Monday, July 26, 2010


It's my turn for Leafkin editing!  I've got an easy job compared to Drea and Erica -- I'm just doing copy edits.  Already, though, I am struck with the quality of the submissions this year.  Every story I have read so far has gripped me from the first paragraph and held on until the final words.  This is great stuff, guys.  I am so excited to be preparing it for release and I can't wait to hold the finished product.


Friday, July 23, 2010

To Be is Not to Be

I really enjoyed editing this year. I learned a lot from the experience, especially about craft. A few weeks ago I posted about some of the mistakes I found in stories...and with this post I'm going to continue that trend. But first--

Why does it take editing others' stories to come to these realizations?

When we critique, we are focused on making the critique group useful and functional for all members. That usually means we, as writers and critique partners, aren't going around saying: "This isn't necessary to your plot." When critiquing we say: "I don't think it's needed." This is reflective of the different mental state. An editor looks for what is needed to make a story better. The writer is a vessel, but otherwise outside the process. It's all about the story. Critiquing is about, group dynamics, inspiration, respect. Editing requires respect from a different angle: helping the writer produce the best story possible. Emphasis on story. Critiquing deals with the writer, often times.

So looking at a story objectively makes the process of identifying the concerns, different. The focus of the editor is on communication with audience. The focus of the writer is on getting writing SEEN by an editor.

Craft is essential in both pursuits.

What stood out--not to repeat myself too much--over the process was the following:

Author Presence
Passive sentences
Wording issues

Clarity is based in sentence structure and word choice. Considering that I discussed clarity at length before, I'll focus on a few other issues:

My new pet peeves include the verb "to be" as well as "and"/"but."

Look at the sentence:

She ran to the curb, but the ball was already bouncing in the street.

Notice the "to" and "was." Both conjugations of "to be." Do you need both in the sentence? What about the "but" ???

She failed to reach the curb before her ball bounced into the street.

Do we need to see that "she ran?" Think about context...what if the sentence before read:

Tonya stretched her arms high as she could. Rubber glanced off a knuckle, leaving her pinkie stinging.

"Aw man," Robby said, crossing his arms. "I'm not gettin' it."

Tonya sighed, theater-loud, hoping Robby would feel guilty about being so lazy. Then she took off.

She failed to reach the curb before her ball bounced into the street.

No "to" no "was" no "she ran" ... showing, not telling. We've all been there, when were kids. Take us into the event rather than telling us what happens.
This passage also brings consistency into play. Look at the sequence. One event dove-tails into the other, building the scene. "And," "but" are not needed.

This isn't to say we should completely lop off all of these words. Some are essential. However, depending on them can be easy. When developing craft from hobby to art attention to detail, including awareness of crutches, leads us to become better writers.

When we use the same words or phrases repeatedly, we make the author's presence known. Stories can be read or told. If a story is told it is "storytelling." that's an oral tradition. Written stories play out in our reader's mind. Meaning that what we write on the page communicates directly with reader imagination. Story exists, reader exists; nothing else.

Writing is art when reader downs a story like they starved for it. This requires that the author retains a vague presence on the page. So words, sentences, paragraphs and pages must all be honed. Everything must exude consistency, polish, and clarity. Any lag in one bit forces the reader to think just a little to hard and, bam! Outta the story they go! Communication fail.

Repetition and passive sentences fall into this category. Passive sentences make a reader pass right over pertinent information. Sometimes they sound pretty, so writers think they'll work from a stylistic standpoint. But if a writer can't master clarity and plot structure first, style doesn't matter. Style and art are confused. But art requires mastery. Mastery comes with practice. Sometimes defying voice and style assist an author in stretching muscles. These remind us who we are as writers. We, writers, establish firmer understandings of writing as art.

Wording issues, like the to be's, serve to draw attention away from character and story. The "to be's" lead to passive sentences: "It was dark when she fled." Better: "She fled that night." Watch the placement of Subject, Object, Verb. "It" references "dark" or "night" but passively.

