“Attribution adverbs rule,” he said sardonically.

“Get off your lazy butt,” she whispered softly.

“I’m not lazy,” he said defensively.  “I’m a creative writing professor, I frickin‘ cross out adverbs all day long!  It’s hard work!”  He set his coke can gently on the coffee table.  “Especially adverbs modifying verbs of attribution,” he muttered woodenly.

She rolled her eyes and barked back, “All the bestsellers use adverbs of attribution, but what do they know!  You’re the unpublished expert.”

Attribution adverbs, such as, “he said flatly,” are fine, in my humble and yet infallible opinion (imhayio), as long as they’re not omniscient-viewpoint things (words arising from an all-knowing perspective).

Attribution adverbs need to be the viewpoint character’s interpretation of something that was spoken.

Ask yourself, “is my viewpoint character coming up with this adverb, or is it me?”

Here’s what I mean…

Example of a decent attribution adverb from the vp character’s perspective:

“‘I love to be brutalized,’ he squeals jokingly. Or is he serious? With that lampshade on his head, I’m not sure.”

The viewpoint character is telling the reader how she interprets the guy’s words.  The fact that she doubts her initial interpretation after she tells you that he was joking, makes this clear, I think.

Now here’s a hack’s “god-like” omniscient adverb in the same setting:

“‘I love to be brutalized,’ he says jokingly, though I’m just stupid enough to think he’s serious.”

Note that it’s a third-party, the all-knowing author, who has informed the reader that the guy is joking. The vp character thinks he’s serious, so she couldn’t have done it.

The viewpoint character is ready to bare her soul to the reader, but an all-knowing voice jumps in with an omniscient adverb and puts distance between them.

Avoiding omniscient adverbs is especially important in young adult work where many authors write from the limited viewpoint of a first-person character’s perspective (first person narrative) in present tense.  Here’s an example…

I stumble on the rolling deck. It’s icy, 2:00 AM. I’m shaking. “Joseph, I know she’s here. I smell that stupid perfume.” My brother’s pistol is cold in my palm. Don’t jam again.

In first person narrative, present tense, it’s as if the vp character were telling the story word-for-word in real-time.  Notice that the vp character is unaware of things she couldn’t logically know. 

But here’s the point I wanted to make: if you’re aware that attribution adverbs (in the first person, present tense narrative, at least) should be provided by the viewpoint character and not by the author, the knowledge frees you to use these taboo things… to express the vp character’s emotion and her interpretation of other’s emotions.

Emotions are the key to most things in fiction writing, I believe.

Ultimately, if a writing professor were to cross your adverb out, you could say to yourself, “This is the way my viewpoint character told me the story. She’s not as well-educated as I am.  If I cheated on her behalf, and made her sound like a university professor, I’d be hiding the truth of who she is.”

Writing as if you are “channeling” the vp character frees you from the university dogma, “Don’t use adverbs of attribution,” and its unspoken corollary, “always feel self-conscious about your writing voice.”

When the dear professor does this:  “‘No!’ she said flatly.”

Say to yourself, “The vp character said, ‘flatly,’ I didn’t.”

If this starts a discussion that finally brings your professor to denigrate authors such as Suzanne Collins, his negativity reflects denial of how infinitely more difficult and worthwhile it is to create a riveting story with living characters than to obsess over inbred, outdated writing rules that are being abandoned faster than creative writing classes.

I say, use adverbs whenever your viewpoint character feels them.

Never doubt the voice of your viewpoint character. Don’t think too much about your own writing voice. For the most part, it’s not you, it’s the viewpoint character doing the writing.

M. Talmage Moorehead


Body Language Surrounding Dialogue

When I write a first draft, it’s almost all dialogue.  I don’t know why.  I do try to get across some body language, mostly facial body language, I guess, but it’s frustrating.  How many ways can Johanna wrinkle her nose or catch herself mouth breathing?

Is focusing on facial expressions a hack tendency?  Probably.  At least for hacks who aren’t good at it.

The following might be extremely useful to those writing for late teens and their parents.  Below, I’ve gone through several pages of “The Hunger Games” by Collins, taking out phrases that show characters’ feelings and meanings through body language – including the most shunned and yet content-rich form of body language, the tone of the character’s voice.  If you’re a hack, you might want to copy and paste this stuff to a Word document, print it out and read it every day for a while.  Here goes:

List of body language phrases from “The Hunger Games”, changed to third person, past tense just for the fun of it.

