More Style Stuff–Speech Tags

Style!

You may recall that I put up a post a while back about style. I addressed participles and appositives, and I mentioned that I got the idea for the post from reading self-published books with a critical eye. I considered making a thing out of commenting on style issues I notice in self-pubs, but since then I haven’t had the privilege of reading very many self-published works.

The main reason I haven’t been reading many self-pubbed books lately is that my own work, The Tiger, is in heavy editing right now and I’ve been committing every spare minute to it. Because of this, I’ve decided to do something better than criticizing others’ works–I’m going to criticize my own! There are a few things worth mentioning that I’ve noticed during my edits and that I’d like to point out and warn others against. They are: Speech Tag Abuse, Unnecessary Descriptions, and General Weak Writing Through Half-Actions.

Today’s topic is:

Speech Tag Abuse

I’m a fan of my dialogue. I think it’s one of my strong suits. I spend a lot of time eavesdropping–er–that is–accidentally overhearing conversations that make for high quality character studies–and I’ve become adept at creating solid, realistic conversations. One point where I dropped the ball, however, was in the general area of speech tags. I had waaaay too many of the damn things, and they muddled up the conversations to the point of making my dialogue less enjoyable.

You don’t need a speech tag every time somebody talks. My advice to you, based upon examination of my own shortcomings, is to use a speech tag only when the reader may be confused about who is speaking. If I were to make a general rule and say that any given paragraph is “about” one person in particular, then the speech tag is unnecessary. Observe:

Iris opened the jar and looked inside. “How many of these things do we have?” she asked.

The fact that Iris is the sole occupant of this paragraph, if you will, reasonably makes her the person who is speaking. The “she asked” is rendered useless, and can muddle up the flow.

And remember: it’s all about flow.

Like all style suggestions, I recommend that you not take this to the extreme. Cut back on your speech tags if you need to, but don’t forget that we still need to know who’s talking. Nobody likes to reread a section of a book to find out who’s saying what.

Tune in next time for Unnecessary Descriptions!

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Shorts?

On Short Stories, And Whether It’s A Good Idea To Publish Them So That They May Act As Samples To Readers

I’ve noticed a few authors putting up individual short stories for sale. I think I’m in love with this idea.

I’ve been debating whether $.99 is too cheap for a full-length novel, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it is. Considering the time and effort put into a novel, if it is worth reading it should probably be priced somewhere around three dollars or more. Short stories, though? Novellas that are 30k or under? Heck, man, I’ll totally buy a $.99 short story just to check out a writer’s style. In fact, I have done so several times now.

The Benefits:

  1. You get what you pay for.
    • If you any money at all for something, you should be able to expect a work of art that has had at least some effort dumped into it in order to create something worth selling. Anybody who has written a novel-length work and given it the editing attention it needs to be salable at all deserves to be able to charge $2.99 or more for it in order to make a reasonable profit off of each sold copy. (With the percentages self-published authors receive from their sales, this amounts to somewhere near $2 per copy when priced at $2.99.) Conversely, a work that has taken considerably less effort to put together and edit and prepare for sale could reasonably be priced at $.99 (with the author gaining something like $.30 per copy). The author needs to do less work, the reader receives less, the author receives a smaller percentage for what he/she has sold.
  2. It’s a solid, cheap way to get a feel for a writer’s style.
    • True, the sampling process available on all sites that allow ebook downloads has made it possible for the reader to see what a writer is capable of. However, I think that I’d rather pay a small price for a small work with a beginning and end to gauge a writer’s skills rather than read the first few pages of a longer work. (Actually, I’d probably do both, but I still feel that a short story can be enlightening when deciding which authors to really pay attention to in the self-publishing market.)

The Downfalls:

I actually can’t think of any right now. Somebody help me out here. Are there any?

Style Improvement

A Quick Comment

Recently, I’ve been reading more self-published books than traditionally published ones. Trying to scope out the market, see what everyone else is up to, stuff like that. Also it’s a cost-effective way to get a good story sometimes, if I can weed through the bad ones. I know the pitfalls of self-publishing as well as the next guy, and the lack of a professional editor is one of them.

That’s not to say that everything out there is bad, just that much of it could use work. I don’t want to start a habit of talking grammar all the time, but there are a few things I’ve noticed while reading independent novels (even ones with perfect spelling, punctuation, etc.) that irk the shit out of me. (NOTE: I may be the only person who is bothered by these things. But I doubt it.)

The one I’m going to mention today isn’t really a grammar mishap at all–it’s more along the lines of a style slip-up, and it’s something that every writer (including myself) is most likely guilty of. The magic words of the day are: Participle and Appositive. I’ve seen participle and appositive phrases used to the point of abuse lately in many of the indie books that I’ve read. Mostly, I think, because they’re grammatically correct–even useful, sometimes.

