Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Proud Moment

Last night gave me one of those poignant moments we don't forget. My seven-year-old niece, the undisputed diva of the entire first grade, had a sleepover at my house last night. She likes hanging out in my home office. I keep personalized notepads on hand for her and let her play with my pencil sharpeners, so this is big stuff for a little girl. She plays in my file cabinets too -- which might explain a few missing pieces of paper, come to think of it.

So last night, she's draped across my office chair with her feet up on my bookcase, holding her notepad and staring at the ceiling while she chewed on her pencil. Then she heaves a great sigh and says, "Sometimes I don't know what to write. I just know that I have to write it."

Yeah. She really said that. And then she wrote this poem. Is my judgment clouded by familial pride, or is this pretty darn good for a seven-year-old?

Aww, sniff sniff. What insight! What style! What spelling!

Blogger isn't letting me comment... maybe a post will work

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Crazy Western Martian here... but that first go-round with our paragraph created, for me, a sense of melancholy and tone. Why isn't that a helpful way to advance the story?

Well, if you can justify it, it's got some meaning, right? But is it the meaning you want at this very juncture in this story? I think melancholy might not be the aim of this story-- it's about a wedding, so it's probably a comedy. And juxtaposition and timing are all important in a comedy. I'd say paragraphing appropriately is MORE, not less, important, with comedy, because paragraphs are how we do "timing" in print.

So the point is... does the paragraphing convey what you want? Not "convey something" -- it's always going to convey something because a paragraph is a signifier of meaning, and readers are always going to find some meaning in the way you paragraph. But is that the meaning you want for this juncture in this story? If this is a comedy, I would want the paragraph to set up (probably) a joke or comic moment to come.

That initial paragraph-- read again-- yes, has some existential weight. There is no meaning because there is no meaning-- life is meaningless, grass is green, there are a lot of reasons but not worth speaking aloud. :)

Just right for a novel about a male college professor who didn't get tenure. Maybe it even ends with a wedding!


Friday, May 30, 2008

Topic Sentences in Fiction

Now don't scream. I know you have had quite enough of the topic of topic sentences back in your college composition courses. Well, that's what I teach, so I've had quite enough discussion also, of how the topic sentence is an essential organizational device in the non-fiction essay or paper, stating the point of the paragraph and keeping the paragraph unified and focused.

(What amuses me is that topic sentences are REALLY helpful—they really are—for both the writers and readers of essays. And yet many comp teachers sneer at them as "too directive" and "uncreative". Well, they're only as uncreative as the writer creating them, I think, so let's assume that topic sentences, from the pen of a good writer, are not only helpful organizationally but also intriguing. Organization, logic, coherence—these are not, in my view, the signs of an uncreative writer, far from it.)

But Theresa suggested I write about topic sentences in fiction paragraphs. Okay. Do you need a topic sentence in most fiction paragraphs? No—you don't usually or always need a statement of the point of the paragraph, because fiction paragraphs have other purposes than advancing an argument or analysis. But the first sentence of any paragraph is important, and so it behooves us to think about what we're starting with when we start a new paragraph.

First, I suppose, we should establish what a paragraph is. Again, this is a lot more diverse in fiction, but paragraphs are always units of meaning. Even if you have a series of short dialogue paragraphs, each paragraph itself should probably have some meaning, something the reader can read and get one step further into the story. So here's a perfectly meaningful paragraph (when following and leading into other paragraphs, of course):


We know, just reading that, that the speaker is denying, refusing, or disagreeing to something in the preceding paragraph. Meaningful—and it links to the preceding paragraph.

But here's a paragraph (at least it is separate from other text on the page) without any real meaning:

There were many reasons why he couldn't go. But he didn't tell her that. He gazed out the window at the green lawn and sighed.

See, nothing happens in that paragraph—nothing advances. There were many reasons, but we don't learn any of them. He doesn't speak. He just gazes and sighs, and the grass is green, not blue, so we don't even get surprise to make the paragraph interesting.

So the first question when you look at your paragraphs is--- why is this a paragraph? What meaning does it impart? What does it contribute to the passage?

The second question is, what unifies it as a paragraph? What is the paragraph ABOUT? Even if the first sentence doesn't state what it's about, you should know what the paragraph is about so that you can start it and end it at the right point, and throw anything out that doesn't belong. For example:

There were many reasons why he couldn't go. He didn't have any money. He couldn't take time off work. But as he glanced over at Miriam, he realized that no reason was good enough. Her baby sister was getting married, and Miriam wasn't about to go to the wedding without a man on her arm—and if not him, it could be some rent-a-stud from an escort service.

We stuck with that lousy first line, alas. (Reasons why? Eek.) But at least the paragraph is unified, as it moves from the reasons he couldn't go to the reason he better go. We can, however, revise to make that more meaningful and unified, starting with the start:

There were many reasons why he couldn't go.

"There were" is a really useful opening in some circumstances (I'm kinda fond of "It was" too). But with a stronger subject, we can make this more meaningful, and more clearly unified as "his" thought. Try:

Tom mentally listed some of the reasons he couldn't go: He didn't have any money. He couldn't take time off work.

"Tom" identifies the "actor" of the paragraph, adding to the unity because we know now that this paragraph is about Tom and his thoughts. "Mentally listed" puts this in his viewpoint, because only the POV character can mentally do anything (if it were just "Tom listed," it might be in someone else's POV, because he could be listing out loud).

See the colon there? (If it looks too formal, try a dash --) That adds unity by connecting that first sentence with the elaboration of the reasons. (Start with a capital letter after a colon if what follows is a full sentence. The colon is still a linking device, but you also are recognizing with the capital the completeness of what follows.) Also notice how it makes the beginning of the paragraph about "why not," and that opens up to the natural corollary of "why". So the paragraph is unified around the idea of "reasons".

What else helps unity? Well, the repetition of the keyword "reason" helps unify. Repetition is NOT a bad thing when it's keyword repetition, when the word is important and the repetition is meant to unify. In fact, if there's a way to use "reason" in that last sentence, well, that might add to the unity (but might also be really annoying J).

For some reason, maybe alliteration, maybe just trimming, I feel like replacing "wasn't about to go" with "refused to go".

Her baby sister was getting married, and Miriam refused to go to the wedding without a man on her arm—and if not him, it could be some rent-a-stud from an escort service.

Also maybe replace "if not him" with "if not Tom," just for clarity.

Now a mistake I see in paragraphing is to put at the end what ought to be the first sentence of the next paragraph. For example:

Tom mentally listed some of the reasons he couldn't go: He didn't have any money. He couldn't take time off work. But as he glanced over at Miriam, he realized that no reason was good enough. Her baby sister was getting married, and Miriam wasn't about to go to the wedding without a man on her arm—and if not him, it could be some rent-a-stud from an escort service. He and Miriam had met the first day of law school in their civil procedure class.

Notice that last sentence is about a new subject—no longer reasons to attend or not to attend the wedding, but how Tom and Miriam met. That should start a new paragraph about their meeting. Those of you who have an "ear" for the rhythm of paragraphs will hear the discordance there at the end. You might not know why, but you hear that the paragraph has gone on too long. Honor that instinct. Figure out what's wrong—what's sticking out of the roundness of the unified paragraph.

So don't put the "topic sentence" of one paragraph into another. Know what your paragraph is about, and unify around that.

Watch especially for this in descriptive passages. You know how some writing books tell you to use all five senses when you describe? Well, I have issues with that (your character's dominant perceptive mode should determine which sense is emphasized), but if you do want to do a full description, utilizing sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, don't smush them altogether willy-nilly. Consider that your character is paying attention to one thing at a time. What comes first? Sight? So deal with sight first. Not enough for a full paragraph? Hmm. Are you really telling me you can't find three things to "see" at that moment? And then three things to "hear"? If you have a paragraph mostly about what is seen, but a sentence of "hearing" in the middle, you'll be breaking the unity of the description and disorienting the reader.

Just keep in mind -- paragraphs are units of meaning: unified and meaningful. Your reader is going to feel and hear the paragraph as a unit (if you do it right). Paragraphs should be tightly focused and carefully structured.

Oh, and you might have noticed that paragraphs are considerably shorter these days. Our attention span is shorter too. If you find your paragraphs going to half a page or more, then go back, analyze—what is the unit of meaning, and when does it change or shift? That's where to start a new paragraph.


Pitch #4

Okay, let's try something a little different here. Here's a pitch from someone we all respect, someone who shares very wise insights in the comments. I've already run through a couple of practice pitches here, and I can tell from all the comments that people are starting to understand the nature of pitching. It's not like a query letter, right? And that's because I'm processing your story with my ears instead of with my eyes.

Now, let's all pretend that you're the editor. An author is sitting across a small table from you. You see a very fast pulse in her throat, and her voice shakes just slightly when she greets you. She's nervous. And you know that the pitch will go better for both of you if she's less nervous than this at the end of your very brief meeting. She'll be better able to answer your questions if she's calmer, and that means you'll be able to make a better decision about her story.

