Monday, September 29, 2008

Participial Phrases, Again

Alicia has already talked about present participial phrases and the problems of temporality they can create.

Today I'd like to look at this issue from another angle. We see frequent problems with misplaced and dangling present participial phrases, and I've come to the conclusion that these result from a misunderstanding of the structural nature of these phrases.

So let's start with a basic idea.

The Golden Rule of Modifiers
Modifiers go next to the word or words they modify.

That one might seem like a no-brainer. We instinctively write,

The brown dog ran through the sunny meadow

without ever worrying about whether to put brown or sunny in a different location. Adjectives go next to the nouns they modify. Easy peasy. Right?

Maybe. Or at least, it's easy when we're talking about single-word modifiers. Once we start getting into phrases, things become trickier.

Present participles are -ing forms of a verb which can be used

1 --in verb conjugations

The dog was running through the meadow.
(Was running is the past progressive conjugation of the verb to run.)

2 -- as gerunds (that is, nouns)
Running is good exercise.
(Running is the subject of the sentence.)

3 -- as adjectives
The developing storm grounded our plane.
(Developing is an adjective modifying storm.)

Because we are all intuitively sensitive to the golden rule of modifiers, we can all understand why this is confusing:

The storm grounded our plane, developing.

Right? We can all see that? If the adjective doesn't line up next to the noun it modifies, we have to stop and do the doggie head tilt while we try to parse that sentence. The modifier is misplaced -- literally, not in the place it should be. If there were no word in the sentence which could be modified by the participle, then it would be dangling. That's the difference between a dangling modifier and a misplaced modifier -- danglers have no companion words anywhere in the sentence. (Example: The storm grounded our plane, distracting. What's distracting? Other than the sentence structure, nothing.)

Here's the thing. Hanging a bunch of qualifiers off that participle doesn't change its essential adjectival nature. And that's where we see problems, such as:

The storm grounded our plane, developing without warning.

That sentence is still structurally flawed, even if we have to do less work to parse it while reading it. It's not the plane that develops without warning. Developing without warning is an adjectival phrase which modifies storm, just as developing alone modified storm.

Developing without warning, the storm grounded our plane.

Ah. That's better.

The Legit Exception

There is an important exception -- actually, it's not so much an exception as it is a parallel rule that allows a different outcome in certain circumstances. Are you all familiar with the concept of a cumulative modifier? This is a modifier which qualifies an entire clause rather than a single word in the clause.

She brushed her fingers down his jacket, smoothing it flat, caressing the hint of dust away.

Here we have a main clause followed by two cumulative present participial phrases. How do you know they're cumulative rather than adjectival? This can get a little tricky, but the good news is that it gets easier with practice. Start by isolating the present participle -- smoothing and caressing are the present participles in our sample sentence -- and try to link them back to a noun in the main clause.

Our nouns in this sentence are she, fingers, and jacket. Neither participle can be said to modify any of these nouns specifically. Instead the participial phrases modify the main clause in its entirety. Try this test to check: isolate the participle and move it in front of each noun in turn. Does it make sense?
smoothing she
smoothing fingers
smoothing jacket
caressing she
caressing fingers
caressing jacket

You might be able to make some arguments here, and there may be other problems with that sample sentence, but these phrases probably pass the placement test.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Trip To the Bookstore With Friends

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I'd been to the bookstore with some people who have no connection to publishing other than their relation to me. I won't say it was a shocking experience -- more like, it was a strong reminder of the state of publishing if you're on the reading end rather than on the production end.

To begin with, as we were walking into the store, one of my companions asked me what the hot new hit was. I said that there had been a lot of very popular books, but he stopped me and said, "No, I mean, something like The Da Vinci Code. Or Harry Potter. What's the new book that everybody is reading?"

So he was interested in reading the latest mega-blockbuster. That's no surprise. He's someone I would describe as a casual-to-heavy reader, someone who probably reads in the neighborhood of a book every six weeks. He likes reading, but he likes a lot of other stuff, too, like movies and TV and video games and browsing the Internet and playing cards with the boys in his garage on a Friday night.

In other words, he is a shining emblem of a problem we hear discussed a lot these days. People like to do a lot of things for entertainment. Books have to compete with all those other things. (Stay tuned. You can hear a dissenting opinion on that down below.)