“I was being very mysterious,” she said, her eyes squinted half shut

she beamed at us so brilliantly that we had no choice but to respond enthusiastically.

said Effie grimly.

she said, looking up at the girl.

snapped Effie.

She asked stupidly.

she stammered, and the wine was not helping.

Peta snapped his fingers.

even our own party let out an, “Ahh!” as they…

said Haymitch to Peta and her.

(Peta talking) “Have you been on the roof yet?”  She shook her head.  (Peta talking again in the same paragraph) “Cinna showed me…”

She translated this into, “No one will hear us talking,” in her head.

he admitted.

she whispered.

he whispered back.

For a moment she was silent as she remembered how… [flashback]

…,” she continued to Peta, “…

he asked…

…she replied.

he asked, as he secured a button at her neck.

…Peta blurted out.  Then he looked around nervously. It was loud enough to hear above the chimes.  He laughed… He’d covered again.  If that was all you heard, it would have just sounded like the words of a scared tribute, not someone contemplating the unquestionable goodness of the Capitol.

Peta nodded, unreadable.

“Yes,” she said, observing him carefully.

She exchanged a look with Peta.

she asked him suspiciously.

she snapped at him.

he shot back.

…,” she told Heymitch

said Peta in disgust.

…if I get jumped I’m dead!” She could hear her voice rising in anger.

…,” burst out Peta.

she said with a wave of dismissal.

that pulled her up short.

she saw the pain in Peta’s eyes and knew he wasn’t lying.

Peta rolled his eyes at Haymitch, “She has no idea. The effect she can have.”

She muttered.

Peta and she nodded.

She heard Peta’s voice in her head.

We both started to object, but Haymitch slammed his hand on the table.

She bit her lip and stalked back to her room, making sure Peta could hear the door slam.  She sat on the bed, hating Haymitch, hating Peta, and hating herself for…

Who, by the way, clearly didn’t want to be partnering up with her either.

Obviously meaning to demean her, right?  But a tiny part of her wondered if this was a compliment.

she caught herself biting her nails.  She stopped at once.

Her heart sank.

Now she saw nothing but contempt in the glances of the Career Tributes.

Peta nudged her arm and she jumped.

His expression was sober.

the trainer seemed pleased…

Peta genuinely seemed to enjoy this

The trainer was full of enthusiasm about his work.

he admitted to me.

…,” began Peta.

…,” she broke in.

[they] were sitting alone like lost sheep.

Haymitch kept dogging us about it

They both gave a somewhat convincing laugh and ignored the stares from around the room.

it was wearing us both out.

there had been a chill in the air between us.

She tried to animate her face as she recalled the event

Peta laughed and asked questions right on cue.  He was much better at this than she was.

…,” he whispered to me.

he said softly.

She bit her lip.

…?” She asked him, more harshly than she intended.

…,” he said back.

Haymitch and Effie grilled us

Not that Haymitch and Effie are fighting anymore, they seem to be of one mind, determined…

Peta mumbles

She made a sound that was somewhere between a snort and a laugh. Then caught herself.  It was messing with her mind too much,

he said tiredly.

“…the weights.” The words came out of her mouth without permission.

She nodded. She didn’t know why she said anything at all.

She smoothed her hair, set her shoulders back and walked into the Gymnasium.

She shoulder-rolled forward, came up on one knee, and…

[they] nodded approval

[they] were fixated on…

Suddenly she was furious

Her heart started to pound

Without thinking, she

She heard shouts of alarm as people stumbled back.

she gave a slight bow and walked toward the exit without being dismissed.

She brushed past

[she] hit the number 12 button with her fist

before the tears started running down her cheeks

then she really began to sob.

she was so angry at being ignored.

she should have stayed and apologized

she shouted for them to go away

it took… an hour for her to cry herself out.

She just lay curled up on the bed, stroking the silken sheets, watching the sun set over the artificial candy capitol.

She calmed down.

The saltiness reminded her of her tears.

She let her eyes meet Peta’s.  He raised his eyebrows. A question. What happened? She just gave her head a small shake.

Then, as [something happened], she heard Haymitch say,

Peta jumped in. “I don’t know that it mattered…

Somehow Haymitch calling her sweetheart ticked her off enough that she was able to speak.

Everyone stopped eating.

The horror in Effie’s voice confirmed her worse [sic] suspicions.

she said defiantly.

said Cinna carefully.

gasped Effie.

she felt like a ton of coal had dropped on her.

