August 24, 2023

It’s All Greek to Me…

About a year and a half ago, when the ranty writing blog was still out in the wild, I did a post about being a little cautious when I use made-up words in fiction. Y’know, words like cromulent or midichlorian or squale. In the comments, Oliver asked if the same would hold for real-world foreign languages as well. Should I be cautious using, say, Japanese words the same way I would be using Klingon technospeak?

Which is why I’d like to talk about paint.

I think we’re all familiar with the idea of slapping a quick coat of paint on something to make it look new or different, right? House flippers do it, painting rooms with the latest colors and shades. Not unheard of for a used car to get a fresh coat of paint on it either. Heck, if you’re familiar with Games Workshop, I’d guess 83% of their “new and different” armies are just a lot of the same models with different colored paint on them. Again, it’s not a new idea. It was blue, now it’s red. It was something we’d seen before and now it’s something cool and different and, y’know… red.

And sometimes… we do this with storytelling. It’s the same character, but now she’s a brunette instead of a blonde. It’s the same old capitalism, but now they’re credits instead of dollars. Same problems, but now he’s hooked on stimms instead of drugs. We slap on a quick coat of paint and whoa-ho! now it’s an alien future world with a different financial system and everything! Hey, those stimms are fifty credits each! Your Earth-dollars are no good here on our very different alien planet.

Now let’s talk about languages…

I want to be clear this is a “no easy answers” topic. Much like with completely fictional words, a lot of it’s going to depend on the story, my intended audience, and context. This isn’t something where I can say “only four foreign words per page and never do more than sixteen per chapter” and that answer will fit every scenario in every book by every other author. There’s just too many possibilities to cover.

There’s also that whole gray area of words I can feel relatively confident most people don’t think of as foreign-language words. Even here in the United States, where the majority of our paler citizenry famously only knows one language, most folks would understand words like bonjour, quesadilla, dosvidania, kaiju, aloha, or gesundheit. So should we be counting them? Do I need to explain what a quesadilla is? Or a kaiju?

Anyway, rather than give out any firm rules for how to do this, I’d like to offer you a couple of loose guidelines to keep in mind.

First off, why am I including these words? In a general sense, but also specifically this one and that one and those three on the last page. Am I trying to establish a setting or a character’s speech pattern? Or am I just slapping down that coat of paint to give my characters or setting a thin veneer of “otherness”? Yeah, look, we’re definitely in Cairo now– see, the guy said shookran instead of thanks.

I want it to be clear these words are necessary. They’re an integral, load-bearing part of the setting and the characters. And just in case you didn’t know… paint isn’t load-bearing.

Second, is it going to be clear to my readers what these words mean? Maybe not exactly crystal clear, but is there enough on the page, in context or subtext, for a reader to figure out this is a piece of clothing (maybe outerwear), that was her brother’s name, and that was an expletive (and definitely not one you’d use around your mother)? If there’s not enough there for my reader to understand it, is it going to get explained to them? And if they can’t figure it out and I’m not going to explain it… is it really a word I need?

There’s a bunch of ways to use words in my writing that my readers might not know. I want to remember that hitting an unknown, indecipherable word will break the flow of my story for a reader.

Also worth noting an important aspect of this—my chosen audience. We all want our books to be international best sellers with three or four million readers, but the truth is we’re probably going to be aiming at a specific group of people. Even if it’s just something like “sci-fi fans” or “religious thriller fans.” And hey– religious thriller fans might know a lot more Latin than the average reader. So I might not need as much context/explanation for some of those words.

Third, am I absolutely sure I’m using these words correctly? Look, languages are tricky, complex things. They all have their own subtleties and nuances and… look, this may come as a shock to you but Google Translate is not quite on par with the Federation’s universal translator. Especially now that they’ve plugged it into their half-assed AI. There are languages out there that do things English can’t even wrap its head around. Like, you may remember from high school that a lot of other languages have feminine and masculine verbs. Heck, y’know how English has singular and plural? Well, Arabic has dual. Yep, a whole way of dealing with verbs and nouns that’s specifically for two people. Spend a few minutes thinking how that changes how you write. And think. And if I’m using these words in the wrong way…

Or how about this–there are some words in English that have multiple meanings, but in other languages they’re actually multiple words. If you don’t know the difference, just looking up how to say this word in German could cause problems, he said, from personal experience. When I was writing The Broken Room, at one point in an earlier draft I’d unknowingly used the Spanish verb “shield” (as in, this lead vest will shield you from the X-rays) as opposed to the noun “shield” (the thing Captain America uses). Still can’t remember what made me check it again, but around the third draft I suddenly just had this weird, gnawing worry about it.