So I told him about the Stephanie Meyer series, which is probably the closest thing we have right now to a mega-blockbuster, and at that point, I was pretty sure that all I had to do was name the book and it was sold. People like reading these super hits. Reading is usually a somewhat solitary occupation, but if everyone reads and discusses the same books, then it becomes a communal experience. It's like a book club but on an enormous scale. People get the pleasure of a good read, but they also get the pleasure of being able to tell their friends about it and discuss it with the others who've already read it. It's fun. We've all been there.

My other companion seemed less interested in the blockbusters. She said a friend of hers had offered to loan her the Stephanie Meyer series, but when she looked at them, she knew she wouldn't like them. She said she wanted to read grown-up books. When I asked her which was more important, a book that made her think or book that helped her escape, she asked, "Are those qualities mutually exclusive?" Good point.

She had a much easier time finding books to buy. She started at the front tables, skipping the table with the new hardbacks and going straight to the three-for-two trade paperback table, where she found two books she wanted to read but couldn't find a third. Those two were by Emily Griffin and Jhumpa Lahiri. An interesting combination.

By this time, our other friend had examined the hardback table and the face-out upright racks next to it. He had picked up and set down probably about six books, including the Stephanie Meyer book which he rejected because he thought it would be creepy for a man to read about the romantic lives of teenaged girls. He scanned the three-for-two table for a third book to round out our friend’s two, and added a David Sedaris title to her pile.

Then she and I moved on to the romance section, where she repeatedly picked up books, flipped them open to the middle, and read a sample page. I asked her why she was reading a page from the middle instead of the first page, and she said she could tell more about the book from the middle. She said she had been burned too many times by books that started strong but then fizzled. She named one author of popular historicals which surprised me a bit. She described reading the books as “like reading TV.”

I handed her two books, one by Nalini Singh and the other by Madeline Hunter. She knew Madeline Hunter and had already read all of her books, but she added Nalini’s book to her pile. (There you go, Nalini, hon. Now you’re a bestseller plus one.) She also picked up a David Baldacci mystery, which she was excited to find because this is a favorite author. So she buys by author, and she picks new potential authors by a random middle page in the book which she wants to be as well-developed as a first chapter.

While we were browsing romance and mystery, our friend was browsing the rest of the store. He picked up a book called "Then Ditka Said to Payton," which looked like a very entertaining collection of anecdotes about Da Bears. In other words, a tie-in title, something that supports an interest outside of reading. (In case you're wondering, the only thing I bought was a knitting magazine. I've picked up over a hundred paperbacks this summer, so I didn't feel the urge to buy any more until I read the ones I've got.)

As we were standing in line, I asked them point blank what would make them choose to read a book instead of going to a movie or watching TV.

“But I like reading,” he said.

“And I don’t really like TV,” she said. “Well, except for certain shows.”

"I understand that," I said. "But let's say you have two hours, and you can do anything at all in those two hours. What would make you choose a book over something else like playing computer games or watching a movie?"

They had a hard time articulating an answer. At first they said it depended on the options, but when I dug a little deeper, it became apparent that they don't think about books the same way they think about other kinds of entertainment. They describe video games as mindless, for example, in her case too mindless to be worthy of attention. They describe TV as a filler, more or less, something to do when they're bored with everything else, except for certain particular shows which they watch faithfully. (In his case, he said, “I can always watch sports,” as if there was some comfort in that idea.) Going to bars and restaurants, playing cards, and similar activities are all clearly categorized as social, things that they do when they want to be with other people.

Their attitudes towards movies probably most closely parallels there attitudes towards books. They pick movies based on who is in them and based on the hits, much as they would pick a book by its author or by its placement on the bestseller list or front table.

Publishing for some time has been very conscious of the fact that it has to compete with all these other entertainment avenues for consumer dollars. There's been a tendency to try to make books quicker, lighter, more suitable for today's short attention spans, as a way of making books more competitive with video games, web browsing, and TV.

I've always been skeptical of this position, and my experience at the bookstore supported my skepticism. Publishing is dominated by "the same, only different" mindset which leads consumers to buy books in clusters. And that's fine. We know that works. If someone reads a great YA series like Harry Potter, there are more open to reading another great YA series like Stephanie Meyer’s. (Maybe. As it turns out, both of my friends considered and rejected those books.) If they read a mystery and love it, the more likely to go back and look for other mysteries just like it. We know that, and that's fine, but it only gets us so far. It doesn't explain, for example, why my friend would be interested in reading both Emily Griffin and Jhumpa Lahiri.

