Commercial and Literary Fiction as Paintings

I’ve written at length about differences between literary and commercial fiction (including different genres and what “mainstream” fiction is), but reading Bone Gap this month while also studying Frida Kahlo has got me thinking in allusions, so I wanted to share another quick observation on the topic.

Commercial fiction is like representational art: whether it’s about something true or not, it’s clear what the subject of the painting or story is.

Images in this post may be copyrighted and are used for educational purposes only.

Above: Moroccan Man by José Tapiro y Baro, 1913; Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1847; Self-portrait at the Dressing Table by Zinaida Serebriakova, 1909; Rebecca et Eliézer by Alexandre Cabanel, 1883

Literary fiction can be more like impressionist, expressionist, surrealist, or abstract art—less accessible because the subject isn’t always clear, and the presentation isn’t always appreciated.

Symbolism holds more weight in literary fiction.

Literary fiction holds cultural literacy dear, alluding to classic literature and ancient mythology.

carlo-carra-penelope

Penelope by Carlo Carrà, 1917

Literary fiction is more likely to experiment with mixed media, incorporating poetry, illustrations, comics, letters, or other ephemera.

robert-rauschenberg-bed-1955-trivium-art-history

Bed by Robert Rauschenberg, 1955

Words in literary fiction are like visible brushstrokes, sometimes drawing attention away from the story and towards the writer as artist. Word choice is important: how can you combine words in a fresh way to create new impressions on the reader? What connotations do the words carry? Literary fiction is imbued with tone created not by line or color but by diction and metaphor.

odilon-redon-the-cyclops-1914-trivium-art-history

The Cyclops by Odilon Redon, 1914

Do you have a favorite modern artist? What is your favorite work of literary fiction?

Overused Words You Should and Shouldn’t Delete

overused-words

If you spend some time in writer critique circles, I’m sure you’ve heard the well-intended advice to delete words “that” or “was” from your writing. I’m here to clarify when you should, and when you SHOULDN’T, delete these words.

Once you’ve read the lesson, I’ve got a master list of commonly overused words for you to refer to while revising.

Delete “that”

Sometimes a sentence needs the word “that” in order to be read correctly. For example:

He knew from the way I carried myself and the name tag I had been
wearing my father is mayor.

The sentence above reads like a run-on without the word “that.” It reads better like this:

He knew from the way I carried myself and the name tag I had been
wearing that my father is mayor.

Don’t delete “that” from sentences which use a “from” or “by” to describe how a person learns something. The “by” or “from” signifies how, and the “that” signifies what was learned.

If you delete the “that,” use punctuation to allow the reader time to switch from how to what:

You can tell by the way I use my walk,
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk.

In most cases, I agree that “that” should be removed from sentences. 😉

But before deleting all instances, consider readability and meaning of the sentence with and without the word. “That” can be a symptom of wordiness, but it isn’t the problem. Sometimes clarity requires more words.

Delete “was” or “is”

The being words aren’t the problem. The problems are passive voice and incorrectly using “-ing” words. First, passive voice.

How to find passive voice

Passive voice is a verb with a “to be” helper verb (is/am/are/was/were/have been) in front of it and an -ed or -en ending. Here are some examples:

  • is forbidden
  • am bitten
  • are captured
  • was eaten
  • were smooched
  • have been made

How to fix passive voice

To fix passive voice, you need to find the true subject. Read the sentence and ask “by whom or what?” The answer to that question is the true subject.

  • Peanut butter is forbidden [by the PTA] —> THE PTA forbids peanut butter.
  • I am bitten [by my vampire boyfriend] —> MY VAMPIRE BOYFRIEND bit me.
  • Rebels are captured by the Empire —> THE EMPIRE captured rebels.
  • Spaghetti was eaten [by all] —> WE ALL ate the spaghetti.
  • Our cheeks were smooched by Great Aunt Millie —> GREAT AUNT MILLIE smooched our cheeks.
  • Mistakes have been made [by the administration] —> THE ADMINISTRATION made mistakes.

