Showing versus telling when writing

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Showing versus telling; what does it mean, and what difference does it make?

Let’s look at the following example.

It was warm out. John was very hot. His clothes were wet with sweat, and some drops of perspiration fell from his face as he stuck his rake in the hay and dumped it in the bed of the blue truck.

When the truck was full, he stuck his rake in the dirt. Then, he walked to the truck’s door. The window was down. He reached in and grabbed a bottle of water from a cooler.

He drank the water to slake his thirst. The cold liquid felt so good, running down his throat. Because he had a lot of work to do, he quickly secured the cap to the bottle, tossed it willy-nilly inside the truck, and then opened the door to climb in.

He started his old Ford, released the parking brake, and began driving down the bumpy, hard packed, country road. He made sure to go slow because there were many cows in the vicinity, and John did not want to spook them. Thankful for the breeze that blew in through the opened window, he then turned on the radio. His favorite song, Blue Suede Shoes, was playing.

The entire example portrays the most basic way to tell a story. Everything has been presented; we know John has been working hard in the heat to shove hay into a blue truck. We know he drives down a country road. We know there are cows, and that he doesn’t want to scare them, and we know that he likes Elvis, but the presentation feels bland, uninspired; it’s like the readers are being kept at arms’ length. Why?

Picture this scenario: a new movie has come out. You’re dying to see it, but your kid has soccer practice. When you come home, you get a phone call. Your friend tells you they saw the movie, and you’re so envious, you demand your friend tells you the whole movie from start to finish.

Even if your friend breaks down every detail, you won’t see the lights or shadows, you won’t hear the music, or the sounds, or the tones of voice. No matter how great a raconteur your friend is, they can’t possibly provide you the same experience because they won’t tell you how Tom Cruise scrunched his face, or bit his lip, or looked off into the distance to provide the emotion, the turmoil, the joy, etc.

Now, I’ll say that when writing a novel, there is absolutely a time and place to tell rather than show, but, for the most part, the narrative must be shown to the readers; as I always say: readers must not even be aware that they are reading words off a page.

Let’s take a look at the above story again, but this time it’ll be presented in an effort to show rather than tell.

There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky as John raked hay into the bed of a blue truck. Soaked from head-to-toe and dripping sweat, the farmhand grimaced due to his fresh sunburns. Puffing, he stuck steel forks into the dirt, leaned his head against the rake’s shaft, and took a breath; the bed was finally filled.

Choking saliva down his dried throat, he rounded his Ford, stuck his arm through the opened window, and nabbed a bottle of water from his cooler. Such a refreshing sensation relaxed his worn body when he drank. Well, ain’t no time to dally, he thought and tossed the bottle into the passenger seat.

He pulled open the creaky door, paused, and gazed out over the sweltering expanse. A hundred head of Angus nibbled mindlessly at dried grasses. Nodding from the good feeling of another day of hard work, John crawled into the seat, turned on the engine, and listened to his baby purr. After releasing the parking brake, he eased on down the bumpy, hard packed, country road. Cooling breezes blew in from the window, gently caressing his weatherworn face.

“Now, what’s on the radio?”

He pressed the button, and a chuckle escaped his lips when he heard his favorite tune, Blue Suede Shoes. Smiling, he bobbed his head to the beat.

It’s the same exact story. Yes, some new descriptions have been added, but some old ones have been omitted, and that’s only because more was provided in each sentence by presenting the story in a manner called showing.

Let’s examine it piece-by-piece:

It was warm out. John was very hot. His clothes were wet with sweat, and some drops of perspiration fell from his face as he stuck his rake in the hay and dumped it in the bed of the blue truck.

Versus

There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky as John raked hay into the bed of a blue truck.

With just one sentence—while showing rather than telling—the sky, John’s activity, and the truck have all been presented. That allowed the first paragraph to contain new information without becoming wordy.

Soaked from head-to-toe and dripping sweat, the farmhand grimaced due to his fresh sunburns.

Now, we also know just how hot it is, we still know he’s dripping with sweat, but we also get a feeling- that hot, scratchy pain that comes from sunburns. We are being shown John, how hard he is working, and how hot it is.

Finally, the third sentence in the showing paragraph.

Puffing, he stuck steel forks into the dirt, leaned his head against the rake’s shaft, and took a breath; the bed was finally filled.

We also get to see, to experience, how tired John is. He is puffing, he leans against his rake, and the word finally, entails that he has long been working under the sun; obviously, long enough to have to endure sunburns.

When the truck was full, he stuck his rake in the dirt. Then, he walked to the truck’s door. The window was down. He reached in and grabbed a bottle of water from a cooler.

Versus

Choking saliva down his dried throat, he rounded his Ford, stuck his arm through the opened window, and nabbed a bottle of water from his cooler.

Once again, with only a single sentence, we know he’s thirsty, and we get to feel how thirsty; he had to choke down his saliva. We also get to move with him by rounding the truck, and we didn’t have to be told that the window was down, we were shown it was down as well as what John did with the opened window; he reached through it to grab water. Plus, we know the water is cold. It was in a cooler.

That single, complex sentence gives us all the information, which then allows more to be shown later in the paragraph.

Such a refreshing sensation relaxed his worn body when he drank. Well, ain’t no time to dally,he thought and tossed the bottle into the passenger seat.

Those two sentences add to the story by showing how John feels from drinking. Next, we’re presented something personal; John’s thought. He is thinking that there’s no time to waste, and he thinks with a country colloquialism, and following his thought is an action—tossing the bottle—but showing that it was tossed into the passenger seat shows us more than we were shown by being told he had tossed it willy-nilly. The word tossed generally implies that it was done without a care, and the passenger seat brings us a more detailed picture of the truck.

He drank the water to slake his thirst. The cold liquid felt so good, running down his throat. Because he had a lot of work to do, he quickly secured the cap to the bottle, tossed it willy-nilly inside the truck, and then opened the door to climb in.

Versus

He pulled open the creaky door, paused, and gazed out over the sweltering expanse. A hundred head of Angus nibbled mindlessly at dried grasses. Nodding from the good feeling of another day of hard work, John crawled into the seat, turned on the engine, and listened to his baby purr. After releasing the parking brake, he eased on down the bumpy, hard packed, country road. Cooling breezes blew in from the window, gently caressing his weatherworn face.

The first two sentences in the told version are no longer important because the previous shown example eliminates the need to describe the water and the fact that he is busy, so we cut out the guff, and instead, we get to jump right into the action. This means that rather than just opening the door an climbing in, readers have chance to glean more information from a single paragraph; the door squeaked when he opened it, he then paused to gaze, which makes John into a more realistic character, and we are reminded of the heat by the word sweltering. On top of all that, we then get to experience the country and the cattle, and what the cattle are doing.

Certainly, all of that information could have been told in the original example, but that results in a slowed progression; too many blatant descriptions start to bog down the pace of a story, that’s why it’s important to show the story to readers as it progresses. Otherwise, they have to stop to memorize sentence after sentence after sentence of details.

Finally, we get to start the truck, hear the engine, and feel the breezes all in that one shown paragraph.

He started his old Ford, released the parking brake, and began driving down the bumpy, hard packed, country road. He made sure to go slow because there were many cows in the vicinity, and John did not want to spook them. Thankful for the breeze that blew in through the opened window, he then turned on the radio. His favorite song, Blue Suede Shoes, was playing.

Versus

“Now, what’s on the radio?”

He pressed the button, and a chuckle escaped his lips when he heard his favorite tune, Blue Suede Shoes. Smiling, he bobbed his head to the beat.

Once again, most of the previous paragraph has become obsolete, and so it is cut to pave the way for less words and more story. There is no need to tell that there are many cows; it was presented in the paragraph preceding this one. There’s no need to tell that John doesn’t want to spook the cows, because the words eased on down were introduced; readers know he’s going slow, though they may not know it’s because he doesn’t want to spook cows, it isn’t really important; we already get the feeling that John is a good, hardworking guy. Finally, we get a piece of dialogue to set up the action of turning the radio on.

People like characters who speak; it’s real. Internal thoughts are great, but too many bog down the story. A tiny piece of dialogue, even if it’s to oneself, gives the reader’s mind a break, and it can be used to orchestrate a scene; in this case, John doesn’t simply turn the radio on, he also has a reaction, which makes him a three-dimensional character by chuckling. Moreover, he bobs his head to the beat of his favorite song.

This is about the simplest way to introduce the concepts of showing and telling, and we definitely see the benefit of showing, but is it the right thing to implement all the time?

No. There are certainly times, during the prose of a novel, when things must be told.

Let’s imagine we’ve just read through the entire, first chapter of John’s hard day on the farm, and it has ended with the example provided above. He is now driving home, listening to the radio. Is it necessary to show the next thirty minutes of him driving home?

Well, that depends; is there some story there? Will there be action, or character development, or world building? If the answer to any of those questions is yes then the writer must show more of the story either by prolonging the chapter or starting with this information in the next chapter.

If the answer to any of those questions is no, and the writer wishes to end the chapter because nothing more is prevalent then the chapter can end, but the writer must also consider how to open the next chapter. We will assume that nothing important happened, that it was the end of the day on a Friday, and that John’s ride home, his evening, and his entire weekend are of no consequence.

To open a new chapter, it may become necessary to tell of what happened over the course of an hour, a day, a week, or even months. Let’s look.

After that scorcher of a Friday, John had driven home, ate a scant dinner, sipped from a bottle of whiskey, and passed out cold. The following morning’s hangover was nothing new; he had fallen on hard times, and the bottle was as good an answer as any. The question was how to deal with the death of Lisa, his wife of thirty years. The loving couple used to spend their weekends with their children and grandchildren, but this last weekend was spent in a haze of hooch, microwaved meals, and bad television.

Here, the chapter has been set. The story can now continue, however, the information provided was told to the readers, not shown, so there is a time to tell, but it should be brief, it should be used to either set a scene, recapitulate a scene from the past, or perhaps just gloss over unimportant details, which may be required in order to set up something else further into the story.

Thanks for reading. I hope you have a better understanding of showing versus telling, but more importantly, I hope that you understand that there is a time for both. Have any questions, concerns, or comments? Well, you just let me know. Thanks again.

Make sure to visit my editing services tab, too!

Editing One Shot by Lee Child

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Why am I editing One Shot by Lee Child?

Because Delacorte Press, who is selling this abortion at $9.99 is destroying the written word.

Let’s look.

Friday. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through the city. Or maybe the easiest. Because at five o’clock on a Friday nobody pays attention to anything. Except the road ahead.

The man with the rifle drove north. Not fast, not slow. Not drawing attention. Not standing out. He was in a light-colored minivan that had seen better days. He was alone behind the wheel. He was wearing a light-colored raincoat and the kind of shapeless light-colored beanie hat that old guys wear on the golf course when the sun is out or the rain is falling. The hat had a two-tone red band all around it. It was pulled down low. The coat was buttoned up high. The man was wearing sunglasses, even though the van had dark windows and the sky was cloudy. And he was wearing gloves, even though winter was three months away and the weather wasn’t cold.

Traffic slowed to a crawl where First Street started up a hill. Then it sopped completely where two lanes became one because the blacktop was torn up for construction. There was construction all over town. Driving had been a nightmare for a year. Holes in the road, gravel trucks, concrete trucks, blacktop spreaders. The man with the rifle lifted his hand off the wheel. Pulled back his cuff. Checked his watch.

Are you freaking kidding me?!

Everything about this writing is absolutely atrocious.

First, Friday, is not a sentence. Second, neither is Five o’clock in the afternoon; this entire thing is riddled with sentence fragments, and one doesn’t start a sentence with a conjunction, so the sentence or maybe the easiest, is also wrong. Furthermore, the paragraph meanders into and out of numerous ideas. Also, the tenses are confused. These three paragraphs are some of the worst writing I have ever seen.

