Monday, December 31, 2007

Access Limited

Alicia says--

I'm down in Florida visiting the in-laws, and they have (gasp) only dial-up, so I won't be posting much. I actually have to drive out to the Holiday Inn and sit in the parking lot with my laptop to use my wireless. (Thank you, Holiday Inn. :) So back this weekend, and I'm sure I'll have more to say then.

Just a note to remind myself--
Pinker-- transitive and intransitive.

Voice/narration and all that-- nothing coherent

Alicia says--
Well, Theresa, I think I "hear" that passage in a growly voice, not my own. But I listen to audiobooks all the time, and all the "voices" in an audiobook are performed by one reader, and he/she often changes tone or accent to fit the narrator, without of course changing his/her own voice. The male reader, for example, raises his voice a bit to signify that he's "being" a woman character, but otherwise I think tries to replicate more closely the other markers of this character-- the accent and the diction and attitude and mood. The best readers are really artists at this.

Anyway, I think since I've started listening to audiobooks, my "inner voice" is a lot more varied.
Remind me that I should address the audiobook and how experiencing that reader changes the experience of the book, etc.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

When The Voice In Your Head Is a Demon’s

Alicia, you’re going to love this. Or hate it. Not sure which, but it sure made me laugh.

I’m reading Mister B. Gone, Clive Barker’s new book. It’s about a demon who got trapped in a book and is attempting to persuade or bribe the reader to release him, and it’s really beautifully written. Of course, I always love Clive Barker’s writing, but this one pulls a neat little trick, a metafictional spoof of the old “dear reader” style narrative.

The text alternates between the story -- how the demon grew up, found himself on the human plane, and so on -- and these dear reader bits where the demon addresses the reader directly in an attempt to persuade the reader to burn the book. (Fire is a major motif in the story.)

So, you know how you were talking about the way dialogue sounds in your head when you read it? Here’s what Mr. Barker’s demon narrator has to add to the discussion:

Huh. That makes me wonder -- the idea of me telling you makes me wonder. What do I sound like in your head? Did you give me the voice of somebody you’ve always hated, or someone you love?

Oh wait, do I sound like you? No, do I? That would be weird, that would be so weird. It’d be like I didn’t really exist, except in your head.

I, Mister Jakobok Botch, presently residing inside your skull…

No, I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all, for obvious reasons.

What reasons? Oh, come on, don’t make me spell it out for you, friend. If I do, then I’m going to tell you the truth, and sometimes the truth isn’t pretty. I might bruise your tender human feelings, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

On the other hand, I’m not going to start telling you lies now, not when we’re so close to our little book-burning.

All right, I’ll tell you. I’m just saying that I don’t think anybody in their right mind would think of your head as prime location, that’s all.

Your head’s a slum. I’ve been here long enough to see it for myself. You’re up to your skull lid with dirt and desperation….

Love it.

So what do we think? Did we ever resolve the issue of the way dialogue "sounds" in our heads when we read? I know I "hear" it with a different cadence and tone than the rest of the narrative.

But still it does sound more or less like my speaking voice. Sorry, Mister B, but as long as I'm reading your book, you're more or less stuck with my guttural Chicago accent.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Responses to Comments, First Person Protagonists

Continuing with the theme of your comments and questions~~~

Saralee, who has been lucky enough to take a few classes from my brilliant Blog Co-Queen, says,

Maybe I'm the odd person out here, but I worry far more about my story-telling ability than I do about my grammar and expression skills.Like, I have been told that if you want to use a first-person narrator, that person had better be fascinating. So how do you make that happen? Now I'm all worried that my protagonist is boring because she doesn't jump out of airplanes or perform heart transplants or train seeing-eye dogs or something. (I guess this is more a character question than a POV question).

First, please let me gently suggest that you need both storytelling ability and writing skills. Storytelling can take many forms. You’ve chosen the written word as your medium. If you had chosen, say, film, you would learn technical things about lighting and camera angles and whatever the heck a gaffer does. Those are the tools a filmmaker can use to tell a story, just as the fiction writer’s tools include things like grammar and usage and paragraphing and sentence structure.

But yes, storytelling skills are very important, and we do have plans to do posts on characters, plots, and all the other great narrative elements.

You raise an interesting point about protagonists. I think all protagonists should be interesting, regardless of point of view. But what is it that makes a character interesting? Jane Eyre (a first-person protagonist) didn’t jump out of airplanes or train seeing-eye dogs, and yet she’s an interesting protagonist. Same goes for Anne Elliott from Jane Austen’s Persuasion (third person objective narrator), who is for my money the most interesting of Austen’s heroines. They are both quiet, contemplative characters, but neither is dull.

And what makes Anne Elliott interesting? She’s obedient, long-suffering, mild and forgiving. She lives at home, and then she lives with her sister and takes a few walks, and then she lives in Bath and pays a few social calls. This is not high drama, and those traits are not the qualities we associate with skydiving activists, but in the context of the problems she must solve, these qualities make for a very interesting heroine.

So I guess my suggestion to you is this. Think about your protagonist in the context of your story. What is the source of her suffering? Anne Elliott suffered because she lost the opportunity to marry the man she loved, because her father squandered a fortune, and because her family placed excessive demands on her. What decisions must she make, and what do those choices say about her character? There’s a lovely scene where Anne has plans to meet an old friend, an impoverished widow in failing health. Anne’s father demands she cancel that appointment and attend a more prestigious affair, but Anne refuses. This is a turning point in the story because it shows Anne breaking away from her family, but more important, it shows her starting to follow to her own moral compass.

Is she jumping out of an airplane? No. But she is taking a risk in refusing her father’s demands, and this decision creates change. This is what makes her interesting: she is docile and obedient, but those very qualities are tested by the events of the story. She wants what she cannot have, so there’s a strong conflict in place. And that conflict tests her character.

And this is what makes a character interesting. Not what they do, but how they respond, how they are tested, how they prevail.

First person? Third person? Either way, same rules apply to make a character interesting.

There is a related problem peculiar to first person narratives -- that of pov claustrophobia -- but we'll save that topic for another day. And Alicia should probably be the one to address it because she is our pov authority. :)


Friday, December 28, 2007

More Responses to Comments

About Those Pesky Ellipses

Let’s continue responding to some comments and questions. JanW asks,

Theresa, I've used the three dots in a dream sequence to indicate the scattered nature of the experience from the POV of the character. Would that bother you? I've been consistent and used in all the dream sequences in the book.