When we start competing against the larger marketplace of all possible entertainment options, I think we need a different mindset. "The same, only different" no longer works. They don't buy books because books are like TV. In fact, one of my friends specifically rejects books because they're too much like TV. I think we ought to be focusing on the things that distinguish books from other kinds of entertainment. Product differentiation, not cluster identification. (Though to be fair, tie-ins function on the opposite principle -- my friend bought the Bears book because he loves sports, a non-reading activity that led to a book sale. That's a type of "the same, only different" that cannot be discounted.)

So how are books different from all these other forms of entertainment? I think the most obvious difference is in point of view. Only in books can we get inside another person’s experiences and thoughts, and I think this is one of the reasons that first person and subjective third person have become almost standard point of view choices in many genres. (Movies can use voiceover narration to achieve a similar effect, but for the most part, the camera is an objective witness that doesn't let us into another person’s head.)

So now it’s your turn. Am I way off here? What do you think of this? Is it something you think about while you’re writing? What makes you choose a book instead of some other form of entertainment?


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Unemployed Protagonists

I'm noticing a new trend in my inbox lately. An awful lot of manuscripts are starting with the protagonist getting fired. I can't decide what I think about this trend.

On the one hand, this would seem to be a good, emotional starting point. It's inherently dramatic -- drama is rooted in change and in conflict, and losing your job encompasses both. An event is in motion, and that event creates change in the protagonist's life. And people hardly ever accept the reasons for which they're being terminated as good or legitimate reasons, so there's always a tendency to fight back. Conflict.

It gives the heroine an instant problem to solve. What will she do? How will she continue on in her life? Jobs are hard to find these days. Will she lose everything, or will she manage to survive?

It provides the added opportunity for a little bit of character set-up. The reasons for the termination are backstory -- that is, they happened before the present moment of the storyline -- but their presentation comes about naturally through an active scene. "Joe, when you went to that convention and sent a strippergram to Acme's lead buyer, you might've thought it was funny, but he didn't. We lost our biggest account because of this. I'm afraid we have to let you go."

And, sad to say, this taps in to our current cultural zeitgeist. Nationwide, we've been in net job loss territory since May of this year. Unemployment is always a serious problem for the people and families dealing with it, but lately, it seems to be on the public radar a little bit more than usual. I know there are a lot of pundits out there who want to talk about "mental recession," but leaving politics aside, it doesn't really matter for fiction purposes whether these things are born from facts or from perceptions. When people start paying attention to a topic, that topic finds its way into creative works of storytellers. So job loss is topical, and it's entirely possible that a lot of people out there in this current climate would want to read stories that deal with this precise problem.

But, with all that said, I'm still not sure that getting fired is a good opener for story. There are two basic patterns for when people lose their jobs. The first is when it's part of a mass layoff or layoff for economic or similar reasons unrelated to the person's job performance. The second is when an individual is being fired for cause. The main difference between these two scenarios is that under the first, the employer is not going to refill the job -- the job itself is being eliminated, and the person is just a casualty. Under the second, the job will have to be refilled. It's not the job that's been eliminated, but the individual.

The first is inherently more sympathetic. It falls under the category of bad things that happen to good people, and might actually enhance the amount of sympathy a reader feels for the protagonists -- although, of course, much depends on the way it's written. I think we can probably all agree on the increased sympathy factor, though if you have other ideas, I'd like to hear about them in the comments.

But this is not the scenario that's been popping up in my inbox. What I've been seeing instead are stories about people who are terminated for cause, but the reasons for their termination are either incorrect or unfair. If incorrect, the story then becomes about proving that the big bad employer was covering something up, made a mistake, or failed to get an inept manager under control before that manager committed the ultimate blunder. If unfair, the story then becomes about lawsuits and revenge.

In either case, though, I'm out of step with the protagonist right from page one. The protagonist was not a victim of the economy, not a sympathetic bystander. Our dramatic question is not, "How will the protagonists survive?", but, "Was the protagonist fired for good reasons or bad?" And I think that's a far less compelling dramatic question.

