Sunday, January 31, 2010

You Won!

This is a tribute to Team Comments, which always keeps things lively and interesting!

Thank you to everyone who has made this little blog a winner!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Counting Your Words

Kiolia asks,

Which "word count" do you pay attention to? I've heard some parties say word count = 250 x pages, in which case white space could be a pretty big deal - but if you care about the actual number of words in the ms, seems like it wouldn't matter. Which is, I think, what you said here?

This is one of those things that has been made into a bigger issue than it actually is. Yes, we need to know word count. And yes, there are different methods of counting words. But as long as your query letter indicates which method you use, you're probably not running afoul of any rules. (Check the guidelines first, of course. If a publisher wants you to use a certain counting method, they'll say so in the guidelines.)

Let's look at the differences between the different counting methods. This is an issue of typesetting, a production issue. Think of it this way: the physical book is a container for your story. The container has some small degree of flexibility -- it's a rubber wineskin, not a plastic milk jug. But there will still be a point where a story might not fit the container.

Here's a very simplified look at print production decisions we have to make for each book. We need to select:

Trim Size. This is the measure of the finished page. In America, we measure it in inches. A typical trade paperback is 5 1/2" by 8 1/4", more or less.

Signatures. Most presses can print 32 pages in one pass. These are known as signatures, and for the sake of economy, most books are printed in signature sets, or multiples of 32 pages. (That includes front and back matter.)

Margins. Most books (other than the covers) don't require bleeds (printing to the edge of the page) but allow margins. The size of the margin can vary.

Leading. This is the amount of space between lines of text.

Typeface, or Font. The amount of text on a page can vary a lot depending on the design of the font. Garamond, for example, is denser than Times New Roman, though they look fairly similar. Point (the size of the type) can also be jiggled to get more or less text on a page.

And I could go on, but this gives you a glimpse at some of the major decisions which must be made for each print book that can affect the size of the container for your story juice.

To make things easier and more economical on the production end, we sometimes specify that we want a story of a particular length. We know that we can fit a story that long into a physical book of a particular size. So that gives rise to guidelines for word count. We know, for example, that we can fit a 50,000 word story into a mass market paperback with six signatures and such-and such margins, font, leading, etc. We know we can wiggle that for a slightly longer or shorter story, but wiggle it too much and we have to start changing the shape of the container.

There are two schools of thought regarding word count. One takes white space into account, and the other doesn't. Neither method is precise. But neither method needs to be precise, because all we really want is to make sure the manuscript can be set into a somewhat flexible container of a certain size.

If the guidelines don't specify which word count method to use (and they probably won't), then you can indicate which method you've used in your query letter. For example, if I read,

My Awesome Novel is approximately 80,000 words,

I will assume you're using the pages x 250 method. The word approximately and the round number tells me so. If you write,

My Dazzling Novella is 26,344 words,

I will assume you're using computer word count. In either case, I now have an idea of which container your book might fit into. And that's really the relevant information for me.

Any questions?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Chapter breaks

Someone asked me, "Should I start a new page after a chapter break?" that is, start the new chapter on a new page, or just skip a few lines and start it at the end of the last chapter.

I think what matters is... do you need this ms to be longer or shorter? :)

Keep in mind that whatever you do, the editor will do it house style. But if you're over 400 pages, well, save the white space and start a few lines down.

Not that any editor is dumb enough to be fooled by page count. Well, I am, but generally we do pay much more attention to word count.

Can't hurt though. It looks like 399 pages? Good!

Remember when books were 550 pages?


Thursday, January 28, 2010

More on either/or (perfect mechanics or great story-- don't be either/or)

I'm asking this because this is a question that comes up a lot: "So someone submits a perfectly clean manuscript, every comma in the right place, but it's boring. And someone submits a manuscript with a lot of grammar mistakes, but it's a great story. Which would you take?"

Hmm. That's a toughie. It's especially tough because in my experience, good creativity and good mechanics are NOT mutually exclusive, far from it. Language is the way we present our stories, and the presentation is important for getting the story right. To tell you the truth, I seldom see a "great story with terrible mechanics". (I have seen a few perfect manuscripts with boring stories... mostly I see okay stories with okay mechanics, alas.)

First, I guess I'd like to say-- no editor is looking for a perfect manuscript. We assume that there will be a few typos, a few infelicitous phrasings, some small format problems. No editor starts hyperventilating at the prospect of working with a writer who is a little less than perfect on every page. Got to justify our existence, don't we? Perfect writers don't need editors!

So never worry that the editor is going to read 200 pages and on page 201 discover that misspelling and decide to reject. That won't happen. But what if there are four misspellings on the first page? What should the editor do then? (Lately if there are a lot of mechanical problems right away, I've been sending back the submission without reading further, and saying, politely I hope, that I know the submitter would like another chance to edit so that it's easier for me to consider. So far, the writers have all thanked me for the chance, though who knows what they're really thinking. :)

One thing I do have to point out is that there really isn't an either/or here. Creativity might be messy at the creation stage, but I know very well there is no need for a good story to be messy at the submission stage. Most good stories go along with at least adequate mechanics, because the writer cares enough about presentation and narration to work hard at things like sentences and paragraphing. Most good writers don't assume that "story" is just "idea," but understand that ideas are developed in scenes which are made up of causally linked passages which are made up of paragraphs and sentences.

A mechanically inept manuscript is, in my experience, more correlated to inept development of the central idea or plot. I might see, in a mess of a manuscript, a good plot idea, or a glimmer of brilliant characterization. But that's usually all there is-- an idea, a glimmer. The execution and development aren't done well, particularly at the scene level. Why, well, interestingly, I think, there is "story grammar" and "scene syntax." Just as in a sentence or paragraph, stories and scenes have relationships that are shown in the structure or design. If the writer doesn't get that this pair of sentences shows a causal relationship:
He lurched forward,his mouth open.
I got out of the way before he puked.
Then probably the same writer isn't going to design a scene developing the cause/effect relationship between bigger events, although those events might be terrific.

Have I ever seen a great story with lousy mechanics? Yes, but mostly with my college students. If they come from a storytelling family or culture, often they get the story grammar talent with mother's milk. They've been surrounded by great stories all their lives. But usually this is oral storytelling, and often their ability to write it down is limited. We see this a whole lot with non-native speakers, especially those who left their home culture before high school, so that they aren't "writingly fluent" in their native language either. We also see this in native speakers who didn't have adequate educational experiences (or who weren't paying attention... the class clown comes to mind-- usually he's a great storyteller). The issues are usually spelling and punctuation, not sentences-- that is, it's really the -writing- stuff, the letters and punctuation marks which aren't clear in spoken English that cause the problem. Sometimes word choice is lacking too, especially in non-native speakers-- they just don't yet have the vocabulary. But they do have the ability to describe setting and people, to design scenes for maximum drama, to select the telling detail.

I had two students like this in one semester. They both would have gotten an A if I taught speech. As it was, one got an A, the woman who wrote very affectingly about her grandmother being diagnosed with Alzheimers the same week the writer found out she was pregnant, and how that baby ended up helping the grandmother keep her speech long into the illness. She worked closely with me and a tutor to find the mechanical problems that got in the way of the story presentation. The other was a young man who wrote (this was a kind of emotionally wrenching semester) about getting to the hospital just a few moments after his mother died, so he couldn't say goodbye. The urgency of the journey across town -- wow. Beautifully structured with great suspense. But he didn't have the time to transform this great story into a great paper, and didn't get as good a grade (though I made sure he knew that he had all the right stuff and just needed to go this additional step, and I hope he did in the future).

So I know it's possible to have great story/bad mechanics-- but I have to point out that these were students in freshman composition, each coming out of an oral tradition that rewarded great story design and impressive vocal performance (which they had-- as I said, they both would have gotten As in a speech class). Transferring that to written language is a separate process.

But if you're submitting a written manuscript to a book publisher, well, it's expected that you are as adept at the tools of the craft. Those students might not know so much about punctuation and other elements of written language, but they did know how to use vocal expression and pauses and body language as they told their story. (They weren't so great at first at transferring that to writing, but they really did have the vocal tools for storytelling.) If you choose to write this story, it's kind of expected that you would use the written-language tools adequately.

Now, as I said, minor errors are not the issue here, and I think writers who get upset when I say I want a mechanically adept manuscript might think I mean no typos. But what I mean is-- well, truth is, most of you would be shocked to see a story with dialogue like this:

He said "Joni Im sorry about your cat's.
She said don't worry about it. There probably hiding in the garage"

That's not actually the sort of "messiness" that goes with creativity and great ideas. But that is what we see a lot. And that sort of leaden presentation means the voice is usually leaden too. Voice isn't just about word choice-- it's developed through sentencing and punctuating too.

