Replacing The Passive

Weight_lifterBecause active voice is stronger than passive, writing instructors generally encourage authors to avoid the latter. By way of review,

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship—a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather
    than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

(from “Clarifying What’s Passive”).

Understanding the passive construction is a good start, but writers also need to know how to revise those sentences and replace the passive verbs with active ones instead.

Writers utilize the passive construction for primarily three reasons: (1) they don’t know who the active agent is, (2) they want to emphasize the object, or (3) they don’t want to point fingers.

Consequently an author might write sentences like these:

The article was shared on both Facebook and Twitter. [The active agent is unknown.]

No one could verify if the film was seen by as many viewers as the theater reported. [The clause if the film was seem by as many viewers emphasizes the subject of that clause, film.]

The car was towed to a nearby garage. [The writer chooses not to point out what agent did the action.]

The key to constructing a sentence in the active voice is to make the subject of the sentence the active agent. The first step is to restructure the sentence so that the subject receiving the action (in the examples above, the subjects in question are article, film, and car respectively) becomes the object of the active verb.

To create the active verb, the writer must remove the form of the be helping verb (was in each of the examples above; other possibilities include were, is, are, been, and being) and any other accompanying helping verbs (such as have or had), then choose the appropriate tense of the action verb.

Finally, the writer must insert a new subject. Often times the agent in a passive sentence shows up as part of a prepositional phrase, usually introduced with by. Those sentences are the easiest to replace: . . . by my neighbors yields the subject neighbors; . . . by the publisher yields the subject publisher.

Putting the three steps together, the passive sentence The tree limbs were broken by the wind becomes the active sentence The wind broke the tree limbs.

The harder kinds of sentences to correct are those which do not name the agent at all. Sometimes context will yield the agent and sometimes an indefinite pronoun can do the job. The examples above which do not have agents might become one of the following:

    * Any number of blog visitors shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Many shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]
    * The company associated with AAA towed the car to a nearby garage. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Somebody towed the car to a nearby garage. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]

If there is no context clue and an indefinite pronoun won’t work as the subject, or if the writer’s intent is to feature the receiver of the action, he may need an entirely different sentence structure, perhaps incorporating the information contained in the passive sentence with another sentence, perhaps adding details, or perhaps reordering the sentence and choosing a different verb:

    * After being towed to the nearest garage, the car sat unattended for three days. [Incorporated with another sentence.]
    * Both Facebook and Twitter became the perfect platform to share the article. [Detail added.]
    * The article received considerable attention on both Facebook and Twitter. [Reworded to maintain article as the subject since the writer wished to feature it.]

Unfortunately “the Passive Police” have mistakenly accused a few other sentence constructions of being passive, but they are innocent and therefore writers and/or editors do not need to replace them. For help determining which sentences are not passive despite the accusations, see “Clarifying What’s Passive”. ;-)

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People Groups

Jim_and_ghost_huck_finnInventive people groups are a staple of speculative fiction, but writers of all stripes should pay attention to the way fantasy and science fiction authors create unique cultures. After all, most characters belong to a subset of the greater culture.

Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens), a rich merchant during London’s Industrial Revolution, once belonged to a more modest segment of society. His economic success isolated him from the community he’d known as a child and as a young man.

Huck Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain) was a poor boy growing up in the South prior to the Civil War. As he traveled the Mississippi River with the run-away slave Jim, he encountered a number of different people groups which Twain rendered masterfully—so much so that the novel has earned recognition for its depiction of the regional local color.

Elizabeth Bennet and her family (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen) were part of Britain’s landed gentry during the nineteenth century and as such navigated the strictures of that elitist society.

John Steinbeck set his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath during the Great Depression. The Joad family, of necessity, joined the migrant workers relocating to California in order to find work.

Each of these literary works places the main characters within a particular people group. Clearly speculative writers aren’t the only ones who need to know how to render particular communities in fiction, but they might have the most experience.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s hobbits are perhaps the best group of fantasy people ever created. They are cute and cuddly, with their short stature and tough, leathery feet covered in hair. They’re also suspicious of the outside world and real homebodies. They love to eat and to celebrate and they love the Shire.

