The Life Story of a Short Story

AlexandersOdyssey9Hello.  I’m a short story.  Since Poseidon’s Scribe never got around to blogging about the whole short story process, he invited me to guest blog today.  My title is “Alexander’s Odyssey,” and I was written by Steven R. Southard.  My life story is typical of other tales, and might be obvious to many of you, but the steps weren’t clear to Steve when he started.

Idea1.  Idea.  I started as an idea.  You did too, I suppose, but with stories you only need one human with an idea, if you know what I mean.  Getting a story idea isn’t as difficult as most believe.  Ideas are all around you.

Outline2.  Outline.  This can take many forms, not just the standard I-A-1-a-(1) type.  It can be a mind-map, for example.  An outline can keep you focused as you write, but don’t be afraid to deviate from it if the story takes off in a different direction.  Steve used an outline for me, but if you don’t want to, just skip this step.

Research3.  Research.  You might have to conduct research for your story like Steve did for me.  Use the most authoritative sources you can.  Steve didn’t include all the researched data when writing me, just a tiny fraction.  You might enjoy research, but don’t get stuck at this stage.  At some point, enough is enough.

First draft4.  First Draft.  Steve wrote my first draft fast, without caring about quality.  He didn’t even stop to correct typos.  He got it all down, the emotions, the drama, and the character interactions.

Edits5.  Edit.  Steve did several drafts of me where he corrected typos; deleted extraneous stuff; added in foreshadowing, metaphors, similes, and symbolism, etc.  Don’t get stuck at this stage either; some stories never even get submitted.

Submit6.  Submit.  Steve located a suitable market, and had to modify me a bit to conform to the submission guidelines.  After much hesitation, he submitted me.   These days, you writers have the option of self-publishing us stories, so you could skip this step.

Reject7.  Rejection.  Actually, I didn’t get rejected the first time, but I know the feeling.  I don’t understand why writers take rejection so personally; the editor is rejecting me, not you.  Just shake it off and submit your story to some other market.  Keep us moving!

Accept8.  Accept.  I was pretty happy when an anthology editor accepted me, but Steve was positively giddy.  I’d never seen him so thrilled and, frankly, the details are embarrassing, so I’ll just move on.

Rewrite9.  Rewrite.  The editor suggested Steve change me a bit.  He agreed the changes would do me good, and made them.  I’ve seen Steve agonize over suggested changes to other stories, though.  I’ve even seen him push back against the editor.  In the end, they always reach agreement and Steve signs the contracts.  I guess he could always refuse and walk away if he wanted.

Launch10.  Launch.  These days, publishers don’t just publish us, they launch us.  It does make me feel like a rocket going off, sort of.  Again, Steve seems really happy when a story launches, and again it’s awkward to watch.

Market11.  Market.  If I’d been picked up by one of the top publishing houses, they’d spread the word about me.  Steve didn’t send me there, so he had to do it.  Boy, does he hate that part, though I’ve heard some authors like marketing.  Use social media, newsletters, writing conferences—anything to advertise.

Read12.  Read.  My favorite step.  When a reader buys me and reads me cover to cover, that’s what I live for.

Reprint13.  Reprint.  When the rights to me reverted back to Steve, he submitted me for publication as a reprint.  After three rejects, another market accepted me, but asked for significant changes.  My reprint version states where and when I was published the first time.

Spin-off14.  Spin-off.  Oh, I hope, I hope I can get spun-off into a novel, a play, or even a movie.  Hey, a story can dream, can’t it?

That’s my story.  Forget about Steve, or Poseidon’s Scribe.  Address your comments to—

                                            Alexander’s Odyssey

December 8, 2013Permalink

Is Your First Draft Terrible Enough?

That’s not a typo; I’m questioning whether the first draft of your story is horrible, trashy, and amateurish enough to qualify as a first draft.  I’m not talking about cacography here, I’m talking about tripe, drivel, bunkum.

