Writer Woes: An abundance of details

Sorry, needlessly complicated subplot. We're gonna have to let you go.
Sorry, needlessly complicated subplot. We’re gonna have to let you go. (creative commons, source: wikipedia)

This is the second part of my response to this blog post, asking about writing woes.

I write fantasy. And because it isn’t rooted in our world, that means I have spent a whole lot of time worldbuilding.

My current WIP deals with the interaction of three separate countries, as well as the influence of a fourth country that’s only mentioned in passing. Each of those countries has a dominant religion (or in Tarlam’s case, several dozen religions vying for dominance), creation myths, geography, technology, primary imports and exports, unique social structures, languages, taboos, dominant attitudes toward gender and sexuality, histories, virtues, vices, etc, etc, etc.

Each of the characters has their own backstory which shapes his or her attitudes and behaviors– and these actions have consequences. Some of those backstories overlap and influence other characters.

What’s frustrating is that many of these details will never see the light of day. I’ll know them, but they’re not relevant to the plot, so often they will sink beneath the surface, becoming little more than currents and subtexts. Sometimes one of the biggest writer woes is the struggle to know what to cut, especially when you really liked it.

Here’s an example from DREAMKEEPER:

Twenty years ago, one of the major characters helped send a ship full of refugees to a neutral country. While some of those refugees went into hiding, others banded together to form a resistance against the forces that drove them from their homes. The son of one of those resistance fighters grew up to become a spy, and planted himself as a footman in the same house as Aren, the protagonist. For years now, Aren’s been mistaking his attention for a crush, when in reality he’s been doing surveillance on her.

He’s still in her household, keeping watch– but in more than 100k words, he gets mentioned maybe twice. He doesn’t even have any lines. Because while he and the resistance are effective elsewhere, they don’t actually influence Aren’s story. And that means they got the ax.

Me, I like to think his story was interesting. But that’s what they’re talking about when they say to murder your darlings.

What about you? Have you had to cut any characters or subplots like these? Here’s a chance to share the darlings that might not get to see the light of day!

Changing the background

If you look at the majority of non-modern fantasy, be it medieval, pseudo-victorian, what have you, you’ll notice a pattern: everybody’s white and straight. If genderqueer or homosexuality is brought up, it’s with a heaping helping of homophobia and transphobia; if people of color are included, you can expect to see racism that would make the KKK hang their hoods in shame. And if a woman has a “non-traditional” role, it’s because she’s a spunky, norms-defying rebel.

Guys, it’s getting old.

“But we’re just being historically accurate!” you may say.

Historically accurate for some times and places, sure. But remember, there are plenty of other houses to rob.

Yesterday I talked about borrowing story elements from more than the few overtapped sources that have donated to most of our mainstream media. But when I say we should look at other cultures and sources, I wasn’t just talking about mythological animals and pantheons.

From the Library of Congress: TITLE: Thos. W. ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let the spectrum in

William Shakespeare gave us what I consider a compelling Primary Source Document on the presence of POCs in European society when he wrote Othello.

The movie Arabian Nights did a great job of portraying the way international interaction happened in a lot of the ancient world: we have an African wizard venturing out to China to make deals with Aladdin; we have Englishmen and Chinese men and locals alike living within a few blocks of one another in a bustling metropolis.

And that’s the thing– any major urban area is going to attract people from all over the world, especially traders selling rare exotic goods to the social elites. Often enough those traders will be foreign themselves, or have non-locals in their caravan/on their ship/etc. Unless there’s some major isolationist movement going on, there should be a healthy population of out-of-towners.

Homophobia is so 1950…

Keep in mind that

  • Gay male relationships were considered the purest form of love in ancient Greece, and Plato believed that only barbarians would condemn such a love
  • Historical records suggest that bisexuality was considered the norm in China before the Tang Dynasty
  • In New Guinea it’s believed that sharing semen through male/male sex promoted growth, while excessive heterosexual sex led to “decay and death”
  • Several cultures have a third gender (or more than that!)
  • There are entire websites dedicated to this sort of thing. I recommend you check them out.

Women wearing the pants

Several cultures are matrilinial in their leadership and inheritance. Even among cultures that weren’t, women were often encouraged to know how to fight.

