The Shopping List

December 10, 2012

to do list

I’m a one for making lists. I make lists on top of lists because my brain is the equivalent of Swiss cheese.

tequila
limes
salsa
chips
cheese
beer nuts

You know…the hardcore staples that keep a black-hearted editor running. A shopping list isn’t meant to convey emotion (other than deciding how many bottles of tequila are required), so you put the bare minimum into your list. Just the facts, ma’am.

Character Description

What you want to avoid is allowing that shopping list into your writing. And believe me, it sneaks in a lot without you even being aware of it. Take character appearances, for example. Your mind’s eye has Jane as a brunette, long wavy hair, and big brown eyes. She’s about 5’4″, average build, with the knobbiest knees this side of the Rockies. She’s wearing a brown sweater over black pants and matching black belt with knee-high boots. And that is exactly how you write it.

You snoozing off yet? I am. Unfortunately, I see a lot. For starters, is it absolutely necessary to describe them in full detail? If not, then leave something to the reader’s imagination. If you’re hellbent to describe them, then let it out in dribs and drabs. Don’t knock us over the head with a blow-by-blow description of their eyes, weight, hairstyle, clothing, blah, blah, blah.

Reveal the shopping list of characteristics slowly by peppering them inside those multifunctional dialog tags.

She glared at him through icy blue eyes. “You realize you ate the last Twinkie, don’t you? Now I have to kill you.”

or

If Jack had an Achille’s heel, it was a woman with thick blond hair. One look at Ann, and he knew he was toast.

or

“You think just because you have eyes the color coal and shoulders that could balance my entire lunch tray, that I’m going to melt into a puddle at those boats you call feet?”

or

His height was a genetic offering from his father’s side of the family.

The thing you want to avoid is overkill, and that’s what shopping lists do. Readers don’t need the complete lowdown of a character’s appearance that includes the number of folds under someone’s chin, or the number of buttons on their shirt.

Narrative

The Shopping List doesn’t dedicate itself to character descriptions. Oh noooo….they insinuate themselves into the narrative as well, and yield boring results.

The beagle felt like she was going to die. She’d spent the entire day answering phones. She also filed. All she wanted was a nap. She could have used a margarita, too. Her boss, Overworked and Underpaid Editor didn’t understand. She was a slave driver.

You could easily turn these into bullet points and create a nice dull little shopping list. Nothing pulls the reader in because it lacks voice, emotion, or finesse. Here it is again:

The beagle had spent the entire day answering the phones and filing, and felt like she was going to die. More than anything, she needed a margarita and a nap, but her boss, Overworked and Underpaid Editor, was a slave driver with the personality of a lima bean. What’s worse, is the woman had sworn off booze. The beagle couldn’t help but wonder what self-respecting editor gives up a healthy margarita or chocolate martini? Nothing worse than a teetotaler boss.

Shopping lists are a bit of a cop out. Anyone can take a conglomeration of sentences and slap them into a paragraph. It takes talent to weave the important elements of your character’s appearance into the narrative or dialog, or to write a darn good bunch of paragraphs that transition nicely into each other.

Transitional Sentences

And speaking of those little transitional sentences, I’ve noticed that a collection of sentences (a shopping list), invariably lacks good transitional sentences that slide seamlessly into the next paragraph because there isn’t anything connecting the dots. A shopping list is usually made up of items that share no comment thread. The result is a choppy, gooey mess.

Write smart, and I guarantee that you won’t bore your readers…and your editor will dance on barroom tables and sing with glee. Or is that just me?


“Traditional” ebook publisher…WTF?

April 12, 2011

I’m scheduled to attend numerous writer’s conference this year. I always like to read up on who’s coming. Conferences are great places to network – not just for authors, but for everyone. It puts agents and editors into the same mix, and we’re always eager to see who’s publishing/representing what. So I did some catching up on the faculty of a number of the conferences. My heart sunk when I read one bio:

“… is a traditional ebook publisher”

Blink. Blink. Traditional as opposed to what? What makes this ebook publisher “traditional”? Color me confused here. I don’t know if there are vanity e-publishers who charge their authors, but they would be…well…vanity. Whenever I see a publisher using this term, I always think they doth protesteth too much.

