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 “michael j. mcdonagh”

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:

Image

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.

Mooky’s Liebster Post

Image

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

Image

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.

Image

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

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

What to do with it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, there’s the important part

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

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

 

Image

 

Put our finger on it.

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.

 

How_I_roll

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.

Whistle While You Work (but probably not while you edit)

Music is about as dangerous for me as tequila. The last time I drank tequila I was nineteen years old and in Arizona. Well, that’s not true. The last time I remember drinking tequila was in Arizona. Then I woke up wondering why there were so many Mexicans in my buddy’s living room. There weren’t. There were so many Mexicans around because I was in Nogeles, Mexico. I (reportedly) was convinced that I loved tequila and needed to go to its house and meet its mother or something. My friends –wonderful people, but not exactly paragons of good decision making themselves back in the day– obliged. My love affair with tequila ended that morning.

Image

Music can be almost as dangerous. I have injured myself while working out because music made me feel invincible. If I am going to listen to music while I run, I need to run on a treadmill or I will run into traffic or off a cliff or somewhere else, far worse than Nogales, Mexico. If I need to get pumped up for something, music will do it every time. If I need to calm down and relax, it can do that too. Music has an enormous impact on how I think and act. So much so that I can’t write anything with music playing. If I were going to write with background music, I would need to precisely tailor a song list to match what I was writing, paragraph-by-paragraph, or what I wrote would reflect the emotional content of the music more than my story.

Enough about me.

What’s the Real Scoop on Music When Writing and Editing?

There isn’t one. That’s not the result I expected to find when I went digging through journal articles and studies. And there are an astounding number of studies looking at these questions from every point of view imaginable. So far, aside from some general truisms, they almost all cancel each other out. The most worthwhile thing I could take from several hours of reading abstracts and the entirety of a score of studies is the reason they cancel each other out. That part is fascinating.

One good meta-analysis from Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany, put it like this:

[G]lobal analysis shows a null effect, but a detailed examination of the studies that allow the calculation of effects sizes reveals that this null effect is most probably due to averaging out specific effects.

In other words, one study shows a certain type of music improves performance among a certain group of people doing a specific task, another study shows different music or different people have impaired performance doing the same task, so the net result is an average of zero. BUT, that only means the average is zero, not that either study is wrong. So certain music for certain people helps. One study proves that. Different people’s performance may be impaired by the same music. The takeaway is not that music does not have an impact – it is the opposite. Music is having an impact in both cases. The impact just varies widely based on the other variables.

What are the variables?

Who the fuck knows? I sure don’t. There wouldn’t be a bazillion studies on this if anyone was even close to figuring that out. Some have been identified. One of the most cited studies, The differential distraction of background music on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts, finds significantly different responses to music based on the subjects personality types. Extroverts perform better with certain types of music playing, while introverts performing the same task with the same background music perform worse. The type of task also seems to make a huge difference. There is pretty good evidence that music enhances the performance of even extremely complicated tasks (e.g., neurosurgery) once they are learned and are somewhat routine. However, background music generally interferes with the process of learning a much simpler task (e.g., memorize a random list of letters).

You would never want to learn to perform neurosurgery with music playing, but once you know how to do it, you probably do it better with the right music playing in the background.

If that weren’t enough, the real world adds a whole different pile of variables to the lab studies. I mostly write at home at night, after putting the kids to bed. My house is nearly silent. Tonight, however, a half dozen fourteen-year-olds will be having an ironically named “slumber party” at my house. Dozens of office-noise studies tell me that, while silence or white noise would be optimal, since I’m not going to be getting any of that, music will be less disruptive and distracting than a bunch of disruptive intermittent noise. Tonight, music may increase my productivity. Tomorrow, it probably would not.

What’s the Bottom Line?

Music undoubtedly affects our perceptions and our functioning, but how much and in what way varies so much by individual, there aren’t any real guiding principles. If you’re an introvert, even music that matches the mood you’re trying to capture in your writing is likely to interfere. If you’re an extrovert, that same music can help significantly. In either case, you can set your mood pretty effectively by listening before you start –almost all the studies show the right music can have beneficial effects before starting tasks.