So, here goes. Read the following pitch out loud, one time, and pretend that you're merely hearing it instead of just reading it.

Gaining acceptance by the Rhiaton Crowd was not a problem for Kinush. Admittedly they had helped him to celebrate his elevation with a bath in the sheep dip, but now their world of elegant balls and magical discussion was wide open to him. When the Crowd drive his boyhood friend Meriok into hiding, and his best friend shows more interest in the cut of his sleeves than the fate of his brother, Kinush must make a choice between all he ever wanted and the friend he had served badly.

But magic is more than an elegant pasttime: with the right spells a group of mages could take down whole cities. Inevitably, the ambitions of the Rhiaton Crowd begin to attract unwelcome attention.As he gets more and more entangled in the politics of magic, Kinush - whose idea of hardship is a bed at a country inn - finds himself camped in an olive grove playing stare-me-down with two powerful mages, and he cannot afford to blink...

You're the editors. What questions do you ask the writer?


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Approaching Editors in the Wild

Just an aside -- we don't usually link back to Red Sage stuff from this blog, but in this case, I'm going to make an exception. I posted to the Red Sage blog today about a writer I met at a conference who ended up selling to me. Several times. Anyway, it's an anecdote that might shed some light on the right and wrong way to meet editors in bars.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Back home again

Genella asked about the trip. Yes, I survived two weeks driving on the LEFT side of very narrow roads without any collisions. But it was really stressful. The second week was even more stressful because I ended up (long boring story) with a Mercedes, and kept waking up in the middle of the night sure that what I had thought when signing the contract was a weekly rate was actually a daily rate and that I'd arrive home to a $2K bill. But no, the very nice rental agent actually gave me a Mercedes for less than I would have paid for a Ford Fiesta. Of course, that made it even MORE stressful, because if I actually hit the parked cars or the stone walls on the side of the road, well, it would be worse in a Benz.

So it was a stressful trip. :) But otherwise, it was great. Ended up the last two days in London, where we drank a pint at Chaucer's favorite pub, entertained by the-- get this-- London Cajun Jammers. Yes, Cajun jammers in London. In Chaucer's pub. That's why, I submit, there will always be an England.

And I'm ready to go back-- already making reservations for a week in October. The trick, I'm told, is just giving in and pretending the Euro ($1.60) and the pound ($2) are really the same as a dollar. Think that will work?

I'm trying to get Theresa to go with me-- next year, I've told her. I'm going to call it "The London Literary Pub Tour"-- you know, where Dr. Johnson drank. Where Shakespeare drank. Where Pepys drank. I mean, doesn't that sound educational??

Where Were We? Oh, Right. Pitch #3.

Nothing like a holiday weekend to blow the cobwebs out of your mind. I took two days completely off. No deadlines, no manuscripts, no email. No work at all. I believe two days with no work is what regular joes call a weekend. I must say, I liked it. Might try to do it more often.

Pitch #3

The Lady Lies is a historical romance about a desperate con-artist whose unexpected romance with her befuddled, paleontologist mark teaches her the value of honesty and trust in a relationship. Spurned by Dr. Everard Livingston after the truth of her profession is revealed, Sofia vows revenge, forcing herself into society intending to make him fall for her in order to break his heart. Sofia's plan backfires when she falls for Everard all over again. He cannot marry her because he doesn't trust her and he is engaged.Piercing her ruse, Everard turns tables on her: in exchange for not turning her into the police, she must use her disguise as a medium to uncover a plot against his integrity by a rival. Sofia's profession as a con-artist threatens to topple the fortunes and happiness of many of Everard's relatives. Everard's well-planned life falls to pieces when he must reveal Sofia's deception and his own part in it to his family and friends. Everard has spent most of his life trying to please his father at the expense of his own wants and desires. Sofia has been taught to disguise who she was, and has never been accepted fully and unconditonally. Everard finds affection and tolerance from Sofia, and Sofia finds freedom and acceptance from Everard. The Lady Lies is a 90,000 word historical romance appealing to readers who yearn for romances set in turn of the century New York. As a fan of Edith Wharton and a historian of the Edwardian era, I am well-equipped to set stories of passion and adventure against romantic backgrounds.

Maybe it's because I'm still on weekend mode, but I found this a little hard to track. I think it's because of the way the clauses connect and the way some of the phrases imply new things. Remember, when you're pitching, I have to be able to listen and follow along very easily. I've been sitting in the meatlocker listening to who-knows-how-many other pitches before you came along, and my ability to track the plot is going to have a big impact on my overall impression of the pitch.

So let's see what happens if we untangle the pitch a little. This first sentence is straighforward, except I think I'd like it made plain from the outset that the con artist is female. I'm also going to pull out the "desparate" because nothing in the rest of the pitch supports that detail. While we're at it, "befuddled" probably isn't the way we want people to perceive a romantic hero, so let's pull that, too. Paleontologist already implies a certain bookishness, maybe an air of distraction or absorption with things of the mind.

The Lady Lies is a historical romance about a lady con artist whose unexpected romance with her paleontologist mark teaches her the value of honesty and trust in a relationship.

The next sentence skips around in time a little, and I had to rearrange it in my head while I was reading, which would cause some confusion if I were listening. The chained present participial phrases are also a bit hard to track. So let's straighten it out:

After the truth of Sofia's profession is revealed and Dr. Everard Livingston spurns her, Sofia vows to force herself into society and make him fall for her in order to break his heart. Sofia's plan backfires when she falls for Everard all over again.

The "all over again" stopped me because it implies she had feelings for him to begin with, but I thought she was marking him for a con. Maybe get rid of "all over again." Or make it clear that he wasn't just a mark to begin with.

He cannot marry her because he doesn't trust her and he is engaged.

This presents a bit of a logic problem. Why would she target him for connubial shenanigans if he's engaged to someone else? And I thought her goal was to break his heart, not to marry him. Honestly, you could probably cut this sentence and the previous sentence without losing anything of the plot. The next sentence needs to be trimmed so that their deal is really clear:

Piercing her ruse, Everard turns tables on her: in exchange for not turning her into the police, she must uncover a plot against him by a rival. Sofia's profession as a con-artist threatens to topple the fortunes and happiness of many of Everard's relatives.

Is she also working cons against everyone in his circle? That's what that last sentence implies. I'm not sure if it should be cut or just clarified.

Everard's well-planned life falls to pieces when he must reveal Sofia's deception and his own part in it to his family and friends. Everard has spent most of his life trying to please his father at the expense of his own wants and desires. Sofia has been taught to disguise who she was, and has never been accepted fully and unconditonally. Everard finds affection and tolerance from Sofia, and Sofia finds freedom and acceptance from Everard. The Lady Lies is a 90,000 word historical romance appealing to readers who yearn for romances set in turn of the century New York. As a fan of Edith Wharton and a historian of the Edwardian era, I am well-equipped to set stories of passion and adventure against romantic backgrounds.

Putting it all together:

The Lady Lies is a historical romance about a lady con artist whose unexpected romance with her paleontologist mark teaches her the value of honesty and trust in a relationship. After the truth of her profession is revealed and Dr. Everard Livingston spurns her , Sofia vows to force herself into society and make him fall for her in order to break his heart. Piercing her ruse, Everard turns tables on her: in exchange for not turning her into the police, she must uncover a plot against him by a rival. Everard's well-planned life falls to pieces when he must reveal Sofia's deception and his own part in it to his family and friends. Everard has spent most of his life trying to please his father at the expense of his own wants and desires. Sofia has been taught to disguise who she was, and has never been accepted fully and unconditonally. Everard finds affection and tolerance from Sofia, and Sofia finds freedom and acceptance from Everard. The Lady Lies is a 90,000 word historical romance appealing to readers who yearn for romances set in turn of the century New York. As a fan of Edith Wharton and a historian of the Edwardian era, I am well-equipped to set stories of passion and adventure against romantic backgrounds.

Does this seem better? Easier to track? Now we get a strong sense of the premise, a plot sketch, character insight, and a few marketing details. The last two sentences feel more like a query letter than a pitch, but they wouldn't throw me off during a pitch.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Pitch #2

Here's the second pitch that resulted from the post about parsing and pitching.

“Throw Away the Scabbard” is an alternative history about how the Civil War could have unfolded if Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s brilliant lieutenant, had not died at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Using Jackson’s invasion plans, the Army of Northern Virginia heads north into Pennsylvania, defeating the Army of the Potomac at Duncannon and destroying the coal fields to depress the North’s economy and effect the presidential election. When General Ulysses S. Grant is unable to defeat the Confederates, Lincoln signs an executive order postponing the election, forcing the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia to war ravaged Virginia. In the spring campaign, Jackson manages to evade Grant’s trap, but a lack of supplies and food causes the Confederates to surrender. After Lincoln and Grant are assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrests Lee and Jackson and sentences them to hang as Booth’s conspirators. On the morning of their execution, Lee and Jackson say good-bye, while General Jeb Stuart orders a long column of cavalry to ride to their rescue. Jackson fought the war to protect his wife and daughter, but when his “family” comes to include Lee, Stuart, and members of his staff, Jackson must find a way to protect them in the midst of battle and in the aftermath of the surrender. In the defeat of the army and loss of his country, Jackson discovers he has gained more than he has lost. “Throw Away the Scabbard” is a 124,000 alternative history that would appeal to Harry Turtledove fans. As a Civil War enthusiast, I know that the question about how the war would have turned out if Jackson had survived is one that is debated with great enthusiasm. Here is one exciting answer.

