Revising: Improve Your Story Using Paragraphs

Enhance Reader Ease by Addressing Paragraphs in Your Revision.

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Spalted maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Ever so often I get a story from a student that reads like one long run-on sentence… A James Joyce special of stream-of-conscious… In fact, what the writer had done is write many sentences without breaking up the narrative into paragraphs. You might be laughing at this point. “I don’t do that,” you might be saying to yourself. “I haven’t done that since high school!” But go take a look at that first draft you’re working on; there it will be: a page-long paragraph. Oops.

We can’t help ourselves. When immersed in the creative process, we often don’t think about structure. That’s OK; that kind of thinking is more appropriate during the second draft revision process, when you are more objectively assessing the “storytelling”. That’s when you want to pay attention to storytelling devices like paragraph breaks.

Paragraphs are defined by a main point or expression or an idea, not by any specific length. Strong paragraphs contain a sentence or several sentences that are unified around one central, controlling idea. A paragraph may be a single sentence or occupy half a page of sentences.

What a Paragraph Does

Paragraphs do several jobs in stories. They: 1) provide a break from long stretches of text both in content and in space on the page, and 2) they help clue the reader in to key changes in your story. The second point is often subtle and can be assigned almost arbitrarily if the need of the first point must be met. This is because the rules are not hard and fast and, ultimately in fiction, an author can “break” them according to their judgment of style and flavor.

Before you start “breaking” rules, you need to understand what paragraphs are meant to do. They:

  • Introduce something new
  • Define a shift in something already there
  • Mark a movement in a sequence

Each of the above is definable and interpretable in many ways from very subtle alterations to very obvious changes. Because of this, it is important to pay attention to the visual role of paragraphs; that is, how they create a more attractive and easeful text for readers. There’s nothing more “slowing” than seeing a page of narrative without any breaks.

Fiction writers use paragraphs much like punctuation to create a visual flow of narrative that varies in cadence, tone and flavor for readers. This is accomplished in several ways.

Vary Paragraph Lengths

Varying paragraph lengths in text provides diversity in the narrative that adds interest for the reader. Long paragraphs unify a more ponderous and serious mood in a reader. Interspersing these with short paragraphs will break up the reader’s tendency for complacent reading and livens the narrative. The short paragraphs, by default, provide areas of emphasis within a sea of longer text. The fiction writer may use these to make a subtle point.

Using Dialogue

Dialogue effectively breaks up paragraphs and provides a lot of open white space that is attractive to readers and increases pace of narrative. However, even dialogue requires variation. Variation can take on the form of 1) dialogue interspersed with descriptive narrative vs. the use of straight back and forth dialogue, and 2) one-line dialogue vs. dialogue containing several sentences (the one line dialogue serves to punctuate).

Paragraph Checklist

In their 2008 book, The Little Brown Handbook by Pearson Longman (Toronto), H. Ramsey Fowler, Jane E. Aaron, Murray McArthur, Deane E.D. Downey, and Barbara H. Pell provide a general checklist for revising paragraphs that is adapted here for fiction writing. This consists of asking the following questions:

  • Is the paragraph unified? Is it tied to one general idea or narrative direction?
  • Is the paragraph coherent? Are the sentences linked and do they follow a clear and consistent sequence?
  • Is the paragraph developed? Is there a logical beginning and end that “frames” a whole idea or thought?

Hope this helps. Don’t forget the one line paragraph.

Very effective.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

The Careful Writer: Commonly Misused Terms

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Spalting wood  (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When I first started writing stories — a while ago — I knew that I was a poor speller, had generally bad syntax and often misused grammar. Someone, who believed in my capacity to tell a good story, despite my shortcomings in delivery, handed me a slim copy of Strunk and White’s classic guide The Elements of Style. This elegant 105 page book includes elementary rules of usage; elementary principles of composition; a few matters of form; words and expressions commonly misused; and an approach to style.

It is “…still a little book, small enough and important enough to carry in your pocket, as I carry mine,” said Charles Osgood. And it has helped me out of a few messes. Let’s look at some examples of commonly misused words and expressions. These words and expressions, Strunk and White tell us, “are not so much bad English as bad style, the commonplaces of careless writing.” Being mindful of our language and our style can often make the difference in a publisher’s or editor’s perception of our professionalism.

Here are some of my favorites, in some cases more because of Strunk and White’s pithy comments than from the actual utility of the advice. Have you used any of these?

Allude: not to confuse with elude. You allude to a book; you elude a pursuer.

Allusion: easily confused with illusion. The first means “an indirect reference”; the second means “an unreal image” or “false impression”.

As to whether: whether is sufficient.

Being: not appropriate after regard…as. For instance, go from “she is regarded as being the best writer” to “she is regarded as the best writer.”

But: unnecessary after doubt and help. For instance, go from “I have no doubt but that…” or “She could not help but…” to “I have no doubt that…” and “She could not help…”

Compare: to compare to points out the similarity between objects regarded as different (as in most metaphor); to compare with points out the differences between objects that are similar. For instance, life may be compared to a pilgrimage; Paris may be compared with London (another large city) but compared to a movable feast. Nina: some modern linguists consider these interchangeable and do not distinguish the metaphoric elements of comparison. I concur with Strunk and White.

