A big part of my job when I work with clients is to help them see their manuscripts as I see them. And what I see, a lot of the time, is opportunity to tighten the overall prose. One subtle function of wanting to pare down (other than overwriting, which we discussed in last week’s post), is noticing when you’re including filler.

Whenever you’re working with first person or close third POV, it is understood that your protagonist (or POV character) is narrating the scene. They are your lens, in effect. Especially in first person, as a few cases can be made to the contrary in third.

So when a scene is described, as in:

She noticed a man sitting in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. She saw his downtrodden expression and heard what could’ve only been a sigh issuing from his lips.

It’s assumed that the main character is there, seeing and hearing everything, in order to relay it back to the reader. Technically, they can’t narrate what they haven’t become aware of in the first place, yanno?

There are three instances of filler here. “She noticed,” “she saw,” and “she heard.” We simply don’t need this. Don’t waste time narrating that, oh yeah, your character who’s been hearing and seeing everything that’s been described in the book so far has also seen and heard this. That’s beyond implied.

Instead, a cleaner, tighter revision might read:

A man sat in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. He wore a downtrodden expression and issued what could’ve only been a sigh.

I’ll be the absolute first to tell you that this is an extremely nitpicky note. “Why does it matter whether or not I cut SIX WORDS from this description? It’s six words!” Or 18% of the sample in question. I know not every sentence of yours is going to have filler, but if you cut even 9% or even 4.5% out of a manuscript that people say is running too lengthy at 100,000 words, that’s 18,000, 9,000 or 4,500 words, respectively!

Little nitpicky things make a big difference in the long run, and if all of your sentences get a little tighter, the perceived difference to the reader (how quickly the pacing moves, how smoothly the descriptions read, how efficiently we get from scene to scene) will be worth much more than the actual number of words you’ve trimmed.

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This is a note I give a lot in my work with clients. It goes: “Saying something simple in a complicated way.” I know exactly why people do it. But it often has detrimental effects on that one holy grail of writing that people strive for, voice.

For example:

The sky is blue.
The heavens swirl with shades of the purest cerulean.

Yikes. I mean, sure, we want to be remembered for prose that has at least a little bit of flair because our unique authorial voices are what distinguish us from the other guy. At the same time, there’s a delicate balance between substance and style. If style trumps substance, often to the point where the substance is almost unrecognizable, you have a problem. The reader will be lost in your Baroque description and lose the meaning. And that’s not good for their overall focus and, as a result, involvement in your story.

Do I feel like a bit of an idiot writing such inane description as “The sky is blue”? Sure. But sometimes the sky is blue and it needs to be described as blue and the simplest answer is the most difficult: just write “The sky is blue” and move on to developing character or plot.

Why does this bother us so much, as writers? Why do we have to twist ourselves into sentence pretzels and dive into the thesaurus to turn out a description that’s unlike any anyone has ever written?

I call this Writer With a Capital W syndrome. A writer’s trade is her vocabulary, natural voice, and ability to express herself. So writing “The sky is blue” feels like a total cop out. Instead we, especially those beginning writers out there, want to really strut our stuff and prove our worth. We lace the sentence with adjectives or adverbs, we choose really zippy verbs, we labor over every image to make sure that the reader is going to see exactly what we want them to see in their pretty little heads, so help us God. I imagine Writers With a Capital W have a lot of steam coming out of their ears after all that darn concentration.

The thing is, though, sometimes it’s okay to loosen the reigns a bit and let the scene we’re creating speak for itself. Our imagery and writing prowess doesn’t need to be on display every second. In fact, that demands a lot of the reader and tends to skew focus away from the story we’re telling. And that, at the end of the day, is the heart of it. Substance needs to trump style. Not all the time, but a lot.

If you’ve ever been accused of trying too hard, purple prose, overwriting, or not killing your darlings, listen up. There’s no shame in simplifying it a bit and letting the content of the sentence, not the flair with which it is written, stand out. In fact, it may be a welcome break from all that wordsmithing!

Sealed with a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!),
Mary

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Stalling Out

This post discusses a “technique” that I often catch in manuscripts. Here I’ll attempt to describe it and guess at what’s behind this phenomenon. Simply put, it’s stalling.

As savvy writers, you already know that you need to give your character an objective (something to shoot for over the course of the story) and a motivation (a personal and relatable reason for doing so). If you’ve done this, you are well on your way to having the two main tools of character and plot installed in your story already. Bravo!

