a note about writing prompts

A handful of you are taking part in the writing prompts, and may I say: wow. Some really interesting turns, unexpected characterizations, and hints of larger behind-the-scenes conflicts.

After a lot of thought I have come to the conclusion that I can’t respond to each person’s contribution. I will make an occasional exception and pull out a comment to talk about in a new post, but mostly this is just an exercise to limber up your storytelling mind. If you would like to comment on each other’s work, that’s something else entirely. My sense is that constructive feedback would be welcome. Please tell me if I’m wrong.

This may or may not take off. If it does, I want to be sure that the tone is supportive. In the case that things don’t stay that way, I may make it necessary to register before contributing or commenting. But that’s all in the (hazy) future. In the meantime, I really enjoy reading your paragraphs on the photos I dig up.

 

back to business: padding verbs

It is really hard to keep focused when the cyber universe is going nuts, as it has been since mid January. In the last couple weeks readers and authors and bloggers (primarily in the romance community) have been trying to outshout each other until everybody is deaf and hoarse, too. Saying even the calmest, most reasoned thing (and there were lots of people who tried to do this) could get you called outside for a fist fight. I tried to stay out of it for the most part (I’ve already got one Author Behaving Badly badge, after all). Though I admit it was tempting to say some things. Some things that might have brought the mob to my door. I could be incendiary and get lots of attention that way, or I could get back to talking about writing. One simple sentence before I do that:

Plagiarism is morally and ethically wrong.

So there you go, my stance on the subject. Now, about padding verbs.

Right now in fiction the trend and fashion is for very distinct point-of-view boundaries. Head-hopping is frowned upon. A story written in third person will have more than one POV character, and the writer switches back and forth between them. So you experience the beginning of the argument from inside Maria’s head, then comes a break (usually a double return so you get an island of white space on the page) and you experience the rest of the argument from inside Gwen’s head. Gwen sees Maria’s reactions and interprets them, and you get that information in the narration.

Maria lifted her upper lip and Gwen had to turn away or laugh. Mandy was right, Maria did look like a chipmunk when she was mad.

This clearly comes from Gwen and not from Maria, who observes Gwen in her turn:

She’s not going to leave this alone, Maria realized. This is that ridiculous episode with the toilet plunger and the squirrel, all over again.

One of the challenges of this switching back and forth is signaling the switch to the reader without being too blatant. This is managed most usually with little coded phrases

Maria thought (so you are inside her head)
Maria felt (ditto)
Maria saw the color leave Gwen’s face.

This might not seem like a big deal, and in many ways it isn’t. But this constant signaling the reader (yoohoo! we’re over here now, in Laura’s head!) can be a burden.

You might write: Gwen felt the sweat soaking into her silk blouse, or, more vividly: Sweat blossomed under the arms and along the collar of Gwen’s silk blouse. The difference starts with that padding verb: felt. I think of this as a padding verb because it steps between the reader and the action or emotion in order to establish POV. This habit can get out of hand.

I try, when I’m writing, to look for these padding verbs and if I can do without them without confusing the reader’s sense of which character has the POV, I’ll cut the little intruder right there.

Elizabeth saw Nathaniel reach down and grab at a root sticking up out of the ground.

Do we need those first two words? Maybe not. Probably not.

Of course, if you are writing a first person narrative this will not be much of a problem for you because there’s no POV switching at all. On the other hand, you’ll have to figure out a way to keep the reader informed of all the stuff they need to know — but you can’t tell them because the narrator doesn’t know them.

On a different front: I’m delaying the photo contest, and I may fold it into the other, bigger giveaway. The same prizes, so never fear about that.”

a basic rule of thumb: sharpen your knives

For me, at least, this rule works at almost every level: if something isn’t working, prune it.

If a sentence doesn’t read well, take off any preposition phrases at the end. If that doesn’t help, strip every word out of the sentence that you can possibly do without, and then start putting things back, one at a time, until you get back a sense of balance.

Paragraphs are odd things with a rhythm and reason all their own. In fact, multiple rhythms. Well structured paragraphs move the reader along a smooth path; choppy paragraphs don’t. (Sometimes you need choppy, for stylistic reasons; I’m not talking about that here.) The flow of multiple paragraphs on the page is also important. If the scene isn’t feeling balanced, print it out. Hold it up at arm’s length and look. Lots of big, blocky paragraphs? A whole squadron of short, choppy paragraphs? these things should tell you something. Of course, a nice balance will help the scene move, but it’s not a guarantee that the story will work.

Because sometimes stories don’t work. More often than not, something is off. Out of balance, off kilter. This is where the real pruning comes in.

I have heard it said that the first thing you have to do with any manuscript is chop off the first page or so. Oddly enough, it’s true sometimes. The writer starts writing, but the story takes a while to click into being. This happened to me with Homestead. The only major edit was that I cut the first two scenes in the first story, and the whole thing immediately took on a new energy.

It’s often true that the writer can’t let the story go and so it drags on. I stop and ask myself if I need the last paragraph in the chapter I just wrote, and about half the time the answer is that I don’t.

Someplace along the line, many of us got the idea that flowery constructions and long descriptions make good prose. And sometimes they do, but more often they just get in the way.

When I’ve stuck too many characters in a scene, it sometimes comes to a grinding halt and will only start up again as I toss people out of the room. Why exactly Peter is sitting there? No good reason: out with him. Stripping extraneous characters from the scene can give it — and the writer — a tremendous boost of energy.

Finally, this thought: some people hate to cut anything at all, because every word is written in blood. I can hear my students wailing still: but i worked on that opening scene for HOURS. Sometimes you have to let things go, no matter how hard won they were to start with. If it kills you to do it, put all the little snippets into a file someplace and give it a name you’ll remember. You can have a look at your snippets file when you’re trying to get a sense of where to go next, and sometimes you’ll find the answer there.

Sometimes I pick up a novel and just look at the way the sentences and paragraphs are structured. It’s an interesting exercise and quite useful.

spelling

Here’s my mini rant.

First: I am able to ignore spelling for the most part. When I was teaching especially, I made an effort to read for content and to handle issues of presentation and spelling as a secondary matter.* Because there are kids out there with excellent minds and analytical abilities, but teachers overlook them because for whatever reason, they spell badly.

So have I established myself as a non-prescriptivist when it comes to spelling?

Having said that, it does irritate me when I email somebody and they email me back as Dear Rosini.

My name is right there in front of them in black on white, but they type it in Rosini. Which is the masculine plural ending (in Italian). If a misspelling is mandatory, Rosine would at least mean something. Little roses (plural, feminine).

I get at least two emails a week addressed to this odd Rosini person. I never correct people as one of my personal rules of thumb is that it’s rude to correct other people’s spelling or writing. But it does irritate me.

And there’s a similar problem with the Girlchild, whose name (I have mentioned it before) is Elisabeth. With an s, not a z. We have blood relatives who cannot remember this, and still address mail to her as Elizabeth.

Really, what’s so hard about that s?

Herewith endeth the rant.

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*an anecdote from grad school: a very proper, very German professor was not at all happy about the coming of computer-generated student papers. His take: Ja, dese undahgaraduates, dey dink if the paper looks pretty all iz well. Dey forget that the pretty page must also say sometink.