Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Using Genre to Land an Agent (Or: Direct Marketing Your Unique Novel)

Genres are, first and foremost, screening devices. Everyone from a prospective reader in a bookstore or browsing online to an agent (or screener) slogging through the slush uses genre for one purpose – to quickly weed out the overwhelming majority of books they don’t want to bother with.

Even if you have a difficult time embracing that as a writer, on the business side of this writing thing, it’s crucial to acknowledge it. Screening devices are where the initial sorting (which usually means “sorting out,” complete with a form rejection) occurs, and genre is a key screening device.

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It’s when, not if, you need to worry about genre

Some authors write very good books and make quite a nice living writing to genre. Others write what they feel compelled to write, without regard to genre. But one way or the other, genre matters.

For someone writing to genre, it’s smart to know that heading in. Genre romances have happy endings, genre westerns are set west of the Mississippi and before 1900, and so forth. A very nice book may be set in the west, and occur a long time ago, but if it gets screened “in” by someone looking for a genre western, it’s going to get screened right “out” again as soon as it becomes clear it is not that.

For the rest of us, though, genre is something that either vaguely sat in our minds as we wrote or (in my case) is a gnarly, weird issue that presents itself after we’re done. Either way, though, genre matters. It matters a lot, and the words we use to describe genre directly impact response rate and agent interest. Unless you are intentionally writing to genre, the issue here is about marketing your novel, not writing it. In our case, that means marketing to agents. But agents need to market to publishers, and publishers want to buy things they can sell to readers. So, when querying, your genre description answers two important questions from a prospective agent:

  1. Is this the kind of book I know how to represent?
  2. Can I sell the fucker?

The point behind genre designations in queries is to truthfully let the agent know the answers to both of those questions is “hell yes.”

Categories that are not genre (YA, MG, NA, etc.)

My next post will go into this issue in detail, trying to line out as cleanly as possible where the line is between MG and upper MG, where upper MG turns into YA, and so forth. For now, it is just important to understand that agents are increasingly identifying what they are looking for according to these categories. Sometimes, and, again, increasingly, more so than by traditional genre. These designations matter, and have a lot to do with the two questions I stated above.

Why putting yourself in the right genre matters

Correctly identifying the genre you are pitching is important, beyond just the sorting function. For one thing, it demonstrates a certain amount of knowledge on your part, which brings with it some professional credibility. Or, conversely, if you don’t even know what 99% of the publishing industry would classify your book as, you are essentially adding a post script to your query that says “I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing here, so being my agent will be a lot of work.

Also, that designation lets a good agent know at a glance whether she has the relationships she needs to sell your book. If she sold four MG fantasy chapter books last year, three of them to the same acquisitions editor, who she knows is looking for more, your MG fantasy manuscript will pique her interest because of it. Conversely, if she’s struck out with the last fourteen MG fantasies she’s tried to rep, it will do the opposite. And that is not entirely a bad thing. If what you wrote is a MG fantasy, there may be an agent six floors down in the same building with those relationships, the form reject from six floors up may just be saving both you and the wrong agent a lot of wasted time and frustration. The end goal is to have thousands of people paying cash to read your book, not to land an agent. Accurately classifying your book is a step toward landing the right agent for that book.

How do you designate genre?

This can be tricky (or not, depending on your situation). If you wrote that MG fantasy, it’s fairly easy. If you’re like me, writing something that straddles about five genres, without being any one of them much more than any of the others, it’s a totally fucked up vin diagram without much else in the middle. takes a little more effort. In either event, I think it helps to go through a backward looking process –

  • Start with your end-game. Don’t think about what you wrote, think about who will pay hard cash for your book. Ultimately, every decision from the initial slush pile screener to Barnes & Noble’s purchasing agent will be based on one question: who is going to whip out a debit card for this book.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your prototypical reader. View your manuscript from the point of view of the person who decides to start a fan fic page based on your novel. What motivates her to love it? Find the key elements that would stick out to that person, and you’ve found the thing you should focus on when defining genre.
  • Dig deeper. The more you can imagine a third-party’s review, the things that stuck out to that reader, the better you will understand your genre What are the key elements of your story she would focus on? Is it the setting? Characters? Story arc? If your steampunk novel has more leather corsets than steam, or most of the steam in the novel is a product of said corsets, suddenly the steampunk element is more a setting for a steamy romance than an accurate genre designation.
  • Look at comps. There are comps for marketing purposes – current or recent titles that have sold well that demonstrate a likelihood your book will sell well. Those are fine for a query, but they are not what I’m talking about here. The question here is: what are your real comps, the other books, whatever they are, that are truly most like yours? Those are your guide to genre. I have had four agents (out of sixteen total queries sent) and two of my three ABC Partnerstm  tell me my writing reminds them of the same author. He is dead, and his last book was published fourteen years ago, so that’s useless information for a query. When it comes to defining my own genre, however, it is a guiding principle.
  • Look at your specific audience. Not the book-buying audience of the future, the specific agent you are querying. If your research shows you an agent who you think is a good fit (and if you pick agents the way I suggest on this blog, you will know), allow that to inform your genre statement in any particular query. It’s important that your query be accurate and honest, but if your book is 50% sci fi and 50% romance, there is nothing wrong with telling the romance agent it’s a romance novel with sci fi elements and telling the sci fi agent it’s sci fi with romance elements. Each agent will judge from your pages whether the book is a good fit, and either or both will be prerequisites to selling to an acquisitions editor, so there is nothing wrong with focusing on that agent’s interest. As long as the core of the book is, truly, what you’re representing it to be.
  • Know genre rules. As mentioned above, particularly in things deemed “genre fiction,” the use of a genre designation creates some (often surprisingly specific) expectations. Regency romances take place in a certain setting during a single historical decade, for example. Know exactly what is expected of a book in the genre you say you fit. Even if your noel strays from the specifics for the closest genre fit, you gain, instead of lose, credibility by knowing and acknowledging the difference in your query.  
  • Think about the future. If what you want in your heart is to be a romance novelist, embrace that. Your romance/mystery should not be touted as a mystery, if the next three books you plan to write keep the romance, but cross into different subgenres.

More than anything, I think It’s important to realize that genre designations begin and end as marketing tools. That is not as anti-literary or mercenary as it sounds. That is simply the reason they exist. Nobody walks into a bookstore or library planning to start with the first book on the top shelf to the left, reading blurbs until she finds something she likes. Genres point readers (and agents) toward groupings of books they are more interested in than others. There’s an appropriate grouping for any book, from small engine repair to a collection of love poems. The point behind genre designations in querying is to let the agent (who you have already researched and know will be a good fit) know that you have written what she wants to read and rep.

Next up, sorting through the age-based designations.

