JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

The Problems with Quirky Dialogue Tags

Feb
17
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This is just bad advice. Said will never be dead, because said is better writing.

I saw this image come across my Facebook feed the other day and felt it would make a good little writing post. There were a lot of comments on the post, and even the ones that argued against fancy dialogue tags didn’t seem to understand why that was an important rule.

While it is important to know the rules of writing (or any other activity), it is equally important to know why the rules are important. If you don’t understand the why, you might get duped into following a bad rule (such as “said is dead”). Also if you don’t understand the rule, you won’t know when it is appropriate to break the rule.

I have worked with writers and editors who have learned the rules, but did not understand them. One editor called me out for my use of adverbs in a flash story (there were only 7 in the whole piece!) without considering and recognizing that there was no alternative language to be used in their stead (how else would you describe an animal “slowly rising to its feet”?). In order to use our words at their best, we have to understand the reasoning behind the writing rules we follow.

In this case, some of the commenters mentioned one of the reasons why complex dialogue tags should be avoided: it can be jarring, can draw the reader out of the POV. Often times the use of “said” becomes invisible, the reader only noticing the who and not the how.

But there is a more fundamental problem with these dialogue tags, one that I have often seen in writing I have edited and reviews. It is the same fundamental problem with adverbs behind the rule to avoid them as well, especially -ly adverbs and especially in conjunction with dialogue tags. The problem is they are usually unnecessary.

Good writing is that which examines each and every word, forcing each to earn its place in the prose. Redundancy and over explanation should be avoided when at all possible. There are two ways that dialogue tags become unnecessary and unwanted: 1) they are redundant, 2) they tell rather than show.

In the first case, complex dialogue tags are often unnecessary, or should be unnecessary. There is no need to use the word “shouted” if the dialogue is “Get off my lawn!”–the exclamation point and what is being said tells the reader this is being shouted. So any extra dialogue tag is unwarranted. The best way to convey a sense of how something is being said, is to write the dialogue in a manner that will show this. Instead of “stuttered,” you can write it into the dialogue–“I-I D-don’t n-n-know.” Same with things like “huffed” or “stammered”–try “I…didn’t…see…where he went,” she said, struggling to catch her breath. Good writing should convey the meaning inherent in the tag in the dialogue itself, rendering it redundant.

Which leads to the second issue, telling instead of showing. Telling the reader that the character “fumed” doesn’t actually show anything. You are telling the reader, “this character feels angry,” and generally speaking, it is better to show emotion. Instead of “I hate this!” he fumed, try “I hate this!” he said, throwing the book hard into the ground. Give your reader a tangible action to witness, if it is important to call any attention to emotions or  behavior. (It typically isn’t, as the dialogue should carry the tone mostly without actions. Nothing is worse than having an action after every line of dialogue.)

Lastly, some of these are simply not dialogue tags. A person cannot physically laugh, giggle, or grunt out words. That is contrary to what these words mean.  If you want to show a character laughing in conjunction with a statement, that requires a separate sentence. Not “You look like you’ve been having quite a day,” he laughed–but rather “You look like you’ve been having quite a day.” He laughed. That is the only logical way to use such verbs, based on their very definitions. Also, thinking tags such as thought, wondered, or pondered are not speaking and thus cannot replace said, as this chart seems to suggest. That’s just silly.

I think there are a lot of writers out there who are hell-bent on doing things their way, rules be damned. Indeed some of the comments on the Facebook post were along the lines of “Even famous writers break the rules, so what do they matter, and who are these academics to tell me what to do.” That’s a fine attitude to have, if you don’t care whether you’ll be published or not.

Yes, established writers do break the rules. But often it is because they know how to break the rules because they understand the reasoning behind the rules. And of course, any writer or editor cannot catch every mistake. This is not the same as it not being a mistake. And this does not mean an amateur writer can get away with the same behavior.

A new writer is under much greater scrutiny than a veteran. All you are doing, by using flamboyant dialogue tags in your writing, is throwing up red flags and giving editors an excuse to reject you. Don’t do it.

