I Say No

I Say No

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil skeletons
Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

For anyone who reads YA books, you’ve likely encountered this unspeakable evil: present tense. My first experience was Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. And while I’ve read the entire series, including her most recent prequel (where she thankfully abandoned that annoyance), I loathed the gimmick. Which is all the affectation is for most writers: a trend that makes no sense for the story they’re writing.

So don’t do it!

I’ve read YA for years now (I also write it – so the pairing makes sense), and I have no idea where this sudden surge in present tense came from. But it needs to stop. It’s an obnoxious style choice that lends nothing to any of the stories I’ve read over the years. As a matter of fact, it’s the number one reason I’ll put a book back on the shelf rather than bringing it home. I’ve encountered the fad so many times, I now crack an unknown author (and several known authors) open and skim the first few lines to check for the abomination before I take the risk.

Present tense writing hamstrings the author – and the reader! Both are trapped within the current moment, resorting to countless flashbacks (the bane of the reader’s existence) to recount anything that happened prior to that instant in time. Such books are also limited to first person, denying a reader the chance to explore the thoughts and motivations of others around the protagonist. Sure, you can label chapters with other characters to get around this shortcoming, but it’s still a limitation. It’s why the Hunger Games movies triumphed over the books (something I rarely say). They fleshed out a narrow concept Ms. Collins failed to bring alive with her choice of tense.

Present tense is a worthless evil!

I think authors (or editors – whoever’s making the stupid choice to champion this tense) feel that present tense builds suspense or heightens action. As a reader, I assure you – it doesn’t. Reading present tense is complicated. It bucks the natural rhythm we’re adapted to, especially with those frame shifts as a character has to constantly recall events from the past. It’s the worst roller coaster ride in the history of thrills. You jerk back and forth, falling out of the story constantly. There’s no suspenseful build, no creeping anticipation. Instead, you fight to hold onto the story with everything you have, screaming internally for one concise paragraph.

The affectation falls flat, and so do the stories. I’ve seen magnificent worlds and plotlines sink into the mud of barely readable because of poor tense choice. I’ve dismissed entire series because I barely made it through the first book. I’ve refused to even read some authors because they only work in present tense, and I can’t tolerate one more. The blurb on the jacket is tantalizing, but my brain refuses to swim through the murk.

Your tense choice MATTERS!

Can you use present tense in your writing WELL? Yeah, you can – if it makes SENSE! In Rin Chupeco’s The Girl from the Well, she has a ghost character with a fragmented memory and distant sense of self. (Unhappily, all of her characters use present tense, which is why I never read the second book – much as I adore her as an author) THAT character? It makes sense to use present tense. A ghost adrift in a different age, attempting to regain memory? They would only move in the moment. I can applaud present tense use in that situation because it’s justified.

I’ve used present tense myself – ONCE. My short story, “Pains of Glass” features of character stripped of memory. She awakes with nothing. If you have no past, you only exist in the current moment. So I used present tense to reaffirm the loss of a history. It’s the only time I’ve done so.

Give me a REASON for the character to live and breathe in the moment, to race from breath to breath, and I’ll applaud your choice. Otherwise, all you’re doing is following a limping trend that contributes nothing to the story. Bethany Morrow’s A Song Below Water came the closest to annoying me the least with her present tense choice. Her character’s reside so much in their minds, in their thoughts, that the tense felt almost right. And then the action happened, and everything fell apart again. It was close, but not still not right.

Tense matters to a reader.

When you write, you don’t write for yourself (okay, you do – a little). You don’t write to match a trend. You write for your READERS. So think about them, and what they NEED. They need to sink into your world and characters. They need to feel emotion and share thoughts. They need to look up from the end of a chapter and wonder what time it is, what day it is. They need to believe those people and creatures you’ve imagined could be real.

They don’t need to throw the book across the room because they keep falling out of the plot, stumbling between tense changes. So unless you have a good reason for it, leave present tense alone. Let it die already.

“Who Writes Your Story?”

“Who Writes Your Story?”

Typerwriter saying, "Once Upon a Time"
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

“You can’t save the world.” I spent a few years in a writing group where that was a core principle. In other words, you can’t use your writing to as a platform to enact changes in the outside world. You’re one person, and your words won’t flip the world upside down. Setting out to make your work the next revolutionary piece of fiction that generates thought and conversation – it’s just not going to happen.

And do I agree?

Yes and no. See, I struggled with that concept a lot when I was within the group, and it’s one of the reasons I left. Because theme is such a subjective concept. Sit through any English class beyond elementary school and you’ll understand that much. How often have you listened to a teacher harp about “what the author meant” and wondered if said writer REALLY intended all of those meanings. (Or was their intent much simpler and your teacher’s gone insane reading too much into a handful of words – particularly if the author’s now dead and unable to speak for themselves)

Can you set out to write a Great American Novel that will change everyone’s perspective on something? Sure. Is anyone going to read it besides your mom? Probably not. Such books verge on preachy and dull. And while there IS a section for them, they don’t generate much revenue. I’m not discouraging you if you have your heart set on it, I just want you to have your facts straight.

No one likes being dictated to.

That said, can you explore a theme that holds deep meaning to you? That represents a point of view unique to you or your experience? Sure – why not? Can that theme potentially reflect something going on in the outside world? Absolutely. But are you going to change the world? No. I’m sorry, but no.

Here’s the kicker, though. You might change ONE PERSON’S life. You might influence the way ONE PERSON sees the world. You may flip the world for ONE PERSON. And THAT’S what matters. It isn’t changing the world. You won’t save the world. But you make the difference for SOMEONE. And that difference to ONE PERSON changes THEIR world.

Which is where I see the difference.

I have shelves of books that changed my life. They probably don’t mean anything to other people. Some have never been read by the bulk of the world. They haven’t influenced the world. They don’t change public policy. They aren’t groundbreaking thoughts. But, for me, the words mean EVERYTHING. And not because some teacher lectured about the author’s intended meaning or theme. I don’t even know if the theme I took away is what the writer meant in the first place (it may not be).

This is why we WRITE, though. To give our words to someone out there that desperately needs them. To connect with someone looking for SOMETHING. Someone experiencing the same things we are, seeking the answers we have (or don’t have but are really good at fantasizing). Those are the themes we explore in our books. Not groundbreaking revolution.

I don’t know what Madeline L’Engle intended when she wrote A Wrinkle in Time. I know that, as a smart little girl in the third grade, Meg became a hero. She was smart, too, and she told me that there was nothing wrong with being a smart girl. That’s what I took from that book, more than anything else. I held it close through years of taunting (from guys AND girls). It was my personal beacon and promise. No, the book didn’t change the rest of the world (I know thousands who’ve never read it), but it changed MY world from that point on. I pursued a science major. I refused to dumb myself down so I’d appear appealing to those around me and gain popularity. I embraced my intelligence in a way I may never have otherwise.

Teachers bored me into a stupor, carrying on about the themes and hidden meanings in Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. I held onto one thing: the woman who burned to death in her house of books. That was me – IS me. It’s literally me (there are books in every room of the house), but her determination, her commitment, her defiance – they spoke to me. It’s the most powerful part of the book, for me. I don’t know if it’s what he intended, but it’s what sticks with me.

Theme is critical – but not in the way people think.

You write what moves you. But it may not be what the reader takes away. You may write a single line that stops them cold and forces them to set the book down and cry. You may stun them with a paragraph you felt was a throw-away. Everyone approaches books from different places, and you NEVER understand what their story may be. You may craft the words they needed to hear without any intention. It’s saving a person unintentionally, and it’s beautiful.

My favorite line from Hamilton doesn’t appear on any of the licensed merchandise. I started crying the second I heard it, and it shook me to my core in a way the rest of the musical didn’t (Don’t get me wrong – it’s amazing, and I love it. I just didn’t react as strongly as I did to this line):

“I wrote my way out.”

~Hamilton

It encapsulated my life in a way nothing else ever has. Is it what Lin-Manuel Miranda meant for the musical’s theme? I doubt it. But it changed MY world. Everything stopped, crystallized, and shattered in those fractions of seconds.

Write the theme that’s clawing it’s way out of your heart. Don’t TRY to save anyone. Don’t attempt to fix the world, because it’s impossible to accomplish. Reaching ONE person – however unintentionally – THAT’S possible. You’ll connect to someone in a way that will change their life. It’s worth more than saving the world.

Terribly Horribly Unacceptably Unavoidable

Terribly Horribly Unacceptably Unavoidable

ly bottlecap
Bottle Cap that Thinks it’s an Adverb from Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr

Adverbs. These little pieces of grammar are hotly debated in writing circles. Along with the Oxford Comma, you find people aligned on both sides. You also find people that want to put banning adverbs into The Rules. While there’s some truth to cutting adverbs from your writing, outright banning of the poor things is unrealistic (and kind of impossible).

First off, what is an adverb? Adverbs, in the simplest explanation, are words that modify or qualify adjectives, verbs, other adverbs, or entire sentences. To eradicate the misconception, not every adverb ends in “-ly.” Do most of them? Sure, but not all. Want an example?

Deadpool’s costume is deep red.

In that sentence, “deep” is the adverb modifying the word “red.” It qualifies the color, adding additional meaning. However, (and this is where the debate comes in), it’s sloppy writing. You can do better than “deep red.” Just open a box of crayons, and you’ll see at least ten other options that substitute for “deep red.”

Deadpool’s costume is blood red.

Deadpool’s costume is maroon.

If you know the comic, the first one works from the merc’s perspective. The second appeals to the sensibilities of writers who hate extraneous words. Neither is technically wrong; one just uses an adverb while the other doesn’t. (See where the debate gets into the grey zone?)

Newbie writers tend to overdo adverbs. You read an average sentence and count ten of them. WAY too many. The sentence is clunky and difficult to read. Slicing it apart and trimming those excess adverbs in favor of stronger language improves the readability dramatically. It’s something that’s gained with experience. And, yes, I’m speaking from my own personal growth. When I go back and read things I wrote ten years ago, I cringe. Turn on Word’s tracking, and the paragraphs BLEED. I mean, look at this:

They were strong hands, large-knuckled but curiously delicate; unhappily, at the moment, they were shaking so badly he didn’t dare try to lift the knife to eat his cooling supper.

Horrible! Count the adverbs in there! And just try to get through reading that drivel without stumbling! (I can say this – I wrote it) Awful, terrible, and in need of ruthless editing. However, do I need to eliminate all of the adverbs? No. (Yes, the -ly words all need to go. I don’t know what I was thinking)

And this is where I argue against the “Death to Adverbs” camp. Adverbs aren’t the enemy. They DO serve a useful purpose, even in speculative fiction. The problem comes in when they result in sloppy, careless writing. We ALL use adverbs (anyone who denies is lying through their teeth). I know I was writing when I was tired or out of it when I skim over a passage and see adverbs sprouting like weeds. My brain switched off and let autopilot take over.

It isn’t the end of the world, it just means I need to rewrite and tighten up the language. Prune the worst adverbs out and choose better words. Am I using adverbs in dialogue tags? Okay, then I need to go back and examine the dialogue itself, see what I can do to make sure emotion’s coming through in my word choice so I can eliminate the tags. Have I zoned out and let “very” sneak in? Time to purge it and figure out stronger descriptors. (I will stand with the camp that opts to ban the use of “very” – it’s weak)

Then we get to the grey zone.

How many -ly words are there? I don’t think all -ly words are bad. People use them in normal conversation, so I refuse to ban them from my characters’ dialogue. Unless I’m writing a historical piece, I need human beings to speak like human beings. And guess what? Humans speak with adverbs. It needs to sound REALISTIC! I’ve deleted and then replaced adverbs within my dialogue numerous times, realizing I made my characters sound too formal. Not good.

Can you overdo adverbs? Of course. Can you find better word choices most times? Sure. Does that make adverbs the enemy? Definitely not. If you read over your work with a critical eye, you’ll see where the line is. But never let anyone tell you all of the adverbs have to go. You’ll end up writing like a computer, and no one wants to read that.

The “Rules”

The “Rules”

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

~Neil Gaiman

I plan out most of my posts a month ahead of time; this gives me plenty of time to ruminate on what I want to say while also making sure I have some kind of structure for this site between my work assignments. This post, however, was not on the schedule. Instead, it’s a spur-of-the-moment decision prompted by an encounter with a complete asshat who felt the need to spout words I really despise:

“These are the rules for writing/publishing.”

Let me make things very clear for everyone – especially if you’re just starting out in the writing world and trying to get your feet under you:

THERE ARE NO RULES!