A Real Genre List for Fiction Queries (Or: You can Easily Navigate all this Jargon and Nonsense)

I found and fell in love with my local library during a summer reading program when I was six years old. The first day, they showed us the nonfiction section  with its beautiful Dewey Decimal System. It was like music to my little “algebra brain” ears –so clean and orderly, so wonderfully efficient. An entire system dedicated to helping me find the exact book I wanted:

700s           Arts & Recreation

796             Athletic and outdoor sports

796.5          Outdoor life

796.54        Camping

796.545      Camping Games & Activities

I arrived the next day, giddy at the thought of seeing how the nonfiction section’s beautiful sister—fiction—would be organized. I envisioned something similar. Maybe: Adventure, danger, villains, historical villains, pirates.

What I got was a three-word lecture: “Author’s last name.”

I raised my hand, and when the librarian called on me, I asked:

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I doubt those were my exact words, since I wasn’t sent home, but that was the gist of my question. And this was a small town library in Idaho in the 1970s, which hadn’t even divided itself into broad genre categories the way libraries currently do. The non-genre marketing categories based on age, like Young Adult, Middle Grade, and New Adult weren’t even a thing, beyond there being a children’s section and an adult section. Eventually, the librarian showed me the card catalog and taught me how to search by subject and the kind of book I wanted, which–although I didn’t know it at the time–was my introduction to the concept of genre.

SO WHAT IS GENRE?

I think it helps to think of genre, when querying agents, as something akin to a Dewey Decimal system for fiction. There is a broad umbrella category, for example, commercial fiction. That’s fine, but it also narrows the field down to about 80% of all books sold, so it’s nearly useless as a classification in itself. From there, though, we have a few options. How to use those options to best market yourself is the topic of the next post, but suffice it to say an agent who reps a lot of legal thriller writers may be more interested in your commercial fiction if you specify that it’s fast-paced commercial fiction that unfolds in a courtroom.

The point behind this post, though, is to provide a reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process. So, without further ado, here is…

A reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process

  • Action & Adventure
  • African American to Zambian American (Frankly, while the drive for diversity makes this classification relevant, you may want to consider using the book description in the blurb portion of the query to cover this aspect. In either event, I would strongly recommend at least stating the narrative-based genre [whatever else on this list the book really is] in conjunction with this—So it’s a Hispanic American Space Opera, not just a Hispanic American novel)
  • Alternate/Alternative History
  • Biographical (Not to be confused with a biography)
  • Black Humor
  • Coming of Age (While this is a generally recognized category, this is also something I would make obvious in the blurb and not identify as a genre, because it’s a kiss of death to some agents)
  • Commercial Fiction (Another super-broad category, but the content of the blurb should provide the necessary clarification)
  • Crime
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Dystopian
  • Erotica
  • Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology (including new takes on Tall Tales)
  • Family Life
  • Fantasy (This is a huge category, and I would strongly recommend adding a more specific qualifier, like urban, dark, epic, historical, paranormal, etc.)
  • Gothic
  • Historical
  • Holiday
  • Horror
  • Humorous
  • LBGTQ (Let’s face it, though, there is no hetero normative category, so this shouldn’t try to stand on its own, either. This is another place I would strongly recommend finding the genre within the story’s narrative and adding that, because an LBGTQ epic fantasy and an LBGTQ legal thriller are not the same thing just because the protag isn’t hetero).
  • Legal
  • Literary
  • Magical Realism (As a purely personal aside, I recently developed a strong fondness for this category)
  • Medical
  • Mystery & Detective (This can work as a straight genre, but look to see if you fall into one of the genre-specific sub categories, like hard-boiled or cozy, which are essentially opposites, noir, police procedural, international, etc., or if another broad genre applies, such as historical or romance or whatever)
  • Occult & Supernatural
  • Outdoors (This does not show up as a genre on the multitude of lists I consulted putting this list together, but there are some publishers—like the Lyons Press imprint of Globe Pequot—that specialize in this category. Plus I’m an outdoorsman, some of the most wonderful experiences of my life happened in the outdoors, and it’s my freaking list. So here it is)
  • Political
  • Psychological
  • Religious (See the discussion under African American, above. At minimum, identify the narrative genre in conjunction with the religion—an Amish Technothriler is not the same thing as a hard-boiled Buddhist mystery).
  • Romance (Also often blended with another genre, such as historical or humorous)
  • Sagas
  • Satire (I’ll tell you from experience—I write satire, and it’s clear from the first paragraph I have a decidedly satirical bent to my perspective—my request rate in queries using the “S-word” is zero, which makes me think there is a bias against this, conceptually, even if the work itself passes muster).
  • Science (I’m listing this as a separate category from Science Fiction, even though we’re discussing fiction about science. This genre specifies novels with hard science at their core, which means a more descriptive genre or very clear statement in the blurb is required).
  • Science Fiction (Another huge category, ranging from soft (ten years from now, procreating through cloning is popular, but we still use smartphones) to hard (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”) with about a thousand subgenres between.
  • Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Clean, Safe, Renewable Green Energypunk, Biopunk, Splatterpunk, Dieselpunk, etc.)
  • Short Stories (If you’re querying this, good luck)
  • Speculative Fiction
  • Sports
  • Superheroes
  • Thrillers (Again, a more plot/story specific tie-in is probably advisable: Crime, Spy, Historical, Political, Military, Medical, etc.)
  • Urban
  • Upmarket (Some people think this term is dated, although I’ve seen it on several agent genre listings. This is in the gray area where a plot-driven narrative with literary language usage [which DOESN’T FUCKING MEAN FLOWERY LANGUAGE] is in the blend together in a space between commercial and literary fiction).
  • Visionary & Metaphysical (if you wondered why Paranormal didn’t show up in the “P”s, this is why)
  • Westerns (similar to mysteries, a more specific classification would likely help)

 

This list is not exhaustive, and I have intentionally omitted several literary subgenres (e.g., Absurdist fiction, Literary nonsense, Picaresque novel, Experimental fiction, Metafiction) that I am quite fond of, but that will almost certainly never see the light of day through the cold querying process. I’ve also left off age and audience based subcategories, such as YA, NA, and MG, because those are not literary genres. They do, however, relate to use of classifications for marketing purposes, which I will discuss in my next post. I omitted the blatant author/audience based categories (like vile classifications “women’s fiction” or “chick lit”) because I find them offensive and counterproductive. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, it simply means I have no interest in perpetuating them.

Identifying the genre or genres your book falls into is a step in the right direction. But, for our purposes, it is only the first step. The real trick is using genre as a marketing tool in your query. Which is what we will cover next.

