Thursday, June 30, 2011

Theresa is gone, so we can mourn without any "told you so".

Oxford drops the Oxford comma. (But I don't. Never. You'll have to yank it from my cold dead fingers!)

Alicia, me, myself, and I

Forever Comma!

Resistance to Change

I'm not spending much time with the RWA crowd, but I have been in the RWA hotel long enough for a few laps around the bar and a bit of a mingle. If there's one thing on everyone's mind right now, it's self-publishing. Pro or con, everyone is thinking about how the rise of direct publishing is going to impact the industry over the long term.

I don't have any answers -- nobody does, really, though we all have ideas and hunches -- but it does seem clear that self-publishing is not an easy fix for most people. In conversation after conversation, people seem unwilling to discuss whether poor sales in either traditional or direct publishing might not have anything to do with the distribution method. It might be all about the book.

A good story, well told, will find its readership. That isn't a magical process. It's not the field of dreams. There is still a need to promote and make readers aware of the story's existence. But good stories tend to grow legs, as they say, and take on a sales life of their own.

I've heard several tales of self-published authors who saw their works rejected by all the romance publishers but refused to change the stories. They scorned traditional houses for wanting them to make revisions, and they tend to talk a lot about how much they embrace changes in the marketplace even as they resist changes to their manuscripts. They self-published but saw poor sales and weak reviews, and that's when they saw any sales or reviews at all. From what I hear, there's a tendency to blame this on promotion efforts rather than on the book itself.

Embrace the changes in distribution if it will help you meet your personal goals. But don't forget that other changes can also help you. Listen to the opinions of educated readers. If an editor or agent tells you that an aspect of your story doesn't work, embrace this help, too. Because maybe it's the industry that needs to change. But maybe, just maybe, it's your book.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A New Resource

Those of you who know Amy Atwell know what a smart, savvy woman she is. Last night I hung out in the bar at the RWA conference hotel, and I ran into Amy and learned she has a new project in a start-up phase that will benefit authors across genres. This is pretty cool. Thought I should pass it along.

The basic idea is that Author EMS will collect information about book review sites, social media sites, and so on, all in one central location, with clear instructions on what to do as an author to best use these tools. There will be tips on time management, contract management, PR for authors -- basically, anything related to the business side of the business.

This will be a site to watch. Amy shared her plans with me, and I was so impressed that I immediately asked for a stack of cards to pass out to people. Keep an eye on it as she gets it up and running, and check her daily tips section in the meantime.


Monday, June 27, 2011

A Question to Ponder

I'm in New York for the IASPR conference and a few meetings and play dates. (IASPR = International Association for the Study of Popular Romance = the romance scholars group = super cool and super smart people.) At our dinner tonight, when one of the scholars learned how long I'd been involved in the publishing side of things, she asked if I'd noticed any changes in manuscript quality over the course of those years.

Interesting question. I had to think about it before I could answer in a way that made sense, because the truth is, manuscripts have changed dramatically since my early years, but not in the way she meant. The changes have to do with things like narrative immediacy, manipulation of point of view, the cross-pollinization of the genres, and so on. But she was specifically asking about writing quality -- grammar, mechanics, coherence, and that sort of thing.

There are changes I've noticed in those areas. Silly things. When people argue grammar, for example, they might know the rule but not the reason behind it. They might not know that there are competing grammar philosophies that yield competing and differing grammar rules. But manuscripts still tend to be pretty consistent -- that is, if an author adheres to one particular grammar philosophy, the manuscript will reflect that fairly consistently. An author who applies more formal academic grammar, they'll apply it to punctuation and sentence structure alike. An author who was taught generative grammar will use less formal rules, fewer commas, simpler sentences, and that sort of thing. That hasn't changed over the past mumble-mumble years.

Beginner manuscripts look much the same now as they did before, with most of the same errors. Formless scenes. Underdeveloped conflicts. Murky characterizations. Logic errors. We've all seen these kinds of things -- characters who are described as 35 but behave like 15-year-olds, characters who die in one chapter and reappear without explanation several chapters later, characters who go places for no reason and learn nothing new while there, preachy passages, episodic plots, and so on.

