Tuesday, February 11, 2014

She Said Adverblessly

If there is any one thing that writing fiction has trained me to do, it would be to hunt and mercilessly destroy all unnecessary adverbs in a piece of writing. Like mercilessly, for instance. And after being trained to it, it's easy to catch those wily adverbs when they come up in writing, or even speaking.

What's an adverb? Generally, a word ending in -ly is an adverb. Generally would be an example. (*Wily, above, is not, because the -ly is an adjective ending and comes from the word WILE. If that doesn't make the different clear to you, think of a synonym for wily--sneaky, right? Not an adverb since it doesn't end in -ly. A synonym for generally? Basically. Both -ly words!) The reason editors and professional writers advise against the use of adverbs is because they so often function as fillers and qualifiers in sentences that could just as well do with better verb choices instead. Obviously, adverbs have specific uses in English; the theory behind avoiding their use is that a writer can more effectively express themselves by just finding better verbs that don't need to be qualified with adverbs. Quite often, adverbs are considered a crutch for lazy writers--they easily come to the mind, while picking perfect verbs takes practice and a certain knack. And considerable editing.

So when you come across an adverb like this (in your own writing or someone else's):

The castle rose ominously over the village.

Can you find a way to phrase that with just a verb? One word that embodies the meaning of rose ominously? How about this:

The castle loomed over the village.

Besides being more to the point conceptually, this is also just so much quicker and easier to read! Since overblown prose isn't a preferred style for informed readers (i.e., editors and professional writers) these days, a certain economy of words is required. If you can get your point across with greater force and fewer words, why wouldn't you? Being able to do so is a sign of a writer who cares about not just story, but prose and presentation.

Now we've established why verb choice is an important skill to have! So how would you improve these sentences?

He laughed evilly.
Cackled, maybe?

She walked slowly.
So many options, all dependent upon what you're really trying to say. Do you mean strolled, ambled, wandered, minced? Walked slowly is actually a pretty nonspecific action and doesn't say much about the individual doing the walking.

Said quietly.
Or whispered, mumbled, murmured.

The big bad wolf followed stealthily.
The big bad wolf prowled or stalked.

The sword cut his arm deeply.
The sword gashed/gouged/plunged into his arm.

The spacebeast was intimidatingly large.
The spacebeast was massive/gigantic/enormous/huge.

Some of these examples are generalized and could appear in any piece of narrative writing you pick up; others are more specific and therefore require more specific verb choices. And some of these adverbs are worse than others in the way they fail to roll off the tongue. Evilly? Or how about intimidatingly, an adverb born from a gerund? Not only is it unwieldy to say, but takes a bit of mental unraveling, too.

If the wording stays simple, direct, and specific, your reader has more opportunity to focus on the story you're telling, rather than tripping over intimidatingly inconvenient words. Of course there are times when you might have to use adverbs to articulate a point--no one's saying that won't happen. But judicious use is key to keeping your prose orderly, neat, and clear.

This is just one of the many working "rules" of writing that I have heard in my pursuit of creating saleable fiction. If you can master the use of adverbs, you're one step closer to excellent writing!

*All adverbs in this section are in bold to give you an idea of how necessary they are/aren't, and how they function in writing. I'm sure you could eliminate a few more if you wanted!

And now for something I haven't had the chance to do for a while--the return of the What I'm Reading section! Yay! And what's the answer?

Lots of books about the artist James Ensor (I will be writing a paper about him this term). A handful of books and other materials about the Spanish Baroque period (again, for research). And I've reordered The Weird, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer since I only managed to read about 500 of its 1111 pages last time I nabbed it from the library (yep, I'm one of those people). Now I'm back into it, reading through weird fiction of the 1920s, and definitely finding a certain formula at work in this era. Is it bad? In some of them. Tedious or repetitive might be a better term. But getting familiar with this formula has also made me realize how contemporary fiction is very often just as formulaic--we've just adjusted our expectations or rules of what the formula must entail. Every fiction genre and style has its own formulae and expectations. Of course some stories following such a formula are better than others, but what really grabs me is those stories that break free of the formula while still typifying the genre. Although, currently, I'm still waiting to be grabbed ...

