Keiko’s Gardening Tips

garden with tomatoes

How does gardening relate to writing?

I had a dream that I was in a workshop where we had to practice giving a presentation off the top of our heads. I chose gardening, even though I have not succeeded at that. Here is my presentation. I came up with the tips as I was talking.

“Have you wanted to grow a garden but you haven’t done it? Maybe you fenced off an area in your yard years ago, but that’s as far as you got? Or maybe all you have so far is the dirt that was there when you moved in? I was the same. But I’ve been watching my mom, who does have a garden. Here are three tips for how you can have one too.

1. Schedule specific times to work on it, including regular weekly hours AND a start date.

2. Don’t worry if things don’t turn out how you wanted. In fact, plant one vegetable you don’t like, on purpose, and then you will see that what comes out of your garden in any one season matters less than having a garden. (And you might be surprised – you might like that vegetable when you grow it yourself.)

3. Join a gardening group that meets regularly in order to get and give support, advice, and motivation to keep going.”

I considered and rejected: Give it enough water but not too much. Go organic. These may be important, but they are tips for people who are already gardening. My tips are for people who want to garden but aren’t yet doing it.

After I finished my presentation, I thought, “Hey, this would work for writing, too.”

Our “gardening” group meets on Tuesday nights. You are welcome to attend.

The Practice and Magic of Writing Every Day

I am not working at a job right now.  I accepted a retirement package from work and am taking this time (and money) to write.  I plan to return to work in about 6 months, and right now I write.

I have been writing since May 1. For me, every day, every morning is a new “in the beginning.”  With a cup of tea or coffee I sit at my desk and plan my day.  There are three themes to my plans: doing some kind of social event (otherwise I will start answering myself when I talk to me), some kind of social event for Bella, my German shepherd, because I don’t want her to go nuts either, and writing.

It’s 8 a.m. (or 7:30 a.m., if I really have my act together), and I write random thoughts.  Some of those thoughts become what I will write about.  I am writing a short story that has mutated into a long and longer story, so I figure out what I am going to do there, and I also spend some time writing about whatever comes into my head.

Regardless of whatever I write about, I usually remind myself in the first 10 minutes of my morning ritual how blessed I am to have the opportunity to do this.

Stephen King wrote that he writes 6 hours a day 6 days a week.  When I decided to dedicate myself to writing, I thought I would do that. On my first day, I lasted 15 minutes and decided some serious time management and writing restructuring would need to be done.  And, I have been restructuring my time and writing and restructuring my time and writing ever since.  In other words, doing whatever it takes to get myself in the chair and write ANYTHING.

Then something happened last Sunday. Two days ago.  Sunday was my day off from writing, but when walking Bella I had an idea.  I wrote for about an hour, and this idea became a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  I spent some time on this story yesterday and today, while writing other things too, and this afternoon I declared it finished.

Finished.  Now, you may not like the story, I don’t know.  Here is what I want to say about it — it wrote itself.  I was the one who sat in the chair, but the story really just happened.

And I know that it would not have happened if I and not spent the last 2 months sitting down almost every morning and writing.

My New Writing Coach

hand receiving business card

I’m going to be my own writing coach. I will read my first draft of the story I’m working on, and I’ll say to myself, “Hey, Keiko, this is really good! Keep working on it!”

I will reply, “Really?”

“Yes!” I’ll say. I’ll be so enthusiastic I will convince myself. I will say, “Write a second draft. I want to see it.”

“Okay,” I’ll say. And I’ll send myself the next draft.

When I get it, I’ll call myself up right away. “Okay,” I’ll tell myself, “This is really starting to turn into something.”

“Thank you,” I’ll say. “But I don’t know where to go next. Do you think you could…?”

“Sure.” I’ll sound very encouraging. I will help myself learn to figure things out for myself. “What do you think is missing?” I’ll ask.

“Well,” I’ll say, “I think I need to know more about what the houses were like in San Francisco at the turn of the century. And how much they’re still like that today.” I’ll think for a minute. I won’t interrupt myself. “You know,” I’ll say, “I’d really like to have it set in a real house, one that’s actually there. I love it when people do that.”