We are given tons of useless information and out of sequence. Moreover, the level of writing is that of a 5th grader. How many staccato sentences started with the or he? How many broken ideas were provided over and over?

Normally, when a writer finishes a manuscript, they hire an editor, and the editor fixes all these discrepancies. Then, the writer submits the revised manuscript to a literary agent, who tries to find a publisher. If the agent finds a publisher, another team of editors is supposed to clean up the story even more to make it ready for the readers before publication. None of that seems to have happened here.

On top of the poor, physical structure and incorrect punctuation, a great deal of useless and redundant information is provided in a broken form, and still beyond that, there are numerous words reused, and all throughout several, choppy sentences.

This whole mess is what is ruining the art of writing, the joy of reading; people want to give indie writers a hard time for a lack of editing and poor storytelling, but this is One Shot, which became the movie Jack Reacher. I ask you, you writers, how does it feel to see this horrible writing receive praise? Readers, you just wait until after I edit this abomination.

****

Five o’clock on a Friday afternoon is the hardest time to move unobserved through the city, or quite possibly the easiest, since nobody pays attention to anything except the road ahead.

Bang, turned 6 sentence fragments into a single sentence, which rather than hinting at surreptitious behavior, it provides it point blank.

A man sat behind the wheel of a weather beaten mini van; his rifle was his sole companion as he drove north. In an effort to remain inconspicuous, he maintained the speed limit. Occasionally, he glanced through sunglasses, glossing over a multitude of vehicles.

Boom, separated the actual event from the mess regarding all the clothes he wore and why. Also, I set the mood by stating clearly that the man is acting surreptitiously. Everything we need to know is presented; he is alone, he has a rifle, he is on a packed road, and he is acting strangely.

Traffic slowed to crawl. Construction all up and down First Street cluttered the cars from a two lane blacktop to a busted up single lane. Tugging down on his newsy cap, the man peered over his shades and through darkened windows; work crews chatted while gravel trucks and asphalt spreaders lazily rode on by.

The man’s coat and the time of year doesn’t apply at this point in the story. The golf beanie to which Child referred isn’t a golf beanie at all; judging by the description, it is called a newsy cap, and it is the least of our concerns as readers. Moreover, we can now see the scene in all its glory; the road crew is out and traffic is muddled up; simplicity is key; simplicity is elegance. Readers aren’t stupid; they don’t need every, single, little, tiny detail listed off as minutia.

Forced to a stop, the man let out a huff, gripping his wheel tighter. The gloves covering his hands squeaked, and he shifted a finger from the wheel to fiddle with the top button of his rain jacket. A cloudy sky was certainly threatening rain, but a little water was of no concern; the eyes of men were, however, and he tugged his collar up, covering his cheek.

Rather than having everything light-colored, which is of no consequence, we see action. I have provided a scene rather than empty, sentence fragments, most of which started with the man, the hat, the van, the, the, the…. What I present is clearly a man trying to hide, and he his annoyed or perhaps worried by the mess on the street, which is important to point out, given the opening sentence, yet I have not kept readers at arms length by telling them these details; I have shown them. I even revealed that he isn’t covered up because of weather, but I stuck such a detail inside the key idea.

Gritting his teeth, the man slid back a beige sleeve to check his watch. It displayed Five O’ One. A minute down, and yet the road had sat in disrepair for a year.

With these two sentences, I gave readers a sense of urgency, which is presumably what the book intended, and still I mentioned that it had been a year since the road was under construction, not that it even matters; it isn’t relevant—how long it’s been under construction—all that is relevant is that it is currently under construction.

All of this is exactly what I mean when I say that writers provide a dry report of events, and editors turn those accounts into a story. It is unfortunate that such a great story has been mired beneath broken thoughts, and worse still that a large publisher and its editors can’t do their jobs, and perhaps the most devastating thing to us all is that this bad writing has become the norm; Dickens is certainly spinning in his grave.

Now, let’s put the two in sequence and see which is better.

****

Friday. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through the city. Or maybe the easiest. Because at five o’clock on a Friday nobody pays attention to anything. Except the road ahead.

The man with the rifle drove north. Not fast, not slow. Not drawing attention. Not standing out. He was in a light-colored minivan that had seen better days. He was alone behind the wheel. He was wearing a light-colored raincoat and the kind of shapeless light-colored beanie hat that old guys wear on the golf course when the sun is out or the rain is falling. The hat had a two-tone red band all around it. It was pulled down low. The coat was buttoned up high. The man was wearing sunglasses, even though the van had dark windows and the sky was cloudy. And he was wearing gloves, even though winter was three months away and the weather wasn’t cold.

Traffic slowed to a crawl where First Street started up a hill. Then it sopped completely where two lanes became one because the blacktop was torn up for construction. There was construction all over town. Driving had been a nightmare for a year. Holes in the road, gravel trucks, concrete trucks, blacktop spreaders. The man with the rifle lifted his hand off the wheel. Pulled back his cuff. Checked his watch.

****

Five o’clock on a Friday afternoon is the hardest time to move unobserved through the city, or quite possibly the easiest, since nobody pays attention to anything except the road ahead.

A man sat behind the wheel of a weather beaten mini van; his rifle was his sole companion as he drove north. In an effort to remain inconspicuous, he maintained the speed limit. Occasionally, he glanced through sunglasses, glossing over a multitude of vehicles.

Traffic slowed to crawl. Construction all up and down First Street cluttered the cars from a two lane blacktop to a busted up single lane. Tugging down on his newsy cap, the man peered over his shades and through darkened windows; work crews chatted while gravel trucks and asphalt spreaders lazily rode on by.

Forced to a stop, the man let out a huff, gripping his wheel tighter. The gloves covering his hands squeaked, and he shifted a finger from the wheel to fiddle with the top button of his rain jacket. A cloudy sky was certainly threatening rain, but a little water was of no concern; the eyes of men were, however, and he tugged his collar up, covering his cheek.

Gritting his teeth, the man slid back a beige sleeve to check his watch. It displayed Five O’ One. A minute down, and yet the road had sat in disrepair for a year.

Thank you for reading. My apologies if my rage has spilled over to the screen, but I am outraged by horrendous writing, and even more so, by bad editing. To top it off, I am in loathing of the fact that numerous, indie writers present better looking (in terms of technical writing) manuscripts, yet literary agents turn them down, stating that they are in need of editing. WHY?! To wind up like this mess? Few indie stories I have read are written worse than this abortion, and more often, indie writers can’t even afford an editor, but what is the point? Even if they present a perfect manuscript, the publishers’ editors will reduce a brilliant manuscript to dreck.

Yes, I am steaming. Yes, I am venting on my blog. Someone has to let people know that this is NOT acceptable, and I have taken it upon myself to preserve the higher standard of story telling.

Thanks again. Next week, I’ll be coming down on showing versus telling…something the editors of One Shot clearly can’t comprehend.

EDIT: 12/10/2016 at 1:49pm

Due to the nature of the comment regarding that The Chicago Manual of Style promotes the use of starting sentences with a conjunction, I provide the following from The Sixteenth Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style:

1st

2nd

Nowhere does it promote such behavior. Now, in the event that the pictures are a bit difficult to see, I will also type out exactly what the Manual states.

5.206 Beginning a sentence with a conjunction. There is a widespread belief–one with no historical or grammatical foundation–that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice. Charles Allen Lloyd’s 1938 words fairly sum up the situation as it stands even today:

Next to the groundless notion this it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most wide-spread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with “but” or “and.” As in the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.

Still, but as an adversative conjunction can occasionally be unclear at the beginning of a sentence. Evaluate the contrasting force of the but in question, and see whether the needed word is really and; if and can be substituted, then but is certainly the wrong word. Consider this example: He went to school this morning. But he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table. Between those sentences is an elliptical idea, since the two actions are in no way contradictory. What is implied is something like this: He went to school, intending to have lunch there, but he left his lunch behind. Because and would have made sense in the passage as originally stated, but  is not the right word–the idea for the contrastive but should be explicit. To sum up, then, but is a perfectly proper word to open a sentence, but only if that idea it introduces truly contrasts with what precedes. For that matter, but is often an effective word for introducing a paragraph that develops an idea contrary to the one preceding it.

That is the end of this moron’s rant. Did you notice he never once started with a conjunction?!?! Now, let me explain why this conjunction business is erroneous.

To begin with, it is stated that a single person–Lloyd–feels it is alright to start a sentence with a conjunction–one guy! Second, he makes a completely incorrect assumption within his own context.

Evaluate the contrasting force of the but in question, and see whether the needed word is really and; if and can be substituted, then but is certainly the wrong word. Consider this example: He went to school this morning. But he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table. Between those sentences is an elliptical idea, since the two actions are in no way contradictory. What is implied is something like this: He went to school, intending to have lunch there, but he left his lunch behind.

First of all, but is not always but. Sometimes, but can be replaced by however, or except, or yet, so it is imperative to know what you mean when you write but. Second, the correct sentence is: He went to school, but he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table.

Now, now, that the but in question is separated by the comma, and it is no longer the beginning of the sentence, everything Lloyd said becomes moot, hence; you do not start a sentence with a conjunction. That solves everything that moron just said. Furthermore, starting with a conjunction: But he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table is not a sentence. It isn’t even a fragment because the main clause, and the only clause, is: He left his lunchbox on the kitchen table.

Now, beyond that, to say that his two broken sentences imply the following: Between those sentences is an elliptical idea, since the two actions are in no way contradictory. What is implied is something like this: He went to school, intending to have lunch there, but he left his lunch behind.

No, it isn’t. What’s implied is that on every other occasion that he went to school, he brought his lunchbox. That’s what’s implied. Lloyd is a complete moron who doesn’t understand the English language.

It’s clear to me, that Lloyd is implying that his second sentence could have been started with However, and in that case, he would be right because however isn’t one of the FANBOYS conjunctions with which we do not start a sentence. The sentence then becomes: However, he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table.

Now, let’s get back to something else he said: In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions.

10% is hardly substantial! Moreover, who decides what is first-rate writing? Which books is he talking about specifically? Which authors? On top of that, does he mean that 10% of sentences all of which are dialogue?

You do not start a sentence with a conjunction. It’s that simple. Don’t do it. If you hire me as an editor, I will tell you not to do it.

Visit my editing services tab, too!

What is a prologue and why do I need one?

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A prologue is an introductory segment of a body of work. Writers can implement a prologue if there’s some back story, which requires explaining before a reader jumps into the main story. Sometimes, in a series, the prologue gives a quick recap of the previous book, which helps readers dive into the second book without having read the first, or it just refreshes the memory for those who have read the first book.

Perhaps, one of the most popular and familiar prologues of all time is the one from Star Wars, a New Hope. Strange that a movie had a prologue; movie goers generally want to watch a scene unfold rather than read it, but it seemed as though the story needed some explaining before the viewer dove in, but was it necessary? Did it even accomplish its job?

No, it didn’t. In fact, the New Hope prologue is one of the worst prologues of all time. Not only does it provide zero information, and not only was that lack of information irrelevant, but the information that was provided had little to do with the plot, characters, and setting; the prologue didn’t even set the mood for the story.

Let me ask some questions.

Who is the empire?

What have they done that’s so bad it has inspired rebellion?

What are the empire’s goals?

Who are the rebels?

Against what are they rebelling?

What are their goals?

Has anyone tried peace talks?

Who are the aliens?

From where did the Jedi originate?

Now, before you go answering any of these questions, remember that when the movie first came out, none of the other movies existed, and so, certainly, some questions have been answered later on, throughout the series, but many of these questions could have been easily addressed in the prologue, since they decided to include one to begin with.

