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Aphids in the story

Have you got aphids in your story?

aphidAphids are today’s metaphor for repetitive and unnecessary words, paragraphs, and scenes that can suck the life out of your story. Aphids undermine the health of your story by:

  • destroying the pacing
  • inserting flab into lines and pages
  • sending the plot wandering

The story may be strong in all other respects, but flab and even short detours can cause readers to grow bored and annoyed. I’m the last person who should tell you to write tight and short, since I enjoy evocative writing. However, that style is no excuse for aphids.

Look for aphids when you’re ready to revise. Adopt a hunter attitude. You’re going to kill these sap sucking little beasts. You’ll be wearing your editor hat for this task, and adopting an editor’s attitude.

Macro level bugs.

Take a look at your chapter and scene openings. Set up paragraphs showing the character traveling, arriving, and thinking about arriving are tiny little story killers. Begin in the middle of a conversation, or at least when the door is already open and the main character’s ex-wife is standing there, frowning. Aftermath sequences where we consider what just happened guarantee that nothing happens right now. Sometimes you gotta have them, but cut out most of them, or piggy back such internal narrative on scenes that do forward the action. Beware of scenes without plot or structural purpose.

Why? Again, pacing. You don’t need one big action scene after the next, but be fearless in cutting scenes when there is no mission the scene delivers.

At the story level, pacing is a tricky element to get right. Your story’s ideal pacing will be dictated by your material and the style of book you’re writing. Also, the amount of description and context will be influenced by the inherent interest of your milieu. One trick I use to grab an overview is to make a list of every scene (whether or not it’s a chapter) and state what the forward movement is, or the vital mission. I rate the scenes from 1 to 5 for conflict and tension. Too many 2s and 3s, and I can suspect pacing is an issue.

It’s easier for readers to forgive background, exposition and character portraits early on in a book,

10% Solution

when the author is providing context and set up for the story. But after the middle of the novel slow pacing becomes a good excuse to put a novel down.

Micro level critters.

At the line level, watch for those life-sucking little quirks that wilt lines in a hurry: liberal use of adjectives, adverbs, and just plain too many words, saying things twice, plus repeating yourself. Any good book on editing will give you cringe-worthy lists of words or syllables that are indicators of aphids at work, such as -ly, -ion, of, that, was, were.

One of the best is Ken Rand’s concise and classic guide, The 10% Solution.

The Garden as a Whole.

IMAG0206It’s amazing how the quality of the whole story can be undermined by things as  small as habitual word choice and a few extraneous paragraphs. But when we consider the experience of the reader, isn’t it true that the pages themselves have to flourish and shine? Every page we write gives the reader either another reason to go on or reason to consider setting this one aside. At the rate people are downloading books onto reading devices, they always have something else to read. I know I do.

Pick up a page of your manuscript at random. How inherently interesting is it? How many critters lurk in the lines?

It is undoubtedly hard to rewrite. Sometimes we get revision blindness because we’re so close to the work that the critters easily hide from us.

A few diagnostic questions.

Here are some questions I use when searching for flab in my stories.

  • Why will anyone care about this scene? What is the point, here?
  • Is there enough tension in this scene? How far have I strayed from strong emotion?
  • Could I cut 10% from this page without hurting it? (Try it!)
  • Am I using a “cinematic eye”? In this movie-obsessed age, I try to remember that my novel is not a movie. In spite of the fact that I may see a movie in my head, I will never convey this movie by writing visual descriptions.
  • Are there opportunities to accelerate the pace after the midpoint, and then further in the book’s last quarter?

If we’ve worked hard at premise, story, and character, let’s not drop the ball with this part of the execution. The pace of your story and the experience of the reader at the line level will have a huge impact on its appeal.

Kay’s Favorite SFF/H Reads in 2015

Categories: Musings |

I read less fiction this year, but among the many fine fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories, here are some of my favorites. The sublime, the infuriating, and the jolly good. Not all published this year.

Bone Clocks The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

Mitchell is back in fine form in another of his ventures into science fiction. This story is more accessible than some of his work (but everyone should read his superb–mainstream– Black Swan Green) and holds the same delights of voice and style. There are evil powers in the contemporary world, and their genesis and motives are fresh, dramatic and convincing.

The PassageThe Passage — Justin Cronin

I have a weakness for apolcolyptic novels, and this is one of the best. Scary yet humanistic, this is not just another vampire novel. When the story jumped ahead to the survivalist outpost, I could hardly put the book down. The ending felt a bit ramped-up; but it’s a small price to pay for this utterly engrossing read.

 

Jewelled fireJeweled Fire – Sharon Shinn

Shinn’s Elementary Blessings series gets stronger with each foray. In Jeweled Fire, a young woman in a foreign court sleuths, dodges and engages the corrupt power brokers in a very fun ensemble cast. Lovely dance of tension around Corene’s unexpected romance.

