Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Photo credit: DTL from morguefile.com
Run-ons are one of the most common errors I see in academic writing (aka my day job as a scholarly journal editor). PhD programs in English seem to encourage jamming as many ideas as possible between full stops. I once broke an 11-line sentence into FOUR parts. Clearly this was a case of reader distrust--an anxiety that the reader wouldn't comprehend the way ideas were linked unless crammed together. Keep in mind that a paragraph is the best unit for clearly and readably holding together a series of linked ideas.

The biggest danger of run-on sentences is incoherence. The reader will lose the thread of what you're saying if information isn't parsed into manageable pieces.

The most common form of run-on is the comma splice. This term refers to two complete sentences joined with a comma when they should either be divided or have a conjunction inserted (i.e., and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet).

Example:
It will be clear and hot today, you should put on sunscreen.

Possible fixes:
It will be clear and hot today. You should put on sunscreen.
It will be clear and hot today, so you should put on sunscreen.

Another cause of run-ons is misuse of conjunctive adverbs like however, moreover, nonetheless.

Example:
Rocco has sent his three children to ivy-league universities, however, he has sacrificed his health working long shifts at the foundry.

Possible fixes:
Rocco has sent his three children to ivy-league universities. However, he has sacrificed his health working long shifts at the foundry.
Rocco has sent his three children to ivy-league universities; however, he has sacrificed his health working long shifts at the foundry.

I am no fan of the semi-colon and would recommend against using the latter method. These two ideas--"children in ivy-league" and "working long shifts"--are not so tightly bonded they need to be in one sentence. The semi-colon version also contains so much information in such a large chunk it can lose a reader.

And speaking of overload, the worst kind of run-on is the clause-a-thon--too many clauses strung together.

Example:
She read the letter from the insurance company that said that the claim we had filed as a result of our accident in center city on May 3 had been sent on to a review committee which would consider the matter and render a decision within a month.

Possible fixes:
She read the letter from the insurance company. It said the claim we'd filed for our May 3 accident had been sent to a review committee. The committee would review the matter and render a decision in a month.

Note that some unnecessary details are dropped and phrases condensed. The claim is for an accident (less wordy than "as a result of"). Where the accident occurred is unimportant. What matters most is whether the insurance company will pay.

The sentence could be further condensed to hit only the most important information:
The insurance company's letter said our car accident claim had been sent to a review committee. We'd have to wait another month for an answer.

The clause-a-thon is the most likely form to occur in fiction. When you run across sentences that are trying to do to much, look for ways to trim details and parse the information into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Example:
My best friend Nancy, who lived down the hall from me and who I first met at a departmental wine-and-cheese event, wore her onyx hair in a braid, smoked clove cigarettes and went through boyfriends like Kleenex.

Possible fixes:
My best friend Nancy lived down the hall from me. We first met at a departmental wine-and-cheese event. She wore her onyx hair in a braid, smoked clove cigarettes and went through boyfriends like Kleenex.

Leaner:
I first met my best friend Nancy at a departmental wine-and-cheese event. Smoke from her clove cigarette had curled around her onyx braid and wafted toward her boyfriend-du-jour.

In some cases, your best fixes will come from deeper level rewrites like this. Instead of using a list to describe Nancy, I turned the descriptions into an active flashback.

Which of these areas trip you up most?
Wednesday, August 28, 2013 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: DTL from morguefile.com
Run-ons are one of the most common errors I see in academic writing (aka my day job as a scholarly journal editor). PhD programs in English seem to encourage jamming as many ideas as possible between full stops. I once broke an 11-line sentence into FOUR parts. Clearly this was a case of reader distrust--an anxiety that the reader wouldn't comprehend the way ideas were linked unless crammed together. Keep in mind that a paragraph is the best unit for clearly and readably holding together a series of linked ideas.

The biggest danger of run-on sentences is incoherence. The reader will lose the thread of what you're saying if information isn't parsed into manageable pieces.

The most common form of run-on is the comma splice. This term refers to two complete sentences joined with a comma when they should either be divided or have a conjunction inserted (i.e., and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet).

