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 tag “creative writing”

Show & Tell (Not “Show Don’t Tell,” because that’s just stupid)

“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice. It’s also stupid. Catchy, but stupid. If you tried to write a novel only showing, never telling, you would… Well, basically, you’d have Ulysses, by James Joyce. Not that he doesn’t tell, too. My point is you’d end up needing to use a quarter of a million words to describe each day in each character’s life.

You simply cannot show everything. This, like nearly everything else in writing, is a question of balance. A well written book is a good combination of showing and telling that lets the reader experience things through actions and senses (showing) at a good pace (which requires telling).

What does “Show Don’t Tell” Really Mean?

Some of the confusion stems from the fact that there are a few different categories of “telling,” and what this advice means depends heavily on which tell people are saying should be shown.

Telling through adverbs and adjectives

For the most part, “show don’t tell” advice usually boils down to a simple precept: replace adverbs and adjectives with actions and detail. Instead of telling the reader someone was angry at the end of a phone call (adjective) or hung up angrily (adverb), have her hang up by screaming the word “bastard!” and throwing her phone at the wall. If in doubt, she can get a hammer and scream “bastard, bastard, bastard,” in time to the hammer’s beat against the now-shattered phone’s carcass.  Don’t tell me that she is displeased to see a blue screen on her computer, show me:

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The problem is, you simply cannot “show don’t tell.” The very thing we try to accomplish by showing – vivid scenes that bring the reader in close – will stop working if we do nothing but show. If your character glances quickly over her shoulder before ducking into an alley, a lengthy description of her head twisting on her neck, eyes moving to the side, etc., will convey that feeling a lot less effectively that “glanced quickly.”

That said, as soon as I typed and saw that adverb I had an urge to change it to “shot a glance” or use some other stronger verb to kill the need for the adverb, so my example would disappear on my first editing pass. I decided to leave it (and this confession) to underscore the fact that I’m not saying “tell don’t show.” My point is simply that we need both, balanced as well as possible, to make our reading pop. If the detective notices someone hurriedly leave a room, and that subtle cue needs to stay subtle for six more chapters, we don’t want to go into greater detail.

Summaries

“She slid the key into the ignition and twisted. A slight click, then…”

That’s a show, but whether it’s a good one or not depends heavily on whether the car blows up or she drives to work. Just like we don’t want to “tell” about the bomb wired to the ignition (“she started her car, then it blew up” is not good writing) we also don’t want to show every step a character takes to get from one scene that matters to another. The slightly bitter taste on the back of a character’s tongue may be a good show if it’s poison, it may even be a good show if it’s just arugula, but we still don’t want to get bogged down in every sensation every character experiences. Sometimes all that matters is that they ate.  Showing well and telling well are critical components to pacing well. “Show don’t tell” is like a cookbook that says “just cook everything at 500 degrees.” Rare roast beef and baked potatoes can’t be cooked at the same temperature. If we want a well-rounded meal, er, book, we need to be willing to pay attention to the knob.

Descriptions (Don’t tell me about the moon shining, show me an apocryphal quote)

A few of you (at least one, I’m certain) probably got this far and wondered: Where’s the awesome Chekhov quote? Because, yes, the best quote about showing and telling is from Anton Chekhov, and, yes, I am, indeed, Anton Chekhov’s bitch. And the most oft-cited quote on this topic is from Dr. Chekhov, who admonished:

Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass

Except he didn’t. At least not that I’ve ever seen. I mean, sure, you can find thousands of citations that say he said that, but I’ve yet to see one that pointed me to a specific letter or play or anything else where he purportedly said this. Ironically, though I don’t think he ever TOLD us to do this, he SHOWED us what to do in his short story Hydrophobia:

The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star. 

Description is, by definition, telling. If you look at masters of description, like Chekhov and Hemingway, something striking leaps out. Instead of describing a static scene or backdrop, they nearly always describe things in a state of motion or flux. More often, they describe an action on the part of a character that incorporates the description and sets the scene without simply telling us what things look like. A cowboy getting seasick in the desert sun from the rise and fall of heat waves cresting on the parched soil and scrub in front of him is painting a scene for us through his eyes and reaction. The result, and goal, are still to paint a scene, but bringing it in through the character’s experience often paints it better.

Often, but not always.

Adverb/adjective, summary, and description tells are each different. Sometimes, those tells are the best tool for the job, and should be used as such. Other times, showing will make writing pop. It’s really a question of pacing as much as anything else. The advice is doled  out as “show, don’t tell” because few beginning writers make the opposite mistake. The problem is, giving the advice that way ENCOURAGES people to make the opposite mistake. “Decide whether to show or tell or combine the two in the way that best fits with the tenor and tone and pacing of that particular scene,” just isn’t catchy enough.

