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 McDonagh”

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.

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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.

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:

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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…

Putting Real People in Your Made-Up World Part Three: The Right of Publicity from Abe to Beyonce

Personality rights are complex as hell. If you are reading this within a week of me posting it, then this blog post will provide an overgeneralized summary of some really complex stuff. Overgeneralized to the point that, beyond giving you a broad idea of the current state of affairs, it won’t be good for much. This issue is governed by state laws, so the answer to specific questions will be determined by when and where people died and/or were legally domiciled at the time of death. Even when you know that, the scope and nature of each of the state statutes varies. On top of that, some people like to claim nonexistent personality rights on behalf of dead celebrities, essentially sending demand notices that they have no legal right to send. Any specific decision will have to be based on legal advice regarding the specific person in question.

If you’re reading this more than a week after I wrote it, it’s probably outdated. This is an area of law in the midst of huge changes.

Personality Rights Overview

Personality rights are separate from the “real people” rights discussed in the first two parts of this series. The main issue that arises when using celebrities, live or dead, is the “right of publicity.” Here’s the conundrum:

Last year, Pepsi paid Beyonce $50 million dollars to endorse Pepsi. Apparently, Pepsi can sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Pepsi if Beyonce tells people to drink Pepsi. This makes absolutely no fucking sense to me whatsoever, but Pepsi knows a lot more than I do about how to sell Pepsi, so there it is. It’s worth $50,000,000 to have Beyonce say:

“Drink this shit.”

With that number in mind, it’s easy to see why Beyonce probably isn’t going to guest-star in your novel for free. It’s also a safe bet that Pepsi was paying $50 Million bucks for something. That “something” is Beyonce’s right of publicity. Her exclusive right to commercially exploit all of her Beyonceness. Because she’s the Beyoncest. It’s also worth bearing in mind that we are talking about a woman who tried to trademark her daughter’s name, so she’s probably not giving much up for free.

And that seems fair. I mean, she did something to put herself in a position to make ungodly sums of money for busing out a “drink this shit.” I don’t really understand what, but she must have done something. And, as much fun as it may be to have Beyonce and Hillary Clinton teaming up with Lil’ B and Carl Sagan to fight space zombies, it probably shouldn’t be free. Part of what you would expect to be selling that book is the name recognition; i.e., a hint that Beyonce was saying “read this shit.” Unless you have a few million dollars lying around, that isn’t going to happen.

The Legal Stuff:

The right of publicity basically means the right to control the commercial use of an individual’s “name, likeness, or other recognizable aspects of one’s persona.” It gives an individual the exclusive right to license the use of their identity for commercial promotion. The term “right of publicity” is misleading. A more accurate title would be: “a whole bunch of things that nobody has really figured out that mainly mean your ass can be sued for using a famous person in your book. And sometimes a not famous one, too.” But the legal profession seems to have settled on “right of publicity,” so that’s what I’ll call it. Understanding that right would be a legal mobius loop, because you would have to research exactly how each of the fifty states handled the question and, by the time you were done with No. 50, the law in No. 1 would likely have changed. For now, a serviceable (which is to say, broad) definition comes from Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute:

In the United States, the right of publicity is largely protected by state common or statutory law. Only about half the states have distinctly recognized a right of publicity. Of these, many do not recognize a right by that name but protect it as part of the Right of Privacy. The Restatement Second of Torts recognizes four types of invasions of privacy: intrusion, appropriation of name or likeness, unreasonable publicity, and false light. See Restatement (Second) Of Torts §§ 652A – 652I. Under the Restatement’s formulation, the invasion of the right of publicity is most similar to the unauthorized appropriation of one’s name or likeness. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652C, comments a & b, illustrations 1 & 2.

In other states, the right of publicity is protected through the law of unfair competition. Actions for the tort of misappropriation or for a wrongful attempt to “pass off” the product as endorsed or produced by the individual help to protect the right of publicity. See Unfair competition.

Nineteen states have some form of “right of publicity” law. On top of that, some federal laws can also be implicated. Some names and other aspects of identity can be trademarked, and if a claim arises that someone’s identity is used to falsely imply endorsement of a product, Section 1125 of the Lanham Act also provides a cause of action and remedies.

