Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Story Openings: How not to

I see that agents Kristen Nelson and Angie Hodapp have been writing a series of posts about how not to open your novel. I presume these are types of openings that they find many aspiring writers seeking representation don’t quite pull off. I’m sure there are examples of all these kinds of story openings that work beautifully. In fact, they begin the series of posts by saying:

If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can get away with any type of opening and make it work—even one of the nine types we are going to suggest that you avoid! So much depends on a writer’s mastery of voice, style, and scene craft.

Indeed, this is obvious. But they go on to add: We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the nine types of openings we’re going to share with you here don’t work simply because we see them so often that they’re no longer fresh or original.

Which implies that these types of openings may work better for readers than agents; readers almost by definition do not see the sheer number of story openings that agents see, nor (generally) as many potential novels that haven’t been through some sort of gatekeeper process.

Here is their first post on this topic.

Here is the second.

Here is the third.

Here are the types of ineffective openings, briefly; for the full comments, obviously, click through.

#1) Your novel opens with your main character alone somewhere thinking.

I can think of one that works great! The Breach by Patrick Lee is my go-to novel for a beginning that breaks this advice. Naturally this depends on the writer’s skill.

#2) Your novel opens with White Room Syndrome.

This one is a definite problem for me as a reader. One of the workshop entries at WorldCon struck me as opening in a setting so undetailed and undescribed that it was practically nonexistent. Nor is that the first time I’ve seen this particular issue at a workshop. For me, one brilliant opening that places the protagonist in the setting right off is Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane.

I should add that other workshop participants did not seem to have as much trouble with this opening as I did.

Nelson and Hodapp have a lot more about this issue, and the types of beginnings that imply your protagonist may be in a white room rather than a real setting. They also discuss creating atmosphere with the setting, which makes me think of that opening of Silence by Michelle Sagara. Wow, was that the epitome of atmospheric or what?

#3) Your novel opens with what we call the “mindless task” or the “everyday normal.”

This is the protagonist-waking-up type of beginning. Nelson and Hodapp argue that beginnings such as “Monday started like any normal day…[followed by pages of details about Monday morning]” probably are not going to work for them. This type of beginning postpones the revelation of the initial conflict (“the good stuff”) and asks the reader to wait for a while before getting interested. I agree that sounds like a pretty risky storytelling strategy.

I bet there are some good examples of this type of opening that work really well, but in fact I can’t think of one right this minute. Maybe one could argue that the opening of the first book of The Sharing Knife series starts kind of this way? The interesting part of Fawn’s life doesn’t start till later. Of course the initial conflict Fawn faces is clear right up front, so that’s a bit different than revealing the problem in chapter two.

I also wonder whether this kind of opening isn’t more likely to work in SFF, because the mundane world is unfamiliar and therefore less likely to be boring to the reader. Even so, I can’t think of really good examples of successful openings like this.

Lots of good stuff at the links, and this is a series in progress, with six more iffy types of novel openings coming up.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Concept vs Premise

Here’s an interesting post by Larry Brooks at Kill Zone Blog: Concept vs. Premise: The Inherent Opportunity in Understanding the Difference

I’ve read this rather long post once and need to read through it again. My first thought is: I think I agree about the difference between concept and premise, but I don’t think I agree about which genres are particularly concept driven.

Brooks asserts:

Relative to story development, concept, as it relates to premise, is the contextual framework for a story. A notion that infuses the premise with compelling energy. A proposition.

I think I have also seen “high concept” defined as “summarizable as one particularly catchy sentence.” Like: “A man is stranded alone on Mars and has to survive an impossible length of time to have any hope of rescue.” I suppose what is seen as particularly catchy depends on who’s listening to the pitch.

And then it’s clear that Brooks is basically using “premise” to mean “plot summary.” When he’s discussing premise, he offers a generalized description of a plot, the sort of thing you would see in a query letter.

Anyway, here’s the bit that particularly caught my eye:

When we read that agents and editors are looking for something fresh and new, concept is what they mean. When a concept is familiar and proven – which is the case in romance and mystery genres especially – then fresh and new becomes the job of premise and character, as well as voice and narrative strategy.

And again, later:

Literary fiction and some romance and mysteries aren’t necessarily driven by concept, yet they are totally dependent on a premise that gives their hero’s something to do. Which can and should be conceptual in nature.

However, the sub-genres of romance – paranormal, historical, time travel, erotica, etc. – are totally concept-dependent. Other genres, such as fantasy and science fiction and historical, are almost totally driven by and dependent upon concept.

