Thursday, December 31, 2009

Housekeeping and a Question

First, a reminder -- today is the last day to enter the contest to get the first ten pages of your manuscript reviewed. We've received a good number of entries so far, and I look forward to compiling our "best of" list based on your recommendations.

In the midst of reading and responding to the entries, I found this question in the mailbag.

I recently ran across a fairly controversial anti-agent blog post, where a writer argued that you should always submit to editors first and get an agent after you have a contract in hand. He argues that none of agents who take writers without a contract are good, and in the comments says that writers should submit to publishing houses directly even if they have a clearly stated "no unagented submissions" policy. Could I ask your take (and Alicia's) on this post, as editors?

I'm not going to link to the blog post mentioned in the question. Suffice it to say it was a mix of nonsense and insight, with more of the former than the latter.

What I will do, instead, is respond to what I think the real questions are.
1 - Should you submit to editors before agents?
2 - Do you need a contract to get an agent?
3 - Is it okay to ignore "agented only" guidelines?

The short answers are Maybe, No, and Almost Always No. I'm guessing you want more information than this, though, so let's look at the rationale behind the answers.

1 - Should you submit to editors before agents?

That depends on the project, your target market, and your own preferences. If you're targetting a line that's open to all submissions, and if you feel comfortable handling things like contract negotiations and money disputes, then you can probably skip the agent. But I can't advise anyone always to do it one way or the other, and neither can anyone else, because this is a case-sensitive situation. Figure out your target, study their guidelines, and see if you can get some behind-the-scenes information on things like their boilerplate contract and maybe a sample royalty statement. Then you can answer this question for yourself, based specifically on your needs and circumstances and abilities.

2 - Do you need a contract to get an agent?

No. It might help you land an agent if you have a deal on the table, but then again, it might not. What if your deal is with a house or editor this agent rarely works with? Maybe they'll want to branch out, and maybe not. What if your deal is subpar, and the agent knows it, but you've already agreed to some bad terms? Then they might know they can't help you much -- not only that, but the work involved in unraveling what you've already done might be more than they can take on. What if the agent already has a full load? Then your deal will have to be stellar to grab the agent's attention, and it's unlikely you'll get that kind of offer on your own.

On the other hand, it can't hurt. Approaching agents with an offer in hand might be enough to get you out of their slush and onto their desks, and that gives you a leg up on the competition. It's not a guarantee of representation, but it might get you an extra look. There are plenty of other ways to get that extra look, though, the best of which is to write an unforgettable book.

3 - Is it okay to ignore "agented only" guidelines?

I have to give this one an, "Almost always no," instead of an, "OMG, are you fucking kidding? NO!" because sometimes special circumstances will get you around the agented-only requirement. Maybe you met an editor at a conference. Or dinner party. Or your kid's dance recital. And the editor invited you to submit directly after asking you about your work. Or maybe your best friend has written 20 major bestsellers for them and gave you a personal recommendation. Or maybe there's some other weird planetary alignment that grants you a free pass in the form of direct, expressly stated permission from an editor to submit without an agent. In that case, go for it.

Otherwise? OMG, are you fucking kidding? NO! You don't get to ignore the rules just because you don't like them or they don't work to your particular advantage.

There was some other nonsense in the post referenced by the questioner -- my favorite being the blogger's contention that only new agents ask for rewrites before submitting. That's laughably wrong. There are agents, legends in this business who revise for *years* before letting an editor anywhere near the client's work. These people have reputations for delivering only the finest manuscripts in near-perfect condition, and they generally earn deals commensurate with that kind of work. (A friend of mine is working with one of these agents, a guy so well known that I'm sure all but the freshest beginners have heard of him. Someday, maybe we'll invite her to do a guest post on their collaborative process. But first she has to finish the revisions he asked for -- a year and a half in the making, and still going -- and then we'll have to let her come down from the stress-and-xanax high.)

There's probably a follow-up post to be made, something on the agent's role in publishing as a whole. But before I write it, maybe you should all have the opportunity to ask questions about agents. With so much bad information floating around, I'm sure there are plenty of questions lingering out there. If you want to remain anonymous and don't want to post in the comments, remember that you can email us directly at editorrent at gmail dot com.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

These are a few of our favorite things...

Sometimes I get captured by a voice, and this time it's not Pavarotti, but the Pavarotti of bloggers, James Wolcott. Sometimes he says things so eloquently and ironically, I want to preserve it. (But that, I suppose, is why they have archives.)

25 and Holding!

Happy birthday, Alicia!
(My other gift for you is a pin.)

Love ya!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Alicia, Here it is--

(With apologies to those of you lacking ties to the great state of Indiana--)

I think I've told Alicia (and everyone else I know) about this gift at least three times this week. My brother and his family gave me this for Christmas. It's a 1935 program from the bucket game, beautifully mounted and framed. So here it is, Alicia and anyone else who's interested, in all its deco splendor.

This is totally going on the wall next to my desk. (Even though Purdue lost that year. S'ok, we still lead the series.)

To keep this vaguely tied to writing, I present to you the very minor poem which donated the name of the trophy.

How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollection presents them to view!
The orchard, the meadow, the deep-tangled wild-wood,
And every loved spot which my infancy knew!
...And e'en the rude bucket that hung in the well—
The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,
The moss-covered bucket which hung in the well.
That's by Samuel Woodworth. I have no idea what else, if anything, he might have written. It reads like song lyrics, don't you think?


We're #1!

Iapetus puts us number 1! (And please don't say "in no particular order." #1 is #1. :)


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Emotion postponement

Emotion scenes are not action scene-- the pacing is usually slow so that the emotion can build up. But also, the emotional arc will benefit from an incident that really poses the emotional question.

For example, one of my favorite themes is the discovery of the reality of heroism (in a jaded world). I know I'm remembering this episode of House wrong-- I tend to mentally rewrite stories to fit my conception of how they ought to work. So I'm going to present it generically, but feel free as you visualize the doctor to install Hugh Laurie in the role:

Doctor is all curmudgeonly, but not in a nice way. He is a cynic and doesn't believe in much of anything. And he's long since given up on love, thinking that it is pretty much only an exercise of selfishness-- "I love you-- what's that get me?"

So he has the case of a pre-teen girl who has been very ill, went into remission, and has come back with renewed symptoms. She is very brave and strong, and he doubts this -- no one, particularly a child, can be so heroic, so she must be pretending or deluding herself. He doesn't of course-- being a good doctor-- try to undermine her strength, but at every point he has to give her bad news, he's watching carefully to see if she finally breaks. But she's sunny and positive, and so is her mother, both of them reacting to every setback with forceful optimism.

Let's stop here and think. He is the protagonist, not the little girl. So when I say, "What's the emotional question?" it's not HER question. It's his. What's his emotional question? Yes, he's wondering if she's real, if this is honest, but beneath that is the question, "Is there strength? Is there courage? And if so, what creates it? And why don't I have it?" What he's really wondering, I think, is how this little girl can be so strong and positive, when he, a big grownup, doubts that he is. (His cynicism, of course, is just a mask for his fear and uncertainty and self-doubt.)

Okay, back to emotion. Truly, we're all going to be sad about a little girl dying of cancer. We're all going to be even sadder when she's so brave and strong and it doesn't save her. But...

Do you REALLY want to wring your readers and leave them in a sobbing mess on the floor? Yes, I know you do.

Don't just have her then die. That's sad. But you can do more. Go back to that emotional question. It's not "Can courage surmount cancer?" That's really an external question. What's the internal, emotional question? "What makes this little girl so much braver than I am?"

What event can really, really force this question? It's not some external thing of "shall we try this treatment that might save her?" That's really just a repeat of what's already happened-- we've already seen her being brave and treatments that might save her. Her bravery isn't the issue. So the event has to be something different, something that doesn't pose that simple survival issue, but a more complex one.

Again, what's the real question-- "What does she have that I don't?" -- to oversimplify. So what DOES she have?

And what can bring that out, make it manifest?

There's no hope. She's dying. But there's a treatment that could give her another few months, though it's a painful prospect-- she'll live longer but in pain. That's bad enough, isn't it? The girl has to decide whether she wants a few more months of life... in pain.

But-- but the real wrenching choice-- and remember, this is HIS story-- should answer that emotional question. So first-- put him there and make him important. He's the one who tells her and her mother that they have only these two options, let her go, or let her live a few more months in pain. (That is, put him right there in the dilemma.) Put in a time deadline to increase the tension-- they have to decide by morning whether to start the treatment.

Now it's time to take time. Don't go right to the morning decision. If the point is to get the protagonist in there to see this happening, to have his question answered, he should be within this terrible choice-- not the one who makes the choice, but at least a witness to it.

So take your time. Don't rush it. Remember the question, and who can provide the answer-- the two of them, the doctor (the question) and the child (the answer) have to be together for the greatest drama.
The girl (not the mother, who is of course brave too, but we've set up the girl, the child, the innocent, as the bravery emblem) comes to him and asks him to help her decide.