So... let's say you are like my students, trained by tradition and upbringing and talent to be a great storyteller but not a great practitioner of the written discourse? You know what I'd suggest you do? I'd suggest you dictate your story into a recorder, and hire a good secretary to type it. Many secretaries have been, uh, quietly editing their bosses' prose for years, and know how to turn your dictation into an at least adequate manuscript. (When I worked at the late lamented Grammar Hotline, most of our callers were secretaries who were interested in getting the grammar right, or in proving to their boss they were right, and they usually were.:) If the problem is getting it from oral language to written language, it's probably easier and cheaper to hire someone than to make the transition yourself.

Now when I think of it, the corollary -- the perfect manuscript and boring story-- happens more often. That's because you can hire someone to turn oral language into written language -- same words, after all, and it will still be YOUR story, not the transcriber's. But if you hire someone to design your scenes, deepen the characterization, create a suspenseful tone, structure the events-- it's not really your story, is it? All those things ARE story. (And that is why people hire ghostwriters, I guess.)

Thinking back on perfectpunctators/lousystorytellers... I have seen that too. I used to write Regency novels, a subgenre that attracted a lot of English teachers and librarians (it's set in the time of Austen, see). And when I'd judge a Regency contest, I'd frequently get an entry that was well-written on the basic word level, but lacking in story grammar. They knew how to write a sentence, but couldn't flesh out a character. They knew how to punctuate dialogue, but not how to make it sound authentic. The story would never be insane (that's much more likely with the messy manuscript, and yeah, I've seen that a lot too), but it would be "by the numbers," often using conventional situations (ballroom scenes, mistaken identity) but with nothing fresh added.

(Okay, insane stories-- I've seen these, and they really usually are accompanied by wild and inaccurate punctuation, creative spelling, and labyrinthine sentences that lose all sense partway through. What's insane? Not just fun over-the-topness, but characterization so inconsistent as to come across as reflecting schizophrenia -- the author's, not the character's; sudden and unmotivated changes in story elements-- the villain suddenly isn't bad anymore; events in early scenes in later scenes just didn't happen. I don't mean the author is insane, but the story in this case makes no sense on any level. Fortunately, I haven't seen a lot of these stories, but I think every one featured some strange font or spacing choice. These are not, I hasten to add, your competition!)

In a contest, the meticulous but boring entry would often score sort of on the high end of mediocre, but never win. And really, I don't have a quick solution ("hire someone to type it") here. The problem is more global, more personal-- that is, the writer probably doesn't have a great imagination and/or an innate or learned sense of story grammar, and you just can't hire that. (But I do think these would be great typists for the oral storytellers out there! :)

So... which of the two (messy but good story, clean but boring story) would be more likely to be published? Hmm. Well, of course, when we pick up a published book, we're seeing an edited version, not the original submission. So there might be plenty of previously-messy books that have been wrestled into rightness by a pair of editors and a proofreader, and we'll never know unless we get the editor drunk. ("You know that writer of mine who made the NYTimes list last week. Oi, you should have seen the manuscript when it came to me. One long sentence, the whole first chapter. I kid you not. You're buying the next round, right?") Notice that this requires a lot of time and energy from the editors and money commitment from the publisher, so a damn good story is required, not just a good story, to elicit that much effort.

But we certainly all read boring but well-written books. They're well-written enough that we don't take them back to the bookstore and demand our money back, or post nasty reviews on Amazon. We don't feel passionate enough about them for that level of response. Meh... we sort of wonder why this book was chosen out of the many the editor must have read that month. (Probably the original book for that slot didn't come in on time, so they needed a book to fill the gap, a book that didn't require much work to make presentable, and this one landed very cleanly on the desk at just the right moment. See why it's a good idea always to send in a clean manuscript? "Doesn't need much editing" is maybe not the fulsome compliment you were hoping for, but there are times when that's exactly what the publisher wants in a book.)

Well, anyway, we should all strive for great story/great mechanics. Figure out our weakness and what to work on to overcome it, but maintain our strengths too.

I'm remembering a query I got from one of those meticulous types, the one that made me really WANT to buy-- "I always make deadlines. I always deliver a clean manuscript. I have worked as a proofreader for a decade"-- it was sort of sad. Imagine an epitaph: "She always made her deadlines, including this one."


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Okay, Green Knight, if you want to talk about emotion.... Do we have to? I'm scared of emotion! It might destroy me!

Just kidding. We can talk about emotion. I mean, I'm a romance writer. Emotion is my raisin detra. :)

The problem was--
I posted a paragraph, last time, which had a first-person narrator. The purpose of the paragraph (which wasn't a good paragraph, I must say) was to provide single clauses that I wanted to show in combination and transition. Usually, when we provide examples, to keep from copying the writer's paragraph that inspired this thought, we make something up pointed to whatever we want to explore. In this case, the paragraph was meant to show how sentence combination and transition can make the passage more meaningful. Here 'tis, all halfway fixed up:
As Helena sailed into the ballroom, she looked around the crowd. She came to me and bestowed (notice we lose one of those many "she" words, good) an air kiss on me. I started to say something seductive and witty, but she (just? had already? was already moving?) moved on to another party-goer. When she kissed him the same way, I felt rejected and cheated. (Or I might say, Then she kissed him the same way, and I felt rejected and cheated. Not sure.)

However, it never did, even combined and transitioned, achieve meaningfulness, as Green Knight pointed out! It wasn't a very good paragraph, and no one need worry that I was planning on putting that in a book. :)

But every moment is a learnable moment, so let's get into what GK was talking about, that the paragraph did more telling than showing in regards to the narrator's emotion. GK:
I would, for instance, _show_ him starting a phrase, and the telling phrase I felt rejected and cheated. also needs to be replaced IMHO - what, *exactly* is his reaction.

So let's discuss this. This passage is in first-person narration, so the character is narrating himself what's going on. I think what's going on inside him can also be narrated, and that different people have different level of skill at interpreting and naming their own emotions. So I have no problem with him saying he felt resentful and cheated. (In fact, I think "feeling cheated" is an emotion even the least adept can recognize. Entire political movements have been founded on that one. :)

But let's say this is NOT someone who is good at naming his emotions, or recognizing what he's feeling maybe. Let's say you're going to write this event (Helena coming into the room, kissing him, moving on to someone else) from his first-person POV.

What would you do? Some thoughts-- please join in, and GK, maybe an example of what you'd do?

1. I'm writing this to mean that, hmm, he feels that he's special to Helena, and the equal-opportunity smooch there shows he's not. But... does HE interpret it that way? You could have a line that shows he's clueless or blithe instead of "resentful and cheated"-- "She was the nicest person, giving up her own pleasure at being with me to welcome the others." That is, if he doesn't get it, how would you show that this happened, but he didn't understand what it meant?

2. GK, were you suggesting some action or expression that the reader could interpret even if the character just narrates it? Well, how could we do that? How can we have the narrator narrate his own action or expression or something that tells the reader he's feeling resentful and cheated without actually saying the emotion words? "I punched my fist into my other hand and muttered to myself?" Well, you can do better. But it would be an outside representation of the emotion you want?

3. I'm writing him to be pretty skilled at naming his own feelings. But what if he's not? What if he feels something but doesn't (or doesn't want to) know what it is? How would you show that in his POV? Maybe something like, "My stomach lurched. Must be the oyster appetizer I just ate." How would you show that he feels something but misinterprets it? And how would you show that the feeling is in response to Helena's diss, or would you want to? Is proximity enough-- Helena does this, and immediately his stomach lurches? Is the sequence there enough to show that the two are related, even (especially) if he doesn't realize it?

4. What if he's naming this as resentment, but that's not what it is? What if deep down he realizes that she's going to leave him, or that she knows that he's the murderer, or something secret? And he doesn't want to know that, or he doesn't want to narrate that (first-person narrators are generally aware of their audience, and might "play" to them, or play them for a fool, I guess). So how can you show him identifying and naming emotion A (fear, dread) as emotion B (resentment)-- how will that differ from his straightforward naming of resentment? He says, "I felt resentful and cheated." What would he say if he were consciously or unconsciously covering up another emotion?

