Shayn Nicely

Ghostwriting & Editing Services

Tag: creative writing

Continuity and Credibility

As a book coach, the most prominent problem I see in new outlines and first drafts would probably be the magic satchel–the invisibly carried inventory of a video game character–or hammerspace, which is the place from whence cartoons draw comically large items, like a mallet in the pocket. I often refer to them myself as bottomless pockets.

Continuity is the physical reality of your fabricated universe, and it’s important that it is consistent and believable within its own framework. A character who exclaims that they are stranded, although they earlier drove their functional car to this location, is committing an error of continuity. A character who is smoking a cigarette in one gesture, and then, has no cigarette, is committing a continuity error. What this does for your reader is cause a skip in the film, pulling them back into reality, reminding them that this is just a book.

The reason fantastical fiction can cause its fans to weep over the deaths of wizards and elves is that the readers have long forgotten that this is just a book, even though very little about observable reality is mimicked therein. The film has been playing with such consistency and believability in their heads that they have been dragged deeply into it.

Credibility is your authorial command over the space, so its connection to continuity is obvious. In a way, disrupting the dream causes a break in reader trust. This is why it’s essential to track the tedium of your character’s world, even though most of us are much more interested in the boiling emotions and mounting tension. What day of the week it is, what the character is wearing, and what they might logically have on their person is just as important–even more important, really–to the reader. If you can wax lyrical about your heroine’s mental strife, but you keep using her bottomless pockets to resolve crises with random rope and a sudden gun, the unreality of the physical world will trump the heartstrings you would have pulled. In order to care, they must first believe.

In order to control for this, it’s a good idea to outline the schedule of your characters, as well as to maintain an inventory for each which accounts for character type and physical possibilities. An outdoorsy character might have a blanket, but where? Not in their pocket. Did you mention that they had a backpack? It’s also not so simple as writing the backpack in. Why do they have a backpack? And, if you have spoken consistently about their body’s movements (as I hope you have), the backpack should be illustrated therein. If you mention the backpack once, and your reader is instructed to imagine this character repeatedly (bending, turning, standing) without a reminder of the backpack, you might as well have never mentioned it. They will forget it’s there–and is it really there? It needs to be there for you, too. Sometimes it takes many reads for an author to truly settle into this new physical world.

Re-read with fresh eyes. I’ve found it oddly helpful to use a different file format, such as pdf. It removes you from the “writer” mentality, and places you into the reader’s shoes. Even more helpful than that is to acquire the assistance of a beta reader. They won’t be hindered by the explanations we sometimes subconsciously provide ourselves when re-reading, which are missing from the text itself and which our readers are unmotivated to imagine. If it’s not in the text, it’s not there.

That having been said, there is a lot of flexibility for smaller items, like lighters, keys, and coins. Your reader will often understand that people generally carry these things. There is less understanding when your character has hundreds of dollars in cash that was previously unmentioned. 😉

The “Mary Sue”: A Writer’s Fear of Failure

A Mary Sue is slang, based in a Star Trek fanzine published in the 70s, for a character who is so perfect, they become unrealistic and flat. The term is sometimes criticized as sexist (“Oh, so women can’t be incredibly smart, and sexy, and tough, and rich, and funny, all at the same time, huh?” is the essential body of the retort), but as an eye-witness of the Marty Sue, I reject this complaint; some writers get distracted by the name being female, thinking this means all annoyingly perfect characters are female. Sues have nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with depth of character. It’s the hallmark of a newbie to be using one, much less two (if you happen to be writing, for example, a romance about Mary and Marty Sue bumping heads over the same astrophysics text in the library), so let’s start talking about what makes a Sue, and how to dismember one.

I worked with a man we’ll call Zach who had a persistent blindness to the Sue-ness of his main character. No matter how ardently I workshopped with him, he would not give up the perspective that his Sue was constantly winning. And that, in a nutshell, is a Sue. I’ve seen them described as being oddly flawless, and I’ve seen them described as having quintessentially female “positives” (for instance, being a virgin), but a Sue, in its heart, doesn’t actually have to be a rock star, or a princess, or a prodigy, or a half-dragon twin who is “fated to redeem the people of Blah Blah.” Much speculation circulating regarding the Sue condemns this character for its bland and flat perfection, but a Sue is actually inside the author. You can’t fix a Sue by taking out a certain skillset, or adding a piece of backstory. The Sue is in you. The Sue is in your unflinching inability to construe your beloved main character as a failure, ever.

Back to Zach, and “winning.” Zach had a main character, and a compelling premise for a novel. I would have loved to have helped him, but his knuckles were white on the reins of this baby. The problematic Sue was in the storytelling itself, and relates back to insecurity–Zach’s own actual insecurity. Because, to him, this book wasn’t a real story. This book was an important fantasy he needed to maintain. His main character wasn’t an actual person. It was a vehicle through which he could experience his own world-building skills.

