Friday, February 29, 2008

'Nother opening

Hi Alicia & Theresa,

I'm an IFOI (Internet Friend of Ian's) and a former ISOA (Internet Student of Alicia's). I thought I'd submit the first three sentences of the opening chapter of my novel:

"Hey, that was no love tap, bubzy cakes."

Christian pushed me onto the bed and gave me another swat on the behind. "But you're the naughty birthday girl."

I glanced at the layer cake on my nightstand, denuded of its icing, the main attraction from last evening's lovemaking.

The other question I had relates to an article of Alicia's I read almost three years ago on the Hot Premise.

After working on a premise for my first novel based on that article, I came up with a premise that got my several requests for partials. The premise was probably better than the book because that's as far as that book got.

Now, I'm getting ready to pitch my second book and wrote a hot premise for it. If you are weary of critiquing openings, do you have any interest in critiquing Hot Premises on Editorrent?

Thanks for your consideration!


Sure, but let us get through all the openings first. :)

Starting with yours!

"Hey, that was no love tap, bubzy cakes."

Christian pushed me onto the bed and gave me another swat on the behind. "But you're the naughty birthday girl."

An intriguing opening! Bubzy cakes is a new endearment, at least to me!

This is, I submit, an example of a problem with starting with dialogue.

(Everyone please note-- we are honest. And I honestly don't like openings that start with a stray line of dialogue. :)

It's not at all clear who said it. At first I thought it was Christian, and the line was a clue to why he swatted her. But he says something else, so presumably the first line belongs to "me". There's a fine line between intriguing and confusing... make sure you don't accomplish the second in the attempt to get the first.
Christian pushed me onto the bed and gave me another swat on the behind. "But you're the naughty birthday girl."

I like the casualness of the diction, which goes well with a first-person narration-- swat, behind, naughty, girl.

I'm not sure about the blocking of the action-- is she facing him when he pushes her onto the bed? Or away from him? We're in her POV... I'd rather be more clearly inside her body, which means a line from her perspective-- what she sees or hears or feels before Christian's actions take over. You can't do omniscient or objective in first-person... at least you shouldn't. It's a trade-off-- when you choose first person, you choose to put us very squarely in this narrator's body and mind. So can you maybe connect a line from within her to that dialogue? Even "I said teasingly" as a quote tag might work. See what I mean?

I glanced at the layer cake on my nightstand, denuded of its icing, the main attraction from last evening's lovemaking.

Well, that certainly sounds enticing. :)

Again, though, check your blocking. He was able to swat her behind, and she's on the bed, so isn't she on her stomach? Of course you can lie on your stomach and look over at the nightstand, but it's going to feel differently than if you're on your back. We're in her body... what does it feel like? Does she flop over on her back? Or does she turn her head to see the cake?

One other note, and this I'm not at all sure how to fix. What's the main attraction? Is it the cake, or the icing? It's very late, and I can't figure out why I'm confused, but I think it might have something to do with the punctuation, those two commas-- which are correct, but make "denuded of its icing" and "the main attraction" both seem to modify "layer cake". So how would you recast that? I'd consider putting the icing last, which might be fun anyway because then the icing will be presented as most important.

I glanced at the layer cake on my nightstand, denuded of its main attraction from last evening's lovemaking-- the icing.

Anyway, a neatly playful and sexy opening!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Responses to Comments on Dialect

I'm always so impressed by the thoughtful comments people leave on this blog, but the comments in response to the post On Dialect deserve a post of their own.

Ian says,
I wrote a scene set in Australia and limited most dialect-specifics to "Oy" (Hey) and "Yer" (Your/You're).

Ian, though there may be some debating this point, I think "Oy" or "Oi" might count as a word in its own right. I'm curious about something. I understand that "Oy" is used in places other than Australia, but whenever I hear or read it, I connect it to Australia. Am I alone in this?

This leads to another point. When you're using a phonetic like "yer," you may find that it is too broad or common to indicate any particular dialect. We also say "yer" in Chicago, as in, Yer gotta coupla to-tree hoses in yer gratch? To those spared the hideousness of my local dialect, that would translate to, Do you have any extra hoses in your garage?

What's the strong written dialect in that sentence, and what is the weak? The weak is yer and gratch. That may be precisely how we pronounce those words around here, but we ought to be too ashamed to commit it to paper.

And the strong dialect is coupla to-tree, or, couple of two-three, which is Chicagoese for some number greater than one and which usually indicates there are items to spare. See, e.g., coupla to-tree beers in da fritch, which we all know is what one offers a guest on a hot summer day. Anybody who knows the Chicago dialect will recognize that phrase and pin it to this area. I don't think any non-Chicagoans run around saying coupla to-tree in place of extra or plenty.

One of the most commonly used phonetic indicators is an apostrophe in place of the g in a present participle. Walkin'. Talkin'. Thinkin'. Sleepin'. But can anyone pinpoint a specific dialect which can claim this speech mannerism as its own? It belongs to just about anyone and probably signals informality more than dialect.

All of which is to say, phonetic dialect is slippery. For Australian dialect, Oy may work better than yer. But as a general proposition for any dialect, it's a good idea to pick just one or two phonetic representations (if any) and stick with them. Pick ones that are easy on the eyes so that they won't slow the reader. Ian picked Oy and yer, and left the rest of the text in standard English, and that's probably not a bad thing.

About Gwine

Two commenters mentioned reading gwine in books as a phonetic Southernism for going to, and being uncertain what gwine meant. This perfectly illustrates the danger in this kind of writing. It's confusing. It's non-standard. And it's probably best not to attempt phonetic dialect at all.

Green Knight says,

Where do you stand on use of language in historical novels? Few people will attempt to write dialogue in the language of Chaucer, but once we get to the 16th century onwards, where we have a lot of examples of colloquial as well as formal language, and readers will be familiar with them - how do you evoke the language of Shakespeare without actually borrowing from him?

It's a very tricky business to write historicals that sound authentic but still appeal to readers. There are so many factors to take into consideration. First, who is your audience? Genre novels probably have less room for writerly acrobatics than do litfic or genfic. Consider for example Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, which was written in an approximation of the dialect of the Revolutionary War period:

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,--the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,-- the Children, having all upon the Fly, among the rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.

Yeah. It goes on like that for about eight hundred pages. I'm told the dialect becomes more transparent once you get through the first hundred or so pages. I wouldn't know. I've never read past page 6. This is one of those books I intend to read "someday," because it must surely be brilliant. All the scholars say so.

So if your name is Thomas Pynchon, you have a lot more leeway in historical dialect. If your name is J.P. Crimewriter or Melisandra LaRomantique, probably not so much leeway. Aim for hints of dialect rather than outright imitations. You wouldn't want to imitate Shakespeare, for example, because he wrote verse. Not prose. Dude was all about iambic pentameter.

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

You can practically hear the drumbeat in that line. Yeah, okay, he threw in an extra downbeat here and there, but I think we can let him slide on it.

So be careful what you're imitating. You might be able to toss in an occasional anon, thee or knave with far less risk than outright imitations of historical speech. And those kinds of things will feel more natural to modern readers if they're used during more formal moments. It would be one thing for a man to say, "I beg thee, madam, for but a moment's consideration," during an evening ball to his dancing partner. It would be quite another thing for him to say it as he's ravishing her in the coat closet.

Monday, February 25, 2008

On Dialect

I've been dealing with two different projects today -- very different projects. Different settings, subgenres, themes. Different target readers, different experience levels from two different writers.

But they have one thing in common.

They both rely heavily on dialect. And they tend to get the dialect right and wrong in much the same ways. So I thought it might be useful to give a quick overview on dialect.

First thing to remember is that when we're talking about dialect, we're talking about spoken language. Spoken language = dialogue. Right? So this means that your dialect is best confined to what comes between the quotation marks. On occasion, you might want to include some dialect in other parts of the narrative -- in interior monologue, for example. But as a general principle, it's best kept between the quotes.

There are three basic aspects to dialect: pronunciation, slang, and sentence structure. The first of these, pronunciation, is the weakest way to convey dialect in writing.

Let's look at an example. Let's take the word pen. Depending on where you live and your personal regional dialect, when you read that word, you'll "hear" it in different ways. Some folks will hear it as pin, some as pen, and some will hear something approximating an Italian demi-vowel: peh-un.

And that's okay. There's no reason in the world that a typical writer working with typical prose would need to worry about how the reader would pronounce a particular word. As long as meaning and context are clear, pronunciation doesn't matter. In fact, that's the beauty of written language. It allows us to comprehend each other without having to puzzle out accents.

Writers sometimes reach for dialectic spellings of words in order to signal something about the cadence of a character's speech. Caribbean pirate? Shiver me timbers, yer pirate might be a-sayin'. Got a Nazi headmistress? Ve haf vays off making you shmarter, she says vit a shmack off de rular.

If you're like most readers, your reading pace slowed while reading the italicized portions of the previous paragraph. This is because pronunciation cues like odd spellings or punctuation need to be translated out of that dialect as we read the words.

Let that sink in for a moment.

You put all that work into getting your spelling to signal a particular accent, and the reader will automatically translate it into their own personal dialect as they read. That translation process slows them down.