But this leads me to another question. There are more writing resources available now, and they're cheaper and easier to access than they were before the internet. And yet manuscripts are much the same as always. How can this be? Do people ignore all the great resources, or do they just not know how to apply them? What do you think?


Friday, June 24, 2011

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Structure of Game of Thrones Season One

Spoiler Alert! Don't read this post unless you've seen as much of Game of Thrones season 1 as you intend to.

Last weekend I had some hours to fill, so I watched most of Game of Thrones season 1, and I rounded out the season over the next few days. I think sometimes when we view an entire complex series in a compressed time, we absorb it differently than if we had watched it week by week over the course of a series. So I'm not sure if my response to the series was due to this compressed viewing, or maybe it's been influenced by never having read the books.

I think that in structural terms, episode 9 ended season 1 and episode 10 launched season 2. But given that I have no idea what to expect from season 2 -- never read the books, remember -- this interpretation might be idiosyncratic. But let me explain my thinking, and if you see it differently, please speak up in the comments.

When we analyze large-scale structure, we look at the main plot question raised in the beginning of the story and answered at the end. The nature of these questions can vary depending on the story archetype. With an adventure story, we leave in the beginning and return at the end. In a quest story, the grail is identified in the beginning and claimed in the end. In a fairy tale, the beginning is about the interdiction and the end is about the triumph over the interdiction. In a relationship story, the relationship is broken in the beginning and whole in the end. In a murder mystery, we start with a corpse and end with an arrest. And so on. The beginning and end points of the stories are structurally linked when we analyze the large elements. The beginning point defines the conflict and premise, too, and the end point resolves the conflict or answers the question raised by the premise. These two points, start and end, are connected.

So, in episode one of season one, the main plot is established, along with a couple of subplots.

Main plot - King Robert asks his buddy Ned to be the hand of the king. Ned doesn't want to do it. His wife doesn't want him to do it. But he can't say no to the king. This is the first conflict, and it drives most of the rest of the story. What happens at Robert's castle, with his family and lords, political squabbles, the effect on Ned's family -- this is the framework for the season. We can define this plot line as one lord's rise to power at the behest of his king. It begins with the hand (Ned's rise to power) and ends with a head (his politically motivated murder following the king's death).

A Subplot - The deposed dragon king is in exile and wants his throne back. He needs an army and allies. These needs set this subplot in motion, but the plot arc depends upon his sister's marriage to a horse lord. She is actually the main character in this subplot, though she's not a protagonist in the classic "active" sense. In any case, we can say that her subplot begins with her betrothal. We can define this subplot line as a marriage plot. It begins with her betrothal and ends with her husband's death.

B Subplot - Bad shit is happening on the other side of a giant wall. This subplot opens the entire season: first episode, first scene, a guy sees some dead people and concludes they were killed by supernatural forces from beyond the wall. He carries his tale back to Ned and is beheaded for his pains, but Ned's bastard son Snow decides to join the watch at the wall. This is a form of transformation plot, akin to a bildungsroman except that rather than forming an adult understanding of emotion, Snow forms an adult career role. It begins with Snow watching the deserter's beheading and formulates the goal of joining the watch, and it ends when he takes his vows and is formally made a member of the watch.

Let's start with this B Subplot. Snow takes his vows in episode 7 of a 10-episode season. It's not unusual for a subplot to wrap up ahead of the main plot, even well ahead of the main plot's ending, so the timing doesn't trouble me. What I find interesting is that they revisit the central question of this subplot (Snow asking, "Should I join the watch?") several times after the question has already been answered. Snow wavers more after taking his vows than before them. At first I wasn't sure why they kept reopening that story question, but I think (again, I have not read the books, so this is conjecture) it is meant to inflate the importance of his presence on the wall. The story, in effect, keeps asking Snow if he really, really means to answer yes to the question, "Should I join the watch?" Yes, yes, and yes again. Yes when he takes the actual vows. Yes when his father is imprisoned and murdered. Yes a third time when his brother goes to war.

