Monday, August 31, 2009

Tales from the Slush Pile

I spent all day Saturday reading slush subs. I didn't keep count as I was going through them, but based on my best estimates:

  • About 3% thought they were submitting to an agent.
  • About 10% submitted work that is not even remotely close to what we publish -- memoirs, religious books, dissertations, cookbooks, etc. (Why is there always a cookbook?)
  • About 20% submitted fiction, but not even remotely close to our type of fiction -- hardboiled detective novels, fictionalized childhood memoirs, YA witches and vampires, stories a la Tom Clancy and Louis L'Amour, etc.
If you're doing the math so far, that's about one-third of our submissions that are wildly inappropriate for us. It's a waste of my time and yours to send that sort of submission to our house.

(Side note -- Last week I asked for your input on our submission guidelines. I took many of your suggestions. New guidelines are here.)

So this leaves about two-thirds of the original pile. This somewhat-reduced group is all more or less romance and may or may not have enough erotic content for our needs. Of this remaining two-thirds:

  • One out of three will be disqualified for multiple spelling errors, egregiously bad grammar, or other signs of a writer who is barely literate. These are the most mystifying submissions. You have the stamina to write a whole entire book, but can't take the time to run the spellchecker? Really?
  • About half will be capable of writing a clear sentence in the English language, but won't understand basic fiction mechanics. These are the people who got As and Bs on all their high school papers and would probably make strong nonfiction writers. If they learn things like scene structure, pacing, characterization, and the like, they will probably eventually write publishable fiction. But they're not there yet.
If you're still doing the math, we've now culled almost nine in ten (roughly 88%, by my estimate) manuscripts from the slush pile. Most of these have been easy decisions. From opening the submission, scanning the contents, through sending out the form rejection, I should not spend more than five minutes on each of these submissions. However, if I spend a full five minutes on each, this amounts to about seven and a half hours of reading time per one hundred slush subs, and I would still have twelve to read to finish off that batch of a hundred.

Of those remaining ten or twelve subs:

  • One-third (roughly three or four) will have great external romance plots, competent writing, and an interesting premise, but will leave me guessing as to what kind of erotic content is included. These are sometimes rejected, and sometimes get a request for a full with a reminder that we publish erotic content. I usually suggest that they make sure they have the right heat level before sending in the full. In about half of the cases, we don't ever see these fulls, which leads me to suspect the story wasn't hot enough to begin with. Of the ones that are submitted, they are usually not erotic enough to suit our needs, but if the author is willing, it's very easy to pump up the erotic content. (Usually.) For this reason, we tend to request the non-hotties more often than we reject them.
  • Another three or four will be hot enough to melt my eyeballs, but will have weak characterizations, trite external plots, occasional awkward phrasing, and other glitches. Sometimes these are fixable, but much depends on the skill level and willingness to work of the author. These are the ones editors evaluate with one eye on the clock: "How much of my time will it take to get this into publishable shape?" The answer, almost always, is too much. For this reason, we tend to reject the hot-clunkies more often than we request them.
  • Another three or so will be just right. Good plot, good heat, good writing -- or good enough, anyway, to be fixed in under a hundred editor-hours. With some sense of anticipation, we will request fulls on all three. Two will eventually show up.

What's the lesson in this? Read the guidelines, run the spellchecker, and respond to requests for fulls. Be willling to work and revise your stories. You can improve your odds a lot just by doing these basic things.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

For Alicia (and anyone else who wants to play along)

So, what do you think is the significance of all the singing in tonight's episode of Mad Men? We had three vocal performances -- Joan with the French accordion song, Roger in that disgusting blackface, and Paul with his college buddy. Do you think Pete and Trudy's charleston dance fits in with whatever theme they were trying to build with the music? It might have. Perhaps they were trying to make a point about the ways in which people perform. Not sure.

Also, Peggy + marijuana = win
Surely you like her better when she's stoned? I did. She had the two best lines of the whole night.
1 -- "I am Peggy Olson, and I would like to smoke some marijuana." (hilarious)
2 --
Smitty (in disbelief): Are you working?
Peggy (a little surprised): I think I am.

In the "I am always right" column, let's make a notation for Jane Sterling. Last week I suggested her look would change. Last season, pre-wedding, she wore absurdly tight clothing and unbuttoned her blouses enough to see inches of bra. This season, she's dressed in baggy sacks with jewel necklines, and "ladies who lunch" type hats. I thought her first dress, the black and white harlequin number, evoked the circus.

And what's up with Don suddenly becoming a truth teller? That bit at the end with Roger -- "they think you're foolish" -- was a bit shocking. But was it out of character? I can't decide. He doesn't seem to mind laying other people bare. It's himself he must hide ----- and yet, there he was behind the bar with a stranger, telling about his childhood. Is Don changing?


Friday, August 28, 2009

Active Writing

Today's post is brought to you by the letters R and U.

Go to Romance University and read about two types of active writing. :)


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summing up participles? Other thoughts?

So, because I'm teaching a class on pacing and have gotten to the "prose" part, I think this might be a good opportunity to summarize what we all discussed about PPPs and such.

Jami mentioned that she thought maybe eliminating most of the PPPs could lead to the kind of "fresh, crisp" voice the editors keep asking for. Hmm. Good thought. There is nothing as "crisp" as the declarative SVO sentence, as it succinctly and immediately identifies the causer of the action, the action, and the recipient. Too many unadorned SVO sentences can feel choppy, but this should be the default, as it's so efficient in conveying information.

With that SVO (or just SV, for sentences that describe a condition with non-transitive -- no object-- verbs, like "I wept") as the main clause, you can build other types of sentences. But what's really important, really meaningful, is in a main clause, an independent clause, which can if need be be spun off as its own sentence-- for emphasis, for clarity.

But you can also build on that simple clear statement, adding whatever is needed to deepen the emotion, focus the description, hint at some complication. The kernel of meaning will still be there, however, and the reader will find it if you don't gild up the sentence too much.

I suspect that the more we put in front of the subject, the more arcane the sentence becomes and the more prone to errors. Readers are more likely to be confused at the start of the sentence because they don't have the accumulation of meaning yet. Later in the sentence, an extra phrase or qualifier won't confuse, because the reader knows the main point of the sentence and can put that all into context.

So what should go in front of the main clause? Well, someone-- who was that?-- was mentioning that "inflection" might go first-- that's what tells the reader how to read something. This is really important with dialogue-- we might read the line of speech differently if we know Joan shouted it rather than Pete whispering it.

Something else that might go well at the start of the sentence is some connective referring back, a transition like "Of course" or even a dependent clause like "Although he knew the truth--" That will help provide continuity between sentences (and it's really helpful in smoothing a paragraph break).

A setting or time marker, especially if it's short, can be essential to understanding not just this sentence but how it connects to the rest of the scene: "Across town..." or "The next day..."

And let's say you want to vary the openings of sentences-- do it in a meaningful way, with an element that adds to the reader's understanding and doesn't confuse.

So what else can we say about sentences? What have you found that works? I keep wanting to make a point about sentences and paragraphs-- that if you paragraph well, you'll resist the impulse for the long complicated sentences because you won't think you need to put everything in before the period. So often with these intro PPPs, I kept wondering-- why not do two sentences? When I read these 26-word sentences, with action, reaction, setting, and thought, I wonder, why not make a whole paragraph of this?

How we speak is not a reliable guide to how we should write, but that's something to consider. The reader will naturally consider sentence patterns that replicate the rhythms of conversation (even if the diction is more formal and all the "uhhs" are deleted :) more "authentic" and "real". That's not where you necessarily want to end up, but that might be where you want to start. Does this sound natural? The more conversational our voice is, the deeper our POV, the closer to character voice the narrative is-- the more we want to sound sort of like speech.

What do you all think? What suggestions do you have for revising sentences, especially the start of the sentence?


What You Look for in Submissions Guidelines

I'm in the process of revising our submissions guidelines, and given the great answers to my question about dialogue, I thought I would throw out another question to our very smart commenters. As a group, you always manage to give me something new to ponder, and I appreciate that so much.

So here's my question. What do you look for when you read submission guidelines?

There are some obvious things, I think, such as information about the lines we publish, word count, and so forth. Then there are the details about how to submit -- how many pages, submissions address, what contact information we require, and so on.

I'm going to create an FAQ section, too. We'll include information about turnaround time, advances, and other little quirks we have (such as the publisher's ban on first-person point of view).

What else do you look for in submissions guidelines? Or, as they say in the movies, help me help you!


Monday, August 24, 2009

Let's continue our deconstruction of Mad Men, a/k/a the best show on television. Where episode one provided an emotional bridge back to season two, episode two sets up the coming conflicts in season three. So let's take a look at how the plates are spinning and what might make them crash. IOW, today's lesson is in how to set up the premises for conflicts and how to foreshadow coming events.

