Sunday, April 25, 2010

Critiquing Common Writing Errors*

(This series begins with Critique Group Guidelines*.)

Fun Words to Critique With

Adverbial ending -- As a rule, writers use the adjective and the adverb too much. It's too easy (and lacks power) to write, "The girl was really pretty, with blonde hair and red, rosy lips, and big, lustrous eyes. I wanted to kiss her very much." It's much better to write, "Her eyes shown through the mass of blonde ringlets like a winter moon at its highest. Her lips, red and full, seemed to beckon me to pull her close and press them with mine." (All right, it's not much better, but you get the point.)

Now, the killer about many modifiers, especially adverbs, is that they are simply nouns, verbs, and adjectives with "ly" added. If you want to weaken your prose, use lots of modifiers. If you want to ruin your mind, use lots of "ly" words -- adverbial endings.

Geography -- The actual "where-ares" within a scene. When you describe Ralph crossing to Jenny as she lay on the sofa, you are describing the geography of the scene. If you have Ralph standing, then have his arms suddenly around Jenny, you are failing to describe the geography of the scene. This may lose your reader, who usually doesn't make the trip with the same alacrity as Ralph.

Gerund -- An "-ing" suffix, creating a verb from another part of speech or creating a noun or adjective from a verb, as in "It was a going concern." It may also change a noun into a verb or adjective, or even another noun, as in "The housing in that housing project is housing the builder." The problem with gerunds is that gerundal endings can weaken a sentence. Also, they tend to be relied upon by novices (and sometimes by "experts"), when a more appropriate word would be stronger; i.e., "The structure within that building project currently serves as home to the builder." You get the drift.

Imagery -- Beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and continuing to around the middle of the seventeenth century, a method of religious thinking dominated the few cultural centers (monasteries) that existed in western and northern Europe. Imagery was the belief that all that existed in this world represented, not what it seemed to represent, but something in God's heavenly kingdom. The red rose, for instance, might symbolize the blood of Christ, the thorns his crown of thorns and the testing of faith, the green of the stem the message of God's wrath and mercy reaching to this world.

This theological method served a largely illiterate populace as a memory guide and scripture-teaching tool and, generally, managed to keep everyone in his place, which was very helpful if your place was on top of the heap, as with the leaders of Holy Mother Church.

Along about the time of Galileo, this method of non-thinking started to be pushed aside in favor of a more rationalistic view of the world. However, remnants of imagery reside and flourish in works of literature.

Despite what many writers think, there is always imagery in a work of fiction. If nothing else, the characters are images of people in the real world, as are the situations they get into. In some fiction, imagery may be carried to an nth degree through the use of symbol, allegory, pathos, simile, metaphor, euphemism, etc. The art of discerning imagery within a work of fiction is called Sophomore English, and the art of isolating it and disseminating it to death is called Graduate English.

However, as critics on a day-to-day basis, it's often enough to let the imagery sink in without our being fully aware of it. Therefore, if you say, "I really like the imagery in your story," that may simply mean that you are pleased with the overall effect. If, however, you say, "Your imagery is inconsistent internally or within the frame, guidelines, or context of your story," then be prepared to back it up. If you're not aware of any imagery, best not to say anything. You're not impressing anybody.

"Show" and "Tell" -- No, this is not referring to your adventures in the first grade. This is referring to the dreadful habit some writers have of telling us what went on in a scene instead of describing the action as it happens. This is often a difficult concept for writers, so here's an example:

John told Martha she was pretty. She said that was nice, and she put her arms around him and kissed him right on the lips.

Try this:

John approached Martha diffidently. "You know" -- he cleared his throat -- "You're about the prettiest woman ever."

Martha smiled. "That's very nice of you."

John blushed. Martha, stifling a laugh, whispered, "John, you're a real ditz." Throwing her arms around him, she kissed him full on the lips.

