Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Trust and Balance Issues

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is
really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” –Mark Twain

If you’ve watched Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, you may remember the scene where Gandalf instructs Pippin on how to behave at the court of Lord Denethor. After delivering his little spiel covering all the things Pippin shouldn’t say, poor exasperated Gandalf finally tells him it would be better not to speak at all.

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of people offer similar-sounding advice to aspiring writers, advice I have sometimes given myself. And I’d like to set the record straight, if I can. First and foremost, writing is strongly a matter of style. Everyone has his or her own opinion as to what works and what doesn’t. Some people enjoy bold, fast-paced plots; others prefer stream-of-consciousness. Some like angsty characters and dark settings, others don’t. Clearly, then, trying to define universally popular style parameters is about as effective as flailing around in quicksand. Though maybe not as deadly.

For instance, when authors broach the subject of dialogue tags, two opposing questions invariably rear their ugly heads. Keep the tags simple? Or use variety? Many writers will tell you that “he says, she says” is quite sufficient for the task and that anything more grandiose is extraneous. Others will disagree. But before we start asking who’s right and who’s wrong, why don’t we look for a middle ground together? In order to do that, I think we should start by defining the goals of these two conflicting rules.


Rule One—Keep Tags Simple:  Beginning writers usually do not have the necessary skill and discipline to recognize when their prose is too wordy and superfluous. Even experienced authors struggle in this field, so instead of spending hours explaining to their fresh-faced followers how one colorful dialogue tag is fine while another is too much, it’s far easier just to lay down a rule. When in doubt, err on the side of sparse. Likewise, referring to my opening example, Gandalf has no way to predict how Pippin will behave and whether he will use common sense, so the wizard cannot be certain if it is wise to trust his friend. Without the addition of one-on-one training and loads of experience, even the most well-crafted blog post out there is not likely to turn an inept storyteller into a brilliant one. That takes skill, discernment, and patience.


Rule Two—Use Variety:  I’ll admit—I tend to camp out on this side. Maybe I’m OCD, but when I read the word “said” fifty times in a page, I start wanting to poke myself in the eye with a stick. Why? Well, first and foremost, many writers will tell you to avoid repeating non-filler terms too often in close proximity, except for effect (filler terms such as “a”, “and”, “the”, etc…, however, are fine). Without pointless redundancies, prose reads more smoothly. But another reason why simplification of tags bothers me is that “said” is a very flat word. It indicates nothing of tone or emotion or force. Who knows what’s going on in the speaker’s head? Frankly, the lack of spice and expression gets boring pretty quickly, not to mention choppy. And because I’m super-nitpicky, these details can negatively affect my enjoyment of a story. (But I’m working on that. *sheepish grin*)


If you’re like me, you’ll see right away that both sides have a point. Simplicity and variety are excellent qualities, but they are not mutually exclusive. And I’m convinced we can achieve the best of both worlds. Rather than following the letter of the law, let’s follow the spirit. In other words, now that we know the intention of both rules, what can we do to solve the problem? When you dress up to go out, some of you probably use a touch of perfume or cologne. But surely you don’t pour the entire bottle over your hair. Likewise in writing, where descriptive language is meant to accent, not to overpower or distract.

With this in mind, why don’t we move on to adverbs. Now, these little fellows get a bad rap. Almost everywhere I go, I see people counselling others to cut them. We have verbs; we have adjectives; who really needs the foolish little adverb? Personally, I was trained to use them like they were going out of style, and only in recent years have I come to accept that, as with the dialogue tags, both sides of the argument have valid issues to bring to the table. Perhaps once more we can find a middle ground. In my mind, adverb usage is a lot like tightrope walking, more so than the “he says, she says” conundrum. For instance, if I were to write a fantastically long sentence completely full of entirely extraneous and excruciatingly boring adverbs, you might understandably struggle with the unbearably strong urge to violently punish me. Yet when an author uses adverbs intentionally and tastefully, he or she enhances their piece.

Perhaps the adverb’s greatest weakness is that some writers shamelessly employ it to hide weak wording. I’ll admit—I’m frequently guilty of that myself. And when I read through my work and stumble upon one of these unforgivable sins, I have to ask myself what its function is. Is it pulling its own weight, or is it dragging the story down? Consider this sentence:  “Elsa clumsily tried to open the door.” Ask yourself, what is Elsa doing? More specifically, what verb am I using? Compared with some of its cousins like “attempt” and “endeavor” and “strain” and “struggle”, “trying” is just the weakling on the block. Bolstering him with an adverb is like feeding a toddler hamburgers so he can lift a car. Sorry, not happening. So instead of cheating and hoping to slip by with less than stellar verbiage, I ought to just rephrase myself. Sometimes that involves stepping out of the box to get a different angle. Now I can write “Elsa fumbled with the doorknob.” Problem solved. Poor inept Elsa.