Keep in mind that females have held pretty much every conceivable male role. History is full of powerful female rulers, such as Hatsheput of Egypt, Empress Wu Zeitian of China, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Hell, the world’s first novel was written by a woman (The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu of Japan). There are plenty of websites to explore on that topic as well.

Picking the brain of the collective

Comment 2
The results of one of my crowdsourcing endeavors

Some days you just need some opinions.

Maybe you’re torn between names for your protagonist. Maybe you’re having trouble coming up with a minor character’s motivations, or the right job for the love interest. Maybe you’re just interested in finding out what people think makes a good protagonist.

Sometimes, the best way to find new ideas is by crowdsourcing: asking a whole group of people for their input and ideas. I’ve tried a whole variety of methods: I’ve asked the same question of a whole lot of people in person, I’ve asked around on Twitter, I’ve posted questions and polls on Facebook.

In my experience, the best results I’ve gotten have been from active writing groups on Facebook– I prefer ones like Nanowrimo, Writer Unboxed, and the New Writers Help Group. If you’ve got questions that are specific to one genre or topic, try going to a group specific to that topic, like this Steampunk group over here. Often members of Facebook groups are excited to help, and are willing to cast a vote or give a quick comment. You might even get in contact with experts in the field, whom you could interview for more in-depth information.

If you don’t get results right away, don’t get discouraged. Try sourcing from a different crowd.

Have you tried crowdsourcing? What’s worked for you, and what hasn’t? Let us know in the comments!

Nitpicking Narrators – Part I: My name is Jake

While I’m busy with grad school, I’ll be replaying some of the most-read posts from my old blog.1st person

Some people instantly gravitate to one particular narrative style. The story they’re writing just naturally lends itself to one Point of View (POV) in particular. After all, who would want to read “That guy over there? His name is Jake,” as the intro to one of the Animorphs books? The same goes with Terry Pratchett’s stories– they just don’t work if you were to squeeze the whole story into a single person’s head.

Other stories, though, get a bit fuzzier, and we writers can get iffy on what POV works best for what stories. Hopefully, though, I can clear up a bit of that fuzziness. 

First Person

This is commonly known as I. I did things, I think things, I feel things. The reader feels like they’re in a conversation with the First Person. A lot of the times stories told in the First Person read like a diary, or a story being told by a friend. Continue reading “Nitpicking Narrators – Part I: My name is Jake”

DIY Editing: A comma conundrum

Behold the comma: it’s the most dreaded of punctuation marks, and one of the most misused and abused.

And for good reason. In the English language, most punctuation marks have no more than two or three uses. A period will always either end a sentence or abbreviate a word. An exclamation point indicates excitement.

Commas, on the other hand, are the Hufflepuff of grammar. They do some of everything.

They divide points in a list, they separate phrases in a sentence, they offset names and dates and states, they act as periods within interrupted dialogue.

In fact, it seems the one thing they don’t do is create an arbitrary pause. For example:

“My name, is Doctor Incredible!” just looks tacky. If you’re trying to pause for dramatic effect, you’re looking for an ellipse. It should really look like this: “My name… is Doctor Incredible!”

I started this post intending to write out all of the rules for properly placing a comma, but 1) I’d be here all day, and 2) the people below have said the same far more eloquently than I.

Purdue University’s Writing Lab site lists fifteen distinct rules for working with this slippery punctuation. Wikipedia has thirteen subsections on correct usage. Grammarbook.com has twenty-one. And even then, there’s more ways to make mistakes: The Opinion Page of the New York Times has a nice discussion of some common comma mistakes, as well as a Fanfare for the Comma Man— which discusses my next point:

The rules can change depending on who you ask. People will argue over these forever, so rather than giving you the rules, here’s some  spots where you can throw them out and go with your gut.

  • The infamous Oxford comma (the comma that precedes ‘and’ in a list), as in “bacon, milk, and cheese”)
  • Modifying phrases at the beginning of a sentence, such as “Last night Boxy and I saw a movie”

If the use/omission of the comma doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, then it can go either way. However, in some cases the comma can lead to confusion. Remember: clarity trumps all else.

DIY Editing: Whose line is it, anyway?

