Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 31, 2012

Back to busy days, again. Today we’re covering the range from craft to publication.

  • We’ll start with the very most basic of skills: grammar, spelling,and  punctuation. This first article actually wasn’t a blog post but an article in the Harvard Business Review, which I found thanks to Brian Klems (@BrianKlems) and the Writer’s Digest e-newsletter. Kyle Wiens (@kwiens) writes I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. Now, Mr. Wiens runs a couple of businesses that are writing-focused, but then, so do we. If we claim to be writers, but can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re, is our claim legitimate? Don’t think so.
  • Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) continues her series of posts on what she learned at ThrillerFest with a post on Plot and Story Structure, in which she introduces us to Daniel Palmer’s 4-step approach: The Rhino, The “What if?”, The McGuffin, The Characters. Which would you think is most important? Answer at the end of the post.
  • Jeanne Kisacky introduces us on Writer Unboxed to Writing in the Discomfort Zone, the idea that getting out of what makes us comfortable is what gets us into our best writing.
  • Transitioning us out of “craft” and into what I might call “post-production” topics, Michael Hyatt (@MichaelHyatt) recommends 15 Resources for Pro Bloggers (or those who want to be). While most of these tools are specific to blogs and blogging, and two (Byword and Mars Edit) are Mac-specific with no Windows counterpart mentioned, a few, like Evernote and SnagIt should be useful even to those who don’t (yet) blog.
  • Speaking of blogging and “platform” in general, Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) posts a provocative discussion on “Shadowy Platforms” on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) blog. The platforms he’s referring to aren’t locations for thrillers or mystery novels, but all the ways the whole platform-building enterprise can be a time-suck for writers.
  • Moving beyond “platform” to querying, Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) reprises a 2010 post on The Top Ten Querying Mistakes authors can make (plus a bonus one). The info’s good but be sure to check out the street sign in the photo, too. 🙂
  • And last but not least, we go back to controversy with Kathleen Pickering’s (@KatPickering) Kill Zone post, Kirkus Indie: When a Review Is Good for You. The thing that gets Kathleen’s commenters so riled up is that authors pay for the reviews on Kirkus Indie, the independent-publishing side of Kirkus Reviews magazine. For those of you who have never heard of them, Kirkus provides reviews to librarians, bookstores, publishers, agents, and other movers and shakers in the entertainment industry. A positive review is A Very Good Thing. And hard to come by. BUT! There’s no guarantee that buying a Kirkus Indie review will get an author a good review (morally, that’s as it should be), but that also means the author might pay as much as $575 for something he or she can’t use (morally, that’s questionable: is Kirkus exploiting authors’ need for approval to improve their bottom line?). So as you might imagine, the commentary to Kathleen’s post is, shall we say, animated.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 30, 2012

A light Monday follows a light Sunday–and nothing on craft today, either! Let’s begin with the most interesting piece:

  • Lisa Cron (@lisacron) asks on Writer Unboxed Why Are We Wired For Story? Her answers are fascinating. First, because we need to understand the world around us. “Story” helps us do that. But how? What is it about “story” that draws out interest so? It’s not, Cron says, great writing (take that, all you literary types! :)) or even emotion, but urgency: the need to know what’s going to happen next. Feeding that curiosity gives us doses of dopamine, the pleasure chemical in our brains, and keeps us pushing forward. Why? So we can learn better how to survive, whether that’s physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or however. So “story” is a way of gaining knowledge. My personal addition is this: maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Knowledge is learning from experience. Wisdom is learning from someone else’s experience.” How do we use story, then? To gain wisdom.
  • Guest blogger Shawn Smucker (@shawnsmucker) offers 5 Tips for Making a Living as a Writer on Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) blog. I particularly liked #2: “Lean before you leap.”
  • And last, and mostly for fun, Clare Langley-Hawthorne ponders Fan Fiction on The Kill Zone, specifically why people write it and how she or other writers would feel if a fan wanted to write something based on the world and characters the original author had created. Hmmm. How would you feel?

That’s all for today.