In other words, while a prologue is far from necessary, if a writer chooses to use one, they must implement one properly.

I recall my first prologue, and it was nothing more than an info dump. I spent five pages—and I mean five, computer pages, 8.5 by 11, not some 6 by 9 book pages—five pages of boring, monotonous, facts all leading up to the story. It hadn’t occurred to me to explain the facts in the story. I thought I needed to lay out all the complicated factors, which resulted in the story’s plot, but that’s not storytelling, that’s just reportage, and a writer, or an editor, has to know when to use each.

Once I learned how to write, and how to spin a yarn, I rewrote the story in question. I do not have the original prologue, but I have the updated version, and while it is still a dry account of facts, which lead into the story, the whole of the spiel was cut down from nearly 3,000 words—a short story in itself—to 458 words.

Check it out-

Man yearns to explore, learn, perceive, and break beyond the bonds of limitation. Great, philosophic minds pondered such implications, giving rise to questions with no answer. Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Are we alone in the universe? Can we reach for the stars?

That first segment sets the mood, an inquisitive mood, which showcases the philosophic dreams of mankind. The last two questions also help to reinforce the fact that the following story is of the sci fi genre, which is, of course, obvious by the title, cover, and blurb.

A decade into the Twenty First Century, a space exploration program known as NASA retired their shuttle, stating their space station, the ISS, was sufficient to advance man’s knowledge of space; no more flights to the moon were needed, probes were built to reach other planets, yet a question was raised; was NASA truly marooning their scientists in Earth’s orbit? Was there, really, no shuttle in reserve for emergency protocol?

The second segment provided just a bit of back story, but it also opened a conspiratorial line of questions, which also helps to set the mood, as the story is quite conspiratorial in nature, but that becomes more apparent in the novel itself.

What no one knew was that a new vessel had already been designed and produced. A drone shuttle carried equipment to the ISS, building materials, and there, the engineers constructed new probes. Launching them from beyond Earth’s gravitational pull allowed the tiny machines to explore without immense fuel requirements. New studies had commenced.

The third segment answers some questions, but it also redirects the readers’ line of thought. They are taken from the context of the known and plunged into the possibilities, which must be considered for the story to make sense. Furthermore, the possibilities are reasonable; building probes on the space station and sending them out from there does cut the fuel requirement, since they don’t have to fight gravity. A little science has been mixed into the fiction.

Survey satellites were then built and released to specified coordinates. Their role was to relay any information gathered by probes back to Earth. It took little time to obtain great findings. Less than a year into the program, the probes detected abundant deposits of precious minerals in asteroids both inside and outside the solar system. The next step required mining probes to retrieve the deposits. A new age began when humans no longer needlessly harvested their own planet’s resources.

Again, this segment answers potential questions, but it also creates some hope. Regardless of your political beliefs, is it not true that there is an abundance of resources available off world? How cool would it be to live in a world where precious metals are mined from asteroids and flown back to earth? Are you not already curious about this particular story?

A few decades down the road, survey probes revealed more than just resources; asteroids, moons, and planets were deemed acceptable for colonization with little cost or effort, however, there was always the obstacle of time. A journey from Earth to the closest sites meant decades of travel. Great minds set their combined efforts on the task, and a solution was proposed; send colonies to midway stations on small asteroids.

Here, the first idea tackled is that of colonizing with little cost or effort. In our world, today, as of 2016, such a thing is obviously quite costly, but the prologue states that it isn’t, and since the writer states that such is the case of this particular, sci fi adventure, the reader must accept the statement at face value. Furthermore, there is a reasonable solution presented to a problem most of us are aware exists; we cannot travel to even the nearest solar system, which is about four light years away. It takes almost a year to reach Mars! Another assumption is turned to fact by this segment, though. Since a couple of decades have passed, one cane assume the year is somewhere around 2040, and by then, we’ll certainly be able to reach the nearest planets in no time, so sending colonists to midway stations is the reasonable solution. This entire segment picks up from the last one; it obliterates the reader’s current knowledge of space travel and replaces it with the story’s version of space knowledge.

It was no surprise to NASA that very few volunteered. Many citizens of Earth were comfortable and happy in their lives. A move to a colonial life in space was practically permanent, and traveling for years only to live in the desolation of space was frightening. Then, the military stepped in, looking to soldiers for support. Project Safe Haven was announced.

Once more, the reasonable solution; no way anyone, especially someone living on earth during a time when resources are brought in from off world, wants to spend five, ten, twenty years traveling to an undeveloped colony, which might not even function, but if soldiers are ordered to do so, they’ll do it. This also sets up the story. For one, it implies that soldiers aren’t fighting against other countries. Secondly, it is a sound assumption that if the military started the colonies then each colony is a military base. Naturally, all the newer colonies will be military installations, so there’s a trend started by this segment; the military has control. This is a military, sci fi adventure.

In the year 2111, almost fifty years after the first successful colony, Admiral John Lay, the overseer of Safe Haven, commissioned Captain Riley O’Hara to lead a team of scientists and engineers aboard the Phoenix, a vessel orbiting a planet called Eon. The new ship and the new crew were set to break new ground; The Horizon Project was employed to begin colonization of the first planet outside the Sol system. O’Hara was beyond psyched.

Finally, readers have the last nugget of Intel. They know the year. They know the place. They know the reason. They know who the protagonist is, but there’s also something overlooked. If it’s been nearly fifty years since the first, successful colony, were there failed colonies…? As they say, the stage has been set, and now readers aren’t just prepared for the story, they are a part of the story.

I always believe it is imperative that a writer writes out every, single, little, tiny detail, even if that turns into an info dump. While the story is being written, while it is being discovered, piece by piece, by the writer, it becomes necessary to jot down all pieces of the puzzle, but, it is during the editing process, which is so far beyond proof reading, that an editor must remove all the extra pieces of the puzzle.

When placing together puzzle pieces, and you see the picture on the lid is a cat, the cat is all you really care about. You don’t care about the half of a ball of yarn in the top corner. You know it’s a corner piece by the shape of the puzzle piece. The same goes for stories, I think; the prologue is the shape, and the rest of the story is the cat, and each piece of the puzzle completes the story.

Let’s look at another prologue. This one is 223 words. It’s the prologue to one of my novellas. I don’t usually use a prologue for a body of work that’s under 70,000 words, but I really needed to set the stage for this story because it is very outlandish-

Fear, despair, rage, lust; these are base feelings, emotions, which run through the essence of man. It is odd to say that no one has sat back and questioned the value of these emotions, but it is even more odd to ask why no one has done so. Certainly, it can be agreed upon that people have questioned the purpose of life, but to what extent?

I’m sure you see a trend in my writing; I wax philosophically. First and foremost, this prologue states: if you don’t want to think, don’t read this book.

Is there more to life than money? More than sex? Whoever pursues a life without such great pleasures? Most men, normal men, crave the deep darkness of the Id, the passion, heat, and flame of the most immediate gratifications, yet in the end, everyone leads the same life, suffers the same pitfalls, repeats the same thoughts and conversations over and over again, and all while considering themselves unique.

This jabs the first point further. Hopefully, it does raise the question; if we’re all so unique, how come we can be so easily analyzed by psychological formulae? Why is it that all our friends have the same problems, the same complaints, and why is it that we do repeat to our minds the same dialogue over and over again? Perhaps it is this stagnant repetition, which has mired our lives…? Again, the stage is set, bearing the question, but what else is there?

Now, let me tell you that a Shadowman is never concerned with such trivialities. A Shadowman sneaks between the world of light and dark; as such, he cannot possibly fret over the mundane, for while he traipses through the world of men, his eyes are perennially on the prowl for something more abstract, something ephemeral, something incomprehensibly inhuman. Now, I’m going to tell you the story of my life, but not my life as a man in the world of men; the story of my life as a Shadowman.

I’ll bet you’re ready to find out what a Shadowman is. In just three paragraphs the eerie mood has been provided. The reader’s mind has been opened, and if not, the reader has left, and that’s okay; not all stories are for everyone.

The one you thing you’ll notice about this prologue versus the previous one is that no information has been provided in this one. The first prologue basically provided a history lesson before presenting the story. This prologue pulled you from the confines of the known in order to provide an inkling that there is an unknown out there waiting to be discovered.

Finally, I’ll present a prologue that recaps a previous title. It runs at 541 words, which makes it one of my longest prologues, but I’ll discuss it detail-

An amnesiac mercenary called Scar appeared in the middle of the territorial disputes of Tiamhaal. He brought a whirlwind of change, the kind of change no one expected. That man was in actuality the avatar of Eternus, the Dragon of Time, a being outside the realm of human comprehension. Eternus was the universe, it was the ineffable creator of all that was, but having taken a liking to a particular world, it sent a portion of itself to the world of men.

The protagonist is immediately introduced as is the world. The readers also know that this is a fantasy adventure revolving around men and dragons. Furthermore, the mind has been assaulted by the fact that the creator of existence is a dragon, and that the dragon sent himself as a man to the world in order to do something.

Crafted from the clay at the edge of the world and fashioned from the eight, guiding principles of man, Scar, the mercenary, was sent to slay the Dragons, and so he was named Sarkany, the Dragon Slayer, yet his fashioning was not without flaws, and he lost his memories. Finding himself traveling aimlessly, seeking only to learn of his origins, Scar was beset by Dracos, the followers of Drac, Dragon of Fire, and then he was manipulated by Zoltek, Negus of the Zmajans, followers of the Dragon of Destruction, and finally, the warrior was sent by King Gilgamesh of Satrone, a worshipper of Kulshedra, Dragon of Truth, to the ruined kingdom of Alduheim where a forgotten memory lay buried in darkness.

You might be able to tell that the story, or the prologue, at least, has been written in a manner that imitates Biblical tones, so not only has the stage been set, but the production has also been set; readers know they’re in for something that reads somewhat archaic. On top of that, a great deal of what transpired in the first book is explained, but rather than being provided as a bland reportage, it is a story in and of itself. There is also proof that the world is at war, and that the protagonist is in the mix to do something outlandish, yet there is an air of mystery- the forgotten memories.

It was there that he and his men found a paladin, a warrior named Ylithia, who fought in the name of Mekosh, a true God, the God of Severity, and even though paladins had always maintained that the Dragons were posing as Gods, most people of Tiamhaal had never taken them seriously, yet what was witnessed beneath the rubble of Alduheim united them in their efforts to reveal the truth to their kings and queens. The leaders of every tribe had established their own countries under the name of their Dragon Lord posing as God; constantly, they fought for territory, supremacy, religious beliefs, and even peace. Things changed when warriors of Kulshedra, Scultone, Fafnir, and Tiamat joined forces with Scar and Ylithia, but their plan to bring to light the lies of Dragons was short lived; Scar and Ylithia fell in love and left kings and pawns to squabble amongst themselves.

Now the underlying order of the novel, or the series, in this case, has been provided- Dragons have posed as Gods, but there are real Gods, and there are warriors who have chosen to listen to the real Gods rather than the Dragons. Also, readers know that in the previous novel, the protagonist fell in love, and that created some sort of problem.

The two abandoned Gods and Dragons for a life of peace, but the spurned King Gilgamesh had other plans, and he sent his men to kill Scar, yet he was away, and it was Ylithia, who was cut down without mercy, and for that act of betrayal, Scar took his sword, joined his old friend, Labolas, invaded the impregnable palace, Inneshkigal, and killed Gilgamesh before all the Kulshedrans of Tironis. Upon the king’s death, Scar was transported to Drangue, where he battled the mighty Kulshedra, a misty whorl of a Dragon, and the Dragon Slayer took the beast’s soul.

