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.

Archive for the category “Writing and Editing”

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

I already dedicated one post to my jihad against grammatical absolutism. The “Rules of Writing” Should be Called (and treated like) the “Guidelines for Editing” Once again, with respect to active versus passive voice, Messrs. Strunk & White are among the standard-bearers Once again, the general concept has been expanded to dogma. Usually preferring active construction over passive is a worthwhile editing tip, along the lines of looking for excessive, well, anything. But that’s about it.

According to Strunk & White, “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” Gee, you mean sentences like that fucking sentence about passive voice? Let’s run a few tests from the last post.

  • Is the verb being done to the subject? The subject is “sentence” the verb is “made.” Oops. Hey Mr. White, you wrote the fucking sentence telling us not to use passive voice in passive voice. Like I said before, if you can identify the subject and verb, you can always identify passive, so that proves it. For a quick refresher, though, let’s run through the other tests.
  • Is the Noun followed by a prepositional phrase? Hey, look at that. The prepositional phrase “by substituting” follows the noun “sentence.” The preposition “by” and verb “substituting” creates a prepositional phrase. Which means the sentence is passive.
  • Is there a conjugation of “to be” followed by a past participle? Since “can be” is a variation on “to be” and “made” is a past participle – ding, ding, ding.
  • Did zombies write the sentence? “Many a . . . sentence can be made lively by zombies!” Yay zombies. Boo Elements of Style.

This example does a great job of showing how hypocritical (or, more likely, clueless) Strunk & White could be about grammar. The sentence does a great job of showing why we should avoid passive voice. It does so by: (a) using passive voice; and (b) sucking so much. Specifically, sucking so much in the precise way passive voice can (but doesn’t always) make our sentences suck.

The sentence has been treated (hehe) as a call to action, challenging writers to make their prose more vigorous and engaging. Something you can only do if you ignore what they actually wrote.

What they wrote:      “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” (teh suk)

What they meant:      “Active voice makes your writing livelier.” (less teh suk)

By sucking, Elements manages to show us the reason we should avoid passive voice. Usually (but not always) passive sentences are less engaging. This, like the adverb advice and every other “Rule” about writing is worth understanding. Not because passives are inherently bad, but because they have about a 50/50 chance of making our writing less engaging.

 

Bad passives should be avoided.

How do we know which passives are bad? We’re the writers, it’s our world, they are our words, so it’s up to us. I like finding all of the passives in my writing, but I don’t expect to get rid of them all when I find them. Typically, I look for alternatives. In the case of the title of this tip, the obvious alternative is “Writers should avoid bad passives.” Meh, it’s a little better, so I would probably make that change (without any great feeling of accomplishment upon having done so). Sometimes, though, I find sentences that are watered down by passive voice, and changing it to active improves the sentence enormously. Changing an event from passive to active often changes the tone from one that reports to the reader about what happened (“The protesters were excited by the speaker. The embassy was attacked”) to one that shows the scene more vividly (“The speaker worked the protestors into a frenzy. They attacked the embassy.”).

There is no “Rule” for this. If I were to try to formulate one, it would be Passives are worth finding because there’s a coin-flip chance the sentence could be better. Unless you write with a lot of passives, in which case they are even more worth finding because there’s an even better chance the sentences could be better. Grammar check is your friend. If you honestly wonder whether you overuse passives, look at your readability statistics (most word processing programs have them built in, and the Google machine can send you to dozens of free sites where you can paste in pages to do a quick test). If you’re over five percent, you should do some serious thinking about your writing. Less than that, you’re probably doing just fine. That’s just a blood pressure check, though, and a final manuscript needs an angiogram. Grammar check misses passives on a regular basis. You need to be able to identify them for yourself, because (particularly in longer or more grammatically complex sentences) a fair number just slip through the cracks.

Good passives should be hugged (by zombies).

Thanks to grammar check, I know that, statistically, my fiction runs between two and three percent passives. That’s a good range for me because, at that level, I’m probably not using passive voice in sentences where it is not clearly the best tool for the job. Contrary to what my college professor, a law school professor, scores of people giving grammar advice on the interwebs, and Strunk & White believe, there are plenty of situations in which the passive voice is best. The first paragraph of my manuscript contains this double-dose of passive voice: “Feeling as though he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried look casual.” Passive? You bet, times two. That’s the least of its problems. Not only is it passive deux foix, the whole thing is nothing but exposition about my protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. Something else I do very little of in my writing. For good measure, I split an infinitive.

In that introductory paragraph, I’m teasing out why Nick is there and what he’s waiting for. It’s all explained, through dialogue, about 200 words later. For that particular paragraph, though, I wanted to leave a bit of a question mark about who was watching (or ignoring) Nick. I did this largely to make the “them” more of an abstract concept (which, to Nick, “they” were at the time) and less of a good-natured guy named Jim (which, “they” turn out to be). I want the putative watcher(s) to be as abstract as possible. Because active voice usually helps by making our writing more concrete and direct, it works against that goal.

There are a number of situations in which passive voice may be the better choice. (Alliteration, yay. We should all march around chanting that). Those times include instances in which:

  • The actor shall remain nameless. Maybe you don’t know who the actor is (“The book was printed in 1614”), the actor is too broad to try to identify (“…has been proven by hundreds of studies”) or you want to keep the mystery going (“we were being watched”).
  • The action is the focus of the sentence. Sometimes, passive voice can be used (by zombies) to place emphasis on the verb, downplaying the relative importance of the subject. “All men are created equal” may be sexist, but it’s not bad writing. Saying “the experiment was conducted in strict conformance with ethical standards” shifts the emphasis from the subject (the experiment) to the manner in which it was conducted, which is the focus of the sentence. If the answer to the question “Where’s mom?” is “She was kidnapped,” you are not lacking for clarity, action, or anything else. “Three men in a gray sedan kidnapped her,” provides more information, makes the sentence active, and changes the emphasis from “kidnapped” to the three men.
  • Put your best foot forward. If your subject is not the actor, but you still want to keep as much focus on the subject as possible, it helps to identify it first. “Clouds are formed by evaporation” places the emphasis on clouds. “Evaporation forms clouds” says the same thing, and does it actively, but it also changes the focus of the sentence from clouds to evaporation. This is the inverse of “action is the focus of the sentence” and can sometimes yield the opposite result based on whatever else is happening in the sentence. Hence absolute rules being a bad idea.
  • If you’re Richard Nixon’s press secretary or you’re withdrawing your nomination of Zoe Baird to be Attorney General. In some instances, the grammatical double-speak that is the hallmark of passive voice can be your friend. “Mistakes were made (by zombies)” is easier to say than “My boss, the President, really screwed the pooch on this one.” My favorite personal example comes from this group. I had a legal research and writing professor who was adamant about passive voice. He would not accept the argument that “Sam Watson was killed” was better than saying “My client killed Sam Watson.” A man like that needs to be in academia. In the real world, his adherence to the prohibition against the use of passives is called malpractice.
  • The nature of what you’re writing is instructive. Meaning, you are writing a passage or blog post or something else that provides instruction. “When you finish doing X, Y will start happening” is a natural formulation in instructive writing. Most of what I am advising here is oriented toward fiction writing. The advice is probably worth keeping in mind, but sometimes constructions that avoid the passive in instructional writing are so convoluted, they make things way worse than a zombie ever will.

A sensible approach to passive voice makes the ability to identify passives a valuable tool. Saying that passives have no place in our writing just makes you sound like a tool. It’s ironic that I feel compelled to defend something that only shows up in one of every forty sentences or clauses of prose I write, but the idea it needs to be avoided altogether (by zombies) compels it. Primarily because we should get rid of passives most of the time. Knowing the rule and being able to spot them facilitates that. More importantly, it empowers us to look at a sentence and, with the full understanding it’s passive as hell, decide, yea, the zombies can keep this one.

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part One (Or: What World War Z taught me about passive voice)

I had a professor once who thought (a) passive voice happened any time you have a conjugation of “to be” at work in a sentence; and (b) passive voice must always be avoided (hehe). He was wrong on both counts, and it took me years to overcome the trauma. We’ll start with a rule (whether something is passive or not is a yes or no question, so there’s no problem having a “rule” about that). Then we’ll talk about applying the general idea (not a rule) that passives usually (i.e., sometimes but not always) weaken our writing.