Zowie. There you have him drawn in-- not just the witness, but now a participant. (Good plotting. :) So he might go over the options with her, careful not to influence her to his own view that she is just going to die anyway, so why not avoid the pain.

But then she interrupts him. "You're not understanding me. I don't mean what's best for me. What's best for my mother? Would it be better for her to let me go now, or to have me a few more months but have to watch me be in pain? What would be best for Mommy?"

And then, as he stammers, unable really to answer-- well, there's the answer. Yes, she really is brave and strong (it wasn't just self-delusion), and what makes her so, what she has that he doesn't, is love. And it's not just being loved that gives her strength, it's loving. And that's despite the terrible conflict, that loving her mother makes this descent to death twice as hard-- she's not just losing her life, she's knowing how much the death will hurt her mother. So the love is both the answer-- why she's so brave-- and the conflict-- why it's so painful-- and also the tragedy-- why this is heroism, and why it's so tragic.

And whatever is decided in the external plot (if she chooses treatment or a swift death), the real question has been answered: It's love.

Just a couple thoughts:

1) Take your time! Emotion doesn't usually happen if you rush it. Take your time and develop the mood, the issues, the intensity. This might require more scenes than you initially planned.

2) Know your protagonist and put him/her in the emotion scenes. The emotion happens to the protagonist too.

3) Think about what the subtextual emotional question is for the protagonist. When he looks at this situation, what is he asking, deep in his soul? Make sure that you have an event that answers that question.

4) If it's possible, make the protagonist part of the answer-event, as the little girl above asks him for advice.

5) Take your time! Postpone the "punch line" in a plausible way-- like the doctor assuming the girl is asking for herself and presenting his advice with her in mind. That forces the little girl to state straight out what she really means (and not a dry eye in the house), and provides finally an answer to that emotional question. Take this scene slowly. Have some stops and restarts. His scene goal is giving the girl the right advice, right? (YOUR scene goal is to reveal the answer to the emotional question, but his is to do his duty as a doctor and give the right advice.) There should always be conflict in a scene to keep him from getting the goal in line 4. The conflict here is that he's not sure what the right advice is, AND that it turns out he's wrong about what advice she needs (it's not about her, but about her mom). Take your time! This is not the scene to worry about quickening the pace.

Emotion takes time. In fact, a scene like this is actually the culmination of emotional build-up through the whole story, so milk it for maximum enjoyment. Okay, that might not be the right word, enjoyment.


Sentence simplification

Here's another thrilling editing experience (we editors do have exciting jobs!):

"I mostly make dinner at home. I'm not that great a chef," she said, "but at least no one has to tip me."

I made up the sentence, but it's modeled on one I came across in editing.

Now I probably wouldn't edit this in someone else's copy, but I would in my own story. I want sentences that are clear and decisive. And the "no one" clumsily adds another "character" to the line. There's "I" the cook, and presumably "no one" is a reference to the family who is eating that mediocre meal. But the family isn't in there. Not a big deal, but if I'm going for clarity (that is, any ambiguity is intentional, not accidental), the subjects and verbs should match up and the pronouns especially (and "no one" is sort of a pronoun here) should have an antecedent earlier in the paragraph.

How would I fix this? I'd probably make the whole sentence about "I"--

"I mostly make dinner at home. I'm not that great a chef," she said, "but at least I don't expect a tip."

That way, the sentence is unified-- it's all about "I", and there isn't the introduction of someone (okay, "no one") else in the second clause.

Just a minor point. But sentence-consciousness is a valuable approach to self-editing. What does your sentence SAY? And what might trip readers up, if only momentarily?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spotted in the Wild

My boss sent me a link to an article with this headline:

Survey Finds Consumers Buying Less Books Due to Current Economy

This is the result of all those damned signs in the supermarket checkout lanes. "10 Items or Less," they wrote, so that they could fit all the letters on the sign.

Less refers to single items of fluctuating size.
Fewer refers to countable items.

If we each have a glass of wine, and I drink half of mine, then I have less liquid in my glass.

If we each have three fortune cookies, and I eat one of mine, then I have fewer fortune cookies on my plate.

Less liquid. Fewer fortune cookies. That's my mnemonic device, and you're all welcome to borrow it.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Happy Holidays!

We're going to be pretty tangled up in holiday events this week, so blogging time might be thin. I'll still be working some -- of course! -- and I do have a few post topics rolling around my head, but they might have to wait.

In the meantime, if you're on Goodreads, feel free to friend me. I created a separate shelf in my reading list for projects I've edited, so that will be an easy way for folks to track my acquisitions, if you're interested in that sort of thing. It's not set up yet -- that's a project for next week -- but eventually, I'll probably write mini-reviews explaining why I acquired each story, too.

But for now, I'm at that stage of the holidays when I'm wondering why we have to work this hard at having fun. That's the final stage of holiday prep before we transition into the actual fun part.

Happy Hanuchristakwanstice!

ps. Are you thinking about your New Year writing goals yet?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Elmo Says

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

For years, the romance community has been arguing about the definition of romance, how much sex is permissible and/or necessary, and how to balance internal and external plots within the context of a romance.

I've entered the fray privately, with trusted friends over bottles of red, but if memory serves, this is the first time I've spoken publicly on the matter. My comments won't resolve the issue, but that's okay. This is a subject that lends itself to debate moreso than to resolution.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

From the Mailbag

Look what arrived in the mail. This is our first Japanese print book. Took a lot of work to make this cute little backward book. Most of which was done by our publisher and partners in Japan, but I had a hand in it, too. And I'm pretty excited to see the fruits of that labor, even if I can't read a single character.

Also? It's tiny. 4.125 x 6", smaller even than a mass market paperback. That just makes me want to coo and pet it all the more.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another IT factor -- "As It"

Here's another way the word it cues weakness in a sentence. You know how writers are sometimes advised to eliminate the word as? Usually, we're talking about problems of simultaneity, but not always. Sometimes, it's just plain old wordiness.

Watch for the word combo, as it.

She listened to the roar of the crowd as it erupted from the sports stadium.

You can kill as it and get a stronger sentence.

She listened to the roar of the crowd erupt from the sports stadium.

It's still wordy, but it's better, and this is a very easy fix to spot and to make.


Another mark of the amateur

This is "bling," as Theresa calls it, junky typography:
Inappropriate capitalization. You're writing in English, not German. Generally only proper nouns (names, titles) and the first letter of a sentence are capitalized. If you have the slightest doubt, check. Capitals really stand out, and a first pageful of seemingly random capitalization will make your opening look unprofessional. Just get it right unless you have a reason to get it wrong.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sequence with "like"

Just came across a minor edit and thought I'd pass it on. Again, it's all about sequence. I'm beginning to think everything is about sequence. Anyway, here's the original sentence or the opening clause, anyway:

You are not a sports fan, like me.....

Now is "me" a sports fan or not? It's not clear, is it?

But proper placement of that "like me" will make the meaning clear.

First, "like me" here is a prepositional phrase, which, like participial phrases, can be moved around to all sorts of places in the sentence. Both prepositional phrases and participial phrases are usually (not always) adjectival, modifying a noun, so they "sound" right next to almost any noun. But they actually only correctly modify one noun in the sentence, and for clarity, that's where you should place the modifying phrase.

Here, what is "like me"? YOU are, right? At least that's what the further context (in the rest of the paragraph) suggests-- you are like me in that you are not a sports fan.

You are, like me, not a sports fan....

Do you like that better than--

You, like me, are not a sports fan....

See the distinction there (not in meaning as syntax, I think-- they both mean you and I aren't sports fans). "If you are, like me" has the modifying phrase after the predicate, and so in a way it modifies not a single word but the whole clause there. That isn't wrong, exactly, and in fact, we do it all the time with adverbs: In "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," the whole admission is "frank", not just the very-- I don't give frankly.

But I think in this case, we are setting up a comparison between you and me, two people, two pronouns, and so the prepositional phrase might be best right after the "you." Then what follows "like me" is the aspect we share, the way in which you are like me. So I am going with:

You, like me, are not a sports fan....

And in that case "like me" is clearly interruptive and so set off with commas, and we can avoid the conundrum of whether "like me" in the alternative should be set off. Let me show you the options:
You are, like me, not a sports fan.... (that is, the clause is, "You are not a sports fan" and the "like me" is an interruptive -- appositive-- as above.)
You are like me, not a sports fan.... (here the clause is "You are like me" and the "like me" is actually a predicate adjective-- what are you? Like me.)
I think that probably this will depend on which aspect you are going to emphasize or develop. If you're going to talk more about how you and I are alike, go with "you, like me". If you want to talk more about "you", I guess go with "you are, like me, not a sports fan...."

Then again, there's:

Like me, you are not a sports fan....

That also clearly has the "like me" modifying "you," as they're adjacent.

