Less is More

Note: As I’ve had a couple of people asking about it, I’m going to start posting guest blogs whenever people are interested. Please email me at jesskdall(a)gmail.com if you’re interested in speaking more about it.



Being an editor can make reading hard. Ever since I had my internship with a press back in college, I’ve done my best to put away the red pen while “off the clock” but that doesn’t stop the fact that I still will mentally try to rewrite sentences when I find one that bothers me. And one thing I can never seem to get past is when I find melodramatic writing.

Now, telling is bad. It’s so common a piece of writing advice that “show, don’t tell” has become nearly cliché when it comes to tips you’re likely to find. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to be on a witch hunt for “to be” verbs (a common symptom of telling), if you can help it “He gritted his teeth” is a much better way of showing anger than “He was upset”

What can be just as bad as telling, however, (at least in my opinion) is melodrama. A bit like “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome, melodrama often comes when authors try too hard to show during emotional scenes.

Now don’t get me wrong, you don’t want to leave an emotional scene with something like “I was really sad” and then move on, but you don’t want it to turn out like this either (1:27 in the video). Angst and melodrama are no more fun to read than “I was sad. I felt like crying.”

So what make something melodramatic rather than showing? Like everything with writing, I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer. Where a line can work well in one situation, it can seem completely out of place in another.

So, how then, do you know if you’re heading towards melodrama? Short answer is, it’s something you learn. Writing is a skill, the more you write, and read, and listen to critiques, the better you get at it. It just takes trial and error.

Honestly, the way I joke you tell if something is melodramatic is if, when you read the line in your head, it sounds completely natural when using an over-theatrical voice (like Calculon in this clip from Futurama)

Let’s do a quick test:

1) “He clenched his fists.” Ok, you can get away with the Calculon voice, but it doesn’t sound like it was written to be said that way. Passes the no-melodrama test.

2) “I found myself caught in a shrieking trance of irrationality.” Hmm, first part of the sentence is ok, but “shrieking trance of irrationality” totally sounds like it’s meant for that voice. Sounds melodramatic.

3) “I was sad.” You could make it over dramatic, but it would really be stretching things (“I was SADDDDDDDDD”) Not melodramatic (but definitely telling).

4) “A dark visitor to her soul had captured her .” On the fence with the Calculon voice, but I’d err on the side of caution unless there’s literally someone in the story capturing souls (I’m sure there are a couple of fantasy/horror stories out there with that happening).

Now, some of you might be scoffing (“shrieking trance of irrationality? I would never write that”) but there are also likely some people out there wincing. Personally, my early writing tended towards “He was sad” more than “shrieking trance” but they are both very common writer growing pains. We all have to work with our styles before we actually come to something that feels like it works. Even after we’ve got that, it’s common to still have some problems (I admit it, my writing isn’t perfect…It’s what editors are for). And, when trying to rein “He was sad” or “shrieking trance” in, it’s really easy to swing from on to the other. They’re on opposite ends of the same spectrum, and finding the perfect balance in the middle can be hard.

So, what can you do to stop melodrama from sneaking into your writing? Here are just a few tips:

1. Gage how much drama is in a scene before you start writing. All right, you’ve been writing for months and months (or days and days if you’re a really quick writer), you’ve carefully plotted your way along, built up your characters, had a couple of struggles, and you’re finally here, the climax of your story. Time to let it all out and make this the most dramatic piece of writing ever, right? Depending on your book, maybe, but interestingly enough, the more dramatic the scene is naturally, the less dramatic you need to make the writing. Again, you don’t want to end up writing something like “He shot the guy and the guy died” but a man dying is powerful itself. If you pile dramatic language on on top of the inherent drama in the scene, you’re going to be pushing dangerously close to being overdramatic. Show the bullet hitting, show the man falling to the ground, don’t detail each drop of blood and how it’s spraying out with copious mounts of adjectives. Try to balance the drama in scene and the drama in your writing accordingly.

2. Don’t feel the need to make your writing “powerful”. This is where melodrama and “Hey look! I’m a writer!” syndrome can match up. While a new writer that has a problem with making scenes melodramatic may not have the same need to make all of their writing flowery and poetic to seem like a better writer, they get to a powerful scene and suddenly worry that by not using overly dramatic language, the scene won’t have any effect. Proper word choice is always important, of course, it’s what being a good writer is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that overly dramatic language is proper for a dramatic scene. As I said above, it often just makes the entire scene overdone. Focus on the scene itself, and write what sounds natural. Trying to force “powerful” language in will make it simply sound, well, forced.

3. Understand the difference between emotion and angst. Melodrama can run rampant in emotional scenes, and once again it’s a balancing act. Emotional writing is good (if it’s a sad scene, and you can actually bring your readers to tears [that aren’t related to having to read the writing] that’s a very good thing) angst, however, is bad, even if just because it gets really annoying to read really quickly. This is another case of taking a step back, and sizing up what is appropriate for a scene. Is the character devastated by the death of their mother? Ok, show that, but first think about how the character would realistically react. Are they the type to literally rip their hair out? Ok, go with that. Most people, however, are likely just going to cry, or want to hit something, or go catatonic. Just because a character is only crying and not cursing the heavens doesn’t make the scene any less powerful, it just makes it more realistic.

Also do your best to refrain from repeatedly coming back to an “emotional” point–especially if you’re going for a ripping-out-hair example. As they say, “Time heals all wounds” As your story goes on, your character should be slowly overcoming things, not sitting around thinking the same thing over and over ad nauseam. When nothing happens, reading becomes boring. When the language is overdone on top of that, it becomes annoying.

3. Remember, less really is more. Sometimes at least. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but then every little in writing is. Most of the time, however, you don’t want to take a page to say what you can say in a sentence. Even in slowly moving stories, there has to be some sense of progress. When you’re filling up page after page of flowery, emotional, or “powerful” langauge over one event, you have just stopped the story from moving whatsoever. By talking about a powerful topic, and then moving on before the reader is sick of it, you tend to leave people with a much stronger image. It also makes sure that your audience will read all of what you have written. When progress stalls, more than a few people will jump to the next thing that seems to move the story along, further weakening a scene (we may not get to the screaming at the heavens part if we’re still stuck at how each tear is falling like a snaking river…)

4. When all else fails, try try again. Is your writing still coming out melodramatic? Is trying to fix it keeping you from writing? Let it go. You can always fix things in editing. The most important thing is to get the thoughts down on paper (no matter how well done it is). You can’t get better if you don’t write. Once the story is done, you can always come back and edit, and rewrite, and edit, and edit, and rewrite again. Good writing takes practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Related Articles: War on Was , “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome , All of a sudden, he was suddenly there , The Unneeded Words


I am woman, hear me roar

Recently, an article (“The five most pathetic female film characters of all time” by Lindy West) popped up on my Facebook feed, outlining West’s choice of “most-standy-there female movie characters.”

West goes on to point out female characters in movies who are “boring, old-timey, textbook damsel[s]-in-distress” with entries like:

-Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) in Red Riding Hood (described as “nubility personified/human Keane painting/tube of lip gloss made flesh…[whose role is to] Stand there. Wait to be rescued. Weep. Stand there some more. Quiver under the male gaze. Reapply lip gloss.”)

