Posted on 20-04-2009
Posted on 01-06-2009
Filed Under (Articles, Writing) by admin

The literary critic for The Palm Beach Post, Scott Eyman, has written many outstanding books on the legends of the cinema. In an article he wrote some years ago pertaining to a trend in filmmaking that was conceived to sustain an audience’s attention span, he stated, “Action has become confused with movement.” I was so taken by what I felt was an exceptionally acute and accurate comment, I asked for and received his permission to cite his line, since I am of the opinion this issue applies equally to crafting a novel.

There Is a Time When You May Have to Kill Your Babies

In writing, a glaring fault occurs when an otherwise perfectly good scene has nothing to do with the plot or the story has evolved to the stage of rendering the scene superfluous–but the writer doesn’t want to lose the section? As harsh as it sounds, to paraphrase Faulkner, this is the time the writer may have to kill his or her babies. But not many who write their gems want to do it, at least not without a battle of intestinal tumult that often reaches epic proportions.

Whether Exposition or Dialogue, Lateral Movement Is Equally Deadly to Advancing the Story

No aspect of a narrative is immune, and to imply the problem is found more in exposition than dialogue is likely inaccurate, but flat scenes seem easier to identify in the latter. In a book, stagnant dialogue in a dining vignette, for example, although much less dramatic, is not dissimilar in effect to a fight scene or an explosion or a car chase ridiculously positioned or overused as a plot element in a movie. In leaving the theater and asking why a particular scene was in the movie, this is no different from a reader saying that a passage of exposition or a run of dialogue had nothing to do with the storyline of a novel.

Writers of Books Don’t Have the Luxury Filmmakers Possess

But moviemakers have an advantage, since their medium is visual. A lot can be remedied in a couple of minutes and a few scene changes. A novel requires much more time to regain the reader’s confidence after a lull in the narrative, and it requires much less effort to put down a flawed book–that might take another eight hours to read–than to hang around the theater for a half-hour until the movie ends.

It Is Impractical to Write Around an Ineffective Scene

It sounds simple, but this is the whole megillah: For anyone desiring publication by a bona fide royalty publisher, all of the words have to be focused toward the goal of advancing the plot. If not, revise or cut the superfluous narrative. It is impossible to write around material that does not advance the plot, no matter how brilliant the rhetoric might be. When a writer accepts this, the task of transitioning prose becomes easier, sometimes exponentially. And the overall narrative is more effective.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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A Time When Size Really Does Matter

“When is this chapter ever going to end?” This is a common rebuke heard by many a weary soul. The quality of the story may not have diminished, but the chapter is not consistent in length with the rest of those in the book. And the reader is uncomfortable. No time was allowed for the person to relax with the words.

Consistency with Chapter Length Is Important

Harry Crews, an ex-professor whose writing is far-removed from the mainstream, dissected Graham Greene novels related to how many chapters they contained and the length of each. Crews had a number of reasons for doing this, and it can be suggested that a writer should look at his/her own work as Crews parsed Greene’s to create visual continuity that can affect pacing and even tone.

Genre As an Influence

However, when reviewing chapter length, a number of issues must be considered, not the least of which is genre. A writer of literature, such as Pat Conroy, will have different chapter parameters from a mystery author like James Patterson, with the separate and distinctive narrative nature of their disparate story styles influencing chapter length.

Clever Techniques That Provide the Perception of a Shorter Chapter

If a writer finds a chapter, for whatever reason, too long, there are techniques that can be used to shorten the perception of its length and provide the reader with some breathing room. One effective method, if there are multiple scenes in a long chapter, is to break up the chapter internally by adding an extra line space to indicate a shift in the scene, though evident, is not so great that a new chapter is desirable. The other device is to use a series of dots or other symbols such as * * * or # # # between an extra line space to indicate a shift in the direction of the scene that is substantial but still not enough that a new chapter is deemed appropriate.

Prudent Reasons for Section Breaks

It must be kept in mind that section breaks must have a distinct function–such as denoting a passage of time, a change of setting, or a point-of-view shift–to indicate a transition point that would otherwise confuse the reader by its absence. But just as section breaks enable the reader to take a deep breath, too many of these breaks, or if they are ill-placed, can bring into question why the change of direction was necessary. The story will appear choppy and therefore a poor read.

The Ultimate Test for a New Chapter

If you believe a chapter might be too long or bloated, apply a simple concept: If you were getting tired of reading the chapter, wouldn’t the reader likely be feeling the same way?

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I don’t know when, on the writing curve, Stephen King or Nelson DeMille might seek editorial advice, only that it is documented that they do. So it begs the question, for the writer trying to break into the business with a major royalty publisher–and who accepts that a professional editor looking at the manuscript might not be a bad idea–when is the right time to hire a book editor.

Generally There Are Two Issues

For most people, it’s a matter of time and money. Let’s look at the time element first. A common practice is for a writer to send a manuscript to an editor for a critique after it is felt that the material is in A-grade condition and ready for market–except for perhaps the slightest touch-up. But if it’s determined there are plot or character elements that cannot be remedied by modifying, deleting, or inserting a few sentences here or there–which is overwhelmingly the case–then the entire piece will often require a wholesale revision.

How Much Time Does a Writer Have?

