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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Terrible Tags

There are some dialogue tags that don't work in certain situations, and some that should never be used. Some publishers (like us) now accept action verbs as dialogue tags in commercial fiction--but don't get silly with them.

1. "I'm going to come!" he ejaculated as he thrust to her core. (The only ejaculating in a sex scene should be--well, it shouldn't be spoken.)

2. "I'll get you," he hissed evilly. (You can't hiss something with no sibilants.)

3. "I could go to the store," she enumerated. (Enumerating means to count something or make a list. One item doesn't count.)

4. "I have to use the bathroom," he pontificated. (Pontificating is saying something pompously--unless he's the pope of the bathroom, it seems out of place.)

5. "Oh, goodness," he gritted. (Grit your teeth, then try to say something with an O in it. Doesn't work--at least not in any way that people can take seriously.)

6. He walked into the room. "Good morning, everyone," he replied. (To whom is he replying?)

7. "I'm furious!" she said angrily. (That's really redundant, not to mention repetitive.)

8. "You're a moron," she sallied. (A sally is a witty remark--there's nothing clever about calling someone a moron.)

9. "How are you?" he queried. (Or enquired, or demanded, or questioned, or anything else that makes it clear that you've checked your thesaurus for synonyms of "asked". Especially if you have five or six of them on a page.)

10. "You have a lot of explaining to do! You've been out since last night, you didn't call, I called Bill and he said you weren't there, your mother didn't know where you were, the baby's sick, the dog's been..." he barked. (Seriously, try and bark something that's more than about three words. Unless you're McGruff the Crime Dog, it doesn't work.)

11. "Actually, the flux capacitor is what makes time travel possible--it takes the 1.2 gigawatts of electricity that's provided by first a plutonium-powered nuclear generator and then later by..." he interjected. (Interjections should be short asides to the conversation--"What? Hey! No!"--thank you, School House Rock.)

12. "I can't believe this!" she shouted softly. (Shouting is loud. Softly is not. You can't do both at the same time.)

13. "I wonder what that is?" she postulated. (To postulate is to maintain or assert as true--you can't do it to a question.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

That's What She Said!

by Mackenzie Walton

Dialogue is not unlike Lex Luthor—it can be Super Writer’s best friend or greatest foe. If it’s strong, dialogue can liven up a scene and boost your characterization. But if it’s weak, it can irritate readers and even make them question how well you actually know the characters you’re writing. No writer wants that to happen, so to keep it from happening, there are a number of things one can do.

Consider your characters. Who are they? How old are they? Where are they from? And once you reflect on all of that, the most important part—would they actually talk the way you’re writing them? Does the character successfully sound like a two-hundred-year-old vampire from France or a twenty-year-old co-ed from Alabama, or does he or she sound like Jane Writer from New Jersey? Transitioning from narration to dialogue can be a struggle sometimes, and it is also very easy to slip into dialogue that sounds like the writer rather than the character.

Consider how people actually do and don’t speak. In real life, people tend to speak a lot more informally than they write. So why is it that I’ve read books—yes, plural, books—in which characters don’t use a single contraction? Granted, in fiction there is some idealization of the spoken word—would a hero in a romance novel be all that sexy if he was just an average conversationalist?—but it’s important not to get ridiculous. Chances are if you’ve never with your own ears heard someone use a particular word or sentence structure out loud, your characters shouldn’t be using them either.

Do research. This bit of advice is especially important for someone writing a historical. Speech patterns evolve and words and phrases are coined, then go out of use. It's important that your characters sound authentic to their time period and location. Make sure you read a lot of contemporary sources in your research, not just other novels set in the time period.

This bit of advice need not apply only to historicals, though. It’s really not a bad idea to do some dialogue research no matter what you write. Sure, it might seem pretty silly to think one would need to research how contemporary people talk, but if you’re reading this list in sequence, you probably remember me mentioning books in which characters didn’t use contractions, so evidently there are some writers who’ve been speaking all their lives and don’t know what the heck is going on.

Research in this area is just a matter of simply paying attention—really consider how people talk to you in your day-to-day life. It might help to even to go to a place where diverse people congregate, like a mall, and just listen to how people talk to one another; you might be surprised how teenagers talk amongst themselves, how a pair of women will interact as opposed to a male and female couple, and so forth. If you don’t feel comfortable going out and doing that, watching a well-scripted movie or TV show will do, but remember that the dialogue still might be ultra-idealized.

Make sure each character’s dialogue remains consistent. People might shift from formal to informal speech patterns depending on whom they’re talking to—a character would probably speak to a boss differently than he would to a close friend, for instance—but for the most part, they won’t vary much. Maintain that consistency throughout your story.

Remember that your characters are unique individuals. Even if your characters are similar in age and background, no two people talk exactly the same way—everyone has different quirks in their speak patterns. It’s important that your readers can reasonably ascertain who is whom during conversation without relying fully on dialogue tags.

Don’t overdo it. Too much realism is not necessarily a good thing. For example, I knew a high school teacher who counted how many times his students said ‘like’ during their formal presentations—it was often as many as seventy times during a five-minute speech. Matching that in a YA novel’s dialogue might be realistic, but would it be fun to read?

Be careful with dialect. Dialect can be a lot of fun to write, and it can also be a useful way to reinforce characterization. But be cautious with how you use it. First off, as anyone who read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn knows, dialect can be tricky to decipher sometimes, and it gets tiresome to read aloud every other word just to know what a character’s talking about. Secondly, going overboard could be offensive to people who fit the demographic you’re trying to portray. If you do use dialect, make sure it’s both consistent and accurate, not just how one might think a person from a particular culture sounds.

Consider the scene at hand. Does this scene feature two friends meeting for a cup of coffee or is it an action-packed fight to the death? Thoughtful, in-depth dialogue is probably more appropriate for the former than the latter. Always keep in mind just how much dialogue there should be in a particular scene and what the tone would probably be.

Read your dialogue out loud. Again, does it sound realistic? Do people actually talk like this? Or are you stumbling over stilted sentence structures and odd word choices? Reading out loud can clue you in to problems your internal voice might not pick up on.

This might seem like a lot to keep in mind, and it might seem hard to believe that writing something most people do every day would be so difficult. But it is—and poor dialogue is painfully conspicuous. So don't let it be the kryptonite standing between you and an otherwise strong story.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Cover Letter Critiques, Part Two

Helen and Christine, thanks for being brave and letting us tear your letter apart! Email Martha@ellorascave.com to let her know what ebook you'd like as your prize.

Submission Cover Letter #3:
Dear Ms Gorlinsky,

{TITLE} is a 120 000 word otherworld quest fantasy romance about Irini, a Healer and Kouncellor from the magical land of Thassos. She and her Keepers are on a quest to find the hidden ‘E’on Kyklonn’ (the chalice of life) before their rival. Throwing her plans into disarray is the unexpected reunion with her ex-lover Prince Andros of Nikeon. Their roles as Kouncellor and Prince must come first as the quest eventually takes them in separate directions, both filled with danger. They must find their way back to each other, learn to be honest, and learn to let go of the past.

