Thursday, December 20, 2007

Someone will eat your words.

Test your vocabulary in support of the United Nations World Food Program. For every word you get right, 20 grains of rice are paid for by the site's advertisers and donated to feed the hungry.

Click the banner to play.

Perhaps this will help.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Playtime for the inner child.

Call it research for your graphic novel.

He Exuded, She Proffered – And Other Dialogue Stranglers

Your main character pulls himself up to the counter at his favorite diner. He sips his coffee, looks around. At the far end of the counter, under an autographed photo of Elvis Presley, sits that woman again – the one who started coming in last week, who places pictures of her son on the counter and stares at them while she eats her toast. She’s pretty.

This could be the start of something. Your main character checks his tie for coffee drips, picks up his mug and moves to the stool next to her.
“Excuse me, what a handsome little boy. I have a son, myself, but he’s in daycare down the street right now, and his mother, well, that’s a long story,” he exuded.

She proffered, “My son isn’t with us anymore.”

“What do you mean?” John questioned, sipping his coffee as he looked into her eyes with concern.

YIKES! Any interesting information in this scene gets mangled with the dialogue. If your writing droops whenever your characters open their mouths, read further. Here are some quick clean-ups that will tighten conversations and help your dialogue scenes hold readers’ attention.

1. Keep it simple.

Stick to he said, she said – or if it’s a question, she asked. Just because Roget’s Thesaurus can give you thirty adjectives for “said” doesn’t mean you should use them all. Anything but “said” and “asked” can distract your reader from your characters’ words.

2. Use names sparingly.

In most scenes – and especially in scenes between a man and a woman – it is enough to use the characters’ names once at the beginning, and then use “he” and “she” the rest of the way through, and only when “he” and “she” are absolutely necessary to clarify who is speaking. Your readers are interested in the dialogue, NOT the dialogue tags.

3. Let the words speak for themselves...

...And beware of stage directions. For example, “…sipping his coffee as he looked into her eyes with concern.” Action is important in some dialogue scenes, but as a rule of thumb, focus on the spoken word. When you must convey action, do it cleanly. For instance:

"What do you mean?” he asked. He took a sip of his coffee and looked into her eyes.

You’ll see that his concern is still apparent in the fact that he’s even asking for clarification, and also that he meets her eyes. The dialogue tag is short and unobtrusive, giving the reader closure on the dialogue before moving on to describe his action.

4. Indirect communication: bad for relationships, good for dialogue scenes.

Use indirect dialogue to add tension and cover ground. One thing that this exchange does correctly is that it allows the woman to respond indirectly to the man’s opening statement. The jump moves us to the important information (that her son is gone, for reasons unknown), and saves us from the boredom of watching a Q&A-type dialogue unfold.

5. "Put," she said earnestly, "your dialogue tags where they don't distract."

Indicate the speaker at the beginning of the dialogue, or after the first, short phrase of dialogue. Otherwise, the dialogue tag becomes a distraction.

YES: He glanced over his shoulder. “Darn right.”
YES: She told him, “I want you to finish your dinner, first.”
YES: “Darn right,” he said. “If that’s what you really believe, I mean.”
NO: “Darn right. If that’s what you really believe, I mean,” he said.
NO: "If that's," he said, "what you really believe."

In general, dialogue scenes should move along at a good clip and present challenges to your characters. When you can trust that your readers are interested in what the characters are saying, you can concentrate on telling the story, rather than the tilt of John Q.'s eyebrows as he asks the woman of his dreams for a date.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Second editions and the self-published author

A client recently self-published her first book, a short coaching guide that she takes with her to her seminars and workshops. While thrilled to have a book, she wasn't thrilled with her POD company's work. But if you know much about publishing -- POD or otherwise -- you know that once the book is typeset, small changes add up to big bucks. How can you make the most of this expensive process?

There's an important similarity between POD nonfiction books (like self-help, business, and academic books) and, say, the textbook industry. In the textbook industry, authors make their money by writing a book and then revising it every two years and selling the new editions. One book may go through nine editions or more. And the same is true of your POD book.

