Archive for April, 2010

Writing Life: Successful Debuts

The Writing Life:  Things worth noticing, thinking about, or just hearing once and then forgetting for writers of all kinds

Everyone wants to write the next bestseller and never work again (or to write the next bestseller and continue working, but at your own pace and without all that hassle with day jobs and paying the bills and never having shirts that aren’t all frayed at the cuffs).  Is that so much to ask for?  In many cases, yes.  But as an inspiration to us all, today’s “Writing Life” post highlights a few well-known authors who started out that way and never looked back — instant superstars who hit the magic sweet spot in public approval the moment their debut works rolled off the press.  At some point we’ll flip the coin and follow it up with a list of now-famous authors who died in impoverished obscurity, but for today, relax and enjoy the literary successes of…

Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird remains one of America’s most beloved novels, and it was the only one Harper Lee ever wrote.  Perhaps that’s inauspicious for those of us hoping to enjoy a successful first novel and a long literary career…but she holds the highest civilian honor awarded by the United States government, so we could all do worse.

Margaret Mitchell – Another single-novel Southern woman (although experts discovered and verified an unpublished novel of hers years after her death), Margaret Mitchell defined the Old South for an entire generation in Gone with the Wind.  She also made a pile of money doing it.

Oscar Wilde – His first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was the cornerstone of his literary success, and the best-known of his works during his lifetime (which was short, and, securing him a place in the next list, ended in poverty and unhappiness).

Agatha ChristieThe Mysterious Affair at Styles launched a literary career for Agatha Christie that earned her a title, a fortune, and more sales than anyone since the Apostles.

Anna Sewell died only a few months after publishing Black Beauty, but that was enough time to see it shatter sales records.  It remains one of the best-selling books of all time, with over fifty million copies sold, and it spawned an entire genre of children’s literature.

F. Scott Fitzgerald – Not exactly a poster child for happiness in success, Fitzgerald nevertheless holds a place on the list of blockbuster debuts.  This Side of Paradise earned him enough success to convince Zelda Sayre to marry him, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ralph Ellison only wrote one novel – The Invisible Man – but he published essays on a wide range of subjects up until his death, making it the promising start of a successful literary career.

The Brontë Sisters (with Charlotte leading the pack) are poster-children for the successful first novel.  All of them captured audiences’ attentions with their respective debuts, and the ones who lived long enough capitalized on the success with quick follow-ups.

J. R. R. Tolkien‘s first books were academic, but his first novel, The Hobbit, sold out its first run in a few months and remained in high demand throughout the wartime paper rationing.

And, of course, whether you like the works that followed it or not, J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone put her on the Forbes list and the order of precedence.  We should all be so lucky.

Know of other first-time successes?  Got an author who needs to make it onto the “died miserable” list when it runs?  Drop me a comment!

Devil’s Details: Word Choice

Devil’s Details – Overlooked skills that every writer needs to have.

Last time I did one of these I talked about pacing — the skill of moving the actual prose at the speed you want, not just the plot and organization.  Today we’re looking at another under-appreciated skill, one that many writers seem to assume is handled at an unthinking or instinctive level:  using the right word for the right job.

Rhetoric Matters

If you’ve ever seen a politician or a celebrity castigated on the evening news for a careless slip of the tongue, you already know what a poorly-chosen word can do to you.  Well-chosen words, in the proper order, will be remembered for years — look to Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” the character King Henry’s “band of brothers” speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, or Pericles’s “Funeral Oration” for a few examples of the art at its finest.  Speeches make for particularly good examples because they stand on the merits of their rhetoric alone; there are no narrative considerations to secure their reputation as there are for novels and short stories.

Because their finished products tend to involve less total words than prose writers’, advertisers and speech-writers are particularly sensitive to the effect of each word on the whole.  This does not mean that writers of longer fiction get a write-off, however; pounding out words to get the plot on the paper only works for the first draft.  Even then, I find myself better served by a slower words-per-day rate that takes the wording of the story into greater consideration; the result is almost always less large sections discarded entirely during the editing process.  Choosing the right words as you go along will not only make the ideas you want to express clearer, it will make your authority as the writer (and therefore the dissemination of those ideas) much more secure:  yours will be the prose of someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Where to Care

