Define It

Monday, November 30, 2015

I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on “The Art of Reading” from The Great Courses. I recently completed a series on the English novel by the same lecturer, Professor Timothy Spurgin. While I’m enjoying the lectures, Dr. Spurgin and I don’t always use the same terminology. I’m comfortable with mine because it comes from the many books on the writing craft that inhabit my shelves. The difference in terminology might be the difference between academia and genre writers, but it highlights the importance of defining your terms (which Professor Spurgin does).

Here are some examples.

Free Indirect Discourse v. Close POV*

Dr. Spurgin says free indirect discourse (or free indirect speech) occurs when the narrator borrows the language or vocabulary of the central characters. He uses passages from Emma by Jane Austin as an illustration. I’ve read all of Jane Austin’s books, including Emma, and I’m familiar with her way of mixing language and vocabulary borrowed from a character with a more neutral narrative language. As far as I can tell, this is no different than what many popular writers call close or deep third-person POV. Here is a description of close POV from page 186 of Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress:

Paul’s POV is third person, yet some of his phrases are in the same words he would use in either speaking or in telling his story in first person . . . . In addition, the narrative at this point is inside his head: these are his memories . . . and his thoughts. . . .

At the same time, close third person is not as claustrophobic as first person. It’s easier for the narrative to pull back from the character and include sections of exposition about them.

Scene and Summary

Dr. Spurgin defines scene as dialogue and summary as narrative. The many craft books on my shelf refer to scenes as containing both dialogue and narrative. In those books, scenes are defined more by time, place, action and reaction than by the elements (e.g., dialogue and narrative) used to compose them.** Imagine that a harassed mother comes into the kitchen to discover that her toddler has pulled a carton of eggs out of the refrigerator and dropped it on the floor. The mother wearily cleans up the mess before scolding her daughter, and then she gathers the crying girl into her arms. In most explanations, this is all part of a single scene even though it begins and ends with a description of the mother’s actions rather than with dialogue.

Reliable and Unreliable Narrators

I’m going to end with an example that may have some disagreement even among more popular writers. When discussing the Sherlock Holmes mysteries in the Art of Reading course, Dr. Spurgin called Dr. Watson a reliable narrator because he can be relied on to accurately describe the observable facts. Yes, his physical observations are accurate, but I consider him an unreliable narrator because the conclusions he draws from them are not. Even though we know that he is often wrong and Holmes will have to set him (and us) right, we can still get sidetracked and mislead by Dr. Watson’s conclusions.

* * *

So if you intend to use words and phrases idiomatic to a particular field or profession, make sure you define your terms.


* I mentioned Professor Sturgin and his terminology in my September 21 post on Jane Austin.

** See Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (pages 113-129), Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell (page 78), Carol Umberger’s essay on “Point of View: Connect with Your Characters” from A Novel Idea (page 75), The Plot Whisperer Workbook by Martha Alderson (pages 39-43).


The picture of Watson and Holmes at the top of this post was drawn by Signey Paget (1860-1908). It appeared in the December 1892 edition of The Strand Magazine as an illustration for the Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” The image is in the public domain because of its age. 

A Thanksgiving Acrostic

Monday, November 23, 2015

Here is a list of things that I am thankful for as a writer.

Thesauruses for finding the perfect word,

Handkerchiefs to cry into when my characters get in trouble,

Authentic dialogue,

Notebooks to preserve ideas,

Kind friends and relatives who don’t laugh at my lousy first drafts,

Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life for those moments when I need encouragement mixed with humor,

Gripping plots,

Imaginary friends (and enemies) who come to life on the page,

Vivid description,

Imagery that puts the reader in the setting,

Nerve to cut out those favorite passages that just don’t fit, and

Groups of other writers to provide critiques, support, and networking.

Happy Thanksgiving.

All Booked Up

Monday, November 16, 2015

This is National Novel Writing Month, often referred to as NaNoWriMo. It started with a group of friends who decided to go on a novel-writing binge and expanded to become a worldwide event.

