Readers of this blog are probably aware that I’ve written three science-fiction novels, though they haven’t been published yet. I’m still trying to get an agent or editor interested in the first one, as a way of selling the whole trilogy. That has taken time, and I’ve tried my hand at other things, notably short stories. But that extra time while the novels sit in my computer has allowed me to do a substantial amount of revising, editing, cutting, adding, and just plain fiddling around with the manuscripts. One thing I’ve done over the past several months has been to go through each manuscript using the “Find” function of MS Word and look for specific words, especially words that a reader tends to notice for one reason or another, but shouldn’t. Writing, I believe, should be smooth and free of obstructions the reader could stumble over. As I’ve mentioned before in these little essays, I subscribe to the maxim, “Never tell the reader what to think.” This is similar to the older and much more widely known adage, “Show, don’t tell.” So I look for individual words which inject into the readers mind a concept that I want him/her to discern for him/herself. To not be told what it is. These are what could be called “crutch” words, where the writer used them ostensibly to support his writing, but in reality is using them as words to fall back on because he/she couldn’t come up with anything better. They can be very unimaginative.
One of the most common words that falls under this category is “suddenly.” Sure, lots of things in fiction happen suddenly. But that concept, the abrupt change of some facet of the narrative, should be obvious from the context. It doesn’t have to be stated out loud. If the boulder is rolling down the hill about to squish the hero, that’s sudden enough.
Some other words that don’t usually need to be stated directly are “knew,” “felt,” “thought,” and “realized.” These are words that should also be obvious from the context. It usually isn’t necessary to state that the hero “knew” or “thought” or “realized” the boulder was rolling down the hill.
“Very” is a good example of a crutch word, and it’s one of the worst. Not much ever needs to be modified by “very.” It gets overused and it becomes obvious to the reader. The thesaurus has a multitude of substitutes if you need them (for heaven’s sake, try not to use “pretty” as a substitute), or if that’s no good, rewrite part or all of the sentence. Stronger words are a good way to eliminate “very.” Instead of “very angry,” use “enraged,” or “furious,” or “incensed.” You get the idea.
In any event, here’s the list of words I checked for and in most cases either eliminated or replaced: suddenly, because, knew, felt, thought, very, began, realized. That’s the list I have right now. Other words may be added as necessary. Do you have any crutch words that could be added?
Why do written works have to start with something that captures the reader’s attention immediately? We novice writers are told repeatedly that in order to get a book to sell, we have to grab the reader’s attention with a boffo line or sentence. This is because, we are told, readers are a fickle group and will not read into a book or even into the first chapter unless we capture their imagination right away. Especially nowadays, what with so many other things competing for everybody’s time and attention. Also, we are told, an agent or an editor won’t consider a book if it doesn’t grab their attention in the first paragraph or so. But, why should that be? Is that really essential?
I like to compare books to music. A good book is like a great piece of music that takes you to an alternate world and leaves you there to explore on your own. But many great works of music start slowly and build toward a stupendous ending. Bolero, by Maurice Ravel, comes to mind in this category. Even as I write this, I’m listening to a piece by American composer Joseph Curiale called Wind River (I am). It, like the Ravel, starts slowly and quietly, and builds to a fantastic and masterful ending with drums and brass and all that sort of stuff. Other pieces, too numerous to mention, do the same. It’s not an unknown or unrealistic technique in music. Like, for example, the “Invasion Theme,” in Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, which starts with a simple theme and builds to a martial ending.
Of course, musical compositions are much shorter than books. A great symphony may take 45 to 60 minutes in performance, (the Shostakovich symphony mentioned above is about 75 minutes and that’s long for a symphony) and an opera is considered long if it runs four or five hours (some of Richard Wagner’s operas are that long), but a reader may spend several days or weeks enjoying a book. It’s also true that some great symphonies, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, do start big, with a entrance that grabs the listener right away. But not all. And I maintain that isn’t entirely necessary.
I have tried in all my books (currently unpublished) to write a beginning that snags the reader’s attention and induces him/her to read on, and then buy the book. I have to, if I want to get it published. (For me, that’s the hardest part of writing a novel.) Even if I self-published my novels, the reality of the situation is that books sell on the basis of the first several lines or first chapter. I admit that I, too, look at the first few lines of a book when I pull it off the shelf when considering whether to buy it. It’s a fact of life. Yet, it doesn’t have to be. A book that starts slowly should have just as much chance as one that starts with fireworks. But it’s not likely to get published, or even read. If listeners are willing to accept a slow beginning in a musical composition, why should readers not be content with the same in a book?