For starters, there is no such thing as “traditional” publishing. That is a term that a particularly nasty vanity POD coined years ago in order to make themselves appear to be a commercial trade press. Sadly, the term stuck, and now it has wormed its way into the standard publishing lexicon.

What is it about some people who think that a new definition, or stealing existing ones, will suddenly make them legit? Or better? So far, I’ve refused to absorb the “t” word into my own publishing vocabulary, other than to deride its use. I stick to established terms, such as commercial or trade.

But now we have the “t” word leeching over into the ebook trade. Good grief. What gives me the heebie jeebies is the principals of this e-publisher have experience in the publishing industry, so they really oughta know better. But I know what they’re trying to do; they’re new, so they want to separate themselves from the pack. After all, there are a ton of new ebook enterprises popping up like new Spring flowers. The strategy is to put doubt in authors’ eyes. Authors will read this and think, “oh wow, they’re ‘traditional,’ so we better query them.”

It’s a nonstarter.

“Traditional” has to do with nonstandard print runs and how books are sold. The POD publishing model doesn’t include a distribution deal, so this means books won’t be in stores. Their financial model is geared toward selling stock to their authors, not readers. If authors never bought any of their own books, these kinds of PODs would cease to exist.

Ebooks are a different animal altogether. They don’t have print runs. In terms of distribution, they are on equal footing with every other e-publisher. The difference is that some are better at it. Those that suck are a result of no publishing experience and not enough operating capital to hire talented editors and cover artists. But budget isn’t the defining element that distinguishes a “traditional” e-publishing model, so what is? And if an e-publisher isn’t “traditional,” then what are they?

And more importantly, what makes this particular ebook publisher better than every other e-publisher out there – especially given the fact that they have no actual publishing experience?

To be certain, not all e-publishers were created equally, and it’s up to you to do your research – just like you would do for a commercial publisher. Some e-publishers have onerous royalty rates and only sell their product on their websites. This means that if readers aren’t aware of the website, then no one will buy the books. In perusing many e-publisher sites, grande and petite, I noticed none of them offered an advance.

So it comes down to reputation. You gain a good rep because you sell lots of books and your authors are happy with the royalties that come from sales. But none of the big e-publishers described themselves as”traditional.” And this is why this new e-publisher’s bio bothers me so much. They are brand new and have no established reputation, so the best they can do is resort to starting fires where none exist by adopting an ignorant term that has no meaning?

And it really bugs me that they’ll be at the same conference I’m attending. Since they have experience within the publishing industry, they’ll exploit this to the max in order to snare in all kinds of unwitting authors whose eyes are already pretty glazed over to begin with (go to a conference, and you’ll see what I mean). I’m sure I’ll hear plenty awe-inspired comments such as, “they’re a traditional e-publisher!” I may hurk up a lung.

So how ’bout it? Have any of you heard this term “traditional” e-publisher before, and what does it mean to you? As for me, I’ve ordered the beagle to get the blender rolling.


Seeing like a writer and gaining voice

February 28, 2010

Yah, I know that sounds strange, so let me explain. I see so many manuscripts that lack artistic flavor and have no voice. I’m not suggesting that every sentence be filled with poetic narrative, but some is nice because of the creative picture it places in the reader’s mind. If it’s creative, it’s memorable. If it’s memorable, it has voice.

Remember, we’re always skimming the shoreline for gifted writers, and I think colorful prose should be a part of every writer’s tackle box. For instance, you can say that it’s a cloudy day, or you can say that Mother Nature tripped and spilled a box of cotton balls across the sky.

Take a look at your writing. Are your descriptions ho hum everyday things, or do they have a bit of spice to them? Are you having a hard time thinking of solid similes or metaphors? This is when it helps to “see” like a writer – to interpret everyday life in a literary way.

For instance, it’s currently pouring outside, and as I look outside my dining room window, I see that everything is wet and drippy. Now, I could say that, and it’s descriptive enough. But I want to inject “voice” into my writing. So instead of wet and drippy, I use my literary vision and see drops of water clinging to the tree branches like tiny diamonds.

