2009 Year-End Writing Progress (Dec 27 – 31)

Humblebee: 50,709
Weekly Total (Dec 27 – 31): 8,425
December Monthly Total: 45,859
2009 Grand Total: 131,170 (87.4% of 150,000)

I'm actually quite happy with my 2009 result, because I learned a very important lesson. Namely, that I can write a lot more than I give myself credit for.

I didn't write a damned thing from Jan 1 - Jul 31, then I stopped being lazy and started writing again. I take off from writing one day per week, which means that from Aug 1 - Dec 31 I had 131 working days. I still managed to miss 41 of them, as I wrote for only 90 days this year. That would seem terrible, except... that in 90 days I wrote 131,000+ words! 87.4% of my goal!

No selling myself short in 2010. My writing goals are going to be more ambitious, but realistic, as well. (More on this in my next post.)

This week was quite productive, but before I get to that I want to remind you that I'd said previously that I set a goal last Wednesday to write 2000 words per day until the end of the year. I accomplished that goal. As for this week, I averaged 2,106.25 words per day. These were my daily totals:

Sunnandæg - day off
Mónandæg - 2,007
Tiwesdæg - 2,163
Wódnesdæg - 2,221
Þunresdæg - 2,034
Frígadæg - —
Sæternesdæg - —

Friday and Saturday are not included in these numbers because they fall in 2010.

WIR #39: Steering the Craft

Steering the CraftLe Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, Oregon: The Eighth Mountain Press. Copyright © 1998, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ursula K. Le Guin's web site:
http://www.ursulakleguin.com/


The first exercise found in Le Guin's book, which I completed this morning, is a fun one.

BEING GORGEOUS
Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect — any kind of sound-effect you like — but NOT rhyme or meter.

What I wrote for this exercise:

The horse’s hooves clop-clop-clopped on the cobblestone street, clop-clop-clopped as its rider prodded it on down the narrow lane, and they plodded onward, towards the skyspires of the sorcerer’s lair in the midst of Scintillating City. In the distance, the tall, reaching skyspires rose above the surrounding wood, pawing, clawing, stretching skyward, and piercing the clear blue of the cloudless, innocent sky.

Having crested Knobby Hill, the cobblestone street now rolled down, swinging left and swinging right, between rows of two-storeyed houses, their windowed façades a rainbow of pastels. Blues and purples, and reds and oranges, and greens and yellows, every one of them streaked with the brown and muddied trails from the runnels a recent, rusty rain. The cobblestone street wended its way westward, toward Womblytown, where it wound alongside the wild, rushing rapids of the roaring Ram River.

(258 words)

Weekly Writing Progress (Dec 20 – 26)

Humblebee: 44,291
Weekly Total (Dec 6 – 12): 11,692
December Monthly Total: 37,434
Grand Total: 122,745 (81.8% of 150,000)

This week was incredibly productive. I averaged 1,948.66 words per day. These were my daily totals:

Sunnandæg - day off
Mónandæg - 1,793
Tiwesdæg - 1,750
Wódnesdæg - 2,010
Þunresdæg - 2,055
Frígadæg - 2,001
Sæternesdæg - 2,083

I made a deliberate decision on Wednesday to finish the year off writing a minimum of 2,000 words per day. I've slowly been increasing my daily word count, just to see how it feels to write more and more, and to see how comfortable I am trying to pursue writing more each day. Right now, 2000 words per day feels like I'm pushing my limitations, but I fully intend to continue with 2000 words pay day until at least December 31.

Today's writing session was timed, from start to finish, with my stop watch being paused whenever I stepped away from my desk. I stepped away only once, to use the toilet. It took me one hour, forty-seven minutes, and thirty-six seconds. It amounted to about 9 manuscript pages, so I averaged 11.94 minutes per manuscript page, or 19.3 words per minute. From what I've read, that's actually quite fast for writing a novel.

I once asked Robert J. Sawyer at his blog about his own word count and if he used a white-space (a.k.a. printer's rule) word count method to determine when he was done for the day, or if he used the actual word count, per his word processor. He told me he writes 2000 words per day and he uses his word processor to give him the actual word count. Stephen King, in his memoir, notes that he also writes 2000 words per day. It amounts to roughly 10 manuscript pages per day. I didn't ask Sawyer how long it takes him to write that, and I don't recall King mentioning how long his writing sessions take him. Ultimately, that's not what really matters. Writers who set goals write until they reach their goal, regardless of how long it takes them. I've learned myself that some days it takes me a lot longer to reach my word count than others.

On the subject of manuscript pages, my story Humblebee broke the 200 page mark tonight. It's taken me 28 days of writing to get to this point. I started writing this story on November 28 and have missed only 3 days of writing in that time, November 25 and 26 and December 1.

I got back to writing back on August 1. Since I take off one day per week, that means that 127 writing days have passed. Out of those, I've missed 40 days of writing. This means that I've managed to write 122,000+ words in 87 days. Something to think about, eh? It has certainly taught me a lesson and I mean to take advantage of that lesson next year.

WIR #40: Lavinia

LaviniaLe Guin, Ursula K. Lavinia. New York: Harcourt, Inc. Copyright © 2008, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ursula K. Le Guin's web site:
http://www.ursulakleguin.com/


I received Lavinia as a gift either last Christmas or for my last birthday, I can't remember which. When I decided to read Le Guin's Steering the Craft, I thought what better to read while reading a book by Le Guin on the art and craft of writing than a novel by the woman herself?

Properly, I already should have read Vergil's The Aeneid (which I own, but haven't), since Lavinia, the king's daughter, is the woman whom Vergil's hero is fighting to claim. The blurb for this book notes that Vergil never gave Lavinia a voice in his poem. Le Guin, here, has rectified that injustice. That being the case, The Aeneid would likely provide little more than familiarity with Lavinia's background. Then again, The Aeneid being the Roman answer to Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, seeing that I've read the latter two, perhaps I've already all the background necessary. Better still, I'll trust to Le Guin to provide me with all I need to know.

The surname Le Guin bespeaks, I believe, a French origin, which points, in turn, to Latium. Le Guin's first name, Ursula, which is Latin in origin, is reminiscent of the constellations Ursa Major (the Big Bear, where the 'Big Dipper' is located) and Ursa Minor (the Little Bear, where the 'Little Dipper' and Polaris, the North Star, are located). Who better, then, to give Latium's Lavinia voice than the skilled Bear of Oregon?

WIR #39: Steering the Craft

Steering the CraftLe Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, Oregon: The Eighth Mountain Press. Copyright © 1998, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ursula K. Le Guin's web site:
http://www.ursulakleguin.com/


The full title of this book, which I've owned now for a few years, is Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. A mouthful, to be sure, but it is not without well-thought-out meaning. If you are a writer sans a writing group, then you are a 'lone navigator.' If you're part of a writing group, then you are one of a 'mutinous crew.' Thus, no matter whether yours is a row boat piloted by one or a ship manned with a full crew, this book is intended to meet your writing needs.

I spent days and days and days anguishing over what I would choose to read upon finishing Holly Lisle's trilogy, and then I flogged myself with a cat-o'-nine-tails. This book had been sitting on my desk for all those days, and many more besides, patiently waiting for me to pick it up. I first started reading Steering the Craft years ago, after it had been given to me as a gift, even taking pains to go through Le Guin's exercises, but I'd never finished it. This time I shall.