As a rule (which means I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions), cognitively demanding tasks are performed better without music. There is a time to be upbeat and optimistic. Looking for unwanted commas and adverbs that need killing is not that time. How much this will affect you, though, depends (again) on so many variables the true answer ranges from “Don’t do it, you’ll never edit well listening to music you like” to “You can probably edit about as well with or without, so if it makes the task more pleasant, go for it.” One study in particular found that cognitively demanding tasks – while performed less well with any kind of music – were actually performed better when subjects listened to a voice saying the number “three” over and over.

So look for my new CD to drop soon: Mooky & The Mookettes, Three: three, three, three (three three three three).

Ultimately, though, the state of science on this topic puts it into a familiar category of advice on this blog: figure out what works for you and do it. If your writing is carefully structured linguistic constructs like Joyce wrote, music will probably do more harm than good regardless of your personality type. If you’re an extrovert, you’ll almost certainly write better with music you like playing. Or at least feel like you are writing better and be less fatigued by it. If you are an introvert, silence is golden. If you’re as sensitive to music affecting your mood as I am, the perfect song may get you started, but without a good playlist to keep things in that mood, all your characters would seem like bipolar, menopausal, chemically imbalanced, pubescent teenagers trying to find tequila’s house.

It’s not in Nogeles.

Grammar, Style, and Usage are Three Different Things

Advice on grammar, style, and usage are often confused. This can be particularly troubling when, for example, style advice is touted as grammar advice. If you don’t think that can happen, just turn on grammar check and, assuming you use MS Word, look at all the green squiggly lines underneath grammatically pristine phrases. I type my blog posts in MS Word then cut and paste them into the blog. There are two in this paragraph already – one because the phrase “advice is touted” is passive and a second because the prissy little fuck doesn’t like contractions.

The distinctions are important, because ungrammatical phrases (which have a few subcategories of their own) are usually a problem. Style preferences are just that, preferences. Usage changes so much that it is one of the keys to communicating effectively with your audience. When grammar check or beta readers or other people providing critiques mistake a question of style for one of usage or grammar, for example, things get muddled. At a minimum, it helps to have a handle on the nature of the advice being given.

What is Grammar?

There’s a reason we call it “grammar school” and not “syntax school.” Grammar is less of a category than a broad term that covers a bunch of different fields of study. That can make things confusing, because the importance of any particular “rule” of grammar depends heavily on which category it comes from. From a linguistic perspective, there are areas of huge importance within the scope of “grammar” that we, as writers, don’t need to worry about. Not that they aren’t important, they’re just so ingrained in a fluent English speaker that we don’t need to give a shit about their linguistic/grammatical formulations.

Language came first, probably about 200,000 years before the first linguist showed up on the scene. This happened long before the invention of writing, when our ancestors were all either hunter/gatherers or sold Geiko automobile insurance and looked like this:

To be honest, more than one of my relatives and about eighty percent of my fishing buddies still look like that.

Linguistics came along to study languages after languages were a thing. And a whole slew of the grammatical issues they study (like why we know the word “cars” means more than one car, even if the Chinese use a completely different set of rules to make that distinction) just don’t matter if you can speak fluent English.

The part of “grammar” we really need to worry about is syntax and construction. The stuff that makes sentences make sense. Syntax is the building block for construction – it’s the basic rules that let us understand what the hell each other mean when we say something. “We ate pie,” is basic subject, verb, object syntax saying what happened in a way that English speakers understand. The cognitive construction involves the listener, who probably knows (from the context the speaker gives and/or pie stains on her shirt) whether “we” refers to the speaker and one or more other people or the speaker and the listener.

This is a really important distinction, because the listener’s (or, more likely, reader’s) role is key. It trumps everything else. Brilliant syntax is meaningless without cognitive construction. Put another way, lexicological formulations achieve Floccinaucinihilipilification when opacified through superfluous bullshit.

There are no green squiggly lines under that last sentence, because it’s grammatically pristine. It’s still a train wreck. Grammar, in itself, does not make writing clear to the reader. It often helps, but it’s merely a guide to what the reader expects to see. That’s the heart of what the “rules of grammar” really are. They are a guide, written down after the fact, to how we say things in the most easily understandable way. “Pie we ate” is probably still understandable, but it sounds weird (because it’s not the standard subject-verb-object formulation we use in English). It takes more work for the reader to understand the meaning, because you sound like Yoda.

