Tag Archives: prose

Professional Wednesdays: Lessons From Manuscript Critiques — Simple Is Better

Book shelfI am reading stories right now for a teaching gig I have coming up in early March. I’ll be running a critique workshop, and so I not only have to read and comment on the manuscripts, I also should take the opportunity to turn the issues I identify into writing lessons. Because the truth is, all the submissions seem to be from writers with limited experience, and all the submissions suffer from similar problems.

Let me be clear: I’m not denigrating any of the writers in the group. The problems I’m seeing are ones that editors found in my work when I was starting out. I don’t make these errors as often now — I’ve moved on to new mistakes. And when I’ve overcome this new set of problems, I have no doubt that I will find still newer ways to mess things up. This is the creative process — there’s a reason why authors should never stop relying on editors.

Back to the workshop manuscripts… Here is what I’m seeing: All of the writers have terrific ideas. Their worlds and magic systems are fresh and innovative and exciting. And their characters are compelling as well. Some of the writers need to work on staying in tight point of view and injecting emotion into their stories, but even on these fronts they’re doing fairly well.

The flaws I’m finding in their work are largely mechanical. Their story telling is good, but their prose is getting in the way of their narratives. Specifically, I’m seeing three trends again and again.

1) They are trying to do too much with each sentence. There are places in a manuscript where it is perfectly appropriate to use compound sentences, phrasings that rely on the connection of several clauses in order to express complex emotions. There are places where short declaratives work better. (See what I did there?) I have noticed, however, not just with this batch of manuscripts, but in other settings, going back years, that beginning writers are drawn to the complexities of longer phrases. It’s almost as if they feel that writing shorter sentences will expose them as newbies.

This isn’t the case. As my wonderful, talented, and wise friend, Faith Hunter, has pointed out, syntax and phrasing is to the written story what soundtracks are to movies. When the action ramps up in a movie, the music grows taut, staccato. When the action ramps up in written stories, phrases should become shorter, punchier. Thoughts should be pared to the bone. And even when the action isn’t necessarily at a fever pitch, it is fine to rely on short declaratives as well as longer sentences. Short phrases punctuate key passages, drawing attention to important moments. They are an invaluable tool. (See? Did it again.)

2) A related point: Beginning authors, including those whose manuscripts I’m reading now, often tie themselves (and their prose) in knots seeking clever phrases. Again and again, in my margin notes, I have tried to remind them that simpler is usually better. This is not to say that every phrase needs to be simple, that every sentence should be short and to the point. Stories written that way would bore an audience — books would read like grade school primers, which we don’t want.

But sometimes it’s clear that a writer has decided on a certain construction for a sentence, and even after that structure has become unwieldy, they continue to batter the phrasing into submission. I know I’ve done it. I have a rhythm in mind, and I. Am. Going. To. Make. It. Work! The problem is, by the time I’m done, the sentence is a mess. This is a “kill your darlings” moment. You may love the concept you had for that phrasing, but if it has turned into a struggle for you as you write it, chances are your readers will struggle with it too. Simple is better. Simple works. Try a different approach to the sentence. Shorten it. Or better yet, divide it into two (or three) sentences. Your readers will thank you. Your editors will thank you. The beleaguered instructor reading your manuscript for a workshop will thank you.

3) Finally, I see a lot of writers trying to shoehorn into their scenes great swaths of world building information. They know better than to resort to full-blown data dumps, but they feel compelled to explain certain elements of their world in the moment, and they do so by overloading their sentences with background. The result, again, is sentences with too many clauses, too much information, and no flow.

In a sense this is a point of view issue. When characters are in the moment — whether they are deep in an important conversation, or facing an immediate threat to their own safety or that of people they care about — they are unlikely to pause to consider, say, the history of the city they’re in, or the anatomical differences between different species in the world.

It may be that this is important information. But writers need to ask themselves, “Is it crucial that my reader know all of this right now?” Chances are it’s not. If it is, anticipate that need and work at least some of the information in before the action heats up. Otherwise, save it for later. Either way, don’t try to heap all of the necessary info into a single serving, like an over-eager kid at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Doing so only confuses readers and leaves syntax in shambles.

