Friday, January 30, 2009

Note to Chris Eldin

Please email me at


ps. Hi! *waves* to everyone else. Miss you guys! I have a long list of things to blog about when I can get ten minutes to blog something. January! Sheesh!

pps. The rest of you can also use the gmail address to contact Alicia and me, except we often forget to check that address, so please be patient! Really, it's faster through the comments.

Blogs and query letters--

Jennifer said...

New Question--In a cover letter for a short story, should a writer mention her blog, particularly if the blog is related to the story?? I am married to a man of South Asian descent and my story has a South Asian protagonist and contains many cultural references. I blog about gender issues and my experience navigating a new culture. I feel like mentioning the blog is somehow better than just saying I am married to a Pakistani American man. (My instinct is to provide some explanation for my familiarity with this culture.) But I don't know what the preference is on mentioning a blog. Any thoughts??

I'll try and answer this before carpal tunnel makes the left hand useless-- boy, it's been bad this winter.

Blogs are great ways to attract potential readers, and also to give editors a reason to ask for more of your book. So yes, mention it (probably in the last or second-to-last paragraph of your query). In fact, I think authors generally ought to have blogs-- NOT about them and their books (not reader-enticing unless you're a big name) but about some subject that connects to your book. That is, if you write Scottish historicals, a blog about Scottish castles or tartans will get far, far more potential readers than a blog about your book and what you're writing now. Once you've given something to them for free (all those pretty photos of castles), they are much more likely to give you something back by buying your book.

So yes, mention the blog in your query. Say specifically what the blog is and what you discuss, and who visits it. I would also say how many hits you get a week (or a year, whatever sounds impressive). And I'd say why those visitors are likely to buy your book, and that you'll include of course links there to your book and blog about it and the subject matter as the pub date approaches and afterwards.

Here are a couple links that help with the Chris Anderson "long tail" theory:

Seth Grodin's blog

Wikipedia explanation of Long Tail Theory

The Long Tail Blog

The latest Long Tail book

See how it works? He didn't spend a penny on advertising here. But because he's given so much away for free in his blog, I'm advertising his book for him. :)

Anyway, yes, mention your blog in the query, but also explain exactly how it will help sell your book and expose you to potential readers. Draw the picture for the agent or editor.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The past is prologue, etc.

Writers frequently ask about prologues. They've heard that prologues are verboten, and are justifiably confused because lots of published books have prologues. So what have you all heard about prologues? Do you think a prologue prejudices editors against your partial? Under what circumstances do you think prologues work? What distinguishes a prologue from a Chapter One?

Also, are prologues common in the genre or fiction category you mostly write in?

I think genre really matters. A prologue is common in thrillers and suspense novels, but much less so in romance. Why? Well, I suspect it's because the past matters more in thrillers and suspense. Often the prologue shows an event in the past which will have some repercussion in the "forestory," the story that starts in Chapter One. A good prologue usually poses some question ("Who killed Sandy?" "Why did Joe's mother run away?") that the story itself answers.

Successful prologues are usually remote in time from Chapter One. That is, Prologue doesn't take place in May and Chapter One in June-- if there's not a passage of time there, why not just have the prologue as the first scene in the chapter?

Prologues are, however, somehow linked to the story. This should be a no-brainer, but I've seen contest entries and submissions where the prologue might be exciting but doesn't connect to the story. There should be a real link-- a common character, setting, or recurring event (like this is the first murder of the serial murderer at work in the story proper). That link doesn't have to be immediately clear in the first few chapters. But I know I for one get annoyed when even halfway through a book, I don't know what the link is. Well, actually, by that time I've probably completely forgotten the prologue events. So think about ways to link even earlier chapters to the prologue, maybe with keywords or setting. Say the heroine walks over a bridge on her way to work, and we know, even if she doesn't, that in the prologue, her mother had huddled under that bridge to shelter from a storm.

Keep in mind that the editor or agent who asks to see a partial, maybe the first few chapters, isn't likely to have enough material to make complete sense of the prologue or judge whether it works. So consider making a big point of linking it in the synopsis-- like say you summarize the prologue, then introduce the story-proper with something like, "Eight years later, the repercussions of this murder are still being felt in Whelanton."

Also consider how the partial (chapters) can give the editor or agent a bit more sense of the connection, maybe using datelines at the start of the prologue and then again at the start of Chapter One, like:

December 1999
Lake Limberlost, Wisconsin

Chapter One
June 2009
University of Wisconsin, Madison

That way we know that it's almost 10 years after the prologue, and we're still in Wisconsin.

Also think about the tone shift between the prologue and Chapter One. If you have a very dark prologue with a brutal murder, for example, a lighthearted Chapter One might be jarring to the readers.

What else? I'd say the prologue should probably be short, just a few pages. It's NOT a chapter, after all, so shouldn't be as long as a chapter. Should it just be one scene? Probably.

Other thoughts about prologues? Have you ever written one? As a reader, do you like books that start with prologue? What makes a prologue feel successful to you?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What is your unit?

"It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books—mostly of fiction, most notably by Barry Hannah, and all of them, I later learned, edited by Gordon Lish—in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy." Gary Lutz, THE SENTENCE IS A LONELY PLACE

This is a fascinating "literacy-memoir", about a writer's growth to writing. But of course it's the above that grabbed me. His "unit of writing" is the sentence. That's what intrigues him, that's what he works hardest on.

What's yours? Are you concerned with the micro-aspects, getting the right word, finding the right image for this moment? The sentence-- "vivid extremity of langage"?

Or do you concentrate more on the middle distance, the scene and/or chapter?

Or the macro aspects, the characters, structure, plot? Are you a storyteller more than a wordsmith?

