Words and the Lonely Writer II – Being Transparent

I tried to write this yesterday, but I’m having symptoms of a cold — or my body reacting to the flu vaccine (you can’t catch it from dead virus, but most symptoms are your immune system reacting, anyway) — and I thought the entire post read something like this: Never do this, unless you absolutely must do this.

That is of course, the downside of writing advice.  It’s all more or less like that, but wording is even more like that, because it requires on your sense of wording. Which some people don’t got, and even those who got can falter on.

Let’s start by defining being transparent: being transparent is telling the story in such a way that the words get out of the way and the reader immerses himself so completely in the events they become integrated as part of his experience.

Usually my fellow writers use this to justify the plainest possible language, and the barest of descriptions.  And that’s fine, if that’s the sort of story you’re telling, one where the experience is enhanced by terse sentences and bare-bones wording.

As I mentioned before minimalist is a choice, it’s not the only choice, nor the definition of good writing.  Believing that is like believing only Picasso is good art, and we should burn all other artists.  Picasso (I can’t stand his paintings, just on the “being in the same room” level) is fine in a certain environment for those who like it, but he can be annoying or just plain grating for other people in other places.

I do happen to be one of those people who has a gift for words, and the right word in the right place.  It never stops surprising me that I hear people lauding the language of these half-asleep-while-writing posts, or of short stories that were rammed through to get the characters and action off my head with nary a thought to “does that sound right” let alone “does that sound beautiful.”

Of the writing gifts — language, characters, plot — I consider it the most useless gift of all. On the other hand perhaps it is because it’s the one that I have most naturally (the second being characters. Plot… Uphill both ways, though after 18 years it’s getting easier.)

It is the gift that lay people notice the most.  As in, when I’m returning a KULL book that failed on things like having a coherent story or characters who don’t unintentionally shape shift (like six foot men who see the world and act like five foot girls) I will find they have reviews saying it’s “so well written”  by which idiots inevitably mean it was very well spell checked or it’s grammatically correct.

Mind you, you should strive for both of those.  But if you’re like me while writing blog posts, and your typos are epic, be aware that “layman critic” will say something like “This is awfully written” when they mean “I found a typo on page 127. (There was someone in our writers group who did this to me consistently.  “This book is awful” and then when you pinned him down he thought I had four misplaced commas. (Possibly just opinion for two.)  So, when you hear that don’t go doubting your storytelling abilities.  Just send it to a good copyeditor.

Mind you, typos galore (a girl in James Bond’s writing group), particularly in story, make you fail the first grade of invisibility.  You’re not getting out of the way and letting the story through.  (As some of you know, I’ve been serially reading Pride And Prejudice variations, in part because of not feeling really well. Reading is an addiction, but sometimes I don’t have the strength to engage my mind.  I’d like to nominate for typo of the week, in the second paragraph of a book, no less, Longhorn for Longbourn.  I almost stopped reading there. Because suddenly I was in TX.)

So to be invisible, make sure your language is correct and doesn’t pop the reader out with unintentionally hilarious mistyping.  Look, I too am a broke indie writer, and am very careful about paying out any money BEFORE money comes in.  But copyediting yourself is a mug’s game. There’s no way you’ll see everything. Even if you’re the world’s best language person and incredibly detail oriented (I’m not) you’ll miss things because you’ve lived with that book for weeks, or months or even years.  So–

Well, indie is incredibly friendly, particularly compared to traditional.  When my son was in first robotics, (good lord! ten years ago!) they had this concept called Coopetition.  It was supposed to be a cooperative competition thing, and it made me roll my eyes very very hard, because ti was evidence of a certain type of mind.  But in indie this is true. We cooperate and help each other a lot, and compete only in the sense of seeing how well someone else is doing and wanting to be that good/do that well.  Because there’s room for all of us there isn’t the cut throat competition of traditional where you fought for each publishing slot and were afraid of being banished to outer darkness for the stupidest … stuff, sometimes existing only in your editor’s mind after a lot of alcohol.

If you’re an indie writer, you probably know half a dozen others. None of you wants to put money in upfront. So, instead, trade favors.

No, seriously.  Because I’m not detail oriented and my sense of comma is…. whimsical, I will not trade copyedits with anyone, but I can and do trade cover per copyedit, even steven (I am aware I’m a mid-list level artist (mostly DAZ 3D and filters, because I’m too busy for hand-drawing) and cover maker, though as with all such abilities, they’re getting better with practice, and sometimes — unexpectedly — one rises head and shoulders above. Which tells me, eventually, they’ll all be at that level, because that’s what happened with writing.  But, until then I’m still at the level of a cover you were likely to get from NYC if you were a midlister.  Which isn’t always bad.) And if you really, really want, I’ll do developmental edit in exchange for four similar-length copyedits (it’s  a lot more involved) and you have to not mind waiting a month or so.  But it can be done.  And some people just trade copy-edits.  It also can be done.

