Editing Rant: Know Your Genre

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If you want to write, you must read. If you want to write, read your genre. Many published authors remind writers to read outside their genre, but they are assuming people have immersed themselves in genre they write in.

First, you need to know your genre. Get to know its tropes; what are things people ignore in the genre and things which must be explained. What are the shorthand terms. Read recent books in the genre to know what is trending both in the brick-and-mortar industry and the self-published. Read classic books to know the history the genre is built on.

If you write superhero prose, do not have all the battles “off-screen”. If you have a romance, all affection cannot remain behind “closed doors”. In the science-fiction world, faster-than-light travel can be hand-waved but space stations nearly always are explained in detailed from how the gravity works and where spaceships dock to planetary connections for food and how many levels are within the structure.

If you can’t stand to read the genre long enough to understand the tropes and rules, don’t write it. Three manuscripts I reviewed this year – three fails: superhero prose with fights described after the fact in conversation – not a single “on-screen” battle, a “romance” where the couple never hugs or kisses, and sci-fi where the space station had less personality than an office building.

Read your genre – and outside of it (because, yeah, that is important too). Know the must-haves and the have-nots.

Blog: Ah-Ha – A Study in POV

Ah-Ha – Take On Me video: A Study in POV

I previously blogged on the Ah-Ha video “Take on Me” in June. You can link to it HERE.

As mentioned, the story presented in the video resounds in me decades later. I use it for my “wake-up” alarm to go to work, encouraging me to take on the world and make a difference.

One of the interesting things about the video is the switching point of views (POVs) for the story. If you have been having problems picturing the differences between first and third POV, dissecting this video may help.

The opening starts with close first-person POV of the heroine. We glimpse her world in the diner, her reading the story for escape from the ho-hum, and her reaction to the hero breaking the fourth wall of the comic to invite her into his world. We see them fall in love. We don’t know why the male choose her or how he had the ability to reach out. That information is not available for her POV; at this point the story has all been about her and what she can see.

Now we switch to third-person omniscient. We return to the real world for a few minutes. The waitress discovers she has been left without the check paid. We see her react but don’t really identify with her as a person – only as a role. Omniscient has that effect; seeing the whole world keeps one from being emotionally drawn in. Next the third-person switches to the other drivers noticing the intruder to their world. The omniscient lets the viewer know what is happening and why, but not necessarily what the main characters are experiencing emotionally.

Initially the POV seems to have returned to the heroine, but it doesn’t actually. The running away, the music being played, etc. could be either first-person or close third-person. But then the hero saves the woman by returning her to the real-world. If we were in first-person heroine, we would not know he turned around to face the bad guys. This one panel lets us know what POV we are in. The switch to close third-person allowed us to know what is happening with both the main characters. The editor in me doesn’t like the amorphous POV at this point – it works for the video but if I ran into it in a story, I would ask the writer to more clearly define the POV. No head-hopping!

Back in the real-world we return to the woman’s first-person POV for the third-act of the story. We see the looming diner population, experience the fear and uncertainty overwhelming our heroine, and initiate the immediate reactions of rescuing the comic and running for her life. For a few seconds the video totally grabs and pulls a watcher in just like the black&white-sketch hand did with our heroine at the beginning of the video.

At her house, the pounding heart slows as she smooths the paper … and finds him dead. Her POV continues when she hears the crash and sees her hero throw himself out of his world into hers.

Would the story have worked if it remained 100% first person or third person? How would the story have changed without viewing the waitress’ actions or the male turning around after our main POV character left?

WRITING EXERCISE: For your present WIP, think about how you have used POV. Have you been consistent in usage? Would letting the reader know the antagonists actions help the story or decease surprises later on?

READING EXERCISE: Think about your most recent read. Was the POV consistent? Was there anyone else in the story you could have “followed” through POV and still have seen most of the story?

Writing Exercise: Expanding on Dialogue

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The most common mistake I run across while editing is something I call “Screenplay”, where the writer goes into dialogue-only mode – forgetting to add location cues, speaker indications, action, exposition, and other narrative. Other people call it “Talking Heads”, and it is about as exciting as watching stick puppet talk without the puppeteer moving the sticks.

Now, when you are writing the first draft, you may find only dialogue occurs. This is fine, spew the information in your head on the page. You can’t fix it until it is written.

For the flash Grass, which came in just over 2,000 words, the initial exchange was 100% dialogue. The alien visiting my head asked “Why do you dedicate so much land to non-food?” while I was mowing the lawn, and the conversation devolved from there. After getting stung by a yellow jacket, I retreated indoors and decided to type out the exchange. Initially I tried to add some narrative while typing up, but nothing wanted to happen. I knew the exchange was between a human and an alien ambassador and nothing else. Two hundred words vomited from my fingers onto the page in 28 lines of dialogue. That was it.

Then the hard part. Adding in the narrative. Yes, I could have left it in screenplay or movie script format – that is the point of flashes after all, getting things out quickly -, but I wanted to know more. The end result was ten times as long as the initial product, and I did not add a single line of dialogue. If anything the dialogue shrunk a little when I modified the alien’s vocabulary – just a word here and there. The dialogue is substantially unchanged from the initial voices-in-my-head moment while mowing.

Since you are going to write dialogue sans any narrative (and, believe me, you are going to write dialogue sans any narrative) you should practice adding narrative to dialogue. Preferably before you send your manuscript off to a content editor.

WRITING EXERCISE: Either take dialogue already written in play format or create five to ten simple lines of your own without thinking of the scenario at all. You can find dialogue online by searching “screenplay examples” and clicking on images. An example of five simple lines of dialogue is “Hello” “Hello, how are you doing today?” “You know.” “Yep.” “Any suggestions on how to get the red out?”.