Zach’s character never failed. Even his failures were written like successes. (This is how a writer can have a Sue and never realize it; they build in flaws that are later glamorized, or only appear in exposition, but never actually hinder a task.) In any particular scene, there is a particular requirement. Maybe a certain interaction between characters calls for badassery and combat, while another calls for romantic intimacy, and still another calls for quips and snark. Zach’s boy could do all of it, depending on the scene. If the scene required that his main character was no longer feuding with a long-established rival, the feud would disappear from the narration, or be sufficiently downplayed, to allow the main character to, at all costs, continue winning.

Which is where the conventional definition of the Sue and my interpretation of the Sue convene again. A Sue does too much. A Sue can do anything (except fail). Here is my advice for avoiding the incidental construction of a Sue:

  • Don’t self-insert. Writers instinctively protect their self-inserts, and it encourages the subconscious mentality that your story is a fantasy world for you to play in, and not a real story. Real stories demand failure. Not cool, magnificent failure. Real failure. Real failure does not feel cool. Real failure feels like losing. (Self-inserts also experience automatic underdevelopment because the writer feels no particular need to invest a backstory; self-inserts are just that. They provide a mode of transport for the writer, and fulfill their perceived purpose fully enough by merely existing.)
  • Develop the character before you develop the plot around them. If you have a mandatory checklist of actions before you have a human being (or whatever) with a meaningful history, you will be forced to create a patchwork person to satisfy the requirements of the plot, which is the inorganic and forced nature of the Sue that readers find so uninspiring.
  • Beware specialness. I (tried to) work with Sues that were infamous students, wounded killers, prophecy babies, et cetera (all at once). They were marksman who never missed a shot, and if they did, it was heartbreaking and beautiful (so much winning). Try to keep it within the realm of possibility. The Sue is a unique blend of not enough, and too much.

In summary, the Sue has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with the writer themselves. A Sue is the product of a writer’s unwillingness to sacrifice their fantasy for the sake of authenticity. This is fine, but it’s also unpublishable. So you just have to ask yourself what you’re writing: a real story, or a daydream?

When do you need to hire a ghostwriter?

Ghostwriter

A ghostwriter is a professional author who is contracted and paid to furnish a client with a complete manuscript of publishable quality. The majority of patronage a ghostwriter will see falls into the categories of craft stories (such as an anecdotal book about the ins and outs of training different breeds of dog), memoir (the story of a real life, often collected through a process of recorded interviews and other forms of research), and fiction (such as the unfinished novel percolating on the backburner one year too many). Due to the importance of an eloquent business persona, it’s also possible to contract a ghostwriter for anything from a LinkedIn profile to a cover letter.

  • Do you need a ghostwriter?

That is a personal decision. Clients are people who want to have a book written, but for one reason or another, lack a certain tool which allows them to get that job done. A better question might be, “Can I write this book alone?” That having been said, writing a book is a unique kind of beast. It requires absolute solitude, hours of effort, a surprising amount of research (for fiction too), and a palette of literary savvy (with a dash of technique). Not everyone can invest to that degree, but that doesn’t mean they can’t publish their book. In fact, 80% of the non-fiction at your local bookstore (if you’re lucky enough to have one) is ghostwritten.

  • How does the credit work?

Ghostwriters operate on incredibly flexible contracts which vary from one client to the next. Some clients keep their ghostwriters on the by-line as an editor or a co-author, and some demand such discretion from their ghostwriters that they are legally bound to never mention their full names. Most clients fall somewhere in the middle, maintaining their own by-line while allowing for samples to appear in the author portfolio.

  • How much does it cost?

Like any other service or product, the scale can range from “basically free” to “insanely expensive,” and the same rules generally apply as would with the purchase of a car. A manuscript worth a pittance will probably collapse in on itself the first time you take it for a spin, whereas something worth an arm and a leg will come with a sophisticated and ironclad pedigree, like a New York Times bestselling portfolio. Going on with the car analogy, there is an average market value. For a ghostwriter, that value (for a manuscript of roughly 150 pages) starts at $12,000 – $20,000, or a minimum of twenty-five cents per word. (In Canada, the mandatory minimum fee for a ghostwritten manuscript is $25,000. Did I consider relocating? Maybe…) You can find the “same” services online for a few hundred dollars from unverified freelancers, like on Upwork, Guru, or Outsource, but they almost never brandish a contract and have no paper trail to follow, should they disappear. As with Craigslist “deals,” the Internet is replete with tales of scam artists, and my advice would be to exercise extreme caution dealing with someone who could delete their profile and vanish with no documentation of the exchange or their identity.