“I’ve noticed that in your work, too,” I’ll say.

I will be impressed and flattered at first, but then I’ll sigh. “I never seem to manage to do the research.”

I know what it’s like to feel defeated like that. But I will have the solution. “You know,” I’ll tell myself, “research is just an excuse to read things you’re interested in.”

“I guess so.”

“Go to the library. Find some books.”

“Well…” I will hesitate. I won’t believe I deserve it.

“Go ahead. I want to see the third draft, the one with the details set.”

“All right,” I’ll say. And I’ll go to the library. I’ll write the third draft. I’ll send it to myself.

“I think you should send this to beta,” I’ll tell myself.

“I want to fix a few things still…” I’ll say.

“No, remember what Gayle said: Do beta on things that aren’t quite ready. Hey, I’m sure Ruth will love this one. And she’ll probably be able to help you even out the facts, like she did with ‘Willie Blake.’ And Anthony might know specifics of that neighborhood even, or the time period.”

“Well—”I’ll say.

“And Liza is a historian, and Betsy—”

“All right.”

“Are you typing the email?”

“Yes.”

I’ll stay on the phone with myself until I’ve sent it.

#

When I get the beta comments back, I’ll go over to my house and sit with myself to go over them. Or better yet, I’ll meet myself for coffee. I’ll help myself understand what the comments mean for my story. I’ll draw out of myself what the story wants to be. I’ll help myself excavate the fossil. I’ll buy myself another latte and make sure I leave with a plan for the next draft.

When I send myself the next draft, I’ll reply, “Submit this.” When I balk, I’ll tell myself to send it to the Flash Fiction Forum ladies. “That will be less scary,” I’ll say. I’ll agree. I’ll call myself up and stay on the phone with myself while I submit it.

#

I’ll go to the Forum. I’ll introduce myself to my writing friends. When it’s time for me to read, I’ll sit in the audience with my friends. When I get down off the stage, I’ll tell myself I did a great job. I’ll make sure I write down any comments the audience gives me so that I can see if they need to be incorporated, but I’ll tell myself to wait and not think about it yet. “Just enjoy the rest of the Forum,” I’ll say.

The next day, I will get together with myself and help myself do the final draft. We’ll choose the first place where I’ll submit it. I’ll stay with myself until I’ve mailed it off, and then I’ll take myself out for lunch.

Playing Dress-Up

What Makes for an “AWESOME” Description? 

As a second-grader, I was told: Dress up your writing. In other words, I should be more descriptive. My teachers equated “descriptive” with adjectives and adverbs. They told me not to merely write, “Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle.” They advised me to embellish my prose…

“Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a far distant land, beyond the undulating cobalt sea, there was a delicately beautiful princess with long flaxen curls, who resided blissfully in a majestic enchanted castle, surrounded by a deep glittering moat, in which ravenous, mossy-colored crocodiles swam.”

I got the picture. And it did wonders for expanding my vocabulary. But, really, do adjectives and adverbs suffice as good descriptors? I think we can all agree that GOOD adjectives and adverbs qualify, but that leads to more perplexing questions:

1)   What are “good” adjectives and adverbs?
2)   And are “good” adjectives and adverbs necessary and sufficient conditions for good descriptions?

Truth be told: I don’t know. That’s why I’m writing this blog article. I thought that maybe you’d like to join me for 2.5 pages of discovery: What makes for an AWESOME description?

When I was 3-years-old, I liked to play dress-up. My diminutive mother had a basketful of dresses that she’d retired, and I made ample use of them.  I’d layer dress over dress and top things off with a few colorful shawls and scarves. My philosophy was – and I vividly remember thinking it – the more the better, the prettier, the lovelier, the more enchanting. Snow White, step aside!

I actually looked more like a bag woman, and I’m sure that my parents had a good laugh while snapping pictures of me. But in those days, I thought I looked like a “delicately enchanting” princess with not-so-flaxen curls.

This brings me – some 42 years later – to the conclusion: Less is more (more or less). Sure, satire, comedy and farce can tolerate gratuitous adjectives and adverbs; but most prose should not be weighed down, bag-woman style.

