Friday, October 31, 2014

Avoiding NaNoWriMo Pitfalls

"Man, origami is harder than I thought it would be."
Note to stock photographers: we really need to come up with a better shorthand for writing difficulties than "crumpled sheets of paper."
Tomorrow begins National Novel Writing Month; if you’re reading this blog, I feel pretty safe in assuming you know what that means. If you don’t, go ahead and do a search for NaNoWriMo and then come back.

For today, I’d simply like to offer a few bits of advice for using NaNoWriMo to purposefully improve your prose and writing habits.

Focus on one or two problems: NaNoWriMo is about wordcount, about writing a full 50,000-word story in a single month. Focusing too hard on the quality of your prose will probably only inhibit your ability to meet your daily wordcount goals. Let yourself write quickly and naturally and worry about editing later.

However, NaNoWriMo is also an excellent opportunity to break one or two bad habits. Go through some of the posts here on the Story Polisher and pick a problem that I’ve highlighted which you really want to fix. Maybe you want to fix your punctuation in dialog tags or your misuse of “ing” verbs. Whatever you pick, watch out for that problem as you’re writing and ignore any other problems. Fix the problem every time it pops up, right when you notice it. For the first few days, it will be difficult and will slow down your writing. But if you keep it up, you’ll catch the problem more and more quickly each time. Eventually, the daily reinforcement will wear away old habits and the problem will naturally disappear from your writing. A little extra effort now will save you a lot of editing in the years to come.

Don’t wear yourself out: I love that so many people get excited about NaNoWriMo and gain motivation from it. But it can also be exhausting and aggravating. December 1st can be a sorry sight in many writing circles—full of exhausted, over-worked writers who are so sick of the amount of work that they’ve been doing that none of them will touch a word processor for another month.

Some people write well in spurts; some people don’t. I used to write in spurts, but I got very little done because I would wear myself out or hit a difficult stretch and abandon the story for months at a time. Eventually I discovered that writing smaller portions on a daily basis was a much easier and more efficient schedule for me. If you find yourself getting sick and tired of writing toward the end of November, consider cutting down your wordcount to something that doesn’t exhaust you and simply continuing your writing through December and on. 1,600-odd words a day for a month is nice, but 500 to 1,000 words a day for a year is even better. Don’t sour yourself on writing for the sake of an artificial deadline.

Don’t start editing on December 1st: When you finish your manuscript, it’s going to need editing. Every first draft does—so do most second and third drafts. For the publication-minded writer, eager to submit a new story to an editor as soon as possible, it can be very tempting to turn around the moment that you’re finished with the first draft and begin editing. Don’t do it!

You’ve just spent a whole month in close contact with that story—you are closer to it than you are to your clothing. When you’re too close to the story, your mind automatically fills in gaps in the logic of the narrative and glosses over errors. Your head is full of what you meant to say, and so it becomes unable to notice what you’ve actually said.

Take a few weeks off, at the very least. Maybe even a whole month or more. Let that intimate familiarity with the story fade away—if there’s changes that you’re afraid you’ll forget to make, jot down some detailed notes before you leave the story. Then, come back when the story is once again somewhat unfamiliar to you. You’ll find it far easier to notice errors, gaps in logic, or less-than-stellar dialog and prose. And since the story won’t be so close to your heart anymore, you’ll find it easier to ruthlessly cut out the darlings that need to be cut.

I know far too many writers who have burnt themselves out over NaNoWriMo or have become caught in endless, ineffective editing loops because they didn’t want to leave the story until it was finished and polished. Be careful—don’t let yourself fall into these traps!  Happy NaNoWriMo, and good luck.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Infinitives: To Split or Not To Split?

Just what is an infinitive, and how does one split it? The answer is pretty simple: an infinitive is the basic, unconjugated form of a verb. In English, infinitives take the form of “to ____.”  To read, to run, to imagine. From this basic infinitive, the verb can be transformed to meet many needs of speech:

     I eat.
     She eats.
     They ate.
     We’re eating.
     You should have eaten.

There are many other forms a verb can take—all of them drop the “to” from the infinitive form of the verb and then alter the primary word to suit the context of the sentence. But that basic “to ____” form is the starting point.

So, how do you split the infinitive form of a verb? Simple. You just place an adverb between the “to” and the rest of the verb:

     She wanted to furiously pound his face in.

You may have had an English teacher at some point who considered splitting infinitives to be the eighth deadly sin—an unforgivable perversion of the language. It’s really not, though it is something that you should do only infrequently.

Why is splitting the infinitive considered so bad? Well, to answer that we need to delve a bit into (a simplified version of) the history of the language.

A Simplified History of English

A long time ago, out there in Europe, Latin was considered the crème de la crème of languages. Most European languages had evolved out of Latin, and it was generally considered the “holy” language of academics and the church. The language that would eventually come to be known as English, meanwhile, was a young hodgepodge of barbarian speech and “proper” languages—the bastard child of a dozen different parents. It lacked a consistent grammatical structure and written form.

However, a number of scholars who spoke this proto-English were beginning to appear, and they wanted to make their language a respectable equal with all of those other European languages. They set about to codify and clarify the rules of the language, and found a large amount of gaps where there were no consistent rules to English. Whenever that happened, they simply borrowed rules from the most respectable language around: Latin.

Why was this a problem? Well, here’s the infinitive form of the verb “to read” in Latin: legere.  Notice how it differs from the English version—it’s only one word. So because it is literally impossible to split an infinitive in Latin, it was decided that it wouldn’t be allowed in English, either.

