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What I would have said, part 2

Note: this is part 2 of answers to a set of interview questions from an interview I didn’t end up doing. Read part 1 here.

What does it really mean to ‘show don’t tell’ and how does a writer DO this?

That’s actually a very deep and involved subject. I could begin to do justice to it were I to dedicate an entire blog post to it. Which, come to think of, I kind of did when I guest-blogged for Seekerville last year. So you can read that.

In a really tiny nutshell, though, it is this: you remember back in grade school and high school how English teachers were always admonishing you to “read between the lines”? Personally, I always hated that because I had no idea what they meant when they said that. Now I understand that my teachers just didn’t know how to explain the difference between showing and telling.

When they said “read between the lines,” what they were really saying was “this writer did a really good job of showing, and because of that, there’s a lot we can tell about the people and the story even though it’s not stated directly.” Here’s an example. Imagine you knew everything you currently know about life, literature, and popular culture except that you had somehow remained 100% oblivious to the very existence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Now someone hands you the book, tells you nothing, and says “read.” What does Jane Austen give you? This:

> It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

That’s showing. How do we know? Because without telling us what it is, we already know what the major theme of the book is. Had Jane Austen been given to telling instead of showing, she might have penned this instead:

> This, dear reader, is a romance novel.

One is showing: Jane Austin gives us the evidence we need, straight away, to deduce a’la Sherlock Holmes, that this book is a romance. But never does she tell us that fact flat-out.

Telling is when you directly state the deep truths you want readers to know. Showing is when you don’t, when you never do, but instead only give the evidence readers need to figure out those deep truths for themselves. That’s what “Show, don’t tell” means. It’s the flip-side of “read between the lines,” because showing is how you put anything between the lines in the first place.

Why should a writer hire a book doctor rather than asking friends, family, teachers, and critique partners to edit their book?

Well, why do you go to a medical doctor instead of asking friends, family, teachers, and critique partners tell you what to do about that persistent rash? Because there’s a difference between saying “Yup, looks like a rash,” and saying “That rash is a symptom of anemia caused by underlying kidney disease. We’d better get you on a low protein diet and talk about lifestyle changes.”

You hire a book doctor because, while readers are common, trained analytical readers are not. Friends, family, teachers, mothers, et cetera—even if they’re avid readers—usually don’t have the analytical skills to actually diagnose your writing. Untrained readers, those who simply love to read, are great at telling you what they don’t like. They’re great at telling you when something isn’t working for them.

But they’re usually lousy at telling you exactly why that something isn’t working for them, in such a way that you can see what to do about it. It’s feedback, but it’s not helpful feedback. Telling you “I didn’t like that part where the car breaks down on the bridge” isn’t so-called actionable feedback. It doesn’t tell you what to do about it. It’s “Yup, looks like a rash,” all over again, leaving you no wiser as to whether you should put lotion on it or change your diet.

Sadly (though not for me, because otherwise I couldn’t make a living doing what I do), even most writers are lousy at this. Even most writers, as I discovered when I started seeking out constructive feedback for my own novels, are no better at critiquing than non-writers.

You don’t go to a book doctor for an “I liked it” or “I hated it” verdict. You go to a book doctor for a diagnosis and prescription. You go to a book doctor because you want your novel’s rash to actually get better.

What advice would you offer to new authors?

There are hundreds of fiddly little bits of advice I could give to new readers, none more worthy than the others. And you already asked about “Show, don’t tell,” so I can’t use that (though I would). I guess what I would say is this:

Recognize that this is a hard thing you’re doing, and check your ego at the door.

The thing is, a well written novel is a deceptive thing. When done right, a novel flows past the reader so smoothly, so effortlessly, readers don’t really even feel like they’re reading. They’re just enjoying a great story. A great novel is such a transparent, transcendent reading experience, that readers don’t feel like they’re doing any work at all. Though in fact their brains are working quite hard, every second, it feels so easy that we’re left thinking that it must also be easy to write one.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s easy, relatively speaking, to nail some old roller-skate wheels onto a couple of boards and call it a go-kart. And it’ll go, but you’re in for a pretty rough ride. Just getting around the block is going to leave you winded. It is worlds more difficult to build a 450 horsepower V8 high performance luxury sedan that rides like a dream and will take you from Boston to Chicago with less effort than that once around the block on the go-kart.

I doubt I need to unpack this metaphor for you. Suffice it to say writing novels is hard. You will need to learn a lot of new skills, both in writing craft and story craft. You will need to discover that story craft is, in fact, a wholly different skill set than writing craft. You will make a lot of mistakes along the way. This is inevitable.

But if you go into it thinking you’re God’s own gift to literature, and nobody can tell you anything about your story, and how dare they try to influence your artistic genius with their cookie cutter notions about conflict and character arcs and raising the stakes and showing versus telling—

Well, let’s just say if you go into it with that attitude I can promise you something else that will happen: not only will your writing suck—that hardly makes you special—but you will also never improve.

It’s just plain hard to write a novel. You need criticism. You need feedback. But all the helpful feedback in the world won’t do you a lick of good if your ego is blocking you from hearing it.

August 15, 2013 04:08 UTC

Tags: interview, book doctor, show don't tell, evidence, critique, analysis, diagnosis, feedback, advice, ego, writing, writing craft, story, story craft

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What I would have said, part one

Recently, I was approached to do an interview about book doctoring. As mine is a poorly understood corner of the editing world, I was delighted for the opportunity. Unfortunately, the interview didn’t work out. The reasons are neither here nor there, but the questions they wanted to ask me were good ones, and I’d still like to answer them. So, without further ado:

What is a book doctor?

It’s a clever moniker for “freelance developmental editor.” Which basically means I write book reports for a living. Extremely long, excruciatingly technical book reports, designed to help aspiring authors produce a much stronger next-draft of their novel.

When in the writing process should an author engage a book doctor?

Well, there’s the ideal, and then there’s the practical.

Ideally, people would contact me while they’re still outlining their book. Think about it this way: the easiest time to fix issues with the plot is before you’ve actually written the story. Once the story is set down word by laborious word, it becomes much harder to change. Fixing plot problems at that stage means maybe moving a scene here or there, adding a bridge scene, tweaking a few details.

That’s if you’re lucky. Far more commonly, though, fixing a plot issue means changing something deep in the bones of the story. It means altering characters, events, motivations, or other details which demand updates to many scenes. It can mean ripping out whole chunks of the book to re-draft some section of the plot. Worst case—but by no means a rare case—it means admitting that while the core story idea may be good, the plot as it stands is too much of a mess to fix, and then writing a new one from scratch.

Maybe that’s fine if you don’t have to worry about the concerns of making a living and tending to family. But the preponderance of writers I know do have to worry about those things. So ideally, you’ll get your plot problems worked out beforehand, and save yourself vast time and labor fixing problems that could have been avoided.

(And yes, what I just wrote amounts to a pro-plotter, anti-pantser screed. I’m not trying to dismiss the pantsers in the audience. It is certainly possible to fly by the seat of your pants and yet end up with a plot that holds together. But it is also true that the worst, most haphazard, nonsensical plots I’ve ever seen from clients have come from clients who don’t plot ahead of time.)

That’s the ideal. But in practice, almost nobody contacts me while they’re still outlining. Normally, people pop into my inbox only after they have manuscript in hand. That’s fine too. Generally that means you’ll be doing more rewriting than you might have liked, but it beats giving up on the novel. In my experience, the writers who succeed are the ones who don’t give up.

What makes for a good plot?

If I were to name anything specific (Conflict! Drama! ’Splosions!), someone would inevitably criticize that answer as being applicable only in certain genres. And they’d be right. There’s only one thing I know of that makes for a good plot, no matter what genre you’re writing in. Only one plotting principle that genuinely stands up whether you’re writing an action packed thriller, a cozy mystery, a memoir, or even a quiet, introspective literary piece:


A good story is one that constantly raises questions in the reader’s mind. Curiosity, that human drive to know, to figure out, is at the heart of why readers engage with a book. If your narrative is constantly making us wonder about stuff—big stuff, little stuff—chances are we’ll be interested, and will keep turning those pages. After all, how else will we find the answers?

A small question—who’s ringing the doorbell? Who’s on the phone?—might only propel us a few sentences or maybe a paragraph further. That’s fine. That’s all it needs to do. A larger question can drive us to the end of the scene or chapter. The biggest questions—whodunit? Will James Bond save the world for democracy yet again?—those are the questions that propel whole stories.

A good plot provides a lot of questions, and then answers them when the time is right. A great plot does the same, but carefully manages the questions so that by the time one question has been answered, something else has come along to take its place. Or several things. A great plot weaves questions and answers together into a complex, rich pattern that keeps the reader totally hooked until the very end. Or even into a sequel…

What do new writers often need the most help with?

Two basic areas. Writing craft, and story craft.

Writing craft is all the stuff having to do with how you put words together into sentences. It’s about writing beautiful prose. New writers, no matter how much they wrote in school, almost always have a lot to learn in this area. So do I. It’s an endless art, and I’m convinced it is always possible to improve one’s writing. Usually, the greater fraction of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see things in their writing that aren’t so great, and explaining how to fix them.

From my own perspective, I’ve been writing novel-length fiction for close to a decade now. I’m a lot better than I used to be. Spending my days analyzing my clients’ writing and explaining to them how to improve it has certainly helped make me a better writer too. But even now, I still find new things in my clients’ manuscripts that help me understand the craft of writing better. It never ends. Nor, I think, should it. How sad would it be, to know you could not be better than you are?

Story craft is the other side of the novelist’s coin. It’s everything having to do with constructing a great plot. Raising questions is part of it, but it’s also about setups and events and conflicts and character motivations and surprises. All that stuff.

But here’s the thing. Most new writers don’t understand that writing craft and story craft are distinct crafts. They are wholly separate skill sets. I’ve seen beautiful prose wrapped around some truly awful plots. And I’ve seen the clumsiest prose imaginable hiding a corker of a plot inside. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can tell a story.

Most writers don’t understand this. And really, why should they? When, in most of our lives, are we ever exposed to story craft as a distinct skill? Not in grade school or high school, that’s for sure. Or at least, not in the dark ages of the 1980s when I was in school. Essay structure? Sure. Story structure? Not so much. Thus, another healthy chunk of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see what is and isn’t working in their plot, and offering suggestions for how to fix it.

Click here for part two

August 09, 2013 03:58 UTC

Tags: interview, book doctor, plot, plotting, outline, curiosity, questions, writing, writing craft, story, story craft

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Everything you wanted to know about editing but were afraid to ask

Maybe there’s something in the water, but in the past few days I’ve encountered a lot of confusion over the question of editing. I’ve seen it from prospective novelists, on blogs, and even on a nascent freelancing website.

So let’s just answer what kinds of editing there are, when you need them—and most importantly—what they can and cannot do for you. I can’t stress that last point enough. You wouldn’t hire a painter when you need a plumber; in like fashion, it pays to know what kind of editing to ask for.

Developmental Editing

  • What is it? Developmental editing centers on the question, “is this story any good?". It is deep structure editing, answering that question in terms of the elements of story craft: conflict, stakes, pacing, et cetera. And note, the editor’s personal taste is irrelevant. I’m not into vampire novels, but I can still tell you whether you vampire novel is based on a compelling conflict, has meaningful stakes, moves with appropriate pacing towards a satisfying climax, and so forth. Developmental editing involves an editor taking a look at the building blocks of your novel and gives you feedback on what works, what doesn’t, and what you might do about it. You’ll get feedback on everything, including the premise, the storyline, the characters, their arcs, and even your writing craft. Be aware, though, not every editor can do this. Developmental editing demands a very different skill set than line editing and copy editing.

  • When do I need it? As early as possible. The great tragedy of developmental editing is that nobody asks for it early enough. If your premise has some tragic flaw in it, some logical inconsistency that makes the whole story fall flat but could be fixed easily enough, or if your storyline has a plot-hole in it that’s going to require you to re-write two thirds of the manuscript in order to fix it, wouldn’t you like to know about it before you write the whole manuscript? Of course you would. Yet, almost invariably, authors don’t look for editorial assistance until after they’ve finished their manuscript. That’s ok; I can still find all those issues and tell you about them, it just means more work for you in revision. It’s like building a house and then discovering you didn’t leave any place for the stairs. It’s laborious and time-consuming to retrofit stairs into the house; much better to find and fix those flaws in the blueprint stage. For developmental editing, earlier is always better.

  • What can it do for me? Ideally, a good developmental edit yields a roadmap you can use to turn your first-draft novel into something that is of publishable quality. Developmental editing helps you see your story from a different perspective, exposing issues you might not have seen and opportunities you may not have thought to take advantage of. But that’s not the most important benefit. Not by a longshot. There’s that old metric that most writers have to write about five manuscripts before they reach a truly professional level, or the classic million words of crap. By giving you what amounts to a Master Class in plotting, character development, and writing craft, with a curriculum that’s based on your work, developmental editing also turbo-boosts your own writing skill. If you’re willing to put in the work of fixing everything your developmental editor, you can cut that five-manuscript metric down to three, or the million words down to perhaps 600,000. That translates directly into extra productive years added onto your writing career, and how much is that worth? This is why, more than for any other reason, I always suggest new novelists start out by finding a good developmental editor.

  • What can’t it do for me? It won’t fix your story, clean up your prose, or address your mechanical issues. It’ll show you what you need to do, but it won’t actually do them in your manuscript. Developmental editing does not touch your words. A developmental editor will identify the problems—that’s the whole point—but it’s still your job to fix them. It’s your story, not your editor’s. If you want somebody to actually fix the problems for you, then what you really want isn’t an editor but a ghost writer.

Line Editing

  • What is it? Line editing centers on the question of “is it well written?". That is, regardless of the story being told, does the prose itself read well? Does it flow? Is it appropriate to the genre and target audience? Without laboring over definitions, if your basic concern is whether you’ve written it “pretty enough,” then you’re looking for line editing.

  • When do I need it? After you are 100% sure that you have addressed any structural issues—the ones your developmental editor found—in the story. After you’re absolutely certain that the story itself is what you want it to be, that every moment and action in the plot achieves the storytelling function you intended, then you’re ready for line editing. Not before. But, as you can only see issues that are within the scope of your present skill-level, and as most writers haven’t gone through their five manuscripts or million words yet, here’s a good rule of thumb: if you haven’t had someone developmentally edit the novel (and if you haven’t made the corresponding revisions yet), it’s not ready to be line edited.

  • What can it do for me? Bottom line, it can help you “write it prettier.” A good line edit will yield a manuscript of professional-quality prose. But as with developmental editing there’s a deeper benefit. A good line editor is someone who can help amplify your authorial voice. For writers who are still working to establish their voice, this is invaluable. A good line editor is someone who can absorb the voice of your writing and reflect that back to you in the edits. A good line editor is a literary chameleon, and is not always easy to find. But that process of reviewing a manuscript’s worth of edits that read like a better version of yourself can work wonders for helping clarify your authorial voice. When you find yourself reviewing the edits and saying, “yes, that’s what I meant to say,” then you know it’s working.

  • What can’t it do for me? Address any structural issues with your story. Line editing works at the level of words and sentences. It makes your words read better, but it does not change the underlying meaning of those words. Meaning is structural. Anything that would affect the plot itself, in any way, is the purview of a developmental edit, not a line edit.

Copy Editing

  • What is it? Copy editing centers on the question, “did I make any dumb mistakes?". This is superficial, fit-and-finish work. The scope of copy editing is somewhat variable, and there is some gray area between copy editing and line editing. Copy editing typically addresses errors in spelling, punctuation, and standard usage (i.e. whether to spell out numbers or leave them in numeric form). Depending on the editor and/or what you and the editor agree to, copy editing may also fix minor grammatical issues, involve some amount of fact-checking, et cetera.

  • When do I need it? After absolutely everything else is done. Copy editing should be the very last step before sending your manuscript to any other non-editor person in the publishing business. That includes agents, publishers, and literary contests. For the indie author, that includes your book designer, POD services like Lightning Source,, et cetera. Copy editing should be last, last, last, or else you’re just wasting your money.

  • What can it do for me? Copy editing brings your manuscript as close to perfection as possible with respect to mechanical errors. Errors somehow always slip through anyway, but this is your last, best line of defense against embarrassing typos, using the wrong homonym, leaving the period off of a sentence, et cetera.

  • What can’t it do for me? Anything else. Copy editing won’t help you write it prettier. It won’t come anywhere near to addressing structural issues. Think of it like getting your car detailed; it’ll come out clean as a whistle, but a detailer isn’t going to change the oil or give the engine a tune-up.

What does editing cost?

Now that’s a loaded question, isn’t it? Obviously, it’s going to depend on a whole lot of factors. You can see what I charge here, but the best rule of thumb I can give you is “time is money.” Developmental editing, although I think it is the most valuable to a writer’s overall career, is the least time consuming service I provide. Consequently, it’s less expensive. Line editing and copy editing, which are very meticulous arts, are quite labor intensive and you can expect to pay more for them.

