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.

Onward!

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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

 

Crises of Confidence

Summer is coming up, and that means the release for my novel this summer (The Bleeding Crowd) is coming up fast. It also means that right now I have a giant file of edits from my editor sitting in my inbox to go over that I may or may not be avoiding at the moment…

Now, I’m certainly not saying that I am not appreciative for the edits. Even as an editor myself, I am very aware that there are things in my own writing that slip past me that I would catch on the other side of things (the danger of being too close to your own writing). I am in fact very grateful to have someone going over my stories before they’re out there for the whole world to see.

However, that doesn’t make it much easier to open that file and look at your baby all marked up. I’ve talked before about how to best take a critique, and I’ve been through enough to do pretty well on the not taking edits personally front, but that doesn’t always stop another relatively common writer experience, the crisis of confidence.

Now, getting edits/critiques back are a prime time for them to happen, but crises of confidence can come up at any point in the writing process. Perhaps you’re reading your first edit from an editor, perhaps you’re looking over your first draft, perhaps you’re even still in the middle of writing, I think most writers are at least acquainted with that lingering feeling you get as you’re going along and suddenly think, “Man, I’m really not good at this whole writing thing, am I?”

We all go through it, and in the worst cases, it sometimes stops us from writing a story we otherwise were really excited to tell. Afterall, just look at what you wrote. It sucks. Obviously the entire story would suck if you kept writing. What’s the point? Or if you already finished it, look how awful it is in general. Wouldn’t it just be better to forget it somewhere in your room/on your desk/in your computer’s hard drive forever?

Of course there are going to be some stories you give up on/forget about. I have a good share of half-completed story ideas (ranging anywhere from just started to half a book) that I may never get back to. I have at least two earlier novels that I finished but just don’t find it worth the time to actually do anything with them since the seem so bad to me. It’s ok if you run out of steam every once in a while, or just wrote something for the hell of it and now want to forget about it completely. It only becomes a problem if these crises keep you from writing all together.

In many ways, this is the problem NaNoWriMo was created to battle. By forcing a hard deadline (that includes writing nearly 2,000 words a day) participants are forced to “ignore their inner editors” and get the words down on paper, for better or worse. People tend to have their own opinions on the quantity vs. quality debate there, but it’s not a bad solution, in my opinion, when it comes to trying to fight a crisis of confidence. If it’s possible for you to simply ignore that little voice in your head that’s telling you your book sucks and keep writing one way or another, that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately that’s easier said than done sometimes. And so, some tips for getting past the “I’m an awful writer” blues, at all stages of writing:

First things first, you’re your own toughest critic. When you’re having a crisis of confidence, 99 times out of 100, you’re likely going to be harder on yourself than any one else reading your writing. Where you wouldn’t be so hard on someone else you were critiquing (“There’s some telling here, can you try to show?”) you’re probably going to tear into yourself (“what is with all this telling. Your writing is awful. Why do you even try?”) Ignore the urge to give into self-flagellation, and, no matter where you are in the writing/editing process, leave yourself a note and keep working.

While Still Writing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while in the middle of a work-in-progress)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck. Ok, maybe suck is a little harsh, and I’m sure there are some Mozart writers out there (the ones who have stories that come out nearly perfectly first go around) but having problems in your first draft doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer. Maybe the dialogue between your two characters sounds awful right now, but that’s all right, it’s a first draft. As long as you have the basic Point A leads to Point B leads to Point C stuff down, it’s fine. No one is going to be judging your writing skills off of an un-edited first draft. You shouldn’t either.

2. You can always edit later. Here’s the “locking up your inner editor” thing you see so often on the NaNoWriMo forums. The important part when in the writing stages of your Work in Progress (WIP) is to actually write. Maybe you aren’t a quantity over quality person, that’s ok. You don’t have to word vomit (write everything that passes through your head in one go just to get it on the page) as some WriMos are famous for, you just have to give yourself permission to not be perfect. Write as quickly or as slowly as you want, just don’t obsess about one sentence that is giving you problems. Get is good enough for a first draft, and then leave yourself a note to come back to it when you’ve moved on to editing. Don’t rush yourself if you’re not that type of writer, but don’t throw your entire story off the rails just because you’re beating yourself up about one line that just sounds wrong.