Critique Technique, Part 28—Awkward Dialog

Ah, dialog. It’s hard for many writers to do well. When it works, it crackles, sings, inspires, enrages, chills, thrills. But when it doesn’t, does it ever show. It may be stiff and stilted, choppy or verbose, confusing or confused, the list goes on. Any or all of those characteristics can be acceptable, even necessary, when they reflect the character of the speaker. It’s when they don’t that there’s trouble.

There are many reasons for this. First off, dialog in writing—all writing: fiction, memoir, and non-fiction—is not natural, but has to sound natural when read, especially out loud. Real dialog includes pauses, repetitions, false starts, bad grammar, slang and jargon, incomplete sentences, and other problems.

Fictional dialog does, too, but with a difference: when written well, the author means for any of those things to be there, if they are. Fictional dialog is “better” than natural speech without seeming to be constructed, even though it is.

Perhaps even more than in narrative, every word must be the right word. Sentence structure must be just right to convey the proper degree of tension—from raving rage to the gentlest soothing. Every speaker must say just the right thing, especially when that’s just the wrong thing.

I could go on. Many authors have. There are dozens of books on writing effective dialog. That’s why this series of posts will have so many entries.

There’s no particular reason for starting the series with dialog that’s awkward, other than these problems are so common. The good news for you as a reviewer is that bad dialog calls attention to itself. You feel the problem as you read it. You find yourself saying, “Huh?” or “Get on with it, will you?” or even throwing the story across the room in frustration.

But let’s get a bit more specific about a few ways dialog can be awkward. We’ll start with dialog that is stiff or stilted.

First off, what do I mean by “stiff” and “stilted?” They’re very similar, so I need to be clear on how they’re different. Stiff dialog has these characteristics:

  • It is often too grammatically correct. Sentences are complete, with an explicit subject, verb, and object.
  • Sentences may be long and rambling (see below) or short and choppy, like this: “Bob went to the store. He bought a loaf of bread and a half-gallon of milk. He paid for them in cash.”
  • The speakers avoid using contractions, saying “I will” rather than “I’ll,” for example.
  • It’s emotionally flat, even when trying to express strong emotion, perhaps by avoiding the strong language that high emotion requires.
  • The pace never changes and often plods.

In short, stiff dialog sounds the way a robot in a bad science fiction movie would speak.

Stilted dialog is stiff, and then some. It adds extra degrees of formality, “expert” or erudite language (like that), and emotional distance between the speakers. Sentences in stilted writing (dialog or narrative) tend to be longer and more complex than they need to be and to use many words where few would do. The result can be something like this: “As you can see, madam, by virtue—or lack thereof—of your behavior, it shall be necessary for me to make inquiries into the nature and number of your previous liaisons with potential suitors in order that I may be better informed as to their, and your, morality and any potential indications of turpitude or depravity.”

As opposed to, “So, Alice, who’ve you been screwing lately?”

There are other ways writing can be unintentionally awkward.

  • Unclear personal pronoun references can be a real problem. When there are two characters of the same gender in a sentence or paragraph, referring to both of them with pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers) can leave the reader confused over which pronoun refers to which character.
  • Conversely, using the characters’ names over and over can be just as awkward. There’s no confusion over who’s being referred to but repeating the names doesn’t reflect natural speech patterns.
  • “Talking around” a topic, that is, using euphemisms or indirect language rather than coming out and naming the thing, can lead to real confusion for the reader, whether it’s the narrator or a character speaking.
  • Abnormal word order is a technique writers will use when they’re trying to make a character seem “foreign”—Yoda from the Star Wars movies—or uneducated. Used sparingly and in character, this technique can be fine. Use it too much, though, and the reader will struggle.

While I’ve concentrated on dialog here, awkward narrative shares all of these faults. The only difference is that it’s the narrator “speaking” directly or indirectly to the reader, rather than the reader listening in on a character’s thoughts or a conversation between two or more characters.