If an author should seek an editor to review a story concept and its setup from an early point in the creative process, steps can be taken to keep the plot elements in focus. And the time saved can be substantial, since a revision can often require months. From a time standpoint, isn’t it better to catch any problems early–and rectify them–rather than spend considerable time on a draft that will have no prospects in its current condition? If a writer has the discipline to work with an editor during a manuscript’s developmental stage, this initiative can be a valuable time- saving practice.

How Much Money Does a Writer Want to Spend?

No one likes to pay a second time for a process that failed initially. This is the most salient reason I can think of to justify bringing an editor into the fold at the start. The early-stage placement of a manuscript with a professional editor is almost always the most economical way for a writer to work, and usually substantially so.

Does Anybody Really Do It This Way?

Unfortunately, many unpublished writers will consider an editor only after a series of rejections from agents or publishers who accept unagented submissions. This article is not going to change the modus operandi of a great many writers who are already ensnared well within the publishing labyrinth. But I hope these contentions might motivate some others who read this piece to consider contacting a professional editor toward the beginning stages of the first draft and not after it’s completed.

Editors Are Becoming More Flexible

As with most everything facing a writer who is hoping to become published for the first time, there is no one size that fits all. And while I hate to close an article with a disclaimer, it is important to report that some well-respected editors continue to accept completed manuscripts only. Yet it seems that a sizable body of highly regarded editors are acceding to this article’s primary premise, which is to encourage authors to present early-stage material for review.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 23-02-2010
Filed Under (Articles, Publishing, Writing) by admin

Not long ago I received a request to review an author’s query letter. It was awful. The letter was written in a structure that would make a seventh-grade English teacher cringe. And as is commonly the case with writers who are unfamiliar with the nuances of the publishing industry, the genre definition for the novel was incorrect, as well.

A Monumental Mistake Compounded

While discussing how to improve the letter, one question led to another, when the author informed me that over time he had used SIX editors on his novel (and he was dead serious). This floored me. How does a writer find a half-dozen editors on this planet who don’t understand the genre of the work they are editing? This ineptness by both parties (I’m lumping the editors together as one entity) brings up several issues that I feel a responsibility to address.

Anyone Can Claim to Be an Editor

First, sadly, anybody can claim to be an editor. There is no formal credentialing. I know of people who cannot write but claim in their advertising to have helped dozens of writers get their novels into print, only to learn that every one of these works was self-published. I have had people attend my creative writing workshops who do not understand writing at anywhere near a professional level, but have “Editor” printed after their name on a business card. History is littered with editors making all sorts of outlandish assertions, such as guaranteeing a writer a contract with a major royalty publisher (which landed the principle of one editorial outfit in jail a few years ago).

The Problem With a Manuscript Can Generally Be Attributed to One of Two Factors

I’ve found that working with clients is about honest relationships as much as writing. If a writer has found a competent editor, and nothing has happened in a positive way with respect to the manuscript after exhausting all of the available avenues, there is likely something wrong with the concept for the market in which the work is intended–or the writing is not up to the demands of the industry. This last statement does not imply that the editor was less than scrupulous in supporting the manuscript, only that there is only so much anyone can do with a project. And my experience is that hiring another editor will not help.

Respected Editors Will Not Compromise Their Relationships With Top Agents

Another thought to bear in mind is that most industry-respected editors have long-standing relationships with A-grade agents. One reason for writers to employ highly regarded editors is the desire to have their manuscripts presented to those agents with whom these editors have a fellowship. This is particularly important today, because an ever-increasing percentage of top agents are not accepting unsolicited material, with the bulk of their referrals coming solely from editors. And no editor I know of wants to harm his or her reputation by suggesting material that is not thought to be publishable. I can’t state this more emphatically.

The Best Advice Anyone Can Receive

Now back to the fellow whose experience with six editors fostered this article. I have to assume he was either quite naive or very unlucky, as somewhere along the way one of the editors had to have told him the truth about his writing. Or he didn’t want to listen and kept burning through editors in hope of finding someone who would like his work. There is no value in dragging along a corpse. Related to his fiasco, from my personal experience as a writer and not as an editor, the advice someone gave me decades ago is in my opinion still the best recommendation anyone can receive about a manuscript that is not going anywhere–and this suggestion was to write something else.

Two Critical Issues to Understand and Accept

I want to offer a final remark on query letters and another on editors editing manuscripts: For an unpublished writer, the greatest query letter ever written is not going to enable a deficient manuscript to become accepted by a bona fide royalty publisher. And neither can a host of the best editors in the industry, short of one of them ghosting the entire piece, save writing that is flawed.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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This is a reading list for my Intermediate Workshop Series I facilitated that was sponsored by the Palm Beach County Library System.  And the last time I provided these suggestions for a workshop group, it was spread over 15 months. With an eye toward balancing the word count in a reasonable manner, I segregated the material into three sections (hence, five months to complete each section). Obviously, the important issue is to read and learn from the material, not the time frame associated with accomplishing this.

If a serious writer will read (or reread) these novels, I don’t think it would be immodest to state that this person’s writing can only become more proficient. So, to good reading and better writing, here is the list, along with a brief explanation of the purpose and rationale behind suggesting this material.

PURPOSE

Reading from these selected works will provide the background necessary for understanding the nuances of form and structure.

