Friday, September 24, 2010

Dead Wood

by Annette Lyon

We tell clients (and writers at workshops) to cut dead wood from their work. Some pros go as far as to say you should always cut 10% of your final version, because that's how much dead wood you've likely got.

I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to list a specific percentage (some writers might be fine with 5%, while others should cut 20%), but dead wood is so easy to slip in and sometimes hard to find.

For the sake of illustrating what dead wood can look like, here are some examples. This is in no way an exhaustive list, because dead wood is like dust bunnies, hiding where you least expect it.

Stating the Obvious
A grin spread across her face.
He blinked his eyes.
She nodded her head.

Unless you're writing speculative fiction and your characters have mouths in a locations not on their faces, they can blink something besides their eyes, or they can nod a body part that isn't their head, don't add the body part. These aren't the only variations of this type of dead wood. ("John shrugged his shoulders" also comes to mind as freaking everywhere.)

Repetitive Words and Phrases
Dave drove to Maple Street, drove into the parking garage, and parked his car. He walked up to the street and walked over to Oak Street, three streets over, where he saw a red convertible parked by the curb.

You might not notice how many times you repeat certain words close together unless you read your work aloud and hear them.

Be sure your characters aren't repeating words in dialogue, either. Having Darlene use "quaint" could be a character quirk. Having four other characters use the same word in the same chapter is plain sloppy.

Same goes for actions and other descriptors. Make sure your characters aren't all constantly raising their eyebrows, feeling their hearts race, running fingers through their hair, or doing some other gesture. Change things up.

Lazy Verbs
90% of the time, plain old past tense is most effective. Adding a helping to be verb and -ing weakens the statement.

He was running as fast as he could before the bomb went off.
He ran as fast as he could before the bomb went off.

Unless you have a compelling reason to point out that two things are happening simultaneously (He was hiding the gun in the drawer as she walked in), don't use the helping-verb form. Keep it plain past tense. You might be able to find a stronger verb anyway.

(Instead of he was walking, how about he sauntered?)

Meaningless Words
This list could be huge. It contains words we add to sentences without adding punch or significant meaning. They include words like very, just, and really, which usually water down and tell instead of show.

For example, if she's very beautiful, SHOW her beauty to us. Or just say she's beautiful, because that single word will be more effective than a weak attempt at emphasizing it with very or really.

Another often-unneeded word is that. Yes, sometimes we need that to clarify which person or thing we're talking about, but often it's an extra piece of dead wood.

He called to tell her that their brother was in the hospital.
He called to tell her their brother was in the hospital.

Then there's the easily overlooked yet obvious (once it's pointed out): needless to say, umm, sure, and as far as I can tell.

A phrase to watch out for: THERE IS/ARE/WERE.
Again, no rule is in stone, but 90% of the time, if your sentence starts with THERE ARE or some variation, you've got a weak line and could make it stronger. Find what the real subject and verb are and start with them:

There were a lot of students disrupting class yesterday.
Lots of students disrupted class yesterday.

(Note that THERE IS and its cousins tend to use helping verbs, which by themselves are weak.)

Repeating yourself is surprisingly easy. I've seen things like true fact and famous celebrity. Don't laugh too hard; you might have done something similar without thinking! (I know I have.) Proof carefully.

Point of View Intrusion
This one's a personal peeve of mine: when we're clearly in a character's head, but instead of the author showing what the character sees, experiences, feels, hears, smells, thinks, or realizes, we're told that they do.

She realized the situation was hopeless.
The situation was hopeless.

He heard the phone ring.
The phone rang.

Now what, he thought.
Now what?
(For thoughts, if they're set aside as thoughts, we don't need to be told that's what they are.)

I'm sure you can find more types of dead wood. (Add them to the comments!)

As an exercise, try to cut each sentence in one of your scenes by one word, minimum. You might be surprised at how much stronger the final result is, and how many great new images and verbs you come up with.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Editing Process

Sometimes having your manuscript edited is a scary thing.

You don't know what it's going to come back looking like.

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.

-Hart Crane

High Fantasy: Can There Really Be Pink Trees?

At a writer's conference I went to, there was a workshop on creating your high fantasy planet entitled "Can There Really Be Pink Trees?"

I challenge all you high fantasy writers out there to go wild while constructing your own planets/middle earths/europeanlike continents. Give James Cameron's Pandora a run for its money.

