September 25, 2011

Repetition

Show me once, hooray for you! Tell me twice, shame on you!

When critiquing, I've noticed a recurring theme (no pun intended).

(Most often) The main character reminisces at random intervals the elements of their internal conflict.

(Close second) The author uses dialogue or the POV narrative to reiterate whatever was just shown to the reader in the same scene, sometimes even the previous paragraph.

            At heart, it’s a trust issue. As a reader, it’s like the author taking the book from my hands, looking me right in the eye, and saying “Now, Nancy, you do understand that Vivica is terrified of a new relationship because of that horrible incident in second grade with the boy she gave the Valentine card too, right? I'm worried you didn't understand so every time the hero initiates interaction, I'm going to mention the incident, because it's key to understanding this whole novel."
           Now I know most writers don’t think their target readers are that simple—especially the ones I’m privileged to know. Every last one of them. What I think is much more likely, is that as newer writers we have a tendency not to trust our own writing. Often after making such a comment in critique, anything from: 
1 + 1 = ½, Trust the Reader, This slows the pacing, and is not new information, This is good information, but might need relocating to a more relevant place in the scene, I’m then blown away at how brilliantly I’m shown what I was just told. Occasionally it happens in reverse. Here’s a very simple illustration.
           
            Joe was exhausted from the long day on the job. He’d known hiring his wife’s brother would be a mistake. The man’s unreliability was the only reliable thing about him. He turned the key in the lock, thinking back to the days when Sheila would meet him at the door with a kiss—sometimes wearing just her wedding band and a smile. How he missed those days.
            “Sheila, I’m home.” Joe kicked his boots off in the entryway and trudged to his recliner. Collapsing into the old chairs embrace soothed his weary body, as much as the sight of his wife appearing with a cold glass of root beer.
            “Did Peter show up for work today?”
            “No. Third time this week, Sheila. I’m worried the foreman holds me responsible, too, since I recommended him for the job, even though you and I both know he hasn’t been on the straight and narrow long enough to give me any confidence.” Because I’d still do anything to make you happy.
            “I’m sorry. I’ll talk to him. Do you want dinner in here or in the kitchen? I’ve got that book club meeting tonight I told you about yesterday, so I’ll be heading out soon.”
            “Kitchen is okay. Thanks.”
            “Sure thing. I’ll try not to wake you when I come to bed.”
            Joe sighed and forced a smile. He wanted her to wake him. To want him like before, but the one time he’d tried to bring it up all that came out was ‘Have a good time.’
            “Joe, are you okay?”
            Before he could answer, she glanced at the clock, giving herself away.
            “Yeah, honey, I’m okay. Have a good time.”
            Later while Joe sat alone at their table, forking Sheila’s pot roast into his mouth over and over, all he could do was think. How had he let her talk him into recommending her brother for a job? The man had one consistency, and it was letting people down. If Joe weren’t so desperate to save this marriage he knew was disintegrating around him, he would have said no. Should have said no, but Sheila was his world, and he wanted her happy. Even if that meant he was miserable.

            If I cut, and I should, both the first and last paragraph, because an editor would, the scene stands on its own without the narrative.  The first paragraph tells the reader what I show them in the scene, then the final paragraph tells them not only what I just showed them, but what I told them I was going to show them.

            Now, I’m debating very strongly here whether or not this is a style issue. I don’t really think so, because the 1 + 1 = ½ rule comes from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft’ though I don’t remember who he attributes it to. And I know how frustrated I get when watching a movie with someone who feels the need to narrate for me so I don’t miss anything.
            In early drafts of CHASING THE LION, I did this too. At least once in every chapter, sometimes once in each scene, I reminded the reader of Jonathan’s deep seated need for revenge and how it affected his every decision in the middle portions of the novel. I also usually reminded them this came from his brother’s betraying him into slavery.  When I did my own read through cover to cover, I caught this and fixed it. This week and last week it was such a prevalent theme among the work I critiqued, I knew I wanted to blog about it. 
            (Now here, I’m okay with repeating myself because so much has happened in between when I first introduced that information. Sometimes the reader needs to be reminded, if chapters have passed or the plot presents a natural tie in where a light reference can be included. Just be sure it's relevant, warranted, and woven well through a brief nod the reader will understand.
            For those of you who follow CHASING THE LION, I do this with the scar on Jonathan's cheek from Caius's ring. Readers remember the powerful scene in which Jonathan received it, and why, and any time I need to remind the reader I can reference only the scar and I trust my readers to make the connection, without telling them again in a brief recap of that scene. 