In addition, they have some unique abilities—they can be extremely quiet when walking about (which made Bilbo the perfect choice to be Gandalf’s burglar). They also have excellent hearing and sharp eyesight. Beyond these physical attributes, hobbits are courageous and steadfast, intent on doing their work well and seeing it to completion.

I suppose because Bilbo and then Frodo were such admirable characters that all of Hobbation has become well-loved. But there are any number of other speculative people groups who have won over readers.

In Donita K. Paul’s DragonKeeper Chronicles, there are a number of races with intriguing qualities. Reminiscent of hobbits are the doneel:

One of the seven high races. These people are furry with bulging eyes, thin black lips, and ears at the top and front of their skulls. They are small in stature, rarely over three feet tall. Generally are musical and given to wearing flamboyant clothing. (Glossary, DragonSpell, Donita Paul)

As I recall, they also loved to cook and had a definite sense of propriety. The most prominent donnel in the Chronicles is Dar. Here’s how Kale, the main character, views him when she first meets him:

The whistling first sounded like a double-crested mountain finch, but then a few too many high notes warbled at the end of the call. Kale’s eyes sprang open, and she sat up. A doneel sat on a log by the stream. From his finger, a string dangled over the edge of a rock into the water. His clothes were tattered but bright in hue between the smudges of dirt and blood [which he’d acquired in a recent battle]. His whistle changed to the song of a speckled thrush.

Kale compared the look of this real-life doneel to the painted figure in the mural at the River Away Tavern. This whistling doneel sat, but she was sure if he stood, his little frame would not reach four feet. His tan and white furry head sat on a well-proportioned body. His large eyes hid under shaggy eyebrows that drooped down his temples and mingled with a long mustache. His broad nose stuck out like the muzzle of a dog, and his black lips met with hardly a chin at all underneath. Dressed in rich fabric of glorious colors, he was far more interesting than the blurry image on the dark tavern wall. (DragonSpell, pp 20-21)

In The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader C. S. Lewis invented a number of people groups as well, the best being the Dufflepuds. The passage in which Lucy discoves who they really are is filled with Lewis’s humor.

“Are they awfully conceited?” [asked Lucy.]

“They are. Or at least the Chief Duffer is, and he’s taught all the rest to be. They always believe every word he says,” [said the Magician].

“We’d noticed that,” said Lucy.

“Yes—we’d get on better without him, in a way. Of course I could turn him into something else, or even put a spell on him which would make them not believe a word he said. But I don’t like to do that. It’s better for them to admire him than to admire nobody.”

“Don’t they admire you?” asked Lucy.

“Oh, not me,” said the Magician. “They wouldn’t admire me.”

“What was it you uglified them for—I mean, what they call uglified?”

“Well, they wouldn’t do what they were told. Their work is to mind the garden and raise food—not for me as they imagine, but for themselves. They wouldn’t do it at all if I didn’t make them. And of course for a garden you want water. There is a beautiful spring about half a mile away up the hill. And from that spring there flows a stream which comes right past the garden. All I asked them to do was to take their water from the stream instead of trudging up to the spring with their buckets two or three times a day and tiring themselves out besides spilling half of it on the way back. But they wouldn’t see it. In the end they refused point blank.”

“Are they as stupid as all that?” asked Lucy.

The Magician sighed. “You wouldn’t believe the troubles I’ve had with them. A few months ago they were all for washing up the plates and knives before dinner: they said it saved time afterwards. I’ve caught them planting boiled potatoes to save cooking them when they were dug up. One day the cat got into the dairy and twenty of them were at work moving all the mile out; no one thought of moving the cat. But I see you’ve finished. Let’s go and look at the Duffers now they can be looked at.”

Before the doneel, Dufflepuds, and hobbits were the people created from the imagination of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. Perhaps most famous were the Lilliputians, a race of people no bigger than six inches tall.

The_King_of_Brobdingnag_and_Gulliver.–Vide._Swift's_Gulliver_Voyage_to_BrobdingnagUpon leaving Lilliput, Gulliver encounters a group of people on Brobdingnag who are giants. Next his ship is attacked by pirates and he’s marooned on a rocky island only to be rescued by the flying island of Laputa, “a kingdom devoted to the arts of music and mathematics but unable to use them for practical ends” (Wikipedia).