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?

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…

 

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Put our finger on it.

This is Your Brain on Words Part Two: Evolution (we’re basically a bunch of primates with books).

In this installment of the Brain on Words series, I am taking a look at the history of the human race as it relates to words on paper. Well, most of the time they were on clay tablets, but you know what I mean.

In the beginning, there was the word…

In the great evolutionary scheme of things, language is a new thing. When and where spoken language first happened has been called “the hardest question in science.” Since half the arguments I have with my daughters involve some variant of “I never said that” about something that was or wasn’t said last week, yesterday, or five minutes ago, it’s pretty easy to see why. Even if I had a time machine and a translator and could go back to the day after spoken language really happened for the first time, I’d probably find some protohuman couple standing in front of their cave and hear one of them saying, “I never said that.”

Fortunately, that part doesn’t matter a hell of a lot to us. We don’t need to get caught up in the debate about whether spoken language evolved 1.7 million years ago, as some scholars think, or 200,000 years ago, as others argue. A few even put it at about 40,000 years ago, though discoveries since the 1990s tend to discredit that view. In this analysis, though, we can just agree that it occurred “RFLTA” (a Really Fucking Long Time Ago). What matters is that homo sapiens were communicating through sound RFLTA, which was also a RFLT before they ever tried communicating through something other than sound.

It took a long freaking time for anyone to write that word down…

Writing – using agreed upon symbols to mean something – is so new that, in a evolutionary sense, the paint is still wet. Between grunting “I never said that” and anything we can really call writing, pictograms started showing up on the cave walls. They communicated ideas, but not through an agreed system of “this means that.” Instead, they just depicted the idea by showing exactly what the idea was. There was no reason to standardize them, and you didn’t need to be “literate” in any language to read them. They were, literally, just pictures:

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Cave of Altamira, depicting what appears to be a Red Bull Energy Drink product placement, dated to around 15,000 B.C.E.

In other words, pictures, not writing. Over the course of the next 12,000 years, thanks largely to prehistoric humans’ lack of cable TV and internet access, they had plenty of time to think about standardizing those pictures a little bit. If you want to spend all week painting a beautiful picture, that’s one thing. If all you want to do is say there was an animal, there’s really no reason to go all Michelangelo on it.

So, eventually, a rudimentary system for writing developed. We went from pictograms (I drew you a picture) to ideograms (we’ve agreed this picture represents that thing). Sumerian cuneiform, showing up around 3,200 B.C.E., is thought to be the first, with Egyptian Hieroglyphics arriving around the same time. Cuneiform looked like this:

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These appear to be want ads from a Sumerian newspaper, and someone is giving away free kittens.

This still isn’t writing as we know it, but it was a huge step in the right direction. This is certainly not an alphabet. It is a series of pictures that represent nouns and verbs. It was also a huge pain in the ass, with around 2,000 different symbols (although that number dwindled over time).

Ideograms were of limited use themselves, but in them were the seeds for something special. The number of symbols kept dwindling, meaning they had to cover more things. This process seems to have fed on itself until the Egyptians were down to just twenty-two symbols.

Here’s the cool part…

Those symbols no longer represented specific things. They represented sounds. By 2700 B.C.E., Egyptian hieroglyphs each represented a specific syllable that began with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. That development is huge. On a whole bunch of different levels.

Why hieroglyphs still matter

Think about this for a second – we (humans) had spoken language between two million years ago and two hundred thousand years ago, depending on who’s estimate you’re using. Not counting the time we also drew pictures on cave walls (since that’s not really “writing”), we had symbols that represented “things” for about five hundred years, total. Then we switched to syllables, the most basic component of human speech. When I say “speech,” I mean sounds we make.

We write sounds. We read sounds. Not counting the 500 years it took us to get from standardized pictures to pictures of sounds, humans have never communicated in any way other than sounds.

A little math shows how important this fact is. For something between 99% of our existence as a species (with the shortest estimate of when speech developed) to 99.99975% of our existence (with the longest estimate), we have only communicated with each other through sound. Either directly, or for a small slice of the most recent little bit, symbols that represent sounds.

It’s no accident our first written language was broken down by syllables. Syllables are single sounds, and sound is how we had been communicating at least since the development of anything we can call language. When we first developed written words to communicate ideas, they were single sounds.

And guess what?

That’s what we still do. And this is the payoff for the prehistoric history lesson. The only thing we’ve done with language since the Egyptians started associating syllables with pictures is tweak that system. The Greeks developed the first “true” alphabet, with consonants and vowels, and every writing system since is either a collection of symbols that represent syllables (e.g., the Chinese “alphabet”) or symbols that combine to form syllables (like I’m doing right now as I type this and you’re doing right now as you read it).

