Thief of Something

I am a thief.

There, I said it. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using my blog as a confessional. I feel so much better now.

Actually, that’s not true. I lied. I feel about the same as before. Except maybe a little guilty about pretending those four words assuaged some deep-seated guilt. Trust me, my guilt is almost always seated near the surface, like algae.

Also? This blogpost isn’t about stealing.

You probably shouldn’t trust anything I say from here forward.

Except, maybe, these lessons I’ve recently discovered (some for the hundredth time) in my role as a freelance editor of fiction:

  • Pet words and phrases that are used over and over and over and over and over and over and over again can make an author look far less skilled than she actually is. Please note: writers are often blind to these tendencies. Thus, editors.
  • “People who get all creative with dialogue attributions make me want to ban the thesaurus as a writing tool,” he burped. “Seriously, folks, ‘said’ is fine most of the time,” he hiccuped. “Sometimes you don’t need anything at all if it’s clear who’s speaking,” he reiterated with an annoyingly unnecessary attribution.
  • Christian fiction is allergic to the word “nipple” and it doesn’t matter if that nipple belongs to a woman or a man or, presumably, a pipe fitting.
  • Since publishers usually work with a tight schedule (and also because it’s the right thing to do, professionally), writers should never miss a deadline. However, no one will be celebrating if you meet that deadline with an unfinished, sub-par, plot-hole-filled manuscript. Obvious takeaway lesson here: Frequent, honest communication with your editor is critical to having a successful writing career.
  • You know those books you’ve read that have terribly unsatisfying endings? See note above.
  • If you can’t imagine how the protagonist of your novel would act after waiting in a long line at a packed Starbucks only to being informed by a surly barista, “we’re out of coffee,” then it’s quite possible you haven’t sufficiently developed your protagonist’s personality.
  • Showing vs. telling is still one of the greatest challenges for writers. But I’m finding that it’s equally challenging for writers to tell a story without resorting to flashbacks. I’m not a flashback hater. Sometimes a flashback is necessary. Sometimes a flashback works fine. It certainly is a convenient way to impart information. But is it the best way to tell that piece of the story? Before stamping a flashback scene with “It is finished,” consider other ways to reveal the critical info to readers.
  • A subplot that suddenly goes away is like a buffet that’s out of teriyaki chicken when you were just beginning to think how nicely that teriyaki chicken would complement your fourth helping of shrimp fried rice. Subplots that serve no purpose might as well not be on the buffet in the first place. (Just pretend the metaphor works, okay? Thanks.)
  • On a related note, subplots don’t need to be neatly tied up by the last page, but they ought to at least point toward appropriate resolutions.
  • If your monkey can’t fly on page 7, your novel demands that you develop a believable argument between pages 7 and 212 for why he can fly on page 213. For the record: “because that’s what the plot needs” isn’t good enough.

Guess what? If you’ve read this far, my opening line isn’t a lie after all. I stole some of your time.

And I’m not giving it back.

Have a nice day.

15 thoughts on “Thief of Something

  1. I think every book would be made better by including a well-developed, 3-dimensional flying monkey. At least one. A whole family would better. Especially if they didn’t get along, so there’d be some tension.

    Great post.

    The insertion of the flying monkey earned it 5 gold stars.

    1. You’re welcome. I’d like to believe my blog is a safe place to vent and/or admit personal psychoses. I’d really like to believe that. Sadly, it’s not true. I judge people by their comments all the time. (You should probably cut down on the caffeine. I hear it causes involuntary capitalization and frequent overuse of exclamation points. Of course, that might just be a rumor. I’ll have to check Wikipedia.)

      1. I DISAGREE. I THINK USING ALL CAPS CONVEYS TO THE READER THAT WHAT I’M SAYING IS REALLY IMPORTANT!!!!

        Of course, the exclamation points are a direct result of copius amounts of caffiene!!!!

  2. Nice blog. When it comes down to it: use the exact number of words that are needed to tell a story, no more no less.

    But seriously – Christian fiction?

    1. Yes, that about sums it up. (This response was originally 4,582 words long. But I cut most of them to prove your point.)

      And also yes, Christian fiction. It exists. It’s like regular fiction, but written by Christians and (mostly) targeted to other Christians. It’s been around for decades. There’s good Christian fiction and bad Christian fiction. In that way, it’s a lot like mainstream fiction. Except Christian fiction still almost 100 percent nipple free.

  3. On a more serious note, Stephen, I really don’t mind reading dialogue tags if they’re not incessant. I like more than the boring “said” once in awhile. In fact, “said” bugs me sometimes.

    1. A few thoughts (that’s all I have left anyway):

      I agree that there is a time and place for non-”said” attributions. I think of them the same way I think of adverbs. Adverbs aren’t evil, they’re just overused.

      My rule of thumb is: if an attribution distracts me from the dialogue, I get rid of it. This is where that subjective “feel factor” comes into play. What is distracting to me might be enhancing to you. But I think we’d both agree that judicious use of creative attributions is probably wise.

      Finally, I think some writers use creative attributions as a shortcut to illustrate what’s going on in the scene. Sometimes, that’s fine. But if you’ve written the scene well, readers will usually know exactly what sort of response the person speaking is having to the conversation. The overuse of creative attributions is akin to “telling” instead of “showing.” And when you have a choice? I say “show.” (Mostly just so I don’t get stabbed by any of Katdish’s rogue punctuation.)

  4. Showing vs. Telling….it’s a hard concept. The cool thing though is that I’ve been volunteering in my son’s 4th grade class and that is what we’ve been working on since Christmas. There are 32 little people that will grow up knowing it, whereas I think I learned it in college. Granted, I’m not a fiction writer where it’s most important, but still.

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