A)  The Basic Rule

Passive voice is a simple, but often misunderstood, concept. We’ll start with the simple part. In passive sentences, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action in the sentence. That’s it. You do not need a Spymaster Deluxe Decoder Ring to work your way around this concept. If you can figure out what the subject of a sentence is, you can figure out whether the sentence is passive or active.

If you can’t figure out what the subject is, don’t worry. That’s not rocket surgery, either. The subject of the sentence is, generally, the thing the sentence is about or the thing that does the action. If it’s the thing that does the action, the sentence isn’t going to be passive, so the problem solves itself. We only need to worry when the sentence is about a thing that isn’t the actor. This also applies to clauses, but I am going to just address sentence structure to keep this simple.

We ate pie.           We are the subject of the sentence. We did the verb (ate). Yay us. This sentence is not passive.

The pie was eaten. The pie is now the subject of the sentence. The pie didn’t do shit. It just sat there being eaten. Boo pie. This sentence is passive.

So, the basic rule is simple. Look at the verb and ask whether the verb is being done by or to the subject. If it is done by the subject, you’re golden. If it is done to the subject, the sentence is passive. Does the fact that it is passive mean it sucks? Not necessarily. But we’ll deal with that in a bit.

B)    Same Rule, Just a Little Less Basic

If all sentences were three or four words long with one noun and one verb, the issue would be closed there. We’d sound like 1950s Hollywood stereotype cave men and Native Americans, but we’d be done worrying about passive voice. Assuming we want our narratives to be slightly more nuanced than “Kate make fire,” we need to take a couple more issues into account.

The pie was eaten by us. Now we have two nouns (well, OK, a noun and a pronoun). Now there’s a noun (us) doing the eating, so the sentence can be active, right? Not quite. The “by us” part is a prepositional phrase (“by” is the preposition). But hang with me here, because if you just learn one more little rule, you’ll have your black belt in passive kicking. Or at least your fourth-degree brown belt (not to be confused with a fifty shades of grey belt, which is a whole other thing).

Whenever a passive sentence has an agent doing the verb, that agent is going to show up in a prepositional phrase. So there will be a preposition (by, from, after, etc.) followed by a noun or pronoun. They aren’t the subject of the sentence, they modify the verb that is doing something to the subject of the sentence.

If you grew up speaking English, you don’t think twice about prepositions. If you are learning English as a second language, you probably think preposition is a four-letter word (or a twenty-one-letter word like “big-fucking-pain-in-my-ass”). From a linguistic point of view, they are amazing little buggers with an amazing history, but today I am focusing on the fact that they are a pain in the ass to identify.

In passive sentences, the prepositional phrases most often used are: by, for, from, after, off, on, and between. That’s not a scientific study of language, by the way, it’s my opinion. Here’s another opinion, about half of the time, the preposition is “by.” So when you see a sentence with a noun, a verb, and a prepositional phrase “by [whatever]” your passive radar should start ringing.

C)     Same Rule, The Part My Dickhead Professor Didn’t Get.

If he weren’t the only person with this misconception, I’d assume he just learned half a rule and missed the next day of class. Because a good portion of the English-speaking world (including a few old-school English teachers) labors under the same misconception, it’s worse than that.

The truth is if you find a form of “to be” in a sentence AND it’s followed by a past participle (let’s just call it a past-tense verb for now), you’re going to end up with a passive.

The cake has been [that’s our ‘to be’] eaten [that’s our past participle] by them (or anyone, at that point, because it’s already passive).

So Professor Asshat had half the rule right. Well, half of the first half of the rule, because he was dead wrong about passives being wrong all the time, too. But forms of “to be” (is, are, were, will be, have been, etc.) by themselves do not create passive sentences or clauses. When combined with past participles, they’ve always resulted in passive voice, though (hehe).

 

D)  Same Rule, Keepin’ it Real.

If your eyes rolled back in your head when I started talking about prepositional phrases, roll them back. The grammar part is over, and it’s time to deal with the real-world use.

1)    It helps to learn about the past participles and prepositional phrases, but it’s not required. You can identify passives if you are able to identify the subject of the sentence.  

2)    What’s the sentence about? That’s the subject. In my examples, some sentences have been about pie (“The pie was eaten by us”) and some sentences have been about us (“We ate the pie”). If you can identify the subject, you can identify passive voice.

3)    What does the subject do? In many sentences, the subject is also the agent of the action. If the subject is doing something, we don’t need to worry. The subject can’t be the doer of the action and the recipient of the action at the same time. It’ll go blind. (I’m kidding, it’s grammatically impossible). If the subject is doing the action (e.g., “The pie attacked Cleveland”), your sentence will be active.

4)    If the subject isn’t doing anything, you probably have a passive sentence. Take a look, is the verb being done to rather than by the subject? If the answer is yes, then your sentence is passive.

5)    If all else fails, look for prepositional phrases. Sentences can get complicated. Especially if you write like I do, and half of your first-draft sentences are run-on amalgamations of phrases and punctuation that seem to last for pages. You can still catch most passive sentences that have two nouns (and/or pronouns) if you just look for prepositional phrases that include “by.” Broaden your search to include on, off, from, against, between, and the other prepositions, and you’ll nail that type of passive.

 

E)    What the hell does this have to do with World War Z?

Because — zombies, man!

Among their few contributions to society are the zombies’ uncanny ability to guide us through passive sentences. Want to know whether a sentence without a telltale prepositional phrase is passive? Ask yourself this: Could the zombies have done it?

We ate the pie. (nope, there’s no pie left for the zombies)

The pie was eaten (cue awesome, eerie music) BY ZOMBIES! (yep, passive).

What you’re really doing here is inserting the implied prepositional phrase to show the actor in a sentence that lacks one. This is one of those rules that works better than it should, probably because it’s fun, which keeps editing interesting. Nothing livens your writing up like a good zombie apocalypse. Ironically, nothing shows the need for livening as effectively, either. If you run through a page or two of your manuscript and realize that you could have zombies doing most of the things that happen, there’s a pretty good chance your writing contains too many passives. One zombie every few pages? That just keeps your characters on their toes.

As I’ve said before, there are no rules of writing that shouldn’t be broken for the right reason. More importantly, knowing what the rule is, why it operates the way it does, and why it has been accepted as a “rule” is a prerequisite to breaking those rules effectively. Today I covered the relatively boring part (except for the zombies, because zombies are cool). Next up, we get to the fun part:

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

The “Rules of Writing” Should be Called (and treated like) the “Guidelines for Editing”

Just about everyone who has written much has compiled a list of his or her Rules of Writing. Most of those lists include similar items, like:

  • Don’t use adverbs.
  • Don’t use adjectives.
  • Use “said” (and nothing but “said”) as your dialogue tag line.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Don’t use passive voice.
  • Have your character see something, don’t just tell us she could see it (and a corollary, tell us the thing happened, don’t tell us your character felt it happen).

and so forth. Often, the lists also include one more item, saying it is the most important rule of all:

  • There are no rules.

None of the “Rules” is truly a rule — or at least not a law. The last one in particular. There is, however, an important reason for including that on the lists. Starting with the fact that these are not really “Rules of Writing.” they are, more accurately, “Rules of Editing Your First Draft.”

Why the difference? Because we have enough on our plates when we are actually writing a story or novel. Creating believable characters in the midst of a situation fraught with conflict is hard. Doing that well, writing dialogue, thinking of a clever (but not too clever) way of resolving that conflict is hard. Writing believable dialogue where fifteen different characters sound like fifteen different people — with different education levels, who grew up in different parts of the country or different countries, who have different motives, who may be acting out of character for themselves in a given situation or who may be perceived by other people in the world you create in a way that is entirely different from the way they perceive themselves — is ridiculously hard. 

Trying to come even reasonably close to writing a half-decent first draft while also worrying about following all of the “Rules” is like trying to drive cross-country being followed by a cop who watched you walk out of a bar. You’ll be so worried about signaling before every lane change you’ll probably forget to look at the fuel gauge and run out of gas somewhere in Kansas.