And she realized the impossible had happened.  They had actually cheered her up. Haymitch picked up a pork chop with his fingers, which made Effie frown, and dunked it in his wine.  He ripped off a hunk of meat and started to chuckle.  “What were their faces like?”

___________

That last line of Haymitch’s is a taunt to hack writers like me around the world.  Although Collins doesn’t spend much time describing the actual expressions on faces, she tells you other things that answer the question fairly specifically, “What were their faces like?”

Go back and read the whole list again and each time ask yourself if you can see the expression on the face of the character.

For instance, “She smoothed her hair, set her shoulders back and walked into the Gymnasium.”  Tell me you can’t see her face.  It’s all there.  She’s got a determined, confident look.  If you’re a total hack like me, you’re going to describe where her eyebrows were, whether her eyes were wide, squinted or otherwise.  You’re going to say that she clenched her jaws tight and almost bit the inside of her mouth.  You would say that she flared her nostrils ever so slightly.  But none of it would be as good as, “She smoothed her hair, set her shoulders back and walked into the Gymnasium.”

The reason it’s not as good has to do with the work factor of reading.  More words for the same effect equals more energy required to read.  Since it’s so important, I want to talk about it in a new way…

Directed attention happens when you see a new book, decide you’re going to read it, and start reading through the first chapter.  Fascination kicks in when you begin to feel for the main character enough to genuinely care what will happen to her.

At that point, your mind is resting from the task of “directed attention,” and has switched over into the “involuntary attention” of fascination.

This is based on Attention Restoration Therapy (A.R.T.), “…the separation of attention into two components: involuntary attention, where attention is captured by inherently intriguing or important stimuli, and voluntary or directed attention, where attention is directed by cognitive-control processes [self-discipline].”

Here’s more about A.R.T.:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_restoration_theory

But I digress…

Collins can show you a character’s face without saying one word about the actual face.  This is an efficient use of words.  It gives “involuntary attention” (fascination) a chance to survive the self-disciplined work of reading.

Good readers may never understand this because reading is effortless to them.  But if they decide to write fiction, they ought to trust a slow-reading hack on this.

My listing of Collins tools and brush strokes (above) taught me other odd things…

First off, look at all the adverbs she uses!  How can my adverb-o-phobia survive?

And what about economy of the villainous adjectives?  She let’s ’em fly and readers eat them up.

Every time I’ve had a writer who’s above hack level edit my stuff, he/she crosses out all kinds of words that Collins has left in this best-selling young adult novel.  Even the never-surviving-once-in-my-life word, “just,” is standing there on her pages in defiance.  When I write, I delete the word, “just,” several times per page.  I’ve been brainwashed.

Can anyone explain this to me?  Seriously, I’m not just trying to get you to “leave a comment” on my site so I can rejoice over my blog’s first comment and go eat some Ice Cream and Ruffles.  And turn the TV on.  Hmmm.

Actually that may be entirely it.

Never mind.

Another thing, though.  As I was re-reading “Hunger Games” in analytic mode, I noticed what a huge percentage of every page is devoted to expressing how the characters feel, especially how Katness feels.  This is facilitated by her writing in first person present.  Every word is Katness talking intimately and honestly with the reader.

But how-to books on writing, as well as the various writers who have “edited” my stuff, have always expunged my sparse use of “inner dialogue,” saying, “It slows the pace.”

What?  The Hunger Games reads like a roadster and it’s overflowing with inner dialogue.  The whole book, in my view, is dialogue (Katniss talking to the reader).

I remember back in the 90’s when I first started reading books written to help fiction writers. They hammered home the meaning and the eternal importance of having one viewpoint character at a time, preferably sticking to that one viewpoint for at least the whole chapter, if not the whole book.  But when I would grab a best-seller at the store, I’d see omniscient viewpoint quite often.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but…

Successful authors actually do have a secret handshake.  I don’t know if they chant and sacrifice goats, but they definitely meet in the dark and pay hooded ghouls to write “how to” books for hacks, making sure to preach the opposite of what’s selling.

It’s like the school system, teaching kids exactly the opposite of what they would need to know if they wanted to avoid working for peanuts to make somebody else rich.

But I digress…

It seems that if you want to write a young adult novel, you should think about writing in first person present. Make every paragraph pregnant with someone’s feelings.  Use adverbs and adjectives as much as you want, perhaps more than you want if you’re OCD about it, like I am.  And forget about complete sentences.  They suck.  That’s the new rule.

Have you heard it said that young adult writers don’t have to be as “good” as those writing for grown-ups?

