Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 26 & 27, 2013

Well, here it is: the last Great Stuff post on the Cochise Writers blog. OK, not quite. I’ll put up a reminder so everyone knows these posts and my Critique Technique posts have moved. As of Friday, March 1st, everything will be over at my new web site, www.rossblampert.com. Great Stuff for Writers and Critique Technique will have their own menu items and pages. You’ll have to resubscribe, I’m afraid, but the RSS feed links and subscribe-by-email boxes are up at the top of the sidebar so they’re easy to get to. Every site is a work in progress, so I’ll be adding new features as I can and as they become relevant. I hope you like the look and feel of the new site. I’m pretty excited about it and I hope you will be too.

Meanwhile, there’s lots of Great Stuff here as well.

CRAFT

Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. @GrammarGirl, clears up once and for all (you believe THAT, don’t you?) when and whether to use the Oxford/Harvard/serial comma with an graphic from OnlineSchools.com in The Oxford Comma, in Pictures. You may want to ensure you’re reading the post and graphic at a relatively large screen expansion because the color contrasts in the image aren’t the strongest, but the information itself is clear, concise(,) and easy to absorb.

Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) has a post today on words that writers consistently confuse with others that are similar: Never Confuse These Words Again. Her list of doubles and triples is short—only 10 sets out of many—but still a good review. The one of her commenters pointed out a blog called Homophones Weakly (notice the “mis”spelling) that covers this topic in a fun way.

KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) deals with a problem we all run into once in a while: Episodic Storytelling. When writing is called “episodic,” that’s generally not a compliment. It happens, Katie tells us, because the scenes that make up these episodes don’t seem to matter to each other—one doesn’t build into the next. The solution is straight-forward (to describe if not necessarily to do): make sure each scene contributes to the overall story.

BUSINESS

Every so often the issue of “traditional” copyright bubbles up (I’m putting traditional in quotes to distinguish it from the Creative Commons copyright) and it has again on Writer Beware ® Blogs, in Victoria Strauss’s (@victoriastrauss) Why Not to Register Copyright for Unpublished Work. This piece has two parts: one clearly related to the title (short form: it’s not necessary and does nothing for you) and the other about why it can actually place you at risk. Say what? It turns out, Strauss reports, that there are various unscrupulous companies (she names one) that troll copyright and Library of Congress registration lists looking for naïve unpublished authors to scam with offers of “services” (exorbitant fees not mentioned, of course).

Here’s an important one for you: Thomas Ford’s Common Creativity: Understanding the Rules and Rights Around “Free” Images on the Web on ProBlogger. As Ford discusses, “free” isn’t necessarily an absolute term when it comes to images—or documents, for that matter—and if you’re going to use a “free” image, you’d better know exactly what you’re allowed to do under what circumstances. Just because something is available at no charge doesn’t mean there are no restrictions on what you can or can’t do with it. This is a long and detailed piece, particularly when it comes to the Creative Commons kinds of copyrights, and may be more than you can absorb in one reading, so bookmark it or flag it as a favorite and check out the resources the Creative Commons folks have put together for your use.

TECHNOLOGY

Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) has a terrific post on 7 Ways to Look Good on Your Webcam. As I noted in my comment, I’m not an ENT doctor—I really don’t care to be looking up your nose—so her #1 suggestion to put your webcam at eye level or a little higher is a biggie. Her other points and those of her commenters are all good. With Google Hangouts, other video chats, vlogs, and podcasts all becoming more common, these pointers are all necessary for looking at least decent on camera.

THE WRITING LIFE

Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) continues her writing community series with the start of a sub-series on how to Build Your Online Writing Community, the key word being “Online.” While she discusses the blogosphere and Twitter in a bit of detail here, she promises more posts on other parts of the online world in the future. As she notes, there are so many options that it’s hard for someone who’s just getting into social media to know what to do first. Let’s hope this series will help people like that (like you?) make that choice.

See you next time at our new site!

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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 23-25, 2013

Several sets of FAQs for you today, plus tips on trilogies, writing magic, getting more out of Google+, and building your writing community. But before we get to that…

A LITTLE MORE LEAD-UP

Starting Friday, Great Stuff will not only have a new home but a slightly different name. I’m changing it to focus on what it provides: value to you. So when we make the move, look for “Great Stuff for Writers,” in place of the current title. It’ll have its own place on the new web site’s menu line. My other posts, under the title of Critique Technique, will remain the same, but they too will have their own menu line item. On Wednesday I’ll give you the new web site name and URL and then on Friday—deep breath—it’ll all officially go live.