Oh, and what if "me" really is a sports fan? I think then I'd make that clear not like this:
You are not a sports fan, like me.....

"Me" is an object, and "like" then becomes a conjunction. (Don't ask-- I could explain but I'm tired." A conjunction conjoins clauses, and "like" shouldn't be a conjunction (I mean, that's a misuse)-- the correct conjunction for similarity is "as". So that should be:
You are not a sports fan, as I am.

That way "I" goes with the positive (I am) not the negative (are not).

Ugly sentence, isn't it? Well, the way to fix that isn't to make it unclear and/or ungrammatical, but to rewrite it to reflect what you're emphasizing-- you or me? "I am a sports fan. I make no apologies for that. But you, sir, are not a sports fan, and so you can spend your Sundays on more productive activities."
"You are not a sports fan. That's all right, even though I am. I paint my face blue every Sunday the Colts are playing, and go into a depression every time they lose. (Not that they've been losing at all this season.)"

You don't have to put it all in one sentence. In fact, when you open the thought up, you might create something more fun than that single sentence summary.

Again, know what you mean, and make the sentence(s) say that. Don't make the reader guess.


Two Years, Two Editors, Two Ways to Win

Today marks the second birthday of this little blog. Gosh, what a couple of years it's been. We've met some wonderful people through the comments, laughed a lot, and, we hope, taught you all a new trick or two along the way.

We're very grateful that anyone reads this blog. Really, if you think about it, it's rather shocking. Two women quibble over participles and fragments -- at length, sometimes at great length -- and people actually read it. Thank you for that.

We want to celebrate. We also want to come up with a list of top posts for the sidebar, but we don't think we should be the judges of our own posts.

So here's what we would like to do.

Email your favorite post or posts to Include either a link or a title or a date, something to help us identify the post. (Or posts. If you want to recommend more than one, that's great!)

Everyone who does this will be entered in a random drawing. We'll pick two winners, and those winners can send us the first ten pages of a manuscript, plus a synopsis of not more than three pages, for a little editorial input. Alicia and I will divvy them up and give them a spin through the editing machine. We won't post your work on the blog. This is not for public consumption, but rather a touch of private coaching. It's our way of saying thanks, but it's also our way of getting you to come up with a short list of recommended posts. (Clever, ain't it?) You don't have to have a romance manuscript to play along. We'll look at other kinds of fiction, too, and do our best to help you.

Get your entries in by December 31, 2009. Questions? Ask in the comments.

Thanks for a great two years!

Alicia and Theresa

Gettin' Fierce

I'm guest blogging at Fierce Romance today. Talking about Red Sage's history and future, the state of submissions, and the best stories from Fierce bloggers.

Check it out!


Monday, December 14, 2009

When Unnamed Characters Speak

Jenny asks,

Sorry to interrupt a very interesting thread--I swear I read a post here once about handling dialogue when we don't know the names of the speakers. As in someone listening in on a conversation, say, between two women and a man. Like the first time one speaks you could say, "the man with the ill-fitting suit" but when that person speaks again, how would you identify him in a non-cumbersome way? That kind of a thing.

But I can't find the post. If it rings a bell would you mind directing me?

Jenny, I couldn't find such a post. Maybe we did write it and our Super Deluxe Sidebar Labeling System (tm) has failed again. Someday, I swear, I am going to sort out our labels. (Stop laughing.)

So, let's start by setting some parameters. You're writing a secondary character important enough to speak but not important enough to identify by name. (Or perhaps there is some other reason for hiding the name.) That secondary character doesn't fall into a neat character type, so you can't just write, the waiter said, after his lines.

Here's a handy two-step process for making this easy.

Step One.
Pick an active identifier that gives you room to play.

You offer an ill-fitting suit. This is a good choice, much better than a static cue or a common trait. Here's why--

Step Two.
Use beats to draw the reader's attention back to that active identifier.

Let's use your example of the man in the ill-fitting suit. The first time he speaks, you can identify him as just that, the man in the ill-fitting suit.

Now let's brainstorm some actions taken by a man who wears that ill-fitting suit. Does he tug the cuffs? Play with the tight buttons? Hike his pants up repeatedly? Shrug his shoulders when things feel tight?

Use these things as beats in that character's dialogue. It will cue "ill-fitting suit" without being repetitive.


"I never saw that woman before she turned up in the diner." The man tugged his frayed cuffs down. "She sat by herself and didn't talk to anyone."

Detective Jones made a note on his pad. "So why did you remember her? You identified her body in the alley."

He popped open a too-tight button. "Kinda hard not to notice a soaking wet, barefoot woman who comes into a diner and orders pie. And pays all in dimes. You remember a thing like that."


You see? If you had tagged the nameless character with something more ordinary or static -- "the tall blond," for example -- you wouldn't have all these options for beats. Well, maybe you could have him run his hands through his blond curls. That's a common move, so common the reader might yawn through it. Plus, there might be many blond men in your book. So this might not be unique enough to help the reader keep things straight.

Maybe you could have him bend to get through the doorway, but how many doorways will he walk through in the course of the conversation? You need an identifier that gives you options, that's vivid, and that is unique enough to relate back to only one character.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who is teaching this stuff?

Sometimes Theresa and I will consult on some odd prose thingy that has suddenly popped up in nearly every submission we get, and one of us will say, "Who is teaching this stuff?" That's because whenever many submissions have some feature that we don't actually see in many published books, we suspect (perhaps wrongly) that there's some influential teacher or editor or agent or big name writer who suggested this in some interview or class, and the suggestion has bounced from writer to writer, critique group to critique group, and suddenly half the writers out there have added this whatever to their voice arsenal.

Maybe that's unfair. Maybe every writer who uses this independently and simultaneously developed it. Maybe every single one of them just developed their voice in that direction. I don't know. Maybe a whole bunch of writers just got a blast from their muse: "Start half your sentences with present participles! It's variety!"

But I think someone is teaching these things.

This year I'm getting a bunch of submissions with doubled terms, usually predicates.
She spoke, muttered, "Get out of my sight."
The cat jumped, leaped for the window.

But I'm also seeing this in modifiers:
He moved quickly, rapidly.
Her face was red, pink with frustration.

A few thoughts here:
1) A teacher of course should never say, "Don't learn from others," so I won't say that. I also won't say, "Voice can't be taught," though I think that's true-- voice can't be taught, but it can be refined and developed, and certainly the input and wisdom and example of others can help with that.
However, whatever you learn and apply should be something that fits your voice, that helps (especially the Almost There writers who have already developed skills at plotting and characterization) individualize your voice in an attractive way. That actually is not likely to be the same thing that a hundred other writers are suddenly using-- how can you individualize your voice if you're doing the same thing everyone else is doing? So when someone passes on some cool new prose thing, really examine whether it fits in with your voice, whether your voice is evolving in that direction. Some prose innovations really don't go with some voices.
If, for example, you like to replicate the character voice, well, really, does it make sense that ALL your characters would suddenly start talking and thinking with this new construction?
Or if you have a rather formal voice, is it likely a NEW trend is going to be formal?
Or if you have a casual, conversational voice, is this new trend going to fit that? I doubt it, because most of these trends tend to lead to rather arcane and artificial constructions which are not going to be conversational-- they are more "writerly".

So just consider that a prose trend from a spam email sent to every writer in the world (I'm figuring that's how it gets transmitted: "To My Beloved Writter" heading: "Dear one. I am Sir Justice Legatt, the literary Executor for the esteemed Late Mrs. Louise Backover, the Nobel Prize Winning Writer. When she died last year of a Broken Heart, she left in my trust a manuscript that is certain to earn $1oooooo. I was given your name as a distinguished author who might be looking for a partnership....") isn't likely to be appropriate for your voice.

2) Think about how this came into your ken. If in fact you evolved this all by yourself (and do think about this, because, as I said, these little memes tend to come from writers in clumps, and they probably all think they came up with this themselves), then I say, go with it. It might not end up being something that you actually add to your repertoire, but your voice will always benefit from your own experimentation and innovation. But experimentation, of course, means fiddling with the use, the placement, the construction, and figuring out what works and when. A good voice comes from sensitivity, and that means being selective. Just because it's cool in this paragraph doesn't mean it'll be cool on every page. :)

3) If you realize you got this from an outside source (and that's great-- that's a way to learn... I got my love of parentheticals from CS Lewis, and I figure, hey, if it was cool in Narnia, it will be cool for me too) and you kind of like this phrasing or trend or whatever it is, do a bit of evaluation. First, I'd say, if this is such a clever thing, it probably should be showing up in published work too. Buy some of the latest books by newer authors in your sub-genre and see if it shows up at all there. Now of course, you don't just want to do what the published books do, you want to be fresh and unique and all that. But really, YOU should supply the freshness and uniqueness by how you use this thingy. It's a good idea to remind yourself of that, so you don't think merely using this is in and of itself fresh.

