Tuesday, June 30, 2009
[His father] had discovered it on the rocky beach of one of the far islands and immediately proclaimed it the perfect gift for his queen. It took over a dozen men to bring back to the Sithein and when she saw it, she declared that it was the perfect chair, declining even the thinnest pillow. A thick double layer of wool was wrapped around her waist and then pulled around the back and over her shoulder to tuck in at her waist. She claimed it was to ward off the cold damp of the Sithein but Tyrae suspected it was to cushion herself from the hard stone of her "perfect" seat.
Watch all the "its". What is "it"-- a stone? A chair? A stone chair? Something else? A very large conch shell (well, why not? It was found on a beach :)?
[His father] had discovered (NOUN) on the rocky beach of one of the far islands and immediately proclaimed it the perfect gift for his queen.
Do you need "immediately?" "Proclaimed" is a big strong verb. You already have three modifiers in the sentence. Remember that you don't need to make every sentence bristle. :)
It took over a dozen men to bring back to the Sithein and when she saw it, she declared that it was the perfect chair, declining even the thinnest pillow.
Now if you use a noun in the first sentence, you can use it instead of one of the "its" here. The first "it" is that non-descriptive universal it, but the rest presumably refer to the chair (or whatever). Let's just see if we can get rid of that first "it"-- sometimes that's more trouble, but we'll see:
A dozen men were needed to bring the stone back to the Sithein and when she saw it, she declared that THIS (gets rid of another it) was the perfect chair, declining even the thinnest pillow.
"she?" His mother? The queen? Repetition of important nouns is not a terrible thing. Too many "its" is worse. :)
was the perfect chair, declining even the thinnest pillow.
Oh, those participles. Now what does "declining" modify? Chair? It (or this)? Oh! She!!! That's kind of a few nouns back. Try putting the modifier close to the noun it modifies or rewrite:
and when she saw it, she declined even the thinnest pillow, declaring that THIS (gets rid of another it) was the perfect chair.
That also ends the sentence on the more important word-- the chair, not the non-existent pillow.
A thick double layer of wool was wrapped around her waist and then pulled around the back and over her shoulder to tuck in at her waist.
Is there a reason you went passive here? There are reasons for using the passive voice, mostly to hide the actual subject ("This bill must have been lost, as it was not paid"). But your default should always be active voice-- use passive only when you decide it's better in this context. (There are reasons to use passive, and one is simply that in some sentences, it allows for a structure that you want for some reason... but I don't think that's true here-- maybe it is?)
Here's how that sentence would be in active voice:
She had to wrap a thick double layer of wool around her waist and pull it around the back and over her shoulder to tuck in at her waist.
Is that better? Or does it lose something going active?
She claimed it was to ward off the cold damp of the Sithein but Tyrae suspected it was to cushion herself from the hard stone of her "perfect" seat.
Another "it", and this presumably refers to the wrapping up, not the chair? Try "this" instead.
Also, you have two complete independent clauses there, so there should be a comma before the conjunction (but).
I don't know about the quote marks around "perfect". Why not let the irony be there without too much fingerpointing? Like:
She claimed this was to ward off the cold damp of the Sithein, but Tyrae suspected it was to cushion herself from the hard stone of her perfect seat.
So-- watch the pronouns there-- "it" can refer to almost anything. So:
She claimed this was to ward off the cold damp of the Sithein, but Tyrae suspected she wanted to cushion herself from the hard stone of her perfect seat.
What do you think?
Best if not the first 4 sentences, but if you post your book opening, I'm going to evaluate it as non-opening, just a line-edit.
Understand that this is YOUR job-- I seriously doubt I delve this far in when I edit. That is, if you expect an editor to do this for your whole book, you'll be disappointed. There is not world enough and time. You can do it, however. I'm just giving an example.
Repost here, please.
Leona, I have yours, so you don't need to repost.
Monday, June 29, 2009
Behind me, three women are seated at a table and making plans. This conversation is fascinating, and I can't stop myself from eavesdropping a little. A writer, somewhat sad and apologetic, is explaining why she has been out of touch lately. She had a deadline and put herself on internet rationing until the book was finished. (That was the part that interested me. I keep threatening to do this to myself.)
Her friend tried to offer her some advice. "If you write a thousand words a day, that's 365,000 words a year. That's three and a half novels, every year."
"No, I can't write that fast," says the deadline author.
"It's only a thousand words. And that's just where you start." She's clearly warming up to her subject. "Bump it up to twelve hundred words a day, and you get a whole extra novel every year."
The deadline writer is demurring when a third writer chimes in. "Oh, but you write much faster than that. You told me you write 15 or 20 pages a day."
She sounds skeptical. "When I'm drafting. You're not leaving time for pre-writing or revisions."
"Don't need them," the first friend insists. "If you write this fast, straight through, the story will hold together by itself."
"And even if it doesn't, so what?" This is the second friend. "Your editor will tell you how to fix it. She's going to make you change things, anyway."
"Yeah, and by the time she reads it, you'll have something else ready to sell her, too," says the first one.
"Well, that might work for some people," the skeptic said. "But not for me. I need eight months to finish a book. At least. I don't want to send it to my editor until I've had a chance to really think it through and make it as good as I can."
I made a silent bet with myself that only the third skeptical writer was actually published. I didn't think the other two had ever had an real exposure to the publishing and editing process. Over the course of the event, I had the opportunity to meet all three of these women.
The deadline author had a string of credentials including magazine articles and more than ten novel releases. A solid midlist author with the potential to breakout. Authors like this are in danger of not getting enough editorial attention, and this woman was smart enough to know it.
The third writer, the one who was merely chiming in, has never sold a story. No surprise there.
The one advocating for a thousand words a day? Sold a pair of stories to one of those places that gives e-publishing a bad reputation. You know the kind of place I mean. They push their authors to sell them lots of stories because they make up for the low returns with high volume. Every book under the writer's bed gets a slot on the editorial calendar. These places convince their authors that they're building readership with each new release. (You sold six copies of your first book and nine of the second? Fifty percent increase! Woo hoo!) And these authors are rarely exposed to anything like a real, nitty-gritty, crawling-up-the-book's-butt-with-a-magnifying-glass kind of editing which they certainly need. Some of them don't even get basic copy editing.
Want to know why? Because many e-houses pay their editors in percentages. That's fine if the book sells in good numbers. Not so fine if it doesn't. Then the editors, too, have to make it up in volume, so they buy up lots of projects and push them through to publication as quickly as possible. (My house doesn't do this. Obviously. My turnaround time lately ought to prove that.)
In any event, if that's the kind of career you want, then by all means, write your words every day and submit them without scrutiny. I mean, each thousand-word segment will be fine, right? Because you're jumping into it with one deep breath. And when you kick for the surface as hard as you can, every day, day after day, you build up your muscles, right?
Right. It's absolutely true that many writers find this helps with their process. Most of the working writers I know have daily or weekly page goals, and they make those goals consistently. This is how they get to be working writers in the first place.
But they also know the difference between generating pages and generating good pages. And they know that when a writer is so close to her work, dealing with little bits each day, that she might not see the total picture. It's the forest and the trees. Each individual tree might look perfect. Step back to look at the forest, though, and a different landscape might emerge.
The moral of the story: Take the time to step back from your work and see it from another perspective, or obvious design flaws might make people think you're just dicking around.
(This picture comes via Smart Bitches from a blog called Garden Rant, which is one of my new faves. The comments are brilliant. Thanks to both blogs for giving me the perfect visual excuse to blog on the importance of stepping back from your masterpiece to give it a big picture review for global revisions, important even without penis plants, but so much better with them.)
Adrian Deep hated being planetside, but you couldn’t fly the fringe without cargo.
The barkeep slid the unbranded beer forward. “Enjoy.”
The beer looked black. Bland and bitter, but cold and wet. He took another sip and studied the patrons of the port tavern. Men sung out of tune to a scratchy three-dee unit. Laughter roared from the rear booths. A game of poker broke into a fight, and just as quickly died down.
Deep grimaced. People. Jobs would be so much easier if he didn’t have to actually meet clients.
Must say once more. This is not a critique of an opening, just how I'd edit a few lines. Everyone okay with that? This is just an exercise about editing, not selling, etc.
