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?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, December 20 & 21, 2012

Happy New Era Day! The 14th Bak’tun seems to have started without incident. Hope you’re not one of those prepper folks who’s now looking around at their cases of Twinkies® and wondering what they’re going to do with them all. (Oh, right: eBay!) Anyway, today is also Flip-Flop Day. Bet’cha didn’t know that. (And it has nothing to do with politics.) Check it out: 12-flip-21-flop-12. See? Flip-Flop Day. And there won’t be another one until January 10, 2101.

OK, enough silliness. We have SERIOUS stuff to consider.

CRAFT

Jordan Dane (@JordanDane) pulls back the curtain a bit to reveal her techniques for World Building – Indigo-style on The Kill Zone. For those of you who aren’t aware, as I wasn’t, Dane’s latest book, Indigo Awakening, is the next in a YA psychic-mystery series about teens with special abilities who might be the next evolutionary form of humanity. Whether you’re willing to accept that premise or not isn’t important here; what is is Dane’s discussion of how she created the world in which the Indigo children and their variants live and try to survive.

BUSINESS

Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) addresses a subject that can be awkward, or at least lead to unsatisfying results: Should Fiction Authors Be Bloggers? While his ultimate answer is “it depends,” which isn’t very helpful, he does suggest things a new fiction writer might do in order to build a following during those first few lonely years of your career. All of you, dear readers, are part of the path I’ve chosen. Thank you! In time we’ll see where it takes us.

TECHNOLOGY

I realize not all of you have a web site or blog and not all of you who do base it on WordPress. If you fall into the first of those “not” categories, you can skip this summary. If you fall into the second, the basic message is important, even if the specific details may not apply. Anders Vinther writes on ProBlogger, Backing Up WordPress? Don’t Make These 9 Mistakes. Some of the 9—not backing up ever, not backing up often enough, not backing up the right things, not backing up to a secure and separate location—apply to anyone with a blog or web site. Even better, Vinther, who writes for the web site The WordPress Security Checklist, also provides links to other posts and tips to help you do things right. Having had a website crash without a backup, I know how painful failing to do this is.

THE WRITING LIFE

A couple of posts back we had a dozen dozens. Now Harvey Stanbrough (@h_stanbrough) does one better with his occasionally tongue-in-cheek A Baker’s Dozen: Thirteen Traits of a Great Writer. A couple examples: “You are an avid reader” [serious]; “You are vaguely aware of other people, whom you believe probably live in your house because they seem to be there with some regularity” [not-so-serious?].

I’m tempted to send Anna Elliott’s (@anna_elliott)—well, her husband’s, actually—post On the Care and Feeding of Your Writer on Writer Unboxed to a writer friend of mine. Her loving and well-meaning husband isn’t a writer, they live in a very small house, and, well, you can guess the rest of that story. (Or what was the end until she created, with his help, a special writing place.) In any case, Anna’s husband’s eight ways he supports her just might be the sorts of hints you’ll want to share—ever so subtly, of course, like taped to the front side of a 2 X 4—with that special someone in your life. Might make a great Christmas present—sans the 2 X 4, anyway. 😉

FUN

The folks at Writer’s Digest (Zachary Petit, specifically) have put together a fun little set of holiday quotes in Happy Holidays from WD. Phyllis Diller had something to say about the holidays! Who knew?

ANNOUNCEMENTS!

Like many other blogs and bloggers, Great Stuff will be taking a break until just after the new year—January 2nd, to be exact. I’m WAY behind on my Critique Technique posts, so I’ll try to get one or two of them up, but many other things are under way that will lead to IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENTS soon(-ish). I’m excited about what’s coming and I hope you’ll enjoy the results one they appear on a computer screen near you.

Here’s hoping that whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year, they’re wonderful. And if you don’t have a holiday to celebrate, celebrate anyway! It’s better than sitting around moping and there’s a whole year of new writing waiting just around the corner for you.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, December 18 & 19, 2012

We’re clearly getting close to the Christmas holidays and things are slowing down on the blogosphere. Just a few bits of great stuff for you today.

