Friday, March 30, 2018

Verbs and Excess Words

Inflection is emphasis, tone, rhythm, and lyricism of how a sentence is said. When speaking orally, we naturally tell people what we’re saying through how we say it. A listener can understand what we’re saying while we’re speaking.

But a reader has to speculate about how we are saying something then use that to figure out what we’re saying. If they are wrong, and they’ve emphasized it wrong, the sentence might have its meaning changed, or not make any sense to them at all.

Take, for instance, “I never said she stole my money.”

I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.

Each sentence has a completely different meaning. And, in this case, I could just italicize the word to tell the reader how I wanted them to say each one, so I had some control over the important inflection. However, italics tells the reader to really emphasize what they’re reading and can’t be used lightly without sounding silly. At best, it’ll sound like the speaker is a drama queen.

What’s important to note for the writer is that the audience always assumes that the verb is the most important part of the sentence, or, as in the case above, the negative verb.

Most will read, “I never said she stole my money,” as “That didn’t happen.” “I never said it, and she didn’t do it.”

You can control this assumption by changing context.

“You just going around telling everyone Jenny took your money?”

“I never said she stole my money. Jimmy’s the blabbermouth here.”

Readers can read inflection in hindsight, but it’s a dangerous business. If they can immediately readjust, they won’t even notice, but if they have to go back and reread, there’s a chance they’ll feel your writing is confusing or dense.

People first prioritize negatives.

“Don’t you dare give me that look.”

“I’m not a whore.”

“He won’t like it.”

The reader assumes the sentence’s point is about what will not happen.

In most sentences though, in which there is no negation, readers prioritize verbs, especially over the nouns. They assume emphasis on the action, and that that action is the reason for the sentence’s existence. If you want to draw attention to the noun, you remove the verb from the sentence:

“There was a chair.”

“Was,” of course, is a verb, but it is a weak verb used to make the important aspect either the adjective (which takes precedent over the noun if it exists) or the noun.

“The chair was blue.”

In most cases, adjectives and adverbs of secondary importance.

“The tall man walked in the door,” focuses on that a man walked in the door—who happened to be tall. “Tall” is a peripheral, extra piece of information tacked on. In “He was tall,” it tells the reader his height is important.

Weak or common verbs draw attention to other parts of the sentence. A basic verb with any sort of adverb will put the emphasis on that adverb. If you have a repetitive sentence structure, or use adverbs constantly, it will make the rhythm of the work distracting because it fights the reader’s usual assumption.

Dictating images with action instead of adverbs or adjectives also saves time and makes a sentence more meaty. Usually, you want to save single-motive sentences for the important aspects.

If I say, “He slammed his hand down on the table, making the pocket-watch bounce,” I’ve just told you there’s a pocket-watch on the table, but not necessarily because the pocket watch is important. It might be just that I’m describing the force he used. The reader is more likely to ignore it.

If I say, “There was a pocket-watch on the table,” the audience will probably realize the pocket-watch is important. Maybe you want them to, and it’s a great tool to do so. But, if every sentence so far has a singular point, it’s not only likely that the story revealing information too slowly, but also you can’t imply importance by singular points anymore.

The verb is the most powerful part of your sentence. It usually has assumed emphasis, and you can toy with implied importance by how you use your verbs.

After the verb, the adverb, and the adjectives, it is often the preposition that takes focus. A weak verb without an adverb in a sentence with a prepositional phrase will become about that prepositional phrase.

“He stood in the hot sun.”

“In” is the actual preposition, “in the hot sun,” is the prepositional phrase. The point of the sentence focuses on the phrase itself, in this case, the adjective: hot. Because “stood” is such a banal word, it seems the sentence is about how hot it is.

Most prepositional phrases are superfluous by technical definition, but are included for emphasis. In the case of, “He stood in the hot sun,” it can be assumed that the preposition is the important part, easily replaced by, “The sun was hot,” and not lost much in the way of information. So this is an exception.

But you often will have phrases that the preposition says something assumed, or even just doesn’t add anything:

“The paint on the wall peeled.”

“He thought about it.”

“On the wall” is the prepositional phrase. Technically, the paint could be anywhere, but it’s safe to assume that if the reader knows the character is in a room, the first place he’ll assume “paint” is would be the wall. The preposition would only be needed if it wasn’t in the first expected place, like the ceiling. In this case, “The paint peeled,” could be a perfectly adequate sentence if just for information’s sake.

“He thought about it,” is a prime example of a sentence enhanced by extra, if unnecessary words. “He thought,” and “He thought about it,” mean exactly the same thing. However, readers will always react funny to the flat sentence, “He thought.”

Believe me, I’ve tried it. And I’ve left it. Because that’s the kind of writer I am.

No one speaks like that, so you keep the preposition purely for the purpose of cadence, not technical meaning. This will be a common issue; even though a sentence might not need a word to convey information, it is needed to sound right—or even just sound the way the author wants.

Leaving in “excess” words is as much about rhythm and inflection as it is about duration of moment. If you want to control the length of time a visual takes, you want to control the length of your sentence:

“He punched,” is very different visually from, “Without thinking, Jonathan raised his arm, fist balled, and swung a hard, heavy punch, the hardest he’s ever thrown.”

One is a quick, immediate action. The other takes longer for even the characters, almost as though time slowed down. Each are different, and each are useful in the right situation. This “duration” is also affected by number of syllables and “-ing” words; shorter syllables like “hit,” are faster than longer words like, “smacked.” “-Ing” words feel slower, less abrupt. “She accepted his drink, grabbing it,” versus, “She accepted and grabbed it.” “Grabbing” in the first feels like a just slightly softer touch, “grabbed” feeling harsher. Of course, if you really want a difference, you might say, “take,” to make her more polite.

Mostly “extra” words draw a lot of attention to themselves because usually, if you’re including them, it’s important. This is why you should never just start deleting words simply because people tell you to; every time you included an “excess” word, it had a purpose. (Just keep in mind that that purpose may have very well been due to stalling or looking formal.)

For instance:

“He stood out in the hot sun,” versus, “He stood in the hot sun.”

Now they might look like the same sentence, and the difference is so subtle, it’s entirely possible that the author honestly doesn’t care about the slight change. But there is a difference.

“Out” is the focus of the sentence.

“He stood out in the hot sun,” makes us think about where the man is, not the heat of the sun. The sun becomes the peripheral information. He is out in the open, nothing around. No shade, no buildings. How far from these things, we don’t know, but he’s exposed.

Note, that if it had a strong verb, like “stumbled,” the strong verb would take precedent like they normally do, but then the extra preposition of “out” would still supersede “in the hot sun,” even though adjectives are usually prioritized over prepositions.

“He stumbled out into the hot sun,” would focus on the image of him stumbling, yes, but “out” would still make us envision the location—where he is stumbling.

Excess words can trip readers up because they take emphasis; too many extra and your sentence loses a natural rhythm.

This brings me to my final point about inflection, which is that “dense” writing has more to do with misappropriated emphasis than it does big words.

Because we naturally understand the action as the priority, then the descriptions, then the where, then the what and assume emphasis based on those parts of speech, readers most often get confused when the verb, noun, adjective or adverb is confused.

There are a lot of words that can fall into more than one category: evil, influence, open, and anal for starters.