Say you opt for a poetic style. Would the 2nd, active sentence work? Let's see:

Neither Kaia nor Lynd spoke at dinner. Silver utensils scraping porcelain echoed instead. The fire smoldering in their dining hall hearth matched Kaia's anger. Not a twitch revealed her; she schooled her face, hand, even the gentle flick of wrist bringing her soup spoon to her lips.
Kaia left the hall with the last blue and white dishes, following a maidservant into the kitchen. Her satin slippers made no noise. Kaia's steps and mouth remained tight. Her heart clamored for an exit. Her hand turned the doorknob, habit guiding her quick twist. She stepped into the hall beyond. A cobweb caught in her hair. Kaia only saw fire. Silence clogged her ears.
She fled that night.

All right, so there might be a passive sentence in there. But only one that I can find. The internal dialogue is subtle, and description (should) convey(s) tension.

However there are also NO adverbs, no vague words like "seemed," "appeared," or "something" "sort of" "it" Vague word choices are cop outs. They declare writer presence because they are admitting that the author isn't giving us exactly what the character sees. So relationship to story? Distanced. Your art? Falls short of potential. Clarity relies on the brevity of sentences, exactness of your words. Vague word choices weaken your structure. Conscious building of story structure establishes a writer's authority. Your authority permits suspension of disbelief in readers. So on and so forth.

Ok, I've ranted enough :D

I hope everyone enjoys revising as much as I do :D First drafts or second drafts get you nowhere. Neither proceeding to publication, nor mastering craft can be done in two strides. Here's to the journey!


Monday, July 19, 2010

Losing the Poetry in the English Language

Those of you who saw it on our Facebook page, about a week ago I said that I was going to talk more about the link to the New York Times article that I posted.  I said I would do that at the end of the week but didn’t get to it until today so I apologize for that.  I hope you all had a chance to read it.  If not, you may want to take a look at it now.  Here's the link:

Well I also indicated that the issue being reported worried be.  Actually it doesn’t just worry me; it angered me.  It angered me because it shows that there is no or very little appreciation for the English language by its own speakers.  There’s little appreciation for it because we, in this commercially overly competent society want things fast and in as little bits as possible as far as information goes.  Hence the abbreviating and acronymization of not only words, but even abbreviations and acronyms themselves, such as "Y.M.C.A."  As the above New York Times article indicates they are dropping all the letters except the initial one in "Y.M.C.A." and so are calling it the Y in its marketing and branding.  Yes, it's been nicknamed the Y for a long time, but now they want to make it official and use it in their advertising.  

What's wrong with this?  Well relating to what I said above, the abbreviating of names shrinks the language and therefore rids it of its connotations of experience. Therefore it gets rid of the concrete meaning that the full name connotes.  The full name of "Y.M.C.A." is "Young Men's Christian Association."  Aside from the fact that Y.M.C.A. is now a secular institution and so does not necessarily cater to young guys who are of the Christian faith, I'm using this organization's name as an example to show that when a name is abbreviated, and on top of that  the very acronym that it's abbreviated into is further abbreviated down to a single letter, it annihilates the very history behind the name and so it becomes a cold abstract set of symbols, or worse yet just one symbol.  Sure, after all these years "Y.M.C.A." does convey what it has become: a place of activity and recreation.  But that's just the problem, now that this acronym has barely (relatively speaking) just become an indication of the what it stands for, (activity and recreation) it's becoming reduced even more.  

Now the article does mention that this abbreviating of names goes along with this era of texting and social networking such as Twitter.  That's perfectly fine in those instances since their very nature is simplifying the language that is being written to communicate with someone in the fastest and most practical way possible.  But to keep doing this on brand names shown to the public in ads and business signs and making it official is only cutting out the very poetry and therefore sensuality in the English language.  

So are we going to let our literature of today and onward become written in this way, this way of abbreviating everything?  Are we going to let 1984's newspeak drown out the poetry of our language?  I hope not.  