Le Guin is easily, very easily, one of my favourite writers. Her reputation and the awards she has won far outshines those whose prolificacy makes her look irredeemably blocked. The fact remains, however, that there is not much that can compare with her Earthsea novels, her Hainish Cycle novels, or her far more famous and award-winning The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness. Her awards speak as loudly as her novels, as she has won a National Book Award, five Hugo and five Nebula Awards, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Howard Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the PEN/Malamud Award.

(As a Note: Although I'm numbering this as 'What I'm Reading #39,' should I still be reading it come the New Year, I shall renumber it as 'What I'm Reading #1' for 2010. I've not done this before. I've usually numbered books according to the year in which they were started and not the year in which they were finished, but ultimately it doesn't matter.)

I love the blurb for this book:

With her sharp mind and wit and a delightful sense of playfulness, Le Guin has turned a successful workshop into a self-guided voyage of discovery for a writer working alone, a writing group, or a class. Steering the Craft is concerned with the basic elements of narrative: how a story is told, what moves it and what clogs it. This book does not plod through plot, character, beginning-middle-and-end. Nor does it discuss writing as self-expression, as therapy, or as spiritual adventure.

Writing can be all these things; but first of all — and in the end, too — it is an art, a craft, a making. To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It's worth it."

Each topic includes examples that clarify and exercises that intensify awareness of the techniques of storytelling:

  • the sound of language
  • the narrative sentence and paragraph
  • rhythm and repetition
  • adjectives and adverbs
  • tense and person of the verb
  • voice and point of view
  • implicit narration
  • crowding, leaping, focus, and control
Once we're keenly and clearly aware of these elements of our craft, we can use and practice them until — the point of all practice — we don't have to think about them consciously at all, because they have become skills.

A skill is something you know how to do.

Skill in writing frees you to write what you want to write. It may also show you what you want to write. Craft enables art.

There's luck in art. There's the gift. You can't earn that. You can't deserve it. But you can learn skill, you can earn it. You can learn to deserve your gift."

WIR #38: Courage of Falcons

Courage of FalconsLisle, Holly. The Secret Texts, Book 3: Courage of Falcons. New York: Warner Aspect. Copyright © 2000, by Holly Lisle.

Holly Lisle's web site: http://hollylisle.com/
Holly Lisle's blog: http://hollylisle.com/writingdiary2


Finished. Finally. Not a bad series, actually. A very well-conceived world, but, . . . and I hate to say this, to me the ending battle took too damned long and was filled with wearisome speeches. People who are at odds with one another do not lecture each other to death, unless, that is, lecture is their preferred weapon of choice. If that's the case, then they should be university professors and not heroes in fantasy novels.

Goals and Weird Books

GOALS AND MOTIVATION
Once more, my thoughts are turning toward my goals, evaluating how I did in accomplishing my goals for 2009, and what goals I'll set for 2010. Dean Wesley Smith, the science fiction novelist whose blog I've been reading regularly of late, has momentarily paused his Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series of posts (that link will take you to a post containing links to all his posts on this subject thus far) to launch into a series on motivation and goal setting. Thus far, he's written two posts on the subject: Motivation #1 and Motivation #2.

I'm not going to blog about my goals just yet — I do want to read what Smith has to say about goal setting first — but, nonetheless, my thoughts have already begun to give some form to the goals I want to set for myself for next year.

Smith's Motivation #2 post makes an important observation. When writing — assuming that you compose at a keyboard and that you do your first drafts in proper manuscript format — most people take 15-30 minutes to write each page. (I'm in the range of 15-20 minutes.) One manuscript page, properly formatted, is 250 words. A modern novel is about 90,000 words. Thus, if one were to write just one page per day, 250 words in 15 minutes' time, then one could write a novel in no less than 360 days. Less than a year. Expand your writing time to half-an-hour, and one could produce that 90,000 word novel in 180 days. One novel in a year, with half the year off. The point of this idea being, life happens. You want to take a vacation, even from writing. There's an illness in the family, and you don't even have to be the one who is sick. You have children. No matter what your situation, life happens, and you can't always write every day. However, if you can spare half-an-hour each day to write just two pages, you'll complete your novel in six months' time.

This is an issue that I've already given thought to, even prior to having read Smith's most recent post. Thus far, I've never achieved the word count goal I've set for myself each year. Weeks ago I decided to set a goal for my word count that would be more ambitious, and yet would allow life to happen. At the moment, I'm unemployed, so I've lots of time to devote to my writing and to reading. When I find a job, however, I'll lose 8 hours of my day, plus commute time. So, I want my goal to be something that is both ambitious, and yet which doesn't feel like it is out of reach. I want it to be something that not only feels achievable, but also something that I can smash with abandon if I achieve my daily goals consistently. I keep using the word "ambitious," because I want you to understand that this does not involve lowering my expectations. On the contrary. My intention is to raise my expectations, but to do so reasonably, and then aim to exceed them.

WEIRD BOOK ROOM
I've mentioned before that my favourite place to look for out-of-print and hard to find books is at AbeBooks.com®. One of the more stimulating and humourous aspects of AbeBooks is their Weird Book Room, where you can find the strangest titles published. Here's a brief list, to give you an idea of the nuttiness that abounds in the world of weird books:


These are just a few of the titles to be found in AbeBooks's Weird Book Room.

WIR #38: Courage of Falcons

Courage of FalconsLisle, Holly. The Secret Texts, Book 3: Courage of Falcons. New York: Warner Aspect. Copyright © 2000, by Holly Lisle.

Holly Lisle's web site: http://hollylisle.com/
Holly Lisle's blog: http://hollylisle.com/writingdiary2


And now we come to the last book in the series. The first two novels apparently sold well, as on the back cover of the book we read, "Holly Lisle, the acclaimed author of the #1 Locus bestsellers Diplomacy of Wolves and Vengeance of Dragons, concludes the fantastic epic of The Secret Texts, as a millennium of blood curses, dark conspiracies, and arcane sorceries engulf a world . . ." Hmm, I hear some of you saying. #1 Locus bestsellers? Who the hell is Locus? Locus, my friends, if you didn't already know, is known as "The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Fields."

Let's take a gander now at the blurb for Courage of Falcons

THE FINAL BATTLE
The Falcons, a band of fugitive wizards that includes skinshifters Kait Galweigh and Ry Sabir, struggle to wield ancient magics in their desperate battle against the immortal, soul-devouring necromancers called the Dragons.

At the same time, a thousand tribes of long-banished Scarred declare war on the civilized lands, with a prophesied messiah uniting them into an unstoppable army. Bent on conquest and revenge, the Scarred don't care that their new leader, Luercas, is a being so evil that even the Dragons fear him . . .

To defeat the Dragons, Kait and Ry must destroy the source of the sorcerers' power—the Mirror of Souls. But if they succeed, they will lose the only weapon that can stop Luercas from becoming a demonic god who will enslave the entire world . . . forever.



Noted at Locus's website is that Kirkus Reviews, which I'd mentioned in my previous post, will be shutting down. Writes Locus: ". . . founded in 1933, [Kirkus] reviewed over 5,000 titles per year and published biweekly." They also note here, that "Borders UK will close all 45 of its Borders and Books Etc stores on December 22, 2009, unless a buyer for the chain is found."

