Tuesday, April 23, 2013

8 Signs You Are Not the Chuck Norris of Writing

As a writer, you're a target. You're putting yourself out into the world and asking both readers and ubiquitous Internet heroes to comment on your work.

Some of these folks are looking to take you down, to give you a bad review, to tell you you don't know what you're doing. They are the Kim Jong-uns of the Internet: puffy, whiny, self-important, and probably in need of a kick in the pants. As a writer, the last thing on earth you want to do is give these people ammunition. You want to be the Chuck Norris of writing, the one-man-army capable of telling a legion of disbelievers to go straight to hell: Vaya con Chee-Tos, mothertruckers.

One of the best ways to do this is to make sure your fundamentals--your phrasing and grammar--are correct. Many writers skip this step, preferring to rely on their storytelling ability to carry them through the process. But this would be like Chuck Norris skipping all the other color belts that lead up to a black belt. Did Chuck Norris skip out on the yellow belt or the purple belt? I think not. He mastered that shit because he's Chuck Norris.  You can do the same.

One more note, before we dive in: Chuck Norris would never use Microsoft's grammar check. He knows it's wrong half the time. He ignores it, and you should, too. Chuck Norris learned how to write by reading.  A lot. And more than just kung-fu how-to manuals. Chuck Norris reads classics, sci-fi, historicals, biographies, and oh yes, even a vampire book or two.  If you want to learn to write like Chuck Norris, you need to read out of your pay grade. 

In any case, Chuck and I offer this starter kit of 8 stupid mistakes never to make with your writing. Some of these are actual mistakes I've seen in books, many self-published. Go forth and conquer.   