Example:
It will be clear and hot today, you should put on sunscreen.

Possible fixes:
It will be clear and hot today. You should put on sunscreen.
It will be clear and hot today, so you should put on sunscreen.

Another cause of run-ons is misuse of conjunctive adverbs like however, moreover, nonetheless.

Example:
Rocco has sent his three children to ivy-league universities, however, he has sacrificed his health working long shifts at the foundry.

Possible fixes:
Rocco has sent his three children to ivy-league universities. However, he has sacrificed his health working long shifts at the foundry.
Rocco has sent his three children to ivy-league universities; however, he has sacrificed his health working long shifts at the foundry.

I am no fan of the semi-colon and would recommend against using the latter method. These two ideas--"children in ivy-league" and "working long shifts"--are not so tightly bonded they need to be in one sentence. The semi-colon version also contains so much information in such a large chunk it can lose a reader.

And speaking of overload, the worst kind of run-on is the clause-a-thon--too many clauses strung together.

Example:
She read the letter from the insurance company that said that the claim we had filed as a result of our accident in center city on May 3 had been sent on to a review committee which would consider the matter and render a decision within a month.

Possible fixes:
She read the letter from the insurance company. It said the claim we'd filed for our May 3 accident had been sent to a review committee. The committee would review the matter and render a decision in a month.

Note that some unnecessary details are dropped and phrases condensed. The claim is for an accident (less wordy than "as a result of"). Where the accident occurred is unimportant. What matters most is whether the insurance company will pay.

The sentence could be further condensed to hit only the most important information:
The insurance company's letter said our car accident claim had been sent to a review committee. We'd have to wait another month for an answer.

The clause-a-thon is the most likely form to occur in fiction. When you run across sentences that are trying to do to much, look for ways to trim details and parse the information into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Example:
My best friend Nancy, who lived down the hall from me and who I first met at a departmental wine-and-cheese event, wore her onyx hair in a braid, smoked clove cigarettes and went through boyfriends like Kleenex.

Possible fixes:
My best friend Nancy lived down the hall from me. We first met at a departmental wine-and-cheese event. She wore her onyx hair in a braid, smoked clove cigarettes and went through boyfriends like Kleenex.

Leaner:
I first met my best friend Nancy at a departmental wine-and-cheese event. Smoke from her clove cigarette had curled around her onyx braid and wafted toward her boyfriend-du-jour.

In some cases, your best fixes will come from deeper level rewrites like this. Instead of using a list to describe Nancy, I turned the descriptions into an active flashback.

Which of these areas trip you up most?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

photo credit: morguefile.com
Putting ourselves out there to be evaluated by others--whether it's for critique partners or blog readers or agents and editors or the reading public--will involve risk every time. We may get all negative feedback, all positive or a mixed bag. Any of these scenarios has the power to eviscerate our productivity, though.

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield offers this wisdom for keeping forward movement and using criticism well:

The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. Already the next will be better, and the one after better still.

The professional self-validates. She is tough-minded. In the face of indifference or adulation, she assesses her stuff coldly and objectively. Where it fell short, she'll improve it. Where it triumphed, she'll make it better still. She'll work harder. She'll be back tomorrow. (88)

Pressfield goes on to talk about the proper place of criticism and our work. We use it to change and grow, but don't let it feed our inner insecurities. Because the inner force that Pressfield calls "Resistance" wants more than anything for us to quit this whole writing business altogether.

I especially like the hope Pressfield offers here about our creative selves--that we're capable of many projects, thus success or failure on the work du jour should never have the power to make or break us. The amazing future-you will come into being as long as you keep showing up and working.

Have you struggled with crushing doubt in the face of criticism? What helped you pick up and move on?

If you could meet your future self, what would you ask her? What wisdom do you hope she'll have for you?
Wednesday, August 21, 2013 Laurel Garver
photo credit: morguefile.com
Putting ourselves out there to be evaluated by others--whether it's for critique partners or blog readers or agents and editors or the reading public--will involve risk every time. We may get all negative feedback, all positive or a mixed bag. Any of these scenarios has the power to eviscerate our productivity, though.

