While I’m running my tail off in NYC spreading the WANA love, Marcy offered to step in and help. She knew the two words that instantly would capture my heart. Star. Trek.
Take it away Marcy!
You’ve heard the advice show, don’t tell until you can’t stand to hear it anymore. Yet all writers still seem to struggle with it. I think one of the reasons is we lack a clear way of understanding the difference between showing and telling. And that’s where Star Trek comes in to save the day.
Showing happens when we let the reader experience things for themselves, through the perspective of the characters. Jeff Gerke, editor-in-chief at Marcher Lord Press, explains showing in one simple question: Can the camera see it?
While I love that way of looking at it, we’d have to really say, can the camera see it, hear it, smell it…
I’ve been watching a lot of stuff on Hulu lately (especially FMA, thanks a lot Gloria!), so I see way more commercials than I have in a long time—especially since I gave up cable.
I’ve noticed an interesting movement between two competitors, namely Geico and Progressive. They want your money, folks, and they don’t mind bombarding us with ads in the process. Let’s face it, now Hulu is a good chunk of their age range.
Now before you start to *yawn* and click to another page, understand there’s a lesson about cleverness here. And that lesson is, cleverness always has an expiration date. It just may last a little longer for some things than others.
However you feel about Flo, I think she was a clever piece of advertizing—for awhile. She seemed like a regular person, someone like us that we could relate to while navigating this car insurance-a-rama—and if Progressive can really get it figured out, all the better.
Take Geico, who did something similar, promoting a familiar face we’d associate with their insurance. A gekko. Geico, gekko, get it? Waaaaaahooooo! Mostly I’d find the mute button or another channel whenever this badly formed CG lump came on. (Oddly enough born of a SAG strike in 1999). But over the years they’ve tried a number of things all the while poking fun at our cultural foibles, be it overzealous PC efforts exemplified in the Caveman spots, geekery in the voiceover ads, and a bit more recently, the rhetorical questions.
Some things they’ve tried have been not so great, but they keep changing it up. In fact, the How Happy Are They spots are among my favorite. Very tongue-in-cheek and many of them still make me smile. My two favs:
I want to share a little secret with you. Along with a healthy obsession with science and the Cosmos, if there’s one thing Carl Sagan was passionate about it was his Baloney Detector kit. But if it was two things, it was beta reading his friend’s manuscripts and discovering they didn’t know what the bleep they were doing when it came to attribution.*
What is attribution? The most common way we see this done in writing is with said. There are other ways to do it: replied, growled, retorted, hollered, yelled, screamed, etc. etc. etc.
And there are plenty of ways not to do it. So for the sake of all the beta readers, editors, agents, peeps out there who want to stab their eyes out rather than read wrong attribution one more time, I present to you.
I think the best way to do this is using examples. And since Man of Steel is coming out this month, we’ll do it Supes style. Ready, set, up, up and away!
Once upon a time there was a man named Clark Kent, and he had a secret. “I’ve just let my good pal Carl Sagan beta read my manuscript, and boy did he have a lot of feedback”, Clark said.
The correct way to attribute this would be: “…boy did he have a lot of feedback,” Clark said. When putting within quotes a sentence that is followed by attribution that would normally end in a period, replace that period with a comma within the quotes and stick the attribution on the outside of the quotes.
“That is correct,” he said.
“But you haven’t identified who said it,” I added.
“I thought that much was obvious. It’s me Clark,” he continued.
Get the point?
But don’t use a comma if it isn’t attribution following. Like so:
“Know what song I really hate? That Five For Fighting Superman song. It makes me sound like a cry-baby wimp,” Superman crushed the CD. <–more on this below, but use a period in this situation where the comma was.
KEEP ‘EM ALL INSIDE
But what about question marks, exclamation points, ellipses and em dashes? How do we attribute them?
“Good question,” said Clark. “Fooled you! That statement wasn’t actually a question, but sometimes writers accidentally write it with a question mark.”
“Then how do you do it?” I asked.
“Exactly like you just did. Well done!”
Question marks and exclamation marks alike remain inside the quotes, just like a comma would. There’s no need for any of this stuff:
“But what about this?”, he asked, adding another comma for good measure.
“You don’t need a comma after the quotes. It’s wrong!” I cried.
IF YOUR MOUTH ISN’T DOING IT, IT’S NOT ATTRIBUTION
This one I’ve seen a lot more lately all over the place, and I must protest. Please, please, please don’t do this anymore. You’ll make all your peeps super happy and agents won’t auto-reject you anymore (Note: This only works if this was the only reason they were auto-rejecting you.)
Superman wanted to catch a flick, so he flew over to the theater and hovered just outside of it. Using his x-ray vision and super hearing, he just watched the movie outside. “It’s not like there are any laws against this,” he hovered close to the wall.
See what happened here? Sometimes I think writers are trying to marry action with dialogue that should never be joined together like that in the first place. You can’t hover your speech. And action is NOT attribution, unless it includes something that you can do with the mouth, like gasping, laughing, yelling, etc.
But it can get tricksy. There are things you can do with your mouth that don’t work to attribution either, such as:
“This is a really interesting post,” she smiled. <–Okay, but it’s not really a smile that did the work of the words. Even if you’re saying it while smiling, it’s better to write it in that way. It could be: she said, smiling. Or maybe she was laughing, so you can just go straight to: she laughed. But more often than not, it’s better to leave the attribution simple and save the action for later.