CRAFT

KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) finishes her series on scenes and sequels with some Frequently Asked Questions. Alas, her call for questions elicited only two and, well, let’s hope that those folks just came to the series late. So instead, Katie pulled in some questions that had been asked in the comments to previous parts of the series. Some are pretty basic but others drew out insightful or informative answers. Here’s a big THANK YOU to Katie for the series. It’s a keeper. (Do I sense a small ebook? :))

Other author’s who’ve written about writing a series have discussed overall story and character arcs and the like, and those are important things. Jordyn Redwood (@JordynRedwood) discusses some other details specifically regarding Writing a Trilogy that, if not taken care of, can catch the writer out, things like timelines, characterization absolutes, and moments that tie later books back to the earlier ones. Series writing introduces layers of complexity not found in a standalone work, so posts like this are valuable.

Here’s a big shout-out thank you to Becca Puglisi (@beccapuglisi) of The Bookshelf Muse for bringing in horror writer Michaelbrent Collings to discuss The Magic of Misleading. Why? Because reading it made me realize one of the things that’s missing from the first draft of my current WIP. Are you ready? Here it is: “the secret to misdirection isn’t withholding information, it’s giving extra information, and focusing the audience’s attention on that.” (emphases his) That light you see is the 25 Watt light bulb flickering on above my head! There’s more to the post, of course, but this is a nugget I’ll be keeping. Maybe you will too.

BUSINESS

Query letters: one of the greatest mysteries in the business of getting published. What makes a good one? What do agents want??????  Back in September of last year, Chuck Sambuchino (@ChuckSambuchino) wrote a roundup of frequently asked questions. Now he’s back with Query Letter FAQs (Part II): 10 More Questions Answered on Writer Unboxed. If you’re currently querying or want to get published by a traditional publisher, take a look at this post. But keep one thing in mind that Chuck only hints at: always always ALWAYS check the web site of the agent or agency you’re submitting to first to find out what they want and how they work.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Demian Farnworth’s (@demianfarnworth) Seven Ways Writers Can Build Online Authority with Google+ (really 6 do’s and 1 don’t) is something of a paean to Google’s social media platform, but I suppose you could call it a practical paean. As I’ve noted elsewhere, in many ways Google+ isn’t all that unique (the major exception being the Hangouts free video conferencing feature), but what they’ve done is take a number of things other social media sites do, such as LinkedIn’s groups, and amplified them (Google+’s circles). So if you’re already on Google+ and want to know how to use it better, or you’re still trying to decide whether to add it to your social media repertoire, it’s probably worth your time to visit this long post on Copyblogger.

THE WRITING LIFE

We all know—and keep telling each other! :)—that the writing life is a lonely one, right? Well, it doesn’t have to be, and Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) is starting a series on how you can expand your circle, or as she calls it, Build Your Writing Community with In-Person Events. She offers tips on where to find such events, which to choose, and what to do once you get there. If you’re looking for ways to escape your garret, this could be for you. Then in part 2, she discusses Writing Classes and Workshops. Surprised that someone hosting a blog on creating a do-it-yourself Master of Fine Arts equivalent would be advocating finding classes? Don’t be—it makes sense in the context of creating your own community. Classes are simply another way of meeting like-minded and like-skilled writers. And be sure to check out her tips for evaluating the people and the classes.

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.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 19 & 20, 2013

A double-dose of Great Stuff today (and again on Friday) as IndieReCon rolls on. Despite all the links from the Con below, I have NOT mentioned every post or video or chat from the first half! And then there are all the “usual suspects” you’re used to reading here. No more delays! Off we go…

FROM IndieReCon

Bob Mayer (@Bob_Mayer) starts things off with The Future of Digital Publishing. Okay, predicting the future is something best left to science fiction authors (but we’ll say we don’t predict THE future, but A POSSIBLE future), but Mayer’s taking trends and projecting from there. Besides his basic post, he adds 17 additional points in two comments. Key point of all is probably this: “The last thing is WRITE.  If you look at the bestselling indie authors, they aren’t much on Facebook and Twitter and blogging, etc.  They’re writing!  You must have product to sell.” I know some of us hate the idea of our work being considered “product.” Tough. It is. Always has been.