When I first started out, I felt victim to plenty of similarly-minded idiots: people who felt the need to rattle off lists and lists of rules I needed to obey if I was ever going to be successful. And I believed them, chasing my tail in circles until I was cross-eyed, exhausted, confused, and getting absolutely nowhere. Why? Because it was absolute crap. In fact, it took talking to people in the industry for me to learn it was crap, and then I felt embarrassed, humiliated…and finally, really angry.

Some of my favorites? You have to use “said” for every dialogue tag. Utter bilk. Are you supposed to bust out the thesaurus and use a different tag for every line of dialogue? No, that’s asinine. However, you can use a sprinkling of other tags without a problem, or you can omit tags altogether and let the dialogue stand on its own.

You can’t kill off a main character. Now, you better have a good reason for doing so, but why can’t you? If it drives the plot forward and contributes to the character development of other characters, execute the bastard! Just be prepared to have readers get mad at you.

You can’t use adverbs. Ugh, this debate kills me – mostly because I’m guilty of overusing them and have to edit mercilessly. There are often better word choices available, but saying that adverbs should be avoided 100% is crap. The adverb was created for a reason, and it does have a purpose. If you’re reading your work (aloud is best), you’ll catch the ones that don’t belong and change them. I refuse to follow the adage that they should be omitted en masse.

Write what you know. I don’t know what moron came up with this one, but they deserve a flogging. Research exists – has always existed – and it’s one of the most valuable tools available to a writer. If you have an interest in something, then write about it! Immerse yourself in it, drown in everything you can lay your hands on! If you only ever write about what you know, you are going to become stale, boring, and people are going to complain that everything you hand them sounds the same.

You’re not [insert author name here]. Follow the rules. I really hope you’re not so-and-so; you should be trying to be YOU. No one else can write like you. No one else has your voice, your tone, your view on a story. Why would you want to be that other person? Don’t you want YOUR books on the shelf? YOUR stories told? If all you want is to be someone else, go write fan fiction (note: I am NOT bashing fan fiction).

The ONLY rule that matters is to write well. Yes, you need to spellcheck and use proper grammar (sad but true), but otherwise, forget the rules. Tell a great story your way – it’ll be a way no one else has done before, and THAT’S what matters.

Want to write something completely devoid of dialogue? Go for it! If you can pull it off, someone’s going to love it.

Want to rack up a higher body count than George R.R. Martin? (First, good luck) So long as those bodies are justified (slaughter for the sake of slaughter is not a good reason), then write it.

Tell the story that is burning to get out of your brain. Write what inspires you. Make it the best possible story, whatever that looks like.

The next time someone spouts rules at you, go look at the books on your shelves. I guarantee that you will find examples that break those same rules.

I leave you with the remainder of Neil Gaiman’s rules for writing (the quote at the top is Rule #8) – they’re the best ones I’ve ever come across:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
The Oxford Debate

The Oxford Debate

Comma wall art

Is there anything more hotly debated in the grammar world than the Oxford – or serial – comma? Possibly, but that tiny little punctuation mark definitely ranks in the top five. Personally, I don’t think there should be any debate – USE THE STUPID COMMA! – but since a posting should be longer than a few sentences, I’m going to explain WHY the Oxford comma exists and has its place in proper grammar.

So what is the Oxford comma? By definition, it’s the comma used after the final item in a list of three or more things. Simple enough, right? The purpose it serves is to clarify the items in that list as separate entities. For example, let’s look at the following sentence:

I’m going to make apple, blueberry and kiwi pies.

Instead of making three individual pies, the omission of the Oxford comma translates to making two pies – one of which sounds particularly disgusting, if you ask me. There’s no clarification of the three pies because the comma was left out. Let’s try another:

My personal heroes are my parents, Deadpool and Harley Quinn.

Now, while you might be under some delusion as to your parentage (I’m not trying to judge), odds are your parents were not fictional characters. See what happens without that Oxford comma? You can start to look a little questionable in the sanity department (not a bad thing, but if you write that to an editor, they might wonder). Now, let’s look at a properly written sentence:

I dedicate this book to my sister, Chonky-Butt, and Crazy Town.

Written properly, people may wonder what in the world you’re saying or who you know, but at least you’re not going to offend your sister (can you imagine the hit-man she’s going to contract for you if she reads that without the Oxford comma?!). One tiny little curlicue on the page makes the difference between a snort and you’re life being on the line. One final example of proper grammar:

We entered the maze with our friends, zombies, and victims.