-Buttercup (Robin Wright) in The Princess Bride (“could Buttercup maybe DO something once in a while besides brush her hair and contemplate suicide because she and her boyfriend broke up? The woman is a blue silk sausage casing stuffed with whines.”)

and, of course:

-Bella (Kristen Stewart) in the Twilight Series (“Limp bag of tears waits for marriage to have sex with her undead boyfriend; is paralysed by grief every time he goes in the other room.”)

Ok, now even I can’t support a character that falls apart as soon as their man leaves (“You’re just… lifeless, Bella.”) but does that mean that you can never have a “weak” female character?

Now, having previously gone to a very liberal, very politically active university (we were in DC after all…) I have known my share of feminists, from radical to lipstick. I’ve also known a couple of people on the “feminism is subjugating men” side of the equation. Likewise, I would define myself as a feminist, by the fact that I support “equal political, economic, and social rights for women” What I have a problem with, however, is the idea I have found circulated in some groups that the only way to be a feminist is to rebel against what society has decided are “traditional” female roles. While I do fully support equal rights for women (which I don’t believe should shock many people reading this) I also like makeup, am currently wearing a dress, like to cook, and plan on taking my fiance’s last name once we get married (for at least social situations). Does the fact that I genuinely enjoy “traditionally feminine” things mean that I can’t be a feminist? If anything, how is telling women they have to like “traditionally masculine” activities to be acceptable any different from telling them they have to like “traditionally feminine” activities?

Now, there are so many different arguments you can go off of from there (“traditional” roles are really fairly modern, men and women are different, but equal in their different ways, feminism is losing site of its original goal, what have you) but my point through all of that is: How is forcing a character to be strong just because she’s a woman any different from forcing a character to be weak?

I fully understand not wanting weeping, standy-there female characters. But I don’t think that, over all, is a problem with the characters being female. It’s a problem with the fact that standy-there characters, in general, are boring (and many times annoying). A protagonist that doesn’t make any decisions and lets the rest of the story carry them along isn’t much of a protagonist at all. Male or Female.  The “damsel in distress” (or her male equivalent) is not often cast as the main character of interesting books. Why? Because she doesn’t do anything. There isn’t much of a plot to be written when your main character is sitting up in a tower waiting to be rescued (at least not if you aren’t planning on doing some psychological drama about the effects of isolation, which I could actually see being pretty interesting).

Day 1: Sitting in tower. God I wish I weren’t in this tower.
Day 2: Still sitting here, you’d really think someone would come help me. Oh well, still hate it here.
Day 3: Sitting against the opposite wall now. I passingly considered trying to make a ladder out of sheets, but I think I’d rather keep sitting here and whining about being stuck in a tower with no one to save me.

Male or Female, I don’t care, I would get fed up with that character (and that book) very quickly.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting people rely on stereotypes for any of their characters. A female character shouldn’t be weak and emotional just because she’s a woman any more than a Latino character should eat nothing but tacos just because they’re Latino. But there are people in the world that can be weepy messes. As an author, you are perfectly allowed to have one in your story.

But I can also promise you, at least 99% of the time, being a weepy emotional mess is not all that real person is. Perhaps they’re battling depression. Perhaps they cry at the drop of a hat, but they are a genuinely good, happy person. Perhaps they used to be more balanced, but something happened to make them think that’s how they should act to be accepted. Don’t feel the need to make your character something they’re not just because it’s something that could be seen as a stereotype, but don’t make that trait their entire personality either. If you dig a little deeper, you will find so much more to them that will keep them who they are (weepy) but make them so much more than a one-note stereotype.

Some people fall into “traditional” stereotypes, there’s a reason they’re stereotypes after all, but people are complex. If you can capture that complexity in your character, you don’t have to make them something they’re not to not be “insulting” Let’s face it, making a character “un-stereotypical” but, again, just that one simple trait, it isn’t any better.

Googled Questions

One of the things I have to say I love about WordPress (the host for this blog, if you missed that in the URL) is that they give you a stats page about your blog. It might be a little more addicting than it should be (I really want someone from Russia to read this blog one of these days to get that country filled in on the “where your readers are” map) but it’s very handy when it comes to seeing how you’re reaching your readers, and what posts are the most popular.

What can be interesting about the stat page, though, is that it will sometimes show you search terms that brought people to your page. For example, if someone searched “Jessica Dall” and then clicked over here from Bing or Google or another search engine, it might show “Jessica Dall” as a search term on my stats page. Of course the page isn’t going to let me know who’s doing the searching (or even what country they’re in) since I’m sure that’s some sort of privacy violation, but it is interesting to see what people are trying to find out when they make it to this blog.

So, for anyone who’s Googled something and haven’t found the answer they wanted here, I’ll do my best at answering some of those questions. (Questions edited for spelling mistakes/coherency)

Q. Is 300,000 words a long book?
A. Yes, it is, but hardly the longest out there.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Why it’s harder to get longer books published , or tips on cutting down word count.

Q. When writing in third person, can you say what several characters are feeling?
A. It depends. There are two different ways of writing third person: Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient. In the first (currently more popular) narrative, you are telling a story through the point of view (POV) of a character, just describing them as he/she/it rather than I. In third Person Limited you should stay in the head of your POV character (thus you can only say what they feel/what they observe. If they don’t know Character B is upset because she had a little sister POV Character’s age, the narrative can’t explain that while still in POV Character’s head). In Third Person Omniscient, the story is being told by an all-knowing narrator. It is generally uncommon to find true Third Person Omniscient stories at the moment (the style seems to have been most popular in the 19th century) but if the story is being told by a narrator who knows everything it is possible for that narrator to say how all the characters a feeling (just make sure you aren’t writing in Third Person Limited and then decided you’re going to call it Third Person Omniscient randomly just so you can jump back and forth with how characters are feeling).
Likely article(s) they were interested in: Head Jumping

Q. Should you use contractions in query letter?
A. Sure. I’m not sure there is a set protocol for it (I never knew one when I worked in submissions) but I don’t believe there’s any reason to sound overly formal in a query letter and (at least to me) you sound more natural as a writer if you use contractions, which is a good thing in my humble opinion.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: I don’t think there’s one directly related, but I do touch on why you should use contractions in creative writing here.

Q. How much narration do I need in a novel?
A. Depends on your novel. There are reasons to use narration some places and dialogue others. It’s about weighing the pros and cons to each. The big thing is not to worry too much about having a perfect ratio of narration to dialogue in your novel, it’s to make sure you’re telling the story the best way it can be told.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Pros and Cons to dialogue and narrative in Too Much Dialogue

Q. What’s the poison thing vampires have?
A. I don’t know, Googler, I don’t know… Apparently rather than turning someone into a vampire by feeding them your vampire blood (a la Anne Rice) in some books it’s “vampire poison” ( though I suppose it would be “vampire venom” if you’re going to be technical on the poison vs. venom thing) that turns a human into a vampire (the bite infects them or what not and if they don’t die the poison/venom changes them into vampires). Of course, it’s fantasy, so your guess is as good as mine.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: One of the many where I talk about writing problems where Twilight just happens to pop up…

Q. Is it ok to use song lyrics for writing prompts?
A. Absolutely. I’ve used a couple of different songs as the original inspiration for characters, plots, or even entire stories that have now been published. What you don’t want to do, however, is quote the song lyrics in your story (you can get into a whole host of problems with copyright infringement then).
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Writing Prompts

