Don’t Do This! Pt 2 – The Single Worst Line I’ve Read in a Published Book This Year

I love the modern style of writing. In it, the prose is supposed to get out of the way and let the characters and story shine. Gone is trying to create a unique voice or poetry with your words. Instead, the goal is to be clear and concise and to tell your story.

My Ninth Law of Writing puts this concept succinctly, “Every word counts.”

It’s my dedication to the principle above that makes the use of unnecessary speech tags so annoying. I’ve stated this dozens of times — the only reason for a speech tag is to tell the reader who is speaking. If the information is conveyed already, get rid of the speech tag.

The most frequent violation of this edict that I see is a writer having a character act and speak in a paragraph and including a speech tag in that same paragraph. I noticed Sanderson doing this very thing in A Memory of Light. You’d think he’d know better.

The reader understands that the person acting and the person speaking in a paragraph are the same person.

Two important takeaways from the concept above:

1. A speech tag is not needed.
2. You must change paragraphs if you have a character act other than the speaker.

With that common mistake out of the way, I read a line in a published (traditional, not self) novel that was so horrid it inspired me to do a post.

This line is the single worst bit of writing I’ve seen in a published novel this year:

“It’s Joren, Your Highness,” Joren said.

Really?

If the author would have written, “It’s Joren, Your Highness,” Chuck said” that would have made sense. As it is, we know Joren is speaking because he says, “It’s Joren.” We know he said it because of the quotation marks. Putting the speech tags is sign of a writer who is paying absolutely no attention to his words.

Don’t do that!

The Only Ironclad Rule of Writing

Most of the “rules” of writing are merely guidelines to point you in the right (write?) direction. Truthfully, there’s only one that you absolutely must follow:

You can do anything you want — as long as it works.

The first part is simple; it’s just what you wanted to hear. The second part, there’s the rub. How, exactly, do you go about figuring out if something works?

My first suggestion is to follow the “rules.” They’re not there to constrain you. They exist as helpful guides to keep you from screwing up. If you’re going by the acceptable standards, you’re probably going to be okay.

Sometimes, you simply have to be true to your artistic vision, or, maybe, you just want to be contrary. Basically, sometimes you just gotta break all the rules. In that case:

Use your discernment as a writer. There is absolutely no one better qualified than you to determine if your vision is being translated onto the page because no one else knows your vision. With experience comes discernment. Flag any areas where you felt you’ve went off the beaten path. Continue writing. Once you’ve gained some distance and perspective, go back to those sections and ask yourself, “Did I really accomplish what I wanted?”

The problem is that, while you are the best person to determine if you’ve translated the story in your head correctly, you’re also the worst. You know exactly what you meant to say, and your mind will trick you into reading what you meant instead of what you wrote. In that case:

Find good beta readers. In the absence of good ones, bad ones will work. Remember, however, the cardinal rule of dealing with such, good or bad, as the old saying goes — they’re usually right when they say you’ve screwed up but usually wrong in telling you how to fix it. What I’ve found is that there will be long stretches of text with no comments. Then, they’ll be a section where multiple readers have placed a comment. These remarks may be sentences or paragraphs or even half a page apart. They may critique different things entirely. One may question my word choice while another mentions character. The thing I take away is that the scene didn’t work, and I need to fix it. And not necessarily by changing either of the things the commenters brought up.

The problem with beta readers is that it’s a bit like the blind leading the blind, and it’s sometimes hard to trust them completely. That’s why you need an expert.

Pay an editor who you trust. For one thing, the fact that you’re laying out cold, hard cash gives the comments you get back instantly more weight. What you get for free (or even as an exchange) is not nearly as valuable as what you pried open your wallet for. Your editor should be the most experienced expert you can find and afford. Don’t skimp on this step. He’ll be your best friend in that he’ll take your work to the next level. He’ll be your worst enemy in that he’ll see all the flaws you hoped you had hidden.

Should You Sweat the Small Stuff?

This happens to me a lot — I make an observation on a forum about an, admittedly, nitpicky problem in a book I’m reading. Invariably, someone is going to comment that writers should write for readers, not for other writers, and that readers just don’t care about the small stuff.

I’m of two minds on this advice.

Mind 1

1. Don’t let great be the enemy of good. At some point, you have to stop editing and let your stuff stand. Power of the Mages, as of this post, is over 123 THOUSAND words. Even if, by some miracle, I’ve managed to pick the best options from the infinite combinations of ideas that I want to convey, the possibility that I’ve chosen the best from the so-large-as-to-be-the-same-as-infinite combinations of words and phrases to convey those ideas is so minutely improbable as to be nil. Even if I worked the next million years on the novel, the chances of getting it even subjectively perfect is small.
2. Quantity is its own quality. I firmly believe that my best chance at becoming someone who makes a living writing lies in creating a bunch of books. It is certainly more efficient, and economically effective, to put out works that are well short of perfect.

Mind 2

1. I can’t help but think that the advice sounds an awful lot like an excuse not to put in the work necessary to become a good writer, so, on one level, it’s hard to respect the attitude.
2. The small stuff can be bigger than you think. Consider this sentence — Instead, he smirked at Tasia with a dark face. There’s nothing really wrong with it on first glance. It made it unscathed through a number of edits, and none of my five beta readers batted an eye at it. Upon further review, though, the character who it refers to is: upset that the girl he loves basically hates him, mad at his friend for stealing said girl, feeling abandoned by the rest of his friends, and anxious knowing that his upcoming meeting with the duke could mean his execution if it doesn’t go well. Is “smirk” really a reasonable expression here? In retrospect, the word stands out like a psychic speedbump preventing me for conveying his true emotions.
3. Small stuff can lead to systematic problems that do impact the reader. The author of a book I’m in the process of reading right now has a bad habit of including a lot of words, phrases, and paragraphs that are not, in my opinion, necessary. An instance here or there probably wouldn’t impact quality over much, but the inclusion of too much irrelevant description in an action sequence completely took me out of the scene and ruined the impact. I think that’s something that, on some level, a lot of readers would notice. The poor technique demonstrated also means that I will probably (holding off final judgment until the end) not give the book more than 3 stars.
4. Small stuff adds up. If I change one word to make it better, does it really do anything for the quality of my book? Probably not any that is readily discernible. What about 10 changes? 100? 1000? 12,000? I’d submit that if I make 10% of my book a tiny bit better that even the average reader is going to notice the overall increase in quality.
5. Your first market isn’t the masses. To an extent, I think that the average person doesn’t notice quality differences in books much at all. They read books because that book has entered the mainstream consciousness, and everybody else is talking about it. If you can get to that level, you’re golden. Your first market, however, is hardcore readers. These are the people who are going to look for your book and discover it. If they like it, they’re going to blog about it and put it on lists and tell their friends to check it out. I think that, on average, these people are more discerning than the average person when it comes to book quality and are more likely to care about the small stuff.

A Merging of the Minds

Don’t let fear of imperfection keep you from trying, but always seek to improve. Seek realistic measures of the quality of your work. Once it’s good enough, get it out there and move on to your next project.

When you get criticism, though, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Investigate if the criticism has merit. If so, learn from it and make your future writing better.

Why Does That Scene Exist?

It is my firm contention that an author should ask himself the question posed in the title of this post for every scene.

I know I’ve expressed the same sentiment before on this blog, and I probably will do so again because I think it’s the second most important piece of advice I can give you. However, I have a different end purpose in mind for telling it to you this time.

Usually, the subtext to the comment is that, if you can’t answer the question, you should delete the scene. On this occasion, the point is that answering the question can make the scene better.

In the most recent chapter of Power of the Mages that I’m editing, I got a bunch of beta reader comments that suggested alternative things that could happen instead of what I wrote. My takeaway — “These scenes are so incredibly boring that I spent my mental effort trying to find kernels that might provide interest in order to distract me for the mind-numbing prose.”

Boring. Got it.

Long time readers of this blog will instantly know how to fix boring — add tension and add emotion.

While doing just those two things made up a part of my troubleshooting strategy, these scenes required some extra TLC. The root cause of them being boring was that they did not fulfill the story need that justified their existence.

Simply put, it felt like the scenes didn’t belong because they served no purpose.

Easy fix again, right? Just delete them.

In this case, no. The problem wasn’t that they’re not needed; the problem was that the idiot author (me) hadn’t written the scenes to make them fulfill their respective objectives. By tightening the focus to emphasize fulfillment of the scene goals, I was able to make the scenes feel like part of the whole instead of boring outliers.

How to Find Beta Readers

I’ve well-established how I feel about the importance of a writer getting constructive feedback; I think it’s absolutely crucial. An author is simply too close to his work to catch everything, and the process of trying hard to create something perfect and having that work picked apart is the fastest way to improve.

That being said, where you do find critiques?

1. What helped me the most was a critique group. The live interaction and meeting face to face with other authors provides me with input and motivation that no other source can match. Go to meetup.com and search for writer’s groups in your area. If there isn’t one, consider trying to start one. Note that you’ll be required to critique others just as they critique you.
2. Every writing forum I found has some kind of method of displaying your work for critique. These are a great place to get a variety of opinions on chapters or short pieces of work. Don’t be a user, though. If you’re going to get benefit from the community, give back in the form of helping others and generating content for the forum.
3. I offer detailed coaching for short pieces on this blog (see Submissions). Frankly, I’m surprised that more people don’t take me up on it. Flourish Editing also offers to critique small samples for free every Monday. Take advantage of these kinds of offers. (If you know of any other blogs or editors that offer this kind of service, please comment with a link.)
4. There are many online critique groups. I haven’t used any of them, but a simple Google search can start your research.

All the methods above are best for short pieces or portions of your novel, and, even if you use any or all of them, you still need beta readers for the complete finished draft of your novel. Here’s how you find them:

1. Ask friends and family. I know that some say this is a bad idea, but it can work as long as you use this resource as only a part of the feedback you get. That friend or aunt may spot a mistake that you and your other betas missed or come up with a cool insight. You probably need to send your manuscript to four or five people, and supplementing other sources with this one is an easy way to increase the quantity.
2. Writing forums have hundreds of authors in the same position as you. The best way to get a quality beta reader is to become one and do an exchange of services. You read his novel, and he reads yours.
3. Editors are expensive, but there’s no better source for professional input on your work than paying for it. It’s my opinion that you’re best served waiting until you have an advanced draft that has already passed through several layers of revision and beta reading first. You want to maximize your money spent, and, if your uncle can point out your grammar mistakes, the editor won’t have to spend his limited time doing it. (Look for my two part series on editing coming as early as next week after I receive feedback on Abuse of Power.)

Macro Editing versus Micro Editing

Usually, I do links on Friday, and, as I’m getting back into writing The Slender Man Massacre since the Amazon contest deadline is past, I had some good ones on horror writing tips lined up and ready to go. Before I could compose that post, however, I realized that I had made a big mistake in my editing. What bothered me so much is not that I made an error — I make those all the time — but that I’ve repeated that particular error so many times.

I’m writing this in the hopes that:

A. Focusing on it will help me not make it quite so many times in the future.
B. This post will help you avoid the same mistake.

I consider myself quite good at writing from a technical standpoint, and I think that feedback I’ve gotten gives enough supporting evidence that I don’t have to consider myself delusional in thinking that. I’m not saying that my prose is going to make you weep, but I can present a coherent story with words that aren’t going to make you cringe.

My problem is that, when I edit, it’s hard for me to pull my focus off the micro aspects. Is that the right word? Should that adverb be there? Good Lord, how many times do I have to tell myself that “some” and “of it” just aren’t needed? Also, get rid of the “just” in that last sentence.

For my 3rd draft editing of Power of the Mages, my methodology is:

• Go through a chapter once making my edits and picking up all beta reader comments
• Read the entire chapter checking to make sure all the pieces that I edited in the first pass fit together coherently and that there are no flow problems
• Copy/Paste the whole chapter into Pro Writing Aid and make necessary changes
• Do the paperwork changes in my book bible, file the chapter away, and move on to the next one

By far, the hardest, most time-consuming part of the process is the first step. Once I finish with that go through, I’m 90% done with the chapter. So, having finished that part yesterday for Chapter 12, I moved on mentally to Chapter 13. That turned out to be a good thing.

You see, one of the scenes in Chapter 13 has an obvious macro problem. It simply adds nothing to the story either in terms of character and plot. So, obvious solution, just get rid of it, right? The problem is that my inner author is telling me that it’s needed, forcing me to reconcile the analyst viewpoint with my instinct.

I approached the problem methodically, starting with, “What is the scene supposed to accomplish?” I couldn’t figure that out; like I said, the scene sucked. I didn’t give up there, though. Instead I analyzed the goal of the surrounding scenes. Aha! That led me to the answer. Once I had it, it was a simple thought exercise to make the scene fulfill the goal and to figure out how to make all the surrounding scenes better.

I’m quite excited about Chapter 13 now. Instead of being a useful part of the book that provides a little bit of plot info, it’s going to do that and really delve into the character motivations with good tension. Conquering that macro issue, however, brought me to a realization: though I considered myself “done” with Chapter 12, I had put exactly zero thought into macro editing it.

If I want to produce a competent book that people can read and understand the plot and characters, micro editing is fine. It will, assuming decent characters and plotline, for the most part produce a readable book all on its own (For me, anyway. It’s hard for me to write anything without at least accidentally including a minimum amount of the necessary storytelling elements.). If I want to produce a book that I can be proud of, that will draw in the reader and not let them go, I simply have to do a better job at focusing on macro editing.

For each scene, I, at minimum, should ask the following three questions:

1. Is there enough tension? If not, add tension.
2. Is there enough emotion? If not, usually it means I didn’t write the scene close enough to the point of view of the character. In the 1st and 2nd draft, I took “Show, Don’t Tell” to absurd lengths, and it hurt me. Sometimes, you just have to tell what the character is feeling or why he’s doing something.
3. What is the goal for the scene and does it accomplish that goal? This is the biggie. If it doesn’t accomplish the goal, make it accomplish the goal.

Should You Kill Babies?

As I write this, I’m quite proud of myself (not an abnormal state of affairs, I admit). Partially, that’s because I’m pretty pleased with the cleverness of the post title, but, mainly, it’s because I’ve finally figured out how to cut.

My first draft of Power of the Mages was 120 thousand words. My second, 130, Chapters 7 and 8 alone combined for over 12,000. In my 3rd draft, I managed to lop off almost 2,200 of those suckers, a reduction of a whopping 18%.

I attribute this newfound ability of mine to three factors:

1. I overcame my tendency to overshow. Let’s say that I had a character sitting in a chair and I needed him to exit the room, my inclination when I started writing was to show him opening the door next. One of the members of my writing group would always ask the question, “He was sitting when we last saw him. How’d he get to the door?” These comments influenced me greatly, and I ended up with, and only a slight exaggeration here, stuff like, “Character stood, walked across the room, reached a hand out for the door handle, swung the door open, and stepped out.” Now, I understand that it’s better to write, “Character left the room.” Even better still, use a short transition to show him at the next place where something important happens. It’s a tricky balance because too little information can leave the reader confused. Too much, however, is boring.
2. I became a better officer. In the beginning, I was like a young military leader heading into his first conflict. “Those are good words. I worked hard developing those words. I don’t want to see those words die.” Now, I’m more like a wizened old general. “Those words have to be sacrificed for the good of the story. Let not their deletion be in vain.”
3. I became more discerning. With experience, I developed a better understanding of what belongs in the story. If it doesn’t add anything, I throw it away.

Chapters 7 and 8 were bloated and boring. Making the cuts that I did unquestionably helped my story. Sometimes though, the decision on what to cut is tough.

In Make a Scene, Jordan Rosenfeld says that a scene has to be cut if any of the following conditions aren’t met:

• New information is introduced
• It relates to the significant situation
• It builds upon the last scene
• It involves, informs, or affects the protagonist
• It makes the reader feel more clued in
• It moves forward in time

That’s a pretty strict list. Do all my scenes meet each of those criteria? Probably not.

A famous quote, though there are many versions of it, in writing lore is that you should “kill your babies.” The thinking behind the quote, apparently, is that you cannot be objective about any scene that you like too much, that you consider “your baby.”

If I adhered to both the above sections of advice, I don’t think I’d have much a book left.

My babies are the parts that tend to evoke the strongest reaction. They have the potential to make people laugh or to make them cry. They’re the last scenes I want to delete.

As far as Mr. Rosenfeld goes, he’s telling me that I can’t have a relevant scene if it doesn’t apply each of those criteria? What about a well written, engrossing scene that develops character and makes the reader feel for him, but doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the plot? I have to cut it? Really?

On the other hand: Near the end of Power of the Mages, one of the characters has just carried out a covert mission and is going back to the castle. I summarized and said, basically, “He went back to the castle.” (Slightly more elegantly than that, hopefully, but that was the gist.) One of my beta readers suggested that I expand that to add more action. I responded that it would add nothing to the plot or character development.

Clearly, I believe there are limits, and I apparently draw the line at mindless action. This whole scenario got me thinking about what my true criteria are for including scenes.

My central tenets of writing are that the work should engage the reader and it should evoke an emotional response. From those tenets, I can easily derive my criteria: Cut a scene if it:

• Doesn’t engage the reader or
• Doesn’t evoke an emotional response

In my mind, mindless action for the sake of action does not truly engage the reader.