His travels take him to other strange lands such as Luggnagg where he encounters the struldbrugs, immortals who do not enjoy the fountain of youth but continue to age and suffer infirmity as a result. Gulliver’s final voyage results in mutiny. He’s set in a boat and encounters a land where he finds

a race of hideous, deformed and savage humanoid creatures to which he conceives a violent antipathy. Shortly afterwards he meets a race of horses who call themselves Houyhnhnms (which in their language means “the perfection of nature”); they are the rulers, while the deformed creatures called Yahoos are human beings in their base form (Ibid.)

While physical descriptions factor into the creation of these various people groups, as the description of the doneel demonstrates, the authors have brought them to life in other ways.

First, each has a shared trait such as the suspicion with which hobbits viewed strangers, the flamboyance of the doneel, the conceit of the Dufflepuds, and the savagery of the yahoos.

Each group also has a distinctive speech pattern, if not their own language. The Dufflepuds, for example, constantly repeat what the Chief Duffer says, adding that he is right, even when he says things that are clearly wrong.

Stories that are not set in fantasy worlds can still utilize language in the same way. For example, in the Safe Lands trilogy, a young adult dystopian series, author Jill Williamson created an impressive array of slang terms for her invented high tech society (vape, shell, femme, glossy, and more). Jill Stengl peppered Until That Distant Day, her historical novel set during the French Revolution, with appropriate French terms. Julie Carobini, author of a number of beachy books set somewhere along the California coast (Chocolate Beach, Truffles by the Sea, Sweet Waters, and more), tailors her characters’ speech to the particular community in which they find themselves.

A third technique authors use to create a people group is to give them a shared history. Hobbits had wars, celebrations, and famous people. The Lilliputians have their own dispute with their neighbors, and the Dufflepuds are under the enchantment of the Magician.

Finally, the different groups have a hierarchical structure. The Brobdingnaggians have a king and queen who rule their land. The Dufflepud have their Chief Duffer and over him, the Magician. The Lilliputians have a king, court, and legal system.

Smaller groups, such as families or work places, can also reflect a pecking order or chain of command.

By using these techniques—physical appearance, a shared trait, distinct language or speech patterns, a shared history, and a hierarchical structure—the author creates a believable group that can serve as the context into which the main character fits.

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Developing Your Novel’s Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

Reblogged from an article first posted here in March 2012.

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Cadence

PoetryCadence is the variation in a person’s tone, the rhythm created by the rise and fall of his voice. Poetry relies on cadence to create rhythm patters, but novelists can employ the device as well.

Poets, of course, are meticulous about their word choices so that each not only carries the meaning they desire, but also the proper order of accented and unaccented syllables.

Novelists, not concerned with a regular rhythmic pattern, create cadence in several different ways. First is through the length of sentences.

Long, luxurious sentences and paragraphs slow the tempo of a passage. Conversely, short sentences quicken the pace and frequently produce a tense, staccato effect.

The best passages employ both strategies to effect a paragraph with rhythm and balance. (“How To Tell,” Michael Orlofsky, Writer’s Digest, October 2002)

A second rhythmic device involves conjunctions—either their addition or their omission. The first, called polysyndeton, repeats a conjunction between each of the words or phrases in a series. The latter, asyndeton, omits the conjunction, even before the final element. Here are example of each:

Polysyndeton: An avalanche of rock and dirt cascaded beside him and over him and under him.

Asyndeton: His brother picked up another plate, piled it with a variety of stuffed pastries, a handful of baby carrots, a couple cauliflower clumps.

A third way to create cadence in prose is to purposefully use repetition. For instance, a proposition can be used over and over or a key word in one sentence can be repeated in the opening of the next sentence.

The first use creates a staccato rhythm which can be enhanced if short phrases are written as sentences.

    Repetition of a preposition in a sentence: Away from Laguna Beach, from Eddie, from the tatters of his career.
    Repetition of a preposition in consecutive sentences: Away from Laguna Beach. From Eddie. From the tatters of his career.

The Color Of Grief Isn't Blue cover

    Repetition of a key word from one sentence at the beginning of another: “But my sister, Ainsley, puts her key in the lock five mornings a week. She straightens the over-sized posters that shift every time a train goes by on the tracks across the road from the strip mall that houses the headquarters. Posters of a beautiful little girl with strawberries on her sundress and a makeshift wreath of flowers in her hair.” (From The Color Of Sorrow Isn’t Blue by Sharon Souza).