I don’t believe it.  True there is more freedom to focus on the character’s emotions.  Yeah, maybe you can get away with adverbs and adjectives – at least if you’re Collins.  But bringing characters to life is pretty much impossible no matter what type of story you write.  Taking a reader from the task of reading to a state of fascination where the book almost reads itself is magic.  Very few books can do that for me because my poor reading ability (maybe a touch of dyslexia) makes the act of reading a lot more work than it should be.

Young Adult writers seem to have more freedom of choice and less tolerance of dogma.  Personally, I find that inspiring.

M. Talmage Moorehead


Simultaneous Submissions are like UFO’s

drums 021Before I waste your time, let me point out a good article on this subject from someone who seems to know what she’s talking about.  (I don’t know her, by the way):

http://www.writingforchildrenandteens.com/submissions/exclusive-submission-or-simultaneous-submission/

And now for the infallible opinion of a hack…

You’ll often hear authors of famous works say that their first story was rejected a zillion times.  Here’s one, Hank:

“The script for Rocky was rejected over a hundred times.”

There are too many of these stories for them to all be lies.  Let’s imagine the Rocky myth is true.  How would you get a manuscript rejected a hundred times (before your 90th birthday) without simultaneous submissions?

I can’t think of any possible way.

It takes at least three months to get a rejection slip from an agent or editor.  That’s twenty-five years!  (Three months x 100 rejections = 300 months = 25 years.)

I’ve had agents take six months to reject a query letter.  That would take 50 years for a hundred rejections.

Either Sylvester Stallone and many other successful writers sent their first works to hoards of agents and editors simultaneously, or we’ve all been wrong about UFO’s.

According to some sources, the majority of surveyed Americans admit they believe in UFO’s.  But you don’t personally know anyone who admits they think UFO’s are real, do you?  I don’t.

I think UFO’s are real, but I won’t admit it.

The same thing goes on with successful authors. It must! Before success, they sent simultaneous submissions to truckloads of agents and editors, regardless of the ubiquitous “No Simultaneous Submission” notices. And after they got famous, they denied their actions, or just refused to say anything about it.

But they would probably come clean on an anonymous survey, same as the rest of us do with regard to UFO’s. Huh?

Recently I wrote an email to an author and asked if perhaps some successful authors didn’t secretly break the rules against simultaneous submissions.

His response was terse and implied that I was a lower form of life – and incidentally, one who had misspelled “query.” He ranted to the effect that only an idiot would think there is a conspiracy “with secret handshakes” going on among successful authors.

I’ll admit I’m an idiot, but still…

I asked him if he’d perhaps gotten out of bed on the wrong side. I referred to him as a hot-shot, and advised him not to write back to me in the future.

But he did. He’s a better man that I am, it would seem.

His tone was kinder and not at all self-righteous. He said something like, “Let me put it this way, the agents and editors prefer that you don’t do it.”

“Wink-nod” was written between the lines, I thought.

When you hunt for an agent or editor, it’s sales work.  Selling is a numbers game: Only a tiny percent of potential customers actually buy, but if you can put your product in front of a few million of them, you’ll probably sell something.

Would any rational salesperson give exclusivity to one disinterested customer at a time?  And wait three months for the near-certain rejection of the product?

No chance in hell.

The whole idea is ridiculous, except to fiction writers. We’re a special kind of stupid. Morally above the whole money thing. If you threaten to call us a mean name, like “whore,” we’ll try to convince ourselves that we don’t care about money. We’re artists. We’ll prove it and starve.

Well, I’ll admit there is something about writing fiction that feels transcendent, beyond normal life. But there’s nothing inherently wonderful about working hard and remaining poor.

When I finish the novel I’m working on, I’m going to find some simple variant of “simultaneous submissions” and do a credible sales job, whether the agents and editors like it or not. I’m too old to wait for the continental shelves to shift.

Nevertheless, I do apologize in advance for the terrible inconvenience I’ll be causing those nice people behind the desks who reject thousands of novels each year without reading them. I’m sorry, fellers.

In the final analysis, what’s more likely to sink your writing career…

Two competing agents who love your novel but decide to reject it because they’ve magically contacted each other at the precise moment necessary to discover you’ve committed the heinous crime of simultaneous submissions…

or Alzheimer’s Disease?

M. Talmage Moorehead

Update: Since writing this I’ve been told by a traditionally published author that simultaneous submissions are common among successful authors, at least on first novels.


Understanding the Sociopath Character

imageWhen you search for your villain’s personality there’s a tendency to write a stereotypical “DSM IV” sociopath.