The accursedThe Accursed – Joyce Carol Oates

The author’s take on vampires and the prim Princeton community is original, even masterful. Lots of meandering indirection, yet her deft touch with terror is worth the read. However the sad ending was annoying. Really, is it necessary to be so fatalistic and contemptuous of human endeavor? I know, life is cruel and we can’t triumph over evil. Or can we?

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro Never let me go

A slow and thoughtful read. The sordid mystery at the center of the story is quickly obvious, yet its full horror continuously builds. This book is a fascinating look at the use of the unreliable narrator. We participate in the heartless subjugation of the underclass precisely because the protagonist is one of the victims, and she supports it. Sad and discouraging as a story–but as a work of subtle manipulation and tenderness, it is amazing.

I wanted to mention a few non-genre books that I loved: The Paying Guestsby Sarah Waters; The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; and Story Fix (Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant) by Larry Brooks.

Paying guest

story fix coverGoldfinch

 

Discouraged writer walks into a bar…

. . . and it was full of other discouraged writers.

OK, lame joke. But sometimes you just have to laugh. It’s that aggravating. Writing, I mean.

The novel being constructed.

The novel being constructed.

What keeps us at it? Naked ambition. Or, more generously: Love. An idiotic addiction to storytelling. Actually, I haven’t figured this out yet. There are a bunch of reasons not to write, certainly: It’s tough to get published, or if you go indie, tough to find readers; it’s tough to keep readers. Also:

  • Annoying, bad reviews,
  • WIPs that won’t catch fire.
  • The doldrums where nothing much gets done despite best intentions.
  • Watching dreck sell like crazy.
  • Getting carpel tunnel from too much keyboarding.
  • People asking “When they’re going to make a move out of your novel.”

But stop me before I head to the bar.

Really, though. There are decent reasons to write, but it’s just a bit elusive to pin them down. This morning my list is:

  • The amazing experience of plumbing your own depths for a story, and miraculously finding one.
  • Membership in a community of other people who find storytelling an important way to spend time (i.e., other writers).
  • Hearing from readers who found your story meaningful, fun, or both!
  • The odd and mystical experience of loving certain characters one has (after all) made up.

    My Summer Vacation, or Existential Dread.

    My Summer Vacation, or Existential Dread.

  • Reprieve from the incessant demands of other options: finding a real job, paying attention to politics, cleaning closets, and using that exercise machine now doing time as a clothes rack.
  • Keeping existential dread at bay. Um. Just threw that in there, though at some level I believe its true.

I’d like to hear your reasons. But please don’t say: “I can’t not write.” Yes you can. There are always choices. Best to try once in a while to articulate why you chose this exasperating, random, and often rewarding life of a writer.  Make a list. It might provide some surprises.

And keep you from griping in the bar at conventions.

A community of writers, e.g., Mike Resnick, Greg Bear, Peter Orullian, Louise Marley, Sharon Shinn, Jay Lake and daughter Bronwyn, J.A. Jance and her dachshund.

DSCN1024

photo

Photo credit: Harry Brink

Jay & Bronwyn

When the cover artist nails it

When you get a knock out cover for your novel, great happiness ensues. OK, so we writers are a superficial lot. But after working for a year or longer on a novel and investing your heart and hopes in it, the day your editor sends you the cover, your finger hovers over the keyboard. Um. To open email or wait for supportive spouse to come home?

Of course you’re not going to wait. And ta DA! It’s fabulous. Not only beautiful, but just exactly, maximumiceperfectly right. The artist nailed it. Celebration ensues, with giddy pleasure all out of proportion, kind of like sitting in front of your very own generous wedge of cherry pie. (Well, maybe not That good.)

I have had this experience five times over my career of 13 books. In deference to the cover artists who tried to nail it, I won’t mention which books they were–except for the one shown here,  my PK Dick nominated novel, Maximum Ice.  Cover artist Matt Forsyth captured so much about this story:

  • The wonder of a crystalized world.
  • The mystery of an ancient habitation abandoned and rediscovered.
  • Zoya, my major character, in communion with an unknowable place.
  • The ambiguity of Ice, both natural and designed.

Well, I told you I was giddy when I saw it.

Maximum Ice is one of 11 PK Dick-nominees and winners available for the next nine days. (Ends October 14.) Pay what you want for this extraordinary group of books!  At StoryBundle.

Includes novels by Walter Jon Williams, Liz Hand, K.W. Jeter, William Barton, Sarah Zettel, Lewis Shiner, Kathe Koja, Gwenyth Jones, and Lisa Mason.

All Covers Large

Prices slashed for PK Dick award novels

Ends October 14. . .

This collection of 11 Philip K. Dick Award winners and finalists from StoryBundle. Receive 6 books for any price, but if you choose to pay $15 for six novels, you receive five more books.

All Covers LargeMy novel Maximum Ice is one of the books offered: Zoya Kundara has lived on the space vessel Star Road for 250 years. As Ship Mother, she is awakened from Deep Sleep in times of crisis. Now the ship has returned home, only to discover an Earth blanketed in a pearl-white mantle called Ice–a grand and mysterious ecology of information-bearing crystals. Welcome home.

This offering was curated by Lisa Mason with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust.