Is that a Run in My Story?

Oh, pantyhose. I had to wear pantyhose at my first job. I worked in the junior’s section at a department store in small-town Texas, helping old ladies buy Tommy Hilfiger clothes for their teenage daughters. One time an old guy asked me to try on clothes for him so that he could “see what they would look like on his daughter.” Yeah, right. I said no, and he approached another sales associate. Eventually the managers banned him the store.

I’m not sure why I told that anecdote. I guess I’m setting the scene.

Yikes. There's no hope for her.

Anyway, you ladies (and gents, perhaps) who have worn pantyhose should know that moment when you first spot a tiny hole in the fabric. Just one small spot where you see bare flesh peeking out through the iridescent fleshy fabric. And you know you’re doomed. Because one tiny hole stretches, and it creates another, and another, all the way up the leg, a tiny ladder of destruction revealing that you haven’t actually shaved your legs in like a week.

This same principle applies to stories, too.

You’re writing happily along when you realize you’ve forgotten something. Maybe you put a gun on the mantelpiece and then ignored it. Maybe you changed your mind about something, flagged the places where you would need to make the alterations, and wrote on without actually fixing it. Whatever you did, the holes run all the way back to the beginning of your story.

I know that my first book is full of runs at least as bad as those in the photo. I changed my mind about the plot several times as I was writing, and I floundered in the middle trying to get to an ending I hadn’t anticipated. One character took her story by the balls and went wild. Another got a little confused when things didn’t go his way. (Like how I blame them, when it’s indisputably my fault?)

Knowing about those holes has kept me from starting the editing process. I’ve intended all week to move the silly thing over to Scrivener from Word, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. It’s a lot of work, and I’m afraid I’ll discover I have to pitch the pair of pantyhose that is my novel.

It would be so easy to give up. We know that nothing can fix that doomed pair pantyhose. Some people say apply clear nail polish to stop the run before it gets ahead. But I’ve tried that, and I still had to go to the eight-grade Christmas dance with an embarrassing hole in my black stocking. Sometimes things just can’t be fixed.

Still, there is hope. Novels are not pantyhose: even a thousand runs do not necessarily mean the trashcan. Sometimes we may have to ditch whole chunks of our writing, thousands of words that will get tucked away into “If only…” or “What was I thinking?” folders. Sometimes we have to start over from scratch. But the seed of the story, that little nugget of potential remains.

You just have to find the right way to tell it.

Early NaNoWriMo Lessons

Well, three days and 8000 words in, and I’ve already learned a few things.

Day one started on a low note (“But… I’m sleepy… I don’t want to work!”) and ended on a high note (“Woo! This is gonna be awesome! I just wrote a great scene!”). The high note carried into day two, but didn’t carry me through, and yesterday ended on a very low note (“I’m tired… I went to the eye doctor today… I’ve done a week’s worth of writing in two days! Is it December yet?”).

Today I needed a shake-up, and that’s how I realized what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Seeing people is good. I hadn’t really left my apartment in four days, except for the brief unpleasant trip to the eye doctor, so I was going a little Shining stir-crazy. Today I went to Barnes and Noble to write at Starbucks, and the simple change of scenery–plus a healthy dose of caffeine–helped with the crazies. I knocked out a thousand words there and a thousand words at home after lunch no problem.
  2. I edit a lot. I never realized before how much I edit as I go. Very rarely do I see a poorly constructed or just plain bad sentence in my rough drafts, because I rewrite as I go. This is what makes me a slow writer compared to some, I think.
  3. I can silence the Inner Editor by defying her. On day one, I made a tiny grammatical error. I started to go back and change it, then realized what I was doing. I stared at the error. It stared at me. I wrote a new sentence… and moved on with the scene. Oh horror of horrors, I left it there! And the Inner Editor shut her mouth when she realized that I’m the boss.
  4. I am lazy. Writing 3000 words every day has been strenuous, but 2000 a day? No problem. I’ve written in the last three days what might normally take me two weeks. That’s just absurd. After this month is over, I’m leaving the 1000 word per day goal in the kiddie leagues where it belongs.
How’s your NaNoWriMo trek going? Learned anything about your own process yet?

How to be a Helpful Critic

I’ve been thinking this week about how writers help each other. This thread over on Reddit, specifically this comment, made me wonder if we’re doing ourselves any favors.

While I realize that there are writing groups who help and support one another, many writers who try to help other writers do more harm than good. I’ll be bold and throw something out there: inexperienced critics fall into two camps, neither of them particularly helpful. We’ll call them the enablers and the hypercritics.

Enablers encourage bad habits in other writers in order to justify their own bad habits. I tell you it’s okay that your first novel will be 300,000 words, because then it makes it okay that my book will be 200,000 words. We’re so nice that we hurt each other rather than help. The enabler will tell you that your space-vampire-steampunk-erotica is really good and that the world needs more space-vampire-steampunk-erotica, just like it needs more space-werewolf-steampunk-erotica, which, incidentally, is what they’re writing right now. Or they’re the people who are so timid in their criticism that they won’t tell you when something doesn’t work. I know it’s hard to hear, but sometimes things just don’t work, and saying, “It didn’t work for me,” doesn’t help the writer. Critiquing is already so subjective that saying, “It’s probably just me that didn’t like it,” gives the writer an excuse to say, “Well, that’s just him. Other people will appreciate it!”