As far as the living are concerned, you do not want to have living celebrities (by which I mean even remotely famous people) as characters in your book. Unless other safeharbors apply (and the analysis is not entirely unlike that used for “fair use” generally, but need to be looked at completely separately), just don’t.

Things aren’t much better when it comes to dead celebrities

Unlike claims about defamation, which infringe personal rights, the right of publicity is considered a property right. Among other things, that means it can be sold and, in some cases, transferred on the celebrity’s death. Muhammad Ali’s identity was recently sold for $62 million. There have been a few rounds of contentious litigation about Albert Einstein’s likeness.

Marilyn Monroe has been litigated and it was determined she was a resident of New York when she died, so she’s fair game. If she’d been a resident of California, however, she would not be.

Interestingly, one of the states on the forefront of the right of publicity war is Indiana. Though it’s more famous for growing corn and soybeans than celebrities, Indiana is home to CMG Worldwide, a huge celebrity rights licensing company. CMG owns James Dean, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Kerouac, Duke Ellington, Jesse Owens, and even people like Frank Lloyd Wright, Amelia Earhart and Malcolm X. Enormous sums of money are paid for the right to own and use those dead celebrity names, which means enormous sums of money will be used to defend the right to keep doing it.

How long does the right of publicity last?

As one might surmise from watching Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, it does not last forever. Well, that, and if someone wanted to do a movie about Michael McDonagh Vampire Hunter, I’d probably be cool with that, too. But get my permission first. As to how long, though, the answer is another “depends.” It is not, as some people believe, a set “50 years.”

In states with statutory right of publicity laws, those laws include a term. The term ranges from as few as twenty years in Virginia to a century in GMG’s home state of Indiana. Unsurprisingly, Elvis’ home state of Tennessee, allows the right to continue as long as it is being exploited. As long as there are Elvis impersonators, Elvis will be protected. Showing how much of a moving target this is, California used the copyright law term when it adopted its right of publicity statute, which, at the time, was fifty years from death. When the term of copyright was extended to 1998, California extended its statutory right of publicity as well.

Going back to where we started, the answer to your question will depend on where the person was domiciled at the time of her death. Even then, there are a few companies claiming to have the right to sell Marilyn Monroe’s publicity rights, and they will be happy to send nasty letters claiming that, despite the fact that the lack of those rights has already been determined.

Bottom Line: there are no safe rules of thumb to apply to this question. Celebrity characters will likely fall somewhere on a spectrum between Beyonce and Abraham Lincoln. Where they fall on that spectrum, and if they’re closer to Beyonce than Abe, where they were domiciled when they died will determine the extent of their publicity rights. From there, it is a case-by-case question.

Querying Overview: What a Query Letter is (and isn’t)

Being new fairly to the whole ‘I want to try to publish a novel’ world, the querying process blows my mind. I’ve said it before — There aren’t a lot of other arenas in which someone with no background or credentials of any kind can fire an e-mail off to an insider in a multi-billion dollar industry and say, “check out my awesomeness.” I can’t hotlink a YouTube video of myself singing and dancing to a Broadway agent and have even a theoretical chance of playing Frank in the next revival of Rocky Horror. But in the world of literature, I can do just that.

 

Publishing was doing American Idol before American Idol was a thing. I’m not all roses and sunshine here; the numbers are daunting. I was unable to find any source that reliably estimated the number of queries sent out in a year, but I’m willing to bet its somewhere between a buttload and a shitpile. One established, successful agent kept track of his slushpile for a year. He received around 11,000 queries, one of which resulted in an offer of representation. He was what I will call an A (or at least high B) list agent, so the numbers aren’t always that bad, but nobody goes on Idol wanting to hear Paula say she sings nice before getting voted off.

As much as people want to bitch about the process, it’s still one of the most egalitarian processes imaginable. There’s just a whole lot of competition. Worse than the real competition, there’s a whole lot of noise. Which brings us to what a query is (or needs to be): First and foremost, it is something that cuts through the noise. I said “first,” so I should probably start numbering this shit:

1.     (big surprise here) A query needs to be something that cuts through the noise. This is not as hard or tricky as it sounds. It does not mean sending your query about brutal kidnappers in a box with a candy (or real) human finger enclosed. It’s not about being kitschy or clever (your ideas need to be clever, the way you present them needs to be straightforward). Cutting through the noise starts with being concise, clear, and direct. Your query should be grammatically pristine. The first person to read your query will not (as often as not, assuming you’re querying top-shelf agents) be the agent. It will be a reader, often an unpaid intern or, at best, an underpaid assistant. This person’s primary job is to weed out the garbage. I want to believe (and for purposes of this post, need to assume) that your actual manuscript is awesome and people are going to want to publish, buy, and read it. That’s not going to happen if your query about a serial killer is scrawled in pig blood on a sheet. There are enough queries that fail to directly and effectively give an indication how good the book is, you can stand out from the noise best by doing that.

