Thursday, January 27, 2011

Too Much Of A Good Thing; or, Writing vs Overwriting

As apprentice writers, we're told that we need to make every sentence sing. We should choose our words carefully so that each can have maximum impact, making every verb and noun count. We should avoid passive verbs and colorless language at all costs.

But sometimes, I think it's possible to try too hard, to veer to the opposite end of the spectrum, so that rather than neat, concise prose, you end up with paragraphs that are working a little too hard to achieve the desired effect.

This week I picked up "How To Wash A Cat," by Rebecca Hale. The cover blurb sounded promising--first in a new mystery series, set in an antique shop in San Francisco, and of course, there are cats. Great recipe for a cozy mystery, in my book.

And so far, the story has entertained me, but every once in a while, a paragraph jumps out at me. Like this one:

I drug myself up the polished front steps of a high-rise office building and squeezed into a crowded elevator. My empty stomach lurched as the stifling cube zoomed skyward, finally pausing to hover at the 39th floor. My head woozing, I stepped gratefully out into the refrigerated air of an expansive lobby. A wall of windows spanned the left side of the room, framing an opulent view of the bay.

Now, as paragraphs go, it's not the worst one I've ever read. The sentences are all active, and the language is colorful.

But in many ways, it also reminds me of pictures I've seen of Victorian front parlours. I'm sure you've seen them: rooms where every surface that can have a fussy little doily, does. Only in this case, the surfaces are nouns, and the doilies are adjectives. So we end up with "polished steps" and "stifling cubes" and "refrigerated air".

Then, too, our POV character cannot seem to ever just walk anywhere. She drags, she squeezes, she hovers, and she lurches. I'm not sure I even want to think about the woozing.

Is it overwritten? I think it is, but then I've been trying to pare down paragraphs that started out far wordier than this one, so at the moment, my mind is more disposed to see words that can be removed rather than ones that could be added. Though too much of that isn't necessarily a good thing, either; taking out too many words would rob the author, and her character, of their "voice."

I guess the difference, in my mind, is between prose that sings versus prose that tap dances while wearing a costume covered in spangles and sequins, using all of the trickiest, most difficult steps, and ending in a grand flourish. Both can be entertaining. Which one is "better" depends very much on the tastes of the reader. Apparently, there were enough people who liked this book to put it on the New York Times bestseller list.

Will I finish reading the book? Probably. The story is an entertaining one so far, and lurching stomachs and stifling cubes aside, the author has a knack for a witty turn of phrase. Whether or not I pick up the sequel has yet to be resolved, however.

Have you ever encountered prose you felt was overwritten? What, in your opinion, are the symptoms of overwriting? Is it necessarily a bad thing?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Doing The Splits; or Maybe You're Not Writing One Book, But Two

I have a confession to make.

I've really been struggling with my current WIP, the second book of the "Daughters of August Winterbourne" series. It's not that I wasn't enjoying writing the story, because I was. But before I'd started, I'd put together a rough outline of things I thought ought to happen in the book. And after three months and almost 90,000 words, I was only about a third of the way through my outline. Which meant that the finished product was headed for...way too long.


On top of which, at about 75,000 words, one of my characters did something unexpected but perfectly logical. But it was also something that was sure to add a good 20,000 to the word count.

That was when work on the piece slowed to a crawl. Inner Editor was making loud growly noises and refused to shut up about it. "Why are you writing this scene? You'll just have to cut it out later anyway," she kept saying.

Then, one night earlier this week, as I was driving home from work, I was pondering the new developments in the plot, and trying to figure out what I could cut out and still have the story make sense. And I realized that the new plot twist I had added had changed the dynamic of the story, creating an arc that could be resolved nicely at a point about halfway through the outline I had originally laid out. And that what was left after that would make a nice story on its own.

In other words, the story had just neatly divided itself in half. And when I looked at the plot arc for each was much neater, cleaner, and more interesting, and allowed for some development of key characters and their relationships.

Well, then. My neat, tidy trilogy just grew into a four book series. I suppose worse things have happened.

(Note that I felt somewhat better about this revelation when, at a convention this weekend, a published author admitted to having had the same thing happen to her.)

So how do other people to tell what makes a book a good complete story?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Shine A Little Love; or, Secondary Characters Need Attention, Too!

Sorry for the late posting this week. I've been fighting off a cold. Still not sure whether I'm winning or losing, but that's beside the point.

This week, I want to blather on for a bit about secondary characters. You know, those characters in your story who need to be there to make things work -- the sidekicks, the younger sisters, the best friends, all those characters who help us reveal plot and give our main characters someone to talk to besides each other (and themselves) all the time.

Secondary characters don't generally get as much attention as the main characters, for obvious reasons -- if they did, they'd be main characters, right? But it's still important to flesh them out enough to make them real, so that it makes sense for your main characters to interact with them.