I have to say, I think the unit for me is the paragraph. I wouldn't have every sentence be "vivid", because the paragraph might need quieter sentences. I focus a lot more, I think, on how to start a paragraph than how to start a scene. And how to end the paragraph!! Well, that's a preoccupation for me.

I wouldn't, for example, consider it repetitive to repeat a word on the page, but I would be careful about repeating in a paragraph.

What about you?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good reasons for multiple POV

JewelTones said...
Alicia, the topic of switching POVs in the same scene is a touchy one and I would love to hear your thoughts on the difference between shifting those POVs for "a good reason" in a scene vs. head hopping and and those "good reasons" are. I get into arguments about this all the time with my fellow writing friends. I tend to be a one POV per scene kind of girl, but I've been known to shift halfway through and slide into another (say from hero to heroine) for the rest of the scene. Some argue such "hopping" is their style. So how do you try to distinguish between a shift for a reason/doing it well vs. rampant shifting?

I also tend to be a single-POV type of gal, but some of my favorite writers are multiple POV writers, so I have to admit-- that can be done well. (I also have to say this-- it's discussed in my Writer's Digest book. :)

First, let's distinguish between omniscient and multiple POV. Omniscient can shift from mind to mind, but with omniscient, there is a controlling "above" narration, a mentality (not necessarily a person or the author) which knows more than the characters individually or collectively know. Most non-first-person British stories in the 19th century used omniscient point of view ("IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man nay be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of heir daughters."), perhaps because of the Victorian reverence for authority-- the omniscient point of view is all about authority.

But the multiple point of view doesn't have that controlling overall authority. The narration is always in the head of one character or another. All the information and knowledge and perceptions of the narration come from the characters-- there's nothing (in the multiple POV passages-- there is nothing wrong with omniscient passages, especially at the beginning and end of scenes... remember, the only rule is, it works if it works... just know if it works) that is "above" or "inserted" from a more knowledgeable non-character. This makes it like single-POV, that is, the narration is confined to the character immediately in viewpoint (just in single-POV, it's just in one character).

Now your question is what are good reasons for using multiple POV.
1) Let's start with the biggie: It's right for you. It's the way you think. It's your natural POV.
I can't stress that enough. You have to write from your own mind, and if you naturally write in multiple POV, why fight it? Better to just do it really well so readers and editors will get a great experience. Now that most people grow up not just reading but watching TV and film (which are usually in multiple POV, if they can be said to have POV), it's not at all "wrong" that the more visual writers, the ones more cinematic in their mentality, are likely to write in multiple. Go with it-- just do it well. And ignore all those single-POV puritans who act like you're sinning. You're having more fun. However, the natural-multiple writer is likely to become a headhopper if he/she doesn't understand POV and its power when controlled.

2) So that's the best reason, that it's your natural approach. But there are other reasons, and even naturally-single writers can occasionally use multiple to their advantage. Second good reason-- to juxtapose the understanding or perceptions of different characters. This is one of those LESS IS MORE situations, by the way. If you're constantly switching from one character to another to show, for example, that Joe loves the curry and Mary hates it, it's just going to feel incoherent and bipolar. But if you want to juxtapose something interesting and important, to show that two characters have different understandings of the current reality, multiple is a great way to go. For example, I am working on a scene where the protagonist and his best friend see a couple walking hand in hand. The protagonist has a secret crush on the lady in the couple, but the best friend assumes his interest has to do with the illegal activities of the young man. Switching from Pro (who is longing for the lady) to the the clueless best friend not only shows the difference in their understanding, but also something about their relationship-- Best Friend might not know Pro as well as they think, and Pro might not trust Best Friend all that much. I thought it might be even more interesting to have the best friend cavalierly point out that he's surprised that a cool dude like the young man is wasting his time with the lady, because she isn't very pretty. This of course is going to get some reaction from Pro, but I've given him reason not to be honest about his feelings. So I might consider switching to his POV to show his internal conflict-- he wants to slug his best friend for dissing the lady. Then again, I might stay in the best friend's POV and show him misunderstanding yet again, this time interpreting the Pro's sudden tension as evidence of fear of the illegal guy. Anyway, juxtaposition will show the difference in knowledge and in perspective in a vivid way.

3)This is related -- multiple POV allows more perspectives in crowd scenes, such as, oh, to be timely, a group of disparate people watching the inauguration. The old civil rights worker who never thought she'd live to see this day will have a different reaction than the McCain voter who thinks the country made the wrong choice and the snarky ironist who is contemptuous of all the enthusiasm around him. Now of course it has to be important and worthwhile to "sample" all these different perspectives. But if you have decided you want this, it's much more efficient to do it in multiple than to have a scene-shift with each shift in perspective, that is, show the whole event from the civil rights worker's perspective, then do another version of a scene from the next perspective, etc. That method-- single-POV multi-scene-- is bound to get repetitive. This sort of "crowd control," btw, can be used effectively in some comic scenes, to show how different characters apprehend what's going on.

4) Multiple POV can be useful in controlling larger settings or multiple settings. Actually, I tend to think that when you shift from one setting to another, you're probably starting a new scene, but going with multiple POV will allow for more expeditious narration of events happening at the same time in different places. This is almost impossible to do effectively in single POV (we generally have to bypass the multiple-event challenge with some single-POV trick), but it can produce tense scenes and a lot of action. Perspective can shift whenever action starts to lag.

5) POV-shifts can delay gratification to create suspense. This is not about shifting to a new POV in order to give a trivial, momentarily spurt of gratification, but actually shifting AWAY from one character so you can hide something (like a reaction or a thought) that later will be revealed in a different way. That is, POV-shifting can be a form of information control, keeping something from the reader without cheating (as it might be sort of cheating to stay in the character's POV and not report some thought or reaction).

