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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: E is for EYES, ARMS, LEGS and other BODILY APPENDAGES

FORGIVE ME FOR JUMPING BACK TO THE LETTER 'E', but I’ve been reading the On Spec slush and I have to write about this. I’ve decided I can’t offer any guarantees that the ABC’s will remain alphabetical (although I will strive to keep them that way). What I’m about to cover is a basic writing error. If you recognize the mistakes I’m about to use as samples of your writing, please know I’m not pointing them out to embarrass you, but to show you where you’re going wrong. (If no one says anything, how will you know?) Besides, you don’t have to admit you’ve made them to anyone, now do you?

I’m talking about how we handle body language, how we talk about characters sharing glances, how we show them reacting physically to express ideas or emotion. 

Let’s step back a bit, and I’ll give you one of my own faux pas. When I was doing revisions for The Tattooed Witch, my agent choked on this phrase: “She threw up her arms in exasperation.” Really? she said. She threw up her arms? Meaning, she vomited up her arms? Come on. You can do better. I was taken aback, but I learned my lesson. Sometimes, readers are jarred because they take things literally. Sometimes, the visuals you present aren't the impressions you want to leave. Even if you know what you mean, readers may still snag on your words. Ever since then, I’ve been careful about how I write certain phrases.

Here are some similar examples of what I'm talking about. The visuals they create are too visceral. If you’ve written these, you need to come up with something that reflects exactly what you mean.

1). “Her eyes drifted off into the cup.” Okay, I know you mean that your character was in deep thought, that she was thinking about what to say to a secondary character as she drank her coffee, but what I saw were a pair of disembodied eyes floating into a cup and then staring up at me unblinkingly. See what I’m getting at here?

2). “Karen’s dogged eyes popped up, like they were salivating.” I’m not even sure where to start with this one. Does Karen have doggy eyes? Are they sad, droopy, and brown? Why do they pop up? (Is it because dogs sometimes spring to their feet?) And salivating? Eyes can’t salivate. You don’t mean this – you mean Karen was looking hopeful and maybe getting teary. I’m sorry to say this, but this is where I stopped reading. You need to change your imagery.

3). “Zorlab slid over to Zethra and consoled her with his appendage.” Deep breath. Okay, I know this is science fiction, and I know these two are aliens. But unlike the two examples above, this one isn’t specific enough. What appendage? An arm, a leg, a lip, genitalia? Instead of appendage, why not use ‘filament’ or ‘tentacle’ or ‘proboscis’? Anything that offers a bit more information and doesn’t lead to kinky conclusions.

Again, if this is you, don't feel bad. We've all made these kinds of errors. I have no facts to support this premise, but I suspect our minds work literally before we layer on interpretations. If you want to avoid unfortunate turns of phrases like the first two above, watch out for double meanings (unless you’re trying to be funny). At other times, like #3 above, avoid vague nouns that obscure your meaning (unless you're also trying to be funny.) 

And hey, I think proboscis is a funny word.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading this post - thank you - and can relate, having tackled this one myself. It's amazing how much stronger your writing becomes when you eliminate zombie body parts.

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  2. Unless you're writing about zombies. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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