This tale witnesses Irini’s rebirth both emotionally and physically, as she finally fulfils her destiny and finds the peace and forgiveness eluding her (the core theme being - "forgiving one’s self is harder than forgiving others.")

I have included the full manuscript for your consideration as well as a detailed synopsis. [I would tailor this to the publisher’s/agent’s guidelines.] Please find enclosed a SASE and international reply coupons for your reply. As for the manuscript, please shred/destroy if you do not accept. Alternatively you can email me at {email} for your reply.

I’ve had three short stories published in the Australian magazine {MAGNAME} and two in the anthology, {TITLE}. I use my training as a librarian in the researching and world building of my stories.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.

MARY A:
“Otherworld quest fantasy romance” is a bit of a mouthful, and not entirely necessary. Cover letters are like editor pitches—you want to convey the basic information in a quick and seamless way, often using mutually understood shorthand. While I understood what you were saying, it is clunky and didn’t have that immediate mental connection, so it’s not quite right.

One of my first thoughts when reading the brief book summary was “Oh, hmm, the hero and heroine are separated for some time.” This is where a tighter genre definition would help you. If it was first and foremost a fantasy with romantic elements, I wouldn’t be bothered by that. If it was first and foremost a romance with fantasy elements, this would be an immediate red flag and I would continue reading the synopsis and manuscript with a slight prejudice already forming. Make sure you’re very clear what your story is so you can avoid this.

I was impressed by your final paragraphs. I really like that you mentioned world building specifically, as it’s so very important in fantasy.


MACKENZIE:
I started to lose interest in the blurb before I was done reading it, so it could use some shortening. There are a few grammatical issues that may be attributed to the writer being from a different country, but even still, this letter could use some editing, as there a few definite grammar issues. (Misplaced commas, etc.) The accomplishments listed at the end are appropriate. All in all, it’s a pretty boring letter and could use a little something to really get me interested in the writer.

I do like that this letter illustrates some issues with submitting a manuscript by mail, and I also like that she notes that she’s included a SASE and international reply coupons, which is really important when dealing with snail mail. I was mildly irked at the instruction to shred or destroy the manuscript if it’s not accepted. It doesn’t make me hate the writer of the letter or anything, but my knee jerk reaction was that it came off as a little bossy.


RAELENE:
The blurb did not grab me -- in fact, it turned me off. It doesn't actually tell me much about the plot of the story, it is overburdened with "foreign" words, and it hit my annoyance button immediately with the silly Kouncellor. And Kouncellor/Keepers/Kykllon within one and a half sentences -- kut it out. Save the odd words for the story itself; in this blurb, just say they are on a quest for the chalice of life. And tell me WHY they are doing that, and what it leads them into -- in just a few sentences, of course. A better story blurb should also clear up my confusion about whether this is primarily a romance or mainly a fantasy-quest story.

The common method for letting the editor/agent know you don't need the rejected manuscript back is to put "Manuscript return not requested" on the top of the first page.

Points to you for listing the length of the story, and your previous publication credits.

Submission Cover Letter #4:
To Whom It May Concern:

{TITLE} is a contemporary erotic romance, approximately 60,000 words in length.

Thirty-something kindergarten teacher, Lindy Whittaker is running out of time. Her biological clock is ticking and with each turn of the calendars page she is in danger of losing her beloved family home. When Steven Hamilton hints about marriage, she believes both her prayers have been answered. He's handsome, financially stable and he adores her. But when former boytoy Michael "Mac" MacIntyre comes to town, will memories of their passionate fling ruin all of Lindy’s well-laid plans? Will she find love in stability or in passion? And will the choice she makes lead her into blissful happiness or terrifying danger?

{TITLE} is a sensual novel set in modern day Tennessee. It has a Southern flavor and will entice even the most discerning romance reader with it's humor and sexual escapades.
An RWA member in good standing, I have several completed and partial manuscripts. In 1997, I had a non-fiction article appear in the October Issue of {Magazine}. My historical romance, {ANOTHER TITLE}, finaled number one in it's category in the {CONTEST}. Under the pseudonym "{AKA}", {PUBLISHER} released a pair of my erotic short stories in June and an erotic novella in July. Finally, I am owner/moderator of my own Yahoo! critique group, specializing in the romance genre.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

MARY A:
Be more meticulous with proofreading and editing. The cover letter is your first impression, and it is very important that you not ruin it with mistakes (even very minor ones). I’m far more likely to notice minute errors in a cover letter than I am when reading the submissions package—and far less likely to be forgiving of the ones I do find.

I mentioned this in an earlier critique, but here it is again—questions in a blurb are not wrong, but they are a bit dated. There are other, punchier ways to end a blurb. “Entice even the most discerning romance reader” earned a bit of an eye roll. It sounds forced to me.

Otherwise, you give the necessary information up front and were fairly concise with your credentials, though I wonder what the military history article has to do with the book you are offering for consideration.


Mackenzie:
Content-wise, this is a pretty nondescript cover letter. It doesn’t exactly force my attention, but it’s not terribly written. Opinions will differ over whether including a blurb is a good thing or not, but this one isn’t too bad, though it does end in the clichéd question. Also, it’s followed up by what feels like superfluous summary. The accomplishments noted toward the end make sense for someone submitting a romance manuscript, even the note about the published non-fiction article—if any writing is good enough to be published, it’s good to note. As a whole, the letter could be jazzed up a little.

But here’s something that really needs to be fixed, especially as the letter is going to be read by an editor—there are grammatical issues. I spotted the use of “it’s” rather than “its” immediately, and from there I was looking for more errors as I was reading the letter when I should have been giving my full attention to the content. It’s good to have another pair of eyes look letters over before they’re sent out to make sure these kinds of errors are caught.


RAELENE
I dislike "To Whom It May Concern". At least say "Dear Editor".

Not a bad letter. I wouldn't kick it out for eating crackers in bed. But it wasn't enticing enough that I'd invite it into bed to start with. The blurb has no hook, it reads like a thousand identical category romances. What is different about your story? What is the twist? And why did you end the blurb with questions?

OVERALL:
~ Reasonably good but not great letters, contain the important information and aren't cluttered with extraneous stuff.
~ Proofread! An cover letter should have absolutely no typos or errors.
~ Better blurbs are critical. The blurb is what makes the editor/agent think "Oh, this sounds intriguing, I want to read it right away," versus "Hmm, sounds like it might be okay, I'll put it on my huge stack to read when I get some spare time."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Southern Fried Slang

Since U.S. Southerners are especially known for some colorful, unusual expressions, we've consulted with a few our editors who hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line for their favorite down-home witticisms.
Ain't that the berries!