Something you'd like to change about the cover? Do you have testimonials or new examples you'd like to add, based on reader feedback? Has your subject matter become more newsworthy? Once you've published your first edition, start a file of everything you'd like to add or change. Keep track of who buys your book. Wait 18 months, then revise to your heart's content. Write a new introduction. Tweak the cover design. Now you have a second edition, and probably an even better book -- and because you've kept track of who's buying your book, your new edition has a built-in audience.

And the best news for my client? As a self-published author, she still owns the rights to her work, and can select a different printing or POD company the next time around.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Believable cruelty

Often I encounter writers struggling with how to portray a violent, cruel, abusive, or drug-addicted character in a human and believable way. There are so few messages or stories in mainstream culture that adequately explain why real human beings do bad things.

How do we get to the root of something we may not intuitively understand? We run the risk of judging our characters on one hand, or on the other, exonerating them. A good narrator will do neither -- readers will be suspicious of either an apologist or moralist for a narrator.

The best book I've encountered on the subject so far is FOR YOUR OWN GOOD: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence, by Alice Miller. The book is, unfortunately, out of print, but there are many copies available through, and Try to find the 3rd edition or later if you can.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

In my critiques, I often advise writers to pay closer attention to how they use point-of-view (POV). Until I saw Pan's Labyrinth a second time a few weekends ago, it didn't occur to me to use a movie to explain a writing concept.

If you're writing in third person, the narrator zooms in and out to pace the story. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, calls this concept psychic distance, or basically how close your narrator is to your POV character's innermost experience of the world. A common mistake is to hold the same psychic distance for too long, creating either a story that moves too slowly (the plot drags) or too quickly (we might as well be reading a plot summary).

This film, were it a novel, would be written in third-person. Since Ofelia is the main character, the closest psychic distance is reserved for her, but we get other POVs later in the film that give the story its depth and richness. In the crucial first 20 minutes, however, we move through three stages of psychic distance in Ofelia's POV. A full walk-through is beyond the scope of this little blog entry, but briefly:

1. When Ofelia finds the stone in the road that releases the fairy, the viewer is alone with her. We know very little about her other than that she reads fairy tales (her mother just scolded her for it), and this moment gives both her and us a sense of wonder. The psychic distance is very close.

2. Once Ofelia arrives at the old mill/military outpost, we meet two new characters--the captain and Mercedes--and as the viewer, we're in the midst of a lot of activity. We're observing the interaction between the captain and Ofelia's mother. There's dialogue between Ofelia and the new characters. The psychic distance is moderate.

3. There's a hinge point right after Ofelia discovers the labyrinth--Mercedes guides her away from it, but the camera stays with the labyrinth; specifically, the fairy appears at the top of the threshold and watches Ofelia and Mercedes walk away. We've broken from Ofelia's POV, and the subsequent scenes are free move to other characters' POVs. The psychic distance zooms completely out for this transition.

Thanks to the slowly increasing psychic distance, we can easily adjust to the changing POVs that come after these opening scenes: Something to consider as you're switching between POVs in your novel.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


Work is slow at Threepenny -- the typical summer slump. In July, I finished a critique, two manuscript editing projects, and several sample edits. I put in some good, hard work on a ghostwriting project. I saved my personal website from peril (thanks to the sellout), and raced well in two big triathlons. I also tried to save the Earth; or at least I put more miles on my bike than on my '93 Saturn.

Portland summers are sweet, and there's nothing like closing the laptop at 5 p.m. sharp and pedaling to the top of Mt. Tabor Park, sitting in the grass with friends, watching the bicycle races, and waiting for the sun to set behind the city. A slow month on the P&L doesn't mean hard times.

More on gotchas

I posted last week about the dozen or so London publishers that rejected "Pride and Prejudice." The buzz on my editors guild board has finally produced a few optimistic notes, mainly this one on the Making Light blog, a group blog written by editors and writers who have been working in book publishing for decades.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Quick reference: The Tongue Untied

Why did your editor flinch when you commented on the enormity of her skill? I ran across this site earlier today, which is a nice showcase of how subtle differences in word choice make ALL the difference.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The free OED

Once again, my library card made my week. Thanks to a helpful post on the Northwest Independent Editors Guild website, we now know that most libraries subscribe to the online Oxford English Dictionary, and anyone with a card can access it for free. Word geeks, rejoice with me.