Keiko told us that an illustrious writer (disputably: Arthur Quiller-Couch) once said: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

That means YOU might love words like “essentially” and “ameliorative,” and your elementary school teachers would have applauded your “utilization” of them. But I’m here to say (to myself, mostly): Grow up. Writing is not a jewelry exhibition, where your main goal is to show off your fancy-schmancy linguistic accessories.

That 14-letter nugget of an adverb? Yeah, I’m talking about your personal favorite… Kill it. Pick up your red pen and slash it, gash it, edit it out (or just press the delete button). Some words have personal significance, but they do nothing to impart a vision or emotion to your reader. Kill your darlings. (For more on this, please see Anthony Francis’s blog article here: http://writetotheend.com/author/anthony/)

Speaking of emotion: Description IS emotion.

I learned that recently when Mark Overby read his short story, “Morphine.” (To see Mark’s full story, please scroll all the way down.) I found “Morphine” haunting for two reasons: its subject matter and its descriptions. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was there – yes, there with the prostitute. I saw her scarred wrists and felt a desperate breath against my neck.

“What on earth made Mark’s piece so descriptive?” I asked myself on the way home from iHOP that night. What adjectives and adverbs had he used? I couldn’t remember. I knew there was something about bloodshot eyes…

He emailed me his 326-word story and I read it: 17 adjectives and adverbs. Seventeen total. That’s not a lot, but the piece is drenched in description. Why? How? Emotion. The story’s two characters are crammed into a tiny room that reverberates with their loneliness, loss, and pain.

There was nothing in Mark’s writing about “bloodshot eyes.” That was my contribution, and I didn’t even realize it until I read the piece on paper. Good descriptions work that way. They go beyond the physical to evoke readers’ emotions. When our emotions are flipped on, our associative faculties go into overdrive, and we enhance the writing with our own sensory experiences.

Good descriptions bring that out in us.

Clearly some words carry more emotion than others. Anyone who has studied another language knows that quite well. Vladimir Nobokov, the esteemed and arguably twisted author of “Lolita” refers to the Russian noun, “Toska.”

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

In English, it often seems there is no “perfect” word to describe a person, situation, emotion, or thing. That’s when an elusive drumbeat of disguised repetition comes in handy. I refer again to Mark’s story, Morphine: His conservative sprinkling of adjectives and adverbs emit various hues of darkness: broken, bruised, withered, matted, bitter. The words aren’t strung together. They’re scattered, and you barely know they’re there… but you feel them.

Finally, let’s talk about metaphor and simile. What makes these two literary tools AWESOME descriptors versus only so-so? Again, I don’t know. But let me speculate…

“Eyes are (like) windows to the soul.”

Why is that cliché nevertheless such a descriptive and memorable metaphor/simile? Clearly, it contains a kernel of truth. Eyes indeed reveal a lot about how we feel inside. If they flicker, if they flinch or flutter, they become dead giveaways to the secrets of our psyches.

I stumbled upon another type of metaphor/simile with possibly more impact. I’m referring to those with built-in irony. A paradox. They make you think. They make you linger. Here are two examples:

“She took one last hard drag off her cigarette and exhaled a cloud of filth, the smoke encircling her head like a halo.” – Morphine

This description stuck with me because it contains a simile that is topped with a paradox. It’s like ice cream – with a rotten cherry on top! The filthy smoke from the broken prostitute nevertheless forms a halo above her head. To me, the description evokes feelings of sympathy, distress, disgust – and confused transcendence.

This metaphor from Barbara Kingsolver does the same:

“…a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. I am the forest’s conscience, but remember, the forest eats itself and lives forever.” ― The Poisonwood Bible

Good descriptions embed themselves in our flesh with uncomfortable irony or newness, sometimes benevolent but often depraved. Good descriptions aren’t about words so much as emotion. They make us see, they make us smell, they make us hear, taste, and feel. But even more, they make us emote.

So, go on: Emote. Emote until Keiko calls “time.”

You can always go back and kill your darlings.

