Apr 29 2017

That which confounds us…

I received my copyedited manuscript back from my publisher, and am proud to say that it was VERY clean, except that I seem to completely miss the difference between which and that. Something about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, but that means nothing to me. Can you explain?David, author

Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses are adjective clauses – they modify or describe the noun, either the subject or object, of the sentence. They’re also called relative clauses because they relate to the rest of the sentence.

Restrictive clauses do just what they say: they restrict the subject or object. They add a specific description to distinguish the subject or object from any other. Removing the restrictive clause from the sentence would change the meaning of the sentence or make it confusing or too vague.

Non-restrictive clauses add additional information about the subject, but they don’t restrict the subject to a specific item. The non-restrictive clause can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning.

Makes perfect sense, right? Ahem. Okay, it makes more sense with examples.

The car was stolen.

‘The car’ is the subject of the sentence. It was stolen.

What car was stolen? We need more information.

The car, which was in the parking lot, was stolen.

That is a non-restrictive clause. There may have been lots of cars in the parking lot. If you remove this non-restrictive clause, it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. The car was stolen. The non-restrictive clause (‘which was in the parking lot’) adds additional information, but doesn’t restrict it to one specific car.

The car that was in the disabled parking space was stolen.

Oh, that car. “That” added more information that specifically restricted the subject of the sentence to that car. Not any of the other cars in the parking lot. That car. That car that used to be right there but isn’t there anymore because it’s been stolen.

Non-restrictive clauses (‘which’ clauses, adding more info but not restricting) are set off with commas from the main sentence because it is additional information, almost a parenthetical statement. The car, which was in the parking lot, was stolen.

Some ways it can get mixed up:

I love pasta, which this restaurant serves. (non-restrictive)

“Pasta” is the object of this sentence. This sentence means I love pasta in general. Some added information is that this restaurant serves pasta, but I’m not specifically saying I love the pasta served at this restaurant – I’m not restricting my statement to only pasta from this restaurant. In fact, my next sentence might say, “However, this restaurant’s pasta tastes like crap.”

I love the pasta that this restaurant serves. (restrictive)

This means I specifically love the pasta served at this restaurant. I may or may not love pasta from other restaurants — I am restricting the meaning of my statement to refer specifically to the pasta served here.

A way to check: if you can eliminate the word ‘that’ and it still makes sense and is grammatically correct, then it’s a restrictive sentence and you should use ‘that,’ not ‘which.’ Or, even better, you can just eliminate ‘that’ to save on word count and tighten your sentences. I’ve edited novels that contained 1,000 unnecessary ‘thats.’

I love the pasta this restaurant serves.

This sentence removes the word ‘that.’ It’s still grammatically correct, and the meaning of the sentence remains the same. I could use the word ‘that’ if I wanted it, but the sentence stands without it.

WRONG: I love the pasta which this restaurant serves.
‘Which’ is non-restrictive so it needs a comma to set the clause apart as additional, separate information.

WRONG: I love the pasta, that this restaurant serves.
‘That’ is restrictive, so there shouldn’t be a comma in this sentence. If you eliminate ‘that’ from this sentence you wind up with an errant comma and an incomplete sentence: I love the pasta, this restaurant serves.

If you’re referring to people, instead of using that/which, use who/whose. Who/whose can be either restrictive or non-restrictive, so it’s the commas setting the clause apart that signal to the reader whether it’s restrictive or non-restrictive.

The scientist who discovered gravity was named Newton.
This sentence is restrictive, so no comma. I’m referring specifically, restrictively, to the one scientist who discovered gravity. And yeah, don’t quibble on my science here. But here we use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ because it refers to a person rather than a thing.

My favorite scientist, who discovered gravity, is Newton.
This sentence is non-restrictive. Take out the clause and it still make sense: My favorite scientist is Newton. The non-restrictive clause adds additional information. Newton is my favorite scientist, oh and by the way, he discovered gravity. Here, we use ‘who’ rather than ‘which.’

My favorite scientist, whose discoveries included gravity, is Newton.
Non-restrictive clause adds more information to this sentence, but it still makes sense without the clause. The clause is set off by commas, uses ‘whose’ (possessive) instead of ‘which’ because the clause refers to a person rather than a thing.

My favorite scientist who discovered gravity is Bhaskaracharya.
Restrictive clause. Two scientists discovered gravity, and this sentence restricts my favorite to only one of them.

As we’ve seen above, when it’s a restrictive clause, you can often eliminate the word ‘that.’ Sometimes you can change the verb in the restrictive clause to an -ing verb and eliminate the ‘that.’ For example:

I watch the whales that swim next to the boat.
Restrictive ‘that,’ no commas, specifies exactly which whales I watch. I watch those whales that swim next to the boat. I do not watch the whales that swim a mile away. I watch those whales right there.

I watch the whales swimming next to the boat.
Restrictive, same as above, but drops ‘that’ and changes ‘swim’ to ‘swimming.’

WRONG: I watch the whales, swimming next to the boat.
Does not take a comma here as it is a restrictive clause. Also, that little comma confuses the whole meaning of the sentence. Does it now mean I am swimming next to the boat while I watch whales?

Got all that?

Short version:
Use ‘that’ without commas to restrict the subject or object of the sentence to a specific one. The sentence won’t make sense without the restrictive clause.

Use ‘which’ with commas to add extra information about the subject or object of the sentence. Sentence will still make sense without the clause.


Jan 5 2013

Why are verbs so tense?

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I’ve heard that mixing “ing” and “ed” verbs in a sentence is wrong. But isn’t this is the grammatically correct way to describe when a second action takes place within the time frame of another past tense action? – Ben H. Hugh

What verb forms should you use when a sentence contains two actions? It depends. How’s that for an answer?

