Wednesday, August 28, 2013

People Who Aren't Us

by Riley Redgate

Almost two years ago, I was lucky enough to catch the show Seminar on Broadway. The show is brilliant as a whole and deals with a creative writing seminar taught by the crotchet-iest of professors. It is about many things, but one subplot that particularly stuck with me went something like this:

A girl writes a book. The crotchety professor takes one look at the first page and not only criticizes every facet of the main character, but implies that the girl herself is exactly like that main character. The girl protests, and she hypothesizes that the professor is only uninterested because of what she is like as a human being. So she writes pages and pretends they are autobiographical pages from a nonexistent friend, a gay illegal immigrant amputee from South America, rather than from her own head. Crotchety Professor Man gushes over them. She takes this as a victory at first, but comes to realize that the professor has won: he has forced her to stretch her comfort zone and write from the perspective of someone who is nothing like her, someone whose story is far more high-stakes and creative than her own hyper-personal story.

That's not to say that a narrative can't be utterly brilliant despite how "normal" or "underwhelming" it may seem on its surface: look at the simple, down-to-earth concept of Mrs. Dalloway. Also, the prospect of misrepresenting, and thus offending, an entire demographic of people—a different race; a different gender; a different sexuality—is horrifying and daunting in equal parts. But I think that as citizens of a larger world, we have a responsibility to write also about people who are utterly unlike us in race, gender, sexuality, background. This responsibility is not only to those demographic groups as people who deserve representation, but also to ourselves as human beings, in order to aim for a larger worldview and heightened empathy. The important thing is how to go about portraying those perspectives. I believe there are two vital points to keep in mind:

1) Research. Research trends and statistics and understand their implications—but dig deeper, too. If you're writing a character who lives in extreme urban poverty, for instance, look up as many stories as possible from people who have lived in urban poverty, and people who are still living that life. Individual stories can tell you so much more than percentages and overall trends and general impressions, than graduation rates and unemployment rates. Reading individual stories will help humanize the people you're writing.

Otherwise ... well, for instance, if you the author have always been well-off, patchy or solely-trends-based research means you may run the risk of your characters just having a thin veneer of Ideas About Poverty over a personality that is driven by deeply-ingrained patterns of behavior that you, the author, have had your whole life. Research conscientiously so you can write conscientiously about people who aren't you, who don't think like you, who have never thought like you and will never be anything like you. (I'd argue that playing at those opposite perspectives is half the fun.)

2) Implications. One of the issues with minorities in fiction is that minority depictions can easily be misinterpreted as being the author's concept of the minority as a whole. It's the same messed-up principle that drives society to demand that women answer for their gender as a whole—as in, if a man is bad at driving, he's a bad driver; if a woman is bad at driving, it's because women are bad at driving. When a person of a marginalized demographic appears in fiction, he, she, or they may be held up as an Example for that demographic, even if the author never intended that to be the case. Subsequently, it's often hard for the character to shrug off that stigma and be seen as a multifaceted human being rather than "the black character!" or "the gay character!" or "the fat character!" Which is, of course, all the more reason to include more of those marginalized characters, to be sure they're not being pigeonholed.

It would be lovely if this weren't an issue, and luckily the world seems to be veering toward a world where it's less of an issue, but as it is, we still have to be hyper-conscious of the implications of these depictions. And by "as it is", I mean, "as we are currently dealing with shameless whitewashing of major Hollywood films," or "as the number of LGBTQ characters in well-publicized lead roles is hovering around zero, except in films that are explicitly About Gayness And Being Gay," or "as the number of incidentally fat teenage girls in lead roles is also hovering around zero."

Both of these points are seemingly focused on inhibition. Research excessively. Fact-check constantly. Police yourself. That sounds unappealing, I know ... but when it comes to writing the unfamiliar, I truly believe this is the right approach. We live in a time where people, bizarrely, hilariously, have started talking about being politically correct like it's a bad thing. If me policing my portrayals is going to make a trans* person more comfortable with reading my writing, or is going to make it easier for people of color to read a piece I've written without feeling excluded, then yes, I'm willing to put in extra time and effort to be "politically correct." Frankly, I don't view it as "political correctness"—I view it as obsessive honesty, because writing any group of people into a tiny box of conceptions is dishonest, a slap in the face of realism. The real world is diverse, and huge, and to get a taste of that in fiction should be utterly normal, really, rather than a special feature.