Back to the Present Day

Doesn’t that seem a little silly nowadays? We’re refusing to make use of a relatively unique ability of our language because a once-popular language couldn’t split an infinitive. Well, I don’t hold to that. There are times when you just need to split an infinitive, dang it! For instance:

That’s probably the most famous split infinitive around. Sure, they didn’t have to split the infinitive, but try re-writing that line without it:

     Boldy to go where no one has gone before.
     To go boldly where no one has gone before.
     To go where no one has gone before.

None of those rewrites have the same power as the original, do they? “To boldly go” is simply the most powerful and moving way to write that sentence. Split infinitives for the win!

However . . .

The potential power of split infinitives notwithstanding, you shouldn’t be using them often. Most of the time, split infinitives simply sound awkward and forced—adverbs are already difficult enough to use well on their own, after all. Compare this sentence that uses a split infinitive:

     He needed to quickly devour his meal.

to this sentence that does not:

     He needed to devour his meal quickly.

The second one is stronger—it just feels more natural and smooth. Most of the time, your writing will be better off if you avoid splitting infinitives. Just remember, though, that it is an option. The day may come when a split infinitive will strengthen your writing, so know what you’re doing when that time comes.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Perspective Errors: Matching Description and Viewpoint

One of the most important aspects of writing is getting out of your own head and into the heads of your perspective characters. Some characters might be quite a lot like you, but many of them will view the world much differently—and it’s important that you keep your perspective (or the perspective of other characters) from bleeding into the heads of your protagonists, especially when you’re describing the world around them.

In this post, we discussed one way that such perspective bleed can happen—when an author is an expert on a certain topic, it can pop up in their writing even when it shouldn’t. For instance, I’m pretty well-trained in English grammar and editing. If I were writing from the point of view of a well-educated librarian, I might have her note that the text on a sign misused a present-continuous participle and left a modifier dangling. However, if I were writing from the perspective of a largely-illiterate street thug walking past the same sign, describing the sentence using those detailed terms would be completely out of place.

This problem—describing things in ways your perspective character wouldn’t—is probably most common when a perspective character is of a different nationality, race, or gender from the author. For instance, here is the single most common and jarring example that I have come across (and I have come across versions of it many, many times):

     Diana frowned at Detective Mullens. “My husband didn’t keep secrets from me, detective. If he had been involved in something illegal, he would have told me.”
     Detective Mullens raised his hands in a placating manner. “I’m not trying to cast aspersions on your husband, ma’am. I just have to follow every lead and possibility I come across. Do you recognize these ledgers?”
     The detective handed her a three-ring binder. She did recognize it—it held their family finances. It usually sat on a shelf in her and her husband’s bedroom. She hadn’t even realized it was missing. “Where did you find this?” she asked.
     Before the detective could answer, the front door opened and Diana’s twenty-three year old daughter Stefanie walked in. She’d clearly been jogging—her bronze skin was glistening with sweat, her body firm and lean but still curvy. Her dark hair was pulled up in a simple ponytail, though a few strands had fallen loose to dangle in front of her vivid brown eyes and her full, red lips. Her ample breasts were outlined clearly through the tight sports bra she wore, moving up and down as her heavy breathing slowed to normal. She bent down almost sensuously to brush some dirt from her tight red leggings, and Diana frowned when she noticed that Detective Mullens was watching appreciatively.
     Diana cleared her throat, and Stefanie looked up in surprise. “Oh, hi,” she said. “I didn’t see you there. What’s going on?”

Now, I sincerely hope that you all can see the problem in this passage. We’re in Diana’s head—that’s clear from the fact that we’ve been given her thoughts and no one else’s. Therefore, everything we see should come through the filter of Diana’s mind. Everything should be described as she would describe it—and if that is how she would describe her own daughter, there’s something seriously wrong with this family.

These particular scenes usually happen for one of two reasons. First, the (probably male) author is describing the daughter as he, the author, pictures her without any regard to viewpoint. This is poor writing—if your viewpoint doesn’t allow you to describe something in the way you’d like, either change your viewpoint to one compatible with your description or change your description to one compatible with the viewpoint.

The second possibility is that the author wants to convey how Detective Mullens sees Stefanie, because he’s the actual protagonist and we’ve only temporarily leapt to Diana’s perspective. If that’s the case, then why are we in Diana’s perspective? Very few stories are well served by multiple viewpoints—you might as well keep the point of view with Detective Mullens.

(By the way, this particular problem—sexualizing a character while in the viewpoint of a character who wouldn’t sexualize them—is much more common from male authors than female writers. But female writers are definitely not immune to this error, so be on guard!)

These two people should not describe things in the same way. Don't describe what he sees in a way she would describe it, or vice versa.

Always remember that description should match the perspective of the character—don’t let your personal viewpoint or the view of a non-viewpoint character influence description, unless you want to make some unfortunate implications about the perspective character!

For more on this topic, check out this post.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Cleverly Avoiding Adverbs

If you were in a high school English class in the US in the last few decades, then chances are good that you’ve been told about two of the most hated and pernicious plagues of English writing: the passive voice and overuse of adverbs. We’ll talk about the passive voice another day; today we’re going to discuss adverb abuse.

First, to all of those English teachers who have spent decades trying to hammer this concept—that adverbs weaken writing and should be avoided—into the minds of their students: good job! To be honest, I almost never have a problem with the amounts of adverbs that I find in the manuscripts I’m given. My impression is that the current crop of would-be professional writers has learned this lesson well.

If you’ve never heard of this problem, here’s the breakdown: adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs (or even entire sentences). You can usually pick them out by the –ly ending.

Modifying a verb: He stumbled awkwardly up the hill.
Modifying an adjective: Ashley was overly cautious and tended to frustrate her friends.
Modifying another adverb: The quarterback was playing very poorly.
Modifying a sentence: Fortunately, we were able to get the car started again.

