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 “fiction writing”

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

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

700s           Arts & Recreation

796             Athletic and outdoor sports

796.5          Outdoor life

796.54        Camping

796.545      Camping Games & Activities

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT IS GENRE?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Author’s Note and Request to Readers

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

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

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Mooky’s Liebster Post

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

What’s a Liebster?

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

Valarie’s Eleven Questions

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

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

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

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

3.  What’s your favorite book and why?

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

4.  What time of day do you usually write?

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

5.  Do you prefer libraries or bookstores?

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

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

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

7.  What are your muses?

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

8.  What kind of genre do you read?

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

9.  Who’s the best character ever written?

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

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

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

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

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

I only sleep four to six hours a day.

Eleven Facts About me

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

 

Here’s where I break the rules…

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

The space below

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

http://rochelledeans.wordpress.com/

http://bethellynsummer.com/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus, get yourself some damn betas

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, here’s everything I think about ABC Relationshipstm

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

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.

The Post in Which I Answer the Question: “What’s With all the F-Bombs?”

I’ll start with the cliché about the leopard not being able to change its spots. That doesn’t have anything to do with my frequent use of profanity. It explains why, when I sat down to say “here’s why I like to occasionally say ‘fuck,’” I lost an hour of my day reading fascinating articles written by linguistic anthropologists about that and similar words.

None of which have a fucking thing to do with the topic at hand.

 

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The F-Bomb and Me, a personal history

I have two uncles on my dad’s side of the family. One was a contractor, the other was the bartender at the Irish Center in San Francisco. Both were Irish immigrants and, as far as I know, neither ever uttered a sentence that didn’t contain at least one F-bomb. That doesn’t explain anything about my use of such language, it just shows how I was introduced to it – probably in conjunction with my initial language acquisition skills as a toddler. “Fuck,” “fucking,” “motherfucker,” and “cocksucker” were what my uncles said instead of “um.” If they otherwise would have said “um” a lot.

[They also got me drunk the first (several) times and I tend to slip into an Irish brogue if I’ve had too many, though that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.]

My parents, on the other hand, do not cuss. I don’t remember having a conversation with my parents about my uncles’ version of “um,” although I’m certain I did. I would remember being sent home from kindergarten for asking some cocksucker to pass me a motherfucking crayon, and that did not happen.

Some years later, when I was around ten, my friends and I discovered those words anew, peppering our sentences with them as liberally as my uncles ever had. Of course, that was only when we were alone, unobserved, and certainly far, far away from our parents’ ears. I’m sure we did it to impress each other and younger kids, to feel “grownup,” and for a host of other reasons that tend to evaporate after dropping ten or twenty thousand F-bombs.

By the time I was in high school, in the right company and circumstances, I wouldn’t hesitate to use profanities for emphasis. For the next ten years or so, those lines were primarily generational. I seldom swore in front of someone my parents’ age, but had no problem doing it with someone my age or younger. Circumstances matter, too. I wouldn’t drop an F-bomb in front of anyone if I was, say, in a church, but I’d probably be willing to say “shit” on a racquetball court or by a campfire even if my companion were Mother Teresa.

This all seemed natural, and I never gave it any thought. Then I had kids.

Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming need to censor my language in front of not only members of my parents’ generation, but also my children’s. Which is ironic as hell, because I will never have as many conversations with anyone about the subjects of shit and piss as I’d had with each of my children by the time they were three. Granted, the vernacular was different (“potty,” “tinkle,” “poopie,” etc.), but shit is shit, whatever you call it, and we were literally talking shit to each other several times a day for years.

Cussing at the Office

Around the same time I was constantly talking shit, er, poopies, with my kids, I was also earning my chops in my professional life, where I was introduced to cussing at a different level. First, becoming a “grownup” meant that people ten, twenty, or forty years older than me were now my peers. I was practicing law, which meant I had to at least pretend I was the peer of every opposing lawyer I dealt with, even if he (and the ones that old were all “he”) was forty years my senior. Being the frustrated linguist I really am, that’s also when I started paying close attention to how people were using swear words. I noticed that people who cussed in this context fell into three groups:

  • Buster Blowhard. He’s one tough motherfucker. You know this, because he is constantly saying what a tough motherfucker he is. He might as well have “Super Insecure and Overcompensating” tattooed on his forehead. I say “he” because, while I am absolutely certain there are female versions of this, I have not done business with one yet.
  • The Casual Cusser. Talks to everyone (or at least most people) like they’re all in a high school gym together. Takes no offense to profanity also assumes you don’t give a shit. Doesn’t really put any thought into it.
  • The Strategic Swearer. Appears not to use any profane or inappropriate language whatsoever. When it’s time to call bullshit on something, the word “bullshit” silences a room.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any who reads this blog that, among my friends, I am a Casual Cusser. Professionally, though, I am squarely in the Strategic Swearer group. So much so, that most people who only know me professionally may be inclined to think I don’t swear at all.