CRAFT

Despite its title, Nancy J. Cohen’s (@nancyjcohen) Blending Sex and Suspense on The Kill Zone isn’t so much about sex as about romance and relationships in general, and for that reason, it’s a terrific summary of how to build tension into the relationship between characters, even if there’s no sexual component. If there is, of course, then the romance- and sex-related parts of the post apply too.

Sticking with characterization but focusing now on just the protagonist, KM Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) What’s the Most Important Moment in Your Character’s Arc? addresses that crisis point where the whole story turns, where the protagonist finally decides her only course of action is to face her fears/enemies/whatever and do what she needs to do. It’s not the climax of the story but the turning point that leads inexorably to it.

SOCIAL MEDIA

I’ve seen tweets embedded in blog posts but never known exactly how that was done. Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) solves that little problem with his How to Embed a Twitter Tweet Into Your Blog Post. It’s a little complex but I’ll bet it’s one of those things that after you’ve done it once or twice, it’ll be a piece of cake.

THE WRITING LIFE

One of the sisters who write as P. J. Parrish (not sure which one) offers a generous set of Christmas gifts all writers need on The Kill Zone: everything from permission to write badly (at first!) to the honest critic and the good friend (two different people?) to time off to time for your family—15 gifts in all. The great thing about all of these gifts is that they’re gifts we can—and should!—give ourselves, without the slightest bit of guilt.

Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) adds her take on Santa’s Lessons for Writers (and Creative People of All Stripes), including what to do with that darn lump of coal.

FUN

Today is Help the Elf day and I’m happy to have pointed Pete the forgetful elf (and Santa) to the rest of the Cochise Writers Group, my friends and writing partners. I hope you’re as blessed with writing friends as I am.

Even if you can’t help Pete, who are the writing friends you’re thankful for?

HELP THE ELF: I Found Santa’s Missing Nice List!

Help the Elf

Hi everyone! As you may remember, a few weeks ago Pete the elf had a touch too much Eggnog at the Holiday Christmas Party and as he stumbled home, he lost Santa’s NICE LIST.

The North Wind scattered the papers to all four corners of the world, and The Bookshelf Muse put out a call to help find them in order to SAVE CHRISTMAS.

Ever since I read about it, I’ve been on the lookout. And then today, EUREKA!

Yes that’s right…I found part of Santa’s missing NICE LIST. There it was, fluttering in the wind, half caught under the corner of my welcome mat. And shock of all shocks, I recognized the names, and I bet you will too.

Here it is below:

Santa's Nice List

NAME: The Cochise Writers Group–local members Brandt, Cappy, Debra, Debrah, Jeri, JoySue, Lucinda, Redonna, Steve, Susan S., Susan T., Tami, and Ted, and far-away members Bob, Pat, Annette, and Terry.

LOCATION: Southern Cochise County Arizona, and Oregon, Florida, and Mexico!

NICE LEVEL: 93% (at least–usually much higher)

NAUGHTY LEVEL: Just not tellin’! 😉

OBSERVATIONS: Ever-improving writers, but most important, great friends one and all.

RECOMMENDATION:     a) Coal                   b) Gift

~ ~ * ~ ~

Because poor Pete is dashing all over the place trying to hunt down the rest of Santa’s missing Nice List, I decided to take care of this one myself. Enjoy the gift I sent to your inbox and have a wonderful Christmas!

Photo credit: assorted gold baubles (christmasstockimages.com) / CC BY 3.0

A Taxing Question

A twisted red pencil

Image courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writing inspiration is everywhere–and you never know where your writing talents will be useful. As proof, I offer something I just ran across from the H & R Block tax preparation class I took in 2002.

The assignment was to create a squirrelly problem in which other class members had to puzzle out a number of significant tax issues.

Sounds boring, right? Most of my classmates’ responses were pretty dry. I wanted to have some fun, look for the story behind the Form 1040, and at the same time challenge people to notice which details were significant and which weren’t. This is what I came up with:

After eleven years of marriage, Betty finally kicked that sponging loser, Al, out of the family’s rented tract house on June 2. She went to a lawyer the following day. He filed a separation agreement that was signed by the judge and filed with the court clerk on June 25.