The problem with adverbs is that they can be redundant, can lengthen sentences to awkward proportions, or can be a crutch for lazy writers to lean on.  However, they aren’t necessarily as evil as your English teacher (and Steven King) might have made them seem.  They’re a part of the English language for a good reason, and they can be used to good effect—you just need to learn to use them well.  Here’s some tips:

Avoid redundant adverbs: This is one of the primary ways in which adverbs weaken writing—they tend to be repetitive and redundant. Here’s some examples:

     My stomach growled hungrily.
     She smiled happily.
     He stumbled awkwardly up the hill.

We don’t need to be told that a stomach growls hungrily—hunger is what the stomach growl indicates in the first place. Look how much stronger these sentences become without the adverbs:

     My stomach growled.
     She smiled.
     He stumbled up the hill.

Remember: longer or more complex doesn’t mean better. If an adverb isn’t adding new and unique information to the sentence, it should be removed.

Ask yourself—is this adverb the focal point of the sentence?  Even if an adverb isn’t redundant, you should take a moment to consider: do I really need it? The best adverbs are the crux of the sentence, conveying the information on which the sentence turns. For instance, from earlier:

     Ashley was overly cautious and tended to frustrate her friends.

The fact that Ashley is too cautious is the point of the sentence. Without that adverb, this sentence would be uncertain. Are Ashley’s friends appropriately-cautious people who are frustrated by her extreme caution, or are they frustrated because she is responsible and they are actually incautious? The adverb distinguishes the meaning of the entire sentence, and could be worth keeping.

Weird, right?

Avoid intensifiers: Most adverbs that modify other adverbs are intensifiers—words that add intensity. Very, extremely, and really are examples of intensifiers that are over-used. More often than not (but not always), they can be dropped without hurting the sentence.

Avoid coupling adverbs with “said” in dialog: I’d guess that four times out of five, when an editor gets annoyed with a writer’s overuse of adverbs, it’s because they did this:

     “No, I don’t want to,” she said quickly.
     “You’re wrong!” he said loudly.
     “Let’s get out of here,” he said quietly.

This formula (said + adverb) should be avoided. On rare occasions (very rare occasions), it will be the best way to get information across—the rest of the time, it’s just going to annoy any editors you submit to. Get rid of it wherever possible.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Position: On vs. To

     As she walked down the sidewalk, Leslie noticed a small kosher deli to her right.
     As she walked down the sidewalk, Leslie noticed a small kosher deli on her right.

The only visual difference between these two sentences is the words to and on. But can you tell me how the two sentences differ in meaning?

Trick question—they don’t. Oh, it might be possible to argue that the word on implies a slightly closer proximity than the word to in this usage, but that’s a flimsy difference. Really, these two sentences mean the same thing.

It’s probably because on and to can be used interchangeably in a case like this that I see them so often mixed up in a similar case:

     A narrow, weathered wooden wardrobe stood on the right of the room.
     A narrow, weathered wooden wardrobe stood to the right of the room.

These two sentences do not mean the same thing. The first one implies that we are in a room, and a wardrobe is standing in the room on the right side, perhaps against the wall or something. The second sentence implies that there is a room, and outside the room on the right there is a wardrobe.

What changed? Why are on and to interchangeable in our first example, but not in our second? The difference is the object of the preposition. In other words, what are these objects located to the right of?

In our first example, the deli is to the right of Leslie—a person, a thing. In our second example, the wardrobe is on (or to) the right of the room—a place, a location in its own right. Because there’s little to no chance that a deli would be located on Leslie’s person, on and to can both be used to mean beside or somewhere on that side of. Because the room could easily contain the wardrobe, however, we have to be more specific—on the right means it is located inside the boundaries of the room, while to the right means it is located outside those boundaries.

This photo is for educational and illustrative purposes only and is not intended as endorsement or approval on the part of The Story Polisher or any of its affiliates of the practice of dressing dogs or any other animals in clothing of any sort for the purpose of taking humiliating pictures or any other purpose.

Note that Leslie could serve as a location. For instance:

     The purse hung on Leslie’s right.
     The purse hung to Leslie’s right.

The second sentence clearly means that the purse is hanging on something beside Leslie, whereas the first sentence is a little confusing—is the purse hanging on Leslie’s right shoulder, or is it hanging on a peg on the wall to her right?  Usually, when you use on to indicate that an object is located within the boundaries of a location, you’ll want to be more specific:

     The purse hung on Leslie’s right shoulder.

Bam. Clear as can be. Even our earlier example can be made clearer this way:

     A narrow, weathered wooden wardrobe stood on the right side of the room.

Much clearer, no? A little specificity can go a long way. But in the long run, just remember: when denoting location, on and to cannot be used interchangeably if they are relative to a place.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Phrases to Avoid: "As You Know"

     Deana frowned. “Why don’t we just turn him over to the police?”
     “Well,” Artiom replied, “as you know, I’m involved in a few . . . less-than-legal activities. If I turned him over to the police, he could rat me out.”

This is a small example of what is often called “maid and butler” dialog—dialog wherein character one explains something to character two which character two should logically already know. The worst examples of this are scenes in which two supporting characters (a maid and a butler, for instance) have a conversation about plot-important information that they both already knew.

"As you know, the master will be home in just a few hours, and he is always upset if Puddles is not washed and perfumed when he returns."
"Yes, the master is so very particular about cleanliness. That's why I have to bathe Puddles every day, and I dislike it."

The problem with this sort of dialog is that it breaks the fourth wall (and not in a good way). Since both characters already know the information, the only reason for them to explain it to one another is for the benefit of the readers. And if the only reason your characters are doing something is “because the plot demands it” or “so that the readers will understand,” then you haven’t written the scene well.

