A Thankless Task and a Helpful Tool

One of the hardest things to do, in the writing business, is proofreading your own text.  I know that every time I give a story or a novel the final run-through before printing it out or e-mailing it, I worry that I’m going to miss something — an “untied” where there should be a “united”; a sentence that should have a period at the end of it but somehow mysteriously doesn’t (cut and paste is great for revising, but sometimes not everything gets picked up when it should); a “not” that’s gone missing, to the  complete and utter detriment of the intent of an entire paragraph, if not the whole work.

One reason the final proofing is so hard is that by the time you reach that stage of the project, you’ve already read every sentence in it multiple times, and your brain is going to take advantage of that experience to helpfully supply anything that might be missing, and correct anything that might be wrong.  To fight against that, writers do all sorts of things to counteract the familiarity of the text — have a text-to-speech program read it aloud; make a printout if they’ve been working only on-screen; change the page from the standard double-spaced publisher’s-guidelines layout to double columns; and my own favorite, change the font.

For work like this, you don’t want a pretty font.  You want one that’s almost aggressively in-your-face with its distinctive letterforms, one where the errors are going to leap off the page at you and go for the throat.

One such font is Lexia Readable; it’s also good for printing out a text you’re going to be reading aloud from.  Another good proofing font is DPCustomMono2, which was originally developed for proofreading OCR-generated texts.  But any font will do in a pinch, so long as it isn’t the one you’ve been reading the text in all along.



Go Look Over There

Or, somebody who isn’t me, saying something useful and interesting.  This time, it’s John Barnes, on the subject of what to do about Mary Sue when she (or he — Barnes also makes a convincing argument for why he, at least, applies the term to characters of both genders) turns up in your story.  Good stuff, and it goes beyond the usual alternatives of “give her a couple of cosmetic flaws” and “terminate her with extreme prejudice.”

Useful Bits of Hard-Earned Knowledge

…presented here for anyone who might need them:

  •  If the transmission dies on your car, don’t bother with getting it replaced. Instead, take this as a Sign From God that you are meant to trade in that car for a new — and different — model.
  •  If you are a freelancer, credit cards are the work of the devil. Nevertheless, if you are a freelancer, you will almost certainly need to have at least one. None of the ways out of this dilemma are optimal.
  • If you’re a freelancer, pay up front and in cash for whatever you can. There’s never any guarantee that you’ll have the money in your account later.
  • If the thought of having a poor credit rating makes you feel all dirty inside, you’re probably better off not trying for a freelance career in the arts or entertainment industries. Keep your day job and do the art on the side.
  • And if you can’t work a day job and still make time enough somehow to do the art you love, you probably don’t love it enough to do it full-time, either.

Another Thing Not to Do

As a general rule, avoid writing dialect.  If you don’t have a dead-on ear for that sort of thing, it’s not going to work — and the failure state of attempted dialect is truly dire.  Not only do you risk coming off as unintentionally funny (and “funny” is just one of the many many things in writing that you only want to be on purpose), you’re putting yourself in position to get called out for imposing a privileged outside-observer point of view upon the native speakers of whatever dialect you’re trying to write.

Furthermore, styles in writing change, and dialect has been out of fashion for some time now.  But it wasn’t always so.  English literature of the nineteenth century, in particular, was crammed full of painstaking representations of different dialects:  national dialects, regional dialects, class dialects, all carefully done in what passed (in those pre-International Phonetic Alphabet days) for phonetic spelling.  Sir Walter Scott did it — the characters in The Heart of Midlothian speak Scots broad enough to carpet a floor with — and Mark Twain did it and even Alfred, Lord Tennyson did it (check out his Northern Farmer: Old Style and Northern Farmer: New Style for a couple of wince-worthy examples.)  One reason for the popularity of written-out dialect pronunciation may have been the common practice at the time of reading books out loud in the family circle; if the reader wanted to “do the voices”, the written-out dialect would give him or her some guidelines.

Sometimes, the way the writer transcribed a character’s dialect said as much about the writer’s own dialect and that of his or her intended audience as it did about that of the characters.  Check out the coastal New England dialect as depicted by an educated Englishman for an English audience in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, for example.

(The Heart of Midlothian and Captains Courageous are both good books in spite of the dialect writing.  I don’t really recommend the Tennyson, though, except as a curiosity.)



Wanted: One Crystal Ball, in Good Working Order

Estimating the length of time it’s going to take to finish a project is a dark art at the best of times. Other times . . . .

“Four weeks? Sure.”
…time passes…
“Make that five, and I’ll have it by close of business on Friday.”
…more time passes…
“Um . . . Monday morning?”

Let’s just say it can make me feel like Achilles trying to catch that damned tortoise.

The Floating Eyeball Problem

Actually, it’s not just floating eyeballs.  It’s disassociated body parts in general.  Eyes are possibly the most common offenders — “her eyes darted around the room,” “his eyes fell to the floor,” and so on — but just about any part of the external anatomy can suddenly start wandering around and acting on its own.  (When this happens in the romance and erotica genres, the results can be . . . disconcerting, to say the least.)  At least in my opinion, if the word “eyes” can be replaced by “gaze” without changing the meaning of the sentence, then it damned well should be.

Likewise, if the whole sentence could just as easily be phrased, “he/she looked at whatever-it-was”, then for heaven’s sake, write it that way.

Disassociated body parts turn up in all sorts of writing, but the problem is most acute, and most dangerous, in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  Why?  Because those are the genres in which metaphor becomes reified, and in which — for example — detachable and/or self-propelled eyeballs are not outside the realm of possibility.