Every editor will have his or her own price system. Some will charge by length. Some will charge hourly. Check their websites, which ought to at least give you a ballpark idea. And if you’re shopping around, by all means ask a prospective editor to give you a quote. They may need to evaluate a sample chapter or two, but by all means ask for an estimate. No surprises, right?

Finally, a word of encouragement

Sometimes I think learning the art of novel-craft is nothing more than an extended exercise in developing one’s humility. So many writers I encounter start off with a belief that there’s nothing to it. That writing a novel should be easy. I will confess that I was guilty of that myself, once upon a time. Discovering that there’s actually a whole lot to it, much more than you may ever have imagined, can be a very humbling experience. Yet, too often, those same writers seem to think they must struggle through on their own, or they aren’t real writers. That needing help represents some tragic failing within themselves.

Bluntly, that’s crap. There is no shame in getting help from an editor. Do it, and with pride! That’s how you will move most quickly towards becoming the writer you want to be. That’s not shameful, it’s just smart.

Writing novels is hard. It is. And everybody needs help doing it. Professional athletes still have coaches helping them improve. Presidents have advisors. CEOs have boards of directors. Everyone in the world who had a hard job has somebody helping them see how to do it better. Why should writers be any different?

April 30, 2012 19:21 UTC

Tags: writing, editing, developmental editing, line editing, copy editing

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Writer's guide to working with freelancers

This is a departure from my usual material, but one which I hope will be helpful not only to independent writers, but also to freelancers like myself. Having been a book doctor for a few years now, I’ve assembled an informal list of dos-and-don’ts for working with the people who will help you bring your book to market.

If you have an agent who can land you a traditional publishing deal, none of this is likely to apply; chances are, the publisher will handle all of these things for you. But if you don’t, the burden of producing a professional-quality book that holds its own next to traditionally-published titles falls on you. And unless you’re a masochist, happen to be insanely talented in the many non-writing arts of book production, or are merely insane, you’ll hire a variety of freelancers to help you out.

Who might you hire?

Here is short list of freelancer types, in roughly the order you’ll need them:

  • A book doctor or developmental editor (same thing, different names. Go figure). This person will help you turn your rough story idea, first draft, or even 27th draft, into something considerably more polished. This person doesn’t edit the words on the page, but carefully analyzes the higher level concepts of premise, story structure, and character arcs. That’s much of what I do, and if you want a better description, go check out the services tab on my site.

  • A line editor and/or copy editor. Having digested your developmental editor’s feedback and produced a (hopefully) much stronger draft of your manuscript, line editors and copy editors will help you polish your prose until it shines. A good line editor concerns him or herself with the overall flow of the language, and will be sensitive enough to your authorial voice that their edits will be in keeping with your style, rather than imposing their own style on your work. A copy editor deals with the fiddly bits of punctuation, fact checking, typo-spotting, and other final, detail work. Depending on the strength of your writing, you may or may not need the line editor (though most people benefit from one), but please don’t skip the copy editor. You’ll be amazed at the embarrassing goof-ups a good copy editor will spot for you.

  • A book designer. I used to think that if I fiddled around in Microsoft Word with fonts, margins, and line spacing until things looked nice, that I was good to go. PDF that sucker, and ship it off to, CreateSpace, or wherever. You can do that if you want. Nobody will stop you. And that’s fine, if you want your book to look like crap. If you want people to open up your book and wonder, “Why does this book look so weird?” then by all means engage in uneducated, DIY book design. I used to do that very thing. But once I actually met a book designer and heard him talk about how and why he does what he does, I learned there is an incredible amount of arcane lore involved in putting text on a page and making it look just so. It’s not easy, and since I don’t have a spare decade to learn all that stuff for myself, now I hire it out. A good book designer will have an eye for proportion, text weight, font choice, and a zillion other things that will blow you away.

  • A cover art designer. I don’t think I have to say much about this, since countless other sites have covered cover design, as it were. Just, don’t be that guy who buys a box of colored pencils and draws a sixth-grade level picture of an elf to go on the cover of his DIY-designed, un-copy-edited, fantasy novel. Don’t be the person who thinks, “How hard could a little Photoshop be?” Unless you’re uncommonly artistic visually as well as verbally, pretty hard. Be smart. Hire it out. It’s worth it. Pro-tip, though: DO NOT (I repeat, do not) have the cover designer place the title, author’s name, and other text on the art. Have them leave room in the design for that, but let your book designer handle the layout and other font choices for your cover, too. That way, the outside look of your book can be unified, design-wise, with the inside.

That’s who most independent authors will—and IMHO, should—end up using. Depending on the nature of the book, (e.g. a guide to selling your house without a real estate agent, a diet or other health/lifestyle guide, etc), you may also hire a lawyer to write you a disclaimer. Depending on how much time you want to put into promotion, you might also hire a publicist. But the above four people are the core freelancers you’ll be interacting with.

What should you expect from a freelancer?

Professional service, with a smile, right? Basically, yes. You want the freelancer to treat you professionally. You want them to respect your work, and your vision for your work. You want them to do quality work that is worth your hard-earned dollars. You want them to be clear about what they can do for you, and when they can do it by. You are well within your rights to expect all of that.

What should a freelancer expect from you?

But it goes both ways. The freelancer expects you to treat them like a professional, too. This is how we make a living, so we treat what we do pretty seriously. The golden rule really does apply, here.

Just like you expect the freelancer to respect your work, you should respect the freelancer’s skills and abilities—after all, you’re hiring them because they can do things you can’t, right? Just like you want quality service, we want to get the best material from you that you’re capable of producing. The better your manuscript is when we see it, the further we can help you take it.

We need you to be able to clearly communicate your vision for the project, particularly where artistic choices are concerned, as often comes up in line editing and cover art. A line editor needs to know about any peculiarities of your authorial voice that are important to you. If you absolutely don’t want green as a strong color on your book cover, because green makes your protagonist vomit or something, tell your cover artist up front. Don’t let them spend ten hours doing a mock-up, only to have you say “Oh, no green. Sorry!”

Where do freelance interactions go wrong?

From my experience, here are the most common problems that mess up my freelancer/client interactions.

  • Book them early. Think of the freelancer like a medical specialist. When your doctor refers you to a really good dermatologist for that funny itch that just won’t go away, you’re not surprised if you can’t get an appointment right away, are you? The better the person is, the longer you’ll generally have to wait. It’s the same for freelancers. Yet, I have long-since lost count of the number of e-mails I get from prospective clients asking me to do a developmental edit for them in two weeks because they want to submit their book to a contest with an imminent deadline, or because an agent said “get it to me by the end of March” and it’s already February 20th, or something like that. It sucks for the client and it sucks for the freelancer. I hate turning business away, but I don’t have any choice but to tell these people “sorry, I’m booked out six months in advance.”

  • Be on time. When you hire a freelancer, there will be some date by which you need to hand over your manuscript. If the person can schedule you right away, there’s no problem. But if the person can’t schedule you for a while, then you have due-date on your calendar. It’s your responsibility to turn in your materials on time. If it gets to be two or three days before the due date, and we haven’t heard from you, we begin to get nervous. Most freelancers will send you a reminder e-mail, to which we’re hoping to hear, “Yes, I’ll have that to you by the due-date!” But all too often, what we hear is “Oh, sorry, I forgot all about that. I’m re-working the middle of the book, and I’m just not ready. Can I reschedule?” That answer makes us want to snap small trees in half with our bare hands. In all likelihood you can reschedule, but you’ve also left us scrambling to move other clients around to fill the hole you just blew into our schedule.

  • Communicate clearly. You’re a writer. This should be a gimme, but unfortunately, it isn’t. Take the time to make your own ideas known to the freelancer up-front, again, especially as concerns line editing or cover art issues. One really good line editing client I had was from Canada. He told me up-front that he had made a decision to use the British spellings of words like ‘colour’ and ‘flavour’ and so forth. Perfect. That makes it easy for me to give him a great line edit while still respecting his authorial style.

  • Communicate often. If your plans change, LET THE FREELANCER KNOW. I really cannot emphasize this enough. When you ask a freelancer to do work for you, you’re trusting them with a chunk of your money in exchange for quality service. But the freelancer is also trusting you with a chunk of their time. Time is the freelancer’s fundamental commodity. It’s the thing we can trade for money that we use to pay our mortgages and feed our families. We’re trusting you to make good on your promise to use the time we’ve set aside for you. So when your slot comes around, and we e-mail you to ask for your manuscript, and you tell us “oh, sorry, I changed my mind” or “my car died a few months ago, and I really can’t afford it right now,” that also makes us want to destroy innocent foliage. Had you told us immediately when your plans changed, we could have found someone else to use that time. But by keeping mum about it, again, you’ve blown a hole in our schedule. You’ve taken a paycheck out of our wallets, and have made it harder for us to provide for our families.

  • Be flexible. Your freelancer will likely be very flexible with you. You’re the one with the money, and our reputations are golden to us. We never know how someone will react, and we can’t risk irritating you and having you badmouth us on your blog or on Twitter. The rumor mill doesn’t care who’s “right” in such a situation. So look, we get it. Life happens. Sometimes you will have to reschedule, or may be late on a deadline, despite your honest and best intentions to the contrary. Your freelancer may grit their teeth about it in private, but in all probability he or she will be very flexible towards you. All we ask in return is that you afford us that same flexibility. We have lives too, and we can’t control everything.

It’s a question of trust

A successful freelance experience boils down to trust, in both directions. You’re trusting a developmental editor to intuit what you’re trying to do with your story—to see past what the story on the page, down to what you intended the story to be—in order to best advise you how to make the story on the page match your intentions. You’re trusting a line editor to be a gifted and chameleon-like writer, able to absorb your authorial voice into themselves, and reflect your voice back to you in the edits. You’re trusting a copy editor to know the difference between that one tricky homonym-pair that always trips you up, to know that UK English spells “aluminum” with an extra “i". (And that UK punctuation puts the period on the other side of the close-quote.) You’re trusting a book designer to know the thousand little tricks of typography and typesetting that, collectively, make your text beautiful to look at and physically comfortable to read. You’re trusting a cover designer to understand how the nuances of color, composition, lighting, and form combine to nail the specific mood you’re looking for to represent your book.

But the freelancer is trusting you, too. When you contract a freelancer to help you with your project, that person dedicates time on their calendar for you. Time is a freelancer’s stock in trade. It costs us time to talk to you up front about your project, so we can work up a proposal and cost estimate for you. It takes time to set you up in our customer tracking system, to collect material and other resources that may be necessary for your project, and so forth. That time is largely invisible to you, but it’s very real to us. Before we ever see a dime from you, we’ve already invested a chunk of our time in you, and we’re trusting you to be as good as your word. When I say it’s about paying our mortgages and feeding our families, that’s not hyperbole. That’s the real deal.

A freelancer will generally bend over backwards to be flexible to you, to say “yes” to you as much as possible. After all, you’re the one with the money. But that’s no license not to act professionally. Remember the golden rule, and that both client and freelancer have skin in the game. For you, your authorial dreams are on the line. For us, our livelihoods are. Let’s both play nice, so we can both keep doing what we love.

Note, I intend for this blog post to be a living document. Please share your freelance dos-and-don’ts, too, and I’ll add them to this list. But I do not intend for this post to become a directory of freelance editors, book designers and cover artists. Elizabeth S. Craig (@elizabethscraig on Twitter) already maintains such a list, and I’m sure she will be quite happy to have any such recommendations.

February 28, 2012 00:45 UTC

Tags: writing, freelancing, clients, business

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Reading roundup 2011

I started 2011 on a mission: read ten million words of fiction. I got to wondering what it would be like just to blast my brain with words, words, words, for a whole year. So I bought a lot of books and went to work. In the end, I didn’t make it, which is just as well because the stack you see here pretty well pushes the limits of what I can read and still get enough sleep to be a functional human being. And besides, if I had reached ten million, I’d never have been able to stack them all up. But still, I did pretty well. The stack you see is 70 books, and about 5.1 million words.

So what did I learn?

I have little patience for bad books

I finished them once I started, but reading that much, you want it to be an enjoyable experience. So when certain titles which shall remain nameless kept poking me in the eyes with awful writing, cliché plots, or horrible point-of-view abuses, it’s not fun. It starts to feel like work. Somehow, I doubt that’s the experience most writers want to give their readers. And while I won’t name the specific titles, I can say that the most disappointing books in the stack were all middle grade titles. Now, I grant you I am many standard deviations away from the mean age of a middle-grade reader, but I like to write for middle grade audiences, I have a budding middle-grader in my household, and I take to heart Maxim Gorky’s quote:

You must write for children in the same way you do for adults, only better.

Those titles didn’t do that.

I’m pretty picky about perfection

Not only did I do word count estimates of all those titles, I also rated them for my own amusement. And out of the 70, only three titles got a perfect 4-star rating from me. Two of them are classics, which I readily admit I judge differently than modern titles: Kurt Vonnegut’s stellar Cat’s Cradle, which is just sublime in its juxtaposition of deeply philosophical ideas against absurdist skewering of, well, everything. And antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which I simply adore because it is sweet and beautiful and utterly distilled down to its barest, simplest possible essence. If you want to study spare writing, that’s your textbook. Also, the scene with the fox kills me every time.

The only modern book to score a 4, well, that’s as good a segue into a top-ten list as any:

My top reads of 2011

10: Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary. By number of titles written in my stack, Beverly Cleary is this year’s clear winning author. I read the entire Ramona Quimby series and the entire Henry Huggins series to my kids for bedtime stories over the summer. If, like me, you like to write for middle-grade audiences you could do a whole lot worse than to blast your brain with a whole bunch of Beverly Cleary. I was particularly struck by the elegance and truth with which she captures the feeling of being a little kid. Really, several of Cleary’s titles were approximately as good as Ramona the Pest, but I pick this one for my top-ten list because of its utterly immaculate plotting. Everything in that book is there for two reasons. First, it all supports the scenes in which you find it, but second, it sets up lovely twists, surprises, and hilarious situations for later. It’s brilliantly done, and I’ll admit I’ve recommended that book to more than one of my clients as homework, just to study the plotting.

9: Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This is the Newberry Medalist winner from 1994, and I can’t really argue with the committee’s selection. It’s a lovely, quiet story, very intimate and personal to its protagonist. That’s a story oeuvre I particularly enjoy, and this title nailed it. But I was also totally impressed with Creech’s facile use of a parallel storyline structure, past and present, to explore the book’s overall theme of loss and healing. Great read.

8: The Curse of the Blue Tattoo, by L.A. Meyer. This is book 2 in the Bloody Jack adventures series. I absolutely adored book one of this series so much I went right out and bought the next five of them, and they’re so good I’m rationing them out to make them last. If you don’t know Bloody Jack, start with the first book—it’s amazing, and has such an incredible character hook on page 1 that I’ve used it as an example in lectures I’ve given on hooking the reader. Anyway, even though Blue Tattoo spends a lot of time setting things up that will clearly be used in later books, and even though it spends not a page on the high seas as book 1 does, it still presents a great storyline, good mystery and danger, and is a very credible sequel. If I ever dare write a sequel to any of my novels, I can only hope to measure up as well.

7: Factotum, by D.M. Cornish. I talk up D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series every chance I get, because they’re amazing books. Factotum is the third and presumably final in the series, which begins with Foundling. This is straight-up high fantasy, and it is arguably the equal of Tolkien. Them’s fightin’ words, I know, and I do not say them lightly. What’s amazing about this whole series—besides the characters, and the story, and the writing—the thing that makes me talk the series up, is the world-building. Cornish has a savant-like imagination. I don’t know how he fits the world of the Half-Continent and an understanding of the real world into his head at the same time. Tolkien was a great world-builder, but I promise you, you’ve never seen world-building done like D.M. Cornish. The contrast between the two comes in the use of invented language. Tolkien invented whole languages and alphabets for his fictional cultures, but they remain foreign languages; Cornish has taken the business of coining words to a whole new level, and does so in a way that at once adds marvelous texture and color to his world, while also being immediately understandable to the reader. You don’t need a separate glossary to understand D.M. Cornish’s invented language, although one is provided. I certainly hope Cornish writes more Half-Continent stories, and I feel comfortable suggesting that any modern writer of fantasy literature needs to put Cornish on their must-read list.

6: The Winter of Frankie Machine, by Don Winslow. This is a crime novel set in the underworld of the Southern California mafia scene. What happens when a mob hitter tries to go straight? What happens when his past catches up to him? Frankie Machine’s the hitter, and his past is something else. What I loved about this book was, actually, Frankie himself. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a better example of how you get a reader to sympathize with a dark protagonist. Because let’s be clear, the guy’s no saint. And he doesn’t claim to be. Nevertheless, I defy you to read the book and not find yourself rooting for Frankie to win.