While I’m a Casual Cusser much of the time, I have to admit, the Strategic Swearer is BY FAR more fun. Swearing is all about how much power we give words, and being the Strategic Swearer lets me manipulate them like a power-mad comic book villain.

My favorite example is a deal I’d worked on for six months, never venturing south of the word “darned.” A new lawyer came onboard with the other side and started trying to jerk things around. After three days of this, I stood up and told him he was “pissing all over everything we had worked on for six months.” Then I told his client to contact my client directly if he was more interested in doing the deal than playing “bullshit games.”

Before the meeting, I told my client “start getting ready to walk out if I say the word ‘piss.’ If I say the word ‘shit,’ stand up immediately. Don’t talk to anyone.” He did, we left, and before the elevator arrived to take us downstairs, the deal was back on track. If I’d been saying “shit” this and “fuck” that for the prior six months, those words would have had almost no power. Coming as they did, though, they were powerful enough to make the person representing the other company go – quite literally – pale.

As I watched the blood drain from his face, all I could think was, If I said he was tinkling on the deal and they were playing games with cow poopies, IT WOULD HAVE MEANT THE SAME FUCKING THING.

Where That Power Comes From

It would have meant the same thing — and it wouldn’t have at the same time. That’s the amazing thing about swear words.  Their context is their meaning. The meaning of any given swear word happens somewhere between: (1) the speaker’s use of the word and (2) the listener’s feelings (a) about the word generally and (b) how the word is being used at that moment. As writers, we can look at it as the ultimate exercise in usage and cognitive construction, because the true meaning to the listener does not have one fucking thing to do with the literal word we are using.

You can see the same thing on the opposite end of the spectrum, too. We have a huge Mormon population where I live. They never (ever, which is to say, at least not when another Mormon is around) say the word “fuck.” Which makes sense, because Mormons are notoriously proper, well-mannered people (particularly so if another Mormon is around). Go watch a Mormon basketball game – don’t ask me, basketball seems to be a significant aspect of their religion. You’ll hear the word “screw” and “screwed” thrown around with abandon. And it’s being used exactly when and how the F-bomb would be dropped by someone comfortable with dropping F-bombs.

They say a word that means the same thing. They say it in the same context. They say it with the same intent. The only fucking difference is the significance they have subjectively given that word as far as it’s “badness.” Fuck is bad because – and only because – they have decided it’s bad. Screw, which fucking means “Fuck,” for fuck’s sake, is fine, because — well, it’s not “Fuck.”

And I don’t mean to pick on Mormons, here. They’re just a convenient example. The same is true for all of us. Or, should I say, Every Fucking One Of Us. There’s nothing wrong with it. We have the friends we tell “I’ve gotta take a piss” and the friends we tell we “need to go to the bathroom.” There are people we ask for the “restroom,” and we may tell a three year old we “need to go potty.” Almost all of which we do without thinking twice – it’s a natural part of our language.

So, why do I cuss on this blog?

Because you’re the friends I tell “I’ve gotta take a piss.” 🙂

Properly used (if that isn’t an oxymoron in this context), I think swear words are a more effective way of placing emphasis than the main alternative, an exclamation point. For me, they are also the more honest – this blog is about the most unfiltered (and unrefined) version of my “voice” imaginable. This is what I sound like in my internal monologue and when I am speaking to my closest friends. In other contexts, there is some form of filter – usually so ingrained it’s subconscious – making decisions about the propriety or utility of those words.

Which is one of the reasons I think I love blogging so much. In here, I don’t have to give a fuck.

The Innate Talent Question: Thus Spake Überdouche

Well, the Talent Wars have flared up again. The fight over how much “talent” is a factor in a person’s writing ability almost invariably gets ugly. And, if you scratch the surface, it’s pretty easy to see why.

I try not to be a complete asshole when interacting with people, whether on the internet or standing in line at the airport. It’s usually not all that hard. When this issue comes up, though, I have to consciously restrain myself. If we were in a bar, there would be a fight. This argument flat out pisses me off.

There’s a legitimate reason this pisses me off, and it goes beyond the standard, frustrating internet discourse loop:

Opinion –> Counter Opinion, with supporting evidence –> Opinion stated more strongly –> I’m not making this up, here’s a journal article with metadata –> Opinion stated angrily –> Look, there’s no reason to get angry –> Name calling.