Q. What’s the shortest word count a publisher will accept?
A. It depends on the publisher (look at their submission guidelines as to what they accept before sending a query). It also will depend on if the publisher only publishes novels (generally considered to be over 50,000 words, but many publishers put novels in the 70,000+ words range) or if they also publish novellas and short stories. Of course, word counts are generally guidelines. One novel I have coming out this summer is around 51,000 words and the publisher generally doesn’t publish things that short, they just liked mine and made an exception. If nothing else, and you have an awkward word count, try searching for a publisher on a site like Duotrope which will let you search based one word counts accepted rather than just “novel/novella/short story”
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Word Limits

Q. Why do people say “dahlin'”?
A. Regional accents (in this case Southern US more than likely). If I remember my history of language class, that exact morphing of “darling” come from the fact that a US “Southern” accent is actually closer to an old English accent than many other US accents (supposedly Shakespeare would have sounded sort of Southern to us?) and thus it shares the same ‘h’ sounding ‘r’ as a British accent today (“dahling”). As to spelling it like that in a novel, “dahlin'” might be one you can get away with for phonetic spelling of accents (people generally will know what the word is without struggling) but as always, I’d be wary of trying to go overboard with “fonetik” spellings.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

Q. When are info dumps necessary?
A. Never. Ok, ok, probably not never, there’s always an exception to all writing advice and times you can do things that aren’t suggested amazingly, but as a general rule? Stay away from info dumps unless you’re parodying a Bond villain. There are almost always better ways to get information into a story than info dumping.
– Likely articles(s) they were interested in: Tips on how to get information in without info dumps in Info Dumps

Q. Is J. K. Rowling a bad writer/J. K. Rowling bad writing examples/examples of awful writing in Harry Potter/[and the list goes on]?
A. It’s interesting to see just how many different people are looking for examples of what makes J. K. Rowling a bad writer. Honestly, I enjoyed the Harry Potter series as some light reading as a teen, but no writer is faultless, so for those looking for some of J.K.’s weaknesses:
Over uses adverbs
– Clichéd plots/characters/etc
Flat Prose
Contrived Plot Points
And I’m sure there are more that people will point out (believe me, if you were a best seller, people would be picking apart every little problem you have in your novel too) but those are some major ones. Just remember, no author is infallible.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: But They Did It… about why best sellers aren’t always the best role models.

Q. Some real stories on why you shouldn’t use i cant believe it’s not butter?
A. All right, not really a question, and I don’t have an answer for it, but some how it linked someone to my blog. I really have no clue how. Still amuses me enough I felt the need to end with it. If someone has some sites with stories on why you shouldn’t use “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (other than that meaningless “margarine’s a molecule away from being plastic” myth) please let me know, since obviously a search engine thinks I can help people with that.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: …um…I really have no clue…

Plot Holes (Part II)

Since writing my first blog post about Plot Holes, I have gotten a few requests from people to point out some plot holes in famous stories. As I am not one to disappoint my readers, I have compiled some examples of plot holes I know, and that have been pointed out on other fun sites, for your reading pleasure. (So, while trying to edit out your own plot holes, at least take comfort in the fact you’re not alone).

Note: Should perhaps be obvious but, hey, spoilers ahead.

Harry Potter

1) The first thing people always have to point to when talking about plot holes it seems–the Time-Turner. For those that haven’t read the Harry Potter Series, or anything about them, or seen the movies, etc. “The Time-Turner was a device capable of time travel. The Time-Turner resembled an hourglass on a necklace. The number of times one turns the hourglass corresponds to the number of hours one travels back in time. It is extremely important that the user of a Time-Turner not be seen by past or future versions of themselves unless, of course, said versions are aware of their usage of a Time-Turner. A possible scenario is a wizard or witch killing their past or future selves by mistake” (Harry Potter Wiki). In Prisoner of Azkaban, brainiac Hermione Granger is using a Time-Turner to take several classes that happen at the same time of day, and it comes into play at the climax of the story.

Now time travel is a can of worms for any story, but the main point here is…If the wizards in Harry Potter are able to use time travel, why didn’t they just all go back to before the trouble started and keep it from happening?

There have been several arguments as to how this plot hole could be covered , but still it is a problem. Perhaps they all are destroyed in Book 5, but why didn’t they do it in the first four books (or before the series even started)? Perhaps within the realm of Harry Potter time travel you can only jump back, not move forward (making it so your future self doesn’t want to go too far back and not be able to catch back up to the “present”) but why then not find someone who doesn’t want to be in the present anyway, offer them a lot of money and have them go live a couple decades ago? All in all, it’s a problem J. K. Rowling opened up in Prisoner of Azkaban, and never could fully patch.

2) Wands changing ownership. “According to the seventh book, Harry disarmed Malfoy. Malfoy was the true owner of the Elder Wand, and so Harry became the true owner. If disarming was a suitable method for gaining ownership of a wand, then everyone in the DA would own each other’s wands.”

3) Horcruxes. “In COS [Chamber of Secrets], the horcrux in Harry should have died when the basilisk pierced him? Even though Fawkes healed him a few minutes later, the diary was destroyed in seconds when it was pierced, why should it take longer for the “Harry horcrux” to die.”


All right, I’ll try not to pick on Twilight too much (lord knows I’d like to), but just some points that really bother me (not counting factual errors like the whole “west coast” of Brazil thing [here’s a map of South America if you don’t get why that’s eye-rolling).

1) Edward is undead, his skin is ice-cold, doesn’t have blood circulating, but he’s still able to be, ahem, intimate and produce a child. Of course, as this blogger puts it, “Then again, he’s taken twelfth grade chemistry like a hundred years in a row; maybe he’s developed a new form of Viagra or something.”

2) Even after all her research in Twilight, Bella has no idea they sparkle instead of burn in the sunlight. In New Moon, Edward goes to get himself killed by revealing he’s a vampire by what this forum poster calls a “sparklefest”. As they put it, “did he not think of the fact that NOBODY KNOWS SPARKLING = VAMPIRE? Seriously, if they did see him in the sun, I bet they’d all just go, ‘Dude, it’s St Marcus’ Day, not Mardi Gras. God, you’re such a twat’.”

3) Alice’s visions. So many to choose from here (such as her visions only happening when convenient to the plot) but the big one I’ve seen pointed out goes against the rule Meyers has given her visions (that they can be changed based on people making different choices: “In Midnight Sun, Alice claims to have seen a vision of Bella as a vampire – implying that Bella has made the decision to become a vampire. At this stage, Bella doesn’t even know that the Cullens are vampires. How, then, was Alice able to see something based on a decision that it would have been completely impossible for Bella to make?”

4) And we’ll leave it at one more: “In Breaking Dawn, when Bella wakes up for the first time as a vampire, she describes being able to…hear all the way to the freeway. Sensory overload aside (even though such a high level of assault on the senses would probably have extremely damaging impacts), how is it that she is able to hear everything down to the freeway, yet Alice and Jasper were unable to hear her on the phone to James in the next room?”

The Da Vinci Code

1) Paternity Testing.  “Ok let’s admit that the body is Mary Magdalen and you can do a DNA on the surving Magdalen descendant, you still don’t have Jesus’ DNA.  So, how are you going to prove that the child is Jesus’ and Magdalen’s and not Magdalen’s and some other Joe Schmo.”

2) Clues to the killer. At the beginning the dying man leaves a message with clues to get the main characters started on their quest. He adds in the Fibonacci sequence to make sure his granddaughter is brought onto the case. Was there any reason he didn’t just write down who killed him and why? It seems he would have had plenty of time to.

