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”

Sinning My Way out of a Shitty Act III

Well, my muse finally showed up about six weeks ago. This is Erato, the Greek muse of lyric poetry.

She is not my muse.

In my world, a muse is more along the lines of:

And, yes, she uses the whip. Since this isn’t a novel, I’m going to start with backstory.

After about a year of toil, my manuscript (MS) way finished. Yay Me. Then I got to spend several months revising and editing and refining and everything else I recommend people do — including letting the damn thing fester for a month before I did said revising, editing and refining. Then I queried some agents, had MSs out and had to wait. And wait. And start going crazy, because all I could do was fucking wait. 

But that wasn’t true, there was something else I could do. I could start the new WIP (which wasn’t IP yet, just an idea). Ironically, about an hour after I started it, I got another full request. Karma.

Somehow, though, starting the new WIP gave me breathing room from the old MS that even making it fester for a month did not.

Life Lesson NO. 1: Starting the new novel is probably the best thing you can do for both your sanity and your old novel.

For the next several weeks, my nightly walks with Coho the Wonderdog turned into critique sessions about my Act III. Eventually, my critique group (the dog and I) came to unanimous agreement that my Act III kinda sucked. Except for the kinda part.  Because it sucked. Boo me. That was soon confirmed by a rejection, accompanied by eight pages of notes. Notes that can be summarized in a six word memoir: Love your writing; Act III sucks.

Hope and despair soon began arriving in my e-mail (and on my telephone) in the form of instructions to revise and resubmit my manuscript (R&R). Three of them, to be precise. Any guesses what those three agents thought I needed to change? I’ll give you a hint, it rhymes with Act III sucks.

Whoever said admitting you have a problem is most of the solution never had this problem or is a big fat liar. Admitting I had the problem was nothing compared to highlighting and deleting about 30,000 words. And that was a breeze compared to figuring out a completely new ending. In fact, that part was even harder writing the new 35,000 words, plus another 10 or 20 thousand worth of cutting old and putting in new to make the new ending flow. In other words, writing half the novel from scratch was easier than thinking up what to write. That part was so hard, I gave up on using my normal thinking time (yes, the dog again). I finally decided I had to get my ass in a chair and start writing (an outline for the ending, not the actual prose). 

Life Lesson No.2: There is no substitute for getting your ass in a chair and writing.

Not coincidentally, that’s when my muse showed up. She didn’t fill me with inspiration, she reminded me that I’m her bitch. So I started putting out. It took me about a week (around 25 hours of writing time) to crank out a two page outline. But I knew exactly where I needed to go by the time I was done. I was certain of it, in a way that I hadn’t been certain of even the parts of the book the agents loved. It took another week or two to draw all the threads from Act I and Act II together for the new ending, and then (after about a month) I started writing my new ending.

Who’s the bitch now? Well, I am, because I still had a third of a novel to write.

And this is where we get to my sins. The new ending needed to be told from a new POV. My protagonist’s wife, who went from the No.2 secondary character (or maybe No.3) to the clear No.1, and the MC (not just the main POV character, the main acting character) for part.

I like tight POV. And I don’t like shifting POVs unless absolutely necessary. It happened in the original MS, when I had simultaneous things happening in different places for a couple of chapters, but the break was clean. With the new ending, I couldn’t make a clean break, and I spent about two weeks of my life trying. Fearing the lash, I finally said, fuck it. I just wrote out the ending with some pretty gnarly head-hopping. At least I’d have something on the page. I’d list that one as a life lesson, but it’s mantra — you can’t edit what isn’t on the page. It just hadn’t made such a stark appearance in my life before.

If you follow this blog, you know how I feel about rules. They are guidelines. Anything that makes the story work better for the reader is the rule, and any conflicting rule should be disregarded. That said, most of the “rules” are summaries of the things that work best for the reader, so they are not to be disregarded lightly. Not bouncing around POVs is one of the cardinal rules. So is not changing narrative perspective. Together, they’re damn near sacred. Which is why I was so certain I was doing the right thing when, after weeks of trepedation and seeking alternatives, I concluded both those rules can go to Hell. For a couple of pages. Not even pages, but for a for a smattering of lines in the pages leading up to the new POV shift.

Life Lesson No.3: When you agonize about breaking a rule for a week or two and still can’t find a better way to do it, the rule needs to be broken. No matter what the rule is.