Comprise: literally means embrace. A zoo comprises mammals, reptiles and birds — because it embraces or includes them. The animals do not comprise a zoo — they constitute one.

Disinterested: means “impartial”. Do not confuse with “uninterested” which means “not interested in”. You bring in a disinterested (impartial) person to judge a dispute; another may be uninterested (couldn’t care less) about the dispute.

Effect: noun means “result”, and as a verb means “to accomplish”; not to be confused with “affect” which means “to influence”.

Farther/further: farther refers to distance and further refers to time.

Finalize: called a pompous and ambiguous verb by Strunk and White, I must confess using it many times in my other life as a consultant in business. Every segment of our society adopts its own vernacular of offbeat, “jargon” words and expressions that are regarded to help the flow of business. Another example that comes to mind is the use of dialogue as a verb. When using vernacular of any kind, be mindful that it is appropriate to your character, situation and story.

Imply/infer: not interchangeable. To imply is to suggest or indicate but not overtly express; to infer is to deduce from available evidence.

Interesting: Strunk and White suggest that this is, in fact, an uninteresting word, given that it tends to label and “tells” rather than letting the writer “show”. For instance, instead of using “an interesting tale of …” avoid the preamble and simply make it interesting! Let the reader judge. Telling them won’t make it so. This applies also to any letters you write to publishers and editors; avoid telling them your story is funny or interesting. Show it in your description.

Less: don’t use instead of fewer. Less refers to quantity; fewer to number. For instance “his troubles are less than mine” means they are of less magnitude; while “his troubles are fewer than mine” means he has a small number of troubles.

Nice: means everything and nothing. Use it sparingly and judiciously with intention; in other words, to be purposefully vague as in conversation. Strunk and White define it as a “shaggy, all purpose word”.

One of the most: Strunk and White define this phrase as a “feeble formula” that is threadbare, invites cliché and adds little except words to narration.

Personalize: Strunk and White dismiss it as a “pretentious word, often carrying bad advice. Do not personalize your prose,” they say, “simply make it good and keep it clean.” I agree. It falls under jargon.

Prestigious: “it’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it,” say our prestigious experts. Sorry … couldn’t help myself.

That/which: that is the defining (restrictive) pronoun; which is non-defining. For instance, 1) the lawnmower that is broken is in the garage (tells us which one); 2) the lawnmower, which is broken, is in the garage (gives us an additional fact about the lawnmower).

While: many writers use it indiscriminately for and, but and although. It can be efficiently replaced by a semi-colon (e.g., change “the girl stood by the door, while the man stood next to the couch.” to “the girl stood by the door; the man stood next to the couch.”). While is best used to mean “during the time that”.

References:

Strunk, William and E.B. White. 2000. “The Elements of Style” (Fourth edition). Longman. New York. 105 pp.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Moving Target of Indie Publishing: What Every Editor (and Writer) Needs to Know

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The Seine, Paris (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a writer and an editor. I’ve written and published novels, short stories and non-fiction books with traditional publishing houses and indie publishers, and I’ve self-published. As editor, I serve as in-house copy-editor for a publishing house in the United States and have acted as acquisition editor for several anthologies put out by a local indie publisher. I also coach novice writers to publication and edit in that capacity. So, you could say, I know the industry from many angles and perspectives. That’s been good for me, because this industry is a moving target and it’s good to triangulate on a moving object. The entire publishing industry is evolving and it’s a slippery evolution.

Even the words we use are slippery. Indie. Hybrid. Publisher.

Many people, like award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, when they use the terms indie-writer and indie-publishing include what some call self-publishing in their definitions of indie, “because so many [professional] writers who are not with traditional publishers have started their own presses. It’s not accurate to lump all writers who are not following the traditional route into the self-publishing basket any longer.” According to Rusch, an indie publisher, then, is anyone who is not a traditional publisher. For the sake of this article, I’ve adopted Rusch’s definition to provide the full range of expectations for editors working with writers in the indie field. I define a traditional publisher as an established and often larger publishing house or press that: 1) follows traditional submission criteria; 2) does not charge writers; 3) pays out royalties; and 4) employs in-house editors.

Indie writing and publishing can then be described in several ways depending on where the writer submits, by what mechanism and what model they use. All of these will affect a writer’s needs and perceptions for an editor and, in turn, an editor’s expectations as well.

I overview five major models of indie writing and publishing in Table 1, below.