5: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. I think if you took the whimsy and imaginative playfulness of The Phantom Tollbooth, mixed it with the dark undercurrent of Alice in Wonderland, and rendered the result as a modern fairy tale, you’d get something like this book. At any rate, that’s how I found it: an utterly charming modern fairy tale, with a malignant darkness hiding, only hinted at, underneath. Just the sort of thing for kids of all ages.

4: Shadowed Summer, by Saundra Mitchell. This is a southern gothic, paranormal teen novel. It’s quite short, and a very fast read, but it is oh so evocative of its setting. You almost feel like you’re there. The writing is lovey, and the story is brilliantly plotted with (at least to me) a great twist at the end. The perfect kind of twist that leaves the reader kicking themselves for not seeing it coming. Just wonderful stuff.

3: Chime, by Franny Billingsley. This is another teen paranormal, but this one bordering on fantasy, set in some nebulously-rural English village in the early 1900s. I loved the characters in this novel, but was especially impressed with Billingsley’s narrative voice. Or, should I say, her protagonist’s voice, as the book is written in first person. The story’s no small potatoes either. It builds to a high-stakes climax, piling layer upon layer of mystery as it goes. But oh, that voice. The book could have been twice as long and I’d have been glad to read every page of it.

2: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. I don’t know what’s up with me and the paranormals crowding the top of this list, because to be honest, I don’t actually read all that much paranormal. But, here in the number 2 slot, we find the most unusually-premised paranormal I can recall ever having read. I suspect all of us have, at some point or another, had that conversation with our friends: “what super power would you want to have?” Rose Edelstein’s super power is to taste the emotions of whoever made the food she eats. Super power, or super curse? That depends, and Aimee Bender does absolutely yeoman work in fully thinking through the ramifications of such an ability, while also wrapping them up in, as the Los Angeles Times calls it, an “ethereal and surprisingly weighty” story.

1: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley. This is the only book I read this year, outside of those two classics, to earn four stars from me. Mosley is a highly experienced writer, and it shows, although this is the first book of his I’ve ever read. I hardly know what to say about this novel, other than it’s astonishingly, shockingly, good. Brilliant, even. The writing? Smooth as glass. The voice? Impeccable and completely captivating. The plot? Quiet, but very high-stakes for its protagonist. And the love story woven through it? Like nothing you’ve ever seen. If you read nothing else on this list, read The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. It’s a powerful piece of work, and I stand in awe.

So that’s what I did in 2011. What were your favorite reads of the year? Share them in the comments!

December 31, 2011 22:32 UTC

Tags: writing, reading

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Swimming to find your characters

What lies beneath

Leaving aside for a moment that icebergs probably don’t really glow like that on their undersides, the iceberg still makes a nice metaphor for the characters in your book. Or rather, for the process of coming to know who those characters are.

I’d argue that when we think about our novels ahead of time, our conceptions of the characters are much like the visible part of the iceberg. Pretty, but not nearly the whole picture.

The water hides everything else. You cannot see the rest of the iceberg until—and unless—you get into the water. You must swim down, under the cold water, to see the whole thing.

The water, in this metaphor, is the writing.

I will also argue that you cannot truly come to know who your characters are, in all their multi-dimensional glory, until you plunge in and get wet.

Two case studies

This has never been more evident to me than this past November, during National Novel Writing Month. But somehow, this year’s experience helped me understand the iceberg and the water in a new way, so I thought I’d share.

Now first, I’m a plotter, not a pantser. I spend a lot of time before writing figuring out how the story is going to develop, which in turn means figuring out a lot about my main protagonists and antagonists ahead of time. Even before setting out on page one of my novel, I can tell you how my protagonist feels about her general situation in life. I can tell you what she wants. What she’s mad about. I can tell you the same for her mother, her father, and the antagonist who’s going to hound my protagonist’s family for the whole book. For these people, the visible part of the iceberg is a bit bigger. It has to be, because characters drive stories; the plot and the personalities have to mesh just-so in order for the whole thing to work out.

But I don’t spend much time on the minor characters. Their icebergs barely poke up above the water. Before I write, I know their names and how they function in the plot. I have vague mental images of them, but that’s really all. For all my planning, they were barely even one-dimensional characters.

It was only when I jumped into the water this November that I discovered who they were. They became three-dimensional people as I swam around in their scenes. I want to share that process with you, because the thinking behind it isn’t specific to this story. It should work for any writer, and any character, in any scene.

And just to set the stage for you, this novel’s one-sentence pitch is “A frontier girl, the daughter of German immigrants, must help save her family’s homestead from the corrupt railroad barons who would drive them off their land.” It’s a middle-grade western, set in 1863, in the Nebraska Territory.

Mr. Harper

Here’s what I had about Mr. Harper before I started writing. Mr. Harper is a bachelor who lives a country mile down the road from my protagonist’s homestead. He’s good with horses. That’s it. It’s not much to go on, is it? But I figured, he’s a minor character anyway, what does it matter?

Come on. Every character matters.

The first time my 10 year old protagonist Maria meets Mr. Harper, she’s in a bit of a pickle. She has been out on the prairie, away from home, longer than she should. Now night is falling and she has to get home and she knows she’s already going to be in trouble for being out so late. As it happens, she came past Mr. Harper’s homestead on the way back to her own. I wasn’t exactly expecting Mr. Harper to appear at quite this point in the story, but that’s how the preceding scene evolved, so I went with it.

Suddenly, I had to know how Mr. Harper was going to react to Maria’s unexpected, evening arrival at his homestead. His reaction depends entirely on his own attitudes, wishes, and goals—in short, on what he wants—but I didn’t know what that was.

I know what Maria wants. She wants a ride home. And she probably wants a third-party, someone outside of the family, to be around when she gets home in order to temper the severity of her parents’ angry response.

But what does Mr. Harper want? Right there, in that at-the-keyboard moment of working this out, my vague notions of who Mr. Harper might be crashed headlong into my planning of how the story is going to unfold later, with modern-day readers’ mental image of what frontier life was like and how people acted back then, et cetera.

Mr. Harper might want anything. Maybe he’s a greedy rascal and only wants money. Maybe he’s a reclusive type who only wants solitude. There is a whole gamut of things Mr. Harper might want—goals he might have—which will drive his response to Maria’s arrival.

Except I have a story to write, and I need certain things out of him. And when he does those things, I need them to come across as believable expressions of the man I have previously shown him to be. Starting right here with this first time Maria meets him.

In particular, I need readers and Maria’s family to like him, because of things that happen later in the story. He ends up helping them with a lame horse, and when I raise the stakes later, it’s by also threatening his homestead. That won’t play strongly unless readers care about him, too.

All of which means I need him to be nice in this scene. To help her out. That makes sense: out on the prairie you never know when you might need a good neighbor’s help, so even in selfish terms, helping Maria now gives him a store of good will with neighbors who may help him later.

Filtering the spectrum of possible Mr. Harpers through the prism of what the story needs now and will need later, was enough for me to zero in on what kind of guy he is. Simply thinking through the scene from his point of view—even a barely sketched out point of view—was enough to figure out how he’d react.

From there, it was natural to imagine how he would talk to her in a way that was friendly and neighbor-like. In the course of writing that scene, I discovered a congenial southern drawl that seemed to come naturally to him. He became a genuinely friendly guy, the kind of guy who if he lived in 2011 instead of 1863, would just as soon hug you as shake your hand and you’d be ok with that.

Could I have planned this ahead of time? Maybe. But I liked doing it this way better. I think it has a more spontaneous, organic feeling to it than if I’d have tried to over-specify this minor character ahead of time. He was a lot more fun this way, and is actually kind of a scene-stealer.

Mr. LeClerc

Mr. LeClerc is a French-Canadian guy who runs the dry goods store in the nearby frontier town of Columbus. Again, not much to go on. Again, it was only when I jumped into the waters of his first scene that I could see who this character was supposed to be.

Maria meets Mr. LeClerc on the occasion of selling him some baskets she and her mother have made. She and her father are in town to attend to various business, and her father got it into his head that Maria needed to be the one to handle the selling of the baskets, even though she had never done business with anybody before in her life. I didn’t plan that part either, but it seemed like the kind of thing her father would do, so I went with it.

So Maria has to negotiate a price with this Mr. LeClerc, a stranger she has never met before, and the poor thing starts out by asking for a price that’s way, way too low. She has no experience with money. She has no idea what anything really costs, so she blows it. She asks for a nickel each—about $1.25 in today’s money—not nearly enough. When in doubt, make things worse, right?

Now, how does Mr. LeClerc react? Again, his goals are terribly relevant. What does any shopkeeper want? To build up a good business and do well for himself. So maybe he knows a great deal when he sees it, and buys the baskets for a song, never letting on how much she’s getting screwed on the deal.

Maybe, but not so fast. I have a story to write, and things that need to happen later. Next time she sees Mr. LeClerc, in fact, I need for her to trust him. And that’s not going to happen if she gets home and her mother yells at her for not getting a fair price for the baskets. She’ll know she got screwed. I’m left with needing a way for Mr. LeClerc to get her up to a fair price, even though on the surface, he would naturally love to buy a bunch of nicely made baskets for cheap.

Thinking it through from his broader point of view, considering more than just the opportunity of the moment, I realized that it’s not a contradictory situation at all. Mr. LeClerc is a frontier shopkeeper. His clientele is kind of limited. It’s a small town, and he can’t afford to be alienating his customers. This includes Maria’s father. So LeClerc knows that if he screws Maria on the deal, it will likely cost him business later.

From there, it was easy. Once I had thought through LeClerc’s goals within the context of that situation, a solution presented itself. I let him reveal that he wouldn’t feel right about taking advantage of her in that way: He said, “No! If I buy them for one nickel only, I cannot sleep at night!” From there, they worked out a fair price, and I got what I needed too: the plot moved where I wanted, Maria now has reason to trust him later (because he treated her fairly here), and as a bonus, I got some additional insight into what kind of man he is. He’s a basically honest guy, and kind enough to give Maria a way out of her mistake which didn’t humiliate her.

You must swim the waters

Those are just two examples, but I hope they give you the idea. When you’re stuck in a scene for knowing how someone will act, think about what it is they want to get out of the scene. What are their goals and desires? And think about what you need in order to for the story to go where you intend it to. Between the two of those factors, you will be able to figure out what kind of person will give you a reaction that works. That’s how you see the rest of the iceberg.

December 02, 2011 21:47 UTC

Tags: character, writing, NaNoWriMo, character motivation, personality

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Lessons from NaNoWriMo

A month ago, I confessed to you all that I hadn’t finished a manuscript in the past three years. Finishing is a habit, just like writing, and I had gotten into a bad one. I set out into NaNoWriMo this year with the goal not only of getting my 50,000 words, but of finishing the damn manuscript.

And I did it.

I am convinced that the difference between this year and the past three is that I went into November not just with a plan for what the story was going to be, but with a plan for how I was going to finish it in the month. A story plotted out in 29 scenes. One scene per day, with a day’s worth of wiggle-room.

Lo and behold, it worked. Yesterday, I wrote the final scene. I didn’t even end up needing the wiggle room. And it shows in my wordcount graph, which I don’t think has ever been as steady-looking as this:

Sure, some days I wrote less, some days I wrote more. I missed a couple of Sundays and Turkey Day. But having a plan, knowing “I need to get to scene number 17 today,” kept everything on track. I knew there would be days when what I thought was one going to be one scene would morph into two, or I’d think of a new scene to add that I hadn’t when I was planning. And sure enough, that happened. But this year, it didn’t derail me because those additions did not change the cold fact that “I need to get to scene 17 today.”

Having that plan, holding myself to it, made all the difference.

All the pre-planning didn’t stifle my creativity for the writing phase. It didn’t shackle me into notions of the story that could not then change. All it did was put me in a position to say “sure, I can make this change now, but it means I’ll have to write more today, or tomorrow, to stay on track.”

I say this not to gloat (ok, maybe just a wee bit) but because if it worked for me, I don’t see why it can’t work for anybody. It’s so simple I kind of feel stupid even to explain it. It’s just math. How many scenes do you need? How many days do you have? Divide.

Why haven’t I been doing this all along?

This doesn’t mean I can write any novel in a month. What it means is that I now understand how I can write and finish any manuscript before any reasonable deadline. I like a NaNoWriMo-sized novel. It’s enough to be challenging, and to tell a good story. I have a list of other NaNoWriMo-sized novels to take on in future years. But I also have some in mind which are going to be bigger than that. Substantially bigger.

Those novels have felt daunting. And I suppose they still do. But from where I stand today, they feel less daunting than they did 30 days ago. Thirty days ago, those big projects still had the aura of chaos about them. They held a whiff of unwieldy danger, that I might not be able to wrangle them to the finish. But now, I know how to fix them within finite bounds before I begin writing. Now they become tractable.

Still big, but tractable.

Perhaps you are a bolder writer than I. For your sake, I hope so. But for anyone who has had trouble finishing a manuscript, perhaps taking your planning process this one final step may help.

November 30, 2011 19:03 UTC

Tags: writing, NaNoWriMo, plotting, finishing

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Finishing NaNoWriMo

Gentle readers, I have a confession.

I love NaNoWriMo. I have done it every year since 2005, and I have never failed to get my 50,000 words. Sometimes it has been close—like 2008, when post-election burnout induced me to slack of for twelve whole days after the annual Seattle-area Halloween midnight kickoff write-in. Boy did I have to write HARD after that to finish—but I’ve always made it. And I’m proud of that.

That’s not my confession, though. My confession is this: I haven’t finished a manuscript in three years. There, I said it.

That 2008 novel? Aside from blowing off 12 days out of the month, part of why it was so hard is that it wasn’t coming together. It felt forced. Fake. It was supposed to be this YA sci-fi/horror thing, and while I still think the core premise is a worthy one, it just didn’t have the overall feeling I was going for. I got to 50,005 words on November 30th, with basically just the novel’s big climax scene to go, and just... stopped. So close, but I just couldn’t make myself finish it on December 1st. I didn’t like it.

In 2009, I hit November 30th and 54,350 at about the 2/3 point in the novel, coincident with a part in the storyline I hadn’t planned out as carefully as other parts. I kind of lost steam through December and the holidays, and somehow, just never got back to it. But I still love that story, and I insist I’ll come back to it one day.

In 2010, I won NaNoWriMo with 53,587, again just shy of the novel’s climax. And trust me, it’s going to be an awesome climax. But last year my book doctoring business was really taking off, so when December came around I had to get back to my client work, and there went my evening writing time.

Blah, blah, blah. It’s always something. Those aren’t reasons for not finishing so much as excuses. I may just as well say “the dog ate my thumb-drive.”

Stephen King said something in On Writing that I can’t quote verbatim from memory, but goes something like this: the reason writers establish writing routines is because finishing things is a habit, and not finishing things is a habit, too. I have gotten myself into a pretty bad habit, here.

So this year, I am determined not only to win NaNoWriMo—I’ve got that habit squarely established. I know exactly what it takes to get to 50,000 words—but to finish as well.

This year, I have a plan.

I’ve always been a plotter. I can’t start NaNoWriMo without a solid outline for my story. It’s a defense against writer’s block, really, but hey. Whatever it takes, right? I can write my way to 50,000 words no problem, so long as I’ve got that plot outline to follow. What I’m apparently lousy at doing, though, is gauging how many words it will take me to convert that outline into a story.

Well, not words. The words aren’t the problem. It’s more like I’m not good at knowing how many scenes it will take. My natural scene length is around 2000 words, which is basically a day’s work, so when a section in my outline I thought would be one scene turns into three, suddenly I’m behind. Not behind in word count, but behind in pacing the novel to the month of November.

So this year, since I’ve got 30 days to work with, I’m plotting out the novel in 30 scenes. One scene per day. That should work, right? NaNoWriMo has this big conception of being done on November 30th. As an event, that’s when it ends. Over. Finished. Maybe your brain works differently (and I hope for your sake that it does), but for me the relief of being done with NaNoWriMo and having reached that 50,000 word goal seems to translate into a feeling of being done with the writing, too. Even if I’m not actually done with the writing. Then, come December 1st, it’s hard to get back in that groove.

But one important lesson NaNoWriMo has taught me, from the first three years when I was somehow able to finish the novel in December, was that writing a novel is hard work and to do it, you grab on to any source of motivation you can find to help you keep going. Anything at all.

Perhaps public shame will do it. I’m desperate, folks, so I’m putting this on my blog to keep myself honest. I’m pledging, out in the public sphere, to keep myself honest and get this puppy done this time. If it works, I’ll hit 50k without any trouble, and should actually finish the damn novel on November 30th.

That, pardon the pun, will be a novel experience. I wonder what it will feel like?

How about you? Now that I’ve spilled my guts, share your NaNoWriMo experiences down in the comments!

October 21, 2011 16:07 UTC

Tags: writing, NaNoWriMo, plotting, finishing

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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 5

Rookie truck driver mistake

This is it. The final installment in this series. If you’re just joining us, you can find part 1 here. I hope you’ve all found the series helpful so far. It has been fun writing it. At last, here is the final batch of 9 rookie mistakes to watch out for in your own writing.

