Thursday, May 31, 2012

The last line

Mickey Spillane: “Your first line sells the book. Your last line sells the next book."

I'm finishing up revisions on a book, and thinking about how nice it is to write the last line, and how seldom I think I have the RIGHT last line.

So what's a good last line? Have you written one? Why is it good? How about from books you've read?


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

To run-on, or not to run-on

I'm tempted to say something about whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous punctuation, but then I'd want to turn the rest of Hamlet's speech into a musing on grammar, and I lack the mental energy to summon the whole text from the dark corners of my memory. Ay, there's the rub. So instead, we'll talk about a grammar question posed to me on twitter.

 Are run-ons okay nowadays? I've run across so many manuscripts without commas between two indie clauses and a conjunction.

I've noticed this, too. I also have been spotting more run-ons in published manuscripts -- technically, what I've seen are spliced sentences, which are a species of run-on. Before we talk about whether and why they might be okay, let's do a quick refresher on run-ons.

A simple declarative sentence is composed of a subject and predicate. The subject is a noun, and the predicate is a verb and perhaps an object.

The dog eats.
article- subject noun-verb.

The dog eats its dinner.
article-subject noun-verb-possessive pronoun-object noun.

This unit, the subject noun and the verb showing its action, is the basic meaning unit that creates a sentence. We can dress it up with dependent clauses and phrases, or we can shift it around into an interrogative or imperative form. Nevertheless, our basic meaning unit, the simple sentence, will consist of a subject and verb working together as a complete idea.

There are two basic categories of ways that this basic meaning unit can be gummed up. The first category, fragments, results when the words don't add up to a real, complete sentence, but are only part of a sentence. This category has become more or less accepted in casual forms of writing, including much genre fiction.  The second catogory, run-ons, results when too many meaning units are jammed together without the proper connective tissue, and though these are popping up more frequently, they're less acceptable than fragments.

Why is this? Probably because our mind can grasp the meaning of a fragment a little more easily than it can grasp the meaning in a run-on. Look at this, for example:

The dog eats the cat paws its dinner.

What is the dog eating? It's impossible to know for certain, because as written, this could either be a single sentence or two sentences jammed together.

Add a comma after paws, and its dinner becomes an appositive.

The dog eats the cat paws, its dinner.

Add a period after eats, and we have two complete sentences comparing the behavior of two animals.

The dog eats. The cat paws its dinner.

Punctuation tells our eyes how to bunch the words together so that they make sense -- as Alicia says, they are like traffic cops inside the sentences. Typically, we use end marks (periods, exclamation points, question marks) to indicate the end of a basic meaning unit, the sentence. But sometimes basic meaning units are strongly related enough that we want to contain them within a single sentence. In that case, we use either a semicolon (which is a weak period) or a conjunction (and, or, but, nor, for, yet, so).

The dog eats; the cat paws its dinner.
The dog eats, but the cat paws its dinner.

Usually, it's better to use a conjunction rather than a semicolon. Why? Because a semicolon tells you nothing about the nature of the joining. Compare:

The dog eats, but the cat paws its dinner.
The dog eats, so the cat paws its dinner.

Changing the conjunction changes the way the basic meaning units relate to each other. A semicolon would not add a shade of meaning there, but it would make the tone more formal, so many writers eschew them. I suspect this is why we now see so many writers using spliced sentences, in fact. I suspect they would ordinarily reach for a semicolon, but instead use a comma because they know editors sometimes say, "Gack! Ptooey!" when they see semicolons.

The dog eats, the cat paws its dinner.

Now the clarity issue is solved. We know that the dog is not dining on cat paws. But it has been solved by use of a spliced sentence, which is a type of run-on. Technically, a spliced sentence is what we get when we join two basic meaning units with a comma and no conjunction. I suspect we're seeing more of these in genre fiction because they do have a very casual feeling suitable for genre fiction, and because there's no problem with clarity. Personally, I would still fix that sentence in edits, but I'm willing to tolerate a little bit of splicing in my reading material as long as clarity is not damaged.

What do you think? Do you find run-ons annoying, or will you let them slide on occasion?


Friday, May 18, 2012

Click for an old Dad

  • Click? My 83-year-old father has become a writer! Help him by clicking this link to his article?

Brought to you by the letters R and U

Today at Romance University, I'm talking about how to take a character with powerful backstory and convert that into a deeper understanding of the character in the present story world. Traumatic past events can have a big impact on character, and knowing how to handle it is sometimes tricky.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Imagine you've labored over this scene, and you know it's lovely, but you know something is off. Your beta readers talk about how funny this part is, and how surprising that part is, yet they seem somehow unenthusiastic. Contest feedback is positive, but the final judges never ask to see more. You don't know what's wrong, and you find yourself adding paragraphs of description or witty dialogue exchanges to try to improve the scene. You think long and hard about the worst possible thing that could happen, and you write that in. You keep adding pieces, and yet somehow, the scene does not get better.