So since they don't get as much screen time, so to speak, it's even more important that the time they do get really counts. Some things I've found that help are:

1) Keep descriptions concise. You don't need to describe every last freckle on your MC's best friend's nose, but it might be nice to know that she has freckles. And a nose, for that matter.

2) Stereotypes = cardboard characters = boring. While it might be tempting to paint the county sheriff who just pulled your hero over in Dukes of Hazzard colors...hasn't that been done to death? Why not try something a little unusual? Give him an Aussie accent, or make her look like she's seventeen -- with a steel core.

3) Give them a little backstory -- even if it's just in your notes. The orphan your heroine just pulled out of the rubble of a building after an earthquake might look like an ordinary twelve year old -- but what if he has a slide rule collection, plays the theremin, and took first at last year's county science fair? All of a sudden, he's a different kid, right? Which is not to say that you should be quite that extreme, but give the reader a mental tag to attach to the character, so that when he shows up again later, they can think, "Oh, right, Theremin Kid, I remember him!"

4) Have a clear vision of who the character is and what they're doing in your story. Dad's new wife might come on like a wicked stepmother at first, but what if there's more to her than that? What if she turns out to be the one person who can help the MC solve the mystery? Or what if she's really a spy? Keep these things in mind whenever this character is "on screen," so you can keep the character consistent.

But, you ask, how do you keep track of all of these things? Well, for every story I write, I start an Excel spreadsheet with columns for the character's name, age, hair and eye colors, distinguishing features, and a brief history. In my current WIP, which takes place on a college campus, I added extra columns showing everyone's major and what year they're in (if they're students). You still probably won't catch everything on your first draft, but as you edit, go back and revisit these notes to remind yourself what you planned to do with this character, and check to see whether all of his/her actions still fit.

What are some other tricks and tips people have for working with secondary characters?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Dear Mr. Bowdler; or Cleaning Up Huck Finn

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last week, you've probably heard that there's a new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" being published that has been "sanitized for your protection." Most notably, the "N-word" has been replaced with the word, "slave" (though there are supposed to be some other changes as well.)

The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. I couldn't figure out why, until I looked at it from a writer's perspective.

"Huckleberry Finn" is written from a first-person perspective of the title character. In other words, this is the world as Huck Finn sees it, and the only way we get to know Huck himself is through his "voice". The words he chooses tell us volumes about his background, his social class, his level of education, and his age. By changing his vocabulary to words that are supposedly less demeaning and offensive, the publishers are changing the voice, and therefore his character.

As an author (even an unpublished one), I hate the thought that someone could do something similar to my stories once I'm no longer around to defend them. An author puts a great deal of effort into creating the most subtle of nuances for their characters. Changing a character's voice would be like touching up the Mona Lisa with neon-paints, because those old-fashioned color schemes, while true to their day, are too dark for modern audiences.

It's not a new problem, of course. In the early 1800's, Thomas Bowdler decided that Shakespeare was too racy and improper for his wife and children to read aloud -- heavens forfend that passages such as, "Out, damned spot!" be uttered by a lady of refinement. So he published an edition that met his moral standards. It met with the approval of many morally-inclined people in its day, but was Lady Macbeth ever the same afterwards?

My other concern is that, having decided to make these changes to Huckleberry Finn, what work of literature will the sanitizers decide to go after next? Certainly there are a lot of works from the past that do not measure up to today's standards of political correctness, and not even always the ones you'd suspect. But where do we draw the line?

Case in point: One of my favorite authors is Gene Stratton-Porter, an early-twentieth-century author whose books usually combine a strong love of nature with elements of romance and coming of age. They're sweet and uplifting and generally wholesome reading. Except for "Her Father's Daughter"--which combines these same elements with a large helping of anti-Japanese paranoia! (The link takes you to a free Kindle download on I'd like to think that we're more enlightened about such things now. But does that mean that the anti-Japanese parts of the novel should be excised so as to avoid contaminating young minds? Or should they, like the racist terms used in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," be allowed to remain so that we can study them, learn from them, and try not to repeat our mistakes?

And what of contemporary novels and works of literature? Many books today contain language that some consider offensive. Should it be cleaned up so that those who don't wish to read those sorts of words don't have to, or would it change the stories so as to make them unrecognizeable? To use another metaphor, what if you cleaned all of the swear words and potentially offensive content out of a Kevin Smith film. Would there be anything left?

I guess when presented with questions such as these, I have to come down on the side of protecting the author's original intention. Because it's a very short trip from "sanitizing" to censorship, and I, for one, don't want anyone to tell me what kinds of characters and situations I can have in my stories, or to have someone "fix" them for me later.

What's your take?