Well, this is sort of hard to answer, because the real answer is that it depends on the rest of the writing. A skilled writer of tightly controlled prose can get away with almost anything.

There are times, though, when highly stylized prose is going to be a little easier to accept. When the point-of-view character is in an altered state -- dreaming, drugged, in a trance, whatever -- ellipses and italics and even purple raccoons wearing roller skates will be a bit easier for the reader to process. Ditto for sex scenes in romance fiction, though in that case, maybe someone else should wear the roller skates.

More on Paragraphing Dialogue

When we were talking about dialogue paragraphing, nature nut/jj loch said,

I find it awkward to add dialogue of the same speaker later on in the paragraph.

This is probably because you’ve got some heightened sensitivity to action/reaction dynamics in prose. This is a good thing. Your writing will be better for it.

Storytelling is really just a gussied-up chain of causation. A happened, which caused B reaction, which led to C decision and D event, and so on until you reach the end. In this causal chain, dialogue between characters is generally (but not always) an action requiring a reaction. Jane asks a question, and Joe is standing right there. What will happen if Jane doesn’t let Joe answer but keeps talking herself? Maybe Joe will get mad. Maybe Joe will cut her off and talk over her. Maybe Joe will stop listening to her altogether.

In other words, the fact that she talks *and keeps talking without allowing Joe’s reaction* will itself require some reaction.

Every so often we come across a paragraph which is a whole bunch of dialogue and a whole bunch of action braided together in small bits.

Mary forced herself not to grind her teeth. “I don’t know why you would think you can talk to me like that.” She crossed the carpet and stabbed the air between them with her finger. “You don’t know my family. You don’t know my friends.” She dropped her hand, but clenched her fingers into a fist. “And you certainly don’t know me,” she said, her voice humming with resentment.

(My example, of course.) There are times you can get away with something like that. Maybe you’ve already established that Mary’s target is the laconic type. Or maybe the reader knows he’s voluntarily holding back for some reason or other, or that he’s feeling guilty and consequently is willing to let Mary rant a little bit.

In that case, stretching out the dialogue with a load of stage directions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives the dialogue more heft and gives the writer more opportunity to hammer home Mary’s emotional state.

But if this moment hasn’t been properly set up or if it’s not the kind of moment worthy of this much text, it might read like a bad soliloquy. Mary is clenching and stabbing and grinding and humming. Mary is talking and talking, and her target is just standing there. Doing nothing. Responding? No. He might as well step to the side of the stage while the spotlight shines on her for a moment.

If any of these bits of dialogue or action warrant an immediate response from him, then the passage should be broken up.

Mary forced herself not to grind her teeth. “I don’t know why you would think you can talk to me like that.”

Will’s eyes narrowed over a feral grin. “Because I’m getting what I need even without you. I don’t need you. I know people.”

She crossed the carpet and stabbed the air between them with her finger. “You don’t know my family. You don’t know my friends.” She dropped her hand, but clenched her fingers into a fist. “And you certainly don’t know me,” she said, her voice humming with resentment.

Now the give-and-take highlights the conflict between Will and Mary rather than Mary’s emotional state.

If you want to downplay the moment instead of highlighting it, take out most of the stage direction. Most of it echoes the same emotions -- anger, resentment -- so you can cut it without changing the mood.

“I don’t know why you would think you can talk to me like that. You don’t know my family. You don’t know my friends.” Her voice humming with resentment, Mary stabbed the air between them with her finger. “And you certainly don’t know me.”

Can you see how these little changes shift the focus of the prose?


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Responses to Comments: Gaze and Look

I hope those of you who celebrated the holiday had a wonderful time. Mine was -- well, let’s just say I won’t be cooking again any time soon. Formal dinner for 12 one night, and a buffet supper for 45 the next, with homemade sticky buns for breakfast on Christmas morning. I’m sick of my kitchen and I’m still exhausted!

So to save my poor exhausted brain from having to think too hard, I’m going to take this opportunity to respond to some blog comments and questions. We’ll keep this going for the next few days as I ease back into an upright position.

Good Looking Verbs

This question is from Bethany Michaels, who writes beautifully and doesn’t have to worry so much about these things. (Hmm. Maybe she writes beautifully because she worries about these things?)

One of my problems is that I end up with too many 'gazes'. The only alternatives I can think of are 'stared', 'glared' and plain old 'looked'. Can you suggest some other good 'looking' verbs?

Bethany, some of the other commenters shared your concern about gaze/look/similar verbs, and I know Alicia responded, but I want to take a swing here, too. This is a common problem in manuscripts from writers of all experience levels. There are really two solutions: the easy one and the hard one.

The easy solution is to use a thesaurus and/or dictionary. I know that sounds like a non-answer, but the simple truth is that a thesaurus is an essential tool in the editing/revision process. As is the dictionary. I keep Roget’s at my right elbow and Merriam Webster’s online site open on my desktop while doing any editing. I use more than just these two -- the Oxford thesaurus, for example, is good for quick look-ups because it uses a dictionary format rather than Roget’s word-cluster approach. But Roget’s and M-W are key tools when you’re trying to find better words to punch up your prose.

If you’ve already tried that and still feel you’re overwhelmed with looks and gazes, try substituting other kinds of actions in place of those looks and gazes. Yes, this is the harder solution because it requires rethinking your prose a bit. If you’ve got something like,

She looked at him in exasperation.

Try, instead, using a physical gesture which conveys the same emotion.

Her shoulders tightened as she huffed out a breath.
Or the always popular, near cliche,
She shoved a hand through her hair.

This substitution trick works best when the looking action is not important to the plot. That is, if the look is part of the chain of causation -- she looks out the window and sees the villain skulking in the neighbor’s shrubs -- then you need to keep prose that indicates actual looking.

But even there, you can often edit out the look/gaze verbs if you are deep enough in the character’s point of view. (And if you aren’t deep enough to do this, why aren’t you?)

She twitched aside the curtain. What was that shadow across the street? There, in Mrs. Smith’s roses? A tall man. A hitch in his shoulder. And yes, there it was, that tattered Wildcats jersey. Her assailant had returned.

Because here’s the thing. We’re often not conscious of the fact that we’re looking at people or objects. Usually, we’re only conscious of the people or objects themselves. If you listen closely to your own interior monologue -- the silent soundtrack in your mind -- you’ll realize that you rarely think actual thoughts such as, “I looked out the window.” Your mind is thinking about curtains and shadows and tattered jerseys, but not so much about the fact of looking or gazing.