We run into this periodically, a manuscript with scenes that do convey key information, but there's so much noise packed in around that key information that the scene doesn't work. This is a problem of focus. Imagine, for example, a scene in which an amateur sleuth in an historical romance is trying to determine which man in a ballroom might be the one who has been sending her secret notes. And let's say that during this scene, another secret note somehow finds its way into a potted plant. The key fact or event is the discover of the new secret note. Our sleuth is probably spending a good bit of time observing the men in the ballroom and looking for clues, so that kind of information might be relevant enough to be considered key.

But the scene also contains great, funny dialogue with the sleuth's bff about the terrible lemonade, a lengthy discussion about the merits of the orchestra, a witnessed conversation between the bff and a matron about whether it's appropriate for a particular couple to dance, a chunk of backstory explaining the sleuth's relationship to the matron, and so on. Each of these bits might be well-written, even entertaining. But that doesn't mean they belong in the text.

So what do you do with a scene like this? The best fix requires three ingredients: a printed copy of the scene, highlighter markers in at least three colors, and an attitude mixed with equal parts boldness and objectivity.

First, decide what the scene is ABOUT. What is the reason for its existence? This will be a key moment -- usually a bit of action or dialogue, but sometimes a moment of mental clarity -- which cannot be cut if the reader is going to be able to make sense of subsequent scenes. It's the most important detail in the scene. If you were to write a five-word summary of this scene in a plot summary,  all five words would be about this detail. Sometimes, there will be more than one key moment, but usually, it's just the one.

Now find that key moment in the printout, and highlight it with one color (say, yellow). If it's a sex scene, for example, the key moment is the moment in which consent to sex is granted. If the scene is about the discovery of a mystery clue, highlight the sentence or sentences in which the clue is found. Highlight it, and then put that highlighter away. You should only use this color for the true key moment.

Next, take another color (say, blue) and highlight every detail that directly relates to that key moment. If the key moment involves finding a mystery clue, then here you will highlight the details which are directly related to the clue. If she finds the clue behind a potted plant, then this will include the moment the pov character notices the plant, the decision to examine it more closely, maybe a bit of description of the pot and foliage. But this will not include the conversation the character has with her brother while standing next to the pot.

Why not? Because it is the clue itself that matters, not the circumstances which lead to the discovery of the clue behind the potted plant. A good writer, given this scenario -- crowded ballroom, clue in a potted plant -- will be able to come up with ten ways to get the pov character to look at that plant more closely and discover the clue. Maybe her prissy brother will drag her to the side of the room to scold her for drinking too much. Or maybe not. Maybe her lover will try to steal a kiss from her behind the fern. Or maybe not.

That doesn't mean the scold from the prissy brother or the lover's kiss is unimportant. But what you have to do now is decide just how important it is. Think of it in these terms: Something will lead the character to the supporting details (blue highlights) of the key moment (yellow highlights). These are also supporting details of a sort. Perhaps the action leading up to the blue and yellow moments will be so important that the scene might be hard to follow without them. These might include details like time, place, and other characters who are essential -- not every dancer in the ballroom, not every matron or friend our sleuth speaks to, but the ones whose existence is meaningful to the plot. You can highlight these, too, to make it easier. Let's say these will be orange.

Now, everything that is not highlighted can come out. Yep. You heard that right. Cut the lemonade, no matter how funny the jokes. Cut the analysis of the orchestra, the critique of the dancers, the backstory about the matron -- none of this is about the clue in the potted plant. Remember when I said you would need boldness? This is why. You are going to be bold here, and look at this scene without any of the frippery you created to try to make it "better."

This might make you feel a little panicky, but this is why you're doing it on a printout. None of these changes are saved -- yet. But after this next step, you will probably run to your computer and make the changes permanent. Read just the pieces you've highlighted. Just those pieces, nothing more. Remember when I said you would need objectivity? This is where you need it. Not because you're trying to objectively figure out how to restore everything you've cut, but because you're trying to objectively analyze the flow of the highlighted parts. Do you need a new transition somewhere? A new dialogue beat to clarify where they are standing in relation to the potted plant? If so, add them, but challenge yourself to do it in as few words as possible. A sentence rather than a paragraph. A phrase rather than a sentence.