SPEAKING OF ACTION
Sometimes we attribute when it’s not even necessary. And sometimes we over-attribute. If it’s perfectly clear who is doing the talking, save yourself the extra words and don’t attribute. What do I mean?
Superman punched Zod in the face. “How do you like them apples now? Huh, Zod?”
No said necessary when it’s coupled together on the same line. Plus you have Supes saying Zod’s name, which makes it even clearer it isn’t Zod speaking. And if it’s just the two of them in this scene, it’s even more obvious.
Let’s say you’ve been doing a back and forth between characters.
“Gee, Mr. Kent, I don’t know how to take photos,” Jimmy said.
Clark clenched his fists. “But you’re the newspaper’s photographer. That is your job isn’t it?”
Jimmy looked down at his shoes, a tear trickling down his cheek. “I just needed a job.”
Sometimes you need attribution, but when you’ve established a pattern, especially coupled with action, you can leave the attribution off. And you should.
But one more thing. Don’t do stuff like this:
“I don’t know, is red and blue too ostentatious?” Superman asked. He looked at Lois. “I mean, Batman does all black and he looks so cool,” he continued. <–You’ve attributed twice in the same sentence. We already know it’s Supes talking. No need to clutter it up with more attribution.
“Are you kidding?” Lois stood, knocking her chair over.
“Is it too ostentacious?”
Superman looked out the window. Red and blue were his colors—his own kind of awesome.
Did the ostentatious line belong to Supes or Lois? If it’s Lois’ line, it should be a part of the same paragraph. If it’s Supes’ it should be with his paragraph. Otherwise it’s confusing. While it’s true that with more lines we might be able to infer whose line it was, but why not make it easier on your readers in the first place?
When attribution comes at the end, if it’s a pronoun, it will ALWAYS be lower case. So do this:
“Truth, justice, and the American way,” he said.
“I’m thinking of starting a Justice League,” He explained.
Okay, now hopefully we can all go forth and rid our manuscripts of attribution error. That’s one small step in editing, one giant leap toward a publishing contract!
Does wrong attribution bother you? Or are you an attribution culprit? Learn anything new? Anything I forgot that you would like to add?
*Note: Okay, maybe that’s not 100% accurate. Who knows whether or not Carl had time to beta-read. But you can bet if he did, he’d be pissed about bad attribution.
One last note. I didn’t know how I felt about Man of Steel, being highly disappointed by Superman Returns, but after I saw this trailer, my doubts faded. I can’t wait for it to come out. Unfortunately I’ll be out of town on premiere weekend (in San Fran where they charge 3 arms and 7 legs for a movie), so I’ll be a little later getting to watching it. 😦 (This trailer almost made me cry. Almost.) Let’s do ourselves a favor and keep our fingers crossed this is the Superman movie we’ve been waiting for.
This was a panel given by agent Michelle Witte, who has also authored a couple of books. One is The Craptastic Guide to Pseudo-Swearing, something you children’s, MG, and even some YA writers may find valuable. The other is The Faker’s Guide to the Classics, a snarky version of cliff notes for those who want to up on the classics, but don’t have the time to read them. Having read some of the Craptastic Guide, Witte’s snark is something you’ll find extremely enjoyable. They’re both available to Kindle sample, so give ’em a try.
She said there’s three parts to writing that form the “story” triangle of sorts:
Two areas of the “triangle” can be bigger than the other. But if one is big while the other two remain weak it may be why your story falls flat.
Character is the central part of voice. It’s the character who brings voice out onto the page.
If we want other people to read our books we must fulfill their expectations. We’ve created a sort of reader contract with them. The first chapter is your first chance to fulfill or fail those expectations.
OPENING HOOK vs BOOK HOOK
The book hook is what your book is about. The opening hook is getting right into the story and making sure right away that it is interesting to your reader. So while your whole book must have an interesting premise and blurb to entice readers to read the book, the first chapter must have it’s own mini-hook that drives them to proceed anxiously to chapter two.
A side note: A lot of people will point to other authors who break the rules as their excuse for breaking the rules in their own novels. But here’s the thing: In order to break rules you must 100% absolutely understand why that rule is in place and know exactly why you’re bending it. Otherwise it’ll likely turn into a gimmick—and you’ll push potential readers away.
HOOK vs GIMMICK
Your goal is to gain the reader’s interest. You will lose most readers after the first chapter if it’s not good. However, sometimes things we think must be interesting aren’t if we allow them to become a gimmick and not a hook.
For example, let’s say there’s great action in the first chapter, but it didn’t match the book. The rest of the book was more of a careful, slow build to a different kind of story—more like a Steel Magnolias tone vs. Die Hard. It didn’t fit, it didn’t give you a good idea of what this story is about. It’s become a gimmick if you’re trying to manipulate readers into reading the book and setting up a false hope of what the story will be about. Not every book must be an action story, nor should it, but don’t set up false expectations of what kind of story your reader will be getting.
BEFORE YOU START
1) Mood/Tone – What do you want your reader to feel when they read this chapter? Sympathetic? Anxious? What feeling do you want your readers to take away from this first chapter?
2) Goal – What’s the goal of this chapter? What’s the character’s goal? What’s the plot’s goal? We need to know the starting point, and why it’s important we chose it. Do it in the present. We’re often tempted to do backstory and a lot of setting, but we must start our story now, where the story begins.
Tips for Starting Active:
Have action (though this doesn’t necessarily mean guns blazing, just that something is happening)