Wicked/Wizard of Oz

1) Why didn’t Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West)’s parents ever bathe her in water? As one forum poster here puts it, “I know she had an inhuman aversion to it even as an infant, but why wouldn’t her folks wash her in it anyway?” It’s a pretty good question in my opinion. Of course, this plot hole would be relatively easy to explain away by saying people tend to wash with something else if that’s what Maguire wanted to do.

The Sound of Thunder

The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury is “all about these guys that use a time machine to go back in time and hunt dinosaurs.  When they arrive in the past, there’s a levitating walkway that they’re allowed to walk on, but they CANNOT step off of it.  The idea is that if you alter anything from the past, it could change the way EVERYTHING happens in the future.  Long story short, one of the guys steps off the platform, accidently kills a butterfly, and when he comes back to the future, all the signs say the same thing, but are spelled differently.

“The biggest hole here is the fact that stepping off the walkway can ruin things, but killing a dinosaur, thus making it fall over, onto land that it never would have originally fallen on, also obviously antagonizing the dinosaur, which would change its course of direction from what it naturally would have been, doesn’t matter.  Why does one butterfly from the human make a difference, but the butterflies that the dinosaurs fall onto, or the fact that dinosaurs are dying unnaturally soon makes no difference?” (Duncan) Personally, I would also like to add to Duncan’s plot hole…there’s a moving walkway in the [insert appropriate paleolithic era here]. How did someone build it/get power to it/etc. without changing anything?

Yet another time travel problem.

And, since I have family in town and blog posts may be few and far between for a week or so more, something to entertain yourself in my absence: Name the Movie by the Plot Hole: http://www.sporcle.com/games/Igon/plotholes_movies_cool (I’m sad I only got 9 of 12…)

The Unneeded Words

Recently, I talked about how long novels (generally over 120,000 words) can have problems getting published.

Beyond all of the generally valid reasons publishers may have for saying away from long novels for business reasons, there is the added fact that many long novels could do with a harsh editing before publishing–something the publishers likely don’t want to spend their time doing.

As I said before, if a story demands for a long book, and the 200,000+ length is nearly entirely action-packed or, at least, interesting, there’s no problem with it. If the story drags, however, you have more of a problem. Even if the writing isn’t quite up to purple prose levels, there are very few reasons to be wordy in most forms of creative writing.

And so, if you’re trying to cut down on your word count, keep some of these things in mind:

1. Unnecessary Scenes. Not every scene you write is necessary to your plot. There might be a cute date night or someone running into an old friend that gives you some fun banter, but while reading the story…it does nothing to advance the plot. Unless a scene serves a purpose, it sadly might be better to cut it–especially in a long book.

– Is the scene necessary to the plot?
– Does it show us something about a character that hasn’t been shown before?
– Does it have necessary background information that has to come out now (hopefully not in an info dump [see below])?

If not, seriously consider cutting it. If you can’t bear to see the conversation go, you can always save it elsewhere (I have folders for each project on my laptop with outlines, manuscripts, and a document with all the cut scenes that had to go but I still love–most just because the dialogue amuses me).

This likewise goes for laundry lists of actions. It’s perfectly allowable to have time jumps in novels. The characters get in their car, and then, scene break, they pull up to their destination. You don’t need pages of them talking about nothing in the car, playing the license plate game, explaining how they’re changing their clothes, brushing their teeth somewhere…unless it’s somehow important, you can time jump.

2. Info Dumps. For those not wanting to click over to Wikipedia, an info dump is a long section of text that gives a bunch of back story all at once. Worst thing about info dumps? They’re often unneeded (or at least parts of it are). While we authors do (or at least should) know the entire history of a character (where they grew up, how long they’ve been in a job, who their parents are, why they don’t like so-and-so) it may or may not be important to the plot. An info dump slows down the action (Oh no! It’s the villain! Looks like the Main Character’s (MC) is really going to have to run for it…oh, five pages about how the villain became a villain and how he doesn’t like the MC…what was going on again?) and more than likely, it isn’t necessary.

Pick out the important bits (do we need to know the villain was abused as a child? Does that come up later? Do we need to know he went to Villain University?) and then find a way to weave that information in later. While hopefully your weaving it in doesn’t surface as an “As you know, Bob” even that is preferrable, in my personal opinion, to an info dump. “As you know, Bob”s will likely take up less space (with the unnecessary parts already clipped) and keep the action moving.

3. Too much description. Now, description is good. As I’ve said before, it’s a sad fact, but readers don’t see what’s happening in our heads while we’re writing. Without description it’s either just a bunch of people moving around empty spaces, or worse, floating dialogue. What you don’t need is every last detail in a room (see my comment about skipping those three pages of description about that tree in Return of the King).

Like everything in writing, how much description to use is a fine balance. Tell me the MC is in a classroom. You can say there’s a whiteboard, tables, a podium…whatever you see. You don’t, however, need to spend a page giving every last detail, especially if it’s not important. Is the exact pattern of the carpet going to come up later? Do we need to know how many posters are up and what each is of? If not, consider cutting back a bit–or at least not doing it all at once.

Like an info dump for exposition, description dumps aren’t good. Maybe the pattern of the carpet will be important. Can that come up later? Say a little while later the character looks down at their feet because they’re bored. They can start counting how many stars are across the floor? That way you get the pattern in without, “The room was large with X number of tables. Whiteboard took up one wall, there were 7 posters on the others. In the back… The carpet was… Three windows faced east… yada yada yada.”

4. Wordy phrasing. While not everything has to be in its most succinct form, it’s possible to cut down on your word count and make your writing/imagery stronger a lot of the time by rephrasing things. For example:

The sheets were soaked through, made a squishing sound when Sam moved.”

Not awful, and it’s good to get senses involved in a scene (too often people forget smell and sound for sight when writing). But I would edit it like this:

The sheets were soaked, squished when Sam moved.

Squishing would also work, but since squish is an onomatopoeia, “squished” gives me the same sound as “made a squishing sound” You have the same effect, and give a stronger feeling without all the words couching the sound. Now the sentence has gone from 12 words to 8 words. Chopping out 4 words at a time in a 100,000 word novel can add up quickly.

5. Redundancy. Has it been said before? Cut it. No matter how important a fact is, repeating it over and over isn’t just space consuming, it gets annoying.

All the same, she was happy to be there.”
Two paragraphs later.
Happy to be there, she…”
A paragraph later.
She really was happy to be there.”

We get it, we get it, she’s happy to be there. If a point is very important, maybe say it twice, but more likely than not, the reader will get it after one time. That means you can take out at least 11 words there (“Happy to be there” and “She really was…”) Again, that adds up.

This likewise goes with scenes that are redundant. Did your MC already talk about how he really wishes he could go home? Maybe you need to restate that later, but you don’t need to spend multiple scenes with the character talking about the same thing. Especially not if it is something the character is complaining about. A lot of complaining, whining, or angsting gets old quickly. Namely because a character is continuously complaining about something, but doing nothing to fix it. The plot doesn’t move forward and the character seems one-note.

6. Unneeded Words. And, last but not least, what this blog is titled after–all those little words that sneak in that really don’t need to be there. I believe, so far this year, I have yet to return an edited manuscript that isn’t at least 1,000 words shorter than when I got it (even with adding in needed words/sentences). Even without the other things on this list, there always tends to be unnecessary words.

Now there are plenty of words that can be unnecessary depending on context, but the three I find myself deleting the most are “up”, “very”, and “that”.

