Editor’s Corner 101.12

Audience Appreciation Day

Scribe smallIt is my hatching day – well, it was when I wrote this – so I am invoking the Celebrant’s Prerogative to be brief.

Today, I want to talk about audience, trust, and respect. When we write, a part of us is at least peripherally mindful of our audience. Whether we imagine legions clamoring for our prose, pushing us up the bestseller lists, or focus on a more limited public of our devoted blog and website followers, audience is important. After all, we are in the business of sharing our work, of shouting it to the proverbial rafters and communicating our ideas to best effect. Real or ideal, awareness of audience leads us to choose fitting storylines and characters, as well as structures and language that are both age and genre appropriate.

Sadly, this too often leads people to believe they need to oversimplify or – Goddess forbid – be repetitious. Though apt for a luncheon speech at the Rotary, Dale Carnegie has ruined many a writer with his infamous advice, “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.” Sooner than rubber chicken rots sinks to your stomach, this will bore a reader silly when applied to fiction. Far better, I think, the words of Lily Tomlin: “What I appreciate is acknowledging to the audience that I think they have brains.”

Readers do have brains. I like to believe this is evident by the fact they are poring over pages of type rather than wasting hours to TV or the latest video game. (Gamers, please do not come for me with pitchforks at the ready. I am being (a tad) hyperbolic and know many of you are bloody brilliant.)

The point is, we have to treat our readers with respect. Regardless of age or other salient demographic, value and trust your audience. Ultimately this comes down to trusting yourself. If you have written a good tale with evocative prose, engaging characters, and an intriguing plot, trust that your audience will follow you, page after page. It will happen. And when it does, they will allow you to be subtle and complex, to challenge them at every turn, as long as you’re not just doing it to show off. In short, assume your audience is at least as smart as you are (they’re often smarter), and then write up, never down. Craft your prose for mirrors of your best possible self. Unless you have short-term memory loss, assume telling once is enough. And shape your narrative with a lapidary stick not a sledgehammer, and believe that your audience will appreciate the difference.

Finally, as Madeleine L’Engle said, “You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it’s going to be too difficult for grownups, you write it for children.”

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.11

Packing Up Clutter and Dispatching Our Darlings

Scribe smallThis morning the rain – and snow – stopped here in the Green Mountains, the sun came out, and I was finally able to mow the shaggy lawn and begin the arduous spring ritual of uncluttering my life. While this is one of those ongoing projects which I likely won’t finish until the next millennium (I come from a family of long-lived optimists), it is something I mirror in a more manageable way when I sit down to edit and rewrite.

Which is what I am doing right now to a short story I wrote four years ago. It was ok at the time, but I always thought there was something that didn’t quite work. Or could work better. At the time the need to pen two books intervened, but now, up against a block on my chinchilla novel, there’s no better time to dust it off and spruce it up.

I was timid, at first. Moving a comma here and there, making sure the prose was active and clean; after all, we can learn and improve a lot in four years. But that lingering sense of wrong remained.

Death by pen03Time to resurrect that oft-quoted (dare I say clichéd?) bit of Faulknerian advice: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” This is actually a variation on the words of another Oxfordian – thought from England, not Mississippi – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” It was more recently echoed by Stephen King in his splendid book, On Writing, with distinctive King flair: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Now, this can either be excruciating or liberating or, for those of us with a perverse appreciation for carnage, great fun. But before you get down to the business of literary homicide, start by going through and removing anything that seems like clutter. From clutzy phrase to extraneous scene, even that colorful character you so fell in love with but who really belongs in a story all her own, snip them out. Fill the wastebasket (with paper or bits); or file them away for later use, perhaps random inspiration.a3cc3-revisionangst

If this doesn’t fix things, it should at least make it easier to see those darlings begging for a swift execution. It doesn’t matter how eloquent or heart-rending the prose, nor how many days you slaved over a paragraph (Oscar Wilde once quipped, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”). Be willing to look with an objective eye to the whole. If something doesn’t work, kill it. You can always play necromancer later, if you must.

