Monday, November 05, 2007

On a score of 1 to 10…

I recently had the pleasure—and I do mean that, sincerely—of judging several writing contests, both novel and short stories. Why, you may wonder, if I'm so on deadline and slammed against the wall with writing obligations would I take the time to judge a contest. Easy. Someone judged me, years ago. Someone still judges me, as I enter my published books in contests. Judging is all volunteer. Most published authors who judge contests do it for the same reason I do: someone helped us back when.

For many writers, contests are the only way they have to get professional feedback. Your cousin, your neighbor, the guy in the cubicle across the aisle from you at work may say they love your short story, the first three chapters of your novel. Chances are, your cousin and your co-worker are probably afraid to tell you it's not as thrilling as you think it is, or else, even if they do tell you, they can't tell you why it works or doesn't. And why a bit of prose works or falls flat is hugely important to a writer wanting to become a better writer. So often the best chance a writer has of finding out why something does or doesn't work is via contests judged by industry professionals: published authors, editors and agents.

So the fall season seems to be contest time. Sitting here with three Priority Mail packets of entries ready to ship back to the contest coordinators, I can see certain common problems, even though all these contests were unrelated. So for those of you contest-prone, here's a brief primer on what not to do, next time:

FLYING BODY PARTS: I don't know if author Sheila Viehl (aka SL Viehl aka Lynn Viehl and more) coined the term or she borrowed it from somewhere. But she was the first person I heard using it: FBP. Sheila and I were at one time members of the same local RWA chapter and it was either in a workshop of hers or an article she wrote for the newsletter that I learned about Flying Body Parts. I always knew they existed. They never sat quite right with me, as a reader or writer. But I didn't know why. Sheila taught me why. I'm telling you.

His eyes slid down her cleavage.

God, I hope not. That would be sticky and icky and overall gross. What the writer actually is telling us here is that a character's eyeballs left his head and plopped onto another character's chest. Ew. Ick. Substitute "eyeballs" for eyes and you'll see what I mean. It's clichéd writing, it's overdone. It's inaccurate. It's a Flying Body Part. Same goes for "His eyes raked her face" and "She tossed her head." Now, if you're Stephen King and the eyes and head are severed parts, cool. That's fine. But if there's no blood accompanying the raking and tossing, you're into FBP territory. FBP also includes eyes that roll. Eyes don't roll or rake or slide. Gazes can slide. But eyes are stuck in the head. A minor point: you can see someone's eyeballs rolling in their sockets. So depending on usage, "He rolled his eyes to the left" could be correct. But "She rolled her eyes at him" borders on FBP territory and even when not, is a cliché. Learn to write fresh(er) sentences and analogies.

Note: Tami Cowden disagrees with me. She feels flying body parts are fine and states since several bestselling authors do it, we all can do it. Great. However, if your manuscript gets rejected based on clichéd writing and FBP errors, yelling "But Nora Roberts did it on page [x]!" will not get you published. The plain fact is, beginning writers must be better than current published authors. At least, that's what my agent and editor tell me. You have far less room for error in your first manuscript than in your tenth. Fair? No. Fact? Yes.

HEAD HOPPING: Head hopping is the use of two or more points of view (whose thoughts are we hearing?) in one scene. ONE scene. There's nothing wrong with having two or more points of view in one chapter. There's huge problems with using two or more points of view in one scene or, Heaven forefend, one paragraph. The reason the problem is huge is because a short story, novella or novel (and we're talking commercial genre fiction here, okay?) is an emotional journey for the reader. A vicarious journey. The reader becomes the main character. The reader establishes a vested interest in what happens to the character. This keeps the reader turning pages.

In order for the reader to establish identification with the character, the reader must spend a goodly portion of reading time in that character's head, hearing her thoughts, feeling her feelings, sensing her sensations. This cannot be done in one sentence. It can't be done in one paragraph, usually. So if every paragraph you are jerking the reader out of Character A's head and plopping her into Character B's head, then next paragraph jerking her out of B's and into C's, or perhaps back to A's…you're not giving the reader sufficient time to establish identification with anyone character. You're not giving the reader sufficient time to care, or, as one editor calls it, you're not addressing the "why should I give a shit?" factor.

Imagine yourself in a room with several people standing at different positions. You walk up to Person A who starts to tell you about how she lost her purse and the three hundred dollars inside…but before she can get really into the story, you're yanked across the room to Person B, whose dog just died. You don't even know what kind of dog, or how Person B felt about the dog when you're pushed over to Person C. She was fired from her job yesterday and… here's Person A again, back with the missing money. And so on. Which person do you care about? Which one do you want to spend more time with? Whose story do you want to listen to? You don't know. You haven't spent enough time with any of them to truly give a shit.

That's the problem with head hopping. It fractures reading identification and compassion. That's why, even though several bestselling authors do it, you shouldn't.