Second and third thoughts on the previous post

As someone who follows The Rejecter , Pub Rants , and formerly, Miss Snark's blog , I read the Guardian article with a sick feeling in my stomach. The reason isn't a particularly acute attack of cynicism; it's that anyone who reads and learns from publishing blogs knows exactly why Jane Austen couldn't make it past the 27-year-old know-it-all who opens your agent's mail.

I have to remind myself to stop wasting time--wasting time worrying about the formula-touting assistant with a letter-opener, and wasting time second guessing my writing goals. I have a stack of books next to my chair that need to be read as research (mostly folklore), as well as two academic books (Bakhtin, and a lit crit anthology) that have been bookmarked for months, and a novel to write.

Write well, keep the faith, and when the time comes to go out with the manuscript, you will make it happen. In the meantime, learn all you can and take any formulaic approach to fiction with a grain of salt. Good books get published all the time.

Not like the world needs more cynicism, but this gem deserves a look.

"The author and the Austen plot that exposed publishers' pride and prejudice"

· Rejection slips for slightly amended literary classics
· Most failed to identify novelist's celebrated work

Steven Morris
Thursday July 19, 2007
The Guardian

Her work has endured for two centuries, sold in its millions and inspired countless film and television adaptations. But would Jane Austen be able to find a publisher and an agent today? A cheeky experiment by an Austen enthusiast suggests not.

David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath decided to find out what sort of reception the writer might get if she approached publishers and agents in the age of Harry Potter and the airport blockbuster.

After making only minor changes, he sent off opening chapters and plot synopses to 18 of the UK's biggest publishers and agents. He was amazed when they all sent the manuscripts back with polite but firm "no-thank-you's" and almost all failed to spot that he was ripping off one of the world's most famous literary figures.

Mr Lassman said: "I was staggered. Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon and yet only one recipient recognised them as Austen's work."

Mr Lassman admits that personal disappointment as well as academic interest prompted his experiment. A little like Austen, who initially struggled to find a publisher, he has been unable to find someone to champion his book, a thriller called Freedom's Temple, a modern take on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. "I know it isn't a masterpiece but I think it is publishable. Yet nobody wanted it. I was talking with some friends and we wondered if Jane would find a publisher or agent if she were around today."

So, styling himself Alison Laydee - a play on Austen's nom de plume A Lady - he typed up chapters from three of her most famous books. First he sent off Northanger Abbey, calling it "Susan" - a title Austen had used for an early draft - and changing the name of the heroine from Catherine Morland to Susan Maldorn.

Mr Lassman expected to be branded a fraud. But he was surprised when publishers and agents failed to spot they had been sent the work of Austen. Bloomsbury, publisher of the Harry Potter books, for instance, suggested the chapters had been read "with interest" but were not "suited to our list".

Still, Northanger Abbey is not seen as one of Austen's great books, so next he sent off Persuasion, under the title The Watsons. Again the letters of rejection flooded in. JK Rowling's agents, Christopher Little, were among those who turned it down, saying they were "not confident" of being able to place it.

Then he played his trump card, sending off Pride and Prejudice, calling it First Impressions, again an early title Austen had used for it. The names of the main characters and places were changed, but with no great guile.

Mr Bennet became Mr Barnett while the estate Netherfield becomes Weatherfield, the fictional setting for the TV soap Coronation Street.

And he did not change the opening line, one of the most famous in world literature: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Still the deception was not spotted and the rejection letters thudded on to Mr Lassman's doormat, most notably one from Penguin. Its letter read: "Thank you for your recent letter and chapters from your book First Impressions. It seems like a really original and interesting read."

Only one person appeared to have spotted the deception, Alex Bowler, of Jonathan Cape. His reply read: "Thank-you for sending us the first two chapters of First Impressions; my first impression on reading these were ones of disbelief and mild annoyance, along, of course, with a moment's laughter.