To mimic the experience of hearing this as a pitch, I read this out loud to myself once through. Because in a pitch, I can't stop to ponder or re-read a confusing point (though I can ask questions), I have not allowed myself to read this more than once.

So what we have here is a complex story, very long at 124k words, condensed into just a few sentence. I imagine this was a challenge to the author, trying to condense such a long story. For the most part, I think that reduction was handled pretty well. I recognized most of the character names and was able to keep the characters straight in my head. Key historical details enabled me to track the way this plot would unfold over time. Causation was pretty clean throughout.

But there was something lacking in this pitch. The beginning seemed focused on events, so much so that I wasn't entirely sure who the main character would be or why I should want to read about that character. By the end, the nice little bit about Jackson's family personalized the pitch a little better so that I began to feel some bond with the character. I think what would greatly improve this pitch is having it focus on Jackson throughout. He's the hero of the piece, right? He's the character who dominates the narrative? He's the one we'll track most closely, the one we'll cheer for, the one we'll cry over? Then keep the pitch focused on him and his arc.

Without that personalization, the pitch skates a little too close to the line between historical story and textbook. The challenge for the writer of a piece like this is to demonstrate knowledge of the time period and relevant history, and this is, of course, accomplished. But it's at the expense of the characters, I think.

I would have a lot of questions about this project during this pitch. I would start by confirming that Jackson is the point of view character in most of the scenes. Then, given that Jackson dies in the end, I would want to know the point of view used at the very end. Which other characters are given points of view? Are they all historical figures, or are any of them pure fiction? How often is the narrative presented by an omniscient narrator?

All of these questions would be designed to help me understand whether there's a hero in the piece and how the reader will bond with that hero. I'd also be concerned about the length. 124k is long. It may be that there's enough story to sustain that length, but it's still a tough sell.

That said, I think this is a good effort at a difficult task. A little more focus on character might help tie the entire thing together more neatly, and help the listener track the narrative more effectively.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Where to find info about what a publisher wants...

Natalie asked: Are there any websites or resources available which state to a newbie what different publishing houses are looking for? (I know I'm trying to cheat here, but I thought I'd give it a go.) does that for romance publishers. Otherwise, you might just put the publisher's name into google with "writer's guidelines," as sometimes the house puts guidelines up on the web.

But really, the best way is to go to a big bookstore with a notebook and look at the books each publisher has for sale in your category (or, for epublishers, go to their web-sales page). Scan the jacket copy and see what's emphasized. What sticks out about the titles and premises? For example, I was recently looking for a book in a London bookstore, having read the two books I brought for the trip, and I found that Brit publishers are apparently very into Davinci Code variations, that is, Name of Famous Person + word that indicates something cool... The Shakespeare Mystery. The Henry VIII Scandal. Well, that tells me something... that I'm not going to sell to a British publisher EVER probably. (Hmm... The Jane Austen Bigamy?)

When you find a book that seems sort of like what you want to write (or have written already), open to the Acknowledgements page. (Many novels have them.) Here the author, if she's savvy and obsequious :0, has probably acknowledged her editor and agent. Note those names down. Those are the people you want to query, and maybe even mention, "This book might remind you of (title of book they edited or sold)."

Acknowledgement pages are full of great info!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pitch #1

Some people posted their pitches in the comments to the redlines article about parsing and pitching. I thought it might be useful to give feedback on the front blog page and give folks a chance to help each other with pitches.

So here's the first one, from Natalie, who cautions us that she has a precious and feeble ego. Ooh. That's a problem in this business! But we're pretty good about focusing on the work and not devolving into mudslinging, and I'm gambling that Natalie's ego will survive.

If You Are But A Dream is a historical romance about a law clerk who finds love and forgiveness in a time of war. While trying to do her bit for the war Heather finds she must choose between the man who loves her and the one she thinks she loves. Her decision is flawed by town gossips intent on ruining others lives. Heather realizes she’s made the wrong choice only to find James, her true love, leaving for the war front and incapable of forgiving her. She follows him into war to try to prove that she’s more than he thought. The ravages of Papua New Guinea help James realise his true feelings for Heather. Heather finds forgiveness and fulfilment in James. If You Are But A Dream is a 82,000 word historical romance which would appeal to Charlotte Bingham fans. It is based on true stories from my home town in World War Two which family and friends have shared.

So, let's start with a little description of what it's like to sit on my side of the table during pitches, because it's important to keep in mind that pitches don't get made on paper when we all have the leisure to consider them closely. Pitching is like speed dating where one party (the editor or agent) is trapped in place. A succession of people come, one after the other, so rapidly that the only way to keep it all straight is to make notes during the pitches. I always review my notes right when the pitch session ends so that I can add reminders and other details that will help me remember people later. Otherwise, it might all be a blur.

Also, the rooms are always like meat lockers. Why is this? I have learned to always take a fresh, hot mug of tea into pitches to try to keep me warm -- it's either that or a down parka. Before the first pitch ends, my hands are generally turning to meatsicles, which makes the introductory handshake a bit embarrassing.

From my perspective, pitching is a bit like triage. I hear a pitch and am listening for the key details that will let me figure out how it would fit into our publishing schedule. Length. Subgenre. Heat level. Usually, people pitch me work that I think I can place. Sometimes, they pitch me things that sound good but might not work for us -- things like full-length novels, which are incredibly hard to place with us, or things with plot red flags that I know our readers won't buy.

When I hear a red flag during a pitch, I generally let the writer know about it. It's not an indictment of the work (which, of course, I haven't seen and thus can't evaluate), but rather, just a general statement about potential marketing issues. So, with that said, let's talk about Natalie's pitch.

First, it seems very well structured to me. I was able to follow easily and got enough sense of the plot and characters that I understand what kind of story it would be. The pitch was tight but still presented some good detail: law clerk, love triangle, wartime, bad decisions, danger, redemption. I like stories with redemption themes -- and so do readers -- so I'm interested in that angle and might ask some questions to see how that theme plays out.

The one weak spot seemed to be:

While trying to do her bit for the war Heather finds she must choose between the man who loves her and the one she thinks she loves.

I don't know what her bit for the war is. Does she knit socks for soldiers? Or is she engaged in espionage? That could mean almost anything. I'd like something more specific that "the man who loves her" -- find a more evocative noun, such as soldier or flatfooted Mayor's son, or whatever. But what really jumped out at me here is "the one she thinks she loves." Is there a true distinction between thinking we love someone and loving someone? Does the author perhaps mean to imply that the law clerk might love this man, but isn't certain of her feelings? This sentence is a bit vague, even though it does a good job of introducing the love triangle. It just could be much better.

Now, we're going to assume that anyone practice-pitching on this blog is pitching to the correct editor, that the editor could actually acquire this type of story. But I'm a little concerned that this particular pitch is mischaracterizing the work. The author describes it as an historical romance, but then delivers a love triangle plot summary that sounds more like women's fiction. The other problem is that WW2 is not really an "historical" period as such is meant for historical romance. Historical fiction? Yes. Historical romance? Not so much.

But, assuming I acquired women's fiction of this length and in this time period, what really jumps out at me is the Papua New Guinea angle. That, more than any other single detail in the pitch, is what would set this one apart for me. This isn't another story about London air raids, the French resistance, and Allied military strategies. No concentration camps. No starvation. No sprightly doo-wop war songs. The setting makes me think this story could be something different, that maybe this author will be in firm control of her own world-building, and that makes me want to take a look.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Leave the Gun. Take the Cannolli.

I just finished reading The Godfather by Mario Puzo. I adore the movies and can practically recite them, but this is my first time with the book. I read it in the hope that it would explain Michael's relationship with Kay a little better -- to me, that has always been the weak spot in the first movie, and the book did clarify what happened there.

But what stood out for me most was how much the style of commercial fiction has evolved since this book first came out almost 40 years ago. Check this out:

Fanucci was impressed. "You're a good fellow," he said. He took Vito's hand and clasped it in both of his hairy ones. "You have respect," he said. "A fine thing in the young. Next time speak to me first, eh? Perhaps I can help you in your plans."

