Critique Technique, Part 42—The Dreaded Expository Lump

Old car stuck in the mud

photo credit: Toronto History via photopin cc

Ah, the dreaded expository lump, that moldering mass of minutiae, that exhausting example of authorial excreta, that soggy swamp of supercilious sentences that sends the reader straight into the Slough of Despond. (Yeesh, enough with the purple prose.)

You know what the expository lump is, of course: that paragraph or page—or worse yet, pages—in which the author stops the story to tell you everything he knows about a particular character, setting, situation, etc. His intent is good—there are things the reader needs to know—but not all of them, not right now. And not all at once.

Unfortunately, this lump, also known as an info- or data-dump, isn’t the exclusive province of the novice writer. We all risk writing it. As we get better, perhaps our lumps and dumps are shorter and a little less obvious: a sentence or two, rather than a paragraph or three.

New writers make two mistakes. First, they haven’t learned to trust the reader to figure things out. Second, they haven’t learned that the reader is their partner in creating the story, filling in what the writer leaves out. As a result, the new writer takes it upon himself to describe and explain everything.

Driving a story into an expository lump is like driving a car into a deep puddle of thick, gooey mud. First there’s the shock of the sudden loss of momentum, then that sinking feeling as the mire swallows the story car. The drive wheels may still be throwing around lots of mud words and making a mess but the story’s going nowhere. Finally, when the writer driver takes his foot off the gas, even for a moment, the mud words flow back into the story tailpipe and the engine vapor locks and dies. The passenger reader is left stranded, wondering how she’s going to get out of the mud, rather than looking forward to dinner at Grandma’s.

As a critiquer, you play the role of the friendly tow truck driver, come to pull the hapless writer motorist out of his self-made morass. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to wade down into that muck yourself to find where to place the hook so you can pull the story car out without ripping the bumper off.

The first thing to do is assess the situation: what happened here? As I noted above, the author’s intentions were good. He wanted the reader to know important stuff! But alas, he misjudged what was important and what wasn’t, like misjudging the depth of the puddle.  Or maybe he didn’t know what was important.

All right, then, time to pull our hapless writer out of the fine mess he’s gotten himself into. Sometimes this is easy. The puddle isn’t very deep and just pulling the car straight out—that is, deleting the lump altogether—is all that’s needed. At other times, though…

Oh, no! The winch cable snapped! Everyone’s okay, but now what? It’s time for some some serious mucking to shovel out all those mud words that are stalling the story.

But here’s the thing: not all mud words are bad. The story needs some to be interesting. The key is figuring out which ones need to stay, which need to be gotten rid of, and which need to be put in a bucket in the trunk to make mud pies with the grandkids later. (Boy, this analogy is getting really messy!)

The mud words that need to stay are the ones that give color and life and depth (in other words, traction or at least interest) to the story at that moment.

So how much is the right amount? That’s a tough question. In part it depends on the nature of the story; some genres expect more description and hence a slower pace than others do. Another part of the answer depends on the needs of the story at that moment. For example, when introducing a character for the first time, it may be important to reveal not just some of his physical characteristics but some of his motivations, let’s say, or his perceptions of his surroundings.

Deciding when the piece you’re reading is getting stuck in the mud is easy enough. You’ll start saying to yourself, “All right, already! Get on with it!” But to decide what needs to be taken out, you may have to get to the other side of the puddle, if not all the way to Grandma’s house—that is, to the end of the scene, chapter, or piece—before you can look back and make that determination.

Let’s sum up, then. The expository lump or info-dump has two main problems: it delivers too much information at one time, most of which doesn’t contribute to the needs of the story at that moment. Second, it slows the story’s momentum, even bringing it to a dead stop.  As a critiquer, your job is to identify which details should stay and which should be pulled out, perhaps to be used later, when they can be sprinkled in at the places where they add to the story. Be sure you fit your suggestions to the genre and style of the story and what the reader needs to know. With your help, the author will turn story-strangling mud into a fine and rich loam from which the flower of the story will bloom.

How do you tell when you’ve hit an expository lump? How do you help the author fix it?

ANNOUNCEMENT

This is the last installment of Critique Technique that will be posted on the Cochise Writers blog. Starting next time, these posts will appear on my own site, www.rossblampert.com, on the Critique Technique page. As time permits, I’ll bring all of the other posts in this series over to the new site too.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 16-18, 2013

Quite a variety of Great Stuff today: it’s been a productive weekend on the blogosphere.

One mini-announcement before I turn you loose, I’ll be “attending” the IndieReCon online writers’ conference Tuesday through Thursday, so Wednesday’s and Friday’s posts may be a bit thin.

CRAFT

KM Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) penultimate entry in her series on scenes and sequels has to do with Variations on the Sequel. These variations can happen in the reaction (it’s ongoing, delayed, or shown in a flashback), in the dilemma or decision (such as if the decision turns out to be a dead end), or in the entire sequel (how quickly or slowly it happens, whether its elements are in order or not, or are disproportionate in length or strength, or if the sequel is interrupted by a new scene). Of course, this summary doesn’t do the post justice, so click that link and get the whole story, as it were.

BUSINESS

I have no idea what prompted Suw Charman-Anderson to write Piracy, Saviour of the Book Industry for Forbes magazine, but her message to the publishing industry is somewhat similar to what Cory Doctorow has been saying to writers for over a decade: not only is piracy of written works a minor problem at best (Charman-Anderson calls it a boulder in the road), it’s (@Doctorow says) an opportunity to reach more readers, many of whom will eventually pay for their free copy or buy another one and, again from Charman-Anderson, opens up the possibility of a secondhand ebook market. I wonder who will listen.