Betty has been too busy working paid overtime at her job with Swell Computers to get back to her lawyer about a divorce. Swell paid her $27,329 in 2001. Her only other income was $13.54 in interest from a savings account, and she does not have enough deductions to itemize.

Al’s in no hurry for a divorce. It’s not a community property state. He has to grovel to Betty for the bucks to make his rent every month on the converted garage where he now flops. He figures he has a better chance of guilting her into paying it if she still thinks of him as her spouse. So at year’s end, they’re still legally married.

Al works a part-time, dead-end job with Toilets Is Us Cleaning Service, which paid him $6,003 in 2001, and which is too cheap to spring for health insurance. Al and Little Al–his six-foot-four, sixteen-year-old son from a weekend liaison with a Swedish volleyball player–are still covered by Betty’s generous fringe benefit package at Swell. The biological mother was last heard from on the little tike’s third birthday, when she sent him a postcard from Tokyo.

Because of the rat droppings on the converted garage floor–and because Betty believes Little Al hasn’t been totally polluted by his father’s laziness and lack of aspiration–she urged Al to leave Little Al in her custody until Al gets his act together. Though she never adopted Little Al, she has cared for the lad as if he were her own and continues to do so now, working a split shift so she can be home to fix him an after-school snack–three grilled bologna and cheese sandwiches, a quart of milk, and half a package of Oreos.

Betty’s instincts were good about Little Al. In 2001, he earned $3,953 as a web designer for local small businesses, working after school, on weekends, and during the summer. $1,546 went to his support and $2,407 to his college savings fund.

When Al moved out, his grandfather–Al the Big Cheese, 67 years old and legally blind–sensed that the pickings were about to get slim and left Betty’s to live with his recently widowed niece, Myrtle. His meager disability payments help her keep her rented shotgun shack.

Al the Big Cheese was wrong about Betty. She’s had a soft spot in her heart for him ever since the time he brailed his way into a spousal argument and told his mewling grandson to stuff a sock in it. Betty pays his portion of the utilities at Myrtle’s, in addition to his food, blood pressure medication, weekly jaunts to the race track, and evenings out with the nineteen-year-old who claims to be pregnant to him–more than half the old gentleman’s upkeep.

Now for the questions (drum roll):

  • What is Betty’s correct/most advantageous filing status?
  • Would the added deduction and exemption involved in filing Married, Filing Jointly status outweigh the added tax liability from including Al’s income on the return?
  • Would Betty be too pissed off to do it? Would she file Married, Filing Separately, just to spite Al, and make him file his own 1040?
  • How many dependents can Betty claim?
  • Is she eligible for Earned Income Credit?
  • Extra-point question: If Al has to file separately, can he claim his flesh and blood, Little Al, as his dependent?

I haven’t made a taxable dime on this piece, though it may have helped me get a job the following tax season because the people giving the course ran the local H & R Block office. I did, however, turn a dull dissertation into a mini-melodrama that made my classmates laugh–and think.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, December 15-17, 2012

Last Friday I wrote about the snow we were getting and how it would look once the storm cleared. Here’s how it looked this morning just after sunrise.

 Snow on mountain at sunrise

That’s the way I like my snow: pretty to look at but no shoveling required!

As for writing, we’ve got quite the variety today, including a new section on technology, plus posts on covers, selling books on consignment and KDP Select, and much more.

CRAFT

Part 2 of KM Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) series on scenes is about their Three Building Blocks. It’s correct but incomplete to note that each scene has its own arc—beginning, middle, end. The building blocks fill out those pieces by providing a goal (much smaller than the characters’ overall story goals, but goals nonetheless), a conflict that grows naturally from the events of the scene and those preceding it, and a disaster of some sort at the end. As Katie notes, “disaster” seems like a strong word but the point is that in most scenes, the main character’s situation needs to be worse than it was when the scene began. To read Katie’s development of each idea, click on the link above. You’ll be glad you did.