So what can you do to help repair awkward dialog or narrative? Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage the author to read her work out loud before she submits it to you. Or, read the unedited work out loud to her so she can hear just how awkward it is. But don’t exaggerate the problems! Let the awkwardness speak for itself.
  • Help the writer loosen up his writing by breaking sentences up, varying their lengths, and creating sentence fragments.
  • Point out where the characters and narrator can and should use contractions.
  • Propose language that better expresses emotion.
  • Delete excess words and phrases or substitute shorter, punchier ones or ones that address a topic more clearly.
  • Put words into the normal, or a more natural, speaking order.

Awkward dialog or narrative will undermine a reader’s confidence in a writer perhaps faster than just about anything else. It’s immediately obvious. It’s also generally easy to fix, and as a reviewer, you’ll do your writer-friend a huge favor by helping them do so.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 29, 2012

Ahhh, a lazy Sunday. Just a few posts on craft for you today.

  • Let’s start with some writing mechanics stuff: Harvey Stanbrough’s (@hstanbrough) Hyphens, Em Dashes, and Ellipses–Oh, My! on Writing the World. Clear and logical advice on when, how, and why to use each of these punctuation marks, plus the intermediate-length en dash.
  • Over on The Kill Zone, James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) asks “Is ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Overrated?” His answer is “no,” with illustrations why. In my mind, “show, don’t tell” is like every other sound-bite: a core of useful information that is incomplete because so much is left unsaid. “Show, don’t tell” isn’t a rule, or shouldn’t be considered one. It’s the beginning of a conversation about craft and technique. Anyone who only parrots the sound-bite fails to understand what lies beneath it.
  • And finally for today, Kim Weiland (@KMWeiland) discusses 5 Reasons to Write Your Scenes in Order (and 3 Not to) over on WORDplay. Kim readily admits she’s an outliner (I am too, sort of) rather than a pantser, which explains perhaps why she has more reasons for writing scenes in order than against, but as she notes, the “right” technique is the one that works best for you and for the story you’re working on at the moment.

That’s it. Have a great Sunday.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 28, 2012

FINALLY! A light day. Big help since I lost an hour on the computer this afternoon as a monsoon thunderstorm with plenty of sturm und drang came through my area. So, just a couple of items for you:

  • I’m not usually a fan of lists of inspirational quotes, but Cheryl Craigie (@manageablelife) has compiled a list of pretty good ones on Write to Done; some old and familiar, some maybe not so much. I particularly like this one from Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.
  • And, Joe Hartlaub announces a coming service from a company called ReDigi: Selling Those Used E-books. They’re already doing this with music tracks, and e-books are just another string of data bits, so why not? Best of all, they say they’re going to pay the author royalties, so long, of course, as the author’s signed up with them. Don’t get that from a used book store! Something to watch as it develops.

And that’s it.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 27, 2012

When I started this morning’s reading, I thought I might be seeing slow day at the end of a busy week. Boy, was I wrong! In fact, as I type this, I’m considering breaking this post into two: one strictly on craft, the other on marketing and publishing, since there’s so much on each. Have to see how this develops. We’ll start with craft.

  • Harvey Stanbrough’s (@hstanbrough) hilarious but on-point Narrative, Dialogue and the Fantasy of Balance zings the idea that there’s some ideal ratio between how much narrative a story has and how much dialogue. Particularly in Harvey’s sights is the false credibility of percentages, the idea that if someone quotes percentages, what they’re saying must be right and true. (I’m thinking of a certain writer and blogger who does this with plot points.) For my money, the “right” balance between narrative and dialog is the one that tells the story best. Because every story’s different, there will never be a single ratio that will apply to every one.
  • Kathryn Lilley (@kathrynelilley) weighs in with another funny piece, this time on The Kill Zone: Drop That Polysyllable!This time the target is the idea that some words are “too fancy” for a piece. Many sides to this argument, some of which are hers, some her commenters, some mine:
    1. New-to-the-reader words improve their vocabulary, which is a good thing;
    2. Making the reader stop reading while they reach for or activate a dictionary distracts them from your story, which you don’t want;
    3. Showing off your vocabulary, just because you can, pisses readers off, and pissed-off readers won’t finish your work;
    4. Mark Twain’s argument about the right word versus the almost-right word–if the right word’s not common, it’s still the right word; and
    5. Whatever happened to using context to suss out the meaning of an uncommon word, eh?
  • OK, I’ll fit one serious piece in here: Gabriela Pereira’s (@DIYMFA) The Villain’s Journey–Recap from ThrillerFest, in which she discusses not only how villains and antagonists differ, but ways to make villains more interesting–not just by the usual way of giving them a goal opposite to the hero’s but by giving them the same goal but with different means and motives for achieving it.