Ken Cosgrove v. Pete Campbell

The battle between Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove is already shaping up to be epic. Last week, we might have all thought Ken was a shoo-in. This week, we get mixed messages. First, we see Ken dominate the Patio cola meeting, surrounded by creative staff and taking command in every way. Then we see Pete, joined only by Paul and his Commie Pinko Facial Hair, flub the Madison Square Garden account meeting. Score one for Ken, right?

Not so fast. The head honchos didn't want the Madison Square Garden account, as it turned out, so Pete didn't actually lose anything. And Ken -- boyish, charming, easygoing Ken -- ran roughshod over Peggy during the meeting. Yes, they do tend to treat her badly, but Ken takes on an almost cruel edge when he attacks her objections to their creative choices. I liked Ken a lot less after that scene. He was far too condescending.

Then we have the obvious pairing of Ken and Don. Don echoes Ken's cutting remarks when Peggy presents her objections to him. I think we can read this two ways. Either we can assume that Don and Ken go together, therefore Ken will win the job in the end. (I suspect this is what the writers want us to conclude.) Or we can realize that Don's ego is too big to tolerate a clone, meaning that Ken is being set up for some conflict with Don later in the season.

I am leaning toward the second choice, both for the reasons already mentioned and because I think Pete Campbell is too vicious and ambitious to tolerate Ken getting ahead of him. I predict Pete will crush Ken, but it's going to take him some time to figure out how to do it, and he may have a few stumbles along the way. Don's going to get in on the game at some point when Ken rubs him the wrong way. Ken probably doesn't have the stamina for this kind of war. Should be interesting.

Peggy Gets It On

Okay, let me start by saying that the Anne-Margaret screeching scene was horrible to sit through. And then we had to endure a piece of it a second time, later in the episode when Don watched it. I kept wondering why the director let it drag on so long the first time, and why they repeated our exposure to it later. It seemed like overkill. Really, we get it -- the ad execs for the diet cola want something stupid in their commercials. Peggy sees how stupid it is, but the men are dazzled by what they perceive as sexy. We get it. Move on, already. Please.

But I think there's a larger point. The Anne-Margaret song is not just a prototype for an ad campaign, but a glaring example of how cultural perceptions have shifted since the Mad Men era. This particular type of infantilized female is no longer glorified as it was then. And thank god for that.

I read an article this morning about how the Anne-Margaret bit was used to propel Peggy toward discovering and accepting her own sexuality. There's certainly some truth to that. But what I find interesting is that Peggy, the most modern female in the show, reacts to Anne-Margaret's stupid flutterings just as this modern woman did. Anne-Margaret trivialized herself in that song. Peggy and I both are made somewhat squeamishly offended while watching it.

My response to the Anne-Margaret thing was to grunt and roll my eyes a lot. Peggy's was to get laid. Go, Peggy. Her way is more fun! We saw her experiment with her own sexuality in this episode -- singing in her mirror a la Anne-Margaret, stealing Joan's flirtatious line about the subway, hiding her own success to make the boy in the bar feel stronger. But in the end, she took what she wanted and then walked away. She's still the most modern woman on this show, and her flirtations are play-acting used to achieve her goal.

I expect we'll see a lot more of this type of behavior from Peggy as the season progresses. At the end of the second season, she confessed her pregnancy to Pete. Without that hanging over her head, without guilt dogging her every step, she's free to find a new path. (Anyone else notice the lack of Colin Hanks this season? He acted as Peggy's guilty conscience in season two. She doesn't need him anymore.) Peggy's arc for this season, then, promises to be one of character development, but I'm willing to bet that the stronger she gets, the more she'll take on the guys over things like that Patio cola creative. I can't wait for her to start winning a few.

Roger Is a Naughty Boy

Dude thought he could dump his middle-aged wife and marry a teenager, and everyone would just fall right into line with it. How shocked he must be to discover that women hate this kind of behavior. We haven't seen Jane the Child-Bride yet this season, but how much do you want to bet that when we do, she's no longer the wide-eyed poet version of the Anne-Margaret sexy-infant-woman? I predict she'll be trying to remake herself into a grownup. I predict demure necklines, society lunches, and a character who begins more and more to resemble Roger's first wife. And the more she resembles the first Mrs. Sterling, the less Roger will want her.

The most telling line in the Roger subplot was when his wife and daughter confronted him in his office early one weekday morning. Roger went to pour himself a second cocktail, and his ex-wife scolded him. His reply? "You're not my wife anymore." Watch that line begin to resonate over the course of the season. Without the formidable first wife to check his less noble impulses and nag him into compliance, there's no way the ineffectual second wife can hold the reins. Roger will lose interest in Jane, and then his season-one shenanigans will look like child's play.

We'll see a lot of conflict between Roger's new wife and the other women on the show -- I wonder, in particular, whether last season's battle between Joan and Jane will get a rematch. Even without that, we'll have Jane versus the daughter (great foils for each other, by the way), Jane versus the first wife, Jane versus the wives of business associates. Oh, and can you imagine how awesome a cage match between Jane and Betty would be? This is going to be good.

Don Draper, Family Man (Yeah, Right)

I can't explain why, but I find Don's position the least interesting of all those set up for us last night. So, he arranged to have Betty's senile father move in with them. So, he prevented Betty's nasty brother from glomming onto Daddy's house and all its contents. So what?

There was that beautifully poetic moment when Don was watching the maypole dance, and he played his fingers against the grass. He was watching the barefoot dance teacher, and it was clear that if his wife hadn't been there, he would have been after that teacher like a dog goes after steak. But Betty was beside him, and his only recourse was to stroke the lawn and fantasize.

How should we interpret this? Is Don going to let Betty continue to act as a check on his behavior as he tries to be a family man? He didn't do such a great job of this last week when he fooled around with that stewardess. So maybe not. I don't know, what do you all think?


Opinions Wanted

I need some examples of great dialogue from a variety of genres. Who do you think writes really wonderful dialogue?


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Is the problem...

really that everyone's trying to jam too much into single sentences?

You don't have to do that! But almost all these participial phrase problems are happening (I diagnose) because we're trying to put a paragraph's worth of information into a single sentence.

A sentence should be part of a larger element of meaning called "the paragraph". Paragraphs gather the information, evidence, support, description, action that is around one thought or idea and puts it in a nice indented passage. If it gets more than 5-7 lines, we can even make two paragraphs with some transition at the start of the second paragraph.

But within a paragraph, you can group sentences, and the sentences can be short or long, have one important piece of information or three. If a sentence is too long or too complex or doesn't feel conversational to you or feels out of voice or you can't write around (talk about a long sentence :) a grammatical error or you think you didn't get something conveyed right, just try breaking it into two. For example:
Sometimes a sentence is too long or too complex or doesn't feel conversational to you or feels out of voice or you can't write around (talk about a long sentence :) a grammatical error or you think you didn't get something conveyed right. So just try breaking it into two.

So everyone go back to the offending PPP sentence and try this:
PPP in one sentence (now a sentence, not a phrase, natch), and add whatever emotion, action, subject, information will help it be a more meaningful sentence.
Main clause in another sentence, and add, etc.

What have you lost? Is one element too vague, too wispy to justify a sentence? What can you do to make it more important? Don't forget voice additives and transitions. A "Well," or "In fact," can do a lot to make a shorter sentence feel more important as a conclusion of sorts.

But I really think this is the diagnosis-- some of these sentences should be TWO sentences. See if that's true for you.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Question about PPPs

Okay, whether we've persuaded you or not, I think everyone agrees that in published novels, introductory present participial phrases are rather rare. So why is this? (And don't blame editors. ) What would you say PPPs do that is wrong, or what doesn't it do that's right (and I'm sorry I can't come up with a better way to say that :)?

In most of the examples you all have come up with, I respond with something that indicates that I think PPPs too often summarize something important, that should be in a sentence or two of its own.

But what else? What could be the problem with PPPs, and I mean the legal ones, not just the danglers.


My answers to comments get so long, might as well keep building up the "Theresa owes me another drink" credits

Jami G said:
Considering everything that had happened, she supposed blah,blah,blah

I don't know about other people, but I actually say "Considering..." at the beginning of sentences sometimes. If I "fix" it to "When she considered...", it sounds more formal. What's your take on this example?

Well, I'm agnostic on it. Sounds okay. the "everything that had happened" bothers me more than the participle, actually.