“Evil” can be a noun or an adjective:

“Evil floods the world.”

“The evil dog bit the mailman.”

Influence can be a noun or a verb.

“His influence made me do it.”

“He influenced me to do it.”

Open can be an adjective or a verb.

“He is an open person.”

“He opened the door.”

Anal can be an adjective or a verb.

“I am so anal that I’m not going to allow myself to explain how anal can be an action.”

When you have a sentence and a person first assumes something is a certain part of speech and then the next word is really that part of speech, it can lead to confusion. So, she thinks it’s a noun, but really the next word is the noun of the sentence, and she has to start over.

“The evil influence of Dracula takes over Europe!”

If she thinks “evil” is a noun on a first impression, her mental inflection is going to read it as a noun.

Read, “The evil influence of Dracula…” versus “The evil influences Dracula,” and you can hear how you say evil and influence differently, and why missing it might be jarring.

Once she gets to ‘influence,’ she’s going to realize her inflection is wrong and have to start over. The problem can be exacerbated if she’s (like many readers) not a careful reader and sees, “The evil influences of Dracula takes over Europe!”

The sentence will make sense all the way up to “takes.” In order to avoid starting over, it’s likely she’ll spend some time on “takes” to see if it’s not supposed to be “take.” Or, she will read it as she expects and not realize that she misinterpreted it. In this case, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t really change the meaning of the sentence, but we’ve all had times where we read something wrong and didn’t find out until several pages later that something is off.

This problem is worse for fantasy and science-fiction writers who are constantly making up words.

“The god machine drilled through the crust.”

The reader might read “god” as a noun when really it’s functioning as an adjective. Hopefully, a temporary mishap like this won’t cause a problem, but if it’s combined with long, complex sentences, a bunch of new terms, and large words (as it was in the story that I took this line from), the reader can feel overwhelmed.

It’s useful to utilize hyphens and capitalization whenever you have the opportunity for made-up terms, especially those that are combinations of already existing words. Capitalization will tell readers what is the whole noun—The Surveying Squadron from Tempora—or new terminology—god-machine—which can help them not get confused as to what’s supposed be the real action from the action inside a noun.

Writing is an interesting and complex new way of looking at words. Not all authors (few I'd say) understand the minutiae of why readers are affected by the written word the way they are; they just learn naturally through trial and error and apply it to their gut instincts. Regardless, it's somewhat fascinating to understand the assumptions we make as readers, and it can help the writer figure out why his sentence didn't land.

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Monday, March 26, 2018

What’s the “Point” in a Story?

When I worked at an airport restaurant in one of the most expensive tourist towns of the country, I would constantly have people upset over the prices. This wasn’t distressing. In some cases, it was reasonable. In others, it could actually be highly entertaining.

Turns out, when the parents would act up, they would be teaching their children the “appropriate” behavior. The child would take whatever reaction the parents have and emulate it tenfold. So as his son throws his arms in the air, screaming, “Fifteen dollars for a burger?!” the previously irate father would blush bright red and usher the blustering boy away.

Mimicking is how we learn, and when we are new to something, we tend to look around and see what others are doing in order to figure out the “best” manner to approach it. You can see this often in artistic classes and first manuscripts in which the painter/writer/director tapped into his subconscious and emulated whatever it thinks that artform is supposed to be.

Which, in other words, most first manuscripts are great samples of what’s going on in the literary world at that time.

They’re often exaggerations or a patchwork of common trends, sort of a simplified epitome of the genre. Completely unknown to the new author, many of our first deviate less from the norm than our later works.

And this is a good thing. Asking too many questions before you really understand anything can leave the beginner completely overwhelmed. It’s important to have a general, if arbitrary, idea on where to start, and in many cases it’s correct to think that other people know what they’re doing. Reinventing the wheel takes up a lot of time.

But what’s interesting is that, like the child in the airport, it’s often the amateurs trying to emulate the greats that really reveal some of the problems with the artistic world’s attitude about “good art.”

In college, my theatre professors would insist that Absurdist Theatre was the most intellectual triumph of the early 20th century, cherry picking their opinions on whether or not a writer “had to mean it” for something to have meaning. When their student coughed up a strange, experimental piece that was “about whatever you want to be about,” clearly the author’s intention mattered. But when shown proof the creator of the great masterpiece did not mean the intense metaphor the professor was pushing down our throats, “the playwright doesn’t know what it’s about.”

Meanwhile, my creative writing professor got into a knockdown argument with a fellow student about a critically successful story that seemed to just go off on tangents.

“It doesn’t have a point!” she said.

“Who says a story needs to have a point? Does all art have a point?”

I considered this. What is “the point” of the story? What is “the point” of abstract art? Theatre? Anything? I certainly have never had a critic of anything say praisingly “There is nothing to talk about!” unless they were discussing Seinfeld.

I agreed with my fellow student. Something seemed missing from the story, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it, “not having a point,” felt like the best way to say it.

I’ve had stories that I’ve written like that, things that I felt, “This is missing something.” Some sort of point, some sort of reason why I’m telling the story. But what that is, and how to add it, is more complicated.

Sometimes, when discussing or considering whether or not something is “necessary,” I use the example of regular old conversation, and how some stories come off as that guy who just starts rambling on and on with no clear direction, boring the living crap out of all his listeners. Or when someone approaches you and says something seemingly out of the blue and it’s not clear the reaction they want. Or when you start talking about something and then you realize, with horror, that you don’t really know how to end it. All of these have a sense of, “What’s your point?”

It’s one of those things that we recognize it when we see it—or don’t—but trying to put one In where it isn’t is difficult.

When it comes to others’ short stories that miss this certain something, an obvious issue is a lack of either emotional or intellectual impact. A good story leaves you with a feeling—happiness, sadness, eeriness, even relief—or taught you something you didn’t know before. Even bare-minimum, it changes your perspective on the characters from beginning to end. Maybe it gave you a light-hearted laugh.

It doesn’t have to be intense or deep (as in an erotica book isn’t expected to enlighten you on the starvation in Ethiopia), but there has to be something that changed the reader’s current internal dialogue.

This is harder to see within my own work because reading something from a first impression is always going to be different than when you’ve worked and reworked a piece that you had a general idea of what was going to happen. Sure, things surprise you, but it’s not always what’s going to be surprising to a reader. Things sometimes make me laugh or upset or yearning, but it’s not uncommon for me to grow tolerant to the effects of my own words, being overly exposed to them. Sometimes, a lack of impact might be just because it’s no longer new to me. Or, because there really is a lack of impact. It’s frustrating sometimes to tell.

Also, I’ve read books that lacked a reaction, but it felt “complete.” They followed a story formula or at least made it clear what they were trying to do, and even though it wasn’t successful necessarily, it didn’t make you baffled as to why they were talking.

I think if a story finishes with some sort of impact, it’s hard to say that it doesn’t have a point, but it’s clear it’s not the whole issue.

A part of it is a bit of a character arc, but sometimes the point of the story can be that people never learn, such as in television shows like Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the audience is watching terrible people not to relate or root for them, but to see them get their comeuppance. In which case, I suppose the comeuppance would be it. But there’s also books in which horrible characters end up getting what they want and not changing anything about themselves, being sort of the point.