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield offers this wisdom for keeping forward movement and using criticism well:

The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. Already the next will be better, and the one after better still.

The professional self-validates. She is tough-minded. In the face of indifference or adulation, she assesses her stuff coldly and objectively. Where it fell short, she'll improve it. Where it triumphed, she'll make it better still. She'll work harder. She'll be back tomorrow. (88)

Pressfield goes on to talk about the proper place of criticism and our work. We use it to change and grow, but don't let it feed our inner insecurities. Because the inner force that Pressfield calls "Resistance" wants more than anything for us to quit this whole writing business altogether.

I especially like the hope Pressfield offers here about our creative selves--that we're capable of many projects, thus success or failure on the work du jour should never have the power to make or break us. The amazing future-you will come into being as long as you keep showing up and working.

Have you struggled with crushing doubt in the face of criticism? What helped you pick up and move on?

If you could meet your future self, what would you ask her? What wisdom do you hope she'll have for you?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Shushing my Internal Editor (IE) is always a tricky task for me. I don't have the luxury of shutting off this side of my brain for months at a time, because I need dear, old IE for my day job. I have, however, come up with a few tricks to keep her quiet when I'm drafting.

Highlighting

Photo credit: xandert from morguefile.com
Say you're happily drafting and suddenly get a brilliant idea that's going to make the whole story freaking awesome, BUT you'll need fix an entire earlier plotline to make it work. At times like this, IE rubs her hands with gleeful anticipation of your stopping dead in your tracks to revise.

The good news is you don't have to perfect the earlier scenes in order to keep going. You just need to keep track of changes you'll need to make during the next draft. In other words, NOTE the needed changes, but don't actually make them.

At the end of your drafting session, go back to earlier sections and highlight material that you will need to change. (This function is in the Font menu in MS Word.) Drop notes to yourself in brackets about why you plan to revise and possible ways you might do so. Voila! You've captured your ideas without losing your flow.

Brackets

IE likes my drafts to read very smoothly the first go-round, which is of course, ridiculous. Drafting is messy. It's about getting ideas onto paper/screen as quickly as possible.

When IE starts nagging me about something I've left out, I've realized I can usually shut her up pretty fast if I leave myself a quick note in brackets.

Some of my messier dialogue looks like this:

T: [action beat] What are you doing?

D: What does it look like I'm doing?

T: Hiding. We do have a dishwasher, you know.

[Describe: He steps closer, sweeps a little cloud of bubbles off her nose. Her visceral reaction.]

At at a later phase, I can decide how many dialogue tags I need, if any. I can also take the time to hunt for the perfect words to describe how my protagonist reacts bodily to an intimate gesture from someone she's fuming mad at.

Alternately, I might decide I don't want these characters fighting at this juncture. I may end up tossing this whole scene. The lovely thing is, I haven't agonized over the wording and become so married to it I can't bear to part with it. It's a choppy little experiment I can revise or cut with no hard feelings.

Slashes

There are times of day when my inner dictionary-thesaurus goes kaput and I can't readily call to mind the perfect word to capture my meaning. When I'm otherwise on a roll, I don't want to waste energy googling synonyms or flipping though reference books. Instead, I just plunk down a word cluster that approximates my meaning, separated with slashes. For example:

Towels from the middle of the stack slip and he dances/skitters/flounders around trying to right them.

During revision, I can search for slashes and make a decision then, based on what sounds best in the line and doesn't echo something else on the page.

What tricks do you use to keep the Inner Editor quiet when you're drafting? Have any other ideas for keeping your flow going?
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 Laurel Garver
Shushing my Internal Editor (IE) is always a tricky task for me. I don't have the luxury of shutting off this side of my brain for months at a time, because I need dear, old IE for my day job. I have, however, come up with a few tricks to keep her quiet when I'm drafting.

Highlighting

Photo credit: xandert from morguefile.com
Say you're happily drafting and suddenly get a brilliant idea that's going to make the whole story freaking awesome, BUT you'll need fix an entire earlier plotline to make it work. At times like this, IE rubs her hands with gleeful anticipation of your stopping dead in your tracks to revise.