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It hasn’t even changed all that much

 

We didn’t evolve to read

…writing evolved (or was developed) to work with the already existing part of our brain that hears sounds. We haven’t had time to evolve, anyway. In the first place, 5,000 years isn’t enough time to evolve much –unless you’re a virus or other simple organism, Also, hardly any people have been reading for much of the 5,000 it’s been an option. Literacy has ebbed and flowed over the millennia, with a few high points if you happened to live in Rome or ancient Greece at the right time, but for the most part, we’ve been an illiterate bunch for all but about the last 300 years. Chaucer and Dante were writing for the ten percent of the population who could read, but the other ninety percent couldn’t tell Dante from Danielle Steel.

The Bottom Line

Humans have always communicated through sound. Ironically enough, that’s precisely what a writer is doing, too. Our brains have not had time to develop “reading” abilities. Instead, we have created a system that uses symbols to represent (or combine to represent) sounds – i.e., syllables. The part of our brain we use to process written words is the same part we use to listen to someone talk. As far as our brains are concerned, they’re doing the same freaking job.

This is only the first step on our journey through the whole process this series will cover, but it is a crucial one. The first thing a reader does when she looks at letters on the page is (almost always nonconsciously) translate those letters into sounds. Not words, not images or ideas – syllables. Those syllable/sounds are then “heard” by the brain and combined to form words. That process (and the things that can interfere with it going smoothly) will be a big focus of this series. All of it is predicated on the fact that all human language – spoken, sung, written, or however it comes – is the same thing as far as our brains are concerned.

Coming up next…

The weird way we created a system of writing that works ideally with eyes that spent a few million years only worried about hunting and gathering.

This is Your Brain on Words Part One: Series Prologue – er, Forward. Whatever, it’s like a summary but you can skip it if you want.

This post is the first part in a series that will attempt to answer the question: What happens when someone reads a story? The question is simple. The answer, to the extent there is consensus in the scientific community with respect to certain aspects of the answer, is complicated as hell. It’s also fascinating.

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This is your brain on words

By “What happens?” I mean, literally, what physiologically happens –from the retinal/foveal response in the eyes through the neurotransmitters all the way to creation of a little mind movie in the reader’s head. By “head” I mean the squishy, wet, amazingly complex organ that evolved for millions of years without seeing a single written word. Spoiler alert: that part about evolution is really important.

Who gives a shit?

Anyone who is interested in building a mind movie in readers’ heads, I hope. Not that I think Dickens or Nabokov gave a shit about neurobiology while writing. They were damned good at knowing its outcomes, though, and those outcomes have a lot to do with why they wrote so well. Their works, as well as every book read before or after, were all consumed in precisely the same way. It starts with a pair of retinas (actually, the fovea within those retinas). If things go well, it ends with the reader’s imagination showing him or her images that elicit real emotions. Being overly analytical, I can’t help but wonder how that magic happens. Also, I don’t believe in magic.

I do, however, believe in making things magical – or not suck, anyway. We can glean a shitload of information from the science that has been (or is being) done on this stuff. Information that can, and probably should, directly color decisions we make about word choices, use of dialect, sentence length, paragraph length, and a ton of other things we, as writers, constantly find ourselves pausing to ask questions about.

What this information won’t do

Tell you how to write a story, for starters. I’m amazed I can’t find the information I’m digging up for this series synthesized for writers anywhere else, because it provides a hell of a toolkit and answers a lot of questions writers frequently ask.

That said, owning a toolkit does not make one a carpenter. By the end of this series, you will understand why the name Ebenezer Scrooge works. Which is to say, what neurological response allowed you to read that name the first time you saw it without being pulled out of the story. Also how that name was crafted to read like words you had seen before, although you hadn’t seen that particular word, and how it allowed your brain to make immediate associations with the character and his personality based on the associative properties of the syllables in the names. I am not, however, saying that knowing that means you’ll be able to write like Dickens.

Tehere are C3RT4IN tihngs a6out wirtnig taht our brainz can D3C0DE even if tehy are worng.

And other things that are difficult for our brains to process regardless of how “correct” they are. Knowing how to lean on the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of a reader’s ability to process what we put to paper is all about making our words do their job the best way they can. Something that is ultimately decided inside someone else’s brain.

The point behind this series is to learn every hack, cheat, and trick our disposal to make that the mind movie run as cleanly as possible in the reader’s head. If the mind movie you have to offer is Ishtar or Son of the Mask, that may not be much of an improvement. But at least you’ll know what the theater looks like on the inside.