On this issue, it’s all I can do to stop from being the angry, name calling part of that equation. This is unlike most internet shitstorms — I couldn’t give a fuck whether you outline or not, as long as you don’t state inaccurate facts or tell other people they are doing it wrong. On this issue, I am personally invested in the very real impact of the discourse itself. Not because I lay awake at night questioning my own talents (I sleep just fine, not giving a damn whether I have any talent). But there are some kids (which I mean literally, high school aged) who I coach and mentor and care about, who do worry about that kind of shit. Often, kids with emotional issues (way beyond the issues we all have at that age) and family situations that are dicey as shit. Not uncommonly, having spent a lifetime being told they’re worthless pieces of shit.

Nobody else will ever be able to convince them they are wonderful, not worthless. They have to decide that for themselves. And I’ve seen it happen – almost miraculously, and well over half the time. A bit of encouragement leads to a shred of success that leads to increased interest that results in a bit more success, more work/practice, more success, until the kid finally looks around and thinks “Holy shit, I’m one of the best people in the state, region, or country at something. I’m GOOD at this.”

Want to make sure that kid stays down? Tell her at the outset that whether she can be good at something is determined by some cosmic special sauce she either was or wasn’t born with. Because if there’s anything the parents, school system, sometime even the foster care and or juvenile justice system have taught a lot of these kids, it’s that they were filled with useless shit when everyone else was getting special sauce. They’ve never had success at anything, so that seems true. Why bother?

The hardest thing to get those kids to do is realize that they can control outcomes. That they can use dedication and learned skills — even their own horrific experiences — to compensate for other kids’ supportive backgrounds, loving parents, and douchey prep school blazers. I can think of no better way to keep a kid like that down than to tell her “it’s not up to you, it just depends on whether you got sprinkled with magic faery dust when your were born.” Or wherever the fuck “talent” is supposed to come from.

There’s another, less horrible, but almost laughably arrogant, statement implied in that as well. Let’s see, you’re a member of a writing community and are working on a novel and/or have completed other novels. You believe that only certain people have been graced by the cosmos with a limited-edition gift that gives them a (quite literally) God-given right to be better writers than lesser humans who merely work hard to learn and hone their craft. Gee, any chance you think you fit into that category of cosmically blessed, divinely graced, faerie-dust sprinkled literary Übermensch?

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Yea, you can go fuck yourself about that. I’ll take a kid who was told she was mentally retarded for the first nine years of her life. The kid who was on so many medications, she was basically stoned from kindergarten through middle school. Straighten that kid’s meds out, give her a decent work ethic, and I’ll take her over you and your “talent” every fucking day.  Überdouche.

So, is talent a factor?

Meh. Maybe, at the extreme top levels of performance. As is so often the case with these things, the real answer is: Who gives a fuck? There could be some brain chemistry going on that would separate the Nobel-level writers from, say, Vonnegut. Maybe even separating Vonnegut from Elmore Leonard. The latter being such a nuts-and-bolts writer, coming up through the magazine then pulp/genre writing career path, that I doubt he’d attribute his success (or even the brilliance of some of his writing, which, at times, is brilliant) to any kind of cosmic special sauce. I know scores of people who actually write better than Dan Brown, though he does a good job of coming up with a story. The same is true of Stephanie Meyer. If “talent” is really a thing that results in great writing, I wouldn’t say either of them got much. But they both came up with great stories to tell that people wanted to read. Which is what makes them gazillionaire writers.

There are a lot of factors, and how each plays into a given person’s success is going to vary. An encouraging childhood with a lot of practice is not an option for a kid with illiterate and abusive parents, so that kid’s level of interest will have to be far greater to land her even close to the same place. But, one way or the other, some cocktail of several issues is going to be at play:

  • Practice — Whatever you want to call it. Dedication, hard work, the willingness to study and improve, writing a million words or for ten thousand hours or whatever.
  • Interest level — Someone obsessed with a subject at age five is probably going to be one of the world’s leading experts on that thing if she remains obsessed until she’s 50.
  • Childhood and adolescent environment – this, more than anything, is what I think gets mislabeled as “talent.” There are also mountains of data on this, since we standardize test the hell out of kids. Is there a single factor that will heavily influence how well kids do on the English portion of the SAT, ACT, or any of the elementary basic skills tests? Hells yes — their parents’ median income. That predicts the outcome on standardized tests so well, we could probably save ourselves a lot of time and money and just score kids based on their parents’ W-2s.  In a trial to calculate the damages (lost future earnings) of a child who was killed or permanently impaired, trial economists on both sides rely primarily on one consideration. The parents’ education levels. Not their income, jobs, criminal histories, color, whether they’re married or divorced, or anything else. The parent’s education level correlates to future earnings even more than the kids own grades and test scores. That’s how much childhood environment eventually plays out (statistically) in your future.
  • Opportunity/luck — right place/right time, or whatever you want to call it. I have an accountant friend who was assigned Microsoft as a client at his first job at an accounting firm (because Microsoft was a ten employee company and did not have a full time accountant yet). A friend from college was a limo driver in Vegas with an idea for a TV show about Crime Scene Investigation units, who lucked into a chance to pitch his idea to Jerry Bruckheimer. In big and little/good and bad ways, I don’t think this can be ignored as a factor.