It’s time for Joel Friedlander’s (@jfbookman) monthly e-Book Cover Design Awards column. These posts are always very long because lots of folks submit their covers for his review (111 this time: 95 fiction, 16 non-fiction). The ones Joel likes best get award icons and an explanation of why he picked them, others get comments (not always positive!), and the rest are just displayed with any comments the submitter included. These posts are always worth spending time with because, even if you’re not a cover designer (heck, I have trouble drawing a straight line with a ruler!), they’re a great opportunity to not only see what works and what doesn’t and learn why, they’re also a great source of ideas and the names of designers.

BUSINESS

Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) addresses one of those questions that’s always getting asked, especially by new writers: Should You Re-Query an Agency? This is a nice summary of the ways agents generally think but one point she mentions doesn’t get anywhere near enough emphasis: read AND FOLLOW the agency’s guidelines!!!! I don’t understand why this is such a problem for so many writers.

Did you know bookstores can sell your (hardcopy) books on consignment? I didn’t either but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Stephanie Chandler (@bizauthor) not only shows how on her post on the Authority Publishing blog, she even offers a free, Word-format example consignment agreement you can download and modify as appropriate. Joel Friedlander pointed this article out.

Kill Zone author Boyd Morrison (@boydmorrison) provides us with a Giveaway Report from his 5-day experiment with giving away his latest novel for free via the Kindle Digital Publishing (KDP) Select program. Long story short, he’s happy with the results, but keep in mind, he’s an established author. One knock against KDP Select (I heard it again this weekend) is that Amazon demands 90 days of exclusive sales if you want to sign up, meaning you can’t sell your ebook through any other channel—Nook, Kobo, Sony, even your own web site—until that 90 day period is up. Morrison’s experience is that he made enough during that time to cover what he thought he would have made via those other channels but as he notes, “one anecdote doesn’t equal data.” In other words, your experience will almost certainly be different.

THE WRITING LIFE

I suppose this piece could go up in the “craft” section, but James Scott Bell’s (@jamesscottbell) Honor Thy Fiction is about more than craft. It’s about who we are as people, and as writers, and how that comes through in our writing. The post starts out seeming to have nothing to do with writing, but stick with it. You’ll be rewarded.

Seth Godin is the latest in a long line of self-help gurus and his new book The Icarus Deception is getting a lot of attention. Mary Jaksch (@Mary_Jaksch) has the first of a two part interview with him on Write to Done (Why We Are All Artists) and Joanna Penn (@thecreativepenn) a much shorter review in Art Isn’t A Result. It’s A Journey. I’m not all that impressed by what I’ve seen so far but maybe you’ll respond differently.

TECHNOLOGY

Another new category today. Had to create this one for Julie Hedlund’s (@JulieFHedlund) Create Your Own Storybook App on Writer Unboxed. I’m sure there’ll be more pieces to fit here in the future. So what’s a storybook app? Well first, for those of you who don’t know, an “app,” specifically a “book app” is a software application (a program) for a smartphone, e-reader, or computer that requires the reader to interact with the story in order to move forward. A storybook app, then, is a book app for young children. These kinds of apps have been getting more and more attention, not all of it positive, over the past year or so although other than the technology to implement them, they’re not really new. Certain things remain unchanged from other storytelling forms: story matters, first and foremost. If you’re curious about this kind of “mixed media” for writers, irrespective of genre, check this post out.

Back on the self-help theme, Jan O’Hara (@janohara) offers a series of tools for maintaining focus and momentum in Tormented by Toothless Writing Goals? Try These Tools on Writer Unboxed. Some are long-established and low-tech, like the SMART format; some are new and web-based. I’ve you’ve been looking for this kind of help, check out Jan’s post.

FUN

Finally, it’s almost time to HELP THE ELF! This is Bookshelf Muses Angela Ackerman’s (@AngelaAckerman) and Becca Puglisi’s (@beccapuglisi) fun plan to have as many of us as possible reward some special writer or writing pal on the 19th. Here’s their message to you:  How about you, Readers? Is there someone you’d like to say Happy Holidays to, or tell them how much they mean to you? JOIN US! There’s plenty of days left until Christmas, and sometimes a kind word can lift people up in a way that they really need. It’s as easy as sending a free e-card or email note, posting on a Facebook wall or sending out a tweet. So go ahead and spread some kindness and cheer! Check out their original Help the Elf! post.

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