You’ll also find companies which represent professional ghostwriters, as well as freelance ghostwriters like myself. Some of these websites use scare tactics to make themselves seem more secure, including things like “plagiarism insurance” or a “vanishing clause,” as if other contracts won’t. They note that you will approve every word of the manuscript, as if other ghostwriters don’t. It’s just a sales trick. All you need from your ghostwriter is verifiable credentials, samples, and identity, a solid contract (which should automatically protect against plagiarism and “vanishing”), and steady communication, whether it comes from a company or an individual, so don’t let Fancy Name, Inc. scare you into paying twice as much. As long as you’re on contract with a real person, you’re safe. What it comes down to is personality (do you WANT to talk to this person for an hour or two every week?), credentials (can they prove what they’ve accomplished, such as their degree?), rates (am I paying top dollar for someone just as good as Shayn?), and most importantly, contract. That contract is what will protect you from the slight risk involved in the exchange of money and ideas.

  • How do you typically begin a relationship with a ghostwriter?

Start off doing your research. There are many individual sites like this one, showcasing portfolios and offering consultations. Figure out your budget, because most have a bottom line for which they work. Initiate contact. Look for someone who is communicative and prompt, because their approach to their inbox is the same approach they will give to your phone calls. Expect perfect grammar!

During the early stages, you’ll scratch out a timeline and an agreeable rate. You’ll sign a contract before any work begins. Be wary of a ghostwriter who does not want to be contracted immediately. Those contracts are a safe-guard to both of you. They need to be legally bound to this project. Ensure that the contract states as much. When you sign, there’s a typical advance of a certain percentage (20-30). Mine is 25%. There will also be an agreed-upon number of drafts and revisions. This is to protect you both from being caught in some infinite loop of drafts. I revise twice. Contracts define milestones at which to review the manuscript and exchange payment, and there is another percentage due upon final delivery.

Sharing royalties is not unheard of, but it is rare. Most ghostwriters work for a flat fee, and expect nothing more upon completion of the contract. This is a benefit to both of you. Although some business relationships develop into enduring friendships, most of us don’t want to be financially tied to anyone, even our friends, forever.

  • How long does this all take?

The entire process ranges from three to six months on average, though some manuscripts (like Hilary Clinton’s latest work) can last over a year. Most ghostwriters figure the project length into the cost, with less expensive projects being shorter.

  • Is there any guarantee of publication?

No, but some ghostwriters offer additional services, such as referrals to particular agencies or connections to a publishing house. These are figured into their market value as well. Remember that a ghostwriter is contracted to produce a complete work of publishable quality. Many have some experience in publishing, but it’s not a part of the average job to follow-up with the manuscript’s submissions, and even though many of us know publishers, there’s no guarantee that the house is currently open, or a good fit, for the work in question.

Considering the simplicity of e-publishing, many clients can invest a small amount of time into marketing and/or a sale to turn the expense of the ghostwriter into a profit for themselves. One client of mine went on to the Kindle Top 100, and easily reimbursed herself all my costs within two weeks. Still other clients want nothing more than a hardcopy of their family’s oral history.

  • What should I be looking for?

As with everything in life, the most important factor is the fit, and I don’t mean financially or in scheduling. Look first for qualifications: a relevant degree, and/or track record of publications. Verify their identity. Trust is important when you’re dealing with thousands of dollars and your great untold story. Then, during your contact and consultation, get a feel for their personality. A firm atheist might struggle with sincerity while they tell the story of a devout preacher finding God. Might. A good writer should be able to tell any tale well, but as a client, I would prefer an empathetic ghostwriter. If my tale focused on the trials of my relationships, I’d be more likely to select a female writer. On the other hand, it may be the writer who ultimately refuses the project. I’ve known ghostwriters to reject projects which cover material too violent or depressing, such as stories in the true crime genre.

So, to summarize: ask yourself if you can write the book alone. If not, research your options. Do you just need a coach to structure you, an editor for the first half of a book and ghostwriter for the second, or a complete creative face-lift to an old, old idea? Like I said, ghostwriters are flexible. Some clients dictate their own notes while others e-mail an outline and say, “Call me when it’s ready.” Then, determine your budget. A few hundred dollars will not secure a professional ghostwriter. Many even reject several thousand, so understand that this will be a serious investment. Schedule a consultation and secure yourself with a thorough and immediate contract. Then, in a few months, you should be the proud author of your very own book!

Should You Pay A Beta Reader?

This is a complex question and I’m excited to pull it apart, because it gets down into the perceived disparity between art and commerce, and the value of enjoyment versus the cost of time. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start off with how this question relates to creative writing.

A beta reader is an increasingly popular term to describe someone who is willing to read work prior to its publication and/or submission. This person is not there to edit the work, but rather, to react to it as a member of the audience. Considering the wealth of self-publishing options available now and the competitive nature of the marketplace, a beta reader is a valuable asset to have in your writer’s desk, and you need look no further than groups on Absolute Write, Good Reads, or World Lit Café to find tons of people willing to be your free beta reader.

This annoys me. Here’s why.

I’ve offered my services as a beta reader for free a few times (to friends and family). I’ll go line-by-line. A short story of just ten pages will take two hours. Here’s an example of what you might get out of a beta reader. When the volume is too loud, they’ll let you know. If there was a scene they expected and never got to see, they’ll let you know. Ideally, a beta reader is well-educated in storytelling technique. They’ll hear flat dialogue. They’ll recognize a sexist character.

