Sunday, August 30, 2009

Is it Happening Now?

When I am critiquing someone else's writing, I periodically come across a story written in the present tense. This is difficult for me, as I have a bias against present-tense stories. And I always admit, right up front, that I have trouble understanding how I can be reading a story that is in the midst of happening. It's kind of like having the point of view character giving me a blow by blow account by phone as he lives through the situations. If the point of view character changes, the person on the other end of that phone line changes, too, which is more grating in present tense than in past tense. How can the author foreshadow anything that might happen, since it hasn't happened yet? I just don't get it. My mind can wrap itself around a number of complicated ideas, but that isn't one of them.

Consider this: "Joe stubs his toe on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He wonders if it's broken, realizes it's his little pinkie, not the big lug, and doctors won't do anything for a broken pinkie toe, so what does it matter? Little does he know how inconvenient the pain of that toe will be in the days to come."

Okay, that was present tense, so we, as readers, were actually there when Joe stubbed his toe. Why were we in his home in the middle of the night? Why were we headed to the bathroom at the same time that he was, because if we weren't, how is he telling us about the toe as he stubs it? And the last sentence – which would make sense in past tense, and would do a wonderful job of making us wonder what's coming up – makes absolutely no sense. Of course he doesn't know how inconvenient things will be; he hasn't gone through it yet.

What do you think? Does present tense not bother you? It is frequently – and erroneously – used in common conversation, so you might be used to it. How many times have you heard someone say something like, "…And he says, 'what do you mean by that?', so I say, …" That's present tense verbs, even though the person is obviously talking about a conversation they had in the past. It grates on my nerves, but others find it normal, and if I comment on it, they stare at me in complete non-understanding.

Eventually, present tense may be the accepted norm for writing. But I'm not in any hurry to get there.

See ya next week. Trudy

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Everybody has a background

Everybody has a background

When you're reading a story or book, have you ever come across a character who suddenly does something out of character? Perhaps they pick up a gun and shoot the weapon from the bad guy's hand, supposedly while panicked over their partner's death, and after refusing for 100 pages to even look at a gun, branding weapons 'barbaric and scary.' Adrenaline can accomplish a lot, but that behavior just doesn't make sense.

Characters – ones that have been carefully crafted, anyway – have a background. Just like real people, they had a childhood, people they loved and respected, various knocks and bruises that life has dealt them. So, there are two possible situations that could explain gun-shy Jill's sudden ability. The first - and far too often, the most likely – is that the writer did not create a real character. Hair color, eye color and a name do not – by themselves – make a character. So this writer tacked a few simple characteristics onto the name, like scorn for guns, and went on from there. When Jill found herself in this awful circumstance, the writer had her pick up the gun and shoot, and explained it all as 'adreneline'. That's lazy writing.

Or … Jill was taught to hunt and shoot by her beloved dad when she was just a little girl. She was good, a natural marksman, and she basked in her proud papa's approval. Then there was a horrible accident, and she accidentally shot her own father, killing him. She vowed to never hold a gun again. But when her partner – a man she secretely loves – is shot and apparently killed, she can't let that be unavenged, so she picks up his gun and shoots. The bad guy is lucky, because she wanted to kill, but her aim is rusty after all these years.

Yes, that could be the explanation, but a good writer won't spring it on the reader. There would have been some omens, some hints. First, that Jill feels more than friendship for her partner, but also that she knows more about guns than she's letting on. If those hints and omens weren't there, then the background might as well not exist. Adding a visit to Jill's mom after the shooting and having that mom explain it all just seems like the writer realizes he goofed, and so he threw together this explanation. More lazy writing.

Characters can be lazy. Writers can't be, not if they want to be good writers. They need to give their characters a previous life, an outlook on life that isn't quite like anybody else's. This is vital for main characters, becomes less important for co-workers, neighbors and others only marginally involved in the story being told. The need for a backstory pretty much peters out when you get to spear-chuckers.

Don't know what a spear-chucker is? Well, that's something to explore another day. See ya next week. Trudy

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Uncertainty of Submitting

I was going to discuss commas again today, but I sent off two queries last night, and I'm filled with worry. Did I follow the instructions well enough? Hard to tell.

Some markets have definite expectations of your submission, and they spell them out in great detail: double-spaced, 1-inch margins, font should be 12-point Times New Roman, scene divider should be…

And other market guidelines are less clear. Like I said, I submitted to two last night, but the guidelines were not the clearest.