Several details are provided, yet still in an entertaining fashion. This story, which is just a prologue employed to rehash the previous title, or explain to people joining the show a little a late, reveals what happened when the protagonist abandoned his ordained duties, yet the discord was resolved, if by gruesome means. What readers don’t see is the abundance of information regarding the key players, because that belongs in the narrative, the actual story. They do, however, learn that the hero has rejoined the battlefront and killed a dragon and somehow stole its essence. Having mentioned such a thing entices a reader to wonder why stealing the dragon’s soul happened, how it happened, and what can be done with the soul; it engages the audience’s mind.

Since then, the Kulshedrans have lost their powers—the ability to augment their armor through Dragon’s magic—and they struggle to maintain their borders, their culture, their lives, but Scar is far from finished; he owes someone a debt of blood, and so he has journeyed back to Usaj, the land of destruction ruled by the mighty Zoltek. In Meshoptam, capitol of Usaj, Scar, the pale skinned, seven foot giant in black, leather armor, has slain the Zmajan, royal guards and come face to face with an old foe….

Finally, the readers are caught up. Everything from the previous book, without the minutiae, has been provided in story form. They know the hero, they know the villains, they have an idea as to why some people worship dragons—they do provide magic—and they know what’s about to happen.

In short, prologues are mood setters, and sometimes, they also provide pertinent information. They must be entertaining, however, and they must be brief; people bought a book to read a story, not learn and memorize facts. I have even seen some prologues lay out a cast of characters. DO NOT DO THAT. No reader will ever commit to memory the names of fifty characters and their scant descriptions. Why would they? They haven’t read the story, so they don’t care about the cast yet.

If you, as a writer, wish to provide a cast of characters, names of planets, or fictional countries, or races of aliens, or what have you, place that at the end of the book as an appendix. Personally, I do enjoying flipping through back pages and reading those kinds of details, but I’ll skip them if they’re at the beginning of the story; I’ll probably even skip the story because it’s intimidating to so much as think that I might have to memorize details just to be able to participate in the story. It also makes me wonder if the story is lacking; I mean, it must be if the writer has to provide such details before starting.

Finally, to tackle the last question, do I need a prologue?

No. You never need a prologue. Everything that a prologue does can be done in the first chapter of a story. I wrote a Skyrim fanfiction, and it just starts with chapter one. There was no need to dive into what led the dark elf to question magickal theory; I just presented his case through character interactions, but should you choose to implement a prologue, make sure to edit the prologue just as you do the story; cut everything that doesn’t need to be there.

Thanks for reading. If you have comments, concerns, feedback, or whatever, don’t hesitate. I’m always open for discussion. In my next post, I’m going to tackle a mainstream novel and discuss why sentence fragments cheese my corn.

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What is an info dump?!

self aggrandizing aaron

What is an info dump anyway?

A story certainly contains a great deal of information. A writer must tell readers all about the world, the people, the technology, the magic, the murder, the mystery, the history, after all.

More often than not, there is a need to set the stage, so to speak, and normally, writers provide a prologue with all accounts deemed pertinent to the story’s setting, pace, and advancement, so how can such a thing possibly be a problem?

Prologue or no, many books today start off in the exact same way- dumping a ton of information, hence info dump.

Let’s look at an example of a story starting with the dumping of information. This is an original example, as they all are here on out, I wrote specifically for this post:

Lieutenant Commander Albert Swain was a career Navy man. He was tall, at six feet and nine inches, towering over his crew, and he was also a very big and strong man, as strong as a bull with seventeen inch arms, but what do you expect of a special forces leader who weighs in at nearly three hundred pounds? Apart from numerous commendations, he had a breast full of ribbons opposite his bright and shiny name tag, which read only: Swain.

Everyone looked up to Swain, and not just because he was tall; Swain had earned the respect of his superiors as well. In the previous war against the Cojul, a race of aliens with scales, long, sharp teeth, three mouths, and two anuses—one on each side of their heads—they were extremely aggressive and had staked a claim to quadrant delta for the last fifty years, but Swain and his crew fought against them for nearly six months straight, and after he watched his crew get slaughtered, he single-handedly commandeered an enemy vessel and took back the quadrant.

Vapid info dump; any reader of any genre has already given up on this tale.

Another info dump right at the beginning of a tale can look like this:

Ilteriel was a magical land created by the Gods for all races to live harmoniously. There were elves, who had long, pointed ears, beautifully faint features, and silky hair. There were gnomes, who were short people with bushy beards and sharp minds. There were also orcs, big, scary, greenish people, who although lacked the brains of the other races, they were very hardy; they could work for days and days without rest, and they never got ill, and then there were humans, too, who were a bit average, but they had the strongest hearts of all the races created by the Gods.

For seven thousand years, all of the races lived amongst each other happily. They shared land, and food, and culture, and customs, but then a demon came. The demon was a brutish creature, and his name was Malath, and in his world, he was a general of darkness. Malath came and found a sad human named Gunther, and he promised to make Gunther rich, and powerful, and happy. Gunther accepted, and for the next three thousand years a war raged over the land of Ilteriel.

Drivel, yet I defy you; go look at just about any novel released within the past three years—mainstream or indie—and you’ll find most of them start off in a similar fashion, but the beginning of a story isn’t the only place you’ll find an info dump.

Quite as often, there will be an info dump right before a scene, during the scene, or just after.

The dump before the scene usually dives into a great, descriptive block of text, something like you find in a textbook, except it’s about the setting of the upcoming event, a historical piece of information preceding the event, or even the feelings of everyone present before the event.

Let’s look:

John had practiced law for nearly ten years. He had been fortunate enough to represent people who were actually innocent, but this time, his new client, Juan Ruiz, was certainly guilty. Mr. Ruiz was known to traffic drugs in from Caracas, Venezuela to the United States through Mexico. He had been arrested in Nogales, Arizona along with half his cadre.

While Mr. Ruiz ran chunky fingers through his thick, black, curly hair, he eyed John with a steely gaze. John felt uncomfortable, and he tugged at the collar of his white, collared blouse. Huge drops of perspiration dribbled down the side of his head as he tried to convince himself that everyone deserved a chance, especially since so much money was on the line. Besides, John’s wife, Celia, was pregnant with twins, and he needed to think about his family, but what about the families endangered by Ruiz’s activities, who was sticking up for them?

Terrible. That is one messy, convoluted, info dump. Readers want the meat, and they want action and dialogue, and dialogue is a great way to dump info without making it an info dump, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Another kind of info dump happens after an event. The writer makes an attempt at making sure that the reader understands every, single, little, tiny detail regarding whatever transpired. Let’s look at the following:

Since Jessica had broken up with Tom, she called her mother. The wise woman explained that breaking off an engagement was better than a prospective divorce. Divorces had major ramifications, especially if children were involved.

Jessica knew her mother was right. That was why she had tested Tom by sending her friend to hit on him. She knew he was going to fail, but she had hoped blindly that somewhere, deep, down inside, he did love her. When Tom came home from work late, Jessica knew it was because he had been out with Sherrie, there was no lying about it, after all, she was the one who put Sherrie up to it.

Yes! We get it! Presumably, we just read the event. It doesn’t need to be recapped seven ways from Sunday.

So, now we know what an info dump is, and we have some insight as to why they’re bad; they either prevent a story from getting started, they provide information such as that of a textbook, which no reader wants to commit to memory as though studying for a quiz, or they provide a ridiculous recap of an event we all just experienced, when what we really want is the next portion of the story.

This begs the question, how do we fix them?

When it comes to the introductory, info dumping—if we’re dealing with novels and not short stories—I suggest using a prologue, but the prologue must be a mood setter; it must be a very brief account and should rightfully be a mini story in and of itself, and I’ll discuss prologues in further detail in my next post, but the prologue must not be a dry account of facts to be memorized.

The facts, if germane, must be introduced throughout the story and only when they are absolutely required. If we’re dealing with short stories or novellas, I don’t suggest using a prologue, but a simple paragraph or two—something clever or dark—can certainly set the scene and give just the scant, few, necessary details before jumping into the story.

If there’s no prologue whatsoever, and the novel just starts, that’s great, too, but it needs to start without a massive info dump.

But how?!

Let’s reexamine that first chunk of filth I wrote.

Lieutenant Commander Albert Swain was a career Navy man. He was tall, at six feet and nine inches, towering over his crew, and he was also a very big and strong man, as strong as a bull with seventeen inch arms, but what do you expect of a special forces leader who weighs in at nearly three hundred pounds? Apart from numerous commendations, he had a breast full of ribbons opposite his bright and shiny name tag, which read only: Swain.

Everyone looked up to Swain, and not just because he was tall; Swain had earned the respect of his superiors as well. In the previous war against the Cojul, a race of aliens with scales, long, sharp teeth, three mouths, and two anuses—one on each side of their heads—they were extremely aggressive and had staked a claim to quadrant delta for the last fifty years, but Swain and his crew fought against them for nearly six months straight, and after he watched his crew get slaughtered, he single-handedly commandeered an enemy vessel and took back the quadrant.

Okay, how about a little setting instead, huh?

Boots clanked over steel grating as Lieutenant Commander Albert Swain—a bear of a man—marched for crew quarters. The men and women aboard the USS Albatross nodded as he swished on by. He was so tall and broad they practically had to hug the corridors. Finally, the special forces leader reached the door. A sign next to it read: _Captain Decker_. Before knocking, the L.T. adjusted the ribbons proudly displayed over his pristine Navy uniform.

After knocking, Swain relaxed at parade rest. “Enter,” a gruff voice bled through the steel door. When the L.T. pushed his way inside, he gave the captain a salute. Decker returned it, saying, “It was a hell of a thing you did, commandeering that damned Cojul ship. Now, I know you’re still upset over the loss of those brave men and women, but, dammit, son, you single-handedly took back quadrant delta!”

“Thank you, Sir,” Swain grunted. “If I may, Sir?”

“Of course, of course,” the grizzled captain said before easing into his leather desk chair.

“I still see ‘em, the Cojul; teeth like sharks, their blue scales covered in Jones’s blood. The anuses, man, they got anuses on the sides of their heads. What kind of God allows such a thing?”

“It takes time, Swain….”

Now, which story do you want to read? Do you see the difference? Even without a prologue, the stage is set, and the actors are playing.

Every detail can be provided in an entertaining manner, and that’s what stories are supposed to be; a medium for entertainment. Whatever accounts there are to be listed should be ensconced within the story, and not the other way around.

The readers shouldn’t even realize they’re memorizing facts about the story; they shouldn’t even be aware that there are words on pages.

Next, let’s check out that fantasy world:

Ilteriel was a magical land created by the Gods for all races to live harmoniously. There were elves, who had long, pointed ears, beautifully faint features, and silky hair. There were gnomes, who were short people with bushy beards and sharp minds. There were also orcs, big, scary, greenish people, who although lacked the brains of the other races, they were very hardy; they could work for days and days without rest, and they never got ill, and then there were humans, too, who were a bit average, but they had the strongest hearts of all the races created by the Gods.

For seven thousand years, all of the races lived amongst each other happily. They shared land, and food, and culture, and customs, but then a demon came. The demon was a brutish creature, and his name was Malath, and in his world, he was a general of darkness. Malath came and found a sad human named Gunther, and he promised to make Gunther rich, and powerful, and happy. Gunther accepted, and for the next three thousand years a war raged over the land of Ilteriel.

It’s so trite. There’s some back story, sure, but no story, am I right?

The Gods created Ilteriel, a world for many races, and among the races deigned to grace Ilteriel in harmony and accord were the elves, the gnomes, the orcs, and the humans. It was said that each race, though equal, had both blessings and shortcomings; the elves were certainly beautiful and magically gifted, yet they were conceited. The short people, the gnomes with their bushy beards, were an ingenious race, always tinkering with their machines, yet they were obsessed. Orcs, the hardiest of the races, toiled without rest, not that they possessed the brains to notice such a thing. Then, there were the humans, an average people, but their hearts; their hearts were pure…until one day….

It was said that seven thousands years passed on Ilteriel without incident, but a dark day came when the demon general, Malath wormed his way into the world of the Gods. He skulked, and he crept, and he hid until he found fruit ripe for the picking. There was a sad human shedding tears beneath the shade of a tree. Malath approached, a crooked smile upon his black visage, and he asked of the human his tribulations.

The man called Gunther recounted his sorrows; his wife had been accidentally killed by a machine devised by the gnomes, and so Malath showed the human how he was wronged, and how to right such a wrong; he taught the human cunning, and he instructed Gunther on how to trick the orcs in to killing the gnomes. Thusly, Malath began his dark rule through Gunther; it was a reign of terror that lasted for three thousand years.

That is a story, yet it lays the groundwork for whatever is going to happen in the actual book. There’s no dumping of information, but everything has been provided, and in an entertaining fashion, no?

Before grumbling, I am aware that I left out that the elves had pointy ears, but since the reader has yet to meet an elf, such a thing needs not be revealed, but let’s move on.

Next, let’s take a look at the set up preceding an event, and reexamine the bit about the lawyer:

John had practiced law for nearly ten years. He had been fortunate enough to represent people who were actually innocent, but this time, his new client, Juan Ruiz, was certainly guilty. Mr. Ruiz was known to traffic drugs in from Caracas, Venezuela to the United States through Mexico. He had been arrested in Nogales, Arizona along with half his cadre. While Mr. Ruiz ran chunky fingers through his thick, black, curly hair, he eyed John with a steely gaze. John felt uncomfortable, and he tugged at the collar of his white, collared blouse.

Huge drops of perspiration dribbled down the side of his head as he tried to convince himself that everyone deserved a chance, especially since so much money was on the line. Besides, John’s wife, Celia, was pregnant with twins, and he needed to think about his family, but what about the families endangered by Ruiz’s activities, who was sticking up for them?

A writer or editor must first know what event they’re setting up. In this case, I just want to organize the meeting between John and Ruiz.

Ten years was a long time to practice law. John counted his blessings that, to date, his clients were actually innocent men and women, but that day, he sat across the shiny, mahogany table from Juan Ruiz, Caracas drug runner. With an exhale, John tugged the collar of his white blouse.

“Ahem, so…Mr. Ruiz, the report says Nogales P.D. picked you and your associates up at two thirty on the morning of December ninth. Is that correct?”

The swarthy, Latino wasn’t even paying attention. He sat there in his black suit, staring out the window, but then he licked his greasy lips, let out a chortle of derision, and turned his steely, dark eyes onto the lawyer. A shiver ran down John’s spine; before him there sat a man who had killed on more than one occasion.

“Yeah, das’ right, so?” Ruiz barked.

“Um,” John faltered. He thought about the money Ruiz offered. He thought about it long and hard, and the fact that he had already accepted; he and his wife were expecting twins. What about other families…what about their kids? Am I really doing the right thing, here? It’s like the lines are blurred. “We just need to get our facts straight, Mr. Ruiz….”

Much smoother than the info dumpy version, right? We add a little flair, we throw in a couple of lines of dialogue, a few inner thoughts, and bingo; all the same information is present, at least the salient points, the rest is story, which is what readers like.

Finally, let’s view the last example. We had a recap of previous events:

Since Jessica had broken up with Tom, she called her mother. The wise woman explained that breaking off an engagement was better than a prospective divorce. Divorces had major ramifications, especially if children were involved.

Jessica knew her mother was right. That was why she had tested Tom by sending her friend to hit on him. She knew he was going to fail, but she had hoped blindly that somewhere, deep, down inside, he did love her. When Tom came home from work late, Jessica knew it was because he had been out with Sherrie, there was no lying about it, after all, she was the one who put Sherrie up to it.

Well, here’s the deal, readers feel like writers assume that their fans are dumb when they see this kind of stuff. Readers have been reading the story, so it isn’t likely they need a verbose recapitulation of events.

There are certainly times in thrillers and mysteries or later portions of a series when a recap is paramount, but one must be careful in the execution of the recap. Regardless, we’re dealing with the subject of info dumping more so than recapping, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

Let’s assume that this segment, this recap dump, takes place in the sequel, the second book of a story, wherein the would-be bride, Jessica, breaks off the engagement at the end of the first book. Recapping such a thing is a wonderful idea, but it certainly can be better executed.

Two months wasn’t a long time to be alone, not since Jessica broke off her engagement with Tom, a man to whom she was promised for over six months, and they had dated for a year prior. With a shaky hand, she pushed the contact labeled Mom.

“Jessie, honey, feeling any better?” the old gal sounded lively on the other end.

“Hey, Mom,” Jessica sighed, choking back newly forming tears. “Um, I just, I just think I need some advice.”

“Well…you remember what I told you; it’s better to break off an engagement than marry someone you don’t love.”

“I do love Tom,” Jessica interrupted. “I don’t trust him; that’s the issue.”

“Yeah,” her mom sighed. “It’s a shame he lied about parading around with Sherrie.”

Nodding and listening to the old woman’s wisdom, Jessica thought back to her plan. Neither she nor Sherrie thought Tom trustworthy, so they devised a way to find out once and for all; they agreed Sherrie was going to seduce him, and no sooner had they devised their ploy that he fell for it.

There was no denying it, when he came home late from work, Jessica already knew he had gone out with her friend.

It’s all about the story, the story, the art of providing an experience; writers and editors alike need to find ways to provide their story without dumping dry, sequential, accounts of events, and I can only hope I’m helping.

Why am I trying so hard to help, to advise? Because I enjoy writing, and I enjoy reading, and I love fans of literature, and I want them to buy books, which bestow a living essence unto their momentary escape from reality.

I edit and try to advise on editing for the sake of readers, but in my next post, I’m going to discuss the prologue, and I will be showcasing some of my prologues, so you’ll all have an opportunity to judge and criticize me as a writer more so than an editor, but I will be discussing why and how I edited the prologues, so I look forwards to that discussion.

For now, thank you for reading, and as always, please comment; tell me if you agree or disagree. I’m all for the sharing of ideas and their subsequent discussion.

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Free for a limited time Short Stories

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Short Stories from the Mind of Aaron Dennis By Aaron Dennis
Short Stories from the Mind of Aaron Dennis
By Aaron Dennis

 

Here’s an excerpt

The townies in the silo went crackers. The noise they made beating their limbs against the metal was far louder than the gun shot.

“Can’t lock these sons of bitches up, Eric. I been through shit like this before. Just kill ‘em and forget it.”

Lisa and Eric stood in disbelief. They weren’t killers. Neither was Cedric, but his past had him in some nasty situations. He looked them both in the eye before turning towards the direction of the entry gates.

“I don’t like it any more than you do,” he sighed as the townies quieted a little, “but this is the way it’s gotta’ be. It’s why I took the gun from you. Grab that knife and let’s move.”

Eric meekly went for the knife he had kicked from the guard. Seeing the woman’s head split open was more than he was able to handle and he threw up.

“Pull yourself together,” Cedric admonished.

The two men started to move, but Lisa remained in shock. She hadn’t barely even blinked after crying out. Eric stopped short, touched Cedric’s shoulder and motioned with his head towards Lisa. Cedric nodded.

Eric approached her and touched her arm. She sort of shuddered and a tear fell from each eye. Looking at him, she took a deep breath and recomposed herself. A smile flickered across her face; embarrassment.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” she said.

“I think there’s going to be a lot we don’t expect tonight.”

On rubbery legs, they followed Cedric, who made certain to stay out of the lights. Moment’s passed before they saw the gates through some leafy bushes.

“What’s the plan, Ced,” Eric asked.

The former Army Gunny took a deep breath before answering, “See those two guards? I don’t recognize ‘em. They aren’t the ones that took me.”

“Me neither,” Lisa interjected.

“That means one of us can us go up to ‘em, and they won’t expect us to be escapees or anything…hopefully,” Cedric continued. “Hopefully…they just detain you and while they do, we take ‘em down.”

Eric widened his eyes in hearing the half-cocked plan. Besides, he did recognize one of them, Clyde, who had apparently either decided against watching the transformation of townies, or had not earned the privilege.

“No good,” he finally said.

“It’s the only way we can get this party started,” Cedric replied. “That gives us each a weapon.”

“That one, the skinny one, he’s the one that told me to hush up, remember? His name is Clyde, and I don’t think he likes what’s going on here.”

“And you think you can just recruit him?” Cedric was cynical.

“Well…I don’t know, but maybe a gun to his face will, you know…change his mind…?”

They all exchanged glances. “Do you really think he’ll help us…tell us anything?” Lisa whispered.

Eric grit his teeth and remained staring at Clyde’s back. He nodded for a moment.

“It’s worth a shot, I think…and if not, I guess it’s your call, Ced,” Eric acquiesced.

“That means Lisa’s gotta go get caught,” Cedric stated.

It was true. Clyde was sure to recognize Eric, and Cedric wasn’t relinquishing his weapon. Lisa bit her bottom lip.

“What do I do,” she asked. “Just walk up and say hello? What if he does recognize me from the warehouse? I’m sure he knows I’m a journalist.”

“Listen,” Eric started, “you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, but you’ve been in hairy situations before, and you knew this was going to be a disaster when you agreed to help. I don’t believe they’re going to kill you…if anything, they’re going to want to keep you alive to turn you.”

“He’s right,” Cedric intervened. “Everything will be fine. I’ll put a bullet in the other one, but Eric, you gotta’ get behind Clyde and put that knife to his throat. Can you do that?”

He nodded. The simple fact was that he didn’t have a choice. Failure was not an option. That night in Hartford betrayed the brutality of what survival truly meant. Eric took a breath, maintained his observation of Clyde, and gave one final nod of approval.

“Good,” Cedric said, relieved. “Now, Lisa, you just start making a racket about the situation, it’s unfair, we’ve got rights, you’ll report, etcetera, etcetera. Do what you’re good at.”

She smiled to herself and nodded saying, “Yeah, I can handle that, but I swear to God if one of you fucks this up I’m going to get you.”

With that, she popped out of the bushes, walked a few dozen paces into the light, and started a tirade.

“Hey! Hey,” she started shouting and they took notice immediately. “Who do you monkeys think you are locking us in a cage like prisoners?”

“How the Hell did you get out?” the one yelled back as he pointed his rifle.

Lisa began shouting profanities while backing up. Clyde and the other guard moved rapidly towards her. By the time she backed up past Eric and Cedric, she turned her back and made like she was going to run. Clyde overtook her, and they crashed to the damp soil, so Cedric fired a round from his crouched position, nailing the other guard in the jaw. He went down while Eric leapt onto Clyde’s back. A scuffle ensued but he managed the sharp edge of steel to Clyde’s throat.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Clyde,” he said, and the guard froze.

As the situation slowly subsided, Cedric kicked off the wounded guard’s helmet and finished him with another round. He then turned the rifle onto Clyde. By then, Lisa came her to feet.

“Clyde, please,” she begged. “There’s been enough bloodshed. People shouldn’t turn on each other like this. We all know there’s something serious going on, and Eric seems to think you don’t want any part of it.”

“On your feet,” Cedric demanded. “Eric, take his gun and let him up.”

He obliged, and once everyone was standing, Cedric approached Clyde and spoke. “You got two seconds to convince me I should let you live.”

Clyde looked around; slowly he took in the grim circumstances. “I, I,” he stammered.

“Out with it, son,” Cedric growled.

“Clyde,” Eric whispered. “C’mon, man, tell me you’re on our side here. We’ve got monsters, manmade monsters, and you’re turning us into them. This isn’t right. Is this what you really want to do with your life?”