Those are all things that happen before you get to the idea that someone is somehow predestined to be wonderful at something or imbued by God or Zeus or whoever with some magical gift. Since syntaptic connections in our brains are ridiculously flexible during the first 5 years of life, I think a lot of what we are calling “innate” is anything but. I don’t have a special debate gene, but I have a ten-year-old daughter whose favorite weekend activity is going with me to judge debate rounds, which she’s been doing since she was four. If Joyce Carol Oats was extremely close to her father and he was a Volleyball coach/former captain of the Olympic Volleyball Team, you think she’d have won the National Book Award for Them, or do you think she’d be one of the great women’s volleyball coaches of all time?

  • Talent? Meh. Fine. There is probably some ideal combination of chemical and environmental factors that would make someone who worked at least as hard as someone else, and who had at least as much exposure and support, and who had at least as much luck marginally better. To some people, anyway. Since writing is subjective, the differences are bound to cut both ways with some readers. So, even then, it’s going to be a matter of opinion whether that “talent” thing went with writer A or writer B. Which shows how unbelievably stupid the whole argument is in the first place.

The Bottom Line

1)      Tell a kid who appears to suck at everything she does when she’s 14 (because she sucks at everything she does when she’s 14) that she needs cosmic special sauce to be good at something, I may well punch you in the throat.

2)      If you want to walk around believing you have been imbued by the cosmos with special writing sauce, go for it. But it’s probably best to keep that a secret. By which I mean, we don’t really want to hear about it. Like you probably don’t want to hear how much of a douche I think you are.

3)      When someone shows me a writer who has diligently worked to hone her craft for ten years who cannot rise to the literary level of Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer (I’m talking literary level, not commercial success), I’ll worry about talent. Until then, I am going to keep reading, writing, and reading.

Brief update to add a new source:

Just tagging this on, because researching my next post (the impact of the type of music you listen to on tasks like editing), I ran across another article basically debunking the “talent” myth. It’s from American Psychologist, and is available free, courtesy of M.I.T.:

http://web.mit.edu/6.969/www/readings/expertise.pdf

The Story/Plot Disambiguation Page

The Concept Was Simple (then writers started talking about it)

No concept is more basic to fiction writing than the concept of a story. After all, that’s the whole freaking point. We’re out to tell a story. The tricky part is telling a story well, which is to say interestingly. That’s what the plot is for. At its core, that is the difference between story and plot.

Story: Everything that’s happening in your fictional world, on or off stage, known or unknown to your POV character at any given time. It is the whole of the “real world” in your made up world.

Plot: The events that actually happen in front of the reader.

Put more simply, the difference is

Story: All the shit that matters, whether or not anyone actually sees it or does it.

Plot: All the shit – and, more importantly, only the shit – that your characters and/or narrator see and/or do.

This is an incredibly simple concept. Like most simple writing concepts, writers have written about it so much, and thrown around so many opinions about it, and felt so compelled to opine grandly about it, that it’s now completely fucked up. We have books and blogs telling people that story is the emotional journey, while plot is the physical journey. Print books that say, “story tells you what happened” (OK so far) and “plot is why it happened” (and then you fucked it up).

Don’t get me wrong, there are more nuanced and insightful concepts here, particularly with regard to plot. The problem is, many writers, including some creative writing teachers, seem to have come in on the tail end of the nuanced discussion, decided that’s what plot means, and confuse that nuance for a definition. Usually ending up with a definition that comes very close to being the opposite of what it should be.

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So we’re not going to do it that way. It’s a hell of a lot easier to put the horse in front of the cart, and nail the principal distinction first.

Story: A man drives to the store and buys whipping cream.

Plot: A man has a pint of fresh strawberries and decides he wants some whipped cream to go with them. He backs his car out of the garage, drives to the end of his street, and makes a right. He reaches a stoplight and, when it turns green, makes a left into the store parking lot. He parks his car, goes to the dairy case and finds heavy whipping cream is on sale. He buys a carton and pays at the self-checkout.

That’s the difference. The story is an event (or, in a novel, a whole series of events). The plot is the thought and the action that describe the event. End of (hehe) story.

The Story of Story and Plot

We can get a little help here from etymology. We get the word “story” from, not surprisingly, the word “history.” First to the Greeks and then in Latin, the word came down as “historia.” It was initially “a chronicle of events,” meaning real ones, but in 1500, the word “story” came to include recounting of fictional events. The function was the same. A story is the basic, underlying  historical event, even if it’s a made up history about vampires or intergalactic warriors. It only has one timeframe, which is the order in which the events occurred. Nothing but the chronology of events matters.