Do I need to elaborate any further than this? Perhaps I should instead refer to John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, in which he classifies these "oddities of imitation or spelling" as "amateur sins" which are "matters so obvious to the experienced reader or writer that they seem at first glance to have no place in a book for serious writers.... [C]lumsy errors of the kind I've been treating help show clearly what we mean when we speak of 'things that distract the reader's mind from the fictional dream,' and nothing in what I'm saying is more fundamental than the concept of the uninterrupted fictional dream."

In other words, your job is to lull the reader into forgetting that they're reading, and you can't do that if you continually call attention to the arrangement of the letters and punctuation marks on the page.

Enough about pronunciation, then.

If you want to use dialect to signal something about a character's background, much better to use vocabulary or sentence structure to do so. It's almost become a cliche to have a Scottish warlord talk about wee bairns and bonny lasses, but that's because it works: these terms are strongly associated with Scottish speech.

Ditto for the guru using Yoda-esque inversions, the Wooster-like Englishman with his "I say" and "By Jove," and the Frenchwoman who asks, "This hat is pretty, is it not?" Phrasings and word choices can signal as much about a character's dialect as any attempt to convey an accent.

I'm not advocating for cliches. Not at all. Instead I'm advocating that you listen to dialect for something more than pronunciation. Listen for different usages or slang terms, for different ways of organizing the parts of speech into coherent concepts. You can get away with a little bit of dialect-specific spelling here and there, but your writing will be much stronger if you avoid that in favor of other techniques.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

More on that opening

Stormy Cat half-reared and whinnied then took off in a thundering gallop across the frost-tipped Kentucky bluegrass, which stretched out for miles and glistened like Swarovski crystals on a bed of green velvet.

First let us thank everyone who contributes a first paragraph! It's very helpful for us to have something to analyze. Theresa's great at creating examples, but that stretches my brain so far, I fear it will snap. So working on actual paragraphs saves me a lot of pain!

With this, I just want to say a couple things, as Theresa's done such a good job already of analyzing it. I love that "frost-tipped Kentucky bluegrass"-- beautiful image!

Now the horse taking off-- I am NOT trying to get anyone to write in personal POV at the beginning of a scene. Often omniscient works effectively at the opening and closing of scenes. However, it helps to keep focused on the character even if you're not squarely in that person's person point of view. We started out so focused on the woman's experience that we "felt with her" the pill bottle in her jeans. But by the end of the paragraph, we're distanced from her. The horse takes off across the field... and she's supposedly on the horse's back, but we're not getting any sensory information at all, except that lovely description of the grass. I'm not a horse person at all, but I'm assuming that's a real experience-- hanging on as a horse opens up to a gallop. Don't let us wonder if the woman slid off and is standing there in the field watching her horse gallop away. What's it feel like to be on the horse's back? What's the winter wind feel like? You don't actually have to add much. If you just added, "She clung to the mane as...." we'll probably be able to fill in the blanks. Just put her there in the experience so that we know she IS experiencing it.

Thanks again for the contribution!

Another question-- answer-- Bo

I've used overuse of a certain construction with some of my critting partners. It's one of those things that isn't necessarily wrong, although it isn't particularly right either. When people use it every time they want to signify an emotion, say every paragraph or so, it really stands out.

The construction I mean is this one: "Anger rose, constricting his throat." "Frustration dictated…" "Hurt made him speechless."

I notice this most when used to "tell" emotion, as you can see from the above examples, but it could be used for other moments. I think. Or not? "Bricks made him halt." "Door closed." "Water rising prevented him from crossing the river." That last one sounds okay, I think, although rising water sounds better. So it doesn't seem to be inherently evil.

What do you think about this construction? Is it as hateful to you as it is to me, you don't care either way, do you love it? Tell me!


Hmmm… I think this can be useful occasionally to provide a new rhythm, and maybe a way to start the sentence without "he" or his name.

However, it's a construction I'd use sparingly, and probably only for the physical effects of emotion. There's nothing wrong with "He was speechless with hurt," after all, "he" presumably being more important overall than the emotion he feels.

So… so why do you dislike this? I suspect it's because it seems contrived, first off, kind of self-consciously precious.

But I also think that this construction places the emphasis on the emotion rather than the character, as if all we are is emotion-carriers. I sometimes see something similar: His hand reached out and touched hers, which skittered away… you know, like they're both these passive entities whose hands operate of their own accord. In fact, we're the ones who reach out and touch, and we happen to use our hands for that, but we could also stretch out our foot and touch hers, right? So WE are doing the touching.

And WE are doing the feeling of anger. Yes, occasionally anger rises unbidden in us… and I guess I'd reserve that construction for when there really isn't much choice, when there's physical evidence of the emotion and otherwise the character wouldn't know she's angry or hurt or whatever.

The subject position in a sentence is meant for the "actor," the person or thing that is going to commit the action in the verb. You r crit partner can indeed say, "Well, 'hurt' is 'welling' in him, so the subject is the actor of the action…." But too frequent use of that construction, of putting the emotion as subject and the character as indirect object ("in him") diminishes the centrality of the character's actions and reactions. If readers find him "passive," this might actually be the fault not so much of the events as the sentences!

Anyway, Bo, what else do you find objectionable? I like your modification of other sentences to show the oddity, really, of the construction. We do see that sometimes—"The window rattled from the wind," say. And, as I said, I can see doing this occasionally, just to vary the rhythm. But what is wrong with "The wind rattled the window?" ;)


Three Lines Plus a Horse

Let's take a look at another opening.

The pill bottle in the pocket of her tight-fitting riding pants pressed hard against her leg as she climbed the rock wall and leaped onto the back of the blood-bay stallion. They topped the crest of the knoll at a canter then eased into a trot as she raised a hand to shade her swollen eyes from the early morning sun. Stormy Cat half-reared and whinnied then took off in a thundering gallop across the frost-tipped Kentucky bluegrass, which stretched out for miles and glistened like Swarovski crystals on a bed of green velvet.

First Impressions

I count 98 words there. If these words came in the middle of the text, most of my concerns would be eliminated because I would know the context better. The writing is generally strong and evocative and puts me right around Lexington horse country with those beautiful rolling hills and white fences. The rhythm of the language is wonderful; this writer has an ear. Vocabulary is good. Sentence structure is good, even with three long sentences in a row. In short, there's evidence of a real writer at work here.

But the excerpt doesn't work as the opening senteces of a novel. It feels unnecessarily coy. There is a hint of drama, but the context undercuts that drama.

Does anyone understand what's really happening in those 98 words? We have a female in tight pants riding a horse on a fine Kentucky morning. The horse is named. The female is not. Is this a story about a horse?

There are two details which I suspect the writer included as a way of creating mystery or "story questions." They don't work for two reasons. First, combined they account for 4 words, meaning they're hemmed in by 94 unrelated words about crystals and velvet and so on. Second, the details chosen could mean two very different things.

What are those details? Have you picked them out? Pill bottle and swollen eyes. I suspect the writer means them to indicate a character in distress (the female, who doesn't even rate a name, so how important can her distress really be?). But given the context -- the crystal and velvet and cantering under the sun, none of which could be reckoned distressing details -- the pill bottle and the swollen eyes become lost.

Also, what's something else that pills and swollen eyes could indicate when set against animals and grasses? Allergies and benadryl. At this point, this is the more logical conclusion because the surrounding details support allergies better than they support suicide. Everything is so beautiful and tempting, even exhilarating. Even a severe asthmatic might be tempted by this lush setting.

In other words, by being coy, by hiding the character's identity and the true state of the character's inner being, these three sentences shift from describing a character in crisis to describing a character with hayfever.

Breaking It Down

Let's take a closer look. There's a lot of good stuff here, even if it doesn't quite add up.

The pill bottle in the pocket of her tight-fitting riding pants

That is one gorgeous string of words. Read it out loud and listen to the cadence. It almost sounds like a canter. This is a natural result of using chained prepositional phrases, and is one of the reasons we like prepositional phrases better than other kinds of phrases.

Two nits to pick, though: get rid of fitting because it adds nothing, and reconsider pill bottle. What's more relevant, the bottle or the pills? Are there any pills in the bottle? What kind of pills? If you want to heighten the character's distress, this is one way to do it. Put the focus on the details which will enhance the distress.

pressed hard against her leg

Another prepositional phrase keeps the cadence moving. Nice. The verb and the phrase together give us a very precise understanding of what, exactly, this character is feeling. (Physically, not emotionally.)

as she climbed the rock wall and leaped

She doesn't climb AND leap. She climbs THEN leaps. Clarify this. Or, even better, get rid of climbed the rock wall because it just muddles things.

onto the back of the blood-bay stallion.

Another chain of prepositional phrases. I think the chain is the right choice here because it allows the sentence to end on the strong word stallion. Otherwise, she must leap onto the blood-bay stallion, which is less precise, or onto the blood-bay stallion's back, which has a less pleasing rhythm and ends on a weaker word.

By the way, I don't know anything about horses. Is blood-bay a particular kind? I know bays are auburn, so does blood-bay just mean red?

