Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Revision letters sometimes take over your life

I’m sure you’re all fascinated by the revision process, right?

Right?

Well, I know some of you are writers or know writers or want to be writers, and I thought you might be interested in some real specifics about the revision process. My revision process, anyway.

Besides, it’s the other main thing taking over my life for the rest of this month. In fact, I should be working on this revision right now, obviously, rather than doing internet stuff. But! Soon! It’ll just take a minute to write this post!

So, anyway: what I have here is a five-page letter from my agent. This is not this manuscript’s first revision, either: this is the second. I can’t remember how long the first revision letter was. The only thing I remember specifically from the first letter is that Caitlin (my agent) said: “I feel like this story doesn’t really start till Chapter 7.” I also remember that I wound up cutting Chapters 5 and 6 entirely during the first revision. That’s just as dramatic as it sounds. I thought maybe I’d work bits of those deleted chapters back into the manuscript, but basically didn’t wind up using anything from them.

Anyway, after THIS revision, the manuscript will FINALLY go to my editor, who will take a look at it for the first time. She is quite the perfectionist, which is something I like AFTER she accepts a manuscript of mine, but it means both Caitlin and I think it’s REALLY IMPORTANT that the manuscript be just as perfect as possible before she sees it. Luckily Caitlin used to be an editor and has excellent editorial chops, so her comments are usually super-helpful. All I give her to work with is vague questions like “Does the romance between Him and Her work for you?” What she gives me back is a chapter-by-chapter analysis of what doesn’t work and specific suggestions for fixing things.

It’s not that she expects me to take every single detailed suggestion, btw. Sometimes I do something she didn’t suggest that I think will work better to fix the identified problem. Occasionally (rarely) I think over a suggestion and wind up not changing the manuscript at all because I think it works fine the way it is.

So! Here we go: “The opening scene is better, but it still feels too slow and lacks emotional or plot urgency. . . . It would help to give them a mission in the first chapter, they shouldn’t just be sight-seeing. Your protagonist should feel more about [her love-interest] in this scene, plus we need to see more about her difficulties adjusting to her new life. And this other boy has become a more important character; maybe he’s romantically interested in your protagonist too?” [All of this is paraphrased, I just summarized four paragraphs, but it’s pretty true to the meaning.]

“Can your protagonist be more active in defending her choices and defying everyone else to do what she believes is right? If she goes to [this place], there needs to be a reason for it — can she have a specific plan for something she needs to do there, but she is prevented? Can your protagonist be a little more verbal and defend her ideas more to everyone? She needs to be more passionate and intense about her feelings. When she can’t explain and is rebuked, then she can relapse into self-doubt. Right now she comes across as wishy-washy.”

“Could [the protagonist’s love interest] be more torn? He wants to support her but he can’t go against everyone else? This mistake could be what gives him strength and determination to follow his own beliefs later. Also, make your protagonist’s feelings about the way he doesn’t support her stronger and more explicit. She should be angry with him and hurt that he didn’t support her, even though she understands with her head why he didn’t.”

“Somehow in the events of Chapter 7, this big crisis gets lost. Then in Chapter 9, it gets lost again. It’s a nice bit of writing in Chapter 9, lots of info conveyed via dialogue, but I’d like to see more of your protagonist’s feelings as well. Also, maybe your protagonist could be the one to discover this particular crisis, which might happen a little later, thus providing action and hightened tension during what is otherwise a lull.” [She suggests a specific place where that might happen.]

“Chapters 12, 13, and 14 are excellent.” [These little comments are nice, you bet.]

“In Chapter 15, your protagonist should show more emotion, thinking about herself and [her love interest] and also worrying about her skills and whether she can do things she needs to do.”

“Chapter 16 is elegant and beautiful but lacks suspense. You don’t need to change what happens, but the tone should be different.” [Specific suggestions follow.]

Chapter 17: “Do we have to have your protagonist sulking in her rooms again? Also, we suddenly have a lot of secondary characters in this scene. Either use them earlier in the book or trim them down here.” [Caitlin’s tone is not quite this dictatorial, though.]

Chapter 21: “More romance, please! Let’s have a kiss at least! The lack of romance here is very disappointing!”

Okay, I’ve left a LOT out, obviously, but that should give you an idea. I hope I gave a reasonable impression about how specific Caitlin can be? This chapter-by-chapter analysis is extraordinarily helpful. I see that she has made specific comments about 11 out of 21 chapters, or roughly half the chapters. Many of the other chapters will need to be tweaked just because I’ll be changing stuff in the rest of the manuscript, but some will be barely touched compared to others. It does give me a nice sense of progress to skip ahead seventy pages now and then.

Q: So how does it feel to get a critique letter like this, with blunt comments like: This chapter lacks suspense or Your protagonist needs to quit sulking in her room or This lack of romance is very disappointing?

A: You hear so much about how an author feels outraged and furious at editorial comments and has to fight to be civil until she cools off and can think about things rationally. Well, maybe. I have a hard time even believing that (though multiple authors have specifically mentioned feeling that way).

IN GENERAL, I feel like whapping my forehead and exclaiming: Of course! How could I have missed that?

EVERY NOW AND THEN, I say to myself: Well, that specific suggestion won’t work, what else can I do that would fix this lull in the action?

VERY RARELY, I think: Ouch.

Caitlin balances the Ouch moments by saying things like This Chapter is excellent as is.

And I am ALWAYS grateful that Caitlin is there to tell me that something doesn’t work, rather than leaving a problem sitting in the story to be spotted by the editor — or worse, by the readers. This is particularly important with later drafts, where overfamiliarity generally makes it really hard for me to tell whether something works or doesn’t work.

Okay! Writing this post took AN HOUR. Back to the revision!

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

About those prologues —

There are SO MANY posts out there that essentially declare that friends don’t let friends write prologues. And I think this is basically true, most of the time, unless it isn’t. And of course this is because so many prologues are dreadful.

Here’s a great post, by Rachel Aaron (THE SPIRIT RING) on writing a prologue your readers won’t skip. The money quote: “The most successful prologues fall into two types: prologues that exist to feed the reader information they otherwise couldn’t get, and prologues that set the mood.”

To which I would add, if the info given in the prologue is not actually crucial, don’t include it. A huge info dump of boring history may let the reader understand the complex origins of the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist (for example), but since the reader isn’t yet invested in the struggle between them and doesn’t yet have a reason to care about the protagonist, most likely the reader is going to find this BORING BORING BORING. It is NOT crucial information for the reader. Any tidbits that ARE crucial, if any, should just be worked into the story proper.

I mean, Tolkein didn’t include The Silmarillion as a prologue to The Lord of the Rings, right? You shouldn’t do that, either.

In the post I just linked to, Rachel Aaron explains how she used a prologue in her second book. I’m sure it’s obvious that one thing that might have made that work (I haven’t read her books and can’t judge) is that — and she herself points this out explicitly — the prologue is in the SECOND book, which means readers are already invested.

Nathan Bransford has a short post on prologues, back from when he was an agent, that’s worth a look. He basically reiterates that if a book works without the prologue, then you shouldn’t have put the prologue in — of course this is true. And he adds that a prologue ought to be short, self-contained, and comprehensible — which does rather beg the question of “how short is short?”

Two of my favorite good prologues are very, very short.

This one is from MaryJanice Davidson’s BETSY, THE VAMPIRE QUEEN series — The third one: Undead and Unappreciated. These are cute, fun books and Davidson plays with cute, fun prologues in several of them. In this book, she actually has two prologues, which right there indicates she’s having fun and not taking herself too seriously. The first prologue is this:

Once upon a time, the devil was bored, and possessed a not-very-nice pregnant woman, and ran that woman’s body for about a year.

The devil still drank and smoked, but only in moderation. The devil was good about taking prenatal pills but grumbled about the inevitable constipation.

And eventually the devil gave birth to a baby girl.

After a month of diapers, night feedings, colic, laundry, spilled formula (the devil hated to breast-feed), and spit-up, the devil said, “Enough of this,” and went back to Hell, which was infinitely preferable to living with a newborn.

The devil’s daughter was adopted and grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her name was Laura, and she liked strawbery ice cream, and she never, ever missed churc. She was a very nice young lady.

But she had a terrible temper.

There you go, that’s the whole thing. It’s short, self-contained, comprehensible, clearly sets up an important plot point, leaves the reader knowing something that the protagonist isn’t going to (but in a good way). And it’s funny.

A serious prologue that’s just as short but much more serious is in ALMOST PERFECT by Brian Katcher, which is a contemporary YA that was one of my very favorite reads from the past couple of years.

Everyone has a line they swear they’ll never cross, the one thing they say they’ll never do. Not something serious like I’ll never kill anyone or I’ll never invade Russia in the winter. Usually it’s something less earth-shattering.

I’ll never cheat on her.

I’ll never work at a job I hate.

I’ll never give up my dreams.

We draw the line. Maybe we even believe it. That’s why it’s so hard when we break that promise we make to ourselves.

Sage Hendricks was my line.

Here’s (part of) a much longer prologue that works beautifully, from Judith Riley’s IN PURSUIT OF THE GREEN LION

It was in the Year of Our Lord 1358, in the summertime, just two days before the Feast of Saint Barnabas, that a Voice spoke out of heaven into the ear of my understanding.

“Margaret,” said the Voice, “just what are you doing there?” My pen stopped, and I looked up.

“Surely, You know already,” I said to the still air.

“Of course I do, but I want you to tell Me, and that is entirely different,” the Voice answered.

But to begin in the right place, I must begin with God’s gift of daughters, which is made to mothers as a test and a trial. For on the Day of Judgment when we must answer for all things, what shall we answer if our daughters be too stubborn and impatient for the needle? Thus does God try our souls, and likewise cast out vanity, for the mothers of ungovernable children must always be humble.