1. You use turns of phrase without actually knowing what they mean. 
  • "...the change knocked her world on its axis..."  This is not correct. An axis is an imaginary line around which an object (presumably a planet) rotates. When something incredible happens to your character, her world cannot be knocked ON its axis. It was there to begin with. Her world may, however, be knocked OFF its axis.  
  • "...step foot in..."  This is everywhere. People say it, but it IS NOT RIGHT. The phrase is "set foot in." It might make sense at first because "step" is a logical word to combine with "foot." But the sense in which it is used is totally wrong. To "step" automatically implies you are using your foot, which makes the use of the word "foot" stupid and redundant. To "set" does not automatically imply you are performing this action with a foot; therefore, it is reasonable that you then specify "foot" after the verb.  
  • "...she thought to herself..."  Unless your character is telepathic, there is no way she could "think" to anyone else.
2. You use adverbs when the verb you use already implies that adjective. 
  • "...tripped clumsily."  Can you trip in a way that's not clumsy? Even if you can, is that what your character is doing?
  • "...shouted loudly."  Is it even possible to shout quietly? If it is, "shouted" is the wrong damn verb.
  • "...jumped quickly."  Let's see you jump slowly. I dare you to try. I dare Chuck Norris to try.
3.  You use adverbs too much in general. We all know adverbs are to be used sparingly. But occasionally, they creep in and that can be okay. But it's not okay when you're using an adverb because it's easier and faster than describing how a character does something. You're a writer. You're supposed to be describing how characters do things. That's your job. So do better at it. Here are some examples of lazy adverb use:
  • "You murdered my nephew," he said angrily. Really? Because I always thought proclamations of murder were issued joyfully. Gosh, wouldn't it be nice if the punctuation could somehow reveal the character's emotion? If only someone had invented a single punctuation mark that conveys strong feeling.
  • "Constantly stepping from foot to foot, Joe looked nervous." In this case, the adverb is unnecessary. Stepping from foot to foot already implies the motion is constant. 
  • "Moving slowly through the graveyard..." If your verb requires an adverb for the reader to get the picture, you picked a shitty verb. 
4.  You misuse prepositions.  Oh God, the prepositions. They are under attack. I don't know how this happened. It's like waking up one day to find out that all the streets have been renamed and now you have no idea what people are saying when they're trying to give you directions on how to get to the grocery store. And you're like, "Man, all I wanted is some mac and cheese. Why are you making it so hard?" Don't make it hard on your reader. Prepositions are the street signs that tell your reader where your sentence is going. If you don't use the right street sign, your reader is lost.  And lost people get angry. Sometimes they get murdered by drifters. Do you want your readers to get murdered by drifters? Don't answer that. Like Blair Waldorf, I rely on plausible deniability.
  • "...ponder on..."  You ponder something. You don't ponder on it. If you tell me you're pondering on a Corvette, I will imagine you perched upon a car, thinking about a subject you failed to specify.
  • "She was ignorant to the fact that he was an ex-con."  She ain't the only one. You can be ignorant of a fact, but not ignorant to it. There's no easy way to learn this stuff. You just have to read good books and absorb these idioms.
  • "...disappointed from..."  You can be disappointed by the fact that you died from dysentery, but you cannot be disappointed from the fact that you died by dysentery.
  • "She glanced on her watch."  A glance is not a tangible thing, so it cannot actually be on the watch. She may, however, glance at her watch.
  • "You can never go wrong on fruits and vegetables."  I BEG TO DIFFER. You can go very, very wrong. In order not to go so wrong, try going with them instead of on them.
5.  You use descriptive dialogue tags. You've probably seen Elmore Leonard's advice for writers, one point of which states that you should never use anything other than "said." 98% of the time, he's right. There is rarely a case when you need to use a dialogue tag. If you use one, you're following the same lazy pattern of writing indicated by adverb use. Your dialogue, in combination with the motion of the character in the scene, should tell the reader how that line is spoken. If you have to specify with a dialogue tag, you haven't effectively conveyed the feeling of the scene, the emotion of the character, or his or her mindset. 
  • "Eww! I hate spiders!" she shrieked. The problem with dialogue tags is that they are often unnecessary. The exclamation points tell you this character has strong feelings about spiders. She is probably angry or afraid, and you as the writer should provide the context to tell us which it is. Using both exclamation points and a tag such as cried/shrieked/wailed/exclaimed is overkill.
  • "And the best part is...I never pressed play!" he cackled.  I call C+C Music Factory on this one. A cackle is a laugh, right? Can you actually speak all these words while cackling? Or is the laugh coming between the words? Or did the cackle come after, in which case the words themselves were not "cackled"? Or is the laugh really even a cackle to begin with? Do you see what kind of problems a poorly thought out dialogue tag can get you into? 
6.  You get subject-object agreement wrong. This is a tricky one, but once you know what to look for, you'll see it everywhere. Remember, no one's asking you to speak properly. You don't have to obey this rule when you're talking to your mom or your wife, but you do have to obey it on the page. Because if you don't, someone who does know the rule is going to put down your book and think, "Amateur." And by someone, I mean Chuck Norris.
  • "Americans who love The Fast and the Furious live their life a quarter mile at a time." What's wrong here? The subject of the sentence is "Americans." You're making a statement about a large group of people. But you used the word "life," which is not plural. Do all Americans live one life?  Apparently not, since "One Life to Live" was canceled. See? Even ABC figured this shit out. Now it's your turn. You want to say that Americans live their lives a quarter mile at a time. Now you're cooking with gas.
  • "One cannot have their cake and eat it, too." You would think that a word like "one" is enough to tell you that it means "one."  As in singular. As in not plural. So who are all these other folks you've invited into your sentence by using "their"? Is your "one" a schizophrenic? Are you a schizophrenic? If not, shape this shit up by keeping this a party of one: One cannot have one's cake and eat it, too.  
7. You use semicolons. Badly. You do not know how to use them, yet they appear throughout your book. Why is this? Do you randomly sprinkle mathematical formulas throughout your book just because they look intellectual and important? That's what lots of people do with semicolons. They look fancy, and probably imply that your sentence is multi-layered and complicated....right? No. Just...no.  If you can't tell me the rule for semicolons, right now, don't use them. Ever. Until you learn the rule, which is this:
  • One rule to rule all the rules: Semicolons are used to separate TWO COMPLETE THOUGHTS. If either part cannot stand on its own as a grammatically correct entity, DO NOT USE A SEMICOLON. Chuck Norris will hurt you if you do this. If there's one thing Chuck Norris hates, it's bad semicolon usage. Don't believe me? Try it, and then go to sleep. See if you wake up.
  • "One time at band camp; I did things my mom wouldn't approve of." A semicolon is not a comma. These two thoughts are clearly connected, but they cannot stand on their own.  "One time at band camp" is not a sentence...it is the beginning of a sentence.  And yes, I know that sentence ended with a preposition. Some rules were meant to be broken. Deal with it.
  • "Rochelle had more to do that Saturday night; more than get wasted." Again, the second half of this sentence is placed for emphasis--it is not a sentence in and of itself. Only the cheese stands alone. Sentence fragments are not cheese.
8.  You confuse the most basic contractions you learned in first flippin' grade. I'm serious. Now you've got Chuck Norris *and* your first grade teacher really pissed at you. Is that what you want? He'll hold you down and punch you while your first grade teacher spits in your face. Or just drags her nails along the chalkboard. That's no one's good time. So do the world a favor and just learn what six-year-olds in good schools already have.
  • For the last time: the apostrophe means it's a contraction. Contraction means two words are smashed together tighter than Kim Kardashian's boobs in a bustier. Some of the letters got kicked out because they couldn't breathe. The apostrophe tells us those letters are missing and someone might want to find them someday. Or not. It's up to you. 
  • You're/your.  You're going to get your ass kicked by Chuck Norris for fucking this up. If you cannot replace the word with "you are," you should use "your."
  • It's/its. It's a damn shame the snake left its home and decided to sleep in your bed instead. If you cannot replace the word with "it is," you should use "its."
  • Their/they're/there. They're late for their own funeral because Chuck Norris got there first. 
If you're seeing some of your own mistakes listed here, now you have the power to fix them. This is progress! If you're not seeing any of these mistakes in your writing, look harder. Look even harder still. And then, if you still don't see these mistakes, congratulations on possibly being the Chuck Norris of writing. I salute you.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