But I could be wrong. That does occasionally happen -- I know, I know. Shocker. ;) Maybe the dramatic impetus provided by this big, compelling problem is enough to propel the reader through the first chapter and get them deeper into the plot. And the deeper they read, the more bonded they become to the protagonist. That's just the way it works.

I'd like to know what you all think about this. If the protagonist is fired because of job performance issues, are you going to want to read a story that's essentially about whether the job performance was correctly assessed?


Saturday, September 20, 2008


Theresa, I remember sitting at that table and discussing commas... ah, the good times. I seem to remember also eating pastries from that Italian bakery, but I can't believe that influences my nostalgia.

And I am SO impressed that you uploaded that photo. Really. You'll have to teach me how.

Reminder to self: Blog entry about "know". Really now. Try and focus.
Alicia (off in a hotel room in Bedford, Indiana... what a glamorous life I lead, and if you think so, I really ought to show you Bedford, Indiana)

Working at Home on a Saturday

Here's a little peek inside my world. This is what a very happy Saturday looks like. I feel very lucky on a day like today. My house is quiet and clean, and I get to stay in it. I have leftover pizza from last night's dinner, and a big pot of homemade vegetable soup I threw together late last night, so I don't have to worry about cooking. I get to focus on doing something I love, editing a manuscript that I know will challenge me in a good, absorbing way.

Usually I edit on the computer, but I decided to go old school with this one. There's an autumn nip in the air, and the local birds are feeding in the landscaping just outside the windows you can see in that picture. I get to edit and watch the birds at the same time. Goldfinches and cardinals and house sparrows are the main entertainment today.

It took me over an hour to get through the first six pages of this manuscript, but that's because openings usually take a lot of careful thought. I always want the first five to ten pages of any manuscript to be as flawless as possible. Point of view is especially important here because this is where we establish the reader-character bond. Even tiny glitches in pov at this stage can prevent a reader from really getting into the story.

This author dilutes point of view in very subtle ways that can be a bit tricky to fix. I have to tear into the language a little bit, and that's something best done with a light touch.

Alicia's post yesterday referred to the way we obsess over single words and nitpicky details such as which adjective should come first in a pair. Who was it that said, Today I spent the morning putting in a single comma, and then spent the afternoon taking it out? I want to say it was Oscar Wilde, but I could be way off on that.

Anyway, my point -- yes, there is one -- is that sometimes a line edit requires us to tinker with the language, and because we try to do this gently, it leads to a natural obsession with details. A passage doesn't work. Perhaps you need a brand new passage, or perhaps we can just remove a single modifier and let the rest stand. In order to do that, though, I need to know exactly which modifier needs to be trimmed.

It's a judgment call. In the comments to yesterday's post, we began to see that even something as simple as whether to switch the order of two adjectives can have a variety of consequences. Sentence rhythm is changed, yes, but something more than that was at stake. The sentence contained two like ideas (lounging and elegant), and one unalike (drunk). It's a shell game. Switching the line-up of these ideas moves the point of impact in the sentence. Meaning and ear are both changed, and not in small ways, even though the change might seem trivial at first blush.

A lot of times these decisions hinge on the rest of the passage. Where are we trying to focus the reader's attention? Are we using a sleight of hand in our shell game to befuddle the viewer, or do we want to inspire our reader to feel confident that we can be trusted? Sometimes we want to hide details in plain sight. And sometimes we want the crowd to believe that anyone can win by paying attention.

So back to the mines for me. I have a feeling that once I get past the first twenty pages on this one, my editing speed will pick up. But on a day like today with nothing pressing on the calendar, I have the luxury of time. That's a luxury in short supply recently, and so I intend to enjoy every moment of it today.

ETA: I meant to also mention that I like the sentence structure in Alicia's sample sentence. I think the paired cumulative adjectives at the end are a good choice here. A participial phrase dilutes the ideas, and converting one of the adjectives to an adverb shifts focus off the main clause. All of which is contingent, of course, on the sentences which surround the sample.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Adjective query

I am puzzling over a phrase, just contemplating which alternative would sound best or be best, I guess.

Anyway, here it is. Just an example to see what you value when you assemble a sentence (no right answer, that is, or no wrong answer anyway!):

He lounged around, elegant and drunk.
He lounged around, drunk and elegant.