Tags -- The speech modifiers, such as "John said," and "Martha asked." Here's where people really get carried away. Not only do they tend to overdo the modifiers -- "Have a martini?" he asked drily -- but many writers seem to think that the reader gets tired of seeing "said" and "asked" and wants something more spiffy; i.e., "Have a drink," he hissed (trying hissing a sentence with no esses); "I'm soused," he hiccoughed; "You're it," he chortled. These are only openers. A really creative taggist can knock you out. "You're lovely," he caressed. "Grave occurrences," he intoned. "You're a fool," she attacked. Enough.

So, what do we do to get around all the "saids" and "asks" and "shouteds" and other mundane tags? We don't. The reader does it for us. The words fade into the background for the reader, allowing him to understand who said it without striking him in the face with the writer's cleverness.

*Taken from "The guidelines for critique," author/source unknown. I found this handout while sorting through some old notes from writers' conferences. These are excellent guidelines, well worth sharing. If anyone knows where this material came from originally, please tell me so I can give credit where it's due. -- Deborah

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Readers Facilitate Valid Critique*

(This series begins with Critique Group Guidelines*.)

Identify your work. Tell us if it's fiction or nonfiction, to begin with, then whether it's mainstream, science fiction, romance, or whatever. Knowing the genre may be necessary for giving valid critique. Then again, it may not.

Let us know what's happening. When, as with a short story or news article, the piece may be read at one sitting, it may not be necessary or even desirable to give us a synopsis. In the case of longer works, however, a brief synopsis, dealing only with the action and characters directly relevant to the current reading, may be beneficial. Write your synopsis down before you start reading. Fumbling for words wastes your time.

Speak up! Many of us have trouble hearing. If you don't speak up, it makes it seem like you're ashamed of your work.

Don't try to cram War and Peace in every week. Restrict yourself to a comfortable length. For the average reader, about twelve pages of double-spaced, typewritten copy is about fifteen minutes of reading. We hate being left off mid-chapter. So if it's going to make a difference by one or two minutes, don't start that second chapter.

Don't interject side comments. This is distracting, as the listener may not understand whether it's part of the script or not.

If there's something specific you want critique on, as, for example, whether or not a certain character is believable, then tell your listeners about it.

Don't apologize for reading first drafts, rereading something you read the week before, thinking your work doesn't stand up to somebody else's, or anything else. Apologies for such things are a waste of time. If you're truly sorry about reading something, don't read it. If you're reading it, we can only assume that you're not really apologetic. Besides, remember that nobody starts out writing like Jay McInerny, Judith Krantz, or Janet Dailey. Except Jay McInerny, Judith Krantz, or Janet Dailey, of course. We're all learning.

(This series continues with Critiquing Common Writing Errors.)

*Taken from "The guidelines for critique," author/source unknown. I found this handout while sorting through some old notes from writers' conferences. These are excellent guidelines, well worth sharing. If anyone knows where this material came from originally, please tell me so I can give credit where it's due. -- Deborah

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Critique Group Guidelines*

  • Leave personalities out of it.
  • Keep it short and to the point.
  • If you don't have something to say, don't say it.
  • Have something to say.

Personal preferences as to genre have no bearing. If you don't like a particular genre, chances are you haven't read enough of it to make an important critical explication. This does not mean, however, that you cannot critique individual elements such as word choice, spelling, and punctuation. If you have a question concerning what genre a story is, ask.

Critique content only if relevant to the saleability or context of the book; e.g., blatant racism is generally unacceptable, and if the book is about a tea party [meaning a pre-21st century tea party], references to fighting in 'Nam may have no place.

All critique, if valid and dispensed with good intentions, is positive. Even critique which may on its face appear to be negative is positive in that it points toward a goal of solid reconstruction. Praise, while nice, is not truly critique, and is rarely practically useful -- keep it very short. "This is good," springs to mind as a possible time-saver. As a rule, "negative" is more constructive than "positive."

Critique is not debate. As a critic, don't get into a debate with the reader or another critic concerning any point you may have to make.

Don't recount anecdotes of your own unless they're directly and immediately relevant -- and short!

Don't repeat others' critiques unless it is very important. Saying "I agree with such-and-such" is short and gets the point across nicely. Reiterating what that person said at length is unnecessary, time-consuming, and redundant in the broadest sense of the word.

Don't contradict another's critique unless you feel very strongly that it needs contradiction. Remember, it's up to the reader to make the decision as to what he keeps and does not keep. An exception to this guideline is when you feel that another critic has missed the point of the reading or hasn't a full understanding of genre requirements, or whatever. Sometimes the reader needs to know that his point was not missed by everyone.

Don't ask questions unless you need a specific point of clarification.

Keeping It Short

The following is a list of individual points that critics often get hung up on when they should be looking at the broader scope of the reading. These are valid points. However, too much time may be spent noting specific references at times that might be better spent critiquing the larger, more deadly aspects of the work.

Checklist for critique:
  • Too many gerundal (-ing) endings
  • Too many adverbial endings
  • Too many adjectives
  • Too much "tell" and not enough "show"
  • Too slow
  • Too fast and superficial
  • Not enough emotion
  • Touch all the senses, including smell
  • Too many tags
  • Not enough tags
  • I got lost in the geography of the reading
  • The following words appeared frequently or in close juxtaposition: __________
(This series continues with Readers Facilitate Valid Critique.)

*Taken from "The guidelines for critique," author/source unknown. I found this handout while sorting through some old notes from writers' conferences. These are excellent guidelines, well worth sharing. If anyone knows where this material came from originally, please tell me so I can give credit where it's due. -- Deborah

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Notepads, Notepads, Everywhere

Whether I'm awake or asleep, whether I'm writing fiction or I'm busy with another project altogether, my subconscious is always working on my novels. It'll pop up when I least expect it, offering an insight or spitting out the particular word or figure of speech that had eluded me when I consciously sought it.

These glimpses into the busy underworld of my subconscious don't last long. I must make a note of them at once, or risk losing them forever.

That's why I have notepads everywhere. I have a stack of them, large and small, next to the chair where I do much of my reading. I have a notepad and two pens next to my side of the bed, where I also keep a battery-powered camping lantern that I bought at Walmart for $5. The lantern produces a dim-enough glow that it doesn't blind me when I punch its "On" button in the middle of the night to record a moment of brilliance that's flashed up from deep in my mind.

I have notepaper in my wallet and notepads in my car. I have a notepad on the living room table that holds the remotes for the TV and the DVR. Occasionally, a character on the screen will say something that jogs something that I must write down immediately.

My biggest hoard of notepads, however, is in the bathroom. I do my best thinking near running water. (I'm a Pisces, after all.) In the shower is where I solve many of my writing problems. Phrases come to me, new directions suggest themselves, answers arrive to questions that I might have been puzzling over for weeks. I love running water.

It presents a dilemma, though, when the perfect wording for a difficult passage careens into my thoughts while I'm covered in soap. Do I step out, dripping soap and water, and write down the thought immediately? Or do I keep repeating it over and over in my head, not trusting myself to remember it all the way through to toweling-off unless I keep it front-of-mind?

I've found that I can close my eyes and picture my pen writing the phrase in a notepad. After I've written it mentally, I picture the ink-stained reality of it and read it back to myself from my imaginary notepad. That usually works to capture the thought long enough for me to get rinsed off and get my hands on real paper and pen.

But if I get two perfect phrases in the course of one shower, then I must step out and write them down. The tracing-on-my-mind method is not reliable for more than one thought at a time.

What I really need is one of those write-underwater tablets that marine archeologists use. Then I could stay in the shower until I shrivel up, recording thought after thought. But I guess that would be hard on the septic tank. Not very eco-friendly in a world of water shortages. So I'll just keep writing on my notepads, real and imaginary.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Tough Writing: Part 2

(Continued from Tough Writing: Part 1)

To look at another example of the declarative sentences that typify the style called “tough”:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
--Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

The driving beat of these sentences builds a picture in the reader's mind of armies marching, marching, their boots pounding the road, raising the dust. There's a definite note of desperation in this passage, a starkness that is far more effective than having the narrator crying out, or shouting at the troops, or otherwise showing his emotions.

