The Space Between Writing and Storytelling

Kristen Nelson has an excellent blog post at PubRants regarding how “strong writing” alone isn’t enough to sell a novel. It made a lot of sense to me, but I was surprised at how many of the commentors just did not get it — period.

I’ve seen this elsewhere around writing fora, loops, and journals/blogs. Many writers assume that writing “well” is the most important factor in selling a short story or novel. These are often the same people who ask “How are Terry Brooks / Robert Jordan / Dan Brown / etc. best-selling authors? They can’t write for crap! They break all the ‘rules!'”

(Trust me. I’ve heard it. I didn’t understand, either, several years ago.)

The key here is story. An author doesn’t hit the NYT if the story sucks rocks. It might not be to some people’s tastes, but that’s going to be true of about anything, because personal likes and dislikes are subjective. Bestsellers have some quality in the story that captivates readers, otherwise they wouldn’t read it. (Outside of the controversy factor, that is, but I doubt that controversy alone can make a bestseller.)

I’ve been in critique / writing groups for several years now, and I have seen a lot of stories and novels that are technically perfect. The writing shines. But the story itself is often standard, predictable … “safe.”

This attitude is often encouraged in various sorts of writer’s groups. I’ve received far too many critiques from multiple different sources where the critiquer focused on the writing but ignored the big picture. I know other people who have received the same. Romance writers have talked about receiving crits from contests that focus primarily on writing “perfection” without looking at the story. Perhaps the intention isn’t to encourage people to focus on the writing first, but it’s often the way it comes across.

This isn’t to say that good writing isn’t important. If your writing sucks like a cheap whore who can’t figure out which end to blow, an agent or editor likely won’t make it past your query letter, much less take you on. (And by this, I mean truly horrid prose. If you’ve ever critiqued a beginning writer’s first novel or short story, you know exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.) Writing is important, too.

But. It’s a lot easier to fix a novel that has passable writing than it is to fix a story that’s at heart “ho-hum.” Line edits are a piece of cake. Rewriting the entire book because it’s competant but not good enough? Not easy. (I’m in the middle of it myself.)

Yes, it’s a delicate balance. But I don’t think it’s impossible. The Internet is an immensely useful tool for writers to commune and help each other along — but the “downside” to this is that there are more competant writers than there used to be. At one point, it was good enough to be “competant.” It isn’t anymore. You need to be good — and by that, I’m not talking about the technicalities of writing alone, but the quality of the story you’re telling. Though how to tell a story that’s unique and different while still being marketable is another matter entirely… 😉

Is it tougher for writers to get published nowadays than it used to be? I think so, though I couldn’t say for certain. I know there are some writers who get upset and worried about the competition, wondering whether or not they can “make it.” Me? I see it as a challenge. 🙂

What do you think? Are the expectations / standards for new writers unreasonable (as some people seem to think), or is it par for the course? Do you find it depressing — or just another obstacle to overcome?

More than a little bit annoyed

So I took my sleep meds a couple hours ago and curled up with a book to get to sleep. Usually this works pretty well, but insomnia seems to think it’s my personal companion tonight. Sigh.

I finished reading I Burn For You by Susan Sizemore. And … I’m really rather annoyed. I liked her hero and heroine, and the specifics of the vampire setting are cool. And the scene where they “bond” (sex ‘n blood) is just fucking hot. (I get so annoyed with sex scenes in vampire novels where not only is blood not involved, but it’s “OMG! Must! Not! Bite! Heroine! OH NOES!” Really, now. I’d walk away less frustrated from reading a scene with a castrated sheep lycanthrope.)

But the ending … the ending pissed me off.

The heroine doesn’t find out the truth about herself and her past until the last fifty pages of the book. Then she has a premonition of an attack on her grandfather, so rushes off to his home. Without giving too much away, the heroine ends up fighting the attackers while the hero rides in with the calvalry.

… and that’s it. The end. They capture the attackers, the hero and heroine say a couple “I love you”s, and … that’s it.

What. The. Fuck.

It’s like being teased for hours on end, played with, brought to the edge and back, and just as you’re coming … the fucktard bastardy clan reject you brought home pulls a slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am, yanks it out faster than you can say “gesundheit,” and zooms out the door, leaving you confused, frustrated, and wondering where the hell your panties’ve gone. Along with your bra, wallet, and mangy cat.