1. Sly as a three-legged fox [Unusually clever, can get out of any situation.]
2. Jesus Christ on roller skates! [Expression of extreme frustration or surprise.]
3. Tetchy [touchy] as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs [Extremely nervous.]
4. Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine [Doesn't know what's going on, and doesn't care.]
5. In high cotton [Coming up in the world.]
6. In a coon's age [Occurring rarely or infrequently.]
7. Sun don't shine on the same dog's tail all the time. [The tables will turn; you'll get what you deserve someday.]
8. Well, shut my mouth! [I'm speechless, I don't know what to say.]
9. Well, butter my butt and call it a biscuit! [Same as 8.]
10. Even a blind hog finds acorns sometimes. [Everyone gets lucky sometimes.]
11. That's gracious plenty. [That's enough; you can stop any time.]
12. [We/they] get along like a house afire. [Referring to a tumultuous relationship.]
13. Well, bless your heart! [When used to actually mean "Fuck you."]

Have you got a favorite you want to share? Just don't go gettin' your gussie up about it!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Cultural References in Your Story

by Raelene Gorlinsky

Here at our publishing house, we provide authors with a "Style Guide" that documents some (well, hopefully most) of our standards and guidelines for story content, word usage, and so forth. It also gives good writing advice, information on copyright and trademark practices, things like that. So periodically we'll share some of that "wisdom" with all of you.

A “cultural reference” is the use of a place or product or person’s name in a way that is intended to convey some meaning to the reader. For example, referring to a woman’s dress by using a famous designer name would imply, without having to explicitly state, that the dress is expensive and fashionable. The same purpose applies when mentioning a car model, song title, band name, TV show or movie title.

Cultural references can add color to the story, establish a sense of place and time, and help define the personalities of the characters. But only if they are done right! Remember that we have worldwide readers, of all ages and social levels, of differing education and background and interests. An ebook can be downloaded from anywhere in the world; Amazon exists globally; many publishers market the English-language books in many countries, and sell foreign-translation rights. So you want your story to be understandable to an extremely broad range of people. Something like a reference to a popular current U.S. TV show will make no sense to someone in another country, or to anyone who isn’t within the “target market” (age, gender, income level) for that show and therefore may be unlikely to watch it.

There is no problem with references to items that would be known by the majority of the general reading public. An author can assume that most readers will recognize Shakespeare’s plays by title, well-known historical events or common holidays, internationally known historical or political figures, and so forth. And is there anyone in the world who hasn’t heard of McDonalds?

The problem arises with current fad items or those known only in one country or to one segment of the public—like TV shows, movies, actors, local politicians, current events, many books.

In many stories, it is wiser to limit or avoid references to local or country-specific people, or to fad-of-the-moment items or people. Not only will these references not be comprehensible to some readers (“getting it” depends on the nationality, age, social situation, and personal tastes of each individual), but such references “date” the story. A few years from now, whatever was mentioned may be totally forgotten and a reader won’t understand what it is or what usage of that name was supposed to convey about the story or character.

Ditto with place names. Readers would recognize major cities around the world, or even the nicknames of them—for example, The Big Apple. Even places within cities—if someone isn’t familiar with Central Park in NYC, they can figure out from the name that it is a big park. New Orleans is a popular setting for novels, and most readers will understand references to Bourbon Street or the French Quarter. But be careful with more obscure geographical references. How many readers will know the CBD or the Rose City?

Advice: For any cultural references, make sure the context conveys the meaning for any readers who aren’t familiar with the specific reference being made. Include some explanatory text that indicates the nuance or meaning of the reference. The reader should be able to understand the meaning or purpose of the reference without the name. Try inserting a fictionalized name. Do you still understand what is being conveyed?

The same thing goes for movies and TV shows, store names, product names, toys, and so forth. If the character goes shopping at CostCo, perhaps the sentence should also include something like “giant discount store”; or “Safeway grocery store” instead of just “Safeway”.

For example, there could be two story characters discussing their favorite authors. Fictional names could be used: “Oh, I love all of Wilma Wonderlinger’s books!” In this case, probably it is totally unimportant to the plot what authors are mentioned, it’s just casual conversation between characters, perhaps being used to show their similar or dissimilar tastes. Or real names could be used: “My favorites are the vampire stories by Anne Rice and horror from Stephen King.” Even if the reader doesn’t know those authors, a specific genre of book has been mentioned, perhaps to illustrate something about this character’s personality.

Example:
“This is one of my favorite songs, ‘Brain Stew’ by Green Day.”

That is a real song and band, but many readers would never know that, or what this reference is trying to convey—it doesn’t explain what type of music this character likes, or how that is a reflection of the personality the author is creating for them, or if it has any relevance to the storyline.

Try this instead:
“This is one of my favorite songs, ‘Brain Stew’ by Green Day. You know, that group where all the guys dye their hair chartreuse and beat each other with dead chickens on stage.” [Apologies to Green Day, this is a totally fictional description.]

Now this reference tells something about the character, even if the reader doesn’t know the song or band.

Another example:
Not all readers care or know much about cars. So referencing a car model in a book is not meaningful to them. They may have heard the model name, but have no idea if it’s a luxury car, a sports car, or a truck; whether it is expensive or an economy model. If the model name isn’t relevant or needed--if you are just having the character use a car to get somewhere--it may be better to leave out a model name and just make a generic reference to the vehicle.

However, sometimes using a car model name makes sense, if the story makes it clear what these vehicles are, what meaning they have to the narrative. In Linda Howard’s Mr. Perfect, there are several vehicles that are talked about continually through the story. Even if the reader doesn’t know what these are, they could figure it out from the text, and how these cars reflect each character.

The heroine drives a Viper. In the story, it is mentioned that the woman has trouble getting into her “low slung” car, that it is hard to fit something into the “miniscule” backseat, that the very tall hero would have his knees up around his neck in this car, that it “purred” when she drove down the street. From this, it is easy to figure out that this is a snazzy little sports car—which was a perfect fit for the heroine, matching her personality.

The hero drives a Chevy truck: “the gleaming red monster. Chrome twin pipes. Chrome roll bar. Tires so big she would have had to vault into the seat if he hadn’t also had chrome bars to aid those not blessed with his length of leg.” Readers now know this is one of those fancy macho trucks guys love to drive. Perfect fit for the big, gorgeous, macho hero.

So cultural references can be very useful to convey information in a story, but do have to be used sparingly and with careful consideration.

Help us out with more examples - What really great and effective use have you seen of a product or brand or such in a story, something that inherently told you information about the character or setting?

Friday, January 18, 2008

You Can't Put That There!

by Meghan Miller

As you may have guessed from yesterday’s Thursday Thirteen, sometimes people use very strange things as sex toys. Sometimes it works—more often, it doesn’t. In fiction you can get away with a little more than you can in reality, but there’s still a fine line to walk: on one hand, you have erotic, and on the other hand, you have impossible, dangerous, or just plain silly. For example…

Food Sure, a little well-placed honey, chocolate syrup, or whipped cream can add some flavor to a bland sex life, but some people take it a little too far. None of the above should ever be used internally—for many people, that much sugar in their vagina is an excellent way to ask for a killer yeast infection. Neither should they be used as lube. Sticky substances don't really invite your body to slide more effectively, they just increase the drag on an already sensitive area.