Those are some important factors to keep in mind when thinking about grammar. Specifically:

  • Grammar is backward looking. First people communicate in a way they all find works, then linguists assign rules to explain what it is that lets it make sense.
  • The only reason we have “rules of grammar” is to give context to the information we are being provided.
  • Something that follows the linguistic structure for written English (i.e., is grammatically correct) can still suck balls. If you put a cardboard box on top of the foundation for a mansion, you haven’t built a mansion.
  • A phrase or sentence that is readily understood by the reader in a pleasing and predictable way has accomplished what the “rules of grammar” seek to accomplish, whether it follows those rules or not.

Don’t infer from the above list that I’m not a fan of following the rules of grammar. Outside dialogue, I do so the overwhelming majority of the time. But it is important to realize that the “rules of grammar” are a means, not an end. Occasionally, the choice is presented between a clearer sentence that breaks the rules or adherence to the rules at the expense of clarity. In those cases, clarity wins.

What is Style?

My favorite definition of style comes from Orson Wells, who wrote, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” My English professors (with one notable exception, who was awesome) did not agree. Style was something they often confused with grammar, imposing arbitrary little rules affecting voice and tone as “rules,” despite the fact that they have nothing to do with proper syntax. If you find someone who thinks the correctly named (but otherwise often incorrect) Elements of Style is a grammar guide, you have identified this problem.

Style, to an editor, is a set of rules that fill in the gray areas left by broad grammar rules. Issues like whether parentheses or em-dashes should be used to set off a particular clause, or how to hyphenate a set of compound numbers that combine to form a big-ass compound adjective. To a writer, style can best be defined as the set of preferences that aren’t syntactic rules. A subject worthy of it’s own post, but including:

  • Don’t begin sentences with conjunctions (there is no grammatical basis for that “rule”);
  • Don’t split infinitives (following this one sometimes screws things up in a big way);
  • Do not use contractions (that’s probably correct for most formal writing);
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition (what’s that all about?)
  • Passive voice should be avoided (by zombies!)

Those and other style preferences, which may be fucked in their own right, are often incorrectly pointed to as “rules of grammar” by writers, writing instructors, stupid green squiggly lines, and others. They aren’t. They’re basic bits of advice and nothing more.

What is Usage?

There’s a reason these three things need to be discussed in this order. Grammar is the basic syntactic framework of language, the nuts and bolts that allow two people speaking the same language to understand each other. We don’t use nouns to introduce adverbs in sentences without any predicates. We don’t even have to think to avoid doing those things, because most of those rules are hard-wired into how we think.

Style as the more flexible but easily definable constructs that (often) make grammatical sentences more easily understandable. There is no grammatical prohibition against using four negatives to state one positive, but it’s confusing as hell. There sure as hell isn’t a grammatical or linguistic reason for preferring active voice over passive, but it’s advisable 95% of the time. This is a gray area, and it’s like Velcro for bad “grammar” advice.

Usage, is that next level down (or up) toward genuine readability. It is the difference between:

“At least one individual in the overwhelming majority of U.S. households..”

and

“Every family’s got one…”

Just as people often call style issues grammar rules, matters of usage are regularly confused with style. And, in the true “style” sense, that’s fair. Strictly speaking, though, that flair that Welles was talking about relates more to usage than style. If you think of writing as an inverted pyramid, Grammar is the wide base – it includes every possible way of communicating a thought that will be recognized by an English-speaking person as correct. Style narrows that field down, eliminating the most tortured and inapt ways of expressing that thought. Usage is the tip, containing only those ways of stating a thought that will clearly resonate with your reader. It is, literally, the way we use the words to create an image. You need a reasonably good handle on grammar and style before you can focus on usage, but for a writer, usage is what matters most. It is the part of writing that is concerned with the reader’s reaction – not just her ability to decipher. It is the most flexible of the trio, and it is constantly changing. Grammar, by contrast, slowly evolves.

Why does this matter?