And I think there's probably a good reason to inflate the power and meaning of that yes, and I think that reason will be revealed through new story questions and conflicts in upcoming seasons. I don't know what those story questions might be, but I can think of a few possibilities. Where are these zombies coming from and how can we defeat them? What's happening beyond the wall that's making all the wild people run south? However the story question is phrased, it will have something to do with the evils beyond the wall, and Snow will be a key player in that battle. I think.

But those are not season one questions, so the events at the wall in episodes 8, 9, and 10 are primarily preparing us for new story questions in new seasons. Right? Or do you read it differently?

Now, the A Subplot, the dragon lady marries the horse dude. It begins with their betrothal and ends when their marriage ends -- with his death. Except he kind of dies twice, right? He dies the first time in episode 9, and that witch slave woman uses evil magic to keep his body alive, but he's not really alive. Dragon lady even says so when she yells at the witch, right before she smothers what's left of her husband. So, do we see a parallel to Snow's subplot? In both cases, a story question is resolved more than once. He's dead in episode 9, and then he's really most sincerely dead in episode 10. Only the second death isn't about him and the marriage anymore. Now it's about a funeral pyre that wakes up some fossilized dragon eggs and makes the dragon lady a dragon lady in more than name and lineage.

But those dragon babies and the final, powerful, incredible image of them scrambling over the naked dragon lady's flesh doesn't resolve the existing season one Subplot A story question, which is about the marriage of dragon to horse. That image sets up a new one for the next season. What will the new story question be for Callesie (or whatever her name is)? Um. Maybe, what's she going to do with those dragons, launch an invasion?

And the main plot, as we've already said, starts with a hand and ends with a head. Ned Stark is beheaded in episode 9 -- and was I the only one shocked by that? That inbred boy king is going to catch hell for that one. And that hell-catching will be a revenge plot that drives most of the next season, I'll bet. The seeds for this were sown in episode 10 when the fiancee daughter-of-Ned nearly managed to push the boy king off a small bridge, and the warrior son-of-Ned summoned an army and was named King of the North. But that's all episode 10, right? Starting up the conflicts for season 2.

It's a neat trick, and you can be sure I'll be watching season 2 eagerly. But in terms of structural analysis, I think season 1's story line really covered 9 episodes, and that 10th episode was more or less the start of season 2.

Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Comfort before Conflict

Christopher Vogler writes about starting your story in the "ordinary world" of the protagonist, to show where he/she starts the journey.

This can be done on a"macro-level as well as the scene level, showing the "comfort" which actually sets up for the "conflict."

Example:  In Grant Sutherland's Diplomatic Immunity, the main character Sam's daughter is shown first barging into his office at the UN (she works as a guide there) so she can eat her lunch in private (and probably so she can connect with him).  She's a bright, funny, somewhat cocky 18-year-old, snarking at her old dad and making him feel both annoyed and gratified that she's deigned to share this time with him. (That's a good description of the relations of parents with their newly adult children-- annoyance and gratification.)  While there's some tension in her sudden appearance (Sam is trying to investigate a murder, and he doesn't want her to know), their relationship is shown as comfortable, loving, and pretty easy. There! We can feel nice and safe, right?

But the point of providing the comfort is to set up the conflict. And this comfortable scene does. There's the tension of the moment (Sam trying to keep the murder from her), and also lingering past tension, right there in the middle of the tension. He focuses on her "lunch," a carton of yogurt, and can't help but make the observation that he hopes she's eating more than that. That lets the author slip in the information that Rachel (after her mother's death) became anorexic and almost died of starvation, and that though she thinks of herself as fully recovered, he never has gotten over his fear that she won't eat enough.  So in establishing the comfort, the happy healthy daughter who barges into Dad's office to have lunch, he's also indicating the fragility of that comfort. It's built on a foundation of tension.

And the reference to her past trauma sets up for the next scene featuring Rachel. She is arrested for the murder and confined in a small basement room, and that's where Sam finds her. She's unconscious or asleep, and he's filled with terror. It's not so much fear of her being framed for this murder-- he's pretty sure he can make that go away-- but the memory of her near-death from anorexia, and the anxiety that this terrible experience will plunge her back into that.