Write with purpose. Strive for concision. Remember that, more often than not, simple is better.

And keep at it.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ten Books You Should Read

Early in the year — even before the pandemic hit — I wrote a post in which I basically said that all writers should read. There are certain “rules” about the profession that are actually negotiable — writers don’t really HAVE to write every day; we don’t HAVE to outline our books to be successful; some people like to write to music while others need absolute silence.

The reading thing, however, as I said at the time, is about as close to an ironclad rule as I can think of. If we want to learn the tropes of whatever genre we write in, we have to read. If we want to learn the craft of storytelling, and continue to hone that skill over a lifetime, we have to read. If we want to be informed and culturally literate citizens of the world, we have to read.

But what should we read? As an author with many friends in the business, I find that making recommendations can be tricky. I don’t wish to insult any of my colleagues with sins of omission. But there are certain books that I have read and not only enjoyed, but learned from. That’s what I’m after in this post. The following books have taught me something about narrative, about conveying story and emotion, about crafting prose. There are some unusual, even quirky, choices here. That comes with the prerogative of writing on my own blog. I hope you find this list helpful, informative, even inspirational.

In no particular order…

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Okay, for starters, it’s just a great book and the start of a remarkable series, a deserving winner of the Hugo (which was actually awarded to all three books in the Broken Earth Trilogy). Her plotting is fabulous, her use of point of view innovative and striking. Jemisin has since been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. So, yeah, she basically rocks.

Slow River, by Nicola Griffith. This is an older novel, the 1996 winner of both the Nebula Award and the Lambda Literary Award. It’s a great story, and it makes use of point of view and voice so beautifully that I have used it for teaching on several occasions. Basically she uses three different voices for a single character, each representing different moments in her life. Brilliant.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is probably my favorite fantasy writer, and in recent years he has become a good friend, so I’m bending my own rule here, including the work of someone I know well. But I was a fanboy way before we became friends, so… He does a lot of things very well in all his books, but the world building in this particular book is breathtaking. He borrows extensively from history — he does in most of his books — but he also constructs his worlds with the care and skill of a watchmaker.

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The entire Earthsea Trilogy is one of my all-time favorite works of fiction, but this first volume especially is masterful. It’s a relatively short work, and originally received less attention than it deserved because it was classified, somewhat patronizingly, as “children’s literature.” The worldbuilding is gorgeous, the storytelling simultaneously spare and rich, the prose understated but flawless. Even if you’ve read it, give it another look

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. The first of a couple of non-genre novels. Stegner was not only a terrific writer, but also a passionate, outspoken environmentalist and a chronicler, through his fiction, of the development of the American West. In 1972, Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a master class in narrative. He basically tells two stories at once, one set in the present, one in the past. He blends them beautifully. And his prose is golden.

Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver. Another exquisitely written novel of the American West. Kingsolver weaves together multiple narratives and employs several different points of view to tell her tale. It’s moving, sad, uplifting. Actually, writing about it makes me want to read it again…

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride, and then adapted the novel for the screen. He wrote the scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. He wrote Marathon Man, and then adapted it to the screen. And he wrote or adapted scripts for about twenty other movies you’ve heard of. In 1983, he published Adventures, which is part tell-all, part how-to. You don’t have to be an aspiring screen writer to learn from it. It is a treatise on creativity and the business of creation. It’s also entertaining as hell.

Five Seasons, by Roger Angell. Okay, this is, admittedly, a VERY quirky choice, but bear with me. Roger Angell, who recently turned 100 years old, is quite possibly the greatest baseball writer who has ever lived. He wrote regularly for The New Yorker from the 1960s through the first decade of this millennium. He has several collections of baseball essays, and Five Seasons is my personal favorite. But if you’re a baseball fan, you can’t go wrong with any of them — The Summer Game, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, Game Time. They’re all amazing. His descriptions of the game and the people he encounters are strikingly original and incredibly evocative. Even if you DON’T like baseball, you could learn from his work.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Back to genre stuff for a moment. The Windup Girl won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2010, and it deserved them, along with every other honor it received. Terrific storytelling, powerful prose, mind-bending world building. This is the whole package.

