We’ve moved…please join us at our new site!

Good morning!  We recently moved our blog directly onto our website.  Please check us out over at EdwardAllenPublishing.com to continue the conversations!

My final (for now) posting about Voice can be found here.

Please note, this blog site will be deactivated in the next day or so.

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The Nation Speaks … in a Manner of Speaking

I worry sometimes that I wrote myself into a corner when I told you about robo-editing. Most of the problems I will discuss here twice monthly are caused by the robotic enforcement of rules that demand human judgment.  

One of the hallmarks of robo-editing is the inability to read language figuratively. Robo-editors cannot appreciate that not everything you put on the page is meant to be read literally. As a consequence, they will alter or delete perfectly decent figurative language with notes like, “The nation doesn’t actually speak.” Many of my colleagues have received marks like this from critique partners. I’ve received marks like this. I imagine some of you have, too.

There is an unspoken rule between critiquers and the critiqued that one can’t say such marks are unhelpful. I will now break that rule for you. This is unhelpful.

During the happiest time of my life, the four years I spent at the University of Virginia, one of my professors passed out a drawing depicting what someone would look like if the figurative descriptions used in classic poetry were read as literal truth. This portrait, barely recognizable as a human female, had pearls instead of teeth, globes for eyes, rose petals for lips and cheeks, and a couple of melons protruding from the bodice of her dress.

She was hideous. I wish I could find it to show you, but we all got a good laugh out of it.

The point of this drawing is that the woman described in this way is not offended because she understands that her lips are not actually rose petals (fragile, easily crushed, and prone to wilting). Instead, the writer has taken the wonder of nature that is the single rose petal and put her lips on the same pedestal. Most of us get that.

Juliet isn’t actually the blazing ball of gas at the center of our solar system. No one’s spirit, to the extent such a thing is tangible, has ever actually soared anywhere. The nation does not actually mourn or rejoice. The reader is presumed to be sharp enough to figure that out, as well as what you really meant, with a minimum of hand-holding. Your readers are that sharp. Trust me.

Even if they’re not that sharp – and I assure you that they are – isn’t it better to behave as if they are, instead of leaning in the opposite direction?

The robo-editor, however, seems to honestly believe that your reader is incapable of determining that you are using figurative language when you say that the nation speaks (and you are, it’s called synecdoche). Alternately, the robo-editor hasn’t made that leap itself. Neither situation is good.

Eliminating all figurative language essentially forces you to tell instead of showing. Robo-editors are great at telling. Good luck eliminating figurative language if you write something with high emotional content. I dare you to try writing romance that way.

This component of robo-editing, like so many others, is based on some misinformation about the language. Many robo-editors believe that they are removing clichés. Let us be clear: figurative language is not per se clichéd. Things become clichéd with overuse. Don’t delete the fire in someone’s eyes because there isn’t actually a fire (ouchie!). Delete it because it’s been done to death.

The last time I was robo-edited in this way, I had written about something – probably bedsprings – protesting under a character’s weight. I got back a note that read something like, “Protesting is an emotional act, which springs are not capable of performing. J” I think the whole sentence had been deleted, but hey, nice of them to leave me a smiley face, right?

I resolved to take the robo-editor’s advice with a grain of salt. Ultimately, it took quite a few grains of salt, arranged around the rim of a glass.

My guess here is that the robot editor is the only one who thinks I carefully placed several grains of salt around the rim of a glass in order to cope with its advice. I suspect that most of my readers would think I had a drink. I cannot stop the robot from thinking whatever it wants, but the truth of the matter is that I am not writing for the robot. I’m writing for people who read the preceding paragraph and saw a margarita.

And now it’s time for me to see a margarita. Literally.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

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Be a Rebel…Break the Rules – by Alicia Dean

I have received a number of submissions over the years where the authors tried very hard to follow the ‘rules of writing.’ They tried so hard, in fact, that their stories were stiff and poorly written. I’m guessing it was the work of well meaning critique partners and overzealous contest judges. Don’t get me wrong, having input on your manuscript can be beneficial. All comments and suggestions should be considered, but if they don’t improve your writing, ignore them.