The Three Fantasies

Fantasy has become the new rock. Similar to having alternative, punk, electronic, and hard rock, there are several different ways to divide up the genre of fantasy.

There are two major types of fantasy:
1. Low Fantasy: Your book takes place on earth but it has elements of fantasy within it. Ex: HARRY POTTER, PERCY JACKSON

2. High Fantasy: Your book takes place on another planet, in another dimension, or within a made up land (usually long, long ago, far, far, away). Examples: LORD OF THE RINGS, HIS DARK MATERIALS, THE SWORD OF SHANARA

Other: A subset to low fantasy is the genre of Urban Fantasy. The boundaries for this genre are a bit more blurred, but it generally entails that the tone of the story is darker, the themes more mature, and the location is in a city. (Oddly vague I know, but if your type of writing fits this bill, all the better since you want to narrow your genre down as specifically as possible.)

My definition: If your book's basic plot could be the lyrics to an Evanscence song, it's Urban Fantasy.

My prediction: Given how popular fantasy has become in adult, young adult, and middle grade fiction, I expect there to be many new "genres" budding up all over the place as publishers become more and more swamped with fantasy submissions.

Which genre of fantasy do you read/write most? What new subset of fantasy do you predict will come into being?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Genre: A Necessary Evil

Shawshank Redemption: The Walls Are Your Friends

-How did he escape?
-He put Mr. Darcy and zombies in the same book, sir.

While trying to get published, something I've learned alot about (and no, it's not how to spell "a lot") is the gargantuous amount of importance that is placed on defining your genre.

When pitching your manuscript, be it to an agent or publisher or whathaveyou, it is critical that you state exactly what genre your book will be eligible to sell in. You have to establish in your query letter that you have a complete and full understanding of what your genre entails. In fact, you know more about your genre than any other writer! You know so much about it that...'ve been able to construct a book that can appeal to readers who also bought and loved "this book", "this book", and "this book" of "this genre." And yet, while your book fits perfetly into said genre, your book brings something entirely fresh and fierce and original to the genre that no other book has in the history of the genre because your book is so incredibly different and awesome and original and oneofakind...

...Oh, but of course, your book is not TOO different and awesome and orginal and oneofakind, because then it wouldn't fit in with the rest of the books in the genre.

Sounds unnecessarily exausting, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it is. But it can be simplified by knowing immediately what kind of genre you are trying to squeeze into.

"But!" You might interject, "My book isn't like anything else out there. It is a unique work of art and doesn't need to be labeled and shoved into a category just to satisfy some industry's corporate-customers'-grab-happy needs."

If you write that in your letter, it will be shot, fried, and flushed down the toilet.

It's great to have artisic integrity, and it's wonderful if you have created something that is so prodigiously unique that it cannot be defined by the boundaries of genre (see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Tori Amos, VALIS).

But if you truly want to publish, the confines of genre must become you and your artistic baby's new best friend.


1. If you are just beginning a manuscript.
- Establish your genre immediately. If you already have an idea of where your book will fit on the bookshop shelves, research that genre right away to make sure you can fulfill all the reader and publisher expectations while you're constructing your first draft. While you're exploring the genres, observe what has been done before and what hasn't. What book is the godfather of this genre? What are some influences and inspirations you would like to pursue or avoid?

2. If you are midway through or finished with your manuscript:
- Review your manuscript, then research the different genres you think it might fit into. If there a couple of different ways you can go, let's say you've written a Science Fiction Crime Thriller, then research the several genres you could fit into and choose one. Is your story a hard core science fiction drama set in the future on another planet with a crime plot within it, or is your story a detective crime story with elements of sci-fi embedded within which later prove false when your protagonist discovers a Sherlockian/Scooby-Dooian solution?

Which way do you want to go? If your manuscript fits into neither, then go back and revise until it does.

3. You are finished with your manuscript and have declared your genre.
-This means it's time to search out an agent/publisher who works in that particular genre. Do research on them to make sure your book will appeal to their taste. What other books have they published? Will readers of those books like yours as well?

Final Thoughts:
Remember, don't let the requirements of a specific genre cramp your writing style. It is still important to let your manuscript develop organically into its own kind of monster. Let your ideas, characters, and story flow out of your during the first draft, then worry about the hassles of molding into a genre later. You may begin your story as a victorian mystery, but it evolves into urban fantasy. You may start out writing historical fiction, but shift over to steampunk.