Not every word on the page is going to be placed there as carefully as a stone in a Zen arrangement, but it’d sure be nice if your reader felt like it was.  Unless you have the instinctive rhetorical skills of another William Jennings Bryant, get used to picking your battles — focusing on word choice where it matters most, both during the initial writing and in the course of your editing.  You will certainly want to exercise the most care in any sections that present particularly crucial themes, or that impact the book in any other major way; at those points (and as much as you can everywhere else), pay attention to the roles your selection of vocabulary will need to play:

Dialogue is a crucial place to care about word choice, precisely because no one except practiced orators thinks about it as they speak.  Unless all your characters talk like you (they shouldn’t), you are going to have to make a conscious effort to pick words that fit their unthinking patterns rather than yours.  Most people use a tiny fraction of their working vocabulary for the vast majority of their conversations, so unless you’re trying to write a Mr. Smartypants, be sure to lay on the heavy repetition in dialogue — a man who calls his shoes “stanky” one day isn’t likely to suddenly switch to “overripe” the next, unless there’s a compelling reason (presence of a lady, perhaps).

Limited-perspective narration requires the same basic attention to consistency in word choice that dialogue does:  you are describing the internal workings of one individual, and he or she presumably perceives the world in basically the same way from one day to the next.  If you use lots of simple, common words, do it constantly and with plenty of repetition.  If the character is a complicated thinker, bring in more abstract words and philosophical terms — there’s nothing wrong with showing off your vocabulary, but don’t do it unless it illustrates something besides how smart you are.

Omniscient narration is your voice, so you’re no longer worrying about consistency as an issue that might break someone’s suspension of disbelief or interest in your characters (though you still don’t want to jump around the place too much).  What you should be focusing on in passages where the narrator speaks abstractly is the exact theme of that particular section — what do you want the reader to take away from this moment in the text?  Is it demonstrative of a key theme in the work as a whole?  (If it’s not, consider shutting your narrative voice up and just letting the characters do their thing.)  Pick words that are powerfully associated with the idea or ideas you want to communicate.

How to Start Thinking about Words

Most of us are like casual conversationalists:  we’re not in the habit of using our full vocabulary.  When we want to communicate an idea, we usually reach for the same words that have served us well before.  If you’re trying to write about something with real meaning, that’s a stumbling block you need to get over — you have to turn on the part of your brain that deals with hidden meanings and multiple definitions.

Wordplay comes up a lot in this blog, and it’s going to once more here.  Puns and other cheap word gags are funny because they take advantage of similar sounds or multiple meanings, and that’s exactly what you need to make your key passages memorable.  Don’t settle for any old word when you can use one that communicates your literal meaning and means something associated in a different context.  Shakespeare was an inveterate punner, and he didn’t just use them for the dick jokes — the famous opening of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent/made glorious summer by this son of York,” riffs on the son/sun homonym to conjure the image of welcome change, imbue the newly-crowned King Edward with  solar majesty, and showcase the speaker’s own wit.  And people who’ve never even seen the play still quote the line to this day.

Word games in the more conventional sense, crosswords and so forth, will also help get you in the habit of trying to find multiple words that can fit the same definition (and multiple definitions that fit the same word).  Written versions of Exquisite Corpse, the surrealist party game, will also put the same part of the brain to work trying to come up with a logical antecedent to the very few words visible below the fold.

Poetry is in many ways the art of putting well-chosen words in the proper order, and reading a few favorites just before sitting down to write can have your mind in the right mood.  Try for authors who demonstrate a broad vocabulary, whether or not the other mechanics of their poetry are to your liking — Alexander Pope and Edgar Allen Poe have served me well as inspireërs of creative word choice.  Nonsense poems like The Jabberwocky take a different approach to word-choice by making up the best sound for a particular use rather than seeking the best meaning, and you may find value in their influence as well.  Our brains do make associations based on sound, and an otherwise-unrelated word can easily be tied to another concept by the use of a word that looks very much like it on the page.

And, of course, reading other author’s work with a conscious eye to the vocabulary they choose will serve you well — consider experts of the well-placed word like William Faulkner, Virginia Woolfe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and of course William Shakespeare.  Got any authors that you think always pick the right word for the right idea?  Drop a comment and let us know!