Jessie Harrell (@JessieHarrell) provides The Honest Inside Scoop: The Pros and Cons of Indie Publishing. Honest is right, particularly regarding the cons—or maybe we should say the realities—of being a publisher as well as a writer. Then Shelli (S. R.) Johannes (@srjohannes) gets into the “hats”—all 15 of ‘em!—self-publishers may or may not wear at any time in Entrepreneurial Authors Wear Many Hats. Personally, I’m not so sure about one: lawyer. Unless you actually have a JD degree, be careful here. And there are those, like Cory Doctorow, who do NOT see piracy (the reason for the lawyer hat) as a threat but another marketing venue, one you don’t have to put any effort into!

Harrell mentions up-front costs as a con of self-publishing. Miral Sattar (@miralsattar) gets more specific in her Costs of Self Publishing post. It’s good to see these numbers, even if they make you wince: forewarned is forearmed. One thing she does NOT mention is that you can, with some study and work on your own, format ebooks at no cost using Smashwords. (Disclaimer: I am NOT (yet, perhaps) a Smashwords user.)

We’ve all heard the advice to write a business plan, but who’s ever seen one for a writer? Denise Grover Swank (@DeniseMSwank) not only discusses hers, she provides excerpts from it in Setting the Foundation for Your Writing Career: A Business Plan. A long post but worth studying. Shelli Johannes follows this up with 8 sets of specific things to do in Marketing Plans Made Easy! Well, okay, easy once you get used to doing the kinds of things she recommends. (You DON’T have to do every single thing!) The point is the plan, not necessarily the specific details.

CRAFT

In this week’s vlog, KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) cautions that Your Character Might Be Betraying Readers If…. The “if” being if an apparently good character suddenly turns out to be bad. But is this the character betraying the reader, or the author? I’d say the latter. Even if you’re going for the surprise or twist ending, there need to be a few hints, a bread-crumb here and there, that might suggest that Character X isn’t quite what he seems to be. Then, when the big reveal hits, your reader smacks herself on the forehead and exclaims, “Why didn’t I see that coming?”

BUSINESS

Here’s a warning for any of you who are Christians, whether you write in the “Christian” genres or not: Victoria Strauss (@victoriastrauss) issues this Solicitation Alert: Blessed Hope Publishing. It turns out that BHP is a new “tentacle” (Strauss’s term) of a German company that solicits and sucks in naïve and/or desperate Christian authors with promises of publication, then ties them down with a contract that ensures little or no effort to sell the writer’s work, a near-total loss of copyrights by the author, and a near-zero chance of being paid. Even “better,” you don’t have to query them, they come hunting for—I mean—they solicit you! Other than that, it’s a great company! Writer: beware!

On the plus side, the Kristy Montee half of “PJ Parrish” (the other half is her sister Kelly Nichols) writes of their generally very positive experiences with self-publishing one of their first books and a new novella. “Generally” because they had a heck of a time formatting the novella for the Nook, but their experiences with the KDP Select program mirrors Joe Konrath’s, which I reported on last time. Check out their post, How to make it to the Big Show.

Dean Wesley Smith (@DeanWesleySmith) continues his serialization of the update of his ebook Think Like a Publisher with Chapter 6: Sales Plans. This is really an introductory chapter to those that will follow, but there’s some material at the end you need to read if you plan to e-publish: He lists how many distribution channels you’ll reach if you just use Amazon’s Kindle and CreateSpace, B&N’s PubIt!, and Smashwords. Want to guess how many that is? Four? You’re way cold. Okay, okay, um, 25? Still way cold. Seriously? All right, 50. Still cold. I’ll tell you: by his count, 122 major outlets worldwide! Would I like to sell through over 100 outlets? Are you kidding me? Oh, heck yeah!