Write what comes naturally, let your voice express yourself and your characters grow. Just bear in mind that no agent will be thrilled to hear the phrase, "fast-paced-western-ghost-story-futuristic-noir-high-fantasy-banshee-meets-Frankenstein-romance."

List of main genres:
Chick Lit
Children's Literature
Crime Thriller
Detective Fiction
High Fantasy
High Science Fiction
Historical Fiction
Low Fantasy
Low Science Fiction
Middle Grade Fiction
Paranormal Romance
Political Thriller
Realistic Fiction
Urban Fantasy
Woman's Fiction
Young Adult Fiction

What sort of genres are you interested in? What genres do you have questions about? Do you see a particular genre that I've left out?
Since my Hunger Games fetish has been in full flourish the past pre-now days, I felt Muse would be a fitting song of the week given the futuristic/fantastical anti-corruption hysteria underlying their electronic rock is a tailor made soundtrack for Collins' trilogy.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Do you really need a literary agent?

To be honest, when I first heard the term "literary agent" I rolled my eyes. Really? Some opportunistic, bureaucratic suit needs to get their bony Mr. Burnsian fingers on my manuscript to use it for a piece of the profits? The road to publishing seemed overwhelming already without having to include yet another stranger in the process.

However, I understood a little more clearly what the role of a literary agent entailed after attending a writer's conference where an analogy was made that depicted agents as less of the evil connigut I imagined them to be.

The analogy was that literary agents are gatekeepers. Do you need one to get published? Short answer: if your goal is to go beyond small press and be published in a national/international market, then yes.

Apparently there is a Great Wall of China of sorts that separates us first time authors from the big time publishers, and the only way our manuscripts can get through to the other side is with the assistance of the agents (aka the gatekeepers). Agents offer us access into the major publishing houses, houses such as: Simon & Schuster, Random House, Hyperion, Little Brown, and Penguin which will not look at any manuscripts that are not represented by an agent.

Agents search out the publishers in your genre, pitch the manuscript, and manage your promotion.

Unfortunately, agents do not grow on trees (as tremendous as that image might be). Not only do we have to seek them out, but we have to completely win them over.

So to actually get yourself a literary agent (yes they are objects, not people)you have to carry out two major tasks:

1. Finding an agent. Now here's where YOU get to be picky. Like online dating. You begin by seeking out an agent that you think would be a good fit for you and your genre. You research their credibility, the authors they have worked with, as well as their personality, taste, and organization. NOTE: Savor this time period of judging others since aftewards, the tables will be forever turned.

But where do you even begin to look? I've referenced this agent's blog already, but here it is again:

Not only is he an excellent agent to begin looking into, but on his homepage, if you scroll down a ways, you'll see off to the left side a list of agents and their blogs. This list is a great way to begin agent window shopping. Browse through and see if there's anything to your liking.

Some great examples from this list include:

Janet Reid at

Jennifer Jackson at

Jonathan Lyons at

Also, to find more agents, go to where you can channel surf agents based on the genre you are interested.

2. Seducing an agent. This is when you become the creepy and desperate stalker (online.) Once you find an agent you like and are ready to submit your work to them, you have to write a query letter that manages to woo them in a heartbeat. In your query letter, you'll be explaining why they specifically will want to represent your book. In order to pull this off, you must begin observing their every move. Investigate their tastes and style as best you can so that you can properly appeal to their liking through your letter.

Do as much online research as you can on the agent (some will have far more than others.) Follow them on their twitter, on agent websites, and most importantly, on their blog. Your query will score major suck-up points if you mention something specific about their blog. Using specific examples including books that they favor or have helped get published is an excellent (and I'd go so far as to say required) way to draw comparisons from your book to their individual preference.

So start scouting out the options. Once an agent catches your eye, you must become the Austenian villain: inspect their tastes, passions, and pursuits. Then charm the hell out of them.

What are some questions that you may have? Do you have any specific agents in mind already? Do you have other input or past experiences concerning agents that you'd like to share with the rest of us novices?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Writing is a socially accepted form of schizophrenia.

- E.L. Doctorow

Book Review: Mockingjay (WARNING! SPOILERS INCLUDED!)

I've been dreading the day that I would finish this book. For when I did, the distopic, 1984ish world Collins has created, where implanted whiskers and dyed skin are fashion trends, and the capital is a replica of sci-fi, Gaga-esque Rome, would officially be over. Over! Such loss can only be equated to the disappearance of a red velvet cake slice after you've eaten every last crumb. Reading the last line of MOCKINGJAY = empty plate.