Plot has a fittingly murky history (the plot thickens). It’s possible that we get the word from the middle French word “complot” (which means a conspiracy). It also derives (or complot is related to) plot, as in plot of land, which may or may not be related to plat (which is a map of said plots, although sometimes plot also meant map). In 1901 philologist, Walter William Skeat boldly predicted, “When the words complot, platform and plot (of ground) have all been thoroughly worked out, we may be confident that the mode of formation of plot a conspiracy will appear.”

Apparently, Bill and I are the only people who get geeked out on this stuff enough to care, because nobody’s gotten around to working it out. And it gets even weirder if you try to go earlier than Billy W did, possibly coming to complot via comepeloter, a really, really old fucking word that means roll a ball.

The funny thing is, no matter where it comes from, it still means the same thing when it comes to plotting stories. It is a plan, overview, map, or conspiracy. Or, I guess, the shit that gets the ball rolling, which is probably the best definition of all.

One way or the other, by about 1580, plot meant to plan or map. So, before 1600, we have:

Story: A chronology of events.

Plot: A map or scheme.

Which means we just took the simple answer and made it simpler. And probably more accurate. It’s fairly easy to look at questions of story and plot realizing that, at their base they simply mean these things. A guy goes to the store is story. He has to make a right out of his subdivision to get there is plot.

So, How’d it Get all Fucked Up?

Writers did it. It started with E. M. Forster, a genius at plotting. In 1927, he gave a series of lectures, which were later published as Aspects of a Novel. The thing is, Forster nailed it, and his explanation is brilliant. Unfortunately, his example seems to be the only thing anyone paid attention to.

The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.

In the context of his lecture, it’s a great example. Cut out and isolated, it leads to people stating, then repeating, the wrong premise. “The queen died of grief” is not the plot because it tells why she died. It is the plot because that is the character’s experience in the story. It has nothing to do with cause and effect or action/reaction or any of the other things people have spent ninety years saying plot means. It’s the plot because, instead of turning a left to get whipped cream, she turned dead because she was grieving.

In the same lecture, Forster said, “A plot demands intelligence and memory on the part of the reader, to remember incidents and create connecting threads between them.” It’s ironic, because a significant minority, if not the majority, of the people who use his analysis seem to lack said intelligence and memory, because they keep forgetting the fucking connection he was making.

Cause and effect is a huge component of plot, story couldn’t care less about either. Motivations often drive characters’ actions, which usually drive plots, but that does not make those motivations the plot. It’s just that motivations are not the story. The story is: A happened, then B happened, then C happened. Even if you choose to start your story at C, then drop back to B and only tell A through flashbacks, the story remains the same. First A, then B, then C. You are making decisions about your plot, how and when you make those things happen and reveal them to the reader with flashbacks and out-of-sequence narrative. None of that changes the story one bit.

For example, the story in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather starts with Vito Corleone’s father being killed and Vito fleeing to the U.S. He is a shop clerk, meets a shady friend, hates being ripped off by a mobster, and becomes one himself. Although the book starts long after he’s reached the pinnacle of power and not long before his death, the Story starts at a very different time and in a very different place. Because a story is always chronological, even if the plot is not.

Back to Simple Stuff that Makes Sense

If you think of your novel as a play, plot is the stuff that happens on the stage. If it doesn’t happen on the stage, it is not part of the plot. A nuclear explosion may be central to the story you are telling – and therefore be a key story element – but it probably isn’t happening on the stage. So it’s not part of the plot. Your characters hearing about or reacting to it, because that is what happens on stage, may be less important to the story than the explosion, but it is far more important to the plot. Because those reactions are the plot.

When you hear someone begin to explain the difference between plot and story with talk about how vague, nuanced, or theoretical the differences are, your bullshit meter should start going off. If it’s within the chronological list of events you are relating in your book, it’s story. If it happens onstage, it’s plot. A lot of things are both, like buying the whipped cream. It’s key to the story, it also took place on the stage, so it fits both definitions. If a thermonuclear war starts while the man is buying his whipped cream, it could be key to the story, but it will only become part of the plot when something related to it shows up on stage. Making a right out of the parking lot to head back home is a plot element, but that act, in itself, is not story.

That’s about all there is to it.

Gun Control with Anton Chekhov

First, fair warning, I’m Anton Chekov’s bitch.