"I suggest you reach for your copy of Pride and Prejudice, which I'd guess lives in close proximity to your typewriter, and make sure that your opening pages don't too closely mimic that book's opening."

David Baldock, director of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, said he was amused and disheartened by the experiment. He added: "It's interesting that there are these filters that stop work getting through. Clearly clerks and office staff are rejecting these manuscripts offhand."

Publishers and agents yesterday tried to explain what had gone wrong. A spokesman for Christopher Little said: "Our letter was a polite note declining representation and provided a standard response. Our internal notes did recognise similarities with existing published works and indeed there were even discussions about possible plagiarism."

A spokeswoman for Penguin pointed out that its letter had said only that it "seemed" original and interesting. "It would not have been read," she insisted.


First Impressions, Alison Laydee

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

"My dear Mr Barnett," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Weatherfield Manor is let at last?"

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

"My dear Mr Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"


I've been busy? Kidnapped? At any rate I haven't posted since February. But I'm back, with apologies to anyone who has visited this blog and been disappointed to find nothing here for months.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Editors, and editing nonfiction

Just a heads-up. If you are thinking of writing a work of nonfiction*, plan it first. Write only the first chapter. Hire an editor to make that chapter and proposal sparkle, and start shopping for an agent. If you get a publishing contract, then you can finish the book. This is the safest way to approach your project, unless you already have a guaranteed audience.

Unless you are planning to self-publish or go POD, you will set yourself up for a lot of heartache and expense if you write the thing and hire an editor, only to find out that no agent will represent it, and no publisher will publish it.

There are some great books on writing nonfiction proposals. Google it, or here are a few:

Write the Perfect Book Proposal, by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman
Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, by Elizabeth Lyon

Also, the Gotham Writers' Workshop offers excellent, respected online courses for aspiring nonfiction authors and freelance feature writers.

* This advice doesn't apply to memoirs.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

English is not just a first-person language.

Tom Spanbauer teaches a workshop in Portland -- it's great, it's helpful, insert all due praise here -- BUT whenever I talk to any of his students, they're all writing novels in first person and one of them even said to me that third person is not welcome around Tom's table. Now that's interesting.

Why? I wondered. Well, supposedly the working assumption is that English is a first-person language. Tom Spanbauer writes brilliantly in first person, but still, why teach writers to believe they can only write in first person? The dogma around Tom's table favors the hot, close, me-to-you language that fits perfectly in the small privacy of a reader's attention. Anything else, they say, is distancing -- a narrator is a faceless entity that tells us what to believe about the novel's characters.

The dogma isn't unfounded. There's also something to be said about "I" in our culture. We're concerned with identity, with how we represent and present and signify ourselves to everybody else, and part of how we do that is with language.

However, third person gives us access to many points of view without having to use the obvious conceit of multiple "I's" for different story lines. It doesn't forfeit the power of an anonymous narrator, allowing the author to play with all kinds of voices. For example, a novel is a great place to explore the zone of contact between "internally persuasive" language, i.e., the voice in our heads, and the "authoritative discourse" of media, politics, ethics, whatever types of speaking are part of our culture's power structures. (Jose Saramago's Seeing is a good example.)

The novel can be so much more than language gymnastics. Poetry, when conscripted into long-form prose, is more interesting as a tool than as an end unto itself. We write novels because we have a story to tell about how humans live in the world, and much as it's possible to believe otherwise, the world is not always about "I."

Or, you can just write in first person AND third person. Dana Spiotta rocks.

Friday, January 19, 2007

What is a story?

A story leaves you speechless for a few moments or a few hours, because there aren't any few words that sum up in your mind what you just read. And that's exactly it: a story is an emotion that takes exactly the number of words in the story to convey what it is.

