“We live not for today, but for the ages yet to come, and the children yet unborn.” — Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Archive for November, 2010

“Self” Expression: Part 1

What’s wrong with this next sentence?

It’s odd Mary isn’t answering her phone, he thought to himself.

If you said “nothing,” you’re probably perpetrating one of the prevalent problems I encounter in manuscripts, that is, the incorrect or overuse of the “self” pronouns. In fact, it’s an epidemic of self.

What’s wrong with that sentence is that unless the speaker—let’s call him Norman—is a telepath, who else would he be thinking to, if not “himself”? The phrase “to himself” is redundant, but you’d be amazed how many people still use it when writing internal monologue.

Okay, how about this?

“Walking the familiar streets, John found himself outside the old drugstore where he had worked as a teen.”

Nothing wrong there, right? Guess again. 

The phrase “found himself” implies that the person doing the action lacks knowledge of either where he is or how he got there. It’s also weak wording. 

The nonrestrictive phrase that starts this sentence—“Walking the familiar streets”—says John both knew where he was and was there by conscious decision. There’s no ambiguity about his being outside the drugstore so he doesn’t, in fact, “find himself” there. He just is there.

Notice how using an action verb increases the strength of the sentence.

Walking the familiar streets, John stopped outside the old drugstore where he had worked as a teen.

Having people “find themselves” doing or thinking things instead of just doing or thinking them is what I refer to as lazy writing. It’s okay to use it in a first draft, but it should be replaced forthwith on the first revision, and it has no place in a manuscript you’re planning to send to an agent or editor.

Better yet, train yourself not to use it at all unless it exactly suits the situation. 

How might we phrase this sentence so that it not only eliminates the incorrect usage but actually provides more information than it already does (which is that John worked as a teen, a fact that we will assume is important either to our knowledge of John or to the story)?

“Walking the familiar streets, John discovered the drugstore where he had worked as a teen was still there, although now the logo of a national chain hung above the glass-paned door.”

What do we now know? We know that John worked in a drugstore as a teen. The use of discover suggests he’s returned to his hometown after having been away for some years. We also know that there have been changes.


”The stores and buildings he held in his memory had been replaced by fast-food restaurants and flashy chainstore franchises. He was both surprised and delighted, then, to discover the drugstore where he had earned his gas money as a teen still nestled unchanged between a Pizza Hut and a Dollar Store.”

Lots more color and information, and John is now finding what he’s supposed to—the drugstore—instead of “himself.” 

Yes, there are times when it’s appropriate to have a character “find herself,” but they are very specific. If she is banged on the head and abducted, she might “find herself” in the trunk of a car. If she’s in a city she’s never visited before, she could go strolling and “find herself” on a little side street where a block party is going on. Or she might move into an ashram and “find herself.”

The problem is, the phrase is so overused it’s a cliché, almost to the point of parody. With the vast wealth of words available, there are always better ways to convey the same idea. Find one.

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I confess: I’m something of an iconoclast when it comes to books everyone raves about. When The Lovely Bones was on the best-seller lists forever, I finally broke down and read it–and wasn’t terribly impressed. Ditto for the current favorite The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. So, when this series by Suzanne Collins was being hailed with more gusto than a Superbowl winner, I eventually put the first volume on my TBR list, not terribly sanguine that my 0 for 2 record might be broken.

I’m now 0 for 3

Don’t get me wrong. The Hunger Games has a good, solid adventure story with a strong young heroine, which is rare in post-apocalyptic literature. Usually, women are relegated to what is perceived as their “natural state,” dependent on their menfolk for protection and sustenance. The world in which 16-year-old Katniss lives is fairly standard for the genre—environmental catastrophe leads to a semi-feudal society where the rulers wallow in luxury and high-tech while the workers who provide for them starve.

Although the action portions of the book kept me turning pages, I was still disappointed that I found the characterization somewhat flat, especially with regard to the two main male characters: Katniss’s hunting partner Gale and Peeta, the young man chosen as her companion tribute for the Hunger Games. Too often, I got the sense they were there mainly to provide an emotional conflict for Katniss to deal with rather than occupying essential places in the narrative.