There are lots of variables, and verb tense gives writers and editors fits. I see it done incorrectly all the time on work I edit. I also mess it up in my writing until I go back and edit myself, or my editor catches it.

There are two basic ways in which multiple actions occur in the same sentence. Either sequential (one thing then the other) or simultaneous (both things happen at the same time).

Sequential actions—a character does one thing and then does another thing:

He drove home and cooked dinner. [Correct. Don't use the -ing verb]

Driving home, he cooked dinner. [Wrong, unless he's cooking dinner in the car while driving.] 

Simultaneous actions—a character does two things at the same time:

He drove home, thinking of her. [Correct. The -ing verb shows the two actions happen at the same time]

It can get slightly more complicated if the two actions are done by two different characters.

She walked down the beach, the sun shining on her face. [Correct. The two actions are happening at the same time]

You could break it into two separate actions and it will be just as clear.

She walked down the beach. The sun shone on her face.

You can also use one of those timing words such as then, as, or while to indicate timing of actions. Sometimes one of these is necessary, but they can be cumbersome, so don’t overuse them:

As he drove home, he thought of her.

He drove home then cooked dinner.

She walked down the beach, while the sun shone on her face.

A problem shows up if the actions are sequential, but written as simultaneous, like the example above about the guy driving and cooking dinner at the same time. It’s not always that obvious:

She walked down the beach, going for a swim. [Wrong. She didn’t walk on the beach and swim at the same time.

She walked down the beach and went for a swim. [Correct.]

Another problem comes in with the famous dangling participle:

Walking down the beach, the sun shone on her face. [Wrong. The way this sentence is written, it means the sun was walking down the beach.]

You could say:

She walked down the beach, and the sun was shining in her face.

But that adds a passive ‘to be’ verb where it’s not needed and weakens the sentence.

Then there’s the past continuous tense, which pairs a ‘to be’ verb with an ‘ing’ verb. This indicates an action that was in progress over a period of time in the past. If writing in simple past tense (the standard for most fiction), the continuous tense indicates an ongoing action.

She was walking down the beach. [Shows an ongoing action; she started walking at some point in the past, and continued to walk for a period of time]

Why is it needed if ‘She walked down the beach’ is just as clear in context? The continuous tense gets used a lot when it’s not needed, even if technically correct.

But let’s get back to sentences with two actions. If you need to show a continuous action that started in the past and continues until the next action, you might need the past continuous verb tense:

She was walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her of her flip-flops.

This shows she was in the process of walking down the beach—she started walking before she was robbed, and she was still in the process of walking at the moment of the robbery. Sort of a mix of the sequential and simultaneous actions because one action took place over a period of time, then the second action occurred at a single moment in time while the first action was still happening.

Then there’s past perfect, which often uses ‘had’ with the -ed verb:

She had walked down the beach.

This shows she started the action in the past, and that action is now completed. It happened at a prior time, such as:

Every day this week, she had walked down the beach. Today it rained, so she stayed inside. [Note that this is all in past tense, even the current moment of 'today.']

The word ‘had’ makes it clear that this was a prior action that had been completed in the past. That, of course, gets confusing if you’re writing in past tense, because everything technically happened in the past. When writing in past tense, use the past perfect to indicate an action that was completed before the ‘present moment’ in the scene. It helps differentiate between the present moment written in past tense and an action that happened prior to the present moment.

To really get confusing, when ‘had’ is paired with a ‘to be’ verb + an ‘ing’ verb, you’ve got the past continuous verb tense.

She had been walking down the beach.

This also refers to a prior time (maybe five minutes ago, maybe five years ago, doesn’t matter). But it shows a continuous or progressive, longer term action, something that started in the past, continued for a period of time, and was completed in the past. This verb tense works best when it leads to the next action or event.

Yesterday, she had been walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her.

This indicates that it happened at a time prior to the present moment in the story, not the current, live action scene in the story; that the walk was a progressive action that took up some amount of time; that the walk had finished before the current moment in the story; that the walk was still in progress when she was robbed. That’s packing a lot of information into two verb tenses.

The issue with these various verb tenses is that they get misused, or they’re used when not needed. They use extra words and pad the writing. My personal preference is more direct writing with as few words as possible (not that you can tell from this blog post). I like to reserve the more complex verb tenses for the times when they are truly needed.

To complicate matters even more, all these recommendations change slightly if you’re writing in present tense.

Remember that each verb tense has a specific use. Sometimes more than one tense can work, depending on exactly how you want to portray the actions to readers and the surrounding context. There are lots of ways to use them incorrectly, and there are ways that are technically correct, but tend to water down the prose, especially if used too frequently.


Mar 30 2012

Narrative arc: What the heck is it?

Have you ever had an agent, editor, or a reviewer say something like this about your novel?

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“This story has a weak (or non-existent) narrative arc.”
“While the characters are strong, the narrative arc did not maintain my interest.”
“The writing is solid, but the narrative arc is unclear and inconsistent.”

I have. And on many occasions, I’ve had to be the editor to say something along that line.

It’s easy to say that a story doesn’t have a strong narrative arc. It isn’t so easy to define and describe a narrative arc. It’s even harder to write a story with a strong narrative arc. I know how difficult it can be from my own experience as a writer.

Think of narrative arc as a bell curve. It starts at a point on the lower left hand side of a graph, rises in a curve to a peak, and then drops back down again. The standard narrative arc is often referred to in terms of the three-act play: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Act one, the beginning, introduces the characters and sets the stage—the current situation. Then an inciting event sets the story into motion.