In later years Vito Corleone understood that what had made him act in such a perfect, tactical way with Fanucci was the death of his own hot-tempered father who had been killed by the Mafia in Sicily. But at that time all he felt was an icy rage that this man planned to rob him of the money he had risked his life and freedom to earn. He had not been afraid. Indeed he thought, at that moment, that Fanucci was a crazy fool. From what he had seen of Clemenza, that burly Sicilian would sooner give up his life than a penny of his loot. After all, Clemenza had been ready to kill a policeman merely to steal a rug. And the slender Tessio had the deadly air of a viper.

Look at that. Look at how the first paragraph is pure scene, and the second paragraph shifts into something else altogether. The whole thing is written in this combination of scene and an almost high-journalism-omniscient summary. The quest for objectivity dominates the narrative style.

It's not that we're blocked out of the character's internal worlds. We get all the insight we need fully to comprehend the characters. But that information is presented in this very intriguing, distant way, with frequent skips in time, frequent references to other events and people, frequent blending of details that might today be sequestered into scenes.

In the second paragraph alone, we jump in time from the present to
-- the future thoughts of Vito Corleone
-- the murder of his father many years earlier
-- then to the present again
-- then to the recent past when Clemenza stole the rug

Seven sentences. Four time periods.

Not to mention the way the narrative character is referred to by his full name here. Vito Corleone. As if there were another Vito involved, and we had to keep all the Vitos straight somehow. No -- in truth, this is another distancing move. And Puzo uses it very skillfully, this and similar tactics, to pull the reader back from the anti-heroes during their most criminal and dangerous moments.

Some might be tempted to call these "sequel" moments, these places where the narrative lapses into this omniscient exposition. I think that would be wrong. I think Puzo is actually deliberately playing with the point-of-view telescope, pulling the reader in and then zooming them back out again. He could get away with this because he was writing at a time when omniscient viewpoints were far more common in pop fiction. It wouldn't be quite so jarring to the reader then as it might be today.

This is the kind of masterful technique that makes me a very happy reader. Would it translate to a contemporary project? Hmm. Possibly. If you're dealing with anti-heroes, you might want to play with this and see what kind of effects you can create. But use a light touch. Today's readers do crave that bond with the character, and it's harder to get there with a lot of exposition or an omniscient narrator.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Redlines Eleven: Parsing and Pitching

Someone asked in the comments recently if we would talk about pitching. What a coincidence! The next in the redlines series is about one method to parse and pitch a manuscript. Two caveats: This method will give you a long pitch, and it's geared toward romance. We'll talk about ways to build loglines and other pitching methods later. (Worth noting -- this method might be a good way to build a short synopsis.)


With RWA National fast approaching, I thought this would be a good time to share one method for parsing and pitching a manuscript. As an added bonus, this method can be used to come up with a short synopsis or, with modification, a query letter. We’ll use the novel “Jane Eyre” as our example throughout.

Imagine your pitch shaped like the opposite of an hourglass. Your pitch will start with a focused summary statement, then widen out to provide an overview of the story. Finally, you narrow it and close with summary information, such as the word count and target market. Sound easy? Get out a pen and paper, and you’ll see how easy it is. You might want to read through the instructions before trying the method yourself.

Start by making a list. This is just a list, and it doesn’t have to be sparkling or detailed.

Number 1: The narrow summary.
Write down a one sentence summary of your premise or hook, plus your subgenre. Describe characters by trait (orphaned governess) rather than by name (Jane) or function (heroine). This summary doesn’t have to be a good sentence. For now, anything will do.

(1) Jane Eyre is a gothic romance about an orphaned governess who teaches her dark-tempered employer that love heals all wounds.

“Gothic romance” is the subgenre. “Love heals all wounds” is the theme. The hook (employer/employee forbidden relationship) is implied in the rest of the sentence.

Numbers 2-4: The non-sagging middle.
Write three sentences describing the most important plot developments in the middle of your manuscript. I can almost hear the collective squawk. “What? Only three?” But if you focus on the middle of the story, leaving out the black moment and final resolution, it will be easier. Focus on events, even if you state those events without describing the actual scenes.

(2) While teaching Rochester’s young ward, Jane discovers that there is a madwoman living in the attic of their isolated country estate.
(3) Rochester proposes marriage, but their wedding is interrupted with the news that Rochester is already married to the madwoman.
(4) Jane flees to protect her virtue and nearly dies on the road, but is saved by strangers who help her see that her love for Rochester can survive all obstacles, even attempted bigamy.

Number 5: The black moment.
Write down the plot event that indicates that things are at their lowest point. In romance, this is the final reversal before the happy ending.

(5) Jane returns to Rochester’s home, and finds it burned to the ground and abandoned.

Number 6: The resolution.
Write down the plot event that resolves the conflict and leads to the happy ending.

(6) Jane finds Rochester blinded and scarred from the fire, and learns that his madwoman wife died as a result of her arson, leaving him free to marry Jane.

Number 7: The internal conflict.
This should be a quick statement of the emotional forces that keep the hero and heroine apart. Sometimes, this will need to be in two parts: one part for the heroine, and one for the hero.

(7) Rochester feels he is doomed by the youthful mistake of his tragic marriage, and Jane is haunted by a subtle sense that she can never belong to any person or any place.

Number 8: The case for romance.
Write down why they belong together, the reason that the reader will believe that these characters are each other’s soulmates. Again, this might be a two-part statement. It might even echo some of what you have written in number seven or in other parts of the list.

(8) Rochester finds forgiveness and tolerance in Jane, and Jane finds belonging and freedom in Rochester.

Number 9: The technical stuff.
Write down your word count, target market, and any other technical information you feel the editor should know. For example, if you have written a medical romance and you are a nurse or doctor, write that down. Or, if your book is similar in tone or scope to another book that the editor or agent worked on, write that down.

(9) “Jane Eyre” is a 150,000 word gothic romance which would appeal to Victoria Holt fans. As a former bigamist, I am personally familiar with the destruction that these illegal relationships can create. (Kidding! Of course!)

That’s the entire list. Read through it from top to bottom. Steps one through six should read like a skeletal outline of your plot. The next step, which can be tricky, is to decide where on that list to include the internal conflict and the case for romance. The three most likely placements each have relative advantages and disadvantages.

First, if you leave the internal conflict and the case for romance at the end, you are closing with a powerful description of the core romance. But leaving these items for the end might make the plot seem dislocated from the romance, depending on your plot.

Or, second, you might put the internal conflict and the case for romance right after your narrow opening sentence, before the three middle plot points. Doing it this way may create a transition between the opening statement and the meat of the plot. However, it might also sound like you are wrapping up and then following with expanded information, instead of presenting a smooth flow.

Or, third common option, put the internal conflict statement right after the narrow summary at step one, and put the case for romance at the end, either before or after the resolution. Doing it this way will highlight the characters’ journeys, but separating these two statements might undermine the coherency of your pitch.

Regardless of where you choose to weave in the internal conflict and the case for romance, once you have them organized, write the word “because” as often as possible. This magical little word is what you are going to use to flesh out your pitch and make your manuscript sound cohesive and tight.

You may have already included some causative elements in your list. For example, we have the statement, “Jane flees to protect her virtue.” We could just as easily have written, “Jane flees BECAUSE she wants to protect her virtue.” The meaning is there, even if the word is not.

Study your list and weave in short statements of causation. But keep in mind your time limit. If you have eight minutes, your pitch should be no longer than four or five -- you want to save time for questions, introductions, and the all-important request details. You might want to leave time to add in a one-sentence summary of your next project. But you want to appear as though you are getting behind one of your ideas, and just mentioning the second to show your commitment.

You may find that you still have extra time. If so, consider including additional details that enhance those already on your list. In our example, we might want to mention that the madwoman wife tries to burn Rochester alive in his bed, and Jane saves his life. This foreshadows the black moment (when Rochester’s house burns down), and the ultimate resolution (where we see that Jane has also saved Rochester’s heart). These details tie in more neatly than, say, Jane’s experiences at the Lowood School.

Now all you have to do is shine it up. Use words and phrases that resonate with the theme, or reinforce the case for romance. Practice saying your pitch to make sure there aren’t any tongue-twisters or other awkward phrasings. Practice with a timer until you are sure that you can pitch with confidence.

One final suggestion: reduce each step of the pitch to a single word. List the words in order on a cheat sheet to lay on the table before you during your pitch. For example, the word “widower” neatly sums up step six in our “Jane Eyre” pitch. Creating this key word cheat sheet will allow you to stay focused and avoid reading, though many writers do read their pitches. Good luck, everyone!


Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.
Redlines Eight (on tension statements) can be found here.
We'll skip Redlines Nine because its topic has already been covered in other posts.
Redlines Ten (on backstory and narrative compression) can be found here.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Oh, Dear, Or, A Special Note For Students

I hardly ever check the blog stats, but I just did today, and what I found there prompted me to write this bit of advice to students. Yes, it's the end of the year. Yes, your teacher has given you one of those filler assignments that will keep you all busy until June arrives. But, dear young ones, sometimes you're better off with contemplation instead of google.