But anyway, if you don't see it anywhere in newly published work, it could be because it really is fresh. Or it could be because published authors don't think it's that cool. Or it could be that they do think it's that cool but the editor yanked it all out. It's sort of like when you're in high school and you get that issue of InStyle or Seventeen and there's this cute model in a kicky outfit, you know, just a long purple sweatshirt over long john pants, the white thermal waffle-weave type (that make anyone over 16 look like she has thunder-thighs), and you decide you simply have to wear that. And you go to school the next day and half the girls are dressed just like that, in which case you feel sort of un-unique and realize they too all got their issue of Seventeen in the mail yesterday, or you pull on those long john pants and waltz off to school and NO ONE is wearing it, and in fact, the most fashionable girl in your class studies you through her lorgnette (this high school is in Regency London ), and says in that languid way, "Did you forget to put on your ski bibs?" and you know that in fact this really isn't a trend everyone loves. And somewhere in your soul you think maybe they're right that this isn't all that awesome a look.

Well, if you never or almost never see this thingy in published work, it could be because no one has ever thought of it before. Or it could be because it's really not that awesome.

4) Hey, maybe it is that awesome! Maybe the languid girl puts down her lorgnette and asks if you want to sit at her table at lunch. But are you going to wear the long sweatshirt and the long johns every day from now on? Even in May? Even to the senior prom? Even when the trend has changed from sporty to girly? Even when your breasts grow bigger and the sweatshirt gets too tight (which impresses the boys, but not Her Lorgnette)?

As an editor or reader, I probably wouldn't notice or highlight or laugh at one use of this awesome device. And if it really works in a context, I might even admire it and invite you to sit at my lunch table. But we notice and decry all these thingys because they are overused, to the point that they become a joke. Yes. Okay, it's not a FUNNY joke, but editor jokes aren't usually funny. They're more rueful. Really, I wouldn't bother worrying about a couple lines where you've doubled the predicate. Maybe I'll figure you have a good reason I'm too tired to puzzle out. Maybe I figure I should just trust you. Maybe I'll think that you're a good stylist and you know your audience and they'll like this even if I'm not blown away. Maybe I'll be blown away. But if I see this same thingy fifty times in your 200 pages, well, I'll start wondering what the heck this is doing in this action scene when you just used it in the introspection for another POV character, and is it really effective in both instances, plus the other 48?

5) Certain prose stylings draw attention to themselves. (Sudden "bursts" of unattributed dialogue at the start of scenes, say. Stacked modifiers. ) That's good occasionally, but if you do it too often, you might be dragging the reader's attention away from the story. That's a big difference, I think, between literary fiction and popular fiction. Nowadays, literary fiction is often more about the presentation, and you can see the appreciation for sentences and metaphors in the reviews, which often quote these. But in popular fiction, I think if someone says, "That's a fabulous metaphor on page 22," it's sort of saying, "I was so caught by that metaphor I stopped reading the story." That's not to say you can't have great sentences and metaphors in popular fiction, or that pop fic writers can't be great stylists-- but I do think they have to be more stealthy about it. The pop fic writer can obsess about technique as long as he remembers always that the pop fic reader is more interested in the story. Anything that adds to the experience of the story will be good. But "kill your darlings" is good advice when you find yourself frequently using very clever prose thingys that draw the reader's eye and stop the reading.

And repetition doesn't make reading this a more pleasant experience. After the third or fourth doubled predicate, the reader will really start noticing. And she won't notice the way the protagonist is dealing with the conflict, she'll notice the doubled predicate and think, "Don't regard and study mean about the same thing? So why does she put both there?"

You don't want the reader stepping away from your story to wonder at your word choice.

6) Using these thingys could actually keep you from finding or creating your own voice. That's an important determination-- what do you sound like? What do you want to sound like? What's right for this book? What's right for this character?
To tell you the truth, sometimes I get a submission and I can highlight five or six of these trendy thingys, oh, right, this one is from the late lamented "duh" offsides trend; and she must have picked this rhetorical question meme last year when it was going around; oh, yeah, there's the list of brandnames-- she stole that one from DeLillo-- and yep, right on schedule, here's the one-word paragraph thing-- ayee, it burns, it burns.... That is, some submitters have "voices" that are mostly a collections of clever thingys they picked up the last few years. Those are not your voice. Your voice is your unique way of presenting your story. Don't ever forget that.

7) Don't forget that editors constantly have to consider factors you don't generally have to consider when you're drafting. For example, you might think that one-sentence paragraphs are kind of cool and make the prose seem really active (I don't think that, far from it, so please don't ever send me a scene full of these barbarisms). You might think it really enlivens the scene. You might not think at all, I don't know. But anyway, you send it off to Ernie Editor at Big Print Publisher Books. Ernie sees all that white space and thinks, "This is like 50,000 words, but 350 pages in manuscript. Be about the same in print. No way!"

Paper costs-- a lot, these days, and of course, multiply that by X number of copies printed, plus the additional binding cost. No editor is going to want to explain to his boss why this book is going to take almost twice as many sheets of paper as the usual 50K-word book.

"But I'm sending this to an electronic press," you protest. "They don't have to worry about paper!" No, but put yourself in the mind of a customer. The editor has to do that.
What would the reader think? Okay, let's say this isn't one of the MOST readers who would get really crabby at so many one-sentence paragraphs. Let's say this is just a reader who likes to read, and she spent $5 on this novel, and she's done reading it in two hours, and she thinks, gee, that wasn't much book for $5. There are a lot of other books which feel deeper and longer for the same cost. Why did this book feel so thin? Oh, right. Look at all that white space.

Some thingys are good. Some thingys are best in moderation. Some thingys bring up all sorts of considerations you need to consider if you want to publish with many publishers.

Another example-- Some writers like to put in a lot of cusswords, especially when they're in a man's POV. I see this a lot lately. A whole lot. I was thinking of investing in Dial soap because there are a lot of fictional fellas who need their mouths washed out. Maybe you think this is good-- that's the way this guy would think. Okay. But what if the line you're aiming at is a bit more sedate? What if the editor is religious or prim (or her boss is)? As you write, you might not have to consider that, but audience primness is something you might consider when you submit.

8) If you still kind of like those long johns (yes, really, this was a trend among my students a few years back, only, horrors, they'd wear long board shorts over the long johns, so we got to appreciate these layers: Sweatshirt. Knee length baggy saggy shorts. Long johns. Doc Marten boots), think about why. Evaluate. Let's say that you like the stutter step rhythm and the nuance that comes from doubling the predicate or modifier. Okay. Then please, use it. But use it where it works, and --because it's distinctive and distinctively annoying in repetition-- use it only when it really adds to the passage, when you want that stutter step rhythm. (And trust me, you do NOT want it always.)

Then don't assume because it works here, that any combination of two predicates will work here. It's not the doubling of predicates that works, it's this particular sentence that has the doubling using these particular predicates. So what the words are will matter. Be judicious here. For example, the most annoying for me is when you have two close synonyms, either one (but not both) of which could work:
He climbed, clambered up the wall.

Come on. That's like saying "roast beef in au jus sauce." He climbed, climbed. Are you really sure you want to present that to a cynical, jaded editor?

Another annoyance is when the second word kind of contradicts the first one:
Her face flushed red, pink.

Red and pink are two different colors. If her face is flushing red, what happens to make it pink? Does it first flush red and then dull to pink? If so, why not say so? If you mean she flushed sort of between red and pink, well, first, how important is the exact color? And if the exact color is important, why not name the exact color? Rose? Deep pink?

But... this is actually something I myself do occasionally. The "arcane and artificial" above actually started as "arcane, artificial," but I changed it to make a point. If you can put "and" between them -- NOT "or"-- and it makes sense because 1) they're not the same and 2) they're not contradictory, maybe the construction (sans the "and") can work... but you want to have a good reason not to use the "and" (like these are adjectives before the noun, or the rhythm is right for the passage).

Here's a passage by a master of this construction (Faulkner). Do NOT try this at home-- this is a short sentence for him. :)
Then hearing would reconcile and he would seem to listen to two separate Quentins now-the Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts, listening, having to listen, to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times.

See how each of those three doubled phrases do something different.
the South, the deep South
This is an elaboration, a qualification. I grew up in Virginia, which is "the south, but not the deep South," and I really understood that. It's conversational -- "I grew up in the South, not the deep South"-- but it also makes the point that the deep South is something special, something apart, within the greater South.
garrulous outraged baffled ghosts
This is my favorite phrase ever, I think. It gets its weight from an accumulation of modifiers there, but notice that each adjective is very different without being contradictory. I can just imagined these ghosts who just keep talking about how mad they are and puzzled by their deadness and the deadness of the deep South after the war. "That's not fair! I can't believe it! How did that happen?" And that capstone word ghosts. Wow. No repetition, but no contradiction either-- just an accumulation of traits so when you get to the end, you know exactly what he means.
listening, having to listen,
Here, the doubled predicates! And you might say, "Hey, that's really redundant-- listen/listen." But it's not listen/listen. It's listen/have to listen. There's a deepening of meaning there, as if the character is correcting himself, and the correction itself shows the process. He starts out just listening, but pretty soon, he can't stop listening. He has to listen. He doesn't have a choice but to listen.

