Monday, October 13, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: You Win Some, You Lose Some

Brilliance from the Idea Salesman
Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please?

Will the real Slim Shady please st--No, no wait that isn't where I meant to go next.

Okay, so now that I've gotten your attention and either made you snort-laugh at the idea of me rapping or alienated you with an outdated reference you didn't get, I have some news. A couple bits of it actually.

Do you want the good news first? Or the bad news?

Muse: You should always start with bad news. That way people have something to look forward to.

No one asked you, Muse.

Muse: Actually you just asked all of us.

Inner Editor: She's right, you know. On both counts. You did ask us. And beginning with the bad news also allows you to end on a positive note.

Both of you, sheesh. What did I do to deserve both of you butting into my blog post?

Muse: Well yo--

Yeah, yeah, I know, I asked. Anyway, fine, we'll do it your way and lead off with the buzz kill sucky news.

Renee is taking a break from blogging. Not a little one, like when she had the surgery over the summer. A long one, for like the rest of the freaking year. She's got a bunch of personal crap she's getting herself through and she doesn't have a lot of time and stuff. Plus, she's trying to get Guardian done on time and when push came to shove, she decided that had to come first.

It's all very logical and right. Writers write and not writing so she could spend time writing about writing was a crap idea. Fine. I get it.

It still sucks. I like blogging. Blogging is awesome and I don't want to wait three months for my next post.

Because I am going to have things to talk about. Can we move on to the good news now please?!?!?

Of course we can. This is my blog post. So here it is:

Renee has given me permission to try to sell a piece of her flash fiction!!!

Huzzah! This is it, folks. This is the one we've been waiting for. This is my big chance. I have been called up to The Show. Time for me to prove how awesome I can be at this gig.

She gave herself until the 15th to finish getting it all polished up and shiny and then it's all mine. And first thing Wednesday morning, it's going out the door. I already know where I'm sending it and what the submission guidelines are and everything, so we can hit the ground running.

I am ready, baby!

Now it's poor form to get too much into specifics about what you send where and how they responded, but I'll find a way to keep you all apprised of any big news. Keep an eye on Twitter, I suppose, since there won't be updates here for a while.

Maybe, since she's taking the blog away from us for a while, I can convince Renee to let us all get our own Twitter accounts. . .

Muse: No.

Inner Editor: Absolutely not.

Renee: I refuse to spend any more time than I already do talking to myself on the internet.

Sheesh, ladies, it was just an idea.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Writer Was Willing, but the Words Were Weak

Or, how many words starting with W can Renee cram into a cliché title?

There are these awful writing moments when I shy away from the keyboard. Everything will be rolling right along and then suddenly it'll all screech to a halt, my fingers refusing to type the word my brain says come next.

Because I have been taught, you see, to avoid these particular words at all costs. For they are the Plague-Bearers, the Harbingers of Doom, the Destroyers of Voice.

In reality, this halt is really more like a little skip of a dusty DVD. I pause, remind myself that all words are wonderful (and I can always fix them in revisions if they're not), and then I make myself keep going. I sometimes even defiantly pound out the letters of those scary words, just to stick it to the imaginary man glaring over my shoulder.

Just what are these horrible words that frighten me deep in the back of my writerly psyche?

Be verbs.

Such a simple, tiny word, be. It's cute and round and how could such a sweet little word be bad? I mean, sure, add an extra e to the end and then you've got bees, a terrifying swarm of flying stinging insects of death. But be? Who could be opposed to be?

I'll tell you who. People who don't understand passive voice.

Passive voice is killer of all writing, apparently, and if you use it, your novel is going to be less than worthless. It'll be boring and tired and awful and no one will ever want to read it. The only thing worse that slipping into passive voice is marinating your prose in adverbs.

It sounds like I'm being a little dramatic here, but seriously, people cling to the notion that you should avoid passive voice in your writing like it's a central tenet of their religion or the fight song of their favorite college football team. They get downright militant about the whole thing.

Me, I'm a little more flexible about these things. Can the use of passive voice make a sentence bulky and confusing when there's a much simpler and more direct way to phrase things? Sure. But so can a lot of other things.

Passive voice is, like just about any other tool in the writer's toolbox, something that can be used well or poorly, depending entirely on the skill of the writer. Passive voice can do things like help set a tone, mislead the reader, and shift the focus of a sentence. Or it can clutter everything up and make the whole damn thing impossible to read.

The thing you're looking at when you've got the latter is called an ID10T user error, to use one of Long-Suffering Husband's favorite techy phrases.