Yes, I know all writers are different and for some, their first draft is their publishable, final draft.  Isaac Asimov said he didn’t re-write his stories.  But I’m guessing that doesn’t work for most writers, especially beginning writers.

For most of you, here’s my advice:  set out to write a bad first draft.  Why?  I’ll explain.

The first draft is unlike all later ones in that it has no predecessor, just a blank screen (or page) and a writer’s mind buzzing with ideas.  That moment before you write the first word is a daunting one; the task seems mountainous.  Often that story idea in your head seems so perfect, you just know readers will love it.

But when you try writing down that idea, it looks so awful it’s embarrassing.  The text falls far short of the shining, crystalline structure in your mind.  You can get so frustrated you’ll be tempted to abandon the whole stupid idea.  “What was I thinking?  I’m no writer!”

I’m suggesting it’s best to admit up front your first draft will be garbage.  That way you’re establishing reasonable expectations and lessening the frustration.  Trust in your ability to improve the first draft later.  Accept that those later revisions will be easier than writing the first draft; you will get closer to the ideal story in your mind.

How do you write a first draft that qualifies as pure dreck?  Think of your writing mind as having at least four component parts, four people with distinct attributes.  These are your muse, your playful inner child, your squint-eyed editor, and your glad-handing marketer.

I’ve described the muse before.  By the time you’re writing your first draft, her job is done and she’s left town.  Think of your squinty-eyed editor as a scowling old man with an eyeshade and a huge supply of blue pencils.  Send this editor on vacation now.  Trust me, he’ll come back well-rested to help you with your second draft.  As to that ever-smiling, extroverted marketer with the plaid suit, he’s on vacation most of the time and that’s okay for now.

215px-Big_PosterLet’s focus on the one I left out, the playful inner child.  I suggest you picture the character Josh Baskin, played by Tom Hanks in the 1988 movie “Big.”  He was pure drive, energy, and enthusiasm.  He had no inhibitions, no taboos, and no fear of failure.

Channel that character as you write your first draft.  Strive to get in the zone, in the flow.  If you find yourself momentarily stuck, write down what you will need later to get past the sticky part, put that in brackets (or different font or color, whatever), and move on.  For example, knowing how important the opening hook is, let’s say you can’t think of one.  Just write “[come up with hook]” and write on.  Chances are the words you write next might serve as a hook, or a hook will occur to you later.  Don’t stop to do research now, just bracket it, “[Do whales really get hiccups?],” and look it up later.

Even though your first draft is a stinking pile of compost, you’ll feel better about having something written down, something you can now work with.  Further, by writing in burst mode, you can maintain a consistent, integrated work that maintains the same tone and voice throughout.

More great first draft advice is available here, here, and here.  By the way, do you think this blog post is poorly written?  Ha!  You should have seen the first draft typed up by—

                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

Turkey City Lexicon

In any specific human endeavor involving more than one person, the people involved soon find themselves repeating the same phrases over and over.  It’s inevitable they should seek some shorthand way to avoid that.  So they develop jargon, specialized terminology suited to their activity.

Turkey City LexiconSome time ago, in science fiction writing workshops, the participants worked out a vocabulary of writing terms called the Turkey City Lexicon (TCL).  There is no authoritative source for the TCL, nor is it copyrighted.  It’s available on many websites; just search for “turkey city lexicon.”

I won’t reiterate the list here.  My purpose is just to introduce it to you and comment on its usefulness to me.  I encourage you to search for and read through the list, then come back to finish reading my blog entry.  Several of the items are humorous to read through.

A few TCL terms are more applicable to science fiction (The Jar of Tang, Abbess Phone Home, Reinventing the Wheel, and Space Western), but the vast majority of the terms are applicable across all fiction genres.  TCL might be useful to you even if you don’t write SF.

A number of the terms are disconcerting for me to read through since I’ve committed these errors before.  These include Burly Detective Syndrome, You Can’t Fire Me–I Quit, Fuzz, and Bogus Alternatives.