Hypercritics attack other writers to make themselves feel better. I call your work a load of crap because that makes me superior to you, and if I’m superior to you, then I’m definitely a better writer than you, and I’ll get published way sooner than you do. Hypercritics will also latch onto your use of voice in first person and trash it for the fussiest reasons, because they’re insecure about their own first person voice, or they don’t like first person, or because that’s the only thing they feel confident enough about to criticize.These are the people who, once published, tell you how impossible it is to get published, and talk about ‘wannabes’ and ‘professionals’ in a condescending tone of voice. There are writing forums filled with hypercritics: avoid them like the plague. Yes, it’s hard to get published, and yes, it’s good to be realistic, but don’t piss on someone’s dream!

What kind of a critic are you? I’ve been known to act as both. I tell people it’s okay that their book is too long because my book is too long, and I make fun of people who attempt a ‘literary’ voice because I’m not brave enough to do it.

And look: I just hypercriticized my criticism, but it’s okay, because I don’t have a lot of practice.

Attack of the Adverbs!

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you will find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then, it’s — GASP!! — too late.” — Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 118

We’ll call it the J. K. Rowling syndrome. I’m not knocking her writing, but check this out:
“Hurry up,” she said tensely to Harry and Ron.
“Not the ruddy library again?” said Ron.
“No,” said Hermione curtly.

Rowling can pull this off because her books are “kid” books, and whimsical. For the rest of us, it’s not so cute. As King says later in the same chapter of On Writing, “When I do it [adverb abuse], it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t” (121).

I thought it’d be fun for me to give a before and after example of my own adverb infested writing.

BEFORE
She sighed irritably, fussing with the handkerchief she was tucking into the low bosom of her dress. Resignedly, she stuffed it into her corset, where it pressed uncomfortably between her breasts. “I’m not likely to forget something that important.”

He handed her a thick cream colored ribbon from the vanity. “Wear this… Your bosom’s rather bare.”

“I thought that was the point.” She met his eyes in the mirror as he tied the ribbon around her throat.

“It is, but you don’t need to get carried away.”

“I never get carried away,” she said airily, but they both laughed at that.

Joe led her down the inn’s stair well then, holding her hand lightly to ensure she did not fall off her heels or trip over her dress. She squeezed his hand fondly. It was a routine they’d performed more times than she remembered, perfectly dressed, perfectly prepared, vibrating with the thrill of the theft before them.They had every step down perfectly by now, though the other dancers, the music, and the location changed. Meet, seduce, find, steal. The details varied, but the dance remained the same.

NOTES
Now before you laugh at me, that series of ‘perfectly’s was intentional! Although, I did write that months ago, and I’m not so sure about it now. Still, let’s take a look. I think the context tells us she’s irritable. ‘Resignedly’ does add a little, I think. How often is it comfortable to have something stuffed between’s one’s breasts? “I’m not likely to” is awkward and round-about, but if she’s being sarcastic (which she is), that one is still up for grabs. “Lightly” is a rather pointless detail. And if she’s squeezing his hand, isn’t it pretty clear that she’s fond of him? Let’s try that again, this time with none of the adverbs and some stronger verbs.

AFTER
She sighed, fussing with the handkerchief she was tucking into the low bosom of her dress. Resignedly, she stuffed it into her corset, where it lay wedged between her breasts. “You think I’d forget something that important?

He handed her a thick cream colored ribbon from the vanity. “Wear this… Your bosom’s rather bare.”

“I thought that was the point.” She met his eyes in the mirror as he tied the ribbon around her throat.

“It is, but you don’t need to get carried away.”

“I never get carried away,” she said. They both laughed.

Joe led her down the inn’s stair well then, holding her hand to ensure she did not fall off her heels or trip over her dress. She squeezed his hand. It was a routine they’d performed more times than she remembered, perfectly dressed, perfectly prepared, vibrating with the thrill of the theft before them. They had every step down perfectly by now, though the other dancers, the music, and the location changed. Meet, seduce, find, steal. The details varied, but the dance remained the same.

NOTES
Better, yes? Especially if you imagine 10,000 words so thickly cluttered with adverbs. It’s icky.

I left resignedly. I like it. Sue me.

I left the perfectlies, too, because I’m too lazy to rewrite that entire section for a blog entry.

Still, you get the idea. This little section obviously has some other icky-writing issues, but just this is an improvement. If I trust you, the reader, to know that she’s being airy and sarcastic, which you would (or should) after making it this far with the characters, I can write much cleaner prose.

Three exercises to remember how annoying adverbs can be: 

  1. Tom Swifties: “You’ve got a nice butt, lady,” he said cheekily. (This one’s from Mr. King.)
  2. See how redundant they can be: “Let’s get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.
  3. Try adding adverbs to your own speech, she suggested pedantically. It’s quite annoying, she said mischievously. Don’t you want to slap me now? she asked, winking. I should probably stop, she admitted resignedly.

You get the idea. Happy adjective purging.

She added gleefully.