By my reckoning, I have around five other questions awaiting answers. You’re on deck, folks. I’ll be getting to you in the next few posts. Thanks for asking the questions, by the way, because it sure is making post topics easier during this “off” week.


"Decided to"

Just a funny-- I googled "decided to," hoping that I'd find some erudite quote about why that's bad, but instead got a webpage entitled, "So you decided to turn evil."

There is everything on the web, huh? Even a how-to-be-evil primer!



Alicia says--
Just a short note here, when we're fussing about fussy things. I'm heading out of town, so might not have too much to say.

Want to pontificate on the word "seem". That means, as Archibald MacLeish said of a poem:

A poem should be equal to
Not true

"Seem" means not true, or at least, "not is". When we write, "The postman seemed late," the astute reader is going to think, Aha! The postman isn't really late! He's... dead! Or he's in the house ready to murder the narrator!

That is, the word "seem" is a clue that "all is not how it seems"-- a clue that there is more to the story, that whatever "seems" to be true is not entirely or comprehensively true.

So just be aware that if you use "seem" in your narrative, you're suggesting that the reader perk up and take notice, because whatever "seems" is going to be undercut or proven false or something rather soon.

Now if you don't mean that, if the postman really IS late, use "IS". "The postman was late." The reader will just register the information as factual and not start anticipating something you don't mean.

So that's just another example of how to deal with the sophisticated reader, I guess. You can't get anything past that reader-- she's spending every page looking for little clues you've dropped into your narrative. Don't raise expectations if you don't mean to -- readers like this will be quick to express their disappointment!

"Seems," by the way, is one of those slack terms we -- oh, lord, I almost put in my own favorite slack term, tend to. ... one of those slack terms we tend to drop in to water down our point so that we don't have to actually COMMIT. These are good terms to delete or replace in revision.

(What's wrong with "tend to?" Well, it implies that we don't actually do whatever verb follows that, we just "tend to" do it. "It" isn't something we did, or are going to do, rather it's something that, presumably if the wind is blowing in the right direction, we might do sometimes. Not all the time. Not THIS time necessarily. We're just more likely to do it than not to do it. And that says nothing about this particular time. In fact, this particular time we either do it or we don't do it... so I have to avoid copping out with "tends to.")

Another "wriggle word" is "decided"-- He decided to take the plunge. The question is, well, did he? Did he take the plunge, or just decide to? If you use "decided to" and then don't go on to tell us that he did in fact take the plunge, we're going to assume that somewhere between his decision and the doing something happened to intervene. He decided to take the plunge, but then his old girlfriend came back to town and he got distracted. There's many a slip twixt cup and lip, as they used to say, and "decided to" is like an invitation to the gods to come "twixt" and spill the wine.

The focus in most popular fiction is on the action, not the decision-- the decision is most important when it leads to the action, or when something intervenes. It's definitely not enough to have the character "decide" to do something, because we all know how impermanent and inconclusive decisions are. (I almost typed "tend to be"-- I tell you, it's a narrative tic!)

So... I'm contemplating more about how we inadvertently misdirect readers and set up expectations we don't mean. Later I'll do a post on how opening chapters so often do that.

(BTW, I think it's fine to ADVERTENTLY-- is that a word?-- misdirect readers. As Robert Frost supposedly said, "I want readers to understand me. I just want them to understand me wrong." We just need to know what we're doing, and fix what we don't want to do.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A question for readers---

Alicia said:

Who has read Cold Mountain?

What did you think of the lack of quote marks? (I'd forgotten, having apparently slept through my class on Joyce, that Ulysses also used dashes instead of quote marks.)

Here's an example:

The Tennessee boy had peered up at the star so indicated and said, How do you know its name is Rigel?
--I read it in a book, Inman said.
--Then that's just a name we give it, the boy said. It ain't God's name.
Inman had thought on the issue a minute and then said, How would you ever come to know God's name for that star?
--You wouldn't, He holds it close, the boy said. It's a thing you'll never know. It's a lesson that sometimes we're meant to settle for ignorance.

Tell me what you felt when you first read that book-- what the lack of quote marks FELT like.


Who is teaching this?

Alicia said:

Atlantic Monthly critic BJ Myers asks a similar question, Theresa, quoting Denis Johnson's "spot on" imitation of Annie Proulx broken-up description: "She waited in a dirt-floor café. Tin-roofed, straw paneled. Sat at a table drinking hot tea from a tin can...."

Who is teaching this, he (she?) asks?

To me, it sort of sounds like the writer is making it up as he goes along, not bothering to go back and make a real sentence of his occasional thoughts. I think the problem is that this technique is wasted on minor, trivial moments-- the character sitting and waiting-- when if you're going that way, you ought to save it for moments when the character is so emotionally distraught or mentally distracted that it's clear that it's she the character, not you the writer, who can't form an English sentence. :)

To have that sort of staccato rhythm regardless of who is the POV character-- in most scenes, for example-- means that it will have no weight at all. It'll set up a sort of jagged rhythm, yes, but it won't give a glimpse of the inner life of the character, or that character's voice or perspective, or even what's going on at this particular moment.

For example, let's say that a writer doesn't bother with punctuation in order to create a sort of stream-of-consciousness flow. The trouble is, then, that when, during a sex scene, maybe, or a moment before death, she goes into that period-free flow, it won't have any emphasis. Here's a classic erotic moment, with the eroticism shown by the inability of Molly Bloom to focus when she's aroused--

...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Now some will point out that Joyce uses stream of consciousness throughout Ulysses, and that's true, but notice that the characters have their own ways of streaming. Molly goes for repetition (yes) and flow, while Bloom goes on and on and then suddenly erupts into UPPER CASE letters, and Stephen Dedalus has the careful controlled constructions of the truly but cautiously insane.
That is, each character's character still controls when she/he is narrating-- each narrates in a particular way. And notice that each reserves the most ferocious streaming for the most important moments.