READING RATIONALE

One of the most daunting problems with any structured reading program is currency. For this reason, every selection in the following group is contemporary, in that none of the material was published prior to the 20th century. Although not limited to these, selections will encompass treatments related to Style Nuance, Story Threads, Pacing Elements, Theme Development Techniques, Dialogue Cant, Paragraph Style, Chapter Patterning, and Punctuation Subtleties.

“First 5-Month Reading Program”

Group 1 – Read one from group

1) A CURTAIN OF GREEN, by Eudora Welty. Seventeen short stories, some of which will stand your hair on edge. Not horror, but what I refer to as pure noir writing, even though it’s doesn’t fall into the traditional bleak and present danger definition. Ms. Welty won a Pulitzer Prize and about every other award one can win for literary achievement.

2) A SHIP OF FOOLS, by Katherine Anne Porter. Another Pulitzer Prize Winner.
A deep story that exposes human frailty amongst a host of other things.

3) AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, by Theodore Dreiser. Since I am from Indiana, I had to select one Hoosier writer. Just kidding. Mr. Dreiser’s story is a treatment of what happens when there is a hole in the social fabric.

Group 2 – Read one from group

1) GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, by Erskine Caldwell. The book is one of the all-time best-sellers. In his lifetime, Mr. Caldwell’s books exceeded 80 million in sales. This story illustrates cant and how dialogue develops depth of characterization.

2) THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, by Zora Hurston. Oprah made her famous, but a member of the literati rediscovered her much earlier, sadly, well after Ms. Hurston’s death. Many feel that the novel begins with one of the most brilliant opening paragraphs ever written. She also wrote a metaphor for the ages, which I won’t describe in the hope you will read the book. Again, this is a treatment of how cant in dialogue creates characters we remember forever.

Group 3 – Read one from group

1) GLITZ, by Elmore Leonard. Known as much for his skill at pacing as for his dialogue, this is my favorite of his works from the perspective of the story line; liking it so much that I’ve read it three times.

2) THE DA VINCI CODE, by Dan Brown. The best-selling single novel of all time. And for those who have enjoyed finding fault with it, I have not heard anyone disparage its pacing. As one might have surmised, this group of stories is about pacing.

3) ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Perhaps thought to be
a weird placement with the other works in this group, yet with a child’s short attention span, nothing exemplifies the need for great pacing than when writing in the Children’s genre.

Group 4 – Read one from group

LONESOME DOVE, by Larry McMurtry. He won a Pulitzer for this work and it is an example of fluent prose writing at its best. Also not a half-bad story, ha ha.

THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, by Barbara Kingsolver. One of my all-time favorites.
A “layered” story with a fabulous history lesson as a by-product.

THE THORN BIRDS, by Colleen McCullough. Another book that is an example of fluent prose writing at its very finest.

Each of these novels demonstrates what the phrase “writing redemptive characters” means.

“Second 5-Month Reading Program”

Group 5 – Read one from group

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A story that traces many generations of a family from its beginning until its ultimate demise. Mr. Marquez won a Nobel Prize, in large measure for this work.

THE FORSYTHE SAGA, by John Galsworthy. Another Nobel Prize winner. A multi-layered treatment of a complex family tree, along with the perfect illustration of creating conflict between the lead characters.

Group 6 – Read one from group

USA, by John Dos Passos. A novel in trilogy form that at first pass is a history lesson which details the Socialist movement in America after WWI and beyond the Great Depression. But it is much more of a literary treatment than a historical novel. The format for inserting material so the reader can sense the cultural perspectives of the era is unique to anything I had read until RAGTIME.

RAGTIME, by E. L. Doctorow. Multiple inserts on the order of USA, but all of the threads are carried throughout the book, making it impossible not to become fully invested with the various characters.

Group 7 – Read one from group

THE CONFESSION OF NAT TURNER, by William Styron. Another Pulitzer Prize Winner. I’ve discussed this novel in our workshops because the entire work is written in back-story (or flashback, if you prefer), demonstrating that it can be done.

A COLOR PURPLE, by Alice Walker. Still another Pulitzer Prize recipient. This work is presented in its entirety in epistolary form, meaning a series of letters, and is another exceptional example of stylistic variation.

DOLORES CLAIBORNE, by Stephen King. I’m presenting this book to demonstrate Mr. King’s skill at writing dialogue. This book is 90,000 words of pure monologue–without one adverb attribute. From what I’ve read throughout my life, this is the quintessential example of characterization developed via dialogue, and in my opinion it’s well worth studying as to how this is achieved.

Group 8 – Read one from group

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, by Virginia Woolf. Once it’s recognized that this is stream-of-consciousness writing, it is not as difficult to understand or accept as a style. Some believe this technique enables a writer to become more creative.

THE SOUND AND THE FURY, by William Faulkner. Should you choose to read the novel, read it from the beginning with a Norton’s Criticism to develop a better understand how Faulkner uses Benji to expand the stream-of-consciousness concept.

“Third 5-Month Reading Program”

Group 9 – Read one from group

HOT SPRINGS, by Stephen Hunter. Great tale, in my opinion, by a very skilled writer. Big change of pace from the recent material. Again, pay particular attention to the pacing.

CONDOMINIUM, by John D. MacDonald. He’s famous for Travis McGee series, it you should choose to read this book you will be rewarded with a lot of fabric that is easy to read, again demonstrating the value of writing prose in a fluent manner.