It can be very long or very short. A story can be six words. In fact, here are dozens of six-word stories:

These stories are also a lesson in trusting your reader to fill in the blanks. Some examples from Wired, Issue 14.11:

I’m your future, child. Don’t cry.
- Stephen Baxter

I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ?
- Neil Gaiman

Easy. Just touch the match to
- Ursula K. Le Guin

...and Ernest Hemingway's famous one:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Chapter 1... and its unregarded little sister

Much advice is given on the novel's first chapter. For instance, Hilary Masters teaches a whole class on it. His suggestion is that the novel should be contained in it -- the characters, the core conflict, the nuance of theme, and setup for the story's most important images. That's a lot of work for 7,500 or so words to manage, but I agree. Chapter 1 is a handshake. Readers' expectations are based on it. Unless your main character is a demolitions expert, it better be more than a few big booms.

Many agents will ask for your first 50 pages -- another reason to have a brilliant first chapter. You get rejected, you tinker with your letter and go over Chapter 1 again, and submit some more. Repeat.

But wait... 50 pages? Oh yes, there's that's second child; what did we call her? Oh, right of course -- Chapter 2. Lately I've been reading manuscripts where the second chapter falls through like a trap door. In this one little sample set, the issue seems to be with pacing. How the novel is paced depends on the story, but no matter the genre I want to take a breather and have the fabulous Chapter 1 put into perspective for me before the plot unfolds any more. I want to know that the story is big enough for the remaining 300 pages. In short, I want to know about character.

Speaking of Hilary Masters, he teaches a cookbook formula for pacing in his short story classes that applies here.

1) Scene,
2) summary,
3) scene.

Give us the action. Then tell us why it matters to the character whose POV encountered the action. Then give us a scene that shows us how the character tries to resolve the problem that arose in #1, based on what we learned about him/her in #2. A chapter can unfold along these lines, and so can a novel. If you handle the pacing well, the chapters will live together in one big happy family.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

75-cent words for hoi polloi

We all have our writer-personalities that come out on the page when we don't know what we're really trying to say. One of those personalities is a moody 15-year-old who calls herself Jude, and she slouches to the rescue with too many syllables and too much vocabulary and gets way too serious and abstract.

If you find yourself needing to prune syllables, but also love your OED, here are some fun, clipped, 75-cent words that may satisfy both urges.

  • Fizgig:A flirty, frivolous girl.
  • Os:A mouth or an orifice.
  • Jimjams:Extreme nervousness; jitters
  • Pencel: A small flag at the end of a lance.
  • Swot:One who studies hard, especially to the exclusion of other interests.
  • Skosh:A small amount; a little bit.
  • Quaggy:Marshy; flabby; spongy.
  • Guttle:To eat voraciously; to devour greedily.
  • Ret:To soak or expose to moisture (flax, hemp, etc.) to remove fiber from softened wood.
  • Looby:An awkward, clumsy, lazy fellow.
  • Palmy:Flourishing; prosperous.
  • Bevy:A group or collection.
  • Cark:To worry.

Mystery/thriller contest

If your manuscript is finished: The winner gets a free manuscript evaluation from an agent or editor attending the conference.

Monday, January 15, 2007

POD book awards

To the skeptics of print-on-demand (POD) technology, offering a POD book-of-the-year award may sound like either a hoax or a dubious honor, something like being named "worst dressed" at the Oscars. But slowly, slowly, the POD stigma is fading. In part, we have the excellent book reviewers at POD-dy Mouth and Glynn's Book Reviews to thank. There may also be more competition among POD companies themselves, a growing number of which are boutique companies like Plain White Press, run by an industry veteran who can offer everything from design to printing to experienced marketing. In short, the quality is going up, and all the believers are holding their breath. They're waiting for the tipping point: the day when the public finally catches on.

Writer's Digest is running a self-published book contest that one of my clients lauded. He says the judges rate and comment upon plot, grammar, character development and cover design in a way that suggests that entries are read with at least one eye open. (If you wonder where the critics of POD focus their wrath, look no further than the judging categories, i.e., grammar.) For a $15 entry fee, you have a shot at being published by Outskirts Press and flown to NY for an awards ceremony.

If you like free better, you can generate just as much good press for your POD book by submitting it to POD-dy Mouth's annual Needle Awards. The award is top props on a very popular blog. She's looking for nominees as of today, so I encourage you to submit.