I’m still working on my story, deconstructing, reconstructing. But the old clutter is gone, the old darlings dead and buried. Tomorrow I’ll deal with the new ones.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.10

Every Dog Will Have His Cliché
Written by Shawn MacKenzie

Scribe smallI am going to start with a little tale from the past. History is a passion of mine, particularly the history of words, writing, and books. In 1450 CE, goldsmith-turned-printer Johannes Gutenberg popularized moveable type, and books left the hallowed confines of scriptorium walls for the libraries and studies of anyone with ready cash and the ability to read. (Note: The Chinese and Koreans had moveable type as early as the 11th century, but, given the intricacies of their ideographic languages, a proliferation of books was not immediately forthcoming.)

Printing-Press-1568 As revolutionary as Gutenberg was, each word on each page still had to be set individually. Once an edition came off the presses, the type was knocked down and used for the next project. This was labor intensive, to say the least, particularly if a book became an unexpected bestseller and merited a second edition. All those pages would have to be reset. Thank goodness printing technology upgraded over the years. In 1725, William Ged, also a goldsmith – though this time a practical Scot – came up with a brilliant idea. He used his metallurgical skills to make casts (flongs) of entire pages of type which could be used over and over again until they wore out. These casts were known as stereotypes. Or, as the French called them, clichés.

1219782482yLCfpgOffset and desktop publishing have replaced the old presses, yet clichés remain. Originally as bright and sound as new-mint pennies, over the years these pithy bits of cultural shorthand have lost their luster and their once-naked truth has all but melted into thin air. (Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare!)

Fun though playing with clichés can be, standard editorial advice is to avoid them like the plague. And I won’t disagree. We may be casual about such things in our everyday exchanges, but our literary endeavors demand better of us. Use your imagination; turn your own phrase rather than use one as stale as Bounty hardtack. It gives your writing originality and force easily lost in a moss-backed thicket of hackneyed phrases.cliche-2

If – and it does happen – you find only well-worn words will do, be self-aware and discriminating in their use. A little cheekiness doesn’t hurt, either. As wonderful as the Bard’s lines are – or Lewis Carroll’s or Voltaire’s or various scriptures’ – remember they belong to other pens, other voices.

To thine own, be true.

A few familiar phrases from the Swan of Avon:

    • All that glitters is not gold
    • All’s well that ends well
    • As good luck would have it
    • Bag and baggage
    • Be-all and the end-all
    • Beggar all description
    • The better part of valor is discretion
    • Brave new world
    • Break the ice
    • Brevity is the soul of wit
    • Refuse to budge an inch
    • Cold comfort
    • Conscience does make cowards of us all
    • Dead as a doornail
    • Dog will have his day
    • Eaten me out of house and home
    • Faint hearted
    • Fancy-free
    • Forever and a day
    • For goodness’ sake
    • Foregone conclusion
    • The game is afoot
    • Give the devil his due
    • Good riddance
    • It was Greek to me
    • Heart of gold
    • ‘Tis high time
    • Hoist with his own petard
    • Ill wind which blows no man to good
    • In a pickle
    • In my heart of hearts
    • In my mind’s eye
    • In my book of memory
    • It smells to heaven
    • Kill with kindness
    • Killing frost
    • Knock knock! Who’s there?
    • Laid on with a trowel
    • Laughing stock
    • Lean and hungry look
    • Lie low
    • Live long day
    • Love is blind
    • Though this be madness, yet there is method in it
    • Make a virtue of necessity
    • Milk of human kindness
    • Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows
    • More honored in the breach than in the observance
    • More sinned against than sinning
    • Murder most foul
    • Neither rhyme nor reason
    • Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it
    • [Obvious] as a nose on a man’s face
    • Once more unto the breach
    • One fell swoop
    • One that loved not wisely but too well
    • Time is out of joint
    • Out of the jaws of death
    • What’s past is prologue
    • Pitched battle
    • Play fast and loose
    • Pomp and circumstance
    • [A poor] thing, but mine own
    • Primrose path
    • Salad days
    • Sea change
    • Seen better days
    • Send packing
    • Sick at heart
    • Snail paced
    • Something in the wind
    • Something wicked this way comes
    • A sorry sight
    • Spotless reputation
    • Such stuff as dreams are made on
    • The short and the long of it
    • Tedious as a twice-told tale
    • Set my teeth on edge
    • Tell truth and shame the devil
    • Thereby hangs a tale.
    • There’s the rub
    • To gild refined gold, to pain the lily (“to gild the lily”)
    • To thine own self be true
    • Too much of a good thing
    • Tower of strength
    • Trippingly on the tongue
    • Truth will out
    • Wear my heart upon my sleeve
    • What’s done is done
    • What fools these mortals be
    • What the dickens
    • Wild-goose chase
    • Working-day world
    • The world’s my oyster