Group 10 – Read both

THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, by Evan Hunter. Hugely popular story that is important because of the visceral nature of the writing and the surprise ending.

KISS, by Ed McBain. Ed McBain is the pen name under which Evan Hunter writes his 87th Precinct novels. The purpose of each of these suggestions is to detect the subtleties in the style of both novels written for different genres by the same author.

Group 11 – Read one from group

THE JOY LUCK CLUB, by Amy Tan. The story and the writing demonstrate ways to present a foreign culture through the eyes of several characters.

THE RIVER SUTRA, by Gita Mehta. Another instance of bringing the reader into another culture.

THE GOOD EARTH, By Pearl Buck. She did not win a Nobel Prize for nothing. For anyone who’s never read this story, it’s not the Pollyanna that might be assumed by the title. An incredible work of art expressing some harsh aspects of the Chinese culture, and that there can be children in any family who do not respect what their parents have had to endure throughout their lifetimes to provide a better life for them.

Group 12 – Read all three

THE STRANGER, by Albert Camus.

THE VICTIM, by Saul Bellow

STEPPENWOLF, by Hermann Hesse.

What I find so exceptional about these novels is that this is the same storyline treated in a different way by three people who have each won a Noble Prize for Literature. See how this triumvirate of brilliant writers handled the identical theme.

Group 13 – Read one from group

BEACH MUSIC, by Pat Conroy. If you can stomach a dysfunctional family at its worst, this story brings out some of the best writing anyone could ask for. Just don’t expect a warm fuzzy feeling when you finish it. But the characterizations are spectacular, and you’ll learn something from reading this book.

BREATHING LESSONS, by Anne Tyler. Again, a Pulitzer winner, but this time a story without a redemptive character, proving once more that someone can write against the grain and be successful. The importance of this book is its brutal honesty.

A THOUSAND ACRES, by Ann Smiley. Another Pulitzer Prize winner. Conflict that expresses writing for dramatic effect–at its very best. The easiest of the three books in this group to read. And I wish I had Ms. Smiley for a neighbor.

 

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A writer can start with THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE and move from it to any number of academic works on what a manuscript layout should look like. But adhering to the following eight suggestions will assure an acceptable format for almost all fiction.

Hint Number One–Your Name, Page Number and Book Title in the Top Left Corner of Each Page

In the top, left corner of the page, many editors prefer your last name followed by a hyphen and the page number, and one single space below this, the title of your book. Then three single spaces below this (if you’re not beginning a new chapter, which I’ll cover later) begin your narrative.

Hint Number Two–Double-Line Space the Narrative

No one I know will accept a single-line spaced manuscript, and there is good reason. In the days of the covered wagon, when everything was edited with a pencil, the suggested corrections were made between the lines. Many of us still prefer to work this way, and the format is paramount when line-editing material manually. Plus, most people find double-line-spaced copy on an 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper much easier to read and therefore more comfortable to work with.

Hint Number Three–Double Space After a Period

Double spacing after a period enables room to manually annotate punctuation changes and draw lines to move sentences around. I am aware that some people are saying this is “old school” and therefore the double space after the period is no longer necessary. But every editor I know prefers two spaces after a period, as do I, even though for the purposes of this published piece the text is provided with a single space after each period. Finished copy and submission material are two different animals.

Hint Number Four–Indent Paragraphs 1/2″

Most word processing programs seem to use a 1/2″ indention as standard, but I often receive manuscripts with erratic or inconsistent paragraph indentions. If you always indent 1/2″, then your text’s appearance will be consistent and this will also enable you to “fudge” when you want your text to look its best from an aesthetic standpoint.

Hint Number Five–Never Justify Text

Under no circumstances should a manuscript be submitted with justified text. This makes copyediting a nightmare (read “impossible”), since extra spaces between words are something a copyeditor flags.

Hint Number Six–Locate the Chapter and Its Number in the Center of the Page

As with unusual or inconsistent indentation, I receive a wide variety of chapter setups. My suggestion is to type out the word Chapter with a capital C and follow this with the number 1, 2, 3, etc., one space after the word; i.e., Chapter 1. This isn’t as Mickey Mouse as it seems, because this differentiates a Chapter 1 from Part 1, for example. The Chapter designation is a location in which centered text is not only acceptable but desirable.

Space the chapter identification down however far you desire, with an equal number of lines below it before your begin the narrative. Five single spaces from the book title in the top, left corner to the centered chapter identification, then five single spaces to the beginning of the narrative, is a good template.

This again provides room to “fudge” if need be during later revisions and not require a writer to have to repaginate an entire chapter–or even the entire book. With our more sophisticated word-processing software, this isn’t the big deal it was 20 years ago, but there are times when it’s desirable to have material appear in a certain way on a specific page, and this is why I continue to suggest allowing extra room to maneuver text.

Hint Number Seven–Use a 12 Point Times New Roman or Courier Font

Many in the publishing industry seem to recommend these fonts. Also, if a writer sticks with either Times New Roman or Courier, this could save having to manually go through an entire manuscript to clean it up should it have to be changed to either of these font styles later.  Because, even with all of the word-processing genius that’s out there, different fonts don’t often wrap in the desired manner when the entire text is converted from one font style to another.

