Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 21 & 22, 2013

Quite a variety of Great Stuff today, from IndieReCon and elsewhere. Practical, thought-provoking, and even fun. All just a little bit down your screen. Enjoy!

ANNOUNCEMENT

One week to go before big changes—I mean, BIG changes—come to Great Stuff. The biggest changes will be a new location and a new look. For those of you who are following the blog by RSS subscription, I’m afraid that’s also going to mean a change for you, as you’ll have to resubscribe. Sorry! I don’t know how to transfer your subscriptions! (If you know how, please let me know. I’d love to make this a totally seamless process for you.) What won’t change is the frequency and the quality of the content. I truly appreciate every one of you who reads this blog and hope you’ll stay along for the ride on the new horse. Watch for more details in Monday’s and Wednesday’s posts.

FROM IndieReCon

IndieReCon finished yesterday and to be honest, my brain is more than full—it’s trying to explode. Fortunately, all the posts that were such a big part of the Con have been archived and will be available for at least a while, so one of the best things you can do is stop by the web site and browse. I have NOT mentioned every post that the contributing authors put up, so I may well have skipped the one that you were looking for.

Ali Cross’s (@ali_cross) Building an Author Brand is a long post but full of practical advice and examples.

Joel Friedlander (@JFBookman) lists 12 Steps to Blog Tour Success. Simple to list but they’ll take effort and focus to do well. Nothing new there, right? Kind of like writing.

There’s a whole ‘nother day of IndieReCon to cover but it’ll have to wait. I need to get this post out! So I’ll finish for now with Bookshelf Muses Angela Ackerman (@AngelaAckerman) and Becca Puglisi (@beccapuglisi) on Creative Book Launches That Command Attention. “Creative” and “Command” might not seem to go together, but they do if you think of command as “excite.”

CRAFT

In addition to being a contributor to Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey “flogs” (critiques) writers’ submissions on his blog—at their request! So for Flog a Pro: Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks, Ray decided to take a look at the opening page of a successful, multi-published author’s latest book, with this question in mind: “does the first page compel me to turn the page?” [boldface and italics his] Take a look. You can even answer the question yourself in an in-post poll. (I had my answer before the end of the second sentence. What was yours?)

BUSINESS

Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) reports that Amazon has applied for a patent on a technology that would let people sell “used” ebooks (through them, of course). This has some authors up in arms, others wondering whether this is really going to happen (seriously? they’re wondering?), and Bransford himself (a former literary agent) wondering if there is such a thing as  “used” ebook (hearkening back to the model of physical book that can show signs of wear). Then there are people like Cory Doctorow and Joe Konrath who would wonder what the fuss is about because, they claim, free and/or DRM-free (not-copy-protected) books generate sales of the same work and others by the same author. The full story is in Should Consumers Be Able to Buy and Sell Used E-books? What do you think?

Scammers seem to be everywhere. The latest from Victoria Strauss (@victoriastrauss) on Writer Beware® Blogs is Close-up TV News/Close-up Talk Radio. For a mere $5,000 contribution, you—yes, you!—can be part of a “huge” radio promotion! Uh, yeah, right.

As mentioned last time, Joel Friedlander (@JFBookman) has developed templates for MS Word that you can use to properly format your ebook or print book. Now that the effort has launched, he’s doing his promotion tour, which includes a summary and video interview with Joanna Penn and on his own site, plus at a new, purpose-built web site, BookDesignTemplates.com. DISCLAIMER: I am NOT endorsing (or anti-endorsing) what Joel has done, merely telling you about it. I’m actually a little surprised it’s taken so long for somebody to do this. Whether any of these templates strike your fancy, whether you think the prices are acceptable, even whether you want to try to learn how to use one of these templates is entirely up to you.

THE WRITING LIFE

British poet (and recovering lawyer) Musa Okwonga (@Okwonga) says, “When you’re terrified in making a creative choice, that’s when [you’re] closest to getting it absolutely right.” Check out his short video on Kelly Russell Agodon’s Book of Kells blog.

FUN

You’d think a writing advice piece would go up in the Craft section, but when the title is What My Cat Has Taught Me About Writing, you just know it has to come down here. And I don’t even own a cat, claim to own a cat, admit to being owned by one, or even share the house with one (or more). No matter, for a smile and an understanding nod or two (or ten), check out Jordan Dane’s (@JordanDane) Kill Zone post.

Only we word geeks would consider Why the Plural of “Die” Is “Dice,” not “Douse” by Neal Whitman (@LiteralMinded) by way of Mignon Fogarty’s (@GrammarGirl) Grammar Girl blog to be fun. Whitman also explains why “wicked” (as in bad) is pronounced “wikid” and not “wict,” why “buck naked” is transforming into “butt naked,” and why these quirks of the language tell us about how it came to be what it is today.