We would not be able to experience vicariously his terror, I think, if we hadn't had that "other extreme" of comfort first.

Can you suggest ways of making the reversal more effective? Like putting a trauma after a scene that affirms the alternative? That is, let's say the reversal is that the protagonist learns that his beloved mentor has been lying to him. Would that be more or less effective right after a scene of him with the mentor, with much trust and admiration?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

POV guiding

I'm grading lit exams, and came across this part of a selection from Middlemarch. Caveats: Eliot was writing in the 19th Century, where deep POV was done in first person, and third person POV was usually used for omniscience (or "omnivorous," as one writer called it :)

"No, Rosy," said Lydgate, decisively. "It is too late to do that. The inventory will be begun to-morrow. Remember it is a mere security: it will make no difference: it is a temporary affair. I insist upon it that your father shall not know, unless I choose to tell him," added Lydgate, with a more peremptory emphasis.

This certainly was unkind, but Rosamond had thrown him back on evil expectation as to what she would do in the way of quiet steady disobedience. The unkindness seemed unpardonable to her: she was not given to weeping and disliked it, but now her chin and lips began to tremble and the tears welled up. Perhaps it was not possible for Lydgate, under the double stress of outward material difficulty and of his own proud resistance to humiliating consequences, to imagine fully what this sudden trial was to a young creature who had known nothing but indulgence, and whose dreams had all been of new indulgence, more exactly to her taste. But he did wish to spare her as much as he could, and her tears cut him to the heart. He could not speak again immediately; but Rosamond did not go on sobbing: she tried to conquer her agitation and wiped away her tears, continuing to look before her at the mantel-piece.

Now my question is (and it makes a lot of difference, to judge by the essays I got about this)-- that second paragraph: Whose POV?  This is the 19th century, and omniscient and first-person were sort of the only options, and this isn't first. (This is a much more fun novel than I remember from college, btw.) So it's probably omniscient, dipping into each of the spouses' minds as needed.

Well, this is the 21st century, and POV tends to be more tight.  (I still like omniscient. But I write deep in one character's POV.)  So look at those two highlighted sentences.  They're the problematic ones, so aware they seem to be in the characters, but not solely in either. My students, trained in 21st century reading patterns, tried to ascribe the POV to one or the other, and I thought that whether they thought Rosamond was a princess-bitch or Lydgate was a smarmy scoundrel kind of depended on which they thought was in POV.

Anyway, how would you rewrite that if you wanted:
1. Omniscient
2. Hers
3. His

That is, if you were modernizing this paragraph to make it in one POV, how would you change the wording to reflect that? Anyone want to try?


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Interpreting E B

Question: How do you interpret what EB White says about "Kill your darlings"-- both what he directly meant and what it means to you, if different?


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Another Setting Example

Here's another setting example. We don't have any genre information, but to me, it reads YA or maybe even MG (though the sentences aren't structured like MG), so we will work on the assumption that this is a young character in a book aimed at young readers.

Thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap. Lucas’s footsteps pounded a staccato rhythm along the trail: you’re late, you’re late. “I’m going as fast as I can,” he muttered, but he pushed his legs faster, hurdling fallen branches and zigzagging through close-packed trees. When the scrub cedar opened up to overgrown pasture, he twisted around and whistled. After much rustling of underbrush and one loud crash, a black head popped out from under a low branch.

The boy whistled again. “Come on, River. Let’s go!”

Ears perked and tongue lolling, the dog hesitated just a moment before launching himself into the field. Lucas turned and broke into an all-out sprint. River loped beside him for a few strides, weaving through thatches of Johnson grass beaten nearly flat by late-season storms and winter cold, then shifted into a gallop and disappeared into thicker weeds.

This is a really strong example of a using motion and setting together to create dynamic text. Remember the recipe for good prose scenes?
1 - Character(s),
2 - in meaningful motion
3 - against a background.

Here the background is conveyed through specific details. Fallen branches, close-packed trees, scrub cedar, overgrown pasture, and more besides, all laid out in neat sequence as the character moves through this environment.

