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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