Because it gives context to advice. In truth, aside from fragmented sentences, violations of grammar rules are rarely, if ever, a good idea. But a whole shitpile of opinion about style and usage is dressed up as grammar advice, which gives both far more weight than they deserve. For example, here is a list from an article in the Guardian entitled: 10 grammar rules you can forget: how to stop worrying and write proper:

  1. Split infinitives (style, not grammar)
  2. Ending a sentence with a preposition (style, not grammar)
  3. Subjunctive verb form (usage, not grammar. I also think they’re wrong – but it’s a usage question, so I can)
  4. Double negatives (this is probably in a gray area between style and usage, clearly not grammar)
  5. Use of “between” to refer to more than two things (this is about as usagey as usage gets)
  6. Use of “with,” “by,” or “of” with an adjective like “bored” (if possible, this is usegier than 5)
  7. Using gerunds (verbs turned into nouns by adding “ing”) (style, not grammar)
  8. Conjunctions at the beginning of sentences (I agree. But this has nothing to do with grammar)
  9. Use of singular verb with the word “none” (which is based entire on the usage of “none”)
  10. Using try twice in a sentence (until I saw this, I had no idea it was a rampant style problem).

See the problem? There is not one fucking grammar rule on the list. If someone points out a grammatical mistake in your writing, you almost certainly need to fix it. If someone points out a usage issue, you need to decide how much that person’s take on usage is in line with your reading audience.

There’s a big difference.

Meet Mary Sue Part One: Who is Mary Sue, Anyway?

Today you will meet Starfleet Lieutenant Mary Sue, the hottest, smartest, most awesome girl in the galaxy.

So much so, she sucks.

Birth of a blog post

I started working on a post about how readers’ brains function when reading fiction. It turns out neuroscience is more complicated than bitching about deus ex endings or kissing Anton Chekhov’s ass. After hours of research with nothing but data –which I love, yay data– I realized that bad boy is (a) a series, not a post; and (b) going to take about a Master’s thesis of research and a month to write if I’m going to do it justice.

Shit.

Not wanting to leave my throngs (read: fifty-five, and I love you all) of followers hanging for a month while I geek out on brain science, I put out a call for suggested topics. The first request I got was from my friend Kodi, who asked:

Could you do a post on something about “Mary-Sues?” Not, like, explaining what they are, but how they’re perceived by others and how in this day and age (especially in YA) lots of characters with the slightest confidence in themselves or whatever end up being called “Mary-Sue.” Especially if they’re female.

(An example I often hear is Katniss, who I wouldn’t consider a Mary-Sue–maybe a less emotionally developed person– especially after the train-wreck of events in Mockingjay…)

Katniss is a Mary Sue? What the fucking fuck is up with that? Does that mean Batman is a Gary Stu? ROFLMAO.

Less than two hours later, someone posted a question about Mary Sues on the watercooler, because of a making-the-rounds blog post about Mary Sues — one that seems to be creating some of this controversy:

So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects them all because she dedicated to what is Pure and Good. She has genius level intellect, Olympic-athelete level athletic ability and incredible good looks. She is consumed by terrible angst, but this only makes guys want her more. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she is more competent than her superhuman friends and defeats superhumans with ease. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, despite the fact she treats them pretty badly.  They fear and respect her, and defer to her orders. Everyone is obsessed with her, even her enemies are attracted to her. She can plan ahead for anything and she’s generally right with any conclusion she makes. People who defy her are inevitably wrong.

God, what a Mary Sue.

I just described Batman.

Which again raises the question, what the fucking fuck?

So Katniss is a Mary Stu and if Batman were a girl instead of a boy, he’d be a Mary Sue, so pretty much everybody is a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu?

I don’t think so.

I’m gonna start by explaining what they are

Sorry, Kodi, but you should know better. That’s how I start analyzing everything. When we know where something came from and its original context, we usually have a better handle on what we’re talking about. Mary Sue is no exception, although we aren’t taking our normal trip back to ancient Greece or Roman scholarship or even fourteenth century etymology. You see, there really was a Mary Sue. Her ancient origins? A parody piece of Star Trek fan fiction. Before you had to say TOS about Star Trek, because there was one Star Trek.