Now the day on which the Voice spoke was all fair and warm, and everything was blooming and growing. We had removed our household from London for the summer once again; the disorder in the kitchens at Whitehill Manor had at last been put right, . . . . The air was so fresh, and the green fields so inviting, only a fool would imagine that two little girls as willful as Cecily and Alison would remember their duty. . . . . Still, as I climbed the long outside stairs to peep into the bower up under the eaves, I did not foresee what I would find. Empty! It was clear enough what had happened – two little pairs of shoes tumbled underneath the embroidery frame, a few dozen halfhearted stitches added to the work of months, and on the windowsill, Mother Sarah’s abandoned distaff.

“And she’s no better than they are! How could they?” I called out the window, “Cecily! Alison!” and thought I could hear the answering shriek of children’s laughter from a far-off place. Oh, failed again, I brooded. However will I make them into ladies? And then God will say at the end of the world, “Margaret, you allowed your daughters to become hoydens. Their French knots unravel. And those daisies. Ugh. Exactly like toadstools. Pass on my left, unworthy woman.”

But the silence of the abandoned bower was so inviting. I could feel the wonderful possibilities rising from the floor like mist. Mine, all mind, rejoiced my careless heart. Space, room, and quiet! And before I knew it, I had my paper and ink from the chest, and my writings about housewifery spread about me.

Now you must know that long ago I made a plan to write down all the wisdom Mother Hilde taught me, so that it would not all be lost. And my girls shall have it after me, and so become celebrated for their mastery of the arts of healing and cookery and housewifery. And it is very well that it all be written, even though these are all true secrets, for suppose some grief should come to me – how would they manage then? And this I must say of them, though they are slow at the needle, they are swift at the art of reading, which is most rare among females.

I set the pen at the place I had left off. “To keep the moth from woolens . . .” I had written, all those months ago, in London. How much had happened since then! Their father dead, so much changed. A bright shaft of sunshine from the little window above made a warm puddle of light on the page. Moths. How can keeping the moths off make my girls happy?

“Oh, bother moths! What do I care about moths? What ever possessed me to write about moths anyway?”

“Certainly not Me, Margaret.” The Voice sounded warm and comfortable, as if it were somehow inside the sunlight. I looked up from the paper and inspected the sunbeam carefully. The only thing I could see were thousands of dancing dust motes, all shimmering golden.

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time,” I addressed the sunbeam. “But now it’s all turned into moths and recipes for fish. And I don’t even like fish.”

“Why write about them, then?”

“I thought it was proper.”

“What is proper is what you understand best, Margaret.”

So, of course it was all clear. It wasn’t fish and moths I needed to write about after all. It was about something much more important. And certainly something my girls should know about, for the world tells them nothing but lies, leaving them entirely deluded on the subject.

“Why so busy, and so inky?” asked my lord husband that very evening. “Have you take up that recipe book again? Write about those tasty little fruit things in pastry – they would definitely be a loss to posterity. My future sons-in-law will bless me.”

“I’m writing a love story.”

“Another tale of courtly love to add to the world’s stock of lies? Surely you lead mankind astray. Pastries would be far better.”

“No, I’m not writing about that false, flowery stuff. Jousts, and favors, and lute playing in rose-covered bowers. I’m writing about the happily-ever-after part. I’m writing about true love.”

“Real love? Oh, worse and worse, Margaret. Nobody writes about that. For one thing, it’s not decent. For another, it’s impossibly dull. Now, if you wish to write about love, you must respect the conventions. What interests people is the trying to get, not the getting. Look at Tristan! Look at Lancelot! What kind of romance would it be if they could have had what they wanted? Tristan marries Yseult, and they produce a dozen moon-faced brats! . . . You must face facts, Margaret. You don’t understand anything about writing love stories. Stick to recipes.”

So of course I set to work right away. After all, my lord husband considers himself a great expert on the topic of love, because he has written a number of poems on the subject. But I, I have loved greatly.

I snipped a bit out, but that gives you the flavor of it. This prologue is about four pages long in the book. And what makes it work? Why, the protagonist’s voice, of course. THat last sentence is a beautiful hook: we are given a delicious sense of anticipation because we know just enough about what the book is going to be about. For me it’s a plus that we also know things are going to come out well at the end. But you see we certainly aren’t being handed an info dump of any kind. We do see something important, though: That God speaks to the protagonist, who takes this in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s intriguing and a nice draw.

There’s another kind of prologue that I hope works: the one that starts off as a chapter and then gets called a prologue kind of at the last minute. I know this because of *my* prologues. How long was the one in the third Griffin Mage book, The Broken Earth? About 25 pages? THis certainly doesn’t count as short, does it? I actually wrote that as Chapter 1. I and my editor went back and forth quite a lot before deciding to call it a prologue, the deciding factor being that it opens up with Mienthe’s childhood and thus well before the story proper begins. I wanted that chapter in there for several reasons, though, one being that I wanted Miente to be perceived as the main protagonist and that meant letting the reader see her pov first, before Tan was introduced. And that meant stepping back in time since the story proper really didn’t start until Tan crossed the river.

And in my as-yet-unpublished novel that opens with a prologue, that one started as a chapter, too. I eventually cut it A LOT and since it also involves a character’s childhood — though it also sets up a crucial aspect of the plot — anyway, I eventually started calling it a prologue. It’s perhaps five or eight pages long and I think it works quite well. But I admit this one is still going back and forth between myself and my agent. (I expect to send it to my Knopf editor pretty soon — I’ll be crossing my fingers about that.)

So . . . the “All prologues are bad” advice is too simplistic, but I do think it’s a good idea to SERIOUSLY think about whether your prologue is really an exception to the rule. As always, the take-home message: everything depends on you just being able to tell whether the prologue you wrote is a good one that will serve a crucial purpose effectively, or a terrible sucking wound that is draining the life out of your story.

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The Craft of Writing

Dialogue Tags: The Bad, the Visible, the Audible, and the Absent

Dialogue should bring your characters to life. We all know that. It should contain and express their unique voices! It should be witty or profound or surprising or interesting or in some way effective! Right? Just serviceable dialogue is not good enough. Dialogue must not be boring or stilted or too predictable, and it should not make your character sound like Mr. Spock, unless, of course, he is Mr. Spock. Above all, dialogue should avoid silly or incompetent use of dialogue tags.

I mean, we all know perfectly well how a bad writer sometimes handles dialogue tags. Like this:

“You can’t mean it,” she exclaimed.
“I assure you, I mean every word,” he smirked.
“Oh, you’re too, too cruel,” she moaned.
“You better believe it, babe,” he sneered.

I’ve actually seen fanfic written like this, so don’t think it never happens. But of course most writers understand that “said” is invisible and most other dialogue tags are visible, right?

Which, actually, is a bit of an overstatement. The fact is, as I recently noticed while listening to an audiobook, “said” is often but not always invisible. In a minute I’m going to provide several examples of dialogue and take a look at what makes “said” pop out of the sentence almost as much as the tags above, and what techniques writers can use to keep that from happening.

But first! Let me add that actually quite a few other dialogue tags are nearly invisible if used effectively and in moderation. I don’t think everybody acknowledges this, though it is obvious.

Some other tags that generally work include: “shouted”, “whispered”, “protested,” “murmured”, “muttered”, and “answered.” But this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Opening up my current WIP, I see that in the first conversation, I use “inquired”, “observed”, “conceded”, “added,” and “repeated” as well as “said” – I only use “said” a couple of times. This is all within two or three pages, yet (I would argue) none of these tags stands out or catches the reader’s eye.

I really do want to emphasize this: if used smoothly and correctly and in moderation, lots of tags besides “said” sound just fine, barely draw the reader’s notice, and in fact add to rather than detract from your dialogue. To use them properly, of course, you need to have your character shout only when she ought to shout, and so on. And it’s certainly true that you don’t want to tag too many lines with any of these. But go actually look at what kinds of dialogue tags are used by really good writers such as Patricia McKillip and you will find plenty of variation, far more than you might expect given the popular advice to avoid tags other than “said.” You definitely don’t want to surrender your artistic judgment to some simplistic rule – even a rule that is cited everywhere as though it was handed down on a stone tablet from God.

And, hey, while on the subject of overstated advice, how about adverbs? I mean, how often have we seen advice to cut all adverbs from dialogue tags? That’s going a little far, too. Of course you don’t want this:

“I really must get my husband to a doctor at once,” she said urgently.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her heartily. “There’s a hospital less than half a mile away.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she exclaimed thankfully. “Can you help me get him into that taxi?”

But if you open any novel by Patricia McKillip, you will see that she sometimes uses adverbs in dialogue tags. If she does, then clearly it’s okay! So that no-adverb rule is better conceptualized as “Don’t use too many adverbs in dialogue tags, and never when the adverb is redundant.” Lots of times it is perfectly clear from the context that your character is worried or in a hurry or awkward or whatever, and if it’s perfectly clear, then you don’t need to have her say something worriedly or hurriedly or awkwardly. Or rather than “said quietly” maybe you should be saying “whispered”? Because you don’t want to use an adverb merely as a substitute for the actual right word.

But it’s important to understand that neither “murmured” nor “whispered” nor “muttered” mean the same thing as, for example, “said gently.” The first sounds quiet, the second tentative or secretive, the third embarrassed. Only the adverbial tag sounds kind. Sometimes you really do need to say “said gently” and no other construction will do. It’s important to have enough of a feel for language to know when that is, and be confident enough to ignore overstated advice.

Now, back to use of the ordinary “said” tag. Look at this tiny sample of dialogue, from Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS, which I just listened to. And it was really good, btw – an excellent choice for audio format. But look at this:

“I was promised a long story,” Duvall said, after they had gotten their food and drinks.
“I made no such promise,” Dahl said.
“The promise was implied,” Duvall protested. “And besides, I bought you a drink. I own you. Entertain me, Ensign Dahl.”
“All right, fine,” Dahl said. “I entered the Academy late because for three years I was a seminary student.”
“Okay, that’s moderately interesting,” Duvall said.
“On Forshan,” Dahl said.
“Okay, that’s intensely interesting,” Duvall said.