Steven R. 

What School Left Out

I recently let my friend and classmate Megan read Arylle in trade for getting to see some of her writing.  Her feedback was very positive, but she pointed out one particular aspect of the story that struck her as highly unrealistic.  It turns out, I can't write horses.

Yes, my horses do not behave at all as real horses do.  An equestrian since the age of ten, Megan highlighted these portions of the story and said that they pulled her out of the plot.

So of all the possible things to have wrong with a story, my biggest problem according to her is... horses.

It brought up a very important issue though: as writers, and especially fantasy writers, we are constantly dealing with subjects that we might not be at all familiar with.

The only times I've ever ridden horses were around a short circular track at the local amusement park when I was a child.  An attendant walked ahead, holding the reins.  I gripped onto the saddle and pat the horse's neck.  This hardly qualifies me as an expert.  And yet, in many classical-style fantasies (Arylle being no exception), the characters' primary mode of transportation is on horseback.

I was discussing this topic with Erica last week and we came up with a short list of other common subjects in fantasy novels that most of us know nothing about.  It is the following:

-Swords.  I've held a sword once, during a fencing class in P.E.  Actually, do fencing blades (they're called rapiers, right?) even count as proper swords?  Anyway, I jabbed it around a bit and learned some stances and then the bell rang and that was that.  And yet almost all fantasy novels will involve a sword, or a swordfight, at some point.  Saying, "She jabbed her sword around a bit and made a stance," doesn't exactly sound professional, does it?

-Battles. Even worse than one sword is ten million of them.  Factor in the endless strategies, the political macinations, and maybe even a little plot and... well, it's probably going to be ridiculous.

-Geography.  I'm always tempted to make my countries square-shaped.  In a square-shaped realm.  With maybe one river that runs neatly through each country, a mountain range, a forest, northern wastelands (because that's just how it is), and either a southern desert or a southern tropical paradise.  Cause that's just how it is.  Do real countries work this way?  I don't think so.

-Currency.  Yeah, I don't even know.

-Clothes.  I can hardly dress myself, let alone a fictional culture.  I'm not very well-versed in fabrics, so my characters tend to wear linen or wool, with little variety.  Erica suggested some satin or velvet, but I would think those are for richer people only.  Maybe I should just make up my own fabric?  But that would just be even more ridiculous.

Some of these subjects could be remedied with good old-fashioned research, sure.  History books will teach me about how battles usually go.  Fashion websites can educate me on how to dress myself.  I mean, how to dress my characters.  But can anything really replace experience?  I think the best way to learn to write a battle is to fight in one.  The best way to write realistic horses is to ride and care for them, like Megan does.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that someone should offer classes for writers on all of these things, because I am severely lacking.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Kind of Silly

I've always kind of sort of wanted to write a musical.  I've been raised on the medium and spent my adolescence on a stage, so I guess it's not surprising.  Unfortunately, I'm far from being a musical prodigy.  Four years of piano lessons gave me the ability to read music and a rudimentary understanding of melody, but I have to plunk out even the simplest of songs.  I hadn't sat on the bench in ages until yesterday, when I decided to give it a go.  I've become infatuated with Gankutsuou (a gorgeous anime based on The Count of Monte Cristo, for anyone interested), and had found some sheet music for the opening song online.  Feeling bold, I dove into it - using the pedal and everything.

"Unh," my mother groaned when I had finished, not waiting for me to ask what she thought.

"It really is a pretty song," I protested.

"Somewhere in there was a pretty song, yes.  Unh."

So my musical abilities could use some help.  The only thing I've got going for me in the realm of Musical Theatre is melodrama.

In any case, my midyear resolution is to abuse the piano more often because musicality is a trait I value.


Monday, July 5, 2010

The Benefits of Taking a Break

So now I understand why, when I've been moping lately, various friends have asked me if I could take time off work.  I've never experienced a vacation as anything except escaping from one type of stress into another, with any good done immediately negated once I returned home.