Of course, like any rule, there are times when this one should be broken. Maybe you’re short on space, or the dialogue just can’t convey the exact meaning you want. There are times when a more meaningful alternative might be appropriate (but never quaked, belted, requested, or numerous other bad examples in this list). Like with adverbs, you should consider carefully each and every violation of the rule, ensuring it is justified (you should, in fact, be doing this with every single word in your prose, but we are all only human).

Well, those are my thoughts. I hope they help you improve your writing. I know thinking about these sorts of things helps mine!

Thanks for reading.

~JM

When Your Description is Meaningless

Feb
10
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Describe me, I dare you.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King offers many tips on how to write good description. But in doing so, he reveals a fundamental problem with his style of writing–using words that have no inherent meaning.

King does this a lot in IT. He references pop culture without describing the referents. He’ll drop a song title without lyrics, or casually mention a film or an actor. To a reader who does not already have specific knowledge of these referents (which in the case of IT, means knowledge of the 1950s), it will simply be “that one song” or “that one guy who starred in that one movie one time”–meaningless.

This can also be seen in a oft-quoted passage from On Writing where King describes how to describe. He suggests avoiding long descriptions about physical characteristics or clothes and suggests instead:

“If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us.”

If you think about his example description for a while, you realize it means very little on its own (besides the “bad complexion” part, but that is ambiguous without context–a bad complexion could be acne, it could be age, it could be sun damage, or countless other things). King’s description is all referential. It depends completely on the cultural knowledge and experience of the reader.

King expects his reader to have the very same life experience as he did. He says here “We all remember one or more high school losers, after all”. What if you didn’t go to high school? What if you were home-schooled? What if you aren’t even American?

The latter question is key for us as modern writers. King started writing when it was not expected to break out beyond your country, or even your local region. It was all print, and logistics were a pain. Now, thanks to Amazon and ebooks, every writer is a global writer. I have English readers from the UK, Australia, Singapore, South Africa. They are not going to get descriptions that rely solely on cultural knowledge.

We Americans think it is good description because we understand the reference, but I actually think this is very poor description in the long run.

What if someone picks the book up after 100 years, when there is no more high school because knowledge is digitally injected into our brains? Oh, and everyone wears the same Star Trek-style unitards, so fashion is no longer a thing. Then the description he offers says nothing to the reader. I think it is much better to actually describe the girl’s face and clothes, rather than rely on references that are not going to endure, or may not even be understood by some modern readers.

And yet he does it again when he moves on to location description. After providing a sample passage that relies on cultural references such as “maitre d” and “twenties speakeasy,” he asks how it could be improved by saying:

“There are plenty of details I could have added–the narrowness of the room, Tony Bennett on the sound system, the Yankees bumper-sticker on the cash register–but what would be the point?”

Only one of these three details has inherent meaning. I certainly couldn’t bring a Tonny Bennet song to mind when asked. The Yankees reference might have more global reach, but is still limited. Not everyone is going to get that this detail is placing the location in New York.

Regarding description, King states:

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

This is, indeed, absolutely true. Writer’s have an idea in their head and good writing is that which coveys the idea to the reader. The trouble is that I have different tools in my head–a different culture, life experience, and lexicon–and I must be sure that the words I use to describe my scene are not dependent on those things that are exclusive to my own mind.

If you don’t pay attention to this, you are setting yourself up for failure somewhere down the line, even if it’s a century from now. I imagine that is one reason why the classics still endure. I don’t remember Dickens citing popular culture in his descriptions. And when things do come up that are expected to be strange for the reader–such as everything about whaling in Melville–they are explained in detail. King takes shortcuts, but sometimes shortcuts are a trap.

I’ll leave this post with a bit of a positive. I’m not suggesting that On Writing is a bad book. It’s actually a very good, if basic, writing guide–excepting the above issue, of course. Another passage from the pages surrounding he ones quoted above states:

“I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story
of mine looked like–I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well.”

I think this is the ultimate truth, at least in regards to character description. The reader is going to end up generating their own image of the character. So yes, keep the description short since there is only so much the reader will heed, but at the same time make sure your words are meaningful and not just empty references.

Thanks for reading.

