On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 10: Sex Sells

This is not so much a rule-breaking in and of itself, unless you count it as a specialized bird walk. Really, though, it’s more like an annoying observation. I have no advice for you this time, just an opinion.

I am not a fan of romances novels or their various spinoffs. The last thing I want to read is a hokey description of reproductive biology. Since you just about can’t avoid reproductive biology lessons in the romance genres (without buggies and bonnets), I do my best to avoid them. Imagine my annoyance when about half of the books on my challenge list interrupted a perfectly good plot with two or more beings doing the horizontal mambo “on camera.”

Ugh. Get a room, and close the door.

Yes. I know sometimes the plot depends on a certain amount of intimacy between — or in some cases among multiple — characters. And, yes, I can scan past it and keep going, which is what I did. Nevertheless, in a couple of the books, it really didn’t seem to do much to advance the plot or the character development. A perfectly reasonable plot was interrupted for … no good reason.

Yes. I have been accused of being a prude, and there’s probably something to that and a good reason for it. Still, as disagreeable as I find them, including explicit sex scenes “on camera” is a writer and editor decision like a lot of things. I’m not a fan, but my opinion plus $2.50 will buy someone a soda.

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 9: Taking Your Bird for a Walk

The next “forbidden trait” I found in the Hugos and Nebulas I read was … failure to stay on topic.

When a writer goes off on a wild tangent that really doesn’t relate to the story, that’s referred to as “taking a bird walk” or “going down a rabbit trail.” Some writers are noted for these useless excursions. My best example is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I was given an English unabridged version once years ago because I enjoy the tale. The book was huge – over 1200 pages worth of story. Incredible! Even more amazing? A 100-page description of the history of the Paris sewer system and another rather extensive description of a battle involving Napoleon. Those were some serious bird walks.

None of the Hugos and Nebulas had bird walks nearly that impressive, but some had some pretty substantial digressions for bizarre minutiae that really had no significant impact on the plot. According to the Rules of Excellent Writing, every chapter, scene, page, paragraph, sentence, word, letter, and punctuation mark must prove it has a reason to exist. If it cannot, out it goes! … Even if it was the most brilliant piece of writing you have ever done. It serves to advance the plot or develop a character or it gets the axe.

I have writer pals who boast of their ability to cut a third of their drafts while revising. That saddens me. What kind of incredible stuff was lost? Sure, some stuff needs to go. Some things that sounded great in Draft #1 are clearly destined for the debris pile during the revision process, but cutting stuff because some Expert says you must lose X% of the word count in revision? Foolishness, I say.

When revising, test everything. If it’s necessary, fix what needs fixing and keep it. Get rid of what you don’t need, particularly if it’s uninteresting or unfixable. When it comes to those things that may not be necessary but add interest? Maybe you can keep a few of those. After all, the name of the game is entertainment.

In the end, there aren’t many who will care how many words were cut from the first draft. They only care if the story kept them entertained.

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 8: You Name It

Names. Ugh. Sometimes the hardest part about writing is finding a suitable name for each characters. Complicating things are the ever-present rules.

  • Not too long.
  • Not too complex.
  • Easy to recognize.
  • Pronounceable.
  • Don’t repeat initial sounds for 2 or more characters on the same story.
  • Don’t rhyme.
  • Be consistent-no nicknames.
  • And on and on, and ON …

One beta reader even admonished me to avoid repeating similar-sounding names between unrelated books. Apparently, no one filled in the Hugo and Nebula writers on all the naming rules, or else, the vast majority of these writers served up a Bronx cheer for a response. Every single rule I listed was mercilessly violated by one or more of the books in the challenge.

That puts me in good company, really. Even considering just my published works. I’ve laid waste to many of the name rules. I don’t mean to suggest that you can or should totally disregard the naming rules. They’re there for a reason but if you’re going to break them, consider them in light of your story and decide whether your rule-breaking is for a good cause. Ringworld‘s excruciatingly long name for one character emphasized her alien-ness. Dune‘s multiple names for one guy reflected how he changed as the story progressed. Some writers intentionally give different characters similar names to show how similar the characters are.

Like most of these rules, if you’re going to break the rule, do so for a good reason and make sure you don’t confuse the reader.

On Aaron DeMott’s Forthcoming Novel: A New Threat

A few years ago, I answered a call for beta readers. A beta reader is someone who will read a novel’s early, barely edited final draft and provide feedback on everything from plot and character arcs to grammar and spelling. Betas often do continuity checks, as well, to do things like make sure a character with black hair in chapter 1 doesn’t suddenly turn ginger in chapter 10 without a visit from Miss Clairol.