2.     A query needs to follow the rules. Not the “rules of querying” because there are no such thing. But every agent has decided what he or she wants to consider when looking at an initial submission. Some want a query and three chapters. Some want fifty pages. Some want five pages, or a given number of words. Some want one or more of the above, plus a synopsis (and usually state a maximum number of pages for that piece). Next to pig blood and fingers, few things will kill your querying chances faster than not following the agent’s submission guidelines. I have yet to look at an agent who accepts unsolicited queries without finding a web page that has a tab with information about submissions. Read them. Follow them. There is no excuse for not doing this.

3.     A query needs to be directed to the right person. I don’t mean send it to an agent, not a butcher. I mean send it to an agent who reps the type of material you wrote. If you wrote a MG fantasy, don’t send it to an agent who exclusively reps athlete memoirs. If you sent it to a butcher, and she liked it, she may give you a couple of stakes – meaning you would, literally, be better off sending it to the butcher than an agent who doesn’t rep books in (or even near) your genre. [Note: I realize MG is not a genre, although fantasy is, but it’s easiest for purposes of this discussion to ignore the distinction between marketing categories and genres and just say genre.]

4.     A query has a specific job to do, and it isn’t to tell the agent all about your book. Or about you. Your query’s job is to get the agent to look at the first sentence of your manuscript. Period (as though the period at that sentence were not enough). That’s it (Because just saying period after typing a period was not enough). I’m not just filling space here. Understanding that’s the only job your query has to do is crucial. It’s also hard to do. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into 100,000 word masterpieces. The coolest thing in the story is the intricate way three plot lines converge in a brilliantly plotted twist. Our characters are amazing; the tribal rivalries between our gnomes and trolls or the flora and fauna of our intricate world are wonders. But the reader and/or agent aren’t going to give a shit about any of that. They look at a query with one question in mind: Is there a chance this person sent me an interesting, well written story. If the query makes one of them think there’s a decent chance the answer is yes, he or she will read your first sentence. At that point, it no longer matters how good your query was. All that matters is whether the first sentence is good enough for him or her to move on to the second. Because you’ve submitted an awesome story that people will want to buy, you’re golden. The query’s job is over when the agent reads that first sentence.

5.     A query is a business letter. And it’s not. It’s a combination business letter/sales pitch, but there need to be solid reasons for straying from the business letter courtesy and professionalism before you do. If you write erotica, and you’re querying a book about a bunch of people banging the shit out of each other on a cruise ship, your query is obviously not going to read like a quarterly report. But an agent who reps erotica (which is who you’re querying because you did your research) isn’t reading your query out of prurient interest. An efficient explanation of the plot and conflict coupled with the fact (which should both be stated and obvious from your explanation) that it’s erotic fiction will get you there. If you really want the agent to get a boner, throw in a demographic breakdown on the age of purchasers of erotic fiction and how it coincides with the demographic who book cruises in a way that makes it seem reasonable you could sell 100,000 copies. He’ll need to call his doctor in four hours.

6.     A query is a business plan – a short, incomplete, and overly generalized one, but a business plan nonetheless. Agents love books, or they wouldn’t be in that business. But it’s also how they pay for their kids’ braces and their cats’ food (don’t ask me, agents really seem to dig cats). There’s a two-part inquiry, and the parts overlap: (a) is this a great book; and (b) can I sell it. If you were to send an agent a beautifully written book about a subject she and seven other people in the world hold dear, you will probably get the nicest rejection letter imaginable. Because there is no market for your book, there’s no way she’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. A critical part of writing an effective query is accurately determining what your market is. This does not mean, “I think I write just like Harper Lee, and To Kill a Mockingbird has sold a billion copies in hardback.” It means doing some honest-to-goodness analysis of who your target market is. You can do this with similar author comparisons, but – since that’s what everyone just throws out – if you can find a better market basis, it will strengthen your query enormously. Using the above-example, which do you think makes an agent see dollar signs more concretely:

“This book will appeal to readers of Danielle Steel.”
 
