Out of Oz

Here’s a pro writing tip you will read nowhere else: If your lead character comments that she feels like she’s in an illustration in an Oz book, alarm bells should go off in your head.

Unless you’re writing an Oz book, of course.

A few days ago, I thought I was doing nicely with the draft of Book IV of my YA fantasy series. I had drafted 22,000 words, and was working on Chapter 7. Kyura is about to set off on an expedition which is the mainspring of the plot for this novel, in search of the thing she needs to solve most of her problems. I found myself writing this:

Kyura was glad to have a solid group of trustworthy people with her; it was so much better than the first time, when she and her friends had been manacled and dragged through the tumblerock by demons. But she also felt a little silly striding out in front of a group of armed men. She thought she ought to be wearing a cute little tin helmet, or maybe a bright red coat and short skirt instead of sensible denim trousers.

Does that last sentence remind you at all of one of those line drawings of General Jinjur? It should. Of course, Kyura doesn’t live on our Earth, and has never read an Oz book, but she dipped into my subconscious and noticed that she really ought to look more like General Jinjur.

At that point I sat back and took a serious look at the plot. I swiftly realized that it was a flabby mess. I was making life much, much too easy for my heroine. I was serving up solutions to all of her pressing problems on a silver platter. Now, technically, the first sentence in that passage is irony, because her group of trustworthy people includes a pair of assassins who are planning to kill her. The reader knows it, but Kyura doesn’t. Even so, her comment about the tin helmet made it clear I was turning the story into a kids’ book.

Not good.

I have now brainstormed half a dozen ways to crank up the tension in the story. Bring the villain onstage more, and give him more schemes. Toss in a few other forms of treachery. Will that expedition still take place? Sure. But getting it started will be harder, the tension and conflict will be greater, and the dangers will be more concrete. If I do my job right, that is.

I may have said this before, but it bears repeating. The procedure for writing plotted fiction is actually quite simple. First, put your protagonist’s ass in the meat grinder. Then keep turning the crank! Is Kyura’s ass in the meat grinder in that passage? Not a bit. Time for a rewrite.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

The story may or may not be true, but it’s instructive. Robert Rauschenberg, a painter and collage artist who died a few years ago, is supposed to have sneaked into the houses of people he had sold paintings to, possibly in the middle of the night or when they were out of town, in order to make further changes in the paintings. His work was magnificently chaotic, and the owners might have suspected he had done it even if he hadn’t.

Maybe some works of art can confidently be declared to be finished. Other works, surely not. At the moment I’m working on Book IV of a series of fantasy novels. Essentially the four volumes tell one large story. And fortunately, the first three books haven’t yet been published. When it becomes clear that I misjudged what needed to happen in an earlier part of the story, I can go back and freely apply the hammer and tongs.

I’ve just spent the entire morning making changes in three different scenes in Book II, after which I had to do a quick search in Book III for references to those scenes and do a little nip and tuck where it was needed. I hope I got it all straightened out. Eventually I’ll want to spend a couple of days re-reading the whole story from top to bottom. Not until I’ve reached the bottom, of course, and dredged it out.

The ability to keep a whole bunch of stuff in your head is, I would say, all but essential if you hope to write novels. When I was younger, I don’t think I appreciated that my ability in this area may be unusual.

But that’s only the second half of the process. The first half is figuring out that you need to make the changes. In Book II, Kyura and a couple of her friends are dragged off to the land of the dragons. In Book IV she has to return, more or less voluntarily, in order to solve a big problem. I had originally supposed that the Ribbonglass Tree was hidden in an underground lake in the mountainside city of the dragons, and that the dragons thought the Tree had been destroyed centuries before. That turned out to be a bad assumption. They know it’s there. This alteration has two or three useful consequences, which you’ll have to wait to learn about when the series is published.

Honestly, I don’t know how George R. R. Martin can do it. Trying to write Book VI after Book V has been published? That would give me the jumping willies.

Me! Me! Me!

Naturally I’d like it if tomorrow morning I get an email from my agent saying a major publisher loves my fantasy series and wants to send me a big fat advance. Counting on my fingers, though, I find that I signed up with this agent five months ago. The wheels grind slowly — but also, there’s a lot of competition. No, let me rephrase that ever so subtly: There’s a LOT of competition.

