A Few Thoughts on Writing

Most advice for writers online seems to impart information the adviser does not truly understand, advice unable to capture the nuance and complexity of writing (and reading).

The concept that is probably the most misunderstood and misused is “showing vs telling,” followed by the disdain of adverbs.

The best example of “showing” in English literature is Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants.  Because it is written in strict 3rd Person Objective, the reader only sees and hears what a camera would see and hear:

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

“They look like white elephants,” she said.

“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.

“No, You wouldn’t have.”

Some of the best examples of “telling” can be found in fiction for children and young adults. If you’ve read the Harry Potter books, you’ve read thousands of pages of examples of “telling.” Here is an example:

Harry had taken up his place at wizard school, where he and his scar were famous … but now the school year was over, and he was back with the Dursleys for the summer, back to being treated like a dog that had rolled in something smelly. The Dursleys hadn’t even remembered that today happened to be Harry’s twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn’t been high… .

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. J. K. Rowling.

Variations of the following are provided all over the web as an example of the sin of “telling:” She was cold.

The prescription offered to correct this mistake, transforming it from “telling” to “showing,” is always along the lines of: “The snow swirled around her. She blew on her hands then pulled her scarf tighter around her neck.”

Both are examples of scene setting description that do not tell you anything about the character’s thoughts and feelings, nor advance the plot.  And because they do not function as either character or plot development, that the first tells what the second shows, is irrelevant with regards to the prescription against “telling.”

The only meaningful difference between these two examples is that the first is a very efficient description and the second is a less efficient description.

Here is another example from Hills Like White Elephants:

The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot….

You’ll notice that Hemingway comes right out and tells you it is very hot. In the nearly 100 years that this story has been subjected to literary criticism, this sentence has never been flagged as “telling,” because it tells you nothing about the characters and doesn’t give away the story. The title does that.

A succinct, efficient description is all that is needed here, because the weather is not the point. Hemingway could delete this sentence and it would have no effect on the story. If the temperature was to marry the mood of the characters, it would be cold.

If Hemingway had spent 3-4 sentences establishing that it was hot, showing that it was hot, the reader would have been lead to believe that the temperature was important, because the time spent on detail is how an author clues the reader into what matters and what doesn’t.

Another example from Hills Like White Elephants:

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

This is perhaps the most perfect example of “showing” you will ever find. It is so perfect, the reader may not even pick up on the significance of this scene until after having read the entire story.

Many online writing gurus implore writers to more write elaborate, lengthy descriptions, full of novel metaphors, in order to avoid “telling.” But unless you are a very talented writer, following this advice will usually only serve to draw attention to your writing, which for me at least, is a much greater sin than “telling.” It risks annoying, distracting, or boring the reader, especially if you are composing metaphors. Metaphors are extremely hard to get right and extremely easy to get wrong, and everyone always assumes that they get them right, but they don’t, and readers pay the price.

How elaborate a description should be, whether you set the scene efficiently or inefficiently, shouldn’t be determined by an arbitrary rule about showing and telling (and it is arbitrary–all dialog is “showing;” if a character says “I’m cold” it does not count as “telling”). The amount of detail provided should be based solely on the needs of the story both at that moment and as a whole. And your actual skill as a writer.

I find that elaborate descriptions are best left to exceptional writers, and that encouraging writers, in general, to be unnecessarily verbose, does their writing more harm than good.

Most writers, and surely all readers, would be better served by Elmore Leonard’s tenth rule on writing: “If is sounds like writing, rewrite it,” than they would by having two extra sentences added to convey that a particular character was cold, so as to avoid the appearance of “telling.” Readers don’t want to be constantly reminded that they are reading as they read.

I’m not saying that “She was cold” is necessarily better than “The snow swirled around her. She blew on her hands then pulled her scarf tighter around her neck;” I’m saying that “The snow swirled around her. She blew on her hands then pulled her scarf tighter around her neck” is not necessarily better than “She was cold”. It is artificial to compare them out of context, which is how they are always compared by the writing gurus.

I would probably opt for just “the snow swirled around her.” From that it is obvious she is cold, the reader learns it is snowing, and unless her being gloveless is important, and unless the scarf will prove important later on, as a reader, I don’t care. It’s detail I don’t need. My mind provided her with the appropriate attire as soon as I learned she was outside in the snow.