~JM

Newsletter Delays

Feb
02

If you’ve been following this blog as of late, you’ll know that I’ve been saying for a couple weeks (few weeks?) that I will soon send out my next newsletter. This will conveniently hit about a three month mark, establishing it as a quarterly, which I think is a good fit for me.

If you’re wondering what’s taking so long, the reason is that I still need to shoot the video. But there is good reason why this part is delayed. I will be making my little video at a special location! Just a little something to reveal a bit about myself and where I live. It’ll be fun, I promise. But I needed a free weekend to do it. Luckily tomorrow is free!

I also want to show you how the print copies of The Adventures of Iric came out. SPOILER ALERT, they came out really nice. I will explain why, and how I did it.

If I shoot the video this weekend, I should have the newsletter out sometime next week. But the only way you’re going to see it, is if you join my little RABBLE! The sign-up is on the right side of the page, or on the pop-up.

On an unrelated note, this morning has been interesting. I’ve got some encouraging news about In the Valley of Magic, that I am just waiting for confirmation for. The book might have finally found a home.

I also read an interesting article by Chuck Wendig about book turn-offs. I am not a fan of Wendig–I tried reading his Star Wars novel and was immediately put off by the narrative voice. But the advice here is good.

Here’s one of my take away quotes:

“If it’s sci-fi, it’s loaded for bear with bewildering sciencey stuff, or if it’s fantasy it’s all funky names with magical apostrophes, or if it’s horror it’s more interested in soaking the pages in raw, red gore and horror tropes. Context is king, yet again. Character is everything. Root me in the character. Make me care. Then layer in the genre elements. It’s like a cake — it’s easy to make icing taste good, but too much of it is gross.” – Chuck Wendig

I’ve peer review a lot of SF/F work that is like this, obsessed with its genre-nature rather than the story and characters. And nothing turns me off from a fantasy story faster than apostrophes everywhere, particularly in the names of main characters and locations. I think a lot of people don’t realize that those things actually have a specific function in Tolkien. The old man was a linguist; he created entire languages from scratch. All those marks have rules. They aren’t just thrown about arbitrarily.

Well, that’s my writing tip for the day. Time to get back to work. Thanks for dropping by!

~JM

Stephen King’s IT — I Just Can’t

Feb
01

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Failure sucks. When you set a goal for yourself, it can be disheartening to not reach it, no matter the circumstances. I have mentioned on this blog for several months now, I think, that I was working my way through Stephen King’s IT, one of the favorite stories of my childhood. But I just can’t do it. I can’t go on.

Fourty hours in and I’ve still got three hours left in the audiobook, but I can’t. I know what you’re saying. Only three hours! Just get it done! That’s what I thought two weeks ago when there was only four hours left, and see how that went. Part of me wonders what the hell can be in those last three hours, as the lead characters have already confronted the monster in its lair. What is there that is left to say? Tangents, tangents and more tangents–the most recent one a potty-humor digression about exploding toilets that was as humorous as it was relevant. Meaning not at all. Which is why I am giving up.

IT was my favorite King story since I saw the old TV miniseries starring Tim Curry. I loved the idea of outcast kids banding together to fight a powerful monster, and returning as adults–returning to their childhood in a way–to kill it for good. After being very impressed by King’s writing manual and memoir, On Writing, I decided to dive in. Little could I have know that IT was written well before King learned how to write.

There are too many problems with the text to go into detail here. I was planning to do a thorough review, but I no longer have the patience or desire. Here are just a few of the issues:

  1. In On Writing, King tells us to avoid adverbs as much as possible, particularly in conjunction with dialogue tags. In IT, I would guess a good quarter of all the dialogue tags have adverbs.
  2. The POV and narrative voice is horrible. This book clearly wants to be in limited third-person POV, but King throws in a lot of unnecessary omniscient bits for no clear reason. He also makes some horrible choices of which character’s POV to be in, such as the long-winded section in the beginning from Stan’s wife’s POV, describing this irrelevant woman’s life background when the only important bit of the section is Stan’s suicide. King shows in places a competency to do POV well, using narrative voice to color his villains. However, he is not consistent, and the voice for the protagonists is bland by comparison. Then there is the section from It’s POV which is complete nonsense, since there is no way to relay the point-of-view of an omnipotent evil.
  3. The narration is problematic in many other ways, such as tense. The story has two different threads, one in past tense and one in present. Until suddenly, and without reason, the present tense thread starts being told in past tense. Not only is this incredibly confusing as the narrative begins to jump quickly between past and present, it is also totally illogical, since present time events at the end of the book told in past tense actually occur after earlier events told in present tense. You can’t have past tense events come after present tense events in time, that’s just absurd.
  4. Another, equally problematic issue with the narration is the tendency to go off on tangents that have no real bearing on the immediate story. There are entire chapters that can be removed, without affecting the story at all. The whole second chapter, that deals with characters entirely unrelated to the protagonists, and which comes before we even meet the protagonists, is one example. Another is the entire Patrick Hogsteadder chapter, which only slows down the narrative as it is reaching it’s crisis.
  5. The villains are boring. The places in the narrative where we either get the monster’s POV, or have the monster speak to us, do not help make the creature more interesting. In fact, the opposite is true. The more we know about It, the less terrifying it is. There is something about an unknowable horror that is compelling. On the flip side, the secondary villain, Henry, is boring because he is given no depth. By simply making him crazy, the character falls flat. Much more interesting would be a Henry who feels justified in tormenting the kids, and hunting the adults for payback, due to what he learned from his father as a child. Psychopathy is not necessary, and is rather a hindrance.
  6. The book is blatantly sexist. The treatment of the only female lead in the book is horrible. Despite attempting to show a liberalness to things like racism and sexism, the work falls flat on the latter end. Everything about Beverly is presented, in some way, as related to men, whether it be her father or her husband or her friends. She is given no real agency of her own. Also she is the only character who is sexualized in the book, whether by appearance or description or the situations she finds her self in (such as watching the bully boys masturbate–part of that completely unnecessary Patrick chapter). Another example of the overt sexualization of Beverly is when the adults are in It’s lair, holding hands to send their power to Mike who is under threat in the hospital, it is Beverly who is described as “rolling her head in ecstasy.” This is followed by a comment about orgasms. She is also routinely seen with her shirt open, with numerous comments made about her breasts. When describing her as an eleven or twelve year old. No other character’s sex life is described, but Bev’s is scrutinized. It all becomes clear during the “love scene” between Bill and Bev. Here you realize that she is just a sexual object for King’s own fantasies, acted out through his stand-in Bill, the successful horror writer who critics hate. The comparison could not be more obvious.

Much more could be said, but I just want to be done with it. Maybe someday in the future, I will finish those last hours, so that I can say that I did it, I battled through, but not now.

This whole experience has only gone to show just how much better at storytelling the filmmakers of both versions of IT on video were than King himself. They understood the need to cut all the needless fat (which in the case of the book, I would say is around a third of it), to stick to the main plot, to have a coherent POV and timeline, to not over explain the monster, to not make Henry just a crazy guy, and to respect the female cast, among other things.

Stephen King routinely rants about the criticism he received early in his career, but I see now that it was well deserved. He was not a great writer, not even very good. But he managed to rope an agent or editor in with his first novel Carrie, and from that point on, he was in the club. Merit was no longer required.

This feels horribly unfair, as modern writers will usually only get an agent contract for a single book, and will have to submit again and be subject to the same scrutiny as the first time. And modern writers have to know how to write well, from the very beginning. We have to study and practice. We have to know all that stuff in On Writing, and be able to implement it, before our first noteworthy publication. King didn’t. That sucks.

At it’s core, IT is a great story about childhood, and the power of having an open, inquisitive, childish mind. But the execution fails. For anyone looking for the best version of the story, the 1990 miniseries is the way to go. It is more true to the original concept than the new films, but without all the troubles of the original text.

Well, that’s it. I’ve said my peace and now it’s time to move on. I think I need to jump back into the Discworld for a little while, to recover my sanity.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

I’m getting ready to send out my next newsletter in the coming weeks. I will be including an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!

SHARE: Book Cover Psychology

Jan
31

Book covers have been a recurring issue for me as of late. I know, right? Who’d think authors have to worry about covers and such.