If you want the basics of punctuation, check out these guys here:

Mr. Clements.com

Bubblecow.net

Fanfic.TheForce.net

A step past the basics

1) Avoid using synonyms for said/asked, unless that synonym dramatically changes the meaning of the sentence. 

2) British English uses single quotes (‘You’re a wizard, Harry!’) while American English uses double quotes: (“I can show you the world.”)

3) Change lines any time you’re drawing attention to a different character. No, seriously, read that post. Leigh Michaels has some incredible tips for paragraph breaks and dialogue.

Tags and Beats

A dialogue tag is a a label which tells the reader exactly who said what: he said, she said, I said, the borg collective said as one— etc.

  • The most common format for a dialogue tag is exactly what I wrote above: [Speaker] said/ [Speaker] asked. The name of the speaker first, followed by the manner in which the quotation is being expressed.
  • In times of old, it was common to put said at the beginning of the tag: said Billy, asked the waitress. This order still shows up sometimes, but for the most part it’s considered archaic.
  • The most effective time to use the older style is when the description of the subject gets overly long, and the verb is in danger of getting lost. For example:
    “Want fries with that?” the waitress who brought them their menus asked.
    vs.
    “Want fries with that?” asked the waitress who brought them their menus.

A dialogue beat is an action that identifies the speaker.

  • The beat shares the same line as the dialogue. This is why it’s so important to switch paragraphs when a person besides the speaker is doing anything. For example:
    “What, is there something on my face?” I wiped my chin.
    He pointed at his own cheek. “Right over there.” 
  • Beats tend to be short. When they get too long, the reader can start losing track of what’s actually said.
  • In the same vein, using too many beats in one conversation can become distracting, and draw attention away from the dialogue.
  • Keep the actions important and relevant.

And sometimes, your best bet is to use nothing at all.

  • This works best when you’ve got only two characters with distinct dialogue.
  • Use it alongside beats and tags.

All used together, it looks something like this (tags will be in bold, and beats in italics):

“Could you please move?”
“It’s a possibility,” he said. “Who’s asking?”
“The person whose rib cage you’re crushing. If you could just— thank you.” I rolled over and took a breath. “I have to say, I’m a little bit disappointed.”
“Disappointed?” His eyes widened. “I’ve been doing this a long time, mouse. Nobody’s ever tried to give me a critique.”
“I’m not complaining,” I said quickly. “Not really. I appreciate your being here. I do. But the stories always make death seem so… romantic. This is… not.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“It’s just that you only die once,” I said. “I suppose I expected it to be a big to-do.”
“Then it’s a good thing you’re not dead.”

DIY Editing: Changing the filter

Here’s another biggie in the self-editing world: Filtering.

What is it?

I saw, he heard, she thought, I felt, I smelled– the list goes on. Essentially, filtering is what happens any time we’re informed that the the character is observing the world around them, rather than letting us observe right along with the character.

What’s wrong with it?

At the most basic, this is the writer informing the reader that the POV character has functioning eyes, ears, nerve endings, etc. Thank you for the info, but we already assumed as much, and having it repeatedly shoved at us can be seriously annoying.

On a technical level, it slows the pace of the story and adds unnecessary words to your word count.

Beyond that, filtering puts an unnecessary distance between the reader and the action– instead of looking through the eyes of the POV character, the POV character gets shunted into center stage and we’re reminded once again that we’re reading a book, rather than witnessing this world for ourselves.

In other words: we’re not watching a beautiful sunset, we’re watching Bill watch a beautiful sunset.

Horizon In Flames - Free HDR Tutorial - EXPLOR...
AImage by tommyscapes via Flickr

Let’s see it in action

With: Bill could see the city in the distance.
Without
: The city rose up in the distance.

With: Julie heard the robber’s footsteps coming closer.
Without: The robber’s footsteps moved closer.

With: She smelled sulfur whens he struck the match.
Without: She struck a match, and the sharp smell of sulfur stung her nose.

When is it a good thing?

Like being verbs, some writers will tell you never to use filtering, ever, but it does have its uses.

  • When you’re deliberately trying to distance your reader from your POV character.
  • To emphasize a disconnect between reality and what your POV character is observing– most effectively, when your POV character realizes that they’re observing something that isn’t really there.
  • If what’s being seen/heard/smelled/whatever is less important than the fact that the character is seeing/hearing/smelling it.