Writing Life: Google and Your Web Presence

Web Presence for the Writer – Short Articles on Improving Your Internet Profile for Authors

Readers of this blog probably have blogs of their own, so I’m assuming that the concept of “web presence” isn’t wholly a foreign one.  But being a writer who’s fond of his personal space — mental and physical — myself, I know that it’s not always the most comfortable arena for the quiet, creative sort to jump right into, either.  Having a well-maintained blog is just the tip of a very hard, chilly iceberg, as I’m discovering for myself.  So over the next few posts (likely interspersed with other things, as the blog usually goes), I’ll try to lay out some of the basic first steps that I’m stumbling through.

From a writer’s perspective, trying to keep up with the social networking explosion can be a painfully large time commitment — hours spent tweeting, stumbling, digging, and so on are hours not spent writing, and unless you’re successful enough to have quit the day job, those hours come from a pretty small reserve.  But the payoff is the leg up with potential publishers that previous generations never had, and that lets well-networked writers slip around the traditional process of desperately submitting “cold” until someone picks up enough of your stories to make approaching agents and publishers directly a possibility.  Web presence allows for a first impression that isn’t dependent on either knowing someone on the inside or cobbling together a sufficiently-impressive portfolio of random credits, freelance articles, and essay contests you won in college.

The catch here is that the impression can be a good one or a bad one, and no impression at all defaults to “bad” in most people’s books.  The web is huge and knows many things, so if it doesn’t know anything about you, there’s an automatic sense that you haven’t done much with your life.  This can be completely untrue and it doesn’t matter — realistically, the first thing anyone who wants to find out more about you is going to do is Google your name and see what comes up.  So be prepared for it:  Google yourself.

Make a Name for Yourself

People with less common names are obviously at an advantage here.  I’m the only “Geoffrey Cubbage” on the web (and probably the only one in the world), so most of the websites that Google turns up if you search for me are at least tangentially related to me.  People with more common names might do well to both write and maintain their various webpages using a middle initial or even the full middle name; if even that doesn’t set you apart from the masses, it may be time to consider a pseudonym.  Just be sure that everything you do is under the same name, whatever you choose it to be — since I go by “Geoffrey Cubbage” on the web, signing myself as “Geoffrey Alan Cubbage” makes the phrase a less-perfect match for search engines and pushes that particular hit lower on the results.

Move the Important Things Up

Once you’ve found yourself on Google, take a look at what it’s turning up, and in what order.  Odds are that your Facebook page will be first (and Facebook is something I’ll look at closer in another post), and if you’ve done your job on it, your blog or other personal webpage that you want people to see will be close to the top as well.  If it’s not, get to work making it a more relevant match for your name — and for the most part, that just means using it more.  If you can get it in an actual page header, so much the better; “Free Association:  the Blog of Jerusalem Keynes” is going to come up higher on a Google search for “Jerusalem Keynes” than “Free Association” would.  Slip the name in other places, like an “about the author page” or a contacts listing, and in the case of a blog, you can even consider simply “signing” your posts with a dash followed by your name.  No one is likely to notice it as terribly invasive of their reading, and it will tell Google that your website is more about you than other sites your name turns up on.

Improve Any Content You Control

After Facebook and a properly name-laden personal website, you may be looking at an awkward potluck of Google returns, depending on what you’ve been doing on the web.  Clean up any pages that you have editorial control over — no one is going to expect your Facebook page or a casual blog like this one to look like the front page of the New York Times website, but you probably don’t want pictures of you doing body shots at the strip club popping up either.  Since we’re talking about web presence for the writer here, be sure that anything you can add content to or edit a profile for mentions you as a writer in some context.  You want to seem like it’s a serious part of your life and how you identify to anyone who’s looking, even if they happen to be looking at your Cat Fancier forum profile.  Be a writer that fancies cats.

Add New Search Results

Once you’ve cleaned up anything you can, resist the temptation to say “it’s out of my hands” and let the other random junk — old sites that mention you by name, forums you may have defunct posts on, those random genealogical search engine scams, etc. — sit on the first couple pages of a Google search.  Even if it’s harmless content (a small newspaper article you were quoted in, for example), boring old stuff is just that.  It’s old, and it’s boring.  It’s probably an overall positive that I was the Illinois state champion in Lincoln-Douglas debate my senior year in high school, but do I really want people to think that I haven’t done anything worth mentioning since then?