Really now. It doesn’t feel like an ending, even though technically it is. It feels like there was still more to be said and settled, even if in an epilogue. You don’t just end the novel at the motherfucking climax.

It wouldn’t have pissed me off this much if I hadn’t really fucking liked the rest of the book. Grrr.

… I want my denouement. Dammit.

*muttergrumble*

“That won’t sell” … wtf?

I was reading through my email this morning, skimming some of the email loops I’m on while trying to wake up. In one, somebody shared her romance premise and wanted comments, because she’d recently been told by another writer “This won’t sell as romance or chick lit.”

Where the hell do these people get off on telling others their work won’t sell?

FWIW, the premise in question was not something I would ever consider out of bounds for either genre. If anything, it might have been a bit … standard.

While I understand most of these people mean well, I don’t quite get the thinking that drives them to suggest other writers give up on their work for marketability. Write what you love. Then worry about marketing it. There’s no point in writing something you don’t like because other people say it “sells.”

A friend of mine was told about three years ago now that she should stop working on her vampire novel because “The market is glutted and it’ll never sell.”

Hmm. Gee, the majority of the stuff I see around the blogosphere from industry professionals definitely seems to indicate that vampire fiction, if good enough, still sells, despite the sheer mass of it that’s already been printed.

Every single time I’ve seen someone told “this won’t sell” based on the premise (rather than the actual writing), they’ve been dead wrong.

Maybe it’s not appropriate for the market you were originally considering. I have a novel that I was targeting towards Harlequin Intrigue at one point, but it would honestly work better as a single title (provided I ever go back to rewrite it). I have work that I originally thought would fit best as fantasy/science fiction, but now I’m really not sure if romance isn’t the right market for it.

Thing is, there’s a market for most any premise or idea.

The question is not whether or not the premise will sell, but whether your story and writing is strong enough to carry it.

If the book’s good enough, it will find a home, eventually*, regardless of how “glutted” the market is … and of how many people who told you it’d never sell.

* Key word here being “eventually.”

No-No Descriptions

Earlier today, Amme posted a link to an article on body language in dating scenarios. It should probably say something that one of the tips made me think of writing. 🙄 The quote:

  1. He’ll serve you an eyebrow flash. When we first see someone we’re attracted to, our eyebrows rise and fall. If they like us back, they raise their eyebrows. The whole thing lasts about a fifth of a second and it happens everywhere in the world — to everyone regardless of age, race, or class. Lifting our brows pulls the eyes open and allows more light to reflect off the surface, making them look bright, large and inviting.

OK. I’ve been reading writing articles for years now, and I’ve been a member of several crit groups, writers’ forums, and e-lists. One of the “rules” that gets brought out a lot is what eyes can and cannot do.

When I was a young(er) writer, I joined Critters. I remember critiquers telling me the following (paraphrased):

– Eyes can’t blaze, burn, or flash.
– She can’t drop her eyes. What’re they going to do, bounce off the carpet?
– Your POV character can’t know her eyes are sparkling or gleaming. This is a POV slip.
– People can’t “hiss” words unless they have an “s” in them.
– They can’t “purr” or “snarl” words, either.

All these and more are treated as “no-no expressions.” I’ve heard more than one writer insist you can’t do any of them, because they’re “not physically possible” or “are a POV break.”

Now, I’m going to step out on a limb here and say what I think. It’s bullshit. 100% grade-A fertilizer.

Let’s take it from the top.

– Eyes can’t blaze, burn, or flash. You can’t “drop” eyes, either.

Have you ever seen a person enraged? Their eyes widen and narrow at the same time, brow furrows, lips purse. It’s more a consolidation of multiple facial features than eyes alone — but eyes draw the most attention. “Burn” and “blaze” are metaphors, used to describe a hot, angry look. “She dropped her eyes” is also a metaphor, often used with a submissive connotation.

If you read “Her eyes blazed” and think they’re really on fire, get a grammar textbook and read up on metaphor. If you stripped your description of metaphors and similies, you’d have some very dull, dry prose.

As for flashing, let me refer you back to the bit of the quote I italicised: “Lifting our brows pulls the eyes open and allows more light to reflect off the surface, making them look bright, large and inviting.” They can “flash” with different expressions, too, depending on the rest of the person’s face.

They’re shorthand. Sure, sometimes it’s better to take your time and describe in depth a character’s facial expressions, but not all the time. If you want to emphasise the character’s emotional state, then do it in detail. Shorthand works just as well otherwise.

Describing in depth isn’t necessarily more “realistic.” It just puts more emphasis on the description. Your average reader understands exactly what you mean when you say “Her eyes burned with fury.”

Think of detailed description like curry powder. More isn’t necessarily better.

– Your POV character can’t know when her eyes are gleaming or sparkling.

Oh, really?

Funny that, because I do know when I’m making the facial expression I would describe as “gleaming” or “sparkling.” Characters don’t have to have their faces glued to a mirror to know what they’re doing.

If I said, “Her eyes sparkled, like a small child meeting Santa Claus for the first time,” or another similar description, that would be a POV slip, because the character likely would not think of herself that way.

But “her eyes gleamed”? No. It’s not a POV slip. It just means the character is self-aware.

– People can’t “hiss” words; People can’t “purr,” “snarl,” or “growl” words.

Maybe they can’t hiss like a snake or a cat, but “hiss” is used to describe a low tone of voice, that’s like a cross between a whisper and a hiss. I’ve heard people use it with words that didn’t have an S, and I’ve done it myself. (Yes, aloud.)

“Hiss” is used as shorthand, because there is no other word to describe that tone of voice. Same with purring, snarling, or growling. Are they completely accurate? No, but they’re the closest approximation to the vocal tone you’re trying to convey.

I’m at a loss for how these “rules” became so important. They’re metaphoric shorthand. Sure, if you never have any variety to your description, that’s not a good thing. But the way some writers/critiquers talk, you’d think using any of these was the Eighth Deadly Sin.

They have their place and their purpose. They’re not “wrong,” nor are they “bad” or “lazy” writing, like many writing rule adherents loudly proclaim. Like anything, if they’re used in excess, they can be detrimental, but that’s true of any tool.

Chuck the all-or-nothing thinking. Everything in moderation. That’s what you need to know.

Writing Communities and Toxic Perfectionism

Funny how various posts around the web can be so thought-provoking. I’ve been mulling over this for a few days now, and the more I think about it, the more complicated it gets.

OK, so y’all probably want me to cut to the chase. Basically, the posts and threads have got me thinking about practical usefulness of writing communities. (And just to reassure folks who might worry–I’m not questioning administrating Evolution. That’s not the point of this rant. 🙂

I’ve been a member in various writing communities and critique groups for five years, including, but not limited to, Critters, Forward Motion, the Rumor Mill, Evolution, and Romance Divas. So it’s not like I’m coming at this without experience.

Now, so people don’t get the wrong idea … I’m not ranting about specific communities or crit groups at all, but the toxic perfectionism that is all too common in any community. And if it isn’t actively happening at X community, there’s probably a good number of people in X that have had it happen to them elsewhere.

Anyhoo. On to the rant.

Many writing communities have a publication-oriented atmosphere and attitude. This isn’t a problem; I think pursuing publication is great, so long as it’s what the writer wants to do. But attitudes and advice I’ve seen focus on writing for publication to the exclusion of writing for fun. Or they focus on writing “well.”

I know several people who have been told some variant of the following–

“Don’t use ‘was’ or ‘were’ in description; it’s passive.” (Which is actually incorrect.)

“Never use forms of ‘to be.'”

“Show, don’t tell!”

“Don’t use adverbs.”

“Don’t use speech tags.” (Like: “Bloody hell,” he growled.)

“Oh, btw, so-and-so author did something similar.” (Often with the undertone in context that because someone did that–even if the similarities are minute!–you should change your story so there are no parallels.)

“That’s too weird. It’ll never sell.”

“Don’t write [current trend]. The market is glutted and you’ll never be able to sell it.”

And so on.

Basically, advice focusing around “Don’t do that” or “You can’t.”

You know what? I have a huge problem with that. Cause both just set writers up to lose confidence in themselves and feel dejected. New writers are likely to follow advice of people who seem to be more knowledgeable writers. And that can just fuck people over.

What I’ve seen happen–a lot–is people focus on “writing well” or “writing for publication” to the exclusion of writing because they love it. They become so intent on not writing badly, on writing a “perfect” draft, that they lose their passion along the way.

In critiquing, I’ve seen a lot of writers post work that’s technically perfect. Crisp, tight prose, vivid description, proper formatting… but it doesn’t have that spark. It feels illusory, like covering up an arid desert with painted images of flowing waterfalls and lush vegetation. You can still taste the dry, dusty air.

That “spark” can make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection. If you don’t love the work … it shows. It really does.