Author’s Note and Request to Readers

My goal with this list is to be helpful, and I consulted scores of other genre lists and agent genre listings to compile it. But I am far more interested in being right than I am in thinking I’m right. If I missed something, I would greatly appreciate a comment telling me that. It may be something I have omitted on purpose and for a reason (this post would more than double in size and be far less user-friendly if I explained the decision making process behind every item). If so, a discussion in the comments would be a wonderful annex to this list (or you may convince me I shouldn’t have omitted it, and I’ll amend the list). I may have just left something off, too. And, as my critique partners can tell you, my standard response to showing me I’ve done something wrong is to like you more and fix the screw-up. The point is, I take criticism ridiculously well, so if you see a way to make this list better, FREAKING TELL ME.

Thanks. Next post, we’ll put this list to use.

Writers Process Blog Tour Post

Thanks to Craig Boyak for inviting me on this tour! My interview is posted below. I know you should never share the stage with kids or animals, but I live my life surrounded by both, so I didn’t have much option.

Check out Craig’s blog at: http://coldhandboyack.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/my-stop-on-the-writing-process-blog-tour/

My volunteers are two of my favorite people from the writing world. Rochelle Deans, daytime editor of some pretty boring-ass stuff, but morning and nighttime writer of some amazing YA fiction http://rochelledeans.wordpress.com/ (who, as that picture indicates, is about to become more of a nighttime feeder/changer of diapers).

And all the way from Nigeria, Ms. Jenny Mundy-Castle http://mundycastle.com/, an intensely talented writer and goddess (who had input into how she would be described, though that doesn’t make it less accurate).

Not a Writing Process Blog Tour Post

Seriously, it isn’t. I’m just figuring out how to post video. Honest. That’s it.

Three Rules for Writing Omniscient POV that Doesn’t Suck

 

Every piece of fiction ever written was written from the omniscient point of view (“POV”). Most are not written in the omniscient POV, but let’s face it, we all write from it. I’m reviewing a manuscript right now, written in first person with a blind protagonist, which presents some interesting POV issues. That does not change the fact that the writer knows exactly what’s going on, regardless of whether her protag can see it (which, after Chapter Three, she can’t). The tricky part for the author is controlling the influx of information so the reader never becomes aware of something her protagonist isn’t  aware of.

In other words, it’s just like writing anything else.

Why I write in omniscient POV

Writing somewhat (by which I mean really fucking) sarcastic satire, omniscient POV is almost a must for me. If I try to write in third person, I have to saddle my poor POV character, which is my protagonist about 80% of the time, with all of the snark and sarcasm. That presents a few problems:

First, I don’t want my protagonist to be an asshole. If he’s the one finding every angle to describe a situation satirically, that’s pretty much his fate. If it’s clear that a narrator is talking about what’s going on, the protagonist can still be a decent, loveable guy or girl, without having to sacrifice any snark.

Second, there are times the protagonist isn’t going to be the POV character. That’s true whether I’m writing in third or omni. If I were writing in third person, I’d have a tough choice. Even if I was willing to let my protagonist be the asshole, I either have to go through select portions of my manuscript (i.e., anywhere anyone else was the POV character) in a straight, non-satirical way—which may or may not work depending on the particular story, scene, characters—or I’d have to start filling a stable of characters with the same satirical perspective on the events. In other words, start blurring the line and have less distinct characters. Writing in omni, the distinct narrator can watch those scenes for the reader, provide the satirical perspective, and allow the character to just be herself; a distinct, unique character with her own perspective.

Third, my particular brand of satire is a variant of the “One Sane Man” trope. Meaning, I have a narrator talking about a normal person thrown into nonsensical events (the way our society is largely comprised of nonsense) and trying to earnestly understand what’s going on. I can’t pretend the reader doesn’t understand I’m describing nonsense without alienating the reader. If I afford my protagonist a grand, bird’s-eye view of the situation, there’s nothing left to work out. In other words, my narrative arc looks like the Bonneville Salt Flats.

By virtue of my genre, writing style, and desire for my protagonist not to be an asshole, I have little choice but to write from an omniscient POV. That’s not a particularly popular POV, though, and I think I know why. After a year of drafting and nearly that editing and revising, I think I can safely say writing omniscient POV that doesn’t suck is really fucking hard.

My manuscript currently has the nonironic file extension ‘final24.’ It’s named that because it’s my twenty fourth goddam version of the first document I had the hubris to name ‘final’ after several rounds of edits. Ten fucking months ago. If you’ll accept the assumption that it doesn’t suck (or, if not, at least assume Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling know what the hell they’re doing), here’s what I’ve learned about…

How to write omni that doesn’t suck.

First, foremost, most importantly, and above all, it doesn’t look like it’s omniscient. It looks like limited third virtually all the time. Granted, limited third with a more distinctive narrator’s voice than most limited third, but limited third nonetheless. So much so that two of my three critique partners read the entire thing thinking it was written in limited third. That wasn’t an accident.

If there is a way to keep from breaking limited third to make my satirical point, I do that instead. If I can filter something through a POV character instead of telling another person’s thoughts, or bring something the POV character couldn’t know into the narrative through conversation or some other way, I do that. To the point that my original manuscript, which had a different ending that required much less POV change, could almost legitimately be called third person.

People commenting on things written in omni (for example, Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett’s stuff) often say they were written in limited third. Nathan Bransford, for example, says:

One of the classic third person limited narratives is the Harry Potter series, and Rowling strays from Harry’s perspective in only a tiny few rare instances.

I recently read Going Postal by Terry Pratchett, and found precisely the same thing. There are only a handful of POV characters, and he seldom strays from their thoughts, or something the POV character is at least capable of viewing, in his narrative. Though the narrator’s tone is distinct, and commentary about the things the POV characters can see may slip in through that, nearly everything that moves the story forward happens in a way that is indistinguishable from limited third.

Nathan’s blog is a valuable tool and his insights and experience are incredibly helpful (as you could probably tell from me linking to it, which I don’t do often). That said, I don’t hesitate for a second to say Harry Potter was written in something other than limited third. “Limited third that only strays from the POV character’s perspective in a tiny few rare instances” is the definition of omniscient POV that doesn’t suck.

Writing in omni presents pitfalls aplenty. Head hopping can be maddening for the reader (even if the writer must know what is in every character’s head). Cheating with knowledge of what will happen, blurring the line between what the narrator knows and what the POV knows, erasing the clean lines that distinguish each character as a complete, rounded person, and about a thousand other things can lead to a nightmare of a manuscript. Writing as close to limited third as possible guards against those things better than anything else.

The second rule for writing omniscient POV that doesn’t suck, and this rule is also extremely important, is that there is no fucking second rule. Good omniscient POV is the closest thing a writer can get to limited third given the nature of the narrative without doing damage to the narrative. You can embrace the fact that you’re writing from omniscient POV, since all writers always are, but the decision to write a section where it becomes clear to the reader (i.e., writing in omniscient POV) is much more delicate. It’s a cross between seasoning with habanero sauce and using a nuclear weapon.