WIR #36: Vengeance of Dragons

Vengeance of DragonsLisle, Holly. The Secret Texts, Book 2: Vengeance of Dragons. New York: Warner Aspect. Copyright © 1999, by Holly Lisle.

Holly Lisle's web site: http://hollylisle.com/
Holly Lisle's blog: http://hollylisle.com/writingdiary2


I've just finished this. As I said before, cliffhanger ending. Not a surprise. Lisle told me about it herself.

This has been a good read so far, though. Interestingly enough, Kirkus Reviews is quoted as calling Vengeance of Dragons, "Engaging . . . [and] vividly set forth." What makes that amazing is that Kirkus Reviews, from what I've read, has a reputation for not giving science fiction or fantasy very good reviews. "Vividly set forth" is right. Lisle has done a masterful job with the world she created for this series of books. I've one more book in the series to read, though, so I'm off to start on that.

Toodles.

WIR #33: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Self-Editing For Fiction WritersBrowne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 1993 by The Editorial Department.

http://www.editorialdepartment.com/


Now that I've completed this book, the review I quoted when I first started it—

If it was possible to give this book zero stars, I would do it. Or, the first-ever negative-star book. How do they explain, for example, how many best-sellers, including Harry Potter, Steven King, among others that have adverbs.

—is so obviously mindless that you can safely ignore it. Thus the reason why, although I've quoted it again, I've struck it out.

There is so much valuable advice in this that I can see my writing benefiting from it. My aim with this reading was to familiarize myself with the book, and then I shall go back to it later as I am editing stories and make use of what they teach.

Weekly Writing Progress (Dec 13 – 19)

Humblebee: 32,599
Weekly Total (Dec 6 – 12): 9,717
December Monthly Total: 25,742
Grand Total: 111,053 (74.0% of 150,000)

This week, I've averaged 1,619.5 words per day. These were my daily totals:

Sunnandæg - day off
Mónandæg - 1,725
Tiwesdæg - 1,650
Wódnesdæg - 1,648
Þunresdæg - 1,270
Frígadæg - 1,713
Sæternesdæg - 1,711

I had a few days this week where my writing took more than my usual hour-and-a-half to two hours, but that was because of some research I did while writing. All I'll say on that account is that it has involved learning a little Anglo-Saxon (a.k.a. Old English). Had it not been for that, my sessions would not've taken any longer than usual, I'm sure.

I learned the most simple thing in Anglo-Saxon. The conjugation of "to be," for example:

— BÉON (To Be) IRREGULAR VERB
Present & Preterite Indicative
• Ic béo (I am) — Ic wæs (I was)
• þu bist (you are) — þu wære (you were)
• he/hit/heo biþ (he/it/she is) — he/hit/heo wæs (he/it/she was)
• we/ge/hie béoþ (we/ye/they are) — we/ge/hie wæron (we/ye/they were)

Present & Preterite Subjunctive
• singular: béowære (ex. if this be treasonif I were to shoot you)
• plural: béonwæren (ex. if these be beesif these were bees)

Present Participle (...ing) & Past Participle (...ed)
béonde — [n/a] (ex. I am being — I have been)

Imperative (direct command)
• singular: béo (ex. Be a man!)
• plural: béoþ (ex. Be men!)

Inflected Infinitive
• to béonne (ex. To be or not to be)

Anglo-Saxon shows forth marvelously why English is a Germanic language:
• Anglo-Saxon: Ic béo (I am)
Modern German: Ich bin
• Anglo-Saxon: þu bist (you are; this can also be written ðu bist)
Modern German: du bist

Probably the most fascinating tidbit, however, was learning that the First Person Singular, Present Tense, for "to be" in Anglo-Saxon, béo, is the same word for bee, and the Anglo-Saxon Inifinitive for "to be," béon, is the same word for bees. Added to this, for me, is the fascinating fact that the Modern English "be," as in "to be," and "bee" do, indeed, share the same root. Plus, the only way in which we make the distinction between them in Modern English is to add a final E to the word designating the insect. For whatever reason, the Anglo-Saxon made some sort of connection between life and existence and bees. There is also the unintended but fabulously fortuitous and serendipitous fact that the "humblebee" of my story's title has come to share that same connection, even before I happened upon the Anglo-Saxon connection.

The Business of Publishing

I've been reading a lot lately about the publishing business. I found a couple of blog posts by writer Lynn Viehl about a novel of hers that recently hit the New York Times bestseller list. The first blog post, titled "The Reality of a Times Bestseller," is an interesting read, and she includes with it a link to her first royalty statement. (Technically, this is a statement detailing how many copies were sold [and the dollar cost for those], how many were returned [and the dollar cost for those]. She received a $50,000 advance on this mass market paperback (which sells for $7.99, and she earns a standard 8-10% royalty once the book earns back the advance she was paid). The statement shows sales of $40,484, with $13,512.69 withheld for 21,140 books printed that had not yet been distributed, plus $750 for book club rights sold, for a net of $27,721.31. (NOTE: "Returns" are books reported to the publisher as unsold. In many bookstores, you will often find books at the front of the store that are severely discounted. These are known in the business as "remainders." "Remainders" are books reported to the publisher as "returns." I don't believe that authors earn royalties on "remainders" that are sold. "Remainders" are a cash cow for bookstores.)

What does this mean? Well, it means that at this point Viehl's book had not yet earned back the advance paid to her. At the time of that statement, 17 Feb 2009, her novel needed to earn another $22,278.69 ($50,000 - $27,721.31 = $22,278.69) before she would start receiving any additional royalties off the sale of her books.

Viehl went beyond this, however, to blog again in this post, "More on the Reality of a Times Bestseller," about her second royalty statement. This statement again shows copies sold [and dollar cost], copies returned [and dollar cost], and it shows that the books withheld in the previous statement had been released for distribution.

Monies received for US sales were $3794.94, while monies refunded for US returns were $6594.64, for a net US loss of -$2799.70 ($3794.94 - $6594.64 = -$2799.70 — more were returned than sold).

Export sales (Canada, Export, book club) were $773.27 ($81.97 + $462.64 + $228.66) and Export returns were $237.31 ($197.99 + $38.84 + $0.48), for a net Export earnings of $535.96. This gave a "Total Royalty Earnings," actually a loss, of -$2263.74 (-$2799.70 + $535.96 = -$2263.74).

It shows that 21,140 books were released, for an earnings of $13,512.69, and from this was subtracted the total US and Export returns $8814.57 (13,790 books @ a royalty of $0.6392/book) for a reserve adjustment of $4698.12.

Subtracting the loss on royalty earnings gave a total earnings of $2434.38.

Adding the earnings from the previous statement ($27,721.31) to the earnings from the second statement ($2434.38) means that in one year the publisher has earned back $30,155.69 of the $50,000 they paid to Viehl. At this point, they're still $19,844.31 shy of earning back the advance she was paid against her royalties.

It's important to understand that Viehl never has to pay back any money that the publisher loses on the sale of this book. Even if another copy of this particular book never sells, Viehl will have earned the $19,844.31 that the publisher lost.

I stated earlier that her royalty for a mass market paperback is 8-10%. There is a schedule that publishers follow in determining when the royalty payment goes from 8% to 10%. Generally speaking, the royalty on the first 100,000 copies sold of a mass market paperback is 8%, and then 10% if the book sells more than 100,000 copies.