Meanwhile, Joe Konrath’s (@JAKonrath) now ebooks are selling like hotcakes, maybe better (does $15,000 of income in a week sound good?), in part because he’s been giving them away via the KDP Select program. In Hungry Dogs, he explains how readers are like those hungry dogs—in good ways!—and offers six keys to Konrath-like sales numbers. Note (once again) that he, like Doctorow, is NOT worried about giving away copies.

SOCIAL MEDIA

We haven’t visited the hilarious Catherine Ryan Howard (@cathryanhoward) of Catherine, Caffeinated in a while, but today we get to with her Social Media for Authors: [Groan] Do I HAVE To? Here’s her answer from near the end of a very funny post: “You’ll only make money by selling books, and the first step in selling a book is to inform a potential reader than it exists. For a self-published author, social media is the only gateway to a global audience that doesn’t charge a toll. So yes, I think you have to.”

TECHNOLOGY

If you’re self-published and want to track your sales (of course you do), Carol Wyer (@carolewyer) has posted a Tutorial: NovelRank that introduces you to NovelRank and shows you how to use it. Well, sort-of shows you. Wyer posted lots of screenshots, which was a great idea, but they’re so small it’s very hard to see what she’s filled in, highlighted, circled, or got arrows pointing to. Now, there is a video on the NovelRank site that shows you how to do it, too, but it flashes through so much in 60 seconds that for a new visitor it’s hard to absorb what’s being done and there’s no narration or explanatory text, only background music. So, the idea of the post and video are both good, and the service may well be useful, but you’re going to need to spend some time with the post and site to make it work.

Well, this should be interesting. By his own (indirect) admission, Joel Friedlander (@JFBookman) was a bit of a software snob, favoring high-powered (and high-priced) programs like Adobe InDesign over the relatively cheaper and more pedestrian Microsoft Word. And yet… people still insisted on using Word to format their ebooks! Badly, too often, which made Joel and others like him cringe. So he railed against using Word. But now he’s seen the light and announces today in Book Designer Confesses: The Truth About Word Processors that it’s time to help Word users do book design well, or as well as possible within the capabilities and limitations of programs like Word. And so a series is about to start. Stay tuned!

THE WRITING LIFE

Full-time high school math teacher and epic fantasy writer Patrick Carr posted How to Write While Managing a Full-Time Job: 5 Ways to Maximize Your Time on the Guide to Literary Agents over the weekend. If you, like so many of us, are in this situation, you’ll find these hints helpful. Personally, I would have put #5, “Make writing a priority,” at the top of the list, because if you don’t do this, none of the other four will matter—or happen—but that’s just me. The suggestions are all still good.

There are some people (I’m not naming any names) who are absolutely dead-set against writers’ groups, whatever they might be called. It’s too bad their minds are so closed. For the rest of us, Gabriela Pereira’s (@DIYMFA) Writing Workshop: How to Tell When You Need That Boost is a clear summary of what a group can do for a writer. If you think a group might be for you, check out Gabriela’s four ways to tell and three important factors to consider about yourself and the group(s) you might be considering.

Like anything you see here? Please share it with your writing friends!

Critique Technique, Part 41—What Was That Again?

Confusion!

photo credit: Richard Scott 33 via photopin cc

Ever had one of those moments when you’re reading through a story or article and the author’s description of a place or event or person makes you stop and say to yourself, “Wait, did I miss something?” Sure you have. We all have.

It’s okay to confuse a reader if it’s done intentionally and in a way that makes them want—no, need—to read more. But confusing descriptions that stop the reader and in so doing, interrupt the flow of the story, are another matter.

When these kinds of problems show up, it’s a good bet the author either knew what they meant and didn’t realize it hadn’t come out that way on the page, or they had no idea what they were trying to express. As a reviewer, you’re likely to be the first person to pick them up, so it’s your job to identify the problems and help the author fix them.

Confusing descriptions can come in at least these four forms:

  • Vague or insufficient detail;
  • Contradictory or inconsistent information;
  • Inappropriate or irrelevant information; or
  • Details the narrator or POV character shouldn’t know.

Let’s look at each.

Vague or Insufficient Detail

I covered vague descriptions in Part 40. Insufficient detail is another matter. Here there’s simply not enough information for the reader to build a picture of the character, object, or setting of the current moment of the story. An easy example is when the writer doesn’t identify the time or place when a scene begins. Another might be when he places a scene in a hotel room but give no other sense of what kind of hotel it is: a Motel 6 or the Ritz Carlton. Or, to continue the image of the river valley from Part 40, it might be wide and shallow or narrow and deep, lush and verdant or barren and dry, but the author never tells the reader.

If these details are important to the story, whether they’re setting mood, placing the piece, or revealing something about a character, if there aren’t enough or clear enough details to do the job, they need to be added or fixed.

Contradictory or Inconsistent

These kinds of details can cause the reader to laugh when the author didn’t mean for her to. Contradictory details can be useful for revealing character—the muscular he-man who’s afraid of germs, for example—but if the contradiction shows up without a clear purpose, such as to signal some kind of change, that’s a problem.

