Why It Works: Primer

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Time travel sucks as a genre. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Yes, the whole genre.

Everyone knows about the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before he conceives with your grandmother, there would be no you to go back in time and kill him.

But many people misinterpret the paradox as being about specific inconsistencies you can trace, when in fact it’s more of a chaos theory issue: the tiniest change of the past could radically change the “present” in unforeseeable ways.

This could happen if the person goes to the past and doesn’t even physically interact with anyone. Merely being seen by a person could alter their day, which leads to change after change after change…

Pretty much every book or movie I’ve seen with time travel has been terrible. It either ignores this problem, has the problem but tries to explain it in an unsatisfactory way, or it succeeds in explaining it but destroys the story in the process.

I honestly believe no one should ever write a time travel story, because it’s going to be a disaster no matter how hard you try. It’s not worth the effort. If I ran an SF magazine, my first rule of submissions would be: no time travel stories (rule 2 would be: no first-contact stories).

But then we wouldn’t have Primer, which actually kind of works. Let’s look at why.

The first thing is that when the main characters go back in time, it’s accidental. This is very important in not creating a causal loop. If your character has to go back in time to change something to save the world, then when they succeed, there will be no reason for them to go back. Hence, the paradoxical loop. Making the initial travel accidental is an interesting way to solve that problem.

The second thing is the physicality. There’s something strange about old-school time travel (think The Time Machine), where a person and/or machine materializes out of nowhere in the past. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you think about it a lot. If the machine wasn’t there in the past, what does it mean that it suddenly is? This is a much deeper philosophical issue than people give it credit for.

Primer brilliantly fixes this problem by making the machine a box that you have to turn on at the time you want to travel back to. So if you turn on the box right now, you can’t use it to travel back before that time. You get in the box at the future time and travel back without running into the physicality problem. You are physically in the box the whole time you’re traveling back.

Primer also solves the problem of interacting with the world by isolating themselves so that they only interact with the world once. This means they aren’t changing the past. They’re living it out for the first time the time they travel back.

But here’s the most important reason Primer succeeds. It is way too confusing to ever know if they’ve run into a paradox. It succeeds because there’s always more to figure out on subsequent viewings.

This sounds like cheating: make your story so confusing that no one knows if there’s a problem. It sounds like bad writing.

But let’s put it in comparison to every other time travel story where it’s immediately obvious that it all falls apart for philosophical and paradoxical reasons. I’d rather be left with the fun journey of trying to piece it together than a pile of unsatisfying nonsense.

If you’ve read a book that handles time travel well, I’d like to hear about it. Despite being a pet peeve of mine, I still masochistically seek them out in hopes of being proved wrong someday.

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Free Book on Style

If you’ve been coming here awhile, then you’re probably somewhat interested in prose style. I’ve turned some of my blog posts and personal notes from the past ten years of doing this into a short (Kindle) e-book. They’ve been edited and expanded with examples, so nothing should be an exact replica of what you’ve read here.

It’s not meant to be anything grand. The final result came out to be twenty-one rules. The unique twist from some of the other books that do this is that I’ve focused on what I see to be the most common self-publishing mistakes.

I’m giving it away for free for five days. It will only be $0.99 after that. The goal is to help people!

Sound Like - High Resolution

Do you write self-published novels?

Can you hear the difference between a self-published novel and a traditional bestseller?

No? Then this book is for you, because your readers will feel the difference.

This short book will give you a set of easy to apply rules to improve the sound of your writing.

Get it here.

The Prose of J.K. Rowling

I hate to be one of those people. But I can’t help it. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always said that J.K. Rowling isn’t that great of a writer. I hope she’s humble enough to admit that her fame is mostly luck.

She wrote a story that resonated with the zeitgeist at exactly the right time, and that has very little to do with writing quality or marketing skills or anything under one’s control (if you disagree, consider Fifty Shades of Gray, then ask yourself how much your disagreement stems from me saying this about a beloved story from your childhood).

I’ve often pointed to the first Harry Potter book as an example of her low-quality writing. It reads like an early career first novel. And that’s fine, because it is.

People reply, “It’s YA! She’s a genius that gradually made her writing more sophisticated as the books went on, so that as readers aged, the reading level and maturity of the books grew with the audience.”