Writers need to evaluate our writing as a reader would; ask ourselves: If I read this in a book I didn’t write, would I like it? Would I even care? We also must trust our readers, have faith that their imaginations will be able to bring our stories to life. While no reader wants to have to play games figuring out how things look, at the same time, they don’t want the way things look to interfere with their enjoyment of the story itself. A reader’s mind will fill the void.

The following paragraph is, for me, the most beautiful in the English language. I am honest enough with myself to know that it would take me six months to write even a shadow of it. But it provides a good rule of thumb for evaluating elaborate descriptions: the more elaborate the description, the greater the demand that the description be beautiful, and that it be used primarily to establish tone and subtext, to create an emotional response in the reader:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The last paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead”

(The last sentence of that paragraph surely ranks with the best poetry ever written).

You’ll notice Joyce had no fear of adverbs. I’m not sure when or how the war against adverbs began. I know Steven King is a champion of the cause to rid the world of adverbs, somewhat disingenuously given the frequency of adverbs in his own writing.

My guess is that the same misunderstanding about “showing vs telling” gave birth to it. Adverbs can certainly be misused, but they are simply another form of efficient description. And as the above excerpt shows, they’re critical to creating a sentence’s cadence and tone.

Even Hemingway, the most famous Minimalist writer of all time, used adverbs freely. His writing, like all Minimalists, is absolutely efficient, but his sentences are beautiful nonetheless:

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

 A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemmingway

Not only did he use adverbs liberally here, he repeatedly uses one of the most reviled adverbs of all: very. And he does so with great success, because no sentence ever written has been harmed by making it more pleasing to the ear, which is why the very’s are there.

The beauty of any sentence comes always from its cadence, and cadence is created primarily by adverbs and the word “and” (and commas too — they are the punctuational equivalent of “and,” but multiple commas in a short stretch can sometimes become confusing). Many misunderstand this, I think, assuming that the beauty comes from the words. There is not a single fifty-cent word in either Joyce’s paragraph or in Hemingway’s. They both used everyday language. They just used everyday language in exceptional ways.

Far more important than showing or telling or adverbs is being conscious of what you are doing when you write and why you are doing it and what you hope it will achieve. You should be able to explain why you made the choices you did — every one of them. If you can’t explain it, you should probably cut it.

A useful tool for both writers and reviewers is LiteraryDevices. net . It has definitions and examples of the all of the various types devices employed and available to writers.

[T]he term Literary Devices refers to the typical structures used by writers in their works to convey his or her message(s) in a simple manner to his or her readers.  When employed properly, the different literary devices help readers to appreciate, interpret and analyze a literary work.

Literary Elements have an inherent existence in a literary piece and are extensively employed by writers to develop a literary piece e.g. plot, setting, narrative structure, characters, mood, theme, moral etc. Writers simply cannot create their desired works without including Literary Elements in a thoroughly professional manner.

Literary Techniques, on the contrary, are structures, usually words or phrases, in literary texts that writers employ to achieve not merely artistic ends, but also give readers a greater understanding and appreciation of their literary works. Examples are:  metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole, allegory etc.

In contrast to literary elements, literary techniques are not an unavoidable aspect of literary works.

I’ll leave you with the best refutation of the assertion that adverbs weaken sentences that there is:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Verbs were meant to be modified and they were meant to be modified by adverbs.

-k-

Getting Amazon to Work for You

We’ve been meaning to post this for some time.

It’s no secret that Amazon is where micropresses and authors rise or fall.

And while there are certainly, undeniably, legitimate reasons to find fault with Amazon as a corporate entity, the fact remains that their egalitarian, open door policy for all authors, their lack of pretension and self-importance, and their market dominance, single-handily made the micropress revolution possible.

There are numerous articles around the web on the importance of generating customer reviews on Amazon (here are two goods ones by Author S Smith and Gwen Whiting). There are also many articles on how to go about generating those reviews (the Creative Penn has an nice one). Additionally, there are numerous forums on Goodreads dedicated to reviews-for-books exchanges (here’s one; here’s another). There is also a for-fee service where authors and publishers can pay for access to potential Amazon reviewers called Story Cartel (you can read our review of Story Cartel in our post Publishing: Odds and Ends and Lessons Learned — see #9. Short story? Waste of money).