Overview of the series – what to expect

We’ll start with history and evolutionary biology. A lot of the murkiness about reading and the brain stems  from how unbefuckinglievably new reading is. (Get it? “brain stems” Bwwaahahahaha) It is so new, in fact, we haven’t had any time to evolve to perform the task. That’s not a problem, though, because we have forced the system of writing and language to evolve to work with existing features from our mostly primate brains.

Then come the eyes. The number of words we really focus on at one time (actually the number of letters, and it’s four) the number and location of the letters we nonconsciously process when we’re focused on those four letters and how our brains decide where to focus next based on that information.

The brain decodes the words. Some are easier than others. In fact, some are so easy, our brains skip them altogether, assuming their presence and intent based mostly on shape. Other words shut off our reading (in the adult, fluent reader sense) and make us revert to tools we used when we were first learning to read; a process that readers, understandably, hate. That was the point behind saying “unbefuckinglevably,” above. The process for determining the meaning of that made up word is entirely different from the process of deciphering (or intuitively knowing and moving on from) every other word in the sentence.

The words have meanings. Even words we’ve never seen or heard before can have direct, concrete meaning based on our intuitive use of language. The entire point behind writing is to create meaning in the reader’s mind. Much of how that occurs (and what can interfere with it) is firmly rooted in neurobiology. Most of that neurobiology was developed for spoken language, and we created written word systems to encode spoken word systems. Those spoken-word brain centers are still what process the written words. And, yes, that was the point behind the “brain stems” joke.

Those meanings create images. This field is new and exciting. The translation of words on paper into pictures –the mind movie. Some things facilitate that, others interfere, and knowing which do what is powerful writing mojo.

Images create emotions. The holy grail of writing – causing a reader to experience genuine emotion. Or, stated in my geeky way, causing the reader to have a physiological response to the words on the page. Something that best happens when the reader has forgotten she is looking at words on a page.

More than anything, the point behind this series is a highly specialized and technical version of putting ourselves in the reader’s shoes. Understanding what the reader actually experiences sheds a bright light on those things that facilitate or interfere with the reader’s experience.

So ends my forward/prologue/overview. Up next: This is Your Brain on Words Part Two: Evolution (we’re basically a bunch of primates with books).

Deus Ex Machina: A Literary Device That Has Sucked Since 400 B.C.

First, an overview:

What is Deus Ex Machina?

Literally, that phrase is Latin for: “A god from the machine.” Roughly translated, it means: “You wrote a shitty ending.” Actually, if you change it to deuce ex machina, as in “drop a deuce” or “go number two,” then it really does translate to “turd machine.” Either way, it is not a good sign.

Not all shitty endings are deus ex. The trademark of a dues ex ending is the combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) some improbable, intervening force. If you take one of those elements away, it isn’t deus ex. It may still be a bad ending, but it won’t be the mother of all bad endings, which is what deus ex almost always is.

Let’s take the “cavalry rides to the rescue” ending as an example. Is that always deus ex? Certainly not. If you are writing about the Battle of Vienna, a massive cavalry charge turning the tide is a huge part of the story. But (a) it was not a surprise, they knew it was coming from the outset. Although (b) it did solve the hero’s problems, (c) it was not improbable at all, nor was the cavalry an outside force intervening in things. That charge was part of the “hero’s” plan from the outset.

Now let’s say you are writing a contemporary story about a woman on the run from the mob. She’s alone in the park and notices five guys in trench coats closing in on her from all sides. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. But then:

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 Deus ex cavalry charge. Notice the cars in the parking lot.

Yea, that’s a deus ex. You can tell, because it sucks.

Western Civilization as it Relates to Deus Ex 

The term itself originated around 19 B.C.E. Yes, B.C. As in, Before Christ, which, regardless of your belief in the divinity of Christ, was a long, long, long fucking time ago. It comes to us courtesy of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, whom the English speaking world usually calls Horace. He coined the term in Ars Poetica, which was basically a style guide for Roman poets, where he instructs poets that they should never resort to a “god from the machine” to resolve their plots “unless a difficulty worthy a god’s unraveling should happen.”

Like most things scholarly and Roman around that time, it was not a Roman idea. Horace was parroting Aristotle’s 335 B.C.E. bitchfest about Deus Ex, entitled Poetics. Translated, Aristotle said, “It is obvious that the solutions of plots, too, should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance.” The contrivances he hated so much in ancient Greek plays were – you guessed it – gods being lowered or raised onto the stage by way of some kind of machine. Usually it was a crane, sometimes a trap door.

