Archive for September, 2016
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.