So maybe:
He climbed, slipped and grabbed hold again.
He climbed, scrambled up the rock face.
Or (this is a good place for a participle!):
He climbed, scrambling up the rock face.
Her face flushed first red, then a dull pink as she realized what he meant.

I'd be especially careful with words that are close synonyms. Maybe they create nuance, or maybe they just confuse. "Do you mean climbed, or clambered? Choose one!"

That is, analyze what you mean here. Make the sentence mean what you want it to mean. Don't fall so in love with some thingy that you forget that what matters is the meaning.

Remember your voice or your character's voice isn't any one of these thingys. Voice is far more than the strewn cussword or the repetitive use of a particular construction. And if your voice is going to suffer a whole lot because you take out 90% of the doubled predicates, or have them only in action scenes, well, I think the problem is that you don't have a really strong voice there, and you need to work on that, and you don't get a strong voice by following trends. You have to know yourself and know your story and, yes, know what works and doesn't work in prose, and for that, you know, the best teachers are books you love, especially books you love that are in the sub-genre you're targetting, not
me or Literary Executor Legatt.

"Mrs. Backover left in my trust five extremely literarily impressive thingys, and I would like to pass them on to a trusted member of the writing environment. You are that person. If you will deposit $42112 into this account, I will forward you these valuable thingys."


Fragments redux

Coming from comments on the last post:

Fragments make sense in deep POV, but I've read that editors will 'repair' them, killing the voice. Is that still true?

Deb, thanks for letting me talk about one of my favorite subjects! I could go on and on and on....
(I can just imagine the other commenters:
"Deb, did you HAVE to mention fragments? You know she's going to rant--"
"That's what Deb wants! She thinks it's funny to poke that stick at Alicia and run away."
"She knows that Alicia has final grades to get filed, and she thinks it's fun to distract her!"
"Deb is pretty smart."
"As long as we don't actually have to read this long rant -- oh, and she's going to do another one!-- about fragments.")

SOMETIMES fragments work -- not in deep POV specifically, but when you are narrating using the character voice (kind of first-person but with the third-person pronoun). Surely not all character voices are full of fragments. I mean, if I'm deep in the POV and voice of an erudite British Oxford don, fragments probably don't make sense-- this guy probably was speaking in full grammatical paragraphs at age 3. Deep POV isn't a set of rules (like "use lots of fragments" :) but a writer's approach to presenting the character, and when you commit to that, you commit to presenting -this- character, and that can mean using this character's voice (that's actually a further choice-- most deep POV narrations these days will be in the character's voice, but that's a rather recent trend, and some authors-- Koontz comes to mind-- can do deep POV and still be mostly in their own authorial voice. Maybe we should discuss that later).

And so does this character exist-- not just think-- in fragments? Deep POV and character voice are not simply "in the mind and thoughts." Deep POV is NOT stream-of-consciousness. I wrote a post on stream of consciousness, which was an important literary trend in the start of the 20th Century. Often when writers today talk about deep POV, they act like they mean stream-of-consciousness (which is being in the MIND at this MOMENT of the character, while -- in my definition-- deep POV is being in the character, who is more than just his mind). If you read Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake and the other famous s-o-c books, you'll see the danger of replicating the inner workings of the mind-- often it's just about unreadable.

Very, very few books actually get in there and report the inner thoughts as they happen. (Most of us don't even think primarily in words anyway-- we think in memory blasts and images and associations as much as we think in words. So even trying to convey thoughts in words is modifying these to make them readable.) That's partly because actual thought -- even in words-- is unreadable: illogical, dissociative, and spastic. But it's also because that sort of narration can be boring and unfocused on what the reader is reading for, which is probably not those flashes of memory occasioned by the sight of snow, but, you know, the story.

In fact, in deep POV, we are NOT replicating the inner workings of the mind. We are instead trying to create an experience FOR THE READER (the reader is all-important) of being this character, and this character is more than his mind, and what counts is not exact replication but how you go to create the experience for the reader.

And the first rule is: Don't narrate in ways that make the reader stop reading, because she can't be this character if she can't bear to read the scene. :)

Now obviously different readers have different reasons to stop reading. I get bored with a lot of "world-building," where other readers love that. But keep in mind that most readers are comfortable with a certain degree of syntactical conventionality that is useful when conveying the scene in written language. We do expect capital letters at the start of sentences, and quote marks around dialogue (though we can adapt-- there are some books without one or the other of those that even I, hidebound pragmatist that I am, have got through).

So we might always think about the concessions we're already making to the conventions of written language. Most of us don't think putting a capital letter at the start of a sentence interferes with our "voice", right? And once we start accepting that some conventions just make it easier for the reader to get into our story (because they're not being distracted by relatively meaningless departures from convention), we can start evaluating which breaks from convention are helpful when in creating the right experience for the reader.

(And one way, btw, to seduce readers into accepting your syntactical innovations is to ease them into it, maybe have the start of the book fairly conventional, and add in innovations where they work most effectively. For example, deep POV is often more effective in high-emotion and high-action moments, but not necessarily so helpful in conveying information about the setting or situation, which is why often we do that at the beginning of the scene in a somewhat more distant POV. So we should realize that deciding to do a book in deep POV doesn't mean that we always need to be in deep POV at every moment-- rather when it deepens the reader's experience.)

So onto fragments, and it's interesting how often this comes up. Some fragments are "voice," "character." Some are just the writer being lazy or defiant, frankly. Sometimes the editor can tell which fragments add to the story and the voice, and which just annoy... but do you want the editor having to make that decision? Especially as many editors will fix all of them? (House style, remember, is going to trump "voice" every time. Sorry. But reality trumps desire on this blog, at least once in a while. :)

The best way to make sure that the character's voice is kept in there is NOT to overuse the more annoying,I mean innovative, aspects of voice. Use fragments when they count, not all the time. If we're judicious about when some break with convention really does add to the reader's experience, we're far more likely to slip it by the editor-- I mean, the editor is more likely to read this as a moment where the character is particularly emotional or in tune or whatever. The editor might not let it go if the narration always fragments sentences, if there are fragments regardless of which character is in viewpoint, if there is no distinction in sentence construction between highly emotional moments and more thoughtful moments. Sin judiciously, and you're more likely to get away with it. :) Okay, let's put that another way. If you construct sentences and paragraphs in ways that add to the reader's experience, that make the experience exciting, deep, whatever that passage calls for, then the editor might go with it and allow it.

(Again, this is not necessarily entirely a choice the editor gets to make... and the copy editor might have some control here too. So keep that in mind -- that's the price of having your work pass through two or three editors as is customary and usually helpful in so many publishing houses. If you don't want that, well, there are places to publish that don't have editing.)

Now there is character voice, which is often related to deep POV but not the same thing. After all, first-person narration is definitely "character voice," but might or might not be very deep POV. In fact, a lot of first-person narrations are deliberately deceptive, which might mean keeping the reader OUT of the narrator's mind.

So what if your character's voice is all fragmentary? Hmm. Well, the tradeoff for the authenticity might be unreadability. If you don't want that trade, I'd certainly think of being in a more restrained (authorial) voice and/or a less deep level of POV for most of the book, and only in the fragmentary POV/voice when I want to give some sense of what he sounds like or what his mind is like. Just because he has a unique voice doesn't mean that's the best voice to use in narrating everywhere. I'm thinking of the lovely book Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale, which actually has a hero who thinks fragmentarily (he's had a stroke). Kinsale has a few passages (very emotional moments) in that voice, but most of the book is in the heroine's voice or a restrained and eloquent author voice (Kinsale has a wonderful voice).

Not to say that a book can't explore the unusual voice. But if the book isn't ABOUT that voice (as Ulysses really was about the narrative/voice experimentation), does the whole story benefit from being told in that voice?

Back to fragments--
A fragment is really just another type of sentence-- an incomplete one. And just like any sentence form, a fragment will work in some situations (and some constructions) but not others. If you have a good editor who is sensitive to this, yes, she's probably going to take the ones that don't work (and with many writers, that's most of the fragments, because most of their sentences are incomplete). That might or might not "kill the voice".

There isn't some blanket allowance-- "Fragments are allowed in this book!" or "Fragments are part of my voice!" Fragments in and of themselves don't work anymore than rolling through a four-way stop on the road works. They work when they work-- when they're right for this moment and this passage and this character and this moment. My saying, "Sometimes a fragment works," doesn't mean always. Sometimes, say at 2 am, on a deserted road, when there are no cars anywhere around and most important no police cars, it works to roll through that four-way stop. That doesn't mean that every four-way stop sign can be ignored if we feel brazen today. :)

Too many writers use deep POV as an excuse to fragment too many sentences. There is still the need to communicate to the reader in a language and syntax the reader can understand (this is why the French character thinks in English :). That should be "easily understand" if you are not meaning to write the more narratively and syntactically complex innovations of the more extreme literary fiction. Do you want the reader to have to study your passages to discern the meaning? Then that's the more narratively and syntactically complex, etc., and I'm not talking about that sort of fiction. I'm talking about fiction that is meant to tell a story about these characters, which is what most of us write.