Either way, you have your Greek tragedy going along just fine, we’ve been through Act II, the characters are in a hopeless position, all seems lost, then *POOF*

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 DoucheyZeus is here to save the day.

Zeus shows up and just fixes everything. And around 400 B.C., most people agreed that ending kinda sucked.

For a little perspective, the first novel printed in the English Language is believed to be William Caxton’s 1483 translation of The Book of the Knight of the Tower. So people giving advice about how to write had been saying deus ex sucks for almost two thousand years before the first book was ever printed in the English language. It’s been well over five hundred years since that book was printed, and nothing much has changed.

Deus only knows how many not famous books are not famous because they suffered from this malady. Some famous novels do, too. The important thing to note is that those books’ fame is usually attributed to their other, more worthy aspects or the prior fame of the author. Criticisms usually point to those other aspects and note that the books are successful despite – and never because of – the crappy ending.

For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, Frodo and Sam are surrounded by an army of about two million evil minions inside a dark overlord’s volcano lair. Oh, yea, then the volcano starts to erupt. Pretty impossible situation, right? Apparently, because Tolkien couldn’t even think of a satisfactory solution to the problem.

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Yea, so, um, then giant eagles show up and fly them to safety. The end. Bad enough to undo the prior thousands of pages of epic Middle Earth storytelling? No. But in my entire life I have not heard one person say, “I love the part where the eagles just show up from out of nowhere and save them.” He also gets a bit of a pass because the real story conflict was already over. The ring was gone, Golem met his fate, the boys had accomplished their mission – the story was done. They just happened to end said story and mission in the middle of an evil overlord’s erupting volcano lair and surrounded by an evil army. Tolkien was just cheating to make the characters survive, not to complete the saga of the ring itself.

Why is Deus Ex so Bad?

I like to think of this in terms of investing. When readers enjoy a story, they are invested in the characters and the plot. Those things matter to them. The better job we do writing, the more invested they are. By the time we get to Act III, they have invested time, they are invested in the characters and the story, and they expect that investment to pay off.

Then a deus exey writer says “Forget all that, here’s something that has nothing to do with any of it. Story’s over, the end.”

Every moment spent investing in the story and the characters was wasted. Three hundred pages of learning about the situation and wondering how the characters could possibly get out of it were answered with: “They can’t, but they live happily ever after, anyway. The end.” Basically, it feels like the author is saying “Fuck you, it’s your fault you read the first 300 pages, because all that matters is the last one.”

More truthfully, though, a deus ex is the author’s admission that he painted himself into a corner. H.G. Wells told a great story in War of the Worlds, right up to the end. I’m sorry, but more advanced civilizations wiping out native populations are generally the ones with the nastiest bugs, not incapable of dealing with them. Stephen King, no stranger to writing himself into a corner, uses it in a very in-your-face way in the Dark Tower series, intervening as author/god and sending a note into his fictional world that actually says, “Here comes the deus ex machina.” Kurt Vonnegut did something similar in Breakfast of Champions.

 Is Deus Ex Always teh Suk?

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know my distaste for commentary about writing that uses “always” or “never.” Because my only “always” is that such commentary or advice is never true.

Deus ex has been used for comedic effect brilliantly. Monte Python uses it with abandon – A UFO showing up to rescue Brian after he fell off a cliff, characters being terrorized by an animated monster being saved when the animator keels over from a heart attack at his desk, a modern police raid ending the medieval battle – it’s one of their favorite devices. And they’re not the only ones:

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 Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (The writers hung a lampshade to protest the producers’ demand for a happy ending)

Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Drive is another wink at this device. The drive got its name from the fact that he’d painted himself into a corner, Ford and Arthur are floating in space without space suits and it was ridiculously improbable that any spaceship would come along and rescue them in time. Voila, the Infinite Improbability Drive is born.

In my opinion, William Golding’s ending to Lord of the Flies may be an acceptable use. The situation is hopeless, the protagonist is facing certain death, and then a naval officer shows up and stops the story in its tracks. It’s unquestionably a deus ex — even Golding called the ending a “gimmick.” But allowing the hero to prevail through some reasonable course of events would completely undermine the point Golding was trying to make. Plus, like Tolkien’s example, the deus ex was used there as a device for returning the characters to the normal world after the core story had completed. It was not offered up as a resolution of the core story.

Having said that, outside comedic uses or the need to put a stop to the slaughter of innocent children, deus ex is usually pretty bad. Like cholera is usually unpleasant and Fran Drescher’s laugh is slightly annoying. It is a symptom in Act III that you have severe problems with Acts I and II, and can unravel everything you’ve done in those acts with a single paragraph.

