One of Those Days

Every so often, a day comes along when absolutely nothing gets done.  Today was a day like that.

Well, I did make a beef stew and push on with the current editing gig, but as accomplishments go that doesn’t count for much.

I blame the weather, because — well, why not?

And just one heartfelt plea:  before you send out your finished manuscript, take a minute to go over the rules for English dialogue punctuation and double-check to make certain that you’ve been following them.  Pretty please? With sugar on top?

Your beta readers, editors, and copyeditors will thank you.

Say It

The simplest and best verb for dialogue attribution is said.  Plain and simple, and — as I think I’ve mentioned here before — effectively invisible.  Other verbs like replied, stated, mentioned, affirmed, and the like are also valid, but should be used sparingly and in proper context.  Replied only works when the speaker is responding directly to something somebody else has just said, for instance, and stated goes with declarative sentences in which a fact or opinion is being asserted.

And then there are the verbs which are not meant for dialogue attribution at all.  Smile, for example.  People don’t smile things, they say them.  They may say them smilingly, or say them, smiling, but smile does not equal say and shouldn’t be used as if it does.  The same goes for any other gesture or facial expression — no shrug or wink or grimace is the equivalent of speech.

I’m just sayin’.

Peeve of the Day

I don’t like novels or short stories where the author deliberately withholds stuff from the reader.

I’m not talking about mysteries, where part of the fun is in the puzzle and in the timing of the revelations; also, part of the thematic point of most mystery novels — even more than questions of innocence and guilt and justice — is the revelation of truth.  I’m talking about stories where there is something significant about one of the characters, or about some aspect of the general milieu of the story, or about the resolution, that the author clearly knows but doesn’t choose to tell, instead toying with the reveal like a fan dancer in the burlesque.

Stories where the gender of the main character or first person narrator is kept hidden — especially if it’s revealed, gotcha!-fashion, at the end — are a particular irritant as far as I’m concerned.  This, I will admit, is mostly a matter of personal taste, since I have known discriminating readers for whom such stories were like catnip to a Siamese.  And it’s not even an absolute thing with me; I’m quite fond of the mystery novels of the late Sarah Caudwell, who never did reveal the gender of their first-person narrator, Professor Hilary Tamar.  (I always pictured Professor Tamar as looking rather like an anthropomorphic sheep as drawn by Sir John Tenniel for a missing scene from Alice in Wonderland . . . in the absence of data, the human mind does strange things.)  But Caudwell is a case of good writing plus good story trumping almost everything else; but a story that isn’t top-notch in both those areas is going to lose me before it goes very far.

Almost as irritating, where I’m concerned, are stories where the resolution is left open, in “The Lady or the Tiger” fashion, especially when the story seems to be offering the reader a deliberate ambiguity in order to establish some sort of literary street cred.  Again, some people find endings like that to be right down their alley; I’m just not one of them.  Instead, such endings make me cranky and resentful, because I always suspect in my heart that the author knows the true ending and is deliberately holding out on me — I think it’s because, as a writer, I can’t imagine not knowing the true ending of something I’ve written.

The moral of the story, if there is one:  Don’t ever be accidentally ambiguous.  If you’re going to do it, do it on purpose, in the full awareness that you’re probably going to lose some of your audience that way, and in the firm belief that whatever you’re trying to do or say with your story is worth the risk.

Dash It All!

Where would writers be without the helpful em-dash?

A dash, the style manuals helpfully state, indicates a break in the sentence, or (as part of a pair) encloses a parenthetical statement.  In practice, this makes the dash an informal replacement for several other pieces of punctuation:  parentheses, the colon, the semicolon, even ellipses.

It’s the protean nature of the dash that presents the greatest hazard.  Being so useful in a variety of different situations, it’s vulnerable to overuse.  A writer who isn’t careful can end up with a page full of dash-filled sentences, which lends a sort of panting urgency to the prose that usually isn’t wanted.  The best general advice I ever read on the subject was a stricture I encountered in a media fanzine back in the pre-internet era, and it ran something like this:  “If you use more than two dashes in one paragraph, you aren’t allowed to use any at all in the next.  So there.”