Those are just a few good reasons. But really, the truth is, you don't generally choose your POV-- it's a reflection of your own approach to writing and the kind of stories you choose to write. That is, it's all connected. If you're naturally interested in stories with a lot of action and multiple settings, you're probably just not likely to be a single-POV writer. I'd also suggest that the worldview that inspires writers to tend naturally to POV will differ. Single-POV writers are more likely to think that what's important is how reality is perceived and experienced inside a character, while (I think) multiple-POV writers are more suspicious, perhaps, that reality is an absolute-- rather believing that only by getting a collage of different versions can the reader begin to understand what's really going on.

Now... headhopping can't be dignified with an assumption of its worldview. It offers no worldview beyond chaos. Headhopping isn't about control, suspense, reader experience, character exploration. It's all about instant gratification for the WRITER, and just on those grounds, it should be rejected by good writers. (Good writers should be far, far more concerned with the READER.)

However, multiple POV by definition isn't headhopping. It's the controlled and purposeful presentation of more than one viewpoint on an event. Each shift should give the reader some benefit from the transfer into a new mind. And while I'm not saying you should always be conscious and analytical about everything you do as a writer, I do think that after you write a passage, you should probably be able to elucidate why you made each shift-- in retrospect, what the purpose of this shift is. (And if you can't make a case for it, I'd suggest reconsidering the shift.) That is, go with your inspiration, ride the wave, write the wave-- but when you revise, get analytical. Maximize the power of shifting by minimizing the occasions-- Less is more. Shift because you need to in order to create an effect, not just because it feels good.

So multiple POV gives me more options for scene presentation, but of course also more responsibility to know what effect I want to have on the reader and how best to attain that.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Deep POV sample books for Wes-- Help?

Wes asked for some examples of books narrated in deep POV.

I used to know a bunch, when I was writing the POV book. First thing I'd say is-- there are not nearly as many books "in" deep POV as authors who say they write in deep POV. :) And there are many more books that actually use deep POV along with a more distant POV too. Let me see if I can think of some.

Well, Ulysses (by James Joyce) is VERY deep POV, stream of consciousness, at least the Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom passages. (The Stephen Dedalus passages are more distant.)

Sole Survivor, by Dean R. Koontz. This is almost unbearable, at least the first couple chapters, because it's a third-person narration of a man in terrible grief. If you can bear the vicarious pain, it's a great example of deep POV.

Mr. Murder, also by Dean R. Koontz. You know, really, when Koontz is on, he's the best at this. His deep POV narrators range from a child to a serial (insane) murderer, and then narrative styles reveal a lot about the characters.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This is almost stream-of-consciousness.

Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley. This has some really interesting deep POV passages from --get this-- the horse's POV.

Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale. Again, the deep POV is in certain passages, not the whole book, but she really explores the inner reality of the hero, who is aphasic after a stroke.

Just a start-- can you all give Wes some more suggestions for novels that make good use of deep POV?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Jennifer is right... deep POV and "head words"

Jennifer said...

Okay admittedly I am not a tech guru, but I don't see a place to ask a new question,

In comments are fine-- we read them! Just ask in a current topic, because we won't be reading old posts.

so here it is:

Back to the discussion of deep POV...

There is a difference between saying, "He realized he wanted to stay" and "He wanted to stay." I get the feeling the preference is for the latter because it is closer/deeper POV. But what if I want to put the emphasis on the fact that he realized it? Would you, as an editor, get that, or would you think I made a POV misstep?


Jennifer, You are right. They ("the rulemakers") are wrong. :)

I am not one who thinks "she thought" or "she realized" or any "head word" is a break in POV. That's one of those supposed rules that baffle me-- that "rule" seems to say that humans are not thinking creatures, that we don't consider or muse, that these thoughts just happen to us, that we have nothing to say or do with it, that mental processes or intentionality don't count. It feels to me like writing "his foot moved" rather than "he stepped".

As you point out, the problem is that "he wanted to stay" does not allow for any suggestion of how he came to know that. "He wanted to stay" is just a statement of fact, a statement of what he wanted. It does not indicate that he "realized" he wanted to stay, that there was a process of realization, that it wasn't immediately knowable. As you said, "he realized" is subtly different as it says there was a realization involved.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that those who say that "he thought" is a deep POV break haven't thought as much as you have about how minds actually work. You just can't do deep POV by following bogus "rules" about deep POV-- you can only do it by getting into the mind of the character and narrating the way that mind works. Yes, some minds don't have much in the way of thought or realization, but those that do will, in deep POV, show the process that led to that. (And that will contrast interestingly with the more impulsive character's sudden appearance of a thought. I visualize Character A's thought process as a Rube Goldberg contraption, while Character B's mental process is more like a lightbulb going off.)

These statements below all suggest something more than just "he wanted to stay":
He decided he wanted to stay.
He thought he wanted to stay.
He realized he wanted to stay.
He imagined he wanted to stay.
He believed he wanted to stay.
He reflected he wanted to stay. (Why do I want to put a "that" in there-- He reflected THAT he wanted to stay?)
He sensed he wanted to stay.
He judged he wanted to stay.
He reasoned he wanted to stay.
He knew he wanted to stay.

Choosing the right "head word" adds a layer of subtlety and often intentionality that to me is REALLY deep, even subtextual, and I'd hate to give up that facility because someone might (mistakenly) say that's not deep POV. (I will say one more time, btw, and I know everyone's tired of it, that deep POV is not the only or even necessarily the best POV approach.) For example, look at that last one: He KNEW he wanted to stay. Don't you just hear a "but" after that? He knew he wanted to stay, but he could hardly resist a competing desire to run for the hills. And "realizing" that he wants to stay results from a very different process than "deciding" that he wants to stay.