Our top ten search terms for the last two weeks include:
write about my strengths and weaknesses
what are my strengths and weaknesses
essay about who am I
list of character strengths


Sunday Slush

It's a chilly, clear Sunday, just the kind of day perfect for slush diving. I've got a stack of partials that have been gathering dust -- some are two months old now -- so it's time to thin the herd. What will we find today?

Men. Several of them. I've heard unconfirmed rumors that some romance publishers auto-reject submissions from men. Doubt whether it's true, but who knows. We certainly would be willing to publish a male author if he sent us the right kind of material. Our readers are predominantly female, and there are things they just won't read. Today, male authors have submitted:

-- a 1k short-short about a guy who hires two teenaged prostitutes to fulfull his fantasy of sex with two women. How is this romantic? He ought to try Penthouse or a market like that.

-- a story about a guy who crashes a girl party, disrobes, and mesmerizes them with the awesome power of his weenie. Apparently they are all so dazzled by his anatomy that they become his instant harem. This one came with a recommendation from someone I know, so I keep reading even after I should stop. It's written well, and absolutely wrong for our readership. Too bad. Pass.

-- a story about a guy trapped in an isolated location with a group of women who all want to have sex with him. He tries to be a diplomat and uses a calendar to assign his charms evenly. Hijinx ensue. Our readers would hate this.

Well, so much for the men today. Anyone else see a pattern there? Coincidence? Let's see how the women authors will do.

-- two romantic suspense stories. One author hasn't bothered to explain how her story is erotic romantic suspense, and it's not apparent from her submission. The other reads like standard romance with a really strong plot and two sex scenes thrown in. This isn't what we publish. Doesn't matter if it's brilliant. Wrong market.

-- Every single non-dialogue sentence on the first page of this next submission takes the same pattern: independent clause, comma, present participial phrase. Except for one which uses a semi-colon instead of a comma. By the third paragraph, I'm already mentally tallying the long hours of copyediting that would be needed to clean this one up. I flip a few pages in to see if the writing quality improves. It does not.

-- Here's one that's almost all dialogue. Two women are chatting and gossiping about a cute man. The dialogue is peppy but I'm not sure whose point of view we're supposed to be in, and three pages later, I still don't get a sense of story. It's a "picnic scene," and though the dialogue shows evidence of wit, there's little to it other than clever repartee. Pass.

-- The first sentence of this next one almost makes me snort my tea. I'm always very careful about discussing submissions on this blog -- I obscure the identifiable details and change things so that blog readers can understand what I'm seeing in the slush without ever being able to identify an actual submission. This morning, though, I'm tempted to quote a line from this submission. It's that funny. I keep reading, and I keep laughing. Comedy is so hard to write well. I'm not two pages in before I'm ready to ask for the full manuscript. Excellent.

-- Now I'm in a good mood. I've found at least one to request, so even if the rest of these submissions are quick rejections, this feels like productive time. I read the next one with a sense of accomplishment. The first sentence violates the laws of the physical universe. You know how Alicia always says, block your scenes? This is why she says it. If the author had blocked this scene, she would have understood her error instantly. The writing quality is good, and there's evidence of a strong plot and characters. I read the entire partial and set it aside. I may want to send her a personalized letter. I have to reject it, but there's evidence of talent here, despite the flaws.

-- Oh, here's something fun. This one reads like a cross between 60s lounge lizard caper movies and -- something else. Something you wouldn't normally cross with that style. I don't want to say more because this is so unique, I might give it away. I'd rate the writing quality at a B+, and the originality of the plot and setting gets a solid A. We can edit the sentences. Request a full and make a note to watch for this one. Too cool.

Someone asked me the other day what percentage of submissions we end up publishing. I have no idea. I can tell you, though, that here are ten, and I'll request full manuscripts on two. Doesn't mean we'll buy them both, but this feels like a decent hit rate for partials, and it feels like a typical assortment. The truth is, this is not something we have a lot of control over. Our rate of request depends a lot on what is sent to us. When the submissions are good, we ask for more.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Historical Opening

This is one of the long-lost openings hiding in our mailbag. The author tells us it's historical fiction set in the western United States, about the erosion of Spanish power and the expansion of American colonial influence.

Young Kincaid hunkered with the slave in a narrow band of shade in a dry creek bed. A stiff breeze drove the hot breath of the desert against the lad’s skin, drawing moisture from his body and torturing his thirst. *A man could lose his mind for want of water,* he thought, *any would do. Cool sips from the spring back home or even slurps from a buffalo wallow.*

The asterisks are mine and are meant to indicate where the author italicized the text.

First Impressions

This opening does a lot of things right. We get a clear sense of time and space, and we are introduced to a point of view character in the very first words. There's a problem (thirst), with the hint of a bigger problem (why are they in a creek bed in the first place?), and there's enough of a question in my mind that I would keep reading.

But I would be watching out for overwriting. I'm already worried about that tendency overshadowing the story.

Breaking It Down

Young Kincaid

Right from the first two words, I'm intrigued. I like the use of the adjective here -- it signals a more objective form of third person, but that doesn't put me off because there's a degree of intimacy in the adjective. "Young Kinkaid" implies that there is also an elder Kincaid, and that the reader knows -- or will soon know -- all about any Kincaids we need to know.

And yes, I know this is a familiar trope in westerns, but I'm not sure this is a western in the John Wayne and Hoss model. I don't know that from the first two words, of course -- I know it from the one-sentence logline the writer included in the email to us. This is okay, because what was in that logline would also be available to readers in the jacket copy.


Do we need down after hunkered? Merriam Webster online says "usually" we do. What do you all think?

with the slave in a narrow band of shade in a dry creek bed.

This first sentence is taut without being dull. Plus we get a lot of information, enough to orient us immediately. Who, what, where -- Young Kincaid and a slave, hunker, in the shade in a dry creek bed.

Plus, take a look at the almost lyrical rhythm you get from those chained prepositional phrases. Four in a row, building one into the other. Read it out loud. Can you hear the music in that? The prepositions are down beats. The nouns are up beats. The first and third prepositional phrases end in a single unadorned noun. The second and fourth include adjectives, and the adjectives plus the nouns each have three syllables. There's such a lovely feel to this. My ear is delighting in these phrases. I especially like the strong ending, three solid, single beats in a row.

That makes it all the more puzzling that the next sentence starts to trip over its own toes.

A stiff breeze

I want something different here. It's two strong up beats, two single syllable words, right on the heels of dry creek bed. It throws off the rhythm. Also, stiff breeze feels like one of those phrases you reach for automatically. I've seen it before, and I've never been completely sure whether a breeze can truly be stiff, and yet I keep seeing it. How stiff is the breeze meant to be? Can we call it a gust or a gale or a blast or a squall?

drove the hot breath of the desert

Mixed response. I like hot breath of the desert because it feels evocative. I know just what the hot breath of the desert feels like. But can breeze drive desert breath? Wind and breath are both air in motion. Do we need both? Why not let the hot breath of the desert be the subject of the sentence, and let it do something to Kincaid's skin? Such as,

The hot breath of the desert licked the lad's skin
The hot breath of the desert parched the lad's skin

Or whatever verb you choose. That gets rid of the stiff breeze, which felt off, and eliminates the doubling up on the air-in-motion concept. It also helps with the modifier, which is also a double:

against the lad’s skin, drawing moisture from his body and torturing his thirst.

The participle police would like it duly noted that here are two present participial phrases used correctly. I know, I know. It shocks me, too. These are a special breed of phrase sometimes called a cumulative modifier or a sentence modifier. Usually, a present participial phrase will modify a noun in the sentence, meaning that the present participial phrase is functioning as an adjective. But sometimes, phrases modify the entire independent clause rather than a single word in the clause. In such cases, you can place the phrase at the end of the sentence without the participle police writing you a ticket.

And this is one of those cases. The paired phrases (1 -drawing moisture from his body, and 2 - torturing his thirst) don't modify just the breeze or just the desert breath. They modify the cumulative idea of what that wind is doing to the boy's skin. Do you see? The wind doesn't torture the boy's thirst. The wind blowing against his skin does.

It's an important distinction, and one a good writer will always be sensitive to.

A man could lose his mind for want of water,

I love this. I love it that "young" Kincaid positions himself as a man -- that tells me so much about this character -- and I love the very strong character voice. It's youthful and frustrated and colloquial, and that want hints at the time period. The rhythm of this sentence is strong, and the alliteration in the final four words works, to my ear, anyway.

he thought,

You don't need the thought tag if you're italicizing the text. The italics function as a thought tag of their own. But I like the way the thought tag serves as a beat, a transitive pause, between the first cheeky line and what follows.

any would do. Cool sips from the spring back home or even slurps from a buffalo wallow.

I suspect this phrasing is deliberate and is meant to let us know there's a hint of disorganization in young Kincaid's mind at the moment. "...any would do" creates a run-on, and the final fragment balances it in a way that really appeals to me.

But there are two little hiccups in this final fragment. First, I think "cool" is misplaced -- it's not the sips that are cool, but the spring water. This is a bit of a judgment call, because this isn't a technical error. And it's entirely possible that the writer means to signal that the act of sipping is itself cool.