Based on the jacket copy, this book is right up my alley: it combines the historical mystery of the Princes in the Tower with two historical narrators involved in the drama (Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville) and a modern narrator, a historian named Una.  The jacket copy promises the book is "a brilliant feat of historical daring."  Suffice to say it falls short both of brilliance and daring.
A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin
The narrator would NEVER HAVE WORN
A COAT THIS CUTE. I feel misled.
Also, this cover has nothing to do with the book.

All three narrators' stories are interwoven, presumably to illuminate each other. The modern narrator, Una Pryor, belongs to a large family that owns and operates a press housed in a medieval chantry.

(Digression alert.  Chantry is a weird word, isn't it? A former friend once told me a terrible story about a dentist named Chantry.  Something about mold growing in someone's head?  Gross, n'est-ce pas?  I still like the word, though.)  

This part of the story follows Una and her repressed, noncommunicative family as they struggle to figure out how to keep their small press in business despite aging family members, scattered younger family members, and financial concerns.  You'd think they were Swedish the way they refuse to ask questions or say a single thing they're thinking.

The two medieval narrators, Anthony and Elizabeth, tell the story of the Woodville family from their precipitous rise to power when Elizabeth married Edward IV to the rise of Richard III and the murder of two of Elizabeth's sons in the Tower as a part of Richard's power-grab. These historical narratives are done relatively well, except for the gimmick of spelling the names differently in the medieval narrative and spelling them in modernized fashion in the modern narrative (Antony/Anthony; Elysabeth; Elizabeth). Despite the spelling issues, Anthony and Elizabeth are sympathetic and layered.  They need a lot more room to play.  They might have been able to save the book had they been the only ones telling the tale.

The Worst Part
The modern narrator is a disaster.  She is passive, weak, scattered, and stupendously uninteresting.  Unfortunately, she carries most of the book.  She is a hand-wringing sort, the kind who sighs with unhappiness and bemoans her state when a simple question, spoken out loud, would solve everything.  She makes a big deal about being exhausted and tired when she hasn't done very much but sit in a car as a passenger and worry about things.

I wanted to steal things from her just to watch her DO something as she hunted for them.

An Also Pretty Bad Part
But the weird structure and shifts in tone and tense are what killed the book for me. The whole purpose of interspersing modern and medieval perspectives should theoretically be to illuminate similarities in us despite the hundreds of years in between. But the two time periods are only loosely connected, and Darwin makes little effort to provide any sort of illumination.  The modern characters fluff around in self-indulgent heaps, while the medieval characters get less page time despite the fact that the cosmos basically hands their collective ass to them, which is much more interesting.

Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville: hot or not?
Una, the modern narrator, is theoretically writing a book about the books of the Woodvilles.  You'd think the character might actually try to find out what they are, or read them, and think about them.  Nope.  She mentions one or two titles, but doesn't do more than go visit a couple of the locations the Woodvilles found themselves in, and then whine about how she can't "find" them in these places.  Really, she just pines over a guy who worked in her family's chantry and then shows up again to help them save it.  And pining makes her so tired, so then she just has to rest.  It was almost halfway through the book before I realized Una might be, like, 50?  60?  Not really sure.  Never confirmed.