Parallel construction is another method to create rhythm. The parallelism can be within a sentence or within a paragraph, but the idea is that multiplies—phrases, clauses, or sentences—have the same basic structure.

Here’s an example of phrases each consisting of a verb each followed by a prepositional phrase:

    He slid behind the wheel of his Porsche, backed from the driveway, and accelerated onto the road heading south.

Anaphora, or “the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses” (Oxford American Dictionary), is another way novelists create cadence in their prose. The following excerpt from Caught by Harlan Coben illustrates this technique:

And that was when Marcia started to feel a small rock form in her chest. There were no clothes in the hamper.

The rock in her chest grew when Marcia checked Haley’s toothbrush, then the sink and shower.

All bone-dry.

The rock grew when she called out to Ted, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. It grew when they drove to captain’s practice and found out that Haley had never showed. It grew when she called Haley’s friends while Ted sent out an e-mail blast—and no one knew where Haley was. It grew when they called the local police, who, despite Marcia’s and Ted’s protestations, believed that Haley was a runaway, a kid blowing off some steam. It grew when forty-eight hours later, the FBI was brought in. It grew when there was still no sign of Haley after a week. (As quoted by Margie Lawson, emphases mine)

Cadence is not a device that readers will necessarily notice unless they stop and think about the prose—not a plus if they are to remain immersed in the story world and wrapped up with the character’s problems. However, the absence of cadence can work against readers, causing them to stumble and retreat to regain the flow.

Writers want readers moving forward, fully engaged with the story. Proper cadence can help to accomplish this goal.

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Rewriting Is A Good Thing

Dip_PenNo two writers are alike, and I dare say, no two writers work alike either. However, in contrast to what some writers say and what others do, rewriting is a good thing.

Of course the depth of writing will vary, but pre-planners will benefit from rewriting and plan-as-you-go writers will benefit from rewriting.

Prolific author Dean Wesley Smith disagrees, and gave his rationale why the need to rewrite is a “myth.”

Among his reasons, he stated

Putting new and original words on a page is writing. Nothing more, and nothing less. Research is not writing. Rewriting is not writing. Talking to other writers is not writing (“Killing the Sacred Cow of Publishing: Rewriting”).

Strictly speaking, Mr. Smith is accurate, I suppose, but that’s why professionals refer to the writing process and not just writing. Any kind of writing is much more involved than what the finished product leads readers to believe. What someone can read and absorb in a matter of minutes, may have taken the writer hours to put together.

Why? Because details need to be checked, story structure needs to be hammered in place, characters need to be developed, voice needs to be created, dialogue needs to be constructed, and on and on.

According to Mr. Smith, thinking through these various aspects of fiction simply kills creativity. Rather, Mr. Smith’s own process works like this: first he lets the story pour out of him, then edits for punctuation and does a spell check, then gives the manuscript to a reader and does a touch-up draft based on what the reader has said. Next step, mail that sucker off to the agent or editor who’s waiting for it.

I suspect there are seasoned novelists who may have once upon a time, revised and revised and revised in order to produce a publish-worthy manuscript, but as time has worn on and their skill has improved, they may now need to do half as many revisions.

There’s no doubt that the more we write well, the more we write well. However, Mr. Smith has fallen into a trap:

And what you will discover is amazing is that the more you write, the better your skills become. With each story, each novel, you are telling better and better stories.

It’s called “practice” but again, no writer likes to think about that evil word.

Apparently Mr. Smith didn’t take lessons under the great college basketball coach John Wooden who famously said, it isn’t practice that makes perfect; it’s perfect practice that makes perfect.

In other words, if we keep making the same mistakes over and over, there is no progress toward perfect.

Ironically I didn’t believe in rewriting or revising when I was in school. I had wonderful English teachers who reminded us of the importance of reading our work and making necessary changes. But I didn’t see the point. After all, I’d written what I wanted to say or I wouldn’t have put it down! Why go back over it and rethink the whole thing if I knew I’d said it well the first time?

Such hubris.

When I finally got a couple teachers who required us to rewrite after our papers were graded, I got the picture. I had many more things wrong than I’d imagined, some that I could have corrected myself if I’d only taken the time to think a little more.

Mr. Smith’s idea is that the critical evaluation of our creative work “ruins” it.