At some point, if nothing happens, I’ll want to consider publishing this series myself. As I muse vaguely about this rather daunting prospect, it occurs to me that I know very little about promotion. I know how to hire someone to make me a professional-looking website, but a website is just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s unless people aim their browsers at it. I can figure out how to get a book available on Amazon for Kindle, but availability does not translate to sales. If no one knows about the books, the books will not sell.

Hunting around on the web for beginner tips on author self-promotion, I found a couple of great blog entries from Delilah S. Dawson. Her blog is at whimsydark.com, and the post that I found revealing was this one. She quickly followed it with this one.

At a guess, Delilah is probably a lot younger than I am. I have never tweeted, so her observations about how to tweet (and how not to) … well, if I decide to tweet, I’ll know what to avoid. How I would get even one follower on Twitter (or why I would have even a speck of interest in following someone else) I have no idea.

The take-away in her essays, for me, is that, yeah, it’s a jungle. Standing on a soapbox and shouting, “Me! Me! Look at me!” is not only distasteful, it’s not going to be effective. And that’s a relief.

Some numbers posted recently on the SFWA forum by self-publishing authors suggest that it really is possible to bring in a six-figure income on one’s fiction writing. To be honest, I was surprised to learn that. I’m not in it for the money, though. I’m just hoping a few people will enjoy the complex adventure story I’m working on. I quite like the way Book IV is developing, and I’m encouraged that Delilah thinks the best thing I can do, by way of self-promotion, is to keep writing.

On the other side of the coin, the next item the Startpage search engine serves up is a site called author-promotion.com. Their service seems really quite peculiarly limited. For $475 they will feature your book in their newsletter (zowie) and in their e-newsletter, which they state goes out to more than 5,000 readers (are you trembling with anticipation yet?). They will use your book in their ads (bound to be a thrill), “or a copy of your book will be bought send out for additional reviews or donated.” (Say what?) Your book “will be recommended to readers online and are also promoted through [unspecified] Facebook apps.” They promise to post at least five book reviews of your book to Amazon or Barnes & Noble. (Favorable reviews? Reviews by someone who has actually read the book? Who knows?) You’ll get an interview — with whom, or posted where, they don’t say. You’ll be part of a book giveaway — books being given to whom, or on what basis, they don’t say. And finally, the piece de resistance, the cherry atop the hot fudge sundae, “Your book will be automated on every page of our website (which receives 100 clicks per day).”

This is not a joke. They actually expect you to be impressed with the fact that their site receives 100 clicks per day.

Now, it’s possible that some of this site’s customers feel they’re receiving value for their money. And just to be clear, I’m not for a moment suggesting that author-promotion.com fails in any way to provide the promised services. The lesson here, I think, is that one really does need to think about the difference between effective promotion and Internet whiz-bang.

 

Brainstorming

The contortions a writer goes through in crafting a workable plot are really too convoluted to be worth describing. Compared to plotting, jumping through hoops would be a picnic. Most often I’m able to get where I want to go; or, to put it another way, to get the story to go where the story needs to go. But sometimes talking my way out loud through the coils of a perplexity can be useful.

If nothing else, explaining the conundrum to another person forces me to articulate the various factors that are impinging on the plot. That in itself can help. Sometimes the person who is listening to my rant may come up with a great suggestion; that’s even better. Also, talking about the book to someone who is obviously interested can boost my morale. All of which are good reasons to brainstorm.

Sadly, I live alone and have no ready access to interested listeners. So here we are, wandering lost in the vast impersonal space of the internet. Comments are encouraged.

Here, in a large and lumpy nutshell, is the briar patch into which I have tumbled. (No apologies for the mixed metaphor. It describes the situation pretty well.)

A boy and a girl are trekking through a dangerous swamp on an impromptu quest. (The goal of the quest may not be relevant; it has to do with a sort of Holy Grail that the boy’s father pawned for drinking money some years before.) He is 18 or 19, she is 17 or 18. They have only recently met. They’re attracted to one another, but the boy can’t stop thinking about another girl, who is not present and who for all he knows is dead by now, who is his True Love.