We've all heard stories about people using the occasional fruit or vegetable as a masturbatory aid, but consider what you're doing before you do it. Cucumbers or carrots you can probably pull off, but what about things like bananas? Not only are they squishy (ew), but they're sharp and pointy at the ends. Who wants that jammed up inside them?

Some things are just impractical: cookies, cake, pastry, gelatin, or anything else that is in some way crumbly or gooey. Think about it for a minute. Getting them in, you have to spread the vagina pretty widely, since pastries aren't something that will compress or slide in smoothly on their own. That kind of thing is rough to the touch. Imagine what it would feel like on delicate genital tissues! Gelatin has the opposite problem—I can't imagine how you'd get it in. It'd fall apart every time you touched it, and melt if you tried to hold it in your hand, let alone inserted it.

Then there's the issue of getting the foodstuffs out. When going down on someone, there's a limit to both how long people can stay down there without their jaw falling off and how deeply they're able to penetrate. Ignoring the logistics of getting it in for a moment, if you've just stuffed your heroine's vagina with a cream horn, your hero is going to have to get it out. The vagina is a moist, tight environment and pastry is, as a rule, somewhat fragile. Soak it in any sort of liquid for a minute or two and it falls apart. Add compression to the mixture and...well, you can see where this is going. Sure, you could have your character go douche after sex, but one, that's not especially safe (it ups your risk of bacterial infections, yeast infections, and vaginal irritation) and two, who wants to think about their heroine hopping out of bed and running to the bathroom to rinse out her vagina midway through sex? (And really, it’d have to be in the middle of the scene, because can you imagine having penetrative sex while holding a cream horn in your vagina? I certainly can’t.)

Weaponry You'd hope that this would be self-explanatory, but apparently it's not. True fact about weapons: they're generally used to injure people. Think about the number of accidental shootings you read about in the newspaper, and then consider that to shoot a gun, one usually needs to disable the safety, then actually pull the trigger. With knives and swords, all you need to do is slip a little bit and you're risking serious injury. Guns, swords, knives, and stun guns don't add an element of excitement or danger; they add the risk of injury and possibly death. Edgy sex is one thing, but potentially fatal sex is another entirely—it’s likely to not only ruin the mood, but also to lose you readers in the process.

Power tools and appliances Plenty of people joke about someone using a vacuum cleaner as a way of simulating oral sex, and there's a reason that it’s joked about—because the idea is comical, not arousing. For those foolish enough to attempt this sort of masturbation, medical attention is sometimes required. You don’t want your hero to be that guy who needs to get his penis stitched up in the emergency room.

Similarly, tools shouldn't be used as masturbatory aids. Your electric screwdriver may vibrate very nicely, but inserting it just isn't safe. Depending on which end is being inserted, you're either smearing bodily fluids all over the power supply (and you were warned as a child about not getting electrical things wet, right?) or you're putting a device that is made to bore through wood into someone’s body. If you think that the human body can hold up to more than a wooden board can…well, you're wrong.

Animals Again, this should be self-explanatory, but you'd be surprised. After all, you’ve heard that story about Richard Gere and the gerbil, right? (That story's a hoax, by the way—Mr. Gere did no such thing.) All joking aside, snakes curling up in people's vaginas or gerbils cozying up in people's rectums is never okay. It should go without saying that horses, dogs, and other large animals are similarly inappropriate.

Alcohol This one might seem a little strange—there’s certainly no shortage of books in which the hero drinks champagne or wine using the heroine's body as a cup, right? Those scenes can be compelling and arousing, provided that the alcohol stays out of the heroine's (or anyone else’s) body cavities. Alcohol on the body is one thing. Alcohol in the rectum or vagina is an entirely different story. Bodies will absorb the liquid, and it will cause intoxication the same way drinking the beverage in question would. There's just one difference: people who are drinking will eventually pass out and stop drinking. When the alcohol is already in the body, you can pass out and continue to "drink". People have died from it.

Glass Unless it’s made of shatter-proof glass and designed to be inserted, it’s generally not a good idea. Stories (and, in some cases, scanned x-rays) of people with shot glasses, mason jars, and light bulbs stuck in their rectums abound on the internet. Even worse: what if the object breaks?

Air-propelled anything Whipped cream, spray cheese, carbonated beverage spray are all bad news for the vagina. Introducing air to the vagina can cause embolisms, which can be problematic—or fatal. And let me tell you, fatal sex is never arousing.

There’s nothing wrong with characters having creative sex, but suspension of disbelief can only carry you so far before the ick factor overwhelms your readers. Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive list—nor would you want it to be, really, since we’d be here for days. Most of these could be avoided with a little common sense, so think about what you’re writing when you’re writing it. Don’t leave your heroine with a raging infection; don't let your hero be the guy who goes to the ER to get his penis stitched up—just say no to questionable sex toys.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Food+Body Should be for Diets Only

Foods We've Seen Inserted Into the Body - And Why You Shouldn't

1. Pastries. Cream horns and cannoli both have more or less the right shape, but we'll point out the obvious: they're little shells filled with cream. What happens when you insert them? The shell crumbles (or dissolves into mush, depending on how fresh your pastry is), the cream oozes, and the recipient ends up with a yeast infection.

2. Biscotti. Hopefully this doesn't need that much explanation--they're hard, they're abrasive, and they're made to absorb moisture. Why would you think that's a good idea?

3. Pickles. Okay, they're the right shape (assuming that you're buying whole pickles and not spears) but they have basically every characteristic that you'd hope to never see on a penis: bumpy, squidgy, and green.

4. Wine or beer. On the body, sure. In the body, and before long your characters will be too drunk to get it up. Their bodies would absorb the alcohol like they were drinking it--only faster.

5. Gelatine. We're not sure how you'd get it in, to start with, but then we're not sure that you want to watch it come out: gelatine will melt at body temperature. You put that in someone's body and you're in for a river of luridly colored melted gelatine to be pouring out soon. Plus, the dye in gelatine will dye your skin and mucous membranes just as well as it can dye your countertops and white tee-shirts, and no one wants a purple vagina.

6. Bananas, peel-on. We know, we know. They're the right shape and everything. On one end, though, you have little pointy nubs. On the other end, you have the part that attaches it to the bunch. Also, unless they're really underripe, they're squishy. You don't want to make bananasauce while you're having sex.

7. Cake or brownies. It's crumbly, it absorbs moisture, and let's face it: it's just better with ice cream.

8. Shortbread. See also: cake, biscotti.

9. Popsicles. It's one thing to drag them down someone's body, it's another thing entirely to put them in someone's cunt. At best numbing, at worst painful. Also, think of your sheets!

10. Salami. Or, really, any kind of meat. We won't insult you by explaining this one.

11. Hot dogs. They're soft and floppy anyhow, unless they're frozen, in which case they're disgusting and cold. If you insist on using them, please at least don't eat them afterward.

12. Icing, chocolate syrup, and honey: three great tastes that work better as something other than lube. On the body = tasty; in the body = ick.