In act two, the main character must try to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting event. The character wants something, has a goal in mind. The conflict and tension of the story rise, and obstacles are thrown in the path of the character to prevent her from achieving her goal. The character faces these obstacles on her way to overcoming the conflict. The obstacles get bigger, more difficult, and the character may be on the verge of defeat or surrender. At this point, the character must make a critical decision or a moral choice that changes the direction of the story.

That decision leads to act three and results in two things: the climax to the story (the peak of the curve), and the character is profoundly changed in some way. The character finds the strength within and a method to overcome the conflict. The story questions are resolved and the character has changed from the person she was at the beginning of the story. Or, the character is defeated, fails to accomplish the goal, dies, or some other tragic ending, but even then, the character has changed is some way, for the better or worse.

A slightly more complex outline is the eight-point narrative arc, described by Nigel Watts in his book, Write a Novel and Get It Published. Merging these eight points with the three-act play formula would look something like this:

ACT ONE
1. Stasis – the current situation and characters in everyday life
2. Trigger – the inciting event that sets the plot in motion

ACT TWO
3. The quest – the trigger results in the character needing to accomplish some goal
4. Surprise – a series of events presents obstacles that make achieving the goal more difficult
5. Critical choice – the character must choose a particular path to confront the obstacles
6. Climax – the critical choice results in the climax of the story, the highest peak of tension

ACT THREE
7. Reversal – the consequences of the critical choice changes the status of the character
8. Resolution – the story ends at a new point of stasis, and the character is changed is some way

Note that the ‘typical’ three-act play structure in a novel does not usually break down neatly into equal sections of one-third each. Act one may be a single chapter or two. It can be longer, of course, but it may be contained in the first few pages. Likewise, act three might be fully contained in one or two chapters at the end.

Act two is the giant middle in which the story takes place. This is the toughest slog for any writer to execute, and this is where the narrative arc can fall apart. Does each scene add to the story: raise the stakes, increase tension, create obstacles, or show the character overcoming (or failing to overcome) an obstacle? Does the scene further a sub-plot that is inextricably tied to the main plot (a love interest, a personal or family issue that the character must deal with while also trying to save the world from aliens or her family farm from the tax collectors)?

Or, are new sub-plot elements created, new obstacles raised, or new characters introduced that have nothing to do with the main storyline? Does the main plot disappear for chapters at a time? Does the character go here and do something, go there and do something else, then go somewhere else and something completely different happens? Do all these events create a disjointed storyline that bounces hither and yon with no coherent narrative arc?

Each scene should lead to the next in a logical, coherent manner that advances the story. This proceeds until the obstacles and the conflict are overwhelming and it appears the character may fail unless she makes the right choice in her critical decision. Instead of ‘this happens, then that happens, then something else happens,’ the narrative arc will look like ‘this happens, which leads to that happening, which causes something else to happen.’

This doesn’t mean every scene has to be more dramatic than the one before it. Pacing in a novel is important. Readers need a slower, more sedate scene periodically to catch their breath. The character needs time between obstacles to review her journey and think about how to proceed, time for romantic interludes, times where things seem to be going right for the character just before BAM the next big thing happens. If you chart the scenes in a novel, it might look like a rising stock market over a period of time with a series of ups and downs, but on an overall rising path until the climax and the slow curve down during resolution and denouement.

If you think (or have been told) that your narrative arc is weak, try writing out a scene-by-scene outline of your current draft. See if the outline makes sense, if each scene advances the story in a logical way, or if there are scenes that veer off course and distract from the main storyline.

Your narrative arc should look like a bell curve, not a map of a suburban neighborhood full of circle drives, cul-de-sacs, and dead end roads.

For more resources:

Nigel Watt’s book, Write a Novel and Get It Published

Alan Rinzler, a renowned book editor, blogs about narrative arc.

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. talks about the shapes of stories here in a wonderful four-minute video.


Mar 11 2012

Never use an adverb!

If you’ve been writing fiction for more than a day, and have ever read a writers’ magazine, visited a writing website or blog, attended a writing critique group, or taken a college course in creative writing, you’ve probably heard this rule.

Here’s a good piece of advice: Anytime someone says ‘Always do this’ or ‘Never do that’ when it comes to writing, that’s a good time to tune them out. The only hard and fast rule to writing fiction: Never bore your reader.

But like many of these alleged rules and regulations for writers, there is a kernel of truth packed away underneath the prose fascist’s pronouncement.

Most of the time, these never-rules have morphed over time through misinterpretation, like the children’s game of gossip or telephone. What started as good advice to help keep novice writers from falling into the most common novice writer mistakes has transformed into dictatorial fiat by the literazis.

Adverbs are an easy place for novice, or even more experienced, writers to slip into lazy writing habits.

The problem is obvious in many beginning writers’ manuscripts. The problem isn’t that they’ve used an adverb. The problem is that they’ve never met an adverb they didn’t like. If a sentence feels flat—add an adverb! If one adverb is good, two must be better! There’s no adverb in this sentence—get one!

Adverbs aren’t wrong. They’re just weak. There is usually a better verb that conveys the image the writer wants to show, a verb that doesn’t need an adverb tacked on in an attempt to make a boring verb interesting. It’s like dressing a Chihuahua in doll clothes. Just get a more interesting dog, like a Basset hound or a Siberian husky or an Australian shepherd.

“I quickly ran home.”

Boring. Maybe “I sprinted home.” Or “I dashed home.” You’ve got dozens of choices more interesting than ‘ran’ that don’t need to be shoved into an adverb like Panchita into a Cabbage Patch dress.