————————————————————————————————-

Morphine – by Mark Overby

She was my morphine, just someone to kill the pain, someone to keep me from killing myself. The smell of Marlboros filled the tiny room, my sleazy little sanctuary that I payed for by the hour, a place for me to confess my sins while creating new ones as quickly as I could. She took one last hard drag off her cigarette and exhaled a cloud of filth, the smoke encircling her head like a halo. She was beautiful and broken and she was all mine, mine to fall in love with, to hate, to cry with, to kiss and bite and caress. She was my goddess and my savior, my excuse to live another day. She was my morphine.

I watched her undress with a hunger that only loneliness brings. Her dark eyes stared into mine, looking for the soul that I had lost years ago. Her small mouth glistened with the residue of the previous shadow before me, one that needed to feel human again, if only for that brief moment. Now it was my turn. I was now the sin that needed confession, the scourge that wanted love, the shadow that no one saw, no one but her. My morphine.

Her outstretched hand beckoned for my touch, the scars of past lovers adorning her wrists as I placed my hand in hers. “Lie to me, please.” The desperation in her voice mirrored her situation. I love you, let me take away your pain. My words dripped into her like morphine.

I traced the tattoos along her bruised neck as she gasped in rehearsed ecstasy, my fingertips writing an oath of submission against her withered skin. The warmth of her body was bleeding away as she clung to me for comfort. I lied to her again and again as I ran my hands through her hair, matted with smoke and bitter memories. Together we are alone. Together we are none, together we are morphine.

How do you keep yourself writing?

OK, so I have a serious question for all of you writers. I don’t do well with “structure.” If I decide that I need to write every day starting at 11 a.m., I will literally never start writing at 11 a.m.. If I decide that I need to leave the house every day in order to write in a coffee shop, then chances are I won’t be able to write in coffee shops. And last week, when I committed to spending the week working on my story, to make a great push to get it to the next turning point… I literally couldn’t touch the story all week. My brain says, “Aaaahh! Crazy people* making unreasonable demands on my time for absolutely no good reason, must turn into a floppy blob on the couch!”

The positive side was that I wrote a million and a half blog posts, and I did tons of laundry, and I made tons of food. But … I didn’t write story at all. And if I ever want to reach The End, as one does, then I need to keep writing. Obviously that level of commitment was too much “structure” for me, where structure is defined as a box that I must fit within. I’m trying to learn to redefine “structure” to mean “useful tool that keeps me heading towards my goal” of writing a lot and reaching the next turning point in my story.

So help me out: What “tools” or “structures” do you use to keep yourself writing and making progress? Do you have any “tricks”? What gets your butt in the chair?

———

* Just for the record, the crazy people in this instance were me. Yes, even my own brain thinks I’m a crazy unreasonable person. Sigh.

Why Write to the End?

manuscript with "The End"

Often new members come to our writing group and ask for feedback on their as-yet-uncompleted novel. Or someone who’s been with us a while will get an idea for a story while at the group, write a few scenes of it during the writing sessions, and then ask everybody what we think. This seems perfectly reasonable on the surface, and is, I think, why many people start going to writing groups in the first place.

However, as a group we have learned that giving feedback on the actual writing is not helpful in these situations. What we invariably say to people is, “Have you gotten to The End yet? Have you finished the first draft?” And if the answer is no, then our feedback is “Keep going! Get to The End! When you get there, you’ll be able to answer your own question.”

There are quite a few variations on this advice. For example,

Writer: I’ve just realized I need Character X to be an insurance salesman instead of a knight, and the book needs to start off in Palm Springs two years earlier!
Group: Write yourself a note to that effect, pretend you already made all those changes and they are wonderful, and KEEP GOING! Get to The End!

Or

Writer: Do you think I should structure this story as a series of flashbacks, or would it make more sense to do it in chronological order?

Group: Finish the story however you can. When you reach The End, then you’ll be able to figure out what story you’re actually telling and whether it will work better told in flashbacks or chronologically. Don’t waste time deciding that now. Just KEEP GOING! Get to The End!

Or

Writer: Should I use first or third person? Past or present tense? I keep switching as I write.

Group: Use whatever gets the story out. Switch all you want – that’s easy to fix later. Anything that helps you get the story out is the right thing for that moment. KEEP GOING! Get to The End!