Selection is all. What works at a particularly emotionally fraught moment can be incomprehensible and annoying anywhere else. I am a natural editor, and get very irritated at inadequate punctuation (made even worse this semester by a group of students who seem to think that their emails to me their professor should resemble their text messages to friends, that is, telegraphically-- boy, am I showing my age!-- spelled and unpunctuated). But that Molly Bloom excerpt worked wonderfully for me. It "sounded" like she felt. But you know, if every character felt that way all the time... well, I bet they wouldn't get much done in Dublin. :)

So... I guess what we're saying is-- don't be annoying all the time. Be annoying only when it's essential to convey your meaning and enhance the reader's experience.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Saturday Slush

Yes, it's Saturday, and not just any Saturday but the Saturday before Christmas, the Saturday leading into the week when the publishing industry is closed. I should be baking, wrapping, shopping, and doing the thousands of other things leading up to The Big Day. Instead I'm holed up for a spell with a bunch of slush submissions because a) the mall parking lot scares me, b) I'm avoiding my mother, who is always nuts for a few days before the holiday, and c) this is what I do. Editors read constantly, even when sanity suggests we should do otherwise.

We're going to be slowing the pace a little on this blog. We started off at a pretty fast clip because we wanted to get some content live so you'd all have things to read and ponder. But we don't want to overwhelm people, and we think the holidays give us a good excuse to settle into a somewhat more sedate rhythm. Just so you all know.

Here's what I'm seeing in the slush today.

Lots of doubled verbs, such as (my example, not taken from any manuscript):
He would--should find a different solution.

Lots of ellipses used to suggest cadence in the prose, such as (again, as always, my example):
The whole thing just made her feel ... tired.

Sentences crammed with verbs and verb forms, such as (again, ditto, ad infinitum):
She slipped, falling, tumbling, clattering down the stairs.

None of these things are technically wrong. All of these things suggest a lack of authorial control over the prose. Or even a lack of confidence. It gives the impression of a writer incapable of choosing the precise term best suited to the moment, who instead loads up on almost-right words (surely one of these will do!) or dressing up the wrong words with punctuation to try to create more impact (a pause! a pause will make it meaningful!).

What these all have in common is that they disrupt, on some level, a normal sentence's cadence. The first example reads like a stutter. The second, like a lost train of thought. The third, like a grocery list of present participles. Sometimes you might want a stutter or a pause or a list. Sometimes these little party tricks, these sleights of hand worked with punctuation and synonyms, will produce exactly the controlled effect you need and are therefore worth the odd way they look on the page. But, as with all party tricks, the fun goes out of them after you've seen them a time or two. Moderation is the key.

Normally these things don't bother me much. But today they're everywhere. I have one submission so full of ellipses it looks like the pages have acne. This is probably not the impression the writer hoped to make.

So why are these things so prevalent all of a sudden? Is someone out there teaching writers to write like this, or is it mere coincidence?


Friday, December 21, 2007


Alicia says--

I agree, Theresa. Paragraphs should be shorter, and buried dialogue is a sign that your paragraphs are too long. I'd say most paragraphs with dialogue shouldn't be more than 6 or 7 lines of print. Break the speech up-- make it interactive. Interruptions from the other speaker, actions, introspection, all these can be ways to break the speech and paragraphs up.

No rule of thumb here, but really, paragraphs are simply shorter now, to connect perhaps with our shorter attention spans. But a half-a-page paragraph-- let Faulkner have that.

That doesn't mean your paragraphs should be a sentence long-- that should be rare and only for emphasizing something of importance, like a zinger at the end of a scene.

Grandma's coffin was empty.


Okay, that's worthy of emphasis. :)


Submitting electronically

Alicia says:
I not only edit fiction, I also teach writing at two colleges. And I have terrible handwriting, so I tell everyone to email me submissions and papers for grading.
A semester spent trying to figure out who went with what paper or submission has inspired me to write this post.

Electronic submission is still a submission. So format your submission appropriately.
There's nothing as frustrating as reading a submission and wanting to ask for a complete manuscript and finding nowhere, nowhere, on the submission anything with the author's name or email address. Yes, I can go search back through my Red Sage Submission folder, but if you're submitting to me, why do you want me to work so hard?

If you sent this by regular mail, all printed out, you'd have a cover page with your name and contact info, not to mention a header with your name and page number, right? You wouldn't expect me to go looking for your envelope to find out your address, would you?
I didn't think so.

So here's how to format an electronic submission (of course, other editors might want it a different way-- ask!):

1. Prepare the manuscript in Word or .rtf just as if you were going to print it out for submission.

2. Make sure the headers on each page proudly proclaim your first and last name-- not your penname, but your legal name. That's the name we'd prepare a contract with, remember. :)

3. Also on the first page of the submission, put your name and email address.

4. Create a coverpage with all the usual information: Title, word count, your name, your address and phone number-- and this is essential-- your email address. If you submitted electronically, I'm going to email you back. Also if you're going to use a penname, put it under your real name, with "Writing as" in front of it: Writing as Petra Peterson. This coverpage should be the first page in the file. Your word processor has a way to start numbering on the first page of text (so no page number on the coverpage). But if you can't figure this out, be assured I've never rejected anyone for having a page number on the coverpage. :)

5. Save the file with your name and the title and the date of submission (no dashes or slashes in the date-- for example, Tiresias All-Night Charlie 121207
. That makes it easier for me to find it on my hard drive.

6. Same thing for the synopsis if you're sending that, only put Synopsis after every mention of the title : Tiresias All-Night Charlie Synopsis 121207

7. Attach these files to the email. The query should be the text of the email. Make it a regular query, with all the info you'd put in a print query.

8. Send!
Just consider what I need to know-- and I do need to get easy access to your name and email address as I read your submission.


Buried Dialogue Is Not Buried Treasure

Before we get into the meat of today's topic, I want to take care of a little blog business.

First, let me say thank you! The response to this little blog has been overwhelming. Alicia and I are gratified and a little shocked by the way people are spreading the word. It's wonderful!

We take that to mean this blog might be useful, and that's what we were aiming for: a useful, practical source for bite-sized technical information. To that end, I've added a sidebar poll. If you think one topic or another might be more useful, please vote for it and we'll see what we can do. You may vote for more than one topic. The poll closes on New Year's Eve, so we'll start the new year by taking a look at what folks are most interested in learning.

If you're on a feed reader, you'll have to go to the actual blog to vote. Click here:

Now, let's talk about what I promised to talk about a few days ago: dialogue buried in the middle of paragraphs.

The Fad For Fast

Alicia made a valid point about paragraphing being, in some respects, a voice issue. There's a bit more to it than that, because paragraphing has a profound effect on pacing.

In decades past, books were long and meaty, and paragraphs could easily fill entire pages with dense blocks of type. Currently, the preference is for fast-paced prose and a lot of white space on the page. It's not that either way is wrong. This isn't a matter of right or wrong but a matter of effect and control.

What effect do you want to cause on the reader? Do you want your reader to sink deep and savor the prose? Or do you want to leave them breathless, turning pages as fast as their eyes can manage?

General rules:
More paragraph breaks create a faster pace.
Dialogue reads at a faster pace than other narrative elements.
Confusion will slow a reader's pace to a crawl.

So, let's say this is your paragraph:

Mary set the table with her grandmother's china and the porcelain candlesticks Jason had bought for her at the flea market last spring. A crisp white linen tablecloth and simple white napkins provided the perfect backdrop for the red and gold dishes. She stood back to observe the effect. "Perfect. It must be perfect," she muttered. Candles, should she light them now or later? She wanted everything to be seamless, so effortlessly beautiful and romantic that he'd have no choice but to give her that ring he'd been carrying in his coat pocket for the last two weeks.

In theory, we could go to press with a paragraph like this. In practice, we would break it up like so:

Mary set the table with her grandmother's china and the porcelain candlesticks Jason had bought for her at the flea market last spring. A crisp white linen tablecloth and simple white napkins provided the perfect backdrop for the red and gold dishes. She stood back to observe the effect.

"Perfect. It must be perfect," she muttered.

Candles, should she light them now or later? She wanted everything to be seamless, so effortlessly beautiful and romantic that he'd have no choice but to give her that ring he'd been carrying in his coat pocket for the last two weeks.

Because dialogue carries a special emphasis in the narrative, readers tend to scan it a bit differently than they do non-dialogue. The quotation marks off-set the dialogue and serve as a bold signal to our eyes that the contained lines are different from the surrounding prose.

When the quotation marks appear in the middle of a block of type, they're not as visually pronounced. We'll still see them, but we'll see them differently than if they were also offset by a new paragraph indent. The dialogue will be downplayed simply because it's buried in the middle of a block of text.

In fact, skimmers -- those readers who only read dialogue and the first line of every text paragraph -- will probably miss the buried dialogue altogether. Even those who read every line might be lulled into glossing over the buried dialogue.

This can create confusion. If an important nugget is buried in the dialogue, something more critical than a woman mumbling about dishes, will it create enough of an impression on the reader to be remembered later?

Genre fiction right now is swinging toward faster prose, and that means offsetting your dialogue instead of burying it. But when would you want to bury it? When a character is revealing something very reluctantly. Or when you want to hide a clue in plain sight. Any time you want to diminish the impact of something, dialogue or non-dialogue, you bury it in the dead center of a long paragraph.

These days, when I get a submission full of long, dense paragraphs, it usually signals that the submission won't be right for us. We tend to see this kind of blocky writing in connection with other problems -- overwriting, pendantic notions of female sexuality, lack of control over the narrative.

This is why I beg to be spared from big paragraphs with dialogue buried in the middle. Not because it's a technical error akin to a comma splice or a dangling modifier, but because these kinds of paragraphs generally signal a manuscript that will be a bit overstuffed and out of control.

In other words, if you're not burying your dialogue to create a deliberate effect, you're probably better off not burying it at all.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Voice and dialogue

Alicia says:

So... what's the verdict?

There isn't any, except that this is an aspect of voice. I, for example, think a quote in the middle of the paragraph is fine, and Theresa doesn't like it. I think we could analyze why, had we time and I didn't have Xmas shopping to finish. :) But I suspect it's all about voice. This is one of the many choices we make when we're writing and revising that add up to how we sound-- our voice.

There is no "right" voice. There might be a right voice for a certain book or passage. There might be a right voice for a certain author. But different authors have different voices, and sometimes the same author has different voices in different books. Paragraph length and sequence are two aspects of voice that are going to vary.

(For example, a fast-paced action thriller might elicit much shorter paragraphs from the author who in her last book, a contemplative family saga, used longer, more elegiac paragraphs.)

I'm sure we'll deal with voice in the future, but here's my central thought-- Voice isn't something that you find, but it's something you "refine"-- in revision. A lot of writers think of "voice" as "ego"-- that is, something that belongs to them and woe be it to anyone who tries to interfere. :) In fact, we should think of voice as how we communicate to the reader, so the reader's experience of the voice is at least as important as the writer's ego. What experience does putting the action first or last create for the reader? (Of course, readers are as varied as writers, but imagine the reader you're writing for-- how does he/she respond to this?)

Not all voices are going to work with all readers (the perils of a "strong" voice are many!), but as readers, we do operate with a common set of meaning-generators. We all think of periods as end punctuation, for example. So this expectation can be manipulated by the adroit writer. One new trend that has a ridiculous appeal for me is the pounding beat of a phrase or sentence broken up by periods:

Not. Going. There. Nope.

Now obviously, that level of emphasis, the staccato of those periods, the unexpectedness and "wrongness" of it, should be reserved for a special occasion. But because the reader knows what periods are supposed to do, she'll read this exactly the way you mean her to (that is, if she doesn't hate it and throw your book against the wall... as I said, a strong voice is perilous!)-- as if the character is pounding his fist on a table as he thinks this thought.

Anyway... voice is variable, but it's not "natural". It's the same as a musical voice. Talent is natural; performance is the result of practice and training and constant reassessment.

One more note about dialogue and paragraphs

Alicia says--
Just one more note to add to the complexity--

There is a rule that says you end the paragraph with an open quote (no quote mark) if the speaker's speech goes on into a second paragraph.


Brian slammed the door shut and explained, "There's only so much I can take. I mean, a man's a man, and if you're a real man, you don't just sit back and let someone insult you.

"So when the boss told me I was incompetent, I didn't just take it. I told him he was the incompetent one! That's what I told him!"

Well, what I'd say is... don't ever have dialogue run that long. First, it looks stupid, that open quote, and many readers aren't going to know the rather obscure rule, thus they won't know who says the second paragraph.

Second, dialogue isn't a lecture. It's a conversation. The other speaker should be involved. So unbroken paragraph after paragraph of speech isn't going to look, sound, or feel like a conversation.

So the open quote -- while perfectly right technically-- is a signal to revise. Remember... conversation, not speech. So consider how to break up that paragraph pair with an interjection from the other speaker (NOT just "the listener"-- conversation, remember?):


Brian slammed the door shut and explained, "There's only so much I can take. I mean, a man's a man, and if you're a real man, you don't just sit back and let someone insult you."

"Yeah, man," Paige said, buckling her seatbelt. "That's what my dad always said."

"So when the boss told me I was incompetent, I didn't just take it. I told him he was the incompetent one! That's what I told him

If Brian's mood is such that he's going to get this out fast, have him interrupt Paige:

Brian slammed the door shut and explained, "There's only so much I can take. I mean, a man's a man, and if you're a real man, you don't just sit back and let someone insult you."

"Yeah, but--"

Brian ignored her interruption. "So when the boss told me I was incompetent, I didn't just take it. I told him he was the incompetent one! That's what I told him!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Paragraphing Dialogue, Another Opinion

I just finished reading my Co-Queen's excellent post on paragraphs with dialogue, and she has inspired me to riff on this topic. I agree with what she said except for one small detail. You see, I'm more wary of dialogue that comes at the end of a paragraph.

One of the most fundamental rules for paragraphing dialogue is this: Begin a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. Like me, you may have learned that rule in your fifth grade English class. It's pretty basic stuff. And yet, my slush pile is replete with paragraphs containing multiple speakers, so I know there must be confusion on this topic.

Consider this made-up example:

"I'm not going to your mother's house for Christmas." Mary picked up her fork, set it back down, then smoothed the tablecloth as she waited for some response from John. "But she's expecting us."

The reason for the rule is probably made obvious by the example. We all assume that last bit of dialogue is spoken by Mary, right? And you'd probably be a little muddled if the next line in the narrative suggested that John was the speaker. Separating speakers, one per paragraph, makes it easier for the reader to track the conversation. It provides an obvious visual cue -- Hey reader! You see this here paragraph indent? That means something is changing here! So look sharp!

So, rule the first: New speaker, new paragraph.

Rule the second: You're generally better off putting the dialogue first.

Alicia talked to you about an exception to that rule. At least, I consider it to be an exception, but I might state the exception a little differently: when clarity requires the action to precede the dialogue, then the action should precede the dialogue. In all other cases, put the dialogue first.

There are three reasons for this. First, if a new speaker takes a new paragraph, then having a new speaker speaking at the end of a paragraph, after a bunch of description-action-interior monologue-whatever, seems like a violation of that rule. Well, maybe not a violation, because there are plenty of legitimate reasons to put dialogue last. What I'm really saying is that the new-speaker/new-paragraph rule creates a preference for placing dialogue at the front of the paragraph. This is the default, and shifting away from the default mode is permissible but should be done consciously to achieve a controlled effect.

Second, it's too easy to undercut the dialogue if you lay a foundation with some qualifying sentence at the front of the paragraph. Remember, dialogue has a high impact compared to other narrative elements. And good dialogue implies the emotional state of the speaker.


Mary threw her fork onto the table. "How dare you make that decision without even talking to me first?"

The dialogue implies outrage. The action of the fork-throw implies the exact same emotion. The action, coming first, telegraphs the emotion which might be better conveyed within the dialogue alone. Dialogue is high impact -- let it be high impact, without dilution.

This is quite different from,

Mary inspected her complexion in her compact mirror. "How dare you make that decision without talking to me first?"

Now we have complexity. We have a character fighting to maintain control (the emotional state implied by her action) but expressing outrage (in her dialogue). In this case, the emotion is not undercut by the preceding action, so it's not as much a problem to start with this action.

Do you think the emotional state is different if we have,

"How dare you make that decision without talking to me first?" Mary inspected her complexion in the compact mirror.

I do. I think the first example shows a woman fighting for control and losing that struggle, giving in to an emotional outburst in the dialogue. And I think the second shows a woman who vents, then tries to push past the emotion that triggered the dialogue. It's a subtle difference, but good controlled fiction never ignores these subtleties.

Finally, consider the basic stimulus-response pattern on the smallest scale (the sentence level). Because dialogue is high impact, the natural emphasis within a narrative will fall more on dialogue than on other elements. If the stimuli and responses are the bricks in your scenes, then the mortar would be things like emotions, transitions, interior monologue -- basically, anything that supports or qualifies either a stimulus or a response.

Within this model, dialogue is almost always a brick, and almost never the mortar. Because you want to make it easy for the reader to follow the chain of causation through your story, and because material at the beginning of a paragraph will carry more visual weight than material at the end of a paragraph (Yoo-hoo! Reader! Here's an indent! Look sharp!), the bricks are better placed at the beginnings of paragraphs.

Second best: at the very end of a paragraph. The reason for this has to do with the way the mind processes and recalls items in a list, and paragraphs are really nothing more than lists of sentences. A topic for another post, perhaps.

The worst: In the middle. Please, heaven, hear my cry, and spare me from dialogue buried in the middle of paragraphs! (Well, except that sometimes, very rarely -- really, very rarely -- there are legitimate reasons for burying dialogue. But I've run out of room to expound for today, so perhaps we'll talk about that one tomorrow.)


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Paragraphing for Dialogue

Alicia says:
I'm wary of dialogue paragraphs that end with the action. For example:

She said, "I am not going with you. I'm staying here for Christmas." She picked up her fork and pretended to study it.


To me, the action sounds anticlimatic, especially since if it came first, we'd read the quote differently-- we'd realize she's pretending to study the fork in order to seem nonchalant as she makes her announcements. That is, with the fork action first, we're going to know as we read what she says that it's not quite a defiant declaration of independence.

Sometimes the action actually has to take place after the speech, as it is the fruition of the speech:

She said, "I am not going with you. I hate Christmas!" She looked wildly around, saw the wrapped gift near the open door, picked it up and threw it off the porch into the snow.


So I'd say, think about why you're putting what you're putting first first, and remember that means another element comes last in the paragraph. Imagine yourself as a reader-- what nuance will the placement create? Try switching it and see if it makes a difference.

I just read a mystery novel where the author, in two-person conversation scenes, kept putting the action of one character at the end of the speech of the other:

Like (making up the example)
She said, "I'm not going to your house for Christmas. That's it. No argument." He stared at her, wondering what happened to his compliant little girlfriend.


That's likely to confuse the reader, because we assume that the identified speaker is responsible for the action as well as the speech in the paragraph. So start another paragraph for him. Flesh out each paragraph if needed for length:

Deliberately, Mary shoved the needle into her crewelwork and then yanked it out. She said, "I'm not going to your house for Christmas. That's it. No argument."