Sure, there may be readers who couldn't care less about the so-called "P.C."—but I feel like if I'm writing for public consumption, that means I'm writing for the entire public. And that includes those who are easily offended. No, I don't believe authors can please everyone, but I definitely believe we can write fearlessly and push the envelope while still being careful enough not to hurt people. In my opinion, Chuck Wendig's blog,, is a great example of this. He's "offensive" in the sense that he curses constantly and has a crude sense of humor, but I don't know anyone who has read his pieces and come away from them feeling like they've been targeted. I think the same is true of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. It offends sensibilities, but it doesn't offend people, not on a deep personal level.

I don't know how popular this opinion is; it's simply my own approach. I'd love to hear what your approach is, or your opinion!

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Can't We All Just Get Along? (Books vs. Movies)

By Charlee Vale

It seems to me that lately, there have been an influx of book based movies hitting the theatre. As both a writer and an actress, this makes me immensely happy! But I know that others aren't as happy, especially when they see their favorite books 'ruined' by it being made into a movie.

As an example, I'll tell you about my experience seeing The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, this past week.

I went to a tiny theater near my house. It was a late showing, and there were only a few people waiting for the movie with me. Of these people, there was a group of teens, completely decked out in costume. They had every major character covered, we're talking dedication. I gathered from not-so-subtle eavesdropping and a little conversation, that they were overjoyed to be seeing the movie for the first time, some of them fans of the book since it first came out in 2007.

So we went in and watched the movie. (For the record, I really enjoyed it--and I recommend everyone see it) As soon as the credits rolled I looked over at the costumed group to gauge their reaction. They all seemed overwhelmingly confused and saddened. Not understanding 'what had just happened.' (This despite us talking about how books and movies have to be different before entering the theater)

While thinking about this, it occurred to me that in fact, many times I've known people who are 'okay with it being different from the book,' and then walk out of the movie furious for that same reason. This makes me sad, because hollywood is finally paying attention to books! Their making book movies! But if everyone keeps hating them, they'll stop.

As a person who crosses the book/movie world, I thought I'd talk about a couple of the reasons books and movies can't be the same, and why that's okay.

1. Length

The book you read was most likely in between 200-300 pages, maybe more. The standard rule of thumb in the movie industry for screenplays is 'a minute per page.' If movies literally took the book you read and put it on the screen, even the shortest books would be almost three hours long. (The City of Bones hardcover is 485 pages--an 8 hour movie!)

2. Investment vs. Payoff

Because the aforementioned problem with length, movie producers have to look at the story and what's going to be the best way to deliver the required information, and still keep the tone of the story. A good example of this is the Hunger Games movie.

For those of you who have both read the book and seen the movie, you know that the person who gives Katniss the Mockingjay pin is different. A lot of people were upset that in the movie 'Madge' was cut out as a character. However, the time the movie would have spent developing that character would have been wasted. Why? Because Madge does nothing else. In fact she has little presence through the entire series. So spending ten precious minutes of film time on a character that doesn't affect the audience, is silly. The payoff wasn't worth the investment.

3. Different Mediums

This should be fairly straight-forward, but I find it's always good to remind people that books and movies are different. And that's okay.

In books, we have the time to describe something, to let the mind piece together an image as it goes along. Movies, as a visual medium, have to give us things that our minds can both interpret immediately, keep us engaged, and keep the story moving.

This is why I find I enjoy book-to-movie adaptations much more the second time I watch them. The second time, I already know what's different from the book--there are no surprises. That way, I can relax and enjoy the movie for what it is. Unfortunately, I know a lot of people don't get that far because they're upset.

As a final note, I hope that you will go and support book movies. Even if the particular book isn't your thing. I would hate for Hollywood to think we're giving them a message to stop making these movies. There are so many wonderful book stories that can be told with film. Let's keep making it happen!

Charlee Vale is a Young Adult writer, photographer, and tea lover living in New York City. You can also find her at her website, and on Twitter, and at the movies, absorbing all the stories. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Judging a Book by Its Cover

by J. Lea López

There isn't an author alive who hasn't heard "Don't judge a book by its cover." There also isn't an author alive who doesn't know that readers are judging books by their covers. You can probably point out a few different book cover clichés in your genre. If not, check out this list with 19 of them that you may have seen. Certain "typical" cover design elements can signal to the reader a great deal of information about the story. Usually, it's those elements and that conveyed information an author or publisher hopes will entice a reader to buy.