Not a great line, but what I am squinting at is those two adjectives-- which order would you put them?
You can swap them for other words, if you think it will help. For example, I think "drunk" might be too short a sound -- one syllable -- for the end of a sentence, so I might say, elegant and inebriated (if I were going to be obnoxious), or elegant and hungover, or....??

So justify. For example, I tend to want "elegant" first because that's setting up the expectation of something aesthetic, which "drunk" or equivalent will then undercut, thus becoming a bit of punchline.

But I can see the powerful punchy Anglo-saxon "drunk" first, and the, well, elegant French word providing more of a visual.

It's okay if you say that I spend way too much time on triviality. :) But I find that often this sort of opposition/pairing is an aspect of voice.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The pause that refreshes...

To quote the Boss, I ain't nothing but tired... travelling constantly this month. And next, come to think of it. Anyway, I'm going to try to post more, but short. :)

I've been thinking a lot about "deep POV," and first let me say that this is not the only or even the best approach to viewpoint. It's more useful in character-focused stories, and, as I say in my POV book, when you want to present the character's inner perception of reality as primary (rather than, say, real reality :).

But let's say that's what you want to do-- acknowledge the primacy in your narrative of the character's perception of reality. Good! I love that. However, I think then writers should focus on what that means, and not assume that it's a matter of names and pronouns ("Never use the character's own name in deep POV" is a "rule" I just heard) or whether words like "thought" and "felt" are verboten, or whether internalization should be in Roman or italic font (why, btw, isn't "italic" capped, if "Roman" is?), or whether thought should be in past or present tense....

I'm not saying all those questions won't come into play, but rather that if you -before- you start to write a scene, park yourself squarely in this person and dedicate yourself to portraying the actual inner experience of being that person, most of those issues will be answered as you write. That is, those are just the manifestations of being in deep POV--- not actually deep POV.

The point is to give the reader that inner experience, and what gives the reader that experience is what you should do. And that might actually meaning doing a bit more narrating to create that for the reader. That is, authenticity-- truly replicating the inner experience-- is not as good as verisimilitude-- creating an experienceable version of the inner experience.

What's the difference? Well, let me turn to my latest, sigh, intellectual project. Many years ago, at the University of Chicago, I took The Modern Novel from the great Joyce scholar Richard Ellman. Of course, Ulysses was the center of the course, and to my unending shame, uh, I read all the dirty parts, and maybe some of the rest, and.... Well, really, one of the most important lessons to learn in college is what to focus on, and there were FIFTEEN modernist (aka, very long) novels to read in a 10-week quarter (please compare to a typical class today, where the poor overworked students had to read FIVE books in 15 weeks). And I knew I was going to write the paper on a Faulkner trope (love Faulkner), and so why....

Well, so here it is, decades later, and I've read only about 70% of the most important novel of yada yada. So anyway, the dh and I decided to embark on a joint re-read of Ulysses recently. He got farther than I did. But I did pay close attention to the "stream of consciousness" sections (mostly in the Leo Bloom passages). Now these were a brave, innovative experiment, trying to truly replicate the workings of a mind:

Singing with his eyes shut. Corney. Met her once in the park. In the dark. What a lark. Police tout. Her name and address she then told with my tooraloom tooraloom tay. O, surely he bagged it. Bury him cheap in a whatyoumaycall. With my tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom.

Just like a real mind-- skipping from subject to subject, preoccupied with one (Corney is his wife's lover, or so he thinks), searching for and failing to find words, following a diverting melody....

That extremely deep viewpoint manifestation is infinitely study-able, and has provided fodder for hundreds of doctoral dissertations. However, I found the Bloom passages much less readable (and experience-able) than the more controlled, more "shaped" Stephen Dedalus passages, as here, where he thinks of his mother's death (set up as the topic a paragraph before-- that is, the reader doesn't have to guess):

Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coat-sleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown grave-clothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the well-fed voice beside him. The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.

(Notice that Stephen's thoughts come expressed in perfectly grammatical sentences... he's my kinda guy. :)

The Bloom passage is stream-of-consciousness; the Dedalus passage is deep POV. I have my own preference, obviously. But I would like just to point out that there is a distinction between "replicating" the experience of being inside a mind, and "creating" that experience. Verisimilitude, paradoxically, can be more approachable, more acceptable, than an authenticity-- often we must turn away from what can feel too claustrophobic, disturbing, or confusing. So a slightly less "in your face" approach might actually let the reader overcome that instinctive resistance and then participate in the experience more fully.