Adrian Deep hated being planetside, but you couldn’t fly the fringe without cargo.
Okay. Alien terms, but understandable. "Fly the fringe"-- I'd just experiment and make sure that's exactly what you want-- fly TO the fringe, fly ACROSS the fringe-- make sure it's not better with a preposition. I don't know, but that word might provide a bit more info.
The barkeep slid the unbranded beer forward. “Enjoy.”
Suddenly we're in a pub? Need some reference to that in the first sentence, I think. What does getting cargo have to do with his being in this bar? I can think of a few things-- like he's arranged to meet someone there-- but maybe actually say so? Like
couldn’t fly the fringe without cargo, and he could arrange a cargo here in this dive.
Or whatever-- I don't know, but I really don't like just jamming from line 1 to suddenly having a barkeep in there. Can you, in a word or two, establish setting before bringing in the second character? It won't take much-- just a quick reference to meeting a customer in this bar. Then the barkeep slid the beer forward, etc.
The beer looked black. Bland and bitter, but cold and wet. He took another sip and studied the patrons of the port tavern.
Okay. Minor point only-- "sip" seems sort of poncey. That's all. :) Also if you mention that this is the port tavern (as I hope you will) before the barkeep line, say something more here-- don't just repeat. Expand. Maybe "the crowded tavern" or "the dirty tavern" if you use "port" earlier.
Men sung out of tune to a scratchy three-dee unit. Laughter roared from the rear booths. A game of poker broke into a fight, and just as quickly died down.
This is okay. Just a list, nothing about him, but it's an okay list. Maybe if you had him lean back against the bar before he does the survey, something more active and physical on his part, also keeping the focus on him. That might individualize the list a little, filtering this through him, but also giving us an idea of how he thinks (because we'll get that this is what he sees and thinks as he sees).
A game of poker broke into a fight, and just as quickly died down.
What quickly died down? Notice that you have ONE SUBJECT for both predicates, and that is the "game of poker". If you want to make clear that the fight is what's dying down, say so: A fight broke out in a game of poker, and just as quickly died down.
A game of poker broke into a fight, and just as quickly the ruckus (or other synonym for "fight," or just repeat "fight" -- that might give nice rhythm) died down.
Deep grimaced. People. Jobs would be so much easier if he didn’t have to actually meet clients.
Okay, this doesn't really connect. First, there's nothing about the list that shows real contempt for people-- they're singing and laughing and, yeah, there's a fight, but it quickly peters out. Can you make the list more contemptuous? What does Adrian hate about people? Show that. If he hates laughter and singing, use more nasty terms, I don't know, cackling and caterwauling? Maybe too intense, but how would he say it, if he is looking at this scene and feeling scorn?
Jobs would be so much easier if he didn’t have to actually meet clients.
This would connect better if you had something about client before, like him looking around for the client and seeing the guys singing, laughing, etc. It doesn't take much to set up for these connections, but if you don't put them in there, the reader might find the paragraph a little bumpy.
Or has he come here not to meet clients but to market to these patrons? If he's actually here to GET clients, "meet" isn't a good word, as it has the meaning (which I thought you were doing) of meeting a pre-existing client, rather than getting new clients.
So see if you can connect Adrian closer to the bar-- clarify his purpose, his attitude?
Sunday, June 28, 2009
One thought -- the scene events should be caused by other scene events. Don't blow the sequence here.
So Protagonist is a teacher. She comes into her classroom and sees the mean, punitive principal standing over Mark, the student she's been hoping will overcome all the obstacles of his background and go to college.
Now imagine the principal immediately tells her that Mark was caught smoking weed on the football field. If instead you have the principal say, "I'm kicking him out," without explanation, then Teacher can bristle and protest, and the principal can yell at her for going against him, and it can get really close to her quitting as a protest against his treatment of her student, and THEN finally Mark can be driven to admit his crime—so that he can cut this short before she quits or gets fired.
Make sure you don't have the big reveal (the moment where we learn what Mark did) happen too early. Also understand that it matters who reveals it. Should the principal use the truth as a weapon? Or do you want Mark to acknowledge his own error? This depends on what your purpose is (and where in the book this scene is). But usually big reveals, disasters, and realizations happen near the end of the scene, for greater drama and plot propulsion.
A young couple is packing to go away for a weekend.
The phone rings. It's the husband's brother, who says he's coming to town with his irritable wife and four loud, disobedient children (well, the brother doesn't characterize them that way).
Husband says, well, we won't be here.
Hangs up. Wife says, isn't it fortunate that we were leaving town.
They leave town.
Now that's no fun. They planned something, and what they planned isn't changed by the events in the scene. It means that what happens in your scene doesn't matter.
Now how hard is it to make characters react? To make their actions reactions?
Let's try it:
Husband and wife are sitting around, contemplating a nice relaxing weekend at home.
Husband's brother says he's coming and bringing wife and kids.
Husband thinks fast and says that unfortunately, he and wife are just packing to go out of town-- and he gestures to wife to start packing so it won't be a lie. Oh, shoot, we won't be here to visit with you when you and the family come into town!
Now they have to go out of town, just in case bro comes by and knocks on the door.
So they pack quickly and leave town, as a result of what happened in the scene-- the phone call.
Scene design is all about sequence, about designing the events of the scene to create the most powerful effect. Cause-effect is not the only organizing principle, but in the western tradition, it is probably the most powerful.
Whenever you think, "And they just happen to ... (do something, plan something)," that "just happen to" is a signal that you are not thinking causally. I'd go so far as to say virtually nothing should "just happen to happen" in a story. It might SEEM that there's no cause, that it's random, but we are Westerners, and we don't actually think very much happens at random (at least not in fiction).
Just keep that in mind: You are in charge. You can design a scene. This is fiction. You can make the events happen in the way that leads to the most drama.
(Of course, if you are writing, I don't know, Waiting for Godot, you'll want to subvert this Western need for causality by making it seem as if something is going to happen, but nothing does. Story of my life. :)
set up: she's looking at her reflection in the mirror and she is covered in blood, but only in the reflection
It dripped from her hair, weighing it down until it resembled a weeping willow. There was a jagged crimson line separating her head from her body. Blood trickled down from it forming red rivulets that merged with the innumerable cuts marring the porcelain perfection of her body. Some were long thick gashes created by hands hyped on the adrenaline of battle. Some where thin straight lines crafted with surgical precision. Some were symbols whose meanings had long since been lost.
It dripped from her hair, weighing it down until it resembled a weeping willow.
I thnk your difficult task here is to make clear (without being too obvious) that she's looking in a mirror, and the mirror image is different than reality. So let's be in her. She's looking in the mirror and sees blood. (You might have this already, but carry it through.)
You might have done this purposefully, or maybe you're just resonating to the centrality of the mirror motif in amplifying and contradicting the notion of identity and self. The "looking in the mirror" exercise is used, you know, to test consciousness-- that is, when does a baby realize that it's her image in the mirror-- it's not another real baby? (It's very amusing to do this with a cat-- he'll try to get behind the mirror to get at the other cat. Of course, being a cat, once he realizes he can't figure this out, he ignores the mirror in his lordly fashion.) The reversal of the image is also important. How long before we automatically scrub the smudge off our right cheek when we see the smudge on the left cheek in the mirror?
Anyway, as soon as we incorporate the idea that this is a reflection of us, we react by taking in the information about us. So if she's seeing her own image there, what's the first thing she's going to do? I think she's going to put her hand to her head, to make sure that it's not really bleeding. Then she might look at her hand-- no blood. Then back at the mirror, and then she would catalog the rest of what she sees.
It dripped from her hair, weighing it down until it resembled a weeping willow.
Watch your "it"-- use the noun when you can-- you've got three "its" here, and two of them are about hair, I presume, and one about blood. Use the noun:
The blood dripped from her hair, weighing it down until it resembled a weeping willow.
That "until it resembled" feels more clunky and "written" than the rest of the passage. How about:
The blood dripped from her hair, weighing it down like a weeping willow.
or till her head looked like a weeping willow? A bloody weeping willow? A willow is green, so you might say "red weeping willow" so we don't get the wrong idea!
There was a jagged crimson line separating her head from her body.