There’s a higher-level version of the same problem, involving semicolons.  There are some writers — I plead guilty here — who like semicolons entirely too much.  If I’m not careful, I can find myself committing a three-sentence paragraph where all three sentences feature independent clauses joined together by semicolons.  At that point, I have to force myself to take an axe to at least two of those sentences and break them back up into their component clauses.

Sometimes, though, I cheat, and replace one of the semicolons with a dash instead.

There’s also a shorter version, the en-dash, but its uses are much more restricted and frankly, if you use a hyphen nobody’s going to call you on it. Well, maybe the typesetter, but unless you’re being your own desktop publisher, you aren’t likely to ever meet him or her.

I believe the zine reviewer in question was noted Star Trek fan Paula Block, but at this remove I can’t be sure. Whoever it was, I owe her for the words of wisdom.

Shiny Internet Stuff

Writers are intellectual packrats.    Set one down in a used book store or a library sale, and he or she is likely to come away with a history of carrier pigeons in World War I, a Peruvian vegetarian cookbook (in Spanish), and five non-consecutive volumes of The Bobbsey Twins . . . all on the grounds that “they might come in handy someday.”

Their browser bookmark lists are equally eclectic — you never know, after all, what information you might turn out to need.  Today’s interesting find:  a YouTube video by a woman whose passion is historical-recreationist hairdressing; in this one, she first dissects and then re-creates the complex seven-braid hairstyle of the Roman Vestal Virgins (and Roman brides, but they only had to wear it for one day instead of all the time.)

She doesn’t speculate on the maintenance of the hairstyle — and it’s not the sort of thing that the ancient Roman primary sources, being written by men, would have bothered to talk, or even think, about — but just from looking at the way the hair was first braided and then put up, I’d guess that the multiple braids were done once or twice a month (or week, or whatever — I’m not an expert on braid-care), and then the style itself was put up in the morning and taken down again at night.

So Today was a Short Story Day

We’re about two drafts in on what will probably be a three or four draft story.

The thing about short stories is that they don’t leave you any room for error.  If a novel is like cruising along in a jetliner at 30,000 feet, a short story is like flying a WWI biplane at treetop level without a parachute.  One mistake, and you’re toast.

This is why I keep telling people that writing a novel is a lot easier than writing a short story — it just takes longer.

The Fine Art of Handwaving

If you’re going to write in the science fiction or fantasy genres, sooner or later you’re going to end up handwaving an explanation.  Other genres sometimes do it too, but other genres don’t regularly work with props and plot elements that don’t yet and may never exist.

Some handwaving is easy, because the genre as a whole expects it.  Take faster-than-light space travel, for example — sf writers have been handwaving that one for so long that all they need to say is something like “hyperspace” or “wormhole jump” and the reader is there for the ride.  Readers aren’t dumb.  They know perfectly well that if the author of the story actually had the plans for a working faster-than-light drive, he or she wouldn’t be writing adventure stories for a living.   Too much explanation, in this case, would bring on a case of Handwaving Fail — all the audience wants to know is that the author is aware of the problems with faster-than-light travel, and that for the purposes of the story, those problems have been solved.  They don’t really want all the equations plus a diagram.

Sometimes the handwaving has to be subtler.  If you’re introducing a bit of tech that you’ve postulated just for the occasion, don’t draw attention to its extraordinary or purpose-built nature.  If you talk about it and around it as though it’s been hanging around the laboratory or the workbench or whatever since well before the current problems started, the reader will think of it as just another piece of the furniture, and with that you can slip it into its place in the story without occasioning comment.

If you’re looking at the need for a really large job of handwaving, stronger measures may be required.  My husband and I once co-wrote a YA thriller for a packaged series, and found ourselves working with a plot that would have ground to a shuddering halt if the main character had ever actually sat down and talked to the police about what was going on.  We got past that difficulty — and did it without making our main character an idiot — by compressing the timeline of the novel into two or three days and keeping our protagonist on the move and short on sleep the whole time.