I wouldn’t offer my free services to a stranger for several reasons.

1) Some of these collectives cling to the principle that a beta reader “does it for the love,” which turns being free into some kind of philosophy. Charging doesn’t mean that you don’t love to read. Charging means that you have a bookshelf crammed with half-read novels, and in your leisure (free) time, the first book for which you reach isn’t going to be a first draft about which even the author isn’t sure. I don’t think most adults have the time to perform a proper beta reading for free.

Suffice it to say, the less experience and education you have writing, the more work your beta reader will end up doing, and the more sorely you’ll need real help.

2) A proper beta reader isn’t just a reader, but a reader with the entire audience in mind (including editors and agents), and a reader who writes constructive criticism of varying degrees. This is why reading ten pages will take them two hours.

“I don’t like this!” shouldn’t appear in their responses. “I don’t like this because it glosses over the deeper issue of John’s depression,” would be a C-grade beta response. “I don’t like this because it glosses over the deeper issue of John’s depression. Because it would be out-of-key with the conversation, however, to truly discuss it, perhaps the details could manifest from his surroundings,” is an A-grade beta reader.

If your beta reader is responding to singular lines and pages, rather than writing a bulk review at the conclusion of the piece, they absolutely deserve compensation.

3) When you pay for a service, you pay for multiple things. You’re paying for their discretion. (Notice how I did not post up any direct samples of my beta reading, or of the piece involved.) If you have a free beta reader, a stranger, no contract, how secure is the work? What kind of legal claim would you have if the identity of the beta reader (for example, “beta1234”) isn’t possible to trace to the plagiarist you later confront? When you trust an individual with your intellectual property, it’s important that you’re aware of their identity, and it’s important that the exchange is somehow documented. Otherwise, there might not be proof that you aren’t the plagiarist yourself.

You’re also paying for dedication and focus. Life is a hectic thing. Not everyone has the dedication to keep chipping at a book while the family dog is sick and work is going crazy and Facebook keeps blowing up their phone. A stranger who “works” for free is just as likely to never contact you again, especially if the little flaws we want a beta to find instead deter them from finishing.

4) Finally, let’s talk about art. It’s a common misconception that art is a spiritual endeavor that is sullied with commerce. The truth of the matter is that art is not only a spiritual endeavor but also a product and/or service. I used to sell shoes, and I enjoyed it. But I needed to be compensated for not only the service I was providing; I needed to be compensated for my time. The starving artist is best left as a trope and not a reality; like the car mechanic, everyone has a skillset that allows something to work, and storytellers are just as valid in that respect. It might be the case that we need art even more than we need transportation. Imagine a world devoid of art (including television, interior design, and fashion!) compared to a world devoid of transportation. In which would you rather live?

“Doing it for the love” is the modern version of “Art is a spiritual endeavor.” I intensely dislike this notion because it turns artists into mystical creatures who don’t need to eat and have infinite leisure time. It’s unfair to perceive artists in this way. Football players don’t go to the NFL for free, because their craft takes up too much time, just like with many artists. They can’t function in that capacity without compensation.

People say, “Nothing’s free.” That’s not exactly true. More accurately:

“You get what you pay for.”

I’ve never patronized a beta reader, but I have seen poorly executed readings happen to colleagues. I’m not aware if they were free or not, but considering the quality, I’d bet they were. These reviews (of book-length projects) were only a few sentences long, and seemed, to me, cheap and patronizing, the equivalent of, “I really liked it!”

You may save yourself a lot of time (and time is money, as they say) by hiring a professional beta reader before submitting the book to the global marketplace for review, not to even mention the jaded reading glasses of editors and agents.

That having been said, if you can find a safe, thorough beta reader for free, more power to you. Personally, I would not trust an anonymous person without any proven credentials to handle my work in a way that will cost them significant time and careful thought. I feel that, for a bulk review at the end of a book, $20-50 would be fair, depending on how concise and explicit the review. For a critique that takes place page-by-page, for a project of 150 pages (with constructive reaction taking place on every page and being a small paragraph in length), I would expect a rate of $150-300.

The Importance of Being Logical (Causality, Blocking, and Pacing)

Today I’m going to talk about the human mind, and how we demand causality from life and its various portrayals, whether they be in film or text or whatever medium. Things must make sense. If they don’t make sense, regardless of how cool the resultant scene, we feel above the action. Not only has the dream-like haze of immersion been utterly broken, but we’re also now critical of the characters, the scene, and the author. Typically, we know when we’re doing this, because the scene suddenly becomes much harder to write. We need to configure the physics of it, because it doesn’t just materialize organically, the way that the other pages did.