Where was the line? Across her throat? Again, she might touch her throat (and does her hand in the reflection go to its neck too?) and look at her hand again. Be in her body, and see through her eyes. What does her body do? She's not just a seeing machine-- her body is going to move instinctively.
Blood trickled down from it forming red rivulets that merged with the innumerable cuts marring the porcelain perfection of her body.
If she's naked, say it-- of her naked body.
Some were long thick gashes created by hands hyped on the adrenaline of battle.
Some what? Some of the cuts? Don't worry about being too long here-- length will help, I think, because you want this to be important.
Now "hands hyped on the adrenaline of battle"-- does she know that? Is she the one observing that? It seems sort of omniscient.
Some where thin straight lines crafted with surgical precision.
Some were symbols whose meanings had long since been lost.
Are you in her viewpoint? If so, does she know the meanings had been lost, or does she just not know what they mean?
I would suggest ending with something that is hers-- her thought or her movement. Don't lose her here. Now you might be going for something different-- maybe this is a common experience for her, to look in the mirror and see the future, maybe? No matter what, though. I think the sight of blood on your head and slashes in your body would be primal enough that it would be really hard not to react somehow. If she doesn't respond, make some point of that, that she's clinical, maybe?
Thursday, June 25, 2009
I know why writers use participles at the beginning of sentences, and it has very little to do with the actual function of participles (to show simultaneity of action). Writers do this because they want to vary the front of sentence-- They don't want every sentence to begin with the subject noun.
Okay, that's a laudable aim. But the problem is, starting a sentence is only accidentally a major function of a participial phrase, and yet many writers make it the ONLY function. So they use it in all sorts of sentences where simultaneity of action isn't a factor or shouldn't be emphasized. They don't notice what's important about the sentence and over-emphasize (or invent) something just so they can bury the real sentence lead with a participle.
(At some point, I'll suggest other ways to open sentences. At this point, just let me say that a participle opener is often a mark of unsophistication, yes, more so than a simple subject opening.)
Here are the sorts of issues I'm seeing in submissions which rely too much on what "sounds" to me like a clumsy, clunky opening.
1) Participles can often be dangling modifiers. In fact, if you use a lot of opening participial phrases, I bet half of them are dangling. That's because, frankly, if you don't understand your sentence-- what the central idea or action is, who's doing what-- you probably aren't aware of what the subject is. Quick rule (and this is not MY rule, though it would be if I were the one making the rules-- it's a good rule :)-- The committer of the action in the participle should be the subject of the following main clause.
Here's a dangling modifier:
Taking hold of him like a vise, he couldn't stop the rising fear.
Now it's possible that he is taking hold of himself like a vise, I guess. But that's not what the author meant. The author meant the FEAR was taking hold of him. So say so.
The fear took hold of him like a vise.
or if you want to get his inability to stop in there:
He couldn't stop the fear from taking hold of him like a vise. (The "from" isn't needed-- I think it just sounded better at that moment.)
If you want to use participial phrases, expect that you're going to dangle some of them. So go back and check! Familiarize yourself with the rules about dangling modifiers (not all danglers are participles, of course). Check every single sentence opening. If you don't find all the danglers, you can bet the editor will.
2. "Participle" means simultaneous or near-simultaneous actions. So you should be considering this type of construction only if two actions are happening at the same time (or so close in time it seems simultaneous or sequential) AND if they belong together-- committed by the same person, first off! And mere simultaneity probably isn't sufficient reason to put them together in one sentence. What works? A cause-and-effect relationship, maybe:
Surveying the fruit, she chose a peach.
Tapping on the vault, she decided she could break in.
(I almost never use intro participles, so you can see I'm clumsy! Maybe you can do better-- good causal participles.)
Taking a deep breath, he turned the doorknob.
Picking up his pen, he prepared to sign his life away.
Breathing deeply, she swung the bat around.
Closing his eyes, he clicked his heels together, and he vanished. (Comma and new clause-- why? Because the vanishing happens after-- maybe one sequential action works, but two are pushing if in the same clause.)
3. For some reason, body parts make for the worst participles, or at least the most laughable results.
Beating hard, he almost lost heart.
Striding forward, his footsteps echoed in the corridor.
Body parts aren't characters. Check. Always check. Always check.
4. Even "legal" participles can be wrong because two actions don't work together. Theresa found a terrific one (yes, we do collect these!):
Running down the stairs, she tied her shoes.
Just because two actions have some connection -- both involving shoes?-- and occur in the same basic timeframe doesn't mean this is the right construction.
She tied her shoes and ran down the stairs. What's wrong with that? It starts with "she"? That is hardly the worst thing that can happen with a sentence. (Theresa and I adding it to our "perverted participle" list as we chortle wickedly-- that's much, much worse.) It's a perfectly good sentence, where the order of words replicates the order of action. Good.
Here's one where there's no reason shown they should be linked:
Gazing at her, he took the change.
Why are you putting those two things together? If you mean that because he couldn't stop gazing at her, he missed some of the change and sent a penny rolling off the counter into the Reese's Pieces box, SAY SO. If you are alleging a connection, show it.
5. Participles are ACTIONS. There's no reason to create a participle and invite all the problems that come along if there aren't two actions involved. So rethink any intro phrase that starts with "being" or "having" or other static verbals, like:
Being a transit cop, Johnny was suspicious of soccer fans.
(Okay, FOOTBALL fans, and I'll go with that because of the US team's amazing victory over Spain yesterday.)
That works just fine as:
As a transit cop, Johnny was suspicious of football fans.
The reverse (static -- stative or reflexive-- verb in the main clause) is not a lot better:
Regarding her closely, he had beautiful blue eyes.
I presume he ALWAYS has blue eyes, and I bet they're usually beautiful, but this construction indicates that this is only true when he's regarding her.
What's a static verb? Verbs that aren't about action. So feeling and thinking and wondering and loving and having and being-- those are not good in a participial phrase or in a main clause coupled with a participial phrase. If you don't have two actions, consider whether a participial construction is really your best bet.
Sticking two events in the same sentence doesn't mean they are linked. I can't decide whether this is laziness ("I don't want to do the work of writing sentences that actually show connections") or a misunderstanding of the purpose of a sentence. In a good sentence, all the elements in the sentence are there because they belong together. Together they create more meaning than when they are separated because their linkage in the sentence implies or creates a connection-- and if the connection doesn't add to the meaning, consider if they should be in the same sentence.
Varying the sentence opening, making a different rhythm-- those are not sufficient reasons to put elements in the same sentence. And there are more interesting and thoughtful ways to show a connection than a participle (usually). Find the connection, and find the way to build the sentence that amplifies and deepens that connection. To tell you the truth, that seldom is going to involve an intro participial phrase, which is why we say that the intro participial phrase is often a sign that a writer lacks sophistication. If you've been relying on that, just be aware. It's not a mark of authority. (Sometimes it works, of course. You should be able to tell when it works.)
What is voice? In part, on the sentence level, it's about making sentences mean what you want them to mean-- but also maybe mean even more, adding emotion or suspense or subtext by element order, word choice, juxtaposition. Sentence-meaning construction is so context-dependent there are no rules about what will work. (In fact, Theresa allows that occasionally an intro participle will work, and I have been known to approve the infrequent fragment.) So no one can say something will work until it works. But that means that if you want that voice, that authority, you have to know what you want this sentence to mean and maybe experiment until you achieve that. And part of the wonder of creating a good, meaningful sentence is that you will allow room for additional meaning that you didn't necessarily intend.
The sentence is one of the many wonders of the English language-- endlessly flexible, and open to subtle manipulation. To gain that level of authority, however, you have to be willing to experiment, and to develop an ear and an eye for the construction that -in this context- will create the right meaning.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
No, really, I love books about writers. That's sort of sad, isn't it?
Anyway, I don't know why, and I don't even know if it's real or the writer/hero is imagining it. But the reviewer who panned his book is in the hero's bedroom. Hero wakes up and senses him, but it's dark and he can't see. He reaches into a drawer where he keeps a flashlight.
Here's the next line:
The flashlight wasn't there.
Now my head sort of edited that to:
The flashlight was gone.
Now just with that little bit of info, which-- if you were writing the same passage-- would you do? And why?