Or

“The largest and fastest growing segment of the destination cruise industry is thirty to fifty-five year-old women, who also happen to be the purchasers of over eighty percent of all romance and erotic fiction.

[Note: I made up every statistic in that sentence, and you need real numbers, not made up numbers for this to actually work.]

Because I come into writing and querying after decades in business, the standard comparables query makes little sense to me. It strikes me as saying, “I have an unknown, untested, and unproven product that offers the same thing as an established brand does, at the same price.” I think you are more likely to be noticed if you can: (a) identify a clear market segment who would be interested in buying your book; and (b) stating how your book fills an unmet need in that market. You don’t want to be the 30th person that day who tells Mr. Erotic Romance Agent: I’m going to be the next [whoever]. You want to be the 1st person this month the agent thinks may someday be showing up in queries from people claiming they will be the next her.

7.     A query needs accurately represent your manuscript. This is where a query that does its job (gets the agent to read the first sentence) can still be a fail. There are a number of reasons the disconnect between query and manuscript can occur, and all of them are on us. There have been times I’ve read or seen interviews with agents and thought, “That’s someone I’d love to work with,” only to discover she only represents MG and YA authors. I’m not doing either of us a favor retooling my query to make it sound more YAish than it really is. I’ve also seen this happen through well-intentioned collaborations. If a query is, well, bad, there’s still hope. Most writers’ websites have a query critique section, and a lot of extremely helpful advice is available. With enough people helping critique and polish a query, a bad query can become great. The problem is, when all people know about the manuscript comes from the query they are critiquing, they may be suggesting changes that make the query look better on its own, but take the query a few steps away from accurately representing the manuscript. Once that happens a few (or a few dozen) times, it can be like a bad game of telephone. What comes out on the end bears little resemblance to what started. Even if the agent likes the query and reads your first sentence (and your first sentence is excellent, by the way), you can still end up with a fail just because you’ve set the wrong expectations before the agent started reading. It’s like taking a sip of tea, only to discover that it’s chicken broth. You don’t stop to think about how good the broth is – it tastes disgusting because it isn’t tea. And you were expecting tea. So you spit it out, not realizing it’s probably the best chicken broth you’ve ever tasted.

8.     A query is not an ass-kissing festival. This goes back to the business letter concept. On the one hand, I didn’t query agents at random. I targeted specific agents for specific reasons, and I am perfectly happy articulating those reasons (if it works into the flow of the query I’ve tailored for that agent). For example, my manuscript is a satire that directly addresses a hugely controversial subject. One of my target agents said in an interview, “I am happiest when I’m representing books that take on controversial subject matter.” Of course I’m going to tell him I’m querying him, in part, because that’s what I’m looking for in an agent. But I’m not going to fawn on him about his bravery or his brilliant work or how much I admire the authors he represents or how hot he looks since he got that new haircut or how I friended his ex-wife on Facebook just so I could tell her off about that shitty thing she did with the kids custody in their recent divorce. Instead, I recommend approaching it from the perspective that this is a mutual selection process. The agent has to want to represent me, but I also have to want to be represented by that person. Hopefully, my criteria include something more than a pulse in that regard. Articulating the objective reason in a professional manner enhances your credibility lets the agent know this isn’t a spammy, one of 4,000 queries I sent today query. And, that is abusiness plan (between you and the agent) in a business letter, that cuts through the noise, and lets everyone know you’ve directed it to the right person.

There are many moving parts to a query, some of which I touched on in this post. I’ll get to the nuts and bolts elements of constructing a query later this week. I wrote out what is, essentially, a 2,000-word description of what a query is first, because the right query for each manuscript is going to be different. Sometimes, the right query for a particular agent on a particular manuscript is different from the right query for another agent. I wanted to start with the general concept, which boils down to this: A good query is a professional and concise sales tool that accurately describes the basic concept behind your manuscript to the right person in a way that makes her want to read the first sentence of that manuscript.

Period.

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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—But—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”

– Steven King

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

 – Elmore Leonard

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This gives me heartburn on a few levels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re Living in a Material World”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Blind (well it’s really about dialogue)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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