Notice how some of those setting details are presented as obstacles. This is what really stood out for me in this setting example. It's not just that Lucas is running and these things are part of the scenery. It's that Lucas is running and these things are complicating the run. A real sense of tension fills these lines because we know Lucas has a goal, and we see him confronting these small obstacles, one after another, in the quest to reach that goal.

We lose some of that sense of setting obstacles in the final paragraph. Compare the way the setting details are presented in that paragraph to the first paragraph, and you'll see what I mean. The grass is beaten flat, and there's no sense that it's making it any harder to run through it. Maybe it is, but if it is, we don't see it.

That doesn't mean the second paragraph's setting details are presented in an erroneous way. In fact, they're competently written, just with a different focus. The details are clear and vivid and specific to this environment. We can easily see the boy and his dog running in this world. The action continues even as the world around them is described. That's all good.

That said, I'm not wild about this sentence structure:

River loped beside him for a few strides, weaving through thatches of Johnson grass beaten nearly flat by late-season storms and winter cold, then shifted into a gallop and disappeared into thicker weeds.

There's a lot happening in this sentence. Again, it's technically competent, but the present participial phrase interrupts the compound verb in a way that feels off to me. I would edit this by breaking it up into shorter pieces and maybe rearranging some of the bits. Maybe like so:

For a few strides River loped beside him through thatches of Johnson grass beaten nearly flat by late-season storms and winter cold. Then the dog shifted into a gallop and disappeared into thicker weeds.

Still not perfect, but it does take care of that intervening present participial phrase, which is the piece that looked off to me. I moved "for a few strides" to the front of the sentence because I wanted the movement details at the front of the sentence and the thatches of grass details at the end. Now the concept of Johnson grass still separates the loping from the galloping, but the interruption is conceptual rather than structural, which is what I think the author intended.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Scenes are about change

Here is a line from near the beginning and another from near the end of a scene (this is from Middlemarch, btw):

Beginning: Rosamond colored deeply. "Have you not asked papa for money?" she said, as soon as she could speak.
 Ending: "Are we to go without spoons and forks then?" said Rosamond, whose very lips seemed to get thinner with the thinness of her utterance. She was determined to make no further resistance or suggestions.

What's changed? Scenes are about change, about what effect the events and choices have on the characters.  The change event here is that Lydgate (the husband) has confessed to Rosamond that they are in financial difficulties (because of his professional choices and her extravagance) and must cut back, even to the point of returning the silverware they had recently bought (hence her comment about spoons and forks). 

But the effect of this revelation is complex. Rosamond makes what she thinks of as helpful suggestions (ask Papa for help, negotiate with the creditors, move to cheaper area), and Lydgate kindly deflects each one, until she finally gives up and decides just to be stony-silent with him. She realizes that he doesn't respect her, and even thinks that if she'd known this before, she wouldn't have married him. So she starts out feeling all wifely and loving, and ends up cold and alienated.

So notice how the simple physical description shows the change. It doesn't show it directly, but notice what changes. Early in the scene, she "colored deeply"-- that is, she blushes. That is a "young" physical manifestation, and it emphasizes her as almost childlike (which is how he is going to treat her).

Then, in the end of the scene, her lips "thin". That's an "old" physical manifestation, and shows how, as a result of the events of the scene, she is no longer naive and childlike, but older, wiser, and more bitter.

That's just an example of how you can use minor physical description to set up a "before" and then show an "after" in the scene.

Can you think of other examples? What about a scene you're working with? What changes? How can you show this?

I've got a scene where two sort-of friends are alone for perhaps the first time, having dinner.  They start out as somewhat alien to each other, and end up kissing in the end.  I have the "end" physical manifestation, of course, that they kiss. Maybe to emphasize the change, I can show them physically -not- together in the beginning, like she deliberately takes a seat across from him rather than next to him, because they are, of course, not lovers yet. :)


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Another minor sentence edit

I'm writing The World's Most Boring Paper, that is, a paper formatted perfectly to fit APA guidelines. I mean, I have a Table of Contents, and then a section of the paper explaining how to format the table of contents.  No, I don't think any student is actually going to read this all the way through, but this is the sort of thing I get paid for. :)

Anyway, I wrote this sentence, and yes, it's boring, but that's not why I'm copying it here.  It's a good example of a "misplaced modifier."  See if you can tell what I mean.
Don't forget documentation of the works cited on the final page.