Table 1: Types of Indie Writing / Publishing Models:
1. Small Independent Press

(not writer’s)

Author submits to a small press that does not require author to pay for publishing costs; house may pay small royalties; acceptance criteria limit submissions; there may or may not be formal distribution
2. Small Independent Press

(not writer’s)

Author submits to a small press that may require author to pay for part of publishing costs; house typically does not pay royalties but may provide complementary copies and/or author’s rate for copies; acceptance criteria may still apply to submissions; distributor tends to be Ingram/Amazon model
3. Small Independent Press

(writer as sole proprietor or part of a consortium; also called self-publishing by some)

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; costs of publication are born solely by the writer(s) and royalties come straight from profit; no acceptance criteria apply; distribution typically Ingram/Amazon model
4. Service “Publisher”

(e.g., iUniverse, Friessen, etc.); this is self-publishing, even though the “publisher” name appears on the work

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; all publication costs born by writer; service will include various services, including: copy-editing, layout, cover design, printing, some distribution, some promotion—all at cost (based on service package); distribution typically Ingram/Amazon model
5. Self-Publishing

(e.g., the publication is in the author’s name)

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; author uses a la carte style of self-publishing in which she hires various experts—or herself does—the production of the work (e.g. editing, layout, cover, printing, distribution, and promotion).

Depending on which model an author uses for their work, their perceived need and actual need for an editor prior to submission and publication will be affected. I make the distinction between “perceived” and “actual” because, unfortunately, in many cases these diverge: an author may not think they need a certain kind of editing for their work when they do. The opposite is more rare: the author thinking she needs an editor when she doesn’t. I will talk more about this in a later article.

The availability of these models and their hybrid cousins has provided writers with a cornucopia of often confusing choices. In many cases, I am finding—particularly with my clients—that writers don’t even know which choice is best for them. Part of the reason for this is that writers carry forward ideas from the old model and create a misconception of expectation. Unfortunately, this often translates into misconceived ideas about and expectations of editors. That’s another article too.

For editors, it’s important to recognize these different models and what they, in turn, provide and expect from authors. A savvy editor translates into a savvy author. Your advice, if driven from a place of publishing industry knowledge, will be invaluable to authors seeking your services. And they will come to rely on this as much as, if not more than, your actual editing.

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Eiffel Tower, Paris (photo by Nina Munteanu)

By its very nature, indie publishing has given the freelance editor an opportunity to take on a new role—a service that agents used to and still do provide many traditionally-published authors: that of industry consultant. In the traditional model, an author would seek an agent who would then not only sell their work to a publisher but also provide advice on what to expect in the market as well as help with career-longevity choices (which include “branding”); questions many novice authors haven’t even considered, never mind answered sufficiently. Most indie authors will not engage an agent; but most will (should) hire an editor. So, instead of an agent, the freelance editor becomes the first stop in the publishing industry for an indie author. This has become one of my primary roles as editor and writing coach. And this is again because most writers, when they start out, do not know what direction they want to go—mainly because they aren’t familiar enough with what is available to them and the ramifications to their careers.

Here’s an example: one client, working on her first novel, wanted my advice on whether she should try with a traditional publisher or just forgo and self-publish. An editor, if possessing savvy knowledge of the industry and now knowing something of the author’s work and ambitions, can bring informed and constructive advice to the author.

The ramifications on how I handle and edit a story directly follows which route the author has decided to follow. This is every bit as relevant to an author publishing with a traditional publishing house, an indie press, or self-publishing. Style—whether it is that of a publishing house or the author’s brand—relies on consistent application of voice and tone. Just as publishing houses embrace different and unique styles, so do authors. In fact, if they are self-publishing, this is even more important.

The editor plays a crucial role in helping an author establish their “voice” and “style”, and ultimately their “brand.” And, perhaps, this becomes one of the principle differences between traditional and indie publishing. While voice and style is pre-determined to some extent by traditional publishing houses (hence they employ their own editors to impose a style in some cases), it is left to the author—and her freelance editor—to determine this in the indie scene. The structure of traditional publishing is both more orderly and more confining. Indie publishing—particularly self-publishing—is an infinite melting pot of creativity. Some view it as one big mess. In fact, it is a chaos of astonishing opportunity. It is a chance for intimate collaboration that demands mutual respect. Freelance editors are poised as both gatekeepers and enabling wizards of the indie world.

Table 2, below, describes a freelance editor’s focus in the five indie models I described in Table 1.

Table 2: Editing for Different Indie Models:
1. Small Independent Press

(with submission criteria similar to a traditional model)

Authors often think they don’t need a freelance editor if they are submitting to a press with in-house editor; this is incorrect. Those who have had their work edited prior to submission to a press—even a small press—will have a much higher chance of being accepted. The freelance editor’s job, then, will include attending to the style of the publishing house.
2. Small Independent Press

(without submission criteria)

While authors may not recognize the need for an editor in submitting to an indie publisher without submission criteria, the need for editing remains—particularly because many of these presses do not employ or have sufficiently qualified editors. Excellence in presentation and nurturing a strong author voice are the freelance editor’s responsibility.
3. Small Independent Press

(writer’s own press)

Given that the author has pretty well carte blanche on what to write and publish, a freelance editor’s role in recognizing, harmonizing with and helping to establish a genuine and strong author’s “voice” becomes most important.
4. Service “Publisher” Authors have misconceptions about service “publishers” and particularly their editors. I have had several clients come to me after recognizing that their works were not well represented by the provider’s in-house editor. Service “publisher” in-house editors do not represent a particular style, voice or brand (given that most are underpaid students and there is no style identity); the freelance editor role is as with #3.
5. Self-Publishing The same criteria exist here as for model #3.
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Paris street (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The take home is that freelance editors can flourish in the indie writing and publishing field by: 1) establishing their expertise in the industry and what it requires (taking on the role of consultant, which agents normally provide in the traditional model); 2) recognizing a need for strong authorial voices and helping to foster them; 3) promoting point #2 with consistency in style, tone, etc.