They topped the crest of the knoll

Try instead, They crested the knoll. Also reconsider the plural pronoun. Whose point of view are we supposed to be in?

at a canter then eased into a trot

This is where it starts to unravel. We started off with this evocative physical description of a pill bottle pressing into a woman's thigh as she rushed to her horse's back. The pill bottle is important -- we know this because she's consciously aware of it pressing into her leg. And there's speed, a sense of rushing somewhere for some purpose.

But then we get 15 consecutive words describing the ride: They topped the crest of the knoll at a canter then eased into a trot. I can allow the first part because it preserves the sense of speed and purpose. But adding on the second part undercuts this in two different ways. First, it literally slows the pace of the ride from a canter to a trot. The sense of scene urgency dissipates. Second, by talking this much about the details of the ride, the ride itself starts to become more important than the pill bottle.

Also, whose point of view are we in?

as she raised a hand to shade her swollen eyes from the early morning sun.

Ditto -- whose point of view are we in? Actually, I'm just going to tell you: this is objective. We're watching horse and rider from outside, as a camera would film it. Why? Because the camera would first see the hand raise, and then see the bar of shadow fall across the rider's eyes. Without the shade, she could be raising her hand to wave at someone.

If we were in the character's viewpoint, the order would be reversed. We would feel the character's annoyance at sun in her eyes (the stimulus) which she would treat with a raised hand (the response).

Notice how the detail swollen becomes lost here? It's not part of the action. I didn't even register this detail the first time I read the sentence.

Stormy Cat

I was confused by this -- I thought at first "Cat" was short for Catherine and referred to the rider, who still has no name.

half-reared and whinnied then took off in a thundering gallop

More details about the ride. By this time, we've forgotten all about the pill bottle and are reading a lush description of a morning ride. First we canter. Then we crest a hill. Then we trot and look around with our hands over our eyes. Then we half-rear and whinny. Then we gallop.

Here's what we don't have: a destination, a reason for the ride, a character's perceptions (or even, really, a character), or any real sense of context.

across the frost-tipped Kentucky bluegrass, which stretched out for miles and glistened like Swarovski crystals on a bed of green velvet.

Gorgeous. Really. But it does nothing to cure the missing context. Yes, now we know we're in Kentucky, and it's always good to get the setting established as soon as possible. And the language is lush and evocative, which is good -- though I do have a problem with the phrasing, because the grass stretches for miles, but the frost glistens. So we'd need to edit that clause even if we wanted to keep it.

But I don't think it's worth keeping in the opening. Save it for further into the text, after we know the character and the context. We might not keep reading if this is just a description of a beautiful morning ride. But tell us what's in that pill bottle and why her (whose?) eyes are swollen, and we might keep going.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Redlines Four: Avoiding the Need for "Sequels"

Last month, we structured some interior monologue (IM) so that action framed the IM and oriented the reader. That technique is effective in “sequels” -- narrative bits in which we pause for reflection, planning, and the like. IMand its weaker cousin, exposition, can also be used in scenes. This month, we’ll braid interpetive bits into a scene where plot information is conveyed through dialogue.

One of the primary differences between a scene and a sequel is the narrative emphasis. In a scene, the narrative focuses on events -- action or dialogue moving the plot forward. Anything that detracts from the events will slow the pacing of the scene.

By contrast, a sequel focuses on the internal reaction of the point of view character to a prior scene or scene sequence. The character will literally be exploring thoughts and feelings, which means that sequels are generally heavy in exposition.

Some writing teachers advocate a one-to-one ratio of scenes and sequels. But even where a lot of internal landscaping is necessary -- as in romance -- following every scene with a sequel can slow the pace and create a mechanical narrative. This is true even when the sequels are shorter than the scenes.

One alternative is to weave small pieces of IM and/or exposition into scenes. For this to work, the IM/expo and the scene action must remain in balance. Knowing how to balance these elements requires analysis and judgment, because the balance will vary depending on the plot and characters.

Think, for example, of a dialogue scene in which Tex tells Kate that his mother doesn’t like her. If this is a major plot element -- if, for example, Tex will lose his inheritance if his mother does not approve of his bride -- then the reader might need Kate’s emotional reactions in the scene, plus a sequel. Balance is the key. Big movements in plot action require bigger amounts of character reaction.

In that case, the sequence might look like this:
“My mother doesn’t like you,” Tex said.
*Kate has an internal reaction.*
*Kate responds to Tex directly.*
*The scene concludes.*
*IM-heavy sequel where Kate reflects and decides how to proceed.*

But maybe Tex’s mother’s feelings are not outcome-determinative. The reader will still want Kate’s reaction. The question becomes, how much information is needed for Kate’s reaction to make sense? If a lot of information is necessary -- for example, backstory about Kate’s dealings with the mother, things that happened outside the narrative timeline -- then the scene may need to be briefly interrupted to convey that information.

Then the sequence might look like this:
“My mother doesn’t like you,” Tex said.
*Kate starts to react, but pauses.*
*Exposition: Kate reflects on backstory that explains her reaction.*
*Kate returns to her reaction and more dialogue ensues.*
*The scene concludes.*

In that case, no sequel would be needed. Here’s another option:
“My mother doesn’t like you,” Tex said.
“But we’ve sat on committees together, and she’s never acted like she hates me,” Kate said. (introduce backstory)
*Conclude scene quickly.*
*Sequel to fully develop backstory and Kate’s IM.*

But maybe Tex’s revelation is not outcome-determinative and any backstory has already been revealed. In that case, you can avoid interrupting the scene and/or providing a sequel. In order for this to work, the bits of reaction must be succinct and understandable.

One way to do this requires dialogue beats. Beats are little drops of action that fall outside the quotation marks and let the reader know who is speaking and what they are doing. For example:

“My mother doesn’t like you.” Tex folded his arms across his broad chest.

The beat is the second sentence. It replaces the dialogue tag (Tex said) with a stage gesture that provides insight into Tex’s internal dynamics. It’s not true IM because we’re not in Tex’s point of view, but it is a clue into what his IM might be, and provides something more for Kate to react to.

Now let’s add Kate’s reaction:
“My mother doesn’t like you.” Tex folded his arms across his broad chest.
His gesture was at odds with his casual tone. All right, then, he didn’t want her to take it too hard, even though he clearly felt a need to brace himself for her response. But Kate was not about to let his mother stand between them.
“She’ll change her mind once she knows me better.” Kate spread her hands wide, a gesture of openness, and was relieved to see that he dropped his arms to his sides.
“If anyone can win her over, it’s you.”

The IM comes through in Kate’s analysis of his gesture, her planned responsive gesture, and her relief when he relaxes. If we map it, it looks something like this:

*dialogue* *beat*
*her IM in three sentences*
*she mirrors his gesture* *his new gesture*

The dialogue acts like touchstones, framing the gestures and bridging his changing responses. The IM acts like a fulcrum, balancing Tex’s first action with his changed reaction.

Now we don’t need a sequel that explains Kate’s or Tex’s state of mind, because it should be clear from the scene. The reader not only sees the characters’ gestures, but why the gestures are important. But it takes a lot of narrative to load the gestures with meaning -- three sentences in Kate’s IM to qualify what they’re doing with their arms. This goes beyond the scope of a typical beat in a dialogue exchange, which is usually much shorter.

And that’s the danger in weaving IM or exposition into an active scene. Dialogue is fast-paced, but exposition in particular feels slow. The key, again, is balance. If the dialogue is important, more qualifying details can be braided in without grinding the pace down too much. But if the dialogue is relatively unimportant, the interpretive details should be confined to pieces no longer than typical beats -- or even eliminated altogether.

This is the third in the series of my dusty old Redlines column.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialoge sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.


Alicia's time-out

I'm still alive--- just theoretically on vacation (which means I get to take my laptop out on the balcony and look longingly at the beach as I work). Vacation, it seems, means "less free time," especially this weekend, when three friends arrived to pose the temptation of actual fun.

Anyway, long story short, thanks to Theresa for doing all the blog work this week! I'll try and make it up later. :)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

When We "Hate" the Manuscript: An Editor's Response

Yesterday -- or rather, late last night, because that was the soonest I could get to the blog -- we talked about what to do when one of your critiquing partners delivers chapters that are tolerably well-written but leave you cold.

Today, I thought I'd talk a little about this issue from the acquisitions perspective. Maybe we should entitle this post:

To Form Reject, or Not to Form Reject. That Is the Question.

(So tempted to riff on "whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune," which seems like a line custom-designed to describe this particular issue.)

Let me start by saying I hate form rejections. No. Maybe I should start by saying I love form rejections. Each statement is equally true, after all, depending on the circumstances.

I love form rejections because they create a defensive shield between me and the disappointed writer. Not all writers tolerate disappointment well. Our side of the profession is riddled with stories about writers who argue with editors over every detail of every letter. If we explain that the protagonist's motivation in chapter seven doesn't work, we know we open ourselves up to a letter explaining precisely why we weren't paying attention to the set-up in chapter six. (That kind of argument won't win you a contract, in case you were wondering.)

Or, we get a letter kindly offering to revise the motivation in chapter 7 and resubmit, even though we never invited revisions. (If we want revisions, we'll ask for them. Never doubt that.)

Or, after reading and rejecting a partial, we sometimes get the full anyway, with an explanation of why we were wrong not to request it. (Gee, thanks.)