Instead, load the web with newer, fresher things that use your name.  Join some forums and post under your real name (but only nice things, please).  Use a blog or a book reviewing service to put up occasional short pieces on what you’ve been reading lately.  Submit some replies to how-to sites, or write a “guest post” for another blogger (offer them the same opportunity, of course).  Keep dropping your name so that it appears more recently and more frequently than it does on the old junk pages that Google’s returning, and they’ll soon drop off the first couple pages (which is all anyone is going to look at, unless they’re a government employee running a professional background check on you).

What I’m finding as I go along with all this (and anyone who Googles my name will realize that I have work to do yet) is that web presence is a time-hungry beast with a lot of heads.  I’ll talk more about it in future posts, but for now, start out small — keep a blog or a webpage and work on getting it toward the top of the Google search returns for your name, clean up anything else Google pulls up that you have control over, and try to get some new content out there with your name on it to replace all the old, defunct stuff.  If nothing else, you’ll get to spend a day Googling yourself and calling it work!

- Geoffrey Cubbage (see what I did there?)

Writing Life: Words People Use Wrong

A short, late post on a busy, confusing day.  We’ve all been there!  But it occurs to me that, despite the wealth of books and articles out there that will tell you when to use “effect” and when to use “affect” (just for example), I’m still constantly tripping over slightly-inappropriate word choices that have made it into print.  I don’t have a system for fixing the errors, or even remembering all of them, but off the top of my head, here are some of the more typical offenders:

plethora – This always seems to show up as a polysyllabic replacement for “lots,” which runs into two problems.  First, the word has negative connotations — it contains an inherent implication of too much of whatever it refers to.  It also refers to variety as well as number; someone can only sit at the bar and make himself sick by swilling down a plethora of beers unless he’s switching brands.

dilemma – Much stricter in meaning than many people take it to be, “dilemma” refers specifically to a choice between multiple and undesirable possibilities.  Where to go for lunch is not a dilemma unless all your options are terrible.

peruse – I don’t know how the misuse got started, but I see this in a lot of (usually paperback) fiction to imply a short glancing-over of anything.  Quite to the contrary, “peruse” means to study in depth, and applies specifically to writing.  You can peruse a book, but not quickly, and you can never peruse the scene of the crime (except in a Jasper Fforde novel).

pristine – Why do all the ones that come to my mind start with “P”?  Whatever the reason, “pristine” doesn’t mean clean — it means untouched or unaltered.  The misuse is common enough that it might be excusable in a character’s dialogue, but it should never show up in the narrative voice unless the scene or object described is truly untouched.  A fresh snowfall can be pristine, but a well-scrubbed bathroom never can be.

hone – On its own, usually fine.  Just remember that you home in on things, not hone.  “Honing in” doesn’t mean much of anything, outside of some very odd usages:  “He honed the knife into a brittle sliver,” perhaps.

literally – This is a freebie, and I imagine most people already know to be careful of it, but still.  It means exactly what we were taught…the literal interpretation, the exact meaning.  Use “almost” or “figuratively” with your hyperbole, because you can’t have literally worn your fingers away working.  Or you could, but at that point you can probably get OSHA on the case.

eponymous – I misused this one for some time until it was pointed out to me.  The adjective literally means “named after itself,” meaning that it has to apply immediately and directly to the source of the name, not the object taking the name.  You can talk about Oasis’s eponymous first album, but you can’t say “Eddy strode to the front of his eponymous tavern.”

I’m reasonably sure there were more of these that I was going to take a swing at, but damn if I can remember them just now…oh well, I’m sure there’s other lists running around out there.  It’s the internet; there’s lists of everything.

Blogging Basics: Placeholder

This will be a real post later in the day.  There’s a few too many things going on in life right now, so it’ll probably be a few hours before I can get to the blog.  Sorry for the delay.

Blogging Basics: Addendum to Previous Post

Potentially of note — the previous post generated a particularly high-view day. Was it the “Beatles” tag, or pure coincidence? Your guess…but remember those inescapable influences!

Writing Life: Pandora and the Inescapable Influences

Long title for a “quick thought,” isn’t it?  But to summarize for the couple dozen people on the Internet that still don’t use Pandora, it’s a free internet radio site that categorizes its songs by a couple thousand criteria and, Digg-like, allows users to “thumbs-up” content they like and “thumbs-down” content they don’t.  The program behind the site plays the music it thinks the listener will like, and theoretically gets smarter about it every time you provide feedback.