Also, some types of fragments are easier to "hear" than others. The ones that are actual fragments-- that is, fragmentary elements, incompleted thoughts, bits of information-- do in fact convey that bittiness that gives a particular staccato feel to the narration. What doesn't usually work for me is when the writer just breaks off part of a sentence, like this:
He headed for the door. Which was closed.

Now there can be some reason to break that off. But more often, there just isn't. The writer just adds that afterthought, and there's really no meaning reason to keep it separate from its sentence. (Really, most of the fragments I see in submission are like that, and I think that sort of fragment gives them all a bad rep. :) If you can join the fragment to an adjacent sentence without altering the meaning, why not do that?

And "sentence and paragraph construction" is key here. Fragments are a part of a whole, not just apart from that whole. They might not be part of a sentence, but they are part of a paragraph. They only work if they work in that paragraph or in the larger passage. The question is-- why is this thought or info presented in a fragment? What is the reason for the incompleteness? That's important. That's essential, in fact.

For example, let's say I'm writing a passage where the character is describing the setting of her 10th year high school reunion and how it makes her feel. A lot of fragments-- bits of this and bits of that-- can work, if the character is feeling fragmented, if she can't focus, if she's distracted by something else.
Back again. The high school gym. The strobe light flashing intermittently, illuminating her old classmates, the ones who bothered to come, and hurting her eyes. The streamers from the last prom and the smell of basketball-team sweat. And Johnny, still mysterious, still elusive, standing in the shadows near the exit. The silver-foil sign-- "Welcome Class of '99!" -- the message missing the comma. The timorous teen band in the corner, laboring away at old N'Sync hits.

But there should be a reason for the bittiness, like the presence of her high-school boyfriend distracting her. And I notice that even with that, I'm selecting and revising. Here are my revision thoughts, dictated by my left brain right this moment:
Johnny ought to be at the end of the paragraph, not in the middle. I like the sweat thing, but the rest of the paragraph is mostly visual (N'Sync isn't, maybe put those together, before the strobe light?), so I might find some visual bit to replace it. I don't like all those participles in that third sentence, so I might use "flashed" instead of "flashing," thereby making this a sentence. :) I'd worry also about the sign because the punctuation isn't exactly right (needs a comma before "message", but that doesn't work with the dash... must find a way to fix that because it will always bother me). The "old N'Sync hits" is summary, not this very moment-- they'd be playing only one song this moment. So Google and find an old N'Sync song they're playing right now. Be in the moment. What's happening right this moment, not the whole evening? Also, I might start with "She was back again" or "Tracy was back again," just because that feels better. Anyone can be back again. And without a subject, the reader might think I mean "the high school gym is back again," and that's not what I mean. SHE is back again. In the high... (should I have "In the high school gym?" I don't know. That sounds sort of clunky and directive). Okay, you know, I really want to be all fragmenty and flirty, but the truth is, I think that opening should be "She was back again in the high school gym." In fact, you know, if I'm in deep POV, would I think "the high school?" What do I think when I think of my old high school? I actually think "BHS," don't I? I mean, "the high school" could refer to any high school, but the school she went to isn't any high school. It's very specific. So how about "She was back again in the BHS gym"?

(Yes, my left brain thinks in parentheticals and emoticons.)

So, point is, my immediate drafting voice might start out with all fragments, but my revising voice starts knitting things together, shaping the passage (most important thing last), connecting thoughts, all that. That's actually ME, not the character. The character might not care all that much about having the sensory detail presented coherently (visual first with the strobe light illumination), but I do, because I think the reader likes the more logical presentation, so she can assemble it into a coherent picture.

But I would still end up with some fragments in there. And I'd keep them because they added to the paragraph somehow, not because they're fragments and because the first time I drafted this they were there, and therefore they're my "voice". Actually, my voice is more in the revising than the drafting-- even if I get it right in the drafting, I will know that because I try to revise it and can't make it better.

So-- long post, as per usual. But if there's anything to come out of this, it's -- fragments are part of an entire whole-- the paragraph, the passage, the scene. Does this particular fragment add something to this paragraph? Does -being a fragment-- add to the meaning? There's nothing inherently cool about fragments. If this one works, it works. But it works because it works, not because it's a fragment. So if I say, "Fragments are okay," I don't mean every fragment is fine by nature. Think of it rather as another type of sentence. All forms of sentences are okay... in some situations. Is this right for this situation? There's no blanket endorsement here. It's all about the context. (And to some degree, it's about the writer's skill-- some can pull off stunts I wouldn't want lesser writers to try at home. :)


Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Quick Sentence Revision Tip: Subordinate "IT"

Every now and then, we stumble across a manuscript that overuses a certain type of sentence. As with any sentence structure, the issue is not use so much as overuse.

She removed his shirt, pulling it over his head.

Okay, that's a really crappy example but it will serve to illustrate the point. Those of you who've been reading the blog for a while will probably expect a rant on present participial phrases now, but that's not where we're going. Ignore that problem for the moment. (No, aliens have not taken over my body. Promise.)

Focus instead on the word it, a weak pronoun that might signal some flab in the sentence. Which is the tighter, cleaner, more linear sentence?

She removed his shirt, pulling it over his head.
She pulled his shirt over his head.

Frequently, when we see this construction, it's because there's some weakness in the verbs. Remove and pull are both perfectly serviceable words, but it may be that the writer wanted a bit more emphasis in the moment. Perhaps she started by penning the clause, She removed his shirt, and then realized it lacked pizzazz or power. So she "fixed" it by slathering on that participial phrase, pulling it over his head, which adds detail and length but still reads a bit flat.

You see the problem? Instead of making the sentence punchier, we just made it longer. We're listing two instances of the shirt coming off, first removing it, then pulling it over his head. It's repetitive.

When I'm editing, the it is the trigger word for me. As soon as I see it laying there in the subordinate phrase like a tiny dead guppy, my eyes jump to the verbs. Are the actions identical? Do we need both verbs? What's the goal of the sentence?

If we're trying to build resonance into the simple act of removing a shirt, think about stronger verbs and companion actions that enhance without duplicating the main action.

What are some companion actions?

- unbuttoning the collar buttons
- sliding fingers over a bare chest under the cloth
- experiencing the feel of the fabric, scratchy, smooth, etc.
- tugging the hem free of the pants
- if he's very tall, stretching to complete the removal
- or coaxing him to bend
- you tell me! Name a companion action in the comments

After the shirt is off, we get loads of other options, too, like seeing the muscle move under the skin, feeling the prickle of chest hair, and so on.

What are some stronger verb choices? Flex your revision muscles now. Think of three vivid, dynamic verbs to describe this action. Strip, peel, what else?

Sometimes the verbs are better, but the sentence still feels flabby.

She pinched the cookie dough, squeezing it between her fingers.

Pinch can be defined as squeezing between the fingers, so even though these are decent verbs, they're duplicative. And again, for my eyes, the it is the trigger. I see it in a subordinate phrase, and the response is automatic. I compare the verbs, pick the stronger one, and excise the weaker.

She pinched the cookie dough.
She squeezed the cookie dough between her fingers.

This isn't a (*ahem*) cookie-cutter fix. But add it to your toolkit, and use it well.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Let's Talk About Men

I have a question for those of you interested in romance writing. I've been mulling some articles about romance hero archetypes, and could use your help shaping the topics.

Is there are particular type of romance hero you find most compelling? (Bad boy, lone wolf, rogue, dom, beta, etc.)

What draws you to that hero type? Does anything about the other types repulse you?

Me, I kind of like them all. Each for different reasons. But I would like to hear some thoughts that originate outside my own head. :)


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This was posted on J's site, but I need to record it

Let me start by saying that there are no absolutes in fiction-writing. Deep POV is now trendy, and it’s appropriate for many types of stories, and also for our highly interactive culture. However, it’s only one of several POV approaches, and it’s not right for every genre, every book, and every author.

First, I should quickly define deep point of view. (I go into this in much greater depth in my book, The Power of Point of View.) Deep POV is a variety of single POV, where an entire scene (or chapter, or book) is told through the perspective (or point of view) of one of the characters in the scene. Deep POV takes this further—the narration is done not just in the perspective but in the voice of the POV character. It’s meant to establish almost no distance between the narrator and the reader—rather like a first-person feel with third-person pronouns. Here’s an example:

Allie thought Saturday was never going to come. All day Friday she kept waiting for school to be over, but it was taking forever. Every time Allie looked at the watch her daddy had bought her for Christmas, the numbers had barely changed at all. She thought maybe the battery wasn’t so good anymore, but if it wasn’t, then the clocks at school weren’t working either, ’cause when her teacher dismissed them for lunch, it was the exact time on Allie’s watch that it was s’posed to be. (Tara Taylor Quinn, Jacob’s Girls.)