Hope this helps. Let me know.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Hidden Costs of Self-Publishing, Part 1: The Solution to “Author Solutions”

author-solutions-friendsWhat do Simon & Schuster, Hay House, Barnes and Noble and Reader’s Digest have in common? Each of these reputable and famous names in publishing has forged a partnership with Author Solutions. What is significant about that? Well…In a detailed article written in April of 2015, author David Gaughran tells us why this is distressing news to authors and I discuss this further below.

Many beginning authors wishing to “self-publish” are looking for a service that will easily and painlessly “publish” their cherished creative as well as help them get it out into the reading world. Naive about what it takes to “get out into the reading world”, many authors are signing up with service-publishers who will “publish” anything so long as the author is willing to pay. You know who they are; I mention some of them below. Although the Internet is populated with excellent book-publishing services by freelance editors, cover artists, layout specialists and various accompanying software and apps, many authors are unwilling to go the a la carte route of experts. Instead, they look for an easy and convenient solution: a one-stop shop to sell their book. The “expertise” and “services” are usually anonymous and nameless, hidden behind the company name. I’ve seen some horrid examples of extremely poor editing in books that had presumably been professionally edited by a service-publisher for which a writer had paid good money. The writer was himself/herself clueless of the poor quality (for some of them, English is not their first language), and couldn’t tell me who had edited their work. When I did some digging into two of these service-publishers, I finally found, in the fine print, that the service-publisher used students. Another client of mine complained bitterly about how he had not received the services promised in the package that he’d paid dearly for. This sort of thing is rampant in the “self-publishing” industry right now.

As with all short cuts, there are hidden costs. Let’s take Author Solutions as a good example.

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The “Anti-Solution”

Author Solutions provides a “publishing” service to any writer willing to pay.  Typical of virtually all the vanity publishers, Author Solutions and its many affiliates (likely the company you are using) offers several packages for the author, from basic printing services to the deluxe package with promised media coverage and excellent PR. Unfortunately, what they promise and what they deliver can be two different things. Far from providing solutions to an author, Author Solutions operates “more like a telemarketing company whose customer base is the authors themselves,” write plaintiffs Wheeler and Heightsman as part of their 2015 class action law suit against the firm. Some of Author Solutions’ long-standing issues faced by customers include:

  • improperly reporting royalty information
  • non-payment of royalties
  • breach of contract
  • predatory and harassing sales calls
  • excessive markups on review and advertising services
  • failure to deliver marketing services as promised
  • telling customers their add-ons will only cost hundreds of dollars and then charging their credit cards thousands of dollars
  • ignoring customer complaints
  • shaming and banning customers who go public with their stories.

“Despite Author Solutions’ mounting legal troubles and an unending stream of complaints against the company from both its own customers and a whole host of writers’ organizers and campaigners, companies are still queuing up to partner with Author solutions,” writes Gaughran. Is it because its corporate parent is Penguin Random House? Some “Partner Imprints” (in brackets) run by Author Solutions as a self-publishing service for the partner publishing house include:

  • Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing)
  • Lulu
  • Harlequin (DelleArte Press) – partnership terminated 2015
  • Hay House (Balboa US, Balboa Australia)
  • Barnes & Noble (Nook Press Author Services)
  • Crossbooks (LifeWay) – partnership terminated 2014
  • Penguin (Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa)
  • HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson/Zondervan (Westbow Press)
  • Random House (MeGustaEscribir)
  • Writer’s Digest (Abbott Press) – partnership terminated 2014

Many authors aren’t aware that these “Partner Imprints” are all run by the same company; or that Author Solutions’ own in-house imprints include iUniverse, Trafford, Palibrio, AuthorHouse, BookTango, and Xlibris. According to Gaughran, this came about as a “solution” for traditional publishing houses to monetize their slush pile. That’s the pile of unsolicited works most beginning writers send to publishing houses that end up in a huge heap in some room that in the past was relegated to new underling editors to cut their teeth on. Now the manuscripts simply go to a company only interested in making money from writers willing to pay for their largely unedited works. Books that would never have been accepted by these traditional publishing houses are now finding a “home”. But what kind of “home” is it and what does the writer really achieve for her many dollars spent? According to Gaughran’s sources at Penguin, the primary directive of Author Solutions is to sell (to the author) the most expensive publishing package they can and encourage authors to buy their own books. When depositions were made public, they revealed that two thirds of Author Solutions revenue comes from selling publishing and marketing packages and one third from selling books—with a vast majority of those book sales coming from authors buying their own books. What about the cool opportunities for book signings at literary events, book displays, advertising space, TV and reviews that they promised? Gaughran provides a staggering list that includes Publishers Weekly, New York Times, Kirkus and the New York Review of Books, and my personal favorite Word on the Street Festival Toronto. “These partnerships don’t provide any real value to Author Solutions customers,” says Gaughran. In an earlier class action lawsuit against Author Solutions by law firm Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart representing three authors, Publishers Weekly wrote:

The suit, which seeks class action status, alleges that Author Solutions misrepresents itself, luring authors in with claims that its books can compete with “traditional publishers,” offering “greater speed, higher royalties, and more control for its authors.” The company then profits from “fraudulent” practices, the complaint alleges, including “delaying publication, publishing manuscripts with errors to generate fees, and selling worthless services, or services that fail to accomplish what they promise.” The suit also alleges that Author Solutions fails to pay its authors the royalties they are due.