One of the most common offenders of the ugly adverb syndrome is the dialog tag (he pontificated wisely). Dialog tags will be the subject of a blog post all to themselves in the near future, but if you’re adding an adverb onto your ‘said’ or ‘asked’ more than, oh, let’s say twice in a 100,000-word novel, you’re probably overdoing it. It sounds amateurish. Really, it does. Get over it.

“Wh-wh-what do you mean by that?” he stammered haltingly.

Is there any other way to stammer other than haltingly? In fact, why do you need to say ‘stammered’ since the dialog clearly shows th-th-the character stammering? You don’t. Lose it.

So when can you use an adverb? That’s easy.

When it’s right. When the adverbly verbed combination says exactly what you want to say, you’ve got the adverb in the right place for the right emphasis, and you’ve used them sparingly throughout your story. Adverbs, like adjectives, are a pungent spice. A little goes a long way. You can use them more than never, but less than distractingly, irritatingly, obnoxiously frequent.

And now a quick note on adverb placement for when you do use them—say, zero to twenty times per novel (okay, twenty-five if you’re writing an epic historical saga trilogy, or ninety-seven if you’re writing category romance or erotica). As a general rule, place the adverb closest to the word it modifies. This is especially true if it’s a complex sentence with two or more verbs or a prepositional phrase. Otherwise, you can change the meaning of the sentence. Consider these two sentences:

I nearly lost all of my money.

I lost nearly all of my money.

Example number one, nearly modifies lost. Something happened in which I came very close to losing all of my money, but thank goodness I didn’t lose it. I still have all of my money.

Example number two, nearly modifies all. Something happened in which I lost most, but not all, of my money.

Does the adverb go before or after the verb? Unless it changes the meaning, it doesn’t matter. Go with the one that sounds best. Putting the adverb first can change the emphasis of the sentence to the adverb.

Go boldly where no man has gone before.

Boldly go where no man has gone before.

Same meaning, different emphasis.

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It is acceptable to occasionally split infinitives.

It is occasionally acceptable to split infinitives.

The first one is the split infinitive, in case you were wondering, because the adverb comes between the two-word verb phrase ‘to split’.

So the next time someone tells you, “Never use an adverb,” remind them that ‘never’ is an adverb and they just used one.


Oct 17 2011

Recycled stories

I have an early reader that was published in 2003 and is still in print. I didn’t sell all rights to it. Can I now resubmit it as a short story to a magazine? - Elizabeth, Michigan

Thanks for the question. The answer is: it depends.
It depends on the new publication’s acceptance policy and what rights the previous publisher retains. Every publication is different.
Some want ‘First Rights,’ which means they only accept stories that have not previously been published.
Others get more specific than that. They may only want stories that have never appeared anywhere, in print or online, even if it was only on your website or Facebook page. Some don’t care if the story has appeared online only, but don’t want it to have appeared in print previously. I’ve seen some magazines specify that the story can’t have appeared in a print publication with more than x,000 circulation or distribution.
Other publications don’t care if it has previously appeared in print. The key here is to make sure the rights to the story have reverted back to you, the author.
If you previously sold/authorized rights to another publication, you’ll need to check to see what rights you sold, if there is a set amount of time that they retain those rights, and if those rights have reverted to you or not. Usually that’s not a long period of time if it was published originally in a magazine. However, you mention that the story is in an ‘early reader’ publication or book that is still in print. That might mean the original publisher still retains some rights to it for a set period of time. You’ll need to check with them or check your original contract when you sold the story.
Some publications will want a credit if you republish the story elsewhere (‘This story first appeared in ‘Title of Publication’ by Such-And-Such Publishers in 2003′). Others don’t care.
So you’ll need to check with the publication to which you want to submit to find out their policies for acceptance and what rights they require, and if they accept previously published works. Then you’ll need to check with whoever first published your story to make sure the rights have reverted to you. If your story is in a book that is still in print, that might make it more difficult. Be upfront with the new publication that the story was previously published, when, and by whom.
A previously published story can reduce your options, but you should still be able to find a publication that accepts previously published stories as long as you retain the rights to that story.

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Or, you could dust off your computer and write a new story. You’re a better writer today than you were eight years ago.
At the very least, go through your previously published story to see how you could improve it.

Sep 27 2011

Genre and market categories

As I research agents, I’ve encountered a lot of terminology that is obscure at best: upmarket, mainstream, literary vs. commercial, character-driven vs. plot-driven, high fantasy, steampunk, etc. One agent says she is looking for “upmarket contemporary mainstream” and the “next crossover novel,” while another agent says she does not accept “cross-genre.” What’s the difference between crossover and cross-genre? Can you shed some light on these terms? Chris Karim, New York

A work of fiction can be described and categorized by different sets of terminology. There are genres, sub-genres, market audience definitions, and style or setting descriptions. Sometimes the same term can be used in different ways. Often a style and market term may be added to the genre category to more narrowly define a work.

So yeah, this can be confusing.

Genre includes the standard categories such as science-fiction, fantasy, romance, historical, young adult, horror, thriller/suspense, crime, mystery, erotica, women’s fiction, commercial, and literary. Then there are sub-genres within genres, e.g., sci-fi space opera, paranormal romance, high fantasy, and chick-lit. Steampunk is a sub-genre that combines historical, sci-fi, and fantasy in unique, anachronistic ways, such as a story set in the Victorian age with high-tech gadgets powered by steam engines.

For a more detailed list and description of genres, go here.

The difference between commercial and literary fiction is a longstanding debate, and I’ll save that discussion for another day. In a very broad-brush stereotype, literary fiction may be more focused on the quality and the art of the writing itself. Literary fiction is often more character-driven, while commercial fiction is usually more plot-driven. And yes, there are thousands of exceptions to any attempt to delineate the two. I’ll also tackle the character- vs. plot-driven story in the later post on literary vs. commercial.

