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Writing Tips from Novels: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman

Writing Tips from Novels: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman

Yes, there are lots of great books “on writing” (my favorite is the one that goes by that name, except capitalized; it’s by Stephen King), but I’ve found that you can get some great tips from the characters and narrators of Actual Novels. And isn’t it more fun to read a novel than a book about writing a novel? Sure it is.

I have a few of these lined up in the queue (gosh, I love writing that word), but I thought it might be fun to open this irregularly recurring blog feature with an unexpected little book. It’s called Alex and the Ironic Gentleman and is written by Adrienne Kress. Alex is a middle grade novel about pirates and treasure and schoolteachers and a train you can never leave and an Extremely Ginormous Octopus and the Very Wicked Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society. It stars young Alex Morningside who is actually a ten-and-a-half-year-old girl with short hair, not a boy at all.

The book is clever and quirky-with-a-capital-Q (watch for the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it scene featuring a pirate who uses a laptop to record the piratical business of the day). I’ve visited the author’s website and followed her tweets (that just sounds creepy) and I believe I can say with absolute most-likely-hood that she, like her novel, is also Clever and Quirky. And while Adrienne is a real life actress in addition to being a multi-published author (there’s a sequel to Alex, called Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate), she seems a very down to earth sort of person, quite unlike the Extremely Ginormous Octopus who tends to drink a lot because no one sees him as a serious Actor.

This is where we can all take a moment to offer a soft sigh of complaint that Some People are granted more than their fair share of talent and “why oh why can’t I have just a little of hers?”

There. I feel better.

Now, on to the helpful writing tips, taken directly from the novel. Feel free to apply the wisdom found here to your own writing. I trust your interpretation. After all, you’re Very Clever. (And Possibly Quirky, though I’m not sure how that applies here.)

On Imagination:

She also liked making up stories, though she wasn’t sure if the Alex in her stories was as brave as the Alex in real life. Well, it didn’t matter, because her imagination was her own, and she could do with it whatever she wanted.

On Plotting and Pacing:

“Um, could you tell me about the painting?”

“Oh, I am so glad you asked, dear,” replied the little old lady, spit flying out of her mouth. “It is of an uncharted island, somewhere far out to sea. Now I don’t know if you know about the tale of Alistair Steele and the Infamous Wigpowder…”

“Yes, I do – very well,” she said quickly. She hated it when people took too long to get to the heart of the story.

On Predictability:

Because of all their warnings, Alex half expected a cage to fall from the ceiling and trap her. But nothing happened, not even an alarm, and Alex went quickly over to the secret door.

Without waiting – as she knew well enough that, in stories, if you wait or think for too long, you get caught – she pushed the button, and the door opened.

On Showing Vs. Telling:

Philosophy is sort of silly like that. We spend all this time wondering why things exist, instead of dealing with the fact that they do.

On the Value of Interesting Words:

Coffee-table books are written to be so extremely dull that you can’t do anything but give up and look at the pictures. And you always start by reading the book, you always really, really, try, but it is no good. No matter how hard you focus, your eyes will start to glaze over, your mind will begin to wander.

On Problem-Solving:

Alex crossed the hall into the dark library. She looked out the window – again a steep drop down. She could see the town twinkling in the distance. It was so infuriating how close she was to escaping, and yet so far! There must be a way. There was always a solution to any problem. You just had to find it.

On The Importance of Setting:

Now sometimes, and I don’t know how it knows, the weather decides it wants to help with a certain situation by creating Atmosphere. At this moment, it decided to blow a gust of wind that rattled all the nonbroken windows and properly attached doors of the buildings along the bridge.

On Believably Imperfect Characters:

And what made one person good and the other one bad, anyway? In her long journey she had met good and bad people alike, people who were not pirates, but who had respectable jobs and were well-liked within their communities. And yet these same people could get away with the most reprehensible behavior. Couldn’t there be good pirates and bad pirates?

Writer Vs. Self-Editor

Writer Vs. Self-Editor

Once upon a time, there was a writer…

Whoa, hold on there. Wait one darn minute, mister.

Excuse me?

“Once upon a time”? Really? Where’s the originality in that? Surely someone who calls himself a “writer” can do better.

There was a writer…


Look, I’m just trying to…

“Was.” Passive verb, my friend. You should know this by now. Passive verbs suck. Spice it up a bit. Put some life in your words or you’re going to put your readers to sleep.

I appreciate your concern, but I’m not trying to write the Great American Novel. It’s just a blog post on…

Just a blog post? Attitudes like that are the clumsy sausage fingers pulling the Jenga blocks from the very foundation of literacy today.


Here. I’ll give you a little help. Kick off the opening with something surprising. Like, “First she broke his heart, then she broke his kneecaps.” Or maybe, “Melinda dove into the water a girl, but came out a mermaid.” Wait, I’ve got it, “The tornado-ravaged mobile home park lay before them like a toppled Jenga tower.”

What is it with you and Jenga?

I like building things and taking them apart. And then re-building them. Sometimes I knock things down for the hell of it. And, no, this sort of behavior does not fit the clinical definition of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and therefore is considered perfectly normal. My therapists all agree.

Do all self-editors have multiple therapists?


Well, thanks for your help, but  I can’t use any of those opening lines.

Why not?

They don’t make sense. Not with the post I’m trying to write.

Okay, fine. What’s the topic?

It’s about silencing your self-editor when writing first drafts.

Ouch. That hurt.

You asked.

First drafts are the bane of my existence. They’re the windless sky to my kite of purpose. The decaffeination in my coffeepot of determination. The upside-down-shake of my Etch-a-Sketch hope…

Okay, okay. I get it. You hate first drafts. And you overwrite. How did you ever get to be an editor, anyway? Don’t answer that. Please be patient. You’ll get your say. Just not yet.

Fine. But make your first pass better this time, okay? I’m still feeling nauseous from the “Once upon a time” bit.

Then you might want to get a bucket.

You wouldn’t…

Once upon a time, there was a writer who couldn’t finish a novel because his self-editor kept interrupt…

I’m going to be sick…

…because his self-editor kept interrupting him before he could get the story on the page. But then one day, just as his self-editor was preparing to correct his spelling of “qeue”…


…he kicked his self-editor in the groin and plowed on ahead. He wrote his story without stopping to fix spelling errors or labor over perfect words or even solve gaping plot holes.


And wouldn’t you know it? He actually finished that novel. And it was perfect.


Kidding. It wan’t perfect. It was better than he expected, but there were still lots of problems. So…he helped his self-editor to his feet and said, “Have at it.”


Feel better now?

I will after I fix your crappy  post. Okay, first of all it’s spelled “q u e u e.” Now, about that “Once upon a time” thing…

Talking About Talking [Updated]

Talking About Talking [Updated]

I promised a post about writing good dialogue. So here it is. (Because you don’t want yours to end up looking like this.)

Before I share a few book excerpts, consider these general tips. Keep in mind, these are principles, not hard-and-fast rules.

  • Avoid repetition of attributions. While you need the occasional “he said” and “she said,” you don’t need one for every line of dialogue. If it’s a conversation between two people, establish the characters at the beginning, then allow for the natural ebb and flow to reveal who’s saying what. Now, if you’ve got a long stretch of dialogue, you’ll need to insert the occasional “said Ben” or “said Margaret” to keep the reader from getting confused. If you’re unsure if the attribution distribution is on target, have a friend read the dialogue. If it takes more than one pass to understand who’s saying what, you might need to add an attribution or two.
  • Stick to the “said” attribution as much as possible. If you’ve done a good job with character and setting and the emotion of the scene, there’s no need to have a character blurt or spout or pontificate. Context will deliver all that’s necessary for the reader to know what tone is being used.
  • Don’t have characters over-use each other’s names. “Mary, I don’t believe you.” “Why not, John?” “Well, Mary, it’s because you’re a liar.” “John, how could you say such a thing?” “It’s easy, Mary. I just open my mouth and…” Okay. Get the point? While it’s probably fair to say that characters in a novel will call each other by name more often than people do in real-life conversation, pace yourself, okay John?
  • Don’t have characters over-explain things. Put yourself inside the conversation and remember that characters are a part of a living, breathing world. Step into each role and imagine the assumptions that each character would have. Are they both in the same room, sitting at the same counter? Then it’s overkill for a character to say: “I set it next to the toaster that’s on this gray counter.” Instead, try something like this: “I set it right there,” he said, pointing to the toaster. Allow actions to fill in the blanks.
  • Think rhythmically. Dialogue is a dance. Sometimes it’s a waltz.  Sometimes it’s a tarantella. Sometimes it’s ordered, sometimes its a reckless improvisation. Usually, it’s a blend of many different steps. The quickest way to kill dialogue is to have line after line of the same droll drone. Mix it up. If it’s fun to read aloud, it’s probably fun to read silently.
  • Don’t copy real-life dialogue verbatim. Written and spoken dialogue are similar – but not the same. In real life you have the benefit of body language and physical expression and actual spoken tone, but with the written word, you have to create the illusion of these things (as well as other things like interruption and simultaneous speaking and fractured thoughts). If you want, you can start with a real conversation, but as you commit it to the page,  you may have to add or delete or replace words. And you’ll probably have to get rid of more than a few non-word pauses like “um” and “uh.”
  • Allow characters to speak colloquially (according to their character and the time-period or culture of the novel’s setting). Unless the character is meant to sound like a British aristocrat, allow him to use contractions and sentence fragments and even to screw up his grammar now and then. Imperfections and mistakes help give characters unique personalities.