Ordinarily the transition from craft to marketing and publishing would be quick and clean, but today there’s a post that covers both, so that’s where we’ll go first.

  • Marcia Yudkin (@marciasmantras)  writes In Praise of Ripening on Writer Beware (R) Blogs! The “ripening” she refers to is writers spending the time to learn their craft, rather than inflicting whatever they come up with on the world via self-publishing. That sounds like such an old-fashioned idea to many, especially given the get-rich-quick siren call of the internet, but alas we know what’s really happened: crappy book after crappy book thrown out there, not even worth its 99¢ asking price. Let’s hope this is just a phase in the development of e-publishing that will wear itself out after enough wannabes fail. But then, there’ll always be more wannabes out there, won’t there, and modern day P.T. Barnums willing to take advantage of them.
  • Along those same lines, Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) posts a video today on why Bookstore Distribution for print-on-demand books is such a bad idea. This math, unlike the phony math Harvey cites above, is hard to argue with. And brutal.
  • Dee DeTarsio (@deedetarsio) guest posts on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) blog about her Small-Budget Marketing Experiment. Not all marketing efforts produce big results. Dee offers no explanations for why hers performed as it did, but that’s not the point in this case. She’s just reporting on what happened.
  • Which gets us to two posts that come via Nathan Bransford’s (@nathanbransford) These Past Few Weeks in Books.
    • Penelope Trunk’s (@PenelopeTrunk) How I got a big advance and self-published anyway is a blunt and almost-no-holds-barred tale of her experience with a major (but unnamed) publisher and their incompetence (in her view) at marketing. It’s clear from the post why she killed the contract for her non-fiction book. What’s not clear is whether her experience extends to fiction publishing as well or to other (Big-6?) publishing houses. Still, her point about the major houses not having any market information to guide their marketing efforts is in line with an article I mentioned in a previous post about the data Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other companies who sell e-readers are gathering through their e-readers.
    • Laura Hazard Owen (@laurahazardowen) provides some additional context on Paid Content in her interview with Trunk. She provides some background on Trunk herself, how Trunk came up with the numbers she threw at the publisher’s marketers, other views of Trunk’s opinions, and Trunk’s own reaction to those responses. In addition to the fiction/non-fiction divide I noted above, I should also note that Trunk’s book is a compilation of her own blog posts, which might also be a significant difference–or it might not–when it comes to how a publisher would plan to market it.

Still, this entire set of posts is a powerful reminder to not-yet-published authors to go into the entire experience with your eyes wide open, your expectations realistic, and your homework done. Publishing–traditional or electronic–is a business, and the business world does not treat the naive or the unprepared kindly.

 

Plum Crazy

Man, that gal is plum crazy. First she wants me to mow her lawn. I do that. Glad to. She’s been good to my ma since Pa died. But then she wants me to trim her peach trees. And fix that shingle on the milk house roof.

Then she invites me in to lunch, but I’m covered in dirt, so I say, “No, ma’am.” I eat on the porch. Then I follow her to the grocery and tote home her bags of food and we talk a bit. She ask me how old I am. When I say seventeen, she smiles a little and says something about me being a man.

So in the afternoon I feel grown up, and chop some wood for her even if I don’t like that chore. And I dig up that lilac bush that died near the front corner of her lawn.

It’s hot and I take off my shirt and wash down with her garden hose. She’s watchin’, with that little smile, so I spray a bit a water on her. She squeals and giggles and I forget she might be as old as thirty.

Then she asks me to come inside and mumbles something about plowing a field. In the house? So I say “no” and go home. Crazy woman. I don’t know nothing about farming anyway.