What about that? Agree, disagree? I’m almost sure I disagree. That is, obviously SOME SF novels are very strongly concept-driven; Kim Stanley Robinson comes to mind here, and probably works like Seveneves, not that I’ve read it, but that’s the point, you just glance at the back cover and think, Wow, high concept here.

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space….Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

So, I guess that’s two high concepts in Seveneves.

But I’d argue that character and voice are primary, not secondary, in a LOT of SF and perhaps the majority of fantasy. I’m getting the feeling that Brooks, like so many others, is treating SF as though it’s always plot driven and high concept, when it isn’t necessarily so — adventure fantasy is often very dependent on character and narrative. I also stuttered over defining paranormal as intrinsically high concept; I think that’s a subgenre that particularly emphasizes character and voice.

And then I think Brooks is conflating SF and fantasy, which I think is a mistake.

Still, it’s an interesting post and I do want to read it again more carefully and think about the main point Brooks is making, which is that the more high-concept our stories are, the more likely they are to appeal to agents, editors, and a broad audience of readers. One does notice that Seveneves appears to have done just that …

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The Craft of Writing

Progress! Sort of

Last night I tweeted something that was essentially: Yay! Just figured out a plot point! Alas, lotsa rewriting tomorrow.

Then someone asked about how I edit — by rewriting from scratch or messing around with the messed-up chunk or what.

So let me unpack the process a little, always remembering that process is highly variable for different writers, so this is just me.

What happened last night the moment I turned off the laptop: I have been bothered by feeling that the book (this is THE WHITE ROAD) is too complex and cluttered with characters. I just passed 100,000 words and I am at this point hardly looking for length; I want to get into the endgame and tie up the story in some reasonable number of words.

I had recently introduced a character but didn’t have anything important for him to do in the endgame, so that was a problem. What could I do to make this new character integral to the plot?

The standard advice to combine characters if you can drifted through my mind.

Ah hah! I could cut that character and give his role to a different character, already introduced earlier. AH HAH! Now the whole plot can hinge on the fate of this particular character. Because this and that and this other thing can ALL depend on what happens with this one character! Instantly the plot smoothed out and became way more coherent.

Doing this revision will require going back 100 pages, sending Character A from one place to another and dropping him into Character B’s situation.

The challenge: Moving Character A from one place to another, which will probably require a kind of magic which I’ll eventually have to foreshadow cause right now it comes out of nowhere. Coming up with a reason for the actual protagonist and her friends to go after him rather than appealing to adult authority for help (haven’t got a reason for that choice yet). Justifying a bad guy doing this instead of that, which probably means setting two bad guys at odds instead of having one be the servant of the other. Rewriting a scene to make that change.

The easy part: removing Character A from the intervening scenes in which he is no longer present. It was a crowd anyway, so being able to get rid of a character is only beneficial. Revising the last 20 or 30 pages because Character A’s situation cannot be exactly like Character B’s situation. Removing Character B completely, and thank heaven for the Find command.

The goal: this revision will should put Character A in the thick of things with the protagonist. I think. I’m not sure whether the other secondary characters will be right there during the climactic scenes or not; maybe they’ll fall by the wayside or catch up later or something. Some aspects of this are going to be tricky to manage. But I think the upshot is going to be tightening up the plot and getting to the climactic scenes faster.

Incidentally, my other YA novels worked out like this:

CITY — less than 90,000 words
ISLANDS — 118,000 words
BLACK DOG — 125,000 words
THE KEEPER OF THE MIST — um, I think 118,000 or so again for that one.

So with THE WHITE ROAD already at 100,000 and me not even in the endgame yet, well. Anything that can help tighten the plot and move things along is indeed greatly to be desired.

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Progress!

So, lately, with THE WHITE ROAD OF THE MOON, I’ve been writing 2000 words per day and deleting about 1000, or writing 3000 and deleting about 2000. It’s all very tedious and annoying and I’m not super-keen on the manuscript anyway. It seems too episodic, not pulled together as tightly as it should be, and I’m not happy with the characterization of the secondary characters, either.

I just mention this because it is all normal. I usually feel like this and generally I like the story a good deal better when I re-read in preparation for the first major revision. Deepening characterization is always necessary; I never have written a book where I thought I’d done that well enough the first time through. It’s usual for me to need to put in more foreshadowing and suddenly, right at the end, see how to tie various plot elements together better. And so on.\

Still, before tackling revision, after reading through the story from top to bottom, I normally do see the manuscript is better, in important ways, than I thought it was at the time I was writing it. I trust that will happen this time, too.