We’ve been together for quite a while (I started running the group in 2004, and some of our members have been with us since then), but we didn’t name our group for over seven years. Why did it take so long? I don’t know.  Maybe it had something to do with wanting the name to reflect our identity as a group. Why did we choose the name Write to the End? That’s easy:  It’s the advice we most often give each other. As soon as we thought of that name, we knew it was a good one for our group. And we’re also experiencing an unexpected benefit: It’s very satisfying and motivating for the name of our group to be a sort of rallying cry. When one of us is getting bogged down in a story, another of us can say, “It’s going to be okay. Just write to the end!” I think it has already made our group stronger and is probably helping our members with their writing projects.

Of course “Write to the End” has other meanings too, which as writers we appreciate and use. But its most useful meaning is to always prefer finishing what you start over worrying about what you’ve written, which I would encourage you to apply to your own writing. Remember, don’t fix it—finish it! Write to The End!

Creating Your Own Style Guide and Editing List

In this post, I’m passing along some thoughts about tools that work for me and might help some of you too—creating your own style guide and editing list.

Style Guide

One of the most well-known style guides is the Chicago Manual of Style. You can use the book or the online version to look up editorial conventions. For instance, if you are writing a fantasy story or novel and the characters have titles, you can use Chicago to see how and when the characters’ titles ought to be capitalized.

If I am working on book, I like to take this process one step further, and make my own style guide that lists the words that I’ve already looked up, and also specialized words that might not be covered by Chicago. I jot down words I’m not sure about as I go along. That way I can look them up later without having to remember what they are.

When I have my first draft, I go back through my manuscript and check to make sure everything on my style guide is consistent throughout the book. Search and replace is great for this, but I recommend that you check each instance instead of making a global change. Otherwise you might accidentally change part of a word. For example, if you want to change king to King, you wouldn’t want to end up with maKing or similar words in your manuscript.

Editing List

When I first started writing fiction I found that I used certain words in my first drafts that could usually come out. I made a list of them, and after I’ve written a new story or book, I search for these words and see if any can be removed. Some of the words on my list are really, very, so, and then, because I know from experience that I overuse them.

You might have different words on your list. Based on your own experience, you can create a list that fits your writing style and use it to check your work. I prefer to wait until I have a first draft before doing this because if I edit too soon I find it distracts me from writing.

If you give it a try, post a comment to let me know how this went for you. I’m also open to hearing how other people edit their work, so feel free to post your suggestions as well.

Doing Medical Research as an Author

I’m a technical writer, but I also write books for families who are coping with children’s medical issues (The Parents’ Guide to Clubfoot  and The Parents’ Guide to Hip Dysplasia).

If you’re a writer who is researching a medical topic, it’s important to find accurate, reliable sources of information. I often start with the National Institute of Health (NIH) website, which has very good health information for consumers. If I want more depth, I go to Pubmed.  Pubmed is the online U.S. Library of Medicine, which is geared toward medical professionals. Medline  is another good online resource associated with the NIH.

Anyone can visit websites like Pubmed and Medline to search the medical databases and read abstracts of medical journal articles. When I’m doing research, I cut and paste each abstract for the articles that I want to read into a Word document so that I have a list.

The problem that arises is that unless you subscribe to the medical journals, in many cases there’s a fee to get each complete article. This can get expensive pretty fast. When I was working on my first book, a friend in the medical field told me about community health libraries, and a whole new world opened up to me.

Community health libraries are wonderful resources. They have health and medical books and brochures about many health topics. The staff can help you find information that you might not discover on your own, and show you how to use medical databases. Even if the library is small, the staff typically has access to health resources at other locations

On top of all that, researching at community health libraries can save you money. Typically, they can get you full medical articles without charging you for access. If you want a printout to take home with you, there’s usually a small fee to cover the cost of making copies.

I recently visited the PlaneTree Health Information Center located inside the Cupertino Library, which is new to this location. I was doing research for a nonfiction book I’m going to be working on this summer. The staff was friendly and helpful. If you don’t live near the Cupertino Library and want to visit a community health library at a different location, ask your doctor’s office to recommend one.