Okay. But let’s be honest. It’s much more likely that she just got better as a writer as she wrote more. I never read the final Harry Potter book to know if the prose style grew into something reasonable. In any case, it doesn’t matter. We have lots of books, published after that series, aimed at adults to examine.

I’m not a big mystery reader, and so I was considering doing a “Year of Mysteries” next year for the blog. I picked up The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) to read as the first book.

It’s kind of shocking to me that a major publisher would let this get through without serious edits. I was so distracted by the prose errors I couldn’t even focus on the content. I know this isn’t something most people notice, but it serves as a good reminder that J.K. Rowling is not a good writer. She’s famous. Those are different.

I was going to break down some of the prologue, but I thought people might consider that unfair. Prologues are often bad, even when handled by the greatest writers. So let’s start with the beginning of Chapter 1.

Though Robin Ellacott’s twenty-five years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.

This is the opening sentence, and opening sentences tend to be more polished than the paragraphs that follow. This sentence reads like a first-year creative writing student attempting to impress a teacher by making things needlessly complicated. It reads like a student who hasn’t learned this is exactly how agents and publishers can tell you’re still an amateur. The real way to show maturity as a writer is to be precise and concise and readable and still get all the same information across.

Let’s break this down.

The first thing is the lack of precision in language.

She words it so the “years” are the one “seeing.” This is nitpicky but also confusing and imprecise (if you don’t understand why, it’s because only a conscious thing can “see” something).

Also, we begin with a subordinate clause. This is, by definition, beginning with inessential and/or unimportant information. The clause tries to cram in way too much information. There’s no need to force in her age to this mess of a sentence, because this will naturally become clear later.

I’ll concede there is wiggle room for personal style, but in this case, there’s too many “glue” words doing no work. For one, “that” can be eliminated without loss of information.

Then there’s the tense: “had seen,” “had never before,” “would remember the coming day.” Are we in past tense? Is the narrator omniscient or close third? I’ve read this sentence a dozen times, and I’m still not sure how she is certain about remembering something that hasn’t happened. Though the gist is obvious, it’s extraordinarily confusing if you take it as it is written. The sentence lacks clarity, precision, and readability.

Here’s my edited version:

Robin Ellacott woke with the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.

Justification: One should draw the reader in as fast as possible. This straightforward edit does this by directly raising the question in the reader’s mind: why? Rowling’s version obscures this question by confusing the reader with tense switching, needless information, and excessive words. (I kept the awkward past/future thing, because I wanted the edit to be an actual edit and not a rewrite).

She has the whole rest of the book to let her prose get fancy (and confusing).

Moving on:

Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, had proposed to her under the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. In the giddy relief following her acceptance, he confessed that he had been planning to pop the question in the Thai restaurant where they just had eaten dinner, but that he had reckoned without the silent couple beside them, who had eavesdropped on their entire conversation.

At this point, I was a little concerned the entire book would be in past perfect (sometimes continuous) tense. She wrote the prologue this way and then several pages of the first chapter in this tense. She needs to switch to simple past already. It’s beyond tiring.

Because of the confusing nature of the first sentence and now awkward tense usage, it’s unclear to me if this proposal is the day she’ll remember forever or if it referred to the next day.

Everything is so wordy and passive: “that he had been,” “just had eaten dinner,” etc. For example, remove “just had eaten dinner” completely. This is doubled information. They were at a Thai restaurant shortly before midnight. It’s obvious they went there for dinner.

This might be a British idiom, but there seems to be a clause missing in the second sentence (despite it being more than double the length it should be). Again, the gist is there. He would have proposed if it weren’t for the silent couple eavesdropping on them. Honestly, the words, as written, don’t say that. Read the sentence carefully several times. I can’t make sense of it. I think it’s actually a sentence fragment.

Here’s my rewrite:

Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, proposed to her under the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. He confessed he would have popped the question in the Thai restaurant—if only the silent couple beside them weren’t eavesdropping on their entire conversation.

Obviously this new version isn’t perfect, but these simple readability changes show how far Rowling has to go to get from her “final draft” to solid prose style. Later, the narrator calls the proposal “the most perfect.” What does that mean? There aren’t levels of perfection. I think it’s supposed to be in Robin’s voice, but then the early narrative omniscience makes no sense.