But sometimes a strange thing happens. You have the proverbial “To Do” list, but all sorts of smaller errands end up worming their way in place of the main action, which should be pursuing that objective. First, they can’t get the Key until they go talk to Person X, and Person X isn’t home, so they have to rough up Person Y for details on Person X’s whereabouts, and when they finally get to Person X, they’re not talking…all for the Key, which turns out to be a very small part of the overall objective.

By giving your character objective and motivation in the first place, whether you know it or not, you’re promising to the reader, “Hey, you get to watch this protagonist do this stuff in the interest of pursuing his ultimate goal.” Every time we deviate from that, it better be for a good reason. In the above example about Keys and Person Xs, you should be able to see how a deviation can spin out of control into its own mini plotline. But if we zoom back out and look at the grand scheme of things, the Key ends up useless and we never see Person X again.

So is this a valuable component of your plot or is it stalling where you really should be working toward the main objective? The more tedious the digression, the more the reader feels further from the “To Do” list, and the more they may feel jerked around. In an, “I thought this was going to be a story about dragons but now I feel like I’m picking up the protagonist’s dry cleaning for 50 pages” sort of way.

Why does this happen? Writers sometimes have a hard time seeing the big picture of their story. Or they just love a scene or character (maybe even Person X) so much that they don’t want to do the cutting that honestly could be done.

Or the writer is terrified of the Muddy Middle phenomenon where the midsection of the story seems like it’s unraveling or rambling without direction. So they insert a lot of “stuff” into the middle in the hopes that this satisfies the reader. “What do you mean, I have a Muddy Middle?” they ask. “Look at all this STUFF that’s happening!”

But stuff isn’t the same as action which furthers the plot. That’s another way of saying action that brings the character either closer or further away from their objective, while impacting that “To Do” list along the way. This is the bull’s eye. And when we don’t see the bull’s eye any more, because we’ve taken a detour somewhere to pick up some dry cleaning, your stakes will likely dip and your pacing is going to be affected.

If you’re struggling with a plot that stalls out, set your protagonist out in the pursuit of the objective and don’t waver from this path for too long with things that don’t DIRECTLY impact the outcome.

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This post isn’t about describing something nicely versus being mean. It’s more about how to best be direct in your description. I think of a “positive” description as a description of something that IS. A “negative” description, then, attempts to describe what something isn’t.

Examples:

Her purse didn’t hold the normal wallet/sunglasses/keys combination.
His smile didn’t invite you to sit down for a chat.
The garage was remarkable because it didn’t contain a vehicle.

You get my drift. Sometimes, like with the middle example, a negative description is an interesting, perhaps voice-y or sarcastic way of getting your point across. The guy in the example isn’t happy to see whoever, and it’s obvious, no matter that he’s trying to smile. I’d buy that. The other descriptions, though, draw out the narrative because they are roundabout. Instead of revealing just what’s in the purse (a gun, say) or garage (alien laboratory, perhaps), we’re first told: “What you’re expecting to be in this purse or garage is, in fact, not in this garage.”

Well, yeah. If a gun is in the purse or an alien laboratory is in the garage, the reader will immediately know that this isn’t Grandma’s purse or Dad’s garage. So that part can remain implied, as all of our purse- and garage-related illusions are about to shatter.

Long story short, the negative description can sometimes be interesting. Sometimes, though, it’s more direct and less redundant to cut to the chase, cut out negative description, and describe what IS rather than what ISN’T.

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When I talk about a logline, I mean a quick and effective sales pitch for your story. It is the same as the “elevator pitch” or your snappy “meets” comparison (Harry Potter meets Where the Wild Things Are!). However, not everyone’s book fits the “meets” way of doing this, so they’re left with constructing their own short sentence to encapsulate their work. That’s where things often get hairy.

If you think queries and synopses are hard, loglines are often a whole new world of pain for writers. Boiling down an entire book into four pages? Doable. Into a few paragraphs? Questionable. Into a sentence or two?! Impossible.

Or not. The first secret to crafting a good logline is that you should probably stop freaking out about it. If you can get it, good. If not, you can still pitch an agent or editor with a query or a one-minute summation of your story at a conference or if you do happen to be stuck with them in an elevator. Nailing it in one sentence is more of an exercise for you than a requirement of getting published.

That said, my surefire way to think about loglines is as follows:

1) Connect your character to your audience

2) Connect your plot to the market

Let’s examine this. First, begin your logline with your character and their main struggle. This is a way of getting your audience on board. For example, with Hunger Games, Katniss would be “A girl hell-bent on survival…” or “A girl who volunteers herself to save those she loves…”

Now let’s bring plot into it. When you pitch your plot, you always want to be thinking about where it fits in the marketplace. At the time that the first Hunger Games was published, dystopian fiction was white hot as a genre. That’s not so much the case anymore, but if I had been pitching this story at that time, I would’ve definitely capitalized on the sinister dystopian world building. To connect the plot to the market, I would’ve said something like, “…in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” This says to the book or film agent, “Dystopian! Right here! Get your dystopian!”