Notice something? Every single line is tagged and in all but one case, the tag is “said.” Besides that, in all but one line, the dialogue comes first and the tag afterward – the sentence pattern is nearly always the same. Of course I selected this tidbit on purpose to illustrate a point, but I promise you that the overall feeling you get, given Scalzi’s writing style in this book, is that every single line is tagged with “said.”

I wonder how many readers actually start to notice all those “he said, she said” tags? When you’re reading, I wonder if you don’t just skim over this dialogue so fast you really don’t notice the tags? But I can tell you, when you’re listening to this in audio format, those tags sure catch your ear. They don’t sound exactly silly, but they start to pick up a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard quality.

Then you get used to it and the dialogue tags stop being so annoying, and I actually did find this story highly entertaining, and honestly it is an excellent choice for a short drive (the whole thing is six cds, but that includes three short stories; the main story is only four cds long).

But listening to this story made me really notice dialogue tags, which is exactly what the use of “said” is supposed to avoid. Compare the above sample to this, which you may recognize as a bit of dialogue from NINE PRINCES IN AMBER by Zelazny:

Just as she neared, I sat up.
“Good evening,” I said.
“Why – good evening,” she replied.
“When do I check out?” I asked.
“I’ll have to ask Doctor.”
“Do so,” I said.
“Please roll up your sleeve.”
“No, thanks.”
“I have to give you an injection.”
“No, you don’t. I don’t need it.”
“I’m afraid that’s for Doctor to say.”
“Then send him around and let him say it. But in the meantime, I will not permit it.”
“I’m afraid I have my orders.”
“So did Eichmann, and look what happened to him.” And I shook my head slowly.

Out of fourteen lines of dialogue, only four are tagged. Using so few tags could lead to confusion, but in this case it doesn’t, because it’s perfectly clear from context which character is saying what. Only one tag is “said”. Neither “replied” nor “asked” stands out or sounds the least bit stupid. The fourth tag is, of course, a movement tag, which is an excellent way of tagging a line without using “said” or any substitute.

You know who really does a great job with movement tags? Sarah Addison Allen. Check this out – it’s from THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON, which I’ve decided is my favorite of her books:

“You’ll never guess what Stella told me last night,” Sawyer said, strolling into the kitchen just as Julia was finishing the apple stack cake she was going to take to Vance Shelby’s granddaughter.
Julia closed her eyes for a moment. Stella must have called him the moment Julia left her last night.
Sawyer stopped next to her at the stainless steel table and stood close. He was like crisp, fresh air. He was self-possessed and proud, but everyone forgave him because charm sparkled around him like sunlight. [ . . . ]
“You’re not supposed to be back here,” she said as she put the last layer of cake on top of the dried-apple-and-spice filling.
“Report me to the owner.” He pushed some of her hair behind her left ear, his fingers lingering on the thin pink streak she still dyed in her hair there. “Don’t you want to know what Stella told me last night?”
She jerked her head away from his hand as she put the last of the apple and spice filling on top of the cake, leaving the sides bare. “Stella was drunk last night.”
“She said you told her that you bake cakes because of me.”
Julia had known it was coming, but she stilled anyway, the icing spatula stopping mid-stroke. She quickly resumed spreading the filling, hoping he hadn’t noticed. “She thinks you have low self-esteem. She’s trying to build up your ego.”
He lifted one eyebrow in that insolent way of his. “I’ve been accused of many things, but low self-esteem is not one of them.”
“It must be hard to be so beautiful.”
“It’s hell. Did you really say that to her?”
She clanged the spatula into the empty bowl the filling had been in, then took both to the sink. “I don’t remember. I was drunk, too.”
“You never get drunk,” he said.
“You don’t know me well enough to make blanket statements like ‘You never get drunk.’” It felt good to say that. Eighteen years she’d been away. Look how much I’ve improved, she wanted to say.

See that? Not just movement tags, but thought tags. We are carried straight into Julia’s point of view here, and her thoughts and reactions substitute for dialogue tags several times just in this little snippet. In fourteen exchanges, there are only three actual dialogue tags. But there are only three completely untagged lines. Movement and thought tags accompany the remaining lines of dialogue, keeping us completely, effortlessly aware of exactly who is saying what – there’s no possible way to get confused. Allen manages this even in a quite long scene with a lot of different characters, which, believe me, is a tricky kind of scene to write.

Let me just add that Allen also works a lot more description into her dialogue than either Scalzi or Zelazny, often with very beautiful unexpected metaphors and analogies worked in, like charm sparkling like sunlight and, oh, lots of examples – read the book.

Now, where does Allen stand on the adverb question? Let’s take a look:

“I’m sorry,” she immediately said. “I didn’t mean to –”

“Win, you know my brother would be alive today if it weren’t for her mother,” Morgan said tightly.

“No one in town has ever said a word about that night,” Win said calmly.

“Like I said, I didn’t know her well,” Julia said carefully.

These kinds of tags are not that rare in Allen’s writing; it took me no time to find a good handful of examples. And in every single case, the adverb makes the dialogue more effective. It really does. That “calmly,” given the context, conveys Win’s self-possession, which is his central characteristic. Saying “carefully” in that last line – it’s one more way of signaling the reader that there is a secret Julia is trying not to give away. All these adverbs do something, they’re important, and no, the feel they add to the story could not be conveyed just via the spoken words of dialogue.

So . . . to sum up, my advice is: be aware of the common advice to minimize adverbs and also be aware of why adverbs are considered to detract from dialogue, but do not write off the use of adverbs in dialogue until you’ve studied how authors like Patricia McKillip and Sarah Addison Allen write dialogue. And that goes double for dialogue tags in general: pay attention to how skilled writers handle dialogue tags, and don’t take simplistic advice like “only use ‘said’” or “avoid dialogue tags” too seriously. No simplistic rules can ever substitute for your very own feel for the language.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Writing Dialogue —

So, you have two choices when you’re writing dialogue. No, wait, three.

a) You can write good dialogue.
b) You can write bad dialogue.

I bet that seems like it exhausts the possibilities, doesn’t it? But no, because

c) You can write dialogue incorrectly.

Starting with the most trivial case, one you don’t see all that often actually in print, unless maybe this kind of thing is more common in self-published books, which seems possible:

c) Incorrect dialogue.

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” She asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I see this in student narrative essays sometimes. Even if a student gets how and when to demote periods inside quote marks to commas, it’s less obvious that when you use a question mark inside quote marks, but followed by a dialogue tag, it is also demoted to comma status, sort of. ANYWAY, it doesn’t end the sentence. The dialogue tag ends the sentence, so that tidbit should go like this:

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” she asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I trust you see the lower-case “she”, right?

Any book published by an ordinarily competent publisher should be free of this kind of error, which is why you can pick any book off your bookshelves to see how to punctuate dialogue correctly. But look at this:

“You don’t have to retire,” Von protested.
“I do,” Eva rejected the compliment. “And if Liege Monitum doesn’t make me an offer soon, I will have to retire here.” She smiled. “You would keep me?”

And also this:

She took his face in her hands. “Promise me that you will be here? Promise me that you will dance with me?”
“I don’t know, Eva,” Von squirmed. “Liege Monitum may not want that.”

Do you see what’s wrong with these tidbits? Eva rejected the compliment and Von squirmed cannot in any way be substituted for Eva said or Von said. They are complete actions, not dialogue tags, but they are being used as dialogue tags. This is wrong. This is incorrect dialogue. In both these cases, there should have been a period rather than a comma inside the quote marks.

Unlike the vampire pterodactyls, I didn’t make these tidbits of dialogue up. This is from THE COURTESAN PRINCE, by Lynda Williams, which I’m reading now. There are things I like about this book, and I think I will finish it (I don’t finish any book unless I really do like it), but I already know I won’t keep it. Dialogue errors is one of the main reasons. Even though there aren’t a lot of errors, I keep mentally rolling my eyes when I hit things like the above and this is not conducive to a smooth reading experience.

b) correct but bad dialogue, type one

I’m a big fan of adverbs, compared to anybody who thinks NEVER USE ADVERBS EVER EVER EVER THIS MEANS YOU is a rule to live by. I think adverbs are a perfectly respectable part of speech, thank you. But here is a bit of dialogue which shows why so many writers turn against adverbs:

“I know we can’t do anything right for you, Ann,” he said, “by definition. But there is something I want to be sure you know before you go.”
“Flying is bad for my health,” Ann said sarcastically.
“Of course, but I didn’t mean that.” He looked down into his big, gentle hands.

This is from the same book by Williams. Actually, this doesn’t bother me if you only see it now and then. But if characters are always saying things sarcastically or hastily or nervously or whatever, probably the author should go through and strip at least two thirds of those dialogue-tag adverbs out of the novel. Three quarters. Nine tenths, maybe.

You want to beware of adverbs in dialogue tags where the dialogue itself or the situation makes it plain that somebody’s sarcastic or hasty or nervous. If a car blows up, you don’t have to say it blew up suddenly. Because, hello? That is the nature of explosions? To be sudden?

Where the dialogue and/or situation don’t indicate how a line is spoken, though, you can reasonably have somebody say something gently or sharply or harshly or whatever will draw the right picture for the reader.

Also, when combined with another error, too much variety in dialogue tags, overuse of dialog-tag adverbs really stands out. On just one page of this book, we have characters who:

Pleaded
Asked
Said
Countered
Volunteered
Exclaimed
Demanded
Pointed out

And the only two invisible tags in this list are “asked” and “said”. Any one of the others would be fine, even any two, but because there are so many different words used as tags, they start to catch the eye. And once the reader notices that there are too many different words being used as substitutes for the invisible “said”, this sounds more and more ridiculous.