Critique Technique, Part 32—%&*@!$#^!!!!

Let’s get this out of the way right up front. This post is about “the f-bomb” and various other four- through fourteen-letter words and phrases that are generally not used in polite company. Swear words, curse words, obscenities, vulgarities, the whole lot, and the words we sometimes substitute for them. As a matter of convenience, I’ll call everything swearing.

I know you’ve all heard the usual advice to writers and their reviewers: if swear words are natural parts of a character’s way of speaking, don’t be shy about using them, even if that’s not the way you speak.

But if that’s all the advice a writer gets, it’s not enough, nor is it enough for a critiquer trying to determine if such language is being used as it should. That’s what I want to get into now.

Writers should use swearing, like every other use of language, with intent. Swearing in dialog can:

A symbolic swear word

  • Show extreme emotion;
  • Show a character’s response to great physical pain[1] or a sudden, unpleasant surprise;
  • Describe or add emphasis to the (usually negative) description of another character, an action, an idea, etc.; or
  • Add emphasis to irony or sarcasm. Note that using very mild epithets, like golly-gee, can do this, too, particularly from a character who normally uses rougher terms.

Even when swearing is part of a character’s persona, swearing at random or too much is a problem. If a character swears all the time, it won’t take long before the reader feels like she’s being beaten over the head with it. Once the author has established that a character swears a lot, he doesn’t need to show every instance.

If swearing is not part of a character’s normal persona, when they do swear, there must be a good reason for it. I’m not referring here to a character using some mild term like, “oh, sugar,” but using a phrase like “oh, shit,” instead of what they would normally use. When this happens, it should reveal something about the person or his situation that we hadn’t known before or which had changed enough to warrant the stronger language.

Swearing also needs to be consistent with the time and culture of the story. If one 17th century pirate calls another a scurvy dog, readers will accept that. If Edna calls Millicent that at their weekly tea, however, it’s going to make the reader wonder. Swearing always calls attention to itself but the writer needs to make sure it’s the right kind of attention.

Along those lines, some think the fine art of scatology has lost its verve over the decades. Today’s vocabulary of swearage seems puny and limited compared to that of 150 or 250 years ago. When was the last time you heard someone called a lily-livered, yellow-bellied scalawag, for example? Today, different forms of “fuck” serve as every part of speech except conjunctions and most of the other obscenities and vulgarities have to do with sexual or excretory functions. Not much variety or creativity there. Trying to overcome that poverty can have its own problems, however.

Writers sometimes make up words to take the places of current swear words. Most often in science fiction and fantasy, they’ll do it to introduce the swear words of the story’s time or place. These words almost always fail. They stand out just because they’re made up, rather than part of the regular vernacular.

Writers who don’t want to use real swear words will do the same in work they expect teens and younger kids to read. Unfortunately that taboo has become outdated. Writers are no longer protecting kids from words they don’t already know; just visit any junior high school or middle school playground.

Swearing can appear in narrative as well as dialog. It can be used in an indirect quote, such as, “Bob had been heard to refer to Ted as a fucking idiot.” This example also illustrates another purpose for swearing: to reveal an attitude.

Particularly in non-fiction, the attitude being expressed can be the author’s rather than a character’s, when an author is trying to make a piece “edgy,” for example, or appealing to a certain audience: young and macho, say, or angry or rebellious. As in dialog, though, when swearing for attitude is used too much, it becomes wearing and hurts the author’s credibility. Once the attitude is established, there’s little need for the swearing to continue.

So as a reviewer, how do you determine whether the swearing—or the lack of it—in a work is necessary, appropriate, and effective? Here are some tests you can use:

  • Is the language the character is using appropriate to his or her personality, culture, era, and situation?
  • Does it:
    • Add relevant information about the speaker or another character that can’t or shouldn’t be presented some other way?
    • Reveal something new and unexpected about the character?
    • Demonstrate a character’s extreme emotion or physical pain?
    • Help the speaker express irony or sarcasm?
    • Illustrate or create an attitude, in the character or the piece?
  • Does the language call inappropriate attention to itself through
    • Overuse;
    • Underuse (does the author seem afraid to use it); or
    • Artificiality (that is, made-up words)?

For better or worse, obscenities, vulgarities, and swearing in general are parts of the language of every culture. As a result, they have a legitimate place in literature. Proper, purposeful use can, as with any other form of speech, add to a work’s effectiveness and power—or detract from it.

When you’re reviewing a piece, how do you evaluate the author’s use of swearing?

 

 

 


[1] Doctors have shown swearing really does help ease the pain!

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.