When I see cars trying to find a parking spot in a crowded lot, my literary vision sees armadillos scurrying about in search of their burrows. Yes, yes, Hemingway, it ain’t, but you get my drift.

This is the stuff that gives way to “voice.”

What’s voice got to do with the price of tea in China?

Okay, so voice has two meanings:

  • Voice is the style and quality that makes the writing unique, and gets across the author’s attitude and personality. What is meant by this is that the writer has a unique way of expressing themselves in the narrative. It’s the Mother Nature tripping and spilling a box of cotton balls across the sky. It’s the diamonds hanging from a tree branch. It’s what make people say, “I love how that Brilliant Author writes, so rich and full. It’s what makes readers remember you.
  • Voice is the speech and thought patterns of a character – and don’t let anyone tell you it’s first person only; that’s a load of bunk. This means that the characters have unique ways of looking at life and expressing themselves. It’s easiest to play with voice in the first person POV, but it’s just as easy in third person.

    My point here is that seeing like a writer adds that unique prose, that voice, that make editors jump on their desks and squeal like five-year-olds.

    Just because you’re not sitting at your computer writing doesn’t mean that the process stops. You can either watch birds fly around the trees, or you can see feathered balls of electricity  flit across the rooftops.

    Look at life through a writer’s prism. You just may see something far richer and more exciting than you did as a regular Joe.


    Physical description in blocks of text, watch those bosoms…

    January 28, 2009

    Judy noticed the woman was tall, blond, and had a healthy bosom. She wore expensive jewelry as though she’d been born in it. Her nails were manicured to fine points and sported blood-red polish. The woman’s clothing was woven from the finest linens and silk that money could buy. Her black sweater offset the woman’s straight teeth.

    I admit to a bias against physical descriptions that take up blocks of text like this. It derails the story. Here you have your reader’s mouth watering with action, and SCREEEEECH … let’s take a brief time out while we get a description of what the character looks like.

    To me, these text blocks show a lack of agility and imagination because they’re all tell and no show. It’s like a menu, dry and flat. Action – Obligatory Description of one character – Action – Obligatory Description of next character. Ka-thunk ka-thunk.

    It’s easier on the eye when writers weave in a few descriptions while keeping the story where it belongs – firmly entrenched in the action. Descriptions, in general, are a personal choice. Some authors prefer to leave their characters features up their readers’ imaginations. Others want to fill in every nitty gritty detail. I’m ok either way; but I do not like seeing text blocks. Show your writing chops by adding bits of description here and there.

    Judy walked over to the snoring woman laying face down in the gutter and pulled the near-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s from her jeweled-encrusted fingers. She shielded the woman’s body from the water that splashed up from a passing car. Could this be the senator’s missing wife? I’m betting someone will pitch a fit when they see mud and urine stains covering her Donna Karan slacks and sweater. She tenderly brushed the thick, blond hair from the woman’s face and noticed a finely manicured nail indelicately inserted in her nose. “Helloooo,” Judy whispered into a diamond-studded ear. “Anyone home?”

    Ok, Hemingway it ain’t. But you see that it’s possible to give full descriptions while keeping the action going. Descriptions are great because they give us a frame of reference. In this case, it gives us a visual of the woman’s stature and, well, lack thereof.

    This is something I see a lot in submissions, and my reaction is always the same; ka-thunk.

    And while I’m bleating on about descriptions, be careful these descriptions make sense. For instance, in the example I used, I listed “a healthy bosom.” First off, who uses that term anymore? Sounds like something my grannie would have said right before she clucked her tongue. Yet I just read one today – in the book of a very well-pubbed author. For shame. Made me go “eww.”

    Keep in mind that if you have a character observing another character, as I do above, ask yourself whether that observation makes sense. I mean, does it make sense to have Judy, a woman, take notice of this woman’s “healthy bosom”? Not unless she’s gay or it’s a foreshadowing that those bosoms are going to see some action fairly soon.

    I recommend that you avoid the text block description. It’s clunky and almost acts like a quickie commercial break. If you make me take a commercial break too many times, I’ll order the beagle to fire up the blender.


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