The absence of a character arc seems to be a powerful statement in itself, as long as it makes sense within the framing of the story.

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have a writing tip about how each part of your story should be tied together with a “therefore” or a “but.” It doesn’t compensate for more complex storylines with subplots, but it is a good idea how to see if you’re rambling or not.

What’s interesting to me is when it comes down to why we engage with people socially at all. I’m not one much for frivolous social interaction, and tend to need a purpose in approaching someone. Commonly, as I rarely reach out just for the sake of chatting, people often look at me, waiting for what I want when I don’t really have a purpose to talk to them outside of their company. I think, though, that most people seek some sort of validation whenever they interact, even if it’s just the joy of being able to make others laugh.

Why do we tell each other stories? Oral or literary? What are we seeking?

Validation? Yes, but I think the readers need to get that from the writer, and if it reads the other way around, it doesn’t fair well. Readers want some sort of validation for their choices, or proof that the hardships of their life aren’t due to them being a special grade of stupid.

I came to a conclusion when I wondered why I allowed negative thoughts to permeate my mind, and realized how important problem solving is to me in order to intellectually stimulate myself and keep from getting bored. That tied into the question on why a story needs conflict to be interesting. I understand (and have no desire to do otherwise) that fiction is bad without it, but what makes positivity and good things without consequences so unenjoyable to read? Why do we actively seek out bad realities to fantasize about?

A good story doesn’t necessarily need to solve a problem. Most of the New Yorker’s fiction doesn’t. A lot of it just talks about a situation, leaving you with a feeling of, “What the hell did I just read?” They have a problem, but it isn’t necessarily solved or outright explained.

But, as someone who reads to be entertained first and foremost, I’ve realized that a key element to a good story is a problem to chew over. Something that I feel can be solved, and not in a deus ex machina, but by the agency and skills of the characters. I like seeing how people fix things, believing things can be fixed, and avoiding the hopelessness that life sometimes brings down on you.

There’s a lot of controversy when it comes to the point of writing, so it becomes a question of avoiding hypocrisy and trusting your own sense of judgment. I don’t understand or like many of those “existential” pieces I’ve read over my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean my judgment is an end all. I think every story has to have a point, however there’s a lot of flexibility in what that actually means.

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Friday, March 23, 2018

You May Not Hate Your Writing as Much as You Think

“I have such a long time until I can start editing,” my friend said after I sent her some positive feedback.

“Because you’ll get demoralized if you’ll read it?”

“Yeah. I’ll start thinking it’s so bad and won’t want to go on.”

“I think it’s closer than you think.”

I got drunk one night and in the spur of positivity and love that is Drunk Charley, I had sent her a text both admonishing and praising her, demanding she stop restricting who she really was with that “objective” and bland bull crap she was forcing herself to write for the academics and say what she really wanted to say. “You’re insightful and funny and interesting, so what the hell is this!?”

The next morning, I was surprised to wake up to two pages of the most heart wrenching personal experience you could fit in 1,000 words.

We’ve been working together on it since, her periodically sending me pages and me making generalized comments. It wasn’t until she sent me a piece she was especially nervous about that I went in and make extensive notes on my opinions. When she told me she was nervous to actually rewrite, I was a little surprised (even though I’d heard it from her before). The vast majority of it just needing expanding, more information and details rather than changes to what she already had. That in itself would fix most of the concerns I might have with the prose, and what was left in her voice was mostly just minor tweaks here and there—fixing some repetition, typos, clarification, the usual sort of thing that you can expect from any first draft.

While it has some amateurish tics, she herself already knows about them, making comments before I even looked at it.

Which brings me to say, her fears of being a terrible writer are more or less unfounded. At least, unfounded when it comes to her work being such a terrible mess.

So where is it coming from?

Funnily enough, I had a similar experience not a few days before. One of my Stories of the Wyrd came from a section of the manuscript Silver Diggers that was somewhat of a transition scene… and it didn’t have a lot going for it.

If the scene had remained in a normal, full book, I would have probably cut it apart and placed bits of the conversation amongst other, more eventful moments, but as it was, it felt incredibly meaningful and important to their characters, and, for various reasons, I believed it could stand on its own—just so long as it underwent major changes.

Whenever editing one of the scenes from the old manuscript, I have this moment of desperation. Each time, I haven’t even picked up the chapter yet and already I’m dismayed with how much work it’s going to be. It’s a lesson in keeping things tight, to be sure, but there’s a lot more flexibility when working with a longer narrative filled with transitions and cool down time.

Is the writing bad? Well, sometimes it’s painful. But that’s not necessarily what causes the issue. In fact, if it is useless or banal, I can just throw it out and move to the next scene. It’s actually when it has some merit that I find myself irritated.

See, I start by reading the next section of my old manuscript that hasn’t seen the light of day in perhaps ten years. I don’t know how much of it is going to turn into a story. Is the whole chapter important? Is the first part funny enough to be salvaged into something new? Is the information going to need a complete rewrite? Some of the prose isn’t up to snuff, and I’ve even started to prematurely “Find” and delete the ‘frozes’ and ‘looks’ just to speed things up. Sometimes it’s actually pretty great, but I won’t be aware of that until a few paragraphs in.

You may have heard me say that readers enjoy something more when they trust it enough to invest in it? Well imagine when you’re reading through something that you might just trash in the next five minutes. Not that fun.

When I moved from New York, I finally had ready access to a printer. This was a relief. I made myself a copy of this particular scene, knowing it would need a lot of work, and took the highlighter to it. Having read it once before and thinking the information was important, I had already forgotten a couple of weeks later what occurred in that chapter specifically. But, instead of fixing cringeworthy moments or jumping right into inserting action, I just familiarized myself what I had written. I highlighted anything that needed to be changed, but didn’t slow down to critically evaluate it.

Having it on paper made it a faster and more comprehensive read than the computer, and letting go of my critic made it more enjoyable. Then, once I had a page riddled with changes and quick notes, I went through and did a few line edits. I added in some description needed to turn it into a short story. I expanded on things I thought could turn into a plot arc. I printed it out again.

This time the read was easier. I felt more confident, and was more relieved; it was not only turning into an actual story, but it actually made sense to become a new introduction of readers to the world, considering the topics discussed some fundamental questions and characteristics. I added more information about the Wyrd itself than I’d discussed before. I made some big notes about where I could take the action.

I realized I needed to cut down. The story grew a thousand words and the conversations had started to become tangential. While adding in some motivation and plot elements, I merged sentences, salvaged a part of the conversation for later, and cut down on individual lines.

Over the course of time, my feelings flip flopped. Instead of exasperated and somewhat helpless, I began to feel capable and in control. I focused on it, slowly worked it as I figured out how, and even after only a few drafts I felt much better about it… and myself.

Do you really hate your writing? Is it really bad as you think? It’s a question we all ask ourselves, and in my opinion, I believe that that sickness you feel when you see it has very little to with the writing itself.

Sure, you’re probably right in that it’s not up to your standards yet. But perhaps you’re taking it so hard not because it’s too far from being something you love, just that you don’t know how to start.