Okay. That’s just a few ideas to get you started. Now, here are a few brief scenes to illustrate effective use of dialogue. The excerpts were chosen from books randomly pulled off my meager shelf. Yes, I said “meager.” Maybe someday when I have a real house and a real life, I’ll fill a wall or two with books, but these days my pickings are slim. After I read a book, I usually just give it to a friend. (This is the second best reason to be my friend. The first is the fact that I make damn good chocolate chip cookies.) [Updated Thursday afternoon to include two more examples – from authors who have a little more estrogen than the three examples originally noted below.]

* * *

She raises the lid of the piano, strikes middle C. “Do you play?” she says.

“A bit.”

“Classics or jazz?”

“No jazz, I’m afraid.”

“Will you play something for me?”

“Not now. I’m out of practice. Another time, when we know each other better.”

She peers into his study. “Can I look?” she says.

“Switch on the light.”

He puts on more music: Scarlatti sonatas, cat-music.

“You’ve got a lot of Byron books,” she says when she comes out. “Is he your favorite?”

“I’m working on Byron. On his time in Italy.”

“Didn’t he die young?”

“Thirty-six. They all died young…”

– from Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee

* * *

“Kath, I’ve been looking all over for you. I meant to say sorry. I mean, I’m really, really sorry. I honestly didn’t mean to hit you the other day. I wouldn’t dream of hitting a girl, and even if I did, I’d never want to hit you. I’m really really sorry.”

“It’s okay. An accident, that’s all.” I gave him a nod and made to move away. But Tommy said brightly:

“The shirt’s all right now. It all washed out.”

“That’s good.”

“It didn’t hurt, did it? When I hit you?”

“Sure. Fractured skull. Concussion, the lot. Even Crow Face might notice it. That’s if I ever get up there.”

“But seriously, Kath. No hard feelings, right? I’m awfully sorry. I am, honestly.”

At last I gave him a smile and said with no irony: “Look, Tommy, it was an accident and it’s now one hundred percent forgotten. I don’t hold it against you one tiny bit.”

– from Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

* * *

We sat and looked out. Brett stared straight ahead. Suddenly she shivered.

“It’s cold.”

“Want to walk back?”

“Through the park.”

We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.

“Do you still love me, Jake?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.


“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”

“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”

“Don’t do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”

“You ought to stop it.”

“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”

Her hand was trembling.

“I’m like that all through.”

“You oughtn’t to do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”


“I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something I really want to do. I’ve lost my self-respect.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Oh, darling, don’t be difficult…”

– from The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

* * *

“Well?” Annabel says.

“She wasn’t there. Of course she wasn’t there. Everyone was right. I was wrong. It’s over.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You know, I really believed I could find her. Remember my senior year of college, when you came to see my photography show in the student union?”

“Of course,” Annabel says.