Where this runs into trouble is when you start hitting what I think of as “the inescapable influences,” the songs and artists that are going to pop up no matter what you tell Pandora to do. It does allow you to completely scratch an artist by thumbs-downing three of their songs, but because the station often makes do with odd recordings or “Greatest Hits” sorts of compilations, it can take a while to find, say, three songs listed as being by “The Beatles” rather than by “The Beatles 1967-69″ or “The Beatles Live at Mucking-on-the-Creek” or whatever.

And the Beatles are a fantastic example of what I’m talking about.  Like alternative rock?  That’s got “rock influences,” “acoustic and electric guitar,” “major chord tonality,” “a strong vocal lead,” and all sorts of other categories that the Beatles also fit into.  And whadya know, so do some rockabilly sounds, until if you’re not careful you’ll hear The Beatles, Chuck Berry, and Alan Jackson all in a row on your “Smashing Pumpkins and Similar Artists” station.

At first brush it would seem reasonable to say that the most inescapable names are also the most influential.  Everyone after the Beatles was made possible by the Beatles, ergo the Beatles play on their Pandora station too.  It’s a comforting argument for Beatles fans, no doubt, but Johnny Cash also shows up everywhere, as does Bob Dylan — and, on my opera and classical attempts, Bizet’s Carmen, in all its innumerable permutations (sorry, “variations”).  And they’re often showing up on stations playing older music, the music that influenced those artists rather than the other way around.

The lesson to take away from this for your writing, though (other than “keep a close eye on your Pandora thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs), is that there are always inescapable influences and the inevitable comparison to them.  We’re all still writing the same basic novels as Henry James, and as the romantics before him — style has changed, subject has changed, and in some more extreme cases the mechanics are noticeably different, but the vehicle is still a narrative story.  People do things, say things, feel things; we the author tell the reader about it in words.  So don’t get too caught up in visions of your own originality, because even the Smashing Pumpkins needed the Beatles to put them where they got.  And the Beatles needed Chuck Berry, and Chuck Berry needed Muddy Waters, and so ad infinitum

Writing Life: Working Titles

If you read Wednesday’s post, you probably picked up the general theme of “lots of details before publishing.”  After writing, after editing, even after letting other people butcher the work and then making those edits — the fun’s still just starting.  And at some point in there, you have to slap a title on the work, which regular readers of this blog already know is the part I’m happiest to farm out to some other schlub.

But what the hell, it’s the twenty-teens now, and DIY is hip.  So in that spirit, I yanked down a pile of books from the shelf and started thumbing through the spines.  A couple hundred volumes later, I’ve broken everything down to a couple fundamental approaches that you loyal readers can always keep in mind — other authors seem to like them, or at least their editors did, and their books got published.  What more recommendation do you need, really?

The Literal Approach

I was shocked to discover how many books were getting away with titles that I would have discarded as boring and stupid-sounding — and I’d never even noticed.  Some were old favorites!  For centuries, people have been pulling a relevant noun out of their book, slapping the definite article in front of it (or not, in the case of proper nouns), and publishing happily.  Pick a genre, and literal, one- or two-word titles are going to litter it.  Don Quixote, Oliver Twist, Wuthering Heights, The Hobbit, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — you can go highbrow, lowbrow, kids, adult, fantasy, literature, some combination of all those things, and find plenty of simple, literal titles.

There’s reasons for this.  One of them is doubtlessly people like me, who don’t know what the hell else to call their story, but I like to think that there’s also some inherent merit in putting what the book is about right on its cover.  At the very least, it’s a service to browsers in the bookstore — someone who thinks unicorns are stupid can probably skip The Last Unicorn, say.  You won’t impress anyone with your cleverness this way, but sometimes it’s okay to let the work speak for itself, rather than relying on a catchy title to grab people.