Should you fix passive voice?

Generally yes. Active verbs are stronger than passive verbs. Passivity is considered negative and weak.

However, sometimes passive voice is necessary. Sometimes the true subject needs to stay hidden (for suspense) or is unknown. Sometimes the object is more important than the true subject. This is especially true when the subject is a victim.

Do search for passive voice, but understand when to make it active and when to keep it positive.

What isn’t passive voice? Tricky -ed Adjectives

Being verbs are used as auxiliary verbs—helpers to other verbs, as in the case of passive or perfect voice—or as linking verbs, when they link the subject to a noun or adjective.

“He is happy” is pretty obviously not passive voice because “happy” isn’t a verb. But what about “He is excited”? Sure, you can ask “by whom or what” here, because you can be excited by something. Excite is a verb. But excited is also an adjective. So are pleased, confused, thrilled, delighted, flattered

Check the dictionary to see if the word is an adjective, and remember the rule about passive voice: Sometimes the object is more important than the true subject. In the case of linking verbs and adjectives, the character whom the adjective describes is usually more important than whatever is causing the effect.

Read more about linking verbs below, and the problems people have with them, too.

Delete “was” (also “-ing” verbs or “gerunds”)

Nearly every time I see someone online advising writers to cut “ing verbs,” that person doesn’t understand what a progressive verb is. And if those bloggers don’t know what a progressive verb is, they certainly don’t know what gerunds or active participial phrases are.

gerund is an “ing” word used as a noun. For example, Singing annoys Kristina—”Singing” there is a noun, because you could replace it with “Steve” or “fish” or “politics” and it would still make grammatical sense.

progressive verb is a verb with an -ing ending and a “to be” helper verb (is/am/are/was/were/has been/have been/will be/would be/will have been/would have been…) in front of it. The girl was singing— “was singing” is a progressive verb.

An active participial phrase is an “ing” word used as an adjective, often as part of a larger adjectival phrase. Singing loudly, the girl was annoying Kristina—”singing loudly” is an adjectival phrase talking about the girl, and “was annoying” is the verb, the action she is performing.

Getting -ing Verbs Right

Progressive verbs are sometimes used incorrectly. The key word is “progressive.” A progressive verb shows an action happening continually or at the same time as something else:

I was washing my face when Harold burst into the bathroom.

This sentence shows a progressive action. Changing that to this…

I washed my face when Harold burst into the bathroom.

…changes the meaning of the sentence. (Why did his bursting into the room cause me to wash my face?)

Progressive verbs often are used correctly.

However, if you’re throwing in progressive verbs for no reason, you can cut the “is/am/are/was/were” and “-ing” to create a simpler, less wordy verb. Chances are, that verb could be stronger, and that word count could be better spent elsewhere.

Barbara is eating a sandwich when Doug takes the dog for a walk.

Rather than put the focus on the act of Barbara’s continual eating, focus on something more important, like what about the sandwich was so remarkable it had to be included in the story.

Barbara savors her cheesesteak as if it were her last meal. Nauseated by the stench of onions, Doug takes the dog for a walk.

Getting -ing Adjectives Right

First, make sure the adjective is attached to the right noun.

Considering Nigel’s allergies, the cat needed to find another home.

That’s a misplaced modifier. The cat isn’t considering Nigel’s allergies; the narrator is. This is correct:

Considering Nigel’s allergies, I needed to find the cat another home.

So what’s wrong with -ing words? Not knowing how and when to use them.

Now you know.

Bonus: Linking Verbs = Telling

You’ll see below that linking verbs (e.g. am, are, be, is, was, were, will) are included on the overused words list.

Again, linking verbs are fine in moderation.

A linking verb creates an equation, telling you more about a subject. This = This.

Ronald is mad.

Eliza is a gravedigger.