“There’s something I never told you. I was the last person in my class to get a show. The very last. Everyone else did one during the fall semester, but my professor thought I wasn’t ready. In the end, the only reason I got to do the show was that I spent every night for three months in the darkroom, long after everyone else was in bed, working my ass off. Then, over time, I built my own business and made it work out of sheer stubbornness. I know I wasn’t blessed with obvious talent. My art has always been something else: hardheaded determination. It always worked for me before. I thought it would work this time, that if I was determined enough, for long enough, I’d find her.”

“You did everything you could,” Annabel says.

“It wasn’t enough.”

“Where are you calling from?”

“Playa Hermosa. I’m packing up.”

No tears now, I can’t find them. Even the anger is gone. All that’s left is a dry, empty space. This longing that will never be satisfied. This guilt.

“Come home,” Annabel says.

– from The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond

* * *

When we return to the house, my father calls Dr. Gibson. I hang around in the den so that I can hear him in the kitchen.

“I just wondered how the baby was doing,” I hear my father say into the phone.

“That’s good, right?” my father says.

“Where is she now?” he asks.

“She’ll be there how long? . . .

“Does she have a name yet? . . .

“Baby Doris,” my father repeats. He sounds surprised, taken aback.”You say she’ll go into foster care? . . .

“It seems so — “

Dr. Gibson must make a comment about foster care and adoption, because my father says, “Yes, cold.”

I can hear my father pouring a cup of coffee. “When the system doesn’t work, what happens? . . .

“She’d be prosecuted, though. . .

“Thanks,” my father says. “I just wanted to know that the baby was okay.”

My father hangs up the phone. I move into the kitchen. He’s sipping the lukewarm coffee and looking out the kitchen window. “Hey,” he says when he hears me.

“She’s all right?” I ask.

“She’s fine.”

“They’ve named her Baby Doris?”

“Apparently.” He sets the mug down. “Going to Sweetsers,” he says. “Want to come?”

I don’t have to be asked twice to accompany my father on a trip to town.

– from Light on Snow, by Anita Shreve

* * *

You may notice that these authors don’t follow “to the letter” my suggested guidelines. Well, you’ve heard a lot about a writer’s “voice,” right? One of the defining facets of that voice is the way an author presents dialogue. The use of “say” where you might expect “ask” is a matter of voice. So is the decision to have a line of dialogue follow a colon. (So, also, is the use of the occasional adverb, as you can see in two of the excerpts.) [Updated note: I like how Anita Shreve handles the phone call in her scene. This is a great example of mixing dialogue with contextual action (the daughter’s eavesdropping) in just the right measure so the reader hears everything said and unsaid.]

The main thing to ask yourself when reviewing your written dialogue is this: Does the conversation fit organically into the rest of the narrative? Does it “feel” right? If so, you’re on track. But if it pulls you out of the story or causes you to cringe, you’ve got work to do.

Okay. Tomorrow, some news about the contest entries. And (if everything goes as planned) an announcement about the winners. Plus, other random stuff.

Until then, write well.

Let It Die

Let It Die

Is it time let your novel die?

That’s a question every writer faces at least once in his or her writing life. The decision to pull life support is difficult at best, debilitatingly impossible at worst. You’ve worked on this novel for, what, months? years? How many hours have you invested? Even a poorly-written novel takes a long time to write.

Then there’s the emotional cost. Whether you love your characters or hate them, they’ve most likely become real to you. (I’m 99 percent certain I’ve seen some of mine hanging out at the local Starbucks.) Giving up on their story can feel like signing a bundle of death warrants. And who wants to do that?

There are a number of good reasons to let a novel die – a plot that goes nowhere, characters that just lie there on the page, un-patchable holes in story logic, an unbelievable premise, and (though this might be the hardest one for the writer to identify herself), shoddy writing. Thankfully, most of these things will rear their ugly heads long before you’ve finished your work, saving you the agony of having to decide the fate of a Fully Operational Death Star… I mean, completed novel.

But let’s assume for a moment that your plot is sound, your characters interesting, and (according to someone other than your mother), the writing is actually decent. And you’ve finished the book. And you’ve been shopping it to agents (or, if you have an agent, he or she has been shopping it to publishing houses) for months. And months. And months.

And nobody wants it.

You’ve heard a dozen variations on “It’s not for us” or “The writing is good, but I’m just not blown away by it” or the real soul-killer, “I wanted to love it…”

Do you give up on your novel after ten rejections? Twenty? Fifty?