This particular book is actually not horrible in this respect. It’s actually not horrible at all, which is why I may go on and finish it. But I was thinking about dialogue and so relatively mild overuse of different tags kinda stood out.

b) grammatically correct but bad dialogue, type two

Boring dialogue is just as bad as overuse of creative tags. There are heaps of books with boring dialogue out there, but I don’t keep them, so it’s hard for me to come up with a good example. I’m talking about the kind of dialogue where every line is predictable, where every line serves to convey information but nothing about it surprises or engages or entertains the reader.

Sometimes this kind of dialogue is just used to dump info, where you aren’t having a conversation but a series of monologues, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can have what should be a quick, light conversation and yet every line said is boring and predictable and clichéd.

Info-dumpy or not, this is the kind of writing where you find yourself skimming ahead to see what happens, but you aren’t really engaged in the story or interested in the characters. I personally seem to see this a lot in contemporary mysteries when I’m trying to find a new author my mother will like, which is hard because the old-time mystery writers were SO GOOD stylistically (Rex Stout, Emma Lathen, Ngaio Marsh) that it’s hard for contemporary writers to compete.

Next! The fun part! Want to see brilliant dialogue? There’s so much great writing out there!

a) Fabulous non-use of dialogue tags by Lois McMaster Bujold.

If you’re looking for an example of how to minimize use of dialogue tags, you could hardly do better than Bujold. Just take any of her books off the shelf, flip it open randomly, and you get something like this:

Miles sank into his seat with a groan. “Some bodyguard you are,” he said to Elli. “Why didn’t you protect me from that interviewer?”

“She wasn’t trying to shoot you. Besides, I’d just got there. I couldn’t tell her what had been going on.”

“But you’re far more photogenic. It would have improved the image of the Dendarii Fleet.”

“Holovids make me tongue-tied. But you sounded calm enough.”

“I was trying to downplay it all. ‘Boys will be boys,’ chuckles Admiral Naismith, while in the background his troops burn down London . . .”

Elli grinned. “’Sides, they weren’t interested I me. I wasn’t the hero who’d dashed into a burning building – by the gods, when you came rolling out all on fire –”

“You saw that?” Miles was vaguely cheered. “Did it look good in the long shots? Maybe it’ll make up for Danio and his jolly crew, in the minds of our host city.”

“It looked properly terrifying.” She shuddered appreciation. “I’m surprised you’re not more badly burned.”

Miles twitched singed eyebrows and tucked his blistered left hand unobtrusively under his right arm. “It was nothing. Protective clothing. I’m glad not all our equipment design is faulty.”

“I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I’ve been shy of fire ever since . . .” her hand touched her face.

Okay, he says five lines and she says five. How many actual dialogue tags are in this passage? Not ten. We have “said” once to get the conversational ball rolling. After that, there are no dialogue tags at all. But we aren’t allowed to get lost in who-said-what? confusion, because every time we need a reminder about who’s speaking, we get a movement tag. Elli grinned. Miles was vaguely cheered. She shuddered appreciation. He twitched singed eyebrows. She touched her face. That’s four lines of dialogue with no tag at all and five with a movement tag, and zero confusion.

Plus! Notice the adverb “vaguely”? See how great that adverb is? “Vaguely cheered” is so not the same as “cheered” – we get a way better idea of Miles’ state of mind because of this adverb. And in the next line, Elli declares that the picture of Miles on fire was “properly” terrifying. Then Miles tucks his hand “unobtrusively” under his other arm. See how good writers aren’t the least bit shy of using adverbs? But mostly don’t in dialogue tags.

Nobody I know of does dialogue better than Bujold. The rest of us could only improve by studying her dialogue and trying to consciously apply techniques that I bet she just uses by feel. That was from BROTHERS IN ARMS, btw, but I expect you all recognized it?

a) Snappy, fun, unexpected dialogue by Dean Koontz

The reason I was actually thinking about dialogue is that I just finished the latest Odd Thomas book by Dean Koontz, and this made me go back and re-read all the other ones in the series.

There are five now, incidentally, and the latest one doesn’t resolve any of the big, HUGE questions that are raised by the fourth book, in case you wondered; it’s an interlude rather than any kind of resolution. Just a warning in case you rush out to get the fifth book because you expect a resolution: No. Doesn’t happen. I’m not persuaded Koontz actually knows where he’s going, actually. But the fifth book is still good, though.

Now, one of the reasons I like Koontz is that he is kinda horror-light, if you know what I mean. Things turn out happily in his books. The characters you become particularly attached to never get killed, whereas when the bad guys get eaten by mountain lions (or whatever), they are bad enough you can cheer their deaths. If there’s a dog? It won’t get killed, either. You can just absolutely trust all this, which I deeply appreciate because I really am not a hard-core horror fan.

But the Odd Thomas books are really good, a definite step up from most of his other books imho, and the wit of his protagonist is one big thing that contributes to this. (So is the moral character of the protagonist, but let’s stick to the subject, which is dialogue.)

Listen to this, from BROTHER ODD, the third book in the series. This is [part of] a conversation between Rodion Romanovich, who is supposed to be a librarian from Indianapolis but certainly isn’t, and the protagonist.

The kitchen offers stools here and there at counters, where you can have a cup of coffee or eat without being underfoot. I sought one of these – and came across Rodion Romanovich.

The bearish Russian was working at a long counter on which stood ten sheet cakes in long pans. He was icing them.

Next to him on the granite counter lay the volume about poison and famous poisoners in history. I noticed a bookmark inserted at about page fifty.

When he saw me, he glowered and indicated a stool near him.

Because I’m an amiable fellow and loath to insult anyone, I find it awkward to decline an invitation, even if it comes from a possibly homicidal Russian with too much curiosity about my reasons for being a guest of the abbey.

“How is your spiritual revitalization proceeding?” Romanovich asked.

“Slow but sure.”

[. . . . .]

With his attention devoted to the application of icing to the first of the ten cakes, he said, “I myself find that baking calms the mind and allows for contemplation.”

“So you made the cakes, not just the icing?”

“That is correct. This is my best recipe . . . orange-and-almond cake with dark chocolate frosting.”

“Sounds delicious. So to date, how many people have you killed with it?”

“I long ago lost count, Mr. Thomas. But they all died happy.”

[. . . . .]

Romanovich’s brow seemed to include a hydraulic mechanism that allowed it to beetle farther over his deep-set eyes when his mood darkened. “I am usually suspicious of people who are universally liked.”

“In addition to being an imposing figure,” I said, “you’re surprisingly solemn for a Hoosier.”

“I am a Russian by birth. We are sometimes a solemn people.”

“I keep forgetting your Russian background. You’ve lost so much of your accent, people might think you’re Jamaican.”

“You may be surprised that I have never been mistaken for one.” He finished frosting the first cake, slid it aside, and pulled another pan in front of him.

I said, “You do know what a Hoosier is, don’t you?”

“A Hoosier is a person who is a native of or an inhabitant of the state of Indiana.”

“I’ll bet the definition reads that way word for word in the dictionary.”

He said nothing. He just frosted.

“Since you’re a native Russian and not currently an inhabitant of Indiana, you’re not at the moment really a Hoosier.”

“I am an expatriate Hoosier, Mr. Thomas. When in time I return to Indianapolis, I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.”

“Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.”

“That is correct.”

The pickle had a nice crunch. I wondered if Romanovich had added a few drops of anything lethal to the brine in the pickle jar. Well, too late. I took another bite of the dill.

Okay, I hope everybody finds that as much fun as I do, but since I’ve read the whole book and know what’s really going on with Romanovich, and also remember all the great exchanges between him and Odd Thomas, I have advantages. Trust me, though, the interplay between these two characters adds such pizazz to this book!

You can also see that out of nineteen lines in which somebody speaks, there are only four real dialogue tags – three using a plain “said” and the other an equally plain and invisible “asked”; none using adverbs. There are also two movement tags. The other thirteen lines I’ve quoted don’t use tags at all, but it’s always crystal clear who’s speaking. Partly this because of grammatical conventions – ie, switching paragraphs between speakers – and partly it’s because the two characters’ voices are so utterly different.

Not only are the voices distinct and distinctive, but also very little in this exchange is predictable and boring. Anybody see that line about Jamaicans coming?

Personally, I loved the bit where Romanovich says “I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.” He’s a great character with a wonderful voice. Plus, hey, cake! Which I will just remove some of the suspense and assure you that the cakes are not poisoned.

Okay! That’s enough, I’m sure! Go forth and pay attention to dialogue! Me, I’m going to go re-read something by Lois McMaster Bujold now.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

More On Beginning a Novel

While we’re on the subject of beginnings, check out the first page of THE PEACH KEEPER by Sarah Addison Allen:

The day Paxton Osgood took the box of heavy-stock, foil-lined envelopes to the post office, the ones she’d had a professional calligrapher address, it began to rain so hard the air turned as white as bleached cotton. By nightfall, rivers had crested at flood stage and, for the first time since 1936, the mail couldn’t be delivered. When things began to dry out, when basements were pumped free of water and branches were cleared from yards and streets, the invitations were finally delivered, but to all the wrong houses. Neighbors laughed over fences, handling the misdelivered pieces of mail to their rightful owners with comments about the crazy weather and their careless postman. The next day, an unusual number of people showed up at the doctor’s office with infected paper cuts, because the envelopes had sealed, cementlike, from the moisture. Later, the single-card invitations themselves seemed to hide and pop back up at random. Mrs. Jameson’s invitation disappeared for two days, then reappeared in a bird’s nest outside. Harper Rowley’s invitation was found in the church bell tower, Mr. Kingsley’s in his elderly mother’s garden shed.

If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.

But no one was paying attention. Least of all Willa Jackson.

What a charming book this one turned out to be! It’s the first one of Allen’s I’ve ever read, and really delightful, all about friendship and family loyalty and what it means to be adult and the bonds we feel to the past. Especially friendship, an emphasis I always appreciate. I’ve already ordered another of Allen’s books, THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON, because this one was really a pleasure. I think a guest poster over at The Book Smugglers recommended it, but I’m not sure. But I’m grateful for whoever drew it to my attention!