I’ll do a small recap on their definitions here. I’m sure most of you have heard of these, but it may have been quite some time before you’ve actually gone over what they are. Don’t worry. I plan to keep it simple.

Participle

A participle, in layman’s terms, is a word you’d normally use as a verb which you are using as an adjective. (They usually end in -ed or -ing.)

Example–

Verb: burn

Participle: A burning branch fell to the ground.

Burning modifies the noun branch, but doesn’t act as the verb. The verb here is fell.

So far, so good? All right. Here are a few examples of participle phrases.

Wandering around, Charlie saw several people he recognized.

Heading straight to the back of the line, she hoped to avoid confrontation.

Note that there is nothing technically grammatically unsound about the participle phrase (although it can often lead to dangling modifiers if you don’t watch your step). Its use can add necessary variety to a writer’s style, and I can think of several instances in which they are the right choice. There is definitely a time and a place for it. However, that time is not ALWAYS and that place is not EVERY PARAGRAPH. Reading too many sentences loaded with these can become tiresome for the reader and mess with the flow of a story. And flow, as we all know, is very important.

Appositive

The appositive, in layman’s terms, is a noun or pronoun used to explain another noun or pronoun.

Example–In this sentence:

My friend Charlie was there.

The appositive is friend, which further explains Charlie.

Cool? Okay. Like participles, appositives often come in phrases. Often, the appositive will be modified as well in its phrase. Here are a few examples of appositive phrases.

The train, an old steam engine, was rusted to the tracks.

A competent neurosurgeon, Adam was the ideal candidate to perform the operation.

See where I’m going with this? There’s nothing technically wrong with the appositive phrase either, and they are also useful in the right situation. However, like the participle phrase, it can be tiresome when used in excess. Many times, it’s just easier to state the two nouns separately, or figure out a way to leave one out if possible. As any editor will tell you, sometimes less is more.

Wrap Up

–Watch out for participle phrases that come after your speech tags. They’re the most annoying and the easiest to fix. They look like this:

“Don’t forget about the soup,” Mary said, turning back to the television.

This is much better said:

“Don’t forget about the soup,” Mary said. She turned back to the television.

It may not seem like much on its own, but after five thousand of these in a row, your reader will be sick of them. You should avoid overuse of participle phrases so you can use them when they truly enhance the clarity of your scene. Like I said, the ones after the speech tags are the easiest to clean up.

–Watch out for appositive phrases that might sound better as two separate sentences (or at least two completely independent clauses).

I like to think of participle phrases and appositive phrases as drops of water. One drop of water on your forehead once in a while can be cool and refreshing. Thousands of drops of water on your forehead is the recipe for Chinese water torture.

Thoughts on Self-Publishing…

…and whether it’s better for some works than others.

I was thinking.

It may or may not be the best idea to pursue self-publishing. It may or may not be the best idea to seek out an agent and do things the traditional way. But is it possible that some works are just better fitted for one or the other?

Here’s my example:

I wrote a novel (I call it a novel at least–it may be better described as a novella; herein lies my problem) called The Fire Itself. It was some 55,000 words in First Draft Mode, which I know is pretty short for a novel. That’s fine.

Second Draft Mode came along, and The Fire Itself dropped about five thousand words, which was all right. I understand that losing ten percent in the first editing phase is normal–recommended, even. So I accepted it as necessary, even though it put me even closer to the dreaded Too Short mark.

I sent it to my beta readers and my editor, and from those people I received a tremendous amount of helpful suggestions. And guess what? Although the changes I put in sometimes involved clarifying by adding, the majority of the edits were cuts. They were small things, but small things always add up. The Fire Itself lost another 5,000 words. The file on my computer right now tells me that it’s just under 45k words, which I know is too short to be thrust into the world of traditional publishing as a novel. I’ve looked around, and by every definition I can find, 50k is too short for a book.

Certain exceptions may be popping into your mind. The first ones that come to mine are Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury (which topped out around 45k words) and The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (which had about 49k or 50k words). There are exceptions to everything. But nowadays anyone who gets published at all is exceptional, so agents and publishers are cracking down.

If I have it right, the main problem with books that are too short is that people are disappointed when they purchase a book for so much money and then only reap an extremely short story for the money they’ve sown. And in most cases I’d have to say that the readers are right in being so disappointed. Unless the story in those few words is positively PHENOMENAL (and I’m not saying it doesn’t happen), it isn’t worth dropping $20 for a hardcover book that only amounts to 50,000 words.

The problem is, nobody can truly predict which short books are the positively PHENOMENAL ones that would be worth the print run. That’s why agents and publishers avoid them. And rightly so.