Ultimately, I found myself throwing in a few lines from a limited omniscient POV, sharing what the main POV character and the soon-to-be POV character were thinking. In theory, I freaking hate that solution. On the pages, though, it really seemed to work. Instead of one jarring shift (and I don’t shift back for the rest of the novel), there is a relaxing of my super-tight protag POV. Soon after, there is the introduction of his wife into the POV. Then I cut him back and increase her and she is the super-tight POV for the rest of the book.

Did I mention I hate that idea in theory? Because I really do. And I’m nervous about what the agents will think of it. Because, unlike the recreational reader, they’ll be looking for it. My solution was basically to adopt a typical flaw in unskilled writing. A couple of them, actually — shifting POV and head-hopping with the characters. It’s a gamble. But it was also the best way to move the story forward. Not out of laziness, but directly as a product of how it unfolded. And I hope the measured and precise way I changed focus — essentially passing the baton — will not be lost on them.

Because, to be completely honest, I’m proud as hell of how it came out on the page. And if there had been any other way to do it, I would have. So I’m pretty sure (sin and all) it was the right way to do it.

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 Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bad passives should be avoided.

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

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

Good passives should be hugged (by zombies).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A)  The Basic Rule

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

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

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

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

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

B)    Same Rule, Just a Little Less Basic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

D)  Same Rule, Keepin’ it Real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Because — zombies, man!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • There are no rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What #Queryfail Taught Me About Agents and Writers

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

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

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

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

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

As one person tweeted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

#agentfail 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—But—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”

– Steven King

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

 – Elmore Leonard

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This gives me heartburn on a few levels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Blind (well it’s really about dialogue)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Have no Talent as a Writer (and Neither do You)

“There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift.”

– Flannery O’Connor

Talent is a beautiful thing. Talent is the concept that God (or the gods, in the case of the ancient Greeks who loved to talk about this stuff, or the cosmos for my agnostic friends) has imbued our flawed, frail mortal existence with a divine spark of greatness. It’s breathtaking.

It is also complete bullshit.

I’m not saying talent doesn’t matter, nor am I claiming talent is not important. I am going one step further. I am saying that talent resides in an imaginary world with leprechauns and gods who drive chariots across the sky, hauling the sun around like a boat trailer. Talent is not a thing.

Opportunity is a thing. Experience is a thing. Practice is a thing (and the right kind of practice appears to be the biggest thing of all). In certain endeavors, your body’s size and shape are things that matter – Michael Phelps’ clown-shoe sized feet certainly don’t hurt when it comes to swimming, and no matter how much or how well my daughter practices, she will never be an elite NFL Line(wo)man at 5’2 and about 100 pounds. But the concept that some people, in our case writers, have an innate ability that makes them superior to us (or that we have an innate ability that gives us some kind of leg up) is just flatly and empirically wrong.

This is not just my half-assed opinion. When addressing this issue with other writers (and surprised to find myself in the minority in an argument on this subject), my half-assed opinion was that talent is a minor element of success, far less important than diligently honing the skills required to write well.

I was wrong. It’s less important than that. Being a data-driven person, I went looking for studies evaluating the role of talent in controlled environments. There have been dozens of studies, and they all come to one of two conclusions:

(1)   The existence of talent cannot be proven to be a significant factor in reaching world-class performance levels in any activity (music, sports, writing, art); or

(2)   There is enough data to infer that the thing we conceptualize as “talent” does not exist.

So, if you were expecting to rely on your God-given gift to become a successful writer, you are shit out of luck.

FIRST, THE DATA:

Because we were having such a heated debate about this subject, I didn’t realize I was researching a question that has basically been put to bed in the scientific community. Geoffrey Colvin has a good rundown in his mass market book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. As far as free, objective resources are concerned, the study: Innate Talents: Reality Or Myth  published in Behavioural and Brain Sciences 21 399-442 #128 (available from Cambridge University Press) is awesome and free.  http://cogprints.org/656/1/innate.htm

Interesting studies have also been conducted on chess Grand Masters, dating back to the 1940s. They are consistently found to be of average intelligence and have average cognitive skills. They also have average memory ability, except when it comes to one thing. You guessed it, chess. After a certain amount (five or more years) of intensive chess-play, they begin seeing the board as one organic whole, rather than thirty-two separate pieces. Using magnetoencephalography (seriously, I didn’t make that up, it’s a machine that measures the electromagnetic signals in your brain), scientists have found that chess players get to a point that they access frontal and parietal cortices of the brain when they look at the board. They are not actually analyzing the move their opponent made, they are remembering past games. Lower-ranked players, on the other hand, are accessing their medial temporal lobes. When they look at a move, they are encoding new information about the way the board changed.