Just a few thoughts about incidents that have taken place over the past few weeks. I’ve completed a massive revision of the third novel in my Anthanian Imperative trilogy, and now the novel looks pretty good. I’ve been working on it for about five years now, and it’s in good enough shape I wouldn’t be ashamed for someone else to take a look at it. And that brings up an important point.
I’m looking for beta readers for all three of the novels which constitute the trilogy, especially the last two. The first one has been through five or six critique groups over its eighteen-year lifespan. (Yes, it’s true, if that novel were a person, it would be old enough to vote in the coming election.) But those groups were made up almost exclusively of amateur writers, people who had never published a novel before, and who, like me, were novices at writing. I admire and appreciate their comments. However, I need a professional to take a look at it. Someone who has actually published a novel. Someone who knows what the publishing world wants. Self-publishing doesn’t count. And this applies to the other two also. If you’re a professional writer with a history of getting publishers to take a look at a science-fiction novel, let me know.
You may say, why not use some of the literary critique websites, and I certainly could. Perhaps I could get one or more good reviews that way. But I’m not sure I want to give it to just anyone, sight unseen. I’d like to know a little about whoever it is I’m sending it to. A little familiarity perhaps, say from Facebook or from personal experience in the Albuquerque area.
Also, I’ve just finished querying eighteen agents with the first novel. I’ve completely revised my query letter along the lines of I-don’t-know-how-many authors, agents and editors who have all published helpful hints on writing a query letter. I’ve already gotten two rejections (some agents are really good at keeping up-to-date with their inbox submissions). But the other sixteen will, if experience is any guide, dribble in over the next several months. Some will not reply at all, and after about three months, that will constitute a rejection. I’m upbeat about the possibility of getting a request for more pages, even for a full manuscript, but my experience tells me not to be. I’ve had so little luck with either the novel or the query process, I tell myself to stay grounded and not let a good novel or query letter go to my head. I really like the first novel, though. I think it’s my best work. But nobody else does.
Other comments: If you are one of my “friends” on Facebook, you might have noticed that I criticized LitReactor for their use of profanity (i.e., four-letter words) in endorsing an author they like. Call me a prude if you want, but don’t call me a taxi. I happen to believe that the profession of writing is above all that. The use of profanity is disgusting and repulsive. It drags the user down into the gutter, and the book and author with it. It makes me wonder about the character of the people who run the website. What are they thinking? I sure hope that if in the (unlikely?) event that I get a few books published, LitReactor won’t call attention to mine in the same manner. I would rather have them keep quiet than submit to that form of support or approval.
Do you write reviews of books you’ve read? I haven’t done many recently, though I suppose I should because I would expect readers to review mine once they’re published. Reviews, especially on Amazon, affect how the book is displayed, and a large number of reviews can impact the book’s position in the ratings. But, for me at least, therein lies a problem.
Everything in this world seems to be rated in terms of number of stars, usually zero to five. Or, if you’re rating hotels and such, zero to four. Books take the 0-5 star approach and everybody wants their book to garner as many five-star ratings as possible. Granted, it would be nice. But a large number of five-star ratings brings up an obvious question: does a book really rate that many top reviews?
Many of my writing friends have published books in many different genre. They consistently ask for reviews, and I, just as consistently, refuse. I’ve blogged on this before, and it bears repeating—I find it hard to review a book from a friend because I’m not going to give it five stars if I don’t think it really deserves it. That would diminish the value of the book, and quite possibly my friendship with the author. Suppose I read a book from someone I know, especially if I know that person well, and feel the book rates only zero or one or two stars. What do I say? Do I give it five stars just to keep the friendship, or do I insult the author and tell him/her that I thought the book was awful? The conundrum bedevils me to this day.
It has been suggested that I could review books that I liked and would willingly give a five-star review, but not others. That logic suffers from the fallacy that if I did that, then those authors whose books I didn’t review would know immediately that I didn’t like their book. (“What?! You didn’t like my book? Well, take your one-star review and shove it.”) So, for the time being, I’ve refrained from book reviews at all.