I think a lot of the reason people take such a hardline approach with passive voice is that they don't really understand it and we're hardwired to fear (and subsequently hate) that which we don't understand.

Which brings me back to the dreaded be verbs. Because even the people who teach this stuff don't always know what it means. You see, I beat my head against this particular bit of writing advice for years before really understanding it because way back in the day an English teacher told me that passive voice meant I'd used a be verb. I was tasked with memorizing a list of 23 be verbs (which to this day I can still recite*) and told to highlight and then eliminate every single one of the damn things.

SPOILER ALERT: Passive voice doesn't mean you used a be verb.

For those who don't know, passive voice is basically when the subject of the sentence isn't the one performing the verb. I could draw you pretty diagrams of various sentences to show you a visual representation of this type of construction. . .

Actually, no I couldn't. I haven't diagrammed a sentence in a very long time and I'm pretty sure I'd screw it up. But other people, people more interested in and/or who have more recently studied linguistics and such, could, in theory, draw you such diagrams.

Basically, in any given sentence, a thing happens. With active voice, the subject of the sentence does the thing. Janine killed Bob. With passive voice, the subject of the sentence has the thing done to them instead. Bob was killed.

There are a couple of tricks for recognizing passive voice. A popular one lately is this: can you add "by zombies" to the sentence and it still works? For example, if you look at the sentence Bob was killed, the zombie trick turns it into Bob was killed by zombies. That makes sense--and sounds like not a lot of fun for Bob, but he's dead either way so I imagine he's not very fussed about it--so that's passive voice.

This trick doesn't always work though, especially if you've already done it without realizing it. If I'd written the sentence Bob was killed by Janine and I just tried to tack on a "by zombies", it would end up Bob was killed by Janine by zombies and if I wasn't paying attention, I might think, "oh, that doesn't make sense, so my sentence must not be passive."

You can also try stripping your sentences down to the minimum and seeing if their meaning changes. Reduce the sentence to just the noun and the verb, without any embellishments or helpers or add-ons at all. Bob was killed becomes Bob killed.

Looks like Bob is a little confused. First he was dead and now he's a murder. Hey, Bob, at least you're not dead anymore. That's good news, right?

Oh, wait, Bob was dead and now he's not and he's killing people. Um. . . I think we might have just turned poor Bob into a zombie. . . Oops.

Moving on. This method isn't my favorite. While it's also potentially amusing, there are exceptions to the rule big enough to drive one of those extra wide house-moving trucks through. Plus, it can be annoying. I mean, the average sentence in fiction writing is 14-22 words. Reducing them all down to 2 or 3 words is tedious and just plain obnoxious. Plus you have to split up all your compound sentences in order for it to work. It just gets messy.

And another trick to recognizing passive voice, the one my poor old English teacher clung to as gospel, is to go hunting through your text for be verbs. This one is so popular because it's easy. Just do a global find or two (or 23) and presto, you've found all your passive sentences! Woohoo! In the Bob was killed example, a simple search for was will point right to it and let you know to rewrite your sentence.

But this one doesn't always work either. If I'd written Bob was hungry instead of Bob was killed, the be verb trick would yield a false positive. Bob was hungry isn't passive voice. But, in a particularly zealous fit of passive voice eradicating fervor, you might accidentally rewrite the sentence as something silly, like Bob hungered, and now we really have turned Bob into a zombie. . .

Yeah, zombies aren't the only ones who need brains. Apparently we writers have to have them on occasion as well.

The bottom line is that none of the "tricks" for identifying passive voice always work. Which is kind of good. Because passive voice serves its purpose and you wouldn't want to just stamp it out of existence everywhere. The zealots out there, as zealots are wont to do, have gotten so caught up in what they're looking for that they've forgotten why they're looking for it. The idea isn't the global eradication of passive voice just for the sake of some weird grammarian prejudice. What would that particular prejudice even be called? Voicism is already taken.

Instead, think of it this way: who wants to read about Bob anyway? He's just lying there being dead. His story is over. (Unless you zombified him, at which point maybe we do want to read about him after all.) Janine, the character who is going around killing the poor Bobs of the world, is the interesting one. She's the one with the agency, making the story happen. And that's the point. The main reason to make the sentence active instead of passive is to keep us focused on the characters who are actually doing things, rather than having things done to them.