If this is how Rowling writes for adults, no one can say she is a good writer. These first two chapters are confusing on a sentence-by-sentence level, all over the place in terms of tense and viewpoint, and messy in terms of prose style. She lacks the precision, clarity, and readability of any reasonably mature writer. Unless chapter two is vastly better, I don’t think I can read this book.

Year of Short Fiction Part 8: Tenth of December

Today we dive into the short fiction of George Saunders.

Saunders made it in the literary world on short fiction alone. He might be the only person I know of to do this. His first novel came out earlier this year and that was twenty-one years after his first story collection (and novella). I can’t believe I’ve made it nine months through the Year of Short Fiction without getting to him. There’s so much to learn.

I once watched an interview with Saunders, and he said that some of his stories start out as 200+ page novels. Then he realizes how unnecessary most of that is. It sometimes takes years or even a decade, but eventually it gets distilled down to the important bits, only a few pages long. Most writers don’t trust their readers enough to do this. Most writers don’t want to do the work it takes to produce short fiction with this type of professional mindset.

I haven’t finished the whole collection Tenth of December yet, but I wanted to do a post on the title story. I don’t know how much longer this story started, but holy is it dense. I had to go back and read the first three paragraphs again after I finished the story for them to make sense.

We’re dropped into a character’s head with pretty much no context as to what’s going on. The descriptions are scatterbrained and keep referencing people and things that make sense to the character but not the reader. Some of the words and people are made up.

This is a character with a fully developed voice and backstory and eventually it starts to make sense, but this is exactly how you’d expect it to be inside someone’s head the first time. If it makes sense right off, you’re doing it wrong.

Anyway, it doesn’t take as much time to get your bearings as I made it sound, but everything mentioned does play a role. So we figure out that we’re in the head of a child who has gone out to play. He’s making up stories, but he’s pretending they’re real. So to the reader it’s a little disorienting as to what’s real and what’s made up.

We also realize the short, choppy, scattered sentences with bad grammar and made up slang makes sense for a child. The voice is whimsical in what details keep getting added on for effect:

They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.

Then we change characters. The voice is unmistakably different. The sentences are more refined. It’s wiser, older, melancholy. But there’s something off. Then we realize he can’t get to certain words. Sometimes they come out as a similar sounding word that makes no sense in the context.

This man has something wrong with him. It’s obvious from the voice alone before we find out the truth. The story is so good and suspenseful and moving once it gets going that I don’t want to spoil any of that by revealing what’s wrong or what happens. I want to keep focusing on the voice, because I think that’s one of the best things we can learn from this story.

It was a miracle. That he’d got this far. Well, he’d always been strong. Once, he’d run a half-marathon with a broken foot. After his vasectomy he’d cleaned the garage, no problem.

He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.

His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.

Let. Let me do it cling.

Clean.

Cleanly.

I think this type of really close third person is amazing in short fiction. It can get tiresome in a whole novel, but here it reveals so much in so little space. It’s entirely in the character’s voice.

The stream of consciousness takes us from what he’s doing to past times he’s done difficult things. This allows us to get a sense of the character in a natural way that would be hard to work in otherwise.

I’ve already exlained the word thing, but it’s pretty amazing the first time it appears and you have to work out what’s going on. “Leg me do it cling.” I read that, and was super confused. I had to read it again thinking I’d missed something. Then I continued as the character fights to find the right words. My confusion shifted to curiosity. What in the world was going on with him that he had trouble?

This is my takeaway. This collection of stories is a masterclass in how voice isn’t just another tool of characterization. It can be an integral part of the tension and action of the story if used properly.

I highly recommend checking out these stories and reading them with this in mind.

Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 14

Today we’ll look at some prose from Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. It is both some of the best fantasy prose writing I’ve seen, and one of the most original and captivating fantasy novels I’ve read. I’m kind of in awe of it still. I’ve come across so many passages I wanted to use for this series, but I didn’t mark them. So here’s one I found at random.

It is the start of a scene, so I don’t have much setting up to do.