So take it easy. Read through it, make a few changes. Read through it again, make a few more. Don’t try to do everything at once and don’t try to be perfect. You’d be shocked at how quickly those feelings of dread vanish as you realize that it’s so much easier than you think.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

Mechanical Editing Causes Clunky Writing

I have long told the story of my 180,000 word beast of a first draft and how I went about the process of cutting 60,000 words from it. The last 20,000 were the hardest and became the well-known game of trimming the fat. I actually recommend trying this on a work that you’re not too precious about because even if you decide nothing can be cut, it does force you to really analyze your work in a way that doesn’t overwhelm.

One of the phrases I found I used a lot and could remove was “started to” and “began to.”

“The sun began to rise” became “The sun rose.”

In many places, this was a really easy and speedy way use the Finder tool and cut down. I always read the sentence first, and hope heavily that I did not make something sound strange by doing so—which is what another read through will, with any luck, catch. Some sentences were drastically changed by the meaning. You can’t simply make “She started to speak then stopped,” to “She spoke then stopped.” And sometimes, while there isn’t a huge difference, the slight alteration might affect ambiance, cadence, or even just the visual.

So when I came across a common writing blog about, “Show don’t tell,” I was surprised to find how aggravated I was at the suggestion to remove all “started tos.”

It wasn’t an especially narcissistic blog, and the information was useful. Yet it was the quintessential plead for banning of certain types of words without discussing the why, the exceptions, or how to tell.

This is especially personal for me because my biggest criticism has always been, “I like the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring.” Or that’s the gist of it. My strange and, yes, often inherent way of looking at words worked to convey a new perspective, challenge the reader just enough, and make them laugh. Yet sometimes it would be pretentious as hell and distract from the whole goddamn point. But because many times I was not “just looking in the thesaurus for the biggest word I could find” (as some implied I was), but using my actual vernacular—albeit sometimes in a strange way—it was not easy for me to understand when it crossed the line from creative to incorrect, so I find the discussion of why ‘started to’ is inappropriate is pretty important.

Being a writer is always about embracing certain weirdness while connecting over normalcy, and when people start bossing you around without going into their thought process it can be very difficult to know if they really are put off by your decisions or the realization their reality isn’t everyone’s. And even if someone is being honest and caring, they can’t stand around and point out every time you really should start “showing” instead of telling but have to help you be able to think for yourself.

You originally wrote “started to” for a reason.

What got me most about the article was… well, to be honest, it was a poorly tethered thought about how “body parts can’t move on their own.” This hadn’t nothing to do with showing or telling, it was her just complaining about how she and a critique partner made fun of lines like, “His eyes shot to the notebook,” claiming, “I picture them shooting from his head and across the room.”

Really? I don’t. And while I will be open to her perspective, if only for the fear of hypocrisy. Maybe that is her natural interpretation, but my genuine speculation is that she only had a problem with it as a frustrated writer looking for pedantic flaws without considering the actual issues that choice caused.

In any case, there was something about her methods for giving out advice that rubbed me the wrong way, more so than any other article on writing with the same flaws had.

Mainly, it was that she proved her own point wrong in her example.

She began the blog discussing how her book was about to be submitted to her publisher for a final time and could not be changed after that. Panicking, she decided to go through and give it one look over, deciding on removing all of the “tries tos,” “started tos,” and “began tos.”

One sentence, “He started to stand and she shoved him back down,” was her example. Instead of using a quote that the “tried to/started to/began to” could just be cut without changing anything, this one was a good demonstration on when you can’t just say, “He stood.” This somewhat defeated her point, but at least it was a more complicated question.

She changed it to, “He stood halfway and she shoved him back down,” stating it made it much more immediate.

In my opinion, these sentences aren’t a big deal in either case. I probably wouldn’t have noticed or been perturbed by either of them coming across them in a book. But, if I had to pick between the two, I don’t see “halfway” as being more immediate—the opposite in fact. I would also say the visual seems somewhat clunky to me, awkward.

I had to think about it for a while. What did I not like about the sentence? Well, for one, it was obvious what she was doing, though that always is the danger of telling people what you’re doing. After considering it for a moment, the issue was the imagery. In essence, “He started to stand,” doesn’t get him very far. In fact, once he actually gets to the halfway point, I imagine it would be much more difficult, and awkward, to be able to shove him back in his seat. Even if he allowed her to, his momentum is pushing his body, weight now unbalanced in her direction. Plus, in the first view she shoved him back down—and here’s the operative word—immediately after she saw him moving. What was she doing before he made it all halfway? He had to put his hands down, lean back, shove himself upward, and then actually get to that point. Now, all of this would happen quickly, but in my mind’s eye, she would have understood he was standing after putting his hands down. Google suggests that the average visual reaction time for a human is .25 seconds. So, she hesitated, calculated, or something else was going on.

In any case, getting to the halfway point makes the action feel less immediate.

To me, her last minute edit was a demonstration as to the biggest issue of banning phrases; she focused on not using something so much that she ignored everything else. Even if “he rose halfway and she shoved him back down,” is a perfectly fine image, she completely changed the original motions to make the easiest possible alteration.

Have I told you guys about the time that someone was so oriented around whether or not I should change a word, she completely missed the fact that a gun disappeared mid-scene? This is typical. People like to pay attention to wording because it’s easy, causing them to miss the abstract issues like ambiance and visuals.

Which was the problem with her whole article. While they were good points—more about ways to cut down on word-count than ‘showing’—the attitude conveyed it was always better to be shorter, always better not to use certain words if you can help it, so on and so forth. In any teaching situation, the most important thing any writer can do is explain the process that caused her to decide this goal was truly a priority, or, if it is a complicated issue, discussing how she personally determines what is right or wrong in that context.

I often see if I can cut the word “started to.” Why? Word-count, overuse, for flexibility in sentence length, or often times because shortening sentences is the easiest way to make them clear. Sometimes for the sake of challenging myself, sure. But I’ve also written without using the letter E for that purpose and E is a very fine letter. In fact, the tendency to overuse “started to” is the only reason to alter it, and that doesn’t mean I can’t write it at all. In a sentence in which the incompletion of the action was important in the visual, I would probably leave it as is.

Because no matter how skeptical you are, no matter how much you believe, “I will do it if it works and change it if it doesn’t,” every time someone give you their banned list of words, you will remember them. Every time I use an adverb, a passive-sentence, ‘said,’ ‘there,’ ‘such,’ ‘just,’ ‘very,’ ‘thing,’ -ing words, ‘was,’ ‘is,’ ‘walk,’ a 25 cent word, a prepositional phrase, a semi-colon, a colon, a hyphen, an ellipsis, italics, ‘glance,’ ‘suddenly,’ a cliché, ‘furrow,’ ‘thought,’ ‘saw,’ ‘wonder,’ starting a sentence with a conjunction, ‘furthermore,’ ‘for that matter,’ ‘honestly,’ ‘in fact,’ rhetorical questions, ‘his eyes flicked to the paper,’ ‘started to,’ ‘began to,’ ‘tried to…’ and so many more unique experiences you’d laugh at, I have to stop and consider the pros and cons of the word instead of writing naturally—and that is problematic.