Some of the rules that actually shouldn’t be rules are…

1)      Do not use ‘was,’ especially ‘was + ing’  (sometimes, they just work)

2)      Be descriptive (to a degree, but readers don’t need every little detail)

3)      Show don’t tell (this is a good rule, but shouldn’t always be followed)

4)      Do not end a sentence in a preposition (Sometimes, you just gotta)

5)      Do not use adverbs (use them sparingly, but adverbs can be your friend)

6)      Do not use fragments (Sometimes, they add emphasis)

If I followed all these rules, I might write something like this:

I drove down the street when a figure shot across the road in front of me.  I slammed on the brakes and shoved the silver gearshift with the black vinyl knob into park, then opened my car door and climbed out.   I scanned the sidewalk. The only people in sight were a couple standing outside a convenience store.

The woman shouted, “This is it. You’ve cheated on me for the last time.”

“It was nothing. You’ve got it all wrong,” the man said.

“Yeah, right.” The woman clenched her fists at her sides. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sick and tired of all the lies.”

Whoever had run in front of me was nowhere in sight. To where did he disappear?

The roar of a motor caught my attention. I whirled. A man was behind the wheel of my car, driving away. I stumbled after him and fell to the sidewalk, scraping my knees on the concrete. Pain radiated up to my chest, and tears sprang to my eyes. I rose to my feet. I was screwed. I was totally screwed.

Here is the same passage where those rules are ignored:

I was driving down the street when a figure shot across the road in front of me.  I slammed on the brakes and shoved the gearshift into park, then opened my car door and climbed out.  I scanned the sidewalk. The only people in sight were a couple arguing outside a convenience store.

Whoever had run in front of me was nowhere in sight. Where did he disappear to?

The roar of a motor caught my attention. I whirled. A man was behind the wheel of my car, driving away. I stumbled after him and fell to the sidewalk, scraping my knees on the concrete. Pain radiated up to my chest, and tears sprang to my eyes. I gingerly rose to my feet. I was screwed. Totally screwed.

This is not a great scene, for many reasons, but it serves the purpose of providing examples of the rules that shouldn’t necessarily be followed. Below I’ve pointed out where the first passage went wrong.

I drove (This sounds like something that has already happened instead of an action that is happening now) down the street when a figure shot across the road in front of me.  I slammed on the brakes and shoved the silver gearshift with the black vinyl (We don’t care what the gear shift looks like) knob into park, then opened my car door and climbed out. I scanned the sidewalk. The only people in sight were a couple standing outside a convenience store.

The woman shouted, “This is it. You’ve cheated on me for the last time.”

“It was nothing. You’ve got it all wrong,” the man said.

“Yeah, right.” The woman clenched her fists at her sides. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sick and tired of all the lies.”  (You don’t need to ‘show’ the argument, just tell us they were arguing. In this case, inserting the argument only clutters the scene and moves the focus away from where it should be.)

Whoever had run in front of me was nowhere in sight. To where did he disappear? (This sounds unnatural until you put ‘to’ at the end)

The roar of a motor caught my attention. I whirled. A man was behind the wheel of my car, driving away. I stumbled after him and fell to the sidewalk, scraping my knees on the concrete. Pain radiated up to my chest, and tears sprang to my eyes. I rose (gingerly indicates caution due to the pain) to my feet. I was screwed. I was totally screwed. (“I was” sounds repetitious and doesn’t have the same emphasis as simply ‘Totally screwed’)

The secret is to write your story to where it sounds natural and vivid. Read it aloud, listen to the rhythm, and if breaking rules makes it sound better, then by all means, break them.

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Honesty (in voice) really is the best policy

I know, I know…. Cliché , cliché, cliché! But sometimes the clichés best express exactly what we mean, which is the case for what I want to talk about today:  honesty in voice. It’s the next installment of what I believe are the components of compelling voice in writing and character development.

You know how mothers can tell when their kids are lying, or at least hiding something?  It doesn’t matter how many times little Suzie pinkie swears that she wasn’t in your make-up or little Joey cross-his-heart swears that the lamp busted all by itself, we know the truth! I think it’s the same with readers – they know instinctively when an author or character isn’t being real, when punches are pulled or words are minced. I think those omissions leave a reader with a sense of dissatisfaction, whether the reader can identify its source as “dishonesty” or not.

I’m not talking about those instances when  you deliberately temper words, whether in action or dialog, cases where you don’t want to ramp up the emotion or pace. I’m talking about those instances when you’re afraid to write what you really want to write. When your internal editor (or the imagined sound of your spouse’s, mother’s or best friend’s scolding) cautions you to hold back, to use watered-down phrasing so your readers don’t come away feeling seasick from all the waves you’ve created. I’m talking about those times when you let the PC police tell you what to say and how to say it.