We are, after all, already participating in artifice, because language is a construct produced by the collective mind-- but not the same as thought. So even stream-of-consciousness, as it uses words, is less than truly authentic. Similarly, the use of narrative conventions, along with language, can enhance the experience. Notice how Joyce actually sets up the action of a paragraph and then descends into stream-of-consciousness-- that is, the narrative convention of set up isn't just dismissed, but used to ease the reader in, to let the reader feel the setting and context:

Mr Bloom gazed across the road at the outsider drawn up before the door of the Grosvenor. The porter hoisted the valise up on the well. She stood still, waiting, while the man, husband, brother, like her, searched his pockets for change. Stylish kind of coat with that roll collar, warm for a day like this, looks like blanketcloth. Careless stand of her with her hands in those patch pockets. Like that haughty creature at the polo match. Women all for caste till you touch the spot. Handsome is and handsome does. Reserved about to yield. The honourable Mrs and Brutus is an honourable man. Possess her once take the starch out of her.

So don't start with the "rules"-- start inside, and all the "rules" fall away. Don't confuse the phenomena with the neumena-- the external with the essence. Create this experience, and then see if you need to fix anything, and the "rules" might be helpful there. (For example, frequent use of the character name can distract from the reader "inner experience," but use of he/she probably doesn't.)

Just an example based on something I read the other day:

As she listened to his protests, her stomach lurched. She buttered her roll and then smiled at him.

Something happens there between the inside (stomach) and the external action (buttering). What is it? Why put those two together in the same sequence? Maybe what's needed is the teensiest bit of transition between internal feeling and external action... and that's called "intention". That is, she is forming the will to do the action, right? You probably don't have to explain why, but a transition that shows her deciding to act will give the reader more context for experiencing what she experiences. After all, she doesn't just perceive, and she doesn't just act. She also decides. So consider something like:
As she listened to his protests, her stomach lurched. She concentrated on buttering her roll, and when she was calmer, she smiled at him.

Okay, so that wasn't short at all. :)


Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I meant to ask this earlier, and in my highly distracted state, I forgot.

How many of you are doing NaNo this year? Is it too early to decide?

Random Tuesday

Every time I think that the worst is over, some new situation arises to pull me off course. Chicago was hit with two hurricanes over the weekend. Chicago. Hurricanes. Granted, they were mainly hurricane remnants by the time they reached us, but they were still enough to flood several counties and kill almost as many people as Ike killed in Texas. We still have about a hundred miles of interstate closed in the area to the east of us, but the waters in my neighborhood began receding yesterday. So NOW (tempting fate) I believe I can begin again to reclaim a normal schedule. I can put the fishing waders away and stop worrying about the fact that all of our boats and paddles are at the cottage where they belong, instead of at the house in the suburbs where I shouldn't ever need them. And with any luck, the power will stay on.

We all go through periods like this, I suppose. The last month has been wickedly chaotic chez Theresa. Manuscripts are piling up all around me -- someone in the comments last week asked what I'm reading at the moment, and the answer is nothing. Not even submissions, except for a random read here or there, plus one small batch over this past weekend when flood waters made me a prisoner in my home.

About those submissions, I have only a few general comments to share.

Don't sign your query emails with political slogans for any candidate for office. I can't imagine why anyone would think that's a good idea. Even if we support the same candidate -- and in the current climate, odds are at 50-50 on that one -- you risk pulling my focus off your work and onto unrelated matters. Why distract me?

In fact, watch your auto-signatures in general. I don't need to be reminded in a query letter to do a breast self-exam, to back up my hard drive, or to inflate my car tires. Leave off the cartoons and smilies. Delete the funny and/or inspirational quotes from dead celebrities and/or the Bible.

While we're on the topic -- and I can't believe I need to mention this -- don't put me in your address book if you are in the habit of forwarding mass emails to your entire address book. I'm pretty tolerant of inadvertent sends, but even I will block your email address after I've received a few joke-of-the-day messages. Or disease-of-the-day. Or virus-warning-of-the-day.