The problem is, you're trying to find some example of when a PPP can work. Okay. But that's still likely to be a boring sentence. Generic. Vague. Sorry, but go for meaning first. (I know you just wanted to come up with an example, but ...) My point here is, there is very little in that construction that is likely to aid in imbedding more meaning or interest or involvement into a sentence. Sometimes it's going to be inoffensive. Sometimes it's going to be okay. Sometimes it might even be right. But will it be powerful? Important? Thoughtful? Maybe you can make it so. But what I'm saying is-- make the thought worth a sentence, and then find the best way of conveying that thought AND its connections to what comes before and after. If that happens to be a PPP, go for it. But for whatever reason, PPPs are usually not very useful and meaningful sentence openings. I don't know why, though I'm sure I can speculate and come up with something that sounds momentarily significant. (g)

So looking at the "considering" sentence, well, maybe it's okay, though I will point out, even if you completed the sentence, it's likely to be pretty generic. Me-- and I always go overboard with introspection, I know-- I'd probably go ahead and show her considering. "She considered AB and C. The memory of C made her wince. She supposed she was lucky she'd only been sentenced to two years."

Or-- "With A, B, and C, she supposed she was lucky..."

But I guess if it's important enough to have in the story, it's important enough to explain. I'm not good at summary, and I think it's kind of the enemy of verisimilitude. We might think in summary, but I don't think we "consider" in summary.

Anyway, yeah, that would be an okay sentence. I just hope that we're all shooting for better than "okay" here. :)


More PPP

Joan Mora said...Thanks Alicia,

You got me--I do obsess over each word.

Here's a before and after. The first one trips over itself. I didn't change the ending because the grandmother's spirit is the element I'd like to highlight. (If you didn't mean for me to copy a sentence here--apologies!)

Crossing the threshold, a powerful force struck Julianne, as though she were entering a different time, one in which her grandmother’s indelible spirit lived on.

Julianne maneuvered the threshold as though she entered a different time period, one in which her grandmother’s indelible spirit lived on.

I'd go with the progressive-- as though she were entering-- because entering could well be a progressive move, not a single discrete move.

You see why "crossing the threshold" is a dangling participle? The Powerful Force isn't crossing the threshold. So that was a great catch, to put Julianne as the subject of the action.

But what's wrong with "cross"? Maneuvered kind of implies that she's moving the threshold around rather than going through it. Negotiated? Moved through? But crossed is a good concise verb for thresholds.

Now IS she entering a different time period? "As though" means it only seems that way. (See, I'm still locked into what the threshold is like. Maybe it is a way to another dimension. :)

This is a bit clunky (one in which) for an already longish sentence:
one in which her grandmother’s indelible spirit lived on.
How about "where her grandmother's...."?

Just a thought.

This doesn't actually apply to yours because yours isn't that complex a sentence, but I want to note it while I'm thinking of it. With really long, complicated sentences, I think often we're trying to make the sentence do the work of a paragraph. The paragraph, not the sentence, explores an idea and its effects or examples or support or whatever. Often I think writers try to do that all in one sentence. You don't have to. The reader will assume (I hope with justification) that everything in a paragraph belongs together, supports something central. So don't make sentences bear too much weight, even-- or especially-- in a synopsis. Stop thinking in terms of sentences. Sentences' main role is to be part of a paragraph. :)


Some PPP examples donated by brave commenters

Jami G said: Okay, I found this sentence that has an opening *ing phrase. My first stupid question is: Is this a PPP? It seems like it is, but it "feels" different than the others I've been trying to fix. My second question is (assuming it is a PPP): How could I fix this without ruining the rhythm or impact of the sentence?

Hating how he’d made her feel, she hoped her knees wouldn’t buckle and betray her weakness.

Yes, you're right, it's a PPP. "Hating" is the participle. Why does it feel different? Well, "hating" is a static verb, about a feeling, not action, and feeling verbs usually aren't great in PPPs (which are about ACTION, and there's no action in a feeling). Also, remember what Theresa said about temporary -- PPPs are about moments, not conditions. In that moment, that very moment that Action 1 is taking place, Action 2 is taking place-- that's the purpose of the PPP. Does she only hate the way he makes her feel in the very same moment she's hoping her knees wouldn't buckle? Or does she hate this for a longer time than that?

This also feels like a cause/effect thread. He makes her feel X. She hates it. Because she feels this way, and because she hates it, she's afraid her knees might buckle, betraying her weakness.

Notice that I put the participle at the end there, as I see the simultaneity as being Knees buckling will betray her weakness. That is, up to that, the action (emotional action?) seems sequential.

This doesn't all have to be in one sentence. I am learning I like shorter sentences than many do-- that doesn't mean I'm right, but I'd probably put that in two sentences. Why? Hmm. Because I think her hating the way he makes her feel is the important thing, so why relegate it to a phrase? But a SVO would be really clunky:

(THIS IS BAD!) Hating the way he made her feel (long subject, clunky!) made (verb) her fear that her knees would buckle and betray her weakness (long object-- what did this make?)

So that's terrible. :)

How about:
She hated the way he made her feel. Now that he was looking at her (whatever way, whatever made her feel that way-- anyway, I'd put something in there from HIM), she hoped her knees wouldn't buckle and betray her weakness.

Why not betraying as I suggested above? I think because it wouldn't be clear what the phrase modified. Let's look at the poss-es:

...she hoped her knees wouldn't buckle, betraying her weakness.

What would betray her weakness? She and her hoping? Or her knees buckling? "Betraying" is at the end of the sentence, so it probably modifies "the buckling of her knees," but because that noun "buckling" doesn't actually appear, rather the verb "wouldn't buckle", and participles are adjectives and modify nouns, not verbs.... sigh. I think I'd just punt and do it with an "and" and a multiple verb (buckle and betray, though really, it's the knees buckling, not the knees themselves, that betray her... this is HARD!! Jami, you're so MEAN to make me have to think on a weekend!!).

Anyway, a participle shouldn't modify a noun that isn't really there-- the reader shouldn't have to invent a noun for the participle to work off (knees buckling, buckling of the knees), so my initial impulse to have a trailing participle doesn't stand up to analysis. :) You're right-- "And" works better to join those two things.

But do think about what's most important here-- the longer term hate, or the momentary hope? The more important element should be in a main clause if possible. If both are important, do two independent clauses-- a compound sentence, or two sentences. You are telling the reader what's important by the choices you make.

Murphy says:
Okay, I did tell you that when I start thinking - it’s never good, right?:D

So um, here’s a goodie:

Moving quickly to steady her feet on the floor, while at the same time making sure that those faltering steps increased the distance between them, she nervously kept an eye on his doubled over profile.

Hmmm, my reasoning behind writing this sentence this way? Well, for starters, this is the third paragraph in a block of an action scene. When you read it back collectively it flows - but I do have to admit that if I took it out of that context I would want to rewrite it like:

She moved quickly to steady her feet on the floor. She was careful to use these faltering steps to her advantage and increase the distance between them while she nervously kept an eye on his doubled over profile.

I have no better excuse other than to say - the action is fluid even though the positioning of the characters has changed - so I did want to get the shift in the physical changes in the scene without disrupting the forward motion of the action. Crap. I do these things without thinking about them - is this wrong? I mean do you always edit these out? It’s not like I can’t do so myself, but in the few - (there were only two beginning ppps in five chapter of my current WIP) so it isn’t like I dump them in with flagrant abandon or anything – it’s just that sometimes it seems to work with the rhythm.

Signed Murphy, who can’t seem to stay off the hot seat!;)

Well, a friend of mine used to talk about "Dolly Parton sentences"-- top-heavy. :) That's when the introductory elements are a lot "heavier" or longer than the main clause. I think there's a purpose for that, a "feel" for that-- comic effect, for one (the anticlimax of the main clause can be humorous), and also maybe to convey a peltering, frantic action.

But you are burying the main clause, and how important the main clause is in that context, I don't know. But by the time we get to the main clause (which is usually the most important action), we've gotten tangled up. Here's how I'd edit, and keep in mind I don't have the context, and also that I go with a trailing adjective phrase (careful), but for some reason, I felt like all the action in one sentence, and the conclusion in another for emphasis maybe:

She moved quickly to steady her feet on the floor, careful to use these faltering steps to her advantage and increase the distance between them. All the while, she nervously kept an eye on his doubled(hyphen here, btw-- compound adjective before a noun)over profile.

I was going with a simple "She" opening in the last sentence, but I think you're right that "while" is important as there IS simultaneity. It's just the sentence gets too complicated (for me) when you have three major elements/actions in one. So the physical action in one, and the perceptive (noticing) action in the last. A sentence by itself will mean, of course, that THAT is the essential thing in the paragraph. Don't know if it is.

