

8. Don't overdo it. Restricting yourself, say, to a paragraph of pure description might seem artificial, and feel free to break any self-set rule when appropriate. But having a guideline in mind will help you be selective about what you choose to describe. Everything isn't equally important, so decide what is important, and that's first and foremost going to be what is meaningful-- what reflects or causes emotion, what shows a change or threat, what he encounters as he moves through the scene.

9. Read writers who do this well and figure out what they're doing right.  Too many writers think of sensory description as a chore-- I know I do-- and so do it perfunctorily to get it over with. But some writers use the sensory moments as a way to convey something in a new and interesting way.  Analyze why you enjoyed this passage, how this writer focused, what the meaning was and how it was conveyed, how the language, sentencing, and paragraphing enhanced the passage.

10. If you're going to shift from one sense to another, try to make it graceful and organic. For example, group like-sensories together.  In the first paragraph or series of sentences, group the visual. In the next, the audial. Find a way to unify. Also, find a way to mark the shift with a transition of some kind. Action here can help as a transition. He stops in the doorway to look at the room (visual). When he notices the crooked painting, he moves towards it and notices the grit under his feet (tactile). Or use a time marker to start the sentence of new input-- "When his ears stopped ringing (audial), he took a deep breath and for the first time noticed the faint tinny smell."  The transition helps unify the different sensory bits, so they don't seem so willy-nilly.
If you're going to describe more than a couple sentences worth, consider a paragraph break when you shift from one sense to another. If that leaves you with a couple one-sentence paragraphs, well, deepen the experience. Say more about what he sees or what it means, so you have more than one sentence in that paragraph! 

The problem, of course, is that we do experience sensory input willy-nilly. In real life, our bodies and brains sort it out immediately. But  when we write, we don't have any way to convey that immediacy and totality. We're bound by the march of words down the page, the temporal limitation that only one word can happen at a time. We have to accept that limitation and make the experience as coherent and meaningful as possible within the restrictions of narrative and prose.  And that does probably mean focusing on the character's experience, but parsing it so the accretion and sequence of input helps create the experience for the reader and adds to the meaning within the scene.

What are some other techniques you use to focus the description and make it understandable?

New Year's Resolutions

It's sort of disspiriting to make NY resolutions after realizing that last year's are unachieved. (I have got to stop resolving to organize my office, because apparently it's never going to happen!)

But who has got a writing-related NY resolution?  What do you want to do, achieve, conquer this year?


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Grandma was right-- write thank you notes!!

I did a workshop last month because a friend was coordinating it. It was one of those county library things, and she finagled $250 for me. I'd taken some of the POV books and ended up giving them away because I didn't want to carry them home (and I bought 300 copies when they were remaindered, so I have many).  Anyway, here I gave all these attendees books that would have cost them $20, and ran out before one guy got one, so I mailed him one. The book cost me $3, the mailing $5. I received, clearly, very little for having done so, but I am a very nice person. :)
NOT ONE THANKS. Nothing. They all had my email, and didn't bother. Weird. The husband said, "Well, it's because you gave it to them free. Some people don't appreciate anything they don't pay for."
Okay, I am the least diva person you'll find (really- ask Theresa). I don't expect a lot. But I was sort of appalled that no one in this big group of writers thought to send me a thank-you email for a FREE BOOK.
It costs nothing to send a "thank you" email.  You'll get points in heaven, but even beyond that, really-- think ahead. Let's say I give you a free book... or free advice... or a free critique... and never hear from you.  Then you sell a book and want a blurb. Or you want a recommendation to graduate school. Or you want me to do a blog post for you. If I don't associate your name with something pleasant like a thankyou note, how likely do you think a letter of rec is???
This was brought to mind by someone who did send a note, and I'm going to blurt out her triumph as soon as I have some more info. But just in case you're wondering... email LEONA for more info. :)

Writing for audio

Someone I know just signed a contract for one of her books to "go audio"--- be turned into an audiobook. That got me wondering if we should think about audio when writing or revising.  Does anyone else listen to auidobooks?

I read terribly aloud-- I mean, embarrassingly so. So I try never to do a
reading and will resist it to the end.

However, I'm an audible.com subscriber, and I think I've learned a few
things from listening to a few hundred audiobooks.

First, if you ever hope to "go audio," don't tag every line of dialogue.
Every other line will do and will sound better.

Also, if you sell to audio, provide a pronunciation guide for any
non-normal word. The reader won't be offended.

Other tips? Shorter sentences?