(I can think of at least three fantasy/science fiction examples right off the top of my head, and I’ll bet you can, too.)

All Good Things Must Come to an End

(In which I natter on about television, because I’m working on an editing gig and don’t want to distract myself by talking about writing.)

I think it’s fair to say that some TV series end better than others. Old-fashioned push-the-reset-button drama series and sitcoms didn’t have to do much work to tie off the story — M*A*S*H had the end of the war, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had the tv station close down, other shows just moved without a ripple into the eternal reruns of syndication — but the development of arc-based storytelling put a new burden on television writers, the need for giving the faithful viewers a satisfactory denouement, and I think we’re still seeing them figure out how to do it.

The X-Files wasn’t necessarily the first of the arc-based shows, but it was definitely the one that showed everybody else How Not to Do It. Its sins were many — lack of a clear backstory, failure to end at any one of several perfectly good stopping places, failure to redeem plot coupons the audience had been holding onto for several years in some cases — but it could, I think, have mitigated at least some small portion of its general Fail if it had only done one thing.

That thing? Establish some kind of victory condition early on, and see to it that at least some of the show’s sympathetic characters survived and met that condition. The X-Files disappointed us on almost every count: Mulder never found Samantha or got justice for her abduction/death/whatever; the big conspiracy was never revealed or thwarted or destroyed; Mulder and Scully never achieved vindication and professional recognition (in fact, their FBI careers basically go down the toilet); Scully never got to have and keep a kid; hell, not even the damned aliens got a satisfactory resolution, since they never got to do their Big Colonization Thing while we were watching, either.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, while it didn’t please all its viewers on all counts, succeeded in that one big thing. The show gave us, from the beginning, a main character with a big problem — to wit, her mystical destiny as “the one girl in all the world” — and at the end of the series not only have she and her friends defeated the final season’s Big Bad, she and they have succeeded in rewriting the terms of her destiny so that she is no longer forced to carry that burden alone.

More of the Good Stuff

From  time to time, most of us are moved by a desire to see more fiction out there about something. Possibly something noble and uplifting, in the “I want to see more fiction with realistic and empowered female characters” line; or possibly something not quite so noble and uplifting, more along the lines of “There should be more fiction about pirates; also, crossdressing.”

(Or you could combine the two, and get Anne Bonney and Mary Reed.)

One feels the urge, at this point, to explain to the writers of one’s acquaintance (which is to say, all the writers one has read, because they count as acquaintances for the purpose) that they should address this sad lack. One might even go so far, in the pursuit of the noble and uplifting, as to imply that the failure to do so represents a moral lapse on their part.

This is usually a bad idea. Writers are contrary creatures, who dislike being chivvied in directions they had not already planned to go; moreover, it is often the case that they do not so much choose what to write as write those things which present themselves and demand to be written. Attempting to extort the desired item is more likely to result in a cranky writer than in a piece of fiction meeting the necessary criteria.

The traditional next step, for those with the ability to do so, is to write one’s own fiction to meet the need. “I wrote the book I wanted to read that nobody was writing,” is a not-uncommon statement from writers asked to explain the origins of a particular work.

“But what about those of us who don’t/can’t write fiction?” one might ask. “What are we to do?”

Suffering in silence is probably a bad answer. Better to assume that if one feels the need for a particular kind of fiction, someone else probably does too — and would be happy to share his or her favorite examples of that kind of thing done right. One might even get together with other like-minded readers and post recommendations for more of the good stuff, whatever it might be.

Crossdressing pirate fic recs, anyone?

Buried Treasure

Literally.  A pair of hobbyists with a metal detector recently discovered an Iron Age silver hoard in Denmark:


The page is in Danish, but the pictures are more or less self-explanatory.

You have to understand, I’m the sort of person who considered the highlight of a visit to the British Museum to be the room with the Sutton Hoo treasures, and when the news broke back in ’09 about the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, I experienced a moment of sheer fannish delight.  (High-pitched noises of glee may have been involved.)

What does all this have to do with writing?  Not all that much, directly; but for me, at least, it’s all part of the furniture of my mind, the things that enticed me into medieval studies, and into fantasy as well.  As I commented once to a friend about the Sutton Hoo artifacts, “This is the stuff that dragons drool over.”

It’s Different in the Real World

Or, more reasons why in-person research is still important.  Some things just aren’t the way they look or sound on television and in the movies.

For example — explosions.  Black powder explosions (which is what you’ll be  getting with just about anything pre-dynamite, which is to say 1867) don’t go up in a blaze of flame like they do on television.  And they don’t go bang! either, they go whump! — a really loud, earthshaking whump!  When the gunpowder factory in our town blew up, the force of the explosion was enough to shake the car I was riding in, several blocks away. (The first thing I thought was, “Oh, no, the transmission’s fallen out again!”, which says more about the bad luck we’d had with our previous vehicle than anything else.)

Artillery, now . . . artillery makes a noise more like pom!, and distant artillery really does sound like thunder.  And musket fire rattles like a string of firecrackers going off.  It also fills the air with white smoke — the classic “fog of war”.  (I spent an enlightening afternoon, once, at a Revolutionary War re-enactment.  Being a writer, I took lots of mental notes.  If you’re doing anything historical, re-enactors can be a useful resource for hands-on look-and-feel stuff.)

And if your characters aren’t wearing ear protection, it’s going to be a while before they can have a conversation that isn’t mostly shouting and hand gestures.  That long talk full of angst and conscience-searching will have to be deferred until later.