So you soldier through the first draft, secure in the knowledge that it is going to suck whether or not you bother trying to follow any “Rules.” The difference is, if you disregard the “Rules” at that stage, there is a chance you will actually finish your first draft.

That’s why they are rules of editing. You use them when you are done to go back through and clean up the steaming pile of shit that is your first draft. 

There are “Rules,” and then there are rules.

Capitalization notwithstanding, the rules (like the one that cause me to put a comma after the introductory clause in this sentence) are relatively concrete. When people are talking, we put what they are saying inside quotation marks (unless you are Cormac McCarthy, and even with a writer that much more brilliant than I will ever be, it still bugs the shit out of me). Rules of basic grammar and construction make your writing comprehensible to people who have learned to read according to those rules. There is seldom (like, maybe, one time per couple of full-length novels) a reason do deviate from that outside of dialogue.

“End each sentences with a period, exclamation point, or question mark” is a rule. There is virtually never a reason to deviate in prose. “Don’t use more than three exclamation points in a novel” is a “Rule of Writing” (which is to say, an editing tip). There’s a big difference.

Make no mistake about it, I love the Rules of Writing. Almost all of them. They are rules of thumb from people practiced in this art who know what they are talking about. And I follow those rules 95% to 100% of the time.

Because of that, I love breaking the Rules of Writing even more.Because that one time in fifty or one in five hundred that I break them, I’ve had a long, hard talk with myself about whether I should be breaking the Rule in question. There are few sentences in my writing I have examined more closely, dissected more thoroughly, more earnestly searched for alternatives to breaking the Rule, and so completely convinced myself that there was no alternative. Going down the list:

  • Don’t use adverbs. Maybe I overdid it a little in the prior sentence, but it’s packed with adverbs that, combined with the alliteration, hopefully made the point. I am certain that I did not overdo it with the sentence prior to this one, because I’m not sure whether I accomplished that end, so “hopefully” is necessary for the sentence to be true.
  • Don’t use adjectives. Application of this rule and its exceptions are functionally the same as adverbs. If the bomb is going to set something on fire, it’s best to give the reader a heads-up that it is an incendiary bomb. 
  • Use “said” (and nothing but “said”) as your dialogue tag line. Unless the speaker just finished running and finds herself panting. This is the Rule I probably break more than any other Rule, but I can also say that I follow it at least 9 times out of 10.
  • Show, don’t tell. Novice (or bad) writers breaking this rule without a good reason account for most of the crappy writing in the universe. That said, if you show something important at the beginning of a dinner party and your plot doesn’t move again until the drive home, no reader wants to watch everyone eat just for the hell of it. A sentence or two giving us the gist of what happened during the meal (telling) is much better storytelling.
  • Don’t use passive voice. Thanks to grammar check, I know I hover between 97% and 98% active voice, which is as close to following this rule as I will ever get. Sometimes (though very rarely), the “passive” voice means livelier writing. “He put his hand on the doorknob, not knowing that if he opened the door he would be killed,” is passive, but, if you don’t want to disclose who or how or why he would be killed in that sentence, it’s still the way to go.
  • Have your character see something, don’t just tell us she could see it (and a corollary, tell us the thing happened, don’t tell us your character felt it happen). Done without intent, ignoring this rule leads to flat, boring writing. It adds unnecessary words and perspective to action, diluting its impact. By the same token, though, writing that a character “could feel the sweat roll down her forehead, stinging her eyes” changes the sensation completely — because the significance is not the sweat itself, it is the character experiencing it. And if I want to say she could see Canada from her back porch on a clear day, I shouldn’t feel obligated to make her go out and look at Canada every day it isn’t raining.

Do not read that analysis as me being dismissive of the Rules, because I am not. Odds are, you will find those and many other general rules of writing followed closely in my prose (which, unlike blog posts, I edit). More closely than most other writers. The distinction between bad Rule-breaking and good Rule-breaking is this: Good Rule-breaking means (1) you know the Rule; (2) you understand the purpose behind the Rule; (3) you have looked at the sentence that breaks the Rule to see if you can re-write it so that it follows the Rule; (4) every way of following the Rule you can come up with makes the sentence worse; (5) so you highlighted the sentence and moved on; (6) looking at it the next day, you remain reasonably sure the Rule needs to be broken; and (7) you make a mental note to go back over that sentence when revising (each and every time) to make sure that the changes don’t eliminate or reduce the need to break the Rule.

That’s how seriously we should take the Rules. They are not absolutes, but they’re close. If you make a conscious decision to break them 2% of the time for a really good reason, those departures can make your writing shine. Up that to 5% and it dulls your writing. More than 10% and I can almost guarantee you are not someone who knows the rules and is making a conscious decision to break them. A person breaking them that much just doesn’t know how to edit his work. 

What #Queryfail Taught Me About Agents and Writers

I was late to the #QueryFail party, which is a little bit like being late to the Jonestown Kool-Aid party. I am not bummed I missed it.

If you, too, were fortunate enough to miss the massacre, here’s what went down. A couple of agents thought it would be a good idea to post the most egregious “QueryFails” they saw – i.e., parts of horrible query letters, on Twitter. OK, no big deal. They removed names, etc., so they weren’t calling anyone out. Some people even thought it might be a good learning opportunity for writers. Nothing teaches you how to succeed like watching other people crash and burn.

As one of the agents who started the party put it:

Colleen_Lindsay: It’s about educating, not about being mean! =) #queryfail

Then it got mean. Which is to say, its primary value came from mocking the easily mockable queries that must drive agents nuts on a daily basis.

As one person tweeted:

@Colleen_Lindsay i find your #queryfail to be both mocking & mean-spirited. laughing at people’s inability to reach their dreams always is.

Then there was some back and forth, with many writers saying how “hilarious” the queryfails were (and they’re often right) a few pointing out that the agents in question were mocking others for their own amusement (and they’re right). I have to assume the lopsided numbers have a lot to do with people’s propensity to tweet “u r so awesome & smart & funny” to someone whose ass they are kissing. True as it might have been, “u didn’t really think this thru” probably is not going to score points (not that I think the ass kissing scores that many, either).

By the time I stumbled across the corpses that were left in its aftermath, I think a consensus had arisen that throwing what was essentially an online party to make fun of other people probably wasn’t a genius move.

There’s nothing to learn from doing an autopsy (nor is it time to do the autopsy yet, the hash tag is still in frequent use). As of two minutes ago, the hash tag yielded this:

“SlushPile Hell, rejection, #queryfail – all signal an air of entitlement”

With a link to an interesting article from a publishing veteran in the Australian Book Review. https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/109-december-2013-january-2014-no-357/1739-queryfail?utm_content=buffer84247&utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=BufferShe has a frank and mature take on the subject (which is code for, “she agrees with what I was writing here when I checked the hash tag and found her article.”).

There is, however, a lot to learn from looking at the back and forth #queryfail entailed. With plenty of good and bad on both sides of the seesaw.

  • It’s About Educating People. Let’s just get this one out of the way right off the bat.

First, thanks for giving me the opportunity to laugh at something ridiculous that you wrote right before you started laughing at ridiculous things other people wrote. BWAAAAHAHAHAGWAHAHAHGAGAA –Good one.

Second, if someone is earnestly writing that s/he was divinely ordained by God to write a novel, there is a very good chance that person is mentally ill. Bitching about the query on twitter isn’t going to fix that, nor will it stop the next person who hears voices from sending you a query. There are already a billion other resources on the internet giving people this basic information. This added nothing new to the discourse. You were having fun with the most outlandish “queryfails” you could find. Period. Nobody who has ever spent an hour studying how to query would have done anything listed.

Third, what, exactly, was the purpose of providing the supposed education? Was your goal really to teach the person who believes God told him to write a book how to query you successfully? I find it somewhat difficult to believe that teaching the people in the bottom 10% of the slushpile how to query better, so you could invest more time in their manuscripts, was really your goal. “Not following our submission guidelines is a #queryfail” is educational. “My book is about a friendship based upon mutual vomiting practices in high school.” AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!! #queryfail” is laughing at someone who is probably naively describing a book about eating disorders among teenage girls. Laughing at her is not educating anyone.