The boy and girl are just about to, ah, you know. G-rated book, but tongues are mentioned and groping has commenced. They’re interrupted by a band of nasty little elf-demons with stone-tipped spears. The elf-demons tie them up and take them off to the elf-demon village. The villages is in treehouses, which may or may not be relevant. At dawn, the captives will be tossed off of the edge, where a mad god will tumble them in the air for a while and then dunk them into a pool, where large piranha will chew them up and they will die.

But that’s not the problem. I’d kind of like this dramatic action to be seen rather than just threatened by the evil chief of the elf-demons, but that’s not the problem either.

I can rig it so that one or both of them escapes this dire fate. Slice the rope with the magic knife (yes, the boy has a magic knife), kick the elf-demons off of the edge, climb down the rope ladder, and run. Piece of cake.

No,the problem is that during this incident I need to drive a wedge between the boy and the girl, so that the impending romance (or lustful encounter, if you prefer) quite definitely fizzles out. The girl needs to run away, hurt or repelled or something. That way, the boy will turn around, get out of the swamp, and go off to find his True Love. And I can’t do it by having the boy do something ugly or insensitive, because he’s The Good Guy. He’s destined to marry his True Love. So he can’t be a bastard — but somehow, in the midst of this gripping action, the girl needs to freak out and run from him.

She can’t very well abandon him to his fate and run off by herself leaving him tied up in the treehouse, because she has already saved his life once (in an earlier volume of the saga). That would be inconsistent. And since she has the hots for him, it would take something pretty major for her to change her mind.

She has trust issues; we’re fairly sure of that. She also has a hawk or falcon who is a sort of familiar — there’s a mind link between them. Could the boy perhaps kill the hawk in the process of saving their lives? Maybe, but wouldn’t that make him kind of a bastard?

I may have to kill her to get her out of the story, but I purely hate to do that, not only because I like her but because if this series is successful, she may turn out to be the heroine of a spinoff series somewhere down the road. Her and her hawk, roaming around.

How can a Good Boy stupidly give a Good Girl the impression that he’s Truly Awful, so that she runs off leaving him to almost certain death in a dangerous swamp, so that he never sees her again and doesn’t feel too awful if he tries to run after her and apologize but can’t find her? How can I get her out of the picture and leave him not feeling too bad about walking away?

Beta-Readers

There never used to be such a thing as beta-readers. There were critique groups, to be sure, where other writers would read your work and offer criticisms or suggestions. That was a form of beta-reading, but the term “beta-reader” popped out of the woodwork only after it became common knowledge that unreleased software.is tested by beta-testers. (The term “beta” refers to the fact that alpha-testing is done in-house by the software developers themselves. A beta-tester is an outside person, and may bring a fresh perspective to the testing process, thereby uncovering defects that the alpha-testers missed.)

Probably the insanely competitive nature of publishing has something to do with the trend toward beta-reading. One has the sense that Jane Austen and Charles Dickens finished their manuscripts and sent them directly off to the publisher. The idea of having a select group of readers read the unpublished novel and give you comments might even have seemed bizarre in the 19th century. Who but the writer could possibly know what he or she intended? If the reader failed to comprehend or appreciate the material, that would have been thought the reader’s fault, not the writer’s.

Or at least, that’s my speculation. Be that as it may, today beta-readers are felt to have something useful to contribute to the process of authorship. With that in mind, I’ve slapped together a list of questions that one might provide to one’s beta-readers alongside the manuscript. This list is not, for the most part, my own work. It’s based on a very nice blog post in a group blog called The Kill Zone, and seems to have been written by guest blogger Jodie Renner. I reorganized the ideas, rewrote some of the questions, and added a couple of questions that relate specifically to fantasy/sf books, which are often part of a series.

Oh, and I found that blog thanks to a link in a piece Nat Russo wrote on beta-readers in his blog.

When you’re ready to present your work to a few beta-readers, below are some questions you may want to steer them toward:

About the beginning and the ending:

Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, did you find the beginning dull or confusing? Was there something you wished would happen in the opening that didn’t happen? What was it?

Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when the story takes place? If not, did you feel that the beginning was “floating,” with no anchors to tell where and when it was happening, or did you think you knew, but guess wrong?

Was the ending satisfying? Was it believable? Did the ending of one book leave you wanting to read the next book in the series?