Knowing the royalties alone tells you how many copies of her book have to sell before she can start earning money on top of that $50,000 she was paid. Her book sells for $7.99. Her royalty is 8%, so $7.99 x 8% = $0.6392 per book. Divide the advance by the royalty per book: $50,000 ÷ $0.6392 = 78,222.7 books must sell before she'll earn another penny.

She has thus far earned back $30,155.69 of her $50,000 advance, which means that $30,155.69 ÷ $0.6392 = 47,177.2 copies have sold thus far. Therefore, there another 78,222.7 - 47,177.2 = 31,045.5 copies must sell.

To verify the math: 31,045.5 x $0.6392 = $19844.28. And I said earlier that they were still $19,844.31 shy of earning back the advance she was paid. I'm off by only 3¢. If I'd carried it out to four digits beyond the decimal point, my calculations would've been closer.

Keep in mind, too, that Viehl's agent received a 15% commission ($50,000 x 15% = $7500), leaving her with $42,500, before taxes (she'll have to pay self-employment taxes, too; if, as an employee, you pay, say, $200 per paycheck in Social Security taxes, your employer also pays $200 in Social Security taxes; so, if you're self-employed, you pay the employee's half and the employer's half, for a total of $400). In Viehl's case, as with all those who are self-employed, she'll have to pay her taxes quarterly. The self-employed have to pay for their own health insurance, too.

What's interesting about this is that Viehl had a New York Times bestseller, and one year later the book still has not earned back its advance. More significant is that this book was in the top 20 on the bestseller list.

Doesn't sound like it's very easy to make a living solely as writer, does it? Well, it is and it isn't. It all depends on how you handle your business, and that's where many fail. Most writers don't understand that they're in business and they don't treat their writing career as a business. That's a sure formula for failure.

For a view that shows how to treat it like it's a business, especially one that discusses how it is possible to for a writer to actually make a living writing nothing but fiction, check out "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Can't Make Money in Fiction," by author Dean Wesley Smith. I've been reading (and commenting) on the entire series that he's written on these Sacred Cows, and it's damned good stuff, too. Enlightening.

FOOTNOTE: Regarding the blogposts written by Lynn Viehl, I've read every word of both posts, as well as every comment that was published. There's a good bit of myth-spreading contained therein, if you compare what's said in those posts with what Smith says in his Sacred Cows series. The most important thing for a writer, something that Smith emphasizes, is to understand copyright law and how to use it to his advantage. Smith uses the idea of a "magic bakery" to make his points, and it's a valid metaphor. Author/literary agent Donald Maass makes the same point in his book, The Career Novelist, but his metaphor is of a "bookstore."

As an additional note, I'll also be blogging a little more about the business, sharing things I've learned elsewhere, such as where libraries fit into the picture of the publishing business.

I hope you enjoy all the reading assignments I've given you. LOL

SpecFicWorld: Editors and Rejection

I've been spending time over at specficworld.com, where I've got a subscription, and I've been reading interviews that were conducted with several editors, asking each of them questions related to why they reject stories.

Although I know the following is true, I am constantly amazed at the number of editors who cite improperly formatted manuscripts as a prime reason why stories get rejected. There's nothing at all difficult about formatting a manuscript properly. Nothing. I won't complain, however. They'll make my own stories stand out from the masses.

Another common reason? Spelling counts, as editor Shawna McCarthy put it. Not a problem for me. This is yet another reason why my stories will stand out above the crowd (the more points I gain on this scale, the higher my stories rise up in that slush pile).

Another? Poor grammar. Ding! I win. (I'm not trying to rub their noses in it. I'm just, yeah, trying to rub their noses in it. ~shuffles feet . . . innocently~)

Another: Failure to hook the reader in the first paragraphs. A common reason for this? Exposition. I rather like to start my stories in medias res, as the old Latin saying goes. "In the middle of things." Whatever the story problem is, that's where I start. As close to the resolution of the problem/end of the story as possible.

One more: Failure to follow a publisher's expressed guidelines. What? Can't these people read?! Ding-ding-ding! I win again! (I'm not trying to be arrogant. Honest. I just want those who are committing these errors . . . to continue to do so! Hehehe. ~rubs hands together conspiratorially~ If they want to make me look good, that's their problem.)

WIR #37: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas CarolDickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol, In Prose: Being A Ghost Story of Christmas. (This volume published by Barnes & Noble Books, 1992.)

Charles Dickens @ Wikipedia


Done. Finished. Com-pleted!

And God bless us, every one, as Tiny Tim said.

Love this story.

WIR #33: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Self-Editing For Fiction WritersBrowne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 1993 by The Editorial Department.

http://www.editorialdepartment.com/


The opening paragraphs to Renni Browne and Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers are enlightening for both reader and writer. They provide valuable insight into the modern world of publishing:

Why self-editing?

Because self-editing is probably the only kind of editing your manuscript will ever get.

Not too many years ago, an author with obvious talent and style sold a novel or short-story collection to a publishing house and then revised it under the guidance of the editor who signed the book up. Gifted editors routinely spent enormous amounts of creative energy and blue-pencil lead to bring the manuscript to its fullest potential.

That was then. What about today? What actually happens to fiction manuscripts that come in to publishing houses?

If the plot is strong enough or topical enough or the characters engaging enough, the manuscript is signed up and put into print — "potential" be damned.

If the fiction technique seems amateurish, or the plot doesn't hold the reader from page one to the end, or the characters don't stay in the mind after you close the book, the manuscript is rejected — potential be damned.

Which is why well-established fiction writers who used to get thoughtful, supportive editing now feel ignored when their manuscripts are put into production as submitted. And why first-time authors are being printed rather than published — assuming they're fortunate enough to get a publishing contract in the first place.

This is the world of modern publishing. This is why Grisham's "the shots that fired the bullets" and Lisle's food-devouring eyeballs are allowed into print, much to the embarrassment of the authors (assuming, of course, that the authors know enough to be embarrassed by such glaring errors). Today's novelists know this, however, and therefore they should know better.

For me, this raises the question, "Who should I pity more? The author? Or the reader?" This is an easy question to answer: the reader. The authors, if they are getting printed — I agree with Browne and King that "published" cannot be the term applied if manuscripts are sent to the typesetter with nary an editorial glance — can only be seen as professionals. Therefore, they should know better. They should know what a split infinitive is, what a dangling participle is, whether or not a sentence has been ended with a preposition. They should know when to use who or whom (as well as when to use whoever or whomever), when to use that or which, the difference between affect and effect. They should know not to use like when as should be used, the difference between less and fewer, as well as the difference between the transitive verb lay and the intransitive verb lie. This isn't that difficult. A knowledge of grammar at the seventh-grade level is all that is necessary.

The purpose of this book is to teach the author how to edit:

What we're going to do is teach you the craft of editing. The mechanics of dialogue, point of view, interior monologue, the tricks to striking the most effective balance between narrative summary and immediate scenes; the techniques whose adoption brands your manuscript as the work of a professional instead of an amateur.

Our purpose is to train you to see your manuscript in the way an editor might see it — to do for yourself what a publishing-house editor once might have done. Exercises and examples will show you how to become an editor as well as a writer.