This reminds me of a conference legend involving an elevator, a laptop, and a romance editor who can never blend into the crowd at romance conventions because he is a he. Poor guy. He's tall, too. Sticks out like a linebacker at a doll party. Every time I hear a story about this guy at a conference, I wonder if the story is true or if it's always him in these stories because he's such an obvious target.

So, as the legend goes, our heroic editor boarded a crowded elevator at a major conference last year. One of the passengers recognized him and pounced.

"You requested my manuscript and you've had it for nine thousand million kajillion months," said the writer. "Aren't you ever going to read it?"

"I'm a little behind on my reading," the editor admits. At this point, the elevator probably feels a bit like a cage, but this guy is also legendary for being a good sport, so he might not mind being cornered.

"I've got it on my laptop." The writer whips out said laptop and fires it up to the manuscript.

There are two versions of this legend, one which has the editor welcoming the chance to read the manuscript right there, and one which has him blinking in surprise before formulating the answer least likely to get him shoved down the elevator shaft. In either case, the editor is said to have graciously taken the laptop and begun reading the manuscript on the screen.

"Well," he says after reading a bit. "This probably won't work for us. You're opening with a lot of backstory, and it's slowing down the pace."

He starts to return the laptop, but the writer pushes it back on him.

"Keep reading!" she insists. "It gets better in chapter four!"


Form rejections shield us from this sort of thing. We don't know you. You could be the nicest person in the world, or you could be elevator-laptop girl. (Helpful career tip: Don't be elevator-laptop girl.)

The Downside of Form Rejections

Occasionally, there comes a writer who we like very much but whose work we cannot buy. Case in point -- this story is true, and I know it's true because it happened to me.

Last year at a major conference, I went to the bar to meet up with some friends and couldn't find them. Somehow I ended up at a table with three writers, all of whom were strangers. They were delightful people. We talked about the city and the conference schedule and what we like to read. We commiserated over the impossibility of getting table service in that bar. We played the who-do-you-know game and I ended up giving all three of these fine people my card. One of them assured me she would submit something, and that was the extent of our business discussion.

I bumped into these women at various times over the course of the conference and they were always delightful. After the conference, as promised, the one woman submitted work to me. I was happy to see it from her.

I couldn't make her an offer on it, but I also couldn't have lived with myself if I'd used a form rejection. She was so nice, and I wanted to help her. So I sent her a long and detailed revision letter and made sure she understood that my office door remained open to her. Since that time, we've corresponded a bit and I'm doing what I can to help her shape up her prose. I'm always pleased to see something in my inbox from her. She's consistently pleasant and I know how hard she's working to learn her craft.

The Moral of The Story

What does this have to do with critiquing a story that's basically well-written but doesn't appeal? Everything. When I'm confronted with a story like that, my first decision has to be whether to send a form rejection or something more personal. Three factors come into play here, and none of them have to do with whether I "hate" the manuscript. (I hardly ever really hate a manuscript. I either love them, or I think they don't work. Occasionally, they make me spray tea through my nose, but laughably bad manuscripts are more rare than you might think.)

The three factors are time, how much repair work needs to be done, and whether I feel the need to shield myself. As to the first two factors -- I never have any time, and most of the repair work at this pre-contract stage is done by the writer, not the editor.

Which leave the third factor, whether I feel the need to shield myself. Most of the time it's a guessing game because I don't know three-quarters of the people who submit to me. And momma always warned me, don't open the door to strangers, and I always do what momma says. So that means the default preference is for a politely worded and kindly intended form rejection, even if the writing is mostly good.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Question: Critiquing What You Hate

Tonight we'll pull a question from the mailbag. One of our readers asks,

What do you do when you critique a story, and you hate it? The writing is good, not great, but good, but you just can't get past the first chapter?

I'm going to assume we're talking about writers (rather than acquisitions editors) offering comments on the work of other writers. There are a lot of "almost there" writers, those who have a grasp of most of the basics but haven't quite reached publishable levels. There are several common reasons those "almost, but not quite" pieces tend to fail. Just off the top of my head, I would list those reasons as ~~

~~ POV is too objective/protagonist is too remote
~~ lack of tension and drama/nothing is at stake
~~ characters are bland/motivations are unclear
~~ protagonist is unlikeable/nobody to cheer for
~~ writing style is too academic
~~ writing style is underdeveloped or flabby

If you are critiquing a work that is not hideous but leaves you with a blah feeling, check if one of these things might be the problem. I tend to think of these stories as "workmanlike." That is, they plod on and avoid most of the glaring technical errors common to new writers, but they don't quite rise to the level of entertainment. If you can link the story's missing elements to one of the common problems on the list, you will be doing a service to the other writer to help them understand why you're not connecting with their characters or plots.

It will help you in your own writing if you take the time to analyze why this other piece failed. If you can learn to see pov gaps or dull exposition or clunky phrases in another's work, it will make you more sensitive to it in your own. So, even if you hate something, try to step back from the emotional reaction to it and analyze it as an intellectual exercise. It will make you a better writer in the end.

And then you have to talk to the other writer about it. It's tempting to treat this as an issue of manners, but rather than getting into all that, let's just assume that you will keep focused on the pages. Pick a couple, maybe three, technique messages to present, because any more than that might be overwhelming. Pick the ones you expect will have the biggest impact on the prose when corrected.

It's probably fair to tell another writer, "This is not to my tastes."
It's probably not fair to say, "This sucks."

The first admits a subjective response, while the second is a categorical insult. Try to avoid making broad judgment statements and focus instead on concrete ways to improve the writing.

Fair: "Try raising the stakes."
Unfair: "It's boring."

Fair: "You might want to brush up on punctuation rules."
Unfair: "Is your comma key broken?"

Of course, all of this assumes that the person receiving your commentary is of average sensitivity and doesn't need to get beat over the head with a grammar primer in order to understand basic points. Make sure there aren't any interpersonal issues feeding into your emotional reaction -- that's for your peace of mind rather than for the benefit of the other writer.

Good luck! I hope that helps. This can be a knotty problem to solve.


Monday, February 18, 2008

First Three Sentences Plus a Fourth

Just a reminder, if you want us to parse the first three sentences of you manuscript, send it to edittorrent at gmail dotcom.

Here's one from the mailbag that shows why sometimes we need that fourth sentence in order to correctly analyze the writing.

The itch on her nose woke her. When she tried to move her arm and couldn't, Shaine opened her eyes and squinted against a bright light. It was thick enough that she saw dust motes floating in the air, and hot enough to bake her scalp under the wig she wore.

If you're like me, at this point you're not entirely connected to the prose yet. But look what happens when we add that fourth sentence:

Her breathing doubled as she stared with incomprehension at the twin bands of metal holding her by the wrists to the arms of what looked like a steel shaker chair.

That pops.

First Impressions

I'm not going to out the writer, but I will reveal that she confessed to a bit of frustration over this opening. I can see why. The first three sentences, almost fifty words, just aren't doing the heavy lifting we expect from an opening. It's not that they're bad sentences. They're a little wordy, true, and there are some issues with causation. But for the most part, they're serviceable, even ambitious. In other words, this is a classic case of so close, and yet so far.

But there's hope. A little tweak will work magic on these sentences. We're going to parse all four with special attention on two areas: tightening the prose, and beefing up the action-reaction mechanics.

Breaking It Down

The itch on her nose woke her.

I have no problems with this sentence. At first, I thought we might want to use the character's name as a substitute for one of the pronouns, but the rhythm is more natural if we leave it as is.

Try it: The itch on Shaine's nose woke her. Or, The itch on her nose woke Shaine. Read them aloud. Hear the difference? Switching from the pronoun to the proper noun changes the rhythm because the pronoun reads as a down beat but the character name reads as a strong beat. Nose and woke are also strong beats, back to back, and switching the pronoun would create three strong beats in a row, a rhythm uncomfortable in English.

One thing helping us here is that, even though we don't know the character's name yet, we're in her point of view. It's a common physical moment, familiar to us all, and uncluttered by details that would distract from the essentials of this character in this precise moment. So we'll leave the sentence as it is.

When she tried to move her arm and couldn't,

Now we're getting into trouble. There are a couple of problems here. Before we get into the technical problem, let's look at how this clause relates back to the previous sentence.

We're all familiar with the concept of stimulus and response, right? Action and reaction? It's often said that these components form the building blocks of prose, but that only tells two-thirds of the story. Because sandwiched between every stimulus and response is a third layer which we'll call, for want of a better term, emotion.

Now, emotion isn't a perfect term to describe the white filling in the action-reaction oreo. What we're talking about is something more broad and encompassing than simple emotion. It can include analysis, as when a character puzzles through a complex stimulus before forming his response. Or it can be reflexive, as when we touch something hot and pull away quickly. Or it can be purely emotional, as when someone says something highly provocative, and we feel a powerful emotion before we respond. Whatever form it takes, it is always going to enlighten us about why a character responds to the stimulus the way she does. It's the sweet frosting holding the two cookies together. (Who else wants oreos now? Yum!)

The thickness of the emotion layer depends on complex factors, but for now, we'll just all agree that the frosting can be quite thinly spread, or it can be double-stuffed. (OMG. I need a different analogy. Totally craving oreos. Bricks and mortar, maybe? Nah. Everything is better with chocolate.)