I’ve engaged with two small publishers for my fantasy manuscript In the Valley of Magic, and covers have been part of both debates. In the end, I had to pull back on both offers as I was unsure I would get a cover I could stand behind.

A book’s cover is perhaps the most important factor for market success. This is likely only truer today than ever before. When there were only print bookstores, a reader always had an easy chance to look inside a book when deciding whether to buy or not. These days, the book cover is likely the only thing that a reader will see–and perhaps a blurb, which is also part of the cover–before making a final decision. Yes, Amazon and other stores have “look inside” functions, but how often are those used? Worse, your book might often appear side-by-side with other works in a thumbnail gallery, where it is only your front cover image that sets you apart.

The need for a great cover cannot be overstated. To that end, I’d like to share an article that came to me through Draft2Digital, which I used to publish The Adventures of Iric on non-Amazon retailers. The article has some great points on how to design attractive covers. These tips are not only useful for designers, but for authors as well. I have previously written about how important it is for authors to be involved in the cover design process. To do this, you should have some sense of what makes for a good cover.

Check out the article and tell me what you think about the cover design process.

~JM


The Psychology of a Good Book Cover

Covers are the first bit of customer-facing marketing that your reader will ever see. They’re a shortcut—telling the reader in shorthand that they’ll like this book, that it’s in the genre they love to read, and that the person who wrote it is someone they can trust with their valuable (often limited) reading time. That’s a lot of information to pack into one image, and still make it effective. So what’s the secret psychology behind choosing a good cover?

And choosing … there’s a reason we’re describing covers as a choice the author makes, rather than harping on the idea of do-it-yourself versus hire-someone cover design… READ MORE


I’m getting ready to send out my next newsletter in the coming weeks. I will be including an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!

3 Tips for More Productive Writing

Jan
15

The past year and a half has given me a few insights about writing productivity that’s I’d like to share.

1) Wake up early and keep a regular schedule.

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I’ve had a lot of free time to write after quitting my full time job in 2016 (not having full-time employment has proved to not be the boon it’s cracked up to be). I work full days at different jobs from time to time, but many days I am just off for the whole day. I have found that waking up at a regular time, as if if it is a regular work day, sets me up for success later on. For me, this is around 7am. I think it has to do with creating the right mindset, expecting a day of work rather than a day of rest.

2) Put on pants.

I imagine this is much the same as the previous tip, setting the mood for work. It may be tempting to stay in sweats or PJs if you are going to be home all day, but putting on regular clothes tells your psyche that it’s time to get to busy. For me, that’s pants.

3) Note your ideas when they come, not when you think you have time.

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Even though I been blessed with a lot of time to write, I don’t always have time when I need it. In a similar way, I often get ideas at the absolute worst time–in bed, in the bath, in the car, etc. I’ve found that it is critical to take note of the idea once I have the slightest chance. If I am parked for a moment, waiting to pick someone up, I jot a note in my phone or record a voice note. If in bed, I often wake up to take a note then go back to sleep. If in the bath, I just mull it over until I get out. It has been shown that writing something down helps you remember.

Now, I have a couple dozen ideas in my notes and if I every find myself without something to write, I just have to look there. Also, reviewing my story notes from time to time often welcomes a spontaneous muse and helps me bring the story to fruition. This is precisely what happened with the most recent short story I wrote, which I submitted to the previous quarter of Writers of the Future.

In the end,

it’s about generating and maintaining the right state of mind. Any writer knows that if you don’t have the right mind, you can’t write well, even if you force it. And even if you wake up early and get dressed for success, it does not guarantee that the day’s writing will go off without a hitch. But it is an easy way to set the groundwork for a good day.

Hope these tips help! Good luck with your writing.

~JM

I will be sending out my next newsletter, in honor of the new year, which will include an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!

 

REBLOG: Man vs. Self – A Guide to Writing Internal Conflict — R. Morgan Stories

Dec
28

Here’s a great rundown of psychological struggles for you characters that I couldn’t help but share. R. Morgan does a great job distilling concepts like gestalt down into digestible bits. Some of you might recognize the must vs. need conflict, which I think is very similar or the same as the “truth and lie” concept in character arcs. All in all, a good post that might be a”good starting point for a character who seems to have no or very little development.”