The article I linked to in my post, Who Writes the Book?, lays it out plain and clear: ultimately, any errors you find in a published book are the fault of the author.

WIR #37: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas CarolDickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol, In Prose: Being A Ghost Story of Christmas. (This volume published by Barnes & Noble Books, 1992.)

Charles Dickens @ Wikipedia


This volume in my library contains four of Charles Dickens's most successful stories, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol, the full title of the story being, A Christmas Carol, In Prose: Being A Ghost Story of Christmas. I absolutely love this particular story and, for many years now, have made a habit of reading it at this time of year.

The first time I read A Christmas Carol I did so because of the many movies I'd seen based on it (I've even seen Disney's latest version). My motivation was to learn which, if any, followed the story the closest. Most snip out much of the tale, and almost all remove scenes shown to Scrooge of sailors aboard ships at Christmastime (Disney's version with Jim Carrey is no exception to this rule).

I absolutely adore the opening to this story:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Barnes & Noble, in this volume, include a note from Charles Dickens just after the title page:

I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C. D.
December, 1843

It shan't take me long to read this. A day, if I've the mind, but I haven't, so I expect to take perhaps three, maybe four.

Just remember: Old Marley was dead, as dead as a door-nail.

WIR #20: Writing the Short Story

Writing the Short StoryBickham, Jack M. Writing the Short Story: A Hands-On Program. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books. Copyright © 1994 by Jack M. Bickham.

Jack M. Bickham @ Wikipedia


I love Bickham's books on writing. They're full of such solid, practical advice. The bio at Wikipedia on Bickham says he wrote six instructional books on writing. I own several. In my library are this book, Scene & Structure, Setting, Writing and Selling Your Novel, and The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them). So, I own all but one of his how-to books on writing. The volume I'm missing is More About How to Write a Million: The Essential Guide to Becoming a Successful Author (co-authored with Kit Reed and Monica Wood). Having now completed Writing the Short Story, I've read all of the books by Bickham in my library.

Many years ago, I read a book on writing science fiction in which the author spoke of a system involving cards and how much he didn't like it. My memory tells me that what had bothered him was how it made him think that a story couldn't be written unless one had lots and lots of index cards on hand. I suspect this author may have been referring to this particular book. Bickham's system is definitely index-card heavy, but I'm fine with that. I buy a lot of index cards anyway, and use them for all sorts of things: shopping lists, to-do lists, daily reminders, etc. So, I wouldn't doubt if Bickham's system, or some adaptation of it, will work for me.

card cabinetMy father, when he was still alive, had several file cabinets for index cards (for 3" x 5" cards, as well as 4" x 6"), and I thought I still had them, out in the garage. I've checked, however, and I can't find them. I can't imagine what's happened to them. His looked very much like the one pictured here at the left, only they were a lighter grey. This particular cabinet can be found at Amazon, for a little more than $55 per cabinet. I suspect that price is due to their being constructed of steel. They're far better than anything made of plastic, though, and last forever. I've never seen anything comparable made of plastic, and even if I did find one this size, I wouldn't buy it. The smaller, plastic card file holders break all too easily. I think that one this size would be just as fragile, if not more so. This model cabinet holds 1500 cards per drawer, 3000 per unit. I imagine that two or three (6000–9000 cards) would take a good long time to fill up.

Bickham's system involves doing a self-inventory, using file cards, observing people and writing notes of your observations on file cards. Doing market research and noting the things you learn about the magazines you'd like to submit your short stories to, all on file cards. Building your story characters using a system where you write down on a file card a character trait and then devising ways in which to show that trait.

He's fond of file cards because that's the system he uses, but it doesn't matter if the reader uses file cards or some other filing system. The diligent writer will need some sort of system whether she realizes it or not, and getting hung up on Bickham's use of file cards is missing the point.

I've finished reading the book now, although I'm not finished going through his exercises. My plan at this point, since I'm editing "The Limnades," is to use the exercises at the end of the book to help me in editing the story, and then to go back to where I've left off with the exercises and to continue from there.

I recommend this book for the simple reason that it outlines a thoroughly systematic approach to the craft of writing, one that can easily be put to use for years to come. Index cards are a system that does not take up a lot of space. Even if one uses some computerized equivalent, if you're not backing-up your hard drive on a regular basis, what will you do if your computer crashes? Having a digital back-up, as well as a hard-copy back-up is just good business sense. And don't kid yourself. If you wish to make a living as a writer, then that means you're going into business, like it or not, and you'll need to establish good business practices right from the start.

Who Writes the Book?

This is a fascinating, fascinating article on who is to be blamed for problems found in a published book.


Today, while ruminating on "The Limnades," the short story I finished not too long ago, I struck upon an idea that involves changing the roles of three of the characters, and possibly eliminating two others. Instead of starting with two brothers, they would be father and son. The wife of the character who would become the father, would instead become the wife (or girlfriend) of his son. This changes the story's dynamic, but these role changes would absolutely increase the intensity conflict and, hopefully, make this story not just "good," but give it that "irresistible" quality that George Scithers said that one story of mine lacked. The central conflict would remain essentially the same, but these changes would give it more oomph. The problem would become far more important to the father and to his son's wife/girlfriend, and it would make the very last bit of the story more poignant, I think. (There's an interesting twist at the end that was a surprise, even for me, when I wrote the first draft, and I absolutely love it!)

I noticed also — I think this realization came to me yesterday — that as originally written there is an unintended parallel between this story and my relationship with my brother. Now that's the subconscious at work!

EDIT: In fact, as I've been reading Jack M. Bickham's Writing the Short Story: A Hands-On Program, some advice of his — that I've read many times before — really struck home this evening. Perhaps this is because I've had "The Limnades" in mind as I've been reading it, and thinking about his advice and how to apply it to that story. An aha! moment, perhaps? Yeah, I think so. Call it another step in my development as a writer, an instant where my understanding of "story" became more pronounced.

I don't recall where I read it, but I've a memory of some advice that said the time to read how-to books is when you are in the process of writing, but I think, based on today's experience, that they can be valuable when you are in the process of re-writing, as well.

With Ruth and With Reck

Have you ever taken a look at words that you've used and have taken for granted for years and examined them a little closer? Twisted them, turned them, gutted them, to get a new angle on them? While reading this morning, I happened upon a familiar adjective: ruthless. Looking at it as if I'd never seen it before, I realized it had never once occurred to me that this meant "without ruth." So, I wondered, what does it mean to have or to be with ruth? To wit:

ruth, röth, n. [From rue, comp. truth, from true.] Mercy; pity; tenderness; sorrow for the misery of another; sorrowful or tender regret. [Mainly poetical]—ruthless, röth′ les, a. Having no ruth or pity; cruel; pitiless; barbarous.
(The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of The English Language, Thatcher, Virginia S., Editor-in-Chief; Alexander McQueen, Advisory Editor and Lexicographer. Chicago: Consolidated Book Publishers, 1971, p. 738)

This means, obviously, that rue is the root from which we get ruthless, true, and truth, and this takes us to rue:

rue, rö, v.t.rued, ruing. [A. Sax. hreówan, to rue=D. rouwen, G. reuen, to repent; same root as crude, L. crudus, raw, cruel, L. crudelis. Hence ruth.] To regret; to grieve for; to repent; to repent of and withdraw, or try to withdraw, from (to rue a bargain).—v.i. To have compassion; to become sorrowful, grieved, or repentant.
(The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of The English Language, p. 735)

Ruth and her siblings turned my mind to reckless and his, and the question: What does it mean to have reck?

reck, rek, v.i. [A. Sax. reccan, récan, to reck, regard; cog. O. Sax. rókian, Icel. raekja, O.H.G. róhhian, geruochen, to reck or care; perhaps same root as reckon.] Obs. To care; to mind; to heed; to regard; often followed by of.—v.t. To heed, regard, care for.—It recks (impersonal), it concerns (it recks me not).—reckless, rek′ les, a. Not recking; careless; heedless of consequences; mindless; with of before an object.
(The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of The English Language, p. 698)

I know not about you, but for me these Anglo-Saxon words ring strong and clear, like a sword unsheathed. It recks me that many are reckless in their usage of words and language. Murdering and ruthless villians they are. (Had to say it.)