Over more than a decade of writing I’ve collected all kinds of weird pet peeves from people—some repeated by many voices, some only by one. I’ve read blogs and articles, books, taken classes, went to critique groups, and what I wish writers would realize is that telling their peers what to do rather than discussing why we should do them is (one, a sign of inexperience) ineffective and discourages risk taking. Obeying it makes for clunky writing. Too much emphasis on it can leave a writer cold.

Banning words and phrases straight out makes for easy editing. It’s simple to go through and just start cutting and changing certain phrases. Doing so early on can be a good idea, especially because you can go back through in later edits and realize that it sounds clunky and awkward. During my big purge of words, this happened to be true a lot—cutting the “excess” could mess with rhythm, flow, and thought.

Cutting out excess words is a useful tool, but it is a tool, and excess words should never be your predominant focus. Do it to fix an existing problem, to challenge yourself, or maybe even to see what all the hubbub is about. But don’t just make an awkward sentence last minute because you’re panicked that your book isn’t perfect.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

What is Stories of the Wyrd?

Funny thing about most authors on social media is how difficult it is to find our actual writing. Our pages lack mention or links of what we’re working on, what we’re selling, what we’ve done. Some make one status update and then believe that it’s easy to find in the multitudes of posts proceeding it. Some have plastered their pages with their story, and yet the way they went about it yields no effect; their wallpaper of their cover art is poorly positioned and illegible or outright ignorable. Their book covers don’t even look like book covers. Their post about “five star reviews” doesn’t mention the title or provide a link. A good number of writers have generic pennames and titles that do not elicit any results in a Google or Amazon search. Some of us don’t talk about it much. We don’t advertise, and we even can expect people to already know what our work is, so why badger them with it? It is amazing how many of my Facebook friends have likely lost a sale from me simply because they made it far too hard to find any mention of their books. But I’m no better.

When I first started becoming active on social media, I had been published in literary journals and had a few small play premieres in Los Angeles, but no books for sale, nothing really to send my readers to. As I’ve said before, writing in isolation is difficult, and having an online presence is sometimes said a bonus to your credibility for agents who are considering picking you up. I decided to start building up my fan base before I had a big product to pitch because it was something I could do that would make me feel productive while I wallowed away in my room, hacking out pages on my computer, and waiting to hear back from places I’d submitted to. It gained me a little bit of control over my career.

Every once in a while I would get a message from someone interested in checking out my books, to which I had to reply that I had none available to the public yet. They would ask me why I’m not advertising, and it was simply because I had nothing to advertise. In ways, it was hard to tell someone who was going out of their way to learn more about you that what they saw was what they got.

I started Stories of the Wyrd for the same feeling of futility that made me turn to social media. I have been writing for years and years, and for the first ten or so it wasn’t a big deal to never have anyone read it. In fact, for the first half I really didn’t ask anyone to look over my writing and it didn’t bother me. Of course, I believed that I would be published within the next three years or so if I ever just forced myself to edit and submit. Then I got to a point where I very much wanted to improve my work and really go out to get external feedback. But feedback and criticism isn’t the same as having a simple reader, and within the last few years it started to get overwhelmingly frustrating to always be writing and never be read.

I have completed manuscripts of course. I have many that I’ve gone through several drafts, that I enjoy, and that I could see as being good enough to be published—one day. But none of them are ready, they’re just not quite right. I know that I could do more with them and so I refuse to do anything with them.

Three years ago, as I realized just how long it would take me to get a book out even if I chose to self-publish, as I started to fixate on marketability, nitpick on words, tone down my voice, and severely restrict myself based on what I felt agents would want to hear, I knew that I needed to find an outlet for my creativity, a place to experiment, to take risks, and to stop worrying so much about what other people think.

More than that, I needed to stop writing in a vacuum.

The Stories of the Wyrd idea came from me misunderstanding a description in a article. They were discussing how The Terminator was stolen from a horror serial back in the day, and I thought, I want to write a serial of shorts! While they had actually been referring to shorts as in T.V., something akin to the Twilight Zone, the idea had already been planted.

I didn’t want to post online fiction because no one reads it. I don’t in particular because it is so likely to go abandoned, it is often a first draft and there tends to be mistakes of plot holes and loose threads, not to mention the typos. As an interesting example, The Martian originally took off after Andy Weir started selling it for a dollar. For whatever reason, novels available on a blogging site put me off, and I attribute it to the lack of accountability. I would rather go to the trouble of downloading an ebook than read a chapter by chapter posting.

Meanwhile, I had happened upon Leigh Bardugo’s “The Witch of Duva,” and this amazing short story had me hooked from beginning to end and haunted me long after I finished. It was because of this piece, available for free online at the time, that I went out and bought her novel, Shadow and Bone.

Prior to my Terminator epiphany, I had considered online short stories. A few of mine were already available through some of the e-zines and online copies of the journals I had been published in, but most of my short stories are different than my typical voice. I didn’t feel like they were a grand demonstration of what my novels are like.

And I’m not a big fan of short stories. There are some anthologies and short story writers that I love, like Tobias Wolff, Stephen King, and Chuck Palahniuk, but they tend to be authors I’ve already known or just lauded enough that I finally do venture to give them a chance.

My main motto in writing is to not be a hypocrite, even if I know people differ in opinion. That means that while I am allowed to write about the things I like (whether or not everyone likes them), I also cannot think something I don’t like is different just because it’s me doing it. So while I know there are people who like short stories, because I don’t, I have to tackle the problem and try to figure out what I don’t like about them.

What bothers me about short stories? What bothers me about novellas for that matter?

You start to get into them right when they’re over.

I have commitment issues, especially when it comes to books. I tend to get attached to things quickly and being betrayed or disappointed is intolerable. When I start a novel, I rarely let myself abandon it. I spend a lot of my initial introduction refusing to invest any emotions into it, which, unfortunately, makes me enjoy it less.

In a novel, this isn’t a big deal. By around page thirty, you start to get to know the characters, understand the world, and get a vibe for who the author is and his perspective, if you can count on him, if he’s lazy or ignorant or really has your best interest at heart. Those first pages in which I am refusing to let myself care or feel for these people (not until I know this writer isn’t going to screw me over) are boring, but it’s not that big of a deal because I have several hundreds of pages to enjoy now.

With short stories, by the time I start to realize that I’m enjoying it, that I like the characters, or that I’m interested in where it’s going, it’s over.

And, I know. If short stories are so short, then why can’t I just expect to enjoy it, invest my emotions and time, and get over it when they fall short? Because I’m defensive, damn it. My feelings are easily devastated by being misplaced. And most short stories are terrible, especially from an author you’ve never heard of before.

Bardugo’s short story was the exception. Hers I liked purely on the merit of that story alone. Usually, when I do like them, I like anthologies, and the connection they have with the author. The writer, his voice, his attitude, his philosophy, becomes a character in itself, and so I feel the attachment to him, a trust in him, and instead of having to reset every new story, I am far more comfortable in their world.

So I had been mulling around the idea of writing online short stories, but I didn’t think I would do it. I just couldn’t see it as being something I (a reader) would be interested in.

But this Twilight Zone idea seemed to solve the problem I had with online fiction. While writing episodic short stories—stories with a standalone plot and solution—my readers wouldn’t have to worry about if I finished the project or not because they would be, in theory, satisfying on their own. Yet, I wouldn’t have to worry about the difficulty of investing in short stories because if you did grow to love the characters, they would return.