37. Repetitive sentence structure. If you dust the cobwebs off that part of your brain that holds middle school memories, you might find something in there about different types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Yeah, that module bored me too. But now that you’re a writer, you need to know that stuff. It’s actually important for establishing a rhythm and flow to your writing that won’t bore your readers like those middle school English lessons did.

I’m not going to re-cap what all those sentence types are (plus, of course, questions, exclamations, interjections, et cetera). Hit your favorite search engine for “types of sentences” and you’ll find plenty. I’d rather let an example do the work. Which would you rather read, this one:

Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster. He flicked open the cylinder. Two bullets remained. He checked his pockets. There were none. He drained the last of his bottle of rye. He thought, I better aim careful.

Or this one:

Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster, flicking open the cylinder. Two bullets remained. He checked his pockets, but came up empty. He drained the last of his bottle of rye and thought, I better aim careful.

The first one is nothing but simple declarative sentences. And can’t you just feel the monotony of it? The second one has all the same facts, in exactly the same order, but mixes it up with different sentence structures. Feel the difference?

38. “And” abuse. Close on the heels of repetitive sentence structure is abuse of that stalwart conjunction “and.” Here’s the thing about English: there are probably dozens of ways to join two clauses together into a compound or complex sentence. Yet, rookie writers reach for “and” more often than not. It gets dull. Worse than that, it’s a missed opportunity to inject additional meaning into your prose. To make the text richer with information for the reader to ferret out.

All that “and” tells us is “here are two things I’ve put into the same sentence.” By itself, “and” doesn’t add much in the way of color or nuance. Look for different ways to connect things that you want connected. If nothing else, reach for a different conjunction. Something that does hint at the relationship between the two things being connected. If you connect them with “but,” you establish a contrast. “Sam didn’t care for strawberries, but Doris lived for them.” Using “yet” establishes a different kind of contrast, between what is and what might have been expected. The list goes on and on and on. This web page has 44 different conjunctions and conjoining phrases listed. Why use “and” all the time when you’ve got that palette to paint with?

You don’t have to use conjunctions all the time, either. If the subject of two otherwise independent clauses is the same, you can often omit the conjunction by converting the verb in the second one to a gerund. There’s an example of this above, with “Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster, flicking open the cylinder.” That could have been done with “and flicked” instead, but to me, the gerund form adds a nice feeling of immediacy to the sentence.

You want a great writing exercise? Use your word processor’s search function to look at all the times you use “and.” When you find “and” being used as a coordinating conjunction (versus just to separate items in a list), re-work the sentence to use a different conjunction or grammatical form. You’ll be amazed at how much brighter and more lively your prose becomes.

39. Mis-capitalizing surrogate proper nouns. Besides the first letter of sentences, what do we capitalize in English? Proper nouns, right? The names of specific people, places, and things. Easy enough. But we also capitalize anything that functions as a proper noun. Where I see the most confusion in client manuscripts about this is with nicknames, titles, and words that refer to people by relationship.

The general rule: if something is being used in place of a person’s given name, treat it as a name and capitalize it. Not sure? Try substituting the person’s actual name in that same spot to see if the sentence still works. If it does, then capitalize. Here are some specifics that trip people up:

  • If you have a character who’s a little crazy with the risk taking and has the nickname “Gonzo,” and that’s what everybody in the book calls him, most writers know to capitalize that. But in spontaneous circumstances such as a father calling his daughter “Pumpkin,” somehow that tends to trip people up. I see those types of personal, cutesy nicknames lowercased quite often when they ought to be capitalized. Again, it’s that general rule: the girl’s actual name would fit just fine in that same context within the sentence, which is your tip-off that the nickname is functioning as a surrogate proper noun.

  • Immediate family relationships. I see “Mom” and “Dad” mis-capitalized all the time. Weirdly often. This same rule applies for any kind of relationship within the family, it just shows up for mothers and fathers more often. This mistake is perhaps more understandable, since these kinds of relationship words are legitimately either capitalized or lowercased depending on context. When used as a form of direct address (again, in place of the person’s name), capitalize: “Hi Mom, what’s for dinner?” When used as a reference to a person holding a particular relationship to the speaker or narrator (and usually prefixed with a possessive pronoun such as my/his/her/etc.) then lowercase it: “You won’t believe what my mom made for dinner last night.”

  • Non-family relationships. These are typically references to people who hold some kind of business or service relationship to the speaker or narrator, and are referred to by their profession. A doctor, lawyer, seamstress, et cetera. I see fewer mistakes with these, but it’s the same rule as for immediate family relationships. Don’t capitalize unless the profession is being used as a form of direct address. You’d write:

Jack went to the doctor (lowercased) to get his head examined. “What do you think, Doctor?” (capitalized) he asked. “Am I crazy?”

  • Titles. “Sir,” “Ma’am,” “General,” “Lord,” “Sire,” et cetera: capitalize. While these aren’t a part of a person’s given name, they are used as if they were. They’re just like “Mr.,” “Ms.,” and so forth. It is as if the person’s name includes the title, and when the title is used by itself, it’s like using a shortened form of the person’s name. So “Thank you, General Harrington,” becomes “Thank you, General.” But not “Thank you, general.”

40. Unclear scene openings. The original post from, the one that prompted me to write this series, talked about turning invisible scene transitions into visible ones by means of whitespace. A simple and effective technique. But that leaves aside the elephant-in-the-room question of how you open the scene after the transition.

An unclear scene opening really hoses up the flow of your story. I’m just going to say that. It does. Because rather than being able to smoothly segue into the next meaningful set of events, readers are instead forced to wrestle with simply understanding what the scene is. There are a few really core things that a scene opening needs to establish to give the reader a smooth transition from one scene to the next, and to introduce those, let’s briefly talk about what a scene break is. Intuitively, we know, but let’s make it explicit. A scene transition is a jump in time, place, viewpoint character, and/or supporting characters. I make that explicit because those are pretty much the things readers need to know in order to get their heads into the new scene.

If time has shifted, we need to know by how much and in which direction: forward (the most common; we’ve skipped some boring time in order to get to the next period when something interesting happens), backwards (the new scene is a flashback, or the story is being intentionally told in non-chronological order), or laterally (we’re jumping to a different character so we can catch up on what she was doing at the same time as someone else).

If the new scene takes place somewhere different than the prior scene left off, then we need to know where we are. Or at the very least, we at least need to know enough about the location that we can visualize it, because sometimes you legitimately don’t want to tell the reader exactly where the place is. But we still need to be able to visualize it in order to understand what we’re about to see the characters do.

If the set of people in the scene is different from the prior scene, and those people are in obvious evidence to the POV characters, it’s only fair to let the reader know right away who’s present. It’s confusing to read a page and a half of scene, believing that only Pete and Lisa are in the room, only to be find that Janet has actually been there all along but she just hasn’t said anything up to now. That’s irritating to readers, because now we need to adjust our understanding of what Janet knows to include anything Pete and Lisa said and did in the meantime. You force us to stop to make that adjustment, whereas if we had simply known Janet was there from the beginning, we’d have been able to do that automatically.

And finally, where is everyone in the space? For our ability to visualize and track what’s happening, it isn’t enough to know who’s there. We need to know where they are, too. And when they move around, we need to know about it. Let’s say you have three people sitting out on the porch, talking and sipping iced tea. If they all stay put, it’s easy to track who knows what based on what might be revealed during their conversation. But if one of them steps inside for a minute to refill their tea and you don’t tell us, then again, our mental model starts to diverge from what you have in mind. If we suddenly see that person come back out to the porch, we’ll be confused. “Wait a minute. Grandma went back inside? When did that happen?” We don’t know how much of the conversation she missed. We feel cheated, and justifiably so, because we weren’t allowed to track the movements of the characters, even though those movements should have been perfectly obvious to anybody witnessing the scene.

41. Overly complex verb forms. Pop quiz. What’s wrong with this?

Beth started to cross the yard towards the oak tree. She stretched one hand up to a gnarled branch and began to climb. It was hard work but she finally reached the top, where the branches grew thin and she could feel herself swaying in the breeze.

What’s wrong are the verb forms: “Started to cross.” “Began to climb.” “Finally reached.” Once in a while, I get a client who just can’t help but do this. They turn every straightforward action into some complex verb construction, generally by prefixing the core verb with some form of begin, start, continue, finish, finally, or similar.

After a while it starts to drive the reader crazy. It’s like nobody’s ever actually doing anything. They’re always just beginning to do something, or finally getting around to something, but never just plain doing.

Remember waaaaay back in part 1 of this series? Item number 3 was “weak verbs.” Well, this is another way writers weaken otherwise strong verbs. They clutter them up with these overly complex lead-ins, these hair-splitting gradations of tense. I promise you this: whatever verb comes after the lead-in is pretty much guaranteed to be stronger than “begin,” “start,” “continue,” and the rest. Cut those lead-ins to let the character—and the reader—jump straight to the action.

42. Naked dialogue. It’s fine to have characters talk when they’re naked. That’s not what I mean. Naked dialogue (or sometimes “on the nose” dialogue) is when a character’s dialogue reveals exactly and specifically what they’re thinking or feeling. The dialogue bares all, as it were.

Let’s say you have a couple in a rocky relationship. One of the things he’s unhappy about is that he feels that the relationship isn’t equitable. That she doesn’t really respect his time, his space, his opinions, et cetera. If they’re arguing and she asks, “Why are you so grouchy all the time?” he’s not going to say this:

“Because I don’t get my due in this relationship. I don’t feel like you take my feelings or opinions into account. I feel disrespected, and if you don’t respect me, it makes me wonder if you really love me. Then I worry that you’re going to break up with me, even though I love you and I don’t want to break up.”

It’s just not believable. Regular people don’t say things like that. I mean, if this guy is so well adjusted and self-actualized that he can articulate his feelings so clearly, chances are he would have said something to her long ago at the first signs of the problems. No. A regular, believable person would say something like:

“Because we always see what movies you want to see, and eat where you want to eat, and even though I paid for our damn queen-sized bed, somehow you get as much space as you want while I sleep on a twelve-inch strip right on the edge, and if I god forbid ever ask you to maybe give me just a little bit—on anything—you look at me like I’m asking you sell a kidney so we can buy beer, that’s why.”

Real people rarely say exactly what’s going on. Little kids don’t, as we explored in the last installment, because they don’t have the capacity for self-analysis which would let them. Grownups don’t, because somehow in our culture we’re just not that blunt about it. We talk around the real issues, hoping people will figure out what we really mean. As a writer, your job is to write dialogue that does exactly that: hints at the real issue so readers can figure out what’s going on (whether other characters do as well depends, of course, on what you’ve got going on in the story), without hitting the nail exactly on the head.

43. Passive voice. Good grief. I just realized I haven’t mentioned passive voice writing yet. Passive voice is a grammatical construction which switches the subject and direct object of a sentence. And then for good measure, often drops the subject entirely. For example, a nice active-voice sentence like this:

Jane threw the package to the ground in a blinding rage.

Suddenly turns into this:

The package was thrown by Jane to the ground in a blinding rage.

“Jane” and “the package” have switched grammatical positions in the sentence, and “threw” converts to “was thrown.” But then, because “by Jane” sounds so horribly awkward in there, we dispense with Jane:

The package was thrown to the ground in a blinding rage.

The problem, as I blogged in some detail a long, long time ago, is exactly with this last step. The subject of the original sentence, the actor, the character who your story is about, gets cut out of the text.

44. Passive characters. Your grammar isn’t the only thing that can be active or passive. Characters can too, and it’s just as bad. If you write a passive protagonist, even in active voice, we’re going to be bored. A passive protagonist is one who is not interacting strongly with the plot. What that means is that the character is floating through the story without any driving goal or motivation to achieve anything. The feeling this creates is that the protagonist doesn’t much care what happens. And it’s pretty hard to get the reader to care what happens if the main character doesn’t.

I don’t mean that you can’t have a passive narrator. You can. Many stories use a viewpoint character who is there to witness the exploits of the true protagonist, so as to narrate them to the reader. Look no further than The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick.

What I mean is that whatever character you set up as the main person in the story, the one who the story is fundamentally about, that character had better have some strong goals and motivations. We need to see that the main character cares about something. We need to see care so strong that we’ll believe, want to follow, and root for that person as he or she does whatever the plot requires.

45. Telling instead of showing. I had to save something substantial for last, and this is it. Even if you’ve heard the “Show, don’t tell” rule before, don’t stop reading now, because chances are you’re still not following it as much as you should. Violating this rule—that is, telling instead of showing—is easily the most frequent mistake I see from writers of all stripes. Rookies and seasoned folks alike.

It’s also the worst mistake you can make, because “Show, don’t tell” is the most fundamental, bedrock skill of narrative fiction. Skillful use of showing and telling is what makes narrative fiction work.

It’s not hard to understand why people tell instead of show, though. Telling is just so damn easy. You can convey so much information, so fast, using telling. With telling, you can lay out a character’s whole backstory so we know exactly who they are, where they came from, and what all their foibles are, in a half a page. With telling, you can trivially let us know exactly how everybody feels, and why, all the time.

Telling is so easy it’s downright seductive, but it’s still a mistake because the things rookie writers want to tell are usually the most important things in the story. Which, ironically enough, means that they are the exact same things that you need to let readers infer, deduce, and conclude for themselves. When the reader concludes something, the information becomes theirs, and they’ll believe it to the end of time. When you just tell them outright, the information remains yours, and is therefore much more suspect. After all, you’re a novelist, a title which is probably the greatest euphemism for “liar” ever invented. By definition, you make stuff up! You’re not to be trusted!

You need to show, rather than tell, because that’s how you lead readers to make the critical inferences and conclusions you need them to make. That’s how you earn the reader’s belief in your characters and your story.

How do you do it? I have a whole 90 minute lecture on this subject that I can’t cram into this blog post, but in brief: what you’re allowed to tell is anything that would be visible (audible, smellible, et cetera) to the reader if the reader were a fly on the wall in your scene, plus the viewpoint character’s inner monologue if you’re using that. That’s what you’re allowed to tell. All the stuff that’s directly manifest in the world of the story. Everything else, all the invisible stuff you want the reader to know, everything those flies on the wall would have to infer on the basis of what they observe, is what you need to show. Here’s the cool part: you show the invisible stuff by telling the visible stuff.

Every invisible fact will manifest in some observable way. To show us the invisible fact, you tell us about its visible manifestation, and let us connect the dots. That’s how you do “Show, don’t tell.” So I leave you with this:

The difference between telling and showing is the difference between the visible and the invisible.

And we’re done

So that’s it. Forty-five rookie writing mistakes, and how to avoid them. Thanks to anybody who read this far, and happy writing!

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August 24, 2011 16:12 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, show don't tell, passive voice, active voice, conjunctions, passivity

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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 4

Rookie street painter mistake

For this next set, I thought I’d try to focus on some rookie mistakes that go a little bit deeper than some of the surface issues I’ve had in parts 1 through 3. This is a long post, because these are trickier issues. But make no mistake, these are still rookie mistakes, and will still torpedo your book as surely as adverb abuse will. The only difference is that the torpedo is lurking deeper underwater. It’ll be harder to see coming, harder to avoid, and if you let it hit you, a lot harder to fix than a surface issue like adverb abuse.

28. Insufficient world building. It’s not enough just to think of something cool to do with the world of your story, but then leave everything else the same as how we have it here on earth. It won’t feel right to readers—and thus, it won’t be believable—because in fact it won’t be right.

No. You have to do the what-if thought experiment, and do it all the way. You have to fully think through the ramifications of your particular cool thing on the entire rest of the story’s world. For example, you could say “I’ll set this story on a world with no continents, just millions of small islands scattered around.” Ok, that’s kind of cool, in a Wizard of Earthsea sort of way. But you can’t stop there, and imagine that this world is dominated by a small number of broad cultural groups like we have on earth. Here on earth, you can broadly group the world into Western culture (Europe, North America), Latin America (Mexico, Central and South America), the Far East (China, Japan, et cetera), Africa, the Middle East, and India. There are outliers, sure, but pretty much everybody fits into one of those groups. Does that make sense, on a planet with millions of small islands but no large land masses? Probably not. Such a world won’t be likely to have the dominant language and cultural clusters that Earth has, and if you start positing that it does, readers are going to start questioning the logic of your world. As they should, because it doesn’t hold up. Technology, material culture, social norms, language development, legal systems, and basically anything else you care to name that defines how our culture works, would end up being different on an island planet. You have to think through all that stuff in order to give your readers a believable setting.

You’ll notice that the really successful writers of fantasy and sci-fi (genres that trade in world building), give us examples of exhaustive world building. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age is a great example, with a what-if of “what if we had advanced nanotechnology?” China Mieville’s The City and the City is a great example of thinking through the question “what if two antagonistic cultures were forced to share the same space?” Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees explores the idea of “what if a human culture were allowed to develop without gravity?” Study works like these or comparable ones in your own sub-genre. They work because the authors did their homework up front. They figured out the worlds of the stories before figuring out the stories themselves.