Jeffery Deaver: “When I find myself frozen–whether I’m working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book–it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”

For example, I recently wrote the death scene of a beloved character. I wanted, desperately, for this character to die in an epic battle. Unfortunately, the character was also the victim of an intensifying and debilitating sickness. It simply wouldn’t make sense for him to be in this high-risk environment where the action takes place, and it also does not reflect true experience. When someone is deathly ill, they don’t then go on to perish in a blaze of glory, unless that final act of heroic sacrifice doesn’t require a long walk. Much more often, these people die from that disease, and it isn’t filled with the honor and dignity of impaling some beast and unchaining the damsel. Death by disease is bitter.

Ultimately, I had to let the character die in the way that was logical. He died of the disease that had been intensifying throughout the book, and the scene felt very, very right. Once I stopped trying to steer it based on my own prejudices (“But I want to write an epic battle scene!”) and let the character become a real person in a real world, the story materialized on the page like anything else you allow to grow freely in its own direction. Many writers maintain that characters can “surprise” you, as if they have agency outside of your brain, and I agree. Of course, it’s unlikely these characters exist as specters beyond the realm of consciousness, influencing our decisions as writers, but much more likely, our own minds demand that we follow logic, and in truth, we surprise ourselves. Sometimes you just don’t know how various elements will evolve over the course of a story, but when it’s all told, if you let it happen, it will feel right.

I started on a fantasy series with a heroine and a villain. Naturally. Sometime around the end of the second book, I realized that the heroine and the villain had… a lot of organic chemistry. 😉 I let him be himself, and her be herself, and they fused well. In such a way that it would be dishonest as a writer to continue their parrying as if they were truly nothing but adversaries. As such, the subsequent books were written to reflect the development of a love triangle, and eventually, the heroine and villain ended up together. It was a very rewarding experience, and hugely different than it had been intended.

On a smaller scale, logic is also at the heart of pacing and “blocking,” the stage term for the positioning of bodies. I daresay proper blocking is even more vital than pacing, which is saying a lot. Especially in scenes with high action and lots of movement, your reader is paying attention to the positions of all the characters with pinpoint accuracy. I mean, this is the only way to envision the scene, isn’t it? As the writer, you probably are too, but should reread carefully to ensure that the attention to this detail is consistent throughout. Even something minor, like the redundant mention of a character hesitating, causes us a mental stutter and takes us from the fluidity of the scene. Clarity is important in anything you wish your reader to mentally see. You never want a confused reader, wondering how far apart these characters are. Little things matter.

We subconsciously track time (pacing) as well. It’s a good idea to draw out a calendar of events and mark down the scenes as you go, so you, as the narrator, know with crystal clarity the timeline. It’s okay if a character forgets, or lies, but the third-person perspective should just know. You should also pay attention to the length of time you spend in-scene at these points in the time-line. I once portrayed a character being hypnotized repeatedly. I wanted to convey this abuse accurately, the sense of lost time, the confusion of the character. I ended up cutting several of the scenes. Not only did it become redundant, but it was just too boring, trapped in a room and uncertain of what is going on. The rest of the story was much more exciting. So, learn from my mistakes: don’t spend too many pages in the same room. At the end of the piece, you’ll hopefully have a cast of characters who move with such speed and efficiency from scene to scene, the reader doesn’t even notice how the days peel by.

Conversely, it would be weird to have a character find out she’s six weeks pregnant in one chapter, and is then giving birth in the next, with no explanation of where that nine months went.

Writer’s Block and Process

I’ve been told before that my perspective of writer’s block is incorrect. I’ve been told that writer’s block is a zero energy total inability to make something happen on the page, “like depression, but for writing.” As if writing is not a part of us, but an external entity that visits itself upon us, as if the blocked writer has been dumped by the muses of old, and whether or not they return has little to do with your own effort. As if you’ve texted and texted her (mentally, of course, but not with literal words, since those have been robbed from you), and she just won’t call you back.

This definition of writer’s block doesn’t work for me. I suppose there are special cases, such as authors in solitary confinement or authors who suffer brain damage, but I don’t believe this definition is accurate for the common scenario which is titled “writer’s block,” wherein an average writer like you or me simply stares at a page for a day or two, or a month or two, as the case may be. We are people in decent health, people surrounded by inspiration whether or not we take it, people who possess the skills required to write the words, even poorly. Most people have access to lots of tools which may stimulate their creative process.

I’m not the type of person who just accepts what appears to be as fixed and divorced from me. I’m a big believer in the power of positive thought and individual effort, and in the power to control and structure your own life.

I see the craft of writing as a muscle which strengthens with direct practice, and like a muscle, you’d be surprised how strong it can become once you determine that you will meet your challenges.

From an interview featured in The Believer’s Book of Writers Talking to Writers, between Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster, “I’ve found that writing novels is an all-absorbing experience–both mentally and physically–and I have to do it every day in order to keep the rhythm, to keep myself focused on what I’m doing.” (Auster) To which Lethem responded, “You’re keeping a streak going.”