So to put it together, “A girl volunteers herself to save those she loves in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” That’s a bit long, and not necessarily elegant, but it definitely hits all of the high notes of the market at that time, while also appealing emotionally to the audience. (Volunteering for a “fight to the death” contest is a really ballsy thing to do, so we automatically want to learn more.)

Notice that here, even the character part involves plot (it focuses on Katniss volunteering).

If I’m working on a contemporary realistic novel, the “plot to market” part is less salient because we’re not exactly within the confines of any buzzy genre. That’s fine, too. You should probably be aware early on whether you’re writing a more character-driven or plot-driven story. The Hunger Games nails some strong character work, but I would argue that it’s primarily plot-driven, or “high concept.” With character-driven books, the former part of the logline construction becomes more important. Let’s look at Sara Zarr’s excellent Story of a Girl. The title is pretty indicative of the contents. It’s literally the story of a girl, and the girl is more important than necessarily each plot point that happens to her.

With character-driven, I’d spend most of my time connecting character to audience. I’d say, for example, “A girl from a small town struggles with the gossips around her who refuse to forgive her past mistakes…” This is the girl’s situation for most of the book, and part of her biggest “pain point” as a person. Then I’ll need to indicate the rest of the plot with something like “…must step out from the shadows of her reputation and find out who she really is.”

Notice that here, even the plot part involves character (it focuses on the more subtle work of figuring herself out rather than, say, battling to the death).

Both are solid loglines because both communicate the core of the story and the emphasis of the book (plot-driven vs. character-driven, genre-focused vs. realistic). Try this two-step exercise with your own WIP.

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There are some elements of life which do not translate well to onto the page. Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene.

My theory on them, frustrating as it is, boils down to: some things are better in life or the screen. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, that means various looks and glances are the ultimate body language. And tone can wildly alter the meaning of a conversation. Have you ever said something innocent via text message or email, only to have your recipient completely take it the wrong way? You may have been thinking the offending chat in a silly tone of voice, but it probably came off as snarky or passive-aggressive to the reader. That conversation usually ends in, “Ugh, it’s so hard to do nuance via text/email/IM!”

The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind. Some things are simply to intricate to lend themselves well to word-based description. And I’m starting to think that looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. As humans, we can usually “read” the emotions of another by interpreting body language, gesture, tone, or a certain “look” your partner has. When you try to put this on the page, you’re taking the energy and movement out of it, which also saps the life.

Of course, the less you rely on describing looks and tone of voice, the harder your job as a writer becomes. You can no longer take the usual shortcut of “she glared in his direction” to express her displeasure. You must now have her perform an action which communicates her dark mood, or she must say something in dialogue (the star of scene, after all) that clues the reader in to what’s really going on. Same with tone of voice.

When you write, for example…

“We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said in a menacing tone.

…you are taking a shortcut. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still a shortcut. Why? Because ideally you’d be putting the menace in WHAT is being said, not HOW it’s being said. This is great practice when you want to achieve tighter, more economical writing. By leaning on tone description, you don’t really need to think, “Hmm, how do I convey true menace without telling everyone there’s menace?” I would then argue that your voice muscle doesn’t get built up as much as it could.

Instead, if you write…

“Oh yes, tomorrow morning.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “We’ll see you then.”

…you can mix in a little action, you cut the dialogue in half with the tag so that you generate a little suspense, and you inject a little voice with the “oh yes.” The information doesn’t change, but maybe the overall mood does. Using something like this and context clues (I would imagine the reader is picking up on the fact that something gnarly is about to go down tomorrow morning), you can convey menace without once saying the word.

Avoiding all look and voice tone descriptions is an impossible task. This is such a common and accepted part of contemporary writing that most people will never break the habit. All I’m asking is that you become more aware of it. Maybe take 10% of your look/voice descriptions and turn them into something else, something that’s a better fit for the text-based medium, and not so much a visual tool.

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I’ve been working a lot with editorial clients on the idea of interiority. I’ve written a lot about it, both in the book and on the blog. One of my favorite posts, which serves as good preparation for this post, is here. A lot of writers do balk on the issue of, “Well, if I share the character’s thoughts/feelings/reactions, isn’t that just another version of telling?” As we all know from the old adage, telling bad, showing good. (Here’s a handy post as to why that’s such a popular dictum.)