The phrase “as you know” almost inevitably introduces maid-and-butler-esque information. After all—if someone already knows something, then they don’t need it explained again. This phrase highlights awkward or stilted dialog, ensuring that no one will miss the fact that this dialog is awkward and unrealistic. Avoid “as you know” whenever possible (which should be practically always).

One of the most common ways to avoid maid-and-butler dialog is to insert a character into the story who is not familiar with what is going on or with the most basic information about the world. This character can be a sidekick to the protagonist or even the protagonists themselves. Harry Potter, for instance, was raised without any knowledge of magic and the wizarding world, so it wasn’t awkward for him to need constant explanations about things that everyone else knew. These explanations were simultaneously helpful to the audience without feeling forced.

Another common method for avoiding the “as you know” problem is to have character one explain something that character two knows (but the audience didn’t), and then have character two get irritated over it. Just make sure that character one has a plausible reason for thinking that character two wouldn’t know the information. But be careful about using this method too often—it can grow very tiresome very quickly.

Other phrases that often lead to this sort of awkward, in-dialog expository infodump are “let me get this straight” and “tell me again.”

Maid-and-butler dialog is a cliché that most writers encounter over and over again—it can just be so difficult to get exposition through in a smooth, natural-feeling way. But don’t give up. Keep trying, keep looking for new ways to share exposition, and you’ll almost always find something better than “as you know.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

Description and Degrees of Familiarity, Part Two

In the last post, we discussed how detailed description can be used to demonstrate that a character is unfamiliar with an object; we also covered how to describe objects that are unfamiliar to the reader but familiar to the character. Today, we’ll discuss two other reasons to dwell longer on description than you otherwise might.

When the character is intensely familiar with a type of object

Compare these three examples:

     Xin looked out the window. There was a red car parked outside; she couldn’t see the driver. Strangely, a bone-mouth Shar-pei sat on the hood of the car, watching her window. Its fur was a deep blue-black, and it was taller than any other Shar-pei she’d ever seen, maybe as tall as seventy centimeters. Its ears and tail were also usually long; it couldn’t have been a pure-bred.
     The dog barked suddenly, and the door of the car opened. A pale man in a dark suit and sunglasses climbed out, turning his gaze on her window. Xin ducked out of sight.

     Xin looked out the window. There was a red car parked outside; she couldn’t see the driver. Strangely, a black dog sat on the hood of the car, watching her window. It barked.
     The door of the car opened, and a pale man climbed out. He wore a black silk tangzhuang coat with gold snakes embroidered along the cuffs up to the elbows and around the stiff collar. His eyes were hidden by a pair of dark metal-framed sunglasses; Xin couldn’t see what brand they were from here, but she could tell they were expensive—not the cheap knock-offs most people bought on the street. The man turned his gaze on her window, and she ducked out of sight.

     Xin looked out the window. A red Lamborghini was parked outside, a Gallardo LP 550 that looked like its suspension system had been upgraded. A pair of holes on the rear of the car indicated that the car had once had a heavy spoiler attached; based on the marred paint, it had been torn free violently.
     Strangely, a black dog sat on the hood of the Lamborghini, watching her window. It barked, and the door of the car opened. A pale man in a dark suit and sunglasses climbed out, turning his gaze on her window. Xin ducked out of sight.

Sorry, you'll have to settle for just the car. Can you believe that I couldn't find a single image of a red Lamborhini Gallardo LP 550 parked on the side of a Chinese street with a black bone-mouth Shar-pei sitting on top and a driver in a gold-embroidered black tangzhuang and dark sunglasses? The internet has failed me. 

In each of these examples, Xin is a slightly different person, isn’t she? The first Xin clearly knows a thing or two about dogs, the second has a trained eye for clothing, while the last really knows her way around a car. And yet the only thing that changed was what object in the scene the writer chose to describe in greater detail. A person who is an expert in something—be it cars, dogs, clothing, guns, spaceships, a certain culture, or whatever—will discuss and observe that thing with a level of specificity that someone who is unfamiliar with the topic cannot.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind when showing familiarity through description:

Use specific terms. The first major difference between unfamiliar description and expert description is terminology. Someone who is completely unfamiliar with cars would describe one in very basic terms—large, loud, wheeled, shiny, fast, and so on. Someone who is an expert on cars will have a command of specific terms gained through years of study and osmosis—brand names, car models, engine types, and so on.

Make comparisons. The second major difference between unfamiliar description and expert description is that someone who is an expert on a type of object has a vast mental catalog of similar objects to which they can compare the one you’re describing. For instance, when our first Xin was describing the dog, she immediately noted the ways that this Shar-pei was different from others and concluded that it wasn’t pure-bred.

Keep it understandable to the reader. Using extremely specific terms can often be confusing to the reader. For instance, how many of you know what a “bone-mouth” Shar-pei is? I didn’t, before I wrote that example. I certainly couldn’t have identified a Lamborghini Gallardo LP 550 from any other Lamborghini, either. These specific terms add to the sense that the character knows what she’s talking about, but they don’t necessarily help the reader picture the object. You need to strike a balance between specific, in-depth terms and description that will be useful to the reader. For instance, the tangzhuang coat from the second example. Technically, the word “coat” is redundant—a tangzhuang is a style of coat and wouldn’t refer to a different style of clothing—but I included the word to help readers better picture the clothing. I also used the description of the embroidery to sneak in the fact that the coat had long sleeves and a stiff collar, so that the readers could get an idea of what a tangzhuang looked like without my needing to break perspective.

Don’t let the description get out of control. Xin number three was familiar with cars, so it was natural for her to notice several details about the Lamborghini but few about the dog or the man. However, it would be very easy for that level of familiarity to swell to unnatural levels. For instance:

     “When was the last time you saw Li?” the man asked.
     Xin thought for a moment. She couldn’t remember seeing Li since she’d dropped him off at work the day before in her 2013 Volkswagen Santana.