Applying the rule, you’ll see that omniscient is virtually never warranted in a thriller, for example, where information slowly being discovered and developed by the protagonist is key. So, applying the “only use it as an absolute last resort, nuclear option” rule, you sure as hell wouldn’t want to write that kind of book in anything but first or tight, tight limited third.

Fantasy is an area where omniscient is much more prevalent. I’m no expert in that genre, but it intuitively makes sense to me. For starters, fantasy writers need to do a lot of worldbuilding that will happen much more efficiently from a clearly removed narrator. Having taken that step in distance away from tight limited third, the story itself should decide how tightly the narrator zooms in on a character or two – even to the point of zooming in so tight the narrator effectively disappears as a separate voice.

In satire, by contrast, the scope usually starts closely focused on a character and pans back as the situation she’s in becomes more fucked up. To the extent I found myself needing to create situations early in the narrative that required the distanced narrative voice, just so it wouldn’t come as a surprise when it was necessary to really turn it on a third of the way into the story. That was one of the key tings I had to work out piecing this narrative together. For omni not to suck, you have to use it as little as the narrative absolutely requires. To keep it from looking like I just got sloppy with limited third, I had to introduce that voice early. The result was that I had to write in a situation that absolutely required a drop of habanero sauce, so the reader wouldn’t be surprised when things got hot later.

Finally, the third rule for writing omniscient POV that doesn’t suck:

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Mooky’s Liebster Post

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Let me start by saying that if you’ve nominated me for a “Liebster” and I declined, don’t take this personally. It’s a cute idea, but also kind of a chain letter, and I wasn’t comfortable asking five other people to keep the chain/pyramid going. I’m still not, which is why I’m inviting people to nominate themselves, as I discuss below. But this SOB isn’t going away any time soon, and I feel like a schmuck when I keep saying no, so I’m caving in now because my friend from the interwebz, Valerie Brown (that’s her twitter) nominated me. I follow her blog, which is definitely worth a look: http://endlessedits.wordpress.com/.

What’s a Liebster?

There are a few rules for accepting the Liebster Award, they are: thank your nominator and link back to their website, answer your nominator’s questions, leave 11 facts about yourself, nominate 5 or more blogs with under 200 followers and give them 11 questions to answer.

Valarie’s Eleven Questions

1.  What personal trait of yours do you most often give to your fictional characters?

That would be awesomeness. (This type of award doesn’t lend itself to responses from people who write humorous sarcastic satire).

2.  Which part of the writing process do you dread the most and why?

I hate the point where I’m happy with “A” and know exactly where “C” needs to be, but have no idea what “B” is going to need to do to get me there.

3.  What’s your favorite book and why?

This is such a stock answer it feels trite, but probably To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it as a kid and saw the whole thing through Scout’s eyes. I read it again as an adult and found myself experiencing it through Atticus, which was wonderful in a very different way. But it wasn’t until my life was at its low point, and I saw things through Boo Radley’s eyes, that I fully appreciated that book. You’ve never really read To Kill a Mockingbird until you’ve read it from Boo Radley’s perspective.

4.  What time of day do you usually write?

I’m a night writer. I wish I weren’t, but raising four kids and having a day job require it. 90% of my writing happens between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.

5.  Do you prefer libraries or bookstores?

I’ve raised four veracious readers, so I would spend something in the neighborhood of $5,500 per year on books if it weren’t for the library. Seriously, I did the math. Plus I’ve been a library volunteer and story hour reader for ten years now, so my connection to the library is deep. I am also certain that some of the kids I’ve worked with will spend their lives buying and reading books thanks largely to the fact that there was a place they had access to a bunch of them for free when they were little. I don’t feel the slightest bit hypocritical wanting to sell books and adoring the public library system.

6.  What do you normally eat/drink while writing?

I’d never thought about it before, but nothing. Some water, maybe.

7.  What are your muses?

Motion, more than anything. Since I spend at least an hour a day exercising and an hour a day exercising my dog, my imagination always has a backlog of material for my fingers to put down. I have a writing partner who is working her way into muse status as well—more in terms of getting my fingers to put things down than inspiring the content. I think. [On writing those words, the author realizes they are almost certainly false, and his muse is a sneaky little shit].

8.  What kind of genre do you read?

Anything written well (or any good story, even if not). I tend toward the literary side in my reading, and read more contemporary fiction than historical or fantasy or sci-fi, but I’m all over the map.

9.  Who’s the best character ever written?

[To make this question answerable, my mind superimposed "you've" between character and ever in that question. So, no, I do not think I've succeeded in writing the best character ever written. Thanks to one of my lovely CPs, who takes it upon herself to critique blog posts and everything else I write, I now see my error. So my answer to the question as presented is: Are you fucking kidding me? I'm supposed to compare Leopold Bloom to Phoebe Caulfield? No thanks.]

Denise Harrington. She’s the favorite of every CP and beta who has read the book as well. Denise exploded on the page so unlike I’d imagined her I just had to roll with it. She is my protag’s sister and confidante and I intended to write her as a slight, pretty girl who masked her razor sharp intellect with an affected sweetness. What showed up instead was an even smaller, prettier girl, almost angelic in appearance, whose first line was “You’re the one who should be pissed off. Can you smell the K-Y? Because they were getting ready to fuck you in the—”

10.  If you could travel through time, would you go to the past or future?

The past. I don’t want to know what’s on the last page of my biography until I get to it.

11. How do you balance your life while reaching your writing goals?

I only sleep four to six hours a day.

Eleven Facts About me

  1. My grandparents were Irish immigrants, and my grandmother ran guns for the IRA when she was a teenage girl.
  2. The hospital I was born in is about a twenty-minute drive from the desk where I’m writing this.
  3. I was a four-time national finalist and a national champion at the college AFA-NIET national speech championships.
  4. I bake four or six loaves of bread every week.
  5. Most of the animals in my life have been strays I took in off the street.
  6. I have four daughters, and everything else in my life orbits them.
  7. I consider myself an ardent third-wave feminist. Because, No.6.
  8. My garden produces all of the vegetables we eat about six months out of the year, and most of the canned vegetables we eat as well.
  9. The only things I truly hate are: intolerance, ironing, and musical theater.
  10. I love fly fishing, particularly for steelhead and salmon.
  11. My WIP is a memoir, so I left all the juicy stuff out of these eleven points. ;)

 

Here’s where I break the rules…

I want you folks to nominate yourselves (I’m not sending out invitations). Give a shoutout on a comment here, and I’ll link to your blog in the space below and consider yourself nominated. Then answer my eleven questions listed in the space below the space below.