Learning from Publication

Recently I wrote a short story called “Steampunk Fairy Chick” for the UnCONventional anthology. Even though the story went through many revisions, lots of beta readers, two editors and a copyeditor, when I read through my author’s copy I found there were still things I wanted to change. Nothing major—just line edit stuff, a selection of different choices of sentence structure that I think would have made the story more readable.

I can’t react to this the way I would with a draft; the story’s in print. And I don’t want to just throw these insights on the floor. Instead, I want to analyze the story and find general ideas I could have applied that would have improved the story before it hit the stands—ideas I could use in the future on new stories.

Don’t Overload Your Sentences

I am verbose by nature, and my stories are ornate by design. Because I was trying to pack a lot into 10,000 words, I tried to pack a lot into each sentence of “Steampunk Fairy Chick.” Sometimes, the sentences simply couldn’t carry the load. For example, on the first page of the story this sentence appears:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner”—or was the word on this world “alien”—and bring the whole restaurant down upon her.

Here I’m trying to do a whole raft of things all at the same time:

  • Set the scene: Jeremiah is in a packed restaurant near a “food court,” which helps set the story in the present day.
  • Show character: Jeremiah is active, quick thinking, prepared to bolt at a moment’s notice—and she’s hiding something.
  • Provide backstory: Jeremiah is hiding the fact that she’s part alien, and she’s concerned that admitting it can get her in trouble.

That’s a lot for one sentence to do, but I didn’t choke on any of that: I choked on the phrase “or was the word on this world ‘alien?’” which made me lose my place. Why is that aside even in there? It’s because in this sentence I’m also trying to:

  • Raise a question: Jeremiah is not clear that the rules or language are the same in “this world”—implying she’s from another.

That’s great, but it’s a separate idea. So perhaps, even though it costs more words, it would have been better to separate these ideas into two sentences:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner” and bring the whole restaurant down upon her. Or wait—wasn’t the word for “Foreigner” on this world “alien?”

This rewrite is clearer … and by removing the interjection, it serves another hidden purpose of this sentence:

  • Clarifying ambiguity: “Jeremiah” is a male name for a female character … so “Jeremiah” needs to appear with a female pronoun.

Even though that creates yet another job for this sentence, it’s important. This is a very early sentence, so it’s critical real estate for establishing her gender clearly. Removing the aside brings “Jeremiah” and “her” eight words closer together.

As a side remark, Jeremiah’s male name illustrates the gender-neutral world of Victoriana from which she came, but otherwise isn’t material to this story—and some authors question whether a story should contain anything in it that doesn’t serve that specific story. For standalone stories, this might be the case, but for series fiction I respectfully disagree. In series fiction you must respect the rules of your series even if they aren’t convenient for a specific story. A series creates its own reality, and one could no more change Jeremiah’s name to Jeri for convenience than one could change Sherlock to Sherman—or move Atlanta to Albania.

“Spoilers!” she said with a smirk.

WARNING: the next two sections contain very mild spoilers for the story. If you’re a savvy scifi reader you probably can read the following section without being spoiled because what IS being spoiled is only a minor surprise. However, if you are one of the people who HATE spoilers, skip to “Make Learning Explicit” … or run out and buy a copy of the UnCONventional anthology and read the last story in it. (Yes, that was a subtle—but entirely shameless—plug).

Pay Attention to Rhythm

Back with us? OK. Another sentence that leapt out at me was:

“You really think,” the sharply dressed man said, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

There’s nothing too bad with this sentence, but it still jarred me—because “the sharply dressed man” is a complex noun. I’m referring to this character with this mouthful of a name for several reasons:

  • Limited third person point of view: Jeremiah, our point-of-view character, doesn’t know his name—and therefore, the narrator, who doesn’t know any more than the POV character in limited 3rd person POV, doesn’t either.
  • Limited oxygen for limited screen time: The sharply dressed steampunk is a key but minor character, appearing in two and a half brief scenes with only a few lines. Naming him in this already complex story could distract the reader.