How many times can you go back to the story and “improve” it before you actually start to make it worse? Five times? Ten?

I’ll offer you the inspirational message first. Don’t give up! If you need a break from constant rejection, just set aside the novel for a time and work on something else. [Insert any of a hundred stories of authors whose novels languished for years before becoming an “overnight success” story.] When the time is right and the market is right and the stars align and God decides He likes you, all your hard work will pay off in a contract offer and the subsequent joy of walking into Barnes & Noble to see your lovely book on the front table next to Dan Brown’s next bestseller.

If inspiration is what you need, you should stop reading now.

For the rest of you? Well, killing your unsalable book might just be the best thing you ever did. It’s quite possible your stillborn story is holding you back from creating something better. If every time you sit down to write a new work, you look longingly at your last project and wonder “why oh why don’t they love you like I do?” you might be dooming your current work to the same fate.

Letting go of a novel can free you up to try new things with the next one.

Now, I’m not actually suggesting you should delete all files and throw away all hard copies of a go-nowhere book. That would be silly. You should keep past work in some sort of archive. That archive is a great testament to all you’ve accomplished, and (hopefully), a scrapbook that shows how far you’ve come.

But what I am suggesting is that you effectively let the book die. Stop thinking about it. Put all your time into the current project. Apply everything you’ve learned from the last one and make this story shine. You can’t hurt your previous novel’s feelings. A novel understands its role, even if the writer doesn’t. A shelved novel has already served a very important purpose. It has taught you.

Now about this new work? You really should pay attention to it. Because, as you know, this is the one that will get you published.

Yes, this one. It’s a living, breathing thing.

And I think it’s hungry.

Your Novel Doesn’t Stink Enough

Your Novel Doesn’t Stink Enough

Scent. The forgotten sense.

Take a look at your work in progress. How often do you invite the reader’s nose into the story? My guess? Not as often as you should.

Consider real life for a moment. (In case you’ve forgotten, this is the life where you have to do laundry and feed the dog and occasionally acknowledge the existence of your spouse and/or children.) Breathe in each the following. Be sure to pause long enough for the brain to write the scene that goes with the scent.

Diesel fuel.

Chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.

The sidewalk after a summer rain.

Burning plastic.

Theater popcorn.

Cigar smoke.

Wet dog.

Spinning class.

The ocean.


Is your head spinning yet? Good. Then you get my point. In real life (see above for reminder of what this is), scent is one of our most powerful memory-triggers. Whereas I sometimes struggle to re-paint the visual elements of a past experience, scent memory acts like an impatient time machine. The moment I smell vanilla, I’m in my mother’s kitchen, barely as tall as the counter, fingers dusted with flour and waiting impatiently for the first spoon of cookie dough. The heady tease of campfire smoke takes me to any of a dozen childhood-through-adult memories, each flashing by in some visceral “Best Of…” camping memories video. And then there’s the unique pheromonic signature of those we love… or once loved. Sigh. The paradox of hope and a broken heart in a single inhale? Don’t even get me started on that one.

As with every other aspect of writing, using scent in story is an art form. It’s not as simple as saying “She smelled of raspberries.” Here are a few basic tips to make the most of scent:

  • Vary the manner in which you put the scent on the page. While it’s easy to write “she smelled like…” or “the air smelled like…” and so on, this sort of simplistic introduction to scent can actually diminish the reader’s experience over time. Mix it up. Use sentence fragments. Or just toss the source of the scent on the page. (“When she reached for the spoon, she knocked over the open bottle of vanilla and it soaked her sleeve.”)
  • Choose your scents carefully – what takes you back to a happy memory could take someone else back to a sad one.
  • Obscure scents can be effective (they take readers to very specific places), but familiar ones will have the most universal impact.
  • Allow plenty of space around the scent. Unless you are trying to overwhelm the reader in a particular scene, don’t throw a bouquet of aromas on the page. A single mention of burning plastic can linger almost as long in a story as it does in real life (remember real life?).
  • Scents can be used for good or for evil. Don’t be afraid to use them for the latter. Nothing will make a reader remember a villain more than being told he reeks of a decomposing mouse.

The nose matters.

That’s all for today. But before I go, I thought I’d share some of the titles I almost used for this post. Just because.