Outside parody, nobody sets out to write a deus ex ending. It’s a last, worst option. And there’s usually a better solution. If you’ve painted yourself into a corner and find yourself staring DoucheyZeus in the eye, you still have another option. Wait for the paint to dry, go borrow a gun from Anton Chekhov, and shoot the motherfucker in the face.

Which might give you a hint what my next topic will be.

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Writer Unfiltered

Filters are usually a good thing. The oil filter in your car makes the engine run better, the filter in your heater cleans the air you breathe, and the filter on your fish tank makes it look like this:

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Yay, filters!

In writing, though, “filters” are considered bad things. Filtering words are words that put a layer between the story and the reader. For example, “He watched a bolt of lightening strike the tree” is a filtered version of “Lightning struck the tree.” By “filtered,” in this example, I mean shitty.

So, how is this kind of filter bad when every other kind of filter is good? Easy, filter words aren’t really filter words. Filters clean things so they’re pure. Filter words are impurities. Not only are they misnamed, the name is the opposite of what they are. The story isn’t “filtered” by needlessly passing it through someone’s perspective, it’s cluttered by doing so. They shouldn’t be called filter words at all. They should be called: Words that prove my fucking filter broke and now my writing looks like this:

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Boo words that prove my fucking filter broke!

I realize they’re called “filter words” because they pass the action through a character’s perspective before it gets to the reader. The problem I have with the term is, just dragging something through something else and adding impurities is not filtering. Straining a glass of water through a pile of horseshit is just a way to add horseshit to your water. It’s not a filter.

We’ll start with the easy part: Identifying horseshit words that prove the fucking filter’s broke

I’m going to start with a list, right after I warn you about it. As far as it goes, it’s a decent list of (for lack of a better term that isn’t eight words long) filter words. It’s in past-tense because, well, I write fiction in past tense. If you use present, tweak it. As a filter-word filter, this list isn’t bad. It won’t catch them all (because there are no limits to the ways we can add horseshit to our writing) but it catches the overwhelming majority in my writing. I don’t write “He itched for another glass of tea” often enough to include “itched” on the list. When editing, I still see “itched” as a variant of “wanted” and know I’m filtering. So, long story short, the list has limitations.

Here is my list of horseshit words that prove the fucking filter’s broke.

Assumed
Believed
Could
Decided
Felt
Heard
Looked
Noted
Noticed
Realized (This is my personal Achilles’ heel)
Saw
Seemed
Sounded
Thought
Watched
Wondered

What do you do with a list of horseshit words?

Whatever you want to. It was a gift. I’ll tell you what I do, but that has a lot to do with how I like to edit myself. I’m a big fan of using the search function as an editing tool. I will go through a completed manuscript and look at every word ending in “ly” to see if it’s an adverb and, if so, whether I need a stronger verb or can just cut it. I also go through my manuscript and look at each word on that list. I look at the sentence, decide whether it’s “filtering” or not and, if it is, decide whether it needs to stay. I do it with the root (e.g., “wonder”) so I catch not only “wonder,” and “wondered,” but also “wondering.” Some, like “saw” require separate searches (“see”).

On the one hand, this is a huge fucking pain in my ass. Going through 100,000 words and looking at every use of “saw,” “see,” “seeing,” and “seen” is time consuming and tedious. On the other hand, I think the search function forces us to stop on things that we would otherwise miss in our writing. You can’t gloss over something without noticing it when it’s highlighted in yellow. When I’m stopped like that, I find I’m much more objective about my sentences.

But, whether you use the list as something to keep in mind when writing or something to keep in mind when editing or something to plug into the search function to look at individually — or, like me, shoot for all three — a list is a decent starting point.

What shouldn’t you do with a list of horseshit words?

Think of it as a list of horseshit words, for starters.