Sex sells ... or does it?
If you read romance, erotic romance, or erotica, you're well aware of some of the cover trends in those genres. If you're looking for a steamy read, books with covers featuring near-naked bodies are a sure bet. But while a "typical" cover may seem like a guaranteed way to attract "typical" fans of the genre, there's also the risk of deterring other potential readers.

Over the past couple weeks, I've been catching up on some ebooks I'd downloaded to my Kindle during various free promotions. I scrolled through the carousel on my Kindle Fire, which shows the book covers for the books on the device, trying to decide what to read next. I kept passing over one particular book because the cover gave me a certain impression that I wasn't interested in, even though I'd already downloaded the book. I often download books that I might otherwise feel meh about, if they're free. Don't judge me. I know you do it, too. So anyway, in the weeks since I'd downloaded the book, I kept passing it up and reading other things instead, based solely on the cover. I'd mostly forgotten the description by then.

The cover features the muscled torso of what we assume is an attractive man. We don't know, because the only parts of him we see are his pecs, abs, and arms. A woman's hands are groping him from behind. In the background is a cityscape as seen through the window of what we probably assume is a penthouse apartment.

Now let's not forget that I, and other readers, will bring our own reading baggage and preferences to the table when judging a book by its cover. It's inevitable. What I'm about to say may seem harsh, but it's the truth of what I was thinking at the time, and it may mirror the thoughts of other readers more than authors would care to think about. Here's what I was expecting from this book, based on the cover I just described:

A billionaire-themed steamy romance. Not particularly well-written. Probably will require a greater leap of faith to suspend my disbelief than I generally like in books. Most likely will cause me to roll my eyes or shake my head at what I see as utterly illogical leaps of plot or characterization, but that I could still see coming a mile away because I'd read three or four similar romances in the week prior that were scripted exactly the same way.

Not the most flattering picture, right? Still, I finally decided to read it. And something strange happened. I found myself smirking on the first page. Not because I was saying "I knew it. Mediocre at best." in my head, but because I was actually amused at the characters. Their personalities came through right away. The way they met and the details of their first interaction were fresh and fun and a little bit silly, and I absolutely loved it. And I found myself reading chapter after chapter because I wanted to, and not just because I told myself I had to.

Yes, it was a billionaire romance, which is something that has never really appealed to me. But that aspect of the story was treated in a way that made sense for the characters and added to my enjoyment most of the time. And yes, there were a few things that went the usual way seemingly because that's the way a romance should go, regardless of whether it was the way this particular story and these particular characters should have gone, given everything up to that point. Overall, I enjoyed the book. Writing about it now makes me want to go back and read it again, which says a lot.

But I almost didn't read it because of the cover.

I realized after reading it and revisiting the Amazon page that I had downloaded it in spite of the cover because the blurb was interesting AND it was free at the time. Once it was on my Kindle and I completely forgot what it was about, the cover really held me back from reading it sooner because it conveyed a type of book that I was not very interested in.

What does this mean for readers? Obviously, don't judge a book by its cover! But it's hard not to, and I don't think there will ever be a time where we don't judge books by their covers. Especially in an increasingly digital marketplace.

So, then. What does this mean for authors and publishers? I think it means we need to be a little more careful with the messages we choose to send with our book covers. This particular cover will attract quite a few readers who like to read certain things. I'm not denying that. But there's a potential market that it's probably missing as well.

I know we can't appeal to all readers all the time, nor should we try to. But I think there's a more nuanced balance between hitting your target market square between the eyes and roping in your target market without completely alienating readers who might really like what you're writing, but they just don't know it yet. Like me. I'd probably read this author again in the future, knowing that if she has a cover that would normally turn me off, there's likely a better story inside. (And if you're curious, the book I've been referring to is She's Got Dibs, by AJ Nuest. Check it out. Even if you don't like billionaire romances.)

What are some books you've read and enjoyed despite a cover that would've made you think otherwise?