He stared at her, wondering what happened to his compliant little girlfriend. "No argument? What do you mean? ThatI don't have any say in this?"

She didn't look up at him. She just bit off the end of her thread and tied it with quick, jerky movements. Finally she said, "Right. You don't have any say in this."

More body parts

Alicia says:
I do think it always helps to put on the reader hat and imagine what the reader will take from this. And I think the occasional reference to independent body part movement is unlikely to bother readers brought up on more florid prose than we generally go for now. (One of my favorite authors, Dorothy Dunnett, wrote in the 60s and was fond of constructions like: "His sapphire eyes collided with her sable ones." And it didn't bother me much at all... because her prose was lush and descriptive, and her stories were so dramatic.)

And there's no doubt that sometimes the rhythm of the paragraph calls for a longer line-- you just know that this last sentence in the paragraph needs two more syllables to sound right. If so, no problem for me with "He reached out a hand" rather than the more sensible "He reached out."

But understand, the power of that rests on its unusualness. That is, if everytime you mention characters doing something with their bodies, you mention a body part:
His feet tapped on the street
she kicked out a foot
her ears perked up
his head swivelled
He ran a hand through his hair

Her mouth gaped op

...then you're going to lose the power of the occasional rhythmic use. Voice is all about selection-- choosing judiciously to use "he reached out a hand" rather than "he reached out"-- choosing that because it is right, because it conveys what you mean, because it carries the cadence of the action in the sentences. To me, "he reached out a hand" is going to slow things down (two extra words) and so is more suited to tentative, tender, gentle action, like "he reached out a hand and touched the tears on her cheeks."

Now your voice might dictate how this is done. For example, unlike many editors, I love modifiers. The grandeur of the English language comes from our multitude of verbs-- and our very versatile modifiers. Just as you can embed a metaphor into a verb ("the highway sliced through the prairie"), so you can use a modifier to turn one of those body parts into a carrier of emotion.

He reached out a tentative hand.

She slid out a negligent foot.

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes, he star'd at the Pacific.

(Sorry-- stole the last from Keats. :)

That is, think about the body part as a metaphor for action and conflict, as well as an actual body part. How can you use that to enliven this passage? How can meaningful verbs and modifiers add to the power of that line?

Again, if you always, heedless of connotation, use body parts willynilly, then you'll lose the power that comes from doing it judiciously. As with all voice matters-- do what is right, not what is easy.

Theresa, at some point, we should talk about voice, and how it's no more "natural" than Maria Callas's singing voice. :)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fixing Your Nasal Passages, Part Two: Changing Predicates

As you may have noticed in the first post about fixing nasal passages, sentence combining sometimes requires a bit of finesse to achieve good results. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Not all nostril-plugging sentences will be immediately followed by an action which results from the scent. Sometimes, other material will interrupt the stimulus and the response, or maybe the scent is purely descriptive and there is no response.

The scent of fresh-brewed coffee permeated her nostrils. Could it really be six a.m. already? She opened her eyes slowly.

In this case, the order of the sentences could loosely be labeled as: description, interior monologue, action. The rhythm of this paragraph is better than our original example from the other day, but it still contains the problem of the permeated nostrils. In this case, to preserve the rhythm, I might connect the scent to a different action and forget about combining sentences:

The scent of fresh-brewed coffee teased her awake. Could it really be six a.m. already? She opened her eyes slowly.

Now the order is: action, interior monologue, action. The paired actions highlight her resistance to getting up and, as an added bonus, bracket the related complaint in her interior monologue. This is a paragraph with some integrity, but it still keeps moving forward with new actions.
It’s worth noting that the new predicate describes a response to the subject. The scent causes her to wake up. As we’ve mentioned before, one of the most effective ways to leverage the sense of smell is by linking it to a chain of causation.

One other thing I have to point out here. We’ve replaced a sentence of description, which is passive, with a sentence of action, which is, well, active. There’s a body in motion now, a character whose physical state is changing from asleep to awake.

What we had before was an intangible (a scent) permeating a hole (nostril, from the Old English, literally means nose hole). (Side question: is it even possible to permeate a hole? Doesn’t permeate imply some intermingling of elements, such as water permeating a cloth or chemicals permeating a membrane? I don’t know -- just thought I’d throw that question out to the wordsmiths.) You might think that the first sentence was actually an action rather than a description, but I think that if you have a non-object in an empty space, it’s a stretch to call it action.

In any event, the best storytelling focuses on bodies in motion, people and things caught up in a chain of actions and reactions, stimuli and responses. So as a general rule, you’re better off with more action and less description.

So change your predicate to something more active, and then you can leave the rest of the sentences alone.


Fixing Your Nasal Passages, Part One: Sentence Combining

My inner 9-year-old boy loves the title of this post. Apologies to those of you who are grown-ups. ;)

Several of you have commented that you’re going to comb through your manuscripts for instances of scents doing things to noses. I have some examples that might help you with your editing, but before we get to them, I’d like to say something about our examples.

We Protect Our People

Every day, Alicia and I work with writers to shape their manuscripts for publication. We also evaluate submissions, read our friends’ pages, give second opinions to other editors -- in short, we confront a whole lot of manuscript pages for a whole lot of reasons.

Here’s what we don’t do. We don’t -- and we never will -- pull examples directly from any of these manuscripts. The editor-author relationship depends on mutual trust and respect, and we won’t ever compromise that. We might get ideas for blog posts in the course of our interaction with writers and manuscripts, but all examples are ours, with the occasional exception of literary sources.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s roll up our sleeves and get into some edits.

Sentence Combining

How you edit a flabby scent sentence (scent-ence? nah…) depends a lot on what’s around it. When your nosey moment causes an action of some kind in the very next sentence, sentence combining might be the best editing method to use.

The scent of fresh-brewed coffee permeated her nostrils. She opened her eyes slowly. Could it really be six a.m. already?

So we have two simple sentences (subject-verb-direct object), one of which is dressed up with a prepositional phrase in the subject, and one of which includes an adverb in the predicate.

What’s the nosey moment? She smells coffee. And what action does it cause? She opens her eyes slowly.

If you ditch the flabby back half of the first sentence, and combine the smell of coffee with the action it provokes, you might end up with something like:

The scent of fresh-brewed coffee made her open her eyes. Could it really be six a.m. already?