In January 2014, I decided to spend the year stocking up stories featuring the same characters to then post online. In December 2014, I premiered the website with four of them. Today I try to post one on the first of every month.

Rasmus and Kaia were originally protagonists of my twelfth manuscript, Silver Diggers. Kaia had been one of the first female characters to act as I originally envisioned instead of being a mouthy know-it-all who could only be considered humorous when laughing at her. (Freudian.) Her relationship with her brother was the charming obnoxiousness of Calvin and the wise, sarcastic watchfulness of Hobbes that I had been wanting to achieve for some time. I loved the characters and had great hopes for them.

It was written way back in 2011, featuring siblings who lived in a loosely Scandinavian world, featuring folklore in the vast wilderness and the industrial growth in the cities. A sort of steampunk meets dark fairytale. They were traveled the poor villagers and attempted to solve their problems of the supernatural. What they couldn’t find, they made up.

I decided to change the manuscript into the serial for several reasons. One featured my original intention, that Silver Diggers would be an episodic novel, and that there would be the set up and the conclusion, but many different conflicts and plotlines in between.

It didn’t quite work out. The premise wasn’t strong enough to hook the reader in, and many of the stories felt disjointed and rambling. It didn’t read episodic as much as messy, and as I took to editing it, I found myself changing the entire vision to a more traditional plotline. I added in a main conflict to be introduced after (what I call) the cold opening, and cut a great deal of chapters that were stand alone and seemingly unrelated.

When I realized that Silver Diggers’ original vision was akin to what I wanted for the serial, it became obvious that, even though it meant it would never be bound and sold as I originally had hoped, it could better become what it truly wanted to be.

And not only did I have all of these side stories and plot arc that would be great in this medium, the fact that Rasmus and Kaia were brother and sister meant that I wouldn’t have to deal with a “will they or won’t they” storyline throughout the entire series, but rather allow them to have relationships and break-ups as they will instead of dancing around it for however long the series runs for.

It made a lot of sense.

I don’t remember exactly what caused me to change the name from Silver Diggers to Stories of the Wyrd, but it seems more fitting anyway. I never was really in love with Silver Diggers (a reference to the selfish and scheming nature of gold diggers merged with the power of silver against supernatural forces).

Stories of the Wyrd is exactly what it sounds like.

While the Wyrd, in reality, is a Celtic idea meaning personal destiny, I used the term to title the supernatural world in which the creatures and monsters leak out from. Few actually witness the boundary, but when they do, it appears as a vague, gray void, flooding out from nothing, the insides dull and empty.

It shifts around the region, but avoids larger parts of humanity, only targeting villages stationed far from the larger cities, ones who are collecting unique resources, escaping persecution, or are wayward stations between two frequently traveled points.

I used the word for two reasons. One, we’ll be honest, it sounds like weird and rolls off the tongue well. Two, more aptly, it is a supernatural and enigmatic force that has uncontrollable and frightening influence over humans. But mostly that first thing.

Stories of the Wyrd is a pet project, something enjoyable for me, an escape in which I can take chances and write tales in the way that I like to read, even when I know that I’m the oddball out, or worse, am still interested in things already discussed long and thoroughly before I touched them. It is a series of unchronological shorts featuring sarcastic characters in a supernatural world and is, more than anything, what I want to write in the way I want to write it.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

What It’s Like Getting Feedback

(An honest reflection written November 2015 about the struggles of understanding constructive criticism.)
The last round of feedback my manuscript received was months ago, but I periodically go through the comments to see if I understand more with fresh eyes. Every once in a while, by dissecting, rethinking, and just chilling out, I’ll find a treasure hidden in the muck, disguised by clever wordplay, oversimplification, or a specificity that was misleading.

People will give feedback by issuing direction: Show don’t tell. Write what you know. Use adverbs. Delete this word. Say this instead. Cut this. Change that. They offer up solutions and if you don’t truly see the problem even good advice can become useless. More to the point, it’s harder to tell if it is good advice or if there’s a very rational reason you don’t see the problem.

In fact, every time I have ever been told I had an issue that I didn’t think I had, it was because I didn’t have it. It’s often a miscommunication, in which my critic suggests something and I interpret it differently than how he intended. For example, one man once told me that I “needed to set up the scene more.” I looked that first chapter and thought, “My hut is vivid and grounded and detailed. I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I told him so with more diplomacy, to which he responded, “Oh yes, the hut is perfect. I’m talking about the world. Like, are we in outer space?”

Now, that I could see.

When it’s not miscommunication, it can be an issue of priorities. In college, I had a professor say I needed to clarify that my characters were not lesbians. While I could see why he felt like they were on a date, I didn’t believe that his reasoning was congruent or strong enough to matter; I had two female characters who talked to each other about something other than a guy and didn’t discuss who they were dating or had them end up with anyone by the time the play was over. Outside of their bickering, however, they didn’t behave like they were in a relationship at all, so it was only his expectation for women to be paired off that led him to that thinking. Then there was the factor that I simply didn’t care if people decided Molly and Becca were on a date. Being a theatrical script, it was probably going to have someone speculate someone was gay anyway. You can’t go to the theatre without a director thinking it’s genius to make Mercutio in love with Romeo. I didn’t see any audience member saying, “Clearly she wanted to tell us these characters were dating and failed to do so. What a hack!” It didn’t bother me if my characters were gay, but it did irritate me that he felt I was required to discuss the love life of my females when it had nothing to do with the plot. I told him all of this flatly, to which he, being anti-confrontational, dropped it. Or seemingly so. Later on he told me that I needed to “add in another character.” Considering he hadn’t brought up my character’s orientation since that one time many weeks prior, I did not initially make the connection between the two, and when asking him what adding another character would do, he told me it would fix the dynamic.

I saw nothing wrong with their dynamic, and actually believed it was the best part of the play. I had no idea what he was talking about until sometime afterwards I realized he was still fixating on a priority I had already said I didn’t care about, which is why the solution didn’t make sense to me.

The best advice I receive usually comes out of the following discussion. Many people attempt to be succinct and efficient when stating their opinions, not wanting to waste anyone’s time or be interrupted, yet this precision can actually overly simplify their ideas until they are no longer true. It’s important to get people on the same page before telling them where to go from there, otherwise your directions are obviously going to mislead them. A different perspective that puts a reader on a different page from a writer is the primary reason you get feedback. Everyone makes assumptions that we don’t ever think to question until we meet someone who forces us to rethink our sense of reality. The reason the best advice is usually the kind that I don’t initially understand has to do with that assumption. I didn’t realize what I thought was a matter of perspective until after I got someone else’s.

Of course, trying to get someone on the same page when they already are on the same page can be insulting, so we have to be careful about over explaining things. Plus in most cases the “same page” is the hardest revelation to go through. Telling someone that their scene is terribly set up will hurt their feelings, so many of us will go directly to how they can fix it and not actually confront the problem.