Don’t do it.

These people are individuals, each unique and interesting. The generalizations, while central to science and medicine, don’t define individuals.

Some sociopaths have no clue they’ve got a problem. They seem fine.

Did you catch the recent documentary of a well-adjusted, normally functioning research doc doing brain scans on criminal sociopaths? At the same time, he was also doing a personal study on his extended family to see if there was evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

One day he came to work and found a misplaced sociopath’s scan in the pile with his family’s scans. At least, that’s what he thought…

But it was his own scan!

This was the first time he’d seen it. To his horror it showed the typical sociopath’s pattern: a lack of activity around the central structures.

When he told his friends about it they said essentially, “Yeah, everybody knows you’re a sociopath. The way you like to verbally jab at people and whatnot. But you’re harmless.”

Can you imagine? I think I would die. But he took it pretty well.

There are other sociopaths who know they’ve got the condition, know all the technical details, but don’t consider it a problem at all.

I know of a young sociopath who says he’s smart about having the condition and wouldn’t do anything illegal or devious because it wouldn’t benefit him, it would just land him in jail. Acting on dangerous urges would be illogical for a person who truly cares about himself, he told me. It turns out that a logical, smart sociopath can look at the long-term consequences of his actions in a selfish way, not just the short-term “rewards.”

This guy made no bones about his condition. He admitted to his wife that he didn’t care about her or the kids. She stuck with him just the same. Maybe she gave him credit for his honesty, and saw his openness as a sign that he was trying.

He told me that once his wife asked him something similar to this: “If I took pills and killed myself, what would you do?” He told her essentially this, “If you made a mess on the floor, I wouldn’t clean it up. Somebody else would have to take our kids, I wouldn’t keep them. If you survived with brain-damage, I wouldn’t stick around to take care of you.”

Holy smokes! But isn’t it interesting that she stayed with him?

This young man was providing food and shelter for his family. No one can deny that. He was stable in society. Nobody would have known what kind of person he was inside if he hadn’t volunteered the information.

Interestingly, he didn’t relate a crossroads moment in his past where he was seized by the evil choice to care only about himself. He said he was born that way.

Imagine the courage it took to tell his wife and everybody else all this negative stuff about himself.

A writer could create a hero with these characteristics, rather than a villain. Others have.

Imagine the thrill of writing a scene where this young guy experiences his first feelings of caring for another human being! Or imagine writing the disappointment he would feel if he’d tried and tried to love someone but just couldn’t.

A round, interesting villain or possibly “superhero” would emerge.

Some other sociopaths are afraid of becoming evil. They struggle with dark desires, hiding them from others with falsely caring words, or hiding everything from themselves in denial.

The ever-present bell-shaped curve of biologic systems exists for hat size, crying at movies, and every other trait with a genetic or environmental component. The genius of the bell curve is the broad perspective and objectivity it give us.

It helps us create round characters more intelligently by placing most people in the center of any characteristic.

The majority is close to average. A few individuals lie in the curve’s thinning tails. (Few = thin.) The thin tails contain rare people with shocking amounts of whatever characteristic is under consideration. This makes things interesting, but also tends to paint the entire group with the extreme traits of the rarest individuals within it (because so many of us ignorantly see groups in “black and white” terms).

But great writers don’t fall for the simple generalizations of all-or-none thinking. They seem to see nature’s bell-shaped curves that keep characters realistic.

Notice the TV and big screen “good guys” with sociopathic traits: Spock, Data, The Mentalist, Dexter. The writers have avoided stereotypes so well that we don’t considers them sociopaths, for the most part. Do we? Dexter, yes, he’s billed as a sociopath, but even he’s a good guy to everyone I know who watches him. Why is that?

There was a line from The Mentalist where Mr. Jane says to the tall, younger redheaded woman, Van Pelt:

“A little nice with the bitch, a little bitch with the nice.”

Jane was giving Miss Van Pelt some advice on how to interact with people, as if to say, “Don’t be a black and white, two-dimensional character. A little edge makes niceness more meaningful. A touch of kindness makes a person’s harshness more effective.”

Hmm…

I think this brilliant dialogue was, at some level, a gifted writer with a great deal of success under her/his belt offering advice to us on how to draw powerful characters, even those with traits of a sociopath.

I imagine this writer saying to me, “When your characters get angry, keep a touch of gentleness in them, and when they’re trying to be totally supportive, maintain an undercurrent of firmness. This is how effective people of all types behave.”

M. Talmage Moorehead