What often happens is that one detail shows up in one place, and then the contradictory or inconsistent detail shows up some time, maybe even chapters, later. In my first novel, I had a character who in one chapter stood 5 feet 11 inches tall. Several chapters later, she was 6-foot-2, and no, she hadn’t put on heels. Oops!

These kinds of problems can be hard to catch, especially if you’re reading a work a chapter at a time with weeks in between chapters. There’s no easy fix for this. If you have the kind of mind that will retain those details, that helps but even that’s not a guarantee. Catch them if you can.

If the problem is a contradiction, and you catch it, make sure you discuss it with the author to determine whether it was intentional or not. If it was intentional, then he may need to make the purpose of the contradiction clearer.

Inappropriate or irrelevant

These kinds of confusing details show up when the author isn’t clear in her own mind what she’s trying to describe or what she means to do with these details. In this case, she may throw lots of things at the wall to see what sticks, or have no idea that what she’s doing isn’t working.

For example, a couple of weeks ago I read part of a first draft of a memoir from a member of my writers’ group. She spent several pages describing things she and a friend had done. Her intent was to illustrate aspects of this important character’s personality, but the collection of vignettes was a tangent at that moment in the story and that much of that kind of detail was out of place. Not entirely irrelevant but certainly inappropriate.

The good news is that these kinds of details do a great imitation of a sore thumb. As soon as you find yourself asking the author, “Why are you telling me this,” you’ve found something you need to flag. Be sure, though, that you also explain why the details in question aren’t appropriate or relevant and, if possible, suggest where he might use them instead.

Details the narrator or POV character shouldn’t know

These problem details can be very tricky. Let’s say the work you’re reading is a murder mystery and the character (who we’ll learn later is actually the killer) comes into a detective’s office, looking to hire her to “solve” the case. Let’s say the detective is also the narrator and reports noticing that the potential client had a hole in the sole of her left shoe. So far, so good, except that the client never stood, sat, or walked in a way that would have let the detective see that sole! Even if that’s the sole problem with the scene (ahem), it does put a hole in the author’s credibility.

Like some of the other problems I discussed above, these details are likely to show up when the author hasn’t thought through the scene well enough, or hasn’t realized what he’s done. He knows what he intended!

Let’s sum up, then, with a few questions to keep in mind as you’re reading:

  • Do I have enough information here to give me a clear mental image of the person, place, or thing I’m supposed to be sensing? (Remember, details aren’t just visual but can engage several senses.)
  • Do any of the details contradict each other in ways that confuse me rather than revealing something important?
  • Are any of the details here inconsistent with what I was told earlier in ways that are not meant to reveal a change?
  • Do the details I’m seeing here distract me from the main story?
  • Do I wonder why I’m being given this information now?
  • Is the narrator or POV character telling me something he shouldn’t be able to know at this moment in the story?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, identify the nature of the problem and what the author can do to fix it. Next time around, the writing should be much better.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 2-4, 2013

Wow! Busy weekend out there on the blogosphere, and Monday morning, too: rules and tools, emotions and responses, Star Wars attacks and attacks on Amazon. It’s all here, and more. No time to lose! Let’s get started.

CRAFT

CORRECTION! Gabriela Pereira’s (@DIYMFA) workshop is on Tuesday, February FIFTH,  (that’s tomorrow) at 1 PM Eastern. Sorry for the confusion!

Anyone who’s been at this business a while knows that there are almost no rules to writing, beyond maybe, “Get your butt in the chair! Now!” So when a post is titled The Rules of Writing, naturally that’s going to raise some concerns. Fortunately, French super-bestseller Marc Levy’s (@marc_levy) “rules” on Writer Unboxed aren’t rules so much as guidelines, and wise and practical ones at that. A couple examples to whet your appetite: “Stop trying so hard to find a subject” and “Don’t show too much, don’t tell too much.”

Along these same lines, Joanna Penn’s (@thecreativepenn) guest post on Write to Done on 5 Ways To Take Your Writing Further includes some techniques I’ve heard before but haven’t seen mentioned much recently, namely free-writing and physically copying the work of published authors you enjoy and respect. Not only are these effective techniques for expanding your writing, they’re terrific for overcoming writer’s block. (See the Brandon Yawa post below too.)

I think it was one of the great Russian writers who said, “If there is no emotion in the writer, there will be no emotion in the reader.” Anyone know who that was? In any case, James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) picks up on that theme with his post How To Get Emotional About Your Novel on The Kill Zone. “Emotion in the author,” he writes, “is literary electricity. It’s the X Factor, the game changer… Readers sense it.” Then he describes a couple of methods for finding it and bringing it out in your work. The last part of the post is a plug for his latest book but also serves as an example of how he was able to create genuine emotion in the story.

Speaking of emotion, KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) continues her excellent series on scenes and sequels with Pt. 9: Options for Dilemmas in a Sequel. What does this have to do with emotion? After the emotion of the reaction to the previous scene’s disaster, now the protagonist should face a dilemma in which he or she has to figure out what to do next. This can be an emotional reaction, too, or a rational one, but it needs to start with a review of what’s happened, an analysis of options, and a plan for moving forward, which will lead to a decision, the next scene and, of course, the next disaster… but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Lessons Learned from the Original Star Wars Trilogy to Up Your Writing Game? Seriously? Yup. Lydia Sharp (@lydia_sharp) comes up with them on Writer Unboxed. Specifically, Episode IV (start in the middle), Episode V (destroy everything), Episode VI (expect the unexpected).  Hmmm. Y’know, that gives me an idea…. Thanks, Lydia!

