I am back from an extended vacation with my family, which ended with a glorious week on the North Carolina coast. I am tanned and reasonably relaxed, and am already getting ready to leave town again first thing tomorrow morning. (This has been a crazed summer: by the time the two months between July 1 and September 1 are done, I will have spent forty days on the road. Signing tour, vacation, conventions, oh, and taking my daughter to college.) Tomorrow I head to Calgary in Alberta, Canada, where I will be running a two day writer’s workshop and then will be Guest of Honor at WhenWordsCollide.
As part of my preparation for the workshop, I have been reading manuscripts submitted by those who will be attending. Using a structure very similar to that outlined by Mindy in her fabulous post from Friday, I write editorial letters to the students that elaborate on my margin comments, and, I hope, give them a sense of what they are doing right, and what they still need to work on. In addition to going through the critiques, however, I will also be pausing throughout the workshop to lead quick discussions on patterns and issues that I am seeing across the work of the workshop participants. And I thought that with today’s post it might be helpful to share with you some of the lessons I will be presenting at the workshop.
1. Data Dumps are symptomatic of a breakdown in Point of View. What does that mean? First, let me refer you back to the “Creative Intersections” piece that I wrote earlier this year on Worldbuilding and Point of View. Data dumps, even small ones, can disrupt the flow of our prose, yank our readers out of our stories, and ruin an otherwise excellent narrative. And they are completely avoidable if we simply remember to be faithful to our point of view character. When we remain true to point of view, we give only information that our character would a) need to know, and b) be thinking of at any particular time. If our POV character is battling for her life with an eight foot tall arachnid, this might not be the time for her to reflect on the history of the Fren Dynasty arachnid infestation, interesting though that may be. When data dumps occur, it is because the author has failed to focus on the emotions, thoughts, and needs of his/her POV character at that given moment in the story.
2. Passive writing is something that is bad to do because it is a sign of writing that is not so good. (See what I did there…?) Or, put another way. Write actively. It will improve the quality of your prose, making it more fluid, more readable, and more exciting. I find that my writing grows more passive as my comfort with the material decreases. In other words, for me at least, passivity in my writing indicates that I’ve lost the thread of my narrative, or have strayed with a character into uncomfortable territory, or that I have made a poor plotting decision that has led me down a dead end. Use the symptom to identify the problem, and then get rid of those passive constructions.
3. Avoid anachronisms. An anachronism is anything that does not fit your setting; usually it is tied to a temporal problem. So, for instance, if you are writing in a medieval-type setting, chances are your houses should not have hot and cold running water. Books should not be widely available; in fact, if they are available at all, they should be luxury items, owned only by the very wealthy. If you are writing in, say, a pre-Revolutionary War setting, your characters should not use phrases that are more appropriate to today’s vernacular. Things should not be said to be “okay,” or “neato,” or “totally tubular.” All kidding aside, anachronisms can totally ruin a book for the discerning reader. And they can be incredibly subtle. For instance, if the religions of your world do not include a doctrine of eternal damnation, then no one should ever say something like “what the hell.” Little things like that can be pretty important.
4. Take pride in your work and present it appropriately. When you submit work for ANY purpose, be it for submission for possible publication or for critique by a professional writer, agent, or editor, you should take pride in the work you’ve done and present it in ways that demonstrate your respect for the process and for the time being spent by the people who will read your work. This means taking the time to learn how to format a professional manuscript. Paginate your work; use proper punctuation; space it properly (double spaced with one inch margins all around); put your name and contact information on the front page; know when to underline/italicize and when not to. And above all else, proofread your work before you submit it. The people reading your work are there to critique your writing, not correct your typos.
5. Avoid said-bookisms. I have written about these in the past on this site, and no doubt will again. Essentially, said-bookisms are those words we use instead of “said” and “asked” when assigning lines of dialog to our characters. “He rasped.” “She hissed.” “He opined.” “She averred.” “He exclaimed.” “She inquired.” Once upon a time, they were accepted tools in writing — books from half a century ago are full of them. But in today’s market, they are frowned upon because, essentially, they are a classic example of TELLING rather than SHOWING. The thinking is that gesture, facial expression, context, and the spoken words themselves should tell the reader everything she needs to know about how the lines are delivered. The said-bookisms are superfluous.
6. Accept criticism graciously and with an open mind. Giving criticism is hard — nearly as hard as getting it. I do not make comments to be mean, or to put people down. And I can tell you that I like nothing better than reading an excellent manuscript that needs little or no editorial work. My purpose in giving comments is to help the writer improve his or her story and craft. I know that some of the comments I have made on people’s manuscripts for this week’s workshop will seem nit-picky. Some might think that I was looking for reasons to mark up the page. But the fact is, if I made a comment, it’s because what I read struck me as odd or out of place. And that means that there’s a problem. As writers, we want our readers to be totally immersed in our stories. When readers — be they agents looking for clients, editors looking for their next star author, or writers commenting on a workshop submission — comment on a paragraph, or a line or a word, they do so because it drew their attention, and thus pulled them out of the story. That’s useful information; we need to make the most of it.
So, do any of these patterns strike you as particularly helpful? Do any of the problems I’ve identified sound familiar?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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