Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't Omit Essential Words!

Inevitably, in my quest to make my writing as taut as possible, I ended up cutting some essential words. My critique partners got lost in the geography of a chase scene. I hadn't given them enough information to picture the characters in the correct relative positions. Though the action was crystal clear in my mind, my readers/listeners weren't following the sequence of events as character B (the deuteragonist) chased character A (the protagonist).

The feedback from my critique partners reminds me again of how absolutely essential it is to read your fiction aloud to a listener. Or at the very least, hand your manuscript over to somebody to read and critique, if you can't participate regularly in a critique group.

A critical reader will identify problems that are quite invisible to the writer's eyes. I saw the action of the chase scene. But my critique partners made it clear, through their questions, that they were picturing a very different geography (the "where-ares" within the scene).

What Makes Critique "Valid"?

Recently I posted "The Guidelines for Critique" (an unsigned handout that I received at a writers' conference long ago). A couple of points in that handout merit further discussion.
"All critique, if valid and dispensed with good intentions, is positive."
"It's up to the [writer] to make the decision as to what he keeps and does not keep."
These statements lead logically to the conclusion that some critique is not valid. Writers may need to reject (not keep) some of the advice they get from their critique partners.

How do you tell the difference between valid and nonvalid critique?

I once heard a writer put it this way:

"If a suggestion just makes me shrug, if I have no reaction beyond a feeling of puzzlement, if I'm just going 'Huh?' -- then I know I can safely disregard that suggestion.

"But if I'm pounding the steering wheel on the way home from the critique meeting, if I'm alone in my car and yelling at the critic (swearing at them, possibly) -- that's when I know I've got to take their criticism seriously. I wouldn't be reacting so strongly to their comments if I didn't know, deep down, that they were right. If they've made me angry, it's because I know they've caught me in something. They've tapped into some problem that I knew was there. But I'd been ignoring it, hoping no one else would notice it."

That may be a bit extreme. My critique partners never make me that angry. But I can tell -- I can feel it -- when they've hit on something that I really must attend to.

I'm fortunate to participate in a critique group of highly accomplished, highly professional, wonderfully talented writers. They are published widely and well. I listen closely to every scrap of advice they offer me. Even if I don't take their advice verbatim in a particular instance, I generally find that it will apply beautifully someplace else, either later in that manuscript or in another context. They know what they're talking about, and I trust them completely.

If you're in a group of less experienced writers, however, you may find you get a fair amount of critique that you're tempted to regard as invalid. Take care. Even the suggestions that have you scratching your head and going "Huh?" may hold nuggets of validity within them.

Try to understand what prompted the critic to offer the suggestion in the first place. Even if you can't accept the advice offered, understanding why the critic identified something as a problem may lead you to craft another solution -- a solution that is uniquely yours, that will yield a stronger piece of writing.

When you're striving to "Omit Needless Words" (while retaining the essential ones), your critique partners can be invaluable in helping you figure out which is which.

Monday, May 24, 2010

HowJSay.com: Say It Right

HowJSay.com is a website you may find useful when you're preparing to read your work aloud to your critique partners. If your reading/writing vocabulary is larger than your speaking vocabulary, or you're not absolutely certain how to pronounce a word, you can check it at HowJSay.

Just type in the word, and a cultivated British voice will say it properly. It can be entertaining to note the differences between American English and British English. Try "issue," for example.

You may also discover that you've been pronouncing some words incorrectly your whole life. In reading, I've always pronounced "draught" to rhyme with "taut." But it's correctly pronounced like "draft."

Another one that surprised me is "soughing," as in "making a moaning or sighing sound," like the wind sighing through the trees. I thought it was pronounced like "sighing," but it's actually "sowing." So I guess I'll use "sighing" instead of the more exotic "soughing," since I don't want readers to think the wind is giving birth to a litter of piglets.

I come from a family of strong, silent types. Reading and writing have always been my primary means of communication. They seem more natural to me than talking. Which could explain why my reading/writing vocab is somewhat larger than my speaking vocab.

Being intensely concerned with rhythm in language, I need to know the correct pronunciation to be sure of getting the correct number of "beats" in a sentence. I'm talking prose here, not poetry.

As Ursula K. Le Guin says in her writing text, Steering the Craft: "The sound of language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to. The basic elements of language are physical; the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships. This is just as true of written prose as of poetry."

