Friday, January 2, 2009

Paragraph? Why Should I Care-agraph?

Ignore the title, it's awful. I know. Sorry. Moving on.

Since we've talked about the basics of building an effective sentence, I'd like to focus for a sec on what I think is the buy/don't buy aspect of most books. Go pick up a book. Any book will do. Open it to the middle somewhere and look at a couple random pages. You can usually tell what kind of book you are getting into based entirely on the layout of paragraphs.

For instance, Paradise Falls has, to my knowledge, the longest paragraph in any book. At least any I have seen. One paragraph is fifteen or sixteen PAGES! You know instantly, when you see that thick block of text, that this is going to be a hard read. On the other had, open Artemis Fowl or one of the early Harry Potter books and you'll notice that there is a lot of white space. The paragraphs are broken up to more easily hold the attention of the younger audience. This is where knowing your audience is important.

If you are writing YA, you will want to avoid a Dan Brown-esque block of historical information dumping. While it may work in his books, which are obviously for adults (or really REALLY smart kids) it will put off a younger reader. I highly encourage you to step back from your words and sentences and look at your novel from a distance. Zoom out so that you can fit several pages on the screen (or print it off if you like). How does it appear on the page? Is it a mass of black ink covering most of the page?

While I can't say that there is a right or wrong here, there is certainly a chance to gain or lose readers. While they may not say, "Yeah, I didn't buy that new book because the paragraphs were just so friggin blocky" they may notice it subconsciously.

Since we're focused on fiction here, you don't want your book to look like an old text book. Seriously, have a look at one that you had when you were a kid and compare it to a college textbook. Any text book company worth its salt will include lots of breaks, pictures, side notes and other distractions in a lower grade's text. They are trying to help the kid forget they are learning and make them think it's fun. Yeah right. On the other hand, the college texts don't care if you're having fun. You chose to take this class, you want to learn all you can. No more room for pictures. My law books never had an artist's rendering of a TORT in action.

I personally think that this is a huge factor in a good book and I think it is fairly easy to get right. You just have to know that you need to pay attention to it. Learn the rhythm of the paragraph, learn the beat. Practice practice practice.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

This Week's Workshop

The sentence.

There, that was one. Easy right? Not entirely. If there is one thing I've learned since I started writing, it is this: Writing science fiction and fantasy should not feel like writing at all. You never want to the reader to remember that they are sitting in bed with a backache and only a cold coffee to soothe it. The kids are shouting in the other room, a dog is barking outside, the bills are due tomorrow. Let them forget all that. There is a world in danger between the crisp white pages they hold in their hands.

SciFi / Fantasy is different than writing other types of novels and for a very good reason, but it all starts with the sentence. You've probably read books about grammar and punctuation by people with Dr. in front of their names and big white beards on their faces. Luckily for you, some of that knowledge should stick and help you form complete and proper sentences.

The dog bit Jimmy
Jimmy was bit by the dog

It's easy to know that the first is the better one because it is active and not passive. So let's go up a step.

Thomas' hand was in the shredder when the machine roared to life.
The shredder roared to life, with Thomas's hand inside.

This one could prove a bit trickier. You probably THINK you know which one is right, but you don't know why. Well, there are a couple things in these sentences that need pointing out. In the first we see the possessive Thomas'. This is bad. Always make sure to use an 's even if there is already an s at the end. Otherwise, you're saying more than one Thomas. I see this problem a lot.

Second, and harder to discern, is why you like the second one better. It isn't any more right or wrong than the first, but it sounds better. Here's why: The second sentence creates drama. The reader doesn't need to know what the end result is before they know the story. The story here is that the machine roared to life. The climax is the hand inside. Even at the sentence level, you can create drama and suspense.

How about these two:

The boat was long and sleek with tall masts, white sails and Lux Aeterna in gold script along the side.
The sleek white boat stretched for thirty feet. Tall masts, sails unfurled. Lux Aeterna in golden scrollwork along the hull.