~J.M.

A psychological point of view to writing internal struggles

via Man vs. Self – A Guide to Writing Internal Conflict — R. Morgan Stories

What Makes a Classic?

Dec
21

This is something that has been brewing in my head for some time. Perhaps fermenting is a better word, because it’s begun to stink.

I ask you, what makes a book a classic? Besides that some stuffy old white men in an ivory tower say so. What makes a book or a story endure?

It’s well acknowledged that Moby Dick is terrible long winded, that Melville in his opus, had a tendency to go on long tangents.

The book Dune, by Frank Herbert, is often consider the best science fiction novel of all time. But it, too, suffers from some weak writing, and more critically, constant and almost nonsensical point-of-view jumps. Not only is the POV done in a way to reveal everything upfront, leaving no room for the reader to wonder or inquire about events or character motives, the POV even jumps heads after one or two paragraphs!

An interesting side note is the fact that the “best science fiction book of all time” is actually more fantasy than science fiction. Sure it’s set in space, in what seems to be the future, but little about how the world functions is explained, and explanation is what makes science fiction scientific. But I digress.

Both Moby Dick and Dune are considered by many to be classics. Both have been reprinted continuously and have had their stories told in other formats such as film, to this day. This is despite the fact that if someone were to have pitched either manuscript to a modern agent or publisher, it probably wouldn’t make the cut for the problems I have already mentioned.

What’s another famous book that has been reprinted and turned into film several times?

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Tim Curry will always be Pennywise to me.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that It is a literary masterwork. But Stephen King is one of the most popular writers of our time. And as noted in The Guardian, “It is one of King’s most enduring novels; it’s crossed over from just being read by his fans, and become a part of a wider cultural consciousness.”

But IT is far from a great book. In places, it is even outright bad. I am currently about sixty percent through the audiobook, but I know the story, I’ve seen the movies. And I am becoming more and more convinced that the movies are simply better.

Most people will tell you, about any film adaptation, that the book is better. This is primarily due to the book having more content, and being able to explain the characters better, cover more ground. In the case of IT, length is a bane not a boon.

Clocking in at 1100 pages or more, depending on the format, the book is a beast. Length is not, by itself, a problem. There are many long books that work just fine. But people seem to have a tendancy to equate length to quality, that a long epic must be some sort of masterpiece. Masterpiece IT is not.

It was Stephen King himself that famously said in his manual On Writing to “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” To this he was rehashing the age old writing rule of write once, cut twice. Writers today are expected to cut down their work, to make it efficient and concise.

It’s perhaps not surprising that On Writing was first published in 2000, almost 15 years after IT. And it shows.

In this book, King violates almost all of his writing rules. In regards to cutting and editing, the book has several sections and even chapters, that have no bearing on the central characters. They might be nice and scary chapters, they might illuminate the monster a bit, but they are far from essential. They would not survive a modern publishers red pen.

The structure of the book is all over the place, and relies on the main character having amnesia, an old cliche. There’s a reason why the films are more appealing. They are linear, and don’t really mention the amnesia bit. It is, in fact, wholly unnecessary for the characters to not remember the events of their past in order to bring the memories up in the narrative bit by bit. It is a a tired, and unnecessary narrative tool.

Then there is the writing itself. King said in On Writing, “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created for the timid writer in mind.” Well, King must have been timid in his earlier days, because his book is just stuff with adverbs, bad adverbs. Things like “[the door] banged gustily” and “sitting miserably.”

These combinations of verbs and adverbs don’t even make sense. Adverbs are tied directly to the verb they are modifying. So in the case of “banged gustily”, while King surely meant to mean that the closing of the door caused a gust of wind, what it really means is the sound of the bang was like the wind, as in not loud or at all intimidating. And how does someone “sit miserably”? When I heard that one, the first thing that came to mind was sitting on thumb tacks or something. The miserableness must be related to the verb sitting, that’s how adverbs work. It does not relate to the state of the person sitting. To convey that, you should say something like “Richie was miserable, sitting by himself.”