But that gets right to the value of this list.  Most of the terms describe deficiencies common to beginning level writing.  Worse, they describe failings even experienced writers can succumb to, like a bad habit.  Even just reading through the list periodically can refresh your resolve to avoid the bad habits.

I’ve found it vital to subject my writing to the crucible of my critique group just so they can identify faults I don’t see.  Once you’ve been accused of any of the items in the TCL, chances are you’ll hear that accusatory voice again in your head while editing all subsequent stories.  Thus will your writing improve.

My critique group has found three TCL terms to be the most useful—Infodump, As You Know Bob, and Telling Not Showing.  I’m not sure why those three dominate, but they do, at least for us.

Do any of the TCL items ring embarrassingly true for you as you think over your own writing?  Are there other fiction writing failings that should be recognized by the TCL but aren’t yet?  If so, leave a comment for me and let me know.  On a mission to improve own writing and that of others, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

 

December 23, 2012Permalink

Those Maddening Editors!

Good news!  You just heard from an editor who will be happy to accept the story you sent…except for the Bad News, which is the acceptance is contingent on your agreeing to some changes in the manuscript.  The question is:  will you accept the changes or not?

The decision is personal, and different in every case.  It depends on how you weigh many factors, including the following.  These are not listed in any priority order:

  • How desperate are you to make the sale?  Early in your writing career, the degree of desperation might be greater.
  • How likely is the story to be accepted elsewhere?  You can measure this, to some extent, by the number of rejections the story has garnered so far.
  • To what degree do you find the changes acceptable?  I advise you to take a little time to determine this, since there’s an initial negative reaction to suggested alterations.  Sometimes the editor’s ideas start to sound better after a few days.
  • How extensive and explicit are the recommended revisions?  This is a measure of the amount of work you’re going to have to do before you can resubmit.  By ‘explicit’ I mean whether the changes are the change-this-word-to-that variety or the ‘make the tone lighter’ variety.
  • How much would the changes affect a significant aspect of the story?  You might have poured sweat and soul into this tale and now the editor proposes cutting a section packed with important symbolism and deep meaning.  That scene is the heart of the story!  In effect, the editor is suggesting you turn your story into something else.
  • How much is this particular market paying?  Yeah, let’s admit it–that’s a factor.  If it’s a pro market, you’re much more likely to accept any changes.

You ought to give editors some credit and at least consider the changes they propose.  They may not know your particular story as well as you do, but they read a lot and, in general, have a good sense of what works in today’s marketplace.

Often the editor’s suggested changes are negotiable.  You might accept some, but hold the line on others.  When doing this, state your case about why you think your version is better (without belittling the editor, of course!).  The editor may still disagree, and then you’ll have another decision to make.  When you get as well-known as John Champlin Gardner, then you can negotiate as he did when an editor told him his novel The Sunlight Dialogues was too long and needed to be cut by one third.  Gardner is said to have asked, “Which third?”

Let’s say you aren’t crazy about the editor’s ideas, but you are anxious to make the sale, so you decide to agree to the changes.  I recommend you keep your original version saved.  Later, when your rights to the story revert back to you, you can market that original version and perhaps get it published.  In that reprint version, you’ll need to cite the earlier publication with a statement such as, “Previously published in a different form in <market> in <year>.”

Ultimately it is your decision whether to make the suggested revisions.  After all, it is your good name that goes on the story.  If you feel very strongly, then don’t alter a line; keep on sending the manuscript to other markets.  Your story may find an editor who likes it as is.  These days, you can also publish the story without getting it accepted by an editor at all.

Leave a comment and let me know what your experience has been in this situation.  Did you make the change, negotiate, or refuse and submit elsewhere?  What were the reasons for your choice?  Did you regret it later?  Always willing to at least consider an editor’s suggestions, I’m–

                                                                               Poseidon’s Scribe

Who Polishes the Diamond?

You see it in the submissions guidelines for almost every market–“Submit your best material,” or words to that effect.  If not stated, it’s implied, since they’ll just reject manuscripts containing too many editorial errors.