The Thematic Approach

Just about as common are books with a title that grabs a big idea from the text, rather than a specific character or place or other physical thing.  The Wind in the Willows isn’t actually about a breeze, but the image fits both the pastoral setting and the personal philosophy of several of the free-spirited protagonists.  The Grapes of Wrath works in much the same way, directly linking the setting of the novel to the Book of Revelation’s “winepress” by way of Julia Ward Howe’s well-known lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  (Steinbeck, interestingly — a man who loved a good quotation, and the more meanings it could pack the better — struggled with a title for The Grapes of Wrath, and wound up taking his wife’s suggestion.)  The thematic approach to titles seems to particularly dominate the science-fiction and fantasy epics:  Stranger in a Strange Land, Ender’s Game, A Game of Thrones, Shards of Honor, and many, many other “genre” works pick a general theme or idea out of the work and turn it into a short-phrase title.

I think of this approach as an overall compromise between helpful description and clever wordplay; like any compromise, it either leaves all parties happy, or all parties unhappy.  Sometimes you wonder what the publishers were trying to say, and other times it’s a clever link between the text and an outside idea.  I’m not sure how I would go about constructing this sort of title myself, other than by the Steinbeck-style fragmented quotation, but the key seems to be making sure that the ideas your title conjures are actually the ideas that appear in the book.  So choose your words carefully…

The Non-Referential Approach

And then (on the subject of carefully-chosen words) there are titles that don’t have any direct connection to the work, or a very tenuous one.  They’re designed to be interpreted, and quite possibly to be misinterpreted as well, depending on the author.  Shakespearean quotes also seem to feature heavily, for some reason — Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace all jump to mind as books whose titles are relevant but not necessarily very related to the stories themselves.  Certain authors (Faulkner, Vonnegut, etc.) seem to have a strict rule against conventionally literal titles, while others only indulge occasionally.  These are idiosyncratic beasts, so I’m hard-pressed to give you a rule on how to make them work, but Shakespeare seems like a good place to start.  Just be careful, since the line between clever allusion and sophomoric punning is — as this blog frequently proves — a thin one…

At the risk of crossing that line, I direct your intention to the header on this post for interpretation — does it refer to the “working title” placeholders that occasionally find their way into print?  Is it just about making titles that work?  Or am I evoking the idea of “working” a title like clay, or some other malleable substance…you tell me.  It’s easy to get too clever with these things.  But pretty cool how it works, no?

Writing Life: A Poster Worth Having

One of the joys of keeping a blog like this is that every once in a while someone forwards me something fun to put up on it.  There’s probably a way to actually embed that image, but the link’ll have to do until I figure it out — just click it; no reason to be shy.  It’s just a clever little poster called “Are You Absolutely, Positively, and Wholeheartedly Ready to Publish Your Novel?”  (the conclusion, obviously, will be “no” no matter how you do it).  The creator seems to have grasped most of the major stumbling blocks and made fun of them, though I’d enjoy a sequel that takes a look at agents, editors, and publishers.  But the overall point is that there’s stuff you haven’t thought of yet, no matter where you are in the process, which is probably a good lesson for everyone.

Happily, I’m still doing the fun part (or at least what I think of as the fun part), and have at least one more chapter to go before I have to switch from pouring out rough-draft words to mopping most of them up and replacing them with better-chosen ones.  It’s something of a mental exercise to keep from sticking in more plot points just so that I don’t have to edit yet, actually — I’m in comfortable territory as long as I’m just writing; it’s everything after that that gets a little uncharted.  Difference between a hobbyist and a professional, I suppose.  It’s been a good year for learning new things so far, so I’m keeping my chin up — and reminding myself that I only started this “hey, let’s be a writer” kick last fall.

So sign me up for one of those posters, if you’re thinking about my upcoming birthday — I could use the humor as the “creative writing” process shifts over into the “practical publishing” one.

Devil’s Details: Pacing

Devil’s Details – Overlooked skills that every writer needs to have.

I think I primarily like the phrase “devil in the details” precisely because it can mean so many different things if you adjust the details.  “The devil was in the detail” means a rather different thing from “A devil in the details,” after all.  But details matter; that’s the point of it all.  Relevance to writing?  Critical.  We all know that you need a solid plot, decent characters, and maybe even a greater underlying message or two to produce good fiction.  But to produce great fiction, you’re going to have to get technical, and so the first of who-knows-how-many “Devil in the Details” posts, where we take an up close and dirty look at really insignificant things that aren’t actually.