After you've added the smoothing bits, read it again. What you have now is a tightly focused scene without any extra bits, and chances are, the pace is very fast. Readers might no longer praise your clever lemonade joke, but they'll be so busy turning pages that you won't care. Save the lemonade joke for a PR blog post, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Poetry Reading App: Ralph Fiennes!

The Josephine Hart foundation for poetry.  Looks like you need an IPad or Apple interface.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Someone needs a copy editor!

From Romney's website--

"As president, Mitt will work to expand and enhance access and opportunities for Americans to hunt, shoot, and protect their families, homes and property,...."

Looks like someone is flip-flopping on the Oxford comma. Oh, dear! What will the powerful editorial voting bloc do in response to this? Maybe, instead of obsessing over serial commas, we can spend some time hunting our families and shooting our homes.

feeling snarky,

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hating on

Came across this is a review of Norah Jones's latest:
"That would be like hating on peaches for being juicy."

I am always-- who knows why-- charmed by the term "hating on."  "Hating" is a static  verb, referring to a feeling. (I am hating the smell of that banana peel in the trashcan under my desk.)

But "hating on" is an active verb. It's a new construction, but generally means that I don't just statically hate this thing, but I, you know, bitch about it, write nasty Tweets about it, leave bad reviews on the Amazon page. That is, I actively act on my hatred when I hate on something.

We should remember that when we're writing character emotions. If a character has strong emotion, she doesn't just feel the emotion. She acts on it in some way, especially if she can't formulate the thought or speak the words because the emotion is verboten somehow. She might not be dumb enough to SAY or even "think outloud" the thought, "I hate my best friend," but if she hates her best friend, she's going to show it somehow. She'll clench up when the friend comes close. She'll notice the friend's number on her cell phone display and refuse to answer it. She'll accidentally on purpose forward the friend's confidential rant about her boss to the boss. She might not TELL the emotion, but she'll SHOW it.

Telling what the character is feeling is good. It shows character depth. But it's not enough, especially when the character isn't able to articulate or own up to the feeling. Try showing it instead, and I don't mean useless actions like kicking that banana-redolent trashcan.For example, she closes the phone and ignores her friend's phone call, thereby missing out on the warning that her department is going to be closed and she laid off. Or her friend is fired by the boss and vows eternal revenge against the company, not realizing it was our character's fault for forwarding the email.

How can the character hate on or love on or deliberate on or worry on or bitter on or resent on in a way that affects the plot or at least that scene?


Weasel words

 Stephen has a blog post about "weasel words":

I love the Nixon reference: "Mistakes were made." The most profound passive statement ever.


Friday, May 4, 2012


A homophone is a word that sounds like ("phone") another word but means something different: To, two, too.

Well, most of us have words we've heard but never seen written, and when we write them, we think of the alternate word....

Anyway. Just came across-- "The agent must explain the contract in Lehman's terms."  Huh? Who is Lehman? That happens to be my grandmother-in-law's married surname, but.... I had to read it aloud to get what the writer meant: "layman's terms," that is, ordinary-person-not-expert terminology. The mistake comes from not having "layman" in the vocabulary. I do, because I grew up Catholic, and the world was divided among the clergy (priests and nuns and their superiors), the laymen (us who were in the True Church but not ordained), and all the heathens (everyone else). So I know what "layman" means (not an expert), but of course to a youngster who has heard it but never seen it, it's going to mean less than the surname.

So come on, confess! When have you made a similar mistake because you didn't understand context, because you had only heard and not seen a word?

And more embarrassing even.... When have you only seen and never heard a word, so you mispronounced it? I'll start: I remember getting to college and telling a professor that I thought TS Eliot was the"epp-it-home of modern poetry." The professor gently suggested that maybe I meant "epit-oh-mee."


Alicia (The epitome of too soon old, too late smart)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

I admit-- this puzzled me for a moment!

One thing editors look for is subject/verb agreement, basically, if the subject is plural, the verb should be too. This gets more complicated with long subject phrases where there are several nouns. Here's an example of one that kind of stumped me for a moment. Usually I can "hear" the right verb, but this one... well. Took a moment's thought:
He pointed to the 2008 public offering, which exemplified the threat Facebook and the other social media companies pose(s) to Microsoft and other traditional internet companies.

 Hmm. What poses? The threat? (singular, so "poses"--ever notice how "s" signifies plural in nouns, but singular in verbs?) Or "Facebook and the other social media companies?"
The latter. But I had to parse that, because the "ear" first put "threat" as the subject. Fortunately, the other "ear" is more skeptical, and "heard" something off there. So lesson is: When a sentence is complicated, read more carefully.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I've been trying to figure out for a while how to write this post. I want to talk about ways to build complexity into texts without undercutting the integrity of the story. This is not an easy thing to explain in general terms because -- well, it's one of those "know it when you see it" things. But let me try to explain what I mean, and bear with me if this gets a little abstract.