BUSINESS

Joanna Penn’s piece on her own blog, How EBook Readers Shop And The Importance Of Sampling, is a terrific insight into both. Yes, if you own an e-reader, your shopping habits may be different, but if you’re looking to e-publish, even how just one reader shops can be revealing. So are Joanna’s and her commenters’ views on samples: how long they should be, how much time a reader will spend with them, how often they decide not to buy based on the sample, etc. Valuable info here!

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has started a monthly feature called Best Business Advice for Writers, and the January edition is full to overflowing with links to other posts and articles that are full to overflowing with information. The ol’ veritable plethora, right on your screen: GoodReads, cover design, self-publishing lessons-learned, WordPress plug-ins, Kickstarter, and more. Goodness. It’s a week’s worth of reading all by itself! Pick what most interests you.

Whoa, this is a tough one. Clare Langley-Hawthorne reports on The Kill Zone on a series of Concerted Amazon Attacks meant to discredit and kill the sales of a book. The book, an apparently non-sycophantic biography of Michael Jackson received so many 1-star reviews on Amazon (over 100), many of which were factually inaccurate, that despite Amazon’s selecting it as one of their best books of the year, sales were a small fraction of the number of books printed. So, whose free-speech rights prevail in a case like this: the authors’ or the reviewers’? Or is this an either/or decision at all? What do you think?

THE WRITING LIFE

It might be a bit of a surprise to see a post from ProBlogger here in the Writing Life section, but Brandon Yawa’s (@BrandonYawa) How Compassion Cures Writer’s Block fits. Interestingly, his idea is NOT compassion by the author for someone else, but compassion by the author for him- or herself. Self-forgiveness, in other words, when the words won’t come, plus a few non-writing techniques for getting that mental break that releases the block. Marc Levy (above) says not to fear writer’s block because it’s a natural thing. Without the fear, then, the forgiveness should come more easily. Hope so, anyway!

If you’ve ever been in a writers’/critique group, you’ve probably encountered people like those described in Donna Cooner’s (@donnacooner) Top 10 Worst Types of Critique Partners. If you haven’t, yes, you might well encounter people like these. But don’t assume as some writers and bloggers (NOT Donna) insist that all groups are like this. They’re not, and a good group is worth its weight in ink cartridges.

So, can you name that Russian writer? Have you run into any of those awful critique partners? How about great ones? Tell! Tell! (This is one time you don’t have to “show.”)

Critique Technique, Part 40—The Gray Haze

Fog over village

Photo by Dan via freedigitalphotos.net

Painters have a lot of different tools at their disposal to create an image: oils, water colors, acrylics, computer graphics. Photographers have light, angle, framing, the capabilities of their camera and film or electronics, and of course Photoshop® and its cousins. Sculptors have stone, wood, found objects, metal, even sand.

We writers have words—hundreds of thousands of them in the English language alone—so there should never be a problem with creating a clear image, right?

Alas, we know that’s not true. It’s not how many or how few tools we have at our disposal, it’s how we use them that matters. The next five posts are going to deal with how writers use words poorly to describe what they want the reader to see, hear, feel (emotionally and physically), smell, taste, sense psychologically, and so on, and how critiquers can help them do it better.

When we talk about vague or inadequate descriptions, there’s a tendency to ask how much description is the right amount. That’s the wrong question, for at least a couple of reasons. First, every genre has its own standards. Literary fiction often spends a great deal of time and effort on description in order to place the reader fully in the physical and/or psychological setting of the story. So can other genres.

For another thing, the descriptive needs of a work—fiction or non-fiction—change from moment to moment. For example, let’s say the characters in a story take several drives through a river valley. It might be appropriate in one scene to spend a lot of time describing the valley but say almost nothing about the car. Yet in another scene, the car will be more important than the valley and so should get more attention.

So one of the causes of inadequate or vague description is the author not knowing what she wants the reader to focus on or why. When this happens, the author’s mental senses will skim so lightly across the sensory field that she picks up little or nothing and as a result, describes little or nothing. The characters of the example are now driving through a valley on a hazy day:

  • They can see the fields and trees and river around them but the sights and the haze have no meaning or import;
  • Maybe they can hear the engine, the air rushing around the car, or the tires rolling over the pavement, maybe they can’t, or maybe those sounds don’t matter;
  • If there are any scents coming off the fields, no one knows;
  • The road must be straight, smooth, and flat because there’s no sensation of movement; and so on.

The result is that the scene is bland at best and maybe even unnecessary.

Another cause of poor description is the author knowing he needs to describe things, but not knowing how. This can show up as anything from excessive description to none at all, or descriptions of things that don’t matter. Perhaps the most common error here is simply using bland, generic, or uninformative terms. In a work I’m reviewing right now, the author describes a character’s voice as “upper-tier baritone.” Okay, baritone I get but what does “upper-tier” mean? As it turns out, this adjective is unnecessary because he shows what he means through the way the character speaks.

So how can you help a writer clear away the gray haze and give the reader a meaningful sensory experience? The first step is to know the general conventions of the genre, even the sub-genre, of the piece you’re reviewing.

The second is to determine, if possible, whether the author intended to work within those conventions or outside of them.