According to the law firm representing the authors:

Author Solutions preys upon the dreams of authors by selling them expensive services that sound exciting but do not actually sell any books. Their defense: They aren’t being deceptive because they aren’t trying to sell books. Of course, for nearly 200,000 authors who have paid thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars to buy expensive services that promised to promote their books, Author Solutions’s indifference to book sales comes as more than a bit of a surprise.”

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The Solution—But You May Not Like It…

So, what’s the solution? For those of you starting out, it’s important to know that firstly there are a lot of genuinely good publishing houses out there potentially interested in your book and willing to work with you in partnership toward a successful book that will sell. And they don’t want your money; they want quality. The book publishing industry is booming in many different ways. And while the predatory arm of the mercenary would like to seduce you with glamour and unrealistic dreams—so long as you pay—a whole cadre of small presses are growing who are producing high quality works by emerging writers. These local Indie publishing houses are worth seeking out and submitting to. But they don’t want to see your book until it is ready. Reader ready. This puts the responsibility back on you, the writer, to produce the very best you can. I tell my writing students at the University of Toronto and George Brown College that if you want to publish, you need to:

  1. write the very best story you can
  2. get it edited, preferably by a professional editor or a writing coach of good repute
  3. research the book publishing market and submit to a traditional publisher (not a service-publisher who wants your money)
  4. rewrite (if you feel the need to) and resubmit to another publisher
  5. resubmit to another publisher

If you decide to self-publish, find a reputable printing house and learn what it takes to create a book. Find someone who does layout and covers professionally. There are good ones out there; I know—I use them myself. Learn some marketing skills or find a marketing specialist or PR specialist who has a sound track record and you can trust. The book industry was and still is based on sound relationships. Writers with editors; publishers with marketers and distributors; writers with readers; and so on.

In the end, it’s up to you. Take charge of your career and bring the “self” back into self-publishing.

In Part 2, I discuss the significance of first impressions and “branding” in self-publishing. Of course with examples.

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nina-2014aa

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.  

To Expose or Not to Expose…That is the Question

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Walking the path along the Credit River, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In fiction, exposition breaks away from the ongoing action of a scene to give information. It can be a paragraph or go on for several pages. Exposition often provides contextual information critical for the reader to buy-in to character-motivation or the ideas promoted in the story. It gives a story its perspective and larger meaning by linking the reader with the thematic elements. If scene is action and plot, exposition feeds reflection and theme. Exposition can appear in the form of background, setting, back story, or overview. It is most often expressed through a POV character’s reflection and observation.

There are points in almost every story where exposition is necessary. Most stories would suffer without information that adds past, context and overview.

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Ward Island, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Exposition in writing lets you:

  • Describe a person in detail
  • Describe a place for more than a phrase or two (important especially if a place serves as a “character”)
  • Skip over periods of time when nothing important or compelling is happening, without a jarring break in the narrative
  • Draw back from a close-focus action scene to give the reader a meaningful overview (and to say how things got that way)
  • Give some background and history of characters, location, event, etc.

You need to balance the show and tell part of your narrative and to maintain a rhythm in your pace and tone. This means doing several things, including:

  • Restrain yourself and keep your notes to yourself: I’ve seen excellent writers add too much exposition on a subject that obviously excited them but didn’t necessarily excite me. This often occurs when a writer feels impelled to share their invention or discovery at the expense of story-telling. Doing your “homework” in writing (e.g., research) also includes keeping it to yourself, no matter how much you want to share it. Doing your homework is the “iceberg” and the story is the “tip”. Many genre books (e.g., science fiction, thrillers, mysteries, etc.) must be supported by solid research. The writer takes what she needs for the story and keeps the rest.
  • Arouse then explain: introduce your character by letting her act and show herself and engage the reader’s curiosity and sympathy, then explain how and why she got there.
  • Build exposition into the scene: get creative and include expository information as props in a scene. This is a great way to add information seamlessly.
  • Put exposition in between scenes: instead of interrupting a scene in action, exposition can be used to give the reader a breather from a high paced scene to reflect along with the protagonist on what just happened. This is a more appropriate place to read exposition, when the reader has calmed down.
  • Let a character explain: have your characters provide the information by one questioning and the other replying. There is a danger in this kind of exposition, in that the dialogue can become encumbered by long stretches of explanation. Take care to make this realistic and enjoyable to the reader. If done well, this type of exposition can also reveal things about the characters.
  • Use interior monologue: use a character’s inner reflections to reveal information, which also reveals something of the character herself. Be careful not to turn this into polemic, however.

Now, go and have fun exposing!