I’m speaking here of the traditional method of getting short story fiction published, dealing with editors.  However, the answer is the same even for self-published works.

Some writers chafe at the requirement to submit your best material.  “Why are they called Editors,” these writers ask, “if I’m the one doing the editing?”

Such writers think their job is to cleave the diamond shape out of rough stone, cut each facet almost flat, and then hand the gem over to the Editor who works it against the polishing wheel.  Finally the Publisher displays the brilliant, gleaming diamond in his store.

Advocates of this view say they can’t really be expected to get every little detail right.  It’s hard enough to be a writer without being an Editor too.  How is a writer supposed to be prolific and also submit perfect manuscripts?  If the writer is spending all that time with editing third, fourth, fifth drafts, she’s getting less real writing done, isn’t she?

Let’s look at the matter from the editor’s point of view.  I’ve never worked as an editor, so I’m guessing here, but all the editors reading my blog will tell me if I’m wrong.

There is some process involved in the decision to accept or reject an incoming manuscript.  I suspect editors judge stories against the following criteria at least:

1. How well does the story fit with the publisher’s needs?  Is it compatible with the magazine or anthology?

2. How original is the story idea?

3. Can this story sell in today’s market?  Is it in line with, or just ahead of, an emerging trend?

4. What is the quality of writing?  I don’t mean the minor editing issues, but instead an assessment of the writer’s talent in storytelling, choosing words well, creating compelling characters, setting a scene, advancing a plot, use of tension and suspense, etc.

5. How much editing will be required to bring this story up to the quality level needed for publication?

Only one of these criteria deals with the amount of editing to be done.  But your story could clear just over the threshold of acceptance in four categories and still be rejected.  I hear your objection already.  Yes, it’s possible your story could exceed the threshold in the first four categories by far so the editor decides to accept it even though the diamond needs considerable polishing.  Do you want to count on that for every story?  Every market?

I’m sure Editors would rather do the sort of editing that improves the manuscript’s quality, mentioned in item 4 in the list above.  Suppose, instead, she is dealing with matters of basic English–leaving out punctuation, wrong word choices such as farther/further or continuous/continual, wrong verb tense, subject-verb disagreement, overuse of the author’s ‘pet words,’ sudden point of view shifts, weak verbs, etc.  She must conclude the writer is not serious about his craft.  The decision to reject is much easier in such cases.

I’m not saying I’m perfect in this regard, but my message is:  don’t make it easy for the editor to reject your stories.  As a writer, you are both the diamond cutter and the diamond polisher.  Those of you who self-publish have both roles by definition, so you must polish well.  So get polishing, writers.  Your prospective readers want to see your diamonds sparkle!  So does–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

Fleshing Out Your Story

Perhaps you’re a beginning writer with a great idea for a story.  Or maybe you’re an experienced author and someone has come to you with a  story idea and suggested you just whip up the story inspired by that idea.  Either way, there’s something writers know that non-writers don’t — the idea is the easy part.

Would you approach a sculptor with a sketch, then gesture to a nearby block of marble and suggest the sculptor merely chip away at the block until it looks like your sketch?  Would you hum a tune to a composer, and suggest she spend a few minutes penning some lyrics and orchestrating all the instruments to play the harmonic parts to fit with your hummed tune?

It’s not clear to me why people think writing is so different.  Somehow the belief got started that writers search and search for something to write about, that we spend 90% of our time enduring the agony of waiting for the idea to hit.  Once it does, we simply dash off the story and hit send, apparently.  A particularly long novel might, they think, take the better part of an afternoon to jot down.

I hate to be the one to burst the bubble on that myth, but it just ain’t so.  On occasion, it’s true, some writers struggle to figure out what to write about.  For a time, they seek some prompt.  There are books and websites to supply these, but there’s also real life–it’s all around, filled with plenty of things that could form the basis of a story.  Even that’s not enough.  Next the writer must turn this ‘prompt’ into an idea.  This idea forms the skeleton of the story.  An idea includes main characters, a rough primary plot, and some notion of settings.