Let’s try another shall we? “‘You’re uglier than a frog,’ Elsa said angrily.” Well I don’t know about you, but when I’m upset, I don’t say stuff. I sneer, shout, growl, hiss, frown, snap, etc… Adverbs should never be employed as getaway cars to avoid fixing a feeble setup. There are about a bazillion (numbers not accurate) wonderful synonyms you can use, each with its own implication. Which means it’s time to learn your connotations, baby. Just picture yourself juggling grenades, and you’ll get the idea. (So that might have been a slight exaggeration.) Believe it or not, bits and bobs like this really slant the tone of a piece, even when the reader doesn’t understand why. You may not notice that the descriptive language in a passage is stronger, but you feel that the scene is more powerful. You may not realize the verbs are more active, but you love that the story is rife with tension. Every. Word. Matters. When it comes to writing, the scalpel and the chainsaw are equally important.

At this point, if you’re of the “Adverbs are Evil” camp, you’re probably cackling to yourself and wondering how I’m going to dig myself out of this hole. Clearly I went and forgot which side I’m on. It happens. Be that as it may, I’m not going to rant any longer about proper and improper usage, since I myself am still actively learning—as every writer should be. So here’s my challenge to you. If you have the time, go back and read this post again, paying special attention to the adverbs I’ve employed. Ultimately, it’s a matter of opinion, and I’m not going to stand here and claim that I have the perfect balance or that I’m an expert on the subject. What I have done, though, is given you an example of how I, personally, believe adverbs should be handled. Now it’s up to you to decide whether you agree.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Superiority Complex

Six days out of seven, I install myself in my easy chair with Adele, the laptop, and I whittle away at the remaining stamina in my wrists. From the way I jealously guard this time, you would think I’m in love. And to an extent, that’s true. But if you’ve followed my blog for more than a week, you probably know that storytelling isn’t all larks and roses. Unlike many writers, I do not enjoy the drafting process, the spitting of raw ideas onto paper. It’s when I get to untangling the jumbled mess that the fun starts. Delving into the unknown with no guide and no clue as to what should happen next is stressful. I’m not a visionary novelist who works with fifty pages of outline and ninety pages of notes. Sometimes I wish I were, but it’s more helpful to accept my limitations.

As for anxiety, that doesn’t mean I sit down at the computer and freak out. Granted, I could tell myself that the book I finished was a fluke and that I shouldn’t expect to do it again. Yet I don’t. In fact, I do expect myself to succeed, not because I think I’m brilliant or special or perfect, but because I know that the first book came into existence through hard work. No one sprinkled fairy dust over my computer; no one handed me the words. I had to chase down each and every one, even when it felt like banging my head against the wall for 389 hours would accomplish more in the end. Also, I’m stubborn, and I’m too proud to quit, which I’ve found can be the best motivation of all. No one is going to say that Manuscript Mountain conquered me. OH NO.

The problem with this confidence, though, is that it can very quickly lead to snobbery. Let me be honest with you; I struggle with that a lot more than I’d like to admit. It’s not wrong to be self-assured—in fact, it’s helpful—but it means walking a very fine line. Unfortunately, just like insecurity, arrogance is the enemy—the product and killer—of success. Sometimes I go through stages where I genuinely believe I am the best at what I do, so I criticize other writers and find fault with published novels and console myself that I would never make the same mistakes. Worse than that, I start to base my worth as a person on my assessment of my skill. On how well I’m liked. On how many people read my blog. As if Out of Coffee, Out of Mind is hugely important in the grand scheme of things. I promise I won’t stop blogging anytime soon (unless I die or the Doctor takes me away in the TARDIS), but I need to accept that if I were to go silent, life would continue without me. Maybe some readers would miss my voice. If so, I’m flattered. But whatever the case—you can be sure—the gap left in my wake would soon be filled by someone else.

If I base my happiness on something as fickle as success, then I am guaranteed to be disappointed. Guaranteed. In my own eyes, I will always be a failure. And I will forget why I started writing in the first place, why I fell in love with the craft, why I finish rough drafts despite their overwhelming flaws.