Anyway, those are my three personal rules-of-thumb for using other languages.

And I’ll leave you with this one other thing to consider. Benjamin Dreyer, reigning copy editor supreme at Penguin Random House (that’s his actual title) has suggested maybe we should stop italicizing foreign words. Italics generally mean emphasis, and we used to italicize words in other languages to highlight their difference. These weren’t normal words. They were Spanish words, words people used in some strange, different place.

We’re all past that, right? I mean, did any of you have a problem with aloha and gesundheit not being in italics up above? Maybe it’s time to admit words in another language are just… words.

Things to keep in mind when you write.

Speaking of which…

I haven’t had any suggestions or requests in a while now. I’m sure I can struggle on for a bit longer, coming up with ideas on my own. But if there’s something you’d like an answer to or some help with or just wondered what my thoughts were on a topic… please let me know in the comments. And if not, i guess next time I’ll just blather on about, I don’t know, creative writing classes I took in the past or something like that.

Until then, go write.

April 1, 2021 / 4 Comments

Assorted Magical Spills

The comments section has been pretty dry lately, so I’ve gone digging through my list of “things to talk about,” trying to come up with a semi-interesting topic. I was about to fall back on recycling some general writing/publishing stuff from one of the other blogs I used to keep and then I thought “hey, you know what we haven’t talked about lately? Spelling!”

More importantly, when computers try to spell.

Three really common features these days are autocomplete, autocorrect, and spellcheckers. I’m betting the device you’re reading this on has at least two of them. Maybe all three. There’s also a good chance you’ve shut at least one of them off. Because…. well, they’re not that ducking great when you get down to it. Yeah, sure, some of them build up custom dictionaries or preferences, but even those can have issues.

Truth is, the more complex and nuanced we get with language, the less these things work. Because they’re tools. And that’s what tools do. They don’t replace skills, they just help focus them.

Think of it this way. I’m guessing you’ve got a hammer, right? Maybe it’s in that drawer in the kitchen (or was it in the office…?). Maybe you’ve got a little emergency toolbox with some basics in it. Maybe you’ve got a big rolling tool chest out in your garage with four different hammers and a rubber mallet and that other hammer you loan out to people who come over and ask if they can  borrow your tools. Anyway, wherever it is, you’ve got a hammer, right?

But we accept that a hammer only does so much. Owning a hammer doesn’t instantly mean I can now build a bookshelf or a rocking chair or a new deck out back. I’m more handy than some folks thanks to a few years of film and theater work, but I’ve got two friends who are professional carpenters and they both make me look completely unqualified to even own a toolbox.

And we all get this, right? The tool doesn’t amplify ability or replace it. It just allows me to use that existing ability better. If I didn’t have the skills to build a rocking chair before buying a hammer, owning one’s not going to change anything. And if I’m convinced holding a hammer suddenly does give me abilities and skills… well, I’m probably about to hurt myself.

(weird fun fact—the majority of cases where men lose a finger or toe involve them using a new tool. Seriously)

Spellchecker is a tool. So is autocorrect. And autocomplete. They can make things faster and more efficient, but only if I know what I’m doing in the first place.

For example…

faze vs. phase – one of these you grow out of

feet vs. feat – one of these is a measurement

losing vs. loosing –one of these is a release

week vs. weak—one of these is not that strong

bear vs. bare—one of these is a bit revealing

sconces vs. scones—one of these you eat

All of these are words I’ve seen recently in articles, headlines, and so on. And in every one of these cases… they should’ve been using the other one. But if I’m trusting my spellchecker to know more than me, it’s just not going to end well.

Seriously, computers are ducking idiots. They really are. Remember when I talked about Watson, the IBM supercomputer that was specificallybuilt to understand language and nuance and crush opponents on Jeopardy? Do you remember how his success rate ended up working out?