PRONUNCIATON GUIDE
VOWELS: ā (fate); ä (far); â (fare); a (fat, marry); å (fall); ē (me); e (met, merry); ė (purr, err); ī (pine, deny); i (pin); ō (note); o (not, organ); ö (move, loom, louver); ū (tube, abuse); u (tub, love); ü (bull, book); oi (boy, oil); ou (pound, how). CONSONANTS: ch (chain); CH (Sc. loch, Ger. nacht); g (go); j (job, giblets); ŋ (sing); TH (then); th (thin); w (wig); hw (whig); ks (exercise); zh (azure, genre); z (xylophone, zoo)

WIR #36: Vengeance of Dragons

Vengeance of DragonsLisle, Holly. The Secret Texts, Book 2: Vengeance of Dragons. New York: Warner Aspect. Copyright © 1999, by Holly Lisle.

Holly Lisle's web site: http://hollylisle.com/
Holly Lisle's blog: http://hollylisle.com/writingdiary2


Not until I've completed the other two books I'm currently reading will I give this book priority, but I am, indeed, currently reading Holly Lisle's Vengeance of Dragons. Like the previous volume, this one has a good start to it, and it will also have a cliffhanger ending.

The blurb:

THE MIRROR OF SOULS
Fugitive Kait Galweigh battles the megalomaniacal Crispin Sabir for possession of an ancient artifact called the Mirror of Souls. Kait believes the Mirror's magic will restore life to her lost kin, massacred by Sabir necromancy; Crispin believes the mysterious object will make him a god. Both are terribly wrong.

For the Mirror contains the captive spirits of the Dragons — long-dead sorcerers who once conquered the world with black, soul-devouring magic. And the Secret Texts have foretold that after a thousand years of waiting for revenge, the Dragons will be released in an apocalyptic war of good and evil.

But the Dragons have also read the Secret Texts . . . and have spent a millennium making sure they will control which prophecies do — and do not — come true . . .

I hope the story in this is as good as it was in the last, and that the stylistic interruptions are kept to a minimum.

Weekly Writing Progress (Dec 6 – 12)

Humblebee: 22,882
Weekly Total (Dec 6 – 12): 9,740
December Monthly Total: 16,025
Grand Total: 101,336 (66.7% of 150,000)

This week, I've averaged 1,623.3 words per day. These were my daily totals:

Mo - 1,675
Tu - 1,645
We - 1,612
Th - 1,776
Fr - 1,494
Sa - 1,538

Writing this much each day isn't taking me that much longer than when I was writing 1250-1350 per day. Fun stuff. :D

On a more sombre note, I learned earlier this week that Edwin Powers Elliott, Jr., the editor who published my first non-fiction article, died last October 11 of a heart-attack. He was 62. He was a good friend, the pastor for 31 years of a church in Manassas, Virginia, where I attended for a short period many years ago, and the editor of the Christian Observer (a magazine originally founded in 1813). It was in the Observer where my first non-fiction articles were published.

WIR #35: Diplomacy of Wolves

Diplomacy of WolvesLisle, Holly. The Secret Texts, Book 1: Diplomacy of Wolves. New York: Warner Aspect. Copyright © 1998, by Holly Lisle.

Holly Lisle's web site: http://hollylisle.com/
Holly Lisle's blog: http://hollylisle.com/writingdiary2


Despite the previous post on this book, I wanted to add that I did enjoy this book. Very much so, in fact, and I have every intention of reading the entire trilogy. I would even recommend it to people who enjoy fantasy novels.

My caveat, however, is that there is much about Lisle's writing style that I don't like. The examples I gave in my previous post are representative of the problems I found in the story. The frequency of their occurrence was such that I kept getting jolted out of the story. It was a feeling of, "Okay, I'm in this story, this is a very cool world, I'm enjoying this, the tensions, the — oops! Oh, jeez. I'm reading. What did she say again? God, that was convoluted!" And I'd find myself having to reread a sentence several times to understand what Lisle meant.

If you're willing to tolerate such, then you'll find reading this rewarding. For all its problems, I did enjoy Diplomacy of Wolves.

WIR #35: Diplomacy of Wolves

Diplomacy of WolvesLisle, Holly. The Secret Texts, Book 1: Diplomacy of Wolves. New York: Warner Aspect. Copyright © 1998, by Holly Lisle.

Holly Lisle's web site: http://hollylisle.com/
Holly Lisle's blog: http://hollylisle.com/writingdiary2


Yup. Cliffhanger ending. I knew it was coming, as I said earlier. However, I still don't like cliffhanger endings. Every fantasy trilogy or series has them anymore. They're as common as the wet, buttery Rs that the French gargle at the back of their garlic-lined throats.

I'll start by saying that I have enjoyed the story thus far, but I do have some quibbles.

The first thing that struck me happened about 120-125 pages into the novel. It wasn't something that happened very often, but it happened often enough that it annoyed me. I'll give you an example, and I'll admit right now that what you're about to see is completely out of context. I'll provide the context later, but first I have some points I want to make.

Which Kait suspected to be true; Aouel was a longtime friend of hers, since the day when she had wandered onto the airible field on the House grounds in Calimekka at the age of thirteen, and he had shown her the miracles of airible flight for the first time.

Sentence fragments. The previous sentence is a sentence fragment. Notice that my fragment, which serves as the topic sentence for this paragraph, has certain characteristics. First, it's comprehensible. Second, because of its placement and because of its comprehensibility you know, even though it's a fragment, that I'm going to talk about sentence fragments. I won't claim myself to be a master of sentence fragments, but I think I know a good fragment when I see one. I think I can also do a decent job of writing one. Third, taken out of context, my fragment remains comprehensible. Lisle's does not.

In the quoted text above, you see a 49-word sentence. It starts with a horrid fragment that is married to a hideously awkward sentence in which a comma has been grossly misused ("a longtime friend of hers, since the day" — also, I make no apologies for the adverbs I just used.) Divorce and comma divestiture are the clear solutions. For years now, whenever I come across beasts like this, I've had the habit of taming them with a rewrite, even if only in my mind. Lisle's preceding paragraph was just as bad, but it does provide the context for that — shivers! — sentence fragment. First, here's the original, including the previous paragraph:

Aouel glanced quickly at Kait, and as quickly made the look take in the three of them. "I would have flown through Tonn's hell itself to get to you," he said.