They locked eyes. Clyde’s mouth was slightly agape.

“C’mon, son,” Cedric started. “You served—just like I did—to protect your country. Now, you’re on with these heathens. How do you sleep at night? Maybe I should just end it for you now.”

Cedric took a menacing step towards Clyde. He put his hands up in resignation.

“Look…you don’t, you don’t understand,” he gasped. “It, it, it…it isn’t what you think.”

“I think it is, Clyde,” Lisa sighed.

He shook his head vigorously before explaining, “No. You don’t understand. This didn’t start here…it just…found its way here.” A long pause ensued, during which everyone exchanged a worried glance. “Damn,” Clyde was nearly reduced to tears, but managed to continue his elucidation. “Alright. What I know is that some military tests went wrong, something regarding chem warfare. Whatever it was, was supposed to placate people, you know, inhibit the impulses, which make people erratic and angry. It was supposed to stop people from rioting and infighting…instead, it degrades the neo cortex—leaves us like rabid animals.”

“So why is Byzantine making more monsters?” Eric howled and shoved Clyde hard.

“I don’t know,” he yelled back. “This has all been in motion for years. I signed on because I was promised an opportunity to help my country—killing off monsters—like something out of a damn comic book. Next thing I know, I’m here. I’m imprisoning the people I’m supposed to protect, and there’s no way to back out. You don’t just leave Byzantine. When you know something, you can’t just put in your two weeks, God dammit.”

Again, silence settled in for a moment. “So, you don’t know…you’re just following orders…like the Nazis, huh?” Eric accosted. “Maybe Cedric should just finish you off. People like you, you just want to blame everyone but yourself.”

What are you waiting for? This offer won’t last.

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Structure

self aggrandizing aaron

Welcome back, everyone. Last time we touched a little bit on the words would and could, and how they make writing sound weak.

This time, I want to touch on something a little bit different, yet it is still correlated to weak writing. I want to talk about the overall structure of sentences and paragraphs.

Once again, I’ve delved into the works of a “Best Selling Author”. I put it in quotations because this is an excerpt of the first few lines of Gary Lindberg’s The Shekinah Legacy. This is another author who simply says he’s a best seller, and he even goes so far as to photoshop a best selling award label onto the cover of his books, but if you check his books’ rankings, he’s far from best seller status.

That said, if he chose to misrepresent his books, he may have achieved Amazon Best Seller; it isn’t difficult to do. All you need is to choose an obscure set of labels for your book, like Free Masonry and Christian Murder. Then, you sell three copies, and your book is a “best seller”, for two or three hours, but long enough to snap a screen shot of your rank, and then you can show everyone how amazing you are, calling yourself a “Best Selling Author”.

Readers, however, see right through it. Readers take a look at the first pages of a book, and they know right away if the author has the makings of a best seller.

Best selling authors have great editors to translate the author’s dry account into a wonderful experience. This book either lacked an editor, or Lindberg used an incompetent editor.

As always, I have provided the original, published work—just a couple of lines, which any lookie-loo can scrutinize by taking advantage of Amazon’s look inside feature—followed by my inspection and rewrite, and the reason behind it.

Let’s take a look.

Some day you will read this, my dear, and see more clearly how things came to be. I pray to God that you will forgive me for not having had the wisdom or foresight to prevent the tragedies that befell our little family, though the great sweep of history was against us, as you know.

Alright, that’s not a terrible opener. It’s only two sentences, and paragraphs are normally a minimum of three sentences, but this is somewhat appealing; we know that someone has left someone else a note. We know there was some tragedy, but what is this business of a great sweep? The metaphor has eluded me. Furthermore, it is my belief that this should have been in italics; style matters as structure is more than the just the order of words, it is also the punctuation we see, as that punctuation changes the voice and tone in a reader’s head.

You may remember that I have always been a compulsive note taker; perhaps that’s why I was drawn to broadcast journalism where my notepad and digital voice recorder were my most faithful companions. My notes are serving me well now.

Okay, the monologue was originally referring to their little family, right? Tragedies befell them and all that; but now we see something strange. It reads You may remember that…. which begs the question; how can such a tight family forget? Obviously, they won’t, which makes that first sentence a little awkward, plus it goes on to say that perhaps, that was why he was drawn to journalism. People usually know why they enter a career field, especially one so complex and demanding as broadcast journalism, which requires years of schooling and internships. Moreover, I don’t really know what note taking has to do with broadcast journalism; they aren’t really note takers; they’re investigators, who might take notes.

I have never had trouble finding the start of a story except for this one. The real story, I’m sure, began thousands of years ago, but it seems now that the best lead-in to our story was in Iraq, so I will begin there. Every good news story starts with a teaser to grab the audience, and this one certainly got my attention.

Wait a minute! Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait! We just read a moment ago that his notes were serving him well. What happened? Also, the word our, which is italicized, was underlined in the original work. On top of that, we’re getting so many mixed messages that none of this makes any sense.

His notes are serving him well, but he can’t find the beginning of the story, yet he’s sure it began thousands of years ago. It’s all over the place and confusing. Let’s push forwards.

I remember that it was impossibly hot and dry on that Tuesday morning in Baghdad. The wind had stirred up a dust storm so thick that you could stare directly at the sun without hurting your eyes. Everything around us was eerily tinted orange. It was like being stuck in a block of amber looking out. I turned to my cameraman, Curt.

Hold the phone, Sally. Just a moment ago, we were told that every news story starts with a teaser to grab the audience, and that this one certainly got his attention. What’s the teaser? What’s happening? Has the internal monologue—the note—ended? Are we in the story now, or is this still the note that the person is supposedly reading? If it is, why is the weather important? What is it like to be stuck inside a block of amber? Doesn’t that cause death? Looking through a block of amber, perhaps, but this is just bad writing, bad story telling.

This is not best selling material…but it can be turned into best selling material by a real editor. I’m not questioning the appeal, ingenuity, or entertainment value of the story hidden between the poor structure; I’m questioning the value of the poor structure, but I think I can patch it up.

My rewrite:

My Dear, I hope that you read this one day and understand how things came to be. I pray to God that you will forgive my lack of wisdom, my lack of foresight, the very causes of the tragedy that befell our family. The great sweep of history, however, is against us.

(My notes: I still don’t know what a great sweep is, but I’ll leave it as it may be the author’s personal touch. You’ll noticed I italicized it all, which I’ll bet makes it sound like it’s echoing in your head now, right? It is also three sentences long.)

You know I’ve always been a compulsive note taker—it’s why I was drawn into broadcast journalism—my notepad and digital voice recorder, my eternal companions. My notes are certainly serving me well, or they were…now I find myself unable to pinpoint the beginning of a story, a story I’m sure began thousands of years ago, yet all the details point to Iraq, so I’ll begin there.

Look at that change. We know they know he was a compulsive note taker. He isn’t wondering what pulled him to journalism, his devices aren’t faithful, as that doesn’t make sense, but eternal companions, and we see that his notes were serving well, but now, there is trouble. Suspense has been built. We can practically hear the deliberation in his voice. We have been pulled in.

I cut the line about the teaser. That sentence bugged me to no end because the teaser is never provided, and I’m not going to come up with one. A real editor tells his writer to provide at least one or two lines if he’s going to mention the teaser at all. Also, I added a scene break between the previous set of lines and these following lines as I believe the note he left behind has ended, and now we are in the story.

That first Tuesday morning in Baghdad was brutally hot and dry. Such a dust storm whirled through the air; the sun was shrouded by an orange haze. It was amidst a coughing fit that I turned to my cameraman, Curt.

We still have the orange haze, we know it’s hot, we know it’s dry, and it’s so hot, dry, and dusty, that he has a coughing fit. Now, this is real. Now, this is a story, and no longer a dry account of things. This is the difference between showing and telling.

Below, read the original. Then, let’s read the rewrite and see how it feels.

Some day you will read this, my dear, and see more clearly how things came to be. I pray to God that you will forgive me for not having had the wisdom or foresight to prevent the tragedies that befell our little family, though the great sweep of history was against us, as you know.

You may remember that I have always been a compulsive note taker; perhaps that’s why I was drawn to broadcast journalism where my notepad and digital voice recorder were my most faithful companions. My notes are serving me well now.

I have never had trouble finding the start of a story except for this one. The real story, I’m sure, began thousands of years ago, but it seems now that the best lead-in to our story was in Iraq, so I will begin there. Every good news story starts with a teaser to grab the audience, and this one certainly got my attention.

I remember that it was impossibly hot and dry on that Tuesday morning in Baghdad. The wind had stirred up a dust storm so thick that you could stare directly at the sun without hurting your eyes. Everything around us was eerily tinted orange. It was like being stuck in a block of amber looking out. I turned to my cameraman, Curt.

Versus

My Dear, I hope that you read this one day and understand how things came to be. I pray to God that you will forgive my lack of wisdom, my lack of foresight, the very causes of the tragedy that befell our family. The great sweep of history, however, is against us.

You know I’ve always been a compulsive note taker—it’s why I was drawn into broadcast journalism—my notepad and digital voice recorder, my eternal companions. My notes are certainly serving me well, or they were…now I find myself unable to pinpoint the beginning of a story, a story I’m sure began thousands of years ago, yet all the details point to Iraq, so I’ll begin there.


That first Tuesday morning in Baghdad was brutally hot and dry. Such a dust storm whirled through the air; the sun was shrouded by an orange haze. It was amidst a coughing fit that I turned to my cameraman, Curt.

There’s a blatant difference in the quality of the two works, although they both insinuate similar ideas, the second version of the story reads far better. It is strong, assertive, and it leaves the reader no wiggle room to envision something else.

Thanks for reading. Comment if you agree or disagree. Share if you want.

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Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

I would go to the store if it wasn’t raining.

I could leave the house, but there are zombies outside.

I should fix the car, but I’m saving up for a boat.

Would, could, and should are what I consider if words; they imply, they insinuate, and they excuse or absolve one from the action at hand. Generally, they make for weak writing when they’re used in prose, and for all of you who often read self published, or independently published, books, you’ll notice that every writer uses one of those words in every other sentence, on every single page.

Sometimes, would, could, and should are great words. People do use them in dialogue. At times, would, could, and should work well in prose, too, but this is a difficult maneuver.

Since they’re weak words, or implications rather than assertions, they’re great words for either a weaker character, or they can be used to show deliberation. I’ll provide examples of everything in a moment, but first I want to portray, I mean, really get across, how different prose can be with and without those words.

I always like to take a look at the works of writers who claim to be best sellers. I often check their work, their rankings, and find that they are far from best sellers. Then, I look at the reviews, and often they have 500, glowing, five star reviews, but they have about a dozen one star reviews, and when I check them out, I can see that the one star reviews are given by angered readers, and the five star reviews are given by other authors.

Why are authors doing this? They think that giving each other great reviews in exchange for great reviews sells more books, and they think that reviews are for authors, and they think that they can trick people into buying a bad book, and sometimes it works, and that’s why the readers are angry when they buy a poorly written book.

Reviews are for readers, though; a reader decides that a book was or wasn’t worth their money, their time, and they want to let others know. Readers and authors aren’t reviewing Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher to help him sell more copies.

Generally, when it comes to reviews of indie books, there’s one chief complaint- lack of editing, sometimes called clunky writing, or poor flow, or they say it reads like a draft. Why? Why does this happen to every indie writer, and why are no indie authors spotting this?

Editors spot this kind of stuff. I say it all the time: Editing is not the same as proof reading, editing software cannot make your account of events more palatable to readers; you must hire a competent editor. Editors aren’t working for authors; they’re working for readers. Readers deserve to spend their money on a well written story, regardless of whether or not they enjoyed the plot, characters, etc.; you’ll never please everyone, but an editor goes a long way.