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Careful Writer: Some Notes on Composition

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Spalted log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

During my recent reread of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”, this little book yielded more good advice that I wish to share with you.

“The shape of our language is not rigid,” they tell us. “We have no lawgiver whose word is final.” This is because language is fluid and ever-evolving as the artist’s tool of communication. The artist interprets the world; the writer interprets the language to reflect it.

And yet, a basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. To be effective, Strunk and White assert, “writing must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”

In some cases the best design is no design at all (as in a love letter or a casual essay, which is an acceptable stream of conscious flow). But, in most cases—particularly in “storytelling”—planning helps. The first principle of composition is “to determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.”

Jack Bickham, author of Elements of Writing Fiction: Scene and Structure reminds us that, “a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things and allows her to concentrate her imagination on characters and events.” Structure, explains Bickham, is the internal part of the story, like the braces of your house; while form is external, what you do with the structure. Structure and form link to construct “story” in a series of scenes that “interconnect in a very clear way to form a long narrative with linear development form posing the story question at the outset to the answering of that question at the climax.”

Strunk and White discuss twenty-two elementary principles of basic composition. Here are a few choice ones.

The 14th Elementary Principle: Use the Active Voice

The active voice is often more direct and vigorous than the passive. Strunk and White note that activating a sentence not only makes it stronger but shorter. “Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor,” they say. Here’s one of their examples:

Passive: My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

Passive, indefinite: My first visit to Boston will always be remembered.

Active: I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

Activating the verb breathes life into the sentence, gives it motion and direction, and empowers both subject and object.

The 15th Elementary Principle: Put Statements in Positive Form

Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating and noncommittal language. “Use the word ‘not’ as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” Here are a few examples:

Negative Positive
He was not very often on time. He usually came late.
She did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time. She thought the study of Latin a waste of time.

The 16th Elementary Principle: Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language

Prefer “the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract,” they say. The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers use words that call up pictures. The key is to know what details matter.

Author Jordan Rosenfeld describes your novel as a world in which your reader enters and wants to stay in for a while. You make it easy for the reader by adding concrete details for her to envision and relate to. Ground your readers in vivid setting, rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon your characters to a generic, vague and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead, brighten up their lives by having them speed along Highway 66 in a 1959 red Corvette, sipping a Pinot Noir.

The 17th Elementary Principle: Omit Needless Words

“Vigorous writing is concise,” Strunk and White tell us. Ray Bradbury once told me that “every word counts” in a story, from the name of your character to the verb you use to activate and give direction to your sentence. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts,” say Strunk and White. Activating your verbs is one excellent way to invigorate your sentences. Strunk and White provide several common expressions that violate concise writing.

Original                                Just use…
The question as to whether Whether
There is no doubt but that No doubt
Used for fuel purposes Used for fuel
In a hasty manner Hastily
The reason why is that Because
Her story is a strange one Her story is strange

How about the term the fact that? Strunk and White go into some detail with this rather pesky term. Here are a few examples:

·       I was unaware of the fact that ·       I was unaware that
·       Call your attention to the fact that ·       Notify you
·       In spite of the fact that ·       Although
·       The fact that he had not succeeded ·       His failure

References:

Bickham, Jack. 1993. Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure. Writer’s Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio.

Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. 2000. The Elements of Style. Fourth ed. Longman. New York, NY. 105pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 166pp.

Rosenfeld, Jordan E. 2008. “Novel Revision for the Faint of Heart”. In: Writer’s Digest. February, 2008.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Swimming Against the Tide and Rising Up & Rising Above

cheryl-xavier

Cheryl Antao Xavier

“Her passion for giving voice to non-mainstream writers has inspired her to swim against the tide in these harsh economic times,” says Desi News (Issue 31; December 2014) of Cheryl Antao-Xavier, publisher of In Our Words, Inc. (IOWI) in Mississauga, Ontario.

I met Cheryl a few years ago at a writer’s event when she introduced herself during a break as I was helping myself to my third samosa. We’ve since collaborated on several projects. The most recent is a literary anthology on what it means to live in Canada and be a Canadian. The call for submissions has just recently been made, so if you’re interested in submitting, check out Cheryl’s website here: http://inourwords.ca/the-literary-connection-volume-ii.html

Born of Goan parents, Cheryl grew up in Bahrain and then Karachi, where books were a rare treat. Cheryl shares the story of her aunt who taught knitting to women in a banking family from whom she borrowed books—Enid Blyton, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Nancy Drew and comics—for her book-thirsty nieces, who “would devour the books in no time!” says Antao-Xavier.

Quality books were a luxury, even at the university she attended. Cheryl recalls how the Karachi University library had a “chained book” on display. John Stuart Mill’s book was required reading for students of economics but there was only one copy in the KU library. It sat on a wooden stand with a chain running through its spine under a librarian’s guard and you had to book time with the book and wait long hours for a few minutes to make hasty notes.

Cheryl Antao Xavier

Cheryl Antao Xavier

When Cheryl immigrated to Canada in 1988, she found “book heaven” in the second-hand bookstores and libraries. Reading and owning books became an obsession that has endured to this day.