If Watson isn’t going to be able to pick up the slack, why would I think the spellchecker they bolted on to my word processor at the last minute is going to be better?

Learn to spell. If I want to do this professionally, it’s not enough to have the tools. I need the knowledge that makes them useful. Cause if not… I’m just hammering away wildly.

Next time…

Honestly, the next thing on my list is an overdue update of the FAQ. But to be honest, nothing’s really changed since the last time I updated it (well, nothing I can talk about, anyway). So I’ve got… hmmmmmm, well a question about plot we didn’t get to during the WonderCon Writers Coffeehouse. Or maybe talk about my old trunk novel a bit?

Any preferences? Drop ‘em down below.

And then go write.

April 9, 2020

A2Q Part Nine—Editing

Well, if all goes well, we’re making a big time jump here. All the past things I’ve been blathering on about—plot, characters, story, theme—these are all elements that we can spend a day or three on. Maybe even less, if they’ve been fermenting in my head.

But between last week and this week, well… hypothetically a lot of time has passed. I’m really, really hoping you didn’t write an entire first draft in a week. If you did… well, that’s another issue we need to discuss. I’m hoping you took your time, within reason, and we are—hypothetically—a month or two or maybe even six later.

You have a first draft now. And it’s a beautiful thing. Maybe the file is so big it’s an entire meg on your computer. An entire megabyte of your words. I know that might sound laughable or dismissive, but seriously—you need a lot to hit a one megabyte Word file.

But…

(yeah, here comes the but)

…it needs editing. No probably. There’s a chance you wrote a perfect, flawless first draft, but more than likely… you didn’t. I haven’t yet and I’ve been doing this for a while.

It’s okay, though. Everybody needs to edit. Everyone. Anyone who says they don’t is either A) lying to you or 2) delusional. Our work needs editing and revising. If you remember waaaay back at the beginning of the A2Q, I talked about how ideas need to be cut and polished like diamonds? Well, that’s what we’re doing now. Figuring out what needs to be cut and then giving it all a good polish.

Again… this is okay. Don’t worry. Every book you’ve ever loved has gone through this process. And we’re going to go through it so this book can be one other people can love.

Ready?

First up, the easy part. This is a 100% complete draft, right? Beginning, middle, and end? I’m not going to get a hundred pages in and find blank space or notes to myself like [FIND WHAT THESE ARE REALLY CALLED] or [ASK ELLEN HOW TO DO THIS]. There’s nothing wrong with doing that on a first pass—I do it all the time—but before I start editing I need to fill in those spaces in my book with actual, y’know, book.

So, again… this is a 100% complete draft, right?

Fantastic.

Before diving in, may I suggest taking some time away from your book. You don’t want to finish a draft, then turn right around and start the next one. We want to get a little space, and let things fade in our mind a bit. I don’t want to be looking at the manuscript in my head, I want to be seeing the one in front of me—the one everybody else is going to see. We’re going to need some stark honestly for this, so I want to be clear what’s really there.

One tip for this—I’d suggest switching the font. Go from Times Roman to Courier. If you’re one of those folks who likes to write in Comic Sans, switch it back to Times. A different font is going to make everything sit differently on the page and it’ll make you actually read what’s on the page. You’ll become very aware of what is and isn’t there, and catch a lot of stuff that’s been sliding past you.

Once you’ve taken some time away, changed the format… read it. Just read through this new manuscript with those fresh eyes. Maybe make some quick notes, but for now just read it. Again—don’t remember it, read it. Try to see what’s really there on the page.

Now, I’ve talked about editing a bunch of times. It’s a big umbrella that a lot of things fall under, many of which I think can get broken down into three categories or types. It is my humble opinion that one of the big reasons people have issues with editing is they get these different types confused because they never get more specific than “editing.” I want to talk about each of these three types of editing and maybe give a few examples of each. You may have heard of one or two of them.

First up is story editing. This is when we try to improve the plot and story by reorganizing different elements, clarifying them, maybe even adding to them. Sometimes we might even add all-new elements.