With this background information in place, you can get to the words themselves. The next step is to determine what’s necessary and appropriate to the story. The writer doesn’t want or need to engage all of the reader’s senses in every scene, but certain ones, especially beyond sight and sound, will draw the reader into it. Identify those. Don’t forget, this includes things like mood too, which may or may not be described in physical terms. Tell the writer which senses you believe should be engaged, or engaged better, why, and how the story or scene would be stronger if she did so.

Now determine which objects, sensations, impressions, etc., need to be described in special detail. In one story, a glass on a window sill may be a minor object; in another it could be key. The first glass needs little more than a mention; for the second one, whether it’s clean or dirty, full, half-full, or empty, what is in it, how it looks in the light, etc., may matter for many different reasons. As a reviewer, you can help the author home in on those characteristics.

The last key is to pick the most evocative descriptive terms—like Mark Twain’s lightning versus lightning bug. In one story, it will be the lightning; in another, the bug. You’re looking for the right word, the one that reveals something important, that puts the reader inside the scene with the characters, rather than watching it from the outside. The right word sharpens the image; the vague and generic one, or the mass of adjectives or adverbs, dims or diminishes it.

Unintended vague description is a writer’s bane. It’s a particular problem for the new writer. As a reviewer, you can help him pick what needs to be described, come up with the best words to clear away the haze, and make his story sparkle.

How have you helped writers overcome vague descriptions?

Critique Technique, Part 39—Pace: Speed It Up, Whoa It Up, or Change It Up

photo credit: dawvon via photopin cc

photo credit: dawvon via photopin cc

Last time we identified the general questions critiquers want to ask about scene and story pace—does it vary, is it appropriate, and if not, what needs to change—and eight factors that affect pace: sentence and paragraph length, active or passive voice, dialog versus narrative, tone, language, description, complexity, and what’s happening.

Now let’s apply the factors to the questions.

Does the pace vary? As I noted last time, even the shortest piece may have a varying pace but once you get beyond the flash-fiction story or filler article, it has to change. Readers need changes of pace to keep their interest. If the pace doesn’t change in a piece, either nothing’s happening or the author doesn’t know how to present the changes that are happening.

Changing pace is one way the author tells the reader something different is happening in the story, something is changing. For example:

  • A scene of frenetic action, written in short, simple, highly active, and dialog-free sentences wraps up. It is followed by a scene of quiet conversation that uses tone, language, and longer sentences to slow the pace down while keeping the tension up.
  • A languid description of an apparently idyllic river valley (long narrative sentences, quiet tone, lots of descriptive details) suddenly shifts when a space ship screams down to a landing and disgorges a company of storm troopers (short sentences, active language, dialog among the troopers, different and fewer descriptive details).

Is the pace appropriate to this moment in the story? While it’s possible to create a scene that would normally be presented slowly, let’s say, at the opposite pace, it isn’t easy. At least not intentionally. Musicians sometimes mix music in a minor key, which usually indicates a sad emotion, with an up-beat tempo, creating a cognitive dissonance.

While a skilled writer may be able to do something similar, you more likely will find a dragging scene that would be better at a faster pace or one that goes too fast and needs to be slowed down.

When a scene drags, it’s a good bet the author is providing too much information, has selected an inappropriate tone or style, or has let the scene go on longer than necessary to achieve its goals.

On the other hand, if a scene goes by too fast, the author probably hasn’t developed the elements of the scene enough: it skips from one incident to the next without taking any time for character reaction, setting or plot development, etc.

Is the pace appropriate for the entire piece? This question is a much harder one to answer, particularly if the work is book length, because you may not see the entire piece at once. The more time that passes between chapter reviews, the harder it will be to make a judgment.

If you can see the entire story, you need to have a sense of what message the author was trying to convey. Pace and tone will be closely connected here.

The author’s going to have a lot of work to do if a long work’s pace isn’t appropriate for its topic or message but don’t let that keep you from giving him or her that feedback—in fact, it may be essential for the work to succeed.

What needs to change, and how? This will be much easier to deal with at the scene level. Here are questions you can ask as you review a piece:

  • If sentences and/or paragraphs are too long, how can the author shorten them to pick up the pace? If they’re too short, what can she do to slow things down?
  • If sentences are written by the author in the passive voice (as this clause is), how could he convert them to active voice (like that)? There will be very few situations where you’ll want him to convert an active sentence to passive voice. An example might be a brief burst of bureaucratic writing to show an organization blocking the protagonist.
  • Is the author using narrative to describe what a character is feeling, rather than having her show her feelings by saying something? Conversely, is she having a character explain something where a one-sentence summary in narrative would be more effective?
  • Are the author and his characters using language that’s appropriate to their personalities and to the situation they find themselves in? If not, suggest more apt words.
  • Tone is more likely to be not quite right than completely wrong. So, would  a slight change in tone change the scene’s pace enough to fit better? Talk with the author to get a sense of what she intended before you make your recommendations.
  • Every descriptive detail should matter to the story. Do they, or are they bogging the story down? In this case, suggest what he could cut and explain why.
  • Conversely, is the reader having trouble creating an image of the scene and setting because there’s too little description, or it’s unhelpful? If so, ask the author to describe the scene to you out loud so she can capture the important details.
  • Is the author presenting so much information—not just setting or other details, but linguistic asides, secondary plot lines or activities, unnecessary characters and conversations—that the pace grinds to a halt? Then, as with descriptive details, suggest what could move or be deleted to refocus the scene on its central elements.
  • Are a scene’s events essential to its goal and purpose? Show the author how he can remove unnecessary actions to move the scene along. On the other hand, if the scene is too sketchy, show him how he could expand the scene to both slow it down and deepen it.