Now, if you have someone look up, yes you need up, but often I find “She stood up” or “She raised her hand up” For the first, there isn’t much difference between “She stood” and “She stood up” Up is contributing nothing. For the second, raising implies “up” You don’t “raise your hand down” thus you don’t need to specify.

“Very” is a modifier that “very” often gets abuse. I know I use it all the time (you can probably find plenty of “very”s in this blog). Mostly, though, “very”s get cut before adverbs/adjectives in my editing.

He ran very quickly.”
Her singing was very beautiful.”

Very can bog the sentence down, and they change “very” little. It’s still possible to picture someone running quickly or singing beautiful without modifying it with “very”

As for “that” I have a bit of a vendetta, I admit. Lets look at some examples:

I hope that I don’t fall.”
It was comforting knowing that she wasn’t alone.”
He couldn’t believe that he had been there so long.”

There’s nothing technically wrong with those sentences, but let’s get rid of those “that”s:

I hope I don’t fall.”
It was comforting knowing she wasn’t alone.”
He couldn’t believe he had been there so long.”

Have the sentences lost any of their meaning by taking out “that”? Not really.

So, depending on how often you use unneeded “up”s, “very”s, or “that”s in sentences, you can cut your word count down substantially just by taking out words that don’t serve a purpose.


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Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

All right. Be honest, how long did it take you to figure out the title? Did you even bother? All right, if you did, what is easier for you to read, that title or “Why I hate phonetic accents”?

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that the English language makes little sense. It’s a Germanic language that was morphed by Anglo-Saxons, too far away to remember original German, adapted by the French during the Norman Conquest, and then had a thousand years to go through a vowel shift, changes, and added words (it’s reported Shakespeare alone invented 1,700 now common English words). Standardized spellings weren’t common for long after the Elizabethans (after all, Noah Webster decided to standardize “American” spellings in 1780) and many grammatical rules have come and gone, made by people often referred to as “pedantic” (split infinitives were only classified as “wrong” in the 20th century by scholars who more than likely believed English should follow Latin grammatical rules [where it’s quite literally impossible to split infinitives]). So why isn’t “phonetic” spelt “fonetik”? Because it comes from a Greek root, transcribed from the Greek Alphabet as ‘ph’ in the Latin alphabet, and it’s been that way since.

So, all of it is made up. So why can’t we make sure our character’s accents come out properly by having one say “dahlin'” one “dahrling” and one “derlin'”? The same reason people standardized language in the first place. It’s harder to understand. 

Truly, language as a whole is made up, if you want to argue it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s purpose is ultimately to have one person understand another. That vastly increases when you’re a writer. If you want to write something out phonetically as you understand it for your own notes, it doesn’t matter. If you’re expecting people to understand you in a novel/short story/article you’ve written, eet prabalee shudent b ritten liek dis.

Furthermore, how an accent sounds to you and how it sounds to someone else can be two very different things. Think of a British accent. How would someone with a British accent say “Really” to you? Reelee? Realeh? Rehleh?

Does it change if they’re speaking with a Kightsbridge Accent? London Accent? RP Accent? Cockney Accent? So now, not only is the phonetic spelling subjective, it can also be insulting if you don’t actually speak with that accent. Personally, I’d think I [in DC] say “really” something like “reelee” but I don’t speak with British accent. How do I know what sounds correct to someone from [insert place character is from]? After all, I’ve never heard someone say “pip, pip, cheerio” even though that’s supposedly British from what TV tells me. If you suddenly try to make your Irish character sound like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun saying top o’ the mornin’ to ya everywhere, you risk people considering you ignorant and/or insulting.

So is there any reason to write out an accent? In my opinion, no. In a novel I recently edited, there was an Irish character speaking with the thickest phonetically spelled attempted-accent I have ever seen (even sounding it out it didn’t sound Irish to me). Eventually I gave up trying to read what that character was saying (reading shouldn’t be that difficult in my opinion), leaving a note along the lines of “please, please, please don’t do this” but I do still remember one perfect example of the confusion spelling things out phonetically can cause.


Any guesses on that one? Perhaps some context, unphoneticized:

“Look, a fairreh!”

What I heard saying it? Fairy. It was a fantasy novel, so I thought, all right, fairies are showing up.

Too bad the author meant “Fire”

Just a small difference in the tone of the scene there.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t throw in small changes like “gonna” or “haveta'” if you feel the need to (e.g. “Tommy! Why haven’t you taken the trash out?” “Ah….I was gonna.”) but I highly, highly suggest staying away from trying to show your character’s accent bi mayking ehveree wurd fonetik.

But then, how do you show someone’s accent if you don’t spell it out?

I’d suggest some less intrusive (easier to read) ways:

1.  “He said with an X accent.” It’s simple, but showing accents in writing might be best suited with simple mentions. There are many ways to get it across in the same way:

“Hi,” he said with an Irish accent.

She smiled at his lilting accent. It made even “hi” sound magical.

“Hi,” he said.
“Oh, that’s an interesting accent. Where are you from?”

“Hi,” he said, noticing how much his accent seemed out-of-place in the new school.

They all let you say he has an accent without  obscuring the actual words and making it hard to read.

2. Use speech patterns to show differences, not phonetics. Again, this is another one you have to be careful about not being insulting, but people from different areas don’t only have different accents, they use different grammar. Where I say, “I was going to go…” My great-uncle in West Virginia says, “I was fixin’ to go…” Where most people I’ve met say, “Turn off the light.” My college roommate from Brooklyn used to say, “Shut the light.” Don’t overdo it with regional slang (especially when you aren’t familiar with the region) since you’ll be in danger of going back to that “insulting” thing, but it tends to be a better way to show accents than, “I whas goeing too goe…” and “I whus fixen ta goh…”

3. If necessary, use phonetic spellings tastefully. As I said above, if your character doesn’t say “going to” properly, it might be all right to put “gonna” It’s a generally well-known version, and “I was gonna go…” would more than likely make sense to the bulk of your readers. Same with fixin’. Putting “fixing” just wouldn’t sound right in my head for “I was fixin'” Without the ‘g’ though, it’s still possible to generally understand what is being said. “I was fixin'” isn’t quite the same as “I whus fixen” The average reader will be able to read small changes like that easily. It’s when you start making people sound out every word that it gets tiring.

Now, can people write out phonetic accents well? I’m sure they can. Should they? In my personal opinion, no. Of course, that’s my personal opinion. As with everything else on this blog, people can take or leave what I say. They are all just suggestions after all. But, as I see it, anything that makes your writing difficult to understand isn’t generally good for it. After all, we standardized the language to be understood. And, as writers, it is our job to use language well.

How -Not- to Take a Review

Recently I posted about how to take a critique, since I know all to well how hard it can be to see your work red-lined after an edit or sit there listening to someone tell you all the problems they had with your work. It’s hard, but very helpful in making your writing the best it can be, be the critique from a friend, writers’ group, professional editor, or your publisher.

Coincidentally (I’m doing my best not to use “ironically” incorrectly, so coincidentally it is) not too long after I posted that article, I got an irate email from an author I recently wrote a review for (as I am a reviewer over at ePublish a Book) demanding the review be removed.