J. Lea López is a shy, introverted writer with a secret world of snark and naughtiness inside her head. She writes character-driven erotica and contemporary new adult stories. Her first novel, Sorry's Not Enough, and her free short story collection, Consenting Adults, are available now. She'd love to tweet with you.

Monday, August 19, 2013

1 Piece of Advice 5 Ways

by Jemi Fraser

There is so much advice out there for aspiring writers it can sometimes be overwhelming. A lot of it can be boiled down to the same piece of advice given from different perspectives.

What's right for someone else may not be right for you
  • Social Media
  • There are about a bazillion options for social media interactions with more popping up all the time. You can't do them all - or at least I can't. You need to find which ones you enjoy and which ones make your skin itch. Pick and choose. Be selective. Don't join because 'everyone else is' or 'it works for everyone else'. It doesn't.

What's right for someone else may not be right for you
  • Genre
  • Write the stories you love. Write the ones in your heart. Of course you can keep a reasonable eye on the market and make some tweaks and twists, but if you're writing a genre you don't love, it will show. Don't worry about what's currently popular - by the time you're done and polished and ready to query that trend will probably be over. Create the next trend instead.

What's right for someone else may not be right for you
  • Style
  • Find your voice. Don't try to imitate your favourite authors. Be you. No one else can do it better. Warning: Finding your voice takes a lot of time and a lot of words. Be prepared.

What's right for someone else may not be right for you
  • Promotion
  • Don't piggyback on someone else's ideas. Sure, we all borrow bits and pieces, but find the promotion style that works for you. Decide what will work for you based on your comfort levels and your target audience.
  • PLEASE don't fall victim to The Opera Disease.

What's right for someone else may not be right for you
  • Your Journey
  • A crit buddy signs with an agent after only 10 queries. A fellow blogger started writing 2 years after you and has pubbed 4 books already. A friend gets a 3 book deal with a big pub...
  • Be happy & celebrate with them. Remember they're not you. Your Journey is uniquely You. Don't compare. Don't waste energy on jealousy (okay, go ahead, cry a bit and eat some Rolo ice cream. Then get over it). Your Journey is going exactly as it should be. Enjoy the journey because that IS the point.

Anything else you think that piece of advice might be good for?

Jemi Fraser is an aspiring author of contemporary romance. She blogs and tweets while searching for those HEAs.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Hard News

by S. L. Duncan

I remember starting out on this ridiculous publishing endeavor, the whole querying process lived on this binary of good news and bad news. And let’s face it; the news was mostly the latter. Yet there was some comfort in knowing that it was always going to be one or the other. You either got requests for a partial or full manuscript of your work, or you got rejected.

And then one day that good news leads to even better good news—the offer of representation.

I say I remember this feeling, like it was SOOOOO long ago, but really, as a published author, not much has changed. I still participate in this querying process, only this time my agent does the querying (though he has a cooler name for it—submitting), and for the most part, the results are the same. Either the editors like my work and offer a deal, or they reject it and no offer.

There is, however, a new dynamic—a third possible response, acknowledged usually with the help of your agent. I’ve been on submission for a new book for a few months now, the first round of what might be a hard sell. It’s a WWII middle grade book about a boy surviving the London Blitz with a future-predicting, haunted teddy bear. I was warned prior to submission that the historical elements and the more literary tone might make for a tough get. So when my agent sent me the compilation of the first round responses to his submission, I was prepared when there was not an offer on the table.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the uniformity of the responses—all 12 of the 14 that bothered to respond nearly said the exact same thing, and it was mostly positive. What they loved and what they gravitated toward is what we thought they’d hate—the historical setting. So what went wrong? Why didn't they offer a deal? This is a bit hard to admit publicly, but here you go:

Nobody connected with the main character.


So, here’s where that new dynamic comes in: The Hard News. A good agent, much like the one I’ve got, wears multiple hats. The one you want him or her to wear in this situation is the psychologist hat. There is plenty of advice my agent gives based on his experience, but he doesn’t give me the answer—he asks what I think is the answer. Can’t you just imagine me, on the leather-bound couch, my agent sitting in the chair beside me, pen and pencil in his hand, checking his watch for how much of the hour is left? Lose the furniture and the impatience, and that’s just about what we’ve got—him on the phone asking, “What do you think you should do?”

