Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Glass Houses Redux

When you hear that "great minds think alike," believe it. Problem Child and I had the same topic on the brain this week. And we're "great minds" aren't we? *

I recently judged a contest too, and as always, I anguished over the scores I awarded each entry. The scoring guidelines are clearly defined but as PC said, this is someone's book that you are scoring. Someone's hopes and dreams. That is a big responsibility.

I've entered one contest with a book that's now languishing in that proverbial box under the bed, and I know how difficult it is to print off those pages, find the proper binder clips, put it in the correct type of envelope, enclose enough postage for them to return your score sheets and hear the thunk when it hits the bottom of the mail chute. Your blood pressure rises, your stomach ties up in knots and all you can think is “Please give it back, Mr. Postman! I need to change one teensy, weensy little thing to make it better.”

I liken the whole experience to stripping buck naked and standing on a busy street corner. These are your thoughts, your ideas, your words, and you've just laid them bare for some stranger to judge.

In the course of reading these contest entries, I learned a lot of things about writing in general and am working to apply this knowledge to my writing in particular. I've divided them into six topics and in no particular order they are:

(1) Quantum Physics 101. Just because you have a Ph.D. in quantum physics and your hero is a quantum physicist, you shouldn't fill the first thirty pages of your story with the minutiae of quantum physics. Likewise, I shouldn't find out your physics hero's entire life story in those same thirty pages. Spread that out in the book. In most cases, a majority of the backstory can be left out altogether. You want to focus on your hero and heroine's relationship and their journey toward happy-ever-after. My early writings were a veritable landfill of information. I’m getting better.

(2) Pea Seas. I'm sure Problem Child can rattle off numerous tales of students who've told her "It can't have misspelled words! I ran the spell checker." The following poem was run through the spell checker on my word processing program and not a single item was flagged.

Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marks four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a quay and type a word and weight for it to say
Weather eye yam wrong oar write.
It shows me strait a weigh as soon as a mist ache is maid.
It nose bee fore two long and eye can put the error rite.
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it,
I am shore your pleased to no.
Its letter perfect awl the way.
My checker told me sew.

Why was nothing flagged? Because nothing is misspelled but rather used in the wrong context or in violation of the rules of proper grammar.

Do not rely on the spelling and grammar checker in your word processing program to proof your work. They cannot replace the power of the human mind. Have someone check it for you before you submit the entry for a contest or for final submission.

We won’t comment on how many times I’ve depended on spell check and later spotted a humongous gaffe.

(3) Whose Head Is It Anyway? It took me a long time (and I mean a LONG time) to understand about point of view (POV). I would be writing from the hero's POV when suddenly a thought from the heroine would invade the paragraph, and I couldn't understand why my critique partner was bleeding the letters "POV" all over my work. Several people tried to explain it. I read a couple articles on it. And one day, WHAMMO! It was like a light bulb turning on, and I've been a POV purist from that day on.

Granted there are famous authors who jump from one POV to another (this is known as head-hopping) but they are famous authors and they can (a) often simply get away with stuff we newbies can't or (b) they can get away with it because they do it well. Find some books on writing and/or search writing sites for articles on POV and learn all about it. You won't regret mastering this very crucial part of writing.

(4) The Cecil B. DeMille Syndrome. Lois is the heroine and Clark is the hero and then there's Perry White and Jimmy Olsen. Oh and don't forget Clark's mom and dad and Lois's parents and her sister Lucy. Then there's Lana Lang from back in Smallville, not to mention that dastardly Lex Luthor. And how could I forget Superman, the Man of Steel himself? Next we have Perry White's wife Alice and his kids and their spouses. Jimmy has a girlfriend du jour. Cat Grant writes the society column and is a thorn in Lois's side. Oh, I forgot about Maisie who runs the diner in Smallville and Mr. Trezewski, Lois's landlord, and Rahalia who is the Daily Planet's cleaning lady. Then there are all the villains: Jason Trask, the Press brothers, Metallo, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the Toy Maker, Mr. Gadget, Spencer Spenser, Diana Stride, and... well, you get the picture.

Imagine reading ten pages where all those people were introduced. It's enough to make your head spin. Be careful with a large cast of characters. You don't want your hero and heroine to get lost in the crowd.

(5) Be a Hooker. My mother used to tell me that I had one chance to make a good impression. It’s the same with a book. You have one chance to hook the reader (or an editor or agent) with a great opening. It can be a bit of snappy dialogue, a leap into the middle of the action or a description that leaves the reader feeling like she’s floating down the Nile or high atop an Alpine peak. Just make sure it snags the reader’s attention and holds him or her by the throat.

I don’t suppose I should say that I want to be a good hooker, should I? :-/

(6) Men Are From Mars. I am married and have two grown sons. For way too many years I’ve been the minority in a fraternity, and trust me when I say that men talk differently than women. They speak a language all their own (but then, so do we). For the most part, they don’t use diminutives; things are either big or small. They don’t describe things in many more colors than red, blue, green, yellow, brown, black and white. They spit and scratch and adjust themselves in public. They don’t know a shitake mushroom from shine-ola. Make your hero sound like a man. I once had a hero contemplating the smell of viburnum wafting in the springtime air. Gack!

Go to a sports bar and listen to men talk while you nurse a Flirtini (which, by the way, no self-respecting man would order). Take in a baseball game and eavesdrop on the conversation between the men sitting behind you. Or if you’re in the minority like me, just listen to your husband and sons talk while you’re picking their boxer shorts off the bathroom floor or watching them eat day-old pizza for breakfast.

(6a) Men from Mars and Women from Venus Really Do Talk. After you’ve figured out how real men talk, make sure your hero actually talks to the heroine. And have her talk back. Forty-five pages of story with very little dialogue isn’t very entertaining. Dialogue is how you really get inside your characters’ heads. It shows emotion. It advances the plot, defines a character and/or provides valuable information. Dialogue tags and character attributions are a whole 'nuther topic. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking. Talking heads are distracting, especially during a particularly steamy love scene.

All this being said, I’m going to go back to the story I’m writing and remove the info dump, manually check the spelling, make sure my POV is consistent, kill off a couple of secondary characters and re-write that opening sentence. Then I'm going to go suffer through a Hugh Jackman movie and make sure my hero walks and talks like him. It's a rough job, but somebody's gotta do it.

* By the by, the correct answer to this question is "Yes." ;-)


Problem Child said...

Wanna borrow a couple of my rocks?

Now that I have entries out in 4 contests, I realize all of the things I meant to fix...I hope the judges are as kind and sympathetic as we are. Sigh.


Smarty Pants said...

I just got my packet in the mail of contest entries to judge. I'm afraid to open it.



Instigator said...

You guys will be wonderful judges because your heart is in the right place!

PM, you should consider making this post into an article for the newsletter. Alot of great info in there.


Anonymous said...

I love Hugh Jackman!