In my opinion, few writers have provided good advice as consistently as Anotn Chekhov. He primarily wrote plays and short stories, but I’m not sure anyone has explained the key elements of fiction writing as well. He seems to have tapped into a blend of science and art that afforded him the humility of an artist and a scientist’s (or professional athlete’s) understanding of the process that created the art. He was not a “I just sit down and fluffy butterflies come out of my ass” writer. He was a “I have worked hard to understand this process, and this is what I have learned” writer. Which is a boon for me, because I don’t tend to have fluffy butterflies coming out of my ass. Even if I did, I would still want to know how the hell they got there.

By far, Chekhov’s most famous writing advice relates to the famous Chekhov’s gun. Advice he appears to have given in many forms and with different phrasing, sometimes referring to acts of a play, other times to chapters of a book, and still others to placement in a story. It isn’t apocryphal – Chekhov said it – but he said it many times in many ways. To novelists, it’s best put:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The end.

Seriously, that is where a blog post on Chekhov’s gun should end. I mean, he’s right. We should be shoehorning 150,000 words of STORY into 100,000 words. 500 words about room décor or intricate descriptions of clothing should get axed on the first edit if they don’t move the STORY forward. It’s a simple concept, it’s true, and I sure as fuck can’t say it better than he did, so the “what a Chekhov’s gun is” part of this post has now concluded.

Related Concepts

There are a few ways to play with Chekhov’s gun beyond, “don’t spend two pages describing your protag’s car unless there’s going to be a car chase or he’ll be buried alive in it later.”

1)    Turning off the turd machine

As indicated in my last post, there is a beautiful interplay between stashing Chekhov’s guns and avoiding deus ex machina (a/k/a turd machines). Deus ex endings are those with a combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) an improbable, intervening force. By telling us when not to hang a rifle on the wall, Mr. Chekhov impliedly tells us when one should be there. Put another way, Chekhov’s guns can change crappy “I didn’t see that coming” endings into riveting, reader doing a face/palm, “I should have seen that coming” endings.

In fact, when people disagree about whether an ending was really a deus ex, it boils down to whether the author did a good enough job stashing Chekhov’s guns earlier in the book. In a discussion over at QueryTracker about my deus ex post, one of my friends from that board said she’d never considered the end of Lord of the Flies deus ex, because using a signal fire to attract ships was discussed significantly in the beginning of the book. Because of that, a ship being attracted by the fire the wild boys set was, at least somewhat, foreshadowed. Similarly, another pointed out that Tolkien mentioned the eagles throughout, and they had and helped Gandalf escape Saruman’s tower, so that might not be a deus ex. To me, that’s just serial use of a deus ex device, which does not make it less deus exey, but the response still highlights the interplay between DoucheyZeus and Chekhov. To the extent a reasonable argument can be made that either is not a deus ex, it is because of a gun hanging on the wall in Chapter One.

I’m not saying this would, necessarily, make either book better, but what if that gun were more obviously hanging there? If three paragraphs were added to Lord of the Flies from the bridge of a ship patrolling the area near the island, the appearance of the naval officer would suddenly be much less deus exey. If the little barefoot dudes in Lord of the Rings had a conversation with the Dumbledor looking dude about how the Eagles would not fly near Mordor while the ring still existed, their appearance right after it was destroyed would, in a sentence, make more sense. Although there is plenty of room to argue that those resolutions are not better, they still show how, with a few sentences, Mr. Chekhov can arm us against Deus exey endings.

2)    Chekov’s Joke

Not surprisingly, since I like to write humor, one of my favorite uses for Chekov’s guns are Chekov’s jokes. If you think about it, every joke you know starts with a Chekov’s gun – or three. “A lawyer, a priest, and a stripper are on an airplane…” The punch line is going to have something to do with how their respective professions relate to not having enough parachutes. Probably something about strippers not screwing people or teasing them with promises of things that aren’t really going to happen. Three people, three guns. The first sentence of nearly every joke ever told is, effectively, “So there’s this gun hanging on the wall…”

Writing literary humor allows a lot of time between the setup and punch line, which is a great tool to play with. For example, the second sentence of the novel I’m querying, is: “Feeling like he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried to look casual, pretending to read the various magazines lying around McClintock Publishing’s lobby.” 253 pages later, the person Nick was there to meet – who has become his employer and his friend in the intervening 80,000 words – notices that Nick doesn’t “even resemble the awkward young writer he’d watched nervously pretend to read magazines in his lobby a few months before.” Not hilarious, by any means, but hopefully amusing. More to the point, it’s a callback in Act 3 that, if I did my job well, flashes the reader’s mind through the rollercoaster the two men have been riding since that meeting. At a time when the cars seem to be coming off the tracks.

I should probably provide a more well known example, since this blog post is already more well known than my manuscript. There is a doozey in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The first book opens by talking about a woman who realizes how much better everything would be if Earth were just destroyed. In a very Monte Pythonesque move, Adams then informs us “This is not her story.”