As Professor Brooks Landon describes the “tough” style, the speaker/narrator/protagonist says only what he can see or directly experience, stating information without processing it. This style introduces the reader to a mind (a character’s mind) that is unreflective, almost anesthetized, or so focused on one purpose that it simply refuses to think about anything else or consider alternate points of view.

I've come to realize that, on a spectrum of writing styles ranging from "tough" at one extreme to "demonstrative" at the other, I fall nearer the tough end. The circumstances of her early life have made my WATERSPELL girl, Carin, a self-contained, rather stoic kind of person. She's quick to act. And in a situation that calls for action, she's wants to be all business. The time for "getting in touch with her feelings" comes later. She may be afraid, but only after the fact. She doesn't take time during the event to dwell on her fear -- which is a trait that some of my fellow writers see as a fault.

I, however, see it as an authentic character trait, because it's my trait, a strong element in my makeup since childhood. I act first and think -- or feel -- later.

For example, when I was in college a bullet exploded through the wall of my apartment six inches to the left of my shoulder. My initial reaction was to fling open my front door and go storming out to confront the shooter. That was stupid, of course. For all I knew, that bullet through my wall was the prelude to a full-bore gun battle. But the shooter emerged from next-door at the same time I stepped outside, and his face was white. As I shouted at him -- "What the hell are you doing? You could have killed me!" -- he stood there looking faint. It had been an accidental discharge. He was cleaning a loaded gun.

I felt nothing of fear at that moment. Only afterward, when I had time to process what had happened, did I realize how close I'd come to catching that bullet. A few inches to the right, and it would have gone through my heart. Then -- only then -- I collapsed onto my bed and started to shake. After the fact, I knew fear.

That's my Carin. She takes action, she runs, she fights, she shouts. Or she quietly, deliberately makes her plans and bides her time. Emotions take a backseat. They are a luxury that she's seldom been able to indulge in.

Most of my early readers seem to understand her. Occasionally, though, I get feedback urging me to make her a more overtly emotional creature. Sorry. Can't do it. That's not who she is. Or who I am.

I go back to the examples I used earlier from Ursula K. Le Guin and Suzanne Collins. When those writers state information and omit emotion, they still provide a sort of emotional undercurrent that gives me a feeling for all the things that are left unsaid:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things.”
-- Ernest Hemingway

Tough Writing: Part 1

Should a character's emotions be often and overtly on display? Some writers think so. I occasionally get urged by my fellow writers and critique partners to make Carin -- the somewhat stoic POV (point of view) character in my WATERSPELL trilogy -- more openly emotional.

But many of the works I love best, like The Tombs of Atuan, the second book in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, are almost stark of emotion. The bare-bones style lends great power to passages like this:

"The room was higher than it was long, and had no windows. There was a dead smell in it, still and stale. The silent women left her there in the dark.

"She held still, lying just as they had put her. Her eyes were wide open. She lay so for a long time. ... The glimmer died from the high cell walls. The little girl, who had no name any more but Arha, the Eaten One, lay on her back looking steadily at the dark."

--from The Tombs of Atuan, copyright 1970, 1971 by Ursula K. Le Guin

Some might ask "What is the little girl feeling right now?" But I am perfectly content to extrapolate from what I might be feeling in Arha's place. I don't need to have her emotional state -- be it fear, desperation, resignation, or something else -- laid out for me.