I don't know how to say it any better than this (and you know it anyway, so this is aimed at those others), but you cannot create deep POV by following a list of rules like "Never use the POV character's name" or "never have the narrator report that she saw something; just say what she saw." You can only do a good job with deep POV if you know your character so well you know how she thinks, and she will not think the same way another character does, and she might not think the same way in every situation! You can just about bet that Albert Einstein thought differently (not just better :) than I do. But I suspect (you know, I had "I think" there, and edited it to "I suspect", because I intuited that HOW I think made some difference) that Albert Einstein when he was thinking through a quantum mechanics issue thought differently than he thought when he looked up from his musing and realized he was about to walk off a cliff. The author has to get into the character in each situation, and narrate with that knowledge in mind. That's the only rule that really counts-- give your reader the deep experience of what it's like to be in this person (in a coherent way, I hope, but I'm not even going to "rule" that). How would this character think in this situation?

A better example-- consider that pilot who yesterday calmly brought his crippled plane down on the river rather than in a populous area. His mental processes-- not just WHAT he thought but HOW he thought-- would be fascinating, don't you think? I just don't think it would be enough to report his thoughts ("Oh, shit. Damned geese. Must save plane. Where are we? Oh, yeah, New York City. OMG, we're going to crash!"). We also want to know that "he took a deep breath and spent just a single moment considering his options: Try to limp into Teterboro Airport. Ditch right here in the Bronx. Aim for the river. He glanced at the altimeter and saw they were up just three hundred feet. Hmm. He calculated this quickly-- air speed and height and how long they could stay aloft. He decided to aim for the river. What the hell. They were all going to die anyway. Might as well try hard not to destroy a couple city blocks on the way. He tightened his hands on the wheel and made his voice calm as he explained all this-- in terse half-sentences-- to his first officer." Someone trained as he was will simply think differently at moments like this, will calculate and consider and decide. He'll think quick, but thoughts won't just appear. (The thoughts that would just appear would probably be in the "Oh, shit" category.)

The reader will feel the difference between deep POV you "invent" using some set of rules, and deep POV you channel because you know the character well. The readers don't know the "rules" (neither do I :), but do know when a character feels real to them, feels different and distinct and unique. Any "rule" that applies to every or most characters will not help create a unique character.

So, Jennifer, shorter answer: You are right. The fact of realization matters! HOW matters as much or more than WHAT.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Description, literary edge of genre

I'm reading a PD James mystery, and am contemplating the differences you find on the literary edge of a genre. For example, the "mystery" part of this mystery has developed very slowly (the murder happens well into the book), and much of the setup is detailed backstory and introspection of several characters as they enter the story action. (Thus the sleuth is introduced very late, only when he's called to the murder scene.) But I was also struck by the depth of description, even from those characters who don't seem that observant. Here's an example. Note the topic sentences at the start. This is an interesting technique: She states the conclusion first, and then describes what brought her to this conclusion. That is, she shows the POV character's judgment of what this means, and then what can be seen or heard to prove that to be true:

Without turning her head, she couldn't resist a glance at Dalgliesh. No one was better than her chief in concealing anger, but it was there for her to read in the momentary flush across the forehead, the coldness of his eyes, the face momentarily hardening into a mask, the almost imperceptible tightening of the muscles.

She told herself that Emma had never seen that look. There were still areas of his life which she, Kate, shared, which were closed to the woman he loved, and always would be. Emma knew the poet and the lover, but not the detective, not the police officer. His job and hers were prohibited territory to anyone who had not taken the oath, been invested with their dangerous authority. It was she who was the comrade-in-arms, not the woman who had his heart. You couldn't understand the job of policing if you hadn't done it.
She had taught herself not to feel jealousy, to try and rejoice in his triumph. But she couldn't help relishing from time to time this small, ungenerous consolation.

First, watch the (I think) less than adroit handling of the name/pronoun issue (two women-- "... she, Kate," then a "she" following "Emma" when "she" is really Kate), and yeah, I'm absurdly obsessed with this.

Also notice that descent into the personal at the end-- very nice. Kate starts out making a general assessment of her boss's behavior-- she can tell he's angry-- then describes what about his mien leads her to know that. Then there's that descent into her own psyche. She uses this awareness of his mood to tell herself that she knows him better than his fiancee does, to comfort herself that she is his colleague, if not his lover, and that might actually be better in some way. That she is almost consciously fooling herself is shown by that little "thought tag" (and this is why I think the "she thought" and "she mused" alternatives can be useful even or especially in deep POV) -- she told herself. If this had been "she reflected," we might have just thought she was stating the truth, but "she told herself" indicates subtly that she doesn't quite believe it herself, that she's trying to convince herself that she is in fact important to him.

I like that funnel technique, and think it can be used not just in these POV passages, but in scene design, from a general, somewhat impersonal approach, narrowing into the personal, the deep, perhaps the emotional. We might try that when we're working on a suspenseful scene, starting wide but aiming at a particular emotion (dread, fear) at the very end of the scene. We might even try a narrowing of POV from an almost-omniscient opening of the scene to a deeper POV for the action and then end the scene deep into the character's POV, feeling the emotion that results from whatever happens in the scene. The contrast between the opening distance and the ending closeness might intensify the intimacy.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Big Dead Horse

I started writing this as a comment to my last post, in response to some of the very thoughtful and insightful comments some of you made. But I thought it made sense to bump this to the front page.