I've been trying to put things positively in my own writing, because that feels more active somehow. But Koontz knows how to create suspense and shock a lot more than I do, so I bet he's right. What do you think?
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
There are plenty of newer writers who misunderstood that fact of publishing lives and never got very far. I remember, when I was just starting out, a writer who sold 5 books in a single year, and refused to allow any editing at all. The publisher (as the contracts allowed) cancelled all the contracts, and the author was never heard from again, except as a lesson to us all.
What John Grisham can get away with now, he couldn't have gotten away with 20 years ago. And that makes sense-- he's made a lot of money for his publishers since, and they owe him. And he has proved that he knows his audience best, and can reach them and get them to buy. No new writer, however talented, has proved that. The new writer might be exactly right, but the publisher is being pretty sensible too. Some writers really just are more talented and/or more successful and should get a bit more allowance than most. But publishers can't necessarily know that early on.
1) Colons vs. Dashes: One of you made a comment about how you have conversations with your fellow editors about when to use a colon vs. a dash. Could you enlighten us? Is it that if the final phrase is an afterthought you'd use a dash, but if the first part of the sentence leads up to the second (especially in a dun dun dun kind of way) it's a colon?
The short answer is that it's never a colon.
The real answer is that if you're using a colon in genre fiction, you'd better have a brilliant reason. Colons are formal for the environment, a bit like wearing a tuxedo to a baseball game.
If you want to know the difference between a colon and a dash, it's that a colon suggests a conclusion and a dash indicates a break in the continuity of thought. Informal thoughts and cadences, much like those typically used in genre or commercial fiction, lend themselves naturally to an em-dash. Conclusory statements and "therefore" patterns don't fit as easily to the tone and style usually preferred here.
2) Ellipses: You mentioned how you shouldn't use ellipsis for cadence - so what should you use? If you're trying to indicate a pause, maybe as a character searches for the right word, would it be appropriate then? "Thank you for fixing this...problem."
You should use an ellipies to signal a trailing off. Think of the old guy in the nursing home who is talking and suddenly stares off into space as his sentence peters out in the middle. That's an ellipsis. He forgot what he was saying. He forgot he was talking at all.
Is this the character you want to present to your readers? Or do you want your characters to be dynamic, decisive, smart, active, focused people who know what they want and have the courage to pursue it? If a character goes through a book never quite sure what he's trying to say, he comes off as weak and indecisive. Skip the ellipses and strengthen your characters.
Yes, there are situations when even the most forceful character will fumble for the right way to say what he means. In that case, use syntax rather than punctuation to indicate a wandering or groping-in-the-dark mindset. Compare:
"I'm making steak for dinner."
"I'm making ... steak for dinner."
"Well, I guess I ought to think about what to make for dinner. Maybe something on the grill, something easy, but I don't know. I'm sick of chicken. What do you think? Does steak sound good? I could make steak."
Of those three choices, the first is a decisive character with a plan. The last is an indecisive character trying to formulate a plan. The one in the middle is the least effective of the three choices and looks a bit odd in comparison.
3) Dialogue Tags & Paragraphing: I've heard that many readers skim over non-dialogue paragraphs so I thought it was always best to not bury dialogue behind dialogue tags or action (so that the quote marks are right up front). How important do you think that is? Do you have suggestions for how to handle instances when there is thought or action happening along with (or possibly before the dialogue starts)?
He cut her off before she could start, "I know what you're going to say." vs.
"I know what you're going to say," he cut her off before she could start. - or-
She shot out of bed. "I am not - and never will be - one of those women!" vs.
She shot out of bed.
"I am not - and never will be - one of those women!"
This is at least in part a matter of voice. Do you want to write for skimmers or for readers? Either choice is valid. If you're writing for skimmers, you will use more dialogue, more paragraph breaks, minimal description, concise action, and shortish sentences. If you're writing for readers, you want to reward their attention with glowing descriptions, controlled world-building, and high tension levels. (Think of Dan Brown, who writes for readers with long paragraphs and lots of detail, but keeps readers turning pages as fast as they can read them.)
That said, I think sequencing and logic are bigger concerns than where the paragraph marks fall. Put first things first. In Jami's first example, we have actions that occur in a particular chronological order. But in the second option, the actions are presented in reverse chronological order. There are times when you want to tinker with the order of presentation to add impact to different bits of the sentece, but those times are rare. The general rule is to keep it linear.
Does that help?
Read this post.
It explains the three broad philosophies of grammar and gives some tips for choosing between rules. This post is over a year old, but the content is still good. The only addition I would make:
Don't adopt everything a contest judge says. There's a lot of bad information being circulated via contests.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Based on my experiences (and not on Jenny's post or comments), here are some of the hallmarks of an author-versus-copy-editor battle.
"I Am Freaking Out!"
The author gets emotional. I may be able to understand and even empathize, but I probably can't get anywhere productive until we get past the yelling part. Just remember, all that venting might feel great and help you cope, but it probably won't bring us closer to the solution. Yell if you need to, but then cool it and work with me.
"But It's My Voice!"
The author talks a lot about her voice. Frequently, she can't articulate a reason for doing it her way except that she thinks it's her voice.
I never share these comments with the copy editor (or editor, on those rare occasions when I must mediate a disagreement between editor and author) because that would be a great disservice to the authors. There are two reasons for this. First, the author might not understand her own voice. This is both common and understandable. It's hard to get sufficient distance from your own work to analyze your voice.
Or, second, the author is in danger of branding herself as someone who is trying to build her voice on bad grammar and bad style. (Handy tip: You don't want to do that.) Part of my job is making our authors look like the brilliant, colorful butterflies they are. Sometimes this means listening, withholding judgment, and preserving confidence -- and when an author just doesn't understand a rule, I would rather educate her than expose her.
"That's Not a Rule!"
The author doesn't understand the rule that led to the change. This doesn't count against the author until after the rule has been explained. By that I mean that nobody understands everything perfectly. I don't expect to know everything, and I don't expect the people around me to know everything. But I do expect a certain openness to learning.
Many years ago, long before my days with Red Sage, I was freelance editing a manuscript for a very new author. Her manuscript was loaded with laughable dangling modifiers. ("Relaxing on the patio, the ice cream tasted delicious.") I wrote her a detailed explanation of what a dangling modifier is and how to avoid writing them. She sent me back a one-line email: "That's not a rule."
Well, yes, actually, it is a rule in every grammar system I know. I could forgive her for not knowing it in the first place, but her refusal to learn meant that I never took another editing project from her. All of which is to say, when you're getting ready to do nine rounds over what you see as an objectionable edit, remember that you might not understand the rule. And if someone takes the time to educate you, do them the courtesy of trying to learn something.
Now that we've seen some of what happens on the author's side of this battle, let's look at the copy editors. Oh, yeah, we're going there.
"But This Expert Says...."
Every copy editor worth her paycheck can cite house style guides, multiple grammar books, dictionaries, AP/APA/MLA/Chicago, and so on. They might know things you've never dreamed of, such as who Richard Lanham is, and if they're also content editors, they might also have opinions on how and when to apply Lanham's theories. (This is why it's dangerous to join a table full of editors at a cocktail party. You will have to listen to this sort of thing. And then you will cry. Though those might be tears of boredom rather than frustration.)
All of this education means that they've been thoroughly trained in competing and contradictory philosophies of style, usage, and grammar. And if they're left to choose their own solutions, they might just choose one you don't want. The most common problem I see in fiction editing -- and this is more or less what La Jenny was complaining about on her blog -- is a copy editor scorning generative grammar principles in favor of more formal classical grammar. (Fictive grammar generally draws from both schools.) (Also -- and this might just be my particular bias, but it's formed from experience -- it seems that the more educated an editor is, the more scornful she is of generative grammar.)
"But The Style Guide Says...."
The thing about copy editors is that, despite this incredible wealth of information at their disposal, they're really not paid to exercise editorial judgment. They're paid to apply a chosen system of rules to the material at hand. The house supplies the rules, and the copy editor follows them. This is what we expect them to do, and most of them do it brilliantly.
Knowing when not to apply a particular rule is a bit of an art, and it's one best left to other hands. So as long as the CE is following the rules she's supposed to follow, she's on safe ground, even if her result might sound funny. So cut her some slack if she turns in an odd change.
