Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Four Stealth Issues. And Good News.

First, the good news: my new suspense novel, working title Rearview Mirror, has been accepted for publication. Yay! (Plot summary: a protagonist with an eerie resemblance to Billy Joel struggles to save the world and defeat the Space Monkey Mafia, a deadly secret society run by Harold "Hula Hoops" Castro).(Bonus points if you can guess what song I heard in the car this morning while driving back from the high school). (And an actual blurb about the plot is here).(And apparently it's National Parentheses Day!)

Now, for the stealth issues. I want to discuss a few writing glitches that are very sneaky about slipping into manuscripts. And yes, you’ll sometimes see them in published books, which means they sometimes sneak past editors as well. How can we avoid these stealth issues? As Mad-Eye Moody would say, “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!”

1. Tiny point of view slips. These can be oh-so-insidious. We’re writing along, solidly in Jane's viewpoint. We’re thinking her thoughts, feeling what she feels, seeing the world through her eyes. We would never dream of all of a sudden telling the reader what Bob is thinking, or that his foot itches--we know we're in Jane's head, not Bob's. Then, we type this line: “Anger darkened Jane's eyes.” Whoa, baby! Hold the presses! Whose POV are we in? Jane's. We think what she thinks, right? When was the last time you thought to yourself, “Man, I am so ticked. Anger is darkening my eyes.”? We don’t think about ourselves with that kind of outward observation, and neither does Jane. She can feel symptoms of anger—maybe she notices her face is getting hot, or her heart is pounding, or her stomach is clenching, or her muscles tightening, or whatever—but she’s not going to notice how her own eyes look, unless she’s staring at herself in the mirror. Rule of thumb: if you’re in a character’s POV, don’t describe reactions that she wouldn’t be able to see or think or feel.

2. I confess, I’m bad at remembering what grammatical errors and constructions are named. It’s more intuitive for me—I can tell you this is wrong, but I can’t tell you what the error is called. I had to Google around and try a couple of things before I could finally put a name to my next stealth error (and Annette Lyon of Word Nerd Fame can tell me if I got this right or not): dangling modifiers. Here’s the type of sentence I’m talking about: “Trembling with fear, Sarah’s skirt rippled around her knees.” Okay—we get it—the writer means Sarah is nervous, and her knees are shaking. “Trembling with fear” is supposed to modify Sarah—but the sentence doesn’t say that. The way it’s set up, “trembling with fear” is modifying “Sarah’s skirt.” Apparently, Sarah’s apparel is sentient and it’s scared (no telling what her shoes are feeling). So when you’re setting up a sentence like this, make sure you say what you mean: “Trembling with fear, Sarah felt her skirt ripple around her knees.” Or whatever you want. Just make sure your modifier matches up with the word you intended it to modify. No dangling! Constant vigilance!

3. Unintentionally whackadoodle –ing constructions
: “Locking the door, he raced across the street.” Ladies and gentleman, meet your protagonist—Gumby! No one else would be able to twist a key in a lock and cross the street at the same time. Yeah, okay, I know what the sentence is supposed to mean—first, he locked the door and then he crossed the street. But that’s not what it says. Grammatically, it says he did both at once. “Tying her shoes, she ran down the stairs.” I wonder how many bones she broke. Yes, a protagonist can do two things at once—real people do that all the time. “Sipping bacon grease, Rob read a few more pages of Jeff’s new romance novel, A Time to Sigh.” But when your grammatical construction indicates that a character did things simultaneously, make sure those things actually work if you do them together.

4. Emotional tone.
Characters are people too, and should react to events emotionally like real people would. When someone traumatic or strange happens to a character but he keeps sailing along cheerfully, seemingly unshaken, it can jar me out of that fiction-reading suspension of disbelief so important to enjoying a story So, because it bugs me when I read it, I automatically avoid it in my own writing, right? Heh. Did I mention these are stealth errors, creeping in when you’re not paying attention? In my new manuscript, someone is murdered (Spoiler! Bet you didn’t see that coming). Another character—we’ll call him Tom--knew the victim quite well, and there are some issues surrounding the death that ought to upset Tom (in addition to the fact that the victim is dead). But when I show Tom after the murder, he’s all cheerful and joking—he doesn’t show distress; he doesn’t mention the victim. I don’t know how many drafts it took me to realize that Tom ought to be visibly troubled by what’s happened, but I know it slipped through at least the first two drafts. I think it’s easy to do this, because sometimes we’re just moving the story along, and we forget to stop and let our characters worry or mourn or react, like a real person would.

After all, characters are real people, right?


14 Comments:

At 1/19/2011 3:26 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Yes, yes, yes!!! These are such easy mistakes to make. Moving beyond them is a sign of someone who is truly grasping the craft.