People are discussing how optimistic or pessimistic they feel in this economic environment. Is the glass half full or half empty? There are some in publishing right now who are happy to have a glass at all, never mind how full it is. (Nota bene to any of my writers who might be reading this: Don't worry. I've studied the crap out of every number I can find, and we're in good shape relative to the market.)

Books are still going to be purchased, though perhaps not in the same quantities. One thing we've got going for us -- and this is really a strong factor -- is that a mass market paperback still costs less than ten bucks. That's cheaper than a DVD, CD, video game, dinner out, movie with your spouse, and so on.

Consumers may have fewer extra ten dollar bills laying around for impulse or entertainment purchases, but a book is still a good entertainment value at that price point. Think about it. How long does it take you to read an eight dollar book? Six hours? Ten? You're looking at an average cost of a buck an hour, give or take a couple dimes. Not bad at all, really. What I think we'll be doing now is focusing on ways to inject extra value into the product by making the stories as big as possible, so that the six to ten hours are really exciting experiences.

So, what is big? It's a tricky concept to define. It's not about word count or the number of point of view characters, though big books sometimes have more of each. It's not about setting, though unusual settings can make a book feel bigger if those settings are interesting and entertaining and are thoroughly utilized in the plot. Any story or narrative element, properly leveraged, can enhance the bigness of a book.

But I think of big mostly as having to do with plot and character. Shopworn plots and stock characters will probably never feel big, no matter how much you exaggerate their emotions on the page. But legitimately big characters do unexpected things, and the other characters around them react accordingly. The plots reflect that willingness in the big characters -- they reach for things that lesser characters around them would never do. And always, those actions are solidly motivated.

Think of Don Corleone killing the horse. You know the old saw, never kill the cat? This is because heroic characters, protagonists, are supposed to protect the weak. And also because people get legitimately upset over things like animal cruelty, even when committed by a villain. Authors receive letters of complaint over that sort of thing. So why did Mario Puzo have his character kill a prize racehorse in a disgusting and gruesome way?

Because it was big. Because it demonstrated Don Corleone's power, and his ruthlessness in pursuit of a goal. Because his love for his godson is so deep and profound that it compelled him to commit this unspeakable act -- and because that love rendered the act understandable, even, in a perverted way, noble.

The act was shocking, properly motivated, evocative of character -- BIG.


Friday, January 9, 2009

About Entertainment in the Last Depression

Some of you have asked for some insight into where I think the market might be going. It's a bit early for my conclusions, but I thought I would share part of an email discussion Alicia and I have been having over the last few days.

People tend to think of stories as light or dark, but there's another element that comes into play, which is, for lack of a better term, bigness. A big story can be funny or gloomy. The size stems from things like the shock factor in the plot events, the severity of the characters' reactions, and similar. You can have a big funny story, and a small dark paranormal. Big stories provide better escapes. They demand attention. They're cathartic.

In any event, Alicia and I were talking about movies because movie attendance stayed high during the depression. Books and movies were the most common forms of commercial entertainment back then. I've had several people comment to me recently about Depression-era publishing, and in particular, about the success of Gone With the Wind during that time. People seem to think this is evidence of why publishing will be recession-proof this time around. But, in fact, for whatever reasons -- the Borders situation, the severity of the economic climate, more variety in commercial entertainment options, whatever -- we're not recession-proof this time.

What movies became popular against the setting of the depression? The screwball comedies, and also all the movies about rich people in ballgowns drinking champagne. All the Fred and Ginger movies, and Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, and so on -- people wanted to forget about money trouble and be high-spirited. Not carefree, but something else, something that would allow them to experience a real belly laugh and a new set of problems. That's not the same as "light." Something can be deeply funny rather than light and funny.

I think the key to the screwball comedies was their outrageousness. They really pushed the envelope. Every scene would introduce some new complication, usually something so inventive as to be almost unbelievable, but that was what audiences wanted. They wanted the bigness of the guy who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt charging up the staircase while two little old maiden aunts quietly poison every man who wanders up their sidewalk.

It's cathartic. And I really think that's the key. Whatever the emotion, it will have to be big enough to be cathartic.

And don't forget, Scarlett O'Hara was obsessed with money and fighting against the demon poverty. The book was big in number of pages, but also big in plot and character and emotion, and her struggles were something readers could relate to -- lost affluence, crushing poverty and hunger, and reputation as a function of wealth.

eyeball-deep in work

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Voice and rhetorical situations

I'm getting ready to go to Portland to do a two-day workshop (eek-- they are going to be so bored with me before it's over), and one element I want to address is voice. Well, nothing like choosing an amorphous concept. But I had lunch with a friend who is getting her PhD in Rhet-comp today, and she said the research now suggests that writers don't have a single "authentic" voice, but rather that writers assume a different "persona" for different rhetorical situations. Of course, we all know that we're going to "sound" different when we're writing a technical manual and when we're writing a thriller. But I think even different novels present different rhetorical situations, and a single voice, however authentic, might not be effective.

(BTW, some of the research has to do with something I've come across working in a university writing center-- following a new graduate student whose initial writing "isn't graduate enough". I occasionally tutor grad students who have been told by a prof: "You don't write like a graduate student." That is meant, btw, as a criticism, not a compliment. The voice in graduate papers is more neutral, more analytical, not "This is an amazing book," but "This comprehensive history offers insights into...." There's an expectation of a voice-- one of those "you know it when you read it," but not necessarily anything I can identify point by point.)

So... think about your own writing. Do you think you change voice when you change books? Or do you think you "write to your voice"-- maybe not trying the type of book your existing voice wouldn't fit? (For example, there's nothing so excruciating as a dramatic writer who is forced by an editor to write comedy... either you're funny or you're not, let's face it.)