"But The Style Guide Is Wrong!"
Just as I've had authors explode over changes to their manuscripts, I've seen editors explode over changes to the style guide. Editors and copy editors alike become deeply wedded to certain principles -- and if they are also writers? Look out! You know how we sometimes joke about The Great Semicolon Debate of '08? That actually happened. And it's still happening to this day. Just last week I got an email from someone in-house about the damned semicolons, may they all burn in hell. And then got another one from the person on the other side of the argument. Never ends, I swear.
Some rules of grammar are constant from one system to another. Adjectives modify nouns, and progressive tenses signal ongoing action, and periods come at the ends of declarative sentences. Those sorts of things will never change.
Then there are matters of style and usage, which can vary somewhat. It's these variables that can cause the most squabbling on my side of the desk. Of course, most of us on this side of the desk are just twisted enough to think that kind of squabbling is super fun.
So what happens, really, when a disagreement forms over copy edits? I have to mediate between a copy editor with incredible knowledge (but not always the judgment we want to see) and an author who is in a panic (sometimes for good reason, even though she might not be able to articulate the reason). The end result is that both sides claim to be grateful for the resolution while secretly sticking pins into their Theresa dolls. And then I pour myself a stiff drink. There's your HEA!
ps. Jenny, I adore your books and your charming self. This post is not about you. It was just inspired by you.
Great names there. But too many of them for the top of a scene. Each will take attention away from the reader getting to know the main character. What's important? It's lunchtime. Beulah is alone. We don't need to know why she's alone. What we need to know is how it makes her feel. So Get rid of Effie et al. Mention them later, as needed.
Beulah buttoned her spring jacket and clutched her lunch bag in her hand as she surveyed the schoolyard.
This does a good job of identifying the character and providing enough info that we know the situation: School. Lunch. Spring.
You don't need "in her hand." You only need to add more to "clutch" if the whatever is being clutched in something other than her hand (her teeth, for example).
Now to make the buttoning of the jacket more important (so it doesn't just seem like a way to get action in there), think about adding something that hints at why she's buttoning. Like if it's early spring and still chilly, maybe she buttons it "tight" or "up to the neck" or she buttons "every button."
Blocking is important here because you have two actions that require hands. You can clutch using only one hand, but it's hard to button using only one hand. It can be done, but more likely you'd put down whatever is in your hand and button using both hands and then pick up the whatever again.
That might be more description than you want for a relatively unimportant action. So think about a substitute action that accomplishes the same sort of thing, but without hands. Maybe, if you want to show that it's cold, she can "hunch her shoulders against the wind" or stick her free hand in her pocket or use that hand to pull up her hood.
Beulah hoped that she would see someone sitting by herself, but all the other girls had tight knots of friends gathered around them.
Hmm. This is okay, but I wonder if you can make it more active, not just a sort of static hope, but something that shows this in motion? You're designing the scene, so you can do almost anything. :) I'm thinking of something like Beulah seeing a classmate sitting alone and starting over there, but before she can get there, a knot of girls emerges from the school and heads to gather around the bench.
The largest group gathered around Winifred Waldfogel, and even some of the boys stood close by her.
Again, this is fine, and I love the name. But think about putting Beulah in motion. She starts towards the one bench, where there's only one girl, but then the other girls beat her there. She turns (she does need somewhere to sit to eat lunch!), and is looking right at Winifred and sees that the group around her is even larger.
I like that "even some of the boys" because it tells me subtly that this isn't high school yet because it's unusual for boys to be hanging around girls, and it's a testament to Winifred's attractiveness that they're hanging around.
Just think about showing Beulah's hope and disappointment in action. It's not a big deal; the emotion is really what matters. And actually, if this is for children, especially middle-grade or lower, you might want to state the emotion out (Beulah hoped) as the younger reader might not be experienced enough to interpret the action as "hope and disappointment".
How about challenging yourself? Whenever you use a sentence fragment, challenge yourself to explain why a sentence fragment is better here. If you can't, try to connect it to another sentence or make it a sentence by adding the necessary words. Now of course you can always justify anything, and if not, you can hire a lawyer to do it for you. But this isn't about your asserting your will over the editor. Ego isn't what matters here. Does the fragment's fragmentation add something that makes up for the momentary annoyance in the reader-- and the possible loss of credibility for you as the writer?
Often, frankly, this tendency to fragment is just laziness—you have an afterthought and just add it and don't notice or care that it is a fragment. Notice. Care. I will. And I'll be annoyed to have to do YOUR job. And I'm cranky when I'm annoyed. And you've lost credibility. Was it worth it? Yes? Okay, maybe there's a purpose to that fragment. But usually, really, fragments happen because you're not paying attention to your sentences and aren't noticing what goes with what, what adds to meaning, what connects.
Here's the sort of useless fragment that gives all fragments a bad name:
She contemplated the probable options. For the future.
Why on earth is "for the future" set off? It's a prepositional phrase that modifies or tells more about "options," and those two should go together—the modified and the modifier. We can probably even just eliminate the "for the future"—options are in the future by definition, right? But if you want to keep "future" for emphasis or rhythm, attach it. Make it belong. Make it have only the importance it should have—and that's not enough importance for its own sentence.
Sentences are units of meaning. Everything that goes together in a sentence belongs together. Everything cut off doesn't belong in that sentence. Every sentence is different (or should be), and each will have its own logic and coherence. But that flexibility requires more from you, not less, as a crafter of sentences.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
The old man had been whispering to Cammie all day. He’d started at dawn. The field, illuminated by the frosted gold of the sun’s rising, was just becoming visible at her fingertips when she felt a slow hum building. It was like crickets singing, so familiar she barely noticed – and she certainly didn’t say anything. After all, this was the first spring Cammie was old enough to help with the planting, and she was doing her best to seem grown-up. Mother always said to stop making things up, to stop being so childish, and she hated it when Cammie talked about the sounds she heard. So Cammie ignored the lazy song in the back of her skull and half-walked, half-bounced, tossing fistful of seeds that disappeared in the dusky morning. She tried her hardest to throw them just like her Mother, who produced such a pretty fan-shape with each casual toss. But the hum became a buzz and the buzz a whine, and then he was there, his breath against her ear and his words only half heard, as though a wind caught at his whispers and pulled them away.
I like the motif of whispering.
Notice that you go from a very specific moment-- this dawn, these whispers-- to a general time, not even "today" but "this spring". I think you're trying to cram too much into the first paragraph. You know, really, all you need to do is make it interesting enough that the reader goes on to the next paragraph--- you don't have to shove all the backstory in there. :)
So take it slow. Think of what the central idea of this paragraph is-- the old man. Whispering. This dawn. Not other people. Not other whispers. Not other times. NOW. If you want to talk about something else, start a new paragraph. You lost me as soon as you went from the specific to the general, from "right now" to "back then." There's a time for "back then," but it's not in this paragraph. So let's cut off all the non-whisper/non-now stuff and concentrate on the moment:
The old man had been whispering to Cammie all day. He’d started at dawn. The field, illuminated by the frosted gold of the sun’s rising, was just becoming visible at her fingertips when she felt a slow hum building. It was like crickets singing, so familiar she barely noticed – and she certainly didn’t say anything.
See how you're making "right now" be retrospective? "The old man HAD BEEN whispering"-- past-perfect (had) tense is often a sign of retrospective narration. There is a place for retrospection, sure, but is it here? You're kind of telling the reader, "The interesting stuff has already happened, and I'm going to start after that." You don't want to tell the reader that. :)
Make this moment a special moment. It might be when the whispering starts, or it might be when the whispering suddenly stops, or it might be when she reacts to it or realizes what it was-- I don't know. But NOW is important, isn't it? You're starting NOW because it's important, right? So where does NOW start?
Let's say it's when the whispering starts.
The old man started whispering to Cammie at dawn.
Immediate, right there.
The field, illuminated by the frosted gold of the sun’s rising, was just becoming visible at her fingertips when she felt a slow hum building. It was like crickets singing, so familiar she barely noticed – and she certainly didn’t say anything.