Today?  Pacing.  Broad concept, narrow skill set.  The word gets applied to the plot of books as well as the prose itself, but that isn’t what I mean (at least not tonight) — fundamentally, pacing for our purposes here is the manner in which the text progresses, word by word.  Choosing where plot points fall and when to whip a new one out of the hat is a good skill, but write it off the list for now.  For now, we’re thinking about words.

Pacing Element No. 1:  Words

No really, words.  At the end of the day, every story happens one word at a time — sort of.  Without going into too much detail, the visual component of reading is done about four or five character spaces at a time.  In a text with lots of short words (like this sentence up to the parenthetical), the eyes can focus on a little over one word at a time.  In a text laden with longer words (character length being more relevant than syllable), the visual focus is under one word at a time.  What “time” are we talking about?  That’s the brain’s half of the job, and it’s going to vary from person to person.  Don’t worry about it for now, or go read through some Wikipedia articles on reading methods and pedagogy if you’re curious.  We’ve already established the first key point — a text with short words reads faster than a text with long words, simply because of visual limitations.

Next-most immediate effect of words on a text’s readability is how common they are.  The most common words — and, but, the, all those guys — are basically iconographic symbols, for most people’s practical purposes.  You see them, you recognize them; the meaning is ingrained the same way that “Red Octagon = Stop” is automatic for most American drivers, and by way of many, many more repetitions.  Those will be recognized and read with no noticeable slowing in the text.  Longer but common words take up fractionally longer comprehension times.  Something more esoteric, a word that the reader knows but probably hasn’t heard this week, will take longer to recognize; a word that the reader legitimately doesn’t know brings everything to a crashing halt.  Even if he or she reads on without looking the word up (slacker), his/her brain is still rummaging through contextual and etymological clues to try and put together at least a guess at the meaning.  And of course, a text that’s full of unfamiliar words will just become unreadable, or at the very best a painstaking study exercise rather than simple reading.

None of these effects are particularly dramatic for any single given word.  Word choice has a cumulative effect rather than an immediate one, but it will eventually make the difference between a Run, Spot, Run and a Finnegan’s Wake. Although how easily-recognized or obscure the words are probably has more effect on the general tone of a text, the visual effect is actually the more fundamental — short words for a fast read, longer ones for a slow read, again speaking only of physical, character length.  Each reader’s vocabulary will differ, but we all have the same upper limit on visual perception of words.

Pacing Element No. 2:  Sentences

So you’re choosing your words with care, slowing the pace with longer and less common ones when you want a deep, contemplative text and jazzing it up with short, blunt, everyday words when you want that David Mamet Says Fuck You feel.  The next fundamental tool is going to be sentences, their structure and their length.

I realize this will come as a shocker to people, but shorter sentences are easier to read than longer ones.  Once again without getting too technical, a sentence is a memory exercise:  the reader has to hang onto each part (remember diagramming sentences? those parts) until the period, and then put it all together to get the whole idea.  The more parts, the harder the exercise.  As with words, the most fundamental effect to remember will all come down to size.  Longer = slower, shorter = faster.  Not a hard concept.

But there’s more — how direct and unbroken the flow of the ideas in the sentence is also affects the speed with which it can be read.  A point-to-point recounting of facts or events reads very smoothly:  The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Because it’s written in the order that our brains normally perceive things, with no flourishes, it’s a fast sentence.  Any sort of interjection will slow it down:  The fox (which was quick) jumped over the lazy dog. Adding a few words slows things down a minuscule amount, but most of the retarding effect comes from the parenthetical statement acting like a speed bump for the reader’s thoughts.  Introducing ideas which aren’t directly related to the action at hand will slow things down even further:  The fox (and it was an odd season for foxes) jumped over a dog, most likely Farmer Johannsen’s, that lazed on the grass. Two ideas that have nothing to do with the mechanics of a fox jumping over a dog make the brain work in multiple directions at once, slowing the sentence down well beyond the minor impact of a few added words.

You can probably simplify all that down and just say that extra clauses slow a sentence down beyond the mechanical effect of the extra text, since they introduce more ideas for the brain to keep track of.  Independent clauses (clauses that can stand as a sentence on their own) will have the strongest slowing impact, and total non sequiters will be less like a speed bump and more like a total roadblock.  Look to mechanics (how many words and clauses the sentence contains) and content (how many ideas it introduces) for your pacing effects here, just like you looked at physical length and ease of recognition when you considered words.