That was a little ridiculous, don’t you agree? The line should have simply ended after the word before. “She couldn’t remember seeing Li since she’d dropped him off at work the day before.” Just because a character is familiar with something doesn’t mean you need to shoehorn that familiarity in at every opportunity. Keep it real.

This is particularly common when the character’s familiarity with a certain type of object is one that the author shares. An author who is an expert on horses, for instance, might want to show that off at every opportunity in a story. Tone it back—give the readers enough to realize that the character (and by extension, you) knows what she’s talking about. Don’t shove it down their throats.

Another version of this problem is when every single character is inexplicably familiar with something that the author knows well. It’s fine to have a lot of characters who can identify a hint of saffron or rosemary from just a whiff of the dinner they’re about to eat, but not every character should be able to. To some people, it will just be a nice-smelling dinner.

When you just want to describe something

Our final reason for including in-depth description for something is the simplest, but the easiest to let get out of control: you just want to. Maybe you have a really vivid image of what a certain boat looks like, or you really feel like dwelling on the battered-up appearance of a character’s trenchcoat. Sometimes, you’ll just want to describe something. And that’s fine—go for it. Just be sure to follow the advice from this post; write the description, ask a lot of people to read it and tell you if it’s too much, and then pare it back if most of them say it is. And sometimes, if you really love that description, well . . . you’ll just have to hope you can find an editor who loves it as much as you do. Good luck!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Description and Degrees of Familiarity, Part One

Today we’re going to return to an example that I gave in the Writing Spicy Description post:

Don’t use two words where one will suffice: I once edited a story where a character approached a sea where “along the shore was a row of several straight wooden walkways that jutted out into the ocean, held up by thick pylons sticking up out of the water.” I edited this to say, “Along the shore was a row of wooden docks.” So that you don’t have to count for yourself, that’s nineteen fewer words. Everyone does this, at some point—I’ve done it myself. Always look for the shortest, most descriptive word possible.

This is generally good advice, but it’s not universally applicable. Let’s delve a little deeper into a few situations where you might want to say more than just “a row of wooden docks.”

When the perspective character is unfamiliar with an object

     Juba scuttled through a field of tall, thin plants. The tops of the plants were wider than their stalks and waved in the breeze.  They rasped against his carapace, far drier than any of the plant life on his planet.
     The field ended suddenly at a wide pathway of some black, rock-like material. More of the tall plants waved on the other side of the path, but the path itself ran to the left and the right as far as Juba could see. A series of yellow lines and dashes ran down the center of the pathway.

In this example, we’ve opted to describe a field of wheat and the road that runs through it without ever using the words “wheat” or “road.” The reason for this is that our perspective character, Juba, is some sort of alien being who has never seen wheat or paved roads—he wouldn’t know the proper terms for them. In fact, if we were to use the proper terms for them, it would be a perspective error! We can’t tell our audience what our perspective character doesn’t know, as we’ve discussed before.

Let’s return to our above-mentioned description of a row of docks. This description would have been entirely appropriate if the perspective character had never seen or heard of docks; in fact, that’s what I assumed after reading the passage. The problem arose a few sentences later when it became clear to me that the character not only knew what docks were, but had also been to these very docks before. It’s the Figure Problem—describing something or someone without first identifying what or who they are implies that the perspective character is unfamiliar with whatever is being described. This is a useful tool for implying unfamiliarity; just make sure it only happens when you want it to.

Caution: When using this technique to imply unfamiliarity, the character must remain unfamiliar with whatever is being described. To continue with our example from above:

     Bright lights suddenly appeared from down the pathway on the right, accompanied by an odd, grinding roar. Startled, Juba darted back into the wheat to hide from whatever was coming.

Wait, when did Juba figure out that these plants were called wheat? We’ve already used our description to indicate that he doesn’t know that term, so we absolutely cannot use the word wheat until someone else gives it to Juba. 

Writers generally make this mistake for one of two reasons: first, it’s awkward and difficult to write about a field of wheat without using the word wheat. That’s just too bad—you’ll have to soldier through. Don’t use this technique unless you’re ready to commit to it. The second reason is that the writer assumes that because the audience has probably figured out that the plants are wheat, it’s all right to call them wheat now. It’s not—in this case, what the audience knows is irrelevant. You have to keep the perspective consistent.

When the audience is unfamiliar with an object

Suppose your perspective character is a human colonist on a strange, distant planet. She is out exploring when suddenly she is attacked by a ruger! Now, she is an expert explorer—ruger attacks are a near-daily occurrence on this planet, and she is quite familiar with the beast and how to deal with them. The trouble is that your audience, of course, has no idea what a ruger looks like. So you absolutely have to describe it clearly enough for your audience to picture comfortably.

The trick to this situation is to describe the ruger without making it seem unfamiliar to the perspective character. We’ve already taken the first step toward this—we’ve identified the creature as a ruger.

Picture yourself walking down the sidewalk. A stray dog crosses the street toward you. When you see it, do you think, “hmm . . . a four-legged, furry beast is walking toward me with its tongue lolling out of its long snout—this is a dog”? No, of course not! You think, “a dog is walking toward me.”

Identification implies familiarity.  The more quickly your character is able to identify a creature or object, the more familiar they are implied to be with said creature or object, and vice-versa. So, if your colonist immediately identifies the approaching creature as a ruger, the audience will know that she is familiar with rugers. If she sees the creature and you describe its appearance before she identifies it as a ruger, then the implication is that she knows about rugers but isn’t intensely familiar with them. If she describes the creature but never identifies it as a ruger (as Juba did with the wheat and the road), then the audience will know that she is entirely unfamiliar with rugers.