The tale was cleverly done, and it held my interest. Sure, it had a few gaffes. At that stage, no story is perfect, but it was very well-constructed. I’ve been waiting for the final, published version since then.

AltWit Press will be releasing it on April 21, and I’m very curious to see how editing improved an already stellar story (all puns intended).

Aarons cover

Here’s a blurb:

A simple diplomatic mission becomes a life and death struggle that could plunge the entire galaxy into a war… When an alien ship lands unexpectedly in the middle of her clan’s territory, Bast is sent to investigate as part of her scout trial. After an accident, she meets these new visitors. She and her senior scout Rrrark are invited to return with the aliens to their home planet to open diplomatic relations. What started out as a simple mission becomes complicated when they discover a pirate scheme that might be more than it seems. Are Bast, Rrrark, and two of the aliens called Psygens capable of stopping the pirates?

Watch this space. When it releases, I’ll shout it out to the world!

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 7: Slow Movers

According to the Experts, you must always start your story “in media res” or in the middle of the action. That particular rule is driven hard at newbie writers, who are more likely to start by laying some groundwork. A good writer will begin in the middle of the crisis, make it worse, then fix it… slowly, with many setbacks. That is supposed to be The Way to write a good story.

There is something to that rule. In my slush pile sorting adventures, I have read – or tried to read, anyway – many slow starters. Generally speaking, I much prefer a quicker start, but there is a time and place for slow movers.

Many of the Hugos and Nebulas I read had opening paragraphs, scenes, or chapters that would move backwards if they went any slower. You’ve seen quicker dead sloths, I’m sure. Some of the tales started with long blocks of backstory or character details or world building. If there was any action, it was sparsely interlaced with the other data. Apparently, if these tales are considered the best science-fiction has to offer, a slow starter is acceptable, regardless of the admonition of The Rules.

So, what should we do? Engage your reader quickly, but if you need some background information to keep things clear, that’s okay. Just be sure that your addition actually serves the story. Famous examples of the practice are not a license for sloppiness.

On the Release of Lines of Succession

We interrupt the ongoing analysis of Hugos and Nebulas to make the following important announcement:

It’s here!!  It’s really here!!

LoS final cover

Amazon Link … and the first review is 4.5 stars! (Yes, there is a sequel planned in which Elaina gets to use her newfound skills).

Barnes and Noble Link

When Princess Elaina refuses an arranged marriage, she flees the court –and her father’s fury–for school. Normally, she enjoys practicing rapier combat and training Tiercel, her chatty griffin, but troubling dreams keep her on edge.

After a warning by a prophet, she returns to court only to find her twin taken captive and her father dying. Challenging the assassin leaves her blinded. As the sightless regent of Corby, she must protect her brother’s throne as he completes his studies.

Threats thicken all around her. Her ambitious uncle, mad for the throne, pressures her to abdicate to him. Elaina must find a way to see her path when all is dark. Failure would bring death to many.

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 6: Filtered

Continuing with an analysis of the Hugos and Nebulas I read as part of a challenge, here’s another quirk that many of those books had in common: Filter constructions.

Filter constructions are those odd-sounding additions some writers use in an effort to stay with their Point of View character. They take this kind of format: [person/thingy] [verb related to senses] that [another person thing did something]. For example:

  • Bob saw that Fred looked sad.
  • George heard Sue coughing.
  • Pat knew that May had lied.

These are called “filter cons­tructions” because they put some distance between your reader and the characters. This could be bad. Too much distance and your reader floats away like a helium balloon in a hurricane, or so the great, writerly wise guys say. Instead of the kinds of sentences I have above, the savvy writer is supposed to skip the filter and get right with the action:

  • Fred looked sad. (← still has a Show, Don’t Tell problem)
  • Sue coughed.
  • Mary had lied.

What about the Point of View? How does the skilled writer avoi­d the dreaded, literary fatality of the evil Head Hopping? To avoid Head Hopping, or charging point-of-view within a scene, the rest of the scene has to obviously be in the perspective of your current narrator. Internal reactions, thought shots, behavioral quirks, special turns of phrase, and internal monologue can all help solidify the point of view character.

So, how did the pros do on filter construction? Some of the Hugos and Nebulas couldn’t go an entire page without dropping in a few filter constructions. I’m not convinced the average reader would recognize that as a problem if the story is sufficiently engaging. As long as the filters don’t become intrusive, a writer can safely use a few but only a few and only when necessary. In some cases, the filter construction might be the better choice. Sometimes the “acceptable” fix for a given problem is worse than the problem. If dodging a filter construction results in confusion or extreme cases of verbosity, just use the filter and get on with the story. When possible, lose the filter, but don’t travel around the world to the left to avoid one. A convoluted mess doesn’t serve any purpose.