About the characters:

Could you relate to the main characters? Did you feel their pain, confusion, or excitement?

Did you find it easy to believe the characters were real people, or did they seem stiff and artificial to you? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?

Which characters did you really connect to? Which characters seemed kind of blah, so that you wished they had more development or focus, or you wanted to know more about them?

Did you get confused about who’s who among the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Are any of the characters or their names too similar, so that you weren’t sure who you were reading about?

Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, was there a particular character whose dialogue sounded artificial or not the way that person would speak?

About the world of the story:

Did the setting interest you? Did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you, so that you understood where you were and what was going on, or did the descriptions seem blah, jumbled, or too short?

Did the world of the story seem real to you, including the magic (or future technology) and the way people live? Or did you notice things that didn’t seem to make sense? If something didn’t make sense to you, what was it?

About the story itself:

Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?

Was there a point at which you felt the story started to sag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where did that happen, exactly?

Were there any parts that confused you, or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts? Were there places where you felt disgusted or uncomfortable? What were those places? Please try to describe why you felt the way you did.

Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details? If so, what were they?

Which scenes did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

Were there places where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down? Were there parts you thought might be condensed or even deleted?

Which parts of the story resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

Which parts would you like to see developed further or brought more to life?

About the writing:

In scenes where there was a lot of dialogue, did you ever find it hard to keep track of who was speaking?

Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?

Did you notice any grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? If so, what were they?

Do you think the writing style suits the story? Or was it too elevated? Too modern? Too casual?

Were there scenes or lines that you really liked?

More About Scrivener

Yesterday I finished the draft of Book III of the Leafstone Saga, my four-volume series of fantasy novels, and started fleshing out my ideas for Book IV. A couple of weeks ago I bought Scrivener, and this seemed the right moment to give it a serious try.

After only one day with it, I’m convinced. I’ve barely tapped its features, and already I can see how useful it’s going to be.

Starting a novel means jotting down a ton of notes. At least, that’s how I work. I’m told some writers are “pantsers.” They write by the seat of their pants, without outlining or even planning what will come next. I’ve never met a pantser, and if there is such a creature its feeding and mating habits will remain forever mysterious to me. I mean, when you draft a scene of course you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Even if you’ve outlined, things will change when you start writing the scenes. But to start writing a book without knowing where you’re headed? I shudder to imagine it.

As a writer, my motto is, “Well begun is half done.” I outline.

So anyway, here I am, taking notes for The Firepearl Chalice. Until yesterday I had only a couple of vague ideas about the overall direction of the plot. Now I’m starting to fill in the details.

In a conventional word processor, a file full of notes quickly becomes a disorganized mess. Ideas are scattered higgledy-piggledy, hither and yon. Continuity is close to nil.

In Scrivener, organizing one’s ideas is a stroll in the park. The binder (the left panel, which in many programs would be called a browser, except in Scrivener it isn’t a browser per se, it’s more powerful than that) can contain a dozen files or more. You’re always looking at one of them in the main window (or two, if you split the screen), but they’re all open at once. Moving from one file to another is a single click, so if you suddenly get an idea for one of the other characters, you simply switch to that document, enter the idea, and then hit the back button. Slam-dunk. The files can be grouped freely into folders — one folder for the characters, one for the settings, one for the plot, or whatever. The organization is totally up to you.

Technically, you could keep a dozen Word or OpenOffice files open on your screen at the same time, but switching from one to another gets to be fairly annoying, because you have to scroll up or down through a linear list. There are no folders in the list.

Plus, when it comes time to back up your work, if you’ve created a dozen Word files they have to be backed up by drag-copying. You can do this one file at a time, which is a pain and also error-prone, as you may miss one; or you can drag-copy a whole folder, at which point Windows is going to ask you some slightly confusing questions about what you want to do. Scrivener backs up the whole project as a single zip file, and always gives it a new filename based on the date and time of the backup. Saving sequential backups is handled for you.

As an added fillip, you never have to remember to save your work, because Scrivener automatically saves whenever you haven’t typed for two seconds. Oh, and highlighter. Got an especially important insight? Sure, in OpenOffice you can underline it, but there’s only one kind of underline. Scrivener has dozens of highlighter colors, so you can make the page as messy as you like.

Don’t want to stare at your computer desktop while writing? Hit F11. The desktop disappears, leaving you with one Scrivener page on a blank screen or one with the soothing backdrop of your choice.

Not sure yet how it will handle actual outlining, but I’m optimistic.

Get to the Point.

Over on Mythic Scribes, a forum for fantasy writers, someone posted a short excerpt in what he described as an old-fashioned style. It wasn’t very old-fashioned, as several of us pointed out. But it got me thinking. If one were to write in a truly old-fashioned style, what would it look like?

Kris Rusch wrote a thought-provoking blog piece a couple of months ago about Serious Writer Voice. Her point was that far too many writers today write in the same style. Their voices lack individuality.

Arguably, Hemingway deserves some of the blame for this. He made short punchy sentences fashionable. The pulp crime fiction of the 1930s also has a heavy footprint, though the best crime writers breathe life into their blued-steel sentences. Here’s Ross MacDonald, from The Far Side of the Dollar:

He rose in a quick jerky movement and went to the door. I thought he was going to tell me to leave, but he didn’t. He stood against the closed door in the attitude of a man facing a rifle squad.

That’s not MacDonald’s best writing, but it serves nicely to illustrate the hard-boiled style.

Contrast that with 19th century writing. Opening Nicholas Nickleby at random, I find Dickens doing this:

On this repetition of Mr. Mantalini’s fatal threat, Madame Mantalini wrung her hands and implored the interference of Ralph Nickleby; and after a great quantity of tears and talking, and several attempts on the part of Mr. Mantalini to reach the door, preparatory to straight-way committing violence upon himself, that gentleman was prevailed upon, with difficulty, to promise that he wouldn’t be a body. This great point attained, Madame Mantalini argued the question of the allowance, and Mr. Mantalini did the same, taking occasion to show that he could live with uncommon satisfaction upon bread and water and go clad in rags, but that he could not support existence with the additional burden of being mistrusted by the object of his most devoted and disinterested affection.

Not having read the novel in some years, I’m not prepared to say precisely what’s going on in this passage, other than a domestic dispute. But it hardly matters. The point is simple: That is old-fashioned writing. Today’s writer would probably want to break the first sentence apart by putting a period after “Ralph Nickleby,” but it would be wrong to do so. The semicolon splice has the specific function of tying together the emotional outburst in the first half of the sentence (“wrung her hands and implored”) and the “great quantity of tears” in the second half. The second sentence is an uninterrupted flow of 62 words.

Many writers in the 19th century had studied Latin, and those who hadn’t were influenced by those who had. This type of sentence is directly inspired by the Latin period (a sort of extended sentence). I’d like to see today’s aspiring authors (a few of them, at least) tackle that style — not to duplicate it, necessarily, but to learn from it. We’re the poorer for its loss.

The Story So Far…

Mostly I’ve been keeping this project under wraps. It’s time to pull back the edge of the burlap and let you peek underneath.

A year or so ago I started working on a series of YA (that’s Young Adult) fantasy novels — a four-volume series. It’s the largest creative project I’ve ever attempted, and I have to say it’s going very well. Last July I finished the first volume, The Leafstone Shield, and started scouting around for a literary agent. Finding an agent is a frustrating process! Agents are deluged with submissions from aspiring writers, and don’t even have time to dig through the mountain of emails. While waiting for responses, I started working on the second installment, The Ribbonglass Tree.

Toward the end of the year, through an unlikely series of coincidences, I found an agent who actually took the time to sit down and read The Leafstone Shield. She loved it, and she’s now attempting to find a publisher. I finished the second book and started working on volume three, The Heartsong Fountain.

I now have a complete draft of The Heartsong Fountain. Finished it yesterday. I still need to go back through it and tidy up a few details, but alongside that I can start doing detailed development work (a plot outline and sketches of a few key scenes) on the final installment, The Firepearl Chalice.