3. Jump to a different scene. All right, disclaimer, this one doesn’t always work for everyone. Some people (myself included) write best chronologically. If I don’t write A to B to C, I have a hard time getting everything to line up at the end with the missing scenes. If you have a strong outline, however, or are just fine with writing scenes in varying orders, jumping to some place later in the book can be a good way to get you out of our funk. So what if the entire beginning seems to be a boring info dump? Look at how exciting the climax is. You can always fix things up when you’re feeling better about your writing as a whole.

4. Take a short break. Emphasis on the word short. You don’t want to lose your momentum, but don’t force yourself if you’re in the grandmother of all slumps. Stop trying to force the writing, and perhaps do something more productive than staring at a blank page/computer screen. Do a character drawing, try to plot out how the Main Character’s house looks, or read another book that might inspire you. Just don’t let “not today” turn into “not this week” turn into “not this month” turn into “I once tried writing a novel…”

While self-editing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while attempting to edit/rewrite a draft)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck, second drafts can too. Again, you don’t have to aim for perfection straight out of the gate. If you aren’t a Mozart writer, and don’t have divinely inspired words on the page, expect for there to be multiple rounds of edits before you have something you’ll even remotely think of showing to other people. Just because something seems badnow doesn’t mean you won’t make it great once you’ve finished edits.

2. You don’t have to keep all of it. Is it really just that first scene that isn’t working for you? You can always rework it, rewrite it, or cut it all together. Just because it ended up on the page in your rough draft doesn’t mean that it has to stay in the story for all eternity. Speaking as someone who can word vomit during NaNoWriMo, an entire character from 2010’s novel found themselves cut before the book was even shown to someone else. She just wasn’t working, and wasn’t important enough to save, sadly.

3. See if someone else can give you some pointers. If you get the general feeling that your story is awful, but have no idea how to fix it (and you’re brave enough to let someone else take a look) it can be very helpful to have someone give you some suggestions to help fix things (that will likely be less harsh than your inner critics suggestions of “you suck” and “why do you even try”). One caveat, however: Try to find someone who is also a writer, and editor, or at least a very avid reader. Writers and editors will probably be better at telling you the exact points you can focus on perfecting where casual readers (friends/family/etc.) are more likely to give you less helpful comments such as “I liked it” or “It was ok”.

#3 Tip: If you’re shy about sharing a rough draft that’s probably in pretty, well, rough shape, try finding an online critique forum (such as the NaNoWriMo one here) rather than talking to someone in person. It’s sometimes easier to send a story (or even just a scene from a story) off to another faceless writer than to go up to someone you know in person.

After a critique/edit (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while reading over someone elses edits to your work)

1. Nobody’s perfect. Even if you’ve edited your story thirty times yourself, there are still going to be problems you’ve missed (see the whole being too close to your work comment above). Expect for a sea of red (or at least a lot of comments) to come back on any story. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer, it means the editor/critic had different thoughts about some scenes. In fact, if your critic/editor is any good, you’ll actually hope for a lot of comments/suggestions. Creative writing, like any art, is subjective. The comments are just ways you’ll be able to see what people with other writing styles prefer, and you can decide if they help make your writing better or if they’re just something to think about. A good editor will market everything they think so you can decide what you think is best, not because they’re telling you you’re a bad writer.

2. It’s just one more chance to make your writing even better. Until the second your book is on the shelves and you can’t get them back, you constantly have chances to make your writing better. Perhaps you’re still beating yourself up about how awful one scene is, especially now that your critic/editor has agreed how awful it is. But you have the story back, you can make it better. And now you have someone to work with to make it better. I promise, not all is lost.

And, for my final general tip: Cut yourself some slack. Some people might naturally seem to be better authors than others, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll never live up to that. Even the best author out there didn’t pop out into the world as a brilliant writer (they at least would have to learn to write first after all), and even then, they had editors, and publishers, and a whole team of people behind them to make their writing sparkle just that much more. You will grow as an author, you will get better with edits, it isn’t fair to yourself to try to measure your WIP against someone else. Give yourself a break, and just write. Enjoy.

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All of a sudden, he was suddenly there

Please excuse the delay in blog posts, I’m currently recovering from some nasty bug. Now that I am once again able to sit at a computer, we return to your regularly scheduled blog posts.

Today’s question:

Somewhere I heard that you should never use “suddenly” or “all of a sudden” in writing… I was just wondering if this was true or not.”

Now, before we start, it’s always important to remember that “never” is an abused word when it comes to writing tips. There are certain things that can make your writing weaker–such as over using “to be” verbs, or adverbs, or…–but it’s just as much of a problem if you hinder your writing by avoiding things like “to be” verbs or adverbs at all cost. Advice that begins with the word “never” should always be taken with a grain of salt. Or, as my friend likes to joke, “Never take advice that begins with the word ‘never’.”

That said, I don’t believe trying to stay away from using “suddenly” “immediately” “all of a sudden” etc. in your writing is a bad idea. Beyond the fact that it sometimes falls into the category of unnecessary words, using “suddenly” and its partners often has the exact opposite effect of what you want it to in writing. It makes the action seem less, well, sudden.

This comes down to one of the biggest problems about writing action scenes. Where in a movie or the like you’re able to control the pacing (wait just another second and then *bam* Monster is there out of nowhere) each reader reads at their own pace. It’s possible that they’ll read slowly enough there seems to be little tension, or have to do something and set the book down, or get distracted, or any other number of things that you can’t control for as an author.

So how, then, are we supposed to get that same jump-through-yourself moment you have in the movie? Use “suddenly” right? That’s what it means after all, all of a sudden. “Suddenly the monster appeared.” It makes sense.

Counterintuitively, however, putting in another word makes the entire action less sudden to a reader.

Often when editing, I’ll put in the suggestion to keep sentences short in high action scenes. You can’t control much about the pacing as far as how your readers read a scene, but sentence length and paragraph breaks are a good way of speeding up and slowing down action. The shorter you keep a sentence the more immediate the action is. For example: “He ran.” Two words, the reader knows exactly what’s happening and is on to the next piece of information. Make it longer, however–“He began to run”–means it’s going to take the reader longer to make it through one action. The longer it takes to read something, the slower the action feels. The same goes for breaks. When reading, a comma is a generally a quick pause in the reader’s mind. A period is a full stop. (Hopefully how you read the past two sentences served as a good example for me). Commas blur things together. Periods break them apart. Therefore:

“She looked around, and then the monster was there.”

Seems to move more slowly than.

“She looked around. The monster was there.”

The same goes for using “suddenly” “all of a sudden” etc. “The monster was there” takes four words to get us from point A to point B. “All of a sudden, the monster was there” takes double that (and has a natural pause in reading it with the comma).

By writing that the action is sudden, we have successfully made the action that much less sudden in the pacing of the scene.

As with all of my other advice, you shouldn’t take this tip as gospel law. If “suddenly” makes a sentence flow more smoothly, use it. If it seems entirely necessary, use it. It is just one more piece of advice telling you to look carefully when you feel the need to point out something is sudden. Don’t hinder your writing trying to stick to “Never do X, Y, and Z” rules, but always consider how you can best serve your writing. If that’s by using an adverb or “was” or “all of a sudden” by all means use it. But, if there’s a better, stronger way to say what you mean, use that.

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But They Did It…

First, sorry for being away a couple of days. As much as I do love my editing, it can take up a lot of time (luckily my most recent projects have overall been very good. It’s always nice when you truly enjoy reading what people are having you edit) but as I am feeling like a bad blog-poster, I wanted to make sure to get today’s post up. And what is today’s post, you may ask? Best Sellers and Good Writing.

Now, what are some of the best-selling books/series of all time? – Lord of the Rings – Harry Potter – The Da Vinci Code – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Twilight Some of these books have sold over 100 million copies. But does that mean they’re well written? No, not necessarily. Now, I’ve already touched on some of my problems with Twilight in previous blog posts, but of all of the books listed, do you think we could get a consensus on one that everyone thinks is entirely brilliant without any flaws? Though I haven’t read all of the books I’ve listed, I have read a couple. But even the ones I enjoyed didn’t come off to me as faultless. J.R.R. Tolkien can overdo it with the description–the world is brilliant, but I totally skipped that three page description of a tree in Return of the King. Dan Brown’s characters can be one-dimensional–I read The Da Vinci Code in about a day, but couldn’t say I connected with/saw anything all that interesting in the characters. And, as much as I have enjoyed the Harry Potter series, there are plenty of people who point out J.K. Rowling’s writing problems:

“Rowling’s prose is as flat (and as English) as old beer, while Harry himself is not a boy of depth or subtlety.” — Guardian (U.K.)

In any decent story, the plot is advanced as characters make decisions. In Goblet of Fire, Harry has to enter a tournament because his name pops out of a cup. And he can’t decide not to enter because… the rules of magic say so! Things are just being thrown at Harry because the writer wants to throw them. (It’s even worse than an episode of 24).” — Daniel Radosh In his comment after his main article criticizing Rowling’s adverb use.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way saying that these books are awful–as I said, I enjoyed many of them–but they aren’t perfect. As one poster on a yahoo forum put it: “I know that JK Rowling is a popular writer, but she is not a good writer. Many people use the argumentum ad populum fallacy to argue that JKR is a good writer. (AKA: The books are popular so the books must be written well). Popularity may sometimes be a result of high quality writing, but it can’t be used as evidence that the books are well written.” And truly, that’s what it comes down to. There is no test you have to pass to be a writer. Writing a best seller isn’t about carefully crafting a book after years of study under a master writer. J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist who ended up making Middle Earth partially out of his love for foreign (often made up) languages. J. K. Rowling supposedly wrote down the idea for Harry Potter on a cocktail napkin. Stephenie Meyer was a receptionist and then a housewife when she wrote Twilight. Years of dedication and work–while it can help–isn’t what makes an author write a best seller. Honestly, part of being a best seller seems to be, at best, luck. It’s being in the right place at the right time with something someone likes. Some people might write brilliant works that are never seen in their lifetimes. Some people might write a so-so novel they don’t care about in a week that sells 500 million copies worldwide. It might not be fair, but that always seems to be the nature of writing. What it does mean, though, is that best-selling authors aren’t any more infallible than anyone else. Copying one won’t save you from making writing mistakes any more than just trying to write something on your own.

This is especially true if you end up copying things that many people don’t like about the best-selling author’s writing (for example, J. K. Rowling’s use of adverbs or Stephenie Meyer’s purple prose). If a book you’ve read inspires you (best seller or obscure) think about what it is about the book that reaches you. What you’ll often find is that the books that generally reach you most do so because of their plot, characters, or something much more broad than just word use/writing style. Writing flowery prose, like Meyer, won’t make your book as popular as Twilight. Spending five pages describing every detail in your world, like J. R. R. Tolkien will at times, will not mean your book will be magically as well received as Lord of the Rings. Gain your inspiration from other authors you admire, but don’t use them as the end all be all for what writing should be.

Write what feels natural to you, learn, grow, take critiques, and become your own author. Not someone trying to emulate X. It’s likely you’ll write better that way.

War on Was

This blog post actually comes from an in-person request to talk about the old “Showing vs. Telling” discussion.

Hands up, how many people rolled their eyes at the thought of hearing “show, don’t tell.” Congratulations, you have probably been part of a creative writing class (or at least an English class that did a section on creative writing). I admit I don’t remember a lot of my Senior English class in High School, but for the creative writing section towards the end, I do remember that being said over and over again. “Show, don’t tell.”

Eye rolling aside, as overused as that advice seems to be, it is a good piece of advice overall (I make it often as an editor). As a reader, it’s much more interesting to be shown what’s happening than being told. I mean, which one of these seems to be more interesting?

A: “It was raining. It made Tim angry.”

B: “The rain fell down the window. Tim watched, clenching his fists.”

Votes? I’m going to guess at least the majority say B. Why? Because A tells us what’s happening (It’s raining. Tim’s angry) B gives an image of the rain falling to picture and shows what’s happening to let us know Tim’s angry. It’s just not as interesting being told as it is to be able to picture things.