The critical side of the brain is full of all the crap you learned in high school, everything your college teachers said, what your workshop said, and the myths you have bought into like a fish biting on a yummy worm. Your critical voice is also full of the fear that comes out in “I can’t show this to friends.” Or, “What would my mother think?” That is all critical side thinking that makes you take a great story and dumb it down.

I have two observations about this thinking. First, Mr. Smith started his article just as I did mine—by saying no two writers are alike. If that point is true, then how can he make this sweeping statement about writers and what’s in the critical side of our brains?

I have no doubt that had Mr. Smith revised this article, he would have seen the inconsistency himself.

My second observation is this: Mr. Smith uses input from a reader and then does his third draft, which seems to me a way of saying he’s fine with someone else’s critical side of the brain—just not his own.

Mr. Smith makes one final argument against rewriting—creativity is always ahead of our knowledge of technique. I think that well might be true for some people. But all the more reason to study our craft and catch our technical knowledge up with our creativity.

On the other hand, some of us imagine our story (creativity) but express it in rather pedestrian ways until we get to the revision stage. I’ve heard this termed “prettying up the story,” a thoroughly creative part of the critical process.

I do think some writers fear revision. I know I used to. I didn’t want to go through the whole, entire manuscript again once I’d finished. So much work. Could I do it?

That’s a little like saying, I washed the dishes yesterday; do I really need to wash them again today? If we want them to be clean, yes. If we want our stories to be as good as they can be, then yes, rewriting is part of reaching that goal.

I think there are two extremes when it comes to rewriting. One is to do too little. Especially with the ease of self-publishing, it’s possible to slam out a story, then put it into the digital world for anyone and everyone to read. Except, the anyone’s read the sample chapter, and they’re not buying.

Isn’t it possible that a couple rewrites could have made the story better so that readers would want to keep reading instead of clicking over to another book?

The second extreme is the never-ending rewrite. Some writers are unwilling to let their story go. Rather than move on to a new premise, they continually and obsessively tweak the one story they’ve been working on for years.

I had such a writer in one of my critique groups. No matter how many of us urged her to walk away from that story and work on the new project, at every turn she was going back over that first story she loved so much.

Another writer I know wrote something like 190,000 words and still wasn’t finished and couldn’t let anyone read her work. She continued to tweak and add and add and tweak. At some point we writers need to put our stories down and work on a new project. We can apply all the cool things we’ve been learning to this brand new story instead of trying to patch up the old.

The truth about fiction is that it’s never going to be perfect. Pretty much every writer can rewrite their story and find something to improve, no matter how experienced you are. Perhaps the only writers who think their story is perfect are beginners.

Of course beginners might benefit more than any other writers from a thorough rewriting process.

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How Important Are Details?

Are details important?

In more than one article critiquing the 2013 Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details—Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

My first thought was, Come on, people, quit being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull readers (or viewers) out of the story? Some time ago I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball would know that at that time the NBA finals were a 2-3-2 format—games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) were to be played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) were played at the home of the two-seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly—on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in houses by the Sorting Hat in one book and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point—why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

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The Place Of Adjectives In Prose

Adjectives receive a fair amount of discrimination from writing instructors. Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing, has a great deal to say on the subject. In fact, he created a little writing math formula for adjectives: one plus one equals a half. Here’s his explanation:

Experience proves that when two adjectives are used, eliminating either strengthens the text. The more concrete adjective is the one to keep. Or the one that makes the image more visual (p. 200).

I’ll admit, when I first read Mr. Stein’s one-plus-one principle, I wasn’t sold, but the more experience I gained through critiquing manuscripts and then through editing, the more I understood the point. In writing, an author is creating an image for a reader to focus on. When introducing a character or place, he might think more is better, but in fact, the more describers, the less the reader focuses.

The best approach is to identify the “telling detail” and focus on that aspect. Again from Mr. Stein:

In addition to eliminating unnecessary words, I am focusing on using words for their precise meaning, which is the mark of a good writer (p. 199).

As he explains, beginning writers often suffer from a tendency to write using generalities.

Example: A man walked into the room and sat next to a woman.

Everything in that sentence is bland. Nothing stirs the reader to envision the scene. To counter this generic writing, instructors prod beginners to be specific, but the inexperienced are apt to respond with too much detail “robbing the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading, exercising the imagination” (p. 186).