Here’s how I feel: There’s no place for political correctness in fiction writing. Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way advocating deliberate attacks on a person or groups of people (outside of the story plot, of course). What I am advocating is honesty in the story-telling process, and fearlessness to express truth, as the writer or character knows it. Again, it’s the writer’s job to know how and when to use those truths to achieve the story’s goals.

Some people probably wouldn’t consider honesty or fearlessness to be elements of voice, but to me, they are. To me, so much of voice is that unfiltered monolog running through your head, and letting it loose, in measured doses, to blend character into your writing. Because it’s that reality, the truth of the situation, that will resonate with readers.

Debut novelist Elvy Howard (Love on a Half Shell) shows an amazing skill for using honesty in voice.  (Speaking of truth and honesty, full disclosure time:  Edward Allen Publishing is releasing this book sometime in the early spring. Since one of the goals of this blog is to examine what we feel is solid writing, I think it’s acceptable to use one of our upcoming releases as a demonstration. The main reason I’m using this, however, is that it perfectly illustrates what I mean by “honesty” in voice.)

Love on a Half Shell is the story of a 30-something Rae Green who takes custody of her sister’s daughters, ages 5 and 12, and the struggles they go through to form a family. Rae is single and unencumbered by responsibility for any other living being when she’s called in the middle of the night to pick up these two girls whom she hasn’t seen in several years. The girls have a troubled background (thanks to a drug-addicted mother), so the three go through some rocky times.

At one point, the older girl (Torey) pulls a particularly stupid and dangerous stunt – as children often do. In this snippet, Rae is trying to recover after a period of paralyzing fear.

How could she do this? How could she put me, Melissa, and herself, through this? … I push numbers into the microwave and hit Start. I watch the plate begin to spin and try to figure out what I should do next. But the more I think, the angrier I get. I hate Torey in so many ways it overpowers me. I can’t fit that much anger in a sentence, and there’s nowhere to begin, so I leave and go to bed. …

I don’t turn on the light, just let my clothes drop to the floor, and get in bed. My entire body quivers with emotions I’m unable to decipher. Eventually I understand I’m suspended somewhere between rage and fear. I hadn’t been able to consider the possibility she might be dead.

Rae’s reaction is intense, the kind of intense that only comes from a foundation of deep emotion. It might have shocked you, but if you’re a parent (or acting as one), you might recognize these feelings.  Of course Rae doesn’t hate Torey, but she does hate that Torey put her family through an ordeal, and in that instant, the feeling of hatred is too strong to be rationalized; it’s too strong to be anything but felt.

I think many authors would have been afraid to write that, afraid to admit that deep-down truth that for that brief blip in time, Rae actually did feel hatred toward someone she loves so much.

That’s what I mean by honesty in voice.  I can feel what Rae is feeling, and I get it.

Here’s my message:  Don’t be afraid to use your unique voice to tell the truth, to express emotions that we human beings all share. Not everyone will love your story, or your voice, but those universal truths will always be recognized.

Happy writing! Have a great week!

_______________________________

After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as senior acquisitions editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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So Shall It Be Written: Using the Passive Voice

Call them resolutions, goals, or life lists. The names may vary, but the intentions don’t. People like to start a new year by making plans and taking action. I’m pretty sure no one is making the promise to sit around more, although there is value in a vow to be more accepting of life as it comes by.

I’m taking action myself in the new year. In my first editorial post of the year, I’m taking on the passive voice.

First, let’s be clear about what the passive voice is.

In a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is receiving the action described by the verb. In the active voice, the subject is performing the action. Neither of the preceding two sentences is written in the passive voice (but this one is).

For example, the sentence “Lexi wrote this blog post” is in the active voice; I, the subject, am doing the writing. If I said, “This blog post is written by Lexi,” the subject, which is now the blog post, is receiving the action, which is my having written it.

Lots of misinformation surrounds the passive voice, and that misinformation can lead to robo-editing. The worst of it is the misconception that inclusion of the verb “to be” (or any of its forms) places your sentence in the passive voice. That’s just not true. If I write that “I am slapping a robo-editor,” I am definitely performing the action.