(Also, I don't get that "doubled-over profile". I guess to me "profile" is facial, and if his face is doubled over, well, that sounds scary. Do you mean his body is doubled over? I don't have any wise thoughts about this, but "doubled-over profile" makes me think of Mr. Rubber Face -- I saw him in a bawdy show in Dawson City, Yukon, many years ago, and had nightmares for years about this man who could make his mouth retract so much his nose almost touched his chin. :)

With long sentences, I try to read aloud, and if I can't get all the words out in one breath, I try to trim or break. The reader kind of instinctively might feel a sentence is too long if she senses she couldn't say it in one breath. (Faulkner would disagree, of course. :)

I wonder if "rhythm and flow" matter less to me than meaning, or if I'm just relying on intuition to get that right in the end? I don't know. I always have thought that rhythm is really important to me. I think I think (that's kind of cute-- thinking I think :) that meaning leads to rhythm, and if you get the meaning right, the rhythm will come.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Sentence openings-- beyond words

In the wake of Theresa's provocative exercise about checking published work for PPPs (present participial phrases, Murphy asks:
...Uh oh, I was just thinking ( and that’s never good) what’s Alicia’s opinion on this? I mean, if she holds to her position that everything in grammar is there to serve a purpose - why can’t the purpose of PPPs be to switch up the monotony - or maybe infuse the prose with something a little different? That’s primarily why I do it.
Theresa and I generally agree, but we REALLY agree on this. I mean, we've had heated discussions that peter out because there's nothing to discuss and nothing to get heated about. We agree. PPPs, especially at the start of a sentence, are seldom eloquent and quite often ungrammatical, and we agree that starting many sentences with a PPP is something we see mostly in unsophisticated writers. (We keep blogging about this very subject, in fact.)

So we agree. We more than agree. We-- this is God's honest truth-- send each other examples of danglers we find in submissions. I know, I know. But really, "Chasing his tail, I called for Rover," THAT is a great joke. I mean, David Letterman should have a segment of Top Ten Dangling Participles.

But we also agree that even if you avoid dangling your participles (and really, the more participial phrases you have, the more likely you'll dangle many of them), PPPs are problems, not always, but often, and they become more of a problem when they're in a phrase, and even more when they're in an introductory phrase. (Much discussion from both of us in the participle thread here.)

So, anyway.
I mean, if she holds to her position that everything in grammar is there to serve a purpose - why can’t the purpose of PPPs be to switch up the monotony - or maybe infuse the prose with something a little different?

Well, the desire for that to be the purpose doesn't make it so. Maybe I want the purpose of my dishwasher to be washing clothes... but its actual purpose is washing dishes. (You know, I actually tried to make the purpose of "laundry detergent" to be "substituting for the dishwashing detergent I forgot to pick up at the grocery," and it was a disaster. I don't understand why this perfectly sensible substitute caused suds to spill out of the dishwasher and cover the entire kitchen floor a foot deep. Boy, what a mess.)

The purpose of the participle is to modify a noun with an action simultaneous to the action the noun is performing. (There are other parts of speech that end in -ing, btw-- a gerund is an verb-ing word that takes the role of a noun in a sentence-- Failing is my biggest fear. Getting lost is often the start of adventure.) That's it. The purpose is not to start a sentence any more than the purpose of a noun is to start a sentence. Sometimes sentences start that way, but almost any part of speech or syntactical element can start a sentence in English-- the English sentence is quite flexible.

But let's get real here. We all try to vary the openings of our sentences. No one wants to have six sentences in a row starting the same way. Sentence variety is a perfectly good goal. (I am going to be all pedantic and say that we should aim at making meaningful sentences that help the reader fully experience the action, and if we do that, our sentences will have plenty of variety. But I do notice that sometimes we have five sentences in a row starting with "he," and that's when we look for another way to open one or two of them.)

That is a valid aim. But the aim is not "varying sentence openings," really, is it? It's "making the passage read well," and how to accomplish that will depend on the passage purpose, your voice, the pacing, where you are in the scene (I bet at the end of a scene, your sentences might be shorter or longer), all sorts of things.

And sentences are rhythmic and euphonious not in isolation, but in connection-- within the paragraph. And you know, just as where the paragraph is in the scene matters, so does where the sentence is in the paragraph. The first sentence in a paragraph might open differently-- more decisively, perhaps, or with a "time transition" like "Two weeks ago--" from later sentences.

(I must pause to point out that "euphonious" is a very un-euphonious word. It's like "abbreviation" and "monosyllable"-- they are not what they mean. :)

I must admit that I think sportswriters are often the best journalistic stylists out there, more conscious of voice and effect than the often leaden political writers. So I read Sports Illustrated not just for the sports news, but for the often powerful writing. Here's an opening from a recent article about Marc Buoniconti, who was paralyzed in a college game (yes, he's Nick's son):

Henry Mull was 13 years old then, poor and sports-mad and hardly intrigued by the long view. Who is at 13? So, no, he never thought about the odd ways lives can meld—not in the hours before his neck got snapped, and certainly not in the hours after. Strangers sliced the shoulder pads and helmet off the Middleton Junior High quarterback and sped him through the streets of Tampa to the hospital, where more strangers shaved his head, their voices and faces and hands fluttering while he lay terrified. His mother hadn't arrived yet. "Am I going to play ball again?" he asked. Now someone was pressing a metallic device to his head, now eight grim-faced people were holding down his arms and legs. Whatever anesthetic they used, it didn't take. The boy screamed when they screwed the first four-inch bolt into one side of his skull, just above the ear. He kept it up as they twisted in the second, screaming all the way into blackness.

Now I just chose that story because it's online so I didn't have to type it in. But like so many SI articles, this article has an elegant but vivid opening. See how concrete it is, the precision and yet relevance of the details (four-inch bolt, just above ear). Look at the powerful but familiar verbs: screwed, twisted. There are even some participles (though I don't think any participial phrases): screaming, fluttering (notice those are active, none of that being and having deadwood). (No, "pressing" doesn't count, in my estimation, because it's -- with "was"-- the progressive form of the verb, and doesn't count as a participle-- it's not a modifier but part of the verb. Not all -ing words are participles, only the adjectival ones.)

But notice that most of the sentences start with the subject and proceed pretty quickly to the predicate (verb):

Henry Mull was
Strangers sliced
His mother hadn't arrived
The boy screamed
He kept it up

Also notice most of those use transitive verbs which transfer the action to an object:
Strangers (subject) sliced (verb) the shoulder pads and helmet (direct objects) off

Why is that important? Well, first, the SVO is the basic sentence form in English (not in all languages). Also transitive verbs are usually action verbs, and action verbs, natch, make the passage feel more active. And direct objects keep the sentence concrete-- this is not purposeless action, what this subject is doing, but purposeful-- the action is being done to something.

What other openings are there?
Two sentences have transitions before the SVO-- very efficient:
So, no, he never thought
Now someone was pressing

These are efficient transitions because in a single word, they each convey a connection to a previous sentence. "So" makes a causal connection -- Because he is only 13, he doesn't think about this.
"Now" makes a time connection. The previous sentence was "then," before, and this is "now."

Let me point out that these single-word transitions serve to mask the opening without hiding it, so if you have too many "he" openings, this might be a good variation. :)

Then there are two questions:
Who is at 13?
"Am I going to play ball again?"
(I note that this ends with the quote tag he asked. The author could have started with that, and it would then be a standard SVO construction. He asked, "Am I going to play ball again?" The quote then is the direct object. You see how that simple, completely conventional switch, quote tag last, varies the opening by putting the object first-- and this is an object that starts with a verb. Elegant!)

Then there's one that is a compound sentence (two independent clauses), but the first clause has a OSV construction (whatever anesthetic is the object of they used). (And to complicate, the entire first clause is the antecedent to that pronoun "it".)
Whatever anesthetic they used, it didn't take.

So half of the sentences start with the subject. I bet you didn't read that paragraph and think, "All those sentences start the same!" That's because they don't.
Someone else, plural
Someone else
The boy (not name)

So three sentences start with Henry, but not the word Henry. Name, descriptor, pronoun.

Two sentences start with transition words before the subject.

Two start with question markers (the relative pronoun-- who, and notice this gives a SVO construction for the question-- and the inverted verb-subject order -- Am I).

Not an intro participial phrase in there. (Or a trailing one, for that matter.) There's not even a prepositional opening, though there could be (prepositions usually indicate some time or space positioning): Just above his ear, they screwed in a four-inch bolt.

And there are no introductory dependent clauses, though again there could be:
When they screwed the first four-inch bolt into one side of his skull, just above the ear, the boy screamed.

So... does this paragraph work, I guess is the first question. I think it does, but what do you think?

And if so, why does it work? Why does the emphasis on SVO construction work?

I think that it's meant to be immediate, concrete, visual, vivid, experiential. The passage is meant to put the reader right there in the scene. So the sentence openings aren't cluttered with extraneous detail or -- this is important-- minor elements or actions. The openings are forceful and focused, because the purpose of the paragraph is to get the reader into the action.

The virtue of the SVO construction is its efficiency in transmitting the experience and action. There's no distraction from that.

Other elements opening a sentence have many uses, but they can DISTRACT from the conveyance of that simple action/experience. That's fine... for some situations. For some purposes. For some passages. For some voices.