But even more important than book reviews are Amazon sales rankings, and unfortunately, very few reviewers are willing to purchase copies of the books they review. We are actually the only one we know of who does. We won’t review a book unless we purchase it, because we feel the only real way to support our fellow micropresses and authors is by purchasing their books.

The price most reviewers pay for the books they review are the reviews they write. It’s a system that works reasonably well for everyone. But because the books are usually distributed as eBooks directly by the authors themselves, they rarely help boost a book’s sales ranking.

There is a very simple way to rectify this and make sure that the books you distribute (for whatever reason) are counted towards your Amazon sales ranking — purchase the books from Amazon yourself. This also ensures that complimentary copies to reviewers who fail to review the book still help the book’s success.

Purchasing and distributing print copies is straightforward — you simply purchase the book and have it shipped to yourself or directly to the recipient. Purchasing and distributing eBooks is a little less intuitive — you will need to use the “gift to” feature, and gift the copy to the recipient (unfortunately, we did not think of this until about a week ago and are still kicking ourselves that we didn’t do this with the twenty-two complimentary eBooks of To Thee is This World Given we gave out in June, only six of which generated reviews).

Buying the books you need from Amazon probably won’t be enough for you to break into the top 100, but if you do it consistently, it should keep your book in the 70,000 range, which is in the company of many traditionally published mid- and back list authors. And if you have chosen your Amazon genre categories well, it might even keep you under 5000 in those categories (this How to for Authors has some good advice about how to choose categories).

For small orders of print books, the financial outlay of purchasing them from Amazon, as opposed to purchasing them from your printer/distributor, is negligible (our printer/distributor is Lightning Source/Ingram Spark — we highly recommend them). The primary difference in price is your publisher profit, which is included in the Amazon price, but not in the direct sales price, so it is eventually returned to you from Amazon by your distributor. And as long as you always purchase enough copies at one time for free shipping, your shipping costs are less than they would be from your distributor. [Note: If you are purchasing in bulk — i.e. whatever quantity at which your printer’s bulk order discounts kick in — it is almost always going to be more economical to purchase directly from your distributor].

The financial outlay for gifting eBooks is even less burdensome, especially if you reduce the sales price to ninety-nine cents for the giveaway. Twenty books will only cost you thirteen dollars (ninety-nine cents less your thirty-five cent publisher profit times twenty).

Once you start purchasing your books from Amazon, Amazon starts purchasing additional copies of your book to keep on hand. Print on demand (POD) books are listed on Amazon as “in stock, but requiring additional time for delivery” unless it has copies on hand. If it does not have copies on hand, the customer will not be able to receive the book as quickly as they normally would expect, so an additional benefit of purchasing through Amazon is that it ensures your book remains readily available.

To give you an example of how few books it takes to get Amazon to take notice, we only purchased 7 copies of the hardback of To Thee is This World Given between mid-June and the last week of September, but Amazon now keeps at least 5 copies on hand — that’s five books Amazon purchased outright. So our seven purchases not only helped our sales ranking, they were offset by Amazon’s own purchases. Additionally, the first three of those seven books took between two and three weeks from the date of order to reach us, but the last four we purchased for the IBPA Ben Franklin Awards arrived less than a week later.

With contest and giveaway season gearing up we have several purchases of both the hardback and paperback editions of To Thee is This World Given lined up between now and the first week of November. Because Amazon’s sales rankings are a rolling count, you will get the most impact by staggering your purchases — one sale a day for thirty days gives you a higher rank than thirty sales in one day. The German website Self Publisher Bible did an excellent study of how rankings work on Amazon (no worries, it’s in English). This is something to keep in mind with book launches and promotions as well — if you are gifting eBook or print copies for the launch, a promotion, or a Goodreads Giveaway you might consider staggering when and how many you purchase to get the most benefit. [To learn more about Goodreads Giveaways, see our post here  #11].

Most of the public, including micropresses and authors, have very little understanding of how traditionally published books get their initial sales rankings and end up on best seller lists. Their rankings are based on pre-orders by libraries and booksellers. They are not a function of how many books are actually purchased by individual book buyers. And the vast majority of these books are never truly purchased as they end up back at the publisher as returns. This is especially true of mega-hit best sellers.