*The list, in case you're curious, is this: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, has, have, had, do, does, did, could, should, would, can, may, might, must, will, and shall. Don't look at me like that. I didn't make up the list. I just memorized it and applied it to my writing for several years until someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about corrected me.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: Just a Taste... For Now

Wisdom of an Inner Editor
For a long time, Renee was staunchly anti-reread, meaning she refused to read anything we'd written previously until she was completely done with the draft. She claimed it made the writing process too difficult, that the urge to revise became too strong to ignore, and she feared I would take over the process and prevent her from moving forward.

I suspect this stance was the result of the previous Muse's influence. Not to speak ill of another abstract, but my former coworker had something of a flair for the melodramatic and she did not enjoy sharing Renee's limited attention.

Not that I was offended by this behavior. Because, of course, as an Inner Editor, I was able to view the situation objectively, and I don't take things personally anyway.

Thankfully, the current Muse has no such problem and actually enjoys working in a collaborative environment. As a result, I am no longer forced to spend several months a year on leave of absence to avoid the risk of being tied up and locked in a closet.

This Muse and I work together every day. First I sit down with Renee and go through the previous day's writings, smoothing out the really rough spots and cleaning up typos here and there. Then the Muse takes over and they spend a few minute planning out what comes next. And finally Renee sets her timer and writes as fast as she can, racing against the dawn.

I think this plan works very well. Ideally, I would enjoy more time with Renee each morning, as well as permission to do more than just a basic wipe down of the visible surfaces. Perhaps then we would come to the end of the writing process with a nice clean draft that requires only superficial polishing.

Manuscripts like that seem to be something like unicorns to me. I've never seen one, but I've heard tell.

But that fear of stalling out still lingers in the back of Renee's mind like the last remnants of the old Muse's (distinctly not-subtle) perfume, sticking to the cushions and sending up little puffs of panic at unexpected moments. And so for the time being, until we can get this place wholly aired out and leave everything smelling like confidence, I'll take what I can get.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Renee's Reading: The Witch with No Name, by Kim Harrision

Buckle up, boys and girls, I've got a doozy of a review for you today. I just had so many thoughts about this one that I couldn't contain them all.

And this is the short version.

The Witch with No Name, by Kim Harrison
Rachel Morgan's come a long way from the clutzy runner of Dead Witch Walking. She's faced vampires and werewolves, banshees, witches, and soul-eating demons. She's crossed worlds, channeled gods, and accepted her place as a day-walking demon. She's lost friends and lovers and family, and an old enemy has become something much more.

But power demands responsibility, and world-changers must always pay a price. That time is now.

To save Ivy's soul and the rest of the living vampires, to keep the demonic ever after and our own world from destruction, Rachel Morgan will risk everything.

Whenever I read the last book in a series, I can't help comparing it to the first book. How far have the characters come? Are the bad guys still bad? Are the good guys still good? And is the world a bigger place than it used to be? Smaller? Just the same as it ever was? Where is the moral center of the story? Has it shifted into a grey area, or are black and white still running the show?

The Hollows series was just change all over the place. I saw an interesting post on Ms. Harrison's blog where she talked about the thought process that went into designing the cover for this latest and final installment, and one of the things she mentioned was that Rachel's posture on this cover mirrors the cover of the first book. (For that post, click here.) But other than the way she's standing, pretty much everything about Rachel and her world has changed.

I mean, here are the two covers side by side:

In many ways, they're very similar. After all, both have Rachel standing there, hip cocked, with a magical weapon near at hand, facing down a semi-obscured background structure. But the original Rachel's magical weapon is a comical-looking pair of charmed handcuffs, her hair looks kinda like she dyed is with a crayon or something and it's flying all over the place, and the background structure is a creepy church that's mostly hidden by black shadows and fog. In contrast, the current Rachel is holding gold and white power like a sword that comes from her own hand, her appearance is decidedly more smooth and controlled, and the background image is a bridge covered in magic and white light. Plus, she's not alone.

Hello, Symbolism; look at you just all over everything. Seriously, I could write pages and pages just analyzing these covers. Heck, I could probably pages and pages just on the bridge alone, before I even got rolling on all the other stuff.

And the contrast is a very good representation of the progress the series has made. I remember reading the first book and really loving the way Rachel got all fired up and huffy because she wasn't being treated like the rock star she thought she was, and, with the typical arrogance of any reasonably talented young person, she went off on her own, bit off way the heck more than she could chew, and got her ass thoroughly handed to her. What a great starting point for a character!

Thirteen books later, I really feel like Harrison delivered on the potential of that opening book. There are a lot of parallels here, but we're dealing with a totally different Rachel Morgan these days. She still does ridiculous things sometimes, especially to protect those she loves, but she does them knowing and accepting the possible consequences. She's still demanding respect from the authority figures in her life, but she's doing it from a place of actual power now, rather than just a perceived one. And she's still working with a strange collection of grudging allies, but by this point she's the one drawing them in and leading, rather than keeping everyone at arm's length and trying to run off on her own. There has been so much great character growth here.