Hint Number Eight–Leave an Extra Double-Spaced Line at the End of Each Page

If you choose to ignore everything I’ve written, please leave an extra line or even two at the end of each page, especially during the early drafts of your work.  Meaning, instead of typing to the last line, which will generally be line 24 of double-spaced copy, type only to theoretical line 23 or line 22.  This has nothing to do with editing but will enable you to revise and often not have to repaginate work, irrespective of the sophistication of your word-processing software.

If you follow the suggestions outlined in this article, you won’t have any difficulty with 99 percent of the editors, agents, and publishers out there.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Genres Can be More Than a Little Confusing

There is perhaps nothing more perplexing in all of writing than trying to understand genre. While preparing this paper, I ran across the following sub-genres for Romance: Suspense, Paranormal, Fantasy, Time-Travel, Futuristic, Licensed Theme, Medical, Regency, Medieval, Highland, War, Gothic, Western, and Mail-Order Bride. And these are by no means all that fall into the Romance bailiwick. There were a couple dozen more.

In the Mystery category we have the Cozy, Police Procedural, Forensic Hard-Boiled Crime, Serial Killer, Suspense, Thriller, Legal Thriller, Medical Thriller, Technical Thriller; and other extended Mystery subdivisions that include Science Fiction, Gay, Military, Political, Paranormal, and so many more that the separation is beyond blurred. To confuse anyone to the point of no return, if that’s not the case already, take a look at the Writer’s Digest genre listing. And it’s not all-inclusive.

What Makes Genre Even More Complex Is That It’s Often Not Specific to a Particular Publisher

Long ago, the editor-in-chief with a major publisher indicated to me that one of my novels was rejected because it did not fit into the firm’s definition of a Thriller, since its titles are exclusively “gruesome murders by a serial killer tracked down by a cop who is in turn threatened.” Traditional Thrillers involve international intrigue and a life-and-death struggle to save the planet (or close to it), which is the way my story was written.

An Author Must Determine the Genre and Relevant Sub-Genre in Which the Novel Is Written

The point is obvious. A writer must determine the sub-genre in which his or her work is written, and then tailor the presentation to the agent and/or publisher to whom the material is being presented–as this relates to books that particular agent has placed or the publisher has printed. This requires parsing books on the agent’s or publisher’s list to make certain the submitted novel is indeed complementary. An author who makes this effort can eliminate the major hurdle that a submission is “not a solid match,” since the writer will know beforehand that this could not possibly be the case.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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From academicians to book critics to lay readers, each is often eager to recommend a list of authors who will provide aspiring writers with a sound foundation from which to build. Any suggestions should be revered, but it would be ridiculous for one person to state that her/his idea of quality prose is better than another’s.

However, there are four aspects of the craft of writing that many who understand literature would argue have never been better addressed: Steinbeck’s perfection with dialogue, Faulkner’s depth of characterization, Hemingway’s precise narrative style, and Fitzgerald’s palpable creation of mood.

Steinbeck’s Brilliance As a Dialogist

One of the quickest ways to appreciate John Steinbeck’s brilliance in the realm of dialogue is to read TORTILLA FLAT, THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT, and OF MICE AND MEN. Accents are often hard to maintain in a novel without eventually grating on the reader, yet Steinbeck’s last line of dialogue in TORTILLA FLAT is as fresh as his first. THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT provides a perfect medium for demonstrating his range. And it is then a simple step to OF MICE AND MEN to gain an understanding of Steinbeck’s genius in the art of writing divergent dialogue at an extraordinary level.

Faulkner’s Genius with Characterizations

The mere mention of William Faulkner can cause many to quail. But a lot of Faulkner aficionados, of which I am included in this group, feel he is unchallenged in the realm of characterization. Many erudite souls recommend ABSALOM, ABSALOM as an ideal example of why Faulkner rules the world of characterization, and one needs to read only the first paragraph in the initial chapter to realize the reason for this praise. Another suggestion is that serious writers read THE SOUND AND THE FURY. The characterization of Dilsey the maid is, in itself, a masterpiece.

Hemingway’s Impeccable Pitch

With simple words, Hemingway’s narratives are so powerful and his depictions so poignant that he is credited with creating a unique style. An efficient way to experience his skill is to read THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. What is often overlooked about Hemingway’s crisp, concise style is the quality of pitch his technique provides. His passages of perfect pitch in themselves can be important to analyze by anyone desiring to become a better writer.

Fitzgerald’s Mastery of Mood

Mood, like voice, is one of those magical areas that is easy to recognize but impossible to define with much accuracy. But whatever mood happens to be, it can be experienced in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In THE GREAT GATSBY, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, and TENDER IS THE NIGHT, there is an unmistakable mood that is so sentient the reader easily and pleasantly becomes enveloped by it. In just the opening paragraph of TENDER IS THE NIGHT, the mood for the entirety of a story is set in place. Whatever Fitzgerald’s voice was, he found it. And whatever mood is, he created it with exceptional flair.