Second is what I’m going to call reductive editing. This is when we’re cutting things, usually to tighten up dialogue, descriptions, and maybe even to simplify larger elements a bit. Sometimes, in all honesty, we’re just cutting to get closer to a certain word count.

Third is copyediting. This is when we’re correcting things throughout the manuscript. Formatting. Spelling. Grammar. The nuts and bolts things that are still important because they’re holding things together.

You may notice there seems to a bit of overlap here. I’d say it’s a little less “overlap” and a little more “weaving between lanes in high traffic,” as we’ll see. You may have also heard different names or definitions for these. Look, I never claimed to be an English major or anything. If you’ve heard it called something else, cool. I’m just trying to make this easy to distinguish.

Anyway… let’s go through these in a little more detail.

We’ve kind of talked about story editing already, in a sense. When we first had that pile of ideas and notes and we started sifting and arranging them into an outline—that was story editing. Trying to find the best order for things, the best way to introduce different elements, and so on. That’s what this is—taking what we’ve already got and figuring out if we can make it even better.

Yeah, we’ve already done that. But now we’ve written everything out. We’ve got a better sense of the characters and the size of the events and how they’re going to land with my audience. Maybe that needed a little more description than we thought and that bit needs a lot less. And maybe we’ve realized some of this… doesn’t really serve any purpose.

This is one of the reasons we want to look at this with fresh eyes. So I can see where problems have developed. Or maybe they were there all along, but I couldn’t recognize them until it was all here in front of me.

F’r example, now that I’ve looked at all of this again, does it have a good dramatic structure? Does the tension start low and rise throughout the book (maybe with a few dips and drops here and there for our heroes)? How’s the pacing? Does it feel like there are any slow parts that just stretch on a little too long with nothing actually happening?

That’s a good one right there? Are things happening? Are events pushing the plot and my characters’ stories along? Or are they stalling out in places. Are people talking or thinking about doing things more than they’re… y’know, doing things?

This is story editing. Taking an honest look and deciding what story elements do and don’t need to be there. Or maybe just need to shift to somewhere else.

Also—don’t get scared here if it looks like you need to make big changes. If it turns out my outline was wrong, then it was wrong. So what? The first draft’s done. Make a new outline if you want and then write to that one. I’ve written a complete first draft and then gone back and completely rewritten the ending, or ripped out whole chapters. It happens. Don’t worry if it does.

Next up is what I’m calling reductive editing. This is something I’ve talked about a lot here on the ranty blog. We all get a little wordy in our first drafts. We use a few too many adverbs. We describe things with a bit too much detail. We let conversations go on and on. And we also tend to…

Okay, a thought exercise for you. If I said you no-questions had to get rid of three characters in this book—three characters with names and/or dialogue, who would you pick? Why did they jump right to mind? Is it because you knew getting rid of Wakko wouldn’t mean too much rewriting? Or because Dot and Yakko could be merged into one character (Dakko? Yot?) pretty easily? Because really… they don’t do that much.

We all do this. We bulk up characters and their descriptions and subplots, letting them take up a lot more space on the page than their actual contributions might warrant. I’m not saying every single character has to be a vital linchpin to the plot, but… well, how fast did you come up with three characters you could cut?

And I’m sure some folks reading this are thinking “Ha ha, good thing there’s absolutely no literary fat in my manuscript. Every single element is perfectly balanced and artistically necessary.” Which, yeah, there’s a chance it is. Maybe.

But remember this. As a first time author—hell, even as a successful one—the odds of a sale are better with a smaller, tighter book. No one’s saying a publisher won’t look at something big, but if I can trim two or three thousand words off my manuscript it can make a difference. Even just a psychological difference, when they look at that cover page and see 98K words instead of 101K words.

Finally, there’s copyediting. The often long and painful process of going through a manuscript line by line, word by word, and making sure everything’s correct. I’m using the correct words, spelled the right way. I’ve got commas where I need them and all my dialogue’s got quotation marks at both ends. Indents and spacing and page numbers.

People get contentious about this for a few reasons. Some folks will declare writing doesn’t have rules and they can do whatever they want, however they want. Others say it’s irrelevant because the genius of their writing will shine past all that to illuminate the heart and soul of the reader. And still others say, well… I mean, isn’t that the publisher’s job? They’ve got people for that, and they know this isn’t going to be perfect.