Pacing Element No. 3:  Paragraphs

I’ve already written about paragraph breaks and their specific effect on dialogue in an earlier post, so some of this may sound familiar — your next-biggest unit of text is the paragraph, and no surprises here, where you choose to break them changes the speed of the text.

The good news is, we’re now past the point where how many characters the human eye can track as it moves horizontally matters much.  The bad news is, vision still comes into it; it’s just a broader range of vision now.  Once you start talking about paragraphs, reading speed is going to be largely affected by typesetting concerns — how much space there is between lines, between words, between letters, and various other things that are completely out of your control as a writer.  (Well, you can always argue with your publisher, but it’s nothing you can work on personally as a creative writing skill.)  What you can work on is making a text that will be as readable (or difficult, depending on your intention) as possible no matter what your typesetter does.

If you remember the Where’s Waldo books, you know that surrounding an object with other objects similar to it makes it harder to find.  Even things that don’t look much like Waldo can clutter things up, if there are enough of them — replace Waldo with words, and you have the basic gist of why paragraphs matter.  The more words appear without significant space between them, the more difficult it is for our vision to find and focus on any given one (or any given five-ish characters within one, if you recall the horizontal limits).

The easiest way to create space, making the text easier to read, is to break a line.  Blogs like this tend to be formatted with blank lines between paragraphs, but most contemporary fiction is going to be printed using indentations to denote paragraphs, so the only way to actually get a blank line is to write a very short paragraph (or to be able to predict where the end of sentence will fall on a given finished page — write me if you figure out how to do that one).  Dialogue is the easiest way to achieve those sorts of spaces, since it demands a fresh paragraph for each speaker; a page recounting a conversation by two taciturn fellows could easily leave most of the page blank.

Failing dialogue and monosyllabic speakers, the next-easiest way to speed up the flow of the text on the paragraph level is going to be a direct inversion of the general rule for sentences:  introduce more unrelated ideas to speed things up.  Something new to describe generally requires, or at least allows for, a new paragraph, so new information will help keep the text readable.  Obviously, there are going to be some content-based concerns that go beyond the mechanical — if the ideas are completely unrelated, the text will be hard to care about, if not necessarily to read.  But switching the narrative focus from one object or idea to the next can keep the paragraphs short and punchy.

Additionally, some writers will insert a blank line into a text that uses indentations to mark paragraphs; this generally denotes a larger textual shift from one idea to a new, unrelated one, usually with at least some time elapsing in the narrative.  I’m not a fan personally — I feel like it usually gets used where either a normal paragraph would have been sufficient or where there should be a whole new chapter (a post for another day) — but it exists, and it’s there for people to consider using.  Just be cautioned that over-use will make it look like you’re used to writing comic books.

Going from Here

What we’ve covered so far is the core of readable text:  words, sentences; paragraphs.  These are mechanical skills that can be applied to virtually any text, regardless of content.  Once you go much beyond the paragraph, the plot of the work in question starts to matter more and more in determining what goes where, so we’re stopping here for today.  To recap:

- Textual “pacing” is the general speed with which your text can be consumed; the measure of how quickly and efficiently it moves from one idea to the next.

- Word choice will have the largest cumulative effect on a text, but the least individual impact.  Short words are easier for the human eye to read, while longer ones require more visual effort; words that we hear every day will “jump off the page” and speed the reading, while more obscure vocabulary slows the brain down as it rummages around for definitions.

- Short sentences require almost no memory to process, while longer sentences with more involved clauses force the reader to assimilate the data more carefully.  Independent clauses, interruptions like parenthetical statements, and other shifts in topic/focus will slow sentences down further.

- Long paragraphs are a visual strain to read, while blank space makes a page go faster.  Dialogue can create empty space, as can topic shifts that necessitate (or at least excuse) a new paragraph.

- A fast read is not necessarily better than a slow one, or vice versa.  Pacing will make your book better when it fits the mood, and worse when it doesn’t.  Imagine Hamlet written by David Mamet:  “This is fucked.  Fuck me.”  There’s your “To be or not to be” soliloquy — not quite the same feeling (though it still gets the point across).  Be aware of how the words, sentences, and paragraphs you construct are moving the reader along, and don’t let them have an unplanned effect.  It’s all about control.

And details.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,896 other followers