The answer is to find the detail that evokes the most emotion or imagination in the reader. Here’s an example Mr. Stein gives:

“The spoon left a line of froth on his sad mustache.” Without “sad,” the line is merely descriptive. With “sad” it characterizes both the person described and, by inference, the speaker (p.200).

Mr. Stein ends his section on adjectives by giving his “rules,” which he prefaced by saying, “Like any good rule, using one adjective in place of two has exceptions.” He then proceeds to give three guidelines for determining which adjectives to use and which to throw away.

1. Adjectives must be necessary. Without such an adjective, the sentence would be confusing or unclear. The salesman in the brown jacket is my uncle. Without the adjective “brown,” the sentence implies that none of the other characters is wearing a jacket. If that’s not the case, the adjective is needed.

2. Adjectives should be included if they incite curiosity. Jeffrey Overstreet’s novel, The Ale Boy’s Feast, utilized effective prose, including this line: “Any light, even the sickly glow of the sun’s cold coin over a world drained of colors, was better than the subterranean dark.” I think the adjectives in that line stir curiosity. What kind of a place is this when the sun is called a cold coin? Wow! Vivid and evocative!

3. Vivid is the third guideline for adjectives. The ones novelists use should be precise. They should call up an image that the reader can then expand upon in his imagination.

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” He was wrong. Adjectives in toto aren’t the problem. It’s only the ones hanging with the herd or the bland ones that clutter the page without adding a splat of paint to the picture that need to be ruthlessly cut from our manuscripts. The particular ones — those are keepers.

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This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Word Discrimination, Part 2” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in May 2011.

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Evaluating Criticism

writing groupEvery writer can benefit from feedback, but not every bit of criticism is equal. Some may come from readers who can tell writers little about how to improve a story. Primarily they can point to what they liked or where they lost interest or what rubbed them the wrong way.

Those bits of feedback are still helpful, but a writing group is the best way to get useful information about how to make a story better. However, a writer needs to evaluate the feedback coming from their group because all criticism is still not equal.

When I first joined an online critique group, I discovered this problem. Some critiquers would write how much they loved a piece I submitted, and others would tell me how bad it was. In fact, both might point to the same line, even the same word. How can a writer know which voice to listen to?

Author and writing instructor Nancy Kress pointed out some years ago in her Writer’s Digest article “Critiquing the Critics” that there are basically four types of criticism: line editing, story structure, character development, and prose. The feedback a group gives in each of these areas needs to be evaluated differently.

Line editing, which many writers key on, is the easiest to validate or disprove. The kinds of problems uncovered in a line critique include factual errors, repetitious words, inconsistencies, and proper word choice.

If, for example, a quote is attributed to Shakespeare but it was actually from the Bible, a line critique will make that correction. Or if the protagonist is six feet five in the first chapter and six feet four in chapter ten, a line critique will point out the discrepancy. If the word turn shows up four times in two sentences, that’s a line critique issue. As is using words properly, according to any nuanced meaning rather than a strict dictionary definition.

Because these line issues deal with factual information, a writer should accept most suggestions. If there’s a disagreement, a good style book or dictionary can verify or refute a critiquer’s suggestion.

Story structure criticisms involve things like the direction of a scene, its pace, its necessity, whether or not it accomplished what the writer intends, whether it’s properly set up, if it’s confusing.

These criticisms are easy to evaluate when more than one person mentions the same issue. Even then, the members of the group may not suggest the best possible way to fix the problem. They may think the scene is redundant, for example, but you, the writer, know there’s some necessary information embedded in it. Consequently, you may wish to change key components to eliminate the similar elements rather than cut the scene altogether.

If only one member of the group identifies a problem area, then it’s important to weigh the source. Is this bit of criticism coming from an experienced writer who has studied the writing craft and completed several novels, or is this the idea of a beginner?

Of course, beginners can spot problems, too. It’s important to give the criticism consideration, but to be validated, it should not hinge solely on preference. Beginning writers and beginning critiquers sometimes critique based on how they would write if this were their work. In other words, the scene is not actually confusing—it’s just different from the way the critiquer would have structured it.