Examples, and you don't actually have to stick to Helena's sad-sack fella, as I know it doesn't have the actual meaningfulness it might have if we really wanted to explore POV and emotion. :)


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Combining elements in sentences

How you combine sentences is an aspect of voice. Now I know some writers want voice to be spontaneous expression, and sometimes it is. But if a passage isn't working, if it feels jagged or incoherent, look at the way you've put together the sentences. That is, be conscious, not self-conscious.

What you put together in a sentence is what readers read as going together, and they'll subconsciously try to come up with a reason these go together, or at least mentally read them together as a single thought. So this process of putting together sentences shouldn't be arbitrary. You don't have to plan every sentence, of course-- most of us can trust our instincts most of the time-- but do be aware that you are making meaning by combining certain elements, and as you're reading over, see if that's the meaning you want. (Rhythm also is a factor here-- "jaggedness" might be the result of combining the wrong elements so the flow is interrupted. You might or might not want that. Do you? You will sometimes, but not always.)

So here's a string of sentences that can be combined various ways (coordination, subordination):

Helena sailed into the ballroom (the verb, btw, is important-- she could sail in or glide in or stroll in or stalk in or stroll in, and each tells us something different about her and her attitude at the moment).
She looked around the crowd.
She came to me.
She bestowed an air kiss on me.
I started to say something seductive and witty.
She moved on to another party-goer.
She kissed him the same way.
I felt rejected and cheated.

Now one of the marks of the amateur (another!) is inappropriate sentence combining, where elements are linked presumably because they came out of the pen in that order. This is what I sometimes see in submissions:
Helena sailed into the ballroom, and she looked around the crowd, and she came to me. She bestowed an air kiss on me, and I started to say something seductive and witty. She moved on to another party-goer, and she kissed him the same way. I felt rejected and cheated.

The problem with that is that the elements are put together without regard for what belongs together, and without the coordination or subordination that adds meaning (like cause/effect and contrast). It's all just linear: This happened and then that happened, and then that happened. ("And" is a useful connector, but it really just implies addition, and that doesn't add a lot of meaning.) So let's move beyond the linear and simply chronological. Also notice that even chronologically, not all sequential events belong together. For example:
She moved on to another party-goer, and she kissed him the same way.

The moving on happens before -- "is happening," that is, it's a progressive event, like "crossing the street." It takes more time than a single-moment event, like kissing. Not a big deal, but because of the time differential there, I don't know that I have them linked with "and" (or linked at all).

But most important, the meaning of this passage isn't the sequence of events, or rather, the sequence only matters because some of the events are cause-and-effect, and cause-and-effect requires sequencing. But the cause-and-effect conjunction isn't "and;" it's "so." And the contrast conjunction, where you want to show a conflict between two things, isn't "and" but "but." I'd look at each clause and think about which one causes another, and which is in contrast to another, and experiment with the pairs in the same sentences. (That isn't always best-- if the second clause is an important action or conclusion, you might try it in a sentence of its own.) AND... some of the independent clauses can be reduced to dependent clauses if they are in fact sequential or simultaneous, if "time" is the most important link to the next event. So maybe-- and as I said, I always experiment to see which assemblage conveys my meaning better.

As Helena sailed into the ballroom, she looked around the crowd. She came to me and bestowed (notice we lose one of those many "she" words, good) an air kiss on me. I started to say something seductive and witty, but she (just? had already? was already moving?) moved on to another party-goer. When she kissed him the same way, I felt rejected and cheated. (Or I might say, Then she kissed him the same way, and I felt rejected and cheated. Not sure.)

This shows more of what's really going on, not just the events but the meaning too. Helena is special to him, but he's not special to her, and we (and he) learn this in this paragraph.

If you fear that your passages are too choppy or too unsophisticated, if you're told by an agent or contest judge that you're not showing the emotion, see if you are overusing "and" as a conjunction between sentence elements. (Transitions aren't just conjunctions, of course, but here they happen to be.) (BTW, you might be told, if you use a lot of transitions, that you're explaining too much. That is one of the major differences you see in modern litfic-- there's often not much transition or conjoining, so the reader determines how to relate the events or ideas. I err more on the over-explaining side... how surprised are you? :) The major coordinating conjunctions are: and, or, but (or yet), so, for (because-- in the US, we're more likely to go with "because"). The major subordinating conjunctions, well, there are too many to list, but these are the words that start dependent clauses: As, although, when, beside, because, after-- many are time/space connectors, showing how this relates to that in time or space.

These lists reflect the most important relationships between events and thoughts and actions and such:
Chronology, Addition and sequence (and, moreover)
Causation (so, for/because, therefore)
Contrast and conflict (but, yet, however, although)
Alternation (or)

Transitional words do more than just smooth the flow of the passage (though they certainly do that-- supple prose usually depends on transition). They show the relationships of events and actions and thoughts, going beyond a mere collection of sequence into a textured skein of causation.

And they also help to make a paragraph a paragraph, which is something I want to explore in depth in the future.

Monday, January 25, 2010

More steampunk

Brianna writes that the Romance Divas have been discussing steampunk, so check it out at the Divas Workshop thread, but she points out: "Peeps have to sign up for the forum before they can see it, natch."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Colts! Comeback kids!

I am accepting plaudits for My Team. And I'd appreciate them most from Pats fans, like, oh, Jenny. :) Jim Caldwell is a genius!

(It's so funny to hear the pundits now talking about what a great decision it was to bench all the starters last month. They sure didn't think so back then!)

Super Bowl here we come. Last time was also in Miami. Rained torrentially, I remember.

Oh, and I like old Brett, but Drew Brees is from Theresa's alma mater, the College of Quarterbacks (aka Purdue), so let's hope for a Colts-Saints matchup.


Well, you know, sort of

Seth said...

I prefer to write for characters, rather than to write for rules. If a certain character is our POV character, then I would use a sharper version of that character's voice as my narrative style. If they would end a sentence in a preposition, it usually reads better to just let them.

If you have a more pulled back narrative, of course, that's a different style. But I think character voice is far more important than author voice.

This is such a good point, and let's talk about it. (This is, btw, why I say that deep POV isn't for everyone or every book-- you really have to cede a certain amount of "voice" to the POV character, and you might not want to do that.) Let's say your POV character (first- or third-person) is not the most incisive narrator. Let's say he/she is really pedantic, or sort of vague and spacey, and the narrative voice reflects that.

Can we have some examples? Here's mine:

She just didn't know, okay? She kind of thought that she was sort of someone he cared about. But not like you could tell it from the way he said things. He probably said the same things to other girls, you know? So, anyway, she was maybe taking a chance trusting him with what she had to trust him with. But life was risk, right?

Okay, maybe I channeled a few of my freshman students there. :)

Let's have some other examples! This is for, um, un-sharp or un-pleasant or "bad" voices. Give us a quick (first try) example, and then write about what you'd change if you were revising-- NOT to revise into a more author-voice, but to make this person a better -narrator- (not just character). Help?

Now what I mean is-- We already have dialogue to show how a character sounds, to reveal this character's inattention and inarticulation. So we don't need this person to be the POV character, the narrator, unless she brings something to the narration. So what does she bring?

One thing I notice in re-reading that is the paragraph tells us almost nothing. (And understand, I couldn't bear to write a book or even a scene in this POV, so I am immediately revising, and you might not do that. Depends on what we want!) So right from the first, I look at that lame preposition-ending, and I think-- so what does she have to trust him with?

Maybe we know, or maybe I can insert that without losing the flavor of her voice. Let's see:
So, anyway, she was maybe taking a chance trusting him with what she had to trust him with. Her secret. You know. The whole murder thing.

That still has the prep, but at least I feel like I'm imparting a bit of information-- by the end of the paragraph, the reader knows more not just about the character but also about the story (murder, I guess).

I can't help it. I have to get rid of at least one preposition-ending.
She just didn't know, okay? She kind of thought that maybe he sort of cared about her. Maybe.

I have to say I like all the "kind of" "sort of" vagueness, just because that's sort of an amusing take on the utter inarticulateness of some people. They could be talking about undying love, or they could be talking about a load of mulch for the backyard-- same diction. (But really, I don't think I could write-- or read-- pages of that.) But she could be sharper and give more info without totally compromising her authenticity, because we don't know if he's a potential lover, or her father:

She just didn't know, okay? She kind of thought that she was sort of someone he cared about, not in a romantic way, yeah, more like a friend. But not like you could tell it from the way he talked to her. Sure, he joked around and said some flirty things. But he probably said the same sweet things to other girls, you know?

Does adding those adjectives to "things" (sorry, it hurts to type that word :) get in the way of her voice? I like to think that identifying the relationship in her mind (not romantic, more like a friend) helps deepen the understanding. And we can see he says flirty, sweet things, so we don't imagine him saying insulting or smarmy things, I guess.