But slurps -- that word choice doesn't feel natural in this voice. I think the writer was looking for a way to create contrasting pairs, and that's what gave rise to the sips and slurps. And I like the technique, as a general rule. But does young Kincaid think like this? I'm already forming an impression of him, and my impression tells me this word choice doesn't quite fit. Buffalo wallow, yes, that works. Slurps from a buffalo wallow, maybe not.

Plus, with the doubling up on the wind, and the cool, and the slurps, I'm starting to get a slight hint of overwriting. I wouldn't call this overwritten, not exactly, more just in need of a tweak and tighten. But it errs in the direction of overwriting, and so I would already be looking for more evidence of that as I continue reading. I can see the writer's preference for pairs, and I'll be looking at how he handles singles and triples and paired pairs. Is pairing a default tic, or is he doing it deliberately and varying his rhythms?

And I would continue reading, by the way. I think this is a strong opening.


San Francisco, Anyone?

If you're going to RWA nationals in San Francisco this summer and would like a pitch meeting with Alicia or I, now is the time to sign up for one. Email your name and preferred email address to eredsage at gmail dot com to get on the list. These are independent pitch appointments, and any conference attendee is eligible for one, regardless of any other pitches you may have signed up for. I hear that the pitch schedule is already filling up and that they're looking for overflow room arrangements so that we can accommodate all the appointment requests.

In other news, Oakley Hall passed away. This saddens me and makes me want to pull out my worn copy of How Fiction Works for another read. Have any of you read this one? I don't always agree with him -- I remember in particular that his discussion of cumulative modifiers seemed half-formed -- but I approve of it more than some of the other technique books floating around writerland.

Alicia reports that the weather in England has turned cool, and that finding her way around the English countryside is an adventure of aimlessly meandering roads punctuated by sudden towns. I don't know about the rest of you, but to me that sounds like an adventure worth having.

I'm digging through our gmailbox -- it turns out that a bunch of emails with openings and questions have been languishing in a folder I didn't know existed. Oy. You think you're so organized, and then something like that happens! But I'm sorting it all out and we'll respond to them just as soon possible. Tip of the hat to the commenter who asked if we were ever going to do more openings -- that comment prompted this editor to dig deeper in the gmailbox.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Breaking Down the Two Choices

I want to thank everyone who commented on the two possible openings yesterday, and I especially want to thank people for being civil when we do things like this. I know there can be a real temptation on the internet, with its famous anonymity, to tear into work and forget that there's a real person behind every line of type. But for the most part, we manage to keep things focused on the work in a non-snarky way, and I'm proud of us for that. Keep it up, folks.

There were a lot of smart observations made about these two openings. It's clear that personal taste plays a key factor in deciding which we "like" better, but we also heard some solid analysis of these two openings. There's no clear consensus on which is the stronger opening, but people's opinions seem to be driven by two factors:

1. The narrator in the first piece is less offensive, but most readers experienced her as distant or cold, primarily because the list of statistics is a bit clinical, but also because they don't get her jokes.

2. The narrator in the second piece is much more immediate and emotional, but some readers were alienated by her anger, which also struck several people as being a little too on-the-nose.

So. What's a writer to do?

Well, maybe before we get into that, we should take a closer look at the two options.

Option One:
The average American woman is 5’4”, 164 pounds and wears a size 14. Let’s just say that I’m above average—and I’m not talking about my height. I didn’t start out this way, mind you. At birth, I was actually below average.

That em dash is a real fulcrum point, at least insofar as I read the paragraph. What comes before the dash seems fine to me, assuming we want a certain impression created of this narrative character. That impression? Analytical. Informed. Someone who ponders issues of personal interest to her. The list of statistics doesn't bother me much because the narrator shifts very quickly out of the list and into something chattier. That Let's just say has an almost dry tone that leads me to hope we'll find a dry wit. What follows -- that I'm above average -- plays with our assumptions that being above average is a good thing. I like all of this. I haven't warmed up to the character yet, but up to this point, I'm willing to do so.

But after the em dash, it loses focus. Before the dash, the text is driven by two things: this analytical, dry character, and the notion of average/above average. After the dash, the first thing we get is a strong dose of defensiveness: and I'm not talking about my height. Like some of you, I assume this was meant to be a funny line that just fell flat. This doesn't sound like the same character. I'm hoping for dry, analytical humor to match the character so willing to toy with notions of averageness, but instead I'm getting defensiveness and a sleight of hand -- she talks about what she's not talking about in order to draw attention to what she is talking about. This ought to feel clever, but I can't shake the feeling that a character with such a precise grasp of statistical knowledge wouldn't back off from her personal truths like this.

So now I'm questioning my understanding of this character. Is she dry and clever and informed? Or does that list of facts come from obsession rather than from general knowledge?

And then we get hit with that next line. I didn't start out this way -- more defensiveness, followed by the prim, mind you. By this time, my impression of this character is transformed. I no longer hope to find a dry wit and a lively mind. Instead, I expect someone who is defensive, almost hostile, someone who is being very literal about her discussion of averageness.

So. She defined the average in numerical terms, and then identified herself as above average in everything except height. And then she says, At birth, I was actually below average. I suspect this is also meant to be funny, but because of the parameters at play, my mind wanders to the suspicion that she was born an anorexic adult. From the comments, I think I'm the only one who ended up here.

Remember that for the most part, the commenters experienced this narrator as distant and clinical. If her jokes worked after the dash, if the defensiveness was stripped out and replaced with a running tongue-in-cheek examination of averageness that's set up before the dash, then some of that coldness would be alleviated and we'd have a character we could possible get behind.

Consider something like:
The average American woman is 5’4”, 164 pounds and wears a size 14. Let’s just say that I’m above average. I come from a long line of overachievers with high expectations. Summa cum laude, double major, and extra whipped cream on top.

I'm not sure that works, either, for other reasons, but now the character is clarified as the analytical, self-deprecating wit, instead of as the defensive obessive. She might be more appealing even in the face of all those numbers. It's still a mild opening without a huge emotional punch, but it's a little more focused. If this is the opening the writer chooses, I'd recommend taking it in this direction.

That might not be where the author wants to go, though. Which leads us to her other choice.

Option Two:
If I have to look at one more picture of a rail-thin “all-American girl”, I’m going to puke. Or eat another cupcake. Okay, the truth is I really hate to throw up.

People had very strong reactions to this. I did, too. We have to give the writer her due here -- love it or hate it, she's generating a strong response in her readers. This is a good thing and the mark of raw talent for a fiction writer.

The emotional pop comes from the first sentence, which is exactly where we want the pop to be. I like the casualness of puke. I like the juxtaposition of rail-thin with all-American girl in quotes. My image of an all-American girl is more athletic and wholesome, so I think the use of quotation marks and the addition of rail-thin works to shift my awareness in a slightly new direction, away from the tennis player with a big white smile and toward the awkward thinness of a fashion model. I think it works precisely because of this distortion. We're dealing with a character who sees the world through the particular lens of her own viewpoint. Even stereotypes are pulled into a different focus by this viewpoint. (One caution about rail-thin, though -- it is a cliche to call someone as thin as a rail.)

The impact of the first sentence is diluted by what follows, of course. I'm not wild about the cupcake, and it seems that the readers who voted for Option One also didn't like the cupcake in Option Two. Some called it a cliche, and maybe it is. Or maybe it's a mark of this character to use a juvenile treat, with all that symbolic weight, to describe her coping skills.

See, the thing about that cupcake is that it could still work if the last line was different. Look at how the paragraph plays out. The cupcake breaks up the two sentences that talk about vomiting. I think that the puke in the first sentence is colloquial enough that we don't think the character is talking literally about emptying her stomach. But using throw up as an end note jars me into thinking maybe we're talking literally about a character who might make herself vomit.

The progression is:
- colloquial, non-literal use of puke
- introduction of food with the cupcake
- confession that she hates to throw up

You see, she doesn't admit to anything other than a hatred of throwing up. She doesn't say, "OK, I don't mean puke literally, ha, ha." She doesn't say, "The truth is, I will do anything to avoid puking." She says she hates doing it. Which implies doing it. Which casts a sort of nasty shadow over her decision to eat that cupcake, right?

That's why I'm not wild about the cupcake. Consider what happens if we remove the implication of that last vomit:

If I have to look at one more picture of a rail-thin “all-American girl”, I’m going to puke. Or eat another cupcake. Okay, the truth is I really hate cupcakes.

Do you see how changing that end note changes the resonance of the entire paragraph?

I said yesterday that the paragraphs were roughly equal in terms of writing quality. Each starts off well but skids off course. Each is ambitious in its own way -- I see evidence of a real writer at work here, despite the flaws. Each is portraying a character with a strong world view, though the first option is a little more muddled and the second is a little less approachable.