There’s a bunch of problems with all these views, biggest among them… what if I plan on publishing it myself? If I’m the publisher I need to be able to do all of this. And if I want someone else to publish it… well, why would they bother to look at it if I can’t be bothered to give them my best work? I mean, if they get those first fifty pages and it’s clear I didn’t even bother to fix my spelling mistakes, what else didn’t I bother with?

And to be clear—there are times my story might require typos and odd grammar. I occasionally spell words in odd ways. I sometimes take certain stylistic liberties with commas when I write. So do a lot of writers I know. But it’s always very clear this is a deliberate thing—I know I’m doing it and why I’m doing it. But these are exceptions, and exceptions by their very nature are rare things.

So there’s a bunch of editing thoughts. Let’s apply some of them. Remember that first page and a half  of our werewolf novel I wrote last time…?

++++++++++
Chapter One
            “Luna!”
            Phoebe sifted through the laundry pile again, willing the black top to appear even though it hadn’t the last three times she’d looked. “Luna,” she bellowed again.
            Upstairs the sound of the shower finally stopped and she heard the thump of feet on the wooden floor. The bathroom door creaked open. “What?”
            “Where’s my black top? The one with the ribbing?”
            “I’m trying to get ready,” her little sister growled. “I’m going out!”
            “So am I! Where is it?”
            “How should I know?”
            “You borrowed it last night. You promised you’d wash it.”
            Silence. Then the bathroom door creaked again quietly.
            “Luna!”
            What?” Her voice echoed in the small house.
            “Where is it?”
            A sigh echoed down the stairs. “I’ll get you a new one.”
            “You’ll what?”
            “I kind of… misplaced it.”
            “You what?”
            “I lost it, okay. I said I’ll get you a new one.”
            “Goddammit. I wanted it tonight. It fits under my armor.” She looked at the leather sleeves, vest, and gorget piled on the bed. Her mom’s old hand-me-down armor. Stained dark brown with years of oil and sweat and blood that sank in before it could be cleaned off.
            “Wear the green one.”
            “It’s long-sleeved and I wore it last night. It stinks.”
            “It’s not like anyone’s going to complain.”
            Phoebe bit back a sigh of her own sigh and marched over to the hamper of dirty clothes. “How did you ‘misplace’ lose it?”
            “I was at a party.”
            “That’s not an answer.”
            “Yes it is,” Luna sang down the stairs. “I’m getting back in the shower now.”
            “We’re going to talk about this later.”
            “Whatever.” The bathroom door creaked shut and hot water started to gush flowed again.
            They’d have to talk about that too. The water bill and the gas bill had been high last month. Phoebe felt pretty sure Luna’s long showers were a major big part of that.
            She pulled the green top from the hamper. It had been warm last night, especially under all the leather, and she’d sweated a lot. The top was still damp, and it reeked. But it was that or she could try to find a Henley or turtleneck that wouldn’t bunch up under the armor and slow her down.
            She sure as hell wasn’t going to be some B-movie cliché, hunting werewolves with nothing on but a leather vest.
++++++++++

Let’s talk about some of the tweaks.

As far as story editing goes, you’ll notice I changed “mom’s old armor” to “hand-me-down armor.” Now it feels less sentimental and more a necessity from lack of funds—a subtle hint at their financial status.

For reductive editing, I snipped some adverbs and redundant words. Only seven altogether (when we count what I added in). Doesn’t seem like much, but this was only a page and a half. At that rate, we’re talking about 1,400 words cut out of a 300 page manuscript—closer to 294 pages at that point. And those were really minimal cuts, weren’t they?

There wasn’t a lot to copyedit because, well, I checked it all as a regular part of the blog post last time. But I remember there were two or three typos in it, because I scribbled that all out really fast. One of them was my thumb not hitting the space bar hard enough so two words ran together.

Also worth mentioning you don’t have to do all of this at once. Some people like to just work in a single document through the whole process. Others write, save it as a draft, do an editing pass, save it as a draft, do another editing pass, save a draft, and so on. I’ve talked about my own method before, but figure out what works for you.