Once your colonist has identified the ruger, you are free to describe it without creating perspective errors. Be sure to keep the description true to the perspective character, of course—don’t use terms they wouldn’t, even if it would get the image across to your reader. Bonus points if you can frame the description in such a way that it seems natural for the character to be mentally dwelling on the description: perhaps your colonist notes that this ruger has different coloring than most and is unusually large. In describing how this ruger is different from most rugers, you can potentially tell the audience about rugers without it seeming out of character for the colonist to dwell on the ruger’s appearance.

Next time, we’ll discuss two more reasons to dwell on description—when a character is intensely familiar with a type of object, and when you just want to.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Word Mix-Ups: Fewer and Less

Less and fewer are two of the most commonly-confused words in the English language. So many people have gone over the difference between these two words that I hesitated to write about it here. But I still see these used incorrectly in manuscripts that I edit, so we’d best go over it again.

Here’s the breakdown:

Fewer: Used when there is a smaller amount of a countable item (i.e. a number of individual items, something that could be pluralized—fewer leaves, fewer boxes, fewer people, fewer items).

Less: Used when there is a smaller amount of a non-countable item (i.e. a mass of a certain substance, something that shouldn’t generally be pluralized—less water, less sand, less angst, less stuff).

If you have trouble remembering which is which, remember: less already has the letter s in it twice, so it doesn’t need any more of them attached—don’t pluralize words that come after less. Fewer doesn’t have an s in it, so the word after it needs one.

Keep in mind:

—Usually, when people confuse these words, they use less when they should have used fewer. It’s very rare for anyone to use fewer when they should have used less.

—Sometimes people get confused on the countable vs. non-countable comparison.  Sand, for instance, is composed of numerous tiny grains that could be counted, so it should be used with fewer, right? No, because we generally don’t pluralize sand. It would be “less sand,” but “fewer grains of sand.”  Similar situations arise with words like hair, money, and more.

—To make matters even more confusing, some words can be used with both fewer and less, depending on the context. For example, the word substance:

     The second book just had less substance to it.
     The police confiscated fewer substances from the drug dealer than expected.

In the first example, substance is being used in an abstract, uncountable sense, so we use less. In the second example, it is used to refer to a concrete, countable amount of specific items, so we use fewer.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Minding Your "ings" Part Two

Last time we discussed the need for present participles (a form of verb that ends in “ing”) to be paired with a subject that performs the action. For instance:

     As Brad was running to the bus stop, rain began to fall.
In this example, both actions (running and began to fall) have a subject attached (Brad and rain, respectively), so the sentence is constructed correctly. We’re good so far. Now take a look at this example:

     Running to the bus stop, Brad climbed onto the bus.

Once again, the participle is not dangling—Brad is performing both actions (running and climbed). So what was wrong with this sentence?

You may remember that in the last post, I mentioned that the phrase “Running to the bus stop,” was a type of adverbial phrase—a phrase that acts like an adverb. Adverbs modify verbs, adding more detailed information as to how the action was performed. Words like quickly or suspiciously are adverbs, as is the phrase “like a ___.” (He landed like a cat.)

“Running to the bus stop,” is an adverbial phrase that tells us when the primary action of the sentence (climbed) was performed—it was performed while Brad was running to the bus stop. And that’s the problem with our example sentence: Brad couldn’t have climbed onto the bus while he was running to the bus stop. He would have run to the bus stop and then climbed onto the bus.

Now, just like last time, you don’t have to remember that whole explanation about adverbs and adverbial phrases. (Though it won’t hurt your writing if you do!) What you need to remember is this: phrases with “ing” verbs are used to imply simultaneous action. If the two actions don’t take place at the same time, you cannot use the “ing” form of the verb. (Most of the time. I’ll show you an exception in a moment.)

So, here’s a corrected version of our previous sentence:

     Brad ran to the bus stop and climbed onto the bus.

Bam! First one action, then another—it doesn’t get any simpler than that.  However, here is another fix:

     After running to the bus stop, Brad climbed onto the bus.
This is the exception that I mentioned earlier. If you add an adverb that changes the timing of the adverbial phrase, such as after or before, so that the actions are no longer simultaneous, then you can still use the “ing” verb.

The same principles apply to phrases that begin with while and as—these words imply simultaneous action, so they cannot be used with actions that couldn’t take place simultaneously.

But wait, this isn't all! For more on minding your "ings," check out this post.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Minding Your "ings"

Running to the bus stop, rain began to fall.

This sort of sentence pops up a lot in stories that I edit. Tell me: in the example above, who is running? There are two nouns in the sentence (“the bus stop” and “rain”), but neither of them is running. That’s the problem here—you generally can’t have an action in a sentence without a subject to perform it. “Rain” is the subject of the sentence (you can tell because it’s the only noun that’s performing an action—in this case, beginning to fall). Since there isn’t any other subject, this sentence implies that the rain was running to the bus stop when it began to fall.

Let’s get technical for a moment. Running, like many “ing” forms of verbs, is what we call a present participle. Present participles have many uses—in the example above, the participle is being used to indicate that an action (running) is taking place simultaneous to another action (the rain beginning to fall). The entire phrase (“running to the bus stop”) is what we call an adverbial phrase—that is, a phrase that acts as an adverb, modifying action. But even though the phrase is acting as an adverb, the present participle is still a verb; it needs to have a subject performing the action, and that subject has to be present in the same sentence as the participle. When the subject that should be attached to a participle is missing, we call this a dangling participle.

Now, you don’t actually have to remember all of that. Here’s what you need to remember: if you use an “ing” verb, it still needs to be performed by a subject. With that in mind, there are several ways that we could fix our example sentence:

     As Brad was running to the bus stop, rain began to fall.
     Running to the bus stop, Brad was dismayed when rain began to fall.
     Rain began to fall. Running to the bus stop, Brad was caught right in the middle of it.