Well, here's an excerpt from the wonderful Lemony Snicket novel A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning:

Their misfortune began one day at Briny Beach. The three Baudelaire children lived with their parents in an enormous mansion at the heart of a dirty and busy city, and occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley-the word "rickety," you probably know, here means "unsteady" or "likely to collapse"-alone to the seashore, where they would spend the day as a sort of vacation as long as they were home for dinner. This particular morning it was gray and cloudy, which didn't bother the Baudelaire youngsters one bit. When it was hot and sunny, Briny Beach was crowded with tourists and it was impossible to find a good place to lay one's blanket. On gray and cloudy days, the Baudelaires had the beach to themselves to do what they liked.

So why would he start the paragraph with declarative (though hardly simple) sentences? And then end with three sentences that start with introductory phrases and clauses (the last two properly followed by a comma, please note :)? None of these are participial phrases- one (When) is a dependent clause, and the other two are prepositional phrases (the This particular phrase has the implied "on"-- On this particular day).

Introductory elements like these "qualify"-- they impose or explain some condition usually. Now often they will also work in the middle or the end of the sentence (as I said, the English sentence is flexible), but we tend to put things first, before the main clause, when we want the reader to have that sense BEFORE reading the main action of the sentence. So if you want the reader to have the "gray and cloudy day" in mind first, you put it first. Look how automatically I put "if" clauses first-- "If you want the reader...." That's because usually (certainly not always) the main clause is so circumscribed by the condition, you need the condition first to get the right "feel" of the constriction.

Here's another:
A man begins dying at the moment of his birth. Most people live in denial of Death’s patient courtship until, late in life and deep in sickness, they become aware of him sitting bedside.
Eventually, Mitchell Rafferty would be able to cite the minute that he began to recognize the inevitability of his death: Monday, May 14, 11:43 in the morning–three weeks short of his twenty-eighth birthday.
Until then, he had rarely thought of dying. A born optimist, charmed by nature’s beauty and amused by humanity, he had no cause or inclination to wonder when and how his mortality would be proven.
When the call came, he was on his knees.
The Husband
by Dean Koontz

Again, there are no PPPs. The blue-fonted phrases charmed by nature’s beauty and amused by humanity are past participial phrases, not present. They are descriptors, amplifying what is meant by "a born optimist".

Here's another, from A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini:
It was true. Mariam didn't remember. And though she would live the first fifteen years of her life within walking distance of Herat, Mariam would never see this storied tree. She would never see the famous minarets up close, and she would never pick fruit from Herat's orchards or stroll in its fields of wheat. But whenever Jalil talked like this, Mariam would listen with enchantment. She would admire Jalil for his vast and worldly knowledge. She would quiver with pride to have a father who knew such things.

Here, there are two dependent clauses here. No participial phrases.

Finally! I'm telling you, I have scanned lots of excerpts, chosen at random (I looked at Dickens and Faulkner too, just to get a sense of earlier novels, and found the same thing) and this is the FIRST introductory participial phrase I've seen, from A Question of Blood by Ian Rankin:
"Marty!" His girlfriend's snarl. "Be seeing you, Shiv." Still grinning, he walked backwards for a few paces, then turned away. Siobhan had headed straight back over to St. Leonard's to reacquaint herself with his file. An hour later, the switchboard had put through a call. It was him, phoning from a bar. She'd put the receiver down. Ten minutes later, he'd called again . . . and then another ten after that.

That's it-- "Still grinning."

What does that tell you? It tells me that in published works, introductory participial phrases are NOT a common way of starting a sentence-- which is just what Theresa's exercise showed.

How about trying this-- take a couple pages of a book you like, and highlight every introductory element, even the one word ones. And think about why the element is in the sentence, and why it's at the beginning-- what additional meaning does that placement create?

But don't stop there. Keep note of the many ways you can start a sentence. But the point isn't to vary a sentence for the sake of variation. If you look for the best way to convey the meaning of the sentence, you'll find the best way to order the sentence elements. It helps to know lots of different possibilities, to hear those options in your head as you write and revise. But don't strew them around. Consider the purpose of the sentence, its placement in the paragraph. (I notice that often the paragraphs above break into two parts, the first half with intro elements and the second half without or vice versa. That is, the same sentence might be ordered differently in a different part of the paragraph-- if it's introducing something, or making a conclusion, you might order it differently.)

The way we convey meaning in English is primarily through sentence order (and paragraph order, I think). So don't give up that tool by arbitrarily choosing sentence order on the basis of something other than meaning. Make the meaning happen, and I'll bet that your sentences will sound just fine.

(But I can't help but point out that introductory participial phrases seldom add much meaning. If they do, however, good! :)

So how about some examples of sentence openings that are meaningful-- and why you put this element there and that here.


Five Minutes Could Change Your Style Forever

I know we nag a bit about present participial phrases. I was thinking about this last night, and it dawned on me that people might not understand that this isn't just some personal peccadillo.

So here's a quick exercise for everyone to do. It will take less than five minutes, and the results might surprise you.

Step 1.
Go to your bookcase. Take down a book you love, something that really spoke to you when you read it the first time. Open to a random page.

Step 2.
Count the sentences on that page.

Step 3.
Count the present participial phrases. (Skip past progressive verb tenses and gerunds. We're just looking for the dreaded PPP here.)

That's it. 1, 2, 3. Do the results surprise you?

Share your numbers in the comments. I'll get the ball rolling here. In my purse, I have Don't Bargain With the Devil by Sabrina Jeffries, an historical romance author of no small reputation.

I opened randomly to page 198.
Sentences: 27 (including partials from previous and next page)
PPPs: 1

Second spin of the wheel, this time on page 108.
Sentences: 28
PPPs: 0

Your turn!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kassandra said in comments: All I could think about was how repetition always has meaning.

That is so right, and sometime I'll write about that!! Soon, in fact, at least for the class I'm teaching. Remember that, though, that there's meaning in all sorts of things!


Subjunctive mood... not long for this world?

I was asked about the subjunctive, which is used with statements that are "contrary to fact" (like "If I were you," because I am not you, as REM reminds us)-- is it still with us? Yes, it is, but maybe not for long.

Here's an example:
"He would have preferred that Richard was there with him."

The question was: Would you use "that Richard were there . . . "?

The most common time to use the subjunctive is after "if", but "prefer" and "wish" and similar "not true" words will call for the subjunctive. It's also used after verbs like "advise" and "suggest"--
"I suggest that he join the club."
In subjunctive, you use the verb part of the infinitive, that is, without the to-- (join, not to join).

With "to be", it's just "be," and that's the most common.

So "I'd advise that he be invited to join the club."

But when the statement is contrary to fact, you use the past tense, not the present tense:
So above, since Richard isn't there, I'd go with "were".
"He would have preferred that Richard was there with him."
This indicates that something isn't true-- it's preferred or wished, but it's not true.

So "If I were you," but "If I am right." (I -could- be right. It's been known to happen. But I know I am not you!)

However, the use of this seems to be dropping away. Language tends to move towards greater complexity, and then towards greater simplicity (especially when many people learn it AFTER childhood-- kids can learn any complexity because their brains are so malleable, but adult learners need the rules simplified). The subjunctive is complex and hard to explain (I know-- tried to teach it to a decade's worth of students :), and so it will probably disappear in the next generation. After all, it's generally clear when a statement is contrary to fact, so there doesn't actually HAVE to be a marker of it.

So use the subjunctive now, because it will likely be gone in a couple decades.

This is the sort of thing that, if you do it right, you're marking yourself as good at grammar. But if you do it wrong (if you use subjunctive with a true statement, for example), it's worse than not doing it at all. But this is another thing that an editor isn't likely to hold against you-- just something we expect to fix in the line edit or copy edit. So while I'm happy to explain this, I'd say, don't sweat it. It's not that big a deal. Take all those brain cells you might have devoted to the subjunctive, and use them instead to recognize and fix dangling modifiers. :)

Stephen Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, btw, is a great book for explicating the changes in language.


Foiled Again!

If there's any tv show better written than Mad Men, I sure don't know about it. The writing is so controlled and so deliberate that every line resonates with nuance. The characters are beautifully drawn, too. In that Vanity Fair article Alicia linked, they described the writing as novel-like, and I think that might be why we're so drawn to it. Everything is built in layers, and the use of reversals and contrasts is almost poetically deft.

Alicia talked about how they structured the first episode of season three. Now I would like to revisit the foil technique we discussed last year when we looked at season one, episode one. They use this technique so effectively and so consistently that it's worth examining. Mad Men is truly a show not just for watching, but for studying.

Ken and Pete

Ken Cosgrove and Pete Campbell are account managers. When a British firm acquires the Sterling Cooper agency, the existing head of accounts is fired. Instead of replacing him immediately, the British financial officer splits accounts into two pieces. Ken gets one piece, and Pete gets the other.

Pete and Ken have dramatically different characters, and those character differences are highlighted in paired scenes in which each is privately told that he will be "head of accounts." Neither is told that this title will now be shared. Each thinks he has won the big prize.