In a secluded glade in the forest, Quick Ben poured white sand in a circle and sat down in its center. He took five sharpened sticks and set them in a row before him, pushing them to various depths in the loam. The center stick, the highest, rose about three feet; the ones on either side stood at two feet and the outer ones at a foot.

The wizard uncoiled a yard’s length of thin gut string. He took one end and fashioned a scaled-down noose, which he tightened over the center stick near the top. He ran the line to the left, looping it once over the next shaft, then crossed over to the right side and looped it again.

The scene continues like this for quite some time. The number one takeaway from this is very easy to state. The whole scene is one person sitting alone. Yet all of the prose is active. For pages, I can’t find a single “was.” This is hard enough to do in a natural way when people are fighting or some other high action moment.

Let’s do a reverse analysis on this. Let’s guess how some earlier draft version might have gone to see why this final version is better. It’s somewhat telling that this is a hard task on this passage.

First, it begins with the clause “in a secluded glade in the forest.” I could imagine myself trying to be as descriptive as possible and waxing poetic with this. “Dark green leaves draped over Quick Ben. He had made his way deep into the forest, where no one could find him…” Even that would probably get fleshed out with more sensory detail in revisions.

I can easily identify two reasons why Erikson’s version is better. First, it’s just not that important. The actual content of the scene is what Quick Ben does. By spending so many words on it, it draws unnecessary attention to irrelevant information.

Second, it’s important to think if a “more detailed” version actually contains more detail. Erikson uses highly evocative and succinct words in that clause. The term “secluded glade” already encompasses the entire phrase “deep into the forest, where no one could find him.”  So my version is the same, but more clunky and difficult to read.

The next sentence I had an easier time thinking how a first draft might read. “Five sticks were in front of him, and they were in arranged with the middle the highest and outer the lowest.” This is a train wreck of a sentence, but very common in early drafts.

First, it passively sets the scene, so Erikson wants Quick Ben to do the acting. It gets better immediately: “He set five sticks in front of him and arranged them with the middle the highest and outer the lowest.” But here we have the opposite problem from the first clause. Our version is attempting to do too much in a single sentence. It’s hard to understand what is going on.

The way to fix this is to describe the action, and then prepare the mental image of the description of the end result. This gets us to Erikson’s version:

He took five sharpened sticks and set them in a row before him, pushing them to various depths in the loam.

“Sharpened” is a descriptor that prepares us to see them pushed into the ground. We’re then told that they are pushed in at “various depths,” this also prepares us to visualize the different depths in the next sentence. So we don’t merely use two sentences to break apart the sentence that had too much in it, but we do it in a way that keeps priming the reader for proper understanding.

We could keep doing this and find similar things. It would be so easy to write the whole thing passively. “The wizard had string and it was put on a stick…” Erikson manages to take a person sitting by himself and get all these interesting active verbs into the paragraph: uncoiled, fashioned, tightened, ran, looped, crossed over.

This is one of the hallmarks of great prose. Passages like this push the reader along. We get highly detailed descriptions in our head, and we see them unfolding because of the active verbs.

I don’t want to spend time bashing another writer, but take someone like Terry Brooks, who I’ve also been reading recently. His prose does almost the exact opposite. Here’s a passage from The Elves of Cintra:

He had met Erisha and old Culph as planned at the entrance to the Ashenell burial grounds at just past midday, excited and anxious to begin their search. But Ashenell was vast and sprawling, a forest of headstones and monuments, mausoleums and simple markers that defied any easy method of sorting out. The terrain itself was daunting, hilly and wooded, the burial sections chopped apart by deep ravines and rocky precipices that made it difficult to determine where anything was.

In light of our discussion, everything is passive. Most sentences try to have too much, which in turn makes it hard for the reader to visualize any of it. It’s also not necessary to get this information up front. Why not take the search (an active thing) and let the descriptions flow from that as they appear?

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Midweek Patreon Update

I’m doing a midweek update to inform you I’ve changed my Patreon goals. I originally said that I wanted to be at $100 per month by the end of the year in order to keep the blog “alive.” But now I’m changing that to $50 per month by the end of September (with the old goal still applying). If we don’t make that goal, I’ll shut the Patreon down and no longer post every week.

If you haven’t read it, here’s the original announcement about starting a Patreon page.