Katniss, too, tends to lack emotional depth except when it’s necessary to advance the plot. Part of this, I suspect, arises from the fact this is the first book in a trilogy, and Ms. Collins intends to make Katniss’s emotional development one of the threads that carries through the series. However, this results in Katniss being something of a stock character for much of the book, and she deserves better.

So do the others, and Ms. Collins clearly has the skill to invest depth of character with a few well-chosen words, which makes the shortfall of same doubly frustrating. The tribute child Rue, Katniss’s mother and sister–ironically, secondary characters fare better than the main ones, hinting at emotional and psychological depths that just aren’t there in Katniss and her male friends.

That said, The Hunger Games should be recommended to and discussed with young readers, in part because it’s an excellent gateway to more complex works like Brave New World and 1984, and in particular the hard-to-find Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here. If that’s too big a jump, there’s always David Brin’s The Postman, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz or Joan Upton Hall’s Arturo el Rey.

The Hunger Games is entertaining and provokes consideration of the consequences of both abuse of power and surrender to oppression. For readers both young and not-so who don’t ingest a lot of speculative fiction, it will more than satisfy.

The Power of Words

Earlier this week, I posted a note to Twitter that pointed out to the news media that their constantly poking fun at the errors made by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party is preaching to the choir. And that this wasn’t helping matters at all.

To no surprise, I was almost immediately hailed by one political Tweeter who I gather assumed I was defending said Tea Party. I say “to no surprise” because one of the general characteristics of the group is a notable lack of a sense of irony. It’s why more than a few of them believe Stephen Colbert really does agree with them.

I don’t support the Tea Party. They’re a mob on its way to becoming a cult. Mobs are always dangerous, and ignoring that threat in favor of calling attention to their lack of grammatical and spelling skills is a one-way ticket to disaster. It’s a slick way to walk the fence if you’re afraid of being labeled a part of the “liberal press,” but it does a serious disservice by allowing the voices of ignorance and anger to take precedence over those of sense and fact.
The only news organization those who support the Tea Party trust is Newscorp. Another irony, since the Murdock empire and Fox News have been manipulating them from day one, using them to pursue the corporate political agenda and keeping the Tea Party members’ righteous anger alive using a steady stream of misinformation and outright lies. What’s needed isn’t snark, but a careful contradiction of their propaganda over and over and over. Only that’s not happening.

The sad thing is, I’m not surprised at the way the mainstream news media behaves. Having worked in that industry for nearly 10 years, I can vouch for the fact that their much-vaunted lack of bias is mostly something they hold up whenever someone criticizes the way they do their jobs. That’s not to say there aren’t any truly unbiased reporters out there, but you know what? They’re at the mercy of their editorial boards, and I haven’t yet seen an editorial board that didn’t have an agenda.

True story: when I worked for a small-city daily, my main beat was health care, including the local hospitals. My city editor had a jones against said hospitals for reasons that were purely personal. One of the hospitals had pulled itself out of major debt, and I wrote a story about how they had accomplished that. The editor rewrote my lede–without consulting me–so that it read as if they were still in major debt. And then expected me to take it on the chin when the people who had trusted me to tell the truth went ballistic.

And that was 20 years ago.

If you have any knowledge of balanced reporting, it’s shocking to read stories in major newspapers–and yes, I mean the New York Times–where the reporter and/or editorial bias is so blatant it makes one cringe. A sensational headline is followed by a story clearly intended to evoke an emotional response, and often contains totally incorrect information. This is especially true of stories about the Tea Party. They all have a kind of “look at how idiotic these people are” tone–and yet the facts that contradict their misinformation is either buried at the very end of the story or not included at all.

See what I mean about preaching to the choir? These stories are written with the assumption the reader will already know that the misinformation is not to be taken at face value. What the reporters and editors fail to grasp is that many, if not the majority, of their readers are not like them. It’s the same kind of blindness that makes user manuals provided by software companies almost impossible for anyone not deeply knowledgeable about technology to understand.

There was great furor when MSNBC suspended popular journalist Keith Olbermann after it was revealed he’d made small donations to three Democratic candidates. This was a violation of company policy, a policy all news media have that prohibits staff from engaging in anything that might reflect negatively on the appearance of their being unbiased. The operative word there being appearance. As a result, reporters are kept isolated, like plague doctors in biohazard suits. The suits protect the doctors from infection. The ones news staffers wear protect them from reality.