So let's look at the two scenes. They're set up as foils with their intros. Pete is told that Price wants to see him, and responds, "I'm at lunch." It's a stalling tactic because he's nervous. By contrast, when Ken enters Price's office later, he breezily announces, "I heard you wanted to see me, so I had a sandwich for lunch." Lunch is not a way to delay an unpleasant meeting, but something to be concluded quickly to the meeting could commence. This intro flagged the scenes and made me pay close attention.

Pete is very tense when he enters Price's office. He thinks he is about to be fired. Instead, Price says, "I can't speak for everyone here, but I like you." This sounds to me like a pregnant line. (Pun intended, har dee har.) "Liking" Pete doesn't usually end well. Peggy liked Pete, and she ended up hiding a pregnancy and almost went insane when she had to give the baby away. Pete's wife teeters between spoiled self-indulgence and a childish yearning to return to her primary family, perhaps because she's barren, and perhaps because she's the kind of woman who would marry a guy like Pete. And remember Duck Phillips? He liked Pete, turned into an alcoholic, and lost his job.

So now here is Mr. Price, claiming to like Pete. Why would he even say that? He never echoes this sentiment when he's talking to Ken about the same promotion. It's a slightly strange thing to say, as if liking Pete is so unusual that it needs to be announced. With Ken, a guy everyone likes, no such reassurance would be necessary. I'm sure Ken assumes he's liked wherever he goes, and his friends hardly ever end up pregnant, barren, insane, drunk, or fired.

Back to Pete. When Price invites him to take a seat, Pete refuses. He insists on standing and betrays his deep anxiety over this meeting:

Price: Have a seat.
Pete: Why?
Price: Is something the matter?
Pete: You just fired the head of my department and now you're offering me a seat.
Price: How cruel of me.

By contrast, when Ken enters the same office for the same meeting, he takes a seat without being invited and lights up a smoky treat. He's casual and confident, interested but not worried. He is the anti-Pete.

When Price tells both men they're being promoted to head of accounts, their reactions are telling.

Pete: Is this really happening? I need to know it's certain.

Pete has been disappointed before, and it has made him suspicious and tense. Compare that to Ken's cheerful response.

Ken: Really? That's spectacular. Thank you!

Pete's anxiety never really leaves him when he's with other people, and it cloaks him in awkwardness through this entire scene. Only after he has left Price's office and is alone, behind his closed office door, can he give in to some celebratory feelings. He does a strange little happy dance -- one of the best moments of the entire episode, I thought -- and calls his wife to tell her the news.

During that call, he admits that he never even asked if he would get a raise. Ken, by contrast, launched right into the money talk after his cheerful thanks. Ken also shook Price's hand -- gratitude, celebration, and cementing the deal. But Pete, despite his good news, is still tense and edges out of Price's office almost without letting Price get out the word splendid. (Note that Pete immediately echoes this word, though, when talking to his secretary.)

Sal and Don

Sal (the closeted homosexual) and Don (the antihero protagonist) go to Baltimore together to schmooze the London Fog account. While en route, they strike up a conversation with a stewardess and, after a dinner and drinks scene, Don ends up taking one of the stewardesses back to his room. (He's such a whore, and he obviously hasn't learned his lesson after last season, but that's another issue.)

Sal goes back to his room. There is some intercutting between Sal's room and Don's room. They're played off each other a little bit. Sal flops on the bed, alone, then calls the front desk to get his air conditioner repaired. Don sits on the edge of his bed, not alone, and eggs the stewardess on as she strips for him. Their rooms are stacked on top of each other, separated by a floor or two.

Both men are the seducees, rather than the seducers. When the bellhop (a young man) kisses Sal, Sal nearly comes apart with yearning and terror. Don, by contrast, is very easy with his role as passion's victim. But then, he should be. He's had a lot of practice.

The stewardess peels off her jacket and blouse. The bellhop removes his jacket. Both Don and Sal give in. We know they're not holding anything back.

But then, a fire alarm sounds. Don reacts instantly, throwing clothes at the stewardess and leading her out the window to the fire escape. Sal is confused, though. It takes him a moment to recognize the sound, and then, his disappointment in the lost opportunity is so palpable that we almost wish he would ignore the alarm and take his one opportunity now, before it evaporates.

Yes, this is Sal's only such opportunity for hanky-panky to date. Contrast that with Don't line to the stewardess after she has confessed she's engaged and this might be her last chance to dally: "Believe me, there are plenty of chances."

As Don and the stewardess are darting down the fire escape, Don pauses at Sal's window and knocks to warn him about the fire. He sees the bellhop with his jacket off. Sal also sees the half-clothed stewardess, but this somehow is never an issue. (Why? It's obvious, right?)

In the street, as the firemen are putting out the blaze, the stewardess clings to Don, and the bellhop abandons Sal. Also note that Don's bare feet get a good flash on the screen. We know Sal is still wearing his shoes, though.

Are there any other details that support these pairings? Let's talk about them! If you haven't already seen this episode, by the way, it's available on demand if you're with Comcast. And I'm pretty sure AMC will repeat it on Sunday before they air episode 2. That was their pattern last year, if I remember right.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mad men and the structure created by a theme

Vanity Fair article about Mad Men.

What's helpful, I think, about Mad Men's writing is that the episodes are often unified by a theme. I think the theme or episode 3.1 might be "being someone other than yourself"-- Don, of course; but also Sal, the self-denying closeted gay man; and Hooker, the "assistant" who says he's certainly NOT a secretary and takes over an office (only to be slapped down by his boss). Don actually voices this, as a veiled bit of advice to Sal-- "Limit your exposure." You cannot be yourself in this world. (Connects of course with the whole ad agency thing.)

How does this help them select events? Well, everything is presented with that filter. The office manager Joan, who is Ms. Efficient in the office, meets Peggy in the elevator early one morning, and Peggy starts complaining about her secretary (Peggy used to be a secretary, and is trying to distance herself from that). Joan snaps, "I'm not at work yet." That is, I'm not that person yet, the one who has to care about your secretarial problems. (Now I'm thinking that Joan set up the male assistant by giving him the office, kind of leading him into getting above himself, so that the boss can put him back in his place. Efficient Joan, recognizing his superior status and rewarding it with an office-- so that he can be humiliated... see, she's using his self-delusion by pretending to be properly respectful of him.)

There's also the prop of Don's valise, which is broken. This lets him use a suitcase that has his brother-in-law's name on it, and the stewardess calls him by that name, and he goes along with it and gets her into bed under that false name. When he gets home, his daughter comes clean and confesses to breaking his valise in the hope he won't leave home to go on the trip. Restored now to her parents' love, she lies with them and asks about the night she was born, and they start to tell her about that night. (This is a close to the frame that started the episode, where Don remembers, or envisions, his prostitute mother giving birth to him in agony-- she dies during the delivery-- and anger.) Betty (the wife) smiles as she tells the little girl that Don brought her the stuffed Eeyore that was the baby's first toy.

So the episode is about imposters... but it ends with the child's honesty and her parents' true story of her birth. (Don only invents the "memory" of his birth-- he of course can't remember it, and it's presented as a play he's watching.)

"Limit your exposure" -- well, Don is forgetting his own advice. He's exposing himself, making promises ("I'll always come home") he shouldn't want to keep, finding meaning in life when he knows there isn't any.


Emotional arc

I'm working a lot on scene design, and teaching a class, so here's a thought to help structure a scene's emotion.

Emotional arc

Emotional arc means that there is some change in emotion because of the events of the scene. That is, just as you have PLOT consequences for each event in a scene, you have EMOTIONAL consequences too, only you want to assemble them in a coherent and dramatic way.

Remember that nearly every event is going to cause emotional effects in the POV character. It doesn't need to be a BIG effect, or be described in great depth, but if the hero is insulted and doesn't respond internally or externally in any way, the reader is going to be confused.

The emotional reaction doesn't have to be what everyone else would feel, but there should be something, if only the hero steeling himself so that he -doesn't- actually feel insulted.

But in a whole scene, too, there's a progression in emotion. It might be from a positive feeling to a negative feeling, or vice versa, or from a positive to a different positive or whatever, but it would be an unusual scene where the POV character ends up with the same emotion as she started the scene with.

So, for example, say the heroine starts out -hopeful- about her plan to trap her mother in a lie, then she ends up in a different emotional state because her mother wiggles out of it, or doesn't show up, or proves that she's actually telling the truth. Heroine feels frustrated or angry or guilty, depending on what has happened. There's a change in the emotional content from beginning of scene to end.

Or maybe the hero starts out gloomy about his job prospects, and then in the course of the scene, runs into an old friend who has started a business and is doing very well. So he might end up more optimistic when the friend says, "I need workers I can trust, like you."