It has also been suggested that I should give every book I read an honest review and not be afraid to express my feelings about the book. That’s so the author will know where he/she stands. Most authors would really like to know. Maybe so. (I know I would.) That suggestion is, I will admit, the only good argument against my current position. But is it worth risking a valued friendship over a book? I can’t answer that question right now. (Perhaps I never will.)
My feeling is that a large number of five-star reviews can indicate one of two things: one, that the book is really great and the author did a wonderful job, or two, that the author has a lot of friends who gave the book a five-star review merely because they are friends. But that second possibility only serves to diminish the value of a five-star review. Five stars should be reserved for those books that really deserve it. I mean, really. It’s got to be damn good to get five stars. I find it so unlikely that all those books that got five-star reviews actually deserved it, and, as a result, most five-star reviews are worthless.
I would like to see reviews go to 0-10 stars. That would give a reviewer more room to maneuver, and it appeals to me, probably because of my scientific background. A reviewer could give a book 9 stars to indicate that, while it was an excellent book, it just didn’t quite make it to the top. It’s not likely to happen, though, because it would be too unwieldy for most people. One-to-five stars is easy to use.
What do you think about five-star reviews?
I’m going up to Santa Fe tomorrow (August 1, 2016) to read from my first science-fiction novel at Collected Works bookstore. They have an open mike*, and anyone can read a five minute work. I picked out a very short section of the novel, a sort of tiny story within the larger story.
I’ve always liked to read from my works, whether only a part of a larger work, or a complete story in itself. There are two ways of reading out loud: to others, and alone. I read everything I write out loud after I’m done with the first revisions. I mostly do that alone, but I will read to others if the situation arises. Granted, it’s hard to find someone who will listen to me read an entire novel, but a short story can sometimes be read within a five minute period at an open mike event.
Reading out loud helps find the areas that are clunky and out of sync with the rest of the story. I want everything to read smoothly, and I can’t always find that in silent reading. Silence is good for the preliminary stuff such as the initial draft and those dreaded first revisions, but eventually I have to begin reading out loud to find the hidden unwieldy and clumsy areas. They’re in there; it just takes some doing to bring them out. I’ve even heard from one person who has his/her iPad read it out loud. That helps, too. It’s like getting someone else to read your work to you. Reading out loud does take more time because talking is slower than silent reading, but it’s worth the time and effort.
Probably the most important reason reading out loud works is that it forces you to read every word. You can’t skip over a word or phrase as you can in silent reading. “Oh,” you tell yourself, “I’ve been over this part so many times, I’m just going to skip it.” Nope, that’s not allowed in out loud reading.
The second reason reading out loud works is that in its slowness the relationship between words and phrases and sentences is exaggerated, and their interaction is accentuated. You see connections that weren’t there before, and things you thought were connected may not be, or look different. I have made changes in sentence structure based on a verbal reading.
I strongly recommend every writer try it, if you aren’t already.
*I’d say “open mic,” but WordPress flags “mic.” Oddly enough, it also flags “WordPress.”
Have you read the poem, “Casey at the Bat,” by Earnest Lawrence Thayer? Or at least heard it recited? Most people have, I imagine. It’s one of the best known poems in American English, and can usually be found in any compilation of the best known or best loved poems of the American people. It was written in 1888, and has been reprinted in books and even in comics, it’s been used in film and TV, either in whole or in part, and it’s even been put to music. On the whole, it certainly isn’t great poetry, but I suspect its popularity comes from the fact that it tells a story in rhyme. It’s up there with “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” All of those poems tell a story, a plain, ordinary story. They don’t fool around with flowery language, they just come right out and tell the damn story. I think people instinctively like stories, and sometimes I wonder if language can get in the way of the telling.