One has to learn to truly lack bias, to be able to look at something and see both sides of it. Modern education, with its emphasis on passing skills tests, doesn’t teach that much anymore. This is why you have newsrooms full of college-educated reporters who are going to apply their own personal viewpoint to any story featuring people not like them no matter how many policies you put in place to ensure balanced reporting. I think it’s clear that the Americans who make up the Tea Party are as unlike many of those reporters as you can get.

News media: If you know someone is lying, isn’t the correct response to contradict that lie–and make sure the focus of your rebuttal is on the truth? Because based on what I’ve read over the last year, that ain’t happening. And because it isn’t happening, the propaganda machine is winning, as the midterm election results clearly show.

Show vs. Tell: It’s all in your point of view

Anyone with aspirations of becoming a writer has heard the cardinal rule of fiction: show, don’t tell. Based on manuscripts I receive, particularly from writers previously published in nonfiction, there is a good deal of misunderstanding about what that means.

But it’s obvious, you say. It means you should write active scenes, in which people are doing things, not “recite” the story as if you were sitting around a campfire. And, as far as that goes, that’s correct. What some people are missing, however, is that “show, don’t tell” isn’t a narrative issue but rather one of point of view.
In order to properly show your story, you must be in the active character’s point of view. This means getting to know those characters well, the method for which will be a good topic for the future. For now, suffice to say that if you aren’t fully engaged with your POV character no matter how much action you put in your narrative it will be telling, not showing.

Let me give an example of an opening paragraph:

John drove down the narrow street looking for the house. He had been sure he would recognize it, even after all this time, but he hadn’t expected the old neighborhood would have become a candidate for suburban renewal, the old Craftsman houses collectors items for Baby Boomers nostalgic for childhoods they may not even have had. Now, as dusk settled, he wondered why he was even here. He had traveled two thousand miles, spent more than he should on airline tickets and car rental, and he still didn’t know why he was here.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, on the surface. Let’s try again:

As he strained to read the numbers on the houses in the gathering dusk, John told himself he was a fool for coming here. What did he hope to gain? And what had made him think he would find the old place just as it was when he’d left it?

The difference between the first paragraph and the second is two-fold. First, the second paragraph has what the first lacks—a hook to grab the browsing reader’s attention and make them read on. Who is John? Why is he here? Second—and I grant you it’s a subtlety beginners are likely to miss—the second paragraph is totally in John’s point of view. It’s showing. In the first paragraph, we’re being told what John is doing and what he’s thinking.

Let’s go on to that second paragraph. Should we explain what John is doing?


Streetlights came on, and he realized the house numbers were painted on the curb, just faded enough he hadn’t seen them in the near-dark. There it was, 346 Carleton Street, a small house on a narrow street that had once looked like all the small houses around it. Even now, fancied up by some nostalgic Baby Boomer looking for a childhood they’d probably never actually had, there was nothing to show why he had dropped half his savings account on plane tickets and car rental and traveled two thousand miles to see it.

How is this description of backstory different from the first paragraph?

  • It doesn’t use tags like “he wondered.” If you’re writing securely in your character’s point of view, you don’t need to tell us he or she “thought” or “wondered” or “he saw.” That’s a given—we’re in his or her head. The moment you use one of those qualifiers you’re telling us what he or she is thinking or seeing.
  • It’s in the character’s voice instead of the author’s. It’s John who “dropped half his savings” instead of the author telling us he had “spent more than he should.”

Learning how to let your characters speak and act for themselves in one of the hardest things for a beginning writer simply because the dividing line between showing and telling is so narrow. You need to train yourself to recognize the difference. Watching out for those telltales—the “he wondereds” and the “she noticeds” will help; but the true trick is to close the distance between you as writer and the characters you create to tell your story. You need to know them well enough that living inside their heads becomes as natural as being inside your own. They have to be living, breathing human beings (or aliens, as the case may be).

One often suggested trick if you’re having trouble with this is to write your first draft in first-person. That forces you to identify with your POV character, to think with his/her mind and to act with his/her body. Try it—and watch how often you discover yourself writing “I wondered.” Then stop.