This is where I am right now—holding neither good nor bad news. Just hard news. Hard because I know it’s true and it will take a grand effort to basically start over. Hard because it would be so easy to say everyone else is wrong and set out again on another round of submissions. Heck, I might even land a deal. Deep down, though, I’d know those original editors were right; that the work and effort I’d put into writing and mastering that book was flawed, and in a big way.

So be prepared for Hard News to come with the good and the bad. Because while it’s a hard thing to accept that you’re wrong about something, it’s an even harder thing to do something about it. And who knows? With a little effort, it might just be Good News in disguise.

S. L. Duncan writes young adult fiction, including his debut, the first book in The Revelation Saga, due in 2014 from Medallion Press. You can find him blogging on and on Twitter.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

by Matt Sinclair

Can a man accurately write a story from a woman’s perspective? Can a woman write in a man’s voice? Can a 20-something Asian American who’s lived in the Northeast all his life write about being a black blues musician from the south? Can a Christian academic write about the tenets of Islam? Can a Muslim write about the politics of Jesus?

In my opinion, the answer to all these questions is yes. Of course, those answers come with at least a couple caveats: Such writers must do their research thoroughly, and they not only need to be excellent writers but also confident that they’ve approached their goal with respect.

Writing about people we are not is one of the joys of writing fiction. In its purest form, it is imagination; to be publishable, it must be informed imagination.

I recall starting a novel too soon. I had a vision of the characters, but before I’d finished my first page, I could see that my understanding was superficial. What did I know about being in my 70s or 80s and looking back on life? About as much as I knew about living and working in Antarctica, which was where part of my story would take place. It was years of research before I felt confident to start telling the tale of those characters, and I still need to do more research.

Of course, most of that research won’t make it directly on the page. Instead it comes through between the lines—in the words chosen and the attitudes conveyed.

In my opinion, it’s not merely about showing respect to the subject matter, which is critical, but it’s also about respecting the readers. We need to always remember that readers are perceptive. Tell an entertaining tale and readers might say nice things about your book, but if you expect them to suspend disbelief, to leave their real world behind for your imagined one, you need to do your homework. Of course, this might explain why so many writers’ early novels seem to be autobiographical.

But you’re writing something original, right? How would your main character react if someone cut him off on the road, or tripped her at a restaurant? These things don’t happen in your manuscript? Doesn’t matter. What I’m getting at is how well do you know your characters and how they’d react to adversity. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a lapsed Catholic writing about a Sephardic Jewish family or a guy from suburban New Jersey writing about a girl living in rural Iowa. But the identity of the writer and the identity of the characters do matter to readers.

From the first time your manuscript crosses an agent’s desktop, it needs convey an answer to the question that will be on every reader’s mind: Who is this writer and why should I believe what is in front of me?

Who do you think you are? I hope you’re not only an author, you’re also a believable and authentic authority.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which recently published Summer's Edge and Summer's Double Edge, which are available through Smashwords (SE) (SDE) and Amazon (SE) (SDE), and include stories from several FTWA writers. In 2012, EBP published its initial anthologies: The Fall: Tales from the Apocalypse, (available viaAmazon and Smashwords) and Spring Fevers (also available through Smashwords, andAmazon). Matt blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Tic Toc

by Riley Redgate

The other day, I was strolling through Goodreads when I encountered a review that stopped me in my virtual tracks. I don't remember what book it was for, so I can't find it again and thus the specifics here are invented, but in essence, it said this:

"This book used the phrase "blue eyes" seventy-eight times. Seventy-eight. Yes, we get it, the love interest's eyes are frickin' blue!"

Nervous laughter. This is a new era, everyone. With the advent of the search feature on eBooks, readers can now see exactly how much of a crutch your crutch words are.

One of the most disheartening (yet strangely hilarious!) writing things I've ever done is a control-F search for the word "and," which led me to realize that numerically, "and" comprises 2 percent of my entire manuscript. Amusing. Less so when it's a reviewer realizing that your work has a reliance on certain phrases.

I've always wondered why writer's tics exist. One hypothesis I've come up with is that it's something in our minds trying to fix the disparity between our character's voice and our own voice. Like, in reality, I actually do just use some words so very often: "like," "actually," "just," "so," and "very." ... Hang on.