So.  Three general tips:

Use built-in handwaves where the genre allows for them.

Don’t point at what you’re handwaving.

And when in doubt, keep things moving fast enough that nobody has time to stop and think.


A Useful Bit of Kitchen Trivia

Sometimes you need to time a quick one minute, or a quick three minutes, of cooking time.  (Stir-fry recipes in particular are fond of directions like that.)  And sometimes you don’t have a kitchen timer handy, or maybe you’ve got two or three one-minute steps right after the other with no time to set a timer in between.

At times like these, it helps to know that a dramatic recitation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” all the way through — no rushing or mumbling — takes about one minute.

(Medieval recipes would give similar timing directions.   “A Paternoster while” is the length of time it takes to say the Lord’s Prayer in Latin once through — about thirty seconds if you don’t rush it.  “Two Aves and a Paternoster” is about a minute.)

When you’re messing about in the kitchen, knowing a handy estimator like that one is as useful as knowing — in a writing context — that a page of 12-point Courier in standard manuscript format equals roughly 250 words and will take about a minute to read aloud.

Tales from the Before Time, Round Two

All writers have a few horror stories to tell.  This is one of ours.

It happened quite a while ago, back when one of the ways that young (or youngish, anyhow) freelance novelists made their grocery money was by writing work-for-hire YA series novels for book packagers.  The way the process usually worked was like this:  a book packager would come up with an idea for a six-book series — I’m still not sure why six was usually the magic number — and sell it to a publisher.  Then the book packager would find one or two or even six hungry writers to write the individual volumes, based on a series bible created by the packager.  The deadlines were usually short, the pay was usually low, the royalties were in almost all cases nonexistent, and the series bibles were either laughably nonspecific or so nitpicking as to be ridiculous.

But groceries have to be bought, so there we were.

We’d written the second book in a YA series which shall remain nameless, and I flatter myself that we’d actually done a pretty good job working within the constraints of the project.  We’d finished the manuscript and turned it in; we’d done the necessary revisions; we’d gotten back the copyedited manuscript and gone over it and turned it back in; we’d gone over the galleys and sent them back in; and as far as we knew, we were done.  So we packed up the mini-van and went down to New York for a few days to visit my husband and coauthor’s old family homestead — and returned to find an “attempted delivery” FedEx notice on our front door and a “Call me right now!” message on our answering machine from our editor at the book packager.

What had happened while we were away:  The cover flats for the novels in the series had come back from the printer  (in packager-land, in those days, the covers were often printed before the novels were even written), and only then did the editor discover that the graphic designer had made the spine of the novel too small for the contracted word length of the novels in the series.  Reprinting the covers was out of the question — too time-consuming and too expensive.  Instead, each of the novels in the series was going to have to lose 10,000 typeset words.

We were lucky.  We got a copy of the galleys (that was the FedEx package), and I got to go through it removing single words and parts of sentences with a pair of tweezers sharp red pencil while keeping a running count of the total on a handy scratchpad, which meant that by the time I was finished, the novel — while considerably attenuated — at least still made sense.  The first novel in the series had entire paragraphs and even whole scenes removed with a hatchet by the editor, because it was scheduled to go to the printers the very next day.

(Before you ask:  I don’t know what happened to the graphic designer.  But I do know that it always pays to be nice to the publisher’s art department, because if they decide that they don’t like you, they have it in their power to do dreadful things.)

A Thing to Do with Brownies. Also with Plots.

If you’ve got a box of brownie mix — or a somewhat pedestrian scratch brownie recipe — you can elevate plain but good brownies into interestingly different brownies with the addition of about a teaspoon of cinnamon and a scant quarter-teaspoon of cayenne pepper.

You can do the same thing with a standard plot.  Throw in a couple of unexpected elements, something sweet and fragrant like cinnamon and something hot and tingly like cayenne pepper, and an ordinary story becomes a pleasing departure from what the reader expected — while at the same time still being the solid good thing (mmm, chocolate)  that he or she wanted in the first place.