The modifier is that prepositional phrase in bold above. Positioned there at the end, it sounds like documentation is only required for those works cited on the last page (that is, not all the way through the paper).

Easy fix, once I sensed there was something wrong. And you know, when you make a minor mistake like that, there's always some very earnest student who actually did read the whole paper and meticulously followed directions and documented only the works cited on the final page.

So here's the easy fix, and you figured that out too, I bet. (The hard part is sensing instinctively that something is wrong.)
Don't forget documentation on the final page of the works cited.

So what's on the final page? Documentation!

You'd be surprised, I hope, that there are actually writers (and we've come across them) who are so defensive they argue they MEANT it that way and won't change the misplaced modifier.  (These are the writers editors refuse to work with again.)

Don't be one of those.

And don't all clamor for a glimpse of this fascinating essay. :)


Question from the Comments

In the comments, Coleen asks,

I often catch myself writing sentences like:

"It was five o'clock on Sunday afternoon."

Any suggestions on how to re-word this?

Coleen, the best fix for this kind of sentence requires us to use sentence combining techniques. This means we look at the sentences next to flat sentences like this, and we try to combine them in a more interesting way. (Yes, scholars, that's a gross simplification of sentence combining methods.  But that's basically what it's all about.)

So let's imagine the next sentence was a simple sentence with little extra dressing.

It was five o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. The beach was crowded with tourists.

We can turn that first sentence into a pair of leading prepositional phrases for the next sentence, like so:

At five o'clock on Sunday afternoon, the beach was crowded with tourists.

That's easy enough, but it gets trickier if the second sentence isn't so simple.

It was five o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. The beach was crowded with tourists, and not an empty seat could be found at any of the sidewalk cafes.

In that case, you might want to split the second compound sentence to keep it from becoming overly long. The ideas in the compounds can be split with little impact on meaning. Like so:

At five o'clock on Sunday afternoon, the beach was crowded with tourists. Not an empty seat could be found at any of the sidewalk cafes.
This method works best when the two ideas can be split without damaging the relationship between them. That's not always possible.

It was five o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. The beach was crowded with tourists, but all the locals were home enjoying a traditional family dinner.

In that case, the pairing of the two groups, tourists and locals, is done to create contrast and sentence-level tension. Splitting them apart would diminish that tension. In this case, we might opt for the longer combined sentence:

At five o'clock on Sunday afternoon, the beach was crowded with tourists, but all the locals were home enjoying a traditional family dinner.
This example works, but it won't always. Just be extra mindful of potential clarity issues when you build a long sentence. The more phrases and clauses in a sentence, the higher the likelihood for reader confusion. That doesn't mean all long sentences are confusing. It just means we have to be extra careful with them.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Computer analysis of fiction

I'm wondering if maybe this kind of misses the point of reading fiction.

Simple Edit

Sometimes we come across a sentence structured like this:

There/It (subject)
was/were (verb)
someone/something (direct object)
who/which/that (relative pronoun)
did something (relative pronoun clause)

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

It was a face that only a mother could love.

This creates a slight wordiness and relegates the impact ideas to a dependent structural position in the sentence. Fix it by killing the flat subject/verb, cutting the relative pronoun, and rearranging the remaining words into a simple sentence.

An old woman lived in a shoe.

Only a mother could love that face.

You see how that works? It's not all-purpose, but it will yield a stronger sentence in the majority of cases.


Thursday, June 9, 2011


Check out this article, The 10 Most Powerful Women Authors, from Forbes. Notice which authors have sales data and which do not. The next time someone tries to tell me that lit authors and genre authors are held to the same standards, I'm going to smack 'em on the nose with a rolled-up copy of this article.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ending Unplanned

Today I'm visiting Ending Unplanned to talk about editing concerns for authors who wish to self-publish. Stop by and keep me company!