  • The Ol’factory
  • Scents and Sensibility
  • Sulphur for Your Art
  • The Odor Way to Write
  • Scratch and Sniff Your Way to a Pulitzer

In case you’re wondering – I haven’t forgotten the “First and Last” contest. Your entries are lined up in my reading queue. I’ve skimmed them once already. You people are quite creative. And slightly insane. In a (mostly) good way.

Winners will be announced Friday.

Smell you later…

When Details Become Distraction

When Details Become Distraction

Version One.

Benny’s cherry red Converse sneakers squeaked their delight on the Asian Mahogany Pergo laminate floor while his mother stirred the Nestle Semi-Sweet morsels into the cookie dough using the wood-handled Le Creuset spatula with the blue non-stick silicone surface that never failed her.

“Now?” asked Benny, his brown eyes barely visible beneath the blue, red and white of the too-big Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

“Not yet,” she answered, and she stirred some more, thankful for her Paderno copper mixing bowl and her Okite Creama Botticino countertop and a pair of neon orange Crocs that might elicit snide comments from women who wear Giuseppe Zanottis and pretend not to enjoy shopping at Pottery Barn, but invite nothing but praise from her size-eight feet in the safety of her two-story brownstone.

“But I’m hungry now!” Benny picked at the Spiderman Band-Aid on his left wrist.

“Almost,” she said, a little more sharply than she intended, but Benny didn’t seem to notice. He had wandered into the twenty-by-twenty-four living room and grabbed the RCA remote from the back of the brown leather Lazy-Boy recliner and was aiming it at the 42″ LCD TV.

“Can I watch SpongeBob on Nickelodeon while I eat cookie dough?” He asked, stuffing his free hand in the pocket of his stonewashed Lee jeans.

“Sure.” She looked up from the copper bowl as the TV lit the room with an image of a familiar face partially hidden by Ray-Ban Aviators. “Wait, leave it,” she said. And then she wished she hadn’t.

“Hey, it’s daddy. What’s daddy doing on TV?”

The camera zoomed out to reveal her husband wearing his favorite black Hugo Boss suit as he was being stuffed into the back of a blue and white police car. Benny looked over at his mother with a puzzled expression. This is when she dropped the Le Creuset spatula, fell to the Asian Mahogany Pergo floor, and hit her head on the half-open door of the Fisher & Paykel Dishdrawer.

Version Two.

Benny’s cherry red Converse sneakers squeaked their delight on the mahogany laminate floor while his mother stirred chocolate chips into the cookie dough using the wood-handled spatula with the non-stick surface that never failed her.

“Now?” asked Benny, his brown eyes barely visible beneath the blue, red and white of the too-big Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

“Not yet,” she answered, and she stirred some more, thankful for her copper mixing bowl and her Okite countertop and a pair of neon orange Crocs that might elicit snide comments from women who wear Giuseppe Zanottis and pretend not to enjoy shopping at Pottery Barn, but invite nothing but praise from her size-eight feet in the safety of her two-story brownstone.

“But I’m hungry now!” Benny picked at the Spiderman Band-Aid on his left wrist.

“Almost,” she said, a little more sharply than she intended, but Benny didn’t seem to notice. He had wandered into the living room and grabbed the remote from the back of the leather recliner and was aiming it at the TV.

“Can I watch SpongeBob while I eat cookie dough?” He asked, stuffing his free hand in the pocket of his stonewashed jeans.

“Sure.” She looked up from the bowl as the TV lit the room with an image of a familiar face wearing a pained expression partially hidden by Ray-Ban Aviators. “Wait, leave it,” she said. And then she wished she hadn’t.

“Hey, it’s daddy. What’s daddy doing on TV?”

The camera zoomed out to reveal her husband being stuffed into the back of a police car. Benny looked over at his mother with a puzzled expression. This is when she dropped the spatula, fell to the floor, and hit her head on the half-open door of the dishwasher.

And now, the explanation.

First of all, you’ll notice that there isn’t a huge difference between the first version of this scene and the second. This illustrates a very important principal of the editing process: it’s not always about sweeping changes – sometimes it’s all about the little tweaks. (BTW, some of my former cubicle-dwelling neighbors hate that word “tweak,” so I’m using it here mostly to annoy them in that friendly, poke-in-the-ribs-with-a-stick sorta way. Hi old editing pals!)