If the action-reaction is truly reflexive, the emotion layer can be thin enough to be invisible because we can all be supposed to have the identical response. Hot stove? Pull back. It needs no further explanation. And I suspect our writer wants the itchy nose to fall into this category. Itchy nose? Scratch it. Stimulus - reflexive response.

Except for one thing. There are two actions in the first sentence. First her nose itches, then she wakes up. We've already established a link between these two actions, so we know the truly instinctive, reflexive response to the itchy nose is not to scratch it, but to wake up. No frosting needed between those two cookies. But more important, as is the way with chains of causation, the second action (woke) is itself a new stimulus.

So now let's look at our adverb clause again: When she tried to move her arm and couldn't. If woke is the new stimulus, how does it follow that this is the response? It doesn't. We need a little frosting there, something from the internal state of the character, to bring these two things together. Is she annoyed that she was awakened, or is she ready to rise? If annoyed, you might try something like, Maybe if she scratched it, she'd be able to fall back asleep quickly. If ready to rise, maybe something like, Rise and shine, twitchy-nose! Or, Shaine could always tell the sunrise by her nose.

The point is, what you use as filling doesn't really matter. Some oreos are mint, and some are peanut butter, right? Pick your flavor and spread it on the cookie. It's more important to ice those cookies together in a way that makes them stick.

So that's the first problem: the clause doesn't flow neatly from what precedes it. We'll deal with the technical problem next: what we've got here describes a temporal link between the main clause (Shaine opened her eyes, etc.) and the subordinate adverb clause, but what we need is a causative connection. Not when, but because. The actions aren't simultaneous, but sequential.

I don't know if I've ever worked up a good lather over simultaneous v. sequential actions on this blog yet. It's one of those topics I feel I never really stop talking about, really, because it crops up over and over again. Even the best writers flub it sometimes.

  1. But the sequence of the actions is clear.
  2. itch
  3. wake
  4. try to move
  5. can't move
  6. open eyes
  7. squint

The third and fourth items -- try to move and can't move -- are as simultaneous as we're going to get in this chain of events. As long as we've got the next two actions on the list, let's remind ourselves of the clause:

Shaine opened her eyes and squinted against a bright light.

The way it's written, opening her eyes happens in the same moment as trying and failing to move her arm. I think we're meant to see these as sequential, though, and that opening her eyes is a direct result of not being able to move her arm.

Couldn't opening her eyes be a direct result of waking up, though? And if she tries and fails to move her arms, shouldn't she open her eyes with the express purpose of looking at her arms? Without the frosting between the layers, we don't know why these different actions flow from what precedes them. We don't know if she moves her arm because she wakes or because she itches. We don't know if she opens her eyes because she wakes (as is implied by the simultaneous clause) or because she can't move her arm. And we have no idea at all why she can't move her arm.

Maybe we'll find out in the next sentence.

It was thick enough that she saw dust motes floating in the air, and hot enough to bake her scalp under the wig she wore.

Maybe not. The next sentence contains a description of the bright light that made her squint. Normally, this would be a good thing because it flows neatly from the action immediately preceding it. Normally, this would be a kind of frosting -- Shaine is not merely squinting, but figuring something out about this bright light making her squint. The light is thick, full of dust, and hot. Important details for a woman about to make a decision about how to respond to the light. But is the light what she needs to respond to here? What about her arms? Which is more important?

Is the dust in the air making her nose itch? I can't tell. Honestly, I'm distracted by the wig thing -- a baked scalp might be a bigger stimulus than an itchy nose. Especially given that we've forgotten all about the itchy nose and the unmoveable arms while we're analyzing the light qualities. Maybe it should be a hot, itchy scalp waking her up? Would that tie this together better?

Regardless, edit the wig she wore to her wig. If her scalp is under the wig, we can assume she's wearing the wig. In fact, I want to take a hatchet to the weak main clause at the front of this sentence, too.

Dust motes floated in the thick, hot light.

If Shaine wakes up because of a hot scalp under her itchy wig, the second part of this sentence would be unnecessary. I'd rather see a strong verb like floated in the main verb slot. And really, how important is the light when we still have to solve the mystery of the unmoveable arm? (Which arm? Why only one?)

If we had stopped reading here, if the writer hadn't provided the final sentence, I would be lost right now. But we have the final sentence:

Her breathing doubled as she stared with incomprehension at the twin bands of metal holding her by the wrists to the arms of what looked like a steel shaker chair.

And now it makes sense. Trim out some of the wordiness, though.

Her breathing doubled as she stared with incomprehension at the twin metal bands holding her wrists to the arms of a steel shaker chair.

Please consider some other phrase than with incomprehension. Incomprehension means without comprehesion, so the phrase literally means with without comprehension. Stops me every time I read that sentence.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I must say something in defense of these sentences, though. The writer is going to great lengths to try to stay in the moment-to-moment consciousness of a character, and I applaud that. This is exactly what we should be doing, narrating as a character experiences things. First Shaine feels the itch, then she wakes up, then she tries to move, then she visually examines her environment, the she freaks over the metal bands strapping her to the chair. We're with her, even if we don't understand what's going on. (It may be that Shaine doesn't understand either, in which case the emotion/filling should reflect that.)

This shows a good instinct for point of view despite the fact that the pov is too objective. Make it more subjective by giving us the emotion. Reconsider the choice of details -- itchy nose or itchy scalp? How much detail does the light deserve when other problems are set up without explanation? After you get the right details in place, make sure we get not just the physical things Shaine notices, but her emotion filling. With the right details, this passage will be much easier to follow, we'll bond more with Shaine, and our breathing will also quicken when we get to that final eye-popping sentence.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Redlines Three: Framing Scene Elements

This is the third in the series of my dusty old Redlines column.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialoge sequencing) can be found here.


Recently, we have been looking at small scale logic problems. This month, we will take a look at an editing trick that helps balance interior monologue (IM) with action so that logic problems are avoided. But first, in order to understand this month’s concept, let’s look at the structural element usually called a “frame.”

Some of you may be familiar with the idea of a frame story; that is, a novel that opens and closes with linked pieces that “frame” the long middle. The frame can be set off from the main story piece in any number of ways -- most commonly, by being in a different time or setting.

Need an example? Think of The Odyssey, which opens with Odysseus’s return home, then tells the story of the last ten years, then returns to the present homecoming. In that, the homecoming is the frame.

The sequence can be mapped like this:

  • introduce an event in the present
  • event in the past
  • event in the past
  • event in the past.
  • return to complete the event in the present

with the number of events in the past varying according to the needs of the story.

This same structure, shrunk down to a smaller level, provides a model for balancing IM and scene action. IM is a crucial element in romance, where the romance plot centers on emotions rather than actions. But IM -- like backstory -- takes the narrative out of the action of the present story time. Because things that interrupt the story time will feel slower-paced than the action/dialogue scenes themselves, IM needs to be carefully handled to maintain reader interest.

Let’s imagine our heroine needs to step back from the story action and think about her attraction to the hero, Jake. Let’s say you draft this bit of IM and, upon re-reading it, it feels slow and chunky, almost disconnected from the story line.

By framing that short IM bit with present story-time action, you can effectively lower the reader into the IM, and then draw them back into the story line with the same idea. The action itself doesn’t matter much, as long as it makes sense within the overall context. So let’s have Kate saddle her horse while thinking about Jake.

  • start saddling horse in present story time
  • think about Jake’s shoulders
  • think about Jake’s hair
  • think about Jake’s lips
  • finish saddling the horse

Then continue the story.

You’ve probably seen that done hundreds of times, maybe even learned to recognize that the “saddle” sentences are transitions. They take the reader into and out of the IM, and simultaneously bridge the action interrupted by the IM. The technique would not be effective if we opened with the saddle, and closed with, say, a pitchfork or loose fencepost.

When the IM is complex, we can link framed pieces. Let’s say Kate is attracted to Jake’s body (piece one) but doesn’t like his temperament (piece two):

  • New Paragraph -start saddling horse in present story time~ think about Jake’s shoulders~ think about Jake’s hair~ think about Jake’s lips~
  • New Paragraph -tighten a jangly thingie on the saddle~ think about Jake’s scowl~ think about Jake yelling at his brother~
  • New Paragraph -finish saddling the horse~

Then continue the story.

Now we have two clusters of IM ideas, which are framed and linked by saddle action. This not only creates a smooth, balanced passage of IM, but it also fools the reader into interpreting the IM as part of the present story time action, thereby making the passage feel pacey instead of pokey.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all technique, but is one effective way of controlling the flow of IM. Next month we’ll try the same idea out on a dialogue passage.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Carol's question

Still working my way through the questions posed. :)

I've been hearing that historicals are making a comeback. Do you agree? Also, what about Historical Westerns? Do you think they're making their way back in?
Well, I'm no expert on marketing, but a couple points. First, there are two major types of historicals --

1) Historical romances, which usually come out as mass-market paperbacks,
2) Historical novels, which often come out in hard-cover first.

What's the difference? Historical romances have a focus on the romance of a couple.
Historical novels are novels set in an earlier time, and those tend to break into another two categories:
1) Those connected with actual events or personages, like The Girl with the Pearl Earring (about Vermeer and his model), and
2) Those which are set in historical settings but involve mostly fictional characters, like Cold Mountain.