Just don’t trust only yourself. You’ll miss SO MUCH stuff.

Oh, look, I’m past a 1000 words, and that’s convenient since all I’m up to today is explaining the importance of copyedit.  Stand by for the second part of this post next week, when I’ll probably be able to give examples of when elaborate language is accurate, when plain language is better and when “getting out of the way of the story” means wrapping it in Elizabethan English. Because anything else would be jarring.  Today my examples would be lamer than usual, and that means no legs and only one arm, which would be distressing as the paragraphs crawl their pathetic way through the page, leaving trails of misplaced commas.

Think of appropriate language as decorating/furniture and of the story as a house.  As I’m finding out, after a lifetime of living in Victorians, I can keep some of my more elaborate and cherished pieces, but in this modern house, to decorate entirely in precious, elaborate furniture with lace curtains and such would be incongruous and call way too much attention to itself. (In fact, in the next couple of weeks I’ll be selling my heavy mahogany, 100 yo dining room set and getting something with cleaner lines and in pine or maple.)  OTOH if I put modern or mid-century-modern furniture in a Victorian it would look so weird that’s all you’d see.

I’ll leave you with that thought and a neurotic need to go do one more once-over on your latest story.  And I’ll go write a couple articles. Yes, all probably as rambly as this one. When I’m tired or sick I ramble.  Which is its own style.

Ciao.  Have a good Thanksgiving.  I’m thankful for all ya’ll. Ill be back next week.


  1. “my sense of comma is…. whimsical”

    I have stolen this phrase and will be using it without proper attribution for what is likely to be the rest of my life. Or at least until I go senile.

    Please feel free to send me a bill.

    1. My late business partner, who was a crackerjack editor, used to say when she was going over my books and excising commas, that she imagined there was a pile of them building up at her feet and she wished she could string them on a thread and make a necklace of them or something …

      1. Sort of like elk teeth or bear claws, trophies taken on the hunt. 🙂

        My clauses have sub clauses with adverbial clauses. Ich weiß nicht warum.

      2. I tend to use long rambly sentences, interspersed with commas and semicolons to break them into meaningful segments. According to the rules I learned in one set of English books, anyway. It seems the One True Set of Rules was different for every set of books a new school system used, and Chicago and Strunk & White said they were all wrong, *they* were the True Ways…

      3. Commas are a matter of opinion.

        I can generally remove about two or three commas that aren’t strictly necessary from every paragraph.
        But I would add them right back as stage direction if the passage were to be read aloud.

  2. ‘ “getting out of the way of the story” means wrapping it in Elizabethan English.’

    On that note, I just finished a riff on A Christmas Carol, wherein I had to suppress my natural instincts and have my language semi-Victorian. It’s still barely a third of the length of the original, but my First Reader says it feels Dickensian, so hooray for that.

    1. That was one of the big things about Zelazny’s early Amber series. Most characters spoke in formal English, Corwin’s narrative was all in New York Wiseguy. Nowadays, so common nobody notices; then, it was something unique and noteworthy.

      1. And, in his Lord of Light, the narrator speaks in High Fantasy, and Sam speaks in colloquial English. Except where he’s preaching, At which point, his entire mode of speech changes — and he becomes the Buddha.

  3. FWIW, I am a n00b who desperately needs input on the finished product, BUT I am a darn good copyeditor for typoes, misspellings, and grammatical infelicities. I will totally swap a run-through for eyes on my manuscript or even just Somebody To Talk Story with, because my first reader thinks I can do no wrong when I know darn well I can. Nice problem to have, but STILL.

    1. I would be interested in some trading, sharing and just plain commiserating. You can reach me at vhaerun@yahoo.com. If you want to see what you’re getting into before chatting, you can look up my books at Amazon under Lee Dunning. First one is green and the second one is blue. Got a red one coming out in December. P

  4. Drat… Now I’ve got Beep, beep running through my head… Little nash rambler did it for me…

    While riding in my Cadillac, what, to my surprise,
    A little Nash Rambler was following me, about one-third my size.
    The guy must have wanted it to pass me up
    As he kept on tooting his horn. Beep! Beep!
    I’ll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn.

    earwurms r us…

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