*Before continuing, I would like to say here that this article is in no way meant as an attack against said author. There will be no mention of the author’s name, her book, or links to the review in question. Instead, as with most of my blog posts, I am attempting to use personal experiences to give advice and clear up misconceptions about writing, editing, publishing, and reviewing. All of the following is meant to help those with misconceptions about how the review process works, and I am more than happy to answer additional questions left as comments, tweeted, or emailed to me.*

Now to start, I fully admit I can be a critical reviewer. I do my best to never be unfair, rude, or mean, but I am completely honest in what I think about the books I have read. If you get a good review from me, you have fully earned it. Still, even if I didn’t like a book, I do my best to point out what the author has done well. Unless there is absolutely nothing redeeming about a book, you will not see a review that is only disparaging either.

As that’s my goal as a reviewer–not lampooning ok books and only gushing about great books–I tend to write many mixed reviews: reviews along the lines of “I liked the story, but the prose was needlessly flowery” or “The characters were amazingly realistic, unfortunately the plot didn’t live up to their well-constructed depth” (Neither of those are from actual reviews, but you get the idea). The review in question was likewise mixed.

Obviously the author wasn’t pleased with the critical parts of the review, as not long after it posted I received an email along the lines of:

Take it down. If you are going to punish an effort, at least tell people first.”

Now, I won’t post the rest of the emails back and forth (there were quite a few with me telling her I wasn’t going to take it down and how reviews generally worked) since that would make for a needlessly long blog post and I don’t think it’s entirely professional to divulge the entirety of private correspondences when they aren’t exactly flattering, but I would like to hit on a few points for anyone who might have some misconceptions about requesting reviews.

1. Unless you are paying for a review, you have no control over what the reviewer writes about your book. As much as I might like to, as it says on my reviews and editing services page, I accept “no money or gifts from authors seeking reviews.” Now, the reason I don’t accept money or gifts is not because I hate gifts nor because I believe reviewing is a job that no one should get paid for. It’s because it’s a conflict of interest. There are some “reviewers” out there that you can send money and they’ll give you nice blurbs to put on your front cover, but I am not one of them. If it were possible to buy a good review from me it would  undermine my credibility as a reviewer. How would people know if I actually thought the book I’m reviewing is a good book or a book I hated but was paid to say good things about it? If I think it’s a good book I’ll say so, if it’s an ok book, that too. If I think it’s a bad book, well, sorry, you’re getting a bad review. Since you aren’t paying me, you don’t get to decide what I say.

2. No control means you do not get to edit the review nor determine whether or not the review is posted. Going back to the “at least tell people first” part of that first email, later emails made clear that–in the event that the review was not glowing–the author expected to get a copy of the review before it was posted to edit (or at least approve) it. While I’m not inherently opposed to the idea of giving an author a copy of what will be posted (though I’ve never heard of that happening outside of the aforementioned reviews-for-hire) it would not give the author the power to pull the article or edit it (e.g. “I don’t like what you say here about my book, can you make it nicer?”) so mostly that would just give the author time to see the review the day before everyone else does.

3. This fact (the author not getting to edit or having to approve a review) is, as far as I know, an industry standard. I can’t say I’ve talked to the entire industry, but no one I have talked to (reviewers/editors I know) has ever given someone asking for a review a copy of the review before hand, nor have they allowed edits. As an author you give them your book and wait until it’s posted. Assuming that you are going to get some say over the review shows either you have no idea how reviewing works or you have only ever paid for reviews/asked for people to give you good blurbs for the dust jacket. Basically, if you act as though you get a say, it makes you look unprofessional.

4. By asking for a review, you are taking the chance of getting a bad review. Going along with the fact that you don’t get a say in what is said in a review if you don’t pay for it, you have to accept that it is possible you won’t get a good review. If you’re extremely worried, try reading other reviews the reviewer you’re contacting has written. Anyone who reads my reviews will see that I don’t often gush about how wonderful a book is, and will point out anything I especially don’t like even in books that I generally like. If you want a review that’s 100 percent amazing you can cut and post to your website, you should either hope your book is completely brilliant or find a reviewer who writes more 100 percent positive reviews. I aim for totally honest reviews as a matter of principle.

5. If you absolutely will only accept a glowing review, ask upfront if the reviewer will refrain from posting a bad review. Now, first off, I DO NOT SUGGEST YOU DO THIS. It again comes off as unprofessional, but if you are absolutely insistent on not having any bad reviews up anywhere of your book, ask up front about it (otherwise it probably won’t cross the reviewer’s mind [see: not industry standard]). Personally, if someone asked that, I’d pass on reading their book entirely. Perhaps there’s someone who’d agree to it, but I’m certainly not one of them. It’s your choice over whether or not you’ll accept a bad review, but you have to accept you’re also passing up a possible good review in your quest to have nothing bad ever written about your book.

6. There’s no such things as bad publicity. Ok, so there is technically (say it comes out that you’re a serial killer or that your book causes brain aneurysms), but in general the old adage is true. So you got a critical review. So what? Not everyone is going to love your book. Ask someone what their favorite book is. They could gush, it could be critically acclaimed, and… there will still be people out there who slam it. Part of being a writer is accepting that fact. If you have a thin skin, you don’t have to look at anything posted about it, but it’s going to happen. Anyway, it’s better to have a so-so review on a heavily trafficked site to get your name out there than it is to only have a couple glowing reviews somewhere no one’s ever going to see them. Who knows, perhaps someone will like the sound of your book, no matter the review, and buy it. They aren’t going to if they’ve never heard of it, even if you have some people gushing about it.

7. A bad review isn’t punishment. Going back to the first email, I’m not sure what effort the author was talking about (requesting the review or publishing a book) but as it isn’t hard to request a review (just send an email) I’m going to assume “punishing an effort” refers to the book. First, as an author you unfortunately don’t get any points for effort. It would be sort of awesome if you did, honestly, but your work is going to sink or swim based on its own merit. If a book you wrote in a week is great, you’re more than likely going to get a great review, if a book you spent three decades working on and edited fifty times is bad, you’re still going to get a bad review. Second, a bad review–like a harsh critique–isn’t personal. The reviewer isn’t trying to punish you, discredit the work you put into the book, or attack you as a writer. They’re just honestly giving their opinion of the book they’ve read.

8. If you disagree with a review, it’s ok to say so, but ranting won’t help you. So you’ve decided to go ahead and ask for a review, and it unfortunately is overwhelmingly negative. FIRST, take a couple of hours, an afternoon, a day, however long it takes until you can think about it rationally. Bad reviews sting, I understand, perhaps even more so than critiques. However, it is not the end of the world. One bad review isn’t going to stop people from buying your book or make people think you’re obviously an awful writer.

Now, it’s hard to get any part of reviews changed (they’re opinions, so there generally aren’t factual errors to dispute and if the reviewer didn’t “get it” you at least have to take partial blame for not writing clearly enough for them to understand) but if there’s something you strongly disagree with, go ahead and contact them about it. You’ll likely get a “sorry, that’s how it is” email back, but it’s possible your reviewer will at least talk to you about why they felt a certain way, if you’re nice. Sending several angry emails and making demands will not get you anywhere. We get it, many reviewers are writers too, we know how you’re feeling. That doesn’t change the fact that our reviews need to hold up to certain standards, otherwise it undermines our credibility.

If you feel a review is unnecessarily rude or unfair, you can likewise email the writer’s editor and nicely try to make your points. As they posted it, it’s likely they too will support their writers (if they thought it was awful, they wouldn’t have put it on their site) but most will at least be willing to explain their decision, and if you’re lucky they may be sympathetic. Ranting at them about how awful and unreasonable a reviewer is being about a review they chose to post isn’t going to endear you.