The idea is to start a novel from scratch on November 1 and end up with 50,000 words by November 30. Not necessarily good words, and certainly not a polished novel, but words on paper or computer rather than just in the person’s head. That’s the goal, anyway. Ideally, the participant will then continue writing and editing and polishing until he or she ends up with a finished novel.

It sounds like fun, but I’ve never done it, and I probably never will. The reason is simple: I always seem to be in the middle of an active project when November 1 rolls around, so it’s a bad time to start a new one. But I don’t mind. In fact, I’m glad it works out that way.

NaNoWriMo is good for people who need to get jumpstarted on a novel, but that has never been my problem. I have plenty of ideas, and I do manage to get them written. That’s what the graphic at the head of this post shows. I have already written four novels, am working on the fifth, and have the skeleton for a sixth. I also have a long list of ideas I can use after that.

My first three novels were Christian women’s fiction, and I enjoyed writing them. But the fourth, the fifth (my current work in progress), and the next idea are all middle-grade historical fiction, and they excite me in a way that the first three never did. Middle-grade historicals feel like my niche, and I hope publishers agree.

None of my novels have been published yet, but my writing gets better each time. I circulated the first two to a number of publishers and agents before putting them in the drawer, where they are now. I hope it isn’t egotistical of me to think that they are as good as many of the published books out there. But I can do better. I have learned a lot since I wrote them, and I may take them out of the drawer and revise them at some time in the future. Right now, however, I have too many other ideas to work on.

The third and fourth novels are currently circulating, so we will see what happens with them. In the meantime, I’m working on Creating Esther. And when I finish it, I’ll move on to the next one.

That’s what I mean when I say that I’m all booked up.* I don’t need a jumpstart, and I’m not going to pause an ongoing project just because NaNoWriMo sounds like fun. It’s also not designed for middle-grade fiction, which is shorter than the 50,000-word goal. But if I’m ready to begin a new story next November 1, I might see how many words I can write during the month.

If you are participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo, keep writing when December comes. Write and edit and polish until your novel is finished.

Because a jumpstart doesn’t do any good if you don’t get in the car and drive.


* Thanks to Dian Kutansky for giving me the idea for the title of this post.

Manufactured Reviews

Monday, November 9, 2015

Growing up, I revered books so much that I was in graduate school before I gave myself permission to quit reading one before I had finished it. Now I revere them so much that I refuse to finish a book that is badly written or boring or even not my taste. There are too many good books out there to waste my leisure time on ones I can’t enjoy.

I don’t want to waste my money on them, either. That’s why I like the “Look Inside” feature and the reviews on Amazon, and I use them both when I’m buying a book by an author I’m not familiar with.

We all know that some reviews come from friends and relatives who aren’t providing neutral comments. That’s why I put more weight on the ones that come from “verified purchasers.” That isn’t to say that all of the others are biased. I sell some copies of my book directly, and those purchasers don’t show up as verified since they didn’t buy the book through Amazon. But the “verified purchaser” label tells me that those reviewers are more likely to be more impartial.

It also helps when a reviewer includes enough information to show what his or her opinion is based on. But even if it was just “excellent book,” I always assumed the reviewer had read it. That changed several weeks ago.

I was participating in a mass book signing, and one of the other participants was trying to increase the number of his Amazon reviews since there are perks to achieving certain levels. He offered to review one of my books on Amazon if I would review his. Although I had already bought his book, he did not have mine and did not intent to read it, so I politely declined.

The photo at the head of this post is obviously manufactured to imply that my books have earned lots of stars. (I won’t say it was “photoshopped” because I didn’t use the Adobe software and I have too much respect for trademarks to use the word generically.) The image isn’t misleading because its nature is obvious. And in case anybody needs more, I’ll be right up front. No, I didn’t toss my books into the air on a starry night and have the unbelievable luck to snap a picture while they were both facing forward. I superimposed my book covers on a photo taken by NASA.

The problem with manufactured reviews is that their nature isn’t obvious and they can mislead potential buyers. I don’t want to be a victim, and I refuse to be a perpetrator.