Saying, “Add stakes to Susie’s goals,” is kinder than, “I don’t care if Susie succeeds or not,” hence our draw to speaking that way. But the real problem is that the audience doesn’t care, and if the writer doesn’t see that, he will not understand what adding them in will do and thus why he should do it. Especially if he’s sitting there thinking, “I have stakes.” Once he realizes that the audience isn’t rooting for anyone, not is he more likely to be convinced that the solution is necessary, he also can incorporate other options than just doing what he was told and can be better at deciding if the stakes he chose are actually effective. Instead of just adding action sequences and threatening the life of a character we know will never die (not making us care anymore than before), he decides to add in a dog and threaten her instead.

There are ways to tell someone the problem without it being offensive, but it’s more difficult. It also requires more thought—instead of just stating a gut feeling, (I didn’t like it!) the speaker has to analyze that feeling and accurately describe it.

A problem is a reaction a reader didn’t think he was supposed to have. Identifying that reaction—the effect of a decision—rather than just criticizing the decision itself takes some self-analysis. It’s not that your writing is purple, it’s that I felt you were talking down to me. (Or, in many cases, the words didn’t make me imagine the scene, but made me stop and think about why you chose them.) It’s the difference between saying I don’t like the way you write and why I don’t like the way you write. (You’ll note that the variance between being arrogant and being jarring alters how the writer will be able to detect and fix any other “purple” writing in the future.)

But it’s difficult to state how you felt sometimes. Not only is it personal, but because it is extra blunt by nature, it is more important to consider your words carefully or it will be taken as an attack. The best feedback excites and encourages the author to get back to work, not just informs them and expects them to overcome hurt and conflict. Yet any attempts for diplomacy might clutter meaning.

So what do you do when you know, for whatever reason, you’re not on the same page? It doesn’t always work to just ask someone straight out what they mean. On occasions when I don’t get what I’m being told, I ask, “What is the problem you are trying to solve?” But it often garners the response of, “There’s no problem…”

Then why do I care?

People will often shut down and sometimes even take offense when you ask questions, especially direct ones. And, if you don’t think to ask, not realizing that you don’t really get it, or even just don’t understand enough to know what you don’t understand, you’ll often be sitting at home later, bewildered, unable to ask anyone at all.

While examining the feedback I’ve gotten, I noticed a repeated response from a few people that I never really was able to grasp. I ignored them originally, partially because my method of editing involves “chilling out” and not worrying too much about it, in which I often have a shower epiphany later. Instead of trying to take criticism all at once, I’m more likely to comprehend it via long-term reflection.

But this criticism was a little weird. First, when I say that a couple of people said the same thing, I mean a couple. Many, many readers have gone through the manuscript and there are probably only four that have discussed the issue in a similar enough manner for me to know it’s the same opinion. This actually isn’t that bad of a statistic, however—I’ve come to find that I’m lucky if three people agree on anything. Yet, it should be noted that each of the people saying it aren’t individuals that I respect as much as I normally do. It should also be noted that it’s been often proven that commenters will have more of a consistency in their opinions once you analyze where they are actually coming from—as in, they’re not actually saying the same thing, but what caused them to say it was the same problem.

“I just haven’t seen it done that way before,” they say.

I’ve realized that a few feedbackers suggested that my science-fiction wasn’t like the science-fiction they expected, and while there are many reasons I didn’t pay them too much heed, the comment has stuck with me… mostly because I don’t fully understand what they meant, and yet there is more than one person who mentioned it.

I see that my manuscript doesn’t meet the most superficial assumptions of what a non-reader thinks of when they hear “sci-fi.” While, over time, I introduced more elements typical to the genre—changing the setting of the first scene from a hut in a barren wasteland to an old and defunct terraformer in a barren wasteland and developed a history that explained it was another planet—the story does not fit the spaceships and aliens view that people who don’t read the genre expect. I don’t, however, believe that it should be so unexpected for anyone in my audience.

In the original vision and early drafts the setting was just a backdrop. I wrote it with the assumption that readers were like me—avid speculative fiction lovers who had already seen the same sorts of stories I read. I didn’t think, and still don’t to a certain extent, the world needed to be excitingly new because it was about a different kind of plot, a different kind of exploration of that sort of world. I had unique rules, but it wasn’t supposed to be about the world, just the people in it. The setting was just a nice decoration, an interesting visual for the plot to play against. I have never been interested in big, epic political events, and just wanted it to be a love story with a novel perspective. While the characters fight for their lives and freedom, it’s an intrapersonal look. I wanted it to emulate the idea of how people are just people, even in horrific realities. When you talk to someone in real life who has gone through war and starvation and trauma, during that trauma, they focused on the little things right in front of them, like where their family’s next meal is coming from, immediate safety, shelter, money. And then, even in the aftermath when they have found security physically and financially, they still care about the things we of the luxury life do, like love, money, and self-oriented dreams. Political vigilantism and determination is the story of heroes, and yes, there really are many heroes in reality, but sometimes I want to hear the story of the person surviving.

Over the drafts, however, I started to realize that this was the story’s biggest obstacle. I accepted that—while I truly didn’t feel like the world’s history mattered to the characters, their goals, or their conflicts—it was very apparent in the writing that I just didn’t know and was deliberately glossing over details because I hadn’t come up with answers. I was also avoiding making big decisions, especially when there was an easy answer to that I didn’t like. People wanted to know if it was Earth, if it was the apocalypse, how the apocalypse had happened. (Those who were concerned with this were also the ones who had only read the first three chapters, making it feel more like they were impatient rather than it was important.) I saw it as an entirely alternate reality; the world had always been like that, Earth doesn’t exist, nothing went wrong. But how do you explain that something doesn’t exist in a world it’s never been in before? I could just make it Earth, but I didn’t want to do that.

I’ve come up with several solutions now, but it was very difficult at the time, especially when I was so attached to my original vision. I finally decided to write out a history until I made one I liked, find the answers I was avoiding, and then do the proceeding drafts accordingly, inserting and changing details as the newfound knowledge merited. This worked out very well, and led me to some new scenes and did flush out the world like I actually knew what I was talking about. The history forced me to rethink my entire assumption, but once I had committed to doing so, it wasn’t so hard to let go. The setting seems more real now, even though I still only hint at the history.

Science-fiction and fantasy is about “exploring a new world,” some say, and many books are. I think that it’s an excellent part of fantasy, and there are a good number of stories that I find the unique and thorough world-building to be the prime reason they broke the wall of “good” to “great.” But there’s a reason that Tolkien-esque kingdoms and Star Trek planets still survive today and that’s because many speculative fiction readers, like myself, don’t always want brand new worlds with brand new rules, but new plots and exciting characters in an interesting setting we like.

Even things like Harry Potter—a series that created an entirely new and developed universe—played off of basic ideas and rules and tropes and fashion that we already used. It took pre-existing images in our mind and pushed them to a higher evolution. People like Harry Potter not because it started from scratch, but because it gave more details, reality, and humanity to an already existing world.

Which is to say while I highly respect and enjoy speculative fiction with in-depth world building, I also enjoy works that focus predominantly on characters, their politics and history only coming up as it affects the individuals. I want to still read about Road Warrior open highways, elven countries, and vampire underworlds along with the new realities of an especially unique book.

Because my predominant criticism was always about the world building, really the only consistent feedback I was getting, I somewhat attributed the whole, “I haven’t seen this done this way before,” issue to me just not explaining myself well enough, not setting up the rules first. There was also the issue that out of the four people I remember saying anything, three of them really hadn’t read my sort of genre before, and I could only assume that the expectations of a non-reader were wildly different from an actual fan.