It’s true that, when you use interiority, you are technically telling. But if you think about it, you tell all the time in writing. A storm is brewing. She puts her phone on the coffee table, waiting for it to ring. The car is blue. Telling is alive and well in fiction and there’s no need to make it the enemy, except for when you tell about characters and emotions. (She is a bully. He is sad.) That’s what really makes prose lie flat on the page, and that is where we want writers to stretch a little and show how she treats other people, or how he’s ready to give up on himself, and what that might look like to this particular character. Of course, I would prefer that you do this without using too many familiar physical clichés (butterflies in the stomach for nerves, heart fluttering for love, etc.)

I could go on and on about this issue. And there are a lot of shades to it, as you can tell. By now, you probably feel like I’m putting you in an impossible box. “I need to tell when it makes sense to tell, but not when it comes to emotions, which I should show, only I can’t use hearts, eyes, stomachs, or any other physical clichés to show the visceral effect of the emotions… WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING, MARY KOLE, AND WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME CRAZY?”

Whoa, buddy. Take a step back. All of these posts are to help you think about what interiority truly is, and when you should aim to tell, and aim to show. Take what makes sense to you, leave what doesn’t. I hope some sort of larger logic emerges once you study this part of my story theory. In the meantime, there’s also another subtle use of interiority that completely circumvents the show vs. tell argument. A cheat! Brilliant!

Well, maybe not a cheat, but definitely another tool you can use. It’s subtle interiority. And the best way of explaining it is “emotion in description.” This works whether you’re in third person (usually close third is the best candidate) or first. And it’s a key component, for me, anyway, of that other frustrating concept: voice.

The key is to inject emotion toward an outward object, place, or person via description or narration. If someone is annoying, maybe your character describes them as “grating her way through the story.” Compare that to “she told a story.” Changing one verb lends emotion to it, and, without showing or telling, we come to understand that the narrator doesn’t think much of the object of the description. We get emotion secondhand without having to conquer it directly. Look at how emotion creeps in:

“He parked his vehicle” vs. “His gaudy Beemer sleazed across two parking spots” (exaggerated, of course)
“She ate a sandwich” vs. “She pecked at her food”
“He kissed her” vs. “He slimed her” vs. “He devoured her”

I’m mostly doing this with verbs so far, but you can play with adjectives, too:

“The skyline” vs. “The noxious smog-obscured wasteland” vs. “The glittering metropolis”
“The countryside” vs. “The tranquil retreat” vs. “The cauldron of boredom”
“Her face” vs. “Her luminous visage” vs. “Her fug mug”

And here’s where this all comes back to voice and character. The guy who waxes poetic about his crush’s “luminous visage” is not the same as the catty girl who knocks her former acolyte’s “fug mug.” Description should contain hints at emotion, which is another way of incorporating interiority, defining character, and developing voice. Whew! It’s all coming together, folks!

 

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One of the most satisfying (ideally) aspects of reading fantasy or science fiction is good world building. Where you are immersed in a world by an author who knows what they’re doing. World building, at its heart, is just establishing a set of rules for what does and doesn’t happen in your world.

When I’m reading a manuscript and a cat starts talking to the main character on page three (this is probably the inciting incident), I need to know a few things before we ever get to Fluffy. Do cats talk in this world? What role do animals play in terms of animal/human relations? When Fluffy opens his maw, I should know immediately: this is or isn’t normal according to the world building.

The more rules we’ve established, the clearer the world comes across. There’s logic and order imposed. Which becomes all the more important when you decide to break one of your own rules. This is what I want to get into here.

I talked a bit about this stuff in a much earlier post. Basically, when you’re dealing with magic powers, you want them to be well-defined, so that your character isn’t getting out of trouble by pulling never-before-seen tricks out of her hat. That’s lame, and it betrays your world building. Why bother creating any rules when you circumvent them at every turn?

You might think that, since I’m advocating for rules, I am against breaking the rules. Not true. Breaking well-crafted rules in world building is exciting. It raises stakes and tension. Let’s stick with magical world building. What happens when someone tries a spell that nobody has tried before? The answer to this question lies in more rules, not fewer. The better your reader knows the world and the parameters of the magic, the more they will start to anticipate what might happen when the character goes “off the grid,” so to speak.

“Will it be like using Power X or Spell Y? Will the outcome be A or B, like that one time the character did something like this?” This anticipation builds because the reader knows what to expect in the world of your story, and it’s only after this familiarity is established that we start to truly engage. And when flirting with breaking the rules starts to become fun and interesting.

If your world has no limits or rules, everything is a free-for-all. How can you build anticipation when literally anything can happen? The best stories become their own worlds, constantly referring back to what has come before as the action moves forward. Without strong world building rules, none of the stuff you’ve done so far in the book matters, because it’s not precedent for anything.