Cheryl worked for several publishing houses before creating her own publishing house In Our Words Inc. (IOWI). IOWI publishes a good variety of works, including literary fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and children’s stories from both emerging and established writers.

About the work IOWI publishes, Cheryl told Desi News, “I delight in new and fresh voices; language with imagery; twists on the conventional; historical backgrounds with the angst of displaced or marginalized people. For writers with emotional ties to a heritage radically different from the Canadian experience, writing is a cathartic process. There are writers who have lived through cataclysmic events, whose stories are fascinating chips in the mosaic of Canadian literature.”

I recently whisked Cheryl off in Benny, my sentient ship, and settled her to a million dollar view in the aft deck as we circled the planet. I asked her about how she is managing with the industry doing virtual summersaults (as opposed to somersaults–well, it IS summer, eh?) these days. Here’s what went back and forth:

Nina: I was so intrigued by your story, I just have to start by asking you this: what’s your favourite book of all time and why?

Cheryl: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Read it umpteen times, saw both movie versions, have the Colin Firth series in my video collection. I looooove period fiction drama. Dickens, the Brontes, Hardy, to the more recent Forsythe Saga, Downton Abbey, etc. etc. My Dad had the full collection of Perry Mason and Zane Grey books. So of course I read them all. I love murder-mysteries from Agatha Christie to the present day forensic science stuff.

Nina: You have excellent taste! … What is your assessment of what is happening with print books vs ebooks vs audio books and such? Do you see one format winning over the other and how will that affect your own publishing model?

Cheryl: Print books should be around for as long as our generation who love holding a paper book survive. But ebooks are increasingly popular and have undeniable environmental merits. Publishing companies like mine have to do what you aptly call ‘virtual somersaults’ to stay current and cut costs to stay viable. Rather than publishing formats, what worries me more is poor quality books being published and the potential for declining readership in general. The tragedy of do-it-yourself print-on-demand software, freely available, is that anybody with passable tech skills can become a ‘published author.’ Books with flashy covers but no creative merit vie for reader attention and diminishing discretionary incomes. Also, media entertainment continues to steal leisure time.

Nina: Can you share some candid thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages for writers starting out in choosing the traditional publishing model vs alternative models such as indie or self-publishing.

Cheryl: The lines between traditional and indie/self-pub have blurred even more with the proliferation of print-on-demand options. Production costs have consequently plummeted. So the financial investment in an author/book has less of a risk. I would say, do your research. Make your manuscript super-strong, that means get it professionally edited, and then try the traditional route. Read publishers’ responses to your queries very carefully. It’s an opportunity to learn. If there are no takers, then research indie publishers and call, discuss contracts and options and make an informed decision. Make doubly sure that the traditional pre-production steps of editing, proofreading and professional design are not bypassed. Sometimes good content is smothered by verbosity and needs a good professional edit. Basic POD ‘template’ designs SCREAM amateur-DIY when they are set with no real imagination in big blocks of text, riddled with typos.

Nina: Do you see any specific roles for indie and/or self-publishing in helping to define artistic expression in Canada?

Cheryl: Definitely. The traditional big publishing houses can accept just so many manuscripts. So obviously they’ll go for the ones that are a sure bet. That’s where the diamonds in the rough can be missed out. Indie publishers who have the resources to work with authors to polish the content to its best possible advantage are ideally placed to bring new or even established voices to the mainstream.

Nina: What in your opinion is the major impact (both negative and positive) of the growing self-publishing model adopted by many writers over both traditional and indie publishing?

Cheryl: Occasionally I read and recommend self-published books for membership in a major professional writer’s organization. I also attend book launches and local literary events looking at books, particularly by self-published authors. The good thing is that these authors went that extra step to raise their voices in the literate world. They feel the satisfaction of being ‘published authors.’ The down side is that once something is in print, and particularly if it has not been professionally edited and designed, that book can end up being an embarrassment and a waste of time and money. Typos jump out at the reader and lower the credibility of the work and its creator. Ultimately, it comes down to what the writer wants to achieve by publishing. 

Nina: What major change do you foresee in the book industry and the readership that will affect us? How and why will that affect IOWI?

Cheryl: Everybody loves a good story, and finds it worth their while to read well-articulated text. So the successful writers will be the ones who manage to engage their readers no matter what the genre. The challenge is also for a good book to stand out from the proliferation of new titles vying for attention in virtual and brick-and-mortar stores. I see social media, forums like Goodreads, and book tours/festivals being key arbiters in what bookworms find and opt to read. IOWI will continue to offer an indie publishing option that stresses putting out a good book. Something that both author and publisher can be proud of.

Nina: Tell us about your current projects and why they excite you. 

Cheryl: IOWI is working on two anthologies currently, with a couple more in the planning stage. A Mississauga youth group is publishing their third anthology through IOWI. It is so exciting to see the writing and photography talent this group has attracted. We are so proud to be their publisher. IOWI has its own anthology The Literary Connection Volume II, with a theme of ‘My Canada’ due to be published by November this year. The call for submissions is already out and closes end-July. I am also working on pulling together a collection of plays by Canadian playwrights. It’s going to be awesome. My aim is to have writers meet with a professional writing coach, yourself Nina, to workshop their submissions into amazing work. I want these anthologies to be a credible contribution to CanLit.