The good news is you don't have to perfect the earlier scenes in order to keep going. You just need to keep track of changes you'll need to make during the next draft. In other words, NOTE the needed changes, but don't actually make them.

At the end of your drafting session, go back to earlier sections and highlight material that you will need to change. (This function is in the Font menu in MS Word.) Drop notes to yourself in brackets about why you plan to revise and possible ways you might do so. Voila! You've captured your ideas without losing your flow.

Brackets

IE likes my drafts to read very smoothly the first go-round, which is of course, ridiculous. Drafting is messy. It's about getting ideas onto paper/screen as quickly as possible.

When IE starts nagging me about something I've left out, I've realized I can usually shut her up pretty fast if I leave myself a quick note in brackets.

Some of my messier dialogue looks like this:

T: [action beat] What are you doing?

D: What does it look like I'm doing?

T: Hiding. We do have a dishwasher, you know.

[Describe: He steps closer, sweeps a little cloud of bubbles off her nose. Her visceral reaction.]

At at a later phase, I can decide how many dialogue tags I need, if any. I can also take the time to hunt for the perfect words to describe how my protagonist reacts bodily to an intimate gesture from someone she's fuming mad at.

Alternately, I might decide I don't want these characters fighting at this juncture. I may end up tossing this whole scene. The lovely thing is, I haven't agonized over the wording and become so married to it I can't bear to part with it. It's a choppy little experiment I can revise or cut with no hard feelings.

Slashes

There are times of day when my inner dictionary-thesaurus goes kaput and I can't readily call to mind the perfect word to capture my meaning. When I'm otherwise on a roll, I don't want to waste energy googling synonyms or flipping though reference books. Instead, I just plunk down a word cluster that approximates my meaning, separated with slashes. For example:

Towels from the middle of the stack slip and he dances/skitters/flounders around trying to right them.

During revision, I can search for slashes and make a decision then, based on what sounds best in the line and doesn't echo something else on the page.

What tricks do you use to keep the Inner Editor quiet when you're drafting? Have any other ideas for keeping your flow going?

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A recent library haul was eye-opening. Two of the four books had amazing voice, but the plots fizzled, in part because of what I'd call "subplot sputter-out." I've seen this ailment in contemporary YA more than other genres, and it got me pondering why that might be.

In analyzing the problematic plots, I found it helpful to contrast with a book that did succeed where the others failed. Because book three of the library haul was a winner: Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick. For brevity, I'll cite it as DG&DP.

The best books' subplots relate to the main plot. They complicate matters or shed light on the core story problem or bring surprising help to the MC. Less effective subplots pop in to create tension for the sake of tension, feel inorganic and almost never resolve.

I see three core areas to address in your plot when thinking about and creating effective subplots.

Stakes 

If your MC's dilemma is too low-stakes, you will be tempted to create tension for tension's sake with very random plot elements. You know what I mean--explosions, zombie attacks, unmotivated fights, suicide attempts, unplanned pregnancies and the like--because something needs to happen here.

Your novel's protagonist must have something at stake worthy of a 200+ page exploration. There must be something of great value to be lost, and the cost of that loss should be devastating. One can raise the stakes over the course of the book by upping the value of the desired thing (make winning it have multiple rewards) and/or making failure appear more and more costly (make losing it have multiple punishing effects).

DG&DP opens with 13-yo Steven voicing self-confidence problems and resentment of his angelic little brother. When angelic brother is diagnosed with leukemia, Steven's issues take on a whole new twist. Fighting for attention from parents and seeking status at school continue to plague Steven, and small wins in these subplots help him cope with the high-stakes main plot. It's because Steven is dealing with such a huge issue--possible death of a family member--that his moments of struggle with smallness matter very much. Will this trial make him grow up or regress? If he regresses, will it tear his fragile family apart?

The story-problem stakes give weight to the subplots and the subplots up the stakes of the story problem.

Natural consequences

The anxiety, stress, or time-suck of your main story problem will cause ripples in other areas of the MC's life. Think through what those might be and you can have tension-building subplots that feel organic.