Any collection of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short fiction. Another quirky choice. Hawthorne is, I believe, one of the more underrated of American writers. He was writing speculative fiction a century before anyone knew what the hell that was. His stories are haunting, strange, and memorable. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” might be my favorite short story. By anyone. Ever.

And with that, I’ll end.

Except to say, as I did back in February, that to be a writer is, by necessity, to be a reader as well. That is one of the joys what we do.

So keep writing, and keep reading.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Crutch Words — Finding Them and Limiting Them

Last week, John Hartness, my good friend and the owner and editor at Falstaff Books, posted on Facebook about something he was seeing while editing manuscripts. Many of his writers were starting too many lines of dialogue with, “So…” As John said in the post, “We do this in real life, and it does sounds realistic, but most of us (myself 100% included) are using it too often, and it doesn’t work as well on the page as it does in real live conversation.”

What I found especially interesting about John’s post was the response to it. Writer after writer (including me) confessed to relying on all sorts of repeating words and phrases — what we in the industry call “crutch words.”

I use “So…” a bit, though not that much. On the other hand, lately my editors and I have noticed that I start way too many lines of dialogue with “Well…” As with “So…” it is something lots of us do in actual conversations, but on the page it becomes intrusive and repetitive.

I have lots of other crutch words, too, but honestly I’m reluctant to share them with you, because I don’t want you looking for them while reading my books and stories. Once you start doing this, it can totally ruin a work of fiction for you.

Suffice it to say, all of us have verbal tics that show up in our prose — words we overuse, approaches to dialogue that occur again and again, mannerisms we give to our characters that repeat themselves throughout our stories. Sometimes they are the result of habit. I know that in my case they often are a product of laziness — I need a gesture or a spoken word, and rather than pausing to come up with something different and unexpected, I throw in a standby. Moreover, even as we work to eliminate some crutches from our writing vocabularies, new ones creep in. (For me, “Well…” didn’t used to be a problem, and I’m not entirely sure when it showed up.)

So how do we deal with this issue?

First, understand that this doesn’t make you a bad writer. All writers from beginners to seasoned professionals grapple with crutch words. Don’t let yours undermine your confidence.

The key, of course, is to identify your wording habits and control them. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. When you ask people to read your manuscripts, by all means ask them to look for plotting problems, and character inconsistencies, and all the other narrative problems we writers sometimes face. But also ask them to keep an eye out for overused words and phrases. If and when they find some, start a list and keep that list around for future projects.

If you don’t have Beta readers, or don’t want to wait for outside feedback, try reading your books and stories aloud. This is one of those problems that we can gloss over all too easily when reading through a manuscript. But if we read the work out loud, and thus hear the story as well as see it, we are more likely to recognize those annoying repetitions. Again, as we find them, we should add them to our list.

Once we start to develop a bank of overused words, we can use the search function in our word processing software to find all instances of a given word or phrase and look for ways to replace some of the offending passages with something else. Remember, you don’t need to eliminate every “So…” occurrence (or whatever crutch you happen to be looking for at a particular time). The idea is to use the word/phrase in moderation.

How many instances is too many? A good question, and the truth is I don’t have a great answer. I might use as a yardstick one of my completed books, one I believe is well-written, polished, and relatively free of crutch words. If the new book has way more “Well…”s (for instance) than that old one, I assume there’s a problem and I try to fix it. If the numbers in the new book are about the same as, or lower than, the older yardstick, I move on to the next crutch. I will confess that my running list of crutch words/phrases has probably 50 entries. Maybe more. Some I’ve managed to control and eliminate as problems. Others, not so much. And, as I said before, I’m always adding new ones.

Finally, keep in mind that most readers don’t notice our crutches nearly as much as we do, or as a good editor might. Chances are one or two verbal mannerisms are going to sneak by our attempts to limit them and will wind up in the published version of our book. Don’t worry too much about that. Make sure the word is on your list, so you can address the issue in subsequent manuscripts, and then move on.

So, best of luck.

Well, keep writing.