I don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of getting that far.  But a writer reaching that point is a long way from finished.  Moreover, we have no sense yet of whether the resulting story will be good.  Promising ideas still can suffer from poor execution when converted to finished form.  Alternately, a truly wonderful tale can be spun from a trivial, humdrum idea.

A writer with an idea now faces the task of fleshing out that skeleton.  He must breathe life into the characters, making them identifiable and engaging.  She must select such descriptive words for her settings so as to transport the reader there.  He embellishes the plot with understandable motives for actions, and adds subplots.  She imbues the story with her own style and flair, ensuring she touches on universal human themes.  When his first draft is crap, as it always is, he edits and rewrites, often several times. During these subsequent drafts, she might spice the manuscript with symbolism, alliteration, foreshadowing, character quirks, tension-building techniques, allusion, metaphor, and the other little things separating good from average fiction.  Then, because the story is now too long, he goes through it again, compressing, trimming, cutting, and making each word defend itself.

I’ve made this fleshing-out process sound like drudgery, and sometimes it is.  True writers find enjoyment in it, or at least tolerate it.  But it is not the easy part.  For me, writing consists of the same proportions as Thomas Edison’s formula for genius–1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  Perhaps someday when I’ve written many hundreds of stories it will get more difficult to come up with new ideas, but I’m a long way from that.  Even then the percentages will likely be 2% and 98%.

Were you laboring under a misconception about the difficulty of ideas and the ease of writing?  Have I changed your mind?  Let me know what you think by leaving a comment.  While I wait for you to do that, it’s back to the hard work of fleshing out another skeleton for–

                                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

Of Adverbs, Approvingly

Was ever a part of speech more maligned than adverbs?  Go ahead–search the Web for a kind treatment of them.  More often you’ll find admonitions to hunt them down and kill them where they stand.  Is that nice?  What have adverbs ever done to you?

Adverbs are those words most often ending in ‘ly,’ that modify verbs and adjectives.  They often answer a ‘how?’ or ‘to what extent?’ question with respect to their attached verb or adjective.  How did he run?  Rapidly.  How did she speak?  Quietly.  To what extent was the room decorated?  An outrageously decorated room.

What’s so wrong about modifying verbs and adjectives?  Why do most writing books and websites advise writers to banish adverbs?  First, remember the basic structure of an English sentence–subject, verb, and object.  The verb is where the action is, the real power and punch of any sentence.  Over time, English has become rich in verbs, overflowing with them (by one count over 9000).  In odd cases when the right verb doesn’t exist, we sometimes take a noun and verbize it.

With all these verbs to choose from, why not select the one with the precise intended meaning and use that?  If a writer does that, her verb won’t require modifying by any adverb at all.  Sometimes writers get lazy, though, and choose weak verbs, then try strengthening them with adverbs.  Sometimes an even lazier writer adds an adverb that, well, adds nothing.  Tom crept slowly.  Um, how else would he creep?

Another knock against adverbs ties in with the ‘show, don’t tell,’ advice.  Adverbs tell us about the verb, but instead the writer could bring the sentence alive with a short clause showing us ‘how’ or ‘to what extent.’  Tom crept with snail-speed so he wouldn’t set off the motion detector. 

Against these damning criticisms, how can I dare to defend the adverb?  First, an occasional well-chosen adverb can help a sentence.  ‘Slowly’ is an example of one I find useful, but not for modifying verbs that already imply slowness.

Second, I’m mindful that adverbs haven’t always been denigrated. I’m not sure when they fell out of fashion, but many nineteenth century authors peppered their works with adverbs.  Perhaps the ban on adverbs is just a fad.  They might come back in style.  Some brave author could craft a well-written novel chock full of them and see it become a bestseller.  Others would then copy that author’s technique, and everyone will wonder how we got along without adverbs.