To cite a more contemporary example: Katniss, the admirably self-sufficient protagonist of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, faces the prospect of almost certain death. She reacts by calmly instructing her mother and sister in how to survive after Katniss is gone:

"... I start telling them all the things they must remember to do, now that I will not be there to do them for them. Prim is not to take any tesserae. They can get by, if they're careful, on selling Prim's goat milk and cheese and the small apothecary business my mother now runs for the people in the Seam. Gale will get her the herbs she doesn't grow herself, but she must be very careful to describe them because he's not as familiar with them as I am. He'll also bring them game -- he and I made a pact about this a year or so ago -- and will probably not ask for compensation, but they should thank him with some kind of trade, like milk or medicine."

--from The Hunger Games, copyright 2008 by Suzanne Collins

Readers don't need to see Katniss' fear. It's palpable because it's so carefully submerged under her tightly controlled exterior.

I've been viewing "Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft," a course on DVD from The Teaching Company. Professor Brooks Landon of The University of Iowa talks about the "tough" style of writing:

"Kernel sentences that simply posit information without detail or explanation ... state something and then leave it to subsequent sentences to add information ...

"This is macho-speak that bluntly posits information without reflecting upon it or elaborating on it, and we find it exactly where we might expect it, as in the opening to David Morrell's 1972 novel First Blood.

"[These sentences] are characteristic of the style Walker Gibson calls 'tough,' a style frequently associated with some of Ernest Hemingway's best-known fiction. This style is effective when creating characters who act, but don't think much about what they do."

--from "Lecture Four: How Sentences Grow," Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft, Course Guidebook, copyright 2008 by The Teaching Company

Here are a couple of examples that Professor Landon uses in his discussion of the "tough" style of writing:

“His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky. He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears to his neck, and he had a hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump.”

—from First Blood, copyright 1972 by David Morrell

That opening satisfies me. I see a hint that there's more to young Rambo than meets the eye -- "he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew" tells me that people don't really know him, and suggests that he'll be a hard guy to get to know. That's fine. I have no need to explore Rambo's "feelings." If he shows some emotion later on, it'll be all the more effective for coming from someone who's generally unemotional.

(Continued in Part 2)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Favorite Quotes: 1

I collect quotes. I have a stack of them on my desk, torn mostly from the "Wit & Wisdom" section of THE WEEK magazine and from Campbell Geeslin's "Along Publishers Row" in the Authors Guild Bulletin. For a while, I tried to incorporate quotes regularly into my labor-of-love website, But that got to be too time-consuming. Now that I have a blog, I'll just put them here for others to enjoy en masse.

"Listen carefully to first criticism of your work. Note carefully just what it is about your work that the critics don't like--then cultivate it. That's the part of your work that's individual and worth keeping." --Jean Cocteau

"What's publishing all about? If it isn't about what you like and believe in, you might as well manufacture sausages." --Robert Giroux

"One of the greatest necessities in America is to discover creative solitude." --Carl Sandburg

"Sometimes you have to look reality in the eye, and deny it." --Garrison Keillor

"Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties." --Psychologist Erich Fromm

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." --Albert Einstein

"Originality and a feeling of one's own dignity are achieved only through work and struggle." --Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness." --Bertrand Russell

"There is only one success -- to be able to spend your life in your own way." --Christopher Morley

"Individuality is freedom lived." --John Dos Passos

"Tradition is a guide and not a jailer." --W. Somerset Maugham

"Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently." --Henry Ford

"There is a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in." --Leonard Cohen

"What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite." --Bertrand Russell

"What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance." --Havelock Ellis

"First e-mail. Then instant message. Then MySpace. Then Facebook. Then LinkedIn. Then Twitter. It's not enough anymore to 'Just do it.' Now we have to tell everyone when we are doing it, where we are doing it, and why we are doing it. Instead of spending hours trying to add to the number of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter, I've decided to spend that time on the handful of people I really care about. I write them real letters. I want to know if they are happy in their marriages; in their careers. If they're not, or if they are sick, I want to know if there is something I can do to help. Meaningful friendships require quality time. Not just a Tweet." --Mark McKinnon in

(For more like these: My Favorite Quotes: 2)