So, I have a short excerpt from Lola Silverman’s, Escorting the Wrong Billionaire.

Excerpts can be used in reviews and discussion, so I just grabbed the first few lines from the book by using Amazon’s look inside feature, a feature that readers need to use before they buy.

Kaylee opened the window of her apartment and took a deep breath. Perching her butt on the sill, she slung her legs out onto the fire escape. She hated heights. Thank God her unit was only on the second floor. Any farther up and she would have fainted dead away before plummeting to the concrete. (Aaron’s mental note: I thought there was a fire escape.)

Someone pounded on her front door. “Kaylee! I know you’re in there. I’ve given you three weeks on the rent and I can’t give you any more. Pay up or I’m going to have you evicted!” (Aaron’s mental note. Front door? This is a second story apartment. Is there more than one door?)

Yeah, hitting her head might actually be a positive thing. (Aaron’s mental note: Not sure from where this thought came. Who gave the idea of hitting her head?) If she had a concussion, maybe Mrs. Tobolovsky would feel sorry for her and give her another week to pay her rent. Except a concussion would mean a trip to the hospital—and that Kaylee could not afford.

Let’s see…five sentences in, would. Eleven in, would. Twelve, would and could. That’s four uses in two paragraphs, but what other way is there to write out this scenario? Do readers really care about would and could or weak writing?

Aaron’s rewrite:

Kaylee opened her studio apartment’s window. There, she sat, peeking out into the monotony of the world. Her feet dangled carelessly. While she didn’t like heights—the mere thought churned her stomach—she was on the second floor and protected by the fire escape. A sudden pounding drew her attention.

“Kaylee, I know you’re in there! You’re three weeks late on the rent! How many times we gotta’ go through this?” Mrs. Tobolovsky made her regular effort to collect, yelling and pounding, in the hopes of avoiding an eviction. “Hey!” She screamed, and followed up with another set of fists to the door. “I’m tellin’ you, you get your head straight, or you’re outta’ here!”

Yeah, my head straight, Kaylee thought. Rather than paying, she felt sorry for herself, her situation, and figured she was better off with a concussion than having her head straight. Unfortunately, a concussion came with more than a headache, it came with bills, and if she didn’t have rent money, she didn’t have hospital money.

See? The original phrasing was just awkward, and it didn’t tell us what we needed to know- Kaylee is in a jam, and she doesn’t have her life together. Instead, the original prose took us into and out of different perspectives and tenses, and with a weaker voice.

Let’s see, step-by-step, what changes were made and why.

Kaylee opened the window of her apartment and took a deep breath.

Nothing wrong there. It’s a great opener.

Perching her butt on the sill, she slung her legs out onto the fire escape.

Still moving along, but that’s weird. She slung her legs onto the fire escape? How are the window and escape built? Shouldn’t her feet be on the escape? Perching her butt…we normally sit on our butt and perch on our toes, like squatting. We know Kaylee is at home, sitting on the window sill, and with her feet over the fire escape…right?

She hated heights.

If she hates heights, why is she doing this? How far up is she? Well, we get a partial answer in the next sentence.

Thank God her unit was only on the second floor.

Okay, so she hates heights, but being nearly twenty feet up in the air is okay? Besides, she’s over the fire escape, which has a platform, right? Then, we get a weird addition in the next sentence.

Any farther up and she would have fainted dead away before plummeting to the concrete.

So, what do we have? What do we know? What is this paragraph trying to tell me, the reader? It tells me Kaylee is dangling her legs out from her window, and that she’s okay doing so because she’s not up very high, but I’m also told there’s a fire escape, and then I’m told she would otherwise faint and plummet to the concrete. It’s conflicting and confusing information. As a reader, do I want to learn  more? I’m so plagued with questions.

Next, we have the following:

Someone pounded on her front door.

Alright, simple enough.

“Kaylee! I know you’re in there. I’ve given you three weeks on the rent and I can’t give you any more. Pay up or I’m going to have you evicted!”

Here, we have some dialogue, and now we get an idea of what’s going on. As a reader, now I’m assuming that Kaylee is a derelict, or that, perhaps, Tobolovsky is a horrible person. It is implied that Kaylee doesn’t pay her rent, and judging from the tone, this is a regular occurrence. Now, I’m expecting something to happen; there’s an opening for a discussion, or action, or some event.

Yeah, hitting her head might actually be a positive thing.

Okay, this is Kaylee’s internal dialogue, right? She’s having a rather strange thought from out of the blue. Who mentioned anything about hitting the head? Why is that a positive thing?

If she had a concussion, maybe Mrs. Tobolovsky would feel sorry for her and give her another week to pay her rent.

Well, that’s a strange a take on the story. Am I supposed to think that this character, Kaylee, is actually considering giving herself a concussion to avoid some rent? Why is that her first go to thought when the rent is overdue, assuming it’s overdue? I’m not really even sure that’s the case.

Except a concussion would mean a trip to the hospital—and that Kaylee could not afford.

Seems fairly obvious, but why is that sentence written that way? Why is there a dash? A comma is required. Furthermore, it’s evident, for those who live in America, that healthcare costs can outweigh the cost of an apartment, but if I’m not American, this is really confusing, and it’s confusing anyway because Kaylee must have access to all this information, which means her thoughts just don’t make sense, and why does she think, or expect us to think, or tell us to think that Tobolovsky might feel sorry and give her a break? If she’s injured, she surely won’t be able to pay the rent for that month or likely the next. It’s just baffling.

There is something here, though; we have the idea that Kaylee is a self-pitying, underachiever, who likes to make excuses for herself and not take responsibility, which has the makings of a great character if she’s made to overcome obstacles. That’s why I provided my version.

Kaylee opened her studio apartment’s window.

Okay, that’s the same opener, basically.

There, she sat, peeking out into the monotony of the world.

Ah, see, I gave her a reason to open the window and sit rather than perch; she’s looking out at the monotony of the world. Now, she sounds like a tortured soul. Besides, we know how people sit; there’s no real reason to go into it, and while there is a time for perch, now is not that time.

Her feet dangled carelessly.

That sentence further implies her angst.

While she didn’t like heights—the mere thought churned her stomach—she was on the second floor and protected by the fire escape.

I kept the fact that she didn’t like heights, and kept that confusing feeling of her odd behavior along with the fact that she doesn’t like heights; angst plus strife makes for a great read. Furthermore, the structure of the sentence flows much more naturally. We also know how she feels physically when she’s up too high, but we also know she’s fine due to the fire escape, and not the senseless idea of not being too high; if you’re afraid of heights, sitting on the second story window sill is terrifying!

A sudden pounding drew her attention.

I wrote this in this fashion to slap the reader from a rather tranquil, if confusing, scene to something alarming. You have the mental image that she spun her head to face the door in surprise, right?

“Kaylee, I know you’re in there! You’re three weeks late on the rent! How many times we gotta’ go through this?” Mrs. Tobolovsky made her regular effort to collect, yelling and pounding, in the hopes of avoiding an eviction. “Hey!” She screamed, and followed up with another set of fists to the door. “I’m tellin’ you, you get your head straight, or you’re outta’ here!”

I changed this whole dialogue block because the original was stock and somehow confusing. We were told Kaylee had been given three weeks on the rent, but not that she was overdue. Also, the reader knows Tobolovsky doesn’t want to evict. Now, I made the distinction. Furthermore, I didn’t leave it up to the reader to assume this happened before, I straight said it, and, on top of all that, tenants can’t usually get evicted for being three weeks late on the rent, and it takes a month’s notice to evict, so I changed the dialogue for a realistic feel, not to mention that the intermittent pounding sounds far more menacing than the original version of this dialogue.

Yeah, my head straight, Kaylee thought.

In keeping with the idea of giving oneself a concussions, I actually gave a reasonable lead in to this idea with Tobolovsky’s dialogue.

Rather than paying, she felt sorry for herself, her situation, and figured she was better off with a concussion than having her head straight.

Here, I explained it all. We still don’t know why Kaylee doesn’t pay, which adds a touch of mystery. Is she a broke student? Has she recently been laid off? Does she have a kid? We don’t know, but we are curious, and especially because she’s considering knocking herself out rather than forking over the dough.

Unfortunately, a concussion came with more than a headache, it came with bills, and if she didn’t have rent money, she didn’t have hospital money.

Again, explained, and all without implications. The reader now knows by way of an assertion: Kaylee has no money and while getting knocked out sounds worthwhile, she does know it isn’t useful.

When comparing the two versions, it becomes quite clear that the original version doesn’t even know where it’s going; the writer doesn’t know what she wants her readers to think, feel, or know. That’s okay, though, most writers are like this; writers provide a sequential account of events. Editors turn those accounts into a story.

Now, I want to provide some original examples of when would, could, and should are great.

“Hey, Bill, you busy,” John asked.

“Nope. What’s up, John?”

“Well,” John hesitated, rubbing his chin. “I need to go to the hardware store and pick up a new ladder, so I was hoping you would like to come along.”

Bill smiled and looked away. “I would love to help you out, bud, but my pick up truck’s in the shop. Otherwise, I could help you.”

This is a very real conversation. Now, in a more lively context, the words I would are usually written as I’d, but I didn’t want to pull focus from the use of would. At any rate, two friends discussing a project can certainly come across like that, and one friend certainly wants to help the other, and one friend certainly doesn’t want to pressure the other, so the words would show deliberation, and they are followed up by an excuse or a reason, so it isn’t weak writing in this case; it’s a real situation, however, we also know that neither John nor Bill are jerks; jerks don’t give a reason or excuse, so they won’t use would or could in dialogue, or at least, not this dialogue.

Let’s take a look in prose.

John would’ve gone outside, but the hordes of zombies were still shuffling around the neighborhood.

What do we know? There are zombies. John is scared of them. He wants to go out, but he won’t. He has an excuse not to go out; there are zombies.

This is a perfect way to convey to the reader that John wants something, but he doesn’t have what it takes to get the job done, and it’s very relatable, but we also expect, if John is the protagonist, he will get over his fear in order to grow as a character, and get the job done, and therein lies the problem; if would, could, and should keep following John around, we’re always going to feel that he’s deliberating!

Let’s see what happens when we play with words.

John didn’t want to go outside. Hordes of zombies were still shuffling around the neighborhood.

In this case, there’s nothing implied. We don’t think John wants to go out at all, zombies or no zombies; we know John doesn’t want to go out. We’re then shown that there are zombies still roaming around, but we have a totally different John. The first John wanted to go out, but was scared. This second John just doesn’t want to go out, then we find out why; he’s so scared, he isn’t even considering going outside.

Would changed absolutely everything, so there is a time to use it, but the writer/editor has to know what they want to portray.

Let’s look at one more example.

John didn’t go outside. Hordes of zombies were still shuffling around the neighborhood.

In this case, it is implied that John wants to go outside, and then we find out why he doesn’t go, but we’re led to believe that he will venture outdoors at some point, so we’re expecting something to happen, but what? We don’t know, so this creates a degree of tension, expectation.

In the end, I won’t say that there’s a right or wrong way to do something; I’ll leave that conclusion up to you, but I will say that there is a time and a place to use certain words, that every word has a special impact on storytelling, and that it is extremely important for a writer/editor to read the work as a reader, because the reader is not in our mind, and we must convey to them what to think, feel, and know.

Thank you.

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A single sentence

Like a word, a single sentence can make or break a book. Books come in all forms; fiction, non-fiction, entertainment, information, third person omniscient, first person narrative, but the structure is basically the same.

A writer uses words to form a sentence, and the sentence is presented in order to define and clarify an idea, but there are some sentences that do the job better than others.