There are numerous other writing elements, and subcategories of each, that anyone serious about becoming a novelist must consider. But for those who desire an understanding of what many regard as the four pillars necessary for developing proficiency at writing quality prose, especially if the interest is to have a book signed by a major royalty publisher, it is difficult to argue against studying the distinctions of dialogue, characterizations, narrative pitch, and mood established by Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, respectively.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

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Posted on 23-06-2009
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Almost 20 years ago, an editor who was between jobs, and soon thereafter became the editor-in-chief of a major publisher–where she remains today–took on the project to critique a novel I had written. But before she’d read one page of my manuscript, she warned me about paragraph length; simply, I should be certain my work was written for the most part in short paragraphs.

Chapter Length Is of Prime Significance to the Readability Quotient

At first I thought it an odd, out-of-place comment, especially since she’d not yet received my manuscript. But then I thought about the Thriller genre in which the book was written and decided to parse the average paragraph lengths of authors whom my style most closely patterned. I was pleased that my word count was, on average, not abnormal. But it was not until I began facilitating writing workshops many years, and many novels, later that I fully understood why I was given the admonition.

Chapters That Are Too Long Can Kill Pacing; When Realistic, Try Inserting Dialogue

One of the first problem areas I noticed with material from budding writers involved run-on paragraphs. This occurred in dialogue as well as exposition, and it destroyed the pace of the narrative quicker than any other factor. While long paragraphs wear out the reader, there are simple ways to remedy this. And not always by simply breaking up the material into multiple paragraphs of continuing exposition. One is to insert dialogue, as there is no easier way to break up a long paragraph than for a character to say something. However, this is not always feasible, so the question is, “Where should the paragraph be split?”

How Long Is Too Long? Apply a Simple Test

We are trained that a paragraph should start and end a thought. But since sometimes these thoughts can be substantial, try this exercise: While you’re reading a paragraph you’ve written, consider its length as if it’s invested in your breathing process. If your breathing suddenly becomes labored, and you’re still reading the same paragraph, determine the point that caused your breathing to strain and begin a new paragraph with that sentence. You might have to rearrange a few words, but when you read the new shorter paragraph, check how much easier you are now able to transition to the next paragraph. And how much more comfortably you happen to be breathing. You may have improved the manuscript and the health of your readers at the same time.

[In another article I mention taking in a deep breath--and when the air runs out so should the paragraph. The exercise suggested in this piece accomplishes the same thing but will keep many writers from turning blue, ha ha.]

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Posted on 23-07-2009
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The first question some people might ask is why any writer would need to learn techniques related to Point of View. Doesn’t POV automatically synchronize with the character’s thoughts as soon as these feelings are expressed by the writer? And isn’t the POV of a scene easily identified by an attribute or obvious implication? It should be this simple.

Shifting POV Is Only a Problem When People Notice It

Some writers possess the skill to seamlessly shift from one person’s thoughts to another. As readers, we won’t give this the slightest concern–as long as we don’t realize when it’s occurring. But even some of the most well-respected novelists have at times jarred readers with ineffective POV shifts. So what is it that enables a POV change to be acceptable in one instance yet not in another?

A POV Shift Works When the Reader Finds It Desirable

Most writers make POV shifts in a traditional manner. They add a line space to signify another character’s thoughts via a new scene or go so far as to start a new chapter altogether. But some writers will elect to show multiple characters’ most intimate feelings–within the same scene–without the slightest hiccup. These adept authors are able to accomplish this for a reason.

POV shifts in the same scene are effective when we have become so involved in the characters that we want to know each of their innermost thoughts–immediately. Simply, the pacing and intensity of the storyline can eliminate what might otherwise create a problem for the reader.

So What’s a Writer to Do?

There may indeed be that one instance in a novel, a hospital scene for example when an accident victim is bandaged like a mummy, and the following could occur:

John Wright blinked and could make out a doctor standing next to his bed, staring at him with a stethoscope dangling from his neck as if it were being held by two tentacles. John’s thoughts turned to his wife and he trembled all over. With his lips quivering through thin slits of blood-soaked gauze, John tried to ask about her condition, but no words came out. The physician wanted to leave, but the anguish in his patient’s eyes told him that he couldn’t just walk away. He bent down to the broken man and said, “Mr. Wright, your wife–”

For consistent POV, the second-to-last sentence might have read: John sensed that the physician wanted to leave, but something told him he couldn’t. The doctor bent down and said, “Mr. Wright, your wife–”

But is the scene as powerful if it’s left entirely in John’s POV? Or would the scene work better if the penultimate sentence began a new paragraph? I don’t think so, but this is an individual decision that is highly subjective, and anyone would be justified in disparaging the illustration.

A Final Thought

Many learned people and grounded writers feel that POV is right next to “showing” instead of “telling” as an inviolable principal. And in most cases this is undeniably correct. But there might be that rare occurrence, such as in the example I offered, when a POV shift within a scene could even be preferable. And I’d hate to think that any writer would avoid providing the reader with insight into a character because of POV convention. There are a lot of techniques available to allow the telling of a story and the telling of it well. And it’s obviously the choices that separate writers.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 11-05-2009
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Query Letter Writing–a Daunting Dilemma

Some years ago, to add to a discussion I was encouraging related to the nuances of query letter writing, a woman who had just received a contract for her first novel–and from Simon & Schuster no less–wrote me to lament how arduous she had found the task of crafting her missive to appeal to agents. She admitted that she considered the query more difficult than writing the actual work, and had spent over a year on her letter. For discretion’s sake, I won’t reveal the name of the author, but many people would recognize this now well-known Ph.D., and her breakthrough novel.