Well, maybe I should ask: Do you think you can create a comic voice if you aren't (previously) funny? (I just asked my husband, and he said, "Sure," and when I demanded and example, he replied, "You." Not funny, babe.)


Don't waste space

Even good writers sometimes lose focus. Often it's only a line or two of slack summary or position blocking, but if it comes across as that-- as filling in-- it breaks the narrative drive and the "reality" of the fictional dream you're creating.

Vagueness is always the enemy of verisimilitude.

These vague passages are often right at the beginning of a paragraph, sometimes the beginning of a scene. Often it's just one sentence that performs one job -- making a transition, or moving to a new setting-- but not the job of keeping the reader in the experience.

Here's an example:

Phillippa arrived at the airport.

That gets us to the new situation, but what's missing? Yes, often the rest of the paragraph supplies the point of view, the setting, the emotion. But even one line of just utilitarian narration can lose the reader's attention and that all-important belief. We can't afford to waste space, any space at all, but especially that essential real estate at the beginning of a paragraph. In fact, transitions are exactly where you don't want to slack off, because the reader really needs to experience the change of scene, POV, or situation as something vital and IN the story.

So how to infuse some vitality into those dull lines? A lot will depend on the viewpoint approach. If you're in a close POV, go to the character, and narrate it from her perspective. If you're in Phillippa's POV above, make it about her experience, not some generic arrival.

When Phillippa arrived at the airport, she looked around anxiously for her mother. But she wasn't at baggage claim, and Phillippa finally tracked her down-- typical-- at the bar.

Notice that making the movement (arrival) in a dependent clause leaves the all-important independent clause for something in the character-- a thought, a perception, an emotion.

So what if you're in a more omniscient or distant POV? Well, the great advantage of a more distant POV is the flexibility it gives in description. No need to filter the description through a character-- you can use your own observations and voice to fill in the world of the story.

The flight from Memphis came in so early, the airport was almost deserted, most of the stores shuttered and dark. But the bar was open already, or still, and it was there Phillippa found her mother.

Point is... you can't afford even a line that breaks the continuity of the narrative you're creating, the world you're building for the reader. When you revise, watch for those wasted-space lines and see how you can make that part of your narrative-- incorporating your voice, your setting, the character-- something that makes this more than just a space-filler. Challenge yourself. You can do it. :)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On Numbers

Many moons ago, I interviewed for an editing job at a house that was expanding its romance lines. The VP of Something Or Other walked into our meeting, shook my hand, and told me, "You'll be happy to know that here at Big Ole Publishing House, our acquisitions are editorial-driven." And then he proceeded to outline all the various ways that their sales and marketing staff directed the acquisitions process -- by attending editorial meetings, generating concepts for books, even giving a final decision on whether to acquire a certain project pitched by the editors to the sales staff.

Not so at my house.

The thumbnail version of how it works is that, first, an acquisitions editor evaluates your manuscript. If she likes it and wants to take it on, she sends it to me for review. If I like it and have a slot for it, I approve it for acquisition.

That's a very broad overview, of course. Before an acquisitions editor even reviews your manuscript, she has already been prepped on our editorial vision. We have periodic conversations about our editorial direction, both in a generic sense and with respect to individual manuscripts under consideration. We talk about everything from where the lines are drawn on permissible sexual content, to how "beta" a hero can be before he needs revisions, to what makes a story slanted more toward male or female readers. Periodically, the publisher steps in and offers her guidance. All of these factors, and more, can influence an acquisition decision.

So I could tell you that sales doesn't lead editorial, but in a different sense, it does. We might not have sales staff attending editorial meetings and making editorial decisions, but sales prospects can certainly make or break a manuscript.

There are really two questions I'm asking when I read a recommended manuscript. One, does it fit with our editorial philosophy? And two, will it sell?

Our editorial philosophy includes a recognition that my house is known for publishing stories a bit off the beaten path. We weren't just one of the first places to publish erotic romance. We were also publishing vampire stories before those hit the lists, and we were moving away from the "big" books approach and into smaller, tighter stories back when romance paperbacks could be used as doorstops.

So we actively look for stories that might not sell elsewhere. Yes, we publish our werewolves and Scottish lords and international tycoons, but we are also hunting for really top quality stories unlike anything else on the market.

In that sense, at least, we're not sales-led. I find it unlikely, for example, that sales staff with approving authority would have approved Megan's Choice. It's an interactive branching story in e-book form. The reader can actually click on choices at the end of each chapter to tell the heroine what to do next. I imagine a sales person would have taken one look at that proposal and proclaimed it too risky. There's no cumulative sales data for books like this on the market, because there aren't any books like this on the market. Not that I've seen, anyway, and I've looked. (Yes, there was that old children's series of branching adventure books. But they weren't clickable. And they certainly didn't lead to holographic alien sex through particular story paths.)

So, we gamble when we can justify the risk according to our in-house criteria for publishing something outside the box. But really, other than those calculated risks, we care a lot about sales data. A lot.

Last week, we closed a royalty period. I don't have anything to do with preparing royalty statements or checks, but I get sales figures, and believe me, I study them. Those numbers are more than a report card for the editorial department. They're also a roadmap for the future. I break these numbers down twenty different ways, and then break the breakdowns down. There are dozens of different factors that might influence a reader's decision to buy a book -- the covers alone can change a yes to a no, or a no to a yes, for something as simple as whether the heroine wears lacy lingerie or nothing at all.

The difficulty lies in finding the trends. Interpreting data can be tricky. Did this werewolf book sell better than that werewolf book because of the lighter colors on the cover? Or because of the description of the hero in the jacket copy? Or because of the length of the story? Or because of the price point? Or because of some plot detail?