I also said yesterday that the key difference between them is tone. The first is defensive and clinical, the second is angry and (maybe) self-destructive.

Finally, I said yesterday that I had a strong preference based on something other than writing quality. As much as I'm willing to be charmed by the (I hope) clever narrator in the first, my preference is for the second, but only if that final sentence is fixed. The second option has such a powerful sense of presence and character -- and, despite the anger, I think her anger is understandable and relatable in some ways, and that when coupled with real humor and humaneness, it could be very effective. It's just not quite there yet.

Fiction writing and editing require the constant application of critical judgment. We won't all always agree on what we "like" in various pieces. But, as I think we've seen, we can usually all agree on what works or doesn't work.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Reader's Request

One of our readers has written in with a request. (Yes, this means I dug into our mailbag today. I intended to wait until Alicia returns from her vacation, and then she and I could divvy up the letters and questions, but I'm jumping the gun. We'll have to wait to see if she'll forgive me on her return.)

Our reader is pondering two different openings. The novel in question deals with a plus-sized heroine and her quest to find love. I was going to do a little comparative analysis of the two, but after closer inspection, I've decided to ask the blog what you all think.

Just so everyone understands this isn't a trick question, I'm going to start by sharing a few quick impressions. I think the openings are roughly equal in writing quality. Each sets up a strong viewpoint character. They share a strong voice, but the tone is different between them.

I think the key difference between them is tone. There are other minor differences, but I don't think they are as important. I have a strong preference, but it's not based on writing quality. It's based on a more instinctive, gut-level response to one of the pair. But not everyone will respond the same, and it might be an interesting exercise to see if my reaction is in line with the majority response. (Yes, as an editor, this is something I think about frequently. My taste is on the line with every story we buy.)

So, help a reader out. Which of these openings has the more compelling hook? Please vote in the comments.

Option One:
The average American woman is 5’4”, 164 pounds and wears a size 14. Let’s just say that I’m above average—and I’m not talking about my height. I didn’t start out this way, mind you. At birth, I was actually below average.

Option Two:
If I have to look at one more picture of a rail-thin “all-American girl”, I’m going to puke. Or eat another cupcake. Okay, the truth is I really hate to throw up.


P.S. Alicia emailed me from Ireland, en route to England. We must congratulate her when she returns. She has spent all this time driving on those narrow Irish lanes without putting a single scratch on her rental vehicle. That's impressive!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Paragraphs: Leading to a Conclusion

Sometimes, instead of starting with a topic sentence and developing the topic in the body of the paragraph, we'll use the reverse shape -- a paragraph with several bits of evidence that lead to a final conclusory sentence:

Colonel Wallis had known Mr. Elliott long, had been well acquainted also with his wife, had perfectly understood the whole story. She was certainly not a woman of family, but well educated, accomplished, rich, and excessively in love with his friend. There had been the charm. She had sought him. Without that attraction, not all her money would have tempted Elliott, and Sir Walter was, moreover, assured of her having been a very fine woman. Here was a great deal to soften the business. A very fine woman, with a large fortune, in love with him! Sir Walter seemed to admit it as complete apology, and though Elizabeth could not see the circumstance in quite so favorable a light, she allowed it be a great extenuation.
~ Persuasion, Jane Austen

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Mr. Elliott is the estranged cousin of Sir Walter. Mr. Elliott is trying to find his way back into Sir Walter's good graces. Sir Walter thought Mr. Elliott had married beneath him, beneath the family dignity.

So this paragraph leads us to understand that there will be a change of heart, that Mr. Elliott will be forgiven his bad marriage. It starts by setting out several points of information, all delivered by his friend, Colonel Wallis. Educated, accomplished, rich, and in love. Then it sets out that Mr. Elliott did not marry the woman for her money, as was previously believed. Then the coup de grace -- she was a very fine woman. Sir Walter, whose outsized personal vanity requires that everyone around him should be fashionable and beautiful, will forgive people almost anything as long as they are "fine" or good-looking and well-groomed.

It all leads to the final conclusion: Sir Walter forgives all, and his eldest daughter Elizabeth goes along with him.

In the blog comments, Green Knight mentioned a sudden tendency to use topical sentences in many of her paragraphs. A gently written topical paragraph will guide the reader from an idea into an exploration of an idea. But to break things up, try reversing the order of topical paragraphs on occasion -- save the "topic" or summary statement for the end of the paragraph, and let it serve as a conclusion to the paragraph.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Redlines Ten: Backstory

Most writers occasionally find themselves battling backstory. This is a battle you can win. Let’s start by defining a few key terms.

What Is Backstory?

Remember the timelines that decorated your high school history text? If you were studying World War One, the timeline began with an assassination and ended with the Allied victory.

Your book can be mapped in a similar way. The first event in the book is the starting point of your timeline. The final resolution of the plot is the end point. Everything that happens in chronological book time between these two points constitutes your plot.

Here is the simplest definition of backstory: every relevant *event* that occurs before your book’s timeline begins is backstory. If the event can be plotted on your book’s chronological timeline (like the battles of World War One in the history text) then the event is plot. If the event precedes your book’s chronological timeline, it is backstory.

Confusion over backstory sometimes results from misunderstanding this definition and confusing bacsktory with narrative summary.

What Is Narrative Summary?

Narrative summary is a technique for compressing events within the book’s chronological timeline. We use it to avoid writing a scene that would focus on relatively minor details.

For example, let’s say your heroine’s car breaks down and prevents her from catching a plane to meet the hero. Perhaps writing a car repair scene with the heroine and a mechanic would slow down the pace of the romance. So we compress these events in narrative summary at the opening of the next scene:

Five hours later, Susan stashed her carry-on bag in the overhead compartment of the wrong flight. She had a new water pump in her car and was finally on her way, but her wallet was five hundred dollars lighter. Damn the mechanic for not letting her call Marco from his shop. She eyed the plane’s in-flight telephones, praying that she would soon be able to reach Marco.

This paragraph weaves details from the current scene on the airplane with the previous skipped breakdown events. The summarized details of the breakdown might have been dramatized in a scene--Susan begging for assistance, worrying about Marco and her flight. These events might even result in a dynamic scene, and would have fit within the plot.

Regardless, the narrative summary is not backstory, even though it contains event information that happen outside the current scene. The events themselves still take place on the chronological time line of the book’s plot. People sometimes use the term “backstory” to describe narrative summary, but that is merely shorthand. The two elements of the narrative remain separate creatures, no matter how they are described.

How To Fix It

Whether you are using narrative summary or backstory, the effect is the same. The forward momentum along the timeline is broken, and the reader is removed from straight narration in to exposition. But the editing fixes are slightly different.

Think again of our timeline analogy. Narrative summary does not interrupt this flow, but merely compresses events on the timeline. If your readers complain about narrative summary, the fix might be creating a new scene to dramatize the compressed events. Alternatively, you might be summarizing irrelevant events like showering and eating. These don’t require summation and can be cut.

If your readers complain about too much backstory, examine the backstory in relation to the current scene. Ask yourself how the *action* of the current scene would be different if the backstory did not exist. If the answer is, “not at all,” then cut the backstory. Backstory is only relevant if it qualifies the current event on the timeline.

If backstory is necessary to explain current plot events, then you cannot cut it. Instead, trim it as much as possible. Give the reader just enough to allow them to comprehend how the past event is linked to the current event. Use a minimal number of words, and return to the story timeline as quickly as possible. The story, after all, is what keeps the reader turning pages.

Special note for romance writers: Internal conflict in romance often has roots in the characters’ pasts, which can lead to misplaced emphasis on the past, even when the current scene provides ample conflict to drive the plot. The fix here requires re-balancing the scene to focus on what is most pressing at that moment on the plot’s timeline. Minimize or cut background information to achieve this balance.

Sequels (rather than scenes) are a more natural place to develop backstory because sequels tend to rely on interior monologue and exposition feels more natural when blended with interior monologue. The key, again, is to use a light touch. Let the character ponder the backstory, but balance the backstory against the current plot, much as you would balance background information.


Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.
Redlines Eight (on tension statements) can be found here.
We'll skip Redlines Nine because its topic has already been covered in other posts.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Paragraphs, the Meatloaf of Writing

About paragraphing, Natalie asks,
To be able to do this succesfully in a novel would be a great skill. What would you say to newbie writers trying to hone their voice in regards to going this direction?

First, I would say that paragraphs are like meatloaf. Everyone's recipe is just a little different. And everyone ends up with a slightly different dinner. Does that mean it's not meatloaf anymore? Of course not.

Your paragraphing choices will bear the imprint of your voice. I think the key is to be aware of what you're doing and to be aware of other choices for paragraphing and the effect they might have on your prose.

An Exercise For Everyone

Let's all take out a manuscript that isn't entirely new. You want one you've been working on, one you may have spiffed up so that you feel it's in pretty good shape.

Now scan the pages until you find three paragraphs with at least three sentences each that contain no dialogue. Avoid dialogue paragraphs for now, because dialogue paragraphs are written differently than other paragraphs.