These sentences aren’t bad. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes summary is necessary. Showing isn’t always better than telling—you should only show that which is remarkable enough to be remarked upon. If Eliza’s a background character, and her occupation doesn’t affect the plot of your story, then I don’t want a scene of her digging up graves. Actually, I could see that being thrown in for comedic effect or foreshadowing, but that’s beside the point. Showing too much can be just as much of a problem as telling too much. Use linking verbs sparingly and intentionally.

Bonus: Expletive sentences are passive.

Expletive sentences are ones that start with “it” or “there” and a linking verb. In expletive sentences, the “it” and “there” are abstract and veil the true subject. This is not an expletive: “The tiger’s ears twitched. It was listening.” We know what “it” is; it’s the tiger.

This is an expletive:

It was scary to think about her mother.

Compare that with this:

Her mother was scary to think about.

Both use linking verbs to tell us something. The latter is stronger because it has a concrete subject. You can get rid of the linking verb entirely if you’re willing to change subjects:

Thinking about her mother scared me. (telling)

Whenever Yuri thought about her, his eye twitched involuntarily. (showing)

Expletive sentences are fine in moderation. We use them all the time in natural conversation. You’ll find plenty reading my blog. You’ll find them in literary and commercial fiction.

But do be aware of what they are and how to revise them. Ask “What was/is?” at the end of each expletive to find a clearer subject. Consider how you can show rather than tell. Remember, showing in fiction isn’t just visual, it’s experiential. How can you show by movement, touch, taste, smell, texture, sound, temperature, body language, weather, or appearance?

Note that expletives might use the following instead of a “to be” verb:

  • does
  • did
  • feel
  • seem

For example: “There seems to have been a misunderstanding.” or “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand.”

The point of an expletive is that “it” or “there” is hiding, rather than referring to, the subject of the sentence.


 Commonly Overused Words

These are words I see repeated in manuscripts pretty frequently, combined with Lana’s Watch Word list. Check out her guest post to see how she uses her list to revise her own works.

You are free to use and share this list for educational, non-profit purposes! You must, however, give credit and the link to this post. You may not use this list for commercial gain.

Note: look for different forms of the words below. Tense (past, present, perfect, progressive) and person (first, second, third) will affect the word endings. The most common variations are -ing, -s, and -ed suffixes.

Adverbs / Prepositions—use these ones in moderation

-ly, A lot, Again, Almost, At least, Back, Even, Instead, Just, Like, Of Course, Over, Really, So, Then, Toward, Very, Which

Signs of Weak Verbs—can you make the verb stronger or more specific?

Be, Is, Had, Has, Make, Was, Were, Would,
It does/is/was/will/would/had,
There are/do/does/is/was/were/will/would/had

Signs of Wordiness—cut excessive words

And, As, Began/Begin, Going, Start, That, Try/Tried

Repeated Descriptions / Actions—use in moderation

Breath, Brow/Eyebrow, Eye, Gasp, Hair, Head, Laugh, Shake/Shook, Shrug, Sit/Sat down, Smile, Smirk, Sneer, Stand/Stood, Stomach, Turn

Repeated Pronouns—make sure the antecedent (the word these refer to) is clear

It, One, of Them, of Us, There, They

Filtering Language—Removing will allow the reader to experience firsthand rather than secondhand (Read more)

Feel/Felt, Glance, Hear, Know, Look, Realize, Recognize, Remember, Saw, See, Seem, Think/Thought

Overused by Characters / Narrator—watch sentence beginnings, especially

And, But, Like, OK/Okay, So, Well, [Other Characters’ Names]

Full List

-ly
A lot
Again
Almost
And
As
At least
Back
Be
Began/Begin
Breath(e)
Brow/eyebrow
. But
Even

Eye
Feel/Felt
Gasp
Glance

Going
Had
Hair
Has
Head

Hear
Instead
Is

It
It is (does/was/will/would/had)

Just
Know
Laugh
Like
Look
Of Course
Of them
OK/okay
One
Over
Really
Realize
Recognize
Remember

Saw/See
Seem
Shake/Shook
Shrug
Sit down/Sat down

Smile
Smirk
Sneer

So

Stand/Stood up
Start

Stomach
That
Then
There is (are/do/does/was/were/will be/would/had)

Think/Thought
Toward
Try/Tried
Turn
Very
Was
Well
Were

Which
Would

 

Guest Post: Watch Word List

Note from Lara—I’ve invited Lana Wood Johnson to share her list of “watch words” with my readers. These are commonly overused words she looks for while revising. If you’d like to propose a guest post, please fill out my submission form. I’m going to jump in and make a couple of comments within Lana’s article. Anything coming from me will be in italics and be bracketed, [like this].