So where does that leave our 50,000-word-or-shorter babies which we’ve worked so hard to nurture and shine and polish? Should they just sit and rust on our computers, unread? If the novellas/short novels of the world have little hope of going the traditional route, I say self-publish them e-book style! Set the price low so it’s worth the investment for the reader and see what happens.

There’s nothing wrong with trying it out, is there? At best, people will love your short work, beg for more, and you’re set. At worst, nobody reads it and you’ve wasted your time and energy promoting something that didn’t work out. (NOTE: I just want to make sure you don’t think I’m saying it would be easy. I know it still requires time and effort and promotion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a shot.)

If I self-publish The Fire Itself for the Kindle and Nook and then it flops and only twenty people buy it, then that’s still twenty more readers than I would have had otherwise.

And some, you see, is better than none.

I’m very curious to hear your thoughts, by the way, so please comment.

We All Do It

Don’t lie guys. We all judge books based on their cover designs. It’s okay.

I’ll be completely honest. It’s either a synopsis/review or a sample that gets me to buy a book. If I can test the water and see how I like it, great! If someone tells me what it’s about and I like the premise, also great! The thing is: I’m never going to read the first few pages or even a synopsis on the inside flap of a book if the cover art isn’t appealing.

It’s not just me. Most people are this way.

On that note, I’m not saying that this concept is unheard of. Obviously publishing companies and indie authors alike spend large amounts of money or time figuring out the ideal way to approach cover art, and I know that there are many factors involved in that kind of decision-making.

I, personally, am interested in hearing other individuals’ ideas about what might be the best cover art for what they read.

Here’s a rundown of what my bookshelf looks like from where I’m sitting:

  • I don’t see any pink. I can see at least a little of every other color, but there’s no pink up there.
  • I don’t see any books with a photo of a person as the cover art. There are people on the covers of some, but they’re not photos. Generally I find that photographs of people on the covers of books take away from my reading experience. Not sure why exactly. Maybe because I like to maintain my own mental images of the characters?
  • I don’t see anything super intricate. By which I mean most of the designs are–quite literally–easy on the eyes. Not having to process too much visual information can help catch my eye in the bookstore, I guess. (The exception to this is my copy of Annotated Alice, which has a patterny design around the edges that makes me dizzy when I look at it up close. Alice wasn’t an impulse buy by any means, by the way, so I don’t know if it counts in this study.)

What do you value in a book cover? Do you have a favorite?

Concentrate!

How to focus on your writing.

I understand that it’s difficult for writers to concentrate on their writing. I, personally, have been distracted by text messages or the bizarre urge to play Robot Unicorn Attack for an hour or do three thousand Sudoku puzzles. These distractions are the easiest to be cured of, though–just put them in the other room when you’re writing.

The real problem, as I think we all know, is the constant catcalling of the Internet. It’s right there. Right there. Watching, waiting, ready to suck you in and time-warp you three hours into the future when your already disappointingly short window of writing time has swung shut.

“Write on paper!” some of you say.

“Bust out the typewriter!” you say.

Sometimes that does help, actually, but usually the computer is necessary. And after tons of time spent trying to devise the best way to stay focused, I think I have finally figured out the trick.

(NOTE: When I say “the trick,” I just mean what works for me. There’s tons of quality advice out there and although there’s much one can arm oneself with for this battle, it’s one all writers have to fight separately. This is just my contribution.)

1. Full Screen is the Best Invention Ever

The main component of being able to focus is blocking everything else out. It’s easier to not mess with your phone when it’s not in the room, right? The same idea applies here. Get everything you don’t need out of sight and it will get of your mind as well.

Every word processor in my experience has had some sort of full screen mode. Some are better than others, I’d say, but something is better than nothing. Right now I use a Mac and I have Pages, and it’s got the best full screen mode I’ve ever experienced.

2. The Document that Looks Like a Document is Your Enemy

Alternative Title:    2. Set the Mood

Imagination plays a big part here. Full screen mode isn’t enough to conquer Blank Page=Blank Head Syndrome. I’ve realized that if I pretend that my computer is not a computer, writing is easier.

That’s exaggeration. I know that I’m on my computer, but if I work to change the way it looks from the traditional white background with black text, I can at least set the mood and adjust my way of thinking. Here’s what my screen looks like when I write:

The Mood

The background is solid black, the red is pretty dim when I turn down the screen brightness (which I do considerably while I write), and the text is any font besides Times New Roman or Helvetica. I tested out a few styles, and I now write with this one every day.

I write in this document for a while and then copy the text into my WiP’s actual document. Then I delete everything from this one and do it again.

A major element of this idea, as I mentioned earlier, is imagination. When I’m writing like this, I pretend my computer can’t do anything besides process my words. It sounds silly, but it works. Try it sometime.