The third area of evaluation has to do with character development. Unfortunately not every person in your group may like your main character. In that case, it’s important to know if the problem is in your portrayal of the character or in the character himself.

In other words, did you mean to draw the character as clever and innovative but your critique partner perceives him as sneaky and untrustworthy? In that case, you haven’t portrayed him as you intended and you need to revise accordingly.

If, on the other hand, you meant to create a sneaky, untrustworthy character, and your critique group sees that, understands that, and doesn’t like him, should you make changes? Your decision here is tricky.

One point to consider is whether or not your target readers are similar to the people in your critique group. For instance, members of your group may say they don’t care for your protagonist because he’s a mind reader and they only like characters that seem realistic. Criticism like that misses the mark.

On the other hand, if your group reflects your likely readers, their reaction to your character gives valuable feedback. Do they not like the character but feel invested in his journey and want to see what will become of him or do they not like the character and want to stop reading? In many types of stories, the character needs to be plausible, interesting, well-motivated and not necessarily likable.

The fourth area of evaluation is prose, or style. Because style is a personal signature of an author, it’s not easy to critique and just as hard for the writer to judge the feedback. Ms. Kress explains:

Perhaps the most difficult criticism to evaluate—and to sit through without anger or despair—is stylistic criticism. You can rewrite scenes in your story, strengthen characters, fix line gaffs. But what do you do when you’re told that your style has problems—that same style in which you wrote not only this story, but all your others? (“Critiquing The Critic,” italics in the original).

When confronted with stylistic criticism, start by determining if there’s a group consensus. Next read the work with the suggested stylistic changes (fewer adjectives, for example, or more concise dialogue) and see if you think the piece is stronger. Third, ask you critiquer to explain why he is making a suggestion. Have you fallen into a common stylistic error—“head hopping,” using cliches, passive voice, incorrect use of participial phrases, overly descriptive to the point of interrupting the story, too much telling, and so on. A good critiquer should be able to give you a reason for any stylistic changes they suggest.

In the end, the story is yours. You need to decide what changes to make. Critiquers are there to reflect to you what they see. As the author, you must then evaluate what they’ve suggested. Keep things that make your writing and your story stronger; ignore whatever doesn’t accomplish that goal.

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Settings And Contemporary Fiction

'Dick_Sand,_A_Captain_at_Fifteen'_by_Henri_Meyer_022The classics—novels that have stood the test of time such as Pride And Prejudice, Little Women, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge Of Courage, and more—are filled with long passages of description. From Herman Melville and his detailed explanations about whaling to Emily Bronte’s report about angst-filled Heathcliff and the gloomy Wuthering Heights, readers wade throug are immersed in the time and culture of those stories.

Such long passages setting the stage for the story that is about to take place, are missing in most contemporary fiction. Can we conclude, then, that setting no longer matters in the books we write? Hardly.

Writing instructors caution against the “info dump,” long sections of description that deliver too much information for a reader to realistically absorb and retain. But if a writer withholds paragraphs of description of the setting, he must still create a picture of the world in which the story takes place.

One of the things that made the Harry Potter series so popular was the rich, imaginative setting, especially in Hogwarts, the magical school for witches and wizards. From the imaginary train platform 9 3/4 to the moving pictures in newspapers, the horseless carriages, staircases that shifted from place to place, portraits that served as guards to the different house quarters, and classes such as Potions or Defense Against The Dark Arts, the books were rich with elements unique to the world J. K. Rowling envisioned.

The Harry Potter books serve as an example that contemporary novels, not just the classics, need vivid settings. Today’s writer should conceive of worlds that are complete and detailed. But our task may be a tad harder. Rather than delivering the setting up front in long introductory chapters, or as a “time out” in the action, we must give the goods on the run. Action must go forward even while we deliver the necessary tidbits to paint the scene.

Take a look at the opening of By Darkness Hid, the Christy award winning novel by Jill Williamson:

Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way.

He wove between dark cottages in the outer bailey of the castle, mindful to keep his torch clear of the thatched roofs. Most of the residents of Sitna Manor still slept. Only a few of the twenty-some peasants, slaves, and strays serving Lord Nathak and Prince Gidon stirred at this hour.

In these two short paragraphs we have simple action that also delivers important description. The story is just getting started, but we already know quite a bit—basic information about one of the characters, the time of day, and something about the place. As the story unfolds, we learn there’s even more tucked into these few sentences—foreshadowing.