But there’s another aspect of arrogance that cripples. If I convince myself that I am perfect, then I will fail to see the ways in which I desperately need to improve. (This goes for normal life as well.) And I want to be gentle when I say this, because I know some of my readers are young writers, and I enjoy watching you gush about your projects. So let me be the first to say that excitement is by no means wrong, and I would never go back and tell my previous selves that they were mistaken to be thrilled with words. But have you ever met a proud parent who seems to see their child in a totally different light than anyone else? They coo about Charlie the angel even while little Charlie is lighting someone’s hair on fire.  Fantasy and actuality lock in hideous combat. It’s the same with writing. If I’m too enamored with my darling manuscript and too blind to its nasty habits, I will never have the necessary wherewithal to whip out the axe and the scalpel and go crazy. I will never accept when my characters are faulty, inconsistent, unreal, or out of place. Blinded by my precious, preconceived notions, I will miss what is actually on the page.

That’s not to say I don’t connect emotionally with my novels at all. But the most important bit I have learned over the years (aside from patience) is the ability to let go. When a story idea just isn’t as brilliant as you had hoped—even after you’ve given it an honest shot—let it go. When the scene you loved isn’t adding anything to the plot, let it go. When your dream agent rejects you (albeit very nicely) spam her (I meant to say, let it go).  

Eight days out of ten, I meet resistance. I feel dull, like my brain moved to Romania and left a decoy in its place. The music hurts my ears, but I need the music to concentrate. The laptop is too hot. The words won’t come. The literary agent has had my full manuscript for almost four months, and it seems like no one will ever get back to me. But that’s the rub. While a job can be pleasurable, it’s called work for a reason. As in relationships, you make a commitment to persist even when it isn’t fun anymore, even when it’s painful to fight against entropy, even when it’s easier to cut your losses and quit. When I was young, I had a choice. I could resist the editorial comments that said my writing lacked clarity and direction (it did), or my male characters were too much like old ladies (they were), or my driving forces weren’t evident (they weren’t). I could reason away really good advice and listen instead to the voice that I much preferred, the voice of my inner writer that said my critics weren’t as talented as I, that it wasn’t my fault they couldn’t understand the vision I had for my story. But now that I’m older, and especially now that I have the very definite goal of publication in mind, I do not have that luxury. If I want to improve—and I must—I cannot afford to rest on my laurels and spend my royalties before they’re earned. In fact, I have no business thinking of myself as anyone other than someone who is trying her hardest to do her best, nothing more.

So I’ve been working to cultivate a teachable mindset rather than a passive or stubborn one. (I just made that sound as easy as eating ice cream. Believe me, it’s not.) Of course, I will still recoil when I receive criticism, and I will always battle the urge to blame the reader, but in order to succeed, I need to recognize my faults and my limitations. Because I guarantee that I will never go far if I cannot take honest, unvarnished, painful opinions. In the meantime, it’s hard to fight arrogance in a job where you’re constantly expected to stand up for your own talents, where it seems you have to force people to take you seriously. Believe me, I get that.

But unfortunately, superiority complexes do not buy bread.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