If you make this rookie mistake, then I bear you bad news: Chances are you’ll have to start over. Chances are, when you do the thought experiment, you’ll discover that your entire storyline doesn’t work anymore.

29. Being obvious. If readers can easily see what’s coming, they’ll be bored. The feeling of drama, and the degree of a reader’s interest and engagement with a story, correlates exactly with the degree to which they are uncertain about what’s going to happen next. You know this. You probably do this yourself when you read a book: you play the “out-think the writer” game. We love it when we have an idea about what’s going to happen, but not when we’re dead certain that we’re right. And especially not when our dead certain guess turns out to be right.

If we get that feeling of knowing exactly where this book is going to go—usually because the rookie writer has made the clues too obvious, has used a setup that’s too cliché, or whatever—then we feel a little disappointed. We feel like the book isn’t going to deliver us the entertainment we wanted, in the form of fun puzzles to solve, fun surprises to encounter, et cetera. The writer has given us puzzles that are trivial to solve, and has tipped us off far too blatantly about what the supposed surprises are going to be.

30. Being obviously deceptive. This is the flip-side of the previous mistake, when a rookie writer knows they can’t let the reader in on the real answer too soon, but then goes overboard in terms of pointing the reader’s attention at an alternate explanation. If you’re writing a murder mystery in which the husband kills his wife in order to make room for his mistress, but you take great pains to make it obvious that the untrustworthy, unemployed, drug addict next-door neighbor with the rap sheet as long as your leg had the means, the motive, and the opportunity, your efforts will likely backfire. Readers will start thinking “The neighbor is too obvious an answer. It can’t be him.”

Basically, if your red herrings smell like three-day-old fish, don’t expect anybody to buy them. For my money, the best twists and surprises come when you give readers two possible and plausible options to choose from, neither of which is emphasized too much or too little, but then the real answer is some wholly different third thing that still manages to be obvious in hindsight. A great one to study here is Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. You’ll never see the twist coming, but when it comes, you’ll be kicking yourself for not spotting it sooner.

31. Superman Syndrome. I could have split this one into two different problems, but they’re so closely related I’m going to do it as one. This is when a character is either too perfect, or too perfectly suited to the task the novel sets for him. The results are off-putting, boring, or both.

A character that is too perfect just isn’t believable. Nobody’s perfect. And depending on the particular way in which the character is perfect, can turn the reader off to the novel. This is particularly likely when the character ends up coming across as authorial wish-fulfillment or vicarious living through fiction. Worst of all is when the reader gets the impression that the character is actually a portrayal of the writer’s self-image. Pretty much nobody except the writer’s mother is going to want to read a story with an inhumanly perfect character written by a writer with that much apparent ego. Check your ego at the door and give us a real person, flawed and fallible, to follow through the story.

In the boring camp are characters that are tailor-made for the task. If you write a fantasy quest where the hero has to rescue the princess by fighting his way past horrible monsters, and you give me a hero who is seven feet tall, utterly ripped, wields a sword that can cut an oak tree down in one stroke, and was trained by the best swordsman in all the land—or actually, the second best, because of course now the hero is better than his teacher—well, I’m already bored just thinking about it. The hero is far too well suited to his task. For him, the horrible monsters aren’t really so bad. Don’t give me this guy. Give me a 90 pound weakling with two left feet who doesn’t even own a dagger, much less a sword, yet who still sets off to rescue the princess. This guy’s going to have a much harder time. He’s going to be in much greater danger. The outcome of his quest is much less certain, and therefore, much more interesting.

32. Easy street. I have noticed that rookie writers are often uncomfortable with doing mean things to their protagonists. Or perhaps they’re downright terrified of it. Hard to say. At any rate, they often can’t bring themselves to put their characters in any kind of truly difficult situation. But at the same time, these authors know they have to have a plot. Things have to happen. People have to go places and do stuff. So what the rookie writer does is grease the skids. Make the protagonist’s path as smooth and friction-free as possible.

For example, imagine a character who must cross Europe from one end to the other in a hunt for a stolen Van Gogh. The rookie writer will realize she’s going to have some trouble with all the different languages, and so provides a ready solution in the backstory: “Alexis was a polyglot. She had learned French and Swiss-German from her au pair when she was two. In kindergarten, she picked up Spanish from her friend Emilio. Over the summer of her seventh year, she learned Italian from her mother’s Teach Yourself Italian in 21 Days cassettes, bought for a trip that was never taken.” And so on. That’s great for Alexis, but it sucks for the reader. Wouldn’t it be more fun for us if Alexis had to do this same journey while not being able to talk to anybody, read the menus, street signs, et cetera?

I also see this done in a different fashion, where as soon as a new problem appears on the character’s horizon, the author drops something into the plot—a sudden benefactor, a stroke of luck, whatever—that immediately negates the problem without the character having to do any work to overcome it. Don’t do that. Don’t solve all the character’s problems for them. The result is a boring book. If you want an interesting book, take the character’s backstory benefits away, and make the characters work hard to solve problems when they appear.

33. Lack of Complications. Rookie writers who get their characters off of easy street often wander into this mistake: failing to create complications in how their characters solve problems. The mistake here is making the characters work, but not making them work hard enough. The pattern goes like this: The character has some kind of final story-goal to achieve. The opening of the book usually centers around discovering what it is that the character needs or wants to achieve. Then the question becomes how to do it?

Usually, achieving the goal involves a sequence of sub-goals. Before I can buy a house, I need to save enough for a down payment, which means I need a better job, which means I need to finish college, which means I need to pick a school I can afford and enroll in it. The end of that chain of thought is an initial step that the character can actually undertake right now.

That’s where the mistake comes in. Let’s say the character discovers an affordable night-school program at a local community college, in a program that really interests her. Pick a school: accomplished! Now to enroll. Just fill out some paperwork, right? Not so fast, Mr. or Ms. Writer. How about a complication? Make it a little more challenging for the character to achieve those step-by-step goals. How about if the program is already full? Better. But not great, because the character can just wait until the next academic year, making sure to get her paperwork in soon. Ok, how about if the program is already full, and she learns that this is the last year that the program is going to be offered? Is she dead in the water? Maybe, if she’s not willing to fight hard for her dream. But maybe not. It’s not like enrollment limits are inviolable laws of physics. They’re just a number somebody picked. Nothing’s stopping her from tracking down the teachers, explaining to them why she needs to be in this program, and convincing them that she’s going to be the best student they ever had, so they can go with her down to the registrar’s office to get a waiver on that enrollment limit.

Complications make for drama, because they make the character’s job harder, and thus, the outcome more uncertain. The rookie mistake here is for a character’s first strategy for any problem to invariably succeed. Don’t let Plan A work every time. In fact, don’t let Plan A work most of the time. Force the character to go to Plan B—by definition a less obvious strategy, and less likely to work—and then let that fail too. Eventually something does have to work so the character can move on, but please, don’t let it be so easy for them.

34. Lightswitch emotions. Human beings have a rhythm to their emotional responses. There’s a natural way that reactions come on, peak, and subside. It varies depending on the particular stimulus, the emotion it brings on, and the severity or intensity of the situation, but on the whole there’s a pattern to these things.

Emotions often do come on quickly. If you put a couple out in the woods, on a blanket with a picnic basket, romantic emotions are probably in play. Let a cougar suddenly jump out into view ten feet away from them, a low growl rumbling from its throat, and I guarantee you those romantic feelings are going to be replaced by utter terror in about half a heartbeat. That’s fine. That’s natural and believable.

But for normal characters, ones who are not suffering from some kind of mental illness or mood disorder, what does not happen is for emotions to turn off like a light.

What does not happen is for the cougar to sniff twice, suddenly turn and bound back out of sight, and then for the couple to resume making out as if nothing had happened. “Well, that’s fine then. Darling, may I put my tongue back down your throat?” “Oh, yes please!” No. I don’t think so.

Strong emotions need to have consequences. They don’t just vanish as soon as whatever brought them on is over. This is the rookie mistake, to portray characters immediately and completely getting over a situation just as soon as the situation ends. It’s not believable. We need to see the repercussions of those emotional shocks ripple out through the rest of the story. We need to see that couple pack up their stuff and get out of the woods immediately. Or maybe even leave the stuff behind. We need to see them driving a little too fast on the way back home. We need to see how the near-death experience affects them in their relationship. Perhaps one of them had the sudden realization “if you died, I’d never get over it,” while the other one says “it made me realize this isn’t really what I want for my life.”

There’s a million ways you could play it out in the story, but however you do it, we need to see consequences that are appropriate to the emotions throughout the story.

35. Miniature adults. If you tell us a character is six years old, he better act like a six year old. Or eight, or twelve, or whatever. Don’t give us an adult in a six year old’s body. I see this mistake pretty often from rookie writers in YA and middle-grade fiction. Folks, your young characters need to speak, think, and act their age. Yes, there is some variability in maturity levels from one real-life kid to the next even at the same age. But there isn’t so much variability that you can have a kid character act like a grown-up and still have us believe it.

If you have kids in your book, at some point you’re going to have to tell us their age. That’s fine, but it’s a tell, in “Show, don’t tell” terms. And I guarantee you that whatever number you label the kid with, it will be instantly trumped by what you show us through the kid’s behavior. I see rookie writers make mistakes here in four main ways, and the general pattern is that the younger the character, the harder that character is to render accurately.

The first is self-awareness vs. self-analysis. Don’t mistake the former for the latter. By which I mean that little kids are acutely self-aware, but they suck at self-analysis. They are intensely aware of how they feel and what they want, all the time. What they don’t have is the slightest idea of why they’re having those feelings and desires.

Yet, what I see in a lot of manuscripts is self-analysis of feelings and motivations well beyond their years. In a manuscript, this mistake often manifests as kids who exhibit way too much self-control and discipline. If you’re able to conceptualize your feelings as responses to your world, and your desires as things you can choose to act on or not, then it becomes possible to do things like talk to your brother about why he’s driving you crazy rather than hauling off and whacking him one. But if your entire brain is being consumed by an inferno of BROTHER MAKE CRAZY HULK SMASH!, well, your brother’s gonna get it. Think about it. It’s not hard to see which one is the mature perspective and which one is the little kid view on life.

The second is an ability to envision the future. Little kids just can’t. Below a certain age, there’s only now. There isn’t next year, or next week, or even five minutes from now. There’s just now. This greatly limits very young characters’ ability to make plans. If you can’t conceptualize of the future as a set of possibilities which the actions of the present can influence, then it’s really hard to have thoughts like “If I stack up this chair and that box and one of the cushions off the couch, I can get that toy Mom put way up on that high shelf.” It also limits a kid’s ability to exercise self-control, because they can’t envision the possible future outcomes of hare-brained schemes like that. But, all the time, I see manuscripts with little kids who come up with deviously clever plans which imply a very solid grasp of the future and how to affect it. It just doesn’t hold up.

The third is the “theory of mind.” This is the ability to think about someone else’s thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and beliefs as distinct from your own. Some while back, I got all bloggy about this, so rather than repeat it, I’ll just link it here. Read it, because failing to apply theory of mind in your writing more generally (it’s not just about believable little kids) is another massive rookie mistake I see more often than I should.

And finally, speech. All of the above affect how kids talk. In a novel, where all we have are words, dialogue is one of the primary indicators of any character’s level of mental development. This is one of the key ways that you show us how old your characters really are, regardless of how old you’ve told us they are. For example, imagine a four year old character who hears a thump, walks into the living room to find Mom sprawled out on the floor and shaking uncontrollably. If this character says “Mommy, are you all right?” and immediately kneels down by the stricken parent, we’re not going to believe it. That dialogue reveals to us that the character is able to have ideas about Mom’s state of well-being, which is essentially theory of mind at work, and will probably come across as not age appropriate. No. The four year old character is going to just stand there, puzzled, and say “Mommy, what are you doing?”

Rendering accurate kid characters is hard. Probably the best way to learn it is to have kids yourself and pay close attention to them as they grow up. Hey, nobody ever said being a writer was easy...

36. Plot motivation. We all know people who just have to do things the hard way. I knew an electrical engineering guy back in college who had this idea for a wearable computer he wanted to build. He could do the electronics part just fine, but when it came to what sort of enclosure to put the thing in, his answer was—and I’m not kidding you here—to learn how to melt and cast aluminum in his backyard so he could prototype different possibilities. I was all, “Dude. Outsource that.” “No,” said he, “this will be cheaper.” Maybe so, but it also took him forever and he missed his window of opportunity in the marketplace.

But fiction is not like real life, and as Tom Clancy said, “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” A character who doesn’t do the obvious thing—outsourcing the messy, difficult, time-consuming task that he doesn’t have the skills for—is hard to believe.

I should be clear: it’s not a mistake to have characters choose to do hard things. Many of the rookie mistakes I’ve talked about in this series are exactly failures to make characters do hard things. The rookie mistake is accidentally creating the appearance of a character choosing to do something the hard way, simply because the character never even stops to consider what the obvious and much easier way would be. This almost invariably makes the characters look like idiots. I mean, you don’t have a competent bank robber elect to blowtorch his way through a foot-thick titanium vault door when it would be much easier to sneak in through a ventilation duct.

I see this all the time in manuscripts, and what’s usually going on is plot motivation. Sometimes what’s happening is simply that the writer didn’t stop to consider that there was an easier way to get the job done. But most of the time, characters end up taking the hard way first because it is somehow necessary for the plot. This is the writer thinking, “I have to have him use the blowtorch, because that way the bank’s secret infra-red sensors can trip the alarm, which has to happen because I need the guy to be on the run from the law.”

Fine, but if that’s what you really need, you need to make it clear to the reader that the character has considered all the ways of getting into the vault and has determined that the blowtorch is genuinely the most feasible option. You have to show us the guy considering the ducts but determining that they’re too narrow, or that it would be impossible to haul the duffel bags of cash back out that way quickly enough, or whatever. Give us a reason why the obvious and apparently easy option isn’t going to work. Then we’re fine with the character taking the hard route. This is how you convert unbelievable plot motivation into believable character motivation.

Got a favorite rookie mistake of your own? Share it in the comments!

< Back to part 3 | On to part 5 >

August 19, 2011 18:08 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville, Larry Niven, Rebecca Stead

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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 3

Rookie stonecarver mistake

This is part 3 in a series of 45 common writing mistakes which mark a writer as a rookie. If you’re new to the series, here’s part 1. Parts 1 and 2 covered the first 18 mistakes. Here, then are mistakes 19 through 27:

19. Imbalanced dialogue attributions. I talked in part 2 about problems with tagging, and I should have thought to mention this problem with dialogue attribution along with it. The mistake lies in not finding the right balance between too many and too few attributions. If you put a “Jane said” on every single line of dialogue, that’s overkill. Similarly, not providing any attributions is also bad. The trick that often trips up rookie writers is that different kinds of conversations require different levels of attribution.

A typical conversation is between two characters. Theoretically, if you let us know who began the conversation, we ought to be able to track the entire rest of it by relying on the fact that people take turns when speaking. True in theory, but in practice you should add extra attributions if dialogue is interrupted by some substantial amount of narration, if there is a pause in the conversation, or once every few lines of dialogue in long, uninterrupted stretches of talk. An atypical conversation involves more than two people. Movies and TV shows have no problem with this, because we can see who’s talking. But in books, you can’t rely on the characters to take turns in any predictable order. In a novel, unless each character’s voice is so amazingly distinctive as to be unmistakable, you pretty much have to attribute everything.

20. Confusing names. In real life, you probably know dozens of people named John, Anne, Steve, and other such common names. In real life, sometimes that causes confusion. I’ve caught clients actually giving different characters the same name, and since they’re just people in a book and all we really have to go by are those names, it can be incredibly confusing. But fiction is not real life. In fiction, you have the luxury of keeping the names of all your significant characters distinct. So do that. Help your readers out by keeping the names of all your characters different. Ideally, try to keep the first letters of their names unique, and avoid pairs of names that have similar rhythm and cadence. Don’t give us “Taylor” and “Tucker,” for example. We’re bound to mix them up because they sound so much alike.

21. Explaining the magic. This one relates to fantasy and sci-fi, genres that contain outright magic or technology which, to us, may as well be magic. The rookie writer errs in thinking that he needs to justify the magic to the reader in order for the reader to accept the premise of the book. Not so. It turns out you get one suspension-of-disbelief for free, concerning the element of your premise which is most central. Readers will accept that one gratis, because without it, there’s no story. Need magic or faster-than-light travel in your story? Great. Put it there. You don’t need an explanation of why it works because we all understand that such stories are “what if” explorations as much as anything else. Don’t try to make us believe in the magic because of some arbitrary and mysterious connection between a person’s strong emotions and the fundamental forces of nature. Don’t try to make us believe in how your faster-than-light travel works on the basis of some Star Trek-like paragraph of techno-babble. Just leave it out.