  • Not all uses of those words are filtering. “The prisoner watched the searchlight sweep the yard, timing his sprint.” He needs to watch the light to make his break. The significance here is not the light’s sweeping, it is the act of watching it. Watching is the key action in the sentence. As a general rule, when the filtering word is also the key action, it’s not filtering. If your story is about a cult brainwashing someone, that character finally “believing” may be the story’s inciting event. Inciting events are not horseshit.
  • Not all filtering is bad (the gray area). I’m editing a beautiful literary piece right now, and the opening scene is a woman giving birth under a mosquito net in Nigeria, Her anesthesia is a stick they gave her to bite down on. If every sentence was “she felt this” and “she felt that,” well, for starters I wouldn’t have just described it as beautiful. Considering the nature of the scene, the number of filter words is impressively small. This is admittedly in a gray area between non-filtering and filtering uses, because what she’s feeling is central to the chapter. The deft use of a light hand with the filtering though, clarified the picture (truly filtering it) instead of obscuring. Even by Nigerian mosquito net standards, this birth does not go well, and the pain is largely described as pain, not her “feeling” pain. So on those occasions when we are told what she feels, it draws us in instead of pushing us away.
  • Some filtering is good (the lesser of two evils). Filtering is often a way of avoiding the much, much bigger sin of head-hopping. Comparing the two in a legal context, filtering is like a speeding ticket — you can get away with it once in a while, but if you do it much, you’ll get caught. Do it too often, you may even lose your license. Head-hopping, on the other hand, is like using a chainsaw to decapitate nuns. Absent the zombie apocalypse, once is too often. Used with a light hand, filtering can give the benefits of head hopping without requiring you to fire up the chainsaw. Instead of hopping from one’s mind to another’s to convey “God I hate being hit on in bars,” you can stay with the first person and convey the second’s thoughts: “She looked weary, not leery. He realized she wasn’t afraid of being hit on, she was sick of it.” Without breaking POV, filtering lets you effectively communicate a second person’s thoughts. This application may be the most accurate use of the term, because you are filtering a second POV through your POV character to share the information without breaking POV. Although I still wouldn’t call it “filtering.” Let’s call that move “POV laundering.”

How Important Is a Good Query, Anyway?

Whenever my mom was upset, she cleaned the house. If I heard the vacuum when I walked up to the front door after school, I’d often head over to my friend Jamie’s house and call home to say they invited me to dinner and ask if I could stay. My mom was (is) a wonderful woman, and it’s not like I feared for my wellbeing or anything, but that sound told me she’d be grumpier than hell. It made no sense to me at the time.

Then I grew up.

The company I worked for shut down a few years ago. In the midst of job-hunting, it became inexplicably important for me to clean out my garage – as in empty all contents, scrub every shelf top-to-bottom clean the crap out of it, clean out my garage. It felt good. When I was done, I felt good. Sending resumes into the ether may be a necessary part of job-hunting, but at the end of a typical day you either have nothing to look at or you’re looking at rejection. That day, I was able to look at a garage you could perform surgery in. I had accomplished something tangible. I had control over something – maybe not my job search, but something.

Then my mom made sense.

For writers, I think honing query letters is a combination of sending out resumes and cleaning out the garage. There’s a lot we don’t have much control over. The process is daunting. It’s also intimidating. But the query – that’s something we have some control over. So we obsess on it, honing it into 247 words of absolute perfection, knowing that it is the ticket to publication. Except, it’s not.

A great manuscript is the ticket to publication. Good query letters are helpful, in that they increase the odds that an agent will look at our manuscripts. Great query letters aren’t a whole lot better than good ones, and a perfect query letter is no better than a great one. But, as I’ve said before, once an agent reads the first sentence of your manuscript, the query letter has done its job. There might be a slight hangover from a great (or bad) query, with the agent expecting, and therefore being predisposed to think, that your manuscript will be good (or bad) because of your query, but even that’s going to be gone after a couple of pages.

Former literary agent Nathan Brandsford (whose blog you should take a look at to learn all sorts of things about querying and such), held contest called “Be an Agent for a Day” a few years ago. He mixed real queries from bestselling novels in with queries people had submitted to his blog to see how many readers could pick out the “winners.” The results were interesting (which is why I linked to them), but the layer right under the results was fascinating. Here is one of the queries:

Dear Agent for a Day:

I have been seriously writing for nearly two years and am a finalist in fourteen RWA contests with twelve different books, including second place in the Daphne du Maurier Single Title category. THE COPYCAT KILLER ranked second in the Golden Opportunity contest. I’m a member of the Sacramento Valley, Kiss of Death and FF&P Chapters of RWA, and earned my PRO pin.

Why do some children grow up evil? That is the timeless question addressed in THE COPYCAT KILLER.

Ex-FBI agent turned fiction crime writer Rowan Smith wakes up one morning to discover someone is using her books as blueprints for murder.

Her former FBI boss fears one of her past arrests is out to terrorize her and insists she hire a bodyguard, or he’ll assign two FBI agents to watch her. Rowan, who relishes her privacy and solitary life, doesn’t want a bodyguard, but reluctantly hires ex-cop Michael Flynn.

The killer systematically goes through each book and chooses a victim, sending mementoes of the crime to Rowan. Michael’s brother, freelance DEA agent John Flynn, accuses Rowan of hiding something and calls in favors to learn enough to confront her. She confesses that her father and brother killed her family. Her father is in a mental institution and her brother was killed trying to escape. They fall into bed needing a physical connection. The murderer kills Michael that night.