I’ll remind you that my rewards are actually very, very good compared to a majority of people making similar content. The most typical reward is to give an ad-free version (I don’t run ads) or to give people the content a day early. One prominent person gives supporters the information of an upcoming speaking engagement early (yes, your “reward” is to be told how you can give them more money before other people find out).

These are all trivial rewards.

My rewards are part of the reason I can’t sustain the Patreon model anymore. I give a whole video and an extra “Examining Pro’s Prose” blog post each month. I give out free books. These are actual rewards. Of course, supporters shouldn’t be supporting to get the rewards. They should support because they like the content. The rewards are just a side benefit.

Anyway, I’m not actually complaining. I’ll be happy if people make it worth my time, and I’ll be happy if I no longer have to stress about getting quality content out on a deadline. So whichever way it goes, I’ll be happy. It’s this middle ground I don’t like.

I’ve been blogging for about ten years now, and since the majority of my day is reading/writing/editing, it’s not feasible to keep doing a weekly blog for (essentially) free. Patreon was meant to get a modest (barely breaking even) amount for that effort. All it has done is create more work, so it’s a sanity thing to end it early unless some more people show interest.

Again, thousands of you come here every week. If a mere 40 of you find the content valuable enough to give even a dollar a month, we would hit that $50 per month number (and you’d get a bonus post each month). If this doesn’t happen, then I can say it’s been a good run. Most blogs probably go defunct in less than six months.

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Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 4

I was all set this week to get away from the negative critiques of fundamental errors I keep finding. I wanted to discuss the prose of Steven Erikson, because Gardens of the Moon is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. But each week, it seems I find a new candidate for the worst way to start a novel. So here goes. This is so bad that it almost crosses over into brilliant comedy.

“Careful, please,” I said to the worker who was ineptly handling a crate full of dishes as I walked back into the house I was preparing to leave. “I think we’re just about done,” I called into the living room.

As usual with this series, I’ll point out a few things unrelated to the lesson first. There’s too much passive voice. I’ve become much more lax about this type of thing in my own writing, because it sounds wrong to change every single “was” to a more active verb. But in the opening paragraphs, I really want to draw the reader in.

Here it’s quite easy.

“Careful, please,” I said. The worker fumbled a crate full of dishes, and I cringed, waiting for the inevitable crash.

Notice how the awkwardness of phrases like “was ineptly handling” can be replaced by a more suitable active verb: fumbled. Already, this simple change corrects the fundamental lesson I want to get to.

Lesson 4: Don’t do too much in a single sentence!

As with every rule, there are amazing exceptions. Some of the best sentences I’ve read break this rule. But one must be able to follow and understand the rule before it can be broken, or you’ll end up with the tragedy that is the opening sentence to this novel.

Here’s a list of what the author tries to fit into the first sentence. There’s a mover who isn’t doing a good job. He has a box of dishes. The main character walks into his house. He’s preparing to leave the house.

That is far too much. First off, in an attempt to get so much across, the reader will barely comprehend any of it. The sentence seems to be grammatically correct, but it feels like a run-on sentence with how wordy it is. He has to resort to awkward phrases to avoid a run-on. And most important of all, the information is told instead of shown.

What’s so disheartening is how close this author came to getting it right. He sets up a scene perfectly suited to showing all this information without telling the reader anything. Let’s finish up correcting the paragraph, since we’re so close.

“…I was preparing to leave.” This is completely unnecessary. The main character is moving out in the scene. There is absolutely no reason to then tell the reader something that has already been shown.

Whenever you write the word “as,” a red flag should go off that you’re cramming too much into a single sentence. It is sometimes correct, but you must always ask yourself: are the two clauses actually happening at the same time?

In the example above, the word “as” introduces ambiguity. Where is the worker? I imagined him loading a truck outside, and then the main character walks into the house and speaks to someone else. But “as” implies he calls into the house, since otherwise he’d be speaking to someone behind him. Wait. If the person is in the house, how does the main character know he’s “ineptly handling?”

Pretty much all interpretations of the scene don’t make sense. I’ll return to the lesson. This only happened because the author tried to cram it all into one sentence. If everything were described across multiple sentences, a more precise and logical picture would appear in the reader’s mind. So for the correction, I’ll place the people in their locations.