You could be that trail-blazing author, but if I were you I’d leave that to the literary types.  In the meantime, if you want your works to sell in today’s markets, I advocate using adverbs in a sparing manner, no more than one per page.  When you edit, search for those ‘ly’ words.  When you find one, consider choosing a stronger, more precise verb.  If there is none, consider adding a short clause or new sentence expressing your point in a vivid manner with nouns and verbs alone.

As always, feel free to comment.  Until you do I’ll sit here being, most patiently and expectantly,

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

Heinlein’s Rules

In his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein stated five rules for writing fiction.  Here they are:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

He went on to say that he didn’t much fear the new competition he’d face from putting these rules out in the open, since he figured half of those who claim they want to write won’t complete step 1, and half of the remainder wouldn’t finish step 2, and so on.  Those of you working out the math should forget it–all those halves are just approximate.

Heinlein’s rules are repeated all over the web and there has been much criticism of them.  Some have said they sound too harsh, like Drill Sergeant Heinlein is shouting all those “MUSTs.”  To those folks I’d ask–If your aim is to get your work published, which of those steps do you think you could skip, or kinda half-do?  Really.  Look back over them and tell me which rule could be softened in its wording.

The main criticisms target rule 3, “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”  Some assume Heinlein is telling writers to send their first draft out on the market.  I doubt Mr. Heinlein meant that.  I think rewriting the first draft until it’s acceptable is implicit in rule 2: “You must finish what you write.”  It’s not likely to be really finished after a very rough, rapidly-scribbled first draft, even though you’ve reached “The End.”  Heinlein means that you must declare the work finished and then refrain from the temptation to waste time endlessly trying to perfect the work, unless an editor has asked for revisions and you agree to them.  As Heinlein also said elsewhere, “They didn’t want it good, they wanted it Wednesday.”

My own quibble with the rules concerns their order.  As written, they are single steps to be executed in sequential order.  The only loop in the process is within the final two steps, which basically say to send the manuscript out, and when you get a rejection, send the work–unchanged–to another market that same day.  So if all the other steps are in sequential order, Rule 3 makes no sense as written. You haven’t sent the work out yet, so how could you have received a request from an editor for a rewrite?  I say Rules 3 and 4 should be swapped.

The great writer Robert J. Sawyer has suggested adding a 6th rule, “Start Working on Something Else.”  This is likely aimed at those who think their first story will make them famous and so wait breathlessly for word from the editor about acceptance or rejection.  If you’re truly a writer, you can hardly wait to tackle the next project, so that’s when you start it.  Unfortunately, Rule 6 would then be the only one focused on some other, next work while the rest of the rules concern a single story.  Still, I concur with the intent, though I might have phrased it as, “Think of another story to write and go to step 1.”

I like Heinlein’s Rules.  I think their commanding tone is a stentorian call summoning you to action and perhaps to greatness.  Don’t think of them as overly harsh commandments that doom you to misery for the slightest deviation.  They’re an invitation; get out there; don’t talk about it–do it!  And they’re also a promise; follow these rules and you will get published.  It’s hard to think of more inspiring words for a beginning writer.

Please let me know what you think.  Also, remember that Heinlein wrote his rules about 65 years ago.  Perhaps 65 years from now people will still be debating words written by–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

 

January 29, 2012Permalink

Writing by Number

Today I calculated I’d blog about daily word counts.  For you writers and would-be writers, do you count your word production and log it?  If you do, are you finding it helps you or not?

Here’s my take.  I used to do that but no longer do so.  I think keeping a daily log of writing progress is very valuable in the beginning to establish the habit of writing.  It may even help you get through a slump period, the so-called “writer’s block.”  Once the writing habit is established, such logging may no longer be necessary.

What I’m talking about is the idea of keeping a log of how many words you write each day.  If you write on a computer with a word processor, it’s pretty easy using the software’s own word count feature.  If you write some other way, you might have to count by hand.  You’ll have to figure out how to count words on the days you’re editing previously written text, as opposed to creating new text.  I tracked those distinct acts separately, since editing previously written text yielded much higher daily word production.  Once you get the log going, you can find out what your daily average is over time and even set goals.