Lana’s Watch Words

When I finished my first manuscript and started my first round of revisions, I was genuinely lost for how to proceed. I read the MS through, made the fixes I could see, then sent it off to all my well-meaning friends for a Beta round.

I assumed my Betas would cover my story structure feedback, so I plunged into Google to research how one copyedits. I went to school on the thousands of ways other people have said I should revise. I also joined Twitter around that time.

As someone who develops processes and fixes problems for a dayjob, I started noticing trends. The advice for copyedits fell into two very basic camps: words the author overuses and words editors just hate to see.

So I sat down and created what I call my Watch Word list.

watch list 1 – My Specific Words

Every author has them, the specific words that they fall back on. Turns of phrase they don’t realize they’re throwing in everywhere or a body part they’re overly fond of referencing. [I call these “pet words” or “pet phrases”]

Mine is eyes. I had one CP ask if I was obsessed.

I also found myself using the word “instead” a lot more than I needed to.

Thus, when I went through my second heavy round of revision, I had the brilliant idea of trying to put my whole MS into a word cloud.

Wordle fit all my needs. It’s cloud based. It’s free. It does a fabulous job of removing the “standard” English words like I, the, and, etc. It doesn’t store anything on their servers.

Running the MS through their Java leaves me with the words that appear more in my writing than in standard English. They’re bright, clear, and right in front of me in a way that cannot be denied.

Figure 1 – Word Cloud for my First MS NECESSITY

wc1

Figure 2 – Word Cloud for my Latest WIP CLANDESTINE MENAGERIEwc2

The first thing I notice are the names of my primary characters. They should be large—I use them a ton. But there are other words that probably don’t need to be quite that large. In my case, it’s the word ‘know’. Because, my characters just know things, I guess.

But, if you compare my two clouds, you’ll see that the different MSs have different watchwords. The first is Contemporary Fantasy, the second is High Fantasy. NECESSITY was the first book I ever finished. CLANDESTINE MENAGERIE started after I’d figured out that I overused “look” and “eyes”.

The words placed on the list for NECESSITY were: know, look, eyes, like, think, and one.

The words added from CLANDESTINE MENAGERIE were: back and head.

2 – Editor’s Peeves

I know going in that I can’t write the way every editor wants me to write; I won’t even try. But there are some words they hate that make sense:

  • Mark Twain’s quote about “very” comes to mind.
  • The memory of my 10th Grade English Teacher’s ranting about “like.”
  • Every author’s personal war against the word “that.”
  • The constant exhortations we hear to eliminate all adverbs. [everything is fine in moderation!]
  • An amazing panel at CONvergence where a group of authors taught me that the less you use “and,” the stronger your writing will be. [I’ve never heard this one—I wonder if they were referring to parataxis, one of my favorite literary devices.]

I decided to add some of their words: the ones I noticed in my own writing, the ones that resonated with me, the ones that reflected the kind of writing I wanted to do.

Some I use more than others.

Some I use less but want to watch for anyway.

How I Use the List

Ok, so, great, it’s a list. Obviously I’m not going to improve all my writing just by knowing it’s there and these are the words on it. It’s a long list—I can’t keep them all in my head. So when I do a major revision, this is my process.

First, I load the manuscript onto my Kindle which allows me to treat it exactly like a regular book. I forbid myself from editing at all as I re-read the entire story. The most I let myself do is highlight a particularly bad section. As I read, I find myself getting lost in the story, and that’s great! I end up falling back in love with my characters and my story. I learn to trust myself and my writing. But I also start seeing whatever my CPs were trying to tell me in their feedback.