Which Kait suspected to be true; Aouel was a longtime friend of hers, since the day when she had wandered onto the airible field on the House grounds in Calimekka at the age of thirteen, and he had shown her the miracles of airible flight for the first time.

Now, here's how I would've written those two paragraphs:

Aouel shot a quick glance at Kait, then at the three of them. "I would have flown through Tonn's hell itself to get to you," he said.

Kait believed him, as Aouel was a longtime friend of hers. When she was thirteen, she had wandered onto the House's airible field in Calimekka. He had shown her then the miracles of airible flight for the first time.

I see no point in the use, let alone the repetition, of the adverb "quickly" in that first sentence. I think my rewrite communicates the idea that Aouel's glance at Kait and at "the three of them" was quick, and I didn't resort to a single adverb. If Kait and Aouel are longtime friends, I would hope that she would believe what he has just said, and not just "suspect" that what he has said is true. The use of "suspect" makes their longtime friendship suspect. (The "airible," by the way, is nothing more than a dirigible.)

"That" is a defining or restrictive pronoun. "Which" is non-defining, or non-restrictive.

The pistol that isn't firing is in the chest. (The clear implication is that there are other pistols, all of which are firing. This sentence tells us which one is not.)

The pistol, which isn't firing, is in the chest. (Adds a fact about the only pistol in question.)

The use of "that/which" presents problems for many, but if you look at these examples you can plainly see the difference. Clauses introduced by "which" are parenthetical and are therefore preceded by a comma (if they appear at the end of a sentence) or are set off by commas (if they appear in the middle of a sentence). "Which" is often used when "that" should be used, and Strunk and White's advice on the matter is both humorous and memorable: "The careful writer, watchful for small conveniences, goes which-hunting, removes the defining whiches, and by so doing improves his work."

Furthermore, no sentence — especially a sentence fragment! — should begin with "which." Beginning a sentence with a conjunction (and, but, and the like) is frowned upon, but forgivable. But starting a sentence with "which"? Egads! Spare me, please. Unfortunately, Lisle did not. Instead, I had to read several sentences that began in the very same fashion as the one quoted above.

There was also this humorous and embarrassing faux pas:

A choir of male singers accompanied the last litters, those of the ambassadors, the Galweigh paraglese, and finally the bride. They sang the standard selection of wedding songs, dedicating the marriage to Maraxis, the god of sperm, seed, and fertility, in whose month the wedding took place, and dedicating the bride to Drastu, the goddess of womb, eggs, and fertility.

"Sperm" and "seed" are synonymous, thus redundant. The parallel to "womb, eggs, and fertility" would be either "phallus, seed, and fertility" or "penis, seed, and fertility." Given that these are obviously religious references, "phallus" would be more appropriate as "penis" is too clinical.

And then Lisle regaled me with this one, which is Grisham-esque in its humor and tenor:

She stood chatting with them while they ate, as she did every morning, watching them devour the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls, with bright, intent eyes.

Them's some hungry eyes, let me tell ya. In fact, I find it amazing that these men could actually masticate their food with her eyeballs. This is just one of the many problems that can occur when you write long, convoluted sentences (34 words). If I simplify this sentence, the problem becomes more apparent:

She stood chatting with them while they ate, as she did every morning, watching them devour the corn flatbread (...) with bright, intent eyes.

What Lisle meant was:

She chatted with them while they ate, as she did every morning, watching them with bright, intent eyes as they devoured the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls.

Now her eyes are watching, instead of devouring all that food for these men, and the emphasis on the stolen sweet rolls is exactly where it should be. Shortening "stood chatting" to "chatted" adds further strength to the sentence, although I still think it's too long for its own good (35 words). Rewriting it again:

She chatted with them while they ate, as she did every morning. She watched them with bright, intent eyes as they devoured the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls.

The passage, now comprised of one 12-word sentence and one 24-word sentence, is just one word longer (36 words), but infinitely clearer. One potential problem here, though, is similar construction: She chatted.../She watched.... It's not a huge problem, but as I believe Lisle meant to put emphasis on this woman's eyes, this is even better:

She chatted with them while they ate, as she did every morning. With bright, intent eyes, she watched them as they devoured the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls.

It is a long-accepted rule-of-thumb that those things that you wish to emphasize should be placed either at the beginning or at the end of a sentence. When your "style" is such that it results in convoluted sentences, the result will almost certainly be Grisham-esque-like errors.

Below is another example — from the same paragraph — this one not so humorous or Grisham-esque. Rather, it illustrates the problem of sloppy writing:

When they'd finished, she told them if she didn't get back to the kitchen, Cook would have her hide. She said the same thing every morning, and as they did every morning, the men laughed and patted her round rump, and told her they would marry her if she wanted and tried to tempt her into staying longer, into going to bed with one or all of them, and into various other indiscretions.

That last sentence is 54 words long; the two sentences together 73 words long. Rewritten:

When they'd finished, she told them that if she didn't get back to the kitchen, Cook would have her hide. Every morning, without fail, she would say the same thing and the men would laugh, then pat her round rump and tell her that they'd marry her if she were willing. They would tempt her to stay longer, to go to bed with one or all of them, and to commit other indiscretions with them.

Not every "that" should be edited out of a sentence ("she told them that") for the same reason that in Latinate languages "que" cannot be eliminated. The repetition of "every morning" is redundant, as is "various other" (the plural "indiscretions" implies that they are varied). "They would try to tempt her" is verbose. Their daily attempts to tempt her communicates their effort well enough; there is no reason to add "try to" into the mix. Removing "try to" does not eliminate the implication that she always resisted their temptations. In fact, that this happened every morning not only carries with it the implication that she always resisted them, but that their temptations were a ritual which no one expected to be followed through to completion. Lisle's use of "into" is imprecise; what is needed here are infinitives — to stay, to go, to commit. "To commit" is not only stronger, but it carries with it the necessary sinful connotations desired when coupled with "indiscretions." Notice that even in my description of what Lisle was obviously after I've used words that increased my description's strength — "sinful" and "desired" and "coupled." "Coupled" is better than "married" because "coupled" can imply immorality whereas "married" cannot. Sensitivity in the use of language is paramount. The edited version is the same length — 74 words — but the clarity has been greatly enhanced, the redundancies eliminated, and the daily routine duly emphasized.

The original paragraph:

She stood chatting with them while they ate, as she did every morning, watching them devour the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls, with bright, intent eyes. When they'd finished, she told them if she didn't get back to the kitchen, Cook would have her hide. She said the same thing every morning, and as they did every morning, the men laughed and patted her round rump, and told her they would marry her if she wanted and tried to tempt her into staying longer, into going to bed with one or all of them, and into various other indiscretions.

The paragraph as I have edited it:

She chatted with them while they ate, as she did every morning. With bright, intent eyes, she watched them as they devoured the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls. When they'd finished, she told them that if she didn't get back to the kitchen, Cook would have her hide. Every morning, without fail, she would say the same thing and the men would laugh, then pat her round rump and tell her that they'd marry her if she were willing. They would tempt her to stay longer, to go to bed with one or all of them, and to commit other indiscretions with them.

