Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How much is too much?

As writers we ask how much is too much all the time. How much X is too much in genre Y? It’s typically questions about sexual content, violence, sexual orientations, etc. But really do the specifics matter? It’s literature. In fiction, shouldn’t the limitation be our own imaginations? In short, the answer to the question how much is too much, should be nothing. Nothing is too much. So why do we keep asking these questions?

Because publishing is a business. We are constantly worried about what will sell, what people will think, how people will react, if we can do it justice and on and on. We know there’s a line. There always is. The world is full of boundaries.

The problem is, if we write to that line, we are limiting ourselves right out of the gate. We aren’t stretching our imaginations, we aren’t stretching the limits, and we aren’t stretching ourselves. If we put an imaginary line out there, we will never know where that line really is, and we never have the opportunity to challenge its current location. We will also never challenge ourselves and never know what we are capable of.

We should be writing the books we want to write. Plain and simple. We should be true to our stories and our characters. It goes back to the Ernest Hemingway quote “Write drunk; edit sober.”  Write like the lines don’t matter. In fact write like the lines don’t exist. Don’t limit yourself.

When we write we shouldn’t be worried about what will sell or what people will think. In reality, there is always going to be someone who has issue with your book regardless of what you put in it, whether you follow the "rules" or not. There will also be people that love it regardless. In fact, there may be people who love your book because you pushed the boundaries, because you broke the "rules". So why are we as writers so worried about what’s too much for our books?

We shouldn't be.

Write the book you want to write. Be true to yourself and what you think needs to go on the page. Honor your characters and their journeys. Worry about whether or not it’s working for your story when you edit. You might surprise yourself. You might just push that line further than you ever expected.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Said is not a Dirty Word

Readers are blind to the word said. When they read they don't even seem to notice it. So why then as writers do we treat it like a four letter word? I know I try to avoid it in any way possible, almost to the detriment of my manuscript. I over emote my characters and give them a billion and one things to do just so I don't have to tag dialogue with the word said. Your characters can only smile, turn to each other, and any other assortment of overused expressions and actions so many times before it gets old, becomes unimportant, and annoys the reader. So why do I avoid said? Because the word drives me bananas. I can't stand the repetition of it. Readers may not notice the word but as a writer I certainly do.

As writers, we like to express our creativity and try to come up with as many possible unique ways to say things. So when it comes to dialogue we apply the same rule. So said, soon becomes, replied, answered, stated, voiced... and on and on and on. The problem is those words don't really tell you anything about what was said or how the dialogue was relayed. And even worse, the constant changing of the tag draws notice, to both readers and writers. The more tags that are used, the more the reader starts paying attention to the tags, which means they aren't paying attention to the story, who's talking, or even what is being said.

Suddenly the writer's creativity has backfired. The reader is paying attention to the writing but in all the wrong ways. What reader ever said, "wow this writer has the most unique way of tagging dialogue?" (see what I did there ;) ) They don't, ever. If they are noticing your dialogue tagging they aren't getting lost in your story. This is bad. When it comes to dialogue the reader should know what is being said, understand it, and know who said it. Plain and simple. If you mix up the dialogue tags too much, the reader is paying attention to the tags in addition to everything else, which is distracting. So do yourself a favor and stick with said. I know it's painful sometimes to see it repeated, trust me, but for the reader it's exactly what they need in order to focus on the important parts of the story.

Do you like to use said in your writing? Does it come naturally or is it like clubbing yourself over the head? As a reader do you notice the use of the word said? What tips do you have for dialogue and tagging?

Sunday, April 7, 2013


As an engineer, subjectivity is one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around. I fully understand that people like what they like and they won't and can't possibly like everything. The trouble emerges when one person says one thing and someone else says the exact opposite. You're darned if you do and darned if you don't which makes it infinitely difficult to find a suitable result. Because that's what engineers do, we find reasonable answers. Even if the answer is, there isn't one.

Growing up we are taught that most things have one right answer. 1+1 = 2 not 5 not 0 not -1 but 2 and 2 alone. As we grow, we learn that sometimes there isn't just one right answer, there could be many, or even an infinite number of them. There's even grey area, partially right, and mostly there. And sometimes the right answer is that there isn't a possible explanation in the realm of our planetary physics. While that too was tough to resign myself to, I learned to accept it.

But subjectivity is a whole other ball of confusion. It's difficult to look at something and say it's darn near grammatically perfect, it's a great idea, and has a good foundation but it's not right for person X, Y, or Z. So in a world where no two people like the exact same things, how do you cater to different individuals likes? The answer is you don't, you can't, and you shouldn't.

As a writer, I have to learn to turn off my analytical, engineer brain sometimes. I have to decide with my heart and my gut, what of other people's preferences resonate with me and ignore what doesn't. At the end of the day, a writer has to be happy with the finished product, subjectivity or not.

While subjectivity is a tough thing to swallow, it shouldn't be what defines us as writers. Although it's a giant part of the business, it isn't everything. There will always be people who don't like your stuff. But there will also be people who more than like it, they may in fact love it. And that's where you can embrace subjectivity. Find the people that get your story and your message and then all the sudden, subjectivity doesn't seem like something to wrestle with anymore.