The Weakest Link
Una is the weak link that destroys any real, lasting, emotional connection between our time and the Woodvilles.  She's the weak link full stop, as the Brits say.  Does she bother to make connections about her family losing their press and chantry as the Woodvilles lost their father, brother, and nephews during the upheavals of the War of the Roses?  Nope.  Does the widowed Una bother to connect herself to Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV?  Maybe once.  In a sentence.  Does she bother to think for even a moment about Anthony Woodville (here, in love with a man) and her uncle Gareth (a closeted gay man)?  What they might have shared in their experience?  Nope.  Too much trouble, apparently.  Takes away from valuable time spent pining and whining and wringing her hands.

Lego tree
The cheater tree.
In the end, Una thinks she might write a biography instead of a scholarly work on the Woodvilles' books.  But what on earth has she learned about them?  She finds a letter written by one of them that purports to clear up that whole what-happened-to-the-Princes-in-the-Tower thing, touted as the focus of the book on the jacket.  It gets a couple of sentences.  That's it.  And then the annoying-ass narrator thinks she's awesome for being in the right place at the right time to have someone hand her the letter, and decides to write a biography when she never really tried to write the scholarly book in the first place.  UGH.  It's like watching a kid think about trying to build a house out of Legos and then give up and stick the Lego tree on the green Lego base board instead.  Because it's easier.  And because they found the tree in the box.  DONE, MAN.  I NAILED THAT SHIT.  LOOK AT MY LEGO TREE ON THIS NICE LEGO BASEBOARD.  I DOUBT YOU COULD HAVE DONE BETTER.

Oh, God, There's More?
The book also has another one of my pet peeves--present tense.  Una's story is told in present tense, but it has so many friggin' flashbacks in the first half of the book, that half of the present tense ends up being in past tense anyway.  JUST USE PAST TENSE.  Present tense adds nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  All it does is confuse the living hell out of the bored reader who suddenly finds that Una has slipped yet again into a reverie.  This woman should never be allowed to drive a car or operate heavy machinery.  It's like narcolepsy of the soul.  Surely there is a medication to deal with this.

But How's the Writing?
The prose is stilted and hard to read for its sheer lack of fluidity.  To wit:
"As I eat, I can't help but watch Mark. His plate's on the ground in front of him. Even with his knees bent up, his legs cross more of the rug than any Pryor's ever would. He looks up, our eyes meet.  Even if he'd reached out his hand--his beautiful, long-fingered hand--and actually touched my cheek I couldn't be more shaken.  What is this heat? Memory's powerful. But this, is this about the past?  I was grown up by then and talking to Mark, working with Mark, referring to Mark, had all become easy enough, because the paths for that were well laid. The longer what I knew--thought--felt--went unspoken, the more manageable it was, and even the despair became a settled thing, a known quantity, a thick, stable layer at my core. I even sometimes thought he'd forgotten what I'd said, and sometimes thinking so hurt more, and sometimes it hurt less."
Oh, holy crap. This is just too much.  We have present tense.  We have past tense.  We have the ridiculous contraction of "memory's powerful."  We have some amorphous shift into the days when she dreamed about Mark. We have the a question asked of no one in particular.  It's like a twelve-year-old girl trying to use a fifty-year-old woman's language.  It just doesn't work.

They Don't All Talk Like That, Do They?
It's not just Una who talks like this.  It's her would-be beloved, Mark, too.  Here's what he says during their great love scene:
Facepalm cat"I know. You wouldn't.  But--but...I'm sorry, tell me if it's none of my business.  I've been thinking about Sunday night.  It's all I've thought about since...And Gareth said he wondered...Did you...I understand that for you--it's...Was it about ending for you? About the Chantry? About leaving England? About Adam, above all? I know that...But I hope you'll forgive me if I say...And ending, like you said. For you."
Oh, dude, just SPIT IT OUT.  In real life, people might talk like this, but it is terrible on the page.  Stilted and awkward and juvenile.  This is the hero (?)'s big moment, and it's like a first-time hurdler stutter-stepping right out of the gate.  Linguistically, these are so not the people you want to spend 400 pages with.