As usual, historical romances are direly predicted to be dying as a genre. From what I can tell, most traditional romances, including category contemporary, are going through a sales slump. But historicals are still selling, and publishers are still acquiring historical romances. I think it's a lot harder to sell a historical romance
than in the 90s, especially for new writers, and the biggest sales are still being garnered by a handful of long-successful writers.

This genre goes through trends, so it's a good idea to do some research in a bookstore to study the current focus. For example, a few years ago, it was all about romps-- wild "cute" premises, very much focused on the romance, not much focused on the setting or history. Now (as in the 80s, actually), erotic romance is more common in historicals; in fact, many historicals now are really erotica novels in historical settings.

Historical novels are doing pretty well, however, led by the huge success of The Girl and Cold Mountain a few years ago. A connection to a major historical figure seems to get some special interest; you know, Beethoven's valet, Queen Elizabeth's maid. (The focus should NOT, apparently, be on the actual historical person, but a fictitious person close to that person.) There are also novels which track the history of a trend through fictional characters, like Sebastian Faulks's Human Traces (which explores the history of psychiatry).

There's a renewed interest in historical mysteries. I've seen (just from the Regency period) "detective novels" with Jane Austen and Beau Brummel solving mysteries.

Readers are always interested in previous eras-- it's just how these eras are approached that changes. It's hard to scope out what will be big in a couple years, so what can you do? I guess choose between romance and regular historical, and think about what seems to be catching the imagination of the reading populace. The sudden popularity of Jane Austen-connected books is certainly connected to a spate of Austen movies a few years back. I'd say probably there'll be more WWII books soon, because that era is becoming "historical" as many of those who fought in the war are dying off.

As for Westerns, well, there's a solid if not thriving market for Western historical novels, but not that big a market for Western-set historical romances. That could change at any time, of course, but several Western romance writers I know ended up writing for the category Western market, which required some shifting, as many of those readers are men. I suspect that there might be a resurgence in the Western settings soon, just because we've seen several Western movies lately... and popular fiction often trails film.

BTW, I should share with you my "tight pants" theory of what periods are most popular in historical romances-- when men's pants are tight, that's a good era. For example, in the Regency era, men wore tight breeches, and in the medieval they almost were wearing tights. And westerns -- jeans, right? Tighter the better?

You'll seldom see a romance set in the "pumpkin pants" era of the late Renaissance. :)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The High Holy Day of Romance

It's late, and I'm very tired after a stressful day. One of my cousins is a student at Northern -- he's okay, but we couldn't get hold of him this afternoon for a while after the shooting. As I said, stressful.

But all day, I've been wanting to come over here and blog about something cool that happened last night. A local romance writers group invited me to participate on a panel discussion of different types of sex scenes in romance. The other speakers were both authors, one of whom writes inspirational romance with a chick lit flair, and the other of whom writes more standard historical romances. Both are successful and are multipublished with big houses.

The setup was pretty simple. We each read and discussed a first kiss scene and a sex scene which has an impact on the relationship. (All sex scenes should have such an impact, but those were the instructions we were given.) We started with the inspy writer, then to the traditional romance writer, then to me. I guess they thought we'd be building to a crescendo of sexual explicitness or heat or something.

But I was astonished by the strong similarities between the scenes. The language used was very similar in all three -- not the language used to describe body parts, of course, but all the other language in the scenes. The yearning and the melting and the caresses, the attention paid to the placement of hands and use of fingers, even the way dialogue was used to back down from tension peaks was all very similar. Oddly, the traditional historical romance writer and I both chose to read scenes involving handcuffs. Go figure.

In fact, if I had to describe differences between the scenes, the differences would be minimal.
  • The inspy had to sublimate a lot of the sexual tension -- a description of brewing tea became a metaphor for what the heroine expected sex with the hero would be like, with the heat and the moisture and the leaves unfurling. There was still a lot of passion and emotional intensity, but it was directed at the tea instead of between the characters. Very interesting and effective technique for building tension.
  • Issues of power and control were hinted at in the other scenes but explored much more frankly in the erotic romance scenes.
  • The emotional context varied between the three scenes, but in all three, the emotions provided a foundation for the scenes.

I expected some in the audience to be a bit down on the erotic romance, and I was not disappointed. At one point, an audience member even drew links between erotic romance and teen pregnancy. But for the most part, the audience reaction was strongly positive. Most of them were surprised at the similarities between scenes, rather than shocked or appalled by the franker nature of the erorom. A few people claimed that the erorom scenes weren't at all what they'd expected, and that even though the scenes were more detailed and, um, bold, they'd been captivated by the characters and wished I'd had time to read more. (Always leave 'em wanting more, right?)

All in all, a very interesting evening. I'd be interested to hear from those of you who read romance -- what is it that makes a scene like this work for you as a reader? Are you more interested in physical inventiveness or emotional power or some combination of the two?


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Telling" As a Warning Sign

The other day, I posted the second in an old column series of mine called Redlines. The series starts by examining the way prose can be rearranged for greater impact and fluidity. To prove a point, the before and after examples use identical sentences, and we do nothing more than change the order of presentation. The lesson: Sequencing counts.

After the second article was posted the other day, a wonderful thing happened in the comments. The commenters homed in on the final two sentences in the "after" example and rightly criticized these sentences for "telling" instead of "showing."

Rube could always be counted on to know exactly what the week’s schedule was. He was a good worker and a good friend.

Consider the Source

If sentences like those are firmly embedded in one character's perceptions, they would be considered interior monologue and might be left alone. As interior monologue, thoughts like these are a natural part of the mental chat reel, the constrant stream of the character's consciousness. We pass judgments and reach conclusions about the people around us almost constantly, even when we don't voice those thoughts. Deft writers can use this type of interior monologue to lead the reader to reach the same conclusions the character has reached: in other words, the character informs the reader's opinions of other characters through the interior monologue.

But there's a difference between one character thinking conclusory thoughts and a narrator presenting those same thoughts as exposition outside of any character's frame of reference. In other words, there's a difference between Tex silently opining, Good man, that Rube, and the narrator stating as empirical fact that Rube is a good man.

Good Transitions

It's important to be alert to these kinds of empirical narrative statements for two reasons. First, they interrupt the flow of the narrative and are, as Susan commented, "Gah. Yuck." (Exactly! Great eye, Susan!)

But second, these kinds of empiricisms often are a warning sign that the prose is out of control. As readers and writers, we understand that narrative compression (a different form of exposition in which events are compressed into exposition) is a useful way to create shorthand transitions between key events.

For example, let's say we have Maria, a devoted wife whose husband has just called to inform her that he won a lottery jackpot. Thrilled, Maria takes the rest of the afternoon off and plans a celebration surprise dinner, unaware that her husband has other, less loving things in store. But the writer doesn't want to follow Maria up and down the grocery store aisles or through every beat of her whisk in the kitchen, so instead we read,

Six hours later, after a whirlwind of shopping, cooking and primping, the lasagna was stone cold, the cherry pie was picked clean of half its crust, and Maria's two coats of Great Lash painted trails down her cheeks.

This is an acceptable format for a transition. We get a time frame, a list of events that have happened in that time, and a description of the current state of things. We don't see Maria cry, but we see the tear tracks on her cheeks after her crying is done. It's compressed rather than beat-by-beat. So even thought this is exposition, it's the good kind. Not all "telling" is bad.

And maybe it won't be a temporal transition. Maybe it will be some other kind of exposition that shifts us from one scene to the next.

Mack might have been a lottery winner, but it turned out he was also a rat bastard with a cliche of a blonde, teenaged mistress. They were going to backpack through Peru, Mack had told Maria as if he actually knew where Peru was.

(Assume the writer has a good reason for presenting this information in summary rather than in scene.)

Is Mack actually, empirically a rat bastard? Who is proclaiming his rat-bastardy here? Wait. Don't assume too quickly. See if you can follow that transition with interior monologue in Maria's point of view. Then try doing the same from Mack's point of view. Want to go for a mistress next? You can play that game all day because exposition is omniscient and we can move almost anywhere from there.

Bad Transitions

But now let's say we're not at the top of a scene. We're within the scene with events already in progress. And we're out of control, with events skipping around and characters doubling back to open doors after they've already walked through them. We know we need to fix things, so we reach again for summary -- a statement about Rube's character followed by a statement of Tex's emotional state.

“Tuesday. Wednesday, if it rains.”

Rube could always be counted on to know exactly what the week’s schedule was. He was a good worker and a good friend. Tex was glad that Rube had apologized for talking about Jane that way. “She’s a lady, not a horse.” Tex knew he was pushing his point, but wanted to make sure Rube got it.

Because we understand that we can't logically move from a weather report to a defense of Jane, we put some crappy (Gah. Yuck.) transition there to create a bridge between these two events. This exposition might mimic a good transition in some ways, but it's actually pretty darn bad. As we've already seen, the real fix is to put the events in their proper order in the first place and avoid the need for bad transitions at all.

Which is to say -- commenters, you may rewrite those sentences if you'd like, but if this were a real manuscript, we'd probably just cut them and move forward. And good on ya for catching the weak exposition there. :)


Monday, February 11, 2008

Submissions Pathways

There are a couple of things going on behind the scenes which have inspired this post.