The story in “Casey at the Bat” is simple. Casey, mighty Casey, is the power hitter on the baseball team for Mudville, and everyone at the game expects him to drive in the winning run in the last inning of the game. The score was 4 to 2, with runners on second and third base (in the vernacular of the game, that puts them in “scoring position”). Casey comes to bat and the fans look for a home run to win the game by a score of 5 to 4. But Casey doesn’t deliver. He lets two pitches go by, both called strikes, then swings and misses at the third. The game is over, and in one of the most iconic lines in all of literature, the poem ends: “. . . there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”
That last line is so much of a surprise, almost a jolt. Yet it makes the poem. Had Casey hit a home run and won the game, the poem would have fizzled. It is that last line that has put the poem so indelibly in the American consciousness. It is, after all, about baseball, a uniquely American game. The line isn’t odd or unusual, and it isn’t out of the realm of the ordinary or the commonplace. After all, baseball players strike out all the time. Yet here is a man, powerful, smart, not heavily conceited—he even quiets the crowd when the umpire calls “strike one!” “That ain’t my style,” Casey says, and raises his hand. He seems to know what he’s doing, and although he doesn’t point to center field like Babe Ruth did, we admire him and expect the best from him. We look to him to do what he does best: tear “. . . the cover off the ball.” But he doesn’t. He fails. Spectacularly. Well, at least he tried, and we can accept that.
I find myself wondering about a couple of points in the poem. Why was this game so important? Nothing is said. Was this a championship game, perhaps the last game of the season that would decide the pennant? It certainly wasn’t about major league baseball, though Thayer might have used fictitious names to tell a story about the majors. I also wonder why the score was so low. If Casey was as spectacular as he is made out in the poem, why hadn’t he driven in more runs? He may have driven in both the runs the Mudville nine had, but again, nothing is said. Perhaps he didn’t play that day until he was put in as a pinch hitter in the ninth. But the fans at the ballpark knew Casey would be coming to bat fifth in the inning, and that sounds like he was already in the lineup. Nothing is said about the opposing pitcher, either. In today’s recounting of a game such as this, the pitcher would be given accolades for striking out the heavy hitter, and his name would be prominently displayed in the newspapers.
In any event, those are minor questions. Casey let us down and the poem achieved a level of popularity not given to many poems. I still think it’s the story that matters. The story trumps flowery writing, though that’s not to disparage Shakespeare or Milton. Read the classics, but don’t lose sight of the story.
Are sex scenes really necessary in novels?
That depends. I just read a book that had a sex scene that took up one entire chapter, and I got to wondering if it was really necessary to the plot. Did the story really need that chapter? The scene was between two characters, a male and a female, who had already been introduced to the reader as lovers. Before the sex scene, they’d never been shown having sex in any overt way, but because of their well-characterized relationship, the reader almost certainly got the idea they were lovers. My conclusion for that book in particular was that, no, the sex scene wasn’t really necessary. In fact, when I began reading that chapter, I wondered almost immediately why it had been put in. It seemed so out of place. I assume it was there largely for the titillation factor. Possibly to hold the reader’s interest in the crucial middle section of the book when the reader might falter in his/her desire to continue reading. He/she might put the book down and have a ham sandwich. But that brings up the real question I want to examine here: are sex scenes ever really required in a book?
There are a few reasons a sex scene might reasonably be present in a novel. (I’m not talking about porn novels here.) Sex scenes are always going to be suspect because of the titillation factor. Many readers might look at them as simply erotic nonsense, unrelated to the plot of the book. And why have a sex scene if you can just tell the reader that two characters are lovers, or show them being lovers in other ways? But I think there are two situations where a real sex scene might be acceptable. To wit:
1. To introduce two characters as lovers when that fact was not evident from the context preceding the scene. This might be difficult to pull off, though. Again, why not just tell the reader the two are lovers? In some cases, the old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” could come into play. “Telling” the reader could be literarily unacceptable. An intimate love scene might just be the best way to show the love between two characters.
2. To demonstrate the conception of a child. And even introduce that child as another character in the book.
I have to admit that in the three science fiction novels I’ve written, two had sex scenes. In one, the second reason above was the prime motivation for including the sex scene. The birth of the new character becomes a vitally important factor in the plot. (You’ll have to read the book to find out exactly how.) In the other, the sex scene wasn’t as graphic as it was in the first, but it did show the developing relationship between the two characters, who hadn’t had any sexual relations up to that point.
I may be treading on thin ice here with this post, because many people may consider sex scenes totally and completely unnecessary. But sex scenes, like anything else in the book, can work if used sparingly and properly. Everything in a novel, and this includes sex scenes, must do one of several things: advance the plot, show us something about the characters we didn’t previously know, or provide a little background in the form of backstory. A sex scene, tastefully done, can be a part of that. Everything else is fluff, and probably should be removed.
What do you think? Are there other reasons sex scenes might be acceptable in a novel?