Obviously, this is a pretty common problem people have. As a writer, you have a picture in your head. It sometimes slips away that your reader isn’t seeing what you’re seeing. Also, it’s easier to just say what’s happening in your head than explain every movement. You can see your character’s angry, so why wouldn’t you put “He was angry”? The problem is well known enough that it’s even spoofed in the Futurama episode, “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings“:

Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel. That makes me feel angry!

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Like getting past “Hey look! I’m a Writer!” Syndrome, I think learning to show rather than tell is something many writers simply start to grow out of as they read and write and edit more. After enough time, you get more comfortable and stop trying as hard, and that makes for better writing (in my opinion at least). The note I generally leave in manuscripts I’m editing is, “What is he/she doing? How would we know they’re sad/angry/happy/etc.

Of course there are suggestions to help weed out telling. Unfortunately, I think many suggestions are far too often abused. The one I hear most often is Don’t use To Be verbs.

Now, I completely understand that piece of advice, and I often point out places not to use them in manuscripts I’m editing. “To be” verbs (is, are, was, were, am, been…) are weak. They don’t have an image associated along with them. Picture “She ran.” You can see what’s happening, right? Now picture “She is.” The fact that “she” exists is all you get from the second. Not thrilling reading if something’s supposed to be happening. If any other verb is possible for an action, you probably shouldn’t use was, “It was raining”? “The rain fell.” “She was running”? “She ran.” Just by taking out the to be verb the sentences become stronger, and are showing, not telling.

This “to be” verb problem is well know (This site, for example, has an entire article about it) and generally easily correctable. The problem starts, however, when this tip is abused. “Don’t use to be verbs when you don’t have to” is good advice. “Don’t use to be verbs” isn’t.

Going back to that English class Senior Year of High School, the teacher actually gave us the task of writing the entire assignment (a 10-page short story) without using any “to be” verbs. Now, I can understand you try to make a point in English classes about things, and taking things to extremes help some people switch out of problem writing entirely, but what most people I know took away from that exercise was that “to be” verbs are evil and should be avoided at all cost. I admit, I spent a good portion of class trying to figure out how to switch out all my “was, weres, and be’s” and it took me a long time to feel all right using any sort of “to be” verb in any of my writing a while after that.

And that’s why I classify it. “Don’t use to be verbs when you don’t have to.” If there’s a better, stronger word you can use, use it. Don’t spend time, however, avoiding “to be” verbs at all costs. Some times you need them, and trying to take them out just makes the writing awkward.

Is Main Street a sleepy part of town? It’s ok to say “Main Street was never busy.” You don’t have to try to finesse the sentence to “Main Street sat in the center of town, never busy.” If you prefer the second, all right, but “to be” verbs are normal. People speak with “to be” verbs. Things can be described with “to be” verbs. It is important to not bore people with a lot of telling in your work, but it’s also important to keep your writing sounding natural.

So, as with everything, don’t take every rule as gospel, ask for help/critiques, and trust yourself.

Too Much Dialogue

Today’s News: Read an interview I did with An Innovative Pursuit here about writing, Grey Areas, and upcoming The Bleeding Crowd.

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Another topic courtesy of the NaNoWriMo forums: How much dialogue is too much dialogue in a novel/short story?

For anyone who’s read my work, you’re probably assuming that my answer is “there’s never too much dialogue.” I’ll be the first to admit that I am a huge fan of dialogue. In fact, regarding my last short story published (“Frankincense” for those of you who don’t want to pop over to my biography), the acceptance letter for the anthology literally started:

” Well…normally when I read a manuscript that consists of 95% dialogue, I stop reading after about two pages and prepare a decline letter.  Yours, however, kept me reading…which is what a good story should do.”

She went on to compare it to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, so I’ll take it overall as a compliment, but you know you write a lot of dialogue when someone accepting your work feels the need to point out that it’s nearly all dialogue (personally, I think 95% is overestimating, but still…)

Every author I know has a different take on dialogue. Personally, I find it the most interesting (and generally easiest) thing to write. Many people find it the hardest  (I’ve more than once heard people complaining about how poorly they do dialogue). Editing, I can see that. For some people, dialogue comes naturally. For some it sounds stilted and unnatural. Based on our skills/preferences, it’s completely understandable (at least to me) that we each lean one way or another. We write more dialogue or more narrative.