Most of the time, writers aren’t even fully conscious of it. Many of them struggle to force the words out, battling with their inner demon cracking the “write well” whip.

You know what?

Perfect prose doesn’t matter. Take a look at what’s on the NYT bestseller lists sometime. Pay attention to the prose. Now, ask this: If the author had passed this through your crit group/writing community, how many of the critiquers would have screamed up and down that X, Y, and Z needed to be fixed or it wouldn’t sell?

I’d be willing to bet quite a lot of em.

What matters–and why writers who aren’t really that great but continue to sell in huge numbers–is the story.

Your average reader has no fucking comprehension of Writing Community Prose Rules. Your average reader doesn’t give two shits if you say “he snarled” or “she said frostily.” Your average reader doesn’t give a damn if you say “She had long brown hair” vs. “Long brown hair caught the sun’s brilliant rays, highlights shining bright gold.”

Key is, everything in moderation. Sometimes “he snarled” is the right thing to say. Sometimes using shorthand description is appropriate. Etc.

(Now, before some nitwit decides to use this as an excuse to include every single n00bist writing mistake known to man, let me point back at everything in moderation. Throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater is just as bad as toxic perfectionism.)

I’ve a huge problem with the idea that you must never do X, Y, or Z. While there’s a lot of people who will swear up and down that they don’t tell people “never”–well, maybe they don’t. But it’s sure as hell the impression that comes through. When it’s not just one or two people who hold those opinions, but the majority of people in the community… well, what the hell is a new/intermediate writer without much experience or self-confidence supposed to think?

Any so-called “writing rule” can be broken. There are no rules. Just guidelines. They exist so people who don’t known why they exist don’t make huge mistakes. But they aren’t meant to be followed to the letter, 100% of the time, and that’s how far too many people treat them.

And let’s diverge on the topic a bit more. I’ve seen writers totally change their plots or gave up a book because one supposedly experienced person told them “You can’t do [x]” or “This won’t sell.” Including me–I changed a huge subplot in the book I’m currently rewriting because one person whose opinion I then respected told me I couldn’t have more than one villain in a book. (The original subplot is going back in, btw.) I have a good friend who was told she shouldn’t write vampire fiction because it was all cliched and it wouldn’t sell.

You know what? Whether or not it “sells” doesn’t matter.

What matters is what YOU, the WRITER, get out of writing the book. What matters is that you enjoy it. That you have fun. That you write something that YOU are proud of–not something that conforms to often-conflicting Writing Community “Rules.”

Write what you love.

Write the story that sings to your heart and your soul.

Write for yourself, not for some perfectionistic “audience.”

Cause that’s what matters. That’s what’ll shine through. Cause if you betray your own heart and write something that you don’t love, not deep down … well, it’ll show. And it’ll take its toll. You might not notice it at first. Most people don’t, cause it’s like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. You don’t notice it till you’re so blocked you can hardly write and then you can’t figure out why.

The story is what matters. Not perfect prose. The story is what will sell–not how pretty and prim and perfect you write.

A lot more people need to remember that.

*blink*blink*

So I checked the email box I formerly used exclusively for submissions, as I needed to double-check rights on an article contract. I never check this box anymore, as I switched to using my main gmail account for it last spring and any submissions I had out from it, I’d queried with the new address.

Anyway, I find a rejection from an anthology I’d submitted to in 2004. The editor commented that the character’s behavior was unconvincing and unrealistic. (Funny, people who read it prior to my submitting didn’t think so, but whatever.)

But, that’s not what bothers me. Cause even if I don’t agree with it, I appreciate it when an editor takes time to comment on my work.

Closing line? “You would benefit from attending [publisher’s short fiction workshop].”

Which, when I go look at it on their website, is $500.

Excuse me?

Am I the only one who considers this trollish, near-scamming, and absolutely unacceptable? Cause, look, I don’t really care when they collect my email address from submissions and put me on their mailing list for stuff like this. Usually, you can unsubscribe if you don’t want to receive the info, and all’s good.

But to reject a story and tell the author she should take their class? Uh. No. Sorry. Fuck off and die.

*puts another market on the do-not-submit list*

*sighs*

On horror/vampire cliches…

I went looking for an old post of mine earlier this evening to show a friend, as I didn’t feel like explaining my stance on vampire stereotypes for the thousandth time. I wrote this on Evolution over a year ago, but I like it enough and think it’s relevant enough to repost. 🙂

[email protected]~

Let’s try the axe murderer.