  • So, fine, it was about being funny. Everybody needs to blow off some steam. I have no doubt that what was happening on twitter was merely an online version of what happens at your agencies’ water coolers every freaking day. I get that. I’m willing to bet you have dozens of great query stories queued up for every cocktail party/date gone wrong/ uncomfortable holiday dinner with the in-laws imaginable. The problem is, twitter is not your in-laws’ table or the water cooler. It’s instantaneous communication with millions of people. In other words, public humiliation for the people you’re talking about. Which makes it a lot less funny.

 

  • The people you were making fun of are people. Some seem young and naïve. Some may even be mentally unbalanced. I have no doubt it must suck to have to sift through 1,000 pieces of crap, looking for the next J. D. Salinger and being offered a 700,000-word first volume in a nine book series from someone who didn’t make it 200 words without spelling and grammatical errors aplenty. But that’s the freaking job you chose. By all means, send the form rejectionthe minute you see the obvious queryfail. But celebrate the fact that it made your job easier, don’t go out of your way to humiliate the person who sent you the query.

There’s a lot here for writers to learn from, too. Just not anything about the reasons the queries in question were publically humiliatedrejected.

  • Queries are business prospectuses, nothing more. We are sending a proposal to a professional in the publishing business. We are essentially requesting that they invest significant amounts of time and effort bringing our product to market, using their names and reputations to facilitate that.
  • Negative feedback is a given. Ideally, it should be provided in a professional and courteous way. I have little doubt that a clear, professional query letter that meets all of the agency’s guidelines is not going to show up as a #queryfail even if the proposal itself is rejected. Writers seriously need to stop thinking in terms of “I sent you part of my soul – you owe me something.” That may be what you sent, but what the agent received was, to her, a business proposal competing with 1,000 other proposals for the same limited resources. Your love of your book, the earnest emotion you poured into it, the years of toil you’ve invested are irrelevant. How good your book is matters.
  • We are dealing with a world where the floodgates have been opened. Everyone has a computer, everyone has e-mail, nearly everyone thinks s/he can write a novel, and more people than ever are doing it. The frustration the agents are voicing is legitimate (even if their manner of voicing it was less so). There is no good excuse for a queryfail. The web is teeming with resources on how to write a query, agency guidelines are usually quite specific, and anyone who invests a reasonable amount of time and effort should be able to create a query that will pass muster. That’s not to say the agent will request your manuscript or offer representation. Rather, your proposal will be evaluated on its merits instead of the fact that it was written in hieroglyphics painted in pig’s blood.

I am really writing this blog post for one specific person, who may not even exist. When I saw the posts by agents and sycophantic laughter from writers piling on, I couldn’t help but think of some teen-aged writer who wrote a bad query letter for an equally bad novel. A writer who, 10 years from now, may write a good query letter for a good novel, but who may not do so after being laughed at by a bunch of so-called grownups. Or the person who was deemed #queryfail because he is in prison, without mention of what his book was about or how good it was.People who may be or develop into real writers, but who were told, through public humiliation, that they shouldn’t bother to try. They were somehow deemed unworthy of having and working toward the dream of being published — under the guise of “educating” them.

#agentfail 

 

The Outlining Debate (Or: Stephen King outlines and Ken Follett is a pantser, really)

Extremists rarely add much to any conversation. The functioning (or lack thereof) in the federal government right now is proof of that. Coming from a long line of bomb throwing (literally) revolutionaries, you’d think I would have more sympathy for radical elements. As it is, they drive me nuts. In the world of writerly discourse, there are few places those elements like to chuck their Molotov cocktails as much as the great TO OUTLINE or NOT TO OUTLINE DEBATE.

This is not unlike other arguments in this field. Like most, it has one correct answer, and, like most, that correct answer is: who gives a fuck?

Also, like many of the questions of this type, the desire to be right in the argument trumps the desire to take a sensible position with regard to the issue. That is the only reason there is a debate at all.

The simple fact is, everyone is an outliner (to an extent) and everyone is a pantser (to an extent). [Note: Pantser is the nickname for the non-outliners, since they like to ‘fly by the seat of their pants.’] Since no two authors ever do anything the same way, and there is a huge spectrum (about a 2% difference, from what I can tell) that everyone falls into. There are certainly differences. They may even affect the end product. But that still doesn’t mean there are two camps and people are in one or the other.

1)  Every writer, including Stephen King, is an outliner. Stephen King (wisely, from a marketing perspective) threw a can of gasoline on the simmering debate in his how-to book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.In that book, he famously stated that he never uses an outline. More to the point, he advised that other writers should keep from using outlines, too. After all, he’s sold a bagillion books. Today alone. Since it works so well for him, it must work.

There is, of course, a serious flaw in King’s logic. I have absolutely no trouble hopping into my car and backing out of the garage without paying attention to where the door is. I do it every day. My oldest daughter, on the other hand, managed to plow into the door within about a month of getting her license. The lesson to be learned is not that “Drivers do not need to worry about where the garage door ends,” as King would have us believe. The lesson to be learned is that, after 30 years of backing out of garages, I’ve advanced to the point that I do not have to consciously remind myself to look at the location of the door to have a full understanding of where it is in relation to the car.

I don’t back my car out of the garage without stopping to look at where the door is because it’s more fun or interesting to do it without knowing whether I’m going to hit it. Nor would my daughter be better served by paying less, instead of more, attention to the door. Following King’s logic, though, she would be.

Another famous quote often attributed incorrectly to King is that the first million words are practice. [Note: I’m not disputing that King has said that, and I don’t think he ever claimed it was his original thought – it’s just that the thought is attributed to him and it’s almost certainly not].

So let’s take a second to combine the two concepts. According to King

A)  You should be able to sit down and just write a book, starting with an idea and seeing where it will take you. (Pantsing works)

—But—

B)   You need to write about a dozen full-length novels before you have one that isn’t worth throwing away. (After writing, editing, revising, and throwing away a dozen novels that didn’t work).

Hey Steve — you know what else works when you bust your ass learning how to do it for several years of focused and determined work? Fucking everything, that’s what.

It wouldn’t have done as much to sell copies of his book about writing to put things more simply. And, let’s face it, the man is a master at knowing how to sell books — particularly through instilling a sense of mystery in things. But, if you combine the two thoughts, all you’re really left with is:

If you keep writing novels long enough, there will be a time – probably around the time you’ve written twelve or thirteen of them – that you begin to get a feel for how the story should unfold in your mind.

That’s it. No elves making books while you are sleeping, no magical muses arriving to guide you through the fog. It’s like cooking or fly-casting or sex or backing the car out of the garage. If you spend enough time focusing on a particular skill, you will be able to make utilization of that skill second nature. To pretend differently is almost delusional.

If writing “without an outline” means just sitting down and seeing what happens next, how the hell did King know to spend a whole bunch of the first part of Carrie building up to the prom? The answer is obvious. With or without a written outline, King knew he was going to have a catastrophic event at the prom. The pig blood, all of it, is in there pretty early on. So he may never have written down his outline of events, but he sure as hell had a pretty good idea where his book was going.

2)    Every writer, including Ken Follett, is a pantser. I’m picking on Follett because he was generous enough to let Al Zuckerman (his agent) use several drafts of his outlines from The Man From St. Petersburg in Zuckerman’s book Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Suffice it to say, Follett is a heavy-duty outliner. Scene by scene, his outlines tell the entire story in remarkable and structured detail. His outlines are truly impressive in and of themselves, and give a clear picture of what the book will ultimately look like. He does something interesting with them, too. He circulates them to what we would almost call beta readers – getting feedback on his characters and story arc, changing the story as indicated, and, if necessary, circulating a revised outline.

Geez, the pantser says, handcuffed to a 30-page outline. Where’s the wonder? The Joy? The discovery we all love so much when we’re writing?

I’m as guilty as the next person on that one. My happiest moments writing come when it seems as though I’m drumming my fingers while I read a story that’s appearing on my monitor. That’s when writing feels the most magical.

Let’s put it into perspective. Follett writes 1,000 page doorstops. Even conservatively saying one of his books is 600 pages long, he is “pantsing” 20 pages of conversations and fights and sex and fights about sex and conversations about fights for every page of plot he has outlined. In other words, even the most detailed outliner I can come up with is pantsing 95% of what ends up on the page.