Admittedly, the first thing you write coming out of a dry spell will probably be bad. As William Stafford said, “Lower your standards.”

I also highly recommend taking walks and meditation. Moments of relaxation are hugely instrumental in inspiration. While you cannot be inspired while constantly relaxed and never chipping away at that plot hole or climax or what have you, you can also not be inspired if you never stop stressing over it. So stress, stress, and then take a deep breath and walk away. Let it play idly through your thoughts and you’ll be surprised how often HUGE breakthroughs will hit mid-shower.

If there are toxic stressors in your life which you identify as cropping up between yourself and your ability to write, put tangible space between yourself and them.

A common footnote in the story of a rut is that the subject thinks about solutions, but never actually physically does anything differently.

So don’t just think about turning off your phone, or disconnecting your Internet, or going on that walk, or spitting out that opening paragraph you just know isn’t going to sing and sparkle the way you hope. I know athletic footwear never wrote a best-selling novel, but in times of despair, I turn to the words of NIKE, goddess of victory:

JUST DO IT.

Authorial Distance and Disconnection (Or Filters)

Authorial distance is a judgment call that a self-aware writer makes early in the scene. I was once told to imagine the narrator as a camera, and that analogy works well for me.

Some scenes are better served by a panoramic view. Perhaps you want to capture the mood of an evening across an entire town; you’d seek unifying activity amongst the myriad subjects, so as not to focus too closely on any individual (“the women lounged with their paperback heartthrobs”), use a “soft lens” to convey more general detail, and, as a narrator, you’d probably be inclined toward omniscience. I’ve rarely used this method, but Kurt Vonnegut is one my favorite authors, and he had a marked distance to his prose. For all its beauty, it was distinctly outside of the character, and at times, it was so distant it could gloss over the entire planet.

Comparatively, there is the opposite end of the spectrum, where the camera is more of a chip implanted into the brain of the main character, and your reader only perceives their experiences as viscerally and intimately as possible. With this authorial distance, or lack thereof, you’d likely employ stream-of-consciousness to relay the natural movement of thought, openly delve into raw styles seldom explored in fiction, and convey sensation as it is experienced firsthand. (“Son of a bitch! Cody’s hand flexed, stinging, and the pot of mushrooms clanged onto the kitchen linoleum.”) You’d consider your prose to double as the eye of the character, so if they’re looking at something, you’re describing it without noting that they’re looking at it. For example, “I sat down beside him. His sneakers were red and our hands were too close.” That tells you a lot without telling you that this character is looking down, or telling you how uncomfortable they are.

If you move instead to describing the eyes of the perspective (“My eyes flash from our hands–too close–to our shoes–too close”), it doesn’t necessarily lose its impact or significance but it does move the camera just outside of their body.

There are plenty of steps in between, though. It just depends on what type of story you want to tell. If you’re starting an action/adventure/mystery with a single perspective, you’ll probably want to nestle up as close as possible, but in a political drama rife with intrigues, you’re better served to move from one event of consequence to the next, regardless of which characters are involved, so your reader is overwhelmed by the amount of betrayal, so many other characters painfully unaware!

All of this is fine because it’s all conscious, and regardless, it doesn’t actually hinder the storytelling. Your plot and characters may have been better suited to a different method, but it’s really just another way of telling the same story, and a good story is… well… good. There is something like authorial distance but not, because it places an unintentional disconnection, and the disconnection isn’t between the reader and the character but between the reader and the narrator. These are filters, and one of the main reasons I always recommend rereading one’s work, preferably aloud. When a writer uses a filter, a throwaway verb phrase, it places a small but vital measure between the reader and the story, usually “filtered” through the main characters themselves. For example, “She noticed that the mail still hadn’t been opened.” Now consider: “There sat the mail. Still on the counter. Unopened.” Hunt down those meaningless filters and cut them out, placing your reader directly into the story rather than caught in the intermediary of the character. “He smelled the exhaust lacing the air, but he couldn’t make out the plates.” Compare to: “Exhaust laced the air. Its license plate shrank and blurred.”

Add Depth to Your Dialogue with Subtext (Not Volume)

I recently read a short story that was perfectly nice, but a bit boring. The structure and word choice were technically quite sound, but something was still missing. This story was about the communal mourning of the death of a family member. It bored me because the characters all said what they really meant, plain as day, which lacks the intrigue many readers seek in fiction and is also misrepresentative of the human experience. In short, people don’t talk like that. They rarely if ever say what they mean with clarity and honesty–hell, most people don’t even realize how they feel with enough clarity and honesty to speak it. Subtext is what you really use when you speak, and it relies on devices such as gesture, emphasis, strategic pauses, punctuation, cadence, and word choice. It really gets down into the sentence at a molecular level in order to express itself.