Monday, January 27, 2014

Fierce Family makes for Fierce Fiction!

The news this week is that it has taken me a whole week (and change) to get around to sharing the news, which is that my most recent publication is out! Fanfare and confetti!

Of course this means that I have been busy--so busy, in fact, that I have not read any of the other stories in the anthology. What anthology, you might ask? Crossed Genres Press has just released Fierce Family, a collection of stories in which GLBT or QUILTBAG main characters face a challenge with the support of their families, a theme which I have rarely, if ever, seen in science fiction and fantasy these days. Maybe that's because it's such a specific requirement? Well, more likely because people rarely consider this sort of premise when writing fantasy or science fiction, or when writing GLBT/QUILTBAG fiction either, and even less so when the two cross over.

Oh! and here's the lovely cover!

I know exactly what I wrote for the anthology, not least of all because I've gone over it a dozen times to edit, but I'm curious about what all the other writers contributed and what was selected by CG. QUILTBAG (which is the designation CG used) is a blanket term for virtually all sexualities outside of heterosexual, and I wonder if they have all been represented--positively, thoughtfully, and honestly--here. I'm also curious what sort of 'challenges' each of these writers chose to tackle, and what the balance of SF and fantasy is in the collection, and male and female main characters, and who the authors are themselves. And lots of other things.

I suppose the only way to find out is to read Fierce Family, isn't it? Surely I can make space in my busy schedule to do this and, hopefully, I will be able to share a review of at least a few stories in my next blog. I'm sure looking forward to it!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

First Professional Sale! Quitting Day Job! (Not Really!!!)

The term is over! No papers to write, no homework to do, no lectures to attend, huzzah!

Well, that's not entirely accurate. I actually have a bunch of reading to do, NOW, for NEXT term ... ah, that's the way of college, I suppose. Not that I mind it at all, because otherwise, suddenly, I sit down in front of the computer and come up blank. It's been so long since I wrote any fiction that I don't have any stories brewing in my mind, and so, nothing's coming out. Hmm...

I do have a half zillion ideas just sitting in storage, waiting to be pulled out and dusted off and elaborated into stories. Still, I have to get into the right frame of mind for that. Every last one of my submitted stories has, in the meantime, come back to me. So I have to work up a new round of submissions too, before heading back to school in a few weeks. It's not easy to be simultaneously in editing-mode and writing-mode. Oh, and I still need to get around to "finishing up stories that only got halfway completed"-mode. All this and Christmas, work, newspaper recruiting, and preparatory homework assignments! Again I wish that sleep was an option, not a requirement.

At the end of October (I believe it was just a week or a few days after my last blog), I submitted a flash fiction story with a Christmas theme, guiltily thinking that maybe I'd done it too late since most publishers like to have substantial warning to properly publish holiday stories. Not that I'd had the chance to do it sooner. So I just sent it out into the vast ocean of submissions and hoped!

And promptly got back a response ... accepted! Daily Science Fiction, which is a pretty self-explanatory web magazine, opted to buy "The Christmas Zombie" (a pretty self-explanatory story) and, better, to publish it on Christmas Day! If you are subscribed to DSF you can get the story emailed to you on Christmas, because that's what DSF does--emails awesome SF and/or Fantasy stories every weekday, for free! If you'd rather complicate life than have things made easy for you, you can also check out all of their stories at their website (above), although stories are put up on the site a week after they're emailed.

I'm thoroughly excited because this acceptance is my first professional-level sale! Best Christmas present ever! If you don't know what on earth a professional-level sale means, this is distinguished as making at least $0.05/per word for a short story. It's more than a lot of places offer, even if it doesn't sound like it and doesn't add up to a huge amount compared to the work that goes into creating a piece of fiction ... but I'm just happy to be able to make a little money doing something so fun! A lot of people I know don't realize just how hard it is to sell fiction. I don't know if I'll ever make a living doing this, but it's nice to earn a little pocket money ... and share around my stories, to boot! And now I can put a professional market on my resume!