Is there a difference? Absolutely. Some leap to the surface just by comparing the two authors’ books. King typically focuses on a “thing” or an event or a specific evil that affects a defined group of people. That is one of the great strengths of his books – taking a specific thing we are afraid of and exposing a small group of people with whom we can relate to its wrath. Follett writes sprawling epics, covering years or centuries, often playing out on a global scale from multiple points of view – books that would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to write without taking written notes on how he expects the disparate parts to come together.That said, the difference is minimal.

Even if King outlined as much as Follett does, most of his stories would require about a quarter of the outlining due to their more finite nature. His books are also about half (or less) as long. So a hyper-detailed Ken Follett-type outline of a Stephen King book would probably be about five pages long. And, while he might not want to admit it (possibly even to himself), I’m willing to bet that at least 3 or 4 of those pages are bouncing around inside King’s head by the time he’s finished writing Chapter 1.

So, what’s a writer to do? You’re on your own for that one. For the same reason I don’t want to read Ken Follett horror or a Stephen King epic about building a cathedral in the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t try to suggest how you approach that two or three percent difference that is the entire scope of “manic outliner” vs. “absolute pantser.” But it helps to understand that the difference we’re talking about is minimal. I’ll also let you know how I do it – not as a suggested guide, but more as an indication of why it seems ridiculous to me that people try to cling to either side of the spectrum.

I’ve only written two novels (one is shelved indefinitely) and I’ve now outlined my third (which went on hold almost immediately after outlining because of what are now THREE revise and resubmits telling me to change exactly the same thing). For the last two, I’ve had five or six page outlines, basically covering the narrative arc. Not all of the characters even have names, but I know how I’m introducing the characters, ratcheting up the conflict, ratcheting it up again (and again), and how it gets resolved.

Now, to be honest, I didn’t need to write the story down to have a clear idea where things are going to go. But it was nice to work through it and have a partial skeleton. One of the main benefits of said skeleton is I now have a place to hang various phrases, ideas, thoughts, insults, or anything else that pops to mind that I may want to use in the book. The outline serves almost more as a filing system for random ideas that pop to mind than a pair of handcuffs.

The outline is also fluid. In the book I have out to agents right now, my protag was supposed to have a pretty, slight, sweet, deceptively smart sister. What I got was a slight, pretty, devastatingly smart sister who cusses like a drunken longshoreman who just finished a bar fight. His fourth of the night. I love her. She’s my favorite character in the book. She was also an unplanned child, and I had to change the rest of her aspect of the novel accordingly. That doesn’t mean I’m not an outliner, it just means I know a good thing when I see it.

The bottom line: Pants all you want, but you still probably want to have an idea what’s going to happen at the prom so your characters can stock up on pig blood. Outline all you want, but if the 95% you didn’t outline starts taking you in what seems like a better direction, you might want to adjust your outline accordingly. More than anything, embrace the similarities and bounce around until you find the right balance (within that 2% difference) for you.

Don’t Use Adverbs Freely (Or: What’s the big deal about adverbs?)

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”

– Steven King

“I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs’”

 – Elmore Leonard

 

What’s an adverb? Adverbs are words that modify other words, typically (hehe) verbs, to show degree or circumstance or provide more explanation about the word. Adjectives are basically (hehe) the same thing, with respect to nouns. That’s not a technical definition, it’s my shot at a good-enough definition to understand the issue.

Who gives a shit? Well, we should, for starters. Adverb usage is something worth looking at in our writing, because they tend to be overused. If that’s where the conversation began and ended, I’d probably just send out a bunch of bookmarks that say, “Adjectives tend to be overused” and call it a day. As the above quotes indicate, however, some people adopt a more orthodox (which is to say jihadist) view.

 

Advice about adverbs is to writing what the Red Scare was to sensible international policy from the end of World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Something based on a legitimate rationale (Stalin was a dick) carried to ridiculous extremes (the McCarthy hearings).  

The tongue-in-cheek advice above stems from a general truism. When I edit a first draft, I cut about half of my adverbs, often replacing them with a stronger verb. The number may be even higher than that. Counting the adverbs I auto-edit between the first glimmer of a thought and my fingers touching keys, it’s safe to say that I avoid adverbs most of the time. I have no doubt deleting every one of those adverbs makes my writing better. After all, that’s the point behind editing – to make one’s writing better.

Here’s the problem: Even looking at every single adverb as a target for deletion, fully (hehe) intending to get rid of every one that does not make the writing better, I still leave about half of them in. I have no doubt that including every one of those adverbs makes my writing better.

At best, if I were to try to formulate a “Rule” with respect to adverbs, it would be this:

We should look at each adverb to see if it’s necessary. About half the time it will be. Get rid of the other half.

 

Sensible advice, right? It’s probably (hehe) true. So, what’s the big deal?

Let’s start with the reason the advice is right half the time.

1.     “Show don’t tell.” Many writers, particularly novice writers, lean too heavily (hehe) on adverbs to convey emotion and emphasis that they should convey through stronger verbs or better dialogue. “She angrily hung up the phone” is no substitute for “She threw the phone against the wall.” The verb phrase “hung up” does not come close to showing the woman’s fury at the end of the conversation.

2.     “Stronger verbs.” One of the easiest ways to see your writing improve by paying attention to adverbs is to look at sentences where the adverbs are masking the need for a stronger verb. “He quickly jumped from the carriage” says the same thing as “he sprang (or leaped, flew, vaulted, etc.,) from the carriage,” though not as well. Getting rid of those is like giving your draft a tune-up.

3.     “Makes no difference.” This group includes at least half of the adverbs we can lose. It’s a little embarrassing, because they’re just sitting there, not really doing anything.

Then why is there a problem? Like all zealotry, the problem comes from taking a good premise (we should use adverbs sparingly, making sure they strengthen, rather than weaken, our writing) and proclaiming a stupider, simpler form of that rule as irrevocable truth (“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”).

That last quote came from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, often referred to as the Writer’s Bible. I’m on a bit of a jihad of my own against Messrs. Strunk & White, which I’ll go into in a future post (or series of posts, because it’s hard to do a full-on jihad on someone’s ass in one blog post). But that particular quote, and those from Elmore Leonard and Steven King, lay out the basic problem. King and Leonard were somewhat tongue in cheek about their absolutist advice. First throwing out advice that looks quotable and can be put on T-shirts and faux motivational posters, then clarifying with more accurate advice that explains why there are a reasonable number of adverbs in their books. Unfortunately, people often read the T-shirts and internet memes, ignoring the fine print.

Strunk & White, on the other hand, were more than happy to proclaim absolutist rules like “do not use adverbs” and preach them as gospel. Rarely do you see anyone call them on their hierocracy, despite the fact that the next fucking sentence in The Elements of Style has two fucking adverbs in it. And not for effect. The title of the first chapter of the book has an adverb in it. Guess what part of speech the second word of the foreword to the 4th edition of Elements is. If you guessed an adverb, you’d be absofuckinglutely correct.

This gives me heartburn on a few levels.

1.     The bad advice makes the good advice impossible to follow. The mere fact that Strunk & White couldn’t make it one sentence after pronouncing the prohibition against using adverbs without using an adverb shows where trying to follow their advice will get you. It’s impossible. So don’t sweat it. A linguistics professor did a study of white’s work and found that it contained more than twice the number of adverbs as the average work of that time. Thirteen percent of White’s words are adverbs, the average for published material in that period was six. In other words, E. B. White is hypocritical as all shit about this stuff. Odds are, your first draft already contains fewer adverbs than his writing.

[Note here: I enjoy E. B. White’s prose immensely. He was a master of the craft. He was also horrible at explaining it and far too prone to pronounce minor truisms as absolute laws. Plus I had a college professor who believed White’s bullshit, no matter how many times I could point to White not following his own “Rules.”]

2.     The good advice, while less sexy, is extremely important. It is so important that I need an adverb to explain its degree of importance. OK, maybe I could have used “imperative,” but you get my point. Any part of speech that you get rid of 50% of the time (often by using stronger descriptions and verbs) is critical to our writing. So don’t get sidetracked by the bullshit about keeping them out altogether.