The space below

This is where my Liebster self-nominees are listed. Don’t be shy. If you take the chain letter part away, it’s fun.

http://rochelledeans.wordpress.com/

http://bethellynsummer.com/

The space below the space below (MJM’s Eleven Questions):

  1. Do you have a regular writing goal? If so, what is it? (Words or hours per day or week? Anything else?)
  2. How far ahead to you plan or plot and how? (Seat of the pants? Detailed outline? Somewhere between?)
  3. Describe your most important writing relationship (A beta? CP? Your sister or mom, who reads your stuff? A spouse who’s brutally honest?)
  4. When did you start writing fiction and how long have you been doing it?
  5. What are the last three books you read?
  6. What was your favorite book from childhood?
  7. What is your biggest weakness as a writer?
  8. What is your greatest strength as a writer?
  9. What’s the best line you’ve written?
  10. What are some of the most embarrassing things someone else has pointed out to you in your writing? (List your face/palm moments here)
  11. If you could choose between writing a great novel that stood the test of time (but didn’t return significant financial gain during your lifetime) or making a boatload of money on a novel that would soon be forgotten, which would you choose and why?

The Best Book About How To Write is Free (yay free)

I have some strong opinions about “How To” books by and for writers. One opinion, really: They usually do more harm than good. They contain opinions from authors about what worked for those particular authors on the particular books those authors wrote. Which would be great, if those authors had time machines and could send copies of their “How To” books to themselves twenty years ago. As guides for the rest of us, though, they usually suck.

Using the time machine and sending “here’s how you will write” books to themselves would still probably do more harm than good. The process that got them to the level of success that warrants a “How To” book certainly included about a million valuable mistakes. It also probably involved a lot of reading—real books, with well-developed characters, interesting plots, and compelling dialogue, instead of douchey how to manuals. Novels that showed them what good writing is, instead of telling them how to construct the “Next Bestseller” or a “Blockbuster Novel.” A compelling narrative is not an IKEA bookshelf, and no assembly manual will ever tell anyone – other than the person who wrote it – how best to assemble it.

Outlining is an example I’ve used before. Ken Follett advises a complex 25-40 page chapter-by-chapter outline, including plotted biographies of each character. Stephen King, on the other hand says an outline “freezes it, it takes what should be a liquid, plastic, malleable thing to me and turns it into something else.” He’s even gone so far as to say, “it’s the difference between going to a canvas and painting a picture and going out and buying a Craftsmaster paint-by-the-numbers kit.”

Who’s right? Both are, with respect to how they should write. Neither is, with respect to how anyone but Ken Follett and Stephen King should write. If he hates doing it, Stephen King is not going to write a better novel if he’s forced to create a forty-page outline first. Ken Follett obviously works best with that kind of preparation and structure. The Pillars of the Earth would not improve if Follett decided to say “what the hell” and just start winging it.

[Note to Mr. King: Writing your own outline is not like buying a kit someone else created. By your estimation, every finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the last two years and virtually every Nobel Laureate do “paint-by-the-numbers” fiction. The difference is more akin to doing a sketch before putting the brush to canvas, which hacks like da Vinci and Rembrandt did, than paint-by-the-numbers, which kindergarteners do between naptime and snack.]

The best book a person can read to learn how to write is the fifty best books in her genre. Period. There is no substitute for doing that. Even to the extent there are worthwhile things to learn from books about writing, getting any real value out of them requires that you already be immersed in good writing. If you aren’t immersed in the craft itself, books discussing it theoretically aren’t going to do jack shit for your writing.

The First Five Pages is a fine book, but until you’re ready to conceive and give birth to a novel, it won’t do you much good. Self Editing for Fiction Writers is certainly a helpful, hands-on craft guide, if you’ve created something to edit. Save the Cat and Scene & Structure certainly explain how to structure a narrative, but without the formed context of what your own narrative should be, the result will be more akin to what King was warning about than anything Rembrandt ever produced. After immersing yourself in the specific type of book you want to write, the core elements and themes should become self-evident—with or without a handy checklist of core elements and themes.

But I promised a recommendation,

and I intend to deliver. Not a douchey “all” (Here’s a list of 500 novels I think everyone should read) or “nothing” (Craft books? We don’t need no stinkin’ craft books”) recommendation. An honest-to-god recommendation.

Some of you know me well enough to know what I’m going to say. If you found this blog because “Michael J. McDonagh” is the number one result when you Google “Anton Chekhov’s bitch” you’ve probably got a pretty good idea as well.

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Physician, comedy writer, grandson of a serf (read: Tsarist Russian slave), and master of the short story, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov provided the most helpful and useful writing advice I have ever found anywhere. Not just “write with your heart” platitudes, either. Direct, craft-oriented advice. Advice that could never come from someone fattening her wallet or stoking her ego by hawking a book to aspiring writers. Advice that comes almost entirely from letters the patient, dutiful mentor wrote to people he was emotionally invested in. Loving, fatherly advice about how to do something from someone who was a master at doing it himself. Not given as grand proclamations or even for posterity. Straight-up advice to people asking him for help learning to write better.

As a doctor, Chekhov went out of his way to help the poor (who were not particularly hard to find in Tsarist Russia). As a writer, he evolved from a popular “lowbrow” comedic writer to a literary figure as venerated as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. But, always, he studied the craft the way a scientist studies anything, with a deep need to objectively understand the world, even if, as a writer, it was a often world of his own creation.

His letters are fascinating. They are also public domain, which means 100% free (yay, free!). Creighton University has collected many of the key sentences and paragraphs about the craft of writing in one place (so, I guess, “Here’s your How To book”): Anton Chekhov on Writing. If that taste makes you want to read a much larger, less focused, but richer collection, check out either The Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends or the Project Gutenberg version of the same book (yes, still public domain, which means, yay, still free).

Even Chekhov’s papers are no substitute for exposing yourself to good writing in a deep, meaningful way. But if you want to experience something that is as close to sitting down for the night with the great masters and a bottle of scotch as any of us are likely to get, buy a bottle of scotch and start reading. Those collections are a goldmine. They are arguably the greatest wealth of writing tips in existence, and completely free.

So there’s my recommendation. Screw all they quasi-mysterious “keys to the craft” bullshit, and read some damn books. Then read how a true master, who isn’t shilling his own crap to make money, talks to an aspirant. It’s concrete stuff, but it isn’t a checklist. Because if the bullshit checklist craft books worked, nobody would write anything but brilliant narratives. Plus all of our books would look the same, and who the hell wants that?

Get back to me when you’ve had a chance to check out those links. I am thinking of expanding the “Anton Chekhov’s Bitches” organization. If that’s not a convention worth flying to, I don’t know what is.