What can I do about it?

Like with linking verbs, the easiest way to start is with a good old-fashioned Find/Replace (Ctrl+F on the keyboard) for saw, and then another for felt, heard, watched, etc. But that can only really give you an initial count. After that point, all you can really do is go through it line by line and prune those suckers out of your prose.

Is there a common writing problem you’d like to see strung up and shot? Do you know any other good uses for filtering? Do you think I’m way off?  Tell us about it in the comments!

DIY Editing: ‘was’ and other has-beens

This is possibly the most common aspect I’ve seen editors complain about, and it’s one of the easiest to fix.

What is it?

Linking verbs. Being verbs. “Was” and “were”. These are verbs that, by themselves mean simply “this thing exists”: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, seems, etc.

A step beyond being verbs is the passive voice, in which the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the object. For the non-grammarians out there: Rather than “James hit the ball”, we have “The ball was hit by James”– which has even academic writers reaching for their trusty baseball bat. Often people will mistakenly use ‘passive voice’ as a blanket term for both these qualities. They’re related, and passive voice almost always involves a being verb, but they’re not the same thing.

What’s wrong with it?

On the surface, nothing– which is why it’s so hard to quit these words. They’re integral to academic and informative writing (like, for example, blog posts) because they’re very clear and straightforward. Problem is, these words lack ‘oomph’. Too many of them together will make prose feel bland and unexciting.

Let’s see it in action

With: She was standing on the pier.
Without: She stood on the pier.

With: He was tall.
Without: He dwarfed everyone else at the party.

With: Her eyes were green.
Without: Her green eyes swept the room.

With: The door was opened by Suzie.
Without: Suzie opened the door.

Taking out the being verb sometimes requires that we rearrange the sentence. It can be a bit of work, but typically this leaves us with stronger verbs and more vivid images.

When is it a good thing?

Some writers will tell you never to use these words, but I beg to differ. My rule of thumb is one or two linking verbs per page of manuscript, and with possibly more allowances for dialogue– because let’s face it, people use these words all the time when they speak, so eradicating them entirely is almost impossible.

Being verbs separate the reader from the action. When used carefully and sparingly, they create a sense of stillness, as opposed to the more driving urgency of more active verbs.

Even passive voice can be an effective tool when it’s used appropriately. For example:

  • When you want to obscure the person/thing acting on the object.
    The door was opened from the inside” rather than “Jim opened the door
  • When you want to to emphasize the person/thing being acted upon.
    “The cathedral was built by union laborers” rather than “Union laborers built the cathedral”
  • When the person/thing doing the acting is surprising (often the punchline of a joke).
    While crossing the street, I was struck down by a runaway tricycle

What can I do about it?

The easiest way to deal with linking verbs and passive tense is with a good old-fashioned Find/Replace (Ctrl+F on the keyboard) for was, and then another for were (or is/are, if you’re writing in the present tense). A lot of word processor programs will highlight all the instances and give you a tally of how often these are used– which is often way too much. At that point, it’s easy enough to go through them one at a time and decide whether they belong or whether those sentences would be better served by stronger verbs.

 

Is there a common writing problem you’d like to see strung up and shot? Do you know any other good uses for linking verbs? Do you think I’m way off?  Tell us about it in the comments!

DIY Editing

But Jennifer, you may say, isn’t this counterproductive if you’re starting an editing service?

Not in the slightest.

I’m a big proponent of editors– be they paid professionals or critique buddies, it’s essential to hand your story to somebody else before you try throwing it in the shark tank that is publishing. As writers, we’re usually too close to our work to see it for what it is, and so we need a fresh pair of eyes to find all the things we couldn’t find.

But that doesn’t mean the gargantuan task of editing isn’t entirely out of our hands.

We can’t always zap all of the tiny nitpicky details on our own, but we can try to snag as many of them as we can, so our beta editors can focus more fully on the big picture.

To that end, I’ll be giving a how-to guide on some of the most common mistakes I’ve found over the course of my editing experiences, including explanations on what they are, why the common wisdom advises against them, and reasons you might be inclined to go against that wisdom.