Anyway! I passed the 300 pp mark this past weekend. So, yes, that does count as progress. That’s about, I’m not sure, 95,000 words, say. I am positive this one is going to go long and need to be cut back, but I think I am heading toward the endgame at this point and I hope the rest of the story will shape itself up about now and start to flow downhill.

Progress: basically on track, expecting to finish this draft approximately the first week of August.

Distraction level: normal, not particularly distracted by life right now.

Procrastination level: high, but there’s only so many games of mahjong you can play before dying of boredom and switching to useful work. That’s why I don’t have or want any actually interesting games on my computer. And hopefully THE WHITE ROAD will start to flow well shortly and I will be less inclined to procrastinate.

Number of novels stacking up on my TBR pile: seems infinite

Nonfiction books I’m reading right now: I’m rotating among Keegan’s THE FACE OF BATTLE, Oliver Sacks’ THE MIND’S EYE and the Larousse Gastronomique set of cookbooks.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Killing characters

I happened to see a comment, in a review of PURE MAGIC, about how the reader didn’t have to worry about anybody important dying in this book, but probably someone would die in Book III.

Hmm, I said to myself. Actually, it’s true, isn’t it, that the body count was a lot higher in BLACK DOG than in PURE MAGIC. I’m not sure whether it’s really *so* plain that no one is at risk in PURE MAGIC . . . I would hope that the reader entertains some doubts about that from time to time, in fact. But the truth is, I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to kill anybody important in Book III, either.

Of course, I’m not envisioning this as a trilogy, but as a five-book series with short stories in between each pair of novels. So to me, Book III has never felt like the ending. I am practically certain one important character is going to die in the 4th or 5th book. I really don’t know myself whether some of the other characters will die. Maybe, maybe not. That’s the kind of thing that I only know for sure when I get there.

At the moment, I must say, I really don’t *want* to kill anybody. I really like the whole cast! If, as the plot unscrolls, it becomes reasonable not to kill anybody, then I won’t force it.

To me, sometimes it looks an awful lot like an important character dies because the author is determined to kill them, not because the plot leads to or through a necessary death.

I’m not talking here about the GAME OF THRONES kind of thing, where the body count is so very very very high and practically no one is safe. I’m talking about the author deliberately reaching into the plot and stabbing an important secondary protagonist in the back, so to speak, in order to manipulate the reader’s experience. IMO, if you can spot the author’s hand holding the knife, it’s a serious failing.

I stopped reading Stephen King novels because at some point in his career, it became clear that King was deliberately inserting The Nice Character in order to kill her. I say her because The Nice Character seems to be, usually (always?) female and usually (always?) she is someone the other characters particularly want to protect. We saw that in CELL, if I remember correctly, and even more blatantly in DUMA KEY. Once you see the author doing this, you can’t unsee it. Then the death of the character becomes so obviously manipulative it’s almost offensive.

For me . . . and by now everyone’s read THE HUNGER GAMES, right? Because here comes a spoiler:

. . . the death of Prim at the end of MOCKINGJAY also feels blatantly manipulative and seems to oppose the natural shape of the plot. I realize other readers may not feel that way. Opinions about this series are highly variable. But some deaths grow naturally out of the plot and this one did not feel that way to me. It felt like the author reaching in and using Prim to stab Katniss in the back.

To take one obvious counterexample, this is not the case at all with Aral Vorkosigan’s death, which was actually necessary to the shape of the Vorkosigan series. That is what I mean by the death of an important character arising from the plot. It would have felt quite different if Bujold had let, say, Bel Thorne die.

In contrast, it was awfully convenient that Ekaterin’s first husband died. I really didn’t think he was going to; I thought Bujold would do something else, something less obvious, to get him out of the way. Of course that’s not a death to manipulate the reader; it’s a death to clear the way for your protagonists. That doesn’t feel offensive to me, just a bit pat.

Anyway. As I said, I’m almost certain that at least one important character in the Black Dog series is going to die, though probably not for a while. I really don’t know about some of the others. It’s a dangerous universe and the challenges everyone’s going to face in Book III are pretty serious. But I hope that whoever dies, their death will feel like a natural part of the plot rather than something imposed from the outside, as it were.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Page critique, illustrating a common failing

I see that Nathan Bransford has a page critique up at his blog today.

Here are the first few paragraphs, with Nathan’s deletions and additions shown:

The taller man stood near the third floor window, scanning the crowd of parade-goers lining the streets. He turned to the shorter his colleague Igor and smiled.

“Bigger crowd than last year, yes? Than last year?Igor said, twirling his uneven mustache.

“Last year wasn’t as big a deal. Oop… here we go.”