Major surgery could fix the problem: make the character more prominent and introduce him formally; cut the character out; give the line to someone else; come up with a shorter epithet. But there’s an easier trick to solve the problem:

“You really think,” said the sharply dressed man, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

The point of the dialogue tag in this sentence isn’t just to identify who’s speaking. It’s to break up the rhythm of the sentence so it reads the way it ought to be heard. The sentence is a secret in-joke, a riff off this line in Mortal Kombat:

“A handful of people on a leaky boat are going to save the world?”

Interjecting the dialogue tag into the sentence breaks up the reading, makes the reader pause in hearing at the right moment to make the quotable quote stand out. But the action that’s happening is speaking, and throwing a four word noun into the sentence completely derails the rhythm.  Why? A clue can be found from an earlier sentence with a very similar structure which did NOT disrupt my reading:

“This is a trick,” the sharply dressed man said. “Some kind of neon—”

The initial scrap of dialogue here—“This is a trick”—is a complete sentence. A reader knows it is speech from the quote marks, and expects to find a noun describing a speaker. But in the offending sentence, the initial scrap of dialogue—“You really think”—is NOT complete, forcing the reader to keep what the character said AND the character’s name in their mental buffer until the dialogue tag appears.

A better solution is to make the ‘said’ come first, easing the reader down off “You really think” by confirming that the reader has just read speech. Putting the verb first in this case reinforces the already existing expectation that the reader will encounter the name of a character, followed by a resumption of the dialogue which will complete the spoken sentence started with “You really think.”

Grammatically, switching the verb and the noun in a dialogue tag is almost always allowed, but it is not always recommended aesthetically. Consider:

“Give me a break,” he said.

versus

“Give me a break,” said he.

Ouch! If you don’t have a rhythmic (or other) reason to change the order of the dialogue tags … just stick to “he said.”

Stick to your guns

In several places in the story, the editors suggested I could get rid of dialogue tags to make the text shorter, smoother, and punchier. Here’s an example:

She brought this down on us.” Jeremiah stared into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

That paragraph works well, delivers its punch … but doesn’t sound like me. I want sentences to draw pictures with words. And for a sequence of actions, a sequence of short sentences without connectors can do that well:

Jeremiah darted forward. The nearest zombies stirred. Jeremiah shoved them aside. The remainder started to turn. Wayfarer sprayed them. Zombie eyes began to glow. Jeremiah reached Jackson and fumbled at her corset. The zombies raised their hands, crackling with power.

But when someone is speaking, action and speech are happening at the same time. The montage effect above works less well, perhaps because the dialogue lives in quotation space and the action lives in normal narrative space. That’s why I’d strongly consider changing the first paragraph above back to:

She brought this down on us,” Jeremiah said, staring into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

This weaves the action and the speech together so it’s clear they’re taking place at the same time. Your mileage may vary; there is nothing wrong with the version the editors recommended, and you could delete dialogue tags more extensively through the entire story without a fault. (Anthony waves to his editors, who did a great job!) But when I reread my own story, these dropped dialogue tags didn’t sound like ‘me.’

I find the very best edits are the ones that seem perfectly natural: the editor suggests it, and it goes so well with the story the words feel like your own. Sometimes this happens because the editor has nailed your voice; sometimes it happens because you have internalized the editor’s lesson. BUT, if a change doesn’t work for you, I think the right thing to do is say “stet” (Latin for “let it stand” and writer-editor jargon for “revert to original”). Trust me, editors are big boys and girls. They WANT authors to push back as much as they push authors, because the end result is a story that benefits from both the editor and the author’s best ideas.

Make Learning Explicit

You may agree or disagree with the recommendations I’ve made above. “Switching ‘said’ and ‘he’ for effect?” you might say. “Adding extra dialogue tags where none are needed? Adding extraneous material to a story at all? Heresy!” In fact, a few years from now, when I’ve grown more as a writer, I might say the same thing. But there’s a more general principle here which you can take advantage of even if our aesthetics don’t agree: use publication as an opportunity to make learning explicit.

People learn when they get feedback on their actions and try to improve based on it. If the feedback is timely and you don’t actively try to reject it, learning can be almost automatic. But you can’t always guarantee getting timely feedback—so sometimes you need to deliberately create a strategy that helps you improve.

So what I recommend is: when your work hits print, get a copy of it. Read it, marking anything you want to change. And then try to generalize what you’ve learned, so you can apply it to new stories in the future.