13. Whipped cream. In the body, it's introducing air to the vagina, which can cause embolisms. Also, whipped cream foams, and who really wants a rabid cunt?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Publishing Business is a Business

by Raelene Gorlinsky

Sigh, another URL in my "Publisher" links list is no longer functional. It was a small epub who's been rumored for a year to be on the brink. So it looks like they finally fell over the edge and are gone. I'm sorry to see a publisher (of any format) fail. I hope they did the right thing by their authors before closing their doors. But mostly I dread another round of noise from people claiming how this shows epublishing is not a viable business, epublishers are all incompetent and/or evil, epublishing only produces bad books that didn't sell to New York, and a lot of other nonsense.

Come on, people, get a grip and deal with the reality of the business world. If that new bakery down the street goes out of business, would you be screaming that all cake-makers are stupid and no one should deal with them? If that gift shop where you were selling your handmade jewelry on consignment closes their doors, does that mean gift shops are not a viable retail business?

Businesses of all types fail. A lot. The newer and the smaller, the more of them don't make it to long-term success. One hears some riduculous numbers - "Oh, 90% of new businesses fail within two years." That's urban legend, reality blown way out of proportion. But even the real numbers are pretty sobering:

From the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), reported in Business Week magazine, September 1999: Over the lifetime of a business, 39% are profitable, 30% break even, 30% lose money. (We won't ask what happened to the missing 1%.)

A US Bureau of Labor Statistics study for 1998 - 2002 found that 34% of new businesses cease within 2 years, and 56% within 4 years.

Entrepreneur Weekly in March 1996 quoted a Dun & Bradstreet report that for businesses with fewer than 20 employees, 63% did not survive 4 years and 91% did not survive 10 years. (Per the NFIB report, two-thirds of new businesses start in the owner's home and 79% employ only the owner.)

Without getting into the many, many reasons that businesses close their doors, you can see the grim statistics. Almost all epubs I know of did indeed start out in the owner's home, run solely by the owner or with only a few other people involved. That includes the one for which I work, which passed its seven-year anniversary in November and now has quite a few more than twenty employees. We're very successful, we're beating the statistics and so are a number of other epublishers and small print presses. But yes, some epubs don't make it and fill in the "did not survive" side of the ledger.

I don't believe that epubs fail in any higher percentage than businesses overall. So please quit it with the nay-saying about epublishers. Focus on those of us who are doing it right, surviving and succeeding, rather than trying to make the world see only the ones that don't make it. Or I'm not going to let you have any more cakes or jewelry.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Cover Letter Critique Part 1

Our editors have been diligently reviewing and critiquing submission cover letters sent in. (See http://redlinesanddeadlines.blogspot.com/2007/11/cover-letter-critiques.html.) We've selected two for today, suitably disguised, and will be doing more in a few weeks.

WINNERS! Marie and Nancy! Thanks for your bravery in playing with us. You know who you are (well, we hope you recognize your own letter!) - please email Martha@ellorascave.com and tell her which Ellora's Cave, Cerridwen Press or The Lotus Circle ebook you would like as your prize.

Letter the First:

Dear (Editor's name):

“A thousand thanks for freeing me at last. What does my beautiful mistress wish as a reward?”

Jayne let the ancient oil lamp drop from her nerveless fingers. It rolled harmlessly on the rug and stopped at the feet of the gorgeous, gray-eyed man who had definitely not been standing in her bedroom a moment ago...


In my new romantica novella, {Title}, when JAYNE GIDEON buys an antique oil lamp off eBay she accidentally releases a muscular, bare-chested, sinfully sexy djinn (MARID) from his long, celibate captivity. Ferociously attracted to his curvy, sweet new mistress, the djinn insists on granting her sensual whims – even ones she wasn’t aware she had before falling into his strong hands. But when Marid captures her into the world of his lamp where their roles are reversed with he the master and she his slave girl, her every erotic wish is finally fulfilled...

For a bit of background on myself, I'm an RWA member. One of my other romantica novellas recently took first place in the {contest name} erotica/romantica category judged by EC's very own Raelene Gorlinsky. I also finaled recently in {another contest name} that is still in progress and under review by a panel of experts that also includes Ms.Gorlinsky (she's everywhere!).

In other writing, I'm a published children's author {title} and I'm a previous winner of The Walt Disney Fellowship in Screenwriting. Also, my original American Film Institute short film that I wrote and directed starred {name} ({film title} is available at iTunes).

I look forward to your thoughts on {Title} and I sincerely thank you for your time.

Best regards,
{Real Name} writing as {Pen Name}

So, advice from editors:

~ Mackenzie: This cover letter is very chatty and friendly without being too casual. Author gives a good listing of genuinely impressive resume blips that relate to writing. The excerpt and summary are short and just enough to grab my attention and intrigue me without giving a point by point plot. The letter as a whole is short, but packs enough in there that it doesn’t seem lacking. I’d definitely say this is a successful cover letter.

~ Nick: I’d advise against starting a cover letter with an excerpt. Aside from that, this particular one was borderline purple not very attention-grabby — if you must include an excerpt, make it count. (Still, as an editor I’d be more interested in knowing the story’s genre and other critical information right away). Nevertheless, the synopsis was fairly concise while being straightforward and informative.

I have no objection to listing awards the author has won, especially since in this case there are quite a few. Listing publishing history is also good — although the author might want to consider their relevance to the specific submission. For instance, she is published as a children’s author and is submitting an erotic romance, so the success of one wouldn’t necessarily reflect on the other. (I’d say the same if the author was a multipublished cookbook author, or had published several volumes of poetry.) Nevertheless, I was impressed by her mention of the short film she wrote and directed that starred {actor}. It’s unique and distinctive enough to make the author’s work sound interesting. Again, it doesn’t really relate to erotic romance, but one’s mileage may vary. (For instance, sometimes name-dropping works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s all in how it’s done.)

Lastly, it’s a small point, but I always appreciate when an author thanks me for my time.


~ Mary: For the most part, this was a very strong letter. You’re personable without being chatty and you let us know most of the basic information. A few points to consider:

1) I tend to vacillate over whether or not I like book quotes in cover letters. You certainly chose a good one — it encapsulates the basic idea of the book and has a sense of romance. In this case, it works for me. In most cases, it doesn’t. Authors should be careful when opening letters this way, only choosing to quote from the book if the (very short!) section is punchy, interesting and relevant to the main hook.
2) Ferociously attracted earned a laugh. I’d recommend something a touch less over-the-top. Sexy impact words are good, but there’s a fine line there.
3) “Captures her into the world of his lamp” is awkward and stilted. Try rewording.
4) “For a bit of background on myself” is just awkward filler. Start by saying that you’re an RWA member and for how long you’ve been active — we’ll know that you’re talking about yourself. I loved the industry experience, though. It’s unique and yet relevant.
5) I like the personal touch of “(she’s everywhere!)”. It’s tricky, being personable in cover letters without coming across as too chatty, but you managed to effortlessly slip in a bit of personality. That’s how it should be done.