It’s also a story that falls into an unusual category: magical realism. This is a world where the saying that digging up one secret releases others isn’t just a saying, and where you’re not quite sure that the old tale in town about bottles filled with fog couldn’t be literally true. I really enjoy magical realism, which I first encountered in A WINTER’S TALE by Helprin. I loved that book, but Allen’s book is more approachable and has such appeal and charm, not to mention very sweet romances.

Also, not to belabor the point from the previous point, but see how this story starts? So gently and softly, even though the second paragraph sets up tension and also assure you that this book really is fantasy, which isn’t obvious, btw, and I was kind of thinking it was contemporary when I picked it up off the TBR pile, but it’s not, quite; and I thought it might be a mystery, but it’s not that either – quite. One curious little detail is that the protagonists never do find out the truth about the thing that happened in the past and that’s driving the story now – isn’t that interesting? (The reader does find out, but not the protagonists.) But the way the secret stays hidden ties into the theme of friendship and loyalty very nicely.

Also! I just read GUNMETAL MAGIC by Ilona Andrews, and if you like paranormals, you probably already know this, but Ilona Andrews is one of the best in the game. Is, are, whatever – you know that’s a husband-wife team, right?

This one features Kate’s friend Andrea Nash as the protagonist. For snappy dialogue and fun situations and a couple of GREAT practical jokes – I’m so tempted to give away the thing with the purple carpet, but I won’t – anyway, this is a great story. The story also offers a couple of very nice little tidbits about hyena behavior that are actually based on reality. Though that bit about how hyena siblings fight and kill each other, I don’t think that’s accurate, btw. Hans Kruuk never mentioned anything like that, and van Lawick provided anecdotal data which would tend to imply the reverse – strong friendly bonds between siblings. But the thing about hyena cubs digging dens too small for adults to fit into in order to get away from potentially deadly adult males is absolutely true.

Plus besides the stuff about hyenas, we get an Olde English Bulldogge! Nobody even knows that breed exists except me! And Ilona Andrews, apparently! I LOVE the way these authors know their dogs! So unusual!

Anyway, if you’re thinking about picking up a paranormal, this is a great choice. If you’ve never tried paranormals, this series is a good place to start, but I’ll just add that the first book is okay, the second better, and the series really hits its stride after that, so be patient and pick up the first three before you make up your mind. And the other series, the Edge series by the same authors – also quite good.

Plus! GUNMETAL MAGIC itself is long enough you don’t feel cheated, but – and though this is mentioned on the back cover, it was a nice surprise for me – as a bonus there’s also a hundred-page Kate Daniels novella at the back.

Let’s look at how GUNMETAL MAGIC starts:

Thud!

My head hit the sidewalk. Candy jerked me up by my hair and slammed my face into the asphalt.

Thud!

So you see, sometimes you really do start in the middle of the action. After my last post, didn’t want to leave everybody with the idea that you never do this. There’s this tiny little prologue, disguised as a couple of paragraphs of a newspaper article and clearly meant to orient new readers, but I think the authors are expecting most readers to be familiar with their world and characters, and I suspect they are right. So they jump right in with a series of action scenes before we start to develop the important personal dilemmas and relationship stuff that form the heart of the story.

On the other hand . . . ever hear how you aren’t supposed to start a novel with your protagonist waking up from a dream? Because actually, the above snippet IS a dream, and then Andrea wakes up. And it’s a great scene, because she’s tucked in the closet and holding a butcher’s knife. Sleepwalking to get a butcher’s knife probably does not count as the sort of dream that bores people! Which of course is why it works to start this book.

I’m very sensitized to beginnings just now, somehow!

Also, btw, just cut chapters five and six in their entirety from my WIP. Wham, there goes 16,000 words in one fell swoop! Not sure how much of it will go back in as I figure out how to connect the two disconnected ends again . . . but I think most of it will stay gone.

Man, this revision stuff. Can I just hire somebody else to do it?

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Beginning your novel

Okay, this is going to be a long post. Hope it’s also interesting!

HOUSE OF SHADOW, as many of you probably know, is my sixth book, by which of course I don’t mean the sixth I’ve written, but the sixth to hit the shelves. Of my published books, it was the . . . um . . . third I wrote. (It went to Orbit in a package deal with the first Griffin Mage book; the other two Griffin Mage books were written afterward even though they were published first).

Of all the books I’ve ever written, HOUSE OF SHADOWS was the tenth. (At this point, I’ve written . . . let me see . . . sixteen books. Wow. I didn’t realize until this minute I’d written so many! More about that in a minute.

I’m going to be helping with a writer’s workshop at a convention this fall, and the entries I’ll be critiquing just arrived in the mail yesterday, and that’s made me think more than usual about the process of learning to write.

At any convention panel, if you ask a roomful of attendees who all is writing a book or thinking of writing a book, most of the hands go up. Today, when it’s so easy to throw a book up on the internet to sink or swim, I think it’s more important than ever to think about learning to write. About the craft of writing. About quality. About what makes a story sing. Which, in my more optimistic moments, I think I have managed to do, now and then.

Like so many other things worth doing, writing is a craft you learn. All the raw native talent in the world won’t let you whip off a great book, or even a publishable book, the first time you open up your laptop and start hitting the keys. Unless you’re Heinlein, and even he didn’t do it with a novel (or a laptop, obviously).

What I got in the mail for the workshop were novel fragments: the first twenty pages of each novel. As it happens, these beginnings of novels are not very good. They do seem to me to show promise, but currently they do not appear to me to be publishable (in the old sense of acceptable to publishers) (and by that I mean that I would not expect them to succeed if they were self-published, either).

What flaws are evident in these beginnings of novels? As it happens, they share exactly the same flaws (which is also interesting, isn’t it?).

It seems to me that there are four major constituents of a story: setting, character, plot, and style (which includes craft). People frequently seem to forget style, but I think it is the foundation on which everything else is built.

What the novel fragments sent to me have, or appear to have, is plot. What they lack is everything else – though it seems to me they could be improved.
After thinking about this, I went down to my own personal library, where I pulled ten books off shelves. These were not my ten personal favorites or what I think are the ten best written or any kind of top-ten list. I chose them because each of them strikes me as similar in setting to one or another of the workshop entries while also illustrating something that seems to me to be lacking in those entries.

Then I typed up the first couple of page of each of these books. In case you’re interested, I chose two books by Steve Parry, one of Tanya Huff’s Valor series, one by Patrick Lee, one by Ilona Andrews, one by Judith Riley, two by Barbara Hambly, two by Gillian Bradshaw, and one by Susanna Clarke. (I may not use all these in the workshop.) (Also, I now see that this is eleven books. Whatever.)

What I want to focus on during the workshop is how experienced authors establish setting and character in their very first pages. I am pretty sure that one piece of (common) advice my workshop attendees have taken to heart is Start by setting something on fire. In other words, start in media res. Start in the middle of the action. Do not, for God’s sake, start with your character waking up, or driving somewhere, or staring into a mirror.

And that may be good advice, generally. But you know how Patrick Lee starts THE BREACH, one of the best SF thrillers I’ve ever read? Like this:

————

On the first anniversary of his release from prison, Travis Chase woke at four in the morning to bright sunlight framing his window blinds. He put his backpack in his Explorer, left Fairbanks on State Route 2, and an hour later was on the hard-packed gravel of the Dalton Highway, running north toward the Arctic Circle and the Brooks Range beyond. From the crests of the highest hills, he could see the road and the pipeline snaking ahead for miles, over lesser ridges and through valleys blazing with pink fireweed.

The trip was not a celebration. Far from it. It was a deliberation on everything that mattered: where he stood, and where he would go from here.

The console showed an outside temperature of fifty-nine degrees. Travis lowered the windows and let the moist air rush through the vehicle. The height of summer here smelled like springtime back in Minneapolis, the scent of damp grass just freed from snow cover.

—————

Look! Travis woke up and now he is driving somewhere. We are emphatically not in the middle of the action. How much internal dilemma and scenery description does it take before we get a glimmer that something exciting may possibly be on the way? Twelve paragraphs – about four pages. And the first hint of trouble?

He woke with a quickened pulse, aware that something had startled him, but unable to tell what, exactly.

But a storm has come up, and he thinks that’s what woke him up – it might have, too, for all we can tell. There are quite a few more pages before stuff really starts happening.

Then things build and build and build and OMG you have no idea. Starting so quietly only makes it more effective when Lee starts to turn up the pressure. Did I say this is one of the best SF thrillers EVER? It totally is.

But look how Lee does something a beginning writer often seems to have trouble with: he builds his world up around the protagonist, layering in sensory details to draw the reader right into the story. This is totally crucial. And if you’re writing a kind of more out-there SF or a secondary world fantasy? The farther you are from the contemporary world, the more important it is to build the setting.

And look at how Lee’s doing characterization right from the start It’s not a coincidence that Travis is heading to this really deserted, isolated, demanding country, or that he’s planning a route that’s going to avoid any chance of meeting anybody. We know something about the main character just from this choice. Plus, right away we get told this big thing about the main character: he’s been in prison and now he’s trying to figure out where to go with his life. Lee tells us this, but he’s showing us the protagonist’s sense of being stuck and his sense of alienation from normal life through the protagonist’s actions. That’s followed up with paragraphs like this:

What future did he see among [his family]? Even to the few who could understand and forgive what he’d done, he would always be the brother who’d spent half of his twenties and all of his thirties in prison. Twenty years from now, in the eyes of the next generation, he’d be that guy. That uncle. You could only get so free.

Right from the beginning, Lee is showing the reader this guy named Travis who did something – what? – something bad enough to be in prison for fifteen years. We have no clue what, but we know we’ll find out. We’re really interested, we’re drawn in. It doesn’t take an explosion to grab us, we’re already there. We can wait a few pages for the action to start.

But besides that, besides showing us this one character, Lee’s also showing that he understands the way people are, that he gets what it’s like to be that guy, the guy who’s an ex-con. We’re all nodding: Yeah, that’s true, that stuff about you can only get so free, it would really be like that, that’s just how a guy in Travis’s shoes would feel. This story is going to feel real because the author knows how to put real people into a book.