Booksellers game the system too by buying books by the carton for displays, knowing they will return all but one or two before the net thirty or net sixty on their invoice comes due, thereby requiring the publisher to pay for the return postage. The publisher remainders the books and writes the order off as a loss. The bookseller gets a nice holiday display. The publisher gets a huge sales bump for its books. And the book buying public gets to believe that 100 million people actually read Fifty Shades of Grey.

There is a service that ostensibly tracks actual retail sales of books called Book Scan, but it’s pretty much a joke, even inside the industry. The truest indicator of actual sales is…Amazon. This is something traditional authors and publishers object to because Amazon’s numbers frequently tell a different story than the industry’s do. One of the most disappointing things we ever read was Ursala K. LeGuin accusing Amazon of intentionally “disappearing” her books out of spite.

One other thing to keep in mind about a traditionally published book’s sales ranking is that the books are almost always bought as part of pre-set packages from book jobbers like Baker & Taylor. This is especially true of the books you find in libraries. Booksellers and librarians sign up for certain types of package programs and then purchase whatever books the jobber includes in that package. So these sales aren’t truly a reflection of what books readers are buying or even interested in.

Don’t be ashamed or afraid of using the system to your advantage. There is almost nothing a micropress or an author can do, short of hacking Amazon, that rivals what tradition publishing houses and booksellers do as a matter of course to take full advantage of the system.

You also might like our post on lessons we’ve learned over the past year.

Why: Reading is a Modern Superpower…

This list could also be titled “Why We Should Write”…

JamesRadcliffe.com

It is my contention that:  In the modern world, Reading is no less than a Superpower.

In this post I will explain the thinking behind this, and share 7 reasons why you should consider make reading an integral part of your daily life.

So sit back, strap in, and turn on, dear reader, while I expound upon…

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To Write — All Writing is Political

The following is an excerpt from the essay To Write on The James Franco Review.

The site does not appear to allow reblogging, or we would have.

But to show up is a political act. To write is a political act. To question is a political act. If I have found no other answers, I have those certainties, and it is that which grounds me as a writer and editor. The great myth of this country has been that there has been one static, unassailable narrative, one righteous and unbending truth. I now know that as artists, we destabilize that. We ask questions, of others and of ourselves. We create opportunities for others to ask questions. We tell different stories—some overtly political, others less so, many intensely personal—and insist on their inherent value. We show that not only are our voices rightfully part of the narrative of America—we are the narrative, in all of our bewildered, enraged, tragic, hilarious, glorious, divergent truths.

Karissa Chen is the author of the chapbook OF BIRDS AND LOVERS (Corgi Snorkel Press 2013).

It’s an excellent essay, whether or not you are consciously aware of the political subtext in your own writing, or in writing generally.

The author of Fifty Shade of Grey was probably not consciously aware of the political subtext of her “adaptation” her own Twilight fanfiction, or even of Twilight itself, yet the book is overtly anti-feminist, a blatant endorsement of income inequality and classism,  and, ironically, an indictment of BDSM, which it ostensibly celebrates — depicting it as dangerous, emotionally manipulative, and as a means of gaining complete control over another human being (in true BDSM, the submissive is always the party in control in the relationship. When this isn’t the case, it isn’t BDSM but sadistic abuse).

The history of Fifty Shades of Grey from Twilight fanfic to international bestseller is pretty amusing if you are interested.

An even more amusing fanfic to bestseller saga is that of the Young Adult series, Mortal Instruments, intrigue and plagiarism and a homoerotic relationship between Malfoy and Harry.

You really can’t ask for more than that.

The difference between writers who are consciously aware of the fact that what they write is political and those who are not, might simply be a function of whether or not they are readers who require verisimilitude in their fiction (regardless of genre and setting).

-k-

Text-To-Speech (TTL) as Editing Aid for Writers

No Wasted Ink

microphone2
As authors, hearing your manuscript read out-loud is an important step in the editing process. By listening to your text, minor glitches in your writing stand out and are more easily corrected. While many of us do read our work ourselves, it is often better when someone else reads your work so that you can focus your attention on errors and making a note of them on your manuscript.

Personally, this is one of the reasons I like to read my work at critique groups. It allows me to not only gauge the response to my work on other people, but I also get the benefit of the read. However, there are times when a critique group is not available or when you wish to listen to long passages of your manuscript. For those times, I recommend a text-to-speech program.

A Text-to-Speech program converts your typed text into speech. Most…

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