A line in this story would read something like, “I know how much you miss her.” As someone who has experienced loss comparable to that of the characters in this story, I can tell you that no one has ever said this to me. People are uncomfortable with raw, blatant emotion. The most I have really been offered is, “I’m sorry,” or “I have no idea what you’re going through.” Then there would be a tense few seconds, and I’d likely respond by thanking them for their compassion, or allowing that I knew they didn’t know how I felt, and then the subject would be changed. This is as true for people you hardly know as it is for family members. A more realistic line could be, “Do you think you’re going to… do anything… with her stuff?” It eludes to the grieving process, but it’s focused on something else as the technical point. It also shows the aversion toward confronting this reality through its use of the pause/ellipses surrounding the phrase “do anything.”

In addition, it’s less interesting because plain speech is often cliché. “I miss you,” has been said so many times, in cards, in letters, on the phone, it’s almost a throw-away statement. Let me take you to the scene of a boy and a girl on the phone, separated by the entire country and college, going on three weeks now. She asks him how it is “there.” What does he say? Yes, “I miss you” is obvious, and a lot of people would really say that. But what means the same thing and is more complex and just as honest? “Cold.” Great answer. One word, so there’s a sense of finality, even fatalism, and the word “cold.” He’s cold. If she were there, he’d be warm. That’s subtext. Or “It’s been raining all day.” More interesting, just as honest, means the same thing: I’m miserable without you.

Now let’s take a look at how the scene itself can participate in the subtext. In this instance, through sound and gesture, but it could be anything that suits the moment. An appropriate song drifting by from a passing car with lowered windows.

A husband walks into the bedroom where his wife is sitting, chatting with a man on-line. The man has a profile picture in which he is wearing some kind of funny hat, or shirt, tie, et cetera, and the husband flippantly comments, “What kind of hat/shirt/tie is that?” Oddly, though, the wife becomes defensive. We don’t want to say “become defensive,” though; we want to show the way she pulls her feet down from off the computer desk, where they had previously been resting, and then, if you really want to make the scene stressful, the keyboard falls off her lap with an abrasive clatter. While she’s fumbling for the keyboard, her hair is falling into her face (which shows her evasiveness) and she responds, “How am I supposed to know what kind of hat/shirt/tie he’s got? I’ve never met the guy. I mean, that’s a ridiculous question. Do you know everything about everybody in the world?” Weird, right? Very suspicious, without saying what she really means: “Leave me alone!”

I shouldn’t have to tell you that the wife is snapping at the husband. You should hear it in the way the words are confrontational, the phrases defensive (How am I supposed to…, Do you know everything…) and the surrounding activity somewhat cacophonous. The falling keyboard, the changing of her body’s position, the interrupted Skype session. For this reason, you don’t need to pepper your dialogue with too many squeaks, gasps, grumbles, mutters, purrs, pipes, or groans. It’s distracting to the eye, and the sentence should move in such a way that we sense tone automatically. As many teachers say, SAY is the invisible word, and it doesn’t hamper your reader, who will whizz through the dialogue as if they are eavesdropping on a real conversation. SAYS is mostly important as a tag, so we know who is speaking, unless it’s a two-person back-and-forth and your reader will pick up on the pattern, so it can be dropped for the sake of speed and economy (two of my favorite things as both a reader and a writer).

If you find your dialogue maintains a certain rigid, staged quality, eavesdrop–especially on arguments, secrets, jokes, interrogations, the intimate stuff–and observe the mechanisms. The way people pretend to not hear questions to which they’d prefer not to respond. The words they use as substitutes so they can discuss personal matters in public. And of course, true diction. Diction is vital in suspension of disbelief, because if someone sounds fake, we wake up from the dream. We notice the stage setting. We remember that we are reading. Diction saves us from that, and I don’t mean that everyone needs their own regional dialect (at all!) but rather that everyone needs a distinct and realistic style of speaking. As I said before, gestures, pauses, emphasis, word choice, all these things make dialogue real.

Pause for a moment and ask yourself, would someone really say this? How would they say it? There is a world of difference between “Well!” and “Well…”

One particular issue I notice in beginner dialogue is volume. Let’s take a look at an argument. Beginners often make the mistake that a blaring altercation is interesting, but in fact, it is taxing and amateur. Lovers in a quarrel, screaming vague obscenities and trite threats at one another, is just as annoying to read as it is to hear outside your window at 3 in the morning. However, a muted conversation in which one character is covertly attempting to go somewhere without the other character–that’s intriguing. It’s the quiet conversations that make the reader lean in closer. How could a character with disguised motives still get their way? Without blatantly saying, “I want to go to the beach on Saturday, alone.” Well, that’d be weird, wouldn’t it? Wanting to go to the beach, alone, for no reason? Certainly, the other character would ask why. So we don’t make it “the beach.” We make it “the gym.” A lie, most interesting!