            My theory on why writers slip into this repetitiveness evolved from this. When we write, even when we self-edit, we concentrate so much on a particular scene or chapter we don’t remember what specifically happened the chapter before, or after. Our subconscious demands we reference that important element that drives the plot or characterization because we know as writers that without it, the scene and the story don’t make sense. So it weaves itself in again, and again, and again, and again, until the reader is left wondering if they’re being called stupid behind the bookstore shelves. Something to consider, and if it’s been a while since you’ve read your own work from start to finish, it might be time.

            In author news: I stopped a wildfire today, by being in the right place at the right time (though for a bad situation) and was reminded again that, like in CHASING THE LION, God always has a plan and purpose and can make the worst situations bring Him glory and draw us closer to Him. Even kicking and screaming like Jonathan. ;-)

September 19, 2011

The Verb Lottery

Stronger verbs—it’s like more money. Who doesn't want that? We know as writers that sprint, dash, race, and flee are stronger than run. We know that pummel, strike, punch, and slap are stronger than hit. We know that yearn, desire, crave, and wish are stronger than want. And that type of polishing and strengthening our manuscript is for sure a win-win.

But—and you knew there was a but coming—what happens when you go a layer deeper and begin to break down your verbs into their functions and really pull apart your sentences? It’s winning the verb lottery. 

Now many writers more brilliant than me already know this, but somewhere between passing English year to year in school and now, I forgot that not all verbs are the same. Action verbs are most common in fiction writing, and we know them by their vividness: maul, flaunt, dominate, perceive, smuggle, unify and vanquish, to name a few. These are often the ones we hone in on to strengthen, like in the first paragraph of this post.

But action verbs have frienemies. If you don’t write YA or know that word, open a new tab and google or just keep reading, because its the best way I know to describe “to be” verbs. They are the friend/enemy of the writer: am, are, is, was, were, be, become, and became. These to be verbs, which I will probably forever call frenimies verbs, are known by another AKA—telling. Simply rewind a few sentences and see if those to be verbs line up with any “Can you show me instead of tell me?” comments in your last few critiques. Or if like me, for a long time you knew the word ‘was’ was bad, up there with ‘had’, but weren’t exactly sure why. This is why. Watch this.

Weak: It was just before night set in that Price found the missing gun. (13 words)

Stronger: Price found the missing gun just before night set in. (10 words)

Now we can REALLY have some fun strengthening these verbs, and a few of the nouns too.

Strongest: Price located the missing rifle just before nightfall. (8 words)

But there’s something else happening in the extreme makeover verb edition above, besides the benefit to word count. The subject of the sentence changed. In the first example, ‘It’ is the subject, and ‘was’ is the verb (a frenimy to be verb). And those don’t tell the reader anything, because all the real information is stuck way, way down there in the rest of the sentence. But when we eliminate our to be verb ‘was’ in the first revision, we have to adjust the subject for the sentence to still work. I’d made so many changes like this to “eliminate was” in my revisions without realizing I was simultaneously changing the subject of the sentence. Now that I really understand the parts of speech and making certain the true subject of the sentence is also the grammatical subject of the sentence, the difference between action and to be verbs, it really does feel like winning the verb lottery.

Because I can turn walk into saunter, stroll, parade, or amble all day long, depending on the one that most effectively conveys the meaning I’m writing to show, but if I’ve missed my true subject, and buried my true verbs deep in the predicate as nouns, I’m not writing as strong as I can. 

When I’m not writing as strong as I can, I’m doing a disservice to my story, and to my reader.

So if you’ve stayed with me so far, I hope this little bit of advice makes you feel like you’ve won the verb lottery too. You might have really great verbs masquerading as heavy, multi-syllable nouns in your sentences. These can be converted back into their original verb forms.

Weak: They made the announcement that they were getting married.
Stronger: They announced that they were getting married.

Weak: I came to the conclusion my husband would always be my best friend.
Stronger: I concluded my husband would always be my best friend.

So how do you find these wonderful verbs masquerading as nouns that may be better unmasked? 
Look for the five most common Latin endings on them: tion, ment, ing, ion, and ance.
(Credit to Linda Flower’s Problem Solving Strategies for Writing for that little Latin gem.)