I was delighted recently to receive a critique from a literary agent who said I "seem to have an innate sense of rhythm, as well as a solid sense of when to employ intentional repetition and when to avoid it." I try!

Bookmark HowJSay.com and check those words you're not quite sure of. It's worth the effort. (And it'll keep you from stumbling over your own writing the next time you read to your critique group.)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Omit Needless Words

In commenting on my post about Cutting Words, Laura rightly observes that the amount of description deemed desirable varies, depending on writing style and the personal tastes of the writer and the reader. Laura notes that, like many readers, she quickly loses interest in long, detailed passages that offer way more description than action.

The best advice I can offer is to repeat Elmore Leonard's points 9 and 10 from "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction":

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

Personally, I don't skip anything when I'm reading a novel. Too many years of working as an editor have conditioned me to read every word. (In fact, I'll just confess it: I read every letter of every word. Which makes me a pretty slow reader.)

But I understand what Elmore Leonard is saying about those thick paragraphs that lie dauntingly on the page, the ones you know will leave you (or your reader) gasping for air before you've waded through them and staggered into the life-giving white space at their end. Those dense chunks of verbiage, you simply must pare down.

I'll also refer you to the Leo Tolstoy passage in a wonderful little book, Illuminations: Great Writers on Writing, edited by Christina Davis & Christopher Edgar:

In some French novel he [Tolstoy] had found a description of the smell of roast goose that covered several pages. “It’s quite true,” he said, “that by the time you get to the end you can smell that goose. But that’s not the best way of imprinting things in people’s minds. Do you remember, for example, the way Homer conveys Helen’s beauty? With these simple words: ‘When Helen walked in, at the sight of her beauty old men rose to their feet.’ One pictures the radiance of that beauty right away. No need to describe her eyes, her mouth, her lips. Everyone is left free to imagine Helen in his own way, but everyone is struck by this beauty that draws old men to their feet at the mere sight of it.”

--From Illuminations: Great Writers on Writing, edited by Christina Davis & Christopher Edgar (T&W Books)

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Some writers can weave long and beautifully descriptive passages that succeed brilliantly. Most of us, however, would do well to follow the advice of Homer, Tolstoy, and Leonard.

Just below Elmore Leonard's advice ("Ten Rules for Writing Fiction") we find this from Diana Athill:

2. Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.

That's what all writers should ultimately strive for: to have only the essential words. That would be perfection (which is unreachable, but it's a good thing to aspire to).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Cutting Words

I've been working through Book 1 of my WATERSPELL fantasy trilogy, getting it ready to send to an agent I met in April at a writers' conference.

The manuscript is long (100,000+ words), so I'm seriously looking for stuff to cut. I'm applying the advice of Noah Lukeman (The First Five Pages), who said:

"When rewriting, pretend someone will give you $100 for every word you are able to cut."

At that price, I'm making money! Even though I've been through the manuscript "a time or two" before this (my writer-friends will laugh, since they know how long I've been working on my trilogy), I'm still finding stuff to cut. My inclination in writing is to both "show" and "tell"; in rewriting, I have to take out the little summaries that "tell."

I also tend to get too detailed with my descriptions. I see each scene so clearly in my imagination, I write down every element instead of just giving the reader the vital parts.

Another task I've set myself in this latest read-through is to streamline the characters' movements from point A to point B. In one chapter, I extruded a lot of words as my main character moved through the rooms of a large and imposing house. My critique group helped me cut about 500 words from that chapter. Instead of something like this: "She went downstairs. Hearing only silence, she walked down the hallway to the library. There, she ..." I ended up with: "Downstairs in the library, she ..."

It's good to cover the geography adequately, so that the reader can follow the character's movements. But there's no need for a step-by-step account.

My critique group has been immensely helpful with the whole paring-down process. When I read my pages aloud to them, I realize just how overwritten certain passages are. Details that don't overwhelm an 8-and-1/2-by-11 page do become overwhelming when I'm reading aloud to an audience.

Listeners have shorter attention spans than readers do, and a listener cannot retain a superfluity of detail. Reading to my critique partners is an excellent way to identify the parts that I need to distill down to the truly essential elements.

They're being wonderfully patient, my writer-friends, as I work my way through a 300-page manuscript. (We've reached page 57.) I probably won't get to read the whole thing to them, but between meetings I imagine that I still have them for an audience. I sit up in my second-story office, door closed, and read them a chapter at a time even when they're not with me.