Igor crossed the dark room to peer out the window as well, standing carefully back from it. Outside, the number 150 was blazoned on just about everything banners, on signs, on balloons, and capes [be specific to create a better mental picture for the reader]. One hundred fifty years since the Great Tomes revealing the Builders had been discovered.

Nathan then goes on to discuss vagueness, and how important specific details are in allowing the reader to “see” the scene.

I would not think about this in terms of vagueness versus specificity, though that’s a perfectly legitimate way of viewing it.

I would think of this as a reluctance to write description. I’m not sure why, but a good proportion of all the workshop entries and so on that I’ve seen have this precise failing. The writer does not describe the scenery, and thus does not draw the reader into the opening scene.

There is, I suppose, a fine-ish line between setting the scene and stalling the action with so much description that the reader wonders if anything is ever going to happen. Remember, however, that the point-of-view protagonist is IN the scene and that all description is from his or her point of view. Thus, the initial description of the world is also part of characterization. Besides that, we can establish tension AND add in plenty of description at the same time. Here is one of my favorite third-person openings:

Bandits often lay in wait in the ruins of the old town at the fourways — Jenny Waynest thought there were three of them this morning.

She was not sure any more whether it was magic which told her this, or simply the woodcraftiness and instinct for the presence of danger that anyone developed who had survived to adulthood in the Winterlands. But as she drew rein short of the first broken walls, where she knew she would still be concealed by the combination of autumn fog and early morning gloom beneath the thicker trees of the forest, she noted automatically that the horse droppings in the sunken clay of the roadbed were fresh, untouched by the frost that edged the leaves around them. She noted, too, the silence in the ruins ahead; no coney’s foot rustled the yellow spill of broomsedge cloaking the hill slope where the old church had been, the church sacred to the Twelve Gods beloved of the old Kings. She thought she smelled the smoke of a concealed fire near the remains of what had been a crossroads inn, but honest men would have gone there straight and left a track in the nets of dew that covered the weeds all around. Jenny’s white mare Moon Horse pricked her long ears at the scent of other beasts, and Jenny mind-whispered to her for silence, smoothing the raggedy mane against the long neck. But she had been looking for all those signs before she saw them.

This is DRAGONSBANE by Barbara Hambly. We get the initial problem presented to us immediately, but we also learn a LOT about Jenny. We see that she is not terrified at the thought of bandits lying in wait, even though she is a woman and appears to be alone. We learn that she has some ability to work magic. But we are allowed to step into the scene because of the huge number of details Hambly works into these brief paragraphs. Not just about frost and broomsedge; we already have an idea what the world is like, because of the ruins, the need for people to learn caution and woodcraftiness, the reference to the old Kings, all of that.

If you are working with a first-person narrative or a very close third-person narrative, you may not put in so much description up front — if your pov protagonist isn’t looking at something, noticing it, thinking about it, then it doesn’t come up in the narrative. In that case, you depend more or the protagonist’s voice to draw in the reader. But you also add setting details, which also play a role in hooking the reader, like so:

Her name is Melanie. It means “the black girl”, from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that.

There haven’t been any new children for a long time now. Melanie doesn’t know why that is. There used to be lots; every week, or every couple of weeks, voices in the night. Muttered orders, complaints, the occasional curse. A cell door slamming. Then after a while, a month or two, a new face in the classroom — a new boy or girl who hadn’t even learned to talk yet. But they got it fast.

That’s from THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by M. R. Carey, a story which depends almost entirely on the charm of Melanie’s voice to carry the reader through the story, and very successfully, too. This is one of the closest third-person points of view I’ve ever read, acting a great deal like a first-person narrative.

We get a lot of weird details in just these few words, even though there is no camera panning across the scene. This sets up a tremendous urge to keep reading in order to find out what kind of world this is, with its children brought in at night — children who haven’t learned to talk yet — and locked into cells and given names off a list. Melanie’s voice is so bright and chipper and entirely undisturbed by the extremely weird life she is living; the contrast between her attitude and the situation creates tension and acts as another hook.

Here is a real first-person opening:

It was a dumb thing to do, but it wasn’t that dumb. There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.

Monday evening is our movie evening because we are celebrating have lived through another week. Sunday night we lock up at eleven or midnight and crawl home to die, and Monday (barring a few national holidays) is our day off. Ruby comes in on Mondays with her warrior cohort and attacks the coffeehouse with an assortment of high-tech blasting gear that would whack Godzilla into submission: those single-track military minds never think to ask their cleaning staff for help in giant lethal marauding creature matters. Thanks to Ruby, Charlie’s Coffeehouse is probably the only place in Old Town where you are safe from the local cockroaches, which are approximately the size of chipmunks. You can hear them clicking when they cantor across the cobblestones outside.