I haven't got the wildly rousing level of excitement from most folks that I would've liked. Most people I annoyingly inform of this don't have a clue what "professional-level" means, much less the significance of being published at all! Which results in the common response of, "Oh, that's nice." I think a lot of them expect that once you've been professionally published, you are now Stephen King and don't need to have a day job. Unfortunately not. Although, the way I see it, it's one step on the stairway to world domination! Bwahaha!  And when I correct people who think by "story" I mean "novel", it's strange how their distant approval turns into, well, what looks like disappointment! For humble little me, who sold my first story only a little more than a year ago, novels are way in the future! (Not least of all because I don't have the time to devote to that sort of writing, agent-hunting, querying and cover letter-ing, submitting, etc. Novels are, indeed, a many-headed beast, while short-stories are quite manageable solo.) There are just so many secret ins and outs to the world of selling fiction, most people don't realize that novelists virtually always start out selling short stories in order to PROVE they are good enough writers to those novel-publishing presses. Which I suppose I still have to work on, so ... on to the next round of submissions!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Somehow, this Blog has been Written

It feels like it's been well nigh 9/10ths of eternity since I last posted a blog, even though it's only been two months.

Two very, very long,



                                                             sleepless months...

Full of homework and work-work and other ostensibly important stuff. Sigh! Needless to say, not a lot of fiction writing has been done in this time, much less even thinking about writing. Darn it! Hard to imagine not even having the time to blog, but I've just ended up exhausted all the time, day and night, and haven't felt like spending my free time doing much else than napping and watching funny cat videos.

Which, by the way, my cat approves of. Both activities, I mean.

And yet--and yet! Somehow* among all this running and scrambling and homeworking, I've had the good fortune to sell another story! Yay! I've fallen way behind on submitting, and keeping track of my submissions, but still, it happened!

*An author like Ursula K Le Guin might warn you that a word like "somehow" is a bad literary choice--a cop out, if you will. If a homework project is "somehow" completed, or the hero "somehow" fights off a host of bloodthirsty man-beasts with only a wooden spoon, or a fleet of aliens intent upon conquering Earth "somehow" goes undetected until it's looming at the edge of the stratosphere, then the reader will have a problem withholding their incredulity at this squirrelly lack of explanation. What do you mean, you "somehow" failed to notice that your boss had been transformed into a giant inter-dimensional leech until just before he attempted to suck your bone marrow out through your nose? Somehow, indeed**! 

**Although I must still stand by my original statement--somehow, this story sold! I honestly don't know how it had the time to do so, but it evidently worked for the editors (whom, I have been assured, also don't have time to be doing much of anything they're so busy). In the world of small press, it may be a matter of months before publication becomes a thing, but here's the basic rundown of who, what, and where:

Crossed Genres Publications has accepted "Two Hearts" for inclusion in the forthcoming Fierce Family Anthology. This anthology is centered around the theme of characters who identify as LGBT and who, with the support of their families, overcome external challenges or problems. I liked the idea of presenting family in this context of supporting and encouraging, and that's why I wrote "Two Hearts"--although this doesn't make me any less surprised that it was accepted! After "The Second Wife," this is my second acceptance by CG Press! Very excited, because having someone like your work enough to buy and print it is always a good feeling, and one I don't suspect will ever get old!

Now, if only I had the time to enjoy it like I should!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Sorting the Books from the Chaff

I just had to return a book to the library when I was only halfway finished with it.

Well, it was over 1000 pages (1111, to be exact). Double-columned pages, with small print, which I suspect means more like 1500 real pages. Or so I felt while reading. It was a great book, but cumbersome for reading on mass transit--or anywhere, really.

I will plug that book because I see no reason not to: The Weird, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. If you like weird fiction you will find a lot of things to like there--I did! Stories by authors as varied as H P Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, M R James (no relation), Fritz Leiber (my favorite!), Leonora Carrington (a Surrealist painter!), Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, and just about any other author you can think of when the phrase "the Weird" is mentioned. Roughly, the book includes one story per year since 1900.

I got halfway through the book ... by skipping a bit. Yes, I will admit to skipping through some of the best known authors in the history of speculative fiction--I just won't say which ones.