And it’s not.

That story doesn’t come up again for the rest of the book. Or the next one. Or number three. Then, in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Adams opens exactly the same way, I think word-for-word, up to the point he informs us, “This is her story.”

I think Adams’ execution on that one is brilliant. The first part of the first book is amusing by itself. A bit of Brit humor, not at all unlike Monte Python’s, “And now for something completely different.” It stands on its own as amusing. Which, if you are going to wait five years for the punch line, it has to.

With the punch line, it moves from amusing to genius. A pretty banal opening at best (seriously, try querying “This is her story” and see how it works out) is, in truth, a massive, and massively delayed, payoff on a five year old setup line.

The fact that it could stand on its own as an amusing line is also key to intentionally ignoring Mr. Chekov’s advice when we look at:

3.       One Possible Exception: the red herring.

Back to being Mr. I Hate Absolutes. There are limits to even this (almost) completely true advice from Mr. Chekov. While I am not a fan of including things with no relevance to the story, sometimes things need to be nuanced in order to keep the story from being blatantly predictable and boring to the reader. The most obvious example is a mystery. If the only gun anyone has in Chapter One is the murder weapon, a glue-sniffing kindergartener will probably be able to solve the mystery. A grownup will be bored. Or get drunk and spend a night badmouthing you with a one-star review on GoodReads. I’m not just talking about genre mysteries here, either. All novels need to have some form of mystery to them – if the reader doesn’t wonder what’s going to happen, she’ll never pick the book back up.

Although I’m not talking about genre mysteries, they provide the easiest examples. And those examples show that – even when his advice needs qualification – Chekhov is still basically right. Bad red herrings in mysteries are just plot devices shoved into the narrative so there are other possible suspects. The difference between a good red herring and a contrivance (yes, just different turds from the same machine) is that a skilled writer can work in clues and suspects who muddy the “who done it” waters while at the same time also adding something to the STORY.

For example, all of the victims in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None were also suspects. But the things that made them suspects were also the reason each one was a victim. So each red herring was also part of the plot, apart from merely being there to divert attention from who the killer really was. Much like Adams’ mildly amusing joke was justified in itself, even if it later proved to be the setup for a much bigger joke, Christie’s suspects support the story in their own right, in addition to being red herrings on the “who done it” end of things.

But I digress

(which is probably what I should have named this blog, with an F-bomb thrown in for good measure)

Chekhov’s advice was less about foreshadowing and avoiding deus ex than about avoiding unnecessary detail and description. In practice, though, it pays huge dividends in those areas as well. Making sure any guns in Chapter One are fired before the end of the book, and making sure any guns being fired in the climax aren’t being mentioned for the first time when our hero draws them, are unavoidably linked by good storytelling.

The Danger of Following Advice About How to Write (Or: Advice from Nobel laureates r teh suk)

Because writers love to write, there is no shortage of things that have been written about writing. Add the countless interviews with famous writers, where one writer talks to another writer about writing, and pretty much everything there is to know about how to write has been written. That’s a good thing.

It’s also a bad thing.

Or, more accurately, it can be a very bad thing when writers read just enough about writing to “become dangerous.” Particularly when a new, inexperienced, and/or unpublished writer is faced with advice from someone more experienced than she is; i.e., pretty much everyone. What I advise doing with that advice is precisely what I advise doing with regard to advice you get from other writers in the same situation in On Critiques and Writing Advice (Or: Editing on teh interwebs r teh suk). Whether the advice comes from a Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prizewinner, ten-time NYT Bestselling Author, or some schmuck like me, what you should do with that advice remains the same:

You should be willing to consider everything, but don’t get bullied into anything. If you get advice that improves your writing, it was good advice. If not, disregard it.

Many of you may respond to this by saying something along the lines of 

 

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The answer is, yes. I am absolutely serious. Which leads to the follow-up inquiry:

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Or, more accurately, WTF makes me think I can ignore the advice of someone who won the Nobel or the Pulitzer or sold a bagillion books? Let alone tell you to listen to me instead of them.

God, I must be an arrogant prick.

Except, that’s not really what I’m saying. I am certainly not saying to ignore the advice. That’s where the you should be willing to consider everything part comes into play. You should never ignore a piece of writing advice from anyone. The point here, and it cannot be overstated, is that you can’t write better just by doing something someone tells you to. Ever. You have to figure out how the advice offered fits with your writing. Regardless of who’s giving the advice, it might not work for you.

Which brings us back to me being an arrogant prick. It’s also where you can use the tsunami of advice about writing to your advantage. You see, there are few things, if any, that writers agree on.