Openings that annoy

I started reading a book the other day, and it started something like this (I don't have the actual wording because I've already returned it to the library, hence this post):

"My turn!" he shouted.
"No! My turn!" his sister shouted back.
"It's Sarah's turn," Mommy said. Sure, she sided with Sarah. What else was new. She always sided with her wonderful little pet Sarah.

Jonah stomped away from the merry-go-round. It was a stupid one anyway. It wasn't as good as the one in the theme park. Just a dumb little indoors merry-go-round in the middle of a mall. He looked back over his shoulder and saw Sarah bouncing up and down on a stupid little gray horse, and Mommy next to her, looking nervous.  She was probably wondering where Jonah went. She didn't really care. She just didn't want anyone to think that she didn't care. Sarah was her big favorite.

Etc. This was the opening of a detective novel, to judge by the cover (Another in the Detective Name Name series!). I like detective series novels, and am always looking for new ones. But  I read the first page of this and stopped.  What was wrong with the opening (in my opinion-- obviously the writer and editor liked it)?

1. I presume the son is a minor character in the story. (It's about a murder she's investigating for her job.)  Minor characters can be used effectively for opening scene POV characters, but... but there has to be a good reason {(like the hotel doorman who finds the body slumped on the luggage cart) to put the reader first into the mind and heart of someone who won't be important to the plot.

2. I confess. I probably would have read more if the minor POV character wasn't a whiny kid. I'm not saying it wasn't an authentic rendering of a whiny kid, but, uh, I've had my fill of those.  A child's whine is, by design, unpleasant.  In real life, I could have stopped the whine with punishment (or a candy bar), but with a book, the only way to stop it is to close the book.

3. There wasn't the slightest indication in the opening what the plot was going to be, what the mystery was going to be, how these people even related.  I presumed that "Mommy" was the detective to come, but maybe she was the victim. (Turns out, I guess, she's neither.) Even something hinting like "Mommy didn't want anyone to know that the big police detective didn't care about her own son," could have helped.

4. I imagine the writer wanted to "establish the characters" here, but I doubt the two kids are important characters, and all we see of Mommy is her being a fairly ineffectual but primarily uninteresting mother. I mean, really, been there done that, had my own whiny kid moments at the mall and also didn't handle them in an interesting fashion.

5. Child POV is always problematic for adult books.  For one thing, contrast the "child POV" of an adult novel with the child POV of a children's novel.  I would submit that generally the "adult novel child" sounds childish, and the "child novel child" sounds like an actual human being who happens to be quite young. I'm not saying that adult writers can't write child POV. I'm saying that creating a character is still the first (and most important) step in writing from that character's POV.  Actual children have interesting perspectives, and the really good adult writers of children respect that.  Humans first.

6. Oh, well. I was so turned off by the opening, I didn't keep reading. When I think back to why I put the book down, the main reason was that I didn't have any sense that this writer could write well.  Part of that was the choice of POV character-- but plenty of writers could have written that little boy plausibly and entertainingly. This writer very likely can write scenes with adults quite well... but I didn't hang on long enough to learn that.

I read a lot of openings, both published books and submissions and contest entries, and I often conclude that the author, for whatever reason, has fallen in love with this opening and is going to keep it no matter what. Who knows why?  I mean, opening with a whiny child... not something I'd want to do. But parents tend to think their own kids are really cute, even when they're being whiny, and so they might think replicating some whiny incident will be funny or fun.  Heck, you know, I still quote some "cute things" my kids said as little ones, and they're graduating college this year.  But just because I think this is cute doesn't mean it's the right place to begin this book.

Sometimes we're being self-indulgent, but we're the worst people to judge that, I guess.  How do you know if this is a great opening, or you're just doing the equivalent of the whiny kid argument and turning off readers?

Think about books you've put down after a few pages.  What made you decide so quickly you didn't want to read on?