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Making the Most of your ABC Relationships (More on Alpha Readers, Betas & Critique Partners)

Notice the word “relationships” in the title. As I said in my last post, the most important blog post on the subject of ABC Relationships in the history of the interwebs, BOTH YOU AND YOUR PARTNER NEED TO BE CLEAR ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR IN THIS RELATIONSHIP.

That sentence, which I yelled in bold italics, was what made it the most important post on this subject. Like all relationship advice, any generalities I can throw at you are going to be of little use in any particular ABC RelationshipTM. That bigass, bold, screamed sentence is 90% of what I have to offer on the subject. Well, that and coming up with the name ABC RelationshipsTM which I think is catchy as hell.

For what it’s worth, though, here’s the other 10%

All relationship advice sucks. People always say “do what you love for a living, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” but don’t hesitate to tell you that “A successful marriage takes a lot of hard work.” What the fuck is up with that?

There are soul crushing jobs and soul crushing marriages and anyone who wants to give you advice about either probably has both—and lacks the good sense to do anything about it. In other words, I think relationship advice is cognitive dissonance and denial, dressed up to look like wisdom. Plus, someone with a great marriage isn’t going to be able to tell you how to deal with a shitty one, and you don’t want to take advice from someone in a shitty marriage about how to be married. So screw the advice giving.

Just remember it’s a fucking relationship. It’s going to have all of the components of any other relationship. Meaning:

  1. The people heading in probably have expectations about what the other person is going to do and what they will do for that person.
  2. Unless those expectations are communicated, they will almost certainly go unmet, causing tension.
  3. If there’s enough tension in the relationship, sooner or later you’re going to be screaming that you want your fucking Pink Floyd CDs back, damnit unhappy with how things are working.
  4. If those expectations are clearly communicated, they are far easier to meet.
  5. Last but not least, and this is a big one, relationships constantly change. Sometimes they do so by ending, sometimes by growing, sometimes they’re just different, but they constantly change. So knowing where you’re at in Step 4 one day does not mean you shouldn’t ever talk about it again. 

This is harder than it looks. It’s easy to say “sure, I’d love to read your book,” and hard not to feel like an ass by saying “I’m really sorry, but I don’t have time for it.” It’s also great to have ten people looking over your stuff, but (unless a fair number true betas, which I’ll get to), you can’t be a good developmental editor, copy editor, idea sounding board and a bunch of other stuff to ten other people.

Personally, I max out at three real critique partners (CPs). That’s not advice for anyone but me, and I often think I can do more than that—until all three finish their revisions and hit me with a novel to read the same fucking night. Then I’m overtaxed with three and thank God I haven’t agreed to a fourth.

Which is not to say I don’t also pretend I’m a beta on occasion. If I’m reasonably safe for a while in terms of my CP workload and feel like my own writing going where it needs to, I’ll agree to rip through part of all of someone’s manuscript and give some general impressions. But I also tell them up front that is what I will be doing. It’s OK, because I’ve said that’s what I’d be doing up front.

That person may get 500 or 1,000 words of comments on a novel, without any usage or style issues corrected or questioned. By contrast, this morning I hit one of my poor CPs with about a thousand word e-mail, not counting all sorts of comments and questions on the manuscript itself, in response to 6,000 words she sent me. And that’s my response to writing I absolutely love—on my second pass through those particular chapters. Another CP got a less significant line-by-line back, too, but her changes were less substantial, and it’s an entirely different genre from a technical standpoint. Still, in the time it’s taken me to write this much of this blog post, I’ve received and responded to three e-mails from the very people I’m talking about. Because I fucking love my CPs, and that kind of love is a lot of work.

All of it boils down to: know up front what you’re asking for and what you’re being asked to contribute. If I were to come perilously close to giving relationship advice, it would be that there should be some balance between what you are taking and what you are giving. In other words, don’t be a selfish douchebag. Or a doormat, for that matter (though I’ve done soooooo much better picking partners for this type of relationship than I did with the other, the doormat issue hasn’t presented itself in my writing life).

Plus, get yourself some damn betas

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Real ones, like the term really means in the software industry (from which it was borrowed before being bastardized to really mean critique partner most of the time writers use it). Betas are end users (read: readers), not programmers or engineers (read: writers). There are a few great things about betas. Starting with: They aren’t writers. Also, they don’t have a bunch of their own shit they want you to read, too. Because they aren’t fucking writers.

They read your stuff because they like to read. They respond to your stuff like readers do. They won’t use all our douchey writer words like “head-hopping,” “POV slip,” “narrative arc,” and whatnot. They’ll still point out those problems, though (although they usually have to be more severe than they do for a good CP to catch them). They’ll tell you things like “I didn’t really like this part,” or “Chapter Three was confusing.” If a beta starts your book and “keeps meaning to get back to it,” but doesn’t, you’ve learned volumes. Your critique partner is on a mission and has an agreement with you, so it’s rare one (who isn’t a selfish douchebag) will not crunch through your book — good or bad. Betas have a sneaky habit of not getting back to books they find boring.

The ideal beta is someone you know, but barely, who likes to read and reads a lot. There can be no physical attraction, job relationship, family relationship, outstanding debts, or any other reason for that person to hesitate to tell you the truth. Betas are awesome, because their payment is getting to read your manuscript. They don’t have a manuscript to read. Because they aren’t fucking writers, so you don’t have to read their shit.

Always be on the lookout for a new beta. Talk books with people. It’s easy to see whether the person you’re talking to knows what she’s talking about when it comes to reading. If she does, see if she’ll read yours and give some honest opinions.

Then stress you want honest opinions. Bend over backward to make that person understand that the biggest favor they can do for you is provide direct, accurate, completely honest feedback. Assure them you know not everyone will like what you’ve written, and if she falls into the category of people who don’t, so be it. All that matters is that her opinions be honest and complete. As a side note, I’ve found its usually easier to get that kind of response in writing as opposed to face-to-face.

That’s why, while I’d encourage you to have all sorts of people read your work, I don’t count family or friends or other people with close ties as betas. Betas truly need to be like their software industry counterparts – typical end users testing the product in normal usage conditions. Your mom is not a typical end user. She may have great insights, but you still won’t know what a stranger thinks after reading your book. Assuming, that is, the stranger reads the whole book, which your mom will at least lie about and tell you she did.

So, here’s everything I think about ABC Relationshipstm

  1. They are relationships.
  2. Make sure everybody knows what they want and expect from that relationship at the outset.
  3. Don’t be a selfish douchebag.
  4. Get some damn betas, they’re basically free.

Alpha Readers, Betas & Critique Partners: The ABCs of having a book that doesn’t suck.