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.9

Feeling Frisky and Breaking the Rules
Written by Shawn MacKenzie

Katharine Hepburn said, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

Today, in the spirit of Ms. Hepburn’s wit and ribald spring, I am going to talk about rules and their breaking.

As a matter of principle, I believe rules should be broken – at the very least bent – whenever and wherever possible. This presupposes the breakage is done with knowledgeable deliberation and no one gets hurt in the process. (Those falling sentence fragments can be lethal!)

breaking-rules bird on top of sign no birds circle with line through it

Of course, in writing – as in life – some rules are more flexible than others. And some seem downright arbitrary, especially when it comes to fiction. Here are a few of my particular favorites:

Avoid split infinitives. One wishes to generally do this as a matter of clarity, and I like to think this was the rule’s intent. Though back when Chaucer’s Middle English was transforming into the language of Shakespeare and beyond, split infinitives were not as de trop as they are today. Grammar, like fashion, changes with the times. Personally, I prefer to trim my adverbs as much as possible and thus avoid the entire matter. However, there are times when an infinitive must be boldly split and roundly defended in its severed form. As Raymond Chandler wrote to his editor:

“… when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”

Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Good advice in the abstract but this rule can tie you in knots if taken to extremes. In formal writing, we can get away with sounding, well, formal as with, “It is possible that Kiau was actually a sea serpent, washed up river by one of the great tidal bores for which the Chien-Tang is famous.” (Dragon Keeper’s Handbook) This is not only grammatically correct but, in context, aesthetically superior to “… washed up river by one of the great tidal bores the Chien-Tang is famous for.”

On the other hand, twisting “What are you waiting for?” into “For what are you waiting?” is sure to get you laughed right out of the playground. In short, use your common sense, know your audience and characters, and if it sounds artificial don’t do it no matter what your 7th-grade English teacher said.

Avoid starting sentences with conjunctions. But why would we want to do such a silly thing? This is one of those arbitrary quasi-rules not only broken but regularly shattered. Conjunction starters serve to break up otherwise long, ophidian sentences. They also lend strength and emphasis otherwise obscured. And that is as it should be. I would be concerned about conjunctions as openers is when they become a substitute for creative transitions. Or when writers just get lazy.

No more sentence fragments! When I got the galleys for my last book, Dragons for Beginners, my editor also enclosed the style guide she’d given to the proofreaders. Along with a list of text-specific capitalizations and idiosyncratic spellings, she included the admonition, ‘The author also uses sentence fragments at times – please retain her tone.’ Now, when I was writing, to fragment or not to fragment was a question that never crossed my mind. I just did it when it felt right and the spirit moved. But she was right, it’s definitely part of my “tone” – my voice. That said, it naturally took me a while to find this example:

“…They wear the cloak of modest anonymity that allows them to avoid the dangerously acquisitive and fearfully ignorant. To linger among us a little longer.
And then there are Dragons.
Magnificent, preternatural, take-your-breath-away Dragons.”

[Note: I also have no problem with one-line paragraphs.]

The fact is, there are times when a fragment speaks more eloquently than the most meticulously constructed sentence with neatly placed subject, predicate, direct and indirect objects, and well-chosen adjectives and adverbs. C’est la vie.