In DG&DP, Steven's ability to concentrate at school evaporates. He begins to have confrontations with teachers about it. His options for repairing the problem involve tutoring with guess who? That's right, two love interests.

Steven's usual coping mechanism is to escape into music making. As a result, his skill improves and becomes his means of reaching out to others.

Relational fallout

In times of high stress, relationships around your MC will always be tested. Exploring how those around the MC help and/or hinder her can be a great way to build up and release tension. Those she seeks for support may disappoint, distract, disappear. The weak sidekick may show surprising strength when put to the test.

In DG&DP, the father character emotionally shuts down. Steven struggles with the very same tendencies, and seeing how his father's unavailability hurts him, he begins to change.


What are your thoughts about causes of subplot sputter-out? Read any good books lately that have organic subplots that support the main plot and resolve adequately?

A side observation: Sonnenblick's wonderful book was a debut novel, while the unnamed not-so-effective novels were by established authors. I often wonder if established authors are forced to write under tremendous deadline pressure and if their storytelling suffers as a result. What do you think?
Wednesday, August 07, 2013 Laurel Garver
A recent library haul was eye-opening. Two of the four books had amazing voice, but the plots fizzled, in part because of what I'd call "subplot sputter-out." I've seen this ailment in contemporary YA more than other genres, and it got me pondering why that might be.

In analyzing the problematic plots, I found it helpful to contrast with a book that did succeed where the others failed. Because book three of the library haul was a winner: Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick. For brevity, I'll cite it as DG&DP.

The best books' subplots relate to the main plot. They complicate matters or shed light on the core story problem or bring surprising help to the MC. Less effective subplots pop in to create tension for the sake of tension, feel inorganic and almost never resolve.

I see three core areas to address in your plot when thinking about and creating effective subplots.

Stakes 

If your MC's dilemma is too low-stakes, you will be tempted to create tension for tension's sake with very random plot elements. You know what I mean--explosions, zombie attacks, unmotivated fights, suicide attempts, unplanned pregnancies and the like--because something needs to happen here.

Your novel's protagonist must have something at stake worthy of a 200+ page exploration. There must be something of great value to be lost, and the cost of that loss should be devastating. One can raise the stakes over the course of the book by upping the value of the desired thing (make winning it have multiple rewards) and/or making failure appear more and more costly (make losing it have multiple punishing effects).

DG&DP opens with 13-yo Steven voicing self-confidence problems and resentment of his angelic little brother. When angelic brother is diagnosed with leukemia, Steven's issues take on a whole new twist. Fighting for attention from parents and seeking status at school continue to plague Steven, and small wins in these subplots help him cope with the high-stakes main plot. It's because Steven is dealing with such a huge issue--possible death of a family member--that his moments of struggle with smallness matter very much. Will this trial make him grow up or regress? If he regresses, will it tear his fragile family apart?

The story-problem stakes give weight to the subplots and the subplots up the stakes of the story problem.

Natural consequences

The anxiety, stress, or time-suck of your main story problem will cause ripples in other areas of the MC's life. Think through what those might be and you can have tension-building subplots that feel organic.

In DG&DP, Steven's ability to concentrate at school evaporates. He begins to have confrontations with teachers about it. His options for repairing the problem involve tutoring with guess who? That's right, two love interests.

Steven's usual coping mechanism is to escape into music making. As a result, his skill improves and becomes his means of reaching out to others.

Relational fallout

In times of high stress, relationships around your MC will always be tested. Exploring how those around the MC help and/or hinder her can be a great way to build up and release tension. Those she seeks for support may disappoint, distract, disappear. The weak sidekick may show surprising strength when put to the test.

In DG&DP, the father character emotionally shuts down. Steven struggles with the very same tendencies, and seeing how his father's unavailability hurts him, he begins to change.


What are your thoughts about causes of subplot sputter-out? Read any good books lately that have organic subplots that support the main plot and resolve adequately?

A side observation: Sonnenblick's wonderful book was a debut novel, while the unnamed not-so-effective novels were by established authors. I often wonder if established authors are forced to write under tremendous deadline pressure and if their storytelling suffers as a result. What do you think?