An Aversion to Romances and Titles

Now, I don’t write Romance—like EVER. In fact, I am allergic. Once, some friends and I tried to compose our own Scottish love stories, and about two pages in I had already planned the tragic yet beautiful demise of the hero (as well as the heroine’s insane sister). Like I said, I don’t do Romance. However, a few months ago, for an American literature class, I was forced (at gunpoint) to rewrite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Courtship of Miles Standish” using a different setting and just the barebones of the plot. (Fanfiction—another thing I don’t do.) That said, I figured I’d share the only lovey-dovey piece I’ve ever written so you can see what you’re (not) missing. Oh, and it doesn’t have a title, because I’m horribly awful at those. If you had a diagram, clever titles would be at one end of the spectrum, and I would be at the other.
So without any further ado, happy reading and happy Valentine’s Day! And thank you for your patience.
They sat studying—Victor and Hugo—buddies since, I don’t know, preschool, or even before that.  More tightly knit than socks.  For several hours they’d been content to just snack in silence with only the crunch of Cheetos to fill the gap between them.  But then Victor happened to glance at the clock, and it reminded him that evening was coming soon, and with it, work.  He wouldn’t have time to ask Jasmine himself. 
Pensive, he cleared his throat and began gathering his schoolbooks, ready to stuff them into his bag.  He paused.  “Hugo, I’ve been thinking.  Would you do me a favor?” 
“Sure,” Hugo mumbled, adding a row of numbers in his mind.  “What is it this time?  You want me to run to the store and grab more Bagel Bites?” 
Victor shook his head, his mouth tight.  “I’m leaving tonight—the old man wants me to pick up his orders from Vicksburg.  But summer’s coming, and I’m so busy; I might not get the chance later.  I want you to ask her out for me.” 
Forgetting to breathe, Hugo tilted his head to look at Victor through the corner of his eye, the calculations lost.  “You what?” 
“Ask Jasmine if she’d date me,” Victor pressed impatiently.  “Set up dinner for us, tomorrow night—nice restaurant somewhere. You pick.  Or let her.  Call me when it’s settled.”  He stood, then thought better and stooped to slap Hugo on the shoulder.  “Thanks man.” 
Smiling brightly, Jasmine stood behind the counter, taking orders and handing steaming coffee to overworked freshmen preparing to cram for the beginning of finals—next week, so soon.  Hugo could count on one hand the days remaining before he would be free to pursue his own interests over the summer.  In his mind though, when he’d seen his future, he hadn’t been alone.  Now it was different. Unfortunately, according to the lifelong rule of friendship and honor carried up from the kindergarten playground, Victor had been the first to speak, which gave him dibs. 
For several minutes, Hugo waited in line, eyeing the merchandise:  the ivory white mugs, the over-priced key chains, and the shirts with clever slogans.  And he saw nothing really.  In fact, he hardly noticed as the couple ahead of him grabbed their sandwiches and their cocoa and strolled off arm-in-arm, laughing at something Jasmine had said. 
“Can I get you anything, or are you just going to stand there until I call security?” 
The question jolted him back to reality, but it took him a while to recognize the playful expression on Jasmine’s face. 
“You’re really out of it today.”  Smirking, she leaned forward with her elbows on the counter and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.  “You on the run or something?” 
His pulse raced as if he were, and his palms sweated too, stuffed into the depths of his linty pockets.  “Can I speak with you, alone?” 
She frowned and studied him closer.  “You all right?” 
“Please, just answer the question.” 
Shrugging, she shook her head in confusion.  “I’m off in ten.” 
Ages seemed to pass before she joined him at a secluded booth, tucked behind a curving wall near the restroom doors.  A bit of toilet paper clung to the tiles just beyond the threshold, and Jasmine crinkled her nose when she saw it.  Pulling up a chair, she set a mug in his hands and watched him stir absentmindedly.  Meanwhile, she sipped her own pumpkin latte with obvious care, reading him with her eyes. 
When she cleared her throat, he jolted awake, finally registering the drink before him.  “Thanks,” he mumbled, taking in the scent of Aztec mocha.  His favorite. 
“What’s eating you?” 
All he wanted was to sit there and enjoy her company for however long she’d let him and to go home knowing they were still friends.  Instead he cleared his throat and met her eyes.  “Victor sent me.  He wants me to set you two up on a date.” 
Frowning, she straightened and paused mid-motion, her hand still raised to tuck her hair behind her ear.  “That’s what this is about?” 
“Which restaurant do you prefer?” Hugo pressed. 
“Why won’t he just ask me himself?” 
“He’s busy.” 
“Oh, busy,” she snorted.  “My bad.” 
“Which restaurant?” Hugo pleaded.  His thoughts were swirling in a tiresome blaze, and he was so tempted to sink his head onto the table and feel the cool wood against his face. 
“No,” she snapped.  “I’m not going.  If he doesn’t care enough to ask me himself, if he’s too busy, then I won’t have him.  This is the twenty-first century—we don’t send emissaries.  And you can tell him I said that.” 
“Jasmine, he’s a nice guy.  He works hard, makes money—he’d take good care of you.”  Why am I pressing so hard? Hugo asked himself.  Just let it be over and done with. 
“It takes a little more than money to please me,” Jasmine drilled him with her accusing eyes.  “What about love?  What about friendship?  What about shared experiences and smiles?  You have to work for those.  You have to earn them yourself, not with someone else’s help.” 
“He didn’t want to miss the chance to ask you, but his father needed him—” 