First, I looked at our blog stats. Um, can I just say, WOW! But to those of you who found this blog while searching for anatomical information about nasal passages, well, sorry. This isn't what you're looking for.

A surprising number of readers come to this blog after searching for information about the managing editor's role. And a surprising number of people commented through back channels yesterday about my slush pile post. So this gives us an excuse to talk a little about how submissions work, but keep in mind that some of these details are particular to our house or to me. What I do with submissions is influenced both by my role as managing editor and by the specific procedures at our house.

Two Paths to an Editor's Desk

As I see it, there are two loose categories of submissions, the things that come in to the house and the things that come in to an editor.

To the house -- these are blind queries and partials and other submissions that the sender expects could be routed to any editor.

To the editor -- these are directed at a specific editor because of some connection the author has to that particular editor. Maybe we met at a conference. Maybe you're friends with one of my current authors and got a referral to me. Maybe we've bumped elbows in chat rooms or other writer hangouts. Regardless, you're sending a submission directly to me rather than to the general submissions pool.

House submissions come in through two paths, electronic or paper. We have a submissions editor who culls the slush by reviewing the submissions, rejecting anything obviously rejectable, and routing the rest to acquisitions editors.

In theory, this distribution among the acquisitions editors will be equal. In practice, though, it rarely is. For example, I haven't taken a single slush electronic submission for the past two or three months because my plate is already full to overflowing. So my share of those submissions are allocated to the senior editors.

Also, sometimes one or another editor will be temporarily under the deadline gun and will need a break from submissions. Or maybe she'll -- gasp! -- go on vacation. (Is that allowed? We might need a judge's ruling. ;) ) Or maybe we have someone new and we want to build her list. So the flow of house submissions can shift in one direction or another temporarily, though it does tend to equalize over time.

Recently, for quirky reasons unrelated to anyone's job performance or general busy-ness, the paper slush has been landing on my desk instead of the submissions editor's desk. We're in a transition phase right now -- our old website guidelines call for paper submissions, but our new website calls for electronic submissions and doesn't mention paper. So we know that people sending in paper submissions are generally looking at the old guidelines. There's nothing wrong with using snail mail instead of email -- honestly, we don't care how they come in, except that e-subs are easier -- but our guidelines have changed in the last year, and sometimes the paper submitters don't know that.

So I am getting unculled paper slush right now, but this is temporary. I try to apply the same standards our submissions editor would apply. I reject what is obviously rejectable. Anything else, anything ranging from on-the-fence to probably-publishable, I request a full (sometimes with an explanation of how our submissions guidelines have changed) and then route that full to one of our senior editors. I haven't kept a single one of these for myself in the past two or three months simply because I'm too busy right now.

And really, I don't need to keep any of those for myself for another reason. That second path to an editor's desk -- the one where you use some connection to get directly to a particular editor -- provides me with more than I can handle. I attend a lot of conferences and speak to a lot of writers groups. My network is strong thanks to a couple of decades, on and off, in the publishing game. In short, I hustle hard for my company, and I have more than I can read -- so much more, in fact, that recently I've taken to transferring some of those submissions to other acquisitions editors. That's why I was joking with Alicia about having her do my work for me.

If you've sent something directly to me and hear back from another editor instead, let me assure you that I never transfer these kinds of submissions to another editor without explaining the backstory to them. I understand the importance of networking and make sure that the editors understand the network links the writer is using. And I do keep tabs on the outcome, though I never suggest a particular outcome. I trust my editors to decide for themselves. That doesn't mean people in my network are an auto-buy. Believe me, we've all rejected the work of friends. Comes with the territory.

That said, we do seem to have a higher hit rate with personal submissions (to me or to other editors) than we do with house submissions. I'm not sure why. And I'm not sure it's something we need to worry about. This could be one of those pendulum things that will swing in another direction soon. Or it could be simply that writers who are out there hustling, attending conferences, pitching work, networking their asses off, are more likely to have a publishable product. It's a sign of their work ethic, maybe.

Yesterday's submissions were a mix of things that came in under the transom and things that came directly to me. I camouflage the details when I talk about these submissions so that it's unlikely any writer would be able to say, "She's talking about my submission." I speak in generalities, or I change identifying facts, or I do something else to protect the writers. So if you read yesterday's post and thought, "My heroine gets in a fight with a banker," rest assured I wasn't talking about your submission. I was talking about a different fiesty heroine.

And I look at submissions on the weekend sometimes because--well, because I can. I have time for it then. When the workweek starts, there are other demands on my time. Today, for example, we're debating the order of presentation for novellas in an upcoming anthology. I have to do final checks on two other novellas and get them to production. (Everything we publish -- every single thing -- crosses my desk at least twice, once when the editor recommends we buy it and once when it's ready to leave editorial and go to production. It wasn't always like this, but it is now.) I have the usual batch of Monday morning email, and a couple of PR things that have landed on my desk that need some attention. Covers, jacket copy, scheduling matters. It's easier to read submissions when I don't have to think about all those other things.

I'm not sure that there's a grand, cohesive point to this post, other than to give you a glimpse into how we manage the flow of incoming new submissions from unagented writers.

who keeps forgetting to sign her posts!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tales From Today's Slush

I'm determined to get ahead of my inbox this month. Wish me luck with that! Eyestrain, here I come!

So I'm reading electronically submitted slush partials today, and here is what I'm seeing:

1. In the first submission I read, the sentence structures show no appreciation for the rhythm of language. I count the sentences on the first page -- there are 27 -- and all but three begin with the word "she" or the character's first name. The remaining three all begin with present participial phrases, two of which are incorrectly punctuated. To make matters worse, the character is alone and thinking about the backstory while she gets dressed. I don't read past the first page. Frankly, I can't imagine that anyone would.

2. Second submission looks more promising, except that the writer is being coy. Two characters, a man and a woman, are being intimate in the opening, and neither one of them is named. I read for five pages without seeing a name. Details are slurred -- at one point, I can't tell if the man is touching the woman's hair or the woman is touching the man's hair. But the writing is generally good, and I respect the adventurous spirit that led the writer to try something like this in the first pages. It doesn't work, but I want to read more in the hopes that the rest of the book will be less experimental but equally well-written. I'll request a full, and if the full is any good, we'll just edit that opening.

3. Oh, God. Not another needlessly fiesty heroine. This one is yelling at her parents' banker and calling him an ass. I don't know why. The man's just trying to deliver a message, and she tees off on him so thoroughly that I wonder if this story ought to be set in a mental ward. Plus, it's single spaced, I'm guessing 8-pt type in a sans serif font. Almost impossible to read. Pass.

4. I can't believe my eyes. Someone sent in a well-formatted and well-written synopsis. All caps to introduce new characters, and she does that cool romance thing where the hero and heroine get lead-in paragraphs before the plot synopsis starts. This always seems to me to be a very good technique for romance, where character is so crucial. Turn to the sample pages with a feeling of hope -- there are some awkward sentences on the first page. But we're firmly in one character's pov and it's an actual scene. I'm kind of on the fence with this one. There would be a lot of clean-up work in line edits, which means a lot of time. My time, not the writer's time. Dare I request it, with so many other fulls sitting in my inbox? I could always farm it out to one of the senior editors. (Hi, Alicia! You busy, hon? Wanna do my work for me? lol)

5. A requested full novel of 100k words. This one will take a while to read--assuming I read the whole thing. We're so picky about long stories that this submission is a real long shot. I back out of this one -- I want to bang through some quick submissions today, not spend the focused hours needed to evaluate a full -- and discover that most of my remaining submissions are also for fulls. This is a bad sign. My inbox will take more hours to clear out than I first imagined. I start digging for partials. I know there are more in here. There have to be.

6. Here's one. A "friends with benefits" plot. We're only friends, but we're horny so we have sex. Oops! We fell in love! Friendship is not a conflict, folks, especially not when they're already having sex and have managed to stay friends. There's no real story here. Pass.

7. Another one, an historical, but it opens with a full page of set-up, the heroine sitting and thinking about how her life is about to change. That would have to be cut. It shifts quickly into scene, but I'm wondering if this is the right scene. There's such a great hook in the cover letter, but ten pages into the manuscript, I see no evidence of anything supporting that hook. The writing is raw -- the kind of writing that shows lots of promise but isn't ready for press. This is the kind of writer I would love to groom if I had more time. Maybe she'll find the blog. Pass.

8. Here's a good one. Elegant prose, tons of drama, solid plot. But it's not what we publish. Pass.

9. Yes! OMG, yes! Okay, the first three pages will have to go -- they're this lead-in fantasy thingie, totally unnecessary -- but after that, hoo damn is this one good! Please, let it be this good all the way through! Request a full. Hope the writer sends it instantly. I'm in the mood to buy manuscripts today.

I feel like I've succeeded now. That last one gave me a feeling of accomplishment. I'm going to switch to other tasks as a reward now. :)


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Another first few lines!

