Sunday, October 06, 2013

Nutshell Spoilers and the Rhetorical No-no.

Doing a ton of critiques for Writers Digest has been exhausting but fun, too. I'm in the home stretch -- 180 down, 20 to go -- and should finish in the next couple of days. I'll tell you this: 200 critiques in a row means common opening problems become crystal clear. I'm going to talk about a couple of pervasive ones today.

Please know, I AM NOT PICKING ON ANYONE. Everyone who sent in work to be critiqued is BRAVE and AMAZING, and this is NOT a negative reflection of any one person's work at all.

Out of 200 critiques, I'd say easily 85% of them had at least one, if not both, of these problems. Which means, obviously, they are common and easily fixable issues. . . and if this high a percentage of the WD crits had them, chances are, lots of people who did NOT get a crit may be helped by this info, too.


This is a very common problem in first drafts. It's where the author starts with a paragraph that tells the reader in a nutshell what is about to happen, and/or the lesson that the main character will learn by the end of the scene, chapter or even the end of the book. . . and then the actual scene starts. It's almost like the "thesis statement" we used to have to write in school essays. Like so:
It was a day like any other. Little did Moxie the Dog know, but her world was about to get rocked. Not only would a new person soon be moving in to the house . . . but that person was bringing a CAT. Moxie had never met a cat, and probably would like to eat cat. There was bound to be trouble. But the two will have to learn to get along and even be friends if they are going to get through the next six months.

The doorbell rang again. Moxie was barking ferociously and leaping at the door. "BE NICE, it's just my new roommate!" Jennifer the Human yelled. "You'd better get used to it, Moxie, because she is going to live here now."
Not only is this clunky example torn from the headlines (my sister and her cat are coming to stay at my house soon!), but it illustrates the problem: it tells the reader what is about to happen before it happens, or gives away the end before the story even starts. It's not foreshadowing, it's a tension-killer. Since the author has gone to the trouble of chewing and digesting the information for me, I don't have to read on.

The good news is, it's extremely easy to fix this. Just get out the ol' red pen and start with the actual beginning of the scene.


Often in drafts, the author peppers the main character's thoughts with rhetorical questions.

Here are some NON-rhetorical questions: When your character asks questions inside their own brain, who, exactly, is your character asking? Themselves? The reader? Are they breaking the fourth wall? If it is a thing where you have a very voicey narrator that is addressing the audience throughout the whole book, the occasional question is probably OK. Otherwise, can it.

Rhetorical questions make your character sound wishy-washy and confused. It reads like shorthand or filler; like you've left a note for yourself: "develop this later!" They're ALMOST ALWAYS better expressed as declarative statements. And recasting them as statements often gives you a chance to give us a taste of character or a sense of the stakes in an unobtrusive way.
ORIGINAL: "Can I even get this done in time? What if I blame it on Aliens?"

RECAST:  "There is no way I can get this done before school, and using the old 'Abducted by Aliens' routine isn't gonna fly this time around."

ORIGINAL: "I'd tried everything. Is it even possible to get rid of freckles? Is there such a thing as an anti-freckle potion?"

RECAST: "I'd scrubbed, rubbed, and even tried whipping up Freckle Juice like in that Judy Blume book we read in second grade. These blotches weren't going anywhere."
Like the Thesis Statement Spoilers above, rhetorical questions are another real tension-killer. There's a recent post on Mary Kole's blog that addresses problems with this tactic in much greater detail, but suffice to say: it's another way authors pre-chew the information for readers. It's almost like you are pointing the reader to what you want them to think or the conclusion you want them to draw, without allowing them the opportunity to piece the clues together themselves.

Trust your reader. We WANT to go on a journey with you and your characters! :-)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

On Diversity and Character Depth

The majority of submissions I get are about kids and teens who are white, comfortably well off, able-bodied, secular, average-sized, cis-gender and straight. Maybe (in fact, probably) their race or economic status or religion or sexual orientation or whatever is never mentioned... but let's get real, if it isn't mentioned in any way EVER, the reader is going to assume and "default normal."