As you’ve seen, pace is a complex thing to evaluate and critique, with many subtle and interrelated parts. How do you help an author adjust the pacing of his or her work to make it more effective?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/dawvon/6991298758/”>dawvon</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Critique Technique, Part 38—The Pieces of Pace

The pace of a story is how quickly or slowly it seems to pass for the reader. It may flash by like a fighter jet at an airshow, crawl along at a speed that makes glaciers seem quick, or do something in between.

You already have a sense of pace as a reader, even though you might not be thinking about it. This post and the next one will help you be more aware so you can evaluate it as you critique someone’s work.

photo credit: peasap via photopin cc

photo credit: peasap via photopin cc

While we can make some general statements about pace in different genres in fiction and types of work in non-fiction, at best they’re poor guidelines. That means that s

electing the proper pace for a story can be tricky for a writer, if she even thinks about it at all. What’s right for one story will be wrong for another.

Pace isn’t a one-speed-fits-all kind of thing within a piece, either. Except perhaps for the very shortest work, the pace needs to vary, and what’s right for one scene will be wrong for another. For example, while a work that is introspective (a piece of literary fiction, say) is going to have a slower overall pace, there will still be places where the speed of the story needs to pick up.

Conversely, a thriller or science fiction “space opera” piece, which generally roars from beginning to end a break-neck speed also needs the occasional place for the reader to catch his breath.

The same is true in non-fiction: an investigation piece is likely to be more slowly paced than a lifestyle article, yet both need sections that are faster or slower than the rest to keep the reader’s interest.

As a reviewer, you’re looking for four things when it comes to pacing:

  1. Is the pace appropriate for each point of the story?
  2. Is the overall pace of the story appropriate?
  3. Does the pace change?
  4. If not, what needs to change and why?

A lot of factors determine pace and each affects the others. The list below is certainly not complete and there are exceptions to every generalization.

  • Sentence and paragraph length: Longer and/or more complex sentences and paragraphs slow the pace. Shorter sentences and paragraphs speed it up.
  • Active voice versus passive voice: Passive voice is, well, passive and because of that, it slows the pace down. Active voice should be faster, so long as other factors don’t slow it down.
  • Dialog versus narrative: Dialog may be faster paced than narrative, though not always. As I discussed in Part 37, characters giving speeches slow a story down.
  • Tone: A story that is sad or introspective will be slower than a piece that is upbeat or angry.
  • Language: The more academic or erudite the vocabulary of an article is, the more sedate will be its experience for the reader. Short, simple words read faster. (Did you notice the difference between those two sentences?)
  • Description: The more descriptive detail the author provides, the slower the pace may be, especially if this detail is being presented in an expository lump—a big, fat blob of description—rather than in a way that engages the reader. Few or no details tend to let the story speed along.
  • Complexity: The more information the author needs to present to the reader about the plot (in a murder mystery, for example), a character (in an interior journey of self-discovery, say), or the topic of a non-fiction piece (like quantum physics), or the more the pace can slow down if the author handles this poorly.
  • What’s happening: Story pace picks up when things are happening and slows down when they’re not.

Put these pieces together over the course of the story and you have its overall pace.

That probably seems like a lot to keep track of, and it may be at first. But if you’ve been working on learning how to do all the other things this series has been discussing, you’re already 90% of the way there, if not more.

Next time I’ll go into more detail on how you’ll use those four questions and eight bullets to evaluate a work, find its weak and strong points, and discuss them with the author.

In the meantime, are there any other factors you can think of that affect a story’s or article’s pace or that a critiquer should consider when evaluating pace? Click on the Comment button to add your ideas.

Critique Technique, Part 37—As You Know, Bob

Businessman and woman arguing

Photo by Ambro, courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Whenever characters speak, they’re transmitting information, to one or more other characters and/or to the reader. That information can be truth, lies, or something in-between; it can be emotional (a state of being or feeling) rather than factual; it can be directive (an order or warning) or informational; it can be direct or indirect; it can be any combination of these. This is nowhere near a complete list.

It can also be boring as hell.

What happens is that sometimes, with the best of intentions (or maybe just not knowing any better), an author will use a character to dump information on the reader, rather than doing it himself through narrative. No matter how it’s done, info-dumping isn’t a good technique.

This problem usually happens in one of two ways:

  • Characters make speeches or give lectures;
  • Characters tell each other things they already know, which is called the “as you know, Bob” problem.

Now, to be clear, sometimes a character making a speech is fine. In my WIP, that happens three times. To make sure I didn’t put the reader to sleep in any of them, I broke up each speech repeatedly with at least some of these:

  • Interruptions from a disruptive audience member;
  • Weather;
  • The behavior of the speaker, including meaningful movement around the location of the scene; and
  • Audience reactions.

In each case, I took what could have been long blocks of sleep-inducing monologue and turned them into active, action- and tension-filled events.

Sometimes, too, it’s just fine for one character to remind another of some detail:

Alice: “Wait, didn’t Jackson have a history of going off his meds?”

Bob: “Right! How could I have forgotten that?”

Boom! Done! Instead of:

Alice: “As you know, Bob, our files contain a series of cases, from January 1982, October 1994, August 2000, and March 2004, in which Jackson went off his medications, particularly his Prozac®, properly known as fluoxetine, for extended periods of time. As you further know, failure to maintain a prescribed regiment of Prozac at an appropriate dosage can result in a wide range of adverse events, including….”