So I guess I'd start with the free-writing to "feel" her voice, than go back and add and subtract so that the passage says what I want it to say to advance the story just a bit. That is, it's not going go be enough for me to have the passage just show her voice or reveal that she's incapable of articulating a complete thought. It might be enough if there was only a few paragraphs in her POV-- but if she's the narrator, she's got to keep the story moving too. And a tiny advance every paragraph, surrounded by a bunch of "voice," well, actually, that is totally my problem. Really. I don't write characters as inarticulate as that, but I have to say, I also take a long time saying much (much prettier prose, of course), so my passages and scenes are long. Hmm.

Anyway, how about some examples of deep POV voices that aren't, shall we say, OUR voice-- and are lame and limping and all that. And then, would you make any changes in revision?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Don't be lame-- don't limp to the end of a sentence.

Another of those "marks of a pro" is taut sentences (not necessarily terse) which say exactly what you mean without extra words. These lame words are particularly noticeable at the end of a sentence. (Remember, ending a sentence and esp. a paragraph on a strong word makes them particularly meaningful.)

So as you're revising, look at your sentences-- read them aloud, and listen for the bump or the lag that tells you the sentence has lost its power. Challenge yourself to make every sentence snap.

One thing I've noticed in editing is that the old grammarians were right (for the wrong reason, of course)-- ending a sentence on a preposition is usually bad. It's usually bad not because some grammar book says so, but because the preposition is about the weakest type of word short of an article (and you'd never end a sentence on "the" or "a")-- it's actually just a way, usually, of telling the relationship between two things. So whenever you have a sentence that ends on a preposition, see if you can rewrite it to end instead on a power word (those are usually nouns or verbs). And no, I don't mean "up with which" or "from whence" formations. I mean:

He took her to the house he grew up in. (Weak)

He took her to his childhood home. (Strong-- "his" "childhood"-- those come before the power word "home", and they convey emotion (possession and childhood) too .

English sentences are remarkably flexible, first because we have a huge vocabulary (house/home, for example), because our language took words both from the Teutonic and the Romance languages AND we have so many words still extant from the Angles and Saxons, and often two or more of those terms for something still exist in the language. And second, so many words can moved around in a sentence for different meaning-- sentence order is as important as word choice.

So there's always another way to save everything! If a sentence feels awkward or sounds too long or limps to a conclusion or seems vague, you're not stuck with it. There are probably four other ways to say what you mean. So know what you mean, and try to end on a strong word (noun or verb especially), unless, of course, you want to end softly and indeterminately (which you might want to do-- but don't do that just because you didn't revise enough!).

An example-- above, I ended a sentence on "too". This isn't uncommon, but as I did that, I felt it "limp".
Those come before the power word "home", and they convey emotion too.
There's a common synonym for "too," and I'm sure you all know what I mean-- also. But "also" at the end of a sentence is even more lame than "too". "Also" is an adverb ("too" is more complicated-- you can't generally place it as an adverb), and its strongest placement is usually right near the verb. So let's try:
Those come before the power word "home", and they also convey emotion.

See how that "also" not only properly modifies the verb, but also (eek) makes it possible to end on the very strong word "emotion". No limping there!

I can't say it enough. Challenge yourself to write better sentences. Your voice will shine more brightly if your sentences say what you mean in vivid, concrete terms.

Prepositions are crazy

The dh just asked me, "Do I say, 'More facts can be found at (or on) this website?"

I said, with that perspicacity and sagaciousness that get little credit at home, "They can be found AT the website, because they are ON the website."

What do you all think? You can understand why English prepositions defeat the most fluent non-native speaker... well, even the native speaker, because I don't know either.

Not that I'm going to let the dh know that I'm not sure I'm absolutely right. :)


Teaching and learning

I've been watching Pavarotti's masterclasses on Youtube, you know, because I totally am an opera singer. But what's fun is the comments. I swear, he must be the most controversial figure ever in opera ("He's awesome!"; "He has no musical ability"; "He can't do dramatic roles"; "He's a great lyrical singer", all of which goes over my head because I know precisely nothing about music). But there really is a great argument about who judges aesthetic quality and even how you teach professionals who already have talent and training. And while I know nothing about opera, I am interested in teaching, so I watched for that.

The 3-4 class is a baritone (who apparently had a great career), and he is -- I think-- almost rude to Pavarotti and (I'd say) refuses to take with respect what P is trying to say. It's really interesting, because you can see where he resists and the mental arguments he must be making to push away the advice ("P is a tenor... he doesn't even read music..."). At the end, P says, "We're not finished," and the baritone says, "Well, I am." I didn't get it at first, but then I watched it over and saw he really was fed up-- didn't want to hear anymore.

What's interesting is what Pavarotti is saying. There's one part that he says you must seduce the audience into listening, be very quiet so that they have to lean forward to listen, and then blast them with a louder voice. It's all about performance, not perfection, and the baritone is not hearing it. Of course, Pavarotti's English isn't good, and he's not really articulating what he means (except that wonderful expressive face of his!), so maybe the baritone didn't get it, or maybe he just doesn't think it's a worthwhile suggestion.

But anyway, what I get is-- as a trained and talent artist, you have to know yourself. A good student should be able to learn from anyone, including a child in the audience who says that you were too loud... everyone has something worthwhile to teach you (if, of course, they are speaking in good faith). It's your job as the student to figure out what that is and how to apply it, or if you can and should apply it (not all suggestions are equally useful). BUT... you should also know yourself well enough to know if coaching or teaching or critiquing will help you or not. Some artists and writers really don't benefit from outside interference in their craft. Suggestions bring up their defenses or confuse them or make them doubt themselves. But that's not necessarily the fault of the teacher or of the act of teaching. We're not all the same, thank goodness, and we all need to figure out what helps us and what hurts us, and seek out the help and avoid the hurt.

This baritone apparently had a great career (at the Met even), and he didn't need this masterclass. (But who, of course, would turn down such an opportunity?) And maybe years later he looked back and remembered it as excruciatingly irrelevant, or maybe he watched the video and thought, "Oh, now I get what he was trying to say," or "I needed to learn that by myself, not have it taught to me," or even "He was just plain wrong, and I was right to be annoyed."

Not everyone needs to be "taught" to learn. I guess the trick is figuring out if you learn better by doing it yourself (as, interestingly, Pavarotti apparently did early), or by being taught by someone who knows more at that stage, or a combination of learning techniques. I think most people do learn a lot from being taught, but I wonder if the higher you get in your craft, the less you can be "taught" and the more you have to teach yourself?

Anyway, youtube is the greatest time-sink in history, and if I watch "masterclasses," at least I can tell myself it's educational. :)

Pavarotti masterclass 1 (there are others-- the one I mention is 3 and 4)

Here's my favorite Masterclass:
Brian Cox Masterclass with Theo
"The best drama student I ever had."

Friday, January 22, 2010

More on Steampunk

Alison and Theresa have already discussed the Steampunk genre, and I have only one thought-- question really.

Let's say you are going to submit a Steampunk novel. You might have noticed, and if not, Alison made a good case for it, that the current Sherlock Holmes movie has certain important Steampunk markers.

(It also has Jude Law, and you remember I said that if Jude Law planning to star in an adaptation of your book, that would get me to read it? Well, I am modifying that. Jude Law plus Robert Downey, Jr., making googly eyes at each other in your book? Sold!!!!)

Now Steampunk isn't a genre and doesn't have its own publishing lines, as far as I know. So you can't count on that YA editor or that s/f editor knowing as much as Alison knows (or Theresa knows now, having edited one). My question is:

You naturally want to provide some notion of how your book fits in with a trend and how it might be marketed. And so you might refer to the Sherlock Holmes film in your query letter. How would you do that without being annoying (I for one get annoyed with those breezy brain-teasers: "It's like Sleepless in Seattle meets Pulp Fiction!")?

The purpose would be, I presume, twofold-- one to give a quick way to understand what the approach is, and second to say it's really cool and trendy now. So give me a couple sentences or a paragraph where you might insert the mention of the film in a subtle and effective way, connecting it to your own Steampunk story.


Steampunk: Making It Matter

Let me start by thanking Alison McMahan for her thorough and thought-provoking guest post on steampunk. She did a lot to demystify this genre, even while acknowledging the certain blurriness in the definition.