Pretending to have an audience isn't as good as actually having one, of course. Even so, my make-believe listeners are helping me to identify unnecessary phrases and sentences. I can't get away with belaboring a point when I'm imagining myself reading to my fellow critiquers. They remind me constantly of the advice offered by John Gould, editor:

"When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My Favorite Quotes: 2

"Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill this monster, and fling him to the public." --Winston Churchill

"A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." -- William Faulkner

"Remember the power of revision, build the five senses into a narrative to give it the texture of life, and remember the power of suspense." --George Garrett

"Studies suggest that the key to success in any field has nothing to do with talent. It's simply practice, 10,000 hours of it -- 20 hours a week for 10 years." --Lev Grossman, summarizing Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Rule

"As authors, we must keep steeling ourselves against the extent to which we are in this work not for the money, but for the words. Who would sit all day straining to extrude sentences through his or her fingertips who did not have a serious problem with words?" --Roy Blount Jr.

"Doubt is not a pleasant mental state, but certainty is a ridiculous one." --Voltaire

"There is no royal path to good writing, and such paths as exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft." --Jessamyn West

"Many critics are like a woodpecker, who, instead of enjoying the fruit and shadow of a tree, hop incessantly around the trunk pecking holes in the bark to discover some little worm or other." --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever." --Napoleon Bonaparte

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work." --Thomas Edison

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." --Jack London

"The function of an editor is to prevent a writer from making a fool of himself." --Kathryn Harrison, quoting Bob Shacochis

"Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one." --Lyndon Baines Johnson

"Do not understand me too quickly." --André Gide

(For more like these: My Favorite Quotes: 1)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Independent Publishing

The following notice ran in the March/April 2010 edition of the SCBWI Bulletin:

SCBWI Board Takes Up Issue of Independent Publishing

In light of emerging technology, recent developments in eBooks, electronic publishing, and print-on-demand ventures, the SCBWI Board of Advisors will be discussing and formalizing a policy regarding independent publication at its August 2010 meeting.

Among the issues discussed will be the possible creation of specific programs and resources to serve our independently published members. In advance of this meeting, the board will be taking under advisement the opinions of the general membership. Please email your thoughts on the subject to indypublish [at] scbwi [dot] org. All correspondence will be kept confidential and shared only with members of the board.

How could I resist sending my thoughts? Since I'm seriously thinking of independently publishing (eventually) my fantasy trilogy, WATERSPELL, this is becoming an issue dear to my heart.

Here's what I wrote to the Board of Advisors:

I love the idea of SCBWI offering programs and resources to serve independently published members.

THE WILSON QUARTERLY (Autumn 2009 issue) had a great article ("The Battle of the Books") that talks about "the consolidation of the publishing industry, the decline of modestly selling midlist books in favor of blockbusters, the shuttering of newspaper book review sections," etc.

One paragraph leapt off the page at me:

"Today, the industrial model of publishing is undergoing a rapid reconfiguration. In a world where anyone can publish freely -- and millions do -- the old supply chain is coming undone, as publishers see both their economic power and their cultural authority erode. Institutional gatekeepers are giving ground to bottom-up, self-organizing networks of readers and writers."

I look around my circle of professional colleagues and I see every skill that would be necessary to launch a publishing venture. We have trained, experienced editors; talented illustrators and designers; tech-savvy Web gurus; marketing specialists; media specialists -- there isn't a job category in publishing that we wouldn't be able to cover.

I keep hoping that we'll become a "self-organizing network of readers and writers" and publish our members who so richly deserve publication (but who can't get their feet in the ever-smaller New York door). With some help and guidance from SCBWI, we might make the leap into co-op publishing. (And by "co-op," I mean the dictionary definition of a cooperative: "An enterprise or organization owned by and operated for the benefit of those using its services.")

Another thing to consider: As younger people join SCBWI, they'll bring their self-publishing experiences with them. They've grown up publishing instantly on Facebook, Twitter, their blogs, etc. They won't have the patience to wait years for the blessing of some New York editor.

I expect that, as SCBWI loses some of its older members and gains new members who aren't as devoted to the traditional model of publishing, the pressure will build on the organization to provide services for independent publishers.

I'm all for it! (I got a B&N Nook e-reader for Christmas, and I love it. Digital is the way of the future for novels, I truly believe.)

Thanks for this opportunity to share my thoughts.

Best wishes,
Deborah J. Lightfoot


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

Deborah J. Lightfoot
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