A Star Trek fan with a sense of humor named Paula Smith penned a piece of parody fan fic entitled A Trekkie’s Tail for the fanzine “the Menagerie” in 1974. Ms. Smith had noticed that most Trekkie fan fic was the same basic story: A supersmart, superhot, superyoung (i.e., the same age as the author) character shows up on the bridge of the Enterprise. Everybody adores her, wants to do her, and goes on adventures with her. Good thing she’s there, too, because she saves everybody’s ass, since she’s the smartest, coolest, and hottest person in the galaxy. Then she often dies and is mourned by all (because of said smartness, coolness, and hotness). Justifiably annoyed by the accumulation of fan fic garbage, Ms. Smith penned her own parody. It stars, you guessed it, Lt. Mary Sue, the youngest, hottest, and smartest girl in Starfleet.

So, without further ado, here is the original text of:

A TREKKIE’S TALE

By Paula Smith

“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?”

“Captain! I am not that kind of girl!”

“You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.”

Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?”

“The Captain told me to.”

“Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.

But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies , Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.

However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.

You have now officially met Lt. Mary Sue, the youngest, hottest, and smartest girl in Starfleet. The girl so awesome that an entire trope is named for her. Substitute the Captain wanting to do her for Nurse Chapel checking his junk on the elevator, maintain the same level of awesomeness (i.e., turn it into a male author’s self-insertion fantasy) and you have Gary Stu, Mary Sue’s male counterpart.

Two years after Smith’s parody, the editors of the fanzine that originated the name used it to identify the kind of stories they hate:

Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in  everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [meaning, of course, Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.

Born of parody and forged in sarcasm, Mary Sue is, generally, little more than an adolescent wish fulfillment fan fic author avatar. Its meaning has been broadened a tad, now encompassing all adolescent-level wish fulfillment fantasy stories, inside and outside fan fiction. Broadened beyond that, you have people incorrectly labeling characters Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) even if they don’t belong in that category. Like, for example, Katniss Everdeen and Batman.

This Batman is not a Mary Sue:

image

Douchey Batman is, um, well, yea:

But this was a freaking parody, too!

What are the Elements of a Mary Sue?

All of the politics aside (any guesses what my next entry is about?), the core elements of a Mary Sue (you too, Gary) are straightforward. It’s a character who is so awesome she manages to be simultaneously a one-dimensional cardboard cutout and the epicenter of the universe. Not only is she bland and uninteresting herself, she also makes all of the other characters around her bland and uninteresting by sucking all of the oxygen out of every room she enters. Because she must be the smartest, fastest, most clever and amazing person in the universe, Captain Kirk and everyone else just hang out, basking in her awesomeness, while she takes care of everything. Mary Sue is an author avatar on steroids (and meth, with narcissistic personality disorder). Obstacles crumble before her, no group excludes her. The Three Musketeers order new stationary saying the Four Musketeers the minute she gets off her horse.

In short, it’s crappy writing. The character is entirely about the writer fulfilling the writer’s needs — like a selfish lover, paying no particular attention to whether the reader is enjoying herself or not.

A character is not a Mary Sue just because she is interesting, strong, smart, or attractive. It gets harder as you pile more of those elements onto a character, but even a character with all of those attributes is not, necessarily, a Mary or a Gary. More than anything, what defines a Mary Sue (for me) is her relationship with the other characters. As soon as she is one among equals, and not the object of near or total adoration from everyone else in her universe, she is not a Mary Sue. If she is a participant in the story — not the center of gravity, around which all other story elements orbit like fawning moons circling a planet of hot awesomeness — she’s not a Mary Sue. Unless other characters are rendered less interesting or competent or independent because of their love of and/or (but usually just “and”) reliance on her awesomeness, she is not a Mary Sue.

Because most of the Mary Sue “controversy” comes from people mislabeling characters as Mary Sues, or believing other people do, or something else with its roots in an incorrect definition of what a Mary Sue really is, the only place to start the discussion is with a clear understanding of what that term/trope means.

Kodi is right, “in this day and age (especially in YA) lots of characters with the slightest confidence in themselves or whatever end up being called ‘Mary-Sue.’ Especially if they’re female.”

Which is idiotic –to the extent said idiocy warrants an entire post of its own. The post Kodi was asking for in the first place; also known as “the one in which the hetero white male whose first language was the Rural Redneck dialect of English does a feminist rant.”

That comes next…

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)

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.

image

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

 

Post Navigation