“He had all year to ask me.”  Pursing her lips, she pushed back from the table, grabbed her coffee, and stood.  “And what about you?  Why’d he send you to ask me?  Doesn’t he know?” 
“She what?” 
“She said no?”  Victor glared at Hugo, remembered whom he was addressing, and lowered his voice to a quiet yell.  “What reason did she give?” 
Maybe it was the stale taste of coffee in his mouth or the image of her angry face locked away in his brain.  But Hugo couldn’t think straight—he had to let it spill.  So he told Victor everything.  Everything. 
For a long while, Victor was silent, pacing back and forth across the carpet with hands locked and eyes screwed tight.  “You little—” he bit the words off, too angry even to speak.  And then he stormed out of the room, just like that, raging and seething, fists clenched. 
The next day, when Hugo returned from the library, he dropped his school bag on the floor and noticed, with a pang, that Victor’s belongings were gone.  He was gone. 
“He just left?”  Jasmine twisted her straw to mix the slushy bits with the melting coffee.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t know—your friendship…” 
“Doesn’t matter,” Hugo shrugged and toyed with a bit of wilted lettuce from his uneaten sandwich.  “We weren’t going to be roommates next year anyway.  He graduates…” 
“Still, you lost a friend because of me.  I’m sorry.” 
“Listen,” Hugo snapped.  “It’s not your fault.  You didn’t want him.  He should have let it be.”  Of course he hadn’t told her everything, not about the bit where Hugo had admitted to loving Jasmine.  That part wasn’t for her ears, only for his heart. 
“You know—time…has a way of smoothing things over,” Jasmine offered. 
“Is that so?” Hugo tried to meet her eyes, sure that she’d meant something deeper. But she was looking elsewhere. 
They sat in the cafĂ©, as they’d done for the past few months, through cramming and finals and then into the summer—every day, every evening, meeting there to drink coffee and talk.  To toy at the edge of friendship, but never to go farther than that.  They faced each other, and between them they felt the world spinning with words they couldn’t say. 
“How long can we keep this up?” Jasmine finally asked, one sweltering afternoon.  Already her frozen coffee was thoroughly melted.  But she hadn’t even taken a sip. 
“Hmm?” Hugo raised an eyebrow, studying the tabletop. 
“This game,” she snapped, “the game where we pretend we don’t matter to each other.  Because I can’t move on, but you won’t give me a reason to stay.  So what are we doing?  What’s the point?” 
“You know…I can’t,” Hugo pleaded, hating the weary ache of age in his chest. 
“Hugo, you can’t just keep me dangling over the edge and expect me to be fine with that. If you’re going to make an offer, then make it.  But otherwise, don’t waste my time.”  With that, she stood, and her chair screeched across the floor. 
Long after she left, he could still hear the slamming door, could still hear her words ringing in his ears.  Finally he gathered his trash and threw it away, steeling himself for the long, hot walk to his apartment.  Just outside the shop, he paused to glance at the newspaper stand.  Maybe the reports of others’ misfortunes would distract him from his own. 
Sweating profusely in his nicest leather jacket, shaking with guilty excitement and trepidation, he stood at Jasmine’s door with a bouquet of roses in his unsteady hand.  On the eleventh knock, she flung the door open and barred the way, sagging wearily against the frame.  But her sparking eyes betrayed her interest.  They discovered the roses.  “What now?”  She pursed her lips. 
Drawing in a deep, calming breath, Hugo sank to one knee, offered the flowers, and said with a faltering voice, “Jasmine Pencroft, will you marry me?” 
She shrieked, gasped, laughed, sucked at the air, covered her face with her hands.  Tears slipped from beneath her fingers. 
“So…what’s your answer?” Hugo prodded, after a painfully long time.  By now his leg was starting to cramp, and his arm was getting tired from holding out the bundle of blooms.  Why won’t she just take it already? 
“What about Victor?” she asked, and her excitement dimmed. 
“He died in a plane crash.”  Of course, Hugo really tried to feel sorry about this, tried to forget the pall that had hung over their friendship and ruined it so much that he felt relief at its end.  He knew regret. 
“That’s terrible,” Jasmine murmured.  “And now you’re free?” 
“Yes,” he stood.  His leg seemed a mass of knots.  Finally she took the roses and sniffed delicately. 
“You know you can’t let his death be for nothing,” Hugo prodded. 
“Of course not,” she agreed. 
The wedding was small and simple, with sprays of white flowers and soft kisses of starlight to garland the outdoor stage.  Deep shadows obscured the couple in sheets of purple robes.  Dimly silhouetted figures stood looking on.  Some were crying, others laughing softly.  One was gossiping to another while fiddling in her purse for an elusive pack of gum.  But a lone observer waited unmoving, off to the side, as the vows exchanged themselves in hushed voices. 
Only after the ring and the kiss did he step forward and climb onto the stage with a stiffness and a limp about him.  A silver slice of moon fell on his face, and the newlyweds shrank back with frightened gasps. 
“Victor!” Hugo exclaimed, half-choked.  “I can explain.”  He felt laid bare, exposed, caught in an act of unpardonable sin.  His entire body trembled, and his face grew hot. 
“You believed I was dead?” Victor chuckled.  “Thought so for a while myself.” 
“But how?” 
“An Indonesian villager dragged me from the wreck and nursed me back to health.  But the reporters didn’t know,” he winked, “and I didn’t tell them.” 
The couple relaxed. 
“Anyway, I assume you’ll be having a reception?” 
Jasmine nodded dumbly. 
“Good, you have no idea how much of a bother it was to get here on time.  I was afraid I’d miss the cake.  There will be cake, won’t there?”