Y’see Timmy, that’s one of the toughest thing about trying to explain editing—even just these small tweaks. A lot of it does just come down to figuring it out. Yeah, we can study grammar, but so much of the raw art of it is just experience. Being honest with myself about my own work. Writing a lot. Reading a lot. Making mistakes. Learning from them. It’s how we get a sense of which words fit and which ones don’t. And like so much of this, it’s a flexible thing. Just because it worked last time doesn’t mean it’ll work every time.

In the end, the goal is to make this the best I possibly can. Not the best first draft or the best it can before I get bored. Ugly truth is, it’s going to be work, it’s going to take time and there’ll be points when you go back and forth about cutting or keeping things. That’s just the way it goes. But it’ll get slightly easier every time. I promise.

…at least, until you try to write a more complex book.

But we’ll get to that another time.

I think I’ve still two or three post left in this whole big process thing. Hopefully you’re still interested to read them. But next time I may take a quick break from the A2Q to talk about some related ideas.

Until then, go write.

And edit.

February 6, 2020

Vocabulary Time Again…

Holy crap this is post #600 here on the ranty blog. Six. Hundred. Take that, some other blog with less posts.
Anyway, we’re overdue to discuss that most favorite of topics… spelling. I know it seems silly that I keep revisiting this again and again.  But there’s a reason for it–I’ve simply got to have a solid vocabulary if I want to be a writer. I need to know what words mean. I have to know how to spell them. I have to be able to tell them apart.
Over the course of my writing career, I’ve talked with lots of editors, a couple of agents, and a double-handful of directors for screenwriting contests.  Pretty much across the board, they named spelling as the most common mistake they saw. Not subject matter. Not formatting. Spelling was the problem they saw again and again and again.
Which is why I tend to bring it up here at least once a year. If I’m spelling and using words correctly, I’ve just eliminated the most common problem from my manuscript. Seriously, think how many people that puts me ahead of in the selection process.
Check out this little list of words… and the words they were supposed to be. They’re from assorted books and articles I’ve stumbled across. Things that we can consider published (I’m not going to give anyone crap for typos in a tweet). The important thing is all of these are from people claiming to be professional writers.
going or gong
canon orcannon
fair or fare
right or rite
taking ortalking
possible orposable
root or route
milk toast or milquetoast
Personally, I think certain technologies have made spelling a hard problem for some folks to acknowledge. If you’ve been following the ranty blog for a while, you might remember me using this sentence a few times before…
Innodor two kell a vampire yew most half a would steak.
While the first instinct is to say pretty much every word in that sentence is spelled wrong, the truth is—like the list above—none of them are.  Oh, most of them aren’t the right word, yeah, but they’re all spelled correctly.
That’s what I’m talking about with technology. I ran this post through a spellchecker and it leaped right over that sentence. Because there aren’t any spelling mistakes in it. And so technology leads a lot of people to believe they’re much better spellers than they really are.
If I don’t know the difference between they’retheir, and there, I’m going to have a tough time as a writer. Same thing with its and it’s.  If I think I know what anathema means (deadly poison, right?), but never bother to actually learn what it means (something I really dislike), odd are I’ll be using it wrong a lot. 
And again, when I make these mistakes, my spellchecker’s still going to tell me my manuscript is fine. So some folks who are really awful at spelling never improve.  They see no need to. After all, the computer’s got them covered and it told them all their words were correct.
That kinda blind faith is when things can get ridicules. Sometimes the spelling will be so off on a word the spellchecker flails for a second and throws out its best guess. And if I don’t know how to spell or what words really mean, I’ll probably just accept whatever the computer tells me. 
Like up above. I meant ridiculous at the top of that last paragraph, typed out radekulos to make my point, and the computer thought the best match was ridicules. Because it doesn’t know what I’m actually trying for. I’ve mentioned once or thrice the manuscript I saw where the writer was trying for corpulent but assumed the spellchecker had made the right choice when it gave him corporeal.
I need to be able to spell. I need to understand the words I’m spelling. I can’t depend on my computer to do it for me because at the end of the day, computers are idiots. And idiots make lousy writing partners.
           
Next time… it’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about what you’ve got on under there.
Until then… go write.

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