As a genre, commercial fiction (sometimes called general or mainstream) might have a wide appeal and sell to a larger audience, and it doesn’t fall into one of the more narrowly defined genres which appeal to a specific group of readers with a particular interest. Think Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) for commercial fiction, although Da Vinci could also be categorized in the thriller/suspense genre. So ‘commercial’ might be the genre description, or it can be used to describe a different genre book that appeals to a wider audience.

Beyond categorizing a book by genre, there are market categories and descriptions. This is where the term ‘upmarket’ has come into play in recent years.

From an audience perspective, upmarket means fiction that will appeal to readers who are educated, highly read, and prefer books with substantive quality writing and stronger stories/themes. Upmarket describes commercial fiction that bumps up against literary fiction, or literary fiction that holds a wider appeal, or a work straddles the two genres.

Upmarket fiction has been described as literary appeal with commercial potential. For examples of upmarket fiction, think John Irving, Jodi Picoult, Amy Tan, Sarah Gruen, Arthur Golden, and Ian McEwan.

Mass market (as opposed to upmarket) usually means those small paperbacks lining the shelves in the grocery store. These might be crime, thriller, romance, detective, or general fiction, but these are the books some readers devour at a rate of one or more a week, or buy a stack to take to the beach on vacation.

Other market categories include Christian, ethnic or multi-cultural, and LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender).

So you can now categorize your book by genre, by sub-genre, and by market audience. On top of that, you can describe it in more detail by the time and place setting.

Contemporary fiction means the story is set in today’s real world, as opposed to historical fiction (e.g., set in England during the Victorian era or in the American Civil War), or the fictional worlds of sci-fi and fantasy (Starship Enterprise or Middle Earth).

‘Crossover’ means a book that, while neatly labeled with one genre or market category (such as women’s fiction), also appeals to other readers (such as men). Or middle-grade/YA (such as Harry Potter) that appeals to adults as well as teens/kids.

‘Cross-genre’ is completely different from crossover. Cross-genre books are a mix of two or more specific genres. When a particular cross-genre gains popularity and has enough books written in that category, it might become its own sub-genre. A romance novel set in the Victorian era falls in the sub-genre/cross-genre of historical romance. A vampire novel aimed at teens might be labeled YA paranormal fantasy, which might be considered a cross-genre, or a sub-genre (paranormal fantasy) aimed at the YA market, or its own sub-genre.

A cross-genre novel can be a difficult sale because, instead of appealing to the two separate audiences, it might disappoint both sets of readers. A sci-fi/romance novel, for example, might not be sci-fi enough for hard-core fans, while the sci-fi aspects turn off romance readers.

The Twilight series is a good example of several of these genre and market descriptions. It’s cross-genre (YA/paranormal fantasy/romance). Its tremendous commercial success is due to the great crossover appeal to adults, primarily women. It would also be described as contemporary because it’s set in today’s real world (other than things like vampires and werewolves, which are the paranormal fantasy part of its genre mix). It probably wouldn’t be described as ‘upmarket’ because it wasn’t written with that intention, and it wasn’t necessarily aimed at an upmarket readership group, even though it appealed to many upmarket readers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe Twilight as literary, but I do know some literary writers who became engrossed in the story even if they groused and quibbled over the quality of the writing.

So Twilight – a YA contemporary paranormal fantasy cross-genre crossover commercial blockbuster success – is the pinnacle of good things that can happen with cross-genre and crossover novels. It appealed to huge audiences – teens, adult women, paranormal fantasy fans, romance readers, etc. That perfect confluence of appeal to various market segments is what causes books like Twilight and Harry Potter to take off into stratospheric sales.

Many more writers have tried blending genres and markets, and wound up with no agent, no publishing contract, or very low sales. Perhaps the story wasn’t strong enough, or the writing wasn’t good enough, or no one knew quite how to market it. Maybe the mishmash of genres appealed to no one. So be careful of trying to straddle or combine genres, and make sure it will appeal to a combined audience rather than alienate both sets of potential readers. Mainly, be sure you have a compelling story, engaging characters, and quality writing.

So what does any of this mean to writers? Everything or nothing at all.

Do you write the book you want to write, the story inside you that has to come out, and deal with the marketing and categorization and ‘shelf-spot’ later? Do you let your agent or someone else deal with that messy stuff? Do you write in a specific genre with a specific target audience in mind? Do you want to expand your potential audience to readers who don’t normally read that genre? Do you intentionally set out to create a story that will appeal to specific market segments so you know how to pitch the novel to agents, editors, publishers, and publicists?

Maybe you’ve decided to write a Christian YA contemporary literary high fantasy detective paranormal romance with crossover appeal to upmarket multi-cultural women and MG boys who love steampunk. Let me know how that works out for you.


Sep 20 2011

That word clutter

Instead of someone writing in with a question today, let’s look at an excellent editing tip sent in from Alexander McNabb. Alexander suggested this topic and graciously allowed me to use a few examples from his novel, Olives, pre- and post-editing.

Do you need to tighten up your writing? Need to cut a thousand words from your manuscript and can’t find a single scene you’re willing to eliminate? Maybe you only need to trim 14 words from your short story so it will qualify for a flash fiction contest with a maximum word count, but every single word of your snappy dialog is brilliant. 

That’s how many thats that you can delete

The word ‘that’ is a funny little word. Sometimes you can use it. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it’s optional, and the sentence means exactly the same thing and is grammatically correct either way.

An example from Alexander:

He’s tied into the family that you’re so buddy-buddy with.

In this sentence, the word ‘that’ introduces the relative clause ‘you’re so buddy-buddy with.’ It refers to, or is related to, the first part of the sentence – ‘the family.’ This is a restrictive clause because it describes and defines a specific family to the exclusion of any other families. Which family? That family.