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Laughter, The Best Therapy

Thanks to everyone who played along with our "respond to the nasty rejection" game. I think my friend enjoyed it, and I know I sure did. For the record, she did not respond to the nasty rejection because she knows better and, really, why bother? But here were the comments that brightened her day the most.

So, the winner of "Most Direct and Effective Comeback" goes to Ian, for the elegant (*cough*) and simple response:

Dear Editor,

Suck the shit out of my hole.


The Author

The winner of "Best Nasty Comeback Disguised as Sweet Solicitude" goes to Wen for:

Dear Editor,
I am so sorry to hear of your recent bout of brain-rash. I know this is annecdotal, but I have heard a good dose of e- publishing works as a cure.
I do hope your condition is neither fatal nor chronic.
All the best,
Experienced Author.
P.S. Can you recommend a healthy editor?

And the overall winner, for making us giggle every time we read it, goes to B.E. Sanderson for,

Dear Editor,

Thank you for providing me with an idea for the first person to die in my next novel.

Thanks to everyone who played our little game. I wish we could offer prizes for this one, but good karma and the satisfaction of knowing you helped a fellow author cope with a difficult moment will have to suffice.


Friday, June 3, 2011

Word by word

I'm looking for examples of how you have changed or improved a scene with just a word or two. Reinforced a theme, made a real conclusion, redirected attention, hid a clue, something.

This comes up because a critiquer had set up a theme of "lady"-- that is, that in this time and place, there were strict rules of what constituted ladylike behavior. And I was thinking that maybe this theme could be subtly reinforced just by using the word "lady" in the last paragraph, so that "A good girl would never do that" might be revised to "a lady would never do that."

Wes, I remember in our class you were changing a line like "I never thought it would be this way" to "I never thought it would end this way," expressing more finality (he's about to die).

Any other examples of where you've changed a simple word or phrase and it made a big difference?


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Empathy and characterization..

A friend said to me today that she thought you needed empathy to be a good fiction-writer, because you need to get into your characters and feel what they feel, and if you're, say, a narcissist or very analytical and low on empathy, you probably can't feel for them

Of course, being a good fuzzy liberal, I agree, but I want to toss that out for consideration. What do you all think? Do you have to be able to "feel with your characters" to create good characters? 

Are there alternatives?  Like if you are basing a character on yourself or someone else, maybe you don't need empathy so much as an ability to deeply observe?

Also, there are really analytical people who can, I think, create characters without feeling them. I think Flaubert (Madame Bovary) might be one, not sure.  They're more like psychologists in that way. They analyze the situation and this character and what the traits might cause to happen, and how that might affect how the character behaves.

So... your thoughts?  Do we need empathy to create characters?  Or can we do that well if we're instead quite analytical? Is it likely that any of us are both?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ebil. Hiss.

I have just read an appalling note from an editor to an author. Appalling? Shockingly nasty, dripping with sarcasm, and loaded with vicious digs at the author. I've seen a lot of editor notes over the years, and written more than I can count, and I've never seen anything like that.

I can't reproduce it here because that would expose my author friend, and she doesn't deserve that even if the editor does. In fact, because of the highly personal nature of this note and it's eye-poppingly evil contents, I don't think we can reproduce even part of it here. To sum up and broadly paraphrase this steaming pile of satan's shit, it accused the author of unwillingness to work (not true -- this is a multi-published best-selling author with a solid reputation as a good worker), of being too arrogant to work with (laughably wrong, and even the editor indicates her impression is based on past publications rather than on, you know, actual arrogant behavior), and even  hints at the author's published works being out of fashion or outdated (even though her most recent book topped the charts).

So here's what I want you to do. Imagine you're a successful author with a long publication history and a good reputation. Imagine that you decided to write something new, something a bit outside your genre, and that you reached out to a new editor to discuss the project. Imagine that this editor basically flamed you in response. And now, you get to flame right back. Write a short anti-rejection note in the comments, and we'll front-page the best of them. Do it anonymously if you fear the consequences. But still do it, because my friend could use a little companionship and sympathy even if she can't go entirely public with this.

Defend my friend. Bonus points for making her laugh about it.