One thing I always have to watch out for is making sure that the emotion of the viewpoint character changes in plausible ways, and that I assemble the pieces of the scene so that it's not an up-and-down-up-and-down roller coaster ride of manic-depression. :) That is, if I want her to -end up- feeling guilty, I don't have her start out hopeful, have a moment of feeling guilty, then feel triumphant, then a bit guilty again, then mad, then guilty-- rather that she starts out hopeful of trapping Mom, thinks maybe she's got her trapped so feels triumphant, then mom sort of slips the noose so heroine feels frustrated, then mom lashes out at her so heroine feels angry, and then-- the big event of the scene– Mom whips out the proof that she was telling the truth all along, and that heroine was wrong to distrust her... and then, because of that big event,
heroine ends up feeling guilty.

The arc is building towards guilt. It almost has to happen after heroine gets angry, because the anger at mom makes her mistake/mistrust even more a conflict when she realizes that mom is right. (That is, if heroine had been careful to keep an open mind all along, and kept her temper and not shown her anger, then she wouldn't have much to feel guilty about... so I want to build to anger before getting in the zinger that changes everything.)

So in a scene, I look at the emotional change wrought by the events, and see if there's an arc building to the change, rather then a series of zigzags. It's much more powerful with an arc. I'm actually having trouble with that in the scene in the book I'm writing, but I tend to be able to fix that better in revision. I like to build towards the most intense emotion at the end, and this time I'm hitting "intense" right in the middle instead, so there's something of an anticlimax. I will fix, however. :) I just need to keep in mind as I revise that the scene is more powerful with a coherent emotional arc.


Two Quick Things

I thought this was a fun article and worth sharing. Tip of the hat to Susan Gibberman, librarian and goddess, for sending the link.

Guardian article on writers' rooms.

Are you all watching Mad Men? We blogged about this some last season, and now that the new season has started, I'm already itching to blog about some of the things I notices in the season 3 opener.


Monday, August 17, 2009

When the Going Gets Tough

I have one more point I want to make about how to manage an online presence, and then we'll move on.

Sometimes, no matter how gracious and welcoming you are, someone will say or do something that tests you somehow. These kinds of challenges can take many forms, but regardless of whether it's an unfairly brutal review or a nasty comment -- or even just reasonable dissent -- I think there are probably only three possible responses. (There may be more. If you know of other effective methods, please post them in the comments.)

Option One: Let's Be Friends

Depending on the comment itself, it might be possible to extend a hand of friendship and get past the rough moment. This might be easiest to manage when someone points out a flaw in your great work. Rather than becoming defensive, think about how you might be able to bridge the gap. It's important to appear sincere at such moments. Control your tone. Start off with a gentle expression of agreement, apology, or gratitude, such as,

Thanks for pointing that out. I never thought of it that way.


You might be right, but I sure didn't mean for it to come across this way. Sorry about any confusion.

Your instinct will be to fight. But what would you rather make, an enemy or a fan? Check your guerilla warfare skills, and rely on your team-building skills instead.

Option Two: Use Controversy to Generate Interest

Again, depending on the comment itself, you might be able to use it to generate some interest in your corner of the web. This probably works best when there is some debate or disagreement over a given subject rather than insults or snark. Make sure you continue to aim the controversy away from personalities and toward the discussion topic. You don't want this to be personal in any way. Your goal, instead, is to get people to pay attention and enter the debate.

We have an example of this right here on this blog. Last week, one of the commenters suggested that the recent industry emphasis on authors building a web presence amounted to a form of elitism. This comment was not a personal attack on me, nor on any of the commenters, and I knew it at the time. I also knew this was a somewhat controversial approach to the topic and that it might generate some discussion.

So I tweeted it. I didn't name the commenter or say anything that might seem like criticism, because that was not my goal. (Nor my desire.) Instead, I asked a neutral question:

We've been blogging about designing your web presence this week. One commenter thinks it's elitist. Do you agree?

And I included a link to this blog. Then I tracked our hits for a few hours. We generated quite a few hits from that tweet, and saw comments from a few new folks. (Welcome!) People were able to discuss the subject further, and I hope that my openness to dissent indicated something about our willingness to hear new ideas.

Option Three: Play With It

This one comes courtesy of Nathalie Gray. Talk about a smart cookie. Last week, several behind-the-scenes discussions sprang up as a result of my posts. In the course of that, Nathalie told me a story I never would have heard otherwise because it involved a book she published with another house. I instantly asked her permission to share her story here. It's that good.

So here's how it goes. I'm sure you're all aware that some reviewers are known for unleashing their savage wit -- emphasis on savage -- during reviews. These reviews can be very entertaining if you're not the author. Which is probably why those reviews are so popular. Sheer entertainment value.

One of these reviewers took on one of Nathalie's books. She didn't give it a scathing review -- Nathalie's too good for that kind of treatment -- but she did make a few rough comments and a few jokes at the book's expense. So what's an author to do?

In Nathalie's own words,

I whipped that cream like mad and made a nice dessert. Encouraged readers to offer worse critique than [the reviewer], using all kinds of imaginative words. The most offending critiquer was to win the book in question. What a blast that was! [The reviewer] e-mailed me later to say how refreshing it was to have an author not act like a "snot-nosed baby". She has a way with words, that woman.

Talk about flipping a frown upside-down. Instead of taking offense or challenging the reviewer, Nathalie found a way to work it to her advantage. Her contest generated good buzz and goodwill, and you can't beat that.

(Go check out Nat's books here. You won't regret it. Her newest release, Agent Provocateur, is urban fantasy, but the others are scifi erotic romance.)

So, those are my three strategies. Got any to add to that list?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Refining the Plan

Okay, so now you have the basics. You've figured out the form your web presence will take (e-newsletter, blog, etc.), and you've picked your brand keywords and have started to design your graphics with those in mind.

What is next?

The hard part. So far, it's been a lot of fun, but now is when we must make some judgment calls. And those aren't always easy.

We've talked some this week about how to avoid pissing people off online. That's such a fundamental, basic, no-brainer starting point that it sometimes surprises me we have to remind people of this at all. Except maybe it's not such a surprise. People are diverse and moody creatures. Even the best of us have bad days. If you're having a bad day, take a deep breath, eat some chocolate, and remind yourself that your mood will pass but your internet writings will linger indefinitely. It's the nature of the beast.

What if you're having a great day, but someone attacks you? Or says something stupid? Or somehow punches your buttons?

Step back from it. They're the ones having the bad day. Not you. It says more about them than about you. Always take the high road -- not just because the view is better from up there, but because it's a better defensive position. If you are always gracious, charming, thoughtful, and kind, then people will be shocked (and rightly so) that anyone would want to come after you. In the end, the mean people will only look meaner, and the mud they sling at you will miss by a wide margin.

If you slip up and get into a public argument or post something you regret -- and it happens to all of us at one time or another -- get out of it as graciously and as quickly as you can.

So. Where are we on our guidelines? Don't insult people. Don't pick fights. If someone picks a fight with you, be gracious and forgiving. If you slip up, be a bigger person and admit to it. Remember that there's more at stake than winning a point against an opponent. Your public image is on the line.

But these are easy things, right? What about decisions that don't hinge on ugly behavior?

This is where your keywords can help you. Let's say, for example, that you write crime novels and your keywords are chilling, taut, and emotional. You've designed a blog and website with lots of icy colors (silver, white, ice blue, a bit of black or blood red) and sharp-edged graphics. You're going to do monthly articles on forensics, including interviews with people who work in criminal investigations. You might also post some true crime files.

In this case, should you ever post pictures of your kids on your blog?

Your quickest response might be a firm no. But pause and consider. Do your children's activities ever fit in with your theme? Halloween costumes. Science projects. Book reports on mystery novels. Any of these things might support your theme and allow you to incorporate material that might not otherwise fit your plans. The point is to be selective, and to select material that works.

Let's try another example. Actually, we'll do two again because that seems to spark some good discussion in the comments and helps you really pull the taffy.

Option One:
You write warm, sunny women's fiction with mostly happy families and low-conflict plots. Your keywords are supportive, warm, and nurturing. In real life, your next-door neighbor's house was broken into in the middle of the day. Your neighbor was raped and slaughtered. It's a sensational crime, and it leaves you terrified. Can you write about this in your monthly newsletter? If so, how do you approach it?

Option Two:
You write young adult and middle grade novels. Your keywords are funky, playful, and giggly. Your website has lots of games and puzzles and riddles. You're taking an extended vacation at a nudist colony for swingers. Can you post information about this on your website? If so, how?

Have fun!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

But What About Personality?

So let's say you've decided on a way to focus your web presence. You've joined a group blog and are planning on incorporating some of your research material into your website and quarterly newsletter. What is next?

These points of contact between you and your potential readers are only the starting place. Next, you might give some thought to how you will present yourself through those channels.

If you're not sure how to do this, try this. Ask your critiquing partners to give you three adjectives to describe your manuscripts. Are they thoughtful or funny? Moody or upbeat? Dark or light?

