Thursday, August 20, 2009

Passing Parade

You speak, so the old saw about teaching goes, to a passing parade. You can offer something up, but if you wait a few minutes, somebody new will be arriving, and you can say the same thing over again -- it'll be new to them. (When I first started going to science fiction conventions, I marveled at how knowledgeable the writers on the panels were -- they had all the answers! Later, I realized that was because they had heard all the questions many times before. Whole comedy routines have been worked up to answer the question, "Where do you get your ideas?")

As a writer, I've tried to be of the one-hand-up-one-hand-down philosophy. Reach up for help with one, offer it with the other. Now and again, I get requests from newbies, and if they are well-framed, and if I have the time, I usually try and do what I can to help 'em gain a step or two up the mountain. Part of the dues I feel I should pay.

Got an email a few days ago from a writer whose first novel is about to be published by a small press. Already to the copy-edited stage, and would I be interested in taking a look to the end of offering a cover quote that might help sell a few more copies?

Sure. Send it along.

So I read the book. It's a fantasy, lot of violent action, not a bad story. But I couldn't give the guy a quote, even though I usually can find something good, if somewhat qualified, to say about a professional-level novel.

This one had too many clunks in it on the writing side -- I kept getting stopped short, and in the end, I couldn't in good conscience offer a quote because it wasn't a professional-class work. "Not the absolute worst thing I have ever read." isn't going to be very useful on a cover.

If the book had indeed been edited, the editor ought to be charged with malpractice.

And the problems -- here the passing parade thing -- were things to which I have spoken here extensively: Said-bookisms, Swifties (adverb poisoning) and too many story-slowing -ing verb forms. What is that, past continuous tense? Progressive? Grammar is not my strength ...

Here, examples:

"Stepping over the body, Harold rasped pensively to Maude, 'Oh, drat.'"

"Nodding her head in agreement, Maude croaked dispiritedly, 'I hear that.'"

See how those lines just lie there, like a couple of harpooned walruses?

A rule of thumb for active dialog is this: Use "said" whenever you need attribution. Yes, it's boring. It's supposed to be boring. To disappear. Anything else should be considered as one might consider using ghost peppers -- just a dab in a big pot, it adds flavor. More than a little bit ruins the dish for most people. Ditto adverbs, and the -ing verb forms, too.

Simple past tense is ever so much cleaner and more muscular: "She nodded." "He stepped."

You do not want to call attention to your dialog by having people hiss, spit, stammer, moan, bristle, chide, wince, laugh derisively, smack their foreheads jokingly, or anything else like it with any frequency.

A lot of newbie writers make these mistakes, because nobody has ever taught them otherwise.

Yoo hoo! Listen up: Do not do this!

This writer replied graciously, allowed as how it was useful criticism, and he would apply it in his future efforts. Nice to hear that, and I allowed as how I would take another look at his stuff if he did.

There are some lessons you have to learn to get by. They can be easy or they can be hard, but learn them you must ...


Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

I'm beginning to lose my faith in editors. I just had one publish (online) a story of mine with a grammatical error that she had introduced. I pointed it out to her, but she insisted that she was correct: I couldn't get her to change it back.

jks9199 said...

I'm becoming more and more convinced that most people's writing would benefit greatly from reading and applying The Elements of Style...

I read way too many police reports that misuse basic words trying to sound official. (How do you "respond" to an address when nobody summoned you there?) Or "advised" instead of "said."

Ian SADLER said...

in reply to JKS...

We use 'acting on information received Police {insert action}'

Seems to work for us :-)

TKimWrSvc said...

From a writing and a freelance editing standpoint I really think I needed to read this. Thank you very much.