But rewrite the sentence without the word ‘that’:

He’s tied into the family you’re so buddy-buddy with.

That sentence (Which sentence? That sentence!) is perfectly grammatical with or without ‘that.’ ‘That’ is optional.

NOTE: Do not use a comma before ‘that’ in this sentence structure.

Open up your manuscript. Do a search/highlight for the word ‘that.’ Often it can be deleted outright just like Alexander did in the example above.

The key is to see if the sentence is still clear without ‘that.’ Does it read smoothly? Does it maintain the right reading rhythm? If you excise ‘that’ and the sentence is no longer clear and precise, or it sounds awkward without it, then put ‘that’ back. If the word is used in dialog, and it feels more natural to a particular character’s voice to use ‘that,’ by all means keep it. But you may be surprised how many you can eliminate.

You’re probably wondering why you should go to all that effort to get rid of a few optional ‘thats.’

I checked a novel manuscript from one of my clients, a very good writer, as an example. The original, unedited manuscript contains slightly more than 100,000 words. The word ‘that’ appears 1,074 times. Deleting fewer than half of the ‘thats’ eliminated 500 words, about two full pages from a 400-page manuscript. You might be able to get your manuscript down below the 100K threshold an agent or publisher requested without having to eliminate a single riveting scene, breathtakingly vivid description of the sky at dawn, or even one line of your brilliant, pithy dialog. And no one will ever miss those 500 ‘thats.’

Sometimes you can’t just drop the word ‘that,’ but you can make other minor revisions to vary the sentence structure and not rely on ‘that’ so frequently. Even if it doesn’t reduce the word count, it helps reduce what can be an irritating repetition of the same sentence structure.

Here are a few more examples from Alexander:

Did you mean ‘that’ or ‘who’?

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people that fund them.

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people who fund them.

Generally speaking, use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ when referring to people. Use ‘that’ for animals and inanimate objects.

Check your verb tense 

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action that would affirm my right to a choice.

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action to affirm my right to a choice.

Both of these are grammatically correct. The second version is more direct, which fits the tone of the sentence better. It also tightens the sentence by one word. Don’t think tightening a sentence by one word helps? How many sentences in your novel? Take one unnecessary word out of 25 percent of your sentences and see what happens.

General word clutter

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise the fact that it’s over?’

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise it’s over?’

I had a recent client whose writing tic was the phrase ‘the fact of the matter was that.’ Writing tics are those little quirks all writers have, and this one stood out because it was used in both narration and dialog, and by every single character. Repeatedly.

Check for passive sentences

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems that were developed to explore for oil and gas …

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems developed to explore for oil and gas …

If you’ve got the word ‘that’ in a sentence where ‘that’ requires a ‘to be’ verb to go along with it, BONUS! You get to cut two words from your formerly bloated manuscript.

Why bother?

Another writer/client asked me, “Why spend hours doing all this editing to eliminate a single word when readers won’t even notice the difference?”

My response, regardless of the word: “If readers won’t notice it’s missing, what better reason to get rid of it? Why was it there to start with? Don’t waste your readers’ time making them read clutter. Make every word count.”

So that’s that – one easy tip in your search and destroy mission on word clutter. Tighten your manuscript and you might save one of your favorite scenes from the editing room floor when you have to trim a few hundred words from your novel. Edit one or two of your manuscripts for the word ‘that,’ and soon you’ll start catching it in your first draft writing. Eventually, it becomes an ingrained good writing habit and automatically disappears from your writing when it’s not needed.

Th-th-th-that’s all folks.


Sep 2 2011

A surprising announcement!

And now, I’m going to tell you something very interesting and dramatic. It will be sudden and surprising. Ready? Okay, it’s coming up next: 

That opening paragraph is an announcement of what I, the writer, am about to tell you. Of course, it better be interesting and surprising or you, the reader, are going to be disappointed, or think that I’m being a bit overly dramatic.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just told you something, and you found it interesting and surprising?

It works that way in fiction too. Do you announce to your readers when a big scene or moment is coming?

Here are some actual examples from manuscripts I’ve edited (I’ve made some changes in the sentences so no one should recognize your work, if I borrowed from you).

And then, just when I least expected it, something exciting happened.

What happened next made her scream in terror.

Things got even worse after that.

So here’s what he decided to do.

The rest of the night went like this.

Later that day, something very strange happened.

For the rest of the trip, we had one stroke of bad luck after another.

Wrongly assuming it was my wife, I opened the door.

It was a calm day with bright sunshine and blue skies, not the kind of day they expected something horrible to happen later that afternoon.

Today things were good between us, but tomorrow, they would go terribly wrong.

I’ve heard these called announcement sentences or thesis statements. They can be useful—if you’re writing a thesis or an essay or a news story. They probably don’t belong in your fiction, at least not to announce to readers that something important is coming up.

An announcement tells readers in advance, ‘Hey, I know this section has been boring, but keep reading, something dramatic is about to happen.’

Why not just let something dramatic happen? Why ruin the surprise and the enjoyment for readers?

Especially in first-person stories, these announcements distort the narrative perspective. It puts the character into the future and looking back on events, telling the whole story in flashback mode. If the narrator knows something dramatic is about to happen, the narrator isn’t experiencing the story first-hand as it happens, and neither are readers.

There are also announcement words that can easily be eliminated most of the time:

Suddenly …

Now …

Began …

Started to …

Next …

These are only a few of the more common examples. Obviously there are times when you need those words. But when one of these words announces the next moment, see if you can drop the word or rewrite the sentence to avoid it. Don’t tell readers ‘Suddenly , this happens …’. Just let it happen, written in a way that shows it was ‘sudden.’