Notice you have several sonic events here-- the whispering, the hum, the crickets. The latter two are apparently what the whispering is like. But we don't know what the whispering is, and the hum and crickets references don't help, because they don't sound like each other, and they don't actually sound much like whispering. Oddly enough, the best metaphors are often unrelated to the object being compared-- because if they're related, we can't really get the metaphor. We're thinking, "But a hum doesn't sound like a cricket. Cricket songs are high-pitched."
I'm not sure which the whispering is like, but I'd choose one of those and go with that. A whisper that is like a low hum would be low-pitched, throbby, seductive, sleepy. A whisper that is like a cricket song would seem to me to be high-pitched, scratchy, exciting, anxious. Which is more like this old man's whisper? I can't get much of an emotional sense of this because those two comparisons each take me in a different direction. Be aware of the signals you're sending, and send the ones you want the reader to get. :)
The field, illuminated by the frosted gold of the sun’s rising, was just becoming visible at her fingertips
I like the sound of this but had to read it a couple times before I figured out what you meant was at her fingertips. Why fingertips? She's planting? Okay, but you know, this is visual, and it might be messing with the coherence. Can she SEE the old man? Or just hear him? Think about sticking with the aural perception for a few lines, and then switch to the visual, but connect it with action. For example, if I heard someone whispering at me, I'd turn and look. There's your visual cue. She turns and looks for the source of the whispering, and the dark is lightening and the sun rising-- if you want to make this immediate, let her provide the cues for what is perceived and what isn't.
Also -- minor point-- you might slip in some adjective before "field"-- the strawberry field, the cornfield? Just to give us a bit more info.
I'm not clear on whether there really is an old man or if she's imagining him. If he's not there in physical form, how does she know he's old? What quality in his voice or what he says makes her think that?
You don't have to address all this at once, goodness knows, but just be aware that the reader will be asking, and that's a good thing. :) But what is he saying? Can she tell?
What is her emotional reaction? Is she scared or not?
It was like crickets singing, so familiar she barely noticed – and she certainly didn’t say anything.
"She barely noticed..." way to diminish the importance. :) At first she barely noticed? I can believe that-- there's this sound, and it's not too intrusive (a whisper, not a shout), but as time goes on and it doesn't shut up, then she notices?
and she certainly didn’t say anything.
This is intriguing, because it suggests that she might be ashamed or worried or something-- that if others knew she was hearing it, they'd disapprove somehow. It also indicates that she thinks no one else hears it.
As a matter of fact, in a town north of me there's something called "The Hum." (Google Kokomo Hum.) Some people in town heard this constant hum, and it made them sick, and other residents couldn't hear it and thought the hearers were crazy. (There actually was a hum-- two big industrial fans.)
It's a great idea for individualizing her right off. She's the one the old man whispers to, or she's the only one who hears him whisper.
But you might say WHO she doesn't say anything to-- her mother? Everyone?
You're setting up a kind of cool motif of sound/silence (motifs are often opposite pairs)-- she hears, but she can't speak about it.
Alternative history? Just guessing. My brother Chris used to read Harry Turtledove's alternative histories. That's about all I know about it. I do remember reading one where the south won the Civil War, and the author was a lot more hopeful than I was (having grown up in Virginia, where the war ended in 2008, when it voted for an African-American president!). But what a great subject, and let's face it, if you want to write FICTION about an important historical event, you need to go beyond the fact. So you won't get me carping that he was killed at night and so couldn't look out the window, etc. FICTION means, as Archibald MacLeish said about poetry, "not true."
The killer strode purposefully toward the President, knife raised high.
The President remained unaware, staring out the window into the oppressively hot DC night. His back was exposed, unprotected. My sister and I were immobile, too startled to react. I tried to shout a warning, at least give the President a chance, at least give the President a chance, but the words were stuck in my throat.
Why is he staring out at the night?
This is presumably NOT taking place at Ford's Theatre, where L was actually attacked, so see if you can sneak in some information, like "...staring out the White House window into...."
Can you sneak in a sense of where the narrator and sister are? "Immobile behind the couch" or "immobile in the doorway..." or?
at least give the President a chance, but the words were stuck in my throat.
At least give him a chance to what? Work on finding ways to slide in MORE. Here's the difference between narrative and reality-- in narrative, you can slip in more information with little words. :)
Also there is no reason to stick all that in one sentence. Conclusion, ending, results-- those are more emphatic in a single sentence at the end of the paragraph. Start thinking about sentence design and paragraph design as ways of letting the reader what goes with what. That's all about meaning too-- sentences and paragraphs. Don't assume that words and phrases are the real containers of meaning. Readers are sophisticated thinkers-- accept that, and assume they get meaning from what you put together in sentences, and what you put together in paragraphs. If you want the reader to know this is important ON ITS OWN, put it in a sentence of its own, and you'll be signalling: "Pay attention. This is important." So:
at least give the President a chance. But the words were stuck in my throat.
You don't need "were" there-- I'd decide on the basis of (you guessed it) rhythm. You can always vary rhythm by adding "nothing" words that don't really affect the meaning. This is the great skill that comes from writing bad but rhymed/metered poetry. No one who has ever written a bunch of sonnets will ever wonder what the rhythm of a sentence needs. :)
Helps to read Shakespeare and Frost aloud.
How did it come down to this, two kids trying to prevent this murder – a century and a half before their own time?
This is a nice first-personish way of quickly summarizing the situation.
I'd just suggest --
before OUR own time?
... makes it more personal. Those kids are "us", right?
Carin was between the assassin and his goal. He pushed her roughly out of the way with his left hand. She grunted as she spun around.
Opportunity to slide in setting info. Keep a watch for these, like:
Carin was between the assassin and his goal, there in the balcony seats... or there by the desk.. or?
In the beginning, the reader needs to have some sense of where we are, so slide in whatever info you can without being too obvious. This might be something you revise in. I tend to write in layers:
When you do your final draft, add in anything you think the reader needs (often only a word here and there). Then do another final draft and make sure everything is needed!
I saw her go down, saw the President still lost in thought, and before I could think about it, I was on the move. I jumped up on the President’s enormous bed, took two bouncing steps across it, and threw myself at the assassin. I grabbed him about the neck and upraised arm.
Okay, we're in his bedroom. The Lincoln bedroom! So... slide in info when you can with a word or two:
Where does she go down?
Is the president in his bed?
Block your action here. It sounds like she's on the other side of the bed from the assassin, but wasn't she/he just next to her sister?
I am really bad with action, but I try to compensate by story-boarding (with stick figures, natch) the movement. Where is "I"? Where is everyone else in the room? Make sure you know where everyone in the scene is positioned, because here, it sounds like "I" is bounding across the bed from the other side. It would probably take only a word or two to make clear where "I" is.
He glared ferociously at me and pushed me roughly back onto the bed.
Now how would you write this differently if "he" was on the bed too, and how would you write it if "he" was somewhere else in the room?
I am totally clueless about anything visual, so I truly can't imagine your action. That doesn't mean you should spell it out-- probably most readers are more visual than I am. But make sure YOU know where everyone is and what the action means. If "he" is on the floor beside the bed, he's going to reach UP to get to "I", right? Or "I" am going to fling myself from the bed and--- you're in first-person. What happens? Does "I" descend (as "I" would if "he" were beside on the floor) or not (if "he" were also on the bed)? And is Lincoln on the bed, or leaning on the window frame, or?
Block your action, and then decide what you need to tell the reader.
The President had heard the commotion behind him, and he turned back from the window. Even in the dim candlelight, his famous profile was unmistakable – the beard, the height, the gangly arms, everything but the stovepipe hat.
Past perfect-- "had heard"-- is problematic in several ways. If the Pres can turn in real time, no past perfect, better. Understand that the reader is going to cut you a little slack here, because we all know how hard it is to narrate simultaneous action. So if the president hears and turns in real time, that's good. If it's an instant before or after, the reader probably won't care.
The President heard the commotion behind him, and turned back from the window. Even in the dim candlelight, his famous profile was unmistakable – the beard, the height, the gangly arms, everything but the stovepipe hat.
Here's where you can sneak in a tiny bit more info about the narrator. How does he/she know what the Pres looks like? If you have:
his famous profile was unmistakable from the one in my history textbook – the beard, the height, the gangly arms, everything but the stovepipe hat.
the reader will instantly know that this is a schoolkid, right?
his famous profile was unmistakable from the portrait on Wikipedia – the beard, the height, the gangly arms, everything but the stovepipe hat.