If you’re still not convinced, let me give you a case study. What was the ONE thing fans hated most about the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? Other than Jar-Jar Binks, anyway. It was that whole ridiculous business with midichloreans as an explanation for what makes The Force work. Partly, it was an eye-rollingly stupid explanation. But mostly, it was entirely unnecessary. We already bought into The Force as part of the Star Wars universe back in 1977! Back in the original Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan gave us a perfectly satisfactory, short explanation of what The Force is, but said nothing about how it works. We then saw him use the force, and teach Luke how to use it. That’s enough. We bought into it just fine. I have no idea what part of George Lucas’s otherwise fine storytelling brain went insane in the 22 years between those two movies, but jeez, that whole midichlorean business was a travesty.

Don’t explain the magic.

22. Thesaurus writing. Stephen King once said:

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

That’s pretty much right. If your story gives us “Chester MacPhearson was widely regarded as the finest sartorial mind in all of England,” rather than “Chester MacPhearson was well known as the best tailor in all of England,” we’re going to know you’re trying too hard to impress us with your big words. Words like “sartorial” stick out, by virtue of their uncommon usage in general, as something that probably didn’t come naturally to you. They reveal you to us, at the expense of the story.

“But wait,” you say, “what if ‘sartorial’ fits the voice of the story?” A fair point, in which case use it, by all means. But if it does in fact fit the voice of the story, if you get to that line in the story and it just feels right to use ‘sartorial mind’ rather than ‘tailor,’ then I’ll wager that you didn’t have to look it up in a thesaurus in the first place.

23. Infodumps. So I harped on backstory infodumps in the previous installment of this series, and someone pointed out “well what about infodumps generally?” They’re exactly right. Cold, lifeless, expository blocks of information dumped into the middle of your story just suck. Let’s not mince words, right? Just as with backstory infodumps, they kill your pacing by bringing the story to a crashing halt. With backstory infodumps, the information being dumped is all about the characters. The rookie mistake here is to do it for non-character related information as well. Often this includes world-building (e.g. “The land of Faerieken lay nestled between adjacent mountain ranges, some twenty days ride north of the human lands of Manniken, blah blah blah..."), and information relating to the setup of the story’s core conflict (e.g. “The fair folk of Faerieken lived in fear of invasion by the men of the south, ever since that dark time aeons ago when Faerielord Elgorn Leafhaven had denied the man-king’s impudent demands for magical favors. The two races had been at war ever since.")

But weirdly enough, as often as not the infodump will contain some kind of random technical or historical tidbit that is utterly irrelevant to the story. For techno/spy thrillers, you’ll get ridiculously detailed specs for the firearms—rate of fire, magazine size, ammunition caliber, et cetera. In historicals, you might be subjected to the architectural history of a building before the characters are allowed to actually go inside it in order to have a scene. One time—and I’m absolutely not kidding you on this—I saw a client include the history of the ice in somebody’s glass. Really. I couldn’t even make that up if I tried.

In both cases, just cut this stuff, ok? Readers will thank you. The world-building and conflict setup information is important, but just as with backstory information, don’t give it to us all at once. Dribble it out a little bit at a time. The irrelevant stuff, it’s just a waste of space.

24. Formless void syndrome. This is a failure to sufficiently present the physical space in which a scene takes place. The rookie mistake here is forgetting that readers can’t just see what’s in your head. Seems obvious when put like that, I know, but it happens. This is a particularly acute problem for rookies who are trying to open a book in media res (which is just fancy writer-talk for “in the middle of some kind of action"). It’s doubly problematic when the scene takes place in some kind of location that is unfamiliar to readers in their daily lives. Again, fantasy and sci-fi writers, watch out, because you face this issue more than most.

I’ll get manuscripts from rookie writers where I can tell you who the people in the scene are. I can name their actions. And yet I still don’t have enough to contextualize those actions into a holistic picture of what’s actually going on. It feels like the characters are in a formless void, and doesn’t create the kind of engaging, high excitement opening the writer is going for. In media res is a great technique when it works, but it isn’t always possible to pull it off, and the less familiar the setting is to your readers the harder it’s going to be.

25. Insensitivity to connotation. Words have two layers of meaning. You’ve got the surface meaning, which is what you’ll find in the dictionary. Linguists call this the denotation of a word. Then there are the extra, hidden, social-convention meanings that aren’t written down in the dictionary. In terms of our nuanced understanding of language, these are no less real than their codified counterparts. Linguists call this second layer the connotation of a word. Where the rookie writer will make a mistake is to use a word that is appropriate for its denotation, but inappropriate for its connotation. You must consider both.

Take a nice simple word like “snack.” The dictionary’s going to tell us that this means, “a small portion of food eaten between mealtimes.” Fine. But what extra meanings does “snack” carry with it? Softer, more slippery concepts like a notion of casualness, of food that is ready-made or minimally prepared, potentially of being eaten in haste, et cetera. Whether “snack” is the right word for a given scene depends on whether these connotations match the tone of the scene. I recall once a manuscript in which the protagonist was attempting to make his way out of the wilderness alone, with very limited food supplies at his disposal. There was a spot in the manuscript where the character had “a snack” of venison jerky. It felt wrong, because “snack” connotes casualness (among other things), and in that situation the character’s treatment of food was anything but casual. Food was a precious resource to that character in that situation, not to be consumed casually. A snack, when you think about it, is as much eaten for its entertainment value as for its food value. It totally clashed with the scene. Easy fix: a “mouthful” of venison jerky instead. That word has a connotation of specific quantity, and thus, of carefulness and self-restraint. Qualities that protagonist was surely going to need if he was to escape his situation.

26. Anachronistic language. This is when a writer uses language that does not feel like it is in keeping with the time and place of the story. Writers of historicals suffer from this, when they let overly modern turns of phrase slip into their characters’ speech. Let us imagine three eligible young ladies taking tea in a Victorian-era manor; one of them snubs another with some catty remark. The victim becomes flustered, and dashes out of the room. The third one then says “Alice, you bitch! That was a really mean thing to say!” It just feels wrong, doesn’t it? That’s not how people talked back then.

On the flip side, a contemporary story that has a character using dated slang ("groovy, man") is going to feel the same way, unless done for specific effect. Still, it’s rookie historical writers who suffer from this the most. Indeed, one of the hardest things in that genre is scrubbing both your dialogue and your narrative of overly modern language.

27. Improper earth idioms. I should come up with a better name for this one, but for now “improper earth idioms” will have to do. This is another one that plagues fantasy novelists, and lately, sometimes steampunk too. The rookie mistake is to accidentally break your world-building by using idioms that are clearly derived from our own real world, Earth-based history. Start paying attention to the little descriptive phrases in our language. When you do, you’ll be amazed at how many of them derive from something that is (presumably) unique to the Earth.

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” “He’s as timid as a mouse.” “She’s a raven-haired beauty.” “Give him an inch, and he’ll take a mile.” We all know exactly what these things mean, because we live here, on Frank Borman’s Good Earth, and we’re used to them. But why should your characters, who grew up on some other world, necessarily know what a penny, a mouse, a raven, an inch, or a mile even are? These phrases stick out to the reader as being wrong for the world of the story.

For the cliche type idioms like “timid as a mouse,” well, they’re cliches and you shouldn’t be using them anyway. Have your beta readers flag them for you, and re-write them into something that derives from your world’s extended backstory. For units of measure both Metric and English, beware. These are notorious for sneaking past our writerly language-filters. I suggest explicitly searching your manuscript for all the common time, length, and weight measures. You’ve got two strategies for dealing with them. One, as before, render them in whatever units of measure are used in the world of your story. However, this can often end up feeling unnatural, if readers get the suspicion that you just renamed “feet” to something else. Better, much of the time, is simply to avoid any kind of specific measurement. After all, does it really matter if the reader doesn’t know exactly how big something is, how far away, et cetera? Probably not. Write the descriptions of these things such that we get a general sense for the measurement, and that’s good enough.

Oh, and for a great example of how to do it right, check out D.M. Cornish’s amazing Monster Blood Tattoo series. For all you world-builders out there, this is one to study for its masterful example of world building done through non-Earth language. Great story, too.

Got a favorite rookie mistake of your own? Share it in the comments.

< Back to part 2 | On to part 4 >

August 12, 2011 22:06 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, D.M. Cornish

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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 2

This is part 2 in a series of 45 common writing mistakes which mark a writer as a rookie. If you missed it, here’s part 1. Part 1 covered the first 9 mistakes. Without further ado, here are mistakes 10 through 18:

10. Simple mechanics. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this as the very first item for part 1. Maybe because it ought to go without saying. But, from what I see in a lot of manuscripts, it does not in fact go without saying. So I’ll say it. Make sure your manuscript is free from errors in the simple mechanics of spelling, grammar, paragraph formatting, dialogue formatting, and so forth. Especially dialogue formatting. Maybe I’ve just had a run of atypical manuscripts lately, but I’ve been really struck by how often writers get this wrong.

Seriously, people. You all learned this in grammar school (or should have), and there is certainly no shortage of reference works for you to turn to if you can’t remember how to do it. Check out Strunk & White’s Elements of Style if you need a refresher. And don’t give me, “but, Cormac McCarthy does it” as a defense. A) you’re not him, B) he shouldn’t either. Nor should Charlie Huston, or any of a small cadre of writers who have written otherwise very fine books but whose publishers, for reasons that are utterly mysterious to me, let them get away with that shit. Why, guys? Why? What possible value is there in making it harder for readers to track your dialogue? In Charlie Huston’s case, it’s especially tragic because the dialogue itself if excellent. A shame, then, that I sometimes couldn’t decipher who was saying what in this brilliant, darkly funny novel.

11. Dialogue tagging. Don’t confuse this one with dialogue attribution. Attribution is simply when you let us know who’s saying a line of dialogue by adding a little “Jane said” or “Kumar asked” before or after the dialogue. Dialogue tagging comes in two forms. One is when you adorn the attribution with an adverb or adverbial phrase which attempts to tell us the manner in which a character delivered a line of dialogue. For example:

“How can that be?” Jane asked disbelievingly.

The second is when you use an particularly decorative verb to indicate speech, the verb being chosen to achieve the same result as if you’d used an adverb. For example:

“Oh, surely he would never do that,” Kumar joked.

This is one case where good practice does go against the “strong verbs” rule I gave in part 1. The reason, in “Show, don’t tell” parlance, is that dialogue tagging is a form of telling, when you should actually be showing. Basically, if you’re doing a good job of showing in your writing, then the words of the dialogue plus the context in which they appear is enough to let the reader figure out how the line was delivered. In this second example, it should be obvious from context that Kumar is joking, even if you only attribute the line with “Kumar said.” See Stephen King’s On Writing for the hard-liner stance on this issue, explained in great detail.

12. Exclamation marks in narrative. William Maxwell once said something close to this: “I believe that every writer should be limited to one, or perhaps two, exclamation marks per career.” (Note: if you have a citation for the actual quote, please post it in the comments and I’ll update this.) Now, I’m not quite as hard-core as Maxwell about it, but I do take his point. When used VERY, VERY SPARINGLY, I believe there are legitimate cases where an exclamation mark can be useful in dialogue. But in narrative, Maxwell is absolutely right. Exclamation marks are supposed to be a sign of excitement. Where the rookie writer goes wrong is in thinking that exclamation marks cause excitement. They don’t. You cannot slap an exclamation mark on a dull sentence and have it magically transform into an exciting sentence. Doesn’t work. Worse, readers see through that in a heartbeat. It’s like you’re begging us to be excited to read something that you yourself know isn’t actually exciting. Don’t beg. Revise until it is exciting.

13. Omni-viewpoint syndrome. Writers necessarily need to know everything about what’s happening in their stories. We need to know what every character is doing, all the time, why they’re doing it, what they want, why they want what they want, et cetera. To get the story right, we must go deeply inside the heads of all the characters in the book. Where the rookie writer errs is in thinking that readers must go there too. We don’t. We need the viewpoints of your protagonists, sure, and maybe your antagonists, too. But that’s it.

We certainly don’t need the viewpoint of the mailman who is delivering a piece of very bad news to your protagonist and wishes he could quit his job and pursue his love of Jazz improv, but keeps delivering the mail because he needs the health insurance coverage for his invalid son’s condition. We don’t need the viewpoint of the night-desk clerk at the hotel where your on-the-run protagonists are crashing for the night, who is working just one of his three jobs so he can put his kid-sister through college. We only care about the principal players. Let the rest go.

14. Backstory flashbacks. Ok, so you’ve cut the seventeen extraneous viewpoints out of your novel, and you’re down to just the remaining central characters. Great. But how,then, do you let the reader know what makes these characters tick? Too often, I see rookie manuscripts where the one-size-fits-all answer to this question is “use flashbacks that reveal the character’s backstory.” This is related to the previous item in another way as well. Maybe it is genuinely important for us to know about the time the protagonist peed his pants in the middle of the seventh-grade cafeteria. Ok, fine. But do we have to see that in a fully-rendered flashback scene? Or is it only important that we be made aware that the event happened, what triggered it, and how it made the character feel?

The problem with the flashback is two-fold. One, it brings the forward momentum of the story to a halt. By definition, a flashback interrupts the normal flow of time in your story. It’s like saying to the reader “ok, now pause right here for a few minutes while we explore something that happened to this guy twenty years ago.” Pause being the operative word there. Flashbacks have this nasty tendency to kill a story’s pacing. Two, and reprising a theme you may have noticed from part 1 of this series, by showing a fully rendered scene you are leaving less to the reader’s imagination. Instead, why not present the information in the story’s present? Perhaps during a conversation with another character. Perhaps through a carefully worded bit of narrative. But think really hard before you interrupt the main flow of your story for a backstory flashback. Whatever’s in that flashback had better be really good to justify it.

15. Flashback within a flashback. Don’t. Just... don’t, ok? All that shows the reader is that you couldn’t, or didn’t bother, to figure out a sensible order in which to convey things to us.

16. Backstory infodumps. Close on the heels of the backstory flashback is the backstory infodump. It’s the same thing, except that instead of interrupting the forward flow of the story with an actual scene, you interrupt it with a dry, expository, and often lengthy block of narrative which explains what happened in the past. Which is why I wrote “a carefully worded bit of narrative” before. When it comes to backstory, most of it isn’t actually necessary at all. That’s one thing. But even for the parts that are, we rarely need it all at once. Don’t make us try to assimilate a character’s whole life story in a half page of narrative. Dole out the juicy bits, one at a time, at moments where they are most relevant to the story and thus have the most impact.

17. Self-plagiarism. A dead-giveaway rookie mistake is when a writer unconsciously re-uses the same words, phrases, narrative techniques, and plot devices. At best, it makes for repetitive, dull writing. At worst, it can create an incredibly distracting, annoying effect for the reader. When we start to notice the repetition, every subsequent instance ends up jumping out at us even more. All it does is focus our attention on the writing (and not in a good way), rather than on the story. Recently, I wrote a whole article on this mistake for the #amwriting blog, here.

18. Cliché writing. Ah, the hackneyed use of careworn phrases, and true standard for rookie writers. There is one sense in which the use of clichés is a good sign. In every art form I can think of, writing included, we learn first by imitating. Only then do we step out and innovate. Musicians learn by playing music composed by other (more experienced) musicians. Nobody picks up a guitar, learns to play it solely by ear without exposure to any other music, and then starts turning out chart-topping hits. Painters spend time in art school explicitly emulating the Old Masters, learning how to do still lifes, et cetera. Only after that do musicians and painters branch out to develop their own style.

It’s the same with writers. So while it’s perfectly natural for a rookie writer to rely on a cliché—such as describing a dim-witted character as “not the sharpest tack in the box"—we’re still going to call you on it because it’s a sign that you still have work to do. You haven’t graduated yet to the level of developing your own style. But keep going. To (ahem) borrow a cliché, the surest way to fail is to quit.

Got a favorite rookie mistake of your own? Share it in the comments.

< Back to part 1 | On to part 3 >

July 25, 2011 19:40 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, Cormac McCarthy, Charlie Huston, Elements of Style

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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 1

So the other day, someone tweeted this post from containing five writing mistakes that, as they put it (and hat-tip to them for the title of this post), “expose your lack of storytelling experience.”

I retweeted the link, adding that the real number was probably more like 50 than 5. Twitter people being who they are, now I’m on the hook for the other 45. The problem is, if I put 45 flaws in one blog post, it’s going to be 10,000 words long by the time I’m done and nobody’s going to read that. Clever, those Storyfix folks, limiting themselves to five. Sneaky bastards. So I’m going to split it up into five posts of nine each. Here’s the first batch:

1. Adverb and adjective abuse. Also known as “purple prose,” this is when a writer leaves no verb or noun unadorned with a colorful, oh-so-helpful modifier. Not. Rookie writers think they are providing readers with concrete details that help them visualize the scene, but what’s really happening is that you’re cramming reader’s perfectly capable imaginations with useless details that don’t contribute to the story. If the color of the couch doesn’t matter to anything (and come on, how often does it matter?) leave it out. Find a balance between providing a very few, carefully selected descriptive modifiers, but for everything else, leave it plain. Readers will fill in their own details.