So what’s wrong with the first version? Well, it certainly does a good job of providing specific details. But sometimes, too much specificity can actually detract from a scene by drawing attention away from the heart of the story: the characters themselves. At worst, name-brand references (which, in moderation, add welcome verisimilitude) become little more than product-placement ads and the whole scene starts to look more like a catalog than a story.

So let’s look at the changes I made. Overall, I made the editorial call that there were simply too many brand names here and that some had to go. So which ones? Well, I cut the brand name and specific color of the flooring because “mahogany” and “laminate” give the reader enough information to picture it. And everyone knows what “chocolate chips” are – we don’t need to know they’re from Nestle unless that’s critical to the story somehow. (If the dad works for Hershey? Now that could give it purpose.)

The Cubs cap is perfect. Since most of us know the color of a Cub’s hat, you might wonder if we need the “blue, red and white”? No. But I liked the cadence of that sentence. So it stays.

You could easily argue to keep “Paderno” except that few people know about Paderno so eliminating the brand reference is no great loss. A copper bowl is unique enough to add texture to the setting. I kept the brand name for the countertop because it implies something about the mother’s knowledge of kitchens, and therefore (possibly) about how much she enjoys cooking. I edited out the color reference only because there are already so many details in this sentence. I might find a way to re-insert it somewhere else in the story because Italian words are so fun to read. Notice that I kept the rest of the details. Even if you don’t know who Giuseppe Zanotti is (and I sure don’t), it’s clear from context that the women are all about image over practicality. This contrast to the mom and her neon orange Crocs immediately tells you a ton about her that would have been lost with a generic description of the Pottery Barn ladies.

Spiderman stays. I mean, c’mon. It’s Spiderman.

Okay, the next paragraph was an easy fix. We don’t need to know how big the room is. We don’t need to know the brand of the remote (who would know the difference, anyway, except someone who has seen multiple remotes including the mentioned brand). And we don’t even need to know what kind or size of TV is in the room. The reader will draw his own picture there and that’s perfectly fine.

Two more easy cuts in the next paragraph. However… if part of what makes the Benny character unique is an unusual speech pattern whereby he always adds unnecessary details, then I’d keep his mention of Nickelodeon. I can cut “Lees” with ease, however.

I kept the Ray-Bans because it’s a familiar visual. Most people would see this exactly as the writer intended.

In the next paragraph I took the husband out of his suit. Did I have to? No. It might be important to the character. But the emotional impact of the scene is all about the mother’s reaction to seeing her husband being arrested. Unless the suit has a role to play in the story, we don’t need it here.

And finally, the last cuts are obvious. It simply takes too long for her to fall if we have to note every little detail of her Garden State moment. (Hey, it’s a movie reference. Didja get it? If not, ask someone who’s seen it. Or rent it yourself.)

And there you go.

As always, this is just one editor’s opinion. But if nothing else, I hope you understand the main point. What was the point? Um… you could have figured it out just from the title of the post. But thanks for reading this far anyway. I like you better than the people who didn’t.

Hey, tomorrow I’m introducing the next Noveldoctor writing contest. Sharpen your virtual pens. It’s going to be a good one.

Until then, happy self-editing.

On the Subject of Subjectivity

On the Subject of Subjectivity

Deep breath…

The Da Vinci Code is the best novel ever written. You know it’s based on a true story, right?

The Left Behind books are more well-written than anything by Fitzgerald or Hemingway or any of those boring Russian authors.

The Road. It changed the way I view dialogue said the man. And punctuation. His life was a series of fragmented sentences. And so was the book. The Road is not just Cormac’s tarmac. It is brilliance said the man. The boy turned his head and coughed.

Don’t you dare question the infinite incredibleness of The Lord of the Rings trilogy or a horde of orcs will pour out of your closet in the middle of the night and chop you up and feed you to the Balrog!

Atonement? [tap…tap…tap-tap…tap…] The best book ever written [tap-tap…tap…tap…tap-tap-tap] that features a typewriter as a main character! [tap…tap…zzzzing!]

I’d marry the Twilight books if I could. But only after months and months of chaste, yet extremely passionate longing. If you don’t agree, I’ll bite you in the neck.