King continues his assault on adverbs in On Writing, saying “I insist you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions.” Tell that to the guy who wrote IT. I would guess that more than a quarter of the dialogue tags in that book have adverbs. There are whole exchanges where each new dialogue tag has some cute adverb after it. Some are just bad, like “‘daddy… ‘ she whispered huskily.” How do you whisper huskily? A husky voice to me is one that is deep and resonant, the opposite of a whisper.

And of course there’s the problem with Beverly. King should be given credit for how socially conscious his book is. He addresses class, and racism. You even get the feeling that he tries to deal with sexism, too, but he fails. The book is horribly sexist. The only lead female character is constructed solely through her relationships to men. She is also the only character that is sexualized, and often. We are introduced to her in a chapter section that is in the POV of her abusive husband.

Moreover, I have trouble believing that Beverly, after being abused by her father, would fall in with another abuser. My understanding is that child abuse makes people hyper-vigilant, and turns them into future abusers, not victims. There is a time when, during that introductory section, I get the feeling that King might be leading us on, that Tom Rogan just thinks he is in charge and it’s Beverly abusing him. But no joy.  Tom Rogan turns out to be one of the most cliched, and unbelievable characters I have ever read (“I’m going to teach her a lesson”–does any man, even the most abusive chauvinist really think that? I feel like they probably don’t process what they are doing until it’s done).

So with all the problems in this book, and the others mentioned earlier, why are they considered classics?

It’s the story.

King’s book might have problems with it’s prose and structure, but the story is incredible. There’s a reason why Moby Dick is replicated in countless revenge stories. Most people know what Romeo and Juliet is about, but can’t recite more than a few lines from it and often mistake the meaning (wherefore art thou, Romeo?). But the stories are timeless.

The stories are classic.

Well, that’s all the time I have for right now. I think I’ve said my peace about IT. Now I need to finish it. The audiobook is 44 hours! What in the heck?

What do you guys think? Have you read any classics that probably wouldn’t cut it today?

~J.M.

Where to Submit? — Magical Crime Scene Investigation

Dec
08

I have written many times here how I don’t usually write specifically for prompts. But if I did, and if I had more time to write these sorts of stories, this weird anthology would be just the sort of thing I would write for.

It’s called “MCSI: Magical Crime Scene Investigation” and here’s the description:

Sometimes the tools that mundane detectives use to solve the crimes of the world just aren’t enough – sometimes you have to call on a little magic. We’re looking for urban fantasy stories that involve a crime scene and require the investigator to use magic or engage the aid of a magical being to solve the crime. Did the house’s hob see what really happened in the domestic violence incident? Does a detective come into possession of a genie’s lamp that will grant him one wish, and he uses it to solve the case that got away? Does your gumshoe use a tracking spell to find the perpetrator using a few strands of hair she found at the scene? The people in your world can use magic openly or on the sly, it’s all up to you. But your story must be urban fantasy, and involve a crime scene and magic in some way.

Now detective stories are right up my alley, but unfortunately there’s no magic in my Storm Hamilton universe. If I had the time, I could see myself writing something new for this. Maybe a hard-boiled private dick who is aided by a shady demon? Dibs! I totally called dibs on that concept you guys, too bad. You snooze, you lose.

The pay isn’t pro rate but not horrible either, at $25 per story and a contributor’s copy. They accept reprints, but only pay $10 for those. If you’re looking for a strange story prompt to write for, you could do much worse than this.

Submissions close at the end of January. And like all pubs I promote here, there are no submission fees. So, just go for it!

~J.M.

My Story Submission Process

Dec
04

It feels like I haven’t written about my current writing process in quite some time, but a recent comment from the wonderful Joy Pixley has me thinking about it again. She is not the first to comment to me that I seem to have had a lot of success in publishing.

I posted long ago about my story submission tracker. This is my method of keeping notes on all my submissions, which is necessary since my basic strategy is to write and submit a lot. The tracker is based on spreadsheets I use all the time in the Army.