Bob (and the reader): “Zzzzzzz.”

The good news, at least for you as a reviewer, is that both of these problems are easy to spot. When it comes to speeches, you’ll find long, uninterrupted blocks of monologue. I’ve seen them go on for pages. Ugh. Even if the speaker is telling a story, this isn’t the best way to do it because the story is being told second-hand. That creates an emotional distance which blunts the story’s impact.

“As you know, Bob” incidents will often involve just that phrase (unless the character’s name isn’t Bob, of course), or one much like it: “Let me tell you, Bob, in infinite and excruciating detail everything there is to know about this situation” (or piece of equipment, or whatever). That’s a nice big red flag for you.

Helping the author fix the problem may not be quite so straight-forward but is still very doable. You can:

  • Ask him whether the information is really necessary right now. His first reaction is likely to be that it is, which should then lead to the discussion of how much the reader truly needs to know at that moment. The answer, 999 times out of 1,000, is a lot less. You can then discuss how he can spread out the key details and drop them into the story at the points where they’ll have the most impact.
  • Discuss with her other ways to present the information.
    • In the case of the character telling a story, for example, she could shift into a flashback in which that story becomes immediate scene.
    • In the case of Jackson going off his meds, Alice and Bob could quickly call up his data file and refresh their memories with actions and snappy back-and-forth conversation about how Jackson did something worse each time.
    • Note that in both of these examples, a key element of the fix is to get all of the characters of the scene active. When monologue turns into dialogue, when characters’ statements are interrupted by their revealing, contradictory, or reinforcing actions—in other words, when the characters themselves are engaged in the story—the pace and tension will pick up and the reader will be engaged, too.

When a character makes a speech or one character tells another something she already knows, it’s a good bet the author means well but just isn’t clear on the best way to present that information. You, the reviewer, have a great opportunity in these situations to help make a story—and the writer—significantly better.

Have you seen these kinds of problems in other writers’ work? How did you help them overcome them?

Critique Technique, Part 36—Name-Calling

This post and the next one will focus on problems that are specific to dialog.

Sometimes characters addressing each other by name is a problem, sometimes it isn’t. It’s important to be able to tell the difference. It’s more likely to be a problem in fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction than in other kinds of non-fiction, because reportorial non-fiction generally uses direct quotes in a non-conversational context. Name-calling can become a problem when character talk to each other.

Let’s begin by identifying the kinds of situations where one character calling another by name IS appropriate.

  • One character needs to get another’s attention, such as:
    • In a moment of danger: “Bob! Run!” Alice shouted.
    • In a noisy or crowded location: “Alice, over here!” Bob called.
    • From a group of characters: Carol spotted Dean in the group of teens hanging out at the end of the pier. “Dean, what are you doing here?”
  • The author needs to direct the reader’s attention to a specific individual: The teens were milling around at the end of the pier. Carol worked her way through the crowd. “Dean, what are you doing here?” she asked.
  • To emphasize an emotional state, such as:
    • Intimacy: “Francine, that’s so sweet,” Eddie whispered.
    • Anger: “Eddie, you’re such an idiot!” Francine said.
  • A situation where characters are in a superior/subordinate relationship. The stereotype here would be a military environment but many civilian cultures also have these kinds of relationships. Consider, for example, how the children in small-town Alabama address the adults in To Kill a Mockingbird.

There are a few other keys to note here. First, and perhaps most important, the name-calling happens the minimum number of times necessary, typically just once. I’ll discuss this more in a moment.

Second, the author has chosen to use dialog instead identifying the person being addressed through narrative. For example, the intimacy example above could also be written,  “Eddie snuggled up to Francine. ‘That’s so sweet,’ he whispered.” In a case like this, the author may be looking for a little variety in the way the story is being told, or she wants to emphasize the relationship and the emotion of the moment by having one character address the other by name.

Third, the situation may require name-calling to help the reader keep track of who’s speaking to whom.

Where authors run into trouble, though, is when the characters keep calling each other by name when it isn’t necessary. Typically, this happens in a back-and-forth conversation between two characters where there’s no chance the reader will confuse the speakers. Let’s go back to Eddie and Francine for an example.

“Eddie, you’re such an idiot!” Francine said.

“I am not, Francine. I’ll have you know I’m highly educated.”

“I don’t care that you’ve got a Ph.D., Eddie, that was still a stupid decision.”

“Now, Francine, you know I made the best decision I could based on the information I had.”

“That was the best decision you could make, Eddie?”

And so on. Let’s look at what’s wrong here.

Line 1: Nothing. Francine is using Eddie’s name to emphasize that he’s the target of her anger. This might not be true if we had more context for the scene, but since we don’t we’ll call this line acceptable.

Line 2: Maybe nothing, since Eddie’s trying to placate Francine. But at the same time, lacking any other information, we know who he’s talking to. The first sentence could be deleted.

Line 3: Again, there’s nothing to suggest there’s anyone else Francine could be talking to and the level of emotion is set, so she doesn’t need to call him by name. Even if there’s a superior/subordinate relationship between these characters, there’s nothing to indicate that it’s in play here. Maybe Francine has a doctoral degree, too. Maybe she’s his boss. Or maybe she’s his housekeeper. We don’t know.

Lines 4 and 5: By now the names are just empty words, contributing nothing to the story.