The key to good description today is to dribble bits of information into the action rather than coming to a full stop to deliver a laundry list of facts.

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Adapted from an article published here January 2011.

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A Novel Peek-Preview: Foreshadowing

Long ago movie makers learned that previews increase viewers’ anticipation of an upcoming film. Before long they began offering sneak-peeks which allowed some favored viewers to see the movie ahead of time. Again the goal was to heighten audience expectation.

A novelist uses foreshadowing in the same way—either to alert readers to what is coming or to increase tension by revealing the potential for disaster. Furthermore, foreshadowing can strengthen a story’s theme.

Foreshadowing can be subtle or overt, depending on what the author wants to accomplish.

Readers need to know what is coming to a certain extent. Some foreshadowing prepares them for what’s up ahead.

I’ll never forget this one novel–the characters were in a flight-or-die struggle. As they ran across the field, with the villains moments behind, they dove into the barn to hide. Uh, what barn? We were crossing a field, no mention of any structures.

The scene could easily have been set earlier with the mention of rickety outbuildings silhouetted by the setting sun. Readers would then not have been surprised when one of these rickety buildings cropped up at an appropriate time.

Foreshadowing can also create tension.

As the couple set of across the Atlantic, their sail snapped in a surprisingly brisk gale. No weather reports indicated trouble, and this was the most favorable time of the year for an ocean crossing, but there had been numerous reports of out-of season storms. In fact the store clerk who sold them their life vests mentioned a ship that was lost just last year about this time.

And the scene is set. Readers are now expecting something big blowing on that wind.

A third purpose for foreshadowing is to suggest the theme of the book. One of my favorite illustration of this is in Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s middle grade novel The Year The Swallows Came Early. In the story, Ms. Fitzmaurice used candy to symbolize the main character’s life. From the beginning, then, little Groovy makes the comparison that proves to be of utmost significance:

I told my best friend, Frankie, that it was hard to tell what something was like on the inside just by looking at the outside. And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard like undercooked white rice.

An author can create foreshadowing in a variety of ways.

The most obvious method of foreshadowing is by stating, through narrative or dialogue, what is about to happen. Gone with the Wind begins with Scarlet O’Hara preparing to attend an engagement party where she plans to profess her love to Ashley Wilkes, the man about to be engaged. No surprise, then, when this scene takes place.

No surprise, but plenty of suspense has now built up. Will he respond to Scarlet and dump the plain Melanie to be with this startling beauty that all the other men in the county would die for?

A second way to foreshadow is to create in miniature what will soon happen to a larger extent. The men entered the cave to look for treasure. A rock tumbles from the ceiling. Dust flies. “Don’t worry,” the main character says, “we don’t have much farther.” Ah, the reader says, you may not be worrying, but I am! And sure enough, within pages, the cave-in seals the entrance.

Another foreshadowing device is a character’s unreasoned emotion. If someone is obsessing about germs, chances are, there is a deadly disease that may well come into play. If a parent stresses over a teen driver fastening his seat belt, chances are an accident is brewing.

A fourth way to foreshadow is to show the reader an object, as if by happenstance. The main character steps into the garage for a moment and sees the tire iron that should be in the trunk. Or perhaps it’s the spare tire, but oh well, she’s in a hurry, and what are the chances of getting a flat tire?

The object could be anything that will later have significance–a shopping bag, the garage opener, a fishing pole. The object might even be one that’s supposed to be there but is missing. The car seat or a credit card or cell phone.

Lastly, foreshadowing can be created with symbols, as the illustration from The Year The Swallows Came Early showed. The symbol may be common and easily recognized–a bank of clouds, an albatross, a rose bud. Or it can be something the author infuses with meaning as Ms. Fitzmaurice did with the See’s candy.

Foreshadowing is a powerful tool. It prepares the way for events to take place, it creates suspense, and it may help reinforce a story’s theme.

What are your thoughts? Is foreshadowing mostly invisible to you? Do you realize after the fact what the author has done? Do you have any examples of great foreshadowing or stories that needed a good dose of foreshadowing to make a plot point work?

See Harvey Chapman‘s “Five Examples of Foreshadowing in Fiction” for further illustrations.

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This article first appeared here in July 2012.

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