The four volumes link to tell a single long story. That was part of the challenge — to give each book an emotionally satisfying ending, even though the story isn’t finished! In one sense the Leafstone Saga is a standard tale of epic fantasy. Kyura thinks she’s just an ordinary 17-year-old girl, working in her uncle’s inn, until she discovers she’s the hereditary priest/king of the distant land where she was born. Her father’s whole family was brutally murdered, and some seriously bad things are happening in the land of her birth. It’s up to her to go there and set things right. Unfortunately, Kyura and her friend Meery can’t afford train tickets, and Kyura’s crazy cousin Tornibrac (the current ruler) is trying to have her killed before she even starts on the journey.

A hundred fantasy novels have used similar plot premises — the trope is sometimes referred to as The Chosen One. But the Leafstone Saga has, I hope, some fresh elements that set it apart. For one thing, the setting is not crypto-Medieval, it’s more 19th century. Jostling against the wizards and elves are rifles and pistols, railroad trains, and even a few large, elegant horseless carriages. Magic carpets being old-fashioned and unreliable, the evil wizard zips across the sky in a big glass bubble called an aerosphere. Oh, and texting. See, a wizard can create a pair of blank books. You have one, and your friend has one. Whatever you write in your book (using pen and ink) will magically appear in your friend’s book, and what your friend writes will show up in yours.

It’s not steampunk, because there’s no steam and not much punk. But it’s not weighed down with knights and sword-fights, that’s for sure.

The cast of colorful characters is large. You’ll meet Tierolyn ac Mornath, a down-on-his-luck concert pianist (his instrument is called a hammer-harp, but you get the idea) with an ego the size of a house. Tierolyn’s faithful servant Pimmick always wears a high-crowned hat with a chin-strap so nobody will see his horns. Pimmick is a half-breed demon, but really a very nice person most of the time. Alixia C’Voy is on the run from her truly despicable father, who has arranged for her to marry the leader of a cult that brutally subjugates women. Alixia has fallen in with Spindler, a good-looking but possibly dangerous young thief. To finance Kyura’s expedition, Alixia and Spindler will have to pull off a jewel heist. Alixia’s governess, the straight-laced Madame Scraull, thoroughly disapproves, but finds herself swept up in the action.

Also in the crew are the ghost of a soldier, Zvolnar, who seems not to have been very bright even when he was alive, an ogre named Walf, who hires out to break people’s arms because it pays better than hauling rocks, and the evil wizard Posthilnueze, whose five-syllable name sounds like you’re saying it with a mouth full of rocks. Not to mention Arik, a young ox-tender with a mysterious past and an uncertain future. Kyura is probably falling in love with Arik, and he disappears much too soon!

So that’s what’s going on. While working on Book IV, I also have to create a decent website (to which this blog will eventually migrate). The publishing industry being brutally competitive, there’s no guarantee that my agent will be able to find a publisher. I may end up having to self-publish, which will be even more work.

Why am I going to all this trouble? Well, I think you’ll like Kyura and her crew. I like them, anyhow — and I think a writer has to have a certain loyalty to his or her characters. Life has to be breathed into them. That’s my job.

Head Hurts Now

Stumbled onto a website for writers. It’s called Writer Unboxed. A sort of super-blog with many contributors as well as two co-founders and two assistant editors. Wow, what a great resource!

Uh, let me get back to you on that.

The list of founders, editors, and contributors is nicely displayed in the right-hand column. I had a look. Of the first eleven people I checked, only one (one of the co-founders) has actually published a novel. What’s worse, a couple of them are in the how-to-write-fiction business but haven’t published novels.

I’m not disparaging the content of the site, which I’ve barely glanced at. But the phrase “the halt leading the blind” does rather leap at one, doesn’t it?

My chore for this afternoon is to check out authors’ websites so as to scrape up some tips on how to set up my own. (My current website, musicwords.net, is extremely moldy. Don’t even go there.) Guess I’ll have to look elsewhere for real writers — Unboxed does seem to mean Unboxed. As in, not shipped to bookstores.

Grammaroiditis

In what may shortly become an ongoing crusade to save aspiring writers from the depredations of automated grammar- and style-checking software, last night I had a look at AutoCrit. They have a 7-day free trial, so don’t believe anything I say; check it out for yourself.

I uploaded the opening chapter from Book II of my impending YA fantasy series. AutoCrit’s web-based user interface is quite nice, I’ll give them that. The results of its critical operations are mixed.