I’m going to generalize and oversimplify a tad here (so check out the book or click on the link for more data or search “precocity” and “talent” in Google Scholar). So far, researchers haven’t conclusively ruled out the existence of innate biological traits that may aid in performing at high levels in things like art, accounting, writing, tennis chess, gymnastics. or any other endeavor.They have, however, determined that there is no relationship between people identified early on as potentially having “talent” and long-term success in any of those activities. If you were deemed mediocre musically year 1 and another student was deemed to be musically adept and advanced year 1, it’s a coin flip to see which student would be better year 6. Starting at the opposite end, looking at the “world-class” participants in those activities and working back to where they started, the researchers have also ruled out any factors happening before the first several years of dedicated practice in any activity as being predictive of the subjects’ ultimate success.

SECOND: ENVIRONMENT

Eli and Peyton Manning are “talented” football players, having each won a Superbowl, each having jobs as starting quarterbacks in the NFL, etc. The odds of two sons from the same family having the top starting position on two teams in the NFL are mind-bogglingly low. But their dad is Archie Manning (a legend in the game), they grew up around it, it’s what they’ve known and practiced and done and absorbed since before they can remember.

Now let’s pretend they were my sons. Guess who would have no “talent” for football. Same dudes. I can almost guarantee we’d still be hearing from college coaches, but they’d be the college debate coaches we’re hearing from about my daughters. My daughters are “talented” debaters. Not coincidentally, I went through college on a full-ride debate scholarship, met their mother at the national speech championships, and she and I both coached college speech and debate for a few years. Drop Peyton and Eli into my household, and you would probably have two of the best debaters in the country and a perfect score on the English portion of the ACT, but neither one would have a lick of “talent” when it came to football.

There is a spinoff from that early exposure thing, called the multiplier effect. Here’s how it works: Little Girl A happens to bowl a really good game when she’s 5. Everybody says “ooh, aah, look at that,” and she gets some ice cream. Then she gets a bowling ball for Christmas and keeps bowling to get more ice cream until she is old enough to bowl in a tournament where, having been doing it regularly for a couple of years, she crushes everybody. Yea Little Girl A! So she keeps bowling and hanging out with people who bowl, and taking lessons and competing against higher level opponents until – wow! She’s one of the best bowlers in the country. Then she fires her old coach and has three new coaches, working on foot placement and stroke and other bowling stuff (because I’m in way over my head here, I’ve bowled about five times in my life). So she ends up the grand champion of bowling or whatever and drives a Cadillac with longhorn steer horns across the hood and a giant diamond belt-buckle that says she’s the best bowler in the world! Because she is! But she doesn’t have one bit more “talent” for bowling than I do. She’s just spent 50,000 more hours deliberately practicing how to bowl than I have.

That’s what environment contributes to “talent.” More than anything, the mistaken belief that you have it. Or, worse, the mistaken belief that you don’t, but someone else does.

Which means there’s some good news and some bad news:

The bad news is, you’re not a talented writer. the good news is, nobody else is, either.

In either event, if the numbers in the English study are roughly accurate, even if you are at zero, with no background or supportive environment or anything else, start now and you’re probably going to catch up to the people who mistakenly believe they have talent and have also been working on it in about six years.

Not coincidently, that six year finding nearly mirrors Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours conclusion, though coming at it from an entirely different angle. It also fits squarely in the realm of the amount of time invested by chess Grand Masters. Take off some rounding errors, and you’re right at those “first million words” that people generally agree are “practice” before writers become good writers. [Note: The original attribution of that number is disputed, but I can assure you that Stephen King was not the first or fourteenth person to use it, despite it often being attributed to him].

So you give me a break about this “talent” crap. I don’t want to hear about it if you believe you have talent and therefore your words are lyrical gold that flows onto the page. I don’t want to hear about it if you think you lack talent and therefore cannot succeed. Write seriously for six years/ten thousand hours/one million words and get back to me.

I genuinely believe that the only real “talent” an author may possess would be the “talent” to see her work objectively and critically.  To identify specific, precise skills that need to be honed and work on them. To evaluate criticism effectively (which sometimes means rejecting it, after earnest evaluation) but always looking for the thought in that criticism that can be employed to improve. Which is to say, the only ”talent” one can have in the field of writing is a willingness to practice hard and well and for a long time.

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If he was all that “talented,” why does he have to change every single fucking sentence?

 

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