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…

Info Dumps

In a recent blog post, I briefly touched on the topic of Info Dumps, that is, a long section of text that gives a ton of back story all at once. In that post I was suggesting to look at chopping down info dumps as a way to decrease the word count of an overly long novel. Now, since then, I have gotten the question:

Could you elaborate on how to turn info-dumping into story-telling?”

It’s a good question. After all, in any story there is going to be background information a reader needs to know. This is especially true in stories set in other worlds (be them fantasy, sci fi, alternate universes…) where the reader can’t know everything already (who’s in charge? how do they live? what is the weather like?) but it also happens in modern-day stories. Perhaps the majority of your readers will understand it being cold in winter, but who is your character? Who are their parents? How did they end up doing what they do? Depending on the story, all of that could be important. So how do you get all of that in without falling into an info dump?

1. Figure out if the information is actually important. As I pointed out in my earlier article, we authors tend to know the entire history of a character/world (or at least we should since it helps in writing a story). Perhaps you even know what the character’s favorite color is and what time they get up for work in the morning (depending how in depth your planning is and if you’ve filled out character questionnaires). All of that is important to you as a writer, as who your character is shapes a story. All of that might not be important to the reader, however.

Did your character have a pet they really loved as a child? All right. Does that pet come up in the story? Is it still alive and mentioned? Does the character not want another pet because of its death? Did it’s death strongly influence how the character is acting now? If so, you can bring it up. Does the pet never show up? Did its death not really affect the character at this point? If so, it might be an interesting bit of information to you, but it probably doesn’t need to be in the story.

2. Figure out if the important information needs to be known now. Perhaps the aforementioned pet is going to be important later in the story (it turns out that the mild-mannered pet your character’s had for 14 years can actually talk and will lead them into Never-Never Land) do you have to get all of the information about the pet innow? Of course you always want to mention important things before you actually need them in a story (otherwise you risk sounding something like, “Oh no, what’s that sound? I can’t go outside for whatever reason, so I’m going to send the dog I’ve never mentioned before but had for years! That’s totally not a cop out!”) but you don’t generally have to put in everything all at once. In one scene you can mention the pet. A couple scenes later your character can say something about how long the pet’s been around. You probably don’t need to give a long paragraph of all the information at once.

3. Figure out other ways to get the information in. The end of point 2 touched on this a little. Just like spreading information out, information doesn’t always need to be given in a chunk of narrative. Rather than starting a story:

“Jennifer was an average looking 17-year-old girl with blonde hair and brown eyes who went to school at Centerville High, the school she had been at for the past three years with her best friend Maya…”

You can work all that information in throughout the story. Even in the first chapter if you need it there.

“Jennifer pulled up to Centerville High and sighed. She’d already suffered through three years of the place, but obviously that wasn’t enough….

“Her best friend, Maya, ran up to her, ‘Happy Birthday! How’s it feel to be 17?’…

“Jennifer tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder…”

And so on and so on. All of the information makes it in, it just isn’t all one large chunk.

4. Don’t rely on narrative. Narrative is meant to tell people things, so it’s completely understandable that it’s easy to fall into an info dump when you’re using a lot of it. You’re talking about the Main Character’s job, and, Oh! How did they get the job? You should probably put that in…but if you do that, you really should talk about college…and…and…

Dialogue is a good way to stop yourself from info dumping if you’re finding it a problem, since it feels more awkward to do (people don’t generally give their entire back story in one long monologue when meeting someone–except perhaps Bond villains). But even with dialogue, you still have to be careful. Good dialogue sounds natural, trying to force information in doesn’t make for any better dialogue than it would narrative.

Try to say away from “As you know, Bob”s (“It’s been 11 years since we last talked, Bob, as you know. So why I’m saying so makes no sense, but I thought I’d say it anyway” “Indeed, I’m glad, after 11 years, we’ve been able to meet in San Jose, as you know, a town on the coast of California…”) and don’t force lead in questions (“Hey, Tony, how long have you had that dog?” *End of what can fit in a plausible answer* “Oh yeah? Well where did you get it?” “It really is special to you, isn’t it?”) It sometimes takes practice, but you definitely shouldn’t feel like a character is interviewing another to get necessary information in (Tip: Remember you can space it out. You don’t need to get everything in all at once).

5. Trust your readers not to be idiots. This could be joined with the first point, but personally, after years of editing, I think it bears repeating. You definitely don’t want to lose readers, but also trust that people reading your book tend to have a basic level of intelligence. If there’s something important put the information in, but don’t feel the need go too far in depth, especially if it’s something the reader is likely familiar with.

For example, perhaps not everyone has a bed, or has slept in a bed, but it is likely that the vast, vast majority of people reading your book will at least be aware of the basic concept. You do not, therefore, have to give a ton of information about it (“The bed has been made five years ago out of panels of wood that had been nailed together to make a frame, with slats between them and a mattress placed on top…”)

You can also tend to trust most of your readers to be able to draw some conclusions without spelling it out. “Jennifer walked to class as the first bell rang” will let people know that Jennifer is probably a student. “The teacher added a final 4 at the end of the equation before turning around” will tell people that Jennifer’s probably in math class (or at least a science class). Bits of detail that come naturally in a scene can serve just as well to get information in, you just have to trust your reader not to need things spelled out.