Compare these three paragraphs. What do you open with? Action? Interior monologue? Where is the description? Where is the emotion? What do you close with?

Look at the first line of the next paragraph. Does it link back to the paragraph you're analyzing?

Notice your sentence lengths and structures. Do you tend to end on a short note? Is your middle sentence always compound?

You're looking for patterns. You have patterns, whether you're sensitive to them or not. You may need to look at more than three paragraphs before you start to see your patterns emerge -- and you may find you have multiple patterns. Maybe you gravitate toward paragraphs that open with rhetorical questions when a character is wrestling with a decision. Maybe your action paragraphs all contain a one or two word fragment somewhere in the middle of the paragraph. Maybe you always pair interior monologue and description in a particular way.

Notice anything interesting? Let's hear about it! I'm willing to bet we hear about lots of different patterns!


ps. I'm FLOORED by the results of that auction yesterday. Thank you to everyone who bid! And thank you to the winner -- I'll try my best to live up to your very generous bid!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Paragraphing: Ending With Emotion

One very common pattern in fiction paragraphs is to set up some action or situation and then end the paragraph with an emotional response.

So when the prisoners were sent back to England the dead Neopolitans remained with the Army. All that summer they travelled in a bullock cart and on Lord Wellington's orders they were shackled. The shackles were intended to restrict their movements and keep them in one place, but the dead Neopolitans were not afraid of pain -- indeed they did not seem to feel it -- so it was very little trouble to them to extricate themselves from their shackles, sometimes leaving little pieces of themselves behind. As soon as they were free they would go in search of Strange and begin pleading with him in the most pitiful manner imaginable to restore them to the fullness of life. They had seen Hell and were not anxious to return there.
~ Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

For those of you unfamiliar with this book, Strange has gone to war with Wellington and performs all sorts of magic tricks to aid the British army. But there are usually unintended consequences of the magic. In this case, after reanimating a group of Neopolitan soldiers, Strange is unable to restore them to death despite trying many spells. Nobody likes the dead Neopolitans, and nobody really knows what to do with them.

This paragraph comes near the end of the section of the book dealing with the Neopolitans. We already know that Wellington scorns them and Strange is befuddled by them. We already know that the other prisoners have protested at being kept confined with them. ("And really," observed Lord Wellington as he eyed the corpses with distaste, "one cannot blame them.")

What we don't know, until the very end of this paragraph, is that the dead Neopolitans themselves are having emotional reactions to their reanimation. They aren't zombies.

At the beginning of the paragraph, we are told how the army is dealing with the dead Neopolitans in broad brushstrokes covering a fairly large span of time. We get clues that they're little more than animals -- they ride in a bullock cart, they're chained like dogs to keep them from straying, they don't feel pain or even fear of pain. They're being treated dismissively, almost with contempt.

And then we get hit with the emotions. There are two emotion words -- pitiful and anxious -- at the end of the longish paragraph, and both cast a new shade over the situation. Not all paragraphs ending with emotion will change our perceptions of the events, as this one might. But in general, because we're so acclimated to this common form of paragraph (event --> emotion), the reader will adjust to this shift in perception very easily. We're used to receiving some kind of insight into emotions at the end of a paragraph. We've been trained. And Clarke is using that training to lead us in a new direction.


Paragraphing For Comic Contrasts

Sometimes, we'll want to limit our paragraphs to one key notion and then break before moving on to the next notion. But other times, it's better to keep two contrasting notions in the same paragraph.

Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn't think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.
~Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The trend these days is to break the narrative into smaller, bite-sized paragraphs. More white space on the page means a faster-paced narrative, or so the theory goes. In Twain's paragraph, the first part recounts the Widow's notions of heaven, and the second part reveals Huck's personal response to that. These are two discrete ideas (albeit with one common theme), and a modern paragrapher might want to break them apart.

That would probably be a mistake. One of the hallmarks of comedy writing is setting up unexpected contrasts (between the Widow's happy view of heaven and Huck's scorn of the place she describes) or by leading us into unanticipated twists on common notions (a description of the wonders of heaven leads to Huck's sincere hope that he and his friend will avoid the place). The skilled comedy writer toys with our expectations and assumptions, and one of the ways to accomplish that is by putting unalike things right next to each other. The Widow longs for heaven. Huck does not. And that's the source of the comedy here.

If this were a standard joke with a punch line, the writer might want that punch line offset in its own paragraph as a way of highlighting it. But that's because punch lines are dramatic conclusions, carefully built up word by word over the course of the joke.

Twain's comedy in this paragraph is not of the punchline variety. Because the humor exists in the strength of the contrast between the two characters, running them right up against each other in the same paragraph heightens the comic impact.


Two Paragraphs: Response, Then Stimulus

As long as we're looking at Fitzgerald, here's a strong pair of paragraphs that reverses the natural order of things.

He lit a cigarette, tossed the match out the open top of the window, then paused in his tracks with the cigarette two inches from his mouth--which fell faintly ajar. His eyes were focussed upon a spot of brilliant color on the roof of a house farther down the alley.

It was a girl in a red neglige, silk surely, drying her hair by the still hot sun of late afternoon. His whistle died upon the stiff air of the room; he walked cautiously another step nearer the window with a sudden impression that she was beautiful. Sitting on the stone parapet beside her was a cushion the same color as her garment and she was leaning both arms upon it as she looked down into the sunny areaway,where Anthony could hear children playing.

~F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned

Normally, we would get the stimulus and then the response, right? So what's the stimulus in this sequence? The sight of a beautiful girl in a negligee. What's the response? His mouth falls open. He pauses in his tracks. The cigarette hangs in midair. They're backwards: response, then stimulus.

We get a second response, too, when his whistle dies and he walks closer to the window. But look at what follows that: with a sudden impression that she was beautiful. This feels reversed to me, too. I think the impression of beauty is what makes him want to whistle in the first place.

So why does Fitzgerald set it up this way? Here's my guess. He wrote about people with outsized egos, people who were self-absorbed. What will be more important to a character like this, an external stimulus or his own response? Putting the response first throws more attention on it. Forgot about the hot little number in the red silk slip. What's important here is the character's response, what he says and does and feels. The beautiful girl matters only because she's the trigger for another opportunity for self-assessment.

There are times when you might want to weight the response a bit more than the stimulus, and this would be a handy trick to make that happen. But if you try this, pay particular attention to clarity. Make sure that the new information (that is, the stimulus which follows the response) doesn't supply entirely new information that changes our way of understanding the reaction. The reaction must be comprehensible even without the stimulus. In Fitzgerald's sentence, we have a character facing a window who becomes suddenly arrested. It's a safe bet that he sees something outside that window. If it turned out that the stimulus was a knock on the door, this passage wouldn't be as clear.


A Self-Contained Paragraph

I probably shouldn't admit this. I should probably try to show more dignity. But you may have already guessed the truth, and what the heck, it's not like anyone suspects me of an overabundance of dignity, anyway.

Last night, I had a little moment of panic over the auction today. My worst childhood fear was being picked last in gym class, and wouldn't you know that this auction triggered that. Silly. Especially because I never actually was picked last in gym class. And because the auction is for a good cause, and that's what really matters. Not some flashback on a childhood insecurity.

Anyway, I figure the solution today is for me to pretend it's not happening. La-la, la-la, I can't see you!

So let's look at some paragraphs. I'm going to be hunting for good examples and posting them as the day goes on. That ought to fix me right up.

The Great Graphy

A butler (one of the three in Minneapolis) swung open the door. Amory stepped inside and divested himself of cap and coat. He was mildly surprised not to hear the shrill squawk of conversation from the next room, and he decided it must be quite formal. He approved of that--as he approved of the butler.
~F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise.

This paragraph begins and ends on the same noun, butler. That's not an accident, of course. Fitzgerald was far too controlled a writer to do something like this without intent. So why would he do it, then? The first and last slots in a paragraph have the most "weight" in a paragraph -- why would Fitzgerald fill those positions with a generic noun for a character unworthy of a proper name?

Look at what happens between the two butlers. Those of you who have read Joseph Campbell will grasp the significance of this right away. There's a door. There's a guardian at the door, and that guardian is a rare creature. The guardian gives our hero admittance, and our hero enters. Once inside, Amory notes immediately that things are slightly different than anticipated.

Crossing the threshold, right? In this case, quite literally. The echoed word, butler, in the front and back of the paragraph brackets the moment of crossing. It's nicely done.

The danger in this technique is that we don't generally want to create the impression that ideas are closed until the very end of the story. Normally, we set up our paragraphs so that one leads into the next into the next, in a long chain of small moments that build into something bigger. Closing ideas creates an illusion that we're at a stopping point.

Fitzgerald uses this technique in a moment of change and transition, so we don't get that feeling that it's okay to draw breath, to put the book down, to step out of the story. If anything, we get the feeling that what is about to happen, the changes in the new environment, are even more important because of the way they've been highlighted by the bracketing butler.