If you are using previously created dialogue ignore who the speakers are. Now that you have some generic dialogue, pick a genre and two characters: Fantasy with an elf and orc; science fiction with a spaceship captain and crew member; a mystery with the murderer and investigator talking, anything you want. Add the narrative to your dialogue. It should at least double the length of the dialogue. 

Here is a secret, just between you and me, dear writers. You want to increase your word count for a document, go find those “talking head” areas in your Work-In-Progress and flesh them out. You can even try that right now as a second writing exercise for today if you want.

***

“Hello,” echoed through the empty store.

Jazz bit back a curse from popping her head against the counter top when she tried to stand. Stuffing bags underneath the cash register in preparations for next week’s sales had hid her from view. Standing, rubbing her head, she put on her best customer service smile and said, “Hello, how are you doing today?” before focusing on the customer. Correction, police officer. Who did not look happy at all; his uniform was a wreck. Another one stood in the open doorway of her little mall shop, her uniform pristine.

“You know.” He growled before glancing over at his female partner, who nodded and stepped outside.

Remaining overtly perky while reviewing her recent activities for any slipup which might have brought the officer to this particular store, Jazz replied, “Yep.

“Any suggestions on how to get the red out?” the officer asked, moving his right hand over his clothing from shoulder to waist in hovering indication.

Walking around the counter to lead him to the appropriate cleaning supplies, Jazz, sometimes known as the supervillian Prankster, smiled wide while no one was looking. (initial dialogue 19 words – final result 188 words.)

Blog: Ah-Ha – A Study in Agency

Ah-Ha – Take On Me video: A study in agency

Ah-Ha, Take On Me, is one of my favorite videos from my teen years. I think because the story is about a woman reading a comic book. In a time when I was stared at every time I entered the comic store as a solitary female, seeing another female with my passion for heroes in sequential art struck a cord.

Watching it now thirty years later, the story presented still resonates with me. A woman being pulled into a story then escaping back to the real world with her hero. Romance, action-adventure, fantasy, heroes, great 80’s music, and pretty awesome 80’s hair. (full video can be seen above)

The song “Take On Me” develops new meaning when viewed with the video. (words to the song can be found here: https://genius.com/A-ha-take-on-me-lyrics) The song is about a woman shying away from a relationship, but the guy asking if it okay to pursue her anyway. He needs to go somewhere in a day or two, so it’s understandable she doesn’t want to commit. Still the guy points out “it’s no better to be safe than sorry.” With a choice of losing love or never having it, which is better? A constant question in romances.

During the third verse the woman responses are questioned. Is she just being nice or is it real? The song continues either begging or daring the woman to “Take on me”. With just the song, it seems like asking to the point of begging (viewed through today’s millennium eyes, stalking is a consideration). But in the video, the whole song is clearly a dare. Are you willing to push the limits and discover just how good it can be?

In the song lyrics alone, no one really has agency, the ability to change the world and make a decision. The male singing the song has given the agency to the woman but nothing happens.

In the video both the male and female make choices which change their world. Initially the video sets the stage, the woman leads a solitary, boring life, reading a comic book in a diner late at night alone. The waitress drops of the check. We all identify and understand this world. Then it changes.

The comic male looks out at her from the panel art and winks, breaking the fourth wall. Surprised she looks around and verifies that no, her normal world is still normal, she isn’t dreaming. Then agency happens – the man extends an invitation to enter his world. Her agency response is to accept by grabbing his hand. This choice makes the rest of the story happen; their agency changed both their worlds.

But the agency has consequences. The panel police show up, hunting them down. They run away, but eventually reach a dead end. Up until this point the male has been a rogue, flirting, handsome, daring. Now he makes a choice changing him into a hero; agency not only changes his world but changes him. He rips open the page and sends her through, back to her world, then turns and faces the Big Bad to protect the exit until she is safe.

For her part, her agency comes again. Thrown out of the comic world back into her world, she discovers herself surrounded by the curious, angry, and surprised diner staff and patrons. She reacts by running. Reacting is not agency, but she was in the running mode and, rightly, still terrified from her recent experiences. What shows her agency, her being a heroine for her hero, is she did not forget to rescue him but pauses despite her desperate fear to trash dive before running. Grasping his world in her hands she retreats to the safety of her apartment. And there the first thing she does is discover his fate.

Three times she made a choice, always for the male hero. First responding to the rogue’s invitation to break the laws of their worlds, second to rescue him when every moment could mean danger from police for not paying her bill or men in white suits if she described where she’s been, and last to immediate try to find him again. But these were her choices. A sane person would have ignored the hand, left the comic in the trash, or at least throw it out once home and never look at it again. But her love powers her choice and agency.

The other major characters in the story have no agency. The waitress follows her role, anger at not being paid and surprised when the woman returns. The police do their job in the comic world. Only the hero and heroine have the power of choice.

The final agency of the story falls on the hero. Beaten near to death by the panel police, he gains energy from her love and a chance to escape to her world. Already damaged he starts throwing himself against the panels, the framework, the frame of a doorway between worlds. He is fighting; his final choice to risk everything to return to the woman.

A powerful story set to a pop-song.

WRITING EXERCISE: For you present WIP figure out points where your main character has agency and where s/he is just reacting to the situation and making choices. Is there a way to change some of the reactions to actions?

READING EXERCISE: For your most recent read, which characters of the book had agency and which did not? Where did the characters lack agency when they should have had some?