As a corollary, I'd like to add something I learned from Jacqueline Lichtenberg: "Never switch point of view in order to convey information that you can't figure out any other way to TELL THE READER. That will cause you to divert attention from the 'ball' and will only frustrate the reader, not inform him. If there really is no other way for the reader to learn something—then they shouldn't know it. That's a very hard lesson—the reader doesn't get to know everything the writer knows."

DIALOGUE TAGS: Honest, there is really nothing wrong with the word "said." He said or She said is just fine for a dialogue tag. In fact, it's preferable to a litany of He groaned, She whispered, He yelled, She bellowed, He barked out, She cried out, He exclaimed, She questioned, He asked and She screamed.

I think the reason beginning writers fall into the yelled/bellowed/whispered/screamed problem is the don't know how to use action tags in dialogue and feel said to be too plain. Frankly, if it's got quotes around it, it's dialogue and if it's dialogue, it's being said. So why do we need to be told again it's being said? Why not use that blank space after the dialogue to show (because writing is about showing not telling) more about the character, the setting, the conflict, the action?

So if you have:

"Don't touch me!" she shouted.

It's better as:

"Don't touch me!" She lashed out at him with her purse.

In fact, if you have "Don't touch me!" she shouted as she lashed out at him with her purse… drop the "she shouted". We know already know she's shouting by the use of the exclamation point.

So: "What do you want from me?" she asked, rising from the chair… becomes "What do you want from me?" She rose unsteadily from the chair, her fingers gripping the wooden arms until her knuckles whitened.

And ONE FINAL RULE: Follow no rule off a cliff. That priceless piece of advice is from author C.J. Cherryh and I agree wholeheartedly. Writing is a creative process. Sometimes things work in a piece for no discernible reason. They just do. Don't get so caught up in rules that your creativity suffers. But do know the rules before you attempt to break them.

And keep writing, keep entering contests, keep working with your feedback.

Happy NaNoWriMo to all, ~Linnea


  1. Thanks for the "eyeball" laugh.

    More thanks for the tips. This is one blog I'm printing as a crib sheet for when I revise. I do them (as well as eliminating passives) as I revise ... but always forget one or the other in the process.

  2. Anonymous9:13 PM EST

    Drat! Now I have to go revisit a beloved short story of mine and see not if, but how many times I violated those rules. Thanks for the tips, though. I'm still learning, and will be for as long as I write, I'm sure.

  3. Cool stuff, Linnea. I used to head-hop like a neural parasite on Star Trek. I couldn't get a handle on it until I figured out (by way of some excellent advice from Jacqueline and the screenwriting books she suggested) that my real problem was structuring the novel in the first place. I finish my stories in my head before I ever write them down. They're very ADD and all over the place at first. I have to deliberately structure them. I have to write scenes on index cards and shuffle them around. It doesn't come to me naturally. I'm hoping to develop the skill to do it automatically one day. Anyway, the head-hopping magically vanished.

    And if Laurie was here she'd thunk me on the head for all those 'ly' adverbs!

  4. Linnea:

    Good final comment in that.

    The way to break a "rule" and get away with it is to TELEGRAPH to the reader that you know the rule they expect you to follow.

    Make the breaking of the rule a conspiracy between you and the reader to deliver a WOW FACTOR.

    The reason these "rules" exist is that readers expect them to be followed. You can gain points in a contest by breaking the rules in the way that doesn't violate the reader's trust.

    A writer is like the driver of the bus where the readers are passengers. Don't zigzag and lurch and sway the bus and make your readers seasick.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. Very true about head-hopping. It drives me crazy (even in the J. D. Robb mysteries, which I love). I don't accept some people's argument that "the ordinary reader doesn't notice these things." The reader may not consciously realize what's wrong, but he or she may still feel thrown off balance.

    I'm dubious about the "flying body parts" argument, though (although I've heard it advanced on several occasions). The more blatant "ick" examples, of course, should be avoided. But many of those expressions are "frozen" metaphors so deeply ingrained in the language that people use and hear them without a second thought. I don't think they necessarily always have to be avoided. Trying to do so can lead to self-conscious, labored circumlocutions.

    Funny about the dialogue tag issue. When I first started to read writing manuals, many decades ago, it was fashionable to advise writers to use exciting synonyms for "said" all the time. Now they are universally considered amateurish and laughable. An occasional "shouted" or "whispered" is okay, however, IMO. Again, if you try to avoid that kind of thing altogether, you can sometimes end up with action tags -- which, in general are very effective, as your examples show -- that are too wordy for the purpose of simply conveying that he whispered instead of speaking in a normal voice.

  6. Anonymous1:04 PM EST

    Head hopping drives me crazy in some books, but not in others. When there are two main characters, as in a romance, I begin to wonder what the other guy/gal is thinking at a certain, ahem, point. That is why jumping between Eve and Roarke doesn't bother me. However, I have thrown non-romance mysteries across the room when the viewpoint jumps between detectives in the same scene. Christine Feehan's telepathic characters in her Games series work back and forth, too, but sometimes there I have to reread to figure out who's worried about what. She also uses the eye rolling bit a lot, which now makes me think of round, gooey dice!