Author Archives: Leigh Galbreath

In Translation

A while ago, I got into a conversation with a friend of mine about whether or not he should use a commonly used term as a name for a certain magical phenomenon in his fantasy novel or if he should call it by a word he made up just for that book. It’s not a new conversation, especially for fantasy and science fiction writers. I’ve had that conversation a few times and I still find the argument a little odd. I mean, why use a made word when someone’s already come up with a word that works just fine?

His argument was that since his POV characters live on a different world, they don’t actually speak or think in English (the language the novel is written in), and so the made up word would be more correct.

It got me thinking. If that one word has to be in another language because the character doesn’t know English, why is the rest of the novel not written in this other language? Why bother with English at all?

The best example of this is when I heard people complain that a TV show set in ancient Rome used modern curse words. The complaint was that those words hadn’t existed in Rome at that time, so they shouldn’t be used in the show. To which I often responded that, if you really want to get technical, they were all speaking Latin, and Latin doesn’t use articles (such as the or a). Therefore, if we’re getting rid of words that didn’t exist at the time, we’d have to chuck those a well. Now do you really want to watch a show or read a book that doesn’t ever use the word the?

Me neither.

The way I’ve come to think of it is like this — every work of fiction where the characters are based in a time or place other than where the writer lives is a translation. It’s sort of taken for granted that those characters wouldn’t really know the writer’s native language, but since none of us are J.R. Tolkien, we take the other language (whether real or imagined) and turn it into English for the benefit of our readers. Our goal is to make the story easily comprehensible to anyone who picks the book up. And when you’re translating text, you don’t just leave the odd word untranslated to prove that the point of view was originally in a different language.

I mean, why force your reader to slog through dialect and odd terms when they don’t have to? Sure, a few bits of dialect can give the text a little color and texture. You may even run into the occasional term that just won’t translate.

But if you decide you just have to have that made up term, it will require context and explanation for the reader to understand what you’re talking about. When you’ve already got enough to explain with world-building and character development and plot points, this seems like effort you could put to better use. Why make things harder for yourself by having to explain one term in a believable fashion, without slowing down the story, when you could easily have just used a common word that people will understand in an instant?

Not that there aren’t writers out there who are gifted at slipping in the odd dialect and crazy, made-up word that just zings. If you’re one of those people…well, I’m insanely jealous. You are a rare breed. But as for the rest of us, it’s better to err on the side of the easily understandable.

So, I ask you, when you find yourself wanting to use that cleverly created magical lexicon you’ve come up with, or just feel the need to toss in a made-up term, to make sure you really need it. Ask yourself why a normal, everyday word can’t do the job, and make sure you really want to put in the time and effort it will take to make the reader understand what you’re talking about (and no, creating a dictionary at the back of the book ala Frank Herbert doesn’t count).

Please, be kind to your readers. Don’t make them work any harder than they have to. Treat the text like you would a translation and make it easy to understand so they can focus on what’s really important-your fantastic masterpiece of a story.

How to Make Highway Robbery Work for You

It has often been said that the best way to learn how to write is to read. As Evan pointed out in Monday’s post, reading the master like George R.R. Martin can teach you more than any book on writing. Looking closely at how they do it, figuring out what tricks and techniques are used is a talent that any good writer should cultivate and use.

I don’t know about you, though, but it’s a talent I’ve never quite gotten a handle on. I get lost in stories too easily. Even my own tales tend to run away with me. So, I’ve had to cultivate a different talent.

The brazen art of highway robbery.

Okay, so “highway robbery” might be a bit strong of a term. I guess mimicry would be closer to the truth, but it’s not enough for me to simply look at a piece of prose and figure out how it was made. I have to carry it off, with a grin on my face, and dissect it piece by piece.

I first did this with one of my all time favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. One thing that Gaiman is famous for is his use of humor. So, I took a short story I was writing and after much re-reading of Gaiman’s work tried to copy his rather unique tone and style. What came out was a story about an angel and demon hiring a private detective to find Satan, who they need in order to start the Apocalypse. It’s a silly tale that will never see the light of day, but the people who have read it laugh at all the right parts. It proved a learning experience I don’t think I would have gotten any other way. I learned that humor, in Gaiman’s work, comes out of his choice of details, which is, quite frankly, brilliant. Now, I enjoy using that very technique not just to show humor, but any other emotion I might desire in a scene.

I did the same with Elmore Leonard and his use of dialogue. By mimicking his style in a story I learned how restraint can make dialogue more believable and how subtext can work far better than paragraphs of spoken exposition. Less is more with Leonard…or rather, less is everything.

The drawback, many would say, is to lose a bit of your own style and tone. Some might think that, by mimicking another author, you run the danger of letting their voices overcome your work. The idea here, though, isn’t to steal their voices. It’s to steal their technique. To take on a particular writer’s style, see how they put the words together, and then let it go. The reason it worked for me, I think, was that I had no intention of ever publishing my experiments. They were learning tools that I easily shoved in a drawer and left behind.

So, I invite you. Find a writer you like. Get out your chosen writing device, whatever it may be, and see if you can recreate something from your own mind in their words. See what comes out. I’ll bet you’ll learn something you didn’t know before.