There's a certain kind of easiness in books that can result from everything being very clear-cut. Most books aimed at younger readers have this ease, and many commercial books tilt toward this end of the spectrum. The good guys are always good, even when wrestling moral demons. They might face temptation, but they prevail. The bad guys are always bad, even when their motivations are explained in a sympathetic or empathetic way.  The characters say what they mean. There might be surprises along the way, but the action is clean and straightforward. We know what is happening, why it is happening, and what the consequences are. These can be excellent books -- "ease" is not code for "bad" in this case, but rather expresses a kind of clarity in the story that leaves less ambiguity for the reader. (ETA: The word "transparent" is sometimes used to describe this kind of writing.)

I don't like to use the word clarity here, really, because clarity in writing has a very specific meaning. Normally, when we talk about clarity, we are talking about the author's relative success in communicating a point to a reader. When the writing is clear, the reader understands the point the author is trying to make. When the writing is unclear, the reader is unsure of the meaning intended by the writer. All good writing is clear, whether it is simple/straightforward or complex/ambiguous.

The opposite of this, what I will call complexity, is not the result of unclear writing, then. Rather, the author's point is something that might be subject to interpretation, something that contains inherent contradictions or uncertainties. Think, for example, of "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James. This is a ghost story -- or is it? A governess goes to a country estate to care for two children. She begins seeing adult figures who behave in unpredictable ways, and she learns that the former governess and her lover, an apparent molester, died before her arrival on the estate. The lover may have interfered with the children, as they say, and after an incident in which one of the children is lost on the grounds, the new governess is left alone at night with the older boy. She sees a reflection in the window. The boy tries to see it, too, but she prevents him. She tells the boy the dead man can never hurt him again, and the boy dies in her arms. The events in the story are presented with great clarity. And yet, literary scholars have been arguing for decades about whether this is a ghost story or a story about an insane governess who murders her charge.

The complexity comes from the ability to read the same thing in different ways without any loss of clarity. You can decide that the governess killed the boy, or that the ghost killed the boy, and either way, you could be correct. The text supports either interpretation. But what's more important, for our purposes, is that regardless of the interpretation you choose, the choice will not result in any confusion. The text is clear in either case.

So, if this is complexity -- a type of depth, perhaps, that allows for different shades of meaning -- how do we build it into the narrative? Can complexity be created deliberately? I think the answer is yes, but I also think there are many pitfalls in that path. The most common pitfall I see is the author who tries to narrate simultaneous but conflicting positions. At its most simple level, this is the character who is brooding over the unhappy state of her life in one paragraph, and filled with excited anticipation over an outing in the very next line. Is it possible for an unhappy person to look forward to an outing? Yes. Is it possible to present both aspects of that character in the same scene? Yes. But it's also possible to botch it badly, and I think the difference lies in the way these contradictions exist on the page. There must be some kind of transition between the ideas, some kind of causal connection. Compare:

My life sucks
tonight will rock.

My life sucks
tonight will rock.

My life sucks
I have to make sure tonight will rock.

My life sucks
I'm grateful that tonight will rock.

The first example presents two ideas that might be mutually exclusive, or that, at the very least, don't rub along easily together. The second presents a general rule with an exception, and it's straightforward without any added subtlety. The third presents a general rule with a goal for an exception, and it will generate some reader interest in the events and outcomes. The fourth presents a general rule with an emotional disposition toward an exception, and it will create some reader interest in the character's inner state.

The first doesn't work, and instead of creating complexity, it creates confusion. The rest work better, but each with different results. Depending on the rest of the narrative, each of those three might work, and any can be perfectly clear in the ordinary sense of the term clarity. If you choose the wrong one -- if you reach for goal-setting when we need emotional bonding, for example -- you might not end up with the right kind of complexity or depth in the text. And I'm convinced that if this isn't carefully controlled on a micro-level, moment by moment in the text, then there's no hope of adding up to a "Turn of the Screw" type complexity -- an entire story, rather than a single moment, that contains simultaneous different meanings.

So I guess what I'm trying to say (I'm still struggling to find the best way to elucidate this concept) is that complexity is built up in small moments, but each of those moments must be clear in and of themselves. If the contradictions in your narrative aren't presented in a clear way, in a way that allows the reader to easily grasp them, then you're not building complexity into the text.