Honest reviews are helpful, and I should write more reviews for the books I read. But now I’ll be suspicious of every author who has a number of “excellent book” or “great story” reviews from unverified purchasers. Even if the book is excellent, I don’t want to reward an author who tries to mislead people into buying it.

So if you want me to buy your book, stay away from manufactured reviews.

Making the Most of Rejection

Monday, November 2, 2015

All writers want acceptance letters, and I’ve received my share. But it’s the rare writer who isn’t drowning in rejection letters (or tears), and I’m not in that elite group.

Even so, I’m a fan of rejection letters. They tell me that I’m not a failure.

I can see your puzzled look, so let me explain.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, but he did make it practical. He tried thousands of filaments before he found one that burned long enough to be commercially viable. He could have given up at number 10, or 100, or 1000, but he didn’t see those tests as failures. He saw them as successes because each trial ruled out another filament that didn’t work and moved him that much closer to the one that would.

In that same way, each rejection letter is a success. By ruling out another publisher that isn’t perfect for my book, the rejection gets me one submission closer to the publisher that is. I’m not a failure until I stop trying.  

Still, some rejection letters make me feel better than others do. Most, of course, are no more than a generic sentence or two, such as this one that I received in August: “Thank you for submitting your story. Unfortunately, it is not a good fit for us.” That’s the kind I expect, and I’m okay with them. But letters that vary from that formula can be good or bad in terms of how they make me feel.

Within the last ten days I received two rejection letters that had opposite results.

The first was for Mirage, which is a contemporary Christian women’s fiction novel. The e-mail started with the standard rejection language, then continued with: “While it is not possible to go into specific details on every submission we receive, the following list conveys the most common reasons we find we must decline publication.” Then came eight paragraphs describing some common writing problems, with a very brief primer on how to improve each one. The list was clearly generic and not tailored to my story, although some of them are areas where I already know I need to improve. I’m sure they were trying to be helpful, but giving me a laundry list without any guidance didn’t work. I merely felt scolded.

The second rejection was for Desert Jewels, which is middle-grade historical fiction. This was a personalized e-mail from Alyssa Mio Pusey of Charlesbridge. It read like this:

Thank you for your patience while I considered Desert Jewels. You write about sensitive topics like race, prejudice, and patriotism during war with compassion and intelligence. And Emi is a very likeable protagonist, who allows the reader to see history through a child’s eyes.

Unfortunately, as much as I like your proposal, I am already editing a nonfiction book about Topaz. While it is nothing like Desert Jewels in approach, I feel that Charlesbridge’s smaller list can’t support two MG books about the same topic.

I’m sorry I don’t have better news, especially after all this time. I wish you the best of luck finding a home for Desert Jewels, if you haven’t already, and look forward to reading more of your work.

Not only did that rejection letter make me feel good, but I’m going to watch Charlesbridge’s catalogue so I can buy the nonfiction book about Topaz when it comes out.

I also appreciate rejection letters that point out the weaknesses in a story when those letters are tailored to my manuscript. My first attempt at fiction was an early chapter book, which I submitted to a number of publishers. In the JourneyForth rejection letter, Nancy Lohr made several suggestions and pointed out two examples of conversations that were too old for the audience. Her comments were extremely helpful, especially since they made me see that I didn’t understand how to write for that age group. Although I could have tried rewriting the story, I decided that I would concentrate on an older audience, at least for the time being. But that was a progression, not a backwards move or a failure, and I am grateful for the personalized comments.

In my opinion, rejection letters should either be short and sweet or provide personalized comments. Even negative comments can be constructive when done correctly, but they must be tailored to the particular manuscript.

So if you are an editor, either keep your rejection letters short or tailor them to the manuscript.

And if you are a writer, celebrate your rejections. You aren’t a failure until you stop trying.


The picture at the head of this post shows Alice drowning in her own tears. It was drawn by John Tenniel as one of the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and is in the public domain because of its age.