What we should be doing. I make every adverb in my writing beg for its life. I try to look at them with a presumption they should be axed. Even when I think I’ve done that, I use the search function to look for “ly” (because adverbs have a lovely habit of ending in “ly” a majority of the time) and look at each use again. As I mentioned, I end up getting rid of half or more of them. That strengthens my writing. The fact that I got rid of half also makes the remaining adverbs twice as powerful. More than anything, I’ve made sure that any adverb that remains is the best tool for the job in that particular sentence. Not with religious purity, but with common sense.

One final note: If I were looking for an absolute prohibition, I might be able to find it in sentences where the adverb modifies a dialogue tag. If an adverb modifies a verb associated with dialogue (usually “said,” but including “yelled,” “asked,” “admitted,” “panted,” or anything else), there is almost certainly a better way to structure the sentence. When I see that in my writing, I might as well be looking at a note in my handwriting that says, “This dialogue did not do the job it was supposed to do.”

There is no need to post a comment about the great work of literature that uses an adverb in this fashion beautifully, I am certain it exists. I’m equally certain I haven’t written one yet, though that would be a wonderful accomplishment. We are looking at one sentence in ten million or more.

Actually, please do comment, because I would like to see it. Out of curiosity, though, not because I doubt its existence.

Writer’s Guide to Copyright and Trademark Infringement (Episode 3: I’m finally going to talk about fair use! And, yes, there’s a douchey top 10 list)

This series of posts has addressed the use of trademarked and copyrighted materials in fiction writing. Most writers believe the conversation begins and ends with fair use (and a fair number of message board participants believe fair use is reducible to a single sentence answer).

If you’ve read my prior two posts on this topic, you know THAT’S WRONG. If you haven’t read those posts, for the love of God, go do so. The point behind this post is not to provide a complete summary of the broad topic in the title. This post discusses fair use, an important (but only one important) aspect of trademark and copyright infringement. If you’ve read the two prior posts and come to realize that fair use is not the beginning and end of this issue, but skip this post on fair use, you’ll be ahead of the game. If you just read this post on fair use, you’ll walk away with a general understanding of one piece of a complicated puzzle. That’s it. Which is why it drives me freaking nuts to see broad proclamations about fair use thrown out as the alpha and omega of this issue.

Recap of Important Points:

  • Infringement and its exceptions are really fucking complex topics that vary based on the facts of each case (and a different judge or jury could come to a different conclusion based on the exact same set of facts).
  • Because the standards are fact-driven, there are no hard and fast rules. Ignore anyone who tells you there are.
  • This is not something to factor into your writing or initial editing process. Just get the book out and treat these questions like your crutch words – plenty of time to go back and worry about them later.
  • If you’re going to be traditionally published, this isn’t something to pay much attention to (unless you’re writing about a serial killer stalking kids from inside a character suit at Disneyland or something, which could effectively keep you from being publishable). Your publisher will provide guidance based on your specific text, which will be more valuable than any general blog post – regardless of how insightful, witty, or devilishly handsome the person putting that post up may be.
  • When looking at your use of branded to copyrighted material, one key factor is whether anyone (on a bad day, looking for a reason to complain, with barely a shred of something to bitch about) can say that you are “disparaging” the other name or work (i.e., portraying it in a bad or unflattering light). Even if you are within the exemptions, you still can’t disparage others.
  • Does your work NEED to use the copyrighted or trademarked material? Do they have to be in a Starbucks, or can they just meet at Mo’s Coffee Emporium. Is it necessary for your protag to curl up to read Harry Potter or can she just as easily be reading “her favorite book about a boy who goes to a school for wizards.”

 

So, yea, I just started the post where I FINALLY get around talking about Fair Use with 500 words about shit other than fair use and a warning not to just look at fair use. That’s because I keep hearing this issue discussed as a question about fair use, which it is not. But what the hell. Here is my

Douchey Top Ten List of Things Writers Need to Know About Fair Use

1.     Fair Use is a Four-Part Balancing Test. Everything you’ve heard about magic numbers of words or percentages of work or anything else with a set, objective standard associated with it is wrong. Four things are evaluated and the total overall interplay between those four things determines whether you fit within the fair use exception. Some can count for finding a fair use exception, some can count against it, and the total overall conclusion is what will drive the Court’s determination.

 

2.     The Four Parts Are:

  • The purpose and character of your use (This is also called the “transformative factor” and basically asks whether you are creating something new, adding new meaning, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, just using someone else’s ideas)
  • The nature of the copyrighted work (Are you relying heavily on facts from a biography or history book? If so, the same level of parroting that would be a violation if it had not been scholarly nonfiction can be just fine.)
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion taken (This is the one everyone seems to think is all that matters, but it’s third on this list for a reason. It’s also two separate standards:

1.     Amount (number of words, both total and as a percentage of the copyrighted material/percentage of your material)

2.     Substantiality (Did you take the words from the “heart” of the creative work – a common example are the five words “I can’t get no satisfaction” from the Rolling Stones’ song Satisfaction – that’s so substantial to the heart of the work, those five words could be too much) and

  • The effect of the use upon the potential market (Are you taking food off the original artist’s table? If sales of your work are not likely to have any kind of impact on the market for the copyrighted material, it helps. A lot.).

 

3.     Copyright and Trademark are Not the Same Thing. I am glossing over a lot of nuances here to provide a really rough guide. Courts will, on occasion, look to copyright law (even though the rules come from a statute) for guidance in evaluating a trademark case, and some cases (e.g., those involving the Mickey Mouse logo) involve things that are both copyrighted and trademarked at the same time.

 

4.     Don’t Make the Source, Sponsorship, or Approval of Your Work Confusing. This is technically a trademark standard but is also a good guide for evaluating copyright infringement. If you are referring to brands (or making your cover too similar to a logo) or including specific items or characters in your narrative to an extent you seem to be writing a book about a particular brand of whiskey and not your own drinking problem, it’s going to be an issue (trademark). If your character’s love of a certain boy wizard seems to make the book a love story between your MC and that character, we have a problem (copyright).

 

5.     If You Can’t Say Something Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All. Nothing will get you in hotter water faster than disparaging. “Disparaging” is the legal term for shit talk. At this juncture, pick one. You can either mention Twilight in passing or dedicate a chapter to insipid, poorly written, gag-reflex-invoking teen vampire romances that suck.

 

6.     Use Things That Aren’t Protected. Fair use is an affirmative defense. Among other things, that means the defendant (who usually doesn’t have the burden of proof in a case) has the burden of proof. But it only applies if you would otherwise be infringing. Avoid infringement in the first instance. Ideas are not copyrighted. Themes, concepts, and motifs are not copyrighted. You can write all the novels you want about plantations during and after the Civil War. Just don’t call any of them Tara.

 

7.     Being Right is no Guarantee You Won’t Be Sued. Or, more commonly, receive a cease and desist letter from counsel for someone who wants to bitch about your alleged infringement. Lawsuits are expensive. Win or lose. Since the average advance on a first novel from a significant publisher is something like $16,000 (and the average profit from a self-published book from a first time novelist is something like $0.16) they know the threat will probably be enough. The music industry is notorious for this, regularly losing cases in federal court but still merrily threatening and bringing them every time someone whispers lyrics from Sympathy for the Devil as the antagonist enters the room. Quote Dante instead, he’s public domain.

 

8.     Copyright Extends to Derivative Works. Under US Copyright law, copyright owners have the exclusive right “to prepare derivative works based upon [their] copyrighted work.” Yes, that means fan fiction. It also means anything else that would reasonably derive from the original. So Hogwarts’ New Class, A Harry Potter Christmas, etc., are all out of bounds. This one is vague as hell. There is a line (somewhere) between the universe Captain Kirk explored and the universe the rest of us can write about. As an aside, this issue came up in Gene Roddenberry’s somewhat messy divorce. I have one piece of advice here (which should really cover you with respect to almost all copyright and trademark issues). Create your own fucking universe. That piece of advice, alone, is the safest piece to follow. Klingon is not that cool a name, anyway. Not compared to Trogphlops. Which happened to be a random string of letters I just typed.