Or the teen characters whose parents were obviously sleeping around with paramecium.

Wait a sec. That’s an insult to paramecium, who’re much more intelligent …

To be honest, I don’t read that much horror. My preferences are dark fantasy and vampire fiction rather than straight out horror, mainly because I don’t tend to like common horror themes. Stephen King’s Pet Semetary was good, it made me think, but it’s not a book I’d want to read more than once because it was depressing, and this has been my experience with much of horror.

I’ve had the difference between horror and dark fantasy defined to me as this: In horror, generally speaking, the monsters are the bad guys; in dark fantasy, the monsters aren’t necessarily so. I tend to write my “monsters” (vampires, weres, demons, etc.) sympathetically, and the real monsters are more often than not human. (I suppose that really ought say something about my outlook in terms of humanity. LOL!) I just cannot identify with a close-minded human character whose first reaction to something non-human is “kill.”

That said, I do like books in which said character is forced to confront said viewpoint and change; Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake is a good example of this.

But, back to cliches.

I find vampire fiction to be chock-full of cliches. Most vampire fiction relies at least some on traditional vampire legends and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and while I realize a superpowered character needs some weaknesses and drawbacks … I honestly find it a cop-out to focus soley on traditional myth.

For example, garlic and crosses repelling or actively damaging vampires. I’ve never understood this, because … well, why? Just because you’re undead doesn’t mean you’re susceptible to harm by random items, and I find the vulnerability to crosses to be, in a sense, offensive. See, why just crosses and not all religious items? Granted, you could argue that Christians view reaching for their cross as reaching to God for protection, whereas people of other religions might be likely to take a more active stance, but this doesn’t really hold water. In LKH’s books, her vampires were susceptible to, I believe, all religious items, as she had a scene in one of the early books where she showed people on the cop squad wearing Stars of David and miniature Torahs for protection, and mentioned that it was the belief, not the actual item, that protected them.

However. This does bring up an important question.

Why does religious faith harm vampires? Life beyond death does not imply to me lack of religion. I can’t imagine that all vampires are atheists. It’d make an interesting story, or at least part of a book, to have a new vampire question religion, and perhaps have his prior God turn on him because he’s no longer human. (I think I might write that, actually.)

I’ve also had a problem with the susceptibility to sunlight and the reliance on a coffin. Look. In most vampire fiction, you’ve got the clues right up in front of you and it would take an idiot not to figure it out. (Or someone who flat out doesn’t believe in vampires, but that’s almost a cliche in itself in terms of vampire fiction. A little bit of unbelief is fine, but if you’ve got strange shit going on, and all it takes is to put 2 and 2 together … no. That’s when it starts becoming character stupidity.)

There’s probably a few others I’m forgetting about at the moment, but these are the biggies, in my opinion. My vampires don’t have these weaknesses. The closest thing that I have to the coffin is that my world-walking vampires wear a small leather pouch around their neck, or someplace else on their person, containing soil from their home world. And there’s a reason behind this. A lot of my vampires are mages, and their home soil contains blood energy, such as the soil of our planet contains earth energy. The soil doesn’t affect their abilitiy to survive, simply enhances their magical ability.

Fear is fundamental in horror, and to a certain extent in dark fantasy. If the only reason the character doesn’t know what the fuck is going on is because he’s a moron, he loses reader sympathy and there is absolutely no fear involved. But if the common vampire clues aren’t there and the characters have no reason to assume “vampire,” it seems to me it’s a lot scarier.

Yes, because I don’t conform to the cliches, I end up with very high-powered characters. Some might say overpowered because at first glance, there aren’t any heavy drawbacks. Thing is, I depend a lot on the strengths and weaknesses of personality, probably more than many other authors. Sure, you can be stronger and faster than a human, but if you’re arrogant about it, you may well slip up and not realize a cunning trap. Also, you can be outwitted. Brute force isn’t always the answer.

That said, I often do run my vampires as the main/side characters, and, when that’s the case, I don’t give them an easy out because of their advantages. I still depend just as much on personality, and there’s an important factor to keep in mind: No matter how big you are, there’s always someone out there bigger than you. Twisted Evil

I think I end up with a bigger story with a larger scope when I avoid the cliches and easy outs, and … I have a lot more fun with it.

And I hope it’s a lot more enjoyable to readers, too. Wink