Again, it’s all up to you on whether or not you want to insult your compatriots or not. I guess it might depend on how close those friends are? To be accurate, though, that Oxford comma should be in there.

For whatever reason, Americans in particular have this abhorrence with the serial comma, and they keep trying to sacrifice it to the Grammar Gods. It seems to be related to age, too, with the younger generations trying to execute it (in the killing sense, not in the sense of using it) more frequently than those who underwent grammar lessons “back in the day.”

Strictly speaking, is it wrong to omit the Oxford comma?

….no.

Am I ever going to omit using it? Not a chance. I’m a firm believer that it exists and should be utilized for purposes of clarity and ease of reading. Plus, I’m not a psycho, and there are some truly great psychotic sentences generated out there when the serial comma is omitted – just run a Google search for examples.

My best advice is to read your sentence through aloud and ask yourself whether there is any doubt as to how the content could be interpreted. The last thing you want to do is cause someone – say, an editor – to laugh at you when you were trying to be serious.

Replacing Snow White

Replacing Snow White

Deadpool
Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

Who here hasn’t gagged when Snow White waltzes into a story, singing to everyone around her, traipsing through the forest without a care in the world, doing everything basically wrong (seriously – who answers the door and just lets strangers do whatever they want without question?), and still ends up married to a prince? Those goody-two-shoes characters make me sick, and they crop up outside of fairy tales, I’m sad to say. People seem to be enamored with protagonists who are intrinsically good and manage to stumble through a couple of minor mistakes before reaching the other end of the forest, mostly unscathed.

Who wants to read that drivel?!

Luckily for those of us who want a bit more bite in our reading, the antihero was developed. An antihero is a protagonist who lacks the fundamental characteristics of a hero. This isn’t a new invention to the literary world (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlotte Bronte, and Shakespeare all had antiheroes in their works), but the characters definitely weren’t popular (save that people do love to portray Macbeth onstage). Why should they be? Antiheroes are the antithesis of admirable protagonists by their very definition. They don’t smile at everyone they meet, they don’t sing and dance, they don’t give all of their money or food to charity, and the actions they undertake make people shudder.

So what changed?

Well, for one, the comic book industry came along and took antihero to the next dimension. Characters such as Deadpool, Venom, and the Suicide Squad were born, and people responded positively. There’s no question that the characters lacked true heroic tendencies, but they failed the villain test, too (and they were clearly the protagonists of the volumes). Check the Box Office numbers – not to mention the fan base – and there’s no question that people like these lovable misfits. They aren’t in the mold of the typical superhero; their motivations are questionable, their actions are suspect, and their behavior lands them in front of the “true” superheroes often enough. None of that matters, though, because people still love them.

The literary world is starting to catch on, and more and more antiheroes are emerging on the shelves. Holly Black’s Folk of the Air Trilogy is a beautiful example: Jude is one of the best antiheroes out there. Rin Chupeco’s Bone Witch Trilogy is another example, where you spend the majority of the series viewing Tea as an antihero, from her perspective as well as from the perspective of the Bard recording her story. Marissa Meyer’s Renegades Trilogy is a classic hero versus antihero, pitting Sketch against Nightmare. While Meg IS a standard protagonist in Anne Bishop’s The Others series, Simon is a classic antihero. It’s a breath of fresh air to see the emergence of these antiheroes amidst the stock of so many ho-hum, standard protagonists.

Why?

It’s easy to cheer for the person who’s good. It’s even easy to cheer for the person with a fatal flaw they have to overcome (mostly because you know they’re going to). It’s HARDER to cheer and root for the person who is the OPPOSITE of everything you expect! When they do things that make you blink, that make you set the book down, that make you scream at the pages, that make you feel sympathy for other characters in the book…THAT is a character worth rooting for. You start to relish the challenge, and you start to realize how difficult a task it is to write that character. You gain admiration for the author and the work they set for themselves.

Anyone can write the doe-eyed princess getting rescued by the prince; children in pre-school do it without batting an eye. It takes guts and genuine talent to write about a smart-mouthed thief with a plan to assassinate the king and usurp the throne for herself. So my challenge to you, if you have not done so already, is to check that back copy and find something that makes you hesitate, that clenches your stomach a little, that makes you think the protagonist might be a little off the beaten path. You just might find that you LIKE those antiheroes after all.