I used to read everything I picked up from one cover to the other. That included acknowledgements and copyright pages (even though they were so boring! Yuck!). I had a sense of obligation to the task of reading--if it was to be undertaken, it must be completed as well. Don't you do a disservice to a book by not reading it all the way through? Even if it bores you to death? Just like a person, you have to give a book the benefit of the doubt and finish before declaring it a huge stinky waste of time and paper!

And then I realized there is way too much stuff in the world to read. Just because a book is a classic, or popular, or awesome, I don't have to finish it if it doesn't strike me. Maybe the first book I ever refused to read all the way was Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables when I was 14. Because I hated it, and his writing. I tried to read him again a few years ago and, no, I knew what I was doing the first time I put him down in disgust. Still don't like him.

Reading, I have come to decide, should be a matter of taste and not a duty or obligation. I wish I could read every classic back to The Aeneid and feel enriched by all of them--but there are just too many and I probably won't like 90% of them! This is why I consciously refused to be an English Major! Because, when enforced, reading is arduous! Majoring in it would probably ruin my enjoyment of reading.

As a writer, you are taught certain techniques for catching the attention of readers. Which means I am on the lookout for a catchy first sentence, a quick plunge into action, an obvious and interesting protagonist, when I start reading. If I don't find what I'm looking for, I skip. Well, I give it a couple pages first. Maybe 30 or so, if it's a novel.

So I should know better than to let others entice me to read something I don't care about and yet ... and yet in The Weird, I did. The editors promised a certain story to be groundbreaking, fascinating, and a complete renewal of the weird tale. Or something like that. So I read the whole 40-some pages (more like 50 real pages!!) even though I didn't understand or like it from page 1. Needless to say, I was irritated and frustrated by the ending. What can I say, that story just wasn't made for me, so I shouldn't have read it. It's not a matter of not giving someone a chance, but of simply being incompatible. That story and me were not a good fit.

And so I've come full circle, from reading it all no matter how drivelly, to reading for proper mechanics like an editor. Which isn't so bad, I suppose. Since there's so much out there to read, you really do have to sift and sort to find what you like. And there's no reason to read what you don't want to!

(Unless you're an English Major.)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review for Daughters of Icarus

Well here we are, at the very beginning of the month, and already it's shaping up to be a good one! First thing after waking up at a grouch-inducing hour the other day, I opened my email to find a link to a review of Daughters of Icarus, my first publication. And I was more than a little thrilled to find this summary of my tale:

"More folktale than fantasy, ‘Ancestors Enthroned’ by Marissa James is the story of a young woman who revives the long-lost tradition of embalming the dead in order to mount them high on an inaccessible cliff overlooking her village. Kherlaji becomes renowned after embalming her father, and steadily becomes a world-famous and undying tender of the dead. A piece that is sweet rather than punchy, an ending more inevitable than twisted, but moving, memorable, convincing and potent. Lovely stuff."

If you would like to read the full review by Djibrl al-Ayad, you can find it at Future Fire Reviews. For me, it was nice to have someone read my story and appreciate it the way I'd intended. As a writer, you never know that you've done the whole story-telling thing properly until someone tells you so, be it an editor, reader, or reviewer. So I guess I did something right this time! Warm fuzzies going on here!

I would say a lot of other things as well but I don't know what else to talk about that's as cool as that, actually. It is perhaps the hottest week of the year and our refrigerator has decided to give up the ghost--how about that? Not as exciting at all, though it forced me to eat a bunch of ice cream at once. Our back yard garden has been overrun by gourd plants that I can't imagine why anyone in this house planted--I mean, what are we going to do with them? I have a lot of writing to do, not only on the fiction side but also on the side of proposals and thesis papers, and I'm not even officially in school right now! Well! With all that happening, a humble little fiction writer needs a nice review or two for encouragement!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

I had an Adventure and Someone Else was the Protagonist

I've been wanting to blog for a while about POV choices in writing, and actually that IS what I'm going to discuss today. But before that --

Yes, there's an anthology call out right now for speculative stories about coffee! Find a little more info about it here, but it sounds fun. Now I just need to come up with a story by the deadline at the end of August, right? I'm thinking a few cups of caffeinated fluids derived from pulverized roasted tree-beans should provide ample inspiration.