In the first solution, we simply insert the proper subject into the original sentence. In the second solution, we make “Brad” the subject of the entire sentence, moving “rain” to a peripheral position. In the third example, we make “Brad” the subject of the sentence and move “rain” to its own sentence. Any of these solutions is adequate, though the first solution is strongest (see if you can figure out why).

Now, sometimes an “ing” verb can still be confusing even if the subject is present in the sentence:

     Brad left the group cursing.

Who is cursing—Brad or the group? If it’s Brad, then this could be cleared up by moving the “ing” verb to the beginning of the sentence:

     Cursing, Brad left the group.

Here are some other examples of dangling participles—if you want some practice, try fixing each of these:

     Reading a book, the dog scratched at my leg.
     She left the room sleepwalking.
     Opening the refrigerator, the milk carton fell to the floor and broke open.
     Falling from the sky in flames, the house was crushed by the airplane wreckage.

But be warned: this is not the only common problem that can arise with "ing" verbs. Check out these two posts for more.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Characters With Multiple Names: Keeping It Consistent

Let's say that your main character has a friend named “James T. Mitchell, Jr.” His family calls him Jimmy, his mother calls him James, his grandparents call him Junior, and his friends call him Mitch.

Now, your audience probably has enough to do keeping track of the names of several different characters; if you try to make them remember more than one name for a single character, they’re going to have trouble. So if you have a character like this, consider pruning down the number of names you’ve given them. Ask yourself why this character has so many names and whether or not it actually adds anything to the plot or the character. If the answer is no, just cut down to one name.

But if you absolutely must have all of these names for James T. Mitchell, Jr., than you need to be consistent. Here's an example of too many names being handled poorly, patterned off of stories I've edited:

     Dan waved as Mitch came running out of the house.
     “James, you can’t leave until you finish your chores,” James’s mother shouted from the kitchen window.
     Mitch winced. “I can do them tonight, mom!” he shouted back. He grinned at Dan and gestured to the hole in the fence. Dan smiled and climbed through into the neighbor’s yard.
     “James Mitchell, don’t you dare leave!” James’s mother screamed. James ignored her. “James!”
     “Let’s go see if Sally is home,” Mitch said.

In the dialog of this example, Mitch was called by three different names—James, James Mitchell, and Mitch—and that's okay. What makes the passage confusing is that his name also alternates in the prose (that is, in the text that isn't dialog): he's Mitch in the first, third, and fifth paragraphs, but he's James in the second and fourth. This makes it seem as though two different characters are being referred to. Sure, your reader would probably figure out what was going on, but they shouldn't have to “figure out” something as simple as what character you're talking about.

The answer to this problem is to only refer to the character by one name in the prose. In our example above, Dan is our viewpoint character; and Dan thinks of James T. Mitchell, Jr. as "Mitch," just like the rest of their friends. So James T. Mitchell, Jr. will always be "Mitch" in the prose, even if his mother and family call him by other names in the dialog.

Done well:
     Dan waved as Mitch came running out of the house.
     “James, you can’t leave until you finish your chores,” Mitch’s mother shouted from the kitchen window.
      Mitch winced. “I can do them tonight, mom!” he shouted back. He grinned at Dan and gestured to the hole in the fence. Dan smiled and climbed through into the neighbor’s yard.
     “James Mitchell, don’t you dare leave!” Mitch’s mother screamed. Mitch ignored her. “James!”
     “Let’s go see if Sally is home,” Mitch said.

Note that this scene will still be confusing if we haven't already made it clear to our readers that people call Mitch by many different names; you can't just drop a character into the story and have everyone call him something different without explaining what's going on. If it seems like it would be difficult to fit in an explanation about Mitch's name before we introduce him, that's because it would be! That is one reason why I recommend against giving one character multiple names.

Now, if this story had multiple viewpoint characters, then we might be able to refer to Mitch by a different name in the prose. In sections written from Dan’s viewpoint, Mitch would always be “Mitch,” as we've discussed. But if you had sections written from Mitch’s mother’s point of view, you might switch to calling him "James," because that is how his mother thinks of him. But remember that you would be running the risk of needlessly confusing your readers. And either way, you must always be sure to keep each viewpoint consistent—when we’re in Dan’s head, Mitch is always “Mitch,” and when we’re in the mother’s view, Mitch is always “James.” Always.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Writing Spicy Description

Last time, we discussed the need to keep your descriptions to the minimum needed amount. Here are a few tips for doing so.

Determine how much description you need: Here’s some useful questions for figuring out how much description to give the reader.

What genre are you writing? If you’re writing a long epic like War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings, then you’ll be able to take a bit more time on description than you would be able to for, say, a fast-paced thriller like The Sum of All Fears or Carrie. Short stories should generally give less time to description than novels. If you’re writing romance, you’ll probably describe character appearance more than you will in, say, a murder mystery; if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, you’ll probably spend more time describing the fantastic settings than you would in a comedy.

How familiar will the setting or character be to the reader? Some things don’t need description (if a character is buttering toast while they talk to someone, you don’t need to describe the butter knife); some things don’t have to be described but could definitely benefit from some brief description; while other things absolutely have to be described. You can’t just say “the policeman dragged a plangle into the room” without telling me what a plangle looks like.

If your scene features a police officer on the streets of New York City, then the odds are good that your reader will be able to picture the scene clearly with very little description. If the scene focuses on an alien flying a spaceship into a tear in spacetime, then you might need to give a larger amount of description.