When I’m done with my re-read, I do my heavy lifting revision: swap out scenes, revise dialogue, eliminate characters. It’s basically drafting all over again, which introduces new errors.

Here’s where the watch words come in. After drafting, I do what I call a Language Pass. This is where I search each word individually and revise only their sentences.

BUT!

Here’s the key of the whole Watch Words list! I ONLY revise these words in the Narrative. Dialogue is a separate. My modern high school teens get to say “really” and “just” as much as they feel like in their conversations.

I also don’t take out every single instance of these words. I evaluate each sentence. I’m looking for how many times I’ve used the same word in the same page, scene, chapter, and/or story. This list doesn’t work for find and replace. It’s meant to help me evaluate the strength of my prose.

My final step is another read-through, but this is more for grammar and language. I read the whole thing aloud. Doing this helps me evaluate the dialogue. This is where I confirm the grammar as I understand it and re-fix the sentences I totally messed up by removing one of my watch words.

In the end, the list is not a be-all, end-all. You will not read my stories and find I’ve eliminated all the words from my list. My hope is that you barely notice them. Because the entire purpose of this list, of writing, of language in general, is that the individual words become invisible and the story is what remains the focus.

The List

[Note: look for different forms of the words below. Tense (past, present, perfect, progressive) and person (first, second, third) will affect the word endings. The most common variations are -ing, -s, and -ed suffixes.]

-ly
A lot
Again
Almost
And
Back
Be/Is/Had/Has/Was/Were/Would
Began/Begin [“Begin to” and “start to” tend to be unnecessarily wordy—cut]
Eyes
Feel/Felt
Glance
Going
Head
Hear
Instead
Just [See also “even” and “so” for overused adverbs many authors miss]
Know
Like
Look
Of Course
Of them
One
Over
Really
Saw/See
Seem
Sit down/Sat down
Smile
Start
Stood up/Stand up
That
Then
Think/Thought
Toward
Try/Tried
Turn
Very
Which

[To see my (Lara’s) additions to this list, see Overused Words You Should and Shouldn’t Delete]

About Lana

Lana Wood Johnson lives in Min­nesota with her too-perfect hus­band and their two less-than-perfect Eng­lish Bull­dogs. She writes young adult fantasy novels, watches an excessive amount of Korean dramas, and consults on business processes to keep out of trouble. Find her on Twitter @muliebris

lanawoodjohnson

Becoming a Fan Favorite: Writing Description and Direction

In today’s post, I talk about stage directions in fiction, writing natural descriptions, why some books are constantly reread by readers, and, to an extent, immortality.

Orderly Description

Ever played that “blind drawing” party game? You close your eyes or put a piece of paper on your head and someone gives you direction upon direction to cram into one picture?

Here’s an example for the party planning website Sophie’s World (which, consequently, is the title of one of my favorite books):

“I’d like you to draw the outline of a house. Just a simple little house, right in the middle of the page… Now, beside the house I’d like you to add a tree, a medium sized tree, not too big, not too small… Oh, I forgot! You need a front door on your house. Please draw a front door so that the people can come in and out easily… Oh, did I tell you there are apples in your tree? Draw a few apples, maybe 5 or 6, in your tree now… And don’t forget the windows in the house! I think two would be nice… Did I remind you to draw a chimney? Let’s put a chimney on the house, with some smoke coming out the top… Oh, and look! There’s a dog in the yard… And a picket fence… And of course there’s a family…”

This is the kind of experience a reader has when you describe something in an unnatural order:

blind drawing
It’s also what it’s like when description is given out of order. When describing a scene, consider camera shots.

Zoom in from broad descriptions, ending on one specific detail. Or zoom out, starting on a detail and working your way out to observing the whole. Pan in one direction. Going in an unnatural order gives the nauseating effect of “shaky cam.”