-the Centaur

How to Run Beta Reading Cycles

So you’ve written your piece, read through it and revised it, worked on it some more, and now it’s reached the point where you’re thinking of submitting it for publication. Before you do that, consider rounding up some beta readers and having a beta reading cycle.

Beta Readers
What are beta readers? They are people who read your work pre-publication and give you feedback. The term came from pre-releases of software that go through beta testing. Where do you find beta readers? Try your writing group, and if you know people who love to read the genre you write in, ask for volunteers. If you’re writing mysteries, and your potential beta reader doesn’t like the genre, then he or she is probably not a good fit for your project.

Sometimes it’s helpful to give the beta readers guidelines, especially if this is the first time you’re working with them. This can be as simple as asking them to tell you what they like, what they don’t like, and to flag any areas that confuse them. If there’s something in particular that is giving you trouble you can mention it or not. For instance, you might say, “There’s something wrong with the ending, but I can’t figure out what.” Or you might decide not to say anything and see if your beta readers come to the same conclusion.

Planning and Managing the Review Cycle
You want your beta reading cycle to be effective. So it’s a good idea to give some thought about the kind of help you’re looking for, and to schedule your beta cycle with a specific beginning and end date. Talk to your potential beta readers to make sure they are available and that they want to participate. Only use beta readers who like the idea of participating, and plan on enlisting a few more than you think you need. That way if some get too busy and don’t have time, you can still get comments from the others.

Preparing a Document for Review
I find it helpful to save the file for the piece that is going out for review with the date in the file name. It could be something like this: title_date_mylastname_beta. That way I know exactly which version of the piece went out for review. Beta reviews can be done in common file formats like PDF or Word that you send to the reviewers (soft copy), or you can provide printouts (hard copy). For shorter pieces, many readers don’t mind reading a file, or printing it out themselves to mark it up. If you have a long piece, find out if your beta readers prefer printouts.

Note: One way for reviewers to mark up a Word document is to turn on tracking. That identifies every change but preserves the original text. If you receive this type of mark up from a reviewer, you can choose to accept or delete each change. Or you can print it and work from the hard copy if that’s easier for you.

If you’ve written a novel and your beta readers prefer hard copy, the cost of reproduction can add up quickly. So far, the least expensive option that I have found is to go through Lulu (www.lulu.com) and set up a book as a private project. A private project isn’t visible to others, and that is the default setting at Lulu when you upload a project. You can use their wizard to format your beta review draft, and then order the number of copies that you need, using whatever coupon code is active when you place your order. Lulu has online chat support during business hours and I’ve found them to be very helpful.

It pays to shop around, and you might find a better deal somewhere else, so you should comparison shop before you make your final decision about where to get your printouts produced. If you really can’t afford to have copies made, tell your beta readers and ask if they can work from soft copy for your project.

Review Comments
In a perfect world, everyone you approach for a beta read would give you insightful, useful comments that allow you to polish and perfect your work. In real life you’ll discover that some beta readers are more able to give useful comments than others. You’ll also find that they have different strengths. Some will spot issues with language mechanics, others can give good advice about plot. You’ll also encounter readers who either like or dislike a piece, or a part of it, but don’t know why. All of this can be useful, but sometimes it can be frustrating and confusing if the readers’ comments contradict each other, or if you feel the comments are not relevant to your aims as a writer. Remember too, that some reviewers will forget to tell you what they like about your work because they are focusing so much on trying to help you find any mistakes before you submit it for publication.

If you’re not sure which comments you want to follow up on, you can always make a test file. Try the revision and see what you think. Do you like the story better—or does making that change introduce a problem? If you like it better and it introduces a problem, can you fix this new problem? Sometimes revisions do “break things” that you have to go back and fix. With practice it gets easier to evaluate review comments and figure out which are most helpful to you. You’ll also learn which beta readers are the best fit for you.

Beta reviews can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when you’re first starting out, but they can also be very valuable. Being on the receiving end of comments can give you some insight about how to be a beta reader yourself. Once you start using beta readers, you will most likely hear from some of them about pieces they’d like you to review.