This past week was different.  I took Thursday and Friday off, giving me a five-day weekend with the Monday holiday for Independence Day.  My boyfriend and I drove down to Santa Monica early Thursday morning, played in the ocean, wandered through shops, ate some fantastic Thai food, and spent the night with an old mutual friend who had the most magnanimous parents imaginable.  When Mrs. C discovered my love of music, she insisted that I try out her marimba (think of a giant, wooden xylophone).  Then she played a duet with me while the men in the house danced behind us.  Mr. C chatted with me about psychology and yoga, two of his (and my) interests.  Then everyone retired to the living room to watch the IT Crowd together, since we're all not-so-secret nerds.

The next morning, we awoke to a view of the ocean and, in the distance, Catalina.  We scurried off to Los Angeles, where we later met up with my parents and sister, who were staying in a different hotel.  Then my boyfriend, sister, and I spent the next two days at Anime Expo.  As I said, we're nerds.

For the first time in who knows how long, I allowed myself to buy whatever I felt like, practicality be damned.  Buttons, key chains, clothing, posters, a picture of me dressed in a platypus costume...  My face hurt from grinning all weekend.  The crowds were immense, but the atmosphere was so electric, so convivial, that it felt like a giant family reunion.  Parts of the convention were educational.  We attended a seminar on creating steampunk characters, which might be useful for me at some point.  We wandered around LA and took in the atmosphere.  And, best of all, we learned that my boyfriend had gotten another job after being unemployed for just two weeks.  It truly reinforced my belief in miracles.

It was hard to leave on the last day.  But, more incredibly, I was infused with a feeling that no matter what I came home to, no matter how many endless days of work stretched before me, I was ready.  I was almost eager to meet the challenge.  I was only four hundred miles from home, hardly globe trotting, and gone for less than four full days, but I felt refreshed and revitalized.

"We beat the depression for a little while," I told my boyfriend on our way home.

He laughed.  "Kicked it to the curb."

I'm going to try to make it last.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Leafkin Submissions Have Swallowed My Life :P

I've been reading a bunch of the entries into the anthology this year. I want to talk about some of the trends I have seen and what I think about them.

Passive Sentences: Yes, I know long, flowing sentences look pretty and make a person feel smart, but they can also completely destroy (or fail to ever introduce) tension. See? Over used passive sentences mean we can't see what your characters are doing. The significance of characters' feelings, actions,and thoughts, are swallowed in the prose. The very things that help a reader connect to the story are trivialized or distanced from the reader. Reader and Character are separated by murky water, creating a hazy view of Character.

Adverbs and vague word choice: A lot of the submissions I've read thus far have a good grasp on description. Well, the fact that good description can be no more than a few choice words. The issue is in choosing those words. Obviously, adverbs are terribly vague :P Strung together, they pack no punch. When used in place of stronger words, adverbs communicate less. The "ly's" are comparative, to a degree. The item which strangely resembles a vase, for instance--gives us no picture of what it is. I can picture a vase, yes. But say the item was a pot. Why was it strange for the pot to resemble a vase? Strangeness is implying that the pot-vase should look like something else, or perhaps exist somewhere else. Which means that the character is interpreting the significance of the pot according to their own sense of proper placement and appearance. Lacking the comparison, we cannot see why it is "strangely resembles a vase" when "resembling a bowl," is what the character expects. "Rather than a bowl at the table's center was an item resembling a vase." Still wordy. needs trimming, "Rather than a bowl, a pot almost resembling a vase, stood at the table's center."