Their customer support desk sends an automated follow-up email when you sign up for the free trial. I took the liberty of replying to that email, just on the off-chance that they might find some feedback from a dissatisfied potential customer useful — and this morning (two days later) I have a reply from the site’s owner/developer, thanking me for my comments and asking whether I might like to chat about their plans for AutoCrit. This is good news indeed, not because it feeds my ego (though of course it does) but because it indicates that AutoCrit is still in active development and may improve in the future.

In case you don’t want to wade through the details, let’s put the bottom line up at the top: A software-based system of this sort may help you improve your writing by letting you see a couple of specific things you will want to tweak. In my case, AutoCrit helped me discover that I use the words “probably,” “maybe,” and “certainly” too often. You might find it useful in a different way. But the challenges facing developers of this sort of software seem nearly insurmountable. Much of what AutoCrit tries to help with, it doesn’t help with.

Below is what I told them in my first email, expanded for clarity. (I have since sent a longer, more detailed critique.) First up, the check for long words:

*****

I can understand it flagging words that are from my fantasy universe (such as “leafstone”) as having three or more syllables, even when they don’t. But it also thinks “seethed,” “squatted,” “desire,” and “horseless” have three or more syllables. Better dictionary access might solve this problem.

On a more serious note, it thinks “had” is a marker for passive voice. This is simply wrong. “Had” is a marker for perfect tense, and is often used in active voice constructions. (A sample sentence, from my uploaded work: “They had succeeded.”) The primary markers for passive voice are “be,” “been,” “was,” and “were.” (And even those are more likely to be used as a copula with a predicate adjective, or as past continuous tense markers, than in passive voice.) Granted, passive voice is often a sign of weak writing; but it’s hard to see how a computer could reliably spot it.

The notion that phrases such as “as if” and “not even” are cliches is simply bizarre.

The search for potential homonym misuse produces so many results [displayed on-screen as red blocks on the words] as to be useless. Nobody is going to go through a long passage trying visually to ignore all of the red highlights on “an,” “two,” “but,” “one,” and “be” in search of a stray usage of “discreet” where “discrete” was intended. (After which they’d have to look it up in any case, since the homonym finder doesn’t offer definitions of the alternative words.)

Arguably, the phrase frequency counter should not flag two-word phrases in which the first word is an article or the second word is “and.” That information is not useful. I had to sift through quite a long list of three-word phrases (such as “the knitting needle”) to find one that I actually think might be worth editing (“gasping for breath”) so it isn’t used twice in the same chapter.

Why the show vs. tell counter should flag the pronoun “it” as indicating telling is rather mystifying.

Now about pacing. The explanation for this feature says, “The paragraphs highlighted in AutoCrit indicate the slow paced paragraphs in your story.” Below is the first paragraph that AutoCrit thinks is slow-paced. It happens to be the very first paragraph in the novel, and I’m not unaware of the desirability of starting off with a bang:

“Everyone else in the railroad car — more than twenty people, of assorted sizes, shapes, and ages — was shouting and screaming in panic. They were pressed against the windows and gabbling about a forest fire, an inferno on both sides of the track, a roaring furnace into the midst of which the train had, suddenly and without warning, plunged. Some of them were choking and coughing, seemingly on smoke. But Kyura couldn’t smell any smoke, and when she looked out the nearest window the countryside lay peaceful, trees and fields green in the summer dawn.”

AutoCrit thinks that’s slow-paced. What can I say?

One might be tempted to assume that AutoCrit is simply looking for long paragraphs and flagging them as slow-paced, but this seems not to be the case. Some long paragraphs are not flagged, yet the following paragraph consists of a single sentence, and it was flagged as slow-paced:

“What she was going to do when she got there, other than get quickly and messily dead, she had no idea at all.”

In sum, I can think of no possible use for the pacing test, whatever it is. The same could be said for the test of uncommon words in fiction, which cavalierly flags such words as blindness, escaped, reward, padded, cheat, and ripped.

*****

I didn’t pull any punches in this email, but I didn’t have to look hard for problems, either. My advice to writers is simple: If you want to learn to write better, learn to write better. Buy a couple of books on prose style, and read every page carefully. Someday we may have software that can be truly helpful, but we’re not quite there yet.