I’ve also observed a lively debate about whether a sentence like “I am confused” is in the passive voice. One school of thought maintains that this sentence is in the passive voice. The subject is being confused by something not present in the sentence. Personally, I think that “confused” is an adjective here. That would place this in the active voice; the subject is performing the action, to the extent that the state of being is an action.

I do not purport to resolve this debate here, but I want to make two points. My reading of the sentence leaves the writer with another problem, in that the only verb in the sentence is a form of “to be.” That’s limp writing, and we can do better. I also want to note that if I’m editing, I charge by the hour, and it will take me less time to call the word “confused” an adjective, suggest using a better verb, and keep moving, rather than engage in the debate about voice. Your mileage may vary.

Most of us have at some point been told not to use the passive voice. At all. But is that good advice? In my so-called real life, as a lawyer and a journalist, I often find I have to use the passive voice. I’m willing to bet you face many of the same situations.

Passive voice is a good idea – if not required – when it doesn’t matter who performed the action, when it’s unclear who performed the action, when it’s important to obscure blame for the action, and when the receiver of the action is more important than the actor. It’s okay to say someone was killed if we do not know (or cannot prove) who committed the murder. It’s okay to say your car was vandalized if your concern lies more with your car than with the perpetrator. To say that something could have been handled better avoids pointing the finger without necessarily minimizing the mistake. Lots of people apologize exclusively in the passive voice (I think it takes guts to apologize in the active, but that’s another column).

Don’t write off the passive voice altogether. You’ll find it’s a powerful ally. Just don’t let it run off with your writing. Readers love people of action.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

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You’ve got personality … use it!

“Humility is no substitute for a good personality.”
Fran Lebowitz

Happy first Monday of 2013!

Back in December, I wrote about my basic description of a writer’s voice. Today and for the next couple weeks I’d like to break that down into what I believe are the elements of a strong writer’s voice, beginning with what (in my opinion) is the most important element: personality.

The most grammatically perfect paragraph will leave most readers flat if there’s no personality, if it’s just dry text, because it’s missing the connection to humanity. What is personality, after all, but you, the individual? So what is voice, after all, but you, the writer?

What do I mean by that?

I mean the most elemental part of you that reacts to any given situation. Like…

When you’re sitting in a long line of bumper-to-bumper traffic in a construction zone, and a car goes shooting up the shoulder of the road, then scoots right in front of you as you’re easing your foot off the brake, hoping to move one lousy inch forward.

  • Do you shrug and figure that other drive probably has a good reason for not getting in at the end of the line, like maybe he/she needs to get to the hospital to visit a dying relative? Or maybe it’s a husband driving a wife who’s about to give birth? (The writer me loves making up those possibilities!)
  • Or do you presume the other driver is being a selfish jerk, and he/she picked that moment and that spot to butt into the line because the world is out to get you?

We all react differently to a single situation, depending on our personalities. Voice is “simply” a manifestation of personality. I use the word “simply,” but there’s nothing simple about voice. Maybe it would make more sense if I used the word style. We each have a unique style in dress, mannerisms, listening, speaking, and writing. Are you naturally a witty person who responds to stress by making a joke? Your writing voice probably reflects that. Are you a drama queen/king? I’ll bet your writing style has a dramatic flair to it. Even if you are you a quiet person whose thoughts are rarely on display, your writing style/voice might have that introspective quality.

Our personalities and style (I think) are good indicators of our innate and instinctive writing voices.  It’s the writer’s job to take that voice and control it, use it, to build interesting sentences and scenes, and characters that will draw a reader into the story.

Sometimes it’s best to describe by example.

Superstar romance author Nora Roberts writes a series of futuristic police procedurals as J.D. Robb. (I know some of you aren’t fans of Roberts/Robb and are right now pooh-poohing me. If you want to write successfully in the commercial fiction market, however, I think it’s smart to study the people who are successful, and I don’t think anyone can argue with her success.)

Robb’s In Death series stars homicide detective Lieutenant Eve Dallas of the New York Police & Security Division and her planet-owning, gazillionare husband, Roarke. (I don’t know if that’s a first or last name, but it’s the only one he seems to have!) Every book highlights a different murder, usually with Dallas  and Roarke collaborating and cohabitating very nicely, and over the course of the series (at current count, somewhere in the ballpark of 50 stories…wow!) readers get to know the two pretty well. Although they both have backgrounds that forced them to claw their way from poverty and depravity, and worse, they are polar opposites in many ways. Eve is a tough, no-nonsense city girl and has an inherent repulsion (and possibly fear) of nature and the outdoors. Roarke grew up on the mean streets of Dublin yet seems to have retained an Irishman’s love of all that is green.