I'm seeing one or two trends in the slush that lead to rejections. Unheroic heroes -- we publish romance fiction. Erotic romance, yes, but still romance. The heroes can have flaws, but not generally the kind of flaws that would lead a sensible woman to reject him. He can't be married to someone else, for example. He can't be an ex-con with a record of violent crimes against women or children. If the first time our heroine sees him, he is in the midst of an ugly public breakup, he will be unattractive to her. No sensible woman sees a man push another woman and call her a c---, and thinks, "That's the man for me." What she thinks is, "Run, sister. Run fast and far. Save yourself." Or some variation on that idea.

Don't open with set-up or backstory. Open with scene, with plot, with action and dialogue. The action you open with should be strong enough to give us an understanding of what kind of people we're reading about. Waking up and taking a shower isn't strong action -- most people do this most every day, right? One hopes. Start with an action more unique and telling. This is a general principle we see ignored over and over again, and while an occasional book can win with exposition on the first page (like Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas), most of these types of openings fail to grab the attention.

Did you all read the NYMag article about the death of publishing? Why is it that every industry change is interpreted as death? Why can't change simply be change?

There was some food for thought in the article, and a few real headscratchers. The quote that amused me the most was this bon mot about editors:
They didn’t flock to publishing because they want to publish Danielle Steel.

Oddly enough, it was a book by Danielle Steele (Palomino, which I reveal in full knowledge that it will date me) which led me to what felt like a revolutionary shift in understanding for me. I was an undergraduate in creative writing, wrapping up semester finals, and I stopped at the local library for a palate-cleanser. I'd been steeped in Tudor lit and the lost generation all semester. I wanted something fast and light and please-god-not-about-fishing-or-war, something Wodehouse, maybe. But the librarian recommended Palomino, and I read it, and it moved me.

In fact, it made me appreciate commercial fiction in a whole new way. I won't say that it made me flock to publishing so I could publish Danielle Steele, but it certainly made me see the value in commercial fiction. I absorbed a lot of scorn from my classmates over that newfound understanding, but frankly, I didn't care. Good books can be found in every section of the bookstore. I believe that. And I'm lucky enough to work in a place that cares passionately about things like writing quality and voice and putting very good books on a shelf in a section that some might scorn.

Forgive me the multi-topic ramble. Maybe clarity will return as the flood recedes.


ps. I still think it's probably a dog.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sex Sells Children's Books?

I know this cover art has been making the rounds, but just in case some of you haven't seen it, I thought I would post it. Call it a little inspiration for those of you writing shapeshifter erotic romance. Were-chickens? Anything is possible. It's been a while since my last trip to the zoo. Can anyone identify the creature between the pig and the cow? Is that meant to be a very large dog?

I've been sadly absent from the blog the last couple of weeks and would like to acknowledge the efforts of my co-blogger to keep this thing going while I drown in doo-doo. It has been a combination of things. Two big family events, out of town guests, real estate sales and purchases, and other things not worth mentioning. Suffice it to say that I'm out of my rut. Given how much I like my rut, this is not a good thing.

Tuesday, the last visitors depart and I will fall back into my -- let's not call it a rut. Let's call it a groove. That sounds better, doesn't it?

In the meantime, I'm curious. What's on the mind of you writers? What issues are you wrestling in your prose? As readers, what is the book you're longing to read but can't find in the bookstores? I visited the bookstore with some guests a few days ago -- guests not involved in publishing in any way whatsoever -- and their comments in the store made me think that despite the amazing abundance of books being published, we're still somehow not offering the right selection.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Emotion--- less is more?

I'm giving a workshop on writing emotion, and I'm wondering what you all think. I suspect "less is more" really works here; most of the scenes that bring me to tears are underwritten, without emotion words.

But these passages are usually at the end of an emotional set up-- that is, the author sets up the emotional situation so that I know what the stakes are, and then there's the moment of emotional release. It's like writing a comic passage, which I guess makes sense-- amusement is an emotion too. But you set up the situation and postpone the punchline until the laughter is ready to be released.

Anyway, how about a couple of examples of 'that moment of release," and no, I don't mean that kind of release. :) I mean a paragraph you mean to elicit tears in the reader. Why does it work? What did you do to achieve that?

And do you think that if you the writer cry as you write it (come on, admit it, we all do), that's a good sign (or not) that the reader will be as affected?