Relationships with alpha readers (“alphas”) beta readers (“betas”) and critique partners (“CPs”) are RELATIONSHIPS. That fact, so key I’m yelling in bold, permeates every aspect of this topic. For starters, those relationships can range from “If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine” casual one night stands to serious, long-term “I feel as invested in your writing as I do my own” literary soul mates. The relationships evolve, grow, and/or end. I could easily drop a couple thousand words just analogizing alpha/beta/CP (“ABC”) pairings to every other relationship you could imagine—from parents to prostitutes—and barely scratch the surface. But let’s get to some definitions so we can at least make sure we’re all on the same page when we’re talking about this stuff.

Although I spend a good deal of this blog trying to disambiguate writing terms, that’s impossible with this topic. That’s the basic premise of this post. We are talking relationships, which means there are no rules beyond what the people in the relationship decide.

Alpha and Beta readers – it’s important to know what they are and are not

Let’s get the word-origin part out of the way. These are software industry terms that migrated over to writing communities. It looks like the terms first came into common use in the world of fan fic, then migrated to other online writer communities from there.

I got that far into my research and asked myself, “seriously, who gives a fuck?” I’m like a dog with ADD who saw a bright shiny object tied to a squirrel when it comes to research.

Suffice it to say, the terms were adopted from the software industry, where they have the following meanings:

Alpha Test:          The program is complete (or very nearly complete), but may have known limitations and problems. Testing is performed by software engineers for the purpose of finding and fixing critical issues.

Beta Test:   The program is complete and polished and needs to be tested in real-world conditions by real users to see how if functions in an uncontrolled environment. Testing is usually performed by customers, who are getting a free copy of the program in exchange for testing.

For some reason, the term beta reader is in extremely common use in writing communities. In some circles, it’s even become an umbrella term that encompasses everything in our ABCs. Alpha reader is less common, and many “betas” are really alphas.

Honesty, a foundation of any good relationship

Glancing at those definitions shows how quickly alpha/beta relationships can go south. Particularly with most people calling all critique work “beta reading.” If you have a rough draft that you spellchecked once, it’s perfectly reasonable to want another set of eyes on the manuscript. You’re looking for an alpha. If you’ve revised and polished the crap out of your manuscript, and you want to know what someone who bought it at a local bookstore would think of the novel, you’re looking for a beta. There is nothing wrong with wanting either of those things—or both, from different people at different times. But both you and your partner need to be clear about what you’re looking for.

I am now going to make this the most important blog post on the subject of ABC relationships in the history of the interwebs. I’m going to say it again, and this time it will be bold, in all caps, and italicized:

BOTH YOU AND YOUR PARTNER NEED TO BE CLEAR ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR IN THIS RELATIONSHIP.

Sitting down to beta read for someone who really wants (or needs) an alpha is not fun. It’s like to showing up to take someone to a church picnic and having your date hand you a ball gag, saying, “Mama don’t do safewords, slave.”

It doesn’t matter what the terms mean. The non-online writing world still, generally, doesn’t use them, and writers got along just fine without them for a thousand years. F. Scott Fitzgerald never called himself Ernest Hemingway’s “beta reader,” and I can’t see a single reference in James Joyce’s papers about Hemingway being his “critique partner.” [In fact, that may be the only thing Joyce didn’t call Hemingway at some point.] Alpha and beta reader are semi-useful labels that have little meaning beyond that which we give them.

That, and it’s a useful answer to your daughter’s questions when you leave a folder open on the computer containing about a thousand emails with a woman she’s never heard of before.

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I’ll get into how to pick ABC partners and trying to make the most of your ABC relationship in a future post (because I foreshadow future posts on this blog more than the witches foreshadow the events in Macbeth). In terms of what alpha and beta readers are, though, we can use two sets of definitions:

Set One: If you read it somewhere and assume the person is using the term correctly, or want to sound all hip and writerly in a conversation and use the terms yourself with someone other than an ABC partner:

Alphas get the MS when it still has problems and needs to be edited, maybe even before it’s finished; and

Betas get something that is as close to publishable as you can possibly make it, usually with the help of an alpha or two. Alphas should be other writers, Betas are usually better betas if they are nonwriter avid readers…

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Set Two: For our own purposes, we don’t give a damn what the definitions are, since they’re likely not exactly the same as your prospective ABC partners anyway. Just make sure you and they have an honest discussion about what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to offer.

Then what the hell is a CP?

This is what I call everyone who isn’t a beta. If I’m sharing work with another writer, and reading and commenting on that writer’s work in return, I call that person a critique partner. Sometimes they function more like betas, sometimes more like alphas. If the relationship really clicks, it can go from beta to alpha to alpha on steroids (to your daughters wondering if they have an estranged sister who lives in Oregon or you are shopping for a Nigerian mail order bride).

How you’ll use a CP can depend on so many variables, not the least of which is how your write and edit, that it’s likely to change project-to-project even between the same two participants. I rewrite so much during the writing process itself that I would be wasting both of our time if I sent Chapter One to a CP the minute it was done. But I’ve had CPs who send work to me that way, and I don’t mind at all. I’ve sent standalone rewritten paragraphs at times, and asked/answered more than a few “how do you think I should handle” questions about things that haven’t even been written yet. When you get to the “bouncing ideas off each other” stage, neither alpha nor beta reader is an apt title. There isn’t anything to read yet.

That’s why I call any other writer I share work with a critique partner. And I mean it; particularly when the relationship evolves to the point that emphasizes “partner” over the word “critique.”

 

Bonus Materials and quiz:

What follows is a verbatim (including misspellings) transcript of a letter from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald asked for feedback on his novel Tender is the Night, although it had already been published. Read the correspondence, then answer the following question:

Based on the above facts and what Hemingway said in his letter, what was Hemingway to Fitzgerald:

A) An alpha reader

B) A beta reader

C) A critique partner

D) Fuck this quiz, lets get drunk.

 

Key West
28 May 1934

Dear Scott:

I liked it and I didn’t. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald (goddamn it Dos took it with him so I can’t refer to it. So if I make any mistakes—). Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn’t come from, changing them into other people and you can’t do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can’t make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. 

That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way. 

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to—the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true. 

There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn’t come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don’t need to. 

In the first place I’ve always claimed that you can’t think. All right, we’ll admit you can think. But say you couldn’t think; then you ought to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people’s antecedants straight. Second place, a long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening. 

It’s a lot better than I say. But it’s not as good as you can do. 

You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won’t jump. 

For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right. 

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you. 

About this time I wouldn’t blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it’s marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.

I’d like to see you and talk about things with you sober. You were so damned stinking in N.Y. we didn’t get anywhere. You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write. Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It’s not as simple as that and I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her and, of course you’re a rummy. But you’re no more of a rummy than Joyce is and most good writers are. But Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is. 