Then another pet project is The Red Bench Project, which seeks to promote reading and literacy at the family and community levels. We must encourage the habit of reading for enjoyment. Bringing authors and public together is part of this project.

Nina: What three pieces of advice do you have for a new writer wishing to get published?

Cheryl: Write every day. Then spend some time editing and rewriting past work. Learn to write well through courses, mentorship or self-study.

Read voraciously and discerningly. Keep clippings or books of your favourite writers handy. Before writing, read a selection from these writers. It influences your own voice and jumpstarts your creativity.

Botanical Beach tidal pools

Botanical Beach, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Be guided by your need to publish your super-amazing manuscript. Not by your need to see your name on a book. If the content is not up to par, that novelty morphs into the proverbial albatross that haunts a fledgling writing career. If you are a serious writer: DON’T PUBLISH TILL YOU ARE READY!

 

Nina: Great advice, Cheryl! Thanks so much for joining me here and I do promise to get you back on the ground… Don’t the Great Lakes look beautiful from 36,000 km?

Cheryl: Thank YOU for the ride, Nina. Be well.

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nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Ten Things to Consider When Revising Your Novel

Log patterns 6

Spalted log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

No piece of writing is complete without submitting it to the scrutiny of revision. A colleague of mine once shared the story of what a student of hers had said about revision: it’s “like beating up a nice friend. Why would I want to do that?” Because, my colleague replied, without a little pummelling all you have is a “nice draft”.

Here are ten things you can do to revise your first and subsequent drafts into something stellar.

  1. Let Your Work Breathe

Once you’ve completed your draft, set it aside for a while. This is key to helping you make objective observations about your writing when you return. The longer you leave it, the more objective you will be. Don’t worry about losing momentum or interest; they most certainly will return. But if hey don’t, then you didn’t have a story in the first place—and that, too, is a good thing to discover.

  1. Dig Deep

Now that you have the whole story in front of you, you’re in the position to restructure plotlines, subplots, events and characters to best reflect your overall story and its main theme. Don’t be afraid to remove large sections or even whole characters; you will likely add others.

  1. Take Inventory

Take stock of how each chapter and scene/sequel contributes to plotline and theme; root out the inconsistencies as you relate the minutia to the whole. You may decide to merge two characters into one or add a character or change a character’s gender or age to better serve your plotline and theme.

  1. Highlight the Surges

Some passages will stand out as being particularly stunning; pay attention to them in each chapter and apply their energy to the rest of your writing.

  1. Purge & Un-clutter

Make a point of shortening everything; this forces you to use more succinct language and replace adjectives and adverbs with power-verbs. Doing this will tighten prose and make it more clear. Reading aloud, particularly dialogue, can help streamline your prose.

  1. Check Point of View

This is the time to take stock of whether you’ve chosen the best point of view style for your story (e.g., first person, third person limited, omniscient). Many first manuscripts by my students have suffered from shifting or inconsistent point of view. Ensure that yours is consistent. You may wish to experiment with different points of view at this stage (e.g., changing your narrative from the third person to the first person, for instance); the results may surprise you.

  1. Make a Plot (Story) Promise

Given that you are essentially making a promise to your readers, it is advisable that you revisit that promise. Tie up your plot points; don’t leave any hanging unless you’re intentionally doing this. But, be aware that readers don’t generally like it. Similarly, if you’ve written a scene that is lyrical, beautiful and compelling but doesn’t contribute to your plotline, nix it. You can file it away for another story where it may be more applicable.

  1. Deepen Your Characters

The revision process is an ideal time to add subtle detail to your main characters: a nervous scratch of his beard, an absent twisting of the ring on her finger, the frequent use of a particular expression. Purposefully adding unique qualities to your characters, like vernacular, body language, and inflections grounds them in reality and makes them more personable and memorable. However, if you want a particular character trait to stick with the reader, you should repeat it a few times throughout the story. This applies to minor characters as well. When you paint your minor characters with more detail, you create a more three-dimensional tapestry for your main characters to walk through.

  1. Write Scenes (show, don’t tell)

Use the revision process to convert flat narrative into “scene” through dramatization. Narrative summaries often read like lecture or polemic. They tend to be passive, slow, and less engaging. Scenes are animated by action, tension and conflict, dialogue and physical movement.

  1. Be Concrete

Ground your characters in vivid setting and rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon them to a generic and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead brighten up their lives by having them speeding along Highway 66 in a red Carmen Ghia while sipping a Pinot Noir.

Remember to pace yourself when revising; otherwise you may become overwhelmed and discouraged, even confused into incessant rewrites. Your story needs to settle between revision stages. As my colleague said, “you don’t need to beat up your nice friend all at once.”

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Nina Talks to EAC About the Changing Face of Publishing

In January 2014, I gave a talk to the Editor’s Association of Canada (EAC) on the changing face of publishing and what it means for editors and writers. Editors learned about self-publishing and indie publishing, publishing myths, and where to find new editing opportunities.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.