“I don’t know, Bryan, I think I’m just going to go to the gym on Saturday.”
(I DON’T KNOW. A great way to let the audience know, this character DOES know, and doesn’t want to say it straight. “I don’t know” and “I guess,” these things crop up frequently in real conversation, with easily discernible tone. Can you hear it?)
“Oh, ok. I haven’t been to the gym in a while anyway. Maybe we could do that hot yoga Patrice keeps talking about.”
(The tone is clearly amiable–“oh, ok,” and agreeable. “Maybe we could…” Notice, too, the detail: hot yoga, Patrice. Detail serves to deepen the illusion in which our readers are mired, making this world ever more real.)
“You want to come? Are you sure? I don’t know how long I’ll be there. And it’s Saturday. Don’t you have that thing with Tom on Saturday?”
“No, that got moved to Wednesday. And yeah, I need to get to the gym. It’s fine. I can always come in my own car and leave when I’m ready.”
“I don’t know, Bryan. I kind of wanted… I guess I kind of wanted to have Saturday–to be–to do Saturday alone.”
(Almost says “be alone,” but adjusts mid-sentence to “do Saturday alone.” Lots of “I guess,” and “kind of.”)
“Oh… Any particular reason?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to be alone.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“I don’t know!”
Lapse into silence. Playing with things around them–a spoon in the soup bowl, pencils at the library, whatever. This brings me to my next point: what happens when “arguments” or things like arguments reach their boiling point. There is usually a spike in volume (“I don’t know!”) followed by a break between the participants, and a return to lower volume. This conversation could continue, “Maybe I won’t go to the gym after all,” in a soft tone. Because that line is ambiguous, the tag should probably expound on the sound. You have to use your best judgment with the intuition of your audience and tagging.

Of course, this conversation could take off in a lot of ways. It could end there, awkward, unresolved, or it has the potential to become a full-blown fight. But full-blown fights (circling back around to the issue of volume) are typically not enduring. A full-blown fight, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to witness a real one, tends to explode within the space of several sentences, and then the contenders fly apart to their separate corners, or someone leaves. Most people don’t have the stamina it takes to just fight someone on and on, even if only verbally. As always, we want our fictional relationships to mimic the human condition. So, when volume does spike, it should spike quickly and then be cut off. It’s just not realistic to keep volume too high too long, and it’s not pleasant to read, either.

This also goes for violence, gore, sex, and vulgarity. A murder has the potential to be of screaming volume. However, it can also be subtle, silent, and I hope you agree that it is much more pleasant to read–and much scarier to think about–that way.

Adverbs or Bad Verbs?

This was a difficult concept for me to grasp, because there are a lot of adverbs I like and it doesn’t seem as if writing a sentence I enjoy could be wrong. And it’s not wrong, per se; it’s just flabby. The older I get, the more I defer to clean, tight prose. It moves fast–or flies, or zooms, or soars, or jaunts–and is more articulate.

So, as you proofread, keep an eye out for adverbs. You may be surprised by how many you actually use. When you spot one, try to conjure another, more complex verb which would encompass the adverb.

Try it out and see how it feels for yourself. Perhaps your hero doesn’t laugh mirthlessly. Perhaps he chuckle-groans. Maybe your villain does not just slowly follow a path. Perhaps she stalks. Or trails? Crouches and slithers? Have fun with it. You may end up creating some new sentences–or verbs–altogether.

First-Time Fictioneers: The Temporal Cue

I want to quickly cover a beginner mistake I see commonly, prior to the creation of an enduring character or plot. Plot and character fill entire worlds on their own, but there are certain skills very easy to instill which are even more essential than character and plot, like how hydrogen and oxygen are essential to the world, too. Without these elements, the latter cannot yet exist.

This easy-to-remedy essential is called temporal cuing. This is letting your reader know–constantly–where your character is in time and space.  It’s important to do this in your very first paragraph, if not sentence. Open any fiction book you own and try to find one that doesn’t give a strong sense of time and place in which to locate the character. Otherwise, the reader is floating in an ambiguous soup of internal monologue. Even acts as mundane as sitting up, standing, and walking into another room should be summarized, albeit quickly. This continues to be important in dialogue. Our characters shouldn’t be just strings of quotes, as readers eventually lose their sense of physicality in the scene and it becomes unreal: the kiss of death to any fiction. Even the arguments (especially the arguments) should be a thrust and parry of blotted lipsticks, of lighters refusing to flair, and of course, of shrugging, blinking, and pausing.

Even periods of stewing and break-down (especially periods of stewing and breakdown!) need to be tagged with markers like “lounged after dinner,” “strode across the river,” “glared into the traffic,” even “just sat and stared until the alarm clock shrilled.” My first novel maintained a huge mistake until its latter stages, and that was a page or two of solid abstraction (oxymoron unintended) to summarize. Your reader doesn’t want to be told what the book is about, whether at the beginning or end, no matter how eloquent your grasp of language. Lyricism cannot replace tight prose that supports an intriguing concept. Cleverly told stories are never as good as good stories, regardless of how cleverly told. This is an epiphany I only had this year. I’d struggle over whether or not to cut a pointless but poetic sentence. Functionless? Cut it. People remember stories more often than they remember sentences.