How to be a Better Tease

We’ve all spent months doing that bio for our protagonists, outlining every event, every trauma, every banana, and dang it, we’re gonna use it. The problem comes when we shove it down our readers throats in the first few pages. I’m talking about the dreaded info-dump, my friends, and it’s death to any good novel.

Let’s face it, nobody cares about why the protagonist now hates banana’s when he used to love them so well. At least, not when we’re first getting to know him. Even if it’s the crux of the climax, until we care about the character, all it does is bore the reader into a stupor.

So, how do we get the reader to care about bananas? Well, that’s easy-we become really good teases.

My current favorite in this technique is Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire, the first novel in the Twenty Palaces series. Connolly successfully uses the protagonist’s backstory to help us empathize with the characters without slowing the story down one iota.

On the first page, he starts to show us how he’s going to handle backstory by first introducing the two characters we’ll be spending the most time with, the protagonist Ray Lilly and his boss, Annalise. Connolly tells us in the fourth paragraph that Annalise wants to kill Ray, but has been forbidden not to.

And then, what does Connolly do?

He changes the subject.

No waxing rhapsodic on how Ray, the viewpoint character, feels about Annalise’s desire to see him dead. No explanation on why she wants him dead, or who forbade her to kill him. Instead of explanations, Connolly shows us how bad Ray’s relationship with Annalise is. She’s openly hostile. Connolly purposefully hits us with something interesting, and then backs off.

Such a tease. But a good one. It’s subtle enough to keep us interested without taking our complete focus because we’re very quickly ushered into a scene of Ray and Annalise in action.

What Connolly does here is let us get to know Ray in the best way possible, by putting him in the hot seat. On the road, Ray tries to save a child from a nasty spell and fails. Ray’s reaction gets us on his side pretty fast. He’s sickened and angry. Honestly, if there’s anything that gets a to reader empathize with a character, it’s having the character feel bad about something horrible happening to children and pets.

Suddenly, we’re like, “What’s wrong with Annalise that she hates this guy? He likes kids, so he must be a good guy.”

But, in the second chapter that Connolly starts giving us the skinny. Ray’s a career criminal.

Again, Connolly doesn’t give us much beyond a short trip through Ray’s criminal history. We get only a hint that something happened last year that made Annalise his enemy. Then, we’re back to the present moment, breaking into the house of the family they just encountered. Before we can start wondering about Ray, we’re sucked into the mystery of what happened to the dead child. Again, Ray’s empathy keeps us firmly on Ray’s side so that when we learn the truth-that Annalise has a very good reason for hating Ray-we’re not totally lost to him.

Connolly fantastically teases out the backstory, never stoping the action. The technique he sets up at the beginning, of giving us a little information and then going on to a scene of the protagonist in action, continues to the very end of the novel. We’re never bored by long explanations or confused by flashbacks that put so much emphasis on the backstory that it crowds the present story out. Every time he brings it up, we learn something small but new. And better yet, Connolly manages to link each bit of backstory to what’s happening in the present, so that we’re never popped out of the moment, which is a huge problem when you’re trying to get in important backstory.

Sure, it would be easier to just plop down that backstory and get it out of the way, and when handled poorly, the tease can get terribly irritating. The key, I think, is to always give an answer. Never the whole answer, but an answer none-the-less, so that the reader feels as if he or she is getting somewhere rather than being led off to nowhere in confusion.

So, when you’ve got that juicy bit of backstory that is so terribly important that it absolutely has to be in your novel, don’t forget that you’ve got an entire book to fill. Think about how you can become a better tease.

Revision Show and Tell: What Tricks Do You Live By?

I confess. I don’t like first drafts. Working out the story, initially, is always the hardest part, for me. When it works out, it’s great, but most the time, it’s a slog that requires hard work and persistence that’s sometimes really hard to stomach.

To me, the best part is the rewriting–taking what was meandering and barely readable and turning it into something entertaining that other people might actually want to read.

Of course, when that’s done, the story is down, all the plot and character issues are worked out, and the book is revised, and re-revised, it’s time for some polish. As Kylie mentioned in her post on Editing, just re-reading the manuscript isn’t enough. To really polish our works of art, we often need help. Everyone’s got their little tricks for everything from pacing problems and varying sentence structure to catching typos. Clancy told us about using “The Writing Code,” and that got me to thinking. What other tricks are helpful for catching those little things that keep our stories from really shining?

I’ve collected some over the years. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • Reading the story aloud
  • Probably the best way to catch problems with rhythm and flow. If you stumble over anything, it probably needs to be revised.
  • Using Word’s Find/Replace feature
    • This is helpful to locate those words I use too often, fixing spacing problems, finding to-be verbs so I can change them to active voice, or any other problem I know normally crops into my stories without my noticing.
  • Reading the manuscript in different mediums
    • It’s amazing the things you find when you turn a Word document into a PDF or print it out.
  • Reading the manuscript backwards
    • This is a handy trick to find typos because you can’t get lost in the story.
  • Creating a scene cheat sheet
    • You can use a simple note card, an Excel list, the keyword feature in Scrivener, or whatever works for you. This is basically just a list of what plots are being serviced in each scene, so you can tell which scenes are pulling their weight are which aren’t.

    So, it’s Show and Tell time. What tricks work best for you?