“Careful, please,” I said. The mover fumbled a crate of dishes, and I cringed, waiting for the inevitable crash. The box somehow made it onto the truck safely, so I walked back into the house. A lump formed in my throat, and I found a man wrapping tape around the last box in an empty living room.

Half to myself, I said, “I think we’re just about done.”

This is what I do when I go from first draft to second draft. There would still be a lot of tinkering to get it just how I want it. But notice how all the same information comes across much better in this version. The reader has a chance to digest and visualize it all now. Putting too much in a sentence is a recipe for ambiguity and telling. It’s also far harder for the reader to process.

And that brings us to my favorite exception to the rule. Sometimes you want to intentionally confuse the reader to imitate the experience of a character. The easiest way to do this is to cram too much into a sentence.

I hopped on the carnival ride. As it sped up, an awful feeling developed in the pit of my stomach. We spun and flung and bits of cotton candy whizzed by as my side pressed into the metal edge, pain and nausea filling my body, laughter and noise and that horrible smell of burnt burgers offending my nostrils.

Or whatever. You get the point. Fight scenes are a common place this will happen, too. There are times when breaking the rule makes sense, but I consider this rule to be pretty solid. It’s going to be very rare and obvious when breaking it is a good thing.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 3

As I continue to read poorly edited (I’m not referring to typos) KU books, I continue to find fundamental problems to talk about. Here’s one that will probably be obvious to many people when I point it out, but it would never jump out in a self-editing session to them.

Here’s a real example:

Maria glanced in the window of the coffee shop and saw that it was nearly packed to completely full capacity.

This lesson is again on the level of word choice in sentence construction. There’s a lot to pull from this one mistake. The first is in modifying absolutes. There are times when there’s no choice. One must modify a word that has an absolute meaning.

An example of an absolute is “perfect.” It exist as an absolute extreme. I don’t have much of a problem with saying “nearly perfect” (in other words, modifying the absolute), because synonyms like “flawed” have too much baggage to get the right meaning.

The first part of this lesson is to always try to get the right meaning without forming this construction. I believe the Chicago Manual of Style even lists this as a mistake. The reason is that something either is the absolute or it isn’t. Absolutes set up a pure binary, so it doesn’t really make sense to modify it somehow.

The common example is “unique.” The word unique means “one of a kind” or “the sole example.” This is an absolute and should not be modified. For example, “That’s the most unique car I’ve seen.” The word “most” doesn’t do anything, because the word unique already has that information in it. One should write, “That car is unique.”

But that’s not the real fundamental flaw in the example. The fundamental flaw is redundancy and wordiness. Let’s just look at “packed to completely full capacity.” First off, “completely” serves no purpose. “Full” and “completely full” have the exact same meaning, so it is redundant to say it that way (it’s again modifying an absolute in an unnecessary way).

But “full capacity” is kind of redundant as well, because “packed to full capacity” and “packed to capacity” have the exact same meaning. It is also touch jargon-y, almost like corporate double speak. The other option was to use “full.” That flows much better to me.

Now “full” is an absolute, so we come full circle and have to decide what to do with the “nearly” before it. I say scrap it. When looking into a coffee shop, a human isn’t going to see a difference between “nearly full” and “full.” It’s just going to look full. Here’s my fixed version:

Maria glanced in the window of the coffee shop and saw that it was full.

Go back and read the original now. Wow. This version is so much better. The last two lessons I said an editor wouldn’t point it out, because the mistakes were too fundamental. Any editor worth paying for will point out this type of mistake, so I have to assume the self-published writer that wrote this book did not hire one.

Sorry for the short post, but I’m away on vacation this week. I think this lesson is quite important though.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 2

This is going to be a post on a bizarre pet peeve of mine. This advice isn’t as universal as my dozens of other posts on writing. It’s an idiosyncrasy of my own personal taste. Yet, of all the writers I think of as taking the craft of prose seriously, I can’t find anyone that makes this “mistake.” It’s only found in books by people who pump out quantity over quality, so I think there’s actually something to it.

Here’s a quick refresher on definite versus indefinite articles. An indefinite article is used when talking about a thing in general. In other words, not a specific thing already known to the listener. Example:

A cat cried outside my window all night long.

