Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hissing and Squawking, and Damned Lazy Writing

It's been far too long since my last post, but I have a good excuse: I've teamed up with three colleagues from the old-school-gaming community to found a new publishing company, Pulp Mill Press, and as of July 1st we've been open to submissions for our first fiction anthology, Libram Mysterium (click the Pulp Mill Press icon on the sidebar to visit our site and read the submission guidelines).

I've been so busy reading submissions that I've barely had any time to do any writing, myself, especially since we are in the throes of July, and the excessive heat and humidity demand that I not turn the computer on for more than a few minutes at a time so as not to melt in my non-air-conditioned home.

In the aftermath of the cold-front that preceded last night's rain storm, I have a few cool hours this morning before we are back in the sauna, so I thought I'd devote some time to discussing a few of my pet writing peeves.  Normally, I would consider this to be opinionated self-indulgence, but since I'm now wearing an editor's hat it's only fair to share my dislikes; the kinds of writing habits that may not be objectively wrong, but that annoy me to the point of turning me off a story. In fact I'll cite examples from well-known authors, whose stories I probably would have rejected had their manuscripts been sent to me.

Research your topic
One of the quickest ways to turn me off a story is when an author has not bothered to research the topic he or she is writing about.  Verisimilitude is the key to suspension of disbelief and once mine is shattered I feel little desire to continue reading.  One recent example is from the novel, Kraken by China Mieville.  The protagonist, Billy, is putatively a curator of invertebrates at the Natural History Museum, but Mieville apparently didn't bother to find out what a curator is or does.  Instead, Billy's job appears to be that of a low-level collections technician and his sole responsibility is preparing specimens for the wet collection.  When one of the specimens he prepared, the giant squid Architeuthis dux, is stolen from the museum by a cult of squid worshippers Billy is drawn into the investigation.  Normally, this is the sort of story that would excite me greatly:  how could a book that combines cultists, alien gods, invertebrates and museums possibly go wrong?  It goes wrong if you don't bother to learn anything about museums or curators and then set your story in a museum and make your protagonist a curator.  There is really no excuse for this level of sloppiness.  Mieville lives in London and could easily have arranged to meet with a zoology curator at the Natural History Museum and gotten a first-hand look at the world he was planning to write about.  At the very least a Google search would have explained the difference between curator and preparator.

It can be argued that the very few readers care about such distinctions, and that only someone like me, with a background in museums and specialty in marine invertebrates would even notice the discrepancy. But I did notice and after that I could no longer trust anything Mieville had to say.  If he took so little care with his main character what other mistakes has he made?  When you're writing speculative fiction it is very important that you help your reader buy into your premise and accept the changes that you are making to the understood nature of reality.  You do this by getting your facts straight and building a covenant of trust with your reader.  Mieville didn't do this and I made it about half-way through Kraken before giving up and tossing it aside.

Two for the price of one
If some is good more is better, right?  Well, that may be true of sex and chocolate, but not if you're writing a story.  One of the mantras of writing that I firmly believe is 'never use two words when one will do.'  Brevity is the soul of clarity, and it is the masterful writer who can express a thought eloquently and concisely.  Over-writing is often a sign of a limited vocabulary, and it is usually possible reduce the number of words in your sentence while improving clarity and description by judicious word choice.

Consider the following two sentences: He moved quietly down the hall and He crept down the hall.  Here, crept is not only more concise than moved quietly, it is more evocative as well.  There's your real two-for-one bargain.  Don't suck your readers into a morass of overblown prose.  Look for opportunities to trim the fat; not only will you improve the pace of your story, you will make it easier to read.

He said, she said

Another peeve of mine is when writers insist on getting creative with dialogue attributives.  The only attributive you ever need (if, indeed, you need one at all) is 'said.'

"Dialogue attributives should be unobtrusive," said Sean.

 Too many writers, especially beginning ones, mistakenly believe that 'said' is boring and that they need to dress their dialogue up with a variety of colourful and descriptive verbs, so we see attributives like: 'he hissed;' 'he chuckled;' 'he squawked;' 'he growled,' etc.  You see these all the time in stories, but when have you ever heard someone literally hiss or growl their words?  Never.  If they did, they'd be unintelligible.  Unless your characters are barnyard animals, avoid such attributives.

'Said' is not boring, it's invisible.  The reader will not even notice it, but will subconsciously register it to keep track of who is speaking.  You can use 'said' in every single line of dialogue and it will not be monotonous; your reader should be focusing on the dialogue, itself, not the attributive.  If you want to convey the emotional state of the speaker you should do so through dialogue and the character's actions, not by clumsy attributives.  The only other attributives that are acceptable are those that people actually use when speaking: 'he yelled;' she whispered, etc.  Using more colourful verbs pulls your reader out of the story and that is exactly what we want to avoid.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Cormac McCarthy, has taken this argument to extremes by eliminating all attributives (and even quotation marks) from his dialogue.  This can make it difficult to tell who speaking if more than two characters are involved in conversation, but it does quite succinctly make the point that no one ever needs to howl their words.

Awkward Adverbs
Many authors exacerbate their clumsy attributives with awkwardly-constructed adverbs.  I'm pointing my finger directly at Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling who, in addition to being an internationally best-selling author, is also the architect of some of the worst dialogue I've ever read.  You probably have one or more of the Harry Potter novels on your bookshelf so check it out for yourself:  no one ever just says anything in these books; they hiss exasperatedly.  Rowling is addicted to adverbs and seems compelled to create them by adding -ly to any given word, no matter how clumsy and inappropriate.  If you've ever read a Harry Potter novel to your child, you've probably cursed her tongue-tripping word choices and this is an excellent example of why it's important for an author to read his or her work aloud during proof reading.  Clumsy passages become painfully obvious when your tongue is forced to make good on them.

Adverbs should be used with care in all cases but especially when supporting a dialogue attributive, where they are commonly employed to lazily convey the speaker's emotional state.  If you can't convey emotion through dialogue or body language you need to sharpen your powers of description, not resort to constructing adverbs.

A fellow-writer that I often correspond with is so strongly opposed to adverbs he doesn't use them at all and admonishes anyone who does so in his critiques.  Though I sometimes tease him for his zeal and accuse him of embarking on a one-man-crusade against the suffix '-ly,' he does have a point.  Certain adverbs are okay: if you would use it in speech you can use it in writing.  "The man was strangely silent." "He moved quickly and quietly."  These are examples of perfectly good adverbs.

"It's getting late," Bob yawned, tiredly.  'Tiredly' is teetering on the edge of awkwardness though it's still acceptable.  'Exhaustedly' is not, and anyone who says 'fatiguedly' should be strung up and flogged (I'm looking at you, Rowling).

A better way of presenting this would be: Bob stretched and yawned.  "It's getting late," he said.  The reader knows from Bob's actions that he's tired and we haven't encumbered his dialogue.  But wait!  Haven't I just used nine words in the latter sentence, when only six words were used in the former?  Yes, but in this case I believe it is worth the extra words to show the readers that Bob is tired instead of telling them.

So, there's the list of some of my biggest peeves in writing.  Feel free to ignore them if you will: many writers more successful than me do.  But keep in mind that they were successful despite their bad writing habits, not because of them, and you do yourself no favours by emulating their mistakes.  Especially if I'm the one to whom you're submitting your story.