Adding details too late, after the reader has already created the image in his or her mind, gives what I like to call the “awkward goat” effect.

Writer: “I went to give the goat a kiss. Then the other goat—”
Reader: “Wait, there’s another goat?”
Goat: “SURPRISE! I’ve been here the whole time!” (maniacal goat bleating)

surprise-goat
While this is used effectively in visual comedy, redirection doesn’t really work in fiction.

Overcomplicated Stage Directions

Another problem of ineffective description is overcomplicated stage directions. I see sentences like this all the time in unpublished manuscripts:

“Come with me,” Jorge said and turned around while kissing my hand as we ran away together.

Though these are most often found in dialogue tags, I see overcomplicated stage directions all over. That sentence above is just one I made up, but let’s rewrite it so it doesn’t seem like “he” is doing a hundred things at once.

First, find the perps: “and,” “as,” and “while.” The two latter words can often be cut in stage directions. The former is a fine word that sometimes gets overused. Let’s focus on no more than two actions at once.

Said + turned, kissing + ran

“Come with me,” he said, turning around. He kissed my hand, inviting me to run away with him.

Let’s also apply what we just learned about orderly directions, and cut the unnecessary dialogue tag.

Jorge turned around. “Come with me.” He kissed my hand, inviting me to run away with him.

What did I just do? I took advantage of my friend the progressive verb.

A progressive verb is a verb ending in -ing. That ending tells us that the -ing verb is happening while something else is going on, while letting us cut the “while” or “as.”

“While” and “as” aren’t bad words. It’s not about the word, it’s how you use it. By all means, use “as” to make a simile (e.g., “as [adjective] as a [noun]”). “While” is an innocent preposition until proven guilty. The problem is using them to show more than one thing happening concurrently. Show me a manuscript which uses “while” or “as” in the first page in stage directions, and there’s a big chance that same construction will keep showing up over the next ten pages.

Doing a find/replace search for all instances of “as I,” “as we,” “as she,” “as he”  (depending on your POV), repeating the search with “while,” will help you see if you’re going overboard. Also be on the look-out for “then” and “before,” more signs of wordiness and or disorderly directions.

Use them a few times, and that’s fine. Do it a few times per page—or worse, per paragraph—and you’re just being unnecessarily wordy. Gone are the days when novelists are paid by the word.

The Divine Detail

Remember, your novel has to compete with online, in-demand television and movies. You need to keep your reader’s attention. That doesn’t mean your novel needs explosions or murders every other chapter; it means your prose needs to be immediate and precise rather than longwinded and wordy. You want to be Robin Williams giving his Seize the Day speech, not Ben Stein droning about economics. The difference isn’t just subject, it’s diction. Do diction right, and you’ll engage readers that otherwise don’t care one iota about your subject. That is, until they start reading your book.

When describing, choose one or two vivid details, referred to by editors as “divine details” that can set the scene or characterize, and let the reader fill in the rest of the image. Compare the chaos of the drawing above (ain’t I an artiste?) with expansion drawings done by children:

expand-drawing

Image via ArtMommie. Click for more images.

When the reader is allowed to contribute, your work takes on a new form. It evolves in the readers’ individual minds. It’s a spark which they build upon to create a conflagration.

Letting the Reader In

It doesn’t matter how brilliant of a writer you are—writing and reading are collaborative efforts, and that collaborative effort will bring more life and beauty to your work than you could hope to do by yourself.

Sometimes we write because we’re control freaks. We are the masters of the universe, and we will plot and plan and tell our characters exactly what they should do. But when we let our characters breathe and give them freedom, when we let the reader have some creative liberty, our work takes on a life of its own.

Maybe that’s a cliche, but if you want your work to live on after you’re gone, you need to let your reader experience your world naturally. You need to let them read between the lines and contribute to the meaning and world of your fiction. When you let them participate, readers will not only want to buy your books, they will want to reread your books over and over again, letting them become part of their life, seeing how their interpretations change over the years.