My last example of another long and convoluted sentence:

Dùghall repressed a sigh and, with his tiny spare dagger, which had escaped the guards' careful search — for what guard would think of checking in the tuck beneath the roll of fat on a middle-aged diplomat's belly for a knife no bigger than a thumb? — he reopened the shallow cut in his palm and dripped his blood onto the floor, and summoned for the one who lay awake and the few who drifted or fought nightmares a peaceful, restful sleep.

Just look at the sheer, hulking mass of that thing. It's all of 81 words long! This kills a book's readability. Absolutely annihilates it. What first drew my attention to it was the last clause: "summoned for the one who lay awake and the few who drifted or fought nightmares a peaceful, restful sleep." Lisle has the annoying habit of constantly separating words that should not be separated. What do I mean by this? Well, let me remove the separation: "summoned (...) a peaceful, restful sleep." Breaking up phrases in this fashion not only harms readability, it also continuously interrupts the "vivid, continuous dream" that the reader wants to experience when she reads a novel. This sort of style draws too much attention to itself, instead of drawing attention to the story. There is no excuse for a sentence 81 words long. What's the point? To show that you're capable of writing such a hulking morass? Time for a rewrite, but without explanations for the changes. They'll explain themselves:

Dùghall repressed a sigh. From beneath the roll of fat on his belly he pulled out a knife no bigger than his thumb. None of the Sabir guards had thought to check him there for weapons. He reopened the shallow cut in his palm and dripped his blood onto the floor. For the one who lay awake and the few who drifted or fought nightmares, he summoned a peaceful, restful sleep.

It's now 71 words and five sentences, giving an average of 14.2 words per sentence. That increases the readability at least five-fold, if not more, and it contains all the information conveyed in the original without being convoluted. If you look closely, you'll see what I've done. I've limited each sentence to a single thought, although the penultimate sentence contains two. No sentence should contain more than two thoughts.¹ Good, concise, clear writing is that simple.

¹ Some basic grammar: Two independent clauses — that is, two sentences — joined by a conjunction are a compound sentence. The same is true when the conjunction is removed and replaced with a semi-colon. Compound sentences should contain no more than two complete thoughts. This is no longer the 19th-century, when monstrous sentences were the norm. That said, the monstrous sentences found classic novels from that period — or even earlier — are still easy to comprehend. In fact, they are incredibly well-written and demonstrate the author's facility with language. That's why they should be read and studied. Even if you are writing a novel placed in the 19th-century, that particular writing style should remain in the 19th-century. What a writer should strive to emulate in that instance is the style of speaking from that period, while still following today's rules for creating good dialogue.

I'll admit that I've never read anywhere — that I can recall, that is — a rule that says "
compound sentences should contain no more than two complete thoughts." It should be obvious, however, that the more complex the sentence, the more difficult it will be to comprehend. Have some compassion for your readers!

Finally, lest you think I don't know what I'm talking about, examine this post with a careful eye. You'll find that every one of my sentences contain no more than two complete thoughts.

Posting Comments

It has come to my attention that some have had difficulty in posting comments here at my blog. The problem has to do with difficulties in reading the word Blogger gives in their "word verification" feature. So, in lieu of that, I've turned off "word verification" and have turned on "comment moderation." What this means is that anyone should be able to post comments without having to confirm that they're human, but it still gives me control over those who like to post spam comments. When posting to a blog where "comment moderation" has been turned on, you should realize that your comment will not be posted to the blog immediately. After you've written your comment and clicked on the "post comment" button, you should see somewhere on the page the following statement: "Your comment has been saved and will be visible after blog owner approval."

If any of my readers experience any other problems with leaving comments here at my blog, please don't hesitate to email me using the "contact" link above.

WIR #35: Diplomacy of Wolves

Diplomacy of WolvesLisle, Holly. The Secret Texts, Book 1: Diplomacy of Wolves. New York: Warner Aspect. Copyright © 1998, by Holly Lisle.

Holly Lisle's web site: http://hollylisle.com/
Holly Lisle's blog: http://hollylisle.com/writingdiary2


Having finished Hope Mirrlees's fabulous Lud-in-the-Mist, I've now moved on to reading Holly Lisle's Diplomacy of Wolves. This is the first in a trilogy. I purchased the second in the trilogy many years ago, but only recently (within the past year or so) purchased the first and third volumes in the set. The first copy I bought was a trade paperback (9 x 6 x 0.9 inches / 22,8 x 15,2 x 2,2 cm); I wanted a matching set, and finding copies of the other books in trade paperback was, at the time, a little difficult (Amazon now carries the complete set in that sized paperback). I had to resort to my favourite source for hard-to-find books, AbeBooks. I've read the first two chapters of this volume already, and it's off to a roaring start.

The blurb reads:

For four hundred years, the great Houses of Sabir and Galweigh have battled for control of Calimekka — while each clan's wizards, the Wolves, plot in shadows to revive the hellish necromancies that once destroyed the world.

Now at her cousin's royal wedding to the decadent House Dokteerak, a young diplomat named Kait Galweigh discovers a Sabir plot to ambush the entire House Galweigh. Suddenly Kait must escape an alien citadel pursued by mortal and demonic assassins. Her only hope is a weapon she dares not use: for Kait was born with a power so cursed that her own people will kill her if her nature is discovered.

But unless Kait's deadly magic is unleashed, her mortal enemies will crush Calimekka in a reign of unholy horror . . .

Holly Lisle told me herself that when she wrote this trilogy, each book was written as a stand-alone novel. However, at her editor's request/insistence, the endings of the first two books were modified so that they ended with cliffhangers. She was assured that this tactic would increase sales. In retrospect, she was not convinced that the tactic worked.

WIR #32: Lud-In-The-Mist

Hope MirrleesLud-in-the-Mist was Helen Hope Mirrlees' only fantasy novel (published in 1926) and it is, by far, one of the best such novels I have ever read. I am amazed that, as Michael Swanwick says, "Lud-In-The-Mist is simultaneously one of the least known and most influential of modern fantasies." One of the least known? How can this be? This novel is worthy of far more applause and adoration than being buried in virtual anonymity.

Wrote Neil Gaiman, as I quoted in my earlier post on this novel, "The writing is elegant, supple, effective and haunting: the author demands a great deal from her readers, which she repays many times over . . . a little golden miracle of a book." The repayment Mirrlees gives her readers is worth many times more than the cost of the book itself. It is, as the old cliché goes, priceless.

Early in the book are planted little clues, not quite foreshadows, of things to come, and when Mirrlees springs them upon you, you can't help but scream with joy.

Lud-In-The-MistThe ending is no less satisfactory, too. I didn't want the story to end, but end it did, as all books do.

It is plainly obvious why this book would become so influential among those who know of it and have read it. The "detective story" part of the tale to which Neil Gaiman referred was handled masterfully. I can easily see myself rereading this book again and again in years to come. I can also see this book having an influence upon my own writing, to be honest, and I hope that I can do as well the things Mirrlees did that I admire so much.

My only complaint has to do not with the novel itself, but with Cold Spring Press (they appear to be a small press with no web presence), the publisher of this particular volume. It is hideously typeset, with elipses (...) breaking between two lines, and paragraphs, which have been broken with poetry verse set as block quotes, whose continuing lines are set as if they were new paragraphs. There are many typographical errors, as well. Simon and Schuster, a much larger publisher, served as the distributor of this book, and, not surprisingly, they obviously had no say or quality control over the many typesetting faux pas that beset this masterpiece.