And so, I hope that helps anyone who is unclear about the reviewing process. Like authors who want a pat on the head while editing, authors who want a pat on the head from a reviewer (and assume they’re going to get one) just makes for unhappy authors and unhappy reviewers. Never a good thing.

Head Jumping

Pretty much anyone who’s read a book has probably seen narrative written in first and third person. Some people may have even seen a couple in second. Everyone has their favorite to write in, and generally read, but I’ve always been rather partial towards third person. (Specifically third person limited).

Now, before I continue, First/Second/Third Person Points of View (POV) are something most people have heard about, but as a quick refresher:

In a first-person POV the story is relayed by a narrator, who is also a character within the story, so that the narrator reveals the plot by referring to this viewpoint character as “I” (or, when plural, “we”). For example: “I walked into the club…

In second person, the narrator refers to one of the characters as “you”, therefore making the audience member feel as if he or she is a character within the story. (“You see the man walking toward you.”) Not very popular, it’s mostly seen in “Choose your own adventure” books.

Third person has two subsets—limited and omniscient. In both, every character is referred to as “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”. In limited, the narrator is a character in the story, much like first person) only referred to as “s/he” rather than “I”. In omniscient, the narrator is a being outside the narrative relating all the character’s actions (as though they are watching the action unfold on stage/below them).

Everyone feeling refreshed? Okay, on we go.

Each POV has their own pros and cons, but first person and third person-limited are by far the most popular in modern literature.

Interestingly, after reading so many first novels working as an editor, I find that first time novelists seem drawn to first person (not as a rule, but as a general observation). I’m not quite sure why that is (perhaps the connection writers tend to feel towards first characters?) but it does offer some protection from a common third person limited problem. Head jumping.

If you’re writing in third person, stop and take a look at your writing. Are you showing the world as how your main character would see it? Then you’re in third person limited. Now, do you still say how every character is feeling when it comes up? That’s okay, but only if you stay in one character’s POV. Otherwise, it’s head jumping. And head jumping can be both annoying and confusing.

Without the confines of telling a story in first person–where you’re forced to stay in one character’s head–many people find themselves telling the reader what each character is feeling when it suits. We start in Character A’s head, showing the world as they experience it, and say what they’re feeling. For example:

A felt her stomach flutter.

As the POV character, A can know how she’s feeling. And it’s good to say. You’re showing how she’s feeling, not telling the reader how she’s feeling. Top marks for you. A can’t however know how character B is feeling. For example:

A felt her stomach flutter.
B looked back, knowing she was in love.

I know, not a great example there, but still, 1) B can’t know that unless they’re a character with some sort of omniscient powers and, 2) You’re in A’s point of view, A can’t know what B knows. It is a POV slip.

It may not seem like the biggest deal for some people, but going back and forth in third person limited shifts the entire world. As I said before, in both first person and third person limited you are showing the world through a character—both their point of view, and how they experience their world. A might be a pessimist, for example, while B is an optimist. In B’s POV, therefore, the reader is going to be experiencing the scene that is happening differently. Not markedly, perhaps, but through B’s eyes, not A’s. By jumping back and forth, you shift the entire view the reader is getting, which can offer a strange sense of vertigo.

Luckily there are some things you can do to stay in one POV in third person.

 1. Decide who’s experiencing the event. Think about whose eyes you’re seeing the story through (or the scene through). That is the person who is going to be telling everyone their personal experiences. Don’t slide into someone else’s just because you want their reaction.

-And more importantly-

2. Think about what the POV character could see to give other characters’ reactions. Perhaps the POV character can’t know the other character’s having their stomach flutter, but they can see them place a hand on their stomach, or swallow, or (if nothing else) you can say it seems the other character is experiencing something (A placed a hand on her stomach, looking as if it fluttered uncomfortably). The last might not be the best way to go about it, but it’s better than head jumping.


It can be a little harder to funnel your writing through one character’s POV, but lazy writing doesn’t make for good writing, so just take a little longer and think about what the POV character could know. It will also help with the age-old showing vs. telling problem. You will be forced to show actions rather than just saying what characters feel. And, after all, you can’t just say how your characters feel. That makes me feel angry. 


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“Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome

And we’re back. Hopefully everyone had a good weekend! Let’s start this week with a quick pop quiz:

Q: What is wrong with this sentence?

The golden sun rose as a burning orb from the emerald green that carpeted the horizon into the azure blue sky.”

A: Well, perhaps there are a couple of things wrong, but the main one I’d hope people caught is the purple prose.

Again, like much of what I talk about on this blog, purple prose is a term that’s relatively well known in the writing community, but for those who don’t know, I believe this man (calling himself Bob Dole interestingly…) might have put it best, “I’d say that purple prose is a passage that is so needlessly ornate and wordy that it takes away from the meaning of the passage.

I think anyone who’s read enough has probably come across at least one example of purple prose. The sun can’t rise, it’s a golden orb lifting magnificently. A woman can’t have red hair, she has hair the color of a burning ember that flows like torrents over her shoulders.

Now, of course, we’re writers, we want to describe things vividly. After all, it’s a good thing to help readers see what we’re seeing while writing. But as our good friend Bob says, “The more wordy the passage gets, the harder it is to get the point across.” And that’s always a bad thing. I might be old fashioned, but isn’t part of being a good writer, I don’t know, writing things that people understand? Sometimes you can get away with borderline purple prose, but more often than not, it just obscures what you’re talking about in the first place.

Think about it, if the sun is a golden orb, rather than “the sun” and your main character’s eyes are “emerald orbs” rather than green eyes (people writing purple prose have an odd attachment to the word “orb” for some reason I find more than often) all of a sudden, the readers is having to work to keep track of what orbs are floating where and what they’re supposed to represent.

“But don’t we want the reader to think about our story?” someone may be asking. The keyword there is “story”. Having a reader engage with your story, having them want to read more, is a good thing. Having a reader confused with what you’re saying is the exact opposite. No one wants to be focusing on trying to understand the wording when they should be focusing on the characters and plot. And, truly, which is easier for you to understand/picture? Her green eyes, or her emerald orbs? At least for me, the first I’m picturing, well, green eyes, and the second I’m picturing her holding glass balls that are dark green. It doesn’t make for a powerful image. It makes for an overly poetic, confusing one.

Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t, but having just read a book for review where my main complaint is that the language takes away from an otherwise touching story, I feel completely safe in saying that purple prose not only obscures what the author is trying to say, but it makes it look like they really don’t know what they’re doing.

And thus, that is why I almost always personally refer to purple prose as “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome. Though this is one thing I never had a problem with in my early writing (unlike all the other problems I’ve more than willing to admit to) it seems far too often that people who have just started writing feel the need to prove they’re a real writer, and so what do they do? Prove that they are amazing wordsmiths of course. Anyone can write about someone’s green eyes, real writers obviously can embellish to the point where the person reading will weep picturing the detailed world they have created. That’s how they prove they’re a real writer. Right?

Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know exactly how I feel about this idea that there are “real” writers and, I don’t know, fake writers(?) but purple prose nearly always seems like an extension of that idea, at least to me. You might be new to writing, but you are a “real” writer, dagnabit, and a good, nay, great one at that. Look how skillfully you craft descriptive words. All those fake writers out there can’t do that.