Hmm. It’s a passable sentence, but made isn’t a very strong verb, is it? It’s not quite as invisible as a verb of being, but it’s still a bit on the flabby side. Especially because the stronger verb, open, is no longer doing the heavy lifting of the sentence but has been shoved into a lesser, object slot.

Maybe this would work better if we flipped it around so that open could be the main verb of the sentence.

She opened her eyes to the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Could it really be six a.m. already?

That’s better. It’s more linear, less cluttered, but now I’m a little bothered by the eyes and the scent being right next to each other. You can open your ears to a sound and your eyes to a sight, but I’m not sure you can open your eyes to a scent. It feels off.

So instead of opening her eyes, let’s give her another equivalent action.

She woke to the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Could it really be six a.m. already?
She rose to the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Could it really be six a.m. already?

Either of these is cleaner. Tighter, too. And there’s one further advantage that has to do with impact and flow within the paragraph, but that’s a pretty complex topic we’ll save for another day.


The Eyes Have It!

Well, as long as we're on the subject of body parts-- let's elevate a bit and talk about eyes.

That Vision Thing
I lament the loss of equating eyes with vision, that is, eyes being able to do things like "rake her face" and "drop the floor" and "roam restlessly around the room," but alas, our readers have a marked tendency to picture this literally and either laugh or say "ewww!" I diagnose too many horror movies at an impressionable age. Or maybe we just live in a too-literal age. Nonetheless, we can't avoid it-- we're not getting across what we want to get across.

Fortunately, there's an easy fix for these detachable eye problems-- "gaze". Try substituting "gaze" every time eyes do something rather too independently or metaphorically:

His gaze raked her face.
Her gaze dropped to the floor.
His gaze roamed restlessly across the room.

It's inoffensive and gets the meaning across without too much laughter.

Actual Eyes
Now eyes actually can twinkle and sparkle and gleam. Those are all okay, because they aren't metaphorical-- they actually refer not to the vision of the eye-owner, but to the actual physical appearance of the eyes themselves.

Eye Synonyms
One more thing-- "eyes" is about the only safe word for those physical spheres on either side of your nose. We all have them, and I can just about guarantee our readers NEVER think of those body parts as "orbs" or even "limpid pools of soulfulness" or "peepers". They think of them as "eyes". So:

His eyes were blue.
Her eyes welled up with tears.
He gazed into her emerald-green eyes and thought he saw his destiny.

Just remember:
Eyes as vision = gaze
Eyes as actual body parts = eyes.

This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, of course. Hardly anything is. But how much creativity do you want to waste on this oft-used term? Convey your meaning efficiently and use your beautiful prose on the dark trees against the white snow: Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

Oh, sorry. Shakespeare said that first. :)


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Big No-Nose

I, Theresa, as Co-Queen of This Here Blog, hereby declare a moratorium on scents doing things to noses in fiction manuscripts. This prohibition includes but is not limited to:
--Any scents, smells, odors, fragrances, et cetera, et cetera
--Which invade, permeate, fill, soak, assault, et cetera, et cetera,
-- Any character's nose, nostrils, nasal passages, sinus cavities, or any other part of the proboscis.

This ban is permanent, final, and irrevocable. Examples of prohibited senteces include:
The scent of cement filled her nostrils; or
The odor of cavalry horses charged his nasal passages; or
The smell of hairspray teased his nose hairs.


These examples may be a bit extreme, but this is exactly the problem with having an odor act upon a nose. The verbs can create the illusion that the fragrances are doing things which are both impossible and ludicrous.

Scents are passive. They don't do things to us or to any part of us, even though they may stimulate a response. So, then, how do we communicate a fragrance in good writing?

There are three methods for that: the direct method, the descriptive method, and the active method.

The Direct Method:
Have the character smell it directly.
She smelled soap.
He caught a whiff of her perfume.

The sentence structure is simple: subject-verb-direct object, maybe with a prepositional phrase or other tidbit to dress it up. But as a general rule for this approach, hit it and move on. Use a verb such as "smell" or a close synonym to it.

The Descriptive Method:
You can take a few more liberties with your verbs if you're incorporating scent into a descriptive passage. Imagine a romantic heroine escaping a crowded ballroom for a moment's peace in a solitary garden.

Not even a breeze disturbed the tranquility of the garden. Moonlight glittered off the small pond's surface, a reflection of a reflection. The fragrance of sweet tea roses hung thick in the air, though she couldn't see the bushes anywhere.

Here, the fragrance in the context of a setting works because even with active verbs, description is static enough not to conflict with the way scents operate on the physical plane. In other words, we're not suggesting that the scents are doing things that violate the laws of physics.

The Active Method:
But you want your prose to be dynamic. Fresh. Inventive. You want to incorporate the sense of smell into active scenes, and you want it to have an impact on the reader. So how do you do that?

By treating the scent as a stimulus which creates an active response in the character who smells it.

The scent of vinegar jerked her back to consciousness.

There are two actions contained or implied in this sentence. First, she smells vinegar. Second, she jerks back to consciousness. The second action is caused by the first. These kinds of linked actions are an effective way to include the sense of smell in your prose.

Does this make sense? If not, ask your questions in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Meet the Editors

T: Hi, I'm Theresa and I'm going to introduce my good friend Alicia. Alicia has many years experience in publishing as a novelist, nonfiction writer, teacher and editor. I first met her in 19mumble-mumble at a writing conference. (Neither one of us will admit to precise dates or years of experience because, hey, a lady has to have some secrets.) We soon began discussing the Oxford comma, and are still arguing about it to this day.

Alicia is one of the smartest editors I've ever encountered, and her teaching skills are unmatched. I asked her to do this blog with me under false pretenses. My claim was that we could use it to promote her upcoming book with Writer's Digest Books (Point of View and Your Story, releasing in March 2008). But really, I just wanted to write a blog with her because she makes me look smarter.

A: Hi, I'm Alicia. You've already met Theresa. Let me tell you-- she's the only person I've found who is as picky about language as I am! She's also got a great grasp of what makes a story work or not work, and even more important, how to fix a non-working story to make it work. She uses her legal training and analytical mind to uncover plot holes and suggest fresher and more intriguing plot twists. In my own writing, I've found her brainstorming and revision help invaluable. She actually trimmed 35,000 words from a too-long manuscript of mine without losing any plot or characterization. (That might not say much about my ability to write concisely. :)

Anyway, we're looking forward to sharing our insights and our discussions about language and story on this blog. Please let us know if you have questions about either of those editing subjects!