The Synopsis-Syndrome

I chuckled at her comment, not out of derision but from empathy, since I have often felt the same way about my own queries. While I haven’t spent a year on a letter to attract an agent, at times I wish I had. One of the problems is that I have often found my query turning into a synopsis. And in parsing the query letters of others, “the synopsis syndrome,” as I call it, seems to be the most chronic malady that inhibits the presentations.

For a Successful Query Letter for Fiction, Less Is Generally Better Than More

A writer desires to tell as much as possible about the story of which he or she is so passionate, and is often influenced by an industry success story in which someone has crammed as much as possible onto one page, even to the point of reducing font size to make the text fit. Unfortunately, the end result for most is invariably a synopsis and not a presentation of the subtle plot and character elements that accurately depicts the writer’s skill and which sets the work apart–and what will influence an agent to request the manuscript.

Think of a Query Letter As an Advertisement; Hence, Sell the Sizzle and Not the Steak

When I began writing seriously back in the days of the covered wagon, an agent once railed at me about a poor query I had sent him because it told too much of the individual aspects of the story and not about the work as a whole. He said to write the query as if I was designing the liner notes for the novel. I found this to be some of the best advice I have ever received. As a comparison, if one wants to be successful in sales, one of the time-worn axioms is to “sell the sizzle and not the steak.” It might be suggested to apply the same maxim to writing a query letter. This can be like grasping “showing versus telling” the first time around (or the tenth), but it has to be understood if a query is going to work.

Write a Query from the Gut, Not the Heart

It might help to think of your work in visceral terms; meaning, what are the hard-hitting aspects of your story from an overall perspective. This will take your thinking beyond the brick and mortar. And remember most of all that you are wanting to provide the agent with just enough knowledge of your work (and ability) to foster interest. If you do this by carefully choosing words to create the most impact, would it not be logical that the agent might assume your novel is written at the same level? Should you review queries that have been effective (and I can’t suggest this strongly enough), please notice how little is told about the actual stories–but how much the successful letters indicate the respective author’s competence for writing quality prose.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 20-04-2009
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“Showing vs. Telling”

What separates many writers is the ability to recognize when to utilize which technique. A suggestion is to always write the scene in a “show” format, knowing that you can always change to the “tell” medium if you wish to provide readers with a chance to catch their collective breaths.

The last statement should also explain the main flaw with “telling,” as it can very often retard the pace of a scene. And while “showing vs. telling” is the normal syntax, for the purpose of demonstrating the difference in a way that I believe creates the greatest impression, I’m reversing the elements and beginning with “telling.”

“Telling” the Action

Jack was having a tough time with life. Everything he was doing lately had seemed to turn out wrong. Even the simplest aspects of his daily activities had begun to take their toll. Look at what happened when he got out of bed in the morning. He had stumbled around, as if in a blue funk. He’d been hurt when he’d fallen against his dresser and pulled it over while he was trying to right himself. He didn’t care who might have heard him throwing a drawer against the wall or the damage it might have caused. And after he made his way into the bathroom and began to prepare himself for another day, he wasn’t sure if it was worth it.

“Showing” the Action

Like life itself, Jack could not find his balance. He fell against the chest of drawers and caught himself before stumbling backward and pulling the unit with him. A drawer flew open and hit him in the side, and he and it collapsed onto the bed like two clumsy lovers. He threw off a drawer and let it bang hard against the wall, cracking the plaster, unconcerned that the noise and vibration might have startled the newborn child in the apartment below. He weaved his way to the bathroom and stared in the mirror and ran the water, not caring if it was hot or cold, and took out his razor. He didn’t lather his face, but kept glaring at what he saw–and wondered.

Not that these are spectacular examples, but they do identify the difference between “telling” and “showing.” Which would you rather read?

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Posted on 20-05-2009
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Sometimes “Telling” Is More Effective Than “Showing”

An author and scholar, Francine Prose, for whom I have immense respect added fuel to a long simmering fire by stating in a book of hers on writing that too much is made out of “showing” instead of “telling.” To paraphrase one of her points, she writes that the avoidance of “telling” leads to confusion which causes novice writers to think everything should be acted out. And to quote her: “There are many occasions in literature in which “telling” is far more effective than “showing.”

Agents and Editors Are the Harshest of Critics

If everyone wrote as well as Ms. Prose (she has more two dozen titles to her credit), or the brilliant, mostly classical authors’ works she cites in her book, who could argue? And that is the rub. Especially for someone trying to become published for the first time, and who is having his or her manuscript viewed by the harshest of critics–book agents and book publishers. People who are seemingly searching, as if with an electron microscope, for the most miniscule detail to warrant rejecting material.

Don’t Wave a Red Flag–Avoid the Dreaded “Been’s”

In the real world of an author fighting tooth-and-nail for his or her manuscript to receive a fair hearing, the writer has to provide a narrative that does not wave a red flag–or even a yellow one. Nothing can kill a book quicker than if it is perceived to be written in a passive voice–as indicated by the constant uses of “been”–which is a surefire disclosure that the scenes are “telling” rather than “showing” the action.