Here’s the opening of Robb’s  Indulgence in Death (2010, G.P. Putnam’s Sons). Dallas and Roarke are off on a much-deserved vacation in Ireland, when Dallas spots some of the indigenous “wildlife.” (We’re in Dallas’ POV, in her head.)

The road was a killer, hardly wider than a decent stream of spit and snaking like a cobra between giant bushes loaded with strange flowers that resembled drops of blood.

She had to remind herself that the trip had been her idea – love was another killer – but how could she have known driving in western Ireland meant risking life and limb at every curve?

Rural Ireland, she thought, holding her breath as they zipped around the next turn on the Journey of Death. Where the towns were barely a hiccup on the landscape, and where she was pretty damn sure the cows outnumbered the people. And the sheep outnumbered the cows.

And why didn’t that cause anyone concern? she wondered. Didn’t people consider what could happen if armies of farm animals united in revolt?

As a homicide detective, Dallas sees horrific murder and the worst of humanity played out on the city streets, but the sight of a few cows and sheep makes her more than nervous.  (That’s a great character trait, by the way, but a discussion for another day.) Do you see how Robb used the character’s experience and personality – phrases like “strange flowers that resembled drops of blood” and “journey of death” – to convey her emotions that are unique to her? This to me is a perfect example of a character’s voice, or personality.

Of course Roberts/Robb has her own writer’s voice, and that too is reflected in the tightly crafted, packed-with-punch wording. I often sense a dry wit in her writing as well, and at times I can hear her real (audible) voice in my head as I’m reading.

So many of us have learned (been taught) to harness our emotions in our public lives. In writing, depending on your character, your scene, and your goals for both, you need to find those emotions. That’s you and your character talking. That’s voice.  Use it.

Whatever is going on in your book, put yourself /your character in that situation, dig down into the deepest and innermost emotions, and let your fingers fly.  I’m not saying every sentence and every scene has to be packed with gut-wrenching emotion. That would be too much…waaaay too much. I’m saying to unleash those emotions and let your (and your character’s) voice out – let your  styles shine. Let your personalities speak.

With practice, you can learn to incorporate your unique “humanity” into your writing to give your readers characters that feel real, and a meatier, more interesting story.

Happy writing, all!

_______________________________

After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as senior acquisitions editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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2013 – a year for discoveries

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, the last day of the calendar year. I have to apologize for being absent the last few weeks. I figured everyone was too busy shopping and baking and partying and preparing for the end of the world to read my thoughts about writing and editing. (Long pause.) Actually, I just forgot. Okay? I forgot to post the blogs I had written about voice. I presume no one was holding his or her breath in anxious anticipation though, so I’ll just start again next week.

In the meantime, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year. I hope you can look back on 2012 and embrace the nuggets of good in your writing journey — maybe some great feedback, maybe a contest win, or maybe just finishing a chapter that was giving you trouble — so that you’ll you want to keep going, keep writing those words and scenes you hear and see so clearly in your head, for the rest of us to enjoy. I hope, too, that you are looking forward to 2013 with renewed energy and enthusiasm to work hard and make each story better in some way. I hope when you take a long, hard look at the competition out there (and you should), that it doesn’t discourage you. Because there’s plenty — competition, that is.

The way I see it, though, there are still more readers than writers (most of whom are also readers). There are still people who go through two or three books per week (like I used to). There are still many, many readers looking for a new voice in fiction whose works they can follow. You know I’m right. How excited are you, as a reader yourself, when you plow through your mountainous TBR pile and pluck out a book by a new or unknown author whose words suck you into a land or time or situation that makes you forget the ordinary-ness of your own everyday world?

That excites me as a reader, and I’m betting it excites you as well. Aren’t you tempted then to go out and find the next book by that author, and the next?

That’s what I hope you’re hoping for in 2013, to be that new/unknown author. To be the one whose words bring a sense of joy, excitement, danger, sadness, love — whatever it is you’re trying to convey — to a reader. It can happen. You just need to keep working, listen to trusted feedback, work on your personal writing challenges, and write. Every day, write.

Happy 2013 … let’s make it the year of discoveries, for all of us.

_______________________________

After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as senior acquisitions editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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