2. Unhelping verbs. You remember back in grammar school, they taught you about so-called “helping verbs,” ones that “help” you create some of English’s more baroque verb tenses? Stuff like “will have been eating” and so forth? Sure, a prefix like “will have been” does in a certain pedantic sense help to give nuance to whatever the core verb is (eat), but I’ll tell you this for free: it doesn’t help your story. Rarely is it the case that a novel requires the fine gradations of verb tenses that English provides. Avoid these. All they do is clutter up the narrative with words that don’t carry their weight. Find ways to re-write down to the “big three” verb tenses of past, present, and future. Let readers focus on more interesting verbs, like “eat” than comparatively boring verbs like “will.”

3. Weak verbs. Another rookie verb mistake is to reach for the most generic verb that covers the action they have in mind, rather than the most specific. This is an area where writers of English, having access to the largest vocabulary of any language on the planet, have an edge. English has stolen so much vocabulary from other languages that we often have dozens (if not hundreds) of verbs that relate to the action we’re trying to convey. These verbs form family trees, as it were, with the overarching, non-specific members at the root and the more specific members at the branches. Take verbs of motion: run, walk, fly, fall, sprint, saunter, skedaddle, drive, and many more. These all fall under the parent-verb “go.” The rookie mistake is to reach for the parent verb first, rather than reaching for one of the more highly-evolved and useful child verbs. Then, finding that parent verb is weak and lacks narrative joy, the rookie writer doctors it up with some adverb abuse in an attempt to fix the problem. Wrong strategy. Find a more specific verb to begin with. Don’t just tell us someone “went” somewhere (past tense of “go"). Yawn. Pick a verb that, in a single word, conveys the overall sense of “going” plus the manner in which the going takes place. Give us “sprinted” instead, which is like “go” + “run” + “really fast” all in one word!

4. Pronoun ambiguity. We’ve all experienced this, both in reading and in our own writing. This is when a sentence becomes muddled up in a confusion of pronouns, such that it is hard to tell which character a particular “she” or “his” or whatever actually refers to. The rookie writer doesn’t even notice this problem, because in their own mind, the writer knows perfectly well what she means and expects everyone else to as well. Sorry, we’re not mind readers. Use a name here and there, re-structure the sentence to avoid using so many pronouns. Split up the sentence into multiple, simpler sentences. There are many ways to tackle this problem, but don’t make us guess who’s who in the story.

5. Over-description of clothing. Storyfix picked on over-description of food as one of their five. To that, I would add clothing. Or really, over-description of anything, but the particular category of over-described thing I see most often is clothing. Historical novelists are notorious for this. Yes, if you’re staging a movie set in a historical period, you must pay disproportionate attention to the details of everyone’s costumes. In a novel, not so much. Just like with purple prose, readers have perfectly good imaginations and will fill in all these details for you, if only you will let them. You only need to give them the bare minimum to get them started. You need not describe the cut, color, and material of every item of clothing on every character’s body.

6. Continuity errors. This is simply when a story fails to be consistent with itself, in terms of something that is unlikely to have changed by itself when we weren’t looking. If a character is short-haired in the morning, it is unlikely that she would somehow become long-haired by the evening of that same day. Not unless she put on a wig or got hair extensions, which if that’s what happened, we as readers likely have the right to know about. So if you didn’t tell us, oops. But if you did this, more likely you’re just a rookie writer who wasn’t paying enough attention to your own story. Well, this is what readers will think, anyway. And yes, I know it’s hard to see this stuff in our own writing, because we get so close to the material. Which is exactly why beta readers are so helpful, and why you should specifically ask (beg) them to flag any such continuity errors for you.

7. Misspelling character names. As a sub-category of continuity errors, you’d be shocked how often I catch authors changing the spelling of a character’s name mid-story. And not just minor characters or bit players, either. Protagonists! For the love of Buddha, at least know your main character’s name! Enough said.

8. Bathroom mirror descriptions. Writers of first-person material face the question “how do I convey the viewpoint character’s physical description to the reader?” Rookie writers put the character in front of a bathroom mirror, and spend half a page letting the character indulge in checking themselves out. Y. A. W. N. Also, massive cliché alert! That bit about over-describing, back in number 5? That applies to characters too. Seriously, we rarely need the details of physical description. The broad outlines, yes. It’s helpful to know if your character is skinny as a rail or built like a refrigerator, because that helps us know what the character will and won’t be physically capable of doing. But the rest? Window dressing. Let us imagine it for ourselves. Here’s all you really need to convey: general age, overall ethnicity (which you can do with a well-chosen name, many times), gender, and physical build. Those are the essentials. Leave out anything else that doesn’t affect the story. Let readers fill in the non-essential details with their own imaginations. And note, rookies, you do not even have to give all these essentials at the same time. You can dole them out, one at a time over the first couple of chapters of the book. In the early chapters, readers are still open to re-defining their mental image with new information. It’s like ice cream. Let us have one lick at a time, rather than trying to make us swallow the whole cone in one gulp.

9. Wakeup introductions. Also high on the rookie alert! cliché list are opening scenes that involve a character waking up and going about his/her morning routine. That description alone should tip you off to the problem: routine. Routine is boring. Unless somebody’s going to break into your protagonist’s house while she’s naked, taking her morning tinkle before stepping into the shower, don’t open with waking up. It’s boring.

Ok. That’s it for now. Leave your own pet-peeve rookie mistakes in the comments, and I’ll see you next time with the next nine!

On to part 2 >

July 21, 2011 20:25 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie

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The unavoidable character

Ask yourself this question about your current work-in-progress: What character is in every scene and on every page? Don’t be so quick to say “none.” I don’t care what kind of book you’re writing. Even an omniscient POV book with tons of head-hopping has a character who is in every scene and on every page.

It’s you.

The writer is inescapably present in every novel. Readers will suspend disbelief about your book, but they never truly forget that they’re reading a story you wrote. Your name is even on the front of it!

This is obviously true for memoirs and novels where a writer intentionally inserts himself or herself into the story. I’m not talking about those. What I’m talking about are the vast majority of novels in which the writer does not intend to be in the story.

You are anyway.

The question then becomes, does your writing minimize your own presence on the page? Generally speaking, the better a writer is the more invisible he or she remains to the reader. When the reader becomes aware of you, you’ve pulled them out of the story. That’s never a good thing.

In working with my clients’ novels, I’ve put together a list of common and not-so-common ways that writers reveal themselves to readers. Strive to avoid these:

Author intrusion

So-called “author intrusion” is when a writer inserts something into the book which doesn’t feel like it fits. This can happen in narrative, or through dialogue. But usually it comes in the form of an opinion on an emotionally or politically charged subject that isn’t directly attributable to any character in the scene, and is often written in a style that seems directed toward the reader. For example:

The phone dropped from Susan’s hand, clattering on the kitchen floor. She gripped the countertop for support. John was dead, found hanging from a light fixture in his apartment. Suicide is a mortal sin. It’s wrong to kill yourself, and no one should ever do that. Susan squeezed her eyes shut, but tears leaked out anyway.

Here, the writer reveals his own opinions about suicide, reveals his religious beliefs, and tosses in a little morality lecture as a bonus. The reader may well agree with the sentiment, but it has no place in the story unless that thought belongs to one of the book’s actual characters. If it’s just your opinion, leave it out.

When readers run into something like this, it’s like you’re waving yourself in their face. “Yoo hoo, writer speaking! Here I am!” Furthermore, it’s impossible for the reader not to be aware of you trying to tell them what to think. Nobody likes that. Even if they agree with you it leaves them feeling negatively towards you.

Credibility issues

It is very easy to make mistakes in one’s story that undermine your own credibility as a writer, that sabotage the reader’s belief in you as a person who has any business writing a novel. If readers stop believing in you, they’ll stop caring about the story and probably stop reading. At the very least you make it much more difficult for them to continue suspending their disbelief. There are three main credibility issues I see in my clients’ work:

Plot holes. If the cops take a character’s gun away in chapter three, but then the character fires the gun in chapter 4 without first having gotten it back, that’s a plot hole. It’s a logical inconsistency within the structure of your story, and what it tells readers is that you don’t know your own story well enough to tell it right. That being the case, what confidence can a reader have that the rest of the story is going to be worth reading?

Factual errors. Similar to plot holes, when your characters make mistakes about verifiable facts it tells the reader that you are either lazy or ill-informed yourself. Again, it conveys the message that you haven’t any business writing a novel, or that you haven’t put as much work into the novel as you should have.

One or two of these, when they’re small and on facts that don’t matter much to the plot, can be tolerated. Nobody’s really going to care all that much if you, say, refer to the “nine graceful arcs atop the Chrysler Building,” when in fact there are only eight. As long as you’re not screwing up minor details all over the place, it’s tolerable.

What isn’t tolerable is to make mistakes about facts that matter to the plot, or which are well known and iconic in the culture at large. For example, misplacing the Hoover Dam from the Colorado River to the Mississippi, or accidentally referring to 1973 as “the year Kennedy was assassinated.”

Bad or missing emotional responses. In my opinion, these are the worst. These are when your characters fail to react in emotionally appropriate ways to the events they face, or when emotional responses that are in the book haven’t been well supported by the preceding narrative.

For example, if your main character receives a call in the middle of his high-stakes business negotiation informing him that his mother has died unexpectedly, yet he carries on with the negotiation as though nothing happened, readers aren’t going to believe that for a second. Similarly, romance sub-plots where a character seems to be madly attracted to another for no discernable reason just aren’t credible. That latter one is one I see way too much of, and for some reason it seems to be an especially common problem for writers of thrillers.

These mistakes undermines your credibility as a writer because they make readers believe that you just don’t understand how real people think, feel, and react. If that’s the case, you really don’t have any business writing a novel that has any people in it. If that’s the case, consider writing Sci-Fi about aliens with wholly different mentalities, for whom dispassion towards their mothers and unmotivated romance are the norm. Or about robots. Robots are good.

If you don’t understand people, you shouldn’t write about them. That’s why this is the worst thing you can do for your own credibility.

Plot holes and factual errors are relatively easy to fix. Any decent editor can help you catch those, as can your writing group or people on internet critique websites. But if your characters don’t act like real people, there’s not much that can be done except to write the whole thing over.

Portraying yourself as an unsavory person

To enjoy your book, readers have to like you. At the very least, they have to be indifferent to you. Their opinion of you, if any, will prejudice them towards or against your book. Thus, your book should avoid making readers feel you are a loathsome human being, or they’re going to have a hard time liking it. How do writers betray themselves like that? Here are two examples.

One client’s characterization of the female characters in his book consisted of, without exception, descriptions their physical assets. Especially their breasts. I could really tell he was a breast man. There wasn’t much else in terms of characterization for these women. As the book progressed, this pattern left me with the feeling that the client wasn’t merely a fan of the female bosom, but was in fact a male chauvinist. The men in his book had goals, aspirations, and even feelings. But the women were little more than glorified furniture. It didn’t leave me feeling good about the client as a person.

Another client had a main character who—and to avoid the threat of being sued for libel I’ll be particularly vague here—did some very, very bad things. However, the book was written with enough author intrusion that I couldn’t escape the suspicion that my client was writing from experience. A little bit of internet research only deepened that suspicion. I quit the project, tore up the client’s check, and I hope never to hear from that client again.

Think about that: I was being paid to read the book, and I couldn’t do it because of my opinion of the writer. The client showed enough of him/herself on the page that every fiber of my being was screaming “get away from this client!” So I did. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.

It’s one thing to “write what you know,” as the saying goes. But when what you know would make a person think you belong behind bars, consider writing about something else. I’m just saying.

You are in your book

Like it or not, you are a character in your book if for no other reason than readers never fully forget they’re reading a story that was written by a person. The best you can do is to keep yourself as invisible as possible by avoiding the mistakes I’ve described here.

January 15, 2010 20:32 UTC

Tags: writer, writing, author intrusion, credibility, plot, emotions, emotionally credible

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Are your characters falling through gaps in your writing?

I spend a lot of time on this blog helping explain what writers can do to improve their characters. Today, I’m doing the opposite: talking about a mistake writers should not make in their scene transitions and chapter breaks because it can sabotage their characters.

If you’re wondering how scene transitions can sabotage a character, welcome to the club. I was quite shocked the first time I discovered this phenomenon because it’s so unexpected. Scene transitions are only gaps in the narrative, where you presumably skip over boring stuff the reader doesn’t need to see in order to move on to the next moment that’s meaningful to the plot. But “skipping the parts people don’t read,” as Elmore Leonard put it, is a good thing, right? How in the world can gaps reflect badly on your characters?

If you do them right, they don’t. But if you do them wrong, they can leave all sorts of impressions about your characters that you didn’t intend at all.

The Discovery

The first time I discovered this it was in a client’s manuscript where I felt that the main character was way too passive, which was weird because I could see him doing stuff at many points in the story. As I was writing my feedback for the client, I was asking myself why he seemed so passive. And then it hit me. The problem wasn’t in the writing, it was in the gaps between the writing.

The writer was ending a lot of scenes in typical cliffhanger fashion, thus motivating the reader to keep reading to see what the main character was going to do about that end-of-scene crisis. That’s a great technique. But then the next scene would pick up later, after the crisis was over. The writer presented enough recap so you knew how things ended up, but then moved on with the rest of the story. So while the main character certainly did a lot of things during the scenes of the book, I never actually got to see him respond to these cliffhanger crises. It left the impression that he didn’t do anything about them, and thus, that he was too passive.

The Theory

That’s just one example. But an awkward transition can create all manner of misconceptions about a character, depending on the context. It goes something like this.

At the end of a scene, readers have a picture in mind. They know who’s doing what, where they are, what their goals are, et cetera. The scene itself has built this picture for them. Further, at the end of the scene, your readers will have some kind of guess as to how the events may unfold.

But then the scene ends, so at the beginning of the next scene they have to build new mental pictures. If the second scene doesn’t sufficiently lay out the new picture while also linking back to the previous one, your characters can fall right through that gap. Let me see if I can create this effect for you in a short example.

Backstory: A husband and wife are having marital problems following the death of their first child, some five years prior. They’re dealing with the 5 stages of grief in their own ways and on their own timelines. He’s ready to move on and have another child, but she’s not and every time they talk about it they always end up in a fight.

Scene one: Having a pretty good day, the husband and wife decide to go for a walk. Without really paying attention to where they’re wandering, they find themselves atop on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the sea, their picturesque stone cottage in the background. Only, it’s the very same bluff from which their first child fell to his death. They both become silent and sullen. Neither can say anything, so in a moment of tenderness, they embrace, clinging to each other for support.

Scene two: Back in the cottage, the wife is in the kitchen sniffling and wiping away tears while preparing dinner. The husband, still seeming sullen, is stoking up a fire in the fireplace. Later, the doorbell rings and guests arrive for dinner. Husband and wife put on brave faces and attempt to entertain as best they can, although the evening is not a raging success.

Now ask yourself: why was the wife crying in scene two? What happened in between those two scenes? Don’t over-think it, just go with your gut. It’s probably telling you that back on the bluff, the husband must have brought up the subject of having another child again, resulting in another fight on the walk back to the cottage.

“But no,” screams the writer after it’s much too late to protest, “that isn’t what I meant at all! I only meant to show that she was chopping onions. It’s show, don’t tell, just some colorful detail in the kitchen scene. He didn’t bring up having another baby, and they didn’t fight!”

Ok fine, Mr. Writer Guy, but your rough and awkward scene transition reflects badly on the husband. It quite likely leaves readers thinking the guy is an insensitive jerk. They’ll be judging him for not recognizing that she’s still hurting, and critical of him for not giving her the time she needs to heal.

The scene break may be perfectly justified on structural grounds. That walk back to the cottage doesn’t, in fact, advance the story. There’s no conflict in it, so it has to go.

The problem occurs when a reader’s guess about what happens next is neither confirmed nor denied. The walk back to the cottage is the bridge from the first scene to the second. Even if you shouldn’t show it directly, you can’t leave it out entirely or the husband falls to his metaphorical death in the reader’s eyes.

The Solution

Two things need to happen at that scene transition in order for the husband not to come off looking like a cad, or more generally, for writers to avoid unintentionally showing something negative about their characters.

First, the scene break had better be in the right place. In the above example I’ve posited that it was, but that’s not always what writers do. Ending a scene too early is particularly dangerous, because you leave things very vague for the reader. The gap to the next scene can be too wide, leaving the reader with too many possible outcomes to consider. Don’t end the scene until you’ve given the reader a clear sense for exactly what you’re about to skip over. Don’t try to eliminate every possible incorrect guess that may be in the reader’s mind. You can’t build the whole bridge here. But that’s ok. A bridge has two ends, and this scene is just one of them.