...then we can assume that "I" is probably an adult.
The man aimed his knife at President Lincoln’s neck.
You call him "assassin" before, and I wonder if it might work to keep that? I'm assuming this is more complicated than just JW Booth getting an earlier chance, so you don't want to say "Booth".
Interesting opening. I am really interested in the "meta" aspects of alternate history, how much you rely on the reader's knowledge of what "really" happen (and notice I put "really" in quotes, like it's not really real ), and what you decide is "canon"-- what you aren't allowed to change, like the Pres's temperament or the year of assasssination?
(Later-- I actually hate one-sentence paragraphs, so I'd combine some of these. Assume no editor is going to allow a series of short paragraphs-- how would you re-paragraph this?)
Saturday, June 20, 2009
A bulge of earth in the distance raced towards her at jet speed. As it passed, the ground ripped upwards, throwing Dawn into the air, almost 15 meters high. The earth threw off the top layers of soil, flinging buried pipes and wires as well as huge chunks of asphalt and concrete into the air. Dawn sailed over the soil, reminded of documentaries where tons of dynamite blew away a wall of material. The earth exploded in every direction. Dawn crashed onto a soft pile of debris and ducked from rain of high-flung rocks and bricks. A couple blocks away, Charlotte’s jewel, the HLSCO HQ building, the huge elegant structure almost a kilometer high, crumpled into itself, imploding in a huge cloud of dust and noise. Dawn spotted her own apartment complex, presumably with her Aunt Rose inside, settling down to the ground in a plume of debris.
"Bulge" seems to me still attached to the earth, not a projectile. Not sure if anyone else felt that way! Or do you mean it was still attached? You know, a line of description might clear this up-- however, it's possible only I didn't get it.
Good frenetic feel here, right for an action scene.
As it passed, the ground ripped upwards, throwing Dawn into the air, almost 15 meters high. The earth threw off the top layers of soil, flinging buried pipes and wires as well as huge chunks of asphalt and concrete into the air.
Maybe earlier say where we are? See if you can sneak it in-- like the bulge of earth ran past a highrise (we're in a city) or a silo (we're in the country).
Notice that you've buried the experience of the POV character, in the middle of a line. How close are you to her own feelings? If you're in deep POV, or any kind of personal POV, you'll want to tell how it feels to be flung that way. If you're in omniscient, however, you want to concentrate on the overall scene-- but seeing a person flung into the air might be worth describing. Are her arms flailing, etc?
Dawn sailed over the soil, reminded of documentaries where tons of dynamite blew away a wall of material.
Uh, this doesn't seem to be a real person. She's sailing through the air, and a bulge of earth is pursuing her, and she's thinking about documentaries? Come on. Be in her. Close your eyes and imagine that you are her, and you are there on earth and suddenly you're flung into the air, and there is NOTHING you can do, but you try to do it anyway-- grab at the air, reach down for the earth, anything that can stop your flight. Be in her, and tell us what it feels like, and what you're thinking as you sail through the air to probable death.
If you want to talk about documentaries, you need to be in omniscient POV, I think.
Then again, maybe she's a lot cooler under pressure than I am!
The earth exploded in every direction. Dawn crashed onto a soft pile of debris and ducked from rain of high-flung rocks and bricks.
How does it feel to crash? Can she scramble up, look wildly around, and then duck?
A couple blocks away, Charlotte’s jewel, the HLSCO HQ building, the huge elegant structure almost a kilometer high, crumpled into itself, imploding in a huge cloud of dust and noise.
I like that "almost a kilometer high", and I can really see it "crumpling".
Maybe too many short elements there? The punctuation is right, but so many short elements might be kind of choppy, and the main purpose of the sentence might be lost. Maybe if you get rid of "Charlotte's jewel"? and end the sentence thus:
crumpled into itself and imploded in a cloud of dust and noise.
See what you think--
Dawn spotted her own apartment complex, presumably with her Aunt Rose inside, settling down to the ground in a plume of debris.
I'd delete that "presumably" right away, as it bleeds out all your credibility. Come on, this is a novel. You're in charge. Aunt Ruth is there, as far as Dawn knows.
I live in the Midwest, and we have tornadoes that will mow down a town and then delicately take one car and set it down undented a mile away. So I envision that apartment complex landing intact and just causing a big dustbomb as it lands. What do you mean? Is the apartment complex destroyed? Tell us.
Also, Dawn is not just a camera. What's going on with her? Is she crouched behind a broken shard of concrete, watching helplessly as her home hurtles by and crashes into the cornfield/desert/parking lot?
See that? I don't know where we are-- the verdant farmland, the desert, the suburbs. "Ground" can be on the moon, for all I know. You did mention Charlotte, presumably the North Carolina city and not the girl I went to high school with. But you know, I'm from Virginia, just north of there, and I still want to know-- are those buildings crashing into the mountains? the mall? a lake?
Look for non-informative words. "Ground" says less than "dirt" even. Sneak in info whenever you can without calling too much attention to it. You can almost always replace a generic word like "ground" with something more interesting, like "the North Carolina clay," or "the desert sand," or "the mall parking lot."
Challenge yourself. Find every generic word and see if you can specific it up. :)
His eyes skimmed the specs, and he began to talk to the system. At first it turned him away. He was reminded of many swift rebuttals from women he'd propositioned. But then, with persistence, it began to change for him, open to him. Authorization? It asked. And he gave it. It was dummy authorization. Why fight the authorization by hacking passwords like some amateur when you could make her show all those hidden files that contain the password programming algorithms? He changed the password and walked in like he'd been here fifty times before. The glass case unfolded like a flower, and he stood up, staring at it. “I knew you'd come to me,” he grinned, putting his hand on the device. It burned his hand.
His eyes skimmed the specs, and he began to talk to the system.
Why are those in the same sentence? I don't mean to be confrontational, rather I think "and" implies we know the connection between him skimming the specs and then talking to the system. And maybe we do if we've read everything up to this point. But think about whether he just talked "while/as" he skimmed the specs-- that is, simultaneous actions-- or if there was more of a causal relationship, which I'm getting from the current line, not sure why-- what he saw in the specs told him somehow that he should talk to the system.
At first it turned him away. He was reminded of many swift rebuttals from women he'd propositioned.
These two seem like they should be more connected, maybe in the same sentence. (Also "it" made me go back and re-read-- what's "it"?) Or maybe you need to say HOW the system turned him down? It didn't respond? The cursor blinked contemptuously? You're presenting the system actually in conversation with him, so show that.
Also, "rebuttal" usually means "refutation," not "refusal." And rebuttals aren't like to be swift, because you have to counter-argue the points. So go with "refusals" or "rejections" maybe?
But then, with persistence, it began to change for him, open to him.
You're summarizing here, and I think this is likely the very point where you should get detailed. Presumably this is an important scene, as he seems to be breaking in somewhere. And he's using talents, right? That contrasts nicely with his self-deprecation. So take it slower. Show him working . SEVERAL PARAGRAPHS. If you make it fun, it will work.
For example, you're setting up that he's kind of seducing the system. So play with that. Use seduction words to set up what he's doing-- "flirting" with the system, "complimenting" it, "admiring" it, etc. You probably only need a couple of those, but that will expand the theme you've set up and make this more fun.
Not in love with the "change for him, open for him". Double predicates sound like you can't actually make up your mind. At least they're a little different, and the "open for him" expands the seduction motif ("change for him" doesn't-- see if you can do that subtly-- trust him?). However, notice that you are jumping the gun here. You are stating the results before the action, I think. (The false authorization, I mean.) If you mean that the system asking for the authorization is the first sign of opening, say so somehow. Like After a few more totally sincere compliments, he got to first base. "Authorization?" she asked.
with persistence, it
Have to point out-- this is a dangling modifier. It isn't being persistent-- HE is.
with persistence, he made it change for him...
Authorization? It asked. And he gave it. It was dummy authorization. Why fight the authorization by hacking passwords like some amateur when you could make her show all those hidden files that contain the password programming algorithms?
You have the system as "her" here, and "it" before-- choose one. "Her" goes better with the flirtation motif.
Authorization? it asked.