For someone who drinks an almost worrisome amount of coffee every day, this is totally something I should send a submission to! If not because I always write speculative fiction about coffee (I haven't yet, ever), then because, on principle, I should write such fiction. It's like loving cats and never writing a story about cats! Oh, wait, I haven't done that either, never mind ...

Don't tell my cat or she'll be furious.

But I wanted to write about Point of View choices in fiction! If you've read any how-to-write books, you know that POV can be split infinitely--some authors say there are 2 options when writing fiction, while others list over 30. If you can distinguish 30 different sorts of POV, why bother? Just lump them back together, because I can't keep track of all that!

It's really not that complicated to me. Either you write a story in first-person (I/me) or in third-person (she/her). I wrote a story in second-person once (you/your), but this is a morbidly limited POV. Whenever you read second-person, it sounds like a letter someone wrote telling you what to do, and for me comes off contrived virtually always.

I've never sold that second-person story, in case you're wondering, and I always roll my eyes when I have to read this in someone else's fiction. Stop telling me what to do! I'm not in your story, I'm just a reader--just passing through!

But here's what's been bothering me: I read the guidelines to a magazine somewhere the other day that explicitly stated they prefer third-person stories to first-person. Why? I thought. Then: Everything I'm writing these days is in first-person! Is this true of other publications and they just don't tell people? Is this a pan-cultural subconscious reality that people feel, but don't always articulate, and which now means I'm not going to sell anything ever ever ever again?

Then I thought: Hey, how many stories do I read on average that are first vs. third-person? What are the percentages? And honestly, this isn't the sort of thing that I notice when I read. I just read a story and if I like it, I like it. It's funny to think that I only really notice that a story is third-person when it uses the male main character's last name in place of his first name (see my blog from Monday, August 27, 2012 for an honest-to-dog rant on that topic), and I only notice first-person-ness when you never declare whether your character is male or female.

So come on, what's the big difference? Is there one, even? You could argue that a first-person perspective is more immediate, direct, and intimate. Just as you could argue it's less interesting in the sense that, well, if this character is narrating this story, obviously they lived through their adventure and, presumably, turned out all right. Unless it's an HP Lovecraft tale--in which case, it's first person but the narrator is now a gibbering blob of jell-o. And yes, he used first person because of its directness and intimacy in capturing the descent into madness which virtually all of his characters partook in.

But first person has its limits. For example, you can only follow one character, get inside of one mind (yes, I've seen this rule broken, but generally speaking ... ). What if you need the reader to know things that the main character doesn't? Then you can't use first person. What if the main character is the sort whose mind you don't want to get inside? Well, then I'd argue that this isn't a very good main character you've got, but that's just me.

The advantages to third person don't seem all that great or significant--so why would someone prefer it? I guess first person can start to sound narcissistic (I led the charge, I declared my love, I wrote a blog), but only if you don't know how to approach your topic properly. And it can be one-sided (although the point of a story is generally to follow ONE character through something that happens, and hopefully out the other end). And it can start to sound like wish-fulfillment, as though the author is putting herself into fantastical and self-serving situations. But third person can be abused in just the same way, so that a character becomes a cipher for the author's ideal self, solving crimes single-handedly while saving the day all in time for dinner!

But if you write realistic characters, what's the difference between the POV you use? Either way your characters can't be one-sided perfect heroes who are only weakened by kryptonite and witty banter with girls. They need to think and fail and question and struggle and not refer to themselves by their own last names in internal monologue. They need to exist in a world aware that it's there around them and they are not the center--or they need to have this belief come crashing down on their heads. They need to do more than be worshipped and loved and agreed with. In short, they need to be people who are not only convincing but interesting and, above all, worth rooting for.

What's the big difference between making the story about "me" or "her" if the same adventure is had? I still don't know, but maybe someday I'll write a story both ways and see what I find out.