I'm in the process of sorting all that out now, and so far, I've reached only one conclusion:
The economy -- which tanked almost exactly in the middle of this royalty period -- is making any attempts at analysis and prediction all but impossible. I actually have two sales patterns, one from before October and one from after. We can't ignore the pre-crash data, because that indicates what people wanted to read before they got scared. Maybe if they stop being scared, they'll want that type of book again. And we can't dismiss the post-crash numbers ("that's just the economy") because this is what people want to read right now, when things are bad, and we know it's going to get worse before it gets better.

My analysis is far from complete. In fact, I came here to post about this mainly because the numbers are swimming before my eyes, and I needed a break. If I'm a bit scarce for the next week or so, or if I say things that don't make perfect sense (such as that post on agreement -- a thousand apologies for being so confusing), please take pity on me. Twice a year, I have to predict the future. And this time, thanks to the economy, that task is extra impossible.


*I should note that most houses have greater sales involvement than ours. That's one of the things I love about Red Sage.


Today isn't technically Alicia's birthday, but it is the day she chose to celebrate her birthday with her writing friends. They're all gathering for a nice lunch, and I bet there will be cake. (pout) because I can't be there!

Happy birthday, Alicia!
And many more!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Answer for Alicia

Re "The rest of the group" --

"of the group" is a prepositional phrase and doesn't affect the number of the subject. This is a common point of confusion. The plural object is closer to the verb and can throw us off. I fall for it myself sometimes.

"rest" is a singular noun.

I know we're not supposed to distribute the style guide to outsider, but let's break the rules here -- one of the joys of making the rules for this sort of thing is that I can break them. :) You were talking about the style guide earlier, and this might give a taste of what's in one. (Yes, it was in there, on page 8 -- lots of agreement issues on pages 7-10 under A for Agreement.)

Agreement, Intervening Phrases

When considering the agreement of subject and verb, keep in mind that intervening phrases do not change the number of the subject.

CORRECT: The pyramid was spectacular.

CORRECT: The pyramid built by the cheerleaders was spectacular.

INCORRECT: The pyramid built by the cheerleaders were spectacular.

In all three examples, the subject is pyramid and is singular. The intervening phrase, “built by the cheerleaders,” contains a plural noun but does not change the number of the subject. The verb must remain singular.

Does that resolve it for you? If not, let me know. Jeepers, but this feels more like an email than a blog post.
Theresa, I couldn't find this in the style guide (yet-- still looking :). Jeff asked me if this is singular or plural (Word grammarcheck insists it's singular):

The rest of the group (was/were) left behind.

My first thought was that it was singular (because "rest" is singular), but then I thought maybe plural. (Nothing if not decisive here. :) I said if "the rest" was actually substituting for a portion (like "Half the group"), it was singular, but if it was substituting for a number (like "Two members of the group"), it's plural if the number is more than 1. I realize that half of four is two, so the antecedents for "the rest" would amount to the same thing, so it's actually more of a matter of emphasis. Did he want to emphasize the individuality of the "left-behind" (two), or the decimation of the group (half left behind and the group bisected)?

Collective nouns represent both a single entity (the group) and more than one entity (the individual members together), so you often have to do some thinking about which you're referring to at the moment. It might help to think of the singular group as being in consensus or acting as one (The committee was pleased with your report and was planning to approve your request) or in disagreement (the audience were divided about the third act). (I might add that this is not something most readers are likely to take issue with either way, but your choice might emphasize the unity or disunity of the group subliminally.)

It might help to see if the meaning comes across if you add "members" to the collective noun (that is, plural-- emphasizing the individuals). The rest of the group members were left behind? But if adding "members" or some other individual marker messes with the meaning because you are really talking about a unified group, then you might go with the singular verb. (I just want to put in here that S/V agreement is really unnecessary in a language where "number" is already marked on the noun -- cat/cats-- but does anyone in charge listen to me and change the grammar? NOOOOOO.)

Now in Britain, collective nouns are mostly treated as plural-- The team are ready for the game Friday. In fact, along with adding U to "-or" words, this is one of the most visible differences between British and American English. So it's a good idea to consider the nationality of your publisher!

Here's an example of "when in doubt, take it out!"
The team sprang to its feet, eager to take the field.
Well, the team is acting as one, so singular, but... but... "its feet"? Sounds like the team is a centipede! How about recasting to get rid of feet altogether?
The team sprang up--?

The crew team rested its oars, content with third place?

What do you all think?

House style

Theresa, at some point, we should discuss house style and how it might affect an author's edit.

(House style is how a particular publishing house decides various editing issues, like in "the fall of 1999," is "fall" capped or not. Often, as with our house, these rulings are captured in a stylebook, which is available to editors and authors. Complicated editing issues are not usually dealt with in the stylebook, but it's very useful with those discretionary decisions in capitalization and punctuation.)

One thought I have-- the house style is not something a submitting writer needs to worry about. You won't even usually have access to the stylebook. So if you're faced with one of those trivial but knotty questions, like how many if any periods should go in "Ph. D.", check the Chicago Manual or go with your own inclination. It won't make any difference in acquisition decisions.

Once your ms is acquired, the house style becomes more important. And if you can get a hold of the stylebook, it's very helpful if you run through the ms again and make the changes needed to conform to the style. However, the stylebook is really more for editors, first, for quick answers to those pesky little questions, and second, to provide an excuse when an author is sure that deleting that space in Ph.D. will mess up her style. "Hey, that's the house style. Sorry."