This is SUNSHINE by Robin McKinley, who I must say pulls off in this book one of the very best openings I’ve ever seen. This story that looks so much like it’s set in contemporary normal life until, on page ten or so, we suddenly take a left turn toward weird. Of course McKinley doesn’t wait till then to establish the tension; she sets up the tension in the first very short paragraph — what happened at the lake? — but mostly in these opening paragraphs we are setting the scene and establishing the protagonist. Once again we get a very clear picture of the protagonist right away — from her use of casual language: dumb, crawl home to die, whack Godzilla into submission, etc.

In my opinion, it’s harder — substantially harder — to establish a catchy first-person (or unusually close third-person) narrative voice than a more distant third-person protagonist as in DRAGON’SBANE. By harder, I mean of course harder for me, but my impression is that it’s also harder for most people.

But even if you are using first-person narration, you have to draw the setting right up front in order to allow the reader to step into your world. Coffeehouse, cockroaches, movie night, silly B-movies like Godzilla, massive cleaning equipment. We’re right there with Sunshine, we’re IN the story.

That’s what the writer should aim for.

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The Craft of Writing

I’ve got your dialogue tags riiiight here

I picked up this five-page handout last semester. Some student gave me a copy; their teacher had passed these out when talking about how to write a narrative essay, which incidentally is not a term I’m just in love with. A narrative essay: do you mean a narrative or an essay? I know, I know, the term is meant to describe an essay that uses narrative to make its point, but this seems a bit subtle for English Comp I in a community college where — I am not trying to be snarky, this is just a statement of fact — a large minority of the students are reading and writing at about the fifth-grade level or below.

So, in general, when assigning a narrative essay, the instructor requires dialogue. And of all the handouts that a student can perhaps do without when learning to write dialogue, a five-page handout listing about a million possible alternates to “said” strikes me as the one to drop. It is almost entertaining, also a bit frightening, to imagine how the instructor (I don’t know who it was) might have introduced this handout. “Said is so boring! Be sure and use alternates whenever possible!”

Now, I do not agree that “said” is uniquely invisible , because I have found it far too visible when overused. Nevertheless, consider the following list of “a” alternatives to “said”:

acknowledged
added
admitted
advised
affirmed
agreed
alleged
alluded
announced
answered
apologized
appealed
argued
articulated
asserted
assured
avowed

Now, some of those could perfectly well be used as dialogue tags, and in fact if properly used they would vanish gently into the text. “Appealed” could not, in my opinion. Listen to this:

“You have to reconsider,” she appealed.

“No, listen, this is terribly important,” she appealed.

“Please, please, please,” she appealed.

You see? Perfectly dreadful. There’s nothing wrong with the word, but as a dialogue tag, no. Just no.

“Articulated” is even worse, especially since I can’t help but think about the articulation of bones when I see the word. “Avowed”? I don’t think so, not even in the highest of high fantasy. “Alluded”? Are you kidding me?

Acknowledged, added, admitted, agreed, announced, argued — I would say that set could be used as tags. The rest are iffy or impossible. (Okay, close to impossible, I’m sure you could use even “alluded” as a tag if you were sufficiently determined.)

This list has about 230 words — I didn’t count, that’s a rough estimate. Two hundred and thirty! I don’t know whether to laugh or weep at the idea of English Comp I students being told that all these words are suitable dialogue tags and they should avoid “said.” Not, I repeat, that I know how the instructor presented this handout; maybe it was with a “use with caution” label. But still, if you provide it, you are implicitly endorsing it.

Incidentally, the handout *I* most often offer students is the one that shows comma usage in dialogue. Of course you could just look in any novel to see how dialogue is handled — I remember doing exactly that when I started working on my very first book ever (I looked at Bujold) — but a handout that clearly shows how to integrate dialogue into text is still a handy thing.

Also, I would like to see the narrative essay dropped from the class. One semester is too short even to focus on normal expository essays. Why complicate the issue with narrative? Offer a different class in fiction and narrative nonfiction writing instead. But that’s just me.

Dictated, foretold, voiced — voiced, seriously? It’s enough to make me throw up my hands and declare, “For heaven’s sake, stick to ‘said!'”

Seriously?

Seriously?

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

The Writing Process —

So, you know, how much writing work you get done varies so much day by day. For me, this is true to a much lesser extent if I am currently producing pages for a new manuscript under a fairly tight deadline, because then I set a minimum number of pages or words per day and more or less stick to it. The feeling that you are making progress is itself a motivator. But lately! With this revision! (of MOUNTAIN.) It is just hard to tell on a day to day basis whether an adequate amount of progress is being made.