Go on and write. 

Anyway I’m damned fond of you and I’d like to have a chance to talk sometimes. We had good times talking. Remember that guy we went out to see dying in Neuilly? He was down here this winter. Damned nice guy Canby Chambers. Saw a lot of Dos. He’s in good shape now and he was plenty sick this time last year. How is Scotty and Zelda? Pauline sends her love. We’re all fine. She’s going up to Piggott for a couple of weeks with Patrick. Then bring Bumby back. We have a fine boat. Am going good on a very long story. Hard one to write. 

Always your friend

Ernest

[Written on envelope: What about The Sun also and the movies? Any chance? I dint put in about the good parts. You know how good they are. You're write about the book of stories. I wanted to hold it for more. That last one I had in Cosmopolitan would have made it.]

This is Your Brain on Words Part Five: Using red-hot metaphors

It’s only a baby step from what we discussed in Part Four of this series to the far more limited topic we’ll cover today. Last week we talked about how readers use the brain’s sensory regions when reading something that involves those senses.

In short, when you read:

“The ball shot past the pitcher. The defender at third dove to her left, stretching her body to reach. The line-drive slapped into the meat of her glove, her stinging hand instinctively closing around the ball before she skidded down the second base line.”

the language centers in your brain aren’t the only parts that you’re using. If you’re typical, your visual regions lit up on the first sentence, motor regions followed as you and the girl playing third base dove and stretched. You felt the slap and the sting and skidded across the infield — or at least the parts of your brain that would feel those sensations lit up as though you did. If she takes the glove off with her teeth and smells the leather when she does so, your taste and smell receptors (which are separate but intricately entwined) will come into play.

“Play” being the operative word. Reading fiction is playtime for our brains. Our asses may be planted in a chair or hammock when we’re reading, but our brains are running, jumping, aiming a sniper rifle, undressing a hottie, smelling cinnamon rolls baking, feeling the burn down our throats from shot of scotch, swimming… whatever.

Like I’ve said before, powerful mojo. So powerful, we need to be a little circumspect in how we use it.

First, the science

This is such a natural and logical extension of we’ve discussed already, I’m not going to dedicate much of this post to the underlying science. A 2012 Emory University study reported in the journal Brain & Language (Boo — not free) involving metaphors that refer to the sense of touch was enlightening. Long story short, when someone reads a metaphor that uses words associated with the sense of touch (like, “The singer had a velvet voice” or “He had leathery hands”) the sensory cortex –which is adjacent to the More Cowbell area and responsible for processing the sense of touch when you’re actually touching something– gets active. Control phrases meaning the same thing (like, “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,”) did not result in activation of that region.

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Regions of the brain activated by hearing textural metaphors are shown in green. Yellow and red show regions activated by sensory experience of textures visually and through touch.

In other words, metaphors create associations beyond the conscious meaning we know they have, activating parts of the brain not directly associated with language. The phrase “that was rough” will result in a more visceral and sense-based response than “that was difficult.”

What to do with it

There’s the rub (hehe). For starters, this cautions against indiscriminate metaphor as much as it encourages its use. At the risk of sensory overload, here is my analogy.

Yesterday, I cooked a sage and garlic crusted pork roast for dinner (and used a whole bulb of garlic, plus about a cup of fresh sage). I was doing yard work and could smell all the garlic and sage from the corner of my yard. When I went inside, one of my daughters asked what we were having for dinner. I asked, “You can’t smell it?” because by that time the house smelled like someone hosed it down with a firehose full of garlic and sage. But she’d been inside with that smell so long, it wasn’t even registering anymore.

Our brains get used to stimuli and ignore them all the time. You noticed your shirt when you put it on this morning, but probably haven’t noticed it since. Well, until you read that, at which point your brain probably went there again and said “yup, there’s a shirt there.” So now I’ll talk about your rear end making contact with the chair you’re sitting in. Something else you are sensing, if you stop to think about it, but are ignoring unless you do so.

This is where the power of metaphor must be, like all things in the “powerful mojo” category, handled with some care. Being aware that the brain wants to experience the sensations we expose it to through words needs to govern how we describe things, including use of metaphors. Simple adages we’ve grown used to over time still have a significant impact on how the reader’s brain is processing things. With intent, we can use that to our advantage. Done haphazardly, even things that are clear and make perfect sense are not going to work harmoniously for the reader, sending logically consistent but viscerally conflicting messages. Those stories you think you should have liked but — for some, unknown reason didn’t bother finishing? Take a quick look. You may find that all the instruments in the orchestra were playing different songs. All fine songs in their own right, but it still doesn’t make for much of a concert.

Using the above baseball analogy, we may want to set the scene as a slow, lazy summer day. If we hope to draw a contrast by the sudden burst of action, that metaphor may be the perfect way to set the scene. If the contrast is not what we’re looking for, however, it is the wrong way to do it. Either way, the metaphor about the day is going to interplay with the physical activity in the scene, and all of it is going to happen in the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses. And, significantly, that will nearly always happen without the reader being consciously aware it’s taking place.

Not all metaphors involve those responses. My guess (and this is only a guess) is that the metaphor in the first sentence of this post (“It’s only a baby step from what we discussed…”) lights up a host of areas. In addition to those portions of the cerebral cortex cued by taking a step, also vision (if you literally see a baby, which is how I process those words) and other, more diffused areas associated with your emotions relating to babies. Being a sucker for babies, I am certain I have a loving, protective, happy emotional response to that word, even when it’s being used in a metaphor about our analysis of brain function and reading.

That sets me up for an entirely different response to reading “baby steps” if the subject is an elderly couple walking, hand-in-hand, down the street (awwww) as opposed to a serial killer entering a family’s home while they’re asleep (creepier than shit). There is no right way to use this knowledge – if you’re going for creepier than shit, that may be the way to go; if awwww is not what you’re after, it may not be.

So, there’s the important part

…simply being aware. Not using metaphor out of laziness or without thought, but understanding there are real consequences to the reader (albeit often not consciously) every time we use one. This knowledge encourages “choosing the right word” at a different, much deeper level. The nature of the word we choose can invest the reader more deeply in what we want her to experience or subtly, unconsciously, divorce her from the experience we are trying to create. That metaphor that either seems so clever standing on its own or is thrown in out of habit without thought is still a part of the readers “physical” journey. Knowing the way that journey is processed and playing with it – either reinforcing or using metaphors to draw stark contrasts – can have a powerful impact on the feeling the reader takes away from the experience.

I think this goes a long way toward explaining why we sometimes just connect with the way a book was written. Even if we can’t quite…

 

Image

 

Put our finger on it.

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