Second, the following scene must establish its own mental picture quickly and clearly, in such a way that the reader can see how this scene logically follows from the previous one. Here is where you build the other end of the bridge by dealing with any remaining uncertainty left by the previous scene’s ending. Your job is to give the reader that brief moment of realizing “Ok, I see how we got from there to here.”

Build a Bridge

A scene transition is a gap. Always bear that in mind. Your job as the writer is to provide a bridge over that gap so your characters don’t plummet into the churning waters below.

A scene creates a mental picture for the reader, but it also leaves the reader having a guess as to what might happen next. If the following scene doesn’t clearly confirm their guess or lead them to a different understanding, then your bridge has a hole in the middle. Don’t make your readers guess at what happened. Let them imagine it, sure. But don’t make them guess.

December 15, 2009 19:34 UTC

Tags: character, flaws, transitions, mistakes, writing, bridge, gap

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Steinbeck was wrong

John Steinbeck

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

Steinbeck said that, but I think he’s wrong. You’ll have way more than a dozen.

Sometimes people ask me where I get ideas for my novels. I’m not always sure where they’re going with the question. Are they looking for a recipe for getting ideas of their own? Or just curious about my “muse"?

Happily, there’s no real magic to it.

I think a lot of people who have never written a novel, or who have tried but haven’t succeeded to their satisfaction, have this misapprehension about the process of coming up with ideas. Like we writers sit around in our offices, or take long thoughtful walks, or sit in Starbucks swilling chai lattes, waiting for lightning to strike. Like ideas for great stories are some sort of gift that you have to wait and hope and pray for, that they come from some mysterious external source.

The source of these ideas is often external. I’ll grant you that. But it’s nothing mysterious. It just a matter of paying attention to what’s going on around you. It’s a matter of learning to see the world through a storyteller’s eyes. It’s a matter of looking at people and events, and asking yourself if there’s a great premise lurking somewhere in there.

I didn’t always get that. I used to believe there was a recipe for it. That writers sat down and worked through some sort of secret process that generated story ideas.

I thought that until the first time I tried to create a story idea that way. It was going to be a spy story, because I have a soft spot Tom Clancy style espionage thrillers. I worked at it for a couple of weeks, until I realized that I absolutely hated the storyline I’d come up with.

The first successful novel writing experience I had was in 2005, during NaNoWriMo. I decided very late in October to try it. With no time to work out anything new, and out of desperation, I wrote a fantasy novel based on a piece of backstory I’d created for a role playing game some years prior. Roll your eyes if you will, but hey, at least it was something I already knew, and had a certain geeky enthusiasm for.

One year, an idea came to me while I was at the bookstore. I saw a book sitting out on one of the half-off tables. It was a history of the Pony Express. It just sort of jumped off the table into my hands. By then I had a storyteller’s eye, and it said to me “Dude, that’s a great setting!” I wondered to myself why I couldn’t think of a single book or movie that takes place there. I walked out of the store with that book, instead of the one I’d come for. I read it, it was absolutely fascinating, and when I was done I had in my head a young adult coming-of-age story set there in the wilds of what is now Wyoming.

One year, a story came to me in a dream. No, I’m not kidding. Well, it was more of a nightmare. I woke from the dream with just fragments of it in my mind, but vivid ones. Rather than just shaking it off and trying to go back to sleep, my storyteller’s eye said “Wow, cool sci-fi premise.”

My current work in progress came from a blog post I wrote a while back about backstory. In the part where I was talking about characters with interesting quirks, I wrote something about maybe having a character who collects Soviet-era comic books. I had no intention of that turning into anything, it was simply the quirkiest thing I could think of on the spur of the moment. But my storyteller’s eye said “Hey, remember that spy story you tried to write? The one that sucked so much? Well, what if spies hid secret messages inside the comic books?”

There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers. Your job isn’t to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up. — Stephen King, On Writing

Together, Steinbeck and King have it about right. That first idea may be tricky for you. It might have to come in a flash of inspiration, or desperation. But once you’ve developed that storyteller’s eye, you’ll see them coming at you all the time. One time, you may get a premise. Another time, a setting or a detail about a character. Whatever it is, it hints at the rest. That’s where stories come from.

Ideas are everywhere. See them. Grab hold of the good ones. Don’t let them go.

November 25, 2009 22:01 UTC

Tags: writing, ideas, premise, setting, stories, Stephen King, John Steinbeck

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NaNoWriMo diary part 3: writing is work

I’ve reached the nominal half-way point of NaNoWriMo, twenty-five thousand words. Part of the brilliance of NaNoWriMo is establishing these milestones, because honestly, it does feel good to reach them.

Sometimes, though, I just wish they didn’t come up so fast. It seems like one hardly has time to savor twenty-thousand before, next thing you know, you’re supposed to have reached 30. Which, for anyone who is keeping score, should be tomorrow.

Writing is work

There’s no doubt about that. If you’re at all serious about this whole noveling thing, you have to work at it. A blogger friend of mine wrote a guest post aptly titled The Myth of Being in the Zone. There’s a lot of truth to what she says. Sometimes writing is an exhilarating, joyous burst of creative freedom.

But most of the time it’s work.

For me, the zeal of starting a new project usually lasts to about 10,000 words. After that, the work sets in. Which is not to say that it isn’t still enjoyable. But it’s a whole different experience to glance down at your word count after an arduous hour of work to see that you’ve managed to eke out 300 words, than it is when you’re “in the zone” and that same hour nets you 1,500.

This is also about when the procrastination kicks in. You’ll notice that I’m blogging at the moment instead of working on my novel. I’m a little blocked at the moment, in the middle of a scene that I’m not quite sure how to progress from point A to point B.

I could jump into it and grind it out, but I’ve found that usually it’s just better if I let these things sit for a while. If I come back to it fresh, the solution usually presents itself. Stressing out over OMG Must Advance Word Count! rarely helps. But, your mileage may vary.

Pacing is work

In my last NaNoWriMo diary, I was fretting over how much exposition I had to get through to uncover the story’s core mystery. I’ve done that, but I’ve been surprised to discover how scary that can be. I don’t recall having felt this way on prior novels, but I have here. I’ve spent all this time creating various mysteries, and resolving them is just a little bit frightening. I worry that what follows this first round of mysteries won’t hold the reader’s interest as well.

Of course I have the opposite concern, too: for 25,000 words, now, I’ve been piling and piling the mysteries on top of one another. At times I’ve felt like it’s too much. That I need to throw the reader some kind of bones, let them come to the answers to something, before they get frustrated with me.

Pacing is all about walking the right line between those competing fears, and honestly, I think it’s one of the harder facets of good novel writing to learn.

Showing character through dialogue

Quite some time ago, I wrote an article on how to un-clone your characters with distinctive dialogue. For Lapochka, much more than any other novel I’ve written, I’m finding myself using those techniques explicitly not just to make the characters distinct from one another, but to convey to the reader those characters’ personalities. I suspect the reason has to do with writing in the first-person POV, as opposed to my usual third-person limited POV.

We get plenty of Anna’s voice through the first-person narrative itself. She’s telling us the story in her own words. Her snarky sarcasm, her ironic sense of humor, her bleakly wry observations all have plenty of opportunities to show themselves. But the minor characters don’t get that. All they get are a few lines of dialogue here and there, so each one has to count.

I’ve got one supporting character named Steve who is basically a manipulative jerk. He likes to be in control. He likes it when other people are acting as pleases him. His dialogue reflects that with a lot of imperative-voice sentences. I don’t find him saying “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” which is ordinary active voice. Rather, he’ll say “No, you don’t want to do that.” Grammatically, it’s in the imperative voice. It’s a command. Colloquially, everyone understands that these are two different styles of presenting one’s opinions. But the difference in tone between the simple statement and the command is important. One is neutral, and respectful of the listener’s own opinions. The other is pushy and disrespectful, however much it’s disguised behind smiles and a cheerful tone of voice.

I have another character, Alex, who is a Russian Studies professor and himself a Russian expatriate. His speech reflects this through techniques of dialect, which I also addressed in that earlier article. I’ve known a few Russian speakers of English over the years, so it’s not too difficult to emulate their grammatical idiosyncrasies for Alex. The pleasant discovery with him has been that the broken-ness of his English also serves as a useful tool for convey his emotional state. When he’s calm and collected, his English is better. When he’s upset, it slips back towards native Russian patterns.

Ok. Enough procrastinating. I’ve got a word count to advance!

November 17, 2009 22:02 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, pacing, writing, imperative voice, Lapochka, NaNoWriMo

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The rules of writing, or "why the classics suck"

I stumbled across a blog post yesterday where Australian writer Graham Storrs suggests that over-adherence to the common Rules of Writing is a bad idea. I think he’s wrong, but not for the reasons he cites.

This whole business of the Rules of Writing can be confusing for new writers, especially for those who aren’t quite sure what they’re doing yet and are still working to find their voice. Should they slavishly follow such prescriptions as “don’t use too many adverbs,” “avoid dialogue tags,” “avoid passive voice,” and the like?

In a word, yes.

I can certainly see Storrs’s point. The rules can be confining. They can certainly constrain your freedom to arrange words however you see fit. Mr. Storrs argues that Isaac Asimov, one of the true greats of twentieth century fiction, probably wouldn’t get published today because he breaks too many of the rules.

He’s probably right, but he misses a larger issue. Things were different in Asimov’s day.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Here’s the thing. The art of writing novels has evolved quite a lot since Asimov was writing. Even in his day, the art had already evolved considerably from the modern novel’s nineteenth century roots. Whenever you think the “modern novel” was really born, one can hardly dispute that today’s writers start with an incredible advantage over their historical peers: We have the collected experience of more than a century’s worth of what works and what doesn’t.

There just weren’t that many novels around in the 1800s. Not only was it damned hard to write one—the very idea meant a practically Sisyphean eternity of quill-and-ink work—but having written, there weren’t agents to help you get published, nor the vast plethora of publishing houses who might take your work. Today’s maxim that “good writers read a lot” just wasn’t possible a hundred and fifty years ago to the extent it is today.

Sure, the occasional Jane Austin came along and penned something really timeless and beautiful. But we can hardly blame most writers of that era for fumbling in the dark through unfamiliar territory, with nothing to guide them and no ready access to a community of other writers who could skillfully critique their work.

Because of this, most nineteenth century novelists are—rightly so, in my opinion—forgotten in the dustbin of history. Even some works that have survived to become “Classics” are unreadable to the modern eye. This is hardly surprising; writers back then weren’t less intelligent than us, they weren’t less creative, they just they hadn’t figured out the rules yet.

Dickens never learned how to use a period. Melville didn’t understand that you don’t have to tell the reader the same thing five times. I mean, I’ve tried more than once, but I still can’t get through Moby Dick; Ishmael just won’t get on with it in that first chapter. Classics? Sure. Good by modern standards? Hardly.

The rules exist because they work. As time has passed and novels have multiplied to fill all the shelves of all the libraries of the world, writers have had ever more access to the printed word. We have more exposure to what works and what doesn’t. In all those decades since Austin and Asimov, the tribe of writers has read a lot—and learned a lot. It never stops. I would argue that novels of today are even head-and-shoulders above most material published as recently as the 1970s.

Today, here in the twenty-first century, we have it easy. We really do stand on the shoulders of Giants like Austen, Hemmingway, Salinger, Leonard, and yes, Asimov. We have, collectively, distilled 150 years’ worth of literal “book learning” into a kind of tribal wisdom that we pass among ourselves. “Don’t use too many adverbs.” “Avoid the passive voice.” “Don’t use dialogue tags.” We repeat these pithy lessons like totems, we whisper them as shibboleths to see if our fellows stare blankly back or nod in agreement.

Ultimately, we have these Rules of Writing because they work. Time and experience has shown this body of lore to be effective guidance for creating a great reading experience. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? If your goal is to give your readers a great experience, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, those rules will help you get there.

When you know what you’re doing, you should break the rules. But then there’s that one other Rule of Writing: you can add “except when it works” to any of those other rules. Don’t use adverbs—except when it works. Avoid the passive voice—except when it works. The last bit of our tribal wisdom is “Know when to break the rules.”

Break them, if you know what you’re doing. Break them, because you should do your part to advance the art of the novel. Break them, because you should strike out along a dark and previously unexplored path. Break them, because maybe you’ll discover something wonderful. More likely you’ll find yet another thing that doesn’t work, but either way you will have contributed to the lore of our tribe.

But when you’re still working to find your voice? When the wisdom behind using backstory wisely isn’t yet clear to you? Follow the lore. Respect the rules. They work. They’ll help you find your voice, if you have the good sense to let them.

September 29, 2009 21:37 UTC

Tags: writing, rules, Jane Austin, Isaac Asimov, adverbs, dialogue tags, passive voice

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Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?

Ask anybody in this business whether you should use a lot of passive voice sentences in your writing, and they’ll say “No, of course not.” Ask them why, though, and you’re likely to hear only vague and useless answers:

“It’s awkward.” “It’s boring.” “It’s emotionally cold.” “It’s dry and academic.”

That’s all true, but none of it helps you understand the real problem. Here’s the real answer:

Passive voice hides your characters from view.

It’s really that simple. Novels are about characters doing things. Passive voice shifts the focus of the writing away from the characters and onto the things they’re doing, or the things they’re using to do whatever it is they’re doing. Check this out:

Bread was placed on the counter. Two slices, whole wheat. Peanut butter was spread on the left, jelly on the right. The halves were joined, and inserted together into a baggie. The sandwich, along with a shiny red apple and thermos of milk, was packed into the shiny, new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, with a folded paper towel for a napkin.

The lunchbox was handed to its intended recipient. A rosy smooth cheek was presented for an obligatory, if not entirely welcomed, kiss. The door was opened, and the new school year was begun.

That’s an extreme example, but I’ve seen people write like this. I’ve seen whole novels written almost entirely in this style. The problem with passive voice is that it’s great for saying what happened, but absolutely lousy at saying who did it or how they did it. It hides the characters. And in doing so, it hides all the warmth. All the emotion. It undermines any sense of the relationships between people.

I made those paragraphs the best I could—adding colorful details here and there—but they’re still awful. In those two paragraphs, where’s the mother’s love? Where’s the child’s mixture of anticipation and trepidation? Where are anyone’s feelings about anything? Oh, here they are:

Sam watched as his mother made a PB&J sandwich. Use the grape, Sam thought. He smiled as she took the purple jar out of the fridge. She packed the sandwich into his new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, taking care that it wouldn’t get squished by the apple or the thermos of milk. She closed it with a tinny, metallic snap.

“Here you go, Sam,” she said, handing him his lunch. She bent down to kiss his cheek. Sam squirmed a little but smiled anyway, secretly glad he wasn’t too old for it. “Run and catch the bus now!” Sam held her eyes for a moment, then ran out the door to begin the new school year.

The active voice version is very clear about who is doing what, and how they’re doing it. That much is obvious. But what is most interesting to me is the source of that improvement. The very process of writing in the active voice focuses my attention as a writer in a different and altogether better place: On the characters.

I had intended to write a straight, sentence-for-sentence version changing nothing but the grammatical voice. But I couldn’t. As soon as I typed “Sam watched,” I was forced to wonder not about the minutia of sandwich making (which happens all too easily when writing in passive voice), but instead about what Sam was thinking, feeling, and hoping: Duh, he’s hoping his mom will choose his favorite kind of jelly.

Having raised the question of which jelly she’ll use, I have to answer it, which forces me to wonder about the mom’s state of mind. Because she’s his mom and knows him and loves him and wants his first day to be a good one, it was obvious to me that she’d pick the grape. Her love and concern shows in her choice, in her ability to read her son’s mind. We see Sam feel that love when he smiles about it.

Similarly, I was forced to consider how she packs the lunch. Again, love and concern makes her do it in a specific and intentional manner. She doesn’t just cram it all in and slam the lid. Writing in active voice forces me to consider how—not just what—someone is doing, which in turn gives me an opportunity to show, rather than merely tell.

The simple decision to write in active voice forced me to focus on my characters. It forced me to focus on the people, rather than the objects.

It’s the characters who are interesting. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t interesting except to the extent that it has anything to do with the characters. In passive voice, the sandwich is just a sandwich. Boring. In active voice, the sandwich conveys the relationship between the characters. That’s interesting.

Relationships between characters are what we love to read and see. Passive voice writing withers on the vine precisely because it hides that from view. In so doing, passive voice encourages authors to be lazy and to focus on the entirely dull objects and events of the story.

It takes work to figure out how characters feel about everything, and how those feelings shape people’s actions. Active voice forces writers to do that work. It forces us to focus on the interesting characters of our stories and the fascinating relationships driving them.

September 03, 2009 23:49 UTC

Tags: passive voice, active voice, character, show, tell, show don't tell, Lightning McQueen, lunchbox, apple, sandwich, peanut butter, jelly, school, relationships, writing

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