Here’s part of the tracker as it looks now:

1

The tracker is now much too large to try to share in full. It has more than 60 rows and 28 columns. I have extended the submission attempts for a single piece out to 13, though in practice, the most times I have submitted a single story is still only 11. I have two stories currently on their 11th attempt, stories I like to think are particularly good.

If I were to sum up my submission strategy in once picture, it would be this:

2

My current acceptance ratio is around 1 in 5. Is that good or bad? I cannot say. I’ve also submitted almost 60 stories in total. At least 30 of these were first sent out by the middle of February. I am slowing down now as larger projects (and real work) take more of my time.

I think success is highly subjective. I’ve have 33 stories accepted for publication (also a novella and a fantasy series). Is that success?

I have not yet been published in a pro-rated magazine (SFWA defines pro rate as 6c/word). For a 5000-word story, a pro-rated sale would be over $300US. Currently my best sale is only around $50, though I did win $300 in a contest. Of course, I want a pro-rated sale. That would make all this work feel like it accomplished what was intended. Does that mean I am not yet a success?

To be brutally honest, I am not sure. I feel good about my writing and publishing so far, but I know I have a long way to go.

If I could offer any advice, it would be to not give up. Don’t send your story to a single publisher and give up if it is rejected. After a rejection, you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. At first, I was always feeling on tenterhooks, waiting for a response, only to be devastated when the form letter came. I’ve come now to expect rejection. This makes it easy when rejection does come, and a delightful surprise with each acceptance.

Also, don’t read too much into a publisher before submitting. A lot of places will suggest to read a copy of the mag before sending, but this is often A) a ploy to get sales and B) an arbitrary restriction on the content of submissions. Editors often don’t know what they like until they see it. If the publication is in the same genre as your work, and doesn’t have a blanked rejection on some aspect of it (for example, some speculative fiction publishers won’t take certain subgenres and others have specific content such as sex or gore that they won’t accept), send it in.

Think about it. What’s the worst, and best, thing that could happen? Worst, you get a form rejection. Let me tell you, you’re going to get a whole lot of those no matter what you do. But the best thing would be getting a sale! It seems entirely worth the risk, doesn’t it?

The review process is completely subjective. A certain editor might just not like your style or voice, no matter the content. And many places have only one or two people doing initial reads, that first step that gets your work from the slush pile into the hands of someone who will actually give it the time and attention it deserves.

I learned over the past year that the editors of Daily Science Fiction don’t like my style. Each one of the stories I have sent to them–which varied significantly in style and content and even structure–got form rejections, despite being clearly better written, at least technically, than much of what they do end up publishing. On the flip side, the editor of Bards and Sages seems to enjoy my style, as she has accepted three of my pieces so far, currently my best sales.

While I am now more inclined to send my stuff to Bards and Sages, since I know the editor likes my work and have enjoyed working with her, I still continue to try new places. Most of my submissions in the past month were to new publishers.

That’s really it. Submit often and submit a lot. Not much of a strategy.

Of course, you must read each publisher’s submission guidelines carefully, often necessitating substantial formatting changes to your manuscripts. And you want to be sure you are submitting to places that publish your genre. But other than that, just write a whole lot and don’t let rejections discourage you.

What comes along with submitting often is a deeper understanding of the publishing process. My experience with other publishers, and in reading many publishing contracts, allowed me to quickly identify a sketchy publisher who offered me a contract for my book In the Valley of Magic. I was quickly able to not only identify behaviors the editors and other members were demonstrating that were not right, but also quickly see a dozen significant problems with the contract. That deal was dead before it even started.

All of the writing has also helped me develop my skills and personal style. The stories I write now are clearly better than the ones I wrote even 6 months ago. After 4 or 5 submissions to the Writer’s of the Future Contest, I finally earned an Honorable Mention. My writing is getting better with each story, so maybe that pro-rate sale will come eventually.

That’s about it. No magic. No special rituals. I don’t have the chance to do any networking, as I live in Asia and do not have access to conferences and conventions. I just spam my work to anywhere I think it might fit. Maybe it was inevitable to find some being accepted.

Thanks for reading. If you have any specific questions, drop them in the comments.

Good luck with your writing!

~J.M.