The character is a child, and so the deep-POV narration uses the diction and sentence construction of a child. This lets the reader get an intense experience of who this person is and how she thinks.

Very useful. However, there are two points I want to make:

  1. Most writers who think they’re doing deep POV aren’t. They are doing single POV and confining the narration to one character’s thoughts and perceptions (and that’s FINE). But they are writing more in their own voice. There’s nothing wrong with that (single POV is by far the most common and accepted POV approach). What’s wrong is the writers who say they’re doing deep POV because they’re following a list of rules they got from somewhere, like “In deep POV, you never use the character’s name, and you never use ’she thought’.” Deep POV is not about rules. It’s about being so into the character that you feel with her body, think with her mind, and write with her voice. It’s writing from inside the character, and those rules imposed from the outside? Worse than useless.
  2. Deep POV is not right for every story.

And since (2) is what I’m supposed to address in this blog post, let me get going on that.

A) Deep POV is not right for every author.

I’ve concluded that most of us have a natural POV approach, one that feels comfortable and right for us. And we can learn to write in other POVs, but when we’re writing most naturally, we’re probably going to write in our natural POV, and that’s going to sound most authentic. I’m not saying you should only write in your natural POV (my natural is single-third POV, but I’ve been writing a lot of first-person and enjoying it). But you shouldn’t feel you have to force yourself to write deep POV if every word feels wrong.

Why might it feel wrong? Well, if you’ve spent a lot of time working on your own voice, making it beautiful and evocative, you might not want to cede control of your prose style to a character. I’m an English teacher, and I spend way too much time every semester helping students distinguish sentences from fragments and comma splices. Every time I write in deep POV, I find myself echoing the character (as I should in deep POV), who is invariably uncaring of grammar, not to mention easily distracted. So half his sentences are actually fragments, and half of hers are run-ons. That might be quite effective. But what if one of my students would brandish a highlighted page of Tony’s POV and yell, “Fragments all over the place!” (Well, actually, if one of my students could so effectively identify fragments, I’d give him an A right away. :) )

Many writers are proud of their voice, and rightly so. You can be poetic and evocative in deep POV—even an illiterate character can think in lovely if broken prose—but it’s not, at base, YOUR voice (if it is your voice, you’re not really doing deep POV). It’s not supposed to be. And if you want to write in your own voice, if you think the reader will get more from “hearing” you, well, why not? The whole point of writing is to create an experience for the reader, and creating an interesting or lovely experience is a valid aim.

POV approach also connects to your worldview. Now no one else agrees with me on this, so take it with a grain of salt. But I think your natural POV might reflect your understanding of reality. Hey, give me a chance! Let’s say that you think that there is an absolute reality, but it’s not necessarily knowable by most of us. That worldview is the one expressed by omniscient POV—the “godlike narrator” knows everything, within and without the characters, and knows more than all the characters together.

But maybe you think there’s no absolute reality, and that the only way to get close to knowing reality is to juxtapose the accounts of several people, a collage-like effect that is very similar to multiple POV. Now we single-POV types, we don’t know if there’s an absolute reality, and in fact, we don’t much care. We’re mostly concerned with the inner reality of characters, what they think and notice and value.

Well, you know, if you have one of those worldviews, your story choice and your POV choice will probably reflect that. And that’s good. It takes all kinds. That’s why we have several POV approaches, several genres, and many writers. There isn’t just one worldview out there, so there shouldn’t be only one POV approach. And you should at least start with the one that lets you express your worldview and voice, and—you didn’t really think I was going to say, “Anything goes,” did you?—refine it and reinvent it and revise it so that your writing is the best possible proof that your POV approach is right.

No, you won’t get it right the first time. Yes, you still must revise to make sure that your reader will experience what you want her to experience. But making your story and voice work well is plenty hard enough without adding in the pain of trying to write in a way that doesn’t feel right to you.

B) Deep POV is not right for every genre.

Most genres and sub-genres have their own preferred POV approach. Private-eye stories are usually in first-person. Mysteries are usually in some form of omniscient. Romances are usually in single-third POV. General (mainstream) fiction is often in either multiple or first person. The preferred POV reflects something about how the genre works—the mystery is about the mystery, not particularly about the character of the sleuth, so omniscient works well (as it does in many plot-driven stories).

Private-eye novels, on the other hand, are indeed about the character of the detective (and the detective’s voice), so that snarky first-person narration allows that. The genres evolved a preferred POV approach because that approach usually (never say always :) ) allows writers to create the experience for the reader which is desired in that genre (chills and fear in the thriller, thoughtfulness in the mystery, etc.).

You are likely to be drawn to the POV approach and/or the genre which feel right to you, which explore the themes and issues that are most important to you. So trust tradition. You can innovate if you understand WHY the horror novel is usually in single POV or sf/f is often in omniscient. The preferred POV approach usually helps create the desired experiences of that genre. So that’s a good place to start. And for most genres, deep POV is not the default (third person, at least—first-person can be pretty deep too).

C) Deep POV is not right for many stories.

Many stories would be pretty much unwriteable in deep POV. Plot-driven books, where information must be conveyed which the main character doesn’t have and action must be shown that the main character doesn’t witness, are usually told in a form of omniscient POV. Sweeping epics where worldbuilding or setting description are essential are better from omniscient too. Books where you are using an unreliable narrator are better from first-person.

Even tightly-focused character books can often be better-handled in a single-third person where your voice dominates. Dialogue-heavy books often benefit from the contrast of the conversational quality of the dialogue and the more formal quality of an omniscient or third-person narration. Stories with several major characters and a fast pace will often sound more coherent with multiple point of view. Comedy, which relies so much on the author voice, is usually in an omniscient ironic viewpoint.

That is, never feel pressured to write deep POV. It is not the only or best viewpoint approach. It’s only best if it’s right for you, the genre, and the story. Otherwise, try out the more traditional approaches and find the one that fits best.

Guest Post: "The Wise of Being Funny"

The Wise Of Being Funny

Let’s get the expected brilliance out of the way first, shall we? Essentially, humor is an unlikely pairing of contrasts that reverses the reader's anticipated expectations. It requires a certain structure and pace, and these things are dependent on one another. Structure is the building humor resides in, and pace is the speed at which you walk through that building. Done right, the savvy writer can seamlessly put a clever twist on a commonly held notion. That’s all there is to being funny. The engaged reader is surprised in the end. It’s that simple. Huh? What?

I told you it was brilliant. :) But is this helpful to you? No. We all know this stuff, right? But can we apply it? I’m talking to the writers out there that don’t traditionally write ‘funny’ and have a hard time incorporating humor into their stories. Why can’t they make that universal concept -- contrasts vs. expectations -- work for them? It’s simple enough, so it should be easy. Well, it’s not. There, aren’t you glad I said that?

I’m also going to say that even if a writer isn't funny in person, she can write comedy with the proper tools and the desire to do so. Maybe she won't be able to do it as easily or frequently as someone who has the knack for it, but regardless, she still has an advantage. She has time on her side to convince the reader that her character or situation is funny. Unlike the stand-up comic or witty individual in a bar, a writer has the opportunity to edit/cut/paste and be critiqued before introducing her version of funny to the world. Stop and think about that -- it’s pretty powerful. You have the time to make it work, so let’s concentrate on that and have some fun. Brilliant is not, cough, my style -- an easy to understand example is. :D

First things first, you need to decide what you want the funny to be. Let's touch on two very different types of comedy: outrageous situations and physical comedy. For an example of an outrageous situation, let's say: Your hero has sworn off women, having been dumped by the love of his life just weeks before, so he decides to join the United World Order Of Inter-Galactic Space People Organization to sulk in solitary space for a good long while. During his first mission out, he crashes his depressed ass on Amazonia, a planet populated by beautiful warrior women. What will he do? Hmm...I know I feel sorry for him because like every self-respecting male out there, he’s going to stick to his original plan and not screw any of the legions of women wanting a piece of him, right? ;) Well, my version wouldn't be a mantasy, so he would stick to his plan. Talk about outrageous! Really, what could be funnier than a guy pining for the witch he left behind, while the angels before him want to set him up in a castle and give him an unlimited beer supply, a tap into the universe's biggest broadcasting station (so he can watch every sport known to man and alien alike all day and night), daily foot massages, and permission to scratch himself whenever and wherever the mood strikes. All he has to do in return is agree to impregnate their queen who is a genetic mutation of Heidi Klum and Pamela Anderson (the cartoon version of this story would hire Jessica Rabbit for the part). Gee, just imagine the potential for additional humor as the Amazonian women keep upping the temptations.