The indefinite article is “a.” Definite articles are used to refer to a specific thing known to the listener.

There is a cup of water. The cup is brown.

In this case, “the” is the definite article. Here is the lesson for today: Do not use definite articles too early in a novel or story. This will take some unpacking, because, obviously, it’s often appropriate to use a definite article in the first sentence.

I know, this sounds like nitpicky nonsense. Here’s an actual example (kind of, modified like last time so you can’t Google the person and find their book). Here’s the first sentence of the entire novel.

Bob set the glass of water down before going to the bedroom.

Let’s ignore the fact that this also violates Lesson 1 in this series (come on, is setting the glass of water down really where this story begins or at least a vital detail?!). I’ll first say that this is a noble effort. She uses an active verb, and a specific detail is given (though, a glass of water is quite generic).

But why is there a definite article? The reader has not been exposed to the glass yet, so it isn’t known.

Don’t freak out on me that this is absolutely ridiculous. Every time I encounter this, I cringe at how strange it sounds to my ear. I hear your complaint: how can this be avoided? First off, something like “Bob set his glass…” reads much better to me. The possessive article is still somewhat definite, but it indicates Bob is the one familiar with it and not necessarily the reader.

Also, “Bob set a glass…” sounds correct as well. My guess is that many KU authors read other KU authors, and this creates a cycle of subconscious imitation. Using a definite article in a first sentence has become the norm, unfortunately.

There are times when it is fine.

The sun crested the horizon, and a streak of red jutted across the sky.

Here it’s fine, because the reader is already familiar with the sun, the horizon, and the sky. In other words, we know which one she’s referring to. But I’d like to return to a deeper problem and the core of this lesson. If you find yourself using a definite article for an object unfamiliar to the reader, don’t quickly change it to an indefinite or possessive. Ask yourself why that object is there.

In almost 100% of the times I see this, the more fundamental problem is that the object shouldn’t be mentioned at all. If the object is important enough, then really emphasize it by making it the subject of the sentence. In that case, it is okay to use a definite article.

The glass of water sparkled on the counter. Bob wondered if they’d be able to lift the killer’s prints off it as he wandered to the bedroom—the scene of the crime.

Now it makes sense. It’s not just “a” glass of water, but a highly specific one that plays a crucial role in the opening of the novel. This opening draws the reader in. There aren’t just objects and details for no reason. The glass is mentioned to create tension in the scene.

There are also hundreds of exceptions to this rule, so don’t go posting a bunch in the comments or something. I’ve seen books where this rule is broken and it works. It’s like all writing advice: break it when you have good reason to.

Here’s some obvious exceptions. You have to use a definite article if referencing a proper noun (It happened while listening to the Beatles). There are also common phrases and colloquialisms that use definite articles (It was the best of times). But the most common exception is if the scene has been set enough that the object in question could be inferred by the reader. Here’s the opening to A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall.

Pay close attention to “the” versus “a” versus “her” in that paragraph. Egan uses “her yellow eye shadow” because the reader hasn’t been exposed to it. She uses “the mirror” and “the sink” because Sasha is in a bathroom of a hotel. If a reader hasn’t envisioned a mirror or sink, they aren’t familiar with standard bathrooms. But Egan uses “a bag,” because the reader wouldn’t envision a bag on the floor from any of the previous information.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 1

I have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, so I start a lot of self-published books. Many of these are bad (don’t take this the wrong way: 90% of everything is bad). I don’t want to criticize specific people or their writing, but I really want to dig into some of the fundamental problems with some passages I’ve found out in the published world.

I’ve decided that I’m going to take real passages and change the verbs and nouns and names (but in a way to not create a new problem). This is so you can’t go find the passages easily. Most of the time proper grammar and so on is used. It’s even possible they hired an editor. The issue is that when certain fundamental problems exist, the work isn’t ready for an editor.

Here is the opening passage to a novel. Sorry for how long this excerpt is, but context is needed to understand the fundamental problem:

A 23 year old girl named Veronica who had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend found herself alone. After a few years of being with him, she decided to follow her instincts and have a relationship with an older man. Veronica had always been with people her own age but she secretly found them immature.