Lower-case the "i"-- even with the question mark rather than a comma, the "it asked" is still a quote tag and must be connected to the quote, not in a separate sentence.
See, the whole dummy authorization thing is going to confuse most of us (well, at least me). If you take this slower, show what he's doing, explain it, the reader will understand-- as long as you make it fun. (Is he stroking the system with his lies? Fondling it? Flattering it with sweet-nothing authorizations?)
He changed the password and walked in like he'd been here fifty times before. The glass case unfolded like a flower, and he stood up, staring at it. “I knew you'd come to me,” he grinned, putting his hand on the device. It burned his hand.
Okay, here's the culmination. Again, take it slower. Enjoy it. She "surrendered" to him, maybe. I like the unfolding like a flower because that is, of course, a common metaphor for a woman's, um, succumbing to temptation. Good! But I didn't know before that there was a glass case. "She" presumably is not the glass case but the security system? I don't know-- probably you mention that he's standing before a glass case. See, if you took this slower, you could have him seeing his reflection in the glass, etc. Work with what you have, but have fun with it.
And what is "the device/it"? "It" has been the system.
The burning is nice, but you might end with something that connects to the whole seduction motif. Just an example-- "It burned his hand, just like he always knew love would." Or whatever.
You want to know what voice is? THIS is voice. This is finding the fun, the excitement, in a passage, and using your word choice and your approach and your scene design to explore. You want to give the reader the most interesting and entertaining experience of this passage. THAT is your voice-- your way of seeing and presenting the story. You have something clever here, something that shows your playfulness and your irreverent attitude. (VOICE!!!) Use it, but use it well. Explore that motif of seduction. Use it to shape the interaction here, to present your own understanding of what's going on here. Yeah, you might overdo, but you know what? You can always cut it back in revision. Have confidence in your own ability to know what's too much. But a little excess here will mean you'll have a better idea of what works and what's excessive.
And I have to say, the seduction motif is perfect for this situation and character. First, the character-- it's first-person, so you want the narrative to reflect what's unique about the narrator. And he's apparently a felon. So he might be a bit excessive anyway! He's not going to be really conventional and stiff, right? And he's enjoying himself, breaking this system. Give him time to have some fun.
Also the back-and-forth of the situation exactly replicates sex and seduction, doesn't it? You felt that analogy. It's right. Have fun with it. You already are, I can tell ("opened like a flower" :). So take it through the whole passage. Make it a whole passage. I'd even think about doing it more or less in real-time-- that is, if it took him 10 minutes, take 10 paragraphs. You can always cut back if you think you've gone too far.
Notice what you do well, and do it well. :) You are having fun here, and being a little naughty. Well, that'll be fun to the readers too. We can be seduced just like the security system!
And if you take your time, you can get in all the info, like "security system" and "touchpad" and "glass case" and .... The more you put in, the more we'll be able to visualize the scene.
And you can always cut back. Keep that in mind. (Don't forget that step!) Let yourself go at first, and then you can get all analytical after. Try-- oh, two-three pages here. Too much, but that will give you a lot of great lines to choose among.
In truth, sentence order-- where a word is in a sentence-- is far more important in English than the case of the word, which is why none of you are going to have any trouble understanding a child who says, "Me and Brody are going to the store." We know that "me," appearing at the start of the sentence before the verb, is the subject even if it's in objective case.
Interestingly, that "Me and (name)(verb)" is very common, and you'll hear adults say it too. I've said it myself, when I'm feeling really loose. (Yeah, you know, other people crash cars when they're feeling lose... I misuse grammar. I am such a wild thing. :) But you'll seldom hear:
I and Brody are going to the store.
Why is that? When we use the correct case (I), we won't put it first, but we will put the objective (wrong) case first. If you're going to use "I", you put it last-- Brody and I are going to the store.
Also less usual is:
Brody and me are going to the store.
That's something you'll hear sometimes, but not as often as Me and Brody.
I suspect this is because the ear hears "Me (verb)" as wrong and doesn't go that way.
Notice that even little kids are almost never going to say, "Me am going to the store." Why is that? I think it's probably because "I" by itself is pretty normed. It's when we add in the other person that the pronoun is distant enough from the verb not to create that dissonance (and a proper name-- Brody-- has no case).
And notice that even little kids won't go with the wrong case of the plural pronoun:
Us are going to the store.
BTW, if you're writing a story with little kids in it, be careful of the sentence mistakes you have them make. Little kids make certain mistakes ("Me and Brody") but usually not others ("Me is/am going to the store"). They don't make the same mistakes as new adult English speakers do (like ESL speakers very often drop articles or use the wrong one, and even a 4-year-old native speaker is unlikely to do that).
As one of those who prides myself on saying "whom" just when I should, I wasn't about to let Goddess Lynn do away with the distinction. (Alas, I am like Holden Caulfield's English teacher feared, just educated enough to scorn those who say "It’s a secret between he and I." And what if that distinction no longer matters, huh? Who am I-- I mean, WHOM am I to scorn?) However, boy, this subjective/objective isn't always really easy to do right, even if you try. Here's something I came across, and it's by the editor of a major political mag. Now it IS in email, and theoretically you can be looser in email. But still-- good example of how complex this can get. This is about a columnist I like who was fired by the idiots at the WaPo:
I have no insight into what prompted he and the Post to part ways.
Look at that "into" phrase at the end. There is a clause there ("what prompted" -- subject-predicate) that is the object of the preposition (the clause is the object, I mean, not "what"). So "what" (though its subjective and objective case are the same, just happens) is in the subjective case as it's the subject of the clause. (That is, if we could put "who" in there, a person not a thing doing the prompting, it would be "who" not "whom": I have no insight into WHO prompted ....) So that's important-- the clause is the object of the preposition "into", not any single word.
But then we get the end of the phrase. That is also the end of the clause (the clause that is the object of into, remember :). And it's the object of the predicate: prompted (someone). So I think "he and the Post," being in the object role, should be in objective case: him and the Post. (And I think even in an email, the editor ought to have stopped and thought about this.)
Okay, notice that what follows that is an infinitive (to-predicate), which isn't a real predicate so doesn't take subject or object. What if we put a real predicate in there, so that "he and the Post" ended up as subject of a clause? Let me see if I can come up with a substitute:
I have no insight into what prompted he and the Post to part ways..... uh....
Probably have to change "prompted" because that sort of forces a "to", and I can't think why. I do think that "to" there might actually be a preposition-part of the predicate (prompted to) rather than the start of the infinitive... hmm. Not sure. (Later... I'm pretty sure actually "to" is a preposition there, not part of an infinitive.) However, I want to eliminate "to" and I find that I can't do that without replacing the predicate, and it's funny, all the ones I came up with first, with a similar feel to "prompt" force that same "to+verb"-- urged him to... caused him to... I think all of them need the preposition "to", so that's... never mind.
So let's try a more typical transitive verb and see if that helps, and I'm actually only doing this to set up my question, my arcane question:
I have no insight into what she saw he and the Post dispute.
So..."he and the Post" are the subject of the predicate "dispute". So subjective case? That is, again, the whole clause is the object of "saw", right? Not the pronoun. So... but but but. It sounds so wrong. And if we get rid of that "and" and make it a single noun, it sounds really wrong:
I have no insight into what she saw he dispute.
Well, I don't know. I can't explain it, but by gum, that should be "him". I just know it. I can't say why. (Maybe cuz I'm wrong. :) So is he/him not the subject of that clause? Is "(pronoun) dispute" not actually a clause because "dispute" isn't actually a predicate there? Is there something elliptical there, some missing word? Is this somehow the subjunctive (it is in the present tense when it happened in the past-- a mark of subjunctive-- and is also the first-person verb form (dispute) and not the third-person (disputes) also the mark of subjunctive) and that screws everything up (the subjunctive being notorious for always screwing everything up)? I think it must be subjunctive somehow, not contrary to fact but unknown ("I have no insight").
See, I should have paid better attention in Linguistics class, but I couldn't stand that International Phonetic Alphabet junk, and so I tuned out early. I think transformational grammar would help here, but I think I skipped that class. What do you all think?
All I can say is, maybe Lynn's right. Maybe we should get rid of this distinction and just go with what feels right. But that way, that way, lies anarchy! And I know Lynn is against that!