But two parts have confounded me about this. One is that I received a criticism after the introduction of the terraformer which had, for the most part, calmed most people’s confusion about what kind of world it was and tapered off a lot of the world-building complaints. The other is that it hasn’t always been targeted towards the setting at all.

In one circumstance, it was the issue of the prologue. As I said, the gentlemen speaking was not an individual I had high faith in. He wasn’t reader of anything, just an older soul who wanted to write his memoir on running marathons. By the time he’d stop going to the writers’ group, he had written six pages and edited them once with our criticisms to disastrous results. Despite all that, he was arrogant, although not competitive and not self-assured (or strangely even attempting to look self-assured). He never put anyone down directly, but he was certain of his opinion, even in the case of the detective novelist who he told, “I don’t like detective stories,” and then spent twenty minutes telling her how to write one. He believed everyone should take all criticism, especially his, and would instruct writers to pander to people outside of their audience (to the detriment of those already in their audience). When any speaker attempted to be diplomatic with their feedback—plying it with compliments or giving credit to where he was coming from—he would have this contorted and mocking face until the critic came outright and said exactly what they were thinking. “You have a natural knack for clarity, so now I wouldn’t focus so much on if you’re explaining yourself well enough and risk some confusion,” to “You’re writing a boring subject in boring way. Spice it up.” Once he heard a writing rule—luckily he was not experienced enough to know many—he latched onto it.

I’ve talked about my struggle with the prologue. When I chose to add it in in the middle of the first draft, I had already known it was going to be controversial. Many professionals don’t like prologues. I had heard of this since I first started writing, I had seen all of the complaints, and for all of the prior manuscripts I’d written, I’d never used one before, simply because it never came up. But I have never personally had a problem with a prologue in a story before, and I believe it is just a way to pass expedited judgment on a book. I have seen prologues done badly, but that was because they were done badly. I didn’t think too hard about adding it when I did because I didn’t realize just how much balking there was going to be. The scene became integral to the most interesting parts of the plot. It became a point of contention for many, but the arguments never proved true enough. It seemed that when people complained it was simply because it was a prologue, not because of what I had done: “I just heard you weren’t supposed to have them.” My brother gave me an in-depth criticism, telling me I should use George R. R. Martin as an example how to do a good prologue, except that the issues in mine he listed were all found in A Game of Thrones first book. I have long since stopped asking my brother for advice because of this formula: he would always name drop someone, and yet when I read them found that my brother wasn’t entirely aware of what the authors were actually doing.

Again, the people who were focused on my prologues had usually only read the first couple of chapters, or even just that prologue itself. The ones who read it all of the way through often didn’t comment on it. Some liked it a lot, saying they were hooked into wanting to know how it ties back in. That annoyed others when the connection wasn’t made immediately apparent for the first forty pages (though the main character is featured from the get-go). People I respected said they liked it or didn’t have any criticisms themselves. I did get the sense that no one was as excited about it as I was which led me to do a lot of research and consideration. I read a lot of unpolished prologues, agents’ blogs about why they don’t like them, and even took it out for some new readers. I attempted to reposition the scene because I couldn’t just cut it. Due to the timeframe, I also couldn’t just refer to it as chapter one either. But moving it seemed to screw up the pacing until way too far in in which it really did feel out of place to me.

After all of this, after wanting to get rid of that prologue, I have, as of yet, to understand the problem. Out of the people I respect, the two who said anything negative about it only pointed out, “Agents do say they don’t like them,” and “I didn’t think that was the best way to start,” but couldn’t tell me why exactly. For a long time I was still conflicted because it comes down to the scene not being able to be removed, me struggling with where else I would put it, and my growing understanding that I like it very much and I don’t feel that whatever problems people have with my beginning is about its existence. It seems to me it’s either the label or has to do with the transition from the prologue to chapter one. The reactions from the copies without the prologue are weird—less abrasive, and yet clearly missing information and a sense of world. The things that the prologue is supposed to do, it does.

But while people have muttered a reference to it, no one really went into detail unless specifically asked.

The man from my writers’ group was the only one to really fixate on it, and his arguments were more misleading than anyone’s.

“Do science-fiction books usually have prologues?”


“Well, I’ve looked at a few and I didn’t see any.”

“They’re not like a staple or anything.”

“What does that mean?”

“You don’t have to have one…”

“That’s what I meant.”

“No, you don’t have to have one then.”

“You should read other science-fiction books to see how they do it.”


“I just haven’t seen it done that way before.”

As it should be?

We discussed it for some time, and yet while he kept repeating that I should read other books, he would not tell me what was wrong with the one I had. I told him I didn’t have a prologue because I wanted a prologue, I had a prologue because I believed it was the best way to start.

The next week, he approached me and say, “So, did you get rid of your prologue?”

I grinned. “Because you haven’t seen it done that way before? No.”

Not only was I irritated that he refused to try and explain to me why he didn’t like it, but his arguments made it worse. His inability to flat out say, “It was boring,” or anything like that either meant that his issue was complicated (which suggests that it’s not going to just be solved by simply cutting the whole thing), or a distinct possibility that he was just doing what he was supposed to do rather than actually reacting to the writing itself. Because I liked the prologue, because I hated when people wrote off an entire writing tactic without context, because I had the tendency to think he was an idiot, I knew that I was biased. I struggled to really understand him and be sure that I wasn’t just being stubborn, that I wasn’t shooting myself in the foot, but his inability to argue and be honest actually convinced me he probably had bad priorities in telling me that. I wish, however, that I understood, partially because I would feel more secure in knowing why he was wrong, but also because it would help me know why the “not the way it’s done,” criticism has come up for some others.

The woman who liked science fiction, the only one who I believe should be taken seriously, still had some bizarre reactions to the piece that made me not fully understand where she was coming from.

I know that people see prologues and automatically hate it.

I know that people are annoyed when I discuss the leader of their outpost—a simple a figurehead, a representation for their kind of life, but not a character—and yet the rebellion and attack on his authority never comes into play because it’s not about that. I don’t know how much it actually needs to be addressed, and if it does, what subtle ways I can shift that assumption.

Some want me to outright sum up the world. No, they never say editorialize or info dump—but sometimes that’s what I feel they are implying. I’ve heard this criticism on other books, like The Hunger Games, and I consider it a matter of preference. Not only do I not want to go into detail about aspects of my world that are… well, common, those that aren’t are very complex. I can’t explain one thing without getting into another, which it is learned over the course of the story. No, you don’t need to know where they’re getting their fuel from yet. Just relax.

The worst part of receiving criticism isn’t the rejection or the embarrassment. It’s not even the demand to sit somewhere quietly as someone tells you how you messed up. It is far more about the struggle to decipher people’s opinions, to overcome your own biases along with theirs, and to determine what is best for your work. It’s not trying to accept what people say, but figuring out what they’re not saying.

Note: After rewriting the beginning of the story for the fifth time and speaking to an author who I highly trusted, he suggested that he didn’t understand people’s problems with the prologue, but did know how agents felt about them, and if it were him, he’d find a way to change it, I eventually came up with a means to put it as a flashback a little later in the story.

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