Other vagueness: careful of an overuse of prepositions. While not nearly as bad as adverbs, I find that too many on a page make the sentences less effective. When functioning as an adjective, prepositions help. But when used as an adverb it can become vague. Look at the example on the link "The children climbed the mountain without fear." Now, depending on what is happening in the story, this could be a choice creating vagueness. "Laughing, the children climbed the mountain. Not one used rope." Can you see the children climbing the mountain in the second example? Do you get the impression that they are "without fear?" Perhaps a little foolhardy, but does it work? There still aren't many words used to convey the same idea. But actions and description are imbued in the words. Your picture should be kids laughing and climbing hand-over-hand up the mountain, yes? I didn't tell you the kids were "without fear," I showed you. I also gave you details that implied that rope might be necessary, but that the kids decided not to use it. So this could begin building a picture not only of the kids, but the mountain. So a little hint of setting, perhaps?

Sometimes words like "seemed," "appeared," "almost like," or another phrase can make a sentence unclear. i.e: "She seemed to sense danger." Well? How does someone "seem" to "sense danger?" How about: "Dorn heard Taya catch her breath, and saw her mouth settle in a familiar tight line. He followed suit when she flattened herself against the dusty wall. That's when he heard rattling. She nodded, a slight downward motion of her chin. Taya grabbed his hand." So, we see her sense danger, but in a way where her body language and personality are conveyed. Also, there should be a hint of the relationship between the characters. (Forgive the names, they are invented for this passage only :P )

By telling us what a character is doing and thinking we can convey personality, conflict, and tension. Through tension is plot advanced. We need conflict, illease, or a fear that a character may not reach his/her goal. The desire to see a character reach his/her goal, this makes us interested in what they are doing. You could make a really cool, laid back character, who would be a lot of fun to hang out with in real life, but they might not work on the page. For instance, you might have a friend you call up anytime and say: "Hey you wanna go to Jim's party?" and the friend may say: "Sure! That'd be cool." And you and the friend go, sit on the couch at Jim's, have a few beers, talk to some people, make some new friends, and go home. What do you tell your friends the next day? "Yeah, I met some people at Jim's. Yeah. They're cool. We're prolly gonna hang out some time." Now, what if there was a guy who got wasted and started bad-mouthing a public figure? Especially a well-loved public figure? Well, everyone would be a little uncomfortable at Jim's. People would laugh. And the next day when you are recounting a story to your friends you'd have a lot more to say. Why? Tension. People doing things that are socially inappropriate, controversial, or merely up for debate can cause tension in a story. But others have to disagree with the loud-mouth. If you're disagreeing in your head, you might not say anything at Jim's but you could be telling you friends, "and I'm thinkin' man this guy's a nut! I mean, where'd he get this sh**!" real life we keep our mouths closed, we don't communicate our thoughts, but when telling a story, we include them. This makes the story interesting.

So, yes. I love internal dialogue. And I have read so far one story that does it well, one that doesn't need it too much, a third that relies quite successfully on narrative/dialogue/action to convey character's mental state, and a forth that is loaded with passive internal dialogue.

What do I mean by passive internal dialogue? When we the reader are told that the character sees or has interpreted another character's behavior in an unclear fashion. "She realized how seriously he studied her," for instance. All right. Very vague. We are being told that she realized something. Seriously, an adverb, implies that his "look" has more intensity than normal. But if we are in a short story there is a high probability that we need to character build the entire way through. The "She" in this instance is more familiar with the "he" and what is "serious" for him, than are we the readers. Then there is "studied:" Which definition are we using here? Following the other vague word choices, we don't have a solid feel for the "look" she is receiving. "Her shoulders stiffened when his expression returned to dour lines below his too-intense gaze." We see her stiffen, so she notices. "Return" indicates that the expression "lacked spontaneity," as it was common, something he wore before. The "too-intense" lets us know how she feels about his "intent gaze," and stresses a seriousness in his expression. At least one she interprets to be there. She could be wrong, but as she is our POV character, we know what she knows, we see what she sees. If her interpretations of his actions, over time, do not match the reader's interpretation, and the reader (familiar with POV character's flaws) can see what she doesn't, we build tension. Intrigue. Plot.

All right...that's me done for this week...ten minutes before my date to post passes :(

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