Then again, it's somewhat of a relief that Collins, aka Newly Annointed Queen of the Pageturner, decided to wrap up HUNGER GAMES as a trilogy and not drag it out any further. Who knows? The fourth book might have introduced a Damien/Samara lovechild meant to be adorable, and around which all other characters are doomed to revolve, shriveling into paralytic caricatures of their former selves while sucked into the most drably anti-climatic ending ever before conceived (no pun intended), before being strangled to death by the big red bow tied on top.

Okay, okay. Wrong book now. Let's just say that if the girl from POLTERGEIST wandered into my room at night to announce "They're heeeeeere," the first name that would come to mind is Renesmee.

So back to MOCKINGJAY.

Two words: Brutal. Unpredictable.

Like its two predecessors, MOCKINGJAY is a pageturner, with an extra shot of ritalin and a near overdose of angst. In fact, the adrenaline-junkie pacing and elusive plot suck the reader so intensely into the story that one doesn't even realize there are pages in need of turning.

Out of the entire trilogy, the first half of MOCKINGJAY is the most post-apocalyptic, featuring refugees underground, ashen wastelands, and elaborate bomb shelters. Our heroine is already a scarred, broken, traumatized version of what she used to be, and that's when she still has 390 pages to go.

The action is good, but the politics are better. Collins is at her best when exploring the medium of reality TV, the influence of celebrity, and the manipulative effects of propaganda. Ultimately, the fate of the rebellion falls upon televised broadcasts and political speeches. Ethics vs results becomes a hotly debated issue in both combat action and the public's media. Do the ends justify the means of illusion, deception, and bloodshed?

In other words, do you blow up a fifteen your old girl to ensure her celebrity sister's endorsement in your political campaign?

Collins also continues to play Russian Roulette with censorship, always succeeding in depicting visceral violence without being explicit.
After finishing, I saw MOCKINGJAY as one book with two sections. Both sections being divided by the line: And that's when the rest of the parachutes go off.

Before that twist, MOCKINGJAY was a book about overthrowing the Capitol. It was about a girl who was going to assassinate a villain, lead a revolution, and choose one of two soulmates in the process. However, Collins catapults us into left field as we follow Katniss into a downward spiral of internal horror and suicidal delerium. Our heroine finally breaks and we break with her. For us, previous motives like kill Snow and Peeta or Gale? become laughably irrelevant. By the end, Katniss is not emotionally damaged, she's obliterated.

The success of MOCKINGJAY is that there never is a plot-friendly epic battle or final showdown between hero and protagonist. Instead we are taken through the horrors of war, the hopelessness in the aftermath, and the understanding of one's need to finally off herself while in the blackest moments of her shattered psychosis.

But it's not perfect. One too many times, Collins spoonfeedingly reminds us that Katniss is STILL playing in the Hunger Games, almost as if fearful that we won't buy that the steaks are just as high as they were while Katniss was in the arena. Collins also beats Katniss with the conflict stick one too many times in order to push her, and the plot, to get closer to the Capitol. Peeta is being controlled by the Capitol, so Katniss decides to become the Mockingjay and go to District 8. Peeta has been hijacked, so Katniss goes to District 2. Three-fourths through the book I realized I was actually waiting for the next bad thing to happen that would motivate Katniss all the way to the Capitol and President Snow's bedroom.

Also, the Peeta-Gale-Katniss soap opera has always fallen flat to me. In Collins' defense, it was rarely used in MOCKINGJAY which made it feel all the more irrelevant to the final plot, like a literary hassle more than a genuine conflict. Which made my favorite lines of the book be when Katniss, after listening to the two self-piyting boys conclude that she'll pick one of them based on her survival skills, declares, "I can survive just fine without either of them."

Damn straight, girl! You kick more ass than the two of them combined! That being said, I appreciated the seasoned, mature love demonstrated in the ending, as well as that final chillingly ominous line.

What did you think of MOCKINGJAY? Was Collins' departure from the traditional climax too frustrating to be satisfying? Did you find the final chapters to be an honest portrayal of post-war trauma or too over-the-top depressing and melodramatic? What should Collins write next? Most importantly, are you Team Peeta, Team Gale, or Team Cinna?