More and more, though, I hear people talking about being worried they’re using too much/not enough dialogue in their writing. For example, this post in the NaNoWriMo Forums this morning:

So my novel is 75000 words and pretty much done.  Problem is, the last 1/3 is alot of dialogue…I dont think I can cut much of it without losing the vital information it posesses.  Is there something I can do to fix this problem?  I am trying to add alot of movement between words and descriptives to break it up but I still find myself worrying…HELP.

And on the other side:

Do you think it’s either bad style or very off-putting to readers if there are whole pages (or 2 or 3 pages at a time) with no dialogue? I often find I’m following events involving one person on their own, and I realise it’s been three pages since anyone actually SAID anything.”

Now, I admit I’ve been trying to put a little more narrative into my writing, but then, personally I don’t like reading too much narrative, so I probably (read: definitely) still lean on the dialogue-heavy side.

So, when should you worry that you have too much dialogue (or too much narrative)? Or should you even worry?

Based on the odd compliment for Frankincense, it seems too much dialogue could hurt you when it comes to submitting your work. Though I never had a problem with a ton of dialogue in submissions (it would be a bit hypocritical to…) I’m sure others in acquisitions and agents might dislike it. While that can come from just about any part of your writing style (it’s why you should expect those rejects I was talking about in yesterday’s post) you definitely don’t want to find yourself in the reject pile before the agent/publisher of your choice has actually had a chance to look at your work.

So, like everything else when it comes to writing, it comes down to weighing the pros and cons.

Dialogue Pro:

– Dialogue tends to move more quickly due to its quick back and forth nature. It’s simple to explain things without taking too much time and losing the reader’s attention

Narrative Pro:

– Narrative moves slowly (or more slowly than dialogue) and gives you a chance to really dig in to important things. People don’t tend to get into long intricate explanations (unless they’re Bond villains) and thus you can do things with narrative that will sound awkward in dialogue.

Dialogue Pro:

– Dialogue gives you a chance to develop multiple characters at once. One of the quickest ways to tell who someone is is to hear them talk. What kind of grammar does the character use? What words? Is he/she polite or swear like a sailor? A couple of lines and people can tell a ton without long-winded paragraphs about your character’s back story.

Narrative Pro:

– Narrative gives you a chance to see the world through your POV (Point of View) Character’s eyes. Of course this doesn’t work so well in omniscient third person, but as that style hasn’t been popular in the better part of a century, generally you’re relating the story, or at least each scene, through one character. This is especially true in first person. Dialogue has to be more truthful than narrative. You write what is said. How your POV character interprets things, however, shows up in narrative. Are they the type to take every little thing as sarcasm? Do they think the way their boss just winced means they’re getting fired? You can show how they react much better with narrative.

Dialogue Con:

It’s easy to get into “As you know, Bob” situations with dialogue. For those of you who don’t know/don’t want to risk the time black-hole that is TV Tropes, “As you know, Bob” is a term that describes those awkward bits of a dialogue where it’s obviously the author trying to get information in the reader needs to know, but what the characters would never be talking about, since they both know what’s going on. For example:

“How is Cathy, your sister, doing?”
“Just fine. As you know, she fell off a building lately, but fell on a circus tent and thus didn’t get as hurt as she could have.”

1) Why would the first speaker need to clarify that Cathy is the second’s sister? The second speaker knows that. And 2) Why would the second speaker need to explain something that the first speaker already knows (Cathy’s fall)? It’s awkward and could be taken care of with a line of narrative along the lines of “It had been three weeks since his sister, Cathy’s fall…”

Narrative Con:

It’s much easier to fall into “laundry lists” with narrative. For example:

“Tim and Nancy went to the store. It took about 15 minutes. They walked up and down the aisles. They found milk. Then they checked out…”

Now, part of that example’s problem is the repetitive sentence structure and what not, but hopefully you see where I’m going. There’s no need give a play-by-play account of what’s happening, but it’s so easy to do when writing narrative. Unless one of your characters is supposed to be long-winded and boring, it will just feel awkward for something along the lines of:

“How was your day?”
“Well, I went to the store. It took me about 15 minutes to get there. Then I walked through all the aisles…”

And the list goes on and on. Will I keep trying to add narrative to my writing? Sure. But I’m not going to worry about the proper ratio for it. At least in my opinion, the genre of your novel and the situation of each scene is going to dictate how much narrative is needed just as much as my preference for dialogue. Rather than worrying about a ratio, or if people aren’t going to be happy with this much narrative or that much dialogue, weigh the pros and cons of each for what you want to happen in the scene. After all, if Frankincense is any indication, good writing will come out above any ratio of dialogue to narrative. It’s just about getting it to be good.

How to Get Published

As people who have read earlier posts should know, I’ve recently signed a publishing contract (two, actually [yay] but one is being published under a pen name, so I’ll leave that for other places). After congratulations, what I have heard most since telling people is “How do you get published?”

So far I have refrained from the two-step answer:

1. Write a good book.

2. Find someone who wants to publish it.

Truly, that might be the simple answer, but I doubt it’s what the people who ask the question want to hear. Hearing how those people talk, it sounds like they think publishing is some large maze that you just need some pointers to get through before you get the ultimate goal of that book print in your hands. Perhaps there are some pointers someone could give about how to get on the fast track to publishing, but sadly I don’t have one. It just comes down to writing a book that someone thinks is good enough to publish and then finding that person.

But, in the interest of actually giving people something more substantial when asking about publishing, I’ll try to offer a few more pointers, answer a few more questions.

– Don’t let rejections bother you. Personally, I hate those statistics people throw around when trying to be encouraging about this. Stephan King was turned down by this many publishers, J.K. Rowling by this many… I don’t keep my rejection letters like some of my writer friends do, I couldn’t tell you how many  times the two manuscripts were rejected before someone wanted to publish them (more than a couple, less than a ton). I don’t gain any sort of motivation from my rejections like it seems some people do. Rejection letters are a part of life as a writer–at least if you’re not a best seller. Some will be form “thanks but no thanks” some will be very nice (one of the most recent rejections I have gotten stated “I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t connecting wholeheartedly with your writing, despite its poise and polish” which I thought very sweet) and give words of encouragement, but I always expect some rejections to come. Don’t let them bother you, all you need is that one yes.

– Nothing replaces a great manuscript. Writing credits can help (have you published a novel before? great) but not having any isn’t the end of the world. From my years working in acquisitions, I can completely honestly say that the manuscript is what is most important to selling your novel. Having a long line of previous credits and a PhD is not going to make up for having a bad plot, flat writing, or three typos a paragraph. What won’t help you is putting in things that are vaguely related as a way of trying to fill in credits you don’t have. Writing “This is my first novel, but I have worked X years as a technical writer” tells me that you probably have good spelling and grammar, but nothing else. Creative writing is an entirely different skill than technical writing. Trust your writing to prove what your lack of writing credits can’t.

– It’s easier to get short stories published than novels. That said, if you feel better having something to put in that final paragraph of a query letter, you should probably focus on publishing short stories. They’re cheaper than a Master’s in Creative Writing, and easier to get published than a novel. I’ve never seen a reason to spend the money entering writing contests, but there are plenty of publishers who put out literary magazines and anthologies on a regular basis. As it costs them less, and it’s less of a risk than backing you for a novel, you will generally find your short stories up against at least less scrutiny than any novel submissions. They are also a good way to get some money off your writing while trying to score that big novel deal. 1,000 word story isn’t going to take you as long to write as a 100,000 word novel and–even if you don’t make as much off it–you’ll have enough money for a few cups of coffee and a professional writing credit to put to your name.

As unhelpful as that might be for any “insider” publishing secrets, I hope it helps shed some light into getting published. I am always willing to answer questions if you want to contact me (comment, or find my contact info on the contact page above) I’m happy to share what not-so-sage wisdom I might have from my years on both sides of publishing.

But yeah. Two steps. Write good book. Find someone who thinks it’s good.

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