I mean, like this: last Sunday I wrote 15 pages (about 5000 words). This is a lot for me unless I’m in the endgame of a book and it’s flowing and I’m really into it, and then I can write quite a bit every day for a while. But just picking up this revision from nearly a cold start, that was a ton.

Then Monday, nothing. Not a word. Granted, that’s the day I went up to St Louis and went to Global Foods and picked up Ish, but still, I was home all afternoon. Didn’t even turn on the computer.

Tuesday I finished the chapter I’d been working on, leapfrogged over a chapter that didn’t need much work, deleted a whole chapter that had to go, gazed at the blank screen for a while, made a couple notes about the new chapter that might go there, and quit for the day. Amount of actual progress: net loss of 5000 words, iffy in terms of ideas about what to do.

Wednesday, nothing. I opened the file once and looked at the blank spot.

Yesterday, I veeery slowly and painfully wrote 2000 words of the new chapter. I’m also proud to say that I got my percentage of games won up to 74% in Spider Solitaire. This should tell you how little I wanted to work on the manuscript, because solitaire is the game I switch to when I’m really annoyed with or bored with writing. (This is why I don’t want interesting games on my laptop; solitaire is as distracting as I need, which is to say, not very.)

Finally, having gotten that annoying chapter started, I whooshed through 2000 words this morning and should easily do that much again tonight, possibly finishing the chapter or getting it set up to finish tomorrow. Then I get to leap ahead about fifty pages, which will be extremely satisfying and get me into the endgame of the book, part of which will again have to be rewritten extensively.

How worried was I, yesterday? This is actually the point I wanted to make: not at all worried. Annoyed, yes, mildly, because it’s not fun beating words out of the aether when they’re not flowing and you really are not in the mood. But even if the deadline for this manuscript was Feb 1 (it’s actually March sometime, I forget exactly), I wouldn’t have been worried. Days like that are just part of the deal. Once you plow through an annoying section, the next bit is liable to be a downhill run. Relatively, anyway.

Back to work Monday! Unless we get freezing rain and ice on Sunday and thus start the new school year with a snowday. I see a “winter mix” is predicted for Sunday, so that could happen. Even if we are off Monday, I won’t quite tie this manuscript up before school starts. But I will probably juuuust about hit the next tedious, annoying section I will need to deal with (hopefully the last).

Which is fine. No matter how tedious bits of this revision are, I expect I’ll wrap it up by the end of the month, which is soon enough.

Meanwhile! Time to open up the manuscript file.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

“May” vs “Might”

You know the kind of thing where you know what’s grammatically right but you don’t know the rule? And people do it wrong and you flinch but you can’t explain WHY they’re wrong, you just know they are? For me that feeds into occasionally telling a student, “I can’t explain it, but I’m right, do it my way.” But then you’re all like, WHAT IS THE DAMN RULE ANYWAY?

Well, I finally looked up the difference between “may” and “might”, and, let me tell you, there are a lot of different opinions about this, way more than about any other grammatical thing I’ve ever looked up. I mean, the difference between “who” and “whom” is simple — subject vs object — and even the difference between “which” and “that” is relatively simple — nonrestrictive vs restrictive clauses — and at least everybody agrees. But people are all over the place when it comes to “may” vs “might.”

Some grammar websites insist the two words are nearly interchangeable except that “might” suggests a somewhat lower probability than “may,” but that can’t be right because way too often when I’m reading, I stumble over “may” when I know, I KNOW, that it should be “might.” It wouldn’t feel so wrong if the only difference was a perception of lower probability.

Other websites say that “might” is the past tense of “may”, so that you say “He might have been eaten by the dragon” rather than “He may have been eaten by the dragon,” but that can’t be right either, because I can easily put either of those sentences in a context where it would sound right, like so:

“Gavin hasn’t come in this morning; I’m afraid he might have been eaten by a dragon.”

“Well, yeah, Gavin may have been eaten by a dragon, but you know that won’t stop him — he’ll come back as a ghost in a day or two, so we have to be prepared to face him again!”

Do those sentences sound right to you? I actually think that I could read both of them with either the “may” or “might” and all the versions sound okay to me — definitely not wrong enough to make me stumble if I were reading a story got one of these stentences.

Finally I visited my favorite grammar website, which neatly encapsulated another difference:

Avoid confusing the sense of possibility in may with the implication of might that a hypothetical situation has not in fact occurred.