Another guess of mine is that we have lingering initial concepts of people, places, or things in our manuscripts that haven't been fully fleshed out. I've often found that, sadly, an author's fixation on a character's particular physical characteristic can become a (poor) substitute for that character having an actual personality. For example, instead of deepening and fleshing out a character's humanity, she gets a "blue-eyes" tag and that makes her familiar to a reader in an easy, superficial way. A character's voice is repeatedly described as "husky" because that's how he first came to the author, in a snatch of a husky-sounding voice. A flag is repeatedly described as tattered and worn because that's how the author first saw it in their mind's eye. It betrays something never having left the conceptual stage.

Another guess: casual padding. My tics, especially the ones listed above, are irritatingly common words like "just" and "so," and I share these tics with a lot of folks out there. The sheer quantity of them is staggering and often hard to notice -- you have to use the ctrl-F laser-pointer to see, "Welp, okay, I've used "just" 834 times in this manuscript. Great." I'd hazard a guess that the reason they're harder to notice is the reason they're there in the first place -- they're placeholders. Empty calories. They delay the point of the sentence, and they do it sneakily. Eyes brush over them.

Of course, reviewers' eyes tend to be more discerning than an author's. And now, if someone starts noticing your egregious excess of "blue-eyes" descriptions, there's nothing stopping them from telling the whole world how repetitive your writing got, quantitatively.

This is terrifying to me. Terrifying. Of course, it's also Capital-A Awesome. Honestly, in my eyes, anything that holds authors accountable for the quality of their prose is an Awesome development, given our hyper-commercial day and age, where The Quality Threshold seems to be transforming -- more and more -- into The Purchasing Threshold. That is to say, the question starts changing from "how perfect can this be?" to "how perfect does this have to be for people to buy it?"

As with any issue of Awesomeness, though, I'm torn. On the one hand, yes, I absolutely believe it's great that authors have more cause than ever to worry about their writing getting lazy. Keeps you on your toes; keeps you striving for excellence! On the other hand, there's a point at which pulling out numbers gets arbitrary. Another review I saw that listed crutch phrases said that one of these 'crutches' showed up four times. Honestly, in a novel-length work, four of a phrase doesn't seem like a great deal to me (unless the phrase is something like "alarming proclivity to waterski spontaneously!", which ... um, it wasn't).

In any case, I'm sure if I'd been reading the book, I wouldn't have noticed those three repeat phrases, and I feel like the practice of breaking books down by numbers -- if it indeed becomes a 'practice' -- creates a risk of veering into semantics. I mean, come on: if you ctrl-F your way through the classics, I bet you'll find repetitions, some unintentional. Authors pre-1950, after all, didn't have the luxury of finding every instance of their crutches electronically in a fraction of a second. And while it's now simple to find the flaws of a book by the numbers, I certainly hope that doesn't become our default mode as readers. I hope that collectively, readers still hunt first for the beautiful and the unexpected within a book rather than the failed and the recycled.

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.

Monday, August 5, 2013

LOUD NOISES! Should We Scrap the Caps?

by Mindy McGinnis

As I was recently typing up a letter to promote NOT A DROP TO DRINK to public libraries in Ohio, I made the super-duper mistake of not having my critique partner look it over before printing out 250 copies. That was a big oops, and more details can be found here. After coming to my senses and having R.C. Lewis take a look at everything, she pointed out something that technically isn't wrong... but to some people might seem not quite right.

It seems that pretty much everyone in the industry uses ALL CAPS when typing a title. I see it in emails from my editor, my agent, and fellow authors as well. Putting the title in CAPS is pretty much the norm for us, and I don't give it a second thought when hitting the Caps Lock key. What I don't think about is how people outside the industry might perceive that choice.

R.C.'s comment made me think back to when I first started rollicking around writer's sites and blogs. I remember seeing people putting their own titles in CAPS and thinking, "Geez, really?" It seems almost pretentious to wholly capitalize your own title. What are you trying to prove? What are you saying? Do you think this makes your title stand out from the rest of the text? Is this a marketing move?

Years of absorbing the culture now has me capitalizing myself all over the place, which no one seems to mind. Yet, what will someone on the outside think if they get a promotional letter from me in which it seems that I'm SCREAMING MY TITLE INTO THEIR FACE? Will they think I'm pretentious? Bold? Full of myself? Will they know that this is just how it's done?