If there’s magic, we need to know the limits, how it works, etc. If there are different races/classes of people or creatures in your fantasy hierarchy, we need to know what each does, means, and how they relate to one another. If you’ve established that the dragons hate the polar bears and will do anything to start a war, once a dragon shows up, it better not be a low stakes event. And if it is, it’ll be that much more surprising, and you’ll get a reaction out of the reader. This is conscious rule-breaking.

Set yourself up to succeed in world building by nailing down all of your key elements, and only then can you start to mess with them.

 

 

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I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently and have noticed a quirk that I’m totally guilty of. Instead of choosing one very strong image that says it all, writers don’t quite trust their readers to get it (a very common problem) and are dogpiling several related ideas into one sentence of description.

For example:

Looking at the buffet, she was so famished that she could swallow it all in one gulp, leaving nothing left, licking even the grease trap of the giant rotisserie oven clean.

Girl is hungry, we get it! (Side note: Don’t try and write examples on an empty stomach.) Here we have three images, one weak (leaving nothing left), one medium (swallow it all in one gulp) and one very strong and specific (the grease trap thing).

The reason I went a bit off the deep end with the final image is that it is unusual, descriptive, and teaches us a little bit about character while conveying the same information as the other two–not only is she hungry, but she’s a little grungy, and knows her way around a kitchen. There are people who just want the tenderloin steak, and then there are people who want the gristle and bones to gnaw clean. The strange way her mind goes to the drippy, fat-caked grease trap puts her firmly in the latter camp.

So pick one strong, specific image with potential emotional or characterizing undertones to it. Your aim isn’t to give a reader information as many times as possible, it’s to do it once, and ideally in a memorable way. Less is more. In fact, in writing, piling imagery onto one idea actually dilutes the effect instead of concentrating it.

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I Hate Nice

I know what you’re probably thinking, “But, Mary, I’m nice and you’re nice and nice is so…nice! Why do you hate it, especially now that you live in the state of ‘Minnesota nice’?” Don’t worry, I think you’re perfectly nice, and this isn’t a veiled complaint about moving to Minnesota. As for me being nice, sure, I have my moments. Thanks for falling for my Internet persona. :)

What I really hate, though, is when a manuscript has a lot of nice in it. The character is succeeding. Things are going their way. We end a chapter on a cozy moment when they curl into their reading nook and all is right with the world.

How nice. How abysmally nice for them.

The problem with “nice,” though, is that it doesn’t keep our attention. You know how people sometimes say, when they’re being dismissive of something, “Oh, that’s nice, dear”? Nice doesn’t really force us to sit up and take notice, and nice certainly doesn’t create tension within us, pulling us to the edge of our seats.

Sure, we don’t want a character to be dragged through the wringer. Nice things do have to happen on occasion. But last week I was preparing for a workshop that I gave on Saturday at the Loft, and I was going over a story theory that I cover extensively in my book, which I call the Emotional Plot.

emotional plot

The gist is a little hard to explain in one blog post (thought I try to do it here, in a 2009 blog post that contains the seeds of what I would extrapolate on in the 2012 book). Basically, what we’re looking at above is the standard three-act structure but instead of tracking how the plot rises and then falls, we are tracking how the character feels during each step of the process.

And if you’re seeing this graph, you’ll notice that the “Fall” is a HUGE part of it. And it ends in something called the “Rock Bottom.” That doesn’t exactly sound too nice, now does it. Basically, for the majority of your story, your job is to put your character through internally or externally uncomfortable or dangerous situations to get the most possible tension out of your work.

The “Fall” shouldn’t be a complete slide into misery. Like a good snow tubing hill (Am I from Minnesota now or what?!), it should have a few bumps to keep things exciting before plunging again. Allow your character small victories and moments of contentment, then yank the rug out from under them again.

If your plot seems thick, or your story is lacking momentum, or you feel like wandering away for a nap when reading your revision for the Xth time, think, “Am I being too nice? Are too many nice things happening to this character?” Take an especially close look at your chapter endings. Do they mostly end at the resolution of a scene or problem? If so, there’s too much “nice” and not enough tension to carry the reader across the vast expanse of the white at the end of the page and past the mountain of your next chapter heading.

Not everything can be life-or-death in your story, that’s not sustainable, and your reader will learn to ignore that level of tension like the body ignores a dull pain. But if you find that you’re running into a lot of “more tension, please!” comments, think of the nicest, coziest moments in your story, and really focus on a way to either cut them down or insert an especially shocking twist after then that turns “nice” on its ear.

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