Thanks all who contributed openings! Hope we can get to them all. Here's one:

1902 Rio de Janeiro

Sofia rounded the table and clutched it ends, eyes narrowed on the lustful countenance of Vitor Jimenez. He was spry despite his bulk, the governor's cousin staring her down the length of the elaborately-made dining table set for the romantic evening planned for her. She however, many stones lighter and many years younger, was quicker--but she was never one to underestimate the almost superhuman vigor of a man in pursuit of his quarry.

Okay, to start at the top:
1902 Rio de Janeiro

If you're writing a historical or a contemporary novel where the time and place are important, a tagline like this works wonders to establish the setting and situation. It's another of those narrative conventions that readers absorb and accept. And it spares you from having to work that into the opening scene. ("Rio de Janeiro is certainly hot!" "Yes, and I think 1902 is the hottest year in decades.")
I am already getting a sense that this is going to be fun-- in an exotic time and place.

Sofia rounded the table
What can you sneak in without being obnoxious? Maybe her last name. Maybe what kind of table it is-- kitchen table? Restaurant table? That would narrow the setting more.

and clutched it ends,
Reading aloud really helps locate minor typos like this. Also I'm trying to block this action. She is walking around the table and then turns and grabs the ends? Sometimes it's hard to describe complicated physical action in the opening, where we don't have much sense of where we are and where the characters and props are placed.

eyes narrowed on the lustful countenance of Vitor Jimenez.

That establishes conflict right away, and helps make sense of the physical action-- she's trying to escape from the lust-hound. The "eyes narrowed" phrase is a bit awkward, because it comes after two nouns it can't possibly be linked to (ends and table). Modifiers should be as close as possible to the word they modify (in this case, Sofia). Now that could be difficult in this case, so I'd suggest an easier fix- just put "her" in front of eyes. "...her eyes narrowed..." would make it clear that the "eyes" referred to the last woman identified.

lustful countenance of Vitor Jimenez.
Hmmm... here is a full name being used in the first sentence-- and it's not the name of the POV character. I'm not sure how you can get around this, but identifying someone by name in the first paragraph tends to ascribe a great deal of importance to him. If he turns out to be the villain, that might be worthwhile, but if he's just a stray lust-hound, I'd think about changing the name to his role-- like "... of the rubber salesman...."

He was spry despite his bulk, the governor's cousin staring her down the length of the elaborately-made dining table set for the romantic evening planned for her.
I love that word "spry," and it's a nice contrast to "bulk."
Now after the main clause there's a long participial phrase. That's a sentence in danger of beoming unbalanced, as the main clause is so much shorter than its modifier. I'd suggest maybe making it two sentences, or putting "the governor's cousin" as the subject rather than "he," and then trimming the participial phrase as much as you can. You actually have two participles there-- "planned for her" is a past-participle phrase. Consider "he planned for her," so the causer of the planning is identified.
Now here's something that jumped out at me. You have her eyes narrowing-- that is, she's looking at him. Then you have him staring-- he's looking at her. First problem-- you haven't really settled tightly on a point of view approach, because those two sentences could be from her POV, his POV, or an outside observer's, or omniscient, for that matter. I'm thinking you want to be in her POV, so think about the first sentence as establishing the setting, and the second as getting more into her-- her thoughts, her feelings, her fears, whatever. The elaborate table, the romantic evening, the planning-- those are all his concerns, not hers. What does that table look like from her perspective, not his? From her perspective, it's not a romantic evening, after all. So what is it? An extremely awkward situation, certainly-- her host putting the moves on her. (Did she at least get dessert first? :) So think about putting the reader squarely in her POV here-- what's her take on her situation right now?

She however, many stones lighter and many years younger, was quicker--
I like this construction, but I had to read it a couple times, I think because "She however," though exactly correct, isn't really idiomatic. It's also still not really in her POV. (This doesn't have to be in her POV, of course, but I think you want it to be, so I'm pointing that out. This is an outside observation, not an inside one.

but she was never one to underestimate the almost superhuman vigor of a man in pursuit of his quarry.
Now you're in her POV. I'd finish up with an action-- she darted out the door, she picked up the platter of roast and threw it at him-- that seals this opening as belonging to her.

There's so much to establish in the opening! But it might be helpful to try writing this in the POV character's first-person narration, as that will help you pinpoint what the situation looks and feels like from her perspective. (That's just to experiment, of course-- change the pronouns back to "she". :)

Also don't forget that your setting is a hook here, so if it's at all possible (and it might not be), see if there's anything Rio-ish that could be slid in there-- the dining room's French doors open to the sea breeze, I don't know. Of course, don't add anything that isn't needed!

Thanks to Historical Novelist!


Alicia opens the mailbox.....

Okay, so I'm going to combine a couple of the questions, because they're both about agents:

How important is it to acquire an agent? Do we dare submit on our own?

What are the differences (benefits, drawbacks) between querying an editor versus querying an agent, and should it be handled differently by we authors?,


Getting an agent, especially at the beginning of your writing career, isn't always a matter of choice. If you are going to submit to certain lines or certain publishers, you have to have an agent, as they won't look at "unagented submissions". (It is sometimes possible to get around this by meeting the editor, maybe at a writing conference, but their first question is often, "Who's your agent?") The big NY publishers tend to use agents as first readers or "gatekeepers," winnowing out the worst manuscripts. So if you've got a book bound for the publishers, you might have to get an agent whether you want to or not.

On the other hand, a lot of agents have taken to saying they are only open to currently contracted authors. (Anyone gotten the infamous rejection: "Love the book! Write to me when you've sold it, and then I'll represent you?") So if you WANT an agent, you might not get the one you want until after that first contract.

Do you need an agent? Well, think about what you want from an agent. If you just want a quick sale, you might decide to go it alone, if you're submitting to an editor who will read unagented material. But if you want more than the standard advance, or a better than standard contract, you might look for an agent first. Certainly there are certain types of "high-concept" books that a good agent can do wonders with—getting a great contract, reserving film rights, selling the film option to Hollywood. And a good agent can very likely get a contract for the next book or two on similar or better terms. That's hard to do by yourself.

However… notice I keep saying "a good agent." A good agent is worth his/her weight in gold (sometimes literally— I suspect JK Rowling would NOT be a billionaire if she hadn't had a good agent), but a bad agent is worse than no agent at all. Get a bunch of published authors together in a bar (so you can get them drunk) and ask them for their bad agent stories, and you'll hear things that will curl your hair-- embezzling agents and editor-antagonizing agents and negligent agents and cheating agents and so on. So don't think about getting "an agent," think about getting "a good agent," if you decide you need one. And remember, the prime purpose of an agent is to sell the book and negotiate the contract, not to make you feel good. I know too many writers who look at getting an agent as an end in itself, when there's another very big step after that (the agent getting you a contract). Focus on that, and find the agent who can help you most.

Once you've got a contract, however, you might decide your needs change—you need more long-term attention, beyond this single book. Agents should be focused on your career and not just this one book, so a good long conversation about what sort of books you want to write and what sort of career you want to have should happen early rather than late. There are good agents who simply aren't the right match for a particular writer. Let's say you want to keep your day job and write part-time, and the agent wants you to sell (and write) three books a year. Or maybe you want to sell big thrillers, and the agents thinks you should play it safe and continue working on those little cozy mysteries. Or you love what you write, and the agent loves your voice, but thinks you should be writing something else. These agents might all be great for someone else, but they probably aren't right for you, because their vision of your career is different from yours.

As to queries, it's a matter of focus. The editor is probably buying single books, while an agent is looking for an author. So the query to the editor should focus on the book, with maybe a paragraph at the end telling what's relevant about you (you're an attorney and this is a legal thriller, for example, or you think you will do a great job promoting this book because you have so many contacts in the community). The query to the agent should introduce the book, but spend maybe more time introducing you as an author—why you are likely to be successful, what your career plans are, what writing successes you have had in the past. If the editor likes your book, who you are won't make much difference (in the main… obviously if you're a US senator or the recent scandal-of-the-week subject, who you are might matter more). The agent probably won't take you on if she doesn't like the book… except that some do, especially if you have a strong track record of selling books before, or an existing relationship with a publisher. (I would not suggest going with an agent who doesn't like your writing… but one of the little secrets of publishing is that plenty of agents don't read every book they're submitting.)

So… just keep that in mind. Both types of queries should deal with your book and you the author; however, the editor-query generally focuses more on the book, and the agent-query focuses more on you. For example, I'd be sure, in an agent-query, to mention that I'm good at marketing and promotion, that I speak to a dozen women's groups a year and can hand-sell books then, that I can get blurbs from NYT-list friends (I'm making all that up, alas!). Those are items of interest that the agent knows she can use when she pitches your book to an editor.

This is why meeting with an agent at a conference is usually more productive than meeting with an editor. An agent can pretty much decide to take you on right then, but an editor isn't going to be much swayed by your sterling credentials and great charm—he'll say, "Send me the manuscript," and make his decision solely on whether the book works for him and fits his line.

By the way, I'm hearing more and more that agents often ask you to get a blurb (a recommendation) from a prominent author if you can—before submission. This is one more selling tool the agent can use. However, most new writers don't have access to a lot of prominent authors, and even if they do, many are resistant to asking for that sort of favor. But that's something to keep in mind. For example, if you're workshopping the book in a class with a well-known author, you might think about asking for a read and a rec. That blurb can actually go with your submission, whether it's to an editor or agent.