--- If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun... Katharine Hepburn – Alfred Eisenstaedt

- If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun….
Katharine Hepburn – Alfred Eisenstaedt

So, raise a glass of wine – or bowl of tea – to the freedom that comes with breaking the rules. Then take to your keyboard with your guilty writing transgressions. The more the merrier.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.8

The Precision of Words
Written by Shawn MacKenzie

“I do love perusing the dictionary to find how many words I don’t use – words that have specific, sharp, focused meaning.” … Geoffrey Rush

Scribe smallIt has been a Mad-Mouse sort of week, jostling me between work well done and pounding my head against an impenetrable stone wall, so I hope you bear with me if I am briefer than usual.

Today, as I was typing away at my keyboard (and deleting and typing anew), I began to think about our writer’s tools. The fact is, as a profession, writing is extremely light when it comes to essential implements. Pen and paper, they’re the basics. Of course, it’s the 21st century, and most of us have exchanged blank bond for a computer screen – to the eternal gratitude of many a pulpwood forest and their denizens. Much as I have come to rely on my computer, the Luddite in me still finds eternal delight in the feel of a fine fountain pen dancing across a pristine page.

Beyond that, the best tool a writer can have is a good dictionary.

A dictionary is a wonder – a good dictionary is a treasure. Between its covers lives the entirety of a language. And make no mistake, a language does live. It grows and changes, grafts on a foreign phrase here and gives fruit to a portmanteau there. It is full of infinite variety and as artful or as sloppy as we choose to make it.

Too often we writers get into ruts. We get comfortable with a primary palette of nouns and verbs and everyday adjectives. When we want to stir things up we simply trowel on the adverbs. Not that there is anything wrong with the everyday. If it suits. Your basic 8-pack of Crayolas can create lovely pictures. But after a while you might just want to increase the linguistic colors at your disposal. Green has its place, but Fern tastes of forest loam and Inch Worm is as warm as a May afternoon. crayola-by-nicole

In an instant, the ordinary flowers into a world of infinite possibilities.

Which brings me to my editorial advice for this week: Never settle for the imprecise simply because you can’t put call to mind the more exact alternative.

Get yourself a linguistic big 120-box of crayons. Use your dictionary. Religiously. The better your vocabulary, the more options you have to say exactly what you mean. Hell, open it at random and jump right in. I do this often, especially with the OED, a lexicologist’s dream. Use your thesaurus, too. While you don’t want your writing to sound like it was written-by-thesaurus, Roget’s tome and its ilk (the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus is particularly good and accessible) can serve as catalysts for the imagination. When all is said and done, in that “Eureka!” moment as just the right word unrolls across the page, does it really matter the path it followed to get there?


“Webster’s—the original high definition entertainment.” …. Jarod Kintz

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIEMacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.7

Written by Shawn MacKenzie
A Propensity for Prologues

scribe-small 101.7

In search of inspiration for this week’s Editor’s Corner, I returned to the brackish well of Amazon e-books and discovered a curious trend, particularly among new authors: prologues.

Prologues, prefaces, introductions….in whatever guise, they abound behind the covers of genre tomes and would-be literary masterpieces. The question is: are they really necessary? Or are they simply catchalls for back story we just can’t bring ourselves to leave behind? If you have chosen to begin your novel other than with the first line of Chapter I, ask yourself “Why?”

Now, I admit I’ve written my share of forwards and introductions, prefaces and preludes over the years. However, as a matter of editorial preference, I find them decidedly annoying in most novels. Nine times out of ten, a prologue serves as a historical exercise, giving background to characters and places, giving hints of what is to come. In unskilled hands, this often amounts to little more than an information dump. We writers have a tendency to be packrats, hoarding our notes and scribblings as if they were nuggets of Fafnir’s gold. The truth is, while they might be necessary to the literary process, they are essentially work product. If it is important to know that Abra met Benjamin when they were ten and she broke his nose on the playground, then lace it into the novel proper. If the village of Xington is frayed by economic strife or long years of war, don’t tell us about it in the past, let those elements play out in the present.

Sometimes, as happens in the best of prologues, you have a totally relevant, engrossing story from time past without which all that is to come is but half a tale. If this is the case, then great. Tell that chapter of your tale, but tell it boldly. Make it Chapter I. This is one of the wonderful things about the fiction writer’s craft: we are not constrained by time. Even if every other chapter in your book unfolds within a twenty-four-hour period, there is no rule that says your first chapter can’t take place a decade earlier or span a year. In short, if your prologue is part of the story, make it part of the story.