The first was for an anthology I had heard about from one of my newsletters. The description in that newsletter was so 'complete', I started to write the story without checking out the original call for submissions. Silly me. I do find, in my notes, comments from the editors that I added later, so I must have checked out the website, right? Strangely, when I went to submit that story last night, the website I had in my notes took me to a sign-in page for a blog. I had to go to Ralan's List, find the listing for the anthology, get the e-address for the editors, and send my submission that way. So, I'm not filled with confidence that I've fulfilled their expectations for submitting a story.

The second was a novelette I've been looking to place for some time. It had made it to the 'finals' for another anthology, but otherwise, it's difficult to find a home for this length of work. I had begun to look at e-book publishers, since they don't always need as many words as hard-copy publishers. Somehow, I found my way to the website of a small hard-copy publisher, who had several anthologies in the works. That looked promising, so I began to look for submission guidelines. All their guidelines were for books. There were no guidelines for submitting to one of the anthologies. So, once again, I took a wild guess what would do the trick, and I sent it in. Lack of confidence overwhelmed me.

Editors keep telling us writers we should 'follow the guidelines.' I want to. I try to. I want to do whatever will help them find my work worthy of their time. I just wish they'd meet me half way and not leave me guessing what their guidelines are. If they have 3 or 4 screen-lengths of information on how to submit a novel, but they also have anthologies they are trying to fill, couldn't they at least include 2 lines on how to query or submit for those anthologies?

Well, I did what I could. All I can do now – for those 2 pieces – is to sit tight and hope I came close enough to what the editors wanted that they will at least consider my work. Time to move on to a new short. Have to keep busy!

See you next week. Trudy

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Importance of Commas

I've been called a Comma Nazi. Usually by my spouse, who tends to feel commas are completely unnecessary. Critiquing each others' work can drive us both crazy. He tries to cross out 90% of the commas from my work, while I tend to insert that same number into his piece.

I don't claim to know – without any doubts – exactly where commas belong. These days, I review the rules listed in Strunk and White's Elements of Style on a fairly regular basis. However, I can't always quote what rule I'm following when I decide to use a comma.

For those who don't feel commas are all that necessary, I have an example for you. Same three words in the exact same order, with only the presence or absence of a comma to change the meaning:
"Let's eat, Gramma."
"Let's eat Gramma."

Is there a difference? Absolutely. The first one sounds like a small child asking for lunch. The second one sounds like a member of the Donner Party planning their next meal. I would expect the stories surrounding them would be just as vastly different.

Stories comprise of paragraphs, sentences, words, all of which shape the characters, the scenes, the plot. A writer can spend a lot of time choosing the correct words and putting them in the correct sequence. In my opinion, that writer should be just as careful choosing and placing their punctuation. Punctuation like commas can change the flavor just as easily as a different choice of word.

See you next week. Trudy

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Turn Left Here

I started this blog on MySpace as an adjunct to my life as a writer. As I flip through past sessions (on MySpace), however, I find far too many of them have been about my life as a person. Everybody has a life as a person, so what makes that worthy of my time to write about it, or your time to read it? Darn little. Most days, I only pay attention because it is, after all, me.

My life as an aspiring author might be marginally more interesting. I know there are other aspiring authors out there who might find it interesting or motivational to hear how I am faring. Competition in the writing field is rough, but most authors (at least, in my genres) are usually willing to help one another, pass on tips, advice and inspiration. I read newsletters and talk to fellow aspiring writers, new writers and more experienced writers. I don't know it all, but I know some. Maybe I know some vital bit that others don't know yet.

And then there's the flip side. Readers. Without readers who like what they've written, authors wouldn't have an audience. But how do readers know they'll like a new author's style, or story line, or anything? They have to give a new author a chance, actually read a little bit of what that author has written. I think that's why so many new authors have taken to putting some of their writing on the web; to give potential readers a chance to try their style, their universes and characters, in hopes of turning potential readers into fans. Blogs, I'm told, can do the same thing, by exposing something of the author's style, beliefs and thinking processes.

So, those were the vague ideas that led me to start a blog in the first place. As I searched each week for 'something' to write a couple hundred words about, I too frequently opted to whine or complain about Life In General. Should have known better, but the problem with The Easy Way is, it's – well – easy.

So, I'm going to take an abrupt left turn here and try to find my way back to the path of Aspiring Author. Don't know what I'm going to write about next week; maybe how to 'show' instead of 'tell', or where to place commas, or some information about one of my characters. It WON'T be the continuing saga of the stress in my life. It exists, just as it does in so many people's lives, and it no doubt influences my writing. But it isn't WHY I write, and I don't want to focus on it anymore.

Come back next week. See where I'm headed. Trudy