John and Rowan deal with their guilt over Michael’s murder as they work with the FBI to find the murderer. They discover that Rowan’s boss lied to her about her brother’s death–he’s in a Texas penitentiary. But when they go there to confront him, they discover that someone took his place.

THE COPYCAT KILLER is a 100,000 word suspense novel with romantic elements, in the vein of Iris Johansen, Lisa Gardner and Tami Hoag.

In addition to THE COPYCAT KILLER, I have two additional single-title romantic suspense novels, a futuristic suspense currently under consideration at Dorchester, and a women’s fiction novel with a ghost as a main character.

A full is available upon request. Thank you for taking the time to consider my story.

Sincerely,
Author

Two key points here. First, this is the query for the novel THE PREY by Allison Brennan. Second, from a technical standpoint, it pretty much sucks. I have no problems talking about how much her query (from a technical querying standpoint) sucks, because I doubt she cares. Which is more or less my point.

The first paragraph has nothing to do with the book, and basically tells us that she has cranked out a mountain of unpublished romance novels and is proud that she belongs to a club. Then she hits us with a rhetorical question, and follows that by telling us that she just asked us a timeless question.

After boring the crap out of us with a bio and committing the cardinal sin of querying (starting with a rhetorical question) she finally gets to her hook. That’s where the query suddenly stops sucking. It’s a pretty good idea for a book. She obviously had to cut and cram to get the basic arc into the number of words she had (although she cheeted, it’s about 100 words longer than a query is supposed to be).

While plenty of agents rejected her query, few, if any, rejected it solely because it sucked. Because, let’s face it, the blurb part doesn’t. It combines two different things that sell books (FBI serial killer hunts and romance novels), covers enough plot twists and straight-up romance to easily pack 100,000 words with interesting stuff, and is written pretty well. Plus there’s sex. Yay, sex.

Being honest, I’m almost certain I would have rejected it if I’d been playing Nathan’s game. Partially because the query was so crappy and largely because, if I were an agent, I wouldn’t be that excited about this particular idea (I can recognize its marketability, but the person selling it has to be interested in the romance writer, romance, and sex angles, which I am not). The phrase “not the right fit for my list” is not (always) a polite way of saying you suck. Some books are, legitimately, not the right fit for that agent.

Even then, I’d be tempted to peek at the pages she included. There’s a reason this query led to a 20+ novel (so far) career. It’s a pretty good idea for a story.

So that’s what puts the “perfect query” dream into perspective. Nathan’s take on it is spot-on:

But more importantly, I think this contest goes to show how people may have overemphasized the query itself when they were playing agents. The queries that generated the highest response rate were the most technically precise. They were tidy, they were well-organized, they followed the rules. They were good queries (and some of them may go on to have success stories of their own). But this wasn’t a contest to spot the best queries.

When an agent is reading a query we’re trying to look past the query to get a sense of the underlying book. We’re evaluating the concept and the writing, not ticking off a box of requirements. I don’t reject people solely because they start with rhetorical questions or their word count isn’t quite right or they break one of the query “rules”. I can’t afford to do that. Nor do I request pages for a book that has a perfect query but whose underlying concept is flawed.

A good concept and strong writing are more important than good query form.

Now, a strong query helps your odds and your request rate, which is why we blogging agents spend so much time talking about the “rules”. It really does help your odds to write a good one. When people are writing good queries it helps us spot the good projects. But remember: the most important thing is not writing a good query, but rather writing a good book. A strong concept is so important.

A good query will get you only so far. Specifically, it will get the first sentence of your manuscript read by an agent. That’s it. Then it’s done.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying you shouldn’t send out a perfect query. There’s no reason not to, and it certainly can’t hurt. The key thing to remember in all of this, though, is that a query is there to demonstrate how interesting your manuscript is, not how good you are at querying.

Are there agents who will stop reading if the first sentence is a rhetorical question? Sure. About half of the agents Allison Brennan queried took a pass, maybe even one or two for that reason. But about half of them didn’t pass – and that’s despite the fact that (aside from her blurb) her query was truly awful. And the fact is, with that story, she could have probably been in the 75% or better request range with a better query.

But the moral of the story is: Her premise was solid, her book was marketable, and she lived happily ever after.

For the rest of us – getting from half to three quarters or higher can be critical. More critical if having a really solid query gets us from 25% to 50% and throws a few extra agents into the mix who might be willing to spend some time working with your not-quite, but potentially, publishable manuscript.

It certainly can’t hurt.

And it beats the hell out of cleaning the garage on New Year’s Eve.

Happy New Year!

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)

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