In fairness, there are times when a few introductory pages are just the thing. If, for example, you are writing a series, a little reminder of who and what have come before can help ground the reader in the current volume. Or, if you’re prone to concision, you might prefer the virtue of the jacket blurb. It is amazing how much information can be put into a judicious paragraph or two. Think Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” – each volume could be summed up in a couple of sentences. Anthologies also benefit from a few prefatory words addressing the purpose, unifying theme, editor’s take, et cetera. My personal inclinations aside, at the behest of my publisher, my Dragon books both sport somewhat lengthy introductions. I have made peace with this because, though fictive, they have the structure of non-fiction books, and, thus, subject to different rules. Introductions were positively expected.

In the end, whether you call it a preface, a forward, or Chapter I, remember that the opening line is always the opening line. It has to reach out, shake the reader by the lapels and command them to continue. More than one book has been set aside – or tossed into the reject pile – over a less-than-gripping beginning.

This is first contact. Make it memorable. Make it count.

first-contact under make it count

Finally, a lesson from the Master – a k a: If you’re going to do it do it right.
Sonnet as Prologue from Romeo & Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner: 101.6

Written by Shawn MacKenzie
Post Tuesday 16th December 2014

scribe-small 101.6

In the Realm of the Senses

“Observe, record, tabulate, communicate. Use your five senses. Learn to see, learn to hear, learn to feel, learn to smell, and know that by practice alone you can become expert.” …. Sir William Osler, M.D., C.M.

Last night I was watching the cats play with the chinchillas (a special birthday treat for the kittens). Claws sheathed, eyes wide, ears forward, whiskers twitching, and mouths open to taste the air, they were totally in the now, absorbing the experience with every sense at their disposal. The chins, too.

kids chin and carter

Oh, the lessons we learn from our companion critters everyday!

Try though we might to place ourselves on a separate, gilded rung of the evolutionary ladder, we human beings are still animals. Like other furred, feathered, or scaled creatures, we still count on our senses to guide us through the world. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, they layer our existence, give it depth and intrigue. They teach us what is safe, what is deadly, what is sexy, what is repulsive. Indeed, without well-honed perceptions, we would surely be as dead as the dodo.

Curiously, though we live by our senses, many writers have forgotten to write by them. Oh, we communicate through sight, sure. We are highly visual creatures. The aspects of person or place, the colors, shadows, shapes, all are accessible, familiar, and easy to share. Sound usually comes in second, then the other senses fill out the field from afar.

But why should this be? We do not live in half worlds, why should we write in them?

Just imagine if we wrote with all our senses, all the time; if we returned to our animal selves with ears up, nostrils flared, gleaning and giving information at every turn. A Victorian sitting room, for example, may be all teak and William Morris wallpaper to the eye, but perhaps it also smells of lemon oil and stale pipe tobacco, the chair by the fireplace creaking ever so gently when sat upon. This tells the reader so much more than a visual description alone. The resident has taste and a comfortable income; they take pride in their environment, keep it well. As for the lingering scent of tobacco – scent being one of the most evocative of the senses – oh, that can go a hundred ways! A father lost in the Crimea, his spirit conjured by the slightest whiff of his favorite chair; a pretentious brother who fancies himself the next Sherlock Holmes but went up to Oxford at Michaelmas.

Layers, one on another…

We are writers. Our purpose is to communicate, to move, to inspire. We take our knowledge of the world and give it back, limited only by our imaginations. So why stop with familiar? Why not go all topsy-turvy? We can focus, perhaps, not on how a city looks, but on how it tastes; not on how a thunderstorm sounds, but on how it smells. And let us not forget the rasping tongue of a whisper or the intricate fugue of a meteor shower.

meteor shower

As Dr. Osler said, learn to hear, to see, to smell. Dig deep; use all your senses. And next time you write about the first green shoots of spring, do not ignore their verdant voices raised to the heavens in paeans of rebirth. Welcome to the Big Picture. Have fun.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIEMacKenzie’s Dragonsnest