ORIGINAL: My husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying our peaceful Saturday breakfast when we couldn’t believe what happened next. Suddenly, a man neither of us knew opened the door and started to walk in. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now I noticed he wore no clothes. Next, I asked if he wanted cream or sugar in his coffee.

REVISE: My husband and I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying our Saturday breakfast, sipping coffee and munching on croissants and strawberries. I turned to refill our cups when the door flew open and a strange man walked in. Stark raving naked. “Cream or sugar?” I asked him.

In short, don’t tell readers you’re about to surprise them. It defeats the purpose.


Apr 16 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 3 of 3

In Part I and II, we looked at the persons involved in a novel and the voice used in the writing. For a quick recap: 

- Persons

  • Author
  • Narrator
  • Character (or characters)

 - Voices

  • First person
  • Third person limited
  • Third person omniscient

Now we can finally get back to the original questions on POV.

As noted at the very beginning of this series, POV is defined as “through whose eyes and ears the reader witnesses the scene.” The author writes the story, the narrator tells the story, and the character experiences the story. Through which character does the reader experience any given scene? That’s the POV character. Might be in first- or third-person voice, and might be filtered through a separate narrator or witnessed directly through a first-person narrator-character. Might have one single POV for the entire book, or there might be 42 POVs.

In first-person voice, the character and the narrator are the same person (most of the time – more on this in a minute). Usually this is the main character, but not always. Some obvious examples of when a secondary character is the first-person narrator include the Sherlock Holmes stories in which Holmes is the main character but Watson is the narrator, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which is narrated in first person by the secondary character, Nick Carraway. This creates a first-person voice but with a bit of the third-person distance. The narrator can provide a wider perspective that the main character could not.

In third-person voice, the character and the narrator are two separate persons, and the narrator isn’t a character in the story but a disembodied voice or eye – like a movie camera – showing the actions and events.

So when can a first-person story be told by a narrator who is not a character?

Bit of a trick question, but it’s quite common. When a story starts with something like ‘Back when I was a young boy growing up on the Mississippi River,’ the author has established a split narrator/character in first person. The main character is the young boy in the story; the narrator is the grown man looking back on his childhood.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example. In the second paragraph:

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

This immediately establishes the character and the narrator as the same person at two different ages. The narrator is Scout, the grown woman, looking back on her childhood and the events that occurred to Scout, the young girl.

A more recent example is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, with the opening lines:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

There are two versions of the same girl – the living and eventually murdered child who is the main character, and her ghost who narrates the story.

This technique provides a nice advantage to writers (and readers). It maintains the close, intimate perspective of first-person narrative, while the narrator can also provide a wider perspective that usually requires third person. The difficulties in this technique are to create a character-narrator with a similar enough yet distinct voice to be the same person at different ages, and to always clue the reader in as to whose POV the story is in at any given point, the narrator or the character. This requires some subtlety in the writing.

Standard techniques in POV

The persons, the voices, and the POVs provide almost limitless options for how to tell a story. But for those writers who like rules to provide some guidelines for their writing, as well as for writers who like to know what the rules are in order to break them intelligently, there are some standard techniques which have proved over time to be the best ways to tell most stories. There are so many exceptions that this topic always creates discussion and debate, and has been known to spark heated arguments among writers. Seems all writers and editors have deeply held beliefs on this topic, each will tell you exactly how it should be done, and they will all contradict each other. Most readers, on the other hand, will only be able to tell you that they liked a book or that it bored or confused them.

I don’t believe in hard, fast rules when it comes to something as creative as writing fiction, but here’s my list of the most common, standard POV techniques generally accepted in mainstream, genre and commercial fiction today:

In third person:

- Keep the total number of POV characters in a book to no more than two or three.

- Maintain a focus on a single main character.

- Keep each scene to a single POV.

- If you can keep each chapter to a single POV, great. If you need to switch to a new scene in a new POV but within the same chapter, use a clear scene break by centering on the page three asterisks or cross-hatches (* * * or # # #) to signal readers that the scene has ended and a completely new scene is beginning.

- Don’t “head-hop,” where a scene bounces back and forth between characters’ POVs every few paragraphs, or even within a single paragraph or sentence.

- When you switch POV to a different character, ensure readers are instantly clued in as to whose POV they are in. No one wants to read three or four paragraphs, or a page or two, before realizing it’s in the POV of a different character than initially assumed.

- If you’re going to use more than one character’s POV, make sure you establish this early in the book by bringing in the different POVs within the first few scenes. You don’t want to read five or ten or twenty chapters all in one POV, then suddenly have it switch to a different POV character.

In first person:

- Stick with the first person and the single character for the entire novel.

- If you’re going to ignore that technique and use multiple first-person narrators, make sure readers instantly know who is narrating the scene, and give each first-person narrator a unique and distinctive voice. If you’re using more than one first-person narrator, then two is a good maximum. Or 42 if your last name is Palahniuk.

- If you’re using the split narrator/character – the older narrator looking back on his life – be sure readers know which POV they are in at any given moment: the character or the narrator. The narrator will have advantage of hindsight and knows the full story, while the character has a perspective limited by where he is in the story.

If mixing first and third:

- Have a plan and know what you’re doing.

- Think about it again.

- Have trusted beta readers who will tell you if it’s working or not.

For every standard technique, there will be some bestseller or classic piece of literature that ignores that technique. That’s fine, of course, but for new or debut writers it’s very difficult to break out of those general standards and do it well. That sometimes takes a level of artistic genius that very few writers can pull off, or at least a level of experience in writing to learn how to do it deftly.