 

9.     Combine the “Ideas Cannot Be Copyrighted” and “Copyright Extends to Derivative Works.” And have a field day. You can have spaceships and warlike aliens and logical aliens and furry little fluffy pets that reproduce exponentially (as long as they aren’t called tribbles). None of this stuff should be limiting your creativity at all. You can have a man wake up from a coma with no memory and let him discover he has awesome ninja assassin skilzz. With two zs. Because he’s that awesome. As long as his name is Basin Jorne. If the functional limitations on the copyright end are a problem, you are writing fan fiction and need to come to terms with that. Have fun doing it, but don’t publish. Some authors don’t mind fanfiction, as in posts on sites dedicated to them, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a copyright violation.

 

10.   The Bottom Line. Make your work your own. If you are telling a new story in your own voice in a different way than anyone else has, the occasional mention that the car was a Toyota or the beer was Pabst is fine. If you have wizards but they aren’t in a prep school together or you have a prep school but it isn’t full of demons, you’re fine. KEEP THE CORE OF YOUR STORY, AND THE WAY YOU TELL THAT STORY, YOUR OWN and everything else will more or less sort itself out.

 

LIMITATIONS:      In addition to the thousands of words I’ve already written about how limited this advice is (and the fair use rules are, generally), bear in mind a few specific limitations. Parody and criticism are outside the scope of what I’ve addressed here. Because those exceptions are EXTREMELY fact-sensitive, they can really only be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Plagiarism is a whole other evil, for which the practitioners should spend eternity having their private parts ravaged by flaming, demonic termites while being forced to watch Toddlers in Tiaras reruns. But I didn’t talk about it here.

 

Hope that helps.

 

 

Writer’s Guide to Copyright and Trademark Infringement (Episode 2: Permissive Use and Obscuring brands)

Recap: So far, we’ve covered the fact that brands, characters, songs, poems, stories (in other words, pretty much everything) can be covered by intellectual property protections (in our context it’s usually copyright or trademark protection). That’s the bad news.

The good news is: the fact that something is protected doesn’t mean you can’t mention it or quote it or acknowledge it. You can still use it if you get permission, avoid the problem altogether if you obscure the brand (both of which I’ll cover today). Te fair use exception will be tough to cover in one post, let alone mixing in other ways to avoid problems, so I’m putting that off until next week.

If you take anything from this, understand that the three word responses you see to posts asking, “Can I do this?” on writer message boards probably aren’t sage tidbits of seasoned wisdom (unless they say, “this is complicated” or “be really careful”). My attempt to provide a broad, over-generalized summary of just enough basics to give you an idea how to stay out of trouble is going to take several blog posts.

Let’s start with the easy one: Permission.

It sounds goofy, but it’s not daffy to think you can get permission to use trademarked names or portions of copyrighted materials. [It’s funny because Goofy and Daffy are trademarked by a certain corporation that is closely associated with rodents (their litigious legal department) that also happens to use a rodent as its mascot]. If you think it’s important to your narrative to have all the kids drinking Sundrop soda and eating Little Debbie’s snack cakes, and you portray both of those items in a reasonably favorable light, they may be more than happy to let you. They will probably require that you use an acknowledgement like: “Sundrop® is a registered trademark of Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc. © 2013 All Rights Reserved, and is used with the express permission of the rights-holder” or something along those lines.

As I explained in the prior post, IP rights-holders have a legitimate concern about their material being used without permission. If they don’t police it, they can lose the ability to enforce it later. If the use is reasonably limited and you acknowledge the fact that your use is with permission, they may be more than happy to give it to you. The extreme example of this is product placement, where the trademark rights-holder actually pays to have the mark displayed (usually in a movie or television show). It’s a form of advertising – everyone sees Brad Pitt drink Sundrop and then start making out with Angelina Jolie (or vice verse) and suddenly you notice Sundrop in the beverage aisle the next time you’re shopping.

You aren’t likely to get payola for putting Sundrop in your book. You’re probably not even going to get a free Sundrop sun visor. But you may well be able to get permission to use the name by e-mailing their legal department (or even starting with the “contact us” address on the webpage). Bottom line is, it never hurts to ask.

The opposite end of the spectrum is occupied by said rat-infested corporation, which is completely over-the-top paranoid about its intellectual property portfolio. On his recent acquisition, Darth Vader was rumored to comment, “Whoa, dudes, you really need to chill.” I can actually call Disney out by name, for a slew of reasons including the fact that I am writing educational, non-fictional materials for no financial gain. I am voicing opinions and, to the extent I am mixing opinion and fact (the bastards [opinion] threaten to sue daycares for painting Disney characters on their walls [fact]), it is clear where I am doing so.

The fact is, even when writers screw up, they aren’t usually sued for it. The result is usually a letter from the rights-holder’s counsel informing you of the violation. If they aren’t dicks about it, they’ll just ask you to stop. If they are super nice about it, they will even let you sell the merchandise you already have on hand, as long as you don’t print any more with the offending use in or on it. If they are the most super-chill legal department in the universe, they may even send you the nicest cease and desist letter ever:http://brokenpianoforpresident.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/jd-letter-entire-big1.jpg

But you can’t count on getting that letter, nor can you plan your cover art budget around being funded by a whiskey company’s legal department. The odds of being told to destroy your books are exponentially higher than that.

In that example, the name itself wasn’t used, but the cover looked just like a Jack Daniel’s bottle, which is the company’s trade dress. When it comes to cover art, you want to avoid anything that could reasonably confuse someone as to the “source, sponsorship or approval” of your book. That is an area where the mark holders have little room to give, and you will very likely be required to destroy anything that was printed.

[Just by way of full disclosure, one of my close friends is an executive with Brown Forman, the parent company that owns Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc., which owns those brands. That is not, however, why I think the C&D letter is awesome.]

Next, almost as easy: Obscure the brand.

Let’s face it, if your narrative is so tied to a specific thought someone else had that you can’t write around it, you probably have problems with the story that go beyond intellectual property rights. Nobody wants to read an Ode to Little Debbie. No matter how much you hate WalMart, your WalMart-bashing magnum opus is probably only going to be mildly interesting to the people you were in line with the day of the incident in question. If you named your character Katniss Evergreen years before The Hunger Games showed up in print, but are just now getting around to revising your old novel, the best news I can give you is this:

Get Over It.

Kill your darlings. Change your names. Nothing that specific should impact your narrative arc anyway. This is one of those happy places where my experience practicing law for 20 years and my experience writing and editing fiction both scream the exact same piece of advice. If your hatred of WalMart is such that you can’t carry a story through by calling your behemoth retail villain MegaMart, SuperMart, WeRTehSukMart, or AboutAMillionFuckingOtherThingsMart, the problem with the narrative is not the Walton Family’s intellectual property portfolio.

Most of the time someone can’t just write around this problem, it’s because (whether she wants to admit it or not) the product is either fanfic or a hatchet job. Passing mentions aside (because those are what fair use will boil down to), no brand, song, poem, or book should be so integral to your story that you can’t just change it. If someone finds that she can’t, what that really means is that her story is based too much on another person’s intellectual property to stand on its own merit.

There’s a word for that: Infringement.

I am not saying you necessarily have to write around every mention of a brand or research the USPTO archives every time you refer to a product to see if the name is trademarked. What I’m saying is that you need to know you can. If you got that cease and desist letter, or a directive from an agent or editor to make that change, it should be a question of search and replace, and not a major revision to your story line.

The next post will cover whether you really need to omit all references to specific songs or cars or beer or whisky (spoiler alert, you don’t). That said, as long as you could if you needed to, you should be in relatively good shape.

Writer’s Guide to Copyright and Trademark Infringement (Episode 1: A general overview)

Rocko and Chainsaw jump into the truck. As Rocko turns the key, the stereo blares… um, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? That one’s gotta be public domain, right?