And I think this is the one that writers often get wrong. In the first dragon sentence above, Gavin might have or may have been eaten by the dragon. Either would work because you are expressing a possibility, and I suppose “might” could express your opinion that the possibility is not very likely, but I don’t think even very sensitive readers would stumble over either version.

But try this sentence:

“Gavin might have been eaten by the dragon, but it turns out he dodged past and successfully made it into the wizard’s castle.”

In this case, you couldn’t use “may” because you are talking about a hypothetical possibility that didn’t happen. If you used “may,” sensitive writers would stumble.

I *think* this is the most common situation where I feel the wrongness of “may.” I am certain that it’s always “may” that is the problem, never “might.”

So I guess if you try to boil it down, it’s more or less like this:

“Might” sometimes is used to express a low probability — lower than “may” — but this is subtle and doesn’t matter much.

“Might” is usually the past tense of “may” and in general you want “might have,” not “may have.”

“Might” is used to indicate that something that might have happened, didn’t.

Or something like that.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Clunky prose vs predictable/uninteresting prose

A week or two ago, when I first posted about Lindsay Buroker’s EMPEROR’S EDGE series, a commenter named Kim said that she tried the first book but found the prose unreadably “clunky.”

Huh, I said, and started to pay attention to whichever of Buroker’s books I was on at the time, to see what was “clunky” about the prose. And I found out something really interesting about myself as a reader! Which only goes to show, because I wouldn’t have thought there were many surprises left in that direction.

Here is what I realized: clunky writing does not bother me all that much in a story which is fast paced and has snappy dialogue. If those elements are in place, I can and do read right over writing that is unquestionably clunky.

I am defining “clunky,” btw, as prose that sometimes shows wrong word choices, wrong verb tense choices, awkward phrasing, etc — the sorts of things that prevent the reading experience from being smooth. For me, the opposite of clunky prose is not necessarily beautiful prose, but invisible prose. Also, I’m defining “snappy dialogue” as involving unpredictability and humor. The opposite of snappy is boring, trite, or predictable.

I was surprised to find that under the right circumstances, I can read past some clunky writing in an otherwise good book. Probably there are limits — I’m sure there are limits — but I would have thought that clunky prose would bother me all the time no matter what, whereas it turns out this is not the case.

So I went back to a book which a lot of other people have liked but which I found impossible to finish, STOLEN SONGBIRD by Danielle Jensen. Even after a real try at getting into it, I found it unreadable. Part of this was a protagonist who to me seemed annoyingly incompetent and histrionic, but a lot of the problem was the actual writing. And I realized that what actually bothers me more than clunky writing is predictable, uninteresting writing, especially dialogue. I had not realized this. To illustrate what I mean, let me contrast these two books. But let me start by emphasizing that:

a) I really like Buroker’s EMPEROR’S EDGE series! Enough to read eight books and a scattering of novellas and short stories.

b) Many reviewers I respect, and with whose taste I often agree, loved Jensen’s STOLEN SONGBIRD. Kristen at Fantasy Book Cafe gave it an 8 out of 10. Ria at Bibliotropic refers to the writing as “engaging and fluid.”

Thus indicating once more that, as we are all aware, readers’ mileage will vary when it comes to all kinds of writing.

Okay, so having said that, here is a tidbit from BENEATH THE SURFACE, The Emperor’s Edge 5.5:

Tactfully, Evrial decided not to mention that Amaranthe and her team had committed numerous crimes, crimes that might have one day been justified if it’d come out that they’d been working to protect the rightful emperor from assassins and usurpers, but that now that Sespian was just one of more than a half-dozen people with enough royal blood to make a claim on the throne . . .

I think this sentence could justifiably be called “clunky.” In case you are curious, here is how I would suggest rewording the sentence:

Tactfully, Evrial decided not to mention that Amaranthe and her team had committed numerous crimes, crimes that might one day prove to have been justified if it came out that they’d been working to protect the rightful emperor from assassins and usurpers. Although now that Sespian had been shown to be just one of more than half a dozen people with a possible claim on the throne . . .

So I think mainly this is a verb tense thing, and also I would cut that one long sentence in half. Not that I am unalterably opposed to long sentences, but in this case I don’t think the length is this sentence’s friend.

Now, here is a section that shows what I mean by fun, unexpected dialogue:

“Don’t misunderstand me,” Amaranthe said. “I certainly appreciate his solicitude, but I’m concerned he’s seeing me as some frail, broken being not capable of taking care of herself anymore.”
“Solicitude?” Evrial asked, her mind snagging on that word. “From . . . Sicarius?”
Amaranthe hesitated, as if she held some secret she wasn’t sure she should be sharing. “Not so as most people would notice it, but yes.”
That was hard to believe. “Was that [just now] an example of it?” . . .
“No, that was protective looming.”
“All right . . . ”
Amaranthe cleared her throat. “Enough girl talk. There are enemy cabins full of dastardly old ladies that we must infiltrate.”
“Unbelievable,” Evrial murmured.
“What is?”
“That you can say things like that and still get those men to rally behind you.”