We've got two steampunk stories in the pipeline at Red Sage. The first, "Full Steam Ahead" by Nathalie Gray, will be released March 1. Nathalie's novel was our guinea pig in this subgenre, and I thought I would share with you some of the things we worked on during the editing process. For starters, let me tell you that the book is about a woman who time travels -- or dimension travels, I guess -- to a parallel earth where two species (one human and one humanoid) are fighting for dominance. The oceans are toxic, the continents have drowned, and people live either on dirigibles or in stilted cities high above the toxic surface. It's a bleak world, but it's not lacking in comic elements. For example, the humanoid species, which in my mind's eye looked something like dreadlocked orcs, has a very low tolerance for insults. So part of the humans' battle strategy involves shouting little-boy snark through a brass bullhorn. It's very funny, and that humor makes a great counterpoint to the bleakness and peculiar stresses of the environment.

When Nat first came to me with this novel, I have to admit my knowledge of steampunk was a bit on the minimal side. So right away her idea excited me. It was a chance to broaden my horizons and learn the ropes in a new subgenre just beginning to make hybrid inroads in romance. We talked a very little bit about the nature of her story, and then she went off to write it and I went off to figure out what, exactly, makes for a good steampunk novel before I had to edit hers.

Everywhere I went, I read about the cool props. Alison mentioned these as hallmarks of the genre, too -- the brass goggles, the long coats and gowns, the steam engines, the gadgetry. But there was something missing from all these discussions. Why are steam engines important to this world? What symbolic relevance is there in a pair of goggles? (I still haven't found good discussions on this topic. Can anyone help with links?) I mean, I get that we're interested in a pre-corporate artisanal environment, and that we still want to empower the characters with industrial-era tools and gadgets. And I get why that would be appealing to modern readers. But why brass goggles? Why hot air balloons? Why those, and not -- oh, I don't know, say monocles and pogo sticks?

By the time poor, unsuspecting Nathalie turned in her draft manuscript, I had already formed the impression that, regardless of the props she chose, we were going to have to find ways to impute some thematic or symbolic relevance to them. I mean, if you could substitute motorcycles or snowmobiles for dirigibles without affecting the substance of the story, then why do you need a dirigible? In other words, what is the essential purpose and nature of the steampunk environment? (btw, my answers to these questions have to do with, not simplicity or anti-tech, but a form of personal empowerment. Contrast a dystopian futuristic in which corporations control the environment with the steampunk past in which objects are made and used by people, for people, and you'll start to understand my admittedly misty thinking on the topic. This is why, I think, so many steampunk novels include large-scale power struggles.)

After reading Nat's draft, I knew that I had to stop worrying about the entirety of the genre, though, and just focus on the pages in front of me. So, with these sorts of philosophical questions plaguing me, I turned to her specific world.

Because, really, what it comes right down to is the story itself. That's what we have to work with. That's what we can control.

I already knew Nathalie would be open to tackling some of these bigger questions within the context of her story. She's a great sport. Also, I know from the umpty books we've done together that she's hungry to learn and grow, so I saw this as an opportunity not just to push myself, but to push her. We ended up talking at some length about the various thematic elements in her story and how to solidify them. I sent her long, pointless, rambling letters about the relevance of water and other barely interesting things, and she took it all in stride and somehow managed to craft a stronger book by the end of this process. That's a tribute to her. Go, Nat, go!

In the end, here's what I hope we've accomplished. I hope her book is a vivid steampunk erotic romance, a solid representation of the subgenre. I hope the steampunk elements come alive because of the care we've taken to make them relevant within the context of the story world. I hope that readers are as intrigued by this during the reading as we were during the writing and revising.

But maybe, all I've managed to do is convince myself that writing a good steampunk is much like writing any good genre story. You operate within the parameters of the world, and you try to make it coherent and integrated, and you question every element to ensure it's pulling its story weight. Come March 1, you'll all get to read this wonderful story and let me know if we hit the mark.


ps. Want to know the hardest part of the entire editing process? Naming the book. Not kidding.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Guest post-- Steampunk, by Alison McMahan

Alicia says: I met Alison at the U S Maine MFA program last month (this month?), and she agreed to do a guest post about a fascinating sub-genre, Steampunk. Here goes- thanks, Alison! This is so intriguing.



I’ve been a Steampunk fan for years, ever since I first read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea as a kid. A few months ago I decided to write a steampunk novella and found that it wasn’t enough to be a fan, I had to give some thought to the nature of the genre itself.

What is Steampunk? It’s generally defined as

as “Victorian science fiction,” that is, science fiction in an industrialized 19th century setting. I’ve also seen it defined as “a sub-genre of fantasy and speculative fiction set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used.”

There’s a whole list of serious and tongue-in-cheek definitions here.

Steampunk is a genre set a world that is still in a nearly artisanal/barely industrial and completely analog age, as compared to a digitally enabled industrial military complex. Its heroes, though good at action when action is required, focus on strategy and using their intellectual resources; trickster and detective figures abound. Like the 19th century, it’s a very misogynistic world. As a result the few women characters tend to be superwomen, women who can hold their own in spite of the extra obstacles in their paths.

Steampunk is a hybrid form; there is steampunk with an emphasis on sci-fi elements, in the shape of alternative history and alternative technological developments. There is also steampunk with an emphasis on fantasy elements, and variants such as steamgoth. The tone can be comic or dramatic or romantic.

There hasn’t been much steampunk romance written yet, but it’s a genre that’s in demand

and clearly on its way.

And watch for Katie MacAlister’s Steamed: A Steampunk Romance, due out February 2, 2010.

Where did steampunk come from? Victorian authors who imagined the future from a 19th century perspective, like H.G.Wells and Jules Verne, are considered proto-steampunkers. Authors like Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley are precursors who showed the way to put fantasy and the paranormal into the genre, and Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle gave us some of the quintessential steampunk character archetypes, commonly used props (from brass goggles to gears to dirigibles of all kinds) and events. Proto-steampunk novels include Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine, and Sherlock Holmes stories.

By the early 1960s works that are now considered steampunk were being published as novels and comic books. Steampunk movies, TV Shows and games also appeared; see a complete chronology here.

When asked where the term Steampunk came from, Cherie Priest, the author of Boneshaker, responded as follows:

It is generally-agreed-upon that “steampunk” first appeared in a letter written to Locus magazine in 1987. Author K. W. Jeter was looking for a general term to describe his material (as well as the material of some of his contemporaries [Tim Powers and James Blaylock]) set in the 19th century or 19th-century-like worlds, with strange tech and wondrous marvels.

He said: “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ’steampunks’, perhaps…

His usage here was a riff on the label “cyberpunks,” a then-newish and very popular genre that was very science-fiction-forward, loaded with bad-ass hackers, virtual reality tech, and (frequently) predictions of a dystopian future.

Many steampunk fans credit William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel "The Difference Engine, " originally published in 1990, with popularizing the genre. “The Difference Engine” or “analytical engine” was, of course, the computer. They were followed by the likes of Michael Moorcock, Phillip Pullman, and China MiĆ©ville, then Cherie Priest, Jonathan Barnes, and K.J. Parker.

Steampunk has always existed cross-media, from the novels already listed to comic book series like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Gotham by Gaslight, and the web comic Girl Genius, Films got started early by adapting the seminal works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and television hopped on board with shows in the 1960s like Wild Wild West, later resurrected as a Steampunk movie. The steampunk aesthetic is present in video games like Syberia and Arcanum.

Because I am a filmmaker I have been approaching my research from a filmic angle first. I've assembled my own list of films I’ve classified as steampunk: (

Some of these, like Dark City and City of Ember are also romances. I would count The Prestige and The Illusionist as steampunk; The Illusionist is a romance too. There is some debate about Sleepy Hollow ( -- because there is disagreement on how much fantasy can go into steampunk and still have it be steampunk. As far as I am concerned, the minute we see all the torture devices in an industrial 19th century New York City jail, and then Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp) put on his brass magnifying goggles, the issue is clear.

But it seems to be a trend to have Hollywood filmmakers deny that their films are steampunk. For example, Joel Silver, the producer of Sherlock Holmes said:

Silver said:

[It's steampunk] to an extent. I wouldn't go that far. It's not Wild Wild West, where there's lots of [crazy gadgets]. It really is 1891, but it is as if we shot it then. There's no real artifice, it feels like it's shot in 1891, but with incredible camera work and dollies. And yes, there is a part of the industrial revolution that's happening then, but it's not so much what's going on. The details aren't that deliberate.