The answers can help you find the right tone for your online presence. Chances are, your books take on a certain tone that's consistent with your native personality, so this won't be too hard to do. But thoughtful, sober people can sometimes turn out to be incredibly clever and funny on paper. The point is not to pinpoint your personality, but your book's personality.

This will also be part of your author brand, so it's good to understand this even if you end up not using it in your PR. (Why wouldn't you use this in your PR, you ask? What if you write ultracreepy, ultragory horror novels? You might not want your readers to think you're equally creepy in person. There's a difference between a serial killer and the person who studies serial killers.)

Why ask your writing partners? Why not just figure it out for yourself? Because you might not have a perfectly accurate handle on how your work is coming across. Getting an independent (but skilled) observer to reflect it back to you might enlighten you as to what you're actually accomplishing on the page. And it might lead you to shift your PR efforts in some subtle but important ways. For example, what you think is uproariously funny might be clever and witty (more cerebral, that is) to others. By all means, continue to laugh at your jokes, but think about the difference in tone when you're choosing graphics. Avoid cartoonish or clownish graphics -- which might work very well for another writer -- and try for something that captures the tone of how people will respond to your books.

Now that you have your three key words for your brand personality, the next step is figuring out how to translate that into a web presence. So, in the comments, let's play with an example. I'll give you two to choose from.

Option A
Your books are witty, intricate, and charming.

Option B
Your books are edgy, compelling, and tense.

For these options, consider the following questions.
- What color scheme would work well for the website?
- What kind of extras or add-ons might work on such a website?
- Are there any experts who might make for good guest bloggers there? Any to avoid?
- How do the adjectives influence your choice in graphics?

I can't wait to hear what you come up with.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Defining Your Public Persona

Yesterday's little vent-fest gave rise to some interesting comments, both in the comment thread and in my email. So much food for thought, but what surprised me most was how many of you confessed to not being sure you could control your public image. There's a lot of concern out there about how to avoid making mistakes, and, to my surprise given the folks who hang around here, being interesting enough to get any attention at all in a saturated marketplace.

So let's turn yesterday's negative into a positive and talk about ways you might define and control your public persona when it comes to blogging or other similar forms of PR.

Let me start by saying that nobody is suggesting anyone should pull a Clark Kent. You don't need to be two different people. You don't need to keep your writing life secret as if you were a serial killer hiding bodies instead of manuscripts.

What we're really talking about is focusing your public image in a way that will be helpful to your audience.

Have you given any thought to this? Or have you assumed that whatever your personality might be, this is the personality you will display online? There is an argument in favor of the natural approach. You can access any thoughts or events from your life for a blog post, magazine article, or newsletter piece -- and more raw material means more finished material. You won't be pretending or hiding anything at all, not even a little bit, so slip-ups and gaffes might be fewer.

But the downside is that most of us have personalities and interests so diverse that any blog or interview or other PR efforts might lack focus if they are allowed to be as broad as we are. Focus helps to build audience. Like-minded people congregate around shared interests. This is my editing blog. I also have a knitting blog, which few of you would be interested in. Does this make me schizophrenic? No. It just means that I have focused my content around a theme for each blog.

For non-fiction authors, this process of focusing comes naturally. If you write cookbooks, articles about woodworking, business reports, or the like, you can easily focus any public discourse around your chosen subject.

But it's a little trickier for fiction writers. Our topic doesn't control our content, either for books or for any PR associated with them. So how should we design a blog and similar material to keep it focused and entertaining?

There are a couple of different approaches I've noticed fiction writers using. Keep in mind, I'm not in the PR business, but I have picked up a few things over the years, so ponder this but don't take it as the final authority. And please, share your ideas in the comments. Discussion can only help. But these are some strategies I've seen others use with some good results.

Use Your Research

Some authors write books that require a lot of research, and they use their blogs as a place to discuss things they've discovered along the way. They write magazine articles on their research topic. They post scads of links to research sites on their own website. They craft themselves into experts on a topic, and people who are interested in that topic might also be interested in novels featuring that material. This is probably an effective way to reach new readers. Anyone see any downsides to it?

Use Your Hobbies

Hobbies can be a bit tricky because you might lose interest in them over time. But if you've been an avid scrapbooker, gardener, pastry chef, etc., for five or more years, you're probably safely out of "trend" territory and into "enthusiast." Talk about your hobby on your blog, and reach the people who share this hobby. Let them know you write books, and they might just become fans. Hobby enthusiasts do tend to support one another. God knows I've bought a lot of novels over the years for no better reason than that they were penned by a knitta.

Use Publishing

I see lots of writers who blog on writing and publishing. This is an easy avenue for many writers, but there are two downsides. First, your audience will be other writers, and because they already follow publishing new releases, they may already know about you. You'll possibly reach some new readers, but not as many as you might through other channels. On the other hand, writers are great proselytizers for other writers. I know that friends and family are always asking me to recommend new books to them, and it's mainly because they figure I'll know where the good stuff is hidden.

The second downside? If you're trying to break in with a new house or agency, your target people might read your blog or newsletter for a sense of what kind of person you are. Sniping, disclosure of confidential information, and a poor understanding of the business side of the business can all be marks against you. The flipside of that, of course, is that good material can tilt the scales in your favor. We all want to work with people who are smart and upbeat, right?

Group Blogs

Nothing like a good group blog to take the pressure off a single writer but still net you some positive exposure. Most group blogs are focused on book promotion with a dash of writing/publishing information, usually anecdotal but sometimes informational. Readership for these blogs and websites may be keyed to the popularity of the authors on them, but having even one star in a group will shine more light on all the other members, too. If everyone in the group is new(ish) to publishing, getting guest posts from big names might build readership.

When you're in a group, your individual persona is probably less an issue than it is when you stand alone. So you might gain the freedom to reveal several different facets of your personality instead of focusing on just one. But perhaps those of you in groups can offer some insight on this. How do you decide what kind of content can go on a group blog?

Get Personal

A smallish number of people use their blogs to reveal the person behind the novels. They blog about their kids, family traditions, dates, wardrobes, dieting efforts, sex scene "research" -- all manner of personal content. In that case, a little common sense can be a good thing. It's one thing to say, "My family always attends Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve." It's quite another to say, "And so should you, you filthy heathens."

Here's a question for all of you. Do you find these kinds of blogs interesting? Or are they interesting only if you already know the person behind the blog? How many baby pictures before a blog gets boring?


Monday, August 10, 2009

Managing Your Public Personality

There's a moderately well-known writer whose books I've always enjoyed. I'm not going to name her for reasons which will be apparent soon. We'll just call her the author.

I first read the author's work about five or six years ago completely by accident after stumbling across one of her titles at the library book sale. Good book. Not dazzling, but good enough that when I went to the bookstore, I picked up a couple more of her titles and read those. Also good. And she seemed to be getting better. I started to sense she was a writer on the upswing.

So I visited her website out of curiosity one day, and it was very pleasant and informative. Well-designed, good content, regular updates, all the things we like in a website. It detailed some of her involvement in the writing community, which was how I discovered she and I knew some people in common. Not too surprising. Publishing is a small world.

I reached out to her on one of the social sites. We emailed a couple of times. Nothing major, just networking stuff. Through it all, I formed a positive opinion of her. She seemed professional, upbeat, and generally good at author relations.

But then a funny thing happened.

She stepped outside of her author persona and started getting personal and controversial. She started sending around mass links with political rants, religious diatribes, and even, I'm sorry to tell you, veiled racist remarks. At first I just ignored her rants, but when she started with the racist stuff, I started to pay more attention. Was it a fluke? Had she sent it by accident? No. She sent more, and yet more. She was doing it on purpose.

And she was doing it in public. And that is the sin I can't forgive. The political rants, I mostly laughed at. The religious stuff I deleted without reading. The other stuff had me steaming mad and changed forever my opinion of the author, but after I cooled off, I realized that there was a bigger crime.

You see, I can talk to her about her opinions and show her where we disagree. I can even, if I'm lucky, get through to her and open her mind a bit. But what I can't do -- what nobody can do -- is take back what she already put out there. It's on the interwebz. She can change, but her public words can't. Any fan might be able to stumble upon it at any time.

Yes, we all have a First Amendment right of freedom of expression. There are limits on this right, though. Some are legal (such as the rules limiting access to pornography), and some are common sense. Common sense ought to tell an author, a person on public display, that she stands to alienate a certain percentage of the public when she delves into politics and religion. Common sense ought to tell her not to flaunt her controversial opinions in a public forum because at least some of her readers will take offense.

Common sense ought to tell her that, with so many books to choose from, a reader who used to like and support her might just stop buying her new releases. She might, in fact, decide to move this author's books from the keeper shelf to the trash.

Garbage day is tomorrow around here. Not soon enough.