The edited version might look something like this:

“Eddie, you’re such an idiot!” Francine said.

Eddie stood up straighter. “I’ll have you know I’m highly educated.”

“I don’t care that you’ve got a Ph.D. That was still a stupid decision.”

“I made the best decision I could based on the information I had.”

“That was the best decision you could make?”

OK, that’s still not great dialog—it could be tighter and use more gestures and actions—but it’s a lot better than it was. It sounds more like the way people talk.

To sum up, then, here are tests you can use to determine if an author’s characters are calling each other by name inappropriately:

  • One speaker already has the attention of another.
  • The speakers have already been identified and there’s no chance for confusion among them.
  • The name-calling does not serve to amplify or emphasize an emotion, point, or relationship.
  • It’s clear who the author wants the reader to be paying attention to.
  • The name-calling continues beyond when it would end in natural speech.

As a reviewer, when you come across a situation like this, be sure to point it out to the author and suggest ways they could ensure the reader always knows who’s speaking and the intent of their speech without resorting to name-calling.

What else do you look for when you’re looking for characters calling each other by name inappropriately?

Critique Technique, Part 35—The Critiquer’s Mind

I thought I’d take a break from the regular material of the series to talk about something that is central to your success as a reviewer: your mind. To an extent, this means your memory, but it also has to do with your attitude about and approach to critiquing, and your level of commitment to the task.

MEMORY

It’s important that you have a good but specialized memory. You can’t let the words just flow in one eye and out the other. They have to stop and make your acquaintance, or to put the focus in the right place, you have to make theirs.

You need to be able to recall specific kinds of details—about what a character did or said before, for example, or how the author described something—even if it’s been weeks or months since you last read a part of a work.

That’s not a skill that everyone has. Some (most?) who don’t can develop it, but it takes conscious attention to the requirement on your part, a determination to learn the skill.

If you’re a member of a critique group, you’re potentially in an ideal location to learn how to do this. I say potentially because not all groups are created equal. For your group to be the right kind of learning environment, there needs to be at least one person who already has the working memory to track the kinds of details this whole series is about and has the ability to communicate clearly and effectively what they find, so you can learn from them.

This is an active process on your part! First you have to read a work as closely as you can, actively trying to spot the good and bad in it yourself, then actively listen to the other reviewer, and then actively review or reread the piece, looking for what they found.

This really isn’t any different from learning to read a text for its symbolism, theme, or deeper meaning—those things your high school English teacher tried to get you to write about in your term papers.

OK, maybe that’s a bad memory. Sorry! ;) (But you remembered it! That’s a start.)

The more you practice this skill, the better your powers of observation and your memory for these kinds of details will become, but trust me, you’re not going to get it by osmosis. If it’s not already a part of your skill set or you don’t have that turn of mind, it’s going to take effort on your part to achieve.

ATTITUDE

“Attitude” means a lot of things in this context. One meaning is having the willingness to learn new skills, like the ability to remember details within and across chapters. Another is how you treat the other writers in your group: how respectful you are of their efforts no matter their current level of skill, how you present your critique to them, especially regarding the parts that need improving, etc.

Those are important but I want to address different aspects of attitude. The first is your view about how much critique you provide when. In my own group, I have a member who will not thoroughly review a writer’s early drafts. Her rationale is that the writer will be making changes anyway, so a detailed critique isn’t necessary.

This view assumes the author already knows how to edit their own work, something I have seen proven wrong time after time.

In a situation like this, the critiquer’s role is especially important because they are—or should be—providing insights and suggestions to the author that he or she would not have had otherwise. The reviewer is teaching the writer how to write and edit.

The second attitude is giving first in order to receive later. In a moment I’ll discuss how critiquing others’ work will improve your own but here I want to emphasize how much you have to give. No matter how experienced you are—or aren’t—by doing the best you can to honestly and fairly critique a work, to try to help your fellow writer do better, you establish a relationship of trust and respect that will encourage them to do the same for you. That’s the payback you’ll get from paying critique forward.

COMMITMENT

The last thing I want to discuss is the critiquer’s level of commitment. Being an effective, helpful reviewer means reading a piece much more carefully than an ordinary reader does. The fact that this series already has over 30 posts on specific things to look for—and almost 30 more to come!—illustrates how much there is to do.

Reading a piece once and then telling the author, “Well, I liked it…,” isn’t effective or useful critique. Neither is reading the piece once and telling the author, “Well, it sucks.” Both fail because they neither tell the author why you liked or hated the piece nor how it could be made better.

When I critique a piece, I read it twice. The first time I try to simply read it through without writing anything in the manuscript, to just get a sense of the story and its flow. After I’m done, I write about my overall impressions.

The second time is when I get down to the nitty-gritty: everything from spelling and punctuation errors to problems with plot, characterization, flow, pace, dialog, and so on.

Make no mistake: this takes time. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. But I treat this work as part of my job of continuing to learn my craft. Whenever I suggest a way to improve someone else’s work, I’m teaching myself how to find and fix the same kind of problem in my own. To me, this is time invested, not time wasted or lost. It’s part of my commitment to my craft.

In conclusion, then, a carefully tuned and focused memory, specific attitudes about critiquing, and a commitment to the task are key elements of the mind of an effective and valuable critiquer. A well and thoroughly done critique benefits both the author and the person giving the critique. Do it well and you’ll be a better writer for it.

What qualities do you think a person needs to be an effective critiquer?