Here’s three links that will really make it feel like payday for you, but please come back and comment if you found this post and/or the links helpful. I’d like to think all this was as exciting for at least one or two of my blog followers as it was for me. Wait, I mean… I’d like to think all this excited at least one or two of my blog followers as much as it did me. See how that works?

"Find and Replace" vs. "To Be Verbs" (But PLEASE save a copy before you try this.) 


Using Stronger Verbs 

September 11, 2011

Remembering 9.11


9.11.2001

I turned on my TV mid-morning while readying to leave for my college classes. Some news story was on, so I turned the channel. There it was again. Annoyed, I changed the channel again, and again, and again. I don’t know when or where I stopped pressing the button on the remote. Only what happened afterward as I aged a hundred years in the span of an hour. At the age of twenty-one, I came to understand the look in my grandfather’s eyes whenever anyone asked him about Pearl Harbor. The one I’ll always carry for 9-11.

So many heroes, some whose stories could never be told because no one survived to tell them. I believe that together we celebrate those as well collectively as we remember.

From my days of watching plenty of Judge Judy, I remember a case that came before her not long after 9-11, regarding two business owners and a large shipment of American Flags. The delivery came after hours and another business owner signed for it, then sold the flags from his own store the following day. The rightful owner sued for not only the wholesale cost of the flags, but the outrageous markup he'd planned to cash in on the waves of patriotic outpouring in the days immediately following September 11th. The testimony of both of these men was sickening, and the judge said so. I don't remember the judgment, only thinking I'd now seen the other end of the extreme. The heroes of 9-11 and then... men like this.

But what makes America, with all its broken pieces, the place it is, is the service men and women protecting our freedoms and way of life. Their sacrifice of months, even years from their families and home, sometimes their very lives, cover the heroes and the flag-stealers one and the same. That reminds me a lot of salvation in Jesus Christ and the grace of God. That even though we've all lived like flag-stealers at some moment in our life, the blood of the ultimate hero covered our sins, great and small as we see them, one and the same to Him--forgiven.

I have a friend whose birthday is today. I always hope he, and those whose birthday and anniversary share the calendar with 9-11, celebrate their special days in even more fullness knowing they are part of what endured through that day that scarred our nation and each of us. The indomitable human spirit and enduring hope... endowed in us by our creator that has sustained mankind since the fall in the garden, because we know where our hope lies.

" I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust." Acts 24:15 (NKJV)

To that end, fellow writer Julie Lessman's novel "A Hope Undaunted" is currently available as a free download through Amazon & Barnes and Noble. I've read this novel and besides being a great romance, it's a story chocked full of over-comers, just like the United States of America.

Amazon - A Hope Undaunted

B&N - A Hope Undaunted

Feel free to share your memories of 9-11, and since not everyone has an e-reader, I'm giving away a print copy of A HOPE UNDAUNTED to a randomly selected commenter. Just be sure to leave me an e-mail address in your comment.

September 6, 2011

Submitting

No, not the kind the Bible talks about, I mean the publishing kind.

Today was "THE DAY" and now that I've met my querying goal, I can celebrate with a Snickers Ice Cream Bar and buckle down on the new novel. It surprised me how truly terrified I was to click send. I'd proofed, tested formatting across e-mail platforms, everything I could think of to make the queries and proposals as perfect and professional as possible. Even still, I felt my heart racing and my hands shaking with my finger over the mouse. I had an opportunity to remember what it feels like to chase a lion of fear with just God, and that was positive. It had been a long time since I'd had to. Fortunately I tried to keep that perspective when one of my blind carbon copies to myself revealed google thought I had forwarded one of the queries and turned almost all the text purple. Formatting was my biggest hurdle throughout the day and let me tell you fellow writers, you need to be so careful with cutting and pasting and losing your formatting. Even though it "looks" right in your compose window, it can look completely different for the recipient. Things like extra spaces between paragraphs, turning your font purple or blue if you forward, even if it's a cut and re-paste, those kinds of things. All I can hope is that for the agent who gets the purple font, or any of the crazy formatting makes it through to others, the heart of the story will overcome it.

I'm adopting the Ronco method now of "Set it... and forget it!" with CHASING THE LION. I've got a goal date for the new work in process  that feels a lot like NaNoWriMo two months early, but you seize the opportunities as they come and a little birdie strongly suggested being ready with the new manuscript by October.

I'm giving a 10 page critique to one randomly selected commenter who shares what submitting a query or proposal for the first time was like. And if you haven't yet, how will you know when you're ready?

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