Amaranthe frequently seems to really be enjoying herself with melodramatic lines that no one is expected to take seriously. This really appeals to me. I enjoy her melodrama right along with her. There are so many examples it’s hard to choose, but here’s another:

“I do not believe [Sespian] would accept a peace offering from me.”
Yes, although Sespian hadn’t pulled any more weapons on Sicarius, their new relationship wasn’t off to a brilliant start. . . . “You have to keep trying,” Amaranthe said. “Be friendly in the face of his dark glares, and he’ll eventually grow weary of rejecting you. Why, just look at us. In a short ten months of sparkling smiles and effervescent one-sided conversations, I thawed your icy exterior and got you to profess your undying love for me.”
Sicarius blinked slowly.
“It’s possible we remember the events a little differently,” Amaranthe said. “The female mind has an interesting way of filtering reality.”
“Yours certainly does,” Sicarius said, a hint of dry humor finally infusing his tone.

But it’s not just Amaranthe. Everyone gets to have fun dialogue. Even Sicarius, who barely says anything, but certainly everyone else. This, I’m almost sure, is what carries me through the story.

In contrast, check out this bit from near the beginning of STOLEN SONGBIRD:

A cloaked rider blocked the road.
My heart leapt. Fleur wheeled around and I laid the ends of my reins to her haunches. “Hah!” I shouted as she surged forward.
“Cécile! Cécile, wait! It’s me!”
A familiar voice. Gentler this time, I reined in and looked over my shoulder. “Luc?”
“Yes, it’s me, Cécile.” He trotted over to me, pulling back his hood to reveal his face.
“What are you doing sneaking about like that?” I asked. “You scared the wits out of me.”
He shrugged. “I wasn’t certain it was you at first. Sorry about the eggs [you dropped].”
An apology that didn’t explain at all why he’d been lurking in the bushes in the first place.
“I haven’t seen you in quite some time. Where have you been?” I asked the question even though I knew the answer. His father was gameskeeper on an estate not far from our farm, but several months ago, Luc had taken off for Trianon. My brother and other townsfolk had caught wind that Luc had had a bit of luck betting on the horses and playing at cards, and was now living the high life spending his winnings.
“Here and there,” he said, riding around me in a circle. “The gossips say you’re moving to Trianon to live with your mother.”
“Her carriage is coming for me tomorrow.”
“You’ll be singing then. On stage?”
“Yes.”
He smiled. “You always did have the voice of an angel.”
“I need to get home,” I said. “My gran’s expecting me – my father, too.” I hesitated and looked down the road. “You may ride with me, if you like.” I rather hoped he wouldn’t accept, but riding was better than standing here alone with him.
“Today is your birthday, isn’t it?” His horse sidled tight against mine
I frowned. “Yes.”
“Seventeen. You’re a woman now.” He looked me up and down as though inspecting something that could be bought and sold. A horse at market. Or something worse. He chuckled softly to himself and I cringed.
“What’s so funny?” My heart raced, my instincts telling me that something was terribly wrong. Please, someone come down the road.

Too many phrases in this are cliched for my taste. My heart leapt, you scared the wits out of me, living the high life, the voice of an angel. Besides the cliches, every line seems predictable and boring.

The heroine also seems like kind of an idiot, though I’m not sure that comes through in this snippet. She’s scared, but she nevertheless pauses and chats. When Luc assaults her, as he does a moment later, she is ineffectual in her response. Ineffectual and emotional are two qualities she has in spades, and I just don’t like her. But that’s not the biggest problem I had when I tried to get into the story; the uninteresting writing was the bigger problem. I read about 100 pages of this book before giving up. Then I gave it to a friend for his teenage daughter. I hope she loves it, and I do think she will, but it’s not for me.

So, anyway. Thoughts on clunky and awkward vs boring and predictable? Have you ever noticed that one type of writing bothers you more than the other? If you’d declare that both bother you equally, are you sure? If you haven’t tried THE EMPEROR’S EDGE, let me remind you that it’s free on Kindle. If you do try it, let me know what you think: do you find it catchy, or is it not for you?

Now that I try, I can think of other authors whose stories I enjoy even though their writing isn’t necessarily that good. How about you?

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