And the writing itself is deft. Lee is showing craftsmanship. It’s not just grammatically correct – though it is – it’s just good. If you read the first few pages carefully, you’ll find a fragment sentence – but you’d never notice it if you weren’t looking, because it fits the rhythm of the writing. And there is a rhythm to it. That’s important. Lee’s prose sounds good to the ear.

Look at the first two paragraphs above. You know how many words are in each sentence in that first paragraph? 24, 37, and 27. Now look at the second paragraph: 5, 3, and 18. Five and three! Look how much impact those short, punchy sentences have after all those long flowing sentences before. You don’t have to stop and analyze the writing to feel the punch, nobody’s going to stop and analyze this! You just feel it.

Style is so important. A feel for the language is so important. And we don’t have to worry about that with Lee. We know that in the first page, we can feel it. We can trust this writer. He’s going to tell us a story and we’re going to relax and let him take on his roller coaster ride.

Now, there are things that can go wrong with a book that starts well, obviously. Plot holes (I had a pretty serious suspension-of-disbelief problem with this very book), characters that are annoying for one reason or another (The woman needs to be rescued again? Really?). Maybe the plot is a bit too predictable. (Now, that’s not a problem with Lee!)

But that sort of thing is definitely not what an aspiring writer should be thinking of when thinking about how to write a novel that works. And definitely not when trying to hook an agent in those first couple of all-important pages. That writer should be thinking about building setting and character. And while it’s important to have a plot that flows from the beginning straight through the end, with good character arcs for the important (and maybe secondary) characters, it’s even more important to think about style and developing a feel for language.

For that last, the hardest and most crucial foundation on which absolutely everything else is going to rest . . . well, you learn to write by reading. And then by writing. I recommend Francine Prose’s book READING LIKE A WRITER, who makes a case for the importance of craft that ought to persuade anybody.

Now, at last, in case you’re interested and in order to illustrate the learning process, here’s the list of novels I’ve personally completed, in chronological order by date written, with comments.

The Ghost Trilogy was a secondary-world adult fantasy that actually, now that I think of it, might actually be YA. (So right from the beginning I was writing right on that border. Huh.) Anyway, while it’s not actually terrible, I have very little inclination to put this trilogy out as it stands. When I went back and looked at it not so long ago, I liked quite a few things about it. But it reads like . . . well, like . . . a first novel.

This trilogy represents roughly 1500 pp (about 500,000 words) of practice and that’s what I want to emphasize: this was great practice, but nothing I’d really want to see on the shelf. Plus it would not have been a good idea to get all ambitious about selling it because it’s long (every book is over 150,000 words and that’s far too long for most first novels) and because the books aren’t self-contained. If I’d really been committed to selling it to a publisher, I would probably have been really disappointed. But I never sent it out, so that was fine.

I learned a huge amount from writing this trilogy. I want to make that crystal clear. I learned how to punctuate dialogue – I remember going to my shelves and taking books off at random to see how punctuation was handled. I learned how to signal the reader about who’s saying what in dialogue. I learned how you can substitute movement for a dialogue tag. I figured out what tags besides “said” work for me. I learned it’s okay to use adverbs if you want to, including vague adverbs like “very,” if you do it right. (I do use fewer now than I used to, but I’m still not shy about using adverbs.)

I learned bigger things. I learned how to compress time: “Three weeks later, she rode at last out of the frozen pass.” I learned how to handle a “crowded room” scene, where more than two people are interacting. I learned that if I’m patient and let the story unroll in my head, suddenly the dots will connect and the plot will emerge. I learned to finish a novel.

There were some things I didn’t learn from writing this trilogy. I didn’t learn correct, standard grammar: I knew that already. (Thanks, Mom!) I didn’t learn that tension needs to ratchet upward: I knew that already, too. (Doesn’t everyone?) I didn’t learn how to describe a scene: description has always been the easy part for me. I didn’t learn how to beat a plot out of thin air when I have a deadline: that came later and was not much fun.

I think that probably every aspiring writer has things he or she is just good at and things he or she needs to learn by actually, deliberately figuring them out. I think you learn to write by reading and then by writing.

Okay! After the fantasy trilogy came an adult SF duology, though again I now see that one important character is more a YA type of character. Anyway, for this one I was playing around with the interaction between instinct and culture and that worked as an SF story, not as a fantasy story. (This is the only thing I’ve ever written that actually draws on my background in animal behavior and evolutionary theory.)

I now think the ideas in it are great and the plot is serviceable and some of the scenes are good, but overall I really don’t think much of it. When I re-read bits of it a few years ago, I was not happy with it. This duology – which I wrote as a single book, but would have had to break in half – it’s 218,000 words, for heaven’s sake – is in my opinion not as good as the fantasy trilogy. I would never put it out without huge, serious revision.

After that I started an adult fantasy novel that really was solidly adult and not YA. It started in this world and moved into a secondary world (it’s a portal fantasy). The pov character is a psychiatrist. I loved the part I wrote, about a novel’s worth of pages. It was ambitious and interesting and I thought it was worth finishing, but it not finished and it was clearly going to be oversized, so I put it aside and wrote –

THE CITY IN THE LAKE. The whole idea was to write something short and self-contained and good enough to sell and in fact really good. CITY succeeded on all counts and is sometimes still my favorite of all my books, depending on my mood. This was the first book with which I seriously tried to hook an agent, at which of course it also succeeded.

I’d read a useful piece of advice in there someplace, which was: The minute you send out your first book, start working on your second. So that was when I wrote –

LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS, the first Griffin Mage book. The idea was to write a second book that would appeal to the same readership as CITY. (I don’t know how well that succeeded.)

But I still loved the adult fantasy novel I had started back before CITY and I went back and finished it in a huge rush, 250 pp or so in 19 days, the fastest I’ve ever written anything. It was a very intense experience. The revision, which for months I referred to as The Never-ending Revision from Hell, was intense in a different way. The effort yielded the TENAI duology, which, however much I loved it, did not find a place with a publisher. (“The writing is beautiful, but we feel it is too innovative and we’re not sure it will sell . . .”) (Yes, that is an accurate summary of a couple different responses.) This is a duology I will eventually bring out independently, if I have to. I do not, however, want it to be the first book I bring out myself. I love it too much to make it the subject of that kind of fumbling experiment.

Then I wrote HOUSE OF SHADOWS. My YA editor at Knopf didn’t think it was YA – she’d rejected CHANGING WINDS, too – but my agent placed both with Orbit, so that was all right.

Determined to write a story that would unquestionably fall on the YA side of the line, I read a dozen or so YA fantasies and then sat down and wrote THE FLOATING ISLANDS. My Knopf editor loved it, so all was well!

Meanwhile, my editor at Orbit wanted a sequel to CHANGING WINDS, so I wrote fifty pages of two different books and sent them to her and said Pick one. She loved them both, and that’s why the Griffin Mage Trilogy is a trilogy and not a duology. Of course one turned into LAND OF THE BURNING SANDS and the other into LAW OF THE BROKEN EARTH.

And that covers all the books currently on the shelves, right? That makes thirteen novels total. What about the other three? I don’t want to say much about them until I have something solid to announce, but I will say that I do expect all three to be published eventually, including my current WIP, which I just finished in the sense of OMG the revision make it stop.

And that’s the complete list to date. Sixteen. Wow.

So that should add perspective when I say: don’t fall in love with the first book you ever write. If it’s great, that’s splendid! But that’s the exception, not the rule. A million words of practice, that’s the rule. Don’t eat your heart out if your first book doesn’t garner much interest. Maybe you shouldn’t press forward with it. If that first novel was actually just a learning exercise, that’s all right. Focus on setting, character, plot, and most of all the craft of writing. Then write another book. If you have any kind of feel for the language, chances are good it will be so much better. My advice is: wait for that one before you push for publication.

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On plotting and pacing —

Here’s an interesting question, and an even more interesting conclusion, from Nathan Bransford.

Nathan asks:

“Writing in the modern era emphasizes moving the plot forward at all costs, and everything else is “ruthlessly killed off no matter how darling.” Digressions and detritus that might otherwise be compelling on their own are eliminated. Is this a purely modern phenomenon? And is it for the best?”

And he concludes:

“My opinion: Yes to both.”

Now, of course, Nathan is always very nice about it when he takes a strong position on something like that, and his comments on MOBY DICK and other classics are very interesting. And I like his optimism about the future of books! But I’m not sure I agree.

It’s not that I doubt that modern books are more streamlined with regards to plotting and have much faster pacing than a lot of older books. Not that I’ve ever studied the question or anything, but it’s certainly plausible.

Although I read MOBY DICK once, it was a long time ago and I don’t think I liked it. (I was sorry for both the whale and Ahab, plus I wanted the whale to win.) These days, I’d be a lot more likely to read RAILSEA. But now if I do read RAILSEA, I’ll be tempted to go back, read MOBY DICK, and think about this plot thing and whether Mieville pares away everything nonessential in a way that Melville didn’t.

Anyway, the part I’m not sure I agree with is whether this paring away the extraneous bits is a good thing. I just don’t think every book in creation has to be fast fast fast and nonstop action and hurtle along to the blazing climax and all like that. That’s fine in its place, and if that’s what you want you could hardly do better than Patrick Lee’s THE BREACH and sequels, by the way, because wow, talk about nonstop and hurtling.

And I have to admit that when I finally read an unabridged copy of THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO, which is one of my all-time favorite books and why can’t they do a good movie version? Like cut the whole prison thing down to ten minutes max and move on with the cool part? But anyway, I found I really strongly preferred the abridged version because I liked having all those extraneous bits removed.