~ Raelene: Overall I liked the letter - it was suitably short, but told me quite a bit. You state that your story is a novella, but I'd like to know the actual word length. But Romantica(r) is a registered trademark of Ellora's Cave Publishing Inc. - you didn't make a good impression by misusing it as a generic term for erotic romance.

Mentioning the contests is appropriate in this case because you reference that an editor at the publisher you're submitting to was a judge. So your submission would be routed to that editor - or, in this case, whichever editor gets it would take note that their boss had liked this story. And you made the reference in an entertaining manner, rather than seeming to be kissing up.

Letter the Second:

I would appreciate the opportunity to submit {title} for consideration for representation. {Title} is women's fiction with elements of suspense.
The theme – betrayal. The journey – a search for home and heart where trust ties friends and family in southern tradition and home is a safe place dreams can come true.

Jill Clemmons makes the trip back to Adams Grove, the small Virginia town she hasn't set foot in since she and Ken Malloy split up and she ran away to Savannah. She wouldn't be back now either if it weren't to bury her grandmother, Pearl, who raised her in the small town.

Even after they split, Pearl never gave up her dream of Jill and Ken marrying someday. In a final matchmaking attempt, Pearl leaves her estate to them jointly. They must stay in the house together for thirty consecutive days to own it jointly or the property goes to auction.

But someone else is interested in that estate too, and is willing to stop at nothing in search of a treasure of precious pearls supposedly hidden there years ago. Can Jill and Ken put the past behind them as they fight for their lives to uncover who is behind the danger and why?

I am a PRO member of RWA, and member of Sisters in Crime. In my “day job”, I am a {job title} with {company} and received the Award of Excellence. I share that achievement because it highlights my reputation for executing on goals – not only the what, but the how. I believe these attributes will be a plus on my journey to become a multi-published author. But wait, before you picture an uptight banker in a blue suit, let me share that I now live in a small log cabin on an 80 acre goat farm in southern Virginia and telecommute. So think of me as business savvy, with a relaxed southern attitude.

This will be my debut novel and I have other works in progress to fast follow. I've included sample chapters of my work and the short synopsis of {title}, and I hope it leaves you wanting to read the rest of my novel.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Editor Comments:

~ Mackenzie: That first line is…whoa. It’s so stiff and clunky that my knee jerk reaction is to wonder how strong her writing is going to be. Story summary is a little long. The plot itself is a little cliché, so she should definitely jazz up the summary because nothing here is exciting me. She states an impressive accomplishment which has little to do with the publishing world. To her credit, she realizes the problem and attempts to explain why she’s including it, but I’m not entirely sure what ‘executing on goals’ even means. The personal info she includes is also unnecessary. All in all, this letter sounds more appropriate for someone applying for a position rather than as a cover letter for a book submission. Whether you are business savvy is not our concern—we just want to know you can write. I’d say this isn’t a terrible CL, but it’s not more than mediocre.

~ Nick: The opening didn’t grab me. It started out with a blurb—already not my preference—and not a particularly well-written one at that. The idea of a blurb is to sell the book to the readers. The idea of a cover letter is to interest the publisher in reading something they might or might not offer a contract for, and that’s a bit more involved than purchasing a single copy of a book after reading the blurb. Hence, I did not feel the information provided was enough to make me want to read the submission.

The personal information listed at the end was charming, personable and well-written. However, the author’s day job and the goat farm she lives on have little to do with the book itself. They don’t speak to her previous writing experience. Also, although it’s not strictly forbidden, I don’t see the benefits of an author stating that this is her debut novel. If the author is not listing her publishing history, it’s self-explanatory. It also comes off as a bit pretentious—it’s not a debut novel until it’s published. In order to sound professional, the author needs to strike a balance. Don’t be so modest or humble that you sound like you’re groveling or being self-deprecating (it’s a turn-off), but it’s yet another example of showing rather than telling. Present your achievements, rather than just telling us you’re good.

~ Mary: In your cover letter, you made the mistake of saying too much. We need to know the basics: title, genre, word count, story and any relevant experience. Anything beyond that is filler.

1) “I would appreciate the opportunity to submit {title} for consideration for representation.” You don’t need to say that. If you’re sending this to an agent, he or she can deduce that you’d like to be considered for representation.
2) “The theme” and “the journey” is confusing and a bit hokey. Why the dramatic sentence structure? You don’t need to wave flags to get the agent’s attention. The story is enough to either capture his/her fancy or not.
3) I’m not a huge fan of blurbs in cover letters, but I’m not strongly against them either. Tighten up the blurb, however, as the wording is a bit awkward. Also, this isn’t exactly a criticism, but: blurbs ending with a question are fairly old school. They’re still around, but they’re tired. Try changing it up a little.
4) None of the personal information is really relevant beyond the membership to RWA and Sisters in Crime. Editors and agents really don’t care what you do as a day job—what matters is whether or not you tell a good story. Additionally, make sure you don’t highlight inexperience. We don’t hold it against you, but it is never a point in your favor. Delete the reference to PRO and the fact that this is your debut novel.

This letter—and the blurb—needs some tightening. The important thing to remember is that you’re not selling yourself. You’re selling your book. Focus on that and leave personal details out unless they’re writing-related or specific to your book.


~ Raelene: I concur on leaving out the irrelevant personal information. If I were chatting with you at a social event, this would all be very interesting and I'd love to hear about the goats. But none of it means anything when I'm considering whether I want to bother reading your submission.

I want a brief blurb in a submission cover letter, but this one needs work. What's with the bit about theme and journey? You're sounding too pretentious. This blurb does tell me something important about the story - that it is a set of cliched plot devices that can be found in a zillion other books. You as an author should recognize how common and derivative some of your story elements are - so make your blurb focus on what is different about your book, tell me about the unique twist. Maybe mention what group of readers this story would appeal to.

General comment from Nick: Both letters 1 and 2 were well-proofed and conveyed a significant amount of information without being overly long. They were also fairly polite—not, for the most part, overly presumptuous, and neither used any “pressure speech” by implying they expected to hear from us “soon” or talking about “when the book is published”.

Okay, we hope our comments were helpful to all of you submitting stories to publishers. Please let us know. What else would you have liked us to discuss, do you have any questions about the style of these letters? Are you writing a letter right now and have a specific question?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Words for Words

Editors and authors are word people. Words are our product, our love, our treasure. We study them, research them, discuss them, hoard them. So it’s really fun for us to talk about words that are about words.

Words that end in -onym are names for a type of word.