The question of WHY white-rich-ablebodied-secular-averagesized-cis-straight people are "default" in this country, or how to change that, is not one I'm prepared to tackle -- just let's go with the fact that at this point in time, it is the case that the people in this country who tend to think about race least often are WHITE PEOPLE. The people for whom money is rarely an issue are WEALTHY PEOPLE. Right or wrong, if you never ever mention anything about money or race, your reader will probably assume your characters are relatively well-off and white. And the same goes for all those other categories.

So does that mean you just need to randomly make all your characters Black or Japanese (or whatever) but have all their other dealings be exactly the same as they would otherwise be? Um. . . no. Nor does it mean that you should force a "mixed salad" tokenism where each and every character has one thing different about them. That's silly.

Taking your characters beyond "default" is really just about giving them dimension. If your character is deaf or blind or a wheelchair user or obese or agoraphobic, or doesn't speak the language, or is a child prodigy, or an uncomfortable fashionista wearing absurdly high heels, or an uber-confident princess wearing an ostentatious diamond necklace . . . or heck, even a super-mousy shy kid in a plain school uniform . . . each of these characters will certainly think differently about how to best navigate the crowded and unfamiliar stair-filled subway platform. They each might notice different and unexpected things in the auditorium on the first day of school. So if you don't mention anything about who they are, your reader will fill in with the easiest thing, which is a blank and boring "default." Which, OK. . . but again, characters who make interesting choices and observations have depth and are usually way cooler characters to read about.

"Look, my characters are just going to Mickey-D's, let's not make a big deal out of it."

Not every split second in your book will be able to further the plot. But, pretty much anything your character does, if it is important enough to put in a book, should reveal something about them. Even mudane things. Hell, ESPECIALLY mundane things.

If your character is going to eat at McDonalds, where they come from will inform how they approach that experience. Do they keep kosher? Are they diabetic? Do they have body issues? Must they stick to the value meal and worry about it? Do they recognize the person behind the counter? Is it their sister? Are they skeeved out because it is dirty in there and they saw a PBS show about what goes in the chicken nuggets and now they are wiping everything down with hand sanitizer and ordering vegetarian? Are they waiting for the bathroom because they need to brush their teeth and change clothes? Is it the one place they can meet up with their boyfriend away from the prying eyes of their family? Do they eat fast and thoughtlessly because they are wrapped up in writing a sonata and don't even notice their surroundings? Any of these choices would reveal something about the character. Otherwise, why bother putting it in the book?

"But I've heard you say you want books where people are just [gay, bi, queer, trans, etc], and being [any of these things] is not a PROBLEM." 

Sure. Being gay [or whatever else] isn't a bad thing. It doesn't need to be a problem. Just, most of the books I see in this vein are coming-out narratives that include being disowned and beaten up or worse. While this is no doubt the experience of some people, it's not the only story, and it is a story that has been told a lot. I'd rather hear a different story.

Still, if you are tempted to just not mention gayness, you are making it invisible.

I don't want it to be invisible. It's real, and important.

"But I don't want to write an ISSUE BOOK!"

I'm not saying all books should include grinding poverty or racial unrest or fat activism or queer kissing or ANYTHING. (Well, actually, maybe all books should include queer kissing.) (KIDDING!) (or am I?) . . . Annnnyway, I don't think it has to be an issue book to reflect reality. I think it just has to reflect reality. If you want a book with interesting and vibrant characters, they should be multi-faceted and not cookie-cutter default. . . Reality happens to include all kinds of people.

I'm also not saying "I hate books about [xyz] people" OR "I only want to rep books about [xyz] people."

I think anything you want to write about is FINE. I'm not the topic-police. I'm just saying, straight-cis-white-ablebodied-uppermiddleclass main characters are the vast majority of what fills the ol' inbox (and, for that matter, the bookstore). So non-default stories, whatever they may be, will feel fresh, and are likely stand out in a good way.