Ugh.  I could go on.  But there's no point.  Just read the parts with Anthony and Elizabeth and skip all the modern parts because they will suck the patience and life out of you until you look the Cryptkeeper.

This book earned Darwin a PhD in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths College.  This makes me want to bang my head against the wall until it's bloody and then write something better IN MY OWN BLOOD.  Maybe in 10 years.  Once I've finished paying for my Master's.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Cover Me: Why I Finally Paid for a Work of Art

I may have been wrong about some stuff. Hey, it happens.
The Romanov Legacy by Jenni Wiltz
The Romanov Legacy: Kindle Edition

If you're self-publishing and seek out any advice at all on the subject, you'll run into two ironclad recommendations in a hurry: pay for a professional cover and pay for professional editing.  

I never took either of these seriously, for several reasons:

1.  I have no money.  For three years, I lived on $800/month.  BEFORE TAX.  I went back to work full-time six months ago, largely because now I have $30K of student loans to pay back.  Money is tighter than the space between my back molar and my wisdom tooth.  (Another thing that might be able to be fixed, had I some money.)

2.  I disdained the idea of paying for something I could theoretically do myself. After all, I have a brain and two college degrees.  I've read books and judged them by their covers all my life.  How hard could it be to design one, right?  Software is the great democratizer, putting tools into the hands of people with time and a willingness to learn.  I could be the living, breathing representation of this principle.  

So that's what I did for four books.  Then something changed.   

I just paid for my first-ever professionally designed cover, and I'm over the moon about it.  It's an updated cover for my spy thriller, the one that sells best out of my four. What on earth led to this epiphany?  

The credit is entirely due to the blog The Book Designer. Well, let's be honest...one post on the blog The Book Designer.  

When I found this post, where he evaluates covers uploaded by self-pubbed authors, I had my Eureka! moment.  It was actually a Eureka! moment combined with the mental equivalent of a walk of shame.

Okay, so I suck at covers. But the
lower left photo is my great-grandma!
That's cool, right?
Reading through the brutally honest comments ("unmistakably amateur," "confused and indecipherable," "visually weak"), all I could imagine was what he'd say about mine:

  • Beginner's font.  
  • Terrible colors.  
  • Poor spatial arrangement.  
  • Can't see a frickin' thing...it's all too dense.
All this time, I'd been thinking I could be Superwoman and do it all.  Politely worded suggestions (nay, commandments) weren't strong enough to reach me; I could still brush them off.  But specific examples of constructive criticism aimed at efforts clearly on my level were things I couldn't ignore. 

So I scanned my Google+ writers' communities, looking for recommendations and availability. I worked with a writer/artist whose covers I'd seen and liked. One weekend later, the top image is the result. One weekend. 

Now, this huge chore is now lifted off my shoulders. I'd been wondering...do I fork out for a month of Adobe Cloud service to get access to Photoshop and Illustrator and try to learn that shit in one month during the free trial? But that would mean one month of constant trial and error, with no time for writing. What if I couldn't get something usable in that month? I'd have to pay for another month ($50-$75) or abandon everything I'd already done. Argh.  

Now it's all solved. I love this cover. It's simple, beautiful, and effective in conveying to the reader the main points of the book:

  • The angel image symbolizes Belial, the heroine's schizophrenic hallucination.  
  • St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square symbolizes Russia, which is not only a setting, but a cultural flashpoint.  Ivan the Terrible, Bolsheviks, Communists, New Russia...these are all facets of the book, and the simple cathedral image conveys all this at a glance.  
  • The fonts are also legible at a glance, with words big enough to read when browsing Kindle listings.  The fonts convey a sense of urgency, with the scrawl of "legacy" beneath the majestic presence of "Romanov."  
Some people just get how to do cover art.  Now that I've realized I'm not one of them, I feel free.  Yes, I have to cough up money to have this done.  But when I thought of it as a cost per hour, I would have been working for about $1 an hour if I tried to do it myself.  Is that the best use of my time?  Hell, no.  I need to write.  

So in terms of a time investment, paying for a cover is a huge savings.  Plus, now I have something I can be proud of to display in my marketing materials.  I'm building a Facebook fan page and a Google+ page for this book, all featuring this cover.  It's inspired me to do more and do it better.  Talk about money well spent.  

But I'm still not paying for editing.  The reasons for that are for another post entirely.