We’re supposed to write what we know, and a lot of us (myself included) write about everyday life. Well, a much cooler version of everyday life, but, still, life here in Anytown USA. If you write about life in the Antheria Quadrant or a magical realm, you can probably skip this post (unless you have a guy named Darth who has a Death Star in your Quadrant or your magical realm is called Middle Earth). Even then, this post isn’t about plagiarism,

Intellectual Property and Writing is a complicated subject. Actually, it’s a whole bunch of complicated overlapping, interlocking subjects. The kind of subjects that people who went to law school, passed the bar exam, and practiced law in this area for a decade or two still go to continuing education classes on every year. I wish I could just fire off a douchey top ten list that told you how to avoid trouble, but it isn’t that easy. I plan to provide just such a list in a few days, but trust me when I say a list, standing alone, will do nearly as much harm as good. It’s really worth taking a few minutes to understand a little bit about the basic framework you’re going to be operating in.

“We’re Living in a Material World”

One of the issues with writing about life in a consumer society (which, writing satire, is one of the things I write about) is the fact that our society loves to brand the things we consume. For every person who says, “Meet me at that independent coffee shop on 36th Street,” a couple hundred meet at Starbucks®. We drink Coke® or Pepsi®. We like Big Macs® and throw Frisbees®, not flying discs. And those are just trademarks. The little ® means they are registered trademarks, and have been registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Then we have copyrighted materials. Your protagonist may want to start singing Ding Dong the Witch is Dead the minute his wife leaves the house, but can he? When she wants to read love poetry from the balcony, can it be Echo© by Carol Ann Duffy or do you have to become a poet, thereby forcing her (in my case) to read insipid poetry at best? If your character was a child of the 1970s and a science fiction geek, can her favorite movie still be Star Wars (which is both a ® and a ©)? The little © (or, in the case of sound recordings, the little ℗) says the author has the rights to the material and you’ve been warned.

So what the hell? We obviously can’t have our characters listen to Twinkle Twinkle when it needs to be Born to be Wild, and all of those little ©s ®s and ℗s make our prose look like a list of side effects from a treatment for erectile dysfunction. And, unless my books a huge bestseller, nobodys even going to bother worrying about infringement in my stuff anyway, right?

This is the most important thing I’m going to say in this post. Are you ready? Ok, here goes: WRONG.

The unfortunate fact is, once someone has intellectual property protection (whether in the form of patent, copyright, or trademark), he or she can lose that protection by allowing the protected property to become “public domain.” The classic example of this is the thing you use on the fly of your pants (and the door to your tent, if you camp, and the way you close up your windbreaker). When enough people generically refer to anything with linking rows of interlocking teeth as a zipper (without permission or acknowledgment of the mark), it becomes “genericised” and the owner loses the mark. This happened with aspirin in the US, to Friedrich Bayer & Co. –the same company that had the balls to trademark heroin. They lost that one the same way. Owners of copyrighted materials do not face the same kind of pressure to protect their works, but can still lose the ability to sue under broader doctrines (estoppel, latches, and a bunch of other Latin words I don’t have time to go into).

Because of that copyright and trademark holders have a legitimate reason to make sure we dont improperly use their material, even if we’re not making a dime doing it.

That does not, however, mean we can’t use the materials at all. Not even close. What it means is we can only use the materials either (a) with permission from the copyright/trademark owner or (b) under the fair use exception (or another exception, but those are rarely as important in this context).

Yay, hes finally talking about fair use. I should have skipped all the boring shit. I found the part with the answer!

Sorry, but no. I’m going to give you my first ever Michael J. McDonagh Blog News Update: In an astonishing coincidence, since I was planning to write this today, anyway, this happens to be the day the biggest fair use decision of the decade, possibly my lifetime, was handed down. In The Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google, Inc., the court sided against the authors (boo) and in favor of Google (boo).

Except, with respect to this post, we kinda wanted that, because at the moment we’re wondering how far we can push the bounds of using other peoples stuff. (Yay?) If you’re Stephen King or Dan Brown you’re probably bummed (and bored as shit, if you’re reading my blog, but please, please start posting comments). For me and you, not so much. Plus it’s a District Court decision on summary judgment, it will be appealed, I’d be surprised if it didnt  get reversed on appeal and there will be an attempt at an appeal to the Supreme Court (where I’d say the odds of the original ruling being affirmed go down even more).

That’s not really the important part. The important part for this post is to understand that both sides spent hundreds of thousands (Plaintiffs) or millions (Google) of dollars hashing through the question of fair use. Until today, nobody was certain how the judge was going to decide. I think there is at least a 50% chance the judge will be reversed on appeal. It took eight years to get to this point, and, as the judge put it, “The sole issue now before the Court is whether Google’s use of the copyrighted works is ‘fair use’ under the copyright laws.”

In other words, the important thing to understand is that “fair use” can be a really fucking complex topic. Or, as the Google Court said it, “The determination of fair use is an open-ended and context-sensitive inquiry, thus the fair use doctrine calls for “case-by-case analysis[.]” That, by the way, is how federal judges say, “really fucking complex topic.”

 

Tomorrow I’ll get into the four-part fair use test and how to avoid infringement, I promise. But I think jumping right to that would be a huge disservice to the people who read my blog. Since you’re presumably fellow writers, I can’t do that (even though douchey top ten lists drive traffic like no other).

Aside from “this is a really fucking complex topic,” there are two points I want to hammer home from a writer’s perspective:

1)    Don’t let The Man keep you down. Just write the damn book. If everybody is reading The Hours© at a Starbucks® and listening to Dylan sing Like a Rolling Stone, so be it. (And, yes, the registration marks are here purely for comedic effect). At least for the first draft, this isn’t anything to even think about. You shouldn’t have all those adverbs, either, but now’s not the time to worry about them. This is editing stuff, not drafting stuff. It shouldn’t even be on your mind until you’re done writing (and probably revising, since we never know what’s getting cut there until we’re done with surgery).

2)    You need to be about 1,000 times more worried about this if you’re self-publishing, because traditional publishers deal with it all the time. If you’re going the traditional route, you’re probably better off not worrying about it at all (if the changes take anything away from your narrative), and being flexible when you get your editing letter. This is mostly a minefield for people who want to self publish. A cease and desist letter that just tells you to ‘cut it out’ becomes a real problem if you’re sitting on a couple of boxes of POD paperbacks you just shelled out for.

Tomorrow, I’ll explain the four part test for fair use, it’s applicability in both copyright and trademark matters and maybe even provide a douchey top ten list of things you should know. 

Writing Blind (well it’s really about dialogue)

I’m editing a novel by another author that has presented an interesting dilemma: Her protagonist is blind.

On the surface, you would think that would present problems in terms of setting scenes. Surprisingly, though, that isn’t the challenging part. I think it might be making her writing better. In fact, I think simply editing something where the primary sense is disabled (don’t get on me about the PC aspect of that word, I literally mean it as a verb) is making ME a better writer. If nothing else, I don’t need to worry about boring descriptions of sunsets.

The biggest challenge it presents has to do with dialogue. Not being able to see physical cues limits the good ways (i.e., show don’t tell) of explaining the thoughts and emotions underlying dialogue. This has been driving me nuts as her editor, because it’s pretty damn hard to show instead of tell when your first-person narrator can’t see shit.

We’re working through her manuscript. Since my job is to critique, not rewrite, I get to point out problems without having to dirty my hands trying to fix them. Except this is my critique partner, I absolutely adore her, and she just found out she is going to have a baby, so I got soft.

Not soft enough to try to fix the issue throughout the entire manuscript (I’m sentimental, not drunk). Sentimental enough to try to put together a matrix of the best through worst ways to “show/tell” what is happening in dialogue without visual cues. Nor surprisingly, if you add “observing physical action or phenomenon”  as a priority 2 way of doing it, this list (which is probably still pretty rough) is not a bad general guide to doing this whether or not your character can see. 

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Needless to say, whether or not your characters can see, dialogue that is strong enough to convey everything is always the first, best choice.  There is no substitute. That’s why Hemingway could only crank out part of one page in a day, but seldom needed to explain anything. At the opposite end of the spectrum, exposition and internal monologue blows. It is a tool of last resort. If there is a way to avoid it, do.

I’ll probably be back to retool that list at some point, and if you think I missed anything (or missed the boat on anything), hit the “ask me” and let’s chat about it. I don’t love posting first drafts of things, but that’s because I was writing before there were teh interwebs and old habits die hard.

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