Now, look at what I did there.

1. I introduced the subject: our recently dumped hero.

2. I set up the situation by giving him a common problem the reader can relate to: being dumped. I mean, if I said the hero was depressed because someone else beat him to the discovery of a new species of fly, it wouldn't work. I doubt many readers would know how important that discovery is to the world, so the level of our hero’s depression over being beaten to the find of the century couldn’t be measured. We need a common bond to connect with -- hence the dumping. Most of us, unfortunately, can relate that situation. :)
I also gave him an unreasonable, and yet plausible, goal: swearing off women. I backed up his reactionary emotional state by having him make a drastic decision, joining the Inter-Galactic Space People Organization. Again, we can understand this, can’t we? When we’ve been hurt, it’s human nature to make changes to prevent it from happening again. And when we’ve been rejected, the last place we want to find ourselves on a daily basis is facing the person who dumped us (so a space mission right about now sounds good). In this situation, it's normal to get an ‘Oh yeah, I’ll show you’ attitude. So here he is, piloting his first flying saucer mission, ready to prove to the love he aches for (but will never admit that he does) that he can do just fine without her. But then the unthinkable happens. He crashes in Amazonia, where thousands of beautiful women -- scantily clad, of course -- desire him.

3. Here comes the irony: He’s sworn off women, remember? Now, if he had made that decision arbitrarily, this could still be funny on some level. But what makes our scenario even funnier is that he’s pining for his one true love, so it doesn’t matter how many beautiful women want him -- not one of them is the one he wants. That's funny.

Just like when you tell a joke, this example used layers to make the situation funny. You need to introduce a universal connection right away, something the listener can comprehend quickly (in my example, it’s the hero getting dumped), or else the explanation for the joke is too long and your audience loses interest. Yet also notice that, while outrageous, we can still relate to the situation because it’s all based on truths. We all get dumped and we all feel bad, and yes, some of us have been known to make drastic changes in our lives when this happens. If we're honest, we all secretly dream of making the person who rejected us regret their decision by doing great without them. And for a certain amount of time, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise and no matter how upset we are with the dumper, we still secretly want them -- that’s human nature. Now, give all those truths a twist, such as presenting the common gripes by women about stereotypical males and you have your humor.

Many writers' attempts to inject humor into their work fall flat because they've forgotten the most basic principle of comedy: Good humor is based on human frailties. The weaknesses we all share give us the best material. The closer we stick to the truth, the funnier things become, because subconsciously, it gives us the opportunity to laugh at ourselves. A writer must seek out the truth to create her humor, or else her prose could come off as mocking, embarrassing, or ridiculing her characters, or god forbid, the reader.

These risks bring me to the concept of written physical comedy (slapstick). A number of self-professed 'un'-funny writers tend to explore this method when they want to bring humor into their stories. Why? We've all seen the bloopers where people fall, so having a character slip in puddle and ruin her dress would seem like a logical scene to attempt. After all, we've laughed at this (I know I’m guilty). But why is it funny? It’s visually appealing. Makes sense. Visually? Hmm. This is trickier than you think and it requires even more layering to be effective. In this instance, the more details the better.

Example: Jonathon rushed to her side while she sat in the puddle. When he took in her miserable state, he wanted to smile. Then when she looked up at him with a scowl, he was tempted to laugh. (This is cute, but underdeveloped.)

How about:

She sat elegantly in the mud puddle, almost as if she waited for a servant to hand her a bath towel. Jonathon shook his head over that, but maintained a casual air as he arrived at her side. He kept his smile in check until she looked up at him. A large blob of wet earth stuck on the side of her head, just over her left ear, slowly slid downward, leaving a grubby smear across her face. Brown speckles dotted her cheeks and her eyelashes spiked together in soggy points from their recent drenching. But it wasn’t until her brows lifted in a belligerent ‘what?', which caused the clump at her temple to splat onto her shoulder, that he stepped back, out of spatter range, and chuckled.

What’s the difference here? Um, besides my overuse of adjectives. ;D It’s finding the absurd. It wasn’t just a puddle she sat in, it was a mud puddle that she elegantly sat in. Your props as a writer for nailing physical comedy are words -- choose them wisely. Look at the words in the second example: blob instead of pile, grubby instead of dirty. Actually, smear is funny to me for some reason too -- it reminds me of a bagel and lox. And the phrase: a belligerent ‘what?’ That has a look to itself, doesn’t it? To me, writing slapstick means drawing more on the senses and introducing rich details. The humor of slapstick is seeing the action, and if you don’t use the best words to describe the action, it will fall flat when you attempt to convey it to the reader.

Okay, words of wisdom to impart...

No matter what type of humor you attempt, use metaphors, similes, action verbs, and colorful adjectives (<-my favorite!), and take the time to think up new ways to say old things. Or use running jokes, or plan something funny for the duration of a story. For instance, I have a heroine who messes up her metaphors, and the hero is a real stickler for all things proper, so he continuously gets exasperated and corrects her. The funny part comes in because she doesn’t give a crap, and it isn’t until the end of the book when her good friend, after witnessing them go through a typical exchange on the subject, says: “What’s up with that? You doing that just to piss him off?” The heroine doesn’t miss a beat. She says, “Yeah. Are you ready to go to the mall?” That’s it. It’s funny because the reader gets the inside joke. It isn’t explained or excused -- it just is. If I had her qualify the 'yes' with an added 'because', it would lose its shine. The reader, if I’ve done my job right, should understand my heroine enough to know that this is her personality. In fact, this behavior should seem so much like a part of her character, the reader is surprised they didn’t see it coming... :D

And now you know the 'wise' and the 'whys' of being funny. Don't you love surprises?


Editor's Note: Thank you, Murphy, for answering the call when we asked for someone to blog about humor writing. Everyone, Murphy picked today for her post to go live because she says today is the one-year anniversary of the date she found this blog. So let's all celebrate with her in the comments, shall we? Or commiserate. As you choose. :) Theresa

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fun things

I was reading Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich, and I realized that one reason she's so popular with her readers is that she knows what's fun and spins it out to an enjoyable length. She doesn't just allude to it-- she exploits it.

She has a recurrent "stoner" character who is kind of fun himself, and so when the protagonist hires him to do security on the boyfriend's house, she doesn't expect much real security. She just really wants to keep him occupied so that he doesn't get into trouble. But he takes this security job seriously, which is funny in itself (camo uniforms, etc). And he invents a special cannon to protect the house, a potato gun. PVC pipes that shoot potatoes.

Okay, so that's fun, this stoner and his young sidekick inventing this gun. But Evanovich doesn't stop there. She spins it out-- the protagonist comes home to be almost bombarded with vegetables. And the vegetables are funny too-- not just potatoes. They also hurl a cantalope (she goes for the funny names). And there are little dropped-in lines, like the stoner shooting a "twice-baked".

There's a full scene built around this. BUT that's not all. In the end of the book, when the protagonist is under siege by the bad guys, the stoner arrives like the cavalry and shoots potatoes at them and wins and is interviewed by the local media.

Two thoughts here--

1) Figure out what will be fun for the reader and go with it-- really play it out, exploit it. If you go too far, you can always cut it back later. But have fun with the fun.

2) The climax should be unique to your story. How your protagonist conquers the bad guy or accomplishes the goal should bring in elements you've set up in your story. In this book, Stephanie has been kind of a house mother, gathering these little orphans (the stoner, the boy whose mother was kidnapped, the homeless stalker) around her and feeding and housing them. So her reward for this is that they are there to help her in the climax. What has your story set up for in the end? What is the unique way your protagonist can use what he/she has learned or gained during all that rising conflict? What allies has he gathered? What skills has she acquired? IN THE STORY... use what he/she has gained in the story, not just what he/she came into the story already having.

Oh, another--
3) The climax should echo the type and tone of the book. That is, a comedy should have a comic climax (like the potato gun rescue). A romance should have a climax that has a romantic element (like one of the couple rescuing the other, or their new trust letting them overcome some obstacle). Don't settle just for a generic thrilling climax-- bring in the extra element that is unique to this book.

So let's talk about what is "fun" in stories. It's easy to see in a comedy, but what's fun in other types of books? Look at your own story, and tell us what type it is, and what you think the reader will find to be a lot of fun and you should expand?

Like the book I was talking about in the last post, with the hero who sings her swoony songs. Well, at least I and Murph think that's fun. So I might have him sing a song later too. I have no idea how to pull that into the plot, but what the heck. Also it's a big pain that most songs from the 20th and 21st Century can't be quoted (copyright). Fortunately he's Irish, so I can use Irish folk songs, but not the Pogues, alas. I mean, "Love You to the End" would SO fit their romance.

But anyway, I suspect the "fun" part for the readers might be his songs. As long as I don't have to write them myself, I think I can spin that out. Not sure how his singing can help save the day in the climax. Hmm. Maybe the villain is going to be on American Idol.