And yet. And yet, sometimes I really like a slow exploration of the author’s world. I read the unabridged LES MISERABLES, and I really enjoyed the long digressions on, like, the street urchins of Paris and on convents and so forth and so on. And more recently, I really liked the easy pace of Robin McKinley’s DRAGONHAVEN, which my very own agent thinks should have been pared way down. And how about Sharon Shinn’s TROUBLED WATERS? Part of what made that book so comfortable for me was its unhurried pace. The exposition about the world in Myra Grant’s FEED was my favorite part! Or at least one of my favorite parts!

And what about Tolkien, hmm? I actually have met a woman at a convention who said she thought he was a bad writer. A bad writer! Tolkien! I would bet that what this woman meant was (among possibly other things): too slow.

So . . . so I guess I would say: pacing depends on the book and on personal taste. A fast pace is not intrinsically a good thing. Can we perhaps stop holding a fast pace and an unadorned plot up as an ideal that all books ought to meet?

Agree or disagree? Anybody got examples of a slow-paced book or a book with digressions that they particularly enjoyed?

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Pacing . . .

. . . is more subjective than you might think, and I think I’m starting to figure out part of why that is. I think there are elements that contribute to a feeling of slow or dragging pace even when the pace could objectively be described as fast.

You know, a couple of years ago now, I was having dinner with my agent and various of her other clients and Robin McKinley’s book DRAGONHAVEN came up, and I said I’d loved it and everybody else said NO WAY, IT WAS TOO SLOW. And I was shocked. Shocked!

Not that it wasn’t slow, but it didn’t strike me as too slow. I really loved the story, I loved the protagonist’s voice, and it didn’t bother me one bit that the story took its time getting anywhere. For me, the pacing of DRAGONHAVEN was just right.

But!

I’ve been re-reading Eric Flint’s 1632 series lately, whenever I want to read something but don’t want to get too caught up in a new book. And so I recently re-read THE BAVARIAN CRISIS. And, whoa, was it slooooow. It wasn’t just that nothing much was happening, it was that nothing much was happening to dozens and dozens of point-of-view characters. Who were all named Ferdinand or Fernando if they were male or Maria or Anna if they were female, and were thus impossible to keep straight. Slow, slow, slow AND confusing.

Well, at least until (at last!) Grandduchess Maria Anna’s storyline took over the book as she fled her arranged marriage and headed for the dashing romantic Don Fernando instead. She finally gave me a character and situation I could care about. But this illustrated one major problem that can make a book seem to be slow even if exciting stuff is happening: lack of a main character to attach to. Although THE BAVARIAN CRISIS really did not have exciting stuff happening either, until quite late in the book, so really almost anybody would probably find that it dragged at first.

Now! For a completely different problem! The other day I read a book by Mark L van Name called ONE JUMP AHEAD and it dragged and dragged. Only not really. Objectively, there was all this stuff going on. The protag has to get this crucial piece of equipment only the guy who’s selling it to him tries to rob him, only he knew that was going to happen so he Took Steps. And then he kidnapped this one guy and then this other guy and then made an alliance with this violent female leader of a small mercenary troop (who didn’t turn into a love interest, and that was an interesting choice on the author’s part). Anyway! Plenty of action!

So why did it seem to me that ONE JUMP AHEAD dragged so badly?

Because (I figured this out afterward) the back cover copy had made it clear to me that the main character was going to have this important discovery where he realizes that he only THOUGHT he rescued this kidnapped girl right at the beginning, because instead he was tricked by the bad guy into recapturing her after she had escaped his evil clutches.

And, see, because the back cover copy gave this important plot development away? I spent like 2/3 of the books going HEY, DUDE, FIGURE THIS OUT ALREADY. It made the WHOLE THING before the protagonist figured out he’d been used seem to drag — and it made everything AFTER that realization seem anticlimactic.

See, I think pacing is complicated. More complicated than “This book has too much description” or “There’s not enough going on in this story” or “Can’t the characters quit talking to each other all the time and DO SOMETHING?” even though all those elements can make a book seem slow if you don’t happen to appreciate plenty of description or interior monologues or whatever.

So . . .

1) Too much description (this will not usually in itself strike me as a problem)

2) Not enough action (ditto)

3) Too much space spent on interior monologues / dialogue (ditto, if the monologues/dialogues are good)

4) Too many point-of-view characters and too little attachment to any of them (I will not be able to get interested in this book)

5) An important plot point is foreshadowed but does not get delivered in a timely fashion (I hadn’t realized how much I hate this until ONE JUMP AHEAD, but it’s not unique).

6) Is there anything else?

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Purplish Hues

The OED declares that purple prose is writing that is “too elaborate or ornate.” But how ornate is too ornate?

Wikipedia says that purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Yet I definitely notice Patricia McKillip’s beautiful sentences; I might very well say her prose draws attention to itself. But, I mean, in a good way! So if you notice ornate prose but enjoy it, does that mean the prose is not purple or does it mean that you have terrible taste because look at you, admiring all that purple?

The wikipedia entry goes on to say that purple prose is “evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.” So then, I do agree that if you can spot a writer’s attempts to manipulate you, that is definitely a flaw whether the prose is ornate or not. For example, I think ALL of Steven King’s recent books suffer from this problem: the character you meet early on who is PARTICULARLY likable is ALWAYS going to die. In fact, I have pretty much stopped reading Steven King because the SUPER OBVIOUS manipulative thing is so annoying.

Did you know there is a site called Novel Writing Help? I have to say that I have my doubts about whether anybody is going to learn to write novels from a website, or indeed from any teacher, but this bit was interesting:

“. . . their [beginners’] prose is horribly overwritten — they use too many adjectives and adverbs, they say something in a paragraph they could have said in a sentence, they describe the setting too much and way too fancifully.”

Which instantly raises the question: how many adjectives and adverbs are too many? When are you describing the setting “too much” or “too fancifully”? I mean, we are not all going for stripped-down bare-bones simplicity in our writing, are we? Would anybody actually find this advice helpful?

It seems to me that if you’re using formal, elevated language and a poetic style and doing a fair bit of description, and if you do it well, then you are probably writing high fantasy. If you do it badly, then you’re writing purple prose.

How can you tell which?

Well, there’s a post on this subject from back in 2009, by Scott Bailey at a site called The Literary Lab. I really like this post! The examples are great! I ESPECIALLY love the re-written “Hills Like White Elephants” example. HERE is a really good example of “too many adjectives and adverbs”! AND “describing the setting too much”!

And even though Bailey is offering advice to beginners, such as:

“Sometimes writers, especially new writers, feel that in order to write in a writerly or serious or studious manner, they must put on their Prose Stylist hats and churn out pages of paragraphs that are as fancy as possible. Every phrase must paint a 1,000-word picture for the reader, and plain language must be chased off the page. Because, they feel, good writing is elaborate. This is a mistaken idea.”

somehow the tone of his advice does not come seem condescending, which is a nice trick.

And the examples he uses are just way more helpful than saying DON’T USE ADVERBS which is too often the advice that’s actually given.

Besides, I remember vividly hearing this advice while I was writing my first novel: DON’T USE ADVERBS. And you know what I did? I went and took a Patricia McKillip novel off my shelf and looked to see whether she used adverbs. Then I quit worrying about adverbs because hey, if she could do it, I could do it. (I actually do use fewer now, but way way more than the NO ADVERB crowd advises.)

Also from the comments of that post, which are worth reading through:

“Some writers (Proust, James, Dickens, Byatt, Wolfe, Tolstoy) create thick prose, with lots of layers of meaning and complex sentences. But every word counts; every word means something important and the cumulative weight of that dense prose is beautiful. Other writers simply lard on all sorts of extraneous junk in an attempt (usually quite innocent) to look like serious writers, and because that’s not their own writerly voice, it comes across as clumsy
and just not good.”

Which seems right to me: it’s not that you can’t do ornate, but that it looks fake if you’re, you know, faking it.

And also hitting that exact notion, one more link! I really got a kick out of this one, by Dave King.

Dave King there is also talking about how maybe you’ve gone purple if you’re describing things the pov protagonist wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t describe or wouldn’t care about, which is another interesting take on the problem with purple.

King also hits the idea that you can’t fake a formal style and trying to write like Tolkien when you’re not Tolkien may lead you into trouble, which gets back to my personal view, which as I said is that if you are doing ornate well, you’re writing high fantasy, and if you’re doing it badly, you’re writing purple prose.

Who does ornate very very very well?

Obviously, Patricia McKillip, right? Who else?

Here are some I’d choose:

Sharon Shinn (sometimes), e.g. THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE
Guy Gavriel Kay
Juliet Marillier

By an amazing coincidence, all of the above are favorite authors of mine! Also, here’s one you might not have heard of: Dahlov Ipcar’s A DARK HORN BLOWING.

Here’s the first paragraph of the second chapter of Ipcar’s book:

“When I stepped into the shallow water and into the black boat, it seemed that my husband, my baby, my home, and all I had left but a moment before had fallen so far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the black boat and my whole world faded away. High on the curved prow the carved dragon’s head turned and flickered its tongue at me. The small man put down his dark horn, and the long boat slid out into the current and glided
silently into the darkness with never a breath of wind or a sail or an oar to move her. She slipped through the black water that was so still it scarcely rippled at the boat’s passing.”

Notice that nearly every noun has an adjective? Does it bother you? My answer: no. It sounds just fine. It sounds, in fact, dreamy and evocative. In a good way. The repetition (“I stepped into”) and the simple phrases and the dreamy images (the dragon’s head turning, the boat gliding forward), the use of three-part lists (husband, baby, home; wind, sail, oar) — it all adds up to a beautiful style that may be noticeably poetic and flowery, but — I repeat myself here — in a good way. The casual reader may in fact NOT notice this style, noticing style may be more a writer’s thing. Anyway, I bet the reader isn’t going to stop and analyze this prose, but is going to be led by the style into the fairy-tale-like story that ensues.

And being led into the story is the whole point. If the prose style does THAT job, it’s probably not purple.

UPDATE: Elaine T. from the comments did a hilarious job reworking the Ipcar paragraph above! Here’s her version. Enjoy!