But if you understand the persons, the voices, and the points-of-view available to you, how they interact with each other, and the pros and cons of each, you can confidently find the best way to write your story. 

If you’re still not sure, try writing some of the scenes in both first and third person, and see if one strikes you as the better choice for your story.


Apr 9 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 2 of 3

As discussed in Part I, your primary choices for voice are first person, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient. Voice affects your POV choices, but the two are not interchangeable terms.

The different voices impact readers in different ways, especially regarding how closely they are drawn into the character. Generally speaking (with lots of exceptions), it goes like this:

- First person: Closest perspective

- Third person limited: Next closest perspective with a wide range from close to distant

- Third person omniscient: Most distant perspective

The second primary effect your choice will have on the story is how wide or narrow of a perspective is provided. Think of it as a camera lens. A close-up shot is more intimate with the subject, but shows less of the surroundings. A wide angle shot is further from the subject, but shows more of the surroundings. The closer in the reader is to a character, the more limited the perspective.

- First person: Most limited perspective

- Third person limited: Somewhat limited perspective, but wider than first person

- Third person omniscient: Unlimited perspective

This is where the writer has to make some choices in how to tell the story in order to achieve the desired effect. What’s most important? A close but limited perspective, or a more distant but wider perspective?

Advantages and disadvantages

To choose which voice to tell the story from, it’s good to know some of the advantages and disadvantages of being in close versus distant, and limited versus unlimited.

- First person: Very intimate, draws the reader in as close as possible to the character. The reader gets to know the character, hears the inner thoughts and feels what the character feels. The reader also sees and hears and smells the story through the character’s senses. Requires a strong, sympathetic lead character to whom readers can relate, and a character with a strong, unique and engaging voice. Because the scene is viewed strictly through the narrator-character’s eyes and ears, another difficulty is how to present information and events that are outside the character’s point-of-view.

- Third person limited: While somewhat less intimate than first person, it can still be very close to the main character. The narrator can drop in and report on the character’s inner thoughts and emotions, and the reader can witness the story through the character’s eyes and ears. But the writer can also switch to different POV characters to present scenes or narrative information the main character doesn’t see or know, and can also drop in on the thoughts and feelings of additional characters in different scenes. One of the difficulties is to maintain a tight focus on the main character so readers can relate rather than bouncing around too frequently to too many different characters. It can also be difficult to maintain continuity, ensuring information presented outside the main character’s POV doesn’t accidentally slip into the character’s knowledge. For most writers, and readers, this is the most natural style, and it’s the most common in modern novels.

- Third person omniscient: This usually creates more distance between the reader and the main character, but can provide an unlimited amount of information. Third person omniscient was in much wider use in 19th century literature than today. In third person omniscient, the writer can present a scene from multiple POVs and report information or events happening outside the POV characters. The difficulties here, besides creating more distance between reader and the main character, is the potential for the constant barrage of changing and overlapping POVs to become irritating or confusing to the reader. Often called ‘head-hopping,’ if a reader becomes confused as to whose POV she is in, it’s easy to become frustrated with the novel and put it aside, never to pick it up again.

Your choice of which voice to tell the story will depend on what you want to accomplish, the perspectives you want to include in your story, your writing style, and the standards of the genre in which you write.

But can you mix some of these voices? For example, can a novel be narrated in first person by the main character, with additional scenes written in third person in order to present events or information to the reader where the MC isn’t present? Or, can a novel be told by two or more characters, each narrating in first person?

The short answer is always ‘yes.’ A story can be told anyway you want to tell it. The follow-up question is ‘does it work?’ The short answer to that is ‘sometimes.’

Switching voices within a novel can be, and has been, done. It’s been done well and, more often, it’s been done horribly. Most of the horrible ones you’ve never read because they’ve never been published. Unless you’re writing literary or experimental, I recommend against mixing voices. If you do want to mix voices, plan for it in advance. Know when to use each voice and why you’re using it at that particular moment, and make sure the story and the writing overall maintain a cohesive quality. Mixing voices can read like pieces of separate novels that have become accidentally stuck together. Or like a novel in which the author couldn’t make up his mind how to write it.

One exception is a story with two main characters – often a romance or erotica piece. You may want to present your love story from the perspective of both characters, but want to maintain the close perspective of first person. In this case, writing in alternating first person voices can work. The key is to ensure you have two intriguing, interesting, and compelling characters, each with a unique, distinctive, and engaging voice. That’s hard enough to pull off with a single main character. If a reader gets lost or is easily confused as to which character is narrating a scene because the voices aren’t distinctive enough from each other, you’ll create an irritated reader who may put the book down and not recommend it to friends. If one character is compelling and the other irritating or boring, then you’ve only got half a book that’s worth reading. Introduce both voices early in the book – don’t write ten chapters in one character’s voice then suddenly switch to a new first person narrator. Alternate them on a regular basis. This doesn’t have to be every other chapter back and forth, but frequently enough so readers get both characters and both perspectives.

One of my favorite and rather extreme examples of a novel with multiple first person voices is Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant, with 42 (yes, 42) first-person voices. It’s as if the book was written by a journalist who interviewed and collected information from everyone who knew the main character, Rant Casey. Each scene is told from the first person voice of a different character. Gradually the character and the story unfold. This is the exception that proves the ‘rule’ (no, I don’t believe in rules), so if you’re as gifted a writer as Chuck, feel free to give multiple first person voices a try. It’s experimental, so when it works, it’s genius. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, however, it’s just going to sound, well, experimental, self-indulgent, or just plain old amateurish.

Now we’ve touched on how different voices can impact a story, and a few of the pros and cons of each voice.

Next up: How does voice affect POV?