I don’t know first hand, but I imagine that that isn’t even a conscious thought. You aren’t sitting at your computer or there with a pen thinking, “I’ll show them all. I’m a writer!” but from what I’ve seen, that is the motivation for “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome. And that’s why it has the exact opposite effect. It doesn’t make you look like a good (or “real” writer) it makes you look like someone who has no idea what they’re doing trying too hard. If you look at the definition of “prose” (courtesy of Wikipedia), “Prose is the most typical form of language, applying ordinary grammatical structure and natural flow of speech rather than rhythmic structure (as in traditional poetry).”

What I want to focus on there is “natural flow of speech.” I don’t know about anyone else out there, but I have never heard any of my friends refer to eyes as X orbs (X=chocolate, emerald, cerulean, lilac, etc.) I’ve never heard someone talk about the golden orb rising into an azure sky.

Of course, as writers we have some leeway when it comes to discriptive language, I’m not saying to be bland with your writing either, but still, being a good writer isn’t about obscuring your story with flamboyant prose. It’s about making the normal interesting. A good writer is someone who can maintain a rhythm in their writing that not only reads well, but is completely natural. A good writer can produce beautiful, beautiful prose to the point where casual readers don’t even notice how good it really is.

And so, please, new or established writers, resist the urge try to prove something with your writing and don’t throw so many frills on your prose that it’s hard to even keep straight what you’re talking about. It doesn’t make you look like a good writer, it makes you look like a bad writer who’s trying too hard.

Especially if you’re sending me a book to review, because I will call you out on it.

Mary Sues

All right, here’s a controversial topic around the writing community. Speaking about Twilight yesterday got one of my friends talking about what a Mary Sue Bella is.

Most people who have hung around a writing community for any amount of time have heard of Mary Sues (especially Fan Fiction sites). For those who haven’t, as TV Tropes puts it, “Mary Sue is a derogatory term…[used] to describe a particular type of character. This much everyone can agree on. What that character type is, exactly, differs wildly from circle to circle, and often from person to person” (if interested you can read the entire article here, but standard TV Trope warning: it’s addictive).

Still, for not having a set definition, there’s plenty of talk about Mary Sues in literary circles. You can find “litmus tests” to see if characters you are writing are straying too close to Mary-Sue Territory (like the ones here and here) and it seems that just about everyone can agree that writing a Mary Sue is a bad thing.

In my favorite haunts, the NaNoWriMo forums, you often find threads similar to this:

Now I know there are tests and quizzes on the net for this kind of thing, but I’d like your opinions.

“Her name is XXXX. She’s an auntie to a two month old boy ; loves him more than anything, just like she did her brother before a hoarde of zombies killed him (her brother). She’s in love with one of the guys in her renegade, although she has issues with being close to him as she is afraid she will lose him like she lost her brother. She tried to kill herself because she was depressed after her brothers death. She’s an orphan (her parents were turned into zombies and she killed them) and she’s seventeen. She has brown hair, is a little over average height (just enough for it to be noticeable and look a little odd, not quite enough to make her look like a freak), has blue eyes and her weapon of choice is a .45 pistol and a wooden broom handle. ”

Now, of course it’s nearly impossible to tell someone if their character is a Mary Sue (or at least Sue-like) from a list of characteristics (after all it really tends not to be the character, but how you use them), but going back to TV Tropes:

“The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

“She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series. (See Common Mary Sue Traits for more details on any of these clichés.)”

There’s of course some wiggle room on these traits, but the general consensus seems to be summed up in this NaNoWriMo forum post:

I’m not personally opposed to Sue-like characters (many beloved characters, from James Kirk to Harry Potter, score high on the litmus test), but they have to be done carefully not to be off-putting.”

And what did all this Mary Sue talk lead me to think about? Editing of course. While I assure everyone that I will never name names about books I have worked on (1. It’s unprofessional 2. It’s just rude) the main character of a recent book I was contracted on has slowly left me feeling like she’s more and more Sueish. On one of the above litmus tests she scores about a 54 (most likely stemming from a combination of “tragic back story” “unbelievably beautiful/all men want her” and “mouthpiece for authors beliefs”) which is marked as: “36-55 points: Mary-Sue. Your character needs some work in order to be believable. But despair not; you should still be able to salvage her with a little effort. Don’t give up.” A couple more points and you’re into Uber-Sue territory.

Now, this particular character is definitely not inherently unlikable as some characters I have heard discribed as Sueish are. It took about half the story before I started getting especially annoyed with her. And I’m definitely not attacking the author. Believe me, if someone dug out that first novel I wrote in high school, one of the characters would score at least that high on a Mary Sue test. I would be the first to admit to the new-author trap that is Mary Sue creation. I think, like many problems in novels, Mary Sues fade as you write more and more. When you start out, your Main Character (MC) is your baby, your perfect creation. It makes sense that people like her, and those that don’t are jealous. She’s just that awesome. More characters you write, the less you’re going to attach yourself so completely to one MC and fall into the “Wish Fulfillment” trap.

In this certain novel, however, the main unlikability of the MC is the fact that the work is so black and white around her. All the male characters are only interested in sleeping with her (or at least want to sleep with her on top of being her friend), the female characters are either “good” characters, and completely enthralled with her or “bad” characters who don’t like her because they’re jealous. There is even a line that goes along the lines of “I didn’t believe he wasn’t attracted to me” after the first male character ever says he isn’t. While there are times this line could work–in first person, it’s possible that the character is just really vain. That’s a completely valid personality flaw–in this case, though, it’s probably a completely truthful observation because, well, every male character is attracted to her. And she wouldn’t be as awful to be vain. Not like she has flaws. This man even then goes on to say she’s beautiful in pretty much the same breath.

In the same vein, when Miss Sue goes off on one of the many tirades she does on topics the author obviously finds important, the other characters either completely agree with her–even though they have no reason to as far as their upbringing/personal beliefs/etc.–meet her rather valid, thought out points with something along the lines of “uh, I never thought of that” or “uh, you’re wrong, just because, uh, you’re wrong,” or they’re just bad, bigoted people you aren’t supposed to like in the first place. And this happens over and over and over again.

And in essence, that final point makes for my definition of a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue–while often has many of the traits listed in the TV Tropes–is ultimately a character that bends the story around them. It doesn’t matter what other characters would realistically do, they react to the Mary Sue because that’s obviously the way all characters would react to her. She’s perfect and beautiful and…perfect. No matter how she acts, people have to love her. If they don’t, it’s because they’re jealous of how perfect she is. Things that happen to her in the story happen because she’s who she is. There’s no random happenstance, no logical progression, just “Oh, another guy. He’s going to want to get with her. No, it doesn’t matter he’s married. No, nothing will stop her amazing awesomeness.”

And that’s what’s annoying about them. As nice as it might be for an author to be able to write a character they wish they were, or someone who is able to say everything they’ve ever wanted to say, they’re at best boring to read about and more often just annoying. Even agreeing with at least a good share of this Sue’s points, I don’t want to hear them, especially not when it’s another tirade at another character that is so obviously unenlightened that they need this character to yell at them and change their entire way of thinking.

It’s not impossible to get a book published with a Mary Sue for a main character. It’s not even impossible to have a best seller with a MC Mary Sue (cough, Bella Swan, cough). It just isn’t interesting to read. Give me a character that has flaws, give me a character that has things happen to her just because she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, heck, give me a character that lectures, but against competent debate partners. To me, those are all preferable to a perfect character and a black and white world.