Some Questions Answered

True confession time. I save up the moment when I can read the comments to this blog. They're such a delight to me that they're almost like a chocolate truffle in the house. I know the truffle is there, waiting for me. I know how much I'll enjoy it. And I want to pick the perfect moment for it, using it as a reward after I've slogged through a bunch of tedious paperwork, or as a pick-me-up when something has gone wrong again. I want to be left alone to enjoy the comments, just as I don't want to savor a delicious chocolate while simultaneously talking on the phone, typing emails, scanning my daily task list, and watching for the mail carrier. Some things are just worth savoring. So, thank you all for being like chocolate. :)

Jennifer asks,
On the then as a conjunction thing--does the test of taking the "then" out work? Consider: He looked left, then right. If you take out then, you are left with He looked left, right. Which sounds absurd, even though it doesn't with the then in. So does this example require an and?

That's an excellent test, and I suspect it will help a lot of people to get this detail right. I think the test might not work as well when there are long bits of predicate chained together that might mask the missing conjunction. For example,

She walked up the stairs, turned right down the corridor, then counted to the seventh door.

Compared to,
She walked up the stairs, turned right down the corridor, counted to the seventh door.

Because of the rhythm of this structure, it might slip past unnoticed. That is, I notice it, and many others might notice it, but not everyone will. Or maybe they'll notice, but their ears will respond favorably to the rhythm and decide to leave it in place for style's sake. It's not great style, and the conjunction doesn't undermine the rhythm, but I can see where there's a greater danger in a construction like this one.

Jordan says,
Once I was reading articles on writing around the Internet and I found one from someone who claimed to be knowledgeable claiming that using 'and' as a conjunction implied simultaneity. The example was something about grabbing the phone, calling 911 and getting in the car, and she said this was physically impossible (guess she hadn't heard of cell phones, either). That left 'then' as the only way to connect more than one non-simultaneous verbs in a sentence.

Without reading the article, I can't comment intelligently, but that won't stop me from commenting. ;)

Think gentle thoughts about the writer of that article. She used a faulty example, perhaps, but she was trying to illustrate a difficult point. The conjunction and frequently does imply simultaneous actions. It also can be used in other ways, as you correctly point out. But generally, and describes like items that go together. (Compare to but and or, which conjoin items by distinguishing them from each other.)

Keep in mind, too, that like things can sometimes go together but happen sequentially. There are non-temporal ways to "go together." Think, for example, of someone describing all the actions taken to prepare for a dinner party. The order of completion isn't important. Their togetherness doesn't stem from time, but from another common factor.

The afternoon before the dinner party, I marinated the steaks, baked a pie, cleaned the parlor, set the table, arranged the flowers, and delivered the children to the sitter's house.

The conjunction and is fine there, with or without the adverb then, even though these actions can't possibly occur all at once.

Writing simultaneous actions and sequential actions is a very tricky business. We've touched on this a little in past posts about participial phrases and opening red flags, and probably in other places which I can't find. (Note to Alicia: We really ought to do something about cleaning up our post tags for the sidebar. Yikes!)

The main thing is to avoid glaring errors in simultaneity. Yes, some of us are gifted with the ability to talk and walk at the same time. But when you have two actions which must happen in sequence, don't write them as if they go together in time. This is the big boo-boo. There are other boo-boos, but if you avoid this one, you'll be in decent shape.

Murphy asks,
Man, there has to be some easier way through all this, isn’t there? Don’t you guys have any EASY ancient writing secrets you’d like to impart? Ones that don’t require a lot of hard work and deep examination? A pill, perhaps, that one can take to fix all the glitches while remaining pain free during the tedious process?

Ah, yes, fiction writing does have a long apprenticeship. I suppose I could say something pithy about perseverance -- or try to, anyway, given that I'm not the most concise writer. But I think what I'll do instead is treat this as a serious question and try to offer some pointers.

First, focus on clarity. Plenty of authors get published and sell well despite the lack of prose pyrotechnics. You don't need a vast repertoire of magic tricks and poetical flourishes. But you do need to be lucid.

Second, focus on the drama. Keep your scenes vivid and lively by exploiting the ways in which the characters thwart each other. This doesn't mean there must be constant shouting or stomping of feet. People can be exquisitely polite and still undermine each other with wicked accuracy. They don't even have to be doing it on purpose. Just keep your scenes focused on all the conflicts, small and large, and all the obstacles and unfulfilled desires and subconscious needs, and your scenes will be taut enough to pass scrutiny.

Third, eliminate gaffes. You may need a beta reader to help you with this. Ask them to mark all the places they got confused or distracted. Those are the places where your prose blunders, and those are the places that need your attention during the editing process. You probably won't need to ask for anything more detailed than that from your beta reader, because confusion and distraction result from just about any type of mistake. Used the wrong word? Screwed up your commas? Wrote a long, dull passage about the history of paring knives? The result is most likely either confusion or distraction.

Fourth, build your vocabulary. A good, vivid, precise word choice can enliven a prose passage quicker than just about anything. Also, you can get away with more simple SVO sentences when your verbs aren't always the same old dull things.

If you find yourself overusing some flat verb, you have two options. Change the verb, or use a different action altogether. Let's say, for example, you use the verb pushed three times in two pages. And now you come across it a fourth time, where you say the hero pushed his fingers through his hair. You can change the verb -- he raked, combed, tangled, etc. -- or you can change the action. In this case, ask what the action was meant to imply. Hair-pushing is often used as a show of frustration or temper. What else might the hero do to demonstrate that emotion? I bet you can list a half-dozen examples right off the top of your head. Pick one that is a bit off the beaten path, and use it. (That second solution isn't so much a matter of vocabulary as of understanding human behavior, but I include it because it works to overcome weak word choices.)

Happy New Year!