I have absolutely no problem ignoring Steven King’s advice to sit down and write because outlining is a waste of time. The fact that E. L. Doctorow seems to agree with him doesn’t sway me, either. While they’re both fine writers, I’ve tried writing with and without an outline. I write better with one. So King and Doctorow can kiss my lily-white ass.

Arrogant? Not really. If there was a general consensus among all the great writers that outlining hampered storytelling, I’d be inclined to force myself to write without one, figuring I’d eventually get their point. But there isn’t. A quick internet search says that, among others, the list of people who completely disagree with Steve end E.L., include: Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, James Salter, Henry Miller, J.K. Rowling, William Faulkner, John Grisham, John Irving, Margaret Atwood, Hillary Mantel, and what appears to be a majority of renowned writers. All three of last year’s Pulitzer finalists outline, too. 

So it’s not that outlining does or doesn’t work. Steven King thinks he writes better without one. More power to him. John Irving thinks he writes better with one. Who am I (or who is E. L. Doctorow) to tell him he’s wrong? And nobody, other than me, is in a position to tell me whether I write better with or without one. 

It’s tempting to look at a phenomenally successful novelist and try to emulate her process as much as possible. The problem is, while there are valuable things to learn from that process, not all of it may add value to your writing.

Writing habits are a good case in point. Some writers advise that you must write first thing in the morning. Others say you must require yourself to write a certain number of words per day. Still others advise that your brain is at its peak in the late morning and early afternoon. One famous writer says that, until the story is completed, you must dedicate nearly every waking hour to it’s completion. Another is more concerned with having a firm cutoff, so your writing does not get stale. E. B. White likened writing to surfing, and advised waiting for inspiration to arrive then riding it like a wave. None of them are wrong. None of them are right, either. Except with respect to themselves and their own habits.

I’m reasonably certain that advice from successful writers about writing habits is advice for overcoming those particular writers’ weaknesses. If you’re prone to procrastination or easily distracted, committing yourself to sit down and write for a set number of hours first thing in the morning makes sense. It worked for Earnest Hemingway, anyway. If you tend to obsess about minutiae to the point it interferes with getting a reasonable amount of words out, setting a minimum word count will compensate for that. I suffer from writer’s diarrhea, not writer’s block, and I could happily write seven or ten hours at a time. But I’ve also found, particularly with humor and satire, my writing starts getting stale after four. The key for me is a firm cutoff, and it has nothing to do with the number of words I’ve written. All of those essays and interviews about author habits are interesting, but they don’t change what my individual strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses are.

A friend from writers boards loves to quote Heinlein’s Rules of Writing. The most famous (infamous) of which preaches:

 You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

Contrast that with Earnest Hemingway:

I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Heinlein says, “refrain from rewriting” Vladimir Nabokov says, “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” Those opposite, mutually exclusive approaches worked, both men achieved their goals. 

So, there it is. Plenty of advice about how to write, which begs the question:

I think the first step is take writing advice for what it is — that particular author’s take on how that particular author writes best. Sometimes, maybe even how that particular author wrote a particular book or story best. None of the advice out there will tell you how you should write everything. It’s useful, but its usefulness is almost archaeological. You can look at how prior writers achieved success. It can’t hurt to take note of those things. Just realize you are looking at something that happened to someone else in the past, not a blueprint for your future success. Being able to take bits and pieces of knowledge and tailor them to ideally match your strengths and weaknesses is a blueprint for success.

The real lesson is seldom found in the advice itself. That advice does, however, give you a way to understand the reason for the process. 2,000 word per day minimum? That goal seems to insure against procrastination or getting sidetracked with research questions. Advice to wait for the “perfect wave” makes me think E. B. White constantly came up with ideas, unless he was writing something else. He had to stay unconnected from a story until he knew it was the right one, because the faucet turned off for him when he was working on a story. Don’t revise? Many people think this advice is stupid, but a writer prone to endless cycles of revisions won’t ever submit anything. Even a rough draft is a better submission than no submission. Somewhere between never revising and revising until you’re in a pine box is something we can use. 

So, I’m not saying ignore writing advice from great writers. However, you don’t want to follow it, either. It’s useless at face value, but there is a lot of value to understanding the motivation behind it. For fun, take the next piece of writing advice someone quotes at you and research its opposite. There’s about a 99% chance you will find a Nobel Laureate saying that you must avoid doing whatever that piece of advice is telling you to do. 

The bottom line is: Our novels are the product of a lot of variables, the most important of which is how our brains individually function. As much as I love reading Kafka and Hemingway, I’m also happy my brain functions differently from theirs. No matter who’s giving it, we can’t just follow advice about how to write. But we can mine it for the lessons it stems from, learn from the perspectives it offers, and even take it for a test drive. It it works, use it.  But that way you’re using it because it works for you, not just because someone told you to do it that way.

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.”

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