You immediately like the second one better, don't you? Not if you're a high school English teacher you don't! Two thirds of it is fraggies! This is where my point about immersing the reader comes in. You're not writing a biography. If you were, sentence fragments would be right out! But you're writing a novel. Fragments help you control pacing and speed. Tell MSWord to kiss off and put them in. You can overuse them of course, but so long as your novel doesn't read like it was written by a caffeinated five year old, you're probably safe.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


There comes a time for writers like me (unprofessional, inexperienced and only mildly talented) to choose a path. One leads down a long brambly dirt road where cars pass you at 90 miles per hour and leave you covered in dust. Ideas are as rare as black republicans and tend to make about as much sense. Your only reading along this path is a Uwe Boll book about a movie about a game he once played. Written in crayon. With no pictures. This path leads to utter disappointment, despair and complete agony.

The second path leads to your demise.

The choice is easy, right? Not so fast. Before you get gunghoe about jumping in front of the next bus, you should know that this was all just a metaphor. Yes, it seemed real, what with all the vaseline on the lens. It was, in fact, describing a common writing issue. Whether or not to abandon a novel.

So you have your Magnum Opus, all 450 thousand pages, sitting in front of you on cinder blocks because it broke your coffee table. You've been rejected by well over a million agents. You have submitted to everyone you can imagine would ever handle a novel in any way and all you received for your troubles was hate mail and restraining orders. Maybe a book about a park ranger struggling to overcome his fear of squirrels isn't worth the trouble, right?

I suppose you could consider my predicament indicative of the fictional mental struggle posted above. My book is not nearly so clever, though I may now have to write such a book (Squirrelocalypse, I'll call it), but the struggle is the same. I've unleashed my mental Indiana Jones into the Lost Temple of Literary Cliches, but he comes back with cuts and bruises and stomps on his hat. So what now?

Only hind sight will ever reveal the best path. There is no surety in our world, only discovered perspective. So I'll make my descision, right or wrong, based on complete stubborn bullheadedness. In a few years I'll look back, tilt my head slightly to the left and say, "Ah, crap."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The best way to avoid getting an agent

Start off by spending a quarter of your life writing an amazing piece of work that you know will floor your dream agent.

Get rejected by your dream agent.

Get rejected by your backup dream agent.

Spend several more years altering your story so that it still floors people, but no longer contains more gerunds than a high school English book.

Submit your query to an agent you didn't dream about, but may have daydreamed about while you were bored standing in line at the bank.

Mention in the query that you are including a sample of three chapters.

Completely forget to include the sample.

Realize it the next morning at work and desperately send in the sample under your work e-mail.

Receive an e-mail from the agent stating that they liked the idea, but needed a sample.

Realize when you get home that the agent has no idea that your work e-mail and personal e-mail are the same person.

Again, with an extremely accelerated heart rate, submit to the agent your original query, the samples, an explanation of the two e-mail addresses and a note at the bottom explaining that you are a complete moron. Seriously, degrade yourself if the most demeaning ways you can imagine. Agents love a complete lack of confidence.

Wait 3 months with your fingers crossed and your bank account dwindling. You see, you were fired for using work e-mail to attempt to further your career outside of your current employer.

One magical, sunny day in the middle of spring, flowers blooming and birds chirping, receive an e-mail from the agent simply asking, "Who are you?"

Monday, August 25, 2008

My First Post - and other shiny sundries lying about

For my first post, I won't wax philosophical. Mainly because I'm simply not smart enough to say anything that's going to make a difference. Were I famous, regardless of my level of intelligence, someone would certainly feel touched by this post. "Oh, my life is changed! Did you hear what he said?" they would post. "He talked about coffee. The hell is wrong with you?" someone would rebuttal.

Since I'm clearly incapable of impacting your life, the sole reason you must be here is because you read that first paragraph and now you're thinking "Go on...". So I shall.

What's the deal with airline food anyways?

Ok, I can't do this. The truth is that I started this blog to improve my writing. And for no other reason. That's right, you didn't even factor into the equation. Sorry boutcha.

I'll be posting the daily goings on in my life here. In case, some day, I do gather a loyal following of readers for the books I completely intend to get published. If my shockingly large stack of rejection letters isn't a clue to the staggering success of my process of elimination tactics for literary agents, I don't know what is. Not money, that's for sure. I don't have any of that...

So stay tuned. Don't click that orange x in the upper right hand corner of your screen. Make a sandwhich, have a seat. Things can only get better from here. Right?