SOCIAL MEDIA

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has over 175,000 Twitter followers, and you know what? She doesn’t care. It’s not that she’s arrogant about that number, but as she explains in How I Got a Six-Figure Twitter Following (and Why It Doesn’t Matter), there are many things that go into getting such a large following—things that many of the rest of us don’t have the chance to do, like be the Twitter lead for a major media company—and nearly half of her follower accounts are either fake or inactive! Still, that leaves over 70,000 active followers. How did she get them? Check out her discussion on the things she did to deliver quality less than 141 characters.

THE WRITING LIFE

Becca Puglisi (@beccapuglisi) shares some more ideas from fellow writer Bruce Coville on “Lengthening the Chain,” that is, doing things that will keep the reader engaged even after the story is done. The first two—on taking yourself, your art, and your business seriously, and not—aren’t terribly new, but the other two—never throw anything away, and embrace the unfinished chord—are at least new ways to express ideas about what we do as writers.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 14 & 15, 2013

The weekend is upon us—a 3-dayer here in the U.S., for “Presidents’ Day” on Monday—so you’ll have plenty of time for today’s posts. Enjoy!

PRE-ANNOUNCEMENT

Changes are coming to Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs and Critique Technique, starting Friday, March 1st. Watch for more news as we get closer to the big day.

CRAFT

Lisa Cron’s (@lisacron) 5 Reasons Why Readers Love Your Story is pretty dense, especially for a blog post. Not dense as in “stupid”—I wouldn’t be mentioning it here if that was the case—but dense as in giving you a lot to think about. Four of her five reasons get into the psychology of readers and reading—well, the fifth one, “you give readers hours of just plain flat-out fun,” is psychological too—so it’s all pretty deep insight. Not a light or quick read, by any means, but worth the time for a slow, thoughtful one. One other thing, though: don’t let it pressure you into thinking your every word has to be intensely personal and perceptive and meaningful and powerful. Remember that reason #5.

Amy Wilentz’s (@amywilentz) terrific How to Bring Subjects to Life in Your Nonfiction Writing is absolutely NOT just for nonfiction writers! Her discussion of how details about each character —and which details— not only tells but shows the power and value of the technique. If you, like me, have trouble building character descriptions in fiction (or nonfiction), this piece is for you. And while we’re on the topic of nonfiction, Alice Crider (@AliceCrider) offers a dozen or so questions to keep in mind (all reader-oriented) to help you with Powerful Non-Fiction Writing. Note that here too the questions can be reframed and applied to a fiction protagonist.

Okay, time to get your grammar geek on! Today we welcome Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. the @GrammarGirl) to Great Stuff. Her post addresses parts of the question, Where Do I Use Commas? Part 1: The “Oxford comma” (the one before “and” at the end of a list). “It’s a style choice.” In other words, be consistent about how you use it. Part 2: NOT between a subject and its verb. Ever. Part 3: Pauses DO NOT equal pauses. (Harvey Stanbrough has discussed the relationships between punctuation marks in general and pauses in greater detail here.) Part 4: whether to use commas around appositives, those words or phrases (like this one) that name or rename the noun they follow. (Space doesn’t permit me to even summarize the answer here.)

BUSINESS

Michael Swanwick hasn’t weighed in much on business but this time he does, at length, with How Does a Writer Make a Living Today? His approach and view is much more measured, especially with regard to self-publishing, than say Joe Konrath, primarily because Swanwick still publishes primarily in print. But he ends with this point: every time someone has predicted that some change will mean that writers will no longer be able to make a living writing, we find a way.

TECHNOLOGY

Wow, where do I put this post? It could fit in Craft, or Business, maybe even Social Media. I’ve decided to put Harry Guinness’s (@harryguinness) Creative Penn guest post Why And How To Use MultiMedia To Enhance Your Ebooks here, because it’s about using technology to add additional dimensions, specifically photos and videos, to ebook storytelling. To be sure, this isn’t a new idea, but as Guinness notes, it’s becoming easier, cheaper, and more easily available every year. Will this technology change storytelling? Of course. How much? That’s very much still to be determined. For better or worse? That’ll be a matter of individual opinion. But check out what’s possible.

FUN

Haven’t had the chance to point to anything by Writer’s Digest editor Zachary Petit in a while but Bug-Out Bags for Writers is just too fun to pass up. The good news: none of the bags are very big. The bad news: well, you had to bug-out, after all. That’s bad enough. 😉 What would go in your bag?

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.