Sigh. The Notebook. A Walk to Remember. I don’t care which one you choose, you absolutely have to fall in love with anything Nicholas Sparks writes. Of course, then something tragic will happen to you. But that will just make you love his books more. The most recent one? I don’t know what it was called, but it made me cry. They all make me cry. They should come with a box of tissues. Sigh. I just love Nicholas Sparks.

* * *

Hi, it’s me. Your noveldoctor. You breathing okay? I suspect a few of you might be experiencing some kind of emotional and/or physical distress. Go ahead and take a moment to calm down.

Okay. Wait a second. Some of you in the back row are still hyperventilating. Breathe in through your nose…now exhale through your mouth…


I really don’t need to say much more here. You know exactly what I’m going to say next, right?


Ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming. [I considered writing “Squirrel,” because doing so would immediately divide the audience into two camps, thereby underscoring the point I will have beat to death by the end of the next paragraph. Camp one would have been all, “Ah, how cute. That’s from ‘Up’! I loved that movie!” Camp two would have smugly grumbled, “What a lame attempt at humor. That whole ‘squirrel’ thing is so yesterday. Get some fresh material, Parolini.”]

Here’s the paragraph where I make the point you already see coming. When it comes to reading, subjectivity rules. What you love, someone else might hate. What you see as brilliant, someone else might see as pretentious or just plain stupid. Readers like what they like…because they like it. (Go ahead and get that tattooed down your spine. I won’t charge you a royalty. But please send me a picture.) Argue all you want about the literary merits of Brown or Meyer or Jenkins & LaHaye, millions of folks read and enjoyed their books. Does that mean you have to love them, too? Nope. Read your Nabokov. Your Tolstoy. Your Austen. Your  Marilynne Robinson. You’ve always read what you enjoy. Why stop now?

Okay, we’re about to make the leap from talking about “reader subjectively” to exploring “acquisition editor/agent subjectivity.” Lock the germ-infested metal bar tight against your legs, remain seated, and by all means, keep your hands and other body parts inside the vehicle at all times.


* plink *

We’re there. What’s that? You didn’t feel any dramatic stomach-drop excitement? Well, of course not, silly. That’s because there’s very little distance between your reading subjectivity and the subjectivity found in the agenting and editorial realms. Yes, editors and agents have a practiced understanding of “good writing” versus “bad writing” and they quickly pass on all “nowhere near good” manuscripts based on this somewhat objective (though not purely so) criteria.

But that’s not all they do.

They also rule out manuscripts that simply don’t grab them. In fact, they do this a lot. This is where the editor’s or agent’s selection process starts to look surprisingly like the reader’s selection process. You’re going to argue that agents and editors choose books that have a chance of selling. That their personal preference may play some role, but that it’s not the main factor. You would be right, at least in part. But… why does one manuscript look salable to an edigent (just coining a word here so I don’t have to keep writing “editor” and “agent” every time) and the next one doesn’t? Sub. Jec. Tivity. Whether the edigents are asking the question “would this sell?” or “do I like this?” they’re doing so through a filter uniquely their own. This is why it’s so important to seek out agents who represent books similar to the one you’re writing. I’m aware this is common sense. But sometimes I think writers skip this step and select agents based solely on how cute they look in their blog photo.

The book you’re submitting to agents? It might be a perfectly publishable book. (Or one with enough promise to be publishable at some point in the future.) And yet you get rejected. Once. Twice. It happens to nearly every writer. Even the ones mentioned above. Just keep working on the craft of writing. Do all you can to eliminate anything that would relegate your book to the “easy dismissal” category. Then do your research. Send it to more agents.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

We all know the hard truth: many novels, even some that are brilliantly written, won’t find a home on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Yours may be among the missing. But the only way to be certain yours won’t make it to the shelf is to give up trying.

Don’t give up.

Listen. Learn. And hope that one day your study and persistence will pay off and that the gods of subjectivity will smile upon you and drop your manuscript in the lap of an edigent who just happens to love urban fantasies featuring a protagonist who is half unicorn, half stockbroker.

Now get back to work.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering. I just made up those comments at the top of the post. I do happen to like some of the books mentioned, but not all of them. Guess which ones I like and I might send you a prize.