If a Choice, Overwrite “Show” Rather Than “Tell”

While 100-percent correct that many times it is advisable to “tell” instead of “show,” for most authors pursuing a bona fide mainstream publisher, it is much better to have overwritten “show” than “tell.” Let me put it this way: I’ve never heard of anyone being rejected for the former–but very often for the latter. So while the ongoing “show versus tell” debate might whet some appetites for eschewing the argument altogether, writers need to incorporate as many accepted elements as possible into their material, and “showing” (and the active voice it supports) is considered a component of quality prose writing, and superior to “telling” (in a passive voice) in the overwhelming number of instances.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 15-04-2009
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The craft of creating professional correspondence has as much to do with understanding the tone in which the letter is to be presented as in any other factor. A letter’s purpose can be diminished, misconstrued, or lost in total if the correspondence is not written with the desired inflection. If you are writing or editing for someone, to avoid these pitfalls, it is imperative to communicate with your employer or client so that the letter’s premise can be converted to the perfect write for that person’s needs.

In conversation, a tone of voice may indicate one thing when the intention is quite different. Should the speaker recognize the error, this misspeak can be remedied by an apology, by glossing over the infraction, or simply by an abundance of rhetoric intended to cause the listener to forget what had been said, earlier. But when the words are committed to paper, the luxury of remedy is not always possible.

We were trained via our business communications textbooks (a hundred years ago in my case) to practice certain techniques related to tone that unfortunately were seldom applied in the real world of professional correspondence, then or now. The correct tone from the outset makes the task of the letter that much easier. This vital precept, however, is often violated.

Someone might still ask if consistency of tone is really that important. Here is my response: After writing a complicated personal or business letter, how often does one ask if what was written really conveyed what the person wanted to say? And after several rewrites, it is still not uncommon to pose the same question? In an overwhelming number of instances, the problem is not the content, but an issue–somewhere–with the tone of the narrative. Check it out and see how often this is true.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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Posted on 06-08-2009
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For many, tone and voice seem synonymous, and it is easy to see why people might feel this way; however, the terms are decidedly different. But before either can be properly differentiated, it is important to take a close look at writers who mastered voice.

Thomas Mann’s Short Stories Showcase Voice

One of the best ways to understand something is to provide different treatments of the subject.  Thomas Mann’s eight stories in the popular Vintage imprint with DEATH IN VENICE as the lead title is ideal to work from since each story is written in a different voice. Yet Mann’s masterpiece, THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, depicts his voice as a separate entity unto its own–and one could say that it was his true voice, although this could be heatedly argued.

While the short stories in the DEATH IN VENICE grouping enable a relatively quick study of the range voice can take, this is far from conclusive. The reason is because voice is without boundaries. This open architecture, in and of itself, leads to much of the confusion about voice.  And this is the first distinction between voice and tone, since tone can generally be identified without too much of an argument.

So What Is Voice?

When someone hears that a “new voice has exploded upon the literary scene,” does one automatically expect to read the next Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Ann Rand, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, or Erskine Caldwell; or should we seek writers from our current era such as Pat Conroy, Elmore Leonard, E.L. Doctorow, Tom Clancy, or Barbara Kingsolver for reference?

Each of these writers possesses a distinctive voice, but what do we say about authors who create work in the same genre and are similar in style? Does each writer still have a separate voice? Of course he or she does. Just as one singer can sound like another but not possess the identical range in every key.

An Attorney Letter and Family Correspondence on the Same Subject Illustrate the Difference

One of the best ways I can come up with to express voice is to parse an invitation for the reading of a will from an attorney and compare this with the same request from a close relative.

The first might read something like this: Dear Mr. David C. Howson: Please be advised that your attendance is requested on Thursday, January 11, 2009, at 1:00 p.m., in the offices of John Carlton Jones, Esquire, Attorney at Law, 201 West Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois  60601, for the reading of the Last Will and Testament of Horatio Clark Howson.

Conversely, here is an invitation from a close relative: Dear Davey, your uncle’s will is going to be read next week at our attorney’s office, and we look forward to seeing you there. Jo Ann will call you with the details. Love, Aunt Mary.

Style Establishes Voice, but There’s a Lot More to It

Same message about the dearly departed, and although both are conveyed in what is considered a soft tone in relative terms, they are written in decidedly different voices. So while it is obvious that style creates voice, what about an academic paper written in an authoritative tone? Isn’t this also an authoritative tone? Certainly, except it would probably be easier for definition purposes to claim the voice as authoritative and the tone as strong.

Tone Has Three Basic Mediums

All sorts of elaborate academic definitions are available, some consuming as much text as this entire book, but for my purposes, tone is either soft, moderate, or strong.  These areas of course can have any number of gradients, from very soft to aggressively strong, but the three delineations provide the basis for comparison.  This is still speculative, because what one person considers moderate another might feel is strong (and of course vice versa).  But it’s much easier to come to a consensus on a specific tone than to devise a chart that categorizes voice.

So, Again, What Is Voice?

Voice is you. Should you and another person write a book about the identical topic, your story will depict your way of telling the tale via words and syntax that differ from what the other person will create. So when you write a book, and the critics proclaim a fantastic new voice has roared onto the scene, these pundits are talking specifically about you, because you are the voice of your writing. And a unique voice indeed.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

For Serious Writers! The Perfect Write® is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to [email protected] (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write® will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write® Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write® Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.

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