Why would anyone do this?  There’s a sort of magic in measuring your progress with numbers.  You will find yourself feeling guilty on those days when you have to log a zero because you did no writing.  You’ll have excuses for that, of course, but they won’t change the fact that your log still shows a fat zero for that unproductive day.  On days where you’re feeling tired and teetering on the edge about whether you want to try to write a bit or not, the knowledge of your numeric log looming before you may spur you to write when you otherwise wouldn’t.  In some mysterious way the habit of logging progress can actually prod you to into the habit of writing more.

It turns out your attitude toward these sort of personal metrics comes into play.  It’s vitally important that “zero days” not get you depressed.  The point of the log is to promote progress, not incite negative thoughts.  If the very idea of seeing a zero besides a date will cause you to think you’re not cut out for writing or might make you want to give it up, then perhaps the idea of daily word counts would be adding too much stress for you.  This thing only works with those for whom occasional failure is an inspiration to greater achievement next time.

You may be thinking that counting words is stupid because not all words are equal.  Isn’t the point to learn to write well, you ask, not to simply write a lot?  Well, yes and no.  Of course the point is to learn to write well.  The few words of a brilliant short story by a talented author do far outweigh several trashy novels written by a bungling hack, even though the word count is less.  But in the first place quantity has its own kind of quality in writing, in the sense that practice makes perfect.  The practice comes from writing a lot, and that practice can be roughly measured by word counting.  In the second place, it’s very hard to measure the quality of prose.  There is no menu item or icon in your word processor for that.  Yet.  (Software programmers, take note:  the world screams for exactly such a feature!)

I’m counting on you to leave a comment for me about whether you log your word counts daily and whether you find it a helpful exercise or not.  Including the end of this sentence, that’s 627 words written by…

                                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

 

December 25, 2011Permalink

As You Know, Bob…

Perhaps your name isn’t Bob, but this post could still be for you, if you’re a beginning fiction writer.  One of the difficult parts of writing is creating believable dialogue, and one of the easy traps to fall into is called As You Know, Bob, or AYKB.

It stems from the writer’s need to convey information about the world of the story to readers who don’t know it yet.  Dialogue between story characters might seem like the perfect opportunity to convey the information, since dialogue stands out more than long, narrative paragraphs.  Trouble is, the characters are already in the story’s world, and already know about it.

Advertisers fall prey to AYKB too, often in radio ads.  Frequently you hear ads like this:

“I really enjoy Company XYZ.  Their product is superior to all competitors.”

“Yes, and I also like their friendly, knowledgeable staff.”

“And how about XYZ’s convenient location, right downtown at the corner of A Street and B Avenue?”

Advertisers have a limited time to convey information, and they know we pay attention to conversations more than we do to a single, blabbing announcer.  Problem is, the conversation above is just plain stupid.  People don’t talk that way.  In fact, we listeners often feel so insulted by such ads that we start to wonder if Company XYZ’s product can be any good if their ads are so terrible.

The same situation applies to your fiction writing.  Readers will be turned off if your characters talk like that; there’s plenty of good fiction by other writers they could be reading.

How do you avoid the AYKB problem in your writing, especially since it’s such an easy trap?  Review your character’s dialogue and ask yourself if that’s something someone already in the story’s world would say.  Is it realistic and believable?  Get inside your character’s head and cut the dialogue down to only what the characters would really say.

Of course, you still have the information to convey.  The best way to do that is bit by bit, with small amounts of narration or (better) action accompanying the dialogue.  Use the minimum amount necessary for the reader to understand the world of the story.  You’d be surprised how fast the reader will catch up and understand the world of the story with only teaspoonfuls of information sprinkled in from time to time.

AYKB is a well-known writing problem, and is part of a lexicon of writing problems known as the Turkey City Lexicon.  If you search you’ll find several listings and explanations of the many entries in the lexicon.

Good luck in your efforts to strengthen the dialogue in your writing.  And I can’t resist closing by saying:  As you know, Bob, I’m —

                                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

October 16, 2011Permalink