One day in the afternoon Veronica was bored at her house and decided to go out and visit some friends to chill and have some fun. When she got to their house, they were talking to a coworker named Sam …

We could take a few directions with this. First off, every single one of those sentences is telling the reader what happened instead of showing it. In addition, most of what we’re told is completely irrelevant. An agent or publisher wouldn’t have to read any further to know it was a hard reject.

It might be instructive to see how to change some of this to show more and tell less. Let’s do that for a moment, but there’s actually a more fundamental problem than that.

First, let’s think about what’s actually important in the first sentence. The age we can later infer. The relationship ending is inferred by the last part of the sentence. Already we could make a much stronger opening by changing that to:

Veronica found herself alone.

This conveys the same information in a much less clunky way. Strings of glue words like “who had just” should always throw up red flags. The rest of that opening paragraph is also unimportant. We can show all of it better through action or dialogue.

“One day in the afternoon” and “was bored at her house” can be converted to showing. Never say “one day.” However you proceed, it will be assumed that it is a day (unless it’s night, of course).

The heat of the afternoon sun beat on Veronica’s skin as she lazily flipped through the latest Cosmopolitan.

Now we’ve given the character some action that slips in the time of day and shows her being bored. With specific details like the magazine title, we’re developing characterization. Imagine how you’d feel if instead that had said Popular Mechanics or Harper’s. It’s already infinitely better, but if we try to convert the next part, we’re going to run up against the more fundamental problem I alluded to.

There’s no good way to transition to the upcoming house party scene. We have to spend a full scene with her being bored at her house, or we should probably skip it. Here’s the fundamental lesson: make sure the story starts in the right place.

The original first paragraph is backstory and told motivation. There’s no need for either. The “being bored” is irrelevant. This novel actually begins at this party scene where she’s going to try to start dating this older man.

I tend to think of novels having two good opening strategies. One is the poetic scene setting or character description. I know that’s gone quite a bit out of favor recently, but most of the masters did this. This sets a patient tone for the novel. Here’s the opening to Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon (Malazan, Book 1):

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

The inventive description draws you right in. There’s no need for action because so much of the descriptors paint in an active way: stains, blood, squat, bolt, monstrous, demon, teeth bared, leering, and more. This is all just a description of the setting!

We could easily do this with the example we’re trying to fix. We could dwell on the house for a while before getting to this other idea:

Fragments of sunlight cut through the clouded sky to illuminate a small bungalow on a hill. Veronica glanced out the window at her garden—at how the raindrops refracted the light on the silvery wormwood leaves. The storm had broken. Three days of being cooped up was about all she could take.

This is getting more advanced than I want this “fundamentals” series to be. Here’s the idea.

If Veronica is sad about the breakup, we can symbolically illustrate this with the storm. Now that she’s about to go to this party, the sun coming out foreshadows things getting better. She’s coming out of the post-breakup depression (and we even worked in why she was bored since this was so important to merit mention to the original author!).

So if we absolutely must start the novel bored at the house, we should use inventive description to paint vivid pictures and draw the reader in like this. But honestly I feel quite strongly that this “bored at the house” idea was merely lazy writing and not the true beginning.

The more common advice these days is to start in media res, meaning in the middle of some action. But in the case of the example we’re trying to fix, there’s no need for actual “action.” All this means for us is to start where the actual story starts. All the stuff that came before it was unnecessary. It will be inferred later or was too unimportant to care about.

Veronica circled the party in a slow and deliberate prowl. She watched Sam as he talked to people she didn’t know. He had a streak of silver in his brown hair, a hefty square jaw covered in stubble, and those piercing green eyes. She thought to herself: age is just a number.

Oh. What in the world is going on here? We know the man is older by the physical description, but leaving what exactly their age difference is creates mystery. We don’t know whether to be intrigued or disturbed yet. She’s on the prowl but why? It’s the action of the scene right up front.

And don’t think that a good editor will tell you any of this (they’ll be thinking it, though!). Editors can only fix so much. If there’s a true fundamental problem like this one, it requires a rewrite. Editors edit. A rewrite is part of “writing” and beyond the scope of their job. They might be generous and write things like “telly,” but you’ll have to understand that what they mean is what’s in this post.