(And yep--those are dangling modifiers. I have an entire Word Nerd Wednesday post with some doozies (some of which came from our critique group).

 
At 1/19/2011 3:29 PM, Blogger Krista said...

“Sipping bacon grease, Rob read a few more pages of Jeff’s new romance novel, A Time to Sigh.”

Oh my gosh. Excellent post!

 
At 1/19/2011 5:14 PM, Blogger Steve Westover said...

I'm going to guess We Didn't Start the Fire.

Excellent post! I'm almost afraid to go back and look at my WIP.

 
At 1/19/2011 5:24 PM, Blogger Daron D. Fraley said...

Great post! I put a little google-y star by this one. The tiny POV shift is something I have been wondering about in my current WIP, and I love the succinct examples you give here. I look forward to going through and catching all of these sneaky issues!

 
At 1/19/2011 7:19 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

Dangling modifiers are certainly embarrassing. My problem is pretty close to that, I do a lot of comma splices. (See what I did there?) I'm thinking as I write, and I want a pause there, but really, I should just put a period or a semi-colon (if I want to be fancy) instead.

I'm just going to hang out over here, sipping Diet Dr Pepper, reading the latest Julie Bellon collaboration with Josi Kilpack, Dangerous Confections.

 
At 1/19/2011 8:47 PM, Blogger Sarah M Eden said...

Number 4 is the one that gets me in every single first draft. I always go back and reread specifically for emotions--that I remembered to put them in and that I got them right.
*sigh*
Being a writer is such hard work.

 
At 1/19/2011 9:28 PM, Blogger Amber Argyle said...

I consider myself a great writer. And I still make all these mistakes. And more. :)

 
At 1/19/2011 9:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Annette: are examples two and three both dangling modifiers? Stephanie does a great job coming up with some terrific examples. Kudos Stephanie. And I recognize that the -ing construction forces the action of the first half of the phrase unnatrually onto the second half of the phrase. What I'm wondering is if you would categorize both of these -ing constructions as dangling modifiers or not.

I have a comment. Tah-dah! About the emotion in the first example. I've found, in my own writing, after being was led their, kicking and screaming, by hundreds of authors who preached about how to deal with emotion, that if you find the need to mention the emotion, be it anger, fear, rage, embarassment, kindness (not the posession of a kindly spirit, but the elicted brand of the emotion where a character feels kindness or empathy as a reaction to some event), love (not the posession of love for another character, but the emotion of love elicted by an on-scene reaction to an event), hatred, malice, vengeance, etc., that is a sign you need to find some nifty little action or some cool snippet of dialogue that will SHOW the emotion. Then I can remove the telling of that emotion from my writing and let the action or the dialogue descend on the reader naturally, like it would in real life. I search through my writing looking for any TOLD emotions, then I figure out a better way to convey those emotions without writing ANGER or MALICE or LOVE or HATRED or VENGEANCE. It makes my writing so much more powerful. Instead of telling the emotion I end up showing it. It can be as easy as:

"They never invite me." Sarah pushed the pie away. "No one ever invites me."

or

"They never invite me." Sarah polished off all three pieces of pie. "No one ever invites me."

Regardless if Sarah loses her appetite, or she goes on a pie-eating binge, they both convey the hurt she is feeling after being left out. And I never have to say, Sarah felt hurt. The reader can figure it out on her own.

 
At 1/19/2011 11:47 PM, Blogger Michele Holmes said...

Amen, Stephanie. Excellent post. I think just about every writer makes these mistakes. It's all a matter of putting in the time and effort to find the errors, rewrite, and improve. Constant vigilance and a lot of "repentance."

 
At 1/20/2011 10:14 AM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

Thanks Stephanie for not only throwing these things out there, but providing good examples of each (the dose of humor helps the "medicine go down"). No matter how great the story is, if an agent or acquisitions editor gets a manuscript riddled with this stuff, they have no choice but to reject it. If your story is a "fixer-upper", fix it up or pay a manuscript handyman (or woman) to do it for you. Publishers won't want to touch it until it's clean.

 
At 1/20/2011 2:05 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks, everyone! I'm so glad the post was helpful.

Steve, yep, you got the song and the bonus points :)

Anon, great insights about writing emotion. Thanks!

 
At 1/22/2011 1:30 AM, Blogger Rebecca Talley said...

Excellent post. Love the examples! I need to reread this post a hundred times--maybe then it will sink in.

 
At 1/22/2011 10:15 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Anon, Do you mean the "whack-a-doodle construction" examples?

If so, no, those aren't dangling modifiers, because they're modifying the correct thing. They're just describing an impossible combination of actions.

 
At 1/26/2011 12:15 PM, Blogger Rachelle said...

These are great tips. There are always so many things to work on--wouldn't it be nice if there was a "stealth check" on our computers like spell check? :)

 

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