1. Acronym: A word or name formed by combining the first letters or groups of letters from a phrase. SCUBA: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.
2. Anatonym: A verb based on a part of the body. For example, foot the bill or toe the line.
3. Antonym: Words with opposite meanings. For example, wet and dry.
4. Aptronym: A name that is especially suited to the profession of its owner. For example, Sally Ride, the astronaut.
5. Capitonym: A word that takes on a new meaning when capitalized. For example, polish (pol-ish), Polish (Polish).
6. Eponym: A place, thing, or event named from a real or mythical person. The earl of Sandwich, who asked for meat between two slices of bread, is the eponym of the sandwich.
7. Heteronym: Words with identical spelling but different meaning and pronunciation. Bow as in bow and arrow, and bow as in bow of a boat.
8. Metonym: A word used to substitute for another word or phrase with which it is closely associated. Crown to refer to the monarchy, brass for military officers.
9. Patronym: A family name based on the name of an ancestor. Richardson (son of Richard), O’Reilly (son of Reilly), McDonald (son of Donald).
10. Pseudonym: From the Greek pseud (false) and onym (name), a false name or pen name. Mark Twain is a pseudonym for Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
11. Synonym: Words that mean the same thing.
12. Tautonym: Words composed of two identical parts, for example, tomtom or tutu.
13. Toponym: A word that began as the name of a place, such as hamburger (from Hamburg, Germany) and afghan (a soft blanket from Afghanistan).

Monday, January 7, 2008

Taking Stock of Your Characters

by Nick Conrad

Stock characters have existed since ancient times. Playwrights, especially, relied on them to convey points to the audience on a very visible, easily comprehensible level. In writing they are an example of showing rather than telling, as they are largely defined by their outward, most apparent aspects. Stock characters are a familiar and expected part of fiction, especially genre fiction—they embody familiar archetypes that help present back story in a minimal amount of words. They might also help steer the plot, although this must be done with care.

Stock characters frequently serve as minor characters, where they are often quite useful. A good example in romance would be the confidante. The heroine has a supportive, helpful best friend, often with a good sense of humor or some other trait to keep her charming and interesting. The confidante might be the one to encourage the heroine to follow her heart, especially if the heroine has doubts about her relationship with the hero. She might also help the heroine better understand her feelings. She might be a kindly old nursemaid who tells the heroine what to expect from love and marriage, or the gal pal who sips her latte as she helps the heroine realize, “Face it, honey, you’ve got it bad and he’s perfect for you.” This confidante might be privy to information the heroine is not, which can help to resolve a conflict—perhaps, during a heartwrenching misunderstanding, she can help clear the hero’s name in the eyes of the heroine. She could also serve as a means of stirring up conflict, though, by innocently passing on incorrect information about the hero.

Many stock characters appear only briefly in the story, some merely popping up for one scene. Such characters can be useful, as they easily provide information without clogging the narrative with pages of back story. They can also be neatly contained in their complexity—the image of the hardworking farmer, the street-smart tough guy or the eccentric hermit can tell many stories the moment they are introduced, because each tells an implicit story.

Now, if the character is a cardboard cutout who relies solely on stereotypes, then it’s a bust. Using exaggerated “thug talk” or backwoods English turns ordinary characters into caricatures, and then there’s no way to take them seriously. (Not to mention, it can get kind of offensive, as discussed in the last article.) So even stock characters deserve some research and development. Perhaps they only exist for one scene, and that’s fine, but “plot device” becomes a dirty word when it’s obvious to the reader what you’re doing. If the strings are showing that much, you might as well just give us the pages of back story or have a message in a bottle show up, because the effect is about the same.

The central characters of the story frequently embody archetypes that can make them seem like stock characters. Below are some familiar examples in romance:

The rogue hero who must be tamed by love
The virgin heroine
The ancient, world-weary immortal hero who is either desperate for love or reluctant to love because of some tragedy long ago
The frustrated, overworked heroine who gets no respect
The anti-hero who is an outcast from society and has a dark, checkered past
The jaded heroine who has given up on romance and is just looking for a night of great sex instead
The rebellious “bad boy” hero with a heart of gold
The heroine who has lost her ability to trust men, often because of mistreatment, abuse or violence in her past
The protector hero whose livelihood involves defending one’s homestead (warrior, police officer, outlaw cowboy) and who is fiercely overprotective of the heroine

Some readers are sick of these folks and would like never to read about them again. Others might have a special fondness for one or a few of them. We joke about the abundance of single, handsome titled men in Regency England, or about how many small-town sheriffs happen to be ex-Navy SEALs. Again, we don’t want characters to be cardboard cutouts, especially our main characters. But the descriptions in the list above, though specific and recognizable, have a lot of room for development. The key is to give characters the attention they deserve. Make them distinctive—don’t let their position or history do all the work of defining them. Okay, so your hero is a thousand-year-old vampire warlord with a dark, checkered past. But does he have a distinctive personality with a distinctive checkered past, or could he be replaced by a stand-in with a similar description? What is it about this character that makes him memorable? And is there an original plot, or is the implicit back story the stock character provides supposed to be doing all the work?

The above applies to villains, too. There’s no rule that one has to be sympathetic to the villain’s motives, but the motive still needs to be there. Making a villain eeeeeevil for the sake of being eeeeeevil tries the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. Likewise, defining the villain solely by deed by piling multiple vile acts on the character—“And he’s a rapist, too! And he kicks puppies!”—makes for a weak villain.

Suspension of disbelief problems can come about for characters in the other direction, too. “Mary Sue” is a term that originated in fan fiction and has come to mean an overly idealized, easily recognizable character. Generally speaking, the Mary Sue outshines all other characters by being flawless, even when she or he appears to have flaws. For instance, such a character might have a tragic and painful past and most likely feels unnecessary guilt about it, or there might exist some sort of physical weakness or mental illness that is clearly intended to garner sympathy from the reader. Mary Sue characters are often the author’s attempt at self-insertion in the story, so it’s no wonder that they tend to get all the “good parts”. Typically, the character has some sort of trait or ability that surpasses that of other characters, or all the most interesting or intense action involves this character. Now, in genre fiction especially, it is not uncommon for the central characters to be involved in the majority of the action and to have special characteristics that distinguish them from other characters. They are the stars of the show, after all—in romance, the hero is supposed to be the most desirable man, and both he and the heroine should be likeable. (Who wants to root for a match between two people you can’t stand, or between a likeable character and a complete jerk?) But if either character has no flaws or said flaws only exist in a way that makes the character look better or more sympathetic, the Mary Sue factor is dangerously high.

If written well, stock characters with stock backgrounds can serve a much-needed purpose. Just remember to flesh out your main characters, and never use a character solely as a crutch. The pressure from above tends to stunt their growth.

Friday, January 4, 2008

It's Not "PC", It Just Makes Sense

by Nick Conrad

One of the biggest challenges for anyone writing fiction is how to construct the story and characters in a way that readers can relate to them. Sure, part of the fun of reading fiction is that it provides an escape from everyday life, and no one expects to fully identify with a third-level mage who's training to be a High Priestess to the Sun Goddess Axyklpmot when she falls in love with a dragon shifter. But regardless of a story's setting, an author rarely wants to make potential readers feel as though they are not welcome to read the story. Of course there's no way to universally appeal to everyone's sensibilities, but there is a way to actively alienate whole groups of people. And often, an author doing it doesn't even mean to.