“When I timidly stepped into the shadow glimmering shallow water and into the ebon black boat, it seemed that my beloved husband, my dear baby, my comfortable home, and all I had left but a short moment before had fallen so terribly far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the jet black boat and my whole beloved world now faded away into shadow. . . ”

I especially like the “timidly”. That is exactly the sort of adverb that seems to me to clutter up purple prose. (Not that I have anything against the world “timidly” as such.)

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Voice

So, I’ve read 19 books so far this month. That doesn’t count three I started but put on the give-away pile before I’d read more than a couple of chapters. What makes me put a book down that fast? Just plain bad writing can do it, but that wasn’t the case with these.

I think one of the main things that makes me set a book aside is that I don’t like the protagonist’s voice — either the voice is not interesting or engaging, or else the voice is distinctive but I just dislike the main character.

Patti Hill at Novel Matters has a post in which she considers voice.

She notes that Elizabeth George defines voice as “The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character’s defining way of speaking and thinking” which seems reasonable. I think it’s important to get the “and thinking” in there, because voice certainly includes a character’s attitudes and biases. How about actions? Maybe not, don’t want to get too far afield, we’ll lose the idea of “voice” itself if we expand the definition too far.

Patti also notes that Donald Maass maintains that a character must have strong opinions or else his voice will be uninteresting. I think that might be true. Or true-ish. Does it have to be strong opinions, or would strong reactions do the same job? I’m thinking either would do.

So! How about some examples of voices that instantly captured my attention?

Listen to this:

Questions, always questions. They didn’t wait for answers, either. They rushed on, piling questions on questions, covering every moment with questions, blocking off every sensation but the thorn-stab of questions.

And orders. If it wasn’t, “Lou,what is this?” it was, “Tell me what this is.” A bowl. The same bowl, time after time. It is a bowl and it is an ugly bowl, a boring bowl, a bowl of total and complete boring blandness, uninteresting. I am uninterested in that uninteresting bowl.

If they aren’t going to listen, why should I talk?

I know better than to say that out loud. Everything in my life that has value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say.

In this office, where I am evaluated and advised four times a year, the psychiatrist is no less certain of the line between us than all the others have been. Her certainty is painful to see, so I try not to look at her more than I have to. That has its own dangers; like the others, she thinks I should make more eye contact than I do. I glance at her now.

Dr. Fornum, crisp and professional, raises an eyebrow and shakes her head not quite imperceptibly. Autistic persons do not understand these signals. I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand.

What I haven’t figured out yet is the range of things they don’t understand. The normals. The reals. the ones who have the degrees and sit behind the desks in comfortable chairs.

I know some of what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know I can read. She thinks I’m hyperlexic, joust parroting the words. The difference between what she calls parroting and what she does when she reads is imperceptible to me. She doesn’t know that I have a large vocabulary. Every time she asks what my job is and I say I am still working for the pharmaceutical company, she asks if I know what pharmaceutical means. She thinks I’m parroting. The difference between what she calls parroting and my use of a large number of words is imperceptible to me. She uses large words when talking to the other doctors and nurses and technicians, babbling on and on and saying things that could be said more simply. She knows I work on a computer, she knows I went to school, but she has not caught on that this is incompatible with her belief that I am actually nearly illiterate and barely verbal.

She talks to me as if I were a rather stupid child. She does not like it when I use big words (as she calls them) and she tells me to just say what I mean.

What I mean is the speed of dark is as interesting as the speed of light, and maybe it is faster and who will find out?

What I mean is about gravity, if there were a world where it is twice as strong, then on that world would the wind from a fan be stronger because the air is thicker and blow my glass off the table, not just my napkin? Or would the greater gravity hold the glass more firmly to the table, so the stronger wind couldn’t move it?

What I mean is the world is big and scary and noisy and crazy but also beautiful and still in the middle of the windstorm.

What I mean is what difference does it make if I think of colors as people or people as sticks of chalk, all stiff and white unless they are brown chalk or black?

What I mean is I know what I like and want, and she does not, and I do not want to like or want what she wants me to like or want.

That’s the first bit of THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon, which is one of the best and most impressive books I’ve ever read. It’s actually hard to stop copying it out here because it’s so good that I want to hold up every bit of the first chapter and point to it and say Look At This.

And what makes it so good? The voice, of course. The unique, fascinating, instantly sympathetic voice of the main character, Lou.

Now listen to this one:

No shit, there I was . . .

We’d been cut up so many ways and so many times we hardly had a skirmish line, and the enemy kept getting reinforced. I, like the rest of the outfit, was exhausted and terrified from swords buzzing past my ear and various sorts of sorceries going “whoosh” over my head, or maybe it was the other way around; and there were dead people moaning and writhing on the ground, and wounded people lying still, and that was almost certainly the other way around, but I’m giving it to you as I remember it, though I know my memory sometimes plays tricks on me.

More on that in a second.

First, I have to ask you to excuse me for starting in the middle, but that’s more or less where it starts.

So there I was, in a full-scale battle; that is, in a place where no self-respecting assassin ought to be. Worse, in a full-scale battle with the keen sense that I was on the losing side, at least in this part of the engagement. I stood on Dorian’s Hill, with the Wall about two hundred yards behind me, and the Tomb (which is not a tomb, and never was, and ought not to be called that) about a quarter of a mile to my left. I wanted to teleport out, or at least run, but I couldn’t because, well, I just couldn’t. I had a sword, and I carried enough other weaponry to outfit half of Cropper Company (my unit, hurrah hurrah).

Now, that’s the first bit of DRAGON, by Steven Brust, who probably didn’t invent the style sometimes called “first person smartass” but certainly does it well, doesn’t he? And there again, a unique and fascinating voice.

Both of these are first person. Can you build a voice so fast and with such certainty in third person?

How about this one:

She scowled at her glass of orange juice. To think that she had been delighted when she first arrived here — was it only three months ago? — with the prospect of fresh orange juice every day. But she had been eager to be delighted; this was to be her home, and she wanted badly to like it, to be grateful for it — to behave well, to make her brother proud of her and Sir Charles and Lady Amelia pleased with their generosity.

Lady Amelia had explained that the orchards only a few days south and west of here were the finest in the country, and many of the oranges she had seen at Home, before she came out here, had probably come from those same orchards. It was hard to believe in orange groves as she looked out the window, across the flat deserty plain beyond the Residency, unbroken by anything more vigorous than a few patches of harsh grass and stunted sand-colored bushes until it disappeared at the feet of the black and copper-brown mountains.

But there was fresh orange juice every day.

She was the first down to the table every morning, and was gently teased by Lady Amelia and Sir Charles about her healthy young appetite; but it wasn’t hunger that drove her out of bed every day. Since her days were empty of purpose, she could not sleep when night came, and by dawn each morning she was more than ready for the maid to enter her room, push back the curtains from the tall windows, and hand her a cup of tea. She was often out of bed when the woman arrived, and dressed, sitting at her window, for her bedroom window faced the same direction as the breakfast room, staring at the mountains. The servants thought kindly of her, as she gave them little extra work; but a lady who rose and dressed herself so early, and without assistance, was certainly a little eccentric. They knew of her impoverished background; that explained a great deal; but she was in a fine house now, and her host and hostess were only too willing to give her anything she might want, as they had no children of their own. She might try a little harder to adapt to so pleasant an existence.

She did try. She knew what the thoughts behind the looks the servants gave her were; she had dealt with servants before. But she was adapting to her new life as best her energetic spirit could. She might have screamed and hammered on the walls with her fists, or jumped over the low windowsill in her room, clambered to the ground by the ivy trellis, and run off toward the mountain; but she was trying her best to be good. So she was merely first to the breakfast table.

Okay, anybody recognize that one? That’s THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley, one of my “comfort reads” — I first read this when I was in high school and I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve read it since. So I’m not necessarily objective about this one, right? Nevertheless, I’d hold this up as a great example of establishing voice instantly with a straightforward third-person protagonist. We get such a clear impression of Harry Crewe — not just her background or her current life, but her as a person.

Okay, just one more:


Gwyneth Blair heard the bell as the last, dying ember of light guttered into the cloud bank over the sea, and put down her pen.

She looked over the cobbled street, her father’s warehouses, and the bobbing masts in the harbor from the highest room in the house, just below the peaked roof, where the sharply slanting walls made the place unfit for anything but brooms or a writer. She had wedged a tiny writing table under the single window, a rickety affair from the schoolroom, whose surface her older brother had riddled with a penknife when he was bored. An ugly cushion, covered with lime ribbons and liver-colored velvet, that she had purloined from the parlor protected her from the split in the scullery stool she had rescued from the trashman’s wagon. There was just room enough in the angle between the table legs and the roof for a small tin chest into which she dropped the pages of unfinished stories. When they were completed, various things happened to them. Some she read to the twins; others she took to the bookseller, Mr. Trent, for comment. Most were consigned to the dark under her bead, to be considered when she was in a better mood. A few she took down to the garden and burned.

It grew dark quickly in the tiny room after the sun went down. She dried her pen, capped her ink, dropped a half-covered page into the chest. She sat a moment longer, following the ebb tide out of the harbor, through the rocky channel where a fishing boat foundered, invariably, once a year, and out to the restless deeps, already growing shadowy with dusk.

The bell had haunted her as long as she could remember.

It was the first thing she had written about, years earlier, the most exciting, the most dreadful piece of writing she had ever done.

That’s THE BELL AT SEALEY HEAD, by Patricia Mckillip. This is actually the start of Chapter 2, not because there’s anything the least bit wrong with Chapter 1, but because Chapter 1 uses dialogue to establish voice and character and I wanted all four examples to be parallel in structure.

So . . . do these protagonists have opinions? Show reactions? We see their surroundings through their eyes, don’t we? Don’t we immediately get an idea of what they are like as people?

In all four cases, different as they are, I know I would want to turn the page — I’m immediately engaged by each character, and voice is a big part of why.

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