How important is the description to the story? If this is a brief scene in a setting that the story won’t return to with a character that won’t be important later, then it’s not that important that the reader picture everything absolutely perfectly. If the setting or character are central to the story, then you’ll want to spend more time on the description.  Again, what is important will depend on the story: if your protagonist is going to recognize a disguised character later because of a scar on their neck, then you’ll probably want to describe the scar when we first meet the character. And for all that people have complained about the nigh-excruciating detail with which Stephanie Meyer described Edward Cullen, let’s face it: those descriptions were important to her audience.

If your reason for describing something in detail is that you really like the amazing and vivid metaphor you’ve concocted, well, too bad. That is not sufficient reason for spending a whole paragraph describing a woman’s hairstyle (or whatever). Now, that doesn’t mean you have to cut the description; give it to some friends, and let them tell you if it’s too much. Try at least ten readers with different tastes; if four or more of them tell you that it’s too much, then cut it down, no matter how much it hurts. Listen to Spock:

Focus on a few strong details: Generally, I recommend focusing on two or three details that give a clear picture of whatever you’re describing. For a very expansive scene or a completely alien and unfamiliar creature, a little more could be allowed. So for an old woman, I might focus on her long white braid, the deep creases in her dark skin, and the slight hunch in her back. Bam: three details, and you’re now picturing something close to what I am. Strong, vivid details often enable the reader to fill in the rest on their own.

Use multiple senses: When writing description, most writers tend to focus on the visual elements of a scene or a character. However, describing the sounds, smells, feel, or even taste of something can often convey a setting more quickly or more vividly than visuals. Let’s say your character wakes up in a white room that smells strongly of blood and antiseptics—your mind probably immediately jumped to a hospital or operating room, right? And the smells are probably giving you a more vivid image than if I’d simply said “your character wakes up in a hospital room.”

This can be especially effective when combined with the two-or-three-strong-details rule: the protagonist is tied to a chair in a dark and windowless room. It is cold and drafty and smells of mouse droppings. That’s three things: the lighting, the feel, and the smell of the room. I could spend more time on each of them, to make things more vivid, but the bulk of the description has been accomplished.

Don’t use two words where one will suffice: I once edited a story where a character approached a sea where “along the shore was a row of several straight wooden walkways that jutted out into the ocean, held up by thick pylons sticking up out of the water.” I edited this to say, “Along the shore was a row of wooden docks.” So that you don’t have to count for yourself, that’s nineteen fewer words. Everyone does this, at some point—I’ve done it myself. Always look for the shortest, most descriptive word possible. A white dog with extremely curly hair should be shortened to a white poodle. He didn’t swing the long black bar with a curved end, he swung the crowbar.

Work in details through action: We’ve already discussed blending action and description a bit in these posts. Paragraphs of pure description can grow tedious very quickly, but purposeful action almost never does. So if your character walks into a kitchen, you might give a brief overview of what the kitchen looks like and who is in it. Then, when your character begins conversing with one of the people in the room, you can use the conversation to give more details about the person—maybe she scrunches her nose when she’s thinking, or perhaps the scar along her arm seems to pain her as she kneads dough. Maybe she tucks a strand of brown hair out of her eye, leaving a smudge of flour on her tan forehead. The protagonist can help her cut vegetables, and you can use this action as an opportunity to describe more details—the appearance of the countertop, the vegetables, or the cutlery; the lighting, the smells. Since the details are smoothly blended into action and dialog, they don’t grow tiring.

Think of description as a spice—it adds delicious flavor and depth when added to more substantial dishes, but can be overwhelming when eaten in large doses on its own.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Description: How Much Is Too Much?

Without turning your head, take a quick inventory of everything that you can see right now. Then do the same for everything you can hear, smell, taste, and feel. It’s a lot, isn’t it?

At this moment, I can see myself—my shirt, my jeans, the brim of my hat, my hair hanging into my eyes, my nose, my hands, and my wedding ring. I can see my computer tower and monitors, keyboard, mouse, a mess of cables, my desk phone, cell phone, notepad, water bottle, and headphones. There’s a sticky note, a plastic cup, and a paper bowl with a plastic spoon on my desk. Beside the desk on my right is a set of shelves and drawers with my satchel on top. Beyond my desk, I can see my trashcan, three walls, a window with raised blinds, a thermostat, fire alarm, lightswitch, and a doorway into another room. For now, I won’t bother describing the other room and its contents, or the yet third room and its contents which I can see beyond that, or the group of people that just walked past me.

You get the point—that was already a lot of information, and I didn’t even go into color or visible textures of any of those things, let alone any of what I can hear, smell, feel, or taste. Plus, I’m already noticing things I didn’t think to mention in my list—the carpeted floor or the ceiling and ceiling lights, among other things.

Describing Scenes

If I were describing this scene in a story—a character sitting at a desk writing—I obviously could not describe every sight, sound, and other sense of the scene. There’s just too much. Our job as writers is to narrow down that vast list of information into just enough description for the reader to picture the scene. How much description is that? The answer depends on the scene, the genre, and your personal preferences. But the general rule of thumb is this: the proper amount of scene description is the absolute minimum amount that you can get away with.

Most writers instinctively put far more description into their story than is needed. Always try to remember: no matter how beautiful, breathtaking, or mind-blowing the scene is, description tends to be boring. Small amounts can be interesting, but any more and it becomes tedious or even purple prose. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your powers of description are so mesmerizing that you are an exception to the rule. 

Pare down your descriptions and then ask some friends to read it. If they still have a clear description of the scene, then cut it down again. Ask some new friends to read it, and keep doing this until people start to say that they can’t picture the scene. Then take it back to the last version and leave it there.

If you’re one of those somewhat rarer writers that tend to put too little description into your story, then do the reverse—add a bit of description here and there until your readers say they can picture the scene, and then go no further.

Next time, we’ll discuss some tips for fitting maximum amounts of description into the fewest possible sentences.