The term "political correctness" gets thrown around a lot these days, especially with reference to the media. It calls to mind a stuffy, hypersensitive suppression of free speech in the name of not offending anyone. Some might even see it as language policing. But I'm not here to talk about being "politically correct". Such a concept seems, at best, a misinformed way of trying not to step on toes and, at worst, insincere or even ignorant. Although it would be wonderful if everyone could get along and people never made generalizations about whole groups, we all know we can’t just forcibly change people’s thinking. (And what good is freedom if you don’t have the freedom to think for yourself?) What I'm here to address are ways authors can be more considerate of their readers—all readers—because you never know who is going to pick up your book.

Sexist, racist language. Let’s talk about unnecessary adjectives. How often have you heard someone casually mentioning a “male nurse” or “ black lawyer” or “woman doctor”? That’s annoying and unnecessary. Often it happens because a profession is dominated by a specific group of people—especially a gendered group—and a person might think the male nurse or female doctor is novel or noteworthy. But there’s no hard and fast rule for who is best suited for a certain job, and whether or not it's intentional, that is exactly what those expressions imply. If you have a character who is a male nurse or a woman doctor, just describe the person as you would any other nurse or doctor. (Do you say "the female nurse" or "the male doctor"?) The pronouns and/or name will give the gender away soon enough. And if your lawyer’s black—well, you have to ask yourself how much that matters to the plot. If it's necessary and appropriate, have the lawyer mention it him or herself. (Example: The lawyer is talking about growing up black in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s.) If the character's color is important to the plot, the representation of that will come naturally. But if you’re just intent on visually depicting the character as accurately as possible, then what's wrong with giving a vivid physical description, the same as you would any character? Perhaps Linda has cocoa-colored or cinnamon-colored skin, just as she might have a coffee-and-cream or peaches-and-cream complexion. Skin is another physical feature and it comes in many, many shades. It's not forbidden to describe it.

Also, "black" is not a dirty word. Different people have different opinions on it, and unfortunately any word can be used as a weapon, but describing someone's race at all is not impolite in the proper context. Just don't make it the sole or central defining feature of a person when it's not appropriate. Some people might prefer to say "African-American" or "Asian-American," but use consideration when employing those words, too—if Peter has lived in England all his life, the term doesn't really apply, does it? Especially not if his family came from Jamaica, which is not located anywhere on the African continent.

Have some class. Please don't emphasize that a character is poor or comes from a rural setting by making them speak in a stereotypical "ruffian" or "country bumpkin" way. Just because a person has a lower income or lives in the country doesn't mean that person never had a formal education. And even if a person didn't have a formal education, it's not always apparent in the way they talk. Sure, not everyone uses perfect grammar (regardless of their background or education), but you can convey this without turning your character into a caricature. There's no need to exaggerate or dwell on how uneducated the person is. Also, uneducated does not mean dumb. You never know what a person might know—lots of high school dropouts are better read than many people with master's degrees, and just because a person is illiterate doesn't mean he or she might not have a slew of skills or smarts that many an avid reader couldn't begin to grasp. So just remember to look beyond the money in a character's wallet or the amount of culture in that character's background when you're deciding how that person thinks and acts. Explore all the dimensions—if you have an ignorant, not well spoken character, show us how and why, rather than just making that character "stupid" by default or to get a point across. When characters have a whole set of pre-designed characteristics just because they fit a certain image, we call them stock characters. Sometimes they have their place, but often it's just lazy.

Dated terms, and people are not adjectives. Sometimes there are terms that have slipped into the vernacular of a particular region or country with little thought to the origin. For instance, you might say, "I was gypped!" meaning nothing more than "I was ripped off!" or "I was cheated!" But this ignores the fact that "gyp" comes from "Gypsy"—as in, the Romani people—and that it was used as a derogatory term against them. The implication was that Gypsy/Rom people were inherently dishonest. (The term "Gypsy" itself is considered offensive by some, as it originates from the mistaken assumption that the Romani came from Egypt. However, some Romani use it themselves, and it is a term that is used all the time in historicals. We'll talk more about historicals in a bit.) Or maybe you’ve heard of an “Indian giver”—that term comes from a historical misunderstanding between Native Americans and English settlers, and the unfair generalization that came about as a result. Or maybe you casually refer to Asian or Asian-descended people as Orientals. While a large part of the Western world referred to Asia as the Orient at one time, no one really asked the Asian folks for their opinions. (Actually, in its time it was more common to call what is now the Middle East “the Orient”, and it only gradually became associated with points farther east.) As it turns out, not only is "the Orient" a rather outdated term, but when “Oriental” is used as an adjective it’s most often in reference to an artistic style evoking the “ancient” Orient—think of rugs and vases. Needless to say, such a term doesn’t go far in describing people. And independently of this, it’s kind of clunky to reduce people to adjectives by turning said adjectives into nouns (“the blacks”, “the gays”) when referring to them—it’s like that’s the only thing about them that’s important. Even if these characteristics apply to you, are you comfortable being referred to as “a white” or “a straight”? It's not that there's shame in either of those adjectives, but probably you’d prefer to have them attached to a noun—like “person”, “woman”, “individual”—that grounds you as a human being and puts you on the same level as the other people of the world. Regardless of how we view our own identities, all people are people first.

Historical accuracy versus historical ugly. If a term for a group of people was largely in use at the time outside of an offensive context (examples being Negro for black Americans before the 1960s, or Gypsies to refer to Romani people in a historical), then you're being timely. Now, naturally there are limits. Another, much harsher "N" word was also a casual, seemingly innocuous term used by white Westerners for black folks at one time, and it would be revisionist to deny that that was the case. But here is where it pays to do a little research. (Actually, it always pays to do research.) Pay attention to the context of such terms, and be conscious of which characters are using them and when. Don't be afraid to question how a particular instance reads. Is the meaning clear? Are the characters' sentiments clear? Conversely, you don't want to overdo it. It wouldn't make sense to refer to a railway worker of Chinese descent in the mid-1800s as Asian-American, for instance. Just keep the research tools handy and don't lose focus on your character development. It's not necessary to unleash a slew of racial slurs on your railway worker just because they might have been timely, but keep in mind that most of his American contemporaries weren't familiar with any other term for him beside "Chinaman", a term that isn't particularly polite by today's standards. Then it's up to you how you want to use that information.

This is obviously a very extensive topic, and a single blog article can hardly do it justice. So if you have anything to add, please don't hesitate to speak up in the comments.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Venereal Disease

No, no, it's not what you think! ‘Terms of venery’ are an element of the hunting culture of feudal through modern times in Great Britain. It was an indication of good breeding and knowledge to know the special term for a company of animals.

So here are some of the less common collective nouns. Could be an interesting way to spice up your writing! Or just impress people that you actually know stuff like this. (And if you read Ellora's Cave or Cerridwen Press books, you may recognize a few titles!)
Venereal Terms

1. Garland of Druids
2. Shrewdness of apes
3. Trogle of snakes
4. Ostentation of peacocks
5. Siege of herons
6. Watch of nightingales
7. Unkindness of ravens
8. Leap of leopards
9. Troop of kangaroos
10. Clowder of cats
11. Cowardice of curs
12. Cete of badgers
13. Crash of rhinoceroses