I'm not sure. I'm so unsure of how this would be perceived by those outside of publishing that I took R.C.'s advice and decided to italicize my title in the promotional letter.

What do you think? Is ALL CAPS abrasive, or is this something even people outside of the industry take in stride?

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, Not a Drop to Drink, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / HarperCollins September 24, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13The Lucky 13s & The League of Extraordinary Writers. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.

Friday, August 2, 2013

In Defense of Present Tense

by R.C. Lewis

I recently heard a person with a considerable amount of authority state that writing a story in first person is a terrible idea, shouldn't be done, and that writing it in present tense is even worse. It's his opinion, and he's entitled to it, but I disagree. I'm tackling the first-person aspect over on my blog (web host is having issues, so I've cross-posted to my old blog), so I want to focus here on the idea of present tense. (And I'm mostly going to assume we're discussing present tense within first-person POV, because third-person present is a whole different puzzle.)

One argument against present tense is that it's unnatural to us in the English language. We don't tend to use it much in our speech.

(Except some people do relate anecdotes that way—it's their style—and what are anecdotes except telling a story? But anyway...)

I have a couple of issues with that argument. First, spoken language and written language are not the same thing. Spoken is a primary form while written is a secondary form. The way we speak has never been fully reflected in the way we write, and vice versa. Even written dialogue should only feel like a realistic depiction of speech, not actually be an accurate, true-to-life representation. So why would my use or non-use of spoken present tense have any bearing on whether writing a story in it is appropriate?

Second, of course we don't use (spoken) present tense the way we do in written stories, because we don't narrate life as it's happening. (At least, most of us don't. And I might be a little concerned about anyone who does.)

"Then why is your protagonist narrating their life as it happens?" you may ask. "Isn't that just as ridiculous?"

In my opinion, no. It isn't. Because when I read, I don't process it as the character telling me the story. To me, the story simply happens, and the narration is a construct to deliver that thing called "story" to my brain. I don't generally feel like the character/narrator is talking at me—they're just living the story.

Of course, I understand this is a particular philosophy and approach to reading—one I know plenty of people don't share in, and one which I discuss a bit more in the first-person post.

All that said, I'll make some concessions. The first time I read a novel written in present tense, it was awkward. I wasn't used to it, and almost every sentence felt strange. But not being used to something doesn't automatically make it wrong. Little kids just learning to read aren't used to sentences that don't follow simple subject-verb-object structure. The first time they encounter a sentence like the one I'm writing right now, they might feel very awkward indeed. You get used to it. In fact, the only time I seem to notice present tense anymore is when it's done badly. Which brings me to ...

... Sometimes it's done badly.

Present tense is tricky. You can't note or reflect on anything until it comes into the sphere of your POV character's perceptions. I once changed some material from past to present and discovered I had to shuffle sentences around in a paragraph to make things work. And sometimes a story (or even a voice or style) doesn't really seem to support the choice for present tense.

So why use it? What do we gain?

Some say immediacy. That can be true, but I've read things in past tense that seemed to have just as much immediacy. The difference with past tense is that it's a bit easier to ease off the immediacy when it's not needed. If present tense truly creates immediacy by its very nature, then that immediacy will be much more constant throughout the story. And I think that's probably what I mean by stories that do or don't support use of present tense—some stories can handle that immediacy better than others.

Don't use present tense just because The Hunger Games did.

There's also a distinction between past and present that hits me more subconsciously as a reader. If I read a story in past tense, I don't actively think about it, but there may be a feeling deep down that the character knows what's going to happen in the next paragraph, next chapter. Not always—skillful writers still manage to keep the suspense level high when they want to—but sometimes. (Then there are the blatant cases, ending a chapter with "That was the last time I saw my father alive.")

With present tense, we make all discoveries at the same time as the character. Their problems are exactly as big as they seem, with no hindsight to put them in perspective. That can be a good thing.

Every tool has a use. We just have to make sure we use them all mindfully and correctly.

Do you have opinions on present tense—for OR against? Love it? Hate it? Why? Please share (respectfully!) in the comments.

R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—sometimes in sign language, sometimes not—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. That may explain why her characters don't like to be pigeonholed. Her debut novel Stitching Snow (which is in first person, but past tense) is coming from Disney-Hyperion in 2014. You can find R.C. on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website.