This series has done a great job of using every installment to build the characters up a little bit more, so that when you come to the finale, you really feel like they've been heading to this point all along. Yes, there were some characters that seemed to have come and gone without much impact, but even they served their purpose, opening up doors on their way in and out. When taken as a whole, there really is a very impressively built arc to this series.

Specific to this book itself, I really liked this story. There was a lot of the great action and humor and sass that have come to be staples of the series. I have been waiting for them to deal with the vampire issue for several books now and I figured Cormel had to be growing just as impatient. And I liked how the situation with Ivy specifically drove the bigger storyline of the showdown between the elves and the demons, grounding the whole adventure and keeping it from getting too steeped in end-of-the-world, for-the-fate-of-us-all grandiosity.

I've seen some complaints online about the continued presence and increasing importance of Nina. People really don't like her. She's not my particular cup of tea either, but I remind myself that Rachel can be an unreliable narrator at times and we've only seen Nina and Ivy's relationship through her eyes. Rachel doesn't like her, so of course she doesn't come across to the reader as likeable. But there were some very strong moments, both good and bad, between her and Ivy and I enjoyed seeing that.

There were some really high quality emotional moments for Rachel too, both with Ivy and Jenks, and with Al, and especially Trent. I didn't think I would, but I do like the way Rachel and Trent fit together, even if Rachel's constant inadequacy issues have started to wear a bit thin.

(Speaking of characters who've evolved over the course of the series. . . anyone remember how Al and Trent were the big monsters in book 1?)

There's a lot of action in this book, a lot of crazy people doing crazy things because they think it's the best way to get what they want, and somehow Rachel is the one who has to be the voice of reason and hold the whole thing together. Thirteen books ago I know I certainly wouldn't have trusted her with something like the fates of every species in this world and the Ever-After, but now it seems like she's the best possible choice.

A spectacular finale to a very enjoyable series. I loved the way Harrision wrote this book and this series and I'm very glad to have read along.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Work is Feeling Very Work-y Right Now

WARNING: I'm going to do a little whining. Because I'm feeling whiny. And I couldn't think of anything else to blog about.

As the abstracts have mentioned in their Monday updates, I've recently started over writing Guardian. I completely replotted the whole thing and (sadly) most of what I wrote before is gone. I'm starting over from scratch.

I should be bubbling over with excitement and flush with the fresh joy of beginning a new creation. That initial zing of energy that comes from starting something new should be bouncing me along better than an extra large many-shot coffee with tons of sugar.

It's not. I'm actually feeling generally. . . blah.

I don't have writer's block. At least, not in the traditional sense of the words. It's not that I can't think of anything to say. The writing is not hard for me right now. I'm right at the beginning of the story and I'm all plotted out and the scenes are blooming in my head and all is well with my fictional world.

But I'm finding it really hard to actually get there. My life has been crazy these last few months and, as I'm sure my infrequent tweets and blog posts have shown, I've been having trouble keeping myself above water. When I have time to write, I pretty much just want to put my head down on the keyboard and sleep instead. I'm physically and mentally and emotionally run down and I'm just so tired.

I'm not entirely sure what to do about all this except to just keep going, the same as I have to do with everything else in my life. If I was a writer on television, perhaps I'd disappear on a mysterious writing retreat, hole up in the mountains or on a tropical island or something, just me and my laptop, to recharge my introvert batteries and reconnect with my writerly self.

Alas, I am not a writer on television. I barely even play one on the internet these days. Here in reality, holidays come and go. Illnesses and injuries attack and a beaten back. The school year swings back into session. The seasons dance across the calendar, and time marches ever on. And intellectually I know that if I just stick to the plan and keep slogging along, things will level out and eventually I'll start to feel normal again.

Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. Good things come to those who work. This too shall pass. Baby steps. Just keep swimming. [INSERT RANDOM SEMI-INSPIRATIONAL CLICHÉ HERE]

Which is not to say that I'm spinning my wheels and not getting anything done. I finish the first draft of "Fishwife" and, as I mentioned above, fully replotted Guardian after all. I've got another short story forming up in the background as well, so that should be ready to go as soon as Guardian is finished.

But while I don't have typical writer's block, but I am a writer blocked all the same. And it sucks. I feel cheated, knowing I should be riding my writing high and not being able to.