Last time, I made my point by showing how changing a single word in a sentence can elicit different imagery. This time, I want to show the first few sentences from an actual, published book.

I went to Amazon, and by utilizing the look inside feature, I was able to look at the following sentences from the introduction of Marion Gropen’s The Profitable Publisher: Making the Right Decisions.

The following are the first sentences:

Most publishing folks would rather have their teeth pulled than wade into their “numbers.” But, if you want to survive and thrive as a small press, you can’t afford to avoid the math. My aim here is to get you past any difficulties, painlessly. I’ve never found anyone who couldn’t learn this material. Nor have they ever needed anesthesia! You can do this. You may even enjoy it.

Where do I begin?

First and foremost, I want to point out the use of would and could. Both of these words make for weak writing. I can expound upon this for hours on end, and perhaps, for my next post, I will, but for now, let’s look at the core idea.

A single paragraph is designed to present a single idea, and the sentences within the paragraph are there to explain the idea in the most concise and cogent terms.

So, what’s the key idea, and how do these sentences make or break this book?

The idea is that with Gropen’s information, a small press can thrive. The insinuation is that a small, publishing press can’t survive without doing the math. Great, but let’s look at the first sentence.

Most publishing folks would rather have their teeth pulled than wade into their “numbers.”

First of all, this is a wild assumption. Second of all, using would signifies an if situation; this is not an assertion but a guess.

If people find themselves wading through numbers, they would rather have their teeth pulled.

Again, this is an assumption.

A better way to write this is:

No publisher enjoys wading through the numbers.

Then, why is numbers in quotations? It isn’t a quote. There’s no dialogue. I understand this is written as a first person narrative, so the author is talking to me, the reader, but then the whole thing requires quotations, and we just don’t do that. Furthermore, numbers isn’t slang, which benefits from an italicized font and not quotations anyway, but I’m deviating from my point, sort of; a sentence is more than what we hear, it’s also what we see, and the punctuation and grammar we use is used to provide the most direct information, especially in regards to an informative book.

This first sentence also dives right into the second sentence:

But, if you want to survive and thrive as a small press, you can’t afford to avoid the math.

I guess no one taught this author not to start a sentence with a conjunction. Did they forget FANBOYS?

A conjunction ties two ideas together, so, more appropriately, the first two sentences are a single, complex sentence:

Most publishing folks would rather have their teeth pulled than wade into their “numbers”, but if you want to survive and thrive as a small press, you can’t afford to avoid the math.

That’s the correct way to write this single sentence. The reason the first comma belongs outside the quotation marks is because what’s quoted isn’t dialogue, and needs to not be in quotations anyway. Secondly, you don’t put a comma after but. The comma goes before the conjunction. Now, I want to add that when we deal with dialogue, many of the rules go out the window, but I’ll deal with that in a later post.

So, we have instead:

Most publishing folks would rather have their teeth pulled than wade into their numbers, but if you want to survive and thrive as a small press, you can’t afford to avoid the math.

Now, that’s a big, bulky, clunky sentence. What’s it saying? It’s saying that publishers don’t want to deal with numbers because it’s unpleasant. Is it unpleasant? Maybe; let’s assume it is.

How does the following sentence sound?

No publisher enjoys wading through the numbers.

That says it all. It’s concise, it’s direct, it gives the reader no wiggle room; they know beyond a doubt, just by reading that first sentence, that working through numbers sucks.

So, let’s tackle the next sentence:

My aim here is to get you past any difficulties, painlessly.

I don’t know that here is required. Obviously, if reading this book, the aim is provided in here.

My aim is to get you past any difficulties, painlessly.

It works, but again, it sounds clunky.

How about:

Unfortunately, the math is crucial to a small press, but don’t fret; I’m going to show you what to do.

This complex sentence accompanies my first sentence, and it provides reassurance to the reader while reinforcing the original premise; doing the numbers sucks.

Next, the writer has the following:

I’ve never found anyone who couldn’t learn this material.

This raises questions; how many people have they taught, how many people have had trouble trying to get over the trouble of dealing with numbers, and if there’s no trouble involved in learning how to get over the difficulties of dealing with the numbers, why is there a whole book devoted to it?

Moreover, this sentence deals with something superfluous. The introduction originally stated that publishers don’t enjoy working through the numbers, and that the premise of the book was going to be about how to get past that difficulty, but this new sentence addresses the ease with which one can get past the difficulty of how difficult it can be to get past working with numbers. Did you get all that? Confusing, right?

Let’s just cut this sentence completely and move on to the next one:

Nor have they ever needed anesthesia!

Well, crapola; now we start a new sentence with another conjunction, which ties back into the premise that people would rather have teeth pulled than wade through numbers. There’s no need to reinforce a would be scenario, and since this is a fragment, we’ll just cut it, too.

Next, we have:

You can do this.

Okay, its’ a little positive reinforcement. That’s good, but why on earth is canboth italicized and bold?

Finally, we have:

You may even enjoy it.

Aha, but I may not enjoy it, eh? That just negated the previous, positive reinforcement, so we’ll cut that.

What do we have left then?

No publisher enjoys wading through the numbers. Unfortunately, the math is crucial to a small press, but don’t fret; I’m going to show you what to do. You can do this.

In this version, the final sentence breaks the flow of the paragraph, so you see how important a sequence of properly written sentences is.

A better way to write this is:

No publisher enjoys wading through the numbers. Unfortunately, the math is crucial to a small press, but don’t fret; I’m going to show you what to do. The following pages are filled with simple rules to follow, which will lead you and your small press to success. You can do this, and I’m going to help you.

Now, let’s be honest; which book are you more likely to read? Do you have a better understanding of the importance of proper sentences and how seemingly similar sentences can evoke totally different mindsets?

Thank you.

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A Word

 

Most of the questions I’m personally asked are about specific details regarding the editing process of a novel or story during or after the writing process.

Today, I will cover the word.

A single word can make or break a story. How? Well, let’s see….

What if you read the word lanky? What image comes to mind? What if you read the word thin or wiry? Do different images come to mind?

Let’s look at a single sentence now.

The lanky man walked down the street.

What do you see?

How about: The thin man walked down the street.

Or: The wiry man walked down the street.

Different imagery comes to mind, right?

Generally, my advice to writers of all levels of expertise is to just get the story down, get it all down, get it all out of your mind and onto paper, or a screen, or whatever. Once everything is done then it’s time to edit, and this is where it gets complicated.

Writing the story is the easy part. Writing is really just getting out the sequential account of events, which transpire, but editing is turning those sequential accounts into an enjoyable story for people, and I assure you, readers read differently than writers, and this is why editors are a great go between; they read as both writers and readers; they understand what a writer is trying to say, and they turn it into something that readers understand.

So, let’s take a quick look at those words again. Thin, lanky, and wiry can all mean something similar, but a lanky person isn’t generally thought of as strong or tough. A thin person is usually thought of as attractive; TV tells us we should be thin. Wiry tends to connote strength; a wiry person is thin and maybe lanky, but they’re usually also a tad muscular, or tough, or stringy, and so all in all, each of those words brings unto a reader a different image, a different meaning.

Now, let’s try something a bit different.

The lanky man shuffled down the street.

This is different from a lanky man walking. Shuffling connotes a different meaning even though walking and shuffling are synonyms. Suddenly, a reader is locked into a new image; a man is shuffling, why?

It’s a common mistake that writers make; they choose a synonym only because they used another word of similar meaning on too many previous occasions. They think that because someone else walked earlier, they must use a similar but different word on the next passage, but this can be a mistake as it will make the reader wonder why someone was shuffling when there seems to be no cause for shuffling, which means that everything before and everything after the shuffling must be tied together, which is why it’s important to make these changes during the editing process and not the writing process; the author can then have a better idea of the imagery they’ve already introduced.

So, let’s take a look at a more complicated situation.

It was a hot day, and John decided to stay inside until it subsided. From his living room, he caught sight of a lanky man walking down the street. Whoever the person was, John didn’t recognize him.

Nothing wrong with the above paragraph; it provides the reader everything they need to know; it’s hot, which is why John is indoors, and that’s why he saw someone, who is lanky.

Now, a writer must consider many things; what happened before? What happens next? Why is any of this important? Is this a novel? Is this a short story? What is the genre?

Now, you’re asking, “What does this have to do with changing a single word, and how does it make or break a story?”

Well, buckle up.

If the preceding paragraph has already tackled the weather, John’s setting, or the man then it’s important to avoid being redundant, and changing a single word can have that effect.

If the following paragraph follows up on the man rather than John, the setting, or the weather then it becomes important to choose the right words in order to lead into the next idea, and again, a single word can make all the difference.

If this is a novel then a reader will want to know as much as possible about anything germane to the story, but if this is a short story then there are probably a great many things, which require no explanation. In other words, if this is a novel, the writer should probably focus on creating a more complex paragraph, but this also depends on the scene; will it be an action scene, or is it a form a foreshadowing, or this just a framing device to set up another chain of events?

What genre is this? Is this horror? Is this a fantasy? Is it scifi?

Let’s play with the paragraph.

It was a blistering day….

By changing hot to blistering, the reader has a different notion of how hot it is, but that word is also different from hot in another way; we can no longer continue the sentence as it was originally provided.

It doesn’t make sense to say: It was a blistering day, and John decided to stay inside until it subsided.

Until what subsided? The day? No, the heat, which we knew as readers when we read the original paragraph, so by changing a single word, if we don’t change another word later in the same sentence, we break the story.

We have to write instead: It was a blistering day, and John decided to stay inside until the heat subsided.

This first sentence has now taken on a whole new life. Yes, we still know that John is inside because it was hot, but now we know how hot; we’ve all experienced summer days so hot, we had to stay inside until the heat subsided. Changing a single word, which forced us to change another, has now made this sentence far more relatable and meaningful.

Now, let’s play around some more. What if this is a horror short story about zombies?

It was a hot day, and John decided to stay inside until it subsided. From his living room, he caught sight of a lanky zombie walking down the street. Whoever the person was, John didn’t recognize him.

Obviously, I changed man to zombie, but that’s not important because everything else is exactly the same, however, since the reader will know it’s a horror short about zombies, they expect to read a horror about zombies, so let’s change a word.

From his living room, he caught sight of an emaciated zombie walking down the street.

Whoa, emaciated is way better than lanky. Now, you say, “Lanky and emaciated don’t mean the same thing; they aren’t synonyms.”

You’re right, sort of; emaciated is a synonym for thin or skinny, which are synonyms for lanky, but since this is a horror, it’s important to use a more terrifying word that elicits a fearful image, and lanky doesn’t scare anyone, but is emaciated the right word?

How about: From his living room, he caught sight of a cadaverous zombie walking down the street.

Now, we’re on to something; cadaverous makes us think of something already dead, but doesn’t cadaverous zombie sound redundant? We know it’s dead, kind of, I mean, it’s a zombie….

Here, we have another case of a single word breaking the story, whereas emaciated made the story better, but it doesn’t end there.

If a writer really wants to tune up that sentence, they might try: From his living room, he caught sight of a cadaverous creature shuffling down the street.

Yes, a total of three words have been changed, but it’s a chained effect caused by changing that one word, lanky, and following it up to make a sentence more palatable for an audience, and more appropriate for the genre in question. It cannot be denied that the later sentence is far and away more horrifying than the previous one.

If all this sounds complicated, it is; editing is no picnic, and a competent editor has to do a lot of work to make a story worth reading, and it’s also why editors aren’t hired until after a story is completely written; we can’t edit without knowing what happened before, during, and after a set of events, and neither can the author choose the correct words, neither can the audience understand the writer’s meaning, but taking some time to understand the art of writing rather than just jotting down a sequential account of events will really help to make a story a far better read to the audience.

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