But does genre live by props alone? Yes, Wild Wild West had some “crazy gadgets” but it also had a plot that brought an industrial mogul who was interested in producing weapons in a primitive environment. That’s a cross between alternative history and sci-fi. In Sherlock Holmes they might have gone short on the steampunk style props, but they started with a steampunk plot, just like Wild Wild West: a self-styled cult leader is using propaganda and mass hysteria to propel himself into power and, he hopes, into a position as dictator of not just England but the United States. All of that, and without television!

But who can look at the scenes of London in this trailer and deny its steampunk feel?

What Joel Silver and other deniers forget is that Sherlock Holmes is a quintessentially steampunk character, derived from a quintessentially steampunk proto-text. He might not need magnifying goggles or a quick rescue from a dirigible when a steam-powered ferry will do, but he embodies the trickster nature, strategic mind and archival memory of many steampunk heroes; and like them he is both light and dark, his keen intelligence keeping his emotional disarray from completely undoing him.

Like Wild Wild West, Sherlock Holmes is a “bromance,” a romance between two men. When the women love interests do appear, their screen time is limited, their opportunities for action severely restricted. This is probably the source of failure for both films. Steampunk, especially sci-fi steampunk, screams for believable romance, like the love story in Hellboy. Otherwise that grimy industrial world is just too dark, and the dark night of the hero’s soul even darker. Hybridizing the action/detective tropes with romance genre elements better would have saved the movie. Making Rachel MacAdam’s character a real match for Downey’s Holmes, in action as well as in name, would have been more honest and more dramatic.

The challenge to such a hybridization lies in the detective genre itself. Whenever the filmmakers showed Holmes looking at something it was usually an open point of view sequence – we see that Holmes is looking at something and we see his reaction to it, but not what he sees. At the end of the film, the missing point of view shots are replayed, and the mysteries explained. But Holmes rarely looks at the woman he is supposed to be so in love with, and in the few brief moments that he does the editors have cut the moments so short that many viewers will miss them altogether.

There has been much internet chatter about a sequel to this movie, with hopes for a new love interest for Holmes and an enlarged part for Mary (Kelly Reilly), the woman Watson wants to marry. Let’s hope the filmmakers take it in that direction. Holmes's head might be full of gears, but what we want to hear is the whirring of his heart.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Just when you thought you'd forgotten that horrid sentence exercise from last week, we're going to revisit it.

She looked at the lush purple heather glowing faintly crimson under the striped pink-and-orange sunset and the puffy tinted clouds.

You did a wonderful job reworking this mess in the comment thread, and now I thought it might be useful to diagnose the actual problems we were trying to eliminate.

Weak Main Clause

The main clause, "she looked," is on the slow train to snoozeville. And yes, that is the technical name for it. (It is in Theresa Land, anyway, where I can so name things! lol) Looking is not an interesting activity, and it's wildly overused in most beginner works. She looks at clouds and flowers, and we look at her looking at them, and then everyone takes a nice nap. Unless there is some significance there -- for example, she has been color blind since birth, but the genius doctor hero cured her with his magic probe and the power of lurve -- skip the looking and find something more interesting for the characters to do.

Insane Prepositional Phrase

Everything following, "she looked," is a prepositional phrase or builds off the phrase. It's long, but it's linear, so its insanity is not derived from crazy structural problems. No, the content is the problem. It doesn't make sense. Heather doesn't glow, faintly or otherwise, and even if it did, I doubt whether it could glow in different colors. And are the clouds both puffy and tinted, or is the author implying something about puffy being a tint? A little punctuation would clear that up. Also, heather may be lovely, but it's probably not best described as lush. A bit scrubby, almost wild, but lush? Eh. Nah.

Give That Clown a Rolaids

Color is a great detail for waking up a scene. Color choices can be symbolic or thematic, and they can reveal much about character, setting, and tone. But this much color all at once reads like rainbow clown barf. Use color judiciously to signal deeper meanings and imbue the text with some vividness. No real hard and fast rules of thumb, of course, but it's something like scent -- one every five or ten pages or so might be enough. A cautious and controlled writer can get away with more or less.

The Cure Is Worse Than the Illness

We see this all the time: an author tries to pump up a weak idea by slathering on all sorts of extra crap. Because she looked is boring, the author tries to wake us up with all that purple (and pink and yellow) prose in the back end of the sentence. So the sentence is unbalanced both in terms of structure and content.

Reactionless Viewpoint

What does "she" think of this view? Does she think it's clown barf, or is she a little girl with a little girl's taste for sparkle and pastels? We don't know. Looking is so passive an activity that it implies nothing whatsoever about how the character is interacting with the environment. This, by the way, is the main reason that much description fails. It's not enough to tell us what the world looks like. We have to see the characters interacting with that world, too.

I feel as though I'm forgetting something. Am I?


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Blame Yourselves

Today on the sidebar, we're unveiling your choices for best blog posts over the past two years on edittorrent. Compiling this list was a task filled with surprising twists and turns, and as a result, we have two subsets to the list.

There is a top ten list linking to the posts most frequently named in your votes as reader favorites. That's pretty clear and easy.

But as we were sorting through the votes, it became apparent that many of you wanted to nominate batches of posts rather than single posts. So we created three "series" tags in our Super Deluxe Sidebar Labeling System (tm;) for the three most frequently nominated batches, and we included those in our Best Of Blog list.

It just happened to work out that we had three batches nominated very frequently, and that one was by Alicia (on line editing), one was by me (the Johnny and Drago series), and one is the ongoing discussion by both of us about PPPs. Very clever of you all to arrange it that way.

Thanks again to all of you who helped with the heavy lifting on this task. Now, when new readers find our blog, maybe they'll be able to use those sidebar links to read the same posts that all of you found most useful.

And if there is one glaring conclusion I've drawn from this process, it's that our post labels suck even harder than I suspected. I'll be trying to clean that mess over the next few weeks. Oy. (Note to Self: Do it right the first time, and save yourself this hassle later.)

So, whaddya think? Any surprises on the list?

who still hasn't edited her winner's sample pages, but will soon :)

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I want to make one quick point about the last post where we practiced communicating emotion without stating the emotion directly. (You all did a wonderful job, by the way, and wasn't it fun to see how many different ways the same action could be interpreted?)

This kind of writing might feel hard when you first start doing it, but it gets easier with practice. Before too long, you'll start realizing there are other ways to communicate concepts without putting them in giant neon letters. HEY READER! MY THEME IS, "KARMA GONNA GET HIM!" We hardly ever see such direct statements in fiction, right? But authors have still found ways to communicate these indirect concepts. It's the nature of storytelling. And even though it might feel hard or challenging now to control unstated notions on the smallest scale, as we did in the last post, eventually you'll find ways to broaden that technique and find ways to incorporate implied concepts on a much larger scale.

We might even take a look at that some day. But for today, I want to keep the focus tight and look at something that several of you mentioned in comments and email. "Skittered." You liked that use of that word. It's a good verb because it's slightly unusual, vivid, dynamic, and has a hint of emotion which we could draw out in the context. How much weaker would the sentence have been if we'd started with, "Henry leaped," or "Henry jumped," or the dreaded, "Henry moved." Nothing wrong with these verb choices. They're perfectly serviceable. But they're not quite as awake as skittered, are they?

We talk a lot about verbs here. We've made lists of overused verbs, and we've done endless sentence revisions to show you ways to cut down on verbals, and we've sung the praises of good verb choices. Why so much focus on verbs? They're the heavy lifters in a sentence, and yet so many manuscripts treat them like also-rans. Think about, for example,

She looked at the lush purple heather glowing faintly crimson under the striped pink-and-orange sunset and the puffy tinted clouds.

We see variations of this basic problem over and over again -- we might even file this one under "Marks of the Amateur." I think of this as a balance issue. The two most powerful word slots in that sentence -- in any sentence -- are the subject and main verb. And what do we have in those two power slots? A drab pronoun and a flat verb. The sentence is backloaded (and overloaded) with descriptive words in lesser positions.

Sometimes you want to do this to achieve a particular effect. But when sentence after sentence is written this way, the effect is clunky, overwritten, off-balance prose.

What's a quick fix for this sentence? Assume the point of view is clear, and post your revised sentences in the comments. I'm willing to bet we'll find several ways to improve it. But regardless of the method chosen, I'm also willing to bet that the main verb of the sentence becomes much more powerful.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Don't Overthink It

My general impression from the comments in the various subtext posts makes me think there's something of a general confidence crisis on this subject. This is unwarranted. Every day, you interact with people and watch their body language and demeanor for clues to their internal states. You have a lifetime of practice in interpreting subtext in day to day life. It's really not that different in fiction.

Perhaps the difference is in familiarity. Perhaps as writers we have it drummed into us that we must make everything absolutely clear to the reader. We take this to mean everything must be spelled out in precise detail, leaving nothing to the imagination. But clarity is possible even when we rely on clues rather than direct statements.

Tears streamed down Jessica's face.
Jessica was sad.

The first gives a visual clue to an emotional state. The second tells the emotional state. Which is more vivid and engaging? The first. No contest.

So here's what we're going to do. We're going to practice. Practicing will give you familiarity with the technique, which will increase your confidence. I'm going to give you an action by a character. In the comments, I want you to give examples of how this action could be used to demonstrate TWO different emotional states. Do this twice because it will force you to think about different ways to interpret the same action. Context, remember, is crucially important in staging subtext.

Here's your action:
Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps.

Now link that to an emotion without naming the emotion. You can do it. It's not as hard as you think.


Friday, January 8, 2010

The reader feels... maybe more

Just another thought about emotion. Well, two.

Sentimentality has a bad rep. JD Salinger (I think it was him) said, "Sentimentality is giving more tenderness to something than God would." The notion is that sentimentality overdoes the emotion, and a particular kind of emotion (tenderness), kind of gooshy and soft.

Writing sentimentality can be counter-productive, as most humans have a built-in defense against feeling too much. They don't actually want to be reduced to a helpless puddle of tears, or be driven to laugh out loud in public. They sure don't want to be depressed or scared, in life or by a book. So they will probably resist mightily any too blatant an appeal to pathos. If you want to make your reader feel, you might have to be sneaky.

But there's the question-- say you have spent a lot of time on the purpose of making the reader feel, and realize you might have alienated the reader (if you do "too much"), and also might be dismissed (as women novelists have been for time immemorial) as "sentimental" or "purple". I would suggest that there's another method, and that's to present the emotion more obliquely, through scene design and careful selection of words and setting and objects, never "on the nose," never direct-- and never clearly in the words or thoughts of the character.

See, this is a danger of deep POV, that the seductive ability to BE the character can actually get in the way of the reader feeling any emotion the character doesn't feel. In fact, sometimes you want the reader to feel other than what the character feels. For example, one of the more excruciating story moments in my memory is the infamous "Spock in love" scene from the original Star Trek. (The tv show, I mean.) Spock is under some spell or illness or something-- I forget the details because I don't WANT to remember, it's too awful-- and gets all emotional and falls in love and laughs! Laughs! Mr. Spock! I still remember with utter horror that he was trying to entertain the lady and so dangled by his knees from a tree branch. (I can't tell you how horrible this was. It's like seeing your parents having sex.)

Point is-- Spock felt Happy! He didn't feel humiliated. Yet the scene inspired this viewer to feel humiliated, so much so that decades later, she remembers that as more humiliating even than her own humiliating experiences in high school.

There will be times when you want the reader to feel something-- humiliation, dread, pity-- that the character is not feeling in the scene. So it's not just about making the reader feel what the character is feeling. (And, in fact, some characters are not going to feel anything-- but the reader still can.) Sometimes you want the reader to know (if not feel) what the character is feeling, but feel something else or in addition. That's when you have to go beyond mere replication of the character's feelings. Something else has to be added to inspire the reader to feel the additional emotion. The totality of the scene, all the elements that go into making the scene, can inspire emotion in the reader.

In fact, partly, I think, to get away from the "sentimental" and focus more on the intellectual, much literary fiction these days strives for an almost emotionless presentation. The prose often has a flat affect (c.f. Cold Mountain's lack of quote marks), and emotional events are often shown obliquely or after the fact or actually undercut (as in Lethem's Chronic City, where SPOILER! the only emotionally affecting character turns out not to exist). This is not to say that the stories don't inspire emotion, but the reader might have to interpret more than with a pop-fic book. Often the characters do not express much emotion, or downplay it, and so emotion must come from other elements than the narration or POV.

That's the second point-- the more "sophisticated" way of creating emotion is oblique, off-sided. I don't think most of us want to go for the completely flat presentation, but we can learn from the lit fic novels (let's think of some authors-- Lethem, DeLillo, Alice Munro-- some right to mind) where the narration is about as far from "sentimental" as it can be. What emotion there is in those novels is usually presented more through the events and scene elements (setting, sequence, action/reaction) than in the words and dialogue.

Nothing wrong with emotion, of course, far from it. Fortunately, popular fiction has always gone for emotion. That is, the authors see emotion as part of life and part of literature and not the enemy of thought, etc. But interestingly, with today's very sophisticated readers, the oblique presentation of emotion through scene design and other elements can be more effective as it doesn't set off that cynical, self-protective "sentimental" alarm. So -- keep in mind that many lit-fic novels err on the "almost sociopathic" side of the emotion line (once a crit group used that "almost" description of a scene of mine-- not that I still dwell on that or anything)-- but some of the better lit-fic novels do have things to teach us about how to design almost "around" emotion, as I think that might well inspire the reader to -feel- the emotion. And this more oblique technique (which you can find to more affecting effect in many good pop-fic novels-- showing, not telling, emotion) uses action, scene design, props (objects that convey emotion somehow), and character body movement rather than emotion words to transmit the emotion.

So -- long path to a short point-- think about whether your purpose in this scene is to tell the reader, or even show the reader, what the character is experiencing emotionally, or is there more? Are you trying to do that AND inspire that and/or some other emotion in the reader? The two aims might require different techniques, and actually work against each other-- vivid internal monologuing by the character might put the reader off.

This is hard. :) But (natch, I'm teaching a class on emotion next week) let's think of some examples of scenes where the reader is led to feel a different emotion than the character.

I don't know why "humiliation" always comes to mind, but there's the scene in Gone with the Wind where Scarlett "proposes" to Rhett (gown made of curtains, remember), and the reader has a sense of dread, knowing that Rhett is going to get her back for her earlier rejection of his advances.

Other scenes?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

He who hesitates is found

Does everyone know about Project Gutenberg? It was the first attempt to digitize the major works of literature, and it's still my first destination when I decide to read the classics I somehow managed to avoid in college. I'm not saying this project came about because of me (because, well, that would be a lie :), but I remember in 1989 or some dark-ages year being on a usenet list for Shakespeare profs (I didn't qualify, but I was teaching Hamlet that year in my freshman lit class, and needed help), they were discussing how this could be done-- all the works of Shakespeare digitized. Eventually it just grew and grew, and while of course there is now Kindle and Googlebooks and all that, none of those new-fangled projects would have happened without this one. So if you've begun the year with a surplus, give some love to this labor of love.

Anyway, I'm reading The Aeneid there, and once again I marvel at how even the earliest (great) authors understood the need for motivation, but also the importance of hesitation. Here's the very end, where Aeneas has his enemy on the ground before him, begging for mercy:

Lifting up beseechingly his humbled eyes and suppliant hand: 'I have deserved it,' Turnus says, 'nor do I ask for mercy; use thy fortune. If an unhappy parent's distress may at all touch thee, this I pray; even such a father was Anchises to thee; pity Daunus' old age, and restore to my kindred which thou wilt, me or my body bereft of day. Thou art conqueror, and Ausonia hath seen me stretch conquered hands. Lavinia is thine in marriage; press not thy hatred farther.'

Aeneas stood wrathful in arms, with rolling eyes, and lowered his hand; and now and now yet more the speech began to bend him to waver: when high on Turnus's shoulder appeared the sword-belt with the shining bosses that Aeneas knew, the luckless belt of the boy Pallas, whom Turnus had struck down with mastering wound, and now he wore on his shoulders the fatal ornament. As his eyes drank in the plundered record of his fierce grief, Aeneas kindles to fury, and cries terrible in anger: 'Mayest thou, thou clad in the spoils of my dearest, escape mine hands? Pallas it is, Pallas who now strikes the sacrifice, and exacts vengeance in thy guilty blood.' So saying, he fiercely plunges the steel full in his breast. But his limbs grow slack and chill, and the life with a moan flies indignantly into the dark.

Now what has happened is Turnus has challenged Aeneas to single combat, and lost. And Aeneas is about to kill him, but hesitates when T begs for mercy and mentions his soon-to-be-bereaved father. This plea almost works-- Aeneas also had a beloved father (Anchises-- notice that Turnus mentions him).

The hesitation is what tells us what matters to Aeneas enough to still his vengeful hand-- the mention of his father. Without that hesitation, we would not have gotten that glimpse of what he values more even than victory.

The hesitation is important, as it shows him in conflict-- his empathy gets in the way of his goal. When there's conflict, it should come out in the narrative somehow, maybe in his inner thoughts (as here), but also in his actions (he lowers his hand).

I think this is an important lesson we should learn-- it's the hesitation that tells the reader there's conflict. The hesitation indicates there's a choice that must be made, but there wouldn't be a choice at all if there was no conflict (Aeneas would just kill him without considering an alternative, if there was no conflict). It's important to SHOW the hesitation when there's a conflict.

And it's important to give characters choices. It's only through making choices that they grow, and it's only through seeing those choices that the reader knows the character (this character values family more than vengeance; this character cares more about money than his daughter -- "my daughter! my ducats!"). The hesitation tells us that it takes some thought to choose.

But just as there's something that happens externally in the scene that shows motivation for the hesitation (Turnus's plea), there should be something external that motivates the action that shows what really matters.

In Aeneas's case, his gaze falls on the belt that he knows once belonged to Pallas (his protege), killed by Turnus. Turnus is wearing the belt as a trophy of war, which isn't outrageous, given the customs of the times, but still is enough to remind A of why Turnus should be killed-- he is the enemy, and he gave no mercy to young Pallas.

That belt is the external manifestation of his motivation (it's important that it's external-- real, powerful, concrete, not just in his head), and serves to remotivate him. In fact, it actually intensifies his motivation to the point that no plea is going to make him waver. Notice how neatly the remotivation fits with Aeneas's values AND Turnus's plea. It's all about fatherhood! Turnus begs him to consider "my aged father" and mentions Aeneas's own late beloved father. But Aeneas is a father too, a surrogate father to Pallas-- he promised Pallas's own father that "I will treat him as a son." So Turnus's plea is about fatherhood, a father's grief, and Aeneas hesitates because he thinks of his own father. And the remotivation is also about fatherhood-- a father's vengeance. This of course amplifies the cultural subtext (Virgil was writing to Romans, presenting Aeneas as the "father" of Rome).

So both steps here-- the hesitation and the remotivated action-- are linked because they each show (in different ways) what Aeneas really values.

I notice that Aeneas's intended action actually gets fulfilled, that is, before the plea he intended to kill Turnus, and after the remotivation, he does kill him. So in a way, that passage of hesitation and remotivation changes nothing-- Turnus still ends up dead at Aeneas's hand. But see how much more interesting the scene becomes when the new conflict (pity) is introduced. And it also serves to deepen the characterization of Aeneas, as we see that he is more than just a single-minded warrior.

Usually a scene changes or obstructs a character's agenda, because it's that sort of interference that really changes the character and impels the plot forward. (I mean, if Mary starts out the scene planning to get out of work on time so that she can meet her buddies for happy hour, you would usually make things happen that mean she can't get out of work on time.) That's pretty standard scene design, and usually works well by focusing on change.

However, sometimes the scene protagonist's agenda just has to be fulfilled. (This is especially true in the last two scenes of the book, because you are aiming at resolution there!) Who this person is and what he wants -- his agenda-- might, sometimes, have to be fulfilled, just because, well, that's necessary for the story. However, as Virgil shows in fulfilling Aeneas's agenda of killing his enemy, the scene doesn't have to show a straight line between plan and fulfillment. You can put obstacles in the way to make the scene more active and dramatic-- and to make the character work for whatever he wants. AND, if you challenge yourself, you can even come up with obstacles that are external, but also reveal something about the character and also amplify the story's themes. :)


Subtext and Context

Alicia posted a great article the other day on subtext. Let's take a look now at how to manipulate subtext on the page.

To begin, keep in mind the basic (and overly simplistic) definition of subtext: Subtext is anything implied by the text but not directly stated. So we're dealing with things that are suggested rather than defined. We can understand how subtext works by examining it at a micro level, specifically, with respect to character emotion. This is a very common form of subtext, and I might even go as far as saying it's necessary for good writing.

Here's how it works. You have a pov character who is interacting with another character -- we'll call him Henry. Seen through the prism of the pov character's viewpoint, Henry's actions provide clues to his internal state. The pov character can't see into his mind or heart. But she can see what his body is doing.

Let's say he does this:

Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes.

There are emotions implied by these actions. Which ones? That's where context comes in. Context is the material surrounding a particular tidbit, and context controls the interpretation of that tidbit. We can assume that Henry's gestures imply an emotional state of some kind, but the context clarifies those emotions. Even small changes in the context can create a strong changes in meaning.

For example, it might be guilt:

"I saw you, Henry. You were touching her hair."
"I didn't mean it. It just happened." Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes.

Or defensiveness:
"I saw you, Henry. You were touching her hair."
"You don't know what you saw." Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes.

Or rebelliousness:
"I saw you, Henry. You were touching her hair."
"Did not! And she touched mine first, Mommy!" Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes.

Never at any time in these examples do we name Henry's emotion in the text. We've taken two fairly generic gestures, routine bits of stage action, which are subject to interpretation. And then, in the context, we provided the reader with the tools to interpret them. Put it all together, and you have created subtext.

I've been known to say that naming an emotion on the page will dilute its impact. Look at this:

"I saw you, Henry. You were touching her hair."
"No, that was just--" Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes, clearly feeling defensive.

By making the emotion textual rather than subtextual, we've stripped some of the power out of the gesture. We've diluted the reader's engagement in the moment by interpreting the text for them. It's telling when we should be showing. We even have an acronym for this, one that's been scrawled in the margins of countless manuscripts -- RUE, Resist the Urge to Explain.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Runner-Up Posts

I've just spent another pleasant half-hour trying to wade through all the nominations. We're closing in on a "reader favorite" list, but the volume of nominations is making this tricky. Just to give you some insight, the list of nominees was 14 pages long, single-spaced, in its first incarnation. That was just a list of titles, though some titles appeared more than once, thanks to my awesome powers of organization. *cough*

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to revisit a few nominees that won't make the final cut.

The Nose Knows

There were a couple of nominations for the "Fixing Your Nasal Passages" posts from all the way back in this blog's infancy. (Post I here. Post II here.) One of you commented that when you first found this blog and read those posts, you knew you were in for something more entertaining than a bunch of lectures. Thank you for that. I don't remember now the exact impetus for those posts, but I do remember thinking that, if we were going to blog, we might as well have some fun with it. Next thing you know, we have cavalries charging nostrils. Ah, good times. Thanks for the nostalgia, and thanks especially to those of you who have stuck with us from the beginning.

Comfort Posts

A number of you nominated posts because they contained something that made you feel cheered about your own writing process. You tell us there's some comfort in learning that others might see it your way, or do it your way, or recognize that your way can work. This is one of the beautiful things about the internet. It makes it so easy for us to come together and compare notes. Writing used to be a much more isolated pursuit.

What I found interesting was that you took this kind of comfort from posts that didn't necessarily intend it. But the pattern seems to be that, whatever the main thrust of the post, sometimes you hear also something relevant to your own process. Rather nifty, isn't it?

In any case, the most frequently mentioned comfort posts were these:
-- This year's NaNo posts (stars in the margin, setting lists, timed writing)
-- The one with the dirty bushes
-- The ones about negotiating edits (Alicia's here, and mine here and here)
-- This Is Crap.

A Giggle or Two

Several of you nominated posts simply because they made you laugh. We're glad of that. But neither the Mantasy nor Fakery and Fuckery are making the final list, which will be slanted toward the helpful and informative. (See n.b. below) I was astonished at how many of you nominated F&F, by the way. Honestly, I really was just venting as a result of a wild goose chase after a nonexistent agent. I guess Annoyed Theresa is giggleworthy, and not, as I would prefer to imagine, The Wielder of the Flaming Sword of Justice. *sigh*

Hi, Knitters (and Other Self-Promoters)

None of the posts on self-promotion will make the final cut, including the one about Stephanie Pearl-McPhee which drew the knitting hordes to this little blog. A lot of you nominated a lot of different posts related to self-promo and other business aspects, but in almost all cases, these were one-off nominations. Also, we don't really think of ourselves as experts on this topic, but just as people who have learned a few tricks along the way. When we blog about that sort of thing, we think of it as a change from the steady diet of participles, structure, participles, commas, participles, semicolons, and participles.

Nota Bene

Weeding through the nominations, and sifting out the ones in categories unrelated to actual writing technique, was a powerful reminder to me of why we're doing this blog. If you're better writers, then